Quotes & Commentary #60: Santayana

Quotes & Commentary #60: Santayana

We read nature as the English used to read Latin, pronouncing it like English, but understanding it very well.

—George Santayana

This simile about relation between human knowledge and material fact expresses a deep truth: to understand nature we must, so to speak, translate it into human terms.

All knowledge of the world must begin with sensations. All empirical knowledge derives, ultimately, from events we perceive with our five senses. But I think it is a mistake to confuse, as the phenomenalists do, these sensations for reality itself. To the contrary, I think that human experience is of a fundamentally different sort as material reality.

The relationship between my moving finger and the movement of the string I pluck is direct: cause-and effect. The relationship that holds between the vibrations in air caused by the guitar string, and the sound we perceive of the guitar, is, however, not so direct. For conscious sensations are not physical events. You cannot, even in principle, describe the subjective sensation of guitar music using physical terms, like acceleration, mass, charge, etc.

The brain represents the physical stimulus it receives, transforming it into a sensation, much like a composer represents human emotions using notes, harmonies, and rhythms—that is, arbitrarily. There is no essential relationship between sadness and a minor melody; they are only associated through culture and habit. Likewise, the conscious perception of guitar strings is only associated with the vibrations in the air through consistent representation: every time the brain hears a guitar, it creates the same subjective sensation. But the fact remains that the vibrations and the sensation, if they could be compared, would have nothing in common, just as sadness and minor melodies have nothing in common.

I must pause here to note a partial exception. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke notoriously makes the distinction between primary and secondary qualities. The latter are things like color, taste, smell, and sound, which are wholly subjective; the former are things like size, position, number, and shape: qualities that are inherent in the object and independent of the perceiving mind. Berkeley criticized this distinction; he thought that all reality was sensation, and thus there was no basis in distinguishing primary and secondary—both only exist in human experience. Kant, on the other hand, thought that reality in-itself could not, in principle, be described using any terms from human experience; and thus primary and secondary qualities were both wholly subjective.

Yet I persist in thinking that Locke was rather close to the truth. But the point must be qualified. As Einstein showed, our intuitive notions of speed, position, time, and size are only approximately correct at the human scale, and break down in situations of extreme speed or gravity. And we have had the same experience with regard to quantum physics, discovering that even our notion of location and number can be wholly inaccurate on the smallest of scales. Besides these physical consideration, any anthropologist will be full of anecdotes of cultures that conceive of space and time differently; and psychologists will note that our perception of position and shape differs markedly from that of a rat or a bat, for example.

All this being granted, I think that Locke was right in distinguishing primary from secondary qualities. Indeed, this is simply the difference between quantifiable and unquantifiable qualities. By this I mean that a person could give an abstract representation of the various sizes and locations of objects in a room; but no such abstract representation could be given of a scent. The very fact that our notions of these primary qualities could be proven wrong by physicists proves that they are categorically distinct. A person may occasionally make a mistake in identifying a color or a scent, but all of humanity could never be wrong in that way. Scientists cannot, in other words, show us what red “really looks like,” in the same way that scientists can and have shown us how space really behaves.

Nevertheless, we have discovered, through rigorous experiment and hypothesis, that even these apparently “primary qualities”—supposedly independent of the perceiving mind—are really crude notions that are only approximately correct on the scale of human life. This is no surprise. We evolved these capacities of perception to navigate the world, not to imagine black holes or understand electrons. Thus even our most accurate perceptions of the world are only quasi-correct; and there is no reason why another being, adapted to different circumstances, might represent and understand the same facts quite differently.

It seems clear from this description that our sensations have only an indicative truth, not a literal one. We can rely on our sensations to navigate the world, but that does not mean they show us the direct truth. The senses are poets, as Santayana said, and show us reality guised in allegory. We humans must use our senses, since that is all we have, but in the grand scheme of reality what can be seen, heard, or touched may be only a miniscule portion of what really exists—and, as scientists have discovered, that is actually the case.

