Common Sense and Culture

If we compare what I said about common sense to the letter of St. Augustine on the errors of the Donatists, quoted here, it seems that St. Augustine takes his belief in Christianity to be a matter of accepting common sense:

For they prefer to the testimonies of Holy Writ their own contentions, because, in the case of Cæcilianus, formerly a bishop of the Church of Carthage, against whom they brought charges which they were and are unable to substantiate, they separated themselves from the Catholic Church—that is, from the unity of all nations. Although, even if the charges had been true which were brought by them against Cæcilianus, and could at length be proved to us, yet, though we might pronounce an anathema upon him even in the grave, we are still bound not for the sake of any man to leave the Church, which rests for its foundation on divine witness, and is not the figment of litigious opinions, seeing that it is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man. For we cannot allow that if Cæcilianus had erred,— a supposition which I make without prejudice to his integrity—Christ should therefore have forfeited His inheritance. It is easy for a man to believe of his fellow-men either what is true or what is false; but it marks abandoned impudence to desire to condemn the communion of the whole world on account of charges alleged against a man, of which you cannot establish the truth in the face of the world.

It is true that St. Augustine talks about “divine witness” and so on here, but it is also easy to see that a significant source of his confidence is existing widespread religious agreement. It is foolish to abandon “the unity of all nations,” and impudent to “condemn the communion of the whole world.” And the problem with “charges alleged against a man, of which you cannot establish the truth in the face of the world,” is that if you disagree with the common consent of mankind, you should first attempt to convince others before putting forward your personal ideas as absolute truth.

Is common sense a real reason for St. Augustine’s religious position, or he is merely attempting to justify himself? Consider his famous rebuke of those who attack science in the name of religion:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although “they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”

St. Augustine in fact seems to be giving priority to common sense over religion here. If your religion contradicts common sense, your religion is wrong and common sense is right. This suggests that his argument for his religion from common sense is an honest one; it might even be his strongest reason for his belief.

As I said in the earlier post, the argument for religion from the consent of humanity had problems even at the time, and as things stand, it has no real relevance. There is no religious doctrine, let alone any religion, that one could reasonably say is accepted by even a majority of humanity, let alone by all. At any rate, this is the case unless one makes one’s doctrine far vaguer than would be permitted by any religion.

I concluded above that St. Augustine’s defense of common sense is likely an honest one. But note that this was not necessary: it would be perfectly possible for someone to defend common sense in order to justify themselves, without actually caring about the truth of common sense. In fact, consider what I said here about Scott Sumner and James Larson. Larson’s claim to accept realism is basically not an honest one. I do not mean that he does not believe it, but that its truth is irrelevant to him. What matters to him is that he can seemingly justify himself in maintaining his religious position in the face of all opposition.

Consider the cynical position of Francis Bacon about people relative to truth, discussed here. According to Bacon, no one is interested in truth in itself, but only as a means to other things. While the cynical position overall is incorrect, there is a lot of truth in it. Consequently, it will not be uncommon for someone to defend common sense, not so much because of its truth, but as part of a larger project of defending their culture. Culture is bound up with claims about the world, and defending culture therefore involves defending claims about the world. And if everyone accepts something, presumably everyone in your culture accepts it. One sign of this, of course, would be if someone passes freely back and forth between putting forth things that everyone accepts, and things that everyone in their culture accepts, as though these were equivalent.

Likewise, someone can attack common sense, not for the purpose of truth, but in order to engage in a kind of culture war. Consider the recent comments by “werzekeugjj” on the last post. There is no option here but to explain these comments with the methods of Ezekiel Bulver. For they cannot possibly represent opinions about the world at all, let alone opinions that were arrived at by honest means. Werzekeugjj, for example, responds to the question, “Do people sometimes write comments?” with “No.” As I pointed out there, if they do not, then he did not compose those comments, and there is nothing to reply to. As Aristotle puts it,

We can, however, demonstrate negatively even that this view is impossible, if our opponent will only say something; and if he says nothing, it is absurd to seek to give an account of our views to one who cannot give an account of anything, in so far as he cannot do so. For such a man, as such, is from the start no better than a vegetable.

Nor is it possible to apply a principle of charity here and say that Werzekeugjj intends to say that their claims are true in some complicated metaphysical sense. This does apply to the position of the blogger from Atheism and the City, discussed in that post. He presumably does not intend to reject common sense. I simply point out in my response that common sense is enough to draw the conclusions about causality that matter. The point is that this cannot apply to Werzekeugjj’s expressed position, because I spoke expressly of things in the everyday way, and the response was that the everyday claims themselves are false.

Of course, no one actually thinks that the everyday claims are false, including Werzekeugjj. What was the purpose of composing these comments, then?

