Saturday, April 22, 2006

Open Thread

I don't think I've seen a philosophy blog with an 'open thread' before. I don't know if I get enough commentators for this to work, but hey, it's worth a try.

Discuss whatever philosophical topics you feel like. Special invite to "lurkers" (readers who don't usually comment), and readers who don't have blogs of their own: what would you post about if you had a blog? Feel free to post it here!

You're also welcome to complain about this blog, call me names, request a topic for me to post about in future, or whatever else tickles your fancy. Just don't let the open thread stay forever commentless. That would be lame.


  1. I’ve got a set of arguments perfect for a blog but not much else that I've been waiting to air for a long time.

    Firstly I've got a new argument ( as if there weren't enough already), that it is irrational to fear death or anything else except instrumentally. If it was intrinsically good to fear anything then it would have to be intrinsically good to fear all threats to humans since they have the same status as me in all relevant respects. It's clearly not intrinsically good to do this, therefore it's not intrinsically good to fear anything.

    I've got an argument that the ontological argument leads to inconsistent results. If we assume it proves the existence of the perfect chocolate Sunday as Dennett argues then it seems to prove the existence of the perfect island at space-time coordinates X,Y,Z,T, but it also proves the existence of the perfect sewage plant at X,Y,Z,T. An island with a sewage plant on it isn't perfect, therefore the ontological argument leads to inconsistent results ( forgive me for the number of philosophical landmines I no doubt just stood on and use interpretive charity when reading that, I just turned 18 today.)

    Finally I've got an argument that semantic nihilism is wrong. If semantic nihilism were true there could be no such thing as words in the conversational sense, the concept of a word depends on the concept of meaning because it's possible to have two languages with different words that sound the same. If words or signs in general don't exist then it is impossible to frame semantic nihilism, therefore semantic nihilism is false.

  2. Interesting! Though does your last argument really establish that semantic nihilism is false, or simply that it can't be truly asserted? (Reminds me of some issues I once wrote about here.)

    Another curious thing about the ontological argument would be if it entailed the existence of the perfect reductio, which we could then use to refute the original argument ;-)

    I'm not sure about fear. Couldn't it have an agent-relative justification? But perhaps I'm just thinking of instrumental issues there.

  3. Well if we accept the correspondence view of truth a proof that something can never be truly asserted is equivelant to a proof that something is false isn't it?

  4. I wouldn't think so. I think the usual understanding sees abstract propositions as the fundamental truth-bearers, whose job is to correspond to reality. Linguistic tokens - e.g. thoughts and sentences - are secondary. (They have truth-values insofar as they express propositions. But the propositions don't depend upon the sentences.)

    We can imagine a world with no intelligent beings, and hence no thoughts or sentences, so no linguistic meaning. Semantic nihilism (which I understand to be the claim that there is no linguistic meaning) would be true of that world, wouldn't it? It's not like the claim "there is no truth", which is necessarily false (given that propositions exist necessarily).

    Another way to put the point is to consider sentences like "I am not making an assertion." I can't truly assert it, because that would be to make an assertion. But the proposition it expresses might well be true at other times.

    Aside: I'll take this opportunity to express puzzlement at the lack of comments in response to my discussion of some controversial views on sexual ethics. Where have all the opinions gone? Most disappointing...

  5. You are hereby offered a choice between $1 and $10. In addition, there is a bonus of $100 if you regrt your choice.

    Is this a paradox like the surprise examination, or God saying that you don't know what he told you?

    The example comes from Sorensen, R. (1998). Rewarding regret, Ethics, 108, 528-537.

  6. "Semantic nihilism (which I understand to be the claim that there is no linguistic meaning) would be true of that world, wouldn't it?"

    I don't see semantic nihilism that way, I think it is essentially the stronger claim that meaning, as traditionally conceived, is impossible. Certainly the arguments I've heard for semantic nihilism tend towards this conclusion.

    "Another way to put the point is to consider sentences like "I am not making an assertion." I can't truly assert it, because that would be to make an assertion. But the proposition it expresses might well be true at other times."

