Experience and Life as Ever-Present Constraints on Knowledge

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This essay argues that acknowledging the existence of mind-independent facts is a matter of vital importance, in that acquiescence before the layout of the world is something demanded of knowing agents from the most elementary empirical deliverance
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  EXPERIENCE AND LIFE AS EVER-PRESENT CONSTRAINTSON KNOWLEDGE MARC CHAMPAGNE Abstract:  This essay argues that acknowledging the existence of mind-independentfacts is a matter of vital importance, in that acquiescence before the layout of theworld is something demanded of knowing agents from the most elementaryempirical deliverance to the most abstract construct. Building on the idea thatnormativity requires the presence of more than one option to choose from, theessay shows how the cessation of one’s life is the disjunctive alternative of anyexperiential episode. This much has been missed, it argues, because of a general-ized failure to appreciate how even the simplest atomic contents embroil theirsubjects in acts of assent. Its account thus casts a new light on relativism andskepticism, revealing them to be provisional luxuries supported only by the cog-nitive labor of others.Keywords: normativity, objectivity, experience, life, givenness, knowledge, percep-tion, reasons, epistemology, empiricism, justification, atomism, relativism,skepticism.Visible nature is all plasticity and indifference, a multiverse, as one might call it,and not a universe. To such a harlot we owe no moral allegiance. . . . —William James, “ Is Life Worth Living?  ” (1895, 10)[A]nyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions isinvited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apart-ment. I live on the twenty-first floor. —Alan Sokal,  Beyond the Hoax  (2008, 94) Introduction A sizable portion of the Western philosophic tradition is concerned withthe idea of objective knowledge. Yet, what is objectivity, and why shouldanybody take its pursuit seriously? Addressing the former question,Robert Brandom has identified what he calls the “rational constraintconstraint”—that is, “to make intelligible how perceptual experienceembodies the way the world imposes not merely causal, but rationalconstraints on thinking” (1998, 369). The influence of Wilfrid Sellars’s bs_bs_banner © 2015 Metaphilosophy LLC and John Wiley & Sons LtdMETAPHILOSOPHYVol. 46, No. 2, April 20150026-1068 © 2015 Metaphilosophy LLC and John Wiley & Sons Ltd  (1963, 127–96) critique of the “myth” of the Given is unmistakable here(see Koons 2004). As I understand it, though, the constraint enunciated byBrandom can and should be read in both directions, that is, to makeintelligible how experience, properly construed, comprises not merely dis-cursive but causal considerations as well. Only by nontrivially incorporat-ing both aspects, I submit, can one do justice to the very idea of “imposition” (or “constraint,” for that matter). Short of this, one runs therisk of espousing an account that either renders the very concept of knowledge implausibly mechanical or details sundry rules of cut and parrythat fail to show in a noncircular way why these should be binding, insofaras “[g]iven a rule or a requirement, we can ask whether you ought tofollow it, or whether you have a reason to do so” (Broome 2007, 162).In an attempt to break past this false choice and articulate a philo-sophic motivation for taking the very idea of objectivity seriously, I wantto essay a conception that better captures empirical knowledge’s hybridcausal-cum-discursive nature. I will portray knowledge as acquiescencebefore coercive situations that do not admit of any alternative (save one’sdeath), and will argue that the discursive space that characterizes complexsocietal contexts, far from being the stuff of warrant, is what makespossible deviations from this biological default. On this view, theconditionality of life coupled with experience renders the attainment of some measure of knowledge literally unavoidable.The angle here will not be “Darwinian”: I am not concerned with howa species qua natural kind cannot ignore its surroundings on pain of notbeing fruitful and multiplying (although I will say a few words in thatdirection at the close of the essay). Rather, my focus is on why even asingle individual has no choice but to know the world—be it in a lifetime,a year, or even a singular moment. Carrying out this inquiry means thatmy methods will be more  a priori   (I will largely eschew the commonexegetic approach, engaging instead in genuine philosophical reflection).Of course, providing a tenable account at the scale of the individualsubject reinforces the macroscopic induction that evolutionary fitnessspeaks heavily in favor of epistemological realism. Inserting an Overlooked Possibility I want to begin