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    20. Epistemology 2

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    • 06/21/2005 http://www.galilean-library.org/site/uploads/

    By /index.php?/user/4-hugo-holbling/">Paul Newall (2005)

    In our earlier discussion of epistemology we looked at what the term means, some basics of the historical development of the subject, the idea that knowledge could be defined as justified true belief and some problems with this, the problem of induction and some possible ways to come by knowledge. In this second instalment, we will expand on some of these areas and consider the problem of skepticism in particular as means to appreciate why epistemology is important, both in philosophy and everyday life.

    The Problem of Skepticism

    As we noted before, there are several problems in epistemology. We could identify the main ones as follows:

    • What can we know, if anything; and

    • How can we know it?

    We can further divide the first into two questions: can we know anything at all and, if so, what can be known? Put this starkly, the answers seem obvious: we know plenty of things, and presume many of them before we can wonder about these issues in the first place. Indeed, this seems so commonsensical that doubting it can strike us as academic and/or pointless. Nevertheless, there were apparently plenty of straightforward notions we had in the past that turned out to be mistaken, so we can at least take a look at the matter.

    Before we do so, of course, we need to at least have an understanding of what we mean by knowledge. The best known meaning, as we said, is justified true belief, and we considered some of its potential weaknesses. Notwithstanding these, the justification of beliefs has typically been the most important aspect of any claim to have knowledge. Suppose, for example, we take an ordinary belief:

    • I am reading this essay on my computer.

    This is apparently quite straightforward, so how could we doubt it? There are times, however, when obvious beliefs turn out to be in error. In the past, for example, it was as plain that the Earth does not move as we now consider it to be that it does. What about optical illusions, too, or mirages and hallucinations? A common experience for most people, for instance, is seeing someone we know in the distance, only to find when we get closer that we were mistaken. Likewise, sometimes a bush or a tree can look like an animal or person at first glance. Another problem, often referred to by philosophers, is dreaming. We seem to have vivid dreams in which events that seem real turn out to not be when we wake up (although this basic story can become even more complicated when we ask how we know when we are awake and when we are dreaming). And so on.

    If we wish to be skeptical, then, we can doubt the ostensibly ordinary belief in lots of ways. Perhaps we are dreaming the experience, or else hallucinating it? Notice that the response"if you're not sure, just reach out and touch the thing" is defeated by these possibilities. We could say that there are ways to test for both, such as by the traditional pinch, but why should this work when we can usually "feel" things in our dreams? We might claim that a good pinch has always sufficed before (the kind usually dispensed on the first of the month by overzealous people with good memories for dates), but why should what happened before continue to happen in the same way in future? (This is the problem of induction in one of its forms, of course.)

    Can we know anything if we keep on in this fashion, always questioning what we claim to know when it appears to rest on other pieces of knowledge that can themselves be doubted, and so on forever? We seem to be trapped in an infinite regress, so how can we escape it? Historically there have been two main answers: we break out either via experience (the road taken by empiricism) or by our reason (the path of rationalism). Skeptics, in turn, have been critical of both. We will look at these after we consider some initial objections to skepticism itself.

    Arguments against Skepticism

    Why should we pay any attention to skepticism at all when it seems to run counter to what we assume on a day-to-day basis? There are several basic arguments against skepticism that are usually the first levelled against it.

    Is skepticism self-refuting?

    Having all these doubts about knowledge, we could just say "well, we can't know anything". Suppose we consider the proposition "nothing can be known", though: isn't it self-refuting? This is perhaps the oldest of charges against skepticism; namely, that it defeats itself. After all, if we know that nothing can be known then surely this is one thing that can be known, and hence skepticism is false?

    There are two responses to this criticism. On the one hand, the skeptic can say that nothing can be known except that nothing can be known, which is remembered in Socrates famous dictum that he knew only that he knew nothing. This was sometimes called academic skepticism and probably seems like an evasive rejoinder, but it still works. If there is one piece of knowledge, though, then why not more? Although academic skepticism defeats the self-refuting problem, then, it raises the question of how we come to know that there is one and only one thing that can be known and can feel unsatisfactory.

