Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Large Hadron Collider and the Problem of Fate

A couple of nights ago I came across some New York Times reporting on the Large Hadron Collider that discussed some questions that were distinctly metaphysical ones. No, I don't mean the theories that the collider may create a black hole or some sort of "antipathet-o-matter" that could destroy the world. Who the hell cares about that? No, the question I have in mind is, could it be that the Higgs boson is so antithetical to the actual universe that the universe will sabotage the accelerator from the future?

To see the problem (in metaphysics it is commonly called "the problem of fate"), say we take a proposition about the future: "You will eat pizza next Thursday." Specify this proposition in all the appropriate ways to you and next Thursday etc. It looks like this proposition has a truth value. That is, it's true or false. It doesn't look like one has the option of saying "neither," because after all you will or you won't. So it seems that there exist today facts about the future: the truth values of the propositions. (Aristotle thinks about this in De Interpretatione.)

In classical times this problem of fate was motivated mostly with the concept of God (or the Gods): if God has foreknowledge of everything (she is omniscient), then she knows whether you're going to eat pizza next Thursday and if she does so know, necessarily you're going to eat it. That's what the Oracle at Delphi could see, which is why how one phrased the question was so important (mistake for Xerxes to ask, "Will a great kingdom fall?" for example). Or maybe they were just really, really stoned.

Notice that this is not the same metaphysical problem as the problem about free will vs. determinism. That is a problem motivated by the concept of God's omnipotence or, laterly, by Newtonian models of "mechanical" physics: your actions are the result of chains of necessary causation such that you cannot substantiate your claim to be freely choosing them.

The problem of fate, on the other hand, is motivated by pointing out present facts that seem to entail future facts: God knows you're eating the pizza, there's a proposition with a truth value etc. Just thinking in purely metaphysical language (for the simple reason that I'm incompetent to discuss the physics!), it's got to go something like this: The Hibbs boson is antipathetic (for here unspecified physical reasons) to "this" universe so fundamentally that one can predict that Hibbs boson-detection is impossible. It is perhaps not necessary to interpret this effect as literally a cause from the future. Perhaps aversion to Hibbs bosons is a permanent disposition.

Apropos of nothing at all it does seem useful to look at the modal language in terms of sets of possible worlds: "possible" means true in some PWs, "contingent" means false in some PWs etc. It's not clear to me (nor perhaps to them, who are taken with other directions of argument) whether the authors mean: is the Hibbs boson antithetical (I'm deliberately using a different adverb each time) to "the universe" contingently (because of some of this particular world's properties), or necessarily (in all possible worlds)? After all, we don't know any other way, in logic anyway, to model modal operators at all, other than to formalize computations over sets. Leibniz made Spinoza's God a moral agent by explaining how God had actually made a choice: He chose the best of all possible worlds.

Or if we are asking about time, similar intimations of fate emerge. If time is a dimension, then wouldn't I be distributed across the dimension of time the way I take up discrete parts of space (that filled by my left hand and that filled by my right)? On this view I become a "spacetime worm," elongated through time when looked at from a meta-temporal perspective. Such a model (assuming that time is a dimension) eliminates change and even becoming and passing away: we experience different "time-slices" of a thing, but they are all co-present looked at meta-temporally. In which case the future, once again, turns out to already be what it is: the word "present," like the word "actual," is a mere indexical, a word that takes its meaning in context ("now," "then," "you, "me"). One thing I like about this reasoning is that it is what one gets, so far as I can see, from taking seriously the suggestion that time is a dimension, which is an idea that a great many people would endorse. And yet the spacetime worms seem so bizarre.

Anyway, my conclusion here if I were lucky enough to have one would be that when the NYT article compares the Large Hadron Collider to "someone who goes back in time to murder his grandfather," it looks to me that the claim is basically that, granting you're certain that the Higgs boson, although somehow at least conceivable (sounds like maybe a use-mention equivocation there), is nonetheless an impossibility in this world then you can be equally certain that a device designed to bring them into this world will fail. But that's not really an example of future causation. That's just saying that it can't be done.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Fodor and Spinoza

Spinoza has what is called a "double-aspect" theory of mind. Spinoza argues that the universe is both the mind and the body of God. Thus everything comes under both a physical and a psychological description. This is a promising line of argument for philosophy of mind: if Spinoza is right, our project is not to reduce or translate the psychological to the physical. (A puzzle is what is called Spinoza's "panpsychism": on his view everything comes under both descriptions. What seems promising in the case of humans is just mysterious when said about, say chairs.)

Last week during class it occured to me that Jerry Fodor elaborates a line of reasoning that has some striking similarities to Spinoza. (I'm writing this here in class with the students, by the way.) Fodor's idea is that the semantic properties of the intentional mental states/processes and the physical causal properties of the brain states/processes might come together at the level of syntax. In a way Fodor pushes the approach further than Spinoza: his appeal to the formal structure of the grammar of the proposition, on the one hand, and the formal structure of the physical causal mechanism, on the other, could serve as the bridge between the two "aspects" (descriptions), thus producing "psychophysical laws," lawful relations between the two kinds of formal organization.

Notice that it's going to turn out that the brain (or nervous system, or body, or what have you) is also formally organized. My view is that (so far at least) this is right, and important: traditionally (Plato, Descartes) the formal structure of the rational mind was a metaphysical bar to translation between the intentional and the physical. But for an approach like Fodor's to work, it must be that the physical system is also something that comes under a formal description. It is the two formal descriptions that might map onto each other. If this is true than we can draw two conclusions.

First, there is no metaphysical problem here that is unique to the philosophy of mind. The rational structure of thought is (just) another instance of the formal structure of physical objects in general. The question about why the physical universe is formally organized may be interesting and important, but once we see that it is a general metaphysical problem we have effectively overcome this particular problem qua a problem for philosophy of mind.

Secondly, another bit of mysterious 17th century philosophy is called to mind: the "synchronicity" of Leibniz and Malebranch. Here the idea was that some third causal power (they used "God" here in a technical sense) has caused the mind and the body to be coordinated. This is also not as strange an idea as it seems at first. The formal structure of the world informs both the form of the body and the form of the language/mind.

