Summary: I list some skeptical and relativist arguments (sec. II). I argue that skeptical hypothesis explain little to nothing that needs explaining; I add in a critique of teleology (sec. III). I argue realism about the external world, about truth, and about epistemic justification, are the only available explanation for what we know of our phenomenal experience (sec. IV). I apply this to historical knowledge and fend off what I regard are naïve inferences from modest fallibilist theses (sec. V).
I. Historian Alun Munslow mentions, in a preface to a book, a set of puzzles modernist historians must address to ground their position, puzzles which are detailed in the book by Keith Jenkins that follows.
A «modernist historian» is a realist and a dogmatist about historical truth. Realism takes there are many such truths, which are not arbitrary, conventional, observer-dependent, or about fictional worlds. Some sentences or propositions correctly describe (correspond to) some «aspect» of objective (independent) reality.
(The ‘aspect’ caveat above was added to avoid naïve objections over the existence of multiple correct partial descriptions of the same object, such as different optical perspectives on the same mountain. — I was tempted to add a ‘uniqueness’ caveat, such that the correct description of reality as unique. I have seen this idea being moved around in discussions of metaphysical realism, such as Putnam (1980). I remain silent for lack of acquaintance with the concept.)
Dogmatism contrasts with traditional skepticism, and takes there to be differential epistemic justification for historical assertions.
(I say ‘justification’, and not ‘knowledge’, because the latter tends to have unfallibilist undertones. ‘Justification’ lends itself more easily in the mind of readers as something that admits of degrees and fallibility, in which I am more interested. — I say ‘differential’ to avoid the naïve retort that I’m right, but that’s because all (or multiple, yet conflicting) assertions have high and equal degrees of justification.)
My proceeding will be to enumerate these puzzles and attempt to solve them. Masters can weave a very robust anti-realism, as has been done by Quine, Putnam, Davidson, Dummett, Kuhn, and Hacking, and these I cannot pretend able to deal with. Mine are baby footsteps, one might say.
II. Objection one. A Slate between Mind and Reality. Empirical facts never speak for themselves. We must do active work to acquire them, and we do so through the various sorts of observations common in science. Observation, however, is theory-laden. We focus our attention as a function of our interests, expectations, and other background assumptions. Furthermore, what is seen is interpreted through the same lenses. In fact, the distinction between data and theory is highly blurred. (One might somehow invoke epistemological holism to strengthen this.)
Objection two. The Assumptions in our Slate. Attempts to do dogmatist historiography are clouded in ideology. There are many evaluative judgments in traditional historiography, regarding what is right and wrong, virtuous and vicious, just and unjust, worthwhile and useless and, notably, interesting and uninteresting. All of this shapes what we believe about the past and to what evidence we pay attention to. — In addition, one cannot do History without suppositions about (i) individual and group psychology, (ii) social and economic dynamics, (iii) cultural transmission and evolution, and (iv) testimony assessment and artifact dating. Any theorizing requires vast and wide-ranging assumptions.
Objection three. The Influences over our Slate. Any attempt to construct historical explanations or justify factual historical assertions are done so from the historian’s perspective. He cannot go outside his conceptions and theories, be them implicit or explicit, echoing objection one. Such perspective is influenced by the historian’s personal inclinations, interests, readings, and surrounding intellectual zeitgeist. One might say History is always done from the present, which implies there is an uneliminable influence of the present over our assertions that supposedly mirror the past. All such influences, as well as the assumptions detailed in objection two, go into shaping observation, the pinhead of empirical science.
Objection four. The Politics of our Slate. History is done for a purpose; one wants academic prestige, and needs research grants. One avoids collegial and social reprimands, and one unconsciously fears questioning assumptions which cast an unfavorable light over one’s own values and modes of living, such as the assumptions underlying global capitalism, imperialism, wage slavery, bigotry, authoritarianism, reason, and the pursuit of truth. Finally, History is done in the service of power, in a Foucaultian sense, not (just) governmental and geopolitical power.
Objection five. The Impossibility of Checking for Truth. In order to assess the truthfulness of a model or representation, one must check it against the real thing. However, our models and representations are our way of attempting to see what the real thing is like; we have nothing besides them which could serve as a reality-check. So they are uncheckable.