    The second possibility for the skeptic is to simply admit that even the claim "nothing can be known" can also not be known, which is consistent with his or her skepticism and again answers the difficulty. This is Pyrrhonian skepticism, named after its principle exponent. We now say that nothing can be known, including that nothing can be known. If we cannot show that this is the case, though, why should we be worried about it? The skeptic can answer that just as we prize our arguments to show that knowledge exists, we can equally well use similar arguments to show that it does not – so we use the tools of opponents of skepticism against them. This need not commit us to actually believing that arguments can establish knowledge, even though we use them, particularly if we use reductio ad absurdum tactics. Moreover, even if we reject total (or global) skepticism, it does not mean we are any closer to answering the problems associated with knowledge and our ordinary beliefs, as we considered above.

    Lastly, the skeptic can use the theory of descriptions to rewrite the claim, as we discussed in our initial look at epistemology and, in more detail, in our investigation of analytic philosophy.

    The impracticality of skepticism

    Even if we accept that skepticism cannot be dismissed outright, is it not a highly inconvenient – if not downright impractical – position to hold? Suppose we have to make our way to the top floor of a building and are thoroughgoing skeptics. We could take the lift, but how do we know it will work? Shouldn't we climb up instead? Then again, how do we know climbing will work, or even that the building is there at all? What about when we want to get down again? Isn't jumping just as sensible an option as taking the lift or stairs, given that we don’t really know anything?

    These are the kinds of questions that were and still are raised to skeptics, and they are usually intended to be reductios just like the ones skeptics use themselves. It seems like a ridiculous idea to jump rather than use the stairs, but the suggestion is that this kind of impractical (if not absurd) idea is what skepticism leads to. How can we answer it?

    This is a difficult objection and few people have led consistently skeptical lives. It is said that Pyrrho did, and stories are told about him getting into all kinds of scrapes because of his refusal to "know" anything (usually he was rescued by his followers and – amazingly, perhaps – respected for his dependable behaviour). We would probably be skeptical ourselves, though, that he was truly consistent, since a decision to fall into a ditch is somewhat different from walking off a high cliff.

    Those skeptics who were or are not quite like Pyrrho tend to say that they merely act in accordance with tradition and familiar patterns of conduct. In that case we try to avoid walking out in front of cars or not eating because we were taught these things as children before we began to think about skepticism. When we eat, then, it is not so much because we know that food or some form is required to sustain life but because we have fallen into the habit, or else because it tastes good and is enjoyable. After all, do we really involve knowledge when we go to a restaurant or make a sandwich? Opponents of skepticism would probably say that we do, since how do we know the sensations of eating will be the same as they were, that the food even exists at all or even that we should do as others (and we) have always done? A skeptic might say, in response, that we eat because our stomachs start to rumble and that we do not jump off buildings because we become afraid, not because of any claim to know anything about either. Why be afraid, though, unless we know what might result?

    In more recent times these criticisms have been used against the idea that all notions are equally true. Nevertheless, notice again that even though these concerns may seem to count against skepticism about everything, they once again do not answer the problems we identified before we straightforwardly claiming to have knowledge. Not worrying ourselves about global skepticism does not mean that these problems go away, so we have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    Is skepticism irrelevant?

    If skepticism seems impractical and self-refuting, though, and only of concern to people analysing their knowledge claims in depth, why should we care about it at all? What relevance does it have to everyday life? The usual answer to this query is to say that skeptics do not form inquisitions (although this relies on a somewhat inaccurate conception of what the famous inquisitors actually did); that is, the effect of skepticism is to undermine confidence in certainties. People who are sure of themselves are sometimes keen to impose their ideas on others, but those who doubt are usually rather less determined – after all, what certainties would they advocate if they are not convinced that they really know anything? The same goes for events like wars, typically fought on behalf of ideals or political goals that were dogmatically held by their advocates. Although we could object that this is a simplistic understanding of why battles happen, especially since there are more factors involved, the principle involved is clear enough. In general, as Russell said, skepticism can help us avoid extreme positions.

