Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Metaphysics of Monk

OK, kids, time for some more pretentious half-baked pop culture analysis. But we want to move on now from the grotesqueries of Gaga to the good stuff. So, put on that bop beret and let’s get to it.

Why is the music of Thelonious Monk so beautiful? (Let’s not waste time arguing about whether it is. It is. So there.) Consider a few well-known representative samples. First, that classic piece of driving bebop, “Straight, No Chaser”:



Then, for something softer and more contemplative, “’Round Midnight”:



Finally, perhaps the mother of all Monk tunes, “Brilliant Corners,” a piece so difficult to play that twenty-five incomplete takes had to be stitched together in order to produce a version for the album of the same name. (See Robin Kelley’s account of the sessions in his recent book Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original.) I prefer the big band version myself, but since I can’t find it online, here’s the original:

That will give you a sense, if you weren’t familiar with it already, of the famous odd angularity and discordance of Monk’s music. And yet it works. But why? And why is it beautiful in a way that the notoriously even more discordant music of (say) Ornette Coleman is not?

The answer might be found in the work of G. W. Leibniz (of all people); or, to be more precise, in a set of principles that long pre-date Leibniz but which he adapted for his own philosophical use, viz. the principle of plenitude and the principle of economy. The principle of plenitude tells us that a world with more variety in it is better than a world with less; the principle of economy tells us that a world governed by simple and elegant principles is better than a world governed by needlessly complex ones. For Leibniz, the best of all possible worlds would be one that exhibited the perfect balance between plenitude and economy. A universe comprised only of a single metallic sphere might score extremely high on the economy scale but extremely low in the plenitude scale; a world comprised of an incalculably large number of different objects so diverse that no two of them fell under the same categories or laws would score extremely high on the plenitude scale but extremely low on the economy scale. Famously, Leibniz held that the actual world must be one which strikes the right balance, since in his view God must create the best of all possible worlds. Now, I don’t endorse Leibniz’s theological application of these principles. (We Thomists reject the claim that God has to create the best of all possible worlds.) But we can agree with him that there is goodness, and thus (if we factor in the doctrine of the transcendentals) beauty, in the balancing of plenitude and economy.

Consider that among the kinds of variety in which we seem naturally to take pleasure, and thus which possess a kind of beauty, is the kind that involves some element of the unexpected. This seems to be one reason why we enjoy stories with twist endings, jokes, roller coasters, dreams, surrealist art, science fiction and fantasy, and other artworks, activities, and experiences in which routine is departed from and ordinary expectations are upended, sometimes even suddenly. Their “plenitude” makes them good and beautiful, and a lack of plenitude or variety makes watching paint dry (say) or standing in a long queue unpleasant, despite the high score such activities have on the scale of economy or order. But there are limits to how much of this sort of variety we can stand. Obviously, we do not (always) find the unexpected pleasant when it poses a danger to us. More to the present point, we also find it unpleasant when the ordinary is departed from too radically – when it is hard to detect even a minimal or abstract level of order, so that making sense of what it is we are doing or experiencing becomes not only challenging, but impossible.

It seems to me that this helps to make sense of much of our aesthetic experience. For example, it accounts for something about the history of modern art that might otherwise seem puzzling: that while at least some of the early stuff manifests an aesthetically pleasant “shock of the new” (to borrow Robert Hughes’ phrase) the work of contemporary artists who have pushed the novel themes of the modernists to their limits is uniformly hideous. It explains why Christopher Nolan movies deserve the hype they get, while David Lynch movies are tiresome crap. And it explains why Monk’s music is beautiful while the “free jazz” of Coleman is often downright ugly. (Check out this further example. Yikes.) Both take you in directions you do not expect to go, but Monk’s tangents invariably resolve themselves into an order and economy which is, however complex, still clearly perceptible.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

“Homicide bomber”

Some of my fellow conservatives complain that use of the expression “suicide bomber” evinces a left-wing bias and that “homicide bomber” is a more appropriate expression. The idea is that since the primary intent of terrorists who strap bombs to themselves is to kill other people and not themselves, “suicide bomber” is highly misleading and serves only to whitewash the true evil of the acts in question, presumably so as not to offend Muslims.

I think this is extremely silly. Indeed, I have always found the conservative use of “homicide bomber” almost as annoying as I find the liberal use of “she” or “her” to refer to someone of unknown sex. The claim, in both cases, is that a revision of language is needed in order to counter an ideological bias. And in both cases, there is no bias at all, only paranoia on the part of those who think they see it. For that reason, I must disagree with my friend Bill Vallicella, who has been defending the use of “homicide bomber” in place of “suicide bomber” in a couple of recent posts (here and here). (Though I don’t think Bill is being paranoid; rather, I think he’s being too charitable to conservatives who are being paranoid.)

As I have said, those who insist on “homicide bomber” claim that the “homicide” modifier is needed in order to convey the murderous nature of the bomber’s actions. But why? True, the word “bomber” need not refer to someone who kills anyone; etymologically, a “bomber” could merely be someone who sets off a bomb. But of course, that is not how the term is actually used. For example, no one who heard on the news a few years ago about the Olympic Park Bomber was in any doubt about what he was up to. They knew that he was interested in killing people, and not merely in providing some extra fireworks for the Summer Olympics. Same thing with the Unabomber. No one following the news had to have it explained to him that when the Unabomber mailed bombs to universities and airliners (hence the “Un” and the “a” in “Unabomber”), what he intended was to kill people, and not merely to damage mailboxes. And it would be simply absurd to insist that because the media didn’t refer to the terrorists in question as the “Olympic Park Homicide Bomber” and “Unahomicidebomber,” respectively, they must have had some ideological interest in downplaying the murderous nature of the crimes committed by Eric Rudolph and Ted Kaczynski.

Given the way “bomber” is actually used, then, “homicide bomber” is simply redundant. It’s like “grocery market”: In theory, a “market” could be a place to buy just about anything, but in practice the term is typically used to refer to a place to buy groceries, specifically, and adding “grocery” to it is superfluous and clunky. By contrast, “suicide bomber” is not only not redundant, but actually better conveys the reality described than “homicide bomber” does. An ordinary bomber kills others; but a suicide bomber is so intent on killing others that, unlike most bombers, he is willing to kill himself too in the process. Far from downplaying the level of depravity involved, “suicide bomber” in fact calls attention to it.

Bill claims that “suicide bomber” is insufficiently precise, because it does not differentiate between those suicide bombers who kill only themselves and those who also kill others. But as we’ve seen, “bomber,” given its standard usage, already conveys all by itself the idea that the intent was to kill others. “Suicide” functions merely to indicate that the bomber in question was willing to kill himself as well. And does anyone really think that when the media have made reference to “suicide bombers,” any sane reader or listener has taken this to mean that the bombers in question may have intended to kill only themselves and no one else? To ask the question is to answer it – especially since there are no “suicide bombers” who intend to kill only themselves (certainly none I’ve ever heard of). This is a non-issue, and conservatives should drop it.

(Incidentally, I have always found the expression “Intelligent Design” extremely annoying for the same reason. “Design” already implies intelligence, so that the expression “Intelligent Design” sounds to my ear redundant and inept. I am well aware that ID advocates claim that their usage is justified by the fact that Darwinians often use the word “design” as if it were something that could result from unintelligent processes. But the right way to counter such an abuse of language is to call attention to the fact that it is an abuse, not to introduce a further abuse of language. Of course, this is a terminological issue and has nothing to do with the substance of ID theory, though I have commented on that at length.)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Edwards on infinite causal series

In a comment on a post down below, Richard Hennessey asks me to reply to the criticisms of Thomistic cosmological arguments presented by Paul Edwards in his article “A Critique of the Cosmological Argument” (criticisms Hennessey has endorsed in a recent post over at his own blog). The relevant sections of Edwards’ essay are in part III, wherein he responds to the Thomist philosophers G. H. Joyce and R. P. Phillips – something for which Edwards deserves credit, given that most atheist writers not only do not address the arguments of Thomists, but seem unaware even of their existence. Unfortunately, Edwards still deeply misunderstands how Thomistic cosmological arguments are supposed to work.

Edwards does realize that Aquinas is not arguing that the universe must have had a beginning – that the first cause he is arguing for is “first” not in a temporal sense, but in an ontological sense, a sustaining cause of the world here and now and at any moment at which the world exists at all. Still, he thinks this fails to address the heart of the atheist’s critique. For why might a series of causes existing simultaneously, all here and now, not be as infinite as a temporal regress of causes might be (by Aquinas’s own admission)? And if there must be a first uncaused cause in the order of simultaneous causes, why could it not be something other than God, such as basic material particles or gravitational forces?

