Experience: Now With New (Scientific) Sauce.

So things are pretty active in the last thread, but I am getting a bit lost in all the comments there, so I’m going to separate one thread and post on it separate. I used an example of looking at an object and trying to distinguish between p-qualities and s-qualities. I think Levi’s response was especially enlightening in terms of trying to flesh out our disagreement on the matter, but before we get to it, Nick noted, commenting on my remark that I am not sure how much our perception really changed with scientific revolution, something I am not really certain about, just a thought:

I think this is a debatable point as well, but off-hand I can think of two pieces of evidence that science has actually changed our perception – one, the bizarre mathematics involved in cutting-edge physics, which model . And two, psychological experiments showing that unperceived visuals (e.g. a word flashed too quickly for one’s consciousness to pick it up) are real and have effects. Both of these examples are, in principle, impossible for us to ever experience, and are only possible with the aid of scientific instruments.

I think this is an interesting observation as such and I do not necessary disagree. Levi adds,

As Nick points out above, both relativity and quantum mechanics required new forms of mathematics that are quite remote from the mid-range “objects” of our phenomenological lived experience. Likewise, I have often referred to the Haldron super-collidor and others like it, which require very complex computer programs to even track the data. When I use the term “observation” I am not, generally, referring to the phenomenological act of looking (because I think the evidence is pretty strong that the phenomenological level of experience is a cognitive construction), but to all these techniques involving measuring, technology, and experiment.

Ok, so I will say just a few things here to take an opportunity to discuss this without getting lost in our thread on p- and s-qualities. Right away I would like to say that I know very little about the most recent scientific gadgets, discoveries or colliders, i.e. I am not an expert and I apologize ahead of time for my amateurish language yet stil I think I can handle this philosophically.

When we say that scientific instruments are giving us a new type of experience, and not just a new type of data, I think we are going too far and this is why: the difference between a sophisticated particle collider and Galileo’s telescope is of degree of data we are receiving, we are thinking about, not a new type of experience per se.  In a sense, I would claim, it is as impossible to experience a simple sum (7+5=12) as it is to experience “unvisualizable, multi-dimensional space-times” – if I am yokel living in a remote part of the country, your elegant prove that the sum of all the angles in a triangle is two right angles will impress me immensely (right before I blow your hear off with my gun because you damn did tresspassed on my property), but there’s no magic here, just advanced human knowledge. You demonstration will be clearly outside of anything I’ve ever experienced in my “phenomenological lived experience,” but hardly a new type of experience? It will be a new experience, not a new type of experience.

I’m open to any comments here, I’m sort of thinking aloud here.

Let me give you one example that I immediately thought of when I read your comments – Sextus Empiricus cites Democritus who allegedly said something like this:


[Click on the picture to see the large image, the book I take it from is found here]

Now, without going into much detail about the historical situation and so on, the question I have is this: clearly Democritus had no access to any of the sophisticated machinery of contemporary sciences, and clearly there were all sorts of views of reality, but somehow he managed to get it right  – there are only atoms and the void, everything else looks the way it looks to us – which leads me to Levi’s objection:

Now maybe you have just chosen this example to illustrate your point, but I’ve noticed that you often speak in the phenomenological register when discussing these issues. For example, in the passage quoted above you speak of “looking”. Now, in my view, the phenomenological register is purely correlational. In the phenomenological register, we find not things-in-themselves but objects as they are for-us. As a result, I don’t think we find primary qualities in the phenomenological register.

Ok, let’s say I am talking about a phenomenological register. So to return to my example, all of the 10 qualities of an object that we were able to record are s-qualities, because in order to – I’m struggling to choose a verb here – see? experience? find? know? think? none fits because these are all verbs describing my phenomenological register.

The reason that I don’t think we find primary qualities in the primary register is because it seems fairly evident to me that we either require technological instruments to encounter these properties or mathematical formalizations.

The problem remains – it is I who am using the technological instrument to encounter a property, even if this property is only visible with a microscope, and it is I who am going to encounter these p-properties, even if with a help of complex mathematical formalizations. The issue for me is still very much clothed in a Kantian approach – it doesn’t matter how sophisticated your scientific instruments or theories are, in the end, it’s going to be a human who will be theorizing the p-primary qualities. That is why Kant has a neat distinction between “knowing” (s-qualities) and “thinking” (p-qualities, if you want to call them that way).

