“Belief that a perceived phenomenon is self-authenticating does not make it so.” – Peter Boghossian
Peter Boghossian is what I call a “power atheist;” sort of a kinder, gentler militant atheist on the front lines of the New Atheism movement (currently spearheaded by the usual suspects, i.e. Dawkins, Harris, etc.). Who Peter Boghossian is is not particularly relevant to his quote I’m about to criticize, but I felt like mentioning him by name because for the most part, I think he’s a pretty smart guy. Still, we’re all guilty of saying silly things at times. I do it perhaps more often than not, especially when I’m around my cats. As the hand that feeds them, they respectfully remain silent when I err.
So he tweets the afore mentioned gem a few days ago, and it brought to mind something I said about The Truth a couple of blogs back. I wrote, “…there is seemingly no such thing as completely correct knowledge beyond the self-evident truths of internal observations such as ‘I am seeing yellow’ which I could easily dispute but won’t bother because such truths don’t mean anything to anyone other than yourself anyway.” Now, you see how I said something silly? I said I could easily dispute an internal observation. But can I?
Let’s say I say to myself “I am seeing yellow,” because I am. I’m seeing yellow and the fact that I’m seeing yellow is self-authenticating. Now, it may be the case that someone is prodding my brain with an electrode which is in turn is making me see yellow, but the fact that I’m seeing yellow cannot be disputed within me. The neuroscientist/asshole prodding my brain may argue that I am not seeing yellow, not from his perspective, but therein lies the rub: If, according to Sammy Scientist, I’m not seeing yellow – which appears self-evident – how do I know Sammy Scientist exists? I experience him as much as the yellow color I’m seeing, so if I’m not seeing yellow, am I even experiencing Sammy Scientist? Regardless of the how the stimulus is administered, the resulting internal observation cannot be refuted. Even if I’m tired and in fact hallucinating a cup of coffee (a delusion since it’s not there when I reach for it), I cannot deny that I saw a cup of coffee. This is the route by which Descartes came to his conclusion that he, as a thinking thing, exists. His conclusion does require an amendment, though. Even if someone or something planted in Descartes’ ‘brain’ each words cogito, ergo, and sum so that the thought appeared continuous, thus giving rise to the internal sentence “cogito ergo sum,” it cannot be denied that something – whatever I or Descartes may really be – is receiving data to record/perceive. With that in mind (excuse the pun), we can take up the issue of whether external reality matches internal reality. That is, we can deny the external reality of an internal observation on the basis of how a stimulus is given. That’s why I ended my particular quote with “…such truths don’t mean anything to anyone other than yourself anyway.”
I’m sure – I hope – this was the context for Boghossian’s quote. (So, maybe it’s not silly after all.) Boghossian’s quote was probably given in the context of an argument with a theist who may have said something to the effect that they know Jesus is real since they have experienced Jesus within (felt Jesus’ presence, for example). And Boghossian likely responded that such an experience doesn’t qualify as an external reality, as would I. One cannot say they have felt Jesus and then claim – as a matter of necessity – that Jesus exists external to one’s self. Our theist in this example simple cannot be sure that even though they have felt the presence of Jesus, they can’t be sure what triggered the internal observation; it may have been drugs, an evil demon, or worst of all, simply an overriding desire to believe. That’s why I get a little irritated when theists attempt to convert me; they think they’ve overcome solipsism.
Of course, we all act like we’ve overcome solipsism, every day, all day, with everyone we meet and know. Christ, we even allow anecdotal evidence (eyewitness testimony) in a court of law! But you can’t take away from someone what they’re experiencing inside. You can’t take away from me the fact that I am seeing yellow when I am seeing yellow, even if I’m a robot being shown slide after slide of yellow. (Great, now we can’t deny the internal observation of robots.) You can’t separate me from the phenomenon even if you know precisely what triggered the phenomenon. A disbeliever has no evidence with which to contradict anyone’s internal observation. Even if Sammy Scientist showed me an MRI of my brain as I saw yellow and said, “That blip right there is you seeing yellow,” the blip and what I experience are not the same thing. Or is it? Doesn’t seem like it; measuring something is not the something itself, hence The Problem of Substance, or, The Problem of Mind, in this case. On the other hand, I cannot expect to convince a disbeliever since they likewise cannot share what I experience, not yet anyway. (God help us when technology makes that possible.)
Update: Boghossian posted this quote last night from a discussion with a gentleman we’ll call Nathan, because that’s his name…”Self-authentication means there's no corrective mechanism (CM). If no CM then how is the perception differentiated from a delusion?” Well, delusions are what a disbeliever of your perceptions calls your perceptions. As I pointed out above, there is no CM for a perception. Perceptions are the starting point for all, more complex thoughts, be they axioms of reason or articles of faith. You can only argue for a delusion in the case of complex thoughts, not lone perceptions. It surprises me that Boghossian doesn’t understand this.