The very asking of these questions shows that Edwards does not understand the distinction between causal series ordered per accidens and causal series ordered per se, on which the Thomistic arguments (like other Scholastic cosmological arguments) crucially depend. Following Joyce, Edwards refers instead to the distinction between causes in fieri and causes in esse, which might be part of the problem. Not that there is anything wrong with Joyce’s terminology, but it might suggest to someone otherwise unfamiliar with the Thomistic and Scholastic arguments – as it apparently did to Edwards – that the difference between “becoming” and “being” is what is supposed to be the key to seeing why the second sort of causal series cannot in the Thomist’s view be infinite. And that is not the case.

What is key is the distinction between instrumental and principal causality (or second and first causality), a distinction which the language of per accidens versus per se (which I use in The Last Superstition and Aquinas) better conveys. An instrumental cause is one that derives whatever causal power it has from something else. To use Aquinas’s famous example, the stick that the hand uses to push the stone has no power to push the stone on its own, but derives its stone-moving power from the hand, which uses it as an “instrument.” (Of course, the stick might have some other causal powers apart from the hand; the point is that relative to the specific series hand-stick-stone it has no independent causal power.) A principal cause is one that does have its causal power inherently. The hand in our example can be thought of for purposes of illustration as such a cause, though of course ultimately it is not, since its power to move the stick depends on other factors. Indeed, there can at the end of the day be only one cause which is principal or non-instrumental in an unqualified sense, namely a cause which is purely actual and thus need not be actualized in any way whatsoever by anything else. In any event, it is because all the causes in such a series other than the first are instrumental in this way that they are said to be ordered per se or “essentially,” for their being causes at all depends essentially on the activity of that which uses them as instruments. By contrast, causes ordered per accidens or “accidentally” do not essentially depend for their efficacy on the activity of earlier causes in the series. To use Aquinas’s example, a father possesses the power to generate sons independently of the activity of his own father, so that a series of fathers and sons is in that sense ordered per accidens rather than per se (though each member of such a series is also dependent in various other respects on causal series ordered per se).

So, it is ultimately their instrumental character, and not their simultaneity, which makes every member of a per se ordered causal series other than the first depend necessarily on the first. To be sure, the paradigm cases of causal series ordered per se involve simultaneity, because the simultaneity of the causes in these examples helps us to see their instrumental character. And the Thomist does hold that the world must ultimately be sustained at every instant by a purely actual uncaused cause, not merely generated at some point in the past. For these reasons, Thomists tend to emphasize simultaneity in their explanations of causal series ordered per se, as I did in The Last Superstition.

But it is arguably possible at least in theory for there to be a per se causal series in which some of the members were not simultaneous. Suppose a “time gate” of the sort described in Robert Heinlein’s story “By His Bootstraps” were possible. Suppose further that here in 2010 you take a stick and put it halfway through the time gate, while the other half comes out in 3010 and pushes a stone. The motion of the stone and the motion of the hand are not simultaneous – they are separated by 1000 years – but we still have a causal series ordered per se insofar as the former motion depends essentially on the latter motion. I am not saying that this really is possible, mind you; it presupposes that time travel itself is at least possible in principle, which is controversial at best. But let’s grant it for the sake of argument. Insofar as the hand’s operation and existence will themselves presuppose various other factors, we have a continuation to the regress of causes ordered per se which cannot be ended until we reach a purely actual uncaused cause. The end result is the same, even if the statement of the argument needs to be made more complicated.

Now Hennessey, unlike Edwards, does see that it is the instrumental nature of the causes rather than their simultaneity that is doing the metaphysical work here. What Hennessey doesn’t see is that this completely undermines whatever force he thinks there is in Edwards’ critique. Edwards thinks that a series of causes in esse no more needs to have a first member than a series of causes in fieri does, and it is evident that he thinks this because he assumes that in the first sort of series no less than in the second, “every member is genuinely the cause of the one that follows it” (as Edwards puts it at the end of part III). Now if this assumption were correct, then it would indeed be odd for Aquinas to hold that a series of causes in fieri might be infinite while a series of causes in esse (or, better, a series of causes ordered per se) could not be. For it is precisely because they have their causal power independently of any earlier members of the series that Aquinas argues that the activity of the members of a per accidens series need not be traced to a first cause. So, if he thought that the members of a series of per se causes also had independent causal power, then his reason for tracing that sort of series to a first member would be undermined. But of course, that is not what Aquinas thinks. He thinks that they do not have such independent causal power, and so (contrary to what Edwards suggests) it is not at all odd, arbitrary, or unjustified for him to say that a series ordered per se needs to trace its activity to a first uncaused cause. Edwards misses this because he thinks that the Thomistic argument rests on an appeal to simultaneity, and Edwards doesn’t see how simultaneity requires an uncaused cause. But as I have said, the argument doesn’t rest on simultaneity as such. It rests on the instrumentality of the members of a causal series ordered per se, and instrumentality does require an uncaused cause.

[As a side note, this does not mean that there is no sense in which the members of a causal series ordered per se are genuine causes; Aquinas is not an occasionalist. But how his account avoids occasionalism is a separate issue, and does not affect the soundness of Thomistic cosmological arguments as such.]

It seems to me that the reason Hennessey misses this no less than Edwards is that he puts too narrow an interpretation on the word “first” in the expression “first cause.” He seems to think that what Aquinas was concerned to show is that if you lay out a series of causes ordered per se in a straight line, the line will necessarily have a beginning. But that is not what he was concerned to show. As Thomists sometimes point out, it wouldn’t change things in the least if we granted for the sake of argument that a series of causes ordered per se might loop around back on itself in a circle, or even that it might extend forward and backward infinitely. For the point is that as long as the members of such a circular or infinite chain of causes have no independent causal power of their own, there will have to be something outside the series which imparts to them their causal efficacy. (As the Thomist A. D. Sertillanges once put it, a paint brush can’t move itself even if it has a very long handle. And it still couldn’t move itself even if it had an infinitely long handle.) Moreover, if that which imparts causal power to the members of the circular or infinitely long series itself had no independent causal power, then it too would of necessity also require a principal cause of its own, relative to which it is an instrument. This explanatory regress cannot possibly terminate in anything other than something which has absolutely independent causal power, which can cause or “actualize” without itself having to be actualized in any way, and only what is purely actual can fit the bill.

That is the way in which it is “first” – first in the sense of being metaphysically ultimate or fundamental, and not (necessarily) in the sense of standing at the head of some (temporal or even non-temporal) queue. That is also why, contrary to what Edwards and so many other atheists suppose, it makes no sense to ask why fundamental physical particles or the like might not be the first cause. Particles and other “naturalistic” candidates for the ground floor level of reality are all compounds of act and potency, form and matter, essence and existence; accordingly, they are in need of actualization and are therefore necessarily less than the “pure act” or Subsistent Being Itself which alone could, even in principle, be that which causes without in any way being caused (or, as I would prefer to say, which actualizes potency without itself being actualized).

For those who are interested, I discuss these issues at greater length in Aquinas, which provides a more thorough, in-depth, and “academic” treatment of the Thomistic arguments for God’s existence than The Last Superstition does. (And without the jokes, polemics, or conservative political asides that some readers – including Hennessey – feel they could live without. But Hennessey does say some kind things about The Last Superstition and about this blog, for which I thank him.)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Goo goo ga ga

Listen – the intention of that video was to show the hilarity to which people will fame-whore themselves. It was playing with the idea that I knew my style was something that people really were admiring. So I thought, Well, what’s the most ridiculous thing that we could immortalize? Something not fashion at all and make it fashion. And I was [looking at] a lot of Helmut Newton books and photographs, and there were all these disabled women who looked fabulous. So I thought watching the celebrity fall apart is so fascinating to everybody, why don’t I just fall apart for seven minutes and see what happens. The hilarity of the wheelchair being covered in diamonds…

Thus spake Lady Gaga, in the profile on her in this month’s Vanity Fair, a rag I admit to reading religiously. (Hey, it’s perfumed-up real pretty, which makes it perfect to wrap fish in.) You thought public morals and good taste were all she’d taken a chainsaw to – as you can see, she’s done a real number on the English language as well.

“But what makes her tick?” you want to know, as, apparently, all America does. Why, the same thing that has made every other “pop icon” tick, of course:

When I look into the crowd [at my shows], I feel like I’m looking into tiny little disco-ball mirrors and I’m looking into myself. And when I wake up in the morning, that’s what makes my heart tick.

As always with these weirdos, “It’s all about me!” But with “the Gaga,” it’s all about you too, dear fans:

It’s about loving who you are. I don’t want people to love me; I want them to love themselves. I have a relentless pursuit in me to give everything in me to my fans to make them feel good about themselves.

The proof is in the pudding, for Lady Gaga recalls the young lives she’s transformed, as evidenced by the sob stories she’s received from myriad teenage losers and misfits who have found hope in her music and an example in her life and work. And hers is, it seems, a faith-based philanthropy. She “currently ‘works with’ ‘spiritual guides’” and “used to pray every night that God would make me crazy”:

Listen, I prayed for a lunacy, and he gave it to me. It’s a bit of a sick thing when a 17-year-old says in her nightly prayers that I would rather die young and a legend than be married with children and die an old lady in my bed.

