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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Fodor & Piattelli-Palmarini Meet Godfrey-Smith

In the London Review of Books, Peter Godfrey-Smith presents a very well-written and lucid criticism of Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini's attack on evolutionary theory, What Darwin Got Wrong (2010). (For obvious reasons, I am going to refer to Fodor & Piattelli-Palmarini as F&P-P.) Their book has drawn lots of criticism from philosophers and scientists alike (e.g., here and here and here and here), so much so that yet another criticism might look like overkill; however, Godfrey-Smith's analysis is quite accessible and a pleasure to read. I am not going to review his whole review. I just want to point out one weakness I have found in it, and then I want to address F&P-P's response.

I have to question Godfrey-Smith on a point about counterfactuals. He notes that many philosophers discuss causality using counterfactuals, though he thinks this is optional. He says that, when we use counterfactuals to describe the causal relationships involved in natural selection, we are merely summarizing our prior analysis of the causal relationships. I think a lot of philosophers might take issue with that. According to counterfactual theories of causation, all causal claims can be explained, and not just summarized, with counterfactuals. While counterfactual theories of causation are debatable, I'm not so ready to reject them. I don't think we have to, either.

Godfrey-Smith makes the questionable point about counterfactuals in order to counter F&P-P's claim that "Selection cannot, as a matter of principle, be contingent upon (merely) counterfactual outcomes." The assumption is that, if our explanation of natural selection involves counterfactuals, then natural selection itself must involve counterfactuals--that the use of a counterfactual to explain natural selection implies a causal role for counterfactuals in the process of natural selection.

Unless I am missing something, this is just absurd. All causal claims are plausibly explainable in terms of counterfactuals; this does not mean that all (or any) events are counterfactual. I don't think the idea of a counterfactual event is coherent. It looks like a category error. Counterfactuals play a role in our explanation of causality, but not in the causes we are trying to explain. I do not think F&P-P have given us a reason to question the explanatory use of counterfactuals in evolutionary theory. For that reason, Godfrey-Smith's handling of the issue seems misguided. Other than that, I quite like his review (though I would prefer a more skeptical reading of Chomsky's attack on behaviorism).

As for the authors' response to the review, I again have to wonder if I am missing something, because it looks so ridiculous that it is hard to believe F&P-P are standing behind it. They write, "The theory of natural selection claims that the explanation as to why a particular kind of creature evolves a particular trait in a particular ecology, is that for that kind of creature in that situation, having the trait is a cause of fitness."

First of all, creatures don't evolve traits. Natural selection evolves traits through populations. The explanation for why some traits survive and become part of a population is that the traits make it more likely for individuals with them (within the population) to reproduce. We can say that "having the trait is a cause of [reproductive] fitness," though. That looks okay to me. (Some traits can be explained in other ways without creating any problems for Darwin; for example, they can be explained as piggy-backers, as Godfrey-Smith points out.)

F&P-P go on to say, "But then [natural selection] can’t also claim that ‘in the sense that matters’ ‘a trait was selected for’ means that it is a cause of reproductive success."

Why not? Why can't we say that the idea of selection for a trait just means that a trait was a cause of reproductive fitness/success relative to a competitive population?

Here's their answer: "If it did mean that, the theory of natural selection would reduce to a trait’s being a cause of reproductive success explains its being a cause of reproductive success, which explains nothing (and isn’t true)."

I don't see a coherent argument for this answer. According to natural selection, being a cause of reproductive success explains the presence of a trait in a population. That does not lead to the absurd conclusion F&P-P say it does, and I have no idea why anyone would think it does.

On the whole, a very interesting and amusing display of philosophy.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Ryle On Rules And Creativity


In his introduction to Creativity, Cognition, and Knowledge: An Interaction (2002), the late Terry Dartnall challenges his fellow cognitive scientists to pay attention to Wittgenstein in order to understand the central role of creativity in human intelligence. I want to explain why I think he is right, and why I think just as much attention should be paid to Gilbert Ryle. The main issue is the relationship between rules and behavior, an issue which may seem simple, but which implicates our very conception of what it means to be a person.

It is sometimes said that, whereas people are creative, computers can only do what they are programmed to do. The idea is that creativity cannot be wholly rule-based. Our intelligence cannot simply be a matter of following rules.

The truth may be more complicated. Contemporary wisdom has it that the right kinds of programs can lead to creative behavior. Take genetic algorithms. They involve controlled processes of random mutation and selection based on the principle of natural selection, and lead to novel solutions to pre-defined problems. A complex set of genetic algorithms can allow a computer to define new problems for itself to solve, new rules for itself to follow.

When we are creative, we are enjoying a controlled spontaneity which involves rules, but which is not wholly determined by them. For example, musical improvisation involves a delicate balance between control and spontaneity, so that we develop melodies, rhythms and harmonies as we go. This may be the key to understanding intelligence.


Wittgenstein famously argues that games and language are not wholly circumscribed by rules. In Philosophical Investigations (1953, section 68), he writes, "[The use of the word 'game'] is not everywhere circumscribed by rules; but no more are there any rules for how high one throws the ball in tennis, or how hard; yet tennis is a game for all that and has rules too." His point is as much about what it means to play a game as it is about our use of the word. Part of playing a game means grasping the rules of the game; yet, if all you know are the rules, then you still have to learn how to apply them. You have to understand them in an executive manner, with creativity. Intelligent performance cannot be derived from the rules.

Wittgenstein not only argues that the performance cannot be derived from the rules, but also that the rules cannot be derived from the performance. Any intelligent act of rule-following is conceivably consistent with mutually exclusive sets of rules, and there is no way to establish a connection between rules and behavior without relying on another set of rules which, in turn, would themselves require yet another set of rules to be established, ad infinitum. The question is, how do we know when we have correctly followed a rule?

Wittgenstein's answer is that we cannot always have a rule for that, and that we do not always need rules for that. If it were otherwise, every rule would need another to establish its correctness, and we would end up with an infinite regress.

It might seem that Wittgenstein is asking us to abandon the notion of "correct." This is why Saul Kripke (1982) thought Wittgenstein was courting a radical skepticism. Ruth Millikan (1990) suggests otherwise, drawing a distinction between following a rule and grasping a proposition, where the former is more biologically primitive. Biologically primitive systems follow rules without representing them, so there is no act of interpretation required for their application. We do not always need rules to tell us how to follow rules. What is "correct" or "true" is ultimately a function of living organisms or, as Wittgenstein puts it, ways of life.

The Concept of Mind

Wittgenstein once said that only two people understood his philosophy, and that one of them was Gilbert Ryle (Monk 1991, p. 436). It is therefore unsurprising that Ryle follows a similar line of thought in The Concept of Mind (1949), where he distinguishes between following a rule (or applying criteria) and grasping a proposition. This may be expressed as the distinction between knowing how (to do something) and knowing that (something is the case). Facts can be parroted; intelligent performance cannot. Performances can be aped, and they can be aped creatively; but any creativity thereby exhibited is creativity in the aping, and not in the procedure being aped. The point is that, in some cases--such as assembly-line procedures which are done routinely, out of habit--performance is clearly not creative. (There can be a gray area between the clearly intelligent and the clearly unintelligent; creativity is not always so easy to spot.)

Ryle writes, "To be intelligent is not merely to satisfy criteria, but to apply them; to regulate one's actions and not merely to be well-regulated. A person's performance is described as careful or skillful, if in his operations he is ready to detect and correct lapses, to repeat and improve upon successes, to profit from the examples of others and so forth. He applies criteria in performing critically, that is, in trying to get things right" (pp. 28-29). To follow a rule is to regulate one's actions, to show intelligence in the performance of a task, and not to simply do the same thing one has done before. It is to do something with the readiness to improve and improvise, to learn as one acts and through one's action. The mark of the intellect is active learning. As one of Ryle's students observes, "it is not repeated behaviors but changing behaviors that are the sign of creative intelligence, and this can only be observed in the long term" (Dennett 1983, reprinted in 1998, p. 335).

