Tag Archives: metaphysics

Philosopher’s Carnival No. 146

Hello new friends, philosophers, and likeminded internet creatures. This month TPM is hosting the Philosopher’s Carnival.

Something feels wrong with the state of philosophy today. From whence hast this sense of ill-boding come?

For this month’s Carnival, we shall survey a selection of recent posts that are loosely arranged around the theme of existential threats to contemporary philosophy. I focus on four. Pre-theoretic intuitions seem a little less credible as sources of evidence. Talk about possible worlds seems just a bit less scientific. The very idea of rationality looks as though it is being taken over by cognate disciplines, like cognitive science and psychology. And some of the most talented philosophers of the last generation have taken up arms against a scientific theory that enjoys a strong consensus. Some of these threats are disturbing, while others are eminently solvable. All of them deserve wider attention.

1. Philosophical intuitions

Over at Psychology TodayPaul Thagard argued that armchair philosophy is dogmatic. He lists eleven unwritten rules that he believes are a part of the culture of analytic philosophy. Accompanying each of these dogmas he proposes a remedy, ostensibly from the point of view of the sciences. [Full disclosure: Paul and I know each other well, and often work together.]

Paul’s list is successful in capturing some of the worries that are sometimes expressed about contemporary analytic philosophy. It acts as a bellwether, a succinct statement of defiance. Unfortunately, I do not believe that most of the items on the list hit their target. But I do think that two points in particular cut close to the bone:

3. [Analytic philosophers believe that] People’s intuitions are evidence for philosophical conclusions. Natural alternative: evaluate intuitions critically to determine their psychological causes, which are often more tied to prejudices and errors than truth. Don’t trust your intuitions.

4. [Analytic philosophers believe that] Thought experiments are a good way of generating intuitive evidence. Natural alternative: use thought experiments only as a way of generating hypotheses, and evaluate hypotheses objectively by considering evidence derived from systematic observations and controlled experiments.

From what I understand, Paul is not arguing against the classics in analytic philosophy. (e.g., Carnap was not an intuition-monger.) He’s also obviously not arguing against the influential strain of analytic philosophers that are descendants of Quine — indeed, he is one of those philosophers. Rather, I think Paul is worried that contemporary analytic philosophers have gotten a bit too comfortable in trusting their pre-theoretic intuitions when they are prompted to respond to cases for the purpose of delineating concepts.

As Catarina Dutilh Novaes points out, some recent commentators have argued that no prominent philosophers have ever treated pre-theoretic intuitions as a source of evidence. If that’s true, then it would turn out that Paul is entirely off base about the role of intuition in philosophy.

Unfortunately, there is persuasive evidence that some influential philosophers have treated some pre-theoretic intuitions as being a source of evidence about the structure of concepts. For example, Saul Kripke (in Naming & Necessity, 1972:p.42) explained that intuitiveness is the reason why there is a distinction between necessity and contingency in the first place: “Some philosophers think that something’s having intuitive content is very inconclusive evidence in favor of it. I think it is very heavy evidence in favor of it, myself. I really don’t know, in a way, what more conclusive evidence one can have about anything, ultimately speaking”.

2. Philosophical necessity

Let’s consider another item from Paul’s list of dogmas:

8. There are necessary truths that apply to all possible worlds. Natural alternative: recognize that it is hard enough to figure out what is true in this world, and there is no reliable way of establishing what is true in all possible worlds, so abandon the concept of necessity.

In this passage Paul makes a radical claim. He argues that we should do away with the very idea of necessity. What might he be worried about?

To make a claim about the necessity of something is to make a claim about its truth across all possible worlds. Granted, our talk about possible worlds sounds kind of spooky, but [arguably] it is really just a pragmatic intellectual device, a harmless way of speaking. If you like, you could replace the idea of a ‘possible world’ with a ‘state-space’. When computer scientists at Waterloo learn modal logic, they replace one idiom with another — seemingly without incident.

If possible worlds semantics is just a way of speaking, then it would not be objectionable. Indeed, the language of possible worlds seems to be cooked into the way we reason about things. Consider counterfactual claims, like “If Oswald hadn’t shot Kennedy, nobody else would’ve.” These claims are easy to make and come naturally to us. You don’t need a degree in philosophy to talk about how things could have been, you just need some knowledge of a language and an active imagination.

But when you slow down and take a closer look at what has been said there, you will see that the counterfactual claim involves discussion of a possible (imaginary) world where Kennedy had not been shot. We seem to be talking about what that possible world looks like. Does that mean that this other possible world is real — that we’re making reference to this other universe, in roughly the same way we might refer to the sun or the sky? Well, if so, then that sounds like it would be a turn toward spooky metaphysics.

Hence, some philosophers seem to have gone a bit too far in their enthusiasm for the metaphysics of possible worlds. As Ross Cameron reminds us, David K. Lewis argued that possible worlds are real:

For Lewis, a world at which there are blue swans is a world with blue swans as parts, and so a world with round squares is a world with round squares as parts.  And so, to believe in the latter world is to believe in round squares.  And this is to raise a metaphysical problem, for now one must admit into one’s ontology objects which could not exist.  In brief, impossible worlds for Lewis are problematic because of how he thinks worlds represent: they represent something being the case by being that way, whereas his opponents think worlds represent in some indirect manner, by describing things to be that way, or picturing them to be that way, or etc.

And to make matters worse, some people even argue that impossible worlds are real, ostensibly for similar reasons. Some people…

…like Lewis’s account of possibilia but are impressed by the arguments for the need for impossibilia, so want to extend Lewis’s ontology to include impossible worlds.