We can gather a clue from this comment:

“in such a block unniverse there is no time flow
so your point on finalism or causality is moot
same with God
they don’t exist

The body of the post does not mention God, and God is not the topic. Why then does Werzekeugjj bring up God here? The most likely motivation is the kind of culture war motivation discussed here. Werzekeugjj associated talk of causality and reasons with talk of God, and intends to attack a culture that speaks this way with whatever it takes, including a full on rejection of common sense. Science has shown that your common sense views of the world are entirely false, Werzekeugjj says, and therefore you might as well abandon the rest of your culture (including its talk of God) along with the rest of your views.

Supposedly describing their intentions, Werzekeugjj says,

i’m not trying to understand the world or to change your mind but i’m trying to state what is true
and i’m puzzled by how you think there is no problem with arguments like these

This is false, precisely as a description of their personal motives. No one who says that balls never break windows and that they did not write their comments (in the very comments themselves) can pretend to be “trying to state what is true.” Sorry, but that is not your intention. More reasonably, we can suppose that Werzekeugjj sees my post as part of a project of defending a certain culture, and they intend to attack that culture.

But that is an inaccurate understanding of the post. I defend common sense because it is right, not because it is a part of any particular culture. As Bryan Caplan puts it, “Common sense is the foundation of all reasoning.  If you want to reject a common-sense claim, you’d better do it in the name of an even stronger common-sense claim.”

Motivated Reasoning and the Kantian Dichotomy

At the beginning of the last post, I distinguished between error caused by confusing the mode of knowledge and the mode of being, and error caused by non-truth related motives. But by the end of the post, it occurred to me that there might be more of a relationship between the two than one might think. Not that we can reduce all error to one or the other, of course. It seems pretty clear that the errors involved in the Kantian dichotomy are somewhat “natural,” so to speak, and often the result of honest confusion. This seems different from motivated reasoning. Similarly, there are certainly other causes of error. If someone makes an arithmetical error in their reasoning, which is a common occurrence, this is not necessarily caused by either confusion about the mode of knowing or by some other motive. It is just a mistake, perhaps caused by a failure of the imagination.

Nonetheless, consider the examples chosen in the last post. Scott Sumner is the anti-realist, while James Larson is the realist. And if we are looking only at that disagreement, and not taking into account confusion about the mode of knowing, Larson is right, and Sumner is wrong. But if we consider their opinions on other matters, Sumner is basically sane and normal, while Larson is basically crazy. Consider for example Larson’s attitude to science:

In considering what might be called the “collective thinking” of the entire Western world (and beyond), there is no position one can take which elicits more universal disdain than that of being“anti-science.” It immediately calls forth stereotyped images of backwardness, anti-progress, rigidity, and just plain stupidity.

There are of course other epithets that are accompanied by much more vehement condemnations: terms as such anti-semite, racist, etc. But we are not here concerned with such individual prejudices and passions, but rather with the scientific Weltanschauung (World-view) which now dominates our thinking, and the rejection of which is almost unthinkable to modern man.

Integral to this world-view is the belief that there is a world of “Science” containing all knowledge of the depths of the physical world, that the human mind has the potential to fully encompass this knowledge, and that it is only in the use” of this knowledge that man sins.

It is my contention, on the other hand, that the scientific weltanschauung is integrally constituted by a dominant hubris, which has profoundly altered human consciousness, and constitutes a war against both God and man.

Stereotyped or not, the labels Larson complains about can be applied to his position with a high degree of accuracy. He goes on to criticize not only the conclusions of science but also the very idea of engaging in a study of the world in a scientific manner:

It is a kind of dogma of modern life that man has the inalienable right, and even responsibility, to the pursuit of unending growth in all the spheres of his secular activity: economic, political (New World Order), scientific knowledge, technological development, etc. Such “unending quest for knowledge and growth” would almost seem to constitute modern man’s definition of his most fundamental dignity. This is fully in accord with the dominant forms of modern philosophy which define him in terms of evolutionary becoming rather than created being.

Such is not the Biblical view, which rather sees such pursuits as reeking disaster to both individual and society, and to man’s relationship to Truth and God. The Biblical perspective begins with Original Sin which, according to St. Thomas, was constituted as an intellectual pride by which Adam and Eve sought an intellectual excellence of knowledge independently of God. In the situation of Original Sin, this is described in terms of “knowledge of good and evil.” It is obvious in the light of further Old Testament scriptures, however, that this disorder also extends to the “seeking after an excellence” which would presume to penetrate to the depth of the nature of created things. Thus, we have the following scriptures:

Nothing may be taken away, nor added, neither is it possible to find out the glorious works of God: When a man hath done, then shall he begin: And when he leaveth off, he shall be at a loss.” (Ecclus 28:5-6).

