Archives For Knowledge and the Nature of Reality

Phenomenology is typically said to be:

a return to things in themselves
a descriptive method (not explanatory)
centered on the use of intuition
the study of appearances or ways of appearing
the study of the structures of consciousness
based on a method of reduction
opposed to naturalism (viewing everything in scientific terms)

Existentialism is typically said to be:

concerned with concrete/individual subjects
deny that there is a fixed human nature (‘existence prior to essence’)
emphasize personal freedom and responsibility
consider the meaningfulness of human life
be concerned with individuality and self-fulfillment (as opposed to mass identity)
highlight the transformative power of certain kinds of subjective experiences/emotions (anxiety/nausea) or extreme situations
be ‘anticartesian’

These terms are not particularly illuminating and it seems evident that no two philosophers would discuss any of these labels in the same way. Never-the-less, a starting point for building a map needs to come together. Something to attempt as I go on to read the various Phenomenologists (Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty) is to map out the similarities and differences between them; searching for connections. What’s the connection between Phenomenology and Existentialism??

In his Introduction to the Second Volume of the First Edition of his Logische Untersuchungen (Logical Investigations 1900 – 1901) Husserl speaks of “the phenomenology of the experiences of thinking and knowing”. He is discussing the need for a wide-ranging theory of knowledge. Husserl is treating ‘experience’ in a complex and new way:

“This phenomenology, like the more inclusive pure phenomenology of experiences in general, has, as its exclusive concern, experiences intuitively seizable and analysable in the pure generality of their essence, not experiences empirically perceived and treated as real facts, as experiences of human or animal experients in the phenomenal world that we posit as an empirical fact. This phenomenology must bring to pure expression, must describe in terms of their essential concepts and their governing formulae of essence, the essences which directly make themselves known in intuition, and the connections which have their roots purely in such essences. Each such statement of essence is an a priori statement in the highest sense of the word.”

Dermot Moran describes this project as an ‘a priori transcendental science of pure consciousness”. (p2) Husserl argues for a ‘reduction’ wherein the subject suspends or brackets the everyday natural attitude and all intentional acts which assume the existence of the world. The practitioner is led back into the domain of pure transcendental subjectivity. Importantly, this has to be more than a psychology of consciousness which suggests consciousness as a ‘tag end’ of the world. The philosophical practice has to stem from consciousness unassuming of the real world. Dermot Moran frames phenomenology as a thoroughly modernist outlook as it has its origins in the newly emerged science of psychology (Franz Brentano).

So to study experiences in such a pure form with regards to the experiencer, phenomenology’s first step is to avoid in advance all misconstructions and impostions (relgious, cultural traditions – language as with Gadamer, time as with Heidegger). Phenomenology aims at gaining perspective over the history of philosophical questions. Husserl and Heidegger believed that the real philosophical issue in the traditional skeptical worry about the existence of the external world was not the need to find rational grounds to justify our natural belief in this world, but rather to explain how this kind of worry could have arisen in the first place. (p4)

“But experience is not an opening through which a world, existing prior to all experience, shines into a room of consciousness; it is not a mere taking of something alien to consciousness into consciousness… Experience is the performance in which for me, the experiencer, experienced being “is there”, and is there as what it is, with the whole content and the mode of being that experience itself, by the performance going on in its intentionality, attributes to it.” (Husserl, Formal and Transcendental Logic)

This quotation comes close to painting a picture of what Husserl seeks to posit as experience and consciousness and the relationship between the two terms, but still manages to be elusive. He suggests that there is a directional element to conceptualizing phenomena: that is, we do not consider experience as information from the pre-existing world entering into a pre-existing consciousness. This much is OK. More clarity is needed on experience as ‘being there’ and what performance actually means.

