Thursday, 26 February 2015

Appropriately feeble analogy between having a cold and being in the 'bad disjunct'

So here I am ill in bed with a week-long cold trying to keep up with work/the world on an iPad and tactical visits to campus to give a lecture or attend meetings when necessary though struggling with rather less wit than I would like. Everything seems to take a long time to think through. No exercise of judgement is instinctive. Drafting text is very slow and lumpen. No thoughts are simply helpfully offered up by my lower consciousness.

The sense that one is not quite ‘there’ is an odd one. Towards the end of his life my father sometimes struggled badly with short term memory, constantly losing things including, once, his walking stick somehow down inside his own bed and generally losing track of actions that lasted longer than a moment. (The fact that memory binds mere atoms together into rational forms was more and more apparent through a kind of all too poignant deficit study.) But also, sometimes, his normal common sense of what was epistemically reasonable would go missing. This was confusing to others but hugely to him not least because it was occasional. Sometimes, despite all the dreadful, exhausting, miserable pressures of his last months, he was completely lucid and, when lucid, found the very idea of his non-lucid periods baffling and disturbing.

At the risk of the saying something like a Thought for the Day platitude (“I was driving down the middle lane of the motorway today and I thought to myself, Jesus is a little like the middle lane” [Sandi Toksvig, The News Quiz]) I am struck by an analogy to self knowledge of one’s status in disjunctivism. 

The basic picture of disjunctivism in epistemology (well, perceptually based knowledge) is this. A key argument for philosophical scepticism starts from the idea that sometimes when one thinks one sees a cat, say, there isn’t a cat but some suitable trick of the light. The ‘argument from illusion’ then runs: since illusion and veridical seeing is indistinguishable to the subject, then even in the case of veridical seeing its truthfulness is, as far as the subject goes, a matter of luck. She could, after all, be enjoying a merely illusory seeming-seeing. Seeing and merely seeming-seeing share a common element which is all that is directly available to the subject with a merely external addition in the case of seeing that what is apparently seen - the cat - turns out luckily to be there. So since knowledge and luck are incompatible, one is never in a position to gain knowledge through normal cases of seeing (ie ones where illusion is also possible). 

Disjunctivism is based on the idea that there is something quite different in the two cases. Either, one is seeing a cat. Or, one is not. (Hence the name.) Further, the epistemic consequences of the bad disjunct, like Las Vegas, stay in the bad disjunct. So if one is in the good disjunct one is in the direct presence of the cat and hence there is no room for luck in the perceptual knowledge this makes available. Of course, in the bad disjunct, one will think one is in the good disjunct but since one is not, all bets are off.

Students reasonably object: but this doesn’t help knowledge because one cannot tell whether one is in the good or the bad disjunct. As far as one is concerned, one could be in either. But the steely nerved disjunctivist patiently reminds them that what happens in the bad disjunct stays in the bad disjunct. If the subject is in the good disjunct, then the very same perceptual sensitivity that records the presence of the cat also makes the subject aware of how she knows there is a cat: by seeing it. So not only is she in the good disjunct, she knows that fact. Of course, the steely nerved disjunctivist continues softly, had she been in the bad disjunct, she would have thought herself to be in the good and also falsely thought that she knew she was in the good by the same perceptual faculty that had already let her down. But what happens in the bad disjunct stays in the bad disjunct.

I am reminded of this in the case of my coldy disorientation. At the start of the week not only was I crassly stupid in meetings but I had no insight into this (the mucous and the sneezing still being to come). Stuck in the bad disjunct, the self awareness of the good disjunct was unavailable to me. Given, for me at least, the close connection between trivial illnesses and marked affective responses, being in the bad disjunct also prevented me from understanding quite why the world seemed suddenly such a dreadful place. But at least with mere trivial and hence in a sense ‘empirical’ illness (ie not fundamentally and forever putting the world beyond one), there is the possibility of a kind of dawning realisation that one is not firing on all cylinders but that it will pass. A blog post is a kind of reminder. What seems dreadful is the possibility, later in life, of being permanently banished to the bad disjunct.

That was all rather a poor thought. But that is the point, really.