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  1. The Problem of the External World
  2. "Contextualism and skepticism about the external world" by Tim Black
  3. UC Davis Philosophy 102
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The Problem of the External World

So anti-theoretical contextualists conclude that the burden of proof is on the skeptic. But some argue that the principles on which skepticism depends are not absent from our ordinary ways of thinking. The existence of this unresolved dispute suggests that anti-theoretical contextualists have not shifted the burden of proof to the skeptic. Anti-theoretical contextualists also fail to refute skepticism outright.

Their primary argument here is one in which the notion of certainty plays a key role. Theoretical contextualism claims that the solution to skeptical puzzles lies in the fact that the standards for knowledge shift from context to context. Yet if theoretical contextualist solutions are to be adequate, they must explain how those standards shift. Unfortunately, theoretical contextualism fails to provide this explanation. This explanatory failure, along with the problems that face individual theoretical contextualist accounts, shows that theoretical contextualist responses to skepticism are inadequate.

Even though contextualism fails, a Moorean invariantism—according to which the standards for knowledge are always low—allows us to know across contexts the things we ordinarily take ourselves to know. The entity, which endures, and our changing forms of perceiving it, our changing perspectives on it.

"Contextualism and skepticism about the external world" by Tim Black

Abstract away, he would say, form a concept? There are no such things. All we have, all we can know, is the stream of sense data that goes by before our nose. And even our nose is a temporary union of sense data. If we go by sense data alone, we must conclude there are no such entities.

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What we really experience is a succession of different bundles, each closely related to the previous of course, but nevertheless different. What we call an entity is simply a name for a loose collection of qualities constantly changing partners.

Why do you have the illusion that you see the identical entity enduring across time? What keeps the qualities of a thing together? Something must keep them together. Then you do need a metaphysical glue to integrate them. Now the truth is that we do not observe any such thing as atomic, self-contained, simple qualities.

We do not observe loose collections of independent qualities at all.

The separation from an entity of its various qualities is a work of analysis that human beings perform after they have first experienced the integrated entity. Now you consider an experience of an apple, for instance. Do you as an adult separately observe a simple redness and a roundness and a smoothness and a shininess, etc. No, you do not. You directly observe an apple , the integrated totality of these qualities. And only later, by an act of selective attention, can you focus on this quality or that one apart from the rest.

The world of direct experience is a world of directly-given entities. Individual qualities are not the starting points of experience; they are much later stages of abstraction from what we experience. You can think of a certain quality apart from the others that it goes with in reality only by mentally ignoring its accompaniments.

Now the fact is that no glue, and no unknowable substratum, is necessary to preserve an integrated material entity.

The qualities, to put it simply, do not have to be put back together because in reality, they never were apart. There are actually three different levels of human consciousness. And I want to distinguish therefore perception from sensation , the perceptual level of consciousness from the sensory level of consciousness. That stage is the perceptual stage. And then we are ready, after a certain accumulation of knowledge, to pass on by a process of abstraction and concept-formation to the conceptual stage.

So Locke is right in one respect—at one point in the past, we did get from reality a disconnected bombardment of sensations. But the crucial thing is that we do not now get such a bombardment, and we cannot. If we are now conscious thinking men, to say nothing of philosophers, we start at the perceptual stage, at the stage of perceiving entities; we no longer experience the sensory stage. And the answer is, only by inference, by a process of complex reasoning. When we get to the conceptual stage, we discover that we have means of perception—we discover that certain information comes from our eyes, and some from our fingertips, and some from our ears, and so on—and then we realize that at one time, as babies, we must have got a disconnected set of data that our brain had to learn to integrate.

We can only infer that something like it must have existed. And the crucial point is that our inference depends on, and is based on, and starts from our present perception of entities. So there are the three levels—the sensory, the perceptual, the conceptual. In the order of time, you have the sensory, then the perceptual, then the conceptual.

But in terms of conscious experience, where we have to start as thinkers and philosophers, the first stage is the perceptual stage. Then we simultaneously go forward to the conceptual stage; and then, having developed a conceptual apparatus, we infer back to the existence of the sensory stage. But we can only infer back by abstracting from our perceptions, our perceptions of entities. In this sense, the existence and the direct perception of entities is a prerequisite of discovering the sensation stage.

Now you have to keep clearly in mind the difference between these three levels of consciousness, and not confuse them. If you equate the conceptual with the perceptual, then you are in the nominalist-sensualist position and you know the catastrophe implicit in that. You are left in the stage where you are bombarded with disconnected sensations, unable to integrate them into entities, unable to form concepts, lost in a hopeless, chaotic, unintelligible, disconnected jumble—namely, the universe of Hume. In this respect, Hume represents the absolute disintegration of human consciousness into atomic, disconnected sensations.

Well, so much for what is wrong with Hume on this point. Well Berkeley, as you know, had also gotten rid of material entities, but he had clung to the self, the thing which does the thinking, has the experiences, and so on; and he had claimed to have a notion of that, even if not an idea. Let me introspect and see if I can find it. Now what is it supposed to be?

UC Davis Philosophy 102

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself , I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception. If anyone upon serious and unprejudiced reflection thinks he has a different notion of himself , I must confess I can reason no longer with him.

All I can allow him is, [and this of course is sarcasm on his part] that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continued which he calls himself, though I am certain there is no such principle in me. But setting aside some metaphysicians of this kind, I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement. That is the famous passage in which Hume proposes to demolish the self.

When we perceive introspectively, all we perceive is a collection of individual experiences, thoughts, feelings, etc. Personal identity is therefore a myth. I am a flux of ever-changing experiences, and so are you. We are each a bundle of experiences. This is sometimes called the bundle theory of the self. Because one stage of consciousness merges smoothly into the next, there are always great resemblances between the content of your consciousness at any one instant and its content at the next instant.

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Our imaginations smooth things over by inventing the fiction of an enduring self-same entity or self. But this is a fiction. Well of course, the objections to it are legion. But what is the basic error? Again, it is his sensualism and nominalism.