I continue to think that there are no "representations" in the brain, and that intentional predicates are made of whole persons, not brains. But my appreciation of Fodor has deepened. The main problem I have with Fodor is that his arguments have been so extensively elaborated (by him!) that they are a kind of rabbit whole; one either writes a book on Fodor, or leaves him alone.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Etiology and Meaning

Two people have the same (true) belief. However, one person has the belief because of personal experience. The other person has the belief because a clever lawyer has talked him into it, using deceptive arguments. In what way are their respective beliefs different? The propositional content is the same, and the proposition is true. And yet one has the intuition that the two "beliefs" are not the same kind of mental state. As Plato sees it in the Theatetus (200e-201e), one of them has knowledge and the other does not. One can have a belief by accident, or for the wrong reasons. Thus there is a difference between an accidentally true belief and a belief that is true for the right kind of reasons. One might compare such a belief, as Hilary Putnam does in his article "Brain in a Vat," to an ant trail, say, that bore a resemblance to a face. That would not really be a representation of a face, and nor would one really know anything about the world when possessed of a representation of the world that was only accidentally true.

To see the metaphysical point, imagine that a skywriter perfected the art of cloud-portriature: for a price he can render a likeness of anyone you choose in the medium of clouds, let's say Elvis. Suppose another cloud, unmanipulated by any skywriter, happened to form next to the cloud-portrait. The two clouds might be molecule-for-molecule identical, and both might have the same uncanny similarity to Elvis, but the cloud-portrait seems to differ from the natural cloud in having the property of meaning, or representing, Elvis. Here's a final example that makes just the same point: one day you notice that you have two copies of the city phone book. Thinking nothing of it, you keep one upstairs and one downstairs. You've used them both any number of times, for example to call out for your favorite pizza. However, unbeknownst to you, one of these objects is not a phone book at all. Through a near-miraculous event of quantum randomness (just making that up!), a doppleganger "phone book"-object has appeared in your house. It is both physically and functionally identical to the actual city phone book. Except for one thing: it contains no names, addresses, or phone numbers. It contains accidental conglomerations of matter that resemble such symbols, but it does not contain any actual symbols.

There is a conclusion wrapped in a moral wrapped in this point. The moral is that the significance (the intentional/semantic content) of a symbol is not just a function of the physical properties of the concrete symbol (the physical token), nor is it (more surprisingly) picked out by the functional role that the symbol supposedly plays in some larger process. The significance of a symbol (a name, say) depends on the etiology of the symbol, the process through which that symbol came to function as it does. "Meaning" is a complex relational property, a description, really, of relations between some person or persons and the world. Putnam's slogan for this moral is "Meaning just ain't in the head."

Notice the close affinity between Putnam's externalism and Saul Kripke's account of proper names as "rigid designators." (The affinity is not coincidental, as both philosophers are inspired by Wittgenstein.) Kripke claims that a symbol is an actual name of a thing or a substance just in case that symbol was originally used to designate the thing or substance in question. The payoff of this simple account is that the "meaning" of the name turns out to be nothing more than the history of that symbol in human behavior. There is no mysterious property of meaning left over.

The conclusion from this moral is about intentional predicates (predicating "propositional attitudes" of persons). When we say that {Sam believes that "The fish are in the bucket"}, externalist approaches hold not only the relatively clear point that intentional states are not any sort of brain- or body-state "in the head" (they are predicates of whole embodied persons), but that they are not "mental" states at all, they are "states of affairs": historical and behavioral relations between the person and his/her environment. Seen this way they need not advert to any "mental content": externalism is eliminativist as to mental representation, at least insofar as intentional descriptions are read as adverting to mental representations. The semantics of words like "belief," "desire," "hope," "fear" and so forth are handled without reference to internal "states." There are all sorts of causes inside the body of the person, of course, but these can all be described functionally within the context of the overall intentional description (and only within that context). To say that my intentional state is about something outside of my body is to say that I am in a certain relation to something outside of my body. (Nor is there any reason to think that this account fails for imaginary things like Santa Claus: I am not imagining that Santa Claus is in my head, I'm imagining that he's in my chimney.)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Ten Basic Articles for The Philosophy of Mind

A facebook friend tagged me on a note: he wanted everyone to list "Ten philosophy articles that blew your little fucking mind." The stipulations were a) to name the first ten that came to mind, articles of personal interest and b) to restrict oneself to journal articles. I'm not sure about his phraseology, but I did take a minute to think of the ten philosophy articles that first came to me.

Confession: I barely read articles any more. There comes a point where one must write things, not read them, and I’ve been there for a while. Nor am I endorsing anyone either in terms of quality or rightness. These are the ten that came to me. My list is tightly focused, and does not represent the breadth of my interests or reading by any means. As I said, I don't really read much of the gladiatorial nit-picking that goes on in the journals. But of course that is only a matter of taste. I paint with a relatively broad brush, I guess.

The exercise turns out to be useful for me as some workbench stuff for my project on the metaphysics of the philosophy of mind. It's very much "the basics" for me. It also will serve as the bibliography of my fall philosophy of mind class. So a nice little exercise found whiling away some minutes on facebook, thank you Devon B.

1) Daniel Dennett, “Why the law of effect will not go away,” Journal of Social Behavior, 1978. The theory of natural selection is not a biological theory, it’s a proof of mathematical logic: not the kind of thing that could be “false.” Classic Dennett: simple as pie, closes the discussion. People think Dennett must be an overrated philosopher because of his success as a popular writer, but this is definitely an underrated article. I also find Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995) to be one of Dennett's best books. My two basic criticisms Dennett in general are 1) I think his conclusions about the minds of non-human animals are a failure, and 2) it may be that reductive materialism fails in a way that he does not acknowledge, given his apparent identification of Enlightenment ideology with reductive materialism (contra "sky hooks").

