Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Update and T. Burge vs J. Campbell: The Limits of Vision Science


What's up friends...I apologize for the increasing duration of time between entries.  I'm in the heart of term paper writing season and it's hard enough just to get my reading and writing done.  I've put work on hold until the semester's over so I can dedicate myself to the work that will hopefully move me forward in life.  
Anywho, aside from an increase in stress, which is to be expected, things are going well.  I'm healthy, learning philosophy, and I go hiking once a week.  What more could I ask for?...I'll stop there.
For all youz guys who like to hear funny stripper stories, I apologize, I have none because I haven't been working...So, on with the philosophy!

T. Burge vs J. Campbell: The Limits of Vision Science

     Could a colour-blind scientist who was an expert on the science of colour vision be able to recognize the colour red (unassisted, on the first try) if she got her vision back?
     Within the realm of philosophy of mind there is a subsection that deals with perception.  The main issue it addresses how much about the external world can we learn through our senses (if anything).  Philosophers who endeavour to answer this question naturally draw heavily empirical (i.e. scientific) knowledge from vision science and perceptual psychology.  Within this specialized field there is a debate as to whether the empirical sciences can give a full description of perception.  (I'll refer only to vision because it is the most studied sense).  
     Historically, there are a couple on background facts that are relevant.  First, in modern philosophy of perception, pre-vision science era, philosopher conjectured on how vision worked.  Some of these philosophers started to employ the scientific method and ran empirical experiments.  Eventually they branched off and formed their own discipline (which is what happened with all the natural and social sciences at some point).  Those that stayed continued to philosophize about vision "from the armchair".   
     Of those that stayed in the armchair, some declared that there were some aspects of perception that science could not tell us about.  Most scientists outside of philosophy scoffed at this notion and saw the philosophers as archaic and simply trying to legitimize their existence. 
     OK, enough background, lets get to the issue.  The issue hinges on what is called, in philosophy speak, "the qualitative aspect of perception".  In normal English it means "what it's like to have an experience".  Essentially, the argument is that science and psychology can tell us how perception occurs, how all the subsystems work, how light arrays on the eyes are converted into neural impulses, how seeing colour activates one part of the brain rather than another, and so on.  But, they say, if you added up all the scientific facts about perception it could never tell you what it's like to see, for example, "a red ball".  Or to make the example more clear, science can tell us how a bee sees, but science cannot tell us anything about what it's like for the bee to see a flower.  
     Philosophers that oppose this view are generally labelled materialists.  They argue that the aggregate of explanations of neural impulses and descriptions of brain states is what is to see x.  In other words, given such and such a brain state and such and such an arrangement of sensory organs and subsystems, the phenomena that arises out of all that stuff simply is perception of x.  There's no more to say about it.
      I find that there is an intuitive pull to saying that, no, all this talk of brain states doesn't give a full account of what it is to see.  Here is a classical argument for the position.  Imagine the most brilliant vision scientist to ever live.  She is knows every thing there is to know about vision.  The knows how every single neurone will respond to seeing any given colour.  In a strange twist of fate, our brilliant vision scientist was born colour blind.  The question is, will all her factual scientific knowledge, does our scientist know what it's like to see red? If she suddenly were able to see colour would she be able to (unaided) identify red the first time she saw it?
     I'm not going to tell you what I think.  I'm curious to know what other people think.  Please post your comments!  I hope I've explained the issue clearly.  If you have questions please affix a wedge-like piece of metal to the end of a wooden handle and ax me!

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