(Introduction to Phenomenology: Dermot Moran Routledge pp 1 – 6)


Plato endeavored to systematically explain inner conflict and psychological complexity. The approach he takes is to categorize three parts of the ‘soul’ (which can be taken to mean mind or psychology). These parts are reason, emotion and desire. He is able to argue firstly for the existence of a complex set of relations between various aspects of human psychology through the proposition that one thing cannot simultaneously either act or be acted on in opposite ways in the same respect and in the same context. He goes on to illustrate that whilst a man can be thirsty, he can also prevent himself from drinking, thus concluding that there are two parts that act in opposite ways within the mind. These parts are reason and desire, correlating to rationality and irrationality respectively. Passion is next identified as a third part that may be interchangeable with either of the other two.

The contrast between reason and desire is more readily observable than that of emotion and each of the others. Reason and desire are the cause of duality in man. Reason correlates with virtue and morality (considered choices, discipline, self-control, and charity) whereas desire correlates with immorality (immediate gratification of the senses, vulgarity and lack of forethought). Desire is the instinctual and irrational side of the human character. Reason is concerned with the overall good of the person as a whole (note: not all reasoning has to be good reasoning).

Emotion and reason have a relationship whereby emotion is subordinate to reason and operates as a function of rationality. Similar to desire, emotion responds to the object of impulse without thought or a system of regard for the overall good of the person as a whole. This response however aligns itself with reason in order to act as a vehicle of motivation toward the ideal proposed by reason.

Emotion is aligned with reason as a force that generally conflicts with desire. One example might be a man who curses himself for letting his desires compel him to act against his reason. Another might be the experience of feeling wronged by another, in which an emotion such as anger is aligned with ones reasoning as to what is right. Additionally, such an emotion that is tied to the feeling of being wronged can compel you to withstand or subdue desires, such as withstanding hunger or cold (with examples such as these Plato is using the word ‘passion’ in place of emotion). Emotion therefore acts on behalf of reason in opposition to desire even if it does not understand the ideal that this particular instance of reasoning aspires to.

Plato also proposes a metaphorical and theoretical model of the mind in which reason, desire and emotion are represented by the image of a man, a many-headed mythological beast and a lion respectively. The whims of the beast and the lion correlate with immorality, and the restraint and control of the man with morality. Plato is arguing that you (a person) is made up of all three elements, though in order reach an ideal state of being, reason must subdue first emotion, in order that emotion be employed to subdue desire.

(Julia Annas: Voices of Ancient Philosophy – Oxford University Press 2001)

What do the stoics mean when they say everything happens by fate?

Stoic methodology is described in modern terms as holistic; meaning all parts are mutually supportive and there is no single foundation. (Annas; p16) Fate is thought to be an ordering and a connection between events that is inevitable. Therefore the future is pre-determined: ‘nothing has happened that was not going to happen.’ (Cicero in Annas; p16) If all that will happen must necessarily therefore happen, and is caused eternally by nature and not by anything outside of nature, all things to come have effectively happened. This stands in opposition to the viewpoint of Plato who argued for eternal and infinite possible futures. For the Stoics, causes are contained by nature and so therefore this is a fate aligned with natural science and not superstition. However, the Stoics refer to the reasoning and organization in the universe as God. That all things are connected by cause are therefore a unity, and that all things that will be will be caused by things that exist, and that time itself is determined is the explanation the Stoics give for determined fate and God.
Perhaps think of this causal chain as inductive??

Why did the Stoics think that it’s also true that we can be responsible for our actions?

Cicero recognizes an argument regarding human free will. If all assenting, impulses and actions are necessary and caused by fate, neither praise nor blame nor honors nor punishments are just. (Cicero in Annas, p19) Since this is empirically wrong, philosophers are able to make the argument that all things are not caused by fate. The stoics however still argue that everything happens as a result of a cause, as causality is crucial to their view of the universe as holistic.

How did they think they could believe in both fate and responsibility?

