If experienced observers are trained to observe natural phenomena in their environment, pace the “interference” of cultural accidents, what is it they observe?
As I mentioned before, we are not born into a world of ready made phenomena. William James referred to the sensory world of a newborn baby as a “blooming, buzzing confusion”:
Experience, from the very first, presents us with concerted objects, vaguely continuous with the rest of the world which envelops them in space and time, and potentially divisible into inward elements and parts. These objects we break asunder and unite. … The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion; and to the very end of life, our location of all things in one space is due to the fact that the original extents or bignesses of all the sensations which came to our notice at once, coalesced into one and the same space. [James 1890, 487–488; see John Hawks’ commentary for a critique]
But if the world is divisible in so many ways, why do we divide our experiences in the ways we do? What makes some aspects of our immediate environment salient? That is, why do some stimuli have more importance than others for us? That there are phenomena in the objective world is not at issue. But there are an indefinitely large number of possible ways to carve the world up in our categories. We must be able to make a start. What James did not know, in 1890, is that there is a prior set of what you might think of as neurological guidelines for making sense of the world. Mach, and Lorenz following him, referred to this as the “evolutionary a posterioria”. These are what Kant called the synthetic a prioria, that which we “know” to begin with, but which we cannot have derived from logical truths.
Consider vision. We do not learn to see, we learn to interpret what we see. Assuming normal development, the visual system functions at birth. However, control of the system, focusing and the like, and the neural pathways necessary to process the inputs, are not developed, and they need to kick off by individual adaptation, or neural plasticity. But what to attend to in the beginning, if there is such a plurality of alternatives? Evolution has provided a number of dispositions to attend to edges, motion, and tonal variation. James’ “objects” are the outcome of these discriminatory dispositions we have at birth.
So our dispositions in a way “make” the phenomena we observe. This veers too closely to the “constructed reality” version of our first post, though. It is better to say, though, that a phenomenon P exists as a relation between the observer O, and the environment being observed E. O has a set of prior dispositions that make some aspects of E salient. Some of these are biological dispositions, inherited through reproduction of the organisms. Some of these are sociological dispositions, based upon, yes, language, folk taxonomy, and social institutions like (for example) scientific social practices. And some are simply categories that we are disposed by our cultural biases to slot observations into. We do not construct our natural categories so much as negotiate them with the external world at varying degrees of distance from our individual dispositions. We could do a pseudo equation:
where the observer’s dispositions of biology (b), society (s) and culture (c) modulate with the local environment (based on the distance d) to produce a phenomenon. The “weight” of each variable determines how “natural” the phenomenon is. Visualised as a continuum, when the variables of s and c are low, and the stimuli are very local, the phenomenon is something more likely to be objective, vis a vis our perceptual apparatus, and hence “natural” or “real”. When s and c are high value, the phenomenon is more likely to be a constructed (sociocultural) one. Assuming that the selection process tends to make phenomena more accurate as representations of the environment, we can represent phenomena like this (where “facts” are statements of phenomena; i.e., categories). When selective pressure on the categories is low for s and c, we have a more purely constructed category, like when I come up with a fake category for philosophical illustrative purposes, or when a politician appeals to some ideal that makes no sense (like the unregulated market as a way to achieve the most rational distribution of resources), although once such a category is in play, acceptance of it tracks the signalling aspect of categories, if not the factuality of the content of the ideas they purport to represent.
The Karam category which includes humans and cassowaries, but not other birds, is one example. It is constructed in opposition to natural facts, but adherence to it signals commitment to the sociocultural order of the tribe. Another example is the “uncleanness” of pigs among Jews and Muslims. In fact, the notion of clean and unclean in most cultures serves not as a categorisation of the facts about these food sources, although that is the rationale for them, but as an honest signal you are tracking cultural norms.
When seen like this (admittedly a gross oversimplification) we can now ask, at last, how it is that science can claim to be approaching, delineating, and explaining, natural phenomena. That’s the next, and final, post on this.
Oh, and incidentally, Italian has 50 words (or phrases) for coffee:
Now we know why…
Wilkins, J. S. (2016). Is Religion or Science Debunked by the Evolution of Cognitive Faculties? Advances in Religion, Cognitive Science, and Experimental Philosophy. H. d. Cruz and R. Nichols. London, NY, Continuum: 19–38.