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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Jason Stanley's "Know How"

I've been wondering when Jason Stanley's book, Know How, would come out. I wasn't watching closely enough, cuz it's been out for a few months now and I didn't know it. I searched inside the book on amazon, and was happy to see that he acknowledges me as one of the people whose comments "occcasioned changes" to the book. I'm eager to see how he develops his criticism of Ryle and his epistemological views. I was only able to read up to page 6 on amazon, but I'm anticipating a big problem already.

It's clear from the outset that Stanley wants to give Ryle more credit than he has done in past publications. I don't know what, exactly, he wants to give Ryle credit for, but he says on page 2 that he wants to "distinguish Ryle's correct insights about action from his incorrect conclusions about the relationship between knowing how to do something and knowing that something is the case." That's a welcome addition to Stanley's previous scholarship on Ryle.

Stanley then spends a few pages laying out the agenda and strategy behind Ryle's distinction between knowing how and knowing that. He weeds out a possible appeal to verificationism in Ryle's argument, which is particularly odd since Ryle was a critic of the verificationist program. I'm not sure that Ryle was appealing to a theory of meaning in the passage Stanley quotes. Nor am I sure what Stanley ultimately makes of it. I'll have to read more to find out.

My problem with where Stanley seems to be going comes a bit later, when he writes (on page 5): "If Ryle can show that knowing how to do something is identical to a disposition or an ability, then on the assumption that knowledge of a truth is neither a disposition nor an ability, he will have refuted the intellectualist view that actions have intelligence properties in virtue of guidance by propositional knowledge." This looks very similar to the interpretation of Ryle that Stanley and Williamson advanced in 2001. My problem is that it does not seem to be a fair account of how Ryle proceeds.

As I've observed in the past (click on any of the tags at the bottom of this post), Ryle regards knowing-that-something-is-the-case as just as much a matter of abilities and dispositions as knowing-how-to-do-something. The difference is not between abilities and something else, but between abilities to act intelligently and abilities related to the jobs of didactic discourse. These are not mutually exclusive areas of ability, either.

I presume Jason Stanley is aware of my own thoughts on this topic. It seems, however, that they were not among those that occasioned changes to his monograph. I won't jump to any conclusions about the value of Stanley's treatment of Ryle. However flawed his approach may be, it is probably full of interesting insights and observations, and I look forward to reading it.

In any case, Ryle is only central to the first chapter. The rest of Stanley's book looks equally interesting. I get the impression that he is primarily out to challenge dominant conceptions of propositional knowledge. As he suggests in this recent interview with Richard Marshall, he thinks of propositional knowledge as something grounded in emotional investment and practical action, and not something mysteriously generated by disembodied minds contemplating Truth in a vacuum. I appreciate that. I even agree with it. But our approaches are quite different. Not just in our differing interpretations of Ryle, but in our opposing sympathies in the philosophies of mind and language in general. We just seem to have different ideas about how to paint the right epistemological picture. I'd like to think we're not all that different after all, but it'll probably take a lot of work for me to figure that out.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Philosophy of Cosmology

Tim Maudlin makes some interesting comments about the philosophy of cosmology. I have a few objections and observations. (See update at the bottom for an additional criticism.)

First, Maudlin claims that the universe is just "one huge physical object." This could be a significant conceptual error. I'm not convinced that "the universe" picks out a unique physical object.

I'm not a non-cognitivist about the universe. I do think "the universe" picks out a single, coherent idea. But I doubt that idea represents or corresponds to a thing.

I'm not an idealist, exactly. I'm a realist about everything that we say is part of, or constitutive of, the universe. But none of the objects of our experience--nothing we can conceptualize--fully constitute the universe. So "the universe" is an idea about something we never directly indicate. So I have this suspicion that when we conceptualize the universe, we are using a different logic than the one we use when we talk about things we can directly indicate and which play causal roles in the universe. Furthermore, considering that space and time are (according to Relativity Theory) functions of the universe, and considering that there is no privileged "now" which marks the present of the universe, it is impossible for me to conceive of the universe as a thing at all. But still, even if we go back to the time before Einstein and think of the universe as a set of all things which exist in space and time, I don't think the idea of the set of all things is itself a thing which could be treated like any other.

Next, Maudlin says, "Bohr and Heisenberg tried to argue that asking for a clear physical theory was something you shouldn't do anymore. That it was something outmoded. And they were wrong, Bohr and Heisenberg were wrong about that."

Maudlin's objection is to the idea that physics shouldn't be burdened with trying to make sense of its predictive tools. According to the Bohr-Heisenberg school (home to many renowned physicists, including Richard Feynman), we shouldn't try to translate fundamental physics into ordinary language, because we'll just end up with nonsense. Maudlin says that's just wrong. Maybe he's right, but I don't see any reason to think so.