Much like the Red Queen, proponents of this view want to do impossible things before breakfast. The only difference is that they evidently want to keep at it all day long.

Cameron argues that there is a difference between different kinds of impossibility, and that at least one form of impossibility cannot be part of our ontology. If you’re feeling dangerous, you can posit impossible concrete things, e.g., round squares. But you cannot say that there are worlds where “2+2=5″ and still call yourself a friend of Lewis:

For Lewis, ‘2+2=4’ is necessary not because there’s a number system that is a part of each world and which behaves the same way at each world; rather it’s necessary that 2+2=4 because the numbers are not part of any world – they stand beyond the realm of the concreta, and so varying what happens from one portion of concrete reality to another cannot result in variation as to whether 2+2 is 4.

While Cameron presents us with a cogent rebuttal to the impossibilist, his objection still leaves open the possibility that there are impossible worlds — at least, so long as the impossible worlds involve exotic concrete entities like the square circle and not incoherent abstracta.

So what we need is a scientifically credible account of necessity and possibility. In a whirlwind of a post over at LessWrong, Eliezer Yudkowsky argues that when we reason using counterfactuals, we are making a mixed reference which involves reference to both logical laws and the actual world.

[I]n one sense, “If Oswald hadn’t shot Kennedy, nobody else would’ve” is a fact; it’s a mixed reference that starts with the causal model of the actual universe where [Oswald was a lone agent], and proceeds from there to the logical operation of counterfactual surgery to yield an answer which, like ‘six’ for the product of apples on the table, is not actually present anywhere in the universe.

Yudkowsky argues that this is part of what he calls the ‘great reductionist project’ in scientific explanation. For Yudkowsky, counterfactual reasoning is quite important to the project and prospects of a certain form of science. Moreover, claims about counterfactuals can even be true. But unlike Lewis, Yudkowsky doesn’t need to argue that counterfactuals (or counterpossibles) are really real. This puts Yudkowsky on some pretty strong footing. If he is right, then it is hardly any problem for science (cognitive or otherwise) if we make use of a semantics of possible worlds.

Notice, for Yudkowski’s project to work, there has to be such a thing as a distinction between abstracta and concreta in the first place, such that both are the sorts of things we’re able to refer to. But what, exactly, does the distinction between abstract and concrete mean? Is it perhaps just another way of upsetting Quine by talking about the analytic and the synthetic?

In a two-part analysis of reference [here, then here], Tristan Haze at Sprachlogik suggests that we can understand referring activity as contact between nodes belonging to distinct language-systems. In his vernacular, reference to abstract propositions involves the direct comparison of two language-systems, while reference to concrete propositions involves the coordination of systems in terms of a particular object. But I worry that unless we learn more about the causal and representational underpinnings of a ‘language-system‘, there is no principled reason that stops us from inferring that his theory of reference is actually just a comparison of languages. And if so, then it would be well-trod territory.

3. Philosophical rationality

But let’s get back to Paul’s list. Paul seems to think that philosophy has drifted too far away from contemporary cognitive science. He worries that philosophical expertise is potentially cramped by cognitive biases.

Similarly, at LessWrong, Lukeprog worries that philosophers are not taking psychology very seriously.

Because it tackles so many questions that can’t be answered by masses of evidence or definitive experiments, philosophy needs to trust your rationality even though it shouldn’t: we generally are as “stupid and self-deceiving” as science assumes we are. We’re “predictably irrational” and all that.

But hey! Maybe philosophers are prepared for this. Since philosophy is so much more demanding of one’s rationality, perhaps the field has built top-notch rationality training into the standard philosophy curriculum?

Alas, it doesn’t seem so. I don’t see much Kahneman & Tversky in philosophy syllabi — just light-weight “critical thinking” classes and lists of informal fallacies. But even classes in human bias might not improve things much due to the sophistication effect: someone with a sophisticated knowledge of fallacies and biases might just have more ammunition with which to attack views they don’t like. So what’s really needed is regular habits training for genuine curiositymotivated cognition mitigation, and so on.

In some sense or other, Luke is surely correct. Philosophers really should be paying close attention to the antecedents of (ir)rationality, and really should be training their students to do exactly that. Awareness of cognitive illusions must be a part of the philosopher’s toolkit.

But does that mean that cognitive science should be a part of the epistemologist’s domain of research? The answers looks controversial. Prompted by a post by Leah LebrescoEli Horowitz at Rust Belt Philosophy argues that we also need to take care that we don’t just conflate cognitive biases with fallacies. Instead, Horowitz argues that we ought to make a careful distinction between cognitive psychology and epistemology. In a discussion of a cognitive bias that Lebresco calls the ‘ugh field’, Horowitz writes:

On its face, this sort of thing looks as though it’s relevant to epistemology or reasoning: it identifies a flaw in human cognition, supports the proposed flaw with (allusions to) fairly solid cognitive psychology, and then proceeds to offer solutions. In reality, however, the problem is not one of reasoning as such and the solutions aren’t at all epistemological in nature… it’s something that’s relevant to producing a good reasoning environmentreviewing a reasoning process, or some such thing, not something that’s relevant to reasoning itself.

In principle, Eli’s point is sound. There is, after all, at least a superficial difference between dispositions to (in)correctness, and actual facts about (in)correctness. But even if you think he is making an important distinction, Leah seems to be making a useful practical point about how philosophers can benefit from a change in pedagogy. Knowledge of cognitive biases really should be a part of the introductory curriculum. Development of the proper reasoning environment is, for all practical purposes, of major methodological interest to those who teach how to reason effectively. So it seems that in order to do better philosophy, philosophers must be prepared to do some psychology.

