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Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas, or, Ryle's Idiotic Idea

I fondly remember last Christmas Eve, when Jason Stanley said Ryle's view of propositions was "idiotic." We were nearing the end of a brisk yet short-lived correspondence, the bulk of which spanned about 30 emails over the preceding 48 hours. I was home in bed, alone and barely mobile, recovering from a herniated disc in my lower back. My wife had taken the kids to her family's house, leaving me glued to my computer, surprised and inspired by Jason's interest in my ideas. My view was (and is) that Jason Stanley and Timothy Williamson (S&W) profoundly misinterpret Ryle in their oft-referenced 2001 paper, "Knowing How." I am not alone in thinking this. The same point is made in a number of published papers, though in a variety of different ways. Still, I couldn't convince Jason that S&W misinterpret Ryle, and he couldn't convince me that they don't.

At least we agreed on the distinction I had made between propositionalism and intellectualism.

Propositionalism is the view that all mental states (or, in a purely epistemological version, all varieties of knowledge) involve propositions. For example, if I know that snow is white, my knowledge involves the proposition that snow is white. If I think or believe that snow is white, I similarly have some attitude towards that proposition. Jason Stanley is a propositionalist, at least of the epistemological variety.

Intellectualism, as identified by Ryle in Chapter 2 of The Concept of Mind, is the view that all intelligent acts are consequences of intellectual acts; that behaviors which we characterize as intelligent are the result of antecedent acts of intellection; that to do something intelligently you must first think about what you are going to do. Jason Stanley is not an intellectualist.

Jason agreed with me that propositionalism does not entail intellectualism. Or, more accurately, what I believe is that only some varieties of propositionalism entail intellectualism, and that there could be varieties which do not. Jason said that Ryle's mistake was in thinking that propositionalism entailed intellectualism. I don't think that's accurate. Given the only view of propositions which Ryle found acceptable, propositionalism does entail intellectualism. Furthermore, I am not convinced that there is a coherent alternative to Ryle's view on the table.

Look at "Merry Christmas." When people say "Merry Christmas" to each other, are they stating a proposition? Most often, "Merry Christmas" is not a statement of fact. We might say it is short for "I wish you a Merry Christmas," which might look more like a fact. However, when I say "Merry Christmas" (in the right context), I am not reporting a sentiment I had previously made. I am rather just forming (or performing) the sentiment. My utterance does not correspond to some fact, and so could not be either true or false. It is not the case that all speech acts are propositional, in the sense that they all have contents which can be either true or false.

One variety of propositionalist--the intellectualist--might respond that the speech act does report a fact, that some inner thought process formulated the wish which was later expressed by the utterance. This will not do for Ryle, however, because the postulated inner formulation of the wish does not seem markedly different from the one we see and hear coming from a person's mouth. If some inner wish-making is required to make sense of the outward behavior, then why isn't some other inner wish-making required to formulate the inner wish, ad infinitum?

Another variety of propositionalist (Jason's variety) might agree that "Merry Christmas" does not report an inner wish, but simply performs the task of making a wish. This propositionalist will insist, however, that the making of the wish is itself a propositional act; that it entails or manifests a relation between a person and a proposition via some propositional state. Unfortunately, I don't see any good way of making sense of that. It is certainly untenable with Ryle's view of propositions, and it is not clear how an alternative view of propositions could work here.

Before I explain this, I have to come clean about an unfortunate error I made during my exchange with Jason Stanley. I suggested that Ryle's regress argument against intellectualism cannot be framed in terms of knowing-how and knowing-that. Jason wouldn't stand for that, and rightly so. Ryle's regress argument can be formulated in those terms, and Ryle does suggest such a formulation, but not in the way S&W claim.

S&W say Ryle adopts the following two premises:

S&W-P1: If one Fs, one employs knowledge-how to F.
S&W-P2: If one employs knowledge that p, one contemplates the proposition that p.

I don’t think Ryle adopts either of these premises. On the one hand, he defines knowing-how in terms of intelligent behavior; on the other hand, he does not claim that every employment of knowing-that entails an act of contemplation. Rather, examples of knowing-that just entail the acknowledgment or statement of a fact. So a more accurate representation of his regress argument might look like this:

P1: If one Fs intelligently, one employs knowledge how to F.
P2: If one employs knowledge-that p, one states or acknowledges the fact that p.

He then observes that, if knowing-how is reducible to knowing-that, then,

R: If one employs knowledge how to F, one employs knowledge that r is a rule for F-ing.

It follows that, if knowing-how is reducible to knowing-that, then one cannot act intelligently without stating or acknowledging a fact about a rule for that behavior. The problem is that facts can be stated or acknowledged correctly or incorrectly, appropriately or inappropriately. The fact must be intelligently acknowledged or stated, which increases the number of intelligent acts by one. This second intelligent act would also have to be guided by another one, ad infinitum.

The propositionalist might try to avoid the regress by claiming that some intelligent actions just are instances of stating or acknowledging a fact about a rule for that action. The propositionalist may thus reject the intellectualist's claim that the relevant employment of knowing-that is antecedent to the behavior in question. This is Greg Sax's approach in "Having Know-How" (forthcoming). Greg interprets Ryle's knowing-how/knowing-that distinction as a distinction between implicit and explicit propositional knowledge, so that the intelligent behavior itself is an implicit expression of propositional knowledge. Greg's conclusion is that Ryle's argument against intellectualism is consistent with S&W's propositionalism (though Greg does not frame it in these terms).

Greg's interpretation is not quite consistent with Ryle, however. Ryle acknowledges that the rules explicit in our exhibitions of knowing-that are implicit in our demonstrations of knowing-how, that when we act intelligently we apply criteria. However, this does not mean knowing-how is an implicit (or "practical," in S&W's terminology) form of propositional knowledge. At least, it is not clear how it could mean that. While rules might be implicit in our intelligent behavior, we can distinguish those rules from propositions which enjoin them.

Intelligent acts do not seem like implicit acknowledgments or statements of facts about rules for those acts. A musical improvisation, for example, does not seem to be a statement or acknowledgment of a fact about a rule (or rules) for itself. One's know-how, as demonstrated through a musical improvisation, does not seem to consist in knowledge that some particular rule is a rule for that performance--though an intelligent performance can be used as a rule for future performances. So I am not inclined to agree with this response to Ryle's regress argument.

A second strategy is to deny P2 and claim that employments of knowing-that do not always entail the statement or acknowledgment of a fact. I just don't know what could count as an expression of factual knowledge, other than the statement or acknowledgment of a fact. Ryle's characterization of knowing-that is intuitively appealing, and I am not aware of any compelling alternatives.

What is at stake here is just the notion of proposition. S&W are in the Fregean-Russellian tradition, which is marked with deep conceptual difficulties. (Here is a very good, recent paper by Stewart Candlish and Nic Damnjanovic on the topic.) Ryle contested this approach in 1931, arguing that "there are not substantial propositions," but only facts and symbols which are used to make statements of fact; and that the word "proposition" denotes the same as the words "sentence" and "statement," or "might be extended to cover all other symbols which do or might function as symbolic presentatives of facts." (See Ryle, "Are There Propositions?", in Collected Papers Volume 2: Collected Essays 1929-1968, p. 39) For Ryle, any exhibition of propositional knowledge entails some symbolic presentation of a fact. On this view, propositionalism does entail intellectualism. Perhaps some other view of propositions can save propositionalism from the intellectualist's fate, but I do not know how.

I don't think S&W fully appreciate Ryle's view of propositions and knowing-that, and this is part of the reason they misinterpret his argument against intellectualism. Ryle regards knowing-that in terms of abilities, specifically competences related to "the jobs of didactic discourse" (The Concept Of Mind, 1949, Chapter 9). He does not regard it in terms of a relation between a person and a Russellian or Fregean proposition. Ryle does not accept the Fregean-Russellian conception of propositions. Yet, in their paper, S&W put a traditional, Russellian view of propositions in Ryle's mouth, and say that Ryle does not regard knowing-that as an ability or anything similar. Thus, as I wrote to Jason last Christmas Eve, I think S&W are talking past Ryle. That's when Jason said he thinks Ryle "carved out an idiotic notion."



