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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Cosmological Arguments and Abduction

I think there is an analogy between the question of whether God (or some “first cause”) exists and the question of whether the there was a (remote) past. Consider for a moment Bertrand Russell’s Five Minute Hypothesis: The universe sprang into existence five minutes ago, complete with fossils, false memories, and in general all the supposed “records of the past” intact. As far as our current evidence is concerned, we have no means of distinguishing this scenario from the far more commonly believed one, where the universe is much older; about fifteen billion years, according to modern cosmology. If Russell is correct in supposing his hypothesis to be metaphysically possible, then it seems at first sight that the postulation of remotely past events is superfluous, just as God is supposed by many to be. A common reply to cosmological arguments is to suggest that if we can terminate the regress of causes with God, there is no reason we can’t terminate it “one step short” with the universe: just as God supposedly “just is”, so the universe actually “just is”. Yet the same could be said of the past, on Russell’s five minute hypothesis. Instead of supposing that there are (or were) “past events” that took place before five minutes before your reading this entry in order to explain current events, why not invoke Occam’s Razor and eliminate them, since the subsequent events could exist without supposing any previous ones? Nevertheless, supposing the universe sprang into existence five minutes ago is deeply counterintuitive. And in rejecting the remote past, our dramatic gain in parsimony is accompanied by a tremendous loss in explanatory power, for now the is no account to be had of why the present is the way it is, or why it even exists at all.

In addition in induction and deduction, it is often said that there is a third kind or reasoning called abduction, which is also known as “inference to the best explanation.” On my own understanding, the basic principle behind abduction goes something like this:

(1) Given some target phenomenon and multiple theories vying to account for it, it is most reasonable to posit that the theory which best explains the phenomenon in question is the correct one.

I believe this principle can be extended to say that:

(1') Where it is possible to posit an explanation for something, and also possible no to posit an explanation, then, if there is no evidence against the hypothesis that there is an explanation, it is more reasonable to posit one than not.

(1') would (presumably) override Occam’s Razor and justify us in positing events that took place previous to those that took place five minutes ago. But by similar reasoning, wouldn’t this justify us in positing a first cause? For if it is indeed more reasonable to posit an explanation than not where it is possible to do so, shouldn’t we posit an explanaion in the case of the universe? Since there seems to be no evidience against the hypothesis that the universe has an explanation, the principle would licence the postulation of some explanation.

Now, it may be objected that since the universe includes everything it is incapable of being explained by anything outside it. This well and goods as far as it goes, however, it is a contentious reading of the term “universe”. If we define the term “universe” to include everything that exists, it is indeed incapable of explanation by anything “outside” it, but then God (or some ‘first cause’) may very well be included in the totality of everything that exists. But if by “universe” we simply mean the physical universe, it isn’t at all obvious that it has no outside explanation or that it is incapable of having one.[1]

Cosmological arguments for the existence of God usually being with the existence of everyday objects and events and argue that these stand in need of explanation. The causes that are invoked to explain them, however, stand in need of explanation just as much as the things we started with. Eventually this regress is supposed to terminate in a first cause, which many argue is identical to God on some suitable understanding of the word “God”. If (1') is correct, then at each step in the regress it seems possible, even if not necessary, to posit an explanation, and thus (1') will drive us to posit some explanation for what we are at that stage considering. And if we agree with Leibniz that even an infinite regress of causes stands in need of an explanation as a whole, we can continue applying (1') indefinitely, until we are driven to posit a first cause, which ultimately explains everything outside itself. After all, if it is possible to posit something that explains (almost) everything, (1') would seem to counsel that it is more reasonable to posit it than not.

So what, if anything, is wrong with the above line of reasoning? Might it be that we are equally unjustified in positing a first cause and the existence of the remote past? Is (1') too strong? If it is, then what else could override Occam’s Razor and justify us in positing remotely past events? If nothing else, the version of the cosmological argument given above has the benefit of not invoking the “principle of sufficient reason” or any hypothesis of the necessity of universal causation. The argument has instead been couched in terms of rational belief, and is perfectly compatible with the metaphysical possibility of causeless events. So long as we are not overly hasty in identifying the "first cause" with a much more robust notion of "God", there seems to me to be nothing overly contentious in the argument. But whether that is so is for the reader to decide.


