Saturday, October 04, 2008

Variations on Moore's Paradox

[When I first got the idea for this post while reading Max Kölbel's Truth Without Objectivity, I went to the internet looking for similar ideas that might help me frame the discussion. I'd like to thank Michael Cholbi and his commenters for their thoughts here.]

Moore's paradox is that an assertion of "It's raining, but I don't believe it is." is or appears to be contradictory, even though it could be the case that both of the conjuncts--(a) it's raining, and (b) I don't believe it is raining--could both be true at the same time.

In this post, I wish to examine a few variations on the Moore paradoxical sentence, such as the following:

  1. It is raining, but I don't believe it.
  2. Charity is good, but I don't (morally) esteem/laud it.
  3. Licorice is tasty, but I don't like it.
Initially, we might be inclined to think one or another of these as more absurd or more paradoxical than the others, but I think this is a mistake. The intuition may be a result of our natural instinct to interpret using the principle of charity, reading 'good' or 'tasty' with inverted commas rather than as sincere assertions. A person uttering 2, while implicitly denouncing the notion of a universal morality, has not expressed anything absurd or paradoxical. With a little struggle, though, I think we can read 'raining' with inverted commas, too, yielding a similar non-paradoxical expression for that sentence.

What I think is important is that we can (if we so choose) interpret each of these sentences as sincere assertions with full commitments to the objectivity of the notions of truth, goodness, and tastyness, and they thereby become just as paradoxical as Moore's original, (under the assumption that the speaker is committed to believing true things, esteeming good things, and liking tasty things).

But now compare the above Moore-paradoxical sentences to the following scenario:
An individual who experiences red-green colorblindness in both eyes asserts "The petals of this red rose are colored differently from it's leaves, but I don't see it that way."
This sentence is very much like a Moore-paradoxical sentence, but we can interpret it in such a way that it's asserter isn't expressing anything absurd or paradoxical, but instead is acknowledging that he has a condition that makes him a poor judge of colors.

Before I continue, I need to re-familiarize my audience with three diagnoses in the psychological literature, one of which will be significantly tweaked to meet my needs:

First, there is schizophrenia. We are probably all familiar with this diagnosis, given to individuals who 'hear' voices, often voices that tell them to do dangerous things to themselves and other people. Unfortunately, their voices are only 'in their head'. (My inverted commas are meant to indicate that I wish to avoid objections from nitpicky philosophers on the details. A general picture is all I wish to convey of these conditions.) For an example of such an individual, see John Nash.

Second, there is Stockholm syndrome. Individuals with this condition are captives who harbor some (however minor) empathy for or loyalty to their captor(s). They have difficulty fully denouncing the immoral actions of their captors. Patty Hearst is sometimes considered to have had this condition.

Finally, there is Schizoid personality disorder. This condition is "characterized by a lack of interest in social relationships, a tendency towards a solitary lifestyle, secretiveness, and emotional coldness." For the purposes of this post, I wish to distinguish two types of individuals who meet the generally-recognized diagnostic criteria. The first group, which I will not focus on here, includes those who have these isolative tendencies and are just fine with that. They just want to be alone. The group that will help to illustrate my point here, though, is the group that has a preference for solitude and social distance, but also has a second-order preference that he not have those first-order preferences. These are people who acknowledge the pleasant nature of social interaction, but cannot benefit much from such interaction due to experiences of frustration, agitation, depression or similar resulting from these encounters (however enjoyable they may actually be). Wittgenstein might be a candidate for having this type of SPD.

Now let's put together the Moore-paradoxical sentences above, with these conditions, and we get the following:
  1. There aren't people talking to me, but I believe there are. (Said by the schizophrenic person.)
  2. Keeping me captive was completely wrong, but I can't fully denounce his doing so. (Said by the person with Stockholm syndrome.)
  3. The company of others is fun, but I don't enjoy it. (Said by the person with type-2 SPD.)
  1. I erringly believe that the voices are real.
  2. I erringly laud the actions of my captor.
  3. I erringly dislike the company of others.
What I think we need to see is that we can identify a literal reading of these sentences that is not paradoxical, but only when the asserter is acknowledging (A) that there is a standard of judgment, while also acknowledging (B) that his assertions are accountable to that standard (i.e., he takes himself to be committed to, for example, believing true things, esteeming good things, and liking tasty things), and (C) that he is not a capable judge within that standard.

In the face of these moral and aesthetic versions of Moore's paradox, those who would identify an epistemic component as the cause for the paradox have some more explaining to do.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Constitutionality of Intelligent Design

Since there are a lot of individuals who have become aware of Thomas Nagel's recent article, Public Education and Intelligent Design, via this Discovery Institute representation of it, or, worse, a re-representation of that (e.g., here), my aim in this blog post is to present and examine--for public consumption and in the spirit of fairness--the arguments of that article from a philosophical (rather than religious or scientific) point of view. I should note, though, that I won't be following Nagel on every tangent of his, instead concentrating on the parts of his arguments that are worthy of our attention. If that means that this blog post reflects my own ideas more than Nagel's, so be it.

Nagel's most important concern, as he describes it, is that "the campaign of the scientific establishment to rule out intelligent design as beyond discussion because it is not science results in the avoidance of significant questions about the relation between evolutionary theory and religious belief, questions that must be faced in order to understand the theory and evaluate the scientific evidence for it." Now, neglecting for the moment the issue of who exactly is supposed to count as "the scientific establishment", I hope that we can all agree with Nagel that a full examination of the relation between evolutionary theory and religious belief is beneficial to our understanding of both.

