For practical life, genius is as useful as a telescope in a theater.
World as Will and Representation, v. 2, ch. 15
For practical life, genius is as useful as a telescope in a theater.
World as Will and Representation, v. 2, ch. 15
Toward the end of his article “Compassion and Beyond” (Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 11 (2008), 233-246), Roger Crisp raises some doubts about the reliability of compassion as a “source of of insight into our obligations regarding the suffering of others” (245). This post concerns the first of these doubts. Crisp contends that compassion is unreliable because it is contingent, in the sense that whether I feel compassion for someone is contingent on that individual’s misfortune being brought to my attention.
Depending on what time I turn the radio on in the morning or which newspaper I read, I may be moved to help some mental health charity, the PDSA, or someone who lives nearby who needs a life-saving operation.
The problem with this objection is that it applies equally to any source of insight into one’s obligations regarding the suffering of others. Consider Crisp’s preferred alternative to compassion: rational consideration of how one can best help the suffering individual. Rational consideration of this sort would seem to be just as contingent as compassion. In order for rational consideration to move me to help the nearby person who needs an operation, it must be brought to my attention that there is such a person in need of an operation. Likewise, we could say that whether rational consideration moves me to help some charity, the PDSA, or whatever depends on what time I turn the radio on in the morning or which newspaper I read.
More generally, there is no source of insight into our obligations regarding the suffering of others that isn’t equally contingent in this way on what instances of suffering are brought to our attention. So I conclude that this objection to the practical significance of compassion doesn’t give us any reason to eschew it in favor of some other such source of insight.
From what has been premised it is a manifest consequence that a man born blind, being made to see, would at first have no idea of distance by sight. The sun and stars, the remotest objects as well as the nearer, would all seem to be in his eye, or rather in his mind. The objects intromitted by sight would seem to him (as in truth they are) no other than a new set of thoughts or sensations, each whereof is as near to him as the perceptions of pain or pleasure, or the most inward passions of his soul. For our judging objects perceived by sight to be at any distance, or without the mind, is entirely the effect of experience, which one in those circumstances could not yet have attained to.
Source: Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (1709), Section 41.
In his book Common Sense, Science and Scepticism: A Historical Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge(Cambridge University Press, 1993), Alan Musgrave claims that the so-called time gap or time lapse argument was invented by Bertrand Russell (p. 93):
A special case of this general argument has become famous and is worth stating separately because it puts the point especially sharply. I refer to the so-called ‘time-lapse argument’, invented by Bertrand Russell but popularised by C. E. M. Joad.
As I have shown in a recent post, however, the time lapse argument actually goes back at least to Leibniz, who gave a version of it in his New Essays on Human Understanding (1704/5). Indeed, given how closely he studied Leibniz, I think it’s reasonable to suppose that Russell got the idea for this argument directly from Leibniz himself.
In a pair of recent posts, I reconstructed Leibniz’s Time Gap Argument in the New Essays and defended that argument against an objection by contending that we represent or perceive things outside of us only by representing or perceiving, among other things, our retinae. In this post I want to advance this line of thought by looking at Jonathan Lowe‘s intriguing argument for a similar conclusion in his essay “What Do We See Directly?” (American Philosophical Quarterly 23 (1986), 277-285).
Lowe’s essay divides into six parts. In the first, he clarifies what it means to see something directly or indirectly. In the second, he argues that we do see our retinal images, and in the third, that we see public objects like tables and chairs indirectly by seeing (and only by seeing) our retinal images of them. In the fourth part, he addresses a few potential worries that one might have about the view he has defended thus far. In the fifth part of the essay, Lowe attempts to motivate (without actually proving) the claim that what we see directly is not retinal images but something farther upstream, specifically patterns of neural activity in the brain. Finally, in the sixth part he argues that the direct objects of vision, whatever they turn out to be, must be private objects.
Lowe begins by characterizing some key notions.
An example of seeing an object indirectly would be seeing an object by seeing a live television image of it. Suppose I am watching a live broadcast of the State of the Union Address. The image of President Obama on the screen has visible properties (shapes, colors, etc.) that correspond to and are caused by the properties of President Obama. So I am seeing President Obama indirectly by seeing the image of him on my television screen.
Lowe next characterizes the notion of seeing: S sees an object A if and only if S‘s visual experience is directly causally dependent on certain properties of A in such a way that (given certain background information) S can thereby reliably judge what those properties are (279). From this it follows that we see our retinal images, because our visual experiences are directly causally dependent on certain properties of those retinal images in such a way that (with the aid of certain background information) we can reliably judge what those properties are. For example, if I have a visual experience of a ball, that experience is directly causally dependent on the roundness of the relevant retinal images in my eyes, and as a result of this dependence I can reliably judge that these images must themselves be round.
