Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Verificationist Challenge

Maybe we can think of the verificationist as posing a certain challenge:

Whenever we are in doubt whether a sentence S or expression e is cognitively meaningful, we know that S, and any atomic sentence in which e occurs (transparently), is not observational. Non-observational sentences are cognitively meaningful in a language or theory only if they bear in certain relations to other sentences in the language or the theory. (Just as words become meaningful in virtue of occurring in certain sentential contexts, non-observational sentences become meaningful in virtue of occurring in certain theoretical or linguistic contexts.) The relation of interest is probably something like probabilistic non-independence, although it might turn out to be something slightly different. But it is clear that non-observational sentences do not qualify as cognitively meaningful if they bear in that relation to just any other sentences in just any language or theory. For instance, we might posit a theory, or a language, in which there is a class of observational sentences, and a disjoint class of non-observational sentences. Suppose that the theory or language specifies the probabilistic relationships between each member of the latter class, and that every sentence of the latter class is probabilistically independent of every sentence of the first class. If this our strongest theory containing the sentences of the latter class, or if there are no other facts about the truth- or assertibility-conditions of these sentences in the language, then it is clear that the sentences do not qualify as cognitively meaningful if they bear in the probabilistic relations that they do. But then what sort of sentences does a sentence need to be probabilistically non-independent of, in a theory or language, in order to be cognitively meaningful in that theory or language?

The verificationist answer: the observation sentences. The verificationist challenge: what else could it be?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Dispositional Terms and Religious Language

In a discussion of Aquinas' account of religious language, Copleston compares describing a dog as intelligent and describing God as intelligent. Following Aquinas, he calls both descriptions "analogical", apparently indicating by this that the amount of intelligence necessary for a thing to be intelligent is somehow relative to what sort of thing it is. (He also seems to think that, since the two descriptions are analogical, neither assigns "intelligent" its ordinary, literal semantic value. That's weird, but needn't detain us.) He notes a further similarity between the dog's intelligence and God's intelligence. Both of these facts are somehow helpfully elucidated by pointing to the material effects they have had - in the former case, on the dog's behavior; in the latter case, on the (putative) goodness and orderliness of Creation. Copleston's attitude seems to be that this elucidation is semantic. By enumerating more and more of (certain of?) the effects of the dog's intelligence or God's intelligence, we characterize with greater and greater precision what "the dog is intelligent" or "God is intelligent" means, or perhaps what people mean when they call the dog or God intelligent.

Still, Copleston holds that, at least in the case of God, this sort of elucidation can't yield an "adequate positive explanation" of (the meaning of) any sentences describing God as intelligent. This called to mind Goodman's work on dispositional terms. Take an uncontroversially dispositional term like "flammable". One of Goodman's ideas (a little roughly) is that "flammable" picks out whatever property a thing has in virtue of which, in certain relevant circumstances, it lights on fire. Importantly, we can call a thing flammable without knowing exactly what that property is, or being able to give an (adequate) positive explanation of what it is in other terms. It would be too harsh, in such a case, to say that we don't know the meaning of "x is flammable", or what people mean when they utter sentences of that form. Discovering that a certain substance contains hydrogen would certainly furnish something we might call an "adequate positive explanation" of its flammability, but that doesn't mean that our flammability-talk, prior to that discovery, was in any sort of semantic error.

There is nothing special about "flammable" here. Roughly, for any set of truths T, and any thing x, we can define a dispositional predicate "F", such that "F(x)" means that x has a certain property F, such that each element of T is an effect of x's having that property. Now, this will raise all sorts of problems if it turns out that the elements of T obtain for reasons that have nothing to do with x. But, in many cases, this way of introducing a dispositional predicate is totally harmless.* I think Copleston should say that God-talk is just such a case. If, like Copleston and Aquinas, we think we know that all sorts of facts about the world are demonstrably effects of God's general nature and particular actions (perhaps logically following from that nature), then, for any class of such facts, we can define a healthy dispositional predicate for God. If, furthermore, we can specify all (or certain interesting subsets) of the effects that elucidate "God is intelligent", then we can give a decent dispositional semantics for that sentence in line with the schema just described. No problems here, as far as I can see.

