How Many Senses?

Conventionally there are five senses. But actually there are about ten, i.e. sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch (the traditional five); but also heat-&-cold, pain, proprioception, muscle-sense … (The authorities on this subject seem to be uncertain just how many we should list.)

Every one of these ten senses is completely different in its Suchness from any of the others. Taste isn’t the same kind of thing at all as hearing; the sense of colour just doesn’t resemble the sense of touch in any way. The sound of a trombone just isn’t anything like that utterly other sort of thing the smell of violets. In short, sensory experience is amazingly various, while on the other hand the physical processes in the brain are all of a kind. Richard Dawkins himself says so most distinctly. . Thus (1) firstly we cannot tell how any sensation arises into consciousness (as I have been saying), secondly we have this further problem: (2) how do you get ten disparate kinds of sensation, each more different than chalk from cheese, out of one same-type physical brain process? No, more different than that – than the taste of cheese from the squeak of chalk on a blackboard.

Now, contrary to majority opinion, all this is most encouraging. Materialists will admit the flimsiness of their case; or rather on the contrary they’ll call up a team of philosophers and get them to change the goalposts. When certain scientists tell us that matter is all, and that therefore consciousness must be material too, they do this on the basis that their material instruments cannot detect consciousness. But of course this merely shows the limitations of material instruments. Consciousness is invisible to the material instruments of science. So maybe consciousness is not a material thing, not in the last resort subject to physical processes, but some other sort of reality.

And let us be frank about this conclusion: it is a hopeful conclusion, because it suggests that the Universe is a much more interesting place than materialists assert. Maybe the brain is not the mind but the mind’s computer, just that very useful machine that my mind uses in the daily activities of life. It is quite astonishing that so many of our contemporaries continue to assert that materialism is actually a preferable stance.

Qualia before Quanta

What is the nature of the contents of the phenomenal field? Though experience is quantistic to some degree, it is qualistic to a much higher degree. Thus quantitative activities such as enumerating, listing and defining are experienced within the phenomenal field. As we saw under the heading ‘What is Matter?”, it is activities such as these which science employs in its exploration of the world. But qualistic experiences such as I have been pointing to above are perhaps even more frequent, indeed omnipresent in the phenomenal field. Experiences of this kind cannot be quantified, taken apart, dismantled like bits of machinery, reduced to abstractions, words or properties, without losing their very nature. As is succinctly argued by Stephen Priest:

Consciousness, subjectivity, freedom, qualitative facts, concrete experience and individuality are metaphysical features of reality that cannot just be cleared up by science. They are so utterly antithetical to the scientific concepts of matter, objectivity, determinism, quantification, abstraction and generality that it is hopeless to suppose that, say, the theory of evolution, neurobiology or physics will have anything explanatory to say about them. The idea has to be given up that reality is mostly objective or essentially objective and conscious subjectivity a minor epiphenomenon (or nothing at all). There is no objective explanation for subjectivity, and subjectivity, far from being nothing, is the lived reality that we are.

One might justly compare the qualistic experience to a landscape, the quantitative approach to a map; the former is the full-scale, living, dense, actually experienced reality, the latter is a selective outline or plan, a mere skeletal diagram entirely derived from the former, and necessarily excluding the greater part of it. As Priest also writes,

The problem for science is why there should be subjectivity at all. Why is the universe not just an objective universe? No amount of scientific experimentation or mathematical modelling is going to solve this problem. Empirical experiments treat their subject matter as observable, but subjectivity pertains to the observing, not the observed. Mathematical modelling depicts the quantitative, but subjectivity is qualitative.

People are over-credulous about objectivity. It is a construct. There can be, in the nature of things, no reports of anything at all except those which are subjective. This is because there is no such thing as strict objective truth. Take science, for instance. Science is based upon observations. Observations require an observer. An observer does not observe unless he or she is conscious. A basic condition of consciousness is that one is locked within one’s own private awareness. To achieve ‘objectivity’, conscious scientists are required, and (like everyone else) they cannot see through other people’s eyes or hear through other people’s ears. In practice therefore they have to come to a majority agreement as to what they have observed. ‘True objectivity’ therefore is not available; we shall have to make do with its real meaning — namely the product of agreement between subjectivities. So-called objectivity derives from subjectivity, and is entirely dependent on it.

Moreover, ‘We never encounter physical objects without the encounterer […]’ In other words, the presence of consciousness is always verified; it is matter which needs verification, not consciousness.

The Misleading Nature of Language

While emphasizing the qualistic nature of experience, I must point out that we are often misled by the fact that language normally conceals that nature. The concrete experience of the world around me at this moment is felt by my various senses in a qualistic way. The words I may use to describe such experiences are on the contrary an abstraction from these rich and concrete experiences. For that is the nature of words, which are in their fundamental nature abstract, general and selective.

Words are abstract in the very precise sense that they pick out ‘qualities’ from experiences. (This being the original sense of the Latin verb abstrahere = to withdraw, pick out.) So as to ‘describe’ a swimming pool, I may abstract from it a number of qualities. I may say it is blue, cold, wet, has a stone path round it, that the water has a wavy motion, etc. Loosely we call this ‘a description’. But we should note that each of these qualities is general, since there is an infinity of things to which each word (‘blue’, ‘cold’, ‘wet’, ‘stone’, ‘motion’, etc) may be applied. All sorts of objects of different kinds may be termed ‘blue’ for instance, yet none of these objects necessarily resembles any other except in this one respect of being called ‘blue’. Moreover there are an infinity of shades of blue, none of which is specified here. Each word is also selective, in that the pool possesses an infinity of features, yet we have selected (‘picked out’ or ‘withdrawn’ from it) only this tiny number. Strictly speaking, we could in principle go on describing the pool for ever; and the same is true of any natural object whatever. There will always be something more to say. Each quality is also imprecise, in that the single word ‘blue’, ‘cold’ or ‘wet’ is used to cover a large number of different shades of blue, degrees of wetness, a vast range of temperatures, and so forth. Words are (1) general, (2) selective and (3) imprecise, and this is fundamental to the way they are. To say they ‘describe’ real-life objects is misleading, for there is plainly nothing picture-like about these ‘descriptions’. Words merely point at the object in question, rather in the manner of a signpost, label or aide-mémoire. They in no way ‘reproduce’ or ‘evoke’ experiences; when ‘turning an experience into words’, the content of the experience itself is always lost, and replaced by abstract elements extracted from its wholeness. The philosopher must, therefore, be exceedingly careful not to confuse what he often calls ‘properties’ (blueness, swimming-pool-ness, waviness) with qualia, and so to mistake abstractions for the real dense experiences of ordinary life, the latter being, in the proper sense of the word, ineffable. It is all too easy to let language lead us astray. A ‘property’ is an abstraction: it is simply an element of reality verbally abstracted from experience and thereby divested of its dense qualistic suchness.

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