Author Archives: Andy Walsh

John Williamson

I want to talk about my friend, John Williamson, who has just passed away.

I hope you will forgive me if I separate my comments…..first paragraph about his professional career…..after that more personal stuff.

Professionally he was: an empiricist who loved developing philosophical logic to an extent that was opaque to idiots like me, he was particularly interested in many valued logic and how it relates to knots. Obviously he was wrong about all that but he was good at chess.

Privately: he was  incapable of an ignoble thought…..his very heart beat decency and the world has lost a good man.

Supererogation, Repetition and the Experience of Morning Coffee

An act is said to be supererogatory if it is “above and beyond the call of duty”. We might put this in less Kantian terms: a supererogatory act is one which generates moral value but whose execution is not demanded but praised. A moral agent, in failing to execute a supererogatory act, cannot reasonably be censured on the basis of this omission. Nobody would realistically have blamed Sydney Carton were he to have taken the view that “a far, far better rest”, could be deferred just a little longer.

We might wonder whether such an act is even possible. If an act generates moral value then we might wish to argue that ipso facto we are obliged to do it. The alternative might seem to acknowledge at least a dualistic account of moral value: that certain values demand their instantiation whereas certain others do not. On what basis could such a discrimination be made? A many-valued theory of value might seem to beckon. Especially if -as seems reasonable- we wish to agree that a flourishing moral conversation requires that we are able to describe certain acts and agents as being deserving of praise.

The situation seems to be further complicated by the issue of repetition. Supererogatory acts, when repeated, seem to lose lustre. What is exceptional, and therefore praiseworthy, can become quotidian, and thereby expected. I found this recently when, having moved home, I established a morning coffee routine in the local cafe. The first few times I was in there I decided to save the waitress some time and returned my used coffee cups etc to the counter before leaving. After about two weeks I noticed that the waitress (and it is the same waitress) was lingering over her morning newspaper, seemingly unperturbed by the detritus littering my table (by this time I had taken to ordering several coffees, partly to test her out). By week four she was clearing the tables around me, but leaving mine untouched.

Now I accept that as supererogatory acts go, returning the coffee cups did not involve an excess of spiritual expenditure. It was not Sydney Carton-esque, in that sense. But small, local kindnesses are important too, either as rehearsals for the big league or because for many of us they are about as much as we can offer. But what had happened here was that my act, through repetition, had been denuded of its supererogatory character. What had begun as an act of generosity had been transformed into an obligation. And this transformation was not simply a matter of the waitress perceiving the situation in the wrong way, since in that case I would not feel the obligation also, yet I did. When I described the experience to my brother, who has a gift for taxonomy, he categorised it as a “Larry David” situation. I like to think deeper issue are in play.

But what deeper issues? Discussions of supererogation tend to loudly affirm the separation of act from agent but in examples such as the above the character of the act seems clearly to supervene in some way on the mental states of agents and observers alike. The lesson seems to be this: you repeat a supererogatory act at your peril since pretty soon you will notice that the act flips from “good to do but not bad not to do” to “bad not to do but not good to do” without even a passing acquaintance with “neither good to do nor bad to do”. Or to put it another way: if you’re going to throw yourself on the unexploded hand grenade, best not do it more than once.

Can Existence Be Quantified Away?

I’ve been following some interesting stuff by Bill Vallicella about the “thickness” or otherwise of existence. I think the general debate is this: if you can use logical quantifiers to define “Socrates exists” in a sort of Quinean way then you remove at a stroke Heideggerean concerns about the import of “exists”. Thick theorists such as Mr Vallicella believe such reductionism to be misconceived. I think the idea is that the quantifiers import what they aim to omit and if they don’t they leave out other issues that are at leat as important etc….

Anyway there is no point in getting on board with this stuff without going back to primary texts so I opened Graham Priest’s texbook on non-classical logic to find that “A set X, is a collection of objects….”

OK: so how does the reductionism get off the floor then if set theory at its most anodyne uses a concept such as “object” which is, shall we say, metaphysically neutral?

(I realise that there’s an apples and oranges issue there but the point obtains doesn’t it? If you’re attemtpting to avoid ontological promiscuity via logical austerity had’t you be careful what you’re notation commits you to?)

