June 28, 2004

Mind the Gap

Interesting post and discussion from Tom Runnacles about what bothers him about analytic philosophy. (Tom posts rarely, so if I want to get my CT linking round-robin I have to jump on this one.) The substance of Tom's kvetch is that philosophers don't really answer philosophical problems, which seem mostly to be skeptical problems. Tom quotes Thomas Nagel:

Skeptical theories take the contents of our ordinary or scientific beliefs about the world to go beyond their grounds in ways that make them impossible to defend against doubt. There are ways we might be wrong that we canít rule out. Once we notice this unclosable gap we cannot, except with conscious irrationality, maintain our confidence in those beliefs.

Nagel goes on to discuss reductionist approaches (which dismiss skeptical arguments by making our beliefs be about the things we can know) and heroic arguments (which try, and fail, to answer the problem) and snarks off my favorite approach in a footnote:

A fourth reaction is to turn oneís back on the abyss and announce that one is now on the other side. This was done by G.E.Moore.

My kvetch is--so our beliefs cannot be defended against doubt. So what? It's not obvious why defending against all doubt, ruling out every way in which we might be wrong, is necessary for us to maintain our beliefs without conscious irrationality. Like Moore perhaps, I am more confident that it is rational for me to believe the evidence of my senses than I am in the premises of any argument to the contrary. Also that it is rational for me to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow and that Kabul is the capital of Afghanistan. And the flat rejection of skepticism still leaves a lot of work for philosophy to do--how does that knowledge work, for instance, or what can we know once we're on the other side of the chasm?

The first Moorean approach is basically what Brian advocates in Tom's comments:

The point isnít necessarily to turn oneís back on the abyss. Rather, you start off making the rather mundane observation that we are in fact on the other side, so we must have got here somehow, and that tells you quite a bit about how the abyss can be crossed.

The second is closer to what I'm mostly interested in. Namely, given that we have a general overall idea of what beliefs are justified--common sense as it stands up to rigorous empirical investigation--what specific beliefs do turn out to be justified, how do they get to be that way, and what is the significance of justification at all? I don't claim to be able to satisfy the people who are worried about whether they might be brains in vats--but still, I think there's interesting territory on the other side of the gap, and we can get there if we just take bigger steps and don't look at our feet all the time. No reason to leave it completely unexplored.

Posted by Matt Weiner at June 28, 2004 02:20 PM