What we half perceive and half create

Following up on last week’s post and video of the The McGurk Effect, it would seem that we have in this demonstration of how the mind alters what we hear some empirical evidence to support the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.  Which is ironic because Kant’s philosophy  is questions empirical evidence!  To be more precise, he critiques what philosophers call “naive empiricism,” the assumption that what we take in with our senses is the only kind of reliable truth.

Kant says that we do indeed take in sense perceptions from the outside world.  But then our minds actively shape those perceptions.  What we experience is  sensory data as organized by our minds.  As Wordsworth puts it, “what we half perceive and half create” (“Lines Composed above Tintern Abbey”).

The McGurk video gives an example of that.  An even more common and accessible example would be the way we perceive distance.  If we were naive empiricists, believing just in what we see, we would have to believe that objects get smaller the farther away they are from us.  In reality, of course, the objects remain the same size.   We know this intuitively but not from our senses alone.  This is how our minds process, organize, and present the sense data.

There are other examples.  Colors don’t seem to be essential properties of objects, but rather manifestations of how our eyes and our minds process light frequencies.  Dogs are thought to see in black and white but to smell in some olfactory version of 3-D and Technicolor.  Insects whose multi-faceted eyes are raised above their heads apparently see 360 degrees at once, forward and backward and above and below at the same time, something unimaginable to us humans who look at things framed in one plane.  And yet dogs, insects, and people–despite their different sense perceptions– share the same reality.  (Can you think of other examples?)

Kantian philosophy started us down the slippery slope that has led us to existentialism, subjectivism, and postmodernism.  But those take his points too far.  That we half perceive and half create does NOT mean that we construct our own truth, much less that truth is relative or that truth is whatever we want it to be.  In the McGurk Effect video we hear “ba’s” and “fa’s,” not the Gettysburg Address.  We do receive sensory data from outside ourselves; we do not just make it up.  Naive empiricism sometimes is mistaken for science, but actual scientists know they have to employ the empirical method with many checks and balances–formal experiments with  controls and repeatability requirements–to get reliable findings.  They don’t just base science on what they see.

How does all of this relate to a Christian worldview?

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  • Shane A

    Right, Dr. Veith! The modern mistake is thinking that because all truth is technically “subjective” (that is, it is necessarily known through human consciousness, or a human subject) that “subjectivity” is true.

    We “participate” in reality, forming it with our imaginations (as romantics like Coleridge and Wordsworth noted). That does not mean that nothing is “outside” of us; it means, rather, that the enlightenment’s rigid subject-object distinction (what Kant critiqued as “naive empiricism”) is ultimately fallacious, or at least unproven.

    As Owen Barfield points out in his book Saving the Appearances, theories of knowledge (like the Ptolemaic cosmology, for instance) were not taught as “factually” true or “literally” true as the subsequent Copernican model was taught as; and this is why the church had a problem with it. It was not that it offered a different way of accounting for the things we see or measure in the sky (at which the later model was more efficient, and, indeed, was recognized so by some churchmen who encourage Copernicus to publish his findings.) The problem was that the new theory was taught as something absolute or exhaustive, rather than as an account of what we see, or a “saving of the appearances.” This is the premise of the scientific revolution: that we are subjects that can view the outside world as objects, describing them exhaustively.

    There is, though, an inherent disjunction between the descriptions or accounting of things and the experience of the thing itself. Scientifically we can explain “red” as a wavelength—and this is useful knowledge to manipulate it. However, we do not experience it as such; we experience it through human consciousness. Indeed, we cannot primarily know it in any other way; human consciousness (imagination) must precede scientific explanation.

    It seems to me that the Gospels are concerned not only with providing us “information” about the life of Christ, but also with transforming our imaginations (or as St. Paul said, “renewing our minds”) to see the mysteries of the kingdom. Christianity existed long before and will endure beyond the Enlightenment project.

  • Shane A

    Right, Dr. Veith! The modern mistake is thinking that because all truth is technically “subjective” (that is, it is necessarily known through human consciousness, or a human subject) that “subjectivity” is true.

    We “participate” in reality, forming it with our imaginations (as romantics like Coleridge and Wordsworth noted). That does not mean that nothing is “outside” of us; it means, rather, that the enlightenment’s rigid subject-object distinction (what Kant critiqued as “naive empiricism”) is ultimately fallacious, or at least unproven.