    Another way that skepticism is relevant, however, is when we consider the possibility of error. Suppose we cannot come by certain knowledge, as skeptics claims; how, then, can we explain the occurrence of mistakes? Theories of error seem to implicitly rely on dogmatism, since only those who believe we can know have to explain why we often miss the target. Skeptics, on the other hand, can just remark that of course we would expect errors, since we don’t really know in the first place.

    The philosopher of science Karl Popper mocked what he called "conspiracy theories of error", in which the blame for mistakes is laid at the feet of people making them. If we know something, that is, and someone makes a blunder all the same, it must be due to their carelessness, refusal to face the facts or outright stupidity. We hear hints of this notion wherever someone declares that "ignorance is sin" or that we have no business dissenting from majority opinion. However, why should the thought of lots of people conspiring to make similar mistakes be any more plausible than skepticism?

    Appearance and Reality

    If we grant that skepticism is something worth discussing, we can return to our earlier example. How do we know that there is a computer in front of us (or paper if you printed this) on which we are reading this essay? The obvious answer is that we can prove it: we can see the computer and reach out and touch it – in short, we can rely on our senses. There are three major objections to their reliability, though – we might be deceived by:

    • Dreams;

    • Illusions; or

    • Hallucination.

    There is an easy response to these: if our senses are functioning normally, then what we see, hear, touch, taste or smell is real; if not, we can be deceived. What we see in the latter event is just an appearance, not the reality behind it. This distinction was crucial in epistemology, but it gave rise to other problems. What is "normal" function, for example? How do we know that what the "normal" person sees is reality while the other possibilities are mere appearances? If we hallucinate, say, and see a goblin in the corner of the room muttering about whether or not he can trust his senses, we might bang our heads against the nearest wall and find that it disappears. However, why should the reality of the situation be determined by cranial trauma? After all, that there is no goblin in reality is precisely what we are supposed to be showing, not presuming it to do so and hence beg the question. Why should the experience that occurs least often be assumed to not be the reality? That we can interact with "reality" is no guide, since we do fine in our dreams. We can appeal to scientific explanations but these have epistemological issues of their own, as we have discussed elsewhere.

    What all this means is that our commonsense or naïve form of empiricism is untenable. We cannot distinguish between true and false experiences solely on the basis of our senses, but need to use other knowledge to help us. The question is: where did this knowledge come from and how certain can we be of it? Francis Bacon’s solution to this problem was to try to look upon the world free of preconceptions, claiming that "the understanding must be completely cleared and freed" of them. Can this be done? Unfortunately for empiricism, this tabula rasa (or blank slate) approach cannot be achieved due to theory-ladenness.

    The sense-datum theory of knowledge

    As a result of the difficulties posed by the skeptics, philosophers interested in epistemology made a subtle move: instead of arguing that the sense could tell about reality, they claim that they provide us with knowledge of appearances. Notice what this seems to achieve: we couldn’t rely on our senses for accurate knowledge of reality, but surely what appears to them is – obviously – what appears to them and hence we have certain knowledge of these appearances, even if we can say nothing about the reality we suspect to be underlying them? After all, if we are only talking about how things appear to be, how can we err?

    This means that our earlier example has to change to something like:

    • It appears that a computer exists, on which an essay may be found.

    What this also does is resolve any contradiction between conflicting appearances. If we have an apparent hallucination that includes the goblin and another experience that suggests it wasn't real, the two are consistent with having certain knowledge of appearances:

    • It appears that now there is a goblin in the corner;

    • Now it appears that there is not.

    These describe successive appearances and hence cannot be contradictory, so dreams, hallucinations and illusions are no longer the problems they were before. We can still make errors, of course, but now these are mistakes in interpreting the appearances rather than in the knowledge itself.

