Eric admires Susan Stebbing because she was a philosopher who spoke out against the authority of science. I am not so convinced that her stance was all that admirable. I am all for challenging scientists when their philosophy is confused. I am much less keen on setting up common sense as a competitor of science. This is what Stebbing did, and I am less than clear why Eric would endorse this aspect of her program.
Stebbing was a common sense philosopher, and sometimes an ordinary language philosopher. Her attacks on the authority of science were a reaction to its presumed displacement of every day thought. Her famous put-down of Arthur Eddington is an excellent example. Eddington had written that wooden chairs and tables were not solid, since they are mostly composed of “empty space.” Stebbing replied that chairs and tables are paradigms of what we mean by the word ‘solid’. To deny their solidity is simply to misuse the language. (This is “the argument from the paradigm case” famously mocked by Ernst Gellner in his wonderful book, Words and Things.) Why would Eric endorse such a piece of arrant snobbery?
The issue between Stebbing and Eddington has often been misunderstood.
Now, let’s turn briefly to a matter of greater philosophical import. Stebbing thinks that it is a misuse of language to be a sceptic about the external world. She objects when Eddington writes that "we infer the external source only by reversing the steps of the physical transmission that brought us the information" (Philosophy and the Physicists, 129). Eddington is saying that we should believe in the external physical world because when we analyse how we come to see, we realize that it was by the action of physical entities. Now, clearly Eddington was wrong if he meant to say that a physical truth about the physical transmission and transduction of light is epistemically on safer ground than the simple everyday trust that we place on perception—i.e., that such a truth could serve as a way station in the justification of our belief in the physical world. But this is not Stebbing’s point.
Here, in its full snottiness, is her argument:
I may believe that I see an apple and it may turn out that what I see is fake. But there is no sense in saying that I am sometimes mistaken unless sometimes I am not. There is no sense in saying that I am suffering from an illusion unless I know what it is not to be suffering from an illusion. Yet, as we have seen, Eddington is constantly saying such things.
And then she goes on to say that Eddington is merely repeating the errors of Bertrand Russell. (True: Russell was utterly contemptuous of the above argument.)
So here is her argument in a nutshell. We wouldn’t understand what it is to be perceptually misled if we weren’t sometimes perceptually correct. If we are sometimes perceptually correct, then there is an external world. And if we are never perceptually correct, we wouldn’t understand what it is to deny that there is an external world. Either way, it is wrong to say that there is no external world. QED.
Here’s my take: Don’t bow to the authority of science, if you don’t want to. But do recognize that the theory of meaning has advanced beyond this point.