    As Owen Barfield points out in his book Saving the Appearances, theories of knowledge (like the Ptolemaic cosmology, for instance) were not taught as “factually” true or “literally” true as the subsequent Copernican model was taught as; and this is why the church had a problem with it. It was not that it offered a different way of accounting for the things we see or measure in the sky (at which the later model was more efficient, and, indeed, was recognized so by some churchmen who encourage Copernicus to publish his findings.) The problem was that the new theory was taught as something absolute or exhaustive, rather than as an account of what we see, or a “saving of the appearances.” This is the premise of the scientific revolution: that we are subjects that can view the outside world as objects, describing them exhaustively.

    There is, though, an inherent disjunction between the descriptions or accounting of things and the experience of the thing itself. Scientifically we can explain “red” as a wavelength—and this is useful knowledge to manipulate it. However, we do not experience it as such; we experience it through human consciousness. Indeed, we cannot primarily know it in any other way; human consciousness (imagination) must precede scientific explanation.

    It seems to me that the Gospels are concerned not only with providing us “information” about the life of Christ, but also with transforming our imaginations (or as St. Paul said, “renewing our minds”) to see the mysteries of the kingdom. Christianity existed long before and will endure beyond the Enlightenment project.

  • SM

    I think that Chesterton can shed some light on the relationship of the Christian world view to the problems of sense perception and objective reality. For Chesterton, subjectivism was a slippery slope leading to solipsism and ultimately to despair. In his Autobiography, he wrote of his time in art school and his experience with subjectivist Impressionism. “Its principle was that if all that could be seen of a cow was a white line and a purple shadow, we should only render the line and the shadow; in a sense we should only believe in the line and the shadow rather than the cow. It naturally lends itself to the metaphysical suggestion that things only exist as we perceive them, or that things do not exist at all.”

    For Chesterton this solipsism was never just an abstract theoretical issue, but rather a life and death existential question. (He has a fictional character say: “I also dreamed that I had dreamed of the whole creation. I had been behind and at the beginning of all things; and without me no thing was made that was made. Anybody who has been in that centre of the cosmos knows that it is to be in hell.) He bounced back from his angst and despair by inventing a “rudimentary and makeshift theory of my own …. even mere existence … was extraordinary enough to be exciting …. Even if the daylight were a dream, it was a day dream; it was not a nightmare.” For this he was thankful: “I hung on to the remains of religion by the thin thread of thanks.” He moved toward Christianity and ultimately became a Roman Catholic.

    So the movement (and relationship) is from subjectivism to solipsism to despair to a bedrock belief in existence to a sense of thankfulness for existence to the search for Someone to thank, culminating in Christianiy. (Chesterton’s Christian world view and how he arrived at it are laid out in his wonderful book “Orthodoxy”.)

  • SM

    I think that Chesterton can shed some light on the relationship of the Christian world view to the problems of sense perception and objective reality. For Chesterton, subjectivism was a slippery slope leading to solipsism and ultimately to despair. In his Autobiography, he wrote of his time in art school and his experience with subjectivist Impressionism. “Its principle was that if all that could be seen of a cow was a white line and a purple shadow, we should only render the line and the shadow; in a sense we should only believe in the line and the shadow rather than the cow. It naturally lends itself to the metaphysical suggestion that things only exist as we perceive them, or that things do not exist at all.”

    For Chesterton this solipsism was never just an abstract theoretical issue, but rather a life and death existential question. (He has a fictional character say: “I also dreamed that I had dreamed of the whole creation. I had been behind and at the beginning of all things; and without me no thing was made that was made. Anybody who has been in that centre of the cosmos knows that it is to be in hell.) He bounced back from his angst and despair by inventing a “rudimentary and makeshift theory of my own …. even mere existence … was extraordinary enough to be exciting …. Even if the daylight were a dream, it was a day dream; it was not a nightmare.” For this he was thankful: “I hung on to the remains of religion by the thin thread of thanks.” He moved toward Christianity and ultimately became a Roman Catholic.

    So the movement (and relationship) is from subjectivism to solipsism to despair to a bedrock belief in existence to a sense of thankfulness for existence to the search for Someone to thank, culminating in Christianiy. (Chesterton’s Christian world view and how he arrived at it are laid out in his wonderful book “Orthodoxy”.)

