Saturday, March 24, 2012

Ever Our Failing

The Plaint Human
by James Whitcomb Riley

Season of snows, and season of flowers,
Seasons of loss and gain!--
Since grief and joy must alike be ours,
Why do we still complain?

Ever our failing, from sun to sun,
O my intolerant brother:--
We want just a little too little of one,
And much too much of the other.

Chesterton for March XXIV

The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children's games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. And one of the games to which it is most attached is called "Keep to-morrow dark," and which is also named (by the rustics in Shropshire, I have no doubt) "Cheat the Prophet." The players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that the clever men have to say about what is to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely. They then go and do something else. That is all. For a race of simple tastes, however, it is great fun.

Source: The Napoleon of Notting Hill

Friday, March 23, 2012

Shepherd on the External World II: Externality

Shepherd divides the discussion of how we know there is an external universe into three questions:

(1) How do we know that anything continues to exist when we aren't perceiving it?
(2) How do we know that there is anything external to us?
(3) How do we know that there is anything that doesn't depend on our minds?

In the previous post we looked at Shepherd's answer to the first question, and it turned out to be fairly straightforward. Externality is a bit more tricky than continuity. In one sense, however, her answer here is the same as it was to the first question: Given that what begins to exist has a cause, the externality of the external world is known by reason.

What we clearly need in order to answer this question is some line of demarcation between the internal world and the external world. Shepherd argues that we have such a line of demarcation in sensation itself:

Inward existence is the capacity for sensation in general; outward existence is the exciting cause for some sensation in particular. The one is the very mind itself, or the power of thought and feeling; the other is a motive, or cause for a particular kind of it, and therefore out of, and distinct from, the continually existing essence of it. That is inward existence, of which the individual only is conscious; that is outward, which is in relation to the organs of sense, and to motion, in order to be apprehended, and must be met by them before it becomes inward; and which is so situated as to meet the organs of sense, and reply to the motion of others, (others being supposed possible,) as well as our own. (EPEU 40-41)

It's easy to miss here, but the key point is that the line between inward and outward is drawn by the sense organs themselves. Shepherd sees causal interaction between two objects as a kind of 'mixing' of properties. If I put my foot in clay, some of the properties of my foot 'mix' with the properties of the clay so that the resulting mixture, the footprint formed around my foot in the clay, is the necessary effect of the cause -- for the effect to be any different would require that there be properties of the foot or of the clay that were different. This 'mixture' account of causal interaction applies quite well to the case of sensation. In sensation we have two objects, ourselves and the world around us, and sensation is the two mixing together. The appropriateness of talking about 'mixture' in this case is overwhelmingly obvious in the case of smell and taste; but it applies also to hearing, touch, and sight. What Shepherd recognizes is that this means that sensation can only be understood in terms of our use of our sense of organs. This might seem a bit obvious, but it's important to understand that this means that classical empiricism, the empiricism of Locke or Berkeley or Hume, is false. Classical empiricism takes sensible qualities as primitives: colors, sounds, and so forth, and any consideration of sense organs themselves is usually an afterthought. If Shepherd is right, however, even our most basic comprehension of sensation involves causal reasoning about our sense of organs. Empirical life is shot through with causal reasoning from the beginning.

To get an idea of how this works, we first need to remember that Shepherd's basic framework for answering the question about externality recognizes two distinct causal factors. First, there is the object that is the self or mind, understood as the continuing capacity for sensation in general. This capacity is for sensation in general because we know that we can have many different kinds of sensations, both at once and in succession. But in order for us actually to sense anything, causes in the world have to 'mix' with this capacity for sensation in general. This brings us to the second causal factor in sensation, which are causes of particular sensations. These are precisely the same causes that we recognized before as continuing to exist. For our mind, as the capacity for sensation in general, to sense anything, some particular difference has to be introduced into it. The causes in the world do this, and the introduced difference is actual sensation itself. From this it directly follows that the things that cause us to have sensations are outside the mind.

