Wednesday, November 25, 2015

An exchange with David Ottlinger

In this comment thread there is quite an interesting extended exchange between myself and David Ottlinger in which I am questioning his general approach to how thinking and argument relates to human action. We clearly have very different views on how human beings operate, on freedom, on morality and on philosophical thinking generally.

[A new essay of mine (on intergenerational communication) will appear at The Electric Agora very shortly. I will put up a link from my other blog soon after the article appears.]

Monday, October 5, 2015

My first essay for The Electric Agora

My name has been added to the contributors list at the new site, The Electric Agora, and my first piece – which was prompted by a question raised in a previous essay there as to whether "there really are such things as moral obligations and duties" – is now up. Do have a look.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Anti-naturalism in philosophy (III)

The role and raison d'ĂȘtre of academic philosophy in today's world is far from clear: there is certainly no consensus amongst philosophers regarding what philosophy is or is for. I personally would like to see the discipline become less insular and more engaged with the sciences, and there have been some encouraging moves in this direction. On the whole, however, I think that you would have to say that the discipline has become less rather than more science-friendly or science-oriented over the last fifty or sixty years.

What concerns me here is the general question of metaphysical or religious motivation. Generally the logical empiricists, who dominated analytic philosophy in the mid-20th century, were not well disposed towards traditional metaphysics or religion. But the general climate of opinion within academic philosophy has changed quite a bit since then.

There are (and always have been) overtly religious philosophers, of course. But I am not concerned with them so much as with apparently non-religious (or even atheistic) philosophers who nonetheless seem very uncomfortable with a straightforwardly naturalistic view of the world.

Take John McDowell. I am not aware that he has any particular religious affiliation, and yet there is something about his approach which seems almost hostile to science and I have trouble trying to figure out what on earth is driving it. It must be more than just a desire to defend his professional turf, I feel sure.

Starting about the 24 minute mark in this interview, McDowell defends himself against accusations by Tyler Burge (who is not featured here) that his approach betrays ignorance of the relevant science, but his defense is not entirely convincing.

Note his curiously unscientific discussion about recognizing Bill Clinton's face (43-45 min.): no reference at all is made to brain processes (and much is known about these sorts of processes). Note also some fairly dismissive remarks about science in general and cognitive science in particular. "What [cognitive science] does," he says (more than once), "is just fine" – but it has little to contribute to telling us about how we can know things, apparently! *

Though he concedes that in order for his views to be acceptable they must be compatible with the relevant science (of perception and cognition, etc.), McDowell's view of the world is clearly not driven by science (which he shows little interest in). He certainly does not have what the logical positivists dubbed a scientific worldview. In fact, he seems to espouse a form of Kantian idealism. He himself notes that he came over time to recognize the importance of Kant's transcendental perspective; and, though this topic is not raised here, McDowell is a defender of moral realism.

The only way I can make sense of an intelligent and obviously serious thinker going on at such length and in such detail about the distinction between the perceived and the seemingly perceived etc. is that something more than just an apparently trivial semantic point about the meaning of the word 'know' and its cognates is (perceived to be) at stake here. What is being obliquely presented and defended in all of this is a particular metaphysic, a fundamentally anti-physicalist, anti-empiricist and possibly anti-naturalist way of seeing the world.

Terms like physicalism and naturalism are awkward to define, but what this philosopher and many like him are claiming is that there is more to fundamental reality than what the various sciences and mathematics can describe or access – and that the philosopher (through pure thought, apparently) has access to it.

This sort of thinking strikes me as being very much in the same category as priestly mystification. And indeed many of today's philosophers, whose discipline in the Western tradition grew out of schools of divinity, could be seen to be competing to fill the same general intellectual, social and economic space as was once occupied (almost exclusively) by clerics.

One last point. When I talk of priestly mystification I don't mean to imply that it necessarily involved or involves deliberate deception or hypocrisy. In many (perhaps in most) cases, the perpetrators are 'true believers' in the doctrines they are promoting.

* In order to understand this discussion fully one would need to read certain texts, by Wilfred Sellars in particular. Sellars was a 20th-century philosopher who is often appealed to by those who seek to make a space for philosophy, a philosophy which is respectful of but distinct from science, in today's intellectual landscape. Daniel Kaufman, with whom I have had some dealings (at Scientia Salon, Apophenia and, more recently, at The Electric Agora), is a great promoter of Sellars' work. The interviewer on this video is also a Sellarsian. But not the interviewee, I would say. For McDowell, Sellars' view of the world is too reductionistic or scientistic apparently and, though he appeals to some of Sellars' ideas (like 'the Myth of the Given'), he "averts his gaze" (a strange – and revealing – phrase) from other aspects of Sellars' thought.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Anti-naturalism in philosophy (II)

Here are a few more notes on the debate between Paul Horwich and Timothy Williamson which I discussed briefly in my previous post on this site.

