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August 4, 2009

7:34 AM

The only coherent theory is that what we perceive is the world itself.



The root of Hume’s problem with induction is perhaps his misconception as to what ideas are. I suggest that in his mind’s eye, ideas are clouds of ‘mental stuff’ produced by sensation. These perhaps very often look like the objects that generated our sensations, but we cannot be sure of that since we have no access to such objects other than through ideas. Thus, what we actually perceive and know are only ideas. Thus, ideas are veils that separate us from reality, rather than conduits to reality.

This view is, as already pointed out, self-defeating, since it accuses also itself of ignorance and error. However, the point I want to stress here is how ideas are reified in Hume’s discourse. Because he effectively visualized ideas as atoms of mental substance, his view of human knowledge as a whole was completely distorted.

In fact, an idea is something very abstract, an intention towards some object, a relation of pointing in a certain direction, directing our attention hither, rather than a substantial entity. An idea is an idea of an object. It has no existence apart from an object of some sort (although, of course, the object concerned need not be real, but may be illusory).

It is certainly true that the physical processes of sensation play a central role in our noetic relation to a domain beyond our apparent physical body. But it does not follow that what we perceive when we sense this ‘external world’ are sensations or even images of the world.

·        The only coherent theory is that what we perceive is the world itself.

·        The images we form in our minds of such primary perceptions are only ex post facto memories of what we perceived.

·        The abstract concepts we form thereafter are not mere manipulations of concrete memories, but relations we intend to the objects initially perceived.

The fact that we perceive external objects, and not impressions or ideas of those objects, is certainly marvelous, so much so that we still cannot understand how that might happen. But our difficulty and failure to explain this marvel of nature is not a reason enough to deny its occurrence. That we perceive the world is obvious enough; how such a thing is possible is a distinct question, which we may never answer. Science does not normally deny the very existence of what it cannot thus far explain.

Note well, we can claim knowledge that we directly perceive the external world itself, without claiming to know yet just how we manage to do so. We know we can, because this is the only consistent theory we can posit, as already explained. But exactly what role the senses and brain play (other than memory production, storage and reactivation) in this evident direct perception is still an open question. The fact that a partial question remains does not invalidate the truth of the partial answer already obtained. There are many issues in the special sciences that remain unsolved to date – and we do not for that reason throw out the knowledge we already have.

It does not follow from such non-skeptical, objectivist theory of knowledge that perception or conception can never be erroneous. Errors in human knowledge are essentially conceptual, and it is the task of logic to minimize them. Perception sometimes seems wrong, after the fact, due to our noticing later percepts that seem to contradict the earlier. In such cases, we realize that in fact we drew some conceptual inference from the initial percepts, which the later percepts make clear was unjustified, and we correct our previous assumption. This is just an application of the laws of thought and the principle of induction to sorting out conflicting perceptions.

Once we comprehend human knowledge in this truly enlightened manner, it becomes clear why Hume was so confused and self-contradictory in his views of induction, and other logical and philosophical issues. If one starts with false premises, one is very likely to end up with false conclusions. He should have been more careful.

Philosophers like Hume have always found the idea that we might indeed be perceiving and conceiving the world out there, and not merely our impressions and ideas of it, difficult to comprehend or explain. This is understandable, because this seeming ability of ours (viz. external consciousness) is something truly surprising and, well, miraculous – no better word for it comes to mind.

But then these same philosophers take for granted that our inner perceptions and conceptions are valid and not in need of explanation. They apparently do not realize that this ability (viz. internal consciousness) is also miraculous – indeed, just as miraculous. For the difference between the two, after all, is just one of distance. And who is to say how big the soul (the subject of consciousness) is or where it is in fact located? Why do they assume that it is more ‘inside’ than ‘outside’ the apparent body?

In both cases, there is something marvelous, inexplicable – namely consciousness, a line of relation between an object and a subject. How can one existent (a soul, a spiritual entity) experience another (a mental or material phenomenon)? In the case of self-intuition, the subject and object are exceptionally one and the same. But even this is a marvelous event, that something can experience itself.

The mere fact of consciousness is the biggest mystery. In comparison to it, the issues of how far consciousness can go, and how in some instances it is aroused and made possible by sensation and yet the body does not block or distort our view – these are relatively minor issues.

Of course, a theory of the exact role of the senses remains highly desirable. Obviously, each sense organ (whether in humans or other animals) somehow gives the overall organism ‘access to’ a range of data of a specific sort, and no other: e.g. human eyes open the window to a range of light waves (the visible spectrum) but not to all frequencies (not to radio waves, ultraviolet rays or microwaves, for instances) and not to other modalities (such as sound or chemical signals). The different sense organs have evolved over millions of years (at different rates and in different directions in different organisms).

Without these sense organs, we would not (so it seems) be able to sense external reality. So their role is not only that of memory production, but they are somehow essential to the actual contact between the organism as Subject and material objects it perceives. Even so, to repeat, it cannot consistently be affirmed that what the Subject perceives are internal products of sensation. Nor is the explanation that sense organs serve to filter out some of external reality sufficient. The sense organs must have a more significant role in the Subject-Object interface. But what?

4 Comment(s).

Posted by Stephen S.:

Dear Avi,
What I find very remarkable about consciousness is that it is always a wholeness.I dont see the world as isolated fragments.For me the mystery remains what role the "I" plays in this wholeness.
All the best
August 9, 2009 @ 8:58 AM

Posted by Avi Sion:

Hi Steve. I agree with you essentially. To demonstrate it I have added a new blog post on this topic. However, I am always careful to distinguish the fact of consciousness from the content of consciousness.
August 9, 2009 @ 10:50 AM

Posted by Thomas H.:

Mr. Sion,
You say above "I am always careful to distinguish the fact of consciousness from the content of consciousness."
Perhaps I misunderstand you, but can there really be consciousness without its contents? And, similarly, can the contents(of consciousness)exist without the consciousness?
Thomas H.
April 13, 2011 @ 3:10 PM

Posted by Avi Sion:

Hi Thomas H.
By consciousness, I mean the line of relation between subject and object when cognition occurs.
By content of consciousness, I mean that which the subject actually experiences in the cognitive moment, i.e. the object.
There cannot be consciousness without contents (except perhaps in the enlightenment experience, according to reports) - but obviously there may be and are objects of which no one is conscious.
April 13, 2011 @ 10:13 PM