Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Science Phiction #2: Sean Carroll on Free Will

This month, physicist and popular science writer Sean Carroll weighs in on the everlasting debate about free will. He says it's "as real as baseball," which means that it is not the sort of thing that we would expect to find in a detailed physical description of the universe, but that we can't imagine trying to talk about humanity without accepting it as a real phenomenon.

I have to criticize Carroll for failing to explain what he means by the phrase "free will" (a phrase which, he explains, does not have an agreed upon meaning) and for failing to give us a reason to think it is as real as baseball. Carroll defends a pragmatic realism--a view that we should take as real whatever entities we benefit from postulating in a given language, regardless of whether or not we benefit from postulating them in our widest available language. So, we benefit from postulating the existence of baseball even though there is no need for it in the language of physics, and even though the language of physics has more predictive power than the language we use to talk about baseball. Similarly, he says, we can believe in free will even though it has no place (or need not have a place) in our most general and powerful languages. That's a fine point to make, if we had some reason to think that "free will" is emergent in the way that baseball is. Since Carroll hasn't told us what he means by "free will," how can we decide if it is as emergent (and thus as real) as baseball?

Sometimes philosophical essays offer food for thought without clearly defending their main theses. Carroll may not have helped us understand what free will is, or given us a reason to think it is as real as baseball, but he has made a number of interesting points on related topics. Unfortunately, he has also gotten some of the philosophy wrong. First, he claims that people who suppose that the laws of nature cannot account for free will are metaphysical libertarians. I don't think that's how "metaphysical libertarian" is generally applied. Second, talking about free will as an emergent property of physical systems, he mentions that that is what Dennett calls "a variety of free will worth having." That seems to misrepresent Dennett, though Dennett does interpret free will as an emergent property. When Dennett talks about varieties of free will worth having, however, he has something else in mind: namely, varieties in which our choices are not disconnected from our causal histories. According to Dennett (and others before him), the only variety of free will worth having is a variety in which we act in accordance with our needs and desires, and this is a variety which is perfectly compatible with determinism. Anything else would be a completely arbitrary freedom, one which would be as likely to kill us as it would get us what we want. Perhaps Carroll agrees with Dennett on this point, but he does not say so.

The next point I want to talk about is more about science, and not philosophy. Carroll talks about the possibility of having different levels of description, the microscopic (physics) and the macroscopic (emergent). Giving the example of time's arrow, he points out that the laws of physics are the same either forward or backward in time. The microscopic description of reality therefore does not distinguish between past and future--or, rather, the concepts of "past" and "future" are arbitrary when we are talking about physical laws. Yet, he points out, we clearly distinguish between the past and the future in a non-arbitrary way when we are talking about everyday life. The macroscopic world is irreversible. Carroll says the laws of physics don't account for this; so, to avoid contradiction when combining these two levels of description, we must add a new component to our discourse: the particular configuration of the universe. His claim is that, if we ignore the particular configuration of our universe, we end up with a time-reversible description of reality.

Maybe I should defer to the physicist here, but I have to pause and wonder: does this make sense? How does adding a description of the configuration of the universe make a difference? The second law of thermodynamics--the law which states that any isolated system will increase in overall entropy--is a fundamental law of physics and it is widely recognized as accounting for our common notion of time's irreversibility. So Carroll's discussion seems terribly wrong. What Carroll is saying is that the laws of physics are not consistent with the second law of thermodynamics, and that we must appeal to empirical facts about states of the universe in order to compensate for this discrepancy. It seems much more accurate to say that the laws of physics include the second law of thermodynamics, that the second law of thermodynamics cannot be deduced from the other laws of physics, and that it--like all the other fundamental laws--is supported by experimental evidence. So there is no conflict between the microscopic and macroscopic levels of description here.

True, quantum mechanics has suggested that the notion of temporal direction might not make sense on extremely small scales, but that is not what Carroll is talking about when he distinguishes the microscopic and the macroscopic. He's talking about two levels of describing the same reality: the level of emergent properties and the level of underlying physical laws. I think we can make such a distinction, but Carroll's discussion of the arrow of time seems to confuse the topic. Again, I'm no physicist, but I think he has said something quite wrong here, or at least misleading.

Now let's get back to philosophy. Carroll's curious discussion of levels of description leads him to a discussion of a well-known philosophical argument, called The Consequence Argument. The argument is as follows: If we do not have power over X, and X completely determines Y, then we do not have power over Y. Since we do not have power over the past or over the laws of nature, and (according to determinism) the past and the laws of nature together completely determine the future, then we do not have power over the future.

Carroll misrepresents the argument in a rather absurd way. He writes: "The consequence argument points out that the future . . . [is] determined by the present state just as surely as the past is." Does he really mean to say that the past and future are equally determined by the present? I doubt it, but it's not clear what he does mean to say.

In any case, Carroll says the consequence argument "mixes levels of description." The problem with the consequence argument is apparently just like the "problem" we have when we try to understand time's arrow by looking only at the laws of physics. Carroll continues: "If we know the exact quantum state of all of our atoms and forces, in principle Laplace’s Demon can predict our future. But we don’t know that, and we never will, and therefore who cares? What we are trying to do is to construct an effective understanding of human beings, not of electrons and nuclei."

It looks like Carroll has misunderstood the consequence argument. It does not depend on anybody being able to predict the future by looking at the present. It has nothing to do with electrons and nuclei, per se. There's no reason to think any levels of description have been mixed.

Carroll's argument aside, a "Who cares?" response to the consequence argument may be worth considering. Should we care if we are powerless to affect the future? Honestly, I don't see how we could not care. But there might be more here to consider. A fruitful discussion of this issue might focus on the notions of power and powerlessness. Perhaps we do have some power over the future, but not the sort that is implicated by the consequence argument. Maybe the consequence argument rejects a sort of power which is not worth having.

Update: I've just considered a different criticism of the consequence argument, and it can be found here. The upshot: Since what is determined by the past is part of what determines the future, and we are determined by the past, then we are part of what determines the future. So the consequence argument is not sound.

Alternatives in a Deterministic Universe

Over at Russell's blog, I was asked why I would call something an "alternative" if it was never physically possible. If this is a deterministic universe, how could anything ever rightly be called an alternative?