See also:


Sunday, December 19, 2010

RIP Don Van Vliet, 1941 - 2010



In honor of the esteemed artist, here are some aural and visual moments in the life of Don Van Vliet, who died on Friday.

"Bat Chain Puller," live on French TV in 1980:



Here's "Electricity" and "Sure 'nuff 'n Yes I Do," live in Cannes, 1968:



Now some album cuts. Here's "Moonlight On Vermont" and "Pachuco Cadaver", my two favorite songs from Trout Mask Replica (1969):





Here are a few songs from Capt. Beefheart's most underrated album, Bluejeans And Moonbeams (1974), which shows a completely different side of Beefheart. Some say he was selling out, but I think it's one of his best albums. First, here's "Observatory Crest":



Allmusic.com says that's one of the two good songs on the album, and says the rest is basically crap. They say the following two songs ("Pompadour Swamp" and "Captain's Holiday") are the worst to bear the Captain's name:





I think these are great recordings and the people who wrote and published that review are idiots. They also slight the band, saying that Beefheart is just playing with "anonymous session musicians." In point of fact, the Magic Band is well-represented on this album. Sure, there were some session musicians involved, too: a number of good ones, like Jimmy Caravan, Gene Pollo, and Bob West. (Here's some info: http://www.beefheart.com/datharp/albums/mbmembers/sidemen.htm.)

To wrap it up, here's a Van Vliet appearance on David Letterman in his post-Beefheart days, with some nice images of his paintings:



Also, if you haven't seen it yet, there's a fantastic BBC documentary from 1997 available on YouTube. Part 1 is here, but the highlight may be part 4.

Sam Harris' Attempt to Go From 'Is' to 'Ought'

Conversational Atheist has posted Sam Harris' proposal for grounding moral dictums in the process of scientific discovery. Harris proposes nine "facts" which are supposed to demonstrate the scientific foundations of moral righteousness. I won't comment on all of them, but I have some things to say about a few of them. As I'll explain, I cannot accept at least four of the nine.

To start with, for the purposes of this post (and only this post), I'll tentatively accept Fact 1:

FACT #1: There are behaviors, intentions, cultural practices, etc. which potentially lead to the worst possible misery for everyone. There are also behaviors, intentions, cultural practices, etc. which do not, and which, in fact, lead to states of wellbeing for many sentient creatures, to the degree that wellbeing is possible in this universe.

While I'm not sure there is such a thing as "the worst possible misery for everyone," I don't think this notion is the most problematic feature of Harris' argument, so I won't object to it here. Thus, with the same qualifications, I'll tentatively accept Fact 2:

FACT #2: While it may often be difficult in practice, distinguishing between these two sets is possible in principle.

As I suggest in an earlier post, however, even if we play along with Harris here, we should not assume that most, or even many, actions fall into either set. There may not be any fact of the matter which puts any given action squarely in one set or the other.

Moving on, I do not accept Fact 3:

FACT #3: Our “values” are ways of thinking about this domain of possibilities. If we value liberty, privacy, benevolence, dignity, freedom of expression, honesty, good manners, the right to own property, etc.—we value these things only in so far as we judge them to be part of the second set of factors conducive to (someone’s) wellbeing.

I do not think values are best thought of as ways of thinking about the well-being of conscious creatures. Harris' focus on the well-being of conscious creatures is without foundation. It appears to rest solely on his belief that the most dire situation possible is the one in which every sentient creature in the universe suffers as much and for as long as possible. My previous post suggests that we can imagine a worse case. Harris is just wrong. A universe in which suffering is maximized is not the worst possible universe. Suffering is not the primary factor in our moral thinking.

I think the functionality of morality is more about fostering dignity; our concern with suffering is secondary. This may be obvious, when we realize that suffering is commonly justified if it fosters and does not pose a threat to dignity. (For more about dignity and morality, see my posts from this past June from the 22nd to the 24th.)

We might say that values are ways of thinking about dignity, but that is too broad. We can think about the evolutionary function of dignity, for example, and this way of thinking about dignity is not what we mean when we talk about values. Values are not just ways of thinking, though they may well entail ways of thinking about both dignity and the well-being of conscious creatures.

So what are values? Perhaps they are the ways in which our desires and needs are prioritized. This affects our ways of thinking about all sorts of things, and not just suffering.

Moving on, I cannot accept Harris' Fact 4:

FACT #4: Values, therefore, are (explicit or implicit) judgments about how the universe works and are themselves facts about our universe (i.e. states of the human brain). (Religious values, focusing on God’s will or the law of karma, are no exception: the reason to respect God’s will or the law of karma is to avoid the worst possible misery for many, most, or even all sentient beings).

I don't think values are judgments. We do make value judgments, of course. When we apply our values in particular cases, we are making value judgments, and these are about the universe. But values and value judgments are not simply brain states. Judgments are not brain states, and nor are dispositions. I'm not suggesting that values and value judgments have a non-physical or non-biological existence. I'm just saying that we might not want to think about them in terms of states, even if they do depend in some way on neurological states.

But, yes, values and value judgments are in some sense about the universe. And we may say they entail beliefs about the universe--at least, value judgments do, if not values themselves. This does not make our values (or our value judgments) factual--they are not necessarily propositions which could be true.

Harris' concern with this point--that values must be a sort of fact--seems silly and confused. What Harris wants to say is that there are facts about what people should and should not value. He says that people might disagree with him about morality (as I do). Some people might reject his thesis that values are about the well-being of conscious creatures (as I do), but he thinks we are justified in ignoring these people. His basis for ignoring the opposition is not principled, however. So (skipping ahead) I cannot accept his Fact 8, which states that, "if the term “ought” has any application at all, it is in urging us away from the worst possible misery for everyone."

As for Fact 5, it does not fit with my understanding of values:

FACT #5: It is possible to be confused or mistaken about how the universe works. It is, therefore, possible to have the wrong values (i.e. values which lead toward, rather than away from, the worst possible misery for everyone).

Values cannot be confused or mistaken. They might not be beneficial to us or any number of individuals or organizations, but there is no sense in which they could be wrong. That is, unless you were to stipulate a correct manner of organizing your needs and desires, but Harris has no basis for any such stipulation. He just says that we must place the well-being of conscious creatures at the top of the list--it must be our highest priority--and that anyone who disagrees with him is not worth taking seriously. That's not an argument. It's just a statement of non-tolerance.

I'm sure I could find more things to say about Harris' "facts," but I think I've made my case well enough.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Worst-Case Scenario?

Sam Harris says the worst imaginable universe is one in which all conscious beings suffer as much as they can and for as long as they can. This is not just categorically bad, but the categorically worst-case scenario. This is supposed to be intuitive. Yet, my intuition tells me we can imagine a worse situation.

Imagine planet X populated by as-yet-undiscovered aliens. Now imagine a universe in which all the animals on earth suffer for as long as possible and to the highest possible degree, and in which the aliens on planet X enjoy this suffering greatly. The suffering on earth gives the aliens more pleasure than anything else in their entire history. They celebrate it annually, laughing at and finding joy in documentary films, pictures, and reenactments which graphically depict the unspeakable horrors experienced on earth.

My feeling is that this scenario, in which the suffering of some produces great pleasure in others, is less appealing--less morally satisfying--than the scenario in which the inhabitants of planet X suffer as much as the inhabitants of earth. It doesn't seem better to have the inhabitants of planet X enjoy our suffering. I am not convinced that the minimization of overall suffering is the highest good, or that the maximization of overall suffering is the greatest evil.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Sam Harris . . . Again

I just watched a few segments from the recent "The Great Debate" discussion panel on "Can Science Tell Us Right From Wrong?" At the moment, I just have a little to say about Sam Harris' bit. I'm impressed by the lack of an informed and substantive argument in Harris' presentation. He is a very good speaker. He is natural and compelling. And I'm sure he's selling a lot of books. He just doesn't make a good argument.

