Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Wittgenstein: belief, behaviour and beetles

The topic of today’s post is the meaning of mental-state terms, such as ‘belief’ and ‘desire.’ These terms are commonly used to refer, somewhat mysteriously, to strange things going on inside our heads. When a person says ‘I believe that it will rain tomorrow’, we take them to be referring to something intangible in the brain. Certainly, taking this view of beliefs and desires is useful in predicting human behaviour: philosophers call the use of such terms to predict and explain behaviour ‘folk psychology.’ This is all very well: but the interesting question is what these ‘folk-psychological’ terms actually mean. What is a belief? Is it a spooky new mental substance? Is it merely a combination of physical brain states in a particular combination at a particular moment? Or is it something else?

One really interesting answer to this question comes from Wittgenstein, who proposes a form of what has since been called ‘behaviourism.’ Wittgenstein’s philosophical behaviourism holds that ‘I believe X’ means ‘I am disposed to behave in a certain way given certain conditions’; and nothing more. All ‘a belief’ means is 'a tendency to do and say certain things given certain circumstances'. For example, if I believe that it is raining, all this means is that I display rain-like behaviour, such as putting up an umbrella, groaning about how I’m getting wet, etc. On this view, ‘belief’ is reduced radically to external, observable behaviour such as actions and sounds; ‘belief’ does not refer to anything going on inside my head, not even to a physical brain state or collection of brain processes. All it is to believe something (Wittgenstein and other behaviorists taught) is to be disposed to act in a certain way under certain conditions.

Why should we believe that this radical, externalist treatment of folk psychology is correct? Wittgenstein presented an interesting argument to show why: what has now been termed the ‘beetle in a box’ argument. In 'Philosophical Investigations', Wittgenstein imagines three people, each with a box in front of them that only they can look into (they can’t look into each others’ boxes). Each person looks into his/her box, and announces that inside their box, there is a ‘beetle.’ Wittgenstein points out that although the same word is being used to denote the contents of each box, there is no reason at all to think that each box contains the same object. The first person’s box could contain what we mean by beetle; the second person’s box could contain a fish; the third person’s box could contain nothing at all. We cannot know what is in each box, Wittgenstein points out, by merely listening to the word that each person uses to describe the contents of his/her box. Therefore, the word ‘beetle’ is meaningless when given meaning by a single person, and tells us nothing of what is within.

Wittgenstein’s main point is to show that all language is essentially public. There can be no such thing as a private language, because meaning is determined by public use, and in the beetle case, each person is employing his/her own unique use of ‘beetle.’ So too with words such as ‘belief’, ‘desire’, etc: using them to refer to private, intangible events going on inside peoples’ heads is meaningless, since the beliefs in your head are like a private language, only accessible to you, and nobody else. However, we know that ‘belief’ is a meaningful term; so, it must refer to something external and publicly verifiable: a behavioural disposition. (Whether Wittgenstein was a 'behaviourist' in a full sense is controversial, but we can take his reasoning here to provide a clear argument for behaviourism).

This conception of mental states such as belief is both very appealing and very counter-intuitive. It is appealing because it demystifies the mental; the mind can be given a much more plausible material explanation if beliefs and desires etc are no longer seen as intangible, ‘spooky’ occurrences inside our heads. However, the view is counter-intuitive because when we believe something, it seems obviously true that this is an inner mental event, something more interesting than a series of external behavioural patterns. Whether we accept Wittgenstein’s argument depends on how seriously we take what seems to go on in our stream of consciousness: how real is the internal nature of the mind? This question is absolutely central to the philosophy of mind, especially in questions about the phenomenon of consciousness, and the problems that arise from it.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Some thoughts about 'atheism', 'theism' and 'agnosticism'

It is common for people to describe themselves in relation to the question of the existence of God as 'atheist', 'theist' or 'agnostic'. Even before we get into the interminable debate as to whether there really is such a thing as God, I think there are a few things to be clarified in terms of how these labels are used. The following points are criticisms of what I take to be common assumptions concerning the use of the terms 'atheist', 'theist' and 'agnostic'.