Objection six. The Epistemology of Psychology. Historians can only understand the past if they understand those who composed it. However, it is impossible to enter fully into someone’s head, as that would require fundamental shifts in perspective-taking. As a heuristic aid to comprehending the wide gap between us and other people, try imagining how it felt to experience Bach’s Jesus, the Joy of Man’s Desiring as a deeply religious human peasant for the first time in a music conservatory in the early eighteenth century. This gap widens as our mode of life differ from that of our object of study. Furthermore, it is too wide an epistemological step to infer someone’s psychological states from their behavior, and it simply cannot be done. These two contentions put a fundamental obstacle in front of our understanding the actions of humankind and the dynamics of social life at any point in history.
Objection seven. Representation is a Myth. «World» and «word» are different categories of things. (Presumably, there can be no cross-categorial relations.) One thing is the world in itself, and another is a narrative that describes the world. The latter cannot hope to fully describe the former, and will necessarily be incomplete. — This is partly for structural reasons: first, narratives highlight aspects of the world in detriment of others, and could never capture it fully (“in one full sweep”); second, a representation of a thing can never be the thing, like the picture of a landscape cannot be the landscape. As a consequence, everything one reads off from a narrative and a model will not be a process of acquiring information about reality, but only from our construction of it. — It is also partly for epistemic reasons: we could not construct an unbiased narrative that looks at the world from a God’s Eye view, or perhaps a No Eye view: a perfectly objective point of view that sees reality from nowhere in specific, and describes it perspectivelessly (and is not a point of view after all).
The conclusion of all that is that the past is “a building site, not a foreign land to be explored.” Not only knowledge and epistemic justification is permanently impossible, but there is no truth to be found in the first place. Truth is a feature of sentences or propositions, and these are (at best) representations of reality, not reality in itself. Munslow finishes by saying that “what this means is that there is no ‘hidden’ or ‘true’ story to be ‘found’.”
III. Some of these contentions I regard as quite weak. Others, I find quite clear and important, but not in a way that comes close to establishing the truth of anti-realism about truth-value or establishing the deep pessimism about the possibility of (differential) epistemic justification — that is, skepticism.
(An interesting side-note: the defense of such anti-realist theories must be accomplished within realist assumptions, for such anti-realism does not accept that something could be established — is it not? It must, instead, argue its opponents into contradiction.)
The seven argument above, I should repeat, could be enhanced in the hands of a fine thinker and be turned into strong versions I can at best produce mumbling efforts against. Some kinds of arguments aren’t even included here. Nothing in my theoretical arsenal stands a chance against the points raised by the aforementioned Putnam (1980), for example. I will focus, instead, on battling the weak versions mentioned by Munslow and Jenkins. This is an exercise.
To answer these contentions, I will argue we have great reason to believe in a coherent and enduring world independent from us, as the best explanation for what we experience. I will then argue we have great reason to believe many of our beliefs about such a world are probably correct. I will note when I think something I have argued for undermines one of the above contentions. I quote the opening paragraph of an article by J. R. Beebe (2009) as a great explanation of what I will attempt to do. He talks about skeptical hypothesis in terms of skeptical scenarios, and to these I add skeptical hypotheses like «there is no truth» or «we have no access to mind-independent reality».
Skeptical hypotheses depict error-possibilities that are incompatible with the knowledge we ordinarily ascribe to ourselves and yet are subjectively indistinguishable from what we take our normal circumstances to be. A common response to the philosophical challenge posed by skeptical hypotheses is to argue that, while both commonsense and skeptical explanations of our sensory experiences are equally consistent with the phenomenological data—and thus cannot be distinguished on grounds of empirical adequacy—there are explanatory reasons for favoring commonsense explanations over skeptical ones. According to this ‘abductivist’ reply to skepticism, the hypothesis that our sense experiences are caused by objects having roughly the characteristics we ordinarily take them to have constitutes the best explanation of those experiences
Grounding Realism about the External World.
Any skeptic will rightly accept that the facts about our immediate experience are more secure than the chain of premises and inferences involved in the above anti-realist and skeptic arguments on the nature of representation, reality, and justification. I think the facts about our immediate experience easily entails the unsoundness of such arguments, and establishing this is the purpose of this essay. If I’m right, we should regard such arguments as interesting puzzles, and not actual challenges to realism and dogmatism.
We ask: How is it that we do represent reality correctly, even though representation is not «the» real thing? Or: How is it that we do reliably justify our assertions, even though our thinking is clouded in ideology and wide-ranging assumptions? Or: How is it that we do have knowledge of causation and induction, given the Humean challenges?