The farther our physics gets from the frameworks of our everyday experience, the greater the gap between our physical theories and our common way of thinking about the universe. Why suppose that this gap can ever be filled? I'm curious to know Maudlin's reasons.

The final point I want to address is how Maudlin curiously frames philosophy as emerging from a single question. He writes: 'The basic philosophical question, going back to Plato, is "What is x?"'

I don't want to read too much into Maudlin's remark here, but it looks profoundly deficient. Sure, Plato's dialogues often focus on "What is X?" questions. But what makes the dialogues philosophical is not that question, but the way the answer to the question is pursued. Plato takes up such familiar and basic concepts as justice and beauty and shows that our understanding of them is not as clear or available as we might have thought. His dialogues explore and manipulate the way people think about their own understanding, forcing them to reflect on the form of their thinking and argumentation. That is what makes his work philosophical. It isn't that he asks "What is X?"

Update: I forgot to comment on Maudlin's remarks about evolution. This part is a bit over the top: "What people haven't seemed to notice is that on earth, of all the billions of species that have evolved, only one has developed intelligence to the level of producing technology. Which means that kind of intelligence is really not very useful. It's not actually, in the general case, of much evolutionary value."

First, who does he think hasn't noticed that humans are unique in our development of technology? Is that a serious criticism? In any case, the argument here is not valid. The fact that only one species has developed technology does not mean that it is not very useful, or that it is not of much evolutionary value. That's simply a non-sequitor.

I think Maudlin is probably right that we have no reason, or very little reason, to think that there is life on other planets which has evolved the ability to develop advanced technology. But that point does not depend on his curious claim that technology isn't very useful.

Berkeley and Theological Non-Cognitivism

Here's something I didn't know: Bishop Berkeley argued for non-cognitivism with respect to a number of linguistic terms, such as "self," "personality" and "substance," as well as more obviously theological terms, like "grace" and "trinity." You can read a very nice introductory discussion of Berkeley's arguments by Lewis Powell at The Mod Squad, a new group blog devoted to Modern Philosophy.

Like Powell, I wonder how Berkeley negotiated his non-cognitivism with respect to his religious beliefs as a whole. It's hard to imagine how he could be a non-cognitivist about grace and the trinity, and yet still be a realist about God. Powell suggests Berkeley may have tried to have it both ways, though I'm not clear on how that is supposed to work. In any case, Berkeley used unconventional linguistic principles to very strongly suggest, if not plainly conclude, that the core of theological discourse is nothing more than the emotional manipulation of people aimed at producing good Christian behavior. That's impressive.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Is "Baptist" an insult?

Can you be sued in Australia for mistakenly calling somebody a Baptist? We might find out, if Melinda Tankard Reist follows through on her promise to take Jennifer Wilson to court. In addition to being legally threatened for calling Tankard Reist a Baptist, Wilson is getting heat for saying Tankard Reist has been dishonest about it.

It's pretty silly, if you ask me. If Tankard Reist isn't a Baptist and takes offense at being called one, she can say so publicly. I don't see why she'd want to sue somebody over it. What kind of PR move would that be?

From what I can tell, Tankard Reist's public attitude towards her religious views is anything but forthright. That could make it hard for her to build a case against Wilson. It also makes it unlikely that she'd want to take Wilson to court, since her religious views and sympathies would take center stage.

Even if it's an idle threat, the threat itself is a powerful tool. As Russell Blackford has been warning in a series of blog posts recently, a lawsuit like this could financially ruin Wilson. We have to wonder how often vital and sincere debate has been stifled by legal bluffs. It may be too easy for people with money (or the right connections) to use empty threats to silence those without the means to defend themselves. Unfortunately, I'm skeptical that there's a good way around the problem.

Russell wants to deter people from filing defamation cases, but that might do more harm than good. It could make it easier for real defamation cases to go unprosecuted, and it won't stop people from making idle threats. Unless the court is going to relieve defendants of court costs (or postpone them until and unless there is a conviction), the problem isn't going to go away.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Epistemological Behaviorism and Plantinga

A while back I posted an argument against Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). At the time, I didn't do a whole lot of research about other arguments against EAAN, but I looked aroung a bit and didn't see anybody making the sort of argument that I was making. I let the topic go until just recently, when my interest in the subject was aroused by a discussion over at Russell Blackford's blog on a new book by Plantinga and Dennett. From what I can tell, the book is an extended version of a recorded debate between the two philosophers which took place a couple years ago. I haven't read the book, nor have I listened to more than the first fifteen minutes of the debate, so I won't speak about either directly. Still, EAAN is not new, and I don't think its formulation has changed significantly over the years.