By the same token, my visual experience of the ball is directly causally dependent on the roundness of the ball itself, and as a result I can reliably judge that the ball must be round. So it can be said that I see both the retinal images and the ball, though the latter I see only indirectly, because (per the definition given in Part I) I see it by seeing some other objects (i.e., the retinal images) that are suitably causally related to it. More generally, it can be said that we see all external, public objects in this way, namely, by seeing retinal images of them. Further, we see them only in this way, since “in the absence of appropriate retinal images we don’t see them at all” (281).
We see external, public objects indirectly by seeing retinal images, but we do not see these retinal images directly either, for the same argument that has been used to establish that we see public objects only indirectly could be used to show that we also see retinal images only indirectly. (Briefly: My visual experience directly causally depends on certain properties of patterns of neural activity in my visual cortex, and as a result of this dependence I can reliably judge what those properties are. So it follows that I see those patterns of neural activity. But this means that I see my retinal images by seeing these patterns of neural activity, and so it follows that I see these images only indirectly.) It would seem that the only things we see directly are these patterns of neural activity in the visual cortex (284).
Whatever the direct objects of vision turn out to be (retinal images, patterns of neural activity, etc.), these objects must be private in the sense that each can be seen directly by only one person (284). For according to the view defended here, one person cannot see the retinal images or neural activity of another without doing so by seeing her own retinal images or neural activity.
In a recent post on his blog, Alex Pruss (Baylor) attempts to undercut one reason for denying that Leibniz’s monads are spatiotemporal objects:
I’ve noticed that people sometimes talk as if Leibniz’s monads were not spatiotemporal objects. But that seems to me to be just like saying that physicalist reductionists don’t believe in mental states. The physicalist reductionist believes in mental states—she just thinks that they are nothing but physical states. Similarly, Leibniz believes in spatial relations between monads—he just thinks that they reduce to the clarity and confusion of conscious and, especially, unconscious perceptions. We shouldn’t confuse the reductionist with the eliminativist.
Alex is quite right to emphasize the difference between reduction and elimination, but his comments suggest an argument that strikes me as deeply flawed. Bodies do indeed stand in spatial relations to one another, and Leibniz does indeed believe that bodies are reducible to monads. But it does not follow that individual monads stand in spatial relations to one another. To argue this way would be like arguing that in the Epicurean philosophy, individual atoms must be conscious because the soul, the seat of consciousness, reduces to atoms flying through the void. The mistake here is a form of the fallacy of division.
As I said, this argument is suggested by Alex’s comments. I don’t think he actually intended to endorse it. I think his point was rather to criticize the thought that because Leibniz reduces spatiotemporal relations to relations at the monadic level–specifically relations of relative perceptual clarity and distinctness–there are no spatiotemporal relations at that more fundamental level. I agree: that inference is flawed. It is like arguing that because the Epicurean reduces the shape of a table to the configuration of the atoms that compose that table, there are no shapes at the atomic level.
If I am reading Alex right, he isn’t giving an argument for the thesis that monads are spatiotemporal; he is simply asserting that thesis and defending it against a certain objection. But is it true that monads are spatiotemporal entities? In short, the answer is, in a sense, yes. Leibniz himself explains why in a letter to the Dutch physicist Burchard De Volder dated 20 June 1703 (AG 178):
I said that extension [i.e., space] is the order of coexisting possibles, and that time is the order of inconsistent possibilities. If this is so, you say that it astonishes you how time is found in everything, both spiritual and corporeal, but extension is found only in bodies. I respond that the reason is the same in both cases and for both sorts of things, namely, for all changes, of both spiritual and material things, there is a place, so to speak, in the order of succession, that is, in time, and for all changes, of both spiritual and material things, there is a place in the order of coexistents, that is, in space. For even if they are not extended, monads have a certain kind of situation in extension, that is, they have a certain ordered relation of coexistence to other things, namely, through the machine in which they are present.
Properly speaking, monads are not in and of themselves spatial, but they do have a kind of location in space by virtue of the fact that each monad has a body which is spatial. In a sense, then, Alex is right that monads are in a sense spatiotemporal entities.
