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.