Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Experience Or Experiment?

Our perceptual experience is a major part of understanding the world. Yet sometimes our perceptual experience can give seemingly contradictory accounts with previous experience, as well with the accounts of others. One interesting thing about our nature is that we have the capacity to turn perception onto itself and perceive how we perceive. As a result, science is now beginning to be able to explain what it is we perceive as a matter of brain function. The first-person recollection is able to be explained by experiment. But since the first-person experience is all we have, how are we to trust what the scientists say when what they're saying profoundly disagrees with our perceptions?

A thought experiment:
What should we trust more, our first-person experience, or the results of scientific experiment? Consider the hypothetical situation of someone who has an out-of-body experience, from there internal perspective they see themselves leaving their body and floating through the room. They are able to float through the door and into the corridor outside. The experience ends and they're back in their body. Standing in front of him is a neuroscientist utilising an electromagnetic device. The scientist explains that while the person was strapped into his chair, the scientist operated this machine, that sent electric stimulations to the brain's right angular gyris, a part of the temporal lobe. The person didn't have an OBE, just the illusion of it.

In this situation, what is more likely? The internal perspective gives a vivid account of experience, yet from a causal perspective the experience was a brain activity. Of course, this isn't a hypothetical situation, the technology exists already and this account parallels a paper published in Nature back in 2002. The experience seems at odds with the explanation, but the explanation has a causal role. Are we meant to dismiss that the scientist was there inducing the hallucination any more than when a brain tumour causes sexual thoughts towards young girls or that a stroke in the right occipital lobe leaves someone seeing phantoms rising out of the floor on their left-side?

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