Can our Senses be Trusted?

The Friendly Atheist posted a clip from a BBC show about Big Questions. The clip was addressing the question, “Is faith compatible with reason?” The clip was mildly interesting, and the non-believers certainly came out looking more “reasonable” than the spiritual folks (Christians, pantheists, etc.) There were a few points worth discussing further.

First, the representative reasonable figure noted the importance of confirmation bias for people of faith, meaning that they start with the conclusion (that God exists) and apply a massive filter to the information they receive. Information confirming their bias is accepted relatively easily, while information criticizing it is rejected very quickly. The bias is operative in other areas of life as well, which is why it is much more difficult to change someone’s mind once they have already “decided” something. It’s also a reason why 86% of people who become Christian do so between the ages of four and fourteen (according to this documentary).

Also noted was the difference between reason and faith as a difference between deductive and inductive reason. The first starts with the premises and reasons to a conclusion, the second begins with the conclusion and then finds premises to (in this case) affirm it. What I found most interesting, though, was an unchallenged comment made on the “reason” side that said the senses can’t be trusted. This was in response to a pantheist noting that her heart told her that her beliefs are true. Though I grasp the point the respondent was trying to make (that the warm fuzzy you feel in your heart doesn’t make God real), the principle that we cannot (or should not) trust our senses is problematic for me.

Let’s set aside for a minute the fact that we do trust our senses almost all of the time, though they do sometimes mislead us. For example, on the main drag of the town where I grew up, planters were placed at the sidewalk corners of the intersection, probably as part of a beautification project. Their inconvenient placement near the crosswalks means that nearly every time I drive that street, there is a split second where I almost begin to brake because I think a person is trying to cross the road. I might interpret that as my senses misleading me. (There is also some confirmation bias there, in that we tend to try, anthropocentrists that we are, to discern faces and bodies in places where they are not.)

But let’s try another scenario, that of the famous Romeo and Juliet. If I recall the climax of the play, it involves Juliet taking a drug that makes her appear dead. Upon finding her dead, Romeo takes poison and dies, and upon Juliet waking up, she finds Romeo dead and stabs herself to death. Romeo obviously experienced a great deal of sadness as a result of finding Juliet and his senses confirmed that she was dead. In turn, Juliet’s senses confirmed that Romeo was dead, and she too killed herself. The only justification we would have for saying Romeo’s senses deceived him and Juliet’s did not is that we know the outcome, that Juliet was not dead but that Romeo was. We have no significant reason to suggest that his senses were more impaired than hers. (They both seemed a little emotional, if you ask me.) Juliet was, for Romeo, dead when he saw her. His senses conveyed that truth accurately.

What I am arguing is that the claim that the senses lead us astray is not based just on the senses, but the reasoning that we do from them, reasoning done over time. We might argue that had Romeo waited a bit longer, his senses would have shown that Juliet was not dead, because she would have opened her eyes and sat up. What if took longer? What if it took days? Years? How long would we have Romeo wait?

There is a social element here. Let’s say several others came and confirmed Juliet was dead and she was buried. Hundreds of years later, her grave is accidentally disturbed and it is found she was buried alive. Would we say that the senses of all who confirmed her death deceived them? Why? From whose perspective would we make that judgement? Perhaps from a scientific perspective that might claim she was in a comatose state with an extremely low heart rate that nonetheless kept her alive for days. Assuming it could have been done, should extensive scientific testing have been done to confirm her death? What if it was done, and it also confirmed that she was dead? It would only be with the element of time that we would be able to know otherwise.

The point is that the senses are momentary, but that judgement is made over time. This implies no necessary limitation on the senses. I understand the argument that science needs to be empirical and not merely sensory, but this is not applicable in all areas of life. To shut off the emotions because they are connected to unreliable senses is to close off life itself. Sadness, anger, and love are all emotional responses that appear most real when one is feeling them, and may seem diminished or even inaccurate later. Do we explain that variance of emotion by imposing present reality on the past, by saying that from our current neutral state that the presence of emotion in the past was wrong? Or do we acknowledge merely a different emotional state, a different sensory perception than before? (I realize I’m slipping from senses to emotion, which are not necessarily the same thing, but feelings and reason are often contrasted in the same way in common discussion that senses and reason are.)