    We can take a further step by making concrete these appearances so that they are experiences we are aware of:

    • I am having an experience of the appearance of a computer.

    Although this may strike us as a clumsy way of expressing what is going on, it reifies the situation and makes no reference to the real existence of the computer or even being aware of it. This is helpful because it clears up many of the difficulties associated with skeptical arguments. If we say that we are aware of the appearance of the computer, for instance, this is not certain if there actually is no computer; but if we just say that we are having the experience of its appearance, this no longer depends on the existence of the computer at all. This is the sense-datum theory of knowledge, developed by Locke, Berkeley and Hume and persisting until its eventual defeat in the twentieth century. It holds that what we are aware of is not real objects but sense-datum in our minds that we experience, so we have:

    • I am experiencing a visual sense-datum of a computer.

    Notice that this analysis is consistent with more recent scientific accounts of perception, wherein we "see" things because of light entering the retina and resulting in brain activity. As a result, the sense-datum theory seemed to be confirmed and to answer the objections of the skeptic.

    There are some objections to this new account, however. Suppose, firstly, that we experience a sense-datum of a computer and then moments later experience another of a television – in brief, that we were mistaken about the former and later realised the error. This suggests that even though the knowledge of the computer was certain, it only lasted a short time. What is the use of a theory of knowledge that has an unspecified duration?

    Secondly, when we first notice the computer there is a delay between the experience and the sense-datum report, even if it only takes as long as the lapse from sensing something to having the input processed by the brain. There is then another delay before we can say something about the experience. How can we be sure, then, that we have remembered the experience correctly between having it and commenting on it?

    These may seem like splitting hairs, but a more important criticism is that this sense-datum theory avoids skepticism only at the price of accepting the distinction between appearance and reality, and conceding that we can only ever know the former. Can we get past this demarcation? Can we discover anything about reality via sense-data? We can if we adopt idealism, the view that only sense-data and the minds experiencing them exist. This deals immediately with the problem of skepticism but at the cost of the external world, which is why many philosophers and laymen alike have rejected it.

    The Problem of Induction

    We discussed reasoning from particular instances to general ones in our earlier look at epistemology so there is no need to repeat the issue here. Nevertheless, we can note the huge problem that induction poses for empiricism, wherein we are supposed to be deriving knowledge from our experiences. If we cannot reason in this way, are we not being irrational in claiming to know anything inductively?

    One suggestion for avoiding these difficulties is to adopt induction as a basic principle if we want to reason at all. We cannot justify it, but we also cannot do without it. After all, if we try to imagine a situation in which we were refused to make any inductive inferences, it quickly becomes ridiculous – some might say the limit of skepticism. This almost leaves us caught between a rock and a hard place: induction can apparently not be justified, so we would be irrational to use; but if we do not we are crippled and cannot reason anyway, which is no less irrational a position to be in.

    Rationalism Instead

    Given these problems associated with empiricism, it should be little wonder that some thinkers either rejected it to begin with or looked elsewhere for a basis for knowledge. The alternative, of course, was rationalism. What knowledge of our world can we gain from reason alone?

    Rationalists drew their inspiration from mathematics, looking to the way Euclid was apparently able to build an entire structure of proofs on the foundation of a few, apparently self-evident propositions, and in general the way mathematicians seemed to be able to arrive at certain knowledge in this way. Famous theorems like that being Pythagoras' name could be deduced in a straightforward fashion, and when we look back to the groundwork that is needed to get started then we find assumptions that look, on the face of it, to be self-evident.

