Saturday, January 15, 2011

Open Thread: Big Mistakes

To follow up on my year-end summary, I figure it could be interesting to elicit some critical feedback from readers. I'd especially welcome answers to any (or all) of the following questions:

(1) Which of my views do you consider most obviously mistaken?
(2) Where do you think my views are furthest from the truth?
(3) What do you think is my most important mistake? (Methodological as well as substantive criticisms could fit well here.) "Blogging" doesn't count!

(4) For any of the above that you answered, do you consider it an irresolvable disagreement, or do you think that further argument and reflection could bring me around to your view? If the latter, what is the most helpful and persuasive point you can make now to start me down the right track?

If you're feeling especially generous, you're also welcome to note any issues on which my posts and arguments have changed your mind (to some degree), or otherwise struck you as helpful.

Anyway, don't feel like you have to answer all the questions just because they're numbered. Brief or incomplete feedback is welcome too!


  1. Bizarre.
    This seems a very well intentioned TA sort of thing to post.
    I came here via a link - Brandon's page.
    I look forward to reading your material, wish you well, and am charmed by your resilience implied, and openness to criticism.

  2. This is an interesting idea. Well, I'll have at it!

    1: Epiphenomenalism. First off, it's devoid of empirical meaning, which should be enough to discount it right away. And even if you decide that it's worth arguing over despite having no real use, it's absurd - you have to try to maintain that our conscious decisions just somehow always align exactly with what our unconscious physical brain does, despite conscious decisions not actually causing anything. And that this happens for every person (and, presumably, the higher animals as well) on the planet.

  3. Ha, yeah, I was expecting to get some votes for epiphenomenalism there. Though to address your specific concerns:

    (i) Not every substantial question is an empirical question. In any case, the status of physicalism is exactly symmetrical in this regard. So this is not an objection to epiphenomenalism per se, but rather to the whole field of metaphysics of mind (and arguably philosophy more generally). All the different views on offer here are seeking to answer a non-empirical question.

    (ii) Property dualists posit that there are natural laws that explain the systematic generation of consciousness from non-conscious matter in our universe. These "psycho-physical bridging laws" (akin to laws of physics) may specify, e.g., that whenever you have a brain with functional property F1, this gives rise to the conscious phenomenal property P1. So the alignment of mind and matter is not a "coincidence" in the ordinary sense.

    Admittedly, there are many other challenges to epiphenomenalism, some of which I discuss elsewhere.

  4. Richard, your degree of openness to criticism is indeed commendable. Let me cast my disagreement ballot:

    A) For most obviously mistaken, I'm going to go with the statement that continuity of identity depends only on psychological/mental factors rather than additionally on some bodily factors. (Identity meaning, not metaphysical haccicity, but individual personhood: what defines the self as cohering as a unit over a period of time.) This is because as physical organisms our entire sense of self is projected onto our bodies. Our bodies are too intimately connected to ourselves to be regarded as mere disposable tools (of course, technologically we can't replace them right now, but the point is if we could replace them it would take away important aspects of our humanity.) I think that this is shown by common language, e.g. if my hand is amputated, I would say "I've lost a part of myself", i.e. my identity is damaged (but not destroyed). Similarly, if my mind were beamed into the body of a woman (I am a man), I would feel like my identity was damaged (but not of course extinguished). I'd feel totally blase going through the teleporter, but not if it gave me a completely different body!

    B) For both importance and farness, your atheism--because in fact, Christianity is true. Why should you believe something so absurd? Not because of some fideistic nonsense, but because there's a very good historical argument for some of the miracles in Christianity, especially the Resurrection. The alleged event is supported by multiple claimed eyewitness testimony, and the primary eyewitnesses knew that they faced likely torture and/or death for saying it. This is about as strong as ancient historical evidence ever gets. The alternative hypotheses, such as massive conspiracy or collective hallucinations, are very hard for me anyway to accept. And for the same reasons that experiment ultimately trumps theory in science, strong historical arguments should trump philosophical difficulties in deciding what metaphysical theory to endorse. (In cases such as theism where the metaphysical theory *has* historical predictions, that is.)

