Counting Worlds

Counting Worlds

We encounter the word “world” often in philosophy, particularly in the phrases “possible worlds” and “the actual world” but also in the unmodified “the world”. We also speak in philosophy of “the physical world” or “the biological world” or “the world of science”. What does the word “world” mean in these locutions? Does it mean the same thing in both uses? It trips off the tongue easily enough, but it is seldom scrutinized. How does it relate to the ordinary meaning of “world”? What is that ordinary meaning? The OED gives us some clues: “the earth with all its countries and peoples”; “a region or group of countries: the English-speaking world”; “all that belongs to a particular historical period or sphere of activity: the world of British theatre”; “another planet like the earth”.[1] It is clear from these definitions that “world” is used in a more limited sense in ordinary speech than it is in philosophy. Wittgenstein’s use in “The world is all that is the case” and “The world is the totality of facts, not of things” suggests a much broader notion of world than the ordinary use (akin to Leibniz’s notion).  The word “world” is a count noun connoting a natural kind with appropriate criteria of identity attached. It can mean roughly the same as “planet” or it can mean a specific type of activity or occupation—“the world of physics”, “the fashion world”, “welcome to my world”, and so on. Thus, the criteria of identity will pertain to what makes one planet different from another or what makes one sphere of activity different from another. Clearly, there are many planets and many spheres of activity. When we speak of “the physical world” we speak in this restricted way: we mean something like “the world consisting of physical entities and physical laws”—in contrast to “the mental world” or “the abstract world”. Popper spoke of the “three worlds” theory in this sense. Star Trek spoke of “exploring new worlds”. H.G. Wells wrote about “the war of the worlds”. These are all legitimate uses clearly tied to the ordinary dictionary definition: we know what kind of thing we are referring to and how to count instances of the kind. But the philosophical use is different, or purports to be. As Wittgenstein uses the word, a world is a set of facts that includes all those that actually obtain. He doesn’t mean anything like “The physical world is the totality of physical facts”; he means facts of all kinds, however heterogeneous. He is doing exactly what he excoriates in the Investigations: taking a word from ordinary language with a clear meaning and re-deploying it to mean something that belongs only to philosophy. The word retains its old associations in the new context while being tacitly stipulative (and misleading). What it appears to mean in the new context is simply a set of facts united by nothing except that they are facts; they are not facts limited to a specific type (e.g., facts concerning the British theatre). But this is not a world in the ordinary sense, so it is really not a world at all; it is just an arbitrary collection. It is like saying “A species is a totality of animals”: granted a species is made up of a totality of animals, but it is not the case that any totality of animals is a species. That is just a misuse of the word “species” (a set consisting of a mouse, a monkey, and a mongoose is not a species). Similarly, a set of unrelated facts is not a world but merely an arbitrary collection. True, there are such collections (though they tend not to have much interest), but it is a misuse of language to characterize them as “worlds”. By using this word, we lay claim to a kind of unity that doesn’t exist in the totality in question (still less in a planet like the earth). To put it more bluntly, there is no such thing as the world, only various worlds restricted in the ways described. This is a philosopher’s fiction designed to seem like a conceptual advance or substantive theory. When we speak of “the world” in this alleged sense we speak of nothing—unless we admit we are using the word metaphorically (in which case our metaphor is a bad one). So, the phrase “the actual world” has no meaning; it denotes nothing. Likewise, there are no “possible worlds”, since that phrase also stretches the word “world” beyond its regular sense. These phrases contrive to give the impression that they have a familiar and intuitive meaning (the ordinary meaning) but in fact they do not. Translated into literally correct language, they must mean something like “the total set of actual facts” and “suitably large sets of possible facts”. These locutions, awkward and unintuitive as they are, cannot be glossed in the language of “worlds” that we are familiar with. Not to put too fine a point on it, this would be simply cheating—using words with a certain established meaning but in a way that can’t sustain that meaning. So, the idea of “possible worlds semantics” is chimerical, ill-defined, and incoherent. It’s like trying to do zoology by using the word “species” but meaning by it “any old collection of animals”. And notice how heterogeneous the facts have to be in so-called possible worlds semantics: physical and mental, mathematical and moral, fictional and factual, necessary and contingent, etc. In no sense do these facts form a totality deserving to be called a “world”. They are really many worlds bundled into one—the bundle theory of possible worlds (but a mere bundle can never be a genuine world). There are therefore no possible worlds to quantify over, to compare with one another, to act as arguments of functions, to be places in which objects of reference exist, to be truth conditions of counterfactuals, etc. We can keep the formal apparatus if we like, but we are not entitled to describe it in the ways to which we have become accustomed. That is simply false advertising, verbal sleight of hand, conceptual cheating. The very idea of a unified whole consisting of the set of all true propositions (actual facts) starts to seem spurious, a verbal illusion sustained by an overly extended use of the ordinary word “world”. To be sure, there are many worlds in the ordinary sense, but there is no single big world to which they all belong (“the world”); that is a piece of philosophical fiction. Worse, it is a type of nonsense.[2]

