Sunday, July 17, 2011

Stoutly Naive

Not a year passes but I read, usually in some philosophical context, the common man berated for his naiveté. But why do writers use that word? To signal nest odor? The word comes from just born, thus immature. It has connotations of native (“primitive”) or rustic (“stupid”). Thus to use the word is to claim superiority, sophistication, a certain elevation above the great unwashed.

The roots of this usage appear to rest on the notion that ordinary people, when they see an apple, think that they actually see an apple—and are too stupid to know that what is in the head is actually a representation of an apple, not the apple itself. But when people see an apple, they think of it out there, on the table, in the bowl, not in their heads at all. To be sure, what reaches the eyes is light reflected from the apple. It is then transformed into signal. The signal is translated by intellect, aided by memory, into a state of the brain that the mind then, if it needs to, can actually name using a concept. But the light must come from something. The machinery that translates it into a signal is naturally formed by a normal body. Description of the process—which I’d venture would take at least two or three months of very intensive study even mildly to grasp—in no way takes anything away from the concrete facts that something is out there. There is nothing immature, primitive, or stupid about the ordinary person’s naive realism. As ordinarily seen, people see an apple. When this act is painfully analyzed, we get a process—knowing which is not in the least necessary to get along in the ordinary world. So why else call people naive unless it is to shine in the eyes of those initiated into the “higher mysteries.”

Is Bertrand Russell right when he says:

Science seems to be at war with itself.... Naive realism leads to physics, and physics, if true, shows naive realism to be false. Therefore naive realism, if true, is false; therefore it is false. [Bertrand Russell, An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth]
When Bertrand Russell sees an apple, does he actually see uncountably many atomic cores surrounded by probability waves of electrons and enormous voids between these structures? Or does he just see an apple? Which is the true picture of reality? Must it be the voids and only mathematically accessible waves—or is it the shiny red thing there? Or both? Or the cellular structure, with its mitochondria? What scoffers call naive may just be an indication of scale.

This is a minor matter, to be sure. People tend to be silly and try to make themselves look bigger than they are. No big deal. But such charges of naiveté are also used to suggest that people naively believe themselves to have minds (whereas all they have is neurons) and that they have souls (whereas all they are is dissipative structures). That last is a little obscure. The phrase is Ilya Prigogine’s who suggests that life is just a certain kind of self-organizing natural system. When it comes to such extensions of the concept of human naiveté, one wonders who is lost and thus needs a stiff dose of amazing grace.

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