puzzle

In Praise of Partiality in Science

We all grow up with an image of science as a pillar of truth and nothing but truth. This ideal is so deeply embedded in us, that the very idea that scientists should take responsibility for the normative aspects of their work is anathema. Of all the things I have written here on Sweet Talk, my series on this subject provoked the most ferocious responses by far.

But science itself is far more than just truth. Elizabeth Anderson thoroughly dismantles the notion that it is. Our very ability to discern the whole truth, according to her, depends heavily on what we would call normative values, rather than value-neutral considerations. The whole truth is not a representation of “every fact about the phenomenon being studied.” If it were, it would “end up burying the significant truths in a mass of irrelevant and trivial detail.”

Theoretical inquiry does not just seek any random truth. It seeks answers to questions. What counts as a significant truth is any truth that bears on the answer to the question being posed. The whole truth consists of all the truths that bear on the answer, or, more feasibly, it consists of a representative enough sample of such truths that the addition of the rest would not make the answer turn out differently.

Anderson’s whole truth can only be determined by honing in on what is significant, an inherently value-laden concept. And that significance is determined by the questions we ask, which are based on our interests. Continue reading “In Praise of Partiality in Science”

club

Jacob Levy’s Liberalism of Tragedy

Featured image is A Club of Gentlemen, by Joseph Highmore

Against a liberalism of pre-political foundations and historical destiny,  Jacob Levy has been working hard to recover a vision of liberalism that appreciates the complex patchwork of social life, is historically contingent, and accepts the existence of irresolvable tensions. Though he has been influenced by Judith Shklar’s “Liberalism of Fear,” the character of his work could better be described as a Liberalism of Tragedy. After a year in which liberalism has taken a beating globally, Levy’s work provides an excellent starting point for a revitalization.

Continue reading “Jacob Levy’s Liberalism of Tragedy”

sunset_by_caspar_david_friedrich

Where Do Beliefs Come From?

Featured image is Sunset, by Caspar David Friedrich.

This post is dedicated to Drew Summitt, who has relentlessly pushed Aristotelian metaphysics upon me. It is also a technical followup to this piece.

To have beliefs, one must have a lot of other beliefs. This is John Searle’s summary of the point that, in analytic philosophy anyway, goes back at least as far as W. V. Quine. No lone belief is coherent in isolation, but only as part of a web of beliefs that provide it with context.

Rather than a web, Searle spoke of a Network. At first he believed the Network was a set of unconscious beliefs that provide context for conscious beliefs. But in time he came to see that the notion of an “unconscious belief” is dubious. Instead, we ought to speak of having the capacity to generate some specific belief.

We think of memory as a storehouse of propositions and images, as a kind of big library or filing cabinet of representations. But we should think of memory rather as a mechanism for generating current performance, including conscious thoughts and actions, based on past experience.

(…)

Instead of saying “To have a belief, one has to have a lot of other beliefs,” one should say “To have a conscious thought, one has to have the capacity to generate a lot of other conscious thoughts. And these conscious thoughts all require further capacities for their application.”

The Network is the specific set of capacities for generating the relevant beliefs. It is a subset of the Background, which are all of the non-mental capabilities that generate mental states.

I find this taxonomy compelling. I would summarize the basic insight as follows: consciousness, knowledge, beliefs, and all mental states are performed, not stored. As Richard Moodey put it, “I imagine ‘knowledge’ as inseparable from acts of knowing, as something performed, rather than possessed.”

So we have performed mental states, and we have capacities for generating them. What is the ontology of these capacities? Continue reading “Where Do Beliefs Come From?”

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Frayed Edges of a Web of Belief

Featured image is a painted backdrop of a palace, by Edgar S. Paxson

To say that a farm boy knows how to milk a cow is to say that we can send him out to the barn with an empty pail and expect him to return with milk.

– Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions

A farm boy enters a barn with an empty pail. He has been in this barn, and barns like it, so many times before, that he does not even register most of his surroundings. He milks the cows almost without thought; the motions come to him as effortlessly as walking or scratching an itch.

