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Five-eyed intelligence

December 20, 2011

Let’s look closer at how intelligence might evolve in a five-eyed creature such as Opabinia. Our eyes are now understood to be extensions of our brain, like visual coprocessors. Vision is part of our intelligence; fundamental to how we see the world.

Is our binocular vision the reason we tend to divide the world into two parts, yes or no, on or off, right or wrong? Would an alien life form, like an intelligent Opabinid, see the world as pentameral?  What would it be like for us to attempt communication with a pentameral being?

15 Comments
  1. Alex Tolley permalink
    December 20, 2011 3:30 pm

    Is our binocular vision the reason we tend to divide the world into two parts, yes or no, on or off, right or wrong?

    Interesting question, but I don’t see what the reason for this logic. Why don’t our integrated 5 different senses create more than a binary perception?

    Indeed, do we even have a binary view of the world? Obviously we have at least partly gravitated to a binary world, especially with the binary world of boolean logic. But is that an artifact, independent of our perception of the world? Are not attempts at “fuzzy logic” and nuanced thinking indicative that we are not naturally binary thinkers?

    It might be possible to test this idea. Suppose we could feed extra visual/aural signals directly to the brain, would the integration of those new signals change the person’s perception of the world? I am imagining blind people with aural signals fed to the visual system, or deaf people with visual signals fed to their aural systems.

  2. December 20, 2011 3:49 pm

    While it’s a tempting speculation, binary world view is a rather Western thing – blame Aristotle. If you look at a lot of Oriental philosophies they’re much more about mixtures, spectra and ranges rather than absolute dualities.

    Even the taiji, the yin-yang symbol, that gets so often thought of as the ultimate duality is actually a comparative thing and not fixed. The root of the words dates back to “Sunny side of the rock” and “Shady side of the rock” – comparing which side of the object is warmer, brighter etc. compared to the other. The “bright side” in the morning will be the shady side in the afternoon too, in a way that Aristotelean divisions don’t allow or expect.

    You could certainly establish such a process in a world descended from Opabinia though, and it would be hard to refute. You could also go for a world with a single, unified experience of the world. Expressions like “On the other hand…” make me wonder how much Western duality is based on bilateral symmetry of manipulators rather than eyes.

  3. Matt Stein permalink
    December 20, 2011 5:32 pm

    I think binary division of the world is largely because it’s the most simple way to divide things up. One reason we categorize things differently is to emphasize that [object] does or does not have [property]. Simplicity is typically more popular than nuance, thus binary categorization.

    Well, it’s either that, or not that. ;)

  4. December 20, 2011 6:44 pm

    I agree that the number of eyes are less important than number of manipulators. Almost all civilizations (past & present) on earth use base 10 numbering systems, based on manipulators. People without sight in one or both eyes don’t seem to be bothered by how those of us with two eyes perceive the world through light. Similar for hearing probably? It makes life more difficult for them, but not in a way that you’re postulating.
    Maybe a better thought experiment would be an intelligent squid with 10 arms, or an intelligent insect with faceted eyes and four arm / hand pairs rather than two arm / hand pairs.
    I’m remembering Pohl Anderson (i think) and the invasion of earth from the elephants, who had four toes and used base 8 math, and also the Puppeteers (Niven?) who used to count in threes?
    But then maybe you’re trying to buck the trend! Good for you. I think if we perceived two images with our two eyes, and the Opabinia perceived five images with its five eyes we might be able to come up with a difference. One big difference (good for an aquatic animal) would be 3D perception on two axes instead of one. People only perceive 3D horizontally, because our eyes are set that way. Opabinia have horizontal and vertical spacing, giving them space perception that it’s hard for me to imagine.
    How many of their fins will evolve with intelligence into fingers / hands? Perhaps the bipedal development on earth follows the more successful development of binocular vision. If the Opabinia were more successful would we all have four or six or more arms to go along with our double 3D vision?

