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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

More On Plantinga's (Revised) EAAN

Alvin Plantinga (via email) kindly accepted my request for a response to my previous treatment of his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN).  What I didn't mention in my earlier post is that this is a revised form of EAAN.  So I'll refer to the new argument as "REAAN," so as to distinguish it from the original EAAN.  As far as I can tell, Plantinga stuck to EAAN for the past almost two decades, since he first presented it in Warrant and Proper Function (1993), and notably using it in his 2009 debate with Daniel C. Dennett.  I do not know when he first presented REAAN.  It might be quite new.  [Update:  Plantinga has informed me that he does not consider REAAN a revised version of EAAN, and that he embraces the premises and conclusions of both EAAN and REAAN.  The latter, he says, is a different but similar argument first proposed by Ric Otte some years ago, though well after EAAN was first proposed.  I'll continue to distinguish them as EAAN and REAAN.  REAAN does seem like a revised form of EAAN; however, if you prefer not to think of it that way, you can take REAAN to stand for "Ric Otte's EAAN." I don't know why Plantinga presented REAAN as a way of clarifying EAAN. In any case, that accounts for my confusion.]

The main difference between EAAN and REAAN is that the latter appeals to the notion of metaphysical beliefs.  Whereas EAAN supposes that the conjunction of naturalism (N) and current evolutionary theory (E) entails an undefeated defeater for all beliefs, the REAAN claims that the same conjunction provides a defeater for metaphysical beliefs.  Unlike EAAN, REAAN assumes that (N&E) is a metaphysical belief.  Thus, it is argued that the conjunction of N and E produces an undefeated defeater for itself.

Plantinga presents REAAN as follows:


The argument goes as follows. First, I’ll use ‘N’ to abbreviate ‘naturalism’, ‘R’ to abbreviate ‘our cognitive faculties are reliable with respect to metaphysical beliefs’ and ‘E’ to abbreviate ‘we and our faculties have come to be by way of the processes appealed to in contemporary evolutionary theory’). Then we can state the argument as follows:           
P1 P(R/N&E) is low 
i.e., the probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable when it comes to metaphysical beliefs given the conjunction of naturalism with evolution is low. 
P2 One who sees that P1 is true and accepts N&E has an undefeated defeater for R. 
P3 One who has an undefeated defeater for R has an undefeated defeater for any of her metaphysical beliefs. 
P4 N&E is a metaphysical belief. 
Therefore 
C One who sees that P1 is true and accepts N&E has an undefeated defeater for N&E and hence can’t rationally accept N&E.


I suppose that Plantinga has proposed this revision because EAAN is too implausible.  It is hard to accept the premise that (N&E) entails a defeater for all beliefs.  It is too plausible that a blind evolutionary process could select for true beliefs of a certain sort--namely, the sorts of beliefs that cash out in practical terms.  I thus presume that REAAN is an attempt to strengthen and better focus Plantinga's original argument.  However, REAAN invites criticisms of its own.

My  criticism is as follows:  In order for P1 to be true, metaphysical beliefs must be fundamentally detached from practical knowledge.  Naturalists (such as Dennett, to take a relevant example), however, are inclined to take their naturalistic point of view as a practical one.  Therefore, under this definition of "metaphysical," it is not true that naturalism conjoined with current evolutionary theory (which is a scientific theory, and therefore of a fundamentally practical nature) is a metaphysical belief.  Therefore, if P1 is true, P4 must be false.  If Plantinga defines "metaphysical" loosely enough so that it includes naturalism, then P1 will be false.  So we have the following problem:  If P1 is true, then P4 is false.

I didn't quite put it this way to Plantinga over email, but I think I got my basic point across.  His response was that the belief in unguided evolution entails a rejection of the belief in a Divine Creator.  Essential to theism, he says, is the idea that humanity was created in God's image.  This is incompatible with the claim that the creation of mankind occured through a blind evolutionary process.  Since (N&E) includes a belief in a blind evolutionary process, it entails a rejection of theism.  Therefore, (N&E) is a metaphysical belief.

Let's leave aside for the moment that some theistic views might not involve the idea that humanity was created in God's imagine.  I think that idea is peculiar to monotheism, and not theism in general.  But we can put Plantinga's argument another way:  Essential to some brands of theism is the view that humanity was created in God's image.  That view is therefore a metaphysical view.  If some other view entails a rejection of a metaphysical view, then that other view is also a metaphysical view.  Since (N&E) entails the rejection of a God who created mankind in His image, then (N&E) is a metaphysical belief.

In my view, if Plantinga's counter-argument is sound, and (N&E) really is a metaphysical belief, then P1 would have to be false.  If practical beliefs about how mankind came into existence are considered metaphysical beliefs, then the "metaphysical beliefs" mentioned in P1 include at least some practical beliefs.  This makes P1 just as implausible as the EAAN premise.  Plantinga would do just as well by not mentioning "metaphysical beliefs" at all and sticking to EAAN.  But this is going under the assumption that (N&E) is a practical belief, and not of the "metaphysical" sort required to make P1 plausible.  In contrast, it might be supposed that (N&E) is not practical at all, and that it is metaphysical in the appropriate sense.  It would thus have to be argued that belief in a blind evolutionary process had no pragmatic basis.  Unfortunately for Plantinga, such an argument is not likely to be persuasive.

On the one hand, there are pragmatic reasons for distinguishing between processes which are the result of intelligent guidance and those which are not.  The science of evolutionary theory does not require any appeals to intelligent guidance.  Therefore, there is no pragmatic reason to appeal to it.

Plantinga might argue that there is a difference between not appealing to an intelligent creator in your scientific theory and believing that no intelligent creator is responsible for evolutionary theory.  In other words, Plantinga might claim that the scientific view says nothing at all about whether or not the process was ultimately in the hands of a supernatural being, and that naturalists are stepping out of bounds when they reject the claim that God is responsible for the process.  This rejection of God, Plantinga might say, is where the mere scientist becomes a naturalist--it is a step from the metaphysical innocence of science to the metaphysical sin of naturalism.

My objection is that naturalists of the best sort commit no such sin.  Taking "metaphysical" in the sense required to make P1 true, naturalism as it should be is a skeptical attitude and not a positive metaphysical position.  Naturalists will gladly admit that our cognitive faculties are not reliable when it comes to so-called "metaphysical beliefs."  Naturalists do not thereby put forward a metaphysical view of their own.  Not all views about metaphysical beliefs are themselves metaphysical beliefs.  Naturalists see metaphysical belief in practical terms, as a matter of human behavior and practical interest.  Thus, when Dennett, for example, says he does not believe in a Creator, he is not putting forward a positive claim about the nature of reality; he is putting forward a skeptical claim about theistic discourse.  I queried Dennett about this via email and he affirmed this interpretation of his views.

In conclusion, I see no reason to count naturalists among Plantinga's metaphysicians.  The fact that they (or, I should say, we) reject theistic discourse is not reason enough.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Some Objections to Plantinga's EAAN

Alvin Plantinga's recently presented (via Maryann Spikes at Ichthus77) an explanation of his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). He's setting the record straight about what EAAN entails. I want to respond to Plantinga's presentation of EAAN (I'll ignore the details about the prior post to which Plantinga is responding.) I argue that EAAN is, at best, a straw man argument against an impoverished version of naturalism. At worst, it relies on a hidden premise which places an unacceptably high restriction on what is rationally acceptable.

Here's Plantinga presenting the argument:

The argument goes as follows. First, I’ll use ‘N’ to abbreviate ‘naturalism’, ‘R’ to abbreviate ‘our cognitive faculties are reliable with respect to metaphysical beliefs’ and ‘E’ to abbreviate ‘we and our faculties have come to be by way of the processes appealed to in contemporary evolutionary theory’). Then we can state the argument as follows:           
P1 P(R/N&E) is low 
i.e., the probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable when it comes to metaphysical beliefs given the conjunction of naturalism with evolution is low. 
P2 One who sees that P1 is true and accepts N&E has an undefeated defeater for R. 
P3 One who has an undefeated defeater for R has an undefeated defeater for any of her metaphysical beliefs. 
P4 N&E is a metaphysical belief. 
Therefore 
C One who sees that P1 is true and accepts N&E has an undefeated defeater for N&E and hence can’t rationally accept N&E.

Several aspects of this argument seem questionable to me. P1 and P4 are problematic, as I will explain shortly. First, I will draw attention to a third point: EAAN contains a hidden premise. The conclusion says something about what we can or cannot "rationally accept," even though this concept is not present in any of the premises. For the argument to be valid, then, there must be a hidden premise:

P5 It is not rationally acceptable to hold a metaphysical belief if one has an undefeated defeater for that belief.

