Here is a Hand

poster for The Matrix
Image via Wikipedia

Pretty much anyone who’s thought about philosophical problems in any way is familiar with the skeptical argument. It’s right at the top of everyone’s list of All-Time 4 AM Dorm Room Shit, next to, “How do I know if, like, my green is your green? What if what you perceive is green is more of like a red to you?”

Descartes posed the skeptical argument as: “How do I know that anything I perceive is part of an external world, and not just illusions created by an evil demon to trick me?” You may have also heard it as: “How do I know I’m not just a brain in a vat?” Or, more recently, “Dude, what if, like, we’re all plugged into the matrix?”

When I blogged Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus late last year, I briefly noted that the great logical positivist was basically sympathetic to solipsism. More accurately, he proposed that one’s world is the entirety of one’s perceptions, and that death is nothing less than the end of the world. In his austere worldview, it didn’t make much sense to speak of an “external world.”

That’s early Wittgenstein. Later on he evidently became a big fan of G.E. Moore’s “Here is a Hand” argument, an argument against which I’ve been banging my head off and on for the past week. Here’s its basic structure.

  1. Here is a hand.
  2. Here is another hand.
  3. Therefore, the external world exists.

Yeah.

You can see why Wittgenstein would like this argument. It perfectly fits his aesthetic jones for zen-like, maddeningly abstract pronouncements in analytic form. Anyway, I think I have it basically figured out now, though if I don’t, I would appreciate it if some of my smarter analytically-minded readers set me straight.

This post helped quite a bit. Here’s what it provides as the form for the skeptical argument:

(P1) ¬P → ¬Q
(P2) ¬P
∴ ¬Q

P equals the proposition that I can tell the difference between conscious perception of the external world and being plugged into the matrix. Q equals the proposition that I can be sure that I have two hands in front of me. That funny little symbol (¬) is a negation sign. So the argument goes like this:

  1. If I can’t tell the difference between being awake and being plugged into the matrix, I can’t be sure if I have two hands in front of me.
  2. I can’t tell the difference between being awake and being plugged into the matrix.
  3. I can’t be sure that I have two hands in front of me.

Now Moore’s argument as rendered by the blogger, Alistair Robinson:

(P1) ¬P → ¬Q
(P2) Q
∴ P

Or:

  1. If I can’t tell the difference between being awake and being plugged into the matrix, I can’t be sure if I have two hands in front of me.
  2. I’m sure I have two hands in front of me.
  3. I can tell the difference between being awake and being plugged into the matrix.

To which I guess the true skeptic might reply, “But are you really really really sure?” And, no, I guess I’m not. But I think the point Moore is making here is that all we really have to go off of is our own reason and what’s right in front of us. My intuition tells me I have hands. I certainly behave as if I do. Hell, I use my hands for stuff all the time! (Right now, for example, I’m using them on my keyboard to make you regret clicking on whatever link sent you here.) So if I’m reasonably certain that my hands are there, than it follows that I must also be reasonably certain that the external world is there.

Reasonably certain is not the same thing as knowing, but it’s probably about as close as we’re going to get. For the purposes of functioning on a day-to-day basis, that should be good enough. Which leaves one last question: Who the hell cares?

Well, I care. Which, given many of the things I care about, is a singularly unpersuasive argument for why anyone else should. But I think you ought to care also, and here’s why: even as the argument soothes us by demonstrating what we can be pretty sure of, it teaches us some humility by showing us what we can’t know. In doing so, it also reveals some of the hollowness inherent to reductive empiricism. Show me a wholly “non-ideological” assessment of any property at all of the external world when it requires an ideological/intuitive leap to acknowledge the existence of an external world in the first place.

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3 Responses

  1. Funny, I made a comment here about how this kind of argument supports Harris’ position. I put forward an interpretation that we have certain Moorean facts that we hold closer than we do skeptical arguments- and among these are our beliefs about what we value, which cause us to resist skeptical arguments against value. In light of these facts (which we do, after all, live our lives by- we get brake checks and breast exams) there are consequences for how we should make decisions we are already making.