Nagel's article touches on so many different concerns that it is hard to summarize his arguments succinctly. One thing that must be understood from the beginning is Nagel's (I think, idiosyncratic) definition of "evolution by natural selection" (ENS). Nagel says, "It is not just the theory that life evolved over billions of years, and that all species are descended from a common ancestor. Its defining element is the claim that all this happened as the result of the appearance of random and purposeless mutations in the genetic material followed by natural selection due to the resulting heritable variations in reproductive fitness." The important observation is that Nagel's understanding of ENS has a built-in anti-purpose component. (We should note that Nagel's assertion that ENS "was originally introduced as an alternative to design" is a historical misrepresentation; natural selection was introduced by analogy to artificial selection by humans rather than as an alternative to divine selection.)

Nagel's preliminary argument is essentially this:

1. There can be a scientific argument for the presence of a ghostly/godly/gremlin cause if and only if there can be a scientific argument for the absence of that ghostly/godly/gremlin cause. These positions are alike in whether they are scientific or not.
2. If two positions are alike in whether they are scientific or not, they are equally constitutional (insofar as the Establishment Clause is concerned).
3. Therefore, an explanation of the presence of a ghostly/godly/gremlin cause is just as constitutional or unconstitutional as an explanation of the absence of that ghostly/godly/gremlin cause.
I see no problems at all with this argument, so I won't consider possible objections to it. But Nagel thinks that "the scientific establishment" rejects premise one (thus regarding divine-absence claims as scientific and divine-presence claims as unscientific), and spends considerable time trying to refute the idea that there is this asymmetry. Those who object to the argument should read Nagel's article in its entirety.

Nagel says, speaking of the establishment, "No one suggests that the theory is not science", and I suspect he is right about this de dicto, but I don't think the establishment has his definition of ENS in mind when they say it. I think many in the establishment would object to the anti-purpose clause of his definition, and would reject that part as unscientific. These individuals would be expressing agreement with regard to premise 1 above, but rejecting that this definition of ENS is scientific.

But Nagel dislikes this move too. He thinks that surely there must be a fact of the matter as to whether there is divine cause or not, and that failure to consider both arguments in favor of as well as arguments against divine cause "reveal[s] an intellectually unhealthy situation". He says, "It would be unfortunate if the Establishment Clause made it unconstitutional to allude to these questions in a public school biology class, for that would mean that evolutionary theory cannot be taught in an intellectually responsible way."

At this point, I'd like to admit that I agree with Nagel, but only to a degree. The crucial issue is what we mean by the term "science". I shall now examine two different interpretations of the argument above, taking two different conceptions of 'science', and finding that while the argument remains sound as long as our interpretation is consistent, the argument will be unsound if there is equivocation between these conceptions.


Nagel considers the position endorsed by Kent Greenawalt in the following passage:
Science teachers should not get far into the question of whether any as yet undiscovered principles of order in evolution, were they to exist, are likely to have proceeded from creative intelligence. One reason not to engage this possibility at any length is that students with religious objections to standard evolutionary theory may build much more than is warranted from any scientific perspective from conjectures about intelligent design.
This view, that science teachers should abstain from discussion on the topic at all, assents to premise 1 of the argument by acknowledging that arguments against divine design have no more place in our classrooms than arguments for it. Neither kind of argument is sufficiently scientific to have a place in the school classroom. We should be teaching biology in a biology class, chemistry in a chemistry class, and physics in a physics class; we should not be presenting arguments there for why we are teaching biology, chemistry, and physics. Nor should we be explaining what arguments count or don't count as biology, chemistry, or physics. Those arguments and explanations wouldn't be on topic.

Nagel laments this view with regard to the high school classroom, saying "I would like to believe that something less inhibited would be admissible, namely, a frank discussion of the relation of evolutionary theory to religion in some part of the high school curriculum. If biology teachers would be too burdened by this task, room should be found for it elsewhere." Turning aside from the issue of whether this position is acceptable in the high school classroom (which I will reserve for my conclusion, below), I hope that Nagel would assent that Greenawalt's position is entirely acceptable and constitutional for a university-level biology class. The Lemon test for constitutionality adopted by the supreme court requires, as Nagel explains, "that a law or practice must have a secular purpose, must not have a primary effect of either promoting or inhibiting religion, and must not foster excessive entanglement with religion." I believe that Nagel wouldn't object, then, to the constitutionality of Greenawalt's position in a university biology class, since his position is implicitly neutral with regard to the truth or falsity of intelligent design (ID) and prohibits (as off-topic) even a broaching of the subject by the instructor.

In either case, let's proceed to a classroom in which examinations of intelligent design should be permitted.


While the biology class may not be the appropriate place to explain or examine why we are teaching biology, it seems that there must be some place where this be allowed to take place. There are concerns raised by ID that are worthy of our attention, and those concerns must be addressed if we wish to be "intellectually responsible".

Nagel explains, "ID is very different from creation science. To an outsider, at least, it does not seem to depend on massive distortion of the evidence and hopeless incoherencies in its interpretation. Nor does it depend, like biblical literalism, on the assumption that the truth of ID is immune to empirical evidence to the contrary. What it does depend on is the assumption that the hypothesis of a designer makes sense and cannot be ruled out as impossible or assigned a vanishingly small probability in advance...Critics take issue with the claims made by defenders of ID about what standard evolutionary mechanisms can accomplish, and argue that they depend on faulty assumptions. Whatever the merits, however, that is clearly a scientific disagreement, not a disagreement between science and something else."

