Top News, Articles, and Interviews in Philosophy

Philosophy Lecture at CSULA

Those in the Los Angeles, CA area may be interested in a lecture being given by Mariana Ortega, Shula Chair and Professor of Philosophy at John Carroll University. Her talk is titled, “Home, Belonging, and Multiplicitous Subjectivity” and will cover the notion of “home” in terms of a politics of location, a notion of belonging that accompanies such a politics, and a view of multiplicitous subjectivity.

The talk is being given on Thursday, May 20, 2010 from 3:15-5:15p in the San Gabriel Room.

More information here.

Words Matter

Noam Chomsky, that innovative linguistic, is not known for mincing words. Now it seems language—his raison d'etre—is keeping him out of the West Bank. Chomsky was set to give a lecture at Birzeit University when he was stopped at the Jordan border. According to the professor, “the government did not like the kinds of things I say and they did not like that I was only talking at Birzeit and not at an Israeli university too.” For a linguist, that seems somewhat fitting. See full article.

Philosophy Goes Mainstream

Philosophy has long been out of vogue. Mainly relegated either to ivory towers or to mainstream books with titles like [Your Favorite Cultural Icon] and Philosophy, it’s now showing up alongside All the News That’s Fit to Print. The New York Times has just launched a new forum on philosophy called The Stone--an opinion series moderated by Simon Critchley. According to the editorial introduction,

thestone45_1[1] The Stone is a new opinion series that will feature the writings of contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless — art, war, ethics, gender, popular culture and more.

Good for philosophy or another trivialization? Time (or The Times) will tell.

Epistemology: Just the Facts?

I recently bemoaned the misuse of important philosophical concepts by the blogosphere. I came across another article that uses the term epistemic closure and the usage in this article is even more puzzling than in the first. While this article by Rod Dreher is no more about epistemology in a philosophical rigorous sense than Christian Science is about Christianity or science, Dreher, through his autobiographical mea culpa does touch on some topics that epistemologists do find interesting.

The first is the relationship between epistemology and psychology. Philosophers tend to study knowledge and belief in the abstract—what these things are or what ought they to be. It’s rare for an epistemologist to do actual clinical studies of specific belief states and draw hard analytic data from them. Surely actual beliefs are considered but they tend to become the fodder for abstract cases that can then be analyzed and discussed. (Incidentally this level of abstraction seems to be attractive only for purely academic philosophers. Will Durant found the discipline so disconnected from reality that he called it “that dismal science” and purposefully neglected it in his popular work The Story of Philosophy (Preface to the Second Edition, xix)). Even so, philosophical epistemology and epistemic psychology ought to be joined at the hip.

Dreher observes that actual belief formation isn’t a pure assimilation of the facts which are then run through an impassioned logical framework which produces beliefs and knowledge. Beliefs are formed in the nexus of a variety of intentional states including desires, fears, hopes, and the like. An analysis of the actual process of belief formation must include these dynamics if it is going to be at all accurate. Dreher writes in reference to his belief that the war in Iraq was justified,

As longtime readers will remember, I've written about how I ignored or otherwise dismissed all arguments and information contrary to what I wanted to believe. I was entirely closed to any contrary viewpoint. But here's the thing: I thought I was the one with the open mind, and all the naysayers were so blinded by ideology, fear or cowardice that they couldn't see what was plainly true. In retrospect, I have been able to see how the strong post-9/11 emotions I had conditioned all the information I took in the march up to war.

His belief about his beliefs about the war were that they were not the product of a “pure” analysis. Rather, intentional states like desires and fear played a strong role. And certainly this is true for a lot of the beliefs we hold. John Searle, in my opinion, has done some of the more significant recent work on intentionality in his book by the same name (he started this project in his book Speech Acts). Searle defines intentionality as a property of mental states (not sentences) in which the content of that mental state has as its referent some object or state of affairs ("the specification of the mental state . . . requires the specification of some object or state of affairs") which is not identical with the mental state (182). Intentionality is a primitive in Searle's ontology.It is how the mind grasps things in the world.

He contrasts intentionality with intensionality. The latter “Intentionality-with-a-t is, so to speak, a ground floor property of the mind. It is how the mind grasps other things. But intensionality-with-an-s is primarily a property of sentences and other forms of representation. Some though not all intensional sentences are about intentionality-with-a-t.” (189). Searle describes two essential concepts important to intentionality.