It is popular among self-confessed atheists to define atheism as ‘lack of belief in anything supernatural.’ This is handy for the atheist, since in the famous debate over where the burden of proof lies, it is a common argument to claim that the burden does not lie with the atheist, who has a mere lack of belief in God; rather, the burden is on the theist to give evidence for his / her positive assertion that there is a God. However, ‘lack of belief in God’ is a very bad definition of atheism, since it is true of rocks, camels and Christmas trees, which lack all beliefs, including about God. It would be an abuse of the word ‘atheism’ to refer to a rock as an atheist, so this definition clearly will not suffice. It is also insufficient for distinguishing atheists from agnostics, who also lack belief in God. Though it may suit the atheist in debate to characterize his / her position in terms of lack of belief, rather than a positive belief of the same type as theism, it is very hard to accurately do so. 'A belief that there is no God', which sounds more traditional, also sounds like a more accurate definition of 'atheism'.

There are so many uses of the word ‘God’ that the term is practically ambiguous. Restricting ‘theism’ to ‘Christian monotheism’ as is commonly done is too restrictive, since there exists monotheisms in many other cultures. The scale of religious conviction is a continuum, with very weak theisms positing the existence of a creating and sustaining ‘mother nature’ type force, and very strong theisms positing the existence of a single, powerful divine mind. Perhaps we might define theism as ‘belief in a creator and sustainer of the universe.’ However, this is too loose: belief in a scientific law (common to theists and non-theists alike) might well be held to fall under this definition. Should we then include creative intelligence in the definition of theism? No, since ‘intelligence’ is also ambiguous, and there are many theists who do not think of God as a giant, powerful disembodied mind (quite a crude conception), but something more abstract. 

Agnosticism, taken as an ‘I don’t know’ position, is commonly criticized as being too weak, a kind of cowardly middle-man position held by the person who lacks the conviction to commit to either atheism or theism. However, the strength of an intellectual position should not be judged on the content of the belief itself, but on the amount of assessment, deliberation and criticism that has been invested in that position, and the strength to which the belief is held. Therefore, one can be a very strong agnostic if, after deliberating long and hard and weighing up the evidence, one decides that we don’t know / can’t know enough to assent to God’s existence or reject God’s existence. It's clear that agnosticism can be as firm a positive belief about the world as atheism or theism. At the very least, an agnostic must have considered the question of God's existence, if only for a second.

'I don't care'
It is also widely held that ‘atheism’, ‘agnosticism’ and ‘theism’ (or ‘religious belief’ for the purposes of this point) exhaust the possibilities concerning intellectual attitudes about God. The question ‘are you atheist, theist or agnostic?’ implies that one must fit somewhere here, perhaps on a continuum between strong atheist and strong theist. Richard Dawkins, in 'The God Delusion', introduces a similar 7-point scale. However, this is simply false, since the three categories are not exhaustive. This is because, as argued above, agnosticism is a positive belief about the world, the agnostic having actively concluded that, based on the evidence, we simply don’t (or can’t) know if God exists or not, based on at least a shred of consideration of the question. Agnosticism does not, therefore, cover the sizeable group of people who haven’t for a minute considered the question of God at all: ‘I don’t know’ is not the same as ‘I don’t care.’ He / she who has not to any extent considered God’s existence will have no belief about God’s existence, and will have come to no conclusions; therefore, to label such a person ‘agnostic’, as is popular, would be false. This person has not joined the debate; therefore such labeling is not justified. Rather than create a new term for people who have never considered God’s existence (such as ‘I-don’t-care-ists’ or some more catchy name), it is more sensible, I think, to consider such people as located outside the continuum from atheist to theist. Therefore, the three categories ‘atheist’, ‘agnostic’ and ‘theist’ are not exhaustive, and should not be used as if they are: they describe only a sub-set of human beings.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Colin McGinn on the limits of explanation

McGinn: mean but fair
There has been a widespread assumption in philosophy, and other disciplines, that the problems of the world are there waiting to be solved, and that indeed they can and will be solved by human beings. The problem of consciousness, for example: though consciousness remains mysterious from a scientific perspective, philosophers have put forward a range of views and arguments for both physicalism and dualism (see, for example, Chalmers on zombies) which seek to explain consciousness, or at least provide the basis for thinking that we could explain it. 

