Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Resolution to the Problem of Rationality

To summarize, the proposal is that the property humans (and any number of other probably-existing forms of life) have of “being rational” is a formal property, “formal properties” understood as mathematical (relational) properties that can be formalized (another way of saying they supervene on physical things). If this is correct then the metaphysical problem will be about formal properties: is materialism incompatible with the existence of formal properties?

Form/matter dualism is the only plausible version of dualism that I know of, and Plato’s arguments for the immortality of the soul from the eternal nature of form are the only plausible arguments for dualism I know. One doesn’t get as much out of it as one might think. One doesn’t even get one’s very own soul, because there’s really only one indivisible soul. Not much of an account of freedom, either: being as rational as possible is being optimally free.

What can be said is that the present argument locates the problem of form in the general area of “metaphysics,” showing that it is not in any metaphysically unique way a particular problem for “philosophy of mind.” While that may seem a fairly innocuous conclusion I think it does have some merit. The conclusion shows that predicates like “rational” and “computational” need not entail reference to representations, only to formal organization (and isn’t that Fodor’s goal?) If this is right then the Platonic resolution to the problem of rationality is not only compatible with the operationalist elimination of mental representation, it reinforces it with the observation that formal organization is ubiquitous in nature. The argument that rationality is a formal property blocks human exceptionalism, when exceptionalism is argued for from the supposed (ontological) uniqueness of rationality.

I don’t know what I think about the cosmological question about the innate organization of the universe or the lack thereof. I don’t know enough. But I have made a little progress on the dilemma seemingly posed by Plato and Wittgenstein. The key move was to see that “mind” is a heterogeneous enough concept that different psychological predicates turned out to be about very different things. The technical expression of the dilemma was that although mental representations seemed untenable, rationality understood as grasping and respecting the logical relations that obtained between the propositions seemed ineliminable. If form is accepted into our ontology then we can see how logical relations are “built in” to states of affairs themselves. What would it mean to say that a Platonist was a realist about “states of affairs” if he or she didn’t think that states of affairs had the same logical relationships with each other as those shared among propositions?

The interpretation of form/matter dualism that I have developed here holds that there is only one ontological fact aside from the fact of the physical world itself. This is Aristotelean in that there is nothing other than the physical particulars, only they are formally organized to a degree that seems contingent (I take Aristotle’s substances to be like this). This view might be incompatible with a strict interpretation of materialism (like Daniel Dennett’s prohibition of “skyhooks”). For me that would not be traumatic. There is the question of just what a sophisticated physicist or cosmologist might say about what primary being is. That is a worthwhile question but unfortunately I fear that I may already have strayed too far from the metaphysics of mind. The short answer is that you will not find a great deal of unanimity.

Meanwhile the real caper here is to try to square the operationalist account of representation offered in the first half of the chapter with this Greek-revivalist story about rationality. The idea is that the operationalist picture of language as use is one that can be developed in the context, if you will, of a world with some formal organization. In fact locating formal organization in the world looks like another way to eliminate representations, since part of their justification was that their semantic contents were needed to explain logical relations.

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