[1] I’m indebted for the above paragraph to Scott Ryan, who brings out this point very nicely in chapter 11 of his book “Objectivism and the Corruption of rationality”.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A Doxastic Analogue of Curry's Paradox

Consider for a moment the the following proposition (or propositional schema, to be more precise):

(1) If [Insert your name here] believes (1) is true, [Insert your name here] believes every proposition is true.

To make things easier, I'll consider the paradox in my own case. Thus, I consider the following proposition:

(1') If Jason Zarri believes (1') is true, Jason Zarri believes every proposition is true.

So, I ask myself, do I believe (1')? Well, its truth-conditions are that, if I believe it is true, I believe every proposition is true. So if I believe (1') is true, I believe every proposition is true. But I'm pretty confident that I don't believe every proposition is true. I don't believe that the universe is less than five minutes old, for example. So I conclude (safely, so it seems) that I don't believe (1'). But wait a moment: In asserting what I just did, in the statement beginning "So if I believe (1')..." I asserted my belief in the truth of (1'), because the fact that if I believe (1') then I believe everything is precisely what (1') asserts! So it seems I do believe (1') after all. But, so I continue, if I believe (1'), and if I believe the antecdent of (1') -- both of which I have established-- then I am committed to believing the consequent of (1'), namely, that I believe every proposition is true! Thus it appears that, reasoning from fairly innocuous premises and rules of inference, I've reasoned myself into being a trivialist. And yet I remain certain--perhaps obstinately so--that I am not a trivialist: I don't believe everything is true, and if some demonstration purports to show that I do, then something is seriously wrong with it. The question is, then, what?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Non-truth-functional Connectives

Lately I’ve been considering a linguistic phenomenon which leads me to believe that, in addition to the familiar concept of truth, there is a more general concept which we can call satisfaction, truth being but one kind of satisfaction. Consider for a moment (1)

(1) Wash your clothes and put your dishes in the sink.

Normally, philosophers and logicians think of “and” as being a truth functional connective that conjoins propositions or declarative sentences, the conjunction being true if both conjuncts are true, and false if either is false. Yet the above, which seems (to me, at least) to be an obvious case of conjunction, has no truth conditions at all, for the statements being conjoined are commands, or imperatives, the term I will use. Though “and” cannot be a truth function as it occurs in (1), we can think of it as something highly similar: A satisfaction function. We can say that a proposition (or declarative sentence) is satisfied if and only if it is true, and an imperative is satisfied if and only if it is obeyed. (Extending the analogy, we might say that a yes or no question is satisfied if and only if its answer is yes, and that a rule is satisfied if and only if it is followed correctly). (1), though not true, is satisfied if and only if both conjuncts are satisfied, which seems intuitively correct: It has been obeyed if and only if its intended recipient has both washed their clothes and put their dishes in the sink. The similarity between truth and obediance can be confirmed by the fact that an analogue of the liar paradox can be constructed for imperatives. Thus, (2)

(2) Do not obey this imperative.

seems to be obeyed if and only if it is not. That such a similar paradox can be generated for imperatives counts as strong evidence of the affinity of truth and obedience as two different kinds of satisfaction. Statements of mixed kind are also possible:

(3) If John calls, tell him I’m at the video store.

(3) is satisfied if the antecedent is true an the consequent is obeyed. As a whole, the conditional is neither true nor obeyed. It is, in my terminology, purely satisfied, where a statement S is purely satisfied if and only if it is satisfied without being satisfied in some more specific way, that is, if it is satisfied without being true, or obeyed, or correctly answered… . In this it differs from (1), which is obeyed as a whole: if either conjunct is disobeyed, the conjunction is disobeyed. If the antecedent of (3) is true and the consequent is disobeyed, then it is unsatisfied. If the antecedent is false, the conditional is satisfied[1], and the consequent is not so much disobeyed as void. Being disobeyed, then, is more like negative satisfaction than a mere lack of satisfaction.