To put these discoveries to one side for a moment, there are other compelling reasons to suspect that sensations are not open windows to reality. One obvious reason is that any sensation, if too intense, becomes simply pain. Pressure, light, sound, or heat, while all separate feelings at normal intensities, all become pain when intensified beyond the tolerance of our bodies. But does anybody suspect that all reality becomes literal pain when too severe? When intensified still further, sensation ceases altogether with death. Yet are we to suppose that the stimulus of the fatal blow ceases, too, when it becomes unperceivable?

Of course, nobody makes these mistakes except phenomenologists. And when combined with other everyday experiences—such as our ability to increase our range of sight using microscopes and telescopes, the ability of dogs to hear and smells things that humans cannot—then it becomes very clear that our sensations, far from having any cosmic privilege, represent only a limited portion of the reality, and do not represent the truth literally.

What we have discovered about the world, since the scientific revolution, only confirms this notion. Our senses were shaped by evolution to allow us to navigate in a certain environment. Thus, we can see only a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum—a portion that strongly penetrates our atmosphere. Likewise with every other sense: it is calibrated to the sorts of intensities and stimuli that would aid us in our struggle to survive on the struggle of the earth.

There is nothing superstition, therefore, or even remarkable in believing that the building blocks of reality are invisible to human sensation. Molecules, atoms, protons, quarks—all of these are essential components of our best physical theories, and thus have as much warrant to be believed as the sun and stars. From a human scale, of course, there is a strong epistemological difference: they form components of physical theories; and these theories help us to make sense of experience, rather than constitute experience itself.

But that does not make them any less real. Indeed, our notion of an atom may be closer to nature than our visible image of an apple, since we know for sure that the actual apple is not, fundamentally, as it appears to human sight, while our idea of atoms may indeed give a literally accurate view of nature. Indeed, the view of sensations that I have put forward virtually demands that the truth of nature, whatever it is, be remote from human experience, since human experience is not a literal representation of reality.

This leads to some awkwardness. For if scientific truth is to be abstract—a theorem or an equation remote from daily reality—then what makes it any better than a religious belief? Isn’t what separates scientific knowledge from superstitious fancy the fact that the first is empirical while the latter is not?

But this difficulty is only apparent. Santayana aptly summarized the difference thus: “Mythical thinking has its roots in reality, but, like a plant, touches the ground only at one end. It stands unmoved and flowers wantonly into the air, transmuting into unexpected and richer forms the substances it sucks from the soil.” That is to say that, though religious ideas may take their building blocks from daily life, the final product—the religious dogma—is not fundamentally about daily life; it is a more like a poem that inspires our imaginations and may influence our lives, but is not literally borne out in lived experience.

A scientific theory, on the other hand, is borne out in this way: “Science is a bridge touching experience at both ends, over which practical thought may travel from act to act, from perception to perception.” Though a physical theory, for example, is itself something that is never itself perceived—we never “see” Einstein’s relativity in itself—using it leads to perceivable predictions, such as the deviation of a planet’s orbit. This is the basis of experiment and the essence of science itself. Indeed, I think that this is an essential quality of all valid human knowledge, scientific or not: that it is borne out in experience.

Like quantum physics, superstitious notions and supernatural doctrines all concern things that are, in principle, unperceivable; but the different is that, in quantum physics, the unperceivable elements predict perceivable events with rigid certainty. Superstitious notions, though in principle they have empirical results, are usually whimsical in their operation. The devil may appear or he may not, and the theory of demonic interference does not tell us when, how, or why—which gives it no explanatory value. Supernatural notions, such as about God or angels or heaven, are either reserved for another world, or their operation on this world are too entirely vague to be confirmed or falsified.

So long as the theory touches experience at both ends, so to speak, it is valid. The theory itself is not and cannot be tangible. The fact that our most accurate knowledge involves belief in unperceivable things, in other words, does not make it either metaphysical or supernatural. As Santayana said, “if belief in the existence of hidden parts and movements in nature be metaphysics, then the kitchen-maid is a metaphysician whenever she peels a potato.”

