Update and Introduction to Disjunctivism/McDowell

Well, you’d think by now I’d know better than to start writing a blog entry at 3:15am on a Monday…but I know that the 3 to 5 people that actually read my blog are wondering why it’s been over a week since my last post…

     So, I did kind of an interesting party on Saturday.  It was for the 40th birthday of a woman who, along with all of her friends, was deaf.  While texting the organizer the day before, she asked me if I needed for them to provide a stereo.  I had to pause for a moment and think about it.  My first instinct was to say, meh, I’ll be fine without one.  It’s not like it’s going to improve the show for them.  Then I realized, it might be kind of awkward for me to prance around for half an hour in my underwear without any music.  Stop.  After writing that sentence, it just occurred to me that what is awkward to me about that situation isn’t what would be awkward to most people.  
     Anyway, my main concern was that when I spoke they wouldn’t understand me.  You see, I usually come as a cop and do this little skit, saying the neighbours are complaining about the noise, and the bachelorette/birthdaygirl is in violation of penal code 6969.  Cheezy, I know.  But chicks dig it, and you gotta give ’em what they want.  The organizer informed me that some of them could read lips and would interpret for me.  Cool.  Problem solved.  “But you must remember to e…n…u…n…c…i…a…t…e” (Pa, that was for you).  
     All the worry was for naught, as everything went fairly well.  The only problem was when they started the music for me, the volume was very low, barely audible.  I’d already started the show and wasn’t about to walk across the room and adjust the volume.  So, I did the show with the music down low (say that 5 times fast).  Actually, they liked the show so much that when I finished, the applause was deafening…. OH NO HE DI’INT JUST GO THERE! I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist.  Go ahead, heap scorn upon me….

Introduction to Disjunctivism

     Disjunctivism is a theory of perception of which there are many flavours, but here is a summary of the central claims.  Remember from other posts about perception that the main problem in philosophy of perception is to give an account of how we can know that the phenomena we experience of the external world as a product of our senses is indeed what the actual external world is like.  And second (and related problem) is to give an account of how we can distinguish between an true accurate visual perception of the world (i.e. veridical perception in philosophy-speak) and a hallucination or illusion of the same thing.  
     Well, disjunctivism proposes to solve these problems by addressing the second question first.  The strategy is that, if we can show that there is a fundamental distinction between veridical perception and hallucination/illusion, then we can say we can know about the world through veridical perception without having to worry if we are hallucinating.  So, lets look at the general argument to distinguish veridical perceptions from “bad” perceptions.
     To be honest, in its general form it’s not so much of an argument as it is a proclamation.  Disjunctivists argue that there is something intrinsically different between veridical perception and hallucination/illusion.  Hallucinations/illusions are the products of misfirings in our perceptual systems or artifacts of the evolutionary context in which they developed.  They are “constituted” only of things that we have created in our brain/mind.  Veridical perceptions, on the other hand, in addition to having representational content, are constituted of “facts about the world”. Veridical perceptions are causally connected to the outside world, whereas “bad” perceptions are not.  With veridical perception, we are in direct contact and have direct awareness of objects in the external world.  They are a fundamentally different psychological/mental kind/entity.
     Some argue that this does not solve anything because the phenomenology of the experience (how the subject experiences the content of the representation) is still indistinguishable to the subject.  In other words, just because the two cases might be constitutively different doesn’t help us, because the perceiver still has no way of knowing which is which.  
     The disjunctivist will reply that while it is true that in practice, we cannot distinguish the two, he has demonstrated that in theory we can.  This is important because this allows us to address the first problem, and answer the skeptic about having empirical knowledge.  The skeptic says that, because we cannot distinguish between good and bad cases of perception, we cannot know anything about the world through empirical observation.  The disjunctivist claim about theoretically being able to distinguish the two cases means that we could theoretically determine when we are experiencing a veridical perception and therefore we could (i.e. it would be possible to) be justified in claiming knowledge about the world.  I know what you’re thinking… in the everyday world this sounds trivial, but in philosophy, defeating the skeptical argument is quite significant.
     I suppose it might be helpful to explain how disjunctivism got its name.  It gets its name from how it interprets the sentence “I seem to see an X”.  Remember, when we perceive something there is no dependable way for us to distinguish if we are actually seeing an X, or if we are having an illusion/hallucination as of an X.  To the perceiver, the experience will be the same.  Returning to the point at hand, the disjunctivist claims that “I seem to see an X” is really just a condensed form of the disjunct (either/or statement) “Either I see an X or I have an illusion of X”.  For the disjunct to be true one of 2 conditions must obtain:  1.  there is an X in my visual field, or 2. there isn’t an X in my visual field, even if in both cases it seems to me I see an X.  
     This approach is significant, because now instead of judging the truth value of perception in relation to the phenomena we experience in our heads, the truth value of perception is attached to “facts-of-the-matter” about the external world.  That is to say, truth about a perception is no longer a function of whether I can determine if I’m hallucinating, it is about conditions in the world outside my head (even if I can’t actually get outside of my own head).  And, not to belabour the point but, because truth assessment is now about the external world, we can defeat the skeptics and say that knowledge of the external world is theoretically possible.

Ok, read that a couple of time and let it turn your brain to mush.  If you really understand this the first time you read it, you are orders of magnitude more intelligent than I, or I am the greatest explanatory philosophy writer of our time…my money’s on the former.

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