Maarten Maartensz

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This are notes are by Maarten Maartensz to the text of Bertrand Russell's "Problems of Philosophy". Russell's text is in another file, that can be reached when on line by clicking on underlined "Back" at the end of the note.




Note 1: Is there a table which has a certain intrinsic nature, and continues to exist when I am not looking, or is the table merely a product of my imagination, a dream-table in a very prolonged dream? This question is of the greatest importance. For if we cannot be sure of the independent existence of objects, we cannot be sure of the independent existence of other people's bodies, and therefore still less of other people's minds, since we have no grounds for believing in their minds except such as are derived from observing their bodies.

This is rather curious, for nothing like this does follow. Suppose we cannot be sure of the independent existence of objects. Does it follow we cannot be sure of the independent existence of other people's bodies and minds? Surely, one may say and believe that one is not really certain whether the table one sees exists apart from one's sensations, but if one says so at all to someone else, and means it, it seems that one still believes the other person one shares this philosophical doubt with to be there both bodily and mentally. (The underlying logical point here is that we tend to doubt the existence of some objects rather than "of objects" or "of all objects". Furthermore, if we doubt a certain object or kind of objects, we generally do not at the same time doubt other kinds of objects, while normally, whatever doubts people express, they are not doubtful about the language and its properties they use to express their doubts in, nor are they doubtful that someone else may understand their doubts.)

Next, it seems too much is made of certainty. Even if we believe we cannot be sure about something, we generally also believe that we can make assumptions about the thing we are not sure of, and test some of these assumptions. What we will end up with may not be complete certainty, but it will be based on experience, and similar, perhaps uncertain, knowledge has kept millions of men alife. Back.

Note 2: (..) it may be that the whole outer world is nothing but a dream, and that we alone exist. This is an uncomfortable possibility; but although it cannot be strictly proved to be false, there is not the slightest reason to suppose that it is true.

This again is rather curious. First, it is an odd use of 'dream', and it would have been better to use a term like 'hallucination' or 'delusion'. Second, I fail to see why this would be "uncomfortable", especially if there is no way of knowing what is really true: even if each of us is fundamentally a riddle in an ocean of doubts and uncertainties, it seems meanwhile a given fact that we can explain and understand quite a lot with the common presumptions we all make, whether they can be ultimately proven or not. And third, to prove something false we need to start from something true, and therefore it seems impossible to prove anything like "everything we think is mistaken". Back.

Note 3: In fact, whatever else may be doubtful, some at least of our immediate experiences seem absolutely certain.

Indeed. This is the reason behind Descartes' "cogito ergo sum", about which it is well to quote the great philosopher Bierce:

...Descartes, a famous philosopher, author of the celebrated dictum, Cogito ergo sum - whereby he was pleased to suppose he demonstrated the reality of human existence. The dictum might be improved, however, thus: Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum - 'I think that I think, therefore I think that I am'; as close an approach to certainty as any philosopher has yet made." (The Enlarged Devil's Dictionary, entry Cartesian)

What we hold fast to is not that "at least of our immediate experiences seem absolutely certain", because it is not at all certain what "absolutely certain" should mean here, but rather that our immediate experiences are given to us in such a way that to doubt that we have them as they appear to us does not make sense.

That is: if what one sees (or seems to see) is a pink elephant flying through the sky while trailing a sign saying "Think rationally and behave reasonably, ye mortal fools!", then that is what we see (or seem to see), apart from what is really there (and the only reason we inserted the bracketed "seem to see" is that one allows thereby that what one sees may be other than the full literal and complete truth of things). Back.

Note 4: Descartes (1596-1650), the founder of modern philosophy, invented a method which may still be used with profit -- the method of systematic doubt. He determined that he would believe nothing which he did not see quite clearly and distinctly to be true. Whatever he could bring himself to doubt, he would doubt, until he saw reason for not doubting it. By applying this method he gradually became convinced that the only existence of which he could be quite certain was own. He imagined a deceitful demon, who presented unreal things to his senses in a perpetual phantasmagoria; it might be very improbable that such a demon existed, but still it was possible, and therefore doubt concerning things perceived by the senses was possible.

