Sunday, June 27, 2010

Blogging note

Little or no blogging this week, as I’ll be in Prague for a conference on Metaphysics: Aristotelian, Scholastic, Analytic. I’ll be presenting a paper there on “Existential inertia.”

Friday, June 25, 2010

The T-Shirt’s coming next…

A friend sent me the bumper sticker at left. It will nicely balance out the other sticker on my car, which, as readers of p. 56 of The Last Superstition know, sports the first of the Twenty Four Thomistic Theses. (To see why “Is does imply Ought,” read the first half of my article “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation,” which deals with general ethical theory.)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Churchland on dualism, Part IV

Daniel Stoljar’s remarks on dualism, which I criticized in an earlier post, bring to mind some similar remarks made by Paul Churchland in response to Frank Jackson’s famous “knowledge argument” against physicalism. You’ll recall that Stoljar claimed that objections to a physicalist account of intentionality would apply no less to a dualist account. Churchland makes the same claim with respect to qualia – the introspectible features of a conscious experience, in virtue of which there is “something it is like” to have that experience. (Stock examples of qualia would be the way pain feels, the way red looks, or the way coffee tastes and smells.)

Jackson’s argument goes roughly like this. Imagine that Mary, a master neuroscientist of the future, has lived her entire life in a black and white room, never having had any experience of colors. But she knows everything there is to know about the physical facts concerning the physics and physiology of color perception. Thus, though she’s never seen a red object herself, she knows exactly what happens in other people’s eyes and nervous systems when they see red, as well as all the relevant facts about light, surface reflectance properties of red objects, and so on. Eventually she leaves the room and sees a red object for the first time. Does she learn something new? Jackson says she clearly does – she learns what it’s like to see red. And that (so the argument goes) suffices to refute physicalism. For physicalism claims that to know all the physical facts about human beings is to know all the facts about them, period. But though Mary knew all the relevant physical facts about color perception prior to her release from the room, she didn’t know all the facts, because she learned something new upon her release. Hence there is more to human nature than is captured by a description of the physical facts. In particular, facts about qualia (such as the facts about what it’s like to see red) are additional facts, beyond the physical facts.

I will have more to say about the knowledge argument – and in particular about Jackson’s later change of heart about it – in a future post. For now let’s consider Churchland’s objection, which he first stated in his paper “Reduction, Qualia, and the Direct Introspection of Brain States” and repeated in his later paper “Knowing Qualia: A Reply to Jackson.” (Both papers are reprinted in Churchland’s book A Neurocomputational Perspective, which is the source of the quotes below.) In the course of making several other criticisms of Jackson, Churchland says that if the knowledge argument were sound, it would refute substance dualism for the same reasons it would refute materialism. For we need only run the argument by imagining instead that Mary is a master “ectoplasmologist” with knowledge of the “hidden constitution and nomic intricacies” of ectoplasm, and in particular of “everything there is to know about the ectoplasmic processes underlying vision” (“Reduction, Qualia, and the Direct Introspection of Brain States,” p. 63). Since Mary would learn something new upon leaving the room despite knowing everything there is to know about ectoplasm, this parallel argument “would ‘show’ that there are some aspects of consciousness that must forever escape the ectoplasmic story” (“Knowing Qualia,” p. 72, emphasis in the original).

But Churchland is just making the same mistake we saw Stoljar make. What philosophical dualist ever said anything about “ectoplasmic processes,” or about the “hidden constitution” or “nomic intricacies” of an immaterial substance? Even apart from the “ectoplasm” nonsense – which is, of course, just a rhetorical flourish intended to make dualism sound ridiculous before it is even given a hearing – Churchland’s description of dualism is a ludicrous caricature. He makes it sound as if the dualist were committed to the existence of an object which is just like a material object in having various parts arranged in a certain way so as to behave according to law-like regularities, only one made out of some ghostly kind of stuff rather than of matter. But that is precisely the opposite of what a Plato, an Aquinas, or a Descartes actually held. For them, as for philosophical dualists generally, the soul is necessarily something simple or non-composite, and thus without parts of either a material or a quasi-material sort. Hence it has no “hidden constitution” or “nomic intricacies” of the sort Churchland has in mind. It is not a kind of ghostly mechanism because it is not a “mechanism” at all. (True, Descartes was a mechanist, but only concerning the material world, not the mind.)

For the Cartesian dualist, who is Churchland’s immediate target, the essence of the soul is just to think, and thought is (on this view) essentially conscious. As Descartes says in a letter to Mersenne, “nothing can be in me, that is to say, in my mind, of which I am not conscious” (Descartes, Philosophical Letters, p. 90, emphasis in original), and as he writes in the replies to the Second Set of Objections, “thought is a word that covers everything that exists in us in such a way that we are immediately conscious of it” (Haldane and Ross, Philosophical Works of Descartes, vol. II, p. 52, emphasis in original). In the Fifth Set of Objections, Gassendi had complained that Descartes fails to provide an account of the “internal substance” of the mind, which would require something analogous to the “chemical investigation” by which we discover what unseen properties of wine determine its surface features (Cottingham, Stoothoff, and Murdoch, Philosophical Writings of Descartes, vol. II, p. 193). Descartes replied, in words that could have been directed at Churchland: “You want us, you say, to conduct ‘a kind of chemical investigation’ of the mind, as we would of wine. This is indeed worthy of you, O Flesh, and of all those who have only a very confused conception of everything, and so do not know the proper questions to ask about each thing” and (in response to another of Gassendi’s objections) that “your purpose was simply to show us what absurd and unjust quibbles can be thought up by those who are more anxious to attack a position than to understand it” (Ibid., pp. 248-49). For Descartes, your res cogitans isn’t something which, by virtue of some hidden internal constitution, generates your consciousness; your res cogitans just is your consciousness.

For that reason, there can be no “knowledge argument” against substance dualism parallel to Jackson’s argument against physicalism. If the Mary of Churchland’s alternate scenario does not know what it is like to experience red before leaving the room, then she just does not and cannot know everything there is to know about res cogitans, because experiencing red is nothing more than a mode of consciousness and (therefore) a mode of res cogitans. To know everything there is to know about a res cogitans would not involve knowing about its internal constitution, the causal relations holding between its parts, etc. (for it has none of these things) but would involve instead knowing every kind of conscious thought or experience it might have – including experiencing red. The “gap” between two kinds of fact that Jackson’s original argument points to does not have even a prima facie parallel in the substance dualist case. The physicalist has to acknowledge at least a conceptual difference between physical facts and facts about consciousness; the only question is whether there is also a metaphysical difference. But there is, according to the Cartesian dualist, not even a conceptual difference between facts about res cogitans and facts about consciousness. That’s Descartes’ whole point.