Cicero gives an exposition of Chrysippus’ argument. Chrysippus concluded that there must be two types of causes: perfect and primary, and auxiliary and proximate. With this framework Chrysippus is able to argue that fate takes its course through auxiliary and proximate causes. The causality at the level of impulse is perfect and primary. The causality at the level of appearance is auxiliary and proximate. One could think of perfect and primary causes as having a subjective role in causality. These causes are related to the individual and the individual’s own experiences and characteristics. Hence two people can have different reactions to the very same appearance. In this way, each individual plays a role in how they shape their experiences and character, therefore having responsibility for their actions.

Why did Alexander of Aphrodisias think it was inconsistent to believe in both?

Alexander responds by analyzing mans ability to deliberate. He recognizes this ability as an advantage from nature over the other living creatures. For Alexander the power of deliberation comes first in mans own nature, before any appearance in nature. Humans do not deliberate in vain. Man demonstrates through his ability to deliberate that he can choose between appearances. Deliberation and reason put appearances to the test thereby creating a hierarchy of which appearances in nature are of the most importance to man. Moreover, we choose what we consider important to deliberate about. By arguing for the primary position of deliberation in the relation of causes, Alexander illustrates what he considers a more genuine picture of people as responsible for their actions. The Stoics strong account of determinism leads to a weak account of the human ability to deliberate.

(Julia Annas: Voices of Ancient Philosophy – Oxford University Press)

Papineau and Induction

October 30, 2012 — 1 Comment

a note from David Papineau “Reliabilism, Induction and Scepticism

The Problem of Induction – Problem? What problem?

Papineau suggests that there are different kinds of circularity (the problem of induction being a circular argument – induction to justify induction). There is a difference that needs to be distinguished between premise circularity and rule circularity. An argument is premise circular if its conclusion is contained amongst its premises. An argument is rule circular if it uses a rule of inference to arrive at a conclusion about that very rule of inference (induction for example).

How do we naturalize the normative?

A normative claim is a claim that one is justified in doing something. Normative claims are evaluative rather than factual. Naturalism emphasizes the empirical. When we talk about a normative aim, we need to justify that this aim is worthy of being pursued. Simply ‘making sense’ (coherent) is not enough – truth conducive.

How can an evaluative claim be derived from an empirical one?

Quine’s naturalized epistemology is characterized as placing itself in the school of psychology; that is, to describe a physical human subject – how humans produce beliefs. Epistemology then becomes a science. It addresses the questions of how justified belief works, ignoring completely justification itself as a central epistemological question. It’s the ‘technology of truth-seeking’.

Kornblith sees epistemology as normative. Despite his naturalism he thinks there is such a thing as epistemic justification. However, normativity is not the topic of the book, this is just a background context for the aims of the book (see chpt 1 notes – Inductive Inference and its Natural Ground) The stated focus of the book is investigating the reliability of our inductive inferences, and their relationship to the causal structure of the world. However, if our inductive inferences are reliable, then this reliability leads to a normative philosophy i.e. we should use this reliable method of inductive inference. So should not the source of normativity (a response to Quine) be part of the focus of the book?

If Kornblith assumes that truth is valued, that the goal of inductive inferences is to seek truths about the world, then he is positing a normative philosophy, just without a comprehensive establishment of what it is that inductive inference is reliable with regards to. Epistemic norms are a means to an end.

Notes from: Joel Pust – Induction, Focused Sampling and the Law of Small Numbers

This paper is a response to Kornblith‘s defense of the use of the Law of Small Numbers (Judgmental bias which occurs when it is assumed that the characteristics of a sample population can be estimated from a small number of observations or data points). Pust is claiming that this argument fails for the following reasons: the sort of inferences Kornblith seeks to justify are not really inductive inferences based on small samples, but rather knowledge based deductive inferences, and secondly that Dorrit Billman’s computational model upon which Kornblith builds some of his argument is not sufficient for this purpose.

Firstly, Kornblith’s defense of the use of the Law of Small Numbers is characterized as reliabilist.

