Friday, December 14, 2007

A Problem for Postmodernism

Consider the following dilemma discussed by David Detmer, in his Challenging Postmodernism: Philosophy and the Politics of Truth. Those who call for a rejection of rational inquiry must either do so in conformity to the principles of rationality or not. These principles include consistency, commitment to fact, and the basic tenets of logic. If they call for this rejection in conformity with these principles, then their arguments are self-referentially inconsistent (because, for example, they would be employing logic in their case for the claim that we should abandon logic). On the other hand, if they do not call for this rejection in conformity with the principles of rationality, then they should not be taken seriously unless they offer a developed alternative framework. Simply asserting that truth is perspectival or a social construct is insufficient. Given that such an offer has not been forthcoming, it follows that we should remain committed to the principles of rational inquiry.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Locke's "support" for corpuscularian mechanism

The philosophy of body was one of the most controversial issues in the seventeenth-century. It defined who was and was not party to the scientific revolution of the “new sciences.”

In Locke’s context, there are five competing theories about matter. First, there is the Scholastic-Aristotelian doctrine of four elements (earth, fire, air, and water), part of a larger metaphysical theory of substance. The causal agents in real alterations in body are substantial forms and real qualities. The mode of causality is non-mechanistic and teleological. Second, there is the spagyritic chemistry or iatrochemistry. This movement is an extension of the alchemical tradition developed by Paracelsus and his followers, the van Helmonts, according to which there are three principles or basic causal agents of matter: salt, sulfur, and mercury. Mercury is an active or vital (supra-material) principle. Third, there are the Cambridge Platonists who argue that there are immaterial causal agents which actively determine all changes in matter. Fourth, there is the Cartesian natural philosophy, based on the identification of matter with extension. Finally, there is the corpuscularian philosophy or mechanistic atomism.

The Cartesian natural philosophy and corpuscularian mechanism are considered mechanistic, but they differ greatly. The Cartesians hold that a void is not possible, since they identify matter with extension, conceive of matter as infinitely divisible, and deny the existence of atoms. Corpuscularians hold that solidity is also part of the essence of matter, allowing for voids and affirming the existence of atoms.

The core theses of corpuscularianism are as follows. (1) All matter is the same in kind—viz., solid extended substance. (2) All bodies are either (a) individual corpuscles which are physically indivisible and which have as their only qualities (in addition to extension and solidity) size, shape, location, motion or rest, and number or (b) collections of corpuscles. There are no physically real components or constituents of a body beyond its component corpuscles. Compound bodies have a further quality—“texture,” which is the arrangement of the component corpuscles resulting from their various sizes, shapes, relative situations, and relative motions. (3) Alterations in bodies are due to a change in texture; all changes in texture are the result of impact or contact action of one body upon another. In short, all causation involving bodies is mechanical causation.

This way of conceiving of body owes to the atomism of Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius. Gassendi revives this in France in the seventeenth-century. It is affirmed in England by Thomas Hobbes, Walter Charleton, and Robert Boyle, who has a tremendous influence on Locke.

In the “Epistle” and indeed in many places of the Essay, Locke appears to approve of corpuscularian mechanism. Interpreting Locke’s “approval” is tricky business. There is a tradition of interpretation going back through Peter Alexander and J. L. Mackie to Maurice Mandelbaum which would have Locke completely affirm corpuscularianism as “the” truth about the very nature of body. That tradition does two things: (a) it alleges that Locke’s actual use of the corpuscularian hypotheses is evidence that he wholly subscribes to that theory of body as “the” truth about body, and (b) it alleges that Locke actually uses corpuscularian hypotheses in his reasoning to analyze the representative character of perceptions.

While it is true that Locke says he is aiming to clear away some of the rubbish which stands in the way of knowledge, and while it is also true that he fights against the Cartesians and Scholastic-Aristotelians, it is equally true that he does so within an ambit of such a pervasive skepticism about the powers of human cognition that he would not endorse as “the” truth any theory of the nature of body, including corpuscularian atomism. Given the severe restrictions he places on the informational content in perceptual representation from his theory of perceptual representation (i.e., perceivers at best have sensitive knowledge that bodies exist and have “powers”), how could Locke either claim to have knowledge of the nature of body or use premises about body (e.g., corpuscularian mechanisms in perception) as more than merely helpful aids in discoursing about the scope of ideas?

