Saturday, May 28, 2011

To see is to believe 眼見為信

In my April 27th blog, I showed some photos that I did for one of my digital photography class assignments – The Best Liar.  Readers who have knowledge of the events or the subjects involved in the photos could tell easily these were faked and might focus on how well the photos were created which was the primary goal of the assignment.  The uninformed or less suspecting ones may however be led to believe or consider the photos are real and the events did take place. 

Considering we all have seen way too often documents including photos and videos that were fabricated or manipulated, perhaps we need to revert back to the old idea of “to see is to believe” 眼見為信?  But would that be sufficient?  Is it possible that what you “see” and what I “see” could be different?  If so, then is experience and reality only perceived and not absolute?  How do we then determine if an event did occur and something does exist?  How do we form our perceived reality any way?  How do our brains work with visual and/or other stimuli?  

Scientists and philosophers have been pursuing answers to these questions for a very long time at different levels with distinct methods and tools.  I will try to stay in or close to the realm of science although improved understandings in science do have ramifications on some of the debates of issues at the boundaries of philosophy, religion, and science.  

The mechanical parts of visual systems of animals are more straightforward to study.  We do know a lot about how eyes work optically and physically from the single lens systems (such as human’s, bird’s, and whales’) to multi-lens systems (such as insect’s).  We know enough about the process of sensing of light and propagation of signals through nerve system to particular parts of brain to create devices like night vision goggles and cameras successfully.  Further, efforts in creating “artificial eyes” have been attempted to restore visions of the blinds with encouraging results at a few research institutes.  However, good photographers and graphical designers know that human brains can work with eyes in some integral and adaptive manner to enhance our experience/perception including contrast, color, etc. depending on our interest (mind?) and the scene.  No camera can possibly reproduce such a sophisticated functionality today. 

Worse; much more elaborate manipulations and adaptations can take place without our awareness.  The recent research by the prominent psychologist Daniel Simons showed that our perception can be influenced or distracted significantly such that we are “not seeing something that is there”.  That is, sometimes some of us may not even “see” certain obvious events that happen right in front of our eyes!  I am sure you would swear that you had such an experience with your love ones.  But Professor Simons’ famous experiment (that led to his 2010 book The Invisible Gorilla) revealed the surprisingly strong effect of in-attentional blindness (that he defined as “the failure to notice unusual and salient events in their visual world when attention is otherwise engaged and the events are unexpected.”)  Can you believe that roughly half of the people participated in his experiments did not “see” a gorilla walking through the scene where several people pass basketballs to each other.  By the way, “not seeing” does not necessarily translate to “no impact” as many studies of the effects of subliminal messaging have demonstrated the opposite.

While the “invisible gorilla” phenomena may be surprising, very few people question the results and plausible explanations.  In fact, once told or forewarned, no one would miss the appearance of the gorilla.  The flip side is much more controversial and puzzling.  Yes, I am talking about the phenomena of “seeing something that is not there.”  Of course, there are two distinct categories of such phenomena.  One is magic that is a clever and intentional use of devices, and/or the property of optical reception and perception of human to make believe, thus to entertain us.  Here is a short clip of one of the most watched magic shows at the 2010 Chinese New Year’s Eve Show on CCTV of China.  In the show, the renowned young magician Liu Qian 劉謙 from Taiwan pushed his right hand right through a glass table to pick up some coins from underneath.

Since it was advertised as a magic show, no one would think it was actually happening and everyone was asking how he did it in awe.  Throughout the human history however, there have been numerous reported and unexplained sightings of phenomena which have been broadly called ESP (Extra-Sensory Perception).  This is the second category - the curious and controversial phenomena of “seeing something that is not there.”

Some of these phenomena turned out to be frauds or pranks.  Some were explained away as one developed better knowledge of the circumstance and/or science.  More often, these stories persisted and new ones continue to pop up which beg for explanations, either affirmative or negative.  All these phenomena have one thing in common however: none of them have ever been successfully verified by independent researchers, or repeated in rigorous and controlled environment for a variety of reasons.

A recent case that drew a lot of attention in Taiwan and China was the Finger Reading Study by Professor Si-Chen Lee李嗣涔and his collaborators since early 90s.  Professor Lee did his early research in semiconductors and received his Ph.D. from Stanford University.  He has been a Professor of Electrical Engineering at the National Taiwan University, the most prestigious higher education institution in Taiwan, since 1982 and was appointed the President of the university in 2005. He became interested in developing better understanding of the popular Chinese traditional Qigong applying modern sciences in late 1980s.  One thing led to another, he ended up in conducting some parapsychology investigations and has given popular public talks (in mandarin) about his experiments and findings in early 2000’s in Taiwan.

