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Questions About Human Senses

“Thanks for always writing such great responses to my questions.

I was wondering if you could, either as a response here or in a post, comment on sensation itself, that is to say on the sensory modalities we experience as humans. It strikes me that one of the great unasked metaphysical questions is whether the 5 senses that we know exhaust the kinds of sense available to being. Some see a deep truth in this, as 5 is a number closely associated with phi and the Fibonacci sequence (we also have 5 digits on our appendages). Even the existence of the 5 platonic solids makes one wonder if our senses somehow represent a phenomenological analog to this geometric truth. And what does each of the senses make sense of? What sense do the senses make?

Much has been made of echolocation as a possibly alien form of sense (and the basis of serious anti-reductionist arguments in philosophy of mind, as with Nagel’s classic essay) but it’s just as easy to imagine, perhaps easier, that echolocation is simply the bat’s way of generating visual sense, or perhaps some synesthesian fusion of visual and auditory modalities.

Synesthesia itself presents phenomenological conundrums that are worth teasing apart. If synesthesia is possible why have we evolved with such separation to our senses? Does a person with synesthesia loose as much as he gains? And, could a total, radical, singular sysesthesic unitary SENSE be imagined?

Finally, there is the complicated relation of sensory experience to thought. Though the two are generally conceptually separated (could there be anything seemingly less “sensory” than abstract thinking) I bet the real story is far more complicated. My intuition is that all thought is sensory through and through though the way thoughts, and, in particular, language, represent (experience?) sensation is mind-boggingly subtle. (Is this Hume’s distinction between ideas and impressions again?)

Love to hear your thoughts on the senses. Seems important for MR.”

Thanks for the topic and the interest. Starting with the five senses, I’m not sure that the number is particularly significant. The difference between olfactory and gustatory sense seems to me like a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind. There is a lot of overlap between flavors and smells although you could argue that there are some tastes that you cannot smell. Can something smell salty? Something can smell sour or bitter but not ‘upside down’ or ‘high pitched’.

There are also categories of sensation which do not fall easily into the five. Vestibular-kinesthetic sense and proprioception can maybe be considered forms of tactile ‘feeling’, but your skin can’t feel dizzy and the relation between your body and the world can’t really itch or hurt. Then there’s more metaphorical kinds of sense, but are they really metaphorical or are they just deeper within the context of personal experience? Sense of humor, moral sense, sense of gratitude, intuition, business sense…these are arguably irreducible to general awareness or some other sense modality.

If I were to apply an alchemical read of the senses, I would go with more of a tetragrammaton view with the masculine elements corresponding to aural and tactile sense and the feminine corresponding to visual and olfactory-gustatory sense. This four-way symmetry provides a rich vein of fun associations to ponder…the stereotypical masculine preference for fast vehicles and loud noises vs the feminine stereotype ‘candy and flowers’ offering give a hint. A five point comparison has more of a person-hood connotation – like the five digits on our hands or the five appendages radiating from our torso, the emphasis is on the utility of sense as they pertain to our agency in the world. In MR I am dealing not so much with human sense modalities in particular but the underlying phenomena of sensory presentation. I can see how the number five would have interesting numerological and mathematical properties, although all of the other integers do as well. Five is the recapitulation of one, the middle number, associated with qualities of growth and constraint. Five suggests ratios and leverage in a way that the first four integers do not. The thumb rules over the fingers as the head rules over the limbs, etc.  Perhaps it characterizes the relation of the conscious self to the more mechanistic (four-like) subconscious.

“If synesthesia is possible why have we evolved with such separation to our senses? Does a person with synesthesia loose as much as he gains? And, could a total, radical, singular sysesthesic unitary SENSE be imagined?”

