Saturday, January 27, 2007

Pragmatism and Behaviorism

Adam Smith argued in The Wealth of Nations that lots of small interactions down at the level of individuals combined to self-organize market economies: satisfactory transactions are repeated, the reverse are extinguished. At the same time David Hume tried to make an empiricist psychology based on the idea of habituation from regularities of experience. There is nothing "in the mind," Hume claimed, other than the impressions that experience has fixed there. A century later Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species used the same principle (the "law of effect," as famously discussed by Daniel Dennett) to develop a picture of the mechanism of selection, while J. S. Mill sought to develop a science of ethics along consequentialist lines. One of the most important incarnations of this empiricist strain is behaviorism, with its basic picture that a simple learning mechanism, self-organizing through positive and negative reinforcement, was a model that could do the work that a model of psychology needed to do. What's still interesting about that is the possibility that "mind," "meaning," and related intentional/semantic properties could turn out to be some sort of public, relational properties. (I don't know what I think about this, which is why I'm studying Wittgenstein at this point.) Pragmatism is squarely in this tradition, to the point where my student Omar Ferrer asked, "How is pragmatism any different from plain old empiricism?" How indeed? It looks to me that there are two interpretations of pragmatist theories of truth: one interpretation is that pragmatism claims that decision-making (about what to believe) is driven by utility calculations rather than by probability calculations (as in, how likely is this belief to be an accurate representation of the world?). But is seems to me that pragmatism may be committed to a more radical view of truth. It must be, a la Darwin, that my "belief system" is the cumulative product of a lot of trial-and-error (mine and my ancestors). On this view, one can't really be said to elect beliefs; to accept some and reject others. Rather, like physical traits, beliefs are outputs of an essentially mindless process (Groucho Marx told a biographer that he had simply repeated things that had got laughs in vaudeville over thirty years to develop his schtick. He had never, he claimed, thought to ask why something was funny). That phrase "essentially mindless" is the key of course: success is explaining how mind comes from non-mind. On this view, validation is completely a posteriori, as beliefs are (automatically) selected by "what works." Does Hume anticipate what is most radical in pragmatism: the suggestion that a rational mind trying to establish the most accurate representation of reality isn't a necessary part of a model of cognition at all? I think yes. Does James appreciate how radical the theory is? I don't know. But I don't see how it really differs from the rest of empiricism/behaviorism at all. It is a variety of empiricist philosophy.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Wittgenstein on the Argument From Analogy

The argument from analogy for the existence of other minds says that I know the connection between my observable traits (physical and behavioral) and my (unobservable) mental state, and thus learn to infer from the observed behavior of another person to a further mental attribution. The reason many including myself consider Wittgenstein to be at least a close relative of behaviorism is his argument that the referents of psychological predicates are necessarily public in the first place. So Wittgenstein rejects the premise that there are unobservable mental things, or at least that these (what many call phenomenal properties) can be spoken about (handled by public language) meaningfully. This is different from the argument that the analogy doesn't work because it is an inference from the smallest possible data set (oneself). That is an argument, but it is not a Wittgensteinian one: on the probability argument, I turn out to lack logical demonstration of something (other minds) that I believe. That is not the same as showing that I cannot reasonably believe in other minds (noncognitivist psychology!). On the Wittgensteinian argument, by contrast, I can neither believe nor disbelieve in other minds, or at least nothing can be said about other minds (or my own) outside of some pragmatic, public context.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

When is Philosophy Religious?

Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy? Philosophers tend to search for the philosophical elements in religious traditions: the religious heritage is more potential philosophy text. Religion is philosophical when it addresses metaphysical and epistemological issues about the universe, the soul, ethics, and all of the other applied topics. But when is philosophy religious? Why might a seeker of religious wisdom search the philosophical lierature? Eastern traditions (thinking this morning of Buddhism and also Confucius) provide a good example. Confucius is interested in comportment; he doesn't want so much to tackle conceptual issues as he wants to help people cultivate a daily discipline that is forward and healthy. That, I think, is the essence of what makes a tradition a spiritual tradition (and the religious tradition is a subset of the spiritual tradition). Buddhism, too, presents its greatest challenge as a potential way of living, one that not everyone is able to acheive. Wisdom as a kind of behavior, rather than as formal "mental content." Classical Greek Platonism and Stoicism, also modern Existentialism, are examples of philosophy with this quality of exhortation to living in a certain way, also Spinoza: all philosophers with religion in them.