Tuesday, August 31, 2010

How we know we know nothing.

Ok, guys, I'm going to discuss one of the main areas of 20th Century philosophy, Epistemology, the study of knowledge. Don't be scared, I'm going to do my best to break terms down so this little exposition doesn't sound too technical/boring.
Before we get all academic in this beezy, lets take a quick look at some of the main problems epistemologists have tried to solve/argue incessantly about. Some of the problems are best illustrated by an example, which I will shamelessly steal from my prof., Dr. Creath:
Imagine you have two beakers (I love that word). The first beaker (ha!) has 1 cup of water and the second has 1 cup of sugar. What will happen if you pour one beaker into the other? Give up? Well, you'll get some sweet water. But how much? 2 cups? Actually the solution will only measure about 1 1/2 cups. So what? The problem is that the basic laws of algebra tell us that 1+1=2. Nevertheless, nobody in their right mind is going to suggest that this experiment disproves the laws of basic algebra.
The experiment does, however, point to some very important philosophical and philosophy of science issues. Basically this experiment demonstrates that different forms of reasoning about the same phenomenon can yield different results. Which form of reasoning should we follow? Should some forms of reasoning supersede others? Should quantity of demonstrations count? (i.e. if I show you 1 000 ways that 1+1 does not equal 2, then will you relinquish the belief in the rules of arithmetic?) If we redo the experiment with 1 cup of water in each beaker, most people will say that this confirms 1+1=2. But why only consider the conformational evidence? Doesn't evidence that disconfirms a hypothesis count too?
There is another related issue concerning how we justify claims about knowledge. It is known as the "infinite regress" problem". Generally, when we want to support a claim as true, we point to reasons why it is true. But each of these reasons are themselves claims about objective truth and themselves need to be justified, and so on and so on until...you throw your hands up in the air, and wave 'em like you just don't care. Or you can take an approach some philosophers have taken (most famously Descartes of the "I think therefore I am" fame ) and claim there are some fundamental objective truths about the world and all other facts about the world can be derived/deduced from these truths (some of which will be very very long explanations).
So...we have a problem concerning how to justify claims (as true). Another solution is to say that some claims can be justified through observation. There are however problems with this method of justification beyond the practical problem that sometimes our senses deceive us and we that have no way reliable way of distinguishing between when our senses deceive us and when they don't. (As an aside, it is my humble opinion that most claims of paranormal experiences stem from this inability to distinguish). The philosophical problem is, how do we prove that observation is a reliable method of justifying claims? The only tool we have for this undertaking is observation itself (i.e. we can run experiments to determine if observation is reliable but experiments rely on observational data to confirm/disconfirm hypothese). When you presuppose what you are trying to prove, this, as most people know, is called circular logic and is not particularly helpful in our dilemma.
Ok, so there you have it. A quick overview of the problems in epistemology and philosophy of science. Mainly, what constitutes knowledge? how do we derive knowledge? what methods of obtaining knowledge are reliable? and what do we do in cases where different methods of obtaining knowledge lead to contradictory or incongruous results?
Actually, I was kidding, there is another family of problems, and it has to do with something called apriori knowledge (I'm such a kidder!). Apriori literally means "prior to" and it is in reference to experience. In everyday English it means, "things that you can/do know without having to have empirical (observational) evidence". The typical example is truths by definition, such as: all bachelors are unmarried. You don't have to go around and interview every bachelor in the world to know that this is true. There are other things, usually matters that don't have correspond to anything in the physical world like math and logic. You don't need to go measure every equilateral triangle in the world to know that the Pythagorean theorem is true. It's truth is derived by the understanding of the principles of geometry. Also, principles of geometry like, the shortest distance between 2 points is a straight line, don't need you to do anything more than reflect in your mind to verify it's truth (later we will contend this, but for now, lets say that the Euclidian geometric axiom is true).
Most people, will agree that we do not need experiential knowledge to verify the examples i've given. So where does this knowledge come from? If we don't acquire it from the external world then it must be part of the structure of our brain....hmmm But the story doesn't end here because sometimes we discover that what we thought were absolute truths in logic or math (apriori knowledge), turn out to have alternative explanations or are wrong. Doh! So now we are in trouble. We need a hero who can lift us out of this mess. I present to you....

