Friday, September 08, 2006

The Objection from Objectivity

(This is the second post in a series; please see the previous post for background). The second objection considered by Daniel Stoljar in Chapter 8 of his book employs the idea of objectivity as the “Factor X” which characterizes non-experiential truths. Stoljar paraphrases this objection, which relates to an argument prominently associated with Thomas Nagel, as saying that non-experiential truths are and will always be objective (third-person) truths, and the problem of consciousness will always re-emerge since experiential truths are subjective (first-person) truths. I should declare my antecedent bias here that I have always found this argument to be extremely persuasive myself. If we invoke Nagel’s example of the bat: once I know all the objective truths about a bat, what it is like to be the bat is a further truth.

Now the way this objection is framed (that is, non-experiential truths are those known via the objective point of view and experiential truths are defined as those known through the subjective point of view) poses a challenge for Stoljar. He cannot argue against the following statement:

1. Even if you were to know all the objective (non-experiential) truths you would still not thereby know the subjective (experiential) truths.

Stoljar notes that this statement is analytic and flows from the terms of the objection. So he will try to form a reply by arguing that the following seemingly natural inference from statement #1 actually does not follow:

2. Even if you were to know all the objective facts, there will still appear to you to be an element of contingency in the relation between the objective and subjective facts.

It is this appearance of contingency or lack of entailment that is the basis for a third statement:

3. CA and KA will continue to be forceful no matter how many objective facts we learn.

Stoljar’s wants reject the inference from #1 to #2. His first strategy for doing this is to set up in parallel a counterexample thus:

4. John is in pain

This, he explains, is clearly a subjective truth. Then, since #4 is subjective then it negation must be as well:

5. John is not in pain

Next we have:

6. If John is a number, then he is not in pain.

Note this is a necessary truth. And since the antecedent of #6:

7. John is a number

is an objective truth, then we have an example where an objective truth entails a subjective truth. Putting this all in a form which mimics (1) and (2) above, we have:

8. Even if I were to know that John is a number, I would not thereby know that he is not in pain.

9. Even if I were to know that John is a number, there would still appear to me to be an element of contingency in the relation between John’s being a number and his not being in pain.

The inference from #8 to #9 is invalid, since #8 is true and #9 is false. Since this parallels #1 and #2, Stoljar says that inference is also false. When I read this the first time, I found the form of the counterexample fine, but its content was so different than #1 and #2 that I didn’t feel its force. I should also note he says we could use the slightly less strange “If John does not exist, then he is not in pain” as a substitute statement #6. But Stoljar senses the reader will need more help to flesh this all out.

So, continuing the discussion, Stoljar says he wants to distinguish the idea that the objective facts entail the subjective facts from the idea that understanding all the objective facts entails an understanding of the subjective ones. He introduces the idea that {if A then B} could be necessary but not synthesizable. Here’s his definition of synthesizable: “{If A then B} is synthesizable if and only if in every possible world in which S understands A, then S understands (or is in a position to understand) B – for short, if and only if understanding A entails understanding B.” Stoljar says the statement #1 above shows that subjective facts are not synthesizable from objective facts, but does not entail statement #2 – the relation could still be necessary and could appear to us as necessary, given future lifting of the veil of ignorance. To show that something could be not synthesizable but still appear necessary, Stoljar offers further examples such as this: if x is colored, then x is extended. Understanding about x being colored doesn’t entail understanding about what it is for it to be extended, but we can see that the conditional statement indeed describes a necessary relation given our possession of all the relevant facts. Again, in reading this, I found the content of Stoljar’s example to be different enough from that of #1 and #2 that I began to contemplate what could be faulty about the parallel.

For me, despite the examples, it was difficult to see that that one could ever concede the non-synthesizability of the subjective facts from the objective facts but come to find them appearing nonetheless entailed by them. But – and here again that is what makes the epistemic view slippery – Stoljar might say my feeling on this is just due to my ignorance! Can I flesh out a specific disanalogy in Stoljar’s examples which makes them lose force? I’ll give it a try.

The difference is that in the original case the two types of truths (objective and subjective) are presumed by definition to be exhaustive of all truths. In the cases of Stoljar’s examples, the additional facts which led us to see that {if A then B} could be necessary even when not synthesizable invoked other types of facts beyond the types represented by A and B. In the original counterexample #8 and #9 I need to know about abstract and concrete objects and what kind of objects can have pain. These facts were the “new” facts beyond just knowing everything there was to know about the antecedent “numberish” facts. But in the original objection, there are no new types of facts beyond the objective facts that could help me erase the appearance of contingency, because objective and subjective facts exhaust all facts.

I would note that I am not criticizing the distinction between a relation of necessity and one of synthesizability per se. Stoljar has used this effectively elsewhere (as in this paper). I just think it doesn’t do the job in this particular case.

Now I’d be grateful if anyone finds fault with my analysis here. For now, though, the reply Stoljar offers in this section was a rare passage in a clearly argued book which I found unconvincing.


The somewhat complicated reply to the objection from objectivity was unconvincing to me. I think there is still room to believe that the evident dichotomy of all truths into subjective and objective truths remains a key obstacle to dissolving the logical problem of consciousness in favor of a materialist stance.


MikeS said...

What is the logical problem of consciousness? You have lost me. Developmental psychology seems to have sorted this since Piaget, and evo-devo just adds more evidence. Consciousness is what happens when a set of biological software packages confer an adaptive advantage by working 'holistically'. However asking Nagel's question is a category error. The bat does not know what it is like to be a bat, I don't know what it is like to be you and you cannot know what it is like to be me. Why should you? Selfhood is contingent, not transcendent.

Steve said...

Thanks Boofykatz. I must respectfully disagree. For any functional (biological/psychological/adaptive) explanation of the role of consciousness, the phenomenal "what it is like" aspect is a further fact which is left unexplained. I don't see why asking for an explanation of this aspect of the phenomenon is a category mistake.
Regards, - Steve