When I was a kid there was a philosophical quandary that would keep me up late at night. I spent an inordinate amount of time contemplating whether things tasted the same to everyone or if everyone tasted things differently. For instance, when someone described something as salty and I would taste it and agree that it was salty did it mean that we perceived saltiness the same way? This really bothered me. It seemed that while a piece of food might contain the same amount of saltiness, we all either perceived saltiness in a different way or else there must be some inherent quality within us that determined whether or not we liked saltiness. After all, it was blatantly we obvious to my young self that we didn’t all like the same food. My mom would assure me that tastes change as one gets older and that I might one day discover that I liked something I did not currently like. So one’s perception of taste did not even remain constant throughout one’s life. This of course introduced a fair amount of skepticism into my young brain. Long before I ever considered whether or not self doubt might be a tragic consequence of sexism or read about the philosophy of David Hume, I was skeptical that our senses could provide us with an accurate picture of reality. The fact that taste was always the sense that I fixated on probably meant that I was always obsessed with food.
The taste question continued to bug me throughout my life. Even when I learned that there were taste buds and that how you tasted things might have something to do with how many of those buds you had in particular parts of your mouth, this didn’t solve the problem for me. Sure, some people might perceive a stronger sense of saltiness than others and therefore because they had more taste buds on the salty side of their tongue not like as much salt. It made sense in the same sense that some people are colorblind or deaf in certain frequencies. But this did not really answer the burning philosophical question that always played in my head. When we talked about the taste of salt, how could we be sure that we perceived it the same way? Even if two people had the exact same number of taste buds, it could not be deduced that salty was the exact same sensation to each of them. How I perceive salty could still be entirely different than how another person perceived it. Therefore when we described salty, we would not be in essence talking about the same sensation, even though we were describing the same experience. And even if we add in the complexities of brain chemistry, we are still just adding more layers to the same basic question: do we have the ability to accurately perceive objects as they are?
I would always come to the conclusion that we could not. We could have several different people taste the soup pot and come to the conclusion that it was too salty or that it needed salt and we could then enjoy the soup. But we couldn’t conclude that we all perceived saltiness in the exact same way. This did not mean that there was no relationship between the reality that our words described and the external reality of saltiness. There had to be some relationship between what people meant when they said “salty” and what we tasted. There could even be a fairly common consensus on how much salt tasted good and what things tasted good with the salt. We could just never be sure that the essence of each person’s experience with salt was the same. We could experience salt, but we could not actually know the reality of salt. This did not even mean that there was not an absolute quality of saltiness. My young brain would conclude that objects had actual qualities, but that human beings could not accurately perceive those qualities or ever be certain that we were.
I was fascinated by the concept of sensory doubt in general. In high school, I conjured an alien character for a story whose favorite colors were beltekan and uzop – colors he could see that the human eye could not. I wrote a science fiction story in which the entire Earth was destroyed by Venusians because the Venusians concluded there was no life on Earth since they did not have the same senses we did. They communicated by a complex language of chemical emissions and because their ecosystem was vastly different, they concluded that Earth was incapable of supporting life.
When people would say that they had encounters with the demonic I was always curious. I was both terribly skeptical because I had no such encounters, but always open to the possibility that they could exist and that I just did not have whatever sense perceived them. When a friend told me she could see auras, my attitude was much the same. Maybe she could, but I still wasn’t sure I believed in auras. And when it came to believing in God, it was because I could never imagine away the presence I felt to be God. Of course it occurred to me that it might be that all the chemicals in my brain are the product of evolution because it was advantageous to believe in God. I mean, it’s a natural question when you’ve lived your whole life doubting all senses that belong to everyone while simultaneously wondering if there are entire dimensions we can’t perceive. Yet trying to imagine away God was like trying to ignore the salt in the soup.