When Exploring New Territory, Stick to the Places You Know

thThe entire concept of non-empirical evidence seems to be off the intellectual maps of many. If there is an argument that this kind of evidence isn’t valid, or doesn’t exist, I haven’t heard it.

What I have heard is that this idea (that all beliefs should be based on empirical evidence) has been completely abandoned by philosophers. The concept was called Logical Positivism, and it was pushed by A.J. Ayer about a century ago before being rejected (even, eventually, by Ayer himself) due to a very simple question:

“Regarding this concept that we should only believe things based on empirical evidence–what is the empirical evidence for that?”

Everyone willing to think open-mindedly on that question realized that there was no empirical evidence for it at all, and that it consequently fails its own test.

But this idea is no less self-contradictory now than it was when Ayer was pushing it. Demanding empirical evidence simply assumes that Positivism is true. It neither deals with the contradiction at its core nor gives us any other reason to accept it.

And this last brings us to the arbitrariness of the position. Insistence upon empirical evidence is simply demanding a preference for the senses over thoughts. But there is no more reason to reject the reality of mental life (consciousness, free will, qualia, moral sense) than to reject the physical.

The modern materialist would scoff at the cartesian skeptic who demanded mental evidence that the physical world exists, who claimed that no evidence which assumes the physical can be considered evidence, and who explained away everything that seems so obviously physical as “really” a mental phenomenon (presumably, an illusion of some sort).

But that position is no less defensible, if far less popular, than the materialist’s own position that we should only acknowledge the physical and explain away the mental as if it were “really” physical.

A more reasonable approach would be to reject both of these positions as arbitrary and self-contradictory demands. But this would mean accepting our mental, as well as our physical, experience as a valid source of information.

To insist that we simply reject the non-empirical until it is empirically established is to replace vast swaths of our intellectual maps with nothing more profound, or less demonstrably false, than the hollow threat: “here there be dragons”.

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25 responses to “When Exploring New Territory, Stick to the Places You Know

  • Alexander

    Oh, no, it was going so well, until;

    “But there is no more reason to reject the reality of mental life (consciousness, free will, qualia, moral sense) than to reject the physical.”

    Really? Your mental capacity given you better pointers to what is real than the rock you just stumbled over? There’s no (immediate) consequences for believing in all sorts of crazy stuff, but there’s very immediate and hard consequences for believing you can fly, throwing yourself off a cliff.

    What we have here is the difference between good and bad evidence, and it’s not hard to see why empiric evidence is considered good; there’s actual, immediate consequences for them. All that other stuff is just mental fluff that might create the light-bulb as well as an evil empire slaughtering millions.

    And so people have decided what they prefer. Scientists prefer empiricism because, well, to quote Dawkins of late; “because it works … bitches.”

    • keithnoback

      It works for what? There’s the trouble…

      • Alexander

        “It works for what? There’s the trouble…”

        Uh, what? Consequences, of course. Are you saying that consequences are irrelevant in this discussion about reasons for accepting or rejecting evidence?

        • keithnoback

          What makes the consequences consequential and how is that decided? Please don’t prop up the logical positivist straw man. The caricature is prominent enough without occasional verification. 🙂

    • Debilis

      “Your mental capacity given you better pointers to what is real than the rock you just stumbled over?”
      It definitely give better pointers regarding mental reality than a rock does, yes. Is there any reason at all to think otherwise?

      But your comment about consequences assumes materialism. It assumes that the physical is real, but the mental consequences of “believing in crazy stuff” (such as the idea that empirical evidence is required, perhaps?) aren’t real.

      Simply rejecting the latter while embracing the former does not establish that empirical evidence is the “good” kind. It is merely to state contemporary prejudices.

      • Alexander

        What’s “mental reality”?

        “But your comment about consequences assumes materialism”

        No, I’m drawing a line between good and bad evidence. Good evidence is evidence closer linked to consequences and the lives we lead. Bad evidence are the kind that you can go “meh” to, without any consequences.

