Thursday, 22 September 2011

The Problem of Epistemology

Epistemology as a branch of philosophy (roughly, the study of knowledge) is unclear. Where other disciplines and sub-disciplines have delineated regions between statements about the subject and statements about the fundamental nature of the subject (i.e. between mathematical statements like "2 + 2 =4" and meta-mathematical statements like "what is the possibility of axiomatising arithmetic?") epistemology appears to have no such distinction. Insofar as epistemology makes clear the structure of knowledge and belief it says something about knowledge, like whether knowledge is closed under known entailment. But when the sceptic's question arises, "how do I know that I know?", we proceed into meta-epistemological territory.

Meta-epistemological territory, then, asks questions about how knowledge is possible. But insofar as epistemology carries within it a bias of the Western rational tradition it overlooks the original phenomenon of world which renders things intelligible (and thus ultimately knowable). It sees knowledge as the primary mode of access to beings, underpinning all possible activity (knowing how to ride a bike, for example, is considered a sort of unconscious knowledge as opposed to practical know-how - the distinction between propositional knowledge and practical understanding is not there). For this reason a distinction between first-order and second-order statements cannot coherently emerge, because knowing how you know is seen as the only way to get at the understanding that you know.

However, once the ontological ground has been cleared it's then possible to ask meta-epistemological questions about intelligibility, and what is given over to knowledge. For instance, Samuel Todes refines Merleau-Ponty's researches into the role of embodiment in intelligibility by pointing out that the forward-back, up-down, and other spatial "categories" delivered over to our understanding non-cognitively (i.e. prior to knowledge) enable us to understand more complex concepts (like the "forward" arrow of time, or higher and lower values). As this understanding is not first given over by knowledge but is grasped initially simply by virtue of being embodied it cannot be susceptible to the sceptic's touch. Mental content, such as propositions, are only possible on the basis of non-cognitive worlded activity. Conscious, knowing experience is not primary as knowledge is a founded mode of being-in-the-world and as such cannot make sense of itself.

Not being able to know that the world is real is not a problem as the world is in fact given along with the possibility of having representations at all. One can only pose the sceptic's question if they see themselves primarily in the mode of knowing (which is not the case) and thus owning the sentiment that you can only get at the reality of the world through knowledge itself. As we have modes of access to beings which are not propositional in character (using them, or being them as in the case of the orientation of the body) we can be sure those beings are indeed there. Accordingly, if the preceding estimations are correct (owing to Heidegger's phenomenological account) it is in fact no problem at all.

With its ontological foundations in place the region of discourse available to epistemology is clearly defined. Second-order statements about the ontological-existential possibility of knowledge are released from being appraised by the same modes of investigation as first-order epistemological questions about knowledge itself.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Heidegger's Public World, Other Minds, and the Possibility of Automatons (Part I)

I’ll begin by briefly setting out the epistemological problem of other minds. The problem originates from Descartes project of systematically building a picture of the world up from a minimal basis on which he could be certain. Having previously stripped away all beliefs which were vulnerable to scepticism he sought from there to found knowledge on a secure epistemological basis. The founding stone of Descartes epistemic reconstitution was the cogito, the famous philosophical adage which goes “I think, therefore I am”. The cogito is supposed to reaffirm for us that, as the subject of a given mental state, I cannot be sceptical about the existence of a subject having that mental state. The self is inseparably given in any intentional act as that to which the intentional act refers. The existence of the res cogitans is, for Descartes, secured on that basis.

The other minds problem, then, proceeds from these grounds and attempts to obtain knowledge about the minds of others. As we in fact have no such first-person access to the minds of others, we cannot guarantee that the minds are “there”. When we start from the experiences of a subject and intend to build ontology from that point “outwards”, we find ourselves stuck in a sort of solipsism. All we have is the knowledge of our mental states. The epistemological character of the problem of other minds is thus rendered clear.

Heidegger’s objection to the problem is ontological (Hall, 1980) in that it does not discuss epistemological access but rather seeks to ground the problem in the existential-ontological structures which make possible an understanding of the world, including the other people in it. To understand Heidegger’s objection some preliminary remarks are required. What Heidegger does is to demonstrate the priority of what he calls being-in-the-world over detached propositional knowledge. In Being and Time he conceives of knowing as a founded mode of being-in-the-world and not as the primary way in which beings become intelligible to us. The idea is that in order to be able to know any being, the being must first have touched upon us or become relevant (intelligible) to us in some way on the basis of how it fits in with a possibility of our being. For example we may use a hammer for-the-sake-of building a shelter and find it too heavy, or eat a mango for-the-sake-of nourishment and find it delicious.

What being-in-the-world amounts to is the various possible ways a human (henceforth understood as the way of existence known as Dasein) can be. Dasein can build things, drink things, prepare things, drive things, watch the sunset, appreciate art, navigate its way about the world, etc. The notion that knowledge underpins these ways of being as the original mode of access to them is disturbed by Heidegger’s phenomenological account of everyday being-in-the-world.

