I started reading Quine’s – The Web of Belief this weekend. In it there is one part which goes like this:
What are observations? Some philosophers have taken them to be sensory events: the occurrence of smells, feels, noises, color patches. This way lies frustration. What we ordinarily notice and testify to are rather the objects and events out in the world. It is to these that our very language is geared, because language is a social institution, learned from other people who share the scene to which the words refer. Observation sentences, like theoretical sentences, are for the most part sentences about external objects. This is why they can enter into logical relations with scientific theory, confirming or refuting it. (italics mine)
Quine, I think, rightly points that what we ordinarily notice are not colors patches, noises, etc; but objects and events… I think that is true, and more than that – those are the things we first notice, and only then we notice the colors, forms, and so on. It is true that the sense-data assumption first comes to mind when we learn the bio-physical facts. Namely, we learn how we have a “bag” of sensory receptors, and that each of these is separately affected by something in our surrounding. So, it is very normal to assume that the starting point of our consciousness of things is grounded in the consciousness of something that correlates with this bag of sensory events. So, the thinking goes, what we are conscious of in some moment is sense-data, and everything else is then synthesized on base of these sense-data.
But even this picture might make sense on first look, lot of empirical research on conceptual development (for a nice sum up see Keil, 1989) shows a “holistic to analytic” shift. Those facts I think go strongly against the assumption that what the kids are initially aware is some sense-data, and that then the awareness of things as wholes which include more properties, and complex concepts is synthesized.
In previous posts, I said that this is because of the salience of things around us (by “things” I mean objects, properties, events, etc…). The whole objects tend to be more salient than specific properties (you will become aware of a rabbit, but not of its fur).
As I read that paragraph Quine isn’t thinking that we can become aware of wholes (in time or space) in the perception directly, without some sense-data to back it up. He seems instead to distinguish the awareness of the objects, which are supposed to be in publically accessible space, from colors, feels, etc… which are supposed to be something personal. Because of this Quine encounters a problem – how can we include persistent things in our observation sentences:
That there are enduring bodies at all, behind the passing show of sensory appearance, is a point of physical theory-a rudimentary point, but still something beyond the observable present occasion.
His explanation of how this is possible strikes me as unnecessary, given that other empirical researches show how children are aware of the objects as persistent well before learning language. This post has an example, but for a lot of examples which go beyond simple persistence, you might want to check Baillargeon, R.- “The Object Concept Revisited” (I read it in the Concepts – Core Readings book).
UPDATE:I added a post to give the general idea of the tests done by Baillargeon.