[1] If we held it to be unsatisfied if the antecedent is false, then the conditional would be satisfied if and only if the antecedent is true and the consequent is obeyed, making it a mixed conjunction—and a conditional “If A , then B” which turns out to be equivalent to “A and B” is a very poor conditional in my eyes—properly speaking, it isn’t a conditional at all.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

A Brief Sketch of an Expressivist Theory of Vagueness

How should we interpret vague language? All the current accounts I know of seem to presuppose that vague language is an attempt, perhaps failed, to get at the truth; that in such assertions as "John is bald", or that a certain collection of grains of sand is "a heap", we have a problem in that such assertions seem perfectly meaningful, and so apparently truth-evaluable, in spite of the fact they are vague, and so apparently have vague truth conditions if they have any at all. If we are not to posit vagueness in nature, we face the problem of accounting for vague language in wholly precise terms. Instead, I propose that vague language serves primarily to express our attitudes towards the magnitude of some quality, as well as to recommend, promote, or regulate certain aspects of behavior. Instead of focusing on the sorites and related arguments, I think we would do better if we asked ourselves for what conceivable purpose we would talk about “heaps”,"tallness", "baldness" and such in normal, everyday circumstances. If we do, I think we’ll find it has nothing to do, e.g. with specifying some precise number of grains of sand.

My sketch of the theory goes something like this: The first idea is that the correspondence between language and thought can be one-many or many-one rather than one-one. We must reject the notion that behind any one sentence, even one sentence as uttered in a particular context, there stands a single thought. Instead, there corresponds to vague sentences a multiplicity of thoughts: Some are propositions which are either true or false, and others non-truth evaluable suggestions or recommendations concerning possible courses of action the speaker’s audience might take.

Suppose Bill is visiting Samantha’s cottage in the mountains, and Samantha remarks “It often snows here.” How often is “often”? Once a day? Once a week? Once a month (even in July)?[1]My proposal is that Samantha’s assertion actually conveys a cluster of related meanings which we conflate consciously, but can tease out on reflection. First, there is the truth condition “It has snowed here more than once.” If it has not snowed there more than once, the truth-evaluable portion of what she says will simply be false. In addition there are an indefinite number of (understood) recommendations which will vary depending on the specific context: “Expect it to snow here again”, “You should buy a heavy coat”, “Be sure to find some shelter”, “Don’t be surprised if you feel cold at times”, “Don’t be surprised if it snows more here than you expect”, and so on.

At this point, I should stress that the meanings thus conveyed need not, even implicitly, be things that Samantha entertains or asserts. What I have above called "meanings" could more accurately be called "functions". Instead of talking about “meaning”, with all its attendant vagueness and confusion, we could identify the meaning of a word with its function, the “function” of a word being whatever it is that prevents it from dropping out of the language. Our memory for lexical items is a finite resource, and so at some point words have to “pay their way” to earn a place in the lexicon. Unlike our DNA, which has vast sequences of nucleotides that most biologists consider to be meaningless “junk”, we do not memorize arbitrary sequences of letters that play no role in our language. Words that have no relevant function will disappear from the lexicon. This idea bears obvious affinities to Wittgenstein’s notion of meaning as “use”. Given the vagueness of the word “use”, we could view “function” as a somewhat more specific prescification .

Retuning to the above scenario, the recommendations may, instead being part of the “asserted content” of the utterance “It often snows here”, be nothing more than inferences the speaker makes based on that utterance, and that in general, it is part of the meaning—the function—of such utterances to produce such inferences in one’s audience. If the utterances of “It often snows here” stopped generating such inferences as that "It is rational to buy a heavy coat" in one’s audience, they would lose their point, and would either acquire some new meaning or drop out of the language altogether. So long as they can succeed in modulating behavior, such utterances have a rationale, and this rationale will not involve anything like specifing some precise number of snowings that occur in a given interval of time.

The key point is that in asserting “It often snows here”, what Samantha is really saying is that it snows here often enough; often enough that certain precautions ought to be taken or that certain kinds of behavior become rational. In effect, she is taking a certain attitude towards the frequency of "snowings" in her area, namely, that it is frequent enough to be salient for certain purposes. I think this point can be extended to cover most other cases of vague terms: To say someone counts as ‘tall’ in a given context is to say they are tall enough that their (above average) height is salient, or ‘bald’ if they are bald enough that their lack of hair becomes salient. To say these things does not presuppose that there is some height which all tall persons exceed, nor that there is some number of hairs which all bald persons fail to exceed. It is rather a stance or attitude that we express towards their actual height or number of hairs, whatever these may be. When a speaker describes a person as tall, they are doing neither more nor less than indicating that they consider that persons actual height, whatever it is, to be far enough above average as to be salient. People can disagree about whether a given person is ‘tall’ without attributing different heights to that person, just as two people can disagree about whether a given room is “too hot” or “too cold” without disagreeing about what temperature the room is. In the former dispute only the saliency of the person’s height is in question, just as in the latter only the disputants’ level of comfort is in question. As we might say in normal life, different people have different ideas of “tall”. Once the saliency of an attribute such as height, or the frequency of snowings in a certain area, is brought to our attention, our minds can begin their work of deducing the appropriate course of action, and this effect that gives vague language its rationale.

