Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Genetic factors and religious orientation

Research seems to indicate that a person's basic political orientation is largely determined by genetic and very early social-environmental influences rather than rational reflection.* Similar principles apply to religious orientation, and there is a lot of research (including studies of identical twins) which indicates that, in conjunction with environmental factors, genetics plays a powerful role in determining a person's basic religious attitudes.**

The point I want to make here relates to religious orientation - not to the research results themselves but to the implications of the results.

Let us assume (not unreasonably, given the large body of research findings) that genetic and early developmental factors do play a decisive role in setting one's basic religious - or anti-religious - orientation. Surely doubting one's intuitions in the area of religion would be the only rational response.

My intuitions, as it happens, are anti-religious in the sense that I am naturally attracted to 'no nonsense' explanations, to principles like Occam's razor; and I am impatient of (what I see as) mystification on the part of those who seek to elaborate a religious view of the world.

In the realm of religion - as in the realm of politics - polemical arguments are the norm. But - as in politics - virtually nobody is convinced by their opponents. (Richard Dawkins' early books on the science of evolution were far better and, arguably, far more influential than his later polemics against religion.)

If, however, both sides accepted that their (pro- or anti-religious) intuitions had been as it were arbitrarily assigned, we would move into a very different space.

An uncomfortable space, actually. Certainly, I find it uncomfortable. It's much easier - and much more satisfying - (especially if one has strong feelings in the matter) to take sides.

Let me make it clear that I see no reason to accept the doctrines of institutional religions such as Christianity, Islam or, say, Tibetan Buddhism. But I concede that the current scientific view of things is provisional and may have major gaps and deficiencies, and some of the insights of religious thinkers may in time be vindicated.

* I have discussed this elsewhere.

** The quote from Steven Pinker incorporated into this post makes a serious point. And here (PDF file) is something a bit more substantial.

Friday, May 25, 2012


In David Berlinski's world, the great mathematicians and logicians of times past are alive and well, and make regular appearances in the here and now. Leibniz comes late one night to sit by Berlinski's desk and discuss his curious notion of an encyclopedia of human concepts, "his lush old-fashioned wig proving irresistible to my cats, who have come creeping from their tower to bat at it."*

And Gottlob Frege [1848-1925] somewhat surprisingly team-taught logic with Berlinski at an unnamed California college at an unspecified point of the later twentieth century:

Our classes were always well attended because logic was a prerequisite for an engineering degree, and they were, I must say, well received, Frege and I both receiving excellent if somewhat innocent standardized student evaluations, any number of students somehow saying the same thing, that while Mr. Berlinski should learn to match his ties and suits, Mr. Frege is very nice. No wonder they never complained about his clothes. Frege would dress severely, no matter the sunshine, which even in February seemed to light up every corner of the campus, wearing the same black frock coat and batwing collar that, no doubt, he had worn in Germany. You must imagine the man at the blackboard, the thick German chalk in his fingers, his back always toward our students and the logical symbols going up and down the board, the steps separated, when necessary, by heavily drawn lines.

Is Berlinski romanticizing the intellectual figures of the past in his literary fantasies? No doubt he is. But then perhaps Frege and other pioneers of logic were indeed special, and alive to the wider implications of their work in a way most contemporary logicians are not. This may be because they were wrestling with big ideas rather than merely technical elaborations of those ideas. Peter Smith has recently made the point that today's more 'advanced' logic is less philosophically interesting than the more basic stuff (in effect the work of the great pioneers).

Berlinski was taught logic by the legendary Alonzo Church, and so has in my mind a certain reflected glory, a certain aura, as he is a link to a great age of human thought. Like an old colleague and friend of mine who was taught by Willard Van Orman Quine, a fact which - quite irrationally - made me very forgiving of his many personal failings.**

One last quote...

Sometime in the fall after the spring in which Frege and I had taught logic together in California, my great friend, the logician DG took his life. He had loved someone a great deal and for a very long time, and when it was over he had only logic left and logic was not enough. He was cremated in Colma at the insistence of his wife; I watched as the conveyor belt took his coffin toward the winking red lights; there was a roar from far away as the gas-fired jets ignited, and two hours later, I was given a plain wooden box with his ashes.

I took the box with me to one of those sparse California hills, which are covered with chaparral and a few scrub oaks standing in copses.