Whatever other objections the physicalist might raise against dualism, then, the tu quoque strategy employed by Churchland and many other contemporary materialists is simply incompetent. It rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of what the dualist means by an “immaterial substance.” Equally incompetent is any critique of dualism that treats it (as Churchland evidently does in “Knowing Qualia”) as a kind of quasi-scientific empirical theory – that is, as if it were “postulating” the existence of immaterial substance as the “best explanation” of mental phenomena among the various alternatives. As I noted in a previous post on Churchland, that is not at all what the most significant dualists in the history of philosophy were up to. Their arguments for dualism are intended instead as strict metaphysical demonstrations of the existence of the soul. One may or may not think the attempted demonstrations succeed, but one will not refute them unless one first understands what sort of argument they are intended to be. Dualists traditionally tend to regard metaphysical inquiry as an enterprise every bit as rational as, but distinct from and more fundamental than, empirical science. Committed as they often are to scientism, contemporary materialists would no doubt deny that there can be any such form of inquiry, but they cannot deploy this denial in an argument against dualism without begging the question.

Their unreflective scientism is no doubt one source of contemporary materialists’ systematic misunderstanding of dualism. Since they think all rational inquiry must be a kind of scientific inquiry, they tend to (mis)interpret the claims of dualists (as they often do the claims of theists) as if they were feeble exercises in empirical hypothesis formation. It seems to me that another source might be the enormous influence Gilbert Ryle’s book The Concept of Mind had on mid-twentieth century philosophy. For Ryle there characterized Descartes’ position, absurdly, as a “para-mechanical hypothesis” on which minds are “rather like machines but also considerably different from them,” being “spectral machines” that are “complex organized unit[s]” which run on “counterpart” principles to those of physical substances, “made of a different sort of stuff and with a different sort of structure” which might be thought of “not [as] bits of clockwork [but rather] just bits of not-clockwork” and where the “bits” are arranged into a “field of causes and effects” (pp. 18-20). It is as if Churchland’s generation of materialists got their “knowledge” of what dualists believe from reading Ryle, and the generations since have gotten their “knowledge” from reading people like Churchland.

In any event, the materialist who characterizes the soul in terms of “ectoplasm” is like the atheist who compares the God of classical theism to the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” or thinks that the cosmological argument starts with the premise that “Everything has a cause…” Not to put too fine a point on it, neither one knows what the hell he is talking about or has any business opening his mouth on the subjects in question.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Hitchens versus Haldane

Here’s the first of a ten-part series of YouTube clips of a debate between Christopher Hitchens and John Haldane, at Oxford, about secularism and faith in the public square.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Stoljar on intentionality

Daniel Stoljar’s new book Physicalism is a very useful overview of its subject. However, its brief treatment of intentionality (and of some other topics too) evinces a deep misunderstanding of dualism, a misunderstanding that seems to be very common in contemporary philosophy of mind.

Stoljar begins his discussion with the following characterization of intentionality:

The intentionality of a mental state is its aboutness. When I think of Vienna or believe that the computer is on the desk or fear that the planet will get hotter, I instantiate mental states which are in a hard to define sense about Vienna, or the computer on the desk or planet Earth. The idea is that mental states (and speech acts) have a property rather like signs, sentences, and gestures; that is, they are about or represent things other than themselves. (p. 200)

So far so good; at least, that is an accurate characterization of what modern philosophers, whether physicalists, dualists, or idealists, tend to mean by “intentionality.” (Whether they are right to think of it this way is a question I will return to later.) Stoljar then suggests that the reason intentionality is philosophically problematic is that it is supposed to involve a relation that might hold between a thinker and something else, and yet lacks three key features one would expect such a relation to have. First, if I bear a relation to something else, one would expect that that something else exists; and yet I can think about something that does not exist (e.g. Valhalla). Second, if I bear a relation to something else, one would expect that there is some particular thing I bear it to; but I can think about a man without there being some man in particular I am thinking of. Third, if I bear a relation to some thing A and A = B, then one would expect that I thereby bear that relation to B; but if I am thinking about Vienna, then even though Vienna is the birthplace of Schubert, it doesn’t follow that I am thinking about the birthplace of Schubert, about whom I may know nothing. (To use the technical jargon, ascriptions of intentional mental states are often non-extensional or intensional, insofar as we cannot always substitute co-referring expressions salve veritate; that is to say, intentionality-with-a-t is often – though, it is important to note, not always – associated with intensionality-with-an-s.)

Now, Stoljar acknowledges that these features of intentionality are philosophically puzzling. But he claims that they pose no special difficulty for physicalism. In particular, they give us no reason to favor dualism over physicalism, for they are as problematic on the former view as on the latter. Says Stoljar: “[S]uppose classical dualism is true and I am some sort of complex of an ordinary physical object and soul; it is still impossible for me to stand in a relation to things that don’t exist! In sum, the paradoxes of intentionality will remain whether physicalism is true or not, hence they do not concern physicalism.” (p. 201)

There are two problems with this. First, it does not get to the heart of the problem of intentionality. Second, it rests on a misunderstanding of dualism. Let’s take them in order.

Consider the following dialogue:

Policeman: Ma’am, some bad news, I’m afraid. Your son just robbed a liquor store. Caught him red-handed with the cash tucked in the glove compartment, along with a few bottles of Tanqueray, vermouth, and tipsy olives that he tossed in the back seat.

Mom: Oh dear. I suppose he’s in trouble for being under 21. Or was he speeding in the getaway car?

Policeman: Well, there is that, I guess. But here’s the main thing: He robbed a liquor store.

Stoljar reminds me a little bit of Mom. Yes, the “paradoxes of intentionality” that he calls attention to are important. But it is intentionality itself, and not the “paradoxes,” that is of the greatest interest. Even if the objects I thought about always existed, or were always particular, or never generated non-extensional contexts – that is to say, even if intentionality exhibited none of the “paradoxical” features in question – the “aboutness” of my thoughts would remain. And it is that “aboutness” that the dualist takes to pose the chief difficulty for physicalism.

There are at least two ways to see how – a commonsense way and a more technical way. The commonsense way is this. Consider the word “cup” as you might write it in ink. Now consider a set of splotches that forms after your ink bottle leaks overnight, among which there are three right next to each other that by chance look vaguely like this: CUP. The set of splotches looks like the word, but it isn’t. The word has meaning, the splotches do not. But this has nothing to do with the physical properties of either. The ink is the same in both cases, as are the shapes. We can even imagine a case where your penmanship is bad enough and/or the splotches are distinct enough that their appearance is indistinguishable from the word “cup” that you’ve written. In general, it is not the intrinsic physical properties of letters, words, and sentences, whether written or spoken, that give them the meaning they have. Rather, their meaning derives from the conventions established by language users. It is an accident of history that the sequence of shapes cup has meaning and the sequence of shapes - ( ^ does not. Intrinsically, the first sequence is as meaningless as the second. But what is true of ink splotches and sounds seems no less true of all other physical phenomena. They all seem obviously devoid of meaning until someone decides to use them to convey meaning. As John Searle puts it, words, sentences, and the like, considered as material objects, have only “derived intentionality.” We are able to impart meaning to them by virtue of having thoughts with “original intentionality” – your thought about a cup represents or means cup without anyone having to form a convention of using it to mean that. But if neural processes are as devoid of original intentionality as ink marks, sounds, and the like, then it is hard to see how thoughts could be identified with neural processes, or claimed to supervene upon them. And the same is true of any other purported physicalistic basis for mental phenomena.