However, Colin McGinn, a philosopher currently at the University of Miami, thinks otherwise. McGinn has formulated ‘Transcendental Naturalism’: the view that due to our biological and evolutionary background, we are inherently limited to some extent in our cognitive abilities, and thus there will be problems (both scientific and philosophical) that we will never be able to solve or explain in our current status as human beings. To many, this view will at first sight appear extremely pessimistic, but I think it holds a lot of plausibility. 

McGinn describes conscious beings as each having a ‘cognitive space.’ This is analogous to our perceptual space, or our physical space: areas within which we can ‘move’, so to speak. Our perceptual space is our visual and auditory field, outside which we cannot see or hear anything. Our physical space is the space within which we can move, and outside of which we cannot. So too with our ‘cognitive space’ - the intellectual area within which we can think, reason, and form concepts; and outside which, we cannot reason. 

We have cognitive limitations just as
we have perceptual and spatial limitations
If we accept that we are cognitively limited in this sense (and this seems likely, since as McGinn states, ‘we are not Gods, cognitively speaking’), then we should expect that some of the problems of philosophy we will be unable to solve. McGinn most famously treats the problem of consciousness as such a problem, not unsolvable in principle, but unsolvable to us, due to its solution falling outside our cognitive space. After 2000 years of thought and experiment, the basic nature of consciousness continues to remain mysterious: it is a Hard problem with a capital H, and raises a significant explanatory gap. The natural explanation for this mystery, McGinn argues, is not that consciousness itself is inherently mysterious, or is made up of new ‘mental, non-physical stuff’, as Descartes thought. Consciousness is probably as grounded in the physical world as tables or chairs. However, its nature lies outside our cognitive space: our biologically limited concept-forming abilities do not extend to grasping it. We can no more understand consciousness than a slug can understand mathematics. 

McGinn also applies his transcendental naturalist view to other problems, such as the problem of Free Will (a response also shared with Noam Chomsky). On reflection, these conclusions may be extremely disappointing: after all, if we agree with McGinn that these problems are in principle unsolvable to us, then we must admit that they could only in principle be solved by a higher intellectual race, 1000s of years of evolution in the future. This is not a nice conclusion to draw, certainly if one is a philosopher. 

However, as is often pointed out, the unpleasant-ness of a view is not a reason not to hold it, especially if one has good philosophical reasons to hold it. And I think we do: why assume that we are intellectually so superior as to solve profound philosophical problems such as the problem of consciousness? Our powers must stop somewhere; and there is good reason to think that consciousness does indeed lie outside our cognitive space. It’s not all so bleak though; McGinn’s view does allow the physicalist/materialist a good response to the arguments for dualism drawn from the explanatory gap between the mental and the physical. The explanatory gap exists not because there is a gap in the world, between physical and mental stuff; it exists because there is a gap in our cognitive abilities to grasp the physical world, and the conscious states that arise from it.

McGinn's more substantial defence of his position as applied to consciousness can be found here, in his classic paper.

Sources: Colin McGinn, 'Can We Solve The Mind-Body Problem?' and Problems in Philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry

Friday, 31 August 2012

'If time-travel is possible, where are all the time-travellers?'

Philosophy Of... returns, after a short leave of absence! 