  • Lou

    Dr. Veith, this reminds me of many of R.C. Sproul’s talks and sermons on the topic of WorldView. He sees Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” as the great turning point in human epistemology. Like you, he understands that sensory perception is both a helpful and limiting factor in the human being’s ability to perceive Truth through the facuties of his own pure reason. However, as a sort of knee-jerk reaction against the Enlightment philosophers who placed human reasoning at the pinnacle of understanding, Kant rejects the idea of an objective, external/eternal Truth that is knoweable by man on the basis of classical logic and rational thought. So, according to Dr. Sproul, Kant went too far by elevating the role of experience above reason in assessing man’s epistemology. In so doing, Kant created a false dichotomy that most people today still cling to (which I think you are also eluding to here), that pure reason = naive empiricism.

    It’s quite a convoluted problem, which as I said Sproul does a great job handling. The classical approach to reason was NOT based in materialism/empiricism! Of course, this was Kant’s major misunderstanding — and it continues to be a stumbling block to many today as well.

    As you mentioned, Postmodernism is providing a flawed reaction to their great suspicion of materialism and empiricalism.
    Some “Worldviewists” or “Presuppositionalists” from the reformed camp have taken this to mean “Anti-Rationalism” or a justification to stear away from well-reasoned responses. By ruling out reason, they revert to either the Fideism, the err of Petitio Principii (circular reasoning), or breaking the law of non-contradiction.

    Sproul explains all of this really well in his series on apologetics and worldview.

  • Lou

    Dr. Veith, this reminds me of many of R.C. Sproul’s talks and sermons on the topic of WorldView. He sees Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” as the great turning point in human epistemology. Like you, he understands that sensory perception is both a helpful and limiting factor in the human being’s ability to perceive Truth through the facuties of his own pure reason. However, as a sort of knee-jerk reaction against the Enlightment philosophers who placed human reasoning at the pinnacle of understanding, Kant rejects the idea of an objective, external/eternal Truth that is knoweable by man on the basis of classical logic and rational thought. So, according to Dr. Sproul, Kant went too far by elevating the role of experience above reason in assessing man’s epistemology. In so doing, Kant created a false dichotomy that most people today still cling to (which I think you are also eluding to here), that pure reason = naive empiricism.

    It’s quite a convoluted problem, which as I said Sproul does a great job handling. The classical approach to reason was NOT based in materialism/empiricism! Of course, this was Kant’s major misunderstanding — and it continues to be a stumbling block to many today as well.

    As you mentioned, Postmodernism is providing a flawed reaction to their great suspicion of materialism and empiricalism.
    Some “Worldviewists” or “Presuppositionalists” from the reformed camp have taken this to mean “Anti-Rationalism” or a justification to stear away from well-reasoned responses. By ruling out reason, they revert to either the Fideism, the err of Petitio Principii (circular reasoning), or breaking the law of non-contradiction.

    Sproul explains all of this really well in his series on apologetics and worldview.

  • Lou

    Oh yes, — what Shane said (#1). Well written!

  • Lou

    Oh yes, — what Shane said (#1). Well written!

  • fws

    It means too that we should not think that we are as objective ever as much as we think we are…

  • fws

    It means too that we should not think that we are as objective ever as much as we think we are…

  • Abby

    Another interesting test: “Awareness Test”: It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for” — When the aciton starts, count how many times the basketball is passed by the white team to the white team.

  • Abby

    Another interesting test: “Awareness Test”: It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for” — When the aciton starts, count how many times the basketball is passed by the white team to the white team.

  • Cincinnatus

    I like this essay, but I disagree on a few points:

    1) Far from severing philosophy from the “naive empiricism” of modernity, Kant consummated the subject-object rigidity which postmodernism has worked so hard to attenuate.

    2) Speaking of which, postmodernism isn’t as bad as the essay says it is, having far more in common with Shane’s excellent remarks @1 than with the sort of groundless self-creation the essay seems to imply that it is.

  • Cincinnatus

    I like this essay, but I disagree on a few points:

    1) Far from severing philosophy from the “naive empiricism” of modernity, Kant consummated the subject-object rigidity which postmodernism has worked so hard to attenuate.

    2) Speaking of which, postmodernism isn’t as bad as the essay says it is, having far more in common with Shane’s excellent remarks @1 than with the sort of groundless self-creation the essay seems to imply that it is.

