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13 January 2013

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Carl Sachs
1.

Very interesting!

Reading this, I noted a slight difference between Nagel's doubts in Mind and Cosmos and Plantinga's EAAN. Plantinga's EAAN, on my reading at any rate, is about semantics (or, using a lovely phrase I just picked up from Chalmers, "epistemological semantics").

I interpret the worry posed in the EAAN to be his: how confident should we be that the propositional content of our beliefs is causally related to our behavior? There are four options: (1) beliefs have no causal relation to behavior at all; (2) beliefs are causally related to behavior, but their propositional content is not; (3) propositional content is causally related to behavior, but false beliefs are sometimes (usually?) adaptive; (4) propositional content is causally related to behavior, and true beliefs are usually adaptive.

Plantinga argues that if one assumes "naturalism" (that neither God nor anything like God exists, or as I would put it, that there are no persons that are not also animals), then one has no basis for preferring (4) over (1)-(3), and so the naturalist must assign a very low (or inscrutable) probability to (4), which means that there's a very low probability that evolution has favored true beliefs, etc.

The point is, Plantinga's EAAN is an exercise in epistemological semantics, about whether propositional content has causal efficacy, and I think that's somewhat different from what Nagel is doing.

Eric Schliesser
2.

Carl, fair enough. In the post I pointed out that EAAN seems to me an evolving argument. I am also inclined to think it is not only focused on semantic issues. But if I am wrong about that, I am happy to grant that my post is limited only to Nagel's use of EAAN. (But having said that in so far as Plantinga's EAAN is supposed to undermine evolutionary claims--I do insist that the propositional content of evolutionary science relies on mechanisms of belief formation that themselves are extremely tenuously connected to our ordinary cognitive capacities. )

Dustin Locke
3.

Interesting post. Could you help me fill in the gaps here a bit? You write:

"Much of scientific reason is or can be performed by machines; as I have argued before, ordinary cognition, perception, and locution does not really matter epistemically in the sciences."

In the post you link to when you say "as I have argued before", you write:


"One nice feature of measurement is that (if well designed) it makes observation of one's measurements trivial; so much so that one could, in principle, farm out the whole process of registering the measurements to machines (as is often done now). Observation does no interesting epistemic work in theory-mediated measurements. While there are sciences where observation matters a lot (taxonomy and Marc Hauser's experiments come to mind), for much of science (as in mathematics) it plays no foundational role whatsoever."

Can you fill in the gaps for me here? How do we get from

(1) Measurement is so trivial that a machine can do it.

to

(2) Ordinary observation does not really matter epistemically in the sciences.

? Here I'm thinking in particular of the fact that our confidence that the machines are measuring accurately certainly seems to be based on ordinary observation.

Eric Schliesser
4.

Dear Dustin, thank you for your question. Your "certainly" hides a non-sequitur.
First, a terminological point: the calibration of machinery itself does not, I think, involve questions of accuracy--more questions of reliability, repeatability, exactitude, etc.
Either way, second, whatever ordinary observation is used in, say, the calibration of a machine -- are the dials in the right spot, does the output repeat in the right kind of way, etc. -- is epistemically trivial. One need not discuss evolutionary theory to vindicate or criticize such usages.
Third, of course, calibration of scientific machinery is a very demanding task--it often relies on lots of theories, lots of engineering skill, lots of experience with the craft, and maybe even very carefully cultivated perceptual capacities (sometimes involving unlearning ordinary perception).

Dustin Locke
5.

"the calibration of machinery itself does not, I think, involve questions of accuracy--more questions of reliability, repeatability, exactitude, etc."

I'm happy to use the word "calibration" anyway you want to. But if we use it this way, we'll want to be sure that our machines' measurements are more than simply well-calibrated: we'll want to make sure they're accurate as well.

Dustin Locke
6.

More to the heart of the matter: the EEAN (which, by the way, I don't find convincing) is meant to undermine all forms of observation, even the kind of observation you call "epistemically trivial". So taking that kind of observation for granted simply begs the question.

Paul Gowder
7.