And I understood that man can find no reason of all those works of God that are done under the sun: and the more he shall labor to seek, so much the less shall he find: yea, though the wise man shall say, that he knoweth it, he shall not be able to find it.” (Eccl 8:17).

For the works of the Highest only are wonderful, and his works are glorious, secret, and hidden.” (Ecclus 11:4).

For great is the power of God alone, and he is honoured by the humble. Seek not the things that are too high for thee, and search not into things above thy ability: but the things that God hath commanded thee, think on them always, and in many of his works be not curious. For it is not necessary for thee to see with thy eyes those things that are hid. In unnecessary matters be not over curious, and in many of his works thou shalt not be inquisitive. For many things are shewn to thee above the understanding of men. And the suspicion of them hath deceived man, and hath detained their minds in vanity.” (Ecclus 3:21-26).

These scripture passages proscribe any effort by man which attempts to penetrate (or even be inquisitive and curious about) the hidden depths of God’s “works.” It is evident that in these scriptures the word “works” refers to the physical world itself – to all those “works of God that are done under the sun.” There is no allegorical interpretation possible here. We are simply faced with a choice between considering these teachings as divinely revealed truth, or merely the product of primitive and ignorant Old Testament human minds.

It is not merely that Larson rejects the conclusions of science, which he admittedly does. He also condemns the very idea of “let’s go find out how the world works” as a wicked and corrupting curiosity. I say, without further ado, that this is insane.

But of course it is not insane in the sense that Larson should be committed to a mental institution, even though I would expect that he has some rather extreme personality characteristics. Rather, it is extremely obvious that Larson is engaging in highly motivated reasoning. On the other hand, most of Scott Sumner’s opinions are relatively ordinary, and while some of his opinions are no doubt supported by other human motives besides truth, we do not find him holding anything in such a highly motivated way.

Thus we have this situation: the one who upholds common sense (with regard to realism) holds crazy motivated opinions about all sorts of other matters, while the one who rejects common sense (with regard to realism) holds sane non-motivated opinions about all sorts of other matters. Perhaps this is accidental? If we consider other cases, will we find that this is an exceptional case, and that most of the time the opposite happens?

Anti-realism in particular, precisely because it is so strongly opposed to common sense, is rare in absolute terms, and thus we can expect to find that most people are realist regardless of their other opinions. But I do not think that we will find that the opposite is the case overall. On the contrary, I think we will find that people who embrace the Kantian side of such a dichotomy will frequently tend to be people who have more accurate opinions about detailed matters, and that people who embrace the anti-Kantian side of such a dichotomy will frequently tend to be people who have less accurate opinions about detailed matters, despite the fact that the anti-Kantian side is right about the common sense issue at hand.

Consider the dichotomy in general. If we analyze it purely in terms of concern for truth, the anti-Kantian is interested in upholding the truth of common sense, while the Kantian is interested in upholding the truth about the relationship between the mind and the world. From the beginning, the anti-Kantian wishes to maintain a general well-known truth, while the Kantian wants to maintain a relatively complex detailed truth about the relationship between knowledge and the world. The Kantian thus has more of an interest in details than the anti-Kantian, while the anti-Kantian is more concerned about the general truth.

What happens when we bring in other motivations? People begin to trade away truth. To the degree that they are interested in other things, they will have less time and energy to think about what is true. And since knowledge advances from general to particular, it would not be surprising if people who are less interested in truth pay less attention to details, and bother themselves mainly about general issues. On the other hand, if people are highly interested in truth and not much interested in other things, they will dedicate a lot of time and attention to working out things in detail. Of course, there are also other reasons why someone might want to work things out in detail. For example, as I discussed a few years ago, Francis Bacon says in effect: the philosophers do not care about truth. Rather their system is “useful” for certain goals:

We make no attempt to disturb the system of philosophy that now prevails, or any other which may or will exist, either more correct or more complete. For we deny not that the received system of philosophy, and others of a similar nature, encourage discussion, embellish harangues, are employed, and are of service in the duties of the professor, and the affairs of civil life. Nay, we openly express and declare that the philosophy we offer will not be very useful in such respects. It is not obvious, nor to be understood in a cursory view, nor does it flatter the mind in its preconceived notions, nor will it descend to the level of the generality of mankind unless by its advantages and effects.

Meanwhile, Bacon does not himself claim to be interested in truth. But he desires “advantages and effects,” namely accomplishments in the physical world, such as changing lead into gold. But if you want to make complex changes in the physical world, you need to know the world in detail. The philosophers, therefore, have no need of detailed knowledge because they are not interested in truth but disputation and status, while Bacon does have a need of detailed knowledge, even though he is likewise uninterested in truth, because he is interested in changing the world.