The next day he returns, but something is not right. He is sure that he came the same way that he always does, but he doesn’t recall ever seeing this barn before. Thinking as hard as he can, he supposes that the barn he usually goes to looks something like this one. Trying to move beyond the strange sensation of unfamiliarity, he goes in. But it is no good—even inside, something feels very off. He looks around for some sign that this is the correct barn. He stares at a cow for several minutes before realizing he ought to get started. Once he is in position, he finds that he cannot make his hands work correctly. He does not tug hard enough to produce any milk, or he misses the pail. He simply cannot perform the task the way he knows he should be able to.

How many times must we send a farm boy in with an empty pail to get milk before we are satisfied that he knows how to milk a cow? Can we call no one a farm boy until he is dead?

W. V. Quine argued that any of our beliefs are only coherent within a larger web of belief, most of which we are not conscious of in a given moment. Hans-Georg Gadamer speaks, in like fashion, of a horizon of meaning which form the conditions of intelligibility for every one of us. But where are these horizons? Where do the visible threads in this web lead?

John Searle once thought that the beliefs we are not conscious of right at this moment are kept in a sort of inventory of unconscious mental states. In attempting to flesh this out, however, he found unresolvable problems. The only workable model of the unconscious he could come up with was one of the potentially conscious—so to say that someone believes the world is round even when he is asleep is really to say that if he woke up he would be capable of consciously holding that very belief.

We think of memory as a storehouse of propositions and images, as a kind of big library or filing cabinet of representations. But we should think of memory rather as a mechanism for generating current performance, including conscious thoughts and actions, based on past experience.

(…)

Instead of saying “To have a belief, one has to have a lot of other beliefs,” one should say “To have a conscious thought, one has to have the capacity to generate a lot of other conscious thoughts. And these conscious thoughts all require further capacities for their application.”

This is more in line with (to my knowledge) the neuroscience of memory. Memories are not stored and retrieved, but constructed in the moment of remembering.

I am also reminded of Gadamer’s discussion of moral knowledge:

But we do not learn moral knowledge, nor can we forget it. We do not stand over against it, as if it were something that we can acquire or not(…). Rather, we are always already in a situation of having to act (disregarding the special position of children, for whom obedience to the person educating them replaces their own decision), and hence we must already possess and be able to apply moral knowledge. That is why the concept of application is highly problematical. For we can only apply something that we already have; but we do not possess moral knowledge in such a way that we already have it and then apply it to specific situations.

A stage actor or a stand-up comedian, or a baseball player for that matter, has good days and bad days. Do they ever know why? Can they do anything about it even if they do?

When we walk up to the plate, what else can we do but hope? Hope that the scant threads we can see before us still connect back to the larger web. That, just out of view, they haven’t become frayed ends, unconnected and blowing in the wind.

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Direct and Mediated Speech and Reality

Featured Image is Painting of Russian writer Evgeny Chirikov, by Ivan Semenovich Kulikov

I’ve been drawn to the hostile exchange between Jacques Derrida and John Searle for some time. It seems to be such an interesting clash of perspectives, styles, and cultures, and on a subject I wanted to learn more about.

The discussion focuses most intensely on the status of speech acts—such as promises or wedding ceremonies—in fiction and representative art, compared to promises and wedding ceremonies in normal contexts.

Austin refers to the former as “parasitic” on the latter, or derivative. Searle puts it like this:

The sense in which, for example, fiction is parasitic on nonfiction is the sense in which the definition of the rational numbers in number theory might be said to be parasitic on the definition of natural numbers, or the notion of one logical constant in a logical system might be said to be parasitic on another, because the former is defined in terms of the latter.

Responding to a different, similar passage from Searle, Derrida is empatic: “I am not in agreement with any of these assertion.”