He begins by presenting his view that values reduce to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures; that statements of value are just one variety of factual proposition. He believes that, when I say I like something, or prefer a certain course of action, or believe that such-and-such is good, I am expressing a belief about the well-being of conscious creatures, and that the veracity of such beliefs can be tested against reality using the tools of scientific discovery. He ends by challenging us to act; it is our moral responsibility to develop a science of morality, because we are in a position to do so.

Let's momentarily leave aside the fact that Harris makes no mention of what grounds our sense of moral responsibility. Even if a science of morality is possible, all he can say about moral responsibility is that the well-being of conscious creatures is in our hands. Whether or not we should be concerned about the well-being of all conscious beings is an issue Harris seems ill-equipped to address.

Harris makes some compelling points, but they do not add up to a coherent argument. I agree, for example, that when we make explicit value judgments, we often do have some thought for the well-being of conscious creatures, even if we cannot give an uncontentious definition for "well-being" (or "conscious," for that matter). It may even be that all value judgments entail beliefs about the well-being of conscious creatures. That is possible, but it does not make Harris' case. It does not mean that such values are facts in disguise. While value judgments may entail beliefs and while beliefs may be either true or false, it does not follow that the values in question just are those facts which determine the truth or falsity of the relevant beliefs. Harris has not posed a coherent challenge to the fact/value distinction.

Harris goes on to develop his position with the claim that all of our moral judgments--all of our decisions about how to act--are on a continuum between the Absolute Bad and the Absolute Good. Absolute Bad is that state of the universe when every conscious creature is suffering as much as possible. Any action which moves the universe closer to the Absolute Bad is bad, categorically bad, says Harris. Any action which moves the universe away from that state--and, perhaps even better, towards a state of maximum bliss--is categorically good.

There are a number of immediately obvious problems here. The most general one is this: It is hard to conceive of the sort of continuum Harris envisions. Perhaps we can imagine what he calls "the worst possible misery for everyone"--that's the Absolute Bad. At least, we may think we can imagine this situation, in which all conscious creatures suffer as much as they can and for as long as they can, though I see no reason to believe that there is one particular quantity we could call "maximal suffering", or another we could call "maximal happiness." I don't think we are imagining a real, distinct scenario when we play along with Harris. This is grounds for being suspicious of, if not outright rejecting, his thesis

Let's suppose that there is such a state as Absolute Bad. It would seem that this state could be realized in more than one possible universe. In some cases, we may be moving away from one Absolute Bad only to find ourselves moving that much closer towards another Absolute Bad. The fact that we can imagine, or indicate, a categorical bad does not imply that this is a singular state which we are always either moving towards or away from. It does not indicate a continuum.

Harris might say that there need not be only one Absolute Bad and one Absolute Good for his argument to work. So long as we are moving away from all the Absolute Bads, we are on the right track.

One problem with this view is purely practical. If evaluating the rightness or wrongness of an action relied on plotting the course of all conscious beings in the entire universe, then any science of morality would seem hopelessly befuddled by complexity and overdetermination. The sort of computational and observational power required is so unfathomable, it is plausibly impossible.

I don't think Harris is banking on the success of such a venture. His point isn't that we can imagine a science that accounts for the well-being of all conscious beings in all possible universes. Rather, he paints this large and implausible picture only to urge us to accept the thesis that our values really are facts related to the suffering of conscious creatures. The question Harris suggests is, how could the scenario of extreme suffering be so obviously and categorically bad, if values are not reducible to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures--that is, creatures who can suffer?

Harris' rhetorical question is not an argument. It doesn't even suggest an argument. The answer, or part of the answer, to his question is this: Since we do have values which entail beliefs about the well-being of some conscious beings, we desire the cessation of suffering for some conscious beings. So a state in which all conscious beings maximally suffer is obviously going to repel us, just as a state in which all beings maximally prosper is obviously going to attract us. This, I think, is obvious. What is not obvious is why Harris thinks that values are a variety of fact.

Imagine we had the science to gauge the well-being of all conscious creatures. Let's say we even had some way of determining maximal and minimal well-being. How do we go from that to the view that some particular course of action is really right? What if there are competing options which are equally beneficial in the overall scheme of things? Since the continuum picture is implausible, so is Harris' belief that one and only one action can be optimal. People can value different things, and there may be no fact which makes one better than the other. Even if we accepted Harris' criteria for moral rightness, we must suppose that the set of scientifically undecidable moral questions is potentially quite large, and possibly even all-encompassing.

But why should we accept Harris' criteria? It is rather obvious that people do not ultimately and only hope for a maximized state of happiness for all conscious beings, and Harris is in no position to say that we all should make this our highest priority. Furthermore, we must suppose that, until we account for the well-being of all conscious creatures in all possible worlds, we cannot be sure that what seems so obviously bad to us is not really moving us in the overall "right" direction (or one of the "right" overall directions). Sometimes you have to step backwards before you can move forward. Maybe slavery and child abuse are temporary causes of suffering which will ultimately lead us to better and heretofore unknown sources of well-being. For example, could we as a civilization have developed the sense of morality we have if we had not learned lessons from such past evils?

To this, I think all Harris can say is that we've got to do our best with the knowledge and values we have. In practice, this means nothing at all. Not only has Harris offered a questionable notion of moral correctness; his notion has no practical applications. Harris is arguing for a view which, if taken to its logical conclusion, has no consequences for our everyday moralizing and which has nothing new to offer our philosophical and scientific pursuits. (Unfortunately, Harris seems much more inclined to dismiss the majority of work in moral philosophy than he is inclined to engage with it. That strikes me as terribly lazy, arrogant, and insulting to people who take this stuff seriously.)

Even if Harris has pointed out one possible fact about values--that they entail beliefs about the well-being of conscious beings--he is certainly not the first to do so. As Simon Blackburn notes in his own presentation, this view has been around for a very long time and appears in several world religions and popular secular philosophies. Also, even if Harris has correctly identified a scenario worse than any other imaginable--his Absolute Bad universe of maximum suffering, which may or may not be a real possibility--it does not follow that all values and value judgments can be judged by their relation to this state. It may be that only some of our values entail beliefs about the well-being of conscious creatures, and that other values function independently of that set. (As it happens, I don't think he has correctly identified the most undesirable universe imaginable. See my follow-up post here.)

I find it dismaying that a person who has no reason to be heralded at all, except for the fact that he has written some bestsellers and has come to prominence in public debates over science and religion, is virtually leading the discussion in a panel with such established figures as Peter Singer, Patricia Churchland, Steven Pinker, and Simon Blackburn. The fact that he's parading such an impoverished argument and unduly dismissing the vast literature in moral philosophy makes it that much more of an insult. It gives the impression that our intellectual culture values personality over rigor.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Melville's Affidavit

It is said that the best way to learn something is to teach it, a truth I'm discovering now as a teacher of American literature. I've been reading Moby Dick with an intensity of interest I can only attribute to this, that I want to do right by my students and present this material as best I can. It helps that I love the book, its philosophical and narrative exploits, as well as the literary virtuosity of the thing. Starting on any given page, one cannot read it for more than a few minutes without finding something worth quoting. Here are two of my favorites:

Hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling; and since then perpetuated through the hereditary dyspepsias nurtured by Ramadans. -- spoken by Ishmael

and

He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. -- spoken by Ahab

I am posting this, not simply to share my appreciation of Melville's achievement, but to make an observation which I find remarkable--perhaps the more so because I have been unable to find it made anywhere else, and I would be very surprised to be the only person to have discovered it.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Moby Dick is the ways in which it is not a novel, but a manifesto or, even more, a testament. In chapter 45, "The Affidavit," Melville suggests the Biblical dimension of his narrative, comparing his descriptions of whales to Moses' descriptions of the plagues of Egypt. The whole point of this chapter is to ground the story of Ahab's mad pursuit of the white whale in historical fact, to establish it as not mere fable or allegory, but as a true description of whales and those who hunt them. Yet, by comparing his tale to that of Moses, Melville suggests that this story should be taken as myth, one comparable to a Biblical tale.

