Friday, July 04, 2008

Open Thread: fundamental disagreements

Sometimes, when reading a blog, you may get the feeling that the blogger's posts are infused by a fundamentally misguided assumption. But such deep-rooted disagreements can't typically be raised within the scope of any particular post. So consider this open thread an invitation. Do you find yourself raising an eyebrow at some of my basic presuppositions? Any disagreements that run so deep you wouldn't even know where to start? Try here!


  1. its hard to argue about fundamental presuppositions, and id seems from the most complex to the most basic arguments the crux lies within oneself and one's own preferences.

    what you have managed to reflect within this blog may be new, maybe not...ancient Greeks and Romans were known to think a lot, but unfortunately many of this was not recorded... maybe we are the infinite monkeys, working on the next greatest Shakespeare...

    honestly, i havn't had the courage nor the available mind to take up the interesting issues you raise in this blog. i hope someone comes along to point something more even interesting out.

  2. It seems to me that you are mistaken to take late 20th century philosophy (anything since Quine) seriously at all. Seriously, I think that the field has fallen back into scholasticism, not figuratively but literally, the exact same world-view grounded in different terminology, the result of thinking that the world is made of words as its basic types.

    In computer jargon, I call this the lisp token universe and it isn't a way of thinking that goes anywhere.

  3. A good idea for a post topic. I guess I'm wary of your relying so heavily on your and common intuitions, rather than on other forms of evidence. Just because a word is common doesn't mean it has a non-confused core meaning, and just because many philosophers feel X doesn't mean X must be so.

  4. Michael - can you offer an example to illustrate what you have in mind? (Some metaphysicians have proposed that possible worlds are linguistic constructs, but I don't know anyone who thinks that "the world is made of words".) Is it the methodology of conceptual analysis that you're concerned about? Also, contemporary philosophers cover some pretty diverse topics. Do you think your complaint applies as much to applied ethicists as it does to metaphysicians?

    Robin - thanks. I have some sympathy for that concern, though I don't really think it's true that I assume any common word "has a non-confused core meaning." (I think that notions of ultimate responsibility or 'pure self-creation' are demonstrably incoherent, for example. And other folk concepts, such as freedom and coercion, take some revising to make them coherent.)

    But yeah, I guess I do think conceptual understanding (or 'intuitions', as you put it) is the central tool of a philosopher (while acknowledging, of course, that our claims to understanding are always fallible and subject to revision). What "other forms of evidence" would you recommend?

  5. I think that you underestimate the degree to which our empirical knowledge can provide evidence on philosophical questions (or theoretical questions in general). Given the fallibility and conflicting results of philosophical investigation on many questions, we can't currently get overwhelming prior probabilities regarding them from philosophy.

    When a contested philosophical view such as property dualism or some forms of moral realism makes an otherwise highly improbable claim about the universe, e.g. that qualia mimic the physical world or that our particular moral intuitions track moral truth, we should downgrade the posterior probability of the philosophical view accordingly, and it seems that you fail to do this sufficiently.

  6. "I think that you underestimate the degree to which our empirical knowledge can provide evidence on philosophical questions"

    That's possible. I think there are good reasons to think that in principle philosophy has no need of science. But I also grant that it may be helpful to us as non-ideal agents, so I should take care not to be too dismissive here.

    Though I'm not sure how the rest of your comment relates to this point. "Given the fallibility" of our attempts at a priori theorizing, it doesn't follow that attempts at a posteriori theorizing would fare any better. And empirics don't seem essential to your later examples. Speaking of which:

    * I don't put much weight on "our particular moral intuitions".

    * I agree that epiphenomenalism is very odd. (It's a view I hold very tentatively.) But I doubt the alternatives are any better in this respect, as discussed here.

    P.S. Thanks all, this has been an interesting thread so far...

  7. I couldn't have said it better than Carl has, in his comment above.

    Richard, I'm curious why you think that, in principle, philosophy has no need for science. To the extent that you put some weight on intuitions (whether general or particular), you seem to be committed to the view that the intuitions you rely upon reliably track the truth. But a relation of truth-tracking is a relation of counterfactual dependence, and such relations are confirmed or disconfirmed by causal discoveries of the sort made by science. So even under ideal conditions philosophers—at least the overwhelming majority of those who rely on the authority of intuition—cannot ignore the results of science.

    You also ask why our attempts at a posteriori theorizing would fare any better. Here's a possible answer. Given the impressive track record of modern science, we have very good reasons to think that the best confirmed scientific theories are true, or close to the truth. Philosophy, by contrast, doesn’t have a similarly impressive track record. Claims that follow abductively from scientific theories are therefore much more credible than claims which can only be supported by philosophical theorizing.

