Sunday, January 20, 2013

4.1 Perception

A big debate about perception involves how it is we perceive anything at all. There are perhaps three stances we could take toward the issue of perception. First, we have direct access to the world outside of us through our senses. Second, we have indirect access to the world outside of us through our senses and a mediating Representation. Third, we have no access to the world outside of us but only Representations.

First possibility: We have direct access to the world outside of us through our senses. (direct realism)
Consider this first possibility. It is what is often called "direct realism." So when I look at my laptop, for example, I am seeing my laptop. Sure, there's a complicated story to tell about how the brain does it, and a complicated physiological story about how my eyes work, but basically there's a one-to-one correspondence between my seeing to see a laptop and that I see a laptop. But consider the perception again. What I see isn't an object with all of its 4 dimensions. I see one aspect of what I assume to be an object. I see, for example, this side from this distance, under this light, etc. I can't see the back of the laptop nor can I see underneath it. All of this gives me some suspicion that what I see is not exactly something else directly in the world but certain aspects of what could be directly out there in the world.

You could say the same about optical illusions and rainbows. Optical illusions are basically the brain's failure to perceive something for what it objectively is and instead perceive patterns, distances, and directions that are not there. Rainbows seem to be objects that eventually touch the ground but the closer you are to them they recede.

Rainbows, optical illusions, and the talk of the laptop suggest the second or third possibility. So let's consider...

Second possibility: We have indirect access to the world through our senses and a mediating Representation (indirect realism).
I capitalize Representation here so as to distinguish the word from at least one philosophical tradition that requires that representations are representations of some other object and to define it instead as some complex manifold of percepts, what might have to be given a better understanding through neuroscience or some of the other natural sciences.

Setting that issue aside, the view espoused here is often called "indirect realism," indirect because there is something intermediary between us and the world. Given that when I reflect on what I perceive I realize I never perceive anything in its totality. But maybe that is not exactly right. Surely I do not see everything in its totality only certain aspects of it, but this is to say nothing yet of the other senses. For example, it does not even seem intelligible to me to say that I did not taste a bite of food 'in its totality.' I can say, however, that I "half-heard a conversation," but regarding smell it might seem stranger to say that I 'partially' smelled it. Or regarding touch, the touch of something often appears immediate.

This diversity of perception and the way the world subsequently seems to us coupled with my reflections about what it seems appropriate to say might say more about language than it does about the five senses. Nevertheless, it seems to hint that the only reason we infer the existence of objects in the world and a world outside of our perception is because we are so designed to operate as if everything we perceive is natural and so. Furthermore, we can rationalize that the world is so and that objects are actually there and perdure through time because that seems to be an inference to the best explanation: If there were not a world external to the mind/brain, it would be a lot of information for little old me to carry around in his head absent some world of objects providing me with input.

Third possibility: We have no access to the world outside of us but only our Representations (idealism).
Assume for the moment that I perceive that the world is such because of evolution and a kind of mental confabulation that allows me to believe that there is a world and it is a place full of persons and other entities. If this much were true, then we would have the position often called "idealism." I want to give some credence to idealism if it is properly construed.

If the claim and this whole direct-realism, indirect-realism, idealism debate is really about our epistemic limitations, then idealism looks to be correct. I mean, if this third possibility "idealism" really means "We cannot know that there is a world outside of us, only that we have Representations," that much seems to be true. If it is a claim about metaphysics, meaning "There is no world outside of us but only our Representations," that position would be more difficult to affirm.

As far as epistemology goes, we could go right on assuming that the world is metaphysically full of people and objects and so on but it is just that, an assumption. As far as the limited position we're in, we can't ever know for sure that the Representations have some reality correspondence. We just have to build theories that are intelligible and explanatory to understand how the world seems to work and modify our thinking after that.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

3.4 Why Coherentism?

First, to attack coherentism, let's consider what the foundationalists could say in the way of some basic beliefs. What about "I have a headache" or "Two plus two equals four"? Surely those beliefs are basic...

Coherentists could still say Nope. Each of those beliefs could have other beliefs given as reasons for them. Like I said previously, "I have a headache" or "Two plus two equals for" at least assumes other beliefs about how those words match to concepts. Now someone might ask, But then why don't more people ask for those reasons? And the answer I'd give is: For pragmatic reasons. If somebody says, "I have a headache," and someone else asks "How do you know?" that person would really be looked at as an odd duck. But that doesn't mean that other reasons couldn't be given, only that, practically speaking we don't ask or look for those other reasons. In those situations, we just don't do philosophy.

3.3 Why Foundationalism?

Many people are sympathetic to foundationalism. In some respects, they think it accords with our common sense. Like this, for example. Because I'm looking at a Christmas tree in my house that has been up now past Christmas, because I have this belief, and this belief looks to me to be caused by the most immediate experiences I'm having, something like foundationalism must be true. I must have at least some basic beliefs.

