Optical illusions, as astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson once said, should be called “brain failures.” This is because what is really happening is not so much an optical trick as it is our brain screwing up. Now, in defense of our brain, we do get fairly imperfect information from our eyes. But our brain has “solved” the problems of our eyes with some ingenious “software”. When this software breaks down is when the optical illusion is seen.
For example, our eyes have a blind spot, a function of our very stupid eye assembly that has all the “wires” running in front of the “cameras”, necessitating there be a hole somewhere for all the wires to head back to the brain. Because of the wire hole, there are no “cameras” at this spot on your retina, creating a blind spot. Now, we have two eyes, so the brain has developed the ability to stitch together the views to create a solid picture, and this usually works. But sometimes it doesn’t. This is what creates the optical illusion of the disappearing pencil tip.
Okay, this one doesn’t seem all that drastic to our everyday life. But I started easy. Because of optical illusions, some people run the risk of miscalculating distance while driving. Eh, still not all that huge of a deal. What other brain failures are not very good for us? Well, how about our inability to see ultraviolet light? About 3 million Americans get diagnosed with some form of skin cancer every year, a situation that would be a lot easier to avoid if we could see ultraviolet. But probably the most dangerous and insidious optical illusion has to be that stupid dress that went around on social media! Amirite!?
What about our other senses? Did you know that when you begin to asphyxiate (like when you try and hold your breath for a long time), that violent reaction in your body is not caused by the body detecting a low oxygen level. Instead, it is detecting a high carbon dioxide level. This means that if a different gas is replacing the oxygen, but not creating high carbon dioxide in your blood, your body doesn’t even notice it until you pass out. This is how people die from carbon monoxide poisoning, and why people can die in feed silos (nitrogen dioxide). In both of these cases, the senses and the brain have failed.
And wouldn’t it be nice if we had the eyes of an eagle (which has the “wires” running behind the “cameras”, eliminating the blind spot, plus they are way better anyway), or the nose of a dog? We could avoid a lot of issues if we could smell some of the things that harm us…. or for that matter help you avoid someone you don’t like. LOL! And did you know that your taste buds don’t do most of the tasting, but that your brain combines your taste buds and olfactory inputs to create the taste? Here’s a brain failure- hand someone a glass of orange juice and tell them it is milk. There is a high chance that they spit it out, until they realize it’s actually juice. Your brain is expecting creamy, but the tangy juice triggers a “holy shit, this is sour!” reaction.
Anyway, I digress. Have you ever put your hand into a covered box and tried to guess what was inside? They are somewhat common at education centers, or can be designed for party games. But the idea is the same. Stick your hand in something and try to figure out what it is by feel alone. And the most fun (for the devious party host) is to suggest something. If you tell the “toucher” that there are brains in the box, that steamed cauliflower head is gonna feel really like brains!! Yikes! Once again, your brain failed to correctly interpret the information it was receiving, leading you to the wrong answer.
Our ears are conveniently on opposite sides of our heads, which helps in locating the source of sound. But ears have failures as well. Like our eyes, we have a limited hearing range, and thus are unable to hear potential threats outside of that range. Once again, even dogs get the better equipment. And just like optical illusions, there are indeed audio illusions, or failures of the ears and brain to get the right answer.
And naturally, our senses have limitations since they adapted to life at our scale in our universe on this planet on our terra firma. We have no sense at all for the very small or very large, themselves just arbitrary points that use our sense as the middle ground. How many times has the media attempted to help us process something like a billion dollars, let alone a trillion? We don’t actually have the capacity to process numbers that large, but by using some models we can get a sense. Models are how we can bring things down, or up, to our level of understanding. The universe and DNA are well outside our ability to accurately process, so our models help us to understand. Models help us correct our brain failures.
So, I’ve already spent 800+ words talking about how our senses and brains can fail us. I could definitely go on, but I think that since I’ve covered not only the 5 senses, but discussed the link between the senses and the imperfect brain “software”, it should be enough to move on.