Not quite Solomon’s prayer for wisdom, or Christ’s “Thy will, not mine, be done,” but let it not be said that the former Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta remembered absolutely nothing from the nuns who taught her. Indeed, despite her slutty public persona, she is “quite celibate now.” Quite. Because “I don’t really have sex. Well, sometimes.” But only sometimes, you see, because:

I also think I’m afraid of depleting my energy. I have this weird thing that if I sleep with someone they’re going to take my creativity from me through my vagina.

You heard it here first, folks.

So, we have a “spiritually”-guided “icon” who sacrifices herself for her work and her followers, who in turn identify with her and find salvation in her work. In short, pop music fandom as atavistic religious cult, where the content of the religion is pure narcissism. Somewhere, Roger Scruton is saying “I told you so.”

What’s most amazing about “the Lady Gaga phenomenon” is that anyone thinks it is a phenomenon at all. It’s essentially the same shtick we’ve seen from David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and a thousand others. New freak show, same as the old freak show. While in Prague recently I was flipping through the channels on the hotel TV and came upon her video “Alejandro.” Don’t watch this one with the kids. In fact, don’t watch it. But not because there’s any new depravity there. It’s just the same old depravity, perhaps even more tiresome than titillating given that we’re somehow expected to find it really envelope-pushing. Weird fascist aesthetic? Bowie’s Thin White Duke and Pink Floyd’s The Wall have been there and done that. Blasphemy? Madonna and Marilyn Manson beat her to it long ago. Virtual pornography? Since when have you not been able find that on MTV – or cable TV in general, or even just plain old TV?

Perhaps the one thing truly novel about the ex-Miss Germanotta is her choice of stage name. Not the goofiness of it, of course, but its “truth in advertising” quality. None of the absurd pretentiousness of the Bowie and Floyd albums I wasted so many hours of my adolescence on, but a proud expression of the truly infantile self-absorption of the pop icon. “Gaga” indeed.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Welcome LifeSiteNews readers

I was recently interviewed by LifeSiteNews.com about Judge Walker’s ruling on Proposition 8. In the interview I summarize points made at greater length in my recent post on the ruling, and readers coming to this blog from the interview may find that post of interest. Perhaps they’ll find other items of interest if they browse through the blog and its archives – my recent post on Bart Stupak and the health care bill is one example, given the sorts of issues typically covered by LifeSiteNews.

For those in whom the interview may have piqued an interest in natural law theory, I might note (if you'll forgive the shameless plug) that I provide an exposition of it in chapter 5 of my recent book Aquinas. An exposition of the natural law approach to traditional sexual morality in particular can be found in chapter 4 of my book The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. Both books also contain detailed exposition and defense of the traditional arguments for God’s existence associated with Thomas Aquinas, and of Scholastic philosophy more generally.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Sold out!

It seems that some people have had difficulty recently in getting a hold of a copy of Aquinas. Amazon.com appears to have been out of stock for several weeks now, and it looks like Philosophy of Mind (which has the same publisher) is sold out there as well (though you can still get a new copy of either book from one of the second hand dealers who sell through Amazon, or from your better Borders and Barnes and Noble outlets). While I am, needless to say, gratified to see that they are popular, I regret the inconvenience this situation has caused anyone. My publisher tells me that their U.S. distributor will be re-stocked with Aquinas by August 31st, and that they hope to have Philosophy of Mind readily available again within a month. In the meantime, you can read Ryan Anderson’s kind review of Aquinas in First Things to see what you’re missing.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Dretske on meaning

We have had occasion to address the problem of intentionality in recent posts on Daniel Stoljar and Jerry Fodor. You will recall that the intentionality of a mental state is (as contemporary philosophers tend to understand it, anyway) its meaning or “aboutness,” its “pointing” beyond itself in the way that a word or symbol points beyond itself. For example, when I think that the cat is on the mat, my thought is about or “points to” the cat’s being on the mat in a way that is analogous to the way the sentence “The cat is on the mat” points to or is about the same state of affairs, or the way a drawing of a cat on a mat is about or points to it. The difference is that while words, pictures, and material representations in general lack any inherent intentionality or meaning of their own – they have intentionality only insofar as we impart it to them – thoughts have it intrinsically. So, if a thought is as material as a word token or a picture is (for example, if it is identical to a brain process), what explains the fact that it has intrinsic intentionality while they lack it? That, in a nutshell, is the problem intentionality poses for the materialist.

You will also recall that I have suggested that what makes this problem so difficult for the materialist is the very conception of matter that he has inherited from early modern thinkers like Galileo, Descartes, Hobbes, and Boyle, who abolished final causality or immanent teleology from their conception of the natural world. For the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition that the early moderns overthrew, a kind of “meaning” pervades the natural order from top to bottom. This is taken to be manifest not only in the usual examples – the functions of biological organs – but even in basic causal regularities. If some cause A reliably generates a certain specific effect or range of effects B – rather than C, D, or no effect at all – then in the view of the Scholastics, this can only be because A inherently “points to” or “aims at” the generation of that effect, as to a final cause. But it is not only that causes “point forward” to their effects; effects also “point backward” to their causes given the Scholastic principle that whatever is in an effect must in some way be in its cause. (I discuss and defend this principle of proportionate causality in Aquinas.)

When immanent final causality was abandoned and the rest of the Scholastic analysis of causation fell away with it, causes and effects came to seem essentially “loose and separate.” This not only opened the way to the famous Humean puzzles about causation and induction, but also made the intentionality of the mental especially difficult to assimilate to a materialist metaphysics. For if the material world, being (so it was held) devoid of any immanent final causes or teleology, is thereby devoid of any inherent “pointing to” or “aiming at,” then it is hard to see how a mental state’s “pointing to” or “aiming at” something beyond itself can be accounted for in material terms.

With this background in place, let us take a look at some of the ideas of Fred Dretske, whose work on intentionality has been particularly influential within contemporary philosophy. What is sometimes called the “crude causal theory” of meaning or intentionality holds that a material symbol will represent whatever causes “tokenings” or instances of it in a law-like way. For example, instances of the word “cat” will represent cats if they are regularly caused by the presence of cats. Like other contemporary proponents of naturalistic theories of intentionality, Dretske emphasizes that a crude causal theory is inadequate, because it cannot account for cases of misrepresentation. For instance, “cat” can represent cats even when cats do not cause tokenings of it – such as when grandma, due to poor eyesight, tells us that the cat is on the mat even though it is really the dog that is on the mat.

In order to deal with this problem, Dretske, again like other contemporary naturalists, appeals to the notion of function. Let’s consider how this goes in his article “Misrepresentation,” which originally appeared in Radu Bogdan, ed., Belief: Form, Content, and Function (and was more or less incorporated later into Dretske’s book Explaining Behavior: Reasons in a World of Causes).

Dretske begins by introducing the notion of a “natural sign,” which is a more or less reliable indicator of the presence of something insofar as it is typically caused by that something in a law-like way. Hence, expanding metal is a natural sign of a rise in temperature; a northerly-flowing river is a natural sign of a downward gradient in that direction; spots on the face are a natural sign of measles; and so forth. Natural signs can be said to have a kind of “natural meaning,” which Dretske abbreviates as meaningn: spots on the face meann that measles are present, expanding metal meansn that the temperature is rising, etc. Dretske takes the notion of meaningn to be a plausible starting point for a naturalistic account of meaning, but it can, in his view, hardly be the whole story insofar as it does not give us what we need in order to account for misrepresentation. For a natural sign cannot misrepresent anything, precisely because it represents whatever causes it. To use Dretske’s example, when the doorbell malfunctions, what its ringing meansn is not that the doorbell button has been pushed (since it hasn’t been), but rather that there is electrical current flowing in the doorbell circuit. Of course, we might interpret the ringing as meaning that the button has been pushed and thus (under the circumstances) take it to count as a misrepresentation, but in that case the “meaning” in question derives from us, and in particular from the purposes to which we put doorbells, and is not there naturally in the material processes themselves.

A theory that appealed only to meaningn would therefore be no advance on a crude causal theory. What we need to add, Dretske says, is the notion of “functional meaning” or meaningf. As indicated, we ordinarily count even the malfunctioning doorbell’s ringing as meaning that the button has been pushed because it is the function of the doorbell to tell us when someone is pushing it. In this case the function derives, again, from us, but Dretske suggests that there are also natural functions that might provide a naturalistic ground for meaningf and, in turn, for the possibility of misrepresentation. Such functions most plausibly derive from biological need. Dretske gives the example of marine bacteria possessing a sensory mechanism called magnetotaxis, by which they are able to propel themselves along the earth’s magnetic field. For example, such bacteria living in the northern hemisphere are able to propel themselves toward magnetic north. Now the function of this mechanism may be to allow the bacteria, who thrive only in oxygen-free environments, to avoid oxygen-rich surface water. We might say, then, that the meaningf of such a sensory state in one of these bacteria is that oxygen-free water is present in this direction. And this is what the state will meanf even in the case where no such water is present, because (say) we have placed a bar magnet near the bacterium and thereby disoriented it. Hence we seem to have a naturalistic conception of meaning which can account for misrepresentation.

