Armstrong on Naturalism and Empiricism

I was reading the NPDR reviewof a recent book on the philosophy of David Armstrong. I found this review very interesting as I have been very influenced by David Armstrong myself (and have even had the privilege of auditing his course on truthmakers at the Graduate Center) though I can’t say I agree with all of his views. At anyrate, in light of all of the zombie stuff lately this got me to thinking.

Naturalismis a metaphysical thesis that claims that everything that exists does so entirely in one single space-time system. Both idealists and materialists/physicalists can be naturalists in this sense.  This is to be distinguished from empiricism which is the epistemological thesis that claims that the only way to acquire knowledge is the empirical a posterori way used by science. Armstrong’s main argument for naturalism relies on what he calls the  Eleatic principle. This principle says that we ought NOT to posit the existence of entities that have no causal powers. So, if empiricism is correct then the Eleatic principle offers strong support for naturalism and from naturalism to materialism/physicalism.

Why should we adopt empiricism? The best argument I have seen is Devitt’s abduction. He argues that when we have two competing theoretical explanations we should opt for the one that is better understood. I think there are other, related reasons for adopting empiricism. In the first case we have never had to appeal to non-natural entities in any succesful explanation. Each time we have appealed to some non-natural entity we have eventually discovered a plausible candidate for a natural explanation. I have also argued that if anything like evolution turns out to be true then we cannot appeal to intuition as evidence for rationalism (and against empiricism). This is because, given that the our experience of the world has been regular and uniform up until now, we would expect that there would be certain truths which seem to be self-evident but are really just the product of a long process of natural selection in response to a stable environment. If this were the case we would have the very same intuitions that the rationalist appeals to and so the rationalist must have another argument. But none that I know of have been given.

The Eleatic principle also is wielded as an argument from naturalism to materialism. If a non-material entity has no causal powers then according to empiricism we cannot know about it and so would never have any reason to posit its existence. If it does have causal efficacy then it is of a type that is completely mysterious and unlike anything that we have hitherto encountered. So materialism is itself an empirical hypothesis.

 So, if one were to ask ‘but why is it matter rather than something else?’ The answer would be ‘because we discovered that waht it is’. If one wanted more than this, and insisted on asking ‘but what is the reason that it was that way to be discovered?’ The answer would be that it happens to be the case that the actual world is one where there is causation and you need material for that.

A Short Argument that Utilitarians Ought Not to Promote Atheism

It has been commonplace in the history of moral theory to argue that having an obligation and being motivated to fulfill that obligation come apart. I have argued that this was the conception that Hobbes and Locke had. Each of the philosophers thought that we could have obligations (even in the state of nature) but that we needed, in addition to the obligation itself, some other motivating reason to fulfil the obligation.  This can be seen as partly what a Kantian moral theory denies, in that they claim that the having of the obligation (or the recognition that one has it) is the only (legitimate) motivation to fulfil the obligation. So, if one has an anti-Kantian view of this sort one will have to appeal to some strong authority as an enforcer of the moral rules. Hobbes himself says that if there were a God then he would be the one to punish and reward those who break or follow the rules, but in his absence we need a strong Earthly authority.

It seems to me, though I admit that this is ultimately an empirical question, that belief in the existence of God and his willingness to punish and reward people who ignore or follow the dictates of morality is a strong motivator to obey said rules. It also seems to me that if people did not have a belief in God they would be more disposed to breaking the rules of morality when they were confident that they would not be caught by Earthly authorities (I mean, God is always watching, but the city of New York has its lapses). This is of course the problem of Hobbes’ intelligent Knave. Even if one is a Kantian about motivation (like I am), doesn’t one have to admit that fear of consequences has more motivational pull that does the recognition of obligation? Certainly not in all cases, but I mean generally among mankind.

Now, the utilitarian believes that the action (rule, preference, whatever) that promotes the greatest amount of happiness is the right action (rule, whatever) but our motivation for performance doesn’t matter. So, on utilitarian views one can do the right thing for the wrong reasons and still count as performing a moral action (though I sometimes think a Kantian has to say this as well). So, a world populated solely by atheists would be one that was less morally good than a world populated (mostly) by people who feared an all-powerful God. This is because, no matter how good the Earthly government’s enforcement of the moral rules is, it will not be 100% and so will not provide as much motivation to avoid immoral acts as belief that there is an all-powerful being who is always watching and judging you would. Given this it turns out that the utilitarian is obligated not only to avoid promoting belief in atheism, but also to promoting theism of a very strict sort.  