Actually, I'm going to let that stew in your head for a bit (cuz I've got other stuff to study). Hopefully you'll lose some sleep over it, then when your appetite for knowledge reaches levels unknown to any man hence, you will beg me to reveal, in all it's philosophical glory, Rudolf Carnap's ideas on how to reconcile some of these problems. Ta!ta!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

My first attempt at answering a philosophy question (from the unwashed masses)

Yay! I have my first question! Thank you to auntie katinka for submitting your question. I'll do my best to answer (I hope it's ok that i divulged your identity, I know how you like to keep things on the DL!)
Here's the question:

oh! oh! you just caused me to have a question... so... when you were talking about the "inherent insufficiency in our representational system" I thought, what if our measely 5 senses aren't enough. What if the way we see the world is actually the way a blind person "sees" the world. If a blind person suddenly had sight, they'd go "holy crap - is THAT what the world looks like??!!" Maybe we can't see objects, just their representation with our difficient senses!

This is a good question which can partly be answered by philosophy and partly by science. There are a couple ways to interpret what your getting at so I'm going to put words in your mouth in order to separate the issues.
One implication of your question is that perhaps there are qualities of the physical world that do not have a causal connection to our perceptual system (i.e. we do not have a sense organ that can detect them). In fact, we already know this is true. For example humans can only perceive a small portion of the light spectrum and can only hear a limited range of sound frequencies. Nevertheless, while it is true that we cannot perceive these qualities directly, it does not mean we cannot infer or deduce their existence. Modern science has inferentially and deductively "perceived" the existence of just about every sub-atomic particle which are orders of magnitude smaller than an atom (except one--the elusive Higgs Bozon particle). Because every thing in the universe is either matter or energy we can devise instruments to aid us in detecting them. All matter can be detected be cause we know it has mass. So long as we are able to calibrate our instruments finely enough, we can detect any amount of matter, no "matter" how small. As for energy we know that in the universe energy is only ever found in 4 forms: strong nuclear, weak nuclear, electromagnetic, and gravitational. Again, so long as the instruments are sensitive enough, any amount of energy can be detected. I'm not sure if this is what you implied with your question, but in case it wasn't...
Another possible implication of your question is that if only we had a few more senses we could perceive the physical world for what it actually is. But this side steps the whole philosophical problem. The problem is not that we don't have enough sensory data to build and accurate representation of the world. The problem is that when we see the final product of the causal chain of perception (light reflects off the object, light wave goes into eye, eye sends an electro-chemical impulse to visual cortex, visual cortex does something with that signal, and presto we see a representation of "x") that what we are seeing is a representation of the sense data after a long causal chain, not the particular object in the external world off of which the light was reflected. Unfortunately, adding more senses does not escape the problem as each sensory organ functions under the same principles. The main philosophical point is that we never perceive reality directly: only as a reconstructed representation by our sense organs in our mind.

Thanks again for the question! It really helps me clarify my thoughts to have to explain them to others...

Phun for Philosophers...

The pain and agony philosophers go through to really understand philosophical topics and issues is probably only paralleled by the agony of a mathematician trying to solve a proof that no one has yet solved. Think about it. That's basically what philosophy is...trying to solve the epistemic underpinnings of our world that, still after thousands of years of brilliant people trying, no one has been able to do. This requires a lot of patience, hard work and agony.
I like what A. W. Carus says on the topic of learning/doing philosophy, "Patience is a primary virtue in philosophy. Genuine understanding is a rare and valuable commodity, not to be obtained on the cheap". I think I would expand the scope of endeavours for which this assertion is true to include mastery of an art/instrument and probably just about any academic subject.
Enough blathering, I want to return to the original topic of this post..."phun for philosophers". (I spelled "fun" "phun"...gosh, I'm soooooooo cleaver!) What constitutes phun for a philosopher? The same thing that constitutes fun for anybody heavily steeped in oceans of purely theoretical knowledge with no practical purpose...showing everybody that you are soooooooooooooo s-m-r-t and that you know things they don't. For complete veracity (see! look at my fancy words! I can't just say "truthfulness", I have to conspicuously display, for all to see, my abnormally large....vocabulary), I would add that I enjoy expounding upon such topics in such a way as to make sure you definitely leave the conversation more confused then when we started. Then, and only then will I feel a warm glow inside me because I will know that all that time sitting at my desk while the other kids went partying on Friday night was worth it.
But, dju see...I'm not that kinda guy (ok, maybe a little bit...sometimes...). In order that you don't feel left out I'm going to explain to you as clearly as I can that which you missed while having a great time with your friends tonight...
Before I start, and you get all excited that you're about to learn some cutting edge philosophy (indeed it is, this theory came out this year! aren't you excited!) you should know that I'm actually doing this as an exercise to ensure my own comprehension of the theory (of what I've read so far of the 600+ page book!) and to see if I can explain it is semi-lay terms (ha! lay terms! ...but I'm going to try)
Tyler Burge's Empirical Objective Representationalist Theory of Perception (scared yet?)