I was about to scatter the ashes when I noticed that Frege had joined me. He was dressed, as always, in black. I opened the box and let the salt-smelling wind carry the ashes far away.

Frege looked into the middle distance. I thought he would remain silent.

"I always come for my own," he said, just before vanishing himself, leaving me alone with the smell of wild sage.

* All quotations are from Berlinski's The Advent of the Algorithm (Harcourt 2001).

** In truth, he is a good and intelligent man. (Hello John!)

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Possible worlds and possible worlds

I have trouble seeing philosophy as an intellectual discipline. The gist of my thinking is that 'philosophy' is a word which has changed its meaning quite dramatically over the centuries as various sciences have split off from it and I'm not sure that it has much meaning left.

If one has a theological view of the world, philosophy's position will not be threatened as it can resume (or continue) its traditional role as a secular complement to theological discourse. But if one denies that there are truths we can intuit or know by non-empirical, non-deductive means, then, arguably, there is no place for a non-scientific intellectual discipline (unless it be seen as an art form or as a kind of game).

Of course, the study of formal deductive systems, logical or mathematical, is non-empirical, but it is continuous with science.

All that is left of philosophy for someone who rejects claims to substantive intuitive knowledge of a religious or moral kind are reflections on the various intellectual disciplines (physical, social and historical sciences, mathematics, logic, etc.). Such meta-thinking is best carried out (I would presume) by the practitioners of the various intellectual disciplines rather than by outsiders (whether or not they are designated as 'philosophers').

I do recognize, however, that much pure and applied work in certain disciplines (logic, mathematics, psychology and linguistics come to mind) draws strongly on philosophical traditions of thought, and raises issues which previously have been addressed by philosophers. An example of such work is the attempt (drawing on theoretical work in logic and mathematics as well as linguistics) to model the processes of natural language.

Computational linguistics clearly has great practical and commercial importance at the moment, but it can also be seen as a project the relative success [or failure!] of which has implications for the way we see human language – and ourselves.

My reading of the current state of play is that the formal approaches which followed in the wake of Chomsky's early attempts to give an explicit analysis of the syntax of ordinary language have not delivered as expected, just as early work in the field of artificial intelligence produced very disappointing results. Both of these research projects underestimated the importance of contextual factors and real world knowledge which is inevitably a part of intelligent human functioning and communication. Formal systems need in some way to be integrated into this real world context, but, even if they are, it is still possible that many important aspects of language and communication will remain out of reach. I am thinking in particular of aspects of language use which depend on social awareness, a sense of the sorts of things that people with autism spectrum disorders have trouble dealing with, including subtleties of tone and style.

There is a huge body of theoretical work in the syntax and semantics of natural language which shows, if nothing else, that there are countless ways of conceptualizing and formalizing (at least aspects of) natural language. In the light of this profusion, the key question – it seems to me – is not which theoretical approaches are true (whatever that might mean) but which are useful.*

We may want to postulate possible worlds and use set theory to model the semantics of natural language, including complex noun phrases and verb tenses and auxiliaries. But sets and 'possible worlds' are only one way (albeit a possibly enlightening one) of representing the way, for example, words like 'must' or 'could' or 'should' work. No claim need be made that such possible worlds exist. They are merely useful fictions.

Physicists, of course, also talk about other possible worlds, parallel universes and so on, but they are making ontological claims. Their concern is primarily with how the world (or the multiverse) is rather than with formal systems, though they use formal systems to model the operations of nature (as linguists may use formal systems to model the operations of natural language).

But the possible worlds of logicians and linguists are – notwithstanding some outlandish claims by certain logicians – merely formal constructs, to be judged entirely by their usefulness. The other worlds of the physicist may well prove in fact to be 'out there' – to exist in the normal sense of the word, though they may be inaccessible to us.

I am aware that the question of what existence consists in is a traditional philosophical one, but is it a serious or potentially productive question? I think not. Most of the confusions can be resolved simply by accepting that we use words like 'exist' in various ways.

The one area which does seem to raise important issues is mathematics. Just as there are possible worlds and possible worlds (the 'worlds' of the logician and the worlds of the physicist), so there are formal systems and formal systems, and, as we move from, say, the first-order predicate calculus to formal systems which can encompass arithmetic we cross a kind of threshold. Mathematics needs to be clearly distinguished from logic. But this is a topic for another time.