4. Philosophical anti-Darwinism

The eminent philosopher Thomas Nagel recently published a critique of Darwinian accounts of evolution through natural selection. In this effort, Nagel joins Jerry Fodor and Alvin Plantiga, who have also published philosophical worries about Darwinism. The works in this subgenre have by and large been thought to be lacking in empirical and scholarly rigor. This trend has caused a great disturbance in the profession, as philosophical epistemologists and philosophers of science are especially sensitive to ridicule they face from scientists who write in the popular press.

Enter Mohan Matthen. Writing at NewAPPS, Mohan worries that some of the leading lights of the profession are not living up to expectations.

Why exactly are Alvin Plantinga and Tom Nagel reviewing each other? And could we have expected a more dismal intellectual result than Plantinga on Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos in the New Republic? When two self-perceived victims get together, you get a chorus of hurt: For recommending an Intelligent Design manifesto as Book of the Year, Plantinga moans, “Nagel paid the predictable price; he was said to be arrogant, dangerous to children, a disgrace, hypocritical, ignorant, mind-polluting, reprehensible, stupid, unscientific, and in general a less than wholly upstanding citizen of the republic of letters.”

My heart goes out to anybody who utters such a wail, knowing that he is himself held in precisely the same low esteem. My mind, however, remains steely and cold.

Plantinga writes, “Nagel supports the commonsense view that the probability of [life evolving by natural selection] in the time available is extremely low.” And this, he says, is “right on target.” This is an extremely substantive scientific claim—and given Plantinga’s mention of “genetic mutation”, “time available,” etc., it would seem that he recognizes this. So you might hope that he and Nagel had examined the scientific evidence in some detail, for nothing else would justify their assertions on this point. Sadly, neither produces anything resembling an argument for their venturesome conclusion, nor even any substantial citation of the scientific evidence. They seem to think that the estimation of such probabilities is well within the domain of a priori philosophical thought. (Just to be clear: it isn’t.)

Coda

Pre-theoretic intuitions are here to stay, so we have to moderate how we think about their evidential role. The metaphysics of modality cannot be dismissed out of hand — we need necessity. But we also need for the idea of necessity to be tempered by our best scientific practices.

The year is at its nadir. November was purgatory, as all Novembers are. But now December has arrived, and the nights have crowded out the days. And an accompanying darkness has descended upon philosophy. Though the wind howls and the winter continues unabated, we can find comfort in patience. Spring cannot be far off.

Issue No.147 of the Philosopher’s Carnival will be hosted by Philosophy & Polity. See you next year.

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Close Encounters of the Cancer Kind: Is Philosophy a Preparation for Death?

There is nothing like a diagnosis of stage four inoperable lung cancer with bone metastases to give one a shock. I have known since I took logic as a young man that “Human beings are mortal. Socrates is a human being. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” However, I was not Socrates, and as far as I was concerned that syllogism was just an example of a valid argument. However, when you put your own name in place of “Socrates” things look very different. Now I am an oldish philosopher (67), and suddenly the real possibility of my own death in the fairly near future has become a reality. Mortality approaches.

I know that philosophers concern themselves mostly with abstract and very general questions in epistemology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, etc.. By and large they do not approach philosophical questions from a personal perspective. Even death can be approached as an intellectual or conceptual problem. However, when Santa gave me my cancer diagnosis for Christmas 2011, abstract philosophy and my personal experience unavoidably came together. I now wonder if I can write in a very personal way about the universal truth that we are all going to die, what this means, and if there is anything of general import that I can express about what is happening in my own case. This breaks some common views of what philosophy is, but I do not have time to care about that now. So I am addressing you from a personal perspective, from my frame of life, and I ask your indulgence.

Let me state my tentative conclusion at the start. I do feel that having studied philosophy seriously for 46 years allowed me to keep my calm when the doctor gave me my diagnosis after a routine CT scan. For a second, I sat there feeling nothing at all. However, the next thought that came to me was gratitude for the life I have lived. Maybe other people do not feel this. Kubler Ross famously discusses five stages of grief and loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I seemed to skip the first four. This is not to say that I instantly reached acceptance, but I did come first to gratitude. Now, after six months of living with lung cancer, I am trying to understand what acceptance of death may amount to.

Each of us can only judge and describe the world from our own time frame. If I had been much younger, my response to the diagnosis might have conformed more to Dr. Ross’s formula. The world looks very differently at different stages of life. Nevertheless, how one has looked, thought, and felt about life and death throughout one’s life has to make a difference at the end. In my case, the lens through which I have considered life has always been philosophical. Snatches of philosophical thoughts have lodged in my mind since I was was young. These are like seeds that took root deep in my mind and have matured and grown over the years. Now I feel that they are bearing fruit, helping me to live a new and deeper life. One nugget stands out to complete this first meditation on life and death.

Plato’s famously stated that “Philosophy is a preparation for death.” The Greek word that Plato uses for ‘preparation’ is ‘Melete’ and the root meaning is ‘care’ or ‘attention’. It can also mean ‘meditation,’ ‘practice’ or ‘exercise’. So are philosophers supposed to ‘practice’ dying, or simply to recollect the fact of mortality as they live their lives? What difference will that make?