This is a really great post. I think the key example in its support is probability/statistics. Probabilistic reasoning is PROFOUNDLY unintuitive to the way our brains work without, as Eric notes, decades of retraining. Bayes rule feels like voodoo. We are not evolved to think that way. But it's just simple math. A computer can do it trivially. And we can be trained to form beliefs that way with lots and lots of work.

Eric Schliesser
8.

Agreed.

Eric Schliesser
9.

Dustin, if EEAN is supposed to be produce evil-demon-like results then who cares? Science embraces fallibilism anyway.

Joe
10.

Eric, that last comment is spot-on. It is possible to strengthen the argument in question such that any act of observation (or belief-formation or what have you) is undermined. But this is just the humdrum old global skeptical result that naturalists (rightly) refuse to argue against. Furthermore, strong, glocal-skeptical reading will plainly undermine the EEAN, which itself relies on a host of beliefs that must have been formed reliably if the argument is to go through. The trick with this issue--and I think philosophers are only just beginning to see this--is to pin down how strong a higher-order "debunking" argument can really be without undermining itself or leading to global skepticism.

Dustin Locke
11.

Eric, the idea behind fallibism is that you can have good reason to believe something, even when there is some chance you're wrong. The EEAN takes this for granted. Nonetheless, the EEAN aims to show that, when combined with naturalism, evolutionary theory leads to the (self-undermining) result that observation never provides you with good reasons to believe things.

Joe, you're missing the point of the EEAN. The EEAN aims to show that naturalism + evolutionary theory is self-undermining, in the sense that it aims to show that naturalism + evolutionary theory leads to global skepticism. It is *not* an argument for global skepticism. Even a cursory reading of the argument makes this clear.

Eric Schliesser
12.


Dustin, what I am pointing out is that that mechanisms of belief formation in the sciences are untouched by EEAN. (I would allow some exceptions to this claim, i.e., sciences where theory mediated measurement is entirely absent.) It would be different, of course, if I relied on naturalism and/or evolutionary theory to argue this, but I didn't. (A good thing, too, because I doubt I accept the account of naturalism that is embedded in EEAN.)

 

Dustin Locke
13.

And I objected to your argument, noting that you explicitly acknowledge that some forms of "epistemically trivial" observation are involved in the calibration of machines and that the EEAN addresses itself to all forms of human observation, including whatever you might have in mind by the "epistemicaly trivial" kind.

Dustin Locke
14.

Why are we repeating this earlier part of the discussion?

Eric Schliesser
15.

First, I am responding to Nagel's use of EEAN, and he explicitly relies on the premise that "we rely on evolutionary theory to analyze and evaluate everything from our logical and probabilistic cognition to our moral sense" (27). I claim that we need not do so in order to secure the mechanisms of belief formation in the sciences (including some of the logical and probabilistic cognition used in them--we can happily farm those out to machines and calibrating those does not require observation at all). Second, I can secure the mechanisms of scientific belief formation without relying on either naturalism or evolutionary theory. Third, I explicitly said that if EEAN is supposed to lead to evil demon style global skepticism, I can safely ignore it.

Jeff Bell
16.

Dustin - could you clarify how what you say in #6 above - "EEAN is meant to undermine all forms of observation, even the kind of observation you [Eric] call 'epistemically trivial' - is not an argument for global skepticism? For now in #11 you are saying it is "not an argument for global skepticism." I would have thought an argument that undermines all forms of observation, including the most trivial, would be exemplary of a global skepticism argument.

Dustin Locke
17.

Jeff, I was speaking a bit loosely in #6, where the discussion there was about which forms of observation the EEAN was meant to address. Speaking more precisely, I would have said: "EEAN is meant to show that naturalism + evolutionary theory undermines all forms of observation, including the kind of observation you call 'epistemically trivial'." My apologies for any confusion.

The general point is this: it's one thing to try to undermine observation, it's another thing to try to show that naturalism + evolutionary theory undermines observation. Since Plantinga rejects naturalism, he clearly isn't aiming to use his argument to undermine observation: he's trying to show that naturalism + evolutionary theory undermines observation (and so undermines itself).

Eric Schliesser
18.