Why doesn't Plantinga make this premise explicit? More importantly, should we accept this hidden premise?

Some years ago, Plantinga wrote (The Nature Of Necessity, 1974, p. 221): "Were we to believe only what is uncontested or for which there are incontestable arguments from uncontested premises, we should find ourselves with a pretty slim and pretty dull philosophy. Perhaps we should have Modus Ponens; certainly not much more. The policy of accepting only the incontestable promises security but little else." It seems that the Plantinga of 1974 was not inclined to accept P5.

It is not obvious that we should only accept philosophical views which are indefeasible. In fact, defeasibility is a widely acknowledged and accepted property in many philosophical areas. Why not metaphysics? Counter-arguments for sophisticated philosophical positions always remain, and reasons are always available for rejecting them. (Plausibly, any attempt to defeat such defeaters will only make room for their reinforcement.) Philosophy would amount to virtually nothing if we limited ourselves only to those views which permitted no defeaters. We must accept that which it makes sense to accept, even when reasons to reject it are inevitable. When deciding whether or not a philosophical view is sensible, it is not enough to show that the view in question permits a defeater.

Perhaps a more measured conclusion than Plantinga's would be warranted: It is not rationally acceptable to cling uncritically to a belief which permits of rational defeaters. I'll return to this point at the end of this entry.

I wonder if Plantinga has changed his mind since 1974. I admit I am somewhat ignorant of his output during the intervening years. Perhaps somewhere he has embraced P5. Regardless, I see no reason at all to accept it. Thus, my first reason for rejecting EAAN. We need a better reason to think that it is not rational to accept the conjunction of N and E.

Next, let's consider Plantinga's definition of "naturalism." Plantinga notes that his argument is only against his particular conception of naturalism. He writes: "In my argument I take naturalism to be the claim that there is no such person as God or anything like God—no angels, demons, or anything else supernatural." This presumes that the word "God" is coherently defined. It thus entails that theological noncognitivists cannot be naturalists.

I consider myself both a theological noncognitivist and a naturalist. My understanding of naturalism is a bit different. I understand it to be the view that there are no a priori limitations on scientific discoverability. Or, to put it another way, scientific methods can (in theory) discover all of the causes. (The fact that we call such discoveries "natural" is purely a political move, in my opinion.)  My view does not stipulate any "natural realm" as opposed to some kind of "supernatural realm."  I reject the idea that there is any theoretical space for the supernatural, but this is not obviously a positive metaphysical view.  I thus consider myself a negative naturalist.  My view might be characterized as methodological naturalism, since it does not clearly qualify as a metaphysical view. Plantinga's argument only applies to his version of naturalism, which must be taken as a positive metaphysical view. Thus, EAAN is of no apparent significance to me, other than a matter of philosophical curiosity.

This is particularly relevant when we consider the plausibility of P4. Is the conjunction of N and E a metaphysical belief?  Evolutionary theory is a scientific theory, and it's hard to see why anyone would call it a metaphysical belief. Thus, if the conjunction of N and E is a metaphysical belief, the metaphysical stuff would have to come from N.  Here Plantinga might be stacking the deck in his favor.

Plantinga has carefully selected the "naturalism" he is after: it is a positive claim about the non-existence of supernatural beings. Yet, what many naturalists are more likely to say is that they do not credit any claims about the existence of supernatural beings and that they do not believe in them. This is not necessarily a positive claim. The expressed lack of a certain sort of belief, and the rejection of claims of a certain sort, does not necessarily entail a positive view about the sorts of things in question. It might entail a strong skepticism about any and all positive views about the sorts of things in question. A person can reject all talk of the supernatural, and so self-label as a naturalist, without thereby adhering to a metaphysical view. They might verbalize the positive claim Plantinga uses to define "naturalism", but what they mean is that they do not believe in such things. The lack of belief is not itself a metaphysical view.

Plantinga might make the following counter-objection: Perhaps some kinds of naturalists are only of the negative sort, but surely there are positive ones out there. His argument is about the positive ones, not the negative ones. If that is the case, then it significantly limits the scope of his conclusion. Furthermore, I think negative naturalism is much stronger than positive naturalism. Thus, P4 is only true under a very limited, impoverished and not clearly representative conception of naturalism.

Finally, let's consider P1: It states that the conjunction of N & E makes the probability of the reliability of our cognitive faculties low when it comes to metaphysical beliefs. This could only be true if metaphysical beliefs aren't the sorts of beliefs that can be tracked by the sorts of tools which a blind process could select for. This would therefore discount any beliefs which were even indirectly relevant to survival and reproduction. Metaphysical beliefs, then, have to be fundamentally detached from what we might call the practical concerns of everyday life. Since there is no clear line of demarcation between such concerns and the more formal beliefs we develop through scientific methodologies, it is safe to say that P1 is only true if we take "metaphysical" belief to be in some fundamental way distinct from beliefs of any practical nature at all, including scientific as well as the more mundane sorts of beliefs which guide our lives.

It is pretty well-established that there are plausible evolutionary rationales for pragmatic truths. An epistemological behaviorist, for example, will claim that all knowledge can be explained in pragmatic terms--that is, in terms of how people act, and how people's actions have been caused by their histories. Metaphysical beliefs are presumably not of this sort, according to Plantinga. Metaphysical beliefs are not the sorts of beliefs which cash out in terms of ordinary rational behavior. In that case, it's not clear how they cash out at all.

Considering how useless metaphysical beliefs would have to be for P1 to be true, the obvious response is: So what?  It's not at all clear that we should accept a view which takes such "metaphysical" beliefs seriously.

If EAAN leads us to any conclusion, perhaps it is this: The conjunction of N & E is not consistent with the uncritical acceptance of beliefs about matters which are of absolutely no consequence to our lives. We should be critical of positive (or "metaphysical") naturalism, though perhaps not quite as critical as we are about supernaturalism. Better would be to adopt negative naturalism, which is merely a rejection of beliefs about the supernatural. Negative naturalism, combined with evolutionary theory, is not a positive metaphysical belief at all, but a sophisticated skepticism combined with a scientific view of speciation. There is nothing obviously irrational about accepting that conjunction and believing that our cognitive faculties are not very reliable when it comes to so-called "metaphysical" beliefs. This is the sort of position most, if not all, naturalists would naturally accept.

Cosmetic adjustments made on Feb.26, 2012.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Plantinga and Oppy On Modal Anti-Ontological Arguments

[See Update and Update II]


Graham Oppy was kind enough to draw my attention to The Nature of Necessity (1974), in which Plantinga puts forward his modal ontological argument (MOA). Plantinga considers an objection very much like my own (pp. 218-219):  "consider the property of no-maximality, the property of being such that there is no maximally great being.  If this property is possible, then maximal greatness is not.  But, so claims the objector, [this property is] every bit as plausibly possible as maximal greatness." Thus, Plantinga imagines the following modal counter-argument to MOA:

1) No-maximality is possibly exemplified.
2) If no-maximality is possibly exemplified, then maximal greatness is impossible.
Therefore,
3) Maximal greatness is impossible.

Plantinga concludes that either MOA or this counter-argument is sound.  Clearly both cannot be.  I question whether either is sound, since I question the coherence of the notion of maximal greatness.  But, for the sake of argument, let's suppose that one or the other is sound.  Plantinga's claim is that it is rational to accept the premise that maximal greatness is possible, and thus to believe that God exists.  His argument for the acceptance of this premise is thus (p. 221):

Were we to believe only what is uncontested or for which there are incontestable arguments from uncontested premises, we should find ourselves with a pretty slim and pretty dull philosophy. Perhaps we should have Modus Ponens; certainly not much more. The policy of accepting only the incontestable promises security but little else. 
So if we carefully ponder Leibniz's Law and the alleged objections, if we consider its connections with other propositions we accept or reject and still find it compelling, we are within our rights in accepting it--and this whether or not we can convince others. But then the same goes for [the possibility of maximal greatness]. Hence our verdict on these reformulated versions of St. Anselm's argument must be as follows. They cannot, perhaps, be said to prove or establish their conclusion. But since it is rational to accept their central premise, they do show that it is rational to accept that conclusion. And perhaps that is all that can be expected of any such argument.
Plantinga has not given any reason to think that his premise is acceptable.  He has only argued that, if careful consideration of the premise does not lead people to reject it, then it is acceptable, even if it remains contested.  We must still wonder what makes it rational to accept the premise.  With such a justification as Plantinga offers, any premise would have to be considered acceptable so long as somebody (or some group) carefully considered it and still decided to accept it.  That's a rather weak justification for the premise, in my view.  In any case, this is not my objection to the argument.  As I've pointed out in a bit more detail, it is only rational to accept Plantinga's possible maximality premise if it is rational to reject the possible no-maximality premise.  This means it is only rational to accept his premise if it is rational to assume that God exists.  Thus, MOA begs the question.