Preamble: In the 20th Century most modern philosophical problems have centred in one way or another on this basic epistemological (having to do with the nature of knowledge) problem: How do we acquire facts/beliefs about the external world? The obvious answer is--one of the ways-- through our perceptual systems but this implies that we are not in direct contact with physical world. The typical account of how our perceptual system works is that we receive sensory input (light, sound, touch, etc..); it is received through the sensory organs, converted into electrochemical signals which are processed by the brain, which in turn creates a representation of the external physical world. This representation created by the brain may or may not resemble the particular qualities of objects in the physical world. We have no way of knowing because we only have access to the representation in our mind of the physical world, not the physical world itself. With out getting too off track, this is called the representationalist account of how we acquire information and beliefs about particulars in the physical world. There are other theories, but this one and it's variations have dominated the last century.

The Two Main Current Representationalist Theories

Both theories can broadly be described as Compensatory Individual Representationalist theories. Lets take a look see at why! (wheee!)
Here's a quick over-view of both theories. Both theories postulate objective empirical (to do with sensory input) representations (the finished product representation of the physical world we see in our mind) cannot occur without us having some sort of pre existing mental attributes to impose form on the incoming sense data. For example: for me to perceive "redness" I have to have a pre-existing psychological tool to recreate "redness" in my mind. In fact, in the first version of the theory, for every particular quality in the physical world (shape, texture, colour, etc..) I need pre existing psychological equipment that can recreate it in my mind (the representation). If I don't have this psychological equipment, then I can't recreate this quality in the representation.
The second version of the theory came in the second half of the 20th Century and it was in response to the obvious complexities and inherent problems with the first theory. Instead of saying we need a different pre-existing psychological structure for every particular quality encountered in the physical world, the theory was simplified: Instead of particulars, the mind will supply generals. That is to say, when all the sense data (particulars) come-a-flying down your neuro-pathways your mind will organize them and reconstruct them according to general principles found in the physical world (causation, constancy, differentiation, physical laws).
The upshot of both theories is that the mind supplies content to the representation. It is called a compensatory theory because it assumes there is an inherent insufficiency in our representational system and the qualities of the physical world for us to be able to represent directly. We need to compensate for this insufficiency by adding our own mental content to the raw sense data.
It is an individual theory because it is the individual that makes objectivity (the ability to accurately represent the physical world) possible by having the right psychological structures to allow for accurate representation of the sense data.
It is a representationalist theory because the physical qualities we perceive must be mirrored internally as a representation. I.e. you need internal mechanics/systems to recreate representationally the sense data; we don't directly perceive the particulars of the physical world.

Holy Crap! It's 5 in the morning...no wonder I can't see straight. I thought it was cuz of something else... Ok, mull over this for a while and I'll try to finish it before it finishes meeeeee! ahhh! But on a serious note (yes, folks it happens), I'd appreciate any feedback on my explanation so far. Since I want to be a philosophy instructor one day so I need to be able to break this shit down so my hommies and my peeps can dig what I'm hollering...about...y'all cool wit dat? yah! high five! Reality TV rulz!
Oh! and also any genuine questions about this topic I will gladly try to answer. It will help me better learn the material (which, quite honestly, is making my head hurt) and you'll learn something to impress your friends with!

Thanks for reading e'rrbody!