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.