Facts and Incomplete Information

A modern notion of hard-nosed common sense is to appeal exclusively to positive facts. This is also a major basis of simplistic notions of empirical science. Serious scientific methodologies are more indirect, and quite a bit more involved.

From a broadly Kantian point of view that I think Plato and Aristotle would also endorse, all putative facts are really just assertions of facts, made by people. The validity of the corresponding assertions depends on the soundness of the reasons that lead us to believe them. Thus, regardless of whether our concern is ethical or scientific, it is always the quality of reasons that matters in assessing the validity of assertions.

The notion of a fair and objective weighing of evidence for or against an assertion presupposes that we symmetrically consider the pro and con, as Plato emphasized in his discussions of “dialectic”. But the simplistic bias for positive facts results in an inherently asymmetrical treatment any time we have to deal with incomplete information, because what putative facts we currently have in our possession is in part a matter of sheer chance.

In a fact-biased approach, if there happen to be insufficient facts in our possession to adequately support a hypothesis, the hypothesis is likely to be be dismissed out of hand as “speculation”, regardless of how inherently plausible it might otherwise be. We end up assuming something is not true merely because we cannot empirically prove it is true. This is independent of any other prejudice that may also enter into situations involving human judgment.

Once again, I want to recommend a prudent suspension or qualification of belief in cases of incomplete information, rather than active disbelief. (See also Debate on Prehistory.)

Debate on Prehistory

This is a bit of a tangent from the usual topics here, but recently I’ve been dwelling on the distinctions between knowledge, well-founded belief, and not-so-well-founded belief, and I’m taking that as the point of departure. It should be no insult to science (and I certainly mean none) to suggest that empirical science aims only at what I’ve been calling well-founded belief, though received views are commonly taken for simple knowledge. The difference is that well-founded beliefs can still potentially be invalidated by new arguments or information, whereas real knowledge ought to be unconditionally valid.

I’ve been fascinated with prehistory since childhood, and in recent decades especially with the emergence of rich human cultures. Much has changed in this field during my lifetime, as relatively well-founded beliefs were replaced by better-founded ones. For example, it is now generally accepted that modern birds are surviving members of the theropod group of the dinosaur family that included raptors and T. rex, and that the extinction of the (other) dinosaurs was caused by a massive asteroid impact in the Gulf of Mexico ca. 65 million years ago.

Similarly, it is now widely accepted that biologically modern humans emerged in Africa two to three hundred thousand years ago, rather than in Europe only 40,000 years ago. Humans crossed the open sea from Southeast Asia to Australia over 50,000 years ago. If the previously known cave paintings from the late-glacial Magdalenian culture in southwest Europe were not already amazing enough testaments to the human spirit, the Chauvet cave (subject of the wonderful documentary film Cave of Forgotten Dreams by Werner Herzog) was discovered in 1994 to have equally magnificent paintings that turned out to be twice as old (from around 36,000 BP). Gobekli Tepe in Turkey has multi-ton megaliths dating from 9500 BCE, a little before the earliest evidence of agriculture in that region.

Agriculture is now believed to have independently originated in at least 11 different parts of the Old and New Worlds. Wikipedia now mentions small-scale cultivation of edible grasses by the Sea of Galilee from 21,000 BCE. Sickles apparently used for intensive harvesting of wild grains have been found in the Nile valley from at least 18,000 BCE. The Middle Eastern Natufian culture (ca. 15,000-11,500 BP) was previously thought to have had the world’s oldest agriculture, and still boasts the earliest evidence of baked bread (14,400 BP). Some Natufian portable art bears a striking stylistic resemblance to similar artifacts from Magdalenian Europe at roughly the same time. Numerous archaeologists and anthropologists have suggested that agriculture may have had a very long prehistory, beginning with deliberate efforts to promote the growth of particular wild plants that humans valued.

