“Historians of philosophy rightly caution against making a rigid contrast between Continental rationalism and British empiricism. The two groups share many problems and presuppositions, each striving in its own way to blend reason and experience, to combine the life of reflective mind with the scientific view of nature. Yet the empiricists were much less confident about metaphysical principles and the dependence of moral judgment upon a metaphysical account of the God-man relationship, though each worked out his system in his own way. The important thing about John Locke (8:950c, GBWW 35) is that he tempered all claims made for human understanding with a caution born from his training as a physician and his observation of the non-mathematical methods of Robert Boyle (2:742b) and others. He rejected all innate ideas and insisted that the sources of knowledge are experiential, viz, sensation and reflection; from sensation the mind derives ideas, while from reflection it becomes aware of such internal operations as thinking, willing, desiring. For Locke man knows ideas, not things, and this conception led him into a subjectivism from which he never escaped. Yet he remained committed to realism, attempted a proof for the existence of God, saw divine law as the ultimate norm of moral activity, and argued against Hobbes’ totalitarian notion of the state. George Berkeley (2:326d, GBWW 35) reacted against Locke’s theory of knowledge, developing a type of immaterialism that permitted a reflective personal grasp of the relationships between God and the participant but limited minds of men. His central thesis was that the whole being of a sensible thing consists in its being perceived (esse est percipi), with the result that the primary qualities of bodies (extension and motion) are as mind-dependent as the secondary. By contrast, David Hume (7:232a, GBWW 35) was strongly attracted to skepticism, which he attempted to overcome by applying the methods of Newtonian science to the study of human nature. Starting with the empiricist principle that man’s knowledge of things lies solely in his impressions of sense, Hume denied reality to any kind of substance, material or immaterial. He also rejected the traditional concept of causality, replacing it by the phenomenalist notions of constant conjunction and temporal succession, and thus rendering it useless for proofs of the existence of God.” (The Elements of Philosophy by Father William A. Wallace, O.P.; PART III. // CHAPTER 18. MODERN PHILOSOPHY // [Section] §96. MECHANICAL PHILOSOPHY AND EMPIRICISM // [paragraph] 3 // [pages] 301 and 302)
Obiter Dicta: Imagine the following examples of human perception; a person looking at a rainbow in the sky with one end seeming to touch a farm silo, a person looking at an apple on a table or in a tree, and a person under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs who sees a snake which is not actually present. Now let’s take these perceptions one at a time and consider what these experiences tell us about human perception (sensation) and cognition (knowing/understanding).
The person who sees an apple is seeing light reflected off the apple which enters his/her eye. The electro-magnetic energy of that light is changed into chemical energy which is changed into electrical energy which travels along the optic nerve to the brain where it is transformed into neuro-chemical-electrical energy and impulses which somehow becomes an image of an apple of which the person is aware; i.e. “sees”. Long before this new image was created in the brain/mind, it had ceased being the original image transmitted from the actual apple. Somewhere in the transition from chemical and electrical energy in the eye and optic nerve, the original image of that apple, had ceased being an image of an actual apple, becoming chemical electrical neural impulses in the eye/optic nerve/brain. But then the brain/mind constructed (reconstructed) it as the image of an apple.
The person who sees a rainbow, does not actually see a thing. The farm silo which s/he sees is an actual thing, but the rainbow which at one of its ends seems to touch the silo, does not actual exist as an actual thing in the same sense as that silo is an actual thing. What has happened is that light has been refracted through raindrops, the different angles of refraction creating a band of colors, which the brain sees as a rainbow. But if one were to go to and climb the silo, talking all the time on a walkie-talkie with someone who can assure him/her that a rainbow still seemed to be touching the silo, that person on top of the silo would see no rainbow there. In her/his original position, then, this person had an image of a rainbow in his/her brain/mind which does not in fact exist as a thing in the same sense as that silo is a thing.
