Friday, December 21, 2007

More on Kenny on God

The holidays are upon us so not much time for Daddy to philosophize but maybe a note about God would be appropriate for the season, so this by way of spreading holiday cheer.
The last remark by Prof. Kenny in Chapter 5 of What I Believe, "Why I am not a Theist - II," is as follows: "Human intelligence is displayed in the behaviour of human bodies and in the thoughts of human minds. If we reflect on the actual way in which we attribute mental predicates such as 'know', 'believe', 'think', 'design', 'control' to human beings, we realize the immense difficulty there is an (sic) applying them to a putative being which is immaterial, ubiquitous and eternal....we cannot really ascribe a mind to God at all." (pp. 52-53). I think that this is a very important argument, it is the one to which I alluded at the end of the last post but I didn't realize then that Kenny had himself stated the argument so prominantly. I think the argument goes like this: Say that God has the attributes of being omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent (I guess there will be other God-like properties that would also serve the point, omnitemporal etc.). In the case of an ordinary use of the verb "to know," to say of Tony, "Tony knows about X" is informative because it is possible that Tony might not know. That is the meaning of the verb, the semantic function of the word. In a world where Tony had the property of knowing anything and everything, there would be no epistemic verb for Tony's condition at all. There would be, quite literally, nothing to talk about. And so Tony would not appear to us to be the kind of thing that "knows" things, and similarly for statements like "God caused X" or "God is located at X." In all cases, it looks like it is the finitude of the ordinary person that allows them to come under mental predicates. And location is just a straight-ahead physical property, so far as I can see.
Here's what's exciting about this argument: I think that mental properties are a really fancy subset of physical properties. I think that being a person is a property that only a being with a finite physical body could have. So that looks like a credible argument for physicalism about the mind. Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Reading Kenny on God

It's the week between the end of classes and holiday visiting, and the house-painting project is now in mopping-up stages, but I'm grabbing a minute here to think about God. Last year I used Anthony Kenny's Ancient Philosophy, the first of his four-volume history of western philosophy, in my Ancient class. It was very good, thematically arranged which I like (Irwin's Classical Philosophy shares this virtue). Coverage of Aristotle, a clear philosophical treatment of logic, etc. Next semester I'm going to use the fourth volume, Philosophy in the Modern World, in my Contemporary class and see what happens. My friend Jorge Ferrer has been reading Kenny's What I Believe (2006), so I Amazoned up a copy and am looking at it (or I should say not having time to look at it) this week. The philosophical memoir, as a sort of lucid summation of basic conclusions after a lifetime of study and exposition of the canonical texts, is a very brave and useful genre of philosophy.
Mr. Kenny can reasonably be expected to tell us something interesting about God, with his years of study under Vatican auspices and his subsequent 40+ years as an Oxford don and writer of numerous books on the topic. Although I think he compresses things a bit too much at points, he doesn't disappoint. I'm thinking of two sets of ideas just now:
First, the argument that "Since anything exists, something must exist necessarily" (Kenny doesn't necessarily endorse this argument). At first I thought it was transparently wrong, since I didn't see any reason why existence itself must be any less contingent than every existing particular. I'm not sure where I end up with that, but the Wittgenstein-inspired direction Kenny explores makes me nervous that maybe existence can't be considered contingent like particular existing things are (he also discusses Kant's handling of existence as a predicate). The Wittgenstein-like idea is that it makes no sense to talk about the universe not existing (what did Wittgenstein think of Parmenides?). The grammar-caused metaphysical illusion is the resulting sense of a "possible world" of empty space: we imagine "the universe" sitting in "space" one moment and then imagine it disappearing and leaving the "empty space." In fact this sort of argument is rehearsed by David Lewis, that master of talking about possible worlds, and I quote: "A world is not like a bottle that might hold no beer. The world is the totality of the things it contains....there isn't any world where there's nothing at all. That makes it necessary that there is something." (from On The Plurality of Worlds). The intuitive bother about these sorts of arguments is that they seem to involve an equivocation: surely there's a (metaphysical) difference between what can be meaningfully said and what is possible? Isn't it closed-minded to just stipulate that the bounds of reality are the bounds of sense? But that's the problem, I confess that I'm not so sure about that. Not so fast, Kant. On the other hand, this looks to me to be an entirely secular argument: a demonstration of the necessity of something is hardly a demonstration of the existence of God.
The second set of arguments might actually yield a plausible case for the existence of something that you could call "God." (Ironically Kenny's very learnedness brings up into relief the very fuzzy nature of this concept). I think that Plato and Hinduism ("atman") are on to this: if the evolution of consciousness is a reflection of the formally organized nature of the universe (impossible without it, inevitable with it), does this entail that the universe is itself in some general sense "mental"? (Spinoza). Another way of saying that if the universe is formally organized then materialism fails. Because it seems to me that if God is not a person then it's no longer the original concept of God, and this universal mind strategy is the only one that might be persuasive that accounts for a personal God. Provisionally my current view is that God can't be a person because persons are necessarily finite, such that they can be meaningfully said to "know," "act," "exist," etc. (notice that this is a Wittgensteinian argument as well). But the counter-argument that formal organization is constitutive of consciousness is interesting.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Buddhism and Civilization

One of my basic positions as a philosopher, programmatic for my work on philosophy of mind, is that I don't accept a distinction between human nature and the rest of nature. I reject, for example, the view that language (or "rationality," or God's will, or "negation") somehow releases humans from the causal relations and physical explanations that we apply to the rest of the physical universe. But that's not to say that humans aren't very fancy natural beings, a point that I am sometimes accused of missing (in discussions of animal mind, for example) but that seems to me too obvious to mention. It's just that my opinion about methodology is that we won't figure anything out by making human distinctness axiomatic (like the linguists mistakenly do), we've got to get to human consciousness and thinking from non-conscious, non-cognitive origins. Otherwise we have explained nothing.
Like all good philosophical questions, the question about the extent and nature of human uniqueness is a simple one that quickly takes us into deep waters. And like most good questions about mind and consciousness, it is one that is addressed by the fantastically rich Buddhist tradition. One of the pivotal historical developments of Buddhism was the Tibetan Renaissance of the eighth century, when the rulers of Tibet, hitherto a land of war lords and warriors, were converted to Buddhism and subsequently invited scholars and holy men from India to build a Buddhist society, the founding of the "Tantric" tradition (tantras are methods, and the name refers to a heterogenous approach including various types of yoga, meditation, teaching and other practices). My thought today is about meditation and our concept of ourselves, and the experience of the Tibetans of the early classical period as a case of "civilization," if we think of civilization as including the emergence of this sense of humans as apart from the (rest of the) physical world.
To meditate is to become aware of consciousness. Like Descartes, Buddha tends to identify the self with consciousness (as distinct from the body), and like Descartes Buddha quickly gets to the distinction between consciousness and the contents of consciousness (I don't mean to say that Buddhism has exactly the same metaphysical problems of mind and body as the European tradition, but I don't romanticize Buddhism nor do I demonize all things Western: all just people). Elemental point: this "discovery" (creation?) of mind is an element in the emergence of civilizations, constitutive of a sense that humans have volitions and thus are not just (determined) things. Notice that traditional (in the West think: Pre-pre-Socratic) peoples tend to think that all causation is intentional (causes are volitions of gods and spirits), so locating mind in humans simultaneously gives rise to the idea of physical causation as non-volitional, non-mental causation. Whether any of this is a good or a bad thing I cannot say. I'd like to discover that the Buddhist tradition, that I love, somehow cuts through the mind-body problem in a simple way that the dumb old Europeans missed, but I cannot say that.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Visit by Khenchen Tsewang Gyatso Rinpoche