This is Ryle's challenge to what he calls "the dogma of the ghost in the machine," the tradition of Cartesian dualism which says that minds and bodies are distinct entities, each with their own causal properties. Ryle says this is a category error. When we speak of minds, we are not speaking of entities, states, or events. The language we use to talk about minds employs a logic of dispositions, and not simply of occurrences. Rather than think of the mind as a particular place or thing, Ryle asks us to imagine it as a complex set of abilities, capacities, skills, and so on. These are observed "in the long term," as Dennett puts it, and not as discrete entities, states, or causes.

For example, we do not describe a particular occurrence when we refer to the brittleness of glass. Rather, when we say a glass is brittle, we are saying something about how the glass will act in certain circumstances. Similarly, to say that a person has a mind is to say that they act in special sorts of ways--ways which exhibit intelligence. Of course, minds, like brittleness, may be explained in terms of causes and effects. However, neither minds nor brittleness are particular structures or particular sets of causes and effects.

Ryle's view has been associated with behaviorism, since it defines the mind in terms of observable behavior. (It is sometimes called "logical" or "philosophical" behaviorism, to distinguish it from the psychological behaviorism commonly associated with B. F. Skinner.) This association, while justified, may be a little misleading. Ryle's argument is not that we do not have private thoughts, or that we do not imagine, think, or feel. He does not ignore the richness and potency of experience. Rather, he says that the marks of the mental are not intrinsically private. Sometimes they are public, such as when we speak or write, or otherwise perform publicly. Thoughts are only sometimes private, and then only by convention or circumstance. Furthermore, such private acts do not confer intelligence to outward, public acts. Ryle's insight is this: Intelligent behavior is not the product of intelligence; it is intelligence itself.

Ryle's view shares some features with a view in contemporary philosophy of mind known as the extended mind hypothesis, which says that mental states are not all confined by the physical boundaries of the body. Ryle might agree with the extended mind hypothesis--he argues that judgments and ideas are as present in our published works as they are anywhere else--though he would have reservations about the word "state." He rejects the idea that the mind can be reduced to discrete states of any sort. When we attribute mental states to individuals, we are saying something about how they are likely to behave. We are not postulating particular states which exist in the brain or anywhere else. This is not to say that the brain is irrelevant; it is rather to say that so-called "mental states" are not states, even if they depend in some way on brain states. We may postulate functional brain states in our attempt to understand minds; we should just be wary of confusing those functional states with what we are trying to explain.

That said, Ryle observes that sometimes we do directly implicate the brain when we speak of the mind: for example, when we say that a person is imagining, feeling, or perceiving something at some particular time. In such cases, Ryle says, we are creating a mongrel category which cannot be analyzed as simply dispositional or simply occasional. Perhaps there would be less disagreement about consciousness and perception if we had better tools for analyzing this mongrel category. The idea of discrete perceptual feels (qualia), for example, may result from failing to appreciate the dispositional elements in our reports of perceptions and perceptual knowledge.


Ryle contrasts his view with another view which he calls intellectualism, which is one face of the dogma of the ghost in the machine. Intellectualists attempt to explain intelligent behavior by postulating a special faculty which exists behind or antecedent to our intelligent acts. On this view, all intelligent behavior is caused by antecedent acts of intellection; intelligence itself is just a matter of grasping truths in the mind, and to be a person is to have such a truth-grasping faculty.

Ryle says no, to act intelligently is not to first consider an action in private, and then to execute it in public, according to a plan. Intelligence can and often does involve planning, but the relationship between an action and a plan is not the relationship between a copy and an original. Plans are active components of our intelligent behavior; they are not necessary prerequisites of our intelligent action. Much like the regress argument which would later appear in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, Ryle presents a reductio against intellectualism: If we think of planning or contemplation as a prerequisite for intelligent action, we end up with an infinite regress, because planning and contemplation are varieties of intelligent action.

Imagine listening to a song on the radio and tapping the beat on your knee. In this case, your body is a sort of metronome. If you needed an internal metronome to keep steady your external metronome, then why wouldn't you need another metronome to keep your internal metronome steady? And why wouldn't you need yet another metronome to make sure your external metronome was properly correlated with the internal one? Nothing is solved by postulating an internal metronome which helps your hands keep with the music. It only creates more problems, more acts of beat-keeping which need to be explained. There is no reason to postulate a special sort of internal beat-keeping to explain our public displays of percussion.

Of course, when we learn how to keep a beat, we might start by doing it "in our heads"--that is, quietly, to ourselves. After we've gotten the beat down privately, we are more comfortable learning to synchronize our hand-on-knee movements. Once we've learned how to do that, we don't have to do both--we can just keep the beat with our hands. We don't need an internal metronome to monitor our external acts of percussion. I don't think we need the private, quiet performance in the first place; it just gives us a chance to learn one way of keeping the beat without revealing our mistakes.

The metronome example is my own. Ryle elucidates his view of intelligence with a number of other examples. In one, he discusses a clown who trips on purpose. The clown has some intention to trip, but the trip itself is, to one extent or another, spontaneous. The act of planning does not confer intelligence to the trip. Rather, the clown's active involvement in the tripping is what makes it intelligent. Indeed, a clown could plan to trip in a precise manner at a precise time, and then accidentally trip at that very time, and in a manner very similar to the way she had intended. An intelligent plan can be followed by an involuntary performance which looks just like an intelligent act, but which is not intelligent. Thus, the plan does not account for the intelligence of the act.

Ryle's critique of intellectualism has recently been challenged by Jason Stanley and Timothy Williamson (2001), who claim that Ryle gets the knowledge-how/knowledge-that distinction wrong. They present a linguistic analysis aimed at demonstrating that knowing-how is actually a species of knowing-that. Their work is responsible for a resurgence of interest in Ryle's distinction, though unfortunately they do not give Ryle a fair representation. They misconstrue the knowledge-how/knowledge-that distinction as a distinction between abilities and something else. In fact, Ryle regards all knowledge in terms of abilities and capacities, observing that "to know is to be equipped to get something right" and that the word "'know' is of the same family as skill words" (Ryle 1949, p. 134). This misconception leads Stanley & Williamson to misidentify intellectualism itself. On top of that, they misrepresent Ryle's reductio argument. In short, they do not connect with Ryle very well, if at all. (For a fuller discussion, as well as criticisms of Stanley & Williamson's linguistic analysis, see these previous blog posts: here and here.)

Psychologists have recently found evidence that children are able to attribute knowledge-that before they are able to attribute knowledge-how (Tardif, Wellman, Fung, Liu, and Fang 2005). Knowledge-how appears to be more opaque, or it requires different skills to identify, than knowledge-that. This is consistent with Ryle's view, which is that knowledge-how is more complex and heterogeneous than knowledge-that. For some reason, however, Stanley (forthcoming) suggests that this research corroborates his and Williamson's view that knowledge-how is really just a species of knowledge-that. On the contrary, this evidence seems to work against them. If knowledge-how were just a species of knowledge-that, then children should not be able to identify knowledge-that first.

Misinterpreting Ryle

Misinterpreting Ryle is a tradition which began long before Stanley & Williamson. One notable act is perpetrated by Jerry Fodor, who gives a woefully inadequate treatment of Ryle in his seminal The Language of Thought (1975). Fodor focuses on Ryle's clown example, but he leaves out everything about creativity. He claims that Ryle says the clown's behavior is clever only because of circumstantial facts, such as the time and place of the performance, and whether or not it was expected by the audience. This does a disservice to Ryle, and may partially explain some of the anti-Rylean prejudice which has permeated philosophy and cognitive science over the past several decades.

