Saturday, September 7, 2013

An Analogy on the Project of Naturalism

I wrote this back in April in a discussion I was having.  I think it's a decent analogy for the human condition, but as always, an analogy shouldn't be overstretched.

I imagine that I am in a tiny submarine with no doors, drifting in a giant ocean. All that I know about the ocean comes to me through the various screens and microphones situated in my cockpit. I have no way of knowing whether those are giving me an accurate portrayal of the world, but it is all I have.
How could I go about gaining knowledge of the ocean? I can't just go outside and experience it directly. I can just give up, and just navigate using what works, not worrying about whether I am right. That doesn't seem like the best route though. I am curious about the ocean, and I think it worthwhile to understand it. Plus, I don't want to run into something unknown that will rupture my hull. I have both practical and theoretical reasons to try to understand, despite my limitations being stuck in the ship.
Everybody else is in a similar ship, though I can't know how their screens and microphones are working. I try to get knowledge from them in those areas of the ocean I have yet to explore.
It will be impossible for me to ever know if I am totally right as to the nature of the ocean, but that doesn't mean I can't try. There are plenty of times that I find out I am wrong, and these can serve as guide posts as we go along. The more wrong ideas I get rid of, the closer I am getting to the truth. Though it is certainly possible that there is really nothing outside of my sub, that seems a flat, uninteresting, and implausible explanation for the richness of what I experience through my portals.

It appears to me that something like this is the case.  We have no way of independently verifying our senses.  It could be argued that we are simply the submarine and not the pilot, but I don't think that subtlety is a big issue here.

The take away points for me here are the following:

  1. There is no answer key or users guide for life.  We all do the best we can with the faculties we have, and there are no guarantees.
  2. It is always possible we are vastly mistaken, even in our most deeply held beliefs.  
  3. Even with no guarantees or certainties, we should still try to do our best to develop good ways to eliminate false beliefs and maintain true beliefs. 
  4. We can't get outside of ourselves to see the world from an "objective" viewpoint.  It isn't even clear if such a viewpoint is even coherent.
Obviously, these are just starting points from the position of epistemology.  They say nothing of values, or how we should act if such a view is correct.  What I suggest is simply that these points be kept in mind when we reason about things that are beyond the mundane.  

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