Friday, April 30, 2010

The anti-scepticism of Wittgenstein

Sentences like the one I commented in my last blog might give the impression that Wittgenstein is a sceptic. The quotation from On Certainty there seems to imply that we can doubt everything: each statement that might be true still has some aspects that might make it possible to doubt it. One might think that this is supported by one of the first aphorisms in this book, which I quote now from an edition that I have found on line: “From its seeming to me - or to everyone - to be so, it doesn't follow that it is so.” (aphorism 2; see, also for the next quotations) It implies the idea that everything that we might hold true might be different, not only in the sense that it has implications that may make it false (for instance that our statement about an object is only true as long as we look at it; see my last blog). It may also be possible that our statement is false if we look at it from another viewpoint, for instance from the viewpoint of another person. Everything might be different, so it seems, and this is basically the position of a sceptic.
This is not the position of Wittgenstein. It is true, much can be doubted, but already in the second sentence of aphorism 2, right after the quotation just given, Wittgenstein gives a hint that he doubts this endless doubt: “What we can ask is whether it can make sense to doubt it”. As Wittgenstein shows later in his On Certainty, in order to doubt we always need a frame of reference from which it is possible to doubt: “If you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything. The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty” (115). And here we get to Wittgenstein’s famous language games in the sense of regions of our language with their own rules and grammar, which make talking and discussion possible, anyhow. Even then one can ask: What justifies these languages games? However, there is no endless regress and in the end we simply have to act in order to survive (see my blog of March 3, 2008). And so Wittgenstein’s develops his anti-scepticism.
Basically, I agree with Wittgenstein. Nevertheless, if we look at the present research by Metzinger and Murphy and Brown, a certain degree of scepticism cannot be avoided. For is it not so that they have shown that the truths we hold are actually only representations in our head, which makes them individual truths in the end? The only way to try to avoid such a relativism with sceptical consequences is, I think, to look for as much agreement between as many people as possible about the truth of these individual truths, by a free, unlimited and unrestricted discussion as proposed by Habermas. What we arrive at then is not TRUTH but at least a maximum possible intersubjective consensus.
But however this may be, one thing is without doubt: My next blog will be published a bit later than usual.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The fluency of reality

Wittgenstein’s books consist of long series of aphorisms and when I took his Über Gewißheit (On Certainty) from my bookcase last Monday, my eye fell immediately on aphorism 215, which I had underlined: “Here we see that the idea of ‘correspondence to reality’ has no clear application” (my translation). It followed an aphorism in which Wittgenstein had said: “What will prevent me to suppose that this table, when nobody looks at it, either disappears or changes its colour or shape and that it turns back to its old state, now when somebody watches it again? …” (214; my translation)
For many readers of this blog these sentences may be obscure. For me they aren’t. Immediately they made me think of a reaction to my blog “The bucket of our mind” (April 5, 2010) and of the so-called correspondence theory of truth. There are several theories in philosophy that formulate what “truth” is and this theory is the one accepted by most philosophers. However, I do not.
This theory looks so simple. On a winter day I sit in my study and I am thinking about snow. “Snow is white”, I think. I look out of my window into the garden and see that the snow there is white, indeed. So, it seems that my little theory about the colour of snow has been confirmed, for there is a correspondence between what I thought and what I see in the garden: That snow is white. However, already as a student I wasn’t convinced, and from my blogs it must be clear that I am still not convinced. I explained here, for instance, that you can compare my eyes and brain with a photo camera and that it depends on the properties of the camera and everything that belongs to it what we see: the lens, the film, the way the film is developed, or today the software in your camera, and so on. In other words: what we see is not a reality as such but an interpretation of reality by the properties of the camera in our head. There is no one-to-one relation between what we think to see in our brain and what there is over there in the world around us. For the colour of snow in our garden this may be difficult to grasp, but when we try to classify a bird in our garden it can be quite difficult to know what we see: is it a marsh tit or a willow tit? Until not so long ago even ornithologists thought that it was one species. If we talk about things still to be discovered as in science, there simply can be no correspondence between what we think to see and what there is in the world: what we see in the world is partially dependent on how we have classified it or how we will classify it with our scientific theory that is still in development (compare the discussion whether Pluto is a planet or a dwarf planet). In short: there are no facts, there are only interpretations. For me, what exists is only the way I “see” it in my head.
And now, when I read these sentences by Wittgenstein, even this may not be true. For what Wittgenstein says is simply this: What guarantees me that what I “see” in my head still exists the way I thought to see it at the moment that I do not look at it? Everything might be fluent and even that might not be so.

P.S. The pictures show a marsh tit (to the left) and a willow tit. Note that the difference in colour between the birds right and left are an artefact of the light circumstances and what the cameras made of it, which just substantiates my thesis. In my garden, I cannot see a difference. (Photos from Wikipedia)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Grasping concepts

