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Practice Problems — Molyneaux Problem & Infinite Regression

July 30, 2011 Leave a comment

Next in Wikipedia’s list of Unsolved Problems in Philosophy is the Molyneaux Problem, which asks the following:

If a man born blind, and able to distinguish by touch between a cube and a globe, were made to see, could he now tell by sight which was the cube and which the globe, before he touched them?

As the Wikipedia article itself states, this is no longer a problem for the academic field of philosophy but rather for science (arguments calling science the “natural philosophy” notwithstanding). I don’t know whether psychology has, on the whole, definitively answered this question, but it seems as though the pieces are all in place to allow a scientific and experimental investigation of the problem, leaving we pedants with time to focus on other problems.

Nextly we come to the problem that has made this post take so long to get written. I simply don’t know what to do with it. The Infinite Regression of Justification notices that, with knowledge defined as justified, true belief, we must ask after the validity of any justification, and we must justify a justification. The infinite regress here is clear, and now we must know how to deal with this.

My only personal approach is to deny binaries and absolutism. For me, a fact that is justified down the entire infinite regress would be considered “absolute knowledge.” The reality of such knowledge is up for debate, but it is not material to this discussion: most of our knowledge is not so infinitely justified, and in this view we can, I think, have a better understanding of our knowledge-base if we accept a sort of Popperian critical approach to knowledge and allow that which we know to always be, in principle, mutable. There will be those facts whose justification is so deep and, perhaps, so widely varied (such as the assurance that the floor will be under our foot when we next take a step) that our assurance of its truth is close enough to total as to be effectively immutable, but so long as we recognize that we might just indeed change our beliefs given the right new justification, we can resolve this infinite regression problem.

I’ve written about this problem as a justification for a deep analytical skepticism in the past, but that was not, I think, correct. I think instead we should not use this infinite regression as an excuse to refuse to every know anything, but rather as a justification to recognize the in-principle limitedness of our knowledge. We can then think of knowledge as a web of related facts, models, and theories that lays atop the objective world and closely resembles it, but does not match it exactly. Learning and study and experience, then, which can refine our beliefs and give us more and deeper justifications for individual truths, can bring our individual webs of knowledge into closer resemblance to absolute reality, but an actually exactly accurate map (which may or not be possible) would basically be identical to, and thus interchangeable with, absolute reality.

I know that this is less an attack on the problem of Infinite Regression and more of a loosely-tied-together rambling on related topics, but this is the closest I have to a response to this problem. It is a pain in the ass of a problem, and I think it may be at the core of the epistemological approaches strangling English-language philosophical creativity. I think the philosopher or school that can break this problem and introduce a new and vital knowledge-model will be a valuable contributor to Western thought.

Categories: epistemology, philosophy

Practice Exercises — Gettier’s Problem

July 19, 2011 1 comment

To copy and paste viciously from Wikipedia,

Plato suggests, in his TheaetetusMeno, and other dialogues, that “knowledge” may be defined as justified true belief. For over two millennia, this definition of knowledge has been reinforced and accepted by subsequent philosophers, who accepted justifiability, truth, and belief as the necessary criteria for information to earn the special designation of being “knowledge.”

In 1963, however, Edmund Gettier published an article in the periodical Analysis entitled “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”, offering instances of justified true belief that do not conform to the generally understood meaning of “knowledge.” Gettier’s examples hinged on instances of epistemic luck: cases where a person appears to have sound evidence for a proposition, and that proposition is in fact true, but the apparent evidence is not causally related to the proposition’s truth.

This problem provides for us a nice change of pace, in that the way I will examine this does not hinge on fuzzy categorical boundaries (although I probably could take that route and simply bitch about the category of thought-objects called “knowledge” being fuzzily defined). It seems to me as though such an attack would reduce what can be understood as a fascinating question of experience into a dry semantic debate, and the English-speaking world has been doing far too much of that this past century or so.

So the problem persists. It persists, in fact, as no shallow problem at the periphery of philosophy. It appears to be yet another one of these boundary-conditional problems, yet another one of this issues of resolution of scale; like the progress of scientific models, if we simply hone our thinking we can create a more accurate model of knowledge that derives its creative foundation from the currently accepted “justified, true belief.” But this makes the problem too easy, allowing us a apologetic “it’ll do for now”, and does not allow for the wider methodological space available to philosophy that cannot be approached under a scientific method.