But as Dretske himself acknowledges, even this will not quite do. One problem is that it is not obvious how it accounts for meaning where biological need is not in question, though Dretske thinks the account might be extendable in a way that does account for such cases. What he thinks is a more serious problem is what he describes as the indeterminacy of biological function. If we say that the function of the bacterium’s sensory states is to indicate where oxygen-free environments are, then it seems we have an account of misrepresentation of the sort the naturalist is seeking. But why describe the function of the sensory states this way? Why not say instead that their function is to indicate the direction of geomagnetic north, or even just to indicate the direction of magnetic north? Any of these would be a plausible candidate for the function of the sensory states in question. But if we take the last of these options, then the bacterium’s sensory state does not misrepresent the environment when we place the bar magnet near it. For it really does detect (the bar’s) magnetic north in that case.

That what the bacterium ultimately needs is oxygen-free water rather than to propel itself to magnetic north per se does not help to eliminate the indeterminacy. To borrow another example of Dretske’s, if what I need is vitamin C, it doesn’t follow that any state of my perceptual-cognitive apparatus has to meanf or represent something as containing vitamin C; representing it as a lemon or orange will suffice, since being a lemon or orange is correlated with having vitamin C.

To find a naturalistic ground for the possibility of misrepresentation, then, we need in Dretske’s view to add some further element to the story; and he proposes that this further element has to do with an organism’s having (unlike the bacterium, which is sensitive only to magnetic north as an indicator of oxygen-free environments) more than one way to detect the presence of something that it needs either to seek or to avoid. So, suppose a creature needs to avoid a certain kind of tree that is poisonous to it, and that it can identify the tree either by its leaf pattern or by the texture of its bark. When it has either an internal sensory state I1 which meansn that the leaf pattern is present, or an internal state I2 which meansn that the bark is present, the creature will go into a further state R that leads it to run away. Now R itself in this case does not meann either that the leaf pattern is present or that the bark is present, because there is no regular correlation between either one of those, specifically, and R; either one could cause R. But R does meann that the tree is present, because whether it is via the leaf pattern or via the bark that the tree causes R, it will reliably cause R. And since it is its need to avoid the tree that causes the creature to go into state R, what R functionally means, meansf, is specifically that a tree of the sort in question is present, rather than that the leaf pattern is present or that the bark is present; the indeterminacy that characterized the bacteria example has been eliminated. Moroever, R will have this meaningf even if we present the creature with a fake tree with the same leaf pattern or the same bark texture. Hence we will have, in that circumstance, a case of misrepresentation, and one that can be accounted for in naturalistic terms.

To Dretske’s credit, he acknowledges that even this supplemented account is not free of difficulty. For even if R does not meann that the leaf pattern is present, specifically, or meann that the bark is present, specifically, why could we not say that R has a disjunctive meaningn, namely that R meansn that either the leaf pattern is present or the bark is present? But if we say that, then indeterminacy enters the picture yet again: R could meanf, that is to say, functionally mean, either that a tree of such-and-such a kind is present or it could meanf that either the leaf pattern or the bark is present, and there will be, in this case as in the bacteria case, no non-arbitrary way to favor one over the other as the “true” function or meaningf of R. And if we say that the latter, disjunctive meaningf is the true one, then once again we do not really have a case of misrepresentation at all: When we present the creature with a fake tree, since at least the leaf pattern or bark texture will in that case be present, the creature’s sensory state represents things accurately. Misrepresentation has, therefore, still not been explained naturalistically.

Dretske further acknowledges that this indeterminacy problem will reappear for any even more complex system as long as we can identify for it some corresponding more complex disjunctive property the detection of which might be characterized as its function. His response to the problem is to propose one final wrinkle to the theory. Suppose now that we have a creature capable, through conditioning, of continually adding to the number of properties of the tree to which it is sensitive. Hence while at one point it is sensitive only to the leaf pattern and to the texture of the bark, it might come later to be able to detect also the tree’s visible root structure, still later its average size, and so forth. If, as in our previous example, we think of the meaningn of R in this case as some disjunctive property, then since the disjunctive property in question will change as the creature adds to the properties to which it is sensitive, the meaningn of R will also change over time. And that would entail that, if we thought of the function of R as the detection of this disjunctive property, then that function, and thus the meaningf of R, would also change over time.

Nonetheless, R will still be a reliable indicator of the tree over time, and thus meann that a tree of such-and-such a sort is present over time. Hence, if we are to regard R as having some stable meaningf or functional meaning over time, Dretske says, the only such meaning available for it to have – since the disjunctive property is not stable over time – is that a tree of such-and-such a sort is present. And since it will have that meaningf even when triggered by something other than the tree (e.g. a fake tree having the same leaf pattern, or whatever), we have a naturalistic basis for explaining misrepresentation.

What should we think of Dretske’s account? There are, I believe, several problems with it. To begin at the end, if Dretske’s final revision really shows anything at all, the most it shows is that if R has some meaningf that is stable over time, then that meaningf must have to do with the detection of the tree. But that’s a big “if.” For why not say instead that R has no stable meaningf over time? What is there in the physical facts that determines that R meansf, stably, that a tree of such-and-such a sort is present, as opposed to having an ever-changing series of disjunctive meaningsf? Dretske offers us no answer. But if what R really has is nothing more than an ever-changing series of disjunctive meaningsf, then at any particular time t R will not be misrepresenting that which triggers it. Dretske’s final account is really no less subject to indeterminacy problems than are the accounts he acknowledges to be inadequate.

Of course, that might seem counterintuitive. Surely it is at least extremely plausible to say that R has the function of getting the creature to avoid trees, and does not plausibly have the ever-shifting alternative functions in question? I agree, but the problem is that we need to know how a materialist (like Dretske) can account for this, consistent with the conception of matter we have seen he is committed to, on which there are no inherent ends or purposes in nature. For if a materialist tries to solve the problem in question by postulating such ends or purposes as a way of explaining how R can have a determinate function, then he has thereby ceased to be a materialist and returned to a more or less Aristotelian or Scholastic conception of nature.

Some of the other things Dretske says point in the same direction. Recall that he claims that what he calls “natural signs” have at least a kind of “natural meaning,” even if not the kind of meaning that might explain misrepresentation. But how can a materialist justify even that modest claim? What licenses a description of expanding metal (say) as a “sign” of a rise in temperature, or as “meaning” that the temperature is rising? True, when we observe the expansion, we can (given our background knowledge) infer that the temperature is rising. But how does that show that the expanding metal has, all by itself and apart from our knowledge of it and its properties, a semantic property like “meaning”? Did it have “meaning,” or count as a “sign,” before any human beings were around? “Meaning” to whom, in that case? A “sign” to whom? In fact there would seem to be no “meaning” or “sign” literally present at all until intelligent creatures like us come along and, discovering that a rise in temperature causes metal to expand, come to take expanded metal to “mean” or be a “sign” of a rise in temperature.

Now something like built-in meaning might plausibly be attributed to expanding metal, spots on the face, and other examples of the sort Dretske gives if we were to adopt an Aristotelian-Scholastic conception of nature, on which final causality or directedness-to-an-end is inherent to patterns of what Aristotelians call efficient causality (that is, to what moderns mean when they speak of causality). If, as I put it earlier, causes inherently “point forward” to their typical effects and effects inherently “point backward” to their causes, then Dretske’s examples might do the sort of work he needs them to do. But the whole point of the early moderns’ chucking out of Scholasticism was to get rid of this sort of immanent teleology.

Yet as I have noted many times before (e.g. in this post, and in The Last Superstition and Aquinas) this sort of move is extremely common in contemporary materialism. When proponents of “naturalistic” theories of mind help themselves to notions like “natural meaning,” “biological function,” “algorithms,” “programs,” “information,” and the like, they are either using these terms in a figurative way – in which case they cannot do the work they are intended to do – or they mean them seriously, in which case those who use them are tacitly acknowledging that the Aristotelians were right after all and that modern materialism rests on a mistake. What I like to say of the moderns in general can be said of the work of contemporary naturalists in particular: What’s new in it isn’t true, and what’s true isn’t new.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Eulogy for James F. Ross

Seamus Ross kindly posted the following below my recent post on the death of his father James F. Ross. I re-post it here so that it gets the attention it deserves:

Dear Edward Feser and Blog Readers,

I saw your appreciation of my father and thought perhaps I might share with you the Eulogy from his funeral mass at The Church of St Sebastian, Providence, RI (17 July 2010).