This is not quite enough to give us a complete account of externality, however, because when we say that something is outside the mind, we mean more than just that it is not in the mind; we mean that there is a world outside the mind that surrounds us, that we move through it, and so forth. That is to say, when we speak of the outwardness of objects, we don't usually confine this to mere outwardness, but attribute particular kinds of characteristics to that outwardness. The externality of the external world is not merely a non-inwardness; we regard ourselves as in some way actually experiencing that outwardness. This leads Shepherd to identify several kinds of experiences from which we, by causal reasoning, get our idea of outwardness.

(1) The relation of objects to the sense organs. Among the objects that we recognize as having both continuity and externality in the sense we have just indicated are the sense organs themselves, to the extent that we sense them. What we experience with regard to other external objects is the use of our senses as instruments for gathering the effects (sensations) those other external objects cause. Thus we think of objects as external when we use our sense organs to get sensations of them:

Now the mind always referring the sensible action of any sense, to the mechanical action of its respective organ, (as an effect to its cause), and considering this mechanical action as existing in relation to those other objects, or causes, which are likewise needful to introduce the ideas of sensible qualities into the mind, does thereby truly perceive and detect the presence of such other objects as are external to, and independant of mind in general. (EEPU 57)

This would be why, for instance, that we tend to treat 'external world' and 'sensible world' as synonymous: much of our experience of the world as external comes precisely from the fact that this experience involves a constant use of sense organs, which are themselves outside the mind. It is also this point that will begin Shepherd's account of how to deal with the apparent sensations of dreaming: the sensations of dreaming don't involves any clear experience of sense-organ-use, and certainly not in the sense in which they are used in waking life.

(2) The relation of the sense of self to the sense of extension. Our experience of ourselves as continuing selves doesn't involve any clear sense of ourselves as spatial in character, but there is a sense in which this nonspatial self is located in space. That is to say, we don't experience our capacity of sensation as itself having any spatial characteristics. But we do have the experience of moving around in space, so we can take ourselves as being a capacity to move around, as well as (or perhaps as part of) a capacity for sensation in general. In order for us to have this capacity, however, there must be a distinction between rest and movement, and the latter has to have a close connection to distance. The relation to distance is a sort of possibility of movement with respect to distance, and this possibility of movement is part of our experience of the externality of the world.

(3) The relation of the world to our skin. The skin, understood as that which we experience as the boundary of the sense of the body's own extension, forms a sort of limit to our conscious capable to feel pleasure, pain, and the like, and therefore in itself it serves as an organ demarcating a line between inwardness and outwardness that affects how we understand the externality of the external world. All that we are is in some sense within our skin, and we move our skin about in the world in order to experience that world. What is at the skin, and, in an odd way, even some of what is in the skin, has a sort of immediate tangibility, but other things have only a possible tangibility to the extent that they come into contact with the skin. This mere possibility of tangibility is a key part of our sense that things are 'outside' us. The mere fact that we experience ourselves as having a skin at all is proof on its own that there really are objects external to us.

(4) The sense of the medium. We can add to these three a fourth experience, this one pertaining to sight. By sight we in some sense see the outwardness of things, see that they are external. The world comes in different colors, and those colors in relation to each other give a sense of extension, and the different parts of the world that give us a sense of coloring have to be so related to each other that they readily appear according in the various forms and relations we see ("proportional positions," to use the phrase Shepherd uses). Taking our bodies, within our skins, as a reference point or center, we find that this visible extension is intimately related in our experience to other qualities, like tangible distance, hardness, and so forth. Thus the causes of these qualities in the world must have a proportional relation to each other making it so that they readily give these sensations at irregular calls of the senses, and thus all of our sensations are, so to speak, bundled in with this visible sensation of a medium in which different colors and shapes have a relation to ourselves as a reference point.

All four of these phenomena affect how we conceive of the externality of the world, then, but all four involve causal reasoning of some kind or other, by which we take these experiences to have causes that by their nature fall outside our capacity for sensation in general, which is to say, outside the mind.

