Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Philosophical Uncanny Valley

The Uncanny Valley is the phenomenon where, as depictions of people become more life-like, they reach a point where they become really creepy.  It's a popular idea, and I've not heard any ideas that conclusively explain why we react worse to things that are almost-but-not-quite-like us than to things that are very different from us.

I have my own theory, which is that our ability to see things varies from object to object.  With things that we're familiar with, we are able to see in nuanced detail.  An example of this is the "all black people look alike" phenomenon.

This kind of selective myopia happens in other aspects of our lives.  I realized this a little while ago while thinking of a coworker of mine.  He's a fantastic guy who, in addition to his day job, is very active in his religion.  He does counseling, volunteer work, and has become our building's de facto chaplain (we don't have a lot of public prayers, but sometimes we eat together and he gives a blessing that is moving poetry).  He isn't aggressive about his beliefs or anything, but they are a part of all aspects of his life, down to his coffee mug.

My beliefs are, in many important ways, quite similar to his.  But they are also different in some meaningful and irreconcilable ways.  This got me to wonder what he thinks of his heretic neighbors.  Does he see the similarities, or the differences?  I don't know about him (we're not close enough that we would talk about this sort of thing), but there are a lot of other people like him who seem to only see the differences.

I think that we encounter this all the time.  We each have a philosophical uncanny valley.  This is where a belief is very similar to our own, but different enough that it's all we can see.  It happens with religions (which is why Christians and Muslims seem to hate each other, but not as much as Sunnis and Shiites).  And it happens with just about everything on the internet.

I bring this up so that we can be aware of this characteristic of ourselves.  Maybe we can learn that there is more to see in others than their otherness.


Jake said...


I frequently see the strangeness-is-blindness phenomenon in those who have a favorite flavor of mysticism.

Yes, older beliefs are primitive and base, and the many sins of those who carried our beliefs to us were grave indeed.

But our individual set of beliefs is special, and so we cannot see it in the context of generic continuous human search for meaning that it is.

All religion is generic. None are clean. None are special.

Eric said...

Jake, I like your phrase, "strangeness is blindness." But I think that's not quite what I'm describing. The uncanny valley is all about "similarness but not sameness" and how that creates a surprisingly strong feeling of strangeness.

For some reason, it's easier to see the effect when it's in the appearance or actions of people-like things. The point of this post is that it also applies to other things.

Another example that should be less controversial is how road markings and signage in foreign countries (or sometimes even other states) creates such a strong feeling of alienness. This was even (especially?) true in Canada, which is, on the whole, a very American place.