The Web of Belief – A Reading Note 2

Continuing from the paragraph quoted in previous post, Quine further writes (my italics):

In an early page we asked what sorts of things were the objects of belief. Then we gratefully dropped that question, noticing that we could instead talk of sentences and of believing them true. Now a similar maneuver conduces to clarity in dealing with the notion of observation: let us ask no longer what counts as an observation, but turn rather to language and ask what counts as an observation sentence.

What makes a sentence an observation sentence is not what sort of event or situation it describes, but how it describes it. Thus I may see the dean of the law school mail a birthday check to his daughter in Belgium. Saying so in these terms does not qualify as an observation sentence. If on the other hand I describe that same event by saying that I saw a stout man with a broad face, a gray moustache, rimless spectacles, a Homburg hat, and a walking stick, putting a small white flat flimsy object into the slot of a mailbox, this is an observation sentence. What makes it an observation sentence is that any second witness would be bound to agree with me on all points then and there, granted merely an understanding of my language. The witness would not be bound to agree that it was the dean, whom he or she might not know, nor expected to know anything about the check or a daughter in Belgium.

About agreement on observational sentences… As I’ve said in the past posts about illusions, it seems to me an obvious fact that different things, (and there I mean completely different things), can appear same way, depending on…

  • characteristic of things
  • which kind of sensual modality (or access) is in question
  • the characteristic of that sensory access. For example in case of seeing – where we are seeing the things from, from what angle, do we wear glasses, are we sleepy, is there a fog, has anybody tampered with our brain, etc…

So, I think, that instead of “second witness would be bound to agree with me on all points then and there, granted merely an understanding of my language”, it would be better to speak that in case of observational sentences the second witness would be bound to agree that the situation seems such and such (granted merely an understanding of the language).

However, when we give up the possibility of sense-data language, I don’t think there is much sense to talk about infallibility of this kind of observational sentences. As there is not some factual state to which we have infallible access.

  1. This IS NOT going back to sense-data description, or to some
    “phenomenal seeming” which would be divorced from the world, and about which we could give some statements.
  2. According to the given analysis, the usage of “it seems that T” doesn’t mean that T is the case, but that among other things if T is the case, it would appear like whatever is the case appears now.
  3. Seeming or Appearance are always to someone. Something can’t appear except to someone. (Notice the symmetry with e.g. One can’t see without seeing something) So implicitly ‘seems’ is ‘seems to me’. And this further acknowledges that there might be limits to my perception, or limits to what I have focused on, or what I’m ignorant of, because of which it appears to me that T.

So, the report is then not a infallible report of some phenomenal fact, but just report of a judgment that we do. Something like “That might be car, but maybe it is not.”. It is hard to see that as some kind of infallible report (though of course, it is hard to see how it can be wrong too).

The Quine’s position on this issue is not like the one I’m presenting here though. He seems to acknowledge that there is some kind of “private experience” and sense-data, and that there are such things as “I’m in pain” and “I seem to see blue”, which would be reports about that “private experience”…

We remarked that some philosophers have identified observations with events of sensation. It is thus not to be wondered that in some philosophical writings the title of observation sentence is reserved for sentences very different from observation sentences as we have defined them. It is reserved for introspective reports like “I am in pain” and “I seem to see blue now.” Such reports also have been rated as infallible. It must be conceded that they tend to be incontestable, because of the speaker’s privileged access to his or her private experience. But on this very point they differ diametrically from observation sentences in our sense. The situations that make them true are not ones to which multiple witnesses could attest.

The Web of Belief – A Reading Note

I started reading Quine’s – The Web of Belief this weekend. In it there is one part which goes like this:

What are observations? Some philosophers have taken them to be sensory events: the occurrence of smells, feels, noises, color patches. This way lies frustration. What we ordinarily notice and testify to are rather the objects and events out in the world. It is to these that our very language is geared, because language is a social institution, learned from other people who share the scene to which the words refer. Observation sentences, like theoretical sentences, are for the most part sentences about external objects. This is why they can enter into logical relations with scientific theory, confirming or refuting it. (italics mine)

Quine, I think, rightly points that what we ordinarily notice are not colors patches, noises, etc; but objects and events… I think that is true, and more than that – those are the things we first notice, and only then we notice the colors, forms, and so on. It is true that the sense-data assumption first comes to mind when we learn the bio-physical facts. Namely, we learn how we have a “bag” of sensory receptors, and that each of these is separately affected by something in our surrounding. So, it is very normal to assume that the starting point of our consciousness of things is grounded in the consciousness of something that correlates with this bag of sensory events. So, the thinking goes, what we are conscious of in some moment is sense-data, and everything else is then synthesized on base of these sense-data.
But even this picture might make sense on first look,  lot of empirical research on conceptual development (for a nice sum up see Keil, 1989) shows a “holistic to analytic” shift. Those facts I think go strongly against the assumption that what the kids are initially aware is some sense-data, and that then the awareness of things as wholes which include more properties, and complex concepts is synthesized.
In previous posts, I said that this is because of the salience of things around us (by “things” I mean objects, properties, events, etc…). The whole objects tend to be more salient than specific properties (you will become aware of a rabbit, but not of its fur).

As I read that paragraph Quine isn’t thinking that we can become aware of wholes (in time or space) in the perception directly, without some sense-data to back it up. He seems instead to distinguish the awareness of the objects, which are supposed to be in publically accessible space, from colors, feels, etc… which are supposed to be something personal. Because of this Quine encounters a problem – how can we include persistent things in our observation sentences:

That there are enduring bodies at all, behind the passing show of sensory appearance, is a point of physical theory-a rudimentary point, but still something beyond the observable present occasion.

His explanation of how this is possible strikes me as unnecessary, given that other empirical researches show how children are aware of the objects as persistent well before learning language. This post has an example, but for a lot of examples which go beyond simple persistence, you might want to check Baillargeon, R.- “The Object Concept Revisited” (I read it in the Concepts – Core Readings book).

UPDATE:I added a post to give the general idea of the tests done by Baillargeon.