    C) As in the divorce courts, in philosophy people are much too quick to jump to the conclusion that something is an irresolvable difference. I've been in arguments myself where the disagreement *seemed* to be irresolvable, but after years of approaching the issues from oblique angles and reflecting, one person's view evolved towards the other person's view.

    D) For a helpful post, I cited "Desiring Each Good" in an argument with Ben Callard, a U Chicago prof., in which I was defending nonhedonic consequentialism against various deontological intuitions.

    Aron Wall

  5. I will also take the bait. I find your critical discussions of Parfit helpful and insightful. You seem to lean in favor of Partfit's criticism of subjectivism/Humeanism about reasons, and this I disagree with. To try to explain why, I will begin with a comment on your Natural Arbitrariness post.

    In your example about meta-hedonic concern coherently tracking the waxing and waning of the moon, the force of your example seems to rest only on the absurdity of correlating physical pain with phases of the moon. It doesn't seem quite so absurd to expect the degree of emotional pain or aesthetic pleasure to consistently track moon phases. In fact it seems quite plausible to imagine Chinese poets like Li Bai or landscape painters like Ma Yuan doing exactly this if they were to express their aesthetic sensibilities with perfect coherence and discrimination. The Japanese annually admire the cherry blossoms in full bloom, I think for similar reasons (appreciating the beauty of transient phenomena, pining for their loss and longing for their return).

    My own aesthetic preferences are limited but seems quite reliably and coherently to seek out visual experiences involving pretty bright colors like yellow red and green. I like these colors whether they are on real life fruits and vegetables, or in still life paintings, or on the Pussywagon and other set pieces in Kill Bill. An alien scientist who does not know what it is like to have visual experiences and to appreciate colors might at first find my coherent preferences "objectively crazy". She might make sense of a subset of my visual preferences in terms of their survival value, correlated with nutrition in real fruits and vegetables. This explanation in terms of fitness value does not provide normative justification for why we ought to seek out visual experiences involving still life paintings or the Pussywagon: for one thing, because these have no fitness value, and for another, because we are psychologically constituted to care directly about the hedonic value, and not the fitness value, of this or that item. What provides normative justification for my seeking out these visual experiences is not any objective fact or norm, but my finding it subjectively important to seek out these experiences.

  6. (...contd.) I agree that considerations of coherence are not enough, but only because coherence considerations alone apply pressure symmetrically in either direction. To explain what I mean, suppose that there is a person who cares about what happens to him every odd day in the future, but does not care about what happens to him on every even day in the future. The coherence consideration that every odd day is relevantly like every even day does not determine whether I should equally care about what happens to me on every future day, or whether I should be equally indifferent. But we all find it obvious and prudentially normative that we should equally care, not be equally indifferent.

    Take another example, means-end coherence. If I desire a given end, coherence considerations here dictate that I either adopt the means to it, or give up the end. So coherence considerations here, like elsewhere, apply symmetric pressure on either direction. But if I desire a given end, and there are no conflicting desires for contrary ends, that it seems that I ought to pursue it rather than give up. So desires for ends apply asymmetric pressure in one direction, namely in the world-to-mind direction of fit: if I desire that p, then I (pro tanto) ought to see to it that p. Desires set their propositional objects as the standard that the world must meet, and this is not something that's up to us to decide. That is just what desires are "supposed to do", explicating "supposed to do" here in terms of Millikan's proper functions.

    In the same way that our desire- and belief-producing and consuming mechanisms impose different directions of fit (applying asymmetric normative pressure) on mental representations, I propose that commitment and sympathy are psychological mechanisms imposing different directions of fit. Commitment sets my earlier decisions as standard that my later intentions ought to meet, and sympathy sets the concerns of other selves or my own future concerns as standard for what I ought to feel concerned about. Because commitment and sympathy have just these directions of fit, commitment is able to apply normative pressure against weakness of will and sympathy is able to apply normative pressure against apathy. It is only when we combine coherence considerations with the normative pressure of sympathy that we are able if at all to convince the person who is indifferent about what happens to him every other day in the future to feel equal concern for what happens to him every day.

  7. I misread your moon example, so never mind my first comment, but my second should still be applicable.


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