[1] And all this in addition to the problem of individuating “snowings”!

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Relativity and Dualism

Einstein's theories of relativity pose problems for certain dualistic theories, in particular, those that posit datable psychological events (e.g., thoughts) that are supposed to have no spatial location. For the theories hold that space and time are inseperable aspects or features of a single spacetime manifold. Consequently, it follows that nothing can have a temporal location without having a spatial location, and vice versa. Thus, mental events cannot have a location in physical time without having a location in physical space. This leads to some pressing questions for the dualist. If mental events do take place in physical space where they located? Are they located where their neural correlates or realizers are located? If so, they and their corresponding physical events will be compresent, both occupying the same physical space. We are then committed to holding that two things can occupy the same place at the same time. The case here is perhaps not quite so counterintuitive, since the things are events of markedly different kinds. Yet we can question whether it would make sense to hold them to be wholly distinct; perhaps we should treat this scenario as vindicating property dualism. The last question also makes a hidden assumption: that every mental event has a physical correlate. Call a mental event floating if it has no physical correlate or realization. Where are these floating events? They cannot be where their correlates are, for they have none. At first sight, assigning them a location seems rather arbitrary. However, if we're willing to abandon the causal closure of the physical, we could perhaps locate them 'between' their neural causes and effects. The question would then arise of how the laws of mental-physical interaction would "fit together" with the laws of physical-physical interaction (and mental-mental interaction, if any such there be). Conversely, if the dualist rejects the notion that mental events have a location in physical space, they must deny they have a location in physical time. They will then have to posit a purely mental or experiential 'phenomenal' time, a temporal analogue of the sense-datum theorists' phenomenal space. This time will then be disjoint from physical spacetime, making it hard to make out how events belonging to either series could have any effect on each other.

The same would also seem to hold for universals and/or properties: If they are instantiated at any physical time they are also instantiated in a physical place, and vice versa. So if one sides with Aristotle in holding that universals are present "in" things, one must also hold that they are present "at" times. If one takes a more Platonic view that universals are related to their exemplifiers or instances without being present "in" them, one must also hold that there is no time at which they are exemplified or instantiated. It would seem a change of properties would then have to be analyzed as the successive stages of an object eternally being related to different properties.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

On Stipulations

I want to consider a few questions here: What are stipulations? Also, what is their function? What exactly is it that they (can hope to) accomplish? In what sense can a stipulation establish synonomy?

It seems there are a few basic candidates for what a stipulation could be:

1. A report, on the part of the stipulator, of their use of the term being defined/introduced.

2. A perscription/reccomendation that the stipulator's audience use the terms flanking the equivalence sign in the same way.

3. A resolution on the part of the stipulator to use the terms/expressions flanking the equivalence sign in the same way.

4. The truthmaker for the claim that the expressions flanking the equivalence sign have the same meaning.

...and so on. Perhaps stipulations have only some of these traits, perhaps only one such trait. Perhaps they have all. Perhaps some have some while others have others, giving the category a kind of "Family Resemblence" structure. I think the cheif puzzle here is how to account for the seemingly magical ability of stipulations to bring about certain semantic facts, the synonomy of different terms, by sheer fiat. After all, I cannot stipulate that water runs uphill and seriously expect it to be so--how is it any more possible to stipulate that a given expression means that water runs uphill? The problem seems to be that such semantic facts would be insulated from usage. According to (1), stipulations will be true or false depending on whether or not the report of the speaker's usage is accurate or not. In this case the status of the stipulation is will indeed be posterior to usage, but since it is merely a report of the speakers usage it will not be able to do the synonomy-establishing work stipulations are normally taken to do . On (2) and (3) stipulations will lack truth value. Yet it is not clear what stipulations, thus viewed, are supposed to accomplish--for perscriptions might not be obeyed, and the speaker might not follow through with their resolution. The terms will only be synonomous for those who use them synonomously. Stipulations would only bring about synonomy in a causal sense. On (4), saying that two terms are synonomous will amount to nothing more than that a certain speech act took place. For if the speech act itself is the truthmaker for the claim that the terms are synonomous, they will remain so despite any subsequent divergence in usage. An odd consequence, if you ask me.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Consciousness by degrees? The Phenomenal and the Sorites

The Sorites is an ancient argument/paradox which derives an apparently absurd conclusion from seeminingly innocuous premises. One version goes like this:

1. A single grain of sand is not a heap.
2. If a collection of n grains of sand is not a heap, a collection of n + 1 grains of sand is not a heap.
3. A collection of one million grains of sand is not a heap.

