Thursday, November 17, 2011

Taking Reality for Granted?

Taking Reality for Granted?

We all have senses, and we use our senses to perceive the world around us. The sum total of our sensory perception is the input to which we ascribe the characteristic of reality. When we do this, we are effectively saying that what we sense around us is what exists around us, and we use this information to guide us as we move about the world in which we live. However, there is a problem inherent within this methodology, as philosophers have been noting for millenia: We cannot be certain that reality is as we perceive it, since the perceptions that we cite as evidence are necessarily subjective, and are devoid of external, independent confirmation of their accuracy. Or are they? This is the question I'd like to address.

So, some would say that there's no way to confirm the accuracy of our sensory perceptions. Sure, we do internal consistency checks, as I call them, by using one sense to confirm the findings of another. And this, I'd say, is probably a valid and useful tool, but only for identifying reliability/cohesion amongst the senses. There's still the distinct possibility that the information about which our senses agree is still wrong. In other words, our sight, smell and tactile sense might tell us that there's a blue chair covered in velvet situated directly in front of us, and this chair is right side up, and smells like blueberries (not sure why a chair would be draped in velvet and smell like blueberries but just go with it) but if any of our individual senses can be deceived, then is it not possible that the three involved in the sensing of said chair are all mistaken? An honest answer to this question is yes.

Now, does the fact that the senses agree lend some extra credibility to the conclusion that said chair exists in the way we perceive it to? Sure, as would independent confirmation gathered via having other people provide their input. You could easily find 1000 people to agree that said chair exists in exactly the way that you say it does. However, is this sufficient to consider your perceptions to be an accurate model of reality? Many people would say yes, but agreement across a subset is not evidence that any given proposition or idea is indeed correct. Geocentrism, anyone? (Don't forget that we could also get a bunch of colour blind people to agree that the chair wasn't blue).

If our sensory perception is subjective and can be mistaken, then we must admit that asking another person to verify our findings, as well as using our own alternate senses to corroborate our perception, is a flawed undertaking. For an somewhat extreme, but not uncommon example, many people have supposedly witnessed alien encounters, even in large groups. These people are not widely believed, and I am one of the disbelievers. So, clearly, the majority of us believe that their senses deceived them.

For a less extreme example, consider the research studies conducted, during which people were fitted with glasses that presented them with an upside view of whatever they were looking at. Once they took the glasses off, their vision was compromised: they saw the world around them completely upside down for a time. Think about that for a minute. They experienced the world around them being upside down, relative to what we see, and what they normally saw. Their eyes, adorned with nothing extra, looked around and saw things being upside down. This means that what they perceived as reality was not exactly what their eyes took in (if we assume that what we perceive is reality). Their experience of reality was distorted by the processing done via the brain. Their perception of the world around them was not as easy as what they saw. They experienced as real something other than what (again, if we accept our sensory perception) was apparently right in front of them.

That's incredible, and reading that is what got me thinking about this a little bit today. We take for granted the idea that what we see is what is real, and a simple little experiment was able to demonstrate that it's really not that simple. We are easily fooled.

And so, thinking about this, I wanted to ask: if our senses are possible to fool, if we know we can be mistaken, then isn't confirmation via internal consistency checks and the perceptions of others entirely circular and insufficient?

Do we have any methods of confirming our sensory perceptions that do not rely on [i]other[/i] sensory perceptions? I am not saying that I don't live as though the sum total of my sensory input makes up my reality; I do. And I am also not saying that I don't rely on the same sort of validation whose validity I am here questioning; I do. I'm just wondering if perhaps we're all a little overconfident and quite possibly mistaken.

So, to sum up my query, is there some form of external, objective confirmation of reality as dictated to us by our senses, or are our methods for confirming our own view of reality, at their core, circular in nature and therefore possibly in error?

By the way, I really found that study I alluded to earlier (the one with the upside down glasses) terribly fascinating. I read about it in 'The Grand Design,' which is Stephen Hawking's latest book. It really floored me, and I think it was the first time when I truly considered the possibility that we might be taking the concept of reality for granted.

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