When I saw the poster advertising Tsewang Gyatso's visit here at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, I knew enough to know it was a must-attend event. In Buddhism, the two branches that are of widest interest are the Zen Buddhism of China and Japan and the Tantric Buddhism of Tibet (although there are others notably Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia). "Rinpoche" is the honorific spiritual title of ordained members of the Tibetan lineage, while "Khenchen" is an honorific scholarly title equivalent to "professor of Buddhist Studies." Right up my alley! But it got better: Tsewang Gyatso is the Khenchen of Palyul Nyingma Meditation and Study Centers, an international network of centers under the auspices of Namdrooling Palyul Monastery. There are four sub-branches of Tibetan Buddhism: Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug. Of these four, Nyingma (means "ancient") is the oldest, and the branch most closely identified with the body of classical Buddhist commentary originating in the Eighth Century "Tibetan Renaissance," the great flowering of Buddhism in Tibet. This literature is the specialty of the famous North American scholar Robert Thurman (see his The Jewel Tree of Tibet) and our deepest heritage of philosophical Buddhism. And here he was, a Rinpoche of the highest rank, visiting out-of-the-way Mayaguez: a unique event, to my knowledge (although San Juan has a Buddhist center and the Dalai Lama visited there last year).
Needless to say, there were only about eight or nine people there the first night, when Gyatso Rinpoche gave a basic introduction to the origins of Buddhism. One or two more showed up last night, when Rinpoche discussed dzogchen practice, the basic spiritual practice of nyingma tantra. Buddhism is such a simple thing, and yet it is so endlessly rewarding (spiritual) and fascinating (intellectual). Rinpoche was not talking about philosophy, he was talking about training the mind for loving kindness towards all living beings. I ask students in class sometimes, "Do you want to be nice?" A surprisingly subversive question, and one that often has a big impact considering how basic and simple it is. Philosopher that I am, in some moods I get hung up on the issue of idealism in the Buddhist tradition (idealism in the metaphysical sense: the view that primary being is somehow mental). It is certainly true that the language, at least as far as I can see reading English translations, is unequivocal: the mind creates the world. There is a Berkeleyan/Spinozistic subtext that here dates back to the original Vedic tradition: if the universe is the mind of God under some description (Spinoza) or if God is a transcendental constitutive mind (Berkeley), in Hinduism the atman, then idealism might be (just) an abstruse item of theological metaphysics. On the other end of the spectrum we could take it all as figurative (the way someone like me reads the Bible), smile at the world and the world smiles back at you, Gestalt, and all that sort of thing. Listening to Khenchen Gyatso, he didn't seem to fit either of those interpretations. He explained the destructive force of the atomic bomb, for example, as an effect of the mental states that created it (and he ran the same line on modern medical research). He was clear on the point that the mind was what made the difference. Everything is alright or not alright, he was sure, depending on the state of the mind. A very satisfying evening, a real treat for us far-off Mayaguezanos for sure.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Response to Lamar H.

Lamar H. recently left a comment on my post entitled "Determinism is Skepticism, so what about Eliminativism?" I didn't notice the comment until today because that post is quite old, and I don't have Lamar's e-mail, but he asked for a response and his comment is good quality philosophy, so I'll post this and hope he sees it; he generates some good discussion here during the otherwise hectic last week of class.
My original post floated this idea: if we define a philosophically skeptical argument as any argument that purports to show that I don't know something that I am certain that I do know, then the claim of the hard determinist, that for any action I take I could not have acted otherwise, looks like a philosophically skeptical argument. If this is true, then any arguments that I have that seem to be effective counters to skepticism ought to be deployable against determinism (the further point in the original post about eliminativism does not enter in here). I won't reproduce Lamar's whole comment here, but you can read it by scrolling down to the post (or click on the December 2006 file). I'll quote from it: "(T)he claim that nothing can be known for sure and the claim that a particular thing we'd like to think we know for sure (viz., that we have control over our actions) is not true, are two different claims. One is an epistemological claim concerning the limits of human knowledge while the other is a metaphysical claim concerning the ontology of human behavior." Lamar takes the definitive point here to be, I think, that the determinist claims to know something (to have a positive argument), not to doubt that knowledge is possible, and thus determinism is "a precisely non-skeptical claim." I think that Lamar is right that the determinist is not making a skeptical argument. I take Lamar's point that the positive arguments for hard determinism are metaphysical and not epistemological: physicalism about persons plus causal determinism yield hard determinism. The determinist claims that accepting these premises entails hard determinism, and thus makes a knowledge claim, and thus is no kind of skeptic. Nonetheless I am still persuaded that the kinds of arguments that Wittgenstein makes against skepticism can indeed be deployed against the hard determinist (and, although this is a shakier claim, I still suspect that Hume, properly interpreted, aims at a Wittgenstein-like position that these are pseudoproblems. I don't think that Hume takes either skepticism or determinism seriously, although he cheerfully concedes to the impossibility of disproving them).
Lamar, if I get him right, is more interested in determinism than he is in skepticism (not that that matters to the argument), but I want to raise some questions about whether his characterization of skepticism is a) sound and b) distinct from mine. Lamar characterizes skepticism as the view that knowledge is impossible, while I characterize philosophically skeptical arguments as those that purport to show that I don't know something that I am certain that I do know. I will call Lamar's version "global skepticism" (sometimes "global skepticism" is used to denote the view that my senses might be entirely misrepresenting the world to me, or the view that the external world might not exist; here I mean the view that knowledge is impossible).
First of all note that the varieties of skepticism familiar from Descartes' Meditations tend to take the form that I suggest: I think that I know that I'm not dreaming, I think that I know that other minds exist, I think that I know that causal laws will remain in effect in the future, but, the skeptic says, I don't really know these things. I don't know, notably, that my senses are representing the world to me as it "really" is (and this worry depends on a representational theory of mind). But the global version propounded by Lamar (knowledge is not possible) is not like these Cartesian versions. There is no coherent sense of the meaning of the verb "to know" that can sustain global skepticism. If you don't mean to refer to some specific possibility - my senses may be deceiving me, other people may be zombies, I may be dreaming, etc. - then it is not possible to make sense of the claim.
The incoherence of this global version of skepticism is also apparent (the same problem with this characterization is apparent) when we consider the self-refuting character of the claim: that the global skeptic claims to know that knowledge is impossible. There is a trivial sense in which global skepticism militates against any claim whatsoever, including any claim that I am free, or any claim that I am determined, but that just shows, again, that global skepticism is philosophically uninteresting, since it can make no meaningful claim.
This kind of Wittgensteinian (and, I think, Humean) argument about meaning (and the limits of language) also yields (I still think) an argument against hard determinism. The argument, that is, is that hard determinism is incoherent, notwithstanding Lamar's (correct, I think) point that the hard determinist has a positive argument that he takes to demonstrate the necessary truth of hard determinism, rather than an epistemological worry that I can't prove that I act freely. Wittgenstein argues that I neither believe nor disbelieve that the external world exists; the "external world" is part of the ground (as Paul Tillich might say) of belief. Freedom, I am suggesting, is like that: it is not a proper object of belief or disbelief, I can no more choose to "believe" it than I can choose to "disbelieve" it. Notice that this argument overcomes Holbach's argument that a "phenomenological" defense of freedom fails because the experience of freedom could just be an illusion itself caused by the causal antecedents. The response to the hard determinist is: what you are saying does not mean anything, it does not perform (it cannot perform) any communicative function. But that is precisely the argument against skepticism about the senses, about the external world, about other minds, etc. Lamar?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Is/Ought Distinction Defanged

Hume held the view that no amount of descriptive propositions could ever yield a prescriptive proposition: no "ought" from "is." G.E. Moore said that to locate goodness and badness in facts about states of affairs was to commit the "naturalistic fallacy." This has struck many people (including myself at an earlier time) as a pernicious doctrine. But this week, looking at the issue for the first time in a while, it doesn't look like as big an issue as I remembered it being. I think that Hume (and Mill, and the whole run of empiricist ethics) is right that goodness and badness (value) is a property of experiences. If there were no beings that had experiences that were good or bad, there would be no value in the world. I know that environmental ethicists, for example, have wanted to make a case for first-order values in nature (appealing to Aristotelean teleological ideas, notably), but to do philosophy we have to ask ourselves what it is that we truly believe, and I have to say that I don't see any way to account for value if there are no experiencing beings. Valuing is an activity, after all. But that doesn't mean that environmentalism, say, can gain no moral purchase. Badness doesn't go away because we've located it "in the head." In fact I think that I want to be some sort of moral realist - I think that there are moral facts. It's only if we are already otherworldly about experiences and mind that we assume that to say that experiences are what are good and bad is to espouse some sort of relativism or nihilism about ethics. For me, subjectivity is a worldly, even an earthy, sort of thing, naturalist that I am; my mind is no more or less a natural fact than my body. As to Hume, like Berkeley he holds that experiences are the basis of all mental content, after all, that is, any property we experience is a property of experience. So in that sense it's trivially true that goodness and badness are properties of experience. Hume isn't suggesting, so far as I can see, that this Cartesian account of value underwrites any difference in normative ethics at all. He's just trying to explain how value goes. "Colors" are properties of mental representations, according to 18th century empiricism, just as much as goodness and badness are. Hume might not agree that Moore was just elaborating a Humean line: the Humean line is that no physical description is going to tell us what the color of something is like, and that there would be no colors if there were no experiencing beings. Isn't it the spirit of Moore's piece to argue that our moral statements are more detached from physical facts than our color statements? But Hume wouldn't say so.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Hume, Neo, and Reid

Today in Early Modern class I'm finishing Hume and transitioning to Thomas Reid. I want to get a handle on Reid's attack on Cartesian notions of mental representation, and hopefully read through some of the Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (1764). I found a really cool-looking edition from Edinburgh University Press (Derek Brooks, ed., 1997) at the APA book fair a couple of years ago. Painters and plumber both coming this week, unfortunately. Reid correctly diagnoses Locke, Berkeley, Hume and the gang as in the grip of what he called "the ideal system," what I mean mostly when I use the adjective "Cartesian," that is the view that we do not experience the external world directly, rather our experiences are experiences of our mind's own representation of the world; or one might say that our experience of the world is mediated by our mental representations. Thus skepticism, thus The Matrix, thus one branch in the bush of relativist arguments (or is it wool?), thus Kant. There are a lot of things to think about here, I'm thinking about how to interpret Hume, and Wittgensteinian responses to the "ideal system." A central programmatic view of mine is that the Cartesian, representational framework cannot possibly be right. So if Reid lives up to his reputation of someone who makes a sporting critique of representationalism, his are depths that need be plumbed. (But I'll have to get back to this later today, I need to prep my class on Stoic treatments of causation and freedom for Ancient in thirty minutes, text Terence Irwin, Classical Philosophy).

