Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Mistakes were made

My mom likes the Corrections section of the New York Times. It's interesting to see what they got wrong – sometimes it's a reasonable mistake; sometimes you can tell what happened (e.g., garbled phonemes from the informant), and sometimes they just don't check their "facts," or even, apparently, think about what they're saying. Everybody's got their favorites, apocryphal or not. I like the one (the former, I think, or at least not at the Times) that read:
[band name] compose their music according to Christian principles. They are not, as the article stated, "unrepentant headbangers."
So, repentant headbangers, then? Good name for a band, anyway.

On Sunday they had another good one. I didn't see it, but Powerline reports for us (HT: Roger Kimball):
A headline last Sunday about a Muslim man and an Orthodox Jewish woman who are partners in two Dunkin’ Donuts stores described their religions incorrectly. The two faiths worship the same God — not different ones.
Glad we got that cleared up. Incidentally, both blog citations pour scorn on the Times for presuming to dictate theology to us, but as far as I'm concerned the issue is semantic; the theological issue is orthogonal. We've gone over this before – and of course when I say an issue is "semantic" I mean not, as most people do, that it's not important, but the very opposite. (I'm weird that way.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

D'Souza vs. Dawkins

I hereby confess to finding fascinating the "debate" between those who believe that religious people are ipso facto irrational (i.e. that they are simply subject to "wishful thinking" or "blind faith"), and their pious opponents, who believe that while they themselves are composed of rubber, atheists, in contrast, are composed of glue, with predictable results where accusations of irrationality are concerned. Even so, the prospect of hearing a debate on this issue between Richard Dawkins and Dinesh D'Souza instills in me a profound desire to punch myself repeatedly in the face. That link, I should point out, takes you not to such a debate, but instead to D'Souza's challenge ("It's time to find out whose position is truly based on reason and evidence and skepticism and science").

I only mention it now because in recent bloviations derived from (and, not coincidentally, flogging) his new opus (What's So Great About Christianity), D'Souza invokes none other than Immanuel Kant in support of his position. Naturally our pedantic pundit ties himself into knots, but they are interesting knots nonetheless, clinically speaking, so I thought we might take a look at them.

According to D'Souza, dogmatic atheists such as Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are in the grip of a fatal fallacy, one with Capital Letters:
The Fallacy of the Enlightenment is the glib assumption that human beings can continually find out more and more until eventually there is nothing more to discover. The Enlightenment Fallacy holds that human reason and science can, in principle, unmask the whole of reality. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant showed that this premise is false. In fact, he argued, that human knowledge is constrained not merely by how much reality is out there but also by the limited sensory apparatus of perception we bring to that reality.
So the idea is that "atheists, agnostics and other self-styled rationalists" literally believe that they know everything, or they will once the upstate returns come in, and that what has been or will inevitably be discovered leaves no room for rational people to indulge themselves in the narcissistic fantasy of religious faith. Such dogmatic certainty is clearly fallacious; and, in fact, not even Richard "God Delusion" Dawkins claims otherwise. We hardly need the great Immanuel Kant to tell us this.

What is actually true is this: a) what science has already discovered, while indeed incomplete, leaves no room for rational people to indulge themselves in certain narcissistic fantasies often associated with religious faith; and b) far from being constituted by such inanities, religious faith is better off without them. Of course, to say this is not to end the debate (Dawkins would counter with an invocation of the No True Scotsman fallacy), but to begin it (i.e., a real one). My point in mentioning this here is instead to contrast it with D'Souza's response. As required by his polemical strategy, D'Souza has his naturalist flatly deny the existence of anything beyond our ken, while he himself is open-minded enough to allow the possibility. Typical debating tactic, but again, not exactly, well, enlightening (plus he's got stones calling other people glib).

The natural opponent of dogmatism is skepticism. (You're so sure that _______? Well, think again.) It is for this purpose – to counter fallacious Enlightenment dogmatism – that D'Souza turns to Kant. At first it's not clear why. If we want a skeptic to counter dogmatic overreaching, why Kant? Why not, say, Hume, or even Descartes? The idea that we can know reality whole is Hume's very target; indeed, it is rigorously empiricistic skepticism rather than naive dogmatism that most readily characterizes the scientific enterprise. All that reason demands, say Enlightenment types, is that evidence be submitted for claims about reality; and as Carl Sagan liked to say, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." This response to religious claims, rather than dogmatically affirming their negations ("we know there isn't anything non-material"), simply denies that they have been proven ("we don't know that there is"). This allows the religious person to parry the dogmatic-atheist thrust, even if to make a thrust of his own (whether of the form "here's your evidence" or "here's why I don't need any") requires some further work. Still, if our concern is to get scientists to acknowledge limits on their knowledge, Hume would seem to be the natural place to go.

Of course, Hume himself was a notorious atheist, or at least a freethinker of some sort; plus there's that stuff about "committing [metaphysics] to the flames, for it is nothing but sophistry and illusion." This renders him somewhat unappealing as an authority for the "greatness" of Christianity (unless you're playing the "even X admits ... " card). On the other hand, Descartes's skepticism is too sophomorically goofy to pass the giggle test in a debate involving non-philosophers (what if we were, like, in the Matrix, man?). Kant, however, is the very model of Protestant probity, and a recognized philosophical titan, with a firmly deontological moral theory to boot. (Not only that, as we'll see, his complex, poorly explicated views make it fairly easy to exploit his writings for rhetorical purposes. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.) Still, for deflecting dogmatic atheism, and thereby making room for the possibility of theism, it seems that some sort of skepticism would be required.

