The Unity of Consciousness, Part I

Joseph W. asked for a separate and new thread to discuss this subject, which arose in our discussion of problems of creation.

Even a summary of this problem -- indeed, even a book-length summary -- would necessarily compress a massive amount of careful argument.  What I am hoping to provide here is more like a sketch of a summary of the problem; to tackle the problem with the seriousness it deserves is the work of years, not a few hours.  The basic problem is twofold:  how can I have knowledge about the world, and how can I communicate regarding knowledge of the world with other minds in a useful way?

Note that this is different from the question of "how/why did communication between intelligent beings arise?"  One can accept an evolutionary response to that kind of question:  it arose because, when 'tried' by animals who happened into it, it proved valuable.  This is a different question, which is about how (and indeed whether) it is possible for such a thing to be at all.  If evolutionary utility were the only criterion, why do animals not teleport themselves or engage in other sorts of fantastic behavior?  They do not because they cannot.  They do this because they can:  but why can they?  It's a very difficult problem.

Let's start with Kant's idea of transcendental unity of apperception.  He was responding to some difficulties raised by Hume -- Hume is still today a powerful source for difficulties -- about how the mind can work.  Kant argues that when we take our sense perceptions -- sight, hearing, touch, and so forth -- we must mentally mold our various senses into a single object that can serve as an object of thought.  This is called representation (that is, we are re-presenting the sense data as an object of thought rather than as data per se).  It's not just the object that has to be represented as a whole, though:  we must also represent all of our disparate experiences as a kind of unity, the unity we take to be ourselves (for what are we if not the sum total of our experiences?).

One consequence of this approach is that we end up being unable to have any knowledge at all about anything in the world.  Those things are not what our minds represent to us:  the unity imposed upon them is artificial, for one thing.  Thus, what we have "knowledge" about is only our representations, not the things themselves.  Kant calls these things "noumina" and our representations "phenomena," and argues that noumenon are completely unknowable by human beings.

That's going to be a problem for communication about the world -- for science, say.  We think that we are engaged in learning about the world through the scientific method, which involves experiements, measurements, and then communication of our results to see if others can reproduce them.  If Kant is right, no part of that approach works the way we think it does.  Our experiments are not of the world, but of mental phenomena that are different from the world in ways we not only cannot know but cannot conceive.  Our measurements are likewise.  Our theories about the meaning of these results are thus doubly disconnected from reality, because they are theories about theories about what things are really like.  That's problematic enough, but now I need to convey them to you for you to try to reproduce.

You've got your own set of representations.  Since neither you nor I have access to the things in the world, but only our individually constructed representations, we have absolutely no way of knowing if we are talking about the same objects.  When I communicate my ideas to you, what I think I'm saying to you is being filtered as sound impulses and then re-presented by your mind to you according to your own unity of apperception:  thus, I have no idea what you're hearing when I tell you something.

We might be satisfied to say, "Well, my own unity will represent all input in a coherent way, so while I don't really know if you're agreeing with me or not, it will appear to me that we agree on the basic facts."  That would make sense, but it doesn't explain why science appears to give us increasing new capacities to do physical things:  we can work together to produce rockets that fly to the moon, for example.  That's a capacity that suggests that we really are cooperating:  there's nothing in our pre-existing unity that should suggest it.  It is a capacity that arises from this cooperation, which suggests that the cooperation is real.

We might say, "Well, let's stick with the evolutionary explanation.  Our brain structures are similar enough that we can 'understand' each other to a certain degree because similar structures produce similar representations."  Even if this were fully adequate, which it isn't, it doesn't make sense of the problem of why we can understand things that aren't like us.  I usually use horses as a model for examining the question of a unitary order of reason across species (an idea also rooted in Kant, via Sebastian Rödl's explorations); but we have a similar capacity with animals of any kind.  We seem to be able to distinguish between animals that are reacting to a pre-programmed instinct versus those which seem to have a capacity to reason and learn, for example, even if we don't share much evolutionary history with them.

