Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A response: "The Philosophical Baby" and "The Inside of a Dog"

TOK Assignment 1 

These two books – “The Philosophical Baby” and “The Inside of a Dog” look interesting because they seem to provide opportunities to apply some of the concepts we have been discussing in TOK class in a wider context. When we looked at sense perception in TOK, we were primarily thinking about ourselves as grown human beings, but by looking at babies and dogs we can perhaps not just gain some insights about them but also some deeper understanding of ourselves. 

Some fundamental knowledge issues that apply to the research described on both dogs and babies are: how can we know the nature of the experiences of others, especially when these others are not capable of telling us directly? And even if they could tell us, to what extent would we then be justified in claiming to know these experiences? These two books illustrate some ways in which we can at least make a start in trying to overcome some of the difficulties. 

With humans, most of the sense data we receive and act upon comes through our eyes and sense of sight. When we discussed the idea of perception as representations in the mind, we probably found it easy to think about it this way – there is an object in the real world and there is an “image” of it in our minds. But a dog’s dominant perceptions are smells – and it is perhaps harder for us to comprehend the relationship between sense data (a chemical) and perceptions (the smell) in this case. The review of the book also shows how different kinds of sense data can result in different kinds of perceptions – if we continue to perceive a stationary object our perception doesn’t necessarily change with time, but if we continuously smell it our perception does change because odours become weaker with time. These apparent differences between the experiences of dogs and humans suggest that possibly they live in worlds more divergent than we might have thought. 

The book on babies seems to make a different point. We talked in class about how our perceptions might be influenced by prior experiences, no doubt held in our minds by memory – thus we construct our perceptions. This is helpful to us because we know how to handle perceptions by directing our attention to them in the manner to which we have become accustomed, rather than every experience appearing to be new and confusing. But this is just what it is like to be a baby (or is it – how can we know?) – the baby has few experiences with which to filter perceptions and limited ability to make a conscious choice of what to attend to. Perhaps this means that babies provide evidence for perceptual realism but grow into evidence for constructivism! As the review states, this is likely to be an exhausting business, but it means that, when cued representations become detached, the baby’s imagination is freer to roam in creative ways. If creative imagination is part of what it means to be conscious, then maybe we could say that babies are more conscious than adults. This for me is the most surprising and interesting insight from the review.