Friday, February 7, 2014

The Validity of the Senses

On the “Galt’s Gulch” discussion board for fans of the movie Atlas Shrugged, username Maphedus asked an old question: “How do we know whether our senses are being deceived or not?”  The easy answer is the that the primacy of reality means tautologically that reality is the primary experience: you know because you know; it is irreducible.

On a different tack, I would ask why the senses of bees, birds, and beavers are reliable for them, but ours are specially cursed?  Like them all, we, too, evolved on Earth and adapted to its changing environments. Our senses are in and of the world.  Moreover, we invent and construct transducers – telescopes, microscopes, electroscopes, spectroscopes – that extend and enhance our senses. Would you suggest that the rings of Saturn and the nucleus of a paramecium are not real?

The Outer Limits: "The Brain of Col. Barham"
is housed in a vat. Nonetheless, he adapts.

Mephesdus framed his question in some detail: "How do we know what reality is? Through our senses? If that's all it takes, then how do we know whether our senses are being deceived or not? Doesn't the existence of hallucinogenic drugs prove that our senses are not always reliable? What about optical illusions? And then there are aspects of reality which are imperceptible to our senses – how do we deal with that?"  And further, in our private discussion, he amplified his concerns: “There’s a philosophical thought experiment called "Brain in a Vat" which I think is very intriguing, and relates directly to the idea that our senses are supposedly reliable. … A variation on the "Brain in a Vat" thought experiment is presented in the sci-fi movie The Matrix, where the entire world is really just a computer program.    I also seem to recall an excerpt from Barbara Branden's biography of Ayn Rand, titled The Passion of Ayn Rand, in which Ayn Rand was in a hospital after surgery, heavily medicated, and a street lamp outside was casting a shadow across the window, and Ayn Rand thought it was a tree. When Barbara Branden corrected Ayn Rand, telling her that it was a street lamp and not a tree, Ayn Rand became extremely irritated at Barbara for daring to suggest that her senses could not always be trusted.”

As far as I know from second-hand reports, hallucinogenic drugs do not alter perception to the point of invention.  No one has reported something that was not “there” only that what they reported was distorted or otherwise processed into something else.  Teenage friends of mine said that the front grills of automobiles looked like animals.  They did not claim that animals seemed to exist where no animals were found.  This supports the facts that we evolved to perceive. While various roots, shoots, herbs, and berries variously prepared can affectively change our mental processes, the facts of reality are not alterable.  That is why they are reality, and not the products of our (altered) consciousness.
Paramecium: real or artifact of misperception?
The “Brain in a Vat” paradox is another sophistry.  We could also ask: “How do we know that we are not really angels and rather than just corporeal husks in which the consciousness of angels have been entrapped?”  In order to answer either question, you would have to be “outside” the question, able to see the vats, the Matrix, or the entrapped angels.  Moreover, in the movies of the Matrix triology, very many unresolved paradoxes would plague any inhabitant.  Agents can take over any entity, as when Smith became a helicopter pilot.  Did the pilot never go home to his wife? Will she and the kids and the air traffic controllers and the commanding officer and their bunkmates all not wonder what happened?  We do not have such problems with reality because reality is real.

“Ayn Rand on drugs” is compelling to contemplate.  In truth, she was on Benzadrine.  But certainly in the hospital scene, the question was not the validity of her senses per se but of her mental processes.  The shadows were whatever they were, but it was her interpretation of them that defined them.  From Plato’s Cave to Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, the “stuff” is unarguable; what we make of it is highly debatable.


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