3QD: CAPTCHAs, Kant, and Culture

…But clearly we do end up with causal knowledge, as Hume himself never doubted, and we manage to navigate our ways through a steady world of enduring objects. We somehow end up with knowledge of an objective world. And we don’t remember that arriving at such knowledge was all that difficult. We just sort of grew into it, and now it seems so natural that it’s really hard to imagine not having it, and it’s even difficult not to find such knowledge perfectly obvious. But in fact it is anything but obvious …

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The face at the bottom of the well

The most important thing is this: what you experience, what you think, what you believe has no deep connection to what is real. Kant had this single truth exactly right: everything we think we know about the world is mostly a reflection of ourselves—psychologically, culturally, socially. As Leszek Kołakowski wrote, “In all the universe man cannot find a well so deep that, leaning over it, he does not discover at the bottom his own face.”

The explanation for this is straightforward. We only ever encounter the model of the world our minds have made, and each model bears the imprint of its maker, in thoroughgoing ways so pervasive and nuanced that we seldom see ourselves in it. Solipsism in this sense is inescapably true. We experience our own minds, for the most part.

But it’s also true that our models are disrupted by experience: we make mistakes, we are surprised, we get things wrong and we collide and break. So it would be wrong to say there isn’t a reality independent of us. But we cannot know it as it is in itself—that’s Kant’s point. All we can do is try to model it, with our sloppy cognitive engines, and over time we have become pretty good at it, if only within the narrow realm of our endeavors.

How do we come to know this fact, that we cannot know reality as it is in itself? Certainly not by looking at reality as it is in itself and comparing it to the cartoon that is in our heads. No, we know it from the inside. We make wrong predictions about the world, and sometimes come to see our predictions as wishful thinking. We observe what other people say and believe, and we see how closely it is tied to their own psychology. We study other societies, all of which plant themselves at the center of what’s important. and from all of these observations we formulate the general thesis that people paint themselves into their worlds, or more accurately: they paint the world with themselves, rather in the way John Malkovich sees everyone as John Malkovich when he enters into his own mind as a stranger in the film Being John Malkovich.

We know this to be true in dreams. In dreams every element is coming from within us—where else could it be coming from? But it is a short step from dreams to waking experience. In waking experience what we see are the judgments we arrive at, and those judgments are formed from sensations, yes, but also the same internal apparatus that gives shape to our dreams. Our minds are predictive engines, but the predictions we make gain their characters from our dream engines. Malkovich, in entering his own head, has supplied himself as input to the apparatus that makes predictions about his experience, and unsurprisingly he sees himself everywhere. Most of us who aren’t crippled by extreme narcissism don’t have this experience, thank god, but we still inject ourselves into our predictions, and thereby into our experience.

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Knowing in a society

Some people think that knowledge is something in the head. I have a belief, and it has appropriate connections to other ideas and beliefs, all in my head. These connections ensure that my belief has good grounding or justification: I have reasons for my belief. And if this particular belief maps onto some structure in the world in the right way, in such a way that we might say my belief is “true”, then I have knowledge. But whatever is “out there” in the world is not my knowledge; it is only a fact or state of affairs that renders my belief true. It’s what is in my head that is my knowledge.

I’m not sure how many people find this way of looking at things congenial. It is a way of looking at knowledge that has been commonplace among anglo-american philosophers through the 20th century, at least. But as I write it down, I realize how strange it is. In ordinary daily life, knowledge is not regarded as a private pile of chestnuts kept within a cranium. Knowledge is almost always in action, playing an explanatory role in what we do or say or write. On some occasions it is only when we do or say something that we ourselves realize we had some knowledge we didn’t know we had. On other occasions other people see what we are up to, and they say to themselves, “He doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

On ordinary occasions, knowledge is a set of capacities we have, capacities which can be witnessed by others as present. You watch me change a tire, and you see that I know what I’m doing. Sam takes a calculus test and gets a high score. Nelly recounts the history of the Beatles. Juniper fits a cast on a dog’s broken leg. All these people have knowledge, and it is out in the open for anyone to see. Of course there is something going on in their heads—heads are not just ornamental—but the knowledge consists in an agent’s performance, or their capacity to perform, as judged by some kind of audience or measure that indicates their success. It’s not merely “in the head” any more than running is merely “in the legs”.