Unfortunately, Dennett does not catch the error in his 1978 response to Fodor. Worse, he echoes Fodor's accusation that Ryle harbors a “groundless anti-scientific bias” (Dennett 1978, reprinted in 1989, p. 45). I see no grounds for this accusation. Ryle does not privilege “conceptual” over “causal” accounts of behavior, as Fodor and Dennett say. He does not reject scientific accounts of behavior, nor does he minimize or devalue their efficacy. Rather, Ryle’s aim is to map out the logic of psychological explanations, a project he refers to as “philosophical psychology” (Ryle 1949, p. 319). He argues that psychology proper is a mixture of causal and non-causal explanations, and that it can only pave the way for “the establishment of precise functional correlations or causal laws” (Ryle 1949, p. 327). This suggests that psychology may one day be replaced by a more rigorous science of human behavior. Far from showing bias against science, Ryle embraces its potential.

Other philosophers have misconstrued Ryle in one way or another. Paul Snowdon (2003) makes many of the mistakes Stanley & Williamson make. Alva Noe (2005) defends Ryle against Stanley & Williamson, but mistakenly claims that Ryle was not an ordinary language philosopher. As it happens, Ryle was arguably the first ordinary language philosopher: His "Systematically Misleading Expressions" (1932) was a seminal work in ordinary language philosophy, and his "Ordinary Language" (1953) leaves no room for doubt about his views on the topic. In fact,
The Concept of Mind exemplifies Ryle's ordinary-language approach: He begins each new avenue of thought by identifying the common use of words and he consistently focuses on the logical behavior of our ordinary concepts. As he says, "this book as a whole is a discussion of the logical behavior of some of the cardinal terms, dispositional and occurrent, in which we talk about minds" (Ryle 1949, p. 126).


Though Wittgenstein is regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century (perhaps the greatest), his contribution to philosophy is often debated. There is vast disagreement over what he said and whether or not it was worth saying. (This may partially be because Wittgenstein never fully formulated his later views, though he believed even the work he had published during his lifetime was generally misunderstood. Not even Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege understood it to Wittgenstein's satisfaction [Monk 1991, pp. 160-166].)

The situation with Ryle is worse.
Ryle is one of the most influential 20th-century philosophers. His early work initiated the ordinary language philosophy movement. Then, with The Concept Of Mind, he made an enormous impact on the philosophy of mind and psychology. He is rightly famous for his critique of Cartesian dualism as well as his knowledge-how/knowledge-that distinction, even if the details and nature of this work are widely misunderstood. Yet, when asked who were the greatest philosophers of the century, contemporary philosophers are not inclined to even include Ryle on the list. Ryle has become unfashionable.

There are a number of possible explanations for this state of affairs. It may be due to a widespread and misinformed prejudice against ordinary language philosophy, which T. P. Uschanov (2001, 2002) blames on the controversial work of Ernest Gellner. We might also blame the fact that Ryle and Wittgenstein were working against the mainstream, challenging some of the basic ideas of analytic philosophy, particularly the dominant Russellian and Fregean conceptions of propositions and semantics (Speaks 2010; Tanney 2009). Furthermore, for decades philosophers and cognitive scientists have been strongly prejudiced against any form of behaviorism. (David C. Palmer [2006] cogently argues that even Skinnerian behaviorism has been given a raw deal.) The influence of such figures as Chomsky and Fodor might be blamed here.

My primary concern (shared by Dennett [2002] and Tanney [2007/2009, 2009]) is that Ryle is too often misrepresented and overlooked. Thanks to Stanley & Williamson, Ryle's work is getting a little more attention, even if amidst a sea of confusion. Hopefully the tides will soon turn in his favor.

See also:

Monday, July 26, 2010

Gettier and the De Dicto / De Re Distinction

I want to discuss the difference between de dicto and de re beliefs and its implications for Gettier cases. This will be an elaboration on my earlier treatment of Gettier cases. I am mainly restating my argument in terms of the de dicto / de re distinction. Unfortunately, I have read very little of the literature on this distinction, so I cannot situate my arguments in a scholarly fashion. (Any pointers to relevant papers would be greatly appreciated.)

The difference between de dicto and de re beliefs is sometimes illustrated with an example like this one:

(1) Ralph believes that someone is a spy.

There is an ambiguity in (1): Does Ralph believe of a specific individual that he is a spy? Or does Ralph believe that at least one person is a spy, without having a belief about any particular individual being a spy?

If Ralph's belief is about a specific individual, then it is de re. If Ralph's belief is not about a specific individual, then it is de dicto. My contention is that for a person to have a justified de dicto belief, as opposed to (or in addition to) a justified de re belief, then that person must have reason to believe that some condition is satisfied above any reason for believing that some particular individual satisfies that condition. De re justification is not sufficient for de dicto belief.

Here's an example from a Gettier case:

(2) Smith believes that the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket.

Does "the man who will get the job" in (2) refer to a particular individual? If so, then Smith's belief is de re. However, if Smith believes that somebody is such that they will get the job and they have ten coins in their pocket, without having this belief about a particular individual, then Smith's belief is de dicto.

In the Gettier case, Smith has a justification for a de re belief. He is informed by the president of the company that Jones will get the job, and Smith has a justified true belief that Jones has ten coins in his pocket. Thus, (2) is true as a statement of Smith's de re belief about Jones.

As it turns out, Smith got bad information. Jones will not get the job, but Smith will. It also turns out that Smith has ten coins in his pocket. From this, we can draw several conclusions. First, Smith's de re belief about Jones is justified but false. However, if we take (2) to denote a de dicto belief, then Smith has a true belief. It is true that somebody is such that they will get the job and they have ten coins in their pocket. However, I do not think Smith has this de dicto belief. While Smith is clearly justified in his de re belief, he has no justification for the relevant de dicto belief. If there is no justification for a de dicto belief--if we have no reason to think that Smith even has such a de dicto belief--then there is no Gettier problem. (For there to be a Gettier problem, Smith must have a justified true belief that is not propositional knowledge; if all Smith has is a justified false belief, then there is no problem.)

It is evident that there can be justification for a de dicto belief which does not justify a de re belief. For example, if the president of the company told Smith that whoever gets the job has ten coins in his pocket, then (2) is true under a de dicto reading. However, Smith is not given this information. If we want to consider a de dicto reading of (2), we have nothing to go on but the justification for Smith's de re belief. The question, then, is whether or not a justified de re belief automatically justifies a corresponding de dicto belief.

It is possible to have corresponding de dicto and de re beliefs. For example, suppose that Smith was told by the president that the person who gets the job has ten coins in his pocket. Smith then has a justified de dicto belief, but he is not sure if it is Jones or himself that will get the job. Smith might also believe that Jones is the better candidate, and so he believes that the person who will get the job is Jones. That is a de re belief. It is clear that these are two distinct beliefs from the fact that they can have different strengths. Smith may be very confident that the president was telling the truth, so his de dicto belief may be quite strong. However, he may not be confident in his estimation of Jones' ability; his de re belief may be very weak.

While it is possible in some cases to have corresponding de dicto and de re beliefs, we have no reason to think that this is happening in the Gettier case. Smith believes of Jones that he is the man who will get the job and that he has ten coins in his pocket. Smith has no belief that somebody else might get the job who also has ten coins in their pocket. At least, we have no reason to attribute such a belief to Smith, which means that there is no apparent justification for Smith to have such a belief. The de re belief gives no cause to attribute to Smith a belief about whether somebody other than Jones might get the job while also having ten coins in their pocket. Therefore, the de re belief does not justify the de dicto belief. If Smith does have the relevant de dicto belief, it is not justified. Hence, no Gettier problem.

To make my critique of Gettier complete, I make a similar analysis of Gettier's second example: the case in which Smith is justified in believing that Jones owns a Ford, and so forms a variety of disjunctive beliefs, including this one:

(3) Jones owns a Ford or Brown is in Barcelona.

As I wrote in my previous treatment of the topic, (3) can be restated as

(4) One of the following is true: Jones owns a Ford; Brown is in Barcelona.