Now of course the problem with skepticism is our unshakeable conviction that we do in fact have real, objective knowledge of the external world. Naturally Kant believes this too, so it's not surprising to hear him say just that (this is the force of his "empirical realism"). D'Souza uses this to concede knowledge of a sort to science, thus adroitly cutting off a possible counterattack: as the moderate voice of sweet reason, he's a modern scientific fellow, neither a loony pre-modern fundamentalist nor a daffy postmodern relativist. Remember, all he needs for his burden-of-proof move is that such knowledge be conceded to be essentially incomplete, not that it be false or uncertain. But again, we hardly need Kant for this; this is standard-issue empirical skepticism, straight out of Hume (or common sense; after all, we'll never be omniscient). So why is D'Souza bringing Kant into it? Watch and learn.
It is essential to recognize that Kant isn't diminishing the importance of experience or what he called the phenomenal world. That world is very important, because it is the only one our senses and reason have access to. It is entirely rational for us to believe in this phenomenal world and to use science and reason to discover its operating principles. But Kant contended that science and reason apply to the world of phenomena, of things as they are experienced by us. Science and reason cannot penetrate what Kant termed the noumena: things as they are in themselves.
Perhaps for lack of an editor, but in any case obscurely, Kant does indeed speak in a number of places of phenomena and noumena as distinct ontological realms. As the first move in his rhetorical conjuring trick, D'Souza shamelessly palms this Kantian distinction off as the Platonic one between a life of mere deception in the Cave and true knowledge of a timeless reality which transcends and underlies human experience. Unlike Kant, Plato believed that the latter was to some degree possible for us through the philosophical use of reason. Kant is concerned instead to establish the limitations on reason; for him, belief in a Platonic realm is the result of "transcendental illusion."

Of course, D'Souza too is concerned with the limits of reason; but his limits are less Kantian than they are Cartesian. Unlike Plato, Kant and Descartes (in his skeptical mode, at least) both deny that reason can provide any knowledge of a realm "beyond appearances." The Cartesian skeptic limits our knowledge to sensory appearances, leaving us in doubt about what (if anything) lies beyond, while Kant's talk of "noumena" seemingly allows a blank affirmation of the existence of that mysterious realm. Thus the appeal to Kant instead, which sets up the theistic punch line to come. For all that's been said so far, though, the only consequence of our "limited sensory apparatus" is the skeptical one we cannot simply rule out dogmatically the existence of a "supersensible" reality on the basis of our empirical knowledge to date. After all, that point constitutes D'Souza's criticism of "self-satisfied atheism" – that it is precisely by so doing that dogmatic materialists rule out the possibility of rational (i.e., non-irrational) religious faith. His conclusion, however, is significantly stronger.
[T]he new atheists and self-styled "brights" can do their strutting, but Kant has exposed their ignorant boast that atheism operates on a higher intellectual plane than theism. Rather, as Kant showed, reason must know its limits in order to be truly reasonable. The atheist foolishly presumes that reason is in principle capable of figuring out all that there is, while the theist at least knows that there is a reality greater than, and beyond, that which our senses and our minds can ever apprehend.
So dogmatic claims of (potentially) universal knowledge constitute an "ignorant boast," and skepticism rightly cuts them down to size by pointing to necessary limits on our knowledge. Fine; but in D'Souza's hands this hard-won knowledge that doxastic modesty is warranted – that our knowledge is limited to (as Kant puts it) the objects of possible experience – is magically transmuted into positive warrant for supposed knowledge of a distinct transcendent realm. Once this slide is made, Kant's criticism of metaphysics licenses a naked affirmation of metaphysical doctrines of the most unashamedly "pre-critical" kind:
Kant's philosophical vision is entirely congruent with the teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity. It is a shared doctrine of those religions that the empirical world we humans inhabit is not the only world there is. Ours is a world of appearances only in which we see things in a limited and distorted way, "through a glass darkly," as the apostle Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians 13:12. Ours is a transient world that is dependent on a higher, timeless reality. That reality is of a completely different order from anything we know, it constitutes the only permanent reality there is, and it sustains our world and presents it to our senses. Christianity teaches that while reason can point to the existence of this higher domain, this is where reason stops: it cannot on its own investigate or comprehend that domain.
Now we have our answer. We needed the skeptical moment ('scuse my Hegelian) in Kant to combat dogmatic scientism, but that only gets us a wash: neither side can prove its claims. To complete the slide to a positive argument for supernaturalism, we need Kant's positive reaction to Humean skepticism. However, (as Kant shows!) a reaction to skepticism need not be a recoil into dogmatism. Kant indeed restores empirical knowledge (even of scientific laws, which it seemed Humean inductive skepticism had threatened) in the face of the acknowledged limitations of our senses, the significance of which Kant believes both skeptics and traditional metaphysicians misconstrue. But D'Souza goes farther: the Cartesian epistemic limitations of our senses (now curiously identified with "reason") – taken together with Kant's supposed demonstration of the existence of a world beyond them – leave the field open for knowledge to be provided by a distinct faculty not subject to the relevant limitations, one which, in providing knowledge of this transcendent realm, ipso facto shows things as they really are ("face to face," as Paul puts it), in a way that "merely" empirical science cannot. (I qualify this accusation a bit below.)