“We have built-in biases in our processing of visual information and such presuppositions bring perceptual errors with them. However, the simple fact that our perceptual mechanisms are biased has no implications for their reliability without the further claim that such biases are inappropriate for our environment.” (Pust, p90)

Our inferential reasoning, like our perceptual mechanisms, whilst prone to making mistakes is nevertheless generally quite relaible. Our inferential mechanisms depend upon the assumption that the world contains natural kinds. With regard to the Law of Small Numbers, Kornblith cites Tversky and Kahneman (K, p90) claiming that we tend to draw inductive inferences on the basis of extraordinarily small samples. The key question becomes how to evaluate this tendency (K, p90). Tversky and Kahneman assert that this tendency is inappropriate, whereas Kornblith points out the question of reliability is far more subtle and complex.

1) Is presdiction from a small sample always unreliable?
2) Is the logic of statistical inference a reasonable standard against which to measure the appropriateness of our inferences?

” […] when a population is uniform with respect to a certain property, a generalisation based on a single case will be reliable indeed.” (Pust, p92)

Imagine that you are observing an unknown species of bird lay an egg. Based on this one observation, and the background knowledge that all birds in existence that have been observed thus far lay eggs, you can infer based on one very small sample that this unknown bird will always lay eggs. This ties in with Quine’s notion of projection. Projection seems to tie in with background knowledge to provide a solid base upon which to infer based on small samples.

Kornblith: we do have “a sensitivity to those features in objects which tend to reside in homeostatic clusters; and a tendency to project those characteristics which are indeed essential to the real kinds in nature.” (K, p95)

This also ties in with the ‘naturalisation’ of Kornblith’s epistemology. Kornblith’s reliabilist argument rejects the notion that the only justified inferential procedures are those that are relaible in any possible world. The justifiedness of a belief is a function of the actual world: actual world reliability of the process (evolution) that produced the justified inferential procedures.


Pust’s summary of Kornblith’s argument:

“The Aim: To provide a reliabilist defense of TLSN.
(1) Inductive generalizations based on small samples (or the single case) will be reliable if the features selected do, in fact, generally co-occur.
(2) In order for such an inferential tendency to be reliable, then, we must possess a sensitivity to those properties of natural kinds that are highly correlated. In other words, we must be able to detect what property correlations obtain.
(3) Though some experimental data shows that we are rather poor at detecting covariation when a single pair of properties covaries, Billman’s research on focused sampling shows that we are good at detecting property covariation when the properties in question also covary with a number of others that jointly covary. In short, when properties are ‘clustered’, we are quite adept at detecting their correlations by engaging in focused sampling.” (Pust, p95)

The main criticism, referring to the bird example above, is that Kornblith;s assertion of small sample sizes misses altogether crucial premises. i.e ‘new species of bird lays an egg’ (based on 1 observation) needs to be a conjunct with ‘all members of a biological species reproduce in the same manner’, such that:

premise: An observed new species of bird lays an egg.
premise: All members of a biological species reproduce in the same manner.
concl: New species of bird will always reproduce via laying eggs.

This is a deductive inference, even if the premise themselves were arrived at inductively; knowledge based deduction. This could be construed as ‘prior knowledge’ plus ‘observations’ equals ‘new knowledge’.

Kornblith’s descriptors ‘sensitivity’ and ‘intuitive grasp’ for his assertion of our evolved inductive reasoning mechanisms in this new light possibly, and most likely, correlate with background knowledge. Pust redesign’s Kornblith’s argument such that we have inductive inferences drawn from the law of large numbers (we develop knowledge of the world based on large scale observations) and then based on this background knowledge are able to make deductive inferences on the basis small samples.

Quine – Natural Kinds

October 25, 2012 — 4 Comments

Notes on Quine’s famous paper: Natural Kinds

Quine, Willard Van Orman. 1969. Natural Kinds. in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays: Columbia Univ. Press.

