What truth can we know from sensed perspective?

This blog is a brief summary of my own thoughts before going into tutorial discussions this week. It might be interesting to post a before and after perspective to a great question set within my cognitive psychology module this week.

Group question: What does the distinction between sensation and perception imply when discussing one’s “truth”?  If there are, in fact, multiple “truths” what does the lack of objective reality mean for scientific psychology?

I had a few immediate pithy sentences come to mind. Who do you believe?  The truth is out there…  You can’t handle the truth!  Is the truth even knowable?

I was tempted to reflect upon philosophical truth in wider sense but personal truth seems hard enough. The hard problem…

Physiological truth

The bounds of our experience are closely connected to our senses. Therein how we interpret the information received. Technology allows us to expand some of the ranges of our senses but even with this expanded translation of reality we perceive, interfaces are crossed between us and the reality known. If indeed reality itself is more than a belief.

Even without artificial aid, the sheer scale of data we gather is extraordinary. From lecture materials just read, the precision of the data captured by our eye is almost innumerably complex. The interconnections of cells and pathways connected to sight are 100,000,000,0004,000 which presents more possible connections than there are atoms in the universe. From this unimaginably large array of data connections – once over whatever interface exists between reality and perception – we can then process what we determine to be thousands of objects at any one moment. To which data we may add touch, hearing, smell, and taste; bodily awareness and spacetime positioning. Even considering just the relays of these receptors not all is fully understood. By example, there are receptors in our skin we know exist but only best guess their purpose.

Perceived reality

What then of the processing itself?  We have innate abilities considered unique in the animal world.  Our physiological orientation associated with touch concentrated in body parts unlike other mammals.  Our tongue physiologically more acutely connected by touch than cats, or dogs, rabbits, or rats.  Our fingers more intimately registering a range of touch.  Klatsy et al. (1985) 95% of 100 common objects (e.g. fork, brush, paper clip) correctly identified by blindfolded subjects i.e., identified by ‘feeling’ them.  At some point in our anthropology, tongues enabled sound to be morphed into repeatable and more complex phrases of noise.  The dexterity of our opposable thumbs offering information gathering potential and control enough to mould and craft.

The brain’s Somatosensory cortex receives and processes the layers of information derived from touch. Each skin location is represented by a corresponding cortical area (orderly ‘topographic map’ of body). The processes space in the brain demonstrated to be greater for some areas of the body than others.

somatosensory cortex
(Graphic source unknown but adapted from Penfield, W. & Rasmussen, T. The cerebral cortex of man. New York: Macmillan, 1950, via UoN lecture notes)

This is a mapped area of the Somatosensory cortex. Devised from Penfield & Rasmussen, 1950 work on patient responses during brain surgery.  The amount of cortex are reserved for more sensitive skin areas are represented by larger areas of cortex where ‘more neural hardware’ is present.

Not mentioned in these lectures was a wider comparison of other more distant specie relations. The octopus has the same number of neuronal cells as a dog (~500m), and twice that of a cat. Yet only 10% of those are in each of it’s two brains, with the majority of the rest divided equally in each of its eight arms. Our principle sense is sight – imagine that! The octopus dominates its perspective via its sense is smell – through its skin. It also has semi-autonomous ability to morph specially adapted skin to mimic hue, form, and texture of the environment it is in. How different must the organisational structures be to have more decision-making made near the source. The High Reliability Organisation of the animal world. Here then are senses and interactions with a less centralised perception in a range of information alien to our own. What truth does it smell that we cannot see?

Intentional change

Crucially and uniquely, is our capacity to imagine and to symbolically rework information into repeatable and transient inner form and temporal bound.  Within these mechanisms we gain insight.  We predict.  We learn.  We find ways to repeat, communicate, and adapt.  I am yet to encounter the psychological explanations for this within this course, but other reading informs me this is unique to us. Noam Chomsky is on our syllabus but not until next term. Crucially this symbolism enables intervention, interpretation, adaptation and theme. A rework of information as translated from nature whilst not fully knowing what that necessarily means.  We operate through best guessed grey spaces.  Summarise, approximate, prioritise.  We predict based upon imperfect information, errors, and change. What is truth when there is always a necessary approximating and therefore an unknown?

Scientific truth

By what measure can we deem science as singular truth? And by extension therefore psychology. As examples, Aristotelian revisions by Galileo.  Newtonian physics revised by Einstein who for twenty plus years thereafter resisted but slowly accepted the notion of quantum mechanics – which his theories cannot fully square.  Within living memory for many was the witness of the Kuhn vs Popper debate which pitted the historic realities of the settled science practices vs the acclaimed scientific method of falsification, which Popper advocated was our norm but which Kuhn reflected upon as no more than an ideal. Reality vs best practice therefore not harbouring singular truth – or at least not for long. Within this framework of discourse sits the question of whether mathematical precision can ever replicate what our limited instruments of measurement can perceive as real.  And to what extent the bounds of human knowledge and sensory perception can be extended by the technology we build – and may one day soon be replaced.

Moral and ethical truth

Kant, Hagel, Nietzsche or Foucault all parked for another day. Here I will only dwell upon legal truth – as onus of proof. In the narrowest of definitions here sit more interfaces of truth.  Innocent until process demonstrates guilt.  The ownership of a better, more believable, subjective truth. The intent or the transit by a letter in the post assumed sent.  Or the intentions of words – contract or intent – hermeneutics – at the risk of the drafter or interpretation of the reader as forever at risk of latter-day revisits of old truths.  New science to old facts. Fingerprints or DNA affording hidden reality to be revealed.  All of which requires a level of trust in the moral and ethical agreements of people, and the technology by which we rely.  We have a sensed record and perception of its meaning, but is this ever unquestionably right, or unequivocally true?

Socratic discourse, know more to know we know less

This is a group question for debate amongst peers this week.  A moment of perhaps coming to our senses or a sense check of what is known.  Offering perhaps a sensible solution.  Perhaps seeing is believing as we push this around all week.  Even if we collectively agree on what we think we might know, can we be sure we agreed to the same thing?  Can we be sure we communicated it without error?  Can we ever really know anything?  Or just hope to narrow the gap on the unknown.

In truth, Socrates was probably right.  If Plato’s writings in his name are to be believed. To be wise, is to know we do not know…

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