It Is The Way It Seems To Be

As another approach to the issues in the last post, we might consider the meaning of the above phrase, “It is the way it seems to be.” What does “the way” modify in “it seems to be”?

If it modifies “seems,” then the meaning is: “In some way of seeming, something seems to be. In that way of seeming, it is.” And this is false, since it attributes a way of seeming directly to the being of things in themselves. “It is not the way it seems to be,” in this particular way, is the Kantian truth in the previous post, and Kant rightly said that it would be a contradiction for things to be the way they seem in this sense.

If it modifies “to be,” then the meaning is: “Something seems to be in some way of being. In that way of being, it is.” And this is quite often true, although not in every case, since people can be misled. “It is not the way it seems to be,” in this particular way, is the Kantian error in the previous post.

As I said there, Kant may not have clearly understood the distinction, or he may have accepted both the truth and the error. But his opinion is not important in any case. Nonetheless, we can see why even the Kantian truth is disconcerting to some people. Consider the above applied to an example. “The banana seems to be yellow.” In the natural understanding of this, “yellow” belongs with “to be,” so that the banana seems to actually be yellow, and there is nothing from preventing things from being the way they seem here: the banana seems to be yellow, and it is in fact yellow.

But we could reinterpret the sentence to discuss the way of seeming as such. Perhaps we should also rephrase the sentence, saying something like, “The banana seems yellowishly to be something,” where now “yellowishly” refers to something specific about the way of seeming, along the lines of qualia. In this case, it is quite impossible for the banana to be yellowishly, because this would mean that a way of seeming would be in itself a way of being — the situation Kant described as asserting that experience itself exists independently from experience.

Why might one still find the above disconcerting? Perhaps it is because if we ask “why does the banana seem to be yellow?”, one wishes to respond, “Because it is in fact yellow,” and the answer is quite appropriate. But if we ask, “Why does the banana seem yellowishly to be something?”, we cannot respond, “Because the banana is yellowishly,” because this is false, and likewise if we respond, “because the banana is yellow,” the response will seem inadequate. It does not fully explain why it appears yellowishly.

But this is quite correct, and in this respect Kant saw the truth. A yellow banana would not appear “yellowishly” to every animal, and thus “because it is yellow,” is in fact an inadequate explanation for its appearance, even if it is part of the explanation. Part of the explanation must refer to the animal as well. And Kant is quite right that we can make no distinction between “primary” and “secondary” qualities here. If we ask why a body appears to be extended, “because it is extended,” is a quite appropriate answer. But if we ask why a body appears extendedly to us, “because it is extended,” is part of the answer, but insufficient. Another part of the answer might be that we are extended ourselves, and the parts of our organs can receive parts of an image. Things might well seem extended to a partless intellect, but they would not seem extendedly.

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Thing In Itself

The last two posts might feel uncomfortably close to total skepticism. “Wait,” you might say, “doesn’t this seem to imply that we don’t know anything about the real world, but only about our experiences?”

We can consider a similar claim with a similar argument, taken from Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (§52c):

If I speak of objects in time and space, I am not speaking of things in themselves (since I know nothing of them), but only of things in appearance, i.e. of experience as a distinct way of cognizing objects that is granted to human beings alone. I must not say of that which I think in space or time: that it is in itself in space and time, independent of this thought of mine; for then I would contradict myself, since space and time, together with the appearances in them, are nothing existing in themselves and outside my representations, but are themselves only ways of representing, and it is patently contradictory to say of a mere way of presenting that it also exists outside our representation. The objects of the senses therefore exist only in experience; by contrast, to grant them a self-subsistent existence of their own, without experience or prior to it, is as much as to imagine that experience is also real without experience or prior to it.

There could be a way of understanding this to say something true, but it is more easily understood as asserting something deeply erroneous. Kant may in fact have both the truth and the error in mind, or perhaps he is ambivalent concerning the correct interpretation.

Consider the distinction between the way things are known by us and the way things are in themselves. It is possible to fall into error by asserting that since things are known by us in a certain way, they must be that way in themselves. Thus we know things in a general way, and thus some Platonists might conclude that things exist in themselves in a general way, but this is an error.

But another way to fall into error would be to admit that our way of knowing is distinct from the way of being, and then to conclude from the fact that our way of knowing does not correspond precisely to the way of being, that our knowledge is false, or that we do not know at all. This is the deeply erroneous claim that Kant seems to be making above.

