What The Senses Contribute To Essay Research

What The Senses Contribute To Essay, Research Paper

What the senses contribute to knowledge? (Descartes, Leibniz versus Locke, Berkley)

In order to discuss what the senses contribute to knowledge one must first identify the senses used and their contribution to the human learning process. The human senses sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste are all commonplace in our everyday life, one must therefore not forget their initial importance in general prior to considering their contribution toward human learning and knowledge. In assessing the importance of these senses one can make the 17th century argument of Empiricism versus Rationalism, in other words one can draw on the thoughts and theories of Locke in opposition to the beliefs of Descartes. The argument between Empiricism and Rationalism can be broken down to the simple form of Locke s Imperialism being that all knowledge derives from the senses, against Descartes belief that information can be known in advance of experience through innate ideas.

Locke defined knowledge as “the perception of the connection and agreement, or disagreement and repugnancy, of any of our ideas”. The ideas are therefore derived from our sensors that act as receptors to a given stimulus. Locke stated that The senses are the most important factor in the learning process and therefore contribute greatly toward knowledge, as the basis of his theory of perception. Unlike Descartes, Locke himself, and later other Cartesian philosophers such as Leibniz, claimed that innate ideas were practically non-existent. He argued that we (humans) are not constituted so that we can know all, but are born with enough basic knowledge to enable us to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Locke wrote his essay concerning human understanding in 1690 offering the renowned metaphor comparing the mind to blank slate on which experience writes .

This statement clearly and concisely describes his belief that human understanding ultimately derives from experiences that are perceived through the senses, not through some kind of predetermined reaction. Locke felt that the senses, as receptors, first supply us with particular ideas or images from a stimulus, which the mind by degrees becomes familiar with, remembers, and names. Through this process these ideas then become experiences, which are thereafter available to us as memories, which the brain can then consult and use to aid learning and contribute to knowledge.

The senses as our receptors to the outside world were however split into two categories depending on their quality of perception. These are described as the primary and the secondary qualities of the senses. Locke made a basic distinction between the two, arguing that firstly, Primary qualities are entirely inseparable from body. They are known to be primary because the senses consistently find them to be the same, in other words they are perceptions that cannot be altered by factors such as heat or light, which might, for example, affect the colour which the object or stimulus could be perceived. Therefore solidity, shape, and size are all primary qualities. The Secondary qualities, in Locke’s terms, are qualities of perception that could be perceived differently and are dependable on surrounding factors as well as the individual themselves. Consequently effects such as colour, odour, sound, warmth, and smell are all secondary qualities. These qualities can be seen in instances when an individual may perceive differently at different times. For example water, which may appear warm to someone who is cold, might be perceived as cold to someone who is hot. Nonetheless it is clear that Locke saw the senses as the basic receptors to learning from the experiences.

Locke also defined the two sources of knowledge as sensation and reflection. Locke discussed the modes of the simple ideas of reflection such as remembering, reasoning and judging. He also claimed in book II that the mind turns its view inward upon itself and observes its own actions about those ideas it has (and) takes from thence other ideas This statement is important in that it claims that during the process of reflection, the mind observes its own action.

As mentioned before Locke as an empiricist contended that there are no innate principles stamped upon the mind of human being, because principles such as “Whatever is, is” and “It is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be” are not innately known to people, but are a result of knowledge through learning. On this basis Locke assumed that for something to be in the mind it has to be perceived or be readily recalled in order to be knowledge. However Locke agreed that the knowledge of some truths were readily available in the mind from a very early age, for example a child knows the difference between the ideas of cold and warmth before it can speak and before it knows abstract ideas. Similarly Locke was eventually persuaded that there are some eternal principles of morality that man comes to know through the use of reason; this however does not prove them innate, it merely shows once again that it s through experiences that we learn these morals. Furthermore many principles and alleged inbred ideas are commonplace in one culture but unacceptable in others, again supporting the theory that environment is a major influence on our perceptions of many differing instances. An example of this can be seen through a comparison of western civilizations and the Persian culture, where more than one wife was commonplace. In a similar approach, Locke argued that we have no innate moral or practical principles, for there is no universal agreement about such principles. A typical moral principle that may be considered by many, including Descartes, as an innate moral, is the belief in God or some other symbol of religion. It was however found that despite the widespread following of religion in many cultures, tribes have been studied in the rainforests of Brazil and found to be non-religion based and did not worship any type of Deity.