Plantinga denies that his argument is question-begging (p. 218):  "It is by no means obvious that anyone who accepts its main premise does so only because he infers it from the conclusion. If anyone did do that, then for him the argument is dialectically deficient . . ."  Yet, once we realize that the main premise (that maximal greatness is possibly exemplified) is logically incompatible with the possibility of no maximality, then it seems quite obvious that his main premise can only be accepted by inference from the conclusion of the argument.  Anybody who accepts the main premise of MOA without inferring it from the conclusion of MOA has failed to fully understand the premise.

Graham Oppy makes the same point in his entry on ontological arguments for the SEP, though without sufficient explanation:
But it is at least plausible to claim that, in each case, any even minimally rational person who has doubts about the claimed status of the conclusion of the argument will have exactly the same doubts about the claimed status of the premise. . . . anyone with even minimal rationality who understands the premise and the conclusion of the argument, and who has doubts about the claim that there is an entity which possesses maximal greatness, will have exactly the same doubts about the claim that there is a possible world in which there is an entity which possesses maximal greatness.
I think this is exactly right.  Unfortunately, Oppy does not explain why.  The reason why Plantinga's premise is just as dubious as the conclusion is that the premise can only be accepted at the cost of rejecting the possibility of no-maximality.  Given the logic Plantinga is working with, both premises cannot be accepted in the same argument.

Unfortunately, Oppy's section on Plantinga's argument has another flaw.  [Not necessarily.  See update below.]  He claims that only a theist would prefer MOA to the following anti-ontological argument:

There is no entity which possesses maximal greatness.
(Hence) There is no possible world in which there is an entity which possesses maximal greatness.

He writes:  "Plainly enough, if you do not already accept the claim that there is an entity which possesses maximal greatness, then you won't agree that [MOA] is more acceptable than the second."  This is not convincing for the simple reason that many people are agnostic about the existence of God, and claim that belief in the possibility of God's existence or non-existence is more rational than belief in God's existence or non-existence.  Oppy's anti-ontological argument may therefore seem less plausible to agnostics as well as theists.  What Oppy should have observed is that only a theist would prefer MOA to the possible no-existence argument.  This is why MOA begs the question.

Update:  Oppy has raised some interesting points via email.

First, he agreed that maybe his SEP entry doesn't explain as much as it could, and he indicated some other places where he addresses the issue in more detail:  Ontological Arguments and Belief in God (CUP, 1996); Arguing about Gods (CUP, 2006); and  "Über die Aussichten erfolgreicher Beweise für Theismus oder Atheismus" in J. Bromand and G. Kreis (eds.) Gottesbeweise von Anselm bis Gödel Berlin: Suhrkamp, 599-642. Also, though he didn't mention it, charity compels me to observe that the SEP entry is about ontological arguments in general, and therefore a thorough examination of MOA isn't necessarily called for.  Still, if there ever is an update to the SEP, I'd be happy to see a little more said on the topic.

Second, and more interestingly, Oppy takes issue with my criticism about agnostics.  He points out that everything hinges on whether or not we accept a suitable modal logic and Plantinga's definitions.  A rational agnostic, accepting those conditions, would not believe that God's existence and God's non-existence were both possible. Such an agnostic would not suppose that "it is possible that God exists" is more acceptable than "God does not exist."  He has a point, and it indicates the question-begging nature of MOA.  The possibility premise, properly understood, is not an agnostic premise at all.  So, when he says that only a theist would find MOA more acceptable than his atheistic argument, he is right.  A properly informed and rational agnostic would recognize MOA as begging the question in favor of theism, and so would not accept it any more than they would accept an argument that begged the question in favor of atheism.

Update II:  I'm not sure how I could do it, but I wonder if it is possible to show that the MOA's possibility premise really is an agnostic premise.  My anti-MOA argument does not require that we take the MOA's premise as a theistic premise.  It only requires that we take my anti-MOA premise as equally plausible as the MOA premise.  I'm about convinced that both the MOA and anti-MOA premises are not agnostic premises.  But part of me resists, and so I suspect there might be a way of countering Oppy's point about agnostics.  I just don't know how.  Perhaps it might start with something like this:  Agnostics believe that we do not know if God exists or not.  Therefore, according to agnostics, it is possible that God exists and it is possible that God does not exist.  Now, either the sort of possibility expressed here is not the one employed by MOA and anti-MOA, in which case it is not clear what sort of possibility is being employed in those arguments (see Van Inwagen, "Modal Epistemology," for a motivation for this view), or it is the same sort of possibility, in which case the MOA and anti-MOA premises should be properly considered agnostic premises.  In any case, Oppy and I agree that MOA begs the question against anti-MOA (and anti-MOA begs the question against MOA). It's worth noting, at least, that one cannot dismiss my anti-MOA argument merely by showing that the MOA's premise is really agnostic about the existence of God.  It has to be shown that the MOA's premise is more plausible than the anti-MOA's premise.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

More On The Modal (Anti-)Ontological Argument

Exapologist was kind enough to inform me that my objection to Plantinga's modal ontological argument (MOA) is similar to one made by Peter Van Inwagen.  I've just read Van Inwagen's argument, which can be found in the sixth chapter of his celebrated Metaphysics. I don't think his argument is strong enough, as I will explain.

The MOA aims to show that belief in God is just as rational as believing that God is possible.  This would be an interesting result, since belief in God is widely regarded as less rational than belief in the mere possibility of God.  So if the MOA is valid, it would be very interesting.  What I have shown is that the argument is not valid.  It begs the question.  I show this by drawing attention to the premise that God's non-existence is possible.  That premise is just as plausible as the premise of the MOA, and yet it contradicts the conclusion of the MOA.  The defeat is therefore profound.  All the MOA really shows is that it would be rational to believe that God existed if one first had rational ground for denying the possibility of God's non-existence.  Yet, if you had that ground to begin with, you would not need the MOA.  Thus, the MOA begs the question.

Given the logic and definitions Plantinga is working with, either God's existence is possible or God's non-existence is possible.  Both premises cannot be true.  What, then, to make of the competing premises?  We might suppose that one of them is true, and we just need a reason to believe in one of them.  Or we might suppose that neither is true, because neither is well-defined.  I'm inclined to take the latter position.

Van Inwagen's argument is similar.  Where I have constructed a modal argument that directly argues for the non-existence of God, Van Inwagen's modal argument approaches the conclusion indirectly, via the concept of a knowno.  He writes (pp. 134-135):

consider the concept of a “knowno”: the concept of a being who knows that there is no perfect being. There would seem to be no reason, on the face of it, to suppose that there being a knowno is an intrinsically impossible state of affairs, like there being a liquid wine bottle. But consider. If a knowno is not intrinsically impossible, there is a knowno in some possible world. But then there is a possible world in which there is no perfect being, since, if someone knows something, then what that person knows is true. And, as we have seen, if a perfect being is possible, then there exists a perfect being in every possible world. It follows that if a knowno is possible, a perfect being is impossible and that if a perfect being is possible, a knowno is impossible. (The two statements ‘If a knowno is possible, a perfect being is impossible’ and ‘If a perfect being is possible, a knowno is impossible’ are logically equivalent.)

The possibility of a knowno entails not only the possibility of God's non-existence, but also the possibility of knowing about God's non-existence.  Van Inwagen claims that neither the possibility of God nor the possibility of a knowno has rational support, and so neither the MOA nor his knowno argument can get off the ground.  (This relates to his more general criticism of modal epistemology, according to which philosophers are too willing to trust such inscrutable "possibility arguments.")

Still, there may be a significant difference between the possibility of God's existence and the possibility of knowing of God's non-existence.  That there is such an intuitive difference is evidenced by the fact that many people prefer agnosticism over atheism because they suppose atheists claim to know that which cannot be known.  Some agnostics take God's existence to be just as possible as God's non-existence, and suppose that it is not knowable one way or the other.  Thus, one might object to Van Inwagen on the grounds that, if God did not exist, it would not be knowable.  The MOA might thus seem more plausible than Van Inwagen's counter-argument.  My argument therefore seems a bit stronger. I do not make any suppositions or presuppositions about the knowability of God's existence or non-existence.

