Philosophy: April 2011 Archives

Instrumentalism and B.S.

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In the last chapter of my dissertation, I make mention of instrumentalism about race, defining it as follows. "Instrumentalism is not concerned with whether there are races but focuses simply on how it is best to use the race-language. A pragmatist view that retains race-talk and racial classification without regard for whether races are real could, for pragmatist reasons, adopt a fictionalist semantics and look much on the surface like the pragmatist adoption of fictionalism that I explained above. Or the semantic theory about how race-language operates might be more purely instrumentalist, taking race-statements to be true or false according to whether they are useful statements to make."

[For those who care about what fictionalism is but who aren't familiar with the term, fictionalism about race is "a semantic thesis about how race-language works, taking there to be a fictional account of races that our race-language assumes, with some kind of operator explaining how our language about race is really about what 'race in the fiction' would be like. Such language would not be strictly speaking true, but unlike error theory it would allow us to maintain that language without having to go around correcting everyone all the time about their false and non-referring statements."]

As I was thinking about instrumentalism, it occurred to me that Harry Frankfurt's best-selling work on b.s. doesn't, as far as I know, connect up with instrumentalism, but he defines b.s. in a very similar way, as the practice of making assertions without care for whether they're true, for the purpose of impressing people rather than communicating or deceiving (i.e. disrupting communication). The motivation distinguishes b.s. from what instrumentalism is up to (about whatever domain they're instrumentalists about: in my dissertation, it would be race, but the view was developed initially about science, and some of the ancient sophists were instrumentalists about morality). It's not as if instrumentalists think we're all just engaging in b.s. all the time. But both involve a similar disregard for the truth, and I'm pretty sure I've never seen anyone point this out before.

As I was revising this section earlier this week, it occurred to me that it might be funny to put in a footnote citing Frankfurt's work as a contemporary development of instrumentalism and then sending that version to the members of my committee who might get a kick out of it, but I think that would be a bit too much. My long footnote on Tolkien and mixed race is already skirting the edge.

This is on an NPR show I've never heard of. Our local station doesn't carry it. But I'm listening to the episode right now, and the authors do are doing a good job presenting the barebones issue they're dealing with. I'm not hearing much in the way of arguments, though, just quick summaries of positions. But it's done in an imaginative way, just because of the Doctor Who context. The particular issue is the genocide of the Daleks issue from the Fourth Doctor serial "The Genesis of the Daleks" (along with the general issue of pacifism and the Doctor's resistance to violence). There's more about the show itself than the philosophy, but I won't complain about any intelligent publicity for the show and for what I hope to be an excellent book.

I really wanted to submit something on the ethics of time travel for this book, but the editors wanted full submissions, and I can't afford to devote the time to write an entire chapter that might not get published. Most editors in this series and the similar Wiley-Blackwell series sort through a larger number of proposals, select their chosen entries, and then commission the people they choose to write the chapters. These editors wanted entire chapters that would likely not get published anywhere if they weren't accepted.


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The word 'type' is a self-antonym.

As used in Christian theology, a type is something that looks forward or back to an anti-type. The usual idea is that the type is a partial or incomplete reality looking toward a more complete reality. So David is a type of Jesus as a precursor of a Messiah with some messianic elements, or the temple is a type of Christ as taking a form that looked forward to what he would institute in the church. The temple is also a type of the church (the people, not the building), where the church is God's dwelling.

I was listening to a Bloggingheads conversation between John McWhorter and Glenn Loury, and McWhorter used the term 'type' in this way. He said Jesse Jackson is a type, meaning that he exemplifies some elements found within a generalized group of black leaders.

In philosophy, a type is not the specific instance, where someone has some elements of some general form. The type is the general form, and the tokens are the specific instances. The type would be black leaders of a certain sort, and Jesse Jackson would be the token.

I don't think it's just immersion in philosophical circles for 15 years that makes me think the philosophical use is the closer of the two to ordinary usage. I've always found the theological use to be strange, but it's only just occurred to me that it's not just strange but backwards. Every time I hear someone use it in a sermon without explaining it, I think the ordinary person isn't going to get it, and it's just occurred to me why. If you say David is a type of Christ, people will think that means he's a kind of Christ. In loose usage, that doesn't mean he's a category rather than a person, but theologians who say such things don't remotely mean that David's a messiah. They mean he's a precursor of the Messiah.

I don't think the ordinary usage is exactly opposite the theological usage, but this kind of funny use, which becomes second-nature for some with a lot of theological training, is at odds with how most people will hear the term, and that's something preachers would do well to keep in mind.

Swamp Rock

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An example I'm using in my dissertation is a modification of Donald Davidson's Swampman example, which is a standard enough example in philosophy to have its own Wikipedia entry.