In reality, there will exist both philosophers and scientists who mainly have these non-truth related concerns, and others who are mainly concerned about the truth. But we can expect an overall effect of caring more about truth to be caring more about details as well, simply because such people will devote more time and energy to working things out in detail.

On this account, Scott Sumner’s anti-realism is an honest mistake, made simply because people tend to find the Kantian error persuasive when they try to think about how knowledge works in detail. Meanwhile, James Larson’s absurd opinions about science are not caused by any sort of honesty, but by his ulterior motives. I noted in the last post that in any such Kantian dichotomy, the position upholding common sense is truer. And this is so, but the implication of the present considerations is that in practice we will often find the person upholding common sense also maintaining positions which are much wronger in their details, because they will frequently care less about the truth overall.

I intended to give a number of examples, since this point is hardly proven by the single instance of Scott Sumner and James Larson. But since I am running short on time, at least for now I will simply point the reader in the right direction. Consider the Catholic discussion of modernism. Pius X said that the modernists “attempt to ascribe to a love of truth that which is in reality the result of pride and obstinacy,” but as we saw there, the modernists cared about the truth of certain details that the Church preferred to ignore or even to deny. The modernists were not mistaken to ascribe this to a love of truth. As I noted in the same post, Pius X suggests that a mistaken epistemology is responsible for the opinions of the modernists:

6. We begin, then, with the philosopher. Modernists place the foundation of religious philosophy in that doctrine which is usually called Agnosticism. According to this teaching human reason is confined entirely within the field of phenomena, that is to say, to things that are perceptible to the senses, and in the manner in which they are perceptible; it has no right and no power to transgress these limits. Hence it is incapable of lifting itself up to God, and of recognising His existence, even by means of visible things. From this it is inferred that God can never be the direct object of science, and that, as regards history, He must not be considered as an historical subject. Given these premises, all will readily perceive what becomes of Natural Theology, of the motives of credibility, of external revelation. The Modernists simply make away with them altogether; they include them in Intellectualism, which they call a ridiculous and long ago defunct system. Nor does the fact that the Church has formally condemned these portentous errors exercise the slightest restraint upon them.

As I noted there, epistemology is not the foundation for anyone’s opinions, and was not the foundation for the opinions of the modernists. But on the other hand, Pius X may be seeing something true here. The “agnosticism” he describes here is basically the claim that we can know only appearances, and not the thing in itself. And I would find it unsurprising if Pius X is right that there was a general tendency among the modernists to accept a Kantian epistemology. But the reason for this would be analogous to the reasons that Scott Sumner is an anti-realist: that is, it is basically an honest mistake about knowledge, while in contrast, the condemnation of questioning the authenticity of the Vulgate text of 1 John 5:7 was not honest at all.

Little Things

Chapter 39 of Josemaria Escriva’s book The Way concerns the topic of “little things.” The whole chapter, and really the whole book, is worth reading. The text is composed in the form of a set of aphorisms, much like Francis Bacon’s work. I will quote two passages in particular from the chapter in question:

823. Have you seen how that imposing building was built? One brick upon another. Thousands. But, one by one. And bags of cement, one by one. And blocks of stone, each of them insignificant compared with the massive whole. And beams of steel. And men working, the same hours, day after day…

Have you seen how that imposing building was built?… By dint of little things!

826. Everything in which we poor men have a part — even holiness — is a fabric of small trifles which, depending upon one’s intention, can form a magnificent tapestry of heroism or of degradation, of virtues or of sins.

The epic legends always relate extraordinary adventures, but never fail to mix them with homely details about the hero. — May you always attach great importance to the little things. This is the way!

The second passage asserts that anything great in human life is essentially composed of “small trifles.” The first passage explains why this is so. The world is an ordered place, and one of the orders found in it is the order of material causality. Since the whole is greater than the part, it follows that great wholes are ultimately composed of little parts, or in other words, “small trifles.”

We often tend not to notice this in relation to human life, because we think of life as a kind of story, and it is normal for stories to leave out all sorts of detail, in order to concentrate on the overall picture. But all of that detail is always present: every day is made up of 24 hours, and everything we do ultimately is made up of individual immediate actions.

Thus Escriva says that we should “always attach great importance to the little things,” because there is no other way to accomplish anything. For example, someone might be assigned a paper in school, and find himself unable to write the paper, because he is constantly thinking of the need to “write a paper.” But “writing a paper” is not an action that can be chosen; it is just not a thing that can be done immediately. And unless it is first broken down into “little things,” it will never be done at all. This is one of the main causes of procrastination in people’s lives, namely failing to see that the larger goals that they wish to accomplish must be accomplished by means of little things, through individual actions. Thus someone might say, “I don’t know why, but I never feel like writing the paper.” But in fact he does not feel like writing it, because he has not yet presented himself with any option that can ever be chosen.