In a recent post I considered Leibniz’s version of what has come to be known as the Time Gap (or Time Lapse) Argument. I reconstructed the argument as follows:
In this post I would like to consider an objection to this argument. In his SEP article on sense data, Michael Huemer (CU-Boulder) notes that the natural reply for one wanting to resist this argument is “to claim that one can ‘see into the past,’ that is, that one’s perceptual experiences may represent past states of affairs, or represent objects as they were at an earlier time.” Similarly, in his book Skepticism and the Veil of Perception (2001, 132) Huemer writes:
After this elaborate argument, my response may seem disappointingly simple. What are you aware of when looking at the star 1000 light-years away? You are aware of the star, as it was 1000 years ago. I see no reason why one should not be able to perceive something in the past. Obviously, the time at which your perceiving occurs cannot be before your experience occurs. But why must the time of the perceived state of affairs be identical with the time of the perceiving?
If we apply this objection to Leibniz’s version of the argument, I think we must see it as challenging premise (1). However, in order to deny (1), we must say more than just that it is possible for one’s perceptual experiences to represent objects as they once were. We must say that it is possible for one’s perceptual experiences to directly represent objects as they once were. (Yes, I split an infinitive; and I’ll do it again.)
Yet the idea that our perceptual experiences can directly represent past states of affairs seems problematic. To see why, consider Huemer’s example of the star that is 1000 light-years away. When I perceive this star, my perceptual experience represents it as it was a thousand years earlier. No doubt Huemer is right about this. But it would also seem that my experience represents this star as it was a thousand years ago by representing, among other things, the state of my retinae as they were just a split second earlier. More generally, it seems impossible for my experience to represent what happened in the past without doing so by representing what has happened in the more recent past.
Suppose that as a result of a random event my retinae came to be in precisely the state they were in when I perceived the distant star. I think it would be fair to say that in this case my perceptual experience is not representing a distant star but rather the recent states of my retinae. If we say this, however, then it seems we must also say that when I perceive the distant star I am doing so by perceiving the recent states of my retinae. So while Huemer is right that we can perceive past states of affairs, it does not appear possible for us to represent such states of affairs directly.
Thanks to William Uzgalis (Oregon State), we now for the first time have a readily available edition of the correspondence between Samuel Clarke (1675-1729) and Anthony Collins (1676-1729). The main topic of the correspondence is the viability of a materialist theory of mind. Collins follows John Locke in arguing for an affirmative answer, while Clarke argues that the mind must be viewed as an immaterial substance.
So far I have found the discussion to be somewhat tedious, but also at times very interesting. I hope to write more about it here on this blog.
Incidentally, Professor Uzgalis has also published an analysis of the correspondence in Philosophy Compass.
In Section 17 of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant argues that humans have a duty not to abuse or act cruelly toward animals. But we have this duty not because mistreating animals harms them; rather we have this duty because mistreating animals harms us.
Even more intimately opposed to man’s duty to himself is a savage and at the same time cruel treatment of that part of creation which is living, though lacking reason (animals). For thus is compassion for their suffering dulled in man, and thereby a natural predisposition very serviceable to morality in one’s relations with other men is weakened and gradually obliterated.
Mistreating animals is wrong, Kant suggests, not because there is something inherently wrong with mistreating animals, but because doing so dulls the person’s compassion for suffering animals, which in turn weakens and ultimately obliterates the person’s natural predisposition to feel compassion for other humans when they suffer in a similar way. In short, mistreating animals indirectly harms the individual, and that makes it wrong.
Kant goes on to say that it is acceptable to put animals to work (within reasonable limits) and even to slaughter them painlessly, but not to use them for painful experiments when the same end could be achieved without causing them pain. He even considers it our duty to show gratitude towards animals who have long-performed some service for us. But as before, we have this duty only because not showing gratitude toward such animals weakens our predisposition to show gratitude to our fellow humans who have served us in similar ways.
Kant is no doubt right that mistreating animals harms the individual. But he is wrong in thinking that the harm one does to oneself in mistreating animals is the only reason such behavior is wrong. It may be part of the reason, but it isn’t the only or even the main reason. The main reason such behavior is wrong is simply that it is wrong to harm animals.
Kant admits that we should have compassion for suffering animals, and that likewise we should have compassion for our fellow humans who are suffering.
But it is only the latter sort of compassion, he thinks, that has intrinsic moral worth; the former sort has value only because it promotes compassion of the latter sort.
But why does compassion for one kind of suffering being have intrinsic moral worth, while compassion for another kind does not? It is not relevant that the one being has rationality while the other does not. What matters is that both beings are suffering. Kant appears to have drawn an arbitrary distinction that cannot be justified.