Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What You See is NOT What You Get

People regularly tell me to come to my senses, but the philosopher in me thinks we should run as far from our senses as we can.

To concentrate just on vision, our shifty little eyes deceive us all the time. A tower in fact square may look round from a distance. Our bedsheets look spotless yet harbor more hungry dust mites than we want to know. The moon looks larger on the horizon than above us and yet it isn’t. A straight stick in water looks bent. The sky looks blue when in fact it consists only of air or gas molecules which aren’t themselves blue. When we watch a movie, objects seem to move across the screen when all we’re actually seeing is a rapid sequence of still pictures. And finally that dining room table we paid a month’s salary for, for what looks like its solid cherry surface? In fact it’s composed mostly of the empty space inside its atoms. Suckers!

Indeed the whole idea that our eyes can tell us how things really are doesn’t make a lot of sense. Our perceptions are constantly varying, for one thing, without our having any basis for choosing one perception to be the “true” one. In fact (for example) I shouldn’t have suggested above that the stick “really is” straight since even that information only comes from other conflicting perceptions. Instead we should just say that to our visual perception the stick looks crooked while to our tactile perception of it under the water it feels straight. There is no way of saying how things “really” are. We can only say how things appear to us in different circumstances.

Even more importantly, to confirm that our visual perception of a thing is accurate we’d have to compare that perception with the thing itself. But how can we do that? Every time we look at the thing we only get another perception of it, and never the thing itself!

Things are simply not, in short, as the eyes have it. So next time you’re told to come to your senses—say nay!