But even this generous schmearing of knowledge across agents, judges, and environments is too restrictive. For some of our knowledge we possess in virtue of belonging to a group that has that knowledge, loosely speaking. For example, I know humans can colonize Mars. If you press me on this, asking how we would secure a source of water and get plants to grow and protect our living entourage from radiation and hurricane-force winds, my story would crumble pretty quickly. I don’t know those things. My knowledge is based on some loose facts: that we have sent probes to Mars, and humans to the Moon, and I haven’t heard anyone say we could not possibly colonize Mars. That’s just about all I have to offer, and it hardly qualifies me as an expert. But I also believe that if I spent a few weeks doing research or consulting with experts, I could put together a much more detailed account of how we could colonize Mars, perhaps with charts and figures and artist renderings. That is to say, I don’t have the knowledge on me right now, but I could get it for you if you give me a few weeks, because I live in a society where that knowledge is available.

We could play with words and say, for example, that I don’t KNOW we can colonize Mars; I only sort of “know” we can colonize Mars. But I think in most conversations I could make the claim that we can colonize Mars and get virtually no resistance from others, whereas if I assert that we can train monkeys to do brain surgery, I very likely will receive some polite resistance on the matter, even though my knowledge of training monkeys is not appreciably less than my knowledge of establishing a base on Mars. The difference between the two cases is explained by the fact that our society, as a whole, knows how to colonize Mars, and we don’t know how to train monkeys to perform brain surgery. 

Somehow we gain a rough sense of the knowledge that is within our society’s reach, and what is not, though none of us are experts on most matters. Actually, this is no surprise: this is what it is to live in a society rich in knowledge, information, and access. We read and watch and listen and learn, and thus come to a fallible estimation of our collective capacities. One needn’t travel far down the road, geographically or historically, to come across other societies far poorer in their collective knowledge.

We might see if we can organize our knowledge into a series of gradations, extending from what I really know, right here, right now, to knowledge I have as a result of the society I am in. In between these extremes would be layers of things I know something about, or just a little about, or remember knowing at one time, or things about which I know some parts but am confused about others. It would be a complicated, multi-dimensional series, to be sure.  But I want to try to push aside as many complications as possible, and focus on the things we know mostly because we are in a society that knows them. Let’s give this murky area of known things its own distinctive name: educated true opinions.

For example, my knowledge that we can colonize Mars is an educated true opinion. Your knowledge that vaccines reduce the risk of contracting certain diseases is an educated true opinion. Our knowledge that humans are causing global warming is an educated true opinion, and our knowledge that antisemitic conspiracy theories have no factual basis in reality is an educated true opinion. It’s a cumbersome name, but each element is important. I insist on the word “educated” because these opinions are grounded in a roughly accurate sense of what our society collectively knows, even if we as individuals are not able to supply extensive reasons immediately upon request. I insist on the word “true” because I do not wish to say that any of these true opinions are merely opinions that might be true or false: no, they are true. I insist on the word “opinion” because this knowledge concerns matters about which we are not experts.

As the examples I just offered might suggest, many of us end up arguing over educated true opinions. That is, many of us argue over which claims are educated true opinions, and which aren’t. For some of us this arguing is only an occasional pastime. For others it becomes a rage-filled, life-consuming passion. Why it ends up being so important to some people, and not to others, is an interesting question.

One might think any such argument could be settled quite easily by asking some experts to tell us what’s true and what isn’t. But whether we can trust the experts, or even identify them reliably, turns out to be a matter over which there is further disagreement. On many issues we don’t even agree on what it would take to establish a claim as an educated true opinion. Sometimes the arguments become so acrimonious that it can be asked whether we are living in the same society.

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3QD: No, Let’s Not Give Up On Liberalism Just Yet

Liberalism has been so successful in promoting a wide range of different ideas that its own name has gotten pretty murky. Many people think it means supporting a welfare state, championing the voices of people usually pushed to the side, and generally showing sympathy for anyone or anything that can’t defend itself. Other people think it means being a stupid hippie crybaby. Still others lump liberalism together with belonging to a specific political party, and others argue it’s just another word for capitalism. But the classic meaning is that a liberal tries to establish a social order that gives people the freedom to live however they think best without getting in each other’s way. Fundamentally, it is the defense of pluralism, or the broad toleration of different visions of what’s good. It’s this sense of liberalism that I think we shouldn’t give up on just yet.

