Really and Truly True

There are two persons in a room with a table between them. One says, “There is a table on the right.” The other says, “There is a table on the left.”

Which person is right? The obvious answer is that both are right. But suppose they attempt to make this into a metaphysical disagreement.

“Yes, in a relative sense, the table is on the right of one of us and on the left of the other. But really and truly, at a fundamental level, the table is on the right, and not on the left.”

“I agree that there must be a fundamental truth to where the table is. But I think it is really and truly on the left, and not on the right.”

Now both are wrong, because it is impossible for the relationships of “on the right” and “on the left” to exist without correlatives, and the assertion that the table is “really and truly” on the right or on the left means nothing here except that these things do not depend on a relationship to an observer.

Thus both people are right, if they intend their assertions in a common sense way, and both are wrong, if they intend their assertions in the supposed metaphysical way. Could it happen that one is right and the other wrong? Yes, if one intends to speak in the common sense way, and the other in the metaphysical way, but not if they are speaking in the same way.

In the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, Newton explains his ideas of space and time:

I. Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature flows equably without regard to anything external, and by another name is called duration: relative, apparent, and common time, is some sensible and external (whether accurate or unequable) measure of duration by the means of motion, which is commonly used instead of true time; such as an hour, a day, a month, a year.

II. Absolute space, in its own nature, without regard to anything external, remains always similar and immovable. Relative space is some movable dimension or measure of the absolute spaces; which our senses determine by its position to bodies; and which is vulgarly taken for immovable space; such is the dimension of a subterraneous, an æreal, or celestial space, determined by its position in respect of the earth. Absolute and relative space, are the same in figure and magnitude; but they do not remain always numerically the same. For if the earth, for instance, moves, a space of our air, which relatively and in respect of the earth remains always the same, will at one time be one part of the absolute space into which the air passes; at another time it will be another part of the same, and so, absolutely understood, it will be perpetually mutable.

III. Place is a part of space which a body takes up, and is according to the space, either absolute or relative. I say, a part of space; not the situation, nor the external surface of the body. For the places of equal solids are always equal; but their superfices, by reason of their dissimilar figures, are often unequal. Positions properly have no quantity, nor are they so much the places themselves, as the properties of places. The motion of the whole is the same thing with the sum of the motions of the parts; that is, the translation of the whole, out of its place, is the same thing with the sum of the translations of the parts out of their places; and therefore the place of the whole is the same thing with the sum of the places of the parts, and for that reason, it is internal, and in the whole body.

IV. Absolute motion is the translation of a body from one absolute place into another; and relative motion, the translation from one relative place into another. Thus in a ship under sail, the relative place of a body is that part of the ship which the body possesses; or that part of its cavity which the body fills, and which therefore moves together with the ship: and relative rest is the continuance of the body in the same part of the ship, or of its cavity. But real, absolute rest, is the continuance of the body in the same part of that immovable space, in which the ship itself, its cavity, and all that it contains, is moved. Wherefore, if the earth is really at rest, the body, which relatively rests in the ship, will really and absolutely move with the same velocity which the ship has on the earth. But if the earth also moves, the true and absolute motion of the body will arise, partly from the true motion of the earth, in immovable space; partly from the relative motion of the ship on the earth; and if the body moves also relatively in the ship; its true motion will arise, partly from the true motion of the earth, in immovable space, and partly from the relative motions as well of the ship on the earth, as of the body in the ship; and from these relative motions will arise the relative motion of the body on the earth. As if that part of the earth, where the ship is, was truly moved toward the east, with a velocity of 10010 parts; while the ship itself, with a fresh gale, and full sails, is carried towards the west, with a velocity expressed by 10 of those parts; but a sailor walks in the ship towards the east, with 1 part of the said velocity; then the sailor will be moved truly in immovable space towards the east, with a velocity of 10001 parts, and relatively on the earth towards the west, with a velocity of 9 of those parts.

While the details of Einstein’s theory of relativity may have been contingent, it is not difficult to see that Newton’s theory here is mistaken, and that anyone could have known it at the time. It is mistaken in precisely the way the people described above are mistaken in saying that the table is “really and truly” on the left or on the right.

For example, suppose the world had a beginning in time. Does it make sense to ask whether it could have started at a later time, or at an earlier one? It does not, because “later” and “earlier” are just as relative as “on the left” and “on the right,” and there is nothing besides the world in relation to which the world could have these relations. Could all bodies have been shifted a bit in one direction or another? No. This has no meaning, just as it has no meaning to be on the right without being on the right of something or other.

In an amusing exchange some years ago between Vladimir Nesov and Eliezer Yudkowsky, Nesov says:

Existence is relative: there is a fact of the matter (or rather: procedure to find out) about which things exist where relative to me, for example in the same room, or in the same world, but this concept breaks down when you ask about “absolute” existence. Absolute existence is inconsistent, as everything goes. Relative existence of yourself is a trivial question with a trivial answer.