I confess a great love of Plato and his amazing Socrates. However, I cannot go along with his tentative conclusions. We know what Socrates argues in the Phaedo. The reason that practicing philosophy is a preparation for death is that Socrates believes that the soul and the body are separable, that the soul is immortal, and that a very different after-life awaits those who have lived a good or evil life. Therefore, it behooves us to separate our own soul from our body as much as possible while we live and to detach ourselves from the preoccupations of mundane life.

The reason that I admire Socrates in the Phaedo is that after giving his ‘proofs’ of the immortality of the soul, he has the greatness to admit that his arguments are only the reasons he personally accepts to advance his position. He does not claim that they absolutely prove the soul is immortal. It is a postulate of Socrates’ practical metaphysics. In fact, he says that if he is wrong, and death is total extinction, then he will never know he is wrong, and his folly will be buried with him.

So in what sense can the study of philosophy be a preparation for death if one does not accept metaphysical dualism? I do not accept any such thing, but I still feel that my study of philosophy has helped me prepare for my present state. Does this mean that the study of any topic in philosophy will have this effect? I do not think so. I am not at all sure that one would prepare for death very well by spending 40 years working in the salt-mines of post-Gettier epistemology, nor in picking over all he convoluted arguments in mereology and inductive logic.

To see how the study of philosophy might be of value in preparing to die, we have to go back to the root meaning of ‘philosophy’ as the ‘love of wisdom’. Wisdom is not a topic that comes up very much in contemporary philosophy. It was more to the fore in the ancient world, where wisdom, ethics, and the question of living a good human life were brought together in a philosophical approach to living. For me, loving wisdom has to do with taking up the largest possible perspective in which to live one’s life, going all the way back to the Big Bang, including all of space and time, the natural history of the universe, the geology of the earth, and the total history of animals and human beings on this planet spinning through a gigantic universe. It covers all the natural cycles of life and death and sees everything as part of this comprehensive whole. Somehow, living in this context has helped me see life and death as part of a seamless process. Death shadows life as naturally as the shadow one casts on the ground on a sunny day. There is no point in denying it, and no point in worrying about it. Perhaps acceptance lies in this direction.

Get That Chip Out of My Brain!

There has of late been some discussion of free will and determinism, and particularly the relative merits of compatibilism versus incompatibilism, at various blogs. (See, for example, here, here and here.)

I must confess that I’ve not followed these discussions closely, despite having a longstanding interest in this issue (see here and here, for instance), so I don’t really have anything substantive to say about the debate, except, I guess, that I’m inclined towards the sort of incompatibilism espoused by Jerry Coyne (my hands were strangely reluctant to type that).

However, this does seem like an opportune moment to ask the readers of Talking Philosophy for their advice and opinions about an interactive activity that I put together at Philosophy Experiments, which explored some of these issues through a look at a Frankfurt Case and some other stuff. It’s here:

Get That Chip Out of My Brain!

Thing is, I programmed the activity about six months ago now, but I was never happy with it, and haven’t added it to the front page of the site (it’s been played quite a lot because of traffic that comes in via Google, etc).

Basically, my view is that most people will find the stuff about “Transfer NR” (John Martin Fischer & Mark Ravizza) confusing and philosophically suspect – it seems tricksy – and I tend to think that I ought to rewrite the whole activity, focussing on the Harry Frankfurt stuff, which I think works much better.

If anybody felt inclined to play through the activity (it’ll only take a few minutes), and let me know if they agree, disagree, or have any other thoughts, that would be really helpful. If it turns out that even a few people think it doesn’t work, then I’ll almost certainly rewrite the thing (because I think there is a good interactive exercise in there somewhere, but I’m not sure this is it).

Practical Metaphysics: The Case of Freewill and Fatalism

Do humans act of their own free will, or is everything that people do merely the result of universal causation? Are free will and determinism compatible or incompatible? Does fate rule whether or not free will exists? These questions are metaphysical because neither science nor the techniques of formal logic can answer them once and for all. This is the first principle of practical metaphysics. The second is that it is necessary in life to adopt some metaphysical beliefs. The third is that some of these beliefs have practical consequences for one’s life. Free will conforms to the second principle, because everyone takes a stand on the question. However, not all metaphysical beliefs have practical consequences, so we must examine each case as it comes up.

Believing in the existence of free will clearly does have practical consequences. Believers are willing to accept responsibility for their actions. They think that their choices matter. The future is not a foregone conclusion. Praise and blame lose their grip if a person “cannot help” acting in a certain way. Another consequence is that such people will be less likely to blame others or circumstances for their own mistakes. Still another is that belief in free will supports an optimistic attitude. It makes sense of trying to do better, believing the future is open, and that it is actually possible to improve.

Does the belief in determinism have practical consequences? Perhaps. If it turns out that the truth of universal causation determines human actions, and if actions can be reduced to physical actions and chemical processes, then it is indeed true that all my actions will be determined in advance by antecedent causes. What difference would the truth of this assertion make to how I live my life? We are unable to know the entire antecedent universe. Whether or not it is true that the future is determined in advance, the future is opaque to us. We learn from experience what happens regularly in different circumstances, all things being equal. However, we cannot know if all things are equal in any particular case. Hence, we might be excused for thinking that a belief in metaphysical determinism makes no difference to the life of an agent.

Is this the whole story? Might it be possible to use a belief in determinism as a universal excuse for one’s actions? If my body and body chemistry move along with the universal causal nexus regardless of what I think, plan, feel or do, then what do my choices and reasons mean? Can I, therefore, abdicate my responsibility along with my free will by adopting a thorough-going metaphysical determinism? Or, does my ignorance of determining conditions make it impossible for me to give up my sense that I am responsible for my choices and actions?