No doubt, Melville wants to convey some of the truth of whaling. Chapters are devoted to the history and science of whales and whaling. Some of it is speculative, some critical, but little does any of this further the narrative. Rather, it is aimed at documenting Melville's own experience and insight into the subject. Others have pointed out that, in such chapters, the narrator may as well be Melville himself, and not Ishmael.

Melville so experiments with narrative voice that, even though Ishmael begins and genereally carries the narrative, several other characters become narrator in various chapters. In still other chapters, the narrative is given in the omniscient third-person, a phenomenon which can alternately be explained by the supposition that Ishmael is taking liberties with his own style, or by the view which I find most compelling, that Melville is not tied to Ishmael as narrator.

This is my observation: There is at least one chapter in which the narrative voice cannot be attributed to Ishmael or any other character in the book, but which can only be that of Melville himself. I am talking again about Chapter 45, "The Affidavit." While several of the other chapters, such as those pertaining to the classification and description of whales, might be attributed either to Melville or Ishmael, Chapter 45 belongs to Melville alone.

Our curiosity is aroused at the very beginning of the chapter, when the narrator acknowledges the fact that this is a book, and that the narrative of the book itself is fractured. It would be strange for Ishmael to speak of the narrative as if from the outside, though this, I admit, is not conclusive evidence. Nor is it conclusive that, in this chapter, the narrator appeals to historical facts--for Ishmael may himself be privy to such facts. No, the conclusive evidence comes when the narrator identifies himself as the nephew of one of the historical figures he is discussing, one Captain D'Wolf. As a point of fact, Herman Melville was this captain's nephew.

Would Melville have us believe that Ishmael is to be his own brother, or perhaps his cousin? If such were Melville's intent, he would surely have gone about it in a better way. The simplest and by far the most plausible explanation is this, that Melville had no qualms about speaking openly, as himself. This makes sense, considering his goal of blending fact and fiction in the mythologizing of whales and whaling. His willingness to speak as himself solidifies his effort to write more than a novel, but a testament to his own existential quest.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

More on Gettier: Accounting for Donnellan

John left a very thoughtful comment on a previous entry about Gettier. Following Donnellan, John presents two possible readings of

(1) The man who gets the job has ten coins in his pocket.

One reading is called "referential and the other is "attributive." I don't think either one creates a problem for my analysis of Gettier cases, though itdoes force me to clarify and elaborate upon my argument.

If we take Smith to be using "The man who gets the job" in the referential sense, then (as John observes) what Smith says is true. It would mean that (1) is semantically equivalent to

(2) Jones has ten coins in his pocket
(3) The man whom I believe will get the job has ten coins in his pocket
(4) The man whom I refer to as "the man who gets the job" has ten coins in his pocket.

(2)-(4) are all justified true beliefs held by Smith. Thus, under a referential reading, (1) is a justified true belief held by Smith. However, a fact which John overlooked is that, in this case, (1) is also propositional knowledge, because Smith knows (2)-(4). Smith knows that Jones has ten coins in his pocket. Smith knows that the person he refers to as "The man who gets the job" has ten coins in his pocket, and that the man whom he believes will get the job has ten coins in his pocket. So, if Smith is using (1) in the referential sense, there is no Gettier problem.

Next there is the attributive reading, in which case (1) presumably means:

(5) There is an x such that x will get the job. (I.e., somebody will get the job)
(6) For every x and every y, if both x and y will get the job, then x is y. (No more than one person will get the job.)
(7) Anyone who gets the job has ten coins in his pocket.

As John says, this reading of (1) is also true. However, as my initial argument implies, Smith has no justification for this belief. He is justified in believing (5) and (6), but not (7). I don't think Smith has this belief at all, and I do not think this is what Smith means when he utters (1). This is why I say Smith's belief is de re, not de dicto.

Smith's belief, as entailed by (1), and which I claim is false, is this:

(8) There is an x such that x will get the job.
(9) For every x and every y, if both x and y will get the job, then x is y.
(10) X has ten coins in his pocket.
(11) Jones is X.

This might be called a de re attributive reading. I do not suppose that Smith means (8)-(11) when he says (1); I only suppose that, in so far as (1) is an attributive expression of Smith's belief, that belief entails (8)-(11). I would say Smith is capable of using (1) sincerely to mean (8)-(10) only because he believes (11) in conjuction with (8)-(10).

In sum, (1) can be taken in a referential sense, in which case it is both a justified true belief and a case of propositional knowledge; or it can be taken in a de dicto attributive sense, in which case it is not justified, or in a de re attributive sense, in which it is false. None of these readings supports the claim that there is a Gettier problem. On the contrary, as I maintain, there is no such problem to speak of.

P.S. Unfortunately, this post does not mark a return to regular blogging. I'm still short on time.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Bodings

I've got a lot on my plate at the moment--I've just started teaching a high school American Lit course, which I have yet to plan, and I've got a pretty full schedule of ESL students, too, as well as my graduate courses in European Studies, not to mention an idea for a book which I've barely gotten around to outlining, and also my two little ones to care for--so I doubt I'll have time to post much for a while.

Here are some ideas I have for upcoming posts, in case anyone wants to check back in a month or two:

  • A critique of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Nomad, which was monumentally disappointing;
  • An homage to my favorite composer, entitled "Flowers For Prokofiev";
  • A summation of my previous posts on the zombie and knowledge arguments, as well as my own incompatability argument, entitled "The Price Of Anti-Physicalism."
That's TTFN.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Games and The Liar Paradox

Over at Blog & ~Blog, Ben says that the sentence "this sentence is false" (which I will refer to as P), and similar sentences, are meaningless. Ben says that the Liar Paradox (which occurs whenever we try to decide whether P is true or false) disappears once we accept that P is meaningless. I'm not convinced, which is not to say I think the Liar Paradox poses a real problem. I just prefer a different approach.

Ben's view is that the predicate "is true" does not add any content to a sentence, and therefore, a sentence which only has "is true" as its predicate cannot be meaningful. While it may be true that "'Snow is white' is true" means the same as "Snow is white," this analysis (called disquotationalism) does not clearly apply to all cases where "is true" is the predicate of a sentence. I think it only applies to cases where "is true" is predicated of a sentence. Thus, we may find semantic equivalence between "This sentence is true" and "'This sentence is true' is true." I see no reason to claim that either of these sentences are meaningless.

(As an aside, I wonder about disquotationalism in general. We might say that "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" is a meaningless sentence, yet, "'Colorless green ideas sleep furiously' is true" might be meaningful. It might be the expression of a false belief.)

In fact, there are situations in which P is clearly meaningful. Consider pointing to a sentence which reads, "the earth is five days old," and saying P to a colleague. That would be a meaningful statement. So P can be used to make meaningful statements. We need some reason to think the relevant uses of P are meaningless.

We might say that sentences cannot state their own truth or falsity; however, there is no clear motivation for this view. If we just say, "you can't do that!", then we are winning by fiat. Alternatively, we might say that sentences cannot be used to make statements about themselves. However, "this is an example of a sentence in English" seems meaningful even when self-referential. None of these approaches seem to work.

To get at my alternative approach, first consider writing the Liar Paradox this way: On one side of a piece of paper, write "the sentence on the other side of this paper is true," and on the other side, "the sentence on the other side of this paper is false." For another interesting variation, we could write "the sentence on the other side of this paper is false" on both sides. In this variation, there might not obviously be a paradox at first; we might just think that the first side we look at is true and the second side is false. The second side we look at tells us that the first sentence is false, but since we believe the second sentence itself is false, we are only affirmed in our original belief that the first sentence is true. This is only a problem when we realize that we could have looked at the other side first and come to the opposite conclusion about which was true and which was false. Now we have a paradox.

