What Is It Like To Have Whiskers?

20th century Philosophy saw a burgeoning interest in modalities of sensory perception un-enjoyed by humans. And the interest is well-deserved; for it is by looking to the physiognomy of bats and dogfish that we can best test our intuitions on whether or not adequate knowledge of an organism’s physical structure can ever tell us everything that we can know about what it is like to be that organism. However, philosophers tend to gravitate towards sonar and perceptual sensitivity to magnetic fields without paying attention to whether any lessons might be learned in less weird perceptual modes. Are non-human sensory modes like sonar always wholly unimaginable, or are some such modes more imaginable than others? If we can’t imagine what it is like to perceive through sonar, for instance, can we imagine what it is like to tell an object’s shape by our whiskers?

As the Economist reports, tremendous advances have recently been made in understanding how seals detect and perceive prey whilst swimming in murky water. When an object moves about under water, it creates a signature wake that carries information about the object. This information is lost on humans; a wake is a wake so far as our sensory systems are concerned. But a series of tests on a trained seal have shown that seals are able to discriminate objects whose width vary by as little as 2.8 cm, and can also distinguish objects of a similar width yet different shape.

This ability probably falls under the realm of good old-fashioned tactile perception, yet try as I might, I cannot imagine being able to distinguish the wake of a round object from that of a square one. At the same time, however, I feel inclined to contend that we can more easily imagine what it is like to have seal whiskers than what it is to perceive via sonar or disturbances in the magnetic field. Can seals help us to better understand the conceptual barriers that seem to arise in the more extreme cases of experience? Or might we even find that spending an afternoon in the pool after not shaving for a few months uncovers unknown sensory powers in our sideburns?

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He said, she said.

388px-Germany_Singelfingen_GossipsThis week the Guardian published an article questioning the veracity of UK sex trafficking figures. Not long ago, numbers as high as 25,000 were being used to motivate government policy which has led to changes in the priorities of virtually every police force in the country, and likely changes in the law. But it turns out the figures are bogus. The Guardian article charts their genealogy.

A central division that shapes the epistemology of testimony is that between reductionists and non-reductionists. Reductionists think that interlocutors have to justify what they are told by their own means. Non-reductionists think that interlocutors can, in principle, be justified in being so told, alone. The present situation offers a nice illustration of what’s at issue.

It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could know everything that is known. But in any society in which there is a division of epistemic labour, many people make decisions which affect the lives of others on matters about which they are not experts or even knowledgeable hobbyists.

This combination (absent first-hand knowledge, and, a capacity to affect the lives of others) introduces a requirement that people rely on what the authorities (whoever they are: mechanics, scientists, economists, estate agents, policy designers, teachers…) tell them. This is a fact of modern life. Most of what you know you do not know first hand. But for this dependence on authority to work effectively as a basis on which interlocutors can make good decisions, and act appropriately: the authorities in question must have an accurate reputation; the theatres in which authorities have their checks and controls need to be functioning properly; and that which leaks out into the public domain needs to be put in a way that non-experts can understand and put to use responsibly.

When we have non-expert consumers of information, much scaffolding needs to be in place for a reliance on authority not to end in disaster. But with it in place, we get a picture of the epistemological status of testimony that is not obviously either reductionist or non-reductionist.

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£1.99 - small Knowing from Testimony
Department of Philosophy, Northern Illinois University
(Vol. 1, June 2006)
Philosophy Compass

Sex Verification Test

Gender_neutralIn the weeks to follow, the International Association of Athletic Federations, IAAF, will decide whether South African runner Caster Semenya will be stripped of the gold medal, after winning the women 800-meter race last Wednesday in Berlin at the World Championships in Athletics. Semenya is not guilty of the usual: doping. What is at issue, instead, is whether Semenya was eligible to race as a woman. Continue reading “Sex Verification Test”