Question about observation and the sense theory

  • #1
bunburryist
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I’m often not sure what science writers mean when they use the word “observe.” I was recently re-reading Einstein’s book on relativity and it’s “observe” this and “observe” that, in a very simplistic sense. What’s “observable” to me is blue and green and red, etc., and the apparent spatial aspect of that experience. I don’t “observe” a material world I can’t experience or locate. Do working physicists believe – I mean really believe – that the world of their experience is “the” material world, or do they really believe it is something happening in a material brain in a material world they can’t experience? Is this issue even on their radar, or is it simply dismissed as silly philosophical fluff?

It seems to me that the scientific theory of the senses is pretty much a done deal – as “scientific” as evolution or plate tectonics. Are there really any working physicists out there who don’t believe we see “because light in a material world (we can’t experience) goes into our material eyes (which we can’t experience), nerve impulses go to our material brains (in our material heads we don’t experience), and then this experience we call “seeing the world” happens in those material brains”? If this is considered solid science, why isn’t this integrated into science overall? It seems strange to me that a theory supposedly so widely accepted, and which has such a solid physical structure, should be left un-integrated. How can there still be any disagreement in the scientific community in general over whether what we experience is a material world or an experience happening in a material brain when the physical process which essentially isolates experience in "the brain" is so clear? The two options are fundamentally different, and mutually exclusive reality paradigms that the contradiction between the two jumps out at me. There are a few reasons that come to my mind –

1. They just don’t think about it at all.

2. They think it would “only confuse things.”

3. They don’t think the distinction is important enough to bother with.

4. Scientists themselves don’t really believe that what we experience (and learn to call “the material world”) is something happening in a material brain.

5. They understand on some level that teaching the general public that what they thought was a material world is not really a material world at all, and that the “real” material world (along with atoms, photons, and all other physical entities) is kind of like heaven, in the sense that no individual can find it in his experience, will erode the public’s confidence in science.

6. Like many non-scientists, they believe the sense theory in an abstract, “theoretical” sense but don’t apply it to “real life.”

I know that these are relatively simplistic questions about stereotypical scientists, and that real scientists will have varying opinions on the above ideas, but I’d appreciate any insight anyone could provide.
 
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  • #3
Lord Jestocost
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At least those who are familiar with the foundations of quantum physics should know: Physics is about “nature” in the way it appears to us, not about the way it is. Observing means that “messages” from “nature” originate mental impressions or conceptions that arise in our consciousness. We have thus no direct access to ultimate reality of nature, whatever that might be. That some people mistake the map for the territory is based upon classical misconceptions regarding reality.
 
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  • #4
Rive
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3. They don’t think the distinction is important enough to bother with.
Even the evaluation of importance is truncated at notice of impossibility to get reliable information.

Also, please beware that the term 'observe' has very different meanings in relativity, quantum mechanics and philosophy.
 
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  • #5
AlexCaledin
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Yes, what we experience is a quite certain solid material world that includes our brains; but it can never be "overall" - because the most fundamental equation is Wheeler-deWitt which generates too many such solid worlds. Therefore, what we can do is to see which particular variant of the world we are actually observing; and, first, to see that our brains be behaving not too bad in this variant.
 
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  • #6
bunburryist
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Jesto - So you come down on the, "The science teacher shouldn't tell the ten year old that the pen he sees is made of atoms," side. Got it.
 
  • #7
bunburryist
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I'm interested in what we tell the ten year old.
 
  • #8
ZapperZ
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I’m often not sure what science writers mean when they use the word “observe.” I was recently re-reading Einstein’s book on relativity and it’s “observe” this and “observe” that, in a very simplistic sense. What’s “observable” to me is blue and green and red, etc., and the apparent spatial aspect of that experience. I don’t “observe” a material world I can’t experience or locate. Do working physicists believe – I mean really believe – that the world of their experience is “the” material world, or do they really believe it is something happening in a material brain in a material world they can’t experience? Is this issue even on their radar, or is it simply dismissed as silly philosophical fluff?

