Anthropocentric Physical Empiricism

Anthropocentric Physical Empiricism

Empiricism is the doctrine that all knowledge derives from something called “experience”. Alternatively, all (non-trivial) knowledge comes from the senses. Knowledge is ultimately reducible to “impressions” or “sense data” originating in the human sense organs. In some forms it takes on a metaphysical cast: all of realityderives from experience and is reducible to it. Thus, phenomenalism is empiricism with respect to the external world. Both knowledge and reality come down to sense data—epistemological and metaphysical empiricism. But it is seldom observed that this doctrine can be pushed further: all knowledge (and possibly all reality) derives from, or reduces to, the activities of the sense organs. Impressions cause ideas, sense data cause beliefs, but activity in the eyes and ears (etc.) cause impressions and sense data—the latter are “copies” of the former. The physical sense organs are the conduits through which information flows. Let’s be more specific: it is retinal stimulation and eardrum vibration that cause experiences—the activation of the rods and cones in the eye, the quivering of the tympanic membrane in the ear. These connect with deeper structures, such as the optic nerve and the cochlear, but they are where the body and the world make initial contact. So, really, the empiricist should be saying that all knowledge traces back to the retina and the eardrum (also the skin, nose, and mouth, but these are less important to knowledge than the other two senses, especially vision). Clearly, the retina and the eardrum are physical (bodily) and anthropocentric (species-specific): so, knowledge is held to reduce to bits of human anatomy and physiology, these being the causal origins of experience (whatever quite that is). There is no human knowledge but that these bodily structures are involved—that does not go through these structures. Likewise for metaphysical empiricism.

Already we are wondering if that can be right, given that knowledge is mental and the retina and ear drum are physical (biological). But putting that aside, there is this worry: how can such small and localized entities constitute all of human knowledge (and possibly all the world)? Does our knowledge of reality really reduce to irritations in the small patch of tissue known as the retina? You might reply that visual experience is a good deal more than the retina: it has representational content, is conscious, and figures in reasoning. That is what true empiricism takes to be the foundation and form of all knowledge—full-blooded human experience. Then does experience add something to the retinal stimulations? Of course, you retort—we can’t reduce experience to physical processes in the retina! You are quite right, but notice that you have helped yourself to the inner resources of the mind by insisting on the transcendence of experiences over retinas. And that isn’t true empiricism, since the mind is now not a blank tablet on this way of looking at things: it contributes to, enriches, the retinal input—not everything derives from the senses alone. Thus, we have diluted empiricism with rationalism or nativism by crediting the mind with properties not derivable from bare sensory input. The mind is not remotely a blank tablet under the current dispensation; it is a seething, amply furnished, hothouse. So, the determined empiricist might dig in his heels at this point and assert that it is retinal input that is the source of all knowledge (Quine held such a view). The claim might seem preposterous given our customary conception of human knowledge, but the physical empiricist might junk this mentalistic conception and replace it with some scaled-back notion of cortical configurations. Would that be the end of his troubles?

No, because of the implied anthropocentrism. There won’t be anything universal about human knowledge as so viewed. The human eye and ear are quite species-specific (or genus-specific), much more so than our system of knowledge purports to be, which we take to be more universal—objective, absolute. We don’t think our scientific knowledge, say, is relative to us, like our anatomy in general; that would undermine its claim to be knowledge. Rods and cones are hardly epistemological universals, woven into everything we know. Nor is our knowledge of reality confined to objects of a size that can stimulate the retina differentially, thus giving rise to perceptions of particular types of objects (medium sized dry goods); for we know about other things too (e.g., atoms). Consider the following (admittedly extreme) thought experiment: there are microscopic men that are no bigger than atoms, and they have a thirst for knowledge. But their eyes respond only to objects at their scale, seeing only atoms and their parts (electrons, protons). They have no perception of macroscopic objects (as we understand that term), yet they wonder whether the particles they see might compose such large objects. The empiricist philosophers among them insist that all their knowledge is derived from, and reduces to, the evidence of their senses, anything else being problematic at best. It would clearly be wrong for them to claim that reality reduces to what they can see with their eyes, just as it is wrong for us to claim that reality reduces to what we can see with ours—the microscopic and the macroscopic, respectively. Their visual set-up is biased in its picture of the world, just as ours is (very low resolution). Similarly, a giant intelligence that sees only whole galaxies, never their constituent stars and planets, has a biased view of the universe—is, in fact, blind to huge swathes of it. The senses are highly selective and species-relative, providing biased pictures of reality. If knowledge seeks to correct this bias, as it clearly does, sense-based empiricism must be false: our knowledge attains a level of universality, and hence objectivity and absoluteness, that cannot be accommodated by what might be called “retinal empiricism”. We can only satisfy the demands of knowledge by moving away from the senses considered as items of human anatomy. Just so, reality itself possesses a degree of universality that is inconsistent with retinal empiricism. The human senses simply don’t have the scope and generality required to constitute human knowledge or reality as a whole. They are too circumscribed, species-specific, idiosyncratic, and variable to fix any knowledge worthy of the name, still less any reality worthy of the name. True, we can learn things by deploying our eyes, but that is a far cry from constituting the entire nature of human knowledge. We certainly cannot hope to define anything by means of language referring to the excitations of the retina, or the vibrations of the tympanic membrane. Such sensory activities cannot create human knowledge by themselves, nor can they suffice to construct an external world. When empiricism is pushed to the limit its limitations become apparent. The sense organs are not the sole organs of knowledge.[1]

[1] The original empiricists knew little about the workings of the sense organs and tended to adopt a first-person perspective on the nature of perception.  Once we learn more and take an objective perspective on the senses their inadequacy as a source of knowledge become apparent. They are just physical transducers of impinging energy; they are not mirrors held up to reality. All the talk of “impressions” and “sense data” is scientifically naive; a complex multi-stage process leads up to their formation. At what point does the empiricist want to fix his epistemic origins? Aren’t there many things that could qualify as the foundations of the whole enterprise? The lesson is that human knowledge is an active corrective to the senses not a passive reflection (mirroring) of them.

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3 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    This is a difficult post to respond to because there is so much in it. Please consider the following statements as a question. There are sense data. There is a stream of sense data. There is memory which is an encapsulation (an abstraction of) the stream of sense data. That is, rather than a very large sequence of 1’s and 0’s (that would be equivalent to the history of the stream), the mind is able to form some high dimensional combinatorial object (think a high dimensional geometrical musical instrument, if you like) that keeps changing and being added to (as a result of new sense data), that cannot perfectly reconstruct the digital sequence, but captures some “properties” or patterns of it – in a sense it better harmonises with the history. Is experience the result of this abstraction process? Is universality related to the definition of such patterns? If so, cannot we ask if such patterns are species specific? (The idea here is that a pattern is a relative concept, relating to a coding-decoding pair of algorithms, that would be specific to entities that were equipped with such a pair). This seems to come back to questions about time, structure, memory and meaning. Is it the case that an older wiser person resonates in a more meaningful way with events because over time the stream of sense data they have experienced have crafted a better instrument to harmonise with such a history?

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  2. Free Logic
    Free Logic says:

    This post is spot on and, uncharacteristically, is almost uncontroversial… Reads like a preparation for another argument. Except for the point about Quine, who, although he was an empiricist leaning behaviourist by and large, held that numbers exist since our scientific theories quantify over them. Believing in existence of abstract entities is not exactly a classical empiricist position.

    An administrative comment to this website’s webmaster: it looks like the indexing mechanism on your blog page is off at times. And many times it does not show the number of comments correctly and does not show all recent blog articles on the main landing page. This happens quite a lot in the past two weeks.

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