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Aristotle, Nominalism, and Personal Identity

Aristotle thinks that "substance" (the union of form and matter) is primary being. This puts him between the nominalist (only physical particulars exist) and the Platonic realist (transcendental things exist, like math). He looks nominalist when we consider that on this view the first things to exist are the physical particulars: the nested categories extend from the individuals outward, whereas with Plato the universals are primary being, organizing matter into categories. But he looks Platonic when we consider numerical identity and personal identity.
One might say, "I have two identical pieces of chalk." Usually when we say such a thing we mean that we have two pieces of chalk with the same form: it's clear that we consider each piece to be metaphysically distinct because it is a different piece of matter. So in our ordinary talk about physical things we don't accept identity between distinct pieces of matter. My idea of Aristotle the man is that he was the type of person who would say, "Sure, that's how it goes, and so you don't need to make up any exotic properties like 'The property of being identical to oneself' or anything like that," and wouldn't mind that his own analysis of substance doesn't technically underwrite this practice. According to Aristotle, the existence of all the physical particulars is just a brute existential fact (substance is primary being). Many physical particulars are similar enough to others that we can name these categories. So we have a category called "humans," but we don't have one called "Socrateses," but if primary being were arranged differently we could have a world where humans were further sorted into Socrateses and Aristotles. They're all horses, and they're all made out of distinct matter. I think that if we put Socrates through a malfunctioning transporter and two of him came out the other end, Aristotle does not hold that they are neither the original one. I think he has to hold that they are both Socrates. For better or for worse, Aristotle's substance account countenances the metaphysical possibility of simultaneous exemplifications of one thing: to him that's just quotidian, mere taxonomy. Of course they'd be two different bodies and in fact this makes all the difference. But then we'd make up new names to designate the two Socrateses. Which brings me to my final thought today: Looking at Aristotle's position here, it starts to seem like some criterion of physical identity isn't so obviously wrong. Maybe a person is just identical to their physical body.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Jorge Ferrer on Anglo Ethical Theory

I sat down for coffee with Dr. Jorge Ferrer, a bioethicist who studied at the Vatican, and we ended up having a nice chat about utilitarianism, Peter Singer, and related topics. Jorge made some observations about utilitarianism from a Latin point of view that I found interesting. On the one hand the criticism is that utilitarianism puts too much weight on the individual and the individual's acts. On the other hand, the criticism is that in restricting public judgements to public acts (Mill discusses this more explicitly in On Liberty), the moral stature of the individual is dropped from consideration. The idea that there is no element of classical "virtue theory" in Anglo ethics reflects, perhaps, differences in the way the relationship between the individual and society is conceived. This connects with the criticism that too much weight is put on individual actions. But in addition to these Aristotelean elements there is also a greater sense of fatalism that reflects the Catholic element in Latin thought. In any event these observations from the Latin point of view certainly help to turn one's thinking in some interesting directions about ethical theory.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Notes on Nous

The Sceptics (with a capital "S," that is the classical Sceptics) argued that knowledge was impossible. This is the opposite of the Protagorean relativist position that one cannot have a false belief, since judgements about the world are entirely internal to the judger. Basically the Sceptics are realists about the truth (an interesting distinction between classical Scepticism and Cartesian scepticism, which is motivated by the same kind of internalist view of knowledge held by Protagoras). Thus the problem is that perception requires judgement, and judgement is corrigible. Note the distinction between sensation (a prereflective experience of leafy, green, big, rustling, etc.) and perception ("I see a tree."). The big fish here is the idea that perception (and by extension thinking in general) involves "bringing sensations under concepts," as this goes to the heart of Cartesian, Kantian, Fodorian, and other versions of nativism, the view that mental representation requires some a priori conceptual structure, and related claims that, for example, only beings with language are capable of genuine perception (e.g. Chomsky) (and if you've read other parts of this blog you know that I think that this sort of view is profoundly mistaken).
Aristotle introduces the notion of nous as an antidote to Scepticism. Some genuine examples of knowledge, Aristotle argues, are not products of sensation plus judgement, but rather are produced by sensation ("experience" is more intuitive and brings out the empiricist bent of Aristotle's thinking) directly. This circumvents the Sceptical objection that we have no "metalogic" with which to check the judgements involved in belief formation: noetic beliefs are formed prereflectively. This is surely better than the Kantian approach: a nativist has to argue that animals and babies don't know anything if they can't bring their experience under concepts, which seems to involve a covert equivocation on the meaning of the word "knows" (since animals and babies know lots of things when we're not doing philosophy!), and if nativism means anything significant it has to be that conceptual structure cannot be explained with natural history and learning. Indeed the nativists tend to admit this and even make a virtue of it, Descartes and Kant holding that conceptual structure distinguishes rational minds from physical phenomena, Fodor admitting that to accept his view we must accept that cavemen had the concept of airplanes, and Chomsky insisting for many years that evolutionary explanations could never explain the emergence of language (even though evolutionary approaches straightforwardly show how "innate" structures can be accounted for naturalistically). Final pregnant thought (brainchild or wind egg, you decide): noetic approaches to perception may be a useful component of eliminativist approaches to mental representation.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Plato on Freedom

If we take the point that in order for a person to be free there must be a person, then maybe Plato can't give us an intelligible account of freedom. Plato says that our capacity to be rational frees us from the bondage of the animal passions. As animals (as things), we are subjected to contingent cause-and-effect relations, but it is the rational capacity that makes it possible for us to break these chains. The problem is that to the extent that one is rational (logical), one is identical to all other logical beings. There isn't one mathematics for you, another one for me. In a world of perfectly rational beings, there would be no individuals, as nothing would distinguish one perfectly logical mind from another. In fact I read Plato himself as asserting that there is only one mind. The material world is divisible wholes and parts, the formal world is a unity; one cannot detach part of mathematics from the rest.
It is bad enough that "free" in Plato's mouth just means "free to follow logical entailments," but maybe the situation is even worse: maybe there are no persons, as logical beings, to the extent that they are logical, cannot be distinguished one from another. Thus there are no agents about whom we might say that they are free. It looks like Sartre has exactly the same problem, arrived at by radically different means: to the extent that we are pure negation, we are perfectly homogeneous. If neither Plato nor Sartre can give us coherent accounts of persons, neither can give us coherent accounts of freedom.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

My Next to Last Word on Fate

I imagine that my vast and fervid readership is getting a bit fatigued by this detour into the topic of fate. I understand better now that it is a very hard problem to motivate. When one first has it pointed out to them that a sentence about the future, say "Socrates will drink wine at the party tonight," has a truth value (it's not neither true nor false, nor both true and false, and saying the truth value can "change" is the weirdest claim of all), it can seem as if this is a fact, true now, about the future. In philosophy class one can get any number of people to get the intuition that this demonstrates that the future is inevitable, and it's a cool philosophy "parlor trick," as Hume would say (like scepticism). But on reflection it appears the very paradigm of a pseudo-problem: yes, the sentence describing the future act has a truth value, because in the future Socrates will or will not drink wine at the party. It in no way follows from this that Socrates was somehow caused, determined, constrained to act as he did. It's a mere tautology that "The future will be as it will be," and this has no implication for the freedom or lack thereof of our actions. God's foreknowledge is another version of the same story: at first God's foreknowledge seems to underwrite a strong intuition that the future is fated, but on reflection we come to understand that this alleged fact, even if true, still doesn't mean that we don't act freely. So the alleged existence of facts about the future does not demonstrate fate.
There is one possible way to extend this discussion, though. According to the version of Platonic realism espoused by Alvin Plantinga, the actual world includes mind-independent, matter-independent, eternally unchanging, transcendental entities. These most famously include properties ("universals"), but also states of affairs, essences, and various other beasts including propositions. A metaphysical distinction (a "type-token" distinction) is drawn between propositions and sentence-tokens, which are worldly things. Platonic entities, on this view, may play a causal role in the material world (Plato himself thinks they cause the world to be organized into categories), but the material world does not have any causal power over Platonic entities. This is particularly important regarding the semantics and intentionality of language and mind, respectively. Platonic realism is meant by Plato, Plantinga and the gang to be an alternative to nominalism, and it is true that on the standard nominalist formula we have to say that the sentence-tokens shared meaning is a "primitive, unanalyzable similarity" between the sentence-tokens, a much less intuitive analysis than the same account of, say, color (not that the nominalist story is all that satisfying on any kind of property). I don't know what I think about the larger metaphysical issues here (I'm not a partisan between Plantinga and Lewis, or Plato and Aristotle, at this point), but as to fate: on the Platonic realist account of propositions, it does not appear that we can understand the truth value of the proposition as simply a function of what actually occurs in the event, not because it is eternally true (so is God's foreknowledge), but because no property of the proposition, on the realist view, can ever be effected by any event in the material world, certainly including the semantic properties, which are a paradigm case of non-physical properties on this view. Transcendental reality can play a causal role in physical reality, but not the other way around. Thus there exists the kind of independent fact about the future that indicates that the future is fated.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Metaphysics of Fate