Let's call the "neutrality requirement" the demand that science is (or the sciences are) a neutral means in order to establishing the nature and existence, if any, of the God(s) and any particular theory (say, evolutionary theory) and any particular metaphysics (say, naturalism). What I am claiming is that the role that observation plays in securing the neutrality requirement is so trivial as not to endanger the neutrality requirement. So whatever naturalism + evolutionary theory undermines (and I said, I think we are granting EEAN more than we should) it cannot be the observations needed to secure the neutrality requirement.

Dustin Locke
19.

Eric, I cannot find a way of interpreting your claim that "calibrating those [machines to do that] does not require observation at all" such that it is anything other than manifestly false. At least in comment #4 you admitted that at least some ordinary observation is used in the calibration of machines. How do you now propose to calibrate them? Shall we sit in our arm chairs, eyes closed, and simply intuit when they are well-calibrated?

Dustin Locke
20.

Yes, Eric, in comment #18 I think you are really getting at the heart of your confusion over the EEAN. You are simply taking for granted that there is some form of "trivial" observation that escapes the EEAN. Maybe that is so, but you have done nothing to show that that is so. As I said the EEAN is meant to address ALL forms of (human) observation, and so simply taking it for granted--without argument--that there is some trivial form of observation that escapes its reach simply begs the question.

Eric Schliesser
21.

Your version of EEAN differs from Nagel's (and I was attacking the latter--I have provided ample textual detail of that view). As I have repeatedly said on this blog including in the posts I have linked to, it is not the job of general philosophy of science to respond to global skeptical challenges (unless, of course, do rely on science or impact science). What I do claim is that one need not accept naturalism and/or evolutionary theory to secure the reliability of the mechanisms of scientific belief formation (on the contrary). I have also pointed out that human observation plays no epistemically central role in modern science (including the existence of the trivial ones that I think do occur). The point of my post is that on the observational side (and a few more), humans are largely irrelevant in science (except that they are often cheaper than the machines that might replace them).

Yoko
22.

Why does everyone keep calling it the EEAN? I thought it was called the EAAN (Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism).

Eric Schliesser
23.

I did so in the post. Then Dustin corrupted me!

Dustin Locke
24.

LOL. My bad!

Also: "I have also pointed out that human observation plays no epistemically central role in modern science (including the existence of the trivial ones that I think do occur)."

Indeed this is something that you have claimed. The only argument you gave for this claim concerns using machines to do our measurements for us. I have challenged that argument by noting that (as you agree in #4) the calibration of machines (ultimately) relies on human observation. Rather than respond to my challenge, you have simply continued to repeat your initial claim. That's not an argument. That's dogmatism.

It seems to me that this discussion has run (and re-run) its course, so I will leave it there for now.

Catarina Dutilh Novaes
25.

I admit I haven't read all the comments in detail, but since Eric mentioned me in the main post, let me just add a few thoughts. Actually, the question of the continuity or discontinuity between spontaneous, everyday-life cognitive practices and the congitive practices of scientists is important and very complex. There are different camps on the issue, and roughly you have those who emphasize the continuity and those who emphasize the discontinuity.

Personally, I am more interested in the aspects of DIScontinuity and how scientific methodology serves as cognitive scaffolding to counter and correct, when needed, certain cognitive tendencies we have and which may well have been selected for through the usual evolutionary means. These tendencies may be useful and even optimal in practical contexts of survival, but at least some of them are not conducive to scientific discovery. But even people like me are happy to concede that there must be some kind of grounding in our cognitive apparatus 'au naturel' for this cognitive scaffolding to work at all. So it is going to be a story of interplay between cultural developments and their biological basis, and as with everything, the devil will be in the details.

So all this to say that this is a contentious issue, and it seems to me that both Nagel and Eric may be taking the purported obviousness of some of their claims for granted.

Eric Schliesser
26.

Catarina, two quick cents: (i) I do not deny that our cognitive apparatus plays some role; as I wrote "lots of our average Darwinian programming" needs to be disabled, not all. As I put it in the piece, "the disciplining of scientific agents is as much an enhancement of human nature as a battle with pre-existing nature." But I did not mean to imply that pre-existing nature can be eliminated entirely. (I do not like the "grounding" terminology, although I do like your "scaffolding" terminology very much.) (ii) In the book, Nagel does not recognize that there is even controversial issue here.

Catarina Dutilh Novaes
27.

