Monthly Archives: July 2021

Revelations

In terms of what we know and how we know it, we are really no better off than scorpions, who are guided by shadows, cthonic vibrations and the fading scents of long gone passersby. For example, if I have a headache, I take some ibuprofen. I believe it will help me because I know how it works. I learned about the mechanism of action in my chemistry classes, and in subsequent review of the medical literature. But I have never seen the chemical do what those sources say it does. Nobody has seen ibuprofen at work, because the molecules are too small, and the reactions are too fast. However, there are ways to magnify the actions of the chemicals in question, so that those actions may be observed indirectly.

I have not even done that. I have read papers and listened to people who explained how they carried out those observations. Having compared their methods to the methods which I learned in chemistry classes and validated in the lab, I believed their report.

Therefore, I take the pills from the bottle labeled ibuprofen when I have a headache, and expect relief. As I choke down the maroon tablets, I act on a belief even more flimsy than the notion that ibuprofen will help my headache in the first place. I have no idea how the pills were made, and no way to know whether they contain ibuprofen at all. Within an hour, my headache is better.

I keep taking ibuprofen from those types of bottles, because it keeps making my headache go away. Maybe someday, I will unknowingly take a cyanide tablet instead. The risk is negligible though. The same biochemists, pharmacists, and physicians who taught my classes, and subsequently formed my beliefs about ibuprofen’s effect on pain, have declared their commitment to assuring the integrity of those maroon tablets in the bottle labeled ibuprofen on the drugstore shelf. The company that makes those pills has also committed to the recommendations of the biochemists, pharmacists, and physicians regarding the purity of the pills, and the company charges a price which reflects its commitment to giving me ibuprofen, the listed dose of ibuprofen, and nothing but ibuprofen in the bottle.

Philosophers have contended that knowledge is justified, true belief. It turns out though, that truth is probably too small for that purpose. Yet even without truth as a necessary condition, we know something. We go to sleep without fear of never waking again. We take one step after the other confidently, apparently certain of the ground’s persistent solidity. We move about justified by an interlocking network of constant correlations. Any single one of those correlations may be dubious, but taken as a consistent whole they support actionable beliefs – knowledge.

Like the scorpions’, our basics seem pretty janky. Nevertheless, though we are occasionally crushed by a boot or have to sting our way out of a situation, we survive for the most part, and even manage to snag an invigorating insect or two along the way.

It is possible to doubt a functional view of knowledge however. Anything less than absolute certainty merits some doubt. I think about that stray cyanide tablet now and again. Yet, I don’t doubt the justifying power of consistency built of constancy. I know that my pills are ibuprofen even though they might, in principle, be cyanide. Doubt in the method of justification itself invites fear, and fear is contagious.

Such doubt in our body of knowledge, driven by attendant fear, has spread in the populace recently. In place of functional knowledge – beliefs justified by their ties to a massive network of constant correlations – the afflicted strive to reclaim truth as their foundation for knowledge. They cast about the culture for a suitable candidate, what they find is revealed truth. Revealed truth has always lurked about in the cultural murk. Religion harbors it, but not the superstitious type of religion which one might reflexively suspect of such activities. The God of the Old Testament felt the need to carve a tablet, burn a bush, and drop some manna now and again. Revealed truth instead finds refuge with the more philosophical types. Think divine command theory or moral intuitionism.

Revealed truth acts something like Platonic form. Taken as a form, a circle is not a good model, it is the underlying reality which the flawed material of our world imperfectly represents. The circle itself is not the stuff of experience. Revealed truths differ from forms on that point, though. Revealed truths can be apprehended, and so blur the line between analytic and synthetic truths. The statement, “all unmarried men are bachelors”, is an analytic truth. The statement, “Bob is a bachelor”, is a synthetic truth. The statement, “Bob is an inherently unlovable person” is a revealed truth. On the same basis, what the Bible says is true because God wrote the Bible, which we know because it says so in the Bible. It is a truth by definition, but only in reference to a given assertion, in this case that an infallible God is the Bible’s author.

With revealed truth in hand, a person can know something with absolute certainty again. The result is appealing. We needn’t waste our time on the uncomfortable task of finding a date for Bob. We know what he is now.The problem with revealed truths should be obvious at this point. Such givens undercut justification. Consistency with the constancies does not matter anymore, only consistency with the given. If Bob actually gets married, we already know that the marriage is a sham. What remains is to discover the structure of the sham.

The justifying structures are easily built, and unassailable, since they have a given between themselves and any assault. The givens themselves are not beliefs, but natural conditions or kinds revealed by an authority, whether it be an intuition or the speech of a erstwhile prophet. Pick your definitive source; there are no limits.

This spoiled conception of knowledge has spread, generating Q anons, Antifas, and vaccine microchips. Similar epidemics have washed over us in the past. They never last, because eventually, the pragmatic view of knowledge outlasts them. Knowing the spells tucked in their jackets will protect them from bullets, a few of the participants in the Boxer Rebellion manage to avoid being shot. Most die. The scorpion who knows that he can wander around in the daytime because he feels the protective hand of God upon him will survive, for a while. The patient on the ventilator may know that Covid is a hoax because evil people lie, and evil people told him about Covid. He will still drown.

