Metaphysics as Intellectual Ergonomics (guest post by Elijah Millgram)
This is the fifth in a series of guest posts* by Elijah Millgram (Utah) based on themes from his new book, The Great Endarkenment: Philosophy for an Age of Hyperspecialization. (Here are the first, second, third, and fourth entries.)
Metaphysics as Intellectual Ergonomics
by Elijah Millgram
There’s an old Harry Harrison short story, “A Tale of the Ending,” in which the characters come to realize that, although they think of themselves as human, they belong to an alien species that has very, very quietly replaced humanity. Let’s imagine that’s actually happened. The humans, who formerly led simple lives performing a handful of stereotyped functions—as farmers, hunters, fishermen, warriors and, occasionally, merchants—have vanished. In their stead are pod creatures with a much more complex form of social organization; as in Harrison’s story, they are much, much, much more specialized. If the displacement has gone unnoticed, the pod creatures seem likely to assume that the philosophical problems they face are the ones that preoccupied the humans of old.
Suppose they do. Would they be right? Well, suppose that metaphysical problems are philosophical if any are. And suppose that metaphysics isn’t after all the enterprise of producing peculiar theories about impossible-to-observe features of the universe; suppose instead that, unbeknownst to most of its declared practitioners, it’s really an engineering science. (I know, it’s a lot to swallow all at once; work with me on this.) And suppose further that its turf is the design and implementation of intellectual devices that facilitate effective reasoning. If their more complex form of life made demands on the pod creatures’ reasoning that the humans hadn’t faced, maybe they’d need better such devices.
Let’s take a step back, and try squinting at one or two traditional metaphysical topics, seeing them, if we can, as products of (and occasions for) intellectual ergonomics. Metaethics is the metaphysics of ethics, and metaethicists discuss oughts; oughts seem to have a cognitive function. When I declare that you ought to do it, I’m marking a course of action as supported, while screening off the support. That is, I’m signaling that there’s an argument (or maybe something on a par with an argument) for doing it, but without telling you what it is. You can see why we might have such a device in our repertoire; screening of this kind is anyway a time saver for bosses (and parents) who like to supply reasons on a need-to-know basis.
Or again, necessity is a metaphysicians’ staple, and it plausibly has a cognitive function also: it tells you to ignore, anyway for the purposes of theoretical reasoning, anything outside a given range of alternatives. So it’s an attention management device. Teaching people that two plus two has to be four is a huge time saver, sparing them all the thought and energy that would have gone into doublechecking whether, this time, it’s maybe five or three.
Let’s keep supposing. Suppose something like all of that is right. Might the pod creatures need to do some rethinking of the humans’ philosophizing?
The aliens have experts who deliver information and advice that’s supported by considerations the clients can’t actually understand—not without picking up extra PhDs. So there’s room for repurposing some older oughts: they’ll serve to mediate the transfer of practical expertise across disciplinary boundaries, by announcing that the expert’s instruction is supported—even though he can’t explain how to laymen (or lay-aliens).
Back in the early human world, it was pretty much the same necessities for everyone. But when it’s specialists guiding outsiders, the pod creatures need a way of confining attention decisively and permanently to a specified range of alternatives. When one expert is talking to another, he can often explain, with a good deal of nuance, what’s worth paying attention to and why; when it’s an outsider, he can’t explain, and so he just says that it has to be like that. Evidently there can be some repurposing of the necessities, too—and in The Great Endarkenment, I also consider other ways necessity can be used within a specialized field.
That went by pretty fast, but keep on supposing. Suppose we’re right to conclude that—if we grant all those assumptions—the pod creatures are ready for a metaphysics upgrade. That is, it’s a good idea to review whether these cognitive devices are working well as is, or whether they need adjustments to suit them to their new applications. If so, we are about due for some new metaphysics. In Harrison’s story, the space aliens realize that there’s been that big change when they notice that humans used to have only five fingers on a hand. But to a philosopher, the change that matters isn’t the number of fingers; it’s the specialization. And so if the imaginary pod creatures need to rethink their intellectual ergonomics, so do we.
Metaphysics isn’t rarefied, useless theory. The Great Endarkenment is making the case that it’s an enormously important, fully practical enterprise. We’d better get working on that upgrade.
Metaphysics as praxis is a grand, old idea. Glad to see EM stumping for it. But a *new* metaphysics? It seems to me that reaching a-historically for a new metaphysics is part of the problem. The history of metaphysics is resplendent with options that will be *new* enough for EM’s purposes.Report
Hi Professor Millgram, I wonder if you could respond to a difficulty that seems to face this sort of account.
B.Williams (2002) complained that Richard Rorty often fell into a certain trap, that of claiming that a certain belief is expedient or pragmatically useful while ignoring that an account of *why* the belief is useful will probably have to mention the fact that the belief is actually true. Indeed, in the huge majority of cases, beliefs have to be useful because they’re true: to think otherwise is to launch oneself down a now-familiar skeptical rabbit-hole, since evolutionary forces select-for practical usefulness, not truth, and if there isn’t a strong correlation between usefulness and truth, we seem to lack justification for most (or all) of our beliefs.
Now, you say that “Teaching people that two plus two has to be four is a huge time saver, sparing them all the thought and energy that would have gone into doublechecking whether, this time, it’s maybe five or three.” But a question looms: isn’t it a huge time-saver *because* 2+2 is necessarily four, because people will never inhabit a possible world in which you can add two things together and get anything other than four? And if that’s so, isn’t it impossible to try to “upgrade” this belief, to search for a belief which does a *better* job at screening off bad options? Ex hypothesi, this belief is doing the best job it possibly can. I’m very attracted to broadly pragmatist metaphysics, but I’ve never quite been able to see my way past this sort of problem. Forgive me if these comments are based on some misunderstanding of your intentions in this post.Report
Here’s my attempt to see how some of the pieces of these illuminating blog posts fit together.
Elijah Millgram’s philosophical programme seems to be an aposteriori sort of thing, at least when conceived from a realistic and modern point of view. While our intellectual ancestors engaged in this thing they call apriori reasoning, they thought they were discovering something about reality itself. But we moderns know better than our ancestors; we know the tricks and tomfooleries that can potentially afflict even the most rational of minds. So when we moderns try to engage in the kind of reasoning that our ancestors called apriori, we find it strange to think we are carving the noumena at the joints, and are more inclined to say that we are attempting to rediscover and justify the general policies we consider to be important parts of our intellectual lives. Much of the modern apriori involves a kind of game of feigned amnesia, a game of pretence that reflects a sort of ironic stance towards the central questions in philosophy. By being more honest about what we are doing, and dropping the ironic attitude, we discover that the thing we call “metaphysics” has been a way of coping with the world: constructing representations of it, and adjusting those representations so that they fit.
I don’t dispute the claim that philosophy is largely intellectual ergonomics, in the sense that it involves some kind of mixture of adaptation and construction. It is an attempt to make things fit; how things all “hang together”, in Sellars’s broad sense. The engineering metaphor is also a good one, I think. (The principle of bivalence as regards truth, for example, seems like an apriori posit in intellectual ergonomics. Though pace Millgram, I do not think there is any such thing as a half-truth properly speaking, Millgram’s “Hard Truths” has helped me to see just how this apriori posit is non-obvious.)
What I want to call attention to is the idea that the model of “forgetting”, here, seems to be ironic. The relevant informed and rational moderns don’t literally forget; instead, they pretend to know less than they actually do about the nature of what they’re doing. This is noteworthy because it seems to me that if we really did forget where our apriori posits came from, then we’d have no obvious basis for saying that these were general policies as opposed to structures of the mind-independent world or as opposed to conventional ways of talking about meaning. We forgot, after all. If we are true amnesiacs about the source of our apriori musings, then the best we can do is try to piece the puzzle together afterwards, like the protagonist from Memento, by way of inference to the best explanation. The difficulty is that there are always at least two candidates for “the best explanation” of any given phenomenon, and one of those candidates is always the skeptical explanation: that we don’t have a generally satisfying story about what’s going on. When one of the great old dead said “All is water”, a better explanation of ‘it all’ might very well have been, “All is something, and we have no idea what that is.”
On the other hand, if Millgram is indeed being ironic about forgetting, then modern-day philosophers would seem to be left doing a kind of unified cognitive science, philosophy of science, and critical theory. That outcome is one I find congenial. What I find problematic is the ironic approach towards the notion of “forgetting”, because this approach alienates us from a source of insight that, whatever its imperfections, at least has the potential virtue of standing adroit from modern institutions of thought that potentially dominate and constrain the intellectual imagination.Report
Professor Millgram, if I get your orientation correctly (please correct me if I don’t), you seem to be saying that, since we have become so “hyperspecialized” in our complex society, it is now impossible for the average person, or even the highly educated person who has been educated only very narrowly in a highly specialized field, to have a grasp of “the big picture” or to understand what’s going on well enough even to appreciate why he or she “ought” to do what he or she is charged with doing, i.e., what the effects of that sort of activity are within the “big picture” and why it’s a good thing to do (deciding about this, apparently, is the job of metaethicists, just as presenting a version of “reality” that fits within a certain “specified range of alternatives” of ways for things to be is the job of metaphysicists, or perhaps metaphysicians). I find this picture quite chilling, although I think perhaps it does describe the way that many social processes that have gone on for centuries if not millennia operate–individuals being told they “ought” to take up arms and go to war in some distant land where they will kill other human beings whom they do not know and possibly die themselves for reasons they do not comprehend, for example, although now one might say something similar about the crews out drilling for more oil in the Arctic while it melts because of the combustion of fossil fuel we are already burning, “crews” broadly defined to include the engineers designing the rigs and the investors funding the enterprise, with everyone following a “metaphysics” and “metaethics” that directs them to pay more attention (they have their attention “managed,” as you say) to the supposed dictates of a deterministic economic scheme and the elites who constructed it than to the workings of the actual, concrete, really existing Earth system that actually, really, supports their lives. I reject this as an intelligent way for human beings to live, and if choosing an alternative future requires us to forego some of the specialization and decentralize into more bioregionally contained societies, so be it. This may not be necessary (if one’s attention is not so deftly “managed” as to make it seem a “necessity”), however, if instead we decide to rewrite our metaphysics, not in the direction of this kind of increasing abstraction and fragmentation, but rather in the direction of recognizing the fundamentals of certain kinds of real commonalities, like the possession of life itself, and the the things that are really needed to maintain and enhance it–which are not all that difficult to understand, as long as we don’t have a “meta” elite compressing human thought into a preselected box–so that people can begin to make sense of why they do what they do once again. Do you really want to defend our marching voluntarily into a collective “endarkenment,” or have you just resigned yourself to living within a “specified range of alternatives” not of your own choosing because you neglected to acquire a broad enough understanding of “the big picture” when you were getting your own education?Report
I do not quite understand the article, but I would strongly endorse an upgrade to metaphysics. The sooner the better.Report
Ronnie Hawkins wants to know whether I “really want to defend marching voluntarily into a collective ‘endarkenment'” — so perhaps it wasn’t clear enough, and is worth reiterating, that the point of explaining how the Great Endarkenment is encroaching, and why it’s so hard to resist, is precisely to resist it. However, if the argument is on target, doubling down on anything like our previous ways of managing less extreme forms of specialization isn’t going to work. No shared college curriculum will solve *this* problem, even if such curricula were reasonable responses to its predecessors.
If so, we have to find a different way of managing our collective affairs. Metaphysics, understood as intellectual ergonomics, is going to be a very important part of that, as will revisions to our moral theorizing. But I don’t propose — as Hawkins perhaps thinks I do — that we all take marching orders from metaphysicians or metaethicists. Designing better ways to manage the transfer of information and recommendations across disciplinary boundaries shouldn’t be the same thing as bossing people around.
Joe, as well as Cathy Legg (in a belated response to a previous post), identifies the approach of the book as pragmatist. Now, I’m much too cautious to claim the label myself. Pragmatism was a tradition with its own distinctive modes of argumentation, its own conceptual apparatus, and its own evolving problem space. While I do read Peirce and James and Dewey (and also Wittgenstein, as Legg suggests, though I’m not sure I see him as belonging to that same tradition), I’m ethnically an analytic philosopher, and I wouldn’t want to try to pass — I mean, as a member of this other philosophical ethnicity. Just for one thing, I don’t control or deploy the central pragmatist forms of argument. But I welcome the idea that there are affinities between some of the pragmatist projects and this one.
Joe is worried about a criticism that was leveled against an analytic philosopher who did convert to pragmatism — or maybe, tried to pass as a pragmatist. He says: “isn’t it a huge time-saver *because* 2+2 is necessarily four, because people will never inhabit a possible world in which you can add two things together [with another two] and get anything other than four?” This isn’t the place to consider whether the objection sticks to the native pragmatists rather than the converts; and also I’ll skip retyping my full response to the objection. (You’ll find the objection stated on p. 199 of The Great Endarkenment, and the response starting on p. 206.) But here are a couple of shorter thoughts. It’s absolutely right that if you think necessity is attention management signage, you’d better not explain the placement of the signage by insisting on the *necessity*. It’s also no doubt correct that if you thought that *everything* — not just certain aspects of modal cognition — was signage, your circumstances would be philosophically bewildering. Here’s how someone of the school of Comte or Duhem (a positivist, but not a *logical* positivist) might handle such a concern: what we know is that two plus two *is* four, again and again and again… (but not that it *has to* be). That’s enough to warrant letting the thought that, maybe next time, two and two will come out five — letting that drop off the radar, permanently. But I’m not a positivist either, so for the somewhat more complicated story, again, let me direct you to The Great Endarkenment.
Decisively confining your attention to a newly narrow range of alternatives normally has literal rather than ironic (as BLS Nelson puts it) forgetting as a long-term side effect. Or anyway, looking around at writing by contemporary analytic metaphysicians, that seems to be borne out: there have been exceptions, but the self-understanding of old-school metaphysics doesn’t strike me as “pretend[ing] to know less than they actually do about the nature of what they’re doing.” Instead, it looks like plain and simple forgetting, and I’d like to endorse the very nice image that Nelson came up with; old-school metaphysics is a lot like the character in a somewhat slower-paced version of *Memento*, trying to explain to himself what he’s found himself in the middle of doing.
Of course that’s not to say you can’t also find Nelson’s other sort of forgetting within philosophy. But the forgetting I’m focused on in The Great Endarkenment is a side effect of the correct use of the cognitive tools we have in our current repertoire, not just a pose.
Going back to a comment by Yet Another Anon Grad Student, on the previous post: the objection was that you can’t sidestep old-school metaphysics by turning to, say, policies, because we need a metaphysical analysis of policies. Yes, it’s good to have a grip on what you’re using to manage your affairs, but if you get fixated on what a policy *is*, it becomes very easy to lose track of a very important practical question, which is, in this case, when we should rely on policies, and when we need to turn to other expedients. (This particular question gets discussed in ch. 10 of The Great Endarkenment.) Policies themselves are best thought of as having been once upon a time designed and implemented as a solution to an ergonomic problem. If so, what we need is a design understanding of policies, one that allows us to design alternatives to them.Report
I just wanted to say at this point that Elijah Millgram’s posts here, as well as his comments, reflect a kind of exemplar of doing philosophy admirably. I’d bound over in effusive praise, except I know that kind of sentimentality never quite transfers properly over the internet. (More importantly, for what it is worth, I find myself constantly looking for ‘The Great Endarkenment’ in bookstores.)
Still, a small correction: it is a fact that “the self-understanding of old-school metaphysics” is not “pretend[ing] to know less than they actually do about the nature of what they’re doing” — but that was exactly my point. The feigned forgetting of the ironic modern-day LEMM philosopher (names redacted to protect the living) stands in contrast with the more innocent amnesia of the great old dead (Kant or Hegel). I thought that was clear, but if my prose led readers to other interpretations, I apologize. (I may have gotten things wrong, but I didn’t get that wrong!)Report
Dear Professor Millgram, thank you for responding to my post, and for setting me straight; I’m glad to hear that your aim is not to promote “The Great Endarkenment” (other than to sell the book, of course, which I look forward to reading) but rather to resist it. I must apologize if my earlier post sounded a bit snarky; there are some aspects of the mindset–and yes, the narrowness that I perceive–of certain (many) philosophers that I’m still trying to understand, along with their reasons for choosing to become so “hyperspecialized.” I have had the good fortune to have been educated in biology and medicine before I got my PhD in philosophy, and the ability to look at certain “problems” from the viewpoint of two different disciplines is, I think, a valuable one that may be helpful in a joint effort to resist the “endarkenment.” I have spent most of the last 20-30 years focusing on environmental philosophy because I see our human situation as rather dire at this point in our history; we are a choice point with respect to how much farther we will continue along on our present trajectory, and to my way of thinking, “philosophy,” as a discipline and as an endeavor, has been badly letting us all down (and by “us all,” I mean humanity, and perhaps most of the extant lifeforms on Earth that our human activities now threaten) by not helping us to “see ourselves” and change course. I used to think of myself as working in environmental ethics, because I somewhat naively thought that our collective failure to orient appropriately to what we have been doing was an ethical failure, but of late I have come to think that the problem is “upstream” of that–the problem seems to lie with the way people understand the world they live in, what it’s like and how it “works.”
Presumably this would come under the purview of metaphysics and (or?) ontology (and precisely how the two should be differentiated, I would very much appreciate having laid out on the table)–at least within philosophy as an endeavor; exactly what those within the “profession” think they are doing when they say they work in these areas, I would also like to understand, because it seems to fall far short of what is needed. I’m afraid I have very little patience with those who indulge in talk of “possible worlds” when our one real world is in such bad shape, and when “thought experiments” run so far afield of what is actually possible on a scientific view of reality, I am not impressed in the slightest by this sort of intellectual creativity; some of the “intuitions” are so embarrassing that I have to cringe. I have sat on thesis committees where issues of “free will” have been debated as if 18th-century science still adequately described our world; the complexity of living organisms still remains to be integrated into the “worldview” of most philosophers, analytic and otherwise, yet it has important ramifications for this and so many other supposed “philosophical problems.” And while I think a certain kind of “progress” is being made in areas that focus on such things as cognitive science and social ontology, it still seem to be far short of getting across certain crucial messages–like the difference between the kind of existence an organism or an ecosystem has and the kind of “existence” a dollar bill, a credit score, one’s “student loan debt,” or “the United States of America” has. These kinds of “metaphysical/ontological” issues aren’t really difficult to understand, not for other academics and not even for the “average” student or citizen. But it seems that, rather than making an effort to integrate what we now “know” about the “really important stuff,” professionally self-identified metaphysicians/ontologists take a kind of pleasure in talking and writing about intentionally designed obscurities and irrelevancies which, while they may serve to reinforce the walls of the subdiscipline’s ivory tower, tend to further impair (if they are noticed at all by anyone outside their very narrowly enclosed language community) our (humanity’s) ability to make heads or tails of the world we live in. Please show me that “it ain’t so”–I’d love to hear some straight talk about the issues I’m trying to raise here.Report
Professor Millgram responded to your worries, but I thought I might too – in a different vein.
I would just like to point out that philosophical “because”s are slippery: the sense of “because” in a philosophical explanation can be hard to pin down. You wonder whether it might be the case that two and two are four every time *because* two and two are necessarily four, or whether it might be the case that a belief is useful *because* it’s true. Now, I wonder whether the sense of “because” in these two purported explanations might be more like the “because” in “She’s my first cousin because she’s my mom’s sister’s child” or “the crows are annoying because they’re noisy.” In these sentences, the “because” functions as something like “insofar as.” The (purported) explanans in each is not picking out something that is logically (conceptually, constitutively) independent of what the (supposed) explanandum is picking out. The explanans is making a claim about what the explanandum-referent consists in, or is making explicit something significant or interesting about what the explanandum is picking out (where significance and interestingness are purpose-sensitive features).
So, to take your Rorty example, we could perfectly well say, “A belief is useful because it’s true,” but that “because” could be signalling that calling a belief true is just a way to redescribe the idea that a belief is useful – being true and being useful *come to the same thing* and are not logically independent of each other, even if conceptualizing things in different ways might prove useful for different purposes (we might call something true when we want to give it high praise, or call something merely useful when we wish to denigrate it, e.g.). So, selection for the usefulness of certain noises may, on this conception of “because,” *just be* selection for the truth of certain noises; the difference is one in description only.