US Election: A Little Light Relief

Enjoy: rebuttals are welcome (but let’s not forget the PAC rules).

(Hat tip: Bill Vallicella).

Language Games: An Appeal On Behalf of Dave

“I’m going out with my pal Rick for a beer tonight, he’s got himself into a spot of bother with the police again. Fighting.” said Dave.

I think for a minute: “Rick, I don’t think I know him do I?”.

“No” said Dave, “you’ve never met him. I know him from my anger management group.”

Dave is my running partner yet he and I are not alike. He has spent much of his adult life swirling around the British penal system and I, well, haven’t. But an interest in running can forgive a multitude of sins, and he has been gracious enough to forgive many of mine.

Dave’s back story makes for a cautionary tale of how the UK statutory services can infiltrate a life and subvert the identity of the person they purport to help. He has probation officers, social workers, outreach workers and counsellours, all vying for his time and all interfering with his attempt to construct a life, honest or otherwise. But he is fighting back, with the aid of his Penalty Box.

The idea is as follows. Whenever Dave has a meeting with a representative of any of the abovementioned agencies, he takes with him his Penalty Box, into which the relevant factotum must pay a forfeit if she uses any of the following expressions:

acceptable (or unacceptable); appropriate (or inappropriate); empower(ing); person centred (or person oriented); developmental; non-judgemental; rights-based; forward-looking ; in partnership.

If a project or service is ever said to be rolled out then Dave claims a double forfeit. And if any mention of the date is made in such a way as to imply it has a particular moral relevance then that is triple. Hence if a social worker were to say of his opinion that it is  “judgemental and not an appropriate comment to make in this, the 21st Century” then he’d hit paydirt.

But Dave has a Budweiser habit to feed and he wishes to go abroad for his Summer vacation so he is in need of funds. I therefore appeal, on his behalf, for any submissions which you the reader believe could plausibly be added to the above list.

Dave’s strategy has a pleasing consequence, one that is more than merely financial. He has discovered that in being denuded of the above expressions the social worker, probation officer and counsellour suffers a pleasing paralysis of expression and of thought.Meetings that used to take several hours are now over in minutes.  It has become obvious to him that the Wittgensteinians have a point: that there is no pre-linguistic “given”, that thought and experience are mediated by and logically consequent upon language. Strip these statutory representatives of their language game and they become like putty in his hands. He used to spend his time running from these people, now he knows that, with the help of his Penalty Box, he can philosophise them away.

Wittgenstein, Popper and the Art Of Feud.

In general outline at least the historical record is not in dispute.  In 1946 Karl Popper addressed the Cambridge Moral Sciences Club on the subject Are There Philosophical Problems?. The subsequent discussion, chaired by Russell, is known to have been lively. At one point Wittgenstein, brandishing a poker, is said to have demanded of Popper that he offer an example of  a moral rule: “Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers”, Popper is said to have replied. At which point Wittgenstein, perhaps deciding it was a case of “thereof one must be silent”, stormed out.

It has been suggested that the title and content of Popper’s paper were intended to provoke Wittgenstein who by this time is thought to have become sceptical of the existence of philosophical problems, and to believe that such “problems” were instead reducible to the misuse of language. Whether his scepticism was as well defined as many think is open to question. An alternative reading of Wittgenstein might be that he was developing a metaphilosophical perspective from which standard philosophical problems were drained of their force. Thus in the Blue and Brown Books he remarks that “philosophy really is purely descriptive”. Presumably, also, Popper thought that Wittgenstein, a former pupil of Russell and Moore, and by this time a Cambridge Don, had never come across a philosopher who took seriously the existence of philosophical problems. None of this is important of course. What is most notable about the “Poker incident” is its delicious status as an originator of that most wonderful thing: the philosophical feud.

