Thinking and the unthinkable – The edges of reality

A friend and I are currently working on writing a philosophy paper on epistemology together. Both of us are dissatisfied with epistemology’s current obsession with Gettier problems*. Both of us more or less agree that Gettier problems get something wrong about the nature of knowledge, or that the knowledge that Gettier problem’s interfere with was already unobtainable anyway. To paraphrase my friend, we always only believe the truth by chance.

Having reached this consensus, however, our positions immediately diverged as to the nature of the human condition in relation to truth. For, she maintained, the problem facing human knowers is that we can never eliminate the possibility of unknowable truth, and so we should consider ourselves to be dealing merely with appearances**. I, in contrast, maintained that what she was trying to say was impossible to think or mean. To phrase the issue in a way that favors my side of the argument, our debate is on the thought that we should give to the unthinkable: Emily’s position is that we should leave space for its possibility, and mine is that such space cannot be left because whatever we think of, by definition, cannot actually lie beyond the scope of thought.

Since our conversation I’ve been doing some research, and, unsurprisingly, this debate is not a new one. Indeed, we each seem to have settled into the role of our respective favorite philosophers. Emily, speaking as Kant, argues that all we know is the apparent world, and that we cannot get at the reality underneath. I, echoing Hegel’s famous response, argue that we can do away with the idea of the real and the apparent: there is simply the indivisible world, for we can never encounter the beyond.

I was greatly aided in my interpretation of our conversation by Lee Braver’s article ‘Thoughts on the Unthinkable‘. For the first half of the article he follows the historical conversation on the unthinkable, starting with Parmenides forbidding us from thinking about the unthinkable to the Hegelian position I have already described. If that were the end of the story then I would feel well vindicated in my position. However, Braver continues on to argue that what is absent in the Hegelian story is humility: for by Hegel’s philosophical system our rationality is rendered into the entirety of existence, and all of our investigations become only investigation of ourselves.

When put in terms of humility, I become somewhat uncomfortable with my own position previously described. I did write my undergraduate thesis arguing the ultimate path to knowledge was through humility, and it is certainly an arrogant kind of claim to say that all that exists is that which is within the realm of mind. However, Braver acknowledges that it is difficult to make room for this other in any sensible way. His proposal is essentially this: the other, the unthinkable, can only be encountered in that which we do not understand. We encounter the unthinkable when our expectations are violated and we are thrown into confusion and fear. He here draws a distinction between relative unthinkables and absolute unthinkables. Relative unthinkables are those things which are initially incomprehensible, but which, upon reflection, can be drawn into the fold of human understanding. Absolute unthinkables, however, are those things that defy all attempts at understanding or comprehension.

I find this account both appealing and confusing. It is unclear to me whether or not this is just a re-description of Hegel, or whether it is a significant departure. More problematically, for me, is that Braver does not seem to provide an example of absolute unthinkability.

Let me know what you think,


*A Gettier problem is basically a situation where someone has justified
true belief but is still right only by chance: for the uninitiated, read
some of these.
** Apologies, Emily, for any disservices I do to your position.

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Science and Human Nature + Website Update

Before I get into this weeks topic, I would like to announce that I’ve made some changes to my blog on both Blogger and WordPress. I have updated the banner on both sites, and I have created an archive which is categorized by subject. At the top of this archive I have placed some of my favorite posts, so give them a read. Now, on to the topic!

During my undergraduate studies I took a course in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. In the course we only managed to make it half way through the book, and since then I have always been meaning to go back and try finishing it. That time, my friends, has come. I will probably be exploring Hegel quite a bit in my next few posts, but for this initial post I am going to keep my foray relatively simple. One of the interesting arguments that Hegel makes is that human nature cannot be reduced to or grasped through our objective (as in physical) existence. His central point can be roughly explained as follows: we cannot grasp human nature through the study of our bodies or physical properties (e.g. neurosciences, though he uses phrenology as his example) because even if we did successfully grasp an individuals nature through such study then (to quote Hegel quoting Lichtenberg) ‘it would only require a courageous resolve on the part of the man to make himself incomprehensible again for a thousand years.’ Hegel’s thesis here is something like this: the nature of a person is not in their body but their actions. The only reality there can be to statements such as ‘Bill is a good/bad/cowardly person’ is the actions in which such traits are realized. Further, Hegel rejects the idea that we can separate or distinguish people from their environment (at least, to a degree sufficient to grasp or distill human nature), for just as a world acts on any individual, they also transform it in turn, with the result that the two are intermixed.*

One reaction we might have to this argument is to consider Hegel mistaken in a deterministic universe. If we were to grasp the mechanics of the human mind it seems like we would be able to predict our every action with near perfect accuracy. However, drawing upon arguments inspired by Donald Davidson’s paper ‘Psychology as Philosophy’, I contest that this is not the case.

Let me first clearly define the kind of scenario that I am considering. Imagine that we have accumulated an immense amount of data about the functioning of neurons and brain chemistry, and we have advanced monitoring systems capable of vast and complex calculations based on an individuals brain state. Lets imagine that we want to know how the person would respond to a yes or no question. Would it be possible for us to determine how the person would respond to the question before we asked it (thus one-upping the current technology that allows us to know what answer someone is going to give to a question before they know themselves)?

I would argue that, even with immensely powerful tools, it is in principle impossible to know with certainty how an individual would react to a question or scenario. The problem is in converting the scenario which we are interested in into a form of input that our instruments would understand, but for any general scenario we may be interested in (e.g. how would a person answer a yes no question), there are infinitely many possible forms the scenario can take, and these forms do not seem to be describable in lawful terms. Further, there is the problem of an actors internal state. Lets suppose we ask someone if they would like ice-cream, and we want to know whether they will say yes or no. Just as there are an infinitely many ways the question can be asked, there are also an infinitely many ways the question can be answered. Even if we were to model a specific scenario and find the person will say yes, we do not know the specific way in which they are saying yes. Maybe they’re saying yes just to be polite, or they are saying yes because they misunderstood the question. Essentially we cannot convert such concepts, concepts which are part and parcel of the kind of understanding we want when we seek to understand someone as a person, into the purely physical data our machines require in order to make predictions. At most we could simulate how a person would react in a single moment to a question asked in one way, but such simulation falls far short of grasping the person. For the same reason, as soon as we stopped monitoring someone they would be immediately become opaque once more, for our data became obsolete the moment they stepped beyond the bounds of our simulation.

Let me know what you think, thank you for reading,


*Hegel would probably not like me saying that we are intermixed with our environment since it suggests we are distinct from our environment, but I’ll use the term here for simplicity.

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