I’m not saying that this is what “because” means in the context of your worries. I’m just saying it’s not always clear what’s going on when a philosopher uses “because.” So the demand for the kind of explanation that assumes the explanandum and explanans are logically (conceptually, constitutively) independent of each other (like the kind of evolutionary story you rehearse and the skeptical problems it gives rise to) may not always be apt. You are not automatically rationally required to play along with a “because”-claim that assumes the logical (conceptual, constitutive) independence of the explanandum from the explanans.Report
I’m having trouble seeing how your remarks on pages 199-206 (and beyond) address Joe’s objection. It looks like the argument you do present is a kind of error theory. Which is to say, it seems like you are trying to say that metaphysicians have simply made a mistake in assuming that necessity means that a particular truth claim could not have been otherwise, albeit a very understandable mistake. This mistake occurs because the signage was designed to make us forget about something entirely, such that the designated range to be forgotten soon seems to be the only thing visible to us as potential alternatives become entirely invisible. It is from here that we erroneously conclude that it could not have been any other way. This might be the story, but it strikes me as a straightforwardly empirical claim that is open to objections from the history of mathematics.
I am also just unconvinced that this explains away our powerful intuition that there are these types of analytic or necessary truths. This is because you could give us all this history about protoarithmetic, counting, and number theory to explain how we only came about necessary truths by way of evidence, signage, policy-making, and practice, but still fail to capture what I think motivates our intuitions behind necessary truths. As a conceptual matter, I simply feel *unable* to imagine how 2 plus 2 could equal five. These types of claims are very much unlike other empirical claims in that we can actually imagine the physical world being different ways (I can imagine myself being a different height, for instance), but I can’t imagine *how* 2 plus 2 could be something other than five. This even casts doubt on the historical claim in that it seems unlikely to me that protoarithmeticians were at some point able to do this imaginative mental gymnastics in a way that I simply am not. (Note that I’m not necessarily linking conceivability to possibility here, but just trying to draw a relevant psychological difference in what occurs when we go about making empirical and analytic claims).Report
Izzy – Thank you for your second paragraph above. It makes a clear objection to a common view that I’ve never been able to make clearly, and now I can just steal your words.
It seems to me that the imagination is highly responsive to the beliefs you hold. You have to spell out what you believe or intuit about the relevant domains (e.g., arithmetic, counting, number theory) before we can ask you about whether or not something is imaginable. Keeping with the theme set out by the OP, maybe this just-so story would be helpful.
Suppose that at some point in our historical development, we did not recognize that there was a difference between quantities and kinds. Suppose that before that point we reasoned about the contents of numerals in the way that we reasoned about colors. e.g., we say that indigo is a kind of violet, even though it is hardly the ideal form of violet, and indeed is transitioning away from violet into blue; similarly, suppose at the time we said that two-and-a-half is a kind of two, albeit one that is in the process of transitioning away into three. Genuine addition would have been impossible in this system, since addition only works with quantities; but when we performed something like addition of two-and-a-half and two-and-a-half, we arrived at five. Then at some point we grew up, and decided that numerals must designate numbers and quantities, and must be additive.
When confronted with this story, I feel like I am able to make sense of the statement that two and two are sometimes five. Yet I think the proposition “2+2=5” is both false and necessarily false. And if asked whether it is imaginable whether or not “2+2=5” is true, my imagination can pull at the nearest possible truth, which is something like “two-and-a-half and two-and-a-half is five”. If my imagination is chastised for wandering away from the literal meaning of “2+2=5”, one can rightly respond to the accuser that they have misunderstood what it means to imagine things.
On the other hand, one might read the just-so story I provided above as totally off the mark, and that at each point I wrote “Suppose…” the only appropriate reply is “No thanks”. In those cases, the imaginative conclusions I arrived at in the penultimate paragraph will probably never be reached. They will seem psychologically very silly. So it all depends on where your beliefs are at.Report
I would not chastise your wandering imagination. To the contrary, I found your thought-experiment quite enjoyable to read, but I would still in any case conclude that one has misunderstood what is meant when we say 2+2=4. The just-so story may be relevant for kinds, but if this imaginative difficulty exists for quantities, then we still have some (at least intuitive) basis for analytic and/or a priori quantitative reasoning. This is all the analytic metaphysician really wants.
To put it another way, I would just say, even if you can conceive of 2+2=5 under certain theoretical conditions, I would posit that it seems inconceivable with respect to quantities, which is the thing we’re interested in discussing. It would also seem that something about this psychological phenomenon renders a level of certainty and/or confidence in a truth-claim that isn’t afforded by everyday empirical reasoning. Now at this juncture, we may find ourselves facing Quine again, taking us back to square one, but 60 years of Quineian objections haven’t really seemed to slowed analytic metaphysics down any. Or at least not very much.Report
I’m very sympathetic to the frustration Ronnie Hawkins expresses with philosophers’ obliviousness to the achievements of other fields. (Of course, no one can know everything, but it can, as he says, sometimes feel like philosophers are stuck with the science of some previous century.) For what it’s worth, I think it’s important not to let the frustration get in the way of, first, diagnosis, and then figuring out effective remedies. “What’s *wrong* with them?” is only productive if it’s not a rhetorical question — but then it turns philosophically really interesting.
Here the diagnosis seems to me something like this. What looks like 19th-century science is mostly a picture that those philosophers picked up in, typically, undergrad intro physics classes, which was the last physics they took. That is itself an effect of an older decision to teach everyone little bits of everything: an intro class in physics, in sociology, in whatever, until the distribution requirement is satisfied. As it turns out, when universities have to concoct such classes, what goes into them tends to be a caricature of an outdated state of the field. Or anyway, that’s my guess: that the crudest forms of, especially, physicalism are side effects of decisions made in our educational system about how to deal with the growth of specialized scientific knowledge. The lesson seems to me to be that when we ask people to become fluent in areas outside their primary specialization, we should try to get them to really be fluent: double-majoring, or an extra masters degree, is a better path than those distribution requirements. (Or so argues The Great Endarkenment.) But yup, I’m mildly envious of the bio/med education Hawkins has.
Izzy Black’s pushback to my response to Joe has two distinguishable prongs: first, there’s the very understandable assimilation of the view to a Mackie-style error theory; and then there’s an appeal to the strength of our modal intuitions and the limits of our imaginations.
Under the first heading, when the modal signage makes us forget (and even makes us unable to imagine) alternatives, Black takes the next step to be that “we erroneously conclude that it could not have been any other way.” But what exactly is the error? That it couldn’t have been any *other* way is just a different way of saying that it’s necessarily in *this* range of alternatives. If we posted the signage correctly (thoughtfully, intelligently…), that’s not “erroneous”. The error has to do with an old-school metaphysical construction we’re putting on the signage; and as Eric suggests, there’s nothing wrong with saying that, in this case, it’s necessarily like so because it couldn’t be any other way, as long as you don’t take that “because” to mark out an independently available, prior modal fact.
Under the second heading, I’m on BLS Nelson’s side in thinking that imagination gets shaped by, among other things, modal guidelines. (Oh, and thanks for the props, and also apologies if I misread your earlier comment.) And I do think that appealing to the strength of intuitions, or the incapacity of the imagination, doesn’t advance the argument when both are claimed to *confirm* the view you’re inclined to oppose. (I.e., the sort of forgetting described in The Great Endarkenment is supposed to produce strong intuitions and imaginative incapacity of just the sort you’re appealing to.) We need to find neutral ground to argue from… but meantime, let me suggest that your intuitions aren’t as strong as you think. Suppose I tell you that six plus eight is two; unimaginable, right? But then I say, well, it is on a clock (it’s modular arithmetic); you can absolutely imagine *that*. You can also imagine a society in which things that work like clocks are much more common in daily life. (Maybe *so* common that the inhabitants of that society think of arithmetic with the natural numbers as a peculiar limit case: the limit, as the modulus goes to infinity; of course, that itself would be tricky for them to wrap their minds around.) We can imagine that their default assumption is that when you mention arithmetic, it’s modular arithmetic; they claim to find it unimaginable that if you add the right large enough number, you don’t get back a *smaller* number. And when you remind them that not everything is a clock, they’re surprised; they hadn’t meant *that*.
So the necessity of 6 + 8 = 14 arose (inter alia) from excluding the clocks; they weren’t what you had meant. (You can perfectly well imagine them, but adducing them as a counterexample would be on a par with responding to a puzzle involving a goat, a wolf, a cabbage and a boat across a river by saying that you’d call a cab.) If you were to add into our own history (not that it went this way) a decision to exclude the clocks because we were going to make them the business of a caste of timekeepers, then we’d be edging over toward the phenomenon that The Great Endarkenment is interested in: necessity that arises out of division of labor.
Going back to BLS Nelson’s thought experiment, if I’m reading the texts right, something fairly close to it is there in that part of the historical record carefully preserved by us philosophers. When Aristotle introduced substances, he was doing a bit of logical regimentation that, among the many other purposes it served, permitted counting certain things off precisely. A horse is exactly one horse, no matter how scrawny or how overweight, and even a foal is exactly one horse; so a scrawny horse and a foal are exactly two horses, not 1.536 or so horses. I’m not sure how we count “heaps,” even now, but once you start parsing parts of the world as substances, one horse plus one horse *has* to be two horses — it *couldn’t* come out any other way. Aristotle’s spectacular round of intellectual ergonomics took — we pick up this apparatus early and use it routinely — and so it’s hard for us to project ourselves imaginatively into the world of the presocratics, or into Plato’s vision of the ordinary world. (Though we can still tell that it was experienced as an intellectual emergency — one bad enough to give rise to such desperate expedients as the Forms.) And so it’s hard for us to say exactly what the Greeks, before Aristotle, thought *could* happen. But the modal signage was evidently a lot more loosely placed for them, in some respects, than for us. And so they were up to imagining (without special mental gymnastics, as far as I can see) a great deal we can’t.Report
Elijah – “I’m very sympathetic to the frustration Ronnie Hawkins expresses with philosophers’ obliviousness to the achievements of other fields…”
I am not even aware of it, and would resent being accused of it where a scientific achievement is relevant to philosophy. What I am aware of is philosophers’ obliviousness to achievements in their own field, and science’s obliviousness to philosophy in general.
Izzy -” It would also seem that something about this psychological phenomenon renders a level of certainty and/or confidence in a truth-claim that isn’t afforded by everyday empirical reasoning. Now at this juncture, we may find ourselves facing Quine again, taking us back to square one, but 60 years of Quineian objections haven’t really seemed to slowed analytic metaphysics down any. Or at least not very much.Would it be possible to slow down analytic philosophy?”
This seems an important point as it links discursive philosophising with intuitive knowing. An approach that ignores one or the other seems bound to fail. It also suggest that Aristotle was right, there are laws of thought. But slow down analytic philosophy? Would that be possible?Report
By saying analytic philosophy has not slowed down any, I don’t mean to imply that there has been “progress” in analytic philosophy, whatever that should mean. I’m talking about a particular approach or trend in contemporary metaphysics. I suppose I was using “analytic” in a somewhat technical sense, then. I only mean to say here that Quineian objections to a priori / analytic style metaphysics has not really deterred these philosophers from engaging in that style of philosophy. Rather, metaphysics as practiced by analytic philosophers in the academy has only relied more on a priori style reasoning (or at least, not any less) than the kind of empirical/pragmatist approach to metaphysics that Quine envisioned would revolutionize philosophy (and that finds precedent in Wittgenstein). Whatever we make of Quine’s objections, most metaphysicians either seem to have been unpersuaded by his arguments or have largely ignored them. In other words, it’s business as usual in contemporary metaphysics.Report
In response to PeterJ (“What I am aware of is philosophers’ obliviousness to achievements in their own field, and science’s obliviousness to philosophy in general”), and in the spirit of “enlightening” those of equal scholarly qualification if not equal (hyper)specialization who might care about both what’s going on in the (real) world and what philosophers could contribute to it, I would like to ask any who are still following this thread what they think ARE the “achievements” of contemporary philosophy in that regard and WHY science should pay attention to any of it. I’m also curious–if analytic philosophy cannot be “slowed down,” can you say, Peter, where, precisely, you think that it is heading?Report
That remark came out sounding rather more inflammatory than I intended, so I understand your note of irritation, but I’ll stand by it. You ask about the achievements of contemporary philosophy. I assume that by this you mean professional academic philosophy. In my view there are none. I don’t think science should pay any more attention to it than it does already and I’d vote for less. When I queried whether analytic philosophy could be slowed down it was because I could not see how it could go any slower. By ‘analytic’ I mean nothing technical, just the analysis of philosophical questions as it conducted in the academy. I very much doubt that anyone here is ‘of equal scholarly qualifications’, let alone less, but the situation is there for anyone to see.Report
Peter, thanks for the clarification; I did think your intention was to defend professional academic philosophy against all comers. I will give an example of what I consider an important contribution, seemingly all too little discussed, with important ramifications for the world we live in: John Searle’s distinction between the ontologically objective, that which exists independently of our human representations, and the ontologically subjective, that which exists only because we all believe that it exists. It should be an obvious distinction, of course, but in this day of fragmentation and hyperspecialization, with most human endeavors increasingly devoted to “making money,” it apparently is not. Becoming aware of this crucial distinction could have important ramifications for the way we think about the global economic system, something ontologically subjective that is currently incentivizing the destruction of the biosphere, something ontologically objective, as well as for the way we orient to the modern “national security state,” in the interests of maintaining which many people are being convinced to yield up their own moral agency. Searle had many interesting things to say about economics, particularly in the wake of the 2008 crisis, but I have found very little in the literature taking up where he left off. I recently came across mention of an article by Amie Thomasson addressing Searle’s ontology, which I have so far been unable to obtain; I did get ahold of a copy of Ontology Made Easy, however, and found it greatly disappointing–not only was there no mention of Searle, I could discover nothing in the book that seemed helpful or in any way pertinent to the real world.Report
Thanks for the response Elijah.
It still seems to me that you’re presenting a case where we might mean something other than standard arithmetic using natural numbers when we say “2+2=5” rather than identifying a counterexample to a priori reasoning (which you seem to even acknowledge). That we might imagine different results when our terms mean different things should not be surprising. The history of mathematics is one of constant development and evolution. No sensible person would deny that. There are different ways of counting and ordering numbers, different logics and non-standard arithmetics, various forms of notations, and so on. Some of these practices often do result in ambiguity and miscommunication, even as mathematics typically maintains a higher level of standardized consistency and rigor in notation and language than other domains.
None of this, however, addresses the fundamental imaginative difficulty of how two plus two could be anything other than four. Yes, I can imagine 6 + 8 = 2 on a modular arithmetic 12 hour clock, but I can’t imagine how, say, 6 + 2 = 13 on a 12 hour clock. Indeed, once the meaning of our terms has been set and once we agree that we are talking about the same thing, psychological constraints on what we can imagine emerge. It seems to be moving the goal posts on the discussion to suggest that alternatives might become imaginable once we consider our terms under different meanings, and at that point, you’re effectively talking past the analytic metaphysician.
As for the imaginative capacities of the ancient Greeks, again my suspicion is they weren’t very much different from our own. I’d say the Pythagoreans, Plato, Euclid, and Nicomachus were more rigid in their conception of mathematical truths than even some of the most ardent contemporary mathematical realists. I’m hard pressed to believe the ancients could conceive of 2 + 2 = 5 scenarios any better than us. It also does strike me that a lot of this conjecturing and guesswork about the history of mathematics, however, is insufficient for grounding robust conclusions about the way we should do metaphysics.Report
“I did think your intention was to defend professional academic philosophy against all comers”
An unfortunate misunderstanding. I am in the critic’s camp.
Is Searle saying anything new? And even if it is new, does it take us forward? And then, is there such a thing as an ‘ontologically objective’ phenomenon? It would be impossible to prove. And didn’t Baudrillard deal with the same issues? This sort of philosophy is not deep enough to mean much in my view. Ontology should be telling us what exists and not taking anything for granted. I’ll be impressed when Searle falsifies Nagarjuna’s proof that there is no such thing as an ontologically objective phenomenon or, depending on definitions, at worst no more than one. This would be one of those philosophical achievement that is usually ignored.Report
By saying analytic philosophy has not slowed down any, I don’t mean to imply that there has been “progress” in analytic philosophy, whatever that should mean. I’m talking about a particular approach or trend in contemporary metaphysics. I suppose I was using “analytic” in a somewhat technical sense, then. I only mean to say here that Quineian objections to a priori / analytic style metaphysics has not really deterred these philosophers from engaging in that style of philosophy. Rather, metaphysics as practiced by analytic philosophers in the academy has only relied more on a priori style reasoning (or at least, not any less) than the kind of empirical/pragmatist approach to metaphysics that Quine envisioned would revolutionize philosophy (and that finds precedent in Wittgenstein). Whatever we make of Quine’s objections, most metaphysicians either seem to have been unpersuaded by his arguments or have largely ignored them. In other words, it’s business as usual in contemporary metaphysics.Report
Hi Izzy, I think there’s a lot I could say on all the broader subjects, and I have a lot of different views and policies (many of which are close to Elijah’s). But my interest in my reply to your previous post was only to make a point about the fruits of the imagination as a psychological faculty, since that was what you’d asked about. So all your metaphysical objections (about conceivability, etc.) can certainly follow through. My quarry was smaller.
You might still be concerned that I still haven’t even shown you that 2+2=5 is imaginable, because even if one grants me the stories I told, then all I have done is told a story about kinds and not quantities, and hence said something strictly irrelevant. My attempt to pre-empt this criticism was to say that this accusation misunderstands what it is to imagine things. I elaborated by suggesting that the imagination will pull for the nearest possible truth.
I think the point might be made clearer if I am more candid about what this entails. The imagination will grasp at proverbial straws, and will cry “success!” even if on reflection it pulls the shortest one. In other words, the imagination demands the right to free play, which means being able to set up the conditions of success according to its own terms.Report
In your earlier post you said we have to spell out one’s background beliefs about the relevant domain of inquiry before we can find out what is imaginable. I think this is right, and it’s partly what I feel like we are engaged in here as we try to clarify exactly what we mean when we are talking arithmetic.
My only concern here is that both you and Elijah seem to be trying to draw out examples of imagined alternatives by exploiting a miscommunication between parties. Each example seems to turn on an equivocation of what is meant when we talk about addition. If someone were to say that they can imagine two plus two is five by pulling from the nearest possible truth, or half truth, or what have you, then you’re basically conceding that they aren’t really imagining what their interlocutor is challenging them to imagine. They’re doing something else, maybe something similar.
We can help correct for this kind of recalcitrance by better refining our terms. For instance, when I say imagine how three plus two could equal six, I don’t mean take the sum of approximately three and six, but take the sum of two whole numbers whose exact quantities are three and six respectively. We might say that more precise language leaves little to the imagination to “play,” as it were. At some fundamental level, mathematics hopes to constrain precisely just such imaginative wandering.Report
Izzy – Yes, I see what you’re saying about progress and Quine.Report
Miscommunication need not be the issue, I think, since I can perfectly well see and understand the distinction between addition and quasi-addition, quantity and kind, while still potentially recognizing the point about what we can imagine. Instead, I think the matter depends on whether or not you think the appropriate representation of linguistic contents needs to be the same as what was recovered in speech. In most cases our thoughts should follow the trains of inference involved in speech, but when it comes to the imagination, thoughts may or may not need to follow those strictures.
Mind you, all of this is said against the background of my belief that 2+2=5 is inconceivable in some relevant sense (to the extent that conceivability involves setting a higher standard than imaginability), is necessarily false in some relevant sense, etc. So you might be able to be an analytic metaphysician and still see the point. (Indeed, if the truth of analytic metaphysics was so contingent upon facts about mere imagination, it would prove to be a house built on sand. But I think metaphysicians are trying to do something more than that.)Report
“Is Searle saying anything new? And even if it is new, does it take us forward? And then, is there such a thing as an ‘ontologically objective’ phenomenon? It would be impossible to prove. And didn’t Baudrillard deal with the same issues? This sort of philosophy is not deep enough to mean much in my view. Ontology should be telling us what exists and not taking anything for granted. I’ll be impressed when Searle falsifies Nagarjuna’s proof that there is no such thing as an ontologically objective phenomenon or, depending on definitions, at worst no more than one. This would be one of those philosophical achievement that is usually ignored.”