The incident itself was too fleeting to count as a feud-in-itself (a noumenal feud as it were). But there were many, many spin offs. Defenders of Wittgenstein have claimed that it is unfair to infer from the brandishing of the poker a genuine threat. On this view Wittgenstein was just playing with the poker in a particular way. The Popperians have countered that this defence requires the existence of an inner mental object that exists in addition to the poker-behaviour and that in deploying such a “beetle in a box” the Wittgensteinians are guilty of hypocrisy. The moral philosophers have feuded differently, the deontologists suggesting that Popper’s example needs to be reformulated thus: “Do not threaten visiting lecturers”; the normativists denying that any such reformulation be necessary. Direct realists have accused idealists of denying the existence of the poker in the first place. One Contrarian Literalist has argued for years that Popper has successfully reduced all philosophical problems to the single axiom Do Not Threaten Visiting Lecturers With Pokers – though he, like the People’s Front of Judea, is pretty much on his own. Careers have been tarnished. Fists have flown. Obviously I’m making some of this up.

Most philosophical feuds lack the vibrancy of the Poker Incident (hereafter PI).  I remember as an undergraduate reading Iris Murdoch’s wonderful Sovereignty of Good and coming across the sentence “McTaggart denies that Time exists and Moore replies that he’s just had his breakfast”. This, I thought, sounds like good feud potential! But with the onset of age I’m coing to think that she might have, you know, been making a point about the nature of time. More recent exchanges between Ted Honderich and Colin McGinn had potential, but kind of petered out.

What makes for a decent feud? For one thing it seems to me that personal animus is neither necessary nor sufficient. Smith and Jones can like and respect each other and yet feud effectively, and even movingly. And the Honderich/McGinn example shows that intense mutual dislike can sabotage the feud. Whatever animus that exists must not be between the parties but must somehow be internal to the feud itself (this point is crucial, it is tragic when a decent feud founders on the rock of mutual loathing). Need the feud be about anything significant? Again I  would suggest not. Some of the greatest feuds can take as their cause the most trivial, basement, disagreement (see again Honderich/McGinn), although it is often a good idea to disguise this in the cloak of High Principle (McGinn/Honderich ibid).

The logic of feuds is interesting. Consider the relation “A is feuding with B” (AfB). Then clearly it is commutative since AfB implies that BfA. If I’m feuding with you then you must be feuding with me. If not then what we have is not a feud but a sort of extended hissy fit on my part. On the other hand there is no transitivity since AfB and BfC does not imply AfC. I could be feuding with you and you could be feuding with my brother but that does not imply that I am feuding with my brother (as it happens I am but that is not implied by the system). What happens if A is identical to B? Is it possible to feud with yourself? On the face of it perhaps not. It would be like playing chess with yourself. But on the other hand when I was drinking I sort of pulled it off (there are issues of personal identity/continuity that are raised by this, I suspect).

It is interesting that feuding has been brought into focus by the new technologies. As it happens I visit the US quite a bit. Not in person but via various internet (political) discussion boards. On one of these I have been engaged in sustained feuding with several posters over a long period of time. One of these feuds goes back, unbroken, to the Kerry nomination of 2004. Neither of us knows the identity of the other. The feud is rancorous, unrelenting and conducted (I am proud to say) in a tone of high condescension on the part of each of us. On the other hand we exchange perfectly friendly Private Messages. The animus principle as adumbrated above is therefore impeccably observed. On the other hand were we to meet we might hate each other, in which case it would be put under some pressure. This is another example, I submit, of how the internet is reshaping serious philosophical work.

(The sharp-eyed will have noted that following discussion of the Poker Incident I made the parenthetical direction “hereafter PI” and then did not refer to it again. I’m happy to defend that omission in the comments section below but only with posters willing to give up three years of their life at least to give any such potential feud an appropriate momentum)

Malmesbury – Philosophy Town

Some interesting plans are afoot to make the Wiltshire town of Malmesbury the UK’s first “philosophy town”. The market town was the birthplace of Thomas Hobbes and sits serenely atop the Vale of the White Horse. It is proposed that the town be a regular host to various philosophy-themed festivals including a three day ideas symposium next October. An ideas workshop/coffee shop is also a project under development and the historical connection between philosophizing and walking will be reaffirmed with a number of long walks (including one to the home of  John Locke) using Malmesbury as a starting point.

I don’t know of any similar proposals elsewhere in the world or if other countries support such a tradition. It would be interesting to find out. It does seem to me that there is a very good case for taking philosophy to places and audiences outside of the Academy.

