A Manual Cant

Western philosophy has many faults, though, as I have once alluded to, it remains in general best default style of philosophy by not being composed entirely of faults, as with certain other traditions going by the same name.

One element of the tradition which I generally hold to be a strength is the commitment to using examples and thought experiments in order to highlight overarching, or underlying, principles that may hold across numerically distinct cases. The same type of strategy is often employed within science, a less often dismissed tradition, when we deliberately exclude the factors of friction or air resistance when performing simple calculations. The point is not that we do not believe these factors to exist, or to be relevant in any circumstance where we may apply whatever calculations or considerations we are making, but rather that in such cases we are simplifying in order to more readily bring out the laws/principles etc. with which we are concerned

And so it goes with philosophy, in analytic/Western tradition anyway. Many examples/thought experiments are highly artificial or contrived. Depending on exactly how such an example or experiment is being used we may have good or bad reasons for identifying it as useful. If used as in science, to simply highlight the salient factors while suspending others, we are normally fairly safe. Fair dispute can always arise as to the legitimacy of salience and suspense, and this is philosophically valid.

What is not philosophically valid is to appraise the, understood from start, contrived example and find fault because it may only be a limited representation of the actual world. At that point one does not find fault with a philosophical conjecture, one fails to do philosophy at all.

The example which has not only got my goat, but also skinned, butchered and prepared it with spices, is one which relates to a thought experiment which is in itself so flawed that valid philosophical objections abound. They abound to such an extent the failure to select one, but instead to raise a non-philosophical objection makes me want to defend the tradition that otherwise I spend much time criticising.

The example is one from the camp which objects to the idea of mind and mental function being physical. This position remains popular, as I have said not because it has any coherence, or any explanatory force, but because adherents have prior, prejudicial reasons for not wanting to accept a realistic, scientific picture. The circumstances of the example are thus:

A researcher (described as ‘brilliant’, so to reject the notion he/she is just stupid and missing something that way) into mental/perceptual states has spent her entire life confined to a monochrome environment, has learned her discipline entirely from monochrome books and monochrome televisions/television programmes. The contention is that this researcher therefore knows all the physical facts about colour, and colour representation within human neurological systems. Yet if this researcher then leaves those confines and sees a red object, the experience of perceiving this is a new fact, and therefore a non-physical fact is identified and identified with a mental event, in this case that of the quality of red perception.

Everyone should note that the example is highly contrived. Hopefully most people would frown and at least have some inkling that the immediate objection lies in how a physical fact seems to have been delineated here. Which is correct. The example actually performs the most unforgiveable and elementary dialectical error possible, that of begging the question. (Note that ‘begging the question’ actually means specifically using some or all of a sought conclusion within the argument used to establish that conclusion. It does not mean what people typically use it to mean, which would be something closer to ‘bringing, or raising the question…) The non-physicalist using this example has defined physical facts very narrowly, has in fact assumed perceiving such things as colours are non-physical, and used that baseless assumption to prove his point.

That is a valid objection, and a philosophically valid example of an objection. It removes the legitimacy of the dialectical strategy. One might also attack how narrowly the nature of ‘knowledge’ is presented here, such as distinguishing ‘knowing that’ from ‘knowing how’ (as many non-English languages explicitly have embedded) – that a comprehensive store of knowing-that type knowledge about how the brain works in colour perception does not include the more first-person knowing-how (or knowing-of, to express oneself awkwardly but perhaps more accurately) of experiencing such perception without that suggesting any mysterious, fundamentally other-substance type entities.

What is not a valid objection is to read the literature, go through the example and thought experiment, and state that the major barrier to understanding what is going on is that it doesn’t seem plausible that the researcher simply won’t have seen red before. That perhaps he or she cut themselves on one of their textbooks. Perhaps this is a valid objection if we were planning to actually lock someone in a monochrome room. But we weren’t. We were not engaging in socially dubious neurological research, we were engaging in an abstract thought experiment.

Perhaps many might still think ever bothering to engage in such abstractions is a pointless endeavour. I disagree, but at least that can be argued for. But then we may wonder whether Newton was being pointless not including the solar wind in calculations about planetary motion (simply because no one knew about them at the time is no excuse, since we still do the same calculations for most such purposes). It’s the same strategy. You might doubt whether science or philosophy is worth doing, but if so have the good taste to raise valid objections.


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