There are two sets of facts about lived experience that jointly undermine the belief that we cannot get from the appearances in our phenomenal experience and our individual, biased perspectives to justified (or reliable) belief about reality. The first set regards the complex orderliness of our phenomenal experience, in a sense that will be clarified below. The second regards the complex and subtle abilities we have of controlling and predicting future phenomenal experiences.
Notice I am not making any claim about anything outside our own minds. Picture these two sets as being about the «interactive movie» that plays inside our heads. (I say interactive for we are not mere spectators, we act.) This movie is composed of images as well as sounds, tastes, and all sorts of feels, ranging from pressure to rigidity, from prickliness to heat, from nausea to well-being. The content of these two sets should be acceptable to Kantians, relativists, skeptics, and anti-realists alike.
The First Set. It is a fact of our phenomenal experience that it is ordered. Moreover, it is stably ordered, i.e. ordered across time. Furthermore, it is ordered in multiple sensory modalities, from proprioception to vision. Finally, it is coherent across these modalities: things which feel cold also look and taste cold. (Locke called this the integration of our sensations, in 1690; Lawrence BonJour dubbed it coordination in 2003.) Allow me to explain each one in turn, with a wealth of examples to make myself clear. Then I will think of the best explanation for this varied set of facts. (I like detailed examples because it reminds us of what exactly needs explanation; I feel that philosophers way too often do not have a clear grasp of what they are trying to explain.)
Order. What we see, hear, smell, touch, and otherwise feel, has some structure. The objects in our phenomenal world have relative distances, relative sizes, relative time-lengths, relative frequencies, and there’s a certain ratio between these properties. So pineapples are bigger than lemons, my feet are further away from my point of view than my nose, and alarms set to 10:00 take twice as long to ring than the ones set to 5:00. A stone takes a different time to reach the same ground when released from different heights, and there a specific ratio between the time and the height. That ratio also depends orderly on many other features of the stones and the surrounding medium.
We also have that things are similar and dissimilar in all sorts of aspects with all kinds of degrees; not just in spatial and temporal aspects. So some stones are rounder than others; some cars are more aerodynamic; some media are more viscous; some music is louder; some metals are more malleable, others more heat conductive; and so on. The fact that experiences can be compared on so many facets is a demonstration of the wealth of order in our phenomenal experience. Furthermore, all these features of experience can be very precisely measured, and we can figure out subtle and intricate ways these features play out with one another, which brings me to my next point.
Stable order. There is not only structure as to how things are organized in experience at any one time-slice, but also regularities in how experiences behave over time and how experiences relate to each other. New experiences are structured similarly to previous experiences: if we observe the moving sky, for instance, each time-slice of our total experience will be very similar to the previous one. If we experience looking around, we will experience objects following stable paths with stable speeds, and maintaining stable distance relations.
The full moon appears with a certain regularity in time (though it often surprises observers untrained in astronomy), and takes varied paths across the sky with a certain regularity too. Two cars with a high relative speed will regularly behave in certain ways when they meet; we can actually study the wealth of regularities in car crashes, and study what are the regular correlations between speed, car design, angle of impact, and the properties of the resulting mess we experience in our visual field. This is how we can eventually generated the experiences of driving safe cars: colliding and not dying.
Remember: I am talking solely about the events before our conscious mind. All talk about cars and car crashes is actually about car-experiences; all talk about speed is actually about speed-experiences; all talk about reactivity is about reactivity-experiences. (Also, all the arguments should be adapted to the personal experiences of each observer.) This is because I am trying to avoid Michael Williams (1999) objection to abductivists: that we appeal to ‘‘regularities in how external things appear under relevantly similar conditions of perception’’ (my emphasis). If this and similar contentions are right, we implicitly appeal to knowledge of the external world in our anti-skeptical proofs.
James Beebe (2009) tells me that BonJour (2003) was engaged a project very similar to mine, and “went to great lengths to describe the features of our sensory experience (…) in purely phenomenological or sense-datum terms that do not assume the existence of the external world.” — I will do good to read him. In the next paragraph I will make an attempt at an example of «orderliness» in experience perfectly devoid of external-world assumptions. Afterwards, I’ll drop it, since it’d make my exposition very long-winded. I hope the plausibility of the arguments and examples I’ll give will not be unduly enhanced by our shared intuitions about the external world.
Here it goes: consider how our actions in the world-of-experience lead to further experiences which are ordered and structured like previous ones. If we will a certain thing, and then we experience a series of visual and kinetic sensations we call «walking around a room», our experience of objects maintains its characteristics we call «relative distances» and «sizes». Objects, here, may be little gestalts in our visual field which signal: «here is one thing». (As I said, this is my first and last detailed attempt at describe things in purely phenomenological terms — the alternative would be: as we move around a room, after willing to move our body, objects maintain their relative distance and sizes.)