Smith's justification for believing that Jones owns a Ford is enough to justify his belief that (4) is true. However, is this a de dicto or a de re belief? More specifically, does "one of the following" denote either of the two propositions in the disjunction, or does it denote a particular proposition?

Smith has no justification for believing that either one of the propositions may be true. He only has justification for believing that one of them is true. Therefore, Smith believes (4) in so far as "one of the following" is given a de re reading: it denotes "Jones owns a Ford." This belief is false, for it is not the case that Jones owns a Ford. However, it happens to be the case that Brown is in Barcelona, even though Smith believed that Brown was nowhere near Barcelona. If somebody believed (4) under a de dicto reading, they would have a true belief. However, Smith has no reason to believe (4) under a de dicto reading. He only believes that Jones owns a Ford. Thus, again, no Gettier problem.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Adjunct Howell's Excellence

As a number of people keep pointing out, even though Kenneth Howell seems incompetent when it comes to teaching utilitarianism and Natural Moral Law theory, and even though he uses illogical, ignorant, and manipulative tactics to espouse Catholicism, he has been recognized twice for excellence in teaching (first in the Fall of 2008 and again in the Fall of 2009). This is supposed to show that he is competent, that his department hasn't had any problems with him before, and that he's only lost his job because of his views on homosexuality. Yet, the facts speak otherwise.

It's true that Howell was recognized for excellence in teaching . . . by his students. (See here: ICES Fall 2008 and Fall 2009.) These evaluations give no indication of the views of other professors or administrators at UI. They do not mean he's competent. They just mean his students think he's a good teacher. He must have convinced them that he knows what he's talking about. (To be fair, maybe some of the time he does.)

There has been ongoing disapproval of the unorthodox system through which Howell was hired. (See here.) It stands to reason that faculty who disapprove of that system have also been concerned about Howell's qualifications and abilities. True, there doesn't seem to have been any formal complaints filed against Howell before now, but that doesn't mean he's been doing a good job, or that his contract is not being renewed simply because he believes homosexuality is unnatural. It just means that the system has been a problem for a long time, but there hasn't been enough pressure to do anything about it. Now that Howell's offensive incompetence is out in the open, they're finally reevaluating the way they have been doing things. They're fighting for standard hiring practices, that's all. No more incompetent arms of the church flying in under the radar. That sounds like a good idea to me, and it's not an infringement of anyone's liberty.

Update July 20, 2010, 17:50 GMT: If you read the original complaint against Howell, it's clear that the issue has always been his teaching methods, and not his views on homosexuality. As I noted from the start, if the issue was just whether or not he was teaching views which are offensive to homosexuals, there would be a free speech case here. But that is not the issue. The issue is whether or not his teaching methods are in line with the standards and principles of the University of Illinois.

As per the issue of qualifications, here's a link to Howell's CV. He's got two PhDs: one in linguistics and the philosophy of science, the other in the history of Christianity (esp. Catholicism) and its relation to science. He hasn't maintained any devotion to linguistics, however. His scholarly work since the '80s has been almost entirely devoted to religious and theological matters, though he held some teaching positions in the '90s which were not directly related to religion. In any case, on paper, he appears to have the minimum qualifications to teach university courses on Catholicism and Philosophy; however, that doesn't mean the work he's done is any good, or that he's a competent professor. And it certainly doesn't mean UI should ignore the damning evidence and renew his contract.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Philosophy of Religion Professor Fired, Seeks "Free Speech" Defense

Kenneth J. Howell, an adjunct Philosophy of Religion professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, has lost his job after an email he sent to his students was widely circulated around campus, inspiring some people to claim he was spreading hate speech against homosexuality.

There could be a first amendment issue here, if he was fired simply for teaching students about ideas which might be considered hate speech. There is nothing wrong with exposing students to hate speech, so long as they are being taught to think critically about it. If he was propagating such speech out of professional ignorance and incompetence, and failing to present a critical or intelligent analysis of it, however, then I don't see any problem with firing him. And that appears to be what happened.

The full text of the email is here. The ignorance and lack of intellectual integrity are striking, making it a clear example of professional incompetence.

The email was supposed to help his students identify and understand utilitarianism. Yet, he never gives a competent characterization of utilitarianism. He correctly suggests that it is a variety of consequentialism--that it regards the value of actions in terms of their consequences. However, utilitarianism is not the only variety of consequentialism. Howell does not describe what distinguishes utilitarianism as such, let alone discuss different varieties of utilitarianism, such as act and rule utilitarianism.

After introducing utilitarianism as consequentialism, he proceeds to contrast it with Natural Moral Law theory (NML) using the example of homosexuality. (I leave aside Howell's almost comical, yet disturbing, comments on how a utilitarian would discuss the cases of child molestation and bestiality.) The idea is that, while utilitarianism is concerned with the consequences of homosexual acts, NML is concerned with the act itself. The act itself is immoral--not because of its consequences, but because of the meaning of the act, which is apparently derived from nature. This proves to be a meaningless distinction, as I will explain.

Howell's main point is that NML takes "REALITY" into account, implying that utilitarianism is based on fantasy or ignorance. Utilitarianism apparently requires that we ignore salient facts about the nature of our actions when calculating their value. Specifically, in the case of homosexuality, facts about what it means to have sex.

Howell's argument is both ignorant and stupid. Ignorant, because there is no evidence that homosexuality is unnatural or that it violates the meaning of the human body. True, throughout the ages, procreation has relied on sex. However, that doesn't mean sex has only been for procreation. There is no scientific evidence that the only natural meaning of human sexuality is for procreation, and there is no reason to suppose it is the case. The idea that homosexuality is unnatural is not scientific, but based solely on religious dogma. Yet, Howell concludes his email with the following misinformation: "Catholics don't arrive at their moral conclusions based on their religion. They do so based on a thorough understanding of natural reality." That's just a lie.

As I indicated earlier, the other problem is Howell's attempt to contrast NML with consequentialism. He claims that homosexual acts are wrong, and he attempts to demonstrate this by examining their consequences. His argument is that the nature of the act is immoral because the acts are "injurious." In other words, NML is not really opposed to consequentialism at all. It is not an alternative moral theory. So Howell's entire argument is just plain dumb.

(By the way, how does Howell know that homosexual acts can be physically harmful? He says he knows a physician who told him it's true. Yes, a single physician told him, and he thinks that supports his argument! That is remarkable. I think any competent physician will tell you that all sex acts can be injurious, and are only dangerous if they are not performed with care; homosexual acts are no exception.)

In conclusion, NML is not presented as a coherent alternative to utilitarianism in particular or consequentialism in general. It rather looks like a way of pretending that religious dogma has philosophical stature. Howell's idea of preparing students for an exam question on utilitarianism is to prime them on illogical and ignorant debate tactics against homosexuality, denying the dogmatic foundation of the anti-homosexual agenda and pretending it is based on empirical evidence. If intellectual integrity is to be respected at all, I cannot see how UI could justify renewing Howell's contract.

Legal action is being filed against UI by Alliance Defense Fund, a not-for-profit organization that specializes in representing people like Howell--that is, "religious and conservative faculty" whose views are not welcome at universities. I hope the lawsuit is dealt with adequately. There is no free speech issue here. Religion is no excuse for incompetence.

Update, July 18, 2010, 8:26 GMT: I just read what PZ Myers posted about this case. He claims that Howell's email isn't hate speech. PZ thinks Howell should be fired for incompetence, but not for hate speech. So, is Howell's email hate speech?

I think yes, if hate speech includes acts which disparage homosexuality. Howell's argument is that homosexuality is unnatural. That seems rather disparaging to homosexuals. Maybe Howell was not inciting anyone to violence against homosexuals, but that is not a necessary criterion of hate speech.

