The Conceivability Trap: Analytic Philosophy’s Achilles Heel

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« on: May 15, 2020, 05:10:41 am »
The Conceivability Trap: Analytic Philosophy’s Achilles Heel

...Since our empirical experiences are always perspectival—after all, each of us operates through a unique point of view or window into the world—the achievement of objective knowledge is contingent upon a procedure meant to distill objectivity out of perspectival subjectivity. In science, Karl Popper offered the following: “the objectivity of scientific statements lies in the fact that they can be inter-subjectively tested” (emphasis added). In analytic philosophy, however, issues often cannot be settled by experimental testing, so a different form of procedural objectivity is required. In this context, Bertrand Russell held that there are a priori principles of logical reasoning—not contingent on the idiosyncratic perspectives inherent to empirical experience—which, if properly applied, render objective conclusions possible.

Even philosophers of mind, whose object of study is that most subjective of all things, aim for objectivity. Expressions now common in the community—such as ‘what it is like to be (something or someone)’ to define the presence of experience—as well as words such as ‘phenomenal’ and ‘access’ to qualify consciousness, reflect an effort to objectify what is essentially subjective.

But can the ideal of full objectivity ever be realized? For as long as analytic philosophers are fallible human beings, instead of computers, it surely can’t. Their conclusions, too, are inevitably a function of the variety and metacognitive depth of their personal experiences. It is more productive to acknowledge this fact and respond accordingly, than to pretend otherwise.

For instance, the notion of conceivability—which is often appealed to in modern ontology and philosophy of mind to establish or refute metaphysical possibility—relies on the particular set of subjective experiences a philosopher has had in his or her life. Therefore, it is naïve—perhaps even pretentious—to assume that one’s personal inability to conceive of something entailed or implied by an argument positively refutes the argument. For not only in continental, but also analytic philosophy, one’s conclusions reveal perhaps as much about oneself as they do about one’s object of inquiry.

Indeed, even language itself—an indispensable tool not only for communicating, but also formulating our thoughts—is based on shared experience. Words only have meaning to us insofar as their denotations and connotations are experiences we’ve had ourselves. For instance, because you and I have experienced a car, the word ‘car’ has meaning for both of us, and so we can use it in a conversation. Similarly, because the word ‘color’ denotes an experience I’ve had, I can use the concept of color in my own meditations about the nature of mind.

As a matter of fact, the concept of a color palette occupies center stage today in philosophy of mind. Analytic philosophers who adhere to constitutive panpsychism use the concept to conceive—by analogy—of how a limited set of fundamental phenomenal states could be combined—like pigments in a palette—to constitute our ordinary experiences. The conceivability of this very notion rests on our shared experience of colors and how they can be combined to form other colors.

Now imagine Helen Keller as an analytic philosopher. Born deaf and blind as she was, she didn’t share with sight-capable philosophers the experience of having mixed watercolors in kindergarten. As a matter of fact, she didn’t even know what a color is. The very notion of a palette of fundamental experiences that could be combined to form meta-experiences wouldn’t be conceivable to her. And yet, the rest of us knows it is perfectly conceivable. Conceivability is thus not an objective notion, but an inherently subjective one....