        • katachriston

          Yea, we can go “meh” to the “bad evidence” of ideologies that clearly paved a direct path to “good evidences”, like Marxism for example, lots of “stones” in those gulags huh Alex? Or the current Marxist-nationalist-racist “bad evidence” of DPRK, Juche. Just an idea, Alex – one that’s about ready to rain down “stones” and some very “good evidence” upon your head. Oh well, “meh”.

        • Alexander

          Not sure what planet you’re on now. How does your political disdain in any shape or form detract from the argument I was pointing out? Don’t you get the difference between falling down a flight of stairs and an ideology that may or may not have long-term effects? It’s that word “immediate” which lies at the crux of the argument.

    • Debilis

      Equating “closer linked to consequences and the lives we lead” with physical experiences, in contrast to mental life, is to presume materialism.

      Why is the physical more closely linked to consequences and the lives we lead?

  • Alexander

    “Why is the physical more closely linked to consequences and the lives we lead?”

    I’m going to assume you’re not trolling here, but maybe mean something like the mind controlling the body, and consequences the mind makes for the body, casual consequences, that sort of thing? Well, if you want to go that way, then fine, there are certainly consequences of the mind that are bad for the body, but this is strictly against the physical backdrop of those mental constructs. There are no consequences for mental models you don’t react to, and there are plenty more of them than there are physically linker possibilities with the human body.

    So there are much stronger reasons to say that consequences for the physical body is a stronger indicator for what is real than any mental gymnastics you might do. (Remember that I’m arguing for “what is real” in my original comment) You might ponder stuff about reality, you might think of a few different options in a preposition, but only through empiricism can you determine the realness of it (as opposed to just think it is real, or hope it is, or dream it is, or … you get the idea).

    To put differently; it’s far easier to create consensus on what reality is through physical means than mental.

    • Debilis

      Sorry, that was unclear of me.
      I was referring to purely mental consequences. The fact is that giving in to temptation to bitterness (for example) will have negative mental consequences. This would remain true even if there were no physical reality. One could multiply such examples indefinitely.

      Hence, I don’t see any reason to think that consequences are attached to the physical world alone.

      But I agree that the physical is easier to study, but I don’t know why difficulty of study equates to non-existence.

      In fact, I’m specifically outlining reasons to reach some points of consensus on the mental. Refusing to study them would be no different than refusing to look at scientific data while declaring that there is no consensus about the physical.

      • Alexander

        “The fact is that giving in to temptation to bitterness (for example) will have negative mental consequences”

        But what kind of consequence is that? If it only stays in your head, it’s only a consequence for you, and even then I’d say, not much of a consequence. Surely the whole idea of “consequence” is rooted in magnitude, contextual affect, immediacy and causation.

        Further, what’s a negative mental consequence? At some point in your chain there will be behavioural output, yes?

    • Debilis

      Yes, it is “only a consequence to you”, but that doesn’t make it not a real consequence.

      But a mental breakdown into bitter despair caused by a string of thoughts has great magnitude, it is an effect within a particular context, it is immediate (in at least two senses), and there is a clear line of causation.

      Emotional pain is the first example of a negative mental consequence that comes to mind.

      All this seems to be is the demand that we dismiss any idea that cannot be shared and examined through the senses. In which case, it is pertinent that this demand, itself, can’t be shared and examined through the senses.

      • Alexander

        “Yes, it is “only a consequence to you”, but that doesn’t make it not a real consequence”

        But that wasn’t the subject at hand. We were talking about consequences that are closer to reality. Surely reality is defined through consensus? We all agree that that rock is there? And we can all through experience agree that falling off that rock has certain consequences we agree on?

        With these mental consequences, anything is game, anything from “nothing will happen” to “having weird thoughts” to “doing bad stuff.”

        This is simply my point; it is therefore easier to link physical consequences to the real of reality, to that consensus of what the universe is and what life in it looks like. Mental models are not reality, even when they depict it in whole or in parts. Shared empirical models are simply hard to ignore; mental models very easy to ignore.

