You won’t trust your eyes (anymore) – 8 questions towards empiricism
You only believe what you see with your own eyes? Why this is blind faith you will learn in this article.
We take it for granted: We see, hear, smell, taste and touch. From the cradle, we learn to trust these senses. But is this trust justified? Or shouldn’t we be free to question our common sense and to doubt such allegedly common things like perception? Intellectual freedom requires namely that we do not rubber-stamp everything but to also deal with topics that seem abstruse at the first glance. Judging and thinking about practical consequences can still be done afterwards. And then even much better.
In the following, I have collected my doubts and reasons why I don’t trust my perception anymore. Even though I will mainly deal with our sensory perceptions my arguments also apply for all other humane, animalistic or mechanical levels of perception.
1. Do my eyes work correctly?
I as someone who wears glasses knows that our sensory organs don’t always work correctly. But if this is so how can I know at any time whether my eyes are currently working correctly and that I see the correct things?
2. Who decides what is right?
What is even right vision? Often people contradict themselves in regard what they allegedly and factually perceive. Is the world really colorful or are maybe the color blinds right and colors don’t really exist? I mean maybe I am actually the one with a visual handicap and colors are just an illusion. This thought might not be as odd as it sounds since colors don’t exist in a material sense of the matter but they are just varying wavelengths of light. Only in our brains those waves are interpreted as colors.
3. Is my interpretation correct?
Let’s say that we agree for our eyes working physically perfect. Still the question remains: Even if my sense impressions are correct is then also my perception correct? Maybe that color which I perceive as blue will be perceived as red shade by someone else. And maybe his red is like my green. Even if we assume that our eyes function okay and that all outer circumstances work objectively our consciousness is still subjective. And everything that is just subjective can be wrong. Therefore, I cannot trust my conscious perception because it is first and foremost an interpretation of my brain.
4. Is my evaluation correct?
Let’s assume that I see perfectly and also perceive everything perfectly and that my brain interprets everything correctly. So, I still only get a description of reality but unfortunately without any explanation of it. Even if my consciousness receives a high definition image of reality – when I look out of my windows upon the street I only see colored areas. Exactly like a photo of a camera with a high resolution only consists of pixel if I open it on the computer and zoom into the picture. Everything is made up of pixels or colorful patches. But colorful patches don’t tell me anything. I first need an idea what those patches mean. I need a scheme of evaluation to arrange those patches in my mind. Without pre-existent concepts I don’t know which patch of color corresponds to a car and which to the asphalt of the street. I also don’t have spatial perception without any further processing in my head. Also, abstract things like causalities or numbers I can’t recognize by colorful patches alone. Thus, I neither know whether I see one or three cars nor whether the switch of the traffic light to red is causal to the cars braking. I mean I do see three cars and on the image are really three cars present. But the colorful patches just don’t say anything about the number of cars. I have to count them for myself. But to be able to count I first had to learn to count and have to know numbers.
Our sense perceptions might therefore deliver data to our brain as much as they want. Without correct pre-existing concepts in our mind all those impressions are worthless. Who promises me that all the concepts in my head are correct? Maybe I am mad and totally insane. Many of you who are reading this might have already guessed this regarding my mental condition.
5. How is it calibrated?
One might argue: “In the age of modern technology many subjective evaluations get done by much more objectively working machines anyway!” But here the question also applies: Do those machines work correctly? And most of all: How do I test it? Even if I have a gauge to measure for example distance which works with newest laser technology and is made of the best materials and therefore cannot deform. How do I calibrate it in the beginning? How do I configure it that it serves me the right measurements for distance? Which yardstick do I use for that? And with which gauge do I test everything of that? And furthermore, who gauges the gauging device? And moreover, who gauges this gauging and so on?
6. What is common sense?
“But common sense shows us that we can trust our eyes!” Is that right? Is the sense of the common correct? Does the majority define what is common in common sense? Is the majority always right? Maybe the freaks are right and not the common people. Who knows? Furthermore, there are often different common senses depending on where you go or depending on who you want to count as a common person.
7. What is normal?
“But normally we can trust our eyes!” Is that true? What is normal? The most of all cases? But that’s actually the question! Is this alleged majority of situations when we can trust our eyes really existing? Or can’t we ever trust our eyes for the given reasons above? And do we just assume that our eyes work in the most cases correctly? And even if we could trust our eyes in the past for the most cases or – if you like – even for every given situation in the past. What is it good for? What is consequential? Nothing! Empiricism is based on the illogical assumption that if things happened often in the past then they will also happen again in the future. This is the method of induction. But if I didn’t examine all known and unknown cases of a thing and therefore reach something like a mathematical induction the inductive proof doesn’t work. Only because something was in always a certain way in the past – and even this is an unproven assumption since we don’t know all cases in the past – it doesn’t follow that it will be like this in the future as well. In the case of our eyes that means: Even if I could trust my eyes in the past to one hundred percent it might be unreliable as soon as tomorrow.
Furthermore, an incomplete induction can be only supported by inductive arguments itself. But this presupposes the functionality of the inductive method which we want to establish in the first place.
One could also say: “Only under certain conditions one can trust your eyes!” But what are those conditions and how do I find them out? Do I for this purpose use my sense perceptions? Then I am presupposing again only what I wanted to proof. And if I do so then I end up in a vicious circular reasoning called petitio principii. But this violates the principle of sufficient reason and is therefore illogical.
8. Am I being deceived?
Besides that, I may be deceived or I might even deceive myself. How can I know if certain sense impressions are not actually from my memory or even a new creation of my imagination? You might say: “I have my eyes open and therefore the images in my head are real.” But that is begging the question! How do I know whether the images were directly received by my eyes and are not just a product of my fantasy? Maybe I even drugged, have hallucinations, live in the matrix or just simply dream. And even if I perform a reality check which might give me hints whether I am awake or not I still awake and dream reality can be interchanged. Maybe the true reality is this world which I experience when I go to bed and start dreaming. And this world here is the actual illusion.
I’m doing some nice philosophy, don’t I? But what are the consequences? If we are truly honest (and let’s really be honest!) and if my questions in this article are justified, then it will turn our world upside down. For example: Because all natural sciences are based on empirical data and these in turn are based on collected sense impressions all natural science collapse like a house of cards. We won’t be able to trust any results of physics, chemistry or biology anymore. Also, statistical inquiries in other sciences like for example sociology or psychology become therefore invalid. All empirical research therefore has not just a preliminary truth content but no truth at all! So what? But science works. This we could experience very clearly throughout the last centuries. But here this critique of empiricism also applies. What does experience mean? Which sensory perceptions did we use to experience the scientific progress and can we trust those senses? Maybe the technology does not work because but despite of our perception and ideas regarding reality. Maybe everything is a dream or we live in the matrix. Who knows? There is a saying: “The only statistics you can trust are those you falsified yourself.” And I add to this my own saying: “And don’t trust a thing you have seen yourself!”
Could I baffle you or do you still trust your eyes? If you do, then please share with us your reasons to do so by writing below in the comments!