I may have some involvement with the project (I live half an hour away) and will keep you posted.

A Note on Memory

“Memories……like the corners of my distributed neural architecture…” -Barbara Streisand, Memories (Eliminativist Version).

Issues concerning the nature of memory, much like those concerning the nature of humour and of the paranormal, are underdescribed in the literature. Yes, philosophers have at one time or other recognised that memory carries with it a set of philosophical questions, and much interesting work has been done. But not as much as should have been and it is curious that it has not commanded more attention, nor achieved more centrality in areas such as the philosophy of mind. Continuity theories of the self, for example,  often follow Locke to make memory a necessary condition of Smith being the same person at aged 12 as at age 30 and at age 70. Locke noticed that in order to solve the problem of the persistence of persons over time it seems insufficient to posit the existence of some substance in which experiences inhere since those same experiences could be swapped between many such substances and our intuition would remain that these experiences were of the “same” person. Memory, he argued, provides a psychological criterion of persistence which is less injurious to this intuition. Needless to say there are problems with this, not least that the ascription of memory might presuppose that the question of person-persistence is already settled.  And whilst it might be the case that memory can secure our intuition that I am the same person as I was last week, is that the same claim as that I am identical to that person. Or does this not matter?

What I want to do here is to say a couple of things about the nature of memory and then to raise what might or might not be an interesting question for reductive physicalists i.e. those philsophers of mind who would want to argue that there are no features of memory which are anything more than complex features of brain function or brain chemistry.

“Memory” is not, of course, a unitary phenomenon and we can at the outset distinguish dispositional from (what I will call) the phenomenal character of memory.  By dispositional memory I mean the wealth of acquired practices we display from the time we get up until the time we go to bed: dressing, brushing our teeth, eating, driving, playing chess, riding a bike, telling the time etc. All of these involve learned cognitive competences which do not necessarily disclose themselves to consciousness. When I am playing my friend at chess I am demonstrating a memory of the rules of chess without necessarily rehearsing those rules to myself as I consider my next move (it is interesting that the more competent the player the less such rules impinge -grandmasters tend to see in positions patterns which do not smoothly transpose onto the rules that are constitutive of the game). What can we say about dispositional memory from the point of view of philosophy? Not necessarily that much. Philosophers like to distinguish the hard from the soft problem of consciousness in recognition of the fact that there are certain features of consciousness that might smoothly be integrated into the developing brain and behavioural sciences (the smooth features) and certain other features (the hard features) that will resist such integration, no matter how complete our understanding of brain function, architecture and chemistry turns out to be. Qualia (or sense data or contents presented experientially) might present a hard problem for the cognitive sciences; dispositional memory, on the other hand, might be their bread and butter – we are all of us to some degree a bit Sphexish.

I retain, as it happens, a memory of my first kiss – with a young lady called Suzanne, in a park in Oxford, on a damp Wednesday afternoon just before Christmas 1983. This memory seems not to be an instance of dispositional memory as it presents itself to me as a mental episode, with a certain character, and this character is in no way exhausted by whatever dispositional properties the memory might have. This character is phenomenal in that it feels a certain way (in this case wistful and pleasant and not a little sad). We can notice straight away that there is an interesting relation between phenomenal memory and the beliefs which accompany it, and which are used to describe it. Suppose the kiss took place not on a Wednesday but on a Friday. Would this make the memory a “false” one? Surely not. It seems as if the memory can remain veridical even if some, perhaps the majority, of the attendant beliefs are revealed by my diary to be inaccurate. Could it remain so if all the beliefs are false?  If it turns out that my first kiss was with Jane, in High Wycombe, in May 1984 we would surely want to say that my memory of Suzanne is a false one. Would realising this affect its phenomenal character? I suspect that it would. So we might want to say that there is a connection between an episode of phenomenal memory and our beliefs about that memory but that the connection is not one that can be easily articulated. To put it another way: phenomenal memory seems to be truth functional in a way that beliefs are not and yet the truth functionality of the latter somehow and to some degree feeds back into that of the former.

