Seems Reasonable

various topics in philosophy

Pragmatic Axioms

At some point in one’s epistemic regression of beliefs, one finds oneself at the end of the line. The basic beliefs are reached — the beliefs which are not predicated upon any other beliefs.  I’d like to spend a little time outlining what some of these axioms are and more specifically, outlining the epistemic axioms which seem to need more substantiation.

Axioms which do not need more substantiation are the axioms which involve the a priori. Arithmetic truths, deductive logic, and definitional truths (e.g., all unmarried men are bachelors) fall into this category. For example, we can be certain that our belief that 1 + 1 = 2 is true  because it is an a priori truth. There are however, other sorts of basic beliefs which we hold out of pragmatism rather than because they are a priori true.  I’ll list a few:

Our minds perceive reality in such a way that we can ascertain truth.  This is meant to be a catch all for various issues in philosophy.  This belief protects us from the possibility of being brains in vats, or that we are living in the matrix, or any other similar scenario.  It also protects us from the possibility evolutionary processes have formed our minds such that we cannot accurately perceive the natural world.

In Alvin Plantinga’s Naturalism Defeated, he points out that evolution does not necessarily ‘care’ about forming in us faculties that provide us with a sound epistemic basis.  Natural selection, by definition, selects only for genetic mutations that are fit for survival, not for sound epistemology in rational beings.  Whether or not Plantinga succeeds in defeating naturalism is a topic for another post, but I think he does something important here: he injects some level of skepticism about our perception of reality.

This particular belief is essential, I think, to human progress.  If we do not operate out of this axiom, then the scientific method falls apart.  We can therefore justifiably hold this axiom to be true because of the very obvious benefits of operating out of it.  In this way, it is a pragmatic epistemic axiom.

Cause and Effect happens.  David Hume famously pointed out that we have no ability to see the cause and effect relationship.  For example, when a billiard ball strikes another billiard ball, we observe the other billiard ball begin to move as soon as it is struck.  We infer that the motion and impact of the first billiard ball caused the motion of the second ball.  However, there is no way to prove that, in fact, this causal relationship exists. Perhaps the billiard ball moved arbitrarily at the very moment the first ball hit it.  This scenario seems entirely unreasonable, but it’s logically possible, and therefore injects some skepticism about cause and effect.

Even though we cannot prove the intrinsic nature of the cause and effect relationship empirically, we can hold it to be true because of, again, the very obvious benefits of operating out of such an axiom.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of axioms, but I think it begins to paint a clear picture of our foundational beliefs and why we hold them.  In later posts I will explore this issue in the context of religious epistemology.

Intuition is bunk

This post is meant to be something of a prelude to a series of posts related to the idea that our intuition is too widely used in substantiating various philosophical claims.  A curious aspect of philosophical inquiry is the heavy role that intuition plays in forming assertions and arguments.  This is particularly evident in the realm of ethics, where thought experiments are used ad nauseam to tease out our intuitions about all possible edge cases for a given moral theory.  Intuition is often used as the sole force behind a serious philosophical argument.

Consider an example from philosophy of mind — Frank Jackson’s Knowledge Argument.  It is an argument which tries to provide evidence for Epiphenomenalism (and ostensibly disprove physicalism), the hypothesis that mental states are not physically reducible but are caused by physical states.  He uses the following famous thought experiment to substantiate this thesis:

Suppose that a woman, Mary, has lived in a room where she cannot perceive color since the day she was born.  Suppose further that she has spent her life studying the nature of color and our perception of it. She learns the exact brain states involved in the perception of color and the exact wavelengths of each color and how our faculties respond to and process them.  Finally, after she has attained full knowledge of the science of color perception, she is let out of the black and white room.  Does Mary learn anything?

At the end of the thought experiment, Jackson wants our intuition to be screaming out that she does indeed learn something, namely, she learns what it is like to experience color. Despite having all knowledge possible about the physical properties of color perception, our intuition tells us that she does not know what it is like to experience color until she escapes from the room.  Jackson wants to argue that something else must be going on when we refer to mental states and conscious experience, namely, he asserts the existence of non-physical mental states, called qualia, which are caused by the physical states of of brain.  In this way our conscience experience of the world can be explained in non-physical terms.

Although I agree that the intuitive force behind this particular thought experiment is significant, I cannot see a reason to make any positive assertions about the existence of qualia.  Perhaps it just is the case that Mary walks out of the room and learns nothing new; perhaps having omniscience about the physical properties of color experience really is sufficient to understand what it is like to experience color.  The work that Jackson has done here is important insofar as it outlines a plausible hypothesis that seeks to explain conscious experience, but it fails to give sufficient reason to abandon a more agnostic view about the mind and mental states.

The intent of this post is not to point out why the Mary experiment is insufficient to substantiate the Knowledge Argument, it is to more broadly assert that intuition is perhaps too widely held among philosophers (and the layman) as a tool for argumentation and as epistemic justification.

In later posts I’ll be exploring the intuition problem in the context of ethics and eventually devolve into a nihilistic crisis of sorts.