Representation. He emphasizes that his use of this term is logical not ontological. By this he means that representation does not mean a picture of the belief or 'meaning' or the like. Rather, representative content means that the Intentional state has propositional content which determines a set of conditions of satisfaction that its mode (Intentional states are in a psychological mode which I take to mean the type of thing it is) which determines the direction of fit (mind to world) of the propositional content (12). But representation is not the only aspect to an intentional state. "The key to understanding representation is conditions of satisfaction."

Conditions of Satisfaction. Conditions of satisfaction are "those conditions which, as determined by the Intentional content, must obtain if the state is to be satisfied….Thus, if I have a belief that it is raining, the content of my belief is: that it is raining. And the conditions of satisfaction are: that it is raining--and not, for example, that the ground is wet or that water is falling out of the sky." In traditional epistemology, the conditions of satisfaction would be similar to the correspondence relation between a proposition and a state of affairs in the world (the Correspondence Theory of truth).

Given this, he describes belief as “a propositional content in a certain psychological mode, its mode determines a mind-to-world direction of fit, and its propositional content determines a set of conditions of satisfaction." (15) Searle attempts to sidestep the mind-body problem by addressing Intentionality in terms of its logical properties and then rely on a separately-argued worldview (or better, metaphysic) to solve the ontological problem: how the logical properties of Intentionality are realized in the world (see Intentionality, 15). Intentional states then make up the basic framework of thought and the content of the mind can be described in terms of the intentional states it has at any given moment. Belief is just one intentional state among many and the content of the mind is a matrix of these states in dynamic interplay.

Dreher’s article focuses on specific issues the Catholic church is dealing with and how much the leadership of the church actually knew regarding those issues. Dreher takes a guess. But I wonder if he misses another crucial point about epistemology and psychology: knowledge probably is irreducibly first person which makes it very difficult to make statements from a distance about what another person actually believes (or believed). If Dreher’s analysis of Ratzinger is solely based on what he reads in the media, he’s largely reading words used by an editor that publicize his beliefs about what his writer wrote down about his beliefs about what people largely removed from the Pope believed about what the Pope believed. This is not skepticism about knowledge. It is an acknowledgement that epistemology is a tough business.

Philosophy Students Balk at Department Closures

Due to financial difficulties, Middlesex University has decided to close the philosophy department. Students of that department are pushing back.

However, the Middlesex decision has not been justified to students. A meeting to brief the students about the closure was postponed, says the university, because of pressing coursework deadlines. Perhaps trying to justify the decision to 60 students well versed in the art of logic was too daunting for the university authorities.

Full article

new_news_image **Update (5/17/2010): See this interesting article by Inside Higher Ed on the subject. Apparently, the news of the closure set off a firestorm of opposition across the pond.

Hell, Fire, and (Global) Warming

I came across this op-ed piece in the New York Times today by Al Gore on global warming. While there’s little of obvious philosophical value in this article, as one who grew up in a very conservative Christian church, I’ve been struck by the similarities between the language Gore uses to articulate his cause and that used by leaders in my conservative upbringing. What struck me most about his article (and Gore’s whole campaign on this topic) is how brilliantly it functions as an alternative to the Christian narrative for those in the West.

  • It has a “transcendent,” largely ineffable object towards which we must direct our energy: the planet and “the life of future generations”,
  • It’s largely unproved and un-provable (this is an important epistemic feature in my opinion),
  • It has skeptics to give the faithful wagons to circle: “climate deniers”,image-burning-planet
  • It provides a path to redemption (“From the standpoint of governance, what is at stake is our ability to use the rule of law as an instrument of human redemption.”),
  • It provides a strong locus of guilt as a motivator: “We would no longer have to worry that our grandchildren would one day look back on us as a criminal generation that had selfishly and blithely ignored clear warnings that their fate was in our hands.”,
  • It has a religious text, a church, and an apologist defending the apparent mistakes of both: “the reality of the danger we are courting has not been changed by the discovery of at least two mistakes in the thousands of pages of careful scientific work over the last 22 years by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”,
  • It has missionaries and priests: “Here is what scientists have found is happening to our climate”, and
  • It employs a tacit use of fear to incite action; the threat of a future “hell” if you will: “[a failure to fight global warming will result in] the displacement of hundreds of millions of climate refugees, civil unrest, chaos and the collapse of governance in many developing countries, large-scale crop failures and the spread of deadly diseases.”

