Archive for the ‘Actual Philosophy’ Category

Two reasons to doubt in Descartes.

Thursday, June 24th, 2021

Descartes is (in)famous for his apparent skepticism. While he was merely rehearsing the common Pyrrhonist skepticism, most famously being advocated by Michel de Montaigne and Mersenne, before criticizing it. In doing so he asks us to doubt two categories of beliefs: that of the extramental world (I refrain from using the word “physical” for separate reasons) and of mathematical facts. His reasons for doubting both categories were different. But first, let us look at why do we find these beliefs to be self-evident.

I believe that my dog is sitting in front of me because my sense tells me that he is. But my senses do, from time to time, deceive me, for example in the case of optical illusion and under the influence of psychoactive drugs. So this method of acquiring belief is generally put into doubt – although many individual believes might still be true but the senses generally lose their credibility as a source of self-evident believes. And in the case of mathematical facts, we find them to be true because they are tautologies – i.e. they are true by virtue of their definition, or at least because they are true by demonstration of proves. Also, these are not claims about the external world, Pythagoras theorem will still be true even if there is no external world and no physical triangles. Descarte gives two reasons to doubt these mathematical beliefs (Point 5, Part 1, Principles of Philosophy and Book 1, Meditations.) First, he merely states and in my opinion without giving any convincing examples to the effect that we often err while forming mathematical beliefs, and second, that God has created us in such a way that we err sometimes so it is possible that he might have created us in a way that we err all the time, even in things mathematical. The second argument can be made without invoking God as evolution might as easily have organized our cognitive faculties in such a way that we systematically err.

While to doubt the first source of beliefs seems reasonable, the second looks less convincing as it is on the one hand a general claim about all cognitive faculties and not merely about the method of acquiring mathematical claims, and on the other, we have no examples that lead us to doubt the specific source of such believes. Whatever their merit, it is clear that the epistemological value of the reasons to doubt both categories is very different.

Short note on Radical Descartes

Saturday, August 15th, 2020

In his history of atheist thoughts, the famous Italian Catholic priest and scholar Cornelio Fabro wrote that “this radical libertarian tendency will gradually reveal itself as responsible for that positive and constructive atheism which is typical of modern philosophy.” The radical libertarian tendency in question was the philosophy of Rene Descartes. Fabro criticized this philosophy because in Descartes God is no longer “posited as creator of the world and Father of men” and He instead created “the philosophy of freedom, considering freedom an ultimate and therefore a viable first principle”.

“Cartesian immanentism concentrated itself in man’s most intimate and all-embracing act, that of willing; it was therefore bound to close to man all avenues of escape from the long straight road leading down to d’Holbach, Feuerbach, Nietzsche and Sartre.” The roots of this concentration on “willing”, i.e. freedom of will and thought is explained by Descartes scholar Harry Bracken as “Descartes had good reasons for introducing a second substance (res cogitans, “thinking things”), for e.g., that our creative use of speech cannot be understood in terms of the mechanics available to him”. The essential character of humans, for the Cartesian, is this creative and willing aspect of the intellect.

Which in Calvinist terms of the time was also the “Way Of Examination” – which alone can judge the truth of religious texts and teaching. Cartesian, like Bayle developed the ideas and gave this freedom and Way Of Examination the primacy over the Way Of Authority. The state or church cannot dictate what the individual must believe because it is against the faculty of free judgment that God has endowed us with. While dethroning God from the paternalistic position Cartesian thoughts also laid the foundation of radical freedom of thought and speech, where the privacy of the intellect takes the priority.

Bracken says that “when we read Bayle’s views on toleration, we should recall that he is perhaps the first person to separate the domains of religion and morality by arguing that there is no logical anomaly in conceiving of a highly moral society of atheists. One can be religious and immoral and also nonreligious and moral. His rationalist views on universal natural (moral) law, that is, independent of religion or culture, should be seen in that context.” One can also, perhaps add the separation the domains of national laws and morality.

This was a radical break from those who advocate authorities’ right to hold our tongue because they have the right to hold our hands. A principle advocated and adhered till this date by those who do not (and for reasons of power cannot) give primacy to the individual’s intellect and her expressions.

This distinction also separated the rationalist-cartesians from the empiricists like Locke and Hume. For the empiricist there is no distinction between the tongue (the expression of one’s thoughts) and the hand (actions and physical attributes). Where for the Cartesian the essence of being human and our most important characters are our intellect and freedom of will, for the empiricists the physical features play as important or more important role in defining the essence of human beings. And from here begins the philosophical justification for racism and sexism.

In these spheres too, the Cartesian philosophers were among the first to (at least theoretically) defend freedom for All human beings. While the racists and sexists were debating over color, physical abilities one of the most prominent French Cartesian philosopher, Poullain de la Barre simply stated that “the mind has no sex.”

Among the people who think about these things, for most Descartes and his ideas have been reduced to caricatures of positions that were for the most part secondary to him and are for us. While, many also sideline him for ideological reasons. But people in radical political circles might still find fruitful insights in the work of the Cartesian.

What Is It Like to Be a Question?