    Skeptics, however, were not convinced: what does self-evident mean? Who decides whether something is self-evident or not? After all, there were plenty of things about the empiricist approach that seemed obvious but later turned out to be far more complex. The rationalist can respond that there are plenty of propositions that people consider to be self-evident, but the skeptic wants to know why these provide us with knowledge – why, for instance, must something self-evident be true? What if it were false, in spite of how many consider it plain? Some rationalists replied that it is impossible for something self-evidently true to be false, but notice the subtle sleight-of-hand involved here: the rationalist has made truth a criterion of something being self-evident, but it was precisely the question of whether being self-evident implies truth that the skeptic was criticising, and hence this is unsatisfactory. Other rationalists appealed to the notion of an ideally rational being (much as some economists were to do later in developing their theories), but this is fraught with the same difficulties as the "normal" experiences of the empiricist we looked at above.

    Descartes tried to find a way around these issues by using a method of systematic doubt, according to which he would try to doubt everything until he came upon certainties that could not possibly be question and hence would provide the bedrock for knowledge – arriving at his famous cogito ergo sum as a result. His general principle was given in part four of his Discourse on Method as follows:

    I decided that I could take it as a general rule that the things we conceive very clearly and very distinctly are all true.

    Descartes consider the possibility that he might be mistaken about this, though – that instead of a just God there might be an "evil genius" who constantly deceives him and causes his clear and distinct conceptions to be false. He tried to counter this by proving the existence of a true God who was not a deceiver and who would ensure that his faculties functioned correctly, but his argument was criticised as circular by Antoine Arnauld. Although there were other objections, Arnauld's was perhaps the most damaging: he noted that Descartes relied upon his criterion of truth (quoted above) to demonstrate that God existed, and then used the existence of this God to show that he could not be deceived by an evil genius and hence could rely on his conception of truth to show further truths, which seems to be circular reasoning. Arnauld could thus accept everything that Descartes argued subsequently but undercut the very basis for it to begin with.

    There are other problems with Descartes' methodology, including a variant of the more general problems with rationalism that self-evidence is no guarantor of truth, but it is generally agreed that his epistemology ultimately failed. A subsequent attempt, far too deep and detailed to enter into here, was due to Kant. It is difficult to say exactly what Kant argued and held, since the interpretation of his writing is varied and still disputed, but he considered the possibility of synthetic a priori knowledge (terms we discussed in our look at analytic philosophy, concluding in his Prolegomena (after much detailed investigation) that "nature and possible experience are the same", so that "the understanding does not draw its laws from nature, but prescribes them to nature".

    Kant was particularly concerned to counter the work of Hume and thought that we would always fall prey to his arguments if we continued to conceive of the mind and its experiences as distinct. Instead, we should give up knowing anything about things-in-themselves (even though he accepted that this reality existed) and note that our minds are involved in organising our experience via categories, and hence that our knowledge is limited to things-as-they-are-experienced – or the realm of appearances again. The difference is that Kant’s philosophy, which he conceded was a form of idealism but argued strongly that this transcendental idealism was different from Berkeley's, falls victim to the same problems we identified before – except that Kant did not believe these were problems at all. He argued that the role of reason was and is only to give structure to our experience of reality, not to try to go beyond it. This appears to answer the skeptical objections we noted but to limit us in a way that Kant accepted but we might not. Kant was also not a complete rationalist and recognised that we gain many of our beliefs from experience, and hence his philosophy is often held to be a compromise between empiricism and rationalism.

    Some of the synthetic a priori truths that Kant found, such as Newton's laws in physics, were (as we know realise) not the complete picture. Non-Euclidean geometries were elaborated by mathematicians like Gauss and Lobachevsky, which showed that the certainty of reasoning from self-evident propositions did not have the domain the rationalists had thought. In particular, they knocked over the rationalist argument that we could have synthetic a priori knowledge of the world on the basis of Euclidean geometry. Although this defeat of rationalism did not imply that empiricism was the victor in the quest for a secure epistemology, it led mathematicians to inquire into the nature of their own discipline and its foundation. Logicists like Frege and Russell tried to prove that mathematics could be derived from logical truths, but ultimately failed in their efforts; Platonists argued that mathematical abstractions like numbers really exist; and intuitionists like Brouwer hoped to start mathematics anew via intuitive proofs (hence the name). These are all the domain of the philosophy of mathematics and hence are beyond the scope of this discussion, unfortunately.

