A. Introduction to Philosophy: 2nd Extract
The Ministry of Perception
DAVE was about to post his football pools coupon when a car backfired. He tensed, bracing himself for a second explosion, then held his breath as an old jalopy lurched past belching a cloud of blue-grey smoke. He glared at the driver. On top of a Monday morning and a hangover this was something his battered nerves could do without.
When he turned back, the post-box was not there. Or, rather, for a split second he thought he saw a thin, silvery hoop surrounded by a blur of flashing lights. Then, the familiar red cylinder returned, its mouth open towards him with what looked like the hint of a smile.
'Did you see that?', he asked a woman who was about to post a bulky envelope.
'Oh, I did. Those things shouldn't be allowed! My husband Harry's bronchitis gets worse every year.'
'No, I meant the post-box. It just disappeared!'
The woman squinted at the Collection Times, then struck the side of the box with the handle of her collapsible umbrella. It made a satisfying dull clunk. She hit it once more just to make sure, then squeezed her envelope through the slot. She glanced at Dave, then back at the post-box, and hurried on.
Dave absentmindedly put the coupon back in his pocket, and wandered towards the near-by bus stop. For once, he gave no thought to the long queue in front of him. Over and over, he rehearsed his disturbing experience, as if grasping for some hidden clue. What had he been drinking the night before? Or was this the first warning of a mental breakdown? Held been under a lot of stress recently. Several of his mates had been made redundant, and now management were floating the idea of a wage cut. Then he remembered the coupon in his pocket and felt even more miserable.
'Oi, look where you're going! You've stepped on my toe!'
Dave had just decided to make a run for the post-box when the queue began to surge forward. He stammered an apology, then glanced up to see a silvery coil approaching, surrounded by the same flashing lights he had seen a short while ago. In an instant, the silvery coil turned into a double-decker bus. It was obvious no-one else had noticed anything unusual. He tried to stay calm as he boarded.
'You've given me a ten pence piece. The fare's fifty!' Dave scrambled in his pockets for change, then held the coins out. A silvery ring and flashing lights hovered where the driver's head should have been. Panicking, Dave pushed his way back through the passengers crowding behind him, jumped to the pavement and began to run.
o O o
When the ambulance arrived, Dave was semi-conscious. His forehead was covered in ugly bruises. His face streamed with blood. Above him, a dark splash of colour on a lamppost showed the place where he had been repeatedly banging his head.
'We just couldn't get him to stop,' said one girl, sobbing.
Another bystander, curious but unmoved, added, 'And did you notice each time he did it he looked around in a peculiar way?'
The murmur of voices seemed to come to Dave from far away, as he struggled to keep his eyes open.
o O o
The Hospital Registrar searched her notebook for the unlisted telephone number she'd been given the first time they'd had an incident like this. That was only a month ago. Since then, the strange hallucinations seemed to have been occurring with increasing frequency. There had already been three cases since the beginning of the week. The man in the black uniform had warned her not to talk anyone about the incident. It was a 'matter of national security', he said. He wouldn't even say what branch of the police he was from. Still, she wondered what on Earth was happening.
o O o
The Minister for Perception, The Right Honourable Member for Sector 14, Zone IV was on the phone to the Prime Minister. 'I've got the report from the Scientific Advisor on my desk now. He says there's absolutely nothing that can be done. The latest data shows an extremely high incidence of sunspots. It's causing marked interference with transmissions. But he has assured me that things will be back to normal within two weeks, at the outside.'
'Well, I hope for all our sakes that the boffins have got their calculations right. The emergency services are stretched to the limit. Tell the Advisor I want an hourly update on that report. But let me know immediately if there are an further developments. If the situation doesn't improve quickly, I'm afraid we shall have to seriously consider putting the worst affected Sectors into a state of temporary mass coma.'
'But the economic consequences would be disastrous!'
'Then we shall just have to hope that it doesn't come to that, shan't we?'
o O o
The Ministry of Perception is located in a large bunker two miles below what used to be the City of London. It was set up after the devastation of World War Three. It consists of two departments, the Department of Sense Data and the Department of Rehabilitation. The men in black uniforms who collected Dave from the hospital did not belong to any police force. The had been sent by the Department of Rehabilitation. A few weeks in their re-programming unit on Exmoor would see to it that Dave did not suffer from similar 'delusions' again.
By far the largest of the two departments, however, with offices near every major population centre, is the Department of Sense Data. Recruits to the Department first have to go through an experience similar to Dave's. At that stage, at least three quarters of the intake drop out and have to be 'reprogrammed'. What Dave caught a glimpse of were the radio transmitters that relayed images of a 1990's Britain to tiny receivers implanted in the brains of every new born infant.
Occasionally, the receivers develop a fault and have to be replaced. More frequently, the brain suffers a mild form of epilepsy as it tries to cope with an input for which it was never designed. The reaction can usually be suppressed by drugs. But nothing can be done about the effects of random interference with the radio signals except 'persuade' the unfortunate subjects that what the seemed to experience never really happened.