Currently, there is a big ongoing controversy over the cause of dramatic climate changes that occurred around 12,850 BP, at the beginning of the 1200-year period known as the Younger Dryas. The most recent ice age had begun to recede by around 20,000 BP, and the world had been getting gradually warmer. But then, suddenly, in perhaps only a single year’s time, temperatures fell by an astonishing 9 to 14 degrees centigrade. Then, in somewhere between a few years and a few decades, temperatures apparently rose again by 5 to 10 degrees centigrade. Several massive glacial lakes seem to have suddenly been emptied into the ocean, cooling it down, and there is evidence of gargantuan flooding. On a larger time scale of several thousand years including the Younger Dryas, worldwide sea levels are generally accepted to have risen around 400 feet. Many submerged archaeological sites have already been found, but this could be the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Due to human-induced climate change, we are currently facing a sea level rise of around 50 feet from melting of the remaining ice caps, which is expected to be catastrophic. Four hundred feet dwarfs that. Today the great majority of the world’s population lives in or near coastal areas, and this may well have been true during the ice age too. Around the time of the Younger Dryas, there is evidence of intensive fishing by cultures like the Jomon of Japan — who also produced pottery older than any known from the Middle East — and the Magdalenians in Europe (not to mention many fresh-water fishing villages spread across what is now the Sahara desert).

By this time, humans would have been biologically modern for over 200,000 years, and had been at least occasionally producing magnificent art for at least 20,000 years. Stone and bone tools with amazing elegance and sophistication had been in use equally long. All hunter-gatherer cultures known to modern anthropology have complex culture, language, and spiritual beliefs. But somehow, we still have the prejudice that hunter-gatherers and “cave people” must have been extremely primitive.

The controversy I mentioned concerns evidence that like the dinosaur extinction, the Younger Dryas was caused by a cataclysm from space. Since 2007 the “Younger Dryas impact theory” has been hotly debated, but it now appears to be gaining ground. I have no particular stake in what really caused the Younger Dryas; I’m really more interested in its effects on humans. But the controversy potentially provides an interesting case study in how highly intelligent, educated people can effectively confuse apparently well-founded belief with “knowledge” that would supposedly be beyond doubt.

It also happens to be the case that Plato in the Critias gives a date for the sinking of the mythical Atlantis at around the time of the Younger Dryas. I don’t assume there is any accuracy in the details of the story — the island with the circular city and so forth — but I think archaeology already provides the basis for an extremely well-founded belief that late-glacial stone age cultures had already reached very high levels of sophistication, and that much more evidence may be hidden at as yet undiscovered underwater sites. This doesn’t mean people back then were flying around in spaceships or anything, or had magical powers, or even that they produced metal. Our standards for what represents “advanced” culture are highly distorted by our own obsessions with technology and money.

Incidentally, Plato in the Laws also casually suggests that animal and plant species come into being and pass away, as well as something like the succession of human material culture from stone to soft metals to iron. The Critias story is attributed to the Athenian lawgiver Solon, who supposedly heard it from an Egyptian priest during his travels there, but no source is given for the apparently accurate speculations about prehistory in the Laws.

All the modern fringe speculation around the Atlantis myth — and around “historical” readings of mythology in general — has given this stuff a bad name. We ought to suspend belief in things for which the evidence is shaky. But a suspension of belief need not — and should not — necessarily imply active disbelief. Our active disbeliefs ought to be well-founded up to the same standard as our active beliefs, and ought not to fall to the level of prejudice.

Socratic Wisdom

“I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed him — his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination — and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. Then I went to another, who had still higher philosophical pretensions, and my conclusion was exactly the same. I made another enemy of him, and of many others besides him” (Plato, Apology, Jowett trans.).

The greatest wisdom a human can have is to recognize what we don’t really know. This can be a touchy point, because people who think they just know things they imagine to be true usually don’t like to be told otherwise. But in most areas, the best we can aim for is well-founded belief, which is to say belief that is capable of responding resiliently and in good faith to open-ended Socratic questioning or dialogue, and thus is responsive to the space of reasons. (See also The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle).

Four Layers of Being Human

This is my own expansion of Aristotle’s classic “rational/talking animal” definition. In common with other animals, we have an organically grounded “imagination” that is a basis for consciousness and emotion. Then we have an acquired emotional disposition or character that corresponds to what Plato called the “middle part” of the soul. This is influenced by all the other layers. Third, our assimilation of language and culture and our more deliberately adopted values and commitments together constitute our ethos, as a kind of deeper essence of who we are. Finally, our vehicle for growth and change is our participation with others in the space of reasons.

