What we half perceive and half create

What we half perceive and half create October 10, 2011

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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