11 November 2007

Philosophic Musings

Empiricism: the view that knowledge of the world is a construct from the raw materials provided by the senses. Vision gives me "red here now." Touch tells me that what is in front of me is in a roughly spherical shape. Taking a bite adds taste to the impressions that this is an apple.

Voila! we've just constructing a datum, a bit of knowledge, "I am holding an apple," from the various senses. Empiricism says that (a) all knowledge is like that, although usually more complicated, and (b) knowledge obtained in this way is reliable, so we don't need any other source.

External-world skepticism undercuts this theory directly. It says, "My senses have been wrong about a lot of things. I see railroad tracks converging in the distance, for example, but they don't really converge at all -- they remain parallel. Maybe, then, my senses are wrong about everything, or at least about so much so often that nothing I think I know about the world outside my body -- about apples or pears, planets or stars, sound waves or ocean tides -- is at all reliable."

Hume's problem of induction undercuts empiricism somewhat more subtly. Induction is the form of reasoning that says, "every X that I've ever seen has attribute Y. I've seen enough of X to consider this a fair sample. Thus, I conclude that all Xs have Y." Every human in recorded history has proven mortal -- few have lived beyond 100 years, none that we can be sure of have ever lived beyond 150. So ... all men are mortal!

If classical empiricism is right, then induction is very important. Recognizing a single fruit's attributes, as in my apple example above, is one thing. But one might argue that impressive knowledge only comes about once we start talking about large classes of things. If we can't reliably make inductions, perhaps empiricism can't account for the more impressive sorts of knowledge at all.

So Hume's challenge: show, within the confines of empiricism, why induction is reliable!

Do you, dear reader, think empiricism can be defended from those two types of criticism? Can it best be defended by transforming itself into ... pragmatism?

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.