Space of Reasons, Potential Intellect?

Having recently written a bit more about the “space of reasons”, it occurs to me that this makes a good model for the perplexing and commonly misunderstood notion of a “separate” potential intellect. I’ve suggested previously that the space of reasons belongs in the register of Aristotelian potentiality, and elsewhere argued that the controversial “separate” potential intellect was not supposed to be some cosmic mind pulling the strings of our minds, but rather more like a shared tool that we all use and help improve. This tentative identification brings things a bit more into focus.

Although scholastic discourse about separate intellect used metaphysical vocabulary, what was actually said by Averroes about separate potential intellect clearly places it inside of time, and in an intimate relation to all rational animals. It was said to function as a kind of thesaurus (literally, “treasury”) of universals abstracted from concrete forms in human imagination, but to be “nothing at all” apart from operations that result from human imagination. (See “This Human Understands”; “This Human”, Again; Averroes as Read by de Libera; Separate Substances?)

McDowell on the Space of Reasons

John McDowell’s paper “Sellars and the Space of Reasons” (2018) provides a useful discussion of this concept. Unlike Brandom, who aims to complete Sellars’ break with empiricism, McDowell ultimately wants to defend “a non-traditional empiricism, uncontaminated by the Myth of the Given” (p. 1).

McDowell begins by quoting Sellars: “in characterizing an episode or a state as that of knowing, we are not giving an empirical description of that episode or state; we are placing it in the logical space of reasons, of justifying and being able to justify what one says” (ibid; emphasis added).

For Sellars, to speak of states of knowing is to talk about “epistemic facts”. A bit later, McDowell says that Sellars’ epistemic facts also include judgments and uses of concepts that might not be considered knowledge. Not only beliefs but also desires end up as a kind of epistemic facts. McDowell uses this to argue that the space of reasons is a version of the concept of knowledge as justified true belief. I want to resist this last claim.

McDowell points out that knowledge for Sellars has a normative character. Sellars also regards the foundationalist claim that epistemic facts can be explained entirely in terms of non-epistemic facts (physiology of perception and so on) as of a piece with the naturalistic fallacy in ethics.

McDowell cites Donald Davidson’s contrast between space-of-reasons intelligibility and the kind of regularity-based intelligibility that applies to a discipline like physics, but does not want to assume there is a single model for all non-space-of-reasons intelligibility.

He notes that Sellars contrasts placing something in the space of reasons with empirical description, but wants to weaken that distinction, allowing epistemic facts to be grounded in experience, and to be themselves subject to empirical description. “Epistemic facts are facts too” (p. 5). I prefer going the other direction, and saying empirical descriptions are judgments too.

The space of reasons is only occupied by speakers. Sellars is quoted saying, “all awareness of sorts, resemblances, facts, etc., in short all awareness of abstract entities — indeed, all awareness even of particulars — is a linguistic affair” (p. 7, emphasis in original). “And when Sellars connects being appropriately positioned in the space of reasons with being able to justify what one says, that is not just a matter of singling out a particularly striking instance of having a justified belief, as if that idea could apply equally well to beings that cannot give linguistic expression to what they know” (ibid).

“‘Inner’ episodes with conceptual content are to be understood on the model of overt performances in which people, for instance, say that things are thus and so” (p. 8). “What Sellars proposes is that the concept of, for instance, perceptual awareness that things are thus and so should be understood on the model of the concept of, for instance, saying that things are thus and so” (p. 10). All good so far.

To be in the space of reasons, “the subject would need to be able to step back from the fact that it is inclined in a certain direction by the circumstance. It would need to be able to raise the question whether it should be so inclined” (pp. 10-11, emphasis in original). But McDowell says — and I agree — that this is without prejudice as to whether there is still a kind of kinship between taking reasons as reasons, on the one hand, and the purposeful behaviors of animals, on the other.