Here's the problem with your scenario:

1. What you think is reliable, i.e. your "observable" of blue, green, and spatial world is actually quite ambiguous and ill-defined! You are relying on a system of detectors that actually cannot give you quantitative results to you, and often can be fooled. I'm talking about your eye-optical nerve-brain system as your detector. In another article, I've shown how BAD this detector system is, from the range that it can detect, to its time resolution, to its efficiency. Your eyes and other senses can also be fooled in many different ways (optical illusion, hot-cold, etc.). In other words, this detector system that you rely on is actually a bad detector, something us experimentalist would never use in many instances.

2. The concept that there may be a world that we can't access or that we can't observe is purely speculation. It is already assuming that there IS something out there that we can NEVER be able to detect, no matter what we do or how our knowledge improves in the future. This has not been shown to be valid. But not only that, if this part of our universe can never be accessible, why would it matter if it is there or not? It obviously does nothing to the universe that we can detect.

3. Something that many in the public does not have a proper appreciation of is the idea of reproducibility in science. When something is claimed to happen, this event must be reproducible over and over again, and often times, in a number of different ways. If I say that material A becomes a superconductor at, say 10 K, a bunch of people will be repeating my resistivity measurement to verify that. But not only that, a bunch of other people will be performing magnetic susceptibility measurement, tunneling spectroscopy measurement, penetration depth measurement, etc... etc... all of which can verify that, at 10 K, the results are consistent with this material becoming a superconductor. So now think! What are the odds that this observation is not a valid representation of our actual world? This observation is many orders of magnitude more valid than any political or social theories or concepts, and yet, people put more faith in those political and social theories so much so that many are willing to die for them.

4. If any ideas and theories that we put forth about our world is only in our "material brain" and not a true reflection of an "actual world" (if there is such a thing), then the idea that this world is only in our material brain is in itself ONLY in our material brain and not a true reflection of our actual world. In other words, it is undermining itself! In another post, I've stated how this type of issue produces a circular paradox, i.e. it makes for a logical nightmare.

Chew on those for a bit.

Zz.
 
  • #10
Lord Jestocost
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Jesto - So you come down on the, "The science teacher shouldn't tell the ten year old that the pen he sees is made of atoms," side. Got it.

No!

The science teacher can tell the ten years old that the pen he sees is made of atoms. The corresponding “mental images and concepts” work fine as long as one restricts oneself to the realm where these images and concepts are useful. The feeling that there is “some reality” emerges merely from the usefulness of our “mental images and concepts”: the usefulness for finding our ways through the world, for our thinking and for our communicating with others. The more useful the “mental images and concepts”, the stronger is the feeling that these are about the way nature is, some kind of externalization. But, these are images and concepts which are in our minds and not in the external world, and thus the kind of “counterpart” in the external world is at the end of inscrutable nature.
 
  • #11
bunburryist
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ZZ – Thanks for your response.

Let me try and make my case clearer.

My question isn’t about “the nature of reality” and whether or not there’s a “real world.” I’m taking it for granted that there’s a material world with objective space, atoms and light and everything. My question, rather, is about the theory of the senses that is accepted by the vast majority of scientists, and whether or not we are being accurate in how we portray it and related scientific ideas to students, and how we usually fail to take it seriously. (Whether we should, and whether it’s practical are different questions altogether.)

Try to not visualize this following arrangement as being “in your experience,” but rather as logical game, as it were. There’s a material world and in that world is a pen made of atoms. Some light reflects off of the pen and propagates toward the eyes of a material organism. The light is absorbed by photopsins in the retina of the organism, they change their shape, move out of their “host” molecule, and set in motion a cascade of processes which, via the optic nerve (with a few synapses which objectively separate what happens in the brain from the pen even more) ultimately lead to what the organism will call the experience of “seeing a blue pen” happening in the organisms material brain. (Do we agree that this is, roughly, the accepted scientific theory of vision?)

Some observations:

· The material pen and the material brain are at different places in that material world.

· Nothing happening in the brain is “the same thing” as the material pen – not the blueness, not the orientations or shapes of cortical maps relative to the material pen, not the size of the pen as it is represented in the cortical maps relative to the size of the material pen.

· The material pen is made of atoms, the experience of “seeing a blue pen” is not.

· The experience of seeing a pen has blueness as an aspect, the material pen doesn’t.

· The atoms the material pen is made of are not the same atoms as the brain in which the experience of “seeing a blue pen” happens is made of.