The paper starts with a problem for induction: “What tends to confirm an induction?” He relates Hempel’s puzzle of the non-black non-ravens and Goodman’s puzzle of the grue emeralds to an innate sense we have for similarity and sorting into kinds. First of all, we need to understand projection. The grue problem: this has been difficult for me to get my head around and it seems to have some complex logic problems, not to mention much discussion across the net around its implications and predicates. All emeralds studied before 2013 are green, so induction would suggest that all emeralds are green. Simple enough. However, at time t all emeralds turn blue but we do not know this yet. An emerald that has turned from green to blue is grue. So all emeralds studied after time t in 2013 will be grue and hence blue. The predicate green is projectable, the predicate grue is not, as who is to know that the emeralds are going to change color? Some discussions on this have broadened the context to suggest other precious stones change color in the same fashion creating a precedent and likelihood that emeralds will change color, therefore can you use induction to conclude that all emeralds are grue?

A projectable predicate counts towards the confirmation of all x‘s are z‘s. Quine uses projectability to solve the black raven, non-black non-raven problem. ‘Black’ and ‘raven’ are projectable, though ‘non-black’ and ‘non-raven’ are not. Hence, the raven problem is not an induction problem as induction only runs in the same direction as projectability. However, the proposition ‘all non-black things are non-ravens‘ is still lawlike, as it is logically equivalent to ‘all x are y‘.

“A projectable predicate is one that is true of all and only the things of a kind. What makes Goodman’s example a puzzle, however, is the dubious scientific standing of a general notion of similarity, or of kind.” (p116)

Quine then turns his attention from projectability to the problem of determining a ‘property’ as we need to sort kinds via their common properties. The point of projectability was to first outline how we might have confidence in our inductions about kinds in a temporal setting. He then illustrates how fundamental the notion of similarity or kind is to our thinking, yet how alien it is to logic and set theory. The non-logical roots of similarity and kind are important.

“One part of the problem of induction, the part that asks why there should be regularities in nature at all, can, I think, be dismissed. That there are or have been regularities, for whatever reason, is an established fact of science; and we cannot ask better than that. Why there have been regularities is an obscure question, for it is hard to see what would count as an answer. What does make clear sense is this other part of the problem of induction: why does our innate subjective spacing of qualities accord so well with the functionally relevant groupings in nature as to make our inductions tend to come out right? Why should our subjective spacing of qualities have a special purchase on nature and a lien on the future?” (p126)

Quine turns to Darwin and suggests that people’s innate spacing of qualities is a gene-linked trait, and that successful inductions will have become predominate through natural selection. He asserts that he is not generalising or creating a priori arguments. He wants to demonstrate that the ‘innateness’ he is describing is not an argument against empiricism. Rather than innate ideas (rationalists – continental) he is describing innate capacities (empirical – Darwin). He sees philosophy as continuous with science, with no external vantage point (no foundationalism – Quinean holism). Therefore all scientific findings that are at present plausible can be used a specificity in philosophy as elsewhere.

Important: Kornblith departs from Quine on this point. He asserts that we can survive without our cognitive capacities being accurate; see chpt 1.

He next acknowledges inductions conspicuous failures. He uses the sense-input data we have as humans as an example, primarily color. We are well aware of our sense data limitations, yet in spite of an array of inductive errors made in such a context we have still been successful. This boils down to the human condition whereby our limitations have helped us survive on one hand, i.e. color is helpful at the food gathering level, but on the other are insignificant to such activities as broader theoretical science. So there is a dynamic existence and use of sense data and innate similarity biases. Essentially, it is the achievement of the species to have risen above, using inductive inference, his sensory limitations and sensory space. Induction has allowed a trial and error process of theorizing and therefore has a definite temporal quality/factor that needs to be included in any justification discussion of induction:

“A crude example is the modification of the notion of fish by excluding whales and porpoises. Another taxonomic example is the grouping of kangaroos, opossums, and marsupial mice in a single kind, marsupials, while excluding ordinary mice. By primitive standards the marsupial mouse is more similar to the ordinary mouse than to the kangaroo; by theoretical standards the reverse is true.” (p128)