[1] These definitions are drawn from the Concise Oxford English Dictionary; there is a much longer set of definitions in The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary in which no reference is made to the standard meaning in contemporary analytical philosophy. Emphasis is laid on worlds as relating to human life and the world as the material universe.   

[2] Here we see the power of custom or convention: we have become so used to speaking of possible worlds and the actual world that we can’t see how distorting and artificial such usage is. We have to step back from our linguistic practices as philosophers in order to see how mangled our speech has become. In our professional world it has become de rigueur to misuse the word “world”. I have a book before me called Concise Atlas of the World: that is how to use the word “world”. There is no atlas covering Wittgenstein’s “the world”, or David Lewis’s, or even Saul Kripke’s—because there is no such natural entity. What is called a “possible world” is an artificial human construction not deserving of the label.

Share

Time and Rock n’ Roll

Time and Rock n’ Roll

We all take a beating from time. Each day, over a lifetime. We can’t beat time. But we can beat to time. Rock n’ roll is our attempt to master time, to fight time back. It’s not about sex, it’s about the need to dominate time. That’s why the drums are so important to rock n’ roll music (any old time you use it): we beat the drum so that we can beat time—we beat it hard. The modern drum kit is the heart of rock n’ roll, particularly the snare drum and the bass drum; their alternation is the foundation of the whole sound. Even the guitars are percussive, especially rhythm guitar. Melody is less important than rhythm, the segmentation of time into explosive beats. When time is oppressive or tedious or downright dreary, we can always use it to beat out a rhythm. Then time is on our side, our sidekick, our partner. It isn’t our enemy; it’s our friend. But it has to be kept in line. It has to be bossed around. Many rock songs start with the drums alone, just so time knows who is boss; then the guitars and vocals kick in, taking time for a ride. Timing is everything. The exhilaration of rock n’ roll is the feeling of being on top of time, calling the shots, not its slave or victim. Not for nothing do the lyrics often refer to time (Rock Around the Clock). Rock n’ roll is about not taking time lying down.