(The argument works just as well in reverse, in which case we conclude that if a million grains of sand is a heap, and a heap cannot be turned into a non-heap by subtracting a single grain of sand, a single grain of sand counts as a heap)

This general argument, or something like it, can be used to generate similarly interesting conclusions about phenomenal consciousness.

When did "consciousness" appear in our evolutionary history? If we apply a variant of the sorites to consciousness, it seems there are two major possibilities. The first is that there is there a first conscious organism with phenomenal zombies (beings who lack phenomenal consciousness) for parents. Musn't there have been a large saltation if there was a first conscious organism with non-conscious parents? Can we really believe that between two creatures who are as similar as siblings, who share fifty percent of their variable DNA, that one fully enjoys phenomenal consciousness and the other not at all?
The second option is that consciousness became manifest in parts and by degrees. But if consciousness comes in degress, we face another dilemma: are there any minimum requirements for possessing consciousness, or can we not stop until we say that everything is conscious? That seems very radical--but if we don't conclude this, musn't we posit a vast difference between the least phenomenal beings--the ones who possess the minimal degree of phenomenal consciousness-- and "the next ones down", who experience nothing? What physical difference, if any, would account for this? It seems we are caught between two implausible views: On the one hand, that there can be a vast difference in consciousness despite underlying physical continuity, and on the other, that everything down to the level of subatomic particles is conscious to some degree.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

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Saturday, April 29, 2006

Term Gaps: An Alternative to Term Limits

Politicians often become corrupt because those who have enjoyed a long stay in Washington have a knack for making friends: lobbyists, their wealthy financiers, CEO’s, etc., pretty much anyone who pays you more and makes your life more comfortable than your own constituents do. It is these well connected people that congresspersons come to truly represent.
Things wouldn’t be so bad if we could inject some fresh blood into the system from time to time. Unfortunately, because they have so many friends, incumbents have an edge in all campaign fronts. So, some reformers think the best way of fixing things is to limit the number of terms officials can serve. The problem with this solution is that being a Representative or Senator isn’t the only way corrupt politicians can serve their benefactors. Their backers can offer them lucrative careers working for them as laywers or lobbyists. Their constituents cannot offer them any similar retirement packadge. So if, e.g., you’re a congressman, and this is the last term you’re allowed to serve, what do you do: what’s in the best interests of your constituents, and not get much, if anything, in return, or do what helps out your wealthy buddies who can have you set for life? As often happens, the right choice is not necessarily the most prudent one.
My solution is to have term gaps rather than term limits. So let’s say Jones is a Senator, for which the normal term is six years. According to my proposed reform, Jones, once in office, wouldn’t be able to run for the term immediately following the one he is now serving. Once his term is up, and his succesor elected, then he will be able to run for the term following his succesor's. This way new, hopefully uncorrupted individuals have a chance to enter the system. But because it is always possible to run again, officials can’t do anything that is too detrimental to the interests of those they represent. Of course this system will also have its problems. For example, we will have to worry about adjusting the ratio of gaps to runnable terms; should it be one to one, one to two, one to three, etc.? Should candidates be allowed to run multiple times in a row before facing a gap? We must obviously face a tradeoff in trying to balance the tendency of officials to accumulate power against their constituents’ ever fading memories of their actions. Finally, we have to worry about incumbents of previous terms simply trading places with each other every gap, instead of being replaced by fresh individuals. But this too could be fixed by having “jubilee terms”, either for the entire congress or given states, where only politicians who have never held that office before could run. After the jubilee term, incumbents could run for that office again. So while I admit this term-gaps proposal has its share of difficulties, I can’t see how it would be worse than the current system, and at least it has the potential of being better.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

What the Tortoise said to a Lawyer

Lawyer: So, Mr. Tortoise, you admit that you signed the contract, which clearly states that by signing it, you bind yourself by its terms.

