The philosophical gap


Imagine two young, passionate lovers, say Romeo and Juliet in a world where they didn’t die but got to stay together. We can assume they’re both about the same, but for this story, let’s look at things from the point of view of one of them — Juliet, say.

(This is actually about philosophy, but wait for it.)

At first, everything seems perfect. She’s intoxicated with him and he with her, and they like everything about each other. Their time together is bliss and there are never any disagreements because they care about each other above all. She knows they are perfect together because they are so in love. What else would be needed?

But time passes and the rest of life begins to seep into the seeming perfection. Things that have been pushed aside start to have an effect. She actually doesn’t like how he always picks his nose and only pats her on the head and says she’s cute whenever she tries to say something intelligent (or whatever).

And then hey have a fight and say angry, mean things to each other.

Juliet is devastated. Her whole world comes crashing down. Their love didn’t automatically solve all problems after all. It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t the most powerful thing in the world. She almost wishes they would have just tragically killed themselves earlier so that at least people might have mistaken it for the most epic romance in fiction instead of some snotty teens being obsessed with each other for a while.

Of course, it never occurs to her that love might show its strength in being willing to resolve your conflicts, and that expecting one emotion to do all the work for you forever is naïve, unrealistic and, really, lazy. Just because love isn’t some silly effortless solution doesn’t mean it’s not real. In fact, is it not even more significant when it involves making an effort and overcoming real adversity?

And what is this an analogy for? Well, a lot of philosophers and other people who really start thinking about things are in the Juliet position. When they find out their naïve beliefs are not true, maybe are even contradictory, they stop there and think they’ve proven something huge, when all they’ve really found is that the naïve version of old beliefs was not true. They still hang onto the naïve belief of how things should be, though they don’t believe things are like that. They’re caught in the gap between naïve belief and real understanding.

If only they could cross the gap, they could gain a real new understanding.


The fall from Eden

The naïve view of things usually involves thinking everything is exactly as it seems. What you see is exactly what is there; every word refers to a thing; all truths are of the same kind. So, for example: An object that looks red is that way because it has redness on its surface, and the redness is exactly the colour that you see. Or, a moral fact is just a fact about the world that you can perceive or infer. Further, it tends to involve a kind of essentialist thinking, or mythical: Things are the way they are for some simple reasons, and if there is a story for how they got that way, it’s a simple one that settled the matter once and for all and there will be no more changes or anything else to consider. So: a nation might be seen as a unity of people who belong to the same biological race and are united by a common language and values — whatever diversity there is doesn’t count, and everyone in the nation is both born and raised to be the stereotype of that nationality and is doing wrong if they do not follow it.

The real world does not work like this. Evolution has prepared us with ways of perceiving and thinking about the world that help us survive. They don’t aim at complete accuracy. Further, culture tells us that the world is in a certain way, and that involves a whole lot of simplifications, biases and falsehoods we just don’t tend to question.

Colours are one example that was used by David Chalmers in his article “Perception and the Fall from Eden”. We could imagine a “Garden of Eden” in which is was really true that qualities like colours are simply in the objects themselves, just as it looks, and are simply transmitted to our minds as such. But in the real world, objects have different kinds of surfaces that reflect light in different ways, and our eyes receive some of the reflected light, and then our brains look at things like how dark they think it is before choosing in what way to represent the particular patch of colour. Not only is this a complicated relationship otherwise, but the colours we ultimately experience are representations in our heads. (There could be some word play here, and of course in some sense we do experience or see the real world out there, but there’s no denying there’s a state in our heads representing it.) Perhaps they might be completely different if our brain was built differently, but they could still convey all the same information about the outer world.

So colours are complicated. One need not necessarily say they are not real. I’m not going to comment on that here. But it’s definite that colours are complicated and relational if they are anything. They tell us something about other underlying properties of objects rather than being those ultimate properties.

You run into the same thing in every area of philosophy (and science). We had some naïve view of how things are, but they are not quite like that. Indeed, the thought that they are might be self-contradictory, or at least utterly silly and unrealistic as in Juliet’s case.

