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Grasping Reality With Our Gelatinous Meatsacks

March 29th, 2010 · 63 Comments

Will Wilkinson is a little snarky about it, but basically right: Freddie DeBoer’s post on naturalism and the skeptical conclusions that follow from it is fuzzy philosophy. (The Sam Harris TED talk he’s riffing on is worse, but that’s another story.)  Regular readers will recognize this as one of my minor obsessions, an instance of theorizing “in the shadow of God.” I’ve applied the phrase in the past to describe worries that a naturalistic worldview—lacking space for deities or radically autonomous immaterial selves—creates all sorts of dire problems for morality or meaning. In most cases, I argue, the apparent problem actually stems from some hand-me-down conceptual furniture left over from the theological worldview.  And usually the way to untangle the knot is to make a Euthyphro move.  That is, you might worry that morality is in trouble without God until you grok that morality with God isn’t in any better shape: The deity turns out to be a black box that rather looks like it might do some heavy lifting on a tough philosophical problem, but on closer inspection it turns out not to make any difference. Here’s the crux of Freddie’s post:

For me, I would merely put it this way: that we do not encounter the physical universe unmediated but through a consciousness mechanism and sensory inputs that seem to be the products of  evolution. And the belief (however you want to define a belief) in evolution makes the idea of those consciousness and sensory mechanism being capable, no matter how long the time scale, of perfectly or non-contingently ordering the universe around us seem quite low. Evolution does not produce perfectly fit systems, it only eliminates those systems so unfit that they prevent survival and the propagation of genetic material. A chimpanzee’s intellect is a near-miracle, capable of incredible things, but it will never understand calculus. I could never and would never say this with deductive certainty, but it seems likely to me that our consciousness has similar limitations.

They tell me that the Copernican revolution and the rise of evolution have permanently altered the place of humanity in the human mind. They say that the collapse of the Ptolemaic worldview towards a vision of our planet and our sun as existing amidst a sea of stars of incomprehensible vastness has destroyed our arrogant notion that our planet is special. They tell me that evolution has destroyed any belief in divine creation and with it the notion that humanity is anything other than an animal species. And they say all of this from the position of didacticism and superiority, weaving it into a self-aggrandizing narrative about how these skeptics are the ones who are capable of looking at the uncomfortable truths of the world and not flinching.

To these specific changes in fundamental worldview, I say, fair enough; I can’t argue with either turn, I suppose. For my part I would only remind them that we live here, in the relentless narrative of our human subjectivity, and such things are of little interest when the rent must be paid. But fair enough, all the same. What I ask of them– what Nietzsche asks of them; what so many in the field of the humanities, that beleaguered but proud area of human inquiry, have come to ask of them– is to take it one step further: that if we are indeed a cosmic accident, the result of the directionless and random process of evolution, then it makes little sense to imagine that we are capable of ordering the world around us, beyond the limited perspective of our individual, subjective selves. This has always been to me the simplest step in the world, from the first two beliefs the the third, from the collapse of geocentrism and creationism to the collapse of objective knowing. Yet I find that it is one many people not only refuse to make, but one that they react against violently. This is the skepticism that is refused, and this refusal is the last dogma.

A minor kvetch: Normally it’s creationists, not people who understand evolutionary theory well, that one finds using phrases like “the directionless and random process of evolution,” but I’ll assume he means something like “unguided and underdetermined.” My bigger problem is that I don’t think Freddie’s picture fully appreciates how incoherent and useless the idea of a transcendent objectivity really is. The implicit account here seems to be that, after all, we might hope we had these divine immaterial minds capable of directly apprehending truth, and then we might have a firm foundation for objective knowledge, but alas we’re stuck with these electrified meatsacks whose chief virtue was to make our grandparents relatively good at staying fed and shagging.

The thing it, this turns out to make no difference at all for the underlying epistemic problem. God or whatever other transcendent sources of certainty we might posit just serve as baffles to conceal the ineradicable circularity that’s going to sit at the bottom of any system of knowledge. You’re always ultimately going to have a process of belief formation whose reliability can only be vouchsafed in terms of the internal criteria of that very process. Calling it a divinely endowed rational faculty rather than an adaptive complex of truth-tracking modules doesn’t actually change the structure of it any.