Also, there is one important point which Van Inwagen seems to have overlooked.  He says that, unless we have an argument for the possibility of God's existence (or the impossibility of a knowno), we have no reason to think the ontological argument is sound.  That is the wrong conclusion to draw.  As I've shown, the MOA is incapable of serving the function it was designed to serve.  You cannot sufficiently motivate the MOA without first denying that God's non-existence is possible, and you cannot do that without arguing for the conclusion of the MOA.  The only way the MOA gets off the ground is with an antecedent argument against the possibility of God's non-existence, which would essentially be an argument for God's existence.  Since the MOA is an argument for God's existence, the MOA begs the question.  Its premises are not weaker than its conclusion, and in fact can only be motivated by an argument for its conclusion.

I'll close by returning to the point about agnostics and the ordinary belief in the possibility of God's existence.  Agnostics about God may still be uncomfortable with the situation, because it looks like the possibility of God's existence is incompatible with the possibility of God's non-existence (assuming the validity of modal logic and the coherence of Plantinga's definition of "God," neither of which I require for my argument to work--I only claim that my anti-ontological argument is as valid and as coherent as the MOA.  If my anti-ontological argument is incoherent or invalid, then so is the MOA.  I'm fine with that.)  Agnostics, however, believe that God's existence is just as possible as God's non-existence--both seem to be possible at the same time.  If both cannot be possible, then agnostics hold a self-contradictory point of view.

This should remind us that the logical possibility we are dealing with in modal arguments is not the everyday sort of possibility people normally talk about.  (See Van Inwagen's paper, "Modal Epistemology," which I linked to earlier, for a discussion of this issue.)  Perhaps we should be suspicious of the very notion of logical possibility. My criticism of the MOA does not rest on any such suspicion, but, if we wanted to press the point, we could use it against Plantinga.  Plantinga wants to show that belief in God is just as rational as belief in the possibility of God's existence.  Yet, if the MOA does not deal with the ordinary notion of possibility, then it does not clearly draw Plantinga's desired conclusion.  It only shows that belief in God is just as rational as belief in some philosophically sophisticated sort of possibility, and it's not so clear how rational that is.  (What my anti-ontological argument might suggest is that belief in the sort of possibility that Plantinga requires is no more rational than believing that God's non-existence is impossible.)  The MOA does not show that the ordinary belief in the possibility of God leads to any interesting conclusions about God's existence whatsoever.

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Modal Anti-Ontological Argument

I was just checking out Ichthus77, a philosophy blog that focuses on apologetics, because it is hosting the upcoming edition of the Philosopher's Carnival.  I noticed a recent entry on the modal ontological argument as developed by Alvin Plantinga and explained by William Lane Craig.  The modal ontological argument uses possible world semantics to recast the age-old ontological argument for the existence of God.  Here it is, as introduced by William Lane Craig (copied from Ichthus77):


Plantinga conceives of God as a being which is "maximally excellent" in every possible world. Plantinga takes maximal excellence to include such properties as omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection. A being which has maximal excellence in every possible world would have what Plantinga calls "maximal greatness." So Plantinga argues:
   
       1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists.
   
       2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.
   
       3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.
   
       4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.
   
       5. If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.
   
       6. Therefore, a maximally great being exists.


I don't want to challenge possible world semantics, at least not here.  Taking the logic of Plantinga's argument as given, then, it is claimed that the argument can only be defeated by denying its first premise.  We can deny the coherence of the very notion of a maximally great being or we can deny its possibility.  As it happens, I'm not convinced that the notion of a maximally great being is logically coherent, let alone possible.  However, what is more interesting to me at the moment is that the modal ontological argument can be defeated in another, much more damaging and interesting way.  All we need is the following defeater:  It is possible that a maximally great being does not exist.  Taking that defeater as a premise, we can formulate a modal anti-ontological argument:

1b.  It is possible that a maximally great being does not exist.
2b. If it is possible that a maximally great being does not exist, then a maximally great being does not exist in some possible world.
3b. If a maximally great being does not exist in some possible world, then it does not exist in every possible world.
4b. If a maximally great being does not exist in every possible world, then a maximally great being does not exist.
5b. Therefore, a maximally great being does not exist.

Each step in my argument mirrors a step in the modal ontological argument.  So my modal anti-ontological argument seems just as valid as the modal ontological argument.  Furthermore, the premises in my argument are at least as plausible as the premises in the modal ontological argument.  Premise 1 seems no more plausible than 1b.  The striking fact is that to argue against 1b would be to argue not for the mere possibility of a maximally great being, but for the very fact of its existence.  In other words, to overcome my defeater, you must argue that a maximally great being exists.  Yet, that is the conclusion which the modal ontological argument was supposed to establish.  So some other argument is required to establish the existence of a maximally great being.  The modal ontological argument cannot establish it, and thus fails.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Stanley's Great Error

I'm not done reading and responding to Stanley's chapter on Ryle, but I've found another big mistake in his interpretation which deserves a post of its own.  Stanley says that Ryle claims the following:  If intelligent action is guided by rules or if it involves the application of criteria, then those rules or criteria must be intellectually acknowledged prior to the intelligent performance.  Stanley couldn't be more wrong.  [Stanley's error leads him to mischaracterize Ryle's knowing-how/knowing-that distinction. See update below.]


Stanley rejects the position which he attributes to Ryle.  He says Ryle's view is unjustified, because Ryle has not demonstrated that the mere application of criteria requires an antecedent acknowledgment of that criteria.  Stanley says (Know How, p. 13):  "Ryle therefore needs an argument that the view that 'intelligent performance involves the observance of rules, or the application of criteria' entails that 'the operation which is characterised as intelligent must be preceded by an intellectual acknowledgment of these rules or criteria; that is, the agent must first go through the internal process of avowing to himself certain propositions about what is to be done ('maxims', 'imperatives' or 'regulative propositions' as they are sometimes called); only then can he execute his performance in accordance with those dictates.'"

In that passage, Stanley is quoting Ryle (The Concept of Mind, page 29 in my edition.) Here is the passage from Ryle in full (it starts on the preceding page):
What is involved in our descriptions of people as knowing how to make and appreciate jokes, to talk grammatically, to play chess, to fish, or to argue? Part of what is meant is that, when they perform these operations, they tend to perform them well, i.e. Correctly or efficiently or successfully. Their performances come up to certain standards, or satisfy certain criteria. But this is not enough. The well-regulated clock keeps good time and the well-drilled circus seal performs its tricks flawlessly, yet we do not call them 'intelligent'. We reserve this title for the persons responsible for their performances. To be intelligent is not merely to satisfy criteria, but to applv them; to regulate one's actions and not merely to be well-regulated. A person's performance is described as careful or skillful, if in his operations he is ready to detect and correct lapses, to repeat and improve upon successes, to profit from the examples of others and so forth. He applies criteria in performing critically, that is, in trying to get things right.
This point is commonly expressed in the vernacular by saying that an action exhibits intelligence, if, and only if, .the agent is thinking what he is doing while he is doing it,and thinking what he is doing in such a manner that he would not do the action so well if he were not thinking what he is doing. This popular idiom is sometimes appealed to as evidence in favour of the intellectualist legend. Champions of this legend are apt to try to reassimilate knowing how to knowing that by arguing that intelligent performance involves the observance of rules, or the application of criteria. It follows that the operation which is characterised as intelligent must be preceded by an intellectual acknowledgment of these rules or criteria; that is, the agent must first go through the internal process of avowing to himself certain propositions about what is to be done ('maxims', 'imperatives' or 'regulative propositions' as they are sometimes called); only then can he execute his performance in accordance with those dictates. He must preach to himself before he can practise.
I discussed this passage with Stanley a couple years ago, and I challenged his interpretation of it. I guess I wasn't able to convince him of his error, because he repeats it again in his book.

To see the error, look at the first paragraph of the passage I just quoted from Ryle.  He says, and I quote again, "To be intelligent is not merely to satisfy criteria, but to applv them; to regulate one's actions and not merely to be well-regulated."  Ryle states, clearly and straightforwardly, that intelligent action entails the application of criteria, and the regulation of one's actions in accordance with criteria.  So Ryle accepts the first of the claims that Stanley quotes:  "intelligent performance involves the observance of rules, or the application of criteria."  On the other hand, Ryle denies that intelligent action must be preceded by an avowal or acknowledgment of a proposition or truth.  So Ryle denies the second claim that Stanley quotes, that "the operation which is characterised as intelligent must be preceded by an intellectual acknowledgment of those rules or criteria."  How could Ryle suppose that the first claim entails the second, when he clearly affirms the first but denies the second?

Why does Stanley accuse Ryle of supposing that the first claim entails the second?  Because in the second paragraph I quoted, Ryle presents an argument to that effect.  However, Ryle is showing us the sort of argument he thinks an intellectualist is "apt" to make. Stanley confuses this hypothetical intellectualist's argument for Ryle's own, and so misunderstands Ryle's point of view entirely.

