Tallis in Wonderland

George Moore’s Hands: Scepticism About Philosophy

Raymond Tallis is sceptical about Moore’s scepticism about scepticism.

“Antisthenes the Cynic, unable to answer [Zeno’s arguments against motion], got up and walked, deeming a proof by action more potent than any logical confutation. ”
Jonathan Barnes, The PreSocratic Philosophers

Even we regular readers of Philosophy Now, who may be presumed to be among that minority for whom philosophical questions are important, sometimes question the purpose of the whole enterprise, even its sincerity. A police force would probably be taken into special measures if its clear-up rate were as low as philosophers seem to have achieved with their problems over the millennia. This, however, can be defended: problems change their nature; the discoveries prompted by even insoluble philosophical questions have contributed enormously to humanity’s intellectual development; problems that are soluble are often claimed by the sciences and so philosophy, which may have flagged them up in the first place, loses the credit; and most importantly, taking hold of the mystery of one’s own existence is, surely, an end in itself.

It is however less easy to defend philosophy against one of its most characteristic activities: advancing arguments which seem to demonstrate that what we usually take to plainly be the case is somehow self-contradictory, and inviting us to jettison the most basic aspects of our world picture. I am thinking of what P.F. Strawson described in Individuals as ‘revisionary’ as opposed to ‘descriptive’ metaphysics. The most prominent and enduring example, which seems to typify what people take exception to in philosophy, is the question of whether there r eally are mind-independent objects: whether there is a world external to our sense experience. This hardly bothers us when we are busy dealing with the demands of everyday life, or indeed rarely outside of philosophical discussion. Noting this, we wonder whether there is something phony about such doubts and the alternative world pictures they can lead us to. We feel impatient with, even hostile to, the whole philosophical enterprise. In short, inside every philosopher there is an anti-philosopher waiting to get out.

In the last century anti-philosophy, more specifically a hostility to metaphysics, occupied a central position in academic philosophy. The most consistent professional anti-philosopher in the Anglo-Saxon tradition was G.E. Moore, Wittgenstein’s predecessor in the Chair of Philosophy at Cambridge. Moore’s Autobiography is startlingly candid: “I do not think the world or the sciences would ever have suggested to me any philosophical problems. What has suggested philosophical problems to me is things which other philosophers have said about the world.”

Moore was particularly affronted by metaphysicians who questioned ordinary common-sense views of the world, and who claimed to doubt such things as whether we know anything for certain, or whether the objects we take to surround us have anything other than a mental existence. The latter problem – and the refutation of idealism – was a preoccupation throughout Moore’s very long career. It prompted his most famous paper: ‘Proof of an External World’. This paper takes issue with Kant’s assertion that “it remains a scandal to philosophy… that the existence of things outside of us… must be accepted merely on faith and that, if anyone thinks to doubt their existence, we are unable to counter his doubts by any satisfactory proof.” (Critique of Pure Reason)

‘Proof of an External World’ started life as a lecture at the British Academy in November 1939. Given the date, he must have thought his message was important, and his journey from Cambridge to London truly necessary. It could hardly be classified as war work, since all parties to the global conflict would have been equally disabled if material objects had turned out to be illusions.

It was a long paper – some thirty pages in the printed text – but the meat (literally and metaphorically) comes at the end. The heart of Moore ’s ‘proof’ is an ostensive demonstration of the existence of objects in the external world:

“I can now prove that two human hands exist. How? By holding up my two hands, and saying, as I make a certain gesture with the right hand, ‘There is one hand’, and adding, as I make a gesture with the left, ‘and here is another’.”

He insists that this ‘proof of the existence of external things’ is “a perfectly rigorous one,” indeed, that it would be impossible “to give a better or more rigorous proof of anything whatever.” It satisfies the conditions for a rigorous proof because: a) the premise is different from the conclusion; b) it is something he knows to be the case – as certain as that he is standing up and talking to his audience; and c) the conclusion really does follow from the premises – “if there is a hand here and another hand there, then it follows that there are two hands in existence.” And it follows from this that there is an external world.

Moore does concede that some philosophers might not be satisfied with his proof:

“They will say that I have not given what they mean by a proof of the existence of external things. In other words, they want a proof of what I assert now when I hold up my hands... they want something like a general statement as to how any propositions of this sort may be proved.”

You bet, Prof! Unfortunately (he admits) this cannot be given: it would be necessary to prove “for one thing… that I am not dreaming” and this is not possible – adding that “If this is what is meant by proof of external things, I do not believe that any proof of external things is possible. ” Moore is not put out, however. I can know things, he says, which I cannot prove:

“Kant’s assertion that, in the absence of conclusive proof of external things we have to accept them merely on faith does not follow. From the fact that I know something and yet cannot prove it, it does not follow that I merely accept it on faith, that I do not really know it.”