Share

Being and Doing

Being and Doing

Two highly general concepts run through the history of philosophy (and science): being and doing. They shape how the subject is conceptualized, yet they don’t tend to be considered in their own right. It is true that both concepts are hard to articulate, and their interrelations are obscure. Here I will describe in a sketchy way what they involve, so that we might gain a clearer idea of their role in philosophical thought. This will be impressionistic and abstract, an exercise in conceptual excavation. First, some verbal preliminaries: rough synonyms would include “existence” and “action”, “thing” and “event”, “substance” and “process”, “body” and “deed”. There is supposed to be a contrast between what something is and what it does—its nature and its activity. This general distinction receives more specific formulation in the following opposing pairs: structure and function, matter and energy, anatomy and physiology, competence and performance, reason and will, semantics and pragmatics, particle and field, extension and motion, property and power, categorical basis and disposition, logical form and speech act, meaning and use, mass and gravity, noun and verb. Perhaps the best way to understand the nature of the contrast is by reference to geometry and motion. Geometry deals with shapes and their properties: these are conceived as static entities characterized without reference to anything dynamic; we don’t concern ourselves with the movement of triangles and circles. Time does not enter into geometry, only existence in space. So, the geometry of an object constitutes at least part of its mode of being (some sort of stuff or substance constitutes the rest). Motion, by contrast, belongs to what the object does—how it behaves over time. This is held to be something over and above structure as defined by geometry. Once the division has been made, we can distinguish three different views of the relationship between the two levels: (1) doing reduces to being, (2) being reduces to doing, and (3) being and doing are independent realities. Thus: doing is just being-in-action not something additional to being; being is just a (misleading) way to talk about doing; and being and doing are separate compartments of reality. The primary realities are said to be either structured substances or processes and events occurring in time, or both are said to be sui generis and primary. We associate the first type of view (metaphysical system) with Plato and Aristotle, the second with pragmatism, process metaphysics (Whitehead and Russell), and existentialism. Descartes can be slotted into the third category given his view that matter is constituted by extension and mind is constituted by thought (something we do). Wittgenstein’s Tractatus is an example of a geometrical conception of meaning (the picture theory), while the Investigations falls into the category of theories that privilege doing (“In the beginning was the deed”). The correspondence theory of truth is geometrical, the pragmatist theory is action-centered. Is reality basically static and structured or is it essentially fluid and changeable—or is it both? General resistance to dualist ontologies recommends a monistic metaphysics: for how do we fit the two together into a coherent whole? But where do we get these basic concepts from? What is the primary mode of their presentation to us? What is their empirical manifestation? I suggest the answer is vision and hearing, respectively: these two senses represent the world in quite different ways that correspond to the being-doing distinction. Vision is the sense par excellence of geometry—of spatial form. It gives us a strong impression of structured being, often devoid of change or action (“still life”). On the other hand, hearing does no such thing: it is hardly geometrical at all. What hearing does is present sounds in time, generally resulting from the actions of objects: birds chirping, people speaking, thunder clapping, objects crashing, music playing, wind blowing. In hearing, the activity of the world is saliently registered; hearing alone could hardly convey to us the type of being that vision manifestly conveys.[1] Vision offers a shape world; hearing offers a sound world. So, the emphasis on being (structure, form) naturally goes with vision, while the emphasis on doing (activity, change) naturally goes with hearing. An individual with one of these senses and not the other might be more inclined to favor one kind of metaphysics over the other. And someone who loves painting might prefer a being-centered ontology, while someone who loves music might prefer a doing-centered ontology. In any case, the two concepts apply differently to the two senses in question. What seems to me true is that the concepts of being and doing have a hold on our thinking and exercise a large role in shaping our metaphysical predilections. I myself would not favor one over the other but would seek a unified metaphysics that incorporates both. Structure is real and irreducible; process is also real and irreducible. I don’t believe that the deed is basic metaphysically, because there can be no deed without a body to do the deed (and a mind too if the deed is willed). But symmetrically, the idea of a static and powerless reality to which action must be superadded strikes me a metaphysical fantasy. Being and doing are two sides of the same coin, so that there is a fundamental duality at the heart of reality (“double-aspect” theory). This duality runs through our experience as it runs through the world independent of our experience. Reality is both being and doing.[2]

Colin McGinn

[1] No doubt we also get the idea of doing from our own acts of will, but they alone will not give us the general notion of doing I am concerned with.

[2] So, I don’t think meaning is use or matter is energy or properties are powers or particles are fields or semantics is pragmatics or objects are events or character is choice, etc. In fact, I think all these are category mistakes. It is an interesting question whether dynamic capitalism, with its pace of change, makes people receptive to a metaphysics of doing, in contrast to the static essences of medieval religious thought. Is it an accident that pragmatism took off in America? Plato and Aristotle were more popular in hidebound Europe.

Share

Coco Wins! But…

Coco played beautifully and thoroughly deserved her win. But the weakness in her forehand is undeniable (and frequently commented upon). By contrast her backhand is solid as a rock and very powerful. Why the difference? Because she uses a two-handed backhand and a one-handed forehand: she obviously gets help from her left hand on the backhand. So the solution is obvious: use a two-handed forehand, at least some of the time. Coco, if you are reading this, give it a try, you won’t regret it. I say this as someone who recently converted to a two-handed forehand.