 

Truth in the Senses

Discussing Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, Edward Feser says:

Take a stock example of reductive scientific explanation like the reduction of sound to compression waves, color to surface reflectance properties, or heat and cold to molecular motion.  The way these explanations work is by treating the appearance that sound, color, heat and cold present to us in conscious experience as mere appearance, as a projection of the mind that corresponds to nothing in objective, mind-independent reality.  What common sense understands by color, sound, heat and cold — the way red looks, the way a musical note sounds, the way a hot stove feels, and so forth — is held to have no objective reality, any more than the redness a person unknowingly wearing red-tinted contact lenses thinks he sees in all the objects around him really exists in those objects.  Instead, color is for scientific purposes essentially redefined by the method in terms of the surface reflectance properties that cause in us the subjective appearance of color; sound redefined in terms of the compression waves that cause in us the subjective appearance of sound; and heat and cold redefined in terms of the molecular motion that causes in us the subjective appearance of heat and cold.

Thus, as common sense understands color, sound, heat and cold, etc., the reductive method ends up treating the world as essentially colorless, soundless, devoid of temperature, etc.  What the method calls “color,” “sound,” “heat” and “cold” is in fact something different from what the man on the street thinks of when he hears these terms.  The “red” that the method says exists in the material world is just the tendency of an object to absorb certain wavelengths of light and to reflect others.  The “red” that the man on the street thinks exists in the object does not really exist in the object itself at all but only in his perceptual experience of the object.  The “heat” that the method says really exists in the material world is just the motion of molecules.  The “heat” that the man on the street thinks exists in the object does not really exist in the object at all but only in his perceptual experience of the object.  And so forth.

Now, Nagel’s point is not that there is something wrong per se with overthrowing common sense in this way.  It is rather that whatever value this method has, it cannot coherently be applied to the explanation of conscious experience itself.  If the reductive method involves ignoring the appearances of a thing and redefining the thing in terms of something other than the appearances, then since our conscious experience of the world just is the way the world appears to us, to ignore the appearances is in this case just to ignore the very phenomenon to be explained rather than to explain it.  Consciousness is for this reason necessarily and uniquely resistant to explanation via the same method scientific reductionism applies to everything else.  For the application of the method in this case, writes Nagel, “does not take us nearer to the real nature of the phenomenon: it takes us farther away from it.”  To treat the appearances as essentially “subjective” or mind-dependent is precisely to make them incapable of explanation in entirely “objective” or mind-independent terms.

Feser is quite right that consciousness cannot be explained in such a way even in principle. I have touched on this point in a previous post. This is why eliminative materialists such as Daniel Dennett effectively deny the existence of consciousness: if the only things that exist are material things as described by modern science, then consciousness cannot even exist, because it cannot possibly be described in that terminology. John Searle, in a reply to Dennett, says:

In spite of its strident tone, I am grateful for Daniel Dennett’s response to my review because it enables me to make the differences between us crystal clear. I think we all really have conscious states. To remind everyone of this fact I asked my readers to perform the small experiment of pinching the left forearm with the right hand to produce a small pain. The pain has a certain sort of qualitative feeling to it, and such qualitative feelings are typical of the various sorts of conscious events that form the content of our waking and dreaming lives. To make explicit the differences between conscious events and, for example, mountains and molecules, I said consciousness has a first-person or subjective ontology. By that I mean that conscious states only exist when experienced by a subject and they exist only from the first-person point of view of that subject.

Such events are the data which a theory of consciousness is supposed to explain. In my account of consciousness I start with the data; Dennett denies the existence of the data. To put it as clearly as I can: in his book, Consciousness Explained, Dennett denies the existence of consciousness. He continues to use the word, but he means something different by it. For him, it refers only to third-person phenomena, not to the first-person conscious feelings and experiences we all have. For Dennett there is no difference between us humans and complex zombies who lack any inner feelings, because we are all just complex zombies.

I think most readers, when first told this, would assume that I must be misunderstanding him. Surely no sane person could deny the existence of feelings. But in his reply he makes it clear that I have understood him exactly. He says, “How could anyone deny that!? Just watch…”

Dennett is obviously wrong about consciousness. But what about color, sound, heat, and cold? Is it true that “reductive scientific explanation” holds that these things are a “mere appearance” that “correspond to nothing in objective, mind-independent reality?”

Feser may be quite honest personally in his description of what he considers to be two opposing views. But it seems to me that he is inheriting this description from a long tradition of putting Aristotle and common sense, on the one hand, into an unnecessary opposition with modern scientific views on the other. I think that this tradition is in essence wishful thinking: this tradition came to be historically through the efforts of people who wished for disagreement between Aristotle and modern science.

