Cognition & Reality

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Grocery Store

I have finally got round to reading The Metaphysical Club, by Louis Menand. It’s about William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey, and the development of pragmatism as an American philosophy. Of course, it’s interesting, but the most fascinating thing about it is that I’m learning that I, and others, have been reinventing pragmatism as a sort of adjunct to radical constructivism. The central point of pragmatism is that our thoughts are only thoughts, and any theory about the world is only a story made up of selections from individual experience. So much for ideas. So much for theory. For example, as one passage in the book explains, legal arguments about liability identify causal chains of events, although such chains are actually fabrications based on a given point of view.

In this connection, consider my experience of going to the grocery store and its relationship with what “actually happens” at the grocery store. There are typically dozens of people in the store, most or all of whom I do not know and do not know me. There are the clerks, to whom I am perhaps familiar in a shadowy sort of way if I frequent that supermarket. Other than that, it is rare for me to see anyone I know. The other shoppers and I are, in effect, independent observers of the events occurring before us. We all literally have our own points of view because we’re all standing in different places. Furthermore, we have come into the market carried along by our own stories about ourselves and our intentions in being there.

Let’s say I report to you about what it was like at the store. All I can tell you is a story entitled “My Visit to the Supermarket.” I can tell you the route I took around the store, what I bought, the number of people who were there, etc. If I were to give a detailed account, it might contain my impressions of my fellow shoppers, some of them at least, the number of checkstands that were open, the produce prices, the level of illumination, and the temperature in various parts of the store. What is the relationship of my report, however detailed, with what happened while I was in the store?

To begin with, there is  the question of events that happened while I was there, but that I did not or could not witness, such as the actions of shoppers in aisles I was not in when those actions occurred. Furthermore, my personal account must be silent regarding the experience of everyone else in the store, even supposing that one or two people spoke with me while I was there to comment on events as they happened. The chance are, moreover, that I would not appear as even a minor character in the report of any other shopper about her or his “visit to the supermarket.” As an expert in eyewitness testimony could tell you, if a crime had occurred while I was in the store, and I saw it happening, my report about it would vary in many details from the reports of other eyewitnesses. Even supposing that a crime did occur, and statements were taken, those statements, taken together, would still not constitute an account of what was happening, in total, within the store at the time I was there. Many more things than the crime were happening at any instant.

So where does this leave us? There was no place to stand in the store, no point of view, that would permit the creation of an individual report accounting for everything that happened during my visit. Standing in any place precludes standing in any other place. If we were to discuss what “everything that happened” means, we would find the same problem at another level, because your ideas about what constitutes a “fact” or “event” will almost certainly be at some variance from mine. For example, everyone in the store was breathing: Does each  inhalation and exhalation count as an event? Does every step that every shopper took? What about changes that were occurring at the molecular or atomic level? When asked what happened in the store, we might say, “God only knows,” and in some systems of philosophy the meaning of “God” is the point of view that sums or integrates all possible points of view. Were such a God to exist, however, neither you nor I would have direct access to her “experience.”

Let’s chew on that for a bit.

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