The Disjunction of Experience As An Argument Against Scepticism

Or, a rough gloss on John McDowell’s essay in ‘The Engaged Intellect’, entitled, ‘The Disjunctive Conception of Experience

– McDowell is concerned to show that we have to be able to make sense of the idea that our experience purports to be experience of objective reality. He supposes that the sceptic against which this argument is directed grants this: that experience has objective purport. At the very least, our experience seems to have this purport.

– The sceptic here holds that experience ‘leaves open’, as it were, the possibility that things aren’t how they appear.

– From this, the sceptic moves to the stronger position where no experience can serve as warrant for the belief that what we are experiencing is, in fact, the actual, objective world.

– There is, then, no difference in epistemic status between a state in which we actually perceive the real, objective world (1) and a state in which we simply are mistaken or led astray by our experience (2). McDowell calls this the highest-common-factor (HCF), and its based on the indistinguisability of (1) from (2). From this indistinguishability, the sceptic infers that there is no different in warrant between (1) and (2).

– What McDowell aims to show, however, is that if the sceptic holds objective at least appears to have objective purport, then the HCF undermines it by not allowing any experience to serve as warrant that experience has objective purport. If this is true, then we can’t even make sense of the notion of appearance.

– McDowell’s argument is based on Sellar’s disjunctive conception of experience – that is, there are two types of experience, one in which we experience an objective state of affairs and one in which we expereince only appearances (or are mistaken, or led astray or what have you). If we undergo an experience of the first kind, we are warranted in believing that we are experiencing the real, objective world.

– The disjunctive conception then serves to do its ‘epistemic work’ by blocking the inference from the indistinguishability of (1) from (2). It also serves as a transcendental argument: if our experience is not disjunctive,  then we lose our grip on the very notion of appearances and experience.

The Gift of a Name

Etienne Gilson’s ‘metaphysic of Exodus’ begins with God’s giving of His name to Moses in Exodus 3:14, a giving which Gilson argues has, though itself not a philosophical statement, the most profound philosophical consequences in history. Why is this giving of God’s name unphilosophical?

‘…since he was God of the Jews, they already knew Him; and they knew Him as the Lord God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Time and again, their God had proved to them that He was taking care of His people; their relation with Him had always been personal relations between persons and another person; the only thing they still wanted to know about Him was what to call Him. As a matter of fact, Moses himself did not know the name of the one God; but he knew that the Jews would ask him for it; and instead of engaging upon deep metaphysical meditations to discover the true name of God, he took a typically religious short cut. Moses simply asked God about His name…'(Etienne Gilson, ‘God and Philosophy’, p. 39-40)

God gave His name, which as Gilson goes on to argue, is a religious answer to a philosophical question – that is, a decidedly non-metaphysical statement from which the deepest of metaphysical realities follows. This deepest of realities is, simply put, God, or, as He puts it, ‘I AM WHO I AM’, as He discloses it, and not as the human mind finds it. The giving of God’s name is the disclosure of that deepest of all realities – God Himself. However, though God revealed His name, He still remained ‘a most deeply hidden God’, (p.72).

Sonderegger, in her Systematic Theology, takes what I think is a similar, though more technical approach to Exodus. Her reading of Exodus shows that, in the burning bush, God can simply dwell with creatures. In the giving of His name, Sonderegger sees a disclosure of God’s reality as a ‘most deeply hidden God’:

‘Perhaps we might glimpse just this truth when we reflect on the Divine Name given to Moses: I AM That I AM. Often considered a kind of divine refusal to give a Name, we might rather say that it is a name that bears all Divine Reality in it, yet without disclosing all the “entailments” [NOTE: Here I think Sonderegger is at odds with a part of Gilson’s metaphysic of Exodus, where the entailments and attributes follow from God’s disclosure]. The I AM, the One, reveals His great Mystery, the Life beyond all thought, in His own self-naming and Presence to Moses: the Fiery One who cannot be contained. When we confess that God can be compared with no idol, that He is unique, invisible, Mystery, we lay hold of God’s own Aseity. These words are true of God, not simply our experience of Him, or our pious hope. Yet God just is Mystery: that is His Being.’ (‘Systematic Theology’, p. 88)

A most deeply hidden God indeed. Here, however, Sonderegger sees a kind of freedom in God’s disclosure, a freedom from any kind of theory of analogy or specific mode of God-talk:

‘Now, the self-disclosure in the burning bush invites us to see that we need not win through to a specific position on the doctrine of analogy, nor to a Barth-inspired doctrine of divine event, or dialectic, to lay hold of the divine disclosure to creatures. We are not forced, that is, to affirm a univocal, nor analogical, nor actualistic doctrine of divine predication.’ (p. 87)