Eulogy for James Francis Ross, d. 12 July 2010

Our universe is wondrous, splendid, and startling. It is a multi-dimensional enigma that offers the inquisitive and reflective mind fertile ground for contemplation. James Ross dedicated his life to pondering its nature, who made it, why it came to be, and to educating the rest of us to wonder about it, even if despite all his efforts we could not develop the capacity to think about it with the same richness, depth, and intensity he did.

When our mother, his wife, Kathleen, died seven weeks ago, Jim lost his life-long companion; that loss hit him hard. As was true for Kathleen, it was true for Jim, that their children were at the center of his world. Once fishing with one of his young children, another amateur fisher turned to Jim and said 'Can't you tell that boy to stop talking?' Jim said, 'No, I love to listen to my children.' The time he would devote to conversation seemed limitless and his children, students and colleagues, often acknowledge the benefit of this gift. He encouraged discourse and Socratic-style dialogues. His engaging smile and twinkling eyes were a tapestry of these conversations.

An ardent user of public libraries, Jim was a voracious reader. He marveled at the expressive possibility of language and took pleasure in it and in trying to explain how it worked. He encouraged all of us to think broadly when seeking explanations. He did this as a philosopher and as a father, for instance, in a casual conversation a couple of weeks ago, he illuminated Robert Frost's poem "Mending Wall" for me. He did so by thinking beyond convention.

Jim relished nature's beauty; green fields, long sandy beaches, and vibrant foamy ocean waves. He had a discerningly appreciative eye for the beauty made by people whether a well built stone wall, a building, a poem, a piece of prose or a work of art. The beauty lay in simplicity and aesthetic harmony. His love of music was typical of this: he enjoyed listening to it, playing it, thinking about it, and explaining it. For Jim reflection produced solutions: whether he needed to figure out how to fix the washing machine, grow a better vegetable garden, handle legal inconveniences, or do philosophy.

Jim had the capacity to perceive the potentiality of the unrealized, the unformed, and the unnoticed. He was creative in thought and action. In his summer home, he suspended a minimalist, but recognizable, statue carved from a nine foot long piece of driftwood Jim had hauled up from the beach; the mitered saint had emerged as he carved. The statue is St. Anselm, a thinker he admired and a saint he felt inspired him.

As a fervent supporter of the ideals of a liberal, democratic, and socially considerate society, Jim was concerned about individual rights and freedom, and profoundly perturbed by what he saw, over the past three decades especially, as the narrowing of the American spirit and mind.

For Jim, learning lay at the essence of being. Every day was a chance to acquire new information and to find meaning in it and interconnections that led him to create new knowledge and wisdom. The legacy of Jim's scholarship is not for the intellectually faint of heart; it reflects an awesome breadth of knowledge, deep thought and inspiration. He had many maxims but six come to mind today: do not force it, ponder the world around you, take pleasure in attempting to understand it, share your knowledge with others generously, maintain your integrity and the courage of your convictions, and always remember that the well-lived life is, in the Aristotelian sense, a life focused on the pursuit of excellence.

Seamus Ross
17 July 2010
(Delivered at The Church of St Sebastian, Providence, RI.)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Twist ending

In my recent Twilight Zone post, I mentioned that I intended to read Noël Carroll and Lester Hunt’s Philosophy in the Twilight Zone. I’ve since read some of it and there is indeed some interesting stuff there. Hunt himself provides a fine essay on Rod Serling’s career as a writer, and the story of that career teaches an important philosophical lesson.

Serling was an established television scriptwriter before The Twilight Zone came along, and was well-known for his interest in writing serious and “socially relevant” dramas. He had a series of frustrating experiences with the television censors of the 1950s, who were concerned above all with avoiding controversy that might put off sponsors. Their objections could often be quite silly. To take an example of Hunt’s:

[I]n the original, Playhouse 90 version of “Judgment at Nuremburg,” one of the sponsors, a consortium of gas companies, had every mention of “gassing” and “gas ovens” expunged, evidently for fear that the viewers would unconsciously associate their product with Nazi genocide. (p. 9)

As a consequence, scripts written to reflect and comment upon matters of current controversy were sometimes reduced to bland ineffectiveness by the time the censors got done with them. Serling’s “Noon on Doomsday,” which aired in 1956 for the United States Steel Hour, was inspired by the Emmett Till case. So as not to offend southern viewers, however, the setting of the story was changed to New England, and the victim was made into a nondescript European “foreigner” rather than a black man. Use of the word “lynch” was forbidden, and bottles of Coca Cola were removed from the set, apparently lest viewers associate the action with the state of Georgia, where the Coca Cola Company has its headquarters. The end result had so abstracted the story from the real world events that it lacked all punch. While racial strife certainly existed in American society in the 1950s, serious antagonism between native born Americans and European immigrants did not. Hence the drama, which aimed for “social relevance,” in fact came across as totally irrelevant.

As Hunt recounts, Serling later attempted to rewrite “Noon on Doomsday” as a stage play, and the result, interestingly enough, was a failure in the opposite direction. This time Serling stuck very closely to the actual facts of the Till case, but in such a way that the story lacked universal application, and would not convince anyone of the truth of Serling’s message other than those who already agreed with him. In particular, no one who was not already appalled by the Emmett Till case would have had his mind changed by a story which, more or less, merely dramatized the case.

When Serling finally moved on to do The Twilight Zone, he thought that he was leaving behind serious and “socially relevant” drama, or so he said at the time, anyway. As the series’ viewers know, that is by no means the case, and Serling no doubt realized this, at least eventually. For one of the advantages of the science-fiction and fantasy genres is that they allow for the “middle distance” approach that evaded Serling in the two versions of “Noon on Doomsday” just described. On the one hand, an otherworldly setting allows one to avoid too direct and ham-fisted a reference to contemporary persons and events, which might strip the story of timeless application and put off the very people one is trying to convince. On the other hand, one can at the same time put enough detail into such a setting that the application to current controversies is clear enough for those who know how to look.

The result is that with The Twilight Zone, Serling and his fellow writers were able consistently to produce material of lasting moral and philosophical interest. And Serling was also able thereby to accomplish what he set out to do as a writer – ironically, precisely by abandoning his goal of “seriousness” (or seemingly abandoning it, or pretending to abandon it, anyway, depending on how one interprets Serling’s words at the time). Few remember Serling’s television dramas of the early and mid 1950s. Everyone remembers The Twilight Zone.

Sometimes we get what we want precisely when we stop trying so hard to get it. Everyone knows that the last thing you want to do if you’ve got insomnia is to worry yourself over how you are going to get to sleep. Market economists never tire of reminding us that the best way to generate wealth for all is to let the market take its course, for the most part, anyway, rather than to interfere with it constantly so as to redistribute wealth or otherwise “correct” its outcomes. Rod Serling attained lasting fame and “relevance” precisely when he thought (or said he thought, in an interview with Mike Wallace) that he was (as Wallace put it) “giv[ing] up on writing anything important for television.” There’s a twist ending worthy of The Twilight Zone.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, submitted for your approval, another twist ending, courtesy of the opening sequence from Twilight Zone: The Movie:

Monday, August 9, 2010

Happy Consequentialism Day!

Perhaps you already observed it on Friday, since that was the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. But today, the anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing, is an equally fitting date. Certainly the image at left – the aftermath of Fat Man’s explosion over Nagasaki – is a fitting symbol for consequentialism. Perhaps consequentialist ethicists should consider putting it on the covers of their books, or wear little mushroom cloud pins when they meet up at philosophical conferences. For one thing, since the consequentialist case for the bombings – that they would save more lives than an invasion of Japan would – carried the day with the Truman administration (and with defenders of the bombings ever since), it may be the most consequential piece of consequentialist reasoning ever formulated. For another, the bombings give a pretty good idea of what a world consistently run on consequentialist principles might look like.

But don’t put the party hats on yet, because there’s one little hitch: Consequentialism is, as David Oderberg has put it, “downright false and dangerous, an evil doctrine that should be avoided by all right-thinking people.” And the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, accordingly, as evil as consequentialism is. So, maybe Consequentialism Day is not a good idea after all, except perhaps as a reminder of the scale of evil that can be and has been done in the name of “good intentions” and “rationality.”

Jimmy Akin offers us a helpful reminder of why the bombings must be considered gravely immoral from the point of view of natural law theory and Catholic moral theology. It is only fair to acknowledge that many consequentialists would no doubt also condemn the bombings, arguing that better consequences would result overall and in the long run from respect for a rule that forbade such actions. Whatever. What matters is that any consequentialist must allow that it is at least in principle legitimate intentionally to kill the innocent for the sake of a “greater good.” And from the point of view of us reactionary, bigoted, unprogressive natural law theorists and Catholics, that is enough to make consequentialism a depraved doctrine. For it is never, never permissible to do what is intrinsically evil that good may come – not even if you’d feel much happier if you did it, not even if you’ve got some deeply ingrained tendency to want to do it, not even if it will shorten a war and save thousands of lives. Never.

