Monthly Archives: August 2011

Body Snatchers; Learning outside the Field; and Big Tent.

by Juan Bernal

Invasion of the Body Snatchers:

After working hard at a recent group discussion to fend off the aggressive thrusts of some philosophical Dualists (those who believe that the body is an incomplete and inadequate reality without a dual non-material reality, e.g., soul, mental ego, or independent mind), I was struck by the similarity between such Dualist campaign to downgrade physical views of human beings and the story of aliens who snatched the bodies of human victims and replaced them with strange facsimiles. Of course, it may not appear that dualists and spiritualists are out to snatch away one’s body and replace it with an alien likeness (a strange pod which ‘hatched’ into a strange in-human likeness of the original), as were the aliens in the popular movie. But they do seem intent on reducing the human body-brain to mere matter-in-motion, a primitive form of material existence that cannot support the complex and high level of activity that we justifiably credit to our corporeal nature. If we argue that evolved human animals with their large brains are very much capable of reason, language, and culture, the Dualists reply that materialism is committed to the view that such animals are nothing but “matter-in-motion” which, of course, is far from being capable of reasoning, language use, and development of culture. So in a way, they have metaphorically “snatched away” our real bodies-brains (impressive organisms capable of great deeds) and replaced them with a strange pod of mere “matter-in-motion” capable of nothing but motion and mechanical interaction with other bits of matter-in-motion. Hence, they draw their invalid inference that a scientific materialistic philosophy either paints a frightening, alien picture of human beings or falls into obvious contradictions when applied to human, social reality. But, of course, this is definitely an invalid inference.

Those Outside the Field Have been my Teachers:

Since my early days as a college student when I first developed an interest in philosophical thought and inquiry, after I accidentally came upon Walter Kaufmann’s Critique of Religion and Philosophy, I have gravitated to writers outside the mainstream of philosophy. It is the works of such writers such as Walter Kaufmann, Friedrich Nietzsche, Spanish writer and philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno, the American-Spanish writer, George Santayana, and others who are more literary figures than academic, professional philosophers, that have given me the nourishment to sustain a life-long interest in philosophy. Although Walter Kaufmann was a philosophy professor at Princeton University, he was better known as an interpreter and commentator on Nietzsche and Existentialist thought, and as a scholar of religious history and scripture, than as an academic philosopher.

Later, while working on graduate degrees in philosophy, I developed great interest in the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the author of the Philosophical Investigations. As anyone familiar with the story, Wittgenstein was an engineering student who became interested in some problems in the philosophy of mathematics being worked on by Bertrand Russell. With little or no background in philosophy, Wittgenstein became Russell’s student for a time, before breaking with him to lead not one, but two, innovative philosophies of analysis and language. But he mostly worked independently and outside the academic environment of most professional, academic philosophers; and was often very critical of the mainstream English-German analytical philosophy of the twentieth century.

After my years in philosophy graduate programs ended, I went to work in the computer field as a business applications programmer and was able to reflect on the field of philosophy from the outside. My interests then became those of the logic of computer languages, the relationship to logic, linguistic analysis and natural languages, an amateur’s interest in the new field of artificial intelligence, and some curiosity as to how all this related to the philosophy of mind.

Later as I had more leisure to pursue “philosophical issues and questions,” it was the sciences that provoked my interest more than academic philosophical topics and research. First it was the physicists, with their deep puzzles and maddening paradoxes of modern physics (Einsteinian Relativity Physics, Quantum Physics), that drew my attention. How did all this affect traditional views of physical reality? How does all this affect our traditional philosophical thought? (Taner Edis’s book, The Ghost in the Universe, was very helpful here.) I did not see much in traditional philosophy that answered or even clarified the mysteries, finding more help from scientific writers such as Taner Edis and George Johnson. Then it was evolutionary biology and Darwinian evolution by natural selection that gave me an entirely new orientation to philosophy. Here I owe an intellectual debt to an academic philosopher, namely Daniel Dennett. His book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, was as much an “eye opener” for me as the Walter Kaufmann book had been twenty five years earlier. But it was Dennett, as a scientific-oriented philosopher, not one focusing on mainstream philosophical issues, who proved to be such a great influence on my thinking. It was Dennett working outside the philosophical mainstream that I found so instructive, provocative, and inspiring.