 Well, that wasn’t as short as I thought :)

HOT Theories of Consciousness & and Gricean Intentions

One of the things that I am interested in is the philosophical commitments of the higher-order thought theory. Rosenthal, in my estimation, presents a viable theoretical account of what consciousness might consist in. I do not actually endorse the view; rather what I think is that the view is not obviously false. This is not a popular view, since most people do in fact think that it is obviously false. They therefore dismiss it with strange assuarnce. But it seems to me that we ought to take the theory seriously. When it is properly understood it is capable of giving a very decent account of consciousness.

But no one is perfect and Rosenthal formulates the theory in terms of his background philosophical assumptions. In particular he relies on an anti-Gricean and anti-Kripkean philosophy of language. But I am very attracted to these kinds of view. So, I have taken to recasting the theorythat Rosenthal gives with this kind of view in mind (I have also tried to show that the theory is commited to a claim that all conscious mental states have a qualitative component).

One objection to the Gricean claim that one expresses a mental attitude via a reflexive intention, which is that one’s hearer recognize the very intention to express the attitude in question, is that we often do not consciously experience ourselves as having these kinds of intentions. Maybe we do in some elaborate circumstances, but usually whe one is talking to someone the conversation often doesn’t seem so strategic. But if the any kind of higher-order theory of consciousness turns out to be right then we should expect the kind of Gricean intentions to occur unconsciously. If so it would not seem to us that we had those intentions and so it would then be no objection that we rarely notice them. We notice only the conscious ones.

Rosenthal objects to Gricean theories because, according to him, A Gricean is committed to saying that in the case of insincere speech acts (misleading people) one is expressing a mental attitude that one does not have. So, if I reflexively intend that take me to be expressing the belief that p, even though I know that p is false (or at least believe that it is) and want to purposely manipulate you into believing it (a perlocutionary effect I hope to achieve), then I count as expressing the belief that p even though I do not have that belief.

Now it is true that writiers like Searle and Vendler have said these sorts of things, and so it is the case that Rosenthal has an objection to their theories this is not the only way to go. One can simply define belief expression as occurring if and only if one has the belief that p and one reflexively intends ones utterance as a reason for the hearer to take his utterance as evidence that he does believe p. Then lying or misleading would not strictly speaking count as expressions of belief (even though the hearer would take the utterance as a reason to think that the speaker does have the belief and so, if the speech act were successful, the hearer would take the speaker to be expressing the belief when in fact the speaker were not really expressing the belief. Bach and Harnish define belief expression in this way, though they do not explicitly discuss insincere speech acts. We might say that when one lies one actually express the belief that ones utterance will deceive the hearer into taking me as believing p. Or one could say that when someone lies they pretend to express the belief. It would then be the case that a person who lies pretends to have the right intention to express the belief that p. This is actually the kind of account Rosenthal himself gives of lying. According to him it is pretending to think p, why can’t the Gricean just say what I did? What can’t they be pretending to have the relvant intention rather than to be thinking the relevant thought?

Either way though, Rosenthal’s objection to Gricean theories isn’t fatal and the higher-order theory actually helps to make sense of some first person data. This is problematic for Rosenthal since he bases one of his major argument for the higher-order thought theory itself on his causal theory of attitude expression.

So it Comes to This

Over at RC’s quick poll Genius says

Well – Given this thread and given a week has passed – I suppose we can consider my curiosity satiated.

To which RC responds

Well, we were interested in the conditional question how others would respond if they were to carefully read all those exchanges. Since nobody bothered to do so (understandably enough), we’re simply left with our own judgments. That’s good enough for me — (though securing a widespread consensus would have been even nicer, naturally) — so I guess it’s time to close this thread and move on. Here’s hoping I do a better job of avoiding online interactions with idiots in future.

I agree that we were interested in responses from people who had followed the debate, though I am less sure that people did not do this. The couple of people who did respond seemed to agree with my point, and this seems to have been enough for RC to dismiss these people as idiots. Also I tracked a lot of hits on the posts in question and there was not the wide-spread condemnation of my position as idiotic that RC clearly expected. This in itself seems to suggest something about the nature of RC accusations against me (he of course appeals to his reader’s politeness, please! Politeness didn’t stop people from voicing criticism of Genius’ comments (this post seems to have been deleted for some reason) in a stern yet polite way).


Did Quine Change his Mind?

