What content for thought does sense experience, by itself, provide? Do we sense the structure or pattern of events or just unconnected bits? As cases in support of the latter view, David Hume argued that we have no sensations of causation as such (with the result that all of our causal claims amount to interpretations of what we sense), that every generalization of particular experiences relies on the notion that nature is uniform (a notion that cannot be demonstrated without circularity), and that our accounts of experience involve the association of ideas according to principles that are habitual and not justificatory. In his view, experiencing is more than “picking berries off the bush” with our senses. Put my own way, it involves “construals” of our sensations at the very least, and construals are a contribution of the subject, not part of the object out there. Should this lead us in the Cartesian direction of demanding necessary truths as the basis for our ratiocination, or can we achieve something more reliable than “naïve realism” without taking that poison pill?
If we set the benchmark for knowledge too high, we may conclude that we never have any knowledge at all. Many philosophers now think that only analytic truths are a priori and that the search for synthetic a priori truths is doomed to fail. If so, the Cartesian “quest for certainty” may, in fact, open the door to radical skepticism rather than the door to solid knowledge.
What does sense experience—taken by itself—actually provide as fodder for thought? A. Do we sense the structure or pattern of events or just “blooming buzzing confusion”? What would sense experience be like if we could take it “neat”—that is, without the contributions of the following: a. Memory takes us from sensation to sensation. Patterns, whether discerned or imposed by us, are an essential part of the usable content of the experience that we have. Associations have enormous implications, for example, in how we classify and react to people we meet. Habits channel and shape what we discern. e. Presumptions, too, channel and shape what we discern. Vast established mind sets (blicks, theoretical frameworks, paradigms) provide ways of thinking for whole cultures. Absent such contributions, sense experience amounts to unconnected bits.
As cases in support of the view that experiencing does not amount just to “picking berries off the bush” with our senses, David Hume argued (in the 18th century) that:
1. We have no experience of causation as such; consequently, our notions that one thing is caused by another and that all explanations should be governed by some causal version of a “principle of sufficient reason” (the principle that nothing just happens) presume relationships that are not evident to the senses;
2. Every generalization of particular experiences relies on the notion that nature is uniform—a notion that cannot itself be demonstrated without circularity; and
3. Such generalizations involve the association of ideas according to principles that are habitual rather than justificatory.
a. We habitually “associate” ideas in terms of similarity, contrast, proximity of one sort or another, inertia, mimicry, and so on.
b. Such principles are not “justificatory” because there are examples of each and every one of them that are obviously false or misleading. As we have learned from the post hoc, ergo proctor hoc fallacy, there are many observable regularities that are not causal.
Example: Mark Twain joked that his perfect teeth after a lifetime of drinking whiskey proved the teeth-preserving properties of whiskey.
Experience is not passive. We make contributions to it and hence to our experiential understanding of the world. a. The presumption of the uniformity of nature is something that we cannot generalize from the experiences we’ve already had. We supply it. b. The principle of causation is a way of making sense of the patterns that we discern through the filters that we bring to the actual sensory experiences as they occur. c. Gestalt or field experiences—which are something more than what we merely sense—are another contribution that we bring to experience
My own way of putting this point is to note that experience (as opposed to sensation) always involves “construal,” and that construal is a contribution by the subject who construes, not by the object that is construed. 1. This means that experience is inevitably “subjective,” that is, it includes a contribution made by a subject or involves a transaction between a subject and object. 2. This also means that its content is not “logically certain” or “necessarily accurate.”
Should this lead us in the Cartesian direction of demanding a priori truths as the basis for our ratiocination, or can we achieve something more reliable than “naïve realism” without taking that (possibly) poison pill? A. The Cartesian offer of “certainty” is attractive, but perfect and indubitable truths are a will-o’-the-wisp. B. Naïve realism simply takes things “at face value,” and we all know the cost of saying “who cares?” or simply giving up. C. As we shall see in the lectures ahead, modern rational empiricism offers us a third route.
[Courtesy: Professor James Hall]
[Courtesy: Professor James Hall]