Can Locke fight against the aforementioned foes and still remain qualifiedly noncommittal about what he advances as superior to them? He can and does. It turns on properly interpreting Locke’s theory of perceptual representation, in which a very attenuated conception of “theory” is held fixed. Locke works with some initially crude reflections on the mundane deliverances of the senses concerning bodies. He reflects on what he finds himself believing on an everyday, commonsense level: if one splits a loaf of bread in half, the result will be two smaller loaves of bread, and so on; if one bumps a billiard ball with another, then the second ball usually moves or alters as a result, and that seems to be how changes are wrought in bodies generally; if one reflects on the way everyone uses the term “body,” then one cannot help but think of some solid, extended substance; etc.

Again, the attitude is experimental and commonsense as opposed to dogmatic or obscurantist, the latter two vices being exemplified by Cartesianism and Scholastic-Aristotelianism. Because of his experimental attitude, the relation between the deliverances of commonsense and the truth is indirect at best. As it happens, Boylean corpuscularianism fits really well with commonsense considerations about the nature of body. In short, the corpuscularian hypothesis is thinkable and sensible, whereas Cartesianism and Scholastic-Aristotelianism are too remote from sense and sensibility to be thought of clearly and distinctly. For that minimal reason, corpuscularianism is to be preferred, since at least it is something that Locke can make sense of in his reflections.

Does this mean that it is “closer to the truth of the nature of body?” By Locke’s lights, it probably does not mean any such thing. At the very best, it may imply some truth-conducivity owing to some bare article of epistemic faith, indeed the same one possibly operative in his musings on perceptual representation: maybe, if one sticks to what one can think about sensibly, one might arrive at categories that are closer than not to the truth. Even this article of faith may be too optimistic for Locke to endorse. His attitude is one of modesty and hope especially in light of such a dim candle that so many abuse for sake of a chimerical goal regarding the nature of body: scientia.

Thus Locke can use corpuscularianism as a helpful way of talking about bodies under conceptions that are readily understood. He can oppose the Cartesians and Scholastic-Aristotelians for the simple reason that neither he nor anyone else who reflects seriously on their theories can understand what they are actually saying. For all he knows, however, they could be right about the nature of body. Not only could the Scholastic-Aristotelians be right about body, corpuscularianism might be dreadfully wrong. There may be something even more fundamental in bodies that is outside of the scope of human conceivability, as Locke concedes in IV.iii.11. In the case either of Scholastic-Aristotelianism or the more remote mechanics of body, humans would be in a position neither to know what body is really like nor to dialog concerning ideas vis-à-vis bodies at all. With corpuscularianism, at the very least perceivers, given their cognitive endowments, can talk about ideas vis-à-vis bodies, even if they can never have scientia concerning the relation. Since if one is going to have opinions about anything, one ought only opine what one can conceive, it is better to opine the tenets of corpuscularianism than anything else. Granted, corpuscularianism could be wildly wrong about the nature of body, but it is the best bet given the profoundly limited powers of the human understanding. If corpuscularianism turns out to be dreadfully wrong, at least one is wrong in the least epistemically blameworthy way.

This modest, crypto-Pyrrhonian strategy is all that Locke has in mind when he claims to clear aside rubbish which stands in the way of knowledge. If one takes Locke to be building a foundation for English corpuscularianism, then this modest foundation is all that the human understanding can construct. Thin as it is, however, it is still to be preferred to either nothing at all or the dogmatic/obscurantist theories of matter competing against corpuscularianism.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

a recipe for becoming a moral anti-realist

J.L. Mackie is a moral anti-realist who combines the insights of Nietzsche and Darwin. He denies the existence of objective moral values. He recognizes a puzzle, however. Agents participating in a moral kind of life from a moral point of view think they make real judgments, over and above the mere expression of sentiments. They are committed to the thesis that their morally evaluative beliefs have factual content. So:

(C) Agents are committed to cognitivism.

The problem, of course, is that there is a gap between fact and value. There are no such things as values (according to Mackie).

(D) Moral values do not exist.

How can the moral anti-realist preserve the gap while explaining the commitment? Mackie calls this quandary the state of “believing in morals.” In other words:

(Q) What is the account of the consistency between C and D?

The consistency in question is not merely logical. Rampant self-deception or vulgar emotivism is logically possible. It is not, however, very interesting. Instead, Mackie seeks an account which harmonizes C and D in a sensible, compelling fashion. His method is to take C as a background assumption, gesture towards the plausibility of D, and provide an harmonious account of Q.