In the first sense, we must criticize those philosophical directions that consider this a prescriptive problem. It is a dishonesty to try to sculpt a definition of what one can or should call “knowledge.”  I think it safe to say that even philosophers who approach this problem in that vein will try to bind the scope of their definition into some resemblance of that which is called “knowledge” in ordinary conversation, otherwise the word simply becomes a vacuous word-symbol, and the resolution of this problem can stem clearly and effectively from that definition. Since any legitimate approach will attempt to bind itself to that meaning of the word which is used in daily conversation, it is most honest to simply drop the prescriptive attack and just attempt to describe what knowledge is, and not what it ought to be.

The problem so revised, we are immediately and rather gracelessly confronted with perhaps one of the most inelegant and undying problems in thought: subjectivity. “Knowledge” to me is not necessarily “knowledge” to you, and you and I can both believe ourselves to know facts which are mutually contradictory. How is this resolved? The answer to that question, I would say, is “functionally.” More specifically, in our experience of the world, knowledge is not a static entity, not a simple aggregate of information with some positively correlating operator against the real world, but it is a body of function-serving tissue. The function which knowledge serves is to provide us with a framework for realizing and operating in the world around us.

Gettier’s Problem, then, resolves itself thusly: knowledge is not “justified, true belief” as much as it is that particular reflection of the world held within the individual psyche that re-projects itself back out onto the world, shaping the way the world presents itself to the experiencing agent. With this, we can begin to break down the boundaries of the epistemological and phenomenological questions and resolve them into a single, experienced moment of understanding where knowledge and world meet at the locus of the experiencing agent. In this sense, any belief or understanding which is sufficiently compatible with the objective world as to not cause a cognitive dissonance can be considered knowledge. This allows us to respect and distance ourselves from the individually solipsistic worlds of our neighbors while continuing to exist inside our own solipsisms, while still preserving the integrity of the intersubjective and objective spaces.

With this reconceptualization of knowledge and, more specifically, the relationship between knowledge and the experiencing/knowing agent, we resolve Gettier’s Problem by cutting off the source from which it would have spawned: prescriptive definition.

Categories: epistemology, philosophy

Practice Exercises — Art objects

July 17, 2011 4 comments

Continuing down the list of Unsolved Problems in Philosophy Wikipedia page, the next problem with which we shall concern ourselves is the question of art objects.

The problems here arise when we start trying to put clear lines between art objects and non-art objects, or between particular instantiations of an art object and some wholly original piece. This problem is not, actually, in any fashion different from yesterday’s problem of Aesthetic Essentialism. The fact is that these problems occur at the edges of the conceivable whenever we try to explicitly categorize.

“Art objects” as a word-symbol does not actually refer to any particularly definable class of objects. Naive categorization does not hold, and sooner or later we’re going to recognize that this is not just true when dealing with the set of all sets which do not include themselves. The problem here is the problem of vague predicates, the same exact problem that more explicitly rears its head in the Paradox of the Heap.

What needs to be understood is that all natural predicates are necessarily vague, albeit some more so than others. To express more formally: it’s been understood for some time that a word is a symbol that refers to some entity in the world, be it material, conceptual, categorical, etc. There is, however, a fallacy in thinking that the entire world of entities is referred to, in some clearly defined relationship, by a word. Words do not clearly point to discrete spaces, but they more accurately point to regions of a space filled with entities. The borders between regions are simply not defined, much like a hand gesture pointing vaguely “over there.” In the right context, such a vague hand gesture can be quite helpful, and in the context of our ordinary lives, a word’s association with some nebulous ontic cloud is enough for us to get by.

We can, perhaps, encapsulate a large space of that which is considered art with some clear definition, but there will always be boundary problems. At some point, I will clearly articulate the theoretical underpinnings of this inassailable rift between our linguistic and ontic worlds, but for now let this particular argument be observational philosophy: nobody can clearly define art or what makes a particular piece of art because these concepts are not clearly defined in relation to the world about which they speak. For us to place rigid boundaries against them defies the natural meaning of the words, and is a case of philosophers self-interestedly building a world they can understand; this is not our duty. Our duty is to understand the world in which we exist already.