Now, there are various things a physicalist might want to say in response to this, but the point is that the problem intentionality is claimed to pose for physicalism here can obviously be stated in a way that makes no reference to the “paradoxes of intentionality.” If the commonsense point just made constitutes a difficulty for physicalism, it would do so even if the paradoxes in question did not exist.

The more technical way of making the point is to emphasize that the conception of “the physical” that physicalism typically presupposes is a mechanistic one – that is to say, one which (as I have discussed ad nauseam, e.g. here) takes matter to be devoid of any immanent or intrinsic final causality or teleology of the sort affirmed by the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition the early moderns sought to overthrow. For the Scholastics, efficient causes in the natural order inherently “point to” or are “directed at” their effects, and in sweeping aside immanent final causality the moderns rejected the claim that any natural phenomenon inherently and irreducibly “points to” or is “directed at” anything at all. Intrinsically, the natural world is for them comprised instead of “nothing but” meaningless, purposeless particles in motion or the like. (Descartes, Locke, Boyle, Newton, and other early mechanists did of course think of ends or goals being imposed on the world by God, but precisely because they were mechanists opposed to Aristotelianism and Scholasticism, they saw the resulting purposes or meanings as extrinsic to the world rather than inherent. See the great many posts on this theme that I’ve written over the last several months, as well as the discussions in The Last Superstition and Aquinas.)

Now, if intentionality involves something “pointing to” or being “directed at” or “about” something beyond itself, and the mechanistic conception of matter underlying physicalism holds that there is no such thing in nature as something inherently and irreducibly being “directed at” or “pointing to” something else, then it seems at the very least difficult to see how intentionality could possibly be something material or physical. I had reason to make this point in my recent post on Chomsky. But though Stoljar quotes the same passage from Jerry Fodor that I cited there, he does not see (as Fodor does, though Fodor does not make explicit reference to the anti-Aristotelian mechanistic revolution) that it is the moderns’ own conception of matter, rather than the “paradoxes of intentionality,” that generates the difficulty.

Again, the point is not that the physicalist might not have a good response to points like the ones I’ve been making – I don’t think so, but that’s another issue. The point is rather that it misses the point to address the problem of intentionality as if the paradoxes Stoljar calls attention to were at the heart of it, and as if it had nothing to do with the nature of “the physical.” Both the commonsense point and the technical point (as I have called them) show that the problem has very much to do with the nature of the physical, and nothing essentially to do with the paradoxes.

But how, the physicalist might still ask, does dualism fare any better? For as Stoljar suggests, wouldn’t any objection to a physicalist account of intentionality apply mutatis mutandis to any dualist alternative? Or as Clayton Littlejohn once objected in a remark in Victor Reppert's combox: “It seems like causal pathways in an immaterial substance would have the same content fixation problems as causal pathways in a physical substance.”

As I have said, this sort of objection seems increasingly common in contemporary philosophy of mind, but it is deeply confused. What dualist ever said anything about “causal pathways in an immaterial substance”? Stoljar and Littlejohn seem to think that what the dualist means by an immaterial substance or soul is something that is just like a material substance – and in particular, something with distinct and causally interrelated parts – only not material, but instead “made out of” some other kind of “stuff” (“ectoplasm” maybe). In short, a kind of ghostly machine, but a machine all the same. But that is precisely what dualists – whether of a Platonic, Thomistic, or Cartesian stripe – do not think the soul is. For dualists have typically held that the soul is simple or non-composite, and thus not “made out of” causally interrelated parts of any sort. That its activities cannot be modeled on those of a material substance is the whole point.

How should we think of it, then? For the Cartesian, the essence of the soul is thought, and that is the entirety of its essence. Descartes does not say: “Gee, it’s hard to see how intentionality could be explained in terms of causal relations between physical parts. I therefore postulate an immaterial substance with immaterial parts whose causal relations are capable of generating thought and intentionality.” That would imply that in addition to thought, a soul has of its nature the various parts in question and their characteristic interrelations. And that is just what Descartes denies. A Cartesian immaterial substance doesn’t generate thinking. It is thinking, and that is all that it is. For that reason, and contrary to what Stoljar assumes, the Cartesian conception of intentionality cannot possibly be open to the same objections raised against physicalism. To say “Maybe a Cartesian immaterial substance – that is to say, something which just is its activity of thinking – could, like a physical substance, exist in the absence of intentional mental states” is just incoherent. A physicalist might want to raise some other objection to the Cartesian view, but Stoljar’s tu quoque is not open to him.

Now, for the Thomistic or hylemorphic dualist, the soul is to be understood, not as pure thought, but rather as the substantial form of the living human body. And qua form, it is not a complete substance in the first place, much less a material or quasi-material one. (Talk of the soul as an “immaterial substance” is thus for the Thomist at least misleading, though he does hold that the soul subsists beyond the death of the body as an incomplete substance.) Here too, though, talk of interrelated quasi-material parts, “causal pathways,” and the like is completely out of place. But for the Thomist, the Cartesian’s talk of inner “representations” is out of place too; as I have discussed elsewhere (e.g. here and here) the “representationalist” conception of the mind is an essentially modern one that the ancients and medievals generally would have rejected. As a consequence, the ancients and medievals would reject too the essentially modern way of framing the issue of intentionality that I have, for the sake of argument, been following up to now in this post. For instance, if a broadly Aristotelian-Thomistic conception of nature is correct, then natural phenomena really do have intrinsic final causes after all, so that (for example) material efficient causes inherently “point beyond” themselves to their effects. It would follow that a thought’s “pointing beyond” itself cannot be what makes it immaterial; and indeed, that is not the sort of argument the ancients and medievals gave for the mind’s immateriality. (Nor did they argue from “qualia” – that too, as I have noted many times before, is a very modern sort of argument for dualism, and presupposes a mechanistic approach to nature.) The ancients and medievals focused instead on such features of our thoughts as their universality and determinacy, which they took to be essentially incompatible with thought’s having any material organ. (See here, here, chapter 4 of Aquinas and chapter 7 of Philosophy of Mind.)

But that is a gigantic topic of its own. Suffice it for present purposes to note that with respect to Thomistic dualism no less than the Cartesian version, contemporary physicalists would do well to try better to “know their enemy” before dismissing him.

[For more on this theme, see my posts on Paul Churchland and dualism, here, here, and here.]