In the video, Horwich defends his view, based on his reading of Wittgenstein, that much of what goes on under the name of (analytic) philosophy is "irrational". (Williamson calls a spade a bloody shovel and interprets him as saying that it is "rubbish".)

Horwich starts talking about 39 minutes into the video, and a brief statement of his position starts at about the 42-minute mark. His key contention is that the common philosophical supposition that abductive reasoning from intuitive data can reveal fundamental regularities (more or less as science can be seen to reveal fundamental regularities which underlie empirical data) is simply false.

He summarizes the basic argument he makes for his position in five points. Here is my summary of his summary:

1) Our concepts (I assume he means linguistically-based concepts) tend to be messy. They evolved to deal with a wide range of real-world contingencies and are used in a bewildering variety of ways. The intuitive data upon which philosophical reasoning is based is inextricably bound up with such concepts. In fact, many of the key concepts with which philosophers have traditionally been concerned are particularly prone to conflicting understandings and interpretations.

2) Via conjectured theoretical entities, models, etc., the various sciences have developed effective ways of dealing with messy empirical data to arrive at (often) elegant and relatively simple theories which reveal fundamental regularities.

3) The currently dominant strand of analytic philosophy also seeks elegance and simplicity, but any simplicity obtained is generally obtained "on the cheap" by finding a simple regularity that fits most of the (intuitive) data, and counting intuitions or interpretations which do not fit the theory as mistaken or incorrect.

4) This is a distortion of the scientific method.

5) Not all philosophers make this mistake, but a beautifully simple theory will rarely be obtainable. Almost inevitably there will be a profusion of alternative theories and no prospect of convergence. Competing theories of ethics are an obvious example.

My response...

Horwich is basically correct about the problems of philosophy as a theoretical discipline. And I believe his views on this more or less accurately reflect Wittgenstein's views.

But there are a couple of aspects of Horwich's thinking with which I am uncomfortable. Interestingly, these features are also the very features of Wittgenstein's thinking that I reject.

First, the 'scientism' issue. (Horwich uses the word.) Now, it seems to me that the term can used in at least two ways, one quite focussed, the other broader and stronger.

In the narrower sense, the term is used to highlight the inappropriate application of scientific methods or approaches. Horwich, for example, sees philosophy as inappropriately imitating science. I agree with him. This sort of thing happens and it would be better if it didn't. Philosophy (however we understand it) is not science. (Similarly, social science is not physics.)

But 'scientism' also has a broader meaning. On this view, a scientistic outlook involves having a high regard for science coupled with skepticism about other ways of gaining (anything other than commonsense and practical) knowledge.

This broader sense of 'scientism' (which I would embrace) marks a divide between profoundly different views of the world; and, because there is no agreement on basic assumptions across the divide, there is no way of satisfactorily dealing with such differences via philosophical or ordinary reasoning and argument. One set of assumptions or presuppositions will lead to certain philosophical opinions and lines of argument; another set will lead elsewhere.

Closely related to this scientism issue is the question of naturalism. Horwich rejects naturalism, which he sees as the view that every property, object and fact is naturalistic.

Mathematics is often said to involve objects, etc. which exist but do not exist in time and space. If so, then naturalism (as Horwich defines it) is incorrect. This leaves the door open for the similarly real existence of moral properties, for instance.

I haven't looked yet at Horwich's views on ethics. But I am aware of Wittgenstein's (religion-based?) views on these matters.

I am not going to try to deal here with Timothy Williamson's point of view. To do so would mean addressing topics like the dreaded Barcan formula (which was mentioned by Horwich in the video, by the way). The Barcan formula is an axiom (or schema) of quantified modal logic first stated by Ruth Barcan (who became Ruth Barcan Marcus) the acceptance of which apparently enhances and simplifies the workings of formal systems of quantified modal logic. Williamson defends the Barcan formula as being in some sense 'true', and, despite the fact that there is no general agreement on its informal interpretation, seeks to draw metaphysical conclusions from it – something along the lines that everything exists, but some things as actual objects and some as possible objects. This sort of thinking strikes me as being more in line with medieval scholasticism than with modern scientific thinking (and indeed in his writings Williamson refers to Avicenna, claiming that he informally anticipated both the Barcan formula and its converse).

