Friday, October 19, 2007

An evolutionary defense of empiricism

In "More Than Meets the I," her vigorous and entertaining omnibus review in the October 07 issue of Poetry, Ange Mlinko uses Jay Wright to present a form of philosophical skepticism:

'... science tells us that “our sense data are primarily symbols,” translated to the brain via nerve impulses and reassembled in the frontal cortex [...]. Appearances are deceiving. What we see is just an interface.'

The problem with the conclusion here is that Mlinko, like so many others, fails to recognize the explanatory power of evolution: if the "symbolic sense data" of "appearances" are false, then the human brain would be poorly adapted to the physical world, and the human species would die out if its brain did not adapt to that physical world.

Here's another way to put the point: any human brain (or brain of any species, for that matter) that does not produce a relatively precise image of the world around it is less likely to survive and successfully reproduce than a brain with a more precise image of the world around it. So "our sense data" may be "primarily symbols," but there is every reason to believe that those symbols are accurate (at least for those with healthy brains).

So here's a third way to put the point: rejection of empiricism entails rejection of evolution.


To be fair to Mlinko, I should refer to the whole passage I cited from above:

Quoting Suzanne Langer in Elaine's Book (collected in Transfigurations), [Jay] Wright lays claim to her insight: “and the triumph of empiricism is jeopardized by the surprising truth that our sense data are primarily symbols.” For poets of this tendency, the world is occult, and poetry's attentiveness helps tease out the hidden reality:

What we call
our own might only be
the first stroke upon
a stellar
clock, an instant shift
of center, a notion

the Cusan could
propose and stir
in the atom.
—From Equation Three
Nicolas of Cusa posited the existence of an intellect comprising more than that which sense data and reason tell us. Now that science tells us that “our sense data are primarily symbols,” translated to the brain via nerve impulses and reassembled in the frontal cortex, the Cusan's truth is confirmed. Appearances are deceiving. What we see is just an interface. The very building blocks of matter are in flux.


Olaf Merkert said...

Evolution theory defends empiricism, under the condition accurate perception is necessary to survive.
But is that condition satisfied? In order to survive, the human has to be able to react correctly to different situations. So he or she only needs to be able to distinguish between the relevant situations. That is all the senses need to be capable of. But that does not imply we have an accurate image of the world, we can only perceive the differences (The real objects could be different from how we sense them).
Fortunately, that does not matter for any ordinary theory, because every theory made by humans is built on the way we perceive and define things (Any name is connected an object which we identify by using our senses ─ indeed, we do not have any other means for identification).
It does matter for theories which go beyond the world of senses, which want to make a statement about real things. But those theories cannot be proven, at least not by any means presently known to myself (I doubt anybody else knows a way).
The most elegant solution is then to redefine what real means, e.g. as done in the scientific domain, however one should not forget that there is more to it than meets the eye (literally).

mrjumbo said...

Completely unanswerable question: If I were in someone else's mind, looking at something we both call "red," would my experience of that color be the same as it is in my mind?

Yes, we humans tend to see symbols and icons rather than actual things; even "things" we see only as light reflects off them. And yes, if our perceptions weren't reliable, our species would have died off.

But maybe these both put a halo around a peculiar human trait: We see patterns and variations. Whether in music or science or poetry, we recognize likeness in the disparate and use analogy to explore and understand our world. We recognize patterns and test for variation. This helps us see more than the immediate world; this ability has propelled us into modern times.

Without these tools, symbols would not exist; meaning would be moot. Can we say a leopard recognizes patterns in the way a herd of wildebeest move? I'd estimate that something is hard-wired in other critters with brains; they "know" that when they smell a particular odor or hear a certain song, it's time to copulate, for example. And we all know some behaviors can be trained. But does a drooling dog think of a bell as symbolizing food? Tough call. Some experiments with chimps and sign language (almost any experiment with animal "language") make for interesting conversation. Where does our recognition of symbol, of similarity, of analogy, leave instinct and get raised to intellect?