    After just having read the Stanford entry on the correspondence theory of truth I've got an idea about that. The class of truth-bearers is the class of all sentences made in all possible worlds so the kind of paradoxes I think you are hinting at ( i.e how can it be true that no assertion is being made anywhere in the universe on my theory) collapse because every possible assertion about this world is made in some possible world. I think that sentences like "I am not making sentences right now" are adequately covered by this, people in other possible worlds saying you are not saying any sentences now. Does that make sense?

  7. If I had a blog I would write all day about likenesses. I would explain how the meanings of words can be described in terms of likenesses. When we say a thing “is” something, we really mean that it is “like” something else. For example, if I say “The sky is stormy”, what I mean is that the sky is like all the things that I have previously called stormy; when I say “my dog is white”, I mean that my dog is like all the things that I have previously called white; I do not know if this is obvious to everyone else, but it seems pretty obvious to me. In some sentences it is less obvious that we are drawing likenesses between thing, for example: “David sat between Jack and Kate.” I understand that logicians do not think of this in the same way as they think of “The sky is stormy”, that they call “between” a “three-place predicate”, and hence that it is immune to the “is”/ “is like” analysis. But I disagree. I am not exactly sure where my disagreement lies, however, or precisely how to analyse this sentence in terms of likenesses, though, so I leave it for now.
    In this way I would show people the way in which almost everything we say is to some extent metaphorical. Also, I would show how often the things we say are metaphorical to a greater extent than we conventionally believe them to be: for example, almost every time we make a distinction, or split a concept into a number of parts, or talk about “truth” and “falsity”, we are using likenesses, and hence are talking to some extent in metaphors. I would then use this idea to get at the universals/nominalism debate in a whole new way. Instead of trying to argue whether or not universals exist, I would first point out that any argument for or against this position is really just one way of clarifying the very vague meaning of “existence”, and then point out that the existence or otherwise of universals is beside the point, and that the real point is to correct some of the errors that are introduced by the idea of a universal. To do this, I would first point out that, whether universals exist or not, they function reasonably well as a metaphors: it is a reasonably good approximation to group all particular objects of a certain kind together and say that they can be imagined as one single thing, the sort of fixed, indivisible, unchanging thing we call a universal. But then I would say that of course it is just a metaphor, and just an approximate description of what words and concepts are like; and so I would point out how this metaphor is in error, and then introduce a new metaphor for words. I would say that words are more like curves drawn through points on a graph: the points on the graph are particular instances, and the line drawn through them is the property that is common to all of them. As we see more and more particular instances of the property in question, the line becomes more and more fixed. When we come across a new thing, any sort of thing, that we have not seen before, we have a choice of whether or not to pass the line through it. It is very unlikely that the existing line passes exactly through this new point, however, and so even if we do decide that this new thing is an instance of the concept in question, we will still need to adjust the line (that represents the concept) in order to incorporate it in to the concept. Another way in which the concept changes is by the elimination of some of the points that we have previously passed the line through. Perhaps we just forget them, or a society forgets them. Because of all this, concepts are constantly changing, and there are an infinite number of possible ones. On the whole I think that philosophers suppress this sort of change, and are suspicious of it, because they tend to focus on words and concepts that are so commonly used and so simple and have so many particular instances that it is hard to imagine them changing. They consider words like “blue” and “rectangular”, which do not change much. Any etymologist knows, however, that these are unusual words, and that words like “sketch”, “crux”, “elegance”, “gist”, “board”, “meat”, “game” – in short, almost any word you choose – is subject to these sorts of changes and variation; and there is no reason to suppose that the words philosophers use are somehow immune to this change and variation. To justify the metaphor above, I would use the idea of likenesses, and would go on in that strain for some time. I would then use this conception of words and their meanings to talk about words and arguments, and how most of them are just failures of communication, and how everyone agrees when they know precisely what the other person means; about contextualism, and how we should not ask “are the meanings of any words context dependent?”, but “are there any words that are not context dependent, and how can we classify all the different kinds of context dependence that we see?”; about language and culture, and how we use the properties of words described above to create intimacy between eachother; about language and cultural relativism and how different cultures (like different people) not only have different words for the same concept, but also have different ways of joining particulars together to make concepts, because they are interested in different sorts of likenesses between things, and to describe this I would use the metaphor of the kitchen cupboard; and about language and clear writing, and how we can use the features of words described above to make our meaning clearer.