Here then is one part of the gift: in simply disclosing His name, God has given us the gift of His reality, of His own drawing near. In doing so, as Gilson says, He has explained to men His nature, so far as it can be understood by men. God draws near and dwells, and this drawing near and dwelling is the explanation. God’s disclosure of his dwelling and his drawing near, His own presence, which, Sondergger argues, is given by a sign (and here perhaps Sonderegger out-actualizes Barth:

‘And because this is the Presence of the Divine nature, there is with it, a sign, a token, of this gracious Objectivity. The whole delivered people shall worship God on this holy mountain at the edge of the wilderness. It is an odd sign, this. There will not be another object, another thing serving as symbol or sign…but rather an act by the people who themselves look for the sign, a bowing down before the Lord who dwells on this mountain. The sign of my Presence is that you acknowledge my presence: you affirm, by word and gesture, that I am with you…The Lord God of the covenant will give objects to speak His Name, as He is both Subject and Object…And the Sign will echo just this simple Subjectivity: it will be freed slaves, rejoicing in the Presence of their God.’ (p. 220)

In the giving of His name, then, we see that God discloses His reality and His drawing near and His presence, and that the sign of His presence is the worship of Him, and that this sign of the God of the covenant echos God’s subjectivity. There is a key move here to be noted: the giving of God’s name is inextricably bound with the notion of covenant – revelation is covenantal.

‘He will give them a Name, a Divine Name that is His very subjectivity, the eternal I that remains Subject even in the objectivity of revelation. This act of revelation will be tied to a giving of the covenant, for it will take place as an exchange, a dialogue between the Lord and His creature, Moses. The Lord will identify Himself in a double form, as Subject and Object, as the I AM of sheer Subjectivity and as the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Objectivity of a title and Name for all generations.’ (‘Sonderegger, ‘Systematic Theology’, p. 221)

From the simple answer to a religious question asked by Moses, the simple gift of a name, then, we see the disclosure of the reality of God who simply dwells with creatures, and in whose presence and dwelling creatures are freed.

Speaking of God…

Speaking of God can be tricky. The first and rather obvious (to me, anyway) problem is that God is uncreated, while we are created. From this, it seems to follow that nothing that we experience in the created order can refer to God, since God’s existence would be unlike anything that we have experienced. Or, at least, nothing can refer to Him in an unqualified way. This is what I’ve believed for years, and still do, though I realize now that things are a bit more subtle than I’ve usually taken them to be.

The question here is just exactly how can our words refer to God? Do our words refer to God or have meaning in reference to God because, say, God ‘makes’ them (as Barth might say)? Do our words refer to God because there is some kind of similarity between God and creatures, as Aquinas might say? Do our words have an intrinsic ability to refer to God, as Katherine Sonderegger argues in her recent work?

Aquinas’ famous exposition and defence of analogy against the (then) competing views of eqivocity and univocity  is one of the most well-known examples of religious language. He grounds this, more or less, in what the 4th Lateran Council affirmed is a real similarity between God and man (there is, of course, in the same affirmation, the insistence that there is no similarity without a greater dissimilarity). There is a likeness in nature, upon which grace works in order to lift up or to elevate language to God. Aquinas, very broadly speaking, sees this elevation of language as a restoration of an inherent likeness in nature. Perhaps we could say that grace perfects nature here.

Karl Barth, interestingly, sees a restoration as well, though characteristically, this restoration is not one of an initial capacity perfected but of a resurrection from death to life. On their own, our words can’t refer to God – they are lifted by grace from their death of non-reference to divine life by a free miracle of God. George Hunsinger makes the point well:

‘Although human language was inherently incapable of referring to God, it was nevertheless made capable of doing so. Human language, as sanctified by grace, was at once affirmed, annulled, and elevated – affirmed in its creatureliness and annulled in its incapacity, in order to be elevated beyond itself…Analogical discourse was not grounded in some metaphysical similarity between God and the creature, but solely in the freedom of divine grace. Human language, without ceasing to be essentially inadequate, was extended to be made fully appropriate.’ (‘Evangelical, Catholic and Reformed’, p. 70-71)

Inherently incapable and essentially inadequate. Karl Barth’s life motto when it came to human language about God. Katherine Sonderegger points to a difficulty here, however, which tilts towards a pure annulling of the creature in its entirety:

