Chapter 3

The epistemological problem

Now then, we are not actually in the dismal position of being able only to verify that Kant's "x" is actually "out there," without being able to say anything at all other than that. In the preceding section we saw (in Conclusion 1) that there are many different existences, and that the "x" cannot be just a single blob; and we also saw (in Conclusion 10) that repetitions of perceptions imply the same existence.

This means that we can in fact say things about the existences beyond merely talking about some "x" which is totally unknowable; and we can say these things based on what necessarily must be true about existence based on the fact that otherwise our form of consciousness is impossible. How much we can say is another story, of course; and the rest of this book is going to list some of the things we can say--and if you look at how many pages face you, you can see that it is quite a bit; and this book only scratches the surface.

But let me set up the problem in such a way that just what the issue is can be seen. Let us say that I am looking at my dog lying down out in the back yard. The molecules of her fur react to the light falling on it by having their electrons get excited and return to their "ground state" (this is really the color), radiating out light; this light comes from my dog, hits my eyes, gets translated into nerve-impulses, which then reach my brain, lifting certain nerves there above the threshold of consciousness; and the effect is the form of consciousness I have of seeing the dog.

If we take the dog as something sending a message and the perception of the dog as receiving the message, we can see what the difficulty is. The dog might then be compared with someone over in France, sending a message over the radio using a telegraph key. The clicks of the key then correspond to the molecules of the dog's fur, which absorb light and radiate out certain wave lengths. The actual color (the way the dog's fur absorbs and radiates out light) would correspond to the actual message sent by the sender. Let us say that it is "Allons, enfants de la Patrie," and so on. Now the first thing to note about the message is that it has got translated into a bunch of dots and dashes, and the key clicks don't sound at all like what the man would be saying if you heard him. Similarly, what the fur is doing responding to the light isn't what it's doing as a dog, or what it's doing as fur either; the dog which I perceive is "translated" into a set of electrons returning to their ground-state.

The radio radiation across the ocean corresponds to the light being transmitted between the dog and me. Note that the sound of the key clicks is not sound any more, any more than the resonance of the molecules (the color-as-such) is the light frequency. A second translation has occurred.

Then let us say that the message gets picked up by a receiving set in the United States. This is then translated further by a computer which is programmed to receive Morse code, and the electrical impulses generated by this computer are sent to a printer, which then prints letters to form the message received. Note that we don't know whether the original message was actually in Morse code; and in any case, the receiving instrument never hears any clicks; there is a very complex transformation here, leading to electrical impulses to the printer.

Similarly, the light reaching my eyes doesn't get translated "back" into molecules returning to their ground-state: my eyes don't become tan; but a whole new transformation occurs involving the chemicals in the cones on my retina, resulting in nerve-impulses going to the brain, where finally the self-transparent perception occurs (to keep the analogy at this point, we will have to say that the "message received" and the "reading of the message received" are the same, because the consciousness is one and the same act as the consciousness of the consciousness). At any rate, the message as received, is, say, "Fourscore and seven years ago" and so on.

"Wait now," you say. "How are you so sure that the act of consciousness didn't actually translate it back to a copy of the essence? How are you so sure that 'Allons, enfants' wasn't what was received?"

Well, when I go outside and see the light of the sun and feel its heat, I perceive these with two different kinds of forms of consciousness, whereas if science is right, the heat is just "redder" light; it is the same kind of thing and just a different wave length. Now you can say that science is wrong, of course; but (a) there is no reason why the perception would be able to "translate back" and re-perform the act that is the existence because precisely it has no way of getting "out there" and finding out what it should do; (b) it certainly seems as if "seeing a tan color" is not the same as "doing tan color" (if it were, then why do I see the sun as red and not white at sunset, when it's still actually white?); and (c) on the basis of what do you deny the evidence of the spectrometers, which certainly seem to be reacting to the same sort of energy?

No, it's just wishful thinking to hope that the conscious act "reproduces" the original act. I set the situation up just this way to show how forlorn a hope this actually is. This was actually Aristotle's solution to the epistemological problem; his idea was that the mind was a kind of "universal doer," and when it was acted on by some outside activity, it reproduced the act "without the matter"; that is, a body "becomes colored" when light hits it, because it responds to the light by acting; but as a body, it can act only in one way. The mind doesn't actually become colored when acted on by the light from the body, because, not being a body, it doesn't actually change into something; but as a "universal actor," it reproduces the act while remaining the "universal actor"; and so it only in a sense "becomes" the object. But the point is that the act of the color (the form of the existence) and the act of seeing it (the form of consciousness) are for Aristotle the same form of activity--or in Aristotelian terms, the same activity, since the "form" is the activity itself.

This gets complicated by the fact that Aristotle sometimes is talking as if the "act" in question was the cause, and sometimes (to show that the two must be one and the same) he talks about the act as being the causality, which of course is the same as the being affected. But that would mean that what you meant by color is the actual action on--not the eyes but--the brain's nerves by the nerve impulses; and this, of course, is the same as the reaction of those nerves (which at least in part is the conscious act as a reaction). But that would mean that the color of the dog is not what is in the dog, but what is going on in my head, and color is actually nervous energy(1).

Aristotle didn't have the information we now have about nerves, and so he could hold, based on what he could observe, that changes in the blood occurred right there in the eyes (and this was what he thought was the physiological aspect of seeing), and the altered blood was then carried to the heart, where it was integrated with altered blood from other senses into the single perception. But we know now that the energy acting on the eyes is nothing like the energy that is transmitted from the retina to the brain, and so it simply makes no sense nowadays to adopt Aristotle's epistemology, even in terms of "causality."

Nor does the Scholastic "intentional identity with ontological diversity" save the basic Aristotelian approach--except by defining the fact that there is some solution to the problem as what the solution is, and thus ignoring the problem altogether.

That is, the idea of "intentional identity" is that, even though the two acts are different, still for purposes of knowledge or representation they are the same; this seems to be what "intentional" deals with.

But what could that mean? It means that "Fourscore and seven years ago" is for representational purposes the same as "Allons, enfants de la Patrie." Now somehow or other, there has to be some truth in this; but (a) what on earth does it mean; and (b) how do they get to be "the same" if they are so very different?



1. Incidentally, the silly "philosophical" conundrum about whether the tree that falls crashing to the ground when no ears are around made a sound is based on this assumption that the "sound" is the causality on the ear of the air vibrations (the cause). But that isn't what we mean by "sound," because we say, "Did you hear that sound?" and the one who didn't hear it still thinks that there was a sound that he didn't hear. Further, I see my dog as at a distance from me (and as independent of me), not as acting on my eyes. So yes, the tree made a sound (made the air and ground vibrate), even if nothing heard it.