    In light of the above I would consider the distinction that is often made between finding out what some concept “is”, and finding out the “meaning of the word.” I would confess that I cannot see what is meant by this distinction. To find out the meaning of a word is just to find out everything that all the particulars have in common, and this is what you find in dictionaries: a pencil, for example, is defined as a “a thin cylindrical instrument used for drawing or writing…and consisting of a rod of graphite or some other erasable marking material inside a wooden metal shaft.” To find out what a concept “is” is presumably to describe the universal that corresponds to that concept; and the universal is presumably the collection of properties that all of the particulars have in common. But that is just what it is to find out the meaning of the word. Nevertheless, it is clearly wrong to think that philosophers are just reproducing what we find in dictionaries, at least when they write about things like “knowledge” and “well-being.” I suggest that they are still talking about the meanings of words, but that they are either refining the meanings that we find in dictionaries or they are talking about concepts that are slightly different to the ones that we find in dictionaries.

    I would then talk about how my new metaphor for words and meanings was faulty. In particular, I would talk about how the distinction between “particulars” and “universals”, which I effectively incorporated into my account, can be misleading.

    I would write about abstraction. I would distinguish between two kinds of abstraction: one I call mathematical abstraction, and it is when we make statements about objects that are completely different from anything we see in everyday life, objects such as shapes drawn on pieces of paper, and counters arranged in patterns; the other I call linguistic abstraction, and it is when we use concepts such as “beautiful” and “elegant”, which are represented in the world by a large number of very complicated objects (beautiful people, beautiful equations, beautiful pictures etc.). These two kinds of abstraction are similar, I think, in that they both give people the impression that they have somehow escaped the sensible world and are no longer talking about real objects, but about intelligible forms or some such invention. They are different because in one case abstraction causes us to know precisely what we are talking about; in the other case abstraction causes us to know very little about what we are talking about. I would suggest that we run into problems when we get the two things confused; a consequence of which is to suppose that we can achieve as much certainty in statements involving shapes drawn on pieces of paper, as we can in statements involving things like beauty and morality and knowledge. I wonder how much Plato has to do with the confusion.

    Next I would turn to science, and describe it in terms of likenesses. This should not be too difficult, because people already describe science in terms of models, which are just a special sort of likeness. I would then talk about different kinds of explanation, and say how they can be described in terms of likenesses: basically, I would suggest that, to “explain” some hitherto vague or confusing or hidden thing is to show how it is like some other thing that we know much better. I would illuminate this discussion by giving an account of the history of the science of the rainbow.

    Next I would discuss logic. I do not know much about logic, but as far as I know it does not function very well unless we assume that every statement can be assigned precisely one of two characters, namely “true” or “false.” I would point out that this is a most preposterous simplification of real statements, and that everyone is pretty well aware of it. I would point out that if, as suggested above, statements can be analysed in terms of likenesses between two or more things, then the simplifying nature of binary nature is quite clear: a likeness is a matter of degree (although even that is a metaphor and a simplification), not a matter of clear truth and clear falsity. I would balance this by saying that logic, though a simplification, is an ingenious and useful simplification; that there is a formulation of the law of non-contradiction under which everyone, even Zen Buddhists and probably even Derrida, can agree that the law, in that formulation, is about as true as anything will ever get; I would give this formulation, and also point out that it is not really a statement about statements in general, but about boxes and dots on paper. I would then talk about how truth works in poetry and proverbs and in horoscopes and painting. I would also try to talk about the truth of religion, and how the question about the existence of God is best answered by answering the question: “In what way is the idea of God a good metaphor for the world?” I would say that it is quite a good one; at any rate, not much worse than the metaphor that philosophers use when they talk about universals.

    I would write a bit about metaphysics. I would suggest that a lot of metaphysics has a lot to do with a certain kind of metaphor. As an aside, I would question a statement my metaphysics lecturer insisted upon, namely: “when we find necessary and sufficient conditions for object-hood or person-hood, we have found truths that are like the truths of mathematics, in that they are a-priori truths.” I would respond that there is no reason to suppose that the necessary and sufficient conditions for object- and person-hood, if found, would be any more a-priori than necessary and sufficient conditions for pencil-hood or apple-hood; and that the chance of finding such conditions are about the same in each pair of cases.

