It used to be easy to acquire knowledge. Ancient men and women need only to rely on authoritative figures like the patriarch of a clan or a religious leader to tell them what is right and wrong. But after the Age of Reason, it dawned on the human race that truth can be subjective, especially when it comes to subject areas beyond the physical realm. As a result men and women born to succeeding generations began to question everything that cannot be verified through seeing, smelling, touching, hearing, and tasting and more and more people relied on the said five senses to tell them what is true knowledge and what is not. But the question remains; can the five sense organs be trusted in supplying truth and nothing but the truth? This paper will answer this question by examining different theories on knowledge and at the same time comparing it to life experiences.
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An overview of the knowledge theory landscape will easily reveal that there is no problem in using the five bodily senses in acquiring knowledge. In fact, using the sense of sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste is one major path in gaining knowledge (Hartnack, 5). Aside from this, it is also a fact that the use of the senses is supported by and complements major theories regarding knowledge acquisition.
For instance the use of senses to acquire knowledge complements the Rationalism theory of knowledge advocated by John Locke. In the said theory Locke argues that man has the capability of understanding the world around him and by thinking or intuition he will be able to figure out the purpose of every object and every phenomenon observable on earth. Thus, it can be argued that man can only observe the world through his senses.
While the idea of using the five senses nicely compliments the Rationalism theory, the use of the same idea supports a more scientific approach to knowledge acquisition, a theory popularly known as Empiricism. The empirical model of acquiring knowledge is obviously the byproduct of the scientific revolution that swept Europe in the 18th century. In this period, intellectuals are now wary of the more subjective quality of Rationalism and demanded a more scientific approach when it comes to gaining knowledge. According to Stanford’s online encyclopedia for philosophical issues, “We have no source of knowledge in S or for the concepts we use in S other than sense experience” (Stanford Encyclopedia, par. 2). In this model knowledge is true when it can be measured and observed through the senses.
There are those who do not fully agree that the only basis of true knowledge can be achieved using solely the sense. Clearly there are so many things that man is knowledgeable about even without the use of the bodily senses. For instance there are mathematical truths that can be ascertained without touching, smelling, tasting, hearing, seeing because mathematical truths belong to an abstract world inaccessible by the above-mentioned human senses. And yet in our minds we play with the equations and we are satisfied with the truthfulness of the conclusions.
Aside from dealing with the abstract there are other limitations to the five senses. When a person is subjected to less than ideal situations, his perceptions are distorted. If the same person is placed in the middle of the traumatic event, he will experience a nervous breakdown and his report about what he sees and feels will become suspect. A person suffering from acute neurosis may be able to sense something but his psychiatrist will not believe in what he is saying, the mental health professional will work with the patient separating fact from fiction.
The senses are not always reliable. Its limitations also lie in the fact that it can only process limited data and it perceptions further limited by its design. For instance a person lost in the desert will report seeing visions, images that are not real but appear to be real as a result of the combination of stress, the blinding heat and the unique attributes of the landscape.
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On the other hand, data gleaned from observing the world around us through the use of the five bodily senses can be easily verified using a non-biased third party. It can also be verified simply by asking other people to measure and observe the same thing. For instance, it can be verified that the basketball is round because 10, 000 spectators saw it as round and it can easily pass through a round basketball goal. Moreover, it is impossible to buy a carton of milk when the cashier behind the counter will refuse to agree that what the customer is holding in his hand is not milk but a bottle of wine.
It has been made clear that it is possible to use the five bodily senses and be able to acquire true knowledge. This was seen in examining two different models of knowledge acquisition. It was pointed out that in Rationalism the world can be easily understood by analyzing the world around us and there is no better way to do that other than using the five senses. But it is in Empiricism where the value of the bodily senses was readily affirmed. In a more scientific approach to knowledge acquisition, the empirical model greatly depends on the bodily sense to observe and measure the various phenomenons existing in the world.
The idea of using the senses has its critics but it cannot be denied that truth can be easily verified using the senses as opposed to other means of acquiring knowledge. It has been shown that this process of verification can be easily achieved by simply asking a non-biased person to act as an arbiter for truth. Truth can also be ascertained by simply asking a significant number of people to agree that what they are seeing and observing support the conclusion made by another.
Cicovacki, P. Between Truth and Illusion: Kant at the Crossroads of Modernity. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002.
Hartnack, Justus. Kant’s Theory of Knowledge: Introduction to Critique of Pure Reason. IN: Hacket Publishing, 2001.
Locke, J. & R. Woolhouse. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Rationalism vs. Empiricism.” 2008. Web.