Reductive physicalists, of course, will want to assimilate phenomenal memory to the cognitive sciences. On this view my memory of Suzanne is no more than some cluster of features of my brain architecture and its content will turn out to be no more than a distributed property of certain neural activities occurring in parallel (or some such story). I wonder if the following feature of phenomenal memory might give them pause. Take two events, A and B. A occurred last year and was a major event in my life. B happened yesterday and was trivial. I remember both of these events and both these memories have what I have called a phenomenal character. As well as remembering A  (MemA) and remembering B (MemB)  I also have a mental episode C in which it is disclosed to me that A preceded B and that B succeeded A. In other words, there is something about the conjunction MemA and MemB which gives a phenomenal disclosure of the temporal ordering of the two episodes. C is a sort of second-order mental episode whose character is an internal relation given by MemA plus MemB. The question then is: (1) is my analysis of the phenomenology of temporal orderings of memory events plausible; and (2) if so does it present a particular problem for the reductive physicalist? My own answers to (1) and therefore to (2) tend to differ with the time of day, I’m happy to admit. So any thoughts welcome….

Suggested Reading

Adrian Cussins: The Connectionist Construction of Concepts (in The Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence (ed Boden 1990).

Mary Warnock: Memory (1987)

Wittgenstein: Philosophical Grammar (1974) (ed Rhees)

Suggested Listening

The Beautiful South: Song for Whoever.

Bertrand Russell: Epistolary Philosopher.

“I stayed in a really old hotel last night. They sent me a wake up letter” – Steven Wright

I’ve been rereading Bertrand Russell’s Autobiography. It’s been twenty years since I last looked at my copy and the experience is quite discomfiting. I have to record that what I’ve read so far has revealed a man who is shallow, facile and shockingly self-absorbed…serves me right for reading the marginalia. Is there a workable notion of personal identity/continuity that would enable me to escape the charge that it wasn’t really me who wrote them? A loose psychological connectedness view perhaps? If so, then count me in.

I was motivated to look at the book again in part because of a recent conversation with a philosophical friend who remarked that Russell’s attempt to avoid the paradoxes of self-reference, his theory of types, is (and I think I quote her accurately) “shockingly ad hoc“. I must admit that I’ve long thought the same, that the attempt to eliminate the problems of self-reference by reference to the “direct introspection” of logical functions involved the identification of one ambiguity (in ordinary language) and its replacement with another, albeit another of a more respectable logical countenance. What I was hoping to find in the Autobiography was some description of his intellectual development on this specific point. Disappointingly, there is very little there. There is also not much light shed on Ayer’s point that Russell’s post-Principia philosophical techniques and subject matter are oddly discontinuous with the Russell of 1895-1910. Russell’s own claim that the energy invested in writing Principia Mathematica  afterwards left him unable to work at that intellectual altitude does not explain this completely.

Plenty of other things do stand out, however. For one thing the paperbook version is 800 pages long. It is impressive that someone who lived the life that Russell did, for the length of time that he did, could condense it all in so few words. The cast list is also impressive: were a Russell dinner party circa 1905 to have been interrupted by an unwelcome outbreak of botulism then it’s no exaggeration to suggest that the intellectual landscape of the 20th Century would have been vastly different (and not, in all ways, better). Keynes would have passed the port to Sydney Webb who would have passed it to Beatrice (who would have declined and then confiscated the bottle in the best interests of all the other guests).

But the most remarkable feature of the Autobiography to my mind is the revelation of the  sheer volume of correspondence Russell got through, a fraction of which is included in the form of appendices to the main chapters. Disappointingly few of these include those authored by the more famous protagonists in the development of mathematical logic. There is nothing from Peano (whom Russell met in Paris in 1900) and it seems that Whitehead was an indolent correspondent. Someone once remarked that whereas Russell, the grandson of a liberal Prime Minister, was undoubtedly an aristocrat he most certainly was not a gentleman. But I think these appendices show that the remark is unfair. It seems he corresponded with anyone, on almost equal terms, and there are some gems here: from Gilbert Murray’s spoof review of Russell’s The Problems of Philosophyto the lady who wrote to him to express her new found belief in solipsism and her hope that “everyone would become one”. You can’t help but suspect that had he succumbed to the raging contagion of text messaging then the logicist project might have died of natural causes without the intervention of Godel. “Alfred sorry was L8 2 seminar just spotted prob wiv class of classes lol c u l8er. B”.