The explanation is also inadequate because it simply doesn't answer the depth of the problem.  Kant's argument gives us a world in which we can have no knowledge whatsoever of the reality around us, including the minds of others.  To argue that our brain structures are 'mostly similar' is thus to argue facts not in evidence.  We can't know any facts about the structures of our brains, only about the phenomena of the structures of our brains -- and these are likely being represented according to a pre-existing internal order that makes them accord to some degree with what we expect from them.

It also just doesn't make sense to leap from "it is impossible to have any knowledge whatsoever about the things themselves" to "nevertheless, we seem to do a pretty good job."  You can't jump from "impossible" to "a pretty good capacity" in the same way that you can't build a line out of points.  The points have no extension, so no number of them added together will give you an extended line.  Likewise, no amount of phenomena can be combined into a noumenon:  no phenomenon contains any nouminal content.

This has led people to question, well, everything:  it has led otherwise serious people to wander around speculating about Zombies (which set of arguments, by the way Joe, is very similar to the ones you cited to me re: whether AIs would have real consciousness); or mad scientists keeping our brains in a vat.

Or it has led people -- particularly practical-minded people -- simply to ignore the problem and pretend it doesn't exist.  This science stuff seems to work; why worry too much about why it works?

I suppose I will stop here, and call this "part one," because there remains a great deal to be said about what I think the right way to resolve the problem happens to be.  For now, though, maybe we should stop and take a moment to appreciate the problem.


james said...

Even if you reject your own testimony about what you are doing when you talk with friends, the physical evidence implies that we do successfully communicate. Therefore Kant's model, since it does not cover the facts, can most charitably be described as inadequate.

So I'd claim that the only question about Kant's approach is whether we simply ignore it and look elsewhere or try to discover some domain where it might be useful. (Or glue on other approaches until you have a model that works.)

Grim said...

I'm going to prefer a strongly non-Kantian approach to the question, but for the moment I'll do what I can to defend him.

There is a problem about unifying multiple senses into a single object of thought. This has been obvious since Aristotle at least: he has an account of what he calls "the common sense" that appears (among other things) to treat things that cross senses. This is a weaker account than Kant's, in the sense that the common sense just serves to unify your sight (as of a flying ball, say) and touch (as of the feel of catching the ball) to let you understand that the ball was one thing even though it turned up in two senses.

Kant's point is that your unification is never the thing itself, even under the best picture. If you are looking at a table, for example, you can't see it as an object with three full dimensions: you can't see the side you aren't looking at, for example. That your representation has at least some differences from the thing itself is therefore not controversial.

What is difficult is not to see that he must be wrong -- I agree with you that he is -- but to see just where he goes wrong. It's a strong enough argument (which, again, I am baldly summarizing in a sketch: you ought to consider the full version before rejecting it).

Tom said...

Kant's ideas do seem to explain a lot of miscommunication.

One answer I have thought about (though admittedly I probably don't really understand the nature of the problem) is switching from a binary to a scaled mode of knowing. That is, instead of knowing or not, we have degrees of certainty of knowledge.

In my answer, we would never be able to say 100% that we knew something, but we could estimate probabilities of knowing things, with degrees of correspondence to others' actions / words and to physical events indicating how certain we could be. (I.e., if the universe acts as we expect it to, then we bump up the certainty of that bit of predictive knowledge.)

Just a thought.

Grim said...

That's very good, Tom. There's an English philosopher called Timothy Williamson -- very famous, and currently living -- who proposes a similar model. I find the basic idea useful, but his particular form of argumentation is occasionally preposterous; he tends to design thought experiments to generate Zeno-style paradoxes in order to force you to accept his alternative; and at other times he argues by induction in a way that I think is problematic.

Not to go too far into it, but he has one example about being cold. Let us say (he has it) that at dawn you are cold, and you know you are cold. We'll call this time n. For the purpose of the example, you never stop thinking about whether you are cold. A milisecond later, you can't have changed your mind about being cold vice a milisecond ago, so at n+1 you are cold and know you are cold. Since all time can be broken into miliseconds, and at any milisecond there can't be enough difference to change your knowledge, you will therefore be cold at noon.

