Philosophy: August 2005 Archives

This is the the twelfth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear.

So far I've looked at the problem Hume raises for scientific knowledge and some less helpful attempts to respond. This post looks at some responses with more promise. Each corresponds to a style of responding to skepticism that I've already discussed in earlier posts.


Hume didn't intend his argument to lead to skepticism any more than Descartes intended his own to lead to skepticism. Hume's response wasn't anything like Descartes', however. It's actually a good example of Forced Pragmatism (see the pragmatism post) with respect to this very specific brand of skepticism. He admits that we can't know anything about scientific laws. He insists that we have to pretend we do. We have no choice. That's simply how we're constructed. We form habits or customs, and then we rely on those as we observe uniformities in nature. As things consistently happen together, we conclude that something must be making it that way. We have no rational reason to believe such a thing, but we're brought to believe it by our need to have simple explanations for things in order for our existence to be livable. This explains why we do believe in the results of science, but does it answer why we should?

Skepticism About Science

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This is the the eleventh post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear.

David Hume argues that we can't know anything about scientific laws or laws of nature. He, like Descartes, considers what's immediately before our senses. From that, how do I get information about what will happen if I hold my pen out and let go? How do I know it will fall? I may remember it falling in the past. Does that mean it will continue to fall in future cases just like past ones? Even if it's fallen lots of times in the past, how can I be sure it will continue to do so? We can revise scientific laws because we had ignored facts (as Einstein showed that there was data Newton hadn't account for, and as Copernicus showed there was data Ptolemy hadn't accounted for). But Hume argues that one fact will never be available to us -- the future. Will nature always be as orderly as it has been in the past? What if in 3 seconds everything will go haywire? Can we rule that out? Knowing scientific laws requires trusting that nature is uniform. Hume gives us reason not to be sure about that. What gives us reason to think science is better than studying your belly button at discovering truths about the world?


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This is the the tenth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear.

Reliabilism responds to skepticism by challenging one of Descartes' key methodological assumptions. He claims that you can't know anything unless you have absolute certainty of that thing, not just having a subjective sense of feeling certain but an absolute, objective understanding of why that thing must be true. No one, of course, has such certainty about most things we believe. Reliabilists just argue that we don't need to. Knowledge just doesn't involve that kind of certainty. Reliabilists simply deny the premise that everyone else seems to assume, that knowledge requires this idea of absolute certainty. Reliabilists consider such a notion ridiculous.

We know all sorts of things without being able to prove them to ourselves and without being able to rule out all the alternatives. How do we ordinarily use the word 'know'? We say we know all sorts of things. How do we find out what words generally mean? We see how people use them. In this case, people use the word 'know' when they don't have certainty.


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This is the the ninth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear.

According to the contextualist response to skepticism, we don't literally know things. Strictly speaking, the word 'know' requires absolute certainty, and we can't get that about most things. When speaking literally or strictly, contextualists will admit that the skeptic is right. But most of the time we aren't speaking strictly or literally. Consider some unrelated examples. We'll often describe a table as flat. It doesn't take much pushing to see that no table in real life is truly flat. It's flatter than a bumpy road or a lumpy pillow, but it's not absolutely flat. It's ok to call it flat it most ordinary contexts, though. It's just not ok when talking about detailed physics calculations. Those little bumps make all the difference in that context. According to the contextualist about flatness, the word 'flat' has a different meaning in different contexts. In physics contexts, it has the stricter or more literal meaning. Something isn't flat unless it's absolutely flat. In ordinary contexts, most tables really are flat. The reason it's ok to speak more loosely in ordinary contexts is that the meaning of the word 'flat' itself loosens up in ordinary contexts. Contextualists about knowledge say the same thing about 'know'.

The latest Veggie Tales, Minnesota Cuke and the Search for Samson's Hairbrush, opens with a philosophical dialogue between Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber in good Socratic fashion. Here's the crucial part for understanding Bob's epistemological framework:

Larry: Eli says here that there's a bully in his school, and ...
Bob: A bully?
Larry: Yeah, you know, a kid that's real mean to all the other kids?
Bob: I know what a bully is, Larry.
Larry: Then why'd you ask?
Bob: Well, it's just that Caleb wrote about the same thing.
Larry: Wow. That's one busy bully.
Bob: Well, it's not the same bully.
Larry: How do you know?
Bob: Well, I don't but...
Larry: But you seem so certain.
Bob: Well, I am certain.
Larry: How do you know?
Bob: Well, Larry, it's just highly improbable statistically speaking that one bully is bothering two kids 500 miles apart! I mean, sometimes being certain of something just means highly probable! Highly probable!