[UPDATE: I don't mean to imply that D'Souza gets Paul right here, or that Paul is indeed endorsing the Platonic picture. See the comments below for more about Paul.]

In other words, D'Souza's alleged "congruence" of Kant's transcendental idealism with traditional religious doctrine (so construed) is not in the Critique at all (Schopenhauer, maybe). In D'Souza's version, that "congruence" is instead a doctrine of full-on Platonist metaphysics with a Cartesian epistemological twist, complete with a characteristic equivocation on whether we have any real knowledge (resulting from equivocation on the nature of "appearances", to complement that above on "reason"). Even if it were Kant's view – and it's true that this was once a standard reading of Kant (one to which my undergraduate Kant teacher impatiently responded with "come on, read the book a little bit") – those who do attribute this view to Kant have near-universally taken its equivocation about knowledge to constitute what is obviously wrong with it. Here's Kant scholar Henry Allison on the matter:
The most basic and prevalent objection stemming from the standard picture is that by limiting knowledge to appearance, that is, to the subjective realm of representations, Kant effectively undermines the possibility of any genuine knowledge at all. In short, far from providing an antidote to Humean skepticism, as was his intent, Kant is seen as a Cartesian skeptic malgré lui. Some version of this line of objection is advanced by virtually every proponent of the standard picture, including Strawson. [For example,] Prichard construes Kant's distinction between appearances and things in themselves in terms of the classic example of perceptual illusion: the straight stick that appears bent to an observer when it is immersed in water. Given this analogy, he has little difficulty in reducing to absurdity Kant's doctrine that we know only appearances. His [...] main point is simply that this claim is taken to mean that we can know things only as they "are for us" or "seem to us" (in virtue of the distortion imposed by our perceptual forms), not as they "really are." Since to know something, according to Prichard, just means to know it as it really is, it follows that for Kant we cannot really know anything at all. Clearly, such a conclusion amounts to a reductio of the Kantian theory. (Kant's Transcendental Idealism: An Interpretation and Defense, 1983 ed., pp. 5-6, my emphasis)
If science discovers the truth about empirical reality, as all parties claim to admit, then we cannot take this reality qua reality and stick it back beyond the veil in the Platonic manner, let alone Cartesianize it into in-principle unknowability by "reason" (i.e. even by philosophy). Such epistemic nihilism is the very "scandal for philosophy" Kant is determined to overcome.

The essential point is that the incompleteness of our knowledge has nothing to do with its truth. Of course incompleteness is all D'Souza needs for his insipid anti-dogmatic conclusion. But, again, that wouldn't get him what he really wants, which is an a priori demonstration of the existence of a supernatural realm accessible only by "faith." I scare-quote that word because D'Souza here indulges the popular notion (shared, alas, by many of his scientific-rationalist interlocutors) of religious faith as a distinct mode of epistemic access to reality, differing from the senses only in being, well, extra-sensory, like ESP. In fact, that's exactly how he presents the issue. A tape recorder, he says, captures only sound and knows nothing of visible reality; so "[w]hat makes us think that there is no reality [which] lies beyond our perception, reality that simply cannot be apprehended by our five senses?". For D'Souza, what distinguishes the "intellectual plane" of theism from its rival can't amount only to a boring agnosticism about the unknowable; instead, once open to the possibility not of unknowable, but of extra-sensory reality, we may find ourselves presented with as yet unimagined experiences, with accompanying convictions of contact with ultimate reality. (Of course he doesn't say this, but that's the only way to make sense of his position.)

Again, the point about our cognitive limitations would be okay if all it entailed were the triviality that we cannot know that there's nothing out there that we simply can't know about; but then D'Souza spoils that point by conflating it with his Cartesian appeal to perceptual illusion, where what we're missing is not additional knowledge, but actual knowledge of the really real. This allows him to construe faith's independence of the five fallible bodily senses as showing it to be of another epistemic order entirely. The "supersensible" can thus be equated, as required, with the "supernatural," and that with the otherwise inaccessible "reality," and this, finally, with truth itself. Now of course we know that there is a truth about what we believe (that is, that our beliefs are true or false, the meaningful ones anyway), whether it is known to us or not. So what started out as a wash (science can't say whether or not there is a supernatural realm, so it's not irrational to regard the question as at least open, in spite of the methodological materialism of modern science) is now changed, in an instant as it were, to its being irrational to believe that there isn't such a thing – and thus not (at least potentially) to have faith. But of course it hardly takes religious faith to believe that our beliefs have truth values, and only a conjuring trick can make it look like it does – a conjuring trick in which Kant had no part. For Kant, no additional quasi-sensory modality can get us knowledge of things as they are in themselves, so D'Souza's Cartesian talk of tape recorders oblivious to vision is not at all to the point.