Since that cannot be the case, you are forced to accept his alternative; but in fact, the form of the argument strikes me as very bad. It avoids the precise problem Zeno had by not breaking the extended into the unextended (Zeno's problem was assuming that a line was composed of points and time of moments, oddly enough since it came up in the original post); a milisecond is an extended time with a beginning and an end. Still it seems to have a very similar problem, as well as the general problem of induction.

Nevertheless, his basic concept is not bad, and similar to your own.

Grim said...

Note, though, that you haven't solved the basic problem raised by Kant's model. Even with a scalable model for knowledge, you still can't get from "impossible" to "pretty good." If knowledge of the things themselves is impossible, then you can't get started -- you really are in Zeno's paradox.

Tom said...

If I stay within Kant's premises, then certainly I haven't answered his problem. My answer is that I don't start from impossible.

Kant says (to quote your paraphrase) "no phenomenon contains any nouminal content."

However, I would start by saying that phenomena may contain noumenal information. I might go further and say that without noumenal information, there would be no phenomenon at all.

You are right that, if I accept that phenomena have no relationship to noumena, I'm utterly stuck. But then, why posit noumena at all? If all we know is phenomena, and phenomena contain no noumenal content, then we have no evidence whatsoever to believe noumena exist, do we?

I'll have to look into Williamson, though I'm not fond of the kind of arguments you describe.

Tom said...

Hm. In reading the Wikipedia article on noumenon you linked, I see that Kant posits noumena as an explanation for how we can completely known phenomena but still find out we're wrong about the universe. I see the point, but this raises more questions. Maybe I should wait for part 2, and finish reading the Wikipedia article, before going on.

Joseph W. said...

You're quite right to take this in pieces, and start with an "appreciation" of the problem, because I read it and reread it and I do not yet appreciate it.

The basic problem is twofold: how can I have knowledge about the world, and how can I communicate regarding knowledge of the world with other minds in a useful way?

I've got plenty of evidence that not only I, but other people, do both of these things. So do you. If it has happened, it can happen; and a theory that says it can't is a false one.

One consequence of this approach is that we end up being unable to have any knowledge at all about anything in the world.

Hang on there...are you talking about "perfect, absolute, unquestionable knowledge" or are you talking about "approximate, likely knowledge"? There is no way to have, or prove we have, the former, and that is not a problem worth worrying about.

I used to run into this in religious arguments, where believers tried to pull me back to agnosticism with extreme Forteanism. "Do you know everything there is to know...Do you know half of everything there is to know...Well, then, coudln't God lie in that stuff you don't know?" Weak, idle questions. Having acknowledged that our knowledge of anything is going to have some imperfections, that doesn't mean you declare all knowledge to be useless or of zero value, or of equal value with any myth someone else cares to pull out.

Long ago, on Southern Appeal, we had a discussion of one of C.S. Lewis' more idiotic passages - about how he left atheism. He realized that if his brain, the very thing he was thinking with, was the product of might be imperfect. He then made a hidden assumption that his mind could not possibly be imperfect, and whee! - jumped to the conclusion that God must be involved. Is this in that line of goods?

If it isn't, could you be a little more explicit about how Kant, or anybody else, gets from "we take sense perceptions and convert them into representations" to "we can't have any knowledge at all about anything"? It's all very well to say "you still can't get from 'impossible' to 'pretty good,'" but I am not at all clear how you got to "impossible"!

I suspect it's from defining "knowledge" as "unattainably perfect knowledge" but would like to know what you say.

Joseph W. said...

(There's obviously a lot of overlap between what I'm asking and what Tom is also asking - not because I'm ignoring you, Tom, but because I want to put the same questions in my own way.)

Grim said...

First of all, this "line of goods" is the Critique of Pure Reason. If you'd like to consider the argument as Kant presents it, here you go.

There are two general things I'll say about it first. You don't have to worry about finding a proof for the existence of God buried in Kant's first critique, because he explicitly rejects the idea that God's existence can be proven in the later parts of the book. Indeed, of course it cannot be proven if you are following his argument: if God exists in the sense that religion holds, he would be a noumenon, not a mental phenomenon. Thus, naturally you can know nothing about his true nature even if he exists.