Rene Descartes is rolling in his grave.


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This is the the eighth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear.

One general sort of response to skepticism is pragmatism. Pragmatists simply accept the skeptic's conclusion. We don't really know many of the things we thought we knew. They disagree with the skeptic on the import of such a conclusion. Skeptics think it's really worrisome if we don't know much, and we shouldn't believe things we don't have good reason to believe. Pragmatists generally think it's perfectly fine to believe certain sorts of things that we don't know and don't even have any rational reason to believe.

This is the the seventh post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear.

How perception works is relevant to skepticism about knowledge through the senses, so it might be nice to get a little background on theories of perception. There are three general views in the history of philosophy on the nature of perception. I'm going to be talking in terms of three prominent philosophers in the earlier modern period who held the three diffferent views. How you interpret some of the responses to skepticism will depend in some cases on which view of perception you have (and one of them, as we saw in the last post, is itself a sort of response to skepticism).

[Note: I'm less confident with this post than with some others that I'm representing the historical figures as carefully as I'd like to represent them. In some ways these figures are standing for the overall view, and I'll sometimes refer to a contemporary response as if it's what the historical figure would say. I'm not really pretending to be accurate to the historical figure when I do this. I'm more trying to explore the view. I do think most of what I say is close enough to what they say, but I don't want to look as if I'm doing history of philosophy. This post is just to get a sense of what these views can look like.]

One way to understand the three views is to consider the following inconsistent triad of claims:

1. We perceive ordinary objects.
2. What we perceive are ideas (something internal to our minds).
3. Ordinary objects exist outside of us -- external to our minds.

Any view will have to deny at least one of these claims. If 1 and 2 are true, 3 comes out false. If 1 and 3 are correct, 2 must be false. If 2 and 3 are right, then 1 must be wrong. This is how the three views we are considering will work. These three claims are inconsistent because they can't all be true.

Purposes in Nature

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Abednego recorded some of his observations of the design language of scientists at a conference he was at. I wanted to connect this with some of the stuff I've been looking into among the ancient and medieval philosophers I've been reading a lot of lately. These scientists are basically doing what Aristotle did. He would speak of trees as having roots in order that they can derive nutrients from the soil, which is for the purpose of growing tall. Most of the materialist philosophers of that time, particularly a number of pre-Socratics, the Hippocratic school, and the Epicureans, said this didn't make any sense, because you can tell an entirely material story about how one thing causes another and leads things to happen, without mentioning purposes at all.

Aristotle wanted to say that this is just ignoring the different kinds of explanations for things. There are efficient causes, which those materialists were talking about, and then there are the final causes, which are goals or aims built into nature. This isn't supposed to be what we nowadays call a cause but simply a purpose that things, by their very nature, tend toward. Some of the neo-Platonists made the point that you could have divine causes and materialist causes, just talking about different levels of explanation.

What happens with Aquinas is very interesting. Before his time there wasn't much interaction with Aristotle, because his texts had been lost. Aquinas thoroughly absorbed Aristotle's works once they were translated into Latin, and he accepted the Aristotelian picture on this issue, with one modification. He didn't think Aristotle had a right to be talking about these purposes in nature unless a mind had given those purposes. He still saw them as final causes, not efficient causes, and thus they would be the sort of thing that modern science isn't supposed to talk about. Yet modern scientists do talk about it all the time. It's just that they have no right to, Aquinas would say, unless they're also willing to talk about an intelligent designer. Aristotle didn't want to call it design, but his view amounts to pretty much the same thing as what contemporary scientists call design when they don't want to speak of a designer. The question is whether they can get away with it if they don't believe in a designer.

Update: Mark Olson sees the main issue here as Why vs. What questions. That's not quite the idea. It's Why vs. How. Efficient causes explain how something comes about. Empedocles makes fun of those who offer divine explanations by pointing out that a bull born with one horn isn't caused in some miraculous way by a god but can be explained through normal mechanisms of nature. That's how it came about. Plutarch the neo-Platonist steps in to say that that's just the how. The why might well be a divine explanation for why those efficient causes were arranged in the way they were in order to produce a creature born as an omen. Final causes answer why, and efficient causes answer how.