Share

Metaphysical Necessity Reexamined

Metaphysical Necessity Reexamined

When Kripke introduced the phrase “metaphysical necessity” in Naming and Necessity he didn’t say much about the nature of this type of necessity beyond distinguishing it from the a priori and so-called epistemic necessity. These are his words: “The second concept which is in question is that of necessity. Sometimes this is used in an epistemological way and might then just mean a priori. And of course, sometimes it is used in a physical way when people distinguish between physical and logical necessity. But what I am concerned with here is a notion which is not a notion of epistemology but of metaphysics, in some (I hope) nonpejorative sense. We ask whether something might have been true, or might have been false. Well, if something is false, it’s obviously not necessarily true. If it is true, might it have been otherwise? Is it possible that, in this respect, the world should have been different from the way it is? If the answer is ‘no’, then this fact about the world is a necessary one. If the answer is ‘yes’, then this fact about the world is a contingent one. This in and of itself has nothing to do with anyone’s knowledge of anything…[We] are dealing with two different domains, two different areas, the epistemological and the metaphysical”. (35-6) Later he cites various examples of metaphysical necessity, which have become well known: necessity of identity, necessity of origin, necessity of natural kind, necessity of constitution. What he doesn’t do (here or subsequently) is engage in an attempt to analyze or articulate what this kind of necessity involves. He leaves it at an intuitive (his word) level without attempting a systematic taxonomy or elucidating exactly what such necessity amounts to—its general principles, its metaphysical implications, its epistemology, its problems and puzzles. We know it is not the same as certainty, or the a priori, or analytic truth; but what is it exactly—what is its nature, its analysis? What makes it what it is? I think, in fact, that we have a very shallow and rudimentary understanding of it, though it is entirely real. It belongs to the natural world independent of the human mind, or any mind: it is among the facts of the world (as Kripke intimates) along with shape, size, number, etc. We have the ability to know its distribution, though howwe know this is obscure. Some properties are essential and some are accidental and we can tell which is which, and this is baked into reality (into any reality). But beyond that we draw a blank. When God created reality and installed necessity into it, what did he do exactly? How did he decide what to make necessary and what contingent, and how did he implement his plan? What is the structure of a modal fact? How does modality arise? Is it emergent or primitive? How are the different kinds of necessary truth related? First, we must settle on a rough taxonomy. In addition to the four types mentioned by Kripke, I will add necessities of shape: generally speaking, particular objects necessarily have the shape they actually have. You cannot drastically alter the shape of an object and expect it to retain its identity—say, a statue, or a mountain, or a computer.[1] If you change the form sufficiently, you destroy the object—say, by melting it down or rearranging its parts. The object will not continue to exist just by virtue of its previous parts still existing (its molecules, its elementary particles). Shape contrasts with color: changing the color of an object never destroys its identity—color is accidental, contingent.  The geometry of an object is integral to its identity, but the color of an object is not. So, now we can ask how these various types of necessity relate to each other: are some more basic, or more general, or more evident? It seems to me that the necessity of identity is the most general for the simple reason that everything is necessarily self-identical (including numbers and mental states) but not everything has an origin or a species or a composition or a shape. A harder question is what unites the various cases: what do they all have in common such that they are cases of essence? Evidently, each case is sui generis, so we can’t hope to reduce all cases to a single type; there really are quite distinct types of metaphysical necessity (de re necessity). Five types, to be exact: five different sorts of metaphysically necessary fact. But what unites them? Nothing, it seems; yet they all qualify. Nor is this a matter of family resemblance. Yet we have a well-defined class of de re necessities. If we ask what makes them all necessary, we draw a blank. This renders metaphysical necessity different from epistemic necessity and analytic necessity: the former are all cases of certainty, the latter cases of meaning inclusion (“conceptual containment”). Here then is our first puzzle: we don’t know what unites the class of metaphysical necessities (or metaphysical contingencies). It seems like a motley crew. It seems, in fact, arbitrary, unprincipled, a ragbag. Second, presumably the modal status of a property is a function of that property: it is built into essential properties that they are essential, and similarly for contingent properties. It is part of the essence of shape (say) that shape is an essential property, and it is part of the essence of color that color is not an essential property. These things are in the nature of the properties in question—what those properties intrinsically are. But what is this building in? Is it that some properties just can’t help being essential, while others are condemned to being merely accidental? And how do you build in this kind of status? It’s not as if properties have a genetic code or a slot for their modal status! How do shape properties differ from color properties qua properties: what is their inner architecture like? Would it be logically possible to invert their modal status by exchanging the modal type? So, we don’t know the nature of properties such that some are essential and some accidental—which means we don’t know the nature of properties. Thus, we don’t know the nature of facts: how facts are constructed, how they break down. Third, and more positively, there exists a kind of natural pairing of essential properties and contingent properties: for every essential property there is a contrasting contingent property, so that one naturally suggests the other. Thus: shape contrasts with color; origin contrasts with career or history; species contrasts with reproductive success or geographical distribution; constitution contrasts with spatial location; identity contrasts with parthood (i.e., things are necessarily self-identical but their parts can be replaced). When you are explaining the necessary-contingent distinction to someone you always find yourself citing something from the contrast class in order to get the concepts across: what is necessary is what is not contingent, what is contingent is what is not necessary. Essential properties are accompanied by contingent properties that contrast with them. In fact, we can say that every particular instantiates both essential and contingent properties: nothing instantiates only essential properties or only contingent properties. And this is a necessary truth: it is as if one needs the other. It is how the world is fundamentally structured: the necessary side by side with the contingent, necessarily. Fifth, there is nothing in between—nothing that is neither necessary nor contingent but somewhat necessary or partially contingent. This is a strict dichotomy; you are either one or the other. Sixth, we have a remarkable talent for telling which is which: we don’t generally have any difficulty deciding whether a property is necessary or contingent. The metaphysical distinction is easily translated to an epistemological distinguishing: it is as if we have a priori insight into the modal category of a property, vouchsafed by our concepts. We just see that origin is essential and career inessential. We have fine-tuned modal intuitions (better than our moral intuitions, which tend to be more labored). Still, this epistemic facility is not accompanied by metaphysical insight into the nature and workings of de re necessity; of that we are at a primitive level. We don’t even know what it is about a property that makes it necessary or contingent.[2]