This might be a good introduction to understanding the whole of the argument, actually, because it's the point at which you are most skeptical of knowledge. Let's say that someone has encountered a number of phenomena that they believe demonstrate the existence of God. One counterargument to their reasoned belief in God would be to point out that they have misconstrued the causes of the phenomena. Light shining through a cloud at just the right moment, for example, could be a coincidence; the fact that they felt uplifted by it, a simple reaction to light; the fact that it happened at a moment when they were downcast and lonely, a coincidence; and perhaps there is some evolutionary benefit to belief in God that also helps encourage the belief formation.

What the believer is doing here is apperception: he's taking a number of unrelated things, and unifying them into a single coherent mental picture (a phenomenon). This phenomenon he calls God, and he believes -- based on his sense perceptions and so forth -- that God definitely exists and has touched his life.

Over the course of his life, he may experience other things that he unifies with this original phenomenon. God becomes a major factor in his life as more and more experiences are unified with the original phenomenon (which was, remember, an original unification of several separate things).

What you might be inclined to say here is that the entire phenomenon is an illusion. What he would say he has knowledge of, based on direct experience of reality, doesn't exist at all. Yet he has come by his knowledge in the same way we come by knowledge of anything that is outside of ourselves in the world.

Grim said...

So your objection, and Tom's after a fashion, is that you want to say that 'well, we can't have perfect knowledge of things outside of us, but we can have approximate knowledge' -- knowledge on a scale, as Tom put it. The problem is that doesn't get off the ground.

Everything you think you know about the outside world is phenomenal (Kant is arguing). Every experience, every sensation, every fact you think you know is actually just a fact about your own internal thoughts. What you know is the unities you have made of these things -- and as this is often an unconscious process, you really don't even know what you were unifying (or what you were excluding from the unity). You certainly don't know the things in themselves; but you also have no way of testing the validity of your phenomena.

The normal ways we would like to do that are by asking others what they think and comparing our views (Thomas Aquinas speaks of this as sensus communis, but really the idea that reality could be determined in this way is George Berkeley's idea; Hannah Arendt does a lot with it sensis communis, I think quite well; but that's later). However, even the existence of other people is phenomenal: each person we think we know is a mental phenomena that we have made, not the thing (whatever it is) that exists in the world. We don't know what we are doing with the information during the process of building the phenomena.

When you get to the "Brains in Vats" stage of the argument, you've got a severe epistemological problem. A brain in the hypothetical vat would be receiving all the same data (in the form of electrical signals and other impulses) that the brain in a body is receiving; but the signals are artificially generated by scientists in the lab where the vat is located. The brain would think it had knowledge of a large number of people it knew, facts about the world, and so forth. If it wanted to check the quality of its impressions, it could choose to conduct experiments, and the scientists would make sure the experiments were satisfying experiences as well.

The experience of the human brain and the BIV (as they call the 'brain in the vat,' it being such a regular topic of conversation as to require an acronym) is identical. But this is a problem because we want to say that the one brain has knowledge, and the other has not: the world it thinks it inhabits does not exist.

This is the first problem: the problem of the impossibility of knowledge of noumina. The "pretty sure" or "kind of good" knowledge seems to apply to phenomena. The noumina are the things without the intervention of our mental processes: and it isn't clear that we can know these things at all if we accept Kant's argument.

So we reject it: but where do we reject it? It does seem to be true that our minds interpose, and we don't know just how. There are some problems here we have to sort out how to attack (and we have really only begun with the problems; but I want to make sure each one is clear).

Tom said...

With the BIV example, it seems a fairly clear problem to me.

I'll do some reading on Wikipedia after I'm home, but I do have one question: What does Kant posit the relationship between noumena and phenomena is? It seems strange to say that phenomena are taken from noumena but that they convey no information about the noumena.

Actually, I have another question as well. Normally I ignore this sort of thing, but Grim tends to pay very close attention to detail and it doesn't seem to be an accident. 'Noumina' (with the 'i') is not in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, my dictionary, or Wikipedia articles. I've always seen it as 'noumena.' What's up with the spelling?