If believing in determinism is a way to deny personal responsibility, then accepting it has practical consequences. It is an approach to life. Perhaps it would be better here to speak of the attitude of fatalism rather than universal determinism. With fatalism we can accept that we have to make choices, but believe that no matter what choices we make, our fate is sealed. Think of Somerset Maugham’s old story about the man who met the person of Death in Cairo, ran for his life to Samara, only to find Death waiting for him there, saying “When I saw you in Cairo, I thought you might be late for our our date in Samara, but here you are.” It was fate.

Fatalism is the view that what will be, will be, and nothing can change that. Might not taking on this view turn a person into a quietest who lives a still and passive life? Perhaps, if one believes in fate, one will not struggle against it. A clear literary example of this is described in Richard Adam’s epic rabbit adventure, Watership Down. At one point, Hazel and the other rabbits who are striking out to find a new home, run into a tribe of rabbits who live a well fed and pleasant life. However, they are taken for the pot one by one. All these rabbits know that one day they will be taken, but they do no know what that day will be. So they spend their time writing poetry and putting on tragic dramas, waiting quiescently for their individual ends. Hazel discovers what is going on and offers them a chance to escape. The ‘artistic’ rabbits turn down the offer by saying that their lives are their fate and they are resigned to it.

Perhaps there is another way, too, that belief in fate might affect one’s approach to life. There is a scene in Johnson’s “Rasselas” in which the hero meets a scientist who is weighed down by his conviction that he controls much of the weather and brings up the sun each morning from the top of his observatory. He is cured when he realizes that it is all a fantasy in his head. Finding out that something is not within one’s own power can be a relief. Responsibility is a heavy burden that can be laid down when one finds that the issue is out of one’s control. If we combine that with the idea of God’s providence, we have a source of consolation as well. I conclude that believing in free will or fatalism has practical consequences for the life of the believer, and thus falls within the subject matter of practical metaphysics.

Practical Metaphysics: The Case of God

Why should anyone bother about metaphysical questions? Spending time discussing them may seem speculative and inconsequential. However, while all metaphysical reasoning is speculative, it is far from inconsequential. Taking up a metaphysical stance is both unavoidable and has profound consequences for human life. To take the case of God, there are practical consequences for believers, atheists, agnostics and even those who are indifferent to the whole question of God’s existence. Practical metaphysics brings to our awareness both the nature of metaphysical thinking and the consequences that accompany and flow from it.

The first principle of practical metaphysics is that metaphysical propositions are never conclusively proved. The second is that human beings are obliged to believe at least some metaphysical propositions. The third is that belief in some unavoidable metaphysical propositions bring practical consequences. Metaphysical beliefs come with a price tag, and we do well to be aware of this in adopting one metaphysical stance or another.

A perfect example is the case of God. Does God exist? Can we prove or otherwise know that God exists? Can we know God’s nature? Is God a Supreme Being or Beyond Being? These are weighty questions, and they have been answered at length many times. Different proofs or disproofs have been been offered. Various approaches have arisen in history, been swept away by new arguments, only to resurface later in other forms. For example, Aristotle’s Argument from Design to the operation of an Unmoved Mover has morphed many times over the centuries, with Creationism and Intelligent Design as its latest versions. The ontological argument for God’s existence has also resurfaced since it was laid out by St. Anselm in the 11th Century, particularly by Descartes and Leibniz.

Old metaphysical theories are never totally defeated. Their defenders simply die out. Once people forget that a metaphysical theory has been exploded by argument, it creeps back again, for it is always possible to hold any metaphysical theory, no matter how absurd it may seem to some. For example, I might persist in the belief that I exist in the Matrix, despite the fact that I have no empirical evidence for it, nor does any empirical experience make the hypothesis self-contradictory.

The case of God is perhaps the most urgent issue in practical metaphysics, for the simple reason that religious beliefs have the widest ranging practical implications. Such beliefs involve many aspects of life, including emotional responses and moral judgments. The stance of ‘Righteousness”, for example, is a metaphysical stance for it is founded on the Rock of the Lord. Living up to Divine Commandments is an exercise in practical metaphysics. The same can be said of Kierkegaard’s formula of faith in God: resting transparently in the power that supports you. This idea of resting in God is a powerful one. Life is difficult, troubles mount, and the end is pathetic, if not tragic. It gets to be too much for an individual to bear. What a relief to give up one’s troubles to God.

There is a kind of psychic economy here. I give up my burdens to God, and God buoys me up. This is a widely reported experience. There are many things that are out of an individual’s control. Misfortune is always a possibility, no matter how well you manage what is within your power. It is a real comfort to think that there is a benign power loving and caring for each of us. You may be cut off from the love of family and friends, because they die, while you continue to live a bit longer, but you cannot be cut off from the love of a Divine Father who cares for you as of a child. God plays the role of provider and sustainer, and this metaphysical belief attracts many people. It does so, I would contend, precisely because of the practical benefits that the belief in things unseen brings to the imagination of the confessed believer.