Peter, this comment seems to show that you did mean some of what you said in your earlier post about philosophical “achievements,” and it also illustrates beautifully what it is that has me virtually gaping in astonishment at the degree to which the thinking of analytic philosophers has become detached from reality (and any relevance to our larger society). Take, as an example, an item from this evening’s news–BP has reached a settlement with the Gulf states for a certain number or billions of dollars to “close the books” on the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. The oil gusher spewed “before our eyes” for almost 3 months, releasing around 5 million barrels of crude oil and 2 million gallons of toxic dispersant chemicals into the Gulf of Mexico. According to a 2014 interdisciplinary science conference report, “oil remains in deep-, shelf-, and coastal sediments, and thus has the potential to continue to contaminate relevant fish and invertebrate species”; some species for which there is concern about impacts on larval stages include menhaden, bluefin tuna, red snapper and others; “increased body burdens” of oil have been documented in some species, and efforts are underway to analyze various organs and tissues for levels of (carcinogenic) polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). According to Searle’s ontology (and mine), the crude oil and associated chemicals that can be found on the sea floor, in various sediments, and in the tissues of vertebrate and invertebrate marine animals would be “ontologically objective”–it really exists, independently of whatever you and I and the political pundits might want to believe about it. Moreover, if you just happen to develop a cancer from consuming your favorite seafood regularly over the next few years (or if you happen to be one of the unfortunate Gulf shrimpers and fishers who does because he or she can’t get away from the stuff), well, that cancer is going to be “ontologically objective” whether or not Searle has failed to falsify Nagarjuna’s proof. Or would you disagree with this? (Perhaps you could impress your oncologist by pulling the “proof” out of your pocket when she shows you some disturbing images of a vital organ or two.)
I’m not particularly impressed by whatever number of billions of dollars BP is planning to hand over, either, because those “dollars” are ontologically subjective–they’re just symbols, in fact, symbols that can be “amassed” abstractly to yield a numerical quantity, but a “quantity” of something that doesn’t really exist except in our heads. Yes, given that most people continue to “believe in” the existence of this “thing” we call money, the social system we have set up will continue to function in a certain way, such that certain activities might get carried out–but in fact, in this case, there’s no way any quantity of “dollars” transferred will negate the existence, or eliminate the effects, of that oil. A similar striking comparison can be made between what is produced by the Earth’s green plants carrying out photosynthesis over the course of a year (known to ecologists as the the NPP) and what is “produced” by the calculation of compound interest on some quantity of “dollars” over that period of time–one really exists (whether or not the now-highly-charged word “objective” is applied is purely semantic), the other “exists” only in our heads (though our continued belief in it may have real-world effects).
I’m not quite sure why Searle’s ontology would bring to mind Baudrillard (although I think he had some differently interesting ideas about our human situation as well), but I would say that Searle’s forthrightness in “telling it like it is” about this stuff is both “new” and quite a breath of fresh air in a room filled with the stuffiness of academia. In Making the Social World (2010), he says “it is, for example, a mistake to treat money and other such instruments as if they were natural phenomena like the phenomena studied in physics, chemistry, and biology. The recent economic crisis makes it clear that they are products of massive fantasy. As long as everyone shares the fantasy and has confidence in it, the system will work just fine. But when some of the fantasies cease to be believable . . . then the whole system begins to unravel” (201). I would add to this, of course, when the effects of our acting in accord with this collective fantasy start to impact the reality of living systems, including our living human bodies, in a massively negative fashion–as the effects of more and more oil spills really start to add up, for example, along with the gazillion other “separate” little harms we are doing to our “environment,” coupled with that big daddy of them all, climate change–then the whole economic system of course will unravel, since it depends on the hugely complex biophysical system that maintains LIFE to keep it all going (or perhaps philosophers, along with economists, have failed to notice this?).
Does recognizing this incredibly important distinction between two kinds of existence “take us forward”? Well, the obvious thing about our “ontologically subjective” kind of reality is that we humans can decide to change it in major ways–maybe not individually, but if the degree to which “the emperor has no clothes” would sink in with enough of us, together–then we might be able to head off a truly catastrophic ecological “state shift” that some scientists are already predicting. And Searle goes into quite a bit of detail about how our creation of social reality “works”–detail that may allow those who would make some necessary changes to get quite a bit of traction on it, perhaps a consequence not intended by Searle himself. So yes, I would say much more could come of working with Searle’s ontology than quibbling about whether or not someone could “imagine” 2 + 2 to make 5.Report
Ronnie – I see that Searle has something to say but this is a metaphysical discussion and so the phrase ‘ontologically objective’ is dangerous. He seems to use it to mean something like ‘intrasubjective’ and appears to be discussing economics and sociology rather than metaphysics.
He writes in respect of money and ‘other instruments’, “The recent economic crisis makes it clear that they are products of massive fantasy. As long as everyone shares the fantasy and has confidence in it, the system will work just fine. But when some of the fantasies cease to be believable . . . ”
A metaphysician could rephrase this as, “The recent existential crisis makes it clear that ontologically objective phenomena are products of massive fantasy. As long as everyone shares the fantasy and has confidence in it, the system will work just fine. But when some of the fantasies cease to be believable . . . ”
I’m not knocking Searle, just querying whether he is contributing to metaphysics rather than the social sciences.Report
(I don’t want to interrupt, but just to clarify: by “ontological objectivity” Searle means mind-independent existence. It’s in contrast to epistemic objectivity, which means something like “something we can learn true things about through science”, unlike, e.g., art. In some remarks on Habermas he has said that he thinks “intersubjectivity” is a confused idea.)Report
BLS N – Yep. That’s how I was reading Searle. I’d see it as a kind of naïve realism.Report
Yes, Peter, one COULD rephrase Searle’s statement in that way–but would it be true? Of course, “true” has become another of those “dangerous” terms, so prodded, molested and abused by recent philosophical musings as to be roped off with bright red flagging tape, further impoverishing the vocabulary of those of us who initially started off aspiring to be “lovers of wisdom.” There for a while I seemed to catch someone in this discussion standing up for a sense in which 2 + 2 = 4 was to be accorded some sort of respect not applicable to 2 + 2 = 5, but even this conversation seems to have bogged down in the mire of obscurantism.
I was drawn into this discussion because Professor Millgram’s short pieces here piqued my interest, and because I have of late been giving more and more thought to the area of intellectual exploration that SHOULD be demarcated by the heading “metaphysics/ontology” but that appears currently to be something of a black hole, not only devoid of life itself but, by appropriating the words once available for serious discussion of such important matters and sucking all of the meaning out of them, blocking the path of anyone who would attempt to put together a way of thinking about “reality” and “existence” that would be of value to academics in other fields and even perhaps to humanity at large. I was hoping that by participating in the discussion and engaging some of the contributors in conversation I would be able to make connection with some of the “growing tips” of the field, and that my overall impression of it would improve. But this seems not to have happened. I notice, for example, that every time I tried to introduce a concern of mine, and of many people in the real world–concern about climate change, for example, or about pollution-induced cancers–the topics are politely ignored, my naivete met with an embarrassing silence (one might ask, embarrassing to whom? I’m not embarrassed by it, I’m just saddened to find my initial impressions reinforced; rather, it is those who have nothing to say to whom I think the term should apply). Frankly, I find the subdiscipline to be a real mess, and I’m now on the verge of suggesting that the term “metaphysician” be reclaimed by those who would dare to have something to serious to say about things like “reality” and “existence” again (being educated as a physician myself, as well as frequently engaging in thinking that goes beyond, or is “meta” to, what has been learned via the sciences while integrating that knowledge into it, I feel myself at the very least qualified to inquire as to the justification of those who would apply the term to themselves while neither of these considerations seem to apply).
I introduced the name of Searle in hopes, again, of making some sort of connection, since Searle has been developing his thoughts about our “social ontology” for over a decade now, and I thought some here might be aware of his work and, if critical of it, could at least provide some insight as to why (in light of the Baudrillard remark, however, I see I must rethink some aspects of this assumption). Yes, Searle does actually seem to have educated himself well enough in the sciences to be able to attempt to formulate “a more or less continuous story that goes from an ontology of biology to an ontology that includes cultural and institutional forms” (1995, 227), and he notes that the questions he addresses “have not been satisfactorily answered in the social sciences,” though he also evidences familiarity with “great philosopher-sociologists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” like Weber, Simmel and Durkheim (ibid, xii). I have some of my own criticisms of Searle, stemming from perspectives gained from yet another field, specifically the neuropsychology of our hemispheric specialization, and the connections between it and historical shifts in western thought as detailed by Iain McGilchrist. But Searle follows in the footsteps of earlier philosophers in seriously trying to address the question “how does it all hang together?”–an effort I respect but that, sadly, many of his contemporaries seem to have abandoned. The rarefied world inhabited by those who would presume to call themselves metaphysicians and/or ontologists today, however, seems to correspond quite closely, in fact, to the “world” constructed by the left cerebral hemisphere acting in strict isolation from right-hemisphere input, a world of “increasing specialisation and technicalising of knowledge” (McGilchrist 2009, 428-429) as described by Millgram, one that ends up being a “hall of mirrors” with no access to lived reality, only to representations and re-presentations of representations, interposing “a simulacrum between reality and our consciousness” (ibid, 402–perhaps this is where considerations of Baudrillard appropriately come in?). If philosophy at large does not reinvigorate itself and reclaim some of the territory that, paralleling our common ecosphere, has become fragmented, desertified and dramatically impoverished of life, I fear that humanity surely will be embarking upon another “great endarkenment.”Report
Ronnie – Fantastically well put. I’m with you all the way. We have lost the plot and our vision of the goal, and sometimes perhaps even our wits.
“…one COULD rephrase Searle’s statement in that way–but would it be true?”
I would say that metaphysics proves it is a much better idea than the idea it is false. Nobody has ever made sense of the existence of mind-independent objects. It leads to well-known metaphysical conundrums. But empiricism would have to be the final arbiter.Report
Thanks for the reply. I appreciate the distinction between conceivability and imagination, but it wasn’t my intention to suggest that I was talking about anything other than conceivability.
I agree with Chalmers (2002) and Yablo (1993) that conceivability falls under the rubric of imagination. It was my intention to qualify a standard of conceivability in our capacity to imagine alternatives to mathematical truths by specifying the requirement that the conceivability of 2+2=5 as a true proposition requires us to imagine how it is true. (I find this view consistent with Yablo/Chalmer’s account of “positive conceivablity” that requires coherently imagining a world or situation that ‘verifies’ the claim). I was hoping that my specification of “how” would be a non-technical specification of (something like) this requirement. Now, certainly you could push back on my suggestions about imagination and conceivability. I just don’t think your counter-examples really targeted my suggested criterion. Rather, they seemed to require a shift in the meaning of our terms.
A modestly better counter-example would be to invoke some complex math problem such as Goldbach’s conjecture. For instance, it might seem conceivable to non-experts that Goldbach’s conjecture could be false. There is a relevant sense in which we can imagine “how” Goldbach’s conjecture could be false, which would be imagining a group of math experts announcing that it is false. It would be rational for us to accept this claim made by math experts as true. In this case, I would be pushed to clarify my specification of “how” to require that we must actually imagine how Goldbach’s conjecture is false for mathematical reasons (rather than merely epistemic reasons). This counter-example still seems to rest on a shift in linguistic practice, but at least what we mean by Goldbach’s conjecture and how to solve it does not change. Rather, our epistemic standards for truth-verification shift when entertaining certain math problems, which requires me to offer further clarity on my “how” condition such that it meets appropriate levels of reflective verification.
It’s in this way that there is a sense in which Goldbach’s conjecture is conceivably false and another in which it is not. It’s the latter, stricter sense that I think links to notions of metaphysical possibility and necessity (and I think whose requirements are better captured by basic addition problems), but so far, I haven’t attempted to offer any argument that secures such a link. I have only wanted to suggest what’s psychologically distinctive about modal reasoning that I think poses some worries for the pragmatic signage analysis.Report
Yes, Searle defends what he calls “external” realism–“the view that the world exists independently of our representations of it” (1995, 153); “the view that there is a way that things are that is logically independent of all human representations”–it “does not say HOW things are but only THAT THERE IS A WAY that they are” (155, emphasis added)–as well as the correspondence theory of truth. His position is hardly a “naive” realism; he does not claim to have “proved” realism to be “true,” but rather claims that it is “a background condition of intelligibility,” something “presupposed by the use of very large sections of a public language” (194). Moreover, he admits to believing that philosophical positions on such things are far from being a matter of indifference: in his view, “the rejection of realism, the denial of ontological objectivity, is an essential component of the attacks on epistemic objectivity, rationality, truth, and intelligence in contemporary intellectual life” (197).
But please let me ask, in view of what you say above–since I “naively” prefer simple, straightforward talk–what is your position vis-a-vis the existence of the planetary biosphere? Are you willing to admit that there is something referred to by that term that exists independently of the various different ways that we humans might represent it to ourselves, such that THERE IS A WAY THAT IT IS, a “fact of the matter” with respect to whether or not, for example, anthropogenic climate change is occurring? Or–to stay a little closer to home–suppose your doctor examined you and told you that, in her opinion, you appeared to have developed cancer of the colon. Would you consider that there might be a “reality” to the state of your colon–A WAY THAT IT IS, independently of her preliminary belief regarding it, in which case you would likely decide to have a colonoscopy and tissue biopsy performed to “verify” or “rule out” the existence of a cancer, or would you, rather, comfort yourself with the notion that “ontologically objective phenomena are products of massive fantasy” and so go cheerfully on your way, or perhaps make an effort to find another physician who would deliver a more sanguine opinion, holding fast to the idea that there’s ultimately nothing “mind-independent” about what’s going on with your colon, in and of itself?
I must admit that I have trouble understanding what it must be like to live in a world where “reality” is taken to be up for grabs, but then I’ve been trying to understand the phenomena occurring within and around myself for a very long time, utilizing not only what’s personally empirically observable but what seems to have held up under the focused observations of others and, perhaps more importantly, what “makes sense” within the holistic, context-sensitive construal of my right cerebral hemisphere and not simply the abstract, armchair-only musings of my left–I find the latter sort of game-playing gets to be very tiresome after a very short while.Report
Ah, I see. I had thought that your initial intention was to speak just about the psychology or phenomenology of the imagination, not about a metaphysical posit about conceivability. So you spoke of the contents and aetiology of intuition (“I am also just unconvinced that this explains away our powerful intuition that there are these types of analytic or necessary truths” and our motivations for intuitions behind necessary truths), talked about imagination in general (“*unable* to imagine how 2 plus 2 could equal five”, emphasis mine), and warned that you are not necessarily interested in talking about the metaphysical project of “linking conceivability to possibility… but just trying to draw a relevant psychological difference”. These all led me to interpret you as talking about the psychology of the imagination in general. It’s only on that narrow question that I was willing to stick my neck out in favor of a narrow substantive claim, i.e., that there can be faultless disagreement over what is imaginable where there might be faulted disagreement over what is conceivable.
(Mind you, I do have an essentially Quinean picture of where modal intuitions come from that is broadly informed by and consistent with the view of the imagination that I tried to elaborate above. Unfortunately, my view on the aetiology of rational intuition is so spectacularly unpopular that only my mother could love it. So I’d rather see what Elijah has to say.)Report
Yes, well, my intention actually was to speak about the psychology of imagination, and in particular, the psychology of mathematical conceivability. My point about not linking conceivability to possibility was to say that I was trying to present a challenge to what is conceivable without making the further commitment that this bare inconceivability alone secures the necessity of certain claims. I wasn’t actually staking out any ontological commitments about modality in this respect. Although I certainly wanted to suggest that this was the sort of thing metaphysicians are basing their arguments on when they talk about necessity, or in any case, the kind of thing that informs our ordinary intuitions about necessity.Report
I feel I should comment on this polemic against analytic philosophy that seems to be the trend of the more recent discussion, especially since I take it that I’m included (if not singled out) in Ronnie Hawkins’ point that “There for a while I seemed to catch someone in this discussion standing up for a sense in which 2 + 2 = 4 was to be accorded some sort of respect not applicable to 2 + 2 = 5, but even this conversation seems to have bogged down in the mire of obscurantism.” If I am not who is being referred to here, then I don’t know who is, but let me just say a few things.
1. Analytic metaphysics is but one branch of contemporary analytic philosophy. Although popular, it is not at all representative of either the whole or majority of the discipline. Indeed, according to Philosophy News, since 2000, the most popular area of specialization in philosophy for graduate students at Leiter/PGR ranked philosophy departments is ethics (13% of all graduate students). Metaphysics comes in at second (12%) followed by epistemology (10%) and social and political philosophy (7%). A whopping 30% are unknown.
2. Many of these subdisciplines strive to make meaningful contributions to larger social and political issues. Whether it’s work in the philosophy of mind that has informed the rise of public secularism, philosophers of race and feminism tackling police brutality and transgender rights, the relevance of deontological and utilitarian ethics to globalization, or philosophers working on issues in free will and responsibility to help come to terms with phenomena such as drug addiction, among other psychological disorders, philosophy is actively engaged in at least trying to make sense of the world’s problems.
3. Each subdiscpline of philosophy has become more and more interdisciplinary over the past few decades. Alongside the rise of X-Phil, philosophers have been working more and more closely with related disciplines, such as ethicists and philosophers of mind with psychologists and neuroscientists, philosophers of science and metaphysicians with physicists and biologists, and so on. You can find many new books on the recent shifts in methodology in analytic philosophy toward a more empirical, interdisciplinary based approach. X-Phil on the whole is an outright reaction to armchair M&E. Although a priori analytic metaphysics hasn’t slowed down, as I argued above, the pressure to pay attention to the sciences has been aggressive and more progressive, and the discipline as a whole has become more responsive to these concerns.
Nevertheless, I think much more could be done to make academic philosophy more accessible and less arcane. But while I think specialization has increased, I think so has interdisciplinary strategies to resolving philosophical problems. Philosophy has actually become more collaborative over the years, due in part to specialization. And I personally think that this is the right response to specialization, or at least one of the right responses, perhaps the most important one, and a welcome upshot more generally.
Lastly, I don’t think analytic metaphysicians or philosophers of languages working on nuanced, technical areas of philosophy necessarily have a moral duty to work on broader issues. They can fulfill their civic responsibilities in other ways, especially if there is important work being done on these issues in philosophy anyways. I know several philosophers of language, for instance, who simply enjoy thinking about things like indexicals and proper names for their own sake. And they’re fantastic people who do a lot of great work outside of their research in teaching and promoting social issues and causes.Report
Ronnie – In your quoted remarks Searle is speaking as a scientist or layman would, from inside a wysiwyg universe, and not as a metaphysician would.
It is the core of my objection to the current state of academic philosophy that it takes no account of Nagarjuna’s proof or more globally mysticism’s claim that there is no such thing as a mind-independent object. By reduction there would be no such thing as a subject or object. Nothing would truly or independently exist. That’s what I call an ontology.
The ideas of Searle you quote above are so far from being profound that for me they are not even metaphysical. It is surely perfectly obvious that we could never prove or empirically verify the existence of mind-independent objects. We have trouble enough doing it for mind-dependent objects.
Given that solipsism is unfalsifiable the idea of mind-independent objects seems to justify the tag ‘naive’, as in ‘naive’ set-theory. Even teenagers watching the Matrix could work out that observed phenomena are in our mind and we cannot prove that they are anywhere else. The producers obviously thought it was not a difficult idea. Ontology asks us to examine what exists, this is the job, not to take the existence of everything for granted and start from there.
You talk earlier of a ‘black hole’ in philosophy that everyone skirts around. I would agree with what you said. In my view this would be metaphysics, the most carefully avoided area of philosophy.Report
Izzy – .Just 12% of graduates specialise in metaphysics? That’s an interesting statistic. To me that is like saying that 12% of graduates want to work on important problems. It seems to both prove that something has gone wrong with the discipline and explain what it is.Report
There are important problems in ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of race, philosophy of mind, etc; So I can’t say I share the sentiment. Apart from that, 12% is a fairly high number relative to the other subdisciplines, but overall there is considerable parity given the range of disciplines in philosophy. I think that’s a good thing.