Finally, let’s consider the person who, having ingested hallucinogenic substances, is now seeing a snake slither toward her/him and that that snake does not exist at all. What we have is an image within this person’s brain generated by the influence of a chemical (the hallucinogenic drug) creating neural electrical impulses in the brain which have now become an image in the brain which in no way corresponds with the real world his/her eyes can actually see.
These three examples, and many more like them, have created the idea, the suspicion that what we call the real world is nothing more than neural generated images within our brain. Today, we have an impression, a suspicion, that what we actually see and of which we are aware are images existing in a brain-bubble which seems to be completely isolated from the “real” world. In fact, we have a suspicion that there either is no “real” world, or that we cannot for certain prove that the images in our brain-bubbles correspond to actual things in the outside world.
This disconnect between what our brains/minds image/see/are-aware-of and what might be materially outside our bodies is referred to as the egocentric predicament.
If this egocentric predicament were a correct interpretation of the experiences of perception and cognition, this would have very bad consequences for human speech, political activity, human relationships, culture, and community formation. If all a person could be certain of were the images in her/his own isolated brain bubble, s/he could not know if those images corresponded correctly with images in other persons’ brain-bubbles. In fact, if all we can be sure of is the content of our isolated brain bubbles, we could not even then be sure there were other persons existing in reality outside of ourselves. If we could not be sure that each person’s images correspond, there is no way for a community to seek to discover and display truth together. Soon, speech would no longer be a tool of fact/truth searching and display. Speech would become meaningless; would become incapable of communicating meaning/fact/truth. Once the ability of speech to communicate meaning is undermined, people would begin to doubt and then eventually avoid attempting to engage in political activity, community formation, culture expression, human relationships. This egocentric predicament, an idea which has been circulating throughout human civilization for about five hundred years, may be the root of the seeming inability of political bodies to accomplish things, for the breakdown of dialogue between opposing factions, and for the relativism-idea that people can have their own facts; their own truths. If people can have their own truths/facts, speech becomes impossible.
This egocentric predicament is in part a reflection of ideas present in the writings of Locke (A.D. 1632 to 1704) and Descartes (A.D. 1596 to 1650). “For Locke man knows ideas, not things, and this conception led him into a subjectivism from which he never escaped.” Descartes, with his cogito ergo sum/je pense donc je suis/I think, therefore I am; declares the one can only find certain reality within the thoughts of his/her individual isolated brain/mind. Ideas such as these are the beginning of the egocentric predicament and of the deleterious effects this predicament has upon speech, human interaction, community, culture, society, politics, religion, spirituality.
However, the concept of an isolated brain bubble which creates images completely separated from a world outside itself, is not a correct way of understanding the epistemology of human knowledge acquisition. Every act of perception is an act of the mind going out of itself and intending (making contact with, leading to awareness and consciousness of) actual objects in the real world. Every act of awareness begins with the human mind going out of itself and intending, making contact with, objects in the exterior world. The person seeing the apple sees the apple because the mind goes out to, is aware of, intends the actual apple. The person sees the rainbow because the mind goes out to, is aware of, intends the colors of light refracted through raindrops. The person under hallucinogenic influences sees the snake because s/he has memories of snakes s/he has seen in real life in the form of actual snakes or pictures of snakes.
This idea of intentionality, that mind reaches out to and makes contact with the real world as the actual basis of perception and conception; this idea is that of phenomenology. Phenomenology, a philosophy whose framers and users have included many Roman Catholic philosophers including Edith Stein (Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) and Karol Woytyla (Saint John Paul II), arose in part as a response to the mental and social isolation of the egocentric predicament.
Key: For an explanation of the reference and cross reference forms used in this book (e.g. [§19.6] and (11:292c), see previous posts in this blog entitled “The Elements of Philosophy: Preface (7)” and “The Elements of Philosophy: Preface (8)”. GBWW stands for the Great Books of the Western World by Encyclopedia Britannica and The University of Chicago. “Syntopicon” refers to the introductory set of/to the GBWW.