Oh, no doubt that, to my mind, your position on this is way more subtle than Nagel's (I haven't read the book, judging from what I've read about it). Sorry for having lumped the two of you together :)

I like your 'temporarily disabling' terminology, because in effect we are not talking about significant, permanent cognitive rearrangements (although *some* cultural technologies do seem to do that, reading and writing in particular). I think I borrowed 'scaffolding' from Helen, and it's a term that is often used in the extended cognition literature. My point was above all that this debate cannot be resolved on purely theoretical grounds: it is to a large extent an empirical question.

Eric Schliesser
28.

We agree. What I wanted to point out in the post, is that the empirical literature on this is both in "contemporary cognitive science" (as Leiter and Weisberg claim) as well as in the "philosophy of scientific practice" (and related science studies fields) literature.

Sean Robsville
29.

The main delusion that evolution has foisted onto our minds is the tendency to reify - to believe that phenomena are self-existent 'things-in-themselves', when in fact they are just snapshots of processes. We are deluded into seeing the world in terms of 'things' because our genes are telling us to grab resources. But if we take a step back and view the universe in terms of geological and cosmic timescales, it is apparent that there are no inherently-existent things, only processes of continual change. Individuals, buildings, artefacts, species, continents, planets and stars are transient phenomena caused by the coming together of parts. All compounded things are impermanent and eventually disintegrate.

Nevertheless, other things being equal, we conceive of a sequence of stimuli as corresponding to a single enduring (though changing) object rather than to a sequence of different momentary ones. There are good reasons why we do not do so, primarily that such a representation is vastly too complex to use in practice. Any mind who lived in such a world of kaleidoscopically flashing phenomena would presumably be at an evolutionary disadvantage when compared with one that represented a world of stable, enduring objects.

So the creationists' view of species as self-existent things is a delusion caused by evolution, whereas the evolutionists' view of species as interbreeding populations with ever-changing gene-pools is the true nature of biological reality.

Eric Schliesser
30.

Sean, Nagel is not a Creatonist.

DavidM
31.

Schliesser writes: "Now, (i) if this claim is true, it is utterly unsubstantive--none of the non-trivial results in physics or mathematics are the consequence of following the norms of thought."

But how do you differentiate trivial from non-trivial results in the first place, such that *your* claim is anything but utterly unsubstantive? Do machines do this for us (without "following any norms of thought")? If not, then your claim is simply false. And how do you propose to defend your premise here: "none of the non-trivial results in physics or mathematics are the consequence of following the norms of thought"? Dustin Locke is right on this one, seems to me. You have no argument.

Eric Schliesser
32.

DavidM, (i) is a claim *in philosophy* not in science. So, your appeal to machines is a non-sequitur. Moreover, I do not affirm the antecedent in (i); I was just being polite.

DavidM
33.

So you're saying only *philosophers* are able to differentiate trivial from non-trivial results in physics and mathematics, while scientists (and a fortiori machines) are unable to do this (unless qua philosophers)?? Wow! That's interesting. But my argument still stands.

(Obviously you don't affirm the antecedent in (i). Nothing I said implied otherwise.)

Eric Schliesser
34.

I am not saying anything of the sort; I am responding to your assertions.
If you actually read my post, you would see that I state that to become a scientist "one's cognitive capacities are transformed" from one's average inherited ordinary characteristics (fill in your favorite place-holder)--one of the pay-offs of that transformation is that one has good judgment about what is interesting or not within one's niche.

DavidM
35.

It seems to me that you're not so much responding to my assertions as ignoring my question: how do you differentiate trivial from non-trivial results in the first place, such that *your* claim is anything but utterly unsubstantive? (BTW, I did actually read your post and even quoted it!)

Maybe you'll understand my criticism if I restate it in a different way. You argue that since a scientist's "cognitive capacities" (a vague term) are "transformed" (a vague assertion), it follows that those capacities must be(come) more truth/knowledge-conducive than (presumably) "ordinary cognitive capacities." Why does that follow?? How can you know this? In light of the EAAN-argument you're just begging the question: at what point in the gnostic transformation of the scientist from an ordinarily constituted product of Darwinian evolution is he able to differentiate truth from falsity, or trivial from non-trivial results? Do philosophers undergo a similar "transformation"? What about Buddhists? Do you have anything substantive to say about the fundamental nature of such transformations (as opposed to, "it takes a long time," and "it's very rare")?

