What Is It Like to Know?

ImagesAri N. Schulman at The New Atlantis:

We arrive then at the perplexing sense that dualism apes physicalism by creating special non-physical objects, while physicalism apes dualism by creating special experiential categories of physical knowledge. We can begin to make sense of this mutual parasitism by turning to a different debate, about the place of rational thinking in human experience, waged between the philosophers John McDowell and Hubert Dreyfus.

The debate seems to reveal fundamental fault lines in how philosophers understand the relationship between reason and experience. Dreyfus, a philosophy professor at UC Berkeley, made his name in the 1960s, critiquing early artificial intelligence researchers for treating cognition as essentially rule-based and abstract rather than felt and intuitive. Whereas AI researchers saw chess and physics as the best models for understanding the mind, Dreyfus emphasized informal everyday activities like stacking blocks and opening doors.

Then, in the 1990s, McDowell, a South African philosopher teaching at the University of Pittsburgh, argued that there was an important problem in the ordinary way our culture talks about experience. In a lecture series eventually published as the 1994 book Mind and World, McDowell notes that modernity has disenchanted matter, rejecting ancient and medieval views that rational forces are at work in the operations of the natural world. Experience seems to be part of that disenchanted world, since it is created by natural processes, such as perception.

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