Philosophy: June 2008 Archives

The 70th Philosophers' Carnival is up at The Brooks Blog.

It's unfortunate that I haven't linked to this carnival very much for quite a long time, but it's not because I've lost interest or anything like that. The quality of posts had been dropping, but hosts are now being more selective, with generally good results.

The main reason is that I don't link to carnivals I'm not in. It defeats the purpose of linking to the ones I'm in, which I do out of thanks to the host who made the effort to include my post. If I linked to every edition of any carnival I sometimes appear in, it wouldn't mean anything special when I link to editions I happen to be in.

But lately I've either forgotten to submit something to the Philosophers' Carnival or not had anything I thought of sufficient philosophical quality to submit. This time we have happy convergence with the two issues (having a post and remembering to submit it).

I was looking at Ron Bailey's critique of Expelled, and I noticed a pretty strange argument against something mathematician David Berlinski says in the film. Here is the relevant paragraph:

And Nazism? In the film, the mathematician David Berlinski says, "Darwinism is not a sufficient condition for a phenomenon like Nazism, but I think it was a necessary one." Berlinski is suggesting that scientific materialism undermines the notion that human beings occupy a special place in the universe. If humans aren't special, goes this line of thinking, then morals don't apply.

I haven't seen the film, so I can't comment on how it uses Nazism in this way. I would actually insist that Darwinism is neither necessary nor sufficient for a phenomenon like Nazism (although I suspect Darwinism is actually necessary for a phenomenon exactly like Nazism, because it was Hitler's misuse of Nietzsche and Darwin that served as the actual basis of some of his most important claims about Aryan superiority).

But I'm struggling to understand Bailey's evaluation of this. Berlinski is saying that Darwinism doesn't automatically like to something like Nazism, but you couldn't have Nazism without Darwinism. Bailey's summary of that claim is that Berlinski thinks scientific materialism guarantees the view that there are no legitimate moral claims. This seems not to summarize Berlinski's view but the view that Berlinski denies. Berlinksi says you don't automatically get abuse like what the Nazis did just because you accept Darwinism. Therefore, he doesn't think you have to deny morality to be a Darwinist, the very claim Bailey attributes to him. He denies that it's a sufficient condition but insists that it's necessary. Why does Bailey then attribute to him the view that it's a sufficient condition? That's what he had just quoted Berlinski as denying.

Then he goes on to provide a much more helpful critique of the view Berlinski does admit to holding:

But people through the millennia have found all sorts of justifications for murdering each other, including plunder, nationalism, and, yes, religion. Meanwhile, insights from evolutionary psychology are helping us understand how our in-group/out-group dynamics contribute to our disturbing capacity for racism, xenophobia, genocide, and warfare. The field also offers new ideas about how human morality developed, including our capacities for cooperation, love, and tolerance.

There are lots of ways people do awful things. Nazism based it on misreadings of Darwin and Nietzsche, but people use other things too. So Darwinism isn't necessary for the kinds of things the Nazis did. As I said, that ignores what I think Berlinski meant, which is that Nazism actually did base its views on Darwinian-sounding claims, and thus Darwinism was the actual basis of Nazism. But the more important point is that Bailey here does seem to understand what a necessary condition is. He finds some things similar to Nazism that don't have a Darwinian basis. So Darwinian views aren't necessary for something vaguely like Nazism in their effects.

So if he understands what a necessary condition is in order to provide that critique, what did he think he was doing when he summarized Berlinski's view as if he'd said Darwinism is a sufficient condition for something like Nazism, right after quoting Berlinksi as saying the opposite?

Gorgias: Unknowability

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Gorgias has already argued (see here and here) that there isn't anything, so the following arguments are pointless given his already-defended thesis, but he insists that even if there were something you wouldn't be able to think abut it. So what is isn't knowable even if it is (which it isn't).

This time I'll just present the arguments. If anyone wants to comment on them, feel free, but I'm too tired now to go through the responses, and the quick thoughts I wrote up when I put together my lecture notes could probably use a more careful going-over than I care to give them now.

Argument A:
1. If things thought of have the property of whiteness, then white things have the property
of being thought of.
2. So if things thought of have the property of not existing, then existing things have the
property of not being thought of.

Argument B:
If the things thought of are things that are, then everything thought of is. But you can think about people flying and chariots riding on the water, and that doesn't make those things true. So what's thought of isn't what is.