McDowell acknowledges that the idea that epistemic facts can only be justified by other epistemic facts is easy to apply to inferential knowledge, but rather harder to apply to the “observational knowledge” that he claims should also be included in the space of reasons. For McDowell, observational knowledge is subject to a kind of justification by other facts.

McDowell and Brandom both recognize something called “observational knowledge”, but Brandom thinks that it necessarily involves appeal to claimed non-epistemic facts, whereas McDowell wants to broaden the concept of epistemic facts enough to be able to say that observational knowledge can be justified by appealing only to epistemic facts. I would prefer to say, observational judgments are subject to a kind of tentative justification by other judgments.

McDowell says that acquiring knowledge noninferentially is also an exercise of conceptual capacities. This clearly implies a noninferential conception of the conceptual, and seems to me to presuppose a representationalist one instead. This has huge consequences.

He says that the space of reasons must include noninferential relations of justification, which work by appeal to additional facts rather by inference. But where did those facts come from? In light of Kant, I would say that we rational animals never have direct access to facts that just are what they are. Rather, if we are being careful, we should recognize that we can only consider claims and judgments of fact, which may be relatively well-founded or not. But appeal to claims of fact for justification is just passing the buck. Claims of any sort always require justification of their own.

As an example, McDowell discusses claims to know that something is green in color. As non-inferential justification in this context, he says one might say that “This is a good light for telling the colours of things by looking” (p. 18). That is fine as a criterion for relatively well-founded belief, but that is all it is.

A bit later, he adds, “I can tell a green thing when I see one, at least in a good light, viewed head-on, and so forth. A serviceable gloss on that remark is to say that if I claim, in suitable circumstances, that something is green, then it is” (p. 19).

This is to explicitly endorse self-certification of one’s authority. It is therefore ultimately to allow the claim, it’s true because I said so. I think it was a rejection on principle of this kind of self-certification that led Plato to sharply distinguish knowledge from belief.

As Aristotle pointed out in discussing the relation between what he respectively called “demonstration” and “dialectic”, we can apply the same kinds of inference both to things we take as true and to things we are examining hypothetically. We can make only hypothetical inferences (if A, then B) from claims or judgments of A; we can only legitimately make categorical inferences (A, therefore B) from full-fledged knowledge of A — which, to be such, must at minimum not beg the question or pass the buck of justification.

The great majority of our real-world reasoning is ultimately hypothetical rather than categorical, even though we routinely act as if it were categorical. One of Kant’s great contributions was to point out that — contrary to scholastic and early modern tradition — hypothetical judgement is a much better model of judgment in general than categorical judgment is. The general form of judgment is conditional, and not absolute.

I think it’s fine to include beliefs, opinions, and judgments in the space of reasons as McDowell wants to do, provided we recognize their ultimately hypothetical and tentative character. But once we recognize the hypothetical and tentative character of beliefs, I think it follows that all relations within the space of reasons can be construed as inferential.

I don’t think contemporary science has much to do with so-called observational knowledge of the “it is green” variety, either. Rather, it has to do partly with applications of mathematics, and partly with well-controlled experiments, in which the detailed conditions of the controls are far more decisive than the observational component. The prejudice that simple categorical judgments like “it is green” have anything to do with science is a holdover from old foundationalist theories of sense data.

I would also contend that all putative non-space-of-reasons intelligibility ultimately depends on space-of-reasons intelligibility.

Saying as Ethical Doing

Saying is a distinctive kind of doing. This goes way beyond the physical uttering of words, and beyond the immediate social aspects of speech acts. It involves the much broader process of the ongoing constitution of shared meaning in which we talking animals participate.

Before we are empirical beings, we are ethical beings. Meaning is deeply, essentially involved with valuations. The constitution of values is also an ongoing, shared process that in principle involves all rational beings past, present, and future. Our sayings — both extraordinary and everyday — contribute to the ongoing constitution of the space of reasons of which all rational beings are co-stewards. We are constantly implicitly adjudicating what is a good reason for what.

If immediate speech acts have ethical significance, this is all the more true of our implicit contributions to these ongoing, interrelated processes of constitution of meanings, valuations, and reasons. Everything we say becomes a good or bad precedent for the future.