I’m hard press to read anything alarming into these statistics. There are a lot of serious and difficult issues in the profession, but I don’t think what’s going on in contemporary metaphysics really ranks among them.Report
Izzy, I thank you for finally addressing my comments, if only to dismiss their relevance; I was not intending to “single you out,” and perhaps “obscurantism” was not the proper word for me to have used. I did find Professor Millgram’s example of how 6 + 8 might equal 2 if one’s default assumption is that of employing the “modular arithmetic” of a 12-hour clock to be most interesting, and in light of the concerns about worsening ecological conditions that I continue to carry around with me (sorry, I seem to be unable to sweep them under the rug) I can’t help but think that there are largely uncognized “default assumptions” at the heart of much of contemporary philosophy that are making it well nigh impossible for us to grasp what we’re doing wrong, as a species, and change our trajectory. I must respond “yes, of course” to all of your main points above; of course many subdisciplines strive to make meaningful contributions to larger issues, some of them are becoming more interdisciplinary, and yes, some people “simply enjoy thinking about things like indexicals and proper names for their own sake.” But what I have gathered from Professor Millgram’s brief missives is that all is not well on the western front: “Metaphysics isn’t rarefied, useless theory. The Great Endarkenment is making the case that it’s an enormously important, fully practical enterprise. We’d better get working on that upgrade.” My original, humble suggestion was that we give some thought to re-centering our metaphysics upon LIFE, a phenomenon that is the foundation of all of our existences, that which underwrites all of our philosophical speculations, all of our social institutions, all of our individual and collective strivings (yes, even the impulse to “make money”), something that is still incompletely understood by science (and so offers plenty of room for “meta” considerations), and yet that is so taken for granted that we generally fail to “see” it, as well as the effects of our many actions that impact negatively upon it. Such a move would still get my vote as something to consider including within the “upgrade.” But perhaps I should have known better than to intrude upon such well-defended, self-contained territory.Report
A quick note to PeterJ–With respect to your disavowal of “mind-independent objects,” I happen to hold with a kind of panpsychism–I would say that “mind” goes “all the way down,” or at least as far “down” as LIFE goes (and “matter” has to be capable of supporting life). Recognizing this and working it through should have important ramifications for our notions of agency and embodiment (or, in the terminology of the “old” metaphysics, the “free will” problem and the “mind-body” problem).
Although I would not attribute such a metaphysical position to Searle, his definition of realism holds that there is a reality (or a way that things are) that is independent OF OUR HUMAN REPRESENTATIONS of it (or of the way that they are); it does not proclaim a “mind-independent reality” per se. What I think is most important about it is that he recognizes that “things” like money and nation-states are not independently existing things like physical objects or biological organisms, they are rather representations “all the way down”–they’re just gatherings in our collectively shared systems of beliefs, and hence much more malleable, even dispensible, should we decide to make some radical changes in our thinking. Most people do not seem to be aware of this distinction, however, and seem to be quite willing to wreak all kinds of harm upon the real, living beings and systems of the planet in their haste to chase after “money” or supposedly to defend what they’ve come to think of as “national security” (and unfortunately this seems to be true of many philosophers as well). If they would “take the red pill” (as the Matrix so nicely put it) and wake up to what’s really going on–and cease and desist with these LIFE-destructive actions–then yes, I think the change would indeed be “profound.”Report
I appreciate your contribution to the discussion. You shouldn’t think of my non-response to your initial posts as a slight. Like you, I was only hoping to communicate my own personal reaction to a point in Elijah’s very provocative and compelling post. From there, I’ve mostly just been trying to field objections to the worries I raised. I did read your posts, but you initially seemed to be addressing Elijah and not my comments until what struck me as backhanded comment about my attempt to make sense of the analytic metaphysician’s position.
As for implicit biases of contemporary metaphysicians, I’ll only say that I don’t think that metaphysics has arrived at its current place by way of default assumptions. This is related to some of the points made by PeterJ. The current new wave of a priori style metaphysics is actually a recent phenomenon in analytic philosophy. Wittgenstein and the logical positivists rejected metaphysics in the early 20th Century. Then Quine, Sellars, and Kuhn tried to usher in an era of empiricism, naturalism, and pragmatism. It’s only been in the past few decades that analytic philosophy has recovered from years of attacks on metaphysics, and has actually returned to the long abandoned metaphysical projects began by the likes of Plato and Kant. You can find neo-Platonists and neo-Kantians all around these days.
As for the concerns raised by Elijah and the The Great Endarkenment, he’s right that the rise of specialization in and of itself results in a set of dilemmas. I imagine that many of his recommendations ably handle the way interdisciplinary work can be more fruitful. It just isn’t clear to me that metaphysical accounts of necessity are incorrect, nor is it clear to me that our conception of necessity is justifiably amendable to pragmatic revision. I am overall sympathetic to the project of striving to make metaphysics more relevant to practical affairs and more commensurable with interdisciplinary approaches, however, but I don’t think there is a grand crisis in contemporary metaphysics that is fundamentally crippling philosophy in the academy (nor do I think Milgram is suggesting this).Report
Ronnie – “…quick note to PeterJ–With respect to your disavowal of “mind-independent objects,” I happen to hold with a kind of panpsychism–I would say that “mind” goes “all the way down,” or at least as far “down” as LIFE goes (and “matter” has to be capable of supporting life). Recognizing this and working it through should have important ramifications for our notions of agency and embodiment (or, in the terminology of the “old” metaphysics, the “free will” problem and the “mind-body” problem).”
Okay. I see your point and half agree. For me your idea would be a big step in the right direction. But still it isn’t deep enough for metaphysics. Mind may ‘go down’ a lot further than life, but for me it would not go all the way. The Mind-Matter problem cannot be solved by making one of them fundamental, that idea has never worked.
The main issue for me would be this. Why do we dismiss the metaphysics of Buddhism, more generally mysticism, when we have nothing better to put in its place after two millennia of searching? This philosophical discussion is one of the best I’ve been part of anywhere thanks to some wonderful contributions and I want go back a read some of the later posts again, but it would seem naive on a Buddhist forum. It is as if nobody has examined metaphysics.
Izzy writes – “….but I don’t think there is a grand crisis in contemporary metaphysics that is fundamentally crippling philosophy in the academy.”
I find this an astonishing remark given the state of philosophy in the academy. If it is not fundamentally crippled I can’t think of another explanation. When did it last solve a problem? Footnotes to Plato for the most part and no progress for centuries. Scientists and even quite often layfolk see this but philosophers seem to miss it. For specific evidence of the dire state it is in I would cite the fairly recent Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics. It is as if philosophers have given up on the problems and decided to make it more and more complicated instead.
This all goes back to the idea that philosophers should pay attention to developments in other fields. I feel that they do this well enough, but that they could pay a lot more attention to developments in their own field.Report
Izzy – My first reply to you disappeared so this may end up as a duplication.
“There are important problems in ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of race, philosophy of mind, etc; So I can’t say I share the sentiment. Apart from that, 12% is a fairly high number relative to the other subdisciplines…”
But metaphysics is first principles! 12% of philosophers studying first principles suggests that 88% are theorising on the basis of no principles, which does seems to be the case. The result is predictable.
“I’m hard press to read anything alarming into these statistics. There are a lot of serious and difficult issues in the profession, but I don’t think what’s going on in contemporary metaphysics really ranks among them.”
Is something going on in contemporary metaphysics? How are we doing with freewill, origins, consciousness, God, Matter, Mind, space, time, ethics, epistemology? Where’s the progress? Would it be better for a student to read contemporary writers or the ancient Greeks, and would it make a difference?
The traditional and ongoing problems of academic philosophy cannot be solved by ignoring them and they all have their roots in metaphysics. If they are not solved in metaphysics they are not solved.
I suppose this is fighting talk but the situation does not seem ambiguous. Philosophy is in trouble and, as I think Ronnie notes above, this means that the whole of academia and the whole of society is in trouble.Report
I appreciate your posts, Izzy and Peterj, and I think this has, all in all, been a very interesting discussion. There seems to be, at least, a shared sense of something being amiss, running from Prof. Millgram’s original missive throughout, although maybe with greater and lesser degrees of wrongness-sensing depending on the person.
Hyperspecialization is certainly one characteristic of the world we live in now, and unless there is more interdisciplinary integration of knowledge and method there is a very real danger, I think, of the “best educated” human beings of the present and future generations possessing a great deal of very detailed knowledge about one tiny fragment of the world and otherwise helplessly following orders or conforming to group norms without the ability to exercise informed judgment about where society overall is headed–which should raise serious concerns about where it IS headed, and who’s leading the charge.
I have mentioned the work of Iain McGilchrist because I think it’s quite pertinent to this phenomenon of hyperspecialization, of which Millgram writes. McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary (2009) is a 462-page tome with so many notes that you have to get the complete set from the Yale website if you buy the paperback; the first part details the neurological/psychological findings that have emerged over the last half-century or so of studying the different specializations of our two cerebral hemispheres, the last part applies these findings to the shifts in thinking that have played out in western philosophy since the time of the ancient Greeks–the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Romanticism, Industrial Revolution, Modernism and Postmodernism–with McGilchrist’s thesis being that our culture has become increasingly dominated by the cognitive style of the left cerebral hemisphere–language and linear logic, abstraction, attention to detail at the expense of seeing the whole picture, a use-orientation toward whatever is “other” to the self rather than an “I-thou” orientation–characteristics that do seem to be notably prominent in contemporary life and that do head us into increasing specialization in a feed-forward process. I know the first part of the book is solid because I was involved in some neurological research into hemispheric asymmetry when I was in medical school, and the effects of “losing” the function of half your brain can be quite dramatic–stroke patients that draw a clock face with all 12 digits crammed into the right half of a circle, for example, or unable to “attend to” the left half of their bodies or identify their own left arms; I enjoyed being brought up to speed on the continuing research in this area.
But it is McGilchrist’s careful application of these findings to the development of western thought that would be of interest to most philosophers, especially those who might be growing concerned about our hyperspecialization. He sees a “sudden efflorescence of the left hemisphere” in the ancient world, with the codification of laws and the beginning of systematization of knowledge, Plato and the development of abstract mathematical and philosophical thought, the ability to stand back and “objectify”–but this latter was balanced by the right-hemisphere ability to build bridges, reconnect, and integrate. By the time we get to the Enlightenment, however (with some shifts in between), these tendencies have been taken much further, and with Descartes we see an extreme sort of detachment, the human individual abstracted and “reduced” into a single, atomic point-mind, wondering whether all the living beings around him, human as well as animal, might really be automatons. McGilchrist writes, “Descartes experiences the world as a representation” (334); he can arrive at “certainty” through his a priori thought processes, but at the expense of any sort of felt connection with the messy, changing, world of living human relationships.
The processes of left-hemispherization become even more marked as we reach the present day, with an extreme reductionism and growing emphasis on control and exploitation of people as well as of nature, bureaucratization, abstraction and emphasis on quantity over quality (which I see especially in our current fixation on reducing everything to “money,” although McGilchrist doesn’t push this point too hard). But to get back to metaphysics now, I’m afraid that the “default” metaphysical picture that most westerners carry around in their heads is still Cartesian. “Mind” somehow exists in a separate realm from “body” or “matter,” just as humans are thought of as having an absolutely different ontology from that of all other living beings (conveniently leaving all of the rest of nature open to us for exploitation and even destruction–since how could our separate souls be affected by anything that we do to mere “matter”?). All this flies in the face of what we have learned over the last century in biology–and especially over the last few decades, with complexity theory beginning to appreciate “whole” living organisms, genetics and molecular biology demonstrating the fundamental commonality of all lifeforms at the biochemical level, ethological studies demonstrating startling abilities of many different kinds in nonhuman animals, etc. But instead of putting all this together–integrating our knowledge, a right-hemisphere function–most philosophy programs that I’m aware of still teach “metaphysics” in such a way that most students, at least, still come away “puzzling” over free will or mind-body issues as if Descartes’ way of carving up the territory still holds sway.
The way you describe the back-and-forth swings in 20th century metaphysics, Izzy, also seems to reflect some of this shifting between hemispheres; the logical positivists were impelled to “purge” philosophy of some of the excesses of the overexuberant holism that had developed by the turn of the century, an effort that went too far and thus spurred a correction with a return to empiricism and pragmatism, and now it seems there is a leap into the abstract realm again. I suppose the process could go on and on within intellectual life, except for the fact that what filters down into the world of real life, where people put into practice their latent beliefs about how the world works, is making things more and more disjointed, unpleasant, and downright dangerous as a way for humans to live. So we now have a world where nature is bulldozed, drilled, fracked, poisoned and headed for the boiling point while nobody notices because they’re all obsessed with chasing after an abstract symbol that doesn’t really have any “existence” outside of their heads and so detached from real connectedness with other beings that they amuse themselves taking “selfies” all day long. Descartes would have loved this place!
Peter, your “why not Buddhism?” is well taken. The philosophies of the East tend to be holistic rather than reductionistic, just as the Buddhist/Hindu/Jain orientation toward nonhuman life is more “I-thou” than “I-it,” or at least it was until western capitalist exploitation began making its inroads. And why do we have to employ a cognitive methodology of “reducing” everything down to subatomic bits interacting in mechanistic fashion, such that some of our most distinguished philosophers purport to refute the possibility of “emergence” of new phenomena (i.e., LIFE!) at higher levels or even try to pretend that their own consciousness is nothing but an epiphenomenon? McGilchrist observes that we need to use both of our cerebral hemispheres in a coordinated fashion, with analysis and synthesis complementing each other, but the correct order of processing is R > L > R; we start out with an overall right-hemisphere approach to something (the right hemisphere is the “master” of the title, and the left his “emissary,” threatening to usurp him, taken from a story in Nietzsche), then shift into an analytic mode, discovering detail after detail of “what it’s like” (something science has become very good at in recent years), and then, importantly, PUT THE PIECES BACK TOGETHER AGAIN, integrate our knowledge so we come away with a much more sophisticated understanding of THE WHOLE. If we would do that at a global level, as the human species coming into greater awareness of reality and its own place in it (yes, I know, echoes of Hegel, Bradley, and a spur to the forces wielding reductionistic knives to scrape it all down to the bones again–but maybe we need to take stock of the flesh that needs to stay on them first), it might, just might, be enough to make us get off of our self-destructive course into ecocide, which those who study such things most closely seem to think that we’re on. And if “metaphysics” is really “first principles,” some of our new appreciation of how we fit into the overall scheme of things ought to make it into them. Or so I believe.Report
The question of progress in philosophy is challenging and widely discussed. Much of it hinges on our analysis of what we mean by “progress” and what would mark instances of it. Here’s my own view of the situation. One of the common explanations for why philosophy has lacked significant progress in the sense of there not being wide consensus on various problems in philosophy is high premise deniability. There are few starting assumptions or principles that philosophers can agree on that would allow for the possibility of significant conclusions that could lead to wide spread agreement. Philosophers can always deny the key premise of an argument without too much cost. I think this is right, but in my view, this is actually a good thing. It’s one of the great virtues of philosophy that there are scarcely, if any, starting assumptions or premises that are accepted without scrutiny. Whenever there is vast agreement about starting principles and consequently conclusions about methodology, you aren’t really doing philosophy anymore. Indeed, you’ve arrived at a body of knowledge that can be it’s own self-sufficient discipline. In light of this, I would suggest that the problem of progress in philosophy is due to the fact that I think philosophy has been too successful. Philosophy has successfully given rise to nearly the entire body of knowledge that we call the academy. Physics, linguistics, logic, psychology, and economics is all born out of philosophy. At lest one sign or marker of success in philosophy, in my view, is when it has produced a discipline of knowledge that is itself not a branch of philosophy. It is for this reason in part that I think hyperspecialization has emerged in the discipline to complicated effects.
Philosophy, on principle, is a kind of intellectual regulatory committee in the academy that monitors and analyzes work in the sciences and humanities. According to this view, philosophy serves as a kind of checks and balances on the academy. It achieves progress by offering argumentative and critical thinking tools to advance those fields. This is because once a discipline in the academy has been produced, it has limited resources to question its own fundamental assumptions and principles. Indeed, science is functional because at some level certain assumptions and principles about method need not be, and ought not be, seriously challenged, else it would fundamentally undermine the essence of the discipline. This is what philosophers do. The task of philosophers is to develop ideas, arguments, and concepts, and rigorously test them for their strength, plausibility, and rhetorical force or value. Philosophers, on principle, are the architects of theory, methodology, modes of discourse, critical thinking, and principles of rationality in the academy. On this view, the developments in philosophy “trickle down” into the academy and into the public sphere. This doesn’t just apply to the oversight and/or production of disciplines or bodies of knowledge in the academy, but also public discourse on complex moral, ontological, and social issues. The sophisticated arguments about the existence of God, capitalism, gender rights, gay marriage, abortion, racial identity, and so on are typically refined and developed by philosophers, and eventually find their way in the hands of the populace. It’s not the task of philosophers to reach agreed upon conclusions on these issues, nor could they, since there aren’t really any “first principles” philosophers share. Rather, they test the very best arguments possible for dissemination in the academy and general public.
Mind you, this is how philosophy should operate on principle. In practice, however, there are of course many problems in the discipline, as I mentioned, but metaphysics isn’t really an important one of them. The biggest issue for intellectual matters is how to better ensure that philosophers are communicating with the public and other disciplines in a way that is accessible and not alienating. I do think that in some areas of the academy, philosophy is gaining more among respect among scientists (neuroscientists, biologists, psychologists), but I still think there are some challenges in bridging the gap with physics, as public remarks on philosophy by Lawrence Krauss and Neil DeGrasse Tyson would attest. But the most pressing problems in philosophy have to do with hiring, peer-review, gender bias, discrimination, sexual harassment, the abysmal job market, and so on. There are fundamental institutional problems in the profession that are far more pressing than practices in metaphysics.Report
“But the most pressing problems in philosophy have to do with hiring, peer-review, gender bias, discrimination, sexual harassment, the abysmal job market, and so on. There are fundamental institutional problems in the profession that are far more pressing than practices in metaphysics.”
But don’t most of these problems apply to most professions, even those outside of academia? I do think the “professionalization” of philosophy has had a detrimental effect on its fundamental purpose (if one may bravely try to speak of such), because it ultimately serves to “institutionalize” thought, promoting conformity, limiting what’s written about to topics that have been published on before, even if they are hardly the most interesting or stimulating to new thinkers, inhibiting impulses to “rock the boat” or criticize sources of funding, etc.
Again, thinking about “professionalization” and the institutions that we have (to some degree haphazardly, to some degree in response to unacknowledged vested interests) constructed, I return to what for me is the “profound” distinction made by Searle (and some others), the difference between the reality that we humans did not create and the one that is our handiwork. We don’t have to take for granted the “abysmal job market” or the “massive student loan debt” or the role of the United States government as it currently wields its power around the world (and increasingly in our private lives; happy 4th of July!). We may not be able to change these things through individual action, but there is surely nothing “fundamental” about them, and if Searle is even partly right about our institutional reality being maintained largely through deontic powers that “lock into human rationality” (2010, 124), and that, as such, it is largely linguistically constituted (169), then it is also open to being un-constituted or re-constituted, particularly if we can get some leverage on what’s wrong with it via cognitive processes that reply less on linguistic function. Whether the appropriate discipline for investigating the construction of such institutional structures–which we take for an increasing part of our “reality”–is properly ontology, philosophy of mind and language, or social psychology, or perhaps some combination of the above, seems less important than that it be done. And, speaking for myself, I find that there is something very disappointing about colleagues who stay the “expected” course within “the profession” as laid out for them, without ever seeming to think deeply about how it got to be the way it is, or how it is maintained.Report
Philosophy is particularly bad in these areas relative to other disciplines. It’s particularly bad in gender and racial representation (you can see other threads on DN discussing this very topic), and particularly bad in terms of job prospects and hiring. It’s in really, really bad shape with respect to these issues, and it seems there are a lot of complicated reasons why this is the case. Professionalization is just one of many. I’d recommend checking out some of the other topics out on the subject. It seems to be the top subject on the blogs these days, and a lot has been written about it.
I do think there is some self-awareness and self-criticism about these issues in the field, but there could be more, and more to be done to resolve them. I agree with you that there is nothing fundamental about these problems and they should be changed. It is precisely for this reason why I think they are the most important issues to address.Report
I should clarify I think that these issues are fundamental in terms of being more general and basic, not that they are objective and mind-independent and we can’t do anything about it. It’s just that these are deep problems we need to address.Report
Ronnie – I should stress that I would nor expect ‘academic’ philosophers, (scholars rather than meditators), to know much about Buddhism as a religion or practice. They are quite rightly concerned with analysis. What is increasingly astonishing to me is the time it is taking for them to get around to studying the metaphysical scheme of Buddhism and the perennial philosophy. It would work as a solution for all philosophical problems and it is poorly known. How is this possible? I think the rest of us have a right to be critical of this failure of scholarship.
Izzy – For once I can agree with very little of your latest comment. I see no obstacles to a communal agreement on the answers for metaphysical questions. Yes, premises are required for a formal answer to them, but we can simply use the same premises that we used to formulate the questions in the first place. As questioners we can hardly complain about this.Report
We can agree on premises. This is how shared knowledge is possible. My only point was that there is a sense in which we’re no longer doing philosophy once we’ve established a body of knowledge. Statistically, it’s hard to find much consensus on issues in the history of philosophy, but that’s because a consensus on knowledge claims is typically exported out of philosophy and becomes a science or independent discipline.