As Akin makes clear, the point has nothing whatsoever to do with pacifism, with opposition to nuclear weapons per se, or with anti-Americanism. Indeed, most of the “sandal-wearing fruit juice drinkers” (to co-opt Orwell’s famous phrase) and “pasty-faced peace creeps” (to quote P. J. O’Rourke) who badmouth American foreign policy, and who seem to think no war is a just war, are wildly out of step with natural law theory on most other issues, and are generally wrong even about war and U.S. policy. But as they say, even a broken watch is right twice a day.

(See the Oderberg article linked to above for a brief popular overview of what is wrong with consequentialism. See Oderberg’s Moral Theory: A Non-Consequentialist Approach for a more thorough and academic treatment. And see Oderberg’s Applied Ethics: A Non-Consequentialist Approach for a serious, natural law theory treatment of just war theory and other life and death moral issues.)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Conceiving and hallucinating

The “conceivability argument” for dualism holds that (1) it is conceivable that I might exist apart from by body, and therefore that (2) it is metaphysically possible for me to exist apart from my body, so that (3) I am not identical to my body. I put forward a detailed and sympathetic exposition of this argument in chapter 2 of Philosophy of Mind – for it is more interesting and defensible than some philosophers give it credit for – but I do not in fact endorse it. It is essentially a variation on Descartes’ “clear and distinct perception” argument for dualism, and as I’ve argued elsewhere, what’s true in that argument isn’t new and what’s new isn’t true. (As an Aristotelico-Thomist I reject the rationalist assumptions inherent in Descartes’ version, and the Kripke-style modal assumptions inherent in modern versions. But demonstrating the mind’s immateriality does not require committing oneself to these assumptions.)

But as I say, the argument is more defensible than it is often given credit for. Take the thought experiment I discussed in Philosophy of Mind, W. D. Hart’s “seeing without a body” example. (Hart develops this example in his book The Engines of the Soul and in his article “Dualism” in Samuel Guttenplan, ed., A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind. Follow the links and you can read the relevant sections online via Google books.) Hart asks you to imagine that you wake up one morning, look in the bathroom mirror, and see staring back at you two empty eye sockets where your eyeballs used to be. This is no doubt physically impossible, but it does seem that we can at least conceive of having such an experience. There is no apparent contradiction or incoherence in the idea. Seeing without eyeballs is thus arguably metaphysically possible even if it is not physically possible.

Hart then asks us to extend the thought experiment in various ways. For example (and as I suggested extending it in the book) you might imagine that instead of seeing two empty eye sockets staring back at you, what you see in the mirror is the stump of your neck where your head used to be – a headless body, arms raised in horror. Seeing without a head, and thus without a brain, seems perfectly conceivable, then, and therefore (by the reasoning of the conceivability argument) at least metaphysically possible even if not physically possible. And if that is conceivable, so too is it conceivable to have the experience of seeing without arms, legs, torso, or any body at all; in which case (the argument claims) it is metaphysically possible to see without a body. But since seeing is a kind of mental state, it is therefore metaphysically possible to have a mind without a body.

Now, to evaluate the conceivability argument, we have to determine (a) whether what seems to be conceivable in this case really is conceivable, (b) whether conceivability really does entail metaphysical possibility, and (c) whether the metaphysical possibility of A existing without B really does entail that A and B are non-identical. I commend Hart’s discussion of these various issues (and also my discussion in Philosophy of Mind) to the interested reader. What I want to focus on here is just (a), and in particular on one possible challenge to (a).

A friend of mine sometimes reads this blog at work. (“I’m that bored,” he explains.) He’s been reading Philosophy of Mind, and when I saw him the other day he asked vis-à-vis the Hart example: “What does that prove? Isn’t it just obvious that I would be hallucinating?” That’s a fair question. We might put the objection this way: For the conceivability argument to work, we have to be able to show that (among other things) it really is conceivable to see without a body. But Hart’s example shows at most only that it is conceivable that we might have an experience that seems like the experience of seeing without a body. And that’s not good enough, because such an experience might be hallucinatory. “Seems like” does not entail “really is.” Therefore, “We can conceive of it seeming like such-and-such is the case” does not entail “We can conceive of such-and-such really being the case.”

But I think the objection fails. The reason is that hallucination seems parasitic on veridical experience in a way that ensures that if we can conceive of hallucinating something, it follows that we can conceive of really experiencing it. Consider that it isn’t just impossible to conceive of seeing a round square. It is also impossible to conceive of hallucinating a round square. And this is so, surely, precisely because it is impossible to conceive of seeing one. Hallucinating (or visually hallucinating, anyway) is just a kind of defective seeing. So, what’s impossible for seeing in general is impossible for hallucinations in particular. But then, if it were impossible for us to see without a body, it would also be impossible for us to hallucinate seeing without a body. So, since the Hart example at least shows (by the objector’s own admission) that the latter is possible, that suffices to show that the former is possible as well.

Or so it seems to me. The conceivability argument may or may not fail on other grounds, but I think that at least to this extent it is on solid ground.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Some thoughts on the Prop 8 decision

1. Judge Walker’s decision, he tells us, is based on the principle that the state ought not to “enforce ‘profound and deep convictions accepted as ethical and moral principles’” or to “mandate [its] own moral code.” But that is, of course, precisely what Walker himself has done. His position rests on the question-begging assumption that “same-sex marriages” are no less true marriages than heterosexual ones are, and that the only remaining question is whether to allow them legally. But of course, whether “same-sex marriages” really can even in principle be “marriages” in the first place is part of what is at issue in the dispute. The traditional, natural law view is that marriage is heterosexual of metaphysical necessity. Rather than staying neutral between competing moral views, then, Walker has simply declared that the state should stop imposing one moral view – the one he doesn’t like – and should instead impose another, rival moral view – the one he does like.

What we’re seeing here is just one more application of the fraudulent principle of “liberal neutrality,” by which the conceit that liberal policy is neutral between the moral and metaphysical views competing within a pluralistic society provides a smokescreen for the imposition of a substantive liberal moral worldview, on all citizens, by force. (Of course, liberals typically qualify their position by saying that their conception of justice only claims to be neutral between “reasonable” competing moral and metaphysical views, but “reasonable” always ends up meaning something like “willing to submit to a liberal conception of justice.”)

That “liberal neutrality” is a fraud is blindingly obvious to everyone except (some) liberals themselves. (I say “some” because it is very hard to believe that many liberals are not perfectly well aware that the “neutrality” of their position is phony, but maintain the pretense of neutrality for cynical political reasons.) In any event, I have argued for its fraudulence in a number of places, most fully in my paper “Self-Ownership, Libertarianism, and Impartiality” (the arguments of which are aimed immediately at some libertarians’ application of the “neutrality” idea, but apply to liberalism generally).

All of this would be bad enough if the policy in question were a result of a popular vote, but Walker has essentially imposed his will on the people of California by sheer judicial fiat. Pope Benedict XVI has famously spoken of a “dictatorship of relativism.” But I think that that is not quite right. Most liberals are not the least bit relativistic about their own convictions. A more accurate epithet would have been “dictatorship of liberalism,” and in Judge Walker that dictatorship has taken on concrete form.

2. As with other issues, what will decide the “same-sex marriage” controversy in the long run are the attitudes that prevail in society at large, not this or that judicial decision, ballot measure, or piece of legislation. If a solid majority of citizens continue to oppose “same-sex marriage,” then it can be stopped and liberal advances can be turned back. If not, then conservative efforts will inevitably fail in the long run. So, if they are to have a chance of succeeding, conservatives must work to shore up popular opposition to the idea of “same-sex marriage.”

Social-scientific and pragmatic arguments have much intellectual value and some practical value in this connection. But where moral and social questions are concerned such arguments are never going to carry the day in a society whose moral and social trajectory is as firmly liberal as ours is. The advocates of “same-sex marriage” are motivated by a moralistic fervor, and their position rests (whether all of them realize this or not) on controversial metaphysical assumptions about human nature and the nature of value. If they are effectively to be rebutted, they must be met with equal and opposite moral and metaphysical force.

Unfortunately, too few conservatives are very effective in this regard. With some of them, this is because they more or less share the moral and metaphysical premises in question; their “conservatism” amounts to little more than a milder form of liberalism. With others, it is because an obsession with short-term electoral strategy and the nuts and bolts of policy has made them lose sight of the deeper questions of principle that were the focus of earlier generations of conservatives, and which ultimately give point to political strategizing and policy design. This is a general problem with contemporary conservatism that I have explored in detail in my essay “The Metaphysics of Conservatism.”