Thus here, as elsewhere, Shepherd is able to use her account of reasoning, much stronger than Hume's or Berkeley's, to argue for the rationality of the common-sense approach to the external world. If you challenged an ordinary person to prove that there was anything outside the mind, they might well start by trying to argue that they see and touch and move through the external world, and that things keep existing when they are not 'internal' to us by sensation. Our sense of the world as outside our minds is very much a sense of ourselves and the world interacting together as cause and effect, in both directions. This is, on Shepherd's account, all good, rigorous reasoning, and while Shepherd thinks most people only use very simple forms of this reasoning, she will insist firmly that the reasoning even in these simple forms is quite good. There is, however, one complication that I have somewhat glossed over in discussing this, and it is the fact that Shepherd thinks that the common-sense view of the world does tend to get one thing wrong when it comes to the externality of the objects we sense. We assign too much to external objects.

Except for Berkeley as the most notable exception, almost all early modern philosophers hold that in ordinary life we constantly make the mistake of externalize mental qualities. In particular, most of the sensible qualities we experience, like colors, are purely mental; they do not exist in the world. We make a mistake in treating the colors we see as properties of the world rather than properties of our minds. Berkeley is the exception because he thinks that the ordinary person is quite right here: there is no external world, on Berkeley's view, except the world that we sense. On his view the world just is the sensory ideas in our mind. Shepherd rejects this and accepts the usual claim that we mistakenly externalize our sensations. Interestingly and ironically, she does so because of a position that she shares with Berkeley. One of Berkeley's arguments against there being any other external world beyond our sensible ideas is that a sensation or idea cannot be like anything else except a sensation or idea; from this he concludes that there is no way to know anything about any alleged external world beyond our sensations. Somewhat strikingly, Shepherd agrees with the premise, but on her account of causation we have proven that there are things in the world beyond our sensations, and thus we know by causal inference that there is another world besides the sensations in our minds. Given the way she argues there is some similarity between the external world and our sensations, but it is at a very abstract level: the causes in the world have to be related in some way such that their effects have such-and-such relations and proportions. If I go outside and see the green on the leaves, I can know that there is something in the world that is related to other causes so that this leaf looks green and that leaf looks green, and so forth. But I cannot say what it is in the world that makes the leaves look green, beyond the fact that the things in the world have something that is cause-of-green-appearance. When we go about our business in the world, however, we regularly assume that the sensible qualities appearing to us are in the world itself -- that the leaves really do have this green color in and of themselves. Shepherd, like most early modern philosophers, denies that we can know this.

While she tends to support the rationality of the ordinary person's approach to the world, then, she does think that we go too far. She is not a direct realist but an indirect realist. The sensible qualities we experience are purely effects of causes that are known only by those effects; they are not actually images of those causes -- at least, we do not know that they are. But because of this way of looking at things, she also, unlike many of her contemporaries, can have a very simple account not only of why this is a mistake but also of why we make it and why it's a perfectly reasonable mistake, a mere inadvertence rather than a sign of some deep irrationality in human nature. Because the causes in the world are known only through their sensory effects, we use the sensory effects algebraically (as she puts it): in order to talk or think about what it is in the world that causes this green appearance, I use this green appearance to stand for its cause. Just as x in algebra stands for whatever quantity might be relevant, so too green in our thought stands for whatever it is that makes things look green. Our sensible experiences are signs of the world, and we use these signs to represent their causes and the relations between those causes. Because of that, all our words covering sensation can mean three different things: the sensory appearance in our minds, which is the effect; the otherwise-unknown cause that mixes with our sensory systems in order to have this effect; and the whole complex of the cause-causing-the-effect. This ends up being the core of much of her criticism of Berkeley, whom she thinks regularly equivocates among these three different meanings. But we can see why it's easy to make the mistake: knowing the causes only through the effects, we have to use the effects to stand for themselves, for their causes, and for the whole action of the causes-causing-the-effect, which means that we have to be thinking quite analytically in order to recognize that these are actually distinguishable things. In practical life there's no particular reason to think that analytically all the time; but she has sharp words for philosophers who are supposed think analytically but still engage in such equivocations.

That takes account of the outwardness of the world; now we have to consider independence.

