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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

More on ways of finding out stuff

Jerry Coyne has a thread over here with some interesting discussion. I'm not too fazed by the issue of some people having perfect pitch, since I don't doubt that some people are better than others at a whole range of perceptual skills. We all perform some pretty impressive feats, such as recognising faces and voices, when, in the scheme of things, most human beings look and sound very alike. Even our ability to tell at glance whether a particular four-legged critter is a cat or a small dog is a rather impressive feat. And then, of course, there's all the complexity of language. Our brains do process sensory data in complex ways that we're not aware of.

But if someone tells me that she has highly reliable intuitions as to whether we live in a world with a divine creator or one without ... I'm going to be very suspicious. If it turns out that she's experienced a large number of worlds with such a creator and a large number without, and she can now reliably sense which sort she's currently in without necessarily knowing how she did it ... well, it goes without saying that I'll be impressed. :D

Without independent evidence or some kind of highly impressive story like that, however, I'm not going to take other people as reliable God detectors. I'm very happy, though, that there are reliable pitch detectors, face recognisers, cat/dog distinguishers, and so on.


Anonymous said...

A big problem is that "ways of knowing" are often code for "intuitions" that are not subject to rational analysis and criticism.

Most people naively think "intuition" is magic, and surpasseth understanding. (Rational understanding, anyhow.)

Intuition is just unconscious guesswork, so calling that a "way of knowing" just obscures the fact that it's a way of guessing.

In intuitive/perceptual sense of perfect pitch is not beyond rational scrutiny. We can check to see if it's repeatable and intersubjective, and related to objectively verifiable phenomena.

(E.g., perceived pitch is closely related to fundamental frequency in easy cases of a fairly normal approximation of a harmonic series.)

Without such sanity checks, taking people's intuitions too seriously amounts to ways of knowing what ain't so.

-- Paul W.

Michael Fugate said...

John Polkinghorne has a splendidly vacuous commentary on the "new" natural theology at the Biologos blog. I have read both parts now and have gained no knowledge about this new way of understanding beyond science.

Here is a small bit of the emptiness of the theologian:

"Science doesn’t require augmentation from theology or any other discipline in its own proper domain. So the new natural theology doesn’t set itself up as a rival to scientific explanation as the best explanation, but as a complement, as a complementary relationship to scientific explanation —to place that understanding in a broader and deeper context of intelligibility…
So the new natural theology is not part of a war between science and religion, but is a part of a peaceful co-existence of mutual help and exchange of gifts between science and religion.
So if the new natural theology isn’t answering scientific questions what sorts of questions is it answering?.... In particular it is answering what you might call meta-questions. Meta-questions arise in a particular context, and their very character takes you beyond the context of their origin. So the questions that natural theology addresses today are questions that arise out of our experience of doing science but which are not in themselves scientific questions. Science essentially only answers questions of how… They are meaningful and necessary to ask and we seek to find answers to them, but if we are do so we will have to look elsewhere—beyond the science. The claim of natural theology is that a theistic belief affords the most natural persuasive explanation of our state of affairs.”

Richard Wein said...

I think the point the commenter (about perfect pitch) was making is that we can know stuff without having consciously thought about it. You seem to agree with that, Russell. As you've mentioned before, we can know something has happened just by looking out of the window and seeing it. Even lower animals can know things, although they presumably don't engage in conscious reflection. On this point I think Jerry is wrong, though perhaps it may be argued that he's using "know" in a narrower sense.

That's not to say, of course, that it's a good idea to always accept out first impressions and intuitions. We can improve the accuracy of our beliefs by subjecting them to conscious scrutiny.

Dave Ricks said...

Richard, yes, what you just wrote about my comments at WEIT is right (including a subtext that I was agreeing with Russell and disagreeing with Jerry). But I'm sorry that my rambling about my absolute pitch distracted from the strength of my original post on a previous WEIT thread, where I answered Jerry's challenge by pointing out that the definition of pitch is perception [by American National Standard Acoustical Terminology, ANSI S1.1-1994 (R2004)]. So the pitch of a tubular bell (being a perception) is not a physical or objective thing (like a doubling of frequency, or a dog versus a cat), yet people can "know" pitch in a convincing sense that people can agree on pitch. And as a perception, you "know" pitch directly, without rational inquiry on your part.

The point of my exercise was to look for classes or categories of "things" that we can know without knowing them by rational inquiry. For example, we know pitch as a perception, not because our perception is a guess, but because our perception is the definition. And sometimes the "thing" being known is self-knowledge of how to do something, like how to ride a bike, or "How do I shot web?" being relevant to X-Men's interests.

To conclude my exercise, I object if someone says, "Real knowledge can only be known by rational inquiry". Instead I suggest, "Whether someone possesses real knowledge can only be confirmed by rational inquiry". That adequately closes the door on spurious claims of knowledge, but still lets a string quartet tune up and play on. They aren't guessing -- they know what they're doing!