Alternative Perceptual Systems and Discovery of Basic Astronomical Phenomena

Sheri Wells-Jensen
Bowling Green State University, USA

How we perceive the universe guides, and places limits on, how we discover natural laws.

As a species that uses vision for object location and identification, we naturally discovered elements of basic science through visual cues: watching the movement of shadows, observing the path of a swinging pendulum, or monitoring the progress of lights in the sky, and then creating hypotheses to account for these observable data. Tools were then made to enhance perceptions, and these new observations were used to refine hypotheses. Species that rely on different perceptual systems would necessarily be guided and limited in different ways, construct different tools, and would acquire their understanding of the natural world in a manner that might seem quite unintuitive to us. They might work through a different sequence of understanding and make different kinds of errors along the way.

This paper follows a course of discovery of basic astronomical concepts as they might be deduced by a race of intelligent beings who are entirely blind. We propose no exceptional abilities beyond that which humans might have if human culture had developed to support and encourage non-visual exploration. Wherever possible, suppositions about what is ‘doable’ are tested with the assistance of blind volunteers to ensure that observations and tool construction of the kind proposed are possible. This case study of the possible variation of perceptual systems among species capable of deducing basic astronomical facts demonstrates how even a relatively minor modification in perceptual systems can shape the nature of scientific inquiry in a species.

Having worked carefully through this example, we can begin to imagine the influence of other kinds of sensory input on the acquisition of scientific knowledge.


Sheri Wells-Jensen earned her Ph.D. in Linguistics from the State University of New York at Buffalo and is currently an associate professor in the English Department at Bowling Green State University. Her research interests include xenolinguistics, second language acquisition, speech production, Braille literacy, and language preservation.