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Philosophical question(s)
19-06-2005, 10:12 AM (This post was last modified: 19-06-2005 10:15 AM by survivorfan.)
Post: #1
Philosophical question(s)

THis is a thread for philosopical questions.

We had some friends over yesterday and we were sitting around drinking in the garden. After the usual topics of conversation, like the weather, children, slagging off other people etc, things turned a little philosophical, during which the subject of our patio table cropped up - or more precisely, the shape of the table top.

The table top is what everyone would call circular, but we started to question this. From where I was sitting, the table top was not a circle, it was an oval shape, due to my viewpoint. It struck us that the table would only be a circle if you stood on it and looked down from above its centre. So the question was is the table top really a circle, and if so why should the 'from above' perspective be the right one, why should it be any 'better' than my sitting down one, from which the top is an oval.

Does the table top have a fixed shape or does it not?

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19-06-2005, 11:08 AM
Post: #2
Philosophical question(s)
It has a fixed physical shape, but your brain interprets the shape relative to your viewpoint. But your brain can also - with experience - tell you that despite the altered perspective, the shape you are looking at is circular.

But as professor R L Gregory (author "The Eye & Brain") points out, even the most experienced observers (pilots, military etc) can still be fooled by tricks of the light, perspective and distortion. So the brain often gets it wrong. (optical illusions)

Philosophically I'm not sure there's a debate on this one because though the brain "sees" the circular table as having altered perspective, evidentially the table is circular as a quick whip around with a tape measure can prove.
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19-06-2005, 11:14 AM (This post was last modified: 19-06-2005 11:29 AM by survivorfan.)
Post: #3
Philosophical question(s)
Normal1 Wrote:Philosophically I'm not sure there's a debate on this one because though the brain "sees" the circular table as having altered perspective, evidentially the table is circular as a quick whip around with a tape measure can prove.

But say I use an even more accurate instrument to measure it, say a laser powered measuring device that fires a beam of light to gauge the shape of an object. If I use it from above the table top will be measured as circular, but if I use it from my chair it will be measured as oval. Why should one be right and the other one wrong?

edited to add - just to defend the philosophical slant on this, if you are right and the table is circular, I would then say you never see it as it really is*, it always looks a different shape (because you never see it from above), so can w draw a conclusion that nothing is ever what it seems?

* I have a feeling this is a nonsense statement, having written it I realised I don't know what it means

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19-06-2005, 11:31 AM
Post: #4
Philosophical question(s)
I'm about to go out so I can't comment much on this at the moment, but there is an even more fundamental question here...how do you know that what you see is a table? You would have to say why you consider the object concerned to be a table - is it because it was sold as a table, is it because of certain characteristics it has (e.g. legs and a large top perhaps - although the same could be said of a sofa), or is it because you choose to use it as a table?

As for the shape argument, I suspect N1 is correct. A circle is defined as having an equal distance at all points from its centre. Therefore we can easily measure the tabletop and ascertain that, mathematically speaking, the top is indeed circular.

(Similar for square shaped objects I suspect).

I still think the question of how you "know" its a table needs to be answered first. What would someone make of it had they never seen or heard of a table? Would it still be a table then?
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19-06-2005, 11:37 AM (This post was last modified: 19-06-2005 11:50 AM by survivorfan.)
Post: #5
Philosophical question(s)
Ceridwen Wrote:As for the shape argument, I suspect N1 is correct. A circle is defined as having an equal distance at all points from its centre. Therefore we can easily measure the tabletop and ascertain that, mathematically speaking, the top is indeed circular.

If I found the centre if my table and measured the distance of all points of the edge from the centre, they would not be equal, I can just about guarantee it - some will be further than others, so from the mathematical point of view it isn't a circle.

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19-06-2005, 11:59 AM
Post: #6
Philosophical question(s)
Ceridwen Wrote:I still think the question of how you "know" its a table needs to be answered first. What would someone make of it had they never seen or heard of a table? Would it still be a table then?

we call it a table because we use it as one, we sit at it and use its top as a work surface or eat off it. But having said that I suppose if we had a piano and used it as a work surface and ate off it it wouldn't be a table it would still be a piano so it must be more than that. It must have something to do wit hwhat things traditionally look like, usually a table looks like a table and a piano loks like a piano. But again, a modern piece of furniture could look just like an abstract form, I suppose such a piece only 'becomes' a table when someone tells you that's what they intended it to be.

Now you've got me wondering - if I have a small piece of furniture with a flat top and sides and sometimes I use it to eat off and sometimes I use it to sit on, is it a table or is it a seat or is it both - I don't know!

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19-06-2005, 12:22 PM
Post: #7
Philosophical question(s)
You know it's a table becasue your brain has an image of what a table should look like if when a child you learn what a table looks like.
I once saw a program on TV about peole who have this recognition part of their brain missing. They can't recognise faces, not even their own family!
As to why is it circular from the top but not from where you are sitting, I'd say the answer is similar as to why my thumb appears to be bigger than the door of the house over the road from where I am sitting now.

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19-06-2005, 12:33 PM
Post: #8
Philosophical question(s)
I suppose really it all boils down to accumulated knowledge: if it looks like a fish, smells like a fish, then it probably is a fish.

Your brain is a hyper-fast processing device which makes constant comparisons with a huge database of stored experiences, sights, sounds, smells and actions.

So, something looks like a table, brain says table. Something looks oval but we are looking from a certain perspective, brain says ah, I recognise that shape, the angle of view and the distortion caused by perspective, it's really circular.

The miracle is that all this processing goes on in the background as we lead our day to day lives, billions of connections and comparisons and judgements, usually without even a glitch.

Suck on that, Microsoft.
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19-06-2005, 01:57 PM
Post: #9
Philosophical question(s)
Bob Wrote:As to why is it circular from the top but not from where you are sitting, I'd say the answer is similar as to why my thumb appears to be bigger than the door of the house over the road from where I am sitting now.

Bob, to which I'd ask - how far away does your thumb have to be before it looks the right size?

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19-06-2005, 02:53 PM
Post: #10
Philosophical question(s)
The table question is even more complex than that.

If I designed a beautiful structure and told you it was an ornament (but it so happened to look just like a table and have the same functionality), would it be an ornament or a table?

Artists have put piles of junk in to art galleries and called them art. Art critics have agreed with them, and the junk must, be definition, be "art" to end up in a gallery - but it literally consists of a pile of rubbish. When did it cease to be rubbish and become art?

And another point - if you brought a child up to believe that an object with four legs, a large top and not much else was called a sofa rather than a table, would that child be correct or incorrect in referring to the object as a sofa? To use N1's logic:

Normal1 Wrote:if it looks like a fish, smells like a fish, then it probably is a fish.

To that child it WOULD look like a sofa and smell like a sofa, so would it then BE a sofa to that child - albeit that everyone else called it a table?
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