Inside – Out versus Outside – In

Inside Outside

The language of everyday discourse is permeated by dualism. The personal and private sense of one’s own mind sits side by side with an unquestioned assumption of materialism. Accordingly, but not expressed this way, dualism is adopted as ‘common sense’. The influence of intentions, consciousness and the mind on a material world is assumed to somehow happen even though outside an appeal to mysticism, there is no coherent possibility of such a conception: physical matter is only subject to physical causes; gravity nor any other force has a mind of its own.

Dualism can be described in a way that describes how we account for ourselves in practice: simultaneously we seem to hold two conceptions of ourselves; what we sense from the inside towards the outside and an idea of how we appear from the outside looking inwards. The former is the subjective and the latter is an objective point of view.

Many of the problems of Philosophy and to some extent Psychology turn around this incompatible dichotomy. It seems to me that clarification of the dividing lines between the expressions of inside – out and the outside – in points of view can clear away much of the debris and misconceptions in the problems of Philosophy.

The inside – out, subjective view admits that knowledge is dependent on our personal experience, yet this implies that we know only ourselves and cannot be sure that there is any ‘looking out’ at all: solipsism in effect; meaning all to our inner selves, but nothing at all to anyone else. The point being that while we can claim knowledge of our own minds or consciousness we have no access into the consciousness of others, there are no “windows into men’s souls”. In fact people tend to bridle and express discontent if anyone intimates that they have access into their minds. There is no point in pretending that we can feel what it is like to be someone else, we simply cannot; people may describe what they are thinking and how they are feeling and in return we may accept or doubt their testimony, but that is the end to it; we reach an impasse, there is no check; in Carl Popper’s terms the statements are outside the realm of falsification.

The outside – in perspective which invites a universal objective knowledge, accessible to all would seem much more attractive but for the inconvenient impossibility of being able to step outside ourselves to realise this objective, absolute knowledge. Moreover we have to concede that technological and scientific advances make it very evident that our senses only have access to a portion what could be known of the outside world. Other animals perceive ultra violet light for instance, others have a much finer discrimination of the visual light while bats and moles for example achieve a complete sense of the world about them in a way that is, for us, scarcely imaginable. We have to concede that there may even be things that are undetectable to us and quite outside our comprehension. Even the notion of what material is in materialist terms is put into question.

Faced with an alternative between the subjective, inside – out perspective that, lacking reference, is incoherent, if not meaningless, in the public external sphere and an impossible to achieve outside – in objectivism, we are, if we are to enter into publicly accessible discourse, obliged to adopt the outside – in objectivism, whilst leaving open the sense that our understanding is necessarily incomplete and to a varying extent provisional.  Even if we did hit on a certain truth we could not have the certainty that we had done so.

When we are irritated at the erratic performance of a car, a sewing machine or lawn mower we might say it has a mind of its own, we might even ascribe an inner motivation to mountains, clouds and rivers, but hardly anyone today would say so in all seriousness. In former civilisations (and few today) such ideas were the everyday currency and this was exemplified by the Gods of their religions. Western societies have long abandoned attempts to appeal to inner motivation or even teleology to physical objects; since the renaissance the subsequent understanding has been instrumental in opening up scientific knowledge to a level of sophistication that while leaving common sense far behind, has proved enormously successful in accounting for observable phenomena and making modern technologies possible.

So too in the living world, motivations are not ascribed to plants, nor with any serious intent to invertebrates, nor even to vertebrates. While on an anecdotal basis, anthropomorphism survives in common speech, it has long disappeared from the lexicon of those who try to provide a general account of animal behaviour. As with inanimate objects, the result has been an advance in our understanding. Our understanding of ourselves has remained resistant to breaking free from the tendency to explain ourselves in terms of motivations of mind or disposition of character, yet these things are essentially unknowable in any public sense and only obscure attempts to attain an objective understanding.

The importance therefore is to identify the private and subjective, to accept that it is inherently unknowable and restrict explanation to a perspective that tries to achieve objectivity. Whilst accepting that this outside – in perspective is ultimately unattainable, the thing in itself is beyond our faculties, the attempt is the best we can do. This approach has been extraordinarily successful over the last five hundred years in the physical sciences and in the last century and a half in the living sciences.

Philosophy can learn from the same approach. Understandably there is resistance. Philosophy was seen to be more fundamental to knowledge than the Sciences and historically, the Sciences branched out from Philosophy. Yet the limits of our ability to make sense of the world are prescribed by our physiology and the particularly mechanisms of the brain, so accounts of Philosophy need to take into account what these limits are from a neurophysiological point of view. Kant’s conclusions that our faculties impose conditions of causality, time and space onto how we perceive and make sense of the world were arrived at through a reasoning that cannot be described as well expressed and is difficult to follow (I rely on secondary sources to try to understand), but a neurophysiological account that looks at how the brain structures our perceptions offers an alternative and more direct understanding of the sense of these conclusions.


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