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Aristotle got it wrong: We have a lot more than

five senses
Unthinkable: Philosophers need to grapple with the symphony of senses being
discovered by science
Tue, May 16, 2017, 06:00

Joe Humphreys

Facing up or down? Its the fluid in your ear canals that makes the front of the cabin look higher when you tilt
backwards at takeoff. Photograph: EPA

One of the most famous letters of philosophy was written by Dubliner William Molyneux on
July 7th, 1688. It was addressed to the enlightenment thinker John Locke and posed a
question that would become known as Molyneuxs Problem.
Suppose a man was born blind and had learned how to distinguish a globe from a cube by
holding them in his hands. If his sight was suddenly restored could he then distinguish the
globe from the cube by looking upon them without touching?
That was a good question, says Barry C Smith, who heads up the Centre for the Study of
the Senses at University of London. Various answers have been given down the centuries by
philosophers and scientists, but theres still no consensus.
What makes the question so good is that it forces people to rethink their assumptions about
perception. Many philosophers have assumed perception is merely sight a bizarre notion,
says Smith, as the evidence suggests that touch, sight, smell and the other senses interact in a
complex way to produce our lived experiences.
Armchair philosophers who ignore biology and
neuroscience are missing fundamental facts about our
Originally a philosopher of mind and language, Smith became more of an empiricist through
what he called an amateur interest in wine. There I was telling people about the taste of
wine, and then I thought: How does taste actually work? He discovered many flavours came
not from the tongue but from the nose, and that texture and presentation played key roles.
Its something you can demonstrate for yourself, Smith says. Try eating a jelly bean with
your nose pinched and all youll get is a shot of sweetness. Let go of your nose and suddenly
the fruit flavours appear.
Theres a lesson here for philosophers, says Smith. Armchair thinkers who eschew the
discoveries of biology and neuroscience are missing fundamental facts about our
experience, he says.
If you start from the wrong construction of the phenomena, then you might produce a very
clever piece of philosophy, but it will be worthless because its not actually getting to grips
with how things really are.
Aristotle said there were five senses smell, sight, touch, taste, and hearing but
science suggests there are many more than that. How many exactly?
Barry C Smith: There could be anything between 22 and 33; there is a lot of argument about
it. What are they? A sense of balance, for a start, thats hugely important; if that goes wrong
your perceptual world is really in a mess.
If you close your eyes now you know where all your limbs are without looking at them or
touching them; thats proprioception. Clearly its a sense.
Youve also got somewhat unusual senses. The sense of effort: if you go to lift a cup of tea
but somebody had replaced it with a perfectly good replica in polystyrene you would just
throw it over your shoulder. There is a sense of effort needed to actually heft something, to
lift it or manipulate it.
There is also the sense of agency: when you reach for the cup you think I reach for the
cup. People who have neurological damage will sometimes find their arm going out and
picking up a cup and they say I didnt do that, and of course, they did, their brain is
executing that manoeuvre but if theyve lost their sense of agency... it doesnt feel like their
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Once you start to add all these together you realise there is a symphony of senses, and they
are often so well-orchestrated with each other that we dont notice their operation. We dont
realise they are permanently at work.
The example I really like of how we get our experience wrong is where you are on an
aeroplane on the ground and you get strapped in and you look along the cabin, and see where
everything is, when they are giving the safety instruction.
Look along the cabin again when you are in the climb and it will now look to you as though
the front of the cabin is higher than you are. How can it look that way, because you are in
exactly the same visual, optical relation to everything in the cabin?
So its not a pure visual experience. Its being created by the fluid in your ear canals when
you tilt backwards, telling you that you are now tilting backwards, and this influences your
vision and changes what you see.
How does all this put philosophy in a bad light?
Well, I think something that bothered me as someone interested in taste, and therefore
smell, is that you look at a lot of philosophy textbooks and the great thinkers of the past, and
they talk about a theory of perception, and they say: Take the case where I am looking at a
tree, or cup, and then they think Im going to build my theory of perception around that.
What they are talking about is a theory of vision.
And many of them think once you get the account of vision right then all you have to do is
make some modifications and youll be able to explain how the other senses work, and the
other bits of perception will fall into line. And I think thats just not right.
The more I look at taste, touch, smell and the other bodily senses the more I think vision is
the odd one out. Its quite unlike anything else. It presents us with a permanent visual scene.
We maintain a scene around us in a way you dont with smell, and you dont always have
with hearing. You can turn things off, you can fail to attend.
With touch, think of the clothes just now on your skin; youre not maintaining a permanent
sensory, receptive field of how things feel touching you. You dont need to.
But vision keeps you in the present surroundings you are looking at, and thats just not like
any other sense. So I think it would be a mistake to model perception on vision, and
philosophers almost dont notice it.
Philosophers sometimes have a slightly naive view of
scientific theorising
Nowadays you see certain questions that seem philosophically hard but when you look at
the empirical neuroscience results you realise those questions are not so hard to answer, or
maybe they are not the key questions.
Philosophers like to say: You look at a cup on your desk and you only see it from one point
of view - you dont see the other side; so how do you see that as a three dimensional object?
Maybe its an illusion, and theres nothing round the back? And so on.
But most of the time when we have something of that size we have our hand around it. So
we are getting visual and tactile information that the brain is fusing together. When you see
an object that you have handled your brain is already partly completing the expectations of
Its not hard, if you think of the cup as something you would see and handle and feel, to
think how you would perceive the world as having three dimensional objects and not just
surfaces that are visually available to you.
Does this have an impact on scientific observation? Should we doubt the veracity of
what scientists report, as all visual evidence is arguably incomplete?
I think philosophers sometimes have a slightly naive view of scientific theorising. They
think you look down the microscope or telescope and you see something and that gives you
the result.
Most modern science is a matter of having many sources of evidence and doing
interpretations of those results. The interpretations, statistics and modelling behind it are
hugely complicated and contested, and there is something quite active and creative in
deciding what the right view is.
So in a way scientific method, using many different targets and also many different hooks
into the same subject matter, and then trying to triangulate them, is what our perceptual
system does. It is what the senses do: they take multiple sources of information and then sum
up whats going on out there.
Have you encountered resistance from fellow philosophers to your line of argument?
Huge resistance. I find that puzzling. Why? Because the people who say to me You are not
doing philosophy, you are not being pure, you look more like a sensory scientist, their
heroes are often people like Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Descartes and so on. These are people
up to their ears in the science of the day; they did science.
Locke published papers on the trigeminal nerve. He writes treatises on agriculture.
Descartes was cutting open animals and wrote about optics, finding out that you had a
reverse image on the lens from the retina and so on. So its very funny that the purists are
often forgetting that the people who seem to do the philosophy they most admire actually
talk about the science.
I think the worry is: am I just going to accept scientific answers to philosophical questions?
And the answer is no. I dont think, for example, neuroscience is going to answer
philosophical questions. But I think it is going to help us understand the phenomena, and the
kind of evidence we must draw on, when posing those questions or framing them in the right
Question: Should philosophers tweet?
John Locke replies: To think often and never to retain it so much as one moment is a very
useless sort of thinking.