D'Souza will reply that he has been careful not to claim knowledge for faith. Kant's argument, he says, "is entirely secular: It does not employ any religious vocabulary, nor does it rely on any kind of faith. But in showing the limits of reason, Kant's philosophy "opens the door to faith," as the philosopher himself noted." He's been careful all right; but the question is not whether it takes faith to "open the door" to faith, but instead what faith does when it comes through that door. And of course the whole point of shoehorning Platonism into the Kantian argument is that the religious person is thereby entitled to a doctrine that "[o]urs is a transient world that is dependent on a higher, timeless reality [which] is of a completely different order from anything we know, it constitutes the only permanent reality there is, and it sustains our world and presents it to our senses." It's true that as religious doctrine goes, this is pretty abstract (if also highly speculative!); but the only way consistently to abjure knowledge of a realm "beyond reason" is to say, with the East, that "the way that can be spoken of is not the way," and respond to any attempt to say more (i.e. add any content whatsoever to our doctrine) with a smack upside the head. As he is committed to a particularly doctrine-laden version of neo-platonism, your typical Christian is in no position to do this. For him, he "knows by faith" about all kinds of things. With respect to knowledge claims, the bumper sticker "God said it; I believe it; that settles it" is only an extreme version of religious dogmatism (that is, cognitivism).

If, as the religious person believes, we have experience of the divine, then Kant's limitation of knowledge to possible experience does not touch religious belief at all. That may seem to defend it against Kant's strictures, as required; but in fact what it means is that Kant's argument here is completely impotent for D'Souza's purposes. The Kantian connection of the intelligibility of belief to possible experience means that in the relevant sense, both religious belief (which if true amounts to knowledge) and empirical belief are on a par, as being knowledge of "appearances" rather than a "transcendent" realm. Only a further equivocation on the notion of "belief" (and the above one on "transcendent") can disguise this. Essentially, D'Souza wants to get for free – from the nature of reason itself – what only further detailed explanation of the nature of faith and knowledge (or, in Hegelian again, Glauben und Wissen) can accomplish. For his argument to work, faith needs both to supply knowledge unavailable otherwise, on the one hand, and on the other, not to supply knowledge at all. (Of course, Kant himself, as the author of Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, has plenty more to say, but as I haven't read that book, I can't comment; but that title sure is suggestive, isn't it? Maybe someone more knowledgeable than I will help out ...)

I mentioned this earlier (plus it should be obvious by now), but it bears repeating. My intention is not to side with Dawkins here. Of course I agree with D'Souza's weaker claim, i.e., that religious faith is (religious believers are) not ipso facto irrational. I merely take issue with his crude and tendentious (and yet ingeniously slippery!) exploitation of subtle philosophical issues in order to score debate points. I see also that I have helped myself, toward the end there, to my own idiosyncratic views about belief qua doxastic commitment, among other things. Much more would have to be said, about faith and knowledge both; but such a real discussion could only begin by rejecting the very idea of this pointless debate.

Breaking news I: D'Souza will debate (not Dawkins, but) Dennett at Tufts on 11/30. Dare I hope that Kant will not be mentioned?

Breaking news II: D'Souza has just unloaded a new, well, load, about how of course we have free will ("I can knock [my] coffee mug onto the carpet if I choose") and how this proves the existence of the immaterial soul. Maybe later, eh?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Gobble gobble

A feast awaits you at the latest Philosophers' Carnival. Dig in here.

Incidentally, the link to this edition from Leiter Reports sports a disclaimer to the effect that linking to it does not mean that he thinks all the posts are good. Which ones do you think brought that on?

Saturday, November 17, 2007


Technorati Profile

I dare you

If you click here, you will be taken to a Flickr photoset. One commenter tells us that upon viewing these photos, his/her brain "alternately exploded and melted."

This can mean only one thing.

Yes, it's a (snarkily annotated) photo tour of the Creation Museum in Kentucky! With an accompanying snarky essay!

Toughened by years of exposure to the most ridiculous philosophical doctrines imaginable, my brain actually held out for some time. This photo is the one that finally compelled it to implode. (And compare this one.) Holy frijoles!

Go on. You know you want to.

[HT: Pharyngula]

Thursday, November 08, 2007

McDowell (and Cavell) on criteria and skepticism

The other day, Currence reported on Ed Witherspoon's talk entitled "Wittgensteinian Criteria and the Problem of Other Minds." In his post, he wondered
how Witherspoon's discussion of Wittgenstein on criteria and whether he was a McDowellian or a Cavellian -- or whether it makes a substantial difference if they're essentially the same -- ties in at all to the discussion of two kinds of skepticism, except that Witherspoon thought Wittgenstein took himself to be addressing both kinds of skepticism.
Here are some thoughts of mine on that subject which I hope will be of some use. (You should probably read his post first, if you haven't already.)

Let me start with the intuitive motivation for skepticism. When the evidence points to something, the natural thing to do (the everyday thing, the default thing) is to believe it ( = take it to be true). If one finds the evidence insufficient, one suspends judgment; but that's not philosophical skepticism. The philosophical skeptic is the guy who says "sure, I don't have any problem with your evidence – it looks that way to me too, so I'm not asking for more or better evidence – but still, we might be wrong; so we better not say we know." In other words, we are fallible, in that perfectly compelling appearances can cause us to believe falsely; the skeptical conclusion is that in every case, we cannot know if this is one of those times, so we must therefore suspend judgment on the truth or falsity of (possibly "mere") appearances, no matter how compelling they may be.

