An Informal Introduction to Covenantal Apologetics: Part 22 – Severing the senses.

By C.L. Bolt

The senses are often thought of as a way to escape the self. Perhaps the subject can transcend the self in some sense through sense experience. Unfortunately, all that one has through such experience is experience itself which is internal and says little if anything about the external world. Of course we would like to think that our senses are a reliable guide to the truth about the external world, but we might call this into question.

We all know how fallible the senses are. They are easily affected by emotions, health, alcohol, distance, etc. The senses are often impaired. How do we know that our senses are keen enough to gather information that we need from the world? Dogs can hear things that humans cannot. How do we know that we even have enough senses to understand the world? There are animals with no eyes that appear to live happily everyday without a worry of what they are missing. What if we are missing important senses that we need to truly understand the world? How do we know that we are not?

We must be careful to draw the distinction between appearances and reality. Skepticism regarding the senses is not in relation to appearances, but in relation to whether or not appearances can be trusted as evidence of the way that things really are. 

Sometimes the senses differ from one another in the way that “an object” is experienced.  It is often the case, and perhaps always the case, that what a person has by way of different senses not only differs but does so in contradictory ways. For example, a surface may appear through sight to be rough and full of texture, yet when felt it seems flat and smooth. A decision must be made between one and the other appearance if we take one or the other to actually be the case, but this decision looks rather arbitrary.

Alleged position of external objects also affects the appearance of objects such that being “closer” to an object may drastically affect the appearance of the object. The tower is the size of a sewing needle until we are nearby. The train may appear stationary to the person in the car getting ready to cross in front of it, while another viewer in a different location sees that the train is moving over seventy miles per hour. One might propose that the various angles on an object only provides a fuller grasp of what that object is like in reality, but then perhaps it is the case that we have not had a sum total of such angles and still do not sense the object as it is in reality.

Even the state of the subject affects what the subject experiences through the senses. The drunken man sees two telephone poles while the sober man sees only one. Someone will respond that the senses obviously do not give reliable information about the way that things really are when the senses are not functioning properly. Surely the senses deliver reliable data regarding how things really are if they belong to a normal and healthy individual in normal circumstances.  But why assume that the experiences of “normal” and healthy people in “normal” circumstances should be thought of as reliable sources of information regarding how things really are?  It seems just as plausible that those who see the world through “abnormality” see it truly while others do not.  Besides, how can we be sure of when we are healthy and normal and in normal circumstances?

When the oarsmen place their paddles in the water we say that the paddles only appear to be bent, but here we come to an appearance with our assumptions already in place. Perhaps it is the case that the oars are bent and when they are dipped in the water their true nature is apparent. Perhaps it is when the oars are out of the water that they appear to be other than what they are.

It is said that the light which reaches us from stars does not give us a true knowledge of what those stars are like at this time. The reason we are given to explain this alleged fact is that it takes a significant amount of time for the light from the stars to reach our eyes. So it is with everything else we experience then. There is a time that it takes for light, sound, smell, etc. to come off of an object and reach our sensory organs. Then there is even more time that it takes any given sensation to make its way through our sensory organs to our brain. Who knows what can happen to the data in that amount of time? Perhaps by the time we receive sense data concerning the external world it is no longer even there, much like we are told we currently see stars that no longer exist. Perhaps our sensory equipment is jammed up with old data.

If we assume that we are the products of an evolutionary “time plus chance plus motion” who is to say that our senses are even “programmed” properly? Of course here we speak of programming only through an allusion to design where there is none. Would you climb aboard an airplane with computers programmed through setting a hundred keyboards outside during a hail storm?

We have seen that appearances are contradictory and yet decisions must be made between these contradictory appearances if we are to accept any of the appearances as revealing how the world is in reality. How is it that we know finally whether or not appearances can be trusted as evidence of the way that things really are?  We have seen that there is a good possibility that the data we obtain through the senses is tainted by the time it reaches our brains. We have seen that an evolutionary scheme of development gives us precious little to hope for by way of trusting the senses. There is finally the question raised in the last part of this introduction wherein we inquired concerning our conceptual schemes properly representing the external world. Here we must raise a similar question concerning whatever sense data we assume we have gleaned from an external world. Lest we venture to defend our senses through appealing to the information we have gleaned from our senses we should remember what we have already stated with respect to the subject of knowledge becoming stuck in self. But this is only the case when the revelation of God to us is excluded from the equation of knowledge from the outset of the discussion.

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