Joseph: I didn't think that at all. The way you asked your questions clarified some of the things I was asking, even to me. I certainly appreciate the different viewpoint. (Or I would, if I had any real knowledge that you were actually offering one instead of it being merely my brain constructing the phenomena to appear that way.)

Grim said...

I'll start with the spelling question, because it's easiest: I didn't look it up this time. Yeah, I also wrote both sensis and sensus. I'm pretty sure it's not both. :)

So, you know, that's just because I'm running this set of posts off the top of my head. I apologize for the lower-than-usual standard; but Joe got interested in something I've been thinking about a lot, so I'm trying to squeeze time for it in to everything else I have to do this week. The spelling is my bad.

Now, as for the relationship between them, that's a much harder question. Let me start by saying that Kant is breaking with a tradition that goes back to ancient Greece. (This is really part of part II, but we'll go with it.)

The Platonic and neoplatonic traditions held that there were noumena and phenomena as well, but they described the break differently. The noumena were in the realms of the Forms, which are accessible to thought and reason, but separate from matter. (Aristotle disputed that forms could be separated from matter, so the Aristotelian tradition is not what is being described here.) Phenomena were what appears in the world, where the forms are masked to some degree by the matter.

You may remember Plato's allegory of the Cave, in which you have lived all your life in a cave, thinking you understand the world based on shadows on the wall? But then one man gets out and goes up to the world of the sun, and sees things as they really are? This allegory was meant to illustrate the old concept: the shadows are the phenomena, but there is a real world of Forms that is accessible to the intellect alone.

There's a huge epistemological framework I need to explain to show you how they thought you could get to the Forms; but we'll leave that for a later part. The point is that Kant is doing something different with the same terms (a detestable habit of his, actually).

He's putting the thing-in-itself, as it is in the world, as the noumena; and the mental impression as the phenomena. That much is Greek-like. However, he is disputing that you can arrive at a grasp of the Form through reason: thus, for things that are in the world outside of you, you can never arrive at noumena. You can only get to the phenomena.

That's why this is the Critique of Pure Reason: Kant is attacking an ancient idea about how well your reason can guide you outside of itself. He thinks there are truths you can come to from reason alone (a priori); but they are truths of reason. Whenever you are dealing with the outside world, phenomenal truth will be the best you can come to on his model.

That said, he does believe in a connection (and much of the text of the first critique is in trying to show how he thinks it works). However, later philosophers realized that there was no way to test whether the connection he specified was working or not. That, in a nutshell, is how we get from Kant to BIVs.

Grim said...

Pardon me, let me correct what I wrote:

....the mental impression as the phenomena. That much is Greek-like...

That much is only Greek like in the sense that what you think you know isn't what is really there. The Greeks thought you could really know the things in the world -- these things, the actual table and your actual friends and so forth, could be known. Those are just the things that you cannot know for Kant.

However, the Greeks also believed there was a higher order of knowledge that you could attain about these things-in-the-world, which represented their real nature. You could get there through reason and imagination.

Kant doesn't think you can even get to the things in the world. So he's shifting the phenomena/noumena distinction one level lower, you might say; but at the same time, he's disabling Reason's ability to climb to the Thing-In-Itself (the noumena).

james said...

Working backwards from the facts seems wisest here.

So, there are those "things-in-the-world" which we know, for some model of the meaning of knowledge. There are the things known by reasoning from the world, and things known by more abstract reason, again for other models of the meaning of knowledge. That makes at least three models--more if you allow for supernatural revelation (I do).

Trying to reconcile those models seems to have been hard enough to tempt one to bail and say that "KNOWLEDGE" has this kind of expression when thinking about the world and that kind when thinking about mathematics. That would be like talking about molecular kinematics vs the ideal gas law when you don't know statistical mechanics--unsatisfactory but mostly adequate.

Rather than bail I will shut up and listen.

Tom said...