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Teleology in Philosophia Christi

The Evangelical Philosophical Society blog alerts its readers to the forthcoming Summer 2010 issue of the EPS journal Philosophia Christi. My paper “Teleology: A Shopper’s Guide” is among those which will appear in it. (Scroll through the last several posts at the EPS blog to see some of the rest of the contents.) Here is the abstract: Teleology features prominently in recent discussions in the philosophy of mind, action theory, philosophy of biology, and in the dispute between Intelligent Design theorists and Darwinian naturalists. Unfortunately, discussants often talk past each other and oversimplify the issues, failing to recognize the differences between the several theories of teleology philosophers have historically put forward, and the different natural phenomena that might be claimed to be teleological. This paper identifies five possible theories of teleology, and five distinct levels of nature at which teleology might be said to exist. Special attention is paid to the differences between Aristotelian-Thomistic and ID theoretic approaches to teleology.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

But is that a real definition or only a nominal one?

What does “Feser” mean? We’ve considered one proposed definition. In light of my remarks on philosophy and polemics, Bill Vallicella suggests another:

'Laser' is an acronym: Light Amplification through Stimulated Emission of Radiation. I hope Ed won't mind if I make of his surname an acronym: Filosophical Erudition Sans Excessive Restraint.

How could I mind that? (Other than by reason of its being too flattering! Thanks, Bill – I’ve been trying to come up with a clever acronym for “Vallicella,” but that’s a tall order. Ten letters, and four of them Ls!)

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Chomsky on the mind-body problem

I am, to say the very least, not a fan of Noam Chomsky’s writings on politics and foreign policy. But his straightforwardly philosophical work is always interesting and important even when one disagrees with it. A case in point is his view of the traditional mind-body problem. The usual assumption is that we have a clear understanding of what matter is, and that the difficulty has to do with explaining how thoughts, sensations, and other mental phenomena relate to material processes in the nervous system. Are the former identical to or supervenient upon the latter? Various anti-materialist arguments purport to show that they cannot be either, which seems to entail some form of dualism. But in that case we face the interaction problem. In any event, the “body” side of the mind-body problem is usually taken to be unproblematic; it is mind that raises the puzzles, or so it is thought.

Chomsky rejects this assumption. In his view, “body” is as problematic as mind; so much so that we do not even have a clear idea of what the mind-body problem is. As he writes in Language and Problems of Knowledge: The Managua Lectures:

The mind-body problem can be posed sensibly only insofar as we have a definite conception of body. If we have no such definite and fixed conception, we cannot ask whether some phenomena fall beyond its range. The Cartesians offered a fairly definite conception of body in terms of their contact mechanics, which in many respects reflects commonsense understanding. Therefore they could sensibly formulate the mind-body problem… (p. 142)

[However] the Cartesian concept of body was refuted by seventeenth-century physics, particularly in the work of Isaac Newton, which laid the foundations for modern science. Newton demonstrated that the motions of the heavenly bodies could not be explained by the principles of Descartes’s contact mechanics, so that the Cartesian concept of body must be abandoned. (p. 143)

In other words, when we think of causation in the natural world as Descartes did – that is, as involving literal contact between two extended substances – then the way in which a thought or a sensation relate to a material object becomes mysterious. Certainly it cannot be right to think of a thought or sensation as making literal physical contact with the surface of the brain, or in any other way communicating motion in a “push-pull” way. But when we give up this crude model of causation, as Newton did, the source of the mystery disappears. At the same time, no systematic positive account of what matter as such is has ever really been put forward to replace Descartes’ conception. Hence, Chomsky continues:

There is no longer any definite conception of body. Rather, the material world is whatever we discover it to be, with whatever properties it must be assumed to have for the purposes of explanatory theory. Any intelligible theory that offers genuine explanations and that can be assimilated to the core notions of physics becomes part of the theory of the material world, part of our account of body. If we have such a theory in some domain, we seek to assimilate it to the core notions of physics, perhaps modifying these notions as we carry out this enterprise. (p. 144)

That is to say, we have in Chomsky’s view various worked-out, successful theories of different parts of the natural world, and we try to integrate these by assimilating them to “the core notions of physics,” but may end up altering those core notions if we need to in order to make the assimilation work. As a result, as Chomsky once put it to John Searle, “as soon as we come to understand anything, we call it ‘physical’” (quoted by Searle in The Rediscovery of the Mind, p. 25). But we have no conception of what is “physical” or “material” prior to and independently of this enterprise. And since the enterprise is not complete, “physical” and “material” have no fixed and determinate content; we simply apply them to whatever it is we happen at the moment to think we know how assimilate into the body of existing scientific theory. As a consequence:

The mind-body problem can therefore not even be formulated. The problem cannot be solved, because there is no clear way to state it. Unless someone proposes a definite concept of body, we cannot ask whether some phenomena exceed its bounds. (Language and Problems of Knowledge, p. 145)

Hence, while Chomsky is no dualist, neither does he embrace the standard alternatives: “There seems to be no coherent doctrine of materialism and metaphysical naturalism, no issue of eliminativism, no mind-body problem” (New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind, p. 91). In short, if the problem has no clear content, neither do any of the solutions to it. Chomsky’s preferred approach, it seems, is just to carry on the task of developing and evaluating theories of various aspects of the mind and integrating them as one can into the existing body of scientific knowledge, letting the chips fall where they may vis-à-vis the definition of “physical” or “material.”

What should we make of this? Chomsky is, I think, absolutely right to emphasize that the concept of matter is no less problematic than that of mind, and that this entails that “materialism” and “physicalism” are far less determinate in content than their adherents typically suppose. (This is something Bertrand Russell also emphasized, as do later philosophers of mind influenced by him, such as Grover Maxwell, Michael Lockwood, Galen Strawson, and David Chalmers.) At the same time, I think it is clear that the concept of the “physical” or the “material” is not in fact as elastic as Chomsky’s remarks might imply, either in the thinking of most scientists or in that of philosophical naturalists.

It is true that the positive content of the notion is fairly indeterminate, subject to fluctuation with every change in the physical sciences. But there is a core of negative content that is more or less fixed. That is to say, whatever matter turns out to be, there are certain features that modern philosophers, and scientists in their philosophical moments, tend to refuse ever to attribute to it.

For at least some of them, this would seem to include sensory qualities like color, odor, taste, sound, and the like as common sense understands them. For the mechanistic revolution Chomsky alludes to was not merely, and indeed not even essentially, committed to the idea that material causation involves literal contact. It was also and more lastingly committed to some variant or other of a “primary/secondary” quality distinction on which there is nothing in the material world that “resembles” our “ideas” of the sensory qualities mentioned (as Locke would put it). If we want to redefine the “red” of a fire engine in terms of how its surface reflects photons at certain wavelengths, we can say that the fire engine is red. But if by “red” we mean the way red “looks” to us when we perceive it, then nothing like that exists in the fire engine, which is (if we think of color in these commonsense terms) intrinsically “colorless.” And so on for sounds, tastes, and all the rest. Color, odor, taste, sound, and the like – again, as common sense understands them (rather than as redefined for purposes of physics) – are reinterpreted by mechanism as projections of the mind, existing only in consciousness. This is the origin of the “qualia problem,” and the puzzle now becomes how to relate these “qualia” or “phenomenal properties” to the intrinsically colorless, odorless, tasteless particles that make up the brain just as much as they do external material objects.

