Panpsychism, part 2: privileged access

In my previous post about panpsychism, I talked about postulates that allow us to engage in knowledge-making in certain domains. For instance, the assumption that the laws of nature that operate around our neighborhood operate everywhere: While this postulate is required for us to engage in science, it can’t be proved by science — for reasons I discussed in the post. Now, a little reflection on this situation leads to a pretty sobering realization: We might be wrong about our postulates.

Oversimplifying a bit, let me characterize the situation like this: This realization that our postulates — the very postulates that make knowledge possible — might be wrong takes us to a fork in the epistemic road. One path involves acknowledging our limitations and looking for methodologically grounded ways to worry about the correctness of our postulates. Along this path lies what I called deliberative humility in a previous post, as well as more indirect approaches to evaluating our postulates. One really interesting example is provided by Hume, who proposes what we might call the pragmatic sanction (sorry: I was a history major, and I can’t resist a little history humor once in a while): We make assumptions that we can’t prove, we operate as if those assumptions work, and we notice — and this is important — that we aren’t dead yet even though we’re operating with those assumptions. The conclusion? Keep going until things fall apart. In other words, the epistemic pragmatic sanction involves engaging in knowledge-seeking according to postulates that yield pragmatically workable results — until they don’t.

In broad strokes, this is what we do with any “scientific” theoretical framework that’s yielding good results, like classical mechanics. In late 19th and early 20th century physics, classical physics collided with Einstein over messy problems about gravity and spacetime, and we saw another train wreck of similar proportions between relativity and quantum mechanics.

In a nutshell, then, one road from the fork leads to a notion of knowledge-making that is provisional, based on criteria of knowledge-making and grounded in the vicissitudes of the subjectmatter of each domain of knowledge. This road imposes on us an obligation to deliberative humility and courage, and a commitment to an asymptotic ideal of knowledge. If we’re lucky, we get closer and closer to our epistemic goals, but without the expectation of finality.

But there’s another path, in many ways more seductive than the sobering path of postulates. This is the path of privileged epistemic access. There’s a lot to say about this notion, but for our purposes, let’s note that it’s essentially the mirror image of deliberative humility and courage — which puts it more in the region of hubris. It’s the ungrounded “policy” of taking our presumptions as immediately known, whether by appeal to intuition, revelation, inspiration, or just plain personal insight.

This path embraces the usefulness of our postulates in knowledge-making, but ignores their ungrounded nature and takes them as full-fledged principles, unerringly leading us not just to truths but to Truth. Privileged access has been with us throughout our history. I’m tempted to say that it’s been with us because it is us: We have a nearly irresistible impulse to reduce anxiety by means of narrative, and the “rightness” of a narrative is quite often judged by how much it assuages our fears rather than how well it embodies our current methodological ideals.

And privileged access is as hard to dispel as it is to resist. Look at the instructive tale of substance metaphysics in Western philosophy: One of the most intractable problems of metaphysics has been to connect in some meaningful way two substances, thinking and extended (thanks, Descartes!) — minds and matter. But what if this intractable problem is actually a construct, and artifact of how we do philosophy? What if this “problem” is based on taking the presumption of discontinuity as an axiom of metaphysics? In that case, we couldn’t not have a reconciliation problem — because we built it into metaphysics from the start.

Well, from the start, but not universally. There were the occasional philosophers who wrote dissenting opinions, sometimes based on rejecting the postulate of discontinuity. Consider Herakleitos as a response to Parmenides, for example.

  • Parmenides: The Way of Truth vs. the Way of Seeming
  • Herakleitos: the Flux (as in, “the way up, down—one and the same”)

Enough said. But . . .

I can’t resist the temptation to draw a moral from this tale. If we adopt as a criterion of epistemic competence how well a claim does in keeping our anxiety at bay, then we’ve essentially opted for a cosmic game of Ostrich, accompanied by the soundtrack, Whistling in the Dark. And this moral is as relevant to daily life as it is to the ethereal regions of metaphysical method.

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