My answer: It is represented to us as an alternative which we evaluate according to (often flexible) standards. The process of deliberation may be completely deterministic, but there's plenty of evidence that such processes occur. They occur frequently in plain sight, in public discourse.

A comparison to natural selection might help. Darwin's use of the term "natural selection" might seem metaphorical, as if natural selection were fundamentally unlike artificial selection. I don't think that's the case.

Perhaps you think determinism means that there is neither natural nor artificial selection--that the term is inappropriate in a deterministic universe. I don't think that makes much sense. As I wrote in my last post, postulating an uncaused event would not make our decisions any more real. It would only make them utterly arbitrary.

Back to Darwin . . . Natural selection occurs when genotypes dominate their competitors in a population. They are differentially selected, which means that they dominate because they satisfy certain conditions better than their competitors. The same happens in artificial selection. The only difference is that, in artificial selection, the process has a new, unnecessary element: plans. The conditions which must be satisfied in artificial selection are part of breeding plans.

So, in both artificial and natural selection, the process can be completely deterministic, and yet the term "selection" has a precise and appropriate meaning, and this meaning is not so different from what we normally mean when we talk about decisions and choices. The main differences are that (1) in the latter case, we are selecting plans themselves, and not genotypes, and (2) the outcome of the process of selection is not the prevalence of a genotype in a population, but the adoption of an intention (represented plan of action) in human behavior.

Just as genotypes can be selected in a deterministic universe, so too can plans. We call the former sort of selection "speciation" and "breeding," and the latter sort "making a decision."

A Compatibilist Notion of Free Will

Russell Blackford has written an interesting post which has spawned an interesting discussion about free will. Russell's confused a few of his interlocutors and says he feels a little bit alone in his neck of the internets. Since I think I agree with his view of free will and the related discourse, I've decided to throw in my two cents.

To say we make a choice or a decision is merely to say that we adopt one plan among given alternatives. This does not imply that the alternatives were ever physically possible, nor does it imply that the decision could have been other than what it was. All it implies is that (1) there are representations of plans as options for future behavior, (2) one of those representations becomes an active part of our behavior (as an intention) and (3) the representation of options as such plays a causal role in the production of the intention (by satisfying some conditions which we normally think of as desires/needs). There need not be a "free" act which takes us from (1) to (2). There simply need be (1), (2) and (3). That's enough for there to be a decision/choice.

I think that's the sort of thing Russell has in mind. It fits our normal talk of decisions/choices and it doesn't require any indeterminacy in the universe. And I agree with Russell that any stipulation of an uncaused act which would presumably get us from (1) to (2) would not make our decisions any more real. There is no benefit (explanatory or otherwise) to postulating such an uncaused event. It would make our decisions free in a particular way, but it would also make them utterly arbitrary. We do have the ability to make more or less arbitrary decisions, but our sense of responsibility and accountability certainly does not depend on, and would not even slightly be enhanced by, an utterly arbitrary decision-making process.

When we say "I could have done otherwise," I suppose what we normally mean is that we did not feel strongly compelled to act one way rather than another. Or, if we did feel so compelled, we regard that compulsion as the result of a prior decision which was not compulsory. So we are admitting to a degree of weakness in the conditions which define our decision-making processes. This entails a degree of freedom with respect to a particular variety of causal influence--namely, freedom with respect to our own wants/needs. So maybe free will, in common terms, is just the ability to choose without compulsion--that is, without the feeling that we have to choose one option rather than another.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Science Phiction #1: the time-lag argument and presentism

Not sure how far I'll go with this, but here's the first entry in my "Science Phiction" series. The point is to identify popular writing which mangles, misidentifies, or otherwise wrongly appropriates philosophical ideas or themes in the name of science. If I were going to award points, I'd award generously for writers who get both the science and the philosophy wrong. However, to qualify for entry, you only have to get the philosophy wrong.

First up: Astrophysicist Adam Frank gets the time-lag argument terribly wrong: Where is Now? The Paradox of the Present

Here's an excerpt:

When you look at the mountain peak 30 kilometers away you see it not as it exists now but as it existed a 1/10,000 of a second ago. The light fixture three meters above your head is seen not as it exists now but as it was a hundred millionth of a second ago. Gazing into your partner's eyes, you see her (or him) not for who they are but for who they were 10-10 of a second in the past. Yes, these numbers are small. Their implication, however, is vast.
We live, each of us, trapped in our own now.
The simple conclusions described above derive, in their way, from relativity theory and they seem to spell the death knell for a philosophical stance called Presentism. According to Presentism only the present moment has ontological validity. In other words: only the present truly exists; only the present is real.

Frank's argument is that everything we perceive has come to us from different parts of space and time. Our perceived "now" is therefore "at the mercy of many overlapping pasts."

This is illogical. If all of our perceptual experience comprises information from different pasts reaching us at the same time, as Frank suggests, then the now is not at the mercy of those pasts. The now is rather the point at which information from those pasts converges. So there is no reason to reject presentism, as Frank does. (Presentism, Frank explains, is the philosophical view that only the present exists.)

To Frank's credit, there is a coherent philosophical argument in the vicinity. It's called the time-lag argument, and it was first proposed by Bertrand Russell in the first half of the 20th century. However, it is not an argument against presentism, but rather against direct (or "naive") realism. The logical conclusion of the argument is that the content of perceptual experience is not the world as it is, but the world as it was.

Frank also errs in supposing that his argument (or the related time-lag argument) relies on relativity theory. He is presumably referring to Einstein's theory of Special Relativity, which relies on the experimentally observed fact that light travels at the same speed relative to every observer regardless of their inertial frame. This fact, however, and the consequences Einstein draws from it, are not required for the sort of argument Frank is trying to make.

In line with the time-lag argument, Frank stipulates that light travels at a finite speed--though I don't see why the time-lag argument needs such a stipulation anyway. All the argument requires is that the information we receive as input (such as the touch of silk against our fingers) takes time to reach our perceptual processors. Of course, it's a well-established fact that light travels at a finite speed, and I don't suppose that is something we should ignore. The time-lag argument should take the speed of light into account, but it is not necessary for the argument as such.