The ancient problem was how to model modality, Parmenides' world was necessary through and through, no contingency: if only what existed existed then it necessarily existed, was the intuition. All there is is the set of actual things. Possible worlds modelling, Leibniz, Frege, showed how to formalize necessity, contingency, possibility, impossibility by designating all actual things in all possible worlds. Modal realism of Lewis is thus nominalist strategy (slightly ironic since nominalism aspires to ontological austerity). Alternatively Plantinga claims that we can be actualists (only the actual world exists) and can still have a metaphysics of modality by positing that (or is it having a revelation that?) immaterial, mind- and matter-independent Platonic entities, such as essences, properties, propositions and states of affairs, are taken to exist in addition to matter. The nominalists about universals are typically nominalists as well about the philosophy of time: Particulars have temporal parts (are spread across time) just as they have spatial parts. Thus you never really change: we just experience different time-slices of you. Like all particulars, on this view you are a spacetime worm. That's how the omniscient god sees you, looking down on all of time spread before him like a plane: you're a spaghetti-like thing stretched across it. Notice this parallels the way you are smeared out across possible worlds on the nominalist view. On this view, all points in time are equally real (like all points in space).
The Platonists hold that objects in time are wholly present at each moment in time. They identify the particular with a form ("substance") and thus have no problem about the identity of the particular changing because constituent matter is changing. For the same reason they have no problem with holding that only the present moment exists (Aristotle in a nominalist mood argued that only present moments did not exist, as "moments" are conventional boundaries of divisible amounts of time, and so past times are bounded by past moments, future times are bounded by future moments, and "present" time periods are bounded by one past moment and one future moment.)
The problem of fate is really just a version of the problem of modality. It's really more a problem about the present than the future. Notice that both the Platonist and the nominalist claim to offer solutions to the problem: they both claim they can explain what we mean when we talk about necessity, contingency, and probability. But both schools have to adapt and revise to do it. Nominalists initially insist that only concrete particular things exist, and later develop modal realism to try to avoid the fatalistic implications of their original position. Platonists initially insist that eternal and unchanging Platonic entities shape the material world, and later try to adapt this ontology to account for modality.
So one question is, which feels freer, the nominalist view of time or the Platonist view of time? (Nominalist view is "B-series" re McTaggert, Platonist view "A-series"; that is, B-series refers to the model of time as a dimension, with all points equally real, while A-series sees time as moving through the present). Nominalist says tenses are indexicals. Platonist says tenses are metaphysically significant.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

What is the Fatalist Claiming?

The issue here is not whether or not whatever the fatalist claims is true. I just want to think a bit about what it is that the fatalist is claiming. The fatalist is not claiming that causal determinism obtains: that physical causation is closed and necessary, such that given the causal antecedents of my act, I couldn't have acted otherwise. Fatalism has an altogether different flavor than determinism. Specifically, I want to argue that fatalist arguments do not claim that facts about the future in any way determine the way that the future will be. This is, I think, an alternative interpretation from one that holds fatalist arguments to be a kind of logical determinism. Let's consider the version of the argument that argues from God's foreknowledge (omniscience). If God knows (now) what you are going to do next Thursday, the argument goes, then you are fated to do what you do next Thursday. If I have reason to think that there is a fact about the future (e.g. God's foreknowledge), then I have reason to believe that the future is concrete, like the past. The objection to fatalism from logical determinism runs like this: The fatalist is interpreted as arguing that 1) If God has foreknowledge of my actions, then the future is concrete. 2) God has foreknowledge of my actions. Therefore, the future is concrete. But, the objection goes on, God's foreknowledge is, in fact, determined by my actions this coming Thursday, and not the other way around. Thus it is misleading to characterize God's foreknowledge as a fact about the past (or the present); God's foreknowledge is just a fact about the future "disguised as a fact about the past." These philosophers claim that the fatalist is making a mistake about the "direction of dependence" between the future and the past/present. From the fact that it's true that you will vote Liberal next year, on this view, it doesn't follow that you cannot but vote Liberal next year. And, the interpreter of fatalism as logical determinism will go on, it must be that the fatalist is making this further claim. (And indeed the fatalist is claiming to have reason to believe that the future is concrete. ) But I think that there is an equivocation here between two senses of "determine." In the sense of causal determinism, the antecedent causes, in a lawlike way, the consequent effect: literally the antecedent causes are the explanation of my action. But in the sense of logical determinism, the word "determine" has the sense of determining, say, where San Sebastian is by looking on a map, or determining who the sixth President was by looking it up in a reference book. Arguing for fate from the fact of God's omniscience is entirely different from a possible determinist argument from God's omnipotence. The fact of God's foreknowledge is neither a necessary fact in itself nor a necessary precondition for the future being concrete. In fact, it is only if we have some independent reason for believing in God's foreknowledge that we can then draw the implication that the future is concrete. It doesn't look like the concreteness of the future could possibly depend on anything: if the future is concrete then there are no causes, thus properly understood fatalism turns out to be the opposite of determinism, which holds that the present state of affairs depends on the antecedant causes.
(And many thanks to Brian Garrett, author of What is this thing called metaphysics? Routledge, 2006, the text I'm using in my Metaphysics class. Prof. Garrett very generously responded to my e-mails generated by our class discussion, and helped us to do some good and fun philosophy here at the Univ. of Puerto Rico. Thanks Brian!)

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Not all zombies are the same

David Chalmers argues that, since for any given function, that function could be performed somehow without phenomenal properties (that is, since we can, supposedly, conceive of some system that does this), then metaphysical dualism is true. But this conclusion doesn't follow from the counterfactual. The counterfactual (the zombie thought experiment) does not show that phenomenal properties are epiphenomenal (causally inert). It only shows that for any function (identifying color surfaces, say) that a human performs using phenomenal experience, we can imagine (supposedly) another being performing using some other means (like a robot that measured light amplitude without being conscious at all). This no more shows that phenomenal experience is epiphenomenal than it shows that light-amplitude measuring is epiphenomenal, in the other direction. At most this shows that human psychology is a subset of "pure" functionalist psychology, involving contingencies that "pure" psychology does not. It in no way shows that phenomenal experience cannot be naturalized.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Little Green Anthropos

Well the new semester has started, and I'm using Brian Garrett's What is this thing called metaphysics? for the first time. I just had some Office Hours time with my student Edgar Colon Melendez, and we got around to thinking about some cosmological issues (I'd say they're cosmological) that I want to write up here (we got around to it starting from discussing modality and possible worlds modeling, although the two topics are, strictly speaking, unrelated).
I'm wondering about the connection between two arguments. The first is an argument from probability logic for the existence of intelligent life on other planets. Maybe someone has a refutation of this argument, but it seems to me to be intuitively compelling. Say there were two black balls on the pool table, you picked up one of them, and it was an eight ball (let's say you know it's possible that not all black balls are eight balls; maybe there are bumper-pool balls around, say). What would be your expectation that the other black ball was also an eight ball? Maybe not much. But now imagine ten black balls on the table, you pick one up (randomly, of course), and it's an eight ball. The sense that some other balls must also be eight balls is much stronger: surely you didn't just happen to pick up the one out of ten? Well maybe. But now imagine a pool table with one hundred million black balls. You pick up one, look, it's an eight ball. Now, sure, it's logically possible that you picked up the only one. But it at least seems (doesn't it?) that it's more likely that they're all eight balls than that you picked up the only one. With a very huge number like that, it looks like you have grounds for assuming that there are other eight balls on the table.
That's our position in regards to the possibility of intelligent life on other planets. It's vanishingly unlikely that our planet, in this obscure corner of the universe, is the only one. More likely, life evolves whenever and wherever the right environmental conditions exist, and has successfully evolved intelligence any number of times.
What I'm wondering is what relationship this reasoning has, if any, to the so-called Anthropic Principle. This argument, a subtle and fascinating one, goes like this: in order for intelligent life to evolve, the universe must be a highly-organized place. Out of all the ways a universe could be, the set of such organized universes is extremely small relative to the larger (total) set. Even so, there is no surprise that this universe is organized, because we are here. So we can be certain a priori that the universe is a (relatively) hyper-organized one. Does this argument cash out the same way that the probability argument for intelligence on other planets does? Can it be used to support the assertion that there must be many universes, with many of those featuring intelligent life?
Maybe not, because it's not so clear what a universe is, or if multiple universes are even possible. Does it matter that there is no possible causal or spatiotemporal relation between universes, the way there is between solar systems?