Argument C:
If things thought of are, then things that are not won't be thought of, because opposites have opposite properties. But we think of many imaginary things. So, to be opposite from the imaginary things we think of, nothing that is can be thought of.

Argument D:
What's visible is seen by eyes. What's audible is heard by ears. Just because something can't be seen doesn't mean it doesn't exist. You can know of it by hearing. And vice versa. So we shouldn't reject what's thought of because it isn't seen and heard. It's not seen or heard, but it's thought. But it's absurd to think chariots ride on the sea just because you think of it.

Here's another horribly fallacious argument from Gorgias the Sophist. (See my earlier post for Gorgias' main argument that there is nothing.)

1. If something is, it's either (a) one or (b) many.
2. If it's one, it's either (c) a discrete quantity or (d) a continuum or (e) a magnitude or (f) a body.
3. It's not (c), because a discrete quantity is divisible. Then it's not one.
4. It's not (d), because a continuum can be cut.
5. It's not (e), because a magnitude is divisible.
6. It's not (f), because a body is three - length, breadth, and depth.
7. Therefore, it's not one.
8. If it's many, then it's a compound of things that are each one, and it's impossible to be one.
9. Therefore it's neither one nor many, and thus it isn't. So nothing is.

I don't think the list in the second premise is exhaustive. I can't see how God or souls could fit into one of those four categories, and if there are any sort of universals or real properties they don't seem to fit either.

You'd also have to add a number of premises for this to be logically valid. Here are several:

  • Being potentially divisible amounts to being actually many. (This is at least controversial, but I think most people would deny it.I'm having trouble thinking of who in contemporary philosophy might hold such a thing. Maybe people who hold the next claim would think this.)
  • Something with many parts can't be something, i.e. nothing is a unified whole unless it has no parts. (For those not up on contemporary metaphysics, views like this are actually held by some very smart people. Peter van Inwagen almost thinks it's true, but he thinks organisms are an exception. At one point in his career, the atoms composing Peter Unger thought it was true, but the ones currently composing him would like to think they're an object and at least would prefer it not to be true. It's certainly a minority view, at any rate.)
  • It's impossible for one thing to have three distinct spatial properties or dimensions. (I do think some philosophers would say this. In particular, those who hold what's called a bundle theory of properties would accept something like this. To a bundle theorist, an object is just the bundle of properties that it has. There is no thing that has the properties.
You'd be hard pressed to find someone who accepts all three of those who also thinks the list in premise 2 is exhaustive. It would be interesting to see how they'd respond to this argument if they did. I may not have identified all the problems, of course, so there may be other places to get off the boat. Feel free to find any more.

Compatibilist Freedom

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This is the 44th post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. The last post presented some arguments for compatibilism. This post will examine some more specific compatibilist suggestions of what freedom consists of. Compatibilists need to offer an account of what free will is that will be consistent with determinism but fit with our ordinary sense of freedom. The libertarian view says an action is free if you have the ability to do it but also the ability to do otherwise. Compatibilists have to replace the second condition with something else, since determinism doesn't allow for the possibility of doing otherwise. Only one future is possible if the future is predetermined.

The Stoics provide a good example of the kind of thing most compatibilists think freedom requires. What's most important for them is that your actions are caused by the right kinds of causes. The ultimate causes of our actions do indeed trace back to things outside of our control, indeed things that occurred before we even existed. Yet what we want to be true of our actions is that they're caused by the right kinds of causes within us. To use an example from my last post in this series, there's a difference between someone fasting out of political protest and a desert wanderer fasting because there's no food around. This is so even if the person is fasting out of protest is protesting because of certain desires and beliefs, and those desires and beliefs are present because of prior circumstances that eventually trace back to things outside the person's control. One involves the person's own inner self in the line of causation, and the other does not.

It's difficult to get a precise notion of what kinds of inner causes these need to be. Obviously a neurological condition that causes you to do things you don't want to do isn't sufficient for freedom, even though it's internal to you. Also, it doesn't seem to be enough that you want to do what you do, because an evil neuroscientist might reprogram you to want things you might not otherwise have wanted, and then you might still argue that your actions aren't free if they're based on the artificially-modified desires. Similarly, my wanting to do well on an exam leads me to study, and that desire seems sufficient to explain freedom. Yet my desire not to die explains why I hack into a bank's computers at gunpoint to siphon money into someone's Swiss bank account. Yet the second case doesn't involve freedom, even though it involves acting according to a desire of mine.