Now if one insists on denying these sensory qualities to matter, then it seems clear that we do have a clear enough conception of “body” to generate a mind-body problem. More than that, we have a conception that clearly implies that the mind (in which alone these qualities exist) cannot be something material or bodily – that, at any rate, is the lesson drawn by early modern thinkers like Cudworth and Malebranche, and by contemporary writers like Richard Swinburne, who take the “mechanistic” conception of matter itself to entail dualism. (I have discussed this issue before in several places, e.g. here, here, and in The Last Superstition.)

A naturalist could, however, decide to reincorporate the sensory qualities into the material world by conceiving of them as the intrinsic properties of matter, which “flesh out” the abstract mathematical structure described by physics. And this is precisely the move made by the writers influenced by Russell whom I mentioned above – Maxwell, Lockwood, Strawson, and Chalmers. To be sure, the resulting position is hardly “materialist” or “physicalist” as those terms are usually understood; some of these writers describe it instead as neutral monist, or panpsychist, or even as a variety of dualism. But they also tend to regard it as nevertheless consistent with a kind of naturalism, even if what is allowed to count as “natural” is thereby expanded considerably. (An exchange between Strawson and Chomsky can be found in Louise Antony and Norbert Hornstein, eds., Chomsky and His Critics.)

There is, however, another, more fundamental and indeed absolutely “non-negotiable” component of the mechanistic picture of the world inherited from the early modern philosophers, one well-known to regular readers of this blog: the rejection of Aristotelian formal and final causes. As I have argued in many places (such as in this recent post, as well as in The Last Superstition and Aquinas), this is the surviving and definitive element of the mechanistic revolution, and the one which naturalists seem to take, either explicitly or implicitly, to be crucial to their position. Whatever else the physical world may turn out to be like, and whatever alterations might be made to scientific practice, the mechanist, and the naturalist, are committed to the view that there is no such thing as goal-directedness or teleology intrinsic to the natural world, and that proper scientific procedure ought never to posit such immanent teleology. (See the quotes in the post just linked to for examples of philosophers who endorse this conception of science.)

If this is correct, then we once again have a conception of matter, albeit a negative one, which is determinate enough to generate a mind-body problem. If nothing in the material world inherently points beyond itself as to an end or final cause, then it is hard to see how that aspect of the mind philosophers call intentionality – the way that a thought “points to,” is “about,” or is “directed at” something beyond itself (such as the way your thought about the Eiffel tower is “about” or “directed at” the Eiffel tower) – can possibly be given a “naturalistic” explanation. As I have argued in several places (e.g. here) a dualism of intentional phenomena and material phenomena seems unavoidable given a mechanistic conception of nature, even if the Russellian naturalist can avoid a dualism of qualitative phenomena and material phenomena by expanding his conception of the “natural” (though even that is not a sure thing).

As Jerry Fodor puts it in Psychosemantics: The Problem of Meaning in the Philosophy of Mind:

I suppose that sooner or later the physicists will complete the catalog they’ve been compiling of the ultimate and irreducible properties of things. When they do, the likes of spin, charm, and charge will perhaps appear on their list. But aboutness surely won’t; intentionality simply doesn’t go that deep. It’s hard to see, in face of this consideration, how one can be a Realist about intentionality without also being, to some extent or other, a Reductionist. If the semantic and the intentional are real properties of things, it must be in virtue of their identity with (or maybe of their supervenience on?) properties that are themselves neither intentional nor semantic. If aboutness is real, it must be really something else. (p. 97)

Of course, Fodor’s “Reductionism” is not really the only option. One could combine Realism about intentionality with dualism instead; or with idealism; or with Aristotelian hylemorphism. But the last of these positions would indeed be ruled out if one agrees with Fodor about what the physicists’ ultimate catalog must look like, and the other two options would certainly be incompatible with at least most naturalists’ understanding of “naturalism.” In any event, the passage illustrates the point that contemporary philosophers do have a determinate enough conception of matter (albeit a negative one) to generate a mind-body problem: Fodor’s point is that given the conception of the physical to which he and like-minded philosophers are committed, intentionality becomes philosophically problematic. The passage illustrates also that the naturalist seems bound at the end of the day to deny the existence of intentionality given his conception of matter. For to say that “if aboutness is real, it must be really something else” is just a cute way of saying that aboutness is not real, and must be replaced in our ontology by some physicalistically “respectable” ersatz. As Searle has complained (e.g. in the book cited above), materialist “reductions” of this or that mental phenomenon never really succeed in “reducing” it at all, but either change the subject or implicitly deny the existence of the phenomenon. Reductionist versions of materialism are really just disguised forms of eliminative materialism.

That is a big topic, but suffice it for now to emphasize two points. First, while Chomsky is right to say that modern philosophers’ conception of “matter” or “the physical” is far less determinate than they often suppose, it is in fact determinate enough to generate a real mind-body problem. Second, the mechanistic assumptions underlying this determination of their conception of matter are, contrary to what they (and Chomsky himself, I imagine) typically suppose, not “scientific” at all, but purely philosophical – and (as my regular readers know) in my view deeply mistaken.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Henri Renard, S.J.

“Fluent and articulate, clear and concise, inspiring and yet ruthless on sham and pretense…”

These words were written about Fr. Henri Renard (1894 – 1981) by the editors of a festschrift dedicated to him which was published in 1966 (Vincent Daues, Maurice Holloway, and Leo J. Sweeney, eds., Wisdom in Depth: Essays in Honor of Henri Renard, S.J.). We had occasion recently to quote Renard, who was a professor of philosophy at Creighton University, and one of the more influential authors of the Neo-Scholastic “manualist” era. He wrote a series of influential textbooks on Thomistic philosophy: The Philosophy of Being, The Philosophy of Man, The Philosophy of God, and The Philosophy of Morality. According to the festschrift, the first of these books sold over 100,000 copies. (It has also recently been reissued by one of the cheap reprint publishers, though cheaper used copies can still be found online.) The books were so widely used at Catholic colleges that they ended up lending their titles to the courses which featured them as textbooks – courses in metaphysics came to be titled Philosophy of Being, courses in philosophical psychology came to be titled Philosophy of Man, and so forth.

But the times, they do change, and not always for the better. To this day, Creighton sponsors a prestigious lecture series named in Renard’s honor. But very few read his work, or even remember him. The formation in Scholastic philosophy that was once de rigueur at Catholic colleges and universities has disappeared. There is absolutely no good reason whatsoever for any of this. But I won’t repeat my rant about the way the “manualists” have been treated. They were great men, and we are very much the poorer for neglecting them. But there is always hope, and there are always and So what are you waiting for?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Can philosophy be polemical?

A reader asked me to reprint the following essay, first published at the now defunct Conservative Philosopher group blog in February of 2005. Those who object to the polemical tone of The Last Superstition should give it a read. I have also addressed this topic here.

