I doubt, therefore I am, but what are you?

In Seeing Things as They Are (OUP, 2015) John R Searle gives idealism a long-deserved slap. “There is something tragic about the massive waste of time involved in the whole tradition of idealism.” (P 93, footnote 10, if my Kindle app pagination is accurate.) Idealism is that philosophy which claims that the only things we have perceptual access to are our own subjective experiences: all we can ever perceive are our own subjective impressions and ideas (Descartes, Berkeley, Hume), we can never have knowledge of things in themselves (Kant), we can only perceive sense data (Ayer). Searle’s position is that idealism leaves us with essentially an unbelievable conception of our relation to the world (p 231).

I am not able to review the book, [Update: here is a review by Josh Armstrong in the LA Review of Books.], but you may wish to view this YouTube clip of a seminar conducted by Searle which substantially overlaps the subject-matter of this book and gives a sense of the technical language generated by philosophical contemplation of perception. Searle makes an interesting observation about El Greco and whether the painter had defective vision (p 141):

“The hypothesis … that he painted distorted figures because a normal stimulus looks distorted to him makes no sense, because if he is reproducing on the canvas what produces distortions in him, then he will simply reproduce what looks normal to the rest of us.”

This has implications not mentioned by Searle but which will occur to lawyers. Would El Greco have described in words an obviously distorted image? Are errors in one mode of perception only apparent to other people when translated into a different mode of communication? If a witness describes what was seen, will that description necessarily correspond to the witness’s visual perception? How should a verbal description of what was seen be checked? Judicial accounts of how facts are determined give no assurance of their correspondence with reality. As EW Thomas observes in The Judicial Process (CUP, 2005) at p 321, “The facts are the fount of individual justice” but there is scope for improvement in the ways they are determined. For example, there is too much weight placed on the demeanour of witnesses (324), and truth, as far as the system will permit “can be gleaned from a close reading of the contemporaneous documentation, if any, or an analysis of the probabilities intrinsic to the circumstances and about which there may be little or no dispute” (325). As a senior appellate judge, Thomas cautions that

“what judges must not do is fill an unresolvable gap with a judicial ‘hunch’. To do so is to succumb in part to what I have perhaps unkindly labelled the ‘God Syndrome’. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the God Syndrome settles on some judges shortly after their appointment to the Bench … [and] many appellate judgments would be edified if judges at that level did not show an unhealthy preparedness to adopt a version of the facts which cannot be found in the [trial] judge’s findings of fact or in the transcript of the evidence itself. … The God Syndrome does not strike at first instance only.” (326)

The resort to assessment of probabilities to assist in determining facts is also referred to by Richard A Posner in How Judges Think (Harvard UP, 2008). He uses (65) Bayesian decision theory to illustrate how, before a witness even testifies, a judge will have formed an estimate that the testimony will be truthful, based on experience with witnesses in similar cases (including when the judge was a lawyer), on a general sense of the honesty of the class of persons to which the witness belongs, or even the way in which the witness enters court and approaches the witness box. It would, says Posner (67), be irrational for judges to purge themselves of this way of thinking. And the sneakiness of some appellate judges does not escape Posner’s comment (144):

“   Appellate judges in our system often can conceal the role of personal preferences in their decisions by stating the facts selectively, so that the outcome seems to follow from them inevitably, or by taking liberties with precedents.”

(I mention in passing – just to show that some judges do read each other’s books – that at 261 footnote 63 Posner cites Thomas’s book.) Posner had also discussed the difficulties of ascertaining, from evidence given in the courtroom, the reality of what happened, in The Problems of Jurisprudence (Harvard UP, 1990), particularly at 203-219. He adds (217):

“The celebration by lawyers and judges of the “fairness” of a system in which it is thought better to acquit ten guilty defendants than to convict one innocent defendant is an attempt to put a good face on what is actually a confession of systemic ineptitude in deciding questions of guilt and innocence.”

Ah yes, there’s nothing like a little philosophy to make you have doubts about everything (except your existence).

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