When should we trust our senses to give us the truth?
TOK Essay 1 / 2012
2. When should we trust our senses to give us the truth?
Name: Ashley Tan (1)
Supervisor: Eric Lau
Word count: 1585
We interact and understand the world’s various facets through our senses. Our sense of sight, smell, taste, hearing and touch allow us to perceive the surrounding environment as well as to gather information and formulate truths about the world. Our senses are the raw data that we absorb, which our brain processes and interprets, forming our own knowledge and truths. However, will we know whether this truth is really the truth? Our senses can only be trusted sometimes and they do have their own limitations and restrictions. Hence we can never be certain of the truths that we conceive. Thus this essay will address certain situations in which we are able to trust our senses, and situations in which we are not.
I believe that truth is something that has been thoroughly tested but not falsified. This means that a truth is only a truth when it has been completely examined by comparing and assessing it to other factors of the environment. However the notion of truth varies in the areas of knowledge. In the area of the sciences, the truth is made up of hard facts and supported by theories that have been tested, but the truth is only the truth till a new breakthrough has been founded, that will develop on the previous truths. In the area of history, the truth might not be accurate as the events that have occurred were in the past and inference has to be made.
Our senses are the ones that gives us information directly from our surroundings, and all five senses work together in order to allow us to understand our environment. When we see a plate of food, we smell the food, and we go over to taste the food. If we see the plate of food, but when we go over to taste or touch it and the plate of food is not there, we will know that it is an illusion. Here the coherence theory is used, which states that a truth is only true when it is supported by other truths. Therefore all our senses are required to combine and work in tandem to allow us to formulate truths about the environment around us.
This is a preview of the whole essay
Firstly, we are able to trust our senses when we can verify the information or truths with other people. If the majority believes that it is a truth, then it most likely is as people tend to believe those who are similar to themselves. Furthermore, when a larger group of people collate the information, there is a higher chance that the information collected is true and more accurate. In history as an area of knowledge, eyewitness accounts of historical events are necessary for information to be collected, as the event that is seen by a person’s very own eyes is the most accurate. With retellings from more than one individual in the case of a major event, it confirms that the event actually occurred and was not an illusion. Oftentimes it is harder to believe a single person’s recount of an event, than the larger majority.
There are times when we can trust our senses and they are functioning properly, but the information received is flawed. The environment may be deceiving us, and even though there are no sensory deficiencies, if the data that we receive is incorrect, the truths that we formulate would be flawed. For example a mirage occurs when the temperature in the environment causes the light to bend and refract in ways that it normally does not. Thus our eyes see something that is not supposed to be there and our brain is tricked into thinking that it is real. Hence, it is only when we use other senses, our sense of touch, that we realize that it is illusory. As philosopher John Locke says, “The notice we have by our senses, of the existence of things without us, though it be not altogether so certain, as our intuitive knowledge, or the deductions of our reason ... Deserves the name of knowledge.” Thus he believes that our senses are correct and the data that we receive real, but we can never be certain that that is the truth.
Even though our senses may be right, interpretations might differ between people, and each person may formulate different truths of their own. The senses are the the direct link between us and the environment, the immediate organs that acquire the raw data. Even so our brain is the organ that interprets the data that we acquire, assembling the data and enabling us to form truths. Therefore even though every person gains the same information, different people, with different ways of thinking, will come up with varying interpretations and truths of their own. Each individual is influenced by cultural and religious factors. This is often seen in history, as everything happened in the past. Thus even with the hard facts that are gained from things such as eyewitness accounts and personalized documents, the rest is up to the speculation and inference of people in the present day, to try and fill in the gaps that are left behind by history. Consequently, history is extremely liable to bias by those who record the events and happenings. For instance, Japan has been accused of modifying information of World War II in their history textbooks in order to whitewash their actions during the war. As Kathleen Woods Masalski said, “people fight over textbook content because education is so obviously about the future, reaches so deeply into society, and is directed by the state.” With textbooks educating the new generation, the truth that reaches them is altered due to the Japanese’ bias.
Primary and secondary qualities are also factors that affect people’s notion of truth. Primary qualities which consist of shape, form and figure, are derived from the senses and are usually true. Secondary qualities which include colour, taste, sound and smell, are usually more subject to the individual’s interpretation, as compared to primary qualities which are more tangible and objective. Thus, secondary qualities could affect how people understand the information they receive, and the truths they formulate.
However, there are instances in which we are unable to rely on senses. Our senses have limitations to the amount of information that they can receive. Unlike the senses of animals, which are much more attuned to their surroundings, human senses are not as sensitive to detect small details in the environment. Our eyes have a limit as to how far we are able to perceive something, and distance is a crucial factor that affects our ability to distinguish far away objects. Our ears are only able to hear and detect sounds that fall within a certain range and they would be incapable of hearing sounds that don’t fall in that range. This could alter the truth as without certain information that the senses are unable to receive, we could be missing out on specific data that could transform truths drastically.
Our senses may also have defects as they are prone to flaws or injuries. For example hallucinations can affect all five of our senses and they cause us to experience things that are not part of reality. Hallucinations can be caused by brain disorders or even sensory defects. Thus the person needs someone else to confirm that what we see, hear or smell is real when he has hallucinations. Here, our senses are not to be trusted and we need the help of others to verify what reality is. People might also suffer from shortcomings such as myopia, colour blindness or deafness. A colour blind person may call the colour pink he sees, blue. This is because everyone else refers the colour blue, as blue, but it is his eye defect that causes him to see pink. Hence, all these impair the senses and what the individual thinks is the truth may be imprecise.
Due to these reasons, we make use of instruments and tools to fill in the gaps. They are able to amplify our senses’ abilities. Spectacles help alleviate the effects of myopia, and hearing devices can aid the deaf. In science, we rely on our senses to make observations about a certain condition or stimulus, or the processes of a reaction. Since our senses are unreliable, we require the use of microscopes as our senses are not perceptive enough to see objects at such a level, and these tools help to make up for the weaknesses of our sensory organs. However, science is constantly being improved on as more advanced technology is being invented, and in the future more scientific breakthroughs will be uncovered. Hence as I have stated previously, we cannot say that there is any definite truth in science as the truth is forever being developed on. In history, people have invented gadgets such as cameras that allow them to take a screenshot of the past. Unlike in our minds where the images that we receive from our eyes are temporary, as we could forget what we have seen, cameras allow us to actually turn memories into something tangible. Therefore instruments and devices are essential when our senses are not entirely reliable.
All in all, our senses are the ones that allow us to interact with the world around us. Even so, they are inaccurate most of the time, and may not be permanent. Thus we have to use other ways to gain information from our surroundings, and from there on come up with truths of our own.
"Hallucinations: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia." U.S National Library of Medicine.
U.S. National Library of Medicine. Web. 13 Mar. 2012.
"Why Corner - Why, Do You Know, Why Reasons: Do You Know Why We See a Mirage?"
Why Corner. Web. 13 Mar. 2012.
"The Great Debate: John LockeÂ s Theory of Knowledge."
The Great Debate: John LockeÂ s Theory of Knowledge. Web. 14 Apr. 2012. <>.
"Essay Concerning Human Understanding." SparkNotes. SparkNotes. Web. 14 Apr. 2012.
"Sensitivity of Human Ear." Web. 14 Apr. 2012.
"SPICE." Examining the Japanese History Textbook Controversies -. Web. 16 Apr. 2012.