Mackie recognizes three attempts to support D. While none is sufficient on its own, the three together are meant to provide some cumulative force for D.

The first attempt to support D is an application of the property “queer” to morality. This is not meant to be pejorative—or, at any rate, merely pejorative. It is simply the observation that moral qualities, taken to be the things they are by those who are in a state of “believing in morals,” do not fit into a reductionistic account of what exists and/or can be known to exist. Moral properties appear “queer” in a Russellian universe. This very ambitious a priori methodism fails, since it immediately raises the need for prior justification for its very invocation. Mackie concedes that commonsense moral particularism seems prima facie to defeat this methodological constraint.

A second, much more plausible attempt to support D is an analysis of moral disagreement. An analysis of moral disagreement is an argument for D. It also forms part of the explanans for why C obtains—viz., why agents participating in the moral kind of life from the moral point of view are tempted to think that their evaluative beliefs express factual content. Moral disagreement should not be analyzed by reference to real disagreement about unchanging moral values. Moral disagreement should be analyzed by reference to amoral, contingent, and evolving social habits of valuation. In other words:

Survival-enhancing objects, acts, or states of affairs at the social level are the genealogical foundation for valuations.

Historically, human social orders come to view some social practices as conducive to survival and others as destructive to survival. Survival is not a particularly moral phenomenon. It is biological and sociological. That is, survival is natural. For example, a stable social order arguably cannot be sustained in the face of unmitigated “ethnic cleansing” (i.e., genocide). Social demands of stability and survival require that behaviors qualifying as genocide be quashed. There is nothing intrinsically immoral about the mass elimination of particular humans of a particular ethnic category. This sort of elimination, however, reduces the ratio of social stability to social chaos. By dint of natural selection, modes of living that threaten survival appear to be endowed with definite sensations of pain or discomfort—a sort of “natural conscience.” The predicate “evil” is applied to such states of affairs. The appellation “evil” intensifies emotions. In conjunction with “natural conscience,” this influences the social habits and desires of citizens against ethnic cleansing. At some point, ethnic cleansing comes to be thought of as exemplifying real moral qualities of badness. On this model, moral kinds of habits, feelings, and valuations arise from social habituation.

A third relevant argument is the covariance of two factors. First, when an individual agent considers a morally charged state of affairs, there is a complex web of approbation, disapprobation, and desire for or against that state of affairs. Second, there is a definite moral belief about that state of affairs. Mackie suggests that the first factor is logically and genealogically prior to the second.

The cumulative force of these three considerations supports D. Combined with C as a background assumption, when an agent utters “This act is right,” the logical meaning must be something like, “I approve of this act.” Mackie recognizes the classic criticisms of this simplified emotivist view. Introspection reveals that agents never intend to mean what simplified emotivism requires them to mean. So then, perhaps agents are not stating, but expressing or exclaiming. Introspection reveals again, however, that agents do not think that is all they are doing. How does Mackie explain the fact that agents reason and argue, apparently rationally, with others about moral beliefs allegedly expressing moral qualities? When one tries to translate the language of morality into the language of hoots, grunts, and whistles, the implausibility is laid bare. This is simply to dramatize that Q surfaces because of the very view Mackie favors. He is well aware of this.

Mackie takes upon himself the burden of answering Q by giving an account of moral belief, under the assumption that the three cumulative considerations imply that moral qualities do not exist.

The explanans is the process of objectification and psychological transfer. First, objectification:

Propositions containing moral predicates are invented and instituted in social practice, or perhaps objective values or qualities corresponding to invented moral predicates are thought to exist, and this doxastic phenomenon becomes embedded in social practice.

Second, psychological transfer:

Psychological attachment to SV objects is transferred to OP propositions or values.

It is a three-step social etiology that combines the process above and the second and third attempts to support D. Abstractly, the social etiology follows some pattern like the following:

(1) Some state of affairs S is desired in an overpowering sort of way. It is, perhaps for survival-enhancing features coded through evolution, psychologically non-negotiable. Likewise, S may be generally perceived as a necessary condition for social perpetuation.

For example, that persons facilitate the survival of their offspring appears to be an important foundation for social order.

(2) Some proposition P is constructed in the social imagination. This constructed proposition, of the form “S is good” or “S is right,” becomes objectified—viz., thought by many to exist in earnest.

(2*) P is believed to be an irreducible moral fact.

(2**) “Goodness,” as an irreducible moral quality or value, is thought both to exist and be expressed by the predicate in P.