Ryle states his view again on the next page of The Concept of Mind:  "Some intelligent performances are not controlled by any anterior acknowledgments of the principles applied in them."  Ryle is clear:  intelligent performance is guided by rules, but it is not always controlled by "anterior acknowledgments" of those rules.  It still involves the application of criteria. Ryle thus distinguishes between following a rule and being guided by a proposition.  Stanley's interpretation is simply wrong.

[Updated on February 16 to develop the point as follows:]

Based on his (mis)reading of that one passage, Stanley believes that Ryle thinks knowing-that entails the application of criteria or the following of rules, and that this requires some kind of antecedent triggering or accessing of propositions.  Thus, he takes Ryle to suppose that manifestations of knowing-that (unlike manifestations of knowing-how) require prior acts of acknowledging or avowing propositions.  He writes (p. 17):  "[Ryle] assumes that manifesting propositional knowledge requires a prior mental act, such as the prior triggering of a maxim or rule . . . Second, he assumes that knowing how in contrast can be manifested without there being any prior mental act whatever. . . . Ryle is operating with a metaphysical picture of knowing how according to which one's know how just is constituted by the fact that when one is so situated, one acts thus."  Thus, Stanley says, Ryle believes that "my state of knowing how to open a door is manifested simply by my being in front of a door and opening it."  Stanley concludes that Ryle's distinction between knowing-how and knowing-that is unmotivated, because intelligently opening a door is properly taken as an employment of knowing-that, or propositional knowledge:  It shows that one knows that such-and-such is a proper way to open the door.

The first major problem with Stanley's interpretation is that Ryle does not suppose that knowing-that entails antecedent acts of intellection.  In fact, he says knowing-that does not always require intellection at all, as it can be demonstrated by rote recitation of rules.  (See Ryle's discussion of the difference between knowing how to play chess and knowing the rules of chess in Chapter 2 of The Concept of Mind, pp. 40-41.) Furthermore, in Ryle's view, knowing-how cannot be evidenced simply by performing an action in a particular situation.  According to Ryle, knowing-how cannot be identified or associated with any particular action type.  It is not a matter of habit, and so cannot be demonstrated by merely doing a particular thing in a particular circumstance.

In Ryle's view, intelligently opening a door can involve propositional knowledge, but it cannot be reduced entirely to propositional competence.  However, merely opening a door out of habit, without the care and innovation that marks intelligent behavior, is not an example of know-how.  It could, however, involve (or perhaps share some interesting features with) propositional knowledge.

Ryle and Behaviorism

Gilbert Ryle begins the last section of The Concept of Mind (1949) with a prophecy:  "The general trend of this book will undoubtedly, and harmlessly be stigmatised as 'behaviourist'" (Ryle, 327).  He was certainly right about the stigma, but he may have grossly underestimated the threat it would pose.  Behaviorism is the pivot on which Ryle's legacy hinges.

Jason Stanley, a prominent philosopher of language, and Julia Tanney, a leading Ryle scholar, disagree on how to characterize Ryle's relationship to behaviorism.  Tanney argues that Ryle wasn't a behaviorist of any sort, not even a 'soft' behaviorist.  She says the "soft behaviorist" view is the standard (but mistaken) interpretation of Ryle, according to which "statements containing mental terms can be translated, without loss of meaning, into subjunctive conditionals about what the individual will do in various circumstances."  In chapter one of his recent book, Know How, Stanley argues for this interpretation of Ryle:  "Ryle certainly thought that mental capacities were not identical to dispositions characterized in terms of a single natural kind of behavior, like squinting.  But it is consistent with Ryle's persistent admonishments that he thought of each mental capacity as identical with a very lengthy and complex disjunction of purely physical dispositions" (Stanley, 10).  To ascribe a mental capacity to a person is just to make a series of disjunctive conditional statements about their behavior, however vaguely.

Oddly, Stanley claims that the length and complexity of such disjunctions might make it impossible for them to be described in any finite period of time. However right or wrong Stanley is for allowing infinities into his equation, it is quite a stretch to assume that Ryle made the same allowance.  More than that, Stanley's assumption goes against the letter and the spirit of Ryle's analysis.

Before continuing, we should pause to remember that Stanley's point is only about a subset of mental-conduct concepts.  While Ryle's discussion of mental capacities does lend itself to a more straightforward dispositional analysis, Ryle also discusses "semi-hypothetical" or "mongrel-categorical" statements, which he says are neither wholly dispositional nor wholly occasional.  (More on mongrel-categoricals below.)  So, even if we granted that attributions of mental capacities were analyzable as Stanley says, Ryle is very explicit that he does not take all mental-conduct concepts in this way. So Tanney is right when she says:  "Although it is true that Ryle was keen to point out the dispositional nature of many mental concepts, it would be wrong to construe him as offering a programme of analysis of mental predicates into a series of subjunctive conditionals."

Even if we restrict the discussion to mental capacities, it does not seem that Ryle is willing to reduce them to a definite series of subjunctive conditionals.  Ryle says intelligence is "indefinitely heterogeneous," and so cannot be captured in either a finite or an infinite series of propositions.  In what follows I will try to explain why Ryle takes up this point of view.

First, it's worth getting a bit clearer on Ryle's notion of mongrel-categorical statements.  In the following passage from The Concept of Mind (p. 229), Ryle employs the example of following a tune:

That a person is following a tune is, if you like, a fact both about his ears and about his mind; but it is not a conjunction of one fact about his ears and another fact about his mind, or a conjoint report of one incident in his sensitive life and another incident in his intellectual life. It is what I have called a 'semi-hypothetical', or 'mongrel-categorical', statement."
By "ears," I take Ryle to mean the auditory apparatus.  When we refer to a person as following a tune, we are saying something about how their body is functioning (ears, brain, etc.), but we are also saying something more, but it is not a reference to some other happening, function or entity.  But then what is this "something more?"  Apparently it is close to a subjunctive conditional, but it is not identical to one.  For, if it were identical to one, then Ryle's mongrel-categorical statements would simply be conjunctions of occasional and dispositional statements.  But Ryle's point is that they are not conjunctions, but something else.  That "something else" might look like a great mystery, as if Ryle were postulating some bizarre ontological or epistemological category.  But if you're tempted at looking at it that way, then you're misunderstanding Ryle's method.

Ryle is talking about the difference between behavior and action.  The ears function--they behave.  But following a tune is an action, and not a simple behavior.  It is intelligent behavior.  Ryle (p. 44) discusses intelligence in terms of "dispositions the exercises of which are indefinitely heterogeneous. . . .  Epistemologists, among others, often fall into the trap or expecting dispositions to have uniform exercises. For instance, when they recognise that the verbs 'know' and 'believe' are ordinarily used dispositionally, they assume that there must therefore exist one-pattern intellectual processes in which these cognitive dispositions are actualised."  For Ryle, capacities for intelligent behavior do not correspond to any single pattern, nor to a definite set of behaviors.  Stanley says that we might just lack the time or capacity to identify them.  But Ryle suggests a much stronger view:  They simply don't correspond to a particular cognitive pattern or definite set of behaviors.

Ryle's point is not arbitrary.  It is central to the view of intelligence which he is developing.  According to Ryle, action always involves improvisation.  He makes the point several times, such as here, when he discusses the capacity to reason:
[The reasoner] has to meet new objections, interpret new evidence and make connections between elements in the situation which had not previously been co-ordinated. In short he has to innovate, and where he innovates he is not operating from habit. He is not repeating hackneyed moves. That he is now thinking what he is doing is shown not only by this fact that he is operating without precedents, but also by the fact that he is ready to recast his expression of obscurely put points, on guard against ambiguities or else on the look out for chances to exploit them, taking care not to rely on easily refutable inferences, alert in meeting objections and resolute in steering the general course of his reasoning in the direction of his final goal.
The need for innovation, for performing tasks which have never been performed before, implies an inability to correlate the competence with a definite set of dispositions.  To improvise is not to do one of a set number of possible things, but to do something which one has not planned or intended to do and yet which still meets some criteria for correctness.  But the criteria need not (and indeed cannot) account for every possible correct application.  So it is a mistake to suppose that the capacities we attribute to people somehow include every fact which would (or could) make them correct.  This is why they cannot be analyzed in terms of a series of subjunctive conditionals.