If your background assumption or expectation is that certain and objective knowledge requires some kind of transcendent anchor, then it might look like a view where our rational faculties are naturalized cuts the tether and leaves our epistemology  unmoored. This may seem like a big problem—just as someone who believes our lives  are meaningful in virtue of Earth’s position at the center of the universe might think Copernicus is a big problem. But if you have a view that recognizes that the transcendent anchor wouldn’t actually do you any good, or make any epistemic difference, even if it were available, then you’re in a different boat. You’re not falling short of “objectivity” or “certainty,” because these terms have no coherent meaning except within the frame of reference provided by the brains and deductive practices we’re stuck with. If you wound the idea of transcendent objective knowing, you conclude that all we’ve got is our plural subjectivities. But if you kill it and really burn the corpse, you realize that picture of “objective knowledge”  is a meaningless phantom. (Like the proverbial amplifier that goes to 11: It seems like something extra, but all you’ve done is relabeled the peak volume.)  In that case, we’re still eligible for “objective knowledge” in the only sense in which the phrase was ever intelligible—which is a coherentist sense.

If this seems a little abstract, consider specifically the argument that “we do not encounter the physical universe unmediated but through a consciousness mechanism and sensory inputs.” This sounds like a limitation—like there’s an ideally clear picture of how things are, and all we’ve got is this filtered version.  Except, what could it possibly mean to “encounter the physical universe unmediated”? Nothing. Well, maybe a brain hitting a rock—but if by “encounter” we mean “form representations of and beliefs about,” that has to be “mediated” in the minimum sense that some process or other correlates mind states and world states somehow. But if there really is no timeless frame of reference, then the only sense in which it’s at all coherent to talk about knowledge and certainty is internal to an epistemic system. There is nothing transcendent to lose—all we could ever have meant by “truth” or “knowledge” all along, if we were succeeding at meaning anything, was the domesticated local version. Just click your heels—you had the power to go home all along.

Addendum: Apparently it’s not clear to many people exactly how I think I disagree with Freddie.  So, to be explicit: I do think we can make “objective” judgments. They’re only “objective” relative to our contingently evolved nervous systems, but since that’s all objective can ever have meant, that’s objective.  This is totally distinct from the question of how confident we ought to feel about most of our conclusions. I can be mistaken about an objective fact, but that doesn’t entail that it’s a mistake to think of it as objective one way or the other.  Because objectivity is a system-relative property, it’s not undermined by the fact of our cognitive limitations.

Tags: General Philosophy


       

 

63 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Troy Robertson // Mar 29, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    Well put.

    DeBoer’s philosophy is not only fuzzy, he does his best to dodge any opportunity to shore up the leaks.

    You address the epistemological problem of his post. The policy implications of an empirically derived moral system are probably a less interesting problem, but I would be interested in your thoughts. DeBoer suggests that this kind of thinking leads (of course) to Nazism.

    I’ll be combing your blog for other thoughts on Harris. Thanks for the thoughtful writing.

  • 2 Scott // Mar 29, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    I’ve never seen such a hilarious juxtaposition of eloquent, hard-nosed materialist philosophy with “Are You Christian and Lonely?” and “Scientology!” ad banners.

  • 3 mike farmer // Mar 29, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    Freddie thinks he has hit on something which is a perpetual defense against objectivity, but even if a theory of subjectivity is the winner, and we did away with the concept of objectivity, in order to survive we’d still have to categorize some knowledge as reliable-subjective-knowledge, which would look a lot like objective knowledge.

  • 4 Daniel // Mar 29, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    An exact analog of this is the handwringing over free will, which is similarly argued “in the shadow of god”. Naturalists often seem to confuse themselves by unconsciously starting from the premise that we are tethered to our “true” selves on some spiritual plane. When determinism or materialism is introduced, instead of the spiritual plane vanishing and the whole picture being rebuilt and restructed, it’s instead as if that tether has been cut, resulting in our material selves being placed in some kind of determinist strait jacket, unable to take commands from any class of being who can act in a way *informed* by prior states but not *caused* by them. Of course, if you accept either that there is no spirtual plane or that if it did exist its denizens would need to explain how they could act without being caused or without being random, you realize that the same destructive forces that would bind us make it so we aren’t bound and never were.

    Then comes the knottier question of what that being, untethered and out of its straitjacket, IS.

    You are absolutely right about the meaning-giving aspects of religion mostly being a black box, or a promise of something over the horizon. I think of it as being elliptical. Meaning, dot dot dot. This sort of meaning does no *work* you can’t get without something supernatural actually existing. It invites you only to put meaning off–so heaven is just hanging out in the clouds? No, you can’t understand until you get there… Hey how should I act? Like this. Why? Just keep your head down and you’ll know eventually… This needs to be said more.

  • 5 Julian Sanchez // Mar 29, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    Dan-
    I think I actually coined the phrase “shadow of God” in the context of writing about free will… which is something I’ve done more than a sane person probably ought to over the years.

  • 6 Paul McLeod // Mar 29, 2010 at 6:54 pm

    I don’t think Freddie would disagree with anything you’ve written. I took his point to be not “Man I wish we had those transcendently unmediated brains” but “Given that we all agree that we do not have those brains, let’s not act too much like we do have them.” Maybe along the way he made the mistake of giving our forlorn transcendence-positing creeds more credit than they deserve for internal coherence, but that’s all.

