Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Horizontal-Vertical Illusion

If I wasn't convinced before - really, I can't remember - Eric Schwitzgebel has convinced me here, here, and (to a lesser extent) here that naive introspective reports are not a reliable indicator of the contents of subjects' experiences. He has a number of good examples to show this. I want to point out one example which might not be so good, and why I think it probably isn't.

This figure is meant to induce the so-called "horizontal-vertical illusion." Look at the figure closely. Does either line seem longer than the other?

Well, it's not clear. I have a slight tendency to judge that the vertical line seems longer. But since I learned that the vertical line is supposed to appear longer than the horizontal line when I was first shown the figure, that tendency is a little suspect. Does it sort of "seem" that way in the sense that, or because, the suggestion that the vertical line is supposed to seem longer sort of influenced me? Or does it sort of "seem" that way in the sense that, or because, my introspecting on the experience of viewing the figure and assessing the length of the two lines sort of worked?

Two things. First, I think that introspection yields a great wealth of reliable results in this situation. It seems quite clear to me that the vertical line does not seem two millimeters or more longer than the horizontal. Now, it would be interesting if the vertical line did seem longer than the horizontal line - even just a little bit. And if that is the case, I think we would need some highly trained introspectors to reveal that phact (= phenomenal fact) to us. But, if there is a phact of the matter as to whether or not one line seems longer than the other, that is seemingly the only phact in the case of looking at this figure that we can't reliably apprehend via introspection. So, if there is this phact of the matter - yes, one line might seem longer than the other without our being able to tell that it does. But if the point of the example is to show that there are gross features of our experience that are unavailable to naive introspection, I think it fails.

Second is a suspicion of mine. I don't think we should be all that sure that "the vertical line seems longer than the horizontal line to me" really attributes a phenomenal property to me (or some of my mental states). I have this doubt, not because I think "seems" should be understood strictly in terms of some non-phenomenal feature of our mental make-up (e.g. our credence or tendency to believe that the vertical line seems longer than the horizontal), but because I think it is likely that "x seems longer than y to z" does not pick out a real phenomenal property for all values of "x", "y", and "z". Sometimes I think there is a tendency among philosophers to think that for any property of physical objects P, if P is observable to the naked eye, then sentences of the form "it seems to x that P(y)" attribute a real phenomenal property to "x" (or one of x's mental states, if you like). This thought, together with the thought that "is longer than" picks out an observable property, might be behind the presumption (not necessarily Schwitzgebel's) that "the vertical line seems longer than the horizontal line to me" attributes a phenomenal property to me. But (a) I'm not sure why we should believe this general claim about "seems" and observable properties, and (b) even if we should, it's not clear that "is longer than" picks out an observable property. After all, how often are we actually called on to judge, with the unaided eye, that two lines are exactly the same length, or (what is almost the same) that one or the other is even just the smallest bit longer? And, I should add, if "the vertical line seems longer than the horizontal line to me" does not attribute a real phenomenal property to me, then that would seem to explain why using introspection to determine whether that sentence is true doesn't work and leaves me confused.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Shut Up, Already

For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul, particularly when he has within him such thoughts that by looking into them he is immediately in perfect tranquility; and I affirm that tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind. Constantly then give to thyself this retreat, and renew thyself; and let thy principles be brief and fundamental, which, as soon as thou shalt recur to them, will be sufficient to cleanse the soul completely, and to send thee back free from all discontent with the things to which thou returnest. For with what art thou discontented? With the badness of men? Recall to thy mind this conclusion, that rational animals exist for one another, and that to endure is a part of justice, and that men do wrong involuntarily; and consider how many already, after mutual enmity, suspicion, hatred, and fighting, have been stretched dead, reduced to ashes; and be quiet at last.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations. Book IV

Wednesday, October 3, 2007


It would be one thing to self-consciously explore/explicate the “uncrystallized” theological ideas that are so integral to Jewish religious life, bringing to bear one’s favored philosophical outlook. One could appeal to aid from the neo-Kantians, or Wittgenstein, or Levinas, or for that matter Aristotle. One would then need to face a crucial question: how much and in what ways one’s favored way of thinking maps on to that of the Rabbis. It’s quite another to claim, as is the thrust of much medieval philosophical theology, that Biblical and Rabbinic theological ideas are captured, virtually without remainder, by some favored philosophical explication.

Howard Wettstein, "Against Theology"

Monday, October 1, 2007

Jewish Hereticism, Take 1

This was inspired by a recent, very interesting, very reasonable sermon given by Tom Gardner.

There is a sort of intrinsic (if, so to speak, defeasible) beauty in persistence in the face of adversity. An otherwise ugly fruit that stays firmly to a tree after a hurricane is beautiful. If people ridicule a silly hat again and again, the hat (or the wearing of the hat) takes on a certain beautiful quality. The persistence of the Rwandan genocide in the face of mounting public condemnation was not beautiful, but only because a genocide is not the sort of thing that can be beautiful.

Jewish practice has weathered more than a little ridicule and persecution, both from without and within. I think what is not despicable in it grows more and more beautiful in the face of this ridicule and persecution. The greater the adversity, the greater the beauty of its persistence in the face of the adversity. But what greater adversity can a religious practice face than rejection of the belief that has always provided the basic rationale for the practice? And then: what greater beauty (of this certain sort) can a religious practice take on than that furnished by persistence in the absence of belief? Only if there is something more powerfully ugly or despicable in the religious practice without the religious belief would the practice be ugly even then. But what could be more powerfully ugly or despicable even about our seemingly most innocuous religious practices? Not a rhetorical question.