Colin McGinn

[1] How much tolerance for shape alteration an object has is not easy to say. Clearly, small alterations are consistent with identity preservation, while massive alterations of shape are not. It may vary from one type of object to another: you can’t alter a mouse much, inside and out, before you lose the individual (say by giving it the shape of a mole), but clouds seem more tolerant of shape transformation. Some things change shape naturally, while others do not. This is why we are unsure whether a butterfly larva survives metamorphosis.

[2] Is it the same thing that makes all essential properties essential or could it be different things in different cases? Do all properties have their modal status built into them at birth, so to speak, are could it be acquired? Did God have to add anything to properties once he had created them in order to render them necessary or contingent? Is it supervenient on the property itself or is it injected from outside? Do these questions make sense or do they arise from mistaken analogies. The whole subject seems impossibly obscure.

Share

Easy Cosmology

Easy Cosmology

It took over 2000 years to discover the correct cosmology: the one formulated by Isaac Newton. The features of this cosmology include a heliocentric solar system, a moving earth (diurnal and annual), a unified theory of terrestrial and celestial motion, a universal force of gravity, elliptical orbits, and an account of moons, comets, and satellites. All sorts of contrary ideas were tried out and widely believed during this time of slow discovery, some completely wacky (by modern standards). Mysticism and religion stood in the way of truth. It wasn’t easy to arrive at the correct theory.[1] Why is this—why so difficult? Is it that the theory is extremely complex or requires advanced mathematics or is intrinsically counterintuitive or includes paradoxes (like quantum theory)? No, it is none of these things: it is just that the facts are not open to casual observation. We can’t just look and see. We can’t observe the motion of the earth from our position on its surface; we can’t see what other planets are like from close up; we can’t simply track the elliptical orbits of the planets with our eyes. If we could sense the earth’s motion, we would not need convincing indirect evidence of it; but inertia gets in the way of such observation (we move with the earth so that it seems stationary to us). If we could train our eyes on the planets and observe their likeness to earth, we would immediately conclude that motion has the same causes here and elsewhere; we wouldn’t speak of sublunary and superlunary zones. If we could sit back and watch the planets move, as we watch birds fly, we would see that they move in ellipses not circles. If we could take a trip to outer space, we could see the shape of the earth, its antipodes, and its diurnal rotation—none of these being observable from our earthbound position. The difficulty with arriving at the correct cosmology arises from our location and sensory limits, not from anything intrinsic to the theory. The theory itself is simple, straightforward, and not conceptually problematic (I leave aside the mysterious nature of gravity and confine myself to questions of cosmic architecture). It just so happens that we can’t simply use our senses to get at the truth; in principle, however, the truth is open to sensory observation. The facts are observable facts (macroscopic material bodies moving through space according to normal geometry); it is just that we cannot observe them. It’s really a question of distance and the invisibility of the earth’s motion. The universe itself isn’t intrinsically hard to grasp in the relevant respects; it is actually quite simple, quite transparent, quite commonsensical (ellipses are not less comprehensible than circles). The difficulty of cosmology is entirely observer-relative, and quite adventitious. No doubt Newton was a genius in coming up with the theory, but any ten-year-old can grasp the content of the theory: it’s just not that hard. The earth moves; the sun is stationary; the earth goes round the sun in an elliptical orbit, as do the other planets; the sun exerts a force on the planets causing them do this. What’s not to understand? Suppose people were surrounded by thick clouds all the time. They can’t see what is above them. Occasionally they catch a glimpse of what lies on the other side of the clouds, but nothing very definite. Nevertheless, they