· (The nature of the experience – functional, computational, etc. is irrelevant. What’s relevant is that, whatever the nature of that experience, it is part of/happening in/ the manifestation of something happening in the material brain, and is not the material pen ten feet away.)

· In this description, the blue pen (the only “blue pen” in the narrative) is not “made of atoms.” (That is, no one could open up the organisms head and find a blue pen made of atoms in there.)

· The pen that is made of atoms exists objectively at a different place in the material world from the brain in which the experience happens.


(Do we agree that this is a fair interpretation of the situation?


(A note on the word “see.” We use the word “see” to refer to actual experience, not to two things – an experience happening in a brain AND a material object in a material world of which we can have no experience (and which the vast majority of people have no reason to even suspect exists). When you say to a 10 year old (and most adults) “that blue pen,” they understand you to mean “that place in my experience that is blue and is shaped like a pen,” not to refer an atomic object that has no color as an aspect and exists in a material world of which they can have no experience.)

This description would apply to all aspects of the experience of "seeing a blue pen" - including the apparent spatial aspect.

Is it fair, in the context of the scientific theory of vision, to make the distinction between the material pen and the experience of “seeing a blue pen” happening in the material brain – that they are “not the same thing”?

If so, we can say that “the blue pen the organism experiences seeing is not made of atoms.” I’m not trying to play word games here. My point is neither to say the sense process is “wrong,” or that there is no material reality. But from my understanding of the sense process and what the average person understands the word “see” to mean, it’s misleading to tell someone that “the blue pen you see is made of atoms.” And for someone that does understand the sense story, it’s still a lot of work labeling (“the experience,” “the material”) the two so there is no confusion!

The accurate thing to say would be, “The blue pen you experience seeing –that place in your experience that is blue and shaped like a pen – is not made of atoms. If that’s true about the experience of “seeing a pen,” then it’s true about your experience as a whole. Nothing you experience seeing is made of atoms, and there is no light going from the colors you experience to what you experience as your eyes. After all, what you experience as “your body” (and have all your life believed was a material body) would also be a brain-generated experience of some kind.

One of the perennial problems I’ve come across with this issue is that, since we grow up believing implicitly that the world of our experience is “the material world,” it’s really, really hard for people – even those who have memorized the phrase “I we see and feel with my brain” - to go, “Well, I guess if everything I experience is happening in a brain, then this experience (I learned to call “the world”) and every aspect of it is not a material world, that I can’t find the material world relative to this experience, and that nothing materially real (atoms, photons, etc.) can be found in this experience. This says nothing about there not being a material world. Merely that a brain-generated experience implicit in the scientific theory of the senses can’t be the material world the brain creating the experience exists in.

As an example of the prevalence of this issue, in your post you use the phrases “actual world,” “our world,” and “this world.” I’m not being critical – this is normal! Everyone does it. This is my point! I don’t know whether you mean this supposed brain-generated experience world, or the material world the brain is supposed to exist in. This is exactly my point. Of course, I (think I) know what you really mean – this experience that we believe implicitly is a material world. But that’s inconsistent with the sense process – and that’s my point.

As for the “observation” issue, from my understanding of the sense process theory, I literally can’t find “the material world,” any aspect of it, or anything that exists in it - including it's spatial aspect. This, for me, brings up the huge question of the usability of the concept of objective space since, to my mind, we got it from an experience which isn’t an objective space. But that’s a whole ‘nuther can of worms.

I’m sure you guys are sick and tired of these kinds of questions! I really do appreciate your time responding. To me this question is just fascinating, and I’ve been thinking about it forever! Thanks
 
  • #12
russ_watters
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I’m often not sure what science writers mean when they use the word “observe.” I was recently re-reading Einstein’s book on relativity and it’s “observe” this and “observe” that, in a very simplistic sense. What’s “observable” to me is blue and green and red, etc., and the apparent spatial aspect of that experience. I don’t “observe” a material world I can’t experience or locate. Do working physicists believe – I mean really believe – that the world of their experience is “the” material world, or do they really believe it is something happening in a material brain in a material world they can’t experience? Is this issue even on their radar, or is it simply dismissed as silly philosophical fluff?
It seems to me that you are mixing and matching different issues. First the easy part:

"Observe" has a pretty clear-cut definition/criteria in science. It isn't just what you directly measure with your senses and passive tools (measure distance with a tape measure) but is also what you indirectly measure by by using tools with capabilities beyond our senses (a laser rangefinder to measure distance).