The first problem with Descartes' method of systematic doubt is that it is based on an uncritical faith that one does not doubt such and such (whatever it may be) because it seems to be quite clearly and distinctly true. This apparent truth is apparent, and may be doubted, and any purported proof of it may also be doubted. Therefore, if the method is to work at all it must end or start with something one does not doubt, and one is well advised to rather begin with that than systematically doubt everything else.

Descartes, by using his process, arrived at the one truth he could not doubt, namely that Descartes thinks he exists. We who are not Descartes may very well doubt that, and turn for more edification to the great sceptical philosopher Bierce, quoted in the previous note.

Also, Descartes' demon is merely a rhetorical device that corresponds to the possibility of starting or qualifying every sentence one can think of with "I doubt that", which may not be a truth about human psychology, but which is - we shall assume - a truth about (English) grammar.

Finally, having arrived at this level of sophistication, it is well to observe that this grammatical device does not prove any thing either way, neither logically nor psychologically: Logically, such a statement is a mere claim, and psychologically it often is incredible. Back.

Note 5: But doubt concerning his own existence was not possible, for if he did not exist, no demon could deceive him. If he doubted, he must exist; if he had any experiences whatever, he must exist. Thus his own existence was an absolute certainty to him. 'I think, therefore I am, ' he said (Cogito, ergo sum) (..)

St. Augustine argued similarly, and did so about 1200 years earlier. He argued, more plausibly "Fallor, ergo sum" i.e. "I may be mistaken, so I am".

But in any case, such arguments do not hold, however plausible they may seem to be. For if Descartes may be misled by the devil in believing he sees a fair damsel where there is none, there is no reason to believe that the devil may not make an automaton - or some ape - that mistakenly believes itself to be the philosopher Descartes, while being no such thing, and the same may be replied to St. Augstine's more modest "If I am mistaken about what I think, then at least I think": No, at best there is some appearance that appears to say or think this: all that is logically valid in either Descartes's or Augustine's arguments is to the effect that if there is an experience of the so-and-so, there is an experience - but one may be quite mistaken about what the experience is an experience of, for there may be no so-and-so at all.

This is less fanciful or hardheaded than the reader may believe (who might incline to "Come on! I know at least that I exist, whatever you say, for whatever the explanation, there are my feelings"), because, like a symphony, the sense of self a person has may be the product of many interacting contributors none of which itself is or has a self. If so, the sense of self may still be useful and important, or it may be a useless or even - as the Buddhists and many mystics claim - a harmful illusion (not so much an optical illusion as an illusion of the I), but at least in that case what we hold to be our self is less of a unit than seems suggested by simple pronouns. Back.

Note 6: When I look at my table and see a certain brown colour, what is quite certain at once is not 'I am seeing a brown colour', but rather, 'a brown colour is being seen'. This of course involves something (or somebody) which (or who) sees the brown colour; but it does not of itself involve that more or less permanent person whom we call 'I'. So far as immediate certainty goes, it might be that the something which sees the brown colour is quite momentary, and not the same as the something which has some different experience the next moment.

Indeed. That seems quite correct to me, though something must be added: there is or appears to be a difference between terms like "I" and terms like "brown", which is that the former is not given in experience in the same way as the latter. This is often expressed by saying that a term like "I" is a theoretical term, meaning by this that what it means cannot be met directly in one's experience, for example in the same way as England cannot be met in experience, though very many of England's aspects and parts can be, and may provide clear and reliable clues to the rest, while a term like "brown" is an empirical term, meaning by this that what it means can be met directly in one's experience.

Whether indeed one cannot meet one's I in one's experience is a doubtful assumption, but Russell clearly made it, and we shall follow him for the moment.

There are difficult problems here, four of which are as follows - and I shall only mention them, because Russell does hardly discuss them in his text.

  • First, the Buddhists and many mystics have claimed the I is an illusion, and it is interesting to reflect that the great religions are to a large extent organised around notions of what human selves are: non-existent illusions of something that has only momentary existence, according to the Buddhists; eternally existing souls, that spend only an infinitesimal part of eternity on earth, according to the Christians, Jews and Muslims.