After my initial look at the importance of Darwinian thought to many crucial issues in philosophy, I went on to read works by such neo-Darwinians as Richard Dawkins and Ernst Mayr in order to get at least a layman’s grasp of Darwin’s revolutionary insight – his theory of evolution by natural selection. This was followed by an interest in related evolutionary sciences – such as evolutionary psychology and anthropology. All this eventually led to the contemporary works on the philosophy of mind (Dennett, Doug Hofstadter), on neurological work as it relates to philosophy (Antonio Damasio), artificial intelligence and the incompleteness theorem (Doug Hofstadter) and the cognitive sciences (Steven Pinker).

Add to all this my discovery of a self-taught writer, Eric Hoffer, and his most insightful book, The True Believer, and we see that I had an uncanny tendency to seek out non-philosophers and non-academics when looking for enlightenment and intellectual stimulation.

Finally, in the past year I accidentally came upon a long book, Philosophy in the Flesh, by George Lakoff (linguist) and Mark Johnson (Philosophy Professor), in which the authors argue that a philosophy of an embodied mind which bases itself on the empirical findings from the cognitive sciences — instead of a-priori philosophical assumptions — yields a revolutionary perspective on much of philosophy. Here I found many of the ideas which I had only previously seen obscurely, ideas which the authors expressed, developed and argued impressively. Again, I am influenced by a scientist and a philosopher working outside the mainstream of philosophy.

Although I studied and earned degrees in philosophy, I am drawn to sources and teachers outside the field in my effort to reach some degree of philosophical understanding.

Go figure.(?)

“Big Tent” Philosophy:

Sometimes I see the field of philosophy as a big tent which holds a variety of inhabitants; and sometimes I’m impressed by the strange variety of philosophical species that share this tent. The inhabitants are so strange and exotic that it is a wonder they can ever communicate at all, much less engage in meaningful discourse. Consider the variety of tent inhabitants that we find inside the tent: academic and non-academic scholars of philosophy; people interested in the history of ideas; Libertarians and those who look to Ayn Rand as a great teacher, Socialists and Marxists, those engaged in Christian Apologetics; Thomists; enthusiasts of some far eastern religion and mysticism; promoters of the Ba’hai; Phenomenologists who still value Husserl, Hegelians, Kantians, Cartesian Dualists, Empirists, Promoters and defenders of Atheism, Theistic philosophers, Naturalists or those who are scientifically oriented; mathematicians who are Platonists, Humanists, Skeptics, Logicians and Analysts, Wittgensteinians, Heideggerians, Pragmatists, Spiritualists and Idealists, Existentialists, Post-Modernists, and so on. (This does not list all the wonderful species and varieties; I just got tired of typing!) It is a wonder that those who call themselves “philosophers” or more realistically, see themselves as students of philosophy, can even talk to one another. As it happens, sometimes they really cannot; and sometimes it is a mystery why all fall under the heading “philosophy.” Besides claiming the label “philosophy,” I’m not sure they all have much in common; in fact, I’m fairly sure they do not.

Some confusion on the structure of language.

Not too long ago I engaged a philosophical acquaintance in a rather confusing discussion. I had objected to some philosophers’ tendency to bring up the notion of “incommensurable languages” when referring to our very different forms of expression when we talk about physical objects and when we talk about mental life. Accordingly, these two incommensurable forms of “language” allegedly suggest two distinct orders of existence, namely physical reality and mental reality: the discredited Cartesian dualism.

My interlocutor, Spanos, then restated things by substituting differing perspectives on reality for a dualistic metaphysics.

It is a significant piece of evidence in metaphysics if we assume that the structures of language follow the structures of reality. Then the existence of incommensurable languages suggest that there are incommensurable orders of reality. In other words, it suggests dualism. But if we reject dualism, then we can distinguish between reality as it is in itself, and reality as it is in our experience. Then we can hypothesize that the incommensurability stems from the nature of reality as it is in our experience and not from the nature of reality as it is in itself.”

