A Dialogue on Knowledge Between Two Philosophers

Martin: I ask you this then, what is knowledge?

John: Knowledge is justified true belief. For example, I know that I am seeing that tree over there. By all means, it is true that there is a tree over there. Accordingly, I have a belief that there is a tree over there. This belief is justified. Therefore, I know the tree.

M: You use the term “I” as if this term is not ambiguous. When you say “I know”, what is the nature of this “I”?

J: When I use the term “I”, I am referring to my self. This simply serves as an indexical reference. It points something out in the world, namely, myself.

M: Now you have connected the self to your answer of what knowledge is. Tell me, what is the nature of this self?

J: Simple. The self is an agent. An agent is one who acts under his own power and is the subject of experience.

M: Now you use the equally ambiguous concepts of agency, subjectivity, and experience. Tell me, what do you make of the cognitive unconscious?

J: Please, define how you are using that term. I am unfamiliar with the latest developments in the psychological sciences.

M: Of course. The cognitive unconscious is vast and intricately structured. It is emotional and speedy. It is the foundation of our perceptual systems. We are not metacognitively aware of how this network operates, but we are occasionally conscious of its results. We simply give this system instructions and the system executes them smoothly. For example, we are not conscious of how we move our mouth and lips when speaking. We simply get lost in the conversation, in the meaning, not the syntax.

J: I see where you are going with this. You want to know if I consider the unconscious mind as part of the agent. Yes and no. We can say that the unconscious mind is much like the external environment. It simply acts as an input into the self-conscious system. We could say that it “preprocesses” the input but then “presents” or “re-presents” the input to the conscious mind so that we can experience it consciously. This is the mechanism through which I gain knowledge about the tree. If the workings of the cognitive unconscious never reached into my conscious mind, I would never believe that its contents were true, and thus, according to my definition, I would never have knowledge. Consciousness is thus necessary for knowledge because consciousness is essential for believing.

M: Let me see if I understand what you are saying. There is a stimulus first and foremost which is strictly independent of our mind.  We can characterize this stimulus in terms of “primary” qualities such as length, extension, motion, etc. This stimulus impinges upon the receptors in our nervous system and becomes raw “sense-data”. The sense-data is then processed by the unconscious system in order to be presented to the conscious mind. Accordingly, the conscious mind does not experience the stimulus directly, but rather, it only experiences the re-presentation of the stimulus after it has been processed by the unconscious mind. We can say then that the unconscious system generates “conscious percepts” from raw sense-data and that these percepts are characterized in terms of “secondary” qualities, or “qualia”. Is this right?

J: Yes, that sounds more or less right. Knowledge is thus representational. When I see the tree, my belief that the tree is over there and has such-and-such properties is dependent on my having a belief about the tree. The mental content is thus intentional because it is about things “out there” in the world. I know that my belief is true because the properties are more-or-less preserved in the representation. We say then that the representation corresponds to the stimulus and that knowledge is justified true belief. The belief is true because it corresponds to the stimulus and it is justified because evolution usually produces systems which are more-or-less good at getting representational systems to properly correspond to the environment so as to successfully control behavior.

M: Tell me,  what is the nature of this presentation to the conscious mind? To what is the presentation presented to?

J: It is presented to me, the subject.

M: This term is as ambiguous as the “I”. What is the subject?

J: It is the self, the mind, the agent, the “I”. The agent is someone who has beliefs about the world, that is to say, who has knowledge and a subjective mental life. We call this “consciousness”.

M: You defined the self in terms of knowledge, and you defined knowledge in representations, and you defined representations in terms of a self! It feels like we are going in circles.

J: It does seem peculiar. But that’s why consciousness is so mysterious. We don’t quite know how to define it yet nor how it works. But once we get a better grasp on what consciousness is, we should have a better understanding of how re-presentation works and thus, a better understanding of knowledge. But we need to first update our metaphors. I agree with you that the term presentation is vague and illdefined. Traditionally, it was understood in terms of a homunculus or rational Ego. Theater metaphors are prone to this homuncularity. This is why I like Thomas Metzinger’s notion of a self-viewing theater. The problem with the theater metaphor is that it presupposes an audience, and we then run into a problem of regress when trying to understand the homunculus. But if we say  that the theater views itself, then we don’t actually need a conscious self for knowledge to occur. This is why Metzinger says that his theory of mind is selfless.