‘…this divine appropriation has been carried out at the very high price of creaturely upheaval, overthrow and destruction. The “similarity” Barth spies in theological predications of God stems not from any semantic role or range of these words of Perfection but, rather, starkly and wholly, from God’s declaring them true and fit and proper. This is a kind of “forensic righteousness” in the realm of creaturely predication. Indeed, this divine comandeering and declaring follows the stern pathways of Barth’s doctrine of atonement in CD IV.1: the sinful creature must be destroyed, pushed out of the way, killed and set aside, so that the New Creation can stand in its place and for its sake. We face here a form of the Euthyphro problem in the doctrine of God, and Barth has sided with those who say that the Attribute is true because it is willed by God to be so.’ (‘Systematic Theology’, p. 103-104)

Thus, it appears that in spite of Barth’s seeming-affirmation, all that is left is a dead creature, killed for the sake of proper predication. Barth himself has something different to say on the matter, however, in his insistence that the ‘commandeering’ is not violent, by virtue of God’s proper claim on us:

‘With our views, concepts and words we have no claim on Him, that he should be their object. He Himself, however, has every – the best founded and most valid – claim on us and on all our views, concepts and words, that He should be their first and last and proper subject…He does not perform a violent miracle, but excercises a lawful claim and makes a restitution, when, in His omnipotence, He causes the miracle to happen by which we come to participate in the veracity of His revelation and by which our words become true descriptions of Himself.’ (CD II.1, p. 229)

Hunsinger notes how, for all their differences, on this issue, Barth and Aquinas are surprisingly close:

‘The differences between Aquinas and Barth, while not unimportant, should not therefore be overstressed. Both theologians would see the elevation of human language as very much a miracle of grace, and both would see it as mysterious in its modus significandi. For Aquinas, the miracle of grace was always relative or less drastic than for Barth, for whom it was always revolutionary and absolute. For Aquinas it occurred as grace worked with a metaphysical likeness already implanted, albeit deficiently, in nature by creation, whereas for Barth it occurred as grace operated on an original incapacity in nature that could be overcome only, so to speak, by redemption from death. For Aquinas the elevation of language was perhaps finally something more like a transition from illness to health, whereas for Barth it was more like being raised from death to life. Nevertheless, both theologians saw the elevation of human language as something that greatly perfected and exceeded its capacities in a way that would scarcely be possible without a new work of grace.’ (‘Evangelical, Catholic and Reformed’, p. 73)

Sonderegger’s critique loses much of its force when confronted by Barth here, though one still feels a sting at her metaphor of Euthyphro – perhaps the doorway to epistemic anxiety is opened here. If all that makes our words refer to God is God’s say-so, lawful though it may be, then it seems easy to imagine that any word could mean anything, if God should say so. The problems of Euthyphro here are not so easily dissolved.

Sonderegger provides her own account of the ability of words to reference God that differs from both Aquinas and Barth, though of the two, Aquinas would dispute it the least:

‘Now, for my part, I say that there is indeed a fittingness, intrinsic to the creaturely word, that allows our language to reach out and lay hold of its Divine Object: just this is the “negative” Attribute”, most especially, the Attribute of Divine Hiddenness and Invisibility. Now we do not expect too much of these negative terms. They point; they glimpse; they say in ordinary and rough-and-ready way the exceeding Mystery and Dark Light of Almighty God, his Nearness as the Unseen One. Or to echo Barth’s own idiom more closely: Divine Invisibility is revealed to us in Holy Scripture. But it is not in virtue of its being revealed – and only that – that the words Hidden and Invisible aptly draw near to the one, formless, and Unique God. It is indeed that the Lord wills that His very own Reality is compatible with our naming him; he makes the creature a fit home for himself. But God is the “most liberal giver”, as Thomas Aquinas famously says, and He has set up for Himself a temple, a house, in the land of creaturely words; He gives us this gift and settles there.’ (‘Systematic Theology’, p. 105)

Sonderegger’s theological compatibilism clears the space for the coherence of this line of thought, though one wonders if by invoking God’s ‘willing His reality compatible’ with our language, she lands in the same spot she accuses Barth of landing. Perhaps, though, her insistence of the nature of theological language being that of gift is the most pertinent here. No formal mechanisms, such as Aquinas, and no actualist grace, such as Barth – simply a gift of a loving God. Perhaps that is all we should ask for in a doctrine of analogy.

An Argument Against Theory-Ladenness

A van-Frassen ish constructive empiricist argument against theory-ladenness:

1. Theory ladenness states that there is no theory-neutral observation

2. Theories on a CE account are not tested on the basis of observable phenomena but on the basis of unobservables which are inferred from the data (statistics, probability, etc).