In any case, I think Howell should be fired whether or not we call his email "hate speech." The main issue is not whether or not Howell is spreading hate speech, but whether or not he is competent to teach philosophy. And PZ and I agree on that. I don't think Howell should be fired only because his incompetence led him to offend homosexuals. I think she should be fired because he is incompetent, period. The offense to homosexuals is what happened to bring his incompetence to our attention.

Update July 19, 2010, 20:30 GMT: Here's an interesting article explaining how much more than a single email is at issue here. It turns out Howell was not hired through a standard university hiring procedure. Though he's been working at a public institution for higher education, he is more accurately described as an arm of the church.

Since I'm updating, I want to also mention how despicable I find the end of Howell's email, when he tells his students that they're probably not qualified to make sound moral judgments, but that Catholics are, because they've done the work. It's so blatantly manipulative and dishonest.

Here's one interesting quote from the comments section:

Importantly, the professor's e-mail is actually not, as so many claim, teaching Catholic doctrine. It goes beyond the bounds of Canon Law, and the closest it gets to explaining natural law is the term complementarity. It is highly deficient as an explanation of either natural law as an approach to moral theology or as an explanation of Catholic doctrine on homosexuality (without even getting into the problematic presentation of utilitarianism). The e-mail suggests the real problem of this arrangement: rather than hiring a strong scholar of Catholic thought (whether from a comparative or sociological approach, to borrow Sheila Green Davaney's terms), the university has hired someone without a degree in Catholic theology, philosophy, or religious studies, who primarily writes for normative magazines and books. The diocese's reading of "normative" theology trumps the academic standards held up at Catholic institutions in the case of hiring. As such, the university has no strong scholars of modern Catholicism on staff, which is lamentable, particularly when UIC has its own strong Catholic Studies program.

The Miners Paradox Revisited

I recently posted about the Miners Paradox, which Janice Dowell has been discussing over at PEA Soup. My initial reaction was to reject two of the premises in the argument, thereby undermining the paradoxical conclusion. However, as Janice pointed out to me, this is insufficient, because common sense tells us that the premises are true. That forced me to elaborate upon--though not reject--my initial response.

The issue has to do with ordinary language and philosophical logic. Specifically, how do we know when and how to apply the rules of logic to ordinary speech? While modus ponens may be one of the simplest rules in logic, its application to ordinary language is not always obvious. The Miners Paradox may be instructive in this regard.

I'll repost the paradox, as presented by Janice:

MINERS: 10 miners are trapped in a flooding mine; they are either all in shaft A or all in shaft B. Given our information, each location is equally likely. We have just enough sandbags to block one shaft, saving all the miners, if they are in the blocked shaft, but killing them all if they are in the other. If we do nothing, the water will distribute between the two shafts, killing only the one miner positioned lowest. On the basis of these considerations, (1) seems true:

(1) We ought to block neither shaft.

While deliberating, though, we accept both

(2) If the miners are in A, we ought to block A


(3) If the miners are in B, we ought to block B.

We also accept

(4) Either the miners are in A or they are in B.

And (2)-(4) seems to entail

(5) Either we ought to block A or we ought to block B.


My concern is chiefly with (2) and (3). These are conceivable sentences a person might use while contemplating what to do in the scenario, and they do appear to express true beliefs to that person. The question is, what do these sentences mean? Or, to put it in more analytic terms, what propositions do these sentences express?

The Miners Paradox requires the assumption that these sentences express the following propositions:

(2P): All miners-in-A worlds are shut-shaft-A worlds.

(3P): All miners-in-B worlds are shut-shaft-B worlds.

My initial response to the paradox was to show that (2P) and (3P) are false, and I think my argument for their falsity is strong. Yet, as Janice indicated, I should give some account for why we think (2) and (3) are true. My response is to offer alternative propositional interpretations of those sentences. I don't think (2) and (3) mean (2P) and (3P)--at least, not for the folk deliberating in the scenario. Rather, I think they mean (A) and (B), respectively:

(A) If we know the miners are in shaft A, we should shut shaft A.

(B) If we know the miners are in shaft B, we should shut shaft B.

This should be clear if we imagine how a person in the miners scenario would act. Say we are in the miners scenario. We hear a person deliberating with (2) and (3) and we take them to mean (2P) and (3P). We respond, "yes, you're right. If the miners are in A, we should block A. And if they're in B, we should block B. Since they've got to be in one or the other, we should block one of them."

The deliberator will likely respond, "no, because we don't know which one."

At that point, we can say, "but that doesn't matter. Our knowledge has nothing to do with it. As you said, they're in A or B, and if they're in A or B, we should block A or B."

The deliberator says, "I didn't say that."

Us: "Of course you did. You said, and I quote, 'If the miners are in A, we should block shaft A. If the miners are in B, we should block shaft B.' You didn't say anything about whether or not we knew which shaft they were in."

Deliberator: "But of course I meant that we had to know which shaft they were in!"

Us: "But that's not what the linguists tell me you meant. You didn't mean that your knowledge was required to justify the decision."

At that point, the deliberator might say, "No, I meant that if we knew which shaft they were in, then we should close that shaft." Or, perhaps the deliberator will get confused, saying "I'm not sure what I meant, but I'm sure we need to know which shaft they're in, or else we shouldn't shut either of them." Or, perhaps, "Okay, I was wrong before. I didn't mean what I said." In any case, the deliberator remains sure that there is no justification for blocking either of the shafts. (5) is never a compelling conclusion.

The Miners Paradox requires either baffling the subjects whose beliefs are in question, explicitly contradicting their attempts to clarify their meaning, or complicating their understanding of their own prior statements enough so that they reject both (2) and (3), even though they had previously thought both were true. This cannot be right. I conclude that we should replace (1P) and (2P) with (A) and (B), respectively. While the first pair of interpretations are plausibly false, the second pair are plausibly true and seem to be a better representation of how the sentences in (2) and (3) are being used in the scenario. Thus, there is no paradox, and no need to question the rules of logic.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Martha Nussbaum, Sexuality, And The Right To Veil

In "Veiled Threats?" and again in "Beyond The Veil: A Response," Martha Nussbaum defends the right to cover one's face in public. Laws against veils are a hot topic in Europe, with several EU countries pushing for legislation which would prevent many Muslim women from wearing full-face Islamic veils. Nussbaum goes over and rejects several arguments which are commonly made in support of such a ban. Though I'm not quite sure where my mind is on the issue, I have some problems with what she says.

One of the arguments she rejects is that the full-face veil depersonalizes women. To counter this argument, Nussbaum begins by suggesting that Muslim women may not be degraded or depersonalized by this tradition. This suggestion is not persuasive, however, because some Muslim women have spoken out against the full-face veil for just that reason. More importantly, we have reason to be suspicious of reports by women who say they like the full-face veil. These are women who have been raised their whole lives to think that their only role in adult public life is to be had in anonymity, and that their acceptance of the veil is required by their family, community, and Allah. These women might say the veil is not degrading, but maybe they mean that it's not degrading to Allah. If they don't see themselves as having dignity in the first place, then they cannot conceive of being degraded by the veil. That is the final effect of depersonalization--the inability to conceive of one's own dignity.

Nussbaum isn't satisfied with her suggestion that the full-face veil might not hurt women (maybe she realizes the suggestion isn't persuasive). She tries to defend the right to veil another way, by pointing out that many degrading cultural institutions are and should be legal. Thus, the fact that the full-face veil objectifies women is no reason to make it illegal. To make this argument, she compares the full-face veil to "sex magazines, nude photos, tight jeans — all of these products, arguably, treat women as objects, as do so many aspects of our media culture."

The comparison is hard to fathom. First of all, why are nude photos degrading? Why are sex magazines degrading? Of course, these things can be degrading and objectifying. However, I wouldn't say they necessarily, or even generally, are. Perhaps Nussbaum's world is one in which any attempt a woman makes to be sexually appealing is an act of self-subjugation to a culturally imposed masculine ideal. She says, "Every time I undress in the locker room of my gym, I see women bearing the scars of liposuction, tummy tucks, breast implants. Isn’t much of this done in order to conform to a male norm of female beauty that casts women as sex objects?"

