On Philosophy

October 15, 2007

Claims And Experience

Filed under: Epistemology — Peter @ 12:00 am

Consider a claim about some subject matter. How do we know that this statement actually is a claim, that it actually asserts something about the subject matter? This may seem like a pointless question, after all don’t we just know, upon seeing a claim, that it is a claim? But the point of this investigation is not to determine what is and isn’t a claim in perfectly precise terms, the point is to explore how claims work, how they are connected to their subject matter, which in turn will limit the kinds of claims that we can make if we want to actually assert something.

Obviously what makes a statement a claim that manages to actually assert something about its subject matter is not something that results from its form. When considering animals, for example, if I assert that all X are Y in the absence of some definition being given to X and Y in this context I fall to actually assert something about animals. And this failure to assert does not stem from the fact that X and Y are undefined. We could easily provide definitions for these two terms, such as X is the cause of Z and Y is the mirror image of Z, and these definitions do not help the claim assert anything about animals, despite the fact that the terms are now all defined.

What is missing in this absurd example is any kind of connection between the claim and the subject matter itself. It’s not clear what X and Y indicate about animals. X and Y need to be such that they have some implications for the subject matter. In more technical terms we could say that what is also required is for us to be working under some rules for reference that allow us to put statements involving X and Y into a kind of correspondence or equivalence with the subject matter itself, meaning that such statements reflect a way that the subject matter could be. But now we face a new problem, constructing the rules for reference. We don’t have direct access of any kind to the subject matter (despite the fact that we often think of ourselves as having this kind of access), and it doesn’t look like we can construct a set of rules for reference without such access.

To overcome this problem we must first recognize that rules for reference can be constructed out of other rules for reference. For example, if we already had F and G and rules for reference that put F and G in kind of correspondence with certain properties of the subject matter then we could define H in terms of F and G (for example, by asserting that H is the case when either F is the case or when G is the case). This creates a rule for reference that connects H with F and G. And since F and G are connected by rules for reference to the subject matter there thus exists a compound rule for reference that connects H to the subject matter. Thus all we need is some primitive rules for reference connecting some conceptual formalisms to our subject matter and then we will be able to assert things about that subject matter. If we are to uncover such primitive rules for reference I think we need to consult the means by which we have (indirect) access to the subject matter in the first place, experience. I hold experience to be our only means of access to any kind of subject matter simply because I cannot conceive of a way to have access to anything without it. Even if we suppose that our subject matter is something that we have direct intellectual access to (such as the world of forms) the only way to gain information about it is by experiencing this direct intellectual access (perhaps by experiencing our concepts or intuitions). We are only conscious of anything through experience of some kind, and so to assert that we don’t have access to the subject matter through experience is to assert that we aren’t conscious of this access, at which point it becomes hard to see how we can make claims about it when we aren’t even conscious of the fact that there is anything to make claims about.

Experience itself, I claim, provides primitive rules for reference, and from these we can construct all the rules for reference that we need. What experiences refer to is naturally a matter with some complications, which a detailed account of perceptual intentionality should uncover. But for our purposes here it is enough to describe the rules of reference between the experience and the subject matter as the experience corresponding to whatever is the source of that experience.

This chain of reasoning seems to be leading us to conclude that asserting something about some subject matter is intimately connected with experiences of some kind, such that every assertion will involve some claims about experience or possible experience. Obviously this sounds a lot like the logical positivist project, so before I add more details to this account let me say a few words about why the logical positivist project failed and why this account doesn’t suffer from similar problems. One problem with that project was that it was connected too closely with formal logic. Instead of thinking about how statements might be transformed into assertions about experience and the subject matter the logical positivists assumed that the complete theory would logically imply them. And logical implication is problematic because it doesn’t really reflect the kind of correspondences we are dealing with. But such problems could often be swept under the rug with enough qualifications. The real problem with the project is that it made no distinction between the rules for reference and the assertions themselves. The rules for reference are essentially a formalism, they aren’t claims about some subject matter. By treating the rules for reference and the claims themselves in the same way and trying to explain the relationship for the claims to experience in terms of logical implication the theory was overburdened, and collapsed under internal contradictions.

Of course the rules for reference may seem like claims. For example, to claim that X gives rise to certain experiences seems like a claim about the properties of X. What this is a manifestation of is that we only need one set of rules for reference to pin down X so that we can make assertions about it, meaning that we could pin down what X refers to in terms of experiences directly or in terms of simpler terms which are themselves well-defined. Once that it done any further rules for reference can be treated as claims, and evaluated by seeing if they conform to X as described by the rules of reference that we are taking as pinning down what X asserts about the subject matter. In an absolutely formal setting we would set up our rules for reference, set them aside as special, and then move on from there. But in real life what the rules for reference are may be subject to change, sometimes depending on the situation. For example, a kind of tree may have once been pinned down by rules for reference that connected it to certain ways trees could appear. But now particular kinds of trees are pinned down by rules for reference in terms of genetics, which are in turn pinned down by rules for reference involving specialized instruments. And thus the old rules for reference are now a claim about that kind of tree, namely that they generally develop to be trees with that kind of appearance. But despite the fact that the rules for reference may be in flux, and that what we assert with the use of a term may change as our understanding of the subject matter develops, what is asserted by a claim at any particular time must be fixed by some rules for reference, and those rules for reference are not claims.

I guess I should also briefly say something about how general terms can be pinned down by rules of reference that are essentially grounded in experiences that refer to singular occurrences. Since I have discussed how this might be accomplished previously when discussing language I will be brief. The short story then is that when we are defining our concepts in terms of experience we don’t have to define them solely in terms of the experiences we have had, we can define them in terms of possible experiences, as asserting that certain experiences are possible or impossible. And that allows us to define “kind” expectations in terms of experiences, a claim that certain experiences which distinguish the members falling under the supposed kind in some fundamental way as being impossible, or that the experiences we have about each entity falling under that kind will share certain similarities.

Finally I would like to point out that the claims developed here about what is required to assert something regarding some subject matter (rules for reference that are ultimately in terms of experience) essentially amount to a formal justification of my earlier claims regarding epistemic indifference (that if the difference between two claims doesn’t impact our experiences in any possible way then the difference between them simply doesn’t matter, or, in other words, the only things that matter are how claims relate to our experiences). Obviously epistemic indifference is motivated more by pragmatic concerns, and is independent of any theories regarding the nature of claims and their relationship to the subject matter they are about. And indeed for that reason I am inclined to rely more on epistemic indifference, since essentially the same conclusions can be drawn from both theories. But the fact that they do coincide leads me to believe that I may be reasoning correctly, since they share no premises in common and yet say basically the same thing.

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