The reliability of the senses, perception, and memory has long been the subject of debate. A great many thinkers have weighed in with their opinions on these essential functions of the brain. Science is currently expending enormous effort in making experimental assessments. A lot is at stake. It is vital that we know just how far we can trust our innate abilities to collect information about the world around us. We need to know how well we convert sensory data into basic concepts (tree, rock, person, and so on). We must also have some idea of how well we remember those reflexive perceptions once we have formed them.
The strong presence of science in the debate has prompted some taking of sides. For example, American science fiction and fantasy author Gene Wolfe (of whom I am an enormous fan) believes that rejecting the memory of a personal experience because it violates the Western scientific paradigm constitutes self-distortion, a bending of sensory input to make it conform to a preconceived notion. He is expressing an increasingly popular attitude.
This position is incorrect. The issue here is not sensory input but the secondary process of perception. That is to say, what is in question is what we (or our minds) do with the sensory input. Here are some examples of experiences that many want to believe in, but science will not accept: seeing a ghost, seeing a UFO, experiencing or witnessing a miracle. Anyone who genuinely believes they have had an experience like these has converted sensory data into perceptions or concepts that violate the Western scientific paradigm. The debate is not over the sensory data itself but over the interpretation of the data. Science insists that an interpretation of an experience must be verified, not just asserted, before it is considered legitimate. It must be repeatable within that verified interpretation and not just a bizarre vehemently proclaimed one-off. A collection of asserted unverified one-offs, as in the case with UFO “sightings,” does not constitute repeatability.
In fact, the person who insists on interpreting various visual phenomena as ghosts or UFOs is guilty of bending their sensory input to fit a preconceived notion – the very crime that the attitude Wolfe is defending wants to pin on the Western scientific paradigm.
Applying the scientific paradigm to a questionable experience does not involve bending sensory input, rejecting a memory, or self-distortion. It means applying a corrective. Comparing subjective experience with a reputable objective paradigm filters out junk and helps maintain a sane, rational recollection of your life and its experiences, thereby promoting sane and rational behaviour in the here and now. Failure to do this allows the accumulation of errors and misconceptions, a situation that, over time, may impair your ability to deal with reality.
There is a tremendous advantage in vetting your “experiences” by recourse to the scientific paradigm. Consider the colonial whites who could walk with impunity in the African dark while the natives cowered in their huts, terrified to set foot outside for fear they would encounter the spirits of the dead.