Picking Apart The Proof

Some might feel that Moore’s ‘proof’, far from resolving Kant’s scandal, has simply hushed it up. More importantly, a rich and complex tradition of sceptical epistemology, which has lain at the heart of philosophy for 2,500 years, has been ignored, by-passed and rejected. Moore refuses to engage either with the intuitions that have driven the special doubts of philosophers, or with their arguments. He seems determined not to try to imagine what it was that led philosophers such as Parmenides, Heraclitus, Plato, Descartes, Kant, and of more direct concern to Moore, McTaggart and Bradley, to adopt the views they did, despite these views being contrary to the Common Sense in the defence of which Moore was so robust. The fight back on their behalf might begin with consideration of Moore’s lecture.

There is, first of all, something a bit odd about someone setting out in wartime on a journey whose aim is to transport his own bare hands so that they might be used in a demonstration of the existence of an external world. There is something even more peculiar about the idea of an audience being persuaded by the promise of Moore’s lecture title to use up time, petrol coupons or whatever to attend such a demonstration. And there is, of course, something deeply suspect about using particular items in the world – one’s hands – to demonstrate the existence of a mind-independent world. What evidence, additional to that provided by tube trains, the British Academy building, the street in which it lay, encounters with others (including Professor Moore himself) would Professor Moore’s hands provide? It seems a bit like lifting a grain of sand to demonstrate the existence of the beach one is standing on. If you don’t already believe in the beach, or the independent existence of others on it, then the demonstration will not cut any ice. Attendance at the lecture itself demonstrated an existential presupposition of the conclusion the lecturer was pretending to be arriving at (although he was actually setting out from it). Moore was pushing against an open door, appealing to the very assumptions that were necessary for his audience to come to hear him speak. He need not have raised his hands at all: he could simply have asked his audience whether they existed or not. Or exchanged glances with them. Or done nothing.

Crucially, Moore’s ‘proof’ is not a proof at all. That it fails as a proof is obvious, but it fails even to be a failed proof – as becomes evident when the lecture is experienced as a paper. In the absence of video-technology or cloned copies of Moore’s hands capable of exhibiting themselves, what the paper contained was not an on-the-page argument, but a report of an off-the-page demonstration. Or perhaps a recipe for a proof you might like to try with a few friends in the comfort of your own home. This recipe seems even more vulnerable to doubt than the reader’s belief in the existence of an external world.

The fundamental fault of Moore’s proof is that he imagines that you can demonstrate the existence of something through rational argument. But logic is about the relationship between statements, and cannot demonstrate the existence of singular real entities, never mind critiques that might be used to prove the existence of a world with extra-mental contents. Moore ’s proof is a proof only to him: otherwise it’s just a man waving his hands … and missing the point on an heroic scale. The point-missing may have been quite sincere: remember Moore’s admission that neither the sciences nor the world had suggested philosophical problems to him, only the pronouncements of other philosophers. This is a worrying boast in a Professor of Philosophy. It’s rather like a conductor stating complacently that he is tone, or even stone, deaf.

The sceptical arguments have been immensely fertile, and our failure either to answer them or to believe them has been an important driver of human self-consciousness, beginning with Parmenides. They have been a powerful means by which we have managed to get a hold on the glass surface of the obvious that philosophy tries to think through and past. Moore was part of a tradition illustrated by Antisthenes in the epigraph to this article; by Doctor Johnson kicking a stone while saying of Bishop Berkeley’s idealism “I refute it thus”; and intermittently (but much more subtly) by Wittgenstein himself.

Moore was exhibiting a failure to take seriously the mysterious relationship between the mind and what the mind is aware of, or thinks it is aware of. He was behaving as we all do when the hurry and worry of life prevents us from pausing to wonder. The god of metaphysics, however, was not mocked. Moore himself spent decades struggling unsuccessfully with what it was we did indeed experience when we encountered external objects, and with the vexed relationship between sense data – the contents immediately given in perception – and the objects whose existence he had purported to demonstrate. His various unsatisfactory solutions illustrate F.H. Bradley’s statement that philosophers who dismiss metaphysics tend to be brother metaphysicians with stories of their own to sell. Most ironically, his theory of ‘sense data’ as intermediaries between minds and material objects opened the door to the very scepticism to which he raised not two hands but two fingers.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2008

Raymond Tallis is a physician, philosopher, poet and novelist. His most recent books are The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Fantastical Journey Round Your Head, published by Atlantic, and Hunger, part of the Art of Living series, published by Acumen.

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