There is much to be learned from the time-lag argument and the many objections which have been made against it. One objection is that the argument relies on a dubious ontological distinction between the perceiving self and the world. Many philosophers reject the idea of a distinct, inner observer which passively receives information from the senses. The very idea of sense-data, which Russell favored, has been widely criticized for decades. Maybe we shouldn't think of the content of perceptual experience as arriving at our minds through our senses. The content of experience might not be so easy to identify, if we are justified in postulating it in the first place.

Another criticism of the time-lag argument is that it ignores what we know about quantum physics: on the one hand, there may, theoretically, be particles (e.g., tachyons) which travel faster than the speed of light; on the other hand, some interpretations of quantum mechanics have it that information can travel instantaneously. On very small scales, causality might actually occur backwards in time. The very notion of temporal direction might only make sense with relatively large scales. These points do not force us to reject the time-lag argument, but they do make it less persuasive.

The question remains: Does contemporary science support or conflict with presentism? On the one hand, special relativity says that there is no privileged observer, no unique inertial frame, which defines the "now" of the universe. On that view, it makes little sense to say that the present is all that exists, since there is no particular present for the universe as a whole. On the other hand, relativity theory also regards time as a variable. Many physicists imagine a block universe, where all events at all times exist "side by side," so to speak. Our perception of time is therefore something of an illusion. This suggests that the present is not all that exists. Yet, we might prefer to say that everything exists in the present, but we are physiologically limited in our ability to regard the present in all its complex glory. The bottom line: There's plenty of room for debate.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Rules, Acts and Interpretation: A Wittgensteinian View of Linguistic Communication

I've written another paper for another graduate "course," entitled "Theories of Linguistic Communication." It's not as strong or thorough as I'd like it to be, and it's a bit disorganized, but I don't have more time to work on it. I'm not sure how committed I am to the views I'm expressing here, either. How's that for a disclaimer? In a nutshell, my arguments and views are still in development, but hopefully this short essay will be of some interest.

Rules, Acts and Interpretation:

A Wittgensteinian View of Linguistic Communication


According to the standard view of linguistic communication, to know a language is to know a set of rules which allows one to deduce the truth-conditions of any well-formed sentence in that language (Recanati 2002, p. 105). These rules are semantic, which means they relate sentences to the propositions they express. Such rules may be context-sensitive: some linguistic entities may even “wear their context-dependent nature on their sleeve,” as Jason Stanley puts it (Stanley 2002, p. 150). Kent Bach thus distinguishes between wide and narrow context: there is “a short list of variables, such as the identity of the speaker and the hearer and the time and place of an utterance” which combines “with linguistic information to determine content (in the sense of fixing it)" (Bach 1997, quoted in Recanati 2002, pp. 110-111). This list comprises the narrow pragmatic context, the identification of which is recognized as a part of semantic interpretation, because the goal is not the evaluation of speaker intentions or beliefs, but the recovery of the truth-conditional content expressed by a sentence. When the goal of interpretation is the speaker’s intentions and beliefs, a different process of interpretation must occur, one which takes into account the wide context—in other words, one which is sensitive to any and every possible fact. There is no set of linguistic rules which limits the number, type or range of entities which can influence our interpretation of speaker intentions and beliefs. Speaker meaning is thus distinguished from sentence meaning: the former requires pragmatic processes of interpretation while the latter requires semantic processes. Semantic processes are distinguished both by their reliance on linguistic rules and their goal of identifying the values of lexical items. A composed list of such values is called an explicated proposition, or what is said by an utterance. Pragmatic processes may result in the construction of another proposition, one which is implicated by an utterance. Pragmatic processes do not tell us what a sentence means, but only what a speaker means when they use a sentence. Speaker meaning and sentence meaning may often be identical, but in many cases diverge.

Since speaker meaning and sentence meaning often diverge, it would be misleading to suppose that one knows a language if one does not know the conventional uses of the language which account for this divergence. To fully speak and understand a given language, one must be privy to the idioms which allow language users to easily recognize when words are being used to mean something other than what they say. Furthermore, this divergence cannot be explained by semantic rules and is not identified by means of semantic interpretation—indeed, that is what distinguishes implicature as such. If it could be determined by semantic interpretation, it would not be an implicature. Thus, knowing a language cannot be simply a matter of knowing the semantic rules of deduction and the syntactic rules of combination. Rather, knowing a language must also include knowing the conventional rules which govern implicatures. If these rules are sensitive to any and every possible fact, however, it is not clear how determinate they can be. Unlike semantic interpretation, pragmatic interpretation is in some fundamental sense indeterminate.


The question I have so far been discussing concerns the nature and extent of the rules governing linguistic communication. At this point, I want to raise and address a few related questions which have divided contemporary theorists.

1. What is the relationship between semantic and pragmatic interpretation? According to the standard view, they are distinct processes and semantic interpretation is primary in normal linguistic communication. Pragmatic interpretation is not always necessary; it is only vital when speaker meaning diverges from sentence meaning. According to Recanati (2002), however, semantic interpretation is always dependent upon pragmatic interpretation: the fixing of the narrow context can only be done by appealing to the wide context. Semantic rules are not sufficient to determine what is said. Then there are relevance theorists, who claim that semantics and pragmatics are combined in a single process of interpretation, that the identification of speaker meaning occurs through the same process as the interpretation of sentence meaning, whether or not these meanings are identical or divergent (Carston 2002). Recanati agrees with the relevance theoretic view that no propositional content is recovered prior to pragmatic interpretation, though he still distinguishes between semantic and pragmatic processes of interpretation. In his view, the distinction rests on the conscious availability of premises about speaker intentions. Recanati claims there are pragmatic processes (secondary pragmatic processes, to be exact) which take beliefs about speaker intentions and beliefs as arguments in inferential processes concerning the intended meanings of utterances. Thus, when Recanati claims that pragmatic interpretation is always involved in linguistic communication, he means that primary pragmatic interpretation is always involved; he does not suppose that normal communication requires inferences about speaker meaning and intention.

2. Is semantic interpretation constrained by syntax? According to Stanley (2002), it is: “all the constituents of the propositions hearers would intuitively believe to be expressed by utterances are the result of assigning values to the elements of the sentence uttered, and combining them in accord with its structure" (Stanley 2002, pp. 150-151). According to relevance theorists, however, there are elements of what is said which cannot be determined by syntax and semantics alone.

