Saturday, August 28, 2010

My first attempt at answering a philosophy question (from the unwashed masses)

Yay! I have my first question! Thank you to auntie katinka for submitting your question. I'll do my best to answer (I hope it's ok that i divulged your identity, I know how you like to keep things on the DL!)
Here's the question:

oh! oh! you just caused me to have a question... so... when you were talking about the "inherent insufficiency in our representational system" I thought, what if our measely 5 senses aren't enough. What if the way we see the world is actually the way a blind person "sees" the world. If a blind person suddenly had sight, they'd go "holy crap - is THAT what the world looks like??!!" Maybe we can't see objects, just their representation with our difficient senses!

This is a good question which can partly be answered by philosophy and partly by science. There are a couple ways to interpret what your getting at so I'm going to put words in your mouth in order to separate the issues.
One implication of your question is that perhaps there are qualities of the physical world that do not have a causal connection to our perceptual system (i.e. we do not have a sense organ that can detect them). In fact, we already know this is true. For example humans can only perceive a small portion of the light spectrum and can only hear a limited range of sound frequencies. Nevertheless, while it is true that we cannot perceive these qualities directly, it does not mean we cannot infer or deduce their existence. Modern science has inferentially and deductively "perceived" the existence of just about every sub-atomic particle which are orders of magnitude smaller than an atom (except one--the elusive Higgs Bozon particle). Because every thing in the universe is either matter or energy we can devise instruments to aid us in detecting them. All matter can be detected be cause we know it has mass. So long as we are able to calibrate our instruments finely enough, we can detect any amount of matter, no "matter" how small. As for energy we know that in the universe energy is only ever found in 4 forms: strong nuclear, weak nuclear, electromagnetic, and gravitational. Again, so long as the instruments are sensitive enough, any amount of energy can be detected. I'm not sure if this is what you implied with your question, but in case it wasn't...
Another possible implication of your question is that if only we had a few more senses we could perceive the physical world for what it actually is. But this side steps the whole philosophical problem. The problem is not that we don't have enough sensory data to build and accurate representation of the world. The problem is that when we see the final product of the causal chain of perception (light reflects off the object, light wave goes into eye, eye sends an electro-chemical impulse to visual cortex, visual cortex does something with that signal, and presto we see a representation of "x") that what we are seeing is a representation of the sense data after a long causal chain, not the particular object in the external world off of which the light was reflected. Unfortunately, adding more senses does not escape the problem as each sensory organ functions under the same principles. The main philosophical point is that we never perceive reality directly: only as a reconstructed representation by our sense organs in our mind.

Thanks again for the question! It really helps me clarify my thoughts to have to explain them to others...

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