It is well-known that Quine argued that the axioms of logic are revisable. The law of the excluded middle, for instance, while at the center of our ‘web of beliefs’ could, if we had compelling evidence, be revised or even abandoned. But it is commonly thought that Quine changed his mind by the time that he wrote his Philosophy of Logic in 1970. But is this right?

What people seem to have in mind is the passage in chapter 6 on deviant logics where he says, in considering the debate between someone who denies the law of non-contradiction and someone who rejects this denial,

My view of this dialogue us that neither party knows what he is talking about. They think they are talking about negation, ‘~’, ‘not'; but surely the notation ceased to be recognizable as negation when they took to regarding some conjunctions of the form ‘p & ~p’ as true, and stopped regarding such sentences as implying all others. Here, evidently, is the deviant logician’s predicament: when he tries to deny the doctrine he only changes the subject. (p 81)

The idea here is supposed to be that it is impossible to really reject the law of non-contradiction as opposed to simply changing the subject. But this doesn’t mean that the law of non-contradiction isn’t revisable, it simply means that arguments between those who are pro-revision and those who are Conservatives will very often be question begging. Quine goes on to say as much when discussing the law of the excluded middle,

 By the reasoning of a couple of pages back, whoever denies the law of the excluded middle changes the subject. This is not to say that he is wrong in doing so. In repudiating ‘p or ~p’ he is indeed giving up classical negation, or perhaps alteration, or both; and he may have his reasons. (p 83)

He then goes on to canvass the reasons that have been given, which range “from bad to better”. But ultimately Quine rejects them as sufficient to motivate us to abandon classical logic. He appeals to something he calls the ‘maxim of minimal mutilation’, as he says,

The classical logic of truth functions and quantification is free of paradox, and incidentally is a paragon of clarity, elegance, and efficiency. The paradoxes emerge only with set theory and semantics. Let us try to resolve them within set theory and semantics, and not lay fairer fields to waste. (p 85)

He goes on to cite it again in response to the challenge from quantum mechanics,

But in any event let us not underestimate the price of deviant logic. There is a serious loss of simplicity, especially when the new logic is not even a many-valued truth functional logic. And there is a loss, still more serious, on the score of familiarity. Consider again the case, a page or so back, of begging the question in an attempt to defend classical negation. This only begins to illustrate the handicap of having to think within deviant logic. The price is perhaps not prohibitive, but the returns had better be good. (p 86)

It seems clear from this that Quine is not retracting his claim that classical logic is revisable but is instead canvassing the reasons that one may have for such a revision and arguing that we, as of yet, do not have enough reason to abandon classical logic. This is entirely consistent with his views and so we can conclude that he did not change his mind about the revisability of logic.

Moral Truthmakers

I have been having a very nice discussion with the Semantic Terrorist on my post A Simple Argument for Moral Realism. I thought I would move the discussion to the front since the post was from alomost a year ago. ST gives detailed responses to the seven points I made in response to him; I won’t respond to them all (though all are worth responding to) since I want to honor ST’s request to focus on the issue he (?) is interested in…but I can’t resist saying a couple of things about some of the side issues… 

R. Brown’s point #1: “I never said that [Kant’s] categorical imperative was a truth. What I said was that it allows us to generate truths.”

As far I can tell, no one ever literally generates any truth. Rather we discover certain truths; or, in some cases, mistakenly believe that we do.

I do, of course, understand how one’s discovery of a given truth can lead to the discovery of other truths by deduction. What you seem to be saying, however, is quite different; and I genuinely don’t understand how one can reasonably believe that a mere command can lead to the discovery of any truth at all. [Note: it’s necessary to distinguish between the command (or imperative) itself, and such facts as so-&-so issued such-&-such a command on a certain date to a certain audience.] At any rate, my key point here is that, since commands are not propositions, no command can logically imply any truth.

Logical implication is a truth-preserving semantic relation. So if there’s no truth at issue to begin with then there’s no truth to be preserved by any inference that can be made from it. Indeed, I claim that you can no more cogently infer any truth from a command than you can cogently infer a truth from a cow, or a rock. That being the case, it’s not clear to me what you mean in saying that we can generate moral truths from Kant’s categorical imperative.