Yudkowsky responds:

Absolute existence is inconsistent

Wha?

Yudkowsky is taken aback by the seemingly nonchalant affirmation of an apparently abstruse metaphysical claim, which if not nonsensical would appear to be the absurd claim that existence is impossible.

But Nesov is quite right: to exist is to exist in relation to other things. Thus to exist “absolutely” would be like “being absolutely on the right,” which is impossible.

Suppose we confront our original disputants with the fact that right and left are relative terms, and there is no “really true truth” about the relative position of the table. It is both on the right and on the left, relative to the disputants, and apart from these relationships, it is neither.

“Ok,” one responds, “but there is still a deep truth about where the table is: it is here in this room.”

“Actually,” the other answers, “The real truth is that it is in the house.”

Once again, both are right, if these are taken as common sense claims, and both are wrong, if this is intended to be a metaphysical dispute where one would be true, the real truth about where the table is, and the other would be false.

Newton’s idea of absolute space is an extension of this argument: “Ok, then, but there is still a really true truth about where the table is: it is here in absolute space.” But obviously this is just as wrong as all the other attempts to find out where the table “really” is. The basic problem is that “where is this” demands a relative response. It is a question about relationships in the first place. We can see this in fact even in Newton’s account: it is here in absolute space, that is, it is close to certain areas of absolute space and distant from certain other areas of absolute space.

Something similar will be true about existence to the degree that existence is also implicitly relative. “Where is this thing in the nature of things?” also requires a relative response: what relationship does this have to the rest of the order of reality? And in a similar way, questions about what is “really and truly true,” if taken to imply an abstraction from this relative order, will not have any answer. In a previous post, I said something like this in relation to the question, “how many things are here?” Reductionists and anti-reductionists disputing about whether a large object is “really and truly a cloud of particles” or “really and truly a single object,” are in exactly the same position as the disputants about the position of the table: both claims are true, in a common sense way, and both claims are false, if taken in a mutually exclusive metaphysical sense, since speaking of one or many is already to involve the perspective of the knower, in particular as knowing division and its negation.

Of course, an anti-reductionist has some advantage here because they can respond, “Actually, no one in a normal context would ever call a large object a cloud of particles. So it is not common sense at all.” This is true as far as it goes, but it is not really to the point, since no one denies in a common sense context that large objects also consist of many things, as a person has a head, legs, and arms, and a chair has legs and a back. It is not that the “cloud of particles” account is so much incorrect as it is adopting a very unusual perspective. Thus someone on the moon might say that the table is 240,000 miles away, which is a very unusual thing to say of a table, compared to saying that it is on the left or on the right.

None of this is unique to the question of “how many.” Since there is an irreducible element of relativity in being itself, we will be able to find some application to every question about the being of things.

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Hard Problem of Consciousness

We have touched on this in various places, and in particular in this discussion of zombies, but we are now in a position to give a more precise answer.

Bill Vallicella has a discussion of Thomas Nagel on this issue:

Nagel replies in the pages of NYRB (8 June 2017; HT: Dave Lull) to one Roy Black, a professor of bioengineering:

The mind-body problem that exercises both Daniel Dennett and me is a problem about what experience is, not how it is caused. The difficulty is that conscious experience has an essentially subjective character—what it is like for its subject, from the inside—that purely physical processes do not share. Physical concepts describe the world as it is in itself, and not for any conscious subject. That includes dark energy, the strong force, and the development of an organism from the egg, to cite Black’s examples. But if subjective experience is not an illusion, the real world includes more than can be described in this way.

I agree with Black that “we need to determine what ‘thing,’ what activity of neurons beyond activating other neurons, was amplified to the point that consciousness arose.” But I believe this will require that we attribute to neurons, and perhaps to still more basic physical things and processes, some properties that in the right combination are capable of constituting subjects of experience like ourselves, to whom sunsets and chocolate and violins look and taste and sound as they do. These, if they are ever discovered, will not be physical properties, because physical properties, however sophisticated and complex, characterize only the order of the world extended in space and time, not how things appear from any particular point of view.

The problem might be condensed into an aporetic triad:

1) Conscious experience is not an illusion.

2) Conscious experience has an essentially subjective character that purely physical processes do not share.

3) The only acceptable explanation of conscious experience is in terms of physical properties alone.

Take a little time to savor this problem. Note first that the three propositions are collectively inconsistent: they cannot all be true.  Any two limbs entail the negation of the remaining one. Note second that each limb exerts a strong pull on our acceptance.  But we cannot accept them all because they are logically incompatible.