(3) The overpowering psychological attachment to S is transferred to the entities in (2).

The moral language becomes embedded in the social practices as part and parcel of the mechanisms which enhance the survival value of social order. Hence, this explains the sort of authority and influence attributed to invocations of moral language in social order.

The belief that moral value is thought to exist in earnest is quite consistent with its not existing at all. Similarly, the belief that moral propositions are constructed is consistent with their always being false, since there are no moral truth-makers for them. Moral predicates do not express moral properties. Hence, Mackie thinks he can consistently preserve C and D in a way that answers Q.

The result of Mackie’s social etiology in the moral domain is a moral fictionalism. Moral propositions and moral qualities are like literary propositions and qualities regarding Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There is a perfectly sensible manner in which literary agents can rationally talk about Hamlet, argue about whether or not he really loved Ophelia, whether or not he really went mad, whether or not he really was loyal to fair Denmark, or whether or not he really was admired by Fortinbras in the end. Propositions, qualities, and thoughts regarding Hamlet even draw tears from (some) eyes and incite passionate disagreements at professional conferences. The man Hamlet, however, does not exist. There are no real qualities predicable of the man Hamlet, because he does not exist. For example, he is not any particular height or weight, and to assert that he is over six feet tall is to assert a falsehood. Despite this puzzling state of affairs, no one needs to remind the literati about the non-existence of Hamlet. They, along with most educated persons, are quite aware that (many of) Shakespeare’s stories are make-believe. That Shakespeare’s work is make-believe detracts neither from propositional discourse about fiction nor from the enormous importance of fiction, as an embedded social institution, to human flourishing.

There is a striking similarity in the domain of morals. Morals do not exist. Taken as beliefs expressing real properties of the world, moral beliefs turn out always and everywhere to be false. This, however, does not, in the least, detract from the intelligibility of moral discourse any more than it does in the case of literary discourse. In fact, in the moral domain, since discourse leads often to conflicted action, it is all the more important to resolve moral disagreements in a rational manner. Moral rationality, however, does not require the existence of moral facts or moral properties any more than literary rationality requires the existence of objects in the world whose properties correspond to predicates in literary texts. The non-existence of morals, thus, does not and should not stop agents from passionate engagement in a moral kind of life or a moral point of view.

Thus, suggests Mackie, Q is answered through a social etiology that:

(1) explains C,
(2) supports D,
(3) exhibits the strong coherence of C and D, and
(4) preserves the logical gap between fact and value.

Saturday, December 1, 2007


Continuing from the post below...

Review the propositions:

(1) M thinks.
(2) M’s mental properties are deducible from M’s physical properties.
(3) There is a true description P of M’s real essence qua fitly disposed matter.
(4) Q.
(5) Therefore, M thinks.

Now on to more...

Ayers grants that Q can make reference also to God’s agency, so long as his agency is only a manipulation of the physical (primary) properties of M, such that mental properties are realized in virtue of the arrangements of the physical properties. God, as it were, simply places the physical properties in such an arrangement that their activation potentials for mental properties is exceeded. He does not institute new laws of nature, nor does he forge new and miraculous psychophysical connections. What must not be the case is that God annexes sui generis causal or occult powers to the physical properties or fitly disposed material system in order to secure the mental properties. The mental properties must follow from M qua fitly disposed material system. Hence, Q might read:

(4) God “superadds” mental properties to the fitly disposed material system M.

The challenge thus far has been to secure (2), assuming (1). In order to secure (2), however, inferences involving (4) must be like working with axioms of geometry, as was noted in the previous post. The axioms of geometry and their implications, presumably, are not voluntaristic, even on God’s part. (4) therefore cannot involve some new and miraculous activity on God’s part to forge and uphold a new law of nature. (4), however, with the frightening language of “superadds,” does sound quite voluntaristic. At any rate, it sounds sufficiently voluntaristic to rule out any comparison between the way one would deduce mental from physical properties with the way one reasons axiomatically in the exact sciences. If axiomatic forms of reasoning in this case are ruled out, then the sort of deducibility required in (2) appears out of reach.

Everything depends on how one analyzes God’s activity of superaddition, and Ayers pays special attention to this point. It is tempting to conflate God’s activity in superaddition with a standing miracle. According to Ayers, it is a mistake to conceive of superaddition as implying either a standing miracle or an ex nihilo invocation of a foreign, sui generis causal propensity annexed to parcels of fitly disposed matter whereby some new law of nature is put into effect by sole fiat. Instead, Locke is simply using “superaddition” against a background of well-behaved theoretical terms including “essence of matter,” “natural,” and “flowing from the essence of matter.”

