Opposing views on issues of knowledge, truth, and reality

By | February 28, 2013

Juan Bernal

Recently an email correspondence  stimulated interest in an old epistemological-metaphysical  issues.

This fellow traveler (in philosophy) wrote:

Given that mind-body dualism was given such bad reviews in the 20th century, it shouldn’t be too hard to imagine that the distinction between the subjective and the objective has no metaphysical significance. Instead, it is an artifice and a convention. It is useful within limits, but not useful for metaphysical purposes. What we have instead is “pure experience” as in the philosophies of the pragmatists (i.e. James and Dewey). All the elements of pure experience are potentially useful in framing a metaphysical philosophy. Thus those elements that are rejected from the point of view of objective thought can be considered important from the point of view of an up-to-date monism like that of James (see his 1904 essay, “Does Consciousness Exist?”).  Feelings may be considered to be as much an indication of what is real as perceptions.”

My reply:

In the modern age it may not be “hard to imagine” that the subjective/objective distinction has no “metaphysical significance,” but it surely does not follow from a philosophical rejection of the mind-body dualism.   Rejecting mind-body dualism, with its implication of mind as entity apart from body, does have metaphysical implications; but this is distinct from questions regarding the significance of the distinction between subjective experience and objective reality.  I don’t see any reason for dropping that distinction as important and significant, especially with regard to epistemological issues.  It is as simple as saying that what you feel about something (an event, a person) must be kept distinct from an honest, scientific-like assessment of that event or person.  For example, I feel very strongly that OJ Simpson killed his wife; but I realize that I cannot prove it (in a legal sense).  My strong feelings (even passion) about the event does not establish the nature of the event.  If you drop such a distinction as significant, then you open the gates to chaos based on subjective feelings and opinions.

I also question your comments about “pure experience” in the philosophy of a pragmatist like John Dewey.  Did Dewey propose that “elements of pure experience are potentially useful in framing a metaphysical philosophy”?  Your remarks suggest this. However, as far as I recall, Dewey (like Darwin, Reid, L. Wittgenstein, G. Ryle, and DW Hamlyn) reject the Cartesian notion (do we throw Husserl in here too?) that we start with purely subjective experience and frame a metaphysical knowledge of the world.   Let me add that recently I have expressed great skepticism of this notion of pure experience, questioning just what exactly the purity of experience is supposed to be.  My view is that it is another notion that some people throw around without ever having examined what exactly they’re saying.

You state that part of the issue is whether or not feelings are real.  Of course people have feelings or feel strongly about things.  But this surely does not imply what you seem to think is implied when you state:  “Feelings may be considered to be as much an indication of what is real as perceptions.”  You state that “feelings are an indication of what is real.”  Surely you’re just playing with words here.  An indication of what is real is a public matter (like a knowledge claim) in the sense that if you claim that S indicates the reality of R, you’re obligated to show others that this is so.  You cannot simply say “I feel that it is so.”  Our (another friend in the discussion) was surely right to point out that your feeling that X is R merely indicates something about you, and most likely nothing about  X.


To which the fellow traveler replied:  

You wanted to make the point that the distinction remains useful even for people who reject mind-body dualism. I agree. However, when we use those terms it’s hard to avoid dualistic connotations. It’s hard to avoid thinking in terms of “what goes on in my mind” and what goes on in a “world out there.” Once we drop dualism, we have some options. We can become radical empiricists, believing that the distinction between subject and object arises within experience. Or we can drop one of the two categories, becoming either pure subjectivists or pure objectivists depending on which one we drop.

I intended my denial that the subjective/objective distinction has metaphysical significance to entail a claim that neither the combination of them nor either of them taken separately names an independent reality. If they exist at all, they exist only as properties of an underlying reality.

 In support of the view that the subjective/objective distinction is still useful for non-dualists, you wrote, “One’s strong feeling that something is true does not make it true.”

 But now the non-dualist faces the problem of determining what makes something true. For dualists truth is a matter of correspondence between what’s in one’s mind and what’s out there in objective reality. If the non-dualist wants to retain a correspondence theory of truth, how does he adapt it to a non-dualist theory?

 If you can figure out how to do it, let us know. If you can’t, then what do you mean when you say, “One’s strong feeling that something is true does not make it true.” How do you know what makes a statement true?

You asked whether Dewey proposed that elements of pure experience are potentially useful in framing a metaphysical philosophy. In the preface to “Experience and Nature” he says his aim throughout the book is to replace “the traditional separation of nature and experience” with the idea of continuity. If nature and experience are separated, they are two different things/substances. If there is a continuity between them, they are both real, but they are not two different things/substances. They are distinguishable properties or aspects of one thing/substance. What is that one thing/substance?

On the issue of whether feelings can be as much an indication of what is real as perceptions, it all depends on how we look at it. If we bring one set of assumptions, we get one answer. If we bring another set of assumptions, we get another answer. For example, if we reason from the perspective of dualism, we can understand sensation as information from the external world, we can base perception on sensation, and we can explain feelings as purely internal responses that tell us nothing about what is “out there.” This line of thinking leads us to the conclusion that empirical science, based on information received through our senses about the external world, is our most reliable, indeed our only source of knowledge about the real (i.e. external) world. And that leads to the conclusion, as you put it, that “an indication of what is real is a public matter.” But, if we assume with Dewey that experience and nature are related to each other like right and left or up and down, then anything that belongs to that one reality of which experience and nature are aspects can tell us something about the fundamental nature of that reality. An indication of reality would not have to be a public matter.

In reply I stated the following:

Human beings (persons, which I assume we are) are biological beings capable of thought and feelings.

Sometimes when we think or feel that something is the case, our thought and/or feelings are reliable; other times they are not.  This is a simple fact, a truism about our ordinary experience. [It is hard to imagine anyone disputing this.]

Whether our thoughts are reliable or not can be determined by experience and inter-personal confirmation.  [E.G., I'm lost in the woods and come to a fork in the path, path A and path B.  I have reason for thinking that path A will lead me out of the woods.  I take path A and find that it does take me to safety.  My thought was reliable in that case; and its reliability was confirmed by experience.  There is absolutely no need to become puzzled by the notion of a correspondence between my thought and the objective fact!]

None of this requires that we implicitly assume any kind of dualism between mind and matter, or any philosopher’s dualism between experience and the object experienced.  Any talk of mind or thoughts or feelings can be restated as talk about the person (biological being with big brain and conditioned by culture) thinking or feeling in a particular way.  There is no need to become mystified by the notion of mind existing as an entity in its own right or even as a mysterious attachment to the biological organism (which is all we are).

None of this requires that we assume (or explain) any correspondence ( lack of it) between our thoughts and material reality, or between experience and the world.

When I say (or think) that X is A, my statement that “X is A” is true if and only if X in fact is A.   There is no mention of correspondence here.
That X is A in fact can be confirmed by scientific means or by ordinary empirical investigation (I confirm that X is A by checking and double-checking; and by having others confirm that X is A.)

When Dewey proposes that we replace “the traditional separation of nature and experience” with the idea of continuity, his proposal goes along the lines outlined above.  He surely was not proposing a metaphysics in which nature and experience are “distinguishable properties or aspects of one thing/substance.”  He is merely pointing out that our experience is continuous with nature, both our nature and objective nature (i.e., the world, our environment). The question “What is that substance?” is  the wrong question.  Asking that question attempts to get us into a metaphysical mode which a good pragmatist like Dewey would surely (and appropriately) avoid.  Avoiding or ignoring any assumptions that gets us into that mode is likely a very good way to go in philosophy today.


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