I find it a problem that the senses can be dismissed in favor of science. It seems to me another version of faith. Both argue, at one point, that what I sense around me does not give me an accurate representation of what there is. It cedes my ability to make judgment, to perceive reality, to an external system. For social purposes all must participate in this to a certain extent, but that does not necessarily or always relegate the senses of the individual to a secondary status. In the birth of the scientific age, scientific conclusions were often dismissed in favor of theological dogma; in the present day, the opposite is the case. Is the reason because we had a lesser grasp on reality in the past, that we were dumber? Or is it related to the fact that less people assented to a scientific worldview in the past than they do now? The basis of a greater acceptance of scientific or reasonable method is not because on its inherent truth, then, but because of its social acceptance.

Anyone have any thoughts?

3 thoughts on “Can our Senses be Trusted?

  1. I think there is merit to the statement that the senses can’t be trusted; and that the fact we do trust them nearly all of the time does not make it wrong to assert that, when the senses report something that does not fit fit with the vast majority of previous experiences, it is more likely that the summation of past experiences in addition to the combined observational experience of science is correct than that the senses were in that moment. And if the strange sensory data happens more frequently, it is as likely that the system for retrieving that type of data is damaged as it is that the cumulative experiences are in error. If a person sees a ghost, I would say they are correct to think that it is most likely their eyes/visual processing faculties making an error. If they start to see ghosts more often, it is as likely that they have a brain tumor or mental disorder as it is that they are experiencing a metaphysical realm no one else is privy to. So if by ‘we can’t trust our senses’ the speaker meant that the senses do not have access to a deeper level of epistemic certainty that does not need to relate to other experiences and belief, then I would agree.

    The senses are momentary, and susceptible to influences outside our understanding, and necessarily of limited scope. Optical and auditory illusions are an obvious, but unnecessary example of this. A more apt example might be a magic show. Like Romeo and Juliet above, the person fooled by a magic trick is not being fooled by their senses, but they are receiving inadequate information to make a decision based on what one would call a reasonable approximation of knowledge. The difference between the audience at the magic show and R and J is that they live in an environment where the logical conclusions of the sensory data is not something they would easily accept in lieu of past experiences, etc (R and J are living in desperation and losing family and friends all over the place, so they had very little reason to question that such an even could happen). I think it all goes back to confirmation bias, or a web of belief model. Once your central beliefs and your relationship to your environment are set, newer and less crucial ideas are much easier to discard than the others, influencing how you process new information.

    Emotions and senses are definitely related in that emotions strongly influence the senses. I think that the idea is to approach the senses with some skepticism because they are linked to unreliable emotions, not the discard emotions themselves. That would hardly be possible in any field, science or otherwise.

    • Marcus,

      I like the last sentence of your first paragraph, and I would agree with it too. The senses can’t play a trump card more than anything else. The seeing a ghost example is interesting too, because for hundreds of years, social data would likely have confirmed the fact that the person was seeing a ghost. Now more of us would say that the person experienced a misperception, due to a number of different possible issues. But I would argue the verdict of a misperception is a “social” fact (and one I prefer over ghosts) rather than a universal. What I mean is that I would not take the next step and say that people for hundreds of years were ‘wrong’ when they though they saw ghosts. What we would be saying in that situation is that the signifier ‘ghost’ does no work for us in our explanatory matrix, just as ‘macular degeneration’ would have done little work for them. We are now more predisposed to name something medically or psychologically and feel satisfied that it has been explained.

      I suppose in my personal life, I feel like I weigh the evidence of my senses and that of reason roughly equally in making decisions. I do, however, think a healthy dose of skepticism is worthwhile in any endeavor. Thanks for your helpful thoughts.

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