Saturday, December 20, 2008


Well, not quite, but still pretty cool...

small pot of boiling water + very cold day =


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Socratic ignorance

Okay, I’m going out on a limb here...

I’m not an Ancient Philosophy scholar, nor do I claim to have any special insight on Socrates/Plato.

But I can’t resist musing about Socrates on this fine, unseasonably warm Fall evening in late October, especially inspired by some thought-provoking conversations with my colleague Eric Snider (our local ancient philosophy aficionado).

Socratic Duplicity

Socrates is famous for claiming that he does not posses knowledge. Does he mean what he says?

Most say that Socrates is not being sincere. He is being duplicitous with good intentions. By feigning ignorance, he is trying to inspire his conversation partners to pursue after the truth with all that much ardor. In order to get them to pursue the truth, however, Socrates must knock out their false foundations of confidence.

I’ve heard (through the philosophy grapevine) that there are pretty unambiguous texts in Plato that suggest this interpretation is not right.

Merely True Belief

The other main interpretation is to deny that Socrates is playing ignorant. This would mean that Socrates is being sincere when he claims that he lacks knowledge. What he has, however, is still pretty good. He possesses true belief. This falls short of knowledge, but it’s better than nothing.

This would require that we view the pursuit of Socrates as a search for true beliefs but not knowledge. This doesn’t sound quite right either. One thing that I think is true of Socrates is that he equated virtue with knowledge. If Socrates must be taken to have given up on the project of knowledge, then he must also be said to have given up on the project of virtue and happiness. For a guy like Socrates, this is tantamount to saying that he has given up on the hope of becoming good (which for him was the task of philosophy). That sounds distinctly un-Socratic.

The Problem

On the one hand, Socrates’ claim of ignorance is sincere. He is not pretending when he claims that he lacks knowledge. On the other hand, Socrates claims that he pursues after knowledge. He is not satisfied with true belief. Socrates is not only dissatisfied with true belief, but he actually takes himself to possess knowledge.

Socrates the contextualist?

It’s possible that claims to knowledge might mean different things in different contexts for Socrates. Does this help illuminate what’s going on with the alleged Socratic duplicity? Maybe... but I’m just musing out loud (or whatever the equivalent is when applied to free-flow typing).

Think about the way we ordinarily use language, especially the word “know.” I drove my car to campus today. If someone asks me about the location of my car, there’s a perfectly natural context in which I would say, “I know my car is parked outside.” [In more precise jargon, the appropriate contrast-class of defeaters that needs to be eliminated is set by the appropriate features of the context.]

Suppose, however, that some annoying philosophy student fresh out of an introductory level epistemology class and drunk on his newfound insights, presses me by asking, “Do you really know that your car is parked outside?” (Or perhaps he just shouts “Cartesian Demon!”) This alters the context of inquiry. The conditions for confidence are now higher and more demanding. Maybe I might answer, “Well, ask Rita the Meter Maid; she’s outside standing next to where my car ought to be parked. She knows, and perhaps I don’t know after all.” [Philosophical aside: I think it’s fascinating that “knows” doesn’t appear to admit of degrees under analysis. For instance, strictly speaking, I don’t say “she knows better than I do” as a way of describing a degree of knowing, but rather to express that she’s in a better position to know simpliciter. Does this compete with contextualism? I don’t think it does.]

My saying this, however, does not thereby imply that my earlier claim to knowledge was inappropriate when I uttered, “I know my car is parked outside.” It is perverse to think that what I ought to have said in that context is, “I have a merely true belief that my car is parked outside.” Why? Arguably, the context of inquiry, while not wholly determinative of the conditions for justification, contributes something to those conditions. So, my original claim is appropriate in one context and less appropriate in another. One is less strict and the other stricter.

What this illustrates is that there is an acceptable practice of claiming knowledge in different contexts. [Philosophical aside: I know this is controversial, and I have colleagues who think this is just nuts.] The different contexts fix the rules for when a knowledge claim is legitimate and when it is less legitimate.

Something like this flip-flopping between a strict versus looser contexts of knowledge claims might be going on with Socrates.

I don’t think this is any brilliant insight. I’m sure there’s some Plato scholar who has mapped this territory already.

Did Plato Have a “theory” of Knowledge?

Here’s the standard view of Plato: A condition for a claim to count as knowledge is that the claim must be infallible and therefore certain. This sounds like such a strong condition—infallible certainty! Can it really be what Plato wishes as the distinction between, say, opinion and knowledge? A moment’s reflection indicates that it does. If Plato were to soften the infallibility criterion to something like a simple truth condition—viz., that one of the conditions on knowledge is that a claim must be true—he loses the distinction between opinion and knowledge, since there are such things as true opinions.

That’s the pipe dream of epistemology, and it has lured great minds into it for as long as recorded history. This is no less than the Cartesian project. Descartes had his own reasons for pursuing this, but for those of you who have familiarity with the continental rationalists, you will see the obvious connections to the ancient fascination with infallible certainty.

Satisfaction of this condition would enable one to say of a knowledge claim that one knows it, but also that one knows that one knows it. To claim that one knows that-K requires that one knows-that-one-knows-K (the so-called “K-K thesis”). Let’s call this gussied-up knowledge.

Loosey-Goosey Condition

Let’s recall that knowledge might function differently in different contexts from the perspective of ordinary linguistic practice. Is there a loosey-goosey context that might be appropriate for Plato, a context in which he would be amenable to having Socrates claim that he knows even if he does not know that he knows?

This is hard to say. It is worthwhile to ask if we today have a conception of knowledge that does not require infallible certainty. Indeed we do. We think we have made philosophical progress over a few millennia, and we by and large think it perverse to require infallible certainty for knowledge claims.

We take it to be consistent that we are both fallible and knowledgeable. Here’s how it works. [Philosophical aside: This is why we can also claim to be epistemic foundationalists about the structure of epistemic justification without having to be embarrassed by the crazier forms of foundationalism that tie themselves to further criteria about the nature of the foundations.]

Consider again my belief that my car is parked outside. Call that p. I have evidence for p. My evidence is my memorial belief that I parked my car outside, my memorial belief that I glanced at my car about five minutes ago, my belief based on testimonials from friends who told me that they saw my car parked outside, etc. Call that conjunction of evidence q.

I believe p on the basis of q.
p is true.
q counts as “good enough” evidence for p.
q, however, does not entail p.

Do I know that my car is parked outside? Sure I do. So long as all the conditions are satisfied, then I can be said to know that my car is parked outside. Do I know that I know that my car is parked outside. Clearly not. But the failure to satisfy the very strong condition for a second-order knowledge claim does not by itself show that my first-order knowledge claim is in jeopardy.

From here, epistemology gets very contentious; so I think it is good enough to leave it at that for our purposes.

Okay... the question is whether Plato has available something like this looser-goosier conception of knowledge.

I think the answer is “yes.” Call it Socratic elenchus.

Recall that the main obsession for Plato (and hence of Socrates) is knowledge in the domain of ethics, of “the Good.” On what basis does he and could he claim to know? In actual practice, it is usually through the dialectic of question and answer.

Could something like the model I used to analyze my knowledge that my car is parked outside be adapted to explain Plato’s knowledge by elenchus?

The essence of a fallibilist epistemology is that there is always a strictly logical gap between P and Q, where P is the object of an alleged knowledge claim and Q is the evidence.

When Socrates claims (dialectically) to know P, he must base it on Q.

Maybe Q is the evidence garnered from Socratic badgering, where no contradiction is uncovered after a lengthy, exhaustive inquiry and cross-examination.

So, in essence, it’s a negative condition: We did not uncover any contradictions.

If that’s true, then maybe Socrates is satisfied to claim that he knows (dialectically). To be sure, this is a looser-goosier claim than a claim about infallible certainty. It falls short of infallible certainty. After all, Socrates via the elenchus never claims to have perceived The Forms. Only the gods of Olympus get that honor.

Hence it is not the same as gussied-up knowledge. It’s just plain old “loosey-goosey knowledge.”

Socrates is saying that there is a kind of wisdom or knowledge that is appropriate only for the gods, because they have gussied-up minds. Human minds are loosey-goosey and so can contain only loosey-goosey content. He very clearly owns his human wisdom, but he denies that he has godly wisdom.

What Socrates is rewarded for as well as cursed with is his humble acceptance of the human condition. It is ultimately a religious, pietistic epistemology which disciplines human pretension. It is as if Socrates is saying, “I am not a god, and neither are any of you.”

At the end of it all, when Socrates denies that he has knowledge, he is denying that he has the mind of a god. He is denying any access to gussied-up knowledge.

When he claims that he possesses knowledge, he is claiming merely human wisdom which comes from the humble exercise of the elenchus which delivers loosey-goosey knowledge.

