The Clairvoyant Theory of Perception

M. M. Moncrieff
Faber & Faber
Edition / Year: 

When I was young there was a comic strip called 'The Numskulls', about some little men who lived inside a man's head and worked his body for him. The Numskulls were a tongue-in-cheek portrayal of one of the most naive theories of the mind, the 'Homunculus theory', which collapses under a cursory scrutiny. The author of this volume, Captain M. M. Moncrieff, has contrived an equally silly theory for one aspect of the mind's operation, that of visual perception, which he contends is not achieved through the agency of the eyes, but instead - as its title suggests - by clairvoyancy.

If we all have E.S.P. what are our eyes for? Here's what he says, typically longwindedly:-

”... our visual sensory organs are in fact selective and canalizing mechanisms to prevent us from being overwhelmed by a mass of irrelevant and therefore disadvantageous clairvoyant impressions of the outside world. Thus in ... ordinary vision, the role of the eye in binocular and compound vision (of insects) is to canalize clairvoyant sight and thus to limit the clairvoyant impressions of the outside world. In ordinary visual perception the mind, the brain and eye have, according to the above view, been evolved to exclude from consciousness - in their role as selective and inhibitory mechanisms - everything that is not actually useful in respect to our physical and psychical environment.”

So the purpose of those intricate optical instruments, the eyes, is simply to tell the brain what to see clairvoyantly. What is more this clairvoyant power must mechanically follow the eyes' lead, even reproducing identically any defects of vision such as colour-blindness or shortsightness. And when it would be most advantageous to override the limitations of the eyes, such as when walking in a thick fog, our clairvoyancy will nonetheless allow us to stumble painfully into unseen obstacles.

In typical crank fashion, Moncrieff insisted his theory was simpler than more conventional models, as if the clairvoyant faculty he was adding to the picture would not itself require much explanation and experimental support. But then his grasp of scientific ideas was shaky, as witness the following:-

“When we perceive the colour red we grasp together or prehend simultaneously, that is, as one indivisible qualitative whole, 400 billion successive physical events in one second. Psychologists tell us that the smallest interval of time which we can detect or discriminate consciously is approximately one-thousandth of a second of time. On the supposition that the time interval between two separate and successive physical events is one-thousandth of a second, then a simple calculation will show that it would take 12,500 years for our consciousness (limited in this way) to experience separately the number of physical events that are associated with the colour red. As we cannot discriminate consciously more than 1,000 physical events per second, we cannot ascribe this 'prehension' either to our minds or to our visual sensory organs.”

This would be compelling reasoning, except that the first sentence, which contains the proposition on which his argument is based, is pure nonsense.

Remarkably, Moncrieff persuaded the then Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford University, one H. H. Price, to write a foreword to his book. Perhaps the professor saw this work as aiding academic philosophers in their fight to keep the study of the mind within their discipline, against the encroachment of materialistic science. Whatever his motive, he ably demonstrated that - in those days if not now - an Oxford don can command vast resources of ignorance.


"Moncrieff persuaded the then Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford University, one H. H. Price, to write a foreword to his book"

Price (not to be confused with Harry Price) supported various other crackpot ideas. I can't easily check my files right now, but I'll try to remember to do so when I can.

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