Jimping the Sleeg:
How We Know the World
A Journal for Western Man-- Issue XL-- August 28, 2005
In the old days, people talked about something called common sense, and a lot of people had it. Today, no one talks about it, and almost no one has it. Most people don't seem to care, eitheróbut they don't know what they're missing.
Lacking common sense, people spend most of their lives pursuing things which quite often they obtain or achieve, but are not satisfied with because they have no idea why they are pursuing them in the first place, except that they "want" them. The main reason people pursue such things is because they believe desire is the whole reason for acting. In the old days, when people had common sense, they said things like, "if wishes were horses, beggars would ride." They knew just wanting something wasn't enough reason to pursue it, and that wanting something did not automatically give them a right to it, or mean they would enjoy it if they got it.
Another thing they knew was, things are what they are, and if you want to live successfully in this world, you better find out what they are and deal with them according to their nature. Today, all that is out the window. Nobody can be sure anything is what it seems to be. These ideas come from the most unexpected places: science and philosophy.
What's An Apple?
Here is a well polished red delicious apple on a piece of black velvet material. If I describe it, I might say the apple looks round, but slightly flattened at each end, with a depression in the top with a stem sticking out of it. The apple is smooth, glossy, and red, but the shade varies somewhat from top to bottom. The apple looks firm and smooth, and smells sweet. The velvet looks soft and dark. If I touch the apple, it feels exactly the way I expect it to from the way it looks, smooth, cool, and hard; and the velvet feels exactly the way I expect the velvet to feel, soft and "fuzzy".
Common sense says that is exactly what an apple and a piece of velvet are. The scientist comes along and says that is not what an apple and piece of velvet are at all. They are entirely different things, according to the scientist, and it is probably not possible for us to know what they really are, even though he is certain he knows.
The scientist explains by describing the objects in terms of their chemical and physical structure down to the atomic and sub-atomic level, why they are not what they appear to be. He explains why the apple has the shape it does, why it feels hard, rather than soft, smooth, rather than rough, and cool, rather than warm. The velvet he explained in terms of the chemicals that make up the fibers of the velvet, and why those fibers have the tensile strength and resilience they do which makes them feel "soft."
The scientist further explains that the apple seems to be "solid," but is really mostly space, and that the velvet is also mostly space, with tiny amorphous "particles" connected by atomic strong and weak forces. The feeling and appearance of "solidness" is only an illusion.
I am grateful to the scientist for explaining exactly why the apple and the velvet have the nature they have, look as they look, and feel as they feel. But it is the solidness of the apple, and the substantialness of the velvet that are real, and what the scientist studies and attempts to describe. Supposing the description of his science, the sub-atomic particles, the strong and weak forces, which are only ways of picturing what his science discovers, is more real than the actual things they explain is absurd.
So I ask my scientist friend, suppose we build a model to scale of what you think is true at the atomic and sub-atomic level, so that we can actually see the particles and their relationships. If we take the model of the apple and place it on the model of the velvet, what will happen?
The scientist realizes the apple will fall into the model of the velvet, but protests, the model excludes the behavior of the particles and the forces involved. I say, of course, and you have to include all of that in your interpretation, and when you have included all of that, you don't get something that is mostly space, you get something that is hard, and smooth, or soft and substantial.
I ask the scientist how he knows about things like atoms, sub-atomic particles, strong and weak forces in the first place. He explains the experiments he performs and the equipment he uses. But, "hold on," I say, "that equipment is mostly space. If you are correct, the equipment is not what it appears to be at all, and all the results of your experiments are based on that equipment being just what it appears to be. If it's not really what you think it is, how can you know the results of your experiments mean what you think they mean?"
Oh well, that's just common sense. I don't really expect the scientist to accept that.
Knowledge from Illusion
But now comes the philosopher who says, there is no way to be certain that what you experience inside your head is a true reflection of what is "out there." First there are the sense organs that process the physical impressions and forces like light, sound, and pressure; then there are the nerves that must transmit the processed data to the brain; then the brain processes that data some more. All you are able to be conscious of is so much distorted data processed by the neurological system. What makes you think what you perceive is anything like the things you are perceiving?"
But, all I know is what I am conscious of. I have all sorts of conscious events going on all the time, and until I sort them out, they are all very confusing. I have tickles, and flashes of color, and various notes, and pains, and tastes, and sensations of falling, and patches of color continuously and must organize and identify them all before I know anything. I notice this particular feeling happens to be accompanied with a particular visual pattern. I have seen and felt this many times and decide to name some aspects of that experience. I name the source of the feeling with the particular thing I am seeing, "my hand." I name the source of my seeing what I am feeling with my hand, "my eyes." This is the process I use to identify all those experiences I eventually identify as "outside" me, as opposed to those other conscious experiences I identify as "inside" me. I also identify the qualities of the conscious experiences themselves, as red, blue, loud, hi-pitched, hard, warm, etc., and associate them with various other conscious experiences I identify as my eyes, ears, and skin.
When you ask me how I know what I am experiencing actually corresponds to what is outside, you are asking, "is your perception of your hand touching the apple, really your hand touching the apple?" It could not be anything else. The only reason I suspect I have a hand is because I perceived something associated with what I see, and called it that. (Well, I didn't do that actually, because I was taught that word, but somebody had to do it.) The same goes for the apple. The philosopher has it backwards. We do not have bunches of loose concepts floating around in our heads (hands, apples, chairs) with which we must find things in our consciousness to attach them. When I say, "I am touching a red apple," I mean I am having the conscious experience I identify as, "touching a red apple."
If you ask, how do I know a red apple is really what it appears to be, I will ask, how could it be anything else? What would that mean?
If I have experience A, and call it, "hearing middle C." If you then ask me, when I hear middle C, how do you know that is really middle C, you are asking how do I know hearing middle C is hearing middle C. I could call any experience "jimping the sleeg," and you could ask me how I know I was really "jimping a sleeg?" but the question would be nonsense. I cannot be wrong about the experience I'm havingóI'm either having it or I'm not, and if I'm having it and call it, "jimping the sleeg," then, "jimping the sleeg" it is. It's not possible to be wrong about it.
Johnson's Common Sense
When asked how to refute Berkeley's idealism, Samuel Johnson kicked a stone and said, "I refute him thus." Berkley's view, which can be summed up as, "to be is to be perceived," seems very different from the scientist's view, because Berkeley denied the objects of the external world have any material existence at all and exist only as "ideas" when we perceive them. The scientists claim objects exist, but then explain them away by saying they only exist as impressions of what they really are which turns out to be the scientist's ideas, that is, the fields and formulas of their science.
In fact the rock Samuel Johnson kicked is real, and all the scientists' ideas are just about the nature of the rock. If there were not real rocks, none of the fields and formulas of science would be about anything. Samuel Johnson never would have been taken in by the scientists as most people are today, but then, Samuel Johnson had common sense.
Reginald Firehammer is a filosofer and author of the book: The Hijacking of a Philosophy: Homosexuals vs. Ayn Rand's Objectivism. He is the author and host of The Autonomist, an online intellectual journal, as well as a contributor to The Rational Argumentator. In the future, he intends to produce a comprehensive treatise on ontology, consciousness, and ultimately filosofy itself. Mr. Firehammer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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