Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

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.