Synesthesia is very interesting to me because it really deflates the assumption that the aesthetic presentation of our subjective experience is simply a package deal which emerges from the characteristics of data. We see that indeed sounds can be smelled, numbers and days of the week can have colors, but also that syneasthetes do not share the same bundlings of sense. This suggests to me that aesthetics are not in fact generated by the brain, but rather appreciated through the brain, body, and the body’s environment, as well as subjective experience augmenting itself over time. Congenitally blind people do not see visual phenomena when their visual cortex is stimulated, they feel tactile stimulation instead. This debunks the assumption that sensory modalities simply correspond to brain region.

As for what a synesthete gains or loses, I can only guess. From the accounts I have read it seems like it is mostly benign, occasionally spectacular (one case gave a man the ability compose music visually…a head injury I think). Some seem to feel a bit insecure about it. Being a person is strange enough as it is without seeing or tasting things that nobody else does.

As far as a unitary sense, I suspect that just as the human body corresponds to a particular palette of sense capacities, a human stem cell might correspond to a more undifferentiated palette. That could be explored experimentally with the right technology. My hypothesis is that the unitary sense is a continuum between tight-stress-high frequency, loose-relaxed, low frequency oscillation.

“My intuition is that all thought is sensory through and through”

I agree. My working model is that thought is cognitive quality sensation, and that it is essentially a feeling in which other feelings are represented. As algebraic variables are to actual values, thoughts are transparent containers for reflected icons of hypothetical experiences. An understanding of audio sense in comparison to sight is revealing I think, given that our thoughts typically persist as interior verbal presentations. Sound waves, unlike light, require matter to propagate from node to node, so there is an inference that I make about acoustics being a body-to-body interaction. The cochlea and the dual role of the inner ear for hearing and balance seems particularly three dimensional – a sense of volumes of matter. Musical instruments are sculptural and tangible, and acoustic sensation pierces the ear the high end and engulfs the body on the low end. Thought is similarly about encapsulation, it is a semiotic pre-packaging which is formulated for public distribution. It paradoxically frees subjectivity from the subject while encoding the subject’s intention as an independent form. Maybe this is why William S. Burroughs and others have described language in alien terms, as viruses and memes.

I hope that made enough sense to be worthwhile. Thanks again.

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  1. stephen owens
    June 25, 2013 at 3:50 am

    Just wanted to share my thought on sound and light. i cant read the article from the comment screen but you said something about sound being unlike light in the way that it need a medium to travel through and i just wanted to point out the fact that matter,being that medium, is actually light itself, only in extended dimensional form. (e=mc^2) So can it really be said that they are different? What are your thoughts?

    • June 25, 2013 at 11:59 am

      Thanks, yes, I see your follow up comment also. Because physics has always presumed that light was a phenomenon that is independent of its cause (i.e. some kind of form traveling through space), it is hard to say what the relation between matter and energy really is. Most of the energy produced in fusion or fission is not derived from particles turning into energy, but by merging or dividing the nucleus, which is not matter but a relationship of protons and neutrons. E=mc^2 is about the equivalence of energy to mass, which is a property of matter, not to matter itself. It is true that matter can be made to disappear and that the energy left to register as activity in surrounding matter will equal its former mass times c^2, but I would compare this to something like the news of a celebrity’s death traveling through the population. Energy is, in my opinion, the shared disposition of matter and has no existence apart from matter. Energy is permission for matter to behave in certain ways – it is carried directly from body to body as a felt signal. Within that signal I imagine the low level architecture of space and time itself are described in the form of position and disposition vectors (what looks like quantum to us). I may be wrong about this view of energy, but if I am, it won’t be because of any of the arguments that I have heard so far which begin by simply assuming that photons are real because of the photoelectric effect or because we use them experimentally. As long as the instruments we use to detect energy are made of matter, then my conjecture of matter as sensory-motive participant is just as valid as the presumption of matter and energy as passive, insensate ‘stuff’ that ‘exists’.