3. Does semantic interpretation rely on inferences about speaker intentions and beliefs? According to inferentialists, semantic interpretation is an inferential process which relies on premises about the intentions and beliefs of the speaker. According to anti-inferentialists, no such inferences normally occur in linguistic communication. What is said, as opposed to what is meant, can be recovered without inferences from speaker intentions and beliefs. Linguistic communication is, in normal cases, as direct as perception.

Relevance theorists do not claim that linguistic interpretation rests on inferences about speaker beliefs and intentions. Rather, they claim that interpretation produces judgments about such beliefs and intentions as output. They deny that implicatures require prior outputs about sentence meaning as arguments in an inferential process of interpretation (what Recanati calls “secondary pragmatic processes.”) Recanati also rejects inferentialism, claiming that normal linguistic communication requires only primary pragmatic processes, and that no inferences of any kind need occur at all.

Carston (2002), a relevance theorist, claims that, because of the “highly context-sensitive nature of sense selection and reference assignment . . . they are matters of speaker meaning, not determinable by any linguistic rule or procedure for mapping a linguistic element to a contextual value, and so just as dependent on pragmatic principles as the process of implicature derivation” (Carston 2002, p. 134). Recanati observes this same context-sensitivity, which he calls “semantic underdetermination.” According to this thesis, the values of lexical items can only be determined by appealing to the wide context of utterance. The notion of wide context is distinguished by the fact that it is indeterminate: any fact at all might enter the wide context and influence the interpretation of an utterance. Thus, the correct interpretation of an utterance requires pragmatic interpretation: it cannot rely on semantic rules alone.

As noted above, Recanati distinguishes between two types of pragmatic interpretation: primary and secondary. Primary pragmatic processes are not determinable by linguistic rules and procedures for mapping lexical items to their values. Primary pragmatic processes do identify what a speaker means, and not simply what a sentence says by itself. Sentences do not, on Recanati’s view, say anything by themselves. Yet, Recanati observes, primary pragmatic processes do not rest on inferences about what a speaker means. They need not involve any inferences at all.

Carston goes further. Instead of relying on the relatively uncontroversial claim that semantic interpretation is deeply sensitive to context, she claims that semantic interpretation is not normally constrained by syntax:

There is a wide range of cases where it seems that pragmatics contributes a component to the explicitly communicated content of an utterance although there is no linguistic element indicating that such an element is required. That is, there is no overt indexical, nor is there any compelling reason to suppose there is a covert element in the logical form of the utterance, and yet a contextually supplied constituent appears in the explicature (Carston 2002, p. 135).

These constituents are what Stanley calls “unarticulated elements.” Stanley’s method of refuting the existence of such elements is to identify, on a case by case basis, hidden (but articulated) lexical items and so account for the explicature (aka “what is said”) in terms of the logical form (syntactical structure) of the uttered sentence.

Stanley’s methodological suggestion is that “an unpronounced element exists in the structure of a sentence just in case there is a behavior that would be easily explicable on the assumption that it is there, and difficult to explain otherwise” (Stanley 2002, p. 152). As an illustration of the application of this principle, Stanley presents an argument for the existence of unpronounced by-phrases in passive constructions, such as “The ship was sunk to collect the insurance.” The by-phrase, he says, must be present as a local controller of the unpronounced pronominal element, ‘PRO,’ which is supposedly the subject of infinitival clauses. How does Stanley know that there is an unpronounced pronominal element which must be controlled? Because, he says, sentences like “The ship sank to collect the insurance” are ungrammatical. Ships are not the sorts of things that can collect insurance. For Stanley, to say that a ship is not the sort of thing that can collect insurance is to say that “the ship” cannot control the pronominal element in “The ship sank [PRO to collect the insurance].”

Pace Stanley, it is not obvious that “the ship sank to collect the insurance” is ungrammatical. It is unusual, perhaps, and this is because we usually do not attribute to ships the ability to collect insurance. The only obvious fact is that collecting insurance is an intentional activity, and ships are not intentional agents. So we reject the content of the sentence, but not its grammatical form. If the sentence is grammatical, however, there is no need to postulate an unpronounced pronominal element. It does not seem easier to stipulate an unpronounced pronominal element, and so Stanley’s criterion is not satisfied.

I take the preceding argument as grounds for rejecting Stanley’s example, though it is worth exploring Stanley’s full application of his proposed criterion. Stanley’s argument is that the alleged unpronounced pronominal element in passive constructions (such as “The ship was sunk to collect the insurance”) is controlled by unpronounced by-phrases. Stanley concludes that all passive constructions must include such unpronounced by-phrases. For example, I cannot say “The student was well-informed” without saying who or what informed the student. I doubt Stanley would claim that I necessarily know who or what informed the student. Rather, for the sentence to be true, somebody or something must have informed the student well, even if I don’t know who or what it is, and that somebody or something is what enters into the proposition.

My objection is that it need not be the case that a determinate somebody or something is responsible for a student being well-informed. Arguably, we sometimes use the passive voice in such cases where no determinate element exists. So it is implausible to suppose that a by-phrase must be saturated for such sentences to have meaning. Stanley might be better off saying that there is an unpronounced by-phrase only in case it is required to control the alleged unpronounced pronominal element. Yet, we lack sufficient grounds for supposing any such element exists, and it would be circular to argue for their existence by appealing to them. True, it does seem that “The ship was sunk to collect the insurance” is true only in case there is some value for the entity which intended to collect the insurance by sinking the ship, even if I do not know who or what that entity is. Yet, we can claim that the by-phrase is implicated by the sentence and not a part of its syntactical form. The existence of an agent is implied—it is a logically necessary consequence of the sentence meaning—without being an articulated element of the sentence.

It is not obvious that there are ever cases in which the only, or even the easiest, way to explain linguistic behavior is to postulate unpronounced lexical items. Stanley’s project appears to have an insurmountable methodological difficulty. In any case, this does not necessarily support Carston’s position that the logical form of an explicature underdetermines its meaning. That point ultimately depends on how we understand logical form.


