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How We Come To Know The External World

There is a marvel about our coming to know the external world which we
shall never be able fully to understand. We have come by this knowledge
so gradually and unconsciously that it now appears to us as commonplace,
and we take for granted many things that it would puzzle us to explain.

KNOWLEDGE THROUGH THE SENSES.--For example, we say, Of course I see
yonder green tree: it is about ten rods distant. But why of course?
Why should objects at a distance from us and with no evident connection
between us and them be known to us at all merely by turning our eyes in
their direction when there is light? Why not rather say with the blind
son of Professor Puiseaux of Paris, who, when asked if he would like to
be restored to sight, answered: If it were not for curiosity I would
rather have long arms. It seems to me that my hands would teach me
better what is passing in the moon than your eyes or telescopes.

We listen and then say, Yes, that is a certain bell ringing in the
neighboring village, as if this were the most simple thing in the
world. But why should one piece of metal striking against another a mile
or two away make us aware that there is a bell there at all, let alone
that it is a certain bell whose tone we recognize? Or we pass our
fingers over a piece of cloth and decide, That is silk. But why,
merely by placing our skin in contact with a bit of material, should we
be able to know its quality, much less that it is cloth and that its
threads were originally spun by an insect? Or we take a sip of liquid
and say, This milk is sour. But why should we be able by taking the
liquid into the mouth and bringing it into contact with the mucous
membrane to tell that it is milk, and that it possesses the quality
which we call sour? Or, once more, we get a whiff of air through the
open window in the springtime and say, There is a lilac bush in bloom
on the lawn. Yet why, from inhaling air containing particles of lilac,
should we be able to know that there is anything outside, much less that
it is a flower and of a particular variety which we call lilac? Or,
finally, we hold a heated flatiron up near the cheek and say, This is
too hot! it will burn the cloth. But why by holding this object a foot
away from the face do we know that it is there, let alone knowing its

THE UNITY OF SENSORY EXPERIENCE.--Further, our senses come through
experience to have the power of fusing, or combining their knowledge, so
to speak, by which each expresses its knowledge in terms of the others.
Thus we take a glance out of the window and say that the day looks cold,
although we well know that we cannot see cold. Or we say that the
melon sounds green, or the bell sounds cracked, although a crack or
greenness cannot be heard. Or we say that the box feels empty,
although emptiness cannot be felt. We have come to associate cold,
originally experienced with days which look like the one we now see,
with this particular appearance, and so we say we see the cold; sounds
like the one coming from the bell we have come to associate with cracked
bells, and that coming from the melon with green melons, until we say
unhesitatingly that the bell sounds cracked and the melon sounds green.
And so with the various senses. Each gleans from the world its own
particular bit of knowledge, but all are finally in a partnership and
what is each one's knowledge belongs to every other one in so far as the
other can use it.

THE SENSORY PROCESSES TO BE EXPLAINED.--The explanation of the ultimate
nature of knowledge, and how we reach it through contact with our
material environment, we will leave to the philosophers. And battles
enough they have over the question, and still others they will have
before the matter is settled. The easier and more important problem for
us is to describe the processes by which the mind comes to know its
environment, and to see how it uses this knowledge in thinking. This
much we shall be able to do, for it is often possible to describe a
process and discover its laws even when we cannot fully explain its
nature and origin. We know the process of digestion and assimilation,
and the laws which govern them, although we do not understand the
ultimate nature and origin of life which makes these possible.

simple description which we have proposed many puzzles confront us, and
one of them appears at the very outset. This is that the qualities which
we usually ascribe to objects really exist in our own minds and not in
the objects at all. Take, for instance, the common qualities of light
and color. The physicist tells us that what we see as light is
occasioned by an incredibly rapid beating of ether waves on the retina
of the eye. All space is filled with this ether; and when it is
light--that is, when some object like the sun or other light-giving body
is present--the ether is set in motion by the vibrating molecules of the
body which is the source of light, its waves strike the retina, a
current is produced and carried to the brain, and we see light. This
means, then, that space, the medium in which we see objects, is not
filled with light (the sensation), but with very rapid waves of ether,
and that the light which we see really occurs in our own minds as the
mental response to the physical stimulus of ether waves. Likewise with
color. Color is produced by ether waves of different lengths and degrees
of rapidity.

Thus ether waves at the rate of 450 billions a second give us the
sensation of red; of 472 billions a second, orange; of 526 billions a
second, yellow; of 589 billions a second, green; of 640 billions a
second, blue; of 722 billions a second, indigo; of 790 billions a
second, violet. What exists outside of us, then, is these ether waves of
different rates, and not the colors (as sensations) themselves. The
beautiful yellow and crimson of a sunset, the variegated colors of a
landscape, the delicate pink in the cheek of a child, the blush of a
rose, the shimmering green of the lake--these reside not in the objects
themselves, but in the consciousness of the one who sees them. The
objects possess but the quality of reflecting back to the eye ether
waves of the particular rate corresponding to the color which we ascribe
to them. Thus red objects, and no others, reflect back ether waves of
a rate of 450 billions a second: white objects reflect all rates;
black objects reflect none.

The case is no different with regard to sound. When we speak of a sound
coming from a bell, what we really mean is that the vibrations of the
bell have set up waves in the air between it and our ear, which have
produced corresponding vibrations in the ear; that a nerve current was
thereby produced; and that a sound was heard. But the sound (i.e.,
sensation) is a mental thing, and exists only in our own consciousness.
What passed between the sounding object and ourselves was waves in the
intervening air, ready to be translated through the machinery of nerves
and brain into the beautiful tones and melodies and harmonies of the
mind. And so with all other sensations.

THE THREE SETS OF FACTORS.--What exists outside of us therefore is a
stimulus, some form of physical energy, of a kind suitable to excite
to activity a certain end-organ of taste, or touch, or smell, or sight,
or hearing; what exists within us is the nervous machinery capable of
converting this stimulus into a nerve current which shall produce an
activity in the cortex of the brain; what results is the mental object
which we call a sensation of taste, smell, touch, sight, or hearing.

Next: The Nature Of Sensation

Previous: Problems In Observation And Introspection

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