I should point out that there are antirealistics in analytic philosophy. Not only about the ontology of objects, but about morality and aesthetics. They have been around for a long time. In addition, several leading philosophers advocate views similar to panpsychism and dualism. Most dualists these days are property dualists rather than substantce dualists, however.Report
Izzy–I am aware of philosophy’s problems with gender and racial representation among other issues, although some other departments at my university seem to have, or to have had, serious problems in this regard as well. Of course they are not part of a “given” reality that we cannot change, and philosophy’s relative self-awareness of their existence is heartening, even if, as you say, they are “deep” and difficult to get traction upon. Being concerned about humanity’s overall course vis-a-vis climate change and other “environmental” problems as I am, however–problems that, if left unchecked, will have life-or-death consequences for millions of people around the world, to say nothing of other lifeforms–leads me to disagree with your judgment that these are “the most important issues” needing to be addressed.Report
Right. My only point was that philosophy actually fares worse on these issues than other departments, unfortunately. But yes, I do think these are the most pressing issues for the discipline to address at the moment, but that needn’t be at the expense of other things like environmental issues, which is something that I think should be a collaborative effort worldwide.Report
I share Ronnie’s view that philosophy has a large responsibility for causing our social and environmental problems and must be a key part of the solution. The best thing philosophers could do for the world is to get it into the head of the scientists that Materialism is logically absurd and ask them to stop promoting it to the public. That in itself would be a major step away from total irresponsibility.
Izzy – “My only point was that there is a sense in which we’re no longer doing philosophy once we’ve established a body of knowledge. Statistically, it’s hard to find much consensus on issues in the history of philosophy, but that’s because a consensus on knowledge claims is typically exported out of philosophy and becomes a science or independent discipline.”
It’s a good point, but I can’t see how this could happen for metaphysics. No other discipline deals with the same problems. There’s no consensus on metaphysical issues because its problems have not been solved. It has not moved on since Plato. It is surely time for a root and branch review. It may even be time to concede that the solutions must lie in an unexpected place and probably well outside the box.
I’m also with Ronnie on what’s important. Gender and racial equality would be minor issues when set against metaphysical problems. We need to get at the root of the muddle. With a foundation in place we’ll have a framework within which to deal with day to day social issues. Absent a framework we would be building castles in the air and swapping one opinion for another. There would be no basis for a communal agreement. For me metaphysics would be a science of logic with no need to leave issues open as a mater of opinion.
Many thanks to Daily Nous for starting and hosting such fascinating discussions.Report
I keep thinking this discussion is over, but then new issues emerge that seem to merit further consideration.
I disagree with what you say above, Peter, about metaphysics being “a science of logic,” and i would think you would too if you are open to a Buddhist take on existence (or nonexistence?). A “logic” is a closed system; as mentioned a bit earlier, it takes the information provided in the premises as given and just processes it in a linear fashion to reach certain kinds of conclusions–and conclusions that themselves may not have any way of being exported out of that closed system so as to have an effect on the way life is lived, which is handled by another sort of cognitive processing altogether. One of the reasons I’m rarely interested in such logic-chopping is because I usually don’t agree with the premises, considering them inadequate with respect to all that they leave out, or perhaps better put, I disagree with all the implicit “premises” of such argumentation, including the assumptions that go into the framing (what Searle calls the “Background”) of all such “philosophical problems” being already something abstracted from everyday life, which of course has to remain within what is considered proper for “professional” academicians, i.e., don’t really care too much about what you’re talking about, because if you did and it led you to try to make some changes in the status quo, the social hierarchy you are beholden to (which is, slightly below the level of full conscious awareness, always taken for granted as the “given”) might not be pleased. Thinking about issues of race and gender, our notions of which are obvious social constructions, may be permissible (as long as, again, real changes are not being attempted–the “deep” reasons for the intractability of such problems?), but considering changes to our socially constructed notion of “money” and “debt,” or allegiance to the “national security state” (the way most of my fellow academics turned into sheep after the fraud of 9/11 was pulled off–I mean, where were all the ethicists when it first became known, and celebrated, that our country was guilty of torture???!–has been nothing less than nauseating), these things are simply off the table, and if anyone attempts to direct attention toward them they are quietly let know that even considering such issues would be terribly impolite.
Peter, what you say about “materialism” is well taken, only I would point the finger at REDUCTIONISM as a methodology strongly socially reinforced across the entire academic spectrum. I have noticed recent calls for proposals looking into just what is meant by frequently used terms like “physicalism,” “materialism,” “naturalism,” and such, and I’m glad to see these concepts starting to come under scrutiny. I think people like, e.g., Jaegwon Kim and Daniel Dennett can purport to hold positions that deny the reality of such things as emergence or consciousness (please note I’m just taking these figures as examples–I don’t know them personally, and could be quite wrong about what I’m saying, but this is my sense of things) because they don’t really believe in what they’re saying, at least not insofar as it might apply to their actual lives–it’s all a game to them, but they’re good at it, and they’re nice guys, pleasant to sit down and have a beer with, good “professional” members of their departments, and maybe they even, as Izzy noted way back there, “do a lot of great work outside of their research” in promoting worthy causes and whatnot. When I think about recentering metaphysics on LIFE (and I’m only just beginning to develop this idea), however, I’m thinking about rebooting all the “premises” to start over with what we actually experience as living beings (I know this impulse has arisen over and over again in philosophy, and then it gets derailed once the attempt is captured in language and the system of representations it generated starts to receive all the attention, subsequently being re-presented and its re-presentations re-presented yet again, in place of the original insight)–and one of the things we do experience, if we’re not already too thoroughly jaded to do so, is being in relationship with others AS WHOLE BEINGS, not as aggregations of subatomic billiard balls mindlessly colliding with one another, or simply “mechanisms” wound up at the birth of the universe and now just marching along a course that LaPlace’s demon could have plotted out for them (I do sometimes wonder how many families eagerly euthanized their beloved pets so that they could replace them with “Robodogs”!). Of course this is not even the picture forthcoming from contemporary physics today, but it seems to be the only other metaphysical “default” option (in the sense that everyone needs to have a “metaphysical” understanding of the world they live in, in order to make sense of daily life) if you’re not a Cartesian dualist, and so it seems still to be latent there in the “background,” providing the implicit framing for many discussions that still go on.
Staying connected with life as experienced, moreover, for me, entails paying attention to the sorts of social interactions that go on around me (as a veteran of certain sorts of “Tavistock” large group and smaller group encounters, I am well aware that much more goes on here than usually rises to the visible “surface”) and noticing the kinds of verbal and nonverbal feedback that maintain certain sorts of cognitive norms. I remember the kind of social “scapegoating” that went on in biological circles when anyone dared to mention anything that seemed to have to do with “group selection” (Stephen Jay Gould writes of this), and I find it ironic that the idea now seems to garner wide support; did those who engaged in some of the very emotional (and hurtful, to particular individuals) rhetoric back in the 80s and 90s ever reflect upon their own motivations? (I would suppose not, since acting out the role of defender of the group paradigm doesn’t necessarily require intellectually embracing that paradigm–the core of it can change without even necessarily coming to the attention of many who are primarily married to their “policemen” roles out of a need for group belonging; Kuhn, Latour and Woolgar, certain social psychologists and others opened up a dialogue on these phenomena that is certainly worth continuing, and some of what Searle has to say is clearly pertinent to it.) Noticing how that sort of thing goes on today in philosophical circles and making it explicit (such social pressures tend to lose their force when made visible) can be an interesting hobby.
I did not go into philosophy because I “wanted to be a professor” and then cast around for some issues to look into; rather, I became engaged with some real-life problems having to do with our treatment of nonhuman life and our “environment” and went into philosophy to try to address them, or at least to understand why our western culture seems to be so heedlessly destructive, even suicidally so, in this realm. I don’t know that I made any progress at moving these problems in the direction of rectification, but I think I did learn quite a bit about the reasons why we face them in the first place, and I think that our collective subliminal philosophy, the “philosophy” of our culture, and perhaps its metaphysics in particular, as you say, Peter, “has a large responsibility” in it. I know there are some other philosophers who are vitally engaged, not just armchair sages, when it comes to issues like climate change and other-than-human life, and while the number is small, at least they are carrying on the torch. The same is true for some feminists and race and queer theorists–because these issues “hit them where they live.” I just wish the great bulk of “professional” philosophers would become a little less comfortably ensconced within their niches and direct their keen intellects and their disciplinary training toward those areas of western philosophy that are badly in need of repair–God knows there are enough of them.Report
PeterJ, you said you see no obstacles to communal agreement on principle. I was simply agreeing with that.
As for the rest, I’d say we’re approaching an impasse. There are a lot of things responsible for what’s wrong with the world today, but contemporary analytic metaphysics is absolutely at the bottom of the totem poll as far as I’m concerned. It could only dream to have the level of influence some of your posts would suggest that it has. It’s arguably the least influential field in all of the academy. As for materialism, again, I’ll just have to disagree. I don’t think materialism/physicalism is obviously false. I find certain brands of physicalism quite plausible. I also don’t think it’s obviously false that there is mind-independent reality. In fact, I think there is mind-independent reality, and so do about 80% of philosophers. I suppose you can say we’re exactly what’s wrong with the world today. I’d just have say to the contrary. And while I don’t think metaphysics itself will solve these deep philosophical issues on its own, I do think with the help of physics and neuroscience there is a chance we will close in on them. Based on how the development of empirical knowledge of the world is going, I think we’re moving in the right direction. Needless to say, I can’t really say I agree with too much about what’s being said here other than I think there are pressing social and global issues we need to address. I just don’t think contemporary metaphysics is the problem. It’s the least of our worries. In fact, if politicians were more versed in contemporary philosophy, I think we would have had the ball rolling on global warming a long time ago.Report
Well, I’m amazed as usual. Metaphysics appears to be a dead discipline in our universities and nobody seems to want to resuscitate it. Thus we can hang on to any old theories that we like and no important decisions will ever be made.
If you’ll excuse the lazy geographical categories I reckon that western metaphysics is about two thousand years behind the eastern kind. Here there is this overwhelming pessimism about philosophy and any possibility for progress. I cannot understand it. As far as I’m concerned metaphysics was solved many centuries ago. You’re telling me that it cannot be solved at all while I’m saying I know the solution. It’s all very odd. I’m here partly to understand why there is this massive divide among philosophers and how it can be overcome, and I remain baffled.
The biggest obstacle to progress seems to be a rejection of logic. This is very weird for a tradition that calls itself ‘rational’. It does not seem rational to me. It does not even seem sane.
Kant concluded that all positive metaphysical positions are logically absurd, rendering all selective conclusions about the world as a whole undecidable. Yet nobody takes any notice. Is it not obvious by now that ignoring Kant gets us nowhere? Are the facts going to change in the future?
I don’t mean to merely rant. There’s no hyperbole here, I really cannot understand what is going on. It’s like a conspiracy to keep people in the dark. It is certainly strange that Buddhist philosophers endorse logical analysis and have remained settled on the same metaphysical doctrine for three thousand years, while scholastic metaphysics rejects logic and becomes a snake-pit of competing theories and Kant’s ‘arena for mock fights’.
The preface to the Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics tells me that in academic metaphysics there is no procedure for making decisions. Perhaps this is the core weakness in the discipline that we have been discussing.Report
Sorry for being slow here; I’ve been on the road. For the Americans, Happy 4th.
Ronnie Hawkins takes it to be a symptom of a real problem that “every time [he] tried to introduce a concern of [his], and of many people in the real world — concern about climate change, for example, or about pollution-induced cancers — the topics are politely ignored.” I hope he’ll find it encouraging that climate change does turn up in a couple places in The Great Endarkenment, as an illustration of the challenges involved in managing communication, and the division of evaluative labor, across specializations.
I notice that one side of the discussion has shifted from necessity to imagination; that latter topic doesn’t get a lot of discussion in The Great Endarkenment. (There is some treatment of the so-called Puzzle of Imaginative Resistance.) Still, let me try to address some of the back and forth.
First, Izzy Black doesn’t quite believe that the ancient Greeks had different imaginations than we do. I’m not so sure about that. This is slightly later, but you’ll find a striking Roman example, lifted from Whewell, on p. 198 of The Great Endarkenment; or again, there’s that remark of Aristotle’s, at 328a25ff, about wine becoming water when it’s sufficiently diluted; or again, it’s very hard for us to wrap our minds around the way Anaxagoras’ “ingredients” are supposed to work, because his quantities will have to behave deviantly by our lights, rather in line with the medieval church’s notion of “miraculous multiplication”.
How should we think about imagination, for these philosophical purposes? One way is, as BLS Nelson put it a few turns back, “a psychological faculty,” but here I think we do better to treat imagining as a *task*: someone says, “Imagine that such and such” (say, that 6 + 8 = 2), and you set yourself to doing it. We can ask, in a somewhat Wittgensteinian frame of mind, what would count as success? What as failure? (What, Wittgenstein might have said, are the criteria for having imagined that such and such? –So while I like Nelson’s suggestion, that the imagination “set[s] up the conditions of success according to its own terms,” I’m pulling in a different direction.) If the Greeks and Romans were up for imagining things that we aren’t, we should ask ourselves whether the standards for success have changed in the meantime.
In somewhat the spirit of the vivid example in Gasking’s “Mathematics and the World” (of someone with a nonstandard multiplication table trying to tile a floor), Black does mention one condition we appeal to: that you can see how it would happen. That’s only one condition, and, if I’m right, that one is in place only sometimes; however, let’s focus on the cases when it is. Then the hypothesis we’re considering turns out to be that, for some things, it’s very hard for us to see how they would happen, whereas for the Greeks it was easy. There ought to be various contributors to the added difficulty: our present opinions, as Nelson mentioned above; additional modal constraints we’ve come to accept; possibly relatedly, and now I want to address Black’s worry that we’ve been talking past one another, exclusions.
Returning to ‘protoarithmetic,’ let me first remind readers of this thread that the thought experiment isn’t supposed to explain mathematics as we have it: modern mathematics is to protoarithmetic perhaps as today’s financial industry is to thought experiments about the introduction of currency into a very simple barter economy. (Very little of what we do with currency is explained by such a thought experiment.) But with that reminder on board, recall that when you’re thinking of protoarithmetic as an empirical science of counting, it’s all too easy to see how you might add 8 to 6 and get 2: “What?! You ate *twelve* of them? They were for the guests! Go to your room!” We don’t count that as imagining a case in which 8 + 6 = 2, in something like the way we don’t count modular arithmetic as a counterexample. So what we *count as*, and conversely, what we exclude, is doing the heavy lifting. (Or rather, a good deal of it; I think Wittgenstein made a mistake in trying to get it to do *all* the lifting. Returning to Joe’s complaint, and trying to extract from it the part that I agree with, we wouldn’t insist that 8 + 6 is necessarily 14 if it didn’t, often enough, observably *come out* 14.)
As Black observes, when we exclude such cases, we say we hadn’t “meant” them. Here’s a question, though: do we manage to mean these, but not those, prospectively or retrospectively? When you consider 8 + 6 = 14 as an empirical generalization, it’s defeasible, i.e., there are indefinitely many defeaters — they don’t run out — and they’re as qualitatively different as you like. We can’t anticipate nearly all of the defeaters. So *how* do we exclude them, as being not ‘what we meant’? (This isn’t meant as a skeptical rhetorical question, as readers of Kripke might be prone to hear it; this question needs a substantive answer.) It would very interesting, and this is a suggestion I broach in The Great Endarkenment, if the ongoing exercise of excluding the cases that aren’t going to count, and so of determining what we (say we) can imagine, was shaped by our division of labor.Report
I’ll gladly treat Elijah Millgram’s suggestion that the imagination is a task as a friendly amendment instead of a corrective. That is, I think it makes as much sense to describe the imagination as a faculty as it does to describe it (in the relevant cases) as a task. Which is to say that I think the imagination can and does have conditions for success relative to prompts. It is mainly fancy, but not pure caprice.
So, suppose I say, “Imagine a world where it rains donuts,” and you reply, “I am imagining such a world, and it looks like this: elephants are tiny.” In that case, unless the communicative context were very strange, there is no relevance between the prompt and the reply. Under those assumptions, we might say that it strains any sense of intellectual good faith to think that the imaginer is playing by the rules — not even their own rules. And yet in my remarks to Izzy Black I also held that there is an important way in which “2+2=5” is imaginable, by thinking of these concepts in terms of kinds. That is, I think there is a vital difference between the “donuts-elephants” example and the “numbers-kinds” example.* One is successful, the other is not. And the difference appears to be that the assumption of intellectual good faith is challenged by the one and not the other.
Still, this kind of story about the normative structure of the performance of tasks is nevertheless undergirded by assumptions about an underlying faculty or capacity that makes such task performance possible. And, on this score, it seems to me quite important to point out that the imagination is not just about imagining cases, states of affairs, or worlds. It is also about the recognition of that there is such a thing as a theoretical imagination, a capacity to play with the meanings of rules themselves, not just the ability to summon up a mental picture (say, of a scene or landscape). This seems like an important precondition for the kind of story I would like to tell, and I don’t want to replace it entirely by talk about task performance.
*(Here’s another example of successful theoretical imagination, if one is needed. Once upon a time, Euclidean geometry was thought to be apriori true, and obviously so; then they imagined non-Euclidean geometry. Euclidean geometry still holds for planes, while non-Euclidean geometry holds for three-dimensional spaces. Now, if you asked Euclid whether or not it was possible to imagine a set of parallel straight lines intersecting, he would have said no; and if you had showed him non-Euclidean geometry, he might very well have said “you’ve just misunderstood straight lines”, or “you’ve just misunderstood what I mean by straight lines”. But neither of these claims need to be true. The non-Euclidean geometer understands straight lines perfectly well, and understands what Euclid means by straight lines, but disagrees about how to specifically describe how the idea of a straight line works in different contexts. In other words, the non-Euclidean geometer had beliefs that are acceptable by their own lights, those beliefs constrained their imagination, and their imaginings were sufficiently relevant to the task of imagining ‘intersecting parallel straight lines’ to count as a success. And yet, of course, Euclid would also be right to say that in some sense the non-Euclidean means something else by straight lines, since Euclid has his own acceptable relevant beliefs that constrained his imagination in certain ways. It is a matter of fact that two incommensurable points of view can still understand each other without meaning the same things by the words they use.)Report
It wasn’t my claim that the Greeks could imagine all of the things that we could. It was that I don’t think their imaginative capacities were very much different from our own. I’ll address this further in my response to BLS Nelson.
The point about protoarithmetic – Let’s imagine a scenario where someone mistakes me to mean that by counting something I mean to eat the number as you go, then of course, you’re right, they get different results. This only seems to restate the problem of two agents talking past each other.
As for knowing what we mean – When I ask you whether 2+2=5, I don’t think you need to have in mind all the ways in which 2+2=5 could mean something else. For instance, to understand the meaning of the natural number 2, I don’t need to actively rule out every item in a list that states: 2 if and only if ¬3, ¬4, ¬5, ad infinitum. Rather, I might just need to know that any number greater or lesser than 1 is ¬1. I also probably need to know some other things about numbers and counting in general, but I don’t see any persuasive reason why I would need to anticipate each and every number ad infinitum to know that the number 2 is not identified by any other number than 2. Nor do I think to solve the problem of addition you need to know that by addition I don’t mean multiplication. You need to know how the process of addition works and what the numbers are, but you don’t need to imagine all the different forms of mathematical operations known to humanity, or to be able to actively rule out all of those things that aren’t addition just to gain my meaning. This reminds me of postmodernist style objections that argue all true propositions are defined against their negation. I’m struggling to see the problem here, but perhaps you can say some more about this.
I find the point about thinking of imagination as a task involving Wittgensteinian style rule-following conditions consistent with my suggestion that conceivability requires imagining how something such and such could be the case. The conditions and conventions of the how are qualified by the context in question. The solution to two plus two requires a certain form of mathematical reasoning involving the rules and conventions of addition because that is the meaning we have ascribed to those terms. This is all very sensible and compatible with my remarks, I think. In fact, it’s the very thing I’ve been arguing for all along.