Consider the meaning of the statement: “We know things as they are in themselves.” If we take the phrase, “as they are in themselves,” as expressing our mode of knowing adverbially, just as we might say “We know things in general terms,” and then intend to assert that our mode of knowing is the same as the mode of the being of the thing, then the statement that we know things as they are in themselves is surely false. For the meaning would be that the things exist in our knowledge in exactly the same way as they exist in themselves — thus for example it would be implied that our knowledge is not general but particular. But more precisely, it would imply that there is no distinction whatsoever between our knowledge and the thing. In other words, if we know a horse, our knowledge is actually a horse, physically and literally. And this is manifestly false.

From this we can see both the truth and the error. The truth is that we do not know things as they are in themselves in the above sense, precisely because our knowledge is distinct from the thing known. And the error would be the conclusion that therefore we do not know things at all. Kant seems most clearly to assert the error when he says, “I am not speaking of things in themselves (since I know nothing of them), but only of things in appearance.” The Kantian may insist that this follows necessarily from the truth that we do not know things as they are in themselves in the above sense.

But it is easy to see why this is wrong. We do not know things “as they are in themselves” by having a mode of knowledge identical to the mode of their being. But this does not mean that there is anything that we do not know; in fact, having an identical mode of knowing and being would precisely mean not knowing at all, but being the thing instead. In other words, it does not follow that there is any knowledge that we are missing out on; on the contrary, knowing requires a specific mode of knowing which is different from the mode of being of the thing. It is not that the difference between mode of knowing and being implies that we do not know, but rather this difference is the very condition for knowledge to exist at all. Ayn Rand rightly said of this matter:

Even apart from the fact that Kant’s theory of the “categories” as the source of man’s concepts was a preposterous invention, his argument amounted to a negation, not only of man’s consciousness, but of any consciousness, of consciousness as such. His argument, in essence, ran as follows: man is limited to a consciousness of a specific nature, which perceives by specific means and no others, therefore, his consciousness is not valid; man is blind, because he has eyes—deaf, because he has ears—deluded, because he has a mind—and the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them.

Again, the Kantian may insist that perhaps we know the things. But again, we are just admitting we know the things as they appear to us, not as they are in themselves. So even if we know all things, we do not know their mode of being. The response is that we can know both the things and their mode of being, but we know both according to our mode of knowing, not according to their mode of being. This is similar to knowing someone else’s mode of knowing; when you do this, you do not therefore know with their mode of knowing, but with your own. Likewise, when you know the mode of the being of things, you know not with their mode of being, but with your own mode of knowing.

How does this answer our original question? Okay, you might say, there is no proof that there is anything that we cannot know in principle. But in practice it seems clear that our knowledge is entirely superficial, and thus hardly seems to be knowledge at all.

There is a large difference, however, between the assertion, “Most of our actual knowledge is rather superficial,” and the skeptical assertion, “Our knowledge is superficial in principle, and it is therefore impossible to know things as they truly are.” The first assertion is largely correct, and the second is quite wrong. It is true that the understanding of things that we attain “automatically,” as it were, from common experience, is a superficial knowledge, and thus ordinary language about ordinary things expresses such a superficial knowledge. It does not follow that a deep knowledge of things is impossible. However, if someone does not actually have such a deep knowledge, they may also misunderstand what it would even be like to have such a knowledge; and thus for example they might suppose that it would be necessary to have a knowledge of “things in themselves” in the Kantian sense, which of course is impossible, since it would eliminate the distinction between the mode of knowing and the mode of being.

In fact, not only is it not a contradiction to assert that we can know things as they are, but it would be a contradiction to assert, “There is something which we cannot know in any way, even in principle.” For “there is something” purports to refer to the thing and assert its existence, and such reference and assertion, if true, would be a kind of knowledge. Ludwig Wittgenstein makes the similar point, “We cannot think what we cannot think; so what we cannot think we cannot say either.”

It is not, however, a contradiction to say that there are some things that we cannot know in some ways. And this is surely true.

Truth in Ordinary Language

After the incident with the tall man, I make plans to meet my companion the following day. “Let us meet at sunrise tomorrow,” I say. They ask in response, “How will I know when the sun has risen?”

When it is true to say that the sun will rise, or that the sun has risen? And what it would take for such statements to be false?

Virtually no one finds themselves uncomfortable with this language despite the fact that the sun has no physical motion called “rising,” but rather the earth is rotating, giving the appearance of movement to the sun. I will ignore issues of relativity, precisely because they are evidently irrelevant. It is not just that the sun is not moving, but that we know that the physical motion of the sun one way or another is irrelevant. The rising of the sun has nothing to do with a deep physical or metaphysical account of the sun as such. Instead, it is about that thing that happens every morning. What would it take for it to be false that the sun will rise tomorrow? Well, if the earth is destroyed today, then presumably the sun will not rise tomorrow. Or if tomorrow it is dark at noon and everyone on Twitter is on an uproar about the fact that the sun is visible at the height of the sky at midnight in their part of the world, then it will have been false that the sun was going to rise in the morning. In other words, the only possible thing that could falsify the claim about the sun would be a falsification of our expectations about our experience of the sun.