    The Fallibilist alternative

    The sense-datum theory of knowledge collapsed in large part due to theory-ladenness when it was advanced by N.R. Hanson, Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, while rationalism struggled to cope with developments in science and mathematics. Is there no answer to skepticism, then? Philosophers, particularly philosophers of science, wondered if there was an alternative – one that differed from rationalism and empiricism while retaining their insights about how we reason.

    The key to their efforts is to realise that all the preceding attempts to derive knowledge were based on searching for certainty, or justifications that could not be doubted. Instead of these, though, fallibilists (who sometimes refer to themselves as criticial rationalists or critical realists, depending on other slight differences) recognised skeptical objections that we cannot be sure of our knowledge and hence called it provisional. We can approach potential knowledge from two directions: we can try to justify a belief or we can criticise it. For the fallibilist, a belief that has withstood serious scrutiny (hence critical rationalism) is a reasonable one to hold as provisional knowledge. We might learn in future that further criticism shows it to be mistaken, but we can hold it for now. A belief that has not been criticised, on the other hand, has little value to the fallibilist and is not a reasonable one to hold.

    Notice that this is not to say that a belief is justified if we have criticised it and failed to find any flaws; on the contrary, it just means that we are justified in believing it. Successfully standing up to scrutiny does not imply truth, not least since many beliefs in the past have met this criterion but still been rejected ultimately, but only that we are able to believe them to be true provisionally. This, then, is a fallible epistemology that does not fall victim to skepticism: the justified true belief account of knowledge is modified slightly so that the justification is not of the claim itself but that we are justified in believing it. Fallibilism also dodges the unreliability of the senses by accepting that we cannot use them to attain certainty, but only reasonable beliefs. This means that the fallibilist trusts his or her senses unless there is good reason to doubt them, again not insisting on certainty and conceding that mistakes are possible. Moreover, it is consistent with an evolutionary account of knowledge in that if our senses provided us with false information then we would expect this trait to be a disadvantage, whereas if the information were accurate then it would plainly be advantageous and hence be propagated via natural selection. However, this is potentially a circular argument in that evolutionary theory is itself justified by a fallibilist epistemology and hence cannot then be appealed to in order to justify this epistemology.

    If fallibilism seems an improvement on both empiricism and rationalism, does it have any weaknesses of its own? Unfortunately, perhaps, it does. Why we should adopt fallibilism itself? As we have seen, it seems to withstand criticism quite well, so we can reasonably adopt it as a justified belief. However, this means we are using fallibilist standards to justify our usage of fallibilism as an epistemological standard – or arguing in a circle again. There does not appear to be any way around this: if we appeal non-fallibilistic justifications then fallibilism is incomplete and we are back where we started from. Some philosophers have responded that expecting a non-circular justification was too high a demand and we have to settle for less, but this leaves the fallibilist in a rather uncomfortable and – for some – unconvincing position.

    Can we know anything?

    We have seen, then, that epistemology is a deep and subtle area of philosophy with a long heritage. It starts from very basic certainties but finds that they collapse quickly under inspection. Many epistemological questions are still open but it is easy to see that they have not remained the same over the years as philosophers built upon the work of their predecessors and developed new objections or proposals. The advent of science has also had a considerable impact, which shows us that philosophy is not cut off from other areas of inquiry. Can we be sure of these things, though? Well, that's the point.

    Dialogue the Sixteenth

    The scene: Several months later, Trystyn and Steven are deep in conversation at Anna's place. She and Trystyn are now an item.

    Steven: So why is this a big issue for anyone other than philosophers?

    Trystyn: Well, tell me something you know and we’ll see.

    Steven: (Loudly) Okay: I know that Anna is a better cook than you.

    Anna: (From the kitchen) Thank you! You get extra!

    Trystyn: Funny how you think with your stomach. (He winks) Anyway, how do you know that she is?

