17.12.08

Does sense make sense?

"Humans, as far as we know, are unique in the animal world in that they’re reflective creatures. That is, they try to make some sense out of their experience." - Noam Chomsky(1)

At this post's inception the author was plagued with reluctance. Reluctance because of the vast size of the everything that exists (notice I didn't say universe), the vaster size of everything that does not (if you have an imagination like mine), and the staggering absurdity of the previous statement (vast shouldn't be used to describe nothing, it should describe something, which it does or doesn't depending on what I meant by nothing). Continuing my list and assuming that things fall into the existence category (maybe a philosophically incorrect statement, you Kant treat existence like a property haha) I goggled at the flabbergasting number of atoms (physical and logical if you like logical atomism) and the copious amount of things I don't know. I did all this in exactly that order going in reverse (which is difficult because I'm considering the absurdity of a previous statement at one point) while frequently chasing super human rabbits into their underground bunker labyrinths (i.e. engaging in digressions that are more than simply rabbit trails). This is what tends to happen when you start thinking about thinking about thinking....

However, when I realized that it would only get worse the longer I waited to post because of the truth behind the maxim "the less you know the more you think you know"; I was instead gripped by fear and wanted to write about the most difficult topics as soon as possible, hence this post. Also, because sense is part of what makes us human and is part of what it is to be human.

I'm not going to answer the question in the title of this post I'm only going to begin (for this blog) the investigation which I imagine started as a result of this question when it was asked many years ago (possibly many more than many and possibly less, seeing as I don't have proof that other minds exist) Yes, I know it's a well known problem in philosophy, but this is written for everyone. So, for the sake of the amateurs I will throw out bits of philosophy trivia when convenient to get you up to speed. Don't feel bad if you don't understand something, as you'll soon see, I'm an amateur philosopher as well.

So anyway, seeing that we have something to investigate, the proper thing to do is to look at what underlies what we are investigating (our sense), which as we shall see is our knowledge. The purpose of this post is to throw out into the open and give an introduction to the average person about issues and problems that surround knowledge; which hopefully will lead us a little closer to answering the bigger questions since they supervene on our knowledge and are directly related to what humans can know.

Our first task is to look at the underlying components of what we are asking by distinguishing between two things, knowledge and sense. I won't number them because I don't want to give the impression that they should be in a certain order or are reducible (i.e one "thing" could actually be two "things" or vice versa); that is beyond the scope of this investigation. Obviously, we can't make sense of anything if we don't know it, sense supervenes on knowledge. The degree to which we know it is the degree to which we can make sense of it (this is the sense in which I will use the word sense from now on). (I apologize for the fact that this is not the way sense is usually used in philosophy. I told you I was an amateur; sense is usually meant to be another way of saying understanding. However the way in which I use it, it is meant to be what our knowledge means for us as individuals or how it should effect our behavior or thought process.)

The first thing to realize about knowledge is that we are not only pulling ourselves up by our own boot straps but doing it constantly; we are hovering over the abyss. To illustrate if we execute the following exercise: take any given thing I know and ask "How do you know that?" (step 1) then ask the same of my answer and repeat step 2 (step 2). If this goes on long enough, excluding the possibility that I sock you in the face, it will lead to either me saying "I don't know" or to me babbling inanely "erba derba derba!" Hence we encounter a nothingness, which I call the abyss, where either knowledge gives out or you are knocked out (i.e. I didn't exclude a possibility). It is slightly uncomfortable being suspended over an abyss of nothingness or inane babble, but if that's the only thing wrong with our noetic environment then rational creatures can accept it with out too much trouble; life isn't perfect after all.

However this brings me to my "next thing to realize about knowledge" which is either that this isn't the only abyss, or that this abyss is almost everywhere. Lets say I ask you how you are following the rules to your two step process, not the rules but how. Can you give a meaningful answer? As it turns out the answer is no, as illustrated by Lewis Carrol in What the Tortoise said to Achilles. Philosopher Peter Winch observes that "the actual process of drawing an inference, which is after all at the heart of logic, is something which cannot be represented as a logical formula … Learning to infer is not just a matter of being taught about explicit logical relations between propositions; it is learning to do something"(2) So the abyss is pervasive, it stalks us through all reason, we must brave the rapids of utter chaos to pilot our ships from one bright and beautiful known island or fact to another. How do we know that we haven't gotten turned around somewhere back in those rapids? Dear me.