With the narrative of Christian theism largely displaced among the educated and affluent in the West, this narrative has stepped in filling the gap and is does so with aplomb. Based on the behavior of educated professionals I work with and the attention given to this issue by those in the popular media, Gore’s apologetic has many devoted disciples. They faithfully are shedding their worldly possessions in an effort to reduce their carbon footprint, they attempt to live modestly (apparently so they don’t take up more than their fair share), they are religious about recycling which appears to be their version of being good stewards of the planet, and they look askance and incredulous towards anyone who does not share the faith.

I suppose the important take-away is that Ernest Becker was right. Human beings need religion or a worthwhile surrogate. It’s life or death to us.

Sam Harris on Science and Morality

Metaphysical gadfly Sam Harris has stirred the pot once again by raising the issue of whether a general theory of ethics can be based solely on a scientific foundation. In an article for the Huffington Post, Harris responds to feedback he has received on a recent talk he gave at the TED conference in which he discusses his new book on the relationship between science and morality. In this article defending his speech, Harris does two things. First, he affirms that moral statements have truth value. (Ironically, in this respect, he ends up giving aid to many of the religious conservatives by which he made his name excoriating.) Second, he argues that all moral statements can be grounded in a robust science of the mind. In this respect, he reaffirms his commitment to naturalism and to defend the tenets of the new atheism.

He spends most of his article responding to an essay by Sean Carroll in which Carroll responds to Harris’s TED speech. While Harris and Carroll agree on the definition of science and even what a “science of morality” might look like, Harris takes issue with Carroll’s claim that a science of morality is possible (even in principle). Harris’s primary quibble with Carroll is with what he takes to be Carroll’s moral and epistemic skepticism regarding moral truth which is rooted in a largely inaccessible and varied inner-subjective experience.  

New atheists like Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins eschew postmodern thought mainly on the grounds that all truth is scientific truth and therefore in principle objective. That is, theoretically science can provide any inquirer with exhaustive knowledge about any true fact (practically science is no where near this ideal but that’s merely a factor of the current state of the art). This would seem to include any fact about a person’s psychology at any given moment since psychological facts are reducible to “facts about human neurophysiology.” If there are facts that are in principle out of the reach of an ideal science—if fact and meaning are not coextensive--naturalism as a comprehensive worldview would, at the very least, need to be modified.

Harris’s consequentialism leads him to conclude that not all humans are equally valuable since one life may have a greater ability to produce good than another. It also has epistemic implications about ethical truth. Individual value judgments when reduced to particular brain states just have to turn out to be similar (or identical) at the end of the day even if the people that hold those judgments say they’re different. Person A saying he believes torturing babies for fun is a good gives us no reason whatever to believe that person’s A moral claim corresponds to the truth of the matter. If A’s brain state is similar to B’s who disagrees with A’s stated moral judgment then A and B share the same moral view regardless of what A claims.The moral fact about this act is reduced to the neurophysiology and any claims to the contrary can’t be taken seriously.

Harris likens the situation to epistemic claims about what constitutes a valid explanatory method. Here Harris goes after postmodernists who might question the validity of logic and evidence as the foundation for scientific reasoning. If a postmodernist questions the validity of logic, what possible argument could be given in response? The very question is a non-starter. “The right question is, why should we care what such a person thinks in the first place?” Harris says. Similarly, if a person says she believes that torturing babies for fun is a moral good, what possible moral response could we give? Harris thus moves the analysis of ethical principles from the squishy ground of moral philosophizing to the terra firma of physical states of the brain and seems to claim that the brain state is where the true moral truth value lies. He simply finds it hard to believe that an objective analysis of brains will vary wildly between two humans with normal physiology.

While the desire to move ethics onto firmer and more consistent ground is headed in the right direction, Harris gives up too much in his desire to avoid metaphysics. Type-type identity theories in philosophy of mind are deeply problematic and attempts to articulate a complete epistemology on such theories have foundered. Attempting to move ethics onto such unstable ground may end up proving much the worse for ethics. As Daniel Robinson has said, if you tell your doctor you’re in pain and he disagrees, it’s time to find a new doctor.