formulate theories of their little cosmos; these theories are inevitably pretty wacky, given the slender observational basis (something about a celestial central fire, angels moving ethereal bodies about, that type of thing). Then one day the sky opens up with a clear view of what lies only a short distance above their heads: pieces of paper and dead leaves swirling around in the wind—nothing very spectacular or supernatural or sophisticated. Feeling rather let down, they substitute this new vision for the visions of their imagination in days gone by: this now is their official cosmology—disappointingly mundane but at least true. Well, that is like our position with respect to our (local) cosmos: we couldn’t see it too well, so we invented fanciful theories of what is going on, but now we see that it is nothing very remarkable. Admittedly, it took us 2000 years to arrive at the mundane truth (compared to the mystical mathematical supernatural nonsense concocted earlier), but at least it’s true: bits of rock flying through space, pushed around by gravity, with nary an angel in sight (or even a perfect circle). Not all science is like that: sometimes (often) the correct theory is hard to arrive at not because of human sensory limitations (particularly in regard to distance) but because the theory is genuinely unobvious and taxing even when the observational facts are in. I would say this about atomic theory, big bang cosmology, evolution by natural selection, botany, and chemistry (among others). The theory of photosynthesis, for example, is a complicated and unobvious theory; the difficulty of arriving at it doesn’t derive from a simple sensory limitation (we have the plants right in front of us). Similarly for Darwin’s theory: it takes ingenuity to come up with that; you couldn’t just observe it to be true if your eyes were more capacious. In the case of the atom, we might think that more discerning eyes would reveal the structure of the atom (but could we ever really see an electron?), but it takes more than that to figure out the dynamics of the particles composing an atom. That is, there are real theoretical problems in these areas not just a blanket of clouds or sheer distance. Improved vision wouldn’t make these problems go away. But in astronomy (the part we are concerned with anyway) the theory would be automatic once the senses have done their work: the trouble is the senses can’t do their work. The problem is location not cerebration, physical distance not intellectual depth. Newton’s work on optics falls into this latter class; his work on planetary motion falls into the former class. This is why we all understand the outlines of Newton’s celestial mechanics but we find his work on optics more daunting—because it calls for theoretical understanding. Light is intrinsically hard to understand, but planetary motion is not (it’s just stuff moving through space subject to forces). Philosophical problems lie at the extreme end of the non-observational class of problems: the difficulty of the mind-body problem, say, does not derive from observational paucity due to distance or clouds; it is purely theoretical. We don’t need a better look to solve this problem but better thinking (theory construction). The solution will not be mundane (though hard to arrive at), like Newton’s theory. It won’t take the form of neurons orbiting each other in ellipses, or one part of the brain being stationary while the rest moves, or some such thing. There is something bathetic about Newton’s theory, given the history of astronomy, but surely the solution to the mind-body problem will be anything but bathetic (like concluding that consciousness is a result of neural length). So, there is a contrast between the science of astronomy and other sciences (including philosophy): astronomy up to Newton was hampered by observational limitations, but the other sciences face theoretical problems inherent in their subject matter. Thus, Newton’s theory is easy to grasp though difficult to arrive at, whereas the other theories are not easy to grasp—and hard to arrive at largely for that reason. Of course, discovering and formulating the laws of motion requires theoretical ingenuity, and gravity itself is deeply puzzling, but the basic architecture and dynamics of the solar system are of the same order as ordinary observable phenomena—bodies moving in straight and curved paths through space. The only question was which bodies are moving and along what paths.[2]

