22 March 2007

Thesis On Certainty Part 6

Part 5 = here. (A predicative, not ontological "=.") So we left a cliffhanger yesterday, ending the post one paragraph before the end of the section. We'd like to think of ourselves as modern-day Dan Browns. (Also, don't forget to check out B. Michael's Notebook Miscellany.)

We got a new iPod, an 80gb one. Having only filled maybe 50gb of it, we find ourselves already sitting in traffic blocking green lights looking for something to which to listen. This, we think, could be the phenomenon described by Arcade Fire's "No Cars Go." And, well, we blame them, too. We can never decided between Neon Bible and Funeral. Thesis after the jump.

[The metaphorical jump.]

It could be objected that Moore seems to be trustworthy regarding the knowledge of his hands. As a respected academician, no one would think he would write outright lies. And isn’t the knowledge of one’s hands precisely the kind of knowledge about which it would be impossible to be mistaken? Moore’s utter certainty that he has two hands, coupled with the fact that people just don’t make mistakes about such things, seems to justify our trust in his knowledge. We simply agree with Moore that he does have two hands. Such a thing could go without saying. This apparent certainty, though, is the interstice in which Moore’s metaphysical presupposition finds purchase. And it is precisely for playing on this sense of certainty that Wittgenstein will criticize Moore. Moore’s utterance, “I know I have two hands,” is nonsense precisely because it expresses something that we would never doubt. And, paradoxically, it’s for this very reason that Moore cannot say he knows that he has two hands. In asserting why Moore can’t say that he knows he has two hands, Wittgenstein will re-characterize knowledge in a fairly radical way.

Moore’s Common Sense View

We said earlier that Moore’s notion of knowledge is something like justified true belief, but that his justification for knowing some things does not entail his being able to say he knows some things. Moore’s criterion of justification seemed to be that he was “quite certain” of something. Moore is quite certain that he has two hands, and it’s impossible that he merely believes such to be true; it isn’t merely highly probable. Therefore, Moore “knows” he has two hands. But to say so is a misuse of “I know…” that seems to reveal a “queer and extremely important mental state.”[i] When Moore says above, “I know I have two hands,” there seems to be at work in his mind a specific faculty, which secures his knowledge and is conditioned by his utter certainty: the indubitable (self) assurance of a wrinkled brow, a semi-articulated force of expression. We’ve said above that Wittgenstein explicitly denies the importance of mental states in evaluating the knowledge claims of one’s interlocutors. The mental state that accompanies one’s certainty is something of a ghost whose insubstantiality Wittgenstein points out throughout his work. The certainty that one feels is of little importance for our purposes: such a feeling indicates a merely subjective certainty. This subjective certainty falls short of what Wittgenstein leads us toward. We want to say that “perfect certainty is only a matter of [one’s] attitude,” which attitude fails to be philosophically interesting if our investigation is for an objective indication of certainty.[ii] To speak about knowledge and certainty with regard to mental states is a circumlocution around the logical crux of the matter, the source of objectivity in a sense.

However, presuppositions concerning mental states corresponding to knowledge and certainty underlie much of the philosophic discourse. Moore describes the symptoms of such mental states in his essay, “A Defence of Common Sense.” In the essay he describes knowing propositions like “I have two hands.” He says,

I think I have nothing better to say than that it seems to me that I do know them, with certainty. It is, indeed, obvious that, in the case of most of them, I do not know them directly: that is to say, I only know them because, in the past, I have known to be true other propositions which were evidence for them. If, for instance, I do know that the earth had existed for many years before I was born, I certainly only know this because I have known other things in the past which were evidence for it. And I certainly do not know exactly what the evidence was. Yet all this seems to me to be no good reason for doubting that I do know it. We are all, I think, in this strange position that we do know many things, with regard to which we know further that we must have had evidence for them, and yet we do not know how we know them, i.e., we do not know what the evidence was.[iii]

Moore calls this queer phenomenon “the Common Sense view of the world.”[iv] His perplexity at how we know certain things arises from trying to connect the feeling of certainty, a mental state, to some sort of outward criteria that would count as a substantiation or explanation for his mental state. Moore cites a paucity of evidence for his perplexity at the phenomenon. Rather than direct evidence for his certainty, he constructs a deductive chain that counts as pseudo-evidence. Moore knows the earth existed for many years before he was born because he knows, for example, that he was born of two parents who must have lived on the earth; and he knows he was born from two parents because of the entire circumstances of his life, but he lacks direct evidence of his birth and parentage. He could trace back this certainty to other certainties, but he couldn’t say how he knows them because he lacks direct evidence. The mental state of knowing seems to be unsubstantiated. But rather, this mental state itself is the unsubstantial “thing,” the unnecessary and unimportant piece of our picture of knowledge.

Moore is right in linking evidence with knowledge. After all, that one knows something can be shown, and this showing counts as evidence. But what of the propositions that fall under the purview of the Common Sense View? It is unreasonable to doubt the existence of the earth long before our birth because then we would have to doubt “all sorts of things that stand fast” for us.[v] That is, we would have to doubt the many branches of the deductive chain that seem solid. For instance, it stands fast for us that all humans come from two human parents who must certainly have lived on the earth. This proposition seems to be grounded on experience and scientific testimony. Moore’s point appears to be twofold: 1) Experience and scientific testimony lack an evidential ground; and thus, how can we know such a thing as the earth has existed long before our birth? 2) Nonetheless, “all this seems to be no good ground for doubting that I do know” that the earth has existed long before my birth. Wittgenstein’s response to this aporia is that we do not know (in Moore’s sense of knowing as justified true belief) that the earth has existed long before our birth. How could we show that this proposition is the case—justify it? We would go through a brief chain of reasoning as above. But this chain of reasoning isn’t a proof. A proof tries to demonstrate the objective correctness of a proposition.

[i] On Certainty, §6.
[ii] On Certainty, §404.
[iii] Moore, “Defence,” 44.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] On Certainty, §234.