These variations on the Liar Paradox are reminiscent of a trick children sometimes play on each other. They give a friend a piece of paper with the words "read the other side" written on both sides. The way adults respond to the Liar Paradox is much the way children respond to the "read the other side" game: They find it amusing and play with it a little, until they realize how it works and lose interest in repeating the same procedure over and over again.

The Liar Paradox is a game in which we look for a meaningful statement which might be true or false, but we never find one. At no point are the sentences we considering meaningless, however, because we understand them just as the game requires.

We might suppose that it is not the sentences, but the game itself, which is meaningless. Perhaps the game is meaningless in the sense that it is of no consequence to anything outside of itself. The sentences in the game do not refer to anything outside of the game. This is part of learning the game: realizing that there is nothing to make the sentences true or false apart from the play of the game. The only way to win the game is to figure out the rules of the game, at which point there is no reason to play. However, the fact that we can learn the rules suggests that the game is meaningful. The trick works. The sentences direct our behavior in intended ways, leading us consistently towards conflicting notions of truth and falsity.

The logic of the game is easy enough to understand: To judge that the statement is true, we must judge that a negation of the statement is also true, and this judgment cannot be made without negating that negation, ad infinitum. The only way to end the series is to stop playing. The sequential negations can occur by trying to evaluate a single, self-negating sentence, or with a pair of sentences, or through any arbitrarily large series of sentences. The logic seems obvious. What is more interesting, perhaps, is why we enter the game in the first place. We enter because we want to find out the truth value of a statement, just as the child turns over the card to find out what they are supposed to read.

[Updated Jan. 11, 2011, 23:08 GMT: As has been pointed out in the comments section, I need to more clearly spell out my answer to this paradox. My answer is that (1) sentences themselves are never true or false, but can be used to make true or false statements; (2) not every utterance of a sentence is a true or false statement; and (3) the liar's paradox is a game in which we think we are making a true or false statement, but only find ourselves saying sentences which the rules of the game do not permit. We never say anything true or false while we're playing this game. We're trying to, but the game won't let us.]

(I may not be the first person to come up with this approach, but there isn't anything quite like it mentioned in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry. P. F. Strawson's approach is very similar, though. There are obvious parallels between my approach and Wittgenstein's philosophy, as well.)

Updated again on Jan. 21, 2011, 10:40 GMT to clarify some issues raised by Martin in the comments section.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Musical Interlude: The Music of 1974







It was about two years ago when I realized that many of my favorite albums were released in 1974, the year I was born. King Crimson's best two albums, Brian Eno's first two solo albums, two of Queen's best albums, my favorite James Brown, Roxy Music and Herbie Hancock. The list goes on. Inspired to learn as much about the music of 1974 as I could. I foraged for months, turning up some wonderful rarities and overlooked classics. To share some of the fruits of that labor, I've compiled a list of notable albums (posted below).



(A live version of Brian Eno's "Baby's On Fire," with Eno on vocals and synthesizer, John Cale on piano, Olie Halsall on guitar,
Kevin Ayers on bass, and Robert Wyatt on percussion.)





If 1974 was not quite the end of a musical era, it was a transformation, an explosion of vast and diverse areas of musical inspiration. Maybe people hadn't come down from the high of the '60s, the cultural victory of the Civil Rights movement and the rock n' roll revolution. The Vietnam War was coming to an end. Music wasn't quite as political or social as it had been in the late '60s, though sometimes there was a sociopolitical agenda, such as when James Brown made bladders splatter in Zaire (for the "Rumble In The Jungle," when Muhammad Ali splattered George Foreman).



For the most part, musicians weren't trying to change the world; they were trying to change music, and they succeeded in spades. Across genres, across the world, new forms of music were enjoyed solely for the pleasure of music, for aural inspiration and journey, for dance and play as well as revelation and innovation. Glam rock, progressive/art rock, experimental rock, electronica, funk, fusion, disco, heavy metal, and even rap . . . So many genres that define the history of late 20th century music had just been born and were still coming to fruition. Queen even planted the seeds for thrash metal with "Stone Cold Crazy." The Ramones and Talking Heads (then "The Artistics") started playing in New York City, establishing the foundations for the punk and new wave movements. Less monumental, though also interesting: 1974 is also the year Van Halen started performing in California.







Some of the most influential bands of the time did not release albums in 1974. Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath were touring after the 1973 releases of what are arguably their best albums (Dark Side of the Moon and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath). The Who was also touring after 1973's Quadrophenia. Led Zeppelin had released Houses of the Holy in 1973, but instead of touring, spent '74 launching its own record label (Swan Song) and finishing Physical Graffiti, which would be the band's last legendary album.






There were also some great televised performances in 1974.  For example, 'The Midnight Special' featured great performances by Labelle, Marvin Gaye, Sly & The Family Stone, Aerosmith, and much more.







1974 also saw tragedy and loss. In May, Duke Ellington died at the age of 75. (Miles Davis' deep and introspective "He Loved Him Madly," from the 1974 album Get Up With It, is a 32-minute tribute to the lost legend.) In July, after two sold-out performances at the London Palladium, 'Mama' Cass Elliot died of a heart attack at the age of 32. In November, Nick Drake overdosed on antidepressants at the age of 26. Earlier in the year, Drake had cut four tracks for what would have been his fourth album.




Before I get to the list, here are a few notable singles from '74:



Just a couple more I gotta share, the first because it's easy to forget how amazing Al Green was, and the second because Tom Jones surprised me with this solid cover of "Right Place, Wrong Time" on the otherwise forgettable album, Somethin' 'Bout You Baby I Like.








And now for the list . . . These are my favorite albums originally released in 1974. The order only vaguely reflects my degree of appreciation for each album.



Top Albums of 1974



("Ctrl"+click to open links in a new tab.)