Once some scientists thought that the language we speak determines in a certain degree the way we think and see the world around us. However, this view could not be substantiated by research. Nevertheless I think that our language has some influence on the way we think and observe: Our language is a guide for us, for the way we look at the world and make classifications. It gives us the first categories of what we perceive. But as it is with any guide: we can improve it or we can take a better one. We can use another language with other categories and we can invent new categories. In that sense anything goes.
In science and philosophy we need a language, anyhow, for expressing our thoughts and the results of our investigations. I don’t use the word “express” by chance, for language can be very expressive in its metaphorical way of describing what we think or see and catching the right meaning in a concept. Just the word “concept” is such a beautiful expression that exactly says what it is. “Concept” comes from the past participle of the Latin concipere, which means grasp (capere) together (con-). And if we have brough the parts of our object of thought or research together and caught them in a concept, we have a grip on it and we understand or grasp it. We find this idea of a metaphorical relation between mentally grasping and physically grasping of what we understand also in other languages like German (begreifen=understand; lit. more or less “grasp”), Dutch (begrijpen, as in German) or French (comprendre, which is a literal translation of concipere). It is as if we hold what we understand in a mental embrace or we keep it maybe like something that we carefully enclose in our hand so that it cannot escape. But after some time we usually forget the literal meaning of words. How plastic language can be and how pity it is that it happens so often that the expressive meaning of a word fades into the background and that we do not realize it any longer. And then a concept is no longer something we have grasped but it has become an abstract word drawn away (Latin: abs=away; trahere=draw) from its original meaning.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Hallucinating reality

As we have seen in my last two blogs, in our brain we have no direct picture of the world around us. Our image of the world is no copy of the world but it is a constructed image that represents mainly what is relevant for us. Rays of light touch our eye. Already in the eye certain types of light are selected. We see no infrared or ultraviolet, while bees do, for example. Then the light impressions are transported to our brain, not as rays but as chemical and electrical signals. There the final image is constructed by a complex mechanism in our head. Information can be lost in this way but can be added, too. I think that many people know the idea of Gestalt. Three separate points arranged in the shape of a triangle are seen as a triangle, although there may be no objective reason for it. We just think that the three points form a triangle. Therefore, we can also say that we simulate a triangle. In this way, what we see is actually a simulation in our head. This simulation needs not to be a real image of the world, but it is one we think that it might be so: It represents a possible world.
The simulations of the world around us, of the “real world”, are not the only possible worlds we have in our heads. We have dreams, fantasies, hallucinations, inner monologues, plans for the future, images of ideal worlds, and so on. All these simulations represent a world as it might be, a possible world constructed by the brain on the basis of information stored there but maybe also based on (or partially based on) false information, or even caused by disturbances of the brain. The only difference between a simulation of the real world and the other simulations is, as Thomas Metzinger says it, that the first one “simulates … a ‘Now’ ” (Metzinger, Being no one, p. 50).

Metzinger points to the fact that idealistic philosophers have seen this clearly. And if representations of the real world are not fundamentally different from the other kinds of simulations and if all simulations are produced by the brain, it is only one step further to see all simulations, including the simulations of the real world, as kinds of hallucinations. However, there is an important difference between the other hallucinations and the hallucination of the world around us: A simulation of the real world is continuously checked and updated with new information, while the other hallucinations are not or only now and then. As Metzinger formulates it (p. 51), our images of the world around us are online hallucinations, while the other kinds of simulations are hallucinations offline.

Monday, April 05, 2010

The bucket of our mind

Some time ago I met a girl on the Internet who wanted to learn 60 languages. I told her that I wondered whether that is possible, for there are only a few geniuses in this world who are talented enough to learn 20 languages and who do not need much time to keep them up without much practice. Not to speak of learning even 60 languages. She wasn’t convinced.
Then she asked me for advice how “to gather as much knowledge of the world as possible”. Again, I was perplexed by her naivety. It looked as if she thought that there is a fixed quantity of knowledge and that the main barrier to know all there is are the limitations of our brain. It made me think of what Karl R. Popper calls in his Objective Knowledge the “commonsense theory of knowledge” or with a beautiful expression “the bucket theory of mind”. It is true, Popper’s theory is about how to get new knowledge of the world, things that we do not know yet, while the girl thought of things already known, but here the difference is not important.
The bucket theory of mind, as naively believed by many people, supposes, according to Popper, that “our mind is a bucket which is originally empty, or more or less so, and into this bucket material enters through our senses … and accumulates and becomes digested” (p. 61). And a few lines later Popper continues: “The important thesis of the bucket theory is that we learn most, if not all, of what we do learn through the entry of experience into our sense openings; so that all knowledge consists of information received through our senses; that is, by experience (ibid.; italics Popper).

There are many reasons why this theory is not correct, but what is important here is that it supposes that “knowledge is conceived as consisting of things, or thing-like entities in our bucket” (p. 62), and in the case of the girl in the buckets of other people. Knowledge is something that there is in this view. If we want to know, we simply have to collect what there is. However, using the photographic analogy again, light that passes the lens of a camera and touches the film or sensor, does not simply makes an image of the world as it is. How the picture looks like depends on the type of lens, the quality of the lens, the type of film or sensor, whether there is a filter on the lens, how the film is processed or how the settings of our photo program are, and so on. So it is also with our senses and brain. What we see does not only depend on the information that reaches our senses but also on what we want to see, hear or feel and on our selection mechanisms. We often do not hear background noise, for instance, or, when we are concentrating on a point in our field of vision, we do not see a lot of other things there. Moreover, we often interpret what we think to see in the wrong way, we ignore things because they are not relevant for us, we fit new knowledge in what we already know, and when it does not fit, we often change the new knowledge or the old one. In short, knowledge is not something that exists as such but something that is made with the help of the information that reaches our senses and brain. We can even guide this process by asking questions and by systematically looking for answers in the world around us. That’s what a researcher does, for instance. Knowledge is not something that simply fills the bucket of our mind. It is quite the reverse: knowledge does not exist as such, once discovered, but it is constructed and continuously adapted and reconstructed by the processes in our senses and brains.