This is the point at which I must agree with Nagel. There is a genuine debate over the truth of claims involving whether extranatural, metaphysical things are going on, and there is a place where these debates can be examined in detail.

Nagel explains:
I agree with Philip Kitcher that the response of evolutionists to creation science and intelligent design should not be to rule them out as “not science.” He argues that the objection should rather be that they are bad science, or dead science: scientific claims that have been decisively refuted by the evidence.
I think we can assent to part of this, but only under a different conception of science than the one used in university biology classrooms. Let's reflect on the historical, etymological fact that our term "science" used to mean something like our more general term "knowledge" (which includes not just empirical science, but also mathematics, logic, and the study of possibilities). If we take that general conception for the word "science" in the argument, we again assent to premise 1 in the argument above, but this time because arguments for and against ID are considered science.

The argument is still sound, however, so the conclusion must follow as well. Presenting arguments for ID in a classroom where this is the concept of science would be constitutional, and I think it is quite likely that philosophy and education departments can be so counted, specifically in courses on the philosophy of biology or on science education. We have a secular purpose (the promotion of knowledge), and an appropriately designed course in the subject need have no excessive entanglement with, promotion of, or inhibition of religion, so the Lemon test could be satisfied.

The question is still open as to whether these arguments would be worth considering in these classrooms, whether they are more than merely constitutionally permitted, whether they further our understanding in any way. I think educational prudence would suggest that there would be very few, if any, classrooms in which the arguments for ID would bear any intellectual fruit, but there are probably a few possible courses in which they would and it would be wrongful if our constitution were to prohibit our teaching them there in our public universities.


I can't disagree more with Nagel in his conclusion that the arguments for ID belong somewhere in the high school curriculum. I can't even agree that they should be merely constitutionally permissible there.

Nagel asks us to consider, "What would a biology course teach if it wanted to remain neutral on the question whether divine intervention in the process of life’s development was a possibility, while acknowledging that people disagree about whether it should be regarded as a possibility at all, or what probability should be assigned to it, and that there is at present no way to settle that disagreement scientifically? So far as I can see, the only way to make no assumptions of a religious nature would be to admit that the empirical evidence may suggest different conclusions depending on what religious belief one starts with, and that the evidence does not by itself settle which of those beliefs is correct, even though there are other religious beliefs, such as the literal truth of Genesis, that are easily refuted by the evidence."

What I think is missing from Nagel's account is an observation that the primary or secondary classroom isn't the place for what he calls "intellectual responsibility". He seems to think that the purpose of a high school class is to give students a very clear understanding of its subject matter. But he's wrong about this; the purpose of a high school class is to give students a clearer understanding of its subject matter than they had before the class. The high school biology class, for example, is supposed to replace a very naïve model of living things with a less naïve model. It is certainly not supposed to get very clear about its subject; it is only supposed to get the students as clearer on the subject as they could get in one year's worth of classroom study.

If this is correct, the high school teacher doesn't even have to be sure that what he or she teaches is true. A high school physics class, for example, may never get beyond classical mechanics, but that doesn't mean that the instructor should present the class with any kind of warning that what is being discussed isn't true. The classical model of mechanics, though false, is less naïve than the model the students had before the class.

Even a class on philosophy at the high school level shouldn't be discussing ID; it should restrict itself to teaching whatever will provide the students with the most comprehensive understanding of philosophy. The most likely place in a high school for any discussion of ID might be an elective course on the history of the relationship between science and religion, and there might be a case to be made that the arguments for ID could be constitutional there, but it would be a hard case to make.


But there is more yet to be said. Having settled in my mind whether ID arguments are consitutional or not in various classrooms, it remains an open question what we should be saying in our public debate, in our books, in our blogs, in the news.

Nagel says, "One of the disturbing things about the public debate is that scientists engaged in it sometimes write as if the idea of fundamental problems with the theory (as opposed to problems of detail in its application) were unthinkable, and that to entertain such doubts is like wondering whether the earth is flat." If Nagel is right that scientists do this, then I agree that we should object to it. He says, "The political urge to defend science education against the threats of religious orthodoxy, understandable though it is, has resulted in a counterorthodoxy, supported by bad arguments, and a tendency to overstate the legitimate scientific claims of evolutionary theory."

Whether he is right about this or not is a discussion we need to continue having. Nagel says, "I understand the attitude that ID is just the latest manifestation of the fundamentalist threat, and that you have to stand and fight them here or you will end up having to fight for the right to teach evolution at all." But he is also right that we need to keep our eyes on the goal. We want our public to have the fullest, least naïve, understanding of the relationship between evolutionary theory and religious belief, and that means that we can't always see ourselves as fighting against the fundamentalists. There are some arguments that can be made for intelligent design that, when we stop to evaluate them critically, can and do provide us with a better understanding of this relationship, a less naïve understanding of how evolutionary theory and religious belief interact. There must be a place for both messages: Intelligent design has no place in our public high schools and there are some arguments for intelligent design (or similar ideas) that deserve rational consideration rather than outright rejection.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

My Thanks to Brian Leiter

I cannot emphasize more the message that Brian Leiter gives here. I know that there are one or two individuals who read my blog who are trying to make decisions about graduate school who have contacted me to understand better the perspective of someone who failed to be successful therein. There aren't a lot of public voices to be found coming from that perspective, and I'm (kind of) glad to be one of them.

Follow Brian Leiter's advice. Even if you ultimately decide to go to a department that has one or some of the kinds of faculty he describes, you should do whatever you can to find out which specific faculty members those are so that you can avoid taking their classes or adopt strategies to compensate.

