Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Does That Make Sense?

Happy Tax Day, if that greeting even makes sense. Actually I’ve been reading about what statements make sense and what statements don’t in a reader of essays by philosopher G. E. Moore. I ditched the second half of Heidegger and decided to read Moore instead because I thought he would be easier and more enjoyable to read. Easier it is, although not easy. Again, if that makes sense. It’s definitely enjoyable, even if I’m not certain I’m getting it all. (Moore talks a lot about being certain, also, by the way.)

G. E. Moore seems to me the twentieth-century counterpart to Thomas Reid: a philosopher of Common Sense. Asked by empiricists and idealists to prove the existence of material things, Moore raises a hand and said, “There’s one hand,” and then raised the other and said, “There’s another hand.” That demonstration, he says, is as convincing as any demonstration of anything. But he admits that he couldn’t actually prove that the thing he’s calling a hand is really more than a imaginative figment. I got confused at that point, as I thought that the proof was actually what the idealist asked for.

But maybe Moore means to say that his opponents are asking for proof in a situation where proof doesn’t apply; or perhaps he means to say that they’re asking for a greater burden of proof on this question than they themselves require on other questions. In another essay he responds to the empiricist’s claim that you don’t know for certain that you aren’t dreaming right now by saying that he knows it even if he can’t prove it. The empiricist says, “You don’t know that you’re not dreaming, therefore you don’t know that that’s your hand. For all you know, your hands have been cut off, and that hand you see just the spectral smoke of sleep’s hallucinations.” Moore replies, “But I do know that this is my hand, therefore I can’t be dreaming.” Each argument is as good as the other, he points out.

If his original point about the hands is that he can demonstrate the existence of material things without proving them, then Moore reminded me of another author I recently read: Alvin Plantinga. In Warranted Christian Belief, Plantinga argues that the difference between true belief and knowledge is not proof, but warrant, and that warrant is the product of a mind correctly working according to its design plan in the right environment in the mode of seeking truth. Of course the idealist could ask, “How do you know your mind is working correctly? How do you know you’ve not been drugged or made to hallucinate by a trickster demon? How do you know you’re seeking truth and not just comfort or survival?” Enough! says Moore. At some point people who want to know things and function in the world have to stop asking these questions. But don’t let me stop you, he says to skeptics with tongue in cheek. Go ahead questioning your own existence, and doubt your silly caviling away along with yourselves.

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