Chapter 5


"Well yes," you say, "but how do you know that in all of these transformations of getting the message from France to your printer something didn't go wrong, and because of some glitch in your program or some electrical storm out at sea, your printer prints out a different message when the one that was sent is the same--or vice versa?" You don't.

How could you? You're stuck here in the United States, and you can't even look inside your computer and printer; all you can do is read messages. And in perception, you don't know what is going on in your brain; your consciousness is just your consciousness. Hence, when I look out at the dog, it might be that differences in my eyes, differences in the lighting, differences in expectations--all sorts of differences--make the dog's color appear different at different times, even if it's the same color all the time.

And in fact this happens. In dim light, the form of consciousness I have of the dog is the same as that of a much darker brown in bright light. Painters know this; it is a rule of painting that "The lightest light color in the dark must be painted as darker than the darkest dark in the light" in order for the painting to "look right." But clearly the color of the dog's fur hasn't changed, any more than the sun changes color at sunset.

Dip one hand in hot water and the other in ice water; then dip both of them in tepid water; it feels hot to the one that was in cold water and cold to the other one; but the water is the same temperature--and you know this, interestingly enough, though not through your hands at the moment.

This indicates two things: (1) that there is a whole causal chain between me and the existence I am interested in, generally; and anywhere along the chain things can happen that distort the information coming in in such a way that identical messages sent become different messages received, and different messages sent turn into similar messages received, and so on. (2) We can sometimes know this is happening and correct for these wrong impressions.

But before discussing this, let me point out that if we leave the place where we are at the moment and fall back on our years of experience in using our senses as receiving instruments, we find that they are quite consistent. For instance, the fact that the same color looks different under different lighting conditions is in practice compensated for by the fact that all other colors look different in parallel ways; so that you if you move from bright light to dim light, the relationships between the color values is more or less maintained, and dark green looks darker than light green. If you put on sunglasses, at first everything has a greenish tinge; but since the relationships between the colors remains more or less the same, then after a while your visual mechanism compensates for the greenish cast and erases it from your consciousness, and you see white as white again. This even works for those who put on glasses that make everything appear upside down; after a few days, they see everything as right side up through the glasses. The other senses also tend to adjust to different conditions so that the relationships between the acts can be noticed.

Nevertheless, we do get fooled. And we can correct ourselves if we notice some effect whose cause is a distortion making our perception "point to" the wrong object. In the case of the water's feeling hot and cold, the effect is that the water is seen as a single body of water, and our experience, confirmed by physics, indicates that water has a basically uniform temperature. Add this to the fact that one hand was hot and the other was cold, and feeling different temperatures with the different hands makes sense because of the condition of the hands, not the water.

The most common way to correct forms of consciousness that point the wrong way is to ask other people. It is reasonable to assume that they have perceiving mechanisms that are basically the same as ours; and if the relationships between their forms of consciousness do not match the relationships between ours, then either we are perceiving different objects, or one or both of us have got something wrong with the way we are perceiving. If large numbers of people have a different relationship among perceptions than I do, I tend to say that there is something wrong with me.

For instance, color-blind people learn that they are color-blind by noticing that other people seem to see the stop light and the go light as different, whereas the color-blind see them as the same. Since (a) most people see them as different, and (b) making them the same color would encourage traffic accidents, then the only reasonable hypothesis is that they really are different colors, and the people who see them as the same have faulty vision.

I referred to this checking by using other people earlier when I mentioned the psychological experiment where others deliberately lie to fool the subject. This, as now can be perhaps more clearly seen, is a deliberate falsification of evidence, destroying the main means we have of correcting faulty impressions.

But something important is implied here: It is not necessary for other people's perceptions to be the same as ours for us to use them to check on the objectivity of our relationships; it is enough for them to be consistent.

What do I mean? Let us suppose a situation in which neither of us is color-blind (so that we see two different colors as the same), but our sensations are reversed, so that the subjective impression you have from grass, emeralds, etc. is the same as the impression I have of rubies, stop lights, etc., and vice versa.

