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The Limits of Information


There is a long, winding, and vexing wrangle among philosophers on the nature and validity of our knowledge of the physical world. Take the example of color. A stroll through the garden reveals a busy bee extracting nectar from a yellow rose. I see the yellow rose owing to certain pigments in the cone receptors of my retina. In a normally sighted person, the neurochemistry of vision operates over a range of wavelengths from about 360 to 760 nanometers (nm) — roughly violet to a deep red. What English-speaking percipients describe as “yellow” is in the near vicinity of 580 nm, a little above the eye’s peak sensitivity. For the honey bee, matters are quite different. Its compound eyes are equipped with three types of retinal receptors — one for very short wavelengths (peaking at 344 nm, or ultraviolet), a medium-type (peaking at 436, or blue), and one for long wavelengths (peaking at 544, or green). Though we and the bee may share floral preferences — revealed in the bee’s foraging and in our table settings — the bee’s representation of the external world clearly includes features to which we are blind.

Were all sources of electromagnetic radiation to fall at wavelengths shorter than 340 nm, the affairs of the world would pass us unseen. (And eyes like ours wouldn’t work very well anyway, since excessive exposure to ultraviolent radiation renders the human lens increasingly opaque as a result of cataracts.) Our inability to see (or to endure) much ultraviolet radiation is a heavy price to pay for our eyesight, but it does protect the human retina from destruction by this same radiation. The moral of the tale so far is that creatures are fitted out for the world as given, and modes of adaptation come at a price.

Is this explanation of human perception no more than a poor glimpse into evolutionary forces? Here we face yet another of philosophy’s enduring engagements, to wit: What counts as an explanation, and what standard is to be applied in evaluating competing explanations?