3. Therefore, constructive empiricism cannot be theory-laden.

The Theological Roots of Thought Experiments in the Middle Ages

Prompted by a fruitful exchange on the Facebook, here’s some historical notes on the roots of thought experiments.

Perhaps the most important event in the history of thought experiments comes in the surprising form of a condemnation of a specific style of natural philosophy – the Condemnation of 1277, issued by Etienne Templar. This condemnation had as its focus a number of Aristotelian propositions, all of which were taken to impugn on the power of God to do whatever He wanted (so long as it didn’t involve a logical contradiction), which included God’s inability to create multiple and different worlds from the actual world, the necessity of all things that happen in the actual world, and constraints on God’s ability to move the heavens in a rectilinear way.

An immediate consequence of the Condemnation was a focus on God’s power for ‘natural impossibilities’ – events with conditions that were impossible from within the received Aristotelian physics. Out of this focus developed two senses of the hypothetical: one concerned with defending Aristotle, the other with moving past him.

The former can be most clearly illustrated by Albert of Saxony:

‘In the fourteenth century, for example, Albert of Saxony, an influential scholastic arts master and natural philosopher, assumed the truth of the eternity of the world and also the existence of a fixed quantity of matter in the world. From these assumptions, he concluded that over an infinite time, this limited quantity of matter would have to furnish bodies for an infinite number of souls. In the course of an eternal period of time, the same matter might serve as the human body of a number of different souls. On the day of resurrection, however, when every soul receives its own material body, a finite quantity of matter would have to receive an infinite number of souls. This was a heretical state of affairs, because one body – indeed every body – would have to receive more than one soul. Albert’s response to this dilemma was typical for natural philosophers who had to contend with theological restrictions. He explains that “the natural philosopher is not much concerned with this argument because when he assumes the eternity of the world, he denies the resurrection of the dead.” Albert simply dropped the inconvenient theological consequences from his discussion but retained the eternity of the world for the sake of the argument. By such appeals and devices, medieval natural philosophers could assume the truth of almost any condemned proposition, provided that they did not proclaim it to be categorically or philosophically true.’ (Edward Grant, ‘The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages’, p. 80-81)

The more significant sense of the hypothetical, however, turned on God’s power to do anything short of a logical contradiction. This had the effect of encouraging speculation about the world and the way it could be, even though it was ‘naturally impossible’ given Aristotelian physics. The key point to note here isn’t that Aristotle was overthrown or subverted. By using God’s power as a vehicle for speculative natural philosophy, an important meta-counterfactual began to come into view: that the world could coherently be conceived in non-Aristotelian terms. Counterfactuals ‘according to the imagination’ soon became a hallmark of late medieval thought:

‘Natural philosophers actually devised an expression to epitomize this approach when they referred to such counterfactuals as secundum imaginationem, that is, “according to the imagination. The Condemnation of 1277 played a significant role in generating counterfactuals. Many of the condemned articles compelled the acknowledgement of God’s absolute power to do whatever he pleased short of a logical contradiction. Examples of counterfactuals that were derived from the Condemnation of 1277 include the possibility of other worlds, vacua within and beyond our world, and the possibility that God might move our world with a rectilinear motion. In each of these examples, medieval natural philosophers sought to derive consequences within an assumed framework of Aristotelian physics, even though what they initially assumed was impossible in Aristotle’s system. What emerged were a series of interesting speculations, or, as we might say, thought experiments, in which certain Aristotelian principles were challenged and, to some extent, subverted.’ (p. 147-148)

From these counterfactuals emerged new conceptualizations of the world, many of which would be inherited by the early moderns and which would give impetus to the scientific revolution. By clearing the space for non-Aristotelian concepts of the world to be coherently conceived, the groundwork was laid for the assumptions that would drive the scientific revolution:

‘A significant natural impossibility that derived from the condemnation of 1277 involved Article 49, which made it mandatory after 1277 to concede that God could move the world rectilinearly, despite the vacuum that might be left behind. More than an echo of this imaginary manifestation of God’s absolute power reverberated through the seventeenth century. When Gassendi declared that “it is not the case that if God were to move the World from its present location, that space would follow accordingly and move along with it,” he was using the supernatural motion of the world as a convenient support for his belief in the absolute immobility of infinite space. As spokesman for Isaac Newton, Samuel Clarke (1675-1729), in his dispute with Leibniz, also defended the existence of absolute space when he argued that “if space was nothing but the order of things coexisting [as Leibniz maintained]; it would follow that if God should remove the whole material world entire, with any swiftness whatsoever; yet it would still always continue in the same place.” Finally, the power of counterfactuals is nowhere more impressively illustrated than in the principle of inertia, which Newton proclaimed as the first law of motion in The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687): “Every body continues [or perseveres] in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.”  In medieval intellectual culture, where observation and experiment played negligible roles, counterfactuals were a powerful tool, because they emphasized metaphysics, logic and theology, the very subjects in which medieval natural philosophers excelled.’ (197)

An Epistemic Story, pt. I

A genealogy in philosophy is a dangerous undertaking. The historical roads are long, winding and overlapping, often doubling back and forth. However, I think a genealogy of epistemology, frought with danger though it is, can be reasonably established along the following lines.