Music on My Mind

My Terrible Friend (Lauren O'Connell and Nataly Dawn), "When I Decide." I do like a good and cheerful murder ballad -- although, of course, strictly speaking this is not a murder ballad but a comic song using murder ballad conventions. (For a true murder ballad with some similar conventions, try Henry Lee.)

Chesterton for March XXIII

Don't say that the idea of human equality is absurd, because some men are tall and some short, some clever and some stupid. At the height of the French Revolution it was noticed that Danton was tall and Murat short. In the wildest popular excitement of America it is known that Rockefeller is stupid and that Bryan is clever. The doctrine of human equality reposes upon this: That there is no man really clever who has not found that he is stupid. That there is no big man who has not felt small. Some men never feel small; but these are the few men who are.

Source: A Miscellany of Men

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Reason Rally

There's apparently a Reason Rally put on by secularist organizations this Saturday in Washington, D.C. Some people have been very mocking and sarcastic about it all, but I say more power to them, for the same reason that I've said before that organizations to get atheists in touch with each other are actually a good thing: human beings aren't really capable of thinking alone. We are social in our very reasoning; show me people who think they can rationally handle the big questions on their own without any help from others and I will show you complete idiots. To be sure, your own reason can get you some ways, but reasoning on your own is inefficient and dangerous. We need people whose criticisms of us we can trust, people to keep us honest; we need people who can point out obvious things we, for whatever reason, missed; we need to be brought face to face with people who agree with us for radically different reasons than our own; we need to be forced to see things from other people's points of view, even on matters in which we are in agreement with them. Even a genius functioning alone is not, in the long run, a match for a group of moderately talented friends, whose friendship is what Aristotle calls a friendship of excellence or virtue, who are passionately devoted to truth, not merely in their own quirky ways (for even our well-intentioned quirks may sometimes lead us astray), but cooperatively. This is true regardless of the position in question, and atheists are no exception.

A rally really doesn't accomplish any of this on its own at all, almost every rally being just a mob of people who want to be able to say they were there and a bunch of speakers who like to think they are more important than they actually are, but it still can further good relations that might. It makes people meet people they wouldn't ordinarily meet and (moreover) it forces people into contact not merely with their heroes but also with people who make the same claims but are obvious cranks and kooks -- and any rally on any topic will bring such people out. That's something people need to be faced with, too; and it's certainly not just rational people who claim to be rational -- that would be nice, but, of course, anyone who thought that the mark of rationality is claiming to be for reason, even for the kind of reason one prefers, would need to face the inevitable disillusionment as quickly as possible. So one can reasonably hope something good will come of it. Apparently the line-up includes Tim Minchin, Bad Religion, and Eddie Izzard, so at least parts of it can be reasonably guaranteed to be fun. Given a few of the speakers there's bound to be a lot of pomposity, but as long as it's in-house and not being shoved in my face, I've no problem with that, either. And, frankly, if atheists and freethinkers threw big parties with Eddie Izzard more often, other people wouldn't dislike them so much.

So, honestly, I hope it all turns out well. As I said, given some of the people involved I'm sure there's some irrational pomposity involved, blowing it up into something no rational person could possibly regard it as being (just calling it "Reason Rally" was bound to attract such people); but I only get annoyed when people are irrationally pompous in my face. They can be as pompous as they want among the likeminded or when addressing their fellows.

Some Links of Note

* John Wilkins has made a nice online version of Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (PDF), color-coded to make it easier to distinguish the speaking parts. It's easily the best online version at present.

* Joe Carter had an interesting post recently on serious imbalances in the helium market caused by the combination of government surplus and party balloons. Helium is used extensively in technologies that use superconducting magnets, and it is not a renewable resource, so it has very wide implications; our wastefulness of helium is already making it difficult to do medical scans.

* At ConText you can look at James Madison's notes for the Constitutional Convention.

* The Jerusalem Post discusses outbreaks of anti-Semitism in France.

* Ronald Rychlak discusses misconceptions about Pius XII.