It’s fairly obvious that most of the time when we use the keyboard we do not own any mental states whatsoever. Cognitivists tend to think that such practical skills result from unconscious calculative processes involving inferences based on beliefs and desires (Dreyfus, 1991). However it’s easy to find skills we have simply learned non-cognitively by imitation and trial and error, and not by means of acquiring a set of beliefs and inference rules. If it can be said that we unconsciously believe that “doing so-and-so” will make the wheels turn we already presuppose practical know-how in helping ourselves to understanding how to “do so-and-so”. So this being able to “do so-and-so” must be grounded in propositional knowledge itself, devoid of any practical content if the cognitivist is correct. What would this pure propositional knowledge look like if it could not assume as its content non-cognitive abilities like "doing so-and-so"? I can think only of the formalism of logic and mathematics as modes of knowing which do not ultimately presuppose this kind of content and so accordingly don't solve the problem (more on the dependence of propositional knowledge on being-in-the-world in the next two paragraphs). But as we don’t have to work through the complex of differential equations involved in turning a bicycle, we in fact don’t even have to know the equations at all (Andler, 2006).

We just do these things - our bodies can assume what Merleau-Ponty called "sets" to deal with our environments and others. Other examples are certain social norms, such as intuitively (non-cognitively) grasping the appropriate amount of distance to maintain between yourself and another person (Dreyfus, 1991). This skill requires a kind of sensitivity to context - a sensitivity which draws upon much more than cognition. More often rather how you feel is significant. Just consider the various distances you maintain, without thought, between lovers and friends, or teachers and colleagues, and how these distances differ from situation to situation. Accordingly this skill cannot be learned in terms of context-free rules and in fact presupposes an involved, concerned participant (or participants). The difference between knowing-how and knowing-that we have thus indicated is detailed explicitly in other places (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1987), but a more in depth discussion here would take us too far from our primary purpose.

So we see how being-in-the-world cannot be made intelligible on the basis of propositional knowing-that. This results from the notion that the existential-ontological foundation of knowledge itself is actually this being-in-the-world. Detached, speculative thought must use the significations which arise from this sort of original involvement as their content. For instance, you cannot come to grasp the fact that “this radio is broken” without having the way of being of Dasein. Only by being so constituted as to intend upon something as a piece of equipment which makes sense in terms of some purpose of Dasein (for playing music, the news, etc.) can we ever understand what it would mean for something to be broken or too heavy or boring (Dreyfus, 1991). Only through our having involvements in the world can things be relevant to us and thus secure their intelligibility as radios or as bikes and keyboards.

But, Heidegger says, our being-in-the-world is essentially a being-in-the-world-with-others. The equipmental nexus inextricably tied to purposes of Dasein through which we come to have a self includes reference to other Dasein. The roles which Dasein takes upon itself (tacitly or explicitly) in being a nurse or a professional tennis player bear explicit reference to others, both in terms of any equipment they use (which can also be taken up and used by another Dasein) and in terms of the others which the roles would not make sense without (like patients and sports fans to the nurse and tennis player respectively). We encounter other people first and foremost not in the detached mode of speculation Descartes was in when he wrote his philosophy, but as engaged participants in a public world. By starting with the detached individual, Descartes had already taken a wrong step, as the world and the others are pre-given before he detaches himself from them to reflect on things in the mode of knowing. Here he believes himself an isolable subject without epistemological access to other minds. If Heidegger is correct the ontological structure on which he deliberates means he always already is in the world along with others. We are, Heidegger has it, all constituted by a shared horizon of intelligibility strung together by roles emerging from concerns and involvements of beings with the same way of being as us.

Heidegger’s argument is not supposed to provide a response to the problem of other minds on epistemological terms. By demonstrating that prior to detached speculation the others are already given along with the horizon of intelligibility (the others indeed mutually constitute that very horizon of intelligibility with their purposive concerned involvements). When we get our ontology right, the question simply doesn’t manifest. We are not first and foremost, contra Descartes, a separate I which thinks, but are rather before ourselves in activity. However, the possibility of automatons makes a robust argument against Heidegger’s ontological argument. The logical possibility of non-Dasein which nevertheless behave like Dasein threatens the whole enterprise. If we can establish beyond logical possibility the notion that we may be in a public world populated by automatons which behave like-Dasein but are not-Dasein, then the traditional epistemological worries resurface at the fundamental level which Heidegger appeals to in order to avoid them.

Effectively what we’re asking is if it’s possible to have a simulation of the entire dynamic public world, a simulation not strung together by significance at all but by a sort of behavioural mimicry. The question on which all of this turns is a demonstration that such a complex simulation would not be possible without those participants having the way of being of Dasein. If we can establish this (and only if we can) then Heidegger’s ontological argument has successfully caught traditional epistemological worries in the bud. Working out these questions will be the aim of the following part.

- Jordan Adshead (September 2011)


Andler, D. (2006). Phenomenology in Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science. In H. Dreyfus, & M. Wrathall, A Companion to Phenomenology and Existentialism (p. 390). Blackwell.

Dreyfus, H. (1991). Being-in-the-World. MIT Press.

Dreyfus, H., & Dreyfus, S. (1987). Mind Over Machine. The Free Press.

Hall, H. (1980). The Other Minds Problem in Early Heidegger. Human Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3, 247-254.

Heidegger, M. (2010). Being and Time. SUNY.