One shudders to think…..

Beyond the Influence: Alcoholism, Free Will and Compatibilism

Determinism is the view that any event is the consequence of laws of nature acting on antecedent circumstances. Given any set of circumstances (A) and the laws of nature (L) then (on the assumption that the laws of nature are -in this universe at least- inviolable) then A plus L will inevitably lead to their consequent B. It goes without saying that A will itself be the consequence of a set of antecedent circumstances in conjunction with L. Determinism has been taken by many philosophers to be incompatible with free will on the grounds that our actions are the product of “choices” both of which are part of the natural world and are therefore subject to L. Choices are also “events” and are therefore the inevitable consequence of some set of antecedent circumstances acted upon by L; as are the expression of those choices in action. Determinism may or may not be true but if it is true then there is no room (so the incompatibilist argues) for free will. Free will is an illusion: occasionally comforting, occasionally not.Compatibilists on the other hand argue that if we allow that our choices are uncaused (call this indeterminism) then this makes them random and therefore not choices at all: the very concept of free will seems inimical to randomness. There must, therefore, be an account of free will that rescues it from determinism. Other philosophers (most notably Peter van Inwagen) have suggested that it might instead be the case that the concept of free will is incoherent since it seems inconsistent with all logically available positions regarding the truth or otherwise of determinism. At best free will is mysterious on this view.

I was reminded of all this whilst reading Beyond the Influence, an analysis of the science and sociology of alcoholism co-authored by Katherine Ketcham and William Asbury. Beyond the Influence sets out a persuasive and robust defence of the claim that alcoholism is a disease of a straightforwardly biological kind, rather than a pathological consequence of a behavioural or psychological chain (of choices). The alcoholic, they argue, has a cellular genetic inheritance that makes her interaction with alcohol qualitatively distinct from the interactions that occur within a “normal” drinker: “alcoholism is a true medical disease rooted in abnormalities in brain chemistry -biomechanical aberrations that are inherited by the great majority of alcoholics…when the alcoholic drinks something different happens” (p4).

The science is set out impressively and I see no reason to dispute the authors’ central claims that (a) alcoholism is a disease and that (b) that disease has a genetic component that amounts to more than predisposition. However they then move on to assert a collection of conclusions that can be collectively stated as: the claim that the alcoholic has any freedom of choice over his drinking relies on a distortion of the concept of freedom; the biological underpinning of the disease of alcoholism disallows the application of the concept of freedom in this case. The authors proceed to make a number of laudable claims on this basis: that alcoholism should be treated as a disease rather than as a psychological condition susceptible to fashionable therapies; that the alcoholic is a victim rather than the author of her own circumstances; that the idea that alcoholic “abuse” is a version of self-harm is misconceived; that the concentration on the behavioural over the disease description of alcoholism is in part driven by the interests of the alcohol industry. And more.

I wondered though, as I read it, whether the authors had made assumptions of the sort alluded to above. Is the contrast here really between a biological/genetic (ie determinist) versus a behavioural (free choice) analysis of the condition?  And if so is it not a false one? I know that in my own case, prior to recovery, the taking of alcohol was presenting not as desire, or even as need, but as compulsion. But I felt at the same time that the decision was nevertheless genuinely cognitive and freely taken. And that the shame that the decision to drink occasioned was not neutralised by the belief that the condition overall is a matter of biology and genetics.

Ironically enough (and as an aside) there is a discussion of compatibilism in Roger Scruton’s I Drink Therefore I Am: a philosopher’s guide to wine in which (having dismissed the idea that intoxication is a natural kind and is therefore an appropriate subject not just for science, but for philosophy as well) he introduces an aesthetic of wine which serves to underpin his Kantian sympathies. The paradox of the human condition, he suggests, is that we are at one and the same time objects in a world of other objects (and governed by the same physical laws as those objects) and freely choosing subjects with a perspective on that world of objects (from which it follows that we are apart from that world of objects). Freedom, again, is mysterious on this view and to set up free will in competition with determinism is misconceived.

Beyond the Influence is published by Bantam Books (2000); I Drink Therefore I Am is published by Continuum (2009).