Let us continue with the march of examples. Eating half a cookie now and finishing it off a few hours from now will yield very similar experiences of taste and texture — that is, if we store it properly: there’s a certain regularity between leaving cookies exposed to air and their texture being horrid. The character of each experience in a sequence of cookie-eating-experiences will be a function of other experiences, such as the experience of leaving the cookie exposed to air, or of dropping it in water, or of combining the cookie with milk, or of having experienced orange juice drinking just before. (Furthermore, if the milk is cold, it will taste in a certain way which is different from when it’s warm. And its temperature orderly affects the resulting taste of a cookie that has been dipped in it.) There is a very complex orderliness as to which events follow which events.
Suppose, now, I am experiencing a laboratory scene, with a magnifying glass in this experience. If I take the action of approximating my eye from this magnifying glass, the resulting experience will have increased dimensions, but with preserved structure. So dealing with experiences of magnifying glasses consistently lead to magnified images, and these images consistently have the same structure as their non-magnified counterparts. Putting tens of different kinds of microscopes to thousands of different apples in dozens of different countries will show me the exact same structure every time. Plus, apples will coherently taste, feel, and smell like apples, and behave like apples in chemical analyses. What is the explanation for such regularity and structure preservation?
Now, if I turn around to the left instead, the structure of my experience will be modified in a ordered way, with a structure that reflects a rotation on a vertical axis crossing my body’s length. In my experience, a ray of sunlight that was previously striking the wall to my left might begin to irritate my right eyeball. And once I begin to move forward, the location of the objects in my experience will be translated accordingly. Objects will become smaller in proportion to their distance, and will not lose their distance relations as I move around. My actions of moving around are like geometrical isometric transformations. (After writing this paragraph, I found out C. D. Broad gave very similar examples in 1925.)
We could add all sorts of structures relating to time: two clocks will continue to be highly synchronized as I move around; chemical processes will always take roughly the same amount of time; two atomic clocks will de-synchronize to a predictable amount if one of them is subjected to strong acceleration, et cetera.
Multimodal order and coherence. If I spot a glass tube in the scene I am experiencing, and it has an icy look in its surface, I can be sure that if I take the action of touching it I will feel coldness, as well as rigidity. I also know that if I take the action of grabbing it, the resulting experience will include weight in my hand. If I do it repeatedly and in varying circumstances, I will repeatedly not experience my hand going through the object, or feeling the object to have a weight that varies wildly from 100mg to 100kg in a few seconds. What causes such regularity and such coherence between visual, tactile, heat-sensitive, and weight-sensitive modalities? (If it looks heavy, it will feel heavy; if it looks cold, it will feel cold; and so on.)
That is what I meant by multimodal order and coherence: coherence and orderliness between many kinds of experiences in our phenomenal world. What could explain such complex coherence? There are also structures relating to temperature, pressure, relative speed, and all sorts of modalities. (After writing this paragraph, I read BonJour 2003 talk about “the regular, repeatable, and unified sensory experiences we have of different objects as we move through space”.)
Conclusion: The world of experience is ridiculously structured and coherent, in short. Here are a few points I want to make on that.
Point One: we cannot suppose such order to spawn randomly — the logical space of possible sequences of experience is Vast, and the regions of (multimodal) orderliness is Vanishingly small. Therefore, there must be a mechanism that causes ordered experiences. (This we know through rational intuition with far more certainty than skeptical premises.)
Point Two: Our conscious minds do not implement such mechanism, for none of us are aware of such process of creation; and presumably we are aware of all that’s present in our consciousness. (This we know directly and indubitably.)
Point Three: Supposing our unconscious minds to create such immense complexity ex nihilo yields no explanation of how this is done (and whence our unconscious minds came from, though this too is a problem for external world realism). Solipsism does not provide us with a theory that accounts for the facts of our experience; there is no theory of cognitive processes, no theory of the mechanism that implements these processes, and no theory of how our cognitive mechanism came to be as it is. — The crux of my abductivist argument, then, is this: hypotheses which explain nothing should be scraped, and those which explain most should be adopted.