The Wikipedia description of the Swampman example is as follows:

Suppose Davidson goes hiking in the swamp and is struck and killed by a lightning bolt. At the same time, nearby in the swamp another lightning bolt spontaneously rearranges a bunch of molecules such that, entirely by coincidence, they take on exactly the same form that Davidson's body had at the moment of his untimely death. This being, whom Davidson terms 'Swampman', has, of course, a brain which is structurally identical to that which Davidson had, and will thus, presumably, behave exactly as Davidson would have. He will walk out of the swamp, return to Davidson's office at Berkeley, and write the same essays he would have written; he will interact like an amicable person with all of Davidson's friends and family, and so forth.
My modification targets the view that being a member of a certain race requires having an ancestor of that race. Besides having an infinite regress problem (since races have to come into existence at some point), that view is at odds with what I think our intuitions would be with a Swampman-like case. Suppose an exact duplicate of Chris Rock were to appear out of nowhere, with no causal history and certainly no ancestry, never mind black ancestry. I think most people, even knowing this origin of the Chris Rock duplicate, would take the duplicate to be as black as Chris Rock. I've discussed this case with a lot of people, and almost everyone takes that to be the implication.

If that's right, then there can't be an ancestry requirement for race-membership, since the duplicate is black, and he's got no ancestors.

Incidently, my dissertation supervisor, in a parenthetical remark in the middle of an objection to this example, indicated that she thought my name for this example -- Swamp Rock -- was slightly offensive. I haven't had a chance to ask her about that, and I might not. I'm happy enough to change the name of the example or just not give it one. But I'm a little curious what led her to find it slightly offensive, unless it's something she sees offensive in the original name Davidson used. Is it that the name is all right until it gets applied to a black person, and then it's slightly offensive? If it had been someone named Dave Rock, who was white, and I was using it to show that the duplicate is white despite having no ancestors, would it be equally (i.e. still slightly) offensive?

Alan Turing famously devised the Turing test, which was intended to test whether a machine can think. If it could show enough behavior consistent with thinking, Turing claimed that it really does think.

Turing tests have come under quite a lot of criticism for relying on the fallacious inference from something appearing to have a certain property to the conclusion that it does have that property. Turing tests take the behavior that follows from genuine thinking to be sufficient to establish that there is such thinking, even if the same behavior can be produced by a computer program. I would take the fact that it comes from a computer program to be sufficient reason to think such behavior can occur without genuine thinking.

So the usual criticism of Turing tests is that they assume thinking is occurring just because the usual behavior resulting from thinking is occurring. While I'm not interested in diminishing that objection, it occurred to be recently that Turing tests aren't just not sufficient for thinking (things that pass the test might not be thinking). They're not even necessary (things that think might fail the test). For one thing, someone who thinks might simply refuse to comply with the test and thus could fail. But more poignantly, someone with a communication-related disorder, e.g. someone with autism and dyspraxia who is completely non-verbal, simply cannot display the behavior the test is looking for. Being unable to communicate is certainly not a sign of being unable to think.

I would argue that more harm is caused by those who take passing a Turing test to be necessary for intelligent thought than is caused by those who take passing such a test to be sufficient for intelligence. We recently attended a communication seminar for parents and educators of non-verbal and mostly non-verbal children. At one session an autistic college senior was present. He can now speak in a somewhat limited manner, but he can communicate by typing on a portable device at a level that's almost certainly far beyond what most kindergarten teachers would have ever expected if they had seen his communication level in his younger years. He had no verbal language until age 12, but because his teachers taught him to type they knew that he was able to grasp much higher levels of thought than most teachers would have even speculated. At last night's session, there was a guy with Down Syndrome and autism who, as far as I could tell, can even as an adult do little more than grunt was typing out sentences that indicate a pretty high-level grasp of some pretty abstract and complex phenomena.

With a son who can't speak much more than five syllables at a time (unless he's singing or engaging in echolalic repetition of Veggie Tales or some other TV show), we've been able to see something like this firsthand. We knew in kindergarten that he was reading fairly complex words for the level of verbal behavior we normally saw, because he'd occasionally see a word and say it. (I remember him saying "banana" one time when there were no pictures of a banana, just the word.) But it's been very hard to get him to demonstrate his intelligence with writing, until this year, with his teacher and support staff working very hard with him to get him typing. Six months ago we could get him to trace over words we wrote out with a highlighter, or we could get him to point to words sometimes on a communication device, which could then pronounce them for him (but they had to be programmed in first, since he wasn't typing them). Now he's showing reading comprehension by completing "because" clauses to answer why certain characters did certain things. It makes me wonder how much he's been wanting to be able to communicate for years but unable to get his mouth or hands to do anything to show it.

The Turing defender might now say that he is able to show it, so it's not an objection to the test, but he's only now able to show it, and there's no reason to think he just started to be able to think on this level. I suspect most teachers would have assumed he couldn't handle the level of math that he's doing (basically right on second grade level) or the vocabulary and reading that he's doing (which is, as I said, at a pretty good level for demonstrating reading comprehension, better than his older brother could demonstrate at that age). He happens to have a teacher with 25 years of experience working with kids like him, who is informed about technology and methods to get kids like him communicating. Many educators encountering a kid like him might well assume low ability levels and not work to get him to communicate. In effect, they're using a reverse Turing test and concluding that someone isn't intelligent because they can't show it in the typical ways.

