01 December 2005

I Know It When I See It

I’ve been working my way through John Searle’s The Construction of Social Reality. In so doing, I was reminded of a distinction that he has made elsewhere, and that strikes me as very useful outside its original realm of application (theory of mind).

Searle has argued that a lot of confusion about theories of mind comes from failing to recognize that both ontology (what is) and epistemology (what is known) include objective and subjective things. Thus, your ontology, your set of real things, can include both objective things, such as the neurons in your brain, and subjective things, such as the pain you feel. Similarly, your epistemology, your set of things that can be known, can include both objective things, such as the statement “That flower is red”, and subjective things, such as “That flower is beautiful”.

The distinction is important for Searle, because theories of mind attempt to collect epistemologically objective statements about ontologically subjective things, and he wants to be sure that that is not an empty set. Thus, he rejects the presumption that ontologically subjective things are epistemologically subjective by necessity, and he chides us (nicely) that, having establishing the status of something ontologically, we still have work to do to say anything about its epistemological status.

The mental state “I think that picture is beautiful” is real. It’s ontologically subjective, but it’s real. Fortunately, we generally recognize that it is also epistemologically subjective, and so we generally try to avoid defining objective tests for its beauty. But substitute “pornographic” for “beautiful” and see what trouble we get into. There are a lot of people who think they can define what is “pornographic” in an objective way suitable for legislation, and the courts are full of defense attorneys arguing epistemological subjectivity.

Recall the words of Justice Potter Stewart in the 1964 Supreme Court decision Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184:
It is possible to read the Court's opinion in Roth v. United States and Alberts v. California, 354 U.S. 476 , in a variety of ways. In saying this, I imply no criticism of the Court, which in those cases was faced with the task of trying to define what may be indefinable. I have reached the conclusion, which I think is confirmed at least by negative implication in the Court's decisions since Roth and Alberts, that under the First and Fourteenth Amendments criminal laws in this area are constitutionally limited to hard-core pornography. I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.

The phrase “I know it when I see it” is the red flag that someone is attempting to treat something that may well be epistemologically subjective as if it were epistemologically objective.

Scientific questions are about epistemologically objective entities. This is not to say, of course, that things cannot be moved from one category to the other. I would argue, for example, that the question “What distinguishes living matter from nonliving matter?” is scientific, with the caveat that the scientific work involves establishing what elements of the question can be moved into the epistemologically objective category.

But when Michael Behe says
[W]e infer design when we see that parts appear to be arranged for a purpose.
(Proceedings of Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District et al., 10/17/05, AM session, p. 90)

then I think we have a case of “I know it when I see it,” with all the problems that entails.

Oh, dear. I seem to have drawn a connection between Intelligent Design and obscenity.

My bad.


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