Socrates turns out to be a contextualist, which for him is an ethical epistemology.

Compared to gussied-up knowledge, loosey-goosey knowledge is a pauper. But what do you expect? We do not number among the children of the Titans.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

musing on "disagreement"

A brief musing about the concept of “disagreement”...

There is an obvious difference between the confidence we have (both psychologically and epistemically) when we assert that “2 and 2 makes 4” versus when we assert that “it is wrong to lie no matter what” (assuming we think it is).

It’s hard to disagree with the first assertion, but it’s not that hard to disagree with the second (personal note: I disagree with the second statement). In fact, one might make the stronger claim that the kinds of disagreements that attach to the latter kind of statement (and in fact to that very particular statement itself) are perennial.

I’ve seen this asymmetry in disagreement deployed to argue that the best explanation is that there is a fact of the matter about the first kinds of judgment (e.g., “2 and 2 makes 4”) but likely not one about the latter kinds of judgment (e.g., moral).

I have two queries...

First, it is interesting to note that the asymmetry is deployed against moral judgments. I wonder why this kind of asymmetry is not also deployed against other kinds of judgments that appear to elicit perennial disagreements. I have in mind the various theses that one finds in metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, political philosophy, history, cotemporary physics, psychology, etc. In short, nearly every domain of inquiry... Isn’t this just the specter of logical positivism making another appearance?

To be sure, I am aware of the various context-sensitivities that are part and parcel of moral judgment. I’m keenly open to forms of non-Absolutism (which should not be conflated with anti-objectivity). However, I’m curious as to why those who deploy the aforementioned asymmetry aim only or most prominently at moral judgment. Why not level the playing field en toto. At least the Pyrrhonian skeptics were consistent in their adoption of skepticism across the board with their disagreement criteria.

Second, as I look at some of the world-crushing events of only the past century, I think of World War II. I think that persons deeply involved in the Nazi and anti-Nazi war campaigns vigorously disagreed about the moral status of Jewish persons. I don’t think this stands as some kind of special evidence that there isn’t a fact of the matter about the moral value of Jewish persons.

Multiply instances of moral disagreement on the contemporary political and moral landscape, just in the United States, and I think we see a dazzling array of disagreement over all sorts of critical issues, none of which obviously can be said to be populated by participants who think the issues do not trade in cognitively contentful statements with truth value.

In fact, one might even say that the very existence of disagreement, more often than not, solidifies our belief that there are facts about which we disagree (where values are numbered among these facts that describe a situation). The old fact-value dichotomy that has been exploded numerous times over is still a kind of specter that just doesn’t get the hint that it’s been effectively exorcised in theory and definitely in practice!

So, I guess at the end of it all, I don’t get what’s supposed to be so significant about the phenomena of disagreement.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

a brief meditation about open-theism

A quick and easy route to open-theism or something near enough...

A few years ago, Hilary Bok wrote a really fun book titled Freedom and Responsibility. Essentially, she articulates a compatibilism that is deeply Kantian in spirit. The book is definitely worth reading.

In her book, she uses a marvelously fictive device called “the pocket oracle.” The pocket oracle is a perfect predictor of your own future actions (where your choices number among your actions).

Well, what would happen if one consulted such an oracle?

Consultation of such an oracle, I think, would almost completely, if not completely, rob one of ignorance. If one takes ignorance (or some degree of ignorance) to be a crucial ingredient of genuine deliberation, and if one takes deliberation to be a crucial ingredient of intentional action, and if one takes the intentional component of action to be a crucial ingredient of anything that deserves the name “action,” then anyone who knows his/her own future cannot be a genuine actor.

This little chain of inferences is totally general with respect to the nature of the agent. The agent could be human or divine. It doesn’t appear to change the dynamic of the inferences one bit.

So, take these notions and apply them to God. I think it becomes really clear why one would be motivated towards something like an open-theism. If one would like to preserve the view of God as a genuine agent, a divine personage who is creatively active in the space-time world, then it makes perfect sense to deny that future contingent propositions have a truth-value (which implies that even an omniscient being could not know them).

Notice that this doesn’t really have any direct tie with the kinds of considerations that normally move persons to adopt open theism—viz., worries about God having an alibi for the problem of evil. Instead, the present considerations have to do with the metaphysics and psychology of agency, not with any worries about theodicy.

The options are pretty clear for the theist: (a) affirm something like open-theism, (b) deny that the little chain of inferences is true, (c) middle way: grant that the chain is true for human agents but deny that it is true for divine agents (why the asymmetry?), or (d) punt the whole discussion to one of “mystery” yet continue discussion as an interesting and philosophically fruitful intellectual exercise.

I’m sure I’m missing some other options (e.g., Classical inclusions of premises about time and timelessness... which would actually be a way of articulating option (c)), but these are the ones that are most obvious to me.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

understanding others

Some philosophers (maybe Quine; Fodor seems to accuse him of this) hold that in order to understand what another is saying, you need to understand all the other's beliefs and concepts. For to understand what another is saying or believing, you need to understand what they mean, what their whole set of concepts and beliefs are, so you can accurately place their currently expressed belief in the whole package of beliefs and thus adequately understand it. This is a full or maybe even extreme holism. It seems a holism adapted to an overly idealized enlightenment conception (or misconception) of certainty.

I wonder if a moderate holism might allow that in order to understand another, understand reasonably well enough, you need to understand some of the other's closely related beliefs, but not the entire package of the other's beliefs (an impossible standard to achieve, thus leading to skepticism about ever understanding another). Example: if you say "I have a lot of reading to do for tomorrow, before class" I can assume we share similar beliefs about reading (what it involves, even if we disagree to some extent upon the level of comprehension needed to actually judge it as reading as opposed to simply skimming words) and the notion of a lot (even if there are relatively minor agreements about details) and the notion of class (I would be assuming, depending on who told me this, it would be a college class). But I do not need to assume beliefs about your theory of planetary or celestial motion (for the concept of "tomorrow"), or your beliefs about mental processes (for the concept of reading), or your beliefs about person identity (for the concept of I) in order to engage in sensible communication with you.

I worry that if you need to understand the entire package of another's beliefs in order to understand anything whatsoever that another asserts, understanding would be impossible. I also wonder if Derrida affirms the antecedent of my previous sentence, and so affirms also the consequent.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

great question

I was asked recently whether the study of philosophy makes one more skeptical.

I didn't know how to answer for at least a couple of reasons.

First, I really don't know how to answer questions at that level of generality.

Second, I still haven't figured out what the study of philosophy has done to me.

Thoughts from those who've been made skeptical or otherwise by philosophy?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

strange bedfellows

I can’t speak for everyone, but for myself I do not believe in substantial forms and hence find myself rejecting all types of hylomorphism in ontology.

Many of my friends share this rejection of hylomorphism as either a description or an explanation of phenomena.

What I find interesting and puzzling is that many of my religiously serious friends (and I count myself as religiously serious) who reject substantial forms with all the hylomorphic implications nevertheless retain it in their dualistic view of human persons. I should be a little more precise: either their substantial dualistic views of human persons or their advert of the medieval “soul is the form of the body” views.

I will not go so far as to say that this is inconsistent. It’s not. But it does strike me as odd.

Perhaps there are independent reasons to think that something like hylomorphism is required in the case of human beings but not so in the case of all other natural phenomena. (Human beings are supernatural phenomena? I don’t quite get that if that is indeed a possible response.)

Friday, August 15, 2008

why Descartes' criterion of doubt is awesome

I don’t know how many times I’ve read Descartes’ Meditations. I’ve definitely read it more than any other philosophical text so far, and I love it (and hate it) every time. It’s amazing to think about how much of an impact that short treatise has made on academic philosophy in particular and on intellectual culture in general.

The criterion of doubt continues to capture my interest, as well as I think any epistemologically minded reader of Descartes.

I think Descartes tied it to a completely implausible theory of mind, whereby the cognizer is endowed by God with an extremely powerful doxastic will. Perhaps Descartes was able to exercise his will such that he was able to disbelieve obvious perceptual appearance propositions or even mathematical propositions. I can’t.

See this post for what I think motivated Descartes to affirm such a strong doxastic voluntarism.

However, I think it would be premature to jettison the criterion of doubt on the implausibility of the overly strong Cartesian will. There’s a way to think about and deeply appreciate the criterion of doubt that has lasting salutary effects on one’s philosophical temper.

Here’s how it goes. Even though, pace Descartes, I am not able to disbelieve at will some of the beliefs that are forced upon me (such as ordinary sense perceptual beliefs), I can nevertheless engage in epistemic empathy combined with a little make-believe. I can imagine what it would be like to fail to hold a belief in question. A little further, I can imagine what it would be like for me to live without a belief in question.

Perhaps an example is in order.