The one universal idea that we all aspire to is happiness, and equally our intrinsic dislike of unhappiness. These fundamental inclinations give us no knowledge or truth, but are simply automatic responses found in all species to help us survive. Human nature is to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Although these are inherent to the human mind every different individual pursues and gains these basic needs buy utilising different factors. An example of this is someone might find pleasure in swimming and someone else might absolutely detest the idea. Locke discussed these ideas in Books I and II and stressed that the theory of innate ideas is not the only theory possible, explaining the alternative theory of experience being the sole provider of ideas. This is not to claim that nothing exists except ideas, but to show that there is another option to the theory of innate ideas. Locke advanced this theory that knowledge extends no further than our ideas, and expressed that knowledge is no more than the perception of the agreement or disagreement of our ideas.

The one problem in Locke s theory is that it does not allow for any state of unconsciousness, he argued that if you woke a man from deep sleep he would not be able to explain what he was thinking at that moment so therefore he insisted that if man could not be aware of that he was thinking that he was therefore not thinking.

In conclusion to Locke s thoughts toward the senses and the importance that they carry towards learning it is obvious that Locke saw the senses as the primary source if not the only source of all knowledge as it is through those senses that humans perceive all experience. This argument is further backed by the fact that Locke on more than one occasion threw attacks onto Cartesian theorists and their rationalist theories of learning and also innate ideas, claiming that these were not possible due to the fact that ideas such as God which Descartes claimed to be innate do not enjoy a universal consent, and furthermore it is evident, that all children and ideots, have not the least apprehension or thought of them. (Essay concerning the human understanding I.ii.5) Furthermore Locke argues that it is near a contradiction, to say that there are truths imprinted on the soul, which it perceives or understands not. When thereafter Descartes replied that all human minds have the capacity to recognize the truth of innate principles, once they come to understand them, Locke replies that to have the capacity to come to know it you must already know it and that made no theoretical sense.

Ren Descartes (1596-1650) was a French mathematician, philosopher, and physiologist, and it is due to his extensive work during the 17th century that we owe the first systematic account of the mind and body relationship to. Descartes was educated from an early age at a Jesuit college; it was probably due to this early religious education that Descartes incorporate the thought of God not only as an innate idea but also in many of his woks and theories. Descartes as a mathematician was at times concerned by the sharp contrast between the certainty and reason of mathematics and the controversial and uncertain nature of philosophy, due to this he tried to generate a formula of thought that could be as certain and as logical as mathematics. Descartes first introduced the concept of the soul, religion and logical explanation for the progression of the brain in his work when De homine was first completed in Holland at about 1633, in this work; Descartes proposed a mechanism for automatic reaction in response to external events, and it was this theory that later led to him being credited with the founding of the reflex theory. Descartes in this work describes a series of chain events triggered by nerves that inform the brain of outside events and thereafter sends information back along the same path as what we describe as a reaction or a reflex.

Descartes believed that the human soul was an entity separate from the human body that was used as to some extent as a pilot that conducted that body. Descartes separated the body and mid as completely different types of substance, which according to Descartes both came into contact in the brain at the pineal gland. Descartes chose the pineal gland because it appeared to him to be the only organ in the brain that was not bilaterally duplicated and because he believed, inaccurately, that it was uniquely human. As a result the soul as a rational body of it s own, in accordance with Descartes theory could affect the body through commanding it through the nerves and thereafter the body in turn could also affect the soul, as a result Descartes had established the first account of the interaction between the nervous system as receptors the body and the mind. Descartes made a separation where the soul as immaterial is used by humans as the judging entity, then the mind is simply the pilot of the body which interprets that body as an instrument, and finally the body, Descartes describes simply as a machine, all of these entities as separate ones left a problem which was how events all events coincided, and for this Descartes claimed that through the act of God they were made to coincide. Descartes chose the soul as the judging entity of man since he believed that because mankind, due to the imperfections of the human world, could not perceive the idea of God, there had to be a separate spiritual link between the two in order for the principle of God to be innate. Hence God must therefore be an innate principle stamped upon our soul. Unlike Locke, Descartes was a true believer that the human knowledge was innate to us, and the soul as the pilot of our body was the bearer of those innate thoughts.