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Bryan Magee's Confessions

I very much enjoyed Confessions of a Philosopher, even if it turns out that Bryan Magee was not, as I had supposed, a career professional philosopher, but rather a documentary host for English television whose most well-known work is a series of interviews with philosophers, as well as a Labor MP and sometime novelist. His reflections on philosophy were quite interesting for someone like myself who teaches philosophical topics year in and year out. The book is a bit overlong at 450+ pages, and I was not as refreshed by his company after such prolonged exposure as I was at the beginning. He also has it out for philosophy professors, especially of the English variety, and a whiff of vengeance hangs in the air after the umpteenth attack on Oxford philosophy. Still, his sustained critique of logical positivism and of ordinary language philosophy is useful and historically informative. His argument that these philosophers confuse methods (analysis) with goals (questions about metaphysics, values, the meaning of life) is a good one. I want, though, to try to discuss here what I see as Magee's ultimate distillation of philosophy, one I see as interestingly flawed. Claiming Kant and Schopenhauer for his guiding influences, Magee takes exceeding comfort in the idea of a noumenal world-in-itself as opposed to the phenomenal world-of-experience. He several times suggests that some future philosophical genius might make progress (whatever that would be) in the direction of producing knowledge of this noumenal world, where, as he sees it, there is no time or space, no causal relationships, no plurality, only a sort of Parmenidean unity. One idea here seems to be that a global scepticism about the evidence of the senses safeguards one from a noxious reductionism. He is a great admirer of Popper and shows that Popper's "falsificationist" philosophy of science is not merely an elaboration of verificationism, but in fact is a total departure from it. Magee sees Popper as a precursor to Kuhn and even Feyerabend: models of the world reflect the nature of the model-maker, and never the world-in-itself. He shows no interest in, say, the natural history of representation: the plain fact that representations necessarily reflect a certain body and form of life is enough to divorce them from "the world-in-itself." By the way, he has no understanding of the later Wittgenstein, who he dismisses, failing to see the continuity between the PI and his own Kantian reading of the Tractatus. Still, he has a lot to say and he has written a very brave intellectual memoir.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Pragmatism, Modality, and the Law of Effect

The pragmatist doesn't think "We don't know if what we believe is true." The pragmatist does not think that "Our knowledge is flawed." I should say empiricism: underlying pragmatism is the view that we are traveling in a tree of branching possibilities. At any fork, our choice is based on the pragmatics of various factors that are entirely contingent. Necessarily we cannot know what life would be like at other nodes precluded by our past actions. And by all past events, for that matter. For these principles apply for all change, including our transformations as cultures, tribes and ethnicities and beyond that as species, and not just the evolution of our way of representing the world to ourselves (or of doing something functionally equivalent to that).
Against the Escher-like background of modality (the universe of possible worlds), the correspondence theory of truth looks incoherent: only the most general truths, the ones true at all possible worlds, can be said to "correspond to reality" in any literal way, and these (maybe, "there is a type of atom formed of one neutron, one electron, and one proton"? I don't know) will be important but inevitably esoteric, whereas virtually all of our run-of-the-mill claims (including the vast majority of "scientific" claims) have nothing to do with representing the world at all but are, rather, simply manifestations of the way we ourselves are: our bodies, our environments.
So work out this relationship between pragmatism and modality, through the connection of empiricism's law of effect. The argument is not that something that could be known is not known. The argument is that this concept of "knowledge" is wrong.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Richard Rorty

Philosopher Richard Rorty passed away Friday. The myth of Rorty is that he was a typical analytic philosopher of the time in the 1960s but came to repudiate the analytic turn and developed a relativistic, perspectivalist view of truth. When I was reading Rorty, early in my graduate school days, his books (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, 1979, was published when I was an undergraduate, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity, 1989, came at a time when I was starting to feel that I opposed Rorty's relativism) lived on the shelf that held Marxist theory, the Frankfurt School, Habermas and Gadamer, Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, feminists and ecotheorists and African-American studies, and the lawless theoretical outback of literary theory (I don't say that list pejoratively). And yes, in graduate school at Colorado in the 1980s we certainly made the connection to American Pragmatism. I'm a William James man myself, but the Pragmatist one thinks of in connection with Rorty is John Dewey. They are in an American tradition of an earnestly humane naturalism, characterized by self-revelation and utilitarianism.
Rorty's interpretation of pragmatism led to endless disputations with philosophers and others who saw themselves as more empiricist and less relativistic than Rorty, but I would argue that pragmatism is part of a deep thread in empiricism, one that also includes the market-force economics of Adam Smith, Jeffersonian democracy, Darwin's theory of natural selection, Mill's Utilitarianism, and behaviorist models of learning. The idea is that the mental life of humans, like the rest of nature, has a natural history that involves endless contingincies ("contingency" is a key concept for the later Rorty), that is adapted to its environment, more or less, through a long history of positive and negative reinforcement: the complex structure of the phenomenon has grown up from simpler interactions. This is a side of empiricism that is sometimes misunderstood in its implications. I don't see Rorty as someone who left behind the epistemological preoccupations of empiricism. I see pragmatism clearly as part of the empiricist tradition.
There are various directions we could go at this point, but let's consider this in terms of the "theory of truth," one of Rorty's core areas of interest all his life. On the Classical view (the traditional view opposed by, say, Hume), "truth" could be defined as the correspondence of the proposition to reality. An external world stood apart from human consciousness of that world. "Knowledge" was the possession of a representation of the world that corresponded with the actual world. Rorty argued that there was a difference between the propositions "The world is the way that it is, regardless of what we say about it," and "There is some account of the world that is the one, true account." Beings have representations of the world (if they have those sorts of things at all) because they have particular physical bodies and lead particular kinds of lives. This reflects the influence on Rorty of the Wittgensteinian rejection of Cartesianism, and is what connects Rorty to Merleau-Ponty's and de Beauvoirs' theories of phenomenology and the body (also Thomas Nagel has this sort of view of consciousness, see his excellent The View from Nowhere).
The picture that emerges is that "truth" as in intentional mental content, belief itself, is something completely internal to the experiencing being, an organizing web of causes of behavior that includes both instrumentally useful consequences and highly random variables: a product of evolution. Notice the consistency of selection and conditioning for explaining the long-term acquisition of physical traits and the short-term acquisition of behavioral traits. I think that this view is pretty much full-blown in Hume, certainly it is in Darwin. The pragmatism of James and Dewey is another variation on this theme. It is more akin to Wittgenstein's anthropological approach than to Nietzsche's ultimately reductive thesis that everything is power.
On this view, disputes between Rorty and various empiricists and defenders of science over the years were gratuitous. It is perfectly consistent, after all, that scientific methods might be among the best for generating utile propositions. In fact this is necessarily so, on the pragmatist analysis of the history of science. It's hard to see what more the defender of science could reasonably say. Arguably the scientific materialist ought to be resisting Cartesian concepts of intentionality, after all. But Rorty took the same bait as his antagonists, mistakenly arguing, for example, that philosophy as he understood it was "not knowledge production," a false distinction on his own view that "knowledge production" was nothing more nor less than some output of the (human) developmental process.
Here we can see clearly the internal tension in the empiricist tradition that divided Rorty and his critics. One part of empiricism is the insistence on the primacy of actual (sensory, physical) experience. Rorty challenged that methodological empiricism, along with Kuhn and Feyerabend. But in Rorty's case this was motivated by the other part of empiricism, the inversion from a "top-down" model of the emergence of complex structures to a "bottom-up" view based on the law of effect. Thus empiricism agrees with the historical materialism of Marxism but not with its totalizing agenda (this was certainly another large issue in Rorty's development). As for his insistence that there could be no demarcation between something called "science" and the rest of human cultural production, this is a view shared with Wittgenstein. It does not entail a rejection of, say, metaphysical naturalism.
So Rorty was underestimated by people who did not pay enough attention to see that his development of pragmatism was far more subtle than his "village relativist" popular reputation. Still, I have the same reservations with Rorty that I have with Stephen Jay Gould: too many well-intentioned people have come up to me at social gatherings and said something like, "But this guy (insert Gould or Rorty) says that (insert 'Evolution is not a fact' or 'Humans can't know anything')." A brilliant thinker and writer who requires more attention than his notoriety would imply.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Naturalism is an Anti-Humanism

