Lessons from 17th century optics

Those of you who have noticed will have noticed, eventually, that I have been increasingly focused on my theory of the trans-brain which says – if I may avoid nomenclature for a minute – that your brain is everywhere. My theory was originally stated here, gained momentum thanks to the New York Times here, saw the desperation of its opponents here, and was supported by a budding neurophilosopher here.

Instead of continuing to focus on the present and future, I think it is important for me to show how my theory is grounded in the scientific tradition. Two views of the brain dominated the pre-, during-, and post-Englightenment period. One was defended by Descartes and Newton. The other view was developed by someone no one has heard of, Thomas Reid. Thomas Reid pointed out that the Descartes of the world believe that the brain has things in it that it perceives. In other words: I am not seeing a tree in the world, I am seeing a tree in my brain. That’s what the Descartes and Newtons think.

To this, Reid issued a resounding “Nein!” Allow me to quote Reid.

[T]he brain has been dissected times innumerable by the nicest anatomists; every part of it examined by the naked eye, and with the help of microscopes; but no vestige of an image of any external object was ever found. The brain seems to be the most improper substance that can be imagined for receiving or retaining images, being a soft moist medullary substance” (Inquiry into the Intellectual Powers of the Human Mind II, iv [256b], quoted in another book, pg. 80).

The other book goes on to quote Reid again: “We are so far from perceiving images in te brain, that we do not perceive our brain at all; nor would any man ever have known that he had a brain, if anatomy had not discovered, by dissection, that the brain is a constituent part of the human body” (ibid ibid, ibid [257a], quoted in ibid, pg. ibid).

Do simulacrums of my pathbreaks get any more fortuitous? Gleaming from these difficult passages are truths Reid gleaned which were far ahead of his, as it was, Sits im Leben. First, Reid is quite right that the brain is unsuited to receive images. We know from the theory of the trans-brain, and from an elementary application of Pascal’s razor, that it is quite enough to say that the eyes are what see objects. It is remarkable that Reid was able to know this through pure reason alone. We today only know it because animal rights organizations have allowed us to experiment on dogs and rats, which have remarkably similar visual systems to apes, which are similar to us. The transitive genomic principle will get you the rest of the way. Anyhoozle, Reid points out that we really don’t perceive “our brain” at all – because we use it itself to perceive! The subject of perceiving cannot be its own object, according to the widely accepted Universal Grammar. Yet – and here Reid reveals himself as a scathing rhetoricalist – because of “anatomy” we now “know” we have brains, which are “constituent part[s] of the human body”!

Reid’s point is this: If the brain is a mere constituent of the human body, and perception happens in brains looking at themselves, and yet this is impossible, then we can’t actually see! But we couldn’t see anyway because we’re really just looking at our brains! But if we are looking at our brains, then we can see after all! But if we can see, then it can’t be with our brains! But if it is not with our brains, and it is with our brains, then our brains must be more than we have supposed them to be. Hence, if I may return to the vulgar colloquial, your brain is everywhere.

For those of you who don’t understand words, here is a zenn diagram of the differences between Reid and his discontents.

Thomas Reid was effervescent enough to foresee that the brain must at least include the eyes.


12 thoughts on “Lessons from 17th century optics

  1. Hello again, NS. Not getting much traffic lately?
    This post has been up for 22 days and still no comments?
    Could it be that idiocy is no longer popular, even for a laugh?

  2. Well, then, let me interrupt the boredom with a thoughtful reply.

    I’m confused about where you believe perception occurs. The first few paragraphs of this post seem to be arguing that it occurs in the eyes rather than in the brain. But a few sentences after you state that directly, you tell us that Reid pointed out that we don’t perceive our brains because we use them to perceive. This becomes a key point in the next paragraph with the convoluted logic, where “the subject of perceiving cannot be its own object” leads to a conclusion supporting your belief that the brain is actually everywhere — which I interpret to mean “encompassing one’s whole body,” not the whole universe.

    So if your hands are your brain and your eyes are your brain, does that mean you can’t see your hands, since your brain would be perceiving itself? Surely you don’t believe that, so it must be I who am confused. Perhaps you mean perception occurs only in the eye-part-of-brain just as hitting your thumb with a hammer only causes pain in the thumb-part-of-brain? The only thing the eyes could not then perceive would be the eyes themselves, which makes sense so long as you’re not in front of a mirror, right?