I currently believe that there is a God. This is a fairly strong belief over which I do not exercise direct control, either to believe or disbelieve. There are things that could happen to me (some of which I might be able to initiate in some sense which might qualify as very indirect control) that would alter the strength of the belief or perhaps vanquish it altogether, but the important point to note is that these scenarios involve something happening to my beliefs.

Even though I do not exercise direct control over this belief, I can nevertheless imagine myself and my life without belief in the existence of God. Many things would change; many would remain exactly as they are. In this respect, I can bring about a kind of empathy and identification with that version of myself. I prefer the way I am now (and the way reality is, if my current representation is true), but I also don’t recoil at the picture that is formed on the basis of the thought experiment of the alternative.

Back to the criterion of doubt and the possible salutary effects...

Even though Descartes is wrong to connect the criterion of doubt with his view of the cognitive will, the criterion is useful in that it is an aid towards epistemic humility.

If one can imagine, consider, and form a lively picture about the alternative epistemic commitments one might bear (and manage not to recoil), I think one is better off, on the whole, in terms of one’s intellectual virtues of fair-mindedness, intellectual charity, and accurate self-assessment of one’s own epistemic justification. This becomes important and evident when one actually encounters someone else whose beliefs differ markedly on a range of issues, some of which might be quite important. If one has already exercised this practice of “otherness” on oneself and also found that imaginary “self-other” not to be so foreign after all, then the extension of charity should be one of degree, not of kind, when one encounters another person who might initially strike one as “other.”

I guess in a weird kind of way, the criterion of doubt can be mobilized into an epistemic counterpart of the Golden Rule.

All of this is consistent with having epistemic commitments. This need not be an inevitable precursor to skepticism, relativism, anti-realism, or fill-in-your-favorite-bad-blank-ism (though I have to admit that I really like skepticism).

And if the criterion is one aid, one type of exercise, in forming the habits and dispositions of epistemic humility, then I’m all for it.

Friday, August 8, 2008

from the "This, I Believe" Series on NPR

Finding Equality Through Logic

Weekend Edition Sunday, August 3, 2008

“This, I Believe” Series

by Yvette Doss

[Yvette Doss works in fundraising for Indiana University Northwest in Gary, Ind. A native of Los Angeles, she was founding editor of an alternative paper and a Latino zine. Doss has written for the Los Angeles Times, Ms. Magazine and NPR.]

I believe that you can take control of your destiny through the power of philosophy.

The turning point for me was the day I learned that the questions I had about religion, morals, inequality and injustice in the world were not only acceptable questions, but questions to be encouraged. Great minds — like Plato and Descartes — had spent countless hours pondering life’s mysteries throughout the ages.

I realized that my mind, the mind of a misfit half-Mexican teenage girl living in an immigrant neighborhood in L.A., could ponder those mysteries, too. The fact that my best friend dropped out of school at age 16 to have a baby, or that few of my neighbors had college educations, did not exclude me from the conversation of the ages.

I believe the act of philosophical thinking is not the exclusive domain of the privileged, the moneyed, the old or the accomplished.

I lived in a household run by a single mother, and I moved around from neighborhood to neighborhood, from new school to new school. There were gangs, crime and substandard schools to contend with in my pocket of southeast Los Angeles. I struggled with finding my place in a world that, though imperfect, was the closest thing I had to home. But I had big questions on my mind, too.

Did my challenging circumstances mean that I should only think about the difficulty of day-to-day existence? Why couldn’t I wonder about the larger questions in life, like, “Why are we here? Does it have to be this way? What if there isn’t a God?” And most importantly: “Was I destined to accept my lot in life just because I was born with fewer advantages than those luckier than I?”

The crisp pages of the books I cracked open each night and read until I fell asleep with a flashlight tucked under my arm told me otherwise.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates said.

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” said Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Simone de Beauvoir shared: “I tore myself away from the safe comfort of certainties through my love for the truth; and the truth rewarded me.”

Descartes and Hume validated my questioning of dogmatic religious belief. I was connected to the larger world of ideas through the simple act of opening those books.

Thanks to philosophers, my new friends, I considered my thoughts worth expressing. And later, when I tried my hand at writing, I experienced the joy of seeing my thoughts fill a page.

I believe the wisdom of the ages helped me see beyond my station in life, helped me imagine a world in which I mattered. Philosophy gave me permission to use my mind and the inspiration to aim high in my goals for myself. Philosophy allowed me to dare to imagine a world in which man can reason his way to justice, women can choose their life’s course, and the poor can lift themselves out of the gutter.

Philosophy taught me that logic makes equals of us all.

[Independently produced for Weekend Edition Sunday by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.]

Monday, July 28, 2008

academic philosophy

We've had family visiting us from Los Angeles for the past month or so. The latest visitors are my brother, his wife, and his daughter.

Having my 18 month old niece here for the past several days has temporarily put much of my abstract thinking on the back burner.

And in fact I have absolutely no complaints. I'm not saying that academic philosophy is not important... not by any stretch... I'm just saying that having an 18 month old kid around puts academic philosophy in perspective.

Here we are in the "amber box" at the Guthrie Theatre.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

here and now

There are many analogies between space and time.

I’d like to point out an alleged disanalogy between the import of two essential indexicals: “here” and “now.”

One way to display the (alleged) difference is to ask of “here” whether it is privileged or unique. Of course, there is an obvious sense in which it is unique or privileged. It is both to the one who uses the indexical in the context of locating oneself at a particular spatial place.

However, there is a sense in which “here” is completely generic and promiscuous. There are as many instances of “here” as there are ones who utter (or think) or possibly utter (or possibly think) things such as “I am here.” In an of itself, “here” does not point out any one privileged, particular place independent of users of the indexical. In other words, “here” or the property of hereness is user dependent.

It isn’t at all strange to the ears to hear something like: “If there were no persons, there would be no instances of ‘here,’ since ‘hereness’ is in some sense strongly experience-dependent.” (This is NOT to say that there would be no space or spatial locations minus perceivers.)

The situation appears different concerning “now.”

I think that it’s not too much of a stretch to say that many (perhaps most?) people think that “now” is special in a way that “here” is not. It is NOT merely perspectival as is the case with the utterly perspectival “here.” Instead, “now” seems to refer to a special property that time qua time has independently of persons or their language. My colleagues on the other side of Minneapolis (indeed, my friends as well on the other side of the globe) are certainly experiencing many different instances of “here” than I am, but they are surely experiencing the very same, one and only “now.” Our different perspectives do not appear to affect “now,” and thus the disanalogy.

It isn’t at all strange to the ears to hear something like: “If there were no persons, there would still be a privileged ‘now’ even in the absence of anyone to experience it.”

The importance of “now” is deployed to help make sense of the privileged uniqueness of the present, as opposed to the past and future, and the transition between past, present, and future. It seems undeniable that time passes, for lack of a better term. It also seems that once we leave the past behind, there’s no going back, because the “now” keeps chugging along (at its own pace, interestingly). Again, that’s different than “here,” where I can revisit previous “heres.” I can walk upstairs to the bedroom that used to be a place that I referred to as one of my instances of “here.”

While according well with everyday experience, this commonsense view (about the specialness of “now”) is probably wrong, and the disanalogies are not as deep as they might initially appear.

More on that (a) at a later time or (b) in the future [temporal expressions (a) and (b) do NOT mean the same thing]...

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Jonathan Edwards on original sin

Well, I just sat down to re-read Jonathan Edwards’ defense of the doctrine of original sin. [Philosophical aside: Personally, I think the doctrine of original sin is philosophically confusing. I don’t quite understand it.]

His treatment is even more radical than I had remembered. His project is to answer objections about the alleged injustice of imputing Adam and Eve’s sin/guilt to their posterity. [Philosophical aside: I think this question is interesting regardless of whether one takes the Adam and Even story to be historical, allegorical, mytho-poetical, whatever. I could care less which of these one adopts.]

He does have some stuff in there that intimates something like a four-dimensionalism (though not strictly so), applied to the entire human species. Each alleged individual is, in a sense, a slice of the human species.

He writes:
“I think, it would go far towards directing us to the more clear and distinct conceiving and right stating of this affair, if we steadily bear this in mind; that God, in each step of his proceeding with Adam, in relation to the covenant or constitution established with him, looked on his posterity as being one with him. (The propriety of his looking upon them so, I shall speak to afterwards.) And though he dealt more immediately with Adam, yet it was as the head of the whole body, and the root of the whole tree; and in his proceedings with him, he dealt with all the branches, as if they had been then existing in their root. From which it will follow, that both guilt, or exposedness to punishment, and also depravity of heart, came upon Adam’s posterity just as they came upon him, as much as if he and they had all coexisted, like a tree with many branches; allowing only for the 16 difference necessarily resulting from the place Adam stood in, as head or root of the whole, and being first and most immediately dealt with, and most immediately acting and suffering. Otherwise, it is as if, in every step of proceeding, every alteration in the root had been attended, at the same instant, with the same steps and alterations throughout the whole tree, in each individual branch. I think, this will naturally follow on the supposition of there being a constituted oneness or identity of Adam and his posterity in this affair.”

