Science, our senses, and reality
‘All the fundamental aspects of the real world of our experience are adaptive interpretations of the really real world of physics’ George Miller
Though we might be puzzled by George Miller’s notion of the ‘really real’ world, his sentiments are worth scrutinising in more detail especially as it is being claimed here that physics is not ‘really real’ but an extremely useful explanatory ‘aspect’.
Each of us experiences a physical world that is external to ourselves – a world that persists after we die and which therefore exists independently of our own personal experience, a world that is not fictitious, a dream, or a figment of our imagination. The whole of science proceeds on this assumption (indeed, we might call it the central dogma of the scientific grand narrative) and it is this grand narrative that sets science apart from many other intellectual ways of framing our world. However, we cannot experience this external world (our environment) directly but only through the filter of our senses and the processing power of our brains (as our percepts and cognitions). Our common sense tells us that we perceive the world ‘as it actually is‘ and that this is what we generally call ‘reality’, but upon reflection it is clear that we cannot know the world ‘as it actually is‘ we can only know it through the limitations of our senses. Each organism has adapted to its environnment by means of its own unique sensory apparatus and will therefore sense the world with its own particular ‘reality’. The reality of a dog will be different from that of a cow, bee, worm or human. Two thirds of the brain of a white shark is devoted to smell.
In our daily lives we assume the world around us is the one reality (naive realism). However we can understand how dogs, chimps, bees and snails can exist successfully in a world that would be perceived in a very differeny way than ours because they will have very different sensory information on which to base that reality – the external world will be represented diferently. This suggests that reality is highly subjective being different for different sentient creatures, but it does not mean that the external world is not real, just that it can be perceived in different ways. There is, as it were, a ‘real reality’ that is just perceived in different ways.
Evolutionary constraints on the senses
Our survival as a species has depended on how well, in the course of evolution, we have adapted to our environment and this in turn has depended on the effectiveness of our particular senses and brain. Our senses evolved, like the rest of our body, to cope with the historical circumstances of our ancestors and we now know that our senses are extremely limited in what they can tell us about the world compared with what it is possible to know. So, for example, our visual field is limited (bats can see or sense things that we cannot see) and we have a limited hearing range (dogs can hear much higher sounds than we can hear). No doubt the way our brains structure the world and process information is similarly limited.
Extending our senses
Since we depend totally on the evidence of our senses and our survival has turned on maximising our ability to sense and respond effectively to our environment (the result of which is the brain which has allowed us to populate and dominate the planet) so we need to also maximise the effectiveness of our environment-sensing apparatus. Modern science has become progressively occupied with improving our understanding of our environment by artificially extending the range of our senses using ever more sophisticated technology. Knowing that our visual range is limited we have extended it by constructing glasses, telescopes and microscopes. Knowing that our auditory range is limited we have built machines that can detect sound that the human ear cannot detect. Through the steady improvement of technology we can now experience our planet and universe on a grand scale through radio telescopes, radar etc., and on extremely small scales by using electron microscopes and particle accelerators. Since our brains cannot carry out complicated mathematical calculations we have built computers that can do these calculations for us. Above all mathematics allows us to explore possibilities and dimensions that the human mind cannot grasp in any other way. Viewed in this way humanity has, through technology, artificially extended its reality way beyond both its own natural limitations and also beyond that of all other creatures. This is no doubt a major reason why humans dominate the planet today.
Life and ‘self-correction’
Organisms are self-replicating systems that exist for brief periods of time. When they replicate the new organisms or ‘children’ are not necessarily exactly the same as their ‘parents’. Those ‘children’ that fit better into the environment tend to survive and reproduce. Through this purely mechanical, non-conscious process (natural selection) new characteristics arise in new generations of organisms that mean they fit better into their environment. Evolutionists say that the organisms have adapted to their environments as a consequence of natural selection and we call the change they undergo over many generations evolution. Remembering that this is not a conscious process we can nevertheless, for simplicity, refer to it metaphorically as ‘self-correction’ or just ‘trial and error’ (see Purpose). By means of this simple non-conscious mechanism science can account for the origin of all of today’s animals and plants right from the first ancient replicating molecule(s).
The point is that unconscious ‘self-correction’ is a part of the physical interplay between organism and environment by which any organism ‘fits in’ to its surroundings over the long term.
Behaviour & ‘self-correction’
Unlike plants, animals constantly move through their environment encountering diverse conditions. Not surprisingly as a consequence of motility their sensory apparatus became far more sophisticated than that of plants. To coordinate the mass of incoming sensory information animals have developed a nervous system with a ‘control-centre’ or central nervous system the most complex of these control systems we know being the human brain.