        Mental models have maybe some mental consequence for you, until you hit someone over the head with it. However, falling down a flight of stairs is far more immediate. Which, again, was my point.

    • Debilis

      If one experiences a real consequence, then it isn’t close to reality, it is reality. I don’t know how something can be “closer to reality” than that.

      But no, reality is not defined through consensus. The truth of a claim is not up for a vote. All the people on earth could reach the consensus that pigs fly or (to use a mental example) that I hate people, and it wouldn’t make either the slightest bit more true.

      Consensus is a useful practical thing when groups are trying to get things done, and we hope it aligns at least roughly with reality, but it does not define reality.

      But I agree that mental models are not reality. Nor are physical models reality. We simply do our best to make them approximate reality as nearly as possible.

      Nor am I interested in how hard or easy an idea is to ignore. I’m only interested in whether or not it is true.

      • Alexander

        “If one experiences a real consequence, then it isn’t close to reality, it is reality”

        Somehow that distinctions refutes the immediacy of consequences I laid forth? (Besides, both Hume and Locke is quite clear that there is a gap between reality and the human experience of it; that gap is where reality meet us, but it *isn’t* reality, a point extremely important to understand about empiricism)

        “But no, reality is not defined through consensus. The truth of a claim is not up for a vote”

        Consensus is not a voting mechanism, nor is it based on mere opinions (we’re talking about empiricism here; it means agreement between theory and evidence). If that really is your understanding of it, then I can understand where the confusion might arise from.

        “All the people on earth could reach the consensus that pigs fly”

        No, that’s a terribly contrived example that would never fly. (See what I did there? 🙂 ) Let’s try some example that have some kind of reality attached, like a conviction that an idea is the correct way in which to do something; it’s plausible that all the people on the planet could agree to the idea that we should blink our eyes before opening any door, for example. But all you have here is a consensus that we *should* do this, not that we have to do this, or that there is some fact that we do this. Human models and behaviour have very few musts, but plenty of shoulds. The natural world, however, behaves in a way that is insanely predictable to the point that we’ve dubbed our many investigations of it in terms of natural laws (however, they are not laws; it’s a linguistic shortcut for the probabilities of how the natural world works).

        Consensus on empirical matters are not the opinions of people; it’s correlations between theories and evidence. If you *opinion* differ, you need to take that up with the theory, and that’s yet another round of scientific investigation.

        “But I agree that mental models are not reality. Nor are physical models reality.”

        What do you mean, physical model?

    • Debilis

      I don’t see any reason to think that mental consequences aren’t immediate. Surely, the emotional reaction to a funny thought is immediate.

      (I’m aware of Hume and Locke, but I don’t find their arguments persuasive. Feel free to present them if you’d like)

      That definition of consensus makes more sense. But, given it, I don’t see any reason to think that a belief in minds fails to line up with reality. And I certainly think there are some reasons to think that materialism doesn’t line up with reality.

      But I don’t object to the idea that physical objects are more predictable than minds. While this is excellent reason to be cautious about what specific claims we make about the behavior of minds, it is not a reason to claim that mind does not exist.

      So no, I do not agree that reality is defined by this definition of consensus either. Reality must exist independent of it for this definition to be intelligible.

      By physical model, I mean theories–models about the physical, as opposed to models that are physical (sorry about the obscurity of that!). That is to say that our ability to model a thing does not establish its reality.

      • Alexander

        “Surely, the emotional reaction to a funny thought is immediate.”

        That’s not how that term is used in philosophy. Immediacy relates to the time between reality and your perception of it, not just reaction times inside the limits of your brain.

        “I’m aware of Hume and Locke, but I don’t find their arguments persuasive”

        Their arguments not persuasive? I’m not sure you understand this point. First Locke then Hume defines the model and structure of empiricism. It is not for you to be persuaded by some argument about its merits, this is the definition that people use when they say “empiricism.” If anything you are rejecting empiricism and the whole of science with it.

        “I don’t see any reason to think that a belief in minds fails to line up with reality”

        I don’t understand what you mean by “belief in minds.”