There have been big advances in formal logic over the last century or so, and it would not be surprising if such advances allowed us to see certain general ideas in logic and traditional metaphysics in a new light, validating some old approaches as insightful or prescient and undermining others. But what Williamson is doing strikes me as going well beyond such modest, historical commentary. Though he equivocates about naturalism in this discussion with Horwich, backing away from Horwich's claim that he, like Horwich, is opposed to a naturalistic view of the world, he does seem, in effect, to be rejecting a modern, scientific outlook and attempting to resurrect something like traditional metaphysics.

I am not saying his motivations are religious: they may be entirely intellectual. The realm of formal logic, like the realm of mathematics, has its attractions: it can appear very appealing, especially when contrasted with the messiness and general unsatisfactoriness of mundane reality.

Horwich accepts the messiness, however, and here I am very much on his side.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Anti-naturalism in philosophy (I)

[Revised version]

To each his own. It is not for me to adjudicate on other people's activities – so long as they are not harmful or wasteful of public resources.

In these respects, academic philosophy occupies a grey area. It is dependent on public funds, though its requirements are relatively modest compared to some other disciplines. And it can be used (and often is) as a vehicle for promoting certain metaphysical, religious or ideological views, activities which will generally be seen as good by those who share the perspectives in question but harmful by others.

I have been following up recently on certain philosophical thinkers and trying to assess whether or not my initial judgements about the worthwhileness of their work were justified. (Of course, it's not just individual thinkers I am concerned with but also with the discipline.)

There are two issues here which need to be distinguished: worthwhileness (which relates to the wastefulness question raised in the first paragraph), and the issue of using the platform provided by a teaching position in academic philosophy to promote an ideologically-motivated agenda. The latter, I believe, is inappropriate and unprofessional and betrays the trust which society places in its publicly-funded or subsidized teachers. I will ignore here the most common (and objectionable) kind of bias – involving the promotion of partisan political views – and focus on the more subtle question of general metaphysical and religious attitudes.

I have to say that philosophy as it has generally been practised over recent decades does not look attractive to me: the general philosophical culture has been just too hostile to what is seen as 'scientism', and I have felt that the few who shared my views and who participated in the philosophical culture were only serving to give it unwarranted credibility (as token figures, perhaps).

Moreover, I can't imagine that Patricia Churchland's career path, for example, or even that of Daniel Dennett would be possible today. They learned their science along the way, more or less informally. Things are changing, especially with the advent of younger thinkers (such as the neo-empiricist Jesse Prinz or Edouard Machery) who are breaking down the barriers – and blurring the distinction – between philosophy and science.

But amongst those still committed to their discipline as independent and autonomous I am coming across more and more philosophers with a religious agenda. Even many apparently atheistic philosophers seem to be critical of naturalism. I just can't make sense of this except as a quasi-religious or (in some sense) ideological position. It may be that such a position is a necessary (but not a sufficient) condition for seeing philosophy as an autonomous and coherent academic discipline.

Note that both figures in the video debate embedded below share an anti-naturalistic outlook (though Timothy Williamson equivocates somewhat on this question). Note also the dramatic way Williamson sets up the debate – claiming that what Paul Horwich is saying, in effect, is that philosophy as normally practised is essentially just rubbish. Most academic philosophers spend their time addressing pseudo-problems while others spend their time pointing this out. On this reckoning, we should just pull the plug on the whole enterprise.

Williamson is an apparently skeptical but metaphysically-inclined logician. I respect his formal logical expertise but not his judgement in applying formal logical methods to theoretical and metaphysical questions. This general tradition of thinking, which owes not a little to Saul Kripke's work, has always struck me (I may be wrong) as profoundly misguided when it moves in a metaphysical direction, though it does have useful applications in semantics and other areas. I suspect that much of it – to the extent that it is not just game-playing – is ultimately motivated by a desire to undermine a naturalistic (or to develop a non-naturalistic) view of the world. Kripke, for example, has strong religious beliefs, and the orientation of his theoretical work is arguably related to these. It is no secret that many of today's logicians and philosophers (religiously inclined or not) are antagonistic to science.

The philosophy of language (so-called) seems to be more firmly rooted in 19th-century metaphysics than in modern linguistics. Furthermore, Wittgenstein's and other philosophers' compelling insights into what natural language is, how it works and how it can lead us astray seem to have been ignored or forgotten (except by the likes of Horwich, definitely in a minority these days).

Formal languages and approaches are valuable for their practical applications and for what they can teach us both about the nature of natural language and about thinking. But, like ordinary-language-based approaches, they can be deployed in very unproductive ways.

I will look more closely at what Williamson and Horwich are saying in my next post.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Quietism; Wittgenstein

This site was originally conceived as an ideology-free zone. Impossible, of course, for a blog which consists largely of opinion pieces (even if they are mostly on science- and philosophy-related topics).