Aristotle consistently treated “said of” relations in a normative rather than a merely empirical, factual, representational or referential way. Brandom has developed a “normative pragmatics” to systematically address related concerns. Numerous analytic philosophers have recognized the key point that to say anything at all is implicitly to commit oneself to it. As Brandom has emphasized, this typically entails other commitments as well. I would add that every commitment has meaning not only in terms of the pragmatic “force” of what is said, but also as a commitment in the ethical sense.

It is through our practices of commitment and follow-through that our ethical character is also constituted. As Robert Pippin has pointed out that Hegel emphasized in a very Aristotelian way, what we really wanted is best understood starting from what we actually did. In contrasting all this with the much narrower concept of speech acts, I want to return to an emphasis on what is said, but at the same time to take the “said” in as expansive a sense as possible. This is deeply interwoven with all our practical doings, and to be considered from the point of view of its actualization into a kind of objectivity as shared meaning that is no longer just “my” intention.

Capacity to Judge

I’ve previously referred several times to Beatrice Longuenesse’s superb Kant and the Capacity to Judge (French ed. 1993; English ed. 1998). Here I’d like to offer a few quotations from the summary in her conclusion.

“The transcendental unity of apperception was first introduced in the [deduction of the categories in the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, referred to by scholars as the] A Deduction, in the exposition of the ‘synthesis of recognition in the concept’. There Kant argued that we could not recognize singular representations under common concepts unless they were taken up in one and the same act of combination and comparison, and unless we were (however dimly) conscious of the numerical identity of this act of combining our representations. This consciousness is what confers ‘logical form’ upon our representations. And it ‘presupposes’ or ‘includes’ a synthesis of imagination. In the [second edition] B Deduction, Kant specified that the ‘logical form’ thus given to our representations is that of judgment. The synthesis of imagination it presupposes is figurative synthesis (synthesis speciosa) or ‘affection of inner sense’ by the understanding. I argued that this meant affection of inner sense not by categorial understanding (i.e., understanding already equipped with categories as full-fledged concepts), but by understanding as the mere capacity to form judgments, Vermögen zu urteilen. Thus, the ‘I think’, or ‘transcendental unity of self-consciousness’, has no other meaning or status than that of being the unified activity of combination and reflection on the sensible given. There is no unity of self-consciousness or ‘transcendental unity of apperception’ apart from this effort, or conatus toward judgment, ceaselessly affirmed and ceaselessly threatened with dissolution in the ‘welter of appearances'” (p. 394).

“Kant’s view is rather that unity of consciousness is always both ‘my own’ and, insofar as it is ‘transcendental unity of self-consciousness’ whose form is that of judgment, so constituted that it is capable of transcending the point of view of ‘myself, in the present state of my perception’ to the point of view of ‘everybody, always’.”

“Kant further maintains that the conscious effort toward judgment, that is, transcendental unity of self-consciousness, is what makes possible consciousness of an objective temporal order. We have such consciousness only insofar as our perceptions are related to realities, to permanent or changing properties of singular things reciprocally determining each other’s location in space and time” (p. 395).

“The capacity to represent discursively (thought) and the capacity to locate things, ourselves included, in time are thus one and the same. The ‘unity of self-consciousness’ as the unity of the discursive conatus, and the unity of self-consciousness as the consciousness of an individuality located in time, are one and the same” (p. 396).

“For behind the deceptively rigid parallelism between logical forms of judgment and categories, what emerges is the cognitive effort of discursive beings confronting what is given to them in sensibility. This effort, conatus of the Vermögen zu urteilen, is according to Kant what essentially defines the kind of beings we are. It is also what generates the universal forms in which we think our world” (ibid).

“Kant argues that things (singular objects thought under concepts) are substitutional instances for ‘x’ in the logical form of categorical judgments only if they are also substitutional instances for ‘x’ in hypothetical judgments (whereby we are able to recognize their alterations)…. The ‘simple’ judgments (categorical judgments) by means of which we cognize things under concepts reflecting their essence, are thus possible only under the condition that we also generate ‘composite’ or ‘complex’ judgments (hypothetical or disjunctive judgments), by means of which we cognize a thing under its accidental marks, in universal correlation with all other things cognized in space and time” (p. 397).