He then deals with an immediate and obvious objection that this way of speaking of “oneness” or “identity” is completely inappropriate.

It’s the way he deals with this objection that is radical. Like the clever metaphysician he was, he argues that it’s not any stranger than any case of identity or sameness.

He begins with the standard Cartesian line on divine concurrence vis-à-vis endurance, namely, there isn’t any if we’re being strictly philosophical about it. Each moment is God’s (re)creating out of nothing the entire space-time reality. Each momentary slice is strictly causally unconnected to the previous and later moments.

He writes:
“It will certainly follow from these things, that God’s preserving created things in being is perfectly equivalent to a continued creation, or to his creating those things out of nothing at each moment of their existence.”

From there, he eventually goes after personal identity and the identity of substances, arguing that these paradigm cases of identity are actually what he calls “dependent” on the will of God. After all, at each given moment, my slices are related, at best, by a Humean relation of contiguity in space and time, but there is no authentic causal relation between them. [Philosophical aside: Note the question-begging phrase “authentic causal relation” in the previous sentence. Caveat lector!] Each is a kind of momentary substance that winks in and then immediately out of existence. (So here, Edwards would not qualify as a genuine four-dimensionalist. He would be more like a three-dimensionalist presentist who denies that anything endures.)

He writes:
“From these things it will clearly follow, that identity of consciousness depends wholly on a law of nature; and so, on the sovereign will and agency of God; and therefore, that personal identity, and so the derivation of the pollution and guilt of past sins in the same person, depends on an arbitrary divine constitution: and this, even though we should allow the same consciousness not to be the only thing which constitutes oneness of person, but should, besides that, suppose sameness of substance requisite. For if same consciousness be one thing necessary to personal identity, and this depends on God’s sovereign constitution, it will still follow, that personal identity depends on God’s sovereign constitution. And with respect to the identity of created substance itself, in the different moments of its duration, I think, we shall greatly mistake, if we imagine it to be like that absolute independent identity of the first being, whereby “he is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Nay, on the contrary, it may be demonstrated, that even this oneness of created substance, existing at different times, is a merely dependent identity; dependent on the pleasure and sovereign constitution of him who worketh all in all.”

What he does is relativize identity to the will of God. Hence, how God views identity is what makes identity. All cases of identity are relative in this way, and so “oneness” or “sameness” is context dependent, and the justice of applying these predicates to unify particulars and treat them as parts of the same whole is all in the eye of a Giant Beholder.

The distinct, conscious episodes that I ordinarily look upon as my own consciousness are actually causally distinct (i.e., a fairly radical occasionalism runs all through this particular Edwards piece), and what *makes* them one is that God *treats* them as one. And if this is true of the paradigm cases of identity, then what’s so unjust or unseemly about treating all human agents as parts of one object? So asks Edwards.

He ends on this note:

He writes:
“There are various kinds of identity and oneness, found among created things, by which they become one in different manners, respects and degrees, and to various purposes; several of which differences have been observed; and every kind is ordered, regulated and limited, in every respect, by divine constitution. Some things, existing in different times and places, are treated by their Creator as one in one respect, and others in another; some are united for this communication, and others for that; but all according to the sovereign pleasure of the Fountain of all being and operation. It appears, particularly, from what has been said, that all oneness, by virtue whereof pollution and guilt from past wickedness are derived, depends entirely on a divine establishment. ‘Tis this, and this only, that must account for guilt and an evil taint on any individual soul, in consequence of a crime committed twenty or forty years ago, remaining still, and even to the end of the world and forever. ‘Tis this, that must account for the continuance of any such thing, anywhere, as consciousness of acts that are past; and for the continuance of all habits, either good or bad: and on this depends everything that can belong to personal identity. And all communications, derivations, or continuation of qualities, properties, or relations, natural or moral, from what is past, as if the subject were one, depends on no other foundation. And I am persuaded, no solid reason can be given, why God, who constitutes all other created union or oneness, according to his pleasure, and for what purposes, communications, and effects he pleases, may not establish a constitution whereby the natural posterity of Adam, proceeding from him, much as the buds and branches from the stock or root of a tree, should be treated as one with him, for the derivation, either of righteousness and communion in rewards, or of the loss of righteousness and consequent corruption and guilt.”

So, in the end, it’s not really the quasi-four-dimensionalism that’s the interesting, radical stuff (though of course there’s some of that really in Edwards).

It’s his novel view of the metaphysics of identity.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Cartesian voluntarism

I'm back from a short trip to Los Angeles, and now for a quick blog entry...

Descartes is delightfully notorious for so many things.

One of those things is a deep, divine voluntarism not just about the good but also about the true. In particular, he is a voluntarist about modal truths.

One way to make this sound less crazy (and perhaps even be less crazy, if true) is to domesticate what is happening when one asserts modal claims.

According to Descartes, a modal claim asserts what is or is not understandable or consistently statable within the limitations of human conception.

To say of P that it is impossible is to say that no person whose cognitive processes are efficiently at work can place P within her noetic structure without running into a contradiction. Notice that the only thing that this strictly entails is that P is not thinkable by persons with the aforementioned cognitive faculties.

The obvious question asks why it’s unthinkable.

Descartes’ answer is that God made persons with those cognitive faculties and their limitations. In that respect, God is the author of modal truths (since modal truths are actually just statements about what can and cannot be conceived — viz., statements about intellectual limitations of properly functioning cognizers).

An obvious answer to the why question that Descartes rejects is that we have some special criterial insight into the nature of what is really possible and impossible by means of our conceivability.

This helps to explain why Descartes would say of God that he could have made it the case that 2 and 2 equal 5 and that God does not have to trouble himself with modal truths in his own understanding.

This doesn’t really line up well with Descartes a priori argument for the existence of God in the Meditations, partly because his voluntarism is muted in that work. Nevertheless, it’s an undeniable chunk of his philosophy and well attested in his correspondence, even if it imports some inconsistency into his overall system.

Here’s a sample written to Arnauld:

“I do not think we should ever say of anything that it cannot be brought about by God. For since every basis of truth and goodness depends on his omnipotence, I would not venture to say that God cannot make an uphill without a downhill, or that one and two should not be three. But I merely say that he has given me such a mind that I cannot conceive an uphill without a downhill, or a sum of one and two which is not three, and that such things involve a contradiction in my conception (CSMK 358-9).”

Does this make Descartes a modal skeptic? I’m not sure how to answer that question, but his modal reasoning is certainly more intriguing and problematic when seen in this light.

Once again, special care paid to these early modern philosophers explodes such platitudes attributed to them such as “conceivability is a test for possibility.”

Monday, June 23, 2008

Ethical Dilemmas at work

The health care profession seems to be in a conflicting situation, if not an ethical dilemma. Companies in the health care profession often say in their mission statement that their mission is to provide health care, short and long term, to their patients and families. But as companies, they are in the business of business--making money. And in order to make money, they need a constant supply of unhealthy customers. They face an ethical bind: while wanting to promote health, they do not want complete health, else they'd be out of business (or in a significantly reduced state). Think analogously of the auto industry. If they make too efficient and reliable of an auto, people will not need to buy a newer one as often. Yet they want to provide the most reliable auto out there (or at least that is what they want to advertise). In the health care industry, an aim seems to be (or should be) to work themselves out of a job. Get people so healthy, and so much involved in their own personal health maintenance, that they do not need the health care industry.

So what do you think? What do you think a health care business should have as its mission statement? To work themselves out of a job?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

early modern direct realist perception... maybe

There’s a fun discussion in the secondary literature on whether or not early modern philosophers really should be saddled with this “veil of perceptions” doctrine, where their realism is one of representationalism (i.e., indirect realism).

One step towards getting rid of the lingering notion that all the early modern philosophers were representationalists is to find a way of talking about mental ideas such that they are not being reified under analysis.

In Descartes’ context, for example, Arnauld and Malebranche had a big fight over whether Descartes should be taken as (in our terminology) a direct realist or a representational (indirect) realist. Arnauld sided with the former and Malebranche (in his very odd way) the latter. In that Cartesian context, a way of framing the issue is as follows: In the mental act, there are three variables that must be analyzed: (i) the act of mind, (ii) the mental object, and (iii) the object that is thought of in the mental act. Arnauld, in crusading for a direct realist reading of Descartes’ theory of perception (Arnauld’s language: mental acts exemplify a “primitive integrity”), argued that (ii) and (iii) differ by a mere distinction of reason (in contemporary discourse, (ii) and (iii) are two different descriptions of the same reality). For Arnauld, there is only the mental act that is modified when it is directly presented with the object that is the content of the mental act: mind and mind-indepenent world with no reified ideational intermediary. Malebranche argued that all three are totally distinct entities.