In addressing this "scandal for philosophy," Kant diagnosed it as a variant of a much deeper problem. If subject and object are so radically distinct as to threaten the former's knowledge of the latter, as the Cartesian insists, it seems that this metaphysical gap threatens our ability not only to know, but even to think about the world. This "Kantian skepticism," as Conant terms it (as we will see if that darn book of his ever comes out), addresses the Cartesian confidence in the possibility of contentful yet radically false "appearances". Turning it around, we may say that if we are in close enough contact with the world to form contentful thoughts about how it might be, then the Cartesian epistemological scruples are pointless. You may of course bite the bullet and try to deny that your thoughts have content; but then why should I listen to your self-admittedly meaningless babble?

In the contemporary context, after the linguistic turn, we speak not simply of contentful thought but also of meaningful assertion. This is where "criteria" come in. The idea of appealing to criteria in replying to epistemological skepticism is to add to the original reason for belief (i.e. that the evidence points to the truth of P) the idea that to take P as true in such situations just is to use the term correctly. After all, generally speaking, that's how we learn the term in the first place: in the (apparent) presence of a yellow banana, nanny says "look at the nice yellow banana!", and we say "yehw bana," and so on (this is not to commit oneself to the "Augustinian" picture of the opening sections of Philosophical Investigations, but to the manifest facts which make that picture seem obligatory). Once we have learned the relevant terms, to withhold assent to "there's a yellow banana" in such situations is not to show virtuous epistemic scruple, as the skeptic has it, but instead to show vicious semantic incompetence. That's the thought anyway (and there is indeed something like this in Wittgenstein; the question is what exactly).

However, as both Cavell and McDowell point out, it would be wrong to suggest that "criteria" get you across the skeptical gap. When we answer the skeptical challenge, saying that we (do too) know that P because the criterion is satisfied, there are two ways in which the epistemic chain may yet break. First, the criteria for asserting P might actually apply, but fail to entail P; or the criterion indeed entails P, but we cannot know whether it actually applies here (that is, whether the "appearance" that P is veridical). We cannot have both, on pain of dogmatism. Our manifest fallibility is as undeniable a fact as any.

Where does this leave us? Putting Wittgenstein himself to one side for now, let's compare Cavell and McDowell. According to Currence, Witherspoon suggested at the talk that the two views differ mainly in a terminological difference between them concerning the term "criterion." McDowell takes the satisfaction of criteria for X to entail the truth of X, but allows that we can take criteria to be satisfied even when they are not, while Cavell goes the other way: criteria themselves can mislead us, but we can and do know when they obtain. In any case, both reject the "criterial theorist's" view that criteria take one across the skeptical gap. So they agree; but even so, this difference reflects an important difference in emphasis and strategy, in explaining which I think we can make helpful reference to the various types of skepticism, on the one hand, and that confusing talk about types of doubt (and whether LW was a "fallibilist") on the other. In any case that's what I'll try to do here.

Let's start with McDowell. One of McDowell's consistent concerns – becoming more explicit in his recent work on Kant and Hegel – has been to reject the Cartesian metaphysical opposition between subject and object, which is the source and stay of the corresponding epistemological skepticism. In Mind and World (MW), pressing the "Kantian skeptic" line (though not in those terms), he insists, following Wittgenstein, that the content of our concepts is not confined to the subjective side of the Cartesian gap, but instead "[does] not stop anywhere short of the fact" [PI §95]. In contemporary terms (MW p. 27):
[T]here is no ontological gap between the sort of thing one can mean, or generally the sort of thing one can think, and the sort of thing that can be the case. When one thinks truly, what one thinks is what is the case. [...] Of course thought can be distanced from the world by being false, but there is no distance from the world implicit in the very idea of thought.
The idea, then, is that when we turn to the more fundamental semantic consequences of radical subject-object dualism, the familiar fact of human fallibility no longer even seems to have the epistemological significance the skeptic claims it does. This can thus help us resist a perennial philosophical temptation, viz., to metaphysicalize that innocent epistemic gap and identify it with that same picture's supposed ontological gap between subject and object (thus reinforcing it, as well as the resulting skepticism). If we do this, when we turn back to epistemology, the Cartesian argument "effects a transition from sheer fallibility (which might be registered in a 'Pyrrhonian' scepticism) to a 'veil of ideas' scepticism" ["Criteria, Defeasibility, and Knowledge" [CDK] p. 386n).

Here's how that works. The skeptical argument gets its traction from the idea that deceptive appearance and veridical manifestation are phenomenologically indistinguishable, and thus that "one's experiential intake—what one embraces within the scope of one's consciousness—must be the same in both kinds of case" [CDK p. 386] That "highest common factor" [HCF] between the deceptive and veridical cases is thus essentially incapable of providing evidence for one or the other. The difference between the two cases is something extra: the actual connection to the world which makes the veridical case veridical. But ex hypothesi we cannot tell which is which; the world's contribution to the veridical case, on this view, is "blankly external" to our experience.