The last thing(s) to realize about knowledge is it's incompleteness (not in the way that we don't know everything but the way in which Godel observed). I mention Godel's Incompleteness theorems partially to be properly pretentious and partially because it is really necessary. What they say is that in any logical system (axioms defined and such) there will always be a statement which is unprovable true or false. It obviously can arise in language: "A village barber shaves everyone in the village who does not shave themselves. Who then shaves the barber?" However, this kind of nonsense is present in mathematics as well, like the class of all classes which are not members of themselves in Russel's paradox. This of course doesn't mean that there will be any contradictions, since we could prove anything from contradictions (Paradox of entailment), including that Bertrand Russel is the Pope. That this is not the case may be at least some consolation to rational creatures.

The final thing to realize about knowledge is the inherent unjustified reasoning we engage in every day. Even in science we make unjustifiable inferences from the observed to the unobserved as shown by David Hume in the Problem of Induction. Also, we can look at the many legitimate unanswered questions we can think of that if answered affirmatively would effectively undermine everything we know (or think we know): "Am I in a simulation? possibly run by some future civilization?", "Am I a boltzman brain?", "Since evolution selects for behavior is it likely that it didn't select to give me correct beliefs?", "Is there an algorithm in my brain that interacts with my observations before I perceive them like the Chinese room objection to the Turing test and flips their meanings like the brain flips the upside down images we get from the lenses of our eyes?" and "Is it possible that my conscious intentions have no effect on my behavior and therefor the outside world?" Finally, to slam the nail in the coffin of what you thought you knew about knowledge, lets look at what science tells us is nature of knowledge about the observable world. To quote Chomsky again:

"If you look at the history of science seriously, in the seventeenth century there was a major challenge to the existing scientific approach. I mean, it was assumed by Galileo and Descartes and classical scientists that the world would be intelligible to us, that all we had to do was think about it and it would be intelligible.

Newton disproved them. He showed that the world is not intelligible to us. Newton demonstrated that there are no machines, that there’s nothing mechanical in the sense in which it was assumed that the world was mechanical. He didn't believe it — in fact he felt his work was an absurdity — but he proved it, and he spent the rest of his life trying to disprove it. And other scientists did later on. I mean, it’s often said that Newton got rid of the ghost in the machine, but it’s quite the opposite. Newton exorcised the machine. He left the ghost.

And by the time that sank in, which was quite some time, it just changed the conception of science. Instead of trying to show that the world is intelligible to us, we recognized that it’s not intelligible to us. But we just say, ‘Well, you know, unfortunately that’s the way it works. I can’t understand it but that’s the way it works.’ And then the aim of science is reduced from trying to show that the world is intelligible to us, which it is not, to trying to show that there are theories of the world which are intelligible to us. That’s what science is: It’s the study of intelligible theories which give an explanation of some aspect of reality...........

When people talk about what science tells you about human affairs, it’s mostly a joke. Incidentally, I don’t think religion tells you very much either. So it’s not that science is displacing religion, there’s nothing to displace."(1)

To touch on what sense is briefly, since we have realized some things about knowledge, we can ask what it all means. That's it. That's sense. Sense is the rules or procedures of how we should use our knowledge or how our knowledge should effect our behavior or thought process; they are not reducible to anything and seem to be incoherent to many people (especially ones that play World of War Craft a lot). Without sense, knowledge is hovering over an abyss and no more. To come back to our super human rabbits: chasing them is what it feels like to try to answer: "what does it all mean?" or "what does it mean to be human?". However, the question is part of the answer. The fact that we can recognize how confusing it is may be a point in our favor, although I still get confused when I try to decide whether it is or isn't. We are, after all, reflective creatures.


1 - Chomsky, Noam A., Lawrence M. Krauss, and Sean M. Carroll. "Science in the Dock." Interview. Science & Technology News 1 Mar. 2006. available online at http://www.chomsky.info/debates/20060301.htm (last accessed December 17, 2008).

2 - Taken from Wikipedia: Peter, Winch. 1958. The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy (1958). p.57. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_the_Tortoise_Said_to_Achilles (last accessed December 17, 2008).

1 comment:

not_a_terrorist said...

It's refreshing to see a post that offers such an intriguing examination of such a weighty metaphysical dilemma in a culturally relevant fashion. I hope Mr. Descartes will continue to post articles that elucidate the absurdity of trying establish a valid philosophical viewpoint without a well founded epistemology.