Let’s assume that time travel is both logically and physically possible (contrary to the conclusions drawn in my previous post on time travel). A common objection that is raised to the prospect is really just a common-sense question: if time-travel is possible, then where are all the time-travellers? If time travel is possible, then we might expect future time-travellers to have arrived in our time. Or, more formally:

  1. If time-travel is possible, then at some point in the future, humans will time-travel. 
  2. If humans will time-travel, they will travel back to our time. 
  3. If humans will travel back to our time, then we should have encountered them. 
  4. We have not encountered any time travellers. 
  5. Therefore, time travel is not possible.  

I don’t think this (the ‘future time-travellers argument’) is a very strong argument, so let’s evaluate it premise by premise. It appears that the argument is valid; that is, if all the premises are true, the conclusion cannot fail to be true (its truth logically follows from the truth of the premises). But is each premise true? I don't think so. This will be a common-sense investigation, rather than a technically philosophical one. 

Premise 1 
That humans would definitely make use of time-travel given its possibility can be easily questioned. We only have a finite time on the Earth (scientists tell us) before it is annihilated, and there doesn’t seem to me to be anything that guarantees we will have grasped time-travel by then. Perhaps it is too complicated to be grasped by humans even given 1000s of years. This certainly seems like a realistic possibility. 

Premise 2 
Let’s define ‘our time’ as the period between when human history records began and now. Even with such a general definition, this premise is also questionable. It might be, for example, that time-travel is developed, but only developed enough to allow random time-travelling, and not to specific locations in time which the future humans choose. If so, it seems perfectly possible that future humans, popping randomly into the past, never hit our time at all, and have to make do with some dinosaurs for company instead. After all, ‘our time’ thus defined is only a tiny region of the available pool space in which a time-traveller can plunge. 

Premise 3
Even if time-travellers did travel to our time, perhaps they might have reasons for not revealing themselves to us. This response is less plausible than my responses to premises 1 and 2, but nevertheless must be considered. Science fiction makes much of the fact that small changes in the past can lead to large changes in the future; perhaps it would be dangerous for future generations for time-travellers to reveal their identities to present-day folk. Maybe they were briefed about this by their leaders before setting off! 

Premise 4 
The truth of this premise depends on how we approach premise 3. It may be that if time-travellers have travelled to our time, they prefer to stay hidden. This makes it likely that some present day folk have encountered them; they just don’t know it. 

Since there are good ways to challenge all four premises of the argument, I think we must conclude that this argument does not convincingly demonstrate that time travel is not possible. The discussion has strayed into the realms of science-fiction, and because of this, tongues must be kept in the vicinity of cheeks. However, there is a serious point to be made: if the above critique is reasonable, then a popular argument for the impossibility of time-travel is rebutted. This is to say nothing, of course, of the possibility of time-travel more generally. Considerations from physics may show that it cannot happen anyway. But at least if we do want to rule out the possibility of time-travel, we cannot do it by means of the ‘future time-travellers’ argument.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Strange loops

In 'The Barber Paradox' and 'The Pinocchio Paradox', I gave examples of self-reference paradoxes. Douglas Hofstadter, in 'Godel, Escher, Bach' introduces the notion of a 'strange loop', saying:

'The "Strange Loop" phenomenon occurs whenever, by moving upwards (or downwards) through the levels of a hierarchical system, we unexpectedly find ourselves back where we started.' (GEB, p.10).

'Strange-loopiness' is best expressed in the paradoxes mentioned above, but it also crops up elsewhere, Hofstadter points out, in art and music. Here are some more examples:
  1. The next sentence is false
  2. The previous sentence is true
In this developed version of 'The Liar Paradox', consideration of each sentence in turn seems to send us in a logical loop. The truth of the first sentence depends on the falsity of the second, which entails the falsity of the first, which depends on the truth of the second, and so on ad infinitum.

So too with Escher's impossible waterfall:

And the rather more famous never-ending staircase:

Hofstadter gives a musical example: a particular Bach canon, which modulates upwards by one key at a time, seemingly getting further and further away from its original key, until finally, it suddenly ends up back where it started, in its original key.