But as we have seen, McDowell disputes the idea that the content of our experience must be construed as an HCF in this way. When I lack an actual connection to the world, it's not that my contentful perceptual experience was deceptive, but instead that I haven't had a perceptual experience at all, only an illusion of one. (I have conflated them here, but as I read it, the connection to the somewhat different linguistic version of this thought is this. My illusion of perceptual experience can result in my having a mistaken but contentful thought if on other occasions I have indeed had (veridical) perceptual experiences in the course of learning and using the concepts which make it up. The virtue of McDowell's focus on the perceptual-experience aspect instead of the contentful-concept aspect of his picture is that the latter, like Davidson's holistic view, makes it look as if it is only global skepticism which it renders ineffective: this thought can be a contentful mistake only if not all of them are. That is of course true too; but the perceptual-experience version is more powerful – and its metaphysical import more directly anti-dualistic – in that it applies even to single cases.)

McDowell's alternative conception of perceptual experience is "disjunctive":
[A]n appearance that such-and-such is the case can be either a mere appearance or the fact that such-and-such is the case making itself perceptually manifest to someone. [CDK p. 387]
I either have a perceptual connection to the world or I do not. Let's say it seems to me that I see a cat. Either I do, and a cat has manifested itself in my experience – a veridical appearance – or there is no cat to be seen. In neither case is there an epistemological or metaphysical "intermediary" (either standing between me and the cat, on the one hand, or disguising its actual absence, on the other), in the manner of the HCF.

When a fact is perceptually manifest to one, saying or believing that it is is thus guaranteed to be true, and thus, in the skeptical context, a "criterion" of truth (though of course we may not take advantage of this fact: McDowell is careful to identify manifestation with the availability of knowledge, not its achievement, as even a veridical appearance may not lead to belief (perhaps because of skeptical scruple!)). Of course the skeptic, suspicious of this talk of epistemic "guarantees," makes the natural objection, as if McDowell were trying to sweep our fallibility under the rug in order to meet the skeptical challenge. This distinction, he says, doesn't help; the fact remains that we can't tell when we are deceived.

But McDowell's concern is not to deny epistemic fallibility, but to render it epistemologically, and thus metaphysically, uninteresting. His strategy is thus inherently anti-skeptical, affirming knowledge in the face of skeptical doubt. The skeptic can extract a concession that there remains a sense in which we cannot know when we are deceived (after all, to deny this is to deny that deception is even possible). Even where we are most sure, he says, we must leave room for doubt. But if this be doubt, it is an uninteresting – or perhaps "weak" or "imaginary" or "possible" – doubt, a mere footnote to our firm affirmation of belief. I am certain – beyond present doubt – that I am sitting before the fire at my computer; but every such belief is corrigible, in that I grant the conceptual, if not actual (or, as some pragmatists say, "serious") possibility of error. Give me more evidence, and I may come to change my view (so while I may be completely certain, I'm not "absolutely" certain – like I care about that anyway). That's all the "doubt" that human fallibility gets you – and it's not enough to underwrite a seriously skeptical position.

Currence reports that here was some discussion of this point at Witherspoon's talk:
Witherspoon did make a really odd claim, however, that everyone (Conant, Finkelstein, grad students) picked on during the discussion after the talk: Wittgenstein was a fallibilist. He said this in the context of a distinction he drew between "weak doubt" and "strong doubt". He switched between "weak doubt" and "imaginable doubt". This seemed massively confused to everyone; if being a fallibilist means no more than recognizing one has been wrong about things before, then every reasonable person is a fallibilist, and the claim is uninteresting. If, however, being a fallibilist means something substantial -- and I think it does, something along the lines of making intelligible assertions like 'I am justified in believing x, but I could be wrong' -- then Wittgenstein is about the last person I'd want to say was a fallibilist.

Conant made this point through a humorous example in which someone doubts that the room is not safe, saying, "This room is not safe!"; we ask, "Why isn't the room safe?", and they respond, "I don't know, it's just not!"; we wouldn't say they've offered a doubt at all. "Chicken Little worries" do not fall under the genus "doubt", and it is a sham to call them "weak" or "imaginary" or "possible" doubts.
My first reaction to this was that I don't see why anyone (anyone in that room, anyway) should be surprised if Wittgenstein thinks it important to stress something which "every reasonable person" believes, and which would thus constitute an "uninteresting" claim. On some views, that's all he ever does. But let's let that go.

Conant's Chicken Little example looks weird to me. (I assume that there is a typo here, and that it should be "doubts that the room is safe," not "not safe".) If someone says "This room is not safe!", he is indeed doubting that the room is safe; but he's also claiming that it isn't, which is not a skeptical thing to do. Chicken Little acted on his belief, insisting that the King be notified that the sky was falling. We have no difficulty attributing belief to him (and thus actual doubt about our safety). In fact his problem is not skepticism but gullibility, and our proper response to him is itself skeptical (i.e. garden-variety rather than philosophical): his evidence – a conk on the bean (or "I don't know, it just is") – is insufficient for such a remarkable claim. So Conant is right that this shouldn't count as "doubt" in the relevant sense; but that's only because it's a belief and thus not relevant to the issue of skeptical doubt. In particular, that's not what I take to be the point of talk of "weak" or "imaginary" or "possible" doubt.

The more relevant case, it seems, is this. I say, or assume, that the room is safe, but our friend demurs. Unlike Chicken Little, though, he is perfectly happy to remain here with us. Practically speaking, he says, the evidence is sufficient to warrant staying; yet he prefers (he says) to suspend judgment on the truth of "the room is safe," for familiar skeptical reasons: if we were deceived, and poison gas were about to seep from the ventilation, killing us all, things would look exactly as they do now. There's no evidence that this will happen, so there's no reason to leave. But we cannot claim knowledge that the room is safe.

