Saturday, October 30, 2004

The Importance(?) of Understanding the Mechanics and Logic of Perception

Law journals devote quite a bit of attention to studies of the reliability and unreliability of eyewitness identification. But could the legal process produce better assessments of eyewitness reports if trial lawyers and judges knew more about the technology, or physiology, of perception and the logic that informs such perception?
Caveat: It does not necessarily follow that human knowledge of perception is presently good enough to be used in the courtroom -- and, even if such knowledge is useful "in principle" for forensic purposes, it does not necessarily follow that lawyers, judges, and jurors have the training or intelligence to make effective use of contemporary knowledge of human perception.
Counter-caveat: It is not prudent to underestimate the intellectual prowess of jurors; and some lawyers and judges have a pleasing degree of scientific literacy.

The question I pose here is not trivial -- for it is an iteration of the question of the extent to which human beings understand their world without understanding it, viz., of the extent to which human beings are capable of drawing inferences about the world without understanding the mechanics that make it work as does. Conversely stated, the question posed here implicates the question whether knowledge of causes improves inference even if it is true that some inference is possible without (much) knowledge of causes.

Counterpoint: The hypothesis that perception (truly) is (pretty good) inference suggests that human beings -- by virtue of their heredity, physiology, etc. -- know much more than they can put in words.
But the question remains: Can explicit knowledge of causes improve inference?
The answer to this question would seem to have to be "yes": It is very hard to deny that some explicitly-formulated knowledge of nature's mechanics -- e.g., gravity -- enables human beings to make better inferences and predictions (predictions are merely a special form of inference) in some situations.
A final word of caution: Even a worm knows how to burrow into the soil. (Indeed, a worm probably knows how to do that better than you do.) But (as far as I know) worms have not produced treatises on soil mechanics.
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