Sunday, February 09, 2003

Knowledge from Experience

There is an old puzzle in epistemology: How is it that we get knowledge from experience? In other words, how is it that our visual and other sensory states give us justification for believing something about things in the world? This is not the problem of skepticism. This problem admits that, for example, a visual experiential state can give you reason for believing something about an object; the problem is: How can it do this?

You might say, What's the problem? I have a certain visual experience of seeming to see a table, and so I have reason to believe there is a table there. But there is a problem. Experience is an event, not a proposition. Only propositions have logical force on other propositions. Experiences, being events, have no logical force and, so, no justificatory power. The proposition, There is a table there, wants a reason, something that entails it, gives logical support for it, something before which can be put a "because". But an event, such as the event of having a certain visual experience, doesn't meet these requirements. "Because [experience]" is not a proposition and can't entail the desired conclusion. "Because I seem to see a table" is a proposition, but what is the basis on which it stands? The visual experience. And so the problem just gets pushed back.

In other words, reasoning deals in reasons. Reasons are claims, propositions. Experiences are not reasons, claims or propositions, but mere events. Reasoning would seem to be isolated from experience, unable to make use of it. But it does make use of it. How?

Until recently, no one had ever figured out how it is that we get justification for our beliefs from experience. I think there is a solution now, and I'll tell it to you later.