A recent blogpost by philosopher Liam Kofi Bright explains why he isn’t a liberal. (And a similarly forceful critique is offered by Christopher Horner here on 3QD.) Bright argues that humans just can’t maintain a sharp distinction between what’s private and what’s public: our own visions of the good life inevitably will pollute our politics (and so pluralism is unstable). Second, and relatedly, he argues the very idea is incoherent, and a governing institution necessarily shutters some visions of a human life as no longer open for business. He also argues that liberalism historically has been the vision advanced by white plutocrats, and it carries their worldview in its DNA, particularly under the banners of private property and rapacious capitalism. 

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3QD: More complications, please

It is entirely possible that we cannot handle the ever rising tide of knowledge. Yes, I am going to presume that it is knowledge — that we are not barking up the wrong axis mundi, that we are not ten days away from the next Einstein who overturns everything, that this time next year we will not look back on today as back when we were mere children. You might ask how I can possibly make this presumption, and you are right to ask. Nevertheless…

We know a helluva lot. It’s really extraordinary if you stop to think about it. Why should the descendants of some savannah primates be able to figure out all this stuff about quarks, penicillin, double-entry bookkeeping, stock derivatives, the rise and fall of psychoanalysis, Bluetooth (well, right, work in progress), and microchip readers? Any ancient alien bookies would have placed the odds heavily against us. But here we are, trying to drink from a veritable firehouse of veritas, swelling our heads most impressively.

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3QD: The Many Things That Don’t Exist

Lots of things don’t exist. Bigfoot, a planet between Uranus and Neptune, yummy gravel, plays written by Immanuel Kant, the pile of hiking shoes stacked on your head — so many things, all of them not existing. Maybe there are more things that don’t exist than we have names for. After all, there are more real objects than we have names for. No one has named every individual squid, nor every rock on Mars, nor every dream you’ve ever had. The list of existing things consists mostly of nameless objects, it seems.

So there also must be a lot of nameless things that don’t exist. The collection of two marbles in my coffee mug — call it “Duo”. Duo doesn’t exist. Nor the collection of three marbles (“Trio”), nor the collection of four marbles, etc. Beyond Duo and Trio, there is an infinity of collections of marbles in my coffee cup that don’t exist, and the greatest portion of them, by a long shot, are nameless. Think of all the integers that don’t exist between 15 and 16. None of them have names. The world is full of them, or it would be, if they existed.

My guess is that there are more nameless things that don’t exist than there are nameless things that do exist. I have read that there is a finite number of particles that exist in the universe, and that’s probably going to limit the number of nameless existing things, somehow. But think of all the particles that don’t exist! There are far more of them, right?

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3QD: Is It Enough to Abide?

SOCRATES: Dear sir! You seem to be an happy fellow, able to enjoy the mixed bitter and sweet fortunes of life!

DUDE: Oh, hey, man! Nice toga thing you got going on there. Let it hang, right?

SOCRATES: You are kind! And, indeed, perhaps too kind; for should one man compliment another on what is mere appearance, on the mere vestiges of one’s life?

DUDE: Oh, vestiges, right … What are you having there, old timer? Sangria? White Russian for me, Gary.

GARY: Sure thing, Dude.

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3QD: Life in the garden of forking paths

We primates of the homo sapiens variety are very clever when it comes to making maps and plotting courses over dodgy terrain, so it comes as no surprise that we are prone to think of possible actions over time as akin to different paths across a landscape. A choice that comes to me in time can be seen easily as the choice between one path or another, even when geography really has nothing to do with it. My decision to emit one string of words rather than another, or to slip into one attitude or another, or to roll my eyes or stare stolidly ahead, can all be described as taking the path on the right instead the path on the left. And because we primates of the homo sapiens variety are notably bad at forecasting the consequences of our decisions, the decision to choose one path and lose access to the other, forever, can be momentous and frightening. It’s often better to stay in bed.

Indeed, because every decision cuts the future in half, the space of possibilities is carved rapidly into strange and unexpected shapes, causing us to gaze at one another imploringly and ask, “How ever did such a state of things come to pass?” And the answer, you see, is that we and our compatriots made one decision, and then another, and then another, and before long we found ourselves in this fresh hot mess. And we truly need not ascribe “evil” intentions to anyone in the decision chain, as much as we would like to, since our own futuromyopia supplies all the explanation that is needed. We stumble along in the forever blurry present, bitching as we go, like an ill-tempered Mr. Magoo.