Tortoise: Yes. But I still don't see that I'm bound by its terms.

Lawyer: How so?

Tortoise: Well, I signed it all right, and I agree that it says that by signing it, I bind myself to its terms. But that's the thing, you see. It says that by signing it I agree to bind myself to its terms, but that's something I definitely don't agree to. What it says is a -- what do you call it?--that's right, a conditional. Logic teaches us that the consequent doesn't follow from the antecedent--not even a true antecedent-- unless the whole conditional is true, and in this case I don't think it is. The conditional, you see, is really just another term of the contract. To show I'm bound by the terms, you have to show not just that the contract has the conditional statement and that I signed it, but also that I agreed to the conditional statement, which is that by signing the contract I agreed to its terms. As I just showed, the signature doesn't prove I agreed to the conditional statement, since that would be arguing in a circle. Unless you can peer into the mind of my past self, you can't prove I agreed to anything.

Lawyer: Hmm. You may be slow, Tortoise, but I think you just might be fast enough to escape this one.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Quining Gettier Cases

What is the epistemological relevance of Gettier counterexamples to the definition of “knowledge” as justified true belief (JTB)? Any purported instance of knowledge is either a Gettier case or not. If not, and it is not an instance of JTB, it is no counterexample. If it is not and is also a case of JTB, the belief is both justified and true. And if it is a Gettier case, then the belief is, of necessity, both justified and true. In no Gettier case can a belief be unjustified or untrue. To take a standard example, suppose I’m driving by a field and I see, from a great distance, some piles of shaven wool which I take to be sheep. Let’s also suppose that there are sheep in the field, though I never see them. In this instance some of my beliefs—such as the belief that those wooly things over there are sheep—are false, and I think this is what, unconsciously, makes it seem plausible that more than JTB is required for knowledge, for if we try and act on these belief or make inferences based on them we are liable to go wrong. But since these beliefs are false, they are not JTBs, and hence the scenario is no counterexample to the thesis that knowledge is JTB.[1] Yet my general belief to the effect that there are sheep in the field is both justified and true. I might go wrong if I try and make inferences based on the first, particular belief, yet that is false, and so not a JTB. As long as I confine my inferences[2] to the second, general belief, I will not go wrong, for it entails nothing about which things are sheep, where exactly the sheep are, how many there are, etc. It requires only that there are sheep in the field, and as that is true, it cannot entail any false proposition. For those, such as myself, who view epistemic practices as our means of ensuring (or trying to ensure) that our beliefs are true, Gettier cases should pose no problem, for in no such case can a belief be false, or entail false propositions. So my question is, if knowledge is more than JTB, why should we care whether we have it?

[1] My general belief that there are sheep in the field is true. We can question whether it is justified: The only evidence I had concerning the existence of sheep in the field was also evidence that those wooly things over there are sheep. Sheep really do exist in the field, yet nothing justifies me in believing those particular animals are in the field. In this case we might say we have evidence for the truth of a general belief without having evidence for its truthmakers.

[2] Of course I don’t mean to imply that in this scenario I realize that the first belief is false, as that would ascribe inconsistent beliefs to the hypothetical me. I mean only that inferences based on the second belief result in knowledge, while inferences based on the first do not.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

A Historical question: Was John Locke an Empiricist?

Was John Locke an Empiricist?