    I can understand how this would seem like a natural conclusion, since when you shift your eyes, the image that you perceive also shifts. And I can understand how someone who dissects a brain looking for stored images might conclude that the brain could not be the perceiver or storehouse of such images, since I’m sure none exist that could be found by an outside observer like that.

    However, I notice that you’ve posted some of your pictures on this site. What kind of camera do you have? Is it a conventional one that uses film? Suppose you put a roll of film in it and took a bunch of pictures. If you then opened up the camera and looked for those pictures, would you find them? Or would you first need to send the film to a processing center that uses scientifically-designed machinery to make them visible? Or do you have a digital camera? Again, if you take a bunch of pictures with it, would you be able to open it up and see those pictures somewhere inside the camera? If not, would you conclude that they didn’t exist in there, even though you could see them in the preview window and could download them onto your computer?

    Even if you don’t believe in the kind of math and science that allows cameras to exist and work, the fact that you’re able to generate an image with one that agrees with what your eyes perceive should tell you that there’s something going on that you can’t see, just by pure logic. Right?

    So let’s say for the moment that you have this belief that perception of visual images occurs in the eyes, not in the brain (and by “brain” I mean the “moist medullary substance” inside your skull). You would be able to function normally in life with that belief, but let’s also say that you visit someone who has become blind, perhaps a friend who was in a some sort of accident. While you’re chatting with her, you notice that her eyes seem perfectly healthy, and the story she tells of the accident only includes a blow to the back of her head, damaging nothing more than what scientists call the occiptial lobe of her brain. She might also tell you about other patients she has met in the hospital, who have other symptoms of occipital lobe damage, and who also have perfectly healthy eyes.

    After you went home, might you think about your friend’s story, and conclude that, like your camera, there might be something going on that you can’t see? That maybe perception doesn’t occur in the eyes, just as the recording of a photograph doesn’t occur in the lens of the camera, but rather that the information gathered by the eyes must first be processed by the brain before it is perceived as an image, just as the film in the camera must first be developed before the photograph can be seen?

    Or would you discard the evidence you had seen as being contrary to your belief, and/or reject the logical conclusion that thinking about that evidence would inevitably lead you to?

  3. What’s the matter, NS? Afraid to reply?
    It’s been over a week. Do you not check your own blog?
    Or are you going to delete these, like you deleted some of my previous ones, so it seems like everyone agrees with you?

  4. My AngelPlume,

    It is not easy being me, what with all the research required and all.

    Please wait patiently, for wisdom comes to those who check back regularly to see if there are responses yet to their comments.


  5. Yeah, right. You’re just trying to inflate your pageviews, so you can report it as the number of “humans [who] have viewed this blog,” as though each person only came here once. Don’t you realize that you’re just providing more evidence that you’re either too stupid to understand what you’re posting, or too indifferent to care how much you misrepresent reality?

  6. Dear Angel Plume,

    You vomit, “The only thing the eyes could not then perceive would be the eyes themselves, which makes sense so long as you’re not in front of a mirror, right?”

    To this I say that when you are in front of a mirror, you just see a mirror. It is nonsense to say that you see your eyes. If someone stabs the mirror, they haven’t stabbed my eyes. Obviously.

    Your digression into the logic of cameras obfuscates the topic.
    Of course when a camera takes pictures, the pictures appear on the photographs themselves. But then you’re seeing the photograph, not the landscape. Obviously.

    You then have a thought experiment about blind people. I regret to admit that I find this thought experiment interesting. I would point out that not all perception is visual perception, and this is essential to my brain theory. Non-visual perception is called proprioception. Nothing follows from this which disconfirms my theory of the trans-brain. Indeed, proprioception has the most parsimonious home within my theory.


  7. Vomit? Obfuscate? Thought experiment? Parsimonius?
    *checks NS’s glossary to see if these have been redefined*

    Okay, the established definition for parsimony is frugality or stinginess, as in He was too parsimonius to donate anything to charity, but I see you have redefined it to mean simplicity, with the example Checkers is a very parsimonious game. Thought experiment is also in your glossary, but you only comment on its value rather than redefine its meaning. The others are not in your glossary, so I will assume they retain their established definitions.