For another example: strictly speaking, radio waves don't "look like" anything, yet we create and use pretty pictures with radio telescopes and that counts as "observation".

Next: "experience" isn't a scientific word, but if you mean direct observation, then no, it is not necessary that we "experience" the natural world to "observe" it because of the previous definition.

That all said, you may even have a different question than those, not just questioning the reality we don't see but even questioning the reality we see. For the most part, scientists have to operate on the assumption that what we "observe" is real and there isn't much point in assuming or exploring the idea that it isn't.
 
  • #13
Rive
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· The material pen and the material brain are at different places in that material world.
If you want to make science from this sentence on basis of your dilemmas about observation and such, then just assuming the existence any 'material world' won't do.
You need reliable proof first. Without proof, it's just (quite fuzzy) philosophy.
 
  • #14
ZapperZ
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ZZ – Thanks for your response.

Let me try and make my case clearer.

My question isn’t about “the nature of reality” and whether or not there’s a “real world.” I’m taking it for granted that there’s a material world with objective space, atoms and light and everything. My question, rather, is about the theory of the senses that is accepted by the vast majority of scientists, and whether or not we are being accurate in how we portray it and related scientific ideas to students, and how we usually fail to take it seriously. (Whether we should, and whether it’s practical are different questions altogether.)

Try to not visualize this following arrangement as being “in your experience,” but rather as logical game, as it were. There’s a material world and in that world is a pen made of atoms. Some light reflects off of the pen and propagates toward the eyes of a material organism. The light is absorbed by photopsins in the retina of the organism, they change their shape, move out of their “host” molecule, and set in motion a cascade of processes which, via the optic nerve (with a few synapses which objectively separate what happens in the brain from the pen even more) ultimately lead to what the organism will call the experience of “seeing a blue pen” happening in the organisms material brain. (Do we agree that this is, roughly, the accepted scientific theory of vision?)

Some observations:

· The material pen and the material brain are at different places in that material world.

· Nothing happening in the brain is “the same thing” as the material pen – not the blueness, not the orientations or shapes of cortical maps relative to the material pen, not the size of the pen as it is represented in the cortical maps relative to the size of the material pen.

· The material pen is made of atoms, the experience of “seeing a blue pen” is not.

· The experience of seeing a pen has blueness as an aspect, the material pen doesn’t.

· The atoms the material pen is made of are not the same atoms as the brain in which the experience of “seeing a blue pen” happens is made of.

· (The nature of the experience – functional, computational, etc. is irrelevant. What’s relevant is that, whatever the nature of that experience, it is part of/happening in/ the manifestation of something happening in the material brain, and is not the material pen ten feet away.)

· In this description, the blue pen (the only “blue pen” in the narrative) is not “made of atoms.” (That is, no one could open up the organisms head and find a blue pen made of atoms in there.)

· The pen that is made of atoms exists objectively at a different place in the material world from the brain in which the experience happens.


(Do we agree that this is a fair interpretation of the situation?


(A note on the word “see.” We use the word “see” to refer to actual experience, not to two things – an experience happening in a brain AND a material object in a material world of which we can have no experience (and which the vast majority of people have no reason to even suspect exists). When you say to a 10 year old (and most adults) “that blue pen,” they understand you to mean “that place in my experience that is blue and is shaped like a pen,” not to refer an atomic object that has no color as an aspect and exists in a material world of which they can have no experience.)

This description would apply to all aspects of the experience of "seeing a blue pen" - including the apparent spatial aspect.

Is it fair, in the context of the scientific theory of vision, to make the distinction between the material pen and the experience of “seeing a blue pen” happening in the material brain – that they are “not the same thing”?

If so, we can say that “the blue pen the organism experiences seeing is not made of atoms.” I’m not trying to play word games here. My point is neither to say the sense process is “wrong,” or that there is no material reality. But from my understanding of the sense process and what the average person understands the word “see” to mean, it’s misleading to tell someone that “the blue pen you see is made of atoms.” And for someone that does understand the sense story, it’s still a lot of work labeling (“the experience,” “the material”) the two so there is no confusion!