2) Jerry Fodor, “Fodor’s Guide to Mental Representation: The Intelligent Auntie’s Vade-Mecum,” Mind, 1985. I’m an eliminativist about mental representation. Fodor of course is an intentional realist all the way. He fascinates me. A brilliant, eccentric writer. I would also mention “Why paramecia don’t have mental representations,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 1986. My basic issue: I take Wittgenstein's point that any naturalized account of anything isn't going to refer to intentional or semantic "properties," or to any other kind of non-physical properties, so I'm not disposed to representational theories of mind. But it might be that I take all that back. That's one of the questions that continue to sustain my interest.

3) Donald Davidson, “Mental Events,” Experience and Theory, 1970. His exposition of “anomalous monism.” Another great philosopher who I think I don’t agree with. I tell students in my philosophy of mind course that if they can do exegesis of this one and get it all, and get it right, they get an “A.”

4) Hilary Putnam, “Brains in a vat,” Reason, Truth, and History, 1981. An actual phonebook denotes actual names and numbers, but an identical object without the right etiology would not. Now that’s philosophy! For a long time I just waved my hands at the “Twin Earth” stuff, or I should say waved the white flag. Nowadays externalism/wide content is a crucial part of my overall position: I think intentional predicates are predicates of whole persons, and that gets the "meaning" out of the head. Certainly one of my all-time favorites.

5) David Lewis, “Mad Pain and Martian Pain,” Readings in the Philosophy of Psychology, 1980. A really hard article. I continue to feel resistance to it although at this point I agree with Lewis that the problem of qualia is a pseudoproblem. I tell students that a good philosopher is “sporting.” Lewis is very sporting. Don’t ask me to explain that any further.

6) Jaegwon Kim, any of the articles collected in Supervenience and Mind: Selected Philosophical Essays, 1993. The supervenience (multiple realizability) of intentional states is a metaphysical problem right at the heart of the mind/body problem. It is the essence of functionalism (the thing one has to understand to motivate functionalism). It is the link to Plato. Kim is one of my most important teachers.

7) Paul Churchland, “Eliminative materialism and the propositional attitudes,” Journal of Philosophy, 1981. I can’t say I care for the Churchlands much; she disses Wittgenstein in a way that alienates me, and their view is the opposite of mine: they hold that intentional psychological explanation may be eliminated, but mental representation cannot be, I hold the reverse. But I had to admit that this one had to be on the list. Basics. (I think Paul Churchland's The Engine of Reason, the Seat of the Soul, 1996, is the best basic statement of their view.)

8) Saul Kripke, “Identity and Necessity,” Naming, Necessity and Natural Kinds, 1977. Famously elaborated in Naming and Necessity, 1980. The argument is that “pain” necessarily refers to the feeling of pain, and necessarily cannot be identified with some physical state (“C-fibers firing”). Notice how this engages with his subsequent interpretations of Wittgenstein (Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, 1982): W. holds that no words can refer to “inner experience.” Which brings me to the last two articles.

9) John Searle, “Minds, Brains and Programs,” Journal of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1980. It was crucial for me to realize that a) I agree with the conclusions of both this article and the next, and b) these two conclusions appear to be mutually exclusive. That is, both the Chinese Room Argument and the Turing Test Argument persuade me, but it looks like one of them has to be wrong. Resolving this is a major part of my project The Mind/Body Problems. Point number one is that we have not one but two metaphysical issues here and we can make progress if we disentangle them.

10) Alan Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Mind 1950. Basically a classic statement of philosophical behaviorism. If you can see how Wittgenstein is more nuanced and deeper than this, you’re starting to appreciate Wittgenstein. What is the same is that Turing and Wittgenstein both take the semantics of psychological terms to be necessarily public.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Agnosticism and Philosophy

This is a response to the really excellent round of comments published at the end of the last blog post. I think the substance of the respective comments is consistent enough not to do a "1),2)" kind of thing (that I often do, finding distinct arguments). But this topic is also fun, I notice, because everyone's got something to say.

Kevin Vond has in the past expressed to me that metaphysics, in any literal sense of that word, might be impossible if our conceptual structure was so 1) arbitrary: could have been radically otherwise within the same natural world, and 2) important in the role it played in our science, our general describing and explaining of the world, for us to ever be in a position to claim that we were actually doing "metaphysics." (And interesting that Kevin tends to be the critic of Wittgenstein vs. my attempts to apply what I take to be Wittgensteinian interpretations).

This is recognizably a descendant of German Idealism, and of course it is the whole drift of the Continental version of language philosophy (Habermas,Foucault, Derrida) of recent decades. It is also the popular view: the story one gets from an intelligent person with a passing interest in philosophy. I am part of a resurgence in metaphysics that has developed among English-speaking philosophers over the past thirty years or so, I think it is to some degree a consequence of the enormous attention that community has given to the philosophy of mind for many years.

I do think that what I like to call "metaphysics" may, for the existentially squeamish, be translated to "semantics." But I for one think that I can think about what sorts of things exist. Probably this all starts in thinking about materialism and the mind/body problem. I studied the metaphysics of universals, say, or propositions, possible worlds, essences and all sorts of things motivated by trying to get a handle on the metaphysics of reductive materialism vs. functionalism etc. N.N. mentions Alvin Plantinga, his debate with David Lewis about possible worlds as a battleground for nominalism vs. Platonism is out towards the deeper waters.

So first I want to talk about Kevin's experiments with concepts in his comment here. Let's think about "America," "justice," "God," and "the external world." If Kevin is right, all of these concepts ought to function in the same way. I like the anthropological behaviorist (a kind of reading of Wittgenstein) criterion that we can be said to be communicating when our communicative act makes a difference, when a person's choices are influenced. This is a definition of "meaning" intended to be eliminativist about Platonic entities, about some nonreducible semantic "property" and so forth.

I think that {"America" and "ethics"} are distinct from {"God" and "the external world"} as subjects of sentences thus: "I believe/don't believe that X exists." By the way I don't need to suggest that agnostics are disengenuous, only that they are confused. I take it that confusion on the present issues is the problem, not wanton disregard of these issues (fully understood!). We might say that "America does not exist" for any number of reasons. We might be talking to an American who was too nationalistic, or we might be talking to a foreigner who was too anti-American. Looks like the same case: we want them to see that they ought not be using the concept to do so much work, because it is leading them into reactionary territory. We want them to use their imaginations a little more and appreciate that the concept "America" is highly complex and has its explanatory and justificatory limits. That is, when we say that they go "too" far, we mean that we no longer accept that their account of things is reasonable. Fair enough. But notice that we cannot possibly mean to make a blanket metaphysical claim such that we claim that every time you mention "America," you are talking about a non-existent entity that in fact has no explanatory or causal role to play in our talk about the world. People just don't talk that much about unreal things. I know that sounds fast, but let me elaborate using the concept "ethics."

