Thursday, June 02, 2005

Saving the distinctions: distinctions as the epistemologically significant content of experience 

Konrad Talmont-Kaminski, John Collier
Imagine that you are in a darkened room. The only thing you see is a point source of light. Suddenly, the light goes out. What happened? Perhaps, the light was extinguished. Maybe, something moved to stop the light reaching you. Then again, it is possible that you’ve gone blind. Working out what exactly did happen is non-trivial. One thing, however, we can be sure of – something has changed.

That this is the correct conclusion to draw is clear when we consider the alternative; if nothing has changed then why did we experience a change? To account for the observed change it is necessary to postulate a difference somewhere in our ontology, be it a distinction located internally (going blind) or one that is at least in part external (the light being extinguished or something having moved).

. . .

observing a distinction does not suffice to specify its cause nor, indeed, does is serve to classify the elements distinguished. As such, any error that occurs can be understood as the result of an incorrect interpretation of the original distinction, i.e. we didn’t go blind but merely had a barrier slid in between us and the light-source. Thus, for example, the sceptical argument based on Descartes’ Deceiving Demon does not affect experience, since the error in question is that of misinterpreting the experience caused by the demon as an experience of a reality not shaped by a demon. As it turns out in that case, however, the experiences are actually informative of what the demon wishes us to believe and, therefore, once understood correctly, can play the role of experience that informs us about reality. Even ‘the most internal’ of causes, such as a theory, does not render a distinction erroneous. A perceived distinction which was merely the result of one of our theories is still informative – it is simply informative of that theory. Only assuming that the distinction had some external cause would lead to error – the distinctions, in themselves, neither make nor entail any such claims. To put it simply, for every perceived distinction there is a real distinction – where “we may define the real as that whose characters are independent of what anybody may think them to be” (Peirce 1878). Thus, when we perceive distinctions we perceive the real world rather than, necessarily, the external world.

Topics: Meaning | Induction | Inference

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