Thursday, January 18, 2007

Sense, Common Sense and Philosophy

If we uncritically accept 'common sense', then in all likelihood, we think that we have five senses. These five senses, as everyone knows, are sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. People seldom ask either why we believe this, or whether it is in fact correct.

It turns out the reason that we believe that we have five senses, is because Aristotle said that this was the number we have. Aristotle, especially back during the late Medieval period was taken to be an authority on many things. This is how the belief about the number of senses became 'common sense'.

Although widely seen as an authority in the past, there are quite a few things that Aristotle got rather badly wrong. For instance, he thought that we did our thinking with our heart and that the brain was just some kind of radiator! Aristotle's claim about the number of the senses is actually incorrect also.

Consider first our 'sense of balance' (notice how we even customarily call this a 'sense'). Which of the supposed five senses is responsible for this? None of them! Now it turns out that this sense, more properly called 'equilibrioception', is located in the cavities in the inner ear. Some might think that this makes it a subspecies of hearing, but that is just wrong.

Another non-traditional sense is 'nociception'. This is the perception of pain in our skin, joints and bodily organs. Once again, when you have, say a stomach ache, which of the traditional senses could it be attributed to? Again, a little reflection will reveal that none of the traditional senses quite fit the bill.

A third less well-known sense is 'thermoperception'. This is the fancy name for the perception of heat. As before, none of the traditional senses quite give us the right kind of information, although some think that this may be a special facility of the sense of touch.

The point here is that if you are persuaded by even one of these examples, then it follows that the common sense belief that we have five senses is incorrect. If you are still not persuaded, then the final 'extra sense' is 'proprioception', or body awareness. If we notice carefully, we are aware of where our body parts are located. Even if you wriggle your foot, beneath a table, where you cannot see it, you know it's orientation, when you are done.

So, our common sense belief that we have five senses is incorrect. From the examples above, it is at least plausible to claim that we have nine (we could have more!). Our belief about our number of senses comes about, due to a mistake by Aristotle.

This is one of the nice things about philosophy. Even though philosophers make mistakes from time to time, a bit of careful philosophical reflection can help us discover these errors and get things right in the end.

The CP


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