6 thoughts on “Experience: Now With New (Scientific) Sauce.

  1. M.E.: When we say that scientific instruments are giving us a new type of experience, and not just a new type of data, I think we are going too far and this is why: the difference between a sophisticated particle collider and Galileo’s telescope is of degree of data we are receiving, we are thinking about, not a new type of experience per se.

    Kvond: I am not sure if I follow you but this seems to be a classic mistake in thinking that there is some kind of neutral “sense data” that enters into the instrument our senses, that then then gets mashed about and organized by our “thinking”. a two step process. There really is no rigorous way to separate out our perceptions from our beliefs. One perceives the moon rising partly because one beliefs include “the moon can rise” and “the moon rises at night” etc. There is no sense data of rising that can be separated out from our beliefs. Galileo’s telescope and theorizing gave us the possibility of another perception, another experience. One still can usually see the moon rising, but if one thinking about it for a moment, one can also directly perceive the earth falling away from the moon.

    As scientific instruments (and their attendant theories) change our view of the world, they literally change our perceptions. We now can “see the shadow of the earth cover the moon” instead of a Dragon swallowing the moon. It is a Cartesian mistake to assume that their is a neutrality of perceptions, in all these examples, and simply a change in judgment. Perceptions are already judgments.


    M.E.: “That is why Kant has a neat distinction between “knowing” (s-qualities) and “thinking” (p-qualities, if you want to call them that way).”

    Kvond: When I see the earth falling away from the moon am I “knowing” that the earth is falling, or “thinking” that it is falling?

  2. As scientific instruments (and their attendant theories) change our view of the world, they literally change our perceptions.

    Of course, they do change our view of the world, I simply wonder if they create a new type of experience or whether they simply enhance the old types we already had before: the difference between looking at something with my eyes and looking at it with a microscope seems to be of degree, not of some qualitative difference.

    I’m simply asking these questions, in this case I don’t really have a clear position to present or to defend.

  3. Yes, I see.

    Well, perhaps I am pushing the point to firmly, but there is general acceptance in much of Idealist and Empirical thinking of Descartes categories of sensation and judgment, that upon which he founds an independent “will” which exercises itself as a kind of detached faculty upon a taken to be neutral sensation, the reception of “sense data”. Spinoza was quick to point out that this distinction, (upon which Descartes tried to leverage the freedom of the will), that perceptions are already judgements. There is no neutral perception. There is some good brain science evidence that Spinoza was right about this. If this is so, then the framing of your question presumes something of a philosophical framework that is problematic, that sensations (and sense knowledge) all remain the same for human beings, and simply their ideas (judgements) have changed. As you put it, the instruments have simply given us more data, thus more information to put into the judgment machine. In all likelihood instruments and the theories that direct and explain what we find in them, has changed our ideas about the world, and thus have changed our very perceptions of it. We literally see our beliefs expressed, manifest in the world.

    So, as I suggested, one literally sees the earth’s horizon fall away from the sun because one can hold a picture about the movements of the earth and the sun.

    In terms of looking with a microscope and just plain looking, in fact early microscopes were rather dim and occluded views, and until the right theories came along explaining just what it was that was being seen, it was very hard to “see” anything. Once conceptions of the human circulatory system arose, for instance, then one could literally see the structure of veins, because what you believed you were looking at were veins (canals of some sorts). Before the theories were fixed there were great debates about what it was that was being seen, and in fact generally it was presumed that the microscope could tell you very little until you knew what you were looking for (thus, for Descartes and early Cartesian anatomists, one had to understand the mechanics of the body rationally before evidence could be taken from direct observation).

    I agree with you that you make a very good point to Levi’s idea that instruments have changed our view into a different kind of view (I actually started of posting the same idea, but then thought not to), human beings are still the one’s looking into the instruments, the construction of cognition that he already admits still is the filter here. But I suggest that what instruments tell us is that it is our theories, view, pictures, beliefs that help construct our perceptions themselves. I cannot see that our instruments have allowed us to climb into a different qualitative sort of perception (straight into the “real” primary ps of things), though I will admit that our bodies in combination with our instruments do make for very different possibilities which does not involve only “more data”.