Which proposition should we reject? Dennett, I take it, would reject (1). But that’s a lunatic solution as Professor Black seems to appreciate, though he puts the point more politely. When I call Dennett a sophist, as I have on several occasions, I am not abusing him; I am underscoring what is obvious, namely, that the smell of cooked onions, for example, is a genuine datum of experience, and that such phenomenological data trump scientistic theories.

Sophistry aside, we either reject (2) or we reject (3).  Nagel and I accept (1) and (2) and reject (3). Black, and others of the scientistic stripe, accept (1) and (3) and reject (2).

In order to see the answer to this, we can construct a Parmenidean parallel to Vallicella’s aporetic triad:

1) Distinction is not an illusion.

2) Being has an essentially objective character of actually being that distinction does not share (considering that distinction consists in the fact of not being something.)

3) The only acceptable explanation of distinction is in terms of being alone (since there is nothing but being to explain things with.)

Parmenides rejects (1) here. What approach would Vallicella take? If he wishes to take a similarly analogous approach, he should accept (1) and (2), and deny (3). And this would be a pretty commonsense approach, and perhaps the one that most people implicitly adopt if they ever think about the problem.

At the same time, it is easy to see that (3) is approximately just as obviously true as (1); and it is for this reason that Parmenides sees rejecting (1) and accepting (2) and (3) as reasonable.

The correct answer, of course, is that the three are not inconsistent despite appearances. In fact, we have effectively answered this in recent posts. Distinction is not an illusion, but a way that we understand things, as such. And being a way of understanding, it is not (as such) a way of being mistaken, and thus it is not an illusion, and thus the first point is correct. Again, being a way of understanding, it is not a way of being as such, and thus the second point is correct. And yet distinction can be explained by being, since there is something (namely relationship) which explains why it is reasonable to think in terms of distinctions.

Vallicella’s triad mentions “purely physical processes” and “physical properties,” but the idea of “physical” here is a distraction, and is not really relevant to the problem. Consider the following from another post by Vallicella:

If I understand Galen Strawson’s view, it is the first.  Conscious experience is fully real but wholly material in nature despite the fact that on current physics we cannot account for its reality: we cannot understand how it is possible for qualia and thoughts to be wholly material.   Here is a characteristic passage from Strawson:

Serious materialists have to be outright realists about the experiential. So they are obliged to hold that experiential phenomena just are physical phenomena, although current physics cannot account for them.  As an acting materialist, I accept this, and assume that experiential phenomena are “based in” or “realized in” the brain (to stick to the human case).  But this assumption does not solve any problems for materialists.  Instead it obliges them to admit ignorance of the nature of the physical, to admit that they don’t have a fully adequate idea of what the physical is, and hence of what the brain is.  (“The Experiential and the Non-Experiential” in Warner and Szubka, p. 77)

Strawson and I agree on two important points.  One is that what he calls experiential phenomena are as real as anything and cannot be eliminated or reduced to anything non-experiential. Dennett denied! The other is that there is no accounting for experiential items in terms of current physics.

I disagree on whether his mysterian solution is a genuine solution to the problem. What he is saying is that, given the obvious reality of conscious states, and given the truth of naturalism, experiential phenomena must be material in nature, and that this is so whether or not we are able to understand how it could be so.  At present we cannot understand how it could be so. It is at present a mystery. But the mystery will dissipate when we have a better understanding of matter.

This strikes me as bluster.

An experiential item such as a twinge of pain or a rush of elation is essentially subjective; it is something whose appearing just is its reality.  For qualia, esse = percipi.  If I am told that someday items like this will be exhaustively understood from a third-person point of view as objects of physics, I have no idea what this means.  The notion strikes me as absurd.  We are being told in effect that what is essentially subjective will one day be exhaustively understood as both essentially subjective and wholly objective.  And that makes no sense. If you tell me that understanding in physics need not be objectifying understanding, I don’t know what that means either.

Here Vallicella uses the word “material,” which is presumably equivalent to “physical” in the above discussion. But it is easy to see here that being material is not the problem: being objective is the problem. Material things are objective, and Vallicella sees an irreducible opposition between being objective and being subjective. In a similar way, we can reformulate Vallicella’s original triad so that it does not refer to being physical:

1) Conscious experience is not an illusion.

2) Conscious experience has an essentially subjective character that purely objective processes do not share.

3) The only acceptable explanation of conscious experience is in terms of objective properties alone.

It is easy to see that this formulation is the real source of the problem. And while Vallicella would probably deny (3) even in this formulation, it is easy to see why people would want to accept (3). “Real things are objective,” they will say. If you want to explain anything, you should explain it using real things, and therefore objective things.

The parallel with the Parmenidean problem is evident. We would want to explain distinction in terms of being, since there isn’t anything else, and yet this seems impossible, so one (e.g. Parmenides) is tempted to deny the existence of distinction. In the same way, we would want to explain subjective experience in terms of objective facts, since there isn’t anything else, and yet this seems impossible, so one (e.g. Dennett) is tempted to deny the existence of subjective experience.