The common feature to all these 'strange loops' is the notion of moving through a hierarchical system, step by step, and but always ending up back where one started, on the first level of the system, and thus inviting an infinite loop. Some philosophers have suggested that time could exhibit the same sort of 'strange loopiness', though this is a notion that is rather hard to conceptualize. Hofstadter himself applies the notion to human consciousness, in an original and inventive attempt to explain why conscious experience seems so radically different from everything else the human mind has been able to comprehend; developed from 'Godel, Escher, Bach', his work on this crazy theory is called, appropriately, 'I Am A Strange Loop.'

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Mary and the black and white room

Is there 'something-it-is-like' to see red, over and above the
 physical facts about red? The Mary story suggests that there is.

Imagine a scientist named 'Mary.' She lives 200 years in the future, at a time when physics has finally explained everything it can about the physical universe. Mary is an expert in her field, and knows every truth there is to be known about the physical world.

Furthermore,  Mary has lived in a black and white room all her life, and has never seen anything coloured. In this room, she has gained all her scientific knowledge from birth, and conducted all the experiments and discoveries that have made her famous. She knows everything there is to know about the world through science; in particular, she knows all there is to know about the workings of the human brain, including how it forms beliefs, how humans perceive redness, and all the rest.

Mary steps out of her black and white room and immediately apprehends the world in all its colour; the first thing she sees is a red rose. Mary, despite having a grasp on every single piece of scientific knowledge in the world, has learned something new on stepping out of the room: she has learned what it is like to see the colour red.

What is this story supposed to prove? What does it actually prove? Philosophers have been debating this ever since Frank Jackson published a paper in which he introduced the example. Mary represents the perfect scientist, and the totality of the knowledge of all physical facts about the world. Yet as she apprehends colour for the first time, she learns a new fact about the world which she did not know before: what it is like to see the colour red. Before she left her room, Mary knew all scientific, physical facts about how a human being sees an red object, and how the light reflects off that object and into the eye of the human being, creating a red sensation. However, nothing she knew from this position of total expertise could have told her what it is actually like to see a red object from the first-person perspective; she had to leave the room and actually see a red object to grasp this.

The example attempts to show that once all the physical facts are in, some things are left unexplained. All the physical facts about colour do not entail the facts about what it is like to experience colour; and thus we cannot explain what it is like to see colour purely in terms of physical facts. The example is not specific to colour: Jackson generalises it to all conscious experience. Mary can be re-cast as knowing all the facts about rough objects, and how they are felt to be rough; but only when she leaves her perfectly smooth room can she know what it is like to feel a rough object. The example applies to what it is like to see colour, hear sound, touch objects, or taste. In a nutshell, the heart of human conscious experience; in philosophical terms, 'Qualia.'

If Mary really does learn a new fact about the world when she leaves her room, then it follows that what she knew before leaving the room (every physical fact about the world) was not enough to explain some other fact: it follows that there are non-physical facts, facts about conscious experience that are not entailed by physical facts. This suggestion has profound implications for how we think about conscious experience and its place in the physical world: physicalism / materialism is false.

David Chalmers lays out the argument in clear, simple terms:
  1. Mary knows all the physical facts
  2. Mary does not know all the facts
  3. Therefore, the physical facts do not exhaust all the facts.

See also: Zombies, and the Explanatory Gap.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

What is knowledge?

If knowledge isn't Justified True Belief, then what the hell is it?

Philosophers like to analyze concepts; that is, to take a concept and give conditions necessary and sufficient for that concept. For example, an analysis of ‘talking bullshit’ might go something like:

  • A person p is talking bullshit if and only if a) p says that a statement is true or false, and b) p does not know whether that statement is actually true or false, and c) p is indifferent to the truth or falsity of that statement. (Or something similar).

We can draw from this analysis that all it is to talk bullshit is to fulfill conditions a, b and c in the analysis. That is just what ‘to talk bullshit’ means in everyday language.

