Observations about Observations on Observation
Well, this is turning out to be quite a topic for me. This latest post is a response to fellow blogger Stonehead‘s response to my previous post! Whew! His detailed comment generated an idea explosion in my head, so it seemed prudent to create a whole new post about it. If you haven’t already, I invite you to read Stonehead’s comment here, then come back and we’ll chat.
Stonehead, I’m taking this opportunity to comment on several of your points. I am enthralled by your descriptions of “us”, namely humanoid earth-dwellers, as “unreliable instruments”. I don’t know if that term is original with you, but I hadn’t heard it before. I find it tremendously liberating: “Don’t blame me, I’m an unreliable instrument.” Seriously, though, I do know it’s a technical term, as well as a fascinating concept. Compared to a machine, manufactured to collect data but not interpret it, we are unreliable. I never thought of this being the reason that scientists argue about interpretation. I’d thought in their world, most of the time, anyway, it could be established that ‘data x’ plunked into ‘equation y’ yields ‘result z’. Shows you what I know. (NON-engineer, here, in case there was any question).
You believe that the recorded data doesn’t change, but you throw in “leaving aside the issue of built in distortion due to human error or deliberate intent.” Now I must ask for further clarification here. I suspect you mean deliberate intent by an ‘unreliable instrument’ to sabotage the device or experiment? Or do you use the word “intent” to mean something quite else? In which case, please see the next paragraphs:
Are electrical apparati really completely invulnerable to conscious influence? I think of the example of biofeedback devices. I know these measure a person’s heart-rate or breath-rate or some other voluntary or “involuntary” physiological system, which do alter according to the subject’s stress level. But why is it apparently more effective for a subject to watch a real-time graph of her/his skin galvanic response, say, than to just be told to relax and take deep breaths, in order to get his/her heart rate down? Does the machine affect the human, or the human the machine? Or both? It could be argued that all the device is doing is measuring what it has been designed to measure. But I’d add that the human is engaged in relationship with the machine during these events. The human response in turn changes the data being measured.
Then, there is the controversial use of random number generators. Among experiments and studies about whether conscious intention can affect mechanical output, those at Princeton University’s labs are among the better known. There is a lot of argument about whether the “Princeton EGGs” have indeed produced either statistically significant or important results, but in my opinion the fact that they produced any results at all which deviate from the expected at least causes me to want to study them further.
You use the good example of a video camera recording a mugging. I would agree with you that those images would generally be reliable. In most cases, even though there would be a spike in emotional activity nearby during the mugging, the camera is not likely to have a preference for how things turn out, nor is it likely that a surveillance professional is consciously attempting to direct her/his thoughts and preferences towards the camera at all times.
So, a video camera is usually a great eye-witness. I’ve watched enough cop shows to know that even if a completely objective and perfectly observant human were standing next to the camera, the video might be better because images are stored, they can be enhanced, sped up, slowed down, and they capture events in the background that humans wouldn’t notice. So, within the parameters of this agreed-upon reality, camera is king.
I can’t comment on your paragraphs 8, 9, & 10 without repeating them here, but I’ll just say they’re brilliant! What a fascinating way to conceptualize the differences in outlook between us humanoids. I will carry your comments into the world with me, particularly your moving and personal observation that “…understanding the nature of observation is fundamental to being more tolerant of others.”
My conscious inquiry still stretches into as yet undiscovered systems. I sometimes envision that inquiry as a long narrow stream, but your comments have helped me expand the stream into a river in places, and I thank you for that.