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Grasping Reality With Our Gelatinous Meatsacks

March 29th, 2010 · 64 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



64 responses so far ↓

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


    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?

  • 2 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.

  • 3 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?

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

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

  • 5 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.

  • 6 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.

  • 7 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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