I'm glad it was just spelling. I get concerned about details in philosophical discussions because I have had the frustrating experience of spending a couple of hours discussing something with a philosopher and getting fairly irritated because we seemed to have a complete inability to communicate only to discover that there was a term I only knew the common definition for and he was using it in the philosophical sense which carried all sorts of implications I was completely unaware of.

Anyway, so Kant really doesn't think the phenomena carry information about the noumena, even though they are impressions of the noumena. That seems odd, but I'm willing to run with it for now.

Tom said...

Joseph, just out of curiosity, could you tell me where C.S. Lewis makes that argument? I'd like to track it down.

Grim said...

It's probably important to say more about why Kant undertook this project. He was responding to Hume, as noted: particularly, he was responding to Hume's skepticism about cause and effect.

Aristotle and those who followed him argued that to know a thing is to know its principles. One very important kind of principle is a cause: if I want to understand why my house burned down, I need to understand the cause. The cause was fire, so if I understand the nature of fire, I know what I need to know about why my house burned down (i.e., that I need to look for ways in which fire could have started or spread in the house).

Hume argued that there's nothing in any cause that lets you get to an effect. Knowing the nature of fire won't tell you that the house will burn down at all. Knowing the nature of birds doesn't tell you that they will fly, only that they can.

Kant wanted to rescue cause and effect by restoring their logical relationship. However, to make them logical, it is necessary that they be rational things -- just the sort of thing that fire might not be! Can fire be made into a rational object?

Well, yes, if fire isn't the chaotic stuff in the world, but the phenomena in my mind. After all, the phenomena (unlike the noumena) is a creation of a rational mind. Therefore, it will have a rational nature, and I can come to reasoned judgments about it. Therefore, I can establish at least some logical cause-effect relationships in the world.

Kant didn't expect (and certainly wasn't looking to provoke) a severe epistemelogical crisis when he undertook this project. He was trying to rescue us from a different one, brought on by Hume.

Tom said...

So, the severe epistemological crisis was just a bonus?


That bit about cause and effect doesn't make a lot of sense to me. So, going back before cause and effect, I was working through this this morning and came up with an example. Let's say I have the phenomenon of accidentally kicking my shin into the coffee table one morning. That is, I get some kind of input and my mind unifies it into this phenomenon.

However, since the phenomenon carries no information about the noumenon, the actual noumenon that caused this might be a marshmallow floating out in the Horsehead Nebula. That is, not only is hardness information, but so is size and location.

I could object and say it is absurd to think a marshmallow floating in the Horsehead Nebula caused all the sensations that my mind unifies into the phenomenon of me kicking the coffee table in my living room. However, the reply is that my beliefs of how the universe works contain no information about how it really works, so it isn't absurd at all.

I was ready to accept that, just to get along with Kant for a bit until we get to part two, but now I learn that he proposed this to restore our knowledge of cause and effect. What!? I think I need to sit down.

One more point, though. I asked and then answered the question of why Kant posits noumena at all earlier. But, if we can't know anything about noumena, then we can't know we are wrong about the universe. Me thinking I'm wrong about the universe is nothing more than my mind dropping one phenomenon for another. Again I am left with no reason to posit the existence of noumena. There is nothing that can suggest there are noumena.

I'll stop here and bang my head against my intro to philosophy book for a bit.

Grim said...

Those are some good points, Tom. You're getting at two things we want to be able to say about knowledge, which I think are important to the discussion.

1) Knowledge can't be wholly internal, because the universe regularly proves us wrong about things we think we know. If everything I "know" was just stuff my brain/mind was constructing, naturally it should be internally consistent. Since we regularly experience surprise and error, this model can't be adequate.

2) Knowledge doesn't represent something internal to my mind at all, really. It represents a relationship between me and the world -- that is, between me and that table I just kicked (ouch!).


Tom said...

1. I accept this, but of course we can't know the universe proves us wrong unless we can get at the noumena to some degree. Also, we're making the assumption that our minds aren't dysfunctional in some significant way.

2. This might be an answer to the problem for empirical knowledge, but it wouldn't seem to hold for rational knowledge. I have to think about this for a bit.