Well, the jury is still out on that discussion, but I lean more towards Arnauld, though of course the causal mediation between mental content and represented reality is really strange (see below).

For Locke’s context, the discussion is usually brokered by arguing about the status of mental images. Yep... even in Lockean secondary literature, there’s a big hubbub about whether Locke himself was a crypto-direct-realist.

I guess that depends on making sure that Lockean ideas qua images are not things as such. This is true even though all of us, I imagine, experience mental images and even would say things like “I have a mental image of my living room.”

I would not hesitate to say of myself that “I have a mental image of my living room where blueness is represented.” Is this an attribution of a monadic property to me or a dyadic relation between myself and some other thing (in this case, the mental image)?

I think that it makes more sense to say that it’s the former. By way of analogy, when I say that I’m in a mischievous mood, I think it’s very unnatural to think that there is a thing such as a mischievous mood. Rather, to say “Dan is in a mischievous mood” is to say that Dan is acting a certain way, not that Dan is related to another thing called a mood. It is an adjectival statement about me or an adverbial modification of my acting.

Another way of saying this: To say of Dan that he is in said mood is to be assimilated to the logical form Gx rather than R(x,y) — viz, monadic, not relational.

That’s step one in claiming that some form of direct realist perception is a viable interpretation of the early modern theories of perception. In looking at the medieval period, one will find similar kinds of discussions about the ontological or merely logical status of such items as intentional species — i.e., whether they are modes of mind or more strongly tertium quid between mind and world.

In early twentieth-century philosophy, there are sense-data and arguments against such reifications.

It’s pretty interesting how perennial questions in philosophy pop up over and over again so frequently (neurotically?).

would be awesome...

Sign me up if this were ever to become a reality...

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

In Defense of Omnivores

I originally posted this article here, but thought it might be of interest to readers of this blog as well.

I grew up on a meat and potatoes diet. Every dinner, there would be a meat (most often chicken, but also pork or beef), either rice or potato, and a veggie. Lunches would be similar, perhaps with a fruit instead of a veggie or bread instead of rice or potato. Vegetarianism wasn’t really on my radar until high school or college. Even when I was aware of it, it certainly never occurred to me that it might be an option for me. But now I do see it as an option, something that I have to consider.

And I have considered. I haven’t given the matter a great deal of thought, but I have noticed the arguments for vegetarianism, and I’m not yet convinced. Below I’ll express my dissatisfaction. But feel free to put your two cents in the comments. Maybe you’ll be the one to convince me.

My guiding principle is that meat-eating is permissible (that is, there is nothing morally wrong with it, but it is not morally required) until shown to be otherwise. In some ways, I’m denying a level playing field to vegetarians. I’m not a neutral observer who needs to be swayed by both the carnivores and the herbivores. In real life, I’m starting as an omnivore, so the arguments have to sway me from that position. I simply like food of all kinds, and like it a great deal. I like crispy bacon at breakfast or on a sandwich, an occasional tender steak, nicely broiled tandoori chicken, curried goat, and a host of other meat dishes. Unless I am convinced that eating these are impermissible, there is a presumption in favor of eating meat.

I’ll take a few key arguments for vegetarianism one by one, and explain why they don’t convince me to give up meat entirely.

1. Pain is bad
Pain is a bad. Since eating meat requires killing an animal, it comes as a result of pain. The badness of pain is only justified if there is a great deal of good to offset it. “I like the taste of meat” isn’t enough good pleasure to offset the pain that comes from killing. So eating meat is wrong.

Pain sure isn’t good, so this has some pull. The way I’ve stated this argument suggests that all killing involves pain, which isn’t strictly speaking true (but it probably does in most relevant cases: see argument 2 below). I’m not convinced that failure to enjoy future pleasures is itself a bad, so a pain-free killing might not be a bad. But let’s set that aside for now.

Given that most of the meat comes as a result of a process that likely involves significant pain for an animal, should I stop eating meat? I don’t think so. For one, I don’t think that the pain suffered by animals counts morally as much as the pain or pleasure experienced by humans. That pain matters, but not as much. Second, I don’t think that in all cases benefiting from the pain of someone or something else makes that thing wrong. There are plenty of cases where we benefit from others’ pain, and I don’t see any case for a general prohibition of denying oneself the benefits simply because there was pain involved.

There are some wrongs that are so grievous that it would be wrong to benefit from them. For example, knowingly receiving goods that were stolen or resulted from exploitation of the people producing them. But in these cases, it is not the pain that justifies refusing the benefits, but other wrongs. (As a side note, what I am advocating here is a rejection of hedonic utilitarianism which reduces all goods to pain or pleasure, suggesting that there are other, more significant wrongs that focus on dehumanizing or disrespecting persons.) So I am not convinced that animal pain produces any moral prohibition on eating meat.

2. Cruelty of slaughterhouses
The process by which meat comes to your grocery store or restaurant involves an incredible amount of pain or suffering (graphic examples are abundant). Even if animal suffering is sometimes okay, this much animal suffering is not.

We could take this argument in two different directions. One would be to make it structurally like a version of the problem of evil for theism that says that evil is compatible with the existence of God, but not this much evil. The other is to make it structurally like the argument offered by some opponents of the death penalty in the U.S. who say that it might be justified for a government to take a citizen’s life, but our current system is so deeply flawed that we should cease the practice indefinitely. I’ll focus on the second version.

If the descriptions of slaughterhouses are remotely accurate, and the only meat available came from them, I would have a hard time responding to this argument. However, I think that to many people who live close to the source of their food, which is a good proportion of the world, this is not a factor. Even within the U.S., some people know quite well the conditions of their animals because they are ranchers or know the ranchers. The rest of us can choose to buy meat that is labeled as being free-range or organic (not that those labels are terribly trustworthy), that is free of hormones, that is from local producers, and that does not come from corporations known to use the worst techniques. I do think there is an obligation to seek out meat that came from more humane living and slaughtering conditions. (I know some vegetarians who would eat meat if they could ensure humane conditions.) This obligation is sometimes trumped by other factors, I think, which include not being able to afford the typically more expensive but more humanely produced meat. Perhaps availability also plays a factor here.

One side note: Many people are more repulsed the closer they are to the source of their meat or the more they know about how the food got on their plate. However, I think this is exactly the wrong response here, since I think it is better (and perhaps morally obligatory in some cases) to become aware of the conditions.

3. Healthier diet
Conditions in slaughterhouses, antibiotics, growth hormones, mad cow disease - all of these are examples of how the way we get meat could/does result in greater health problems. Add to this all the negative health effects (e.g., obesity, high cholesterol) that come from eating meat. Eating meat is worse for you than strict vegetarianism.

The negative health effects suggest a diet that is not too heavily dependent on meat, and in which the meats chosen are high in the good stuff and low in the bad stuff. I don’t see any compelling case for the benefits of a vegetarian diet. In fact, for many people who are not well enough informed about what nutrients they would be lacking if they switched off of meat, it would be dangerous to jump into an all veggie diet. For those who can be informed, and who can afford to do so, this should push them toward reducing or eliminating meat from their diet, especially if they are at risk for these health problems.

As for those health problems that arise from bad conditions, given that there is no independent reason for banning meat and that it is unlikely that this will actually happen, these provide excellent reasons for greater scrutiny of the animal lifecycle by independent watchdog organizations and the federal government. If you want some really scary reading, look into what has happened over the last fifteen years to U.S. government agencies like the FDA and the EPA that ensure our health. That is a problem that deserves our attention.

4. Better use of resources
When one compares the natural resources (especially water, land, and fossil fuels) that are involved in producing meat versus those involved in producing vegetarian foods, there is an incredible difference, often by a factor of 10 or 100. Given the limited supply of natural resources and the negative consequences to people and the world of our continued rate of consumption, we have an obligation to switch to the diet that uses fewer resources.

This was the first argument for vegetarianism that really struck a chord with me. My (modest) reading of the impact of raising farm animals, particularly in portions of the world not well suited to cattle, like Brazil, has reinforced this for me. However, I think it is a pretty weak argument for vegetarianism, and a very strong argument for reducing our intake of meat.