To which I replied:

Now you choose to talk about orders (plural “orders”) of reality. I thought that you had taken the position that there is only one reality of which there are two manifestations, physical and mental? But now it is a plurality of orders of reality. This might permit you to avoid a Cartesian dualism, but this surely brings up its own set of problems. The point at issue is your presupposition regarding the nature of descriptive language. I have grave problems with that.

Isn’t it a type of metaphysical confusion to speak of the “structures of language” reflecting (you say “follow”) the structures of reality? A good deal of any language (English, French, German , Spanish) has nothing to do with “following the structures of reality.” Language is used for many things other than describing reality. When I use language to make a request, to issue a command or to express my surprise, I am not describing the structures of reality. Moreover, I’m not sure that any part of descriptive language and scientific language can reasonably be described as one in which “the structures of the language follow the structures of reality.” The metaphysical claim regarding parallel structures is suspect, if not downright false. It is not as if a proposition (expressed as a statement in a language) is a picture of reality, which might or might not be commensurable with it.

For example, let’s take the declarative sentence: “The cat is on the mat” — uttered when in fact a cat is on the mat. Does it describe the structure of reality, and hence can be commensurable with reality? It seems to me that all it does is accurately state a fact: the cat on the mat. There is no attempt to state the structure of anything here; nor is the statement one that could pass as a picture of reality. If I needed to show the structure of the situation — cat on the mat — I would take a photograph or construct a model of the room-cat-mat. If I tell you that the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range is southwest from Pueblo, Colorado. I have accurately reported a geographic fact. I have not given a piece of language whose structure reflects the structure of reality (at best a good model of south-central Colorado might do that). Why would anyone think that language does that? I don’t have the vaguest idea what language would have to be to do that. Language does not function that way.

But I suppose this misses the metaphysical point about the function of language that you have in mind. However, surely the metaphysical position at issue (structure of language reflects the structure of reality) is not one held by many philosophers and scientists today.

Spanos then amended his position:

I am not so sure that the structure of language follows the structure of reality. Maybe it only follows the structure of reality as we experience reality. That, in fact, is what the double aspect theory implies. So the dualism may be more apparent than real.

Maybe the structures of language impact causally on the way we experience reality, as many philosophers have suggested. But if statements did not follow something, how could they be true? If a pragmatist says that they are true only because they work, the realist asks how they could possibly work if they did not at least reflect reality as we experience it. If someone says, “the cat is on the mat,” then he suggests a certain relation between the cat and the mat. If I take a look and find that the cat is in fact on the mat, then I would say that the relation represented in the sentence is verified by the relation found in experience. The whole of science seems to depend on this kind of relationship between idea and experience.”

To which I replied:

Your statement that maybe ” the structure of language…”only follows the structure of reality as we experience reality” strikes me as just another way of saying that in some cases we use language which is descriptive of the situation we perceive as fact. If we see a cat on the mat and in fact a cat is on the mat and I describe this by saying “a cat is on the mat,” my affirmation of the entities: cat and mat, and statement of their interrelation — cat is on the map – describes what is factually true. But I would claim nothing about ‘structures’ in general, either about language and certain not about reality, even reality as experienced. A description of a simple empirical fact (cat presently on the mat) does not involve a commitment (not even a suggestion) to a metaphysics regarding structures of language, reality, or reality-as-experienced-by-us. It is just a simple description of empirical fact.

Contrary to what the young Wittgenstein tried to show in his book, Tractatus, the syntax of language and patterns of logic do not parallel the ‘structure’ of the world. Languages function in varieties of ways which are not exposed by any particular patterns or syntax. And whatever “structures’ of the real world are exposed by the natural sciences (not by philosophy, which discovers nothing!) are varied and complex, and hardly such as to be “followed” by the structure of language. Not even the language of mathematics can be fully descriptive of the rich variety of “structures” found in nature. Maybe fractal geometry comes close; but surely the structures of fractal geometry are not found in our natural languages.