[1] Just how tortuous and faltering it was is brought out in Arthur Koestler’s very thorough The Sleepwalkers (1959).

[2] The only area I can think of that compares to astronomy is geography. Here too it was millennia before accurate maps of the earth were produced, simply because the layout of the earth is not visible from anywhere on it (even from a mountain top). It was necessary to travel all over the earth to be able to devise adequate maps. In astronomy it wasn’t possible to travel to the stars, but at least you could see them (some of them) from planet earth. Not surprisingly, there wasn’t much variation in different parts of the earth, as there is not much variation between different stars (compared to what used to be believed). The physical universe is pretty homogeneous no matter where you go (it is made of the same stuff after all). A Newton of geography would not have any very remarkable geographical facts to report; that is why geography is a boring subject content-wise. Astronomy is the geography of the skies (also the physics). What it isn’t is a window into the mind of God, or a repository of mathematical and musical harmony, or the basis of astrology.

Share

Angry

Yesterday the Stones released their first album of original material in 18 years. I watched the video of the new single “Angry With Me” and am happy to report that it is a triumph. The record rocks. Good drumming, great guitar licks, and Mick in fine voice. The video stars the incomparable Sydney Sweeney who turns in a stellar performance on a red convertible in LA. What more could you want? I strongly recommend.

Share

An Argument Against Skepticism

An Argument Against Skepticism

The skeptic claims that we are wrong to credit ourselves with knowledge. Our belief that we possess knowledge is a false belief: we make an error when we ascribe knowledge to ourselves. But why do we make this error? On this question the skeptic is strangely silent: we are not told what the source of the error is and why we fall into it. This is unsatisfactory: surely an error this large, this persistent, should have an explanation. The skeptic owes us a theory of the error he imputes. The error that the earth is stationary lasted for millennia and was difficult to dislodge, but it is an understandable error, given our location and the facts of physics (inertia etc.). Not for no reason did people cling to the error in question. Similarly for the error (if it is one) that objects are objectively colored, which was not detected until the seventeenth century (initially by Galileo). This error can be seen to arise from the way objects look: they look objectively colored. In general errors have explanations; they are not gratuitous, groundless, inexplicable. If we cannot explain the error, the claim that it is an error is pro tanto dubious, especially if the claim of error rests on convoluted argument. So, the skeptic needs to meet this challenge or else concede weakness in his position; at the very least the question should be acknowledged and addressed. Why do we falsely believe that we have knowledge if the skeptic is right in saying that we demonstrably do not? The arguments for skepticism are not complex and can be easily grasped, so why have they not undermined the belief in knowledge long ago? Why do we even have the concept of knowledge if the concept is never (or seldom) instantiated? Is it perhaps that the skeptic is wrong and we do have knowledge in the cases where we believe we do?