3. What this entails in the case at hand is that in order to challenge the legitimacy of “same-sex marriage,” conservatives have to be willing to challenge the moral legitimacy of homosexual behavior itself. To concede even for the sake of argument that such behavior is morally unobjectionable is effectively to concede the whole issue. Conservative moralists have always upheld the norm that sexual behavior and marriage ought to go together – both because sex naturally results in children and children need the stability of marriage, and because sexual passions are inherently unruly and need to be channeled in the socially constructive way marriage provides. To allow that sexual behavior need not be heterosexual is implicitly to allow that marriage too need not be heterosexual. Pragmatic social-scientific arguments about the possible negative long-range social effects of allowing “same-sex marriage” can only seem anticlimactic in the face of such a concession – heartless nitpicking at best, and the rationalization of prejudice at worst.

Moreover, challenging the moral legitimacy of homosexual behavior requires a moral theory grounded in a classical essentialist metaphysics, one in which what is good for us is determined by a fixed human nature or essence and in particular by the natural ends of our various faculties. As my regular readers know, the specific version of classical essentialism I favor is the one associated with the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, but one needn’t share that specific view for the purpose at hand; a broadly Platonic metaphysics would do, as would a non-Thomistic brand of Aristotelianism. (Divine command theory is, I think, not a plausible alternative, because it either takes God’s commands, and thus morality, to be arbitrary – not a plausible approach to ethics, in my view – or it holds that what God commands us to do is what it is good for us to do given our nature – in which case it isn’t really an alternative to a classical essentialist approach, but rather a supplement to it. See chapter 5 of my Aquinas for more on this issue.)

I hasten to add that this is nothing peculiar to traditional sexual morality, though. No morality whatsoever is defensible apart from a classical essentialist metaphysics. If there are no ends set for us by our nature, then there can in principle be no objective, non-arbitrary way of determining what it is good for us to do, and thus what we ought to do. Hence in the final analysis, and in the main if not in all details, traditional sexual morality and morality full stop stand or fall together. Though liberal advocates of “same-sex marriage” are fervently moralistic, they have no rational basis whatsoever for their moralism. Their position rests ultimately either on an appeal to something like Rawlsian “considered intuitions about justice” – academese for “groundless and parochial liberal prejudices my friends and I all have in common” – or on a neo-Hobbesian contractarianism, which is not really a moral position at all, but a non-aggression pact between the members of whichever group of “rationally self-interested individuals” can collectively convince the mob (or at least the judicial bureaucracy) to implement policies favorable to their interests. (See The Last Superstition for the full story on this, and on the justification of traditional sexual morality.)

For reasons already stated, though, too few conservatives with influence in politics or journalism are willing or able to make the moral or metaphysical case required. They are either too beholden themselves to the moral and metaphysical assumptions of liberalism, or too narrowly focused on questions of immediate political feasibility. Deference to the attitudes of their “socially liberal” “conservative” colleagues, of potential voters, and of their liberal fellow journalists, intellectuals, and politicians prevents even those conservatives who truly believe that “same-sex marriage” is wrong because homosexual behavior itself is wrong from ever voicing this opinion. Hence their emphasis on exclusively pragmatic social-scientific arguments, on respect for the will of the voters, etc. – arguments which cannot succeed in the long run.

4. There may be limits in practice, but there are no limits in principle, to what liberals might come to endorse, and be willing to impose on all by judicial fiat, in the name of “justice.” No doubt most liberals do not at present advocate infanticide, mandatory euthanasia, “group marriage,” incest, bestiality, mandatory vegetarianism, mandatory organ harvesting, and the like, but there is nothing whatsoever in the “logic” of liberal arguments for abortion, “same-sex marriage,” euthanasia, “animal rights” etc. to rule such things out. Indeed, there is nothing to rule out even more bizarre and as yet unimagined practices than these. The only barriers in practice are the “intuitions” liberals currently happen to have, but those intuitions are always subject to revision, and the trajectory of the revisions is invariably in a “liberationist” direction. If something seems beyond the pale now, just wait a decade or three.

The reason, again, is that if man has no essence and no natural end – that is to say, if we reject classical essentialist metaphysics and the natural law system of morality that derives from it, as the founders of liberal modernity did – then there can be no objective, non-arbitrary way of determining what is good for us. And the flip side of this is that there is no existing moral conviction, no matter how widespread, ancient, and venerable, that might not be dismissed as an arbitrary prejudice, something to be freed from rather than deferred to and shored up.

This is not a slippery slope argument. The point is not that liberalism will lead someday to something truly nasty. It has already done so; indeed, it is itself truly nasty. As Alasdair MacIntyre put it in After Virtue, our choice is between Aristotle and Nietzsche, between submitting ourselves to the natural order or instead to the will to power of self-appointed “revaluators of all values.” In the person of Judge Walker, Nietzsche has spoken.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Fodor’s trinity

What is the mind-body problem? In an article summarizing his work, which he wrote for Samuel Guttenplan’s A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind, Jerry Fodor answers as follows:

[S]ome of the most pervasive properties of minds seem so mysterious as to raise the Kantian-sounding question how a materialistic psychology is even possible. Lots of mental states are conscious, lots of mental states are intentional, and lots of mental processes are rational, and the question does rather suggest itself how anything that is material could be any of these.

For Fodor, then, there are really three mind-body problems: the problem of consciousness, the problem of intentionality, and the problem of rationality. Why are the phenomena in question problematic?

Let’s look at each briefly. (The following characterizations are mine, not Fodor’s.) When light strikes your retinas, a complex series of neural processes is initiated which may result in one of a range of possible behaviors – taking steps to avoid an obstacle, sorting red apples from green ones, or saying “It’s sunny outside.” When light strikes an “electric eye” or photodetector of some sort, electrical processes are initiated which also may result in one among a range of possible behaviors – the setting off on an alarm, for example, or, if the device is associated with a robot, perhaps behavior similar to the sort you might exhibit, such as avoiding an obstacle, sorting objects, or declaring (through a speech synthesizer) that it is sunny. Now, in the case of the electric eye and its associated robot, what we can observe going on in the system is presumably all there is. The system has no “inner life” or conscious visual experience associated with the electrical activity and behavior. But we do have conscious awareness; we do have an “inner life.” There is “something it is like” for us to see things, whereas there is nothing it is like for the robot to “see” something. Or as contemporary philosophers like to say, we have qualia while the robot appears not to. So, what accounts for this difference? It does not seem plausible to hold that it can be accounted for merely in terms of the greater complexity of the human brain, because the difference between conscious systems and unconscious ones seems clearly to be a difference in quality and not merely of quantity. This is the problem of consciousness.

Then there is the problem of intentionality, which concerns, not just intentions, but meaning in general. (The technical term “intentionality” derives from the Latin intendere, which means “to point at” or “to aim at,” as a word or thought points to or aims at the thing that it means.) Suppose we say that within the robot of our example there is a symbolic representation that means that it is sunny outside. Though the representation has this meaning, it has it only because the designers of the robot programmed the system so that it would be able to detect weather conditions and the like. The electrical processes and physical parts of the system would have had no meaning at all otherwise. By contrast, the thoughts of the designers themselves have meaning without anyone having to impart it to them. As John Searle has put it, the robot’s symbolic representations – like words, sentences, and symbols in general – have only derived intentionality, while human thought has original or intrinsic intentionality. What can account for the difference, especially if we assume that human beings are no less material than robots? That, in a nutshell, is the problem of intentionality.

Consider also that we are able not only to have individual meaningful thought episodes, but also to infer to further thoughts, to go from one thought to another in a rational way. This is not merely a matter of one thought causing another; a lunatic might be caused to conclude that mobsters are trying to kill him every time he judges that it is sunny outside, but such a thought process would not be rational. Rather, we are able to go from one thought to another in accordance with the laws of logic. Now, it might seem that the robot of our example, and computers generally, can do the same thing insofar as we can program them to carry out mathematical operations and the like. But of course, we have had to program them to do this. We have had to assign a certain interpretation to the otherwise meaningless symbolic representations we have decided to count as the “premises” and “conclusion” of a given inference the machine is to carry out, and we have had to design its internal processes in such a way that there is an isomorphism between them and the patterns of reasoning studied by logicians. But no one has to assign meaning to our mental processes in order for them to count as logical. So, what accounts for the difference? How are we able to go from one thought to another in accordance, not just with physical causal laws, but in accordance with the laws of logic? That is the problem of rationality.