No, I wouldn't say it is. Women are key agents in the construction of ideals of femininity and beauty, and I don't think it is degrading or depersonalizing for a woman to want to be sexy. Perhaps Nussbaum feels degraded by her own sexuality, and would prefer a world in which sex was never sought after or advertised and in which erotica was absent. (Edit:  I must apologize for the crossed-out portion of that last sentence.  It might not technically be ad hominem, but I think it was in poor taste and potentially offensive.)  In any case, I think it's obvious that there is a profound difference between (1) a religious tradition which designed to limit the power of female identity and (2) cultural traditions which enable or even encourage women to express, advertise, or sell their sexuality.

Of course, both (1) and (2) are dangerous. I don't think the sex industry is harmless, but not primarily because it depersonalizes women. Rather, the sex industry often promotes self-destructive behavior and, in the worst cases, a form of indentured servitude. It can be depersonalizing, but that is an unfortunate consequence and not an essential feature.  Treating a woman as a sexual object is not necessarily depersonalizing. In contrast, the full-face veil does seem to be depersonalizing, because it effectively denies a woman a self-created public identity.

The question is not whether we should ban all industries or traditions which can, in the worst scenarios, lead women to pain and suffering; rather, the question is whether or not we should ban traditions which are designed and implemented to deny a public identity to women. The verdict may still be out on whether or not the full-face veil does intrinsically harm women or society. I'm not saying I've made up my mind on the point, but I do think the point needs to be made a bit more clearly than Nussbaum makes it.

Update, July 16, 2010 22:29 GMT: Though my point here was to focus on the issue of depersonalization, I should mention that I do find other faults with Nussbaum's arguments. There's one point worth bringing to attention, as one commenter at The Stone put it: "[In "Beyond The Veil: A Response," Nussbaum] failed completely to adequately respond to the many readers who pointed out that, in spite of her insistence that ski masks and heavy coats are the equivalent of burkas, almost any person dressed for protection in winter weather would indeed be asked to uncover inside when interacting with other people."

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Puzzle About Ought's and If's

Over at PEA Soup, Janice Dowell discusses an interesting argument for a moral paradox. This is how she presents it:

10 miners are trapped in a flooding mine; they are either all in shaft A or all in shaft B. Given our information, each location is equally likely. We have just enough sandbags to block one shaft, saving all the miners, if they are in the blocked shaft, but killing them all if they are in the other. If we do nothing, the water will distribute between the two shafts, killing only the one miner positioned lowest. On the basis of these considerations, (1) seems true:
(1) We ought to block neither shaft.

While deliberating, though, we accept both

(2) If the miners are in A, we ought to block A


(3) If the miners are in B, we ought to block B.

We also accept

(4) Either the miners are in A or they are in B.

And (2)-(4) seems to entail

(5) Either we ought to block A or we ought to block B.


She mentions a paper in which some philosophers respond by rejecting modus ponens. That seems much too severe and unattractive. Dowell suggests another line of attack which is quite sophisticated--it involves semantic theory, which is not something I want to get into right now. I think a simpler solution can be found. In a nutshell, I think the paradox argument requires the false assumption that ought's can be unprincipled.

Consider what principle would have to be applied to block one of the shafts. It couldn't be a principle based on one's knowledge of where the miners are. It would have to be a haphazard principle akin to flipping a coin. Such a "principle" (if we can even call it that) would only minimize harm in those worlds where the coin happened to come up the right way every time. I think we'd do less harm in more possible worlds by applying a different principle.

The point is, what one ought to do is a matter of what principle one ought apply in cases of a particular type, and not merely a matter of the consequences of applying that principle in any particular case. Thus, there are possible worlds in which all the miners are in A, but in which one ought not block A. Similarly for B, of course. So we should reject (2) and (3), and thereby resolve the paradox.

Update (July 15, 2010, 14:09 GMT): A moral noncognitivist (such as myself) would not let the paradox argument get off the ground, as stated, because it supposes that "we ought to X" can be either true or false. Yet, I think the paradox argument can proceed without that supposition. While the subjects in the scenario may say, "If the miners are in A, we ought to block A," what they mean (truth functionally) is this: If the miners are in A, we are justified in blocking A. The difference is subtle enough to not really matter, but it preserves the argument without offending the noncognitivist.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Jon Stewart & Marilynne Robinson: Disappointing and Disingenuous

I'm very disappointed in Jon Stewart. He passed up a great opportunity to stand up for science and reason, and instead he promoted ignorance and confusion. It happened a few days ago, when he interviewed Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson, who was promoting her new non-fiction work, Absence of Mind. The discussion was about the public conversation on science and religion.

Robinson claims that both religion and science have been poorly represented in the public domain. She says can help us understand both, and why both science and religion must work together to help us understand ourselves and the world. She doesn't spend any time criticizing religion or religious leaders, however, so it's not clear what problem she has there. She's a Calvinist, in fact, though she says she loves science. She tells Stewart that the "new cosmologies and so on are among the most beautiful things that people have conceived." (As I'll explain, I have reason to doubt she's qualified to appreciate the beauty of our best scientific theories and models.) She goes on to say that such scientific achievements are neither religious nor anti-religious.

This suggests the view, commonly associated with NOMA, that science and religion are concerned with different sorts of questions, different domains of inquiry, and do not overlap. Scientific truths have no impact on religious faith, and religious faith has no implications for scientific inquiry. Perhaps that's her view, but she doesn't explicitly say it. In fact, at the beginning of the interview, Stewart says that the common belief is that science and religion are completely separate and have nothing in common, and Robinson says she is trying to change that. So she's apparently both pro- and anti-NOMA. I'm tempted to conclude that Robinson has no coherent position to speak of.

If anything, she is against sociobiology and naturalism, as this review of her new book shows. (Naturalism is perhaps best defined as the view that no causes are theoretically outside the bounds of scientific discovery.) Robinson suggests we all garner a healthy respect for the mysterious essence of humanity and nature. This anti-naturalist position is not what I would call a coherent philosophical position. It's more of an anti-position, an irrational insistence that there are just some things we cannot understand.

Interestingly, Robinson left the mystery stuff out of her Daily Show interview. She does not openly criticize naturalism at all. She does not claim that we should "acknowledge some small fragment of the mystery we are," as she writes in her new book. Rather, she acts as though she is not taking sides in the debate over naturalism. This is disingenuous. She might admire science, however ignorant of it she actually is; but she is definitely taking sides. She believes that religion complements science, that we need both to fully understand ourselves and nature.

Before I criticize Robinson in any detail, I want to explain my disappointment with Jon Stewart. I am not disappointed in him for taking sides in the science-vs.-religion debate. I'm not even disappointed in him for promoting a book that is against naturalism. At least, I wouldn't be, if he were qualified to have an informed opinion about it, but he is clearly not competent to make an informed judgment as to its merits.

I'm disappointed in Jon Stewart's ignorance and his willingness to let that ignorance guide the judgments he makes on his show. He not only gave Robinson a platform for her anti-naturalist agenda; he helped her propagate the fog of confusion that impedes the public's understanding of science and religion.

It's clear that Stewart has no conception of what distinguishes science and religion. He says as much himself. He starts by saying, "the more you delve into science, the more it appears to rely on faith." To explain this, he uses the example of dark matter, which he mistakenly refers to as "anti-matter." Interestingly, Robinson didn't catch the mistake. I guess she's not so up on those "new cosmologies" she claims are so beautiful. In any case, it doesn't matter that Stewart mistook anti-matter for dark matter. He's not expected to know about that stuff. But that's part of the problem: He acts as though he has some insight into the fundamental nature of scientific arguments, but he obviously isn't even familiar with them.

