Sunday, August 10, 2008

Do things have tastes?

I was told the other day that apparently there's a gene for tasting cucumber, and some people can taste it and some can't. I'm not sure if that's true or not (I have no doubt that there is a gene for tasting it, but I didn't know it's absence was common) but that's not really the point of this post.

It got me wondering does cucumber "have" a taste? Or does anything have a taste for that matter? Does something we would describe as tasteless (say like, i dunno, a leaf?) really lack a certain quality when compared to something we would describe as tasty (e.g. meat)? Both the "tasty" meat and "tasteless" leaf have unique chemical compositions, that in their own right have nothing to do with endowing them with taste. Their taste is note a feature of their constitution, it is just a qualitative way in which we interpret them using our sensory organs (mouth, tongue etc.) It would seem more logical that taste is something we impose on an item, and not something it actually possesses.

I know this thought isn't overly serious, and isn't meant to have any deep meaning, it's just a different way of looking at the concept of taste. I suppose evolution explains pretty well why this occurs:
1. Gene's that allowed us to discern beneficial food stuffs by interpreting them as "tasty" added to the success of the body they were in, making the individual better able to consume foods that would ensure it's survival (and therefore the replication of that helpful gene!)
2. Our language evolved in this way, so that we endow items with the characteristic of taste. This, I presume, is because taste is an individual experience which is always used in a subjective manner. Strictly speaking, from an objective and neutral point of view, something doesn't "have" a taste, but it does however, taste a certain way to each person. When human language was evolving, no one could ever taste food through someone else's mouth, or through any sensory system other than their own. For that reason, even though no item had a universal taste (what tastes nice to a maggot may taste awful to a man), an item's perceived taste was always constant for every individual human, no person could ever borrow someone else's tongue to see how they interpreted the taste of an item, and so it was only natural to talk about an item as "having a taste." Every person views an item as having a constant taste because even though it may taste different to others, the difference is not something anyone can ever experience.

I know none of that is really ground breaking or revolutionary, it's just a little thought experiment that occurred to me today that I thought I might share! I suppose you could think the same about other characteristics too, like does something have a colour in a universal sense, or is it just the way our eyes and brains have evolved to interpret light rays bouncing off them; do things make sounds or do our ears make sounds from the waves that other things happen to create?

It's all just a bit of a play on words, and a different way of looking at that old philosipher's question "If a tree falls in the woods and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" I used to loathe that question and give an answer along the lines of.. "of course it does you arrogant ponce! The universe was ticking along just fine for 13.4 billion years without needing us to experience it, i doubt a falling tree holds back it's sound until we're there to hear it!" But I suppose after this post I may have to rethink that answer! We evolved language as a tool to help us, it is a way in which we interact with the world, and naturally it's constructs can be very human-centric. So if our auditory senses take vibrations made by a falling tree (which we call sound waves) and interpret them as sound, we say that the tree made a sound, because our language is our tool. But I guess in this new stricter sense that I talked about above, the tree doesn't actually make a sound if there's no person around to make a sound out of it!

Sometimes I think I think about things too much......

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