Just as the problem is parallel, the correct solution will be almost entirely parallel to the solution to the problem of Parmenides.

1) Conscious experience is not an illusion. It is a way of perceiving the world, not a way of not perceiving the world, and definitely not a way of not perceiving at all.

2) Consciousness is subjective, that is, it is a way that an individual perceives the world, not a way that things are as such, and thus not an “objective fact” in the sense that “the way things are” is objective.

3) The “way things are”, namely the objective facts, are sufficient to explain why individuals perceive the world. Consider again this post, responding to a post by Robin Hanson. We could reformulate his criticism to express instead Parmenides’s criticism of common sense (changed parts in italics):

People often state things like this:

I am sure that there is not just being, because I’m aware that some things are not other things. I know that being just isn’t non-being. So even though there is being, there must be something more than that to reality. So there’s a deep mystery: what is this extra stuff, where does it arise, how does it change, and so on. We humans care about distinctions, not just being; we want to know what out there is distinct from which other things.

But consider a key question: Does this other distinction stuff interact with the parts of our world that actually exist strongly and reliably enough to usually be the actual cause of humans making statements of distinction like this?

If yes, this is a remarkably strong interaction, making it quite surprising that philosophers, possibly excepting Duns Scotus, have missed it so far. So surprising in fact as to be frankly unbelievable. If this type of interaction were remotely as simple as all the interactions we know, then it should be quite understandable with existing philosophy. Any interaction not so understandable would have be vastly more difficult to understand than any we’ve ever seen or considered. Thus I’d bet heavily and confidently that no one will understand such an interaction.

But if no, if this interaction isn’t strong enough to explain human claims of distinction, then we have a remarkable coincidence to explain. Somehow this extra distinction stuff exists, and humans also have a tendency to say that it exists, but these happen for entirely independent reasons. The fact that distinction stuff exists isn’t causing people to claim it exists, nor vice versa. Instead humans have some sort of weird psychological quirk that causes them to make such statements, and they would make such claims even if distinction stuff didn’t exist. But if we have a good alternate explanation for why people tend to make such statements, what need do we have of the hypothesis that distinction stuff actually exists? Such a coincidence seems too remarkable to be believed.

“Distinction stuff”, of course, does not exist, and neither does “feeling stuff.” But some things are distinct from others. Saying this is a way of understanding the world, and it is a reasonable way to understand the world because things exist relative to one another. And just as one thing is distinct from another, people have experiences. Those experiences are ways of knowing the world (broadly understood.) And just as reality is sufficient to explain distinction, so reality is sufficient to explain the fact that people have experiences.

How exactly does this answer the objection about interaction? In the case of distinction, the fact that “one thing is not another” is never the direct cause of anything, not even of the fact that “someone believes that one thing is not another.” So there would seem to be a “remarkable coincidence” here, or we would have to say that since the fact seems unrelated to the opinion, there is no reason to believe people are right when they make distinctions.

The answer in the case of distinction is that one thing is related to another, and this fact is the cause of someone believing that one thing is not another. There is no coincidence, and no reason to believe that people are mistaken when they make distinctions, despite the fact that distinction as such causes nothing.

In a similar way, “a human being is what it is,” and “a human being does what it does” (taken in an objective sense), cause human beings to say and believe that they have subjective experience (taking saying and believing to refer to objective facts.) But this is precisely where the zombie question arises: they say and believe that they have subjective experience, when we interpret say and believe in the objective sense. But do they actually say and believe anything, considering saying and believing as including the subjective factor? Namely, when a non-zombie says something, it subjectively understands the meaning of what it is saying, and when it consciously believes something, it has a subjective experience of doing that, but these things would not apply to a zombie.

But notice that we can raise a similar question about zombie distinctions. When someone says and believes that one thing is not another, objective reality is similarly the cause of them making the distinction. But is the one thing actually not the other? But there is no question at all here except of whether the person’s statement is true or false. And indeed, someone can say, e.g, “The person who came yesterday is not the person who came today,” and this can sometimes be false. In a similar way, asking whether an apparent person is a zombie or not is just asking whether their claim is true or false when they say they have a subjective experience. The difference is that if the (objective) claim is false, then there is no claim at all in the subjective sense of “subjectively claiming something.” It is a contradiction to subjectively make the false claim that you are subjectively claiming something, and thus, this cannot happen.

Someone may insist: you yourself, when you subjectively claim something, cannot be mistaken for the above reason. But you have no way to know whether someone else who apparently is making that claim, is actually making the claim subjectively or not. This is the reason there is a hard problem.