  1. Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Brian Eno
  2. Starless and Bible Black, King Crimson
  3. Red, King Crimson
  4. Slaughter On 10th Avenue, Mick Ronson
  5. Here Come the Warm Jets, Brian Eno
  6. Thrust, Herbie Hancock
  7. Inspiration Information, Shuggie Otis
  8. Fulfillingness' First Finale, Stevie Wonder
  9. They Say I'm Different, Betty Davis
  10. Country Life, Roxy Music
  11. Sheer Heart Attack, Queen
  12. Apostrophe, Frank Zappa
  13. In For The Kill, Budgie
  14. La Finestra Dentro, Juri Camisasca
  15. Crime Of The Century, Supertramp
  16. Nightbirds, Labelle
  17. Expansions, Lonnie Liston Smith & The Cosmic Echoes
  18. Walls And Bridges, John Lennon
  19. Rocka Rolla, Judas Priest
  20. One, Bob James
  21. You, Gong
  22. Rejuvenation, The Meters
  23. Tudo Foi Feito Pelo Sol, Os Mutantes
  24. Hell, James Brown
  25. Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley, Robert Palmer
  26. Burn, Deep Purple
  27. Phaedra, Tangerine Dream
  28. Blue Jeans & Moonbeams, Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band
  29. Yèkatit: Ethio Jazz, Mulatu Astatke
  30. Aerolit, Czeslaw Niemen
  31. Bridge Of Sighs, Robin Trower
  32. Unrest, Henry Cow
  33. Fly To The Rainbow, Scorpions
  34. Rock Bottom, Robert Wyatt
  35. Get Up With It, Miles Davis
  36. Desolation Boulevard, Sweet
  37. Autobahn, Kraftwerk
  38. New Skin For The Old Ceremony, Leonard Cohen
  39. Where Have I Known You Before, Return To Forever
  40. Alagbon Close, Fela Kuti
  41. Luiz Gonzaga, Jr., Gonzaguinha
  42. Queen II, Queen
  43. Clic, Franco Battiato
  44. Fear, John Cale
  45. Average White Band, Average White Band
  46. The Conversation Motion Picture Soundtrack, David Shire
  47. Skin Tight, Ohio Players
  48. The Psychomodo, Cockney Rebel
  49. The Civil Surface, Egg
  50. Death Wish Motion Picture Sountrack, Herbie Hancock
  51. Us, Maceo Parker
  52. Back To Oakland, Tower Of Power
  53. Seligpreisung, Popol Vuh
  54. Angelo Branduardi, Angelo Branduardi '74
  55. Cincinnato, Cincinnato
  56. Everyone Is Everybody Else, Barclay James Harvest
  57. Rags To Rufus, Rufus & Chaka Khan
  58. The Man In The Bowler Hat, Stackridge
  59. L'Incendie, Brigitte Fontaine & Areski
  60. Anima Latina, Lucio Battisti
  61. Live, April Wine
  62. The Colours of Chloe, Eberhard Weber
  63. Kwanza, Archie Shepp
  64. Caution! Radiation Area, Area
  65. Casablanca Moon, Slapp Happy
  66. The End, Nico
  67. Court And Spark, Joni Mitchell
  68. Now We Are Six, Steeleye Span
  69. Afro Blue, Dee Dee Bridgewater
  70. Meet The Residents, The Residents
  71. Apocalypse, Mahavishnu Orchestra
  72. On The Beach, Neil Young
  73. The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, Genesis
  74. Pick A Dub, Keith Hudson
  75. Hijack, Amon Düül II
  76. Relayer, Yes
  77. Body Heat, Quincy Jones
  78. Caught Up, Millie Jackson
  79. Cartola, Cartola
  80. Up For The Down Stroke, Parliament
  81. Pretzel Logic, Steely Dan
  82. Green, Steve Hillage
  83. The Power And The Glory, Gentle Giant
  84. Malicorne 1 ("Colin"), Malicorne
  85. Sama Layuca, McCoy Tyner
  86. The Blackbyrds, The Blackbyrds
  87. Gambler's Life, Johnny "Hammond" Smith
  88. Hero And Heroine, The Strawbs
  89. Mirage, Camel
  90. The Elements, Joe Henderson & Alice Coltrane
  91. Ptarmigan, Ptarmigan
  92. Amancio Prada, Vida E Morte
  93. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three Motion Picture Sountrack, David Shire
  94. Zinc Alloy And The Hidden Riders Of Tomorrow - A Creamed Cage In August, Marc Bolan & T. Rex
  95. Invitation, Andrew Hill
  96. Zuckerzeit, Cluster
  97. Power Of Soul, Idris Muhammad
  98. Upon This Rock, Joe Farrell
  99. The Storm, The Storm
  100. Sun Supreme, Ibis
  101. Mourner's Rhapsody, Czeslaw Niemen
  102. Truck Turner Motion Picture Soundtrack, Isaac Hayes
  103. Power, Stanley Clarke
  104. Contrappunti, Le Orme
  105. Todd, Todd Rundgren
  106. Musik Von Harmonia, Harmonia
  107. Blackdance, Klaus Schulze
  108. Temporada de Verão, Gal Costa
  109. Desitively Bonnaroo, Dr. John
  110. Winter Light, Oregon
  111. Together Brothers Motion Picture Soundtrack, Barry White & Love Unlimited Orchestra
  112. The Loud Minority, Frank Foster
  113. Cosmic Vortex (Justice Divine), Weldon Irvine
  114. But Beautiful, Bill Evans Trio w/ Stan Getz
  115. Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On, Funkadelic
  116. Discipline 27-II, Sun Ra
  117. Dark Magus, Miles Davis
  118. Jaco, Jaco Pastorius / Pat Metheny / Bruce Ditmas / Paul Bley
  119. The Cosmic Jokers, The Cosmic Jokers
  120. Hatfield & The North, Hatfield & The North
  121. Feel, George Duke
  122. Point Of No Return, Funkees
  123. Galactic Supermarket, The Cosmic Jokers
  124. The Silent Corner & The Empty Stage, Peter Hammill
  125. Crystals, Sam Rivers
  126. Virtues & Sins, Kin Ping Meh
  127. Elis & Tom, Elis Regina & Antonio Carlos Jobim
  128. The Giants, Oscar Peterson / Joe Pass / Ray Brown
  129. I'm In Need Of Love, Lou Courtney
  130. Visions Of The Emerald Beyond, Mahavishnu Orchestra
  131. Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, Rick Wakeman
  132. Sally Can't Dance, Lou Reed
  133. Sweet Bitter Love, Marcia Griffiths
  134. Flying Start, The Blackbyrds
  135. Total Eclipse, Billy Cobham
  136. Damn Right I Am Somebody, Fred Wesley & The J.B.'s
  137. Rocking Time, Burning Spear
  138. Paradise And Lunch, Ry Cooder
  139. Aqua, Edgar Froese
  140. The Jewel In The Lotus, Bennie Maupin
  141. Einsjäger & Siebenjäger, Popol Vuh
  142. Big Fun, Miles Davis
  143. Burglar, Freddie King
  144. Palle, Squallor
  145. Belonging, Keith Jarrett with Jan Garbarek
  146. Loki?, Arnaldo Baptista
  147. Phases & Stages, Willie Nelson
  148. It Is Finished, Nina Simone
  149. Sweet Exorcist, Curtis Mayfield
  150. Al Green Explores Your Mind, Al Green
  151. From The Album Of The Same Name, Pilot
  152. Prelusion, Patrice Rushen
  153. Dreams, Toad
  154. Okie, JJ Cale
  155. Not Fragile, Bachman-Turner Overdrive
  156. Eléctronique Guérilla, Heldon
  157. Fare Forward Voyagers, John Fahey
  158. Seasons In The Sun, Terry Jacks
  159. Kimono My House, Sparks
  160. Radio City, Big Star
  161. From The Mars Hotel, Grateful Dead
  162. I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, Richard & Linda Thompson
  163. Hamburger Concerto, Focus
  164. Kansas, Kansas
  165. Plume Pou Digne, Plume Latraverse
  166. Rush, Rush
  167. A Tabúa de Esmeralda, Jorge Ben
  168. Breakaway, Kris Kristofferson & Rita Coolidge
  169. Green Mango, Tommy McCook & Bobby Ellis
  170. Twet, Tomasz Stanko
  171. In The Beginning, Roy Buchanan
  172. First Of The Big Bands, Ashton & Lord
  173. Mo' Roots, Taj Mahal
  174. In Camera, Peter Hammill
  175. Perfect Angel, Minnie Ripperton
  176. Light Of Worlds, Kool & The Gang
  177. Preservation Act 2, The Kinks
  178. Bad Company, Bad Company
  179. The Hall Of The Mountain Grill, Hawkwind
  180. Too Much Too Soon, New York Dolls
  181. The Heart of Saturday Night, Tom Waits
  182. Soon Over Babaluma, Can
  183. Rambler, Gabor Szabo
  184. Symbiosis, Bill Evans
  185. Natty Dread, Bob Marley & The Wailers
  186. 461 Ocean Boulevard, Eric Clapton
  187. Waterloo, ABBA
  188. Captain Lockheed & The Starfighters, Robert Calvert
  189. The Butterfly Ball & The Grasshopper Feast, Roger Glover
  190. Goodbye, Gene Ammons
  191. Cup Full Of Dreams, Don "Sugarcane" Harris
Note:  Not all of the music on this list was recorded in 1974, and lots of music recorded in 1974 is not considered here.  This is because I'm not including albums with pre-released material or any albums released after 1974 but which happened to be recorded (either live or in the studio) in 1974.  Also, there are a number of albums from 1974 which I haven't been able to find and others which I haven't gotten around to looking for yet.