        ” I certainly think there are some reasons to think that materialism doesn’t line up with reality”

        Not to argue for materialism here, but what are those reasons?

        “it is not a reason to claim that mind does not exist”

        I haven’t argued that minds don’t exist. I’ve argued that dualism is false, and that “the mind” is an emergent property of the brain and our perceptions.

        “Reality must exist independent of it for this definition to be intelligible”

        I’m sorry, but you cannot prove there is a reality, we can only take it on the basis in which we find it; through our perceptions of it. (Weird that I should argue against reality, but there you have it)

        “models that are physical”

        What are those?

        “By physical model, I mean theories”

        Then they are, by definition, mental models. A model, as a general concept, is how the brain uses perceptions to figure something out. A model happens in your brain whether you’re modeling thoughts, the physical world or are reading a book. All models are false; they are mental constructs, and hence is not reality. I think we agree on this point?

        “That is to say that our ability to model a thing does not establish its reality”

        Glad to hear, because that’s making my point for me. 🙂 Mental gymnastics have no bearing on what’s real, and that has been my point all along. No amount of using your mind is going to produce anything that reaches reality unless you base it on things we can somehow safely assume actually exists. Otherwise you end up with Napoleon.

    • Debilis

      I understand this concept, but I see no reason to think that mental events aren’t immediate in this sense. Do you know of such a reason?

      As to Hume and Locke, I’m not rejecting science. I’m rejecting the notion that empiricism, so defined, describes reality more accurately and fully than one which includes mind.

      To that end, I believe that the mind is not purely reducible to material states (as “matter” has been defined since Descartes). In fact, I know of no good argument in favor of the idea that the material comprises the whole of reality. Hume seems only to assert an epistemology that would be the practical equivalent, for instance.

      So, again, I’m not rejecting “the whole of science” in rejecting empiricism. I’m accusing empiricism of being an incomplete epistemology.

      Are you aware of, for instance, an argument which defends Hume’s famous ‘book burning’ passage?

      I haven’t argued that minds don’t exist. I’ve argued that dualism is false, and that “the mind” is an emergent property of the brain and our perceptions.

      I understand this, but I honestly don’t know what your argument is. I don’t see any reason to think that the physical is more immediate than the mental. I don’t see any reason to think that it passes any test more fully than the mental–other than submission to mathematical modeling and the ability to share objects between individuals. But I don’t see why either of these are valid tests for the validity of dualism.

      But, what is the difference between your concept of an emergent mind and a materialist view of the mind? Are you claiming that brain-states are not wholly reducible to neuron-interaction?

      Personally, I lean toward hylomorphic dualism, which claims that the mind would be reducible to brain-states were we to take a traditional, rather than cartesian, view of matter.

      Then they are, by definition, mental models.
      Of course, I was simply contrasting them to models about the mind.

      All models are false; they are mental constructs, and hence is not reality. I think we agree on this point?
      I completely agree that models are not actually reality. I also agree that no model is perfectly in line with reality. I do not agree that they are all “false” in the sense that their content fails to correspond tolerably well with reality.

      Glad to hear, because that’s making my point for me. Mental gymnastics have no bearing on what’s real, and that has been my point all along.
      My goodness!
      We could have saved ourselves a lot of time if we’d not had our wires crossed about this! I completely agree!

      My point was never that theories are ‘real’, or that mental gymnastics determine reality. My point was simply in support of dualism (which claims neither of these things). I’m arguing that thoughts are real, not in the sense that what is being thought of has a bearing on any reality outside the mind, but simply in the sense that thoughts, themselves are part of reality that is irreducible to brain states.

      But, reading this, I still don’t understand why you reject dualism, or how your view differs from materialism.

      • Alexander

        I’m going to cut it a bit short;

        “I’m rejecting the notion that empiricism, so defined”

        I think I’m finding your definitions incomplete? We’ve been beating around the empirical bush a lot over the last month or so, so I’m not sure we agree on what “empirical” fully means. Perhaps you should start a post specifically on that topic, and we’ll move on from there?

