2

This question might be related to the question "Is the space we live in continuous (as mathematically defined) or quantized?" but asking over the edge: Are we able to tell? As my understatement of all senses are discrete, as they are detectors based on electrical signals, I wonder if our representation of the world is a natural limit to understand continuity itself? Or posed in another way: can we explain or understand something, that we cannot experience?

  • Our senses are limited; so we do experience continuity even when the underlying reality is discrete. The classic example is the movies, passing a sequence of still images before the eye at the rate of 24 frames per second; and producing in the human eye-brain system the experience of continuous motion. You can extend that example to modern video games and computer-generated imagery. It's easy to provide the human senses with a false experience of continuity. Experience is limited to what we can sense, therefore it's not very good at detecting the underlying reality of things. – Janet Williams Oct 9 '13 at 21:08
  • This is a very important and good example. But it makes the original question even harder: Can we tell the difference between discrete and continuous stimuli? – Dschoni Oct 10 '13 at 9:22
  • Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained might be interesting to you. As our senses are not synchronized (a touch signal is processed later than a simultaneous visual signal, simply because of the "hardware" design), the mind reorders stimulus events to construct models that have useful sequence and continuity. This implies (to me) that the sense of continuity is at least somewhat manufactured. – obelia Oct 11 '13 at 20:24
6

Avoiding microphysics, let's say that a wall is a continuous surface. Let's also take for granted your suggestion that our senses are discrete, in that a neuron either fires or does not when stimulated by something like touching a wall.

Now, your problem is that a wall is continuous, while our experience of it is only ever a series of on-or-off neuron firings when we encounter it. Well, we constantly sample things, and then generalize from the samples to wholes. I see one side of a tomato from one angle and I make an "inductive inference" to there being a full tomato in front of me, with many sides, filling in what I have not experienced by reasoning that there is probably a full tomato there. Similarly, if you touch a wall at number of different points, you might infer that it is continuous. It is an "inductive" inference (rather than deductive), because you might be wrong. You are concluding something that goes beyond the evidence you have.

So, we arrive at your next problem: when we claim that a wall is continuous, but have only ever experienced parts of it, do we know what that means? Well, this is a problem only if our understanding of continuity could only come through such experiences. But we can also understand it by thinking about Euclid's definition of a line: a continuous series of points. We can understand that without ever having any experiences at all. And we use that concept to make sense of the wall being continuous, even though we know about it just based on a few points.

Adding: Certainly serious questions remain about concepts and their relationship to our experiences!

  • This is one of the most beautiful answers I ever got on the internet. Thanks. – Dschoni Oct 8 '13 at 19:19

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.