To go back for a moment, at this point, I would say the hole in Kant's theory is the idea that phenomena carry no information about the noumena that cause them. I'm happy with the claim that phenomena can only carry partial and imperfect information, but the idea that they carry no information seems a step too far.

Or, the problem is in separating noumena and phenomena; your suggestion of knowledge as a relationship might be taken as blending the two in some way.

I need to think.

Grim said...

Good! That's just what I want you to do. :)

Tom said...

Somehow I feel like I've fallen into a trap ...

Grim said...

Well, it's true. Philosophy is very dangerous.

You may wish to read this article on externalism. It deals with the current philosophical movement that tries to frame knowledge in terms of relationships.

I'm going to move on today to talk about the ancient picture.

Tom said...

Thanks. I'll check it out and then see you in Part II.

douglas said...

I just wanted to add that I appreciate Tom asking all the questions, he's done a fine job. It's been quite instructive (although I agree, a bit confusing).

"just the sort of thing that fire might not be! Can fire be made into a rational object?"

If it operates under certain rules and has consistent response to context and interactions, is it not rational? That fire is complex to our perceptions does not in fact make it actually 'unpredictable' or 'capricious'- if analyzed closely enough, and if all the variables and interactions of an instance of fire are considered, it behaves predictably. This is one reason we can write algorithms to make CGI fire that looks so realistic.

Snowflakes develop following quite predictable rules which are dependent on humidity, temperature, wind speed, collisions with other flakes and objects, etc. Under the same circumstances, you'll get snowflakes that are identical (it's essentially been done in the lab). What makes each 'unique' is that there are enough variables to create 'unique' conditions for each flake, but the flakes themselves follow rational rules of development. Here too, are they not rational? Or at least demonstrate a rational design?

Lastly (before moving on to today's post), If the Noumenon is unknowable as it is outside us, and we can only know phenomena, what of our body? It is part of us, and it would be sensible to imagine that we must know both the phenomenon of our body, and know it as noumenon, as it is in fact us, unless we are actually completely phenomenological creatures imagining our physicalities . Or I could be totally wrong here...

Grim said...


All of that CGI stuff is kind of to the point, isn't it? Your experience of fire is certainly rational enough that we can code it: but if your mind is the rational object doing the work, it's no surprise to discover that your experience is rational and follows rules.

Hume's point is that those rules don't really explain fire's behavior. If they did, knowing the principle would be enough to know everything fire would do: if you fully understand the cause, you should never be surprised about the effect. Since in fact we are often surprised, what we need (Hume argues) is an empirical philosophy. Instead of trying to understand the causes behind things, we should simply study what happens. Partially this is because there is no guarantee that nature will continue to obey the same rules.

Hume and Newton are close enough together that it's interesting to read them together. Newtonian philosophy is in stark contrast (when he's not talking about alchemy, which actually makes up the bulk of his writings). It posits a world in which causation is easier than ever to determine: in fact, Newtonian causation is so mathematically demonstrative that people began to think that there must be no free will at all, since we could predict things so accurately with mathematical models.

There's a happy medium here somewhere, wherein the world is neither quite so predictable as Newton makes it (after all, sometimes our rockets fall out of the sky), nor quite so random as Hume warns it might be, nor quite so detached from our experience as Kant suggests. One reason to go back to the ancients is to re-think the problem from the ground up.

douglas said...

I'd carry this over to the newer thread, but I couldn't see how to do it and make sense-

"Hume's point is that those rules don't really explain fire's behavior. If they did, knowing the principle would be enough to know everything fire would do: if you fully understand the cause, you should never be surprised about the effect."

Ah, but Hume's then is much too simple a model. The principles must act in the physical world, where they have to interact with other physical things which, having their own form, have their own properties and means of interaction with fire. It is the variables that make fire complex- but the underlying rules are (relatively) simple- there is an order, and if you can identify the variables and the nature of their interaction with fire, you can know what fire would do. It just seems complex because it's so many variables for our minds to deal with at once, and we're not geared to that. Fire is not just so much complicated-ness, to bring it back to my distinction between complicated-ness and complex.