Metaphysically speaking, the three terms materialist, physicalist, and naturalist point in the same general direction. Quibbling about them might actually be a useful exercise in conceptual analysis, and it's easy to start distinguishing them, but my philosophical views can be variously interpreted or described as materialist, physicalist and/or naturalist, depending on the context. The general idea is that the natural universe, physical nature, is what exists. This is not necessarily a "reductionist" view. Today I want to say some really basic things about humanism, that I see as incompatible with (my view) physicalism. From my physicalist point of view, nature can be as magical and mystical and mysterious as you find it, or as it might be. My claim isn't that we understand nature or that nature is some sort of deterministic mechanism. My claim is more modest: I claim that whatever nature (the natural universe) is like, human nature is like that. Humans are not any sort of miracle, in the sense of an exception to the ways of nature (whatever those may be). Humans don't in any way "go beyond" nature. They are in fact humble creatures on an obscure planet in a universe packed with life.
Two points following from this programmatic declaration of mine. First, while it is legitimate for all of us to be motivated to some extent by ethical, social, and spiritual concerns, don't assume that the one you're calling a "materialist" has somehow forfeited that high ground to you, the humanist. In addition to honestly believing the metaphysical propositions that I espouse, I certainly am also ready to defend them in ethical, social, and spiritual terms. Physicalism looks to be the environmentalist position, for example. I am also prepared to defend the proposition that physicalism is the most spiritual metaphysical position, as opposed to, say, metaphysical dualism about the mind and body. I may be wrong in those views, but don't assume that I concede any of that part of the conversation to humanists: theirs is not obviously the most ethical position.
The other point is that there is a great deal of humanism around, and some of it is pernicious I think, for example in so far as it blocks progress in psychology, neuroscience, and related areas. The Chomskian linguists, for example, are the descendants of a mind/body dualist tradition, indeed self-consciously so. So this is a central idea in the "cognitivist" section of the animal mind book.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Dennett, Pragmatism, and Animal Mind

Today's post is some sketching for a discussion of Dennett, both his basic philosophy of mind and his position on the minds of animals.
The "meta" stuff first: Dennett's basic view (The Intentional Stance) is that intentional (belief/desire) descriptions constitute a kind of universal hermeneutic that intelligent interpreters use to explain any system (including, say, paramecia and thermostats) that the interpreter does not understand at a lower level (the "design" level or the yet-lower "machine" level). "My car doesn't want to start." These intentional descriptions can be replaced as the design (the functional organization) of the system becomes better understood. "My car needs a new starter." This is an instrumentalist theory of mind: "mind" is a useful set of concepts for dealing with complex systems that are not (yet) understood in purely materialist terms. This pragmatist position appears to have the benefit, then, of buttressing materialism: when we appreciate that the intentional stance can be usefully applied to any dynamic system (the thermostat is an important example), we should also appreciate that there is no need of any transcendent source of intelligent organization, what Dennett has called "skyhooks" (Darwin's Dangerous Idea, one of Dennett's better books by the way).
I'm not sure that this grand materialist strategy works. The pragmatist component is key here, and thus we should think about standard problems for pragmatism. Pragmatist epistemology holds that we build up a conception (by this I just mean a system of description and explanation) of the world by trial and error, in the same way that evolution builds up our physical traits by trial and error (one of Dennett's best papers; "Why the Law of Effect Won't Go Away"). Thus the particulars of our conception are strictly contingent (underdetermined by the selection process): there are undoubtedly equivalently useful, or even more useful, possible conceptions that are very different from the one we happen to have, but we just have the haphazard selection history that we do. The beliefs are fixed by utility value, not by any traditional notion of "correspondence" with the world.
The problem here is that pragmatist epistemology is question-begging: why is it that some conceptions have more utility value than others? I'd guess they do because the world is more like this conception than it is like that conception. That is, the very fact of utility reflects environmental constraints on what we can and cannot (usefully) believe. And so intentional descriptions are ubiquitous because they pick out some deep feature of the world.
I think that what intentional descriptions pick out are relationships. I have been calling these "relational properties" but I'm not now sure whether these are properties or not (John Heil has got me thinking about the metaphysics of properties). But think of any formalizable relationship (modus ponens will do I think). All sorts of sets of things can come under these relational descriptions. I think that these relational forms are the "multiply realizable" things that persuaded functionalists to reject reductive materialism. That is, I think that materialism may indeed be false, because the mathematical/logical structure of the world is an a priori fact about the world (a forbidden "skyhook").
Well that's the first line I wanted to sketch out today. The other one is about Dennett's position on animal minds. A basic argument of mine is that both behaviorists and evolutionary psychologists do not have any principled reason to make distinctions between the semantics of psychological predicates applied to humans and those same words applied to many non-human animals. Dennett is squarely in this position. If it turns out that he doesn't think that intentional descriptions of human beings can be cashed out like they can for thermostats, then his entire project is a failure: the whole point was to naturalize psychology by showing that the intentional stance was a (mere) hermeneutic. Like all instrumentalist views, his only succeeds if it applies to human beings. Dennett suggests (Kinds of Minds) that the intentional hermeneutic in fact masks deep differences between the mental lives of humans and those of other animals, but one more time: either human intentionality can be cashed out into functional and physical descriptions, or he fails to naturalize psychology. Can't have it both ways.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Buddhism and Phenomenal Properties

The mind/body problem, in its contemporary, materialist form, splits into two distinct metaphysical problems. One is the problem of "intentionality," that is discussed in many of the other posts on this blog. The other is "phenomenology." The idea is that there is a quality, a feeling, that constitutes your experience of, say, seeing a red surface, or tasting a bit of chocolate, and this quality, the "phenomenal property" of the "mental state," eludes physical descriptions and explanations of the mental (for example neurophysiological descriptions). Thus, the argument goes, reductive materialism fails (Frank Jackson, Thomas Nagel, etc.). A slightly older incarnation of this argument in western philosophy is Husserl's claim a century ago that a free-standing "phenomenology," or study of phenomenal experience, was needed in addition to empiricist study of the physical world.
I am convinced that the problem of phenomenal properties is a pseudoproblem. I don't think that there are any such things as phenomenal properties. The best contemporary statement of the sort of view that I espouse is found in Wittgenstein, first stated in the Tractatus but consistent in all of his writings (and the subject of an earlier post on this blog). Experience of the world cannot be separated from the world itself. "I am my world." Wittgenstein enlisted the word solipsism to denote this argument. Experience is the means, the framework, through which we (by definition) experience the world. We cannot experience experience. "The limits of my language are the limits of my world." Phenomenal language is our tool for describing the experienced world.
This view is well-developed in the ancient tradition of Buddhism (anybody who is interested in consciousness needs to spend time with the Buddhist literature, a vast literature of consciousness dating back more than 2,000 years). In the Indian and Tibetan lineage we can see the concept of idealism used much as Wittgenstein uses the concept of solipsism. The mind creates the world, the mind is one with the world. Mental content is on the surface, but the practice of meditation brings us to communion with consciousness itself, which is described as emptiness, or alternatively as everything (the world). I suppose that I will have to go harvesting quotations from the Mahayana and Tibetan literature to illustrate the view as it is found in that lineage (sigh. Not that this will be difficult, the view is central). Today I have some quotations from the later Zen school of Buddhism that developed in China and Japan.
This semester in my Buddhism course I went over a couple of chapters in Alan Watts' still-essential Way of Zen and was struck by a couplet from the 15th century koan anthology Zenrin Kushu: the mind is "Like a sword that cuts, but cannot cut itself; Like an eye that sees, but cannot see itself." This is identical to Wittgenstein's view. Wittgenstein even gives us a little diagram with the eye outside of the circle of perception. I love the "sword that cuts but cannot cut itself." We experience the world, we move through the world: neither the world nor experience can be considered in detachment from the other. Dogen (1200-1253), perhaps the greatest writer in the Zen tradition, is forever making the same point, using the word shinchi, usually translated as mind-ground.
"The entire world is mind-ground; the entire world is blossom-heart. Because the entire world is blossom-heart, the entire world is plum blossoms. Because the entire world is plum blossoms, the entire world is Gautama's eyeball." (Moon in a Dewdrop, pp. 117-118).
Since this whole line precludes any possibility of phenomenology, it is interesting to note that Jean-Paul Sartre's existential theory of consciousness also entails that nothing can be said about consciousness, because, according to Sartre, consciousness is the "no-thing," pure negation arising dialectically from the concrete world.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