What happens in the undergraduate ethics class is, there's always someone who argues that "ethics does not exist." This has to be a metaphysical claim, and it has to be wrong. It has to be a metaphysical claim because it can't be any kind of pragmatic claim: it's a strange description of reality to say that "ethics doesn't exist" if your own metaphysical attitude tends to hold that the only thing there is to "existing" is what people think about and talk about all day. Whatever that is, the epistemological idealist is also, by definition, committed to saying it's real, if "knowing" is only a matter of having a concept that is functioning to influence behavior. Thus, as with "America," I sometimes say "There is no justice" (I admit that I might never say, "There is no ethics," but I could to the same end). For example when I am talking to my students about the importance of education and having a good future. I want them to see that an education is a precious thing that few people receive. I'm giving them some tough talk. But that we live in a world where we are confronted with ethical problems is as nonnegotiable as that we live in one where we are confronted with America.

"God" and "the external world" are not like that. Let's think about "the external world." One can't say, "Well look, we talk about the external world all the time. Not a minute goes by that we don't think and talk about the external world: same as ethics." But this is wrong. We never talk about the external world, if we mean by that something that might not exist given the experiences that we are having right now. Wittgenstein thought that there could be no propositions about ethics (or aesthetics: values in general), if by that a philosopher meant that he was explaining why some things are good and some things are bad. They just are, W. insisted, detecting a limit to language (this is what he and Popper got into a fight about that is described in the book Wittgenstein's Poker, that I haven't read). Note that here we can clearly see the empiricist Wittgenstein: Hume, Mill, the Modernists all share in this non-cognitivist tradition, vs. Continental rationalism.

But he thought it was nonsense to talk about either "the external world" or "phenomenal experience" if one claimed to be talking about anything over and above description of plain experience. (That is a basic reason why I am interested in Wittgenstein: I think he has a good argument for the elimination of phenomenal properties.) If God is (according to you) something in the world, then maybe it is something that exists or does not exist, and that you cannot now know about for one reason or the other. But if God is global the way the external world is global then the concept plays no real role and thus refers to nothing. If we are talking about the kind of thing about which one can neither "know" nor "not know," then agnosticism is impossible to the extent that agnosticism is the claim that "I do not know whether God exists."

However, Wittgenstein also appears to hold that there was "spiritual" reality that was as much a part of the (inexpressible) world as values. He himself took these things to be among the most important in life. That is what gets us finally to the concept "God." It looks like I can use the concept of God to the same rhetorical effect as in the first two examples. I can influence others by saying "There is no God!" I'm trying to shake up a hidebound thinker of one sort or another: a narrow dogmatist, or a paralyzed fatalist, or a self-pitier, or any number of other cases. Of course we also very frequently do this by saying "There is a God!" I'm pretty sure most people (both of us) who have read this far would interpret people, who mentioned God a lot while discussing what to do in daily life, as talking about some ethical character of the world: aiming for good outcomes and to avoid bad ones. But there is another thing, and maybe Plato gets it right.

There is the organized nature of the world. Now let me state out front that I take that in no way to demonstrate the existence of some "designer." In fact to claim to explain design by appeal to a designer just pushes the problem back a step: from whence the designer? It is a perfectly vacuous argument, taken that way. But I see the formal organization of the world as a plain fact like the existence of ethics: the world is like that. This may commit me to some kind of dualism after call: if "The world exists" is not the only existential truth, if "the world that exists is formally organized" is also true and ineffable, then Plato is right: there are two distinct ontological facts: 1)the bare existence of matter/energy, and 2) its formal organization. If that is what is taken as "God" (Plato thought it was "the Good," the source of intelligibility and value in the world), then that is something real that might not have existed, but does.

But that's perfectly acceptable as a pagan fact. I don't need to add God to that. Formal organization is already doing the work. Why is the universe formally organized? Why does it exist? There is no sense of "might/might not be" in either case. Not a subject of "belief" at all. If God is like that, agnosticism is impossible.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

"Agnosticism" is Not a Theological Position

A "theological position" would be an opinion of some sort (that's the "position" part) about something (say, existence or lack thereof) specifically about God (that's the "theological" part). "Either God exists, or God does not exist" is a theological position, because it contains the premise that both sides of the disjunction make sense. Put in metaphysical terms: that it's possible that God exists, and possible that God does not. But I'm not sure the agnostic is entitled to that much.

This is because the agnostic looks to me to be committed to the view that "Knowledge about God's existence is impossible." I think this is necessarily true about the agnostic because it makes no sense to say, "I choose not to have a belief one way or the other about X." As Socrates insists, one believes what one believes, whether one wants to or not. The attempt to reflect on our own beliefs, to honestly and courageously evaluate our reasons for holding them, is the beginning of philosophy. That is why "Because my family raised me to believe in God" is not an adequate answer to the question "Do you believe in God?" The question is about one's beliefs themselves, not the etiology of those beliefs, although that may be revealing (as it is, embarrassingly, in the example).

If this is so then another problem for agnosticism is that it is a consequence of a general epistemological attitude, that is, an attitude towards knowledge in general, and nothing particular to do with God. Aristotle's objections to Plato's metaphysics, Hume's objections to 17th century rationalism's metaphysics, are epistemological arguments with general application. Aristotle and Hume, hearty philosophers both, breathed deep and followed Socrates' dictum: they concluded (for closely related but interestingly different reasons) that they believed that various putative entities did not exist. They were willing to accept the consequences of the epistemological standards that they had set for themselves.