* This is not to say that the exercise of trying to create formal representations of natural languages may not reveal interesting things about natural language and provide new, more concise, more explanatory ways of understanding aspects of the grammar of those languages than traditional grammars provided. But, although such rarefied goals are not pointless, nor are they the sorts of goals for which society is likely to provide support. Traditional grammarians were, after all, essentially pedagogues and their grammars were pedagogical aids.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Too many stories

It's a confronting thought, but it seems irrefutable.

There are all sorts of stories we might tell ourselves about ourselves (or about our country, or political grouping), some plausible (in accordance with the facts), some implausible, some delusional. Discard the delusional, set aside the implausible. Fine.

The trouble is, many plausible (and mutually incompatible) narratives remain and there is no way of choosing between them. There is no true version, no 'God's eye view' (unless of course there is a more or less conventional God out there).

So there are no clear answers to questions about whether I am mean or frugal, or whether you are brave or reckless, or whether, morally, anyone is precisely anything.

But it goes further than this. It is not merely a matter of assigning - or not assigning - labels. It goes to the heart of a life's significance and involves the interpretation of complex histories.

To what extent is my life story or my country's history one of inspiring achievements or missed opportunities or a muddle of self-deception; to what extent successful or unsuccessful? It's all in the eye of the beholder.

Two things set limits to this kind of subjectivity: social facts; and the hypothetical logic of values. (Someone with such and such a value system would be inclined to praise or condemn specific behaviours.)

But, in the end - on this analysis, at least - subjectivism holds sway in the realm of values and the vindication we all seek at a fundamental level will never be achieved.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The gnome of logic

David Berlinski has written with gloriously overabundant and rich rhetorical flair on the history of mathematics and logic. Here he introduces Gottlob Frege, whom he calls "the gnome of logic":

His life was bleak. Frege was born in 1848 in Wismar, which lies in the province of Mecklenberg-Schwerin. Bleak enough. This is northern Germany, the land facing the Baltic Sea. Bleaker still. It is a countryside of dark and gloomy forests, hags and elves and goblins and toadish-looking men behind the sombre trees. At night, the horned owls hoot and black-footed wolves trot restlessly along the forest paths and hunchbacks gather in darkened glens to play the clarinet.

Frege spent his entire academic career at the University of Jena, trudging like Peano in Italy up the obligatory steps of the academic ladder: a Privatdozant in 1871, and so authorized to accept students without pay, an ausserordentlicher Professor in 1879, a Professor in 1896, and thereafter a Herr Professor, the open-voweled Herr followed in conversation by the three even beats of Professor.

He was married for many years - happily, so far as I know - die gn├Ądige Frau Frege dying along with Europe during the course of the First World War, and so darkening a personality that was already dark, lonely, crabbed, solitary, and withdrawn.

And he seems to have been - in plain fact, he was - a ferocious anti-Semite, seeing in Germany's sad, doomed, cultured German Jews an alien and unwanted presence, and, no doubt, regarding the turbulent wave of eastern European Jewry, which had washed over Germany early in the century and with outstandingly bad judgement come to rest in Leipzig or Dresden or in Weimar itself, with feelings akin to frank revulsion. Disliking Jews, Frege disliked Catholics as well, the ink of his indignation ecumenical in its nature. He was deeply devoted to the German monarchy, its preposterous and dangerous kaiser receiving from Frege the respectful sentiments that he had nowhere else to discharge. With the exceptions of Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and, to a certain extent, Edmund Husserl - a not inconsiderable trio, of course - contemporaries could not fathom his work. It was ignored when it appeared, and if philosophers and logicians now agree that Frege was the greatest of mathematical logicians, if only because he was the first, their encomiums came too late to afford him solace. He died in 1925.

And he died alone.

[From The Advent of the Algorithm (Harcourt 2001), pp. 48-49.]

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Patricia Churchland

There are a number of contemporary thinkers whose views I especially respect. Patricia Churchland is one of them (and I'll be mentioning others in subsequent posts).

In this interview, Churchland discusses her motivations and her general views on science, philosophy and the human brain. The point of view she is putting forward would be characterized - and condemned - as scientism by many, but it seems to me eminently sensible and not extreme in any way.

I was particularly interested in what she had to say about possible world semantics - namely, that she used to think it interesting, and now sees it as "utterly uninteresting". In other remarks, she dismisses much of the work which defines the core of contemporary (analytic) philosophy as being of little value.

The post I am currently writing (and which I will put up soon) is in part about these issues.