by considering a situation that—though admittedly con-trived for argumentative purposes—nicely captures the locus of my con-cerns. Instance a person standing on a railroad track. There are large brickwalls behind and to one side of her, forming an L-shaped barrier. As atrain comes rushing toward her, she can either stay put and die, or she canmove over to the one side unobstructed by a wall and live. Now, thephilosophical question I want to ask is: Supposing she moves out of theway, does she subsequently have a bona fide reason to support what shehas done? In other words, is the situation so constituted that it provides236  MARC CHAMPAGNE© 2015 Metaphilosophy LLC and John Wiley & Sons Ltd  her with full-fledged rational  justification  —or does the impoverished arrayof alternatives she faced supply her only with  exculpation ? The situation isphilosophically interesting because it seems to admit of only one possiblealternative, such that the term “alternative” becomes something of amisnomer. The issue, then, is whether this sort of situation can furnish anagent with a justification that is properly epistemic.The precise terms of my example are dialectically unimportant; whatmatters is the extremely limited menu of options. The person on the trackis, quite literally, cornered. Her train of thought is suddenly coerced by herworldly environment into taking a certain direction—in this case a stepsideways. What we have here, in essence, is a case of what the novel andmovie  The Godfather  immortalized as “an offer you can’t refuse.” In otherwords, “choose” to do such and such—or die. That’s arguably a peculiarsort of “choice” (in decision theory, this situation is referred to as“Hobson’s choice,” after a man who would allow his horse-renting clientsto choose only the horse nearest the stable door). Even so, careful reflec-tion shows that we experience analogous events on a daily basis. I may notwant the phone to ring, but—without prior warning and with or withoutmy consent—it does; and in any attempt at denying this I have no choicebut to take note of its ringing. The epistemological bone of contention,then, is whether such coercive empirical happenings can supply us with“knowledge” in the demanding sense of the term, or whether such casesare too coarse and primitive to enter into what Sellars called “the logicalspace of reasons.”Suppose that the person in the example opts to dodge the incomingtrain by stepping over to the only side available to her. As she standssafely removed from the ensuing wreck, her heart is still pounding, butfrom a cognitive standpoint the event has been thoroughly domesticated.The shocking sense of surprise, short-lived and prompted from without,has now been categorized and stored in memory. What is the  normative status of the in absentia representation she now entertains? Specifically,is she warranted in thinking “I had a reason to move out of theway”—or is she limited to thinking “I had no choice but to move out of the way”? Although there is no sharp boundary delineating the domainof the ethical within the more broadly normative, the dilemma I want tocall attention to here should be read in an epistemological key. In short,the question is what to make of the seventeenth-century poet SamuelButler’s lines “He that complies against his will, / Is of his own opinionstill.”Many current philosophers would argue that such situations providean agent with exculpation only. John McDowell—a prominent follower of Sellars—notes that “[a]ccording to the Myth of the Given, the obligationto be responsibly alive to the dictates of reason lapses when we come to theultimate points of contact between thinking and reality” (2002, 42).Rejecting this view, McDowell holds that “the Given is a brute effect of 237 EVER-PRESENT CONSTRAINTS ON KNOWLEDGE© 2015 Metaphilosophy LLC and John Wiley & Sons Ltd  the world, not something justified by it” (42). The idea here is that theGiven’s causal “brutality,” while it may have a role in the genesis of thoughts, nevertheless prevents it from ever contributing to the justifica-tion of knowledge.We can better compass what motivates this claim by closely examiningthe idea that knowledge is a normative commodity. Normativity, in itsmost basic sense, seems to involve a selection among alternatives, bestow-ing a certain weight upon some things at the expense of others. In theethical sphere, this triage pertains to actions deemed “good” or “bad.”Epistemological normativity, on the other hand, manifests itself mostsaliently in the aspiration to sort out the “true” from the “false,” the“warranted” from the “unwarranted,” and so on. In all these cases,normativity requires a minimum of two classes in which to sift the objectsappraised. The possible outlets can be still higher in number, but for oneto be able to make a judgment, a minimum of two alternatives must bepresent, otherwise there is simply