    Steven: I've sampled the evidence, and let me tell you that it wasn’t always pretty. Your roast tastes like an offering to the god of charcoals.

    Trystyn: Ah, you didn't say you'd become a believer…

    Steven: Sure, but (raising his voice…) your cooking still doesn't compare to our host's.

    Anna: (From the kitchen again) You can stay…

    Trystyn: Okay, so you base your opinion on past experiences?

    Steven: Unfortunately, yes.

    Trystyn: Well, how do you know you remember the experiences accurately?

    Steven: Oh, it's my own personal tragedy that I remember it all…

    Trystyn: Heh. Still, you base your knowledge of my cooking on your memory of it. How do you know your recollections are accurate?

    Steven: I suppose I could've embellished the details slightly due to the requirements of mocking you constantly.

    Trystyn: And I'm not likely to forget that, eh? Or maybe you're letting one offering colour your thinking?

    Steven: Do you have a particular one in mind? My money's on that roast.

    Trystyn: (Ignoring him) Still, you can see the problem: how can we know that our memories are accurate?

    Steven: I might have dreamt it, you mean?

    Trystyn: That's a possibility.

    Steven: Why would I dream that roast and not that you're a great cook?

    Anna: (From the kitchen) He has a point…

    Trystyn: (Ignoring them both) It's a basis of trials these days that so-called "eye-witness" testimony is generally unreliable. Let several people watch the same events unfold and they can give inconsistent accounts of what happened, even down to mutually exclusive interpretations.

    Steven: Yeah, I read that somewhere.

    Trystyn: So why is your memory a reliable guide?

    Steven: I guess I could remember things not quite as they were, but still pretty close.

    Trystyn: Ah, well that's the question: what can we say about these memories? Are they pretty close to reality? What relationship do they have to things as they really happened?

    Steven: I heard something about this before. Next you're going to tell me we Kant know reality but have to be content with appearances.

    Trystyn: What a wit. (He groans)

    Anna: (Coming into the room, bearing coffee) I thought it was funny.

    Steven: So we have to be content with the appearances – is that what you were going to say?

    Trystyn: Well, that's what I was asking you. Are your memories a reliable guide to what happened? If not, what can we say about them?

    Steven: I guess not. There’s always a distortion: events happen but I interpret them at the time, then forget about them. When I dredge them up again later I probably reinterpret whatever I can recall on the basis of what I'm currently thinking, too, so the pure events as it was is lost. (Trystyn nods) Even then I suppose I could've made mistakes.

    Trystyn: How so?

    Steven: Well, I'm assuming my senses are reporting the event to me accurately. Are they? If I’m drunk I might see things differently to a sober guy. I might be dreaming, like you said. I might be hallucinating, I suppose. Quite often I see your culinary exploits and imagine I've finally found the holy grail – something I can eat without holding my nose. (Anna laughs)

    Trystyn: Many have searched for it but it was well hidden and is safe yet… (Everyone laughs; Steven spills coffee on himself)

    Steven: (Cleaning himself off) Thanks for that. Anyway, the trouble is that I only have my senses to go on. If I can't rely on them then what am I supposed to do?

    Trystyn: Well, notice that your senses can only deceive you if you're hoping to get at reality. If you're satisfied with appearances, or reality as it seems to you, then the problem disappears. Things get slightly more technical, of course, but it works. It's a heavy price to pay, though.

    Anna: Because we give up on knowing anything about reality, which is what we mean when we talk about knowing something in the first place.

    Steven: I guess it depends on what you're aiming for. Some physicists have said much the same thing: that we can never know reality, but only how it appears to us. Some even say that this is unavoidable, because when we perceive it we have to realise that we are involved in the very act of looking, not just passive observers.

    Trystyn: That's probably a subject for another day.

    Steven: Probably. (To Anna) So how come he gets you to do the cooking?

    Anna: Skepticism only goes so far, you know. His cooking is awful.

    (Curtain. Fin.)


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