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On Ch.2 of Smith's Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality

(Caveat emptor: I don't think I've got Smith's arguments quite right in this draft. Revisions to come.)

In Chapter 2 of Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality, Smith continues his critique of naturalistic accounts of our knowledge of the external world. As with chapter 1, the primary topic of ch. 2 is naturalistic accounts of perceptual knowledge, and of direct realist accounts in particular.  Here, however, his focus shifts from Armstrong’s theory to those of DretskeTye, and Lycan.

All three accounts are similar to Armstrong's in at least two ways: (i) they reject sense-data theories and embrace a form of direct realism (indeed, like Armstrong, they reject "internal" phenomenal qualia in general. More on this below), and (ii) they see perceptual knowledge as reliably caused true belief that arises in virtue of the senses. They all thus likewise hold to some form of epistemic externalism about perceptual knowledge.

Although the accounts share the above similarities with Armstrong's account in terms of their epistemic externalism and the rejection of sense-data, they also go beyond it. Recall from our discussion of ch. 1 that Smith ended his critique of Armstrong's theory of perceptual knowledge by arguing that it wasn't clear how his account, or indeed any naturalistic account, could explain the intentionality of mental states. The three authors above attempt to shore up this problem by offering accounts of intentionality of representational properties in terms of causal co-variation and proper function. So, for example, when functioning properly under normal conditions, thermometer readings co-vary with temperature, and scale readings co-vary with the weights of objects on the scale. Because of this, thermometer readings reliably represent temperatures, and scales reliably represent the weights of objects. In a similar way, sensations reliably represent the external environment when functioning properly under normal conditions.

They also go beyond Armstrong by trying to do justice to the phenomenal character of conscious experience -- i.e., to phenomenal qualia. But since they share Armstrong's materialism, they reject traditional internalist accounts of qualia, offering externalist accounts instead. According to such accounts, the qualities of experience are "transparent", in the sense that when one introspects on one's experiences, one finds one's attention directed back to objects and properties in the world, not the mind.[1] Here I'll follow Schwitzgebel in citing a particularly vivid passage from Gilbert Harman on a related point to get a flavor for this sort of view:
When Eloise sees a tree before her, the colors she experiences are all experienced as features of the tree and its surroundings. None of them are experienced as intrinsic features of her experience. Nor does she experience any features of anything as intrinsic features of her experiences. And that is true of you too. There is nothing special about Eloise's visual experience. When you see a tree, you do not experience any features as intrinsic features of your experience. Look at a tree and try to turn your attention to intrinsic features of your visual experience. I predict you will find that the only features there to turn your attention to will be features of the presented tree.[2] 
There is thus no real problem of phenomenal qualia for thoroughgoing materialists, according to Dretske, Tye. and Lycan.

There is too much to cover in chapter 2 in one post, so I'll have to return to it with at least one more (and perhaps several). However, I'd like to discuss at least one criticism before I close. One of Smith's first substantive criticisms of their accounts of perception is that they don't really deliver on their promise of being versions of genuine direct realism, and thus fail to show how naturalism can give us direct perceptual knowledge of the material world. His criticism has two steps. In the first, he argues that all three of their accounts get the phenomenology of perceptual experience wrong. So, for example, he argues that the accounts of Dretske and Tye entail that we can only experience a portion of an object's properties, in which case they entail that we can't experience objects as wholes. I find this line of reasoning puzzling: I don't think I've ever experienced all the properties of a single object (how could I see all sides of the surface of a three-dimensional object at once -- including the sides not present to me?) -- let alone the underlying substratum that bears its properties (if such there be).  But that doesn't prevent me from conceptualizing the objects I perceive as wholes, and having an underlying bearer. But it's not clear why this ability is somehow problematic for the sorts of accounts at issue. Unfortunately, Smith doesn't elaborate further on the matter.

In the second step, Smith infers that "If we don't have access to objects as wholes, (but only discrete properties) as represented in experience, then we simply do not have access to objects themselves in the real, external world. Objects would seem to be best construed as constructs of concepts applied to particular physical features." (p. 47). This criticism is tied to an assumption of Smith's account of concept acquisition that we briefly discussed in the post on ch. 1 of Smith's book, viz., that if we can't be directly acquainted with objects in the external world, then we can't be sure that our concepts of them are accurate. The problem, though, is that even if we leave aside the previous worry, this claim seems to be an obvious non sequitur. For even if one isn't directly aware of an object qua whole, it doesn't follow that one can't be directly aware of the whole's properties, and it's not at all clear why the latter sort of awareness isn't sufficient to count as direct awareness of an object. As before, though, Smith doesn't elaborate further on the matter.

At the heart of Smith's worry is the idea that accounts of the sort offered by Dretske, Tye, and Lycan can't account for non-conceptual awareness of external objects. I've expressed some doubts about whether Smith has shown this in his brief remarks on the issue in his book. But here I want to say that even if Smith is right on this score, it's a shame that he neglects to interact with arguably the most important, empirically grounded account of non-conceptual awareness of objects, viz., the one rigorously laid out in Tyler Burge's masterful book, The Origins of Objectivity.[1]  Burge's account differs significantly from the accounts discussed in ch. 2, and indeed in the rest of Smith's book. Perhaps most importantly for the primary issue at hand, it offers an empirically-informed account of non-conceptual perceptual awareness. Burge's account is largely an explication of the dominant theory of perception in the mature field of perceptual psychology, leaving little to argue with on matters confirmed through experimentation. Most saliently for present purposes, there is a huge amount of data that very many creatures, whether humans or much simpler animals, come equipped with a suite of unconscious, automatic mechanisms that ground perceptual constancy, as when we track an object through a portion of space and time, despite our fluctuating and disparate experiences of it. Perceptual constancy, on this account, is the core element of perception, and it serves as the basis of non-conceptual awareness of objects in the external world. Furthermore, it's prima facie plausible that the mechanisms that underlie perceptual constancy are reliable, as it seems that they wouldn't be adaptive otherwise. Evolutionary pressures would thus seem to ensure that they are sufficiently reliable. 

That's it for now. I'll post on more of Smith's arguments in ch. 2 shortly.

[1] Burge's book came out two years before Smith's. Perhaps, though, Smith finished the book before Burge's, and it took considerable time to find a publisher and bring it to print.


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