To clarify, I haven’t been trying to flesh out all the necessary and sufficient conditions for correct practices of conceivability, although I have been drawing out some conditions along the way as I’ve been pressed on the point. The central point though is that whatever the case may be in terms of how we might think about conceivability, it seems to be one of if not the key component involved in on our thinking when we talk about necessity.Report
* Correction: sentence should say “Rather, I might just need to know that any number greater or less than 2 is ¬2.” And it should be “imaginative capacities” rather than “imaginative capacities”.Report
You are right that you can know what I mean by 2+2=5 and still suggest different ways of thinking about the proposition. Likewise for Euclidean geometry. But I’ve acknowledged that we can think about the proposition in different ways. The issue is that I’ve specified that I’m talking about numbers and not kinds. How could the sum of two whole numbers whose exact quantities are two be anything other than four? Once the meaning of our terms is set and agreed upon, how do you generate the relevant conceivabilities? This is what I mean by imaginative capacities. I’m hard pressed to believe that Euclid for instance had the mental capacities to conceive of a situation where 2+2=5 in such a way that we simply do not.
I do want to clarify something here, though. I have not suggested that bare conceivability entails bare possibility (or that inconceivability entails impossibility). I am open to the idea that there are many scenarios that are inconceivable (at least to us earthly creatures) but still possible, particularly empirical situations. It’s far more tricky when we’re talking about analytic claims or propositions in logic and math where entailment seems to be secured by reflection on the meaning of the terms alone (Quine be damned!). But as I said, my intention has not been to provide a proof for the link between conceivability and possibility, but to suggest that (1) there seems to be certain analytic propositions whose falsehood is inconceivable (i.e. 2+2=4), and (2) that this inconceivability helps ground the basis for our thinking about necessity (even if I haven’t so far spelled out that grounding or defended its justification). At the very least, (1) and (2) jointly cast doubt on the prospect of a radically revisionist metaphysics, even if they don’t alone secure justification for strong claims about necessity.Report
Hi Izzy, I’ve been trying to talk about the varieties of the imagination owing to a mistaken understanding of what you were getting at upthread. You’re interested in talking about conceivability, which is a particular species of imagination. So it seems that we’ve been talking past each other — though the past-talking is a really close call (and an exchange I find exciting and illuminating, I might add).
Here’s where I see things are at, and you can correct me if/where I’m wrong. I think that in point of logic you should be able to say something like this if you were inclined: “I might see how you could imagine how “2+2=5″ is correct if you believe that the relevant concepts are kinds and not numbers, but I cannot imagine it that way, because I believe these are not relevant concepts”. You can concede this without doing any damage to what you’d like to say, which (I gather) looks more like this: “”2+2=5″ is inconceivable, given the fact of the matter that the relevant concepts are numbers and not kinds.” Now suppose that I agree with this second claim. Even so, I have not conceded the point about the first claim, regarding what is merely imaginable. Indeed, I presume that we all (or most of us) have the requisite capacity for theoretical imagination… but only provided that those capacities are situated in a suitable belief-environment, as I’ve said at the outset (and so long as they are exercised with intellectual good faith, as I said more recently). Granted, this says a lot of nothing about metaphysics; it’s just meant to be armchair psychology. But that’s where I was at.
To say something about the metaphysics, I’ll momentarily migrate away from the contentious 2+2=5 thought-experiment, and focus instead on the geometry cases. It seems to me that the geometry case tells us that at least sometimes conceivability is dependent upon your adoption of a conceptual scheme. Intersecting parallels are conceivable in one scheme, not in another. Intersecting parallels should be imaginable no matter what scheme you’ve got, so long as both schemes are believable, mutually relevant, and meet the requirements of IGF. If you accept this kind of story then it’ll be hard to be anything besides an anti-realist about the nature and import of conceivability in at least some interesting cases, because the idea of “choosing” one scheme or another is just fraught with an anti-realist vibe, because it suggests that the world is dependent upon the mind in some important way. That, presumably, you’ll agree with, or could agree with, though you’ll deny that the geometry cases are as instructive about the prospects of metaphysics as the arithmetical ones.
I go back to the geometry case in order to bring a point about method to the surface. What I said in the preceding paragraph is an articulation of my Carnapian assumptions about how to preserve even the chance of an old-school apriorist metaphysics: i.e., to say that 2+2=4 is true across all plausible conceptual schemes. I choose it because it has a lot of the properties that I would think savvy post-Kantian metaphysicians want to preserve: it does not involve constantly going out into the world and counting twos and twos to make fours (it’s not aposteriori), and it won’t involve exhausting penumbral worries involving the ambiguity of rules (it’s not mere imagination, in my sense). For the sake of argument, I’ll even say that this method might tell us about the limits of conceivability, and even concede that conceivability matters in some ambiguous way to the idea of necessity. So, in other words: I’ll concede all you’re asking me to concede, though in my own way.
Here’s my problem: after granting all that, I do not think we have gone any distance in saving metaphysics. Instead, I think we have revived (a limited kind of) skepticism.
Suppose you accept that the right way to look for apriori truths is to look for statements that hold across all viable conceptual schemes. If so, then we should notice that we’re also doing way more than just appealing to ordinary pre-theoretic intuition. By the time we get to the point where we’re talking about conceptual schemes, we’re all up in the business of talking about theoretical coherence, and good faith, and conversational relevance, and the nature of beliefs worth having for the sake of saving the true. And it seems to me that the fact that we’re pulling on this whole web of considerations — considerations that run the gamut from social to epistemic — ought to tell us that conceivability is probably not distinctively tracking metaphysical necessity. Conceivability tells us about the idea of necessity, alright, but potentially it is just telling us something about the analogue inside of our brain that is akin to an MS-BASIC “if-then-else” command-line prompt, or something else besides.Report
BLS Nelson – “And it seems to me that the fact that we’re pulling on this whole web of considerations — considerations that run the gamut from social to epistemic — ought to tell us that conceivability is probably not distinctively tracking metaphysical necessity,”
I’m not sure I’d agree with this. My conclusion is that metaphysics would require at least one phenomenon that cannot be conceived for its completion. Kant seems to have arrived at the same idea. At least one, but only one. The complication would be that we can at least conceive the necessity for such a phenomenon and also to some extent its necessary properties.
An important question seems to be: Can we conceive of a true contradiction? I would say not. Let’s say I’m right. Would this mean there are no true contradictions?Report
Peter, I’m a bit unsure how to parse what you’ve said in terms of what I’ve said, because you haven’t been explicit enough.
You might be denying that the scheme-invariant methodology that I proposed is off base, because it loses out on Kant’s insight that there is at least some kind of transcendental grounding in some kind of direct, brute faculties that exists independently of our concepts. So, e.g., that we must possess an inner temporal intuition, or outer spatial intuition, or the Categories, or something like that. Then you could accuse my methodology of being over-sophisticated, and hence of missing the point. Is that right?
If so, here’s a problem: if you can’t conceive of this grounding then you’ve got no basis for talking about it as the grounds for objective true judgments, as opposed to being the faculty that functions as grounds for judgments of all kinds, which are then baptized into objective truth through some other process in the story of cognition. The fact that some faculty functions as necessary grounding for the possibility of all objective judgment does not mean that it is not also grounding other, less objective judgments. Even illusions exist against the background of our space-time intuition; even matters of taste find expression in the Categories. (Intuitions without concepts are blind, after all.) So if you want to provide some basis for talking specifically about objective truth, you need to put this faculty to work with the concepts, and I think this is an exercise that can be appropriately described as a kind of intellectual ergonomics, quite in line with what Ellijah Millgram suggested.
So, e.g., I agree that there are no true contradictions, and that true contradictions are inconceivable, but that’s because bivalence is a useful simplification in figuring out what matters to what, what theories to adopt, and whether people are speaking in intellectual good faith. And yet as a matter of fact I can and do imagine cases (i.e., borderline cases) where bivalence is totally inapt.Report
BLSN – I’d agree about bivalence. It sits apart from the laws of thought. If it is adopted as a general rule I’d say it is very wrong. It would be a definition or rule for a calculus, not a rule for the world.
The other point confuses me. I’d agree with Kant that there must be a phenomenon that is not an instance of a category, thus that cannot be conceived, but I’m not sure what this has to do with ‘objective true judgements’. (Isn’t objective’ redundant in this phrase?).Report
Part of the problem might be that I am not quite sure which part of the Kantian system you are talking about. I inferred you meant something like the synthetic apriori, e.g., based on inner and outer intuitions, etc., prior to being organized into judgments. Is that not right? Because these are supposedly the necessary conditions for all possible objects of our experience, and which are not themselves concepts. (Incidentally, this is my simplified understanding of Kant. Correct me if I’m wrong.) My point was that the Kantian story may be right, but the non-conceptual faculties in question tell us nothing special about the truth of our judgments. The synthetic apriori are constitutive features of intentionality, or the aboutness of our judgments, and not the criteria that track the truth. And I think it’s not really metaphysics until you can tell me a story about the truth of our judgments.
For what it’s worth I think epistemic objectivity and truth are quite distinct concepts. So, e.g., there are epistemically objective illusions, that doesn’t mean when we talk about illusions in a serious way that we’re speaking truths.Report
BLSN – I have such a different view of this that I can’t address the issue in quite these terms. I would say that we cannot know truth unless we know Kant axiomatic ground for psychology, which is to say, the basis for our intellect, or make sound judgements. But unpacking this this would take us way off topic. Another time maybe.Report
I think both imagination and conceivability are constrained by conditions of relevancy, but yes, my central point is that 2+2=5 as we normally construe the proposition in terms of natural numbers seems inconceivable.
As for geometry, I don’t think it’s a less contentious example than 2+2=5. It’s a more contentious example than basic a priori claims in arithmetic or logic as far as revealing insights about the concept of necessity. Indeed, it’s for this very reason that Kant had a much better case for including (Euclidean) geometry than he did arithmetic under his nebulous conception of the “synthetic a priori,” since it quite plainly involves intuitive spatial concepts that one can far more easily see collapsing into the empirical. It’s also worth pointing out that Euclid’s Elements was not uncontroversial. The peculiarity of the fifth postulate has been discussed since antiquity, and it’s precisely this discussion that eventually spawned non-Euclidean geometries.
Generally speaking, there are vanishingly few examples I can think of that are straightforwardly instructive about the link between conceivability and necessity. Simple arithmetic problems, logic problems, and identity statements are among this limited range, which is why philosophers typically favor them. At the very least, they require fewer steps for the imagination than what more advanced problems in mathematics and logic require. Philosophers have even tried to say proofs for God, the external world, existence, and so on are among this range. Needless to say, none of those examples do particularly well on conceivability tests. I will say, however, that I don’t think necessity should require conceptual scheme-invariance. Your conceptual scheme is precisely what imposes constraints on the imagination. Indeed, we’ve agreed that 6+8=2 is conceivable if we shift our conceptual scheme (to modular arithmetic, for instance), but not so when we’re talking standard arithmetic involving natural numbers. The meaning of our terms designate what concepts are in play. It’s how we know what the “rules of the game” are, as it were.
It is the fact that we run into these conceptual walls when adopting a certain conceptual scheme that is potentially telling about cognition and necessity. If we weren’t able to constrain the imagination in any way, than anything goes and necessity becomes an impoverished concept. It’s significant that I can’t conceive of a scenario under a particular conceptual scheme (call that scheme “standard arithmetic”) where 2+2=5. In fact, this concession is all the a priori metaphysician needs to get her project off the ground. I don’t see any especially troubling anti-realist or skeptical consequences falling out of this recognition.
Nevertheless, it hasn’t been my intention to argue for anything more robust than a recognition of certain constraints on cognition that seem to inform our intuitions about necessity and which, at minimum, cast doubt on the prospect of a radically revisionist (or ontologically progressive) metaphysics. Which is to say, I haven’t really gestured at hopes of “saving” metaphysics. It may very well be the case that we can never make a sensible case for metaphysical necessity. My point is just that I don’t find a more pragmatic approach to metaphysics especially more promising (and I think a priori metaphysicians at least have the tools to resist such revisions, since they seem to have psychological plausibility on their side after all).
Quine looks to the proposed rejection of the law of excluded middle under certain interpretations of quantum mechanics as evidence that any statement can be revised. Maybe he’s right, but QM essentially bites the bullet on the counter-intuitive and arguably inconceivable upshots of these results, and even still some theoretical physicists are trying to carry on the tradition of David Bohm in salvaging the classical coherence of QM. So while we might be able to give up certain laws of thought for practical or instrumental purposes (and certain indirect/incomplete explanatory gains), I’m not convinced we can ever truly make rational sense of the world in those cases where various analytic claims are violated (viz., at minimum, the law of identity, noncontradiction, and certain mathematical truths). This doesn’t mean that the limits of our cognition reveals something especially deep about metaphysics, but that it poses an arguably intractable barrier to the hopes of an alternative and more progressive metaphysics.Report
Izzy, we agree about the conceivability of the arithmetical case; 2+2=5 is inconceivable. We also agree that conception and imagination are conditioned by belief in different ways.
I think the geometry case demonstrates that something that was inconceivable for Kant and was not inconceivable for others. We can dispute whether this demonstrates that Kant was out of touch in this particular case, or whether or not it shows something about the limits of conceivability as a source of evidence for conclusions about metaphysical necessity. It’s a matter of interpretation.
“It’s significant that I can’t conceive of a scenario under a particular conceptual scheme (call that scheme “standard arithmetic”) where 2+2=5. In fact, this concession is all the a priori metaphysician needs to get her project off the ground.”
I don’t agree. Once you introduce the idea of scheme choice, then you are talking about a decision, and decisions are mind-dependent. It seems to me that the mind-dependence of the event acts as the thin edge of the wedge that improves the fortunes of the skeptic of apriori metaphysical necessity.
Also, I would like to say that if you find yourself in a place where you’re prepared to express equanimity over whether necessity is metaphysical or pragmatic — finding one not “especially more promising” than the other — then I consider that a victory for skepticism. I should mention that I’m rather more on the skeptic side of things than Elijah Millgram is. (So, e.g., I indicated in an earlier comment thread that I endorse a more radical version of his “forgetting” thesis about the apriori, at least as far as the aetiology and contents of intuition is concerned.)
But I hope my skepticism about metaphysical necessity is not so extensive that it suggests that I am a dogmatic skeptic about all apriori metaphysics. I do see some potential for a foundational conceptual scheme that underlies the rest of our schemes, and which is genuinely about veridical representations. I just think the idea of metaphysical necessity is a red herring. Necessity needs no qualifiers.Report
It’s not that Kant was out of touch, but that he thought both arithmetic and geometry fell under the rubric of the synthetic a priori. It’s significant because Kant’s conception of geometry was not straightforwardly analytic and a priori. His case for the synthetic a priori was at least more intuitively implausible for geometry than it was for arithmetic since geometry is more explicitly spatial. This just speaks to the complexity of using geometry as a basis for arguments for necessity.
As for scheme choice, I think you’re overstating one’s level of freedom here. Let’s assume for the moment that conceivability grounds necessity in some strong relevant sense. If it’s true that 2+2=5 is inconceivable in standard arithmetic, then 2+2=4 as we ordinarily mean the proposition is necessarily true. You can rejoin, “Sure, but I can shift our terms to another scheme and it not be necessarily true,” but that doesn’t change the fact that 2+2=4 as we ordinarily mean it is necessarily true, nor does it change the fact that whatever scheme you’ve decided to switch to is open to further constraints on what is necessary (for instance, 2+2=13 is inconceivable under modular arithmetic on a 12 hour clock). Nothing about our discourse has changed. The a priori metaphysician has all she needs.
You’ve made some appeals to mind-dependence and mind-independence, but I don’t see how this helps. If conceivability is a guide to necessity, then it is a mind-independent fact that 2+2=4 under ordinary terms is necessarily true. We know it’s mind-independent precisely for the fact that no one needs to be operating under that scheme for it to be true. It’s true quite apart from whether or not we adopt the scheme or not. It’s merely a fact in accord with the semantic content of those linguistic terms. Which is to say, if some alien race were to come along and learn standard arithmetic, it is necessarily true for them as well. We aren’t free to choose whatever we want then. We can decide whether or not we want to think about standard arithmetic, of course, but the rules and laws of thought for arithmetic obtain quite apart from our thinking about it. It’s just true that standard arithmetic imposes certain constraints on cognition. To put it another way, 2+2=4 is necessarily true for standard arithmetic regardless of what scheme we happen to be operating under. It’s a fundamental fact about the world that we can’t alter or change. Even when we we’re doing modular arithmetic and we’re thinking about clocks, it’s still necessarily true that 2+2=4 for standard arithmetic. It’s falsity is always and forever inconceivable for us no matter what we’re doing, or what we happen to be thinking about at any given time.
Of course, this is all just a thought-experiment that assumes a link between necessity and conceivability. I don’t think my doubts about the prospects of a revisionist metaphysics spells skepticism about contemporary metaphysics. This is because I don’t think there are insurmountable reasons for doubting that necessity can be grounded. I just don’t think a sound picture of necessity has been defended yet. It still might. Conversely, I do think there are potentially insurmountable reasons for having doubts about the prospect of a revisionist metaphysics — namely that constraints on cognition place corresponding limits on an ontologically permissive metaphysics.Report
* intuitively plausibleReport
This is an old thread now but I came back because I suddenly realised my core problem with the article. It assumes that metaphysics changes depending on who does it. To me this is like saying that metaphysics is useless. I would expect metaphysics to the be same discipline in all possible universes and cannot see how it could be otherwise. So, for me the proposal that metaphysics can change with circumstances needs some justification. At his time I cannot see how it could be justified.Report
I do not think the comments in the second paragraph get at the nature of the disagreement, since I agree with your premises and deny your conclusion. I agree that conceivability grounds necessity in some strong relevant sense. I agree that 2+2=5 is inconceivable in standard arithmetic, and I agree that in standard arithmetic 2+2=4 is necessarily correct. For my own part, I have said that penumbral worries and the capacity for theoretical imagination tell us that interpretation of the bald sentence 2+2=5 is possible; this has, so far, been the unfired Chekov’s gun in my story. But conceivability isn’t mere imagination, and when we specify our conceptual scheme to standard arithmetic, the offending proposition 2+2=5 is inconceivable in that scheme (though not inconceivable in others). Finally, I agree that new schemes will have their own necessarily incorrect statements. So I grant you all of these things. Yet I deny that the premises are sufficient to ground the conclusion, that “the apriori metaphysician has all she needs”. I think, quite the contrary, she has not even begun to do metaphysics. She has only shown that we have some useful operationalization of “necessity”, and has not yet earned any antecedent qualifying terms like “metaphysical”.
It occurs to me that there might be a disagreement about what metaphysics is and what the metaphysician is supposed to be doing. It seems to me that propositions about the difference between mere appearance and reality, between phenomena and noumena, mind-independent and mind-dependent properties, are the central affairs of metaphysics, both revisionist and otherwise. These distinctions are essential in carving out different positions, and they animate the core concerns. Without tackling these sorts of things, it seems to me that the projects and fortunes of the metaphysician are being sold off to the lowest bidder. (So, e.g., I substantially disagree that metaphysics is about uncovering “first principles”, as someone did upthread, if this means that you can do metaphysics without saying something interesting about the above-mentioned explanatory targets.)
“If conceivability is a guide to necessity, then it is a mind-independent fact that 2+2=4 under ordinary terms is necessarily true. We know it’s mind-independent precisely for the fact that no one needs to be operating under that scheme for it to be true.”
It seems right to say that, as a matter of mind-independent fact, no-one in particular needs to be operating under that scheme for the statement to be correct. To deny this would be entirely unintuitive and entirely unmotivated. Yet it does not follow that it is a matter of mind-independent fact that no-one whatsoever needs to be operating under that scheme for it to be true. To show that, the anti-pragmatist metaphysician needs to aspire to some significant standard of universality without losing the value of circumspection and explanatory utility in their choice of scheme. I do not know if they face insurmountable obstacles in this story, but these sorts of things do appear to be the sine qua non for anything I could understand as metaphysics.
Also, I do not quite agree “that constraints on cognition place corresponding limits on an ontologically permissive metaphysics”, even if we assumed (quite plausibly) that standard arithmetic is the best scheme for understanding how such sentences work. For I believe that the theoretical imagination is cognitive, in the sense that it possesses a permissive kind of inferential structure (i.e., it is something more than mere free association). So either you deny that the theoretical imagination is cognition (which I think would be wrong), or you are speaking elliptically (when what you mean is “constraints on conceptual cognition under a certain scheme place corresponding limits…”, or suchlike).Report
Hi BLS Nelson,
Thanks for the response.