  8. The last sentence in my comment above is of course subject to a ceteris paribus clause. That's why I am myself sympathetic to a form of dualism of the kind defended by Chalmers. What I take to be the difference between Richard and me is that, unlike Richard, I discount heavily against views which go beyond what is strictly necessary to best explain contemporary science. The fact that some views survive this process of discounting should not obscure the fact that discounting takes place.

  9. I have to say I really think you are faulty of optimism (heh). This may seem as an ad hominem, but it isn't. Optimism is the same as thinking, despite all previous information about a given subject or conflict, that things may work out in the end.

    Pessimism, it seems to me, is a much more healthy posture towards the facts, since we just can't solve everything or change things in a big way. Pessimism is what folk call "being realistic"; and if someone just stick to theory, and not also to the real experience, then this theoretical man is just out of reality.

    A good example about this might be that of Kant prior and posterior positions about French Revolution. First he seemed to thought everything could change and happily supported the course of actions (like Beethoven dedicating Eroica to Napoleon). But afterwards both were able to see things as they really were ("a posteriori"). Then Kant formulates the idea of a radical evil in opposition to the idea of infinite progress towards peace (and Beethoven seemingly revoking his dedication to Napoleon).

    Also I just simply can't understand why you always insist in treating of deontic x consequentialist positions (which seems depository of formal anytical ethics) when you could speak of conservative (think of Burke, Voegelin or even Weber) x progressive (think of Rousseau or even J.S. Mill) ones. Maybe then we could see some interesting "humanities crossovers".

  10. And by faulty of optimism I mean something like "guilty of optimism". (crazy, hm?)

  11. I fail to understand how an approach to the mental which works by bifurcation of the mental into the phenomenal and the intentional
    is a tenable position if understood along a reducibiliy thesis for the intentional via functionalization and an irreducibility thesis for the phenomenal.
    I am not sure whether you hold such a thesis, but I think your account of phenomenal belief as just a prima facied problem for epiphenomenalism and the rescue thesis via partial constitution would seem less ad hoc if subsumed under a general non-reducibility thesis for the intentional.
    I think the irreducibility can be established
    by a mutatis mutandis version of the 2D-argument.

    I think qualia aren´t happily termed mental, but should be understood typeF-wise.

    Re Conceptual Analysis and Intutions

    I don´t see how the metaphysical programmes currently flourishing are to be analysed as somehow being conceptual.
    Much of what is going on is at least conceivablity-driven and should be termed such.
    Surely conceivability-arguments work by utilizing intuitions, but it is the content of the intuitions which are in the first instance of epistemic value not the intuitions
    Metaphysics aims at truths about the structures of possible worlds not at about our concepts of them.

    Re Scholasticism
    I think one really vexing problem of state of the art analytic philosophy is the often sloppy, non-comittal approach, where it is more important to give a complete overview of the logical landscape concerning a certain problem and proposed solutions, instead of committing oneself to a position.
    I am more interested in arguments against Ontological Realism than in seeing how a semantic for Anti-Realism might look like( pace Chalmers), for example.

  12. Knowing things other than philosophy, especially science, changes your philosophical intuitions. Because science is much more certain and productive than armchair analysis, one ought to credit science-laden intuitions more than science-innocent intuitions. One reason for this is that science refines and improves the quality of our concepts.

    But it's not just science. Richard's couterpart in a possible world where he reads a great deal of serious literary fiction, or in a world in which he is embedded in a very different philosophical community, or a world in which he studies anthropology for two years, etc. produces a Richard with very different intuitions. The profound contigency of intuitions is the primary reason theories generated almost entirely by intuition-fueled inference are almost certain to be false. If you think your intuitively-founded theories are likely true, then you owe us all a story about why the way you got your intuitions, and the way you relate them to one another, is special.

  13. Pablo,

    You write that "a relation of truth-tracking is a relation of counterfactual dependence, and such relations are confirmed or disconfirmed by causal discoveries"

    I do not see why we should accept this. Can't there be non-causal counterfactual claims? e.g. "If 2+2 were 5, then maths would be very difficult". If there can be counterfactuals about non-causal relationships, then it seems false to suggest that our intuitions should be assessed by their causal relationship with the physical world. Perhaps intuitions aren't the sorts of thing that enter causal relations at all.


    You write:
    "science is much more certain and productive than armchair analysis"

    Productive at /what/? It is not more productive at conceptual analysis, modal logic, value enquiry, etc.