More interestingly, philosophers like to discuss knowledge, which has a few more strings attached. Ever since Plato, the widely-accepted analysis of knowledge in philosophy was the following:

  • A person p knows a proposition x if and only if a) p believes x, and b) p is justified in believing x, and c) x is true.

That, it was thought, is all it means to know something. If I know that I had breakfast this morning, all that means is that I have a ‘justified true belief’ that I had breakfast this morning. All it is to know that I had breakfast this morning is to fulfill conditions a, b and c in the above analysis, concerning breakfast.

However, Edmund Gettier, a little known American philosopher, wrote a 3 page article in which he demolished this long-held analysis of knowledge with such force that the ‘justified true belief’ model was instantly discredited by the philosophical community. He came up with an example to show that there are cases where a person could have a justified true belief, yet still they would not have knowledge in those cases:

“Suppose that Smith and Jones have applied for a certain job. And suppose that Smith has strong evidence for the following claim:

a. Jones is the man who will get the job, and Jones has ten coins in his pocket.

Smith's evidence for (a) might be that the president of the company assured him that Jones would in the end be selected, and that he, Smith, had counted the coins in Jones's pocket ten minutes ago. Proposition (a) entails:
b. The man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket.

Let us suppose that Smith sees the entailment from (a) to (b), and accepts (b) on the grounds of (a), for which he has strong evidence. In this case, Smith is clearly justified in believing that (b) is true.” 

(Gettier, 'Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?'. Analysis 23 (1963), 121-123.)

However, as it turns out, Smith gets the job; the president has a sudden change of heart and decides to hire him instead of Jones. Furthermore, Smith too has ten coins in his pocket, which he had previously deposited there but had forgotten about.
What then, shall we say about this case? Well, Smith had a justified true belief that ‘the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket.’ It was true, as it turned out. Smith was justified in his belief as well, since he had it on good authority that a man with ten coins in his pocket would get the job (Jones). However, do we really want to say that Smith knew that ‘the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket?’. No, because his ‘knowledge’ turned out to be accidental. Therefore, knowledge is not justified true belief after all. Knowledge cannot be accidental - there must be something added to the analysis to rule out such accidental cases. As of 2012, philosophers are still looking for the answer.
Rarely in philosophy are there any really significant developments or widespread changes in thought. However in this case, it is undeniable that Gettier instigated one. Having published his paper in 1963, he has proceeded to sit back looking justifiably smug ever since, and as such has never published anything else, though he retains his status as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts. Papers published: 1. Philosophical revolutions set in place: 1. That’s not a bad success rate.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

The 'Pinocchio paradox'

As usual, Philosoraptor makes an intriguing point. It's a type of self-reference paradox; a variant of the 'liar' paradox.

The possible paradox can be phrased as follows: 

Pinocchio says 'My nose will now grow.' There are two possibilities:
  1. Pinocchio's nose grows; therefore he is telling the truth. However, if so, his nose does not grow, since it only grows when he tells a lie.
  2. Pinoccho's nose does not grow; therefore he is lying. However, if so, his nose will grow, since his nose grows when he tells a lie.
Thus, we have a seemingly possible utterance which must lead to one of two self-contradictory outcomes.

Pinocchio is defined as 'a being whose nose grows if and only if he utters a lie'. We might object that a statement such as 'my nose will now grow' can never be a lie, since it is impossible to tell a lie about a future event. Thus, Philosoraptor's question can be easily answered - nothing happens when Pinocchio says this. Additionally, if Pinocchio himself is confused by the supposed paradox, then he is unlikely to be able to lie either way, since lying is just reporting a known falsehood about a situation as the truth!

We can enforce the paradox by re-defining Pinocchio as 'a being whose nose grows whenever he utters a falsehood.' Since uttering a falsehood need not be lying, the 'problem' remains. Now we must consider if statements about future events have a truth value when uttered in the present; many philosophers argue that they do not, since determinism about future events may not hold. I personally have no idea on this one.
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