In short, I doubt that the parallel between language and reality which you assume as a metaphysical truth is really there at all.

Another acquaintance, Pablo, interjects:

“Well, yes, Spanos, I agree that language does reflect the structures of reality. I argued for this position long ago. Our notions of space, time, causality, and the subject/object nature of language reflect a world that is actually composed of space, time, causes, and a subect/object manner of looking at the world.”

At this point, I could only utter some bewilderment in closing the discussion:

“Language reflects the structures of reality”(?) “Our notions of space, time, causality” reflect “…a world composed of space, time, causes (?) And “and the subject-object nature of language” reflects “a subject-object manner of looking at the world” (??)

HELP! Some wooly-minded metaphysician has captured both Spanos’ and Pablo’s philosophical minds!

Yes, the natural sciences and religion do conflict

Many people (including rationalists and skeptics) believe that science does not conflict with religious faith. They point out that the natural sciences advance empirical theories about processes, forces and objects in the natural world, theories that involve measurable (quantifiable) tests and predictions. But the sciences do not deal with the big questions of religion and philosophy. They would emphasize, then, that science and religion are completely distinct areas of human activity and, thus, do not come into conflict. Furthermore, many scientists have no difficulty combining some scientific specialty with practice of their religious faith; when it is time to proceed scientifically, they do so; and when it is time for worship, piety and affirmation of their religious beliefs, they do that. For example, a practicing Christian (Protestant or Roman Catholic) can be a good physicists, biologist, chemist, anthropologists, psychologist, engineer, etc. . .

Hence, a first glance at the issue may indicate that there is no conflict between science and religion. They work in different areas of human reality, and do not infringe on each other. But as is often the case, a first glance does not tell the whole story. To tell the whole story, we have to take a closer look at the activities of scientists and the claims of religious people. When we do, we shall find reason for rejecting the claim that there is no conflict between two areas of human activity.

One way of describing the work of the scientist is to say that he develops and tests general theories that explain specific features of the natural world (e.g., the biologist works to explain life forms; the physicist, physical events and forces; etc. ). The natural, phenomenal domain is the domain of science; and, in principle, every aspect of this domain is a likely area for scientific investigation. For science there are no sacred cows.

In approaching his subject, a scientist may start with an initial attitude of curiosity combined with skepticism. Initially he seeks to explain certain phenomena or facts; at some point he comes up with a working hypothesis. The scientist, then, advances by trial and error, testing the hypothesis and at an intermediate stage of work, proposing the hypothesis as a tentative theory. The theory should be testable and subject to confirmation, or refutation, by other scientific investigators. When a theory passes such tests and thus enables scientists to explain a wide range of phenomena (even predict future events), scientists may accept it as a general theory in the field (e.g. Einstein’s Relativity Theory, or the Darwinian theory of evolution). Even then its acceptance is conditional; for future events or a more comprehensive theories could require that scientists abandon the theory or revise it significantly.

Does religious work proceed in any similar way? Religious doctrines never resemble tentative hypotheses; on the contrary, most religions start with doctrines and principles (matters of faith) that are seen by the adherents as absolute truths, not in anyway subject to doubt or in need of testing. Moreover, a large part of religious practice involves matters of spiritual and moral values; religions teach the faithful what their proper spiritual and moral orientation should be. In some cases, religions teach the correct way of interacting with other people (ethics, morality) and the correct values and priorities that should define a person’s life.

Does science have anything to say about man’s faith in God, or about God’s existence, or about man’s spiritual state, or about moral and spiritual values, or about a life’s orientation or the “way of wisdom”? Posing the questions this way suggests that there is no conflict between science and religion. For the sciences generally do not focus on these things; hence, there does not appear to be any conflict between science and religious faith. But before accepting this conclusion, let us look a little further.

