Back to Part I

My apologies for dropping out of this discussion here - it deserved more time than I could give it 'til now, and Grim gave me a not-at-all easy reference to look over - which I quite failed to grasp. (I've read Part II and am joining in that one separately.) I want to return to a part of Part I. Grim was reexplaining Kant's problem in terms of a believer, like Chesterton, who claimed to have pieced together evidence from throughout his life that brought him to believe in God.
Let's say that someone has encountered a number of phenomena that they believe demonstrate the existence of God. One counterargument to their reasoned belief in God would be to point out that they have misconstrued the causes of the phenomena...Yet he has come by his knowledge in the same way we come by knowledge of anything that is outside of ourselves in the world.
Absolutely, boss. But the quality of that evidence is the thing I always want to examine. (Chesterton makes it impossible because, after a book of build-up, he won't even say what that evidence is. But that is another story.) Putting it that way blurs the distinction between evidence of different quality (per Chesterton again, between the kind of man who doubts the existence of God and the kind who doubts the existence of cows).
So your objection, and Tom's after a fashion, is that you want to say that 'well, we can't have perfect knowledge of things outside of us, but we can have approximate knowledge' -- knowledge on a scale, as Tom put it. The problem is that doesn't get off the ground. Everything you think you know about the outside world is phenomenal (Kant is arguing). Every experience, every sensation, every fact you think you know is actually just a fact about your own internal thoughts...
Not so. The perceptions I get are evidence about the external world. "Direct" in the legal sense; "indirect" the way you say Kant's using it. The things I experience are consistent in such a way that they back each other up, and are evidence for each other. I see what looks like a fire; I feel the heat from it; I touch it and get burned by it; I hear and read about it. This is all evidence that such a thing as fire exists. It would be different if I lived in a world where I saw things that looked solid, but my hand passed through them when I tried to touch them; or things that looked just like fire sometimes burned and sometimes didn't for no apparent reason; or I felt my skin was crawling with bugs but everyone else said I was suffering from delusional parasitosis. Those situations would be evidence that my senses were not reliable and that the knowledge I got from them was not so useful.

I'm not in a world like that. The evidence I get runs the other way - within limits.[1] Yes it is possible that this is all a great self-consistent illusion of the brain-in-vat variety. But, I have to say, so what? What difference does this make to anything I have to do? Why paralyze myself by claiming, "This evidence isn't perfect; it could be all wrong without my knowing, so I'll declare all my knowledge completely nonexistent, without value, not knowledge at all?" It's the only evidence I've got and I'll take it as far as it seems to get me. Any map that I carry is not the same thing as the land it represents. It's only an indirect representation, and by its nature imperfect. Do I throw it away? Declare it's no map at all?

Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant - the protagonist of a few trilogies he wrote - was in a similar situation. He kept being transported to a fantasy world, which included a villain named Lord Foul, and (at least in the first two I, which I read) never seemed certain whether he was really visiting another world or dreaming the whole thing. But, he figured, whichever way it was - he was going to fight Lord Foul. I don't understand any other approach.

[1] I'm partly color-blind and accept there are things you can see that I can't; I can be fooled by optical illusions and know that what I think I'm seeing isn't always quite right.


Grim said...

I applaud your desire to strive against this model of Kant's, which I certainly share. In defending him, I hope you will understand that I'm merely doing a philosopher's job of making sure that we don't try to walk away from problems too easily.

That makes it my sad duty to point out that you're running at this problem in exactly the wrong way. Consider:

The things I experience are consistent in such a way that they back each other up, and are evidence for each other. I see what looks like a fire; I feel the heat from it; I touch it and get burned by it; I hear and read about it.

Unfortunately, this fact is not evidence against Kant's position. This rational coherence of your experience is exactly what you would expect if the experience is being constructed as Kant says. If your mind is rationally ordering disorganized material into a coherent form to present to you, the representation of fire ought to be coherent in just this way.

What seems to me to be evidence against Kant's position isn't coherence, but incoherence. It isn't that we turn out to be right, but that we often turn out to be wrong. (Indeed, this is just what Hume said about causality that was so upsetting to Kant. Kant was a very orderly man.)

To say, "Well, everything lines up with what I've come to expect based on many diverse sources" is to be open to the objection, "Yes, of course it does, because every one of those 'diverse' sources is really the product of the same single source -- they are all the product of your faculty of representation. Ordering disparate things into coherent categories is just what Kant says it does."

Grim said...

By the way, check Sunday's 2:12 PM comment for more on what I mean by the above comment.

Joseph W. said...

(In case anyone comes back to it - this conversation moved to the other thread, starting around here somewhere.)