* The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has come out with its 2012 annual report. A lot of controversy in this one; they listed Turkey as a Country of Particular Concern, and, of course, Turkey is not pleased. If it were just a report and nothing else, they would no doubt simply register a protest and be done with it, but the USCIRF report is one of the reports used to determine the shape of trade relations between the US and countries who end up on the list, and can lead to selective embargoes or less favorable trade relations. It also creates an occasion other countries to raise awkward questions when dealing with a country on the list, and Turkey has been trying to deal with awkward European questions for some time now. The placement of Turkey on the CPC list seems to have been a narrow decision within the USCIRF itself; and, despite the ever-worsening religious liberty conditions in Turkey, there's a pretty good argument to be made that it's not in the league of the company it's keeping on the CPC list -- not, of course, that that's a very high standard.

Chesterton for March XXII

"Reason and justice grip the remotest and the loneliest star. Look at those stars. Don't they look as if they were single diamonds and sapphires? Well, you can imagine any mad botany or geology you please. Think of forests of adamant with leaves of brilliants. Think the moon is a blue moon, a single elephantine sapphire. But don't fancy that all that frantic astronomy would make the smallest difference to the reason and justice of conduct. On plains of opal, under cliffs cut out of pearl, you would still find a notice-board, 'Thou shalt not steal.'"

Source: The Innocence of Father Brown

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


When I was in high school I remember finding in a book a way to make a crude syllogism computer using just index cards, a hole punch, scissors and pins (or sticks). There were holes punched in the cards, some of which were closed (i.e., circles) and others of which were open (i.e., the holes were like a little U-shaped bite into the card). There was a master card with a key to all the holes, and you'd stack the cards together, put pins in the holes that represented the propositions, and shake the stack a bit. Some of the cards would fall out and -- if I remember correctly -- those cards had the syllogisms that were valid with those propositions. I made it and thought it was the greatest thing for a while. I have no clue where I found this, but I've wanted since to find the instructions for it. Has anyone come across this themselves, or knows in what book it is found?

Lion of the See of St. Mark

Shenouda III, the 117th Patriarch of the See of St. Mark, Pope of Alexandria, died on March 17th at the age of 88. He was the leader of the Coptic Orthodox, and had the very difficult task of protecting his people in a time of extraordinary tension. The Coptic Orthodox are a form of Oriental Orthodoxy. The easiest way to grasp what Oriental Orthodoxy is, is to look at the first four Ecumenical Councils. Catholics and (Eastern) Orthodox accept all four (and, indeed, the fifth, sixth, and seventh). The Oriental churches, like the Coptic Orthodox, accept the first three (First Council of Nicaea, First Council of Constantinople, Council of Ephesus), but rejected the Council of Chalcedon. The Church of the East accept the first and, I think, the second, but rejected the Council of Ephesus. All three can be called Orthodox in a broad sense, insofar as that name came out of the dispute over Arian Christianity, and all three reject Arianism and accept the teaching of Nicaea. In neither of these latter cases are the rejections necessarily absolute; differences in language and difficulties of communicating across political barriers were often at least as much an issue as genuine doctrinal disagreement. One of the things Pope Shenouda worked for was to clarify how the Oriental position in Christology, which is usually called Miaphysitism, related to the Chalcedonian Christology of Catholics and Eastern Orthodox; miaphysite terminology is usually seen as interpretable in Chalcedonian terms, and thus not necessarily heretical (from the Chalcedonian perspective) in the way that the stronger monophysitism position is, but there has always been a problem of determining just how much the Oriental Churches actually interpret it in terms that (from a Chalcedonian perspective) would be monophysite. Clarifying it was important. Pope Shenouda, while a theological conservative, was strongly committed to ecumenism, and in 1973 he met with Pope Paul VI and became the first Pope of Alexandria to meet with a Pope of Rome in over 1500 years, and they issued a joint declaration of things in common between the two churches.