    I would then try to talk about psychology in terms of likenesses. I would hypothesise that the fundamental operation of our brains is not to make logical inferences, but to analogise, to notice likenesses between things; given that the activity of making logical inferences is itself a matter of noticing likenesses, this should not require too much work. I would wonder out loud why it is that different people, given exactly the same set of events, can seem to experience them in so many different ways. I would suggest that, when we talk about “what people experience” we usually talk not about “what a person saw/felt/heard at the instant that the thing was seen/felt/heard”, but about “how the person remembered what they saw/felt/heard, after it had happened.” And in connection with this I would write about how memory might be considered in terms of likenesses: we remember things because we have something in our head which is like that thing in a certain way, and the two things sort of get glued together in our brain somehow because of this likeness; and that the experience we remember is altered by the likeness by which we remember it. An obvious objection to this is that often we remember things because they are strange or foreign or weird, in other words because they are not like anything we have experienced before; I would respond that, although the thing itself might be foreign to us, the relation it bears to all the things around it is not. I would suggest that what we call “recognition” might be just the activity of noticing a likeness between some thing that we see in the world, and some similar thing that we have stored in our head. I would write about how our moral and aesthetic responses to things are affected by likenesses: by the things that we consciously or unconsciously compare them to.

    I would then try to talk about mathematics in terms of likenesses. I am not sure about this part. I would like to say, however, that mathematics is best regarded as a collection of precise, interconnected metaphors. That would account for the relation between mathematics and the physical world in terms of likenesses. It would remain to account for the nature of mathematical truths in terms of likenesses. How can something so exact and so clear be reduced to a series of likenesses.

    I would then ask: why has the notion of “likeness” been so thoroughly ignored by thinkers (it has been, as far as I can tell) when, if even half of the above is true, likenesses play such an important part in our thought? Perhaps it is because likenesses are not exactnesses, and they lack the comfort and grandeur of absolutes, or perhaps it is because the suggestions given above are too superficial, too ordinary, to have much value. I would respond that the value of philosophy lies largely in Meaning, that is, in the extent to which it is able do draw many things together in a unified way, and by that standard the idea of a likeness is superior to any other that I can think of. I would then go on to discuss meaning, and try to do so in terms of likenesses. I think I would have difficulty doing this, and would have to talk in terms of the more general concept of a “relation”. I would say that there is nothing wrong with not-existing, and that our real fear is the fear of existing without forming relations with the world, of passive existence and isolated existence and anonymous existence. This does not seem like a very meaningful statement, but I would make it meaningful by talking about a large number of things in terms of relations, that is by using this statement to show how a large number of things are alike. I would write about the pleasures of power and the pleasures of solitude and the pleasures of society and the pleasures of philosophy and the pleasures of mathematics and the pleasures of poetry and of novels and of rock concerts and of fame, and I would describe all of these things in terms of how they enable us to form relations with the world.

    At the end of all this, or perhaps at the start of it, I would give a general account of likenesses. I would look at the elements involved in a likeness, and then I would give a coordinate system for likenesses, a way of classifying them in terms of the degree to which they possess some basic properties. Of course I would do all this through a particular example of a likeness, which would be taken as a paradigmic example of a likeness, a model kind of likeness, a likeness of all likenesses. I have not thought yet about what that might be, although I know it could be many things.

  8. Timothy - I see what you mean now. Sounds reasonable.

    Blar - that also reminds me of Kavka's toxin puzzle. Though surely it's psychologically possible to feel regret for either choice. So maybe it isn't so hard to 'win'. (I haven't read the paper so I'm not sure what it's meant to illustrate.) I guess the puzzle remains over which it is more rational to choose to begin with. When framed like that, I'm reminded of Newcomb's problem.

    Mike - what did you mean the first time you used the word 'stormy'?

  9. Mike b, your disscusion of the psychology of likeness calls to mind associationistic psychologies, have you considered the analogy? I'm not quite sure I agree with you that likeness is an understudied concept. Metaphor, by the way, is a much studied concept in the philosophy of language.

    Your account of science and gaining knowledge as finding likeness has an interesting consquence, it implies that we must have innate ideas.

    Your statements about logic, I'm afraid to say, haven't been informed by recent work on fuzzy logics, look it up.


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