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  • 8 Tom Clark // Mar 29, 2010 at 7:17 pm

    “…the only sense in which it’s at all coherent to talk about knowledge and certainty is internal to an epistemic system.” Exactly right Julian, well said! For more on that and it’s implications for consciousness studies, see http://www.naturalism.org/appearance.htm I develop the thesis that there are two parallel epistemic systems or perspectives, one that’s subjective, a function of our being individual organisms that results in consciousness, and one that’s intersubjective and collective – the project of science for which consciousness, a categorically private affair, is invisible.

  • 9 Ben // Mar 29, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    I think this is a very interesting post, but, after reading Freddie’s post a couple of times, I think Paul McLeod has it right. However, I don’t think many actually think as Freddie seems to be arguing they do.

  • 10 Franklin Harris // Mar 29, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    I also agree with Paul’s interpretation above, and I think it also applies to what Sam Harris says in his TED talk.

  • 11 Julian Sanchez // Mar 29, 2010 at 9:18 pm

    Paul &c.:
    Maybe you’re right. Freddie seemed to me to be claiming that the skeptical view he’s endorsing required some serious reorientation of our thinking about reality and morality, whereas my instinct is that we end up getting to talk very much like moral realists in practice, which I didn’t really elaborate much. I’ll take a second pass.

  • 12 Jeff // Mar 29, 2010 at 9:37 pm

    What sweet talk! I’m a real amateur when it comes to this stuff, but I have a question based on Paul McLeod’s interpretation of Freddie DeBoer’s piece. Forgive me, please, is this is rookie stuff but what I’m curious about is this: is DeBoer is arguing that subjectivity essentially renders valueless all speculation on the nature of the world–or valueless at least to the point of not being able to favor one interpretation over any other? Because this seems silly and I’m assuming that there’s no silliness going here.

  • 13 Ben // Mar 29, 2010 at 9:59 pm

    Jeff, I was reading him as saying that one who is a skeptic should be “humble” with respect to one’s truth claims; not that one should make none, but rather that one should be aware such truth claims cannot be so certain as “god-based” truth claims purport to be. He sees the “human achievement yuppies” as operating as though their truth claims were as certain as the “god-based” truth claims.

    In Freddie’s post, I do not know what is with the Godwinning in the last couple of paragraphs.

  • 14 Freddie // Mar 29, 2010 at 10:12 pm

    Freddie seemed to me to be claiming that the skeptical view he’s endorsing required some serious reorientation of our thinking about reality and morality

    No. But does it matter? Let be.

  • 15 Julian Sanchez // Mar 29, 2010 at 10:18 pm

    Nihilist! ;)

  • 16 Franklin Harris // Mar 29, 2010 at 10:44 pm

    I think I should also probably clarify my comment above: I’m not endorsing everything Harris says in his TED talk. I think, for example, that he gets Hume wrong by invoking the textbook caricature of Hume’s “is/ought” argument. If Hume were against moral judgments, he wouldn’t have come up with his own version of a virtue ethics.

  • 17 hilzoy // Mar 29, 2010 at 10:44 pm

    I think freedom of the will is, indeed, exactly similar: it looks as though not being determined would solve everything, until you consider what it would actually be like. Do you just act randomly — having some little uranium atom in your head emit one particle rather than another, and having this somehow amplified into your deciding to rob a bank without being determined to do so? That doesn’t sound good: being wholly at the mercy of chance. It’s also hard to square with responsibility.

    Do you, instead, have a non-natural self that intervenes in the causal processes in your brain when it feels it necessary to do so? Well, what determines how *it* acts? Its previous states? Or does *it* act at random? Yet again, not good. Plus, depending on how you parse things, it can come to seem a bit hard to explain one of two things: (a) in what sense this non-natural self is “me”, or (b) how (if at all) I can know anything about what’s going on with me. If I’m not this non-natural self, then plainly invoking its ability to boss me around doesn’t give *me* free will. If I am it, and my ordinary phenomenal consciousness is something else, then I get to be completely opaque to myself. No fun either.

    Best to just grit one’s teeth and try to work out a satisfactory version of compatibilism.

  • 18 Kevin O'Neill // Mar 29, 2010 at 11:12 pm

    if we are indeed a cosmic accident, the result of the directionless and random process of evolution, then it makes little sense to imagine that we are capable of ordering the world around us, beyond the limited perspective of our individual, subjective selves.

    It is this assertion that I find objectionable (sic). I haven’t read the link Tom Clark provided, but I’m guessing that I’d follow down Tom’s path. Science is our attempt at ordering the world around us by recognizing and nullifying our subjective individual perspectives.