    I don’t contest that a certain kind of proof is lacking and can never be given. The consequence of this is not that moral discourse is impossible, but that, as Ayer said, “We find that argument is possible on moral questions only if some system of values is presupposed.”

    Yes, and exactly these things happen to be presupposed when it comes to moral discourse. These Moorean facts about value happen to be shared by lots of people. And more fundamental ones, i.e. aversion to famine, seem to be shared across cultures. (And this is the point where it gets tricky to separate genuine objections from mere lack of imagination- imagine if people said there was no way to study climate because there was no objective climate shared by all places!)

    It’s my interpretation, but when Harris says:

    There are women and girls getting their faces burned off with acid at this moment for daring to learn to read, or for not consenting to marry men they have never met, or even for the crime of getting raped. Look into their eyes, and tell me that what has been done to them is the product of an alternative moral code every bit as authentic and philosophically justifiable as your own.

    I’m seeing a Moorean argument against skepticism of the external world brought to question of value. (Yes yes, insert reference to Moore’s naturalistic fallacy.) And I, at least, would think the restrained way of asserting moral values is just as much a signal of humility in Harris as it was in Moore.

    It’s like everywhere you look, Ned, you see a refutation of Harris. I guess it’s easy to read our own biases into things, hammers seeing nails and all, and surely I’m no less guilty. Maybe Harris meant to give a Moorean argument, maybe not. In any case a deepening of the discussion involves looking at some pretty tricky subjects, and it’s always surprising to me how much philosophical baggage people find they have to bring to the table in reply to Harris’ purportedly “intellectually lazy” position.

    • Maybe Harris meant to give a Moorean argument, maybe not.

      If he meant to, you would think he would have in a fairly unambiguous way, no? He cites Moore regarding the naturalistic fallacy, so he clearly has some familiarity with the guy.

      It sounds to me that if we’re talking about Moorean facts, we’re talking about facts that have no empirical scientific grounding. And if Harris were to rely on those, then what I understand to be his central claim would break down entirely.

      • If he meant to, you would think he would have in a fairly unambiguous way, no?

        Maybe, or maybe it happens that his argument functions in the same way as a Moorean argument regardless of whether he was referencing it explicitly. So I put it forward as my own interpretation.

        It sounds to me that if we’re talking about Moorean facts, we’re talking about facts that have no empirical scientific grounding. And if Harris were to rely on those, then what I understand to be his central claim would break down entirely.

        Being acquainted with Moorean facts is reason for taking a positive stance toward values (asserting that they are real in some sense), and resisting the breed of radical skepticism that takes lack of absolute evidence as lack of objective morality.

        To take the argument further one has to bring empiricism to bear, to account for the reality of these things. (Enter the argument over whether science “by definition” cannot handle these kinds of things.) It’s the same naturalist presumption we’ve traditionally brought to every instance of experienced phenomena.

        If one is to say that values exist in some sense that is not a physical sense, one is going to have all the same problems that dualist theories have on any subject (I can just imagine a vitalist calling Linus Pauling intellectually lazy for resorting to the same old uninspired scientific tools to work out the molecular basis of life instead of having the intellectual depth to posit a vital essence.)

        If one is going to say values simply don’t exist (that there is nothing that moral behavior is actually about), well, there’s the Moorean facts which have to be accounted for somehow. Perhaps you can explain them away in terms of something still more plausible than that I value my life and the lives of people around me. Can you do that? This would, I think, at least be a valid refutation of Harris’ premise.

        Or perhaps we can say these facts are real in some sense that is “good enough” but that, even under the “good enough” standard, they can’t be infiltrated by empirical models and explanations.

        Your argument seems to be that even if there are values, they are in the mind, which is metaphysical. That, I think, concedes far more than value skeptics are typically comfortable conceding, and I think I’ll have a blog post on it.

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