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Andy Naselli has posted a short excerpt from D.A. Carson and Tim Keller's Gospel-Centered Ministry, one of the new series of Gospel Coalition booklets. The excerpt explains why the Gospel Coalition's statement of faith begins with God rather than with scripture. I hold both Carson and Keller in high regard, and it's very rare that I can identify anything to question from either of them. But this excerpt strikes me as being either ignorant about the meaning of a basic philosophical term or completely mistaken in how to apply it.

Carson and Keller's reasoning is basically that they want to resist what they see as a fault in the elevation of reason in the Enlightenment. Evangelical statements of faith in the past begin with a doctrine of scripture and then proceed to derive theological commitments in a systematic way via exegesis of that scripture. The result, according to Carson and Keller, is the presentation of a system of thought that gives the appearance of being deduced by unquestionable reasoning from the starting point of scripture.

It's their next move that I find problematic. They criticize such an approach by calling it foundationalist. The only hint as to what they mean by that is what they go on to say. They resist it because our cultural location affects our interpetation and relies too much on a rigid subject-object distinction, and we need to pay attention to historical theology, philosophy, and social reflection.

I'm not sure what any of that has to do with foundationalism. I have no problem with pointing out that our cultural location affects our interpretation. The subject-object distinction is a bit rigid if we ignore that we can be both subject and object in different respects, and being one can influence the ways in which one is the other. We certainly do need to pay attention to historical theology, philosophy, and social reflection. But how is any of that non-foundationalist? Foundationalism in epistemology is the thesis that our knowledge has a structure with a foundation, a basis upon which everything else is built. The beliefs in the foundation ought to be the best sort of beliefs we could have, ones that we can know to be true or have very good reason to believe. Some such beliefs would be self-evident or knowable just by thinking about them. Others might be learned by reliable processes that we can't prove to be true or reliable but that are genuinely reliable and thus lead to knowledge or justified beliefs.

I can't figure out how foundationalism creates any problem for any of what Carson and Keller are worried about. If the idea is that we shouldn't start with the foundation of scripture and instead start with the foundation of God, then that's still foundationalism, just with a different foundation. If the idea is that there are sources of information that we assume to be perfectly good that can be bad and lead us to false information, then foundationalism accepts that. Our biases can influence what we take to be a good foundation and thus end up with beliefs in our foundation that shouldn't be there. If the idea is that it's legitimate to have sources in the foundation that philosophers of the Enlightenment wouldn't want there, it's still foundationalism. It's just arguing for a different foundation.

The alternative to foundationalism is coherentism. Coherentism uses the raft model to contrast with the pyramid model of foundationalism. The idea behind coherentism is that your beliefs can be perfectly justified or a set of knowledge even if they're not based on anything legitimate. All it takes is for your beliefs to cohere. If they're not inconsistent, if there's no contradiction anywhere in there, then you know everything you believe. Such a view is so radically incompatible with Christian teaching in scripture that I can't imagine Carson or Keller seriously entertaining it. They hold that you can't know God without your information coming from God in some way, either by scripture or by coming through the testimony of a believer (or, in rare cases, by a more miraculous way of coming to understand, but the source would nonetheless be God). In fact, Carson and Keller are both Calvinists, and their Reformed theology has it that any of our beliefs leading to salvation are put in place by God, either directly or by some human means. What grounds them as knowledge is that God places them there and allows them to serve as a legitimately-held belief. The basis of any Christian's theology is therefore beliefs bestowed upon us by God that are epistemically grounded by God's miraculous working in our hearts and minds. Knowledge and belief-justification in Reformed theology strike me as particularly foundationalist. Coherentism is basically relativism about truth or knowledge (depending on whether you're a coherentist about truth or knowledge). I'm 100% sure that both Carson and Keller would consider coherentism incompatiible with their understanding of truth, knowledge, what justifies our beliefs, and so on.

Now there is a tendency among emergentists and pseudo-postmodernists on the fringes of evangelicalism to use the word 'foundationalism' to refer to a very narrow version of foundationalism held by Enlightenment philosophers and then to mis-label all evangelicals as foundationalist and thus living in the dark ages. But foundationalism itself is much broader, and it surprises me to see Keller and Carson giving the term up so easily while defending a view that seems as far as I can tell to be just as foundationalist as the view they're criticizing. I find their reference pretty puzzling, unless they're taken in by this group that they've both spent a good deal of time not giving in to, co-opting a mistaken understanding of what foundationalism is merely because some of their philosophically amateurish opponents have adopted a jaundiced view of what foundationalism is in order to strike it down with little argument. If that's what's going on here, then I would have expected better of both Keller and Carson. If that's not what's going on, I'm at a complete loss.


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