    We may be deficient in our knowledge and some questions we may never answer, but I fail to see the logic that dictates the collapse of objective knowing.

  • 19 Robert Waldmann // Mar 29, 2010 at 11:24 pm

    I just arrived (from Brad DeLong) to this clearly ongoing investigation. I will boldly assert that there is an elementary error right at the end

    “all we could ever have meant by “truth” or “knowledge” all along, if we were succeeding at meaning anything, was the domesticated local version. Just click your heels”

    Up until then, you (Sanchez) have argued that there can’t be unconditionally objective knowledge — justified true belief. For what my opinion is worth, I agree that there can’t be knowledge except for knowledge within a system (you put it better).

    Suddenly, however, you assert that if there can’t be objective justified true belief, then there can’t be objective truth or objectively true beleifs.

    How did that follow ? You prove that there can’t be epistimelogically objective truths and then casually assert that there can’t be ontologically objective truths either.

    I don’t follow.

    I am thinking of moral questions. I assert that evidence and logic can give us no guidance on questions in pure ethics (more or less by definition of “pure ethics”). There are statements in pure ethics which I believe with no doubt. I am sure they were true before I existed, will be true after I die and would be just as true if I changed my mind.

    For example, I don’t think it would be a good thing to torture everyone for the rest of time while also artificially inseminating people so there would be more and more people to torture. If I were presented with such a world, I might doubt the evidence of my eyes and hope I was dreaming, but I would not doubt that what I seem to see is bad.

    What am I supposed to say about my beliefs ? I admit nothing along the lines of knowledge at all and have faith in the absolute objective truth of my beliefs.

    There seems to be a strong belief that we should not believe something if that belief is unsupported by evidence. Note the word “should.” The argument against faith in objective moral truth is based on an assertion of objective moral truth.

    One might think that absolute confidence in a statement and absolute confidence that it has nothing to do with evidence and logic can’t fit in the same mind. I have both beliefs. I exist. There must be room in your philosophy for my existence — you might find me appalling or pathetic, but you better not try to convince yourself that I don’t exist.

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  • 21 DivisionByZero // Mar 30, 2010 at 8:33 am

    I always forget that the Humean/Kantian dialogue is still with us and that people somehow think it is a profound. It’s interesting as a historical relic but it’s a dead-end. Frankly, to use Ryle’s phrase, it’s a category mistake. Or to put it a different way, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” This false dichotomy between indubitable objectivity and doubtful subjectivity has caused a lot of problems. Objectivity has always been doubtful. It’s always just been a question of where to draw the line. Is 2+2=4 doubtful? No, not within the a specific system of mathematics, but draw the circle a little wider and yes it is but in a very specific way.

  • 22 DivisionByZero // Mar 30, 2010 at 8:38 am

    Or to put it another way we do have contact with a transcendent reality but it does nothing to help us with the problem of doubt. I think what people are going for here with transcendent reality is something like Laplacian determinism but even if we had it (which we don’t) it wouldn’t help us much. See Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments/Johannes Climacus. Certainty is a psychological category, not an epistemic one.

  • 23 Will // Mar 30, 2010 at 10:13 am

    I don’t know much about all this, and totally accept that the way we see the world isn’t exactly the way it is, but…

    If the way we see the world is determined by a combination of the reality and our mental model of reality,
    and if our mental model has been shaped by evolution
    and if there’s a selective advantage to having a more accurate mental model (less chance of being eaten, etc),
    then surely we would have evolved a mental model that is a reasonable approximation of reality?

  • 24 Julian Sanchez // Mar 30, 2010 at 11:23 am

    There’s a lot packed into the phrase “approximation of reality,” but that’s a longer tangent. I think Freddie’s argument would be that it’s “reasonable” for our limited purposes in our very limited environment. Actually, I’m just going to quote from my old interview with the late Robert Nozick here, since he’ll say it better than I would:

    “Evolution plays a large role in my discussion of necessary truths and metaphysical truths, and I ask ‘why would evolution have endowed us with such powerful cognitive capacities to know about all possibilities?’ Maybe evolution just gives us ‘good enough’ theories like Euclidean geometry that are approximately true and able to get us around the world, but when we probe further we discover that they’re not strictly speaking accurate. That question about cognitive capacity connects up with one segment of the libertarian movement: that influenced greatly by Ayn Rand, that has axioms like the law of identity, ‘A is A’ and all that, from which they think conclusions follow that most people, elsewhere in philosophy, don’t think follow from these logical truths. I take evolution very seriously, and think that the capacities we have, including of apprehending a truth, have been strongly shaped, not to mention created, by evolution. So you could ask: ‘Why, then, do we have such powerful capacities as to give us these necessary truths, rather than truths that hold roughly and approximately at the actual world, and in similar worlds.’