And so that’s what I’ve done. When our meals involve meat, I’ve reduced the portion sizes of the meat. We’ve sought out vegetarian dishes to become part of our regular rotation of meals. When given the choice between beef and chicken, I choose chicken. I’m still working on choosing fish over chicken and vegetarian over any meat, but I’m slowly getting there.
I’m a committed omnivore, who is seeking out new and exciting vegetables, fruits, and grains. I’m looking for ways of making my diet more vegetarian, and looking for ways to ensure that the meat I eat comes from the most human conditions that I can reasonably expect. I buy local when I can. But become a vegetarian? I just don’t think the arguments require it.

Addendum: Mark Bittman has a nice article on how to eat less meat without going vegetarian.

a little phenomenology and ontology today...

A little phenomenology and ontology today...

A condition of thinking is the ability to have thoughts that represent. That’s a trivial enough insight.

A not so trivial question: how are thoughts representative of kinds or properties? This isn’t asking about how thoughts represent particulars (though that too is a philosophical question that is tough as nails). It’s about how they represent generals.

How does my thought (or mental image) of horse represent horses-as-such versus merely a particular horse?

This is different than asking about how words represent. Whatever story is told about the way that words represent must acknowledge the conventionality of linguistic reference/representation. That’s not quite the same with thoughts or images. These seem to have something like an intrinsic representational character to them. [heading off one hasty answer at the pass: It’s NOT about similarity or any vulgar speech about x “looks like” y.]

One can ask a question about thoughts/images that does not make sense if applied to words, whose representational character is conventional. Here’s the question: “What is it about a thought/perception/image/idea/fill-in-the-blank that makes it suitable to be bear its representational character?”

This is one of the deepest and oldest questions in the history of philosophy, and it still exercises the minds of some great contemporary philosophers (e.g., Putnam and McDowell are two noteworthy examples among many).

[Philosophical aside: The very fact that there are those who think that Kripke “solved” this problem just shows that the ones who believe this do not yet understand what the problem is.]

On the assumption that an idea’s representational character is something intrinsic about it, what explains this?

Here’s one proposal concerning some kind K: An idea of an of-a-K-kind is itself K. This entails that the idea itself exemplifies the property that it represents. In short, it represents a property by actually having it. The critical weakness of this view is that it does not seem adequate to explain the representational character of many types of ideas, such as ideas of geometrical or mathematical properties (e.g., triangularity, even-ness, etc.).

Here’s another proposal: An idea of an of-a-K-kind represents K-ness by being an instance of K-ness. The difference between this and the one above is that this one does not entail that the representing idea is itself K. Rather, it is an instance of K-ness. An alert reader will recognize that this entails the existence of an unowned property... which is... weird. I think something like this was the (broadly) medieval view of the transmission of species in the mental act of perception. [another philosophical aside: The medieval views on the mental act of perception were impossibly complex, disparate, and puckered relative to each other. So really, it’s not great to say anything about “the” medieval view, but there are some family resemblances between them and this notion of an unowned property.]

I guess there’s another way of going that asserts something like an intrinsic, natural affinity between concept and quality that is supposed to explain the representational character of ideas/thoughts/etc. The trouble that some have seen with this is that “natural affinity” is called pejoratively the “magical theory of intentionality” and something also disparagingly referred to as “noetic rays.” In short, it’s an occult, baroque ontological maneuver (but it might be true!).

I don’t know what to say about all this. I certainly do not have any way of answering the question, and I don’t think that the so-called causal theories of perception (though they get a ton of stuff right) actually do anything to answer this age-old, perennial question about the (allegedly intrinsic) representational character of thought.

Think of it this way to simplify: the converse of a causal relation is not thereby a relation (or property) of representation. That has to be explained, and simply calling perception causal and pretending that it assimilates thereby does not do that.

But I’m at a loss to say much more...

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Socrates and belief holism

In a post Thursday, Dan wrote about Leibniz:

"Leibniz writes, “In every true affirmative proposition, whether necessary or contingent, universal or particular, the notion of the predicate is in some way included in that of the subject (FW 111-2).”

"As he develops this line of thought, he ends up meaning something much stronger and controversial: (a) the complete concept of any substance S includes all the predicates P true of it; (b) the only way that one can refer to S is through its complete concept; and (c) for each S there is and can only be one complete concept (tantamount to saying that no two complete concepts do or could refer to the same thing)."

He goes on to make a point much different from what I am about to make. I know no more about Leibniz than any sophomore who has taken a history of modern philosophy survey. So I am making no claim about what Leibniz thought.

However, when Dan say that Leibniz's claim from FW 111-2 means "the complete concept of any substance S includes all predicates P true of it," I am thinking that sounds like the conceptual or belief holism to which I think Socrates is committed. So you are asking, "just what is conceptual holism?" It is the doctrine that concepts are not discrete, atomistic entities, such that you could acquire or understand one concept without also acquiring or understanding a bunch of concepts related to it. To understand the concept "tree," you would need to understand the concept plant, something about the concept animal, something about different cells that distinghuish trees from grasses or other plants, and so on. To be sure, you might be able to identify trees good enough to build a shelter, or to make a fire, but you would not understand the concept unless you understood a host of related concepts. So I take it when Leibniz says "the complete concept of any substance S includes all predicates P true of it," I take that to express a commitment to conceptual holism.

Socrates, I believe, was committed to conceptual holism. That is what, in my view, motivates some of his elenctic examinations. He asks an interlocutor about some moral concept that arises in their conversation. With Euthyphro, Socrates comes to ask him about the relationships between piety and justice. With Charmides (I am going from memory here) about relationships between temperance and courage (or wisdom). Socrates' view is, in my view, that if a person understands, has, the concept piety, for example, that person would be able to identify all predicates true of it, i.e. the web of concepts related to it. So when he examines interlocutors to see if they understand what they are claiming, he asks them about the closely related concepts. And if they are confused about them, it entails that they are confused about the main concept under discussion.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

yet another surprise from Leibniz

There is a funny route from Leibniz’s doctrine about subject-predicate containment to anti-essentialism (that sounds ludicrous at first, but it gets clearer when I explain what kind of anti-essentialism I mean).

Leibniz writes, “In every true affirmative proposition, whether necessary or contingent, universal or particular, the notion of the predicate is in some way included in that of the subject (FW 111-2).”

As he develops this line of thought, he ends up meaning something much stronger and controversial: (a) the complete concept of any substance S includes all the predicates P true of it; (b) the only way that one can refer to S is through its complete concept; and (c) for each S there is and can only be one complete concept (tantamount to saying that no two complete concepts do or could refer to the same thing).

This creates a prima facie problem with contingency itself. It seems to imply that if one utters truly that S is P it follows that S could not have been not-P. The “could not” is modally serious — implying that P is essential to S — implying that everything true of S is essential to S.

His famous example is the biblical character Judas. In Discourse on Metaphysics 30, he writes, “Why is it that this man will assuredly commit this sin? The reply is easy: otherwise he would not be this man.” What follows the “otherwise” Leibniz takes to be conceptually impossible — in effect, a violation of the conditions of identity.

(One could try to use contemporary counterfactual logic to claim that perhaps Judas in near worlds consistently commits the sin in question, but in worlds farther away he does not. The problem in Leibniz’s context is that this runs into constraint (c) above.)

That this really does threaten contingency is something that Leibniz tries to stave off with a strange analysis of contingency. He writes of contingent truths, “though the predicate inheres in the subject, we can never demonstrate this, nor can the proposition ever be reduced to an equation or an identity, but the analysis proceeds to infinity, only God being able to see (not the of the analysis, indeed, for there is no end, but) the nexus of terms or the inclusion of the predicate in the subject, since he sees everything that is in the series (L 265).”

This really doesn’t appear to have anything to do with whether in the nature of the case there is a distinction between features of substances that are essential or not, and this has been pointed out by many commentators on Leibniz.

He seems to be in a pretty tough spot, and this is what I meant earlier when I said of Leibniz that ironically he’s an anti-essentialist... in this specific sense: to the degree that essentialism, to be an interesting philosophical doctrine, demarcates essential properties from properties that aren’t, Leibniz doesn’t appear to have a way of marking that difference, because his philosophy implies that all properties of any S are essential to S.

John Locke, Leibniz’s great foil, is also agreed in anti-essentialism, but in the completely opposite articulation — viz., no properties, in the nature of the case, are essential to any S qua res.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

more delightful surprises from Leibniz

About ten years ago, William Lyons wrote an informative book on intentionality (Approaches to Intentionality). One of the views he discussed was one in which intentionality was a biological function of informational covariance, where representational contents are analyzed by relations of causation and “signals.” The important point of that theory is that intentionality is NOT basic (and neither is mind as such) and therefore apt to be naturalized.

I was reminded of that view today in reading and thinking about Leibniz on the “perception” of monads. I put the term in scary quotation marks because for Leibniz perception in monads is analyzed by way of Leibniz’s technical notion of expression, where expression really has nothing irreducibly psychological about it at all.