As in the last post, however, this does not mean that the statement about the sun is about our expectations. It is about the sun. But the only thing it says about the sun is something like, “The sun will be and do whatever it needs to, including in relative terms, in order for our ordinary experience of a sunrise to be as it usually is.” I said something similar here about the truth of attributions of sensible qualities, such as when we say that “the banana is yellow.”

All of this will apply in general to all of our ordinary language about ourselves, our lives, and the world.

Truth and Expectation

Suppose I see a man approaching from a long way off. “That man is pretty tall,” I say to a companion. The man approaches, and we meet him. Now I can see how tall he is. Suppose my companion asks, “Were you right that the man is pretty tall, or were you mistaken?”

“Pretty tall,” of course, is itself “pretty vague,” and there surely is not some specific height in inches that would be needed in order for me to say that I was right. What then determines my answer? Again, I might just respond, “It’s hard to say.” But in some situations I would say, “yes, I was definitely right,” or “no, I was definitely wrong.” What are those situations?

Psychologically, I am likely to determine the answer by how I feel about what I know about the man’s height now, compared to what I knew in advance. If I am surprised at how short he is, I am likely to say that I was wrong. And if I am not surprised at all by his height, or if I am surprised at how tall he is, then I am likely to say that I was right. So my original pretty vague statement ends up being made somewhat more precise by being placed in relationship with my expectations. Saying that he is pretty tall implies that I have certain expectations about his height, and if those expectations are verified, then I will say that I was right, and if those expectations are falsified, at least in a certain direction, then I will say that I was wrong.

This might suggest a theory like logical positivism. The meaning of a statement seems to be defined by the expectations that it implies. But it seems easy to find a decisive refutation of this idea. “There are stars outside my past and future light cones,” for example, is undeniably meaningful, and we know what it means, but it does not seem to imply any particular expectations about what is going to happen to me.

But perhaps we should simply somewhat relax the claim about the relationship between meaning and expectations, rather than entirely retracting it. Consider the original example. Obviously, when I say, “that man is pretty tall,” the statement is a statement about the man. It is not a statement about what is going to happen to me. So it is incorrect to say that the meaning of the statement is the same as my expectations. Nonetheless, the meaning in the example receives something, at the least some of its precision, from my expectations. Different people will be surprised by different heights in such a case, and it will be appropriate to say that they disagree somewhat about the meaning of “pretty tall.” But not because they had some logical definition in their minds which disagreed with the definition in someone’s else’s mind. Instead, the difference of meaning is based on the different expectations themselves.

But does a statement always receive some precision in its meaning from expectation, or are there cases where nothing at all is received from one’s expectations? Consider the general claim that “X is true.” This in fact implies some expectations: I do not expect “someone omniscient will tell me that X is false.” I do not expect that “someone who finds out the truth about X will tell me that X is false.” I do not expect that “I will discover the truth about X and it will turn out that it was false.” Note that these expectations are implied even in cases like the claim about the stars and my future light cone. Now the hopeful logical positivist might jump in at this point and say, “Great. So why can’t we go back to the idea that meaning is entirely defined by expectations?” But returning to that theory would be cheating, so to speak, because these expectations include the abstract idea of X being true, so this must be somehow meaningful apart from these particular expectations.

These expectations do, however, give the vaguest possible framework in which to make a claim at all. And people do, sometimes, make claims with little expectation of anything besides these things, and even with little or no additional understanding of what they are talking about. For example, in the cases that Robin Hanson describes as “babbling,” the person understands little of the implications of what he is saying except the idea that “someone who understood this topic would say something like this.” Thus it seems reasonable to say that expectations do always contribute something to making meaning more precise, even if they do not wholly constitute one’s meaning. And this consequence seems pretty natural if it is true that expectation is itself one of the most fundamental activities of a mind.

Nonetheless, the precision that can be contributed in this way will never be an infinite precision, because one’s expectations themselves cannot be defined with infinite precision. So whether or not I am surprised by the man’s height in the original example, may depend in borderline cases on what exactly happens during the time between my original assessment and the arrival of the man. “I will be surprised” or “I will not be surprised” are in themselves contingent facts which could depend on many factors, not only on the man’s height. Likewise, whether or not my state actually constitutes surprise will itself be something that has borderline cases.