Unfortunately, many philosophers get caught in this gap. They think things should be in the naïve way, so when they find out they’re not, they think it’s a disaster or a huge discovery. (Or they might start denying the science and or even logic that says things are not like that.)


This is a complicated and abstract matter. It needs examples to illustrate it — but the examples will be complex and abstract too. They’re not easy to understand because you have to overcome the old way of thinking twice: once to reach the gap and a second time to get out of it. I will do what I can here by the way of giving some examples from different areas of philosophy, but they will be only briefly explained. There will be some links to where some of the things are explained more, but unfortunately I don’t really have proper explanations ready for most of the things here.

Every example will first describe the “crisis” of how things seen from within the gap, and then the “solution” of how it looks from the other side of it.

Free will and determinism:

There’s more than one possible option here, but this is one:

  • Crisis: If determinism is true, we can’t choose to do other than we do. “Therefore,” we then have no free will.
  • Solution: If we examine what we really want from our choices, we’ll notice that that kind of strict possibility of always doing otherwise is randomness, and what we really want is a specific kind of determinism where we can make the right choices for the right reasons.

The existence and flow of time:

  • Crisis: We think time flows and the present is special, but we find that physics doesn’t need a privileged present to describe everything, and if we try to describe one, we need to postulate meta-time behind time, which we have no evidence of. “Therefore,” time is an illusion.
  • Solution: The present is special when it is the present. There is no  other sensible thing that its being privileged could even mean. Time flowing means moments succeeding one another. The only “problem” is that if you look at things from a timeless perspective, you don’t see a moving present because you’ve excluded it by definition.

Moral truths:

  • Crisis: We typically think that moral truths are something that are true just like any other claims, but this makes no sense. The world doesn’t contain any specific moral entities to make them true. “The cat is black” is true because there’s a cat that it refers to that is black, but “Kicking the cat would be wrong” is just your opinion. There’s just our ideas, and these vary between people and cultures anyway. “Therefore,” morality is subjective and not real.
  • Solution: We are thinking, feeling beings who make choices and care about things. In addition, we need to get along with one another. If we don’t want to cause great misery to ourselves and/or others — and we generally don’t, almost by definition — we need to follow certain values. Moral statements are made true by their connection with guiding action. Further, they are objective to some extent because not everything you decide to consider a value will really lead to the harmony you need.

The meaning of human existence:

  • Crisis: We used to think that god gives meaning to our existence, but the scientific worldview makes god an unjustified hypothesis and the notion of objective purpose is dubious anyway. We are here by chance, or the unplanned consequence of the universe’s mindless rules. “Therefore,” existence is meaningless.
  • Solution: There is no completely universal standard of meaningfulness, though there are a lot of things we could look to for meaning. Since there is no universal standard, there is no definite standard by which our existence is meaningless. A standard saying it is meaningless is not better than one that says that it isn’t. We are free to create our own meaning, and there’s no god who could say it’s not the right one.


This is about as far as I can discuss this in a blog post of limited length. As I said above, it’s not an easy thing to grasp, and I myself have grasped it through understanding in depth examples such as the above.

Philosophy can lead to surprising conclusions, just as empirical science can, but philosophy tends to do it differently. Empirical science really tells us that things are materially different than we though, such as that everything is made of really weird particles, or for that matter, even if this is humanities, that some religious tradition people thought had dropped straight from the sky is a product of a long evolution and various influences. Philosophy doesn’t bring “new” information in the same sense but rather examines what we already know. That’s why, when it finds out things were differently than people thought, this often means less that things are really different (though it certainly can mean that) and more that we have been thinking about the same things in an inept way. That’s why those things aren’t really so differently but it’s hard to understand how they are still the same. That is the gap.

Getting stuck in the gap is one of the things I’ve been thinking of as “simplexity” in Roger Delany’s vague terms. Simplexity involves being stuck in one perspective and being unable to see others; the philosophical gap involves being stuck in the standards of the old way of thinking about things and unable to see that more or less the same thing could be seen in the new way as well.

See also

A lot of the stuff I’ve written here has something to do with this topic.


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