  • Second, it is possible, especially if the I is a theoretical term, that one can know oneself only by bits and pieces, by glimpses and guesses, and by intuitions and intimations, but that one is never fully given to oneself - indeed very much as one's body is given in one's experience, in which most things that keep one living happen without one's knowing it or knowing why and how.

  • Third, there is the problem that people normally are at least somewhat mistaken and biased about their own properties, according to others who know them well, and that some people believe themselves sincerely to be quite different from what they really are, like the many imaginary Napoleons that are supposed to inhabit mental asylums.In any case, and apart from insanity, self-knowledge seems difficult, partial and biased.

  • Fourth, there is the problem that within our own experience we distinguish self from non-self: the external world one experiences and all things that are not one's body are at least as much part of one's very own experience as one's own self or I.

Together these points strongly suggest that ordinary supposed self-knowledge is hardly better, and because of bias and self-interest in some respects worse, than ordinary supposed knowledge of reality: it exists, but it is patchy, partial and based on guesses and fantasies. Back.

Note 7: Thus it is our particular thoughts and feelings that have primitive certainty.

With this I am going to agree, apart from "primitive certainty", and my preferred way of expressing it is - as before - that our experiences are given to us in a way nothing that is not experience is given to us. And we may doubt that (some of) our experiences are true of anything, but it seems we can only form statements to the effect that we doubt the having of the experiences that are given to us, but that this will be a psychological falsity, for in actual fact human being can do no such thing, it seems.

To extend this to a madman who claims to be able to prove he is Napoleon on Descartes' line: "I think I am Napoleon, therefore I am Napoleon":

No, for all the Cartesian argument proves is a statement like "there is experience, so there is experience" - but what the experience is supposed to be experience of is quite another issue, and one well may have experiences without there being veridical. Back.

Note 8: One great reason why it is felt that we must secure a physical object in addition to the sense-data, is that we want the same object for different people.

Not only do we "want" this: it seems by far the most sensible assumption to make to account for the fact that all people in a room may - in ordinary circumstances - come to agree quickly and easily about what they see and don't see in it. Back.

Note 9: Thus it is the fact that different people have similar sense-data, and that one person in a given place at different times has similar sense-data, which makes us suppose that over and above the sense-data there is a permanent public object which underlies or causes the sense-data of various people at various times.

Not quite, for - at least - the sense-data different people have are private to them, and may well be dissimilar (in that - e.g. - your subjective experience of red may be precisely like my subjective experience of green, although we may never come to know this). The real point is that different people may easily come to agree verbally and in behaviour about the assumptions they make about their sense-data.

Also, what they come to agree on need not be "a permanent public object" (whatever that means): they may agree the food is delicious, the jokes very funny, and the champagne intoxicating, and in each such case what they agree on is that their different private experiences agree in these respects.

And there is another point to be made here: People often seek agreement about their ethical and aesthetical values, but need not (and often do not) infer from such agreements that, therefore, the values they agree on somehow really exist also if they would not agree or would not themselves exist. In general, it seems that 'X really exists' is taken to mean as 'X exists independently from our beliefs and values', and we make such judgements not because we agree intersubjectively about X, but because this assumption is best able to explain our experiences of X. Back.

Note 10: (..) if I had no reason to believe that there were physical objects independent of my sense-data, I should have no reason to believe that other people exist except as part of my dream.

No, that's false. There have been many people - such as Berkeley, mentioned before - who believed that there are no physical objects, but who did believe there were other people (whom Berkeley believed to be immortal souls, like himself).

Note here are two important points in the background: First, all human beings have been raised by human beings who believed other human beings to have experiences like themselves, and second, for this and possibly other reasons, that there are human persons, in the sense of things experiencing like ourselves, seems to be a quite fundamental and common human assumption. Back.

Note 11: (..) we cannot appeal to the testimony of other people, since this testimony itself consists of sense-data, and does not reveal other people's experiences unless our own sense-data are signs of things existing independently of us.