I think all this has confirmed a suspicion I already had. If God-talk is non-cognitive, it probably isn't because we can't make sense of the predicates we apply to God. The problem, rather, is probably that God is a difficult thing to refer to, or that the predicate "is a god" in particular (at least in modern Judaeo-Christian discourse) doesn't contribute to the truth-conditions of sentences or utterances in any obvious way. It certainly isn't obvious that the name "God" or the predicate "is a god" are susceptible of the same analysis we have given of (certain) theological predicates.

* - It may turn out that our introduction of F fails to cut nature at the joints. This will be the case when the property of x in virtue of which all of the elements of T obtain is highly disjunctive - if several more fundamental or primitive properties of x are individually responsible for several subsets of T. But F-ness doesn't have to be fundamental in order for "F(x)" to be true.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Two Types of Lexical Ambiguity?

I'm reading Francois Recanati's "Unarticulated Constituents" and his discussion of the verb "eats" has gotten me thinking. "Eats" can occur both transitively and intransitively. When "eats" occurs transitively, we can represent its extension by eats2 - the set of all ordered pairs of eaters and the food they are eating. When "eats" occurs intransitively, however, Recanati suggests that we represent its extension by eats1 - the set of all eaters. The basis for his suggestion is that context need not provide a particular food that the speaker wishes to state that, e.g., Tim is eating when she utters "Tim eats".

I have my worries about the effectiveness of this case in support of Recanati's larger argument, but I'll assume the analysis for now. The situation is that intransitive "eats" refers to eats1 (or the property whose extension is eats1) and transitive "eats" refers to eats2 (or the relation whose extension is eats2). Is "eats" (lexically) ambiguous? In favor of an ambiguity, note that "eats" can refer to two different relations, and (or which) can have two extensions with fundamentally different structures - one is a class of individuals, the other a class of ordered pairs. The sentence "Eat!" seems to be ambiguous between the two readings, but it is hard to say that this ambiguity is structural - the sentence has no (surface) structure to speak of.

On the other hand, I think we can fix the reference of "eats" generally by a simple rule - if "eats" is intransitive, it refers to (the property whose extension is) eats1, and if "eats" is transitive, it refers to (the property whose extension is) eats2. Notably, sentences with "eats" are ambiguous between an assignment of eats1 or eats2 to "eats" whenever they are structurally ambiguous between a transitive and an intransitive reading.*

I suppose we can say there are two types of lexical ambiguity - referential ambiguity and semantic ambiguity. "Eats" is referentially ambiguous because it can refer to two sets, which are structurally quite different. It might not be semantically ambiguous because there is one simple rule that either fixes the reference of "eats" in a context, or gives the meaning of "eats" - the word has one reference-fixer, or one meaning.
* - Consider:

(1) If he eats an apple a dollar.

We can imagine a situation in which (1) is ambiguous between "If he eats an apple, it will cost a dollar" and "If he eats, it will cost an apple a dollar". (I have deliberately removed the punctuation, which would give away the intended reading.) Similarly with "Eat!" above. In these cases, any ambiguity in assigning eats1 or eats2 to "eats" can be chalked up to the structural ambiguity in the sentence.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Moore on "Good"

In Moore’s defense of the primitiveness of “good”, he draws an analogy between the good and the yellow:

“My point is that ‘good’ is a simple notion, just as ‘yellow’ is a simple notion; that, just as you cannot, by any manner of means, explain to any one who does not already know it, what yellow is, so you cannot explain what good is.” (PE, 7)

What is interesting is not so much the truth of what Moore says as the questions it raises. One pertinent observation is that you can certainly explain what “yellow” means to someone who doesn’t already know it. One such potential explanation is:

(1) “Yellow” (in English) is synonymous with “amarillo” in Spanish.

Other explanations are not clearly either explanations of the meaning of “yellow” or explanations of what yellow is. Consider:

(2) Yellow is the color of objects such as ripe bananas and “Yield” signs.