But most compatibilists don't restrict the internal causes that are important to freedom to anything as narrow as just desires. Freedom isn't so much being able to act according to my desires but more acting based on who I am in general. This includes my desires but also my beliefs, emotional states, moral sensibilities and intuitions, history of interactions with people and the world, and so on. We could call these things my character, not meaning moral character, though that would be part of it. This is basically all my psychological properties, who I really am as a person.

This helps with external stimuli that cause us to do out-of-character things like being coerced at gunpoint. It allows us to excuse such actions because they don't stem from what's central to the person. It also deals with the neuroscientist case, since that involves someone artificially changing my inner character so I'll prefer to do things that I otherwise wouldn't want to do. This relies on some notion of natural development in human character, but that's something we do have some sense of.

Someone with a mental illnesses would consider that part of who they are but might not always consider it part of their conscious decision-making process, and thus it might not be part of them in the right way. Alternatively, a compatibilist might argue that we're really free in the end even with a genetic predisposition. After all, our choices (caused or not) do affect the way we are later. We can overcome bad tendencies and develop good ones (or the reverse) by living certain ways, filling our minds with certain beliefs, and reinforcing behavior or ideas through other people's involvement in our lives. But these are hard cases when our ordinary judgments aren't clear to begin with. If we're not sure whether to count it as freedom, it makes sense that our account of freedom is also going to have a hard time classifying it as free or not. That's actually a good sign for the compatibilist account.

So it looks as if the compatibilist can put together a general account of freedom that generally fits with our intuitions of what freedom is, accounting for cases that we would call free and excluding cases that we wouldn't. While there are some difficulties along the way, the compatibilist does have some resources for clarifying the account to handle the problem cases. A die-hard libertarian who insists on alternative possibilities isn't going to accept such an account, but that's not the goal. The purpose was to find an account that explains why the cases we usually call freedom are free and the cases we don't call freedom are not, all the while allowing for determinism to be true. It does seem as if the compatibilist can do that.

The next post will move away from freedom itself to examine a related problem with moral responsibility called moral luck.

Gorgias: "Nothing Is"

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Gorgias the Sophist produced a hilarious piece of bad reasoning that seems to be a parody of Parmenides. It's possible that he was simply trying to demonstrate how easy it is to put together a seemingly-convincing argument for a crazy thesis, to show that his skills as a rhetor as simply that good. He did hire his services out as a speech-writer. (In those days, you couldn't hire a lawyer to represent you in court. You had to do all the speaking yourself if someone had a complaint against you. But you could memorize a speech written by someone else, and the Sophists received pay both for teaching rhetorical skills and for simply writing speeches for people.) On the other hand, he may simply have thought Parmenides' style of argument and crazy thesis were worth making fun of.

The general structure of his argument is as follows:

1. If anything is, it is (a) what is or (b) what is not or (c) both what is and what is not.
2. It's not (a) what is.
3. It's not (b) what is not.
4. It's not (c) what is and what is not.
5. So nothing is.

His support for 3:

If what is is also what is not, then:

Problem 1: If what is not also is, then it is not, and it can't both be and not be.

Problem 2: If what is is not, then what is not is, and that's equally absurd, because
they're opposites. They can't both have the same properties of being and not being, or what would distinguish them from each other?

So (b) is false, and (3) is true.

His support for 2:

If what is is, then it's (d) everlasting or (e) generated or (f) everlasting and generated.

If (d), then it has no beginning. If it has no beginning, it's limitless. If it's limitless, then it is nowhere, because if it's anywhere then the place it's in is different from it, which would mean it's not limitless. So if it's everlasting, then it's nowhere. If it's nowhere, then it's not. So (d) is not an option.

If (e), then it either came into being (g) from something that is or (h) from something that's not. It couldn't be (g), because if it came from something that is then it hasn't come into being but already existed. It couldn't be (h), because something that doesn't exist can't make something exist. So it can't be generated, and (e) is not an option.

It can't be (f). For one thing, those are contradictory. Also, both were ruled out already, so how can both be true if they're both false? So (f) is not an option.

