Sunday, August 02, 2015

One great blooming, buzzing confusion

I'll comment on some statements by Gordon Clark in Language and Theology

At any one time a person has impressions of red, smooth, sweet, and dozens of others. To perceive a thing, these “sensations” must be combined. Note that no one ever sees a dog or a tree. A dog is not just black; he is also soft, fuzzy, and perhaps has an odor. But before one perceives a dog, he must choose black, fuzzy, and odor, combine them, and only then has he the perception of his pet.
Yet there is nothing in the single qualities that forces him to select these particular ones and discard the dozens of others he also has at the same time. Why does he not select the fuzzy, the sound B-flat, and the taste of Bacardi rum, all of which he senses at the same moment, and combine them into the perceived object? Is there anything in a person’s fifty or more sensations that compels the selection of these few rather than another few? 

i) Clark's description is barely coherent. Indeed, it seems to be flat contradictory. He acts as though the percipient begins with a flurry of random sensory impressions. He must then select for certain impressions to see his dog. But that's backwards.

According to his own illustration, visual, tactile, and olfactory impressions are already combined in the dog. The dog itself is a package of secondary qualities. It isn't the percipient, but the sensory object, that selects for these impressions. Prepackaged qualia. The dog embodies this particular set of secondary qualities. They cluster in the dog. 

ii) In addition, even if these secondary qualities are unrelated to each other, they are causally related to primary qualities. It is because the fur has a certain composition that it's soft, fuzzy, and colored. This is not a miscellaneous combination of secondary qualities. They are indirectly interconnecting to each other by being directly connected to the composition of fur. 

iii) Now, that's somewhat oversimplified. The sensory organs may also contribute to our perception of color or oder. Different animals have different sensory acuities.

But that also involves a causal chain linking the stimulus to the sensory organ. These aren't arbitrary collections of sensory impressions. Rather, these are linked by causal chains, from primary to secondary qualities, phenomenal properties, and sensory relays. 

Usually people say that they combine the sensations emanating from the same place. Well, aside from the difficulty of locating the particular spot from which an odor, or sound, emanates, this answer presupposes a knowledge of space in general. Where, then, did the knowledge of space come from? Has anyone seen, smelled, or touched it? Kant tried to defend a knowledge of space against Hume; but he could not remain an empiricist to do so. He had to have a priori forms of the mind.

i) What about locating a dead rat in your house by scent? Did Clark never have that experience?

ii) Moreover, the olfactory sense is weak in humans, but does Clark imagine that dogs can't locate an odoriferous object by scent? 

iii) Apropos (ii), does he imagine that a dog must have an idea or definition of space to zero in on an odoriferous object? 

iv) Apropos (iii), Clark fails to distinguish between theoretical and pre-theoretical concepts. Does he suppose I can't find my car in a parking garage unless I first determine whether physical space is Euclidean or Riemannian? 

v) He commits the elementary blunder of confusing space with what space contains. Space itself needn't be fuzzy to contain a fuzzy object. What is Clark unable to draw that rudimentary distinction? Must a cookie jar have the same secondary qualities as the cookies? If the jar is metal, must the cookies be metal?

vi) Clark may well be right that our concepts of space and number can't originate in sensory perception alone. But that's not an argument against sense-knowledge. At best, that demonstrates the limitations of sensory perception. 

Why do these objections even seem to be reasonable to Clark? He's so eccentric. It's as if he was a bubble boy as a child.

The sensible world may be one great blooming, buzzing confusion to an infant, but that's because the infant lacks the cognitive development to sort it out, and not because it's inherently chaotic. 


  1. It seems that you saying that skepticism is an infantile position to hold on to.These objections to Clark's viewpoint, which examine his fuzzy concept of space are only right in the eyes of those who hold to such a position. But could systematic doubt be an effective way of arriving at some idea of what our experience is?

    1. Just last month I discussed the value and limitations of methodological doubt: