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!


  1. 「不可能」這個字詞,在聰明人的字典中是找不到的。 ..................................................

  2. A philosophical disagreement bordering on refutation.

    Unfortunately, the senses are the best tools we have to gather information about the world around us so you should not run away from them.

    The senses sometimes deceive us at first glance but we have the mental capacity to correct any perceiving errors and not being fooled by them again under the same circumstances. As for your reference about empty space and atoms, we live and interact in a world of things and not a world of atoms. Although atoms cannot be denied to exist and be part of things, they only have a virtual existence, an existence of potentiality, a different mode of existence.

    By using our senses and the intellect, we are able to see the world as it is not as it seems. We can differentiate between veridical perceptions and illusions. This would eliminates the argument from illusion.

    As for the interaction between the senses and the things perceived in the world and the claim that we do not see the thing itself seems to be based on the argument from science. To quote John R Searle from Mind, Language and Society: “the fact that I can give a casual account of how it comes about that I see the real world, it does not follow that I do not see the real world.”

    So please do not be a sucker. Do rely on your senses and with the aid of the intellect - say aye.

    Al Campbell
    Dallas, TX USA

    External realist
    Virtue ethicist

    Sunday, August 26, 2012