  • 25 Freddie // Mar 30, 2010 at 11:51 am

    I think that my remaining frustration is that people are disagreeing with me by way of affirming some of my denial of trans-human knowledge but denying that denial’s attendant implications in terms of epistemological modesty. Which is sad, to me, because I don’t think you need to make a particularly compelling case for cognitive limitation in order to make a compelling case for epistemological modesty.

    And I mean that, I assure you, in practical terms: whatever epistemological modesty might mean, surely it should compel someone like Sam Harris, when confronted by an honest, thoughtful and well-intentioned critique by someone as brilliant as Sean Carroll, to not say publicly, “I’m going to respond to this stupidity.”

  • 26 Julian Sanchez // Mar 30, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    I think there are two things getting muddled together here. There’s a question about objectivity and a question about humility. I can be extremely humble about my chances of *finding* the optimal move in a difficult chess position, but that’s no grounds at all for doubting that, within the constraints of the human-constructed rule system of chess, such a move exists. I can say: “I am very doubtful that I have succeeded at finding the best move, but if I have succeeded, then this really is objectively the best move, and if I have not, then there is some other one.”

    There’s no conflict between looking for “objective” truths (in the domesticated sense—the only intelligible sense—of “objective”) and being duly modest about your capacity to achieve the goal. You don’t really need a big epistemic throwdown, it sounds like; you just want people to bear in mind that they could easily be wrong.

  • 27 Freddie // Mar 30, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    I think many of the people weighing in on this issue underestimate the prevalence of people who think that there is a rule system that transcends the human but is nevertheless non-theistic. The neo-Aristotlean and Randian sets, for example, are I suspect more common, and more potentially troubling, than you are assuming. But that’s pretty squishy, at this point.

  • 28 DivisionByZero // Mar 30, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    Julian, I think it’s slightly more subtle. There are some topics about which we are always going to be able to be wrong (e.g. almost any philosophical proposition) and there are others about which given that a certain set of assumptions are accepted (e.g. the rules of chess) we can prove that we can’t be wrong. Some people muddle the two. I don’t know if I’d call the ability to recognize the difference epistemological modestly or just good sense but people make this mistake all of the time.

  • 29 DivisionByZero // Mar 30, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    Freddie, right. There are some folk that believe there is a complete and consistent System from which we can mechanically deduce all truth. I’d say it’s more Hegelian than Aristotelian or Randian. It’s like Hilbert’s program writ large across the universe.

  • 30 Julian Sanchez // Mar 30, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Hm. While I don’t think the Randian system is *right*, certainly, I think they would deny that their ethics “transcends the human.” Obviously this requires longer post but the upshot of my disagreement here is that I think we *can* make statements like “Torturing people for fun is wrong,” and that these can be objectively true (shorthand for reasons-for-action that we really do have) without needing to be anchored in some kind of weird, transcendent Platonic realm that makes it true. Moral reasons are just the ones we have when we act as though other people are real; they are not more ontologically queer than other reasons.

  • 31 DivisionByZero // Mar 30, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    Further, for those people that believe in the System only truths derived from it are objectively true.

  • 32 Kodjo // Mar 30, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    V nicely put.

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  • 34 Devin // Mar 30, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    Freddie writes: “it makes little sense to imagine that we are capable of ordering the world around us, beyond the limited perspective of our individual, subjective selves.” Neither of you seem to recognized that even within the bounds of this “limited” perspective, there is still quite a bit of the “world around us” of which we ARE capable of “ordering” in an objective, and indeed universal sense. At the margins — the “why are we here” questions — our capacity to recognize objective truth is obviously limited by our “limited perspective.” Yet a good chunk of the “knowledge” we DO possess, particularly to the extent it holds practical application to our everyday lives, is undoubtedly objectively and universally true. Math is one example — and indeed, we have seen other animals on this planet demonstrating comprehension of basic addition and subtraction, notwithstanding their lack of a preexisting “human” frame of reference. We live in a universe where the “order” of things dictate that 2 + 2 equals 4; it always has, and always will, unless the very nature of the universe itself changes. Thus, what Freddie glibly dismisses as the “limited perspective of our individual, subjective selves” has in fact proven sufficient to provide our species with whatever minimal degree of “objective” knowledge is necessary to survive and have a basic comprehension of the world. Most people know better than to jump off a building believing they will be able to fly, independent of their ability to explain the physics of gravity.

  • 35 In the Shadow of Nietzsche // Mar 30, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    I think I actually coined the phrase “shadow of God” in the context of writing about free will… which is something I’ve done more than a sane person probably ought to over the years.

    Really? You coined it? I’d like you to meet my friend Nietzsche.