It is only in the second stage of their training that the remaining recruits to the Department of Sense Data get to see their surroundings as they really are, with the brain receivers switched off. It takes time to learn how to see, to hear, to feel after one's natural sense organs have been disconnected for so long. When they do eventually adjust, many of the trainees simply refuse to believe their eyes.
o O o
If you were to visit Britain in the 2090's, you would find grotesque mutations, hobbling around a giant bomb site, under a permanently orange sky. Those that are strong enough to work in the fields and building sites and factories labouring towards reconstruction are lucky if they can survive at the barest subsistence level. The rest are condemned to a slow but certain death from malnutrition and lack of medical attention. Fortunately, the newly developed biotechnology keeps the population in a state of contented ignorance.
- For the sake of decency and the British way of life, the men and women from the Ministry do an admirable job of keeping up appearances.
'Derek, you look as though you're in a lot of pain. Would you like to share your thoughts with us?'
'I hardly know where to begin!'
'Go on, try!'
'Well, for a start, really just a request for information. Do they have football pools in your post-nuclear Britain?'
'How about pillar boxes or a postal service?'
'Then I just don't get it.'
'What don't you get?'
'Look, Dave obviously thought he was doing something when he filled out his pools coupon and put it in the envelope. I mean, I take it he is awake, and not in some laboratory somewhere with wires attached to his scalp! So what was he doing then?'
'You can make up anything you like!'
'If I may but in, you're taking the story too literally, Derek. It's meant to be allegorical.'
'You're only partly right, Brenda. The story is a sort of allegory about the philosophical problem of perception. But like all my stories, it is intended to make sense as an account of a possible world.'
'In that case, Dr Phillips, I agree with Derek. It's one thing designing the equivalent of rose tinted spectacles that make the environment appear a little prettier and less depressing than it really is. But I don't see how people's perceptions could be doctored to the extent that they thought they were involved in totally different kinds of activity from the activities they were actually engaged in. The misinformation they receive through their "eyes" has still got to match up with the objects they can feel and manipulate.'
'That's a fair point. What I had in mind was a society where people go around in a kind of permanent hypnotic trance. Their experiences do bear a tenuous connection with reality they are, after all, working, eating, getting on and off "buses", and so on. They need sufficient feedback from their environment to be able to manipulate objects and find their way about. It is only that the hard, gritty reality is hidden behind an elaborate artificial facade. I agree that your "rose tinted spectacles" wouldn't be enough. Nor would hypnosis on its own be sufficient to keep the facade in position over an extended length of time, let alone ensure that the facade remained the same for everybody. That is why the information that comes through their senses has to be doctored as well.'
'I'm still not sure that what you've described makes sense. The people in 2090's Britain are not all doing rough, manual labour that requires a minimum of precise information about the objects that they are heaving and pulling. Perhaps for that task, workers stumbling about in a semi-hypnotic trance would be sufficient. But other jobs require a much firmer grip on reality.'
'I agree, Derek. I suppose one would have to say that it is only the armies of manual workers that live out fantasy lives in the imaginary, pre-nuclear world. The elite who do the skilled work have to go about their tasks with their eyes fully open, so to speak. You can write that into the story, if you like. Or you could have a number of increasingly refined levels of deception, so that only those in charge saw things as they really are...'
'And the point of the story is to question just what it means to "see things as they really are"?'
'Lucy, did you want to make a point?'
'How about this? Looking around this room I can see six people and another half dozen or so empty chairs. It's getting dark outside. There are several travel posters sellotaped to the walls, and one poster with dinosaurs. Through the windows I can see lights from the building opposite. Oh, and there's a very dusty looking film projector in the corner.'
'Gordon, you look puzzled!'
'I can't see the point of what Lucy is saying.'
'What I'm saying, Gordon, is that if I see six people, and there really are six people, or if I see a film projector and there really is a film projector then I'm seeing things as they really are, aren't I? Of course, if one of you is a robot then I'm wrong in thinking that I can see six people, though I suppose we could debate the point. And the same sorts of things apply to all the other things I mentioned.'
'If you looked at one of the posters with a magnifying glass, all you'd see were patterns of coloured dots.'
'Sure, but then I wouldn't be able to tell what the picture was, would I? You might as well say that I can't really see the poster as it is unless I use a powerful microscope, and even then there would be structures that were too small to be revealed.'
'I do say that. What we see with our eyes are mere subjective appearances that bear only the crudest resemblance to the real, objective physical properties of the things that we're looking at. It's an arrangement that works perfectly well for most practical purposes, I agree. But don't you try to tell me that what we experience of the world or of things around us reflects what is really there.'
'I suppose you're not really there then!'
'I'm sorry, but I've got to intervene at this point. Gordon, you seem to be arguing for a naive form of scientific reductionism. All factual truths, according to the reductionist are definable in terms of, or "reducible to" the properties of ultimate particles. Unfortunately for that view, there is the clearest evidence that it is impossible to define psychological, or even biological concepts in terms of pure physics. Take a person. There may be nothing to a person other than a complex arrangement of cells, and nothing to a cell than physical particles. Take all the cells, or all the particles away, and there is nothing left. But the concept of a person is still an indispensable concept. Not only is it possible for something corresponding to the description of a "person" to exist, but things of that kind do actually exist. Indeed, they exist in this room. They are really there, no less than the particles are really there. Lucy, you made an excellent point about the travel poster, which illustrates exactly what I'm saying. Take away the dots and you take away the picture. But once you've exhaustively described the position of every dot, you still haven't given the most important information of all, which is what the picture represents.'