Or, to give a different sort of explanation of what yellow is, consider:

(3) An object is (the color) yellow just in case it reflects light at a wavelength of roughly 597-577 nm.

In some sense, we could even “explain” (or, perhaps less controversially, teach) what yellow is to any reasonably intelligent pre-linguistic creature that perceives something like color. We could condition assorted blue (or, if you like, any non-yellow) stimuli with some aversive feedback and condition assorted yellow stimuli with some appetitive feedback. After a while, if the animal chose the yellow stimulus over the blue (or non-yellow) stimulus in every case, it would be clear that the animal could tell the difference between yellow things and non-yellow things. If, as seems reasonable, we take being able to tell the difference between yellow and non-yellow things as sufficient for knowing what yellow is, then we would have taught the animal what yellow is (if it didn’t already know). I once heard Marc Hauser describe such an experiment with bees (the colors were blue and red). Note also that this would be an explanation of what yellow is without being an explanation of what “yellow” means.

But note that, in every case, the explanation of what “yellow” means or what yellow is will require that some prior conditions obtain. In order for (1) to work, the student will have to know what “amarillo” means in Spanish. In order for (2) to work in the ordinary way, the student will have to know the color of ripe bananas and “Yield” signs. In that case, if the explanation works, the student will be able to distinguish yellow from non-yellow objects, as long as nothing weird happens to the lighting or her perceptual apparatus. In order for (2) to work in a less ordinary way, the student will have to know only, roughly, what ripe bananas and “Yield” signs are and what things are the same color as ripe bananas and “Yield” signs. In order for (3) to work, the student will have to know what it is to reflect light at 597-577 nm. In order for the explanation to the pre-linguistic creature to work, they will have to have whatever ability it is that enables them to be conditioned in the manner described. It might be objected against some of these “explanations” that the knowledge they yield of what yellow isn’t substantive enough, since they don’t require something like perceptual acquaintance with yellowness. If we want to say that to know what yellow is is to know what it is like to see yellow objects (which might be what Moore had in mind when he was referring to “yellow” as a “simple notion”), then we will have to admit that only some of these explanations will work, and only on certain conditions. In particular, (1) will work only if, so to speak, the student already knows what it is like to see “amarillo” objects; (2) will work only if the student knows what it is like to see (the colors of) ripe bananas and “Yield” signs; and (3) won’t typically work at all. I agree with Moore that the concept of a “simple notion” is probably best explicated or understood in terms of how it can be explained. If yellow is a simple notion, then if a notion can be explained in just the same ways as yellow, then that notion is simple.

Then the interesting question is, To what extent does the analogy between “good” and “yellow” hold? If the analogy holds all the way – if what goodness is can be explained only in ways precisely parallel to the ways in which what yellow is can be explained – then I think we have to say something like the following.

We can explain what good is or what “good” means to a student in a number of different ways. We can certainly give her a synonym (as in (1) above). Alternatively, we can give her something of the form:

(2`) Goodness is the F of objects such as x, y…

Here, we would have to substitute for “F” some relevant second-order property of goodness (just as color is the relevant second-order property of yellow), and substitute for “x”, “y”, and so forth a sequence of descriptions of sufficiently diverse good objects, actions, or states of affairs. What would make it “sufficiently diverse” would depend on how effective it is in getting the student to understand what goodness is, and also on one’s preferred understanding of knowing what goodness is. Again, we could have some explanation of the form:

(3`) x is good just in case p.

Here we would substitute for p something that holds whenever the substitution instance of x refers to something good.

Obviously, given that the “explanation by synonymy” will only hold in somewhat trivial cases, the difficulty in claiming that the analogy holds in full is in specifying, or at least giving an existence proof, of the relevant values of the variables in (2`) and (3`). For instance, in the explanation of what yellow is in (2), the description of yellow as a color is doing a lot of work. It is not at all clear that there is any second-order property of goodness that could do a similar job in an explanation of the form (2`). And for explanations of the form (3`), it is clear that any substitution-instance for p will be controversial, if at all plausible.

