Sunday, December 16, 2012

Cartesian Language

In Part 1, Article 53 of his Principles of Philosophy, Descartes argues that extension is the primary attribute that constitutes the nature of body, i.e., corporeal substance. But he continues later in Part 2, Article 11 that there is no real difference between space and corporeal substance. Why? Because that which we normally conceive as space is also principally constituted by extension. His argument goes as follows. Imagine some corporeal body such as a stone. Now imagine leaving out everything we know to be non-essential to the nature of a stone: exclude its hardness, exclude its color, exclude its heaviness, exclude cold and heat and all other qualities, either because they are not thought of as being in the stone, or because if they change, the stone is not on that account reckoned to have lost its bodily nature (227, Cottingham edition). Once this imaginary exercise is completed Descartes tells us that we will see that nothing remains in the idea of the rock except that it is something extended in length, breadth and depth. Thus space is constituted by the same primary attribute as the stone (body) itself.Now it seems to me that this fact does not exclude the idea that a vacuum could still exist in nature. But Descartes thinks otherwise; in fact, he thinks it is an utter contradiction to hold that a vacuum exists in nature. Descartes claims this conclusion is clear from the fact that there is no difference between the extension of space, or internal place, and the extension of a body (229-30, emphasis mine). How can this conclusion be so clear though? Descartes reasons, since space is constituted by extension then it must be a substance for it is a contradiction to believe that a particular extension belongs to nothing. So, since space has extension, it must have substance in it and thus no vacuum can exist there.

To my modern ears this claim sounds rather bizarre. But as with much of Descartes s writings, once his line of argument is properly followed its conclusion is hard to argue against, at least on purely philosophical grounds. But, I believe, there are some criticisms that can be pointed out in the above thought experiment and its attendant explanation that should make us question Descartes s conclusion about the non-existence of vacuums in nature.In Descartes s thought experiment we were asked to imagine that we could abstract all of the non-essential qualities of some stone. Then we were supposed to see that the only thing left of the stone was its extension: length, breadth, and depth. When trying to do this experiment within my own mind, I tend to see the result as some sort of non-descript figure akin to one contained in typical geometry textbooks. For instance, suppose that our stone in question happens to be cubic (or at least roughly cubic barring microscopic attention, i.e., cubic to the naked eye). Next, we remove all of the non-essential qualities from our cubic stone as Descartes suggests. The mental picture I seem to be left with looks something like a cube in a geometry textbook. Now such a figure is supposed to represent an object that is purely extensional; but in actuality, this is obviously not the case. A purely extensional object is made up of simple geometric lines, which are nothing more than mere successions of points. Being such, actual geometric lines cannot be accurately portrayed on paper or a computer screen. Thus, in essence, all geometric representations are idealizations given for pedagogical ease and explanation. Being an astute mathematician, I m sure that Descartes was more than aware of this point.

But it seems to me that in the same way we cannot accurately represent a purely extensional object with pen or computer, neither can we clearly and distinctly perceive an object as purely extensional within our minds. What is the nature of this perceiving if not analogous to seeing? Pushing the analogy of seeing with Descartes may be unfair since he may not have had such a literal picture in mind. But it seems very hard to conceive of a body apart from making a mental picture as such; and Descartes s own language lends towards this idea: we will see that nothing remains in the idea of the stone except that is something extended (227, emphasis mine). My point is simply that I find it questionable whether such a thought experiment is really conceivable, especially when this analogy with sight is found wanting.But even if we grant that this thought experiment is conceivable, in some sense, it seems to me that there is a further criticism: Descartes could be charged with equivocating. In taking away the non-essential qualities of an object, it seems one could claim that we are taking away the actual or real extension of an object as well. The idea here is that there would be no extension left once we abstracted all of the supposed non-essential qualities from an object. True, one may posit that an abstract extension is left where the object was; but this is merely a mind-dependent construction. So, on this construal, a stone and the idea of a stone may both have extension (even the exact same dimensions) in common. An actual stone has real extension, and the idea of a stone has merely abstract extension. But the Cartesian might still say, even if space is constituted by abstract extension, it must still be a substance, for according to Descartes it is a contradiction to believe that a particular extension belongs to nothing. But if the Cartesian thinks this is the case, then it seems that space must be a substance more like mind, or at least more like mind than body since abstract extension is mind-dependent on the proposed delineation. I m sure the Cartesian will find this unacceptable since for Descartes thought is the primary attribute of mind and it seems that space does not think. But suppose that we granted, for the sake of argument, that space is constituted by the same primary attribute (viz., the same sort of extension) as body; it still doesn t necessarily follow that space is the same kind of substance as body. Why can t there be a third sort of substance (besides body and mind) in the Cartesian universe? Besides Descartes s stipulations, I don t see why this could not be the case.