'I've got a question.'
'The physicist Eddington made the same claim as Gordon was making about a table in his book The Nature of the Physical World. We think there's a solid table there, but really it's mostly empty space filled with vibrating electrons, neutrons and protons. Are you saying that he was wrong?'
'He was wrong to say that there was no solid table. But actually I think he was merely exaggerating to make a point. "You'd be very surprised to learn," he is saying to the reader, "that what you thought of as a solid table is mostly empty space." In a way, that's right. To someone who was ignorant of physics, the physical truth about the table is very surprising indeed. But it's over-stating the case to say that physics has shown that there really is no table, only vibrating electrons, neutrons and protons.'
'I didn't know that tables are mostly empty space.'
'Well, now you do, Gloria.'
'And I suppose chairs and everything else are empty space too, and we are empty space?'
'Of course. So what?'
'What I was thinking was if our bodies weren't mostly empty space then we would be only too aware of how thin and fragile other objects were. The strongest chairs would disintegrate under our weight. We could crunch up cars with our bare hands like aluminium foil.'
'That's a good point.'
'Thank you, Derek.'
'If I could just develop Gloria's point a little, you might say that we are designed to perceive objects that are in some sense "like" ourselves. Things have to be, or appear at any rate, a comparable size to us. Chairs and tables are there for us in the room because they are just the sorts of object we have to deal with in getting about the world. If we were the size of planets, or microbes, chair-sized objects wouldn't be there for ordinary sense perception. In just the same way, if we made out of electrical fields, the objects that figured prominently in our perceptions would be objects made out of electrical fields, or if we were made out of Gloria's super-massive material, we'd have to make our chairs and tables and the rooms we lived in out of crushed atomic nuclei or whatever.'
'That looks as if you're saying that seeing things as they "really are" is just a relative concept. The way things really are is quite different to a person the size of a planet or a microbe. But isn't that just giving a word the meaning you want to give it? What you're talking about is appearances, not the way things are in reality.'
'Look, Gordon, this isn't getting anywhere. Who cares what meanings we give to words, so long as we're clear about the facts?'
'You tell us the facts then Brenda!'
'OK, I will. Here's a fact: When you say that you "see" an object in the room, as a matter of fact what is actually happening is that some of the light rays bouncing off the surface of the object go through the iris of your eye, where an upside down image of the object is projected on your retina. At least, that's what I learned in my GCSE Biology.'
'As I was saying, there's this upside down image of the chair. But then the image is converted into electrical signals and sent to the part of your brain that deals with vision. That's what's really happening. So people are quite wrong to think that they "see" the actual object itself out there. All they really "see" is in their own heads. That isn't a matter of defining words, that's a scientific fact.'
'One question, Brenda.'
'Where are you in all this?'
'I don't know what you mean.'
'You seem to be saying that the so-called "chair" that you're actually seeing is inside your own head. So that means there must be a "you" inside your own head as well, looking at the electro-chemical image of the chair that the chair "out there" has impressed on your brain.'
'That's what actually happens, isn't it?'
'Well, I don't know. If there is really a part of your brain that is the real you, and another part of the brain that is the image of the chair, how does the real you actually get to see the image? Does the real you inside your head have the equivalent of "eyes" that take in the image of the chair in your brain?'
'Oh! I suppose you're going to say that by my own argument, all I really see is an image of the image of the chair. But I don't even see that, I only see an image of the image of the image, and so on! How do you stop the regress then?'
'One stops the regress by refusing to take the first step. By virtue of the process that you described, a person looking at a chair sees the actual chair itself, not an image on their retina, nor electrical signals in their optic nerve. Just the chair itself.'
'What about the people in the story? They think that they're seeing things like pillar boxes, but really those are just images transmitted directly to their brains.'
'That's right. There aren't any pillar boxes there, so obviously they can't see any actual pillar boxes. All that's happening is that they seem to see pillar boxes. Now of course you could be tempted into scepticism and say that we never know whether we really see things or only seem to see things. But whatever sceptical hypothesis you use short of Descartes "evil demon" deceiving you into thinking that there are such things as physical objects in space when in fact there's nothing but you and the evil demon you can't avoid talking about a world of objects out there that people are in fact able to perceive.'
'You're making me feel giddy! As you were talking, I could see you switch back and forth between a real person out there and a visual image in my head. It's still happening! How do I stop it?'
'I think the answer to the question you asked Derek is that you don't allow your factual knowledge to mislead you into misinterpreting the facts of perception. Or, failing that, we could take Hume's advice and find something else to do other than argue about philosophy.'
'You mean, we could all go down to the pub for a game of darts?'
'Now that's an excellent idea!'