  5. December 20, 2011 7:42 pm

    If we evolved with five eyes, this would open up interesting possibilities in terms of seeing multiple disparate fields at the same time. Imagine that rather than having five eyes in front of your face, you had two eyes in front and three in the back. Or one apiece in front, back, left, right, and….on your hand. How would your brain synthesize this information? Would it be processed into five split images or into one integrated whole? To have five disparate images streaming into your consciousness seems to necessitate multitasking, something our current noggins are notoriously bad at. If I had evolved with an eye on my hand, would I be able to text while driving without concern for safety?

    • December 21, 2011 9:19 am

      Maybe we would have five brains, instead of two. And they’d all have to connect.
      Another thing, suppose we only had to sleep with one brain at a time, like ducks do.

  6. Rowan permalink
    December 21, 2011 4:00 am

    Michael Williams: Actually, lots of cultures had or still have number systems that *aren’t* base-10. Babylonian and Mesopotamiam numerals were base-60, Most Native American systems are base-20, as are many others throughout Africa and Asia. Basque and Celtic languages use it too. Traditional Chinese weight measures are base-16, there’s a New Guinean language that uses base-15, the Mayan calendar uses both 13 and 20 as bases for different counts, and few languages have bases of 12, 8, 6, 5, or 4.

    Base 10 is just one of many systems humans have developed.

    • December 21, 2011 9:22 am

      That’s interesting that some of the base number systems don’t even include a factor of two (base 15, base 13).

      On the other hand, are there some cultures that distinguish no numbers greater than two? One, two, many?

      • Rowan permalink
        December 27, 2011 3:58 am

        Pirah√£ doesn’t have any native cardinal or ordinal numbers, just indices for relative amounts (a lot of something versus a little of it). They are reported to have had extreme trouble acquiring numeracy skils even when willing to learn and provided with a teacher.

    • December 29, 2011 6:44 pm

      @Rowan
      With the exception perhaps of the Piraha, most of the numbering / counting systems you describe still seem to be based on manipulation or experience, rather than our number of eyes. Base 20 systems are 10 fingers + 10 toes, base 60 systems based on circles & astronomical observations (I think I remember that right, I haven’t looked at my Babylon book for many years) ‘6 months of 60 days = one year’ type thing.
      But, my point was that our brains are coordinating inputs, not generating additional perceptions that are outside of our senses.
      It would be different if the five brains did have a ‘separate but equal’ type system where one could sleep while the others worked on a rotating schedule. And, it likely would make texting while driving not so dangerous.
      I think the difference wouldn’t be in eyes but in actual bodies like starfish, where the parts are equal but provide for the whole. One brain poses a thought, the others reply around the ring ‘yes’, ‘close to yes’ ‘next to close to yes’, ‘next to the backside of yes’. Would the brains be separate enough to have personalities of their own when they have the dominant position in the rest/active phases?
      Only on Tuesday.

      • December 29, 2011 8:20 pm

        That’s a good question, would the brains have distinct personalities. I expect they would. People with the left-right connection severed can have two half-brains with slightly different personalities; even believing two different religions.

      • Rowan permalink
        December 30, 2011 1:57 pm

        Of course our brains are coordinating inputs, and we shouldn’t be surprised when numeral bases are easy to relate to some familiar, experiential quantity with which we’re focused. What I’m saying is that it’s a far jump from that to the idea that body morphology determines numeral systems — if it did, we’d expect humans to just use the one and basically never use unusual ones… but the numeral systems that dominate do so because of the influence of cultural hegemons with increasing control over large parts of the globe over the centuries, not because Base 10 is an innate part of the human condition, a point illustrated by the sheer variety of systems humanity has come up with.

  7. December 21, 2011 9:25 am

    The most helpful feature of a five-sided intelligence might be a more nuanced definition of “truth”. Perhaps: true, mostly true, mostly false, false, or true on Tuesdays but not Wednesdays.

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