This is what Peirce calls "paper doubt": philosophically motivated (e.g. Cartesian) demurral, conspicuously not backed up by action. You say you are in doubt; but you not only show no intention to leave the room (as you would if you were actually in doubt about your safety), but you're not even trying to allay your alleged doubt through inquiry. In claiming to doubt, you are simply registering your fallibility and drawing what seems to you to be the proper philosophical conclusion. But purported doubt (or belief), which has no connection with inquiry and deliberation is not doubt (belief) at all. The problem is not that the "doubter" cannot support his purported doubt, but that given his actions there's no reason, beyond his mere assertion, to attribute it to him at all. So the Chicken Little case is not germane. No-one denies that C. L. actually believes the sky is falling (and thus doubts that we are safe); it's the best way to explain his actions, including his urgent desire to see the King.

"Weak doubt" is not a good word for the bare concession of fallibility, but there's nothing wrong with "possible" as opposed to "actual" doubt (again, pragmatists oppose "theoretical" to "serious" possibility of error; it is when the former aspires to the latter condition that they (we) expose it as "paper doubt"). As for what Wittgenstein thought, that's a thorny issue. His reflections on these and related matters in On Certainty are inconclusive at best. I do agree, though, that simply to state that he was a "fallibilist" (not that that simple view is Witherspoon's) is highly misleading. But I won't get into it here.

I've already gone on for ages, so let me defer extended discussion of Cavell's position. I'll just finish the comparison with McDowell re: skepticism and criteria. As we saw, Cavell too concedes the failure of criteria to bridge the skeptical gap. But his philosophical strategy is very different from McDowell (even while sharing a great deal, in Wittgenstein and out). I quote from the back cover of Richard Eldridge's Cavell volume in the "Contemporary Philosophy in Focus" series:
At the core of [Cavell's] thought is the view that skepticism is not a theoretical position to be refuted by philosophical theory [i.e. "constructive philosophy"] but a reflection of the fundamental limits of human knowledge of the self, of others, and of the external world that must be accepted. Developing the resources of ordinary language philosophy and the discourse of thinkers as diverse as Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Thoreau, and Emerson, Cavell has explored the ineliminability of skepticism in philosophy, literature, drama, and the movies.
It's a good collection (check the link for an irresistible used price!), but unfortunately there's no article devoted to Cavell's views on skepticism in particular. Anyway, where McDowell as well as Cavell grants human fallibility (where the "criterial theorists" had no room for it, as the skeptic shows), the former shrugs it off as uninteresting, on the way to reaffirming our metaphysical and epistemological connections to the world, while the latter instead allows it to bring in its train the skeptical point about fundamental limitations on our knowledge, famously granting "the truth in skepticism," i.e. that our relation to the world "may not be one of knowing – or at least what we think of as knowing." So the skeptic wins; but then the victory turns to ashes from a Cartesian point of view, as Cavell proceeds to reinterpret its significance profoundly. So while he and McDowell may not easily be seen to agree on doctrine, or even on Wittgenstein interpretation, their views may yet be seen as helpfully complementary.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

What about "The Twit"?

Yesterday's post, about the archaic terms for various levels of mental deficiency, put me in mind of one of the funniest books I've ever seen. It's called The Book of Sequels, with excerpts from, or promotions for, everything from Brideshead Revisited Revisited to Pride and Extreme Prejudice. Here's the blurb (featuring, as do many of the books, appropriate cover art) for the latter:
The action-packed sequel to Pride and Prejudice introduced a new Bennet sister, "Dirty" Harriet, who won the hearts of Jane Austen fans by forestalling an insult from Elizabeth Bennet's old nemesis, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, with a cool "I have no objection, your ladyship, to your proceeding, since, by so doing, you shall render my afternoon quite agreeable."
Naturally, the sequel I was reminded of here was that to The Idiot. In fact, as the ad tells us, Dostoyevsky wrote no fewer than nineteen such sequels, and for a limited time only, you may subscribe to The American Sequel Society's series, starting with two representative volumes, and receiving a new volume every month. If you decide to cancel, you may return The Imbecile and keep The Fathead absolutely free! Here's the complete list:
The Idiot I: The Idiot
The Idiot II: The Imbecile
The Idiot III: The Moron
The Idiot IV: The Cretin
The Idiot V: The Lamebrain
The Idiot VI: The Dimbulb
The Idiot VII: The Nitwit
The Idiot VIII: The Fathead
The Idiot IX: The Numbskull
The Idiot X: The Dumb Bunny
The Idiot XI: The Yo-Yo
The Idiot XII: The Dolt
The Idiot XIII: The Clod
The Idiot XIV: The Chump
The Idiot XV: The Sap
The Idiot XVI: The Dunce
The Idiot XVII: The Boob
The Idiot XVIII: The Dope
The Idiot XIX: The Ninny
The Idiot XX: The Nincompoop
Interestingly, the first three titles follow the official categories from low to high, as I explained yesterday: idiot, imbecile, moron. Of course, in Dostoyevsky's time those terms, so construed, were not anachronistic.