  4. Mmm, I do like me some scientific sauce!

    I take your point here, and I sometimes wonder whether it’s not just a semantic problem – me pointing to the difference a new experience entails, whereas someone else points to the continuity involved in it.

    To take my two examples though, why I think the mathematics of string theory is something truly new is because these multi-dimensional entities wouldn’t even have been thought of prior to string theory. Granted the math for n-dimensional spaces has been around for a while beforehand, but there was no sense that these mapped anything existent until things like general relativity and string theory came along. (I’m likely mangling the historical details here – but the point still holds that multi-dimensional entities had to become a new experiential possibility at some point.) I think, as well, that the various interpretations given to quantum physics highlight that in some important sense, we still can’t properly experience these things – as soon as we try to make sense of the equations, things go awry and apparent paradoxes emerge.

    As for the second example, what is discovered is a non-phenomenal visualization. (For example, the phenomenon of blindsight.)It’s something that, by definition, escapes any possible phenomenology – yet we still experience it in some way, albeit never consciously. This is a scientific expansion of experience because prior to the discovery of these ‘visuals’ we would never have known or had reason to believe they existed.

    Your post also reminded me of an article I read lately, on the creation of a computer that – without prior knowledge – derives natural laws from data! That is to say, a properly non-human type of thought, which opens up any number of possibilities for our debates here, as well as for thought-experiments.

    Being Isaac Newton

    (P.S. One significant part of the quote you cite from me got cut out in the post.)

  5. I think I’m a bit more cautious with respect to String Theory than Nick is here. If we get some experimental validation for String Theory, then it will seriously throw us through a loop as to the nature of the universe we live in. Honestly, how are we to phenomenologize 10, 11, or 26 (!) dimensional spaces? We simply don’t have any phenomenological correlate for these sorts of dimensions. We are only able to capture them mathematically.

    For the most part, I think that physics, up to Relativity physics, is fairly consistent with lived or phenomenological experience. Sure, Relativity leads to the strange conclusion that time in the car I now see driving the road as I sit here in my office is moving more slowly than time is for me (and physically(!) not psychologically… the person in that car literally has a watch that ticks more slowly and they are literally aging less), this phenomenon of time dilation and contraction doesn’t yet violate our basic phenomenological ideas of substance too deeply. Sure, it is difficult to get your head around the idea that the car driving down my road and me sitting here in space are literally not simultaneous with one another, but we can still fit into our familiar universe with only a few modifications.

    The real weirdness begins at the quantum level. Subatomic particles pop in and out of existence in ways that violate our basic intuitions about the relationship between substances and predicates. Particles on different sides of the universe (!) can act in perfect tandem with one another, thus suggesting some mode of connection or relation that violates the speed of light (the constant defining the limit for any informational transformation) and even suggesting that the two particles are the same (!). Particles have the characteristic of being “probability waves” where an electron of an atom, can be in a variety of places at once(!), ranging from the very close, to the other side of the world, to the other side of the universe. It is exceedingly difficult (and I think impossible) to fit these phenomena and many others into anything that would be familiar to our phenomenological world of lived experience. In fact, the quantum physicists do not themselves know what to make of all these things. Contrary to Harman’s vacuum packed world of isolated objects, for example, the non-locality thesis (independent, yet identical behaviors of particles on opposite sides of the universes) indicates the literal imbrication of all things in the universe. That is, it undermines the locality thesis of classical physics up to Einstein (that there must be direct interaction between things for there to be a causal relationship). What are we to make of this? The fact that particles suddenly pop into existence in a super-collidor either looks like a creation ex-nihilo or the release of particles from a more primitive state– not unlike Spinoza’s substance –where all things are somehow bound up together. The fact that particles simultaneously take alternate paths resembles some bad science fiction where there are parallel worlds where each particle state does, in fact, take place. The list goes on and on. The equations work but as to what these things are, we have no idea. Certainly there is no analog between Democritus’ atoms and the particles of quantum mechanics.

  6. Good points, my computer at home is giving me some problems all of a sudden, I might be slow to respond, but you all are welcome to take my silence as a direct admission of having nothing to say in response to your points…

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