(Hegelian World Spirit as Mr. Magoo, the philosopher writes in his notebook.)

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3QD: Riding an Empty Suit

Statue of Kafka by Jaroslav Rona, Prague

A man rides an empty suit. The suit tells others what to think of the man, though it would not fit him. The man does not control the suit, but merely takes a ride upon it, come what may.

In his twenties, Franz Kafka composed a long story, “Description of a Struggle”, which remains one of his most enigmatic works. It follows a dream-like logic from a party, to a stroll through Prague, to an encounter with “a monstrously fat man” being borne in a litter by four naked men, to a supplicant once known by the fat man who prayed by bashing his own head against the stone floor of a church, to a final scene on a mountaintop, where a stabbing takes place, though it does not seem to be very consequential. The end. 

Max Brod thought it was a work of genius, though John Updike thought it was adolescent posturing. (¿Por qué no los dos?) Like all of Kafka’s works, it shows up on your doorstep like a locked desk that you are sure contains something you need, but the key is locked inside it; and when you finally bash the desk open, you find your own corpse with a toe tag reading “GUILTY OF BREAKING THE DESK”. Maybe some of the strange imagery Kafka himself could neither explain nor control, maybe some of it spoke of his own secrets, maybe all of it is an existential parable. 

One thing is for sure: the story shatters in every way. We might expect a story with a beginning, middle, and end: nope. We might expect some clarity about just whose story it is: nope. We might expect facts to stay fixed, or people to inhabit their own bodies: nope. We might expect some thread of consistency, conversations that make even minimal sense, words of wisdom that do not culminate in irrelevant banalities. Nope, nope, nope. That the work is offered as a story, and even as a description, is an exaggeration. It’s something, all right, and we may try to read it as a story, but the damned thing will not cooperate. It keeps falling apart the more we try to hold it together, like a human life, come to think of it.

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3QD: It’s not easy to live in a Mystery

Over years of teaching philosophy, I have observed that people fall into two groups with regard to the Biggest Question. The Biggest Question is one that is so big it is hard to fit into words, but here goes: When everything that can be explained has been explained, when we know the truths of physics and brains and psychology and social interactions and so on and so forth, will there still be anything worth wondering about? I am assuming the “wonder” here is a philosophical wonder, not the sort of wonder over whatever happened to my old pocket knife or whatever. It’s the sort of wonder that has a “why-is-there-something-rather-than-nothing” flavor to it. It’s the sort of wonder that doesn’t go away no matter how much is explained.

Swirly, isn’t it? No, not really.

Some people think that on that sunny day when everything that can be explained has been explained, well then, that will be that. We will understand why things have happened, and how we came to exist, and what we should do if we want to be healthy and happy, and why works of art move us as they do. It’s not that such people are in any way shallow or unimaginative or tone deaf. They are open to the most wonderful experiences of life, along with the most heart-wrenching and most tragic. It’s just that they think these experiences can be explained and understood in all their glory through that explanation. If there is anything “left over” — some stubborn bit of incredulous wonder we just can’t shake — then that too will be explained through some feature of human psychology, like the way those patterns still seem to swirl in a static optical illusion even when you know the trickery behind it. The feeling that there is a Mystery can itself be explained as an illusory sort of feeling, an accidental by-product of the cognitive engine we happen to think with.

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Justin E. H. Smith, “Garbage, Human Beings”

“Social media have gutted institutions: journalism, education, and increasingly the halls of government too. When Marjorie Taylor Greene displays some dumb-as-hell anti-communist Scooby-Doo meme before congress, blown up on poster-board and held by some hapless staffer, and declares “This meme is very real”, she is channeling words far, far wiser than the mind that produced them. We’re all just sharing memes now, and those of us who hope to succeed out there in “reality”, in congress and classrooms and so on, momentarily removed from our screens and feeds, must learn how to keep the memes going even then. “Real-world” events, in other words, are staged by the victors in our society principally with an eye to the potential virality of their online uptake. And when virality is the desired outcome, clicks effected in support or in disgust are all the same.”