In order to decide whether a given philosopher is an empiricist, one must first decide what sense of “empiricist” one is using. Locke certainly did believe that all our ideas arise out of experience, but, as Kant pointed out, whether our beliefs are justified by experience is an entirely different issue. Locke did not hold, as did Mill, that even logical and mathematical principles are justified by induction. He discusses tautologies, which he calls “trifling” or “identical” propositions, and asserts that they are known to be certain, but waffles between holding that they are justified because of intuition and holding that they are justified because they can only serve to explicate the meaning of a term. But what concerns me here is what I shall call metaphysical empiricism, which consists in the acceptance of Humean atomism. The doctrine of Humean atomism can be summed up thus: “Any [fact] can either be the case or not be the case, and everything else remain the same.”[1] Two passages make it clear that Locke did not believe this. First, he says, “[…] I fear the weakness of human understanding is scarce able to substitute another, which will afford us a fuller and clearer discovery of the necessary connexion and co-existence which are to be observed united in several sorts of [bodies].”[2] [My emphasis] And later he states more decisively, “I doubt not but if we could discover the figure, size, texture, and motion of the minute constituent parts of any two bodies, we should know without trial several of their operations one upon another, as we do now the properties of a square or a triangle.”[3] [My emphasis] Since such knowledge is by no means a part of the explication of terms, or an assertion of identity, it commits Locke to hold, together with Spinoza and the Absolute Idealists, that the world is "shot through" with (synthetically) necessary connections, to borrow a phrase from Blanshard. This is not merely the proposition that necessary connections obtain somewhere in the world, for even an occasionalist believes there is a necessary connection between God’s willing of an event and that event’s occurrence. But the occasionalist hypothesis could not be true if we suppose, as Locke does, that the effect of a physical cause could be deduced (i.e., “known without trial”) from a perfect knowledge of its cause. If effects can be deduced from their causes, then in every genuine instance of causation we have a necessary connection. And if every event has a cause, as Locke says they do,[4] then every event that occurs is necessitated by at least one other event. In respect of the metaphysics of causation, Locke is as much a rationalist as Spinoza himself. So is John Locke an empiricist? I think the only way we could answer that question is by having a much more sophisticated taxonomy of opposing positions than we now possess. Locke has an interesting mixture of views: He is apparently a psychological empiricist (that is, an anti-nativist), has ambiguous views on our justification for believing in necessary propositions, and apparently holds a strong rationalist thesis that natural laws hold through what we would now call a sort of metaphysical necessity, and that this necessity is nearly universal in scope given that evey event must have a cause. When we consider that 'rationalist' and 'empiricist' views can vary across many dimensions, and even intersect each other on some points, perhaps the only thing we can conclude is that the rationalist/empiricist dichotomy is a bad distinction, a crude oversimplification of an entire spectrum views that sometimes oppose and sometimes overlap.

[1] Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, C.K. Ogden translation

[2] Locke, Essay Concerning Human understanding, Part IV, Chap. III, Sect. 16
[3] Locke, Essay Concerning Human understanding, Part IV, Chap. III, Sect. 25
[4] Locke, Essay Concerning Human understanding, Part IV, Chap. X, Sect. 3 “In the next place, man knows by an intuitive certainty that bare nothing can no more produce any real being, than it can be equal to two right angles.”

Friday, February 03, 2006

Does Wittgenstein's philosophy have metaphysical assumptions?

I think it does. When arguing for a form of "cluster descriptivism" in the Investigations (sect. 40), Wittgenstein implicitly assumes an A-theoretic or presentist view of time. An eternalist need not hold, if they hold that the meaning of “N.N.” is N.N. himself, that the meaning “dies”, in the sense of going out of existence, when Mr. N.N. dies. For according to the eternalist it is never false that N.N. exists, only that he exists now. So the term “N.N.” will refer to something past (relative to our current temporal stage), much as the phrase “the battle of Waterloo” does. So someone who believes proper names directly refer can remain consistent if they also embrace eternalism.

Wittgenstein's criterion of understanding as a person going on in a certain way presupposes some notion of transtemporal identity. It will not do for Wittgenstein to say, for example, that Bill’s understanding of an expression e depends on the subsequent use that Sally makes of the expression e. We can usually tell people apart, but certain neurophysiological conditions, e.g., split brain cases, throw our ordinary concept of personal identity into question. And even aside from neuropsychology, difficulties concerning persistence, such as the (in)famous Ship of Theseus, make the case for perdurantism over endurantism. Given the truth of perdurantism, as well as the mereological complexity (non-atomicity) of persons, it is to some extent arbitrary (or at least vague) which momentary entities are con-perdurants with which. Wittgenstein also cannot account for a person’s understanding or their “use” of a term in an antirealist or conceptualist manner by invoking our understanding or use of such terms as “identity”, “person”, or “same”, on pain of circularity. So a Wittgensteinian must give us some non-circular account of the perdurance of persons before they can explain a certain person’s understanding of an expression by how they, and not someone else, go on to use it. And if the notion of numerical identity is senseless, as Wittgenstein seems to suppose, then Wittgenstein’s account of understanding is senseless if he in any way relies on it for his account of understanding, as it would if temporal identity is ordinary logical identity. His account seems be in hot water irrespective of whether transtemporal identity is numerical identity or not. It's stuck between the rock of vicious circularity and the hard place of self-contradiction.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Sense Data and the Determinacy of perception

