Category: epistemology

It’s been a long weekend. And time is subject to perceptual variation. So bang on time is the promised homework.

The following four questions / tasks (the bullet pointed bits) MUST be done (even if you’re called Jake) by Monday 22nd February.

Seeing as you’re getting so good, have a go at these. They will require some thought, I had to think about them, but that means little as I have fewer brain cells than you.

  • What does a comparison of idealism and direct realism tell us about the difference between epistemology and ontology?
  • Why does solipsism threaten both idealism and representative realism? What philosopher(s) might we turn to for an escape from solipsism and how might he help us?

These are from the text book, p. 60, but are rather good: (I’ve got a bit of a hunch about Locke and primary / secondary qualities being in the exam – It is only a hunch and not inside information – unfortunately).

  • Say whether the following are examples of primary qualities, secondary qualities, both, or neither. Explain your thinking.

  • Describe and illustrate one epistemological distinction between primary secondary qualities and one ontological one.

Below is a revised, redrafted and extended (hurrah! they cry) version of the various notes I have written with you and last year’s lot on this wax business. It’s got quite long and I possibly repeat myself a little, but it has been useful to me to re-read and re-write it, so I hope it will help you.  I suppose it represents a kind of response to the wax essay question, but try not to rip me off too much. (You might be better off writing your response before you read it).
Anyway …

Descartes’ ‘Meditations’ are an attempt to find the foundations of objective (certain and unchanging) knowledge. Descartes believes that if he can find an Archimedian point – just one thing about which there can be no doubt then he will be able to ground all his other ideas. It is an attempt to construct a complete epistemology – a theory of knowledge – by building, piece by piece (brick by brick) on his foundation of certainty. (The cogito)

Having found his one point of certainty, that he exists as a ‘thinking thing’ Descartes tries to work out the status of the ideas that run through this ‘thinking thing’ that he is. His problem is that most of his ideas seem to come through his senses and he has already shown these to be unreliable and deceiving.

He decides that this thinking thing is a thing that doubts, perceives, affirms, denies, wills, does not will, that imagines also and which feels.’ These activities of the mind are the more certain the less they have to do with the physical world. Therefore the imagination, which seems to build its ideas from perceptions of the physical world is less trustworthy than, for example, the act of doubting, (Remember Descartes prefers geometry to geography for similar reasons.)

In his Second Meditation, having pushed his scepticism, his method of doubt, through arguments concerning illusion and dreams and on to the point of considering that a malignant demon might be feeding him illusions about the world, Descartes, finally arrives at his point of certainty, ‘I am, I exist‘, he claims, and goes on to say that this ‘must be true whenever I assert it or think it.‘ To be thinking the thought of one’s existence is, in itself, proof of that existence, he says.

Although Descartes is now certain of his existence as a mental entity he is still in doubt about the thoughts and ideas that he has as a thinking thing. (where do they come from? how trustworthy are they? are some more trustworthy than others?) He thinks again about the ideas that seem to come to him through the senses and begins to reconsider the physical world and the way he perceives it in order to understand how it is that he can be certain about his mental existence, but in doubt about the physical world.

In a famous passage he considers the way his senses give him perceptions of a piece of wax, and how those perceptions are utterly different and distinct depending on whether the wax is hard or melted. He concludes that although we normally understand our senses as providing us with understanding: to ‘see’ something is to understand it we believe, the example of the wax shows Descartes that ‘Something that I thought I saw with my eyes … was really grasped solely by my mind’s faculty of judgment.

Descartes discussion of the wax is central to understanding his notion of what it is to be a human being. It is his ability to conceive (have a concept of) the wax that, for him, demonstrates the power of rational thought. He concludes that because the information given to him by his senses about the wax is insufficient to allow him to know that the wax remains the same thing after it changes all its sensible qualities, it must therefore be his ‘reason‘, his faculty of judgement that gives him knowledge of the wax. It is as if through the power of rational thought the sum of his understanding is greater than the understanding his senses alone could provide. This ‘added power’ provided by ‘reason’ is the underlying principle of Rationalist philosophy.

Descartes believes that knowledge of the external world is gained through the mind’s understanding (judgement) of the information we receive through the senses. The faculty of judgement is a mental capacity (ability) that brings together the ‘raw’ and potentially incoherent information of the senses and allows us to understand.  This makes him a rationalist as opposed to an empiricist. (we’re doing them next).

For Descartes, this wax business confirms his belief that, he can know his internal world – his mental processes – better and more certainly than he can the external physical world. This emphasises the separation and the difference of the two ‘stuffs’ mental and physical and makes clear his dualism’. 

We saw how Descartes used a form of extreme scepticism: he doubted everything he thought he ‘knew’, even the evidence of his senses.

