Thursday, September 30, 2010

Philosophical Rat Holes

There's been an on-going conversation about Rorty over at A&J. And to some extent here as well. One of the videos I watched used the example of a bridge, so I'll bastardize it a little to illustrate my issue not only with Rorty, but a bunch of other modern philosophers.

Let's imagine a philosopher considering the Brooklyn Bridge. He'd describe its parts, then drill down in some long argument until he got to the most basic, subatomic level. He'd then argue that we don't actually know the position of the quarks or whatever, we just predict them. Moreover, we don't actually know what matter consists of. Consequently, we cannot know that the bridge itself exists.

He'd then, depending on his particular view, argue either that we are simply relying upon sense information to determine the existence of the bridge, but senses are fallible. So, we don't actually know the bridge that the bridge exists.

Since we can't know for sure, all we can do is see if other people agree. If they agree, then there's less likelihood that our senses are failing. But then we have to communicate to each other that we believe a bridge exists. That's apparently the key point -- communication of our varying levels of belief or level of doubt. But then we need to focus on how we communicate that level of belief, which is through language.

Somebody called it a bridge. That word has massive power because if reality is only what we agree upon and language is how we communicate with each other, then our language defines reality. So, we have to investigate, to the most fundamental level, how language defines our reality.

All the while, thousands of people commute everyday over the bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan and not a single one questions its existence as True. Likewise, Pi (3.14) isn't something that some human invented. Sure, somebody ascribed a Greek letter to it, but the relationship between the diameter of a circle and its circumference has nothing at all to do with the words we use to describe it.

Look, don't believe in a Platonic Good or God or whatever. Fine. But what the fuck is wrong with philosophy that they get so far away from life as experienced by regular human beings? I mean, there is a thing called the Brooklyn Bridge. It exists. Everybody knows it exists. There's no doubt. Not close to zero. Zero.

Don't get me wrong. I get it when a first semester freshman thinks "Whoa" when they first read Derrida, Rorty, or whomever. (I'd put Nietzsche in here, but he's actually got some meaningful and relevant points to make.) It's the first part of disproving The Big Assumption. Maybe my life isn't representative of the entire human condition. Maybe it represents nothing. Ok. But then they've painted themselves into a corner with their logic. You can't build anything back up when you know absolutely nothing for certain and you are too cowardly to assume anything true because somebody will come by, like Nelson Munce, kick the assumption out from under you, and yell "Ah Ha!"


Andrew Stevens said...

This is not original with me, but I can't remember who said it originally so I can't source it. Someone once said that, when confronted with Decartes' skeptical arguments in the Meditations or to Hilary Putnam's "brain in a vat" argument (both Descartes and Putnam brought up the arguments to refute them, of course), most people have one of three responses:

1) That's stupid. I refuse to talk about it.
2) Wow, maybe I am a brain in a vat.
3) What's wrong with this argument? And what can I learn from it?

Sounds like you mostly have reaction 1 and are irritated with people who have reaction 2. But I think reaction 3 is the one that should be cultivated. Yes, of course, radical skepticism is incorrect, but there are huge amounts to learn about epistemology in figuring out why it is wrong.

I agree that the people who fall into the trap of skepticism do so because they have made avoidance of error too high a priority and believing true things too low a priority. I don't agree with you that we infallibly know that the Brooklyn Bridge exists. I believe the Brooklyn Bridge exists beyond any reasonable doubt but some unreasonable doubts always remain; I simply deny that infallibility is an appropriate criteria for knowledge (and those who say it is surely don't know that infallibly, do they?).

profmondo said...

"Thus I refute [Berkeley]."

And am I gonna argue with Samuel Johnson? Naw baby, naw.

FLG said...


I'm actually closer to 3 than my post implies, but 1 is very appealing to me.

Given my fascination with Plato, what with the Cave and all, how can I not be interested in brain in the vat scenarios.

All that said, I think those thought constructs are given too much weight. We know the Brooklyn Bridge exists. Or rather, if it doesn't, we don't know anything, and then should just all shut the fuck up about everything.

Withywindle said...

Noting that Rorty et al claim that they're the ones trying to exit from a frustrating argument with ludicrous answers by means of a common-sense solution.

Andrew Stevens said...

And then getting mired in self-contradiction because their common sense solution is entirely inconsistent. (Also, as dearly as I would like to argue that a prior metaphysical commitment to materialism is "common sense," it simply isn't. Materialism is a minority philosophy even today and has been virtually non-existent throughout history.) I strongly disagree with the theists for their belief in unnecessary metaphysical entities without proper evidence or logical argumentation, but at least their world view makes sense. I'm not sure that they're wrong. I'm absolutely positive that Rorty is.

Withywindle said...

Of that there is no matter of doubt, no probable, possible shadow of doubt, no possible doubt whatever.

Andrew Stevens said...

A proposition which entails a logical contradiction must be false with no doubt whatsoever. It is one of the few exceptions to my general rule that some doubts always remain. There is no such thing as a square circle. If you believe in square circles, you are wrong.

"Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned."

- Avicenna

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