Here are the parts of the descriptions he gives that I experienced from one or more faculty members at UCSB. Anyone considering going to that school who might be concerned about these behaviors, might want to contact me or any current graduate students there to identify which professors match each of these descriptions. Please note that any particular faculty member at UCSB may or may not be aware that one of his or her colleagues meets this description. I encourage the faculty there to address these issues amongst themselves if they agree that these behaviors are a problem. So, the list:

  • "the failure of faculty to return graded papers"
  • "their general lack of interest in mentoring the students"
  • "faculty openly express doubts about the competence of the graduate students and their ability"
I'm not aware of any sexual activity between graduate students and the faculty, but there are several faculty members who are known for being rather lecherous and I have strong suspicions about professor-undergraduate sexual relations in one or two cases. Either of these might be worrisome to those concerned about what Leiter calls "The Sexual Predator Faculty".

Finally, I should note that I don't think UCSB is any more prone to these problems than most other departments. There were definitely several professors who were nothing but positive influences (including most especially Professor Tony Brueckner). But students who are applying there might want to identify the professor(s) that might give them problems. The graduate students currently attending there will know who those are.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Reflections on Hosting the Philosopher's Carnival

I wasn't really sure what to expect from the Philosopher's Carnival, but overall it was an enjoyable experience.

In total, there were 41 submissions, 20 of which were not on philosophically-relevant topics. Most of the remainder of these were submissions by blog owners of their own posts, and these were in general not very impressive. So, I chose to emphasize that part of the purpose of the carnival that aims "To showcase the best that a wide range of philosophy blogs have to offer, in one convenient location, for the benefit of philosophically-inclined readers." As a result, I spent much of the weekend before the carnival searching for recent posts in the blogs on Chalmers' philosophy blog list, picking out the best posts I could find to add to the submissions that others made.

After reading blogs all weekend, I didn't feel much like writing lengthy introductions to the posts I had found, so instead I just found an acceptable arrangement of the topics. I'm not sure whether others would prefer such introductions. Nevertheless, I think that a collection of 40 interesting blog posts without introductions is substantially preferable to a collection of a dozen blog posts with introductory prose. I hope that other readers of the Carnival agree, and I hope that future hosts of the Carnival will adopt a strategy similar to the one I used.

Monday, February 04, 2008

62nd Philosophers' Carnival

Hello and welcome to the 62nd Philosophers' Carnival!!

I won't bore you with my introductions, but instead will just go straight to the best philosophy of the last fortnight. Some of these are interesting, some are fun, and some I think will become interesting and fun if they become lengthy discussions (and I hope they will!). The categorizations that follow are far from perfect, but this seemed to be the most natural ordering of things:

From Ethics to Action:

From Action to Mind:
From Mind to Language:
From Language to Logic:
From Logic to Epistemology:
From Epistemology to Metaphysics:
Popular Philosophy:
I hope you enjoy reading these posts as much as I did, and I hope you'll explore my little blog while you're here. My next post will be about the experience of hosting the Philosophers' Carnival, and after that I'll return to my usual topics. Take it easy and be well!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Philosophers' Carnival: Call for Submissions

I'm pleased to announce that this blog will be hosting the 62nd Philosophers' Carnival. Submissions can be made by clicking on this link.

The mission of this edition of the carnival, should you choose to accept it, is to prove that philosophy is in a better state than it was in 1997. As much as I agree with them, I don't like to hear old philosophers bemoan "the lack of fresh new ideas" in philosophy, "wonder where the people of large insight and imagination are in the younger generation", or say things like "philosophy is not as exciting these days as it used to be".

It's time we take advantage of the fact that we are posting to blogs, rather than submitting articles to journals. We can afford to be creative and original and no one will look at us funny for being so. Well, only a little bit funny.

So get out there in that big blog world and write something provocative or find me something provocative someone else has written. Send me your submissions!

The Value of Practice

What is the value of logic? By this, I don't mean to ask what the value is to individuals who use logic, but, rather, what is it we expect from logic in the long run (like, say, over generations)? What is it of which we could always use more? I think it is safe to say that we expect of it that humanity will get better at it, that techniques for teaching and learning it will improve and spread to more people, that there will be logical progress made. Impressive logical techniques and good logical observations are things that are difficult to "discover", but, once found, aren't to be allowed to disappear from human thought, and if they do, it is a great loss.

What we have, then, appears to be a consequentialism of a sort. An action that produces more overall appreciation for logical norms is a better action than one which lessens appreciation for those norms or one that is neutral in respect to those norms. Or, at least, insofar as logic is concerned it is better. Of course, it is assumed that the norms in question are progressive, that we are using the term "norms" in the imperatival sense rather than in the descriptive sense.

As in previous posts to this blog, let's now explore what a parallelism for practical norms might be like. Just as with logic, we expect of our norms of practice/morality that humanity will get better at acting morally, that techniques for teaching and learning about morality will improve and spread to more people, that there will be moral progress made. And again, we have a consequentialism of a sort, this time aiming at actions which improve moral understanding.

None of this is very new to philosophy. One might conclude that these are merely a few of the most basic platitudes of our logical and practical thought. One might even think that the things I've been discussing on this blog are really quite far removed from morality, and are really more like pragmatics, being concerned with things that it is just good judgment to do.