About 160 years ago, some dumbass by the name of Samuel Rowbotham decided that, (maybe in the spirit of Descartes?), he would try not to rely on any information that he had not personally been able to experience. He would trust only the information he received from his own senses. He wrote a whole book on it. And if you think this methodology went poorly for him, you would be right because he is the original modern flat earther. Yes, his method of only relying on his own senses and nothing else led him to believe in an idea that is so bat-shit crazy that only a flat earther could believe it. (Yes, flat earthers are their own category, and therefore the standard bearers for believing in nonsense.)
And I suppose I get it. Each one of us is trying to sort out the bullshit from reality. That is noble, but as it turns out, believing only in yourself leads to the wrong answer an awful lot. It literally leads to the flat earth society. It also literally leads to religion.
Religious people like to think they are appealing to a higher authority, which in theory would eliminate all the brain failures, as well as personal bias and all the other potential issues I could talk about. But really, they are actually just relying on their brain failures. And this is quite easy to tease out. Let’s do this thought experiment. Remember the cauliflower “brains” in a box? If I reach into the box, and I expect brains, it might feel like brains. Now remember, we know it’s actually cauliflower. And when we open the box, the person usually is surprised and reacts with a laugh or something. But what the person does not do is yell at you that they have faith that it is actually brains, and that despite the fact that it seems like warm cauliflower, they were told by a higher authority that it was brains and they therefore can NOT be wrong.
Of course, it could also be a brain in the box, and they would at least be right. But here is where the experiment get’s real. 10 people put their hand in the box, and each one says that something different is in the box. One says brains, one says wet noodles, one says broccoli, another says cauliflower, one says a wet textured rubber ball, etc. In this case, only one out of the 10 is actually right. Which means the other 9 are wrong. They did not, in fact, get unbiased, perfect information from anywhere, and instead were subject to their own brain failure. If people really were able to appeal to a higher authority, they wouldn’t be wrong, and they would all get the same answer.
We can do the same thing with religions. Each person puts their eyes in the bible, or goes to church, or seminary, or prays a lot, or “talks with god”, or “speaks in tongues”, or any number of things. Then, we compare with reality. We “open the box.” And listen up, everyone, because here are the real contents of the box.
1) Evolution is why we have the diversity of life on this planet, and humans are an evolved species.
2) The earth is about 4 1/2 billion years old.
3) Donald Trump did not win the 2020 election.
4) Stars can not fall to the earth.
5) The earth is not flat, it is a ball in space.
6) Languages evolved over thousands and thousands of years.
7) The earth did not end in 2020. Or 2019. Or 2018. Or 2017. Or 2015, 2013, or 2012. Or any of the hundreds of times it was predicted. If you predicted the end of the word in 2020 or earlier, you are a fucking hack.
8) Lightning is an electrostatic discharge caused by friction, thunder is the noise generated by that discharge.
9) Earthquakes are caused as tectonic plates shift against one another.
10) Human consumption of carbon emitting energies is causing rapid global warming.
11) The brain controls what it is to be you, including your bodily functions, thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, ethics, morality, memory, learning, and personality. There is no soul, or any such goofy thing, controlling your body.
12) There is no such place as a physical heaven or physical hell.
13) Infectious diseases act the same no matter what a person is thinking, who they are thinking about, or if they are thinking about asking for a favor, and can only be combated by hygiene and immunization.
14) Gay people can not be changed into straight people.
15) Praying for someone does not work. The results are exactly the same as random chance.
16) A new human embryo is literally a fish. It has pending software that will transition it to a reptile, then mammal, then ape, then human. But at first it is a fish. It has developed exactly the same structures as a fish, and is indistinguishable from a fish. This is vestigial development, and a product of evolution from fish. Saying a new human embryo is a full human is the same as saying that a light switch laying next to a CAD drawing of a building is an entire building.
17) God is not real.
Well, there you are. Check your work. If you or your preacher got any of the above answers wrong, you are not getting information from a reliable source. You are getting it from your own brain failures.
The Spartan Atheist