    You also write:
    "The profound contigency of intuitions is the primary reason theories generated almost entirely by intuition-fueled inference are almost certain to be false"

    My beliefs about the flatness of the earth are also pretty contingent. Counterpart Alex who is more fanatically religious, who was born much earlier, who is born in a tribe isolated from modern science, and so on, also has very different beliefs from me. This contingency doesn't mean that my current beliefs are likely to be false. As you suggest, one can defeat this contingency by pointing to relevant disimilarities between my current intuitions and other intuitions I might have had. Here's one: I do lots of philosophy, in which I try to sharpen up my intuitions by carefully attending to certain well constructed cases, and I read a lot of theory about what sorts of intuitions commit us to what sorts of implications. I suspect the same is true of Richard and counterpart Richard.

    Finally: Richard,

    I'd be interested to see you explain how you connect some of your specific beliefs about various applied ethical problems with your overall stance on these matters. At one point you were utilitarian: I don't know if that's still true, but if it is I'd be interested to see how you justify some of your beliefs about applied ethics on utilitarian principles.


  14. Gregorya,

    "Productive at /what/? It is not more productive at conceptual analysis, modal logic, value enquiry, etc."

    Productive in delivering knowledge about the world. I'll give you logic and math, but the history of conceptual analysis and value enquiry does not inspire confidence. Even granting logic, most people can't do it very well. So we could use a better theory about what good logicians are doing such that their very unusual cognitive processes end up successfully tracking a very abstract kind of truth.

    "I do lots of philosophy, in which I try to sharpen up my intuitions by carefully attending to certain well constructed cases, and I read a lot of theory about what sorts of intuitions commit us to what sorts of implications. I suspect the same is true of Richard and counterpart Richard."

    I do lots of philosophy all the time, too, and I disagree with Richard more often than not. So what's going on? Is it just that one of us is a better analyst of concepts and the implications of "intuitions." How would we know. How do we know this is different from the other kinds of cases you mention (raised prior to modern science by religious fanatics, etc)? I do in fact think that SOME PARTS OF the contemporary anglo-american philosophical community succeed in transmitting norms of cognitive behavior that improve the reliability of reasoning and truth claims. But this is just a self-serving hypothesis. And a lot of what philosophers do is just a special kind of signaling and dominance game involving a peculiar sort of argumentative rhetoric that is often successful at winning assent and silencing detractors. But that's not the same thing as truth-tracking. I want a theory that establishes the general reliability of certain kinds of philosophical reasoning before I give it that much credit. And that theory's going to have to be supported empirically or it's going to be question-beggingly circular.

    Intuitively, I know I'm right.

  15. BigTicket - right, I don't think intentionality is any more susceptible to functionalist reduction than is phenomenology.

    In what sense is a careful survey of logical space 'sloppy'? I would have thought it just the opposite. (Sometimes the logical terrain is insufficiently well-surveyed to justify decisively "committing oneself to a position".)

    Will - I'd generally agree that more informed and reflectively refined intuitions carry more weight. But I'm skeptical that science typically "refines and improves the quality of our concepts" as well as philosophy does. Perhaps it would help in some cases -- do you have anything specific in mind?

    Alex - sounds right to me. [To raise a more radically skeptical concern: it's still possible to have some counterpart who engages in all the same philosophical training but nonetheless starts off with radically different priors - maybe he's a counterinductivist, for example, who thinks that past falsity is evidence of future truth. But I think we must simply take it as given that such alternative views are misguided. And, as you say, it's a perfectly general skeptical problem.]

    "I'd be interested to see how you justify some of your beliefs about applied ethics on utilitarian principles."

    Which beliefs? (I generally try to connect them on indirect consequentialist grounds: having such-and-such character, or following such-and-such a rule or practice, will tend to make the world a better place.)

  16. "do you have anything specific in mind?"

    Sure... Space. Time. Species. Mass. Causation. Computation. Equilibrium. Coordination. Selection. I'd even say justice, pleasure, happiness, morality, democracy.

    I'd think the question is whether there are concepts that are not refined and improved by science. And if so, whether that's just because the relevant science is too immature.

    I think the problem with armchairism, other than the fact of its arbitrariness in the absence of confirmation of its reliability, is that in practice it pushes philosophers to develop a toolkit of largely rhetorical moves to gain agreement and to marginalize or diminish dissenter. It's a fun status game,especially if you know how to win, but it has basically nothing to do with the search for truth.

  17. Will - "I disagree with Richard more often than not"

    Funny, I tend to agree with you more often than not! Must be a function of the different topics we blog about, I suppose.

    "arbitrariness in the absence of confirmation of its reliability"

    How do you mean? The state of philosophical knowledge is better today than it was 50 years ago -- isn't that some confirmation of the reliability of its methods? (Maybe circular, but there's no avoiding that at the most fundamental level. Compare the problem of induction.) How else would you "confirm" a moral theory, say, other than by assessing its philosophical merits?