Partisan politics free? Yes, that's quite easy to do, especially since political views are not directly relevant to most of the topics discussed here anyway.

But ideology is inescapable. Understood as a culturally-generated framework of purposes, facts and values which is adopted – and adapted – by individuals more or less voluntarily and more or less consciously, it pervades and motivates virtually all culturally-significant human activity.

For a while there I had been thinking about collapsing my two blogs into a single new site with a new title, shorter and sharper than 'Language, Life and Logic' but not suggestive (like 'Conservative tendency') of a particular political orientation. The latter is a strong title but could (my thinking went) be a liability, especially if it were my sole site and I wanted to focus on more science-oriented topics.

I have been posting at this site mainly pieces on language or the philosophy of mathematics or other more or less philosophical topics: relatively dry stuff, but ideological nonetheless a lot of the time. In fact, the generally deflationist, anti-metaphysical and quietistic orientation on display here might even be characterized – though not in a specifically political sense – as conservative.

Quietism has, after all, a distinct conservative (albeit anti-libertarian) flavour. It is all about respecting the power and efficacy of what is beyond the individual.

In religion (where the term had its origin) it was a borderline-heretical mystical movement within French and Spanish Catholicism which advocated a kind of willing surrender of one's will to an all-powerful deity.

These days, however, quietism usually refers to a political orientation characterized by skepticism about social activism, etc.; or to a position in the philosophy of language characterized by the rejection of a reformist approach to natural language.

The later Wittgenstein is often referred to as a quietist as he saw philosophical problems as arising not from the deficiencies but rather from the misuse of natural language. If language is seen as deficient, then some kind of revisionism seems called for – let's fix it (or replace it with something better). But Wittgenstein sought, as he put it, to leave everything as it was.

Arguably, this quietistic streak carried over into other areas of his life. Though he was deeply influenced by Tolstoy's radical views and had left-wing connections and friends (e.g. his colleague, the economist Piero Sraffa), Wittgenstein's radicalism was more moral than political. He was not (so far as I know) politically active, and he remained conservative in many ways. He was certainly a cultural conservative.

Let me make it clear that I am not endorsing Wittgenstein's view of the world – and certainly not his religious leanings or his curiously negative attitude to science.

All I am suggesting here is that there is a degree of overlap between (different forms of) quietism and (different forms of) conservatism, and that the case of Wittgenstein may be seen to illustrate this to some extent.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Egos, ideology and science

Massimo Pigliucci has caused another stir by further distancing himself from the skeptic and atheist groups within which he originally came to public prominence, and by renewing his criticisms of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins in particular.

The trigger for his recent article was the publication of an initially private exchange on a political matter between Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky. Pigliucci criticizes Harris's behaviour (not without some justification) and sees it as typical of the so-called 'new atheists' who, in his eyes, are no longer serious intellectuals but rather publicity-seeking cult leaders. Or that's the general gist of it.

This whole business is confusing and not very edifying: the issues are obscured by personal sniping and perceived snubs, etc. It seems, for example, that one of the main targets of Pigliucci's wrath, Richard Dawkins, has not only been publicly dismissive of Pigliucci but also rude to him in person!

All this squabbling wouldn't matter but for one thing. At the heart of most of these disputes are important ideological and scientific questions -- and mixing the two is a recipe for disaster.

For example, Dawkins and Pigliucci are on the opposite sides of a debate about evolutionary theory: Pigliucci is firmly on the side of those who are committed to a so-called 'extended synthesis' -- basically replacing the neo-Darwinian modern synthesis with a much less gene-centred model. But the whole debate seems to be ideologically driven (as indeed it has been for decades, at least since the heyday of Stephen Jay Gould).

In my only published comment on Massimo's recent piece, I spoke in general terms about my concerns and made a reference to Chomsky (whom Massimo clearly sees as a role model, at least in terms of his politics).

I wrote (in part):

"... It's always a pity when partisan politics gets mixed up with science. (The science inevitably gets compromised.)

And it's also a pity when partisan politics-talk gets mixed up with science-talk. It can be great fun, of course -- reassuring, ego-boosting, etc... But unfortunately confusion tends to reign and this sort of discourse is not worth a lot in the scheme of things.

Chomsky is unusual (and admirable) in this respect: he maintains two distinct public personas and (unlike a lot of linguists, social scientists, etc.) keeps his politics quite separate from his work in linguistics. No hidden or half-hidden political agenda as far as I can see in his scientific work. (The universalist assumptions are upfront and not implausible.) Moreover, if you go to a Chomsky lecture -- or read an article by him -- on a linguistic topic, you're not likely to encounter any gratuitous political asides."