            Here is a possible explanation: we are under the illusion that we have knowledge. There are well known visual illusions that produce false beliefs, and we can envisage more pervasive types of visual illusion (such as the illusion that objects are objectively colored). But this is not a plausible explanation: for we don’t perceive instances of knowledge by means of the senses. It isn’t as if it looks as if knowledge exists but it really doesn’t (like the proverbial pink rats). We don’t perceive knowledge at all, so there can’t be sensory illusions of knowledge. Nor is it plausible that the word “knowledge” encourages the error: we don’t believe we have knowledge because the word intimates that we do; it isn’t that the word is a very vivid name that conjures up a non-existent referent. So, it is a mystery why we commit and persist in the error, finding ourselves shocked when the skeptic mounts his assault. And the skeptic never concludes his assault by saying, “And the reason you commit the error I have just exposed is X”, where “X” stands for the error theory we are searching for. Moreover, we don’t typically respond to the skeptic’s argument by saying immediately, “Oh silly me, how could I have made this error for so long?”. On the contrary, the alleged error is remarkably resistant to revision (as Hume pointed out); we don’t simply abandon the belief in knowledge forthwith. In other cases of error, even ancient and universal error, reason prevails and the error is corrected; but skepticism has made little progress in removing the erroneous beliefs it attacks, though it has been around for over 2,000 years. We just don’t respond to it as one whose error has been convincingly exposed. What is the skeptic’s explanation of this resistance—if not that there is really no error that is being exposed? It’s surely not simple dogmatism and arrogance—epistemic overestimation—since it really does seem to us that we know things about the world. We sincerely believe that we have genuine knowledge of things; it’s not that we only act this way in order to impress others. That is why skepticism comes as a shock to the system.

            Note that this point doesn’t tell us what is wrong with the skeptic’s arguments; it merely suggests that something must be wrong. The next task would be to identify precisely what that something is. But it does indicate what is peculiar about skeptical doubt, namely that it is removed from ordinary sources of error. In the normal course of things, we experience no difficulty in recognizing error, explaining it, and revising our beliefs accordingly. For example, we might come to see that we were subject to a visual illusion that gave rise to a false belief, so that we were wrong to think that we had knowledge. It is well within our powers to change our attributions of knowledge to ourselves. Here there is no problem with supplying an error theory and changing our epistemic beliefs because of it. But what explains my erroneous belief that I know there is an external world? It isn’t that I have recently discovered that I am a brain in a vat—that would certainly explain my false belief that I know there is an external world! But the problem is that there is no such explanation of why I erroneously believe that I know there is an external world, even if there is. Maybe I don’t know this, as the skeptic argues, but why do I believe that I know it to begin with? Why didn’t I recognize before that my belief that I know is shaky or baseless? Why did it take the skeptic to make me aware of this? What if skepticism had never been invented so that no one ever questioned their general beliefs about things (the external world, the past, other minds)? What would explain such massive error, on the assumption that I simply don’t know such things? Why do human beings so confidently believe that they have knowledge when they don’t? The error seems utterly inexplicable (if error it is). Isn’t it more likely that there is no error and we really do know? False astronomical beliefs are easy to explain, or false biological beliefs, but false epistemic beliefs are not like this—why are we wrong in our beliefs about what we know? To put it differently, why are we so wrong about which of our beliefs are justified? Maybe we are wrong, but we need to be told why we would make such a basic mistake. Are we just stupid? But lots of very smart people think we have knowledge, so it can’t be a matter of low IQ. Is it that we have such beliefs by instinct and don’t question them? Is the explanation that we are programmed genetically to believe we have knowledge? But what reason is there to believe that, and why can’t we rationally question such an instinct once reason gains a foothold in our minds? Nor is the belief instilled in us by something akin to religious indoctrination. None of the standard explanations for error works, so the skeptic has an undischarged obligation. We are guilty of a conceptual error, according to the skeptic, but what explains this error has yet to be diagnosed.[1]

Colin McGinn

[1] A similar challenge is faced by the opponent of free will: if there is no free will, why do people think there is? But here there are viable options: people might be confusing genuine freedom with mere freedom from coercion, or there might be a phenomenology of freedom that coexists with actual determinism. In the case of skepticism, however, nothing suggests itself, so the skeptic is left with an unexplained error, and one that cries out for explanation. Not that skepticism lacks intuitive force and powerful arguments in its favor, but it also faces intuitive and powerful counterarguments. I am just adding a further consideration into the mix, not trying to resolve the issue one way or the other.

Share