TA106 (Müller)



Commentary 58 (to Adams C50)



by Sid Barnett

28 September 2009, posted 3 October 2009



I acknowledge the clear distinction William Adams C50 draws between ontological dualism and epistemological dualism, but I cannot agree with the idea that “ontological statements are defined primarily by consensus”.  It is not clear to me what Adams intends by “the larger knowledge community” or how “The community’s accepted body of ontological knowledge trumps individual belief when it comes to truth claims …”  To me, the force of reason is sovereign and consensus is irrelevant.


The exchange between Adams C50 and Muller CR19 & R21 defines a neat issue concerning the relationship between an observation and an observer, between knowledge and a knower, between a belief and a believer.  In Adams view, “doing away with epistemological dualism altogether is self-contradictory, undercutting the very basis of communication”.   In Muller’s view, “the problem disappears in a thorough phenomenological view” – the “disappearance” metaphor does not clarify matters for Adams.


I agree with Muller that a “thorough phenomenological view” does resolve the issue.  Even though I agree with Dr. Muller on the main conclusion, I don’t find his description of the “thorough phenomenological view” compelling and I offer my own description.  I don’t presume that he would necessarily agree with how I arrive at the same conclusion.


So what is a “thorough phenomenological view”?  It is the view that acknowledges the existence of subjective experiences (phenomena), but requires verification of the truth of any proposition.  An expansion of the allegory of Plato’s cave can illustrate the thorough phenomenological view.  In Plato’s allegory, Plato is not himself facing the blank wall but rather he is positioned so that he can see the whole scene.  He can see the whole cave, the cavemen, the wall covered by shadows, the fire and the real objects whose shadows are on the wall.  The cavemen do not see Plato, but they can see and communicate with each other and they know that what they are looking at is a wall.  In this allegory, the images on the wall represent the sensory experiences of the cavemen, but other types of experiences (particularly ideas) are experienced by each caveman individually.  Now expand Plato’s allegory so that the blank wall becomes a large computer monitor -- so large that it occupies the entire visual field of an observer.  The observer cannot see anybody sitting beside him, cannot see any of his own body or anything not displayed on the screen of the monitor.  He can see nothing that might suggest where the screen is or even what it is.  Instead of representing only sensory experiences, imagine that the screen displays images representing all subjective experiences.  Imagine that you become the observer and your experiences are represented on the screen. 


If the screen displays all subjective experiences, most of the screen will be covered with images representing one particular type of experience:  ideas.  Some of those will be ideas that the sensory images represent a “real” world that exists off the screen.  Those ideas make sense of sensory images, but there is nothing off-screen against which to verify those ideas.  Another important idea displayed is the self-concept, including the idea that the experiences represented on the display are “yours”.  There are ideas of other people with their own ideas.   Other ideas contain principles of reason, ideas of coherent correspondence between all the images on display.  There are ideas of a past, a history.  Even though none of these images can be compared to an off-screen reality, some ideas identify other ideas as reliable and efficacious (perhaps improperly calling them “true”) – this idea of reliable efficacy derives from the other ideas that constitute the history, but those too are unverifiable and the entire history may be false.  There may be no past.  The history of reliable efficacy of some ideas gives rise to confidence in them, but confidence is not an off-screen verification; rather, confidence is a different type of experience – an emotion that is also represented on the display.  No ideas are verifiable by comparison with anything off-screen, there are only ideas describing relationships between other images.  There is only present display without correspondence to anything off-screen – without truth.  (The onus is on him who alleges the truth of any proposition to demonstrate it.  While I conceive no means to verify that any proposition corresponds to any non-phenomenological reality, I remain open-minded to any such demonstration.) 


Within this expanded allegory, the self-concept exists as an idea that is part of the display.  The self-concept is an important idea that describes relationships between all the other images displayed, but nevertheless just a part of the whole set of ideas, which is itself just a part of the whole universe of all images.  Within Plato’s original allegory, the cavemen do their own individual thinking and interpreting of the shadows on the wall.  They communicate with each other and experience all their individual non-sensory experiences.  For a caveman to understand the shadows, he has to conceive of himself as something different from a shadow.  By contrast, within the expanded allegory, the observer (the “you” looking at the screen) plays no part additional to what is on the screen.  Whatever you experience is displayed on the screen.  The idea of a separate observer adds no information to what is on the screen – no additional understanding.  No homunculus in the brain.  If the notion of a separate observer/homunculus is excised from the expanded allegory, what remains is the “thorough phenomenological view” – nothing but present experiences.  From that view, the self, or subject, does not stand outside the display, but is just one concept that is displayed along with all the others -- a part of a part of the whole and, in that sense, can be said (with literary licence) to “disappear” as a separate entity.  A phenomenological view without a separate viewer.  Experiences without a subject that experiences them.


What a “common-sense realist” would call “scientific observation” becomes, from the thorough phenomenological view, particular ideas interpreting particular sensory experiences all of which are part of the universe of experiences.  Observations without an observer.  Beliefs without a believer, etc.


Comparing the common-sense realistic view with the thorough phenomenological view is analogous to comparing the view of human-scale classical physics with that of quantum physics.  At the quantum level, there is uncertainty and apparent contradictions like things that exist and don’t exist at the same time.  Quantum properties seem superficially to contradict human-scale classical properties, but on close examination, the classical world of certainty and simultaneity emerges from the quantum.  Similarly, the thorough phenomenological view involves apparent contradictions like observations without an observer, absence of truth or time, but from these emerges common-sense at the pragmatic level.  The analogy is not perfect.      


If the subject (or observer) is viewed as composed of phenomena instead being a distinct antecedent to all phenomena, then the subject might be said to have “disappeared” within the larger whole, to use Dr. Muller’s metaphor.  I don’t know if Dr. Muller would accept my description.  He might suggest that the subject “disappeared” against an “unstructured background”, a concept which does not resonate with me.  Another idea of Dr. Muller’s that I have never understood is the “collective subjective bubble” whereby, apparently, one person can experience direct communication from another without physical intermediation.  In my view, a “thorough phenomenological view” is thoroughly subjective, self-contained and lonely.  Not lonely in the sense of one person without the company other people, but lonely in the sense that all experiences are referred to by the concept of “my own” and none referred to as someone else’s.  I don’t rule out the possibility of other people in some non-phenomenological world with their own experiences, but whoever alleges such a world will have to verify it.  Von Glaserfeld seemed to think that there must be a subject that was distinct from phenomena.  He said that there was no “thing” without a “subject” that experienced it, to which I asked if the subject was itself a thing with its own subject, ad infinitum.  In these respects, my impression is that the views of Muller and von Glaserfeld are not as thoroughly phenomenological as they could be.   




Sid Barnett
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