The agnostic wants to be a kind of sceptic: not sceptical of God's existence, but sceptical about the possibility of knowledge of God's existence. The move is to avoid the unpleasantness of denying God's existence by denying the possibility of knowledge of God's existence. Wittgenstein would say, "When you say that asserting God's existence or denying God's existence is impossible, because there is no way of knowing which possibility is fact, you are (merely) stating that it makes no difference, that neither proposition carries any meaning because there are no pragmatic consequences either way." That is he would apply his general criticism of sceptical arguments. In fact Wittgenstein holds that propositions about spirituality are impossible for the same reasons that he holds that propositions about aesthetics, ethics and phenomenal experience, for examples, are impossible. But a crucial point here is that he denies that this makes them insignificant (as Hume or A. J. Ayer, say, might do): he affirms the great significance of many aspects of experience that lie beyond the bounds of language.

Where does this leave the agnostic? (I am fighting off the urge to go on to Kierkegaard.) The agnostic cannot say, "I believe that God might exist or God might not, but I believe that knowledge of which is true is impossible." This is self-contradictory. In order to (really) believe that God might or might not exist, one must believe that there are (somewhere, somehow) reasons for believing one or the other. But the agnostic must claim that there are no such reasons, else why not examine them with Socrates and the gang? (Just as an aside, I think that there are reasons for and against believing in God: thus I am not agnostic, even if I have not reached a conclusion.) No, the agnostic is simply refusing to examine his or her own beliefs. Pascal was right: just doesn't want to get into trouble. Agnosticism is a refusal to do theology, not a theological position.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Buddhism and Guilt

There are two issues to think about when we consider the relationship between Buddhist teachings and guilt:

1) Buddhism is primarily a preventive approach to wrongdoing, rather than a curative one. This is wise: much better to prevent bad things from happening than to have to deal with them once they have happened (a failure to recognize this is, maybe, the main problem with modern medicine, for example). Someone who cultivates the discipline to follow the Eight-Fold Path will, to the extent that they succeed, succeed also in doing no wrong. Basic Buddhist teachings are primarily aimed at cultivation of right being. They do not tend to dwell on atonement and expiation.

2) The First Noble Truth of the Dharma, that all life is suffering, refers of course to all forms of suffering. But as a human cultural artifact, Buddhist teachings over the centuries pay particular attention to mental suffering: negative thoughts and feelings. I do not wish to digress into a discussion of variants on Buddhist teachings here (trying to be brief), but it is worthwhile to point out that Tibetan (Tantric, Mahayana) Buddhism stresses the essential goodness of human nature and aims at liberation through positive self-realization, while Zen (Chinese, Taoist) Buddhism stresses the non-existence of the self and aims at liberation through selfless mindfulness (I have no intention here of judging between the two or even claiming that they are fundamentally different: I neither favor any school nor claim that there are ultimately fundamental differences). All Buddhist teaching aims at the end of ego-suffering through identification with the whole world (nirvana).

What I want to think about is the problem of real guilt. That is, for the sake of discussion, let's assume that one has in fact acted wrongly: willfully transgressed one's own moral principles. It is not a question of being "made to feel guilty" in some illegitimate way, and it is not an illusion of the ego, as when the ego leads us to think that negative outcomes are a result of our actions as a way of making us feel significant. (And perhaps there are other examples of false guilt.) No, let's assume that we are actually guilty. It's not impossible!

Buddhism teaches us that only ourselves suffer from the negative thoughts and feelings that we are experiencing. This is one of the most important insights of Buddhist psychology. Say someone negligently ran over my foot with their car and broke it. They may be rightly called upon to pay for the treatment or some civil responsibility like that. But they, the negligent driver, are hardly the right person to help to heal my injured foot. I will need a doctor for that, and above all I will need to follow the regimen, practice the physical therapy, and do everything necessary to cure my foot. That will be wholly my own responsibility.

Negative thoughts and feelings are like the injured foot. It is not a question of whether the negative thoughts and feelings are understandable or even justified. That is besides the point. The point is that it is I who now carry around the negative thoughts and feelings, that repeat themselves in a "crazy mind" tape loop in my head, just as the suffering of the injured foot persists until it is dealt with. It is I who am suffering, and so I must somehow overcome and lose the negative thoughts and feelings.

But notice that that discussion is from the point of view of the innocent. Today I want to think from the point of view of the guilty. And so we can see a potential danger if we misunderstand Buddhist teaching: granting that it is possible to be guilty, which I take to be a plain fact, we do not want to become so proficient at clearing the mind of negative thoughts and feelings that we lose our conscience altogether. That would be a grave misunderstanding of both Buddhism and Taoism. But at the same time it achieves nothing for the guilty person to be masochistic: to say to their self, "Yes I deserve these negative thoughts and feelings - I deserve to suffer." That by itself only makes the world worse, not better.

For ourselves, we can learn from our transgressions. We can meditate and become more mindful of the necessity of right action, right speech, and the other elements of the Path. There is nothing magical or mysterious about this. There is nothing mysterious or magical about Buddhism, at all; that is a very important point. For others we have wronged, I have only humble suggestions:

1) Atonement through concrete actions of restitution, when possible. Quotidian examples: returning stolen property, repairing or paying for damage, admitting lies and telling the truth. Replacing antagonistic actions with supportive actions.

2) Apology. But the act of apology is not without some risk of seduction by the ego. Perhaps further contact with you will only prolong or exacerbate the suffering of the person you have harmed. Perhaps your apology is a selfish act: perhaps it is only for your own sake that you want forgiveness. (Slanderers: the only person who does not need to hear from you is the person you have slandered. It is everyone else who you must speak to now.) Better to show contrition through deeds, and remember that non-action is often the best path. Assuming that you are the cure is just as egotistical as assuming that you are the disease.

