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I have a question about empiricism. If I was an empiricist how would I know that

I have a question about empiricism. If I was an empiricist how would I know that the country of New Zealand exist if I had never been there to experience it with my senses? I have seen it on tv, movies, and read about it, but that would only tell me that those movies, tv programs, and books exist, not that the country they show or describe do. It would seem to be the same as saying since I've seen middle earth on tv, movies, and read about it, then it must exist. How would an empiricist answer this?

I think the simplest answer is this: empiricists think beliefs about matters of fact should be grounded in empirical evidence; they don't think the evidence always has to be direct. I've never been to New Zealand, but I have a considerable amount of indirect empirical evidence that it exists. To take just one bit of that evidence: people whom I know to be otherwise reliable and honest tell me they've been there.

On the other hand, I don't even have indirect evidence that Middle Earth exists. What I have is evidence for is that J. R. R. Tolkien wrote stories about a fictional place called Middle Earth, which neither he nor anyone else claimed was real.

The (small) larger point is this: the one-word name of a view is not always the best way to figure out what the view actually comes to. Very few, if any, self-described empiricists have said that evidence always has to be direct to be relevant.

In many answers, here, philosophers talk about justified beliefs. I would like

In many answers, here, philosophers talk about justified beliefs. I would like to ask if there is any difference between a justified belief and a rational belief.

There may be some difference insofar as a justified belief is usually considered a belief that is backed up by some evidence, and there may be times when it is rational (or not irrational or unreasonable) to have a belief even if one is quite uncertain about evidence. To use a homely example: You might have a vague feeling that you left your car keys back at the office and it would be rational for you to believe that is true (and go back to the office to check) even though your vague feelings don't count as sufficient evidence to make your belief fully justified. So, while there may be a difference, the two terms might be used interchangeably, especially if you hold what is sometimes called evidentialism, according to which the only beliefs that are rational and justified are those that you have evidence for. This is distinct from forms of what is sometimes called reliabilism, the view that a belief (even without evidence) may be justified if it is produced by a reliable means.

In a classic episode of "Batman: the Animated Series" (called "Perchance to

In a classic episode of "Batman: the Animated Series" (called "Perchance to Dream"), Bruce Wayne discovers (spoiler alert) he is in a dream because he in unable to read a newspaper he picks up. At first there are some ordinary words in the headlines, but everything becomes a jumble of gibberish as he attempts to read more closely. He later explains his reasoning by claiming that reading is a function of the right side of the brain, while dreams come from the left. My first question is: is this just a clever plot device or does it hold any water neurologically? And second, if it were true, would it be an argument against I-could-be-dreaming-based skepticism? Finally, third, the dream Bruce is having is a pretty good one, involving lots of things he would like but can't have in the waking world. His murdered parents are alive again, he's going to marry a woman he loves, etc. Bruce says he can't accept it, however, because it "isn't real". If you grant that he could keep on living on the dream world,...

I'll try to answer the second of your three interesting questions. The proponent of the dream argument for skepticism (imagine rehearsing this argument to yourself) could say, "For all I know, this allegedly scientific claim about right and left hemispheres is merely more stuff from my dream; I can't tell that it's not. Even if it's a true claim, I can't know that it's true until I rule out the possibility that I'm merely dreaming it up." If so, then Bruce Wayne's reasoning wouldn't be an effective reply to the dream argument.

This isn't to say that it's clear sailing for the dream argument. My view, for which I argue here, is that the dream argument is self-defeating unless it's no different from (and hence no improvement on) the evil demon argument.

Last week, I read a book called "Sophie's World" about a young woman who

Last week, I read a book called "Sophie's World" about a young woman who receives philosophy lessons in the mail from a secret source. Toward the end of the book, Sophie (the young woman) realizes that she is a character in a book, and her philosophy teacher proposes that her author might be a character in a book as well. Sophie's reality begins to change in preposterous ways, inviting characters from other books, sea monsters, etc., and we are introduced to a second girl who is reading about her, as we are reading about that girl. I "realized" with building panic that I, too, could be a character in a book, and felt sapped of free will. The fear evolved into a fear that nothing around me really existed, including (with intense regret) the minds and hearts of friends and family-- that it could all change or disappear against the "laws" of physics at any moment. How do we know that just because an experiment works once, it won't suddenly stop working? How do we know, for example, that a clock won't turn...