"Double Aspect" Theories

Spinoza developed what is known as a "double aspect" theory of mind (remember that a "theory of mind" is a theory meant to explain the metaphysics of the mind/body relation). On Spinoza's view, everything comes under two descriptions, a physical description and a mental description. Behind this theory is a metaphysics that there is only one substance ("God," or "Nature"). There may be infinitely many descriptions ("modes") of things, but in our finitude we grasp only the physical and the mental. It is not clear to me whether this means that everything (the Parmenidean One) comes under the two descriptions or that every thing (you, me, the chairs we're sitting in) does. In the latter case there is a puzzle about the mental descriptions of the chairs; this is the "pantheist" interpretation of Spinoza.
One of the many promising lines of thought that are suggested by Spinoza's work is about the problem of mental causation: how could nonphysical things or properties interact causally with the physical world? On a double aspect view the strategy is to show that the mental and the physical are not in fact metaphysically distinct, and thus that there is no particular problem about causation (just, perhaps, the usual metaphysical problems with causation in general). A version of this is developed by Donald Davidson in his paper Anomolous Monism, where the physical token of the mental state plays the causal (physical) role, while the semantic content of the mental is not in a nomological (law-like) relation with the physical state.
John Heil (with profusely acknowledged debt to C.B. Martin) develops another Spinozistic line with a double aspect theory of properties. On Heil's view all properties are both dispositional (with "powers" to enter into causal relations) and qualitative (the "way things are"). Strictly speaking, Heil wants to replace the model of chains of cause-and-effect relations with a model of a "power web," where dispositions are seen as relational properties between dispositional partners. This has various advantages for metaphysics in general, such as providing for polyadic causal relations to replace the awkward discussion of "background conditions" etc., and resolving the temporal dilemmas arising from our intuitions about antecedent causes and subsequent effects. The payoff for philosophy of mind, I think (I need to ask Prof. Heil about this), is that the intentional and the phenomenal mental properties can then be seen to be one and the same properties, under different aspects. This is an exciting bit of work and I for one am going to spend more time with Prof. Heil's writings and bibliographies. However, I think that I have a view that is in some sense the opposite of Heil's. Is my view also a "double aspect" view?
On my view (if I had to acknowledge just one source, I guess I'd say Gilbert Ryle's The Concept of Mind), the story is: reductive materialism was the intuitive favorite theory of mind after the failure of behaviorism to account for phenomenal properties (and the early materialist articles by Smart and Place et al are largely concerned with afterimages and red sploches and so forth), but reductive materialism was taken to be definitively defeated by the problem of multiple realizability, and by 1975 Putnam and others were developing functionalism, which continued to have chronic problems with phenomenal properties. All "operational" theories fail to account for the "what it's like" of phenomenal experience. (This is Heil's starting point, I think, and the target of his Spinozistic strategy. The operational/intentional/dispositional aspect is one mode and the experiential/phenomenal/qualitative aspect is another mode of the same thing, that is, the same property). I say, taking the opposite path from the monists, that "mind" is a complex concept - a polite way of saying that there isn't really anything that corresponds to the traditional concept of "mind" - and that we need not one but two theories of mind. We need a story about the metaphysics of intentionality and we need a story about the metaphysics of phenomenology. I have been developing these ideas in this blog and won't add a long passage here this morning, but here's a taste: intentional properties are relational properties of persons, and phenomenal "properties" (not really properties at all) can't actually be described but can be, metaphysically speaking, explained with reductive materialism. Qualitative experience is a "property," that is, of bodies. The mistake, that became vicious during the transition from reductive materialism to functionalism, is to suppose that there is some one thing the "mind" and that therefore a theory of mind must account for the metaphysics of both intentionality and phenomenology. My working title has been A New "Double Aspect" Theory of Mind but this week I'm not sure whether that's a good title; my view is not a double aspect view in the sense that Spinoza, Davidson, and Heil develop.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Two and a Half Versions of Eliminativism

This post is mostly some taxonomy with an argument (about the definition of eliminativism) built in. First, at a "macro" level, there are three flavors of "materialism" as that metaphysical proposition applies to philosophy of mind. Reductive materialism is the view that if materialism is the correct metaphysical position, then it follows that all descriptions and explanations are ultimately physical. This is a version of the "unity of science" hypothesis: there is some base-level type of explanation (presumably the most fundamental physics), and everything else that we talk about can be translated into this type of explanation. With this intuitive interpretation of the implications of materialism for epistemology at the center, there are two opposite wings (it's probably misleading to try to use the "left wing/right wing" nomenclature here; I can't make any sense out of that way of talking about this, anyway).
On one side, we have nonreductive materialism. This is the view that, although materialism is sound as a metaphysical proposition, it does not follow that all explanation can be smoothly, "intertheoretically" translated into the base physical type of explanation. Thus Fodor coined the phrase "special sciences" in rejecting the unity of science hypothesis. This position is equivalent to property dualism. The property dualist concedes that only physical substance (whatever that is) exists, but argues that psychological explanation appeals to properties that are not analyzable as (base-level) physical properties. Functionalism is taken as an example of nonreductive materialism because descriptions in terms of functional roles ("a doorstop") are not translatable into physical descriptions ("a small brown rubber wedge"); many things can function as doorstops. My own view at this point is that if materialism were true metaphysically speaking, then reductive materialism would follow, but if we concede that there are blocks to reduction (and it looks to me that there are) then we have to face the fact that materialism as we understand it is false. Thus I suspect that "nonreductive materialism" a) may be the right position and b) isn't really a type of materialism at all. (This is a large topic that I will put to the side just now.)
On the opposite side of reductive materialism from nonreductive materialism we find eliminative materialism. Reductive materialism holds that the traditional psychological predicates (thinking now of the intentional predicates: belief, desire, hope, fear, etc.) will be "reduced" to underlying physical states and processes. On this view, as science advances we will come to see what intentional states really are, and that will be some species of physical states. There will come to be a new semantics of (the same old) psychological words. Nonreductive materialism holds that no matter what advances physical science makes, psychology is autonomous (unanalyzable to the base-level physical science). Eliminative materialism is the opposite position: on this view, physical science will not reduce, or translate, the traditional psychological vocabulary, rather it will eliminate it, replacing traditional psychology altogether with some sort of physical explanation. Thus eliminativists refer to intentional psychology as "folk" psychology, and advance the "Theory theory": that intentional psychology is a theory, and an eliminable one.
With that taxonomy of materialism as introduction, I now want to discuss some versions of eliminativism. I say there are "two and a half" versions: I'm never sure whether eliminativism is really a full-blown theory of mind, or more a sort of methodological caution. Paul Churchland popularized the current discussion of eliminativism with a warning from the history of science: some older entities do indeed get reduced (Zeus's thunderbolts to electrical discharge), but some (the heavenly spheres) are not reduced to anything, they are eliminated. So it is at least possible, on this view, that some or all of the traditional psychological vocabulary will undergo elimination, not reduction. This is not a full-blown theory of mind. No systematic "new way of talking" is offered here. Later the Churchlands argued that connectionism represents an eliminativist alternative, but since they (both Churchlands) continue to talk about "mental representation," I don't think they succeed in developing anything systematic through the appeal to connectionism. Connectionism may be significant, but only if it is part of an eclipse of representational theory. The Churchlands give us half a theory, at best.
Another putatively eliminativist argument is that due to Steven Stich, based on the approach of Jerry Fodor and others. This camp used to be called "computationalist," but lately it has appropriated the name "representational." (As a point of exposition, let me point out that this is very unfortunate, since representational theories encompass far more positions than this.) In any event, the general view is that the syntactical structure of mental representation plays a causal role in cognition, rather than the semantic content of the representations. Perhaps the formal organization of the representations maps on to the formal organization of the brain. In this way the "machine language" of the nervous system might be divined. Stich argues that if this is so (if, that is, we come to see the syntactical structure as the causal property of mental states), then ipso facto we have eliminated the causal power of the propositional attitudes as traditionally understood.
This is a deeply confused position (for a long time I thought that I must not be understanding the view, because it seemed too obviously wrong; but no, it's obviously wrong). On the one hand, there are the predicates we ascribe to brains and other body parts: physical predicates and no doubt formal predicates as well, in the sense of formally organized physical states and processes. On the other hand, there are the predicates we ascribe to persons. Intentional psychology is the activity of explaining the behavior of persons, not of brains. One can stipulate (as Fodor tried to do long ago with "methodological solipsism") that one is interested only in what goes on inside the head, and such an investigation might be fruitful so far as it goes, but this is simply to change the subject from philosophy of mind to something else. Searle (Chinese Room) is right: this whole line gains no purchase at all on the relationship between consciousness and the physical properties of the body.
Fortunately, this is not the only game in town. The last version of eliminativism I want to discuss, what I take to be the promising one, is the eliminativism of Wittgenstein, Ryle, and the behaviorists. Here the suggestion is that the representational theory of mind is misconceived root and branch. Talk of "inner" mental states is figurative, a distortion of human grammar that evolved to deal with the three-dimensional, "external" world (the only world there is). Meanwhile, intentional descriptions refer to publically observable behavioral tropes. As Wittgenstein says, we can simply look and see whether a dog and a man, say, are afraid of the same thing. There is no "inner" mind just as language has no "meaning" beyond the intersubjective use of the symbol (this is the only coherent version of "functional-role semantics").
Now we have a spectrum of eliminativisms: at one extreme (occupied, perhaps, by the Churchlands) is the version that suggests that we might jettison the "attitudes" in favor of something else while retaining a representational theory of mind. The other extreme (Wittgenstein) holds that the attitudes are ineliminable as they are primitive descriptions of persons, but rejects the concept of "mental representation." This approach, unlike the misnamed "representational" theory of Fodor et al, would, if successful, actually resolve the problem of intentionality through elimination, rather than just change the subject. Ironic to find Patricia Churchland casting aspersions on Wittgensteins "pronouncements from the deep" when he is the most powerful exponent of the eliminativist approach to philosophy of mind to which the Churchlands aspire.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Animal Mind and the NeoCartesians