I touched on this wish in an earlier post when I said that John Locke’s understanding of secondary qualities “is actually mostly true, and mostly consistent with the philosophy of Aristotle, even though Locke would likely wish that the latter were not the case.” The early moderns did differ from Aristotle regarding the purpose of the sciences, as I pointed out here in the case of Francis Bacon. Having a different purpose requires employing different means. Consequently it was favorable for their purposes to emphasize their disagreements with the philosophy of Aristotle, regardless of how much agreement or disagreement existed in reality when the positions themselves are properly understood. If people could be persuaded to abandon Aristotelian thought and focus on the new science, the purposes of the new science would be more easily obtained.

Let us ask the question directly: if color for example consists in the reflectance properties of a surface, does this mean that colors as we see them are “mere appearances” that have no objective reality? Elsewhere, Feser says that this view implies that “Objectively there are only colorless, odorless, soundless, tasteless, meaningless particles in fields of force.”

The scientist can presumably reply in this way: Color consists in surface reflectance properties. These properties are objective properties of physical objects in the world. So color is an objective property of physical objects in the world.

Feser’s response can be found in the original quotation above:

What common sense understands by color, sound, heat and cold — the way red looks, the way a musical note sounds, the way a hot stove feels, and so forth — is held to have no objective reality, any more than the redness a person unknowingly wearing red-tinted contact lenses thinks he sees in all the objects around him really exists in those objects.  Instead, color is for scientific purposes essentially redefined by the method in terms of the surface reflectance properties that cause in us the subjective appearance of color; sound redefined in terms of the compression waves that cause in us the subjective appearance of sound; and heat and cold redefined in terms of the molecular motion that causes in us the subjective appearance of heat and cold.

Of course, the scientist would say that when a person wears red tinted contact lenses, the physical objects around him do not have the properties that constitute red, and consequently it is true that the objects are not objectively red. But other objects like red apples and the like do have those properties, and so they are objectively red. The two cases are not the same. Feser is replying by saying that whether he wants to or not, the scientist is denying the existence of red as we know it.

According to Feser, “what common sense understands by color” is something like “the way red looks,” and it is this to which, according to him, the scientist is denying objective existence. This is to say, if it true that red bodies have a certain way of reflecting light, and this fact is all there is in the body which explains why red bodies look red, Feser would say that this means that “the body is red” is a false statement. This is necessary for his position to be true: “the body is red” has to be actually false in the sense that we normally understand it, since he made the comparison with red tinted glasses, where in fact it is false that the body is red.

What do we mean when we say that something is red? We don’t just mean that it looks a certain way, because we know that sometimes things appear to be a color which they are not, as in the case of the tinted glasses. We don’t mean that it looks some way; we mean that it is that way. Take something that looks red. If we say that it is actually red, we mean that it actually is the way it looks.

All this is true, but it causes Feser to fall into error. “This is actually red” no more describes the nature of red than “this looks red” does. We know how red things look, because we experience it directly. But this experience is not a description. It is not something that can be true or false, so that we can say “surface reflectance is a false description of this experience.” It is a sensible experience, not a claim to truth or falsehood, and we consider sensible experiences accurate when they do not mislead us. Red tinted glasses do mislead us, and so we consider those experiences “false”, and say that the things are not really red. But even if color consists in surface reflectance properties, the experience of color never misled us. It never said, “This is not a reflectance property,” because it never said anything at all. It was not a statement but a sensation.

In order to determine whether something is actually red, we do not turn sensation into a description and check whether the thing matches that description. This is probably not even possible. We simply recognize that “this is actually red” when it looks red to a normal person in normal circumstances. And this is true regardless of what is present in the body that causes red things to look red to us, whether that is the properties of the surface or something else. Thus the scientist has no need to deny the objectivity of color, nor to deny his physical explanation of color.

Feser may actually have a different concern about objectivity, not merely whether statements about color are true or false. Are the distinctions in question natural distinctions, or are they essentially arbitrary from an objective point of view? Is the line between blue and green a natural one, or do our senses make that distinction in a basically arbitrary manner? Locke and others called certain qualities “secondary” because it seemed to them that the distinctions in question were basically arbitrary. We have good evidence that at least in some cases, they were right. An object feels hot or cold depending on the current condition of the one who feels it, without having to change from “being objectively hot” to “being objectively cold.” While the evidence is less conclusive in the case of color, something similar appears to be the case there. The line between different colors is in a different place for different people, as is most evidently the case in colorblind persons, and much more are the dividing lines in different places for different species of animal. This means that we have some reason to believe that green and blue things are objectively distinct, but that this objective distinction is much like the objective distinction between persons who are under six feet tall and persons who are over six feet tall. The distinction itself is objective, but the choice of distinction is basically arbitrary, if the thing is considered in itself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beliefs and Motivations

Insofar as belief is voluntary, people can have various motives for the things that they think and say. This is not only true in the sense that people can have different motives for different beliefs, but also in the sense that there may well be a mixture of different motives for any particular belief.