nothing to be right or wrong about. Insum, normativity requires that an agent select among two or more dis- juncts and/or arrange these in an ordered set. Schematically, then, we cansay that the following is the most primitive condition under whichnormativity can unfold (the informal rendering is by no means intended tosquare with the canons of symbolic logic):[hold that P] or [hold that not-P (Q, R, S, etc.)]Here, there is an alternative between two (or more) contents.Now, consider the peculiar case of the Given. The Given, by definition,would be a content that the mind cannot refuse. In such a case, somethingis presumably known to be thus, and such knowledge could not be other-wise. There is no room for choice, no room for evasion; one’s stream of consciousness is directed in a certain way—and that is all. Through someworldly impetus originating outside the purview of one’s volitionalcontrol, perceptual experience is simply letting one know that P, whetherone likes it or not. We can render this predicament as follows:[hold that P]Here, there is one content and no alternative.According to a standard empiricist account, the mind can be, is, andshould be connected to the world in this way. Of course, such a statewould effectively foreclose the possibility of any misalignment between themind and the world (hence its attractiveness to the epistemologist). But if we try to intelligibly express why we have come to know what has beenforcefully delivered to us, the best we can do is plead the seventh clause of Wittgenstein’s  Tractatus  (1961), stay mum on the issue, and/or have238  MARC CHAMPAGNE© 2015 Metaphilosophy LLC and John Wiley & Sons Ltd  recourse to mute ostension. In other words, it is simply Given to me thatway, and I just don’t have a choice to take notice of it as such.  See?  Although proponents of Givenness countenance this sort of situationas the baseline of knowledge in theory, they typically maintain that acorrupting influence intervenes in practice. Historically, one of the morepopular culprits in this regard has been the idea that the human mind iscluttered by all sorts of superfluous psychological noise and inferentialimperfections, a large portion of which purportedly comes prepackagedwith one’s automated mastery of a natural language. What is needed,according to this gloss, is a regimented system of symbolism that wouldsift out these inessentials, so as to link up with its referential domain viademonstratives. To secure objective knowledge, according to this view, isto travel the open book of nature with a sensory apparatus and a well-chosen posse of syntactic connectives, so as to broker authoritativeencounters with discrete parcels of the Given. Epistemology thus becomesmainly a subtractive endeavor—a question of trimming representationsuntil a point of direct contact with the world is reached. To be sure, onemay err higher up in the chain of abstractions, thought, and language. Butsince experience is so constituted that it can force one to grasp a givencontent, objective knowledge is not a chimera and is in principle possible.Yet, as we have just seen, there are good grounds for discounting anatomic content from the realm of epistemology altogether. For if anagent were to give his assent to the P of the alternative-free scenario, theensuing judgment would be completely indiscernible from his dissent,which would also register as P. Call this “the argument from lack of alternatives” (although there is a surface kinship here with some discus-sions in ethics after Frankfurt 1969, the respective issues addressed shouldnot be confused).As I noted, a lack of alternatives can be glossed as a strength, becauseit precludes error. Yet, since in either case one is cornered into thinkingthat P, any subsequent claim of   rational   warrant is, for all intents andpurposes, nullified. The argument from lack of alternatives thus holdsthat the content cannot constitute an argument, since the “conclusion”would double as a “premise,” thereby collapsing any inferential derivation(using the jargon of decision theory, we could say the unary “option” inHobson’s choice spikes the relevant utility to an asymptotic maximum,generating a strange sort of strict dominance). In light of knowledge’snormative status, “offers one can’t refuse” fall outside the ambit of  justificatory relations, and thus rationality.As far as I can see, this consequence follows directly from the concep-tion of the Given as depicted above. Hence, I readily grant that somethingunary could never be the object of a normative appraisal. I want to argue,however, that knowledge at its most primitive is not “unary” in the senseaccepted by proponents of Givenness but rather presents itself to anyknowing agent as a  binary  alternative.239 EVER-PRESENT CONSTRAINTS ON KNOWLEDGE© 2015 Metaphilosophy LLC and John Wiley & Sons Ltd
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