Richard Feynman made almost the same point when he observed that our notion of “inside” is really just a way of making sense of a succession of perceptions. We never actually perceive the “inside” of an apple, for example, since by slicing it all we do is create a new surface. This surface may, for all we know, pop into existence in that moment. But by imagining that there is an “inside” to the apple, unperceived by equally real, we make sense of an otherwise confusing sequence of perceptions. Scientific theories—and all valid knowledge in general—does essentially the same thing: it organizes our experience by positing an unperceived, and unperceivable, structure to reality.

Thus humanity’s attempt to understand nature is very accurately compared to an Englishman reading Latin with a London accent. Though we muddle the form of nature through our perception and our conception, by paying attention to the regularities of experience we may learn to understand nature quite well.

Review: Scepticism and Animal Faith

Review: Scepticism and Animal Faith

Scepticism and Animal FaithScepticism and Animal Faith by George Santayana

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



Who was Santayana?

Santayana has long attracted my curiosity. He just has so many things going for him.

For one, his background is interesting: a Spanish citizen who grew up in Boston, and whose professional career was spent at Harvard during its golden age, alongside William James and Josiah Royce. Like Nabokov, he learned English as a second language; also like Nabokov, he was a fantastic writer of English prose. His philosophy is as unique as his background: a personal statement far removed from the technical problems of his discipline. And in addition to authoring several influential philosophical works, he was also a man of letters, penning a best-selling novel and autobiography. He belonged to no country and no philosophical school. He was an individual.

Seeking an entry point into the writings of this half-forgotten sage, I picked up this book: Scepticism and Animal Faith. This is meant to be a critical introduction to a longer work that Santayana later wrote on metaphysics, The Realms of Being. But nowadays this book is more often read than its hefty sequel. It is a rich text. Santayana manages to compress an epistemological argument into just over 300 pages.

The first thing the reader will notice is Santayana’s writing style, which is elegant, humane, and often poetic:

Here is one more system of philosophy. If the reader is tempted to smile, I can assure him that I smile with him… My endeavor is to think straight in such terms as are offered to me, to clear my mind of cant and free it from the cramp of artificial traditions; but I do not ask any one to think in my terms if he prefers others. Let him clean better, if he can, the windows of his soul, that the variety and beauty of the prospect may spread more brightly before him.

He also has a knack for aphorisms. “Scepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer.”

But lurking underneath this melodious stream of words is quite a sophisticated philosophical argument. Ironically, Santayana’s eloquence actually makes him harder to understand than other, less literary, writers. He takes pains to clothe his thoughts in fine words, when more cumbersome and less artful language would actually make his point easier to grasp. By the time that I got halfway through this book, I felt uncertain that I was following his argument.

Seeking guidance, I picked up John Lachs’s On Santayana, which is a marvelous little book that I recommend to anybody struggling. For what it’s worth, I put my own attempted summary in this review.

Santayana in a Nutshell

Santayana was a realist, a materialist, a naturalist, and an epiphenomenalist. By realist I mean that he believed that reality existed independently of it being perceived. He is a materialist in that he thinks that matter, not mind, is the fundamental stuff of nature. He is a naturalist in that he thinks scientific investigation is the only valid explanation for the universe; that natural laws, not supernatural principles, are what govern reality.

Epiphenomenalism is just a fancy word indicating the view that mind is distinct from matter, but fully and totally dependent on matter. Someone who holds this view believes that mental events cannot possibly influence or affect material events. For example, you see a bear; the sight of the bear triggers a flight-or-flight mechanism in your limbic system; you run away. Subjectively you have the experience of seeing, of feeling fear, and of deciding to run away. But your body performs this action because of things happening in your brain, which fully determine the things that happen in your mind; not the reverse.

Think of foam on the top of an ocean wave. The foam only appears if the wave is tall and fast enough. The presence of this foam has no effect on the height or speed of the wave; it is a byproduct of certain conditions. This is what an epiphenomenalist thinks of the body (the wave) and the mind (the foam).

These are his general conclusions; so how does he arrive at them?