Recently I was reading two very interesting posts made by Bill Vallicella over on his personal blog. One of them dealt with Paul Edwards’ well-known critique of Heidegger, the other with David Stove. Anyone familiar with Edwards’ essay or with virtually anything written by Stove knows that both writers are capable of being fiercely polemical – often to hilarious effect in the case of Stove, who was in my view one of the greatest stylists in recent philosophy. Bill argues with great elegance and cogency that Edwards’ critique is worthless, whatever one thinks of Heidegger, both because it too uncritically assumes the truth of Russell’s doctrine of existence-as-instantiation, and because of its needlessly polemical tone. He also argues that whatever interest and value Stove’s work has, Stove was not really a philosopher at all, and that the polemical nature of his work kept him from seriously appreciating the nature and depth of philosophical problems. In general, Bill seems to hold that polemical arguments, while definitely having a place in other contexts (e.g. politics) ought for the most part to be kept out of philosophical debate.

I think there is obviously something right about this. Gratuitous personal insults, resorting to rhetorical flourishes in place of arguments, or presenting simplistic distortions of an opponent’s views, are unacceptable in the context of professional philosophical discourse. Indeed, all of this should go without saying. At the same time, I’m not sure whether there sometimes isn’t in fact a place in philosophical argument, if not for polemics, then at least for something very similar. (In fairness to Bill, let me note that I realize he was not necessarily presenting a general view about how philosophical argument ought to be conducted in either of the posts I referred to – what I say here is intended not as a criticism of anything Bill wrote, but rather as some reflections inspired by what he wrote.)

G. E. M. Anscombe famously held that there are some positions in ethics that are so odious that in many cases the proper way to respond to someone who holds them is, not to discuss his error with him, but rather to refuse to discuss it. Her example was someone who proposes, in all seriousness, to kill an innocent person for the sake of some allegedly greater good. In Anscombe’s view, the person who makes such a proposal manifests a “corrupt mind,” even if he is sincerely open to debating its merits; we might even say that his corruption is all the greater precisely because he sincerely wants to debate it. One way to understand the reasoning behind her view is in terms of the Aristotelian idea that moral understanding is more a matter of having the right sensibilities and dispositions than it is the having of a correct theoretical understanding. Indeed, it is on this view difficult for someone even to have a correct theoretical understanding in the first place if he does not to some extent already have the right traits of character. This seems to me an eminently conservative view to take, insofar as it reflects the insight that much of our knowledge is tacit rather than articulate, embodied in habit and tradition rather than in the explicitly formulated propositions of a philosophical theory. It is a paradigmatically anti-rationalistic conception of ethics (which, of course, does not mean that it is anti-reason).

Now Anscombe’s claim, I think, is not that to debate the question of whether to kill an innocent man would be a waste of one’s time insofar as one would almost certainly be arguing with an unreasonable person. It is rather that even to treat a proposal to commit such an act as a live option that is “on the table” and worthy of debate cannot fail to corrupt us morally by desensitizing us to wickedness and altering our intuitive sense of the boundaries of decent conduct. The point isn’t that some debates cannot be won; the point is that some debates should never get started, and that if they ever do get started, the moral battle is already halfway lost.

Of course, sometimes we might have to engage in such debates anyway, at least to cut our moral losses and hopefully stem the tide of widespread moral corruption, if not to turn it back completely. If Anscombe is correct, though, then it is very difficult to see how a thorough and effective critique of the views of a philosopher who entertained an intrinsically immoral position of the sort Anscombe had in mind could fail to constitute, at least implicitly, a critique of that philosopher himself. To imply such a critique would not be to engage in a gratuitous personal attack on a philosophical opponent. It would rather be to give a straightforwardly objective description of the state of a person’s moral character.

Suppose, then, that a philosopher proposes to debate the question of whether an adult ought to be allowed under certain circumstances to engage in sexual contact with a three year old child, or wants to discuss the “issue” of whether bestiality and necrophilia are always immoral. Suppose he even suggests with a straight face that there are some very good arguments in favor of these practices that we ought to take at least as seriously as any arguments that might be put forward against him. Does it suffice patiently to point out to such a philosopher that he has made several serious mistakes in argumentation? Surely not, at least if Anscombe is right. For to fail to see that “sex” with a three year old child, or with a corpse or a chicken, is simply and unarguably morally depraved, is not merely to make an intellectual mistake; it is of itself to be, to some extent, depraved in one’s moral sensibilities. Similarly, if a National Socialist philosopher (if such a thing exists) tried earnestly to defend the view that the extermination of certain races is morally required of us, such a philosopher would surely already have exhibited a certain degree of moral depravity even by making such a suggestion, whether or not he could “defend” it with arguments and whether or not he ever acted in accordance with it. (Obviously he would be worthy of even greater moral condemnation if he were to act on it.)

Any philosopher who seriously proposed such things for discussion would manifest thereby a kind of moral blindness, an inability to perceive basic moral facts. Arguing with him might well be a waste of time, like arguing with a blind man who insists that colors do not exist, and who accuses you of dogmatism because you continue to believe in them yourself despite your inability to convince him. But the deeper point is that merely to argue with him, with as respectful and genteel a tone as one uses when arguing with one’s accountant, would be inadvertently to reinforce his moral blindness, and even help spread it to others. For to fail to point out that the very act of putting forward for discussion such inherently indecent proposals is itself indecent would arguably make one complicit in lending credibility to the making of such proposals. It would constitute a failure to tell the whole philosophical story, and might even contribute to a general decrease in moral understanding.

Now, would this entail, in some cases and to some extent, the incorporation of a polemical element into one’s philosophical argumentation? Arguably it would. At the very least it would seem to entail incorporating into one’s argumentation a common aspect of polemic, namely personal criticism, or at least implied personal criticism, of one’s opponent. Of course, this raises all sorts of questions and practical problems, both about matters of principle and about matters of prudence. It is one thing to critique an immoral point of view in the context of a society which is generally morally healthy; it is another thing altogether to try to critique it in the context of a society that has to a considerable extent gone to the dogs already. The latter situation clearly entails that a certain measure of tact would be well advised (though, on the other hand, it might also entail that polemical arguments are all the more required, in order to shake people out of a complacent decadence). Furthermore, there is an obvious difference between a sincere person who entertains an inherently immoral position merely because he is naïve, muddle-headed, or immature, and a cynic or demagogue who takes it because he is generally of a corrupt character. The former sort of person may be far less morally culpable for the defects in his moral understanding, and thus far less worthy of polemical criticism.