When Leibniz says of monads that they express the entire universe from their respective “points of view,” similarly we should resist thinking of “points of view” as anything more than metaphor.

A “point of view,” like “perception,” is really just a way of talking about an information covariance, which is the job description of expression in Leibniz’s metaphysics.

“p expresses q” = “p contains information about q.” The nature of the containment is not irreducibly psychological, though it can be psychological (just not irreducibly so). A perception is just a special case of expression, which itself is just a case of informational covariance.

The surprise is that it accords so well with the spirit of some recent attempts to naturalize intentionality, though of course not with the letter.

If all this is correct (and I’m not saying anything original about how best to interpret Leibniz), then it poses huge challenges for Leibniz. When he says of a perception by a monad that it can differ in degrees of clarity and distinctness, the temptation to draw from the stock of commonsense, folk psychological concepts to elucidate these differences between the perceptions of monads is powerful. It has to be resisted, however, if he is to make good on the promissory note to analyze perception by means of expression (and not vice versa).

a hard saying from Leibniz

I don’t quite understand the following from Leibniz.

“If we pretend that there is a machine whose structure makes it think, sense, and have perception, then we can conceive it enlarged, but keeping to the same proportions, so that we might go inside it as into a mill. Suppose that we do: then if we inspect the interior we shall find there nothing but parts that push one another, and never anything that would explain a perception. Thus perception must be sought in simple substances, not in what is composite or in machines (Monadology 17).”

There’s a weak reading that might be expressed as follows: There is an inexorable conceptual gap between mental and material concepts. No amount of “fact-mining” about matter will result in concepts and propositions of matter that entail concepts and propositions of mentality. There is thus an unbridgeable explanatory gap.

The aforementioned weak reading, true as it might be, is probably too weak to express what Leibniz had in mind. He’s going after John Locke and others who claim that it is possible that purely material beings could also be thinking things. A weak reading does not square with the more ambitious goal of proving that thought belongs to the province of immaterial substances (in Leibniz’s case, monads that qualify as souls).

While I understand what the stronger reading would be, I don’t really know what the strongest Leibnizian argument for it would be (other than Leibniz asserting that matter, understood in the manner of the corpuscularian mechanists, does not exist... and Leibniz did NOT believe in the existence of matter but not for the same reasons as Berkeley). I suppose that Leibniz would advert to the Cartesian premise that mentality is basic to its proper, simple substance and therefore not an ontological product of more basic elements. But that’s not so much an argument as it is a principle that already loads the game in one’s favor.

I think it’s this kind of stuff that Kant was after when he discusses the “rational psychologist” — viz., philosophers who write about the mind with only a priori considerations in view.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

the "will" of God

When Socrates quizzed Euthyphro on the nature of piety, he bequeathed to us an interesting and seemingly perennial philosophical puzzle about how to speak of God (which, for me at least, is equivalent to how to think of God).

It seems that one’s answer to Socrates either limits the scope of God’s power or makes equivocal the sense of “good” that is used to speak of God. Either way, the results aren’t so great (for the theist).

The issue comes up again in a different context between Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza. The context is the scope of their rationalism(s) vis-à-vis what can and cannot be explained.

Here are three different ways of thinking through the “will” of God and standards of value.

Descartes believes the following:

  • The will of God is indifferent from eternity with respect to any fact.
  • It is not possible that (a) God considers x to be good and (b) x’s being good is (logically) prior to the divine volition to make it the case that x is good.
  • God willing the world to come to be as it is constitutes the world’s goodness.
  • God did not will the world to come to be as it is because he somehow perceived that it would be good if he were to do so.

From this it follows that there is no (rational) explanation for God’s actions, which is equivalent to affirming the existence of “brute” theological facts.

[Philosophical and autobiographical aside: Acknowledging the very real differences between the early modern rationalists causes me to get heated about pontificators who make sweeping generalizations about “the” Modern Period and the allegedly monolithic views that “modernists” had about the power of human reason.]

Leibniz can’t stand Descartes’ view of the will of God for at least two reasons.

  • Morally speaking, he finds it repugnant that God would be a being who chooses with no standards guiding its decisions. What Leibniz implies is that there is a stink of moral incompetence in a scenario in which an agent is making arbitrary, unguided choices.
  • Related to this is a conceptual constraint on the meaning of “will.” Leibniz writes in a letter to Monatus, “Descartes’ God has no will.” What he means is that the concept of will includes a rationalizing object of will (a particular good that is the proper object of a will). Surely, a perfect being should have a perfect will, which for Leibniz implies that there must be a rationalizing object of God’s will. Otherwise, what would it even mean to say anything about the “will of God,” much less a will in general?

Leibniz similarly in his New Essays gives trouble to John Locke by complaining that (a) to credit God’s action to God’s “arbitrary will and good pleasure [Locke’s words]” is tantamount to (b) impiously denying that God is good and (c) conceptually botching the handling of “pleasure” (i.e., an analysis of “pleasure” in a divine being must include a rationalizing object in exactly parallel fashion as in the case of “will”).

Spinoza flushes the whole lot. What Spinoza brings to light is an issue about anthropomorphism with respect to the concept of “will.” He is especially situated to do so because of his monism. Using contemporary jargon, one might say that language at the two levels of mental attributes and physical attributes consists simply of two modes of presentation of the self-same substantial reality underlying every fact—namely, God or Nature, which amounts to the same thing. To take too seriously language about the “will of God” (and also perhaps language about God itself) is to commit a gross kind of anthropomorphism, because this implies that there is an irreducibly personal substance—either God or any allegedly individual substance—that makes choices.

For Spinoza, there is no sense in which it is ever right to say of God that it is “like a man,” which is what bothers him about Leibniz’s view. However, Spinoza is not a Cartesian either, since there is no sense in which God is a person on his account. God may be a substance, but it’s not a person or agent in any sense.

For now, I’m closer to Leibniz than I am to either Descartes or Spinoza. I confess to finding Leibniz’s conceptual analysis of “will” to be prima facie compelling, and, not being a philosopher of religion, I'm likely to have to work harder than many to iron out my own thoughts on this.

My first obvious thought, however, is: Isn’t my predilection for Leibniz's concept of “will” just a gross anthropomorphism—a kind of “putting God in a box,” to use the pious vernacular? Good question... I don’t know how to respond, except to ask whether the mere act of speaking of God is an instance of “putting God in a box.” Until someone can give some real content to that allegedly impious boogeyman of a phrase, I don’t know what to say except that conceiving of the “will” of God along Leibnizian lines seems simply one place along a continuum of speaking of God, which is to deny that it’s impious or limiting per se, the via negativa notwithstanding.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Spinoza is not so strange... maybe

I’m getting more and more intrigued by Spinoza these days. I still can’t make sense of the ways that he connects his propositions in the early (and in my view the most interesting) parts of Ethics, but nevertheless I think I’m beginning to get a picture of what he’s really saying.

What strikes me about him is that on the one hand his philosophy is initially so bizarre as to make it hard to take him seriously, especially if one reads him too quickly; however, on the other hand, when one invests a little bit of patience and slowly mulls over his philosophical moves, he kind of sounds like he belongs to the 21st century.

In a very brief secondary text that I use for my History of Philosophy II course, Wallace Matson uses a nice metaphor to illuminate Spinoza’s monism. Jonathan Bennett, whose work has definitely impressed itself on me, also uses imagery of this sort. He asks us to consider a perspective of the cosmos as energy that is differentiated not in individual stuffs but only in degree of relatively frozen/stable states of regions of Stuff.

This would imply (at least) two levels of description of phenomena in that cosmos. Any purported individual-stuffs-language, especially descriptions of the motion of alleged individuals, would ultimately be analyzed by Stuff-language, perhaps like so:

Imagine if an alien being were to “enter our Universe” (per impossible). Or, if you don’t like that, imagine that an alien being were to be spontaneously generated. This alien being has vastly different sense modalities than we do. In fact, it only registers the relatively frozen/stable states of regions of Stuff, plus times. The purportedly individual-stuffs are frozen relative to the more fluid regions of less frozen Stuff.

Example: There is (a) the computer in front of me and (b) the region of space surrounding it. (a) is relatively frozen/stable vis-à-vis (b) which is relatively fluid. Throw in (c) some time indices.

How might that alien report its perceptions? [Philosophical aside: That there is an alien observer is irrelevant. I throw it in to help imagine the scenario; it actually plays no philosophical role.]

What we call an “individual thing” could be reported as an ordered pair that consists of a slice of space-time like so: t1 and a spatial region R, where at t1, R consists of (i) a relatively frozen/stable sub-region and (ii) a surrounding relatively fluid region.

Suppose that the computer moves from one region to another through time.

How might this be reported?