The provocative idea I aim to explore is minimalism about value. Let us suppose that there is nothing more to value than what is implied by there being norms of a certain kind. The existence (or assumption) of universal standards of reasoning and speaking implies that the promotion, profligation, and improvement of those standards is valuable--logically/communicatively valuable. Similarly, the existence (or assumption) of universal standards of action implies that the promotion, profligation, and improvement of those standards is valuable--morally valuable. Any moral theory in which standards of action exist will be one in which these things are valuable. Minimalism is the idea that only these things are valuable.

So if this minimalism is right (and I think it is at least worth considering) and these are the only sources of value, then the correct value theory for our moral consequentialism isn't hedonist or utilitarian or welfarist or anything like that. Instead, the correct value theory for our moral consequentialism is an intellectualism of a sort. We are to do those actions that make us more inclined to understand morality and make us more inclined to act morally.

This may seem like a vacuous analysis, never really explaining what "morality" means, but it isn't. Just as we don't really need to define "logic" to recognize better reasoning, we don't need to define "morality" to recognize better acting. Logic just lets us make sense. Morality just lets us make good.


I think I've now completed the very basic sketch of the minimalist-yet-complicated virtue-theoretic-yet-consequentialist theory I've introduced in this blog. In future posts, I aim to examine in more detail some of the specific aspects of the account (including the problem of how practice affects meaning--both linguistic and moral) and I also will attempt to show how this theory handles many of the standard objections to consequentialism (including most importantly, the demandingness objection) and other moral theories. Another upcoming post will be on knowledge-how, which I think can be used to positive effect on a wide range of problems in philosophy.

I also have the good fortune to be hosting an upcoming Philosopher's Carnival here at this blog, so look out for that too!

Monday, January 07, 2008

The virtues of logic

The moral theory I'm trying to describe in this blog relies heavily upon a parallel between the norms of assertion (logic) and the norms of practice/morality. In this post, I'll be reflecting on the role of the logician, what expectations we have of her, and to what degree we expect non-logicians to respond to the norms of logic. Drawing the parallel to moral norms reveals some interesting assumptions that aren't always recognized.

In an ideal world, every logician would be as competent or more competent than Gödel, but we don't hold every logician to this standard. Logic is hard and not everyone is brilliant. Instead, we expect logicians to be able to understand and acknowledge many proofs and disproofs when presented with them and also to be able to identify errors in many unsuccessful purported proofs.

The expectations aren't much different when we extend our consideration beyond the current standard domain of logic (i.e., formal systems) to arguments in natural languages. We still expect experts to be able to identify logically persuasive arguments and to be able to identify fallacies.

But what do we expect (logically) from the average non-logician? We certainly don't expect them to have mastered logic and argument. We don't even always expect them to follow logical arguments given by other people. It seems, instead, that our expectations are quite limited. We expect average people to be willing and able to follow simple inferences when given an appropriate amount of explanation or guidance.

Now, what if our moral expectations ought to mirror our logical expectations? In that case, persons who excel at moral practice are rare but important, as Gödel is for logical practice. Analogous to the average professional logician would be a moral practitioner who is capable of identifying many appropriate things to do when presented with demonstrations supporting them and also to be able to identify improprieties in unsuccessful demonstrations. We would expect the average person to be willing and able to find very simple and general demonstrations persuasive when given an appropriate amount of explanation or guidance.

But the claims in the preceding paragraph are under the assumption that our logical expectations are already what they should be, and we have no reason to believe that assumption. The logical-moral parallel still works even if we ought to hold people to stricter logical standards than we currently do. The fact that we have high moral expectations might lead us, in light of the parallel, to increase our logical expectations, rather than to decrease our moral expectations.

There are several interesting ways in which contemporary moral philosophy and logical philosophy have diverted significantly, even if none of these divergences proves the analogy/parallel to be incorrect:

  • The right-thing-to-think/say vs. the right-thing-to-do: If moral norms function in the same way that logical norms function, then notions of the-right-thing-to-do make no more or less sense than notions of the-right-thing-to-think-or-say. While we certainly can make sense of the-right-thing-to-say in light of a certain purported argument, very little can be made of the notion the-right-thing-to-say simplicitir. Even if we can imagine such a thing, it certainly wouldn't involve an actual expectation that we would have of anyone. Even if there is a best thing to say at a given time, no one has a normative expectation that the person say it. Perhaps, contrary to much contemporary moral philosophy, the idea of the-right-thing-to-do is just as extraordinary a notion. Maybe even if there is such a thing as the-right-thing-to-do, no one can be reasonably expected to do it.
  • The amoralist vs. the alogicist: Much contemporary discussion has been given to issues involving the possibility or impossibility of an amoralist, whether an amoralist could be rational, what kinds of reasons could persuade an amoralist to act from moral considerations, and so on. I am aware of no similar discussions regarding the possibility of an alogicist, a person whose discourse is genuinely independent of all logico-linguistic normative considerations. There is no obvious reason why the alogicist is illogical, or at least, no more reason than there is why the amoralist is immoral. The parallel between logical norms and ethical norms that I've indicated can be correct if the amoralist ought to be as disregarded as the alogicist is or it can be correct if the alogicist ought to be given as much consideration as we've given the amoralist, but we have some reason to believe it can't be correct if we've given the alogicist and the amoralist each just as much attention as they deserve.
  • Ability to do logic/good vs. actual performance of lots of logic/good: In much of our classical and contemporary moral literature, it is taken as a platitude that we ought to do as much good as we can. This is much different from the situation in logic, where no individuals are expected to conclude (soundly) as much as they can. Instead, for logicians, what matters is the ability to reach those conclusions and perhaps also the tendency to reach just those conclusions that are called for. If our moral norms function like our logical norms, then perhaps what really matters for the moral practitioner is the ability to do good things and perhaps also the tendency to do just those good things that are called for. This suggests some virtue theoretic account, and if I am right about the publicity requirements I blogged about on 12/15/07, then the virtue theoretic account in question is the Socratic intellectualist one. All the practical virtues are one, aimed at being able to identify and demonstrate goods, just as all the logical virtues are one, aimed at being able to identify and demonstrate truths. (Now, just because we don't hold individual logicians accountable for concluding soundly as much as they can, this doesn't mean that we don't expect from logical/linguistic practice that it will increase the number and variety of sound conclusions over time. The same will also hold true of our expectations of moral practice, as I will explain in my next post. The expectations from logicians/practicioners and the expectations from the practices themselves are very different.)