The extent to which one’s critique of a philosopher’s moral views entails criticism of the philosopher himself, and the manner of that criticism, will of course depend on the moral theory from which one is operating. A natural law theorist and a Kantian, say, might have significantly different views about what is beyond the pale and indicative of a “corrupt mind”; other moral theories would entail even more radically different sensibilities. Indeed, I think that the points I have been raising might account for the fierceness of the debates that often occur between even the most intelligent and well-meaning left-wing and right-wing philosophers, a fierceness one might at first think incompatible with the commitment of all philosophers to rational debate. Even the most rationalistic moral theorist surely recognizes deep down the truth of the Aristotelian insight that our moral sensibilities reflect our moral character as much as they reflect our intellect. Left-wing philosophers and right-wing philosophers will thus inevitably, to some extent anyway, regard each other with moral suspicion and even hostility. This is not necessarily a failure of rationality; it reflects the very nature of moral disagreement. To see someone as committed, even sincerely, to a view one regards as seriously immoral is inevitably to see him as to some extent morally, and not just intellectually, deficient.

Obviously, this makes fruitful debate all the more difficult to achieve. Charity, tact, and prudence are therefore called for even in the context of polemical criticism – indeed, especially in the context of polemical criticism.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

God and possible worlds

Brandon Watson (here) and James Chastek (here, here, here, and here) offer some helpful reflections on the notion of “possible worlds,” which is put to so much work in contemporary analytic metaphysics. And dubious work, from an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) point of view. A common procedure is to characterize the essence of a thing as the set of properties it has in every possible world, a necessary truth as one that is true in every possible world, and so forth. For A-T, this gets things backwards. It is the essence of a thing that determines what will be true of it in every possible world, not what is true of it in every world that determines its essence. In general, it is incoherent to define modal notions like necessity and possibility in terms of possible worlds, since the notion of a “possible” world itself presupposes modality.

Moreover, as A-T uses the term, a “property” is not part of the essence of a thing, but a feature that flows from its essence. Simply noting that a thing has some feature in every possible world ignores this distinction, and is for that reason too an inadequate way to characterize a thing’s essence. For example, rationality and the capacity to learn languages are both features human beings have in every possible world (if you want to put it that way), but the latter capacity presupposes rationality and is therefore less fundamental than it. While rationality is part of our essence, then, the capacity to learn languages is not, but is rather a “property” – something proper to us in that derives necessarily from our essence. “Property” as used by contemporary philosophers ignores this distinction, and is applied indiscriminately to what is part of a thing's essence, to what is not part of its essence but is nevertheless “proper” to a thing, and to what is neither part of a thing’s essence nor proper to it but merely some contingent feature it has (e.g. the fact that such-and-such a human being was born in Los Angeles or has a blog).

(But might some human being not lose his rationality or capacity to learn languages due to brain damage or the like? Doesn’t that mean the former is not really part of his essence and the latter not really a property? No, that doesn’t follow at all, because to be impeded in the exercise of a power does not entail that one doesn’t have it. From an A-T point of view, every single human being – including one in a so-called “persistent vegetative state” – necessarily has rationality, the capacity to learn languages, etc. Terri Schiavo was a severely damaged rational animal, not a non-rational animal; a human fetus is a rational animal that has not yet been fully formed, not a non-rational animal; and so forth. Restore Terri Schiavo to perfect health and you get someone who can once again exercise her rationality. Restore a rose bush or a dog to perfect health and you still have something that can never exercise reason. Let a human fetus develop fully and you get something that can exercise rationality. Let a rose bush or a dog develop fully and you never get something that can exercise rationality. Thus it is erroneous – not to mention absurd and morally obscene – to compare the likes of Terri Schiavo or a human fetus to a plant or a non-human animal. And thus does bad metaphysics lead to the rationalization of grave immorality, even murder. But I digress.)

It is also often said that for God to be a necessary being is for Him to exist in every possible world. This too is at least very misleading. It leaves the impression that there are these things called “possible worlds” that have some kind of reality apart from God, and it turns out – what do you know! – that God happens to exist in every one of them, right alongside numbers, universals, and other necessarily existing abstract objects. To be sure, since possible worlds other than the actual one are themselves mere abstractions (unless you are David Lewis), they would not exist as concrete entities that God has not created. But the “possible worlds” account of God’s necessity nevertheless insinuates that that necessity is grounded in something other than God Himself – that what is possible or necessary in general is to be determined independently of God, with God’s own necessity in turn defined by reference to these independent criteria. For A-T, this is completely muddled. The reason God is necessary is that He is Pure Act or Subsistent Being Itself, not because He “exists in every possible world.” And since God just is Being Itself – rather than “a being” among other beings, existing in one possible world or in all – all possibilities and necessities whatsoever are themselves grounded in the divine nature, rather than in anything in any way independent of God.

Keep in mind that A-T eschews Platonism and takes a moderate realist approach according to which universals exist only in their instantiations or in an intellect which contemplates them. There is no realm of abstract objects à la Plato’s Forms. What, then, of uninstantiated universals, things that don’t exist but could have? What grounds their possibility? The A-T position is that all universals pre-exist as ideas in the divine intellect. Instantiated universals are those ideas that serve as archetypes for the things God creates, uninstantiated universals are the ones that do not. If we think of a possible but non-actual world on the model of an uninstantiated universal, then possible but non-actual worlds are just the ones which exist as ideas in the divine intellect which God has not used as archetypes in creating.

To be sure, it is only those ideas that do not imply a contradiction that can serve as archetypes in creation – even God cannot make a round square. But the reason is that what God creates are beings, and a “round square” is not any kind of being at all. (Cf. Summa Theologiae I.23.3) A possible being is a possible being, something which “participates” in Being Itself (in the A-T sense rather than the Platonic one – see my discussion of the Fourth Way in Aquinas). Hence, again, possibility is grounded in God (qua Being Itself) rather than in anything outside Him.

As the “participation” language indicates, for A-T anything other than God that exists or might exist is an imitation of God. In creation, that which is unlimited and perfect in God comes to exist in a limited and imperfect way in the natural order. (Recall the doctrine of divine simplicity, as Thomists understand it: Attributes that are distinct in us are analogous to what in God is one.) The divine ideas according to which God creates are therefore to be understood as the divine intellect’s grasp of the diverse ways in which the divine essence might be imitated in a limited and imperfect fashion by created things. As the Scholastic writer Henri Renard sums it up:

From all eternity God contemplating His essence, which is the actuality of all perfection, sees the possibility of limited imitations of that supreme perfection. Thus, from an eternity He conceives the possible essences; consequently, these essences are said to be eternal, immutable, and necessary. The formal realization of the possibles, then, is in the divine intellect. The foundation, however, for this cognition is the essence of God as imitable, for the essence of God is the source of all reality, of all possibles, of all beings. (The Philosophy of Being, p. 112)

Or, as John McCormick puts it:

[I]f anything at all besides God is possible, it is because it can imitate in a finite way some infinite perfection of God. God’s essence as imitable in a finite way in created things is, therefore, the ultimate foundation of the possibles and the final reason why things are possible at all… God’s essence is therefore the Exemplar and Prototype of all reality. (Scholastic Metaphysics, Part I, p. 55)

And just to be ecumenical, let’s also quote a philosopher outside the A-T tradition, albeit one who was influenced by it – the greatest of the moderns, G. W. Leibniz:

It is farther true that in God there is not only the source of existences but also that of essences, in so far as they are real, that is to say, the source of what is real in the possible. For the understanding of God is the region of eternal truths or of the ideas on which they depend, and without Him there would be nothing real in the possibilities of things, and not only would there be nothing in existence, but nothing would even be possible…

For if there is a reality in essences or possibilities, or rather in eternal truths, this reality must needs be founded in something existing and actual, and consequently in the existence of the necessary Being, in whom essence involves existence, or in whom to be possible is to be actual. (Monadology 43-44)

As this last passage indicates, if we agree that some non-actual entities are possible, that any possibility must be grounded in something actual, and that nothing less than what is Pure Act can ultimately be the ground in question, then we have in the notion of possible but non-actual beings the basis of an argument for God’s existence. Or at least some philosophers who would ground all possibilities in the divine nature have thought so (though others have held instead that God’s existence must first be established separately, and then appealed to as an explanation of possibility).