Eric Winsberg
36.

Obviously, IF there an argument that undermines our native cognitive capacities, then it also undermines our refined scientific cognitive capacities, since the later were developed and sanctioned using the former. Equally so, if there is an argument to undermine our senses, then it also undermines the reliability of measuring instruments, since the later were developed, calibrated, sanctioned, etc., using the former. It is no reply to the Cartesian skeptic that I might be a brain in a vat but that's ok because I have measuring instruments. This seems to be what DavidM is saying, and I agree.

That said, Nagel does not offer an argument that UNDERMINES our cognitive capacities or our senses. What he offers in an argument that evolution doesnt offer "sufficient reassurance" that our senses and cognitive capacities are reliable. This is such a bizarre and vague claim that I don't know how to adjudicate the debate between Eric S. and DavidM (and others) about whether something akin to what I said in my first paragraph goes through here too.

Eric Schliesser
37.

David, in some disciplines it takes a PhD in others a MD. Sometimes it just takes a lot of hands-on experience. Different sciences also happen to have different criteria of truth and falsity. There is no one-size-fits-all answer.

Eric Schliesser
38.

Eric, (i) the proponents of EEAN insist it is NOT global skepticism/brain in the vat style argument. (I ALWAYS say that philosophy of science has no argument against/answer to Cartesian skepticism.)
Having said that, (ii) the proponents of EEAN (and now you) are exhibiting a version of the genetic fallacy (or just the assertion that no bootstrapping is possible); just because ordinary cognition is necessary to get science off the ground historically and also in the development of individual scientists (and can, of course, play an ongoing role in various ways) does not mean that the epistemic authority of particular scientific claims relies on ordinary cognition (or norms of manifest image).
Incidentally, (iii) a whole lot of calibration on scientific instruments is done by way of other machines--it is a kind of weird empiricist dogma that somehow human perception plays a crucial foundational role in this. (Again, this is not to deny that both very specialized human perception and ordinary human perception can play a role in it--above I insisted that machines can displace humans, not that they always do so.) In fact, it is worth emphasizing that (iv) my approach accepts the idea that in order to secure epistemic authority of scientific claims that appeals to the evolution by natural selection of our cognitive capacities is not very promising route.

Eric Winsberg
39.

I think your (i) is the same thing that I am saying in my second paragraph, and your parenthetical is just agreement with my first paragraph. So, I don't see you as disagreeing with anything I said other than this:

"This is such a bizarre and vague claim that I don't know how to adjudicate the debate between Eric S. and DavidM (and others) about whether something akin to what I said in my first paragraph goes through here too."

You agree that "bootstrapping" WONT get you out of a skeptic's challenge, but you DO think it will get you out of Nagel's. That's fine. But it implies you have a better understanding of Nagel's challenge than I do (though your iv seems to imply you agree with me here too.) I understand the skeptics challenge, I don't understand Nagels. You, me and Nagel all seem to agree that securing the epistemic authority via the evolution by natural selection of our cognitive capacities is not very promising route. I just say "so what?". I'm just a bit worried you are accepting Nagel's challenge more than you claim (in your last sentence) to be.

In any case, I don't think we disagree very much.

Eric Schliesser
40.

Eric, I doubt we disagree (much), too. My post is just meant to motivate why one can say "so what" in response to Nagel's (and Plantinga's) challenge.
I do find it strange that after a century of debating theory-ladenness of observation, philosophers of science must somehow be taken to insist that observation just tracks truth (in virtue of natural selection) now.

Dianelos Georgoudis
41.

I think the strongest version of the EEAN is not about the reliability of all our cognitive faculties in general, but about the reliability of the cognitive faculties that lead us to form metaphysical beliefs. And since naturalism is a metaphysical belief one arrives at the same conclusion that the original argument by Plantinga arrives, namely that the conjunction of naturalism of evolution is self-defeating.

