Monday, September 25, 2006

What we know and How we know it

Norm Geras points to a wonderfully incisive review by Jerry Fodor of a recent book I knew nothing of by Michael Frayn.
Michael Frayn is one of my favourite writers - the play "Noises Off' is one I will hustle to see put on by any company within reasonable distance. It is a play so wonderfully written that it can be put on well by almost any company, and the company will love it because it is brilliantly about putting plays on! I have read a couple of his comic novels and loved them (I do not recall their titles, but do not make much of that, as I generally do not remember a few weeks later what I have read.)
But when someone responsible for great comic entertainment writes a book called "The Human Touch : Our Part in the Creation of a Universe", I worry a little. Now I would never buy it. But I must say I am happy Frayn wrote it as it has provoked a fine review by Jerry Fodor which does much to address many very sloppy modes of thinking that seem to have spread widely.
Fodor looks at three major confusions that are part of Frayn's discomfort at modern science.
First of all, Frayn is something of an old-fashioned positivist; sometimes he is so quite explicitly. ‘I must surely be a little positivistic here once again. I must limit myself to what is observable – if only by myself.’ Why must he, I wonder? Positivists thought they could impose a priori epistemic constraints that scientific theories must acknowledge.

I don't know, it just seems hard for me to believe anyone from the 20th century can confine himself, or the rest of us in our curiosity, to that.
As Fodor comments:
It’s one question what’s the case, and another how we know what’s the case. Very often, we’re able to answer the first sort of question even though we can’t answer the second. In particular, we’re rarely in a position to say just what it is about our experience (or about anything else) that warrants our claim to know that a proposition is true. That being so, it’s not an argument against the proposition being true that we don’t know how we know that it is. The sun will rise tomorrow morning; I know that perfectly well. But figuring out how I could know it is, as Hume pointed out, a bit of a puzzle.

Amusingly, Fodor's next target is somewhat of a converse to this positivism:

as Frayn rightly points out, seeing is shot through with interpretation. There’s quite a long inferential route between the patterns of light that fall on the retina and the perceptual beliefs that their falling there eventually engender; between, that’s to say, my having ten toes and my knowing that I do. That’s all very interesting (it really is very interesting). But it’s not – it doesn’t begin to be – a reason for doubting that the perceptual beliefs we have are very generally true.

I have seen many things I knew were not there. This never seemed a major problem to me. Most of them are there and is not too hard over time to sort out the difference.
Fodor again, arguing that this interpretation is largely corrective and to be trusted (he does not pretend it cannot be tricked):
for example, the most familiar instances of perceptual inference (the perceptual ‘constancies’) regularly bias perception in the direction of truth; the interpretations are better guides to what is actually going on than the data that they interpret. Double the distance to the target and you halve the size of its retinal image. But there are inferential mechanisms in perception that correct this geometric effect so that things generally don’t seem to get smaller as they move away (they just look further off). That’s just as well since, as a matter of fact, the size of things doesn’t vary with their distance; it’s only the retinal images that shrink.

As someone who cares a lot about photography, I know, as most photographers do, that cameras do not perform these interpretive corrections and this often makes the result of one's efforts disappointing.
There's more and I say go read it. But there is this nice summary, which fits so many people I know and how they appear to think (it is hard for me to know, but this seems a model/explanation):
Frayn is the kind of philosopher who can’t quite believe that what he believes is mostly true; that, by and large, things are much as we all suppose them to be, and that we suppose them to be that way mostly because that’s the way they are. And yet, on the face of it, that’s surely the view that has much the most to recommend it. As a matter of fact, there’s no competition; it’s the only story that anybody has a glimmer of how to tell. It’s one thing to remark that there could be other stories; it’s something quite else actually to tell one that is remotely plausible. No doubt, there’s plenty to worry about at the fringes of what we believe; quantum entanglement really is hard to swallow, and I, for one, can’t get my head around black holes.

Fodor also has Frayn's great virtue, that while making you think he can make you laugh too, and he concludes with this joke:
Once upon a time, a visiting scholar presented a lecture on the topic: ‘How many philosophical positions are there in principle?’ ‘In principle,’ he began, ‘there are exactly 12 philosophical positions.’ A voice called from the audience: ‘Thirteen.’ ‘There are,’ the lecturer repeated, ‘exactly 12 possible philosophical positions; not one less and not one more.’ ‘Thirteen,’ the voice from the audience called again. ‘Very well, then,’ said the lecturer, now perceptibly irked, ‘I shall proceed to enumerate the 12 possible philosophical positions. The first is sometimes called “naive realism”. It is the view according to which things are, by and large, very much the way that they seem to be.’ ‘Oh,’ said the voice from the audience. ‘Fourteen!’

I cannot finish there - I want to go back to the middle of Fodor's review, which has a very nice comment on a common confusion:

There are lots of cases where we know more about how the world works than we do about how we know how it works. That’s no paradox. Understanding the structure of galaxies is one thing, understanding how we understand the structure of galaxies is quite another. There isn’t the slightest reason why the first should wait on the second and, in point of historical fact, it didn’t. This bears a lot of emphasis; it turns up in philosophy practically everywhere you look.

And I will confess, I was also curious about Fodor's characterization of the book as, I am not sure how fairly, a romanticism about a lost centrality:
it belongs to a philosophical tradition that reaches back at least as far as Kant and which persists in the neo-pragmatism that is as close as anything gets to being the current philosophical consensus. Frayn’s version goes something like this: back in the good old days, it seemed perfectly clear that everything turned around us, both astronomically and otherwise. The moon, the sun, the planets and the stars were put in place to be the backdrop to a moral drama of which God was the audience and we were the heroes and villains. What we did or failed to do mattered to the whole scheme of things; it was what the whole scheme of things was for.

I have no idea how fair the review is, but the review is a lovely description of some unfortunate trends in some modern thought.


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