As I said, my interest was aroused. I've contributed a few lengthy posts over at Russell's blog, and I also did a little more research. It didn't take long to find this 1993 essay by J. Wesley Robbins, which is very similar to my own argument against Plantinga. Curiously, I haven't been able to find any evidence of a response to Robbins by Plantinga or any of his defenders.

The similarities between my and Robbins' arguments might not be obvious to some readers. My argument focuses on epistemological behaviorism, the idea that the understanding of beliefs and knowledge is grounded in, and ultimately reducible to, an understanding of behavior. I do not claim that beliefs are themselves behaviors, nor do I suppose that they are neurological states or functions. Rather, following Ryle, I take beliefs to be understandable in dispositional terms, though in an indefinitely heterogeneous way. In other words, there isn't a simple, one-to-one relationship between belief and behavior. Furthermore, when we attribute beliefs, we are not making statements about specific entities which may or may not exist. We are rather giving ourselves license to make a broad and indefinite set of explanatory-cum-predictive statements about how people are likely to act. Though our understanding of beliefs cannot be reduced to a finite description of behaviors, it is entirely a matter of behavior and nothing else.

Robbins does not draw specific attention to Ryle or behaviorism, but instead frames the issue in terms of 'generically pragmatic' views of the mind. Still, epistemological behaviorism seems to be largely, if not entirely, what Robbins is talking about.

I took the term 'epistemological behaviorism' from Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. It's a term he uses to describe pragmatic approaches to epistemology such as we find in the later Wittgenstein, Ryle, Quine, Sellars, Davidson, and Rorty himself. Robbins' point is that EAAN doesn't make sense from such views, and that it appeals only to 'generically Cartesian' views of the mind, which eliminate the fundamental connection between our understanding of mental contents and our understanding of behavior.

My argument against Plantinga might be a little stronger than Robbins', because I may be a bit harder on the sort of epistemological view Plantinga is advocating. While Robbins does raise questions about Cartesianism, he does not attack it fully. According to my argument, however, we simply cannot imagine a person who acts just as we do but who has nothing but false beliefs. If we divorce beliefs from the behaviors they are used to predict, we end up with nonsense.

It might be hard for people to accept that our understanding of beliefs is just a matter of behavior, and nothing else. We seem to have some direct access, some internal awareness of beliefs, which does not require behavioral evidence. Don't we understand our beliefs without observing how we act?

How do we know that we believe something? Perhaps we voice a statement of belief in our heads. Perhaps we feel strongly about something, and associate that feeling of trust with a particular proposition. But how is my belief understood? That is, what do I understand when I interpret myself as believing that it might rain? I suppose that my understanding is just the same as when I interpret somebody else as believing that it might rain. My knowledge of my own believing is a matter of how I predict I will act in an indefinite set of situations, and nothing more. The fact remains that, however our beliefs arise and however private our access is to our own beliefs, we understand beliefs in terms of observable behaviors.

Before I end this post I want to comment on the other of the two main theses Plantinga puts to Dennett. This is the thesis that theism is compatible with evolutionary theory. From what Russell says, both he and Dennett accept this thesis. They claim that, if you are willing to twist and bend your concepts enough, you can make just about anything compatible with evolutionary theory. But, then, so what? It doesn't mean there's any evidence in favor of your view.

As I understand Plantinga, however, he does not think belief in God is the sort of belief that requires evidence. He says it is properly basic. I have a very big problem with this claim, though I won't get into it here. Suffice it to say that, without a strong criteria for properly basic belief, and without a coherent definition of 'God', Plantinga's argument about properly basic belief looks like nothing more than an attempt to deflect rational criticism. The point, however, is that I don't think Russell and Dennett's response to Plantinga is strong enough--assuming I have understood them correctly.

In my view, there's a basic incoherence at the root of theistic claims which makes it literally impossible for them to be compatible with any legitimate explanatory framework. So we are giving away too much if we accept the claim that theism is compatible with evolutionary theory.

One might object that surely it is conceivable that some great intelligent being has secretly worked behind the scenes, causing just the right mutations to occur in just the right times, fine-tuning each and every environmental factor to guarantee that evolution would, over the millenia, produce human beings. I agree, for the sake of argument, that it is conceivable. What I don't agree with is that this has anything to do with theism.