By way of contrast, I rather dislike these notable albums from 1974:
  • David Bowie - Diamond Dogs
  • Aerosmith - Get Your Wings
  • Lynyrd Skynyrd - Second Helping
  • Jackson Browne - Late for the Sky
  • Kiss - Kiss
  • Randy Newman - Good Old Boys
  • Carly Simon - Hotcakes
  • The Bee Gees - Mr. Natural
  • Billy Joel - Streetlife Serenade
  • Elton John - Caribou
  • The Eagles - On The Border
  • Damião Experiencia - Planeta Lamma
  • Dr. Feelgood - Down by the Jetty
  • Van Morrison - Veedon Fleece
  • Graham Parsons - Grievous Angel
  • Raspberries - Starting Over
  • Father Yod and the Spirit of '76 - Expansion
  • Father Yod and the Spirit of '76 - Contraction
  • Yahowa 13- Savage Sons of Yahowa 13

Monday, August 2, 2010

Inception Deception

Some friends of mine asked me to explain my negative reaction to Christopher Nolan's latest film, Inception. (SPOILER ALERT: I am writing this for people who have already seen the movie.) What I had said was that the film offers neither intrigue nor character development, and that it is neither logical nor realistic. Nolan uses smoke and mirrors to create the illusion of intelligence and insight. He exploits pop psychology and pop philosophy as well as a convoluted set of plot devices to keep audiences both engaged and confused.

Apparently, the film works. Many intelligent people are impressed and even willing to dish out the dough to sit through it a second time. Some are performing back-bending feats of post hoc rationalization in order to explain away Inception's many plot holes and inconsistencies.

Others are less impressed. I was happy to have a friend point out this very well-done and humorous commentary on the film's illogical complexity:




I like the film's basic premise, the idea that people can share dreams, and that people can enter other people's dreams without their knowledge in order to extract and even implant information. Much could be done with that, but what Nolan does is not worth taking seriously. His dream worlds are boring, his characters are mostly two-dimensional, and his plot has the subtlety and sophistication of a sledgehammer, as well as an over-abundance of plot holes and inconsistencies. If none of this is obvious to most viewers, it is probably because they are too busy trying to work out the logic of his dream worlds, or perhaps they are just enthralled with the idea of sharing dreams and grappling with "subconscious projections."

I was initially intrigued that Nolan makes use of the idea that ideas can be parasites. This idea most famously appeared in The Selfish Gene (1976), when Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" to argue that ideas might replicate and become dominant in populations much the way genes do. The meme idea has been toyed with for decades, but it has become a bit more well-known thanks to Dawkins' international bestseller and controversial The God Delusion (2006) and Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking The Spell (2006), both of which suggest that religions are complexes of memes which have come to dominate populations, and not necessarily for the betterment of the people who believe in them. (Dennett also influentially used the idea of memes to develop his view of consciousness in Consciousness Explained [1991].) It is not a stretch to suppose that Nolan had memes in mind when he wrote this dialogue: "What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient. Highly contagious."

Unfortunately, Nolan's handling of the meme idea is not satisfying. In some ways, it is too simplistic: Secrets turn up as memos neatly filed away in manila envelopes. In other ways, Nolan's vision is too implausible. Even if a single dream could establish a resilient connection between an idea and an emotion, it would not necessarily lead to any particular behavioral result. At best, it might make the subject think a lot about the idea. To get the idea to make people do things they would not otherwise do, the idea would have to overcome hordes of competing ideas which also had emotional support.

Nolan's premise is that a single implanted idea can lead a person to do a specific action which they have no apparent reason or motivation to do. For small, inconsequential actions, this is not so hard to swallow. However, for something monumental and complex, like the legal dissolution of a mega-corporation, this is too implausible. To make it more believable, Nolan's characters claim that they have to find the simplest form of the idea (whatever that means) and that the subject has to believe that the idea was his own. These contingencies are a lot of hot air and don't make the premise more believable.

While Fischer (Murphy) might really think that dissolving his father's business is what his father wanted him to do, and while he might also want to make his father happy, he still might decide not to dissolve the business. This could be for any number of reasons. For example, it could be because he thinks that his father would not want him to do everything his father wanted him to do. That is the whole point of the inception drama they have created, after all: Fischer believes that his father wanted him to be his own person, and that means not always doing what his father wants him to do. Fischer may decide to keep the company and develop it in his own way, still trying to be his own person, as he now believes his father wanted him to be. The inception process may have freed Fischer from the weight of his father's authority, but that just means he is now a free man to destroy or not destroy the company as he sees fit. Fischer might decide that keeping the business just makes the most sense financially, and it could be too hard for him to let that go. If the goal was to destroy the company, it does not seem like this inception was a very good way of doing it.

In sum, Nolan does not show any insight into what it means for an idea to be a parasite. A better film might have explored the ways all of our cultural behavior could be understood in terms of memes, and how difficult it can be to control and predict their behavior. Of course, only somebody interested in psychology or the philosophy of mind would make this objection, so I can't hold it against the film, even if it was a disappointment.

My low opinion of the film is primarily due to its lack of cohesion and believability. For example, the entire set up for this film is riddled with problems. In the opening sequence, Cobb (DiCaprio) is dreaming within a dream in order to extract information from Saito (Watanabe). The dream is populated by Saito's subconscious, which means that all of Saito's secrets are in a special safe which the Architect has built into the dream world. Cobb asks him about the safe, and Saito gives its location away by looking in its direction. This does not make sense. Saito is not privy to the Architect's work, so Saito should not know about the safe at all, let alone where it is. Cobb, on the other hand, is working with the Architect, so he should have known where it was from the start. He had no reason to ask.

During the same sequence, Saito catches on to Cobb's plan and there is gunfire. Cobb is running away while trying to read the secret information he extracted from the safe. Meanwhile, the entire building is collapsing, because the dream is falling apart. Why doesn't Cobb change the dream? He can. He knows it is a dream. In fact, it is his dream. He can make a small, sturdy room for himself so he can read the information in peace and quiet, but he does not. He acts as if he is at the mercy of the dream. That does not make sense.

There are more serious problems with the opening sequence. Saito's secret memo has some portions blacked out. This cinematic silliness tells us that Saito has kept some secrets out of the dream. Thus, despite what we are told later in the film, the safes in the dream worlds are not automatically filled with all of the subject's secrets. Apparently, they are only filled with those secrets the subject is willing to share, and which happen to be relevant to the Extractor. (After all, if the safe contained all of Saito's secrets, it would have filled more than a couple of pages in a small manila envelope.) This undermines the whole premise.

Worse, when faced with the fact that secrets were kept out of the safe, Cobb--who is supposed to be a master Extractor--resorts to a bluff in order to get the information: He pulls a gun on Saito. This is how a master Extractor goes about sifting secrets from the unsuspecting? Pointing a gun and yelling, "Give me the information!?" I'm not convinced. Nolan does not makes Cobb a believable Extractor, and this weakens the whole film.

Then, after Cobb botches the extraction with Saito, Saito tells him it was just a test, and Cobb failed. Yet, Saito then offers Cobb a job--the job which occupies the rest of the movie. Apparently Saito has a very peculiar notion of failure. We have no reason to believe that Saito is sincere. In fact, it would have been much more interesting if Saito was setting Cobb up with the whole "inception" plan.

Furthermore, we are never given a reason to think Fischer's father's business should be destroyed, except for when Saito (Watanabe) claims that the world would be better off. Again, we are given no reason to trust Saito. Why should we support him against Fischer's father? Saito's character and his motivation for destroying Fischer's father's business are never established.

There are moral implications here, as well, which Nolan does not address. I don't recall anybody considering whether or not it would be wrong to manipulate Fischer into destroying his father's business, or whether or not it could be damaging to Fischer himself. (Somebody--I think Ariadne--does suggest that the inception might damage Fischer's relationship with his uncle, but that's it.)

Nolan may be counting on an ambient anti-corporation sentiment in his audience. Perhaps all mega-corporations should be destroyed, but even then, destroying Fischer's father's company will apparently just make Saito more powerful, and Saito is already a man who can buy a major airline at the drop of a hat. So why should we want Fischer to destroy his father's business?

Perhaps we are not meant to approve of the job; however, I think Nolan wants us to. He never presents inception as a morally complex or challenging subject. In fact, he makes it easy to accept Fischer's psychological manipulation by writing the father as an unloving and harshly judgmental figure. On top of that, Fischer achieves a catharsis during the inception process, coming to finally feel loved by his father. We are happy that Fischer has this moment with his subconscious projection of his father, and that helps us digest the fact that he is being manipulated. In the end, Fischer is not being manipulated into destroying the business so much as he is being freed from his father's dominion. While this makes it less likely that Fischer will actually dissolve the business (thus undermining the whole point of the job, as I noted above), it makes the audience more willing to accept the manipulation. It's easy to get behind individuation, after all.