I propose a distinction between the syntax of a sentence and its logical form. If the meaning of a sentence has logical entailments, then we might suppose those entailments are a part of its logical form. Indeed, there does not seem to be any principled way of distinguishing between what a sentence means and what is logically entailed by that sentence. This was evident in the case of “The ship was sunk to collect the insurance.” In so far as that sentence logically entails that somebody intended to collect insurance by sinking the ship, then we might suppose that agent is part of the proposition expressed by the sentence. Certainly, if no such agent exists, the sentence is false. Is it false because of the content expressed by its logical form or is it false because of a proposition which is logically entailed by its logical form? I do not suppose there could be any principled way of deciding this question. There is no methodological basis for distinguishing between meaning and logical entailment. If we take the proposition expressed by a sentence to have a logical form (as Carston and Stanley agree must be the case), then we have no reason to reject any logical entailments as being distinct from the proposition so expressed.

Stanley and Carston both equate the logical form of an explicature with the syntactical construction of its linguistic elements. Thus, while Stanley claims that logical form constrains the proposition expressed by a sentence, Carston claims that it does not. Yet, I propose that we instead take the logical form of an explicature to be the logical form of the proposition it expresses. Logical form is not determined by the sentence alone, but rather by the speaker’s intentions and beliefs as they are manifested in the use of a sentence.

Stanley claims that the logical form (taken as identical to the syntactical structure of a sentence) expressed by a sentence is determined by the speaker’s linguistic intentions (Stanley 2002, p. 150). However, according to Stanley, speaker intentions are constrained by the rules of the language. Speaker intentions determine logical form in so far as a speaker intends to utilize such-and-such properties of a language. It is because a speaker intends to assert X that the sentence uttered has the logical form of X. Another speaker might utter the same words without the intent to make an assertion, and so would not express a proposition at all. What distinguishes an assertion from the mere production of sounds or markings is an intention to make an assertion. I suppose that this, for Stanley, is why the logical form is determined by speaker intentions: the speaker intends to follow the rules of the language.

The crucial question, then, is whether or not the intended sentence contains elements corresponding to all of the elements of the proposition it expresses. Does syntax determine logical form? If we take a sentence to be more than what is physically produced—more than an assortment of sounds or markings—but as a combination of elements which can be used to express a proposition, then the sentence may be said to have a logical form—to be a token of a logical type. What makes it a token is its logical form, and this seems to be what we mean when we talk about syntax. And if the logical form is identical to its logical entailments, then the sentence contains everything that is logically entailed by the utterance.

Yet, there must be some constraint on what can be considered a logical entailment. For what counts as logical entailment in ordinary discourse depends on assumptions about relational properties. What a person logically entails is a matter of what that person believes about the world. These beliefs cannot be deduced from logic or language alone. So it appears that logical entailment is really just a matter of intended entailment. The proposition expressed by an utterance cannot be deduced by the rules of logic and language alone, but must follow from the speaker’s beliefs and intentions. This is not to say that the process must take speaker beliefs and intentions as argument. It is only to say that some accordance with speaker intentions is required, and this accordance cannot be produced by strict adherence to the rules of logic or language. In so far as logical form is a matter of logical entailment, it cannot be a matter of syntax alone.


We now have a picture of logical form which is not limited by the syntactical properties of a sentence, but by the truth-evaluable properties of what a speaker intends a sentence to say. Sentence meaning is always intended sentence meaning, which is still distinguishable from speaker meaning—not because the latter alone is uniquely intended by the speaker, but because only the former incorporates syntactical features of the language. There are no principled, rule-based criteria for assigning logical forms to sentences. Syntax must play a part in sentence meaning, but it does not completely determine its logical form.

If the question is “What constitutes sentence meaning?”, then we seem to end up with a dilemma: we cannot identify any proper constituents of sentence meaning, because we cannot identify the essential properties of a sentence apart from its syntactical components, and these are not sufficient to determine logical form. Perhaps the question should not be What constitutes sentence meaning?, but rather, How are notions of sentence meaning constructed? This question is a question about how interpreters of speech acts go about creating notions such as what is said and what is meant. If we approach the topic this way, we may regard the notion of sentence meaning as the result of interpretation. Of course, we still want to be able to say things such as, “That is not what I meant.” We want to be able to test interpretations against intended meanings. Yet, we cannot do so by appeal to facts about particular sentences. We can only do so by fixing sentence meanings as interpreters of our own discourse. The notion of sentence meaning, then, is not determined by speaker intentions; rather, speaker intentions and sentence meaning are co-determined by the interpretation of utterances.

Sentences have meaning in so far as there are interpreters who interpret them. And it is permitted to postulate a sentence meaning in so far as our interpretation of certain sorts of behavior requires it. So, if there are linguistic rules which determine the logical form of sentences, these rules must exist as elements of interpretation. There are no facts about what a sentence means—or even about whether or not a sentence has been produced—prior to the interpretation of a speech act as such.

If we are going to investigate linguistic communication, then, we should focus on the processes of interpretation. This is not to say that speech production is irrelevant. Rather, it is to say that speech production cannot be identified unless we understand what it means to interpret speech. We might even define speech production as the intentional triggering of processes of linguistic interpretation. Whatever intentionally triggers processes of linguistic interpretation is, by definition, a speech act. Thus, there can be no study of speech acts apart from the study of interpretation.

The view I am promoting owes some gratitude to Wittgenstein and his rule-following paradox. In the controversial but influential formulation proposed by Kripke (1982), the dilemma takes the following shape: there can be no facts about the intended meaning of an expression which determine any future uses of that expression. According to Kripke, Wittgenstein held that there are no facts about intended meaning at all. I am not convinced this is correct. I believe we can read Wittgenstein as denying that there are any facts about intended meaning which logically necessitate future uses of expressions. However, I do not think Wittgenstein thereby supposes that there are no facts about intended meaning at all. Wittgenstein is only rejecting the ability of any such facts to constitute a logical foundation for our metalinguistic discourse.

If we attempt to determine what rule we are following by our use of a particular expression, we end up with an infinite regress: we can only appeal to other rules or other expressions of the same rule, and so never arrive at a final interpretation of the rule we are intending to follow. Wittgenstein concludes: “there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation, but which is exhibited in what we call ‘obeying the rule’ and ‘going against it’ in actual cases” (Wittgenstein 1953/2001, section 201, p. 69) In other words, processes of semantic and pragmatic interpretation cannot themselves be wholly circumscribed by rules. The indeterminacy of pragmatic interpretation was noted at the outset, when it was observed that sensitivity to every possible fact indicates a fundamental lack of linguistic control. The Wittgensteinian view of logical form should not be surprising, then, once it has been acknowledged that semantic interpretation relies on the wide context.