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3QD: Go ahead and speak nonsense

[…] Somehow, through our language, culture, and shared projects of both construction and destruction, we manage to invent a spirit-world of fictions and concepts that paper over whatever-it-is-that-really-is-there, and we think and act in that spirit-world. It is nearly impossible — or maybe it is necessarily impossible — to tear off the layers of interpretation and take a sneak peak at the In Itself. Instead, we form new spirit-worlds through which we can reference the previous ones, and through a kind of “semantic ascent” we find ourselves with being able to name everything many times over, connecting every alleged thing to every other alleged thing. When the layers upon layers of these spirit-worlds become sufficiently entangled, we come to believe we can speak intelligibly about all things, and we lose sight of the basic fact that it is all a bunch of very sophisticated nonsense we have ourselves summoned into intelligibility. Reification is the birth of (nearly) everything. […]

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3QD: What you know is a policy to live by

Philosophers are prone to define knowledge as having reasoned one’s way to some true beliefs. The obvious kicker in any such definition is truth; for how am I supposed to determine whether a belief is true? If I already know what is true, why should I bother with some philosopher’s definition of knowledge? What’s the use of this stupid definition anyway? “Hey, I’m just doing my job,” replies the philosopher. “You wanted to know what knowledge is, and I told you. If you want to know how to get it, that’s another story — and for that you’ll have to pay extra!”

If we think of true beliefs as getting things right — really right, like if you asked God about it they would say, “Yep, that’s what I figure too” — then it is indeed difficult to see how we could ever know the truth, and not just because friendly chats with God are so exceedingly rare, but also because we don’t really know what we mean when we say “really right” instead of just saying “right”. The “really” is supposed to add some special oomph to the knowledge, an oomph we by definition can never experience or access: it is the knowledge of what is going on in the world when no one is knowing it, which is like trying to see what your face looks like when no one is looking at you. “Really”, in this context, just means: at a level that is impossible to attain. Trying to get something really right means never knowing for sure whether you in fact have it right.

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Thinking about being stupid

“None of this – being imprecise, not quite understanding the import of what one is saying, not being as secure in one’s knowledge as one wishes or thinks – comes close to being anything like the condition of radical intellectual defect or depletion signalled by stupidity. I will resist the impulse to suggest that this all-or-nothing denunciation of any intellectual debility as stupidity might itself be evidence of stupidity. But it may be evidence of the strange, hypnotic force that the idea of stupidity has, even as one might just as well say that wherever stupidity, as the putatively absolute absence of knowing, is assumed to be, it can never in fact be. Rather, it is something like the imaginary wall against which knowing discourse endlessly bumps up and from which it bounces painlessly back to itself. Stupidity is as much a work of fantasy as knowledge is, acting as it does as the indispensable, imaginary outside to knowledge’s gleaming ­ dream of itself” (Steven Connor, The Madness of Knowledge)

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3QD: Don’t be so sure

[By the way, this is my 50th 3QD essay, by my count. I have encountered many interesting ideas and intelligent and gracious people through the site. It’s been a wonderful partnership.]

Luxuriating in human ignorance was once a classy fad. Overeducated literary types would read Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, and soak themselves in the quite intelligent conclusion that ultimate reality cannot be known by Terran primates, no matter how many words they use. They would dwell on the suspicion that anything these primates conceive will be skewed by social, sexual, economic, and religious preconceptions and biases; that the very idea that there is an ultimate reality, with a definable character, may very well be a superstition forced upon us by so humble a force as grammar; that in an absurd life bounded on all sides by illusion, the very best a Terran primate might do is to at least be honest with itself, and compassionate toward its colleagues, so that we might all get through this thing together.

But classy fads fade. Indeed, one seemingly inviolable law of philosophical thinking is that any forthright declaration of human ignorance will be followed by a systematic explanation of that ignorance, decorated with special terms and diagrams. We just can’t let it go. Aristotle began his Metaphysics with the claim that all men by nature desire to know, and we would be right to quibble a bit: maybe some men do and some men don’t, and maybe some women also desire to know, and some don’t, and perhaps the most sensible thing to say is that many people like to pretend to know — which would have made for a much more promising beginning to his treatise, come to think of it. But we weren’t there, and Aristotle chugged on ahead as a man who desired to know everything except his own limits.

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