This is not much to offer after bringing up such a promising topic, I realize. In the end I think that Buddhist practice is preventative, as I said at the beginning: cultivation of spiritual discipline and mindful character should aid us in avoiding bad action. And what would we call someone who did no harm? We can make up words. We'll never meet anyone like that.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"Mind" is a Heterogenous Concept

By "heterogenous concept" I mean one that turns out, under analysis, to refer to multiple, distinguishable things. All I mean by "analysis," that I am not using in any sort of technical manner, is thinking about the meaning of the term (semantics and metaphysics often come to the same thing). Examples of heterogenous concepts from outside of philosophy of mind are value terms like "ethics" or "beauty," or for that matter very many abstract nouns such as (opening the dictionary randomly) "resemblance" or "reservoir." Heterogenous concepts are common (I'm not sure I even like the word "concepts." To me it feels like I'm just thinking about words). We can understand the continuity of meaning between "That man's reservoir of good will" and "The city's reservoir of water," but if we are thinking metaphysically (in the sense of our ontology) about reservoirs the two uses are different enough that (I would say) it makes most sense to say "'Reservoir' is a heterogenous concept," meaning that it is a word that refers to multiple, distinguishable things.

Once we are alert to the possibility that one concept-word can turn out to refer to distinguishable things we can sometimes clear the smoke away a bit from philosophical arguments. For example ethical theorists (not the best ethical theorists, but quite a few ethical theorists) might see themselves as involved in some sort of partisan contest: are the rights theorists correct (or better or what have you), or are the consequentialists getting it right(er)? Or maybe virtue theory is preferable to both? But wait: people can be "ethical" at a civil, legal sort of level (respecting others' rights), and "ethical" at a phenomenal, qualitative sort of level (minimizing felt harm), and they can be "good" people in the sense of being an example of a well-realized person. And in fact real good people (that is, good people when they're not doing philosophy) use Kantian-style "golden rule" reasoning and Millian outcomes-based strategies and they make Aristotelean evaluations of themselves and others, all at the same time, because "ethics" turns out to be a heterogenous concept. The intentions of self-aware beings and the phenomenal experiences of conscious beings and the health or pathology of living beings are all different things, such that there turn out to be not so much differences of opinion among "ethical theorists" as there are changings of the subject.

"Mind" is a heterogenous concept. Specifically, when people use the word "mind" they are sometimes referring to (using these words in their philosophy of mind sense) the intentional (beliefs, desires, hopes, fears), which is about persons and sometimes to the phenomenal (pains, tastes, sensations, tingles), which is about bodies. Thus we can use the same strategy that I just used to try to sort out "ethical theory" to try to sort out "theory of mind." Operationalist theories (such as functionalism) are addressing the problem of intentionality while materialist theories are addressing the problem of phenomenology. And both approaches work in their respective applications. Thus we can cut the contemporary gordian knot of philosophy of mind. That's why I am calling this project The Mind/Body Problems, plural.

One more point, about why it has been so hard for so long for people to realize that "mind" presents us with (at least) two metaphysical problems, not one. (Gilbert Ryle got this point right.) That is because most cultures and thus most persons have deeply internalized the ontology of the soul: one body, one mind. The body indisputably is something, some one thing, a very fancy physical object. The grammar (as Wittgenstein would say) of the word "mind," suggesting as it does that it refers to some one, individuated thing, combined with the idea that the mind is something separate from the body, creates a strong intuition (a wrong one) that there is one metaphysical problem here. And that has led to a great deal of heat and not much light at all.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

What Should We Be?

Readers of this blog know my main interests lie in the area of contemporary philosophy of mind and metaphysics. However, I enjoy, through my teaching duties, the luxury of regularly studying any number of other topics. Spring semesters one of my regular courses is Contemporary Philosophy. This spring I decided to conduct a survey of the 19th and 20th centuries in "two movements," an effort to get to the bottom of the so-called "Continental/Analytic" distinction, a polarizing categorization towards which I am generally skeptical, and of which I warn my students off (and I do feel that anyone who comes on as a strong partisan one way or the other is probably a mediocre philosopher, definitely a mediocre reader). The course outline can be found two posts previous to this one.

I started the first "movement" (in the compositional sense) with Kant, moving through the German Idealists, Hegel (and Kierkegaard presented as a reaction to Hegel), Marx (who I believe straddles the two so-called traditions), Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, De Beauvoir, the "Critical Theory" of the Frankfurt School (Marcuse, Habermas), "Structuralism" (Foucault, Lacan), and finally, yesterday, Derrida. Now we will go back to the 18th century and start all over again with Hume, moving through a similar survey (this time composed almost entirely of English-language philosophers) through to the metaphysical revival of David Lewis and Alvin Plantinga.

So this week we are discussing and evaluating so-called Continental (I insist on the "so-called" when using either name). It was, I think, a very useful survey, illuminating a striking continuity of concerns and affirming the truism that there is "nothing new under the sun"; virtually the entire conversation called "Continental" philosophy follows in a thoroughly formulaic way from Kant and Hegel (I don't say that pejoratively).

What I want to discuss today (thinking about our classroom discussion tomorrow) is the question that emerged for my students in a persistent way starting around Nietzsche and Freud. (I argued that these two taken together represent the bridge from Romanticism to Modernism.) Even earlier Kierkegaard insists on the essential absurdity of our life-choices, and the real sense in which Schopenhauer is a "pessimist" is in his advice that we simply give up the existential struggle and find peace by sinking down into thinghood (the worst sin for existentialists like Nietzsche and Sartre). The question is: if so-called Continental philosophers have worked so hard to establish our fundamental freedom and to deconstruct our assumptions about our own natures, than what should a body do?

My student Kristian Rullan raised the question during the discussion of Sartre: if Sartre is right that consciousness is negation and nothing but negation, and that therefore (as Nietzsche also argued) we are entirely responsible for the most "essential" aspects of our own identities, then what is/would be the "existential person"? What would the existentialist have us do/be? My student Yasmin Zapata, chaffing a bit perhaps under the insistent subversiveness of de Beauvoir's existential feminism and the "permanent revolution" prescribed by modern Western Marxism, asked why it was necessarily so terrible, after all, to be a product and a creature of an historically conditioned and socially constructed culture? And it does appear that starting at the very beginning with Kant's distinction between a noumenal world-in-itself and a phenomenal world-of-experience, there is nothing less than a fetish in the so-called Continental tradition with the idea that "ordinary" people are trapped in an illusory world and that "enlightenment" would consist of a breaking through the wall of illusion into authenticity. And this fetish is still wholly present in the Althusserian notion of the "prison-house of language" that is the basis of Derrida's work. (I don't necessarily have anything against fetishes, by the way!)