Most contemporary philosophers of mind would, I think, agree with Fodor that this trinity of issues constitutes the mind-body problem, and I think they would also more or less agree with my statement of the problems. They do not necessarily agree about how difficult the problems are. Of the three, the problem of rationality seems to get the least attention from contemporary philosophers. Fodor himself thinks that this problem is the one contemporary philosophers have most plausibly been able to solve in a way that vindicates materialism, and that they have done so (contrary to what my statement of the problem suggests) precisely by thinking of rational thought processes as computational processes over formal symbols encoded in the brain. Most other contemporary philosophers of mind seem to agree with Fodor about this much, though there are prominent dissenters, such as Searle, Dreyfus, and defenders of the anti-materialist “argument from reason.” The greatest of the ancient and medieval philosophers would have sided with the dissenters; for Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, et al., rationality was the aspect of human nature that could not possibly involve a material organ. (We will come back to this point.)

Contemporary philosophers, by contrast, are obsessed with the problem of consciousness, and in particular with “qualia” – something you do not see the ancients and medievals worrying about at all, certainly not as something that pointed to any immaterial aspect of human nature. Fodor, like many other contemporary philosophers of mind, regards this as “the hard problem” for materialism. The problem of intentionality also gets a lot of attention from contemporary philosophers. My sense is that in general they tend to find it more challenging than the problem of rationality but not as challenging as the problem of consciousness. My own view is that, at least as contemporary philosophers tend to understand the problem, it is in fact as great or even greater a difficulty for materialism than the problem of consciousness is. The ancients and medievals would, I think, have agreed, though they would have regarded the problem as pointing to an immaterial aspect of human nature only to the extent that it overlaps with the problem of rationality.

The reason for all this is that the problems of consciousness and intentionality, as they are understood by modern philosophers anyway, are not (as they are often assumed to be) “perennial” problems of philosophy, but rather an artifact of certain historically contingent metaphysical assumptions early modern philosophers like Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, and Co. put at the center of Western thought. In particular, they are an artifact of the “mechanistic” revolution I have discussed and criticized so frequently on this blog and in my books The Last Superstition and Aquinas.

I have explained how this is so at length, both in those books and in previous posts, but here is a brief summary. On the older, Aristotelian-Scholastic understanding of the natural world that the early modern thinkers overthrew, qualities like color, sound, odor, taste, heat and cold were taken to exist in the material world more or less in just the way common sense supposes that they do. The moderns, reviving the view of the ancient atomists, denied this: For them, the natural world is made up of intrinsically colorless, odorless, soundless, tasteless particles in motion, and the qualities in question exist only in the mind of the observer. For purposes of physics, we can in their view redefine heat and cold in terms of molecular motion, or red and green in terms of the different surface reflectance properties of physical objects, but heat, cold, red and green as common sense understands them exist only in consciousness. But since the brain is on this view made up of inherently colorless, odorless, tasteless particles no less than any other physical object, this seems inevitably to entail that consciousness is not a feature of the brain – which is, of course, exactly what Descartes, Malebranche, Locke, and other early modern thinkers concluded insofar as they embraced dualism. Therein lies the origin of what contemporary writers call the “qualia problem” or the problem of consciousness.

The older, Aristotelian-Scholastic view also held that a kind of meaning, teleology, or goal-directedness is built into the structure of the material world from top to bottom. This includes not just the usual examples – the functions of bodily organs – but basic causal relations as well. For the Scholastics, if some cause A predictably generates some specific effect or range of effects B, this can only be because A inherently “points to” or “aims at” B. Generating B, specifically – rather than C, or D, or no effect at all – is what Aristotelians would call the “final cause” of A. Causing B is what A will naturally tend to do unless impeded. Now the early moderns eliminated final causality from their picture of the natural world; this was and has remained the core of a “mechanistic” conception of nature. For them there is no teleology built into nature, no purposiveness or goal-directedness. There are brute, meaningless cause and effect patterns, but no reason inherent in nature why a cause should have just the effects it does have. One result of this was to open the way to the puzzles about causation raised by David Hume. More relevant to our interests here, though, is that it made intentionality particularly problematic. If nothing in the material world inherently “points to” or “aims at” anything else – if matter is comprised of nothing more than inherently purposeless, meaningless particles in motion – then, since the brain is made up of these particles no less than any other material object is, it seems to follow that the intentionality of our thoughts, that by virtue of which they inherently “point to,” “aim at,” or mean something beyond themselves, cannot be any sort of material property of the brain. Thus is generated the problem of intentionality.

So, Fodor’s trinity of “mind-body problems” very much reflects a modern set of assumptions about the nature of the physical world. It also reflects a presumption of materialism insofar as Fodor, like so many other contemporary philosophers, writes as if the question to ask were “How do we explain these phenomena in material terms?” Of course, a modern dualist would say that these phenomena cannot be explained in material terms, so that the right question to ask is “Given that these phenomena are not material, how are they related to material phenomena? For example, do they interact causally with them, and if so, how?” You might say that what the mind-body problem is is in part determined by how one thinks it should be solved. (“But how does positing immaterial mind-stuff explain things any better?” A common materialist retort, but not a good one, for reasons I have explained here and here.)

Notice also that Fodor says nothing about the “body” side of the mind-body problem – as if matter were unproblematic and only mind posed any philosophical difficulties. As I have noted recently, a number of prominent contemporary philosophers have emphasized that this is by no means the case. And from an Aristotelian-Scholastic point of view, the moderns’ standard assumptions about matter are perhaps even more problematic than their assumptions about mind. “Qualia” can seem necessarily immaterial only if we assume that matter is as the ancient atomists and their modern successors assume it to be; the “qualia problem,” which many modern materialists regard as such a challenge to their position (as Democritus himself did) is a problem that their own favored conception of matter created. The same is true of the problem of intentionality, at least if that is taken essentially to involve the problem of how something material can “point to” or be “directed at” something else. From an Aristotelian-Scholastic point of view, since matter is not as the atomists take it to be, and immanent final causality or teleology pervades the material world from top to bottom anyway, there is no special difficulty in regarding qualia and (at least many instances of) intentionality as in some significant sense “natural” or even “material” phenomena.

Things are very different, though, where intentional phenomena having a conceptual structure are concerned, as well as where reasoning is concerned. Here is where the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition locates an immaterial element to human nature. The reason, in a nutshell, is that the objects of our thoughts are universal rather than particular, and determinate or exact rather than indeterminate or ambiguous; that the thoughts themselves inherit this universality and determinacy; and that nothing material can possibly be universal and determinate in this way. This is, of course, a very large topic deserving a discussion of its own. I have explored it in more detail in earlier posts (e.g. here and here) as well as in chapter 4 of Aquinas and chapter 7 of Philosophy of Mind. (The most thorough recent defense of the line of thought in question is probably the one offered in the late James Ross’s article “Immaterial Aspects of Thought.”)

The “dualism” that results is very different from the Cartesian variety, though. For the mind (or more precisely, the intellect) is not a substance on the Aristotelian-Scholastic view, but rather a power of the soul, and the soul in turn is not a substance either (or at least not a complete substance) but rather the substantial form of the living human body. Neither is the body a substance. It is rather only soul and body together which make a complete substance, where soul and body are just one instance among innumerable others of the hylemorphic form/matter relationship that exists in every material substance. Accordingly, there is no “interaction problem” of the sort that faces the Cartesian. Such a problem arises when we think of the mind as an “immaterial substance” (or as a collection of “immaterial properties”) which must somehow interact with a (mechanistically-defined) material substance via what Aristotelians would call efficient causation. But from an Aristotelian-Scholastic point of view, that is simply a category mistake, or rather a collection of category mistakes. Intellect is rather one of a myriad of powers the soul imparts to the human animal of which it is the substantial form. Thus it is formal causation which relates soul (and therefore mind) to body, not efficient causation. (I have discussed this issue in more detail here, here, and here.)

All of this is bound to sound very odd to the average contemporary philosopher. It will not sound odd, though, to those familiar with the rich conceptual apparatus of the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition, a system of thought of which most contemporary philosophers of mind are ignorant, or at best know only through the caricatures peddled by early modern philosophers. Working one’s way out of the metaphysical assumptions moderns typically bring to bear on these issues is very difficult and takes time; the temptation is always to try to translate the thought of a Plato, an Aristotle, or an Aquinas into categories contemporary philosophers are familiar with, when what we ought to be doing is recognizing that it is precisely those categories the ancients and medievals would challenge. Thus are Plato the “proto-Cartesian,” Aristotle the “functionalist,” and other ahistorical Frankenstein monsters created. (I had not sufficiently freed myself of such modern assumptions when I wrote Philosophy of Mind, in which there is still too much Cartesianism. Chapter 4 of Aquinas provides a corrective, and a more detailed treatment of how thoroughly wrong contemporary philosophers of mind get the conceptual lay of the land, from an Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view.)

So, from an Aristotelian-Scholastic point of view, the materialist’s “problem” of explaining the three purported kinds of mental phenomena in material terms (where “matter” is understood mechanistically) and the Cartesian’s “problem” of explaining mind-body interaction are pseudo-problems. In short, while for Fodor and other contemporary philosophers of mind there are three mind-body problems, for the Aristotelian-Scholastic philosopher, there is no mind-body problem at all.