I think it is easy to see why on naturalism and evolution our cognitive faculties for forming metaphysical beliefs are not reliable. Evolution plays out within the phenomenal world only. Thus the evolution of cognitive faculties that will reliably form true beliefs about what lies behind the phenomenal world provides no evolutionary advantage whatsoever. Therefore on evolution and naturalism it would be extremely lucky if we just happened to evolve such faculties. But to discover what lies behind the phenomenal world is what metaphysics is about. After all, the disagreement is not about the phenomenal world, or of the structure of physical phenomena the physical sciences elucidate. For example all current or future scientific knowledge is compatible with the metaphysical theory of subjective idealism, thus in order to decide whether subjective idealism is probably true or false we need cognitive faculties that are reliable in dealing with metaphysical questions.

Finally, can a machine possess the cognitive faculties for reliably dealing with metaphysical questions? Since by definition the machine is built by us, and since in order to build a machine which has such reliable faculties we ourselves must have them in the first place (otherwise how would we design them into the machine?), the issue returns to us and Schliesser’s detour through machines fails.

Eric Schliesser
42.

Dianelos (if I may?), thank you for your response. The post above did not comment on the reliability of our cognitive faculties for forming metaphysical beliefs. It only focused on Nagel's claims about science, mathematics, and ethics. (In fact, I also intimated that "at best" we have "very partial accounts of the world!)
I did not claim that *naturalism* is vindicated by any of my arguments. (I made a far more narrow claim: that the epistemic authority of the belief formation in the sciences (and mathematics) does not rely on our ordinary, evolved cognitive faculties.)
I also agree with you that machines are not the route to reliably dealing with metaphysical questions; I am glad you gave me an opportunity to clarify this.

Neil Levy
43.

"I also agree with you that machines are not the route to reliably dealing with metaphysical questions".

That's pretty contentious: on many views, *only* machines can deal with metaphysical questions at all. I guess you mean by "machine" an artifact of the kind we know how to build, rather than something more like you and me.

Eric Schliesser
44.

Sure, Neil, that's what I mean (I thought that was clear in context).

DavidM
45.

"Incidentally, (iii) a whole lot of calibration on scientific instruments is done by way of other machines--it is a kind of weird empiricist dogma that somehow human perception plays a crucial foundational role in this." - Isn't this the argument that you already had with Dustin Locke (see above)? And you still have no argument in support of your dogmatic assertion...

Regarding your brief answer to me, fine, the gnostic transformation of the scientist from an ordinarily constituted product of Darwinian evolution to someone who is able to differentiate truth from falsity, or trivial from non-trivial results sometimes requires a PhD, sometimes an MD, sometimes lots of hands on experience - that's not much of an answer to my question, though! This is pure hand-waving, absolutely no substance whatsoever. Take just one instance: how does this gnostic transformation happen, in principle, in just one instance? Do you have anything informative and intelligent to say about it? If not, then you're just begging the question and you have no reason to believe that any such transformation ever takes place.

DavidM
46.

Danielos raises a good point. Nagel writes: "Mechanisms of belief formation that have selective advantage in the everyday struggle for existence do not warrant our confidence in the construction of theoretical accounts of the world as a whole." Danielos writes: "But to discover what lies behind the phenomenal world is what metaphysics is about." The latter claim is rather vague, and certainly debatable, but certainly in the context of discussing Nagel's argument it would seem better to characterize metaphysics as the attempt to construct a theoretical account of the world as a whole. If this is right, it follows that Schliesser's reply to Danielos effectively concedes that his whole argument against Nagel is based on a straw man, a failure to understand what Nagel was talking about.

DavidM
47.

Danielos wrote: "Evolution plays out within the phenomenal world only." - Is that right? How is this claim justified? (Easy enough if you're Berkeley, I guess.)

Eric Schliesser
48.

David, if I may, you may start reading Duhem (a good Catholic philosopher), or better yet look through an old-fashioned refracting or reflecting telescope and try to make sense of what you see. It takes a lot of practice and skill to learn how to see properly.

Eric Schliesser
49.

Actually, David, you forgot my response to that already: "first, let's remind ourselves that there is no existing theoretical account "of the world as a whole" out there. There exist, of course, a lot of sciences, but while the program of unification is alive in some quarters perhaps as a regulative ideal, right now there is no theoretical account of the world that both informs ongoing science and explains what we do know "of the world as a whole." We have at best very partial accounts of the world."