In sum, I question whether Descartes s thought experiment is really conceivable. Even if it is, I question whether body and space are constituted by the same (sort of) primary attribute. But even if they are, I question whether this fact makes them the same sort of substance. Nothing I have said specifically argues against Descartes s conclusion that an absolute vacuum cannot exist in nature. In particular I have given reasons for why I think the premises upon which this conclusion are based are suspect, thus making his overall argument unsound. As previously stated, Descartes s jarring conclusion is surprisingly hard to argue against, at least on purely philosophical grounds.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Epistemological Dualism


Nancy Pearcey discusses The Tyranny of Rationalism in an article at World Magazine. In this interview she talks about the fact/value dichotomy. Nancy Pearcey's most resent book is entitled "Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity."

There is a lot of overlap in those two articles, but the main point of them is that it is very common for us to think of truth in terms of facts vs. values, knowledge vs. belief, or rationality vs. faith. Pearcey says that these are false dichotomies and truth should be thought of differently. Unfortunately, these articles are so short that people may end up misunderstand what, exactly, this means. Here is one example of such a misunderstanding. I don't think the misunderstanding is any fault of the author - it's just a combination of a short "get the point across" article, along with the presentation of an idea of knowledge that is radically different than the popular view.

Nancy Pearcey has been influenced by men like Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd, so what I hope to do is to try to make more explicit what she likely means when she talks about a "fact/value split" and also what she doesn't mean by it. Since I've also been influenced by these two men (and by others who have been influenced by them), I hope that I can give some idea as to what she might mean.

I've already listed a bunch of terms without definitions: facts, values, knowledge, belief, rationality, faith - for this discussion, it would probably be a good idea to include the terms certainty and doubt, too. I'm not going to pretend to come to a good definition of these terms - philosophers have been trying to do that for centuries. What I hope to do is look at how they are often used and see if we can come to any conclusions about them.

Knowledge. What does it mean to know? Does knowledge require certainty? If not, how much "uncertainty" is allowed? Can I know things about knowledge? Is there only one way to knowledge? Is there such a thing as knowledge without a knower? None of these are easy questions. What makes them even more difficult is that we often use the term "know" in very different ways. I know what year the Spanish Armada was defeated. I know my girlfriend. I know the smell of napalm (in the morning). I know racism is wrong. I know what red looks like. I know how to dribble a basketball. In these series of statements, only the third and the fifth use the term "know" in the same way. The first is propositional in nature - it is what is most often associated with a "fact." The Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588. None of the others are really propositional in nature, though (although many might argue that "moral knowledge" is propositional). I am familiar with my girlfriend or I trust my girlfriend (I know her, she'd never cheat on me). I am aware of what napalm smells like or what red looks like. I know racism is wrong, not because I've reasoned my way to that conclusion, but because I have a gut intuition that it is wrong or because I've seen the tragedies that racism has led to in the past. I know how to dribble a basketball, not because I read an instruction manual, but because my dad taught me how to when I was little and I practiced when I could get a chance - it's good, old-fashioned "know how." So, it appears that there are many ways in which we use the word "know." Unfortunately, I think that we often think of knowledge only in the propositional sense. I think this leads to a very narrow view of what knowledge is and only helps to reinforce the fact/value, knowledge/faith dichotomies.

Belief. In everyday language, "belief" is often used as a synonym for knowledge. "I believe racism is wrong." "I believe the Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588." However, it is just as often used to refer to a "weaker" form of knowledge. Sometimes it might just mean "Not as certain as some other things that I know." It is very often associated with "values" as opposed to "facts." Very often, it is used in a way that means "based on trust" or "taken on faith." This is the way that I'm going to use the term - "knowledge based on trust or commitment." This is not propositional knowledge. It is "belief-in," not "belief-that." Hendrik Hart has written extensively about some of these differences. Here is an excellent article where he shows how "conceptual beliefs slowly replaced the stories of faith; stories, that is, which were trusted as forms of practical guidance." On the difference between trust-based and proposition-based knowledge, he says:  "Trust and propositional belief differ quite clearly. For example, placing ourselves in the hands of an unknown surgeon is typically a matter of trust rather than of beliefs. Beliefs can and do play a role. But most people's relationship to a surgeon is marked by trust rather than by propositional beliefs. Similarly, our appreciation of a famous soprano will not typically be characterized by our sharing her belief system. Rather, we appreciate her voice. These two examples illustrate how bodies of belief can be tangential to the heart of significant relationships among people. For what reason did we then make propositional belief central in the religious trust known as faith?" Later, he goes on to say, "Michael Polanyi ... re-introduced philosophers to the idea that knowledge is more than we think; in the sense that not all that we know can be thought, in the sense that we think of knowledge too narrowly, and in the sense that we know more than we think we do. Knowing is not identical with propositional assent. ... But if our knowledge is more than our true belief, we have an opening to consider religious trust or faith as a way of knowing, even when most of it cannot be rationally assessed." Hart's article is specifically talking about religious belief, but knowledge that is based on trust or commitment isn't just religious in nature. We trust other people. We trust technology (if I press the brake pedal on my car, I trust it will slow down). We trust our intuitions ("1+1=2," "It is wrong to kill an innocent person."). But I think the biggest thing to take from the above quote is a reinforcement of what I said above about knowledge - "Knowing is not identical with propositional assent." There may be more than one way in which we know.