According to inferentialists, you cannot understand an utterance without inferring from beliefs about the speaker’s own beliefs and desires. To correctly interpret an expression, you must first interpret the speaker’s beliefs and then deduce the correct interpretation of their utterance. Anti-inferentialists, on the other hand, claim that the correct interpretation of an utterance does not depend on any inferences from speaker beliefs, but can be determined solely by knowledge of the language and determinate features of the context of utterance. My view is perhaps more sympathetic to anti-inferentialism. We cannot identify that any of a speaker’s beliefs and desires are entailed by her utterance without first interpreting that utterance. We cannot infer from the beliefs and desires to sentence meaning when that very meaning is what leads us to stipulate beliefs and desires. It appears that both the beliefs/desires we attribute to a speaker and the meaning we attribute to her utterance are interpreted together; we can speak of what a speaker says only because we can speak of her relevant beliefs and desires, and we can speak of the latter only because we can speak of the former. Our ability to interpret speech must depend on our ability to interpret personal qualities. The interpretation of speech is an interpretation of personal qualities. While the personal qualities might not enter the process of interpretation as premises, they are represented in judgments about that speech. Still, this process need not be inferential.

I am also sympathetic to Carston’s relevance theoretic approach. I see no reason to reject her position that semantic and pragmatic interpretation (even Recanati’s “secondary” pragmatic interpretation) cannot occur in a single process of interpretation. There does not seem to be a principled method for distinguishing between explicature and implicature. No set of conventions could decide ahead of time whether or not a particular speech act was conventional or unconventional, and whether or not an entailment was explicated or implicated. This is not to deny that some meanings are not more implicit than others, or that some are not less conventional than others, nor is it to deny that there is any such thing as “literal meaning.” It is rather to make the Wittgensteinian point that these notions are not wholly circumscribed by rules, and that there is no criteria to satisfy prior to acts of interpretation.

Recanati’s distinction between primary and secondary pragmatic processes relies on the notion of conscious availability. Supposedly, when an utterance defies normal interpretation, secondary pragmatic processes kick in and, using the sentence meaning as argument, infer possible speaker meanings. But the notion of conscious availability seems too weak to do much work here. We do not always need to take sentence meanings as argument when we identify implicatures. The identification of an implicature can be as automatic as any act of interpretation.

There is a temptation to say that some uses of a linguistic construction are simply incorrect or unconventional. However, we necessarily lack the means of determining what distinguishes the conventional from the unconventional, or the correct from the incorrect, in advance of particular cases. In other words, whether or not we should regard any given use of a linguistic construction as “correct” or “conventional” (or, conversely, as “incorrect” or “unconventional”) is theoretically undecidable.

This Wittgensteinian view is not opposed to analyzing content in terms of logical form. However, it is opposed to the notion that we could define logical form in advance of our analysis of content. Thus, when we interpret a speech act, we do not first identify the complete logical form and then apply rules to identify the content. We rather identify the logical form by virtue of our understanding of the content.


Theorists like Jason Stanley will always be able to revert to hypotheses about hidden lexical elements in attempts to defend the view that “every feature” of the communicated content “must be the semantic value of something” in the syntactical form “or introduced via a context-independent construction rule” (Stanley 2000, quoted in Stanley 2007, p. 36). Yet, since there is no way to determine the correct analysis of logical form in advance of our treatment of particular cases, Stanley’s strategy is suspect. It will always be possible to stipulate some hidden elements to account for the particular use of a linguistic construction. This does not mean that logical form somehow preceded that particular use. For Stanley’s method to work, we need an independent indication of logical form apart from actual speech acts—a purely semantic and syntactic theory—against which we can test our empirical observations. Yet, Stanley seems open to the possibility that any such theory will be open to possible revision when new pragmatic evidence is revealed.

What is the point of supposing that logical form precedes speech acts? Presumably, those who favor such a view suppose that correct linguistic interpretation requires adherence to rules for correctness, and such rules require some kind of linguistic discipline: Communication must be “under linguistic control,” a Stanley puts it (Stanley 2007, p. 10). From the Wittgensteinian view, this is not even wishful thinking: it is simply untenable. Linguistic control does play a role in communication, but it is not foundational. Linguistic control is the result of acts of linguistic communication, and so cannot be a condition of such acts.

The view I am promoting is not that there is no role for rules in linguistic communication. Rather, it is that this role is not foundational—or, rather, that the foundational aspects of rules do not precede our formulation of them. There are unquestionable cases in which disagreements or uncertainties about meaning are resolved by appeal to linguistic rules. Yet, it is a mistake to suppose that those rules somehow preceded our use of them in resolving our disputes.

Works Cited

Bach, Kent. 1997. The semantics-pragmatics distinction: what it is and why it matters. Linguistische Berichte, 8, 33-50.

Carston, Robyn. 2002. Linguistic Meaning, Communicated Meaning and Cognitive Pragmatics. Mind & Language 17, Nos 1 and 2 (February/April): 127-148.

Kripke, Saul. 1982. Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. Harvard University Press.

Recanati, Francois. 2002. Does Linguistic Communication Rest on Inference? Mind & Language 17, Nos 1 and 2 (February/April): 105-126.

Stanley, Jason. 2000. Context and Logical Form. Linguistics and Philosophy 23: 391-434, reprinted in Stanley 2007.

Stanley, Jason. 2002. Making It Articulated. Mind & Language 17, Nos 1 and 2 (February/April): 149-168.

Stanley, Jason. 2007. Language in Context. Oxford University Press.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953/2001. Philosophical Investigations. Blackwell Publishing.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Kripkenstein, Pt. 3: The Skeptical Solution Revisited

I wasn't able to convince my professor that KW accepts the picture of 'grasping a rule' which sustains the skeptical argument. She claims that the skeptical argument is (or is similar to) a reductio ad absurdum--the argument and its intolerable conclusion lead to rejection of one or more of the premises. Thus, she argues, when KW says he accepts the skeptic's argument and conclusion, he only means that he accepts that, given the original picture of 'grasping a rule', there can be no facts about intended meaning. The skeptical solution supposedly replaces that picture, which relies on the history of the individual, with a different picture which focuses on the social construction of rules.