Well, I don’t really see why you think this, and you certainly haven’t given any argument for it. So, I like Hare’s view expressed in chapter two of The language of Morals. He there convincingly argues, to my mind, that we can have a logic of imperatives. So, take his example

1. Take all of the boxes to the station

2. This is one of the boxes

3. Therefore, take this to the station

This is clearly a valid inference even though it has an imperative as one of its premises. This is very differnt from the case of rocks or cows, so I think that your argument is a non sequiter

R. Brown point #2: “I was hasty when I said that some actions are contradictory, what I meant, as I suppose you well know, was that some actions cannot be willed without contradiction…”

That’s hardly a significant improvement on your first (goofed-up) claim; for I clearly can will to perform immoral acts. In order for me (or any other non-cognitivist) to take this claim seriously you must first explain what it’s supposed to mean for an ACT OF WILLING to be contradictory. And good luck with that; for ‘tis an obvious logical truth that every act of willing is an act; and so you’re right back in the same pile of crap that you attempted to crawl out of.

Yes, you surely can will an act even if it is contradictory, just as you can believe P and ~P, but that does not mean that there is no contradiction involved. In the Kantian case there are two senses of contradiction at play. One is the sense in which the act you are trying to perform would be impossible to perform if your maxim were universalized. So, take stealing. If it were a universal law that when one wanted something one just took it stealing would be impossible. The other sense of contradiciton is the sense in which I contradict a natural tendancey or desire of rational beings. So, when I try to use someone as a means only I contradict my desire not to be used as a means. The basic point is the same, as Kant points out, when we break a moral rule we recognize the universal nature of the law but try to make an exception for ourselvesm which is oc course nonsense.

R. Brown point #3: “I do, in fact, think that [Kant’s] categorical imperative universalizes to all vertebrates.”

No doubt that sounds nice to vegans and such, but I don’t believe for a second that you really mean it. After all, some moral obligations concerns friends qua friends; and you are not really a friend to all vertebrates — except perhaps in some goofy and insubstantial metaphorical sense.

Huh? I do really mean it…and I don’t get this objection at all….

In any case, my point was that Kant’s categorical imperative is wide open to the objection that too much depends upon how a particular token act is described; and that every token act can be correctly described as falling under several different type acts. For example, Ted Bundy’s act of raping his first victim can correctly be described as (i) the act of raping a woman, (ii) a man’s first act of raping a woman, (iii) the act of Ted Bundy’s raping some woman, (iv) the act of some (male) vertebrate’s placing his (presumably erect) penis into some (female) vertebrate’s vagina either against her consent or at least independently of her consent, etc., etc., etc. Obviously, some descriptions are more complete, or more informative, than others. But how are we supposed to figure out which description is the so-called “right” one? Is it just a matter of consensus? Is it just a matter of opinion?

I agree that this is a hard problem, and as I have argued in most cases this is exactly what moral debate boils down to; trying to figure out how best to describe a certain act. But in this case all of the descriptions involve raping, and that raping is wrong is an analytic truth. The ones that don’t explicitly involve raping involve explicit mention of violation of consent, so in this case there is no interesting problem about description.

R. Brown point #7: “What makes it true is that it follows from the correct moral theory. The [correct moral] theory takes account of the facts and organizes them in an appropriate way; what else would you expect a theory to do?

“George Bush is a transsexual” follows from “George Bush is a sexy transexual”; but that hardly shows that George Bush is a transsexual. It’s foolish to say that a proposition is true because it is implied by a theory. And to say that a proposition is true because it is implied by a correct theory only raises the issue of what makes the theory correct. (George Bush is male because the individual, George Bush, exemplifies the property of being male ; not because someone has come up with a correct theory that implies that George Bush is male.)

The question is not what a theory is supposed to do, but whether any moral theory is the sort of thing that could be correct in the first place. It’s all well and good for you to at least halfway agree with me that correct theories are made true by facts; but you need to actually identify facts that make particular moral claims true. (And you haven’t done that yet. Instead you just keep on talking about how moral truths are made true by [correct] moral theories.)

Well, this is where my constructivism kicks in. What you say is true about George Bush because ‘being male’ is not a constructed property, but ‘being right’ is. The correct moral theory is the one that best captures the goal of morality. The goal of morality is to allow rule-governed cooperation and in order to do that it has to take account of certain basic facts about persons. Among these are included autonomy, that we feel pain and dislike it, etc. The categorical imperative is a constructed principle that reflects our interests and which allows us to see that certain actions are impermissible from a certain standpoint; the moral point of view. Now, you may not like normative constructivism but it does provide a nice answer to all of your worries. We do not have to posit any MORAL facts. All we need are natural facts seen from a certain point of view.