No, that's also false. If we consider the possibility that the devil may mislead us (and we've done so before, when discussing Descartes), we may certainly consider the possibility that human beings are immortal souls that may be deceived in very many ways, but which are always wholly correct about each other's (non-)existence, for example, because God in his divine wisdom has made us that way. (This is not something I believe. What I do believe is that if we want to reason logically, we must take account of all possibilities.) Back.

Note 12: There is no logical impossibility in the supposition that the whole of life is a dream, in which we ourselves create all the objects that come before us. But although this is not logically impossible, there is no reason whatever to suppose that it is true; and it is, in fact, a less simple hypothesis, viewed as a means of accounting for the facts of our own life, than the common-sense hypothesis that there really are objects independent of us, whose action on us causes our sensations.

This seems true, and appeals to the right reason, namely, that the assumption of the real world is a simpler hypothesis - in some intuitive sense of "simple", to be clarified - than the assumption that all our experiences are completely illusory and are not about anything real that exists independently from our experiences. Back.

Note 13: The way in which simplicity comes in from supposing that there really are physical objects is easily seen. If the cat appears at one moment in one part of the room, and at another in another part, it is natural to suppose that it has moved from the one to the other, passing over a series of intermediate positions. But if it is merely a set of sense-data, it cannot have ever been in any place where I did not see it; thus we shall have to suppose that it did not exist at all while I was not looking, but suddenly sprang into being in a new place. If the cat exists whether I see it or not, we can understand from our own experience how it gets hungry between one meal and the next; but if it does not exist when I am not seeing it, it seems odd that appetite should grow during non-existence as fast as during existence. And if the cat consists only of sense-data, it cannot be hungry, since no hunger but my own can be a sense-datum to me. Thus the behaviour of the sense-data which represent the cat to me, though it seems quite natural when regarded as an expression of hunger, becomes utterly inexplicable when regarded as mere movements and changes of patches of colour, which are as incapable of hunger as triangle is of playing football.

This paragraph also seems true and important, for these indeed are the basic reasons to assume or infer that there is a real world independent of our experiences. (There is one mistake in it this passage: The phrase "if the cat consists only of sense-data" should be "if the cat consists only of my sense-data".) Back.

Note 14: Of course similar things happen in dreams, where we are mistaken as to the existence of other people. But dreams are more or less suggested by what we call waking life, and are capable of being more or less accounted for on scientific principles if we assume that there really is a physical world.

I know of no adequate scientific explanation of dreams, and the reason to remark upon them here is to note my amazement about the fact that my dreams seem to be far more detailed and precise than my waking fantasy is capable of imagining.

Thus, if one merely imagines the Acropolis one may have some vague fantastical image of a huge Greek temple with many columns standing on a hill, but most people could not answer questions like "how many columns do you see in your mental image?". As far as I can tell, my dreams and those of other people are such that one can, within a dream of the Acropolis, easily come to count the columns one sees. Back.

Note 15: (..) every principle of simplicity urges us to adopt the natural view, that there really are objects other than ourselves and our sense-data (..)

Well, yes - except for the fact that "every principle of simplicity" is a vague phrase that does not mean much. At present, it seems best to explain it thus: the simple number of statements with at most one binary logical connective - like 'and', 'or', 'if-then', 'if and only if' - we must assume to deduce the similarities between the (statements about the) experiences of different people in the same circumstances is far larger when we do not assume that they in fact receive the same sort of stimuli from the same independently existing things than when we do assume this. Back.

Note 16: Of course it is not by argument that we originally come by our belief in an independent external world. We find this belief ready in ourselves as soon as we begin to reflect: it is what may be called an instinctive belief.

I'd like to avoid the term "instinctive" (although it may be true that human beings somehow are naturally inclined to suppose there are other human beings) and prefer, as before, given. (This sense of being given does not exclude what seems given to us involved a lot of learning. In general, all our experiences are given to us, in that it makes no sense to say that they are different from what they appear to be, though it usually does make a lot of sense to say that what they appear to be experiences of may be - really - quite different from what we think it is.) Back.

Note 17: We may therefore admit -- though with a slight doubt derived from dreams -- that the external world does really exist, and is not wholly dependent for its existence upon our continuing to perceive it.