Sometimes it is suggested that there cannot be such things as sense data, because nothing can have the properties our perceptual contents allegedly do have. In particular, it is sometimes suggested that the contents of our perceptions are vague or indeterminate in a way nothing could actually be. If you find this line of thought compelling, consider the following two step argument:

1. Nothing is indeterminate.
2. Our perceptual states are not indeterminate.

or this one:

1. Our perceptual states are indeterminate.
2. Something is indeterminate.

These arguments seem obviously valid, so if it is the case that nothing is indeterminate, then neither are our perceptual states. Conversely, if our perceptual states are indeterminate, then something in the world is indeterminate. Perhaps it will be said that this confuses the features of a representation with its content. The representational state is not itself indeterminate; it is rather that it is not determinate what these states, themselves determinate, represent. But if representation is supposed to be some sort of relation between a thing and its content, then this relation can no more be indeterminate than its relata. If there is no such thing as the representation relation, however, then nothing can be true of it, not even that 'it' is indeterminate. And this can't simply be a way of speaking about the relata or their monadic properties, for according to the advocate of determinacy neither these nor any sum of them can be indeterminate, and it cannot be true that it is indeterminate whether p if there is no relevant indeterminate state of affairs to make it true (at least for those who accept a kind of "truthmaker principle", as I do). If all the relevant things and their properties are determinate (including the propositions!), how can it be indeterminate whether some proposition is true of them? Some may say, as Lewis did, that indeterminacy or vagueness is simply semantic indecision on our part; there are our representations, their candidate represntata, and our simple failure to make up our mind about exactly which entities are the representata of a given representation. But the relevant entities, along with our decisions, are surely determinate. Take the term "old person". A Lewisian will say that we have not made a decision about precisely which people to cover by this term. But the question here is whether the term "old person" has an extension or not. If it does, then it must be indeterminate precisely which persons are in the extension of the term, because we have made no decision regarding the borderline cases; but if so, then according to this theory the borderline cases will neither determinately have the property of being in the extension of the term nor determinately lack it. (How does this differ from saying that a given object neither determinately has nor determinately lacks the property of being red? It seems there is no such thing as a purely semantic account of vagueness, for any such account will involve ontic vagueness in the semantic relation itself). An advocate of determinacy cannot admit this, so they will, if they are consistent, say that the term "old person", as we use it, has no extension. But those who advocate the indeterminacy of perception cannot take this stance; if, for example, they want to account for the phenomenon of our seeing the red and green segments of a bar without seeing where they meet, when the border falls on our blind-spot,[1] they cannot locate this indeterminacy in the perception itself. By hypothesis it can no more be indeterminate than the term "old person", nor can they locate it, by the above argument, in the relation of our perceptual state to its contents. And it cannot be that they have no contents, for in that case we would not have perceptual states. Epistemicism will not work here, for if the contents of perception are determinate then our perceptual states should be as well (Though of course an epistemicist could escape this by adhering to first-person skepticism: there really is a border in our perception of the red and green segments, we just can't detect it. Of course, if this response is true, everything involved in perception is determinate, and the epistemicist cannot use the argument from indeterminacy against sense data). If a perceptual state is indeterminate, and it is identical to a brain state, then by an admittedly bizarre application of Leibniz's Law that brain state must be indeterminate. The same is true of causal roles, functional roles, and adverbial states.

Sense data, therefore, are on no more a shaky ground than any other entities invoked to account for perception: If perception is indeterminate, then something in the world, whether it be a sense datum, brain state, adverbial state, causal role, functional role, or representation relation, is indeterminate. If nothing in the world is indeterminate, then perception cannot be either, including the entities involved in it. There are good arguments against sense data, but this is not one of them, for what is a problem for all theories can't be blamed on any one in particular.

[1] Pointed out by V.S. Ramachandran in "Filling in Gaps in Perception: Part I". Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2:199-205 (1992)

My first post on my first blog...

I'm an undergraduate student who specializes in philosophy (they don't have it as a major at the community college I go to now). This is my place to work out my ideas, comment on the ideas of others, and get feedback from the budding community of philosophiles on the 'net. Who knows-- someday I might even be able to assemble my thoughts into a coherent paper. :-)

So welcome all*, and let the pontificating begin!

*Warning: Universal quantifiers are subject to restricted modification pending certain pragmatically implied assumptions regarding the non-trollhood of the participants.

English translation: Be civil.

;-P