This is the basic question that we will be discussing in class tomorrow. I have two thoughts about it just now (and of course I have no agenda of defending or promoting so-called Continental). First, it is of the essence of existentialism (pardon the pun) that there is no prescription: there is precisely no Existential Man the way there was supposed to be, say, a Soviet Man (and indeed the Western Marxists reject the idea of a Socialist Man as well). Sartre's gift to us of an argument for freedom, whether it is effective or not, necessarily precludes any prescription as to what we ought to be (and before him Nietzsche wants us only to "go over and go under" the sickly essentializing of "human nature," and Heidegger defines thinking as moving towards what is not known and cannot be said). The existential version of feminism developed by de Beauvoir and explored by subsequent French psychoanalytic feminists such as Kristeva similarly rejects the conception of feminism as a mere power play between the given "masculine" and "feminine." All of psychoanalysis, for that matter, is properly understood as emancipatory rather than prescriptive. And Derrida claims to write on "the margin," outside of the logocentric tradition of "metaphysics," the function of deconstruction being entirely to throw us into the necessity of self-creation.

Speaking critically, I find all of this tradition to be something of a "prolegomena to some future act of self-creation": they all insist on the reality of choice and the virtue of authenticity above all, but one rarely sees them actually choosing anything. This is why I have some affection for Kierkegaard: he out of the whole group actually manages to digest and embrace the conclusion and makes a choice.
My second thought is this: Socrates tells us that human nature is to think about what it is that we believe to be true, and that philosophy is to state that belief as clearly and courageously as possible. Try as you might, he taunts his relativist antagonists in the Theatetus, your arguments will never free you from this human condition. In a way the so-called Continental tradition draws a similar moral: the permanent revolution, the overcoming and the going under, is otherwise known as living. It is nothing more or less than having a life, and when we cease to interrogate ourselves in this way we have ceased to be persons.

(Footnote: If you are moved by existentialist discussions of the nature of consciousness, try reading some Buddhism. It is a much older tradition that elaborates these ideas to a much deeper level.)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Darwin the Empiricist

On the occasion of Darwin's 200th birthday, I'd like to put Darwin in his philosophical context. Most of the time we think of the empiricism of Anglophone philosophy as the doctrine that knowledge is gained through observation and experiment, an epistemological formulation that was stressed by the greatest empiricist, David Hume. But there is another important aspect to empiricism that is often overlooked, partly because empiricists themselves have tended to spurn the idea of metaphysics (Hume aimed to do away with metaphysics altogether, and the early 20th century "positivists" such as A. J. Ayer also explicitly embraced that program). Empiricism (using that label broadly: liberal Enlightenment thought, English-language philosophy since Hobbes) represents a revolution in systems dynamics: the model of transformative processes in nature, which is ultimately a cosmological topic. Explaining the persistence of the identity of a thing across changes to the properties of that thing was a basic issue for the Greeks. Heraclitus simply denied persistence, Parmenides simply denied change. The Platonic solution was to bifurcate the world into an eternally unchanging component (form) and a transient polymorphic component (matter). (And I'm not so sure whether this is all wrong, by the way.) Thus change was explained as the (metaphysically problematic) interaction of the earthly with the divine (to put it in neoplatonic Christian terms). This model persisted beyond the Christian era in the Rationalist tradition through Descartes and Spinoza to Kant and Hegel. I call this the "top-down" model: the particular states of affairs at the micro level are explained by appeal to a macro transcendental force (Platonic universals, the Christian personal God, Kant's noumenal rationality, Hegel's Absolute Spirit, etc.).
Modern empiricism's development of an alternative model (the "bottom-up" model) is, I think, one of the most important developments in the history of philosophy, perhaps the greatest revolution in thought since Plato's metaphysics. The idea is that complex systems organize themselves through the iteration of simple algorithms at the micro level. In Locke this was the organization of society through the repetition of consensual behavior of self-interested individuals (democracy). In Hume this was the organization of a system of knowledge through regularities of observation (science). The kinship between Enlightenment democracy and science cannot be overstressed. One of Darwin's principal influences was Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. Smith argued that complex economies organized themselves through the iteration of exchanges between individuals. His economics is an example of an application of the law of effect: actions resulting in negative consequences tend to be extinguished, actions resulting in positive consequences tend to be reinforced (Note: I think that one of Daniel Dennett's best articles is "Why the Law of Effect Won't Go Away"). Of course this is also the basis of behaviorist and other operationalist approaches to psychology. It is also the premise of Pragmatism, a thoroughgoing empiricist development of a theory of truth. Darwin's theory of natural selection is another application of the law of effect.
What did Darwin "discover," or what "theory" did Darwin develop? He pointed out that a proof in mathematical logic applies to all transformative processes in nature: given a set of replicators, the members of that set will have an average probability of reproductive success. That goes for conspecific breeding animals, flea market swaps and jokes. Any individual member with an above-average probability will tend to have more descendants in the next generation. That's not circular reasoning, because it leaves open the question of the reasons for the above-average probability. Selection of the fittest (most adaptive) from a variegated set. This is a proof that can be formalized. It's logically valid, which is not the same thing as empirically true. That is, it's not the kind of argument that can even potentially be false. Darwin did not develop a "theory." He simply pointed out the indubitable operation of a homely truth about the world, the law of effect, and in doing so he is coming straight out of the Scottish Enlightenment thought of Hume and Smith.
One more point: the law of effect operates on all levels. That is, genes, actions, beliefs, species, tribes, nations, come-on lines, ecosystems and all manner of replicating things, biological, cultural, and otherwise, come under this principle. Thus group selection and indeed selection at any level of organization whatever occurs, as Darwin himself recognized (for example in his discussion of the altruistic warriors of Tierra del Fuego). Thus the "selfish gene" doctrine of Dawkins is false. Not a question of science, it is a question of logic.
Happy birthday Charlie!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Teaching Contemporary Philosophy and the Continental/Analytic Distinction

