Synesthesia Meets Ontology

If you Google the phrase “synesthesia and ontology”, the first link that appears is by Berit Brogaard, but not for the reason you might think. To most reasonable people’s astonishment, not even Brit has written something on the intersection of synesthesia and ontology. The link only arises because her CV is so extensive that it includes two separate papers, one on synesthesia—”Synesthesia as Automatic, High-Level Visual Memory” and the other on ontology—”An Emotion Ontology Based on the Perceived Response Theory.” Ontology is the study of being, matter or existence. Ontologists spend their days with questions about what, in fact, exists. For example, disputes have emerged over the question, “Do abstract entities such as numbers or properties exist?” Now, when we mix synesthesia and ontology, my question is that if synesthesia is true, do we have to revise our ontological system and if so, how much? Consider that an ontologist walks up to a conversation between two people with grapheme-color synesthesia talking about the color of a particular number such as 3. As one person says that the number ‘3’ is blue for her, the other synesthete says that when she sees ‘3’, it’s red. Yet, the color of the number does not exist based on their wishes or preferences; rather ‘3’ really seems blue for one synesthete and red for another. Then… Enter ontology. Upon hearing this conversation between two synesthetes, an ontologist aligned with Rudolph Carnap’s view would say, “Numbers exist in our linguistic frameworks insofar as they are pragmatically useful in our practices in mathematics and physics.”  Then a sympathizer of Willard Quine’s view would say, “Numbers exist insofar as they accord with our best total system of beliefs in which logic and mathematics is at the center.” Both ontologists accept the existence of numbers, but then, what can they say about the first-person reports of synesthetes?  Perhaps, ontologists would say that they their total systems are to be revised in the same way that science is revised given the current evidence. Given results from the Synesthesia Battery Tests and other empirical data, synesthesia appears to nicely blend with our ontological commitments. Yet, given Quine’s view on revising our total system of beliefs, a further issue arises. Quine holds that any and all of our beliefs are tested by empirical evidence. For the total system of beliefs, the areas of logic, mathematics and meanings of terms are at the center and less significant areas are at the periphery. Revising beliefs in the center is much more difficult than revising beliefs on the border of the web of beliefs. Kyle Stanford characterizes how we revising our system of beliefs occurs: “A mismatch between what the web as a...

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