  • Lou

    Cincinnatus: Where do you see #1 in Kant’s writing?
    Kant’s stated goal in his “Critique of Pure Reason” was to find some way to derive cause and effect without relying on analytic reasoning. The key distinctive from a worldview/epistemological perspective is his decidedly non-empiricist critique of rationalist philosophy.

    My take is that Kant’s specific critique of rationalism (being non-empiricist) led to a false dichotomy in modern philosophy between transcendentalism and rationalism. Reason got lumped in with empiricism (and to an extent with materialism), thanks to Kant’s formulations.

  • Lou

    Cincinnatus: Where do you see #1 in Kant’s writing?
    Kant’s stated goal in his “Critique of Pure Reason” was to find some way to derive cause and effect without relying on analytic reasoning. The key distinctive from a worldview/epistemological perspective is his decidedly non-empiricist critique of rationalist philosophy.

    My take is that Kant’s specific critique of rationalism (being non-empiricist) led to a false dichotomy in modern philosophy between transcendentalism and rationalism. Reason got lumped in with empiricism (and to an extent with materialism), thanks to Kant’s formulations.

  • Lou

    I think this is just another example of the way we go wrong in formulating worldviews and perspectives in reactionary mode. Kant was wrong because he was mainly concerned with responding to what was wrong with the Enlightenment (worship of human reason). So, he throws the baby out with the bathwater, rejecting analytical a priori proposition. He goes on to creates a worse mistake: synthetic a priori propositions (which is really the meat of his opus).
    And Kant is not alone. We do this sort of thing all the time – over react (ie, irrationality) and throw the baby out with the bathwater, I mean. It’s inherent in our human nature.

  • Lou

    I think this is just another example of the way we go wrong in formulating worldviews and perspectives in reactionary mode. Kant was wrong because he was mainly concerned with responding to what was wrong with the Enlightenment (worship of human reason). So, he throws the baby out with the bathwater, rejecting analytical a priori proposition. He goes on to creates a worse mistake: synthetic a priori propositions (which is really the meat of his opus).
    And Kant is not alone. We do this sort of thing all the time – over react (ie, irrationality) and throw the baby out with the bathwater, I mean. It’s inherent in our human nature.

  • Shane A

    @Cincinnatus and Lou

    I think you are both right when it comes to Kant, if I can be excused for saying so. I may be totally misunderstanding Kant (it has been a while since I’ve read him,) but it seems to me that he blew the whistle on the enlightenment’s empiricism. He did not, however, move beyond the subject-object distinction; as Cincinnatus points out, he consummated it. He is not, in that sense, “postmodern” then.

    I also think we need to define “postmodernism”. If we mean, primarily, a movement which seeks to move beyond the fallacy of modernity, then sure, sign me up! You’re right, Cincinnatus, to note that “postmodernism” isn’t so bad, then. However, I’m not sure this is what Dr. Veith means, exactly, when he uses the word. If postmodernism is tantamount to a rejection or deemphasis on truth claims, or apathy, or exuberance in deconstruction, then it seems to me an enemy. I think Cincinnatus has in mind some specific thinkers whereas Dr. Veith has in mind cultural propensities, but I’ll leave it to those more knowledgeable than myself to correct me.

  • Shane A

    @Cincinnatus and Lou

    I think you are both right when it comes to Kant, if I can be excused for saying so. I may be totally misunderstanding Kant (it has been a while since I’ve read him,) but it seems to me that he blew the whistle on the enlightenment’s empiricism. He did not, however, move beyond the subject-object distinction; as Cincinnatus points out, he consummated it. He is not, in that sense, “postmodern” then.

    I also think we need to define “postmodernism”. If we mean, primarily, a movement which seeks to move beyond the fallacy of modernity, then sure, sign me up! You’re right, Cincinnatus, to note that “postmodernism” isn’t so bad, then. However, I’m not sure this is what Dr. Veith means, exactly, when he uses the word. If postmodernism is tantamount to a rejection or deemphasis on truth claims, or apathy, or exuberance in deconstruction, then it seems to me an enemy. I think Cincinnatus has in mind some specific thinkers whereas Dr. Veith has in mind cultural propensities, but I’ll leave it to those more knowledgeable than myself to correct me.