Therefore, it's not everlasting, generated, or both. By our premise, if it is, then it's one of these three. Therefore, it's not.

His support for 4:

Pretty much the same reasoning for why it can't be (f) above.


Your mission, should you choose to accept it: where does this argument go wrong and why? I can think of at last two problems.

Kristina Chew at Autism Vox discusses the latest Stanley Fish post at the NYT blog. For those who are unfamiliar with Fish, he's probably the most prominent American postmodernist in the academy today. He doesn't really accept any truth about normative matters, at least nothing independent of the conceptual system of those who are doing the thinking and speaking. There's no standard of morality, justice, fairness, impartiality, goodness, badness, or anything else in the general vicinity.

There are clearly things he doesn't like, and according to his view there's nothing that I can say to criticize him for holding negative attitudes about certain behavior, at least if that criticism is to be legitimately what I think criticism is. There's also nothing he can do to criticize me legitimately. Technically, if criticism is allowable within my scheme then it's ok for me to criticize, and the same is true for him. But such criticism isn't what we normally mean when we criticize. It in fact has no truth content, if truth is about the facts about right and wrong, good and evil.

So it's not surprising that I'm going to find Fish's comments on autism to be the most unhelpful ones I've ever seen. I prefer those who think they can "get their child back" (as if the kid in front of them either isn't their child or isn't a child at all) by engaging in a certain diet or preferring death to autism by refusing to keep their children safe with vaccinations. At least those people have something to talk about. They admit to holding views that can be subject to examination, even if many of them ignore any such information that might refute their preconceptions.

I think there's a very interesting argument to be had about whether autistic people are disabled to the point where they would be better off being healed or whether they're fine the way they are and should be taken seriously when they insist that they wouldn't accept a cure if it were found. Fish is right to point out the parallels with deafness, since many similar issues arise there. That's a good discussion to have, and you may end up answering differently for the two conditions. They're not exactly parallel.

But here's an argument that just won't do. Pretend that there are no norms and that any discussion of someone as abnormal is just a power play. Then argue that it's illegitimate to call people abnormal because there's no agreed-upon notion of abnormality. Fish doesn't quite draw that conclusion, but I think it's what he's suggesting. The reason he doesn't draw it is because he's too smart to do so. He knows it would be inconsistent, because such a notion relies on what legitimate and illegitimate, and he can't allow such a dichotomy. It can't be illegitimate to call people abnormal, because that presupposes that some things are legitimate and others aren't, and any such claim is really just a power play. Of course, he doesn't really avoid the problem by saying that. Calling something a power play means he's positively attributing to it a property and saying that the person doing it has a certain motivation. That's something his view doesn't allow him to do, since you can never have access to someone's intentions.

So you're left with a big muddle, as is always the case with a thoroughgoing relativism that's supposed to apply to everything and yet by its own standards can't apply to everything, since it's all relative. As I said, I'd rather see people citing falsehoods that can be responded to. I'm more comfortable writing a post like this, because it's in my field. Fish's view is a philosophical one, and I'm at home pointing out the inconsistencies of his Sophistical view (and I mean that literally; his view is a variant of the one Plato summarizes from Protagoras the Sophist in his Theaetetus dialogue). Nevertheless, I have much more respect for the ignorant, anti-intellectual posturing of Jenny McCarthy on this issue than I do for the very smart but very foolish (in the biblical sense) Stanley Fish.

I do have to say, though, that I appreciate his intellectual honesty in admitting that the argument he presents applies as much to NAMBLA and laws against murder as it does to racial or gay rights issues. He denies endorsing the argument at the end. But he says there's no theoretical difference between the NAMBLA or murder argument and the racial discrimination argument. The logic is the same, he says. He's right if you start with his premise that all sense or normality, goodness, morality, and justice are mere social constructs that have no basis in genuine moral truths. Without that, you really can't distinguish between what's wrong with a man who gets a young boy to go through the motions of consenting to sex and what's perfectly ok with interracial marriage. You're done once you accept Fish's premise, and there's no room for debate or even for drawing conclusions, which is why he doesn't do so. As I said, he's very smart compared to the average college student relativist, who doesn't know when to stop and gets tied up in knots very easily. But what he's doing is just as foolish, perhaps more so because he's got less excuse. After all, he's the smart, privilege, better-educated one.

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