The Other I

March 27, 2010

More thoughts on green

Filed under: Psychology, Philosophy & Personal Nonsense,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:45 pm

When I was about three, I remember telling my older brother that the inside of my eyelids had strips of color on them.  How he got to know these things with a mere year more of experience than I, I don’t know, but he told me this wasn’t so.  (He’s also the one who told me there wasn’t a Santa Claus, and that I couldn’t be a man when I grew up.)  I said I knew my eyelids were colored on the inside because I could see the colors when I closed my eyes and pressed on my eyes.

In other words, I had empirical evidence to support my conclusion.  My brother offered me an alternative explanation for the colors I was seeing, which in a slightly more sophisticated form is the one I’ve accepted ever since.

I’m telling this story because it illustrates the process by which we humans interpret our world.  That is, we have an experience.  That experience itself is completely and inescapably private.  We can’t compare our experiences directly with anybody else’s, nor can anybody from the outside tell us that we did or did not experience it.  We are the only ones who can know directly what we experience – whether we hear a sound, see an object, distinguish a color, feel a pain.  And if we can’t see a shape or color or hear a sound, no one can ever communicate to us exactly what it’s like.

I myself do not have depth vision, for instance.  I know I’m missing something but I cannot imagine what the world looks like to people with normal vision.  Similarly, people who have been deaf all their lives cannot know what a song sounds like, nor can people who can’t distinguish between green and red know what those colors look like to the rest of us.

What we can do, however, is to describe what it is we hear/see/feel/experience to others and compare their description of their private experience with ours.  That’s the first thing – and it is not a coincidence that this is the first thing scientists do when they are presenting their empirical findings to other scientists.

The second thing we can do is to compare our interpretations of our experiences.  My brother didn’t deny that I saw colors when I closed my eyes;  what he gave me was a different interpretation of what the colors meant.  In other words, he offered me a different theory to explain my data.

We “validate” our experiences like this all the time.  We ask others “Do you hear that?”  “Can you see that?”  “Do you remember when?”  In extreme cases, it’s how we decide if we are hallucinating or dreaming or actually responding to an external event.

In science, this process is usually accomplished by replicating the findings.  If scientists can’t replicate the results a scientist says he has found, then the data is questionable.  The assumption is that some unknown error occurred or there is outright fraud involved.  If the results are replicated, then the discussion moves to the forum of interpretation:  do these particular observations support Theory A or Theory B or a new theory altogether?

When the majority of scientists believe that the bulk of the data supports one theory rather than another it tends to be accepted as a solid universal finding.  Gravity explains, for instance, why we don’t fall off the planet, or the stars don’t fall down.  Or smoking increases the chances of getting lung cancer, and obesity increases the chances of developing Type II diabetes.

But just as my interpretation of the colors I saw when I closed my eyes changed, so too theories that may for very long periods be accepted as proven might be discarded.   Scientists now do not think gravity is the full explanation of what is holding the universe in place.  And doctors today are beginning to think that perhaps obesity is not the cause of Type II diabetes.

Okay, this is how we validate our interpretations of empirical events.  Our experiences themselves do not change, but our interpretations of them often do.  Can – and do – we use a similar process to validate our experiences of beauty? of truth?  of love?

I think we do.  But more on that in another post – if there are any readers still hearty enough to survive the onslaught of my treatise on the Psychology of Knowing.

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