I grant that some of what KW says supports such a reading, but it cannot be correct.

First, it is hard for me to understand why KW would accept that there are no facts about intended meaning if he rejected the original picture of 'grasping a rule'. Even when we accept a reductio, we do not accept the conclusion. We rather accept the argument as a refutation of the set of premises, and we do so because we reject the conclusion. KW accepts the skeptical thesis. He accepts both the argument and its conclusion. His skeptical solution is not to reject the conclusion, but to show that it is not as intolerable as it first appeared. So it does not appear that he rejects any of the premises or presuppositions of the skeptical argument.

Second, Kripke emphasizes that the solution does not take rules to be social constructs. When we say a person follows the rule of arithmetic, we do not mean they have followed the rules of society. Kripke quotes Wittgenstein: "Does this mean, e.g., that the definition of the same would be this: same as what all or most human beings . . . take for the same?--Of course not." And also, "Certainly the propositions, 'Human beings believe that twice two is four' and 'Twice two is four' do not mean the same." Kripke observes that, if we tried to solve the skeptical problem by treating rules as social constructs, we'd just be providing a different set of truth conditions. Worse, we'd be reaching for a set of truth conditions which are intuitively unappealing. We're not talking about social constructions when we talk about identity or the rule of addition, even if social constructions are required to support our talk about such rules.

The skeptical solution does not treat rules as social constructions. In fact, it does not treat rules as anything at all. For KW, rules need not even exist, though we are justified in talking about them. What does exist, at least, is our agreement and our discourse, and the former justifies the latter.

To draw on the parallel to Hume which Kripke observes: For Hume, laws of causality need not exist, even if regularities in nature justify our talk about them. We would not say that Hume has offered a different picture of causality. Rather, Hume has denied any knowledge of causality, but justified the discourse on causal laws by appealing to something else: regularities in nature. Similarly, KW does not offer a different picture of intended meaning and rules; he only denies any facts about intended meaning and rules, instead justifying the discourse by appealing to regularities in our use of expressions. So the original picture of intended meaning and rules remains, just as the original notion of causality remains for Hume.

The original picture of intended meaning is thus: To (correctly) mean plus by "plus" is to act in accordance with one's past intentions regarding the use of the term "plus," where those intentions determine unique answers to an indefinite (perhaps infinite) number of future cases. That is the picture which KW accepts, and in this picture we see KW's notion of what it means to grasp a rule: to formulate (via representations) an intention to follow a rule which determines answers for an indefinite number of future cases. KW gives no indication that he wants to reject this picture. He only rejects the claim that this talk of intended meanings and rules has truth conditions. In other words, he only denies that this picture actually shows us anything.

The point here is a little hard to construe. In fact, it's downright confounding. Before I explore it a little more, let me spell out where my professor and I presumably agree. We agree that KW's skeptical solution denies that there are any truth conditions which could justify our talk of intended meaning or rules. Furthermore, we agree that the skeptical solution denies that our talk of intended meaning and rules entails or implies any such truth conditions. According to KW, when we talk of intended meaning, we're not appealing to facts which constitute an intention to mean one thing rather than another. We're appealing to our general agreement; and yet, we don't mean our general agreement. For, if we meant that, we'd claim that "the same" just means "what most people more or less agree is the same." But that's not what we mean by "the same." So what we mean must be distinguished from what justifies our discourse. And what we mean, as KW notes, is that we intend the same thing we intended in the past and which determines answers to an indefinite (perhaps infinite) number of future cases.

Kripke does explicitly say that following a rule (on the skeptical solution) amounts to agreeing with your community. So, I admit, it does look a little like he is presenting a different picture of rule-following. According to KW, whether or not we can say we are following a rule depends only on whether or not we are in agreement with our community. And he explicitly offers this as an alternative to the original way of thinking about rule-following, which focused on the solitary individual. So, I admit, it does look a little like KW rejects the original picture of rule-following in favor of a picture which focuses on the community, just as my professor claims. Yet, at the same time, and for the reasons I've already given, KW cannot reject the original as a picture of what we mean when we talk about rule-following. He does not suppose we mean something about our community's acceptance when we talk about grasping a rule or meaning plus by "plus," nor does he suppose that such talk is meaningless. What it means, then, is a picture which lacks factual content. A picture which guides us without showing us anything.

If this looks incoherent, I think that might be because KW's skeptical solution is fundamentally inconsistent. KW acknowledges that we speak of intended meaning as determining an indefinite number of as-yet-unknown future uses of a rule. For example, KW would not ban me from saying,

(1) The word "plus," as I intended it in the past, indicates a rule which determines answers for an indefinite number of cases which I have yet to encounter, and which I follow by my use of the word "plus" today.

What KW says is that no facts actually constitute what I ever mean by "plus." So I cannot justify (1) by appealing to any facts about what I or anyone has ever intended to mean. In short, (1) lacks truth conditions. I cannot (objectively/superlatively) claim that any rule has ever determined anything at all. So KW has us in a bind. We can talk about rules and intentions, but at the same time, we do not do so truthfully. We can justify this talk (pragmatically, we might say) by appealing to the fact that we all generally agree about how to use the word "plus." But if we try to look for some other sort of justification, we'll end up nowhere.

The meaning skeptic says that there is no way the use of an expression can be metalinguistically correct or incorrect, which is to say that there are no facts which determine whether or not the present use of an expression is in accordance with previous uses. KW accepts the skeptical position, and so agrees with the indeterminacy of metalinguistic correctness. But this does not mean KW rejects talk of metalinguistic correctness, or denies the picture of rule-following it entails. To do so would be to deny the sense of (1). KW denies that (1) has truth conditions, but he does not deny that it makes sense. He does not deny that our language-game produces this picture of rule-following, nor does he deny that this picture plays an important role in our language-game. He only denies that it shows us any (superlative) facts.

