Does Falsity Exist In The Senses?

Hello everyone and welcome back to Deeper Waters where we are diving into the ocean of truth. We’ve been going through the doctrine of God lately and right now we’re studying the idea of falsity, in contrast to our prior study of the idea of truth. Our guide for this has been the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. If you wish to read through the work on your own, you can do so for free at Tonight, we’re going to be asking the question of if falsity exists in the senses.

To begin with, we must remember that in Thomistic thought, all knowledge begins with sense experience rather than with a priori ideas. This was the position of Aristotle as well in contrast to his position of Plato. While there is a healthy respect of course, there would be disagreement between Aquinas and Augustine. As Augustine Christianized Plato, so did Aquinas with Aristotle.

Aquinas argues that falsity does exist in the senses. The senses can detect many things in many ways, but they are often detecting likenesses. After all, when you see a triangle, you are seeing an object that possesses triangularity. You are not seeing triangularity itself.

This is one reason Plato was against artwork in his perfect city. After all, for him, there were the forms that dwelt independently of the things themselves and even of God. What you saw in the real world was a poor representation of the forms. Since what you were seeing was a poor representation, why make it even worse by making a poorer representation of that thing?

Generally speaking, our senses are reliable, but from time to time, they can let us down. One can think of the Navy Seals who in training undergo sleep deprivation and then begin hallucinating. There is an account of three out on a raft together in training. One was waving at an octopus that was waving at him. Another was using an oar to hit dolphins leaping overhead. Another was wanting to dive out of the way of an oncoming train. What made them realize that these were all hallucinations? None of their friends saw the things that they were seeing.

We do realize however that our senses are generally reliable which is a good thing and an amazing thing. How is it that this bundle of molecules can so well relate to that universe that exists independently? It is because of the reliability of the senses that we have the studies of science and other areas. We trust historical accounts because we believe sense experience to be reliable across space and time. Of course, we recognize that people can lie and exaggerate and sometimes have malfunctioning senses, but overall, we do trust sense experience.

For this, we should be thankful. God gave us a world that we are to explore and learn about and he gave us a reliable method of doing such. Our senses are wonderful gifts and we should thank God that he loved us enough that we are allowed to experience the wonder that is the world.

We shall continue tomorrow.

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