His argument is that scientists just have faith that the universe is composed of dark matter, giving a comical take on the speculative nature of our current understanding of it. We can't observe dark matter, we can't measure it, but it's just there. God is the same: You can't see Him, you can't measure Him . . . He's just there. Stewart concludes that, "at their core," the scientific argument for dark matter and the theistic argument for God are similar. (Robinson agrees with him, of course.)

Maybe I should explain why Stewart's argument is so ignorant and insulting to scientists. He is ignoring the explanatory value of postulating dark matter. The idea of dark matter explains a lot of what scientists observe. In contrast, the idea of God does not explain anything. There is a fundamental difference between (1) postulating dark matter within a scientific framework for understanding nature and (2) postulating a supernatural Being as the ultimate cause of nature. The former has explanatory value; the latter does not. That's the difference, and it is crucial.

Scientists tentatively postulate dark matter until it no longer makes sense, in terms of explanatory value, to do so. The legitimacy of the notion of dark matter rests entirely on our ability to relate it directly or indirectly to repeatable observations. In contrast, theists postulate God without sense or contingency. The claim that God created the universe does not explain anything. More, the very notion of something creating the universe is without sense. That's what makes theism a matter of faith: It is entirely irrational. Scientific arguments for dark matter, in contrast, are rational: Scientists do not have faith in dark matter.

It is a shame that Jon Stewart does not understand the difference between science and faith, and that in his confusion he furthered Marilynne Robinson's anti-naturalistic agenda.

If you read the review of Absence of Mind which I linked to above, you'll see that Robinson doesn't seem to understand the scientists she is talking about. She accuses sociobiologists of thinking that human behavior is ultimately a matter of individual self-interest. That couldn't be further from the truth. The whole point of sociobiology (including Dawkins' "selfish gene" approach) is that human behavior is not ultimately a matter of our own interests at all, but a matter of what has helped our genetic lineage replicate.

Robinson argues that scientists have failed to observe the human element when examining neurological phenomena. For example, she critiques what she calls "parascientific" literature on Phineas Gage, a 19th-century American who managed to survive an explosive accident which sent a three foot, seven inch iron rod clear through his skull, taking with it a significant portion of his frontal lobe. What is remarkable is not only that Gage survived the incident, but that his memory and intelligence were unharmed. Yet, he suffered a severe personality shift. He apparently lost the ability to maintain social relationships or make responsible decisions about his future. This suggests, but of course does not prove, that there are distinct parts of the brain responsible for social skills and personal development, but which are not necessary for memory or intelligence.

Robinson criticizes scientists for ignoring Gage's humanity, for failing to see that his personality shifts could have been the result of his having suffered a disfiguring trauma. She suggests that scientists don't think about what it means to be a person, and so fail to grasp the full complexity of humanity. This is rhetorical fluff, and not a philosophically or scientifically sound argument. If she wants to criticize the way scientists draw their conclusions, she has to read actual science, not offer alternative explanations of particular cases. And the case of Phineas Gage was never properly documented, as scientists are ready to admit. It was never taken to be a conclusive study, so her criticism is irrelevant. (That's assuming that it's even accurate, which I'm not willing to concede.)

As she says in the Stewart interview, Robinson thinks that philosophers and scientists since the early 20th century have "minimized the complexity and importance of the human mind." Yet, philosophers and scientists have largely marveled at the complexity of human cognition and emotion. They haven't minimized it. So why does she make this comment? Because of Phineas Gage? Perhaps for Robinson, any scientific attempt to understand human behavior is a minimization of the complexity and importance of the human mind. If we treat humanity as an object of scientific study, as part of nature, biological at its core, then we are doing an injustice to the human spirit.

At one point in the interview, Jon Stewart asks a good question, though he phrases it awkwardly: "Science is making an argument that discounts religion or faith? . . . Science doesn't take into account magic--like, the soul? Is that the suggestion?"

It looks like he's struggling to understand what her view is: What is it that limits science, exactly? What is it that distinguishes science and religion?

This is where Robinson could have--and should have--come clean. She should have revealed her Christian apologetic agenda and said, yes, science cannot account for the essence of humanity, the human spirit; we are not fundamentally biological creatures. But she didn't. Instead, she said, slightly fumbling, "Not so much as, um . . . I don't think, frankly, that it is scientific to proceed from the study of ants to a conclusion about the nature of the cosmos."

This is probably an implicit jab at E. O. Wilson, father of sociobiology, who is well-known for his study of ants. However, it's also a poetic way of criticising Richard Dawkins' attempt to use scientific evidence (most famously, his Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit) to argue against the probability of God's existence. Robinson is claiming that evolutionary theory cannot tell us about the nature of the universe. But is she saying that science, in general, cannot tell us anything about the nature of the universe? Or is she just saying evolutionary theory is not up to the task? Either way, I'm not holding my breath for her answer.

Marilynne Robinson and I do agree a little bit. I'm similarly unimpressed by Dawkins' Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit. I generally don't find weak atheism (aka "teapot agnosticism") convincing. It gives too much philosophical credit to theism and supernaturalism, as I've explained several times before (e.g., see here and, more recently, here.) But that doesn't mean evolutionary theory in general, or the study of ants in particular, cannot tell us anything about the nature of the cosmos. And it certainly doesn't mean that there is any insight into the nature of the cosmos to be found in theism or religion.

In fact, I would agree that the case for science and naturalism has not been very well-represented across the board. Some represent it better than others. But I don't think Robinson would agree with me that the case for naturalism has not been well-represented. Rather, she would say only that the case for science has not been well-represented. She would probably say that to best represent science, we must abandon naturalism. That's where we disagree.

As I said already, she was disingenuous in leaving naturalism out of the interview. This may have been a deliberate strategy. She wanted to look like a friend to atheism as well as theism, even though her agenda is clearly theistic and against naturalism. Why the disguise? Perhaps because she knows that, if she advertises her book as an assault on naturalism, it will only appeal to the anti-naturalists. She wants to sell her book to everybody interested in the debate over science and religion, and she wants to make it seem like she has something new and valuable to add to the conversation--something which both sides would benefit from understanding. Either that, or she just doesn't know what she is talking about at all.

In any case, I'm inclined to doubt that Robinson brings any intellectual or scholarly weight to the table. And it's clear that Jon Stewart is not qualified to critically review or recommend her book. And he's certainly not qualified to discuss the nature of scientific arguments. Thus, I am disappointed. Perhaps as recompense, Stewart will give a more thoughtful interview with a well-spoken naturalist in the near future.

One can hope.

[Update July 13, 2010, 6:55 GMT: I originally claimed that Absence of Mind was Marilynne Robinson's first work of non-fiction. That was a mistake, as one commenter was nice enough to point out.]

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Getting Past Gettier

Larry Nemirow once told me that I should try to publish my good ideas wherever I can, and not wait until somebody else gets credit for them first. This apparently happened to him several times when he was a grad student. But that was before the blog era. These days, it's a choice between waiting several months before getting a rejection letter (and, as a non-professional, I cannot expect anything other than rejection letters) or getting my ideas out in the open through my blog (or other online venues.) So that's what I'm gonna do now.

Below is a very short paper I wrote which was rejected by a reputable philosophy journal a couple months ago. (I'm not sure why, but it seems better not to say which journal.) The editor-in-chief gave me some instructive comments--journals don't always do that, and I'm truly grateful. I'd like to spend a month or so researching and rewriting the paper, but I don't know when I'll have time to do that. In the meantime, maybe some readers can give me a few suggestions or criticisms.

I'm posting the editor-in-chief's comment first, and then the paper:

Dear Dr. Streitfeld [I'm not a doctor, but it's nice of them to presume otherwise],

Thank you for submitting your manuscript "Getting past Gettier" to [journal]. While it contains some interesting observations, it seems to me that it does not contact an enormous amount of literature in linguistic semantics on very pertinent topics (for example, the analysis of definite descriptions with respect to de re and de dicto beliefs) which has been done since the references you cite. It therefore does not meet the standards for publication in [journal], but I would encourage you to contact some of that literature as you work further on this topic. Good luck in finding a suitable venue for your work.

