Sunday, October 23, 2005

The world and its explanations: an epistemological side-trip

This blog touches on such a melange of disciplines -- from "cognitive studies" (itself an amalgam of cognitive science, psychology, neurological science, cognitive philosophy, philosophy of mind, etc.), through linguistics, to cultural anthropology -- that you might almost say it was undisciplined. In any case, the deep and ancient waters of epistemology seem a bit of a stretch even for such a melange. But, as I indicated in the post on "general consciousness" below, the idea that consciousness actually creates the world that we experience (going Wordsworth one better) has philosophical implications that shouldn't be avoided even if we wanted to. I said I'd return to this, so here I am:

If I thought it were really feasible, I'd say that the created world of consciousness is the only meaningful sense of the notion of "world", and await the accusations of idealism with resigned equanimity. I'm not, in fact, advocating idealism, and don't have any doubt that there exists an environment that's independent of consciousness and to which the created world is one response. But I want to say that I think there are some compelling reasons to leave that immersive environment just as such, and save the word "world" for the sort of knitted-together totality that consciousness presents us with.

For a long time, of course, it's been commonly thought that consciousness provides us with a representation of the "external" world, but a flawed one. That is, what we get is simply an "appearance", which is at odds with an underlying "reality", and it's been the task of philosophers, originally, and then of scientists, to penetrate the veil(s) of appearance and arrive at the truth, or the really real. This appeals to an intuitive understanding of how appearances can mislead, and even though the philosophers tended often to obscure things more than clarify them, the scientists have had a series of unquestionable successes, at least of a certain kind (as I'll get to). But at the same time, this scientific truth has been getting further and further removed from human experience, removing layer after layer of appearance, until there seems to be little "appearance" left at all, and all we -- "we" being the few adepts with the requisite abilities and training -- have to cope with it are the diamond-hard structural abstractions of mathematics. And, as one scientific revolution succeeds another, there seems to be no end to this process, with new questions forming faster than old ones are answered, and the real truth receding at least as fast as we approach it. In any case, beyond all human reach, there hovers the tantalizing idea of the "thing-in-itself", the noumenon, the final truth. We seem to be left peeling an onion that has no core.

So, in contrast to that situation, let me suggest another. Do you want to know the truth? Think you can handle the truth? Then all you have to do is remove layers upon layers of cultural sediment, let go of all theories, ideas, concepts, and even thoughts and words, and leave yourself open, as far as you can, to the moment-by-moment experience that presents itself to you. Become like an infant, in other words -- not a Wordsworthian infant, "trailing clouds of glory", no, but like a pre- or non-linguistic consciousness. And that's as close as you can ever come to the really real, to the underlying, bedrock truth of things. Because that just is the world. (In this context, the notion of the "thing-in-itself", the noumenon, is a mere conceptual mirage, a will o' the wisp.)

Now, the problem with the truth, in this sense of the word, is just that it doesn't do us much good. Well, that's not quite right, since the conscious world is above all a practical construction, but it's not nearly as useful as even some fairly simple explanations of experience. Notice, however, that "explanation" now becomes not a "penetration" of appearance, but rather a kind of overlay, a way of structuring experience through appropriate and opportune abstractions (see below, on the symbol) that provides us with practical and effective ways of planning our behavior in the world. And the test of an explanation is not how closely it matches some supposed, but unreachable, "external" world, but rather how well it functions in serving our immediate and long-term individual and social needs. This is a pragmatism, certainly, but one built upon a kind of epistemological inversion -- in this sense, what science is really doing is not peeling away layers of appearance, but adding layer upon layer of explanation, each layer extending the reach of experience that it covers. It's not surprising that, in this process, it necessarily becomes ever more abstract, nor that the process should be potentially without end. And all the while we can happily make do with various intermediate levels of explanation that are closer to our actual experience, without feeling that we're somehow being fooled by appearances. We might, in fact, want to change the meaning of "truth" to refer not to correspondance to the world (since that we have immediately), but rather to the breadth of experience covered by a particular explanation -- in that sense, truth would be a relative term, and one explanation could be more or less true than another.

Well, I said near the start that "if it were feasible" I'd assert that the world that consciousness creates for us is the only meaningful sense of the word -- but I doubt that it's really feasible in general. None of us, including myself, can really get away from the common use of "world" to mean the external environment. Still, I think that this sort of re-orientation can have significant and, I hope, helpful consequences in trying to address some questions and issues of a less common nature.



At 4:46 AM, October 25, 2005, Blogger Peter said...

Interesting stuff. I like the idea of different levels or perspectives on the world, added by science. That still leaves the difficult question of whether one or more of them are basic or privileged in some way. I don't know the answer, but I do see some grounds for thinking that the basic atomic physics reading of the world (or some closely related view, like, in fact, 'everyday reality') is the most sharply focussed view of the world.

Hope I'm making some kind of sense. May your blog flourish, anyway!

At 3:23 AM, October 28, 2005, Blogger Ellis Seagh said...

Thanks for the comment, Peter, and the good wishes.

Yeah, I do think that some explanations are better than others -- not necessarily because they're more "basic", but because they cover more ground with less "matter". That is, the explanation is shorter, tighter, makes fewer assumptions, and applies to a wider range of circumstances -- it's more practical, in that sense, or more effective. And, that said, there may still be a need for explanations on various "levels" (e.g., the social, psychological, biological, physical, etc.) that are more effective for different reasons. In any case, and in general, I think it helps to think of explanation in this sort of practical way.

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