Epistemic anxiety (EA) tends to be thought of as a fairly modern phenomena, generally emerging with Descartes. This anxiety, possibly more than anything else, defines modern philosophy. How do we know? What do we know? Do we, in fact, know things? This is not, however, a strictly modern attitude. As much as we like to think of epistemic anxiety as a post-cartesian condition, it is quite clearly something that afflicts the ancients.

I think we can establish something that looks like this: EA afflicted the ancients, did not afflict the medievals until the later medieval era, and reemerged with a vengeance by the dawn of the modern era. Consider Plato as a case study in the ancient era.

Plato is interesting in that he combines what we would call metaphysics and epistemology – if we were to divide his theory of knowledge in half, one half would be a modern-esque question of justification – what justifies a person in making a knowledge claim – and the other would be a near-kantian question – what must the world be like given the fact that we do know things? His epistemology is inseparable from his metaphysics, and though a large part of Plato’s writing is spent teasing out the question of justification (Socrates being the star of this particular show), just as much if not more time is spent on the metaphysical aspect of the question of knowledge, where this cashes out to his ‘theory of forms’. Here we have a metaphysical (we might today call it a ‘transcendental’) explanation of knowledge and the possibility of knowledge (taken to task by Aristotle, but that’s another story for another day).

Now, as we move to the medieval era, let us take Aquinas and William of Ockham as case studies in both non-skepticism and the beginning of skepticism.

What appears to happen is that by the medieval era, epistemology is separated from (but grounded in) metaphysics, and becomes wedded to psychology, Aquinas being the key example of this. As Fr. Copleston notes, it is futile to look for, in Aquinas, a proof of the certainty of knowledge or a rebuttal against subjective knowledge on favour of objective knowledge. The problem for Aquinas is how to justify and safeguard metaphysics, as opposed to justification of belief in the external world. Knowledge at this point in philosophical history seems to be simply given. Indeed, there are skeptics of knowledge of God – Scotus and Aquinas both argue that we can, in fact, have knowledge of God – but not skeptics of knowledge by itself. However, towards the end of the Middle Ages, loosely situated around William of Ockham, epistemic skepticism slowly begins taking shape – Gilson traces the twofold nature of this skepticism (epistemic and metaphysical, having to do with Ockham’s empiricism in both epistemology and causality, both of which were, if not entailed then strongly implied, by his nominalism) in ‘The Unity of Philosophical Experience’. Simply put, Gilson locates the error of Ockham in his proto-humean psychologism – that is, the mistaking of the’ description of our ways of knowing with the correct description of reality itself’, (p 71). Gilson argues that a consequence of psychologism is that, ‘Left without objective justification, human knowledge becomes a mere system of useful conventions, whose practical success remains a complete mystery to the minds of the very scientists who made it.’ (p. 72)

The space is thus cleared for the setting of the stage of modern epistemic anxiety – though some hundreds of years in the future, as Gilson astutely notes, once Ockham’s thought took root in the universities of Europe, medieval philosophy was on, ‘the straight road to skepticism’. (p. 72)

Emotional Ethics

– Let’s define ’emotion’ in line with current neuroscience/psychology: as the ‘process by which the brain determines the value of an event’. (Ledoux 1998)  Emotion, not to be confused with feeling, is largely unconscious, while feeling is conscious.

– Meaning, on this definition, is closely tied to emotion. Indeed, emotion is key to meaning – if, for example, the ventromedial/subgenual cortex is damaged, then there is a serious loss of meaning.

– In order to ‘move ethically’ in the world, we have to evaluate and judge situations/events as well as prefer some things to others. In order to do this, we have to assign meaning to things/situations/events so that we can assign them value. This can only be done on the basis of emotion, thus: emotion—->meaning—->value—->ethics.

– Lurking in the background here is the fact/value distinction. Are there facts without value – ‘raw facts’, as it were? To ‘see’ a fact as a fact is to to already value the fact as a fact. Thus, the as a aspect = a value statement. This leads me to think that there are no value-free facts