Sunday, November 7, 2010

Descartes' Mirage

"All that I have, up to this moment, accepted as possessed of the highest truth and certainty, I received either from or through the senses. I observed, however, that these sometimes misled us; and it is the part of prudence not to place absolute confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived."--Rene Descartes, Meditation I

In the Meditations, it is never clear what Descartes has in mind by claiming that the senses have deceived him.

A deception occurs when a falsity is put forward as truth. I can hold up a cup and say that it is a spoon, and this deception would be one of language and of our cultural practices involving cups and spoons, and the proper naming of them. The deception of the senses, however, is not one of language or culture.

Let's turn to some paradigm examples and see if we can investigate what is meant when one believes that the senses have deceived. One prominent example of the deception of the senses is the mirage in the desert.

A desert marine would see a wavy spot on the horizon as being heat and humidity, and not as being a lake, based on all of his experiences with discriminating desert landscapes. If a kid finds himself in the desert and wants water, he would see the desert landscape in an entirely different form from that of the marine. More specifically, the desert landscape would show up in a much more limited and largely meaningless and indistinguishable form. The boy has perhaps seen water in the distance before. One aspect that water in the distance has is that it has a wavy aspect. The horizon, through his senses, then shows up as having a lake. However, there is no lake there. Are the child's senses deceiving him?

No, the child picks up on the aspects about the desert landscape that he has uncovered in his life in other situations. Being in a new environment, aspects that correlate with past experience are very few. What little significance there is comes from the aspects he has uncovered in other situations where he has had experience with wavy spots. This uncovering of aspects is what makes environments familiar or foreign. One aspect of a lake is that it looks wavy in the distance. Another aspect of a lake is that it does not constantly retreat to the horizon as one moves toward it. This would not be lakes as the child has experienced them. And so, the child will have to redefine lakes in order to incorporate this aspect of retreating toward the horizon, or he will have to say that this wave that also retreats toward the horizon is something he has not dealt with before. If the child continues to find more aspects of this wavy thing in the distance that do not correspond with lakes, he may very well drop this notion that it is a lake. In this, the senses have not deceived, but are used to uncover more and more aspects of the situation. The wavy spot is still a wavy spot to both the child and the marine. As more and more aspects are uncovered about the dessert landscape, the child may become as adept as the marine and even discriminate aspects of the desert that the marine has not been trained or experienced to see. This would be the idea of a 'wild' native who has become adept to the environment from constant interaction with it.

If I may be so quick as to use another prominent example, and hammer the point further, let's use this analysis on a child in a supermarket who mistakes a stranger for his mother.

If a child takes another lady in the supermarket to be his mother, then he has seen those aspects that do indeed make the person his mother. This is not a deception of the senses. Once more aspects are uncovered that reveal this stranger lady to be a stranger, the lady has to be reassessed as being another woman. The senses have not deceived, but are rather the basis from which a deception could be assessed in the first place. The child correctly says, "Alas, I was mistaken!" not because his senses need to be fixed, but because what he took to be solely aspects of his mother are now seen to be aspects of other women as well. The child no longer equates merely blond hair with being his mother, and perhaps now notices that there are many nuances (aspects) of the mother's blond hair that are different from the blond hair of the stranger, and so the child can now discriminate these nuances. The blond hair itself, however, has not deceived anybody. What the children in both the desert and supermarket examples have gained is a greater world, one that has more and more aspects uncovered as meaningful. The blond hair is the same blond hair and the wavy spot in the desert is the same wavy spot in the desert for the experienced and inexperienced alike.

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