How do we investigate the case of distinction? If we want to determine whether the person who came yesterday is not the person who came today, we do that by looking at reality, despite the fact that distinction as such is not a part of reality as such. If the person who came yesterday is now, today, a mile away from the person who came today, this gives us plenty of reason to say that the one person is not the other. There is nothing strange, however, in the fact that there is no infallible method to prove conclusively, once and for all, that one thing is definitely not another thing. There is not therefore some special “hard problem of distinction.” This is just a result of the fact that our knowledge in general is not infallible.

In a similar way, if we want to investigate whether something has subjective experience or not, we can do that only by looking at reality: what is this thing, and what does it do? Then suppose it makes an apparent claim that it has subjective experience. Obviously, for the above reasons, this cannot be a subjective claim but false: so the question is whether it makes a subjective claim and is right, or rather makes no subjective claim at all. How would you answer this as an external observer?

In the case of distinction, the fact that someone claims that one thing is distinct from another is caused by reality, whether the claim is true or false. So whether it is true or false depends on the way that it is caused by reality. In a similar way, the thing which apparently and objectively claims to possess subjective experience, is caused to do so by objective facts. Again, as in the case of distinction, whether it is true or false will depend on the way that it is caused to do so by objective facts.

We can give some obvious examples:

“This thing claims to possess subjective experience because it is a human being and does what humans normally do.” In this case, the objective and subjective claim is true, and is caused in the right way by objective facts.

“This thing claims to possess subjective experience because it is a very simple computer given a very simple program to output ‘I have subjective experience’ on its screen.” In this case the external claim is false, and it is caused in the wrong way by objective facts, and there is no subjective claim at all.

But how do you know for sure, someone will object. Perhaps the computer really is conscious, and perhaps the apparent human is a zombie. But we could similarly ask how we can know for sure that the person who came yesterday isn’t the same person who came today, even though they appear distant from each other, because perhaps the person is bilocating?

It would be mostly wrong to describe this situation by saying “there really is no hard problem of consciousness,” as Robin Hanson appears to do when he says, “People who think they can conceive of such zombies see a ‘hard question’ regarding which physical systems that claim to feel and otherwise act as if they feel actually do feel.” The implication seems to be that there is no hard question at all. But there is, and the fact that people engage in this discussion proves the existence of the question. Rather, we should say that the question is answerable, and that one it has been answered the remaining questions are “hard” only in the sense that it is hard to understand the world in general. The question is hard in exactly the way the question of Parmenides is hard: “How is it possible for one thing not to be another, when there is only being?” The question of consciousness is similar: “How is it possible for something to have subjective experience, when there are only objective things?” And the question can and should be answered in a similar fashion.

It would be virtually impossible to address every related issue in a simple blog post of this form, so I will simply mention some things that I have mainly set aside here:

1) The issue of formal causes, discussed more in my earlier treatment of this issue. This is relevant because “is this a zombie?” is in effect equivalent to asking whether the thing lacks a formal cause. This is worthy of a great deal of consideration and would go far beyond either this post or the earlier one.

2) The issue of “physical” and “material.” As I stated in this post, this is mainly a distraction. Most of the time, the real question is how the subjective is possible given that we believe that the world is objective. The only relevance of “matter” here is that it is obvious that a material thing is an objective thing. But of course, an immaterial thing would also have to be objective in order to be a thing at all. Aristotle and many philosophers of his school make the specific argument that the human mind does not have an organ, but such arguments are highly questionable, and in my view fundamentally flawed. My earlier posts suffice to call such a conclusion into question, but do not attempt to disprove it, and the the topic would be worthy of additional consideration.

3) Specific questions about “what, exactly, would actually be conscious?” Now neglecting such questions might seem to be a cop-out, since isn’t this what the whole problem was supposed to be in the first place? But in a sense we did answer it. Take an apparent claim of something to be conscious. The question would be this: “Given how it was caused by objective facts to make that claim, would it be a reasonable claim for a subjective claimer to make?” In other words, we cannot assume in advance that it is subjectively making a claim, but if it would be a reasonable claim, it will (in general) be a true one, and therefore also a subjective one, for the same reason that we (in general) make true claims when we reasonably claim that one thing is not another. We have not answered this question only in the same sense that we have not exhaustively explained which things are distinct from which other things, and how one would know. But the question, e.g., “when if ever would you consider an artificial intelligence to be conscious?” is in itself also worthy of direct discussion.

4) The issue of vagueness. This issue in particular will cause some people to object to my answer here. Thus Alexander Pruss brings this up in a discussion of whether a computer could be conscious:

Now, intelligence could plausibly be a vague property. But it is not plausible that consciousness is a vague property. So, there must be some precise transition point in reliability needed for computation to yield consciousness, so that a slight decrease in reliability—even when the actual functioning is unchanged (remember that the Ci are all functioning in the same way)—will remove consciousness.

I responded in the comments there:

The transition between being conscious and not being conscious that happens when you fall asleep seems pretty vague. I don’t see why you find it implausible that “being conscious” could be vague in much the same way “being red” or “being intelligent” might be vague. In fact the evidence from experience (falling asleep etc) seems to directly suggest that it is vague.