Not sure you are going to feel much happier after you read my answer to your question, but let me try at least to tell you what philosophers generally do in response to this sort of question these days.

Your question raises the specter of what is called global skepticism--the idea that we can't or at least don't know anything at all. There are different sorts of responses one might have to this claim, but also different sorts of responses to the kinds of existential questions that you are associating with the skeptical threat.

So let's try first to do what most contemporary epistemologists actually don't do, and that is to grant the threat of skepticism and concede that we cannot remove it. OK, so you don't know anything! Well, the main reason you would think that is because you have in mind extremely high standards for what can count as knowledge. Alright, so maybe we can't meet such high standards. Does that mean it would be reasonable to worry that "a clock might turn into an ice cream cone," and all the rest of your worries? I suppose it depends on what you mean by "might." I assume what you mean is that it is what philosophers call an "epistemic possibility" that this could happen--in other words, it could happen for all you know. But that is because you don't know anything (according to the skeptical hypothesis), and so saying that such a thing could happen for all you know doesn't make that epistemic possibility anything very interesting or different from anything else you might imagine, since you don't know that either.

Put it a slightly different way: It seems reasonable only to worry about things that are more likely that mere possibilities. If the world really is the way we tend to think it is, then we have good reasons to acknowledge that all kinds of truly weird stuff might happen. I could get hit by lightening today. It could happen, right? But is it sensible for me to worry about that (genuine, though slight) possibility? Come on! Don't I have anything better to think about, for heaven's sake? Even if we accept that we don't know anything, why does it follow that we don't at least have some very good reasons to believe some things, rather than others, and why is reasonable belief not good enough to put the kinds of worries you mention to rest?

Briefly, to sum up this response, if the standards for knowledge are super high, then is anything really lost, from the point of view of practical reasoning, if we simply forget about knowledge but then go about our business in life by following what we at least have some good reasons to believe (from experience, from science, and so on--none of which we know on this hypothesis, but all of which still supplies good reasons for belief)?

So then you say, but how do we know that such reasons are good ones? Well, once we accept global skepticism, we don't know this. But why does global skepticism show that believing what we have good reasons to believe is irrational? I don't see why this inference is valid. Just because we don't know that some reason is a good one doesn't make it not a good one, and doesn't disqualify whatever evidence we have for thinking that it is a good one. Following evidence that we don't know is true, but which nonetheless qualifies as reasonably taken as evidence, is what rational people do all the time, even if they don't know anything!

So, even if you don't know anything, chill out! All is well and there is no reason to worry about things the way you describe such worries.

But maybe we should take a closer look at the premise I conceded above, namely, that the standards for knowledge are so high that we can't or don't know anything at all. Most contemporary epistemologists are what are called "fallibilists" these days. There are different ways of formulating what fallibilism is, but the basic idea is that wwe can know things even if the ways in which we come to know them (or, our evidence for them) falls short of guaranteeing infallibility. The idea is that we could have been wrong about something, but as long as we didn't get it wrong this time, and have done our epistemic business in all of the appropriate ways, then it counts as knowledge.

But wait! How can we know that we didn't get it wrong this time? Same reasoning applies here. Maybe we could have got it wrong that we didn't get it wrong...but as long as we didn't get it wrong that we didn't get it wrong...and so on. This may sound somewhat fishy to you (it does to most epistemology students when they first hear it), but the point is that fallibilists will simply not accept challenges to their knowledge based on the idea that something could have gone wrong.

One way to think of this is to imagine a fallibilist turning the challenge back on the challenger: OK, maybe something could have gone wrong, but why should I think it actually has gone wrong, and if you have no reason to offer me for thinking that it actually has gone wrong, why should I listen to your challenge, or take it seriously? Following this way of thinking about knowledge, then, why does the fact that someone wrote Sophie's World give me a reason to think that you or I are (only) characters in a book. "But it could be!" you say. And I reply, "Well, maybe, but why should I think that it is really that way, and if you don't give me some reason for thinking that it is really that way, then why should I take that scenario seriously or worry about it?" As a fallibilist, I would claim that I know it is not this way, even if there remains some sense in which it could be this way. But if I know it is not this way (because no one can give me any reason to think I am wrong), then I also know that there is nothing to worry about!

To complete my little argument then, we might also reject the skeptical premise, in which case, chill out--there is nothing to worry about.

