How do we perceive the world?

This is the question Jordan Peterson tried to answer in his celebrated return to Cambridge

Artillery Row

The problem of perception is one Jordan Peterson has been attempting to wrestle with for a long time. “How much do we bring to the act of perception” he asked an attentive Cambridge university audience last week, “and how much is revealed to us by what we perceive?”

The noted Toronto professor then took the captivated audience on a whirlwind journey of intrigue and discovery, as he considered the dilemmas faced by artificial-intelligence researchers and scholars. It was a gripping insight into how AI’s quest to imitate human behaviour, has revealed just how complex and evolved even our simplest actions and instincts are — behaviours that as Peterson himself noted, evolution has taken billions of years to refine.

Referencing several researchers, most notably the Russian Eugene Sokolov — who discovered the Orienting Reflex — Peterson introduced mind-blowing concepts and ideas, demonstrating his uncanny ability to turn highly complex matter into something within everyone’s grasp.

“If you are walking down the road”, explained Peterson, “and there is a loud noise behind you, perhaps a car has jumped a curb, you will stop and turn and orient towards the place in the space and time continuum where your stereo vision has localised the noise, and you do that really without thinking, I would say that it is a act that occurs outside the domain of free will”. The reason we do that he added, is because we might die if something outside our framework of expectation happened.

“Your presentation of the world is rather shallow and low resolution” added Peterson, “but it is good enough to get you where you want to go most of the time”, that said, sometimes it is “error ridden enough that the error will kill you — you are equipped with instinctual mechanisms that orient you towards the source of the revelation of your ignorance.”

The concept of humans “having an instinct that points them to the source of their ignorance” is baffling on a neurophysiological, philosophic and theological level. It is important because as Peterson remarked to the audience’s amusement, “there may be shortage of knowledge but there is no shortage of ignorance”. What Sokolov outlined was the “underlying, neurophysiological mechanisms that made this orienting reflex possible – an unbelievably important discovery, because you don’t learn anything except by encountering it as novelty first” so it is fundamentally the initial processes of everything we learn all the time.

Peterson spoke of past researchers’ holding the idea that the world is made of many objects, and that “what we do is build an internal model of this world – a representation that we act out.” The assumption was that sense data is given to us and from that sense data we build these models but “that is wrong” argued Peterson — that is the reason we don’t have general purpose robots.

“They cannot model the whole world” he elaborated, “so they build a toy environment that the machine can learn, what was discovered is that even a simple environment made of pyramids and cones, posed serious problems, such as varying lighting — is the pyramid in the morning the same as the pyramid in midday?” for example, “what about five minutes past midday or three seconds past midday? how much illumination-change is necessary before the object is no longer the same object?”

These are dilemmas AI researchers have battled with for a long time and the bottom line is that “there is an endless number of things you can do with a single image of anything” — this arresting  fact puts into question the very possibility of world perception.

The problem of endless possibilities also applies to text — “if you can’t perceive something even simple, in some canonical manner, how in the world can you derive a single canonical interpretation of a given text?”. Sentences too are susceptible to an endless number of interpretations — “endless is a real problem”, he exclaimed, because to perceive something there has to be an end.

It is beauty and truth that inspire us — be it music, the night sky, Byzantine churches or any work of great beauty

Peterson’s example of arranging a book library, helped put this into perspective. “You might think that there is not an infinite way to arrange the books but then age, thickness, density and colour come into play — how about thickness of paper?” he asked, “how about the thickness of the spot exactly half an inch below the 35th page in the third chapter? You could say this a stupid way to organise your books but how do you know it is stupid?”

Peterson rejected Postmodernists “nought but power” vision, labelling it as “corrosive beyond our capacity to deal with it.”

“Postmodernists” he argued, “leaped from the profound mystery of perception to the conclusion that some pathological socially constructed process is at the basis of the act of perception and categorisation itself.” This conclusion is “cynical beyond belief” because what it means is that “you solve the problem of categorisation by imposing your will to power on the world — you cannot come up with as more cynical view of the mechanism that makes habitable order out of chaos.”

James Orr introducing Jordan Peterson at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge

Attributing Postmodernists’ destructive outlook to cynicism and envy “of what’s great”, he questioned their identifying great works of architectural beauty with the will to power — “really?” he asked, “that’s what you think when you enter one of the great cathedrals or chapels that grace your campus? do you think it was the will to power that erected that? corrupt oppression?”

Peterson went on to speak of dominance hierarchy among chimps, why psychopaths only constitute three percent of the population, a Vagner Opera he recently saw in NY “written by a dead white male, the oppressive sort”, women’s mating, sexual selection and more. We learnt that male chimps who rise to the top of their hierarchy as consequence of their psychopathic will to power have a short ruling period, whereas more benevolent males reign longer over a more peaceful group. We also stunned to learn that we don’t see objects and infer meaning, we see meaning and infer objects, that great art, beauty, and the night sky inspire awe and trigger our instinct to master the infinite, that awe actually activates the impulse to imitate and more.

At one point, in an attempt to tie all these strands together, Peterson paused and stood motionless in contemplation as the dead silent audience patiently waited. He then raised his head and concluded that “there is no evidence that the proposition that the fundamental motivation for categorisation itself is the expression of power — that seems wrong.”

Peterson’s celebrated return marks a significant, some say pivotal win for freedom of expression

According to Peterson, it is beauty and truth that inspire us — be it music, the night sky, Byzantine churches or any work of great beauty — you are filled with awe that activates the impulse to imitate. You look at the night sky and find your destiny and that destiny is everything you could be, that’s what men and women search for in each other. “If you are rejected by a woman why is she rejecting you?” asked Peterson, “the shame men feel when they are rejected by a woman is precisely the shame they feel at knowing in their heart that they have not lived up to what they are capable of being.”

Visibly emotional Peterson concluded with the assertion that “we solved the power of perception with divine word, and what does it mean? It means truth, every word a prayer, every word a groping to find a firm foundation to stand on while you make your way through life. Every time you hear a conversation of that sort or yourself participating in that process orienting yourself to this highest uniting good, and using that to govern your utterance — love guides that, love is the desire to work for the betterment of all things.”

It is important to note that Peterson’s Cambridge talk was preceded by Dr James Orr’s reiteration of the university’s commitment to “civil discourse and free enquiry”. This referred to the much publicised 2019 incident where a fellowship offered to Jordan Peterson by the university was abruptly rescinded, not due to Peterson’s actions or words but due to a photograph of the noted clinical psychologist standing next to a fan whose t-shirt bore an Islamophobic message. Two years on, roughly coinciding with the announcement of Toope’s departure, Peterson’s celebrated return marks a significant, some say pivotal win for freedom of expression. Cambridge should be congratulated for righting this wrong and for choosing Dr Jordan Peterson to herald the university’s apparent return to sanity.

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