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The Other Senses

We humans have a visual bias. Experiments have demonstrated our preference for sight, but there is no need for experiments. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” not the tasting, but “Seeing is believing,” they say. Whenever we want to illustrate something, well, we illustrate it. Our language and culture reify vision. Even our metaphysical discussions are rife with visual references: consider Mary the color scientist, spectrum inversions, and Gettier problems.

Our belief in seeing privileges our sense of sight relative to our other senses, and we are likely to take its instruction more seriously. We wave off any perceptual conundrums arising from our other senses as foibles of inferior organs. But we should take our nonvisual phenomena more seriously, for they have lessons for us if we do.

Those lessons start at the bottom, with our sense of smell. Though it is our crudest sense, and arguably the one sensory modality that we could most do without, the structure of smell has weighty implications. Olfactory neurons each bear a single kind of receptor. The odors we experience are mediated by activation of a set of receptors entirely. The number and distribution of that activation determines everything about a smell: its intensity, favorability, and motivational power. An odor is something which can be described, but not named. There is no equivalent to “red” in our odor palette. However, there are good and bad smells, and as with moral qualities (supposedly), smells are intrinsically motivating on the basis of their goodness and badness.

That motivational power lies in the smell itself. A chemical in a test tube which smells like a steaming pile, produces the same revulsion as the smell of a steaming pile itself. It is tempting to say that the odor of the chemical in the test tube is just an olfactory misrepresentation of crap. The common scent is supposed to smell just as it does, though. The smell is a conjunction linking an aversive mood, and things to be avoided. The smell and the mood are about a broad landscape, stretching over memory, history coded in our genetics and cultural instruction, all mediated by a particular pattern of receptor activation.

A similar sort of two-directional representation occurs in our auditory experience. The organ which generates auditory nerve signals, the cochlea, is tuned to the range of the human voice. The structures at the auditory end of the line are primed to respond directly to voices and music, and indirectly, to stimulate an emotional response to voices and music. As with smell, when hearing evokes a mood, it builds a memory of itself and its circumstances on a broad and sturdy base. A good framework improves the recollection’s relevance, and therefore its odds of survival. Here is another temptation. Fans of evolutionary psychology and divine teleology may see the beginnings of a good story in this structure. But those sorts of stories are unnecessary, and far beyond the point, which is: our hearing shapes the map of our experience in terms of words and music, as much as it recognizes musical and linguistic experiences.

The other senses break down the uni-directionality of representation, but even further, they blur the internal/external division itself. Taste receptors give us the sensations of sweet, salt, sour, bitter, and umami. Our conscious experience of taste locates those sensations on the tongue. But there are taste receptors for bitter and sweet in the pharynx, and sweet taste receptors throughout the intestinal tract. Those sweet receptors attach to neurons which do not reside in the central nervous system, but instead, lie in the intestinal tract itself, and the pancreas. Though these sense organs have no direct connections to the central nervous system, they still contribute to conscious experience. They simply do so via the adjacent somatosensory system.

Our somatic senses are a bit of a jumble. As a whole, they are the thing that represents our status. Though there are a few specialized sense organs in the system, it mostly relies on bare nerve endings and chemical signals built in to the tissues surrounding the nerve endings. This sense tells us where our limbs are, and what each appendage is doing. The somatosensory system lets us know when our gallbladder is on the fritz, and, indirectly, when we are hungry or full..

Though they are rarely the center of our conscious attention, our somatosensory experiences are always present in our conscious states. If I interrupt Dr. Penrose’s visualization of a 5 dimensional object, he will immediately be able to tell me whether he is standing or sitting, feeling hungry, feeling warm or cold, fit or tired. Somatosensory experience serves as the shade tree, grass, and sky in the painting of our phenomenal picnic.

Of all the senses, our somatic sense most effectively dissolves the boundary between what is internal and what is external. Because, our hunger is apparently our hunger. Our cold is our cold. These are things that seem to incorrigibly belong to us, just like our thoughts or our moods.

The thought that any of these things belong to us is a bit off anyway. Words and music, hunger, thought, and mood are constituents, but there is no separable “us” to which they may belong. We come by this error regarding identity via our most favored sense. Because we rely so heavily on vision, we confer an unmerited degree of independence to our visual experiences. We conceive of sight as purely received information, which given the limitations of the medium, na├»vely represents an unconditioned reality. The plain truth gets transmitted through our optic nerves, into the dark room behind our eyes for the viewing pleasure of a little man in front of his little screen – the real us. Visual realism leads to other mistakes in its turn, regarding what is real and what is not. We begin to believe that numbers may be real because our eyes see objects as very discrete. Geometric shapes may seem real because we are able to depict them visually. A separate observer made up a separate stuff must sit behind our eyes to validate the reality of our visions. Our other senses beg to differ. They give as good as they get. Their contributions to our experience only make sense in reference to our global experience itself and do not rest on some outer, hard surface. Our world may be a ship sustained by the tension of its own spars, but it works for us – better than a brittle realism would.

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