        “I don’t see any reason to think that the physical is more immediate than the mental”

        That’s not what I’ve argued. I’m not making a distinction between “the physical” and “the mental” at all, I’ve said that *consequences* of such matters. It’s the *consequences* from “the physical” is more immediate than “the mental”, and frankly, it’s a bit of a moot point as I’ve pointed out if you look up how “immediacy” is treated is philosophy.

        “My point was simply in support of dualism (which claims neither of these things)”

        Duality doesn’t imply the reality of this duality? 🙂 Surely that’s not what you meant.

        “But, reading this, I still don’t understand why you reject dualism”

        No evidence for it.

        “how your view differs from materialism”

        Not sure I have denied it?

    • Debilis

      I’m going to cut it a bit short;
      It’s appreciated; I’ll try to do the same.

      We’ve been beating around the empirical bush a lot over the last month or so, so I’m not sure we agree on what “empirical” fully means.
      I’ve been thinking the same.
      I’ve been defining it as the world observable through the senses (and instruments which assist the senses). I suppose I could do a post, but I’m not sure I could say much more than that.

      I’ve said that *consequences* of such matters. It’s the *consequences* from “the physical” is more immediate than “the mental”
      Under the definition you have given, the *consequences* from the physical are no more immediate than purely mental *consequences*. In fact, they are demonstrably less so. As one perceives one’s thoughts directly, the consequences of those thoughts (other thoughts, emotional reactions, etc.) are observed without having to wait for information to travel to the central nervous system.

      “But, reading this, I still don’t understand why you reject dualism”
      No evidence for it.
      The irreducibility (even in principle) to the physical, is evidence for dualism.

      Okay, on to the next.
      Best to you until then.

      • shelterit

        “I’ve been defining it as the world observable through the senses (and instruments which assist the senses).”

        Just keep in mind that the founders of empiricism didn’t constrain it to the senses, but to perceptions. (And you should jump on it, as it makes a better case for you. 🙂 )

        “In fact, they are demonstrably less so.”

        Only if you haven’t been paying attention. 🙂 In fact, I’ve talked about consequences of immediacy (which I’ve pointed out more than once or thrice before), that is, the connections between the mental and the real. Stubbing your foot is part of that definition, but logic in your head is not.

        “The irreducibility (even in principle) to the physical, is evidence for dualism”

        No it most certainly is not. Give me these irreducible things, and point to what about them cannot be explained as emergent properties of the underlying physical system. It sounds like you’re holding on to some old-school version of the mind (as in religion and philosophy) rather than looking at neuroscience for clues. Point to something that cannot be explained in neuroscientific terms.

    • Debilis

      Just keep in mind that the founders of empiricism didn’t constrain it to the senses, but to perceptions. (And you should jump on it, as it makes a better case for you. 🙂
      I’m not sure I understand how you are choosing to define “perceptions” here.

      It doesn’t seem to be perceptions from sensory data alone. But, if we are using a definition allows for non-sensory perceptions, then, yes, it gives us no reason to reject my suggestion that awareness of thoughts and emotions are valid sources of information.

      I assume this is what you meant, but please let me know if that is wrong.

      Stubbing your foot is part of that definition, but logic in your head is not.
      I honestly don’t see how stubbing your toe, by this definition, is any more immediate than feeling panicked at the sudden thought a killer is near.

      Nor do I see any reason here to reject the idea that one’s personal, first person, thoughts and emotions should be rejected as real things.

      Give me these irreducible things, and point to what about them cannot be explained as emergent properties of the underlying physical system.
      The same that I’ve named.
      I’d be interested in discussing attempts to explain them as physical entities.

      But, I do want to comment on yet another term, “emergent”. This only supports materialism in the event that it means that consciousness (or whatever mental phenomenon) is nothing more than the interaction of neurons (that is, brain states).

      My problem is that I’ve seen no conceptual way that interactions of neurons (no matter how complex) can objectively be about anything other than themselves. Nor can they subjectively be about anything unless a mind is already present in order to have a subjective view.

