Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Quote of the Day

He scrambled through and rose to his feet. The air was cold but not bitterly so, and it seemed a little rough at the back of his throat. He gazed about him, and the very intensity of his desire to take in the new world at a glance defeated itself. he saw nothing but colours -- colours that refused to form themselves into things. Moreover, he knew nothing yet well enough to see it: you cannot see things till you know roughly what they are. His first impression was of a bright, pale world -- a water-colour world out of child's paint-box: a moment later he recognized the flat belt of light blue as a sheet of water, or of something like water, which came nearly to his feet. They were on the shore of a lake or river.


On one side the water extended a long way -- about a quarter of a mile, he thought, but perspective was still difficult in the strange world. On the others side it was much narrower, not wider than fifteen feet perhaps, and seemed to be flowing over a shallow -- broken and swirling water that made a softer and more hissing sound than water on Earth; and where it washed the hither bank -- the pinkish-white vegetation went down to the very brink -- there was a bubbling and sparkling which suggested effervescence. He tried hard, in such stolen glances as the work allowed him, to make out something of the farther shore. A mass of something purple, so huge that he took it for a heather-covered mountain, was his first impression: on the other side, beyond the larger water, there was something of the same kind. But there, he could see over the top of it. Beyond were strange upright shapes of whitish green: too jagged and irregular for buildings, too thin and steep for mountains. Beyond and above these again was the rose-coloured cloud-like mass. It might really be a cloud, but it was very solid-looking and did not seem to have moved since he first set eyes on it from the manhole. It looked like the top of a gigantic red cauliflower -- or like a huge bowl of red soapsuds -- and it was exquisitely beautiful in tint and shape.

Baffled by this, he turned his attention to the nearer shore beyond the shallows. The purple mass looked for a moment like a plump of organ-pipes, then like a stack of rolls of cloth set up on end, then like a forest of gigantic umbrellas blown inside out. It was in faint motion. Suddenly his eyes mastered the object. The purple stuff was vegetation: more precisely it was vegetables, vegetables about twice the height of English elms, but apparently soft and flimsy. The stalks -- one could hardly call them trunks -- rose smooth and round, and surprisingly thin, for about forty feet: above that, the huge plants opened into a sheaf-like development, not of branches but of leaves, leaves large as lifeboats but nearly transparent. The whole thing corresponded roughly to his idea of a submarine forest: the plants, at once so large and so frail, seemed to need water to support them, and he wondered that they could hang int he air. Lower down, between the stems, he saw the vivid purple twilight, mottled with paler sunshine, which made up the internal scenery of the wood.

C.S. Lewis
Out of the Silent Planet

Jim's comments: "Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind." So wrote Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason (A52/B76). And I guarantee you, C.S. Lewis had that phrase (or at least Kant's theory of judgment) in mind when he wrote the above passage. "You cannot see things till you know roughly what they are" is basically saying the same thing as "intuitions without concepts are blind." Lewis then spends some time fleshing this out by his character's inability to "see" what is right before his eyes. Until he has the category of "vegetation" he was unable to make sense of what his senses were telling him. (And it's interesting that he describes that as "his eyes mastered the object"). This whole passage is a subtle critique of empiricism, that the mind can be a blank slate upon which our senses write. Lewis is pointing out, along with Kant, that there have to be concepts already in the mind (or at least categories for Kant) in order to comprehend what our senses perceive. Anyone who wants to teach a course on philosophy in science-fiction should spend some time on this passage and what follows, since the problem comes up more than once.

I'm reminded of a time that I was at a small party at someone's house, and I fell asleep on the floor. I awoke to something being placed on my tongue (apparently my mouth had fallen open) and laughter around me. Perhaps indicating my future as a philosopher, I decided to see if I could figure out what it was on my tongue without looking at it. But there was a problem: it hurt. Or it seemed to, and then I immediately thought, "No it doesn't." And then "Yes it does," and then back-and-forth several times. I remember being amazed that I couldn't tell if I was in pain or not just by the feel. Shouldn't you be able to know something like that? It seemed like it was a while, but I'm sure it was just a few seconds before I reached up and took a tissue out of my mouth which had mint toothpaste on it. The mintiness was sharp and I hadn't been able to tell whether or not it hurt.

So three points about this: 1) it seemed that I had to know what it was before I could process the information my senses were relaying to me. I wonder if I could have figured it out if I'd waited longer though. Perhaps babies really are born as blank slates, but they obtain Kant's categories or concepts at some point naturally without anything else already in the mind, it just takes a while before it connects. Maybe there's a point where the amount of information becomes so great that the mind finally clicks and starts forming concepts or starts processing it according to Kant's categories. But this is highly speculative. On the face of it, it seems to create an enormous problem for empiricism.

2) This says nothing against the first part of Kant's statement, that "Thoughts without content are empty". You still need the information provided by the senses in order for your thoughts to be about anything. Abstracting some kind of knowledge without any sensory input -- as Descartes tried to do with his cogito and Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) tried to do with his "flying man" -- is highly questionable. As the ancient and medieval Aristotelians said, nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses. We need the empiricist’s sense data in order to have something to apply the categories to; but we need the rationalist’s a priori categories in order to understand the sense data.

3) Whether or not you're in pain is generally considered one of the few things that you can't be mistaken about. And here I have a case from personal experience where I literally couldn't tell if I was in pain. So it suggests there are no indubitable beliefs. Very interesting.

Finally, let me just say that I'm reading Out of the Silent Planet to my son, and we found online someone's illustrations of the first several chapters that looked like it would be a great graphic novel (although the sorns don't look creepy enough). You can see them all here, or you can start with the first page here, and then click the left arrow button to go through them. Well worth it.

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