The “essence of matter” simply signifies those features of material substances in virtue of which they are material. The particular instantiations of the primary qualities of a material substance, however, are particular modes of the qualities referred to in “essence of matter.”

A quality, then, is “natural” if it flows from the “essence of matter” proper—viz., a quality “flowing from the essence of matter.” Such a quality would be deducible from a description of the attributes which qualify matter qua matter; it would be included in the very concept.

For example, two material bodies are both extended and solid. They may, however, exemplify extension and solidity in different ways. Extension “flows” from solidity. Extension is “natural” to solidity and matter qua matter. This is not so for the particular modes of matter. The particular primary qualities of each body, then, would neither flow from the essence of matter nor qualify as natural. Certainly, their failure to count as either natural or flowing from the essence of matter, in these technical senses, does not imply either a standing miracle or sui generis causal propensities annexed to matter qua matter. No new laws of nature are forged by God in these very ordinary cases. In fact, with respect to these technical senses, hardly anything counts as natural or flowing from the essence of matter.

Everything else falls under the rubric of superaddition, including motion, gravitation, and particular colors of bodies. To say of a quality that it is superadded is only to say that bodies differ in their particulars. Differences in particulars, furthermore, can be explained, in principle, by reference solely and completely to the varying arrangements in the primary qualities with no need to invoke God’s forging new laws of nature or creating new causal propensities.

Clearly, in these examples of superaddition, there is no reason to think that there are exceptions to the rule of explanation. In the same vein, there are no reasons to think there are exceptions to the rule when the context is the superaddition of mental properties to fitly disposed material systems. The mental properties, though they may not qualify as “natural” in the narrow sense, may nevertheless arise by dint of mechanical necessity from bodies suitably arranged—viz., fitly disposed. In claiming that mental properties are superadded to fitly disposed material systems, Locke is noting only that mental properties are not contained in the essence of matter qua matter (extension and solidity). He is not claiming that God adds any real constituents or forges any sui generis laws of nature. Therefore, the entailment between (3) and (5) is secured, thereby securing (2).

If this story is correct (and this is a point of contention in the literature), then Locke was very carefully laying the groundwork for a thoroughgoing materialism/physicalism that is really astonishing given the philosophical climate of his times.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Locke on gravity and mental properties

Mechanism, generally, is the view that all of the operations, interactions, and sensible qualities of natural bodies are causally dependent upon the mechanical qualities of those bodies. Laws which govern the behavior of the mechanical parts and properties can be explained by being deduced from the attributes possessed essentially by all bodies qua bodies.

The application of such a model of explanation to the relationship between mental and physical properties of fitly disposed systems of matter is of concern to the magisterial commentator on Locke, Michael Ayers. He motivates the query by comparison with how Locke viewed the phenomenon of gravity.

Locke took there to be something inexplicable to human observers about the relation between two bodies which accounted for gravitation. There are four ways of interpreting what Locke might take the inexplicability to imply:

(a) There is a deeper medium for a mechanism which creates a necessary connection which is not occult. The appearance of action at a distance is only an appearance.

(b) Knowledge of matter qua matter is not yet adequately refined to license perspicacious deductions of laws of nature from the mechanisms of matter. Such deductions are possible, in principle, but not with the present state of physics which is ignorant of the real essence of matter.

(c) There are some laws—viz., gravitation, that are not deducible from the essence of matter. Such laws depend on the direct, continuous, and systematic agency of God—viz., a continual miracle.

(d) Action at a distance turns out, after all, to be part of the real essence of matter—viz., mechanism is false after all.

While Locke’s views on gravity do not make it obvious which of the implications he embraces, Ayers thinks there is a clear case for Locke’s rejection of (d) in Locke’s correspondence with Stillingfleet, the Bishop of Worcester. Ayers ultimately takes Locke to accept either (b) or some combination of (a) and (b). In either case, the hope for a deduction of the laws of gravitation from the essence of matter is preserved, despite the epistemic limitations.

I think there is a similar dialectical structure present in the allegedly inexplicable connections between the mental and physical properties of fitly disposed systems of matter.

(i) There is a deeper medium for a mechanism which creates a necessary, non-occult connection between the fitly disposed physical properties and mental properties. The appearance of sui generis connections is only an appearance.