Necessary truths too, for both A-T and Leibniz, are grounded in the divine nature. For suppose we agree that there are such truths – the truths of mathematics, for example – but also that the moderate realist is correct to hold that there are no abstract objects à la Platonism. Such truths have to be grounded in something actual, but it cannot be either the material world or any finite intellect, since neither is necessary. Only that which is infinite, purely actual can do the grounding. What we have here, though, is essentially the “argument from eternal truths” defended by the likes of St. Augustine and Leibniz, which deserves a post of its own, and will get it when I get the chance. Suffice it for now to note that for A-T, as for your more formidable non-A-T writers, necessity no less than possibility must be grounded in God – so that to ground God’s necessity in something other than Him is to get things backwards, and certainly to get them wrong.

I've got your further reading right here:

P. Coffey, Ontology, chapter III

Gyula Klima, “Contemporary ‘Essentialism’ versus Aristotelian Essentialism” (from John Haldane, ed., Mind, Metaphysics, and Value in the Thomistic and Analytic Traditions)

David Oderberg, Real Essentialism, sections 1.1 and 6.2 (only some of which is online, I’m afraid)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Self-Promoter’s Bookshelf

I note, for anyone who is interested, that the beginning chapters of several of my books are available online from the publishers. Here are:

Each of these selections is of an introductory character, and there is no actual philosophy in the first two, since those particular chapters are brief and biographical in nature. The more difficult and meaty material comes later in each book. But for what it’s worth, there they are. Nothing from The Last Superstition or On Nozick is available online, I’m afraid.

(That’s the actual cover to On Nozick up above, by the way, contrary to what the Amazon page would lead you to think. Note also that though the book got five friendly print reviews and no hostile ones, the one yutz who reviewed it at Amazon gave it two stars and claimed that it needed “more Nozick and less Feser.” Maybe that explains the sales figures. What the reader is actually complaining about is the fact that I devoted space to situating Nozick within the larger libertarian tradition of thought of which he was a part rather than treating him as an idiosyncratic and isolated freak, as is so often done. Sue me. Anyway, that particular book – which was finished in 2002, just before I began a serious rethink of libertarianism – has a fair amount of stuff in it that I no longer agree with. Still very useful if you want to understand Nozick, I like to think, but maybe someday I’ll write a nasty review of it myself.)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The early Wittgenstein on scientism

Your quote of the day, from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

At the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena. (6.371)

So people stop short at natural laws as something unassailable, as did the ancients at God and Fate.

And they are both right and wrong. But the ancients were clearer, in so far as they recognized one clear terminus, whereas the modern system makes it appear as though everything were explained. (6.372)

My comments: The supposition that “the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena” is an “illusion” for two reasons (which do not necessarily correspond to Wittgenstein’s reasons). First, “laws of nature” are mere abstractions and cannot explain anything. What exist in the natural order are concrete material substances with certain essences, and talk of “laws of nature” is merely shorthand for the patterns of behavior they tend to exhibit given those essences. Second, that some fundamental level of material substances (basic particles, or whatever) exist and behave in accordance with such laws can also never be the ultimate explanation of anything, because we need to know, not only how such substances came into existence, but what keeps them in existence. For as compounds of act and potency and essence and existence, they cannot possibly account for themselves; only that which is Pure Act and Subsistent Existence Itself can be the ultimate explanation of them, or of anything else. In general, whatever is composite in any way requires explanation in terms of that which is metaphysically simple. (As usual, see The Last Superstition and Aquinas for the full story.)

Wittgenstein himself did not see this, despite seeing the hollowness of scientism. To be sure, unlike Carnap and Co., he could see that there was something to the questions raised by traditional metaphysics:

The sense of the world must lie outside the world. (6.41)

Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is. (6.44)

We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. (6.52)

But he hadn’t sufficiently extricated himself from the positivistic assumptions prevailing in early twentieth-century analytic philosophy to see that there was also something to the answers given by traditional metaphysics. The line from 6.52 above is followed by:

Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer. (6.52)

The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem. (6.521)

The right method of philosophy would be this: To say nothing except what can be said, i.e. the propositions of natural science, i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then always, when someone else wished to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his propositions. This method would be unsatisfying to the other -- he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy -- but it would be the only strictly correct method. (6.53)

Of course, the theory of meaning these passages embody would make philosophy itself – the very thing Wittgenstein was doing in the Tractatus – impossible. Which he realized, which is why he characterized his own propositions as ultimately “senseless,” a ladder that must be kicked away once one has reached the top (6.54), and why he famously recommended a kind of quietism in the face of the resulting paradox:

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. (7)

But this quite obviously will not do, which is why there is such a thing as the later Wittgenstein. Unfortunately, even the latter refused to see in traditional metaphysics, or in any metaphysics, genuine answers to the questions he continued to acknowledge as important ones. In part this owes to his idiosyncratic philosophical commitments; in part it owes, surely, to his proud and profound ignorance of the history of philosophy. (Notoriously, Wittgenstein acknowledged, without shame, that he had never read a word of Aristotle.) Hence he did not see that “the ancients” were “clearer,” not only about having reached “one clear terminus,” but about why their terminus – Pure Act, the One, ipsum esse subsistens – was, rationally, the only possible terminus.

All the same, Wittgenstein is brilliant and full of insights, and does not deserve the dismissive treatment he afforded his predecessors. But I’m afraid this “hit and run” is all I’ve time for tonight…

Glamour profession

Cargo cultists believed that goodies will fall from the sky if only the correct ritual is performed. Democrats believe that health care will be better, more affordable, and better managed when the federal government massively increases its control over the system. The difference, of course, is that the cargo cultists actually had some empirical evidence to back up their strange belief. All the same, we have in both cases a kind of magical thinking, though as Virginia Postrel points out, in the case of Obama the magic is called “glamour.” Fortunately for the country the sheen has been steadily wearing off this particular idol and The One seems poised for defeat. But the election is over two years away, and cargo cults are resilient phenomena. So, not being a magical thinker myself, I’ll believe it when I see it. Time for some Steely Dan: