How do we know what we see or hear is good or bad?

I was lying in bed this morning and it struck me that you can only judge the positiveness or negativeness of certain sensory modalities by how they affect a different sensory modality.

Now, I imagine many of you are saying, “Yes, Wil, that is a wise and sage truth.” But some of you may be saying, “What the fuck are you talking about?” so I will try to explain.

Let’s consider vision. We can imagine some positive images and some negative images. A positive image might be a fuzzy kitten or our favorite meal being presented to us by a naked, attractive movie star. A negative image might be medical diagnosis paper that says “Cancer!!” or a horrible automobile accident.

But what makes them positive or negative? There’s nothing in the image that does this; it’s all how they make you feel. Positive images give us a warm, good feeling of calm and happiness while negative images may cause our heart to race, our gut to tighten, etc. In essence, we need our felt feelings, particularly in our internal body, to “know” whether this image is positive or negative.

(I believe that one test for psychopathy is showing people disturbing images and tracking their skin conductivity (which changes with stress.) Psychopaths can look at horrible imagery and not be disturbed.)

Let’s consider hearing. A positive sound might be a happy dog barking, or someone saying, “You just won the lottery.” A negative sound might be your girlfriend announcing she is leaving you because you are sexually inadequate, or your boss announcing your termination.

But, again, how do we know these things are good or bad? Because we feel sensations upon presentation of the stimulus. There’s nothing inherent in the stimulus.

We can say the same for smell, taste, even our vestibular (balance) sensation. It’s how they make us feel that denotes their character. Presumably if you simply had no feeling, you would have a hard time judging the sensations.

Of course, vision can be annoying on its own – bright lights are an example. So can sound when it gets too loud. But that has nothing to do with the object or objects being represented by the sight or sound. If you find yourself looking at an incredibly bright image of a chair, it’s not annoying because you don’t like chairs but because you don’t like incredible brightness. An overwhelmingly loud recording of a kitten mewing is just as annoying as an overwhelmingly loud recording of grating machinery.

You can think of the process by which we observe the world using our senses in this way.

1) Incoming sensory stream hits sense organ (light hits eyes, sound hits ears, etc.).
2) Our brain objectifies what it observes in this sensory stream (we recognize we are looking at a bear or hearing a pretty song).
3) Brain sets off a process by which we feel positivity or negativity about the object(s) we are observing (bear evokes fear, pretty song evokes joy).

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