How should things look? Senses vs. common sense

One day Gertrude Anscombe, speaking with Ludwig Wittgenstein, had this exchange of views. He greeted her with the question:

‘”Why do people say that it was natural to think that the sun went round the earth rather than that the earth turned on its axis?”
She replied: “I suppose, because it looked as if the sun went round the earth.”
”Well,” he asked, ”what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth turned on its axis?”

His point is that it’s not true that it looked like something rather than something else. Our opinions about what we see may be  right or wrong, but what we actually see is always ‘right’ one could say. In the case of the sun and the earth, it is not that they seemed to be what they were not (the sunlit land under the moving sun). They looked exactly as they were. What was wrong was our views on the matter.

Between what we see and the meaning of what we see – between perception and judgment – there is a chasm that is difficult to cross due to our prejudices.

What I want to reiterate with this famous anecdote (reported in ” An Introduction To Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, ” 1959, p. 150) is what I have already brought up in the previous post: reality always appears exactly as it is. It could not do otherwise. There is simply no room, no ontologic space, for things not to be what they are.

So why do we have this very strong belief that the world may not appear as it is, as in the case of illusions? It’s because we confuse judgments with experience, concepts with perceptions.

First, I quoted Wittgenstein, now let me quote Galileo, who started modern science with his famous Dialogues in 1637. In this volume, Galileo challenges the value of the senses, suggesting that by observing experience we can go beyond our senses and reach true knowledge. The famous step goes as follows:

“I cannot find an end to my admiration of how much violence in the sense that Aristarchus and Copernicus could have made the reason, that against this she has mastered their belief.”

Here Galileo takes it out on sense, by which he means common sense (also based on other writings, in particular The Assayer, 1623) while the passage has been understood by many to mean the questioning of our senses.

But our senses are obviously neutral with respect to the judgments we can draw from them. For centuries men have seen the apple fall, without being able to understand Newton’s law. In a similar way they have seen the consequences of the rotation of the earth for centuries, without understanding that their planet is moving. But what were they supposed to see?

The tendency to want to diminish the senses as illusory arises from the confusion between our experience (always correct because identical with reality) and our common sense, our judgments. We are in fact arrogant: we always think we know how the world should be and therefore how it should look.

When experience and judgments do not coincide, we usually prefer to sacrifice the former to save the latter. We blame the world for not appearing as it is (or as we think it should be). We fail to question our prejudices.

So, one thing is our senses and another thing entirely is the sense (set of judgments and prejudices). The senses are never wrong (as Kant said).

Senses are never wrong because they are just a part of the world.

The sense, or common sense, on the other hand may very well be wrong because it consists of inferences from varied degrees of reliable reasoning. Common sense might be wrong (it almost always is). Our senses are always right.

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