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.