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pathways (guide)

25 March 1998

'Much learning does not teach understanding' is an ancient proverb. When I said last time that the central case of learning that philosophers should be looking at is not learning facts but rather getting 'attuned' with a subject matter, I meant much more than this. You can understand and still be unable to apply your understanding. You can know a lot of medicine and be an incompetent physician, know a lot about how motorcycles work but be incapable of repairing one (or riding one for that matter). The idea I am exploring is that the central case — the 'paradigm' — of learning is the kind of learning that enables you to do.

I was on to this point before, when I raised the question whether the activity essentially involved in learning was physical or merely mental (17 March). Now, a tempting way to approach this question is by means of a thought experiment. You simply describe a possible world where there exist beings whose learning is purely mental, and see if the description adds up (19 March). Or, on second thoughts, maybe not so simple. The trouble comes, as we saw, when you have to decide whether the attempted description really 'adds up' or not, whether you have succeeded or failed to describe a meaningful possibility.

I am still looking for an alternative approach to the question of the primacy of physical activity, an approach that works. Until then, the question remains open. Maybe in order to show that 'attunement with reality' is the central case of learning you don't need to prove that creatures who were not physical agents absolutely could not 'learn'. There might not be a cast-iron, logical proof of that negative claim that applied to every creature in the universe, or in every possible world. What is important is to appreciate the central importance of physical learning, whatever that entails. Maybe.

I'll get back to this question when I have assembled more tools to deal with it. What I am going to do now is start listing some examples of the things we learn — some 'reminders to myself' — just to fill in the picture, to make things more concrete, less abstract.

The other day, Ruth, the eldest of my three young daughters asked me, 'Is there really a tooth fairy?' I had to smile. Ruth is eight, and these days eight is a bit old for believing in tooth fairies. But I said, 'Yes, of course' and she was content. Now a cynic might say that all Ruth was interested in was whether the tooth she put under her pillow would be replaced by a pound coin when she awoke the following morning. But somehow I don't think so. Ruth would be disappointed to learn that what she once learned about the tooth fairy isn't so.

Or perhaps it would be closer to the truth to say that Ruth would be disappointed to be told, straight out, 'There is no tooth fairy, I put the coin there.' She doesn't really believe in the tooth fairy, but she doesn't not believe either. It would be missing the point for the philosopher to ask what degree of probability Ruth attached to the proposition 'There is a tooth fairy'.

Now this kind of 'belief' is by no means confined to children. Adults do not generally believe in tooth fairies but they do embrace beliefs which, like the tooth fairy, are neither probable nor improbable but closer to decisions about the way one is to live. This is the way some doctors 'believe' in the efficacy of homeopathic remedies, alongside the application of orthodox medicine. Or the way we subscribe to views because they are politically correct. We voluntarily embrace a certain world view, agree to engage in what Wittgenstein called a 'language game'. A benign collusion.

This poses a problem. In talking of 'attunement with reality' could I be leaning towards the idea that there is no sharp dividing line between beliefs which are more or less probable and beliefs like these, beliefs which are more like decisions? — Is that bad? I don't know.

Here is another case. The American philosopher William James defended belief in God on pragmatic grounds. The 'truth' of the belief in God is shown in the way that belief enhances one's life in some important way. Suppose we accepted that claim. Not everyone's life is necessarily enhanced by believing in God. In these terms one might say that God existed for me but not for you, and I (as a good pragmatist) could accept that fact. Now, there are similarities and differences between this and the previous examples of beliefs which are neither probable or improbable. — That is something we shall have to investigate further.

Then there is the rather different case of the things we have learned which are not open to doubt or the calculation of probability because they are the assumptions on which all our other beliefs hinge, the basis of our very sense of what is real. Such as the often cited example of the belief that the world has existed for more than five minutes. (There is a brilliant investigation of these kinds of 'hinge propositions' in Wittgenstein's late work On Certainty.) — Something more to add to my taxonomy, I suppose.

What is 'belief'? A judging, a holding, an embracing, an affirming and possibly many other things as well. Perhaps there is a fundamental error here in thinking that all these things are merely different varieties of a single notion, 'belief', just as labradors, poodles and spaniels are different varieties of dog. We learn a lot more than simply to 'hold beliefs'.