“For Kant’s table of logical functions of judgment turns out to be, according to it author, an exposition of the minimal norms of discursive thinking necessary for us to be able to recognize and reidentify objects under concepts. And the infamous ‘transcendental synthesis of imagination’ turns out to be the complex web of perceptual combinations by means of which we take up sensible data into what we, in present times, have come to term ‘the space of reasons’” (p. 398).

Attitude

The popular adage “everyone has the right to their opinion” is a partial truth. It gestures at something like Kantian autonomy. But the other side of the coin is that Kantian autonomy does not operate in a vacuum; it is always embedded in what Wilfrid Sellars called the space of reasons, where holding a commitment is implicitly to invite questions about the reasons for it, and then about the actual validity or applicability of those reasons. As ethical beings we are responsible for our opinions.

An attitude in the ordinary unqualified sense may operate as a cause of behavior in the modern sense, but because nothing prevents such an attitude from being completely arbitrary, a mere attitude cannot serve as a justification for anything. Attitudes in this sense have a sort of vain Cartesian irrefutability, in the same way that mere appearances do. There is a level at which if you say something appears to you thus-and-such, that mere appearance is incontestable. But it is incontestable precisely because nothing follows from it.

Brandom, on the other hand, is only interested in attitudes from which something is taken to follow. When he talks about the attitude-dependence of norms, I think what he really has in mind is more specifically a dependence on what analytic philosophers call propositional attitudes. This additional specification is crucial. An endorsement of any proposition whatsoever can still qualify as a propositional attitude, but every proposition has a “place” in the space of reasons that situates it in a multi-dimensional spectrum of goodness of justification. Criteria for goodness of justification can of course be debated too, but this still means that the justification for any propositional attitude is subject to evaluation. We may judge a propositional attitude to be poorly founded and therefore wrong, but it still cannot be completely arbitrary, because its justification can be evaluated.

I don’t think the same can be said for the Enlightenment authors Brandom cites as promoting a dependence of norms on attitudes, like Pufendorf and Rousseau (see Modernity, Voluntarism; Modernity, Rouseau?). Their legal and political voluntarism explicitly purports to trump any evaluation in terms of the space of reasons. This is in spite of the fact that those authors were already departing from the most traditional notion of ethical norms as simply somehow pre-given. Precisely because I am deeply sympathetic to Brandom’s critique of the unilateral authority-obedience model, I disapprove of these authors’ appeals to sovereignty.

Brandom shares his mentor Richard Rorty’s concern for democratic values, and suggests that normativity be considered as a historical development. But in spite of his concern for “semantic descent” to relate the higher-order, overtly philosophical concepts Kant and Hegel focused on to the level of ordinary empirical concepts used in daily life, he still treats ordinary concepts in a general way. Consequently, when he thinks about ordinary concepts, he still does so in a way analogous to that of Kant and Hegel. This is not a bad thing; I think he is by far the strongest at this high level. Fortunately, the weaker remarks about concrete historical antecedents for his views are peripheral to the main development of his thought.

Brandomian Choice

Aristotle had a reasonable, noninflationary concept of real choice. Choice is up to us, but it is far from arbitrary. Unfortunately, later treatments have largely oscillated between extremes of voluntarism and determinism, making choice either arbitrary or only an unreal appearance.

One of Brandom’s great contributions to ethics is a new account of choice that is reasonable and noninflationary like Aristotle’s. Aristotle developed a notion of real but nonarbitrary choice by defining it as the result of an open deliberation subject to normative standards of inquiry. Brandom reaches a complementary conclusion following a different path. The core of it is a combination of two theses. First, there is a view he associates with the Enlightenment that makes values binding on us only when we have implicitly or explicitly endorsed them. This secures the practical reality of choice, without any ontological assumptions. Second, there is Brandom’s own view that the meaning of the values we endorse is not up to us, but depends on articulation in the space of reasons. As with Aristotle’s notion of deliberation, this establishes the nonarbitrary nature of choice. (See also Intentionality; Self, Subject; Fragility of the Good; Freedom Without Sovereignty.)