Links and Comments: Visual Illusions and Perception of Reality; Trumpian Gnostic Madness

Vox: Brian Resnick: “Reality” is constructed by your brain. Here’s what that means, and why it matters. Subtitled, What the science of visual illusions can teach us about our polarized world.

A long, thorough survey of various topics on one of my favorite themes (along with logical fallacies and cognitive biases): perceptual illusions. How we can’t trust what we see, how we see things that aren’t there, how we’re wired to perceive patterns even when none exist. (And by extension, why people are drawn to conspiracy theories to explain things that they think must have explanations.)

With several graphic examples. And a passage about “the dress.”

Some of these examples may seem frivolous. Why does it matter that one person sees a dress as black and blue and another sees it as white and gold?

It matters because scientists believe the same basic processes underlie many of our more complicated perceptions and thoughts. Neuroscience, then, can help explain stubborn polarization in our culture and politics, and why we’re so prone to motivated reasoning.

Sometimes, especially when the information we’re receiving is unclear, we see what we want to see.

One scientist comments:

Illusions are “the basis of superstition, the basis of magical thinking,” Martinez-Conde says. “It’s the basis for a lot of erroneous beliefs. We’re very uncomfortable with uncertainty. The ambiguity is going to be resolved one way or another, and sometimes in a way that does not match reality.”

Moving toward a summation:

Instead, the illusions and the science behind them raise a question: How do we go about our lives knowing our experiences might be a bit wrong?

There’s no one answer. And it’s a problem we’re unlikely to solve individually. I’d suggest that it should nudge us to be more intellectually humble and to cultivate a habit of seeking out perspectives that are not our own. We should be curious about our imperfections, as that curiosity may lead us closer to the truth. We can build cultures and institutions that celebrate humility and reduce the social cost for saying, “I was wrong.”

The two links in the above paragraph are also worth reading.


Navigating this is the challenge of being a living, thinking person.


Next, a couple aggregate sites have linked to a long article in Vanity Fair (only a portion of which is available to non-subscribers) about how the followers of Trump aren’t’ just a cult, but a gnostic religion. I’ll quote a section quoted by the blog Friendly Atheist. Gnosticism, it seems, sounds a lot like a standard-issue conspiracy theory:

Gnosticism, which dates at least to the second century A.D., is the path Christianity did not take, its texts destroyed as heretical, its ideas mostly forgotten until the 1945 discovery in Egypt of 13 ancient books in a sealed clay jar. Or maybe not so much forgotten as woven over the centuries into countless conspiracy theories, the deep-seated belief that there exist truths they — there is always a they in gnosticism, from the bishops and bureaucrats of the early church, coastal elites of the ancient world, to the modern media peddling fake news — do not want us, the people, to perceive.

Quite a few more quotes at this link, including how the religious crazies see him as a divine leader. The poster asks, “But what does it take to see the president like that, when those of us not initiated in the Church of Trump observe only the pitiful sight of a classless buffoon whose narcissism is inversely proportional to his competence? Diane G., another adherent, doesn’t think there’s much hope for us.”

“My faith helped me see him.” The Holy Ghost gave her what some Christians call the gift of discernment, an idea rooted in the Book of Acts that just as some are gifted the ability to speak in tongues, languages not their own, others are gifted the ability to discern spirits, to perceive wickedness within what might seem righteous and holiness within what might, to the undiscerning, be mistaken for profane. …

“Trump is not my God,” says Diane. “But God put him there.” God put him in power and planted a seed of faith in his heart. If you knew how to look, you could watch it grow. “It’s amazing,” Diane shouts. She takes hold of my arm, squeezing. “It gets bigger and bigger!”

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