Santayana’s Epistemology

Like Descartes, Santayana starts the book by doubting everything that can be doubted. But Santayana finds—to his and our astonishment—that he can doubt himself out of existence. He doesnt get himself down to just a transcendental ego, like Descartes or Husserl; instead, at the end of Santayana’s doubting, all that remains is pure appearance.

Perhaps ‘doubt’ isn’t quite the right word for this kind of radical skepticism, since the word is too active; a better term would be ‘letting go.’ Santayana’s ultimate skeptic is completely and totally engrossed by pure appearance. Like a sage having a mystical vision, the experience absorbs him entirely—so entirely that the idea of him somehow being a distinct entity, or somehow possessing a quality called ‘existence’, couldn’t even be thought.

There’s no logical or philosophical way to return from this kind of skepticism. There is no argument that can be made; no kind of being that can be posited. The ultimate skeptic exists in a timeless, egoless ecstasy of images.

The thrust of this argument is that the Cartesian method of arguing outward from a condition of doubt can’t work; it’s an insoluble puzzle.

But clearly most people—including most philosophers—don’t doubt themselves senseless. They eat, drink, go to the bathroom, and fall in love. Idealists (who think all is mental) still enjoy eating spaghetti; anti-realists (who don’t think anything exists independently of perception) still run out of the way of oncoming traffic. Underneath all of the varied customs in history and around the world, in spite of all the different philosophies concerning the nature of reality, certain fundamental assumptions are constant to human behavior. And these assumptions, taken together, Santayana calls animal faith.

For example, one influential idea in the history of philosophy is phenomenalism. This is the view of knowledge which holds that, since we can never experience something that isn’t a perception, it is illogical to posit something that is ‘behind’ or ‘responsible for’ the perception, which in itself cannot be perceived. No such unperceivable object is necessary, they argue; the perception is self-sufficient. Imagine an apple. Now remove the color; now remove the texture; now remove the shape; now remove the taste; now remove the smell. What’s left? Nothing. Therefore (argue phenomenalists) an apple is merely a collection of sensations; nothing more.

Santayana responds by saying, of course we can never perceive something that isn’t perceivable; that much is obvious. And of course we can’t have evidence for something we didn’t observe; that would be a contradiction. But nobody acts on the phenomenalist assumption; nobody acts as though sensations constitute all reality; we all assume that substance exists. Now, Santayana uses the word ‘substance’ to indicate the thing that exists independently of it being perceived. He doesn’t mean that substance is metaphysical, distinct from physical objects; to the contrary, Santayana thinks that substance is a name for the fundamental constituents of matter—whatever they might be.

It is a tenet of animal faith that things are more than mere sensations. Nobody thinks that, if they were standing in front of an oncoming trolley, closing their eyes and plugging their ears would make it disappear. And we all consider children to be the same individuals as the adults they eventually become—a gratuitous assumption, in the phenomenalist view, since the sensations associated with the person have changed entirely. If you left your house to go to work, and returned to find that a large tree had fallen and crushed it, I bet you wouldn’t conclude that the house was a certain set of sensations when you left, and is now a different set of sensations. Rather, we all assume that the tree which fell in the forest did make a sound (or at least made vibrations travel through the air) and did destroy your house—even though you weren’t around to hear and see it.

Santayana’s point is that we believe in substance not for logical reasons, nor for experiential reasons; in fact, as far as logic and experience go, the phenomenalist argument is quite compelling. But we can’t help believing in substance. It is an assumptions that is inescapable. All attempts to doubt substance presuppose it. And any philosophical criticisms of substance are bound to be hypocritical, since the philosopher who offers the criticism also operates via animal faith.

So the task of epistemology, Santayana argues, is merely to describe these fundamental beliefs that make up animal faith. We all already assume and act as if knowledge is possible; that experience can be trusted; that reality is more than sensation or ideas. So all epistemological inquiries into the possibility of knowledge are bloodless, academic exercises—the wild play of the imagination when sophistry is embraced. These arguments are as far removed from reality as the wildest myths.