Nobody is going to doubt that my perception of the Christmas tree is immediate to me. But what they very well could doubt is that any subsequent beliefs I have about the Christmas tree, even that I see it, could be supported by any number of beliefs connected to my perception of the tree.

One of the objections to any alternative to foundationalism, according to the SEP article on epistemology, is the regress argument. The argument is something as simple and stupid like: But if I need to give a reasons for my belief in terms of another belief, don't I need to give a reason for that belief in terms of another, and in terms of another, blah ditty blah blah? Therefore, foundationalism is true.

Even assuming that it somehow follows that foundationalism is true from this half an argument, the premises don't work. Like, the assumption is that each belief needs another belief to be justification for another. So, for example, B1 (belief 1) justifies B2 which justifies B3, and so on. But think about how explanation works, both formally and informally. Once we hit a certain point in our understanding, we just accept that there is no explanation past some such beliefs or we give a circular justification. That likely means that something like coherentism is true. There is always possibility for other beliefs we have that are reasons for the immediate beliefs we have, and this all go together in a kind of chain, it seems.

Another argument for foundationalism is that the alternative coherentism does not allow the possibility that our beliefs are actually in contact with the world. Foundationalism as a position does, so we're supposed to accept that. But that's malarkey because if you accept that idea that it's impossible to make the world in its totality intelligible with one's beliefs, then the most we can hope for is having the best beliefs in light of the best and most explanatory theories, formally and informally. Nothing wrong with that. Are minds are not designed such that we're guaranteed complete understanding of the world, you know.

3.2 Coherentism

Coherentism is the belief that all our beliefs are or could be reasons for our other beliefs. So there are no basic beliefs, like the foundationalists say. There's no objective point or points to which we could point and say "Those are the foundational beliefs. Those are the basic beliefs."

Take the example with the table like in the last post. For the belief "I see a brown table," I could give any number of other beliefs for why I believe that that belief is true. If so, there aren't any basic beliefs. By default, coherentism has to be right.

End of story there.

3.1 Foundationalism

Foundationalism is a position built around basic beliefs. A basic belief is a belief that doesn't need other beliefs for its justification. What kind of argument could you give for this position? Maybe something like this.

I see a brown table. I can't think of any other belief that could be a reason for my believing that other than that I just see a brown table. That's my belief.

This can be easily dispensed with, though. That belief could be contingent on the fact that you know how the word 'brown' functions as a concept for BROWN and you know how TABLE is another concept. So, maybe unaware to you at first, you could always give reasons for any beliefs you have and so no belief is basic. Foundationalism is false.

I really do think it's as simple as all that.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

2.5 Why Externalism?

Externalism is the view that the reasons for our beliefs come from sources external to the mental life we have, whether it be nature or some other physical processes that make the beliefs true and reliable. One motivating argument for this view is a challenge to internalism, which is the view that reasons for beliefs come from a person's mental states. The externalist challenges the internalist to explain how we could ever say that very young children and animals have knowledge at all without appealing to reliable processes or mechanisms external to the specific mental states. The externalist charges that the mental states of young children and animals are not sufficiently complex for them to have reasons for their beliefs. So, it follows, externalism is true.

Another argument for externalism is that what we are looking for are objective facts or objective probabilities so that we can have a guarantee for knowledge, which is supposed to be objective. The only sources that would be guarantors of objectivity would be external. So, externalism is true.

Taking each argument in turn, the argument about young children and animals relies on the children and animals having mental states complex enough for them to be able to provide reasons for their beliefs, or put another way, they would have to be able to, in principle, generate reasons for their beliefs. I contend that if this were the way mental states were to be construed, then externalism would have a case. But suppose that if 'knowledge' were given a technical sense, it would be a kind of system in the mind/brain that is made up of principles and parameters that allow for operation relative to certain domains (anything from speaking a language to doing biology). If this were what knowledge is, essentially the sum total of all knowledge systems, then a mental state relative to some domain would just be the state in which a person is in at a given time and for which is making use of a knowledge system the person has. These need not be conscious. They could be very abstract.

If this were all true, then the reasons for any given belief could be internal to the mind/brain without being something someone could verbally express or consciously think is a reason for the belief. If for the externalists this is close enough to their appeal to certain reliable objective external processes, then so be it. Then internalism and externalism are not so apart after all. We should be careful about our word choice, though, because sometimes externalism means a mind-world connection that is posited that we could never actually know we had if we had it.