By the way, the amendment passed, but only by 59 percent to 41. That looks crazy – who would bother to vote no? But what they think happened is that a lot of people voted the same way on all five questions (there were Republican signs saying "vote no on all questions"). That (the sign anyway) makes a bit of sense; it's easier to say (or remember) "vote no on all" than "vote no on numbers 1, 2, 3, and 5; 4 sounds okay". Of course, if you bothered to read the thing, you can see it doesn't raise your taxes.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Just be glad there isn't a Later Bedtime Party

Today was of course the Day of the Solemn Yearly Festival of Choosing our Leaders and Deciding Important Questions Concerning Our Governance. Not too many people paid attention to the Festival this year, as the Leaders to be chosen were on the order of County Freeholder and the like (what is a "freeholder" anyway?). In the province in which I reside, one of the I.Q.C.O.G. to be decided was the following:
Constitutional Amendment Concerning the Right to Vote for Certain Persons

Shall the amendment of Article II, Section I, paragraph 6 of the Constitution, agreed to by the Legislature, revising the current constitutional language concerning denial of the right to vote by deleting the phrase "idiot or insane person" and providing instead that a "person who has been adjudicated by a court of competent jurisdiction to lack the capacity to understand the act of voting" shall not enjoy the right of suffrage, be adopted?
In case that wasn't clear enough, here's the accompanying Interpretive Statement on the ballot (which of course I have here because they mail out copies of the ballot beforehand, so you don't have to stand there reading it):
Approval of this amendment concerning the denial of the right to vote would delete the phrase "idiot or insane person" and replace that phrase with "person who has been adjudicated by a court of competent jurisdiction to lack the capacity to understand the act of voting" in describing those persons who shall be denied the right to vote.
I imagine it would. That was in fact the impression I had gotten from the text of the amendment itself. But there's more:
The phrase "idiot or insane person" is outdated, vague, offensive to many, and may be subject to misinterpretation. This constitutional amendment acknowledges that individuals with cognitive or emotional disabilities may otherwise be capable of making decisions in the voting booth and that their right of self-determination should be respected and protected in this regard. The amendment only denies the right of suffrage to those individuals determined by a court, on a case-by-case basis, to lack the capacity to understand the act of voting.
That second sentence is has a slight whiff of political correctness about it; but the first one is well said, and I was happy to vote for this amendment with great confidence that it will pass. Interestingly, though, on consulting the dictionary afterwards I found that the word is more outdated than it is vague (or even offensive, in its original meaning). For definition 1 is quite specific; an idiot is
a mentally deficient person with an intelligence quotient of less than 25; person mentally equal or inferior to a child two years old: idiot is the lowest classification of mental deficiency, below imbecile and moron.
An imbecile, apparently, has IQ 25-50, equivalent to a child of 3-8; while a moron has IQ 50-75, equivalent to a child of 8-12. So if you wanted to insult a moron, you'd call him an imbecile, and to really insult him (or the imbecile), you'd call him an idiot. I'm not sure what to be impressed with more: that they thought they could get so precise about it, that these words, which we all use interchangeably, are actually tied to these classifications, or, more specifically, that those who wrote the Constitution of my province thought that while it was perfectly fine to allow mental 3-year-olds the right to vote, we really have to draw the line at the idea of idiots voting.

All kidding aside, I do think that some people should indeed be denied the right to vote on these grounds (lest, for example, they be exploited by well-meaning relatives); but clearly case-by-case is the way to go.

Incidentally, take a look at the etymologies of these words. Moron comes from the Greek word (moros) for "foolish," while imbecile comes from the Latin word for "weak." Fair enough; but check out idiot:
OFr. idiot, an idiot; L. idiota, an ignorant, common person; Gr. idiotes, one without professional knowledge, an ignorant, common person, from idiousthai, to make one's own, from idios one's own, peculiar.
So "idiots" are those who have spurned (or cannot but spurn), well, "higher education" in favor of their own idiosyncratic ideas, that is, a set of ideas "of their own mixture." Boy, if that made you ineligible to vote, presidential campaigns would be very different from the way they are now. (Not that the results would necessarily be better, mind you!)

UPDATE: Right after writing this, it occurred to me: if you only needed to have a mental age of 3 in order to be considered qualified to vote, then why is the voting age 18? Maybe we should judge that on a case-by-case basis too.

Another reason why this mental age determination method isn't so great: I was a fairly precocious child; but in the 1968 election, when my mental age was much greater than 3, my reason for supporting Humphrey for the nomination over his rivals (after the assassination of RFK; my parents were Eugene McCarthy people) was basically that I thought it was cool that his initials were H.H.H. On the other hand, very many supposedly competent people voted for his opponent in the fall; and we know how that turned out.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Genius recognized

Here's another of those darn lists. This time it's the top 100 living geniuses. It's not worth taking seriously – Steven Hawking, at #7, is beaten out by Matt Groening at #4, and topping the list is the guy who discovered LSD – but it's kind of interesting. Naturally one wonders which philosophers are on it. I won't quibble with Chomsky (#32, tied with Prince, among others) as either belonging there nor as being called a philosopher; but if Richard Dawkins (#20, tied with Rupert Murdoch) is a philosopher, then so is Brian Eno (#15). Other than those two, only two other listees were philosophers, and you'll NEVER guess, so I'll tell you: Annette Baier (#72, tied with film composers John Williams (bleah) and Hans Zimmer), and Alastair Hannay (#91), the Kierkegaard scholar. How about that.