Sam Harris seems to be no lover of philosophy: “I am convinced that every appearance of terms like "metaethics," "deontology," "noncognitivism," "anti-realism," "emotivism," and the like, directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.”

A New Biography of Friedrich Nietzsche


Francis Fukuyama of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies writes an abstract of a new biography of Nietzsche for the New York Times. The biography, written by Julian Young and titled, A Philosophical Biography of Friedrich Nietzsche, avoids overly psychologizing reducing the philosopher to  “fluke in the philosopher’s personal development.” This largely positive review highlights some of the stronger aspects of the biography and focuses mainly on the formative events in Nietzsche’s life including his relationship with Wagner and some of his failures with women.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, we continue to live within the intellectual shadow cast by Nietzsche. Postmodernism, deconstructionism, cultural relativism, the “free spirit” scorning bourgeois morality, even New Age festivals like Burning Man can all ultimately be traced to him.

Nietzsche’s life is important regardless of what one thinks of his philosophy and another view into that life is certainly welcome.


Greek Philosophy and Postmodernism

I have a friend, a postmodernist, who believes that language constitutes thought. As a corollary, he believes that without language we couldn’t think. He told me recently that he first encountered the idea in a class he took on Plato. If all of Western philosophy indeed are footnotes to Plato, then I suppose it would be relatively easy to find just about any modern system in his thought. I got to thinking about my friend’s comment after reading this blog post on CathNews.

In this post, author John Kelly attempts to draw analogies between contemporary postmodern thought and ancient sophism and skepticism. While his article takes on a decidedly religious tone, he does make some interesting general claims about the impact to metaphysics of adopting a postmodern stance . Postmodernist epistemology (if there is such a thing – my friend assures me there isn’t) seems at least to nibble along the edges of skepticism if not consuming rather generous portions in it’s more melancholy incarnations. Adopting a thought/language identity thesis would seem to at least involve some kind of a denial of the traditional mind/world distinction since a thought of a dog is not a thought of a dog-out-there but is just “dog” in the head. The “ofness” or “aboutness”—the intentional state—seems to have disappeared.

Linguist Steven Pinker discusses problems with the language-is-thought view (what he calls “linguistic determinism”) in his excellent book The Stuff of Thought. After describing the view and many of the challenges it faces, he states the thesis of his book in terms that are in direct contrast to linguistic determinism: “language is a window into human nature, exposing deep and universal features of our thoughts and feelings; the thoughts and feelings cannot be equated with the words themselves.” (Kindle location, 3,012-38, emphasis mine) He then gives four reasons why language is a part of our mental framework but that the latter isn’t identical with the former.

First, we had to learn language in the first place. It seems difficult to describe a pre-linguistic scenario (one he believes had to be the case for humans) which then gave rise to language since in this pre-linguistic scenario, no one would ever have had a thought! Second, thoughts are stored in memory much more abstractly than bits of language. This is no trivial point. Take the word “God” for example. That simple word typically labels something much more complex and much more rich in the mind of the person that conceptualizes God. Third, limits of language don’t appear to limit thought. When the latter outgrows the former, we change the language to suit the expansion of thought. More importantly, it does appear that the latter outgrows the former and not vice versa. Finally, he says “the effect of language on thought must be limited [because] language itself is so badly suited as a medium of reasoning.” (Ibid.) Words, he says, don’t appear to contain the relevant information that is necessary for making logical inferences. The word “window” does not in any way imply “hole in the wall” simply by looking at the structure of the words. Abstract concepts “link” the two together.

This analysis of language is somewhat of tangential point to the conclusions Kelly is interested in drawing. But it isimportant in this respect: there seems to be a good degree of difficulty in talking about a “postmodern metaphysic” and this is brought into relief when one looks at how postmodernists understand language. As Kelly notes, postmodernism’s “denial of language’s ability to grasp what is real . . . refuses language status beyond expressing flux, asserting there is no fixed, universally shared meaning to words.” This, in my opinion, is a point of departure and should be deeply understood by anyone participating in “the conversation.”

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