Friday, March 1, 2024


The Diaphanous Model of Awareness: Using Illusions as Arguments

by Francois Tremblay

The Diaphanous Fallacy is an interesting topic in the objective vs skeptic debate because it is committed by many skeptical arguments. This model of awareness is based on a fundamental misconception between first-person and third-person perspectives, transposing attributes that do not pertain to each other. This misconception is then used as an argument to deny the possibility of “true knowledge”.

As I mentioned, the Diaphanous Model of Awareness consists of three steps, taken from different perspectives. The first step is our self-evident, personal, immediate experience of awareness as a diaphanous phenomenon: what we can call the subjective perspective. The second step is our scientific, constructed, non-immediate experience of awareness as a brain-based phenomenon: what we can call the objective perspective.

The third step happens when we transpose the appearances of the subjective perspective into requirements for the objective perspective. This is where the fallacy comes in. Because awareness subjectively appears to us as a self-evident and immediate experience, it must be self-evident and immediate in order to be “true” awareness.

We know of consciousness in the first place from the inside, as its subjects. From this perspective, the awareness of an object seems transparent, the simple presence of the object, a revelation of it. Unaware as we are, from this perspective, of the way our cognitive faculties operate to produce our awareness, it seems as if nothing but the object itself determines the way we grasp it…

The diaphanous model can be expressed as the thesis that if the means by which we perceive affect the way things appear in perception, then we cannot perceive things as they are, but only their effects on us.

David Kelley, “The Evidence of the Senses”, p 37, 104

This is a naive view of awareness: there is no reason why the way something appears to us must reflect how it really is. This is similar to the naive view of perception I discussed in my article ‘The Infallibility of Sense Perception’. According to this view, the way things appear to us is the way things really are. If we see an oasis in the middle of a desert, it cannot be a mirage – everything is as it appears. Likewise, the diaphanous model transposes appearance (which is, as we know from science, filtered by the brain) as objective reality.

The fallacy can be explained more simply in this way. The diaphanous model demands that we find reality without any identity of our own, basically to have a soul, in order to have “true” knowledge. But this is a contradictory demand: as we know from the law of identity, everything that exists has a specific identity. For our awareness to exist, it must likewise have an identity, it must treat and filter information in some way, it cannot be “diaphanous”.

The fact that we cannot examine reality without treating the sensory information that tells us about it, does not mean that we do not have “true” knowledge. We gain knowledge precisely by appreciating our limits and propensities for error, and remedying to them by the process of epistemology. To ignore those limits and propensities, is to give a blank check to error. But this does not mean that the task is impossible. By following a process of reason, and going as far as the objective evidence we possess will take us, no more no less, we can achieve a great deal of knowledge, as the progress of science in the past century has taught us.

As I mentioned, the diaphanous fallacy is applied to a number of epistemic and ethical concepts, such as sense perception, free will, morality, the undefined potentiality objection, and the Descartian subjectivist arguments. I have already defended sense perception against faith-based and skeptical arguments in the article linked above. I will briefly address it again, as well as two other concepts, to illustrate how the diaphanous fallacy operates.

The main skeptic objection to the infallibility of sense perception consists of pointing out that naive realism – that is, the view that the immediate appearance of exterior objects is automatically valid – is incorrect. Our immediate experience of objects, for instance mirages, can be revealed to be false. We find that sense perception depends on context as well. Therefore, they argue that sense perception is not diaphanous, and therefore cannot be trusted in some way.

Sensory perception must be mediated by rational thinking about the context and our senses in order to be valid. But this does not mean that it is invalid. In fact, as I explained in the article, sense perception is logically infallible.

Free will is often argued against on the basis that it exists within a biological context. To be a “true” free will (and not an “illusion”), it should exist as an uncaused, identity-less cloud floating around the brain, a soul so to speak. Since it is a part of the brain processes, it is therefore invalid in the diaphanous model.

The undefined potentiality objection is my name for the proposition that a god could exist regardless of whether we can actually know about it or not, and that this is a good reason to believe. This is usually the last resort of the skeptic’s case against strong-atheism. I already answered to it in the FAQ for “Why can’t you accept there simply are things we do not know about?”.

But the point is that the strong-atheist is condemned for being an independent observer with his own limits. Because there may be things outside our understanding, does not provide evidence for such things, especially since we cannot even define them. Thus the skeptic here imposes on us an illogical demand (you must know everything) and when we cannot fulfill this illogical demand, he uses this as an argument against knowledge (which does not include such illogical demands).

Ultimately, post-modernism is an extreme form of the diaphanous fallacy, because it demands that “true knowledge” be uninfluenced by all cultural pressure. I say it is an extreme form because it does not demand that the individual be identity-less, but rather that the entire social structure be identity-less. As such, it puts demands on the epistemic process that are qualitatively even more impossible to fulfill.

Certainly there are other ways to argue skepticism than the diaphanous model of awareness, but it is a large part of most skeptical positions. Therefore it is very important to understand its reach (to be able to identify it) as well as its refutation.

Illustrating the fact that appearance only gives us part of the picture, Leda Cosmides and John Tooley, in “Evolutionary Psychology Primer”, state:

Consider vision. Your conscious experience tells you that seeing is simple: You open your eyes, light hits your retina, and—voila!—you see. It is effortless, automatic, reliable, fast, unconscious and requires no explicit instruction—no one has to go to school to learn how to see. But this apparent simplicity is deceptive. Your retina is a two-dimensional sheet of light sensitive cells covering the inside back of your eyeball. Figuring out what three-dimensional objects exist in the world based only on the light-dependent chemical reactions occurring in this two dimensional array of cells poses enormously complex problems—so complex, in fact, that no computer programmer has yet been able to create a robot that can see the way we do. You see with your brain, not just your eyes, and your brain contains a vast array of dedicated, special purpose circuits—each set specialized for solving a different component of the problem.

You need all kinds of circuits just to see your mother walk, for example. You have circuits that are specialized for (1) analyzing the shape of objects; (2) detecting the presence of motion; (3) detecting the direction of motion; (4) judging distance; (5) analyzing color; (6) identifying an object as human; (7) recognizing that the face you see is Mom’s face, rather than someone else’s. Each individual circuit is shouting its information to higher level circuits, which check the “facts” generated by one circuit against the “facts” generated by the others, resolving contradictions. Then these conclusions are handed over to even higher level circuits, which piece them all together and hand the final report to the President—your consciousness. But all this “president” ever becomes aware of is the sight of Mom walking. Although each circuit is specialized for solving a delimited task, they work together to produce a coordinated functional outcome—in this case, your conscious experience of the visual world. Seeing is effortless, automatic, reliable, and fast precisely because we have all this complicated, dedicated machinery.

In other words, our intuitions can deceive us. Our conscious experience of an activity as “easy” or “natural” can lead us to grossly underestimate the complexity of the circuits that make it possible. Doing what comes “naturally”, effortlessly, or automatically is rarely simple from an engineering point of view. To find someone beautiful, to fall in love, to feel jealous—all can seem as simple and automatic and effortless as opening your eyes and seeing. So simple that it seems like there is nothing much to explain. But these activities feel effortless only because there is a vast array of complex neural circuitry supporting and regulating them.

Last updated: 01/01/05