I have two projects that I am developing in this blog: one is a position on the mind/body problem, offering a theory of intentionality and a theory of phenomenology. The other is a defense of a realist psychology applied to non-human animals, that is, I think that the semantics of psychological descriptions is the same for intentional descriptions of humans and of, say, dogs. The two projects don't overlap in every respect, but there are important convergences. I have been developing a metaphysical theory of intentional "properties," and it turns out that this argument can be used against the "neoCartesians." Who are they? In the last part of the previous post I mention that it looks like both behaviorists and evolutionary psychologists don't actually have any arguments to the effect that psychological descriptions mean one thing when made of humans but another, perhaps metaphorical? thing when made of non-humans such as dogs. By their own lights, it looks like they can't sustain a difference. But there is a substantial argument, I then went on to say, amongst the cognitivists, referring specifically to Chomsky and his "generative grammar" argument and to Davidson's defense of the autonomy of psychology from the semantics of propositional attitudes. These are the "neoCartesians" as, like many 17th century rationalists, they think that humans are essentially distinct from ordinary (physical, natural) beasts on account of "the faculty of reason." The way the modern cognitivist argument goes is basically that language is possible because of the formal rules of grammar that allow for the production of infinite sentences (that's some of the Chomskian part), and that language is the formal architecture that makes thought itself possible: the intentional states (beliefs, desires, etc.) are individuated by their semantic content; a non-linguistic being literally can't be said to be in such states (that's some of the Davidsonian part). My literary audience at the College English Association Chapter meeting the other day was rather alarmingly congenial to this way of seeing things by the way. (And thanks to Nick Haydock of the University of Puerto Rico for asking for some more discussion of this.)
I don't think that the argument is a good one, and I mentioned last post some quasi-empirical reasons for thinking, for example, that thought and consciousness must in fact predate language, if by that we mean spoken human language, by a considerable time. But there is a deeper argument that is metaphysical and I think that this argument helps to reveal the foundations of the problem a little bit. It looks like the claim for human uniqueness, on this Cartesian-cognitivist version, is based on the allegedly formal organization of language. Mathematical and logical relations are transcendental, universal relations, demonstrably sound unlike the accidental caprices of nature. The rational mind breaks free of physical determinism, loses its "thinghood," and becomes an intentional agent. Thus Chomsky held that generative grammar enabled humans to form forward-looking plans, thus gaining rights (becoming Kantian ends), unlike the non-verbal animals, who were merely instinct mechanisms and conditioning machines (in recent years Chomsky has conceded much on this to the consciousness studies people). The contingency of some of the grammatical structure was made much of on the grounds that it showed that language emerged somehow randomly: the early Chomsky didn't want human behavior to come under behavioristic or genetic analysis and he explicitly constructed arguments to block it.
I am going to give a very compressed version of my metaphysics of intentional mental states, explaining its relevance for the question of animal mind. I think that psychological descriptions ("She's thinking of chocolate fondue," "He's struck by the immensity of the ocean," "They have sore feet") pick out relations between persons and their environments. It is a kind of "wide-content" view, I guess, although I'm not yet sure how comfortable I am with that. One thing that is persuading me is the surely right claim that intentional states are characteristics of whole persons, not of body parts (such as brains). At a minimum I think it's right to say that intentional attributions aren't referring to any part of a person, but to the person as a whole, that is as a person. But if that's right then intentional descriptions aren't physical descriptions of persons at all. They're formal descriptions, descriptions that various different physical systems could come under: descriptions of relations. Then here's the argument as it applies to the metaphysics of the mind-body problem: so far as intentional mental states are concerned, two poins: first, if it's true that intentional states are properly understood as relational states, then maybe we don't have to include mental representation in our model of mind, and second (this is what got me on to this), if it's true that the block to psychophysical laws in the case of intentionality is due to the formality of intentional states, then the metaphysical problem is not a problem specific to the philosophy of mind. Rather it is a general problem for metaphysics. Geometrical properties (roundness, triangularity) are ubiquitous, and they cannot somehow be "analyzed physically." Roundness isn't a property specific to metal, or stone, or plastic, or what have you. Transcendental formal properties are everywhere. So we must ask ourselves, are we really materialists if we concede that the universe is formally organized? Or does true materialism require a doctrine that things evolve randomly? Either way, this maybe settles intentionality as a metaphysical problem, anyway.
And here's the argument as it applies to the minds of animals: The formal structure of language is an extension of the deeper overall formal structure of the environment. Animal minds were already endowed with some formal structure prior to the (consequent) evolution of human language. It's not that rationality is not a real feature of humans, rather that nature was already exploiting the potential of formal organization long long before. Even the apparently arbitrary
grammatical structures of language are evidence of the inevitability of formal organization, not its improbability.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Real behaviorists don't wear fur

Today here at University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez, our English Department is hosting the annual meeting of the College English Association/Caribbean Chapter. The conference topic is "animals."I think I'm going to lay out my whole thesis for The Minds of Animals. Come to think of it that's impossible, because I'll get to speak for maybe fifteen minutes before a really random ten minutes or so discussion. So I need to focus.
Start with the idea of the semantics of (intentional) psychology. If "belief" and "desire" are nouns, subjects of sentences, then what are the referents of those words? There are several theories on offer. My view is that, regardless of which of the available leading theories of mind one chooses, there is a presumption that you mean for your theory to be a general theory of psychology, one that could be used to understand both the simplest and most complex instances of "mind" (Hume, the godfather of empiricist psychology, was insistent on this point: if it doesn't apply to dogs and babies, then it isn't basic enough.) Thus behaviorism, for example, tried to make the internal, unobservable referents go away: it is an example of an "eliminativist" view of mental representation. On a behaviorist semantics for psychological nouns, they refer to sets of behavioral tropes (thus "fear of dogs," "believes they have chocolate at El Amal," "happy," and so forth). On this view there is no argument for distinguishing psychological descriptions of humans from those of other non-human animals. Note that the behaviorist is deeply committed to a deflation of the human mind to something that is put together from relatively simple processes. (Not that I'm criticizing behaviorism: that's what I think is good about it. Or at least, I'm intrigued that behaviorists at least have a novel strategy for dealing with "mental representation" and "intentionality"). Finally, this is an example of an internal argument: I'm not interested in disproving behaviorism, only in the consistent treatment of the theory.
The same argument applies to an altogether different model of psychological explanation, that of what is now called "evolutionary psychology," or back in the day "sociobiology," what one can think of as a sort of (my coinage) adaptive determinism. The idea is that the cause of the behavior (and for that matter of the thought or of the feeling) is the operation of genetic or more generally evolutionary causes. Thus an article a few years back in the New York Times laid out a Steven Pinkerish argument more or less as follows: Your dog acts as if it loves you, thus soliciting an affectionate response from you, because the dog is adapted to living off of you: all is instinct. My brother-in-law confronted me with this article. The response is to point out that on any reasonable interpretation of evolutionary, one could replace the word "dog" in the story with "baby," and the argument would be equally good: of course your baby is adapted to elicit an emotional response from you, of course that involves "genetic programming," whatever that is. That doesn't mean that the vocabulary of "loves you" and "pays attention to you" and "has a relationship with you" is somehow an illusion. This is to confuse the "why" with the "how." More importantly we get the same result as before: for evolutionary psychology, as for behaviorism, someone who actually embraced the theory as the right account of the semantics of intentional explanation provides no reason to apply one interpretation to humans and another to non-human animals.
The situation is more complex when we look at cognitivism, post-behaviorist psychology that focusses on mental representation, language, and the formal organization of cognition. Chomsky argued that a defining trait of humans was a capacity for "generative grammar," the ability that the parts of language give to generate an indefinitely large (demonstrably infinite, in fact) set of potential sentences. Thus generative grammar could be interpreted as a reason to make a distinction between humans and non-human animals in terms of the mental states that we attribute to them respectively. Davidson refined the model of intentional states as "propositional attitudes," and he explicitly states that on his view, language-capable beings can be rightly said to possess beliefs, desires, hopes, etc. And Fodor and his followers think that the syntactical structure of language may be the bridge between the semantic content of the mental and some kind of formal physical properties (of the nervous system, say). The issue here is about the relationship between thought and language. My initial response is intuitive: thought and language are not, as the cognitivists would have it, a chicken-and-egg pair. Thought must predate language by a very long way. Nervous tissue is older than bone tissue: our neurons and those of invertebrates are more similar in structure than most of the rest of us. The question here is whether we will come to see "mental representation," somehow understood, as a ubiquitous and ineliminable feature of animals with nervous systems, or we will come to understand nervous system function in a way that no longer refers to mental content. I really don't know which way that will go, but I doubt that it will turn out that human thinking is different in any radical way from that of many non-human animals. As to the rejoinder that we can just look and see that humans are cognitively very special, my response is that we won't find out much more about that if we start off with an ill-conceived insistence on some sort of fundamental difference.