Monday, December 24, 2007


I'd like to write a few notes about my last journal post. I hope the strategy was obvious: Take the implicit definitions of basic logical terms (or, at least, that minimal group of which the anti-realist approves) and attempt to mirror those definitions with basic ethical terms, in the attempt to explore what an anti-realistic notion of morality might be like.

I don't think I've done anything profound, and even if this sketch is right in parts, it is still only a very rough, very preliminary sketch. The details will require a significant amount of ironing out.

So, here's the vocabulary:
speakers of a language/witnesses of a world

The implicit definitions I've given of many of these words fit quite nicely with our ordinary understanding of their meanings, but others are a bit of a stretch or require a new understanding of the term (including, for example, predicament, permit, permission). I'd gladly take any suggestions of more felicitous terms.

I think a great many interesting things can be said about this parallel, if it is correct. In future posts to this blog, I hope to introduce some of these observations. My next post will reflect upon the qualities that are desirable in a logician, and consider whether our parallel makes visible qualities that are desireable in a practitioner (another unfelicitous implicit definition). In the post after that, I intend to reflect on the goals of logic as a universal enterprise, and, again, consider whether the parallel tells us anything about our goals of morality.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Tractatus Two

(The title of this post is intended to reflect the philosophical method I'll be using in this post. It is not intended to reflect the philosophical content of this post. The method is, of course, stipulative or implicit definition. The mimicry in layout is just for fun. *smile* )

1 An assertion is a way of expressing that something is a certain way, usually by uttering an indicative sentence of a natural language.

1.1 Some examples of assertions are answers, aphorisms, and descriptions of a thing.

2 An illustration is a way of showing how things are, usually by some pedagogical action.

2.01 While we express assertions with claims of the form "Someone believes that something is a certain way", we express illustrations with claims of the form "Someone sees how something is a certain way".

2.1 Some examples of illustrations are allegories, analogies, demonstrations, thought experiments, proofs, and diagrams.

3 One thing philosophers do is assume assertions to be true. The assumption is that the meanings of different words are related in a fundamental way. Let's try to make this clear with an illustration of learning:

  1. You have learned the meaning of the word "two" from some illustrations.
  2. You have learned the meaning of the word "four" from some illustrations.
  3. You have learned the meaning of the word "plus" from some illustrations.
  4. You have learned the meaning of the word "equals" from some illustrations.
    Therefore, you are entitled to say "two plus two equals four".
3.1 When a person is entitled to say a sentence and he does say it, his assertion is true. When a person is not entitled to say a sentence, he is not entitled to assert a connection between the meanings of the words he uses, and his assertion may be false. A more general way to say this is that an assertion of mine is true and understood only when I have correctly learned the meanings of the words I use, and an assertion of mine is not understood and may be false or senseless when I have incorrectly learned the meanings of the words I use.

3.11 Assumption, then, involves the idea that the meanings of the words I use aren't up to me, but instead are dependent upon the community of speakers of a language.

3.2 Philosophers take advantage of differences in meaning and connections between meanings by making arguments. An argument is an assertion that the truth of a sentence or sentences illustrates how some other sentence is true.

3.21 We've used an argument above. There we were using the argument, but now we are going to talk about it. In that argument, some assertions were made, including the assertion that you have learned the meaning of the word "two". We were able to conclude from those assertions that you are entitled to say "two plus two equals four". By assumption, the conclusion is true.

3.22 Now, based on the fact that we understand the words in the following sentence, we are entitled to assert it:
A: It is true that you are entitled to say "two plus two equals four".
or, in other words,
A': Your assertion that two plus two equals four is true.
3.221 So, an argument takes one or more assertions and illustrates how by assumption some further assertion is true.

4 One thing philosophers do is assume illustrations to be good. The assumption is that the imports of different events are related in a fundamental way. Let's try to make this clear with an illustration of learning:

  1. Benjamin Franklin learned how conductors with a sharp point were capable of discharging electricity silently and at great distance.
  2. Benjamin Franklin learned how conductors with rounder, smoother points were less capable of discharging electricity silently and at less distance.
    Therefore, Benjamin Franklin was entitled to show how lightning rods prevented homes from being damaged.
4.1 When a person is entitled to show a phenomenon and he does show it, his illustration is good. When a person is not entitled to show a phenomenon, he is not entitled to illustrate a connection between the imports of the events he sees, and his illustration may be bad. A more general way to say this is that an illustration of mine is good and understood only when I have correctly learned the imports of the events I see, and an illustration of mine is not understood and may be bad or worthless when I have improperly learned the imports of the events I see.

4.11 Assumption, then, involves the idea that the imports of the events I see aren't up to me, but instead are dependent upon the community of witnesses of a world.

4.2 Philosophers take advantage of differences in import and connections between imports by making predicaments. A predicament is an illustration how the good of a phenomenon or phenomena illustrates how some other phenomenon is good.