The current procedure for electing a new Coptic Patriarch is extraordinarily complicated, since it requires voting by both the Holy Synod and the General Congregation Council of the Church to narrow down the possibilities to three candidates; the actual successor is chosen literally by having his name picked out of a hat (to prevent bias it has to be done by a blindfolded child). So it may well be a while before there is anyone to replace him, especially since there are rumors that it will be postponed until after elections for the Egyptian president.

Incidentally, I always like to know the 'mother church' for a Church. For instance, for Roman Catholics it's St. John Lateran (St. Peter's is larger and more famous, but St. John Lateran is the Pope's own cathedral), while for Eastern Orthodox of Byzantine persuasion it's the Church of St. George in the Fener district of Istanbul. It turns out that the equivalent church for the Coptic Orthodox, the Coptic Pope's own cathedral, is the Church of Holy Virgin Mary in Cairo, but it is almost universally called The Hanging Church because it was literally built up high and hangs over an entryway into the Babylon Fortress of Old Cairo. Since the time it was built the ground has risen several feet, but when it was originally built it must have given the sense of almost soaring into the air.

Chesterton for March XXI

The essential rectitude of our view of children lies in the fact that we feel them and their ways to be supernatural while, for some mysterious reason, we do not feel ourselves or our own ways to be supernatural. The very smallness of children makes it possible to regard them as marvels; we seem to be dealing with a new race, only to be seen through a microscope. I doubt if anyone of any tenderness or imagination can see the hand of a child and not be a little frightened of it. It is awful to think of the essential human energy moving so tiny a thing; it is like imagining that human nature could live in the wing of a butterfly or the leaf of a tree. When we look upon lives so human and yet so small, we feel as if we ourselves were enlarged to an embarrassing bigness of stature. We feel the same kind of obligation to these creatures that a deity might feel if he had created something that he could not understand.

Source: "A Defence of Baby-Worship," in The Defendant

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Chesterton for March XX

Liberty is the very last idea that seems to occur to anybody, in considering any political or social proposal. It is only necessary for anybody for any reason to allege any evidence of any evil in any human practice, for people instantly to suggest that the practice should be suppressed by the police.

Source: Illustrated London News, 5 June 1920

Monday, March 19, 2012

Chesterton for March XIX

There are only two kinds of people, those who accept dogmas and know it, and those who accept dogmas and don’t know it.

Source: Fancies vs Fads

Shepherd on the External World I: Continuity

We'd all agree, I think, that there is a world around us, one in which we live. But a question we don't usually ask is why we think there's a world around us. Why think that there is any world outside your mind? This may seem like a rather odd question to ask; but it turns out that how we answer it has ramifications for many other fields of thought. Different answers will affect, for instance, how you view the results of scientific investigation; they will change what you count as a good or bad argument for God's existence (or God's nonexistence); they will shift your views about how to approach testimony and hearsay. And this is because your answer to the question of how you know that there is a world outside your mind will influence what you think we can definitely know about that world. One of the important features of early modern philosophy is that this question was explicitly asked, and received a wide variety of answers.

Lady Mary Shepherd approaches the question by splitting it into three different questions. When we ask how we know that there is a world outside our minds, we are really asking three things (Shepherd is following David Hume here):

(1) How do we know that anything continues to exist when we aren't perceiving it?
(2) How do we know that there is anything external to us?
(3) How do we know that there is anything that doesn't depend on our minds?

Each of these questions implicitly makes a distinction: continuous/interrupted; external/internal; independent/dependent. The world outside our mind is continuous (it doesn't just pop into existence when we sense it); it is external (it isn't just part of our minds); and it is independent (it exists on its own).

We can start with the first question. Why do we think anything continues to exist when we aren't perceiving it? I look at a mountain, look away, and then look at it again. I'm pretty certain that it's the same mountain, and that it was still there even when I wasn't looking at it. I cannot currently see the wall behind me; I'm pretty sure it's there, continuing to exist without my sensing it. I'm pretty sure that Toronto continues to exist, despite the fact that I'm not there; I'm pretty sure the stars exist, even though it's daytime and I cannot see them. We expect the world to be there even when we aren't sensing it. But this means that our notion of the external world isn't derived entirely from our senses. We cannot perceive that anything continues to exist when it is unperceived! We cannot sense that the things we sense still exist when they are not sensed! What else needs to be added in order to get this conclusion?