So far we’ve mostly confined our discussion to modal claims. Modality is in the realm of metaphysics. As Elijah said in his opening post, “necessity is a metaphysician’s staple.” If one claims that something could not have been otherwise, you are making some kind of ontological claim about the world, however limited. I’ve only been discussing the limited domain of metaphysics that concerns modality, and necessity in particular. When I say the a priori metaphysician has all she needs, I don’t mean to imply that metaphysics is therefore saved and the metaphysician can now ground any claim whatsoever about appearance and reality, phenomena and noumena, the mind/body problem, free will, or what have you. I thought it should be reasonably clear I’ve only been discussing the metaphysics of modal terms as it pertains to the discussion introduced by Elijah Millgram, particularly the question of whether or not there is a strong sense in which necessity means “could not have been otherwise” and might ground inquiries into more substantive metaphysical terrain (i.e. free will, dualism, etc).
As for scheme choice, I still think you are exploiting ambiguities in sentential meaning rather than negotiating flexibility in our actual conceptual categories. Language is a marker for the scheme we are in (which form of arithmetic, for instance), but ambiguities in language do not necessarily correspond to equal flexibility in a given scheme. For instance, you acknowledge that the expression “2+2=5” is open to interpretation. This strikes me as a fairly innocuous claim about language, but tells us very little about the nature of our concepts in standard arithmetic. It just so happens that the inquiry “What is two plus two?” in the English language might potentially be understood as a problem in modular arithmetic, but not only do I think that this is unlikely to occur very often without any further direction, if at all even, I don’t see how it confers any justification for skepticism about the universality of mathematical truths. If the proposition, “The sum of two whole numbers whose exact quantities are two is equal to four” is necessarily true, then it cannot be false. It has to be true. That’s all the a priori metaphysician wants in this particular discussion about modalities, viz. the concession that there are (at least some) genuinely necessary truths immune to revision. I am happy to acknowledge (and I imagine nearly every working metaphysician today would too) that most (maybe even all) statements may be open to some level of interpretation. This isn’t the same thing as saying that all truths are open to (or subject to) change.
Regarding my claim about constraints on cognition, I mean specifically that our concepts are constrained by the modal properties we have been discussing. If I cannot conceive of any scenario where a certain proposition is false, then I have acknowledged some constraint on my cognitive capacities (viz. to conceive otherwise). There are simply limits to what my mind can conceive. As a consequence, we cannot be too hopeful about a metaphysical program where any and all propositions may be open to revision (i.e. a possible change in truth-value) — most especially if conceivability is a reliable guide to possibility.Report
Hi Izzy Black,
Hope this finds you well. Thanks for the clarification.
Your remarks seem to suggest to me that you think necessity is playing a central role in establishing what could or could not have been. If that is right, then my reply is twofold. First, I do not think that anything I have said so far ought to lead us to conclude that modal concepts in isolation tell us about what could have been. Second, I think the phrase “could have been otherwise” is too vague to be helpful to the metaphysician, since it is not at all clear to me that the notion of “could have been otherwise” is metaphysically interesting until it is actually shown that this involves making the right kind of ontological commitments. I’ll elaborate the two points in that order, hoping that they are of some use.
A key sticking point, for me, is the manifest fact that the bare concept of necessity is both topic-neutral and ontologically neutral. So I don’t deny that the concepts of necessity and possibility are “the metaphysician’s staple”, as Elijah Millgram says in the OP. These concepts are indeed tools that are sometimes used in metaphysical discourse to talk about possible worlds, what could have been otherwise. And yet they are also used in MS BASIC to bring about different states (e.g., “If then… else”), which causally effects, but does not represent the any world in any ontologically interesting way. It is a fact, I think, that the modal logician qua logician loses nothing in their formal inferential resources when they replace the term “world” with “state space”, “frame”, or “mental space”. The bare notion of necessity doesn’t by itself have the kind of ontological purport that is necessary to say that it tells us how things could have been. Modality is not “in the realm of metaphysics”, as you put it, though sometimes it does come for a visit.
Still, it is true that modal discourse will sometimes be used to represent worlds. But that in itself is not what I consider ontologically interesting. Instead, you have to make an argument that connects the modal world to the real one. e.g., I take it that in order to be ontologically interesting, we must presume that the real world is a possible world. And that way, we might say that there is something potentially illuminating if we just looked at the nature of how things could be, and assume our world is part of the possibles. If that argument worked, then it would seem to justify your claim that a kind of metaphysics is being done. And yet it is an unfortunate fact that conversations about what could have been and what must be are sometimes entirely disconnected with what there really is. Indeed, the real world is impossible when we adopt surreal conceptual schemes, where black is white, up is down, and so on; non-reality is their very point. We have to restrict ourselves to conceptual schemes that are plausible if they are to be metaphysically interesting, but plausibility is a criterion that draws on considerations like explanatory utility. And immunity to revision is of no interest in itself, either; surreal conceptual schemes involve necessary correct posits that are immune to revision, while metaphysically irrelevant. As the nerds say: garbage in, garbage out.
We do talk, and talk unironically, about modal truths. We can say things like, “The sum of two whole numbers whose exact quantities are two is equal to four” is necessarily true”, with the scheme and context made explicit. I do not deny that, and think it is important to keep talk about necessity and possibility in our vernacular. What I ask is that we explain the source of our modal convictions properly, and then see what that tells us about the nature of what we’re doing. In my view the qualifiers we add prior to the word “necessity” do a lion’s share of the work in establishing its ontological bonefides, and the adjectives function to specify the conceptual scheme we are working in. Such qualifiers reappear when discussing the precise meaning of phrases like “could have been otherwise”: e.g., “how things logically could have been otherwise”, “how she psychologically could have been otherwise” — or, as you put it, “genuinely necessary truths”, which we can translate as “how things genuinely could have been otherwise”.
So facts about necessity itself, however we get to them, would not be all the metaphysician needs to show her science even might go forward in the examination of how things could have been otherwise. This is because necessity by itself is not even minimally committed to tell us about how things could or could not have been, nor is it committed to tell us about how things really could have been or must be. These features are provided by supplemental theory: e.g., the theory reflected by standard arithmetic. Saying that conceivability is a reliable guide to genuine possibility is like saying that a Chomskian universal grammar is a reliable guide to speaking Spanish.
You might agree with all that, and wonder what it has to do with skepticism towards the apriori. The answer is that, if you take that story on board, then quite a lot of the fortunes of modal discourse depend on answering external questions, “which conceptual schemes are worth having?” – e.g., what counts as “genuineness”, to borrow your term? Somebody can certainly point out that standard arithmetic is the only one worth having – or, anyway, that modular arithmetic and numerals-as-kinds are not worth having. And I think that the answer has to make reference to the beliefs we hold in pragmatically enriched speech environments: i.e., environments where we together can talk about very precise interpretations of concepts which possess strict extensions. These communicatively rich environments involve shared standards of cooperation gotten from mutual intellectual good faith, and which coincide on some shared verdicts about the objects of experience. At least in the abstract, this seems to invite us to pull in some pretty diverse considerations, not all of which are guaranteed to be apriori in character.
Since I put emphasis on these pragmatically enriched speech environments, I don’t know whether it would help or hurt for us to speak about truths, beliefs, and concepts apart from interpretation of language. Indeed, like many folks working today in cognitive science and philosophy of mind, I don’t believe that concepts have a classical category structure. For the moment, I think that concepts have necessary conditions with variable extensions which can be unpacked in different ways depending on choice in scheme and context of application. Yet I take it that you are after mental representations that are held constant in their extension, like numbers in standard arithmetic. In my view, invariant extensions involve going beyond concepts by specifying the parameters of scheme and context.Report
Hi BLS Nelson,
I do think modality is in the realm of metaphysics, but I am by no means suggesting it is only in the domain of metaphysics. Modal logics are employed in various contexts and with different purposes, but we have been discussing modality as it pertains to qualifying truth claims about the world (i.e. a priori and/or analytic statements). As I said above, my concern has been with the metaphysics of modal terms in regards to the discussion introduced by the OP. In this context, we have been hoping to address the nature of modal truth. The question we’ve tried to answer seems to be this: Is there a robust sense of necessity such that certain truths must be the case and could not have been otherwise, or is necessity nothing more than a pragmatic sign telling us we needn’t bother looking for alternatives? We’ve seen some suggestions as to why the latter story might be correct. What I’ve tried to do is explain what I think motivates our intuitions about this stronger sense of necessity and how I think it makes this latter story seem unlikely. I’ve appealed to the felt link between possibility and conceivability to help flesh this out. In particular, I’ve argued that while our inability to conceive of the falsehood of certain truths may or may not help secure justification for a more robust sense of logical truth or ontological necessity, it in any case casts doubt on the prospects of a pointedly revisionist/pragmatic metaphysics.
As for the interpretation of language, I agree with a lot of what you have to say here. It’s very important that we take care in articulating what we mean. I find this very much consistent with what I’ve been arguing since the beginning, which is that we can guard against ambiguities by better refining our terms. This is precisely why analytic metaphysicians spend so much painstaking time trying to clarify their terms in the analysis of concepts. I don’t see that this renders any serious skepticism about the existence of certain modal truths, however, even if it does acknowledge certain difficulties in language. Although, I do think some of these difficulties have been manufactured to make a point about interpretation, and it’s a point I appreciate, but in most cases I don’t need to specify that I’m talking about standard arithmetic when I ask whether two plus two is four. At least in the West, if I ask someone what two plus two is, they know exactly what I mean. I think this is significant because it at least says that we can have some level of confidence in our ability to talk about the laws of thought. In other words, I don’t find the situation to be quite as dire. But in any case, my central concern has been to address in what sense certain truth claims bear the kind of modal properties discussed in the OP. I don’t see that specifying the context of our terms lends itself to any crippling or noteworthy skepticism about invariant truths or the laws of thought, however. I just think it says that we need to be careful about what we say when we are trying to communicate.Report
I think that’s an apt description of your side of the discussion. In contrast, I have argued that the intuitive force between conceivability and claims of modal truth does not wear its metaphysical status on its sleeve, owing to various facts about concepts, contexts, and cognition. My worries have a common theme: that your focus on the necessity-conceivability connection is too narrow to do any work for the metaphysician, and that when we widen our scope, plenty of things can change. Hence, I am led to believe that the reasons you’ve offered only leave us in a state of equanimity. The obstacles to a metaphysical explanation are there, and they are serious… though perhaps not insurmountable.
Certainly, we can be confident in basic standard arithmetic. But I am unsure what to say about our “laws of thought”, not knowing quite what they are. If the “laws of thought” are normatively binding apriori rules about well-behaved beliefs that operate independently of language, then they should be laws about the nature of coherent inference divested of any necessary connection to the kinds of verdicts we together would make when confronted by token utterances of certain platitudinous sentences. Such laws, if they are laws of thought, are not going to be able to assume that the sentences of arithmetic are successful, but rather must explain the viability of such sentences by appealing to underlying structures of mental representation, which happen to give rise to certain codifications in ordinary speech. And on first glance that seems like it will be a big messy cognitive science project.
On the other hand, if you mean something like “the structure of thought that is genuinely apt for communication”, as you seem to, then it’s a different story. It will surely involve appeal to context, which as you point out may not by itself be a serious problem, since you only care about the context-invariant stuff. That involves appealing to conceptual schemes. But I don’t think conceptual schemes are properly described as laws of thought so much as the municipal bylaws of thought (to borrow a phrase from a colleague). The standard arithmetic scheme just happens to be a municipal bylaw that we all share, because it works as a piece of intellectual ergonomics. That is, it has certain cognitive values — e.g., economy, simplicity — that are quite good at picking up the slack between what we need from the world and what the world has to give.Report
I would stress again that I haven’t suggested that conceivability arguments alone secure metaphysical necessity for the metaphysician. I agree there may still be obstacles, although I don’t think obstacles exist for quite the same reasons you seem to think they do. I think these obstacles exist simply because it’s not obvious that conceivability alone is all we need for possibility. I agree, however, that these obstacles may not be insurmountable, as you say, but the situation doesn’t strike me as quite equanimous (though this may be quibbling) because even if it turns out that the inconceivability of some alternative doesn’t guarantee necessity, it at the very least compromises our ability to revise this particular truth-claim (since, for instance, we may not be able to imagine a situation where it could be otherwise, even if, on principle, it somehow could be otherwise.)
As for laws of thought, I am simply talking about classical logic, or traditional rules for coherent, rational thinking. Whether or not these rules are lawful and necessary depends on the success of the metaphysician’s arguments, but as I’ve said numerous times now, I haven’t at any point in the discussion attempted to offer a proof for these claims. I’ve only said that I think the basis for these arguments pose (arguably insurmountable) problems for the radically pragmatic view of necessity (which does not by extension mean that they secure ontological necessity). As I mentioned before, my remarks about the metaphysician who has all she needs was simply part of a thought-experiment that assumed a metaphysical link between conceivability and possibility designed to make a rhetorical point. It was not offered as any kind of proof or vindication of conventional metaphysics.
If all the OP wanted was the allowance for schemes, contexts, and flexibility in our language, then I don’t think I have much to disagree with here. I think even most contemporary metaphysicians would be happy to acknowledge these things. My only suggestion here, really, is there are some truths that may not be open to revision (pace Quine), and that there is a little more than just pragmatic signage going on when we talk of necessity, that there is something involving seemingly inherent limits in what we can actually conceive, but that doesn’t mean the a priori metaphysician has won the day. It seems you are willing to grant invariant truth-values within certain schemes and so forth, and I don’t really see that as a problem for what I want to say in response to the OP.Report
There are at least two problems, I think. First, there are true statements about what gets parsed in MS BASIC using if-then rules, and they are not metaphysics. Some such rules are context-invariant (i.e., making up the structure of the language itself), and in some deflated sense they are true statements in the language.* I do not think they are metaphysically interesting. Second, there are true context-invariant statements about how things could have been, which correspond to surreal schemes, and which do not include the real world among possible ones. These schemes aren’t metaphysically interesting. When we are ready to talk about what is metaphysically interesting, we have to be prepared to defend the scheme itself, e.g., to use your word, the meaning of genuine possibility. Without passing these hurdles, the would-be metaphysician isn’t even meeting the minimum topic requirements for doing metaphysics by your own lights. For in the first case because it doesn’t tell us about what ‘could have been’, and in the second case because nothing useful is said about the concept of ‘otherwise’. Yet in order to pass these minimum hurdles, I suspect that you’ll need to open yourself to epistemological considerations that have a mixed pedigree.
* I myself think it is totally wrong to talk about these as true statements, but I’m sure some people will, and in fairness they’re not obviously wrong.Report
Again, I’ve not defended any robust metaphysical posits or assumptions about a given scheme. A given scheme may or may not be metaphysically interesting (whether it’s BASIC or arithmetic). The point is just that there seems to be constraints on what is conceivable. Modal truths in standard arithmetic may not map onto anything “deep,” or “genuine,” or “ontological.” I haven’t said that we’re doing metaphysics when I say we aren’t able to conceive of alternate truth-values in this scheme. I’ve simply said this lack of ability poses at least some limit on what kind of metaphysics we would like to do. The suggestion here is that even if we can’t establish a link between metaphysical possibility and conceivability, it’s not clear that we’ll ever be able to coherently make sense of alternative scenarios in certain domains, so the prospect of giving up on our notion that two plus two must be four in standard arithmetic, for instance, seems compromised from the outset (compare my comments above about quantum mechanics).Report
You can call me Ben if you want. :]
Anyway — that’s all pretty clear. Yet I have been interpreting your remarks so far as meaning to cast doubt on the picture of metaphysics as intellectual ergonomics. You’ve said as much along the way, with your theses (1) and (2) (July 9), and from what I gather you have not left that ambition behind. Yet the revisionist “ergonomics” project does not need to deny your (1), i.e., that conceivability tells us something about what is necessary within a scheme, or that we must “[give up] on our notion that two plus two must be four in standard arithmetic”. What it does need to do is deny your (2), that “inconceivability helps ground the basis for our thinking about necessity”. I have done this by suggesting that conceivability by itself is not metaphysically interesting in the most basic sense of being relevant to the subject, unless and until it is supplemented by (potentially anti-realist) beliefs and assumptions about the conceptual scheme. As evidence, I have pointed out that you are tempted to make use of qualifiers like “genuine” in speaking to the subject of modality, which indicates that you tacitly recognize that there are some background assumptions that are doing a lot of work. And when cashing out the meaning of the phrase “metaphysically interesting”, I have helped myself to your own criterion (from July 16), namely, statements about what could (not) have been otherwise. I then proposed two reasons to suppose that our capacity to conceive something is not reason to consider it metaphysically interesting: first, because modality by itself is ontologically neutral (MS BASIC example, assuming it has anything to do with truth-claims), and second, because modal representations can be spurious (surreal scheme example).
So it seems to me that in order to cast doubt on the project of a revisionist metaphysics, you need to up the stakes in your argument. You have to give me some reason to think that the bare fact that “two plus two must be four in standard arithmetic” is even minimally interesting to the subject of metaphysics, of necessity and possibility and how things could have been, without appealing to prior background beliefs and assumptions that assure us that our scheme is a good one. Otherwise, bare facts about conceivability cast no doubt on the kind of position I’m referring to — instead, it seems more like a non-sequitur.
(As an aside, I think the story I’ve told potentially helps to soothe Joe’s worries at the start of the thread, in the sense that it articulates one way of trying to answer the “why” question that Williams felt Rorty was ignoring.)Report
Thanks for thoughtful reply.
There is a subtle distinction in my claim (2) from July 9th that might easily be missed. I say, in full, that “inconceivability helps ground the basis for our thinking about necessity (even if I haven’t so far spelled out that grounding or defended its justification).” The key distinction here is that I do not say that inconceivability helps ground the basis for necessity, but that it grounds the basis for our thinking about necessity. I had hoped the distinction would have been clarified in my parenthetical, but I can see how it can still be misleading. If you recall, I mentioned that my intention throughout was to articulate what I think occurs psychologically when we talk about necessity. In particular, the reason we might have trouble revising our commitment to the notion that two plus two must be four is because we cannot conceive of a situation in which it could be false. This is not a metaphysically robust account of necessity because our inability to conceive of the falsehood of 2+2=4 need not entail metaphysical necessity. Indeed, supposing that conceivability is not a guide to possibility (or is in any case an insufficient guide), then it may very well be the case that two plus two could be five in some relevant sense, but since we are not able to conceive of how this could be the case, such potential possibility does not do us any real good for the purposes of metaphysics. Or, as I say, it’s not clear to me that we will ever truly be able to make coherent sense of a world that is inconceivable — metaphysics be damned. In the end, my objection is an epistemological objection to the project of a radically revisionist metaphysics.
As for what this says about your two objections, the first regarding conditional If…then statements in BASIC and the second regarding surreal schemes (for what it’s worth, I agree neither schemes are metaphysically interesting), my psychological account of what occurs when we invoke metaphysical necessity does not imply that any given scheme is metaphysically interesting. You are right that I am invoking background assumptions when I talk about the conceivability of 2+2=5 and whether propositions in arithmetic could be otherwise, but these background assumptions are built into the attempt to provide an ontology for a given scheme and were brought in from Elijah’s original example. I am not assuming that our attempt to supply an ontology to a given scheme is valid or justified, I am only trying to articulate what that attempt looks like, and what’s more, why we can’t seem to get away from it. In other words, truth-claims in BASIC and surreal schemes may very well be metaphysically neutral, but inasmuch as we want to assert that 2+2=4 is a statement of actual fact (or truth, or ‘relation of ideas’ if you prefer Humean terminology), we run into conceptual constraints. As soon as we decide that the proposition 2+2=4 is a mathematical fact about actual reality, we are constrained in what we can say about its modal properties. If 2+2=4 is a true statement about our actual reality, as I take it that both you and I think that it is, then it is a fact that is not subject to change, nor could it be, at least not in practice, even if it is on principle. All of this is another way of saying the following: Whenever we decide to do metaphysics, whatever it is that we want to coherently say about the world and reality is constrained by what is conceivable, such that even if we aren’t justified in making those statements, we still can’t make sense of the world in any other way than what is conceivable. Thus, inasmuch as we want to do metaphysics at all, there is only so much flexibility (exactly as much as conceivable) in the kind of metaphysics we can do.*
Now, perhaps the project of revisionist metaphysics is about objecting to the terms of conventional metaphysics, and how it seeks to achieve revision is by virtue of redefining and repurposing terms traditionally laden with metaphysically loaded background assumptions. In other words, the revisionist program wants to say, “Sure 2+2=5 is impossible if by possibility we mean ‘could be otherwise,’ or something such and such, but it might be possible if by possibility we mean [insert alternative conceptual analysis].” That’s all fine and well, but the question will still remain: Could two plus two be other than four? Does it have to be the case? Is there a relevant difference between analytic statements and empirical statements? These are things we want to know, and it’s for precisely these reasons we have the kind of modal language that we do. So, in other words, if revisionist metaphysics is just in the business of shifting the semantic goal posts and repurposing our terms, then doing so runs at minimum the risk of (1) failing to capture what we are interested in when we talk about modal truth, and (2) failing to adequately explain or describe our experience in the world in an intuitively satisfying way.
