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Wilfrid Sellars: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Grey Man

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@DoIMustHaveAnUsername? introduced the thought of Wilfrid Sellars to me some time ago and, though I originally rejected his "Myth of the Given"—the notion that our beliefs are not grounded in immediate knowledge given by sensory experience—due to my own foundationalist conviction that beliefs are grounded in experience, I have since become convinced that foundationalism is wrong because knowledge is real and beliefs are not. I know that there is a computer screen in front of me—I do possess immediate knowledge—but to say that I "believe" that it is in front of me is merely to say that I will act as if I know it to be. Immediate knowledge cannot be grounded in beliefs because "beliefs" are merely an immaterial abstract concept that we use to explain our actions in an economical manner.

The same is true, mutatis mutandis, of money. Money has no causal agency and explains nothing; what does explain our actions in relation to concrete objects that are said to "represent" money, such as coins and notes, is our knowledge of the past practical consequences of failing to conform to certain socially-enforced rules regarding their handling, which serves as a motive not to, for example, overtly cheat other people.

(@Hadoblado, you can add my conversion to epistemological anti-foundationalism to your list of times that someone on this forum has been convinced to adopt a position contrary to their previous belief.)

This is related to another merit of Sellars' thought: his discovery that we theorize about our own thoughts in terms invented to describe public objects, and not the other way around. The good part of Sellars' epistemology, then, consists in his criticism of foundationalism combined with his inversion of the Cartesian paradigm whereby our theories about external objects are understood to be extensions of our theories about our own thoughts.

The bad part, I think, is that he thought that not just our theories of our own thoughts, but also our theories of our own sensations, were derived from our theories about public objects. I myself recognize no division between sensations and public objects at all; rather, I think a public object is merely a sensation shared by two or more people. I believe the world of subjective sensation and the world of objective perception to be co-extensive, two aspects of the same private, "windowless" experience. Where there is correspondence between features of two or more experiences, there is publicity.

The ugly part is that, like most of the "analytic" or "positivist" philosophers of the 20th century, who thought that the purpose of philosophy (love of wisdom) was merely to clarify scientific theories and reconcile them with intuitive experience (despite my admiration for G.E. Moore, he, too, belongs to this class), he doesn't seem to have said anything of any practical importance to anyone, for all of his prodigious systematizing. Oh, well. At least he wasn't a Hegelian.
 

Cognisant

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I have since become convinced that foundationalism is wrong because knowledge is real and beliefs are not. I know that there is a computer screen in front of me—I do possess immediate knowledge—but to say that I "believe" that it is in front of me is merely to say that I will act as if I know it to be. Immediate knowledge cannot be grounded in beliefs because "beliefs" are merely an immaterial abstract concept that we use to explain our actions in an economical manner.
You "know" there's a computer screen in front of you because light reflected off it into the photoreceptor rod and cone cells in your retina which when stimulated sent electrical signals to your brain which your brain then interpreted (based on prior experience) as a computer monitor. Your knowledge is really just a well verified belief, you might be a madman in a padded room hallucinating everything, you might be a brain in a jar receiving electrical stimulation from a computer running a simulation, heck you might even be entirely simulated.

The only difference between beliefs and knowledge is that knowledge has some basis, I know I'm not a millionaire because I checked my bank account this morning. I might be wrong, since checking my account I might have inherited a great fortune from some unknown relative, so I can choose to believe I'm a millionaire but it would not be reasonable to do so. My reasons for believing I'm a millionaire aren't based on my experience or verifiable evidence but rather fanciful presumption and wishful thinking.

I think you're trying to separate your knowledge from your beliefs because on some level you know one contradicts the other, unfortunately reality must take precedence before anything we would like to believe.
 

DoIMustHaveAnUsername?

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Honestly, I haven't read much about Sellars; I just found him appealing from the surface after hearing about him from other sources I read about.


I didn't get the impression that he was advocating knowledge of immediate senations -- rather he seemed to denying that we have immediate senations ('the given') in the first place. Now we have to be careful here, because one could argue that whatever we are presented in consciousness, is immediate to consciousness no matter how mediated and pre-processed from its original noumenal form or whatever. 'mediate' and 'immediate' gets a bit hazy if you think in that terms, but I don't frequently see any precise distinctions being made. Anyway back to the point:


Sellers' point seems to be that to have a belief or knowledge, it has to be in a propositional form (though that may be argued). But ordinarily, ordinary cases of knowledge are usually translatale to some propositional form, and in a way our experience itself is propositional. We see (comprehend) stuffs as disentangled object representations with their relations. However raw sensations cannot be propositional (the propositional form is of course something imposed by the mind), but if knowledge can only be infered (consciously) from propositional forms - raw sensations must be causally ineffective in enabling us to consciously derive any knowledge (other propostions) from raw non-propositional sensations.

However, it ultimately seems like just repeating Kant to an extent, that cognitive conditions comes to play in formalizing our experience. If you ask me, what is new about all these, I don't know. I haven't read him that much.
 

The Grey Man

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You "know" there's a computer screen in front of you because light reflected off it into the photoreceptor rod and cone cells in your retina which when stimulated sent electrical signals to your brain which your brain then interpreted (based on prior experience) as a computer monitor. Your knowledge is really just a well verified belief, you might be a madman in a padded room hallucinating everything, you might be a brain in a jar receiving electrical stimulation from a computer running a simulation, heck you might even be entirely simulated.
"I" might be entirely simulated, yes, but the fact remains that this subjective representation of unknown provenance is what makes knowledge possible. If you can doubt the concrete objects right in front of your face, then you can doubt those experiences which serve as evidence that you are not a millionaire notwithstanding what the bank teller told you. If your confidence in sensory experience falls, your confidence in empirical science goes down with it.

The error is not in thinking that concrete objects of experience are certainly there (indeed, they are, and this is a primitive assumption of the scientific method), but in thinking that one's theoretical explanations of them are just as certain. As Karl Popper pointed out, there are no scientific theories that have been proven right, only theories that have not yet been proven wrong, despite numerous attempts.
 

Cognisant

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The error is not in thinking that concrete objects of experience are certainly there (indeed, they are, and this is a primitive assumption of the scientific method), but in thinking that one's theoretical explanations of them are just as certain. As Karl Popper pointed out, there are no scientific theories that have been proven right, only theories that have not yet been proven wrong, despite numerous attempts.
Isn’t this just the same old “you can’t prove me wrong” nonsense, your beliefs are ridiculous but because I cannot absolutely positively conclusively prove that there isn’t the theoretical possibility that there’s a tiny invisible unicorn tap-dancing on my shoulder you’re going to say “science is just a theory” and continue to believe in your self-contradicting magical sky daddy.
 

The Grey Man

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This thread is not about my conception of God, which, by the way, is almost certainly not what you have in mind when you speak of a self-contradicting "sky daddy." My argument is merely that we have immediate knowledge of things through experience. We don't know where did our experience come from (actually, I think the question is nonsensical in the sense that naturalistic explanations invariably appeal to experience), but it's there nevertheless. The best we can do in the way of an explanation of experience, I think, is a mythical sort of explanation of it as a creation ex nihilo. So yes, my thought has Christian influences, but they influence the language of my thought rather than its content.
 
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