      • stephen owens
        June 25, 2013 at 4:22 pm

        Okay! That helps me out a lt. you seem to be a very intelligible person and as long as you dont mind you can expect to get quite a few quetions from me. By the way, i wasnt implying that mass and energy can nessisarily be tranformed completely into one another but similar to wht you replied with, that they are equivilences, leading to the conclusion that sound could just as easily move through energy as it could matter but now i understand thats not quite the case.
        Now, i ask, are you denying the existence of photins? or are you skepticle about the idea of photon? It seems like you have some uneasy feeling in that arena, i just wanted to understand your viewpoint.

      • June 26, 2013 at 12:51 am

        Thanks Stephen. I wouldn’t say that I deny the existence of photons, but I question their existence, given that my conjecture about the nature of physics in general as a sensory-motor experience. I’m not married to the idea that photons don’t literally exist, but it might make sense that it is the case, since all of our experiments on light seem to take the notion of light as a thing which occupies or travels through space on its own for granted. My view is that light functions through matter in the same way that it functions through our lives – light allows us to use our body to see other bodies. It is a condition of illumination, through which public position and disposition of bodies is revealed privately. That could still be true even if photons were literally real, it would just be the photons detecting atoms rather than atoms detecting atoms directly and representing that detection with a signal effect that is common to matter.

        With Multisense Realism, my suspicion is that everything which sounds ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’-like in physics for the last 40 years is likely to be a misinterpretation. Are you familiar with the phrase “adding epicycles”? I think that is very likely what has happened as physics has overextended its brilliantly effective knowledge into a fundamentally broken metaphysical interpretation. It is a fantastic interpretation of a universe which is being championed at the moment, but I think that it is not the universe that we can ever live in.

      • stephen owens
        June 26, 2013 at 1:19 am

        im still young and full of questions which i assume is normal and i dont have any peers who seem to grasp many of the ideas i try to express to them about reality so having someone to share any ideas with is a miracle. as long as it doesnt bother you i will be asking you lots of questions. im trying to catch up on your perspective through your blogs but when i come to points im in question of i will let you know.

        my assumption for the existence of photons comes fron the idea of the possibility of black holes(which i would also like to hear anything you have to say about). black holes being of infinite mass collapse into a single point where the radius is 0 therefore acceleration due to gravity is infinite. at this point time is at a stand still and space is fully extended. if your theory supports blak holes, which im not sure if it does, then it should equally support the photon. From the perspective of a massless particle all time would pass simultaneously and space would be fully contracted. it would essentially be in all places simultaneously. So even if there are multiple photins in existence they would be indistinguishable from one another and could e considered as a single photon or white hole.

      • June 26, 2013 at 3:27 am

        The view of photons that I propose is really an optional aspect of the overall cosmology of MR. I see it as a plausible bridge between public appearances of matter and private feelings of experience. I have not spent much time on the astrophysical scale, except in seeing the Big Bang as a Big Diffraction. My sense is that gravity is a consequence of thermodynamic irreversibility – a drain for significance to be recycled through crushing and containing, A black hole would be like the ‘existential essence’ – the state of a body which has accrued an inertial debt that acts like a scar on time in the same way that energy distributes excess momentum which is no longer being used by one body/mass….energy gives matter a spatial relation through kinetic dynamism, a black hole collapses all spatial relation through temporal elongation…something like that. All I have in physics is some intuition and attempts at common sense interpretation – I have to rely on others for understanding the math. There’s a thread on Quora though where I’m having this very same kind of conversation with Erik Andrulis, who does have the technical skills that I lack. . http://www.quora.com/Consciousness/Considering-James-Lovelocks-Gaia-Hypothesis-do-you-find-it-fathomable-that-astronomical-entities-such-as-planets-stars-solar-systems-or-galaxies-are-sentient-conscious-individuals/answer/Erik-Andrulis/comment/2308802?__snids__=142033645&__nsrc__=0#comment2308936

        Check out his work as well. If you are more physics oriented, his model might be more useful for you. I’m more of a big picture correlation guy.