This is a piece of «explanationism» on my part: the thesis that that which is very explanatory of our data has great epistemic justification on its side, and that which does not, not. (Open question I have thought little about: should explanatory prowess be truth-linked/truth-conducive? It must be, if it is to provide epistemic justification. Do we have a priori reasons to regard this as true?)
Skeptical scenarios in general give us no account of how things work. Take Descartes’s demon, for instance: the demon is what I call a wonder tissue, stealing a term coined by Dennett. By wonder tissue I mean an entity with wide-ranging and complex faculties/capacities/functions which are given no account in terms of simpler faculties. We could call wonder tissues «unexplained explainers», but also «doers without mechanism.» (This latter one is a clunky term, but I want to press the idea that if no mechanism was presented for how some complex activity was performed, then the realization of this activity has not been well explained.)
The same goes for the brain-in-a-vat hypothesis: we are given no account of how our neural system is perfectly fooled by the vat. We’re just told there is some sci-fi gadget that attaches to our sensory and bodily neurons individually and manages to keep perfect synchronization, as well as keeping up with all our outputs (we will our arm to go up, it goes up in our experience), all the while somehow simulating a very, very intricate world. (Even though it does not need to simulate the whole world all of the time, it cannot just process the parts of it that we are interacting with. Not only must its memory banks must be ridiculously large, but it must keep updating it to reflect all the very detailed processes that occur in time: oxidization, degradation, evolution, erosion, fertilization, water infiltration, and all kinds of stuff.)
After writing these lines I read this in Beebe’s aforementioned paper: “Vogel (1990, 660), for example, notes that the basic evil demon hypothesis includes no explanation of why the demon wants to give us just the sorts of experiences we in fact have. Vogel argues that neglecting to include such an explanation will leave an evil demon hypothesis explanatorily impoverished, whereas adding such an explanation would make it ad hoc. . . . [S]ome abductivists (e.g., [Alan] Goldman 1988) charge that skeptical hypotheses are burdened with more unexplained explainers than [the Real World Hypothesis].” — And they are!
Consider now the God-centered idealism of Mr. Berkeley, which is not solipsistic. It does postulate that there is a whole world outside us, but this world is really the phenomenal realm of God’s mind, which is the final ground of reality. I am currently of the opinion that God-centered idealism does not provide for satisfactory explanations, for the mechanisms of God are not explained — he is just postulated as the perfect wonder tissue, which does anything one wants it to do except for violating logical (and perhaps metaphysical) laws (whatever those are), without any mention of the process by which such doings are to be achieved. I’m generally suspicious of God hypotheses for that reason.
Kant may not be off the hook either, though I am not knowledgeable of Kant. Consider his postulated faculty of «Reason» and the other faculties involved in structuring experience. They seem wonder tissues in the same way the solipsist’s postulated self-deceiving mind: how does it work, where does it come from, how does it interact with external reality? — I humbly suggest that rigorously nothing about our experience are explained by the hypotheses he puts forwards.
Perhaps we could also advance this line of attack against phenomenalism: does it explain what makes it so I perceive the bundle of sensations «table» as something (say, something colored) and my cat perceive it as uncolored? That is, what causes different subjects to perceive different aspects of the bundle of sense-data we call ‘table’? And where did these bundles come from? What are their truthmakers, while no one is sensing/feeling them? Why are they coherent and ordered?
Furthermore, it may not be able to account for certain things at all. Consider solar physics. Our best empirically-adequate theory explains certain aspects of our phenomenal experiences (related with sun light, for example) predicts we would die instantly from meeting the core of the Sun in any direct sense; our perceptual apparatuses, whatever they are, would disintegrate before having a chance of communicating anything to our minds. Therefore, there are no phenomenal experiences associated with the core of the Sun. This means phenomenalists cannot postulate the core of the Sun as an existent, either as a bundle of perceptions or otherwise. So how would they explain the phenomenal experiences that lead us to our current theories of solar physics?
Finally, our best explanations for our phenomenal experiences may entail there being a world without minds (if panpsychism is false) at some point in the history of the Universe. If unobserved/unexperienced physical reality is no ontological addition to observed/experienced physical reality, as the phenomenalists maintain (for the totality of reality is our phenomenal experiences), so what would exist in such a time? Nothing. So the phenomenalist cannot be a realist about the Big Bang or the Earth’s lifeless formation either. How could phenomenalism explain our data, then?
As I said quite a few paragraphs back, detailed examples are good for heightening our understanding of what needs explaining. Clearly, if people had such a heightened sense, they would more readily see how inadequate, explanatorily, the skeptical hypotheses are. (I hope my analyses have not been too perfunctory, lazy, superficial, uncharitable, or otherwise inadequate. They have probably been; remember, this essay self-consciously engages in baby footsteps.)