Stanley is philosophically committed to a certain view of analysis:  Every meaningful statement must be analyzable as a statement of fact, and every fact is a true proposition.  So, if there is such a thing as a mongrel-categorical statement, Stanley insists that it must be propositional:  It must ascribe a property to an object.  Yet, as Stanley indicates, Ryle was quite critical of this philosophical program.  It's not that Ryle was "unreflectively and immediately hostile to analysis and reduction of any kind," as Stanley says on page 10.  On the contrary, The Concept of Mind can be seen as a certain sort of analysis of mental-conduct expressions.  It's just not the kind of analysis Stanley favors.  Ryle's is a pragmatic form of analysis, in which the meaning of our expressions is analyzed in terms of how they are used.

As I've said, Ryle analyzes mental-conduct concepts in terms of dispositional and mongrel-categorical statements.  To understand the nature of this analysis, we have to understand his notion of inference tickets.  Ryle (1949, 124) explains it thus:
Dispositional statements about particular things and persons are also like law statements in the fact that we use them in a partly similar way. They apply to, or they are satisfied by, the actions, reactions and states of the object; they are inference-tickets, which license us to predict, retrodict, explain and modify these actions, reactions and states.
Dispositional statements, in Ryle's view, are not factual statements in which properties are attributed to objects.  They are meaningful in the way they give us license to move from one factual assertion to another, but they cannot be analyzed in terms of properties and objects.  As Ryle continues (p. 125):
But to speak as if the discovery of a law were the finding of a third, unobservable existence is simply to fall back into the old habit of construing open hypothetical statements as singular categorical statements. It is like saying that a rule of grammar is a sort of extra but unspoken noun or verb, or that a rule of chess is a sort of extra but invisible chessman. It is to fall back into the old habit of assuming that all sorts of sentences do the same sort of job, the job, namely, of ascribing a predicate to a mentioned object.
It's clear from this passage that Ryle is not against analysis simpliciter, but only against that sort of analysis which treats all sorts of sentences as expressions of propositions.  When Ryle says that some mental-conduct concepts are mongrel-categorical statements, he is not saying they are combinations of propositions of various types, but that they are partly propositional and partly law-like.  They function as propositions, but also as inference tickets, and they cannot be analyzed solely in terms of one or the other, nor can they be analyzed as a sequential conjunction of factual and law-like statements.  They function as both simultaneously.

As we have seen, Ryle takes dispositional sentences as inference tickets.  Thus, when he analyzes mental capacities in terms of dispositions, he is talking about the sorts of inferences we are allowed to make about a person to whom we ascribe mental capacities.  The crucial point is that mental capacity concepts do not ascribe particular states or functions to people, but rather confer the right to make inferences about people's behavior.  This does make mental capacities a matter of behavior, and so might qualify Ryle as a sort of behaviorist. According to Stanley (p. 10), "the view that mental capacities are nothing over and above purely physical dispositions is certainly worthy of the title of 'Behaviorism.'"  I don't take issue with that.  However, this is not the sort of "contemporary behaviorism" of which Stanley accuses Ryle.  This is not the sort of behaviorism anybody needs to be afraid of.


It's worth noting that the phrases "mongrel",  "mongrel-categorical," "inference ticket" and "semi-hypothetical" appear nowhere in Stanley's book, according to the search functions at amazon and Google books.


Stanley says Ryle disavowed behaviorism by the late '70s.  Yet, we can find Ryle criticizing behaviorism in the last section of The Concept of Mind.  He claims that early behaviorists were of two minds:  some denied that there was anything properly called "the data of consciousness and introspection", while others acknowledged the existence of mental contents, but denied that such data was scientifically knowable.  Ryle rejects both views.  He says they both rely on a "two-worlds story" about mind and body, where mental happenings are supposed to exist along side (or behind) bodily happenings.  One sort of behaviorist rejects the existence of the mind, while the other rejects its scientific knowability.  Ryle, in contrast, has spent the preceding pages of his book arguing that the mind does exist, just not in the same way that bodies exist.  Ryle does not stipulate a supernatural or non-physical thingness.  He is not a substance dualist, but he is not necessarily a property dualist, either.  Single-track dispositions, like fragility, can be considered a property of glass, but the sorts of dispositions that characterize intelligence are not neatly analyzable in terms of properties.  When we attribute a mind to a person, we are not attributing a property to a body or organism. We are speaking in a rather different sort of way.  Persons are not, in Ryle's vocabulary, identical to or definable in terms of their bodies, just as their actions are not identical to or definable in terms of their behaviors, even though there is nothing over and above bodies and behaviors.

Ryle is maybe best thought of as an eliminative materialist, since he denies that there are any literal states that correspond to our talk of mental states.  But Ryle does not eliminate (or reject) the way we ordinarily talk of the mind.  He would rather reframe the way we understand that talk.  This may explain why his work is so often misunderstood and mischaracterized.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Stanley on Ryle: A Criticism

I have some more critical remarks to make about the first chapter of Jason Stanley's new book, Know How.  I've read a bit more of the chapter, thanks to amazon's "search inside this book" function, but it won't let me read the whole thing.  (Funds are tight and shipping to Poland ain't cheap, and neither is the kindle edition.)

Reading Stanley on Ryle reminds me of the parable about blind men describing an elephant, but in this case, it's more like blind men describing various species of bird, but being told that they're all elephants.  I often feel like Stanley isn't talking about Ryle at all.  Even when he uses direct quotations, he sees birds instead of elephants.

On page one, Stanley introduces Ryle's The Concept of Mind (1949) as "the most systematic attempt to prove what philosophers and laypersons typically assume, that what guides us in action is a distinct cognitive capacity from what guides us in reflection."

That's fascinating, since Ryle explicitly and clearly says the exact opposite.  According to Ryle, reflection is one species of intelligent action among many.  That is what allows him to make the following regress argument (see Ryle, pp. 30-31):

The crucial objection to the intellectualist legend is this. The consideration of propositions is itself an operation the execution of which can be more or less intelligent, less or more stupid. But if, for any operation to be intelligently executed, a prior theoretical operation had first to be performed and performed intelligently, it would be a logical impossibility for anyone ever to break into the circle. 
Let us consider some salient points at which this regress would arise. According to the legend, whenever an agent does anything intelligently, his act is preceded and steered by another internal act of considering a regulative proposition appropriate to his practical problem. But what makes him consider the one maxim which is appropriate rather than any of the thousands which are not? Why does the hero not find himself calling to mind a cooking recipe, or a rule of Formal Logic? Perhaps he does, but then his intellectual process is silly and not sensible.  Intelligently reflecting how to act is, among other things, considering what is pertinent and disregarding what is inappropriate. Must we then say that for the hero's reflections how to act to be intelligent he must first reflect how best to reflect how to act? The endlessness of this implied regress shows that the application of the criterion of appropriateness does not entail the occurrence of a process of considering this criterion.

I'm not making this up.  Ryle explicitly argues that reflection can be done intelligently or unintelligently, mistakenly or appropriately, just like any other sort of action.  And on that basis Ryle concludes that intelligent reflection cannot be a prerequisite for intelligent action. This is one of the most important and influential arguments of Ryle's career, and Stanley got it wrong.  Not just wrong, but backwards.

This calls for some sort of explanation.  It cannot be a lack of intelligence or effort.  Moreover, Stanley has got plenty of colleagues nearby to object to his take on Ryle.  So what happened?  What it suggests, though certainly doesn't prove, is that there is a deep ideological bias against Ryle in the profession.

Moving on . . . After that first howler, there's Stanley's claim that Ryle's argument relies on a variety of verificationism.  I've recently countered this accusation at length already, but Stanley is willing to ignore the point.  Just as soon as he has made the accusation, he offers to "prescind from the charge of verificationism" (Stanley, p. 7) without explanation.  Considering just how misguided the accusation was in the first place, this should give us pause.  It could indicate a deeper misunderstanding of Ryle's argumentative strategy.

My claim, which is in no ways novel or controversial, is that Ryle was developing a pragmatic view of meaning in a style which is now identified as part of the ordinary language philosophy movement.  Stanley is aware of this, and even mentions it.  In The Concept of Mind, Ryle sets out to explore the logical behavior of many of our key mental-conduct terms.  The goal is to identify some of the category errors that lead philosophers and psychologists into confusion about the nature of mind and mental faculties.  He looks at how people talk about minds and thereby evaluates the currency in which our mental idiom circulates.  It is an exercise in philosophical pragmatism, not verificationism.

On the one hand, Stanley says (p. 7) that Ryle "assumes a theory of meaning which connects linguistic meaning to verifiability."  Then, immediately after offering to prescind that claim, Stanley indirectly accuses Ryle of making the following assumption: "the only way to make the applicability of mental-conduct concepts knowable is to characterize them as dispositional properties."  Stanley thinks that Ryle settled on dispositionalism because Ryle didn't know there were other ways people could know the correct application of their mental-conduct concepts.  For Stanley, Ryle's argumentative aim is to find a way to make the applicability of our mental-conduct concepts knowable.  If Ryle had been applying a verificationist view of meaning to ground our knowledge of the mind, maybe that's the sort of thing he would have been aiming at, but that's not what Ryle was doing.  It's birds instead of elephants.