    Much of what you say here seems to rest on a general skepticism about a priori inquiry. You ask, "How would we know [whether something is good philosophy?]" I don't have an algorithm at my fingertips, but in practice we generally can recognize good philosophy when we see it. (Everyone agrees that Derek Parfit and David Lewis are good philosophers, which is not at all to merely call them good rhetoricians.)

    So I guess I just fundamentally disagree with your characterization of "armchairism". But that is the point of this thread after all :-)

  18. Will,

    Thanks for the response. The only trouble with threads this broad is that discussion soon reaches the stage where it would take years to resolve every disagreement. I disagree with most of what you say above, but it'd take us too far afield to discuss it all here. But I will make one point:

    "I want a theory that establishes the general reliability of certain kinds of philosophical reasoning before I give it that much credit. And that theory's going to have to be supported empirically or it's going to be question-beggingly circular."

    This seems to me to be obviously far too strong. If I asked for a theory that established the reliability of perception in advance of giving perception any epistemic weight, I'd get nowhere very fast. The more general point is that methods of epistemic enquiry must at least sometimes be self-justifying.

    Further, as I suggested to Pablo, I'm not clear why philosophical methods must be justified empirically. To assume that empirical investigation is epistemically prior to philosophical investigation just assumes what is in dispute: that philosophical analysis is less trustworthy than empirical investigation.


    Reproductive issues strike me as particuarly difficult in a utilitarian framework, but it's really a general worry that some indirect grounds will be stronger or weaker than you give them credit for.

  19. I've been busy conferencing, but I hope it's not too late to jump in. I share the skepticism about armchair conceptual analysis that other people are expressing. What kind of information is conceptual analysis supposed to be providing? If it's supposed to be telling us about what the world is like, then empirical information seems relevant. To borrow an example from Will, your concept of causation should be ultimately answerable to physics. If you think that causation is necessarily deterministic and your best physical theory tells you that the world is full of indeterminism you either have to change your theory of causation or admit that there's a lot less causation than you thought there was.

    On the other hand, if conceptual analysis is supposed to be telling you about the content of your concepts, then it seems like you need to supplement it with non-introspective data. If your concepts are socially mediated, then you should look at sociology and intellectual history to learn more about them. If they depend on the structure of your brain, then you should look at psychology and neurology. Introspection isn't necessarily the most accurate source of information about your mental processes.

  20. Wizard -- the way I see it, empirical inquiry serves to distinguish between possible worlds (to learn whether we are in a deterministic or an indeterministic world, say), and thus concerns matters of contingent fact. Conceptual analysis, on the other hand, reveals necessary truths -- i.e. what possible worlds there are in the first place. You could say this is information about rationally coherent concepts.

    (Psychology and social sciences are no help here, since they'll merely tell us about whatever confused concepts we happen to begin with -- compare all those silly x-phi surveys about free will. Philosophers are meant to refine their thinking - it's a normative process. Note that it's not necessarily about how our world is either, because - as with your causation example - it may be an empirical question whether the actual world instantiates the item in question.)

  21. Richard, I think you're granting empirical inquiry too limited a role. In addition to distinguishing between possible worlds, it often gives hints as to which concepts are worth developing and which are not. As far as I know, there are theories of alchemy that are just as conceptually coherent as the periodic table. (Cue historian of alchemy to come in and rip that assertion apart.) But the periodic table is useful for classifying and predicting the behavior of elements in the actual world, whereas alchemy isn't.

    In other words, I want more than mere rational coherence: I want to end up with concepts that are useful and relevant to my life.

    I share your pessimism about X-phi; why on earth I want to know what J. Random Undergrad thinks? I've graded enough papers by J. Random Undergrads to know that they're conceptually confused. (I'd better stop here before I divert everybody into talking about fundamental agreements, which are not the topic of this thread.)

    I think psychology and the social sciences can be good for debunking, though. If you hold a moral theory that grants importance to "cooties" (or whatever they call them in NZ), you might change your mind after learning that the "cooties" concept is just a very rough way of tracking things that might hurt you if eat or touch them. (Maybe I'm being too optimistic about cooties-theorists here?)