Basically, Lee reported the following amazing and unexpected results in these talks: 1)it is possible to train youngsters between age of 7 and 13 to “read” two digit numbers and Chinese characters in color with fingers (that is, by touch of those figures written on a piece of paper).  Lee reported an average of 24% “success” rate was achieved with 152 youngsters who completed a 4 days by 2 hour training session held annually from 1996 to 2003.  While he did not clarify what was considered a “success”, the conclusion appeared to have been drawn from applying statistical theory of (p-value) hypothesis testing that the occurrence of correct answers during the experiments is very unlikely due to random guesses.  Professor Lee thus suggested that such a paranormal capability is real and can be trained.  2) Lee reported that his research team was able to communicate with a spiritual character about specific questions and topics through trained “ESP-capable” test subjects (according to later investigatory reports, the reported experiments were all conducted with Ms. 高橋舞, the most “capable” kid from the earlier finger reading training).  The send (from the test subject to the spirit character) channel address has a web URL like syntax.  The received message was displayed visually on a virtual screen seen by the “ESP-capable” test subject (similar to the notion of the “third eye”). 

Are these for real? Doesn’t it remind you of anecdotal stories of physic in the west or靈媒,占童 in China? Does it prove in any way the existence of other “universes” or spiritual world(s) as Professor Lee and some believe? Does it have anything to do with the unifying theory that some physicist are developing?

Despite his enthusiasm and scientific/engineering trainings, Professor Lee has not fared any better than other researchers in the field of parapsychology that attempts to bring scientific disciplines to an otherwise mysterious experience.  With the promising results of the finger reading experiments, Yung-Jong Shiah 夏允中, a researcher of Professor Lee’s team, went on to obtain his Ph.D. degree in Psychology at the well-known Koestler Parapsychology Unit of the University of Edinburgh, England. From his peer-reviewed publications, Professor Shiah (who is now on the faculty of Psychology Department of Kaohsiung Medical University in Taiwan) did not succeed in validating the results in more controlled and rigorous experiments with a number of school children in England.

All in all, I don’t doubt the authenticity of some of those reports that there have been individuals or a group of individuals who experienced or “see” certain phenomena.  It is a big leap of faith however to conclude something is real when it cannot be reproduced consistentely or independently verified.  Professor Lee appears to have gone overboard and got ahead of himself in the hope of drawing interests of others, considering that he had not published peer-reviewed scientific papers beyond literary accounts of the experiments and that he referred to the discredited torsion field as a plausible explanation and basis. 

Zhuang Zi 莊子 warned us over 2300 years ago that it is dangerous when one hopes to comprehend the infinite universe with one’s finite understandings 吾生也有涯,而知也無涯。 以有涯隨無涯,殆已!《莊子·內篇·養生主第三》.How many times have we seen people got confused models and theory with the reality?  The progression of Newton’s universal gravitation and the three laws of motion, Einstein’s relativity theory, and the newly developed String theory, M-theory, Holographic Principle, etc, are small steps that helped us to imagine and to expand our understandings of the universe(s) but they are no substitutes for the real thing and will continue to be revised.

The late Martin Gardner, a famous American science writer and mathematician, wrote on the June 26, 1980 issue of New York Review of Books in a response to a letter by four renowned scientists who defended parapsychology against the harsh criticism of John Wheeler (who called it a pseudoscience).  Gardner started his letter by pointing out that “One may have the highest respect for the signers of the above letter—one of them, Brian Josephson, is a Nobel Prize winner—at the same time recognizing that knowledge of physics no more qualifies a scientist to evaluate psychic claims than does knowledge of chess or medieval Latin.”   He concluded his letter by saying that “If the four investigations listed in their letter are the best evidence they can muster for the reality of psi, their letter is a sad reinforcement of what John Wheeler had to say.” calling it a “pathological science” and a “pretentious pseudo science”. 

Unfortunately nothing seems to have changed after 30 years from the publication of the above exchange and there is still no evidence that any of the reported paranormal phenomena could be reproduced, especially by disbelievers, much less any convincing explanations.  It is also not likely an alternative and effective methodology will be developed any time soon for the examination and discussion of ESP if (unspecified) different rules apply as many believers had argued.  We continue to be trapped in the contradiction that we are hoping to use our existing experience and knowledge to explain events that are supposedly taking place outside our universe.

Let me pause here and go back to my own reality before I get lost!

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