What is not conceivable is that this supposed being is supernatural. I just don't see a coherent notion of "supernatural" on the table. Perhaps this is just a personal problem. Maybe my cognitive or intellectual abilities are too limited to grasp the concept. But it seems to me that people who advocate belief in the supernatural rarely suppose that any coherent definition is on offer. And when they do attempt to offer one, they either appeal to other inexplicable notions or to some inexpressible sort of experience. So I don't think it's just me. I think the discourse of theism is an elaborate sleight of hand, nothing more.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Power and Determination in the Consequence Argument

Just one more quick thought on the Consequence Argument. Consider the premise, "If we have no power over X, and X completely determines Y, then we have no power over Y." The logic of this statement seems to conflate power and determination.

One of the common ways "determinism" is defined is as follows: If you are given the state of all of the elements of the universe at any particular time, you can theoretically deduce any future state of the universe. The idea is that we, as investigators, can determine what will happen by looking at what has happened, or what is happening. Similarly, if determinism is true, then what happens is determined by what has happened in the past, which means that whatever happens is the necessary consequence of what has already happened. Determinism doesn't postulate some particular relationship of power between all past and future events. Nothing in the notion of determination implies anything about what events have power over other events.

The meaning of "power" is less clear. To have power over an event is, perhaps, to directly cause it to happen. If that is the case, then you don't need to determine an event in order to have power over it. Everything in the future may be determined by (i.e., be the necessary consequence of, be theoretically deducible from) what has happened at any particular time in the past, but only that which happens immediately before a future event has power over that future event. Thus, we can say that everything is determined by what has happened already, but that we still have power over the future because we directly cause future events to happen.

Alternately, perhaps "power" is supposed to mean "power to do that which has not been determined to happen." But in that case, the Consequence Argument is relying on a notion of power which is explicitly rejected by compatibilists. Compatibilists claim that free will only requires the power to act, and not the power to act in ways which were not determined to happen. So all the Consequence Argument shows (if it is a sound argument) is that determinism is incompatible with some non-compatibilist notions of free will. But the Consequence Argument was supposed to be an argument against compatibilism. So it fails.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

More On The Consequence Argument

The consequence argument is as follows: If we have no power over X, and X completely determines Y, then we have no power over Y. If determinism is true, then the past and the laws of nature together completely determine the future. We have no power over the past or over the laws of nature. Thus, if determinism is true, then we have no power over the future. Thus, free will and determinism are incompatible.

I've posted on the Consequence Argument a couple times in the past. My conclusion was that the argument is flawed because it ignores the role the present plays in the way the past shapes the future. If we recognize the present as an integral part of the process by which the future is determined, then the argument loses its force.

I want to elaborate on my point of view and point out some weaknesses with the Consequence Argument. I am not a staunch determinist. However, I do think that any coherent notion of free will (that is, any free will worth having) is compatible with determinism. Thus, for the sake of argument, in the rest of this post I am going to assume that determinism is true.

Consider how supporters of the Consequence Argument might counter me. They might say that, even if the present is an integral part in determining the future, the present has no power over the future, because how the present shapes the future must also be determined by the past, and the present has no power over the past. The implication is that if we attribute power to some entity, that power cannot be completely determined by any prior entity. The logical result of this point is that only a first cause can have power in the universe--that is, unless we allow for time-reversed causality.

If we allow for time-reversed causality, the Consequence Argument loses all of its force. For, if the present has causal influence over the past, then we in the present have power over the past, and so we have power over that which has power over the future. If, on the other hand, we don't allow for time-reversed causality, we back the Consequence Argument into a tight corner. This is regardless of how people respond to my previous argument. Consider . . .

If causality only works forwards in time, then any event at T2 cannot have power over events at T1. Therefore, any event at T2 cannot have power over the future, because it is completely determined by some prior event which has complete power over the future. Remember that, according to the Consequence Argument, if X completely determines Y, then only that which determines X can have power over Y. If the more recent past has no power over the less recent past, then the more recent past cannot have any power over the future. Since every event is caused by a prior event, then no particular event in the past can be said to have power over the future, unless we stipulate a first cause--a cause which completely determines everything, but which itself is not caused by anything.

I don't think determinism benefits at all from the hypothesis of a first cause. On the contrary, I think the idea of a first cause is more of a nuisance than a laudable explanatory hypothesis.

If we don't assume a first cause, we can attribute causal powers to all past times equally, in which case we are justified (indeed, obligated) to attribute them to the present.

We might say that all events at all times completely determine each other. Or perhaps the notions of a universal past, present and future are incoherent, and that the past/present/future distinction only works locally. In that case, perhaps causality itself only makes sense as a way of interpreting local phenomena, and not the universe as a whole. I think I should explore this line of thought more. In any event, either we accept that there is/was a first (and only) cause at the "beginning" of the universe, or we reject the Consequence Argument.