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.