Pruss responds:

When I fall asleep, I may become conscious of less and less. But I can’t get myself to deny that either it is definitely true at any given time that I am at least a little conscious or it is definitely true that I am not at all conscious.

But we cannot trust Pruss’s intuitions about what can be vague or otherwise. Pruss claims in an earlier post that there is necessarily a sharp transition between someone’s not being old and someone’s being old. I discussed that post here. This is so obviously false that it gives us a reason in general not to trust Alexander Pruss on the issue of sharp transitions and vagueness. The source of this particular intuition may be the fact that you cannot subjectively make a claim, even vaguely, without some subjective experience, as well as his general impression that vagueness violates the principles of excluded middle and non-contradiction. But in a similar way, you cannot be vaguely old without being somewhat old. This does not mean that there is a sharp transition from not being old to being old, and likewise it does not necessarily mean that there is a sharp transition from not having subjective experience to having it.

While I have discussed the issue of vagueness elsewhere on this blog, this will probably continue to be a reoccurring feature, if only because of those who cannot accept this feature of reality and insist, in effect, on “this or nothing.”

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.

Modernism Responds to Pius X

Earlier I quoted Pope Pius X against the Modernists:

4. But since the Modernists (as they are commonly and rightly called) employ a very clever artifice, namely, to present their doctrines without order and systematic arrangement into one whole, scattered and disjointed one from another, so as to appear to be in doubt and uncertainty, while they are in reality firm and steadfast, it will be of advantage, Venerable Brethren, to bring their teachings together here into one group, and to point out the connexion between them, and thus to pass to an examination of the sources of the errors, and to prescribe remedies for averting the evil.

Pius X proceeds to begin to lay out the doctrines of the modernists as “firm and steadfast,” and as a systematic whole:

5. To proceed in an orderly manner in this recondite subject, it must first of all be noted that every Modernist sustains and comprises within himself many personalities; he is a philosopher, a believer, a theologian, an historian, a critic, an apologist, a reformer. These roles must be clearly distinguished from one another by all who would accurately know their system and thoroughly comprehend the principles and the consequences of their doctrines.

Agnosticism its Philosophical Foundation

6. We begin, then, with the philosopher. Modernists place the foundation of religious philosophy in that doctrine which is usually called Agnosticism. According to this teaching human reason is confined entirely within the field of phenomena, that is to say, to things that are perceptible to the senses, and in the manner in which they are perceptible; it has no right and no power to transgress these limits. Hence it is incapable of lifting itself up to God, and of recognising His existence, even by means of visible things. From this it is inferred that God can never be the direct object of science, and that, as regards history, He must not be considered as an historical subject. Given these premises, all will readily perceive what becomes of Natural Theology, of the motives of credibility, of external revelation. The Modernists simply make away with them altogether; they include them in Intellectualism, which they call a ridiculous and long ago defunct system. Nor does the fact that the Church has formally condemned these portentous errors exercise the slightest restraint upon them. Yet the Vatican Council has defined, “If anyone says that the one true God, our Creator and Lord, cannot be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason by means of the things that are made, let him be anathema” (De Revel., can. I); and also: “If anyone says that it is not possible or not expedient that man be taught, through the medium of divine revelation, about God and the worship to be paid Him, let him be anathema” (Ibid., can. 2); and finally, “If anyone says that divine revelation cannot be made credible by external signs, and that therefore men should be drawn to the faith only by their personal internal experience or by private inspiration, let him be anathema” (De Fide, can. 3). But how the Modernists make the transition from Agnosticism, which is a state of pure nescience, to scientific and historic Atheism, which is a doctrine of positive denial; and consequently, by what legitimate process of reasoning, starting from ignorance as to whether God has in fact intervened in the history of the human race or not, they proceed, in their explanation of this history, to ignore God altogether, as if He really had not intervened, let him answer who can. Yet it is a fixed and established principle among them that both science and history must be atheistic: and within their boundaries there is room for nothing but phenomena; God and all that is divine are utterly excluded. We shall soon see clearly what, according to this most absurd teaching, must be held touching the most sacred Person of Christ, what concerning the mysteries of His life and death, and of His Resurrection and Ascension into heaven.

