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3 Mins
September 30, 2010

Question: Say someone told you that your senses do not give you a true view of reality because no matter how small of a particle you can see, there exists one that you cannot see. No matter how far you can see, there is always something further. And because our sight perception is not as good as an owl’s is at night, we do not have a true view of reality. What is the proper objective response to this?

Answer: Perception gives one an integrated awareness of an entity, distinct from the background of everything else in the universe, in some form. An entity is its attributes, so in being aware of the entity one is necessarily aware of (some of) its attributes.

For example, when in the day I see the brown trunk and green leaves of the oak tree in my back yard, and see it apart from the background of sky and neighboring houses, I am aware of something in reality. When at night, I see the black trunk and black leaves of the tree against the gray moonlit sky, I am aware of the same thing in a different form. In both cases, what I perceive is determined by the nature of my sensory apparatus (my eyes and visual cortex, in this case) and the nature of the tree itself, given the environmental factors. Changes in the environment can alter just how I am aware of the tree, but they do not render me unaware, nor do they make the tree anything other than what it is.

There is a mistake people commonly make when discussing the validity of sense-perception. They assume that awareness, to count as awareness, must be infinite, exhaustive, and unmediated. They would say that because I cannot directly see the fine molecular structure of the tree (I only see its macro effects), I am somehow not really aware of the tree. Or because I must use a causal, physical means of perception, my perception is corrupt. But then, what would count as awareness? And what are these critics doing talking about the world that they only know through such "limited," "corrupt" means? This "God's eye view" standard is a silly standard. We know what awareness is. Kick a table leg if you are in doubt, or drive your car off the highway at high speed. This carping is pathetic since we are aware of so much through our senses. And on the basis of that, we have built a huge edifice of scientific knowledge of nature.

It is something of a misnomer to describe perception as "true" or "untrue." A perception is what it is. It gives you awareness of something. What the nature of that thing is, is a conceptual judgment. Your conceptual, abstract ideas, being formed volitionally on the basis of your judgment of the evidence, can be true or untrue. They can be true in matching the facts of perception. Or false, in failing to match the facts of perception. But perception is the bedrock, it is the way we are aware of the world.

We can see how all this works if we take up the idea that an owl's sight is somehow metaphysically superior to a person's. An owl, we know from scientific research and perceptual observation, must be able to make finer visual discriminations in poor light than we can. But the owl still does not see all. It, too, sees (some of) the attributes of the entities it observes, and it, too, sees in different forms that are affected by changes in light, etc. In this sense, its senses are just as finite and context-dependent as ours. That's no strike against them, of course. Any mode of awareness would need to function through some causal interaction (light, sound, friction, radio waves, etc.) with the objects of awareness. Any mode of awareness would take some form to the perceiver and would be affected by environmental changes that affected the medium of perception. We perceive that way because we really are aware, of real things, as they really are, in a real way.

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