Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Paths of Wisdom

What is the best way to understand the true nature of the objects of our conceptions (including ethics, truth, counterfactuals, etc.)? One option, which I think underlies much analytic philosophy, is to reify the conceived object - ascribing to it an independent existence - and then to inquire after the actual properties of this object. This treats the object ahistorically and on its own terms, focusing on what it is, not where it came from or how we learnt of it.

The latter alternative is suggestive of a naturalized philosophical methodology, informed especially by cognitive science. The focus is on the mental conception, rather than the thing conceived. (Compare the distinction between the mental state of belief, and the content or 'thing believed'.) Down this path, we might ask how the conceptions arise and what role they play in our broader cognition. Only later - if at all - would we step outside ourselves to draw metaphysical conclusions about external reality.

An even more extreme approach to 'naturalizing philosophy' would look to the evolutionary origins of our conceptual framework. (We now appear to be two steps removed from the original object of inquiry.) That is to ground humanistic philosophy upon evolutionary psychology.

So: which of these three paths is best? Or might they yield complementary insights?

Despite the enthusiasm of many evolutionary theorists, I'm not convinced that a scientific understanding of our origins is the be all and end all. In some cases, it rather seems to obstruct a fuller understanding of our experiences. Steven Pinker once described music as "auditory cheesecake" - a combination of stimuli which just happens to press all the right buttons to activate our neural pleasure centres. But this neglects so much of importance about our aesthetic experiences. Listening to Beethoven's Pastoral symphony, there is an undeniable beauty in it which simply cannot be captured by any account of our aesthetic experience that ignores the actual music! Or so it seems to me, at least.

There are interesting philosophical questions about the nature of beauty, and whether it is properly a quality of the object itself, or how we experience it, or some combination of the two; but these sorts of questions don't seem open to a purely scientific account. (Hence their being philosophical, rather than scientific, questions!)

Evolutionary (meta-)ethics is another example. An hypothesis about how moral behaviour evolved just doesn't seem to tell us that much about the real nature of morality itself. Perhaps it recommends a sort of skeptical anti-realism about ethics (and normativity more generally). But it seems to be leaving out something important, so I'm doubtful that such scientism can really provide the sort of deeper understanding that we're looking for here.

This might relate to my old post on the two conceptions of objectivity. Scientific objectivity proceeds by cutting things out of the picture. But if we want a fuller understanding (whatever that involves), we might do better to instead pursue the 'Hegelian' ideal of expanding our perspective. This would be undermined by the scientistic assumptions underlying the extreme forms of 'naturalized philosophy'.

What about the more mild approach? There's a lot of work being done now in the field of "moral psychology", for example. I don't really know anything about it though, so I've no idea how helpful or illuminating that may be to ethics. Two underexplored areas that I'd like to learn more about would be mathematical and modal cognition. How does the mind apprehend and manipulate mathematical objects? If we knew all the internal/psychological facts about our mathematical cognition, would that provide a full explanation of mathematical truths? Or would we still require something further, e.g. a platonic realm of mathematical objects, and facts about the same?

And what of modal cognition? How do people think about counterfactuals, or judge what is or isn't possible? And how does this cognitive processing relate to external facts? Could our beliefs have abstract truthmakers (e.g. numbers, or possible worlds) that are causally inaccessible to us? I'm not sure how that would work. But then what determines whether our beliefs on those topics are true? My hope here is that psychological research might provide us with the resources to find constructed truthmakers - a way to build truthmakers out of idealized mental processes, and thus avoid extravagant (Platonic) ontological commitments. This sort of constructivism seems very much more in line with the 'Hegelian' ideals pointed to above. So perhaps 'naturalized' philosophical methodologies aren't all bad?


  1. Let your thinking and doing be equal, for only then will you be said to be a powerful soul who has will power.

    Let your experience and feeling be equal, for only then will you be said to be a powerful soul without need of will power!

    So near and yet so far, the problem we face as our wisdom overtakes. Experience, that wonderful memory, our powerhouse and keeper of all our doings in this world.

    As we develop our honesty, our wisdom becomes more and more useful. As we develop our honesty, we realise there is no limit to where our experience will take us. We will experience this world in all its elements the more we have truth and honest recollections.

    So difficult to enable our minds to soak up all that our senses are able to assimilate. There is a lifetime of lifetimes, no single picture, and no interpretation, which will capture all facets and facts as they happen. Not even our best mechanical devices, not even our computers can relay the world as it is. Only we can do that, individually and uniquely, so similar we might expect there to be little difference in our sharing..

    most often worlds apart!

  2. Richard,

    If you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend Jeff Hawkins' book On Intelligence. I think he has the basic mechanism of intelligence right, though he might be missing a few bits here and there. And his book isn't just a "I think the brain works like this, so there!" book. It has an appendix of testable predictions. Hawkins knows his stuff.

    Once you see the brain as a hierarchy of auto-associative networks, you can see just how fuzzy concepts like "good" might form in the brain as nexus between all patterns that are "good for" the individual.

    But it seems to be leaving out something important, so I'm doubtful that such scientism can really provide the sort of deeper understanding that we're looking for here.

    Whenever anyone ponders a question like this, I like to ask whether the questioner has any examples of possible satisfactory answers.

    Not finding any examples doesn't prove the question is meaningless, but it is good circumstantial evidence.

  3. Hi, I found you on a blog search... Your answer of reification seems incomplete insofar as independent existence is its biproduct, an ahistorical treatment may work for subjects of ontology and essential understanding of immateriality, but for other things especially experience and phenomena context and pretext is fundamentally necessary. Also "true nature" is not what drives conception - it is experience of reality - no matter the nature of such "reality," this may seem circular, but the traditions of existencialism and phenomenology give credit to this thesis....

    Regardless, your blog is most interesting and I would love to establish a reciprocal link, if you are interested let me know, it is:

  4. I find debates over whether the naturalized or traditional study of philosophy is better a bit like debating whether yellow or red is the real colour.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)