Dianelos Georgoudis
50.

David M,

By “metaphysics” I mean the set of beliefs that refer to how the world is, as contrasted to how it seems to us. The whole of our experience of the world, including objective/quantitative observations as well as subjective/qualitative experiences, makes up the phenomenal world. Everybody agrees that there is a real world out there which produces our experience of the world, and the age-old philosophical question is about how that real world is. A case in point are colors. Colors do exist in our experience of the world and thus form part of the phenomenal world. But according to several metaphysical interpretations colors do not objectively exist in the real world, but are produced in the human brain when it interacts with its environment.

The distinction of phenomenal versus real world is a basic one, and is as clear as the distinction between how the something is and how it seems to be. I hold that if one does not keep apart in one’s epistemology those two different senses one will easily fall into confusion. Physics (and in general the physical sciences) discover mathematical patterns present in the structure of physical phenomena, and thus provides us with knowledge about the phenomenal world only. When physicists design interpretations of Quantum Mechanics, they stop doing physics and are actually doing metaphysics.

Thus in my judgment Nagel’s expression about “theoretical account of the world as a whole” does not serve my need, for the world as a whole includes the phenomenal world, and arguably we can be confident in the reliability of our cognitive faculties to find truths (e.g. scientific truths) about it. I restrict the issue to metaphysics, where it is clear that if naturalism is true then we can’t.

You ask me to justify the claim "Evolution plays out within the phenomenal world only.” Yes, that’s a little opaque. What I meant is that what makes propositions about evolution true is the structure of the phenomenal world, and not the structure of real world which produces it. Let me explain by using a thought experiment:

Assume that the theory of evolution is true (a virtual certainty anyway). Further, imagine we possess a rather large book which describes in minute physical detail the evolution of humankind, so that every single proposition in that book is true. Further imagine that the world does not consist of a physical universe following specific laws (as physical realists think) but of a computer operating in an unknown universe under unknown laws, and which computer simulates the physical universe we see around us in ultimate detail. (Incidentally, the computer simulation hypothesis is a serious one, and some argue that its probability is quite large see www.simulation-argument.com ). By definition, if we do live in such a computer simulation then the phenomenal world is not affected for we experience everything exactly in the same way. Further, the evolutionary process which produces mankind has played out exactly in the same way (albeit as a simulation), and everything written in that large book about the physical facts of evolution remains true. Thus we see that what makes and justifies the truths in the large book belongs only on the structure of the phenomenal word, and not in how the world which produces that structure really is.

In conclusion. Evolutionary theory (as any theory of the physical sciences) is informed by physical data, and thus is grounded in the structure of the phenomenal world only. How the underlying world really is, is irrelevant. In any world which produces phenomena which comport with evolutionary theory’s model, physical scientists would produce the theory of evolution, and that theory would be as true and as useful as it is in the actual world.

Dianelos Georgoudis
51.

Eric,

Thanks. You write: “The post above did not comment on the reliability of our cognitive faculties for forming metaphysical beliefs. It only focused on Nagel's claims about science, mathematics, and ethics.”

I haven’t yet read Nagel’s book, but in the OP you criticize Nagel for relying on Plantinga’s EAAN. My argument is that a leaner version of EAAN, one using only our cognitive faculties for discovering metaphysical truths, completely destroys our confidence in them, and thus renders the conjunction of naturalism and evolution epistemically self-defeating (which is Plantinga’s result). Now I agree with your claim that the EAAN is not particularly strong when applied to our confidence in the reliability of the cognitive faculties we use when doing science or math, since science and (I would argue) math refer to the phenomenal world only, and thus their truthmakers are independent of metaphysics.

But I do disagree with you on the issue of ethics, since I hold that ethical truths are grounded in metaphysics. Metaethics is fully a metaphysical field, wouldn’t you agree? If you do then it would seem that since the EAAN completely destroys the reliability in our faculties to find the truth about metaphysics, it also destroys the reliability in our faculties to find the truth about metaethics. But if we are not justified to believe in any metaethical truths, then I wonder what sense it makes to even talk about ethical truths. Thus, if evolution and naturalism is true, then ethics becomes vacuous. Which I believe is a conclusion to which many naturalists arrive to when they embrace some version of error theory. And they arrive to this conclusion without (explicitly at least) using Plantinga’s EAAN.

