Monday, July 14, 2014

The Manifest Image is not Wrong
(revised July 15)
In 1976, when I delivered the John Locke Lectures at Oxford, I often spent time with Peter Strawson, and one day at lunch he made a remark I have never been able to forget. He said, "Surely half the pleasure of life is sardonic comment on the passing show".  This blog is devoted to comments, not all of them sardonic, on the passing philosophical show.
Hilary Putnam

In my last post (July 10, ’14), I referred to two views of color that I regard as mistaken; the view that colors are simply not real, and the view that they are dispositions to produce certain sorts of sense data under certain conditions, as well as to the view that I favor, according to which colors are dispositions of objects to affect light in certain ways, ways that in turn affect our eyes and nervous systems and thereby enable us (and O. aegina) to identify and re-identify the objects more easily. Although the second of the views I reject, the view that colors are dispositions to produce sense data [Do octopuses have the sort of sense data we do?], is more charitable to the person on the street than the simple denial that colors are real, the consequences of either view are a wholesale skepticism about the veridicality of what Sellars famously called “the manifest image”. [See http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/sellars/] Recall: In Science, Perception and Reality, Sellars famously wrote:

“Pink does not seem to be made up of imperceptible qualities in the way in which being a ladder is made up of being cylindrical (the rungs), rectangular (the frame), wooden, etc. The manifest ice cube presents itself to us as something which is pink through and through, as a pink continuum, all the regions of which, however small, are pink. It presents itself to us as ultimately homogeneous; and an ice cube variegated in colour is, though not homogeneous in its specific colour, ‘ultimately homogeneous’, in the sense to which I am calling attention, with respect to the generic trait of being colored.”

From the fact that pinkness is not reducible (in the highly restricted way Sellars described) to properties of and structural relations among the atoms of which an ice cube consists, Sellars concluded that the “manifest image”, according to which there are such things as pink ice cubes is wrong, and the scientific image is right.
Moreover, Sellars would certainly have rejected the view that colors are dispositions (in either of the ways mentioned above) on the ground that colors are not “presented to us” as dispositions. Yet Sellars famously claimed (in the very book from which I quoted) that  “in the dimension of describing and explaining the world, science is the measure of all things, of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not”.  This would seem to leave the status of “pink” in limbo, neither in the world nor in the head (colors are not “presented to us” as brain phenomena either, of course). But this is not a post on Sellars interpretation.

What I want to focus on, and what Sellars himself I suppose to have been fully aware of,  is that if you accept his “grain argument” against the very possibility of identifing anything phenomenal with anything scientifically respectable, then solidity is no more real than color. For Newton already knew that particles have “Pores or Empty Spaces between them”, indeed, the proportion of “empty space” to “particles” (which Newton still conceived of as solid) had to be enormous (as Newton himelf calculated). Nor is the criterion for a collection of (today, quantum mechanical) particles being a “solid” a simple one, nor is it free of reference to forces, which are arguably dispositions. In sum, solidity is not “presented to us as” the complex quantum electro-dynamical phenomenon that it is. So, if Sellars is right, there aren’t solid ice cubes at all, never mind the color bit. And, contrary to Davidson’s famous Principle of Charity or any similar principle (something required if there is to be any rationale for interpretation at all!), almost everything the ordinary speaker of a natural language says is false.
Even worse, we cannot really say that at least we know what is strictly true, namely the “scientific image”. For each century seems to produce a radically different scientific image, and we not know what the scientific image of the next century might look like. (For a debate on this, see the very first post on this blog.) Yet the many relevant changes in our scientific image since Newton do not lead scientists to say that gravitation does not really exist; not should it. They say that Newton was right that gravitation exists, but wrong about its nature. And similarly, we can say that pinkness exists, but the manifest image is wrong about its nature. Both the manifest image and the scientific image are, in many respects, approximately right (although the standards of accuracy appropriate to them are, of course, very different).

But the whole Sellars argument depends on the premise that As can’t really be Bs unless there is an explicit (and rather transparent, it seems from his examples) reduction of A-terms to B-terms (terms like “ladder” to terms like “rung” and “fastened to”). I don’t buy that premise. It leads to disastrously skeptical metaphysics and (if some principle of charity in interpretation is essential to making meaning-assignments empirically testable) bad philosophy of language as well. I think the manifest image is largely right, and that what science does is to explain why it is largely right, not show that it is wholly wrong.

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