Descartes attacked Locke s theory that humans learned through the senses due to the fact that to him the human senses are considered to be full of imperfections and not reliable enough to use as a source of knowledge. The main suggestion behind Descartes theory of though was that the main source of our ideas were ourselves, I think therefore I am. Furthermore many of what Descartes called innate ideas were thought by him to be of universal consent, not only God but also ideas of human morality, and intuitive knowledge.

Cartesian thoughts of innate ideas were not only part of Descartes philosophy; other great thinkers followed similar paths of though and criticized Locke on his lack of solidity throughout his theories.

Perhaps the most famous debate to be openly discussed by the opposing theorists of Rationalism versus Empiricism was the Molyneux problem. In a famous letter written to Locke in 1693 William Molyneux asked the renowned question. If a man that was blind from birth, were to regain his sight would he be able to distinguish a sphere from a cube by sight alone? Unlike Descartes whose innate ideas he strongly objected to Berkeley like Locke made it very clear that such a person will have no idea what to make of the new sense data, and would not be able to distinguish the two through sight alone. Berkley like Locke claimed that there was no connection between our individual senses. Hence we do not see distance (as Descartes claimed), but we learn to read it through the universal language of nature One Rationalist who strongly opposed the views of Locke and often criticised him was the German philosopher, diplomat and mathematician Leibniz, who also attacked Locke s answer to the Molyneux problem. Leibniz said that the blind man in the Molyneux problem could figure out the by using reason, (sphere no corners cube has flat surfaces.) Leibniz on more than one occasion criticized Locke and defended the principle of innate ideas. Unlike Descartes however Leibniz proposes that the spirit is in fact passive in the heart of conception, and perception. Leibniz attacked Locke s theory of the mind as passive when unconscious; due to the fact that he believed that much of the brains activity and thought went on in an unconscious state of mind. Therefore as one can see the thought of what the real contribution of the senses toward learning and knowledge was at that time much argued by different philosophers presenting opposing arguments and explanations. On one side the Empiricism of Locke and Berkley where the senses are explained to be the primary and most important part of the learning process as receptors of the human body. To these philosophers it was clear that the idea f innate knowledge seemed impossible how could one know something and not be aware of it seemed the most commonly asked question in challenges presented to Descartes by Locke. Nevertheless the Rationalism ideas presented by Cartesian though were also widely accepted due to the religious significance of the soul being the judging entity of the man, and the principle that God must be an innate principle of mankind. On both accounts and opposing arguments there are issues that are left unanswered or far to vaguely described; for instance Locke claims, if a man cannot remember what he was thinking, he was therefore thinking not, when it is obvious that man can process thought and dreams unconsciously. Descartes also in his theory cannot make the certainty of the soul having anything to do directly with the human body. Therefore there was room for improvement in both theories.

In conclusion however one must point that, in accordance to the Empiricism view, the senses were indeed of the most important contribution toward the knowledge, however one must also comment on how even in the opposing theory of the Cartesians, there were instances where Leibniz for instance commented on the importance of an education in order to adjust the innate ideas of the mind. Furthermore Descartes himself at times comments on the importance of man learning through his senses in order to awaken and release his innate ideas. Overall it is safe to say that the senses were and still are widely believed to be of the utmost importance when it comes to the process of learning knowledge and indeed learning to use that knowledge or any innate beliefs, instincts, reflexes, and reactions imbedded on our mind.


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