People tend to notice such motives in others, but it is rather unusual for them to notice the motives in themselves, rather than simply to think that the reason that they say or think something is that it is true. Thus Robin Hanson reveals an extraordinary degree of self knowledge when he discusses his reasons for having opinions:

Decisions – Sometimes I need to make concrete decisions where the best choice depends on particular key facts or values. In such cases I am forced to have opinions on those subjects, in order to make good decisions. I may well just adopt, without much reflection, the opinions of some standard expert source. I have to make a lot of decisions and don’t have much time to reflect. But even so, I must have an opinion. And my incentives here tend to be toward having true opinions.

Socializing – A wide range of topics come up when talking informally with others, and people tend to like you to express opinions on at least some substantial subset of those topics. They typically aren’t very happy if you explain that you just adopted the opinion of some standard expert source without reflection, and so we are encouraged to “think for ourselves” to generate such opinions. Here my incentives are to have opinions that others find interesting or loyal, which is less strongly (but not zero) correlated with truth.

Research – As a professional intellectual, I specialize in particular topics. On those topics I generate opinions together with detailed supporting justifications for those opinions. I am evaluated on the originality, persuasiveness, and impressiveness of these opinions and justifications. These incentives are somewhat more strongly, but still only somewhat, correlated with truth.

Exploration – I’m not sure what future topics to research, and so continually explore a space of related topics which seem like they might have the potential to become promising research areas for me. Part of that process of exploration involves generating tentative opinions and justifications. Here it is even less important that these opinions be true than they help reveal interesting, neglected, areas especially well-suited to my particular skills and styles.

As Robin notes, even when we have motives which are distinct from the truth, they may promote truth to some extent. Thus for example if someone wishes to be respected, this is not the same as being motivated by the truth, but it may require believing the truth to some extent. Thus for example Gene Ray probably did not earn much respect with his Time Cube website. On the other hand, depending on context, the desire for respect will sometimes conflict with truth and lead us away from it.

To the degree that we wish to speak or to believe the truth, this motive will work against motives in conflict with the truth and in favor of motives that favor the truth. And likewise, to the degree that we care less about speaking or believing the truth, other motives will tend to predominate. Now there are two reasons why people desire truth: for its own sake, and for the sake of other things, as in Robin’s case when he desires the truth for the sake of making a good decision.

In principle a useless truth may be more desirable than a useful truth, but this does not necessarily mean that people desire the useless one more in practice. Thus for example many people say that philosophy is useless, not meaning by this that it is more desirable than other branches of knowledge, but much less. Francis Bacon is a good illustration of this in his Novum Organum:

LXXIII. Of all signs there is none more certain or worthy than that of the fruits produced, for the fruits and effects are the sureties and vouchers, as it were, for the truth of philosophy. Now, from the systems of the Greeks, and their subordinate divisions in particular branches of the sciences during so long a period, scarcely one single experiment can be culled that has a tendency to elevate or assist mankind, and can be fairly set down to the speculations and doctrines of their philosophy. Celsus candidly and wisely confesses as much, when he observes that experiments were first discovered in medicine, and that men afterward built their philosophical systems upon them, and searched for and assigned causes, instead of the inverse method of discovering and deriving experiments from philosophy and the knowledge of causes; it is not, therefore, wonderful that the Egyptians (who bestowed divinity and sacred honors on the authors of new inventions) should have consecrated more images of brutes than of men, for the brutes by their natural instinct made many discoveries, while men derived but few from discussion and the conclusions of reason.
The industry of the alchemists has produced some effect, by chance, however, and casualty, or from varying their experiments (as mechanics also do), and not from any regular art or theory, the theory they have imagined rather tending to disturb than to assist experiment. Those, too, who have occupied themselves with natural magic (as they term it) have made but few discoveries, and those of small import, and bordering on imposture; for which reason, in the same manner as we are cautioned by religion to show our faith by our works, we may very properly apply the principle to philosophy, and judge of it by its works, accounting that to be futile which is unproductive, and still more so if, instead of grapes and olives, it yield but the thistle and thorns of dispute and contention.

If there are two questions about reality, and people care about the truth of the matter equally in itself, but one of the questions will also be useful for other things, then people will be motivated more to discover the truth about the useful matter. Thus Bacon here suggests that he only cares about truths which are useful for other things, and not at all about useless truths.