      • stephen owens
        June 26, 2013 at 3:47 am

        Okay ill check out the link. i also try not to favor physics over intuition. another part o my developing theory is that the mental experience, thought fellings etc are located in a dimensionless space within the physical brain. the dimensionless ‘realm’ contains all mental experience while dimensional existence contains all physical experience which are simply flip sides of each other. i try to make all my own theories compatible with current science as well as intuitive dialects of the theories i come up with through meditation and dream gnosis along with theories from other intelligibles such as yourself

      • June 26, 2013 at 12:55 pm

        Your approach sounds very similar to mine – which I have not seen very often. I would not say that the mental realm is located in the brain or that it is dimensionless, rather that dimensions which are literal and discrete in public are figurative and fused in private, and vice versa. Private dimensions (I call endophoric) which are literal are things like intentionality, significance, and authenticity while terms like high and low apply metaphorically to mood. Public (exometric) dimensions apply to literal relations of scale and distance and figurative terms are literally figures; numbers of meters or kilograms.

        Rather than saying that thoughts are located in a dimensionless space within the physical brain, I would say that the human quality of experience is represented within its own public view as brain activity over a lifetime. A human mind is located in the brain as much as the brain is located in the experience of a human life. Without making it about humans though, I think that the underlying nature of awareness is always ‘here’ and ‘now’, and that location only emerges through temporary partitions within awareness. Location and literal exometric dimensions are a function of the sense of that which perceives public presentations. Space is an invention of sense.

      • stephen owens
        June 26, 2013 at 1:31 pm

        Like i said im still young and your theory seems to have vastly more depth than i had expected, which is great. I appreciate your time and clarity.

      • June 26, 2013 at 9:50 pm

        Anytime. Thanks for coming by.

  2. stephen owens
    June 25, 2013 at 5:11 am

    Well, after reading only slightly more of your work I see that you are well aware of the fact that they are the same entity. Please ignore my ignorance and i would still be delighted to hear what the true difference is between sound and light. this is a question that has puzzeled me for some time now. is it just as simple as sound being the change of spatial relation of an object to another?

    • June 25, 2013 at 12:23 pm

      No problem. From a scientific perspective, sound is very different from light, and exists on a very different scale. What we hear as sound is our own cochlea, and the fine hairs which line its interior, vibrating in ways which our auditory cortex recognizes and presents to us as sound. Of course, in a dream or hallucination, we can see and hear things which originate from (or through) the brain itself and not from the outside world. The explanation that sound and light are actually information about acoustic compression waves or photon collisions is not really adequate from our subjective view. Missing is the quality of sense to use one level of activity to reveal another. From the subjective view, seeing and hearing are sensory channels which we can tune into, and which not only inform us about our world and ourselves, but give us an experience which is valid on its own aesthetic terms as a phenomenon in the universe. The sound of music is as fundamentally real as the spin of a quark, although the realism of the quark is much shallower and therefore common to the point of universality.

      The mechanics of acoustics, being on a much larger scale than light, seems to be about the shape and size of objects. It orients us to spatial relation (*volume*) and to the presence of changes of mass rather than energy. Sound is matter colliding – a consequence of its accumulated nature, light is matter communicating its essential, sequential nature which is independent of mass and locality. By operating on a larger, slower scale, sound is closer, more intimate to the body. It makes us move rhythmically. With light, that may be going on in the retina, like millions of single celled flowers blooming at once, but our experience of it is more aloof.

  3. stephen owens
    June 26, 2013 at 3:50 am

    Also i am not trying to argue my point to be more validvi am simply expressing my ideas trying to form one compatible with both of ours.

    • June 26, 2013 at 12:59 pm

      Same here. I’m used to arguing with people, so my apologies if it sounds like I’m trying to give you a ‘this is the way that it is’ attitude. My intention has always been to find people to collaborate with, and with whom it is ok to disagree without being accused of witchcraft or cretinism. It sounds to me like you are on the right track.

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