(Digression on solipsism: Could we find an explanation of the mechanism that produces the total sum of our experience, under this solipsistic hypothesis? Perhaps we could experiment extensively with the world of experience to discover the rules by which our unconscious minds generates further experiences. This would be much like discovering natural laws, only they would be laws of the experience-generating parts of our unconscious minds, and not laws about the behavior of little things called particles. I’m not sure if this would count as a good an explanation as our explanation involving electrons, gravitational fields, electric forces, and spin. Nevertheless, current solipsistic hypothesis don’t even bother to outline the mechanism of a solipsistic/autocratic/autochthonous mind.)
Our avoidance of wonder tissue hypothesis forces us to conclude for the common-sense real world hypothesis: something external to us, composed of a multitude of very simple objects with very simple properties (which are therefore not wonder tissues), operating by very simple mechanical and blind rules, is the source of all this order. One thing this hypothesis must answer is how the order of the world creates order in our mind, and that is to be achieved by evolutionary theory, cognitive science, and the philosophy of mind.
Note that this external world needn’t be material. Ram Neta (2004) has a good objection against materialism as an explanatory hypothesis: materialism seems utterly incapable of explaining basic facts about subjectivity (that is, consciousness); and subjective facts are the basis of our abductive inference to the external world of enduring, simple objects. So materialism would be the worst hypothesis ever if it really cannot account for qualia, despite the best efforts of physicalists like Searle.
Maybe materialism is false, and some non-mysterious version of dualism is true. Or perhaps panpsychism is true: particles exist as independent phenomenal objects, perceived by no subject in particular, being mere raw feels. These hypotheses are consistent with the existence of a world full of enduring objects independent of «us», and can be understood as consisting of simple elements following simple rules that create all the complexity we experience. So, no wonder tissues.
(Addendum: That traditional materialism is false does not mean we should reject the label «physicalism» why couldn’t physical reality includes subjective aspects, or phenomenal aspects, something whose esse just is percipi — whose being just is to be perceived, something which is equal to what it appears to be, because it is the appearance? I think the essence of physicalism is that reality operates through mechanical principle.
Non-physicalism postulates things do not (always) work in mechanistic ways; Aristotle’s teleological metaphysics is one example. I should say I don’t see much hope for teleological accounts. Any complex teleological modus operandi would constitute a wonder tissue: “a tree grows because it aims at X” — yeah, sure, but how does that happen? Contrariwise, any sufficiently simple teleological modus operandi would be indistinguishable from blind, mechanistic behavior. Do particles in the Stern-Gerlach experiment go either upwards or downwards because they have some simple-minded purpose, or is it because they have quantized, mechanical, & unexplained properties called “spin”?)
IV. Grounding Dogmatism about the External World.
Now I wish to argue that some of the facts of our personal experience allow us to conclude our concepts about the external world match, approximately, the way the world really is — and that this allows us to understand how the world works and what is its connection to our phenomenal experience. This makes external world realism very satisfactory in its explanatory capacity.
The Second Set. (I’m still talking about the world of experience.) We cannot simply will lasers to spawn and food to grow, nor can we will future events to happen; our sense-experiences are mostly involuntary. The world of experience follows fixed rules, as we have seen on our discussion of order and stability. I say this to highlight that there are very specific and stable sets of actions we must perform if we want the events of the world of experience to follow the path we want.
This second remarkable set of facts regards the fact that we have great ability to predict and control the events in our phenomenal experience. We are very good at figuring out what kinds of complicated actions we must take if we want such-and-such phenomenal experiences to occur in our minds. Some examples will be worthwhile.
Suppose I am hungry. It is a fact that I know which actions to take that will, step by step, change the world of my experience until I experience some piece of food in my mouth, which will consistently result in the end of the hunger experience. Sometimes, the chain of actions required to achieve food experiences is very subtle and complicated; we might have to engineer experiences of leaving the house, crossing the road, meeting people, checking out, and coming back home, all the while avoiding experiences of being ran over, bumping into people, and getting lost. We must be very good to do this.
It should remarked how specially subtle are the actions we need to take in order to affect the experiences of people in the way we want. People are complicated, and most of the actions we could take will lead to bickering, violence, sadness, and disapproval. How is it that we can traverse the social world with ease and insight, given the enormously subtle and intertwined relations between our current people-experiences, our actions, other experiences (such as the experience of a drought), and future people-experiences?