William James adopts this sort of approach in his “Varieties of Religious Experience.” He is not so much interested in logically proving God’s existence as in looking at how human beings describe their religious experiences. He distinguishes between ‘healthy souls’ and ‘sick souls’. So far I have been talking about the practical consequences of religious belief for the ‘healthy’ soul. The healthy soul concentrates on God’s goodness, love, forgiveness and care for us. We have faith that all things will be well in the end. The ‘sick’ soul concentrates more on human sinfulness, particularly its own. Here is Jonathan Edwards’ terrible God who holds us like spiders over the gaping pit of Hell. A perfect example of a sick soul is Stylites, the ascetic spiritual gymnast, who lived atop a pillar in the desert for twenty years to do penance for sins of the flesh. The practical consequences for the body are clear. The ascetic shows disdain for the body and welcomes its destruction in the name of a higher reality. Similarly, those for whom heaven and hell loom large in a post-terrestrial existence, will see life, not as a passing dream, but as a drama that is played out for eternal stakes in the life of each individual.

These are the sort of practical consequences that arise from having beliefs about God. Practical metaphysics helps us to explore them. For example, there are also practical consequences in believing that there is no God, that the existence of God is always in doubt, or that the whole question of God’s existence is nothing to us one way or the other. All these positions have their costs and their benefits. With the last three, one must forgo Divine comfort, a supernatural afterlife, and the belief that everything will come right in the end. On the positive side, non-believers are not troubled by thoughts of hell, the last judgment, or being observed by heavenly scribes. From this perspective, life is a dream, and nothing lasts forever. Living one’s life in either of these ways is, or can be revealed to be, a choice or stance in life that has no other foundation than the metaphysical commitments of the individual.

Practical Metaphysics: The Case of Mind-Body Dualism

Metaphysics is unavoidable in human life and metaphysical assumptions predate rational self-conscious reflection. Though most people spend little or no time pondering metaphysical questions as such, there is no one who does not adopt one metaphysical stance or another. What I mean by a metaphysical stance is a position that assumes certain realities that go beyond empirical tests and all possible observations. These assumptions have practical consequences for the way a person experiences the world and projects him or herself into it. It is part of our ‘being in the world’. Philosophers, of course, have explicitly considered metaphysical questions. What is Being? Reality? Metaphysical Substance? How are appearances related to what is? How do reason and logic function in arguing metaphysical theories?

One unavoidable metaphysical concern is the problem of mind-body dualism. The ancient Western philosophical tradition largely treats mind and body as separate, though the concept of ‘mind’ is modern. The ancient distinction is between body and soul. Bodies can disintegrate, but souls move on to whatever awaits them after leaving the body. Some are described as going to Hades as gibbering shades, some to the Blessed Isles, others to the River Tartarus, Heaven, Hell or Paradise. Some are said to pass from body to body in successive reincarnations. Can we prove that such views are logically impossible?
Other-worldly religions perpetuate a commitment to metaphysical dualism for the simple reason that if this were not true, then there would be no ‘other world’, no afterlife, no other body to inhabit. Dualism is an unavoidable metaphysical view for those who believe and have faith in the existence of life after death. It is right that believers in the afterlife speak of belief and faith, because no metaphysical view can be proved beyond doubt.
Descartes provoked the modern problem by casting the mind-body distinction as one between Divinely created secondary metaphysical substances. This idea permitted the continuance of mental life beyond the destruction of the body. He deferred to revelation at the cost of logical consistency in his philosophy. Today’s debate about mind-body dualism takes up a naturalistic rather an a religious perspective. From this perspective, dualism can hardly be understood.
Sometimes a gap opens up between one metaphysical orientation and another. People looking at each other from opposite sides of this gap, over time, start speaking, as it were, different languages. We really stop being able to understand one another. It is like the lack of understanding we find in two intransigent ideologically-minded political parties. At this point, argument loses its grip. It is useless to attack someone who is not standing on the same metaphysical ground as oneself. The best we can do is to profess ignorance of metaphysical matters and start asking questions about the different views and their practical implications.
The situation is complex, but the basic idea is that the rejection of metaphysics is itself a metaphysical position. Even my own non-dogmatic skepticism is a profession of faith in the benefits of lightening the load of beliefs I carry. There are still plenty of things that I believe provisionally on the basis of experience, but I do not have to go on to make a leap of faith to one of the alternative metaphysical narratives that history has thrown my way.
To conclude, let us return to mind-body dualism. Accept it or reject it, one is willy-nilly entering into a personal contract with a metaphysical view. Furthermore, no matter what view is adopted, it will have practical consequences and affect one’s life and lived experience. So, from the naturalistic position of most Western university philosophy departments, what is the practical consequence of dropping mind-body dualism? The main one is that we will no longer be able to speak of mind continuing after the end of the body.
Accepting dualism, on the other hand, which it is always possible to do with faith and belief, legitimizes one or another of the myriad narratives that deal with the next life. For many believers, there is a heavenly judge who sees how law-abiding one has been. However, one’s consciousness changes upon the thought that one is being observed. In one story, Saint Peter is always looking on, never sleeping, recording in his book one’s good and bad deeds and intentions. This puts a burden on those who accept mind-body dualism that is absent from those who do not. I hope this shows that practical metaphysics is not a contradiction in terms, but a necessity. It is best to be actively conscious of the role that practical metaphysics plays in all our lives.

Mind-Body Interactionism

It seems natural to speak of physical occurrences and mental processes interacting. I step barefoot on a tack. Unless my foot is asleep, I will feel a pain where the tack has entered. The tack is logically distinct from the sensation of pain caused by stepping on it. Stepping on the tack precedes the feeling of pain. It happens regularly and predictably. Is there something philosophically wrong about speaking this way?

Going in the other direction, imagine waiting for your beloved at the station. The whistle of the approaching train makes your heart go pit-a-pat in anticipation. This would probably stop if Uncle Henry got off instead. Our thoughts, desires and feelings are regularly followed in time by changes in body chemistry and neural activities. We can learn to predict what effects having certain thoughts will have on our bodies.