It could be reported as sequential sets of ordered pairs described above: {R1, t1}, {R2, t2, ... {Rn, tn}. The conditions are as follows: (i) the times are continuous, and (ii) R-members are continuous when taken in order.

This provides the raw materials for an analysis of “There are individual things whose positions alter through time.”

What is ultimately being analyzed (in fact, reduced) is reference to “individual things.” All reference to individuals (understood as res) must be reduced to reference to modes of energy (or rather, Energy), specifically its distribution in regions of relatively frozen/stable or fluid states.

Like so: “There are sequences of ordered pairs, {R1, t1}, {R2, t2, ... {Rn, tn}, and the R-members are not identical.”

The upshot is that you can get “movement through regions of space” without any individual res doing any movement. Instead, it’s simply, at the bottom level of analysis, a fact about relative distributions (i.e., modes) of the one and only thing that exists (i.e., Energy).

This is why Spinoza belongs to the 21st century (and also maybe why his work presages that monism, mysticism, and 21st century physics would converge in unexpected ways).

Thursday, June 5, 2008

how to stumble into Spinoza, or maybe Berkeley

Religious piety, combined with some traditional theses about the nature of (the Christian) God, can result in some surprises.

Christians believe that there is only one God. They might argue further that there can be only one God.

How could one argue for this? Here’s one way to argue for it by reductio that combines (a) a plain-vanilla thesis about omniscience and (b) a traditional, pious orientation towards whether or not God can be affected.

With respect to (a), if something is to count as God, then it must know everything that can be known.

With respect to (b), if God knows something, it has to be explained by reference to a feature intrinsic to God itself—in other words, in good Thomistic fashion, it’s got to be something other than God’s being affected, since being affected would imply an alteration of the type that counts against immutability and simplicity (and maybe atemporality).

Suppose that there are two Gods named Way-yeah and Hovah-Je. Does Way-yeah know about Hovah-Je? Either it does or it doesn’t. If it does not, then Way-yeah doesn’t satisfy the relevant restrictions on what would count as God. If it does, then ex hypothesi (since Hovah-Je is also a God), its knowledge is a function of its being affected—which implies that Way-yeah is not a God.

This might get the desired result: that there is and can be only one God.

However, doesn’t such an argument threaten to prove much more? It doesn’t promise to show only that there cannot be a God and another God. Doesn’t the argument also threaten to show that there cannot be a God and anything else?

By way of analogy, I know (or at any rate, have beliefs) about the computer screen in front of me because I am being affected by it.

By way of contrastive analogy, I know about my own beliefs (i.e., the content of my own mind) because either (i) my beliefs are a “part” of me or (ii) I am being affected by my own nature.

Replace Hovah-Je above with “the world” and amend the argument slightly:

Suppose that there are two things: a God and its creation, the world. Does God know about the world? Either it does or it doesn’t. If it does not, then it doesn’t satisfy the relevant restrictions on what would count as God. If it does, then its knowledge is a function of its being affected—which implies that it is not a God.

One way to block the second horn to is deny that God’s knowledge of the world is a function of its being affected by the world. One way to do that is to specify that its knowledge, in some interesting sense, comes from itself. However, an illuminating analogy for how that’s supposed to work is the one above that lines up this kind of knowing with knowing the contents of one’s own mind.

Bam: we’ve got pantheism (or atheism with “God” talk as reverent residue). Or maybe we’ve got Berkeleyan idealism... I don’t know.

Another way to block the inference is to deny traditional assumptions about the nature of God—which is to affirm that God can and does change and that it is affected by things outside of itself.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Descartes on indivisibility

Descartes gives a strange argument for the real distinction between mind and body. [Philosophical aside: he specifies “real” as in “res,” as opposed to a modal (as in “mode” of substance) distinction, since he recognizes the former as relevant to his substance dualism.]

The argument is one from divisibility.

(1) All extended things are divisible.
(2) No minds are divisible.
(3) No minds are extended things.

Since he believes that extension is characteristic of matter and only matter, it follows that minds cannot be material.

It’s premise (2) that Descartes really needs. What was his reasoning? He claims that he cannot conceive of half of a mind. So he must be going for something really strong, like the inconceivability of a mind’s being divisible.

Well... what would “a portion of a mind” be like, and why would Descartes think that, whatever it is, was inconceivable?

Jonathan Bennett has an interesting conjecture. He says that perhaps Descartes thought that “half a mind” would have to be mind-like in some relevant sense, where perhaps the most obvious sense would be having mentality or consciousness.

It’s very easy to see that “a portion of an extended thing” itself would be extended in a very straightforward, univocal sense of extended.

Descartes does not consider the possibility (perhaps obvious to us today) that the mind is a complex causal result of a factory of simpler, more basic (non-mental) parts. In short, for Descartes, mentality is basic, but he’s not really argued for this.

This helps explain why he instinctively treats mentality and extension as analogously primitive properties of each alleged substance.

Just as splitting and further splitting of an extended object, say, a cat would result in smaller and smaller parts of an extended object, so also should the splitting of a mind result in smaller and smaller thinking portions of a mind, which Descartes took to be absurd. [Another philosophical aside: I think it’s got to be connected also to the special unity of consciousness, which Leibniz later capitalizes on in some profound ways.]

If Descartes were given the example of splitting the cat, what he may not have considered was that mentality should not be analyzed as analogous to the simplicity/basicity of extension but rather more along the lines of the complexity of “being a living animal” or “being a living cat.”

Monday, June 2, 2008

musing on Cartesian causation

Here’s a brief meditation on Descartes’ views of causation.

For Descartes’ teachers, the causal alterations of the material world were to be explained by reference to substantial forms. These were the entities that were the causal relata invoked to explain alteration, generation, and corruption.

For many reasons, Descartes came to reject the explanatory value of substantial forms (chief among the reasons, other than the obvious issues concerning mechanistic physics: he considered them to be crass reifications of concepts and hence a huge mistake in metaphysics), but he ended up replacing them with God. There is therefore some truth to the claim that for Descartes God becomes a sort of deus ex machina, at least by our standards of explanation.

Quick points:

1. Descartes affirmed occasionalism (i.e., denied genuine causal powers to material bodies) for body-body causal relations. God is the real and sole cause of alterations in causal phenomena involving bodies and other bodies. [Philosophical aside: What motivated occasionalism? The quick answer is a combination between (a) a pious but overwrought view of divine omnipotence/providence and (b) constrained perspectives on what it would take for passive matter to be affected.]

2. Descartes affirmed genuine causal powers of finite minds to cause alterations in material bodies, in most cases, the body intimately connected to one’s own mind. This is what primarily distinguishes him from the pure occasionalists (such as Malebranche).

3. It’s not clear what Descartes believed about body-mind causal relations. Specifically, he doesn’t seem to have a consistent story to tell about whether or not material bodies cause sensations in minds.

In the Meditations, Descartes appears to commit himself to the view that the ideas of material bodies are genuinely caused by those very bodies that stand outside of the mind. His distinction between innate and adventitious ideas appears to require such a view.

However, in the later Principles, there’s a key entry in the French edition that reads as follows: “ seems to us that the idea we have of it forms itself in us on the occasion of bodies from without (Principles II.1).”

If we throw into the mix his real views on the radical innateness of ideas, then I think a picture emerges in which Descartes is probably best thought of as a semi-occasionalist with respect to body-mind causal relations.

For Descartes, all ideas are innate, not just the “big” ones like the idea of God, geometry, or the infinite. Even sensory ideas are innate, as he makes explicit in his Notes on a Certain Broadsheet. Here’s a quotation: “Hence it follows that the very ideas of the motions themselves and of the shape are innate in us. The ideas of pain, colors, sounds, and the like must be all the more innate if, on the occasion of certain corporeal motions, our mind is to be capable of representing them to itself, for there is no similarity between these ideas and the corporeal motions.”

I call this semi-occasionalism because strictly speaking God is not the direct cause of these sensations in a way that is isomorphic with the way in which God is the direct cause of motions in the case of body-body causation.

In this special case of body-mind causation, there is a kind of active principle (a dispositional structure or set of properties) in the soul that, under the right activation conditions, produces all the various ideas—sensory and otherwise. [Another philosophical aside: This is what distinguishes Descartes from being a recollectionist-nativist such as Plato.] The activation conditions are the occasions (of brain stimulation or whatnot) for the dispositional properties to manifest their characteristic expressions. The important things are (a) the relation between the external stimuli and the manifestations (i.e., the mind’s ideas) is non-causal and (b) the relation between the dispositions and the expressions is causal (but that sounds odd too... do dispositions “cause” their manifestations?).

It’s in this sense that it’s semi-occasionalism: God is only involved in an indirect sense in which he is the one who created and placed those dispositions in the soul in the first place, but then they take on a kind of causal independence of their own in their occasionalist brokering of representational relations between mind and world.