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Senses and Sensibilities: Changing Perceptions
by Saberi Roy
2008-11-18 08:53:28
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Sense perceptions are probably the most important condition of being alive as we live because we perceive and vice versa. ‘Living is perceiving’ and perceiving provides awareness of the state of the world around us and the senses form the very basis of perception. In fact scientifically, senses would be the most valid means of establishing truth and reality as if we cannot perceive anything with our senses we do not consider it as existing, valid or real. Our senses establish reality in a way yet reality is independent of our senses. Thus it is only with our sense organs that we perceive that an object is spherical and yet the object’s shape seems to be independent of our perception.

Realism in philosophy was thus based on two conditions – things exist and things exist independent of beliefs, conceptions etc. This seems to be the entire paradox of philosophy – can we define reality (as it exists) according to how we perceive this reality? Or is there a fundamental gap between reality and perception? To make matters less confusing, science has been based on empiricism or the philosophy of establishing scientific truth on the basis of sense perception. Yet we cannot deny that our sense perception is largely limited. Many other species of the animal kingdom have certain better developed sense organs than we have like snakes have a better developed kinesthetic or touch sense through vibrations and bats have a wide range of auditory sensations through echolocation. So how do we consider the world as based on our senses as perfectly real and the only reality? Sciences are based on our ability to perceive and the modern quantum mechanical experiments suggesting wave-particle duality in which matter can be described both as a wave and a particle depending on how ‘we’ want to see it, highlight that our perception defines reality in a certain way but our understanding of reality finally depends on the way we want to perceive reality.

Although traditional science would consider reality out there and perceived as it is, contemporary science and especially quantum mechanics would consider reality as we want to perceive it. The whole question of ‘are things out there?’ has changed as whether things are really out there would depend on how we choose to perceive or look at things. This is completely incompatible with our traditional understanding of science and the problem of reality as scientifically defined by empiricism and sense perceptions. So is science going against the spirit of science? Not really, I would say the problem of reality as based on sense perception has been overemphasized in traditional science and it is important to understand that the reality out there could be quite different from what we perceive things to be. Sense perceptions are important as it helps us to stay connected with the world and help us to perceive what we think as reality and provide us with a wide range of enriching experiences. So the importance of sense perceptions seems to lie in what we think as true and real rather than what is true or real. Yet as ancient scriptures described the world as ‘illusion’ or ‘Maya’, the probable implication has been that there is definitely a philosophical difference between what we perceive as real and what is real. This philosophical question of reality as extensively mentioned in scriptures is pertinent and relevant to this day, and meanwhile what have we learnt? Possibly we have learnt that no matter how many answers we have about reality, we continue to have the same question.

When we are lost and confused in this world of sense perceptions and interpretations of this perception as also the gap between perception and reality, it helps to consider our sense perceptions as real and live within the limits of our own interpretation of perceptions. Any question that highlights the gap between perception and reality is probably most incomprehensible and irrelevant for our taste. That is why a question of God is so disturbing and annoying to quite a few people.

Finally, humans are curious creatures and we want to know, grasp and master the universe. Yet, there is one thing we cannot control or master – our sense perception. So anything that suggests the limits of our perception would have to be thrown out, rejected and forgotten as it exposes our own human limitations. Although modern day questions in science take us to the question of illusion and reality, we are still not ready to consider reality as anything beyond our perception. This is our scientific worldview as instilled in us through the ages and philosophies of Newton and Darwin and we are not yet ready to accept a different worldview. Not yet, although the changing questions in modern science should creep in to the modern mindset and our common sense understanding of reality, as we become open and receptive to alternative perceptions and interpretations of reality and try to answer the same questions raised by ancient scriptures and modern science alike.

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Emanuel Paparella2008-11-18 09:56:43
“So the importance of sense perceptions seems to lie in what we think as true and real rather than what is true or real.”

Plenty of food for thought in this article for the ultra-rationalist in love with logic divorced from reality, or the logical positivist or the empiricist denying anything that is not sensible and experimentable. Thomas Kuhn certainly gave them something to think about when he pointed out in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that behind every scientific revolution there is a set of beliefs about reality, one of them being the belief that the human mind is capable of discovering truth, as difficult as it may be to attain. Moreover, Kant made a valid distinction between the world of the phenomenon which we can perceive with our senses and what he termed the categories of the understanding (time, space, cause and effect, etc.) and the world of the numenon, things as they really are. The delusion of the scientific positivistic mind-set is that it already knows how the world really is constituted. Generally those individuals claim to know much better the world God has made (nature) than what Man has made (history, human institutions, language); in reality they are covering up their ignorance; which would be excusable for the former but inexcusable for the latter Quantum mechanics, as the above article aptly points out, has surely given the lie to that kind of hubris.

Emanuel Paparella2008-11-18 10:17:00
P.S. Not to speak of Berkley who showed that without a perceiving mind there is no reality: no mind, no matter. That certainly will not gladden the heart of our materialists who'd like to think that the cosmos is eternal and end up worshipping it. Aquinas also taught us that even if the cosmos were to be eternal (a possibility) it still would have to issue from a perceiving mind, what the Greeks called nous. So the question that materialists think silly is curcial importance: why is there something rather than nothing?

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