Categories: aesthetics, philosophy

Practice Exercises — Aesthetic Essentialism

July 17, 2011 7 comments

I’m going to attempt to begin a series of attacks on unsolved problems in philosophy. For this exercise, I’ve very carefully pored over the resources available and developed what I believe to be the most refined list of important individual problems. My methodology has been thus:

  1. Check the List of Unsolved Problems in Philosophy on Wikipedia
  2. Go down the damn list
As my exhaustive method has discerned, the first question with which I shall grapple is the problem of aesthetic essentialism. I recommend reading that short paragraph to contextualize my attack. As defined by Wikipedia,  essentialism in art is “the idea that each medium has its own particular strengths and weaknesses, contingent on its mode of communication.”

My attack on this is crude and unrefined, because it spawns as a reflection of the problem which demands it. Essentialism in any form is a boldly ignorant position. Russell showed the problem with essentialism as it manifested itself in naive Set Theory; Wittgenstein annihiliated essentialism in linguistic categorization; modern empirical psychological results deny cognitive categorical essentialism. The notion of an essential, be it in the definitions of sets, the construction of the universe, or the nature of language and thought is the product of a childishly unorganized thought process.

Back in the philosophical day, according an essential nature to a thing or category was a fine way to organize our thoughts. It was a fantastic tool for slicing our world up into manageable, discussable bits. But we as philosophers need to engage our flow, we need to keep the challenge of understanding the world at a place where it meets our skill, and our skill has surpassed this. We know today that the word-symbol “table” does not refer  to some prototypical, ideal table; nor does it refer to some list of features common to all tables; it refers to a nebulous cloud of tables, tables which enter the category of “table” by some subtler mechanism–probably familial resemblance to other members of the category “table.” At the edges, “table” is ill-defined (the line between a “table” and a “desk” is not always clear, is it?), but we should no longer allow that to bother us. We should, instead, remember that the space of words, of nameable categories, is countable, whereas the space of reality is not so simply bound.

This same ill-defining same holds for artistic ventures. The medium of an artistic enterprise can not be accurately or completely expressed with the naming of a category. An aesthetic essentialist would agree that sonnets and haikus are both poems, both with strengths and weaknesses in communicating different ideas, and would thus be categories of media with their own essential expressive natures. But a particular endeavour which is either a sonnet or a haiku would also be a poem. Now, a poem has communicative strengths and weaknesses, certainly, but knowing the strengths and weaknesses of a poem does not give you all the same information as knowing the strengths and weaknesses of a more refined categorization.

I think most essentialist art critics would agree that it is not sufficient to know merely the fundamental physical media of a particular artistic endeavour (because that would simply be a list of fundamental physical particles: so many electrons, so many neutrinos, a smattering of quarks, etc) to develop reasonable judgment criteria. I think they would agree that it is necessary to have more information, to have a more refined sense of the medium. But the medium of a particular work of art is that material which is used to convey the artistic meaning or message, whatever that may be. The most refined possible notion of the medium of a particular work is precisely the work itself. That is, the work of art is precisely those materials which convey the work’s meaning.

To return full-circle: once upon a time, it may have been fair (because our sense was not so sensitively refined and our critical skill not so well honed) to judge a piece by lumping it in with other pieces that use physically or expressively similar material. And it is still intelligent today to contextualize a piece stylistically and materially. But we cannot allow our aesthetic judgment to rise forth from some notion of commonality among certain categories of art, because that leads to paradox and unrefined judgment–a sonnet and a haiku should not be judged by the same standards, but to judge a sonnet as a poem judges by the same standards with which one would judge a haiku. A piece’s aesthetic quality can only be judged by standards arising from itself: from its intent, from its expression, from its form. In some sense, we could consider the essentialist thesis true: individual media do have certain strengths and weaknesses, and a piece can be judged by criteria rising from its medium. But the medium is the piece itself, so this becomes an entirely useless statement: it’s trivial that individual pieces have strengths and weaknesses, and it’s trivial that a piece gives rise to its judgment.

I think that concludes my daily pontification. As I warned you: my attack was crude, but so was the problem. Essentialism in all its forms is naive and immature, and so my attacks against it shall be correspondingly simple and immature: a philosophical “nu-uh that’s dumb.”

Categories: aesthetics, philosophy
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