We cannot just do the right things in dealing with people, we can also predict their responses: if I utter such and such when I am having such-and-such experience (such as the experience of talking to a Chinese friend who likes classical Roman engineering), I can predict very well what my subsequent experiences will be (that is, the experiences of my friend’s reactions). This, in fact, is a key component in navigating human life successfully.
This is ordinary stuff from our experience, and it is pretty remarkable. Beyond ordinary life, things get even more awe-inducing. Anyone versed in science will be quickly amazed at the degree of fine-tuning our predictive powers. Often we can predict experiences related to the position of an atom to one millionth the width of a hair (which, more directly, are experiences about readings on very, very subtle and complicated instrument-experiences). We can also generate the experience of landing some complicated machine on a far away and fast-moving asteroid. It requires a lot of precision, given that most of the actions we might take will fail to generate the experience of landing we desire.
(Note: I cannot refute solipsism to a reader by invoking the complicated set of experiences involved in working at NASA and landing a machine on an asteroid unless the reader has had these experiences; my examples are heuristic. Each thinker should be able to find enough awe-inducing examples of predictive ability in their own experience to ground my contentions.)
We can do all sorts of complicated actions to engineer exactly the phenomenal experiences we want, in all sorts of domains, with all sorts of degrees of fine-tuning, against all sorts of complications. Not only the world of experience is ridiculously structured, but we have ridiculous control over it and gargantuan powers of prediction.
That we had such abilities would be miraculous if our conceptions about the structure of the world of experience, which underlie our predictions and decisions, weren’t generally approximately true. If our theories were generally way off the mark, we would not be able generate the experiences we like, and much less to predict what sets of actions would lead to what kinds of experiences. Living a full human life requires a lot of knowledge indeed. This kind of argument is dubbed «miracle argument» in the literature, but I also offer a different one, an «explanationist argument» (a new term for an old idea): the best explanation for our powers of control and prediction is that our theories approximately matches the structure and content of reality.
This is the best explanation we have right now, by far. We have seen it fail in the past: Newtonian physics was pretty much completely wrong, but it was an amazing controlling and predicting tool. Nevertheless, the argument stands. Many anti-realists have claimed that there are multiple theories which fit all of our data and gives us the same predictive powers, but not once I have seen an example, except for the abstract Löwenheim-Skolem theorems from model theory, which I have no idea how to deal with.
(Note that, whereas our ‘high-level’ theories have failed in the past, our ‘folk theories’ have not failed in general: for example, chairs do exist and mostly with the macroscopic features we think them to have, even if they are not continuous solids as we once thought, or composed of Dalton’s atoms.)
The world of experience can, I think, only be explained as a mirror (generally, approximately, at least in basic structure) of an external world. So here’s the schema. First, the best explanation for our immense success in the world-of-experience is that our theories are true of the world-of-experience. Second, the best explanation for the world-of-experience itself is that it mirrors an external reality with the features we described — order, stability, independence, composed of very simple entities and their aggregates. (Too complicated entities with too much powers would make our external world full of wonder tissue.) Third, we construct a bridge using these two facts: the truth of our theories about the world-of-experience translates into the truth of our theories about an external world, the world itself. The external world exists, and we know its contents.
Thus, to connect with the examples given above on people-experiences, the best explanation for the versatile creatures we experience and interact with daily is that they exist outside autonomously in a structure world — other people. The best explanation for our immense ability to deal with them is that our psychological theories are largely correct — other minds. These theories might be false, as Newtonianism was false (and here someone may feel tempted to perform some «pessimistic meta-induction», an argument by Larry Laudan which I know not how to refute), but we are entirely epistemically justified in believing them and acting upon them, for they are not only remarkably successful (which gives us pragmatic justification to uphold them), but also the best explanation around (which gives us epistemic justification).
V. Grounding Realism and Dogmatism about Historical Truth.
If my argumentation has been successful, a few anti-skeptical tools are available now. For once, coherency in phenomenal experience allows inference to coherency in the world; applied to historiography, coherency between features of experienced documents and artifacts (for instance) is best explained by the independent existence of such items and by orderly past events which lead to the confection of such documents and artifacts.
For instance, the best explanation of the immense multitude of objects we have coherently referring to ‘Rome’, from books to ruins in many places in Eurasia and Africa, is that there was in reality such a place and that it had most of the properties attributed to it. Consider that all such objects locate Rome in the same place, and they give it mutually-coherent political, historic, economic, military, cultural, and social descriptions. Explaining this convergence is an immense task only the real world hypothesis manages to do.