Conclusion: Either way, chill out. There are some truly scary things out there, but clocks turning into ice cream cones is not reasonably thought of as one of them! Now, climate change...hmmm, yeah, that worries me!

I am a 16 year old and i have been asking myself the same

I am a 16 year old and i have been asking myself the same question for a very long time but only recently was able to finally word the question.. Isnt it true that there can not be a certainty of anything outside a person's current observed world?  It still sounds very wierd but if i am sitting in a room in a building that i walked into myself, i saw all of my surrounding as i entered the building and the room. The door is closed and there is no way for me to observe anything on the outside of the room.   I can say that i know exactly what is outside that door because i saw it as i came in the room, but in reality i have zero way of being competely certain of anything i cant see or hear outside the room. I could, potentially, be in a room floating in space and have no way of knowing, givin there isnt any ovservable evidence of my location.  It may sound strange, but i believe it could be related to particle physics, etc.  The fact is that i have no certainty of anything outside my personal observed ...

I congratulate you on your interest in philosophy at the age of 16 -- in this case, your interest in epistemology (the theory of knowledge) and, within epistemology, the issue of skepticism. You posed your question in terms of certainty. I said in response to Question 4721 that the term 'certain' works in a way that allows you to be certain that some proposition P is true even though it's logically possible that P is false. But you raised a harder question: Can you be certain that P is true when the evidence you now have is the same evidence you'd have if P were false? This question is hotly debated: there are plausible grounds for answering "No" and plausible grounds for answering "Yes." You might start your investigation by reading Peter Klein's SEP article on skepticism. It's long and challenging, but I think it will reward your patience. I recommend paying particular attention to Klein's discussion of the concept of evidence. (By the way, I don't think particle physics has much to say on this topic that's relevant. I recommend focusing on what philosophers have had to say about it.) Best of luck!

There seems to be a common intuition that parts of a system can't understand the

There seems to be a common intuition that parts of a system can't understand the system they are in without stepping outside of it. This is mostly applied to ideological and political issues ("Ideology is everywhere, so you can't step outside it and thus can never fully understand it"), but I've seen it applied to artificial intelligence as well ("A computer program can't fully understand itself" is treated as self-evident by some). Is there something to this intuition, or is it just rhetoric? I can't think of any obviously necessary reason why a part of a system shouldn't be able to perceive or understand the system as a whole.

I reply here knowing full-well I am out of my depth - I know there will be others who will probe this question far more adequately than I. But this disclaimer is itself a type of question imbedded within your query: what is "the whole" of any system? As a philosopher I know the limits of my knowledge by coming up against them time and again; as much as I love Hegel, there is no system of consciousness about which consummate knowing is possible. So let me suggest that, in the abstract, as you have framed it, I do not find there to be a compelling answer without greater specificity of what system one wishes to analyze. Indeed, the word "understand" or literally, "to stand under" suggests a relation other than from within. One can make too much of the insider/outsider standpoint as necessary for critiques aimed at the whole, but there seems to be a compelling case for some epistemic advantage from which "the whole" appears more clearly. Examples abound, such as how African Americans can shed light on social systems of racial oppression, as have women writers about patriarchy. They point to things others may miss by being up too close and personal from within a social framework. All the same, no individual writer claims to have nailed the whole system!

The proverbial fish in the water has no need to understand the whole of the ocean, and so I am left to ponder then: what does it mean "to understand the whole" intuitively or rhetorically, without further ado. Perhaps there is a logical answer to your puzzle that doesn't rely on endless regressions of analysis of language. I look forward to hearing from more systematic thinkers, especially from the AI community.


is reason infallible? can reason alone help us understand everything about all

is reason infallible? can reason alone help us understand everything about all aspects of humanity and life?

Your questions are so terse that I can't be confident I'm interpreting them as you intended. But I'm inclined to answer them "Yes" and "Yes."

If by "reason" you mean "deductively valid reasoning," then reason is infallible in the sense that it's guaranteed never to lead us from truth to falsity. Even so, however, we're fallible in our use of reason: we can think that some bit of reasoning is deductively valid and be mistaken about that (within limits: some reasoning is so basic that it would make no sense to think we could be mistaken about its validity). Still, deductive reasoning differs from other ways of forming beliefs in that when it's properly employed it can't lead us into error.

Can reason alone help us understand everything? Yes, with emphasis on help. We can apply deductive reasoning to the inputs we get from our senses, from introspection, from memory, from our traffic in concepts, etc., to see what those inputs imply, to see what their content is, to understand them better. It's not as though there's some faculty other than reason that does a better job of improving our understanding.