The determination of “positive” values (“standard”, serious, normal, literal, non-parasitic, etc.) is dogmatic. It does not even derive from common sense, but merely from a restrictive interpretation of common sense which is implicit and never submitted to discussion. More disturbingly: nothing allows one to say that the relation of the positive values to those which are opposed to them (“non-standard,” nonserious, abnormal, parasitical, etc.), or that of the “nonpretended forms” to the “pretended forms,” should be described as one of logical dependence. And even if this were the case, nothing proves that it would entail this relation of irreversible anteriority or of simple consequence. If a form of speech act that was “serious,” or in general “nonpretended,” did not, in its initial possibility and its very structure, include the power of giving rise to a “pretended form,” it would simply not arise itself, it would be impossible. It would either not be what it is, or not have the value of a speech act.

Here, Derrida makes the argument that a criteria for the existence of non-pretended speech acts is their ability to be imitated in the pretended forms; thus since the latter is a necessary condition of the former, you could reverse the relative status that Austin and Searle assign to each. Not that you should, but this shows the relative status to be arbitrary. It certainly doesn’t have the necessity that the relation of rational numbers has to natural numbers.

The analogy with math was poorly conceived, but Searle’s broad point still seems reasonable. The imitation of a promise in a play is predicated on the fact that the audience will recognize it as something that occurs in real life. Derrida’s argument here seems mostly like a parlor trick, once the analogy with math is dispatched. There’s no logical reason that we couldn’t have invented something like promises in fiction first (“life imitating art”) but in general that is not how it works. And it seems reasonable, when analyzing the nature of promises, to put fiction to the side for a moment.

But there is more to Derrida’s argument than this. Never mind his 80 page response to Searle’s 11 page critique; the original piece that started the discussion, “Signature Event Context”, is making a much larger point.

Rather than subjecting you to more Derrida-ese, I will turn now to Stanley Fish’s unpacking of the piece in question.

Continue reading “Direct and Mediated Speech and Reality”

Assimilation vs Integration

Each generation has its own idyll year. For my great-grandparents, 1927 was a good one: Lucky Lindy crossed the Atlantic, and his baby hadn’t yet been abducted in the dark of the night by nefarious German immigrant Richard Hauptmann (who insisted on his innocence until his execution by electric chair in 1936). My grandparents reveled in the post-war boom of the Truman years, probably getting the most out of 1947’s interbellum with idk, sock hops and soda fountains or whatever. For my parents’ generation, the Summer of Love in ’67 was the apotheosis by which the nadir of the entire decade of the 1970s was contrasted. For me though, the best year of my youth was 1985.  Continue reading “Assimilation vs Integration”

jonah

This One Theory Will Make You Moral

Featured Image is Jonah and the Whale, by Carlos Antonio Tavella

What makes such questions as justice and ethics properly philosophical is precisely that there is such widespread disagreement about what kind of reasons are valid, and what the shape of a valid argument looks like. The methods of answering look very different for theists and atheists, reductive materialists and Christians, Romantics, Marxists, Feminists and Nihilists. The differences between them are not empirical disagreements, nor are there a set of axioms to which we can garner universal consent, nor even a process for generating axioms. The reason why philosophy is necessary, the reason why it arose in the first place, is precisely because of this disagreement.

-Andrew Fitzandrew, Does Ethical Theory Still Exist?

A friend recently said “moral philosophy doesn’t know what it’s doing anymore and neither do I.” Andrew’s post, quoted above, has a similar feel to it.

It is entirely legitimate, and possibly correct, to argue that philosophical methods cannot produce truthful knowledge about the world or ourselves, and is at best rationalizations of deeper processes.

It’s hard to escape this conclusion, if morality is expected to be a topic akin to astronomy and produce insights of a similar nature. Andrew does not expect that, but he sees this deviation as the source of a problem. I do not expect it either.

What might it mean for moral philosophy to “know what it’s doing,” when we acknowledge we cannot expect the precision of a scientific answer?

Continue reading “This One Theory Will Make You Moral”