Shallower Thoughts

There are many common assumptions in academic philosophy that have always baffled me. For instance, the claim that knowledge is “true, justified belief.” This is a fairly recent position, and one that nobody actually seems to have held at all until some philosophers began to question its validity. However, it is now a position that must be mentioned in every discussion of epistemology. I cannot see why, since it is so obviously, to someone who is not a philosopher, quite stupid. The sentence “knowledge is true, justified belief” is a tautology that explains nothing. Isn’t the goal of epistemology exactly to determine what would count as truth, and what would count as a justification of a belief? If we knew the answers to these questions, we would not even be asking what knowledge is. I’ve been puzzled by this for many years—that is, puzzled by why professional philosophers think this sentence is even in the form of an answer to the question epistemology asks. No philosopher has ever been able to answer this for me, except with a sort of condescending smirk and a despairing shake of the head at my hopeless stupidity, or the written equivalent of those gestures.

The one that has been puzzling me more lately is one I’ve written about, indirectly, in Indispensable Goods: the belief that we are being naive at best, arrogant at worst, to assume that our thoughts about the world can ever be even close to correct. This has, since Kant at least, become the universal assumption of almost all philosophers, and has “trickled down” to the general public in various distorted forms (such as the belief that “quantum theory proves” that we create reality with our consciousness). I’ve seen various assertions of this lately, as I’ve been spending my time in isolation over the last months reading a lot about ethics and epistemology.

The assumption seems to be that if we claim we have anything like a correct concept of the world, we are assuming a kind of “freedom” from determination that our limited human minds cannot possibly possess. Instead, the task of epistemology (and so of ethics) is to overcome our obviously distorted image of reality, at least to the extent of recognizing how hopelessly distorted it really is (since we never can correct it). We must realize that our minds are much too determined by language and our private desires to ever achieve anything like objectivity.

What puzzles me is this: it seems to me that the assumption I’ve just described in fact itself requires enormous arrogance and quite a bit of naïveté. To accept it, we have to believe that in fact our minds are completely undetermined, radically free of influence from reality. That is, this belief assumes that our minds are not immanent to the world we inhabit, but of a different kind. It assumes a kind of dualism that people making this claim seem to believe they are actually avoiding.

Let me explain. If in fact our mind is, as I assert, determined by the world around us, then most of the time we would have to be right about reality in a general way. If our mind is immanent to the world, not radically dualist, we would have to assume that it is connected to, produced by, that world just as much as (if in different ways than) things like asteroids and trees and slime molds. To assume we can think things that are “determined” only by our language and desires, and that our languages and desires are free of connection to something we might call “reality as it is,” would seem to me to grant human minds a place in the universe that is quite special and unique, and which we have little real reason to grant them.

On a post-it note stuck to the window sill above my computer I have a quote from Merleau-Ponty that reads “Se demander si le monde est réel, ce n’est pas entendre ce que l’on dit”. I would say that to the same applies to the suggestion that our perceptions are hopelessly distorted by language or desires. Imagine someone skiing down a slope who perceives a tree in front of him. In almost every situation, he will be correct about this—there will be something there, and it will in fact be a tree. We can imagine unusual circumstance in which for some reason a person sees the entire slope in front of him but does not see the tree, or even more unlikely circumstances in which he hallucinates a tree that is not in fact there. However, this error in perception will be quickly corrected by collision or the lack of an expected collision. We cannot, I assume, imagine a situation where someone suffers a concussion from hitting a hallucinated tree, much less a situation where someone skis right through a tree because he fails to notice it. We rarely have mistaken perceptions about the world, and those we have are usually quickly corrected. In fact, there are many things in the world we cannot perceive, but we still come to know of their existence exactly because we can perceive their effects (things like radon gas, for instance).

What we are often wrong about is what I call mind-dependent kinds of things: our theoretical explanations of and predictions concerning observable phenomena. I suppose part of the cause of this error is just that we tend to confuse hypothetical constructs like gravity with real phenomena like things falling to the ground.

But a bigger part, it seems to me, is just the desperate need to believe we are unique and special in the universe, and not dependently arisen just like everything else. A dependently arisen mind can certainly gain a correct idea about the various things in the world it is part of.

I think of this as the ultimate contemporary koan. One cannot begin to make progress toward awakening until it is clear that to believe we can create an illusory image and superimpose it on reality is to believe that we have a mind completely unconstructed by and dualistically separate from the rest of reality. So what would the koan question be? I imagine something like this: Why can’t you cut down the entire forest with a herring?

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