The accurate thing to say would be, “The blue pen you experience seeing –that place in your experience that is blue and shaped like a pen – is not made of atoms. If that’s true about the experience of “seeing a pen,” then it’s true about your experience as a whole. Nothing you experience seeing is made of atoms, and there is no light going from the colors you experience to what you experience as your eyes. After all, what you experience as “your body” (and have all your life believed was a material body) would also be a brain-generated experience of some kind.

One of the perennial problems I’ve come across with this issue is that, since we grow up believing implicitly that the world of our experience is “the material world,” it’s really, really hard for people – even those who have memorized the phrase “I we see and feel with my brain” - to go, “Well, I guess if everything I experience is happening in a brain, then this experience (I learned to call “the world”) and every aspect of it is not a material world, that I can’t find the material world relative to this experience, and that nothing materially real (atoms, photons, etc.) can be found in this experience. This says nothing about there not being a material world. Merely that a brain-generated experience implicit in the scientific theory of the senses can’t be the material world the brain creating the experience exists in.

As an example of the prevalence of this issue, in your post you use the phrases “actual world,” “our world,” and “this world.” I’m not being critical – this is normal! Everyone does it. This is my point! I don’t know whether you mean this supposed brain-generated experience world, or the material world the brain is supposed to exist in. This is exactly my point. Of course, I (think I) know what you really mean – this experience that we believe implicitly is a material world. But that’s inconsistent with the sense process – and that’s my point.

As for the “observation” issue, from my understanding of the sense process theory, I literally can’t find “the material world,” any aspect of it, or anything that exists in it - including it's spatial aspect. This, for me, brings up the huge question of the usability of the concept of objective space since, to my mind, we got it from an experience which isn’t an objective space. But that’s a whole ‘nuther can of worms.

I’m sure you guys are sick and tired of these kinds of questions! I really do appreciate your time responding. To me this question is just fascinating, and I’ve been thinking about it forever! Thanks

I do not see this as anything more than philosophy, not physics.

Now take note here, you are STILL using your eyes-optic nerve-brain as your detector. Experimentalists do not use that.

In all of this, I do not believe you have clearly defined "objective space". In fact, I'd like to see a scholarly paper on such definition before proceeding any further, unless of course, this is a phrase that you made up on your own. In which case, I see this thread being shut down very soon.

Zz.
 
  • #15
Drakkith
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The accurate thing to say would be, “The blue pen you experience seeing –that place in your experience that is blue and shaped like a pen – is not made of atoms.

The problem is that that's not a useful explanation unless you're dealing with philosophy or a theory of consciousness. The 5th grader who is learning about atoms is learning about the physical world, not about the representation of that physical world in our minds.So when we say that the pen is made of atoms, we are not talking about our perception of the pen, but about the actual pen.
 
  • #16
berkeman
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Thread closed temporarily for Moderation...
 
  • #17
russ_watters
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Is it fair, in the context of the scientific theory of vision, to make the distinction between the material pen and the experience of “seeing a blue pen” happening in the material brain – that they are “not the same thing”?
Yes.
If so, we can say that “the blue pen the organism experiences seeing is not made of atoms.”
No.
I’m not trying to play word games here.
Nevertheless, as you wrote it, it is indeed an issue of grammar, not philosophy/science: In the sentence you wrote, "the blue pen" *is* the blue pen, not our "experience" of the blue pen.
The accurate thing to say would be, “The blue pen you experience seeing –that place in your experience that is blue and shaped like a pen – is not made of atoms. If that’s true about the experience of “seeing a pen,” then it’s true about your experience as a whole. Nothing you experience seeing is made of atoms, and there is no light going from the colors you experience to what you experience as your eyes.
This is true. It was aptly put in "The Matrix": (paraphrase): our experiences are just electrical signals interpreted by our brains. They aren't required to represent real things and often do not (that's what video games are for!).
I’m sure you guys are sick and tired of these kinds of questions! I really do appreciate your time responding. To me this question is just fascinating, and I’ve been thinking about it forever! Thanks
I get that it can be fascinating, but I don't think you quite realize that it just isn't very important. It isn't a problem. Nevertheless, discussions of this tend to wander into [poor] philosophy.

On that, we'll leave this closed.
 
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