This brings us to the next argument that what we want are objective facts and objective probabilities and an externalist view would provide for this. But given that we cannot escape our own skins, wanting a mind-world connection does not guarantee one. Inasmuch as we reason or do science, we hope we're achieving one. But this hope is something like a leap of faith. Which will have to be good enough. Even so, it could be the case that the whole world is destroyed and we never know it, and all the mental states be exactly as they are.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

2.4 Why Internalism?

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy "Epistemology" entry (previously mentioned), a few arguments have been given to motivate the position of internalism.
1. Reasons for a belief are a matter of not being obligated not to believe them (deontological justification).
2. Not being obligated not to believe something is an internal matter.
3. So, reasons for a belief are an internal matter.
Of course, this argument depends on the first premise being true, which means that a person already has to accept what is called deontological justification for it to be true. But like I said in a previous post, deontological justification could be true, non-deontological justification could be true, or they could both be true--or neither. Given the controversy about this premise, perhaps another argument could be given. And so:
1. Suppose Billie and Billie* exist.
2. Billie and Billie* have an identical set of beliefs.
3. The consistency of mental states is what matters for having good reasons for a belief (mentalism).
3. So, Billie and Billie* have good reasons for their beliefs and they are internal.
For this argument to be true, the third premise must be true, the premise about mentalism. However, unless someone is willing to accept that internal consistency is all that matters, they are unwilling to accept internalism as providing good reasons for a belief. In fact, this is the very thing the debate is about!

A third way to be an internalist would be to accept evidentialism, which is supposed to be evidence that is discovered and is internal to a person. I don't quite understand this position still, since any philosopher who argues this way is using evidence idiosyncratically, it seems. Evidence seems to be, in ordinary language, a matter of something "out there". By definition, it isn't that, according to the way the philosophers are using it.

Anyway, again, even though we aspire to make the good reasons for our beliefs a matter of factors external to a thoughts and percepts, we nonetheless have to use those thoughts and percepts to discover what we discover about the world. So, the answer seems clear to me. We must be, as a matter of method and fact, internalists but we aspire to, although it is impossible to achieve, externalism. The problem, however, is that externalism is not something can be arrived at since we can never get outside ourselves.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2.3 Internal vs. External

Another interesting piece of the theory of knowledge as a philosophical enterprise involves depends about whether the reasons for a person's beliefs are the result of evidence that is internal to the mind/brain (internalism) or a matter of reliable cognitive processes that connect up to the world in the right way (externalism). So conceived, evidentalism is a form of internalism while reliablism is a form of externalism.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on epistemology (located here) has a great illustration of the difference between internalism and externalism. Suppose you have two thinking things, Billie and Billie*. Billie is a person walking around in the world, writing on his blog, thinking about philosophy, teaching, and so on. Billie*, on the other hand, is a Brain-In-a-Vat (BIV), only thinking that he's a person walking around the world, writing on his blog, thinking about philosophy, teaching, and so on. According to the internalist, even though we can admit that Billie* is deceived or mistaken in his beliefs insofar as they connect up to the world, since Billie and Billie* both have the same mental states, and since they have a set of consistent beliefs or are being properly sensorily manipulated, or manipulated by their nerve endings in a certain way so as to think they are experience the states they're in, they both have good reasons for believing what they believe. The externalist, on the other hand, would say that since the correct cognitive processes do not link up with Billie*, he's both deceived and doesn't really have good reasons for his beliefs because the beliefs ought to come about by being correctly connected to the world..

So okay, let's think about this debate for a bit, and the debate between internalists and externalists. In my view, and given the situation we are in, we are all situated beings incapable of getting outside of our own skins. But insofar as we can make use of higher cognitive faculties and do science and try to understand the world using our normal cognitive faculties, we are doing our best to get out of our own skins (I'm paraphrasing a Chomsky quote I once heard there). Since 'knowledge' is an honorific word and not some essential word that designates a chunk of reality, we are right to call knowledge certain canons of evidence we have accumulated and spread, all of which are ultimately internal. No matter what we do in our study, we are all basically methodological internalists. It could be the case that the world isn't even out there (although we suspect that it is). But should it be discovered that what we think is out there isn't out there, we would have to modify our view and be skeptics about the external world. In the absence of good reasons for doubt, we just proceed according to investigations.

But also it might be worth mentioning that even if we suppose we discovered that we were all BIVs, this too could give grounds for doubt because it could be that that is just some cognitive illusions, and so instead we could be quarks that have acquired self-consciousness, or still some other entity. This gives us reason to believe that what we are really doing is a kind of Cartesian project, where we can call knowledge anything that have given an explanatory account of, call good reasons those which have held up time and time again using our senses, the most sophisticated tools we have out our disposal, experiments, cognitive processes, and so on. From a certain point of view, then, our point of view, it would always and everywhere be impossible to be externalists, since this view from nowhere is unachievable.