Certainty. The fact/value or knowledge/belief dualisms may sometimes be presented in terms of certainty. Facts and knowledge are thought to be things that we can be certain of. But this way of thinking about things seems to make certainty an "attribute" of the thing that is known, rather than saying something about the knower. What's more is that the things that are often said to be "values" or "beliefs" are very often the things that people are most certain about. As a child (and still today), there was one thing that I was very certain about - that my parents would never get divorced. This was based on the commitment that I saw that they had for each other. It was based on my trust that when they said they loved each other, they meant it. I didn't reason my way to that conclusion (even though it was a very rational thing to believe). Even things like "the earth travels around the sun" and "matter is made of atoms" are believed based on the trust of authorities on those subjects. And most of us are quite certain about these things even though we've never done the actual experiments that would lead us to believe these things. So, it seems, that we often use the term "certainty" even when we aren't talking about propositional "facts."

Perhaps certainty doesn't have to do with the type of belief (i.e., facts are certain, while values less certain). Certainty seems, rather, to have to do with basic convictions that we have. With propositional knowledge, certainty has to do with "proper reasoning." If I start with some true statement and make a good argument, I can be certain that my conclusion is also true. But what about the statement "I know what napalm smells like." To tell you the truth, I have no idea what napalm smells like. I've never smelled it before. I know what pizza smells like. I know what "Old Spice" deoderant smells like. I'm certain that I could tell the difference between "Old Spice" and "Right Guard." This certainty didn't come through reasoning, though. It came from my sensory experience. If I woke up one morning and smelled something strange, and somebody asked if it was napalm, I wouldn't be able to answer with any certainty at all. I'm told it smells like victory, but that propositional statement doesn't help me. Similarly, I'm quite certain that torturing people for fun is morally wrong. But there are plenty of things that I feel morally less certain about - I can think of a bunch of ethical dilemmas, where if I picked one thing, I wouldn't have much certainty about it at all. Moral certainty, it seems, depends on some sort of moral intuition. "Certainly" we can use "proper reasoning" to arrive at moral conclusions and "certainly" we can use our sensory experiences to help inform us about our morality, but when we say we are certain about moral statements it has a lot more to do with our own "sense of what's right." So, perhaps certainty is used in as many different ways as the term knowledge is used.

One more thing that I should clear up, even though I've hinted at it already. None of these "ways of knowing" can be separated from each other completely. For example, I shouldn't just rely on my moral intuitions in order to gain moral knowledge. As I said, I might have moral intuitions that I'm certain about. I might use a logical argument to arrive at some conclusion that I'm similarly certain about. I might also have historical or cultural knowledge that informs my moral intuitions.

I've probably raised more questions than answers. If anything, what I'm suggesting is that we throw out epistemological dualism and, instead, hold some form of "epistemological pluralism." There are various ways in which we know. I've already suggested analytic(rational)-knowing, moral-knowing, fiduciary(trust)-knowing, pet-caring, and sensory-knowing. What if there were other ways in which we could know, too?

So, if I could sum up what I think Nancy Pearcey was trying to say, I think I would go back and quote Hendrik Hart again, "... we know more than we think we do. Knowing is not identical with propositional assent." Treating knowledge as propositional assent is a very narrow view and holding that view is probably one of the main reasons that people make such a hard distinction between facts and values. The reason why is that if all knowledge is propositional, then the only way to true knowledge - to certainty, to facts - is through logical reasoning. But (I hope) I've shown that we are often certain about things in nonrational ways and that we have no good reason to hold one type of certainty as superior to another type of certainty. Because of this, fact/value dualism is untenable.