The complicated interaction between organism and environment that we call behaviour can be a very simple interaction of stimulus and response as when the unicellular amoeba moves away from a particular chemical, but it can also be an extremely complicated instinctual or innate behaviour pattern like a bird building a nest or a spider weaving a web. This behaviour is so complicated that we might perceive it as being conscious or considered because it anticipates the future. It seems that the spider builds a web for the purpose of catching a juicy fly. But the spider does not have conscious goals, its apparently purposive behaviour is a consequence of events that occurred in the past, because those of its ancestors that built webs were able to survive and reproduce. This kind of behaviour we refer to as being instinctive or innate. Even complex behaviour like this has also arisen as a result of a mechanistic process of ‘self-correction’ during evolution although we do see a kind of pseudo-purpose or proto-consciousness here (teleonomy).(see Purpose)
Innate or instinctive behaviour is hard-wired or inbuilt and carried from one generation to the next but many animals can also learn within their lifetimes developing a conditioned reflex or simply making a conscious note of circumstances. If a dog is treated badly it will avoid its tormentor. Is this ‘self-correction’ a result of past experiences, anticipation of what might happen in the future, or a combination of these? The boundary between innate and learned behaviour and the emergence of purpose-like consciousness is a difficult are that is discussed elsewhere.
The point is that we can understand how behaviour too can change, or evolve, by a process of ‘self-correction’ that may be either inherited or learned.
Categories of thought: cognitive taxonomy
How exactly does the brain make sense of, or structure, the torrent of information pouring into it from our senses? If we consider just our eyesight then it is clear that the brain somehow segregates individual objects from what must pass into the eye as a meaningless mixture of colours, textures, tones and so on. In other words the brain, through a historical evolutionary process of ‘self-correction’ now exhibits selective visual perception segregating our field of view into objects like buildings, trees, and people … extremely useful when we are driving. Also a highly adaptive trait that helps us pick out tigers! Aural perception is similar, unconsciously converting soundwaves into words and meaningful communication.
What is true for sight and sound is true for the general operation of our minds. Cognitive scientists now recognise that our brains are constantly classifying by detecting patterns and regularities that can be slotted into conceptual boxes. Our brains are highly skilled taxonomists. To make sense of the world brains pigeon-hole regularities into a host of categories that help us understand what is going on both inside and outside ourselves and the categories can take many forms including: pictorial representations, names, explanations, definitions, descriptions, principles, theories, and laws. This process of mental categorisation we can call cognitive taxonomy.
Science as cognitive taxonomy
We are constantly reorganising, adding to, and improving the categories that we use to understand the natural world, both our individual experience and our collective cultural understanding. Our categories of thought enable us to not only structure the world but to also infer additional properties so the greater the match between our categories and the external world, the better we can understand and manage the external world and, in biological terms, the more likely we are to survive and reproduce. From this point of view science can therefore be characterised as the steady improvement of our cognitive taxonomy and we can understand how this steady refinement does not require the use of words like ‘truth’ but can be described as ‘progress‘ or ‘improvement’ as our categories make a better match between our inner and outer worlds. We have surely become much better at this over time since we have been able to manipulate the external world in ever more effective ways.
On this view the method of cognitive taxonomy as a mode of reasoning is no different from that used in any other field, except that it is cognitive taxonomy within the scientific domain.
Reason as conscious self-correction
See Reason & rationality
Aristotle described humans as rational animals. We can speculate that as brains on the human line of evolution increased in complexity, so ever more processing power became available. We can only assume that the self-awareness we call consciousness or sentience was a consequence of this neuronal complexity. In the long history of transition from inorganic to organic replicating matter, once the mechanism of self-correction began it had, in one branch of the evolutionary tree, resulted in matter that had become aware of its own existence, of its own history and origins and, through the development of technology even calculated the age of the universe itself and the causes for its own structure.
This sense of self-awareness marks the point where some sentient animals, humans, can construct complex imaginary futures as a way of planning possible future action, and exhibiting consciously purposive behaviour.
Though we cannot attribute conscious human-like aims and goals to replicating molecules, once organic matter set off on the path of self-correction we can understand how reason – as conscious decision-making based on action selected from multiple imaginary futures – is also a form of self-correction, as though natural selection itself had become conscious.
It is the capacity for self-correction (natural selection) that is at the core of the living world. Self-aware self-correction – reason – is the single key factor on which future human evolution depends.
But nothing is new. If cognitive taxonomy is indeed the way we make sense of the world and a useful way to view science – the mechanism of reason and scientific discovery – then this is not a new insight, it was known thousands of years ago. It also explains why many modern philosophers have considered their discipline as contiuous with science.
‘(the) analysis of the order and concatenation of existence as a reasonable and intelligi(ble) system … the connection of one idea with another, on the relation between one stage in the complex scheme of actual existence and another. To bring together and divide, to see differences where they are concealed, and to find sameness between things different, to discriminate and connect kinds and classes … (in a) discussion or conversation (dialectic) … (this) according to Plato is the true art of the philosopher’
William Wallace 1880