Eric Schliesser
52.

Why think that knowledge of meta-ethical truths are required for knowledge in (practical) ethics? (In your adopted terminology: ethics deals with the phenomenal world only.)

Dianelos Georgoudis
53.

Why think that knowledge of meta-ethical truths are required for knowledge in (practical) ethics?

Because in order to know the truth value of any ethical proposition, one must first know what that proposition means. Further, there must be something in reality that makes a proposition true, even if that something is just one’s personal taste, say. And such grounding justifies the epistemology to be used. Metaethics I take it provides the semantics and the grounding of ethical talk.

In your adopted terminology: ethics deals with the phenomenal world only.

That’s not what I meant. I am a moral realist. In my understanding ethical propositions refer to facts beyond the phenomenal world and pertaining to the real world metaphysics is about, and meta-ethical truths describe that grounding relationship.

On the other hand the naturalist can try to device a meta-ethical theory which is not metaphysical but only refers to the phenomenal world – some kind of cognitivist anti-realist metaethical theory. A metaethical theory according to which ethical propositions refer to factual ethical properties of our experience of life, such as what seems to us the right thing to do, our clear and present perception of some ethical values, etc. If I am right and the lean EAAN (or LEAAN for short) complete destroys the reliability of our cognitive faculties for forming metaphysical beliefs, then that’s the way to go for a naturalist who does not wish to embrace non-cognitivism about ethics. Naturalists will not have much trouble grounding the ethical properties of our experience of life in a naturalistic worldview informed by the physical sciences. Indeed such a metaethics would be able to ground a kind of objectivity of ethical propositions in the common origins of humankind in the sociobiological sense. I suppose this is about the best a naturalistic ethicist may achieve, even though I am not sure how well it might work.

In any case, I’d like to retract and accept that despite the EAAN the naturalist may feel confident about the reliability of her cognitive faculties for doing science, math, and ethics – as long as these fields of knowledge are construed as referring only to the phenomenal world. Further, with Kant, or perhaps because of the implications of LEAAN, the naturalist may decide that metaphysics is hopeless and retreat from metaphysical naturalism to some kind of strong agnosticism which rejects as unwarranted any description (whether religious or non-religious) of the reality behind the phenomenal world.

donjindra
54.

Dianelos Georgoudis,

re: your thought experiment in regard to "structure."

If we are computer-generated beings with a completely "true" understanding of our evolution within the game, this understanding of our evolution has a scope. That scope is within the computer. We have no idea how the world is outside that scope. So the real world outside the computer may not work anything like the world inside the computer.

But your original example was colors. We can agree humans experience colors, but differences between red and blue are mere frequency variations. How *should* we see light waves to be more "true" to the real world? A graduated gray scale? a pitched sound? a series of numbers? The problem with any "proper" way to see the world is in representing it to us in a way we can use. But in this case (and maybe every case), the phenomenal world is a subset of the real world. There really are light waves whether we "see" them as blue or red or numbers.

Your thought experiment ignores this correspondence. In it, there is no crossover between the world as it is and the world we see. So unless you can demonstrate the phenomenal world is not a mere subset of the real world, your thought experiment collapses into a false analogy. It assumes the structures of each can be totally different with no way of crossing that barrier. You'll have to show why we should accept that assumption.

DavidM
55.

?? What makes you think I forgot that? Your recommendation to read Duhem is another non-response, again, "absolutely no substance whatsoever."

DavidM
56.

"By “metaphysics” I mean the set of beliefs that refer to how the world is, as contrasted to how it seems to us." - That seems altogether arbitrary. Isn't 'how it seems to us' just a subset of 'how it is'? How do you manage to contrast these? Do you want to postulate that these are independent and autonomous? Why? How?

"Thus we see that what makes and justifies the truths in the large book belongs only on the structure of the phenomenal word, and not in how the world which produces that structure really is." - Huh? Gobbledygoo-kook? So what? There is no such large book, is there? What does this thought experiment have to do with reality? (How do you establish that it has *anything* to do with reality?)

DavidM
57.

Oops, I see you anticipated my reply to Danielos. Peace.

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