* One small proviso here (or significant, depending on your view) is that we can perhaps sacrifice epistemic coherence in one domain in order to make epistemic (and likely empirical) gains in matters of ontology in other domains (cf. my remarks on quantum mechanics), but I would maintain that so long as we go this route (1) our picture of the world will ipso facto always remain incomplete, and (2) many of the gains elsewhere will arguably only be apparent from an ontological perspective, even if otherwise palpable from an instrumental perspective (re: matters of technology, industry, and commerce). In other words, metaphysical limitations will stubbornly remain at some level.Report
I think the parenthetical was fine. Instead, my troubles arose when thinking about your phrase “ground the basis for”. That has led me to think you were talking about foundation-work, clearing the proverbial path for the metaphysician, showing that she has all she needs to secure the mere possibility of a more robust metaphysics by appealing to some introspective fact about our psychology. In contrast, it now seems as though you’re describing something about the experience of success when one is doing metaphysics. Your position, stated lately, is that once we start doing metaphysics, however we start, we’re going to have to abide by some self-imposed restrictions. But this doesn’t sound to me like “grounding the basis” for potential metaphysics, which suggests to me an attempt at minimal justification whose aim is to set out that some project we might call “metaphysics” is actually possible. Instead, it sounds like you are describing what it feels like to be engaged in metaphysical projects — the mere phenomenology of doing metaphysics, so to speak. Instead of grounding the basis for the subject, you’re beginning in medias res. The foundation-work is done, the proverbial house is built, and we are exploring the rooms.
To be sure, once you’ve decided to adopt a scheme unironically, it feels like the conceivability of things within that scheme matters. It is a fact that it feels like genuine schemes have a persuasive intuitive force, once we’re set on holding them. In these conditions, it feels like there is no going back — that we can’t “make sense of the world in any other way than what is conceivable” in some scheme or other. In your view, these are observations we can make about our introspective states, and which may hold regardless of whether or not our choice in scheme is justified. This makes sense of my experience as well.
But I do not know if the advocate of intellectual ergonomics cannot make any rational sense of that feeling, and I do not know that their account risks doing an injustice to that kind of experience. I do worry that Elijah’s parable suggests a kind of ironic approach to metaphysics, and I admit that ironic philosophy is not to my tastes. But I do not think we need to dispense with many of the most compelling features of his account in order to defend his vision of ‘intellectual ergonomics’. Since I am a proponent of intellectual ergonomics (of a kind), and we are now speaking of phenomenology of doing metaphysics and the importance of intuitions in talking about modality, I will use my own biography as a toy case. I will do this in the hopes of supplying an explanation, but not justification, for my belief that the capacity for theoretical imagination that is involved in intellectual ergonomics is essential in making productive sense of my experience with modal concepts.
When I first arrived in introductory logic class in university, and I was introduced to the elementary truth table of the material conditional, I can report that my intuitions were utterly scandalized. It seemed to me quite obvious that “if-then” statements contain no information whatsoever about the conditions under which the antecedent is false, and that it was misleading to assign any truth-value whatsoever to the if-then statement under those conditions. I complained loudly and persistently — perhaps pathologically — until I was reassured that expert logicians shared my deviant intuitions, and had crafted logics which conformed to my intuitions, and that predicate calculus was just a bump in the road.
Now, it is only in retrospect that I can recognize the reason why I was so upset. In my youth, I did a bit of rudimentary programming, and was primed to code things as “if-then-else“. That, anyway, is the only way I can make sense of the sheer, dogged tenacity of my intuitions in introductory logic class. So it is reasonable to suppose, I think, that I was dead set on holding to a coder’s conceptual scheme — hooked on BASIC, you might say. But in order to understand the material conditional on its own terms, I did not revise my (rudimentary) knowledge of code, nor did I abandon my intuitive reservations about the material conditional (which persist today). Instead, I learned the new scheme by rote. And eventually, I could appreciate how my intuitions actually did track the material conditional, though far less well than fits my tastes.
It seems to me that intellectual ergonomics explains my experiences quite well, here, while also making sense of the fact that I was capable of intellectual growth. It makes sense of the experience because I take it that Elijah is correct to say that I “forgot” where my apriori intuitions came from, and this forgetting worked because I had a reasonably coherent set of background assumptions which were of mixed pedigree and which did not need to be exposed to the light of day in order to work. Moreover, I think there is a sense in which my apriori intuitions were metaphysically productive, in the sense that in the long run they acted as an animating force that enlivened my understanding of the modal logic and intensional semantics. And yet these intuitions were also metaphysically retrograde in the short term, since the predicate calculus is more plausible as a candidate for a representation of world(s) than BASIC.
In the denouement of this episode, I switched schemes from one that was intuitive to me (which dictated the space of what I could conceive with respect to the relevant concept) and moved to one which was not intuitive (running with rules that did not map onto the space of things I could conceive in relation to the relevant concept). What I wonder is how this switch was even possible, if it were not for my capacity to exercise a theoretical imagination conditioned by pedagogy, whose aim is to actively re-evaluate the significance of my intuitions in the space of reasons worth caring about. That, anyway, seemed to be what I was doing. I stepped outside the scheme which I knew and liked in order to make a new one, and gradually by degrees saw enough of a family resemblance between my intuitive sense of the conditional and the material conditional that I was able to switch between schemes more comfortably. But notice that this involved investigating different meanings of concepts than the ones I was comfortable with — involving “shifting goalposts”, “repurposing terms”, and the like; the very meaning of my beloved “if-then” was being gerrymandered, after all. And yet I did shift those goalposts, and repurposed the terms, and I find that the world makes just as much sense on the other side.Report
In terms of grounding I mean that our thinking about necessity is rooted in inconceivability arguments. I’ve stressed throughout that I haven’t attempted to justify this basis, but only describe the psychological situation of what goes on when we think about necessity. I tried to clarify these points in posts (10) “Note that I’m not necessarily linking conceivability to possibility here, but just trying to draw a relevant psychological difference in what occurs when we go about making empirical and analytic claims,” and (37) “my intention actually was to speak about the psychology of imagination, and in particular, the psychology of mathematical conceivability. My point about not linking conceivability to possibility was to say that I was trying to present a challenge to what is conceivable without making the further commitment that this bare inconceivability alone secures the necessity of certain claims. I wasn’t actually staking out any ontological commitments about modality in this respect. Although I certainly wanted to suggest that this was the sort of thing metaphysicians are basing their arguments on when they talk about necessity, or in any case, the kind of thing that informs our ordinary intuitions about necessity.” I do think your description of the phenomenology of what it’s like when we’re doing metaphysics seems to pretty closely mirror what I want to say, and it is helpful way of putting it.
As for your intuitions about the material conditional, I would be surprised if you were the only one scandalized by the counter-intuitive upshots of the elementary truth-table for the material conditional. I certainly was, or if not scandalized, I was in any case dismissive. The material conditional in classical logic is deeply counter-intuitive, and not just for those with intuitions informed by an experience working with BASIC. I worked (very briefly) with BASIC and a few other programming languages in my early education as well, and the material conditional not only fails to capture the intuitive logic of conditionals in BASIC but also in just ordinary everyday English as well. The truth-table for the material conditional in statement logic has some pretty whacky results when compared to English statements. For instance, the statement ‘If 2+2=4, then Socrates was a man’ in English corresponds to a material conditional whose antecedent is true and whose consequent is true. Yet, it is a vacuously true statement in a truth-table for statement logic (since the material conditional is only false when its antecedent true and its consequent false), but it is quite plainly a false statement in English even though both the antecedent and consequent are true. In English, we wouldn’t say that this statement is true because there is not a causally relevant link between the antecedent and the consequent, but for the purposes of truth-tables and its rules, none of that matters. The reason truth-tables are helpful in logic is not because they adequately capture our intuitions about how conditionals work in the English language, but because when applied to arguments they serve as an excellent test for validity in terms of how they correspond to our everyday intuitions in the English language, particularly those really complex arguments that aren’t easily analyzable in terms of modus tollens and modus ponens or the other famous forms (and just ordinary intuitive reflection).
It’s for these reasons, among many, that I haven’t used general statements in propositional or first-order logic to explore intuitions about necessity, conceivability, and logical truth (as I’ve also tended to exclude propositions in geometry and more advanced math). I do think certain tautologies are helpful, however, particularly the law of noncontradiction and the law of identity (and to some lesser extent, the law of excluded middle). I think these laws at least do a fairly good job at mapping onto our ordinary intuitions, but I think the most helpful examples in this regard are simple problems in arithmetic, and I think many people feel this way, which is why it’s no surprise it is the example Elijah originally uses. In general, I am happy to acknowledge different schemes and logics designed for different purposes that may achieve different results. I genuinely believe most metaphysicians working today would as well. So again, if revisionist metaphysics is merely about redefining and repurposing terms for the purposes of developing or switching different schemes, then the project doesn’t strike me as particularly radical in regard to metaphysics. More generally, I’m not sure that I see it as an especially substantive objection to the modal concerns of traditional metaphysics, viz. the question of whether or not propositions in arithmetic, for instance, could be otherwise, or must be the case, and so on. You may be on board with all of this of course, since you may think it has its other benefits, and if that’s the case, I can’t say that I have any objections to what you want to say. It would seem to me that this just leaves the questions I’ve been trying to address in response to Elijah more or less as they are, or at least, insofar as folks are still passionate about traditional (or conventional) metaphysical questions.Report
I don’t object to the phenomenology, but I do deny that the experiences involved “ground the basis” for necessary truth, since I take that phrase to invoke some kind of minimal effort at providing reasons for belief in necessary truth. To put it another way, I do not regard my intuitive experiences with the language of the conditional as being even prime facie evidence that speaks in favor of my BASIC conceptual scheme being metaphysically virtuous. But I do not disparage or deny the forcefulness of these intuitions, and so my views seem to be consistent with yours on (July 30). And I do think that my account is reasonably well-developed, to such a point that it goes some distance in making sense of the phenomenology of the experience. And once we subtract any commitments to grounding in the sense that our conceptual schemes provide us with reasons to believe in metaphysical necessity as true, no grist is left for the metaphysician’s mill. In my view, questions like “whether or not propositions in arithmetic, for instance, could be otherwise, or must be the case, and so on” are non-sequiturs to a discussion of metaphysics, once unpacked properly — and this conviction both makes sense of my experience of intellectual development concerning the idea of necessity, and substantially arises out of my attempt to make sense of that experience.
For what it’s worth, I do think repurposing schemes (sp., repurposing oughts, repurposing necessities, etc.) is a faithful way of talking about Elijah Millgram’s original post; “repurposing” was his word, after all. So if repurposing schemes is not “radically revisionist”, as per your (July 30), then it seems that no-one is a radical revisionist. (And that’s fine, since I’ve never felt that I was ever punk rock enough to self-identify as a radical.) But then it is hard to see why the ally of the metaphysician would ever have been bothered by intellectual ergonomics.Report
I’ve been describing a situation of what it’s like when we want to do metaphysics. I’ve clarified specifically that what I mean by talk of grounding is that it’s “the sort of thing metaphysicians are basing their arguments on when they talk about necessity.” In response to the OP’s thought experiment, I was attempting to articulate what it is in particular that I think metaphysicians are on about when they talk about necessity. When we attempt to justify our claims of necessity, the kind of conceivability arguments I’ve gestured at are typically what we use to provide the foundation for those claims (or what I think otherwise underlies those claims). Nevertheless, as I’ve said, I haven’t attempted vindicate them, but only say this sort of reasoning places constraints on the kind of metaphysics we would like to do. Even if you think that our modal intuitions offer no kind of justification or evidence at all for our modal claims, my point is that we still can’t make sense of the world in any other way than is conceivable. Which is to say, we can’t just do any kind of metaphysics we want without running into intellectual constraints. We are limited in the kinds of things that we can coherently say about the world.
As for intuitive experiences with conditionals and BASIC, I think there is an important distinction to be made here. The metaphysical significance of intuitions about necessity only get off the ground once we’ve acknowledged whether the scheme we are in has ontological significance (in particular, whether truth-claims in the given scheme are metaphysically robust), but this acknowledgment itself is informed by intuitions about truth-claims, which is then further supported by intuitions about possibility and necessity. Which is to say, of course intuitions about necessity will lack ontological significance for BASIC if truth-claims in BASIC do not even map onto a metaphysically interesting account of truth. Questions like whether propositions in arithmetic could be otherwise are not non-sequiturs if we are already in a scheme where we are asserting ontologically significant statements of truth or fact about the world, and I think we both agree that we are in such a scheme when talking about arithmetic. Indeed, we run into these sorts of questions and problems as soon as we decide we’re doing metaphysics. It’s hard to see, then, how modalities in standard arithmetic might be substantively revised. In the end, conventional metaphysics doesn’t end up looking very much different from how it presently does.
Lastly, my point is that if intellectual ergonomics is just in the business of repurposing terms, I think it faces a relevance charge: If you aren’t attempting to describe the world and what we can say about it, then you aren’t really doing metaphysics at all, but something else. Or, to put it as I did before, revisionist metaphysics runs the risk of (1) failing to capture what we are interested in when we talk about modal truth, and (2) failing to adequately explain or describe our experience in the world in an intuitively satisfying way. One has simply changed the subject on the conventional metaphysician, and essentially leaves business as usual in metaphysics.Report
I’ll leave the subject of Elijah’s project aside. I don’t think he is susceptible to the criticisms being offered since he was reasonably clear that his parable was about repurposing schemes. He doesn’t reject representation of the natural world, he just thinks we only ever represent it partially. His “Hard Truths” has a more detailed layout of his intellectual programme than what we see here. But even just going by the OP, I don’t share your worries about intellectual ergonomics failing to meet (1) and (2), and don’t think anyone ought to be worried in such ways. I would only agree that Elijah hasn’t said enough about his amnesiac conception of the apriori, and the idea of underlying policies that dress up in the garb of metaphysics. But I don’t fault him for that, this being blogtown, and because the new book undoubtably says more.
Our dispute continues, and it seems to have both verbal and substantive dimensions. The verbal part of the disagreement seems to persist in some part because I am confused by any and all usage of foundational metaphors in this context; e.g., “grounding”, “the basis of so-and-so”, and their cognates. I have sometimes gathered from your comments that you’re attempting to offer an argument to the effect that the fortunes of the aspiring metaphysician have been enhanced by the mere observation that there are limits to what is conceivable. I am led to such illicit interpretations of your posts because we say that arguments aim to show a conclusion by way of reasons, and the reasons, if successful, ground the conclusion. [e.g., I argue that since the cellar door is open, I have grounds to believe it will probably be chilly down there.] That would be a non-trivial project in the epistemology of metaphysics, exemplified in tentative form by your post (65), and it is a project which I find little hope for. But putting the foundation metaphors aside, and just examining the contents of your claims, you seem like you’re attempting to offer an explanation of what it feels like to do metaphysics if and when it ever does succeed — what I called the phenomenology of doing metaphysics. This makes sense of your actual claims, and especially the claims about making sense of the psychological experiences, and is appropriately modest; the watershed moment here was your post (37). And if that’s what’s going on, then to my ear it’s not an appropriate use of the concept of ‘grounding’. [e.g., when I explain that the chilly draft is happening because the cellar door is open, my mentioning that the door is open does not ground the belief that it is chilly, nor does the chilliness of the draft ground the fact that the door is open.] So when we notice that all putatively successful metaphysics and/or typical projects undertaken by metaphysicians are constrained by conceivability, that fact alone does not by itself mean conceivability grounds successful metaphysics. And yet you persist in claiming that there is a grounding relationship between the relata, which causes me to recoil and go back to the first interpretation. This is a persistent conversational hiccup.
Anyway, we can discuss either your (1) or your (2) or both. I’ll focus on (2), because it is the area where I see most avenue for criticism. I’ll neglect (1), because this post is getting too long, and I have drawn the outlines of my view in earlier missives (roughly the passage between 62-85), much of which you’ve been prepared to concede. Also because my initial aim was only to make a narrow psychological claim about the theoretical imagination (post 24), so it seems appropriate that we should return to this territory after our period of profitable digression. I would like to argue for an elaborated version of the claim I made there, specific to the psychological features involved in explaining our experience with the conceivability of modal concepts in a scheme that is truth-apt (e.g., standard arithmetic). Hopefully the rephrasing and unpacking will be more fittingly engaged with your own views than what I said at the outset.
I do not presently believe that your account has the resources to do the phenomenological project, or at least, it hasn’t got the resources to deal with my experiences (such as they were). My final paragraph implicitly signalled that I do not accept your conclusion in a relevant sense — that as a matter of fact, we can make sense of ourselves and our relationship to the world in a another way apart from that which is conceivable. Indeed, I think we have to accept that we can make sense of the world beyond our scheming if we are to make any sense of the fact that people are capable of dramatic levels of epistemic growth.
But before I explain why, I should make one thing clear so that I do not overstate my view. I concede that the story I offered above about my hangover with BASIC does indeed force me to accept your claim that it feels like we still can’t make sense of the world in any other way than is conceivable. And I am quite happy with that concession; to put it in epistemological terms, I concede that intuitive conceivability is prime facie reason to regard the statements of a scheme as appropriate to hold. If it were not that kind of thing, it would not be suitable to explain the force that is characteristic of intuitive mental events.
In making my case I need to make three distinctions. First, there is a difference between retrospective and prospective understanding. Second, there is a difference between minimal and optimal kinds of ‘making sense of things’ — that is to say, between bare intelligibility and justification in excess of what is required to get by. Third, there is a distinction between what it feels like to make sense of things, and what is actually required to make sense of things.
Now here are the claims that I would like to endorse. I agree that everything which makes optimal sense only makes sense in some scheme or other, since the mind always attends to a salient scheme when it is working at its best; facility with standard arithmetic is a sign that the intellect is coping with the world reasonably well. I also agree that it feels like everything that makes minimal sense only makes sense according to some scheme. But my puzzling experiences have led me to retrospectively enter a state of equanimity about the proposal that we are in fact forced to occupy a scheme in order to make sense of things. And so I deny in prospect that everything that in fact makes minimal sense only makes sense according to some scheme or other, because it is an awkward matter of fact that the period of transitioning from one scheme to another could never be productive if you were thrown into total confusion. Indeed, if we had no extra-schematic tools at our disposal, we would have a total mental breakdown just thinking about the prospects of any interesting schematic-pluralism; and yet this does not happen. So it is lucky for us that we have certain extra-schematic cognitive mechanisms, which at the level of consciousness we can identify as rote attention and the theoretical imagination, since these mechanisms heroically string the understanding along during these periods of schematic limbo, and make sure that not all who wander are lost.
Because my comments here are conclusions arrived at through reflective equilibrium whose main point is to explain my unorthodox experiences, and because my account ought to be consistent with orthodox learning experiences, I think I am actually better situated to meet the explanatory requirement (2) than someone who only says “we still can’t make sense of the world in any other way than is conceivable”. The idea that sense-making is purely a matter of conceivability is an oversimplification; coherence is a broader notion than that. But it is part of my approach the idea that we can assume that explanations about our experiences in the world ought to be observed across time, and that it is not appropriate to just focus narrowly on the occurrent experience of what it feels like to look at our schemes. Studies of the occurrent qualities of the experience are important, but they are only the first step in an explanation of the metaphysical status of the modal operators — i.e., the step that involves description of one part of the phenomenon that we care about.
A final thing I want to emphasize about the approach I have adopted here is that I do not believe that immunity to revision is a useful or interesting criterion in the discussion of the fate of conceptual schemes and their metaphysical import. As far as I am concerned, revision is a red herring. I concede that conceptual schemes are immune to revision, in the sense that once we have settled on the basic structure of some scheme then any change will require us to pick up a new scheme entirely. That is not to say that they cannot be abandoned; it means that there is some kind of qualitative demarcation between different ways of organizing the things we believe in. So one cannot draw too many parallels between what I am saying and what some might take from Quine’s “Two Dogmas”. My aim is to split the difference between Quine and Carnap, put David Lewis on a leash, and throw Davidson under the bus.Report