As I noted in my last post, KW's skeptical solution hinges on an opaque distinction between two types of facts, superlative and ordinary facts. There is some sense in which it is a fact that I meant plus by "plus," but there is another sense in which it is not a fact at all. There is a sense in which (1) states a fact, but another sense in which (1) leads us to look for facts in the wrong places. Unfortunately, this distinction is anything but clear. It is no wonder if KW seems to simultaneously accept and reject the original picture of intended meaning and grasping a rule. I think he must accept the original picture. I see no other way to interpret his skeptical solution. But I admit, it is hard to see why he should accept it, since he denies that it is a picture of anything at all. What KW fails to explain is why anybody would ever want that original picture in the first place.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Kripkenstein, Pt. 2: The Skeptical Solution

I've already turned in my paper on meaning skepticism, but I want to get a few more thoughts organized on KW's skeptical solution. As I've already argued, KW does not present meaning skepticism as a logically coherent possibility. Since I don't see a problem to be solved, I see no need to explore possible solutions. Still, it is worth looking at KW's skeptical solution for curiosity's sake, if nothing else.

I've already expressed dissatisfaction with KW's picture of what it means to follow a rule. In response to my paper, my professor disagreed with me about KW's attitude towards that picture. She thinks KW rejects the picture, perhaps as part of KW's skeptical solution to the paradox. I don't think that's right.

KW's skeptical solution is called "skeptical" because it does not challenge the skeptic's argument or conclusion. It accepts the stipulation that there are no facts about intended meaning: "There is no objective fact--that we all mean addition by "+", or even that a given individual does--that explains our agreement in particular cases. Rather our license to say of each other that we mean addition by "+" is part of a 'language game' that sustains itself only because of the brute fact that we generally agree." The point is that we were looking for justification in the wrong place, or perhaps justification of the wrong sort.

KW first challenged us to find a fact about our past usage which justified our present answer to "68 + 57." But, KW now says, we don't need any such fact to justify our claims about intended meaning. We use "+" in certain ways, and we generally agree about how to use it. There is no fact which could justify such agreement. There is simply agreement, and that is enough to give us license to say things like "I mean addition by '+.'"

As Kripke explains, he does not like KW's skeptical solution because it requires that we distinguish between the ordinary, everyday use of the word "fact" and a philosophical notion of objective or "superlative" facts. The skeptic is right that there are no facts of that peculiar philosophical sort, but there are facts of the matter, in our everyday way of talking. Of course, if this is the case, then why can't we answer the meaning skeptic by appealing to everyday facts?

The problem is, how can we understand the distinction KW draws between truth conditions and assertibility conditions? If we are licensed to assert that we mean addition by "plus," then how is that different from saying it is a fact (an "objective" or "superlative" fact, as KW provocatively puts it) that we mean addition by "plus?" If there are assertibility conditions, isn't it a fact that there are? And can't we say that fact justifies our ascriptions of meaning?

It seems KW is saying both that there is a fact of the matter about what we mean and also that there is no fact of the matter--there is a fact of the matter in so far as we are licensed to say that there is a fact of the matter, and whether or not we are licensed to say there is a fact of the matter is a matter of our agreement in the use of expressions. Since our agreement is a brute fact, then our justification does ultimately relate to facts. So perhap Kripke is right to express displeasure at KW's skeptical solution.

As I've already noted, I don't see a real problem for KW to solve, so the fact that his skeptical solution rests on an opaque distinction between truth and assertibility is not so disconcerting. Still, I must contend with my professor's question: Does KW accept the picture of rule-following which sustains the skeptical argument?

The answer must be yes. First, because KW's solution is, in fact, a skeptical solution. As Kripke says, KW's solution does not in any way challenge the skeptical argument. So how could KW reject the picture of rule-following which sustains that argument?

But, it might be argued, KW is certainly rejecting something of the skeptic's argument. KW's skeptical solution rejects the skeptic's claim that we need some kind of factual (or superlatively factual) justification for our attributions of intended meaning. So isn't KW saying that, no, we don't need to conform to our past intentions in order to follow a rule?

Recall the picture of rule following which sustains KW's skeptical argument: In order to follow a rule, you must follow the same rule you intended to follow in the past (by virtue of mental and external representations). You must conform to your past intentions. If KW now says there is no superlative fact of the matter about those past intentions, then isn't KW saying you don't have to conform to them in order to correctly follow a rule? Instead of conforming to our past intentions, we only have to conform to our community's standards of agreement. So KW has ultimately rejected the picture of rule-following which sustained the skeptic's argument.

If this is so, then KW's skeptical solution is not skeptical at all. And perhaps it could be read this way, but Kripke most certainly doesn't read it this way. If he did, he presumably wouldn't call it a "skeptical solution." But if this is not how Kripke reads KW's solution, then how does he read it?

Remember, KW says, "our license to say of each other that we mean addition by "+" is part of a 'language game' that sustains itself only because of the brute fact that we generally agree." The claim is not that we successfully follow a rule because we generally agree. Rather, it is that we are licensed to say we have successfully followed a rule because we generally agree. But when we say we have successfully followed a rule, we do not thereby mean we have just done what is generally accepted in our community. According to KW, we rather mean that we have intended to follow the same rule we have always followed. Indeed, there is an everyday sense to saying that, when we do addition, we follow the same rules we have always followed. KW does not challenge this sort of talk. Rather, KW says that what justifies such talk is not facts about our intended meaning, but facts about our general agreement. So, what it means to follow a rule is still a matter of conformity with past intentions. It's just not a matter which could, in principle, be resolved by appeal to extra-societal facts.

Kripke explains it in more detail:

When the community accepts a particular conditional [e.g., "if he means addition by '+', his answer to '68 + 57' should be '125'"], it accepts its contraposed form: the failure of an individual to come up with the particular responses the community regards as right leads the community to suppose that he is not following the rule. On the other hand, if an individual passes enough tests, the community (endorsing assertions [such as, "he means addition by '+'"]) accepts him as a rule follower, thus enabling him to engage in certain types of interactions with them that depend on their reliance on his responses. Note that this solution explains how the assertions [of the two sorts just mentioned] are introduced into language; it does not give conditions for these statements to be true.
There is therefore a bifurcation between what justifies the use of expressions and what make them true. What would make these assertions true is just what the skeptic says would make them true: facts about conformity to past intentions. Since there are no facts, there are no truth conditions. Yet, the language is justified for other reasons. So the picture of rule-following holds. What would make it true that so-and-so followed a rule are facts about past intentions. Since no such facts exist, KW is a skeptic about intended meaning. But this doesn't prevent KW from accepting the language of intentionality, because KW recognizes a wholly different justification for it. I thus conclude that KW does accept the original picture of what it means to grasp a rule.