  • 36 Eli // Mar 30, 2010 at 10:43 pm

    I can’t help but think this all just boils down to an aversion to authoritarian thinking, in which dissent is drummed out in favor of impermeable rule-making.

    We have a terrible history of this – especially when the “truths” turned out to be wrong and hideous. But we also have lots of wonderful “truths” – especially those that make cars go and sequence genomes.

    Harris wants to sequence morality, and everyone is all, “Holy shit!”. Well, it’s not that big a deal, really. All this philosophical crap has had the luxury of being its own “God of the Gaps” for too long. The pedantry! Is morality really that hard to figure out? Is the Golden Rule such a terrible beast?

    To the extent that we’ve mapped the brain and human emotion, we’ve demonstrated that all of our centuries of sophist wankery are stretched quite thin. Hard scientific evidence for how and why we think and feel the silly little things we do seem profoundly more interesting and useful *to actual real life* than yet more larded and migraine-inducing philosophical ramblings.

    Should we be skeptical? Should we be humble? Duh. Authoritarianism is for dicks. Science is about discussion, debate and challenging each other’s data.

    Oh yeah, did I mention data?

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  • 38 Eric Fesler // Mar 30, 2010 at 11:31 pm

    I think you don’t give quite enough credit to the other side of the coin.

    Many primal lifeforms react to sensory input is if they dwell on a line. A heat placed anywhere in a plane (half spherical surface) in front of them is reacted to the same.

    Lifeforms with one degree less symmetry frequently react to stimulus as if they exist on a plane.

    We seem to think we live in three-space. Some crazy quantum physicists are positing what 27 dimensions or some such?

    My friends mother currently in the hospital has a (semi) common symptom of brain trauma. She has ceased to believe that half of her exists. She is constantly afraid she will fall over because she has only 1 leg.

  • 39 Friar_Zero // Mar 30, 2010 at 11:32 pm

    Obviously this requires longer post but the upshot of my disagreement here is that I think we *can* make statements like “Torturing people for fun is wrong,” and that these can be objectively true (shorthand for reasons-for-action that we really do have) without needing to be anchored in some kind of weird, transcendent Platonic realm that makes it true. Moral reasons are just the ones we have when we act as though other people are real; they are not more ontologically queer than other reasons.

    Isn’t that approach dismissing normative justification in favor of descriptive justification? What I mean is, it doesn’t seem to answer the question of why our “reasons for action” are good. Or what “reasons for action” are good since there exist seemingly conflicting moral sentiments.

    I would be greatly interested if you expanded a bit on what you mean here, especially by “shorthand for reasons-for-action that we really do have”.

    I realize as I write this that my question is informed by the sort of framework I feel Freddy is addressing, a search for non-contingent (for lack of a better word) justification for knowledge or values.

  • 40 Julian Sanchez // Mar 31, 2010 at 12:54 am

    This is not a proper answer, but it sounds like you want goodness to be a property of reasons; I think “the good” is a particular kind of reason.

  • 41 Patrick // Apr 1, 2010 at 12:04 am

    The world we experience, “mediated through consciousness and sensory inputs” may not be the true “world”, but for our experience to be adaptive, in the sense of preventing us from getting eaten by tigers, it has to be correlated with the “true” or “objective” world.

    The problem with claims the that toss objectivity, is that the strongest case they can make is that the world is distorted, but it cannot be completely unmoored from objective reality.

    I may not have actually seen a tiger, or it may not have been as big or scary as I remember, but there was something there that was a threat and I avoided it. If the mechanism did not provide this minimum of correlation it could not have been consistent with the evolutionary worldview.

    You combine this minimum requirement of sensory experience having “real” correlates with an inductive method, and you can make “strong” conclusions about this world that you cannot “directly” experience.

    The only worthwhile objections to this epistemic view were made by hume in the 18th century and these objections ultimately lead one to toward a foundational account of empirical methods.

  • 42 Emily // Apr 1, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    The thing it, this turns out to make no difference at all for the underlying epistemic problem. God or whatever other transcendent sources of certainty we might posit just serve as baffles to conceal the ineradicable circularity that’s going to sit at the bottom of any system of knowledge. You’re always ultimately going to have a process of belief formation whose reliability can only be vouchsafed in terms of the internal criteria of that very process. Calling it a divinely endowed rational faculty rather than an adaptive complex of truth-tracking modules doesn’t actually change the structure of it any….[I]f you have a view that recognizes that the transcendent anchor wouldn’t actually do you any good, or make any epistemic difference, even if it were available, then you’re in a different boat.

    Are we sure it wouldn’t make any difference? I tend to strongly agree with what you’ve said here, but this is what I get for talking to shaman types. =P Regarding transcendence, one such friend mentions CERN–how we are trying to use it to discover a “transcendent” truth about the universe, how many astrophysicists sound like Buddhist monks, and how empirical science is proving this existence to be more rather than less transcendent.