As I remarked in the earlier post, Pope Pius X’s condemnation is sweeping and general, and surely many of the people who possessed many of the attitudes that the Pope considered modernist did not in fact embrace a systematic view such as the above. In a Modernist response, anonymous just as those accused by the encyclical are anonymous, one or some of the modernists responded to the encyclical (taken from the opening of this book):

A document so weighty, both in substance and form, as the Encyclical which we have reproduced at the end of this book; an attempt so deliberate to present “Modernist”* views to the public under a false and unfavorable light; a condemnation so authoritative of us Modernists as dangerous foes of Christian piety and unconscious promoters of atheism, make it a duty, which we owe to our own conscience, to the collective conscience, of the faithful, and to an anxious and expectant public, to lay bare our whole mind without reserve or concealment. We cannot possibly remain silent under the violent accusation which the chief authority of the Church, albeit recognizing us as her faithful subjects and as resolved to cling to her till our last breath, heaps upon our head. Hence there is nothing arrogant in our reply, since it is an elementary principle of justice for those who are accused to defend themselves; nor can we believe that this right has been taken from us at a moment so critical for the fortunes of Catholic Christianity.

They remark in the note on the name “Modernist”:

Let us say, once and for all, that we use this term only that we may be understood by those who have learnt it from the Encyclical, and that we do not need a new name to describe an attitude which we consider to be simply that of Christians and Catholics who live in harmony with the spirit of their day.

The following chapter begins to comment on the “systematic arrangement” laid out by Pius X:

First of all we must lay bare an equivocation by which inexpert readers of the Encyclical might easily be misled. That document starts with the assumption that there lies at the root of Modernism a certain philosophical system from which we deduce our critical methods, whether biblical or historical; in other words, that our zeal to reconcile the doctrines of Catholic tradition with the conclusions of positive science springs really from some theoretical apriorism which we defend through our ignorance of scholasticism and the rebellious pride of our reason. Now the assertion is false, and since it is the basis on which the Encyclical arranges its various arguments we cannot in our reply follow the order of that fallacious arrangement; but we must first of all show the utter emptiness of this allegation, and then discuss the theories which the Encyclical imputes to us.

In truth, the historical development, the methods and programme of so-called Modernism are very different from what they are said to be by the compilers of Pascendi Gregis.

So far from our philosophy dictating our critical method, it is the critical method that has, of its own accord, forced us to a very tentative and uncertain formulation of various philosophical conclusions, or better still, to a clearer exposition of certain ways of thinking to which Catholic apologetic has never been wholly a stranger. This independence of our criticism in respect to our purely tentative philosophy is evident in many ways.

First of all, of their own nature, textual criticism, as well as the so-called Higher Criticism (that is, the internal analysis of biblical documents with a view to establishing their origin and value), prescind entirely from philosophical assumptions. A single luminous example will suffice–that furnished by the question of the Comma Johanneum–now settled for ever. In past days when theologians wanted to prove the doctrine of the Trinity they never omitted to quote from the Vulgate (1 John v. 7): “There are three that bear record in Heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost.” Now the italicized words are lacking in all the Greek MSS. of to-day, cursive or uncial, and in all the Greek epistolaries and lectionaries, and in all the ancient translations, except the Vulgate, in the works of the Greek Fathers and of other Greek writers prior to the the twelfth century, in those of all the ancient Syrian and Armenian writers, and in those of a great number of the Latin Fathers. This silence of East and West is all the more remarkable as the passage would have been of priceless value in the Arian controversy. That it was not then appealed to, proves that it did not exist at the beginning of the fourth century. Moreove, a collation of MSS. and their comparison with the works of the heretic Priscillian, discovered a few years ago, makes it clear that the verse in question comes from Spain, and was fabricated by that heretic (A.D. 384) in favour of his trinitarian views, of which Peregrinus made himself the propagandist. Now it is plain that in order to arrive at such a conclusion and to study such a literary problem critically, no sort of philosophical doctrine or presupposition is required. The same can be said of a whole host of biblical and historical problems whose impartial solutions, leading to results so different from those of traditional Catholic criticism, are the true cause of that revolution in religious apologetic which we find forced upon us by sheer necessity. Does one really need any special philosophical preparation to trace a diversity of sources in the Pentateuch, or to convince oneself, by the most superficial comparison of texts, that the Fourth Gospel is a substantially different kind of work from the synoptics, or that the Nicene Creed is essentially a development of the Apostles’ Creed?

The modernists have the better of the argument here. One might say that this kind of argument regarding the Comma involves philosophical presuppositions only by making arguments like, “This presupposes that our memory is valid,” “This presupposes that these manuscripts really come from those times,” “This presupposes that the others who have studied this question were being basically honest,” and so on. But these things are really just common sense, not some special philosophy. Nor are they even premises, in general, in the sense that my memory of drinking coffee this morning is not a premise in an argument that I drank coffee this morning; I simply assert that I did, and my memory is an efficient cause of my statement, not an argument for it.

The modernists bring up this example not as an irrelevant detail, but because it was precisely the kind of thing they were criticized for. Thus we have this from the Acta Sanctae Sedis in 1897 [this document, page 637]:

« Utrum tuto negari, aut saltem in dubium revocari possit
« esse authenticum textum S. Ioannis, in epistola prima, capo V,
« vers. 7, quod sic se habet: Quoniam tres sunt, qui testimonium
« dant in coelo: Pater, Verbum et Spiritus Sanctus: et hi tres
« unum sunt? »
Omnibus diligentissimo examine perpensis, praehabito que
DD. Consultorum voto, iidem Emi Cardinales respondendum
mandarunt: « Negative ».