When Hume answered the question, his answer, in Treatise 1.4.2, was complicated -- notoriously complicated. But Shepherd's answer will actually be straightforward. And this is because both Hume and Shepherd recognize that this question depends on our view of causation -- and they have very different accounts of causation. Shepherd's account of causation is reason-based: causal reasoning is rigorous reasoning. Indeed, Shepherd goes so far as to say that all mathematical reasoning is one kind of causal reasoning. Because this account of causal reasoning makes causal reasoning much, much stronger than Hume's account does, Shepherd's answer to the first question is massively more simple than Hume's. (Fortunately for us!) Strikingly simple, in fact. The basic idea is that

(1) Our senses make "irregular calls" for things. (For instance, I can arbitrarily look behind me to see the wall.)
(2) On the basis of this we find that things are very often "ready to appear".
(3) The only way this readiness to appear can be explained is if either the world is set up so that things are automatically created every time we sense them (they are "created purposely, ready to appear") or the things continue to exist even when not sensed (they "continue to exist, ready to appear"), so that things are consistently there when our senses call on them.
(4) We have so many different perceptions that we recognize there must be many different things with uninterrupted existence capable of causing them, because otherwise they would begin to exist without a cause.
(5) Therefore, for every kind of existence exhibiting this consistent readiness to appear, there must be something with the continuing capability of appearing in this way.

In other words, Shepherd essentially is identifying a well-known effect that we experience (ready appearance at irregular calls of sensation) and giving a cause for it. There has to be a cause for it, because these appearances begin to exist, and what begins to exist must have a cause. Likewise, there must be something that exists that explains the consistency of these appearances, because otherwise there is something about the beginning-to-exist of these appearances that has no cause. (The reasoning behind this is somewhat more complicated, but we don't need to go into details here.) From this we see at once that there are things that appear to us in sensation that must continue to exist even when we aren't sensing them.

It is important to notice two things about this, I think.

(1) This is very common-sensical, and deliberately so. After all, what will people usually do when you challenge them to prove that things continue to exist even when they don't sense them? Very often their inclination is to try to prove it by making what Shepherd calls "irregular calls of the senses". If you want to make sure that something is continuing to exist, or is continuing to exist in (at least roughly) the same way when you aren't looking, one natural way to do it is to look at irregular intervals to see if you can catch it out, surprise it, so to speak, show that it's not ready to appear. This is actually quite important. If Hume's account of our belief in continuous existence is right, for instance, this method of "irregular calls" proves nothing; the readiness of things to appear is simply left a mystery and Hume's account of causation makes causal inference weak enough that we can't really prove anything about the underlying causes. But in Shepherd's account this is entirely good reasoning. She recognizes, of course, that it's still a bit loose; we can make our reasoning much more sophisticated and systematic. But the kind of reasoning is good reasoning, and more sophisticated and systematic versions of this simple, ordinary inference don't make it good -- they just make it better.

(2) On its own this actually doesn't get us much. It tells us that there's a lot that corresponds to our sensations and there continues to be a lot corresponding to our sensations even when we don't have those sensations. But we don't have a full account of the external world here: continuity is not enough. It's still possible, for instance, that all the continuing causes of our sensations are really in our mind; it's still possible that they are in the mind of someone else, like God; it's still possible that they are all really caused by us. Many possibilities still exist because we don't know yet whether the world is wholly internal to our minds or at least partly external to them or whether it is dependent on us or independent of us. Likewise, we don't know its full nature, beyond the fact that it somehow corresponds to sensation and keeps existing. We only have one step here.

But we do have a step, and what is significant is that, if Shepherd is right, we know with absolute certainty that there is a world, something that continually exists so that we have the sensations that we do. Getting more than this requires answering the other questions.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Chesterton for March XVIII

The unconscious democracy of America is a very fine thing. It is a true and deep and instinctive assumption of the equality of citizens, which even voting and elections have not destroyed.

Source: What I Saw in America