(ii) Knowledge of matter qua matter is not yet adequately refined to license perspicacious deductions of mental properties from the mechanical, fitly disposed physical properties of matter. Such deductions are possible, in principle, but not with the present state of physics which is ignorant of the real essence of fitly disposed matter.

(iii) There are some laws—viz., psychophysical laws, that are not deducible from the essence of matter. Such psychophysical laws depend on the direct, continuous, and systematic agency of God—viz., a continual miracle.

(iv) Occult, sui generis psychophysical laws turn out, after all, to be part of the real essence of matter—viz., mechanism is false after all.

For Locke to be a materialist, his position on thinking matter needs to reside somewhere between (i) and (ii).

Take M to be a fitly disposed material system.

(1) M thinks.

(2) M’s mental properties are deducible from M’s physical properties.

The challenge for Ayers is to argue that Locke affirms (2). The kind of deduction Ayers has in mind is a very strong sort. Assuming idealized epistemic conditions, where human cognizers know the real essence of matter and the real essence of fitly disposed material systems of kind M (i.e., they possessed wholly adequate concepts of matter), cognizers should be in a position to determine the necessity of mental properties arising from M’s particular arrangement of physical properties. What would be the form of such a deduction?

(3) There is a true description P of M’s real essence qua fitly disposed matter.

(4) Q.

(5) Therefore, M thinks.

The crucial premise is (4), where Q stands for a proposition which must discharge two duties—Q’s content must refer to the physical (primary) qualities of M, and Q must imply, in conjunction with P, the conclusion (5). In short, the deductions must be like geometric inferences.

For various reasons (which may end up in later posts), I'm seriously pessimistic that Locke would go this far.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Philosophy Soccer

why can't we all just get along?

When I walk through the hallways, I always overhear conversations. It's not intentional. That's just what happens when I walk through public areas where people are having conversations.

I ran across an interesting conversation. I only heard a very brief bit. It went something like this.

Student A says to another: "I really like the philosophy readings that we're doing. But it doesn't connect with me. It doesn't connect with life, you know? Life. And so it's not important. It's kind of meaningless really."

That caused me to wonder what it means to say that some particular philosophy or subfield of philosophy doesn't connect *with life*. I completely understand what it may mean to say that some particular subfield of philosophy (say, philosophy of science or epistemology) does not connect *with me*. I guess that would mean something like *I don't like it* or *it doesn't appear to have anything to do with anything that I'm interested in* or *it doesn't address the kinds of things that I take to be important to me*.

So, I get that. What I don't get is the less qualified statement that some particular philosophy or subfield of philosophy doesn't connect *with life* itself. I mean, why can't we all be axiologically pluralistic on this issue? For those who are intensely interested in social justice, perhaps social and political philosophy is what matters to them. For those who are intensely interested in personal existential issues, perhaps existential philosophy is the kind of philosophizing to which they ought to gravitate. It seems completely innocent a point so far. For those who are interested in X, then they should pursue a philosophy of X, so far as studying philosophy goes. But why would that impact the value of Y and the philosophy of Y?

It's when that innocent point (i.e., that a person who is interested in X should generously pursue the philosophy of X) is somehow transformed into a normative claim that *all* philosophy should conform to that particular model that I begin to be puzzled. Suppose a person finds it intensely interesting to study the theoretical advantages and disadvantages of logical models of probability in the philosophy of science. Suppose also that this person derives great personal pleasure and a sense of meaning from doing so. Suppose that this person takes this subfield of philosophy to be intrinsically valuable in and for itself, perhaps purely for the sake of learning or coming to know something that was not known before. Why should it be the case that this endeavor either is by definition *not connected with life* or in need of any defense for its legitimacy at all?

No doubt, someone may reply: But isn't Philosophy (note the capital "P") supposed to be about ________?" Generally, the blank is filled in by some qualifying feature that (inadvertently in most cases) is rigged to rule out things like technical subfields concerning analytic epistemology, Anglo-American philosophy of language, or analytic ontology. (And I do recognize that this kind of intolerance or ignorance goes in both directions... if we use the increasingly meaningless Continental-Analytic divide.)

The reply to this reply is: "Why should anyone else accept your totalizing conception of Philosophy?" [My actual reply would be to deny that there is anything that we call "Philosophy" (note the capital "P").]

