Can you cry under water?

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This is an age old question that has humoured the minds of all ages while visiting the swimming pool. However, before you say the instinctive answer of “yes”, let’s think for the moment…
The reason that this instinctive answer is rejected is due to observations. Empiricists (such as Hume and Locke) believe that all of our knowledge comes from sense impressions and our experience of the world. Hume would go as far as to say that we can’t have concepts of anything which we cannot trace back to experience (such as God and the concept of identity). This is relevant to the question as we cannot see the tears we cry under water. Therefore, according to empiricism there would be no evidence of you crying and so you can have no concept of crying under water. Therefore, from this you would conclude that actually, you cannot be crying under water.
However, some people question whether this is really the conclusion that empiricism comes to because they question the necessity of tears to crying. For some, people find that human emotion is more essential to crying than to the actual physical act. Some people, for instance, make the comment that “they are crying from the inside”. But how would this link to empiricism? Hume believed that we have inner sense impressions, and that our experience of our emotions creates our concept of emotion. Therefore, if crying is actually referring to a mood rather than water leaving your eyes, then you would be able to cry under water by experiencing that emotion.
This would appeal to a lot of people because it matches the instinctive answer that we all lean to. However, it creates more problems than it solves due to how many emotions are linked to crying. Some people cry when they are happy, some cry when they are sad. It is not the emotion that defines whether we are crying or not, it is purely the tears leaving our eyes. This makes the argument yet again susceptible to the original criticism of the empiricist, and so we cannot cry under water.
However, that is only if we look at the empiricistical view on crying. Surely, we would be able to know instinctively that we are crying. That is to say, that crying is an inbuilt emotional response to certain feelings and events that our brain had when we were born. Therefore, we would not need to see the physical tears as we would be able to tell that we are crying innately. Therefore, we would be able to cry under water.
But here is where the question splits into two. The answer above would only say that each of us can prove to ourselves that we can cry under water. Is it possible to ever prove that someone else is crying? Infalliblism would suggest not. This is the belief that knowledge would need to be certain to count as knowledge and for you to know as certain. How does this apply to the question? For you to know you were crying, then you would be aware of your sense impressions and so would know innately that you were crying. You would be certain of this because you can’t be misled about your own sense impressions. Therefore, you would be certain that you were crying.
However, if you were trying to establish that someone else was crying under water then you would always be in doubt as there are alternatives. They could be pretending to cry to make you feel bad. You could be hallucinating! Because of this, you couldn’t possibly know for certain that someone else was crying. Therefore, it would be possible for you to know you can cry under water but impossible to prove anyone else could cry under water. Maybe you have a special talent that no one else has that you can cry under water!
This may be an absurd position to take because you take the stance that, if you can cry under water, everyone else can! This is because you are using an analogy ( a technique used in varies arguments in philosophy, such as the design argument of Paley). This works by comparing two very alike objects and comparing them so they are different in a further unknown way. For instance, when I hit my hand with a hammer I act a certain way because I am in pain. If someone else acts in that way when they hit their hand with a hammer, then they must also be in pain. How does this apply to the argument? If you are human, then you can cry above water, and you know that you can also cry below water due to instinct. If you see someone else who is human, then they must also be able to cry.  If they can cry above water, then they also must be able to cry below water. Therefore, you can prove that other people can cry under water.
You may be thinking “Hurrah, after all of that we have concluded that everyone can cry under water!” Unfortunately, some people cannot conclude this from an analogy (such as Hume with Paley’s watch) because arguments from analogy are weak. For instance, just because we are both human, doesn’t mean we both have tear ducts to produce the tears. Also, maybe the other person doesn’t have the same emotional response as you do, so does not cry at all. Therefore, we cannot conclusively prove from an analogy that other people can cry under water as analogies can be weak.

So, what can we conclude to the answer above? Well, we can probably conclude that we can cry under water due to our instincts and innatism. However, for some people this is all we can conclude as we can never know for sure that someone else is crying. 

Published by Philosopher Ad Absurdum

Student studying MA Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science at the University of Birmingham; First Class BA Philosophy and History from the University of Southampton.

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