In addition, it is now possible to attest the truthfulness of our theories by seeing how they fare in predicting, and in giving us control over, phenomenal experience. A certain theory about the downfall of a place called Rome will predict that certain pieces of evidence will be available in our future experience, and not others. For example, we will not see books with Aristotle’s calligraphy mentioning the stupidity of Commodus, nor see old books deep inside Mesoamerican ruins celebrating the fall of Rome’s imperialism. Much less would we see Mediterranean documents believed to be Roman which talk about genetic engineering, or multiple reports dated from 750 CE lamenting Rome’s enduring success against barbarian invasions. We will not see a myriad of records dating from about 100 CE, from a civilization in the region of Crete, saying nothing about Rome.
One of Popper’s interesting insight was stressing the role of prediction of future evidence in the process of justifying theories, and the “Rome theory” predicts that the world should be a certain way: things that seem contemporary to Rome will talk about things known by Romans at their time, for example. There are many ways to falsify the theories that Rome existed, that it was imperialist, that Cicero existed, and so on, and these theories failed to be falsified.
One great insight of post-Popper philosophers of science was emphasizing how important coherence was. There is immense coherence in a multitude of aspects of our phenomenal experience, and each aspect seems best explained by theories that cohere with theories that explain other aspects of phenomenal experience; these other theories, in turn, cohere with these former theories. It seems, in fact, that there are no systems of coherent theories which fully explain our total phenomenal experience except for systems similar to ours. (I should repeat that relativists claim such alternative systems are “possible” or “conceivable”, but I do not think we can say something of such immense and brutal complexity is conceivable until we conceive it. Unless we have formal proofs, of course; perhaps the Löwenheim-Skolem theorems are such proofs, but I wouldn’t know.)
And this coherency is constantly tested: our new discoveries in the chemical and geological sciences consistently validate our theories about dating methods. These dating methods yield or suggest information that matches our historical theories, and our historical theories cohere with with a lot of phenomenal experiences we have on documents, artifacts, ruins, oral histories, linguistic and ethnic dispersion, and much else besides. The coherency is all-encompassing between multiple fields of inquiry and multiple kinds of evidence, and the best explanation is that our theories are generally correct. Here, convergent evidence is the key.
I should hammer on more examples to drive the point home. Our theories of carbon-dating and species evolution are mutually coherent, and our evolutionary theories cohere greatly with our microbiological, anatomical , and genetic theories, and all of those cohere greatly with our phenomenal experience. Think of how much evolution is able to predict in terms of the evolution of bacterial populations, or about what fossils we should expect to find in what places, or about what animals will be anatomically similar to which ones, and in what aspects, or about what will be the degree of genetic similarity between certain species. Think of the whole rigorous and tested mathematical theory of population genetics and genetic evolution.
The “wide-ranging and general assumptions required to do History” (about psychology, sociology, and much else) the skeptic Munslow mentions in his second objection are warranted because these assumptions compose a coherent system which adequately explain the most various and surprising aspects of past, present, and future experience.
VI. In conclusion, we finally can say it does not matter whether it seems puzzling that we can transcend our personal interests, our intellectual zeitgeist, the political interests of our culture and class, and match-up our concepts and our descriptions with the way the world works. Truth, justification, representation, knowledge of the minds of other people, transcendence of political and personal bias, etc. can all be known to exist in abundance.
The skeptical arguments are not there to cast doubt on the fact that truth exists and that we can be (and are) justified and correct about which are the truths. Given the level of coherency and success of our theories, such a doubt could not occur, and skepticism presents merely a puzzle: how is that we can have the knowledge we have, when such-and-such is the case? (For example, given the theory-ladenness of observation, the puzzles of representation, the difficulties of understanding other people, the Humean challenges, and so forth.)
If the skeptic wishes to argue there are many other coherent systems of data-interpretation which fit and explain our phenomenal experience just as well as the theories I defended, me and everyone else would very much like to see an example. Prima facie it seems very implausible, and I am at a loss as to how the skeptic could have found out we could substitute everything in our world-view for something else very different and end up with an equally empirically-adequate world-view.
Failing that, the skeptic must either refute explanationism (that explanation provides epistemic justification and lack of explanation cuts it off) or explain how realism about the external world, about truth, and about epistemic justification, are not good explanations for our phenomenal experience at all.