    I know there are a few things off about this, though I’m still trying to articulate precisely what they are. It brings me to this (likely clumsy) thought, though:

    Posit that there is a transcendent truth. What this truth looks like and how it acts is a function of interconnectedness rather than discrete apprehension–maybe it’s an elegant formula for every possible behavior of every subatomic particle, or maybe it’s something like The Force or the Na’vi’s tree that one can literally tap into by transcending one’s own self in some way (meditating, whatever). It’s possible, but difficult, to tap into with our brains in the way that they typically hum along. And it is beyond the scope of the individual–as is any system of knowing. But it is more than a system, and it is more than “belief formation”; there is nothing to believe, because it is all there is to know.

    Would that change anything? It may not–IWNA philosophy major–but I’d be interested to know how it wouldn’t.

  • 43 Emily // Apr 1, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    …and reading through the comments more carefully I see that DivisionByZero and Freddie have already discussed such a System. Still not sure how exactly it would be epistemically useless, at least if we could access it.

  • 44 conradg // Apr 2, 2010 at 4:44 am

    I think Julian’s chess problem gets at the practical heart of the problem, which seems to be his main concern:

    “I can be extremely humble about my chances of *finding* the optimal move in a difficult chess position, but that’s no grounds at all for doubting that, within the constraints of the human-constructed rule system of chess, such a move exists. I can say: “I am very doubtful that I have succeeded at finding the best move, but if I have succeeded, then this really is objectively the best move, and if I have not, then there is some other one.”

    The problem here is that thinking like this makes one a very bad chess player. Really good chess players simply don’t think like this. They don’t imagine an objective world with a best move in it. THey see a myriad number of worlds in which all kinds of moves exist. They feel their way into those worlds, and choose the one that strikes them at some intuitive level as in line with their own way of playing chess. So their play involves a subjective engagement with not just possible moves, but all the implications of those moves, which exist as worlds of possiblility. They choose the world that fits them best, and they hope, fits their opponent less well. This is an entirely subjective approach however, even if it makes use of objective methods.

    And so it is in reality with most of human life and decision making and morality. Each of our choices creates a world, and we decide which world we would rather live in. That’s a subjective approach to the creation of an objective realituy, which means that the objective reality is determined by our subjectivity, and not vice versa. To say that our subjectivity is in turn created by our objectivity is to say that there is no objectivity at all, but only an endlessly turning spindle that weaves the two together.

    To say that in practice there really is an objective method to our living, if we just try as best we can do be scientific about it all, neglects the reality that even that choice is subjectively determined, and ruled by subjective preferences even as we engage objective rules of inquiry. Not just in the end, but all the way through the process, it is subjectivity that rules the roost. The shadow of God is infinitely large.

  • 45 Can We Grasp Reality With Our Subjective Minds? « Light Sound Dimension // Apr 3, 2010 at 7:43 am

    […] subjectively, there is an objective reality that is being ‘filtered’. And here Julian Sanchez makes a point in his reply to L’Hôte. For if you accept that you only have your […]

  • 46 Christopher Carr // Apr 3, 2010 at 11:26 am

    I believe the fundamental problem at stake is Harris’s misunderstanding of what science and morality are. Because I believe that science is a process for maintaining an appropriate balance between rationality and intuition, with the ultimate goal of explaining phenomena, and morality is a process for maintaining an appropriate balance between action and inaction, with the ultimate goal of minimizing harm, I think it is doubtful that science or morality will ever be more than imperfect approximations; yet I must now venture out of my cave, and it serves me to choose an answer that is immediately applicable, although I can never be certain that this answer is right.

    http://www.theinductive.com/articles/2010/3/30/an-uncertain-defense-of-deboer.html

  • 47 agnos // Apr 6, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    http://depistemology.blogspot.com/

  • 48 Angus Lander // Apr 7, 2010 at 11:24 am

    “if you have a view that recognizes that the transcendent anchor wouldn’t actually do you any good, or make any epistemic difference, even if it were available, then you’re in a different boat.”

    But why would anyone hold such a view? Surely, if we were endowed by God (a being, ex hypothesi, with all and only true beliefs) with reliable cognitive faculties then we should be more confident in our (depending on under what circumstances our cognitive faculties were designed to be reliable – considered) beliefs than we ought to be if there is no reason to think our cognitive faculties reliable (or even if we have reason to think only that our cognitive faculties are likely reliable, as opposed to determined to be reliable).

    I am not saying that God did design our cognitive faculties to be reliable, only that if he did then that would “make an epistemic difference.”