I should also mention that I sent an earlier draft of this paper (which contained discussion of more recent versions of Gettier cases) to Stephen Hetherington, and he made a similar comment--specifically, that I should connect with Grice and Donnellan on definite descriptions. But I've looked into Grice and Donnellan, and it seems to me that any discussion of them would be too tangential. It would make the paper meatier, but wouldn't help me make my essential point. Though perhaps I've just missed something of relevance there.

Getting Past Gettier

It is commonplace to attribute beliefs with sentences of the form, “Jennifer believes that snow is white.” Philosophers are inclined to regard the subordinate clause as a sentence, which is often given a number:

  1. Snow is white.
Such sentences are said to express or represent the belief in question, and reference to sentences is not distinguished from reference to beliefs. The association between beliefs and sentences is ubiquitous and accounts for much confusion in philosophy. Unlike beliefs, sentences can neither be true nor false, but can be used to make true or false statements (Strawson, 1950). Confusion arises when philosophers regard sentences as either true or false whilst overlooking significant differences in their use.

I aim to show that just such confusion is responsible for the prevailing discourse concerning Gettier cases. It was not so long ago that Edmund Gettier made a stir by arguing that justified true belief is not sufficient for propositional knowledge, despite a long tradition of thinking otherwise (Gettier, 1963). It has since become commonplace for philosophers to discuss a variety of Gettier cases—purported examples of justified true beliefs which are not classifiable as propositional knowledge. It is commonly supposed that there is a problem with the traditional conceptualization of propositional knowledge, or that a better understanding of justification is in order. However, there is a stark lack of agreement over how to approach, let alone resolve, the dilemma. This is the Gettier problem.

I aim to dissolve the problem by arguing that the subjects in Gettier cases do not have justified true beliefs, but rather justified false beliefs. Confusion arises because the false beliefs are expressed with sentences which can also be used to express true beliefs—though not true beliefs had by the subjects in question. Only the philosophers discussing the cases have the true beliefs in question. By failing to observe the role of definite descriptions in these sentences, philosophers suppose that the sentences are true, because philosophers—having extra information—are naturally inclined to use the sentences to make true statements. By failing to distinguish between sentences and the beliefs they express, philosophers fail to distinguish between their own beliefs and the beliefs of the subjects in question. This accounts for the intuition to attribute justified true beliefs to the subjects in Gettier cases, and also explains the strong intuition to deny that the subjects have the relevant propositional knowledge—for it is obvious that the subjects in Gettier cases lack the information required to make the relevant true statements. I aim to demonstrate this through analysis of Gettier’s two original examples (Gettier, 1963). By accounting for philosophers' beliefs and intuitions, and revealing the source of confusion, I aim to preserve the conceptualization of propositional knowledge as justified true belief.

Gettier’s first example is thus: Smith is applying for a job but learns from the president of the company that Jones will get it instead. Smith knows that Jones has ten coins in his pocket, and so forms the belief:

2. The man who gets the job has ten coins in his pocket.

It turns out that Smith gets the job, not Jones. It is also the case that Smith has ten coins in his pocket. Gettier claims that (2) is true and Smith is justified in believing it. Yet, there is a strong and widespread intuition to deny that Smith knows that (2) is true. We are thus tempted to conclude that justified true belief is not sufficient for propositional knowledge.

Sentence (2) can be used to express any number of beliefs. When philosophers say (2) is true, they are expressing a belief about Smith, knowing that Smith will get the job. Yet, when Smith believes (2), he is thinking about Jones. Smith’s belief is false, though it is expressed with the same sentence philosophers use to express their true belief.

Gettier might resort to a more abstract formulation, stipulating that Smith believes:

3. There is some man, X, such that X will get the job and X has ten coins in his pocket.

It is thus supposed that Smith’s belief is not about Jones or anybody else. However, Smith does not believe that there is some set of men such that one unspecified member of that set will get the job and has tens coins in his pocket. Smith has no justification for such a belief. In so far as (3) represents Smith’s beliefs, the “ X” refers to Jones, and only Jones. Smith is not ambiguous in his belief about who will get the job.

In Gettier’s second example, Smith and Jones are joined by Brown, who is in Barcelona. Smith has no reason to believe that Brown is in Barcelona. Yet, Smith has just cause to believe that Jones owns a Ford. He thus forms a variety of disjunctive beliefs, including:

4. Jones owns a Ford or Brown is in Barcelona.

Smith believes (4) because he believes that Jones owns a Ford. However, Smith is mistaken. Jones does not own a Ford. Yet, (4) is true and justified, it is said, because Brown is in Barcelona.

We must consider what it means to believe a disjunction. The belief represented by (4) may be restated as:

5. One of the following is true: Jones owns a Ford; Brown is in Barcelona.

If Smith believed that either Jones owned a Ford or Brown was in Barcelona, but was not sure which was true, the belief could be classified as disjunctive. However, as it stands, Smith is not ambiguous. For Smith, “one of the following” in (5) is a definite description and it refers to “Jones owns a Ford.” Thus, the belief is false.

We are perhaps naturally inclined to forget that a single sentence can represent different beliefs for different people, even when they are in almost identical circumstances. This explains the tendency to attribute justified true beliefs in Gettier cases, even when the beliefs in question are false. The above analysis also explains the strong intuition to deny propositional knowledge. We know that (2) is true, in so far as we know that we use (2) to express a true statement about Smith. Since Smith does not have our knowledge, Smith cannot know about this true statement. Therefore, we do not grant him the relevant propositional knowledge. Similarly, we say (4) is true because we know that Brown is in Barcelona. Since Smith lacks this knowledge, we do not attribute the relevant propositional knowledge to him. We only falter in supposing that (2) and (4) represent Smith’s true beliefs, when they only express our own judgments about the cases.

The above analysis accounts for the intuitions to attribute justified true beliefs as well as the intuitions to deny propositional knowledge in Gettier cases. At the same time, it preserves the conception of propositional knowledge as justified true belief. I submit these as grounds for rejecting the claim that there is a Gettier problem.


Gettier, Edmund (1963). Is Justified True Belief Knowledge? Analysis, 23, 121-123.

Strawson, P. F. (1950). On Referring. Mind, 59, (235):320-344.

Dreams and Consciousness

Richard Brown, of Philosophy Sucks!, has posted some interesting ideas about dreams and consciousness, and whether or not we have (or can have) evidence of consciousness in dreams. I posted the following in the comments section:

The question of consciousness in dreams is very interesting, and I like the idea of testing it by determining whether or not people can report dream experiences while dreaming. But I think the only way this could be done is if the dreaming subject were reporting the experiences to somebody else--that is, there must be interaction between the dreaming subject and another subject within the dream. The experimenter would have to interact with a person as a part of their dream, like in Dreamscape (1984). We have no evidence that this sort of interaction is even possible, so it follows that we have no evidence that consciousness of this sort is present in dreams.

But, as I suggested in my last sentence, perhaps we can talk about dream consciousness of another sort--perhaps what David Chalmers would call "phenomenal consciousness"--that is, a dreaming subject can have experiential states with qualitative character, but lack the psychological abilities we associate with self-awareness and action. This would have to be an unreportable sort of experience, but which left reportable traces in our memories. But I don't think we could test for that. We'd have to establish a causal connection between neural activity and phenomenal experience first and then look for it in dreaming subjects. But even if we found the right brain activity occurring in dreaming subjects, we couldn't be sure that the activity was sufficient for phenomenal experience. And if we didn't fine the right activity, we still couldn't be sure that some activity qualified as sufficient for a phenomenal experience. So it seems hopeless.

What this suggests, I think, is that the very notion of a phenomenal consciousness independent of psychological consciousness is inherently untestable.