When we delve a little more into this subject, we find that religions also hold doctrines that assert “truths” regarding human reality; for example, the theistic doctrine that God is creator and the ground of all our reality; or the doctrine that human beings are creatures of God, having a physical nature and a spiritual aspect (the soul), or the claim that the soul is immortal and will continue to exist in an after-life. In short, some religions (e.g., the dominant religions in the West) claim to know truths about the ultimate nature of human reality and the world that human beings inhabit. Additionally, western religions claim to know that God intervenes in human affairs and in other natural phenomena. They also hold that a full explanation of what human beings do and what happens to them ultimately will be traced to the actions of God; and, lastly, many of these religions hold that the origin of life, (plant, animal and human life) on earth can only be explained as the work of a creator god.

Here we have reason for claiming a conflict between religious doctrines and the sciences. For certain religious doctrines affirm particular propositions about human reality and the world of human experience, propositions which are very far from agreement with the findings of the sciences and rational inquiry. The sciences advance theories and reach conclusions that put into question, even contradict, the doctrines of religion regarding the nature of human reality and the world that humans experience. Consider the results of scientific cosmological inquiry into the origins of the universe and the results of the evolutionary sciences and the cognitive sciences regarding the nature of life and human beings. Surely with respect to questions regarding the nature of the universe and human reality, science and religion are make contrary, if not contradictory, claims.

We can conclude, then, that religious faith and science do conflict in those areas in which religions purport to explain the nature of the world and human reality .

I Could not have done otherwise than what I did?

In many discussions of the “free will” issue, the argument is made that we don’t have any freedom of choice because, with respect to any action we do, we could not have done other than what we did. For example, suppose I choose to support candidate “Tom” for some elective office I might think that I freely choose to support Tom, but others will argue that I could not have done otherwise; i.e., that I my support of Tom was determined by a causal chain of events and conditions that I did not control.

The proposition that, for any act (A) that I do, I could not have done otherwise, is supposed to follow from the fact that act A (like anything I do) is determined by prior causes, which I could not control or alter in any way. Hence, we have the conclusion that any act (A) that I do was inevitable, despite my belief that I freely chose to do A.

Many discussions then become discussions of whether it was possible that, all things being equal (i.e., conditions being the same or nearly the same), I could have done otherwise. I chose a cup of coffee to start the morning, but I could have chosen to have a cup of tea instead, couldn’t I? No, not if all conditions that led to your cup of coffee remain unchanged . . . so on an so forth, ad nauseam.

For a long time I have been skeptical about this entire line of argument purporting to show that we lack the basic freedom of choice that we think we have. The argument seems to involve an invalid move from the factual premise that many of our actions can be causally explained (e.g., you chose the teddy bear over the dump truck because not too long ago you had a very bad experience with dump trucks) to the theoretical premise that this action (like all our actions) is causally determined. This is an invalid inference. It does not follow from the fact that I can give a causal explanation of your action that your action was causally determined or inevitable. Furthermore, any viable claim that A determines B has the implication that on the basis of A we can predict (or could have accurately predicted) B. For example, knowing that you once had your puppy injured by a dump truck, I can predict that when faced with the choice — teddy bear or toy dump truck — you will select the teddy bear. But is this true? Can we make such accurate predictions about human behavior? I submit that in most cases (maybe as high as 95% of the cases) we cannot make accurate predictions. Hence, the proposition that A determines B is even more suspect.

In short, it does not follow that the action B is determined by causal chain (C) just because a causal explanation of B in terms of C is given. Causal explanation is one thing. Productive causation (sufficient causation) is another thing altogether. Productive causation applied to all human behavior is at best a theoretical or metaphysical claim that needs to be scrutinized. Hence, the whole line of argument that states that for anything we do we could not have done otherwise is not an effective strategy for demonstrating the truth of determinism.

Another implication of the “could not have done otherwise” argument is that everything we do is inevitable; i.e., could not have been avoided. Of course, nobody can sustain this view on a practical, real-world level. It is nonsense; most of what we do is not inevitable! We avoid things all the time. Had we not been avoiders, we could not have survived the first threat to our well-being. But we have and we do. However, the determinist will claim that on a theoretical level, once we understand the “science” of causal accounts for all our behavior, we shall agree that everything we do is inevitable. It seems to me that, even at a “theoretical level,” this claim is very questionable; it is not obviously true. In fact, it strikes me as the type of sophistry that too often gains a foothold in philosophy.