  • 49 Julian Sanchez // Apr 7, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    The “ex hypothesi” is where the difference sneaks in. How would you know your faculties were designed by God? How would you know God has the properties you attribute to him? (“Because my reliable, God-designed faculties tell me so…”)

    This isn’t to say we couldn’t imagine a scenario where we DO have more reliable perceptual and cognitive faculties, weren’t susceptible to all the forms of bias experimental psychology has identified, and so on—or that the story about how those faculties arose might not strengthen or weaken our confidence in their reliability. It is to say, however, that there’s ultimately no way out of the circle. You can’t bootstrap your certainty level up any higher than your prior evidentiary basis for thinking you have these perfect faculties designed by a perfect being.

  • 50 The Last Dogma Picture Show « Around The Sphere // Apr 7, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    […] Julian Sanchez: A minor kvetch: Normally it’s creationists, not people who understand evolutionary theory well, that one finds using phrases like “the directionless and random process of evolution,” but I’ll assume he means something like “unguided and underdetermined.” My bigger problem is that I don’t think Freddie’s picture fully appreciates how incoherent and useless the idea of a transcendent objectivity really is. The implicit account here seems to be that, after all, we might hope we had these divine immaterial minds capable of directly apprehending truth, and then we might have a firm foundation for objective knowledge, but alas we’re stuck with these electrified meatsacks whose chief virtue was to make our grandparents relatively good at staying fed and shagging. […]

  • 51 Angus Lander // Apr 13, 2010 at 1:44 pm

    Julian,

    I assume this thread is long-dead. Still, the issue isn’t as cut and dried as you make it out to be. To be sure, you need to have trust in your cognitive faculties reliability in order to trust their deliverances. But that doesn’t imply that the deliverances themselves can’t have a bearing on how much you trust your cognitive faculties. Right now I trust that when I see someone in front of me, there he is. If I started seeing phantasms I’d stop trusting. Likewise, if I were persuaded by a killer argument for God, I’d start trusting my cognitive faculties even more.

    Similarly, if I were persuaded that our minds haven’t (e.g.) evolved to reliably discover truths I’d begin to doubt the deliverances of my mind. What’s the alternative? Say, “well, if I can’t trust my mind then I can’t come to the conclusion – which the evidence (as my mind sees it) supports – that my mind is unreliable. So I must reject that conclusion. My mind is reliable! Now, where was I? Oh yes! Mulling that knock-down, drag-out argument to the conclusion that it ISN’T reliable.”

    In short, as paradoxical* as it is for someone about whom the antecedent obtains to accept, the proposition “If A has decisive evidence (by his lights) that his mind is unreliable, then A should stop trusting the deliverances of his mind” seems true.

    *Is it a variant of Moore-paradoxical statement?

  • 52 kenmeer livermaile // Apr 20, 2010 at 12:06 am

    I fail to see what’s unnatural about homo saps imagining and beseeching Almighty Beings or an Underlying Order, but I think it’s healthy for us to pit them against the other: it keeps our paranoia and schizophrenia neatly apart where they belong.

  • 53 kenmeer livermaile // Apr 20, 2010 at 12:11 am

    “If A has decisive evidence (by his lights) that his mind is unreliable, then A should stop trusting the deliverances of his mind”

    The only way to do this would be suicide or a cynicism so severe that hysterical insanity would result.

    I think playing referee between competing error corrections, i.e., on-going second guessing, is as reliable as our current minds can be.

    After all, the essence of thought is unreliability. What else is a question but a confession one doesn’t understand?

  • 54 kenmeer livermaile // Apr 20, 2010 at 12:12 am

    Finally: gotta admit that “electrified meatsacks” is one swell figure of speech.

  • 55 kenmeer livermaile // Apr 20, 2010 at 12:17 am

    Meta-finally: “You can’t bootstrap your certainty level up any higher than your prior evidentiary basis for thinking you have these perfect faculties designed by a perfect being.”

    Only if one is determined to be exclusively rational about it. If one wishes to be highly or even exclusively emotional about it, one can attain ear-popping plateaus of certainty. But it’s lonely up there, separated from logic and objective data by so much mystical fog.

  • 56 omonubi // Apr 29, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    Our vocabulary is challenged. Abstract concepts such as “chance”, “free will”, “order”, and “subjective” are woefully incapable of describing the world as it is. Therefore, we find ourselves constantly struggling not only to capture what we experience, but then conveying that to others.

    To summarize, we can only know that we know nothing.

  • 57 El dogmatismo de Sam Harris y el escepticismo naturalista « Incredulidad racional // Aug 31, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    […] a Comentarios La provocadora propuesta de Sam Harris de una ciencia moral, que ha suscitado un caluroso debate, tiene al menos la virtud de popularizar un importante y antiguo problema filosófico que de […]

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