Even if there is overwhelming evidence in opposition of solipsism, it still

Even if there is overwhelming evidence in opposition of solipsism, it still cannot be disproven to 100% certainty. Is it just the nature of any conscious entity to have to have faith in their surroundings being external and objective to the mind, while still viewing them subjectively, in order to just live their lives? Or can one really live their entire life suspecting solipsism?

Whether one thinks there is overwhelming evidence in opposition of solipsism may depend on what one takes evidence to be. Arguably, if evidence is just the way things seem, construed in the most minimal, least question-begging way possible, then there is no evidence in opposition to sopipsism at all. Things might seem just this way, and yet there be nothing in the universe other than my own experiences. Why suppose that in addition to those experiences, those things of which one does have knowledge, there is some other stuff about which one has no knowledge at all? It seems hard even to form a conception of what such other stuff might be like, since conceptions seem to be formed from the material of experience itself and unsuited to picture for us this myserious others stuff of which we know nothing.

Personally I don't buy into that sort of soplispistic reasoning. But I expect that a solipsistic worldview could be made consistent with the beliefs one needs to live a normal life. The loaf of bread is really just a bundle of experiences, etc. However it would take a lot of work and a lot of philosophical nous to spell it all out properly.

Our understanding of the physical universe is better than say, what it was a few

Our understanding of the physical universe is better than say, what it was a few thousands of years ago. We may continue to understand it better as time progresses. My question is, would it at all be possible, at some stage, to say that we know it all, that the universe has been stripped naked and it no longer holds any more mysteries?

I strongly doubt it! I think it's a very good bet that we human beings will continue to improve our understanding of the universe, but I strongly doubt that our understanding will ever become perfect, that there will come a time at which we've answered every meaningful question about it. Certainly there's no evidence from the history of science that such a day will come. Quite the contrary. Every time scientists have thought that the end is in sight, that soon no further important questions would remain in some domain, a revolution has occurred to open unforeseen avenues of inquiry.

Here's a trivial reason why the possibility of further inquiry won't end. Suppose we answer the 'final question'; call it 'FQ'. Why did we ask FQ? That question is meaningful and has to be distinct from FQ. Call it 'FQ*'. Why did we ask FQ*? And so on.

A less trivial reason stems from the widely held assumption that at least some aspects of our universe are contingent rather than absolutely necessary. If that assumption is correct, then I think the chain of explanation must go on forever, because no contingent aspect can have a logically sufficient explanation that's not contingent. If the chain of explanation goes on forever, then so does the possibility of inquiring ever further along the chain. Even if some aspects of the universe don't have a logically sufficient explanation -- indeed, even if none of them do -- I can't see how we could ever settle that issue so as to make it pointless to ask whether they do and what those explanations are.

The thing about physical science is that it seems likes it doesn't tell you

The thing about physical science is that it seems likes it doesn't tell you anything that couldn't be simulated by a virtual reality device of some sort. Am I wrong? Can science test that hypothesis in a reasonable way? It seems like the only real and accessible metaphysical qualities are things like color. Color is real whether we are looking at a virtual reality simulation or something else. "Has science allowed us to go deeper than that to an actual world behind manifestations such as color?

I think there are limits to how far the skeptical worry you describe can go. Your reference to virtual-reality devices is telling: "The thing about physical science is that it seems like it doesn't tell you anything that couldn't be simulated by a virtual reality device of some sort." Notice that it's physical science itself (computer science, neuroscience) that encourages you to say that. In broaching the idea that virtual-reality devices could fake what we take to be truths revealed by science, you make two non-skeptical assumptions: (1) Science really does claim such-and-such about reality; (2) science has it right about the power of virtual-reality devices. (Now, someone's skepticism might stem from merely imagining that reality is radically different from how it seems to him/her, but that kind of skepticism doesn't -- and shouldn't -- rely on anything scientific.)

Can empirical science test a radical skeptical hypothesis? No. Of necessity, empirical scientific testing always occurs against a background of indefinitely many non-skeptical assumptions. Scientific testing makes sense only if we assume that radical skepticism is false. Philosophy, rather than empirical science, gives us the only viable ways of responding to radical skepticism.

Incidentally, some would challenge the claim that colors are "real and accessible metaphysical qualities." See especially section 6 of this SEP article.