Monday, January 24, 2011


[This is a continuation of a thread begun here.]

Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipotentem,
factorem cœli et terrae, visibilium omnium et invisibilium.
-- The Creed

The theory of knowing  is modeled after what was supposed to take place in the act of vision.  …  A spectator theory of knowledge is the inevitable outcome.
-- John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty (1960)

Why anyway this fetish with *seeing* things?  There are some things which you can see, but which nobody else can; and you can’t touch them, and you can put your hand through them; and when you blink, they’re gone, or have shifted position. In such a case, we say: “You’re seeing things.”  These things are called “hallucinations”, or “muscae volitantes”, and most of them probably are.  If being “visible” is all you’ve got going for you, you’ll need something further on your resumé.
            Now try this thought-experiment.  In a universe (which might even be our own), there is a race of rational beings, known as the Blorks:  blind, deaf, immobile (and quite spherical), who nonetheless can sense objects around them with incredible precision, using a kind of echo-location, but only when those objects move.  (Vision in some animals is rather like this.)  Now, things don’t move much in their friction-ridden landscape, unless you nudge them.  And the only way the memberless Blorks have to nudge them, is via a biological analog to the technology currently being developed for quadriplegics:  you think an appropriate thought, and it has an effect on your computer, and thence, via robotic coupling, on the physical world.  Chez the Blorks, the action is direct, cutting out the middle-machine.  Now, in that world, the way to induce a certain movement of a body, is to discover (whether by calculation or direct insight) a solution to the equations of motion, and then to “think it aloud”.  Fortunately, hardwired into this species are the laws of dynamics, in their elegant Lagrangian form.  (We too have a few of these hardwired, though they don’t go very far, being practically exhausted in the infant’s experiment of repeatedly dropping her spoon.)  So, to calculate these trajectories  is virtually second-nature, rather like the abilities of an experienced driver, to calculate a merge.  (There are, to be sure, some drivers among us, who never manage this and similar skills, attempting to pass you on the right and then zip in and cut you off, in a way wholly inconsistent with present projected trajectories;  such I desire might become perfectly spherical, and then roll down some infinite inclined plane.)  If your solution is correct, the results are very real: the object moves as directed, and every detail of its motion registers on your echolocator, your nerves thrill at the inrush of sense-data, with a precision which beggars our own retinal amblyopia.  (If your solution is incorrect, God administers a mild – a very mild, not at all dangerous (for, Boshaft ist er nicht) – though admittedly rather sharply painful, electric shock.)  The boulder so moved may go crashing into other boulders, and if you miscalculated, it may roll right over you, thus reducing you from a ball to a disk. 
            It seems clear that, to these creatures, the equations of motion, and the mathematics of their solution, will have a lived reality, a concrete sensuousness, similar to  or exceeding  that of our own, dim, barely binocular judgment of distances, which we cannily calculate as best we can, before reaching for the coffee-cup.  (Dang. Spilled another one.)
            Upshot:  Discount sight.

            Problem to tackle next:  Not visibilia (trivial), but… observables.  Much more problematic.

[Update:  Sidelight:  Examples of detective work based on reasoning, not from sight, but from sound.  ]

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