4.21 We've seen a predicament above. There we were seeing the predicament, but now we are going to talk about it. In that predicament, some illustrations were made, including the illustration how Benjamin Franklin learned how conductors with a sharp point were capable of discharging electricity silently and at great distance. We were able to permit from those illustrations how Benjamin Franklin was entitled to show how lightning rods prevented homes from being damaged. By assumption, the permission is good.

4.22 Now, based on the fact that we understand the words in the following sentence, we are entitled to assert it:
A: It is good how Benjamin Franklin was entitled to show how lightning rods prevented homes from being damaged.
or, in other words,
A': Benjamin Franklin's illustration how lighting rods prevented homes from being damaged was good.
4.221 So, a predicament takes one or more illustrations and illustrates how by assumption some further illustration is good.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Semantic anti-realism and the right thing to do

The most compelling aspect of the anti-realist argument is its attention to the publicity of meaning. From Wittgenstein, we have the idea that all evidence anyone has on which to improve her literacy is whatever linguistic behavior she can observe. From Dummett (via the mathematical intuitionists), we have the idea that the grasp of meanings of words can only be shown by demonstrating competence in their use. The anti-realists have shown us that when we take these concerns seriously, we have to question the merit of our concept of classical truth (via classical negation), at least in ordinary natural languages.

Those who give the anti-realist argument its due respect acknowledge that the realist position and the anti-realist position aren't in genuine conflict. Instead, the positions are really about different things. The realist position is about (classical) truth and schmeaning (i.e., intension), while the anti-realist position is about meaning and schtruth (i.e., intuitionistic truth).

Ultimately, the disagreement amounts to this: (Where X is a theorem of classical logic that isn't also a theorem of intuitionistic logic or where X is a conclusion of a classically sound inference that isn't also intuitionistically sound), the realist is willing to assert:

We can see how X is true, and we can assert that X is true.

while the anti-realist is only willing to assert

We can see how X is true (because we know that any refutation of X is an absurdity), but we can't (completely literally) assert that X is true. If we were to say that X is true, we would be speaking loosely or using metaphor, rather than using the meanings over which we have observed and shown competence. A completely literal assertion that X would require us to have a competence that it is in principle impossible to demonstrate.

Now, what I think needs to be explored is whether similar concerns arise with respect to morality or our concept "good". By now you should know that I think they do. I know of no one who has explored this issue. The closest anti-realists have come is to consider how the word "truth" operates in ethical discourse. This, of course, is a linguistic issue rather than a normative one. I, on the other hand, aim to show that the same concerns that the anti-realist has with respect to our norms of language/logic can be paralleled with similar concerns regarding our norms of behavior; we don't need to resort to determining whether the truth of moral statements is classical or intuitionistic, we can instead appeal directly to the ethical norms that make them true and reflect on whether those operate classically or intuitionistically.

The basic idea is that our ethical standards should have the same publicity requirements as Wittgenstein and Dummett have observed in our linguistic standards. We can only learn moral good and bad from observing behavior, and how morally good or bad our actions are must be demonstrable (in principle). The immediate realist objection, just like in the linguistic case, is that the right thing to do just is the right thing to do even if we could never in principle tell what it was. Sometimes, there is just no way to know what is the right thing to do.

But the anti-realist response is exactly paralleled also. The anti-realist can say "Fine, if you don't want me to call this concept 'morality', I'll just call it 'schmorality'. Now you need to demonstrate that 'schmorality' is a worthless concept. I don't think you can do that."

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Ongoing research

While I'm spending the next ten years or so paying off my student loans, I plan to do a lot of independent research in philosophy, mostly exploring the following general areas or questions:

*Semantic anti-realism (i.e., anti-realism about truth due to concerns about unavoidable constraints on meaning in a natural language) and whether a version of it can be adapted or supplemented to form a sort of axiological anti-realism (i.e., anti-realism about goodness due to concerns about unavoidable constraints on practices in a community). The idea here is not to reject or ignore the realist conceptions, but to explore the merits of anti-realist conceptions (and maybe find a place for both). -- I don't like most of the realist/anti-realist debate because I find it distastefully antagonistic.

*Empirical psychological analysis of thought experiments, focusing especially on when subjects of the experiment think it is acceptable to initiate an action vs. thinking it is inappropriate to initiate an action without investigating the circumstances more ("How did I come to know that pushing this fat guy onto the trolley tracks would stop the trolley?" or "How did I end up in a state where I'm really sure Jim is going to successfully kill those Indians?"). -- I especially want to explore the status of states of information (assuming they exist) in which the appropriate thing to do is to always refrain from acting and instead always confirm that one has correctly identified one's circumstances, no matter how many times one has already double-checked the evidence. (Presumably, this would include at least some of the thought experiments in the literature that seem the most contrived.)

*Minimalism about value. -- I'd like to identify the most basic platitudes about value (following the general strategy of Wright's work on truth) and determine what, if anything interesting, follows from them.

*Socratic intellectualism and the Socratic paradoxes. -- I'm not very interested in studies about Socrates himself or about Plato's work, but rather in contemporary explorations of the views generally identified by these terms.

*William Wollaston. -- I'd like to explore whether Wollaston's idea of moral wrong as the presentation of falsehoods can be resuscitated from Hume's criticism (or altered in response to it). NOTE: I haven't yet read Wollaston himself.

*Consequentialism and which (if any) of the objections raised against it can be dissolved by adopting a form of intellectualism as its value theory. -- pace Rawls, of course.