      More than that, I see good reason to think that (unless we add something into the mix other than this) this is not the case. Certainly, there is nothing about the electro chemical interactions of neurons that makes those bouncing electrons “about” Paris, France.

      Nor could all the scientific data in the world teach a bat (even if it could understand scientific data) what a rainbow looks like to a human. Nor, for that matter, could all the scientific data in the world really explain to us what echolocation feels like to a bat. Even perfect knowledge of the neurological activity would not allow us to know what it is that the bat is experiencing.

      Subjective experience simply isn’t scientifically describable. Not because our science isn’t advanced enough, and not because consciousness and qualia don’t exist, but because science isn’t in the business of describing subjective experiences. It is after objective knowledge.

      • Alexander

        “non-sensory perceptions”

        As far as I can tell, there’s no such thing. The alternative is to suggest that there is some part of the brain that communicates in ways that we currently don’t call senses. And even that I don’t have a problem with, not by itself. The issue isn’t that the brain has “something more” (as you say) – a soul, the holy spirit, something metaphysical – at all; the problem is as follows;

        How can I tell the difference between mental illness and what’s communicated through your soul? If they look exactly the same, why should I think they different? If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, why shouldn’t I think it is a duck?

        Again, I’m not saying you have any mental illnesses, far from it. It’s an epistemological question; how can we tell the difference? You might have it all sorted in your own head, but if anything, the immediate consequences (remember those? 🙂 ) from that model is what I can judge by. I’m just an observer of our interactions. How can we get from what I see about your behaviour, to an agreed definition of what is true?

        “science isn’t in the business of describing subjective experiences. It is after objective knowledge”

        There’s a few things wrong with this, but I won’t nitpick too much. However, science is not after objective knowledge. The very concept of “objective” has had so much scrutiny and arguments through the eons that I’m inclined to declare it a false belief. Everything is subjective; science can only hope for consensus.

    • Debilis

      Greetings once again!

      “non-sensory perceptions”
      As far as I can tell, there’s no such thing.
      You need to support this, however. I certainly seem to have a non-sensoy perception of feeling happy in this moment. Unless this can be shown to be be sensory, or not be a perception, I’m inclined to believe such things exist.

      How can I tell the difference between mental illness and what’s communicated through your soul?
      This is no different from the traditional “brain in a vat” argument. Which essentially asks “how I tell the difference between a mental illness and what is communicated through your senses?”, or “how do you know that you aren’t simply a brain hooked up to a computer which believes you experience a real world?”.

      If you want iron-clad, rock-solid proof, there is none when one is willing to throw out one’s own experience as illusory. But this strikes be as a bit sophist. A good position shouldn’t lean on doubting basic human experience, but on explaining it.

      But I thought this was a very interesting question:
      I’m just an observer of our interactions. How can we get from what I see about your behaviour, to an agreed definition of what is true?
      I think this is a very good point. Based on my actions alone, I’d agree that you cannot. Rather, I’m appealing to the idea that you have a first-person perspective that is roughly like my own. That is, that you have thoughts and feelings yourself.

      It is to your own inner life that I am appealing in my argument to you. I completely agree that you can’t know mine with any degree of immediacy.

      However, science is not after objective knowledge. The very concept of “objective” has had so much scrutiny and arguments through the eons that I’m inclined to declare it a false belief. Everything is subjective; science can only hope for consensus.
      I personally don’t see any reason to think that everything is subjective. One is tempted to ask “is the idea that everything is subjective objectively true, or just an opinion?”.

      But none of this speaks to my argument. Science is defined in such a way that it does not and cannot (even in principle) describe, test for, hypothesize about, accept, or reject first-person perspectives.

      It tries to get at an objective world outside of those perspectives. To say that this is hopeless is to say that science doesn’t work (which I find difficult to support), but it is not to say that science studies first-person perspectives. Whether “objective” or “consensus”, it simply does not do that.

      Okay, two down, but I’m off to dinner.
      Best wishes until I make it around to the next.

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