Hey everybody. I’m a bit busy at the moment for the following reasons:
(1) We bought a new house and we take possession today. Although we have a couple weeks to move we need to get the keys, get new keys, get the carpets cleaned, and start moving;
(2) My daughter has a figure skating competition today and I have to be there (and of course I want to be there too);
(3) I need to grade final papers at school.
I’m not asking you to pull out your violins, but just be a bit patient in the next few days since I’ll be a bit slow in getting back to some of you. (I also intend to continue The Christian Delusion review asap, but that requries a bit more time than I have at the moment.)
So let me just focus on what Robert said here concerning Descartes’ cogito:
“What are you 100% certain of the existence of, though? That is, what is this “you” that you are 100% certain exists? Is it a substance? A bundle of thoughts? The transcendental unity of apperception? All of the candidates for the role of “you” that respectable philosophers have ever advanced?”
Let’s start with the language “What ARE you 100% certain of…”. There are two kinds of certainty, psychological and epistemic. Psychological certainty would refer to our maximal conviction that a given proposition is true. Our total absence of any doubt. Epistemic certainty would refer not to our psychological state in assenting to a proposition. Rather, it is a quality of the proposition itself as being one that cannot possibly mislead or possibly be wrong: it is indefeasible, incorrigible (in the sense that propositions are incorrigible, not in the sense that freckle-faced mischievous eight year old boys are incorrigible). So with that in mind, I take Robert to be asking which propositions are plausible candidates for indefeasibility and incorrigibility such that they ought to demand our maximal conviction.
My first response is a Putnamian one. Hilary Putnam famously argued for externalism about semantic content (as I recall from having read him in the late nineties anyway; I’m sure Robert will correct me). In other words, we do not always (indeed very rarely) understand the nature of that to which we refer, be it a natural kind like H2O or a thing like ourselves. To deal with this problem Putnam suggested (or more than suggested) that, as he put it, “Meaning just ain’t in the head.” We can refer to things and know about them without understanding that to which we are refering. Well that’s one response to this question, I guess. If meaning ain’t in the head, then we can be certain of our existence without knowing whether we are substances, bundles of thoughts, transcendental unities of apperception, or anything else (i.e. the true description of what we are may be external to us).
For myself, I don’t have much interest in that Putnamian line, but perhaps it’s worth thinking about. Another response is found in a proper function epistemology. Let’s say that God designed us to have a maximal psychological dispositional commitment to our own existence even though there are different possibilities as to what we could be. Let’s say further (for the sake of argument) that God designed us to believe we are substances with maximal conviction and that these other proposals (thought bundles, transcendental unities of this or that) are mere distractions from what we ought to be believing. I think in that case that we could have both psychological certainty (indeed, it is a fact that many do), but also that this psychological certainty could be rooted in a proposition known with epistemic certainty.
This whole question is not a hugely important one for me since I am a fallibilist and don’t depend much on epistemic certainty. But neither do I think we should be too quick to dis it simply because a German or Scottish philosopher came up with a possible understanding of what human persons are.