Under The Sun

Monday, October 06, 2003


Philosophy vs. Reality

Is there an answer to radical ("Cartesian") skepticism? (I keep a bottle of industrial-strength Cartesian skepticism on my desk, by the way, given me by Colin McGinn in his recent autobiography. Really.) Ludwig Wittgenstein said yes--at least we think he did; it's hard to be sure about Wittgenstein--and the late Donald Davidson expanded Wittgenstein's argument by giving "careful and systematic articulation to a non-Cartesian account of the relations between mind, language, and world".

The link above is not that account. That piece's author, Richard Rorty, has his own horse in this race, and therefore attributes to Davidson positions that Davidson clearly did not hold. In this essay I'll take on Rorty's position; later I'll try to discern Davidson's position--some preliminary research demonstrates that I have to do more research--and to evaluate some of its (much more nuanced) claims.

Rorty's position, to summarize the summary, is that "reality" is by definition nothing more than our shared view of the world. Asking questions about a hypothetical Reality beyond or underlying the common one--metaphysics a la Plato or Kant--is simply nonsense. This doctrine is grounded in a belief about language: language is what describes the world, and the world is what is described by language. Metaphysics and epistemology cancel each other out in a puff of logic.

To borrow (out of context) a put-down from McGinn: there are two problems with this position: it is silly, and it is false.

It is silly because it attempts to tell us that we mean (when using language) something other than what we mean. When I say that the sky is blue, I don't mean, as Rorty would have it, that the sky is the color everyone agrees the sky to be; I mean that the sky is the color I, personally, perceive as blue. I grant the possibility that I am mistaken and the sky is in fact crimson; I also grant the possibility that when you agree that the sky is blue you are in fact perceiving what I would call red. But both of those are cases in which a statement--"the sky is blue" or "we both perceive the same color as blue"--is false. Actively false. The same holds for Rorty's example. "If you believe," says Rorty, "that beavers live in deserts, are pure white in color, and weigh 300 pounds when adult, then you do not have any beliefs, true or false, about beavers." This may be true on a technicality--perhaps I grew up in the jungles of New Guinea and simply learned English wrong--but except for such "pathological" cases (that's a term of art), it must be true that if I believe that the word 'beaver' applies to such critters, then I believe that beavers are such critters. There is a belief that is false, and there's no good reason to assert that the false belief is merely about language rather than about reality.

There is no good reason because of the second point: Rorty's theory is itself empirically, and obviously, false. Language is "an attempt to communicate the content of nonlinguistic experiences"--that's how I use language, and if it's not how you use language then you and I are put together very differently. By my direct ("clear and distinct") empirical self-perception, Rorty is wrong.

Why would anyone--even a philosopher--argue otherwise? Here's where Rorty's bias comes in: Rorty, infamously, doesn't believe in Truth. Rorty took a legitimate (though controversial) epistemological theory called 'pragmatism' and elevated it to the status of metaphysics, with rather laughable results. Legitimate pragmatism holds that we learn whether our beliefs are true by finding out whether they have predictive power: that is, whether the actions we take based on our beliefs have the consequences we expect them to. Example: I believe that my friend is angry at me because of X; I go to him and apologize for X; if my friend ceases to be angry at me I can infer that my belief was correct. I can't be certain based on a single trial; perhaps my friend was angry about something else but my apology made him realize the uselessness of that anger, for instance. But important beliefs, those that guide more of our actions, are tested repeatedly and in many different ways; a belief that passes all such tests may graduate from hypothesis to theory. Pragmatism is the notion that common sense--indeed all knowledge--is acquired "scientifically", by something like trial and error. There is no other kind of knowledge.

Again: pragmatism is an epistemology, a theory about what knowledge is. It is not a metaphysics, a theory about what reality is. Rorty--not only Rorty, but he's the poster-boy, and wants to be--tries to make it a metaphysics by asserting that 'truth' is, by definition, that which is discovered by the pragmatic method. This is silly: obviously truth is what Is, and the pragmatic method can go wrong. The attempt to reduce Truth to pragmatism is an attempt to escape the trap of skepticism, and Rorty argues that it is self-justifying, in that it is pragmatic to believe that truth is pragmatic. But he's just wrong; and he's certainly wrong in this particular essay, because he's trying to assert that pragmatism is true because it defeats skepticism. That, my friends, is begging the question.

Rorty further argues that humans acquired "the ability to use language in order to coordinate our actions with those of other people", and that "human languages are as they are, contain the words they do, because they have been shaped by interaction with the nonhuman universe." This is an evolutionary account of language, and it's likely true; at least it's plausible. It just doesn't buy us what Rorty wants it to buy. This theory of language implies nothing about the non-human universe except that it is such as to have produced by that process the language we have. We're back to Kant: we can know all sorts of things about the world as we perceive it (the 'phenomenal' world, in Kant's terms) but that tells us nothing necessarily about what may underlie that world (the 'noumenal' world of Truth and Reality). Rorty's conclusion in the above passage is that "[w]e need not worry about the adequacy of our language to describe reality". Once again the question is begged: what is reality? The skeptical argument simply has not been addressed.

Now here's the clincher, the reason why Rorty's position is wrong on its own terms. "We need not worry" is a prediction about the future: if we ignore this nothing bad will happen. But such a prediction is inherently non-pragmatic, because it prejudges the outcome of its own pragmatic trial. We have yet to find out whether our worries will prove worth while. If in fact we are in a Matrix-style virtual reality, then it's quite possible that our ability to imagine such a thing will help us to escape it (or to decide whether we want to). Skepticism is pragmatic, because it keeps us on our toes. A vast majority of the ways our imaginations offer that our universe might surprise will not (I sincerely hope) come to pass. But if something does happen to break our complacency, we will be better able to cope with it because of our ability to worry.

This returns to Aristotle: "Philosophy begins in wonder." It returns to Hume, who first realized that the gray area between skepticism and pragmatism is a tightrope that must be walked. And, crucially, it keeps us open to the possibility of the miraculous, in all its forms. Obviously skepticism can be taken too far; paralysis is (usually) unpragmatic, it doesn't work. But our ability to survive, to navigate life--not to mention our ability to be at peace with our own thinking-imagining minds--depends on our ability to ask, "What If?"


Later: What Davidson actually said.

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