The Surpassing Strangeness of (Believing in) Sense-Data

A confession (although my regular readers will likely be unsurprised):  For me, many of the most perplexing philosophical problems relate to philosophers themselves.  Here’s one thing I mean by that.  I find the arguments for sense-data unmoving–they are few in number and they radiate only a meager glory.  But I find the fact that philosophers have come to believe (in some at least professional sense of that term) that there are sense-data deeply fascinating.  How can that be?  It staggers credulity.  Surely no one, not Russell, not Moore, especially not Moore, really believes that there are sense-data?

When you look closely at supposed arguments for sense-data, you actually find little argumentation.  Conjuration is what you find instead.  Sense-data are made to appear (usually hands are waved, even while they are perhaps waived) via an open sesame–‘illusion’, ‘dream’, ‘error’, ‘double-vision”, ‘after-image’.

In his “Moore’s Theory of Sense-Data”, O. K. Bouwsma masterfully reveals how hard it is to succeed–or, how easy it is to fail–to get the conjuration right.  Moore takes himself to have supplied instructions that will allow the reader to “pick out” a sense-datum.  (Look at your hand and do as follows….)  Bouwsma tries repeatedly to follow Moore’s instructions, but never manages to pick out a sense-datum–he keeps slipping, seeing his hand and failing to see the sense-datum.  Bouwsma ends the essay by noting that he has not refuted Moore:  and that is surely right.  But we should also remember that a set of instructions is neither valid nor sound.  It is either helpful or not.  Bouwmsa has shown that Moore’s instructions are not helpful.  They didn’t help Moore.  Moore took himself to have picked out a sense-datum (he seems to have had one handy) and then asked himself how he had gone about it, assuming, we might say, that since he had succeeded (however he did, if he did), anyone following his instructions would succeed.  Moore as reverse-engineer.  How much help are Moore’s instructions for someone who does not (yet) believe in sense-data and is waiting for one to appear, waiting to succeed in picking one out, before believing in them?  (I’m from Missouri; show me!)

Rogers Albritton on Skepticism: “Words and their meanings are as ‘external’ as trees.”

We break in on Albritton mid-argument (from Philosophical Issues 21):

…What we know (as some unfortunate men and women might not, though they’ve heard of both baboons and human beings) is that we are human beings, not baboons, a fact (if “fact” is the word for it) from which it does not follow that we can’t be baboons or must be human beings. No such modal remarks are in order, as far as I can see, in our present situation. And it seems equally out of order that the earth may or can’t be supported by a huge tortoise or a transparent column with holes in it for the moon and so forth. Out of order in our actual situation, that is, which I can’t help. I didn’t invent it. Nobody did. One can invent others. What one can’t invent is a position outside all such epistemic confines, in which the question “Is it possible or not?” nevertheless has its usual purchase and from which it is evidently possible after all that the earth is supported by a huge tortoise and we are baboons. That position, in which, as one imagines it, no question would have an answer already, and we would be free to think absolutely anything possible (what else could we think?) would on the contrary be one in which the question, whether it is possible or impossible that p, could not have its usual sense, and indeed no question could have its usual sense, since its sense would be in question too, so to speak. In the position from which one would see that anything’s possible, if one could see anything, one couldn’t see anything, or think anything either. The idea of this position in which nothing is settled yet is illusory, as far as I can see, and so is the idea, which might seem more promising, of the position in which nothing a posteriori is settled yet, or nothing a posteriori except that it looks as if there were physical objects about (and the like), which might seem still more promising. Words and their meanings are as ‘external’ as trees. If I have to think that perhaps there are no such words, then I have to think that perhaps my very own as it were words have no meanings either, and therefore I am not, as I would have thought, thinking. And that isn’t thinking…


Rogers Albritton

Philosophy, as he [Wittgenstein] means to be practicing it “simply puts everything before us, [it] neither explains nor deduces anything” and it “may not advance any kind of theory” (Philosophical Investigations I 126, 109). Its aim is, rather, “complete clarity,” which “simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear” (ibid., 133). I’d like nothing better. Moreover, I believe it: the problems (at any rate, those I care most about) should indeed, as he says, completely disappear. That’s how they look to me. I love metaphysical and epistemological theories, but I don’t believe in them, not even in the ones I like. And I don’t believe in the apparently straightforward problems to which they are addressed. However, not one of these problems has actually done me the kindness of vanishing, though some have receded. (I don’t have sense-data nearly as often as I used to.) And if there is anything I dislike more in philosophy than rotten theories, it’s pretenses of seeing through the “pseudoproblems” that evoked them when in fact one doesn’t know what’s wrong and just has a little rotten metatheory as to that.

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