  22. I wholeheartedly agree with your take on the impact of empirical inquiry, once we have acquired the requisited concepts.
    But I think it´s not so clear whether our concepts are strongly a priori,i. e. independent of causal contact with entities inhabiting the actual world.
    Relatedly, one would want to know something
    substantial about the ontology of thought, for instance if concepts are denizens of Frege`s Reich.
    Many people in the "conceptual analysis 2.0" tradition like Chalmers,Jackson and Lewis(?) are very unclear when it comes to such questions.
    Be that as it may, I think it were a severe cost of conceptual analysis approaches if they were committed to something like Evidence Excluvism,i.e. that all our evidence is somehow generated by conceptual analysis.
    Like I mentioned in my earlier post, many metaphysicians want to draw conclusions about
    possibilities not about our concepts of them.

    Re Sloppiness
    I intended logical space to include impossible worlds and thought that it is often
    not so difficult to come up with some obscure
    view(materialism,dialethism) you just have to read other scholars reductios and take them as deductios.
    One lament often voiced by calling a group of scholars scholastic is exactly that every position is held by someone in the discussion and the sucker´s position gets centerstage as strawman´s straw.

  23. "But I think it´s not so clear whether our concepts are strongly a priori."

    Sure. I merely claim that many propositions may be justified without appeal to experience. It may well be that experience is a precondition for having the concepts (and thus the belief) in the first place, without thereby playing any justificatory role.

    "many metaphysicians want to draw conclusions about possibilities not about our concepts of them"

    That may be helped by positing a link between conceptual and metaphysical possibility. See also my response to Eric's post here: "It's coherent concepts in general that the metaphysician is interested in; the fact that they're our concepts is merely an unfortunate precondition for being able to examine them!"

  24. Re Concepts
    Some concepts might be partially constituted by their contents, i.e. phenomenal concepts, in this case the role of the contents would be more than being a precondition.

    Re Link between conceptual and metaphysical possibility
    such a link would secure a role for conceptual analysis in metaphysics, but it would not secure the claim that metaphysics
    is just analysis.
    Furthermore, the link itself would have to be established by rational intuition and not by conceptual acumen, right?
    If I recall it correctly, that is also your position in your thesis contra Chalmers, who wants to deflate the link by making it quasi-conceptual via euthrypionalization.

  25. I fundamentally disagree with your dualism, as you well know. (I was brought here from Chris Hallquist's post about this post.) From your arguments, it seems you have some contempt for the extent to which science influences philosophy and subscribe to this 'conditionalizing out' bullshit - yes, it is bullshit, because in reality, this is completely impossible and a waste of time because playing around with situations for the hell of it, ignorant of empirical data that might affect that (such as thinking 'Hey, in a universe without gravity, we'd be floating off the planet' without considering that there would be no planets), is disingenuous, and isn't the point of philosophy to reach some sort of conclusion about the real world? Chris's post on this summarizes my concerns a little bit better, but you cannot oversimplify, you cannot ignore empirical data, and you cannot ignore the reality that that empirical data presents.

    I'll be blunt: I hate it when you whiny dualist philosophers of mind try to make utterly false conjectures on something you know very little about compared to those of us in neuroscience. I wonder how much of the neuroscience literature you've read - I've asked you this question before, and you've tried to give me the old 'science doesn't apply' bullshit, but science ALWAYS applies. Science is how the world works.

    I mean, seriously, we in neuroscience enjoy laughing at dualists, because you're all ridiculous.

  26. But KL, we established in other discussions that you don't actually know what dualism is. So we're just talking past each other, insofar as the ridiculous view that you call 'dualism' is not actually the view I espouse. You shouldn't let labels confuse you so.

    (Your last line is very revealing, and not something to be proud of given your demonstrable ignorance of what "we all" actually believe. As a science student, I'm sure you're aware of the cognitive biases deriving from emotional tribal affiliations, ingroup-outgroup identification, etc. You might pause to consider whether this phenomenon might be clouding your judgment. Try replacing every instance of 'dualism' with 'view X', and see whether my posts make any more sense to you. If you enter every exchange with the unshakeable prejudice that "dualists", whoever they are and whatever they might believe, are "ridiculous" idiots, then you're unlikely to learn much.)

    "I hate it when you whiny dualist philosophers of mind try to make utterly false conjectures on something you know very little about compared to those of us in neuroscience."

    (Who's whining?) Name a dualist philosopher that you've actually read. What empirical "conjectures" do they make, that might be better informed by neuroscientific data? See here: "(3) Contrary to popular belief, dualism need not be in tension with science. It only diverges from materialism in its extra-nomological implications -- i.e. matters that concern philosophers, not scientists." Property dualism makes no empirical claims divergent from physicalism - it's a purely philosophical thesis - so empirical data couldn't possibly decide between the theories.

    I don't think you appreciate what a thoroughly poor grasp you have of the issue. Give it some thought, and try reading first hand those you would slander; until you do, I'm afraid there's little point conversing with you further.


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