Every spring I teach the Contemporary Philosophy course that concludes our four-part history sequence (Ancient, Medieval, Early Modern, Contemporary) here at UPR/M. I've been struggling with it for a couple of years, having trouble finding a text, organizing a coherent narrative and so on. Two big problems are 1) if "Contemporary" is philosophy since Kant, or since 1800, there's just too much to cover, and 2) modern philosophy diverges and branches into several different narratives; the question emerges as to what "philosophy" even is. Adding to my frustration was my conviction that the distinction between "Analytic" and "Continental" was overstated, divisive and misleading (and further complications such as doubts about whether anything like "Analytic" philosophy really exists any more. The Spanish-speaking academics around me, with all due respect, simply use the blanket term "positivism" and haven't paid any attention since, say, A. J. Ayer). I try to get my students to see the reductive limitations of dividing things up ideologically between "Rationalist" and "Empiricist" or "Continental" and "Analytic." This taxonomy mostly just closes minds I think. Still and all, I have some very bright students here and some of them are curious enough to ask me to explain what "Analytic" philosophy is.
This semester I have developed a curriculum that covers the 19th and 20th centuries in "two movements," with the goal of uncovering and examining the roots of what I call "so-called Continental" and "so-called Analytic." What is happening for me (a good professor is always Student #1 in the class) is that I'm seeing that there is indeed a fundamental parting of the ways, and it does indeed have its roots in the arguments of Hume and Kant. I know that to some this will seem like a banality, perhaps it is, but the project here is to introduce, explain and interpret both of these strains. The main distinction textually speaking is between German-language philosophy and English-language philosophy, with an appreciation of the achievement of French-language philosophers of commuting between the two. Many important philosophers and topics are left out, but this is due to the fact that this is the outline of a one-semester class, after all, and we're blazing along as it is. Also the material at the very end reflects my own interest in philosophy of mind; there are any number of other directions one could take for the late 20th century.
Here is my outline of this semester's Contemporary Philosophy course:

Anderson Brown, Contemporary Philosophy, Spring 2009

I. So-called “Continental”: From German Idealism to Deconstruction

A. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Critique of Pure Reason, 1781-1787

B. German Idealism: J. G. Fichte (1762-1814); G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831), Phenomenology of Spirit, 1807; Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854)

C. The Metaphysics of Politics: Hegel, Karl Marx (1818-1883), Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1848; Friedrich Engels (1820-1895)

D. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), The World as Will and Representation, 1819-1844

E. The Invention of the Unconscious: Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1883, Beyond Good and Evil, 1886; Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

F. Phenomenology and Existentialism, The Germans: Edmund Husserl (1859-1938); Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), Being and Time, 1927

G. Phenomenology and Existentialism, The French: Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), Being and Nothingness, 1943; Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), Phenomenology of Perception, 1945; Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), The Second Sex, 1949

H. Critical Theory (The Frankfurt School): Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), One-Dimensional Man, 1964; Jurgen Habermas (b. 1929), Knowledge and Human Interests, 1968

I. Structuralism: Michel Foucault (1926-1984), Archaeology of Knowledge, 1969; Jacques Lacan (1901-1981)

J. Deconstruction: Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), Of Grammatology, 1967

II. So-called “Analytic”: From Enlightenment Liberalism to the New Metaphysics

A. David Hume (1711-1776), A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739

B. The Law of Effect: Adam Smith (1723-1790), The Wealth of Nations, 1776

C. The Revolution in Systems Dynamics: Charles Darwin (1809-1882), The Origin of Species, 1859

D. Empiricist Ethical Theory: John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), Utilitarianism, 1861

E. The Pragmatists: Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914); William James (1842-1910), The Will to Believe, 1897; John Dewey (1859-1952)

F. The New Logic: Gottlob Frege (1848-1925); Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947); Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), Principia Mathematica, 1910-1913

G. Logical Positivism: A. J. Ayer (1910-1989), Language, Truth and Logic, 1936

H. “Ordinary Language” Philosophy: J. L. Austin (1911-1960), Sense and sensibilia, 1959

I. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1921, Philosophical Investigations, 1951

J. The New Philosophy of Mind: Hilary Putnam (b. 1926); John Searle (b. 1932), Minds, Brains and Science, 1984; Jerry Fodor (b. 1935), The Language of Thought, 1975; Daniel Dennett (b. 1942)

K. The New Metaphysics: Alvin Plantinga (b. 1932); David Lewis (1941-2001), On the Plurality of Worlds, 1986

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Metaphysics, Semantics, and the Mind/Body Problem

We can bring the idea of "metaphysics" down to earth by relating it to the idea of "semantics." If metaphysics is the study of what exists (in our time this is essentially the confrontation with materialism), semantics is the study of the meaning of words. If my friend is talking about "angels" I can think about whether such putative entities exist but, more subtly, I can ask what he means, or aims to communicate, by this word. Thus even if we tacitly accept (as many of our contemporaries do) a physicalist axiom (metaphysically speaking), that doesn't mean that there is no longer anything to discuss about the mind/body problem. In fact the semantic analysis of intentional and phenomenal terms (the psychological vocabulary) remains an open and even a pressing issue, even for the thoroughly modern physicalist.
For Descartes the mind/body problem was essentially an interaction problem. He did not question (that is, he had his reasons for accepting) the existence of both physical substance and mental "substance." The metaphysical problem as he saw it was about causal relations between them. Thus there was one sort of entity, body, and another, mind. But if we don't accept Descartes' underlying ontology the problem is altogether different. Specifically we needn't see "mind" as referring to one thing or having one meaning (this was Ryle's enduring point expressed in the very title The Concept of Mind). Once we see this we can take a crucial step: we can distinguish the intentional psychological vocabulary ("belief," "desire," etc) from the phenomenal psychological vocabulary ("pain," "sensation," etc). We can see that there are (at least) two metaphysical (semantic) problems here, not one.
To apply this, I think that the eclipse of reductive materialism in favor of functionalism on the grounds that intentional states superevene on (are multiply realizable in) physical states is justifiable (there is indeed a problem for reductive materialism here), but that doesn't preclude identity theory as applied to phenomenal states. And that insight opens up a whole new discussion in philosophy of mind.