On the other hand, if the analogy fails, we’ll need some good explanation of why it fails. Also, if these explanations of what good is don’t work, then we’ll need some story about how children come to understand what good is, or, failing that, what “good” means, which we do not yet have.

Anselm, Arguments from Analyticity

Assume that Anselm's argument is valid - that it follows from the definition of "God" that God exists. In that case, couldn't we simply refuse to use the word "God" that Anselm has defined for us? If one of the premises of the argument is a definition, and definitions are constitutive of languages, isn't one rebuttal just not to speak an Anselmian language? If someone defined "phlogiston" so that it necessarily existed, she wouldn't thereby have a knock-down argument against the ontology of modern biology. She would have a linguistic quirk to be corrected or ignored.

A similar objection comes to mind in certain ethical and epistemological discussions, where it is argued that some substantive theory is just analytic. Someone might argue that it follows from the meanings of the words "will" and "good" that the object of ethical judgment is always the will, or that it follows from the meanings of the words "state" and "know" that we should state only what we know to be true. In response to this, can't we always simply refuse to use the relevant words with the meanings they are taken to have? Sometimes philosophers focus so much on the meanings and entailments associated with particular words because we're interested in better understanding the conceptual scheme we actually employ. But at some point, in these sorts of discussions of folk vocabulary, isn't it available to us to make new concepts? If we're clever enough, can't we cook up a "know" or a "good" that is better suited to our purposes than the "know" and "good" we have received from our ancestors?

I've assumed here that, at the crucial point, someone can't make a transcendental argument that we have to keep our folk vocabulary just as it is. But what form could such an argument take?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Two Worries for MacKinnon

I’ve been reading Catharine MacKinnon’s Feminism Umodified, and had a couple of ideas. One was in response to a bit from the great talk, “Desire and Power”.

“Similarly, to say that not only women experience something – for example, to suggest that because some men are raped rape in not an act of male dominance [over a victim in a female social role?] – only suggests that the status of women is not biological. Men can be feminized, too, and and they know they are when they are raped.’ (56)

MacKinnon seems to be claiming that a man, when raped, is always raped as feminine, i.e. his experience of the rape or the status of the rape is as of woman’s experience or status in society. This just seems to me quite false. Surely, if there are such things as the social role of woman and the social role of man, then there are socially womanly characteristics in a man’s experience of being raped – powerlessness, enforced silence, passiveness, penetrability, perhaps being taken as sexually available regardless of one’s own interests. But there must be distinctly male characteristics of this experience, and I think these are socially, and not (or not just) biologically male characteristics. Men are probably more likely to be believed than women when they report being raped, but they presumably still fail to report some rapes. I think (and MacKinnon should think) that this would typically be for socially male reasons – a desire not to be seen as powerless, not to be treated as a victim. If a man is ashamed of being raped, I imagine it is not typically shame at being ruined, as a woman might be socially pressured to feel. It would typically be shame, again, for distinctly male reasons – failure to overcome one’s rapist, for instance. This is a small point, though.

Another, bigger problem with MacKinnon’s theory is that it seems incapable of explaining that rape, child molestation, incest, prostitution, and pornography (and even in some cases job- and pay- discrimination) are taboo and frowned on. If the dominance of man over woman is best evidenced in society by male-female sexual violence, and feminism is necessary because, among other things, the dominance of man would go unchallenged except by feminism, then why is it that non-feminist forces suppress male-female sexual violence, even to the extent that they do? The equality principle can’t explain these taboos, on her interpretation of how it is accepted in society, since MacKinnon wants to say that the deleterious function of the equality principle is that women and men are often too unlike, especially with respect to their proneness to sexual violence, to be treated as likes. I imagine MacKinnon might say that there aren’t any (or very many) non-feminist forces suppressing male-female sexual violence, but I would disagree. This suppression is preached in church, enshrined in the law (even if the law isn’t systematically enforced), and acknowledged, at least in cases other than pornography, by society’s male-dominated moral discourse (a discourse which MacKinnon apparently believes also to be male in its characteristic social role). The force of this suppression is non-trivial. It is not as if there is a clear explanation of these phenomena that MacKinnon’s theory just can’t countenance; I think these facts really are difficult to explain. What seems to be the case, then, is that there are social forces other than feminism that combat at least some of the more pernicious effects of male dominance. (We might, alternatively, take the above to suggest that male dominance is not, in fact, expressed in those instances of sexual violence which (male) society seems to disapprove of, but I think this would be too severe.) Isolating what these forces are might be of considerable use to feminism. What forces guide the church, the law, and male moral discourse to oppose sexual violence? How, if at all, can feminism put these forces to its own use?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Philosophers' Carnival LXXVI

Welcome, readers, to the 76th fortnightly Philosophers’ Carnival!