Still, what about possible psychological damage to Fischer? Nolan never suggests that something bad might have happened to Fischer. Yet, there is a potential threat to Fischer's psychological stability. Recall that Fischer is not just implanted with the idea of destroying his father's business, but also with the idea that there is a will in a secret safe which formalizes the process, and which his uncle knows about and disapproves of. Since there is no will, and since his uncle is unaware of the whole thing, the inception scenario is built on false premises. This should make it hard for the implanted idea to develop in Fischer's mind; and, if the idea really is planted so firmly that it will be hard for Fischer to let it go, it could lead to problems with Fischer's grasp of reality.

Besides the lack of moral depth, the plot and characters in this film just aren't given a believable foundation. Here's another plot hole: If Cobb just wants to see his kids again, he doesn't have to find a way to get to America; he can have them brought to France. He could at least asked his dad for a few pictures, so he can remember their faces. Really, the whole thing about not remembering his kids' faces is absurd. We are supposed to believe that the moment before he left America was his only chance to get a memorable glimpse of their faces? What father cannot remember his kids' faces? I found it impossible to feel for Cobb, because I could not take this whole situation seriously.

Aside from general plot and character failures, there are a good number of logical inconsistencies in the film. For example, the use of music in the dreams. Music is used to give cues to people in the dream worlds. Given the logic of the dream worlds, this would require that the music be played at a super fast speed, so it would sound normal in the slower dream world. If you play music in the ears of a person who is asleep, it should take them 30 minutes to hear a five-minute song. Yet, in the movie, when they play music for somebody who is sleeping, the music sounds the same in both the dream world and reality. This is inconsistent.

In Inception, sound is not the only sort of information which travels across worlds. All sorts of physical interactions do: When water splashes on a dreamer's face, water enters the dream, too. When the dormant body is violently accelerated or decelerated, the shift is felt in the dream world, too. To be consistent, Nolan would have to have his dream worlds constantly bombarded with all sorts of information from higher-level dreams and waking life. Of course, it is obvious why Nolan does not want to be consistent here: It would make his dream worlds chaotic and unpleasant, and practically unwatchable for the audience.

A bigger problem: Fischer (who, by the way, is the most interesting and engaging character in the whole film, and who should have had a lot more to do) dies in a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream while under heavy sedation, which means he goes into Limbo. This is supposed to be an unconstructed dream space, but it actually contains a whole world of constructions which Cobb and Mal (Cotillard) had constructed together. When Fischer enters Limbo, he is immediately captured by Cobb's subconscious projection of Mal. Yet, when Saito enters the same Limbo, he is not. In fact, it takes Cobb a long time--apparently decades--to find him. That is inconsistent.

More, Fischer had been trained to create aggressive subconscious projections which defend him against dream intruders. These projections appear at every dream level, but they are nowhere to be found in Limbo. Why not? We might think it is because subconscious projections do not appear in Limbo, but that is not true, because Mal is there, and Saito has plenty of his own subconscious projections down there, too. No, the real reason Fischer's subconscious projections don't appear in Limbo is because they would make it very difficult for Mal to capture him. (By the way, why were Cobb and Mal alone, without subconscious projections, when they spent decades together in their shared dream world?)

Aside frpm all of these problems, we might enjoy Inception just for giving us an interesting view of what it means to dream. Unfortunately, the film fails here as well. I cannot accept Nolan's vision as a plausible interpretation of what dreams are actually like.

First, the whole time-scale thing is too implausible. According to Nolan's dream-logic, if you die in a dream, then you wake up--unless you are under heavy sedation, in which case you go into a deeper dream state in which a few hours of sleep entail decades of conscious experience. This is unrealistic. People do not always wake up when they die in their dreams. Furthermore, people presumably die in their dreams while under sedation. Why haven't we heard of anyone having absurdly long conscious experiences while dreaming?

Here's another problem. During one dream, the players enter a dream-within-a-dream. I'll call the dream world D1 and the dream-within-a-dream world D2. In D1, they are in a van which eventually drives off the side of a bridge. This is supposed to put them into free fall, which any physicist will tell you is wrong. Free fall is not induced by driving off a bridge. Free fall is when you are falling directly towards a center of gravity without any other forces acting on you. Nolan gets the physics of free fall wrong, but that is not the point. The point is that, according to the film, if you are in free fall in D1, then there is no gravity in D2. Presumably, if astronauts in space have no gravity, then their dreams would not have gravity, either. I think we can test this hypothesis pretty easily: just ask an astronaut. The whole free fall bit is stupid, and it's only there to set up the zero-gravity action sequence between Arthur (Gordon-Levitt) and some subconscious projections.

Also, Nolan makes his dream worlds far more worldly than dreams actually are. For example, if you are shot in the chest in a dream world, you slowly die. In the real world (that is, the world outside of Nolan's film), when people are shot in dreams, anything can happen. Nolan's dream worlds just aren't realistic.

Finally, in the dream worlds, there is only one dreamer, but many players. Apparently, only one person is actually dreaming, even though all the other people are actively engaging in the dream. What is the difference between dreaming a dream and actively engaging in a dream while asleep? We are not told, and I think there is a good reason why this information is kept from the audience: It does not make sense. If two people are sharing a dream, they are both dreaming. I have no idea why Nolan would want to suggest otherwise.

Maybe that's enough about the illogical, incoherent, and unconvincing nature of the film. Now I want to discuss the way Nolan uses pop psychology and pop philosophy to entrance his audience.

Here is a good example of Nolan's lack of subtlety. At one point, Cobb enters what looks like, and what essentially is, an opium den: an underground chamber full of people living their lives in controlled slumber. The caretaker, an old Asian man (who is obviously very wise, because he is old and Asian and he smiles knowingly), suggests that the people are not sleeping to escape reality, but to find it. For them, the dream is more real than waking life, and who are we to say otherwise? (The old man addresses the question to Cobb, but it is equally addressed to the audience.)

In this and other similarly dull scenes, Inception suggests philosophical questions about the dream/reality distinction. Unfortunately, if there are any serious questions to be had here, Inception doesn't help us find them. The difference between dreams and waking life is not problematic. Sure, from time to time we might confuse dream memories with real memories, and we may sometimes wake up thinking our dreams were realistic, but we never fail to understand the difference. I see no reason to think there is a philosophical problem with the dream/reality distinction, and Nolan hasn't given me any reason to think differently. He hasn't even given me any useful tools for contemplating the issue. Nolan presents dream worlds which are so realistic that we might want to believe that the real world itself could be confused for a dream. This does not create a philosophical problem; it just makes Inception a very manipulative and unrealistic film.

The film is no stronger when it comes to psychology. I don't have a serious problem with the moral of Inception: The more you try to keep your sorrow and regret locked up inside, the stronger it will become until it breaks through your barriers and takes over your life. Don't live in the past, don't constantly relive your regrets trying to get them right, because you will end up losing control of your emotions. As far as pop psychology goes, that is relatively benign, if a bit tired. However, Inception does not give us any useful insights into these psychological issues. It just feeds us this pre-digested pop psychology without helping us understand it, and without even giving us a good reason to believe it.

And how are the psychological issues resolved? Cobb travels deep into his subconscious to tell his projection of Mal that he does not want her anymore. Voila! He is cured!

I guess we cannot blame audiences for buying such a simplistic and easy resolution, but I cannot say I'm impressed.

Inception would be much better if it had stronger, more believable characters and a more genuine plot. It would also be nice to have a third act which held me on the edge of my seat. The final act of Inception might have at least worked as an action/adventure, if I cared more about the outcome and if it were not so stifled by pointless reminders of the various dream levels. A better film would remind us of the various levels only when furthering the action. It was hard not to yawn when I should have been gasping for breath. I found the whole thing underwhelming.