*Wittgenstein's ethics. -- I know little about this, but given what I do know I can't help but feel it is relevant to my other concerns here.

Mostly, I just hope to encourage (even if in a very slight way) philosophers working in one or more of these specialties to explore any connections their work might have with the other areas here in which they haven't done substantial research. As I think is obvious from this list, I'm looking to explore the connections between the-thing-to-do (in the moral sense, or in some other normative sense) and understanding or some similar notion--whatever we choose to call it--on the presumption that we have it and generally can recognize it.

If you'd like to recommend any work in any of these diverse fields that I might find useful, please do so. Also, if you'd like to recommend any philosophers or areas of specialized research that might be importantly relevant to the others I've listed here, please do so.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Dummettian Anti-Realism

I find it interesting that realists almost unfailingly present discussions of realism in terms of truth, when, by all anti-realist accounts (and by that I mean Dummett, Wright, and Tennant), meaning is the central notion. I think this is disingenuous, and a violation of that great principle of academic writing, that one is to represent one's opponents' views in the best possible light.

While I don't, at present, have at hand any good passages or soundbites from Dummett or Wright to emphasize this point, the point is easily found in Tennant (1987), being the first paragraph of chapter one:

Anti-Realism is a doctrine about language, meaning, and logic. It rests on four powerful ideas:
  1. when we are mastering language, and when we are exercising that mastery, all that is available to us for gleaning or conveying meanings is the overt, observable behaviour of fellow speakers;
  2. the meaning of any well-formed expression in our language depends in a rule-governed way on the meanings of its constituent simple expressions;
  3. when we have mastered a language, its sentences have a determinate meaning for us;
  4. our knowledge of those meanings can be displayed by an appropriate exercise of recognitional capacities shared by competent speakers.
Principle (1) we have from the later Wittgenstein. Principle (2) we have had ever since the early Frege. Principle (3) we reaffirm pace Quine. Principle (4) is due to Dummett. It will assume special significance in the course of our investigations.

Now, given such a clear statement, how is it fair for the realist to present anti-realism as Christopher Norris (2002) does here (from the second paragraph of chapter one):

Dummett is known chiefly for his anti-realist approach to issues of meaning and truth, an approach that grew out of his intensive study of the work of Gottlob Frege. In this account the meaning of a statement is given by its truth-conditions, which in turn derive from our ability to manifest a knowledge of the kinds of situation to which it properly applies. that is to say, our only criterion of truth or falsehood is the capacity we have to verify or falsify the statement under review. So when Frege holds that 'sense determines reference' Dummett takes this to entail that it is simply unintelligible to posit the existence of objective ('verification-transcendent') truths that somehow surpass or exceed the limits of our best-attainable knowledge. In which case we cannot--or should not--make claims about truth or reality beyond whatever can be borne out by our proof-procedures, information sources, or practices of reasoning on the evidence to hand.

I fail to see how expressing the views in this manner amounts to anything like charity of exposition. The issue is not that these things are false (though I think the case could be made that some of them are), it's that the emphasis is inappropriate. Consider the emphasis in the following sentence from Norris' introduction (p. 7):

[If the anti-realist is right], we should then have to conclude that mathematicians working on a solution to Goldbach's Conjecture quite literally have no idea of what might count as an adequate formalised proof, or that astronomers quite literally have no conception of the state of affairs (i.e., the existence or non-existence of a duplicate solar system) that would serve to decide the truth-value of any statement concerning it.

As before, the sentence is true, but the emphasis is unfair. This is not the way the sentence is true that is supposed to be persuasive. Instead, the emphasis should be as follows:

[If the anti-realist is right], we should then have to conclude that mathematicians working on a solution to Goldbach's Conjecture quite literally have no idea of what might count as an adequate formalised proof, or that astronomers quite literally have no conception of the state of affairs (i.e., the existence or non-existence of a duplicate solar system) that would serve to decide the truth-value of any statement concerning it.

The anti-realist doesn't argue that the mathematicians or astronomers have nothing in mind, but rather only that it is indeterminate what it is that is in mind, that there is no one conception that the mathematicians or astronomers necessarily share, and that this indeterminacy can't be clarified by experience or by an improvement to the language.

There are still manners of expressing what the mathematicians and astronomers might have in mind, such as illustrations, metaphors, or analogies, but these aren't the kinds of things that are appropriate bearers of truth, seeing as how they aren't literal indicative sentences of a language. (The possibility that a different conception of knowledge, say knowledge-how, might be useful in this situation is something I've pondered, but since this conception is not the target of the anti-realist, the point is a red herring.)

I think the realist argument can't be taken seriously until one of them responds to the challenge to present an adequate account of meaning. I'll leave you with Dummett's words (1978, p. 423) on one such attempt:

Kripke's theory admits a distinction, absent from Frege, the Tractatus and the positivists alike, between epistemic and metaphysical necessity. From my point of view, Kripke's account is worse than the Tractatus/positivist one, in that, not only does it make meaning correlative to necessity, but it overtly chooses metaphysical rather than epistemic necessity as the type of necessity to which it is correlative. This represents an extreme form of repudiation of thesis (i) [meaning has to do with knowledge]. But I cannot see that a repudiation so extreme can relate to a notion that can be recognised as one of meaning. It has the effect that Kripke's notion of 'meaning' can have only the use of serving to give a semantics for sentences involving metaphysical necessity: the notion had therefore better be re-labelled 'intension', and we now no longer have any theory of meaning.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

This is my blog. I will post philosophy-related thoughts here. They will be informal and ill-considered.