From the point of view of natural selection, there is a good reason why people could be expected to search out useful truths more than useless truths. For useful truths are of course useful, and consequently more likely to lead to survival and reproduction, than useless truths.

Bacon is wrong in his opinion here, considered as a question of ethics and philosophy. Nevertheless, he is hinting at something true when he rejects the kind of philosophy which yields “but the thistle and thorns of dispute and contention,” and when, in the preface to his book, he not so subtly mocks the academic system of the time:

We make no attempt to disturb the system of philosophy that now prevails, or any other which may or will exist, either more correct or more complete. For we deny not that the received system of philosophy, and others of a similar nature, encourage discussion, embellish harangues, are employed, and are of service in the duties of the professor, and the affairs of civil life. Nay, we openly express and declare that the philosophy we offer will not be very useful in such respects. It is not obvious, nor to be understood in a cursory view, nor does it flatter the mind in its preconceived notions, nor will it descend to the level of the generality of mankind unless by its advantages and effects.

Bacon is suggesting here that “the system of philosophy that now prevails” is itself correctly understood as something useful, not as something useless. It is useful for “encouraging discussion,” for “embellishing harangues,” for “the duties of the professor, and the affairs of civil life.”

In other words, Bacon is pointing to motivations much like Robin’s motivations of socializing, research, and exploration, motivations not entirely correlated with truth. We could rephrase Bacon’s critique as something like this:

“No one is interested in truth in itself. Today’s philosophy is interested in impressing and pleasing people and in other such things. No truth at all is necessary to accomplish these tasks, and thus there is no reason to suppose there is any truth in today’s kind of philosophy. I am myself not interested in truth in itself, but at least my philosophy will attain real truths, because I will use it to accomplish physical tasks that cannot be accomplished without at least some truth about physical reality.”

This goes too far, but there is a good deal of truth in it. I will consider this in more detail in another post.

Aristotle and Bacon on the Sciences

Aristotle, as stated in the last post, held that the highest knowledge is for its own sake, not for the sake of other things. Francis Bacon, on the other hand, is famous for saying that knowledge is power (Novum Organum, Bk. 1, Aphorism 3):

Human knowledge and human power meet in one; for where the cause is not known the effect cannot be produced. Nature to be commanded must be obeyed; and that which in contemplation is as the cause is in operation as the rule.

Although Aristotle is correct regarding the purpose of the sciences, this difference between the two of them may partly explain their difference of opinion regarding the state of completeness of the sciences. Aristotle basically believed the sciences complete, as I said in the last post, but part of the reason for this may be that he did not care much about potential improvements in the mechanical arts. Bacon, on the other hand, was concerned precisely with such improvements. In particular, he wishes to make gold, as he suggests here in Bk. 2, Aphorism 5:

The rule or axiom for the transformation of bodies is of two kinds. The first regards a body as a troop or collection of simple natures. In gold, for example, the following properties meet. It is yellow in color, heavy up to a certain weight, malleable or ductile to a certain degree of extension; it is not volatile and loses none of its substance by the action of fire; it turns into a liquid with a certain degree of fluidity; it is separated and dissolved by particular means; and so on for the other natures which meet in gold. This kind of axiom, therefore, deduces the thing from the forms of simple natures. For he who knows the forms of yellow, weight, ductility, fixity, fluidity, solution, and so on, and the methods for superinducing them and their gradations and modes, will make it his care to have them joined together in some body, whence may follow the transformation of that body into gold.

This desire for gold in particular is probably a desire for money, which seems to be a kind of universal power, although one might question whether money would be necessary for someone who can change anything into anything else whenever he pleases. In any case, Bacon is engaging in a kind of wishful thinking here. He recognizes, in fact, that human beings have a limited ability to transform nature (Bk. 1, Aphorism 4):

Toward the effecting of works, all that man can do is to put together or put asunder natural bodies. The rest is done by nature working within.

From this it should follow that it may be impossible to effect certain transformations, if they will not follow upon such putting together or asunder of natural bodies. But instead of waiting to learn from experience, Bacon simply assumes (and this is the wishful thinking) that any possible transformation, such as the transformation of lead into gold, will definitely be possible. Since the sciences of his day could do nothing of the sort, he concluded that the sciences still had a great deal of room for improvement.

There are good reasons to think that Bacon’s assumption was false. For example, the no-cloning theorem says that perfectly copying a quantum state is impossible. There may be no particular reason why you would need to do this, but that is not the point. Rather, Bacon claims that any form can be induced upon anything, and this seems to be false.

Nonetheless, his conclusion that the sciences of his day were very imperfect was indeed correct. Thus, although his idea of the purpose of the sciences was inferior to Aristotle’s position, his idea of the state of their progress was superior.