Friday, May 08, 2009

The secular solipsist

One of the oddities about modern atheism is the neglect of W. V. Quine. Quine was undoubtedly the most important secular philosopher of the 20C. By that I don’t mean the most important 20C philosopher who happened to be a secularist–as if secularism were incidental to his work. No, secularism was central to his work.

His entire philosophy is a research programme in atheism. A thoroughgoing attempt to secularize ontology and epistemology.

Even The Secular Web, which has a big online library of modern and historical atheists, has nothing on Quine. Why is that?

I can think of a couple of reasons. Quine doesn’t use specifically atheistic language. He doesn’t explicitly attack Christianity or theism. Unlike Russell or Mackie or Flew, his atheistic agenda is far more subtle. So subtle, indeed, that he’s invisible to the average atheist!

On a related note, he’s a dry, technical writer. He lacks the rhetorical zingers or picturesque parables that you get from secular popularizers. He lacks their hortatory, moralistic, inspirational style.

All of which goes to show how the average atheist is fundamentally anti-intellectual. They don’t read Quine because he’s boring. They’d rather be entertained. That’s why the clownish potboilers of Hitchens and Dawkins are bestsellers, while Quine gathers dust on numbered shelves of the college library.

However, if you want to see what a rigorously atheistic worldview looks like, read Quine. And if you do read Quine–especially late Quine, when he was putting the finishes touches on his philosophy–what do you find?

Ironically, Quine begins with hard science, which endeavors to reduce everything to a third-person description, only to end up with a highly internalized and ultimately projective viewpoint–where the input is the output. His epistemology is so circular and skeptical, while the resultant ontology is so subjective and attenuated, that his outlook is practically indistinguishable from solipsism.

“It would address the question of how we, physical denizens of the physical world, can have projected our scientific theory of that whole world from our meager contacts with it; from the mere impacts of rays and particles on our surfaces and a few odds and ends such as the strain of walking uphill,” From Stimulus to Science (Harvard 1999), ibid. 16.

“There is a puzzle here. Global stimuli are private: each is a temporally ordered set of some one individual’s receptors. Their perceptual similarity, in part innate and in part modeled by experience, is private as well. Whence then this coordination of behavior across the tribe?” ibid. 20.

“The sensory atomist was motivated, I say, by his appreciation that any information about the world is channeled to us through the sensory surfaces of our bodies; but this motivation remained obscure to him. It was obscured by his concern to justify our knowledge of the external world. The justification would be vitiated by circularity if sensory surfaces and external impacts on nerve endings had to be appealed to at the outset of the justification,” Confessions of a Confirmed Extensionist and Other Essays (Harvard 2008), 328.

“There is much clarity to be gained by dropping the project of justifying our knowledge of the external world but continuing to investigate the relation of that knowledge to its sensory evidence. Obscurity about the nature of the given, or epistemic priority, is then dissipated by talking frankly of the triggering of nerve endings. We then find ourselves engaged in an internal question within the framework of natural science. There are these impacts of molecules and light rays upon our sensory receptors, and there is all this output on our part of scientific discourse about sticks, stones, planets, numbers, molecules, light rays, and, indeed, sensory receptors; and then we pose the problem of linking that input causally and logically to that output,” ibid. 328.

“Much as I admire [David] Lewis’s reduction, however, it is not for me. My own line is a yet more sweeping structuralism, applying to concrete and abstract objects indiscriminately. I base it, paradoxically as this may seem, on a naturalistic approach to epistemology. Natural science tells us that our ongoing cognitive access to the world around us is limited to meager channels. There is the triggering of our sensory receptors by the impact of molecules and light rays. Also there is the difference in muscular effort sensed in walking up or down hill. What more? Even the notion of a cat, let alone a class or number, is a human artifact, rooted in innate predisposition and cultural tradition. The very notion of an object at all, concrete or abstract, is a human contribution, a feature of our inherited apparatus for organizing the amorphous welter of neural input,” ibid. 402-03.

“The conclusion is that there can be no evidence for one ontology as over against another, so long anyway as we can express a one-to-one correlation between them. Save the structure and you save all. Certainly we are dependent on a familiar ontology of middle-sized bodies for the inception of reification, on the part both of the individual and of the race; but once we have an ontology, we can change it with impunity,” ibid. 405.

“This global ontological structuralism may seem abruptly at odds with realism, let alone naturalism. It would seem even to undermine the ground on which I rested it: my talk of impacts of light rays and molecules on nerve endings. Are these rays, molecules, and nerve endings themselves not disqualified now as mere figments of an empty structure?” ibid. 405.

“Naturalism itself is what saves the situation. Naturalism looks only to natural science, however, fallible, for an account of what there is and what what there is does. Science ventures its tentative answers in man-made concepts, perforce, couched in man-made language, but we can ask no better. The very notion of object, or of one and many, is indeed as parochially human as the parts of speech; to ask what reality is really like, however, apart from human categories, is self-stultifying. It is like asking how long the Nile really is, apart from parochial matters of miles or meters. Positivists were right in branding such metaphysics as meaningless,” ibid. 405.

“So far as evidence goes, then, our ontology is neutral. Nor let us imagine beyond it some inaccessible reality. The very terms ‘thing’ and ‘exist’ and ‘real,’ after all, make no sense apart from human conceptualization. Asking after the thing in itself apart from human conceptualization, is like asking how long the Nile really is, apart from our parochial miles or kilometers,” ibid. 416.

“So it seems best for present purposes to construe the subject’s stimulus on a given occasion simply as his global neural intake on that occasion. But I shall refer to it only as neural intake, not stimulus, for other notions of stimulus are wanted in other studies, particularly where different subjects are to get the same stimulus. Neural intake is private, for subjects do not share receptors,” ibid. 463-64.

“But in contrast to the privacy of neural intakes, and the privacy of their perceptual similarity, observation sentences and their semantics are a public matter, since the child has to learn these from her elders. Her learning then depends indeed both on the public currency of the observation sentences and on a preestablished harmony of people’s private scales of perceptual similarity,” ibid. 464.

“These reflections on ontology are a salutary reminder that the ultimate data of science are limited to our neural intake, and that the very notion of object, concrete or abstract, is of our own making, along with the rest of natural science and mathematics,” ibid. 471.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent stuff! I wonder where atheist philosopher Graham Oppy fits in all this with Quine and other great atheist philosophers. As in, does Oppy complement Quine? Are they very different in their agenda? Does Oppy come very close to Quine in terms of intelligence and rigor? I am aware that Oppy is more explicit about his atheism.