Friday, October 25th, 2019

“In your house, I long to be
Room by room, patiently
I’ll wait for you there like a stone

Nick Treanor in his review of Nirmalangshu Mukherji’s Reflections on Human Inquiry says that “there is less clarity and sophistication than ideal” in the book but acknowledges that “[p]erhaps this is explained by the intention to speak to a broad audience. And some unclarity is also inevitable in a work like this, given its ambitions, and that can indeed be a virtue rather than a defect.” To illustrate his point he uses this passage from the essay “Human Reality”:

what do we mean when we say that nonhuman organisms conceive of other kinds of world? If we cannot ourselves conceive of any other kind of world except what we are allowed by our design, how can we make a comment on what different-designed animals conceive of? As Chomsky suggests, Nagel’s question, “What is it like to be a bat?”, does not seem to have an answer; hence, the question could be meaningless. (pg. 17)

Let’s call Nagel’s question Q-N. Treanor finds “this passage puzzling, and puzzling because it was just unclear to me what was being said”.

What does Mukherji (or Chomsky, for that matter) mean in saying that Nagel’s question doesn’t seem to have an answer? Is it that the question seems to have no answer at all? Or no answer that humans can understand?

  1. Is the idea Mukherji is driving at that the question doesn’t have an answer, understood as a kind of semantic item akin to a sentence or proposition?
  2. Or is it rather that there is nothing it is like to be a bat, propositional or otherwise?

Although (2) is an interesting suggestion (as might have been the case if Q-N was a meaningful question – but, say a case of category error of associating “like to be” with “a bat”) I think, Mukherji subscribes to (1). Chomsky writes that

Many questions that puzzle people have an interrogative form, but it’s not clear what the question is. Take “What is it like to be a bat?” – Nagel’s (1974) question. It has an interrogative form but is it a question? If it’s a question, there have to be some possible answers to it. In fact, in formal semantics, it’s common to propose that the meaning of a question is the set of propositions that are possible answers to it. Maybe that’s too strong, but at least it’s some kind of condition of the meaning. Suppose there are no possible answers – is it a question? What’s a possible answer to “What’s it like to be me?” I can’t think of a possible answer; so is it a question? Or maybe the question is something like, “How do things work?” which has an interrogative form but is not really a question.

McGilvray: It’s precisely that kind of question – if you can call it a question – that exercises philosophers.

Chomsky: It does, but the first thing they’ve got to do is turn them into meaningful questions. (Chomsky and McGilvray, Science of Language. pg 98)

For Chomsky (also Mukherji and many others) an interrogative sentence doesn’t necessarily form a meaningful question – just as a sentence like “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” doesn’t form a meaningful sentence. The formal semantics approach to the meaning of a question might be too strong but even in a weaker form, any possibility of finding an answer is a necessary condition for the interrogative to be a meaningful question. And what makes Q-N meaningless is the vagueness of the interrogative, which to me is almost of the quality as “How do things work?” And it is in this context of a discussion of vagueness the first quote from Mukherji appears in the essay.

For Chomsky, such meaningless interrogatives can (at least sometimes) be turned into meaningful questions. For example, if we ask another question,

Q-S: Is there a systemic difference between the visual perception realized by the same stimuli in two different species?

This, I believe, Chomsky would find a meaningful question and will even answer the question in affirmative. As in case of conceptual differences between humans and rats – the latter with their lack of cognitive bases for the concept of prime numbers cannot solve the maze with prime numbers.

But even the amalgam of all sensory perceptions (and emotions) doesn’t capture what is in natural language is meant by the phrase “like to be”. Cases of being “like” an inanimate object further complicates the issue. As long as there is no clear definition of this phrase and what is it like to be me or Chomsky or Nagel there is no hope to even guess what is it like to be a bat – because we do not know what to guess in the first place.

Nativism does not require ”arguments from animals.”

Monday, July 22nd, 2019

These are some comments on Rachael L. Brown’s paper, which is a criticism of Eric Margolis and Laurence’s view of nativism. Brown claims that Margolis et al. base their  support for nativism (here meaning to be domain-specificity of inputs and process mechanisms) on the argument from animals (i.e. there is sufficient evidence to believe animals have domain-specific learning systems, humans are animals hence we must have domain-specific learning systems.) And tries to show that this is the only possible argument for nativism or modularity. This is not true.

Neither Margolis et al. in their paper base nativism solely on animal evidence but, focus also, on Poverty of Stimulus; nor in the nativist literature is the main argument based on animal evidence.  Even those who argue for domain-specific cognitive systems in humans with assistance of non-human animal data do so in a limited way and do not “infer” the value of nativism from it. For example, C.R. Gallistel states that, “”it is not to argue that an account of cognitive development should use animal models of learning. Rather, it is to take advantage of developments in this area that provide insights into the question of how to characterize cognitive development.” (“Lessons from animal learning for the study of cognitive development”)

Brown does try to argue that there are not enough “developments in this area”  to take insights from. But provides only references to “recent empirical advances” supporting associationist domain-general characterization, while admitting these are only partial support to discard nativism in animal learning. The section on inferences from the phylogenetic tree, while being interesting in its own right does not strengthen the empiricist argument because most nativist formulations do not use this kind of inferences (see Gallistel’s paper).

So, if nativism does not require argument from animals, what gives it support? As pointed out above, Poverty of Stimulus can support some formulation of domain-specificity of inputs and processes. The evidence also comes from exceptional cases of language learning and use, notably Neil Smith’s work Christopher, a polyglot savant.

Brown’s paper is important for pointing out the challenges with phylogenetic inferences and the possibility of arguments for domain-general explanations of birdsongs and filial imprinting. But, I believe it fails to establish how her case, as nativism is not dependent on factors she is focusing on.