Enigman asks what philosophical reasons mathematicians have for assuming the axiom of infinity in his post Philosophy of Mathematics. It’s not clear what sorts of reasons he’s looking for; fundamental questions about mathematical truth and the role of axioms seem to be lurking just below the surface here. The comments thread hasn’t grown prohibitively long yet, so hop on over and pitch in your $.02.

Alexander Pruss criticizes several ways of construing the supernaturalness of magic in Magic, science, and the supernatural. I’m not convinced by a lot of what he says, but the discussion is very clear and open-minded. Peruse the other entries while you’re there, if you haven’t visited before – it’s a nice blog.

Avery Archer works on a theory of rational agency in Why Questions and Rational Agents (more about the latter than the former). I like this post, even though I don’t like a lot (of the little) I have read elsewhere on rationality. It’s not clear to me that the appearances of the good (allegedly) involved in desire are reflections of a perspective held by some subsystem of an agent which is involved in producing the agent’s desires, just because I’m not sure that subsystems of agents are the sorts of things that can have perspectives. This might be a quibble. When a person’s reasoned course of action conflicts with her desires, there obviously does seem to be some sub-agential system bearing some interesting relationship to the course of action desired but not taken, or a mental representation of that course of action. It might be useful to spell out what is not quite “perspectival” about that relationship, though. I have more to say about this, but you don’t need to read it.

Over at Possibly Philosophy, Andrew Bacon weighs in on Counterexamples to Modus Ponens. I’m not sure I understand why he thinks that a syntactic characterization of modus ponens won’t work, and I don’t understand accessibility (between possible worlds) well enough to follow the rest of the argument. The McGee counterexample is super-interesting, though, and deserves attention from those of you out there with more logical competence than your humble host.

Thom Brooks of The Brooks Blog lets us in on his Five Secrets to Publishing Success, published on InsideHigherEd.com. Helpful to those looking for, well, publishing success.

Richard Chappell offers a brief but convincing discussion of Fair Shares and Others’ Responsibilities. He argues that, in the interest of fairness, we should pick up the slack for others’ moral failings. I think I agree, although I do not live up to the conclusion in my own life. Also, it’s not clear to me how well this sits with Richard’s views on the “demandingness objection” and the permissibility of living a basically decent life expressed here.

Bryan Norwood presents some objections to epistemological internalism, with an alternative, in Internalist Justification vs. Virtuoso Expertise. There is a lot I don’t understand here – the distinction between subjective and objective blame, the relationships between foundationalism and this distinction, and the relation between internalism and K = JTB. Still, I think there are some good ideas about epistemic blameworthiness brewing here.

Chris Hallq discusses Gettier and the purpose of analyzing “knowledge” in The case against Gettier. Some of the literature on what knowledge is for – the relation between knowledge and assertion, or knowledge and the attribution of other factive mental states – could help here. Still, the basic point, that philosophers interested in a concept need to keep the distinctive intended uses of the concept, is worth reiterating.

Lastly, Gualtiero Piccinini disambiguates “connectionism” for us, and spells out some of the morals of the disambiguation in The Ambiguity of "Connectionism". I was taught that connectionism is the view that the brain does most everything using Parallel Distributed Processing, but these other senses of “connectionism” are useful to distinguish as well.

That wraps up this edition of the Philosophers’ Carnival. If you’re still jonesing for more philosophy after all that, I invite you to check out some of the posts here on Think It Over. And, as always, keep your eye out for the next edition upcoming at Kenny Pearce’s blog.