M: But the mystery of consciousness which generates these problems of selfhood is entirely of your own making! Because your definition of knowledge is circular when you don’t specify the ontological structure of the “I”, there seems to be this fundamental mystery in coming to terms with knowledge and what the mind is. But why should we define knowledge in terms of beliefs and representations? This is only dogma. You of all people should realize that Descartes himself simply assumed that the mind is set off against the environment in a distinct ontological sphere. You took this insight but naturalized it by assuming that the mind is a process not a distinct ontological substance. But because you assumed that the self is isolated from the world in the first place, you explained intentionality, the aboutness of knowledge, our contact with reality, in representational terms. This is because there has to be some mediation between the senseless primary properties and the sensible secondary qualities. But why should we assume that the primary qualities are meaningless?

J: What do you mean? The stimulus is just a big jumble!

M: On the contrary. Take the example of the ground. Is the ground a jumble? If we consider the objects which rest upon it, yes, the ground is (sometimes) a jumble. But take a flat grassy plain. Surely, if we consider the plain as a whole to be a stimulus, we can say that the stimulus is orderly and structured. Moreover, this plain as it exists in itself is not meaningless for an embodied creature. For one, the whole of it anchors us to it by means of gravity. Our entire bodily sense of reality is permeated by an unconscious knowledge that the ground swells beneath our feet and that it affords stability and locomotion. Even with my eyes closed, the ground primordially means something-to-stand-upon. This meaning is codetermined by the intrinsic rigidity of my own body and the rigidity of the ground itself. My ability to pick up and grasp this meaning is intrinsic to my being, spontaneous, and prereflective. And with my eyes open, I am able to receive stimulus information about the nature of the ground as a surface. Indeed, look out before you:


M:The field as a whole is reflecting ambient light towards us. The farther away the ground, the more compressed the light reflecting off it. There is thus a texture gradient in the field-as-a-stimulus. This gradient is determined by more or less objective, albeit receiver-relative, laws. I suppose that this stimulus is ordered and meaningful. It affords opportunities for behavior if we are running through it, or it simply stands before us as three-dimensional if we stare at it (a rare activity in the animal kingdom). Now, consider the question of intentionality and the structure of our knowledge of affordances. Surely, we do not need consciousness in order to gain knowledge of affordances. After all, affordances are simply classes of behaviorally similar things. The perceptual development of an organism can be more or less described in terms of learning what the environment affords. We learn that the ground is supportive, that mothers afford comfort and food, that chairs are for sitting, food is for eating, doors are for going-through, etc.

In such cases, the skill to be learned is that of discrimination, not inference. We do not need to infer secondary qualities from meaningless primary qualities. If visual perception was actually achieved by means of inferring depth and motion from single-points of light intensity, vision would surely be miraculous. Instead, we need only suppose that the organism’s knowledge of the world is achieved by means of enaction. Enaction is the history of structural coupling with the environment. Our structural coupling with the environment is codetermined by the structure of the organism and the environment. This is intentionality. Our experience with the world is simultaneously about me and about the world. As I move through the environment, my vision gives me information both about the layout of the world and my own position in respect to that layout. This is why affordance perception cuts across the subject-object divide. Perceptions are both subjective and objective. We must reject a strict dualism between subject and object.

We do not need to add anything to the stimulus. We do not need to preprocess it for consciousness, for our minds. This is unnecessary. Our history of structural coupling guarantees that the environment is directly meaningful in terms of affording opportunities for behavior. Behavior is simply a way of being-in-the-world. It is a way to maintain the unity and structural organization of our bodies so as to maintain our continual rigidity in respect to the environment. Behavior is living.

Knowledge therefore cannot be described in representational terms without falling prey to ambiguity or vicious circularity. While there might be representations in the perceptual system, they are action-oriented, not symbolic. We are thus in the world directly. Our primary mode of access to the world is in behavioral terms. We can call this mode of coping circumspective concern. This view of knowledge indicates a fundamental shift in metaphysics, for metaphysics must include the whole of nature, and we are a part of this whole.

J: Yes, but what of consciousness?

M: That, my friend, is a conversation for another day!


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