So, I guess I wonder why we can't all just get along. Why can't we adopt an axiological pluralism with respect to what counts as legitimate philosophy or philosophy that is *connected with life... you know, life.*

From a personal perspective, there are entire swaths of philosophy that I find completely not connected with *my life*. But what relevance does that have to do with anyone else who loves those swaths and whose love of philosophy reverberates with and against those swaths? And what relevance does that have to do with philosophy vis-à-vis *Life* (whatever that is). Answer: seems to me none at all.

I wonder why we shouldn't all return the favor with respect to each other, our choices, and the fragments of inquiry that we conveniently label "philosophy."

Friday, November 2, 2007

The Metaphysics of Albus Dumbledore

I’ve long been a fan of the Harry Potter books, and I’ve long been puzzled by the metaphysics of fictional characters. These two things came to a head for me recently when J.K. Rowling, the author of the books, mentioned that Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, invaluable mentor to Harry, and perhaps the most powerful wizard alive (up until the end of the sixth book), is gay. Which raises the question: What does it mean for a fictional character to be gay? (Not a thing about Dumbledore’s sexuality is mentioned in the books, and it’s not like Dumbledore had a life “behind the scenes,” did he?) For that matter, what does it mean for a fictional character to be anything—tall, male, human, kind? What are fictional characters anyway? And who determines what properties a fictional character really has?

Perhaps the natural answer to that last question is that the author determines what the character is like. But it’s not as easy as that: what if the author changes his or her mind, or hasn’t decided on some important feature like the height of the character? Besides, some may disagree that the author has this power. Consider, for example, Andrew Rothstein’s response to Rowling’s announcement from a recent article in the New York Times.

But it is possible that Ms. Rowling may be mistaken about her own character. She may have invented Hogwarts and all the wizards within it, she may have created the most influential fantasy books since J. R. R. Tolkien, and she may have woven her spell over thousands of pages and seven novels, but there seems to be no compelling reason within the books for her after-the-fact assertion. Of course it would not be inconsistent for Dumbledore to be gay, but the books’ accounts certainly don’t make it necessary. The question is distracting, which is why it never really emerges in the books themselves. Ms. Rowling may think of Dumbledore as gay, but there is no reason why anyone else should.

So is Dumbledore gay? Perhaps there is literally no answer to that question. For my part, I’m with Rothstein. Sexuality doesn’t really figure into the Harry Potter books at all, even if romance and marriage do. The issue is distracting, and when in a few years I read the books with my kids, I probably won’t bring it up.

Friday, October 26, 2007

fun with Pyrrho and Chisholm

Sextus Empiricus makes a clear distinction between (a) affirmations concerning how things appear and (b) affirmations concerning real existence. (a) is supposed to be neither an overly technical notion nor a philosophical term of art. It's just supposed to be a common sense report of how things seem, how the phenomena strike a perceiver. (a), for example, is NOT supposed to connote sense data, ideas qua tertium quid, or anything of that ontic nature. (b) is supposed to be a judgment, whereby in the very judgment one is affirming that reality corresponds to the judgment.

In modern terminology, (b) is a belief (where belief implies a commitment to the truth of the propositional content of the belief).

Sextus' advice to us is to "live by the appearances," to "live without beliefs."

In my seminar on skepticism, we've been wresting with what this could mean. We've had a lot of fun discussing what the distinction between "appearance" and "belief" amounts to, whether there is a relationship to doxastic voluntarism in the mix, what relation Sextus' distinction may have to ancient models of active/passive intellect, and (assuming the distinction is stable) whether such a comportment in life is feasible.

For Sextus, it is clear that he doubts that the epistemic gap between (a) and (b) can be bridged. Or, at any rate, it *appears to him* that the gap has not thus far been bridged, and it *appears to him* that he cannot conceive how that gap could be bridged... all the while withholding judgment about whether it is likely or possible. Fair enough...

Why think, however, that the epistemic gap between an appearance (i.e., a mere report of one's sense contents) and a judgment concerning real existence (i.e., a belief about the world, independent of one's mind) must be bridged in one fell swoop, by something that secures, maybe even entails, the truth of one's representation? This standard is incredibly high, perhaps too high. Assuming deontological conceptions of epistemic justification apply (which is debatable), hankering after this standard is an instance of massively supererogatory epistemic action... WAY beyond the call of epistemic duty.