I remember as a teenager climbing a steep switchback trail rising over 4,000 feet. Trying to keep up with the other back packers, I began to get out of breath, my heart raced and I started to feel dizzy. A friend advised me to listen to my body and find a rhythm of walking that suited me. This turned out to be slow but steady. I was told to count my steps over and over, one to four, in a time that brought my heart rate down and calmed my breathing. This was good advice. My thoughts about hiking changed and so did my body’s response to the task.

From a common sense point of view, there is nothing wrong with talking about physical events causing mental events, or vice versa. Philosophically, however, the theory that mind and body interact is difficult to maintain. One reason may be that the problem arose in the context of Descartes’ dualism. Given his metaphysical position, it is hard to see how there can be any interaction between mind and body, since they do not share any properties. Descartes’ own solution is hard to accept, since it requires occult entities called ‘animal spirits’ that somehow run messages from the mind to the body and the other way around.

However, speaking about mind-body interactions the way we do seems most apt in the examples I have given and many others. Does using the language of mind-body interactions require a commitment to a metaphysical dualism of substance between mind and body? Surely not. When we speak of mind and body, we are not speaking of two separate things. There is only one thing that is in question.

How, then, can there be mind-body interaction if mind and body are really one? I grant that there is a problem here. If mind and body are one, then it is misleading to speak of them interacting as of they were different things. There may, in fact, be no interactions on some metaphysical level, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to describe in any other way the ordinary cases of what we pre-reflectively call ‘mind-body interactions.’ It is sufficient for my purpose to remain at the level of phenomenological description. Looking at how we experience the world, it seems that philosophical identity theories of mind and body make it harder to say what we want to about common appearances of mind body interactions.

It would be so much easier to square identity theories with our experience if we were not inherently temporal beings, living through a sequence of times. In this contingency, we find the mind-body distinction useful to us in a rough and ready way. This is all we need to register the patterns of mind-body interactions that commonly appear to occur in life. We can learn from experience which patterns to cultivate and which to avoid. If I drink too much, I will get a hangover. If I think too long about a personal insult, my heart rate will increase and nasty chemicals will be injected into my body.

The mind-body distinction is ‘thought constituted’ and not a distinction in reality. However, we use the distinction because we find ourselves in a situation where mental processes precede bodily processes, and vice versa. We find it useful to distinguish ‘things’ from ‘consciousness of things’. Experience teaches us the connections. So, in conclusion, we do not have to feel philosophically embarrassed to speak loosely of mind-body interactions. On the contrary, it is for those who hold that mind-body interactions are either senseless or impossible, to explain why it appears that mind-body interactions happen all the time,

The Mind-Body System

The hypothesis that the soul and the body are separable is as old as the dream of an afterlife. In early Greek days, the soul was identified with ‘pneuma’ or breath. Watch someone die and you will see a last exhalation. People believed that the soul of the dying departed the body with that last breath, and, just perhaps, went somewhere else. The fear of death, literally a fear of ‘nothing’, seems to be the other side of loving life. It is an animal fear that finds a characteristically human response. Entertaining hopes of an afterlife is very understandable, especially considering that death is mysterious and we cannot know with absolute certainty what happens after we die.

In Western philosophy and religion, the soul-body split is maintained as an article of faith for many centuries. With Descartes, in the early modern period, the soul morphs into a ‘mental substance’. In his metaphysical dualism, the Christian ‘soul’ becomes ‘cognitivized.’ The mind becomes identified with ‘thinking’ and ‘immediate self’-awareness’.

Descartes’ way of distinguishing mind and body has a certain plausibility. Otherwise, his theory would not have been taken seriously. The mind, and things mental, do not exist in space or have parts with spatial dimensions. Mental objects exist without doubt in our subjective appreciation of them. Each mind is a true individual, while bodily things have no absolute identity, being just thicker or thinner parts of one huge material substance. Minds and bodies are bearers of completely incompatible properties, and thus refer to separate metaphysical substances.

From this high point, there can only be questions, and Descartes, himself, starts the process. For example, he said that the soul is not in the body the way a captain is in his ship. There is some kind of substantial unity of mind and body. In addition, he thought it obvious that we are all aware of thoughts causing physical reactions, and bodily events causing changes in thinking and feeling. Thinking, here, involves everything of which we have direct awareness, like our perceptions, sensations, emotions, thoughts, mental images, and so on.

The famous problem with Descartes’s theory is that there seems to be no way to explain the substantial unity or the interaction of mind and body. He undermines his own theory by attempting to explain the connection in terms of ‘animal spirits’ that are based in the pineal gland but spend their time taking messages from the body to the mind or vice versa.

Opposed to this dualism are various forms of monism claiming that we merely describe one substance in different ways. However plausible, there is something missing from an approach that starts from the position that dualism must be overcome with a theory of direct reconciliation or identification of mind and body. Of course,working from the naturalistic principles common today, we cannot have the soul flying off somewhere after the death of the body. Aristotle is reasonable about this. Mind (nous patheticon) is the idea of a living body of a certain complexity. Without that living body, the individual’s mind is gone. Naturalism is incompatible with an invisible after life.

This is reasonable, but we would do well to shift to another way of thinking about the mind-body problem. Instead of looking at it as a problem of separate entities that must be reconciled, we might try looking at the mind and body as part of a system. This system includes more than cognition and bodily properties. We are speaking of human beings here, and we need a dynamic and systematic understanding of them, not one that can be captured in a still picture.