Santayana’s realization that he must believe certain things in order to function, regardless of their logical cogency, leads him to his materialism, his naturalism, and his realism.

This more or less sums up Santayana’s epistemological argument. What is his metaphysical argument? I confess that I found this aspect of his thinking both harder to understand and to accept. But I’ll do my best to explain it.

Santayana’s Metaphysics

Santayana thinks that there is not one simple type of being, but four distinct types of being: matter, essence, truth, and spirit. His conceptualizations of truth, matter, and spirit are hardly touched upon in this volume. Santayana spends most of his time explaining his notion of essence. His definition of essence, however, I find puzzling.

Before I muddle things up, here are some of the ways Santayana defines essence:

The realm of essence is not peopled by choice forms or magic powers. It is simply the unwritten catalogue, prosaic and infinite, of all the characters possessed by such things as happen to exist, together with the characters which all different things would possess if they existed. It is the sum of mentionable objects, of terms about which, or in which, something might be said.

Later, he says “distinction, infinitely minute and indelible distinction from everything else, is what essence means.” I don’t know about you, but I’m still confused. Is an essence a potential object of experience? Is essence an adjective that isn’t necessarily attached to a noun? A disembodied quality? But Santayana thinks that essences exist independently of both mind and matter; they are eternal and infinite. But how could a quality exist independently of a perceiving mind to take note of it?

This quote made it more clear to me: “Substance is the speaker and substance is the theme; intuition is only the act of speaking or hearing, and the given essence is the audible word.” Let us recall Santayana’s view of the mind. Santayana thinks consciousness is an inner myth; that our experiences are quite literally fiction. But it is fiction that allows us to operate in the world.

When we see the color red, for example, we see a completely arbitrary mental representation of a certain wavelength of electromagnetic radiation. This representation is neither true nor false; it is a sort of visual symbol that indicates to you that something is in your environment. It is confirmed in experience when you point to a stop sign and say “that’s red,” and your friends agree with you. Similarly, the smell of spaghetti and meatball is an arbitrary mental representation of the atoms and molecules that are buzzing through the air and hitting your nostrils. Whether this is the ‘true’ smell of the spaghetti is besides the point; what matters is that this smell reliably indicates the presence of delicious food that makes your belly feel full and doesn’t poison your body. In summary, sensations are signposts that tell you what to do and where to go; they aren’t the things themselves.

Words are also arbitrary signs. The word ‘red’ is normally not printed in red ink; and the words ‘spaghetti and meatballs’ don’t smell like spaghetti and meatballs.

Now imagine there’s somebody near you speaking a foreign language. At least you think it’s a foreign language. For all you know, it could be meaningless gibberish. The only thing you know for sure is that it’s speech. You listen to the speech; but instead of listening as you usually do—interpreting the audible sounds into various meanings—you listen to the pure sound of it. In other words, instead of paying attention to the significance of the sign, you pay attention to the qualities of the sign itself.

The pure qualities of sensations are, I think, what Santayana is getting at with his term ‘essence’. The pure experience of red; the pure smell of spaghetti and meatballs. By ‘pure’ I mean the qualities of the sensation as a sensation—not purporting to signify something beyond the sensation. They are the qualities that differentiate one sensation from another. The visual qualities that make the letter A what it is are its essence. Every shade of red has its own essence. Every possible object of experience has its own essence—often multiple.

Parting Thought

In case you haven’t already guessed from this laborious summary, I found this book extremely engrossing. I must wait until I read his Realms of Being to pronounce on his metaphysics. But as an epistemological notion, I find “animal faith” extremely useful—and worth revisiting.

One of the things I most like about Santayana is his constant concern with the lived ramifications of philosophy:

My criticism is not a learned pursuit, though habit may sometimes make my language scholastic; it is not a choice between artificial theories; it is the discipline of my daily thoughts and the account I actually give to myself from moment to moment of my own being and of the world around me.

But to this humane and classical conception of philosophy, Santayana adds a considerable amount of dialectical sophistication. Thus in the same breath his system is convincing and vital.

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