March 12, 2007

A Note on Middle Knowledge and Berkeleian Philosophy of Science

A thought occurred to me just now as I was reading the end of Sydney Shoemaker's "Causality and Properties" and thinking, as usual, of a Berkeleian response. What, we ask, are the truth-conditions or truth-makers for statements about natural laws and causality? Shoemaker has a story about properties being defined in terms of dispositions to act a certain way in the presence of certain other properties, and he thinks we can flesh out these statements in this way. For Berkeley, of course, the properties of physical objects can have no causal efficacy. Instead, Berkeley takes these statements to be simple counter-factuals: because of a constant conjunction between perceptions of pens being dropped and perceptions of pens falling, we conclude that when pens are dropped they fall, and therefore make statements like "if I dropped this pen it would fall." Simple, right? Wrong...

According to Berkeley, let it be remembered, our perceptions are implanted directly in our minds by God, and are a language by which he speaks to us. This means that the statement above should be equivalent to the statement "if I were to form the volition to drop this pen, God would respond by implanting in my mind perceptions of the pen falling." This is a counterfactual of freedom! This seems to mean that, in order for us to have knowledge of causal statements and natural laws, we need to have middle knowledge about God, which is certainly even more problematic than God having middle knowledge about us!

Can this problem be avoided? I think it can. Recall that Berkeley thinks that our perceptions form a language and, in addition to his many statments (in, for instance, the Third Dialogue) to the effect that natural laws are to be interpreted counterfactually, he also refers in the Principles to Newton's Principia as the best grammar manual of the perceptual language. If this is correct, then we ought to suppose instead that statements about causation and natural laws are statements about grammar.

Will this save us? It seems so. Consider the statement "transitive verbs in English are followed by their direct objects." This is a true statement about grammar. But one might think that this translated into some statement like "if Kenny, a native speaker of English, were to utter a syllable pattern corresponding to an English transitive verb (while speaking English), he would soon after utter a syllable pattern corresponding to an English noun, which he would intend as the direct object of said verb." This is a counterfactual of freedom. However, it seems that the latter sentence might actually be false. That is, from the perspective of free will, etc., there is no reason why I can't utter nonsense instead of following the rules of English grammar. This does not undermine the truth of the grammatical statement above. The same should hold with regard to natural laws and God's freedom. God is perfectly free to utter nonsense, but there are nevertheless rules of the grammar of the perceptual language, and true statements about these rules are true statements about natural laws.

Disaster averted.

Posted by Kenny at March 12, 2007 12:24 PM
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