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Sophie Rand

Student Engineering, The Cooper Union For The Advancement of Science and Art


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Can we ever know how another person "senses" the world?

In my Bioelectricity class this week, we learned about the cells
in our body that help us sense our environment: chemosensors in our
tongue that help us sense taste, for example, the photoreceptors in
our eye that sense light, and the hair cells in our ears that sense
the mechanical vibrations of sound, to name a few.

As a result, I recently revisited my answer to the age-old question of
“how do I know that the blue I see is the same blue you see?” that was
so startling and exciting to most 3rd graders playing baby Kierkegaard
a little bit differently. An answer could be that we just have to
trust that perception is guided by biology and that humans are
biologically identical to within 80% of our biological systems.

This answer, of course, raises new questions: even if you and I may
perceive the same blue, is that blue "real?" Where does sensation
leave off and perception begin, and how may we trust ourselves as we
try to compare them? Can we ever know how another person "senses" the
world? Would love to hear your thoughts!


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  • Feb 15 2012: Sophie,

    You are opening a can of worms. Allow me to help.

    The questions you outline are very interesting, but there is another wrinkle to consider:

    As sensation becomes perception (and perception becomes memory), is there any data lost or added?

    In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche uses several examples to highlight the point:

    When you are reading a book (or a TED conversation prompt), how many of the individual syllables are skimmed over or guessed at? How many words do you fail to actually read and process? Psychology experiments have since shown that as long as the first and last letter of a word is unchagend, the middle can be compeletly altered wihtuot our comprehension being hindered. Is this because we recognize the mispellings individually and correct them or because our mind is actively projecting previous experiences (known words) into similar circumstances (similar spelling)?

    Also, what do you see when you hear the word 'tree'? Chances are, the image you see does not match any known tree on Earth. Your mental image approximates not one, but all trees, and thus has essentially lost the base components and characteristics that would represent an actual tree. (If the tree/visual analogy isn't up to par, imagine the same but apply it to someone's voice and auditory perception/conception).

    And if our own experiences/sensations only approximate reality, then how can we possibly know if this reducing mechanism worked exactly the same with another person? We are speculating. And hoping. And filling in the blanks with words we are all comfortable with. But just because I am familiar with the word 'blue' does not make me any more familiar with your idea of it or your experience with it.

    I should note that I am not saying that we are incapable of experiencing similar phenomena, only that communicating what we experience does not transfer the experience itself and is thus subject to falsification of translation and perception.

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      Feb 16 2012: Hey Seth,

      thanks for putting an example of what you're talking about with 'unchagend,' =].

      what youre saying also speaks to what I wrote in response to pratyeka's comment, that language is an agreement and by realizing that, we also must aknowledge that that agreement might be sticky, because we experience our side of the agreement in a totally self-centered way, that is, that our understanding of our side of the agreement of what a word in a language means is only, and CAN only be, solely informed by our own experience, biology, memories, etc...
      • Feb 16 2012: "Thanks for putting an example of what you were talking about with 'unchagend'."

        There are more. "Compeletly" and "Wihtuot". Did you read over them and not notice or attribute them to a typing error?

      • Feb 16 2012: Sophie,

        "Didn't notice! Point proven!"

        Most will see 'unchagend", the phrase promoting the idea ends on that word. But having 'caught' that one, the reader immediately resumes reading normally and begins to fill in the middle of the word subconsciously, to the point that they do not even realize the other two examples in the very same sentence. It is interesting.

        What is more interesting is extrapolating from there. You fill in the words because you are familiar with those words. What do you do in other familiar situations, like driving home from work or watching TV? Do you 'fill in the middle' here as well? How much of life do we miss, because we automatically use other parts of life as reference (and perhaps substitute)?

        With a word, the beginning and ending are easily defined as the first and last letter. But experiences are more complex (right?).

        It is a can of worms.


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