The decree asserts that the authenticity of the text cannot be safely denied or even called into doubt. Now I have previously discussed such decrees. These should never be understood as attempting to settle the truth of the matter definitively. Rather they are making a rule: you are not allowed to deny this or even to call it into question.

Pope Pius X complains in Pascendi:

Finally, and this almost destroys all hope of cure, their very doctrines have given such a bent to their minds, that they disdain all authority and brook no restraint; and relying upon a false conscience, they attempt to ascribe to a love of truth that which is in reality the result of pride and obstinacy.

For Pope Pius X, calling into question the authenticity of the Comma would be “the result of pride and obstinacy,” because one questioning it would be in disobedience to the above decree. But given the kinds of arguments that are involved, it is easy enough to see why the people questioning it would ascribe this rather to a love of truth.

All of this might call to mind earlier debates. Here is Philip Gosse, quoted at length in the linked post:

I am not assuming here that the Inspired Word has been rightly read; I merely say that the plain straightforward meaning, the meaning that lies manifestly on the face of the passages in question, is in opposition with the conclusions which geologists have formed, as to the antiquity and the genesis of the globe on which we live.

Perhaps the simple, superficial sense of the Word is not the correct one; but it is at least that which its readers, learned and unlearned, had been generally content with before; and which would, I suppose, scarcely have been questioned, but for what appeared the exigencies of geological facts.

Now while there are, unhappily, not a few infidels, professed or concealed, who eagerly seize on any apparent discrepancy between the works and the Word of God, in order that they may invalidate the truth of the latter, there are, especially in this country, many names of the highest rank in physical (and, among other branches, in geological) science, to whom the veracity of God is as dear as life. They cannot bear to see it impugned; they know that it cannot be overthrown; they are assured that He who gave the Word, and He who made the worlds, is One Jehovah, who cannot be inconsistent with Himself. But they cannot shut their eyes to the startling fact, that the records which seem legibly written on His created works do flatly contradict the statements which seem to be plainly expressed in His word.

Here is a dilemma. A most painful one to the reverent mind! And many reverent minds have laboured hard and long to escape from it. It is unfair and dishonest to class our men of science with the infidel and atheist. They did not rejoice in the dilemma; they saw it at first dimly, and hoped to avoid it. At first they believed that the mighty processes which are recorded on the “everlasting mountains” might not only be harmonized with, but might afford beautiful and convincing demonstrations of Holy Scripture. They thought that the deluge of Noah would explain the stratification, and the antediluvian era account for the organic fossils.

A parallel passage could easily be written on the opposition between Pope Pius X and the modernists. While I don’t have a source at hand at the moment, it seems that Alfred Loisy did state after his excommunication that he had secretly been an atheist for many years. There is no way of knowing, however, whether this is true in a literal sense or was simply his own retrospective analysis of his past state of mind. In any case, it is quite sure that many of the modernists were not secret atheists, but simply men like the geologists in Gosse’s passage. Conflict came to light between the actual facts of geology and the current understanding based on the text of Genesis, and something had to be said about that conflict. In a similar way, in the modernist controversy, conflict came to light between the actual facts of history and the current understanding based on the Church’s traditions, and something had to be said about that conflict.

Gosse complains that the geologists are classed with “the infidel and the atheist,” in effect for their recognition of geological facts; Pius X accuses the modernists of secret agnosticism or atheism, in effect for their recognition of historical facts.

In both cases, the accusation is that an atheistic metaphysics, and likely an atheistic epistemology, comes first, and is responsible for the conclusions that are drawn. And in both cases the accusation is false. Epistemology cannot come first in principle, and it does not come first in practice in these cases. You might be able to argue that these people have ended up with a mistaken epistemology, and you might be able to argue that it does not follow from the facts from which they have drawn it. But they have drawn it from facts, mistakenly or not, and not the facts from the epistemology.

This is ultimately why, despite the lack of firm definition of the term “Modernism,” the controversy has remained until this day. This is why accusations of modernism continue to be thrown around, as a few years ago when Bishop Fellay accused Pope Francis of modernism:

What Gospel does he have? Which Bible does he have to say such things. It’s horrible. What has this to do with the Gospel? With the Catholic Faith? That’s pure Modernism, my dear brethren. We have in front of us a genuine Modernist…

If one wishes to criticize the views which are characterized as “modernist,” whether in the early 20th century or now in the 21st, one will make no progress without the acknowledgement that it was first the consideration of certain facts that led to those views, rightly or wrongly. Attributing them to some general system is simplistic and wrong.