Sensitive Speech and Assertion

Suppose that insensitive statements have the same assertoric content as their insensitive counterparts. That is, suppose that “Skirts tend to use landmarks to locate unfamiliar places” has the same assertoric content as “Women tend to... [etc.];” and that “Colored people occupy 90% of the jail cells in the US” has the same content as “Black people occupy… [etc.].” Now, when we mean to speak sensitively, we speak with the belief that, were we to rephrase what we had said insensitively, we would open ourselves up to censure. To the extent that this belief is evident in some features our sensitive utterances, sensitive speech is self-evidently sensitive. And to the extent that, in virtue of its self-evident character, sensitive speech implicates endorsement of the rule according to which one should speak sensitively in contexts like the present context of utterance, sensitive speech amounts to an endorsement of a certain (not universally adopted) illocutionary convention - the convention according to which one is to be held responsible for the insensitivity of one’s own remarks (in contexts like the present context of utterance). Call conventions of this sort sensitivity conventions.

I wonder: if the argument in the last paragraph works, would the persistent use of sensitive speech across many sorts of contexts make it impossible to use a sentence (in a standard way*) to assert its content? If enough of us endorse enough sensitivity conventions, then the sensitivity conventions become some of the rules that associate sentences with the speech acts that they are (standardly) used to perform. If these are the standard rules, though, sentences would never be (standardly) used to make assertions, but to make something different - what we might call sensitive assertions. Maybe this has already taken place.

I’m not sure if this is a good or a bad thing or neither - really, I’m not sure if it has any interesting consequences - but it seems kind of interesting to me. Maybe I also find it interesting that, as far as I can tell, a speech act being sensitive or not is an illocutionary, not a perlocutionary affair.
* - I include this and other similar qualifiers to exclude wacky cases where, for instance, we establish a private code with our friends to according to which sentences are used to make bare assertions.

Praying What You Don't Believe

Is it wrong to pray (or, if you like, act as if praying) what you don’t believe? For the sake of brevity and relevance to my own practice, I’ll restrict my attention to participation in a public worship service. If to say a certain sentence in prayer is (inter alia) to assert the sentence or its propositional content, then praying what you don’t believe seems to entail either lying, bullshitting, or some form of public self-misrepresentation. (It might only entail lying or bullshitting if we take the alleged assertive force of a prayer to be directed to the people around us, on the plausible principle that, simply by asserting a proposition one doesn’t believe, one can only lie or bullshit to other creatures.) I take it that lying or bullshitting (to your fellows in temple or church) through prayer is wrong. And even if we don’t lie or bullshit by praying what we don’t believe, it is still wrong to publicly misrepresent ourselves in the way I have in mind, that is, by knowingly inviting other people to believe something untrue about ourselves (namely, that we believe what we are saying). So if prayer entails assertion of the content of the prayer, then it is wrong to pray what you don’t believe. And if prayer is taken by the community in which one prays to involve assertion of a certain content, then even if one does not take oneself to be asserting this, one is still knowingly inviting other people to adopt false (and, I take it, important) beliefs. So prayer of what one doesn’t believe is wrong even if one is merely taken to assert the content of the prayer.

I like public prayer, but I do not believe a great deal of the propositional content of most prayer services, so this is an unsettling conclusion for me. Perhaps it should also be an unsettling conclusion for Pascal, who famously recommended that one make one’s way to faith by (at first faithlessly) performing rituals such as public prayer. Now, perhaps Pascal should be unsettled - I, for one, think faith (understood as firm belief in the conscious absence of any known epistemic reasons) in religious propositions (if any there be) is wrong. But I don’t want to be unsettled. Public prayer feels good, it connects me to a kind and serious community, it renews my appreciation for what I do believe in the prayer service, and, I think, it probably causes me to act, on average, a little bit better. It would be a shame if it were wrong for me to pray in spite of all this. I also imagine that there are a number of others like me, especially in liberal religious movements like Reform Judaism.

Happily, I believe that it need not be wrong to pray what one does not believe. It is not clear to me that saying a prayer involves the assertion of its content (if it has any); it’s hard to say exactly how one might go about finding out whether that is the case. But even if prayer, as it stands right now, involves assertion of the prayer’s content at least some of the time, it seems that it is in the power of church- and temple-goers to change this. This follows from the widely adopted view that some sort of convention is needed to give an utterance (in a context) its illocutionary force. It is in the power of the relevant linguistic community to renounce the convention according to which prayer is assertoric. It is always within the power of human beings to give up any one of their conventions; this is, I take it, a conceptual truth. Of course, there is some question in what linguistic community the convention of the assertive force of (my own) prayer resides. The members of my temple? Temple- and church-goers everywhere? Every competent English speaker? There is also the question how one changes a linguistic convention of this type. My intuition, though, is that if everyone I regularly pray with agrees that I am not asserting the content of my prayers when I utter them, I couldn’t possibly be asserting their content when I pray with them and them alone. We can take “agrees that I am not asserting the content of my prayers” in a sense suggested by William Alston in Illocutionary Acts and Sentence Meaning; if everyone I regularly pray with is not entitled to subject me to some form of censure if (the content of) my prayers turn out to be false, they agree that I am not asserting their content. Perhaps we should also add that everyone must not be entitled to censure me if I even contradict the content of my prayers in another, assertoric context - say, by publicly declaring atheism or agnosticism (assuming these declarations have assertoric content). So, intuitively, my answers to the two questions I just posed are (1) that the linguistic community governing the illocutionary force of prayer is the part of a congregation that prays together regularly, and (2) that we convince this linguistic community not to warrant censure of non-believing participants in public prayer. Given the size of most prayer groups - in Reform Judaism, at least - this second aim, if not already achieved, can be achieved without difficulty.

Still, there remains the question whether we somehow defang prayer by stripping it of assertive force. I think we needn’t, but that’s a topic for another post.

I Was Wrong, and I Just Can't Live Without You

It's hard for me to say it, 'sphere.