He gives examples of three different ways in which he may be wrong about how he perceives the world. Firstly he uses the argument from illusion; (the stick in the water) to show that his senses are not reliable. Secondly he suggests he could be dreaming: the argument from dreaming. And thirdly he considers that a malignant demon may be deceiving him deliberately about everything: the argument from deception.

We also learned the meaning of ‘epistemology’, it is the study of what it is possible to know: is knowledge of the world possible, if so what?

Stars & Pains

On Friday I asked you to try to describe or explain the difference between 

a) seeing a star
b) feeling a pain

This provoked some discussion although most of it was not entirely what I’d hoped for!  
Remember that the bit of philosophy we are doing at the moment is ‘Epistemology‘. We are looking at the various things various philosophers have said about how we get knowledge and the status of that knowledge. In light of that we might begin to think some useful things about this question. 

The second part of the question (we didn’t get that far) should help us think some interesting things about the first part.

try to describe or explain the difference between: 

a) Seeing a star that you believe to be a hole in the floor of heaven.
b) Seeing a star that you believe to a ball of fire several million light years away.

Some thoughts/questions
  • Is it possible to make the same kind of mistake about the pain as we have about the star?
  • Would we expect the star to look the same even after our beliefs were updated? 
  • Would knowing that a pain was ‘simply’ the result of nerve fibres being stimulated make it ‘feel’ different? 
  • Is there anything different or privileged (superior) about the pain?

You won’t need to answer these questions in the exam, but thinking about them might help you to a better understanding of what epistemology is all about. 

On the other hand … just get on the with essay you haven’t finished yet!
(Rorty, P&MN, p.85)

We considered a ‘characterisation’ of empiricism by R. F. Holland from his book Against Empiricism: on Education, Epistemology, and Value, in which he alludes to three potential problems with empiricism. He believes that the empiricist account of the origin of ideas involves ‘raw materials’ entering the ‘factory’ of the mind in which they are ‘processed and emerge cut and dried.’ 

The notion of the ‘mind ‘processing’ ideas seems to be beyond the explanations of empiricist theory; neither Locke nor Hume offer any detail on this ‘process’, but then how could they? Why would they? What does Holland want? Mmm..?

Holland also, perhaps more importantly, brings up what we might call the ‘homunculus problem’. He characterises the empiricist theory of the way ideas spring from sense data as requiring a ‘mind’s eye’ that ‘surveys the products of its own efforts’, as if a little man (homunculus) is required to look at the ‘processed’ sense impressions in order to make sense of them. This of course suggests another homunculus inside the first and so on into infinite regress. 

I think Holland is probably missing the point, but this is not the time to say why. His criticism is powerful. 

Holland also gently mocks Hume’s notion of the ‘pre-established harmony’  by which we find that our thoughts and conceptions have occurred in an order matching the order of events in the other works of nature.’  Holland is here referring to the apparent flaws in empiricist thinking that seem to lead to ‘solipsism‘. (See Solipsism above).

Today I tried to speed you up a bit. You did the following:

1. You tried to answer the very easy question, ‘What is the relationship between thought and reality?’  This is what we’ve been trying to do all along in case you hadn’t noticed. It is the question at the heart of epistemology.  The way to approach a question like this is to define your terms: what do we mean by ‘relationship’, ‘thought’ and ‘reality’? 
Then think about whether there is anything anything implied by the question that might prejudice your answer? Are there assumptions built into the question? Yes. Lots of them.
Most of you had a good stab at answering it and that’s the most important thing.

2. As a an anecdotal follow up to our discussion of innate ideas, I explained how Mr Scarisbrick’s view of human nature informs his political stance. As mine does my own. Even though I don’t think we have one. A ‘human nature’ that is.

3.  We read a little more of Locke on innate ideas and how he thought that experience occured in the womb. Which is interesting. Isn’t it?

4.  We read some of the text book as preparation to reading some Hume, and saw how he thought that as all ideas come from experience it is possible to ‘spot’ pointless abstract theories by tracing their origin and seeing if they can be traced back to experience. 
His example of trying to conceive of ‘a time in which nothing happens’ caused some debate and confusion. and we will have to return to it, so I’ll save my feeble explanations for later. 

5.  I told you about the homework which is below. 

We saw how Descartes used a form of extreme scepticism: he doubted everything he thougt he ‘knew’, even the evidence of his senses.

He gives examples of three different ways in which he may be wrong about how he perceives the world. Firstly he uses the argument from illusion; (the stick in the water) to show that his senses are not reliable. Secondly he suggests he could be dreaming: the argument from dreaming. And thirdly he considers that a malignant demon may be deceiving him deliberately about everything: the argument from deception

We also learned the meaning of ‘epistemology’, it is the study of what it is possible to know: is knowledge of the world possible, if so what?