I agree, apart from the "slight doubt derived from dreams", because I hold they are not relevant, since we would have the same philosophical problems about our ordinary experiences if we did not dream at all. Besides, the whole problem arises from our capacity to fantasize and to suppose that what seems so may not really be so. Back.

Note 18: All knowledge, we find, must be built up upon our instinctive beliefs, and if these are rejected, nothing is left. But among our instinctive beliefs some are much stronger than others, while many have, by habit and association, become entangled with other beliefs, not really instinctive, but falsely supposed to be part of what is believed instinctively.

This is vitiated by the use of "instinctive". I prefer to say, much more simply, that all knowledge is based on assumptions, and avoid the assumption of instincts in contexts like these altogether. Back.

Note 19: Philosophy should show us the hierarchy of our instinctive beliefs, beginning with those we hold most strongly, and presenting each as much isolated and as free from irrelevant additions as possible. It should take care to show that, in the form in which they are finally set forth, our instinctive beliefs do not clash, but form a harmonious system. There can never be any reason for rejecting one instinctive belief except that it clashes with others; thus, if they are found to harmonize, the whole system becomes worthy of acceptance.

Again I want to avoid "instinctive". Also, I see no reason why we should arrive at a hierarchy of beliefs or at harmonious beliefs: all I want to arrive at are true or, if this cannot be had, probable beliefs, together with reasons why the beliefs I have are true or probable. And this may also be the place to note (1) that this position - to seek beliefs that are true or probable, for reasons that themselves are true or probable - is quite compatible with arriving at beliefs that are quite uncertain for quite good reasons, but difficult to combine with the more common beliefs that are quite certain for quite bad reasons, while (2) this involves at least a two-tier structure of beliefs, namely the beliefs one desires to establish as true or probable, which may be any kind of beliefs about any kind of thing, and the beliefs by which one establishes that beliefs are true or probable, which are the kind of beliefs about beliefs that belong to linguistics, logic, probability-theory, methodology or philosophy of science.

If one wants to articulate the most relevant difference between the two tiers it is that the latter concerns our knowledge of systems of symbolical representation, and the former our knowledge of what our symbolical representations represent. And it is clear that, e.g. when telling fairy-tales or lies, one relies on one's knowledge of symbolical representation to represent something imagined that is not really so. Back.

Note 20: It is of course possible that all or any of our beliefs may be mistaken (..)

It seems not possible or very improbable that ALL of our beliefs may be mistaken if we have - as we do - beliefs about our beliefs. For then the belief that all our beliefs are mistaken must be a mistake, since if it were true it would be false. (This type of argument seems to me more sensible than Descartes' 'Cogito', that was framed to prove the same sort of conclusion. Note that the present argument - that not all our beliefs can be mistaken, because it is itself a belief, and therefore if true and believed would show that not all our beliefs can be mistaken - neither establishes the existence of the I nor does it prove more than the belief that some beliefs are true. Even so, there is a stronger argument, which I in fact gave in the first note to the first chapter: when we use language to make any claim whatsoever, we are in fact making assumptions about language, meaning, and users of language - though it is very difficult to say which.) Back.

Note 21: But we cannot have reason to reject a belief except on the ground of some other belief. Hence, by organizing our instinctive beliefs and their consequences, by considering which among them is most possible, if necessary, to modify or abandon, we can arrive, on the basis of accepting as our sole data what we instinctively believe, at an orderly systematic organization of our knowledge, in which, though the possibility of error remains, its likelihood is diminished by the interrelation of the parts and by the critical scrutiny which has preceded acquiescence.

Apart from reservations about instincts, this seems reasonable, except for the fact that we may reject or adopt beliefs for all sorts of reasons (which need not be reasonable at all). Most people seem to arrive at most of their beliefs for no clear reason at all, whatever they like to think. This is a curious fact about human beings, which itself does not prove that the beliefs they reach are irrational or unreasonable, but only that they themselves usually cannot completely account for their beliefs, and have not arrived at them by a process of reasoning that was fully conscious and wholly clear, but rather have somehow grown in them, from a mixture of conscious and unconscious beliefs and desires. Back.