Sam has a nice post in response to someone who asked her why God would give us two autistic children. I should first note that we have no idea why Isaiah is just beginning to talk as he approaches age three. Most of what we understand is largely repetitive but indistinctly enunciated. Most of it sounds like gibberish, but he might be saying things, and he might not be just repeating things but simply can't say them in a way we can understand. It may just be that the ones that sound like repetition are the only ones we can understand because they occur in a context when we've just heard the thing he's repeating. It might be autism-related, and given Ethan's diagnosis of autism it's more likely that than any one other explanation, but we have no idea. He might just be delayed in speaking with problems enunciating. He doesn't have any other indications of autism besides some signs that there might be sensory issues, and those may explain the delay in speech on their own.

She asks a few questions that people don't tend to think about, and I want to reiterate some of them but also introduce some elements that seem to me to make it a much more complicated issue. We tend to wonder why people might have bad things happen to them, but we don't wonder why good things happen. When this comes from a sense of deserving the good things, it explains why people do one and not the other. Sam says:

How often do you hear someone speculate about why God allowed them to wake up in the morning? Or why God gave them a roof over their head? Or provided them with good health and daily sustenance? Just about never. Why? Because we consider these things to be our due. If we were a little less self centered I think we'd realise that we don't deserve any of the good in our lives.

She goes on to point out that it's radical patience on God's part to spare us at all and allow things to go on long enough for people to repent and for more people to come into existence who will repent.

This has got to be the most rhetorically manipulative blog posts I've read in a long time. It's shameful that a blog purportedly about philosophy, supposedly written by professionals, could produce such a poor post, but I guess it's becoming less surprising to me over time that philosophers cast aside careful thinking when it comes to abortion and related issues almost as much as other people do [hat tip: ProLifeBlogs]. I wrote this post something like a week ago, and I decided to wait a few days to see if putting time between reading the post and posting my response would enable me to soften my language. All it's done is allow me to rewrite it, clarifying what I want to say in a more careful way. I really think a post this bad deserves a response with as harsh as what follows. If a student handed me something like this, I wouldn't just give it an F. I'd give it a zero and then wish I could have given it negative points.

You only have to read the first sentence to see how bad this is. Something's wrong with their formatting, so I can't copy and paste, and I'm not going to type out the whole (really long) sentence, so you're just going to have to follow the link. Just the first sentence does all of the following:

I'm not sure why this never occurred to me before, because it just seems obvious now that I've realized it. Open theists are constantly complaining that classical theism takes its view of God not from the Bible but from Greek philosophers. For a couple reasons why this makes no sense, see this old post. The classical theistic picture of God bears little resemblance to anything the Greeks believed.

What didn't occur to me until just now is that the open theists' picture of God really does bear a striking resemblance to some things the Greek philosophers said. Aristotle, for instance, spends a great deal of time struggling through how there can be true statements about contingent events in the future. On one interpretation, he never solved the problem, but on the most popular view he denies that such statements are even true. It's the latter picture that forms the basis of open theism. Their entire view begins with Aristotle, a Greek philosopher. Alexander of Aphrodisias, a follower of Aristotle, clearly held the view that Aristotle may have held. He doesn't just discuss truth about future contingents but even brings in foreknowledge. He makes it explicit that foreknowledge about future contingents is impossible, so the gods can't have it no matter how perfect they are.

Idealism: the Arguments

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This is the the sixth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear.

(Note: My presentation of these issues is heavily influenced by Peter van Inwagen's chapter on idealism in his Metaphysics.)

In the last post, I explained the idealist view of George Berkeley. In this post. I'll look at two arguments he gave in favor of that view and one argument against it.

One of Berkeley's primary reason for holding this view had to do with what he saw as a contradiction in the view that there are external objects. One way to reformulate his argument that I think is a little more intuitive is as follows:

A. The whiteness is a property of the paper.
B. The whiteness is a property of an idea (in my mind) of the paper.
C. Therefore, since the whiteness is a property of one thing, the paper must be just an idea (in my mind).

Berkeley's Idealism

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This is the the fifth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear.

(Note: My presentation of these issues is somewhat influenced by Peter van Inwagen's chapter on idealism in his Metaphysics. I agree with his statement that the view Berkeley develops might better be thought of as ideaism, but he's also right that since there is a traditional label for the view, it's probably best to stick with it.)

George Berkeley gives what I consider to be the most creative response to Cartesian skepticism. He argues that we do know of the ordinary objects we believe exist, because those objects are just ideas in our minds. We certainly know of those ideas. I'll save the arguments for and against his view for the next post. In this post I just want to explain what the view amounts to.



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