    I apologize for disgusting you with my confusion about what is considered to be the “brain” that is unable to perceive itself. Is it the stuff inside people’s skulls, or the body as a whole, including the eyes and hands, as described in your glossary? Are you unable to see your hands, then, because your brain would be perceiving itself? And sorry for being presumptuous about mirrors. When I look into one, I see not only the mirror, but also images of other objects that have been reflected by it. How unfortunate that you do not have this ability. Do you comb your hair by feel, then?

    Your reply does nothing to relieve the confusion over the brain’s ability (or inability) to perceive itself, and only adds an additional confusion between objects and their images. Obviously, stabbing at a mirror wouldn’t touch the object whose image is being reflected there. Are you saying that you have trouble distinguishing between objects and their perceived images? Surely you must agree that when you look at an object, you aren’t perceiving the object directly, just the light that has been reflected by it. You can’t see things in total darkness, can you? The object is still there, as would be confirmed by your fingers if you reached out to touch it. Only the light that your eyes use to identify it is missing. It is the reflected light that you see, not the object itself, right? The function of a mirror is simply (or, if you insist, parsimoniously) to change the direction of the light which carries those images to your eyes, so that you can see objects from different directions.

    When you look at people’s faces, you can see their eyes, yes? Which means you can detect the light that has traveled from their eyes to yours, forming a perceived image there. If you saw images in mirrors, you could see your own eyes (the image-bearing light that has travelled from them, to the mirror, and back) that way. Since you claim that the eyes are a part of the brain, either your assertion that the brain is unable to perceive itself, or that the brain encompasses the body as a whole, would thereby be refuted. So I guess it’s a good thing you lack that ability. It must make it hard to drive, though, constantly twisting around to see where other drivers are on the road.

    Your objection to my camera-logic seems to suffer from this same confusion between objects and their projected images. When you look directly at a landscape, you perceive it as an image. When you take a picture of that landscape, the camera records the same image on film (or digital memory). You can confirm this by comparing the image you see from the landscape to that which you see from the photo. My only point was that such a comparison would confirm that the camera works the same way your eyes do… both generate similar images from the light that reflects off of objects. Therefore, you should not be surprised that you cannot find images by dissecting eyes or brains since you would also fail to find any inside your camera that way. If your camera can retain and reproduce images without your being able to find them inside, so can your brain. Obviously.

    Or was it that my logic was too simple? (sorry, parsimonious) I only had three premises and a conclusion: 1) Eyes and/or brains perceive images, 2) Cameras generate similar images, 3) Images cannot be found in either via dissection… Therefore, both must store images in ways that are not obvious to casual inspection.

    Would it be less obfuscating if I included as many steps as you did in your penultimate paragraph? Oh my, that’s another word you’ve redefined, isn’t it? *checks the glossary again* I was not using “penultimate” to mean “[t]he last and largest number in the series of countable numbers,” but rather its original meaning of “next to last.” To be clear, I’m referring to the paragraph that starts with “Reid’s point is this:” Let me see if I can follow your logic…

    1) The brain is a constituent of the body
    2) Perception happens in brains looking at themselves
    3) (2) is impossible
    Therefore, we cannot see.
    4) We couldn’t see before we made this conclusion, since…
    5) Perception is just brains looking at themselves
    [Note: (5)repeats (2) even though it was refuted with (3)]
    6) If we look at our brains, we can see
    Therefore, if we can see, it must not be with our brains
    7) We do not see with our brains
    8) We do see with our brains
    Therefore, brains must be more than we suppose
    Therefore, your brain is everywhere

    Sorry, NS. I’m too parsimonius to vomit that much obfuscation.

    Finally, thank you for your grudging admission of admiration for my “thought experiment” regarding blindness. I see from your glossary that you prefer them over real (*gasp* scientific) experiments, but please know that I did not present it as merely a thought experiment. I was trying to point out that, once you got past all those terrifying crows, you could actually walk out of your apartment and find actual people with actual symptoms of occiptital lobe brain damage. You could talk to them about their actual experiences, and observe with your own brain both the healthiness of their eyes and the reality of their blindness. Since you never actually answered it, I ask you again… would you discard such evidence as being contrary to your belief, and/or reject the logical conclusion that thinking about it would inevitably lead you to?

    You could then, of course, change the subject to proprioception, if you wanted to. Like you say, it really has nothing to do with visual perception, other than its ability to obfuscate the discussion by allowing you to segue to trans-brain theories. Obviously.

  8. Angelplume, you are two of the most intelligent lifeforms here.
    For your cat half, meow meow meow meow meow.

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