Thursday, April 10, 2014

Ambiguity and Digging Deeper

It hit me today how much of philosophy is mired down in ambiguity or a failure to dig deeply enough to solve the problem. For instance, when people ask, “What caused Jones to do as he did?”, do they mean something like “What is the explanation for Jones performing the particular action he did?” Do they mean “What is the explanation for Jones choosing to do the particular action he did?” Do they mean “What causally determined Jones to do as he did?” Do they mean, “What are the influences, decisions, and/or desires that led to Jones doing as he did?” Do they mean “For what purpose is Jones doing this action?” All of these have subtle nuances, presuppositions, and meanings. Yet in our philosophical discussions, we often gloss over this one word cause and go ahead and ask the question.

On the other hand, sometimes the issue is just a failure to tease out implications (this is really the same issue—not digging deeply enough into meaning). As part of an argument against the general reliability of intuitions (broadly construed as a priori knowledge or truths about the world not gained from experience), it is often claimed that plenty of our intuitions have been falsified. In fact, consider the intuitive belief that the sun revolves around the earth, because it arises each morning and that is what we see. The common reply—one which I think is correct and that I have used—is that falsification of some intuitive beliefs do not show that the faculty of intuition is unreliable (at least, not any more than the fact that some people have faulty reasoning makes reasoning unreliable).

However, there’s more to it than this. It occurs to me that people aren’t intuiting that the sun revolves around the earth. Instead, this is an (almost) inferential belief one naturally makes upon a deeper intuition: that our senses are veridical. We see the sun against the horizon, appearing to move upward into the visible sky, and set toward the west. Our intuition is that our senses are getting at the truth of the matter. We don’t have the intuition that the sun revolves around the earth. Now, it’s not an actually inferential process since, surely, no one (or virtually no one) has reasoned: “My senses are such that they are veridical; my senses are showing me the sun going up in the morning and down in the evening; therefore, the sun really does go up and down, and therefore, the sun revolves around the earth.” However, despite an unconscious process, it doesn’t seem that the sun revolving around the earth is the type of thing which can be a belief which is independent from experience. It is a belief that is rational given that one’s sensory experiences can be said to be veridical, but it is not itself an intuition.

The whole point? Clarity and depth of analysis is what is needed with these types of claims. We need not commit ourselves to all sorts of bizarre “intuitions” that we don’t actually have (we have plenty of good intuitions anyway), and we need to understand precisely what is meant by “cause.” The same goes for so many other terms!

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