Humans exist in time and history. We cannot abstract their ‘minds’ and their ‘bodies’ from the complex and interactive world in which they live. The concepts of ‘mind’ and ‘body’ are too bare to support a systems approach. I therefore propose to jump over all the arguments about the sameness or difference of mind and body, and try to formulate a way of conceiving them as belonging to a dynamic system in which philosophy, psychology, behavioral economics and neuro-physiology will play a part in deepening our self-understanding, thus obeying the philosophical injunction to know oneself.

Thinking of Nothing

Is it possible to think of nothing and remain awake? Is thinking of nothing the same as not thinking at all? Is being conscious of something the same as thinking? Do all thoughts take objects? Where do ‘objects of thought’ come from? Perhaps these are odd questions. Usually there is no need to ask. Thinking is about something or other.

We spend a lot of time thinking about the future. This includes all the mundane things we have to plan for and carry out. It includes thinking about what is coming up for our health, education and job prospects, relationships, the state of the economy, politics, retirement, taxes, death; in short, all the things that people care about that point to the future.

We spend most of the rest of the time thinking about the past. I think of the good times and the bad times, the people I have known. Sometimes an old landscape comes before my imagination, now covered with houses and roads, sometimes a flower I have seen, or the smell of orange blossoms in spring. I think of old loves and passions, the turmoil of youth, the work of middle age, and the reflections of later life. Looking back, we can try to see the meaning hidden in events that were too close and involving to be understood clearly at the time.

Can objects of thought come from the present? I do not see why not. Bringing your attention to sensations or perceptions of objects brings you directly to the present. This is because the living body is rooted in the present in a way that thinking is not. For example, to become conscious of the feeling in your left foot is to come into the present of your body at a particular moment. Similarly, becoming aware of the specific perceptual qualities of an object also brings you to your senses. So if you were to see a rare bird and remember to pay attention to its color, and the flash of its wings, this, too, brings you into the present of your body as perceptual system. All too often one is ‘elsewhere’ when the bird passes by. In addition, there are contemplative practices that fill the present meaning, as in Plato’s intellectual contemplation of the Forms or religious contemplation of sacred symbols. However, such objects are not temporal in the same way as sensations or objects of perception.

Yet more objects of thought come from subjects like logic, mathematics and geometry. The objects of these studies are universal necessary truths that do not depend upon contingent facts for their validation. I can intuit some simple truths like this. For example, I can see a circle is round and a square is rectangular. So, if I take up a position, as Spinoza suggested, “under the aspect of eternity”, I am thinking about something that does not change over time. Every time I look at a circle, I can be sure to see its circular shape. Some objects of thought are timeless.

Have I left anything out? What about “Mindfulness?” Does mindfulness count as thinking about something or nothing? By “mindfulness” I am thinking of a dedicated or “single-minded” mindfulness. Roughly speaking, this form of mindfulness brings one into the present moment without comment or judgment. One is simply in watchfulness over what transpires within one’s field of bodily/mental experience. Mindfulness is word free, a simple awareness of a present actuality that cannot be named, but can be encountered in stillness. Chattering to oneself destroys it. The words that make up our descriptions and explanations distract us from the moment.

One can be mindful in different ways. I am mindful of the pavement so that I do not trip, or mindful of the feelings of others. I am mindful of putting the silverware away, conscious of putting each fork or knife into it proper place. Here, we are still thinking of things, albeit in a mindful way that brings us more fully into the present moment. Nevertheless, discursive or calculative thinking is incompatible with ‘single-minded’ mindfulness.

So, can one think of nothing and remain awake? The answer is ‘yes’ in the case of ‘single-minded’ mindfulness. It is thinking of nothing in the sense of not categorizing things or making calculations about them. It is neither having abstract truths before one’s imagination, contemplating symbols or images, nor attending to sensations. ‘Single-minded’ mindfulness is neither engaged in the world, nor apart from it. It does not tell itself stories, valuing or negating, wishing or hoping, but receives and accepts whatever is going on as long as it continues; allowing thoughts and feelings, words and images, to exist as soon as they arise and to let them go as soon as they are ready to leave.

Realisms: a polemic (Part 1)

“Realism” is a word that gets tossed around the university like a koosh ball. This concept — if there is a concept — is used with varying degrees of plausibility. We’re told that we are obliged to believe in moral realism (unlikely), realism in theology (unstable and speculative), realism about the external world and the people in it (yes), realism about social institutions (I don’t know), and realism in international relations (in Hans Morgenthau’s sense, almost certainly not). In each case, we’re meant to target some area of interest for discussion: the moral, the theological, and so on.

Faced with this onslaught of realisms, it is tempting to think that the word, “realism”, represents different concepts depending on different contexts of use. Echoing Ian Hacking’s question to the social constructionists, we might ask from the outset: “Realism about what? When you say that so-and-so is real, what point are you trying to make?” Maybe there isn’t a single sort of argument that runs through the list. Maybe it’s all just a bunch of language-games.

Still, some hope that we can find various sites of heated controversy that characterize all forms of realism. For them, it is tempting to think that, beneath the mosaic of disparate arguments, there is some kind of general, substantive, and tractable dispute. Maybe, we sigh in relief, the whole thing is more than just the fever-dreams of bored scholars.

Over the next week, I am going to post a multi-part series about realism and idealism. By the end of it, I want to convince you that any debate over Realism is a safari with small game. The history of the debate is a history of verbal clashes and equivocations, whose ultimate legacy appears to be persistent confusion on The Guardian’s editorial pages.

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