Ryle wasn't doing epistemology.  His aim was to figure out just what people mean when they use mental-conduct concepts.  More specifically, he wanted to explain why people get so muddled when they try to understand the relationship between the mind and the body.  True, Ryle is interested in what is or is not knowable, and Stanley points to some passages where Ryle discusses knowability.  Ryle's aim in these passages is not to account for knowability, but simply to recognize it as one of the salient aspects of our discourse.  Ryle takes it as a given that we apply criteria when we make judgments about minds and intelligence.  He then wonders:  What sorts of criteria could we be applying in these cases?  Knowable criteria would certainly trump unknowable criteria--not because the applicability of criteria is a prerequisite for meaning, but because it is a prerequisite of it being criteria in the first place.  Ryle approached dispositionalism (but didn't fully embrace it, at least not any naive version of it:  see here) because it seemed to him the best way to understand the mental idiom.  Ryle wanted to explain the criteria itself, not what allows people to apply the criteria correctly.

Next, Stanley accuses Ryle of presenting a crude behaviorism.  After quoting Julia Tanney, a leading Ryle scholar who warns against associating Ryle with behaviorism, Stanley quotes the following passage from Ryle:
Besides being currently supplied with these alleged immediate data of consciousness, a person is also generally supposed to be able to exercise from time to time a special kind of perception, namely inner perception, or introspection. He can take a (nonoptical) '1ook' at what is passing in his mind. Not only can he view and scrutinize a flower through his sense of sight and listen to and discriminate the notes of a bell through his sense of hearing; he can also reflectively or introspectively watch, without any bodily organ of sense, the current episodes of his inner life.
Stanley says that this view of the mind is part of what Ryle was out to reject.  True enough. Ryle rejects the idea of introspection as a mysterious, otherworldly sort of perception.  This is clear from what he says in the rest of the paragraph (which Stanley did not find relevant enough to include):
This self-observation is also commonly supposed to be immune from illusion, confusion or doubt. A mind's reports of its own affairs have a certainty superior to the best that is possessed by its reports of matters in the physical world. Sense-perceptions can, but consciousness and introspection cannot, be mistaken or confused.
But this does not amount to a denial of inner experience.  Stanley draws attention to Ryle's chapter on imagination, where Ryle claims that when we normally talk of mental images, seeing in the mind's eye, or hearing sounds in our heads, we are not necessarily talking about actual images or sounds, and there need not be any actual seeing or hearing going on.  Stanley concludes that Ryle is adhering to a "behaviorist metaphysics" which forces him to "repudiate mental images."  Yet, what Ryle says in that chapter (Ryle, p. 247) is that "imaging occurs, but images are not seen."  Ryle's point is more about words describing perception, such as "see" and "hear," and less about whether or not there is something internal going on which we might call a "mental image."

Ryle does not deny that something hidden from view is going on when we talk about seeing or hearing things in our minds, but argues that what is happening isn't seeing or hearing. His point is that we no more mean that we really see something in our minds than we mean that an actor on stage has really murdered the victim in the story. Thus, Ryle writes:  "If a person who has recently been in a burning house reports that he can still 'smell' the smoke, he does not think that the house in which he reports it is itself on fire. However vividly he 'smells' the smoke, he knows that he smells none . . ."

Ryle does not deny internal events, conscious experiences, and such.  He only denies that so-called "mental images" are actual pictures, like drawings or photographs.  When we imagine a tune, for example, we do not hear it.  Rather, we follow it ourselves, employing our knowledge of how it goes (or how it looks, in the case of a visual image).  Ryle says (p. 265): "A person with a tune running in his head is using his knowledge of how the tune goes; he is in a certain way realising what he would be hearing, if he were listening to the tune being played."  Seeing an image in the mind's eye, Ryle says, is just thinking about what something looks like; it's not actually seeing something that resembles the real thing.  So, seeing the Mona Lisa in your mind does not consist in seeing something that resembles the Mona Lisa.  It just consists in thinking about what the Mona Lisa looks like.  Ryle again, on pages 254-255:
We do picture or visualise faces and mountains, just as we do, more rarely, 'smell' singed hoofs, but picturing a face or a mountain is not having before us a picture of the face or mountain, it is something that having a physical likeness in front of one's nose commonly helps us to do, though we can and often do do it without any such promptings.
We might, with neuroscientific progress, find pictures of the Mona Lisa popping up in the brain.  That might help disprove Ryle's thesis, but not necessarily.  Such images could be a byproduct of our thinking about the Mona Lisa.  It wouldn't prove that our "seeing" the Mona Lisa consisted in us actually seeing the picture generated in our brain.

I'm not interested in defending everything Ryle says about the imagination or conscious experience, but it's clear that in The Concept of Mind, Ryle wasn't the sort of behaviorist Stanley makes him out to be.  Ryle does not deny the salience of conscious experience.  Yet, Ryle does suggest that "mental capacities are nothing over and above purely physical behavioral dispositions," as Stanley says (Stanley, p. 10).  For Stanley, this is worthy of the title "Behaviorism."  Okay.  I'll take that, but it's not the crude behaviorism Stanley was accusing Ryle of earlier in the chapter. (See here for more on this point.)  Moreover, Stanley is mistaken when he talks about Ryle's allegedly post-behaviorist period of the late 70s, when Ryle identified "theoretical thinking" as something detached from the "urgency of the moment."  Ryle has not clearly detached any sort of thinking from behavior simpliciter.  He has just detached one kind of thinking from one kind of behavior.  This is perfectly consistent with The Concept of Mind.  The Ryle of 1949 does not assume that thinking is always and only directly related to our immediate practical concerns.

I've argued before that Ryle was friendly with a certain sort of behaviorism:  epistemological behaviorism.  He approached knowledge in behavioral terms, but he included both internal and external behavior in his bag.  He didn't deny that we privately observe and experience ourselves in ways practically unavailable to other people.  However, he did analyze knowledge and the mental in terms directly relating to behavior, and nothing else.  Still, calling him a "behaviorist" requires a good deal of qualification, since the term is likely to be misleading.

I will have more to say about Stanley's treatment of Ryle.  I hope to read the rest of the chapter and complete my criticism sooner rather than later.  I haven't even gotten to what he says about knowing how and knowing that, though, as I noted earlier, he seems to have gotten something very big wrong there, as well.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Properly Basic Beliefs

A while back I got into a discussion of Plantinga's notion of properly basic beliefs with a philosopher who blogs under the suggestive pseudonym "exapologist."  I had thought the discussion had ended with one of my comments.  I was quite surprised this morning, almost two full years later, when I received a couple emails notifying me that exapologist had continued the discussion.  Since he doesn't show the dates of comments on his blog, I can't tell if the new comments are recent or several months old or what.  Could the notifications have taken almost two years to get to me?  Stranger things have surely happened in the online universe.  [Update: exapologist has informed me that his new comments were in fact made last night/this morning.]  In any case, I haven't done much research on the topic, and I never was any sort of authority on Plantinga, anyway, so my ability to contribute to the discussion is a bit limited.  With that disclaimer in hand, I'll venture an elaborate response to exapologist.

One of the issues we discussed was how we define a properly basic belief as such.  The idea is that a belief is properly basic if it is warranted (or justified) without any need for argumentative support.  Plantinga claims that theistic beliefs are properly basic even though they are often criticized and made a subject of debate.  One possible objection is that beliefs we commonly criticize or interrogate are, by that very fact, not properly basic beliefs.  This is sort of the argument that Quinn poses to Plantinga, and which exapologist discusses.  Quinn's point is that adults have been exposed to possible defeaters of theistic beliefs, and so their own theistic beliefs might not be properly basic any more (assuming that these same beliefs were properly basic when the adults were children).  To put it another way, if you are aware that your beliefs have coherent objections, then you are aware that your beliefs are open to discursive interrogation.  That means your beliefs are no longer properly basic.

Plantinga's response seems to be something like this: Theistic beliefs are so strong that their beliefs can never be defeated.  So no alleged counterarguments are going to diminish their status as properly basic beliefs.

If we look at this as a psychological issue, then Plantinga might have a point, but it's not one that advances his agenda.  The point may just be that people can be so stubborn in their unwillingness to acknowledge objections to their beliefs that they never fully recognize the fact that coherent objections have ever been made.  However, I don't think Plantinga is making an argument about stubborness.  Rather, his argument is that theistic beliefs are just so strong that they defeat any possible defeaters.  But, then, how can we decide that these beliefs really are that strong, and that these "true believers" aren't just being very stubborn?