At least that, among many other things, is what seems to be the import of Roderick Chisholm's classic essay, "The Problem of the Criterion." There are so many things in Chisholm's classic essay that deserve patient, careful commentary. For now, I focus only on the following: I think it's mighty fine how he, in effect, turns Sextus on his head. Earlier, I mentioned the epistemic gap between appearance and judgment about the nature of real existence. Chisholm denies that the epistemic enterprise of procedural rationality requires a justificatory rationale or account (logos) that entails the truth of the content of the appearance or belief. Something much more modest is proposed—viz., the analog of "getting one's epistemic foot in the door." What Sextus refers to as "mere appearances" is what Chisholm marshals into at least a prima facie justification, insofar as an appearance results ceteris paribus in an agent epistemically preferring the belief that real existence corresponds to the appearance.

Does this secure or entail the truth of the appearance or belief? Of course not! But... that's okay. All that is secured is the epistemic preference for the affirmation rather than suspension. In other words, there is an epistemic foot in the door. There is merely at this point a mild, eminently defeasible prima facie justification that admittedly may fall (far) short of knowledge (assuming an internalist conception of justification). But the point is that this is a start, a modest start to be sure, but definitely epistemic progress.

I think that one value of Chisholm's argument is that it blows the whistle on a kind of blind spot in Pyrrhonian epistemology, which is recapitulated by a lot of Early Modern epistemology—viz., the all-or-nothing mentality when it comes to what sort of evidence bears epistemic currency. Instead, why not start with a little bit of justification, admittedly short of what is needed to convert a representation into knowledge, and build on that little bit in a stepwise fashion? That seems to be a pretty dandy way of de-fanging the more implausible aspects of Pyrrhonian pessimism.

But I'm sure many of my students, especially the ones who (sincerely) think that something like Pyrrhonian pessimism *is* the commonsense position, will accuse me of begging really important questions (though sometimes I have a hard time really understanding what they are).

Sunday, October 7, 2007

What is the *value* of philosophy?

Sometimes, I hear something like the following:

"What is philosophy good for?"

This is usually attended with some attitudes of frustration or disenchantment.

I don't quite understand the question, partly because I wonder whether there is such a thing as "Philosophy," plain and simple. More often, when I think of philosophy, I think of all the sub-divisions and sub-specialties that the term "Philosophy" stands for.

So, if anyone has anything to add to help clarify what the question might mean, that would be a fun topic.

Saturday, October 6, 2007


If you, like me, find existentialism puzzling but fascinating, then here's a fun show for you.

Existentialism Philosophy Talk

Click the link above. You'll need the Real Player application.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Ian Hacking on anti-Darwinism

Ian Hacking, a philosopher I respect, has posted a short opinion piece in The Nation.

He notes his suspicions about "intelligent design," a new form of creationism that attempts to pass itself off as science.

It's worth a read.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Descartes and the "image of God"

One of the things that Descartes was self-consciously doing was elevating the human mind to make it more godlike. He takes very seriously the thesis that human beings are "made in the image of God," and he wants what he interprets as this godlikeness to be a defining mark of his Christian philosophy.

His spin on being made in the image of God takes three forms. First, the mind is transformed from merely the scholastic "form of the body" into a bona fide substance that requires only the concurrence of God to exist. Even though God is the only pure substance, fully satisfying the criterion of independent existence, mind is a really good runner-up, in that it does not require anything other than the concurrence of God to exist. Unlike the scholastic "form of the body" theory, mind does not even need a body. So, the first move is altering mind from merely a form to a substance. Second, the mind is capable of having or acquiring all of its content from sources independent of sense experience. Presumably, because God does not have a body, the contents of the divine mind are totally independent of any sensory data. Whatever it is that God knows, he knows it in a way that does not draw any sources from sense experience. The human mind too is godlike in this way, by means of innate ideas (not just of pure intellectual notions but also of sensory ideas!). Just as God somehow draws his ideas from within himself, so too the human mind, though of course, the faculty by which it does so is implanted by God. This is another way that we are made in the image of God. Third, not only are innate ideas intrinsic and essential to mind qua substance, but also the power of volition. Again, this is a godlike feature that connects with the way that Descartes prosecutes a vigorous divine voluntarism about so-called true and immutable natures (e.g., necessary truths of logic, mathematics, and ontological kinds). These truths are dependent on the divine will. Minus his own divine will, even God could not come to believe these truths. In an analogical fashion, the human mind, according to Descartes, would not be able to believe anything without the exercise of its own will. So, a Cartesian doxastic voluntarism is built into Descartes' theory of mind for metaphysical reasons and not because Descartes was sensitive to epistemic deontology.


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