This can get a little complicated, so let me draw a picture of what I mean: The shapes in the diagram, of course, represent the colors as transmitted and those as received.

The point of this is that the top picture will occur whether the source is grass, trees, emeralds, or anything else that is green; you will get the upper impression, and I will get the lower one; and so your impression will be the same for all these objects, and my impression will also be the same. My impression will not be the same as yours, but every time you get the upper impression, I will get the lower one.

And in the bottom picture, every time a ruby, a stop light, or anything red occurs, you will get the upper impression (which happens to be the same as my impression in the top picture) and I will get the lower one; and so once again your reaction to red will be (a) different from your reaction to any other color, and (b) the same as any other reaction you have to red; and exactly those two facts are also true of my reaction, in spite of the fact that my reaction is different from yours.

Now in this situation, two things occur: First, it would be impossible for either of us to tell that the other was reacting differently; and secondly, the actual differences would be completely irrelevant, because what we mean by "green" is "whatever it is that grass, trees, emeralds, etc. have in common that affects my eyes." And this is identically the same meaning for both of us. That is, we are not matching the perceptions with the energy "out there." We are referring to relations between the energies "out there" based on relations between the reactions "in here." And since, even though the reactions themselves would be different in your case and mine, the relations between them in your case would be the same as the relations between my reactions and the relations between the energies, then we don't need to bother about whether the way I see green is the same as the way you see green.

This can be confusing, so let me try to state it briefly. Suppose you and I don't see things in the same way (your subjective reactions are different), but in both cases the reactions are consistent among themselves (though not between you and me; what I am saying is that whenever the same act occurs, you see it as the same, and whenever there is a difference, you see the two as different; and this is true for me also, even though my subjective impressions are in fact different from yours.

It would follow from this that the relationship between your subjective impressions (e.g. sameness) would be the same relation as the one between my (different) subjective impressions. If you see grass as the same as emeralds and I see them as the same, this same relation will obtain in both cases, even though your reactions are in fact different from mine.

Of course, because we have basically the same visual apparatus, it is extremely unlikely that the way you see green is very different from the way I see green; but the point is that whether or not there is any difference, or whether it is great or small, is irrelevant as long as our receiving instruments are consistent with themselves. That is all we need in order to achieve knowledge about the relations between the causes of our impressions.

In other words, once we recognize that it is relationships that are what is being "matched," the nature of what is being done means that we need no guarantee of "social" or "collective subjectivity" to establish objectivity; even though it is a fair bet that this kind of social subjectivity actually obtains.

But to resume our inquiry about mistakes, if we check on ourselves by asking other people--who, as I said, have basically the same receiving mechanisms--there might still be some fault in all our receiving instruments that we couldn't catch, precisely for this reason.

For instance, we feel heat and see light; but since we have different receiving instruments for this, is the difference due to different kinds of acts acting on our eyes and hands respectively, or to the fact that we have different receivers? Asking others can't answer this question, because they have the same problem.

But we find that instruments that react to light (spectrometers) register a certain number when pointed at what we react to as green, and another number when pointed at what we react to as red. But they register other numbers when pointed at what we react to as heat, and at what our radios seem to be reacting to and we can't react to at all.

Presumably, because spectrometers are simple instruments, they are reacting to the same basic kind of activity; and so in all probability light and (radiant) heat are the same kind of activity, and we perceive them as different because we have different receiving mechanisms. Presumably, our eyes can react only to one part of the "electromagnetic spectrum," and our tactile nerves to another part, while the spectrometer can react to the whole range of acts of that type.

This is why scientific instruments are helpful, really. Not because they measure, and the quantity is such an "objective" something-or-other; but because, not being human, then relationships between their reactions can offer us a check on whether the humanness of our receiving instruments are entering into the relationships among our forms of perception and making us think that there are relationships between the existences that aren't actually "out there."

In any case, it is the relationships "out there" which are objectively known about the existences, not the existences themselves; and I have shown how we can have relationships "in here" which should be but aren't the same as the corresponding relations "out there" between the beings that caused them, and how at least sometimes we can discover these faults and correct them.