We need some criteria for deciding whether or not a belief is properly basic beyond the mere saying that it is so.  As exapologist and I discussed, Plantinga seems to be relying heavily on the fact that there are believer communities which are invested in their theistic beliefs being properly basic.  I will quote one of exapologist's comments at length:

Plantinga follows Roderick Chisholm in his rejection of epistemological methodism, on the grounds that always requiring criteria for how one knows something leads to a vicious infinite regress, and thus to skepticism. He also follows Chisholm in adopting a particularlist, inductive method of generating criteria of proper basicality. As Plantinga puts it:

"We must assemble examples of beliefs and conditions such that the former are obviously properly basic in the latter, and examples of beliefs and conditions such that the former are obviously not properly basic in the latter. We must then frame hypotheses as to the necessary and sufficient conditions of proper basicality and test these hypotheses by reference to those examples." (Plantinga, Alvin. "Reason and Belief in God", in Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God (U of Notre Dame Press, 1983), p. 76.).

So the idea is that clear cases of particular instances of knowledge are epistemically prior to general criteria for knowledge. From the particular cases, one examines what features they have in common, and then formulates hypotheses to the effect that all beliefs with those features are tokens of knowledge.

For what it's worth, I think Plantinga goes wrong by liberalizing and relativizing Chisholmian particularism. Plantinga intends his use of "obviously" in the passage above to be relativized to epistemic communities ("obvious to us folks"), so as to allow controversial beliefs that are nonetheless strongly held in a given epistemic community to qualify as "obvious", and thereby to allow for correspondingly relativized, theism-friendly criteria of proper basicality. This goes against the spirit of Chisholm's approach, as his intent was to only countenance Moorean facts as clear cases of knowledge. 

Ironically, Chisholm warns against the dangers of a liberalized standard of clear cases of knowledge in The Problem of the Criterion, the very book Plantinga appeals to as the basis of his fundamental epistemological approach: “We are all acquainted with people who think they know a lot more than in fact they do know. I’m thinking of fanatics, bigots, mystics, and various types of dogmatists.”
So, on the one hand, Plantinga wants an inductive method for identifying properly basic beliefs, but on the other hand, his criteria is relativized to particular epistemic communities.

It looks to me like a properly basic belief is defined as whatever a particular community decides is beyond rational criticism, but exapologist warns against making such an assessment.  As he points out, Plantinga's discussion hinges on the notion of a trigger.  Properly basic beliefs are "naturally and spontaneously" triggered in certain situations.  So, for example, if I am looking at at tree, I form the properly basic belief that I see a tree.  If I am trying to recall what I had for breakfast this morning, I form the properly basic belief that I had an apple for breakfast.  If I look at a person's face, I might form the properly basic belief that that person is angry.  So the idea of a properly basic belief is a psychological notion, a matter of what the members of an epistemic community will believe given the right stimuli.  On this account, it makes sense that the status of a belief as properly basic should be relativized to a community:  Different communities will produce people who respond differently to the same stimuli.  But then, a belief is properly basic because of psychological conditioning and instinct.

There is a problem here, because the sorts of ordinary beliefs we are discussing are clearly open to rational criticism.  For example, I might look at a tree and form the belief that I see a tree, but I can be convinced that what I see is not a tree.  Similarly about my memory of my breakfast, or my interpretation of a person's emotions.  There is nothing that prevents people from engaging in a rational discussion of their beliefs about what they see, what they've eaten, and how people look.  So why claim that these beliefs do not require argumentative support for their justification or warrant?  These are just the sorts of beliefs that can be questioned and defended with argument.

If we regard properly basic beliefs as whatever beliefs are "naturally and spontaneously" formed in various situations, then they are not clearly justified (or justifiable) without argumentative support.  Calling a belief "properly basic" does not give one license to avoid rational criticism. It just says something about the origins of their beliefs, in terms of psychology and circumstance.  We need something more if we are going to say that some beliefs are justified without argument.

I can be mistaken about what I had for breakfast, what I see in front of me, and how the people around me feel.  There is room for multiple points of view about whether or not I am seeing a tree, or whether or not I had an apple for breakfast.  When we talk about I see a tree or I had an apple for breakfast, there is nothing mysterious or inscrutable about the referents, and this distinguishes ordinary beliefs from theistic beliefs.  Theistic beliefs are not obviously referential at all--and if they are referential, it is not obvious what the referents are supposed to be.  A polite way of putting it is that theistic beliefs are either non-referential or referentially opaque.  I am a theological noncognitivist, which means I don't think theistic beliefs are propositional attitudes.  I do not think they involve propositions which refer to or attribute properties to things.  So I don't think theistic beliefs (e.g., "God exists") refer to anything.  Cognitivists about theistic belief will say that the beliefs are referential, but then there is the problem of opacity.  I believe this is why some theists claim their beliefs do not require argumentative support:  They cannot overcome the problem of reference.  I therefore find it hard to think that Plantinga isn't just bending over backwards trying to excuse theistic belief from rational debate.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

An Objection to Stanley's Accusation that Ryle Appeals to Verificationism

As I noted in my previous post on Jason Stanley's new book, Know How, Stanley makes the troubling claim that Gilbert Ryle appeals to verificationism. It's an odd claim if only because Ryle was a critic of verificationism (as Stanley observes in a footnote) and developed a very different theory of meaning. For Ryle, meaning is a matter of use. Therefore, if we are going to accuse Ryle of appealing to verificationism, we should make sure the evidence is very strong, or else charity would warn us against it. As it stands, the evidence looks exceedingly weak.


Stanley's allegation is that Ryle supposes that mental-conduct terms would be meaningless if their correct application were not known in particular cases. That would look like a variety of verificationism, but it isn't what Ryle seems to be saying.

Here is the passage from Ryle which Stanley quotes (the original can be found in chapter 1 of Ryle's The Concept of Mind):

"According to the [Cartesian] theory, external observers could never know how the overt behaviour of others is correlated with their mental powers and processes and so they could never know or even plausibly conjecture whether their applications of mental-conduct concepts to these other people were correct or incorrect . It would then be hazardous or impossible for a man to claim sanity or logical consistency even for himself, since he would be debarred from comparing his own performances with those of others. In short, our characterisations of persons and their performances as intelligent, prudent and virtuous or as stupid, hypocritical and cowardly could never have been made."

Ryle says our characterizations "could never have been made," and not that they would be meaningless. This is a causal-historical point.  We do make characterizations; we do apply criteria; yet Cartesianism says we cannot.  If Cartesianism were true, then we would have no possible causal-historical explanation for our mental-conduct concepts. It's not that our terms would lack meaning as per verificationism, but that we would have no way of accounting for how the meaning (as use) of our terms came about. The meaning of our terms would be impossible in the sense that the use of our terms would have no possible causal-historical explanation. Ryle's claim is not that meaning requires knowing how to apply criteria in specific cases, but that having criteria is worthy of a causal-historical explanation. Cartesianism says we cannot know how to apply our criteria, which means the fact that we do apply criteria is absurd.

Ryle continues to explain his point (Stanley cuts him off in mid-sentence):

"In short, our characterisations of persons and their performances as intelligent, prudent and virtuous or as stupid, hypocritical and cowardly could never have been made, so the problem of providing a special causal hypothesis to serve as the basis of such diagnoses would never have arisen. The question, 'How do persons differ from machines' arose just because everyone already knew how to apply mental-conduct concepts before the new causal hypothesis was introduced. This causal hypothesis could not therefore be the source of the criteria used in those applications. Nor, of course, has the causal hypothesis in any degree improved our handling of those criteria."

The question Ryle raises is this: How could it be that we talk so clearly and effectively about other people's minds, when we lack the foundation that Cartesian philosophers say we need before we can apply our concepts to other people's minds? The very fact of our everyday judgments is a testament to the fact that we don't need a Cartesian foundation to talk about other people's minds.

Ryle's is a clear example of pragmatic reasoning.  To understand our discourse about minds, we have to understand how mental concepts are used, and that means understanding the behaviors which the discourse attempts to manipulate, explain and predict. But, if Cartesianism were true, then the use of our discourse would become a mystery. If our mental-conduct concepts were disconnected from observations of other people's behavior, then our entire discourse would lack a causal explanation.  By disconnecting our discussion of the mind with our perception of behavior, Cartesianism makes it impossible to account for the fact that we talk about minds at all. All talk of minds would become a great mystery (one which somebody like Alvin Plantinga would be only too happy to exploit).