Monthly Archives: September 2011

Philosopher's Carnival – September 19, 2011

Welcome to the September 19th edition of the Philosopher’s Carnival. As always, there is a lot good philosophy happening on the internet. It’s hard to keep up with everything, but I offer my recommendations for the best in academic philosophy blogging for the last 3 weeks.

Philosophy of mind & philosophy of psychology broadly construed

Ethical Inquiry

  • Richard Chappell (Philosophy, etc.), in a post called “Elite Normativity“, engages in metaethical inquiry and puts pressure on naturalists who appeal to “Lewisian ‘Elite’ properties” to try and settle normative issues.
  • Yeah, Ok, But Still, in a post called “Meta-ethics and scholasticism“, offers an interesting perspective on the noncogntivism vs cognitivism debate in contemporary meta-ethics.



  • Philosopher professor Timothy Williamson skeptically asks “What is naturalism?” in the NYT’s The Stone. Philosopher professor Alex Rosenberg responds to Williamson in a post called “Why I am a Naturalist“. More discussion here.

Philosophy of Language

Continental Philosophy


And that’s it for this edition of the Philosopher’s Carnival!


Filed under Philosophy

Russell and Knowledge: Implications for the Ontological Argument

In his article “Knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description”, Bertrand Russell explores how we can know something about an object even if we lack direct acquaintance with that object. For example, it seems that I can know that the biggest crater on the moon exists without ever being acquainted with that particular crater. In this case, I know something about the crater (that it exists), without being acquainted with that crater in any way. Thus grounds the fundamental distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description. In the case of the largest moon crater, we can have definite and certain knowledge of it (that it exists), without knowing in the slightest anything like where it is located, or how deep it is. Knowledge by acquaintance is a matter of the subject having a “direct cognitive relation” with that object. On Russell’s view, we are not acquainted with physical objects themselves, nor are we acquainted with other people’s minds. Instead, Russell claims that, when it comes to particular things, we are for the most part directly acquainted with sense-data. Although Russell thinks that the most common object to be acquainted with is a sense-datum, he also thinks that we can be acquainted with universals, such as “yellow”, which he calls a “concept”. Russell thus thinks that we are acquainted with two basic types of objects: particulars and universals. The basic particulars which we are acquainted with are sense-data, and the universals we are acquainted with are various kinds of abstract concepts such as “roundness”. In addition to knowledge by acquaintance, Russell thinks there is also knowledge by description. For Russell, a description is generally any phrase such as “the so-and-so” e.g. “the biggest crater on the moon”. And accordingly, we can have knowledge by description of an object without being directly acquainted with that object insofar as we can have knowledge that there exists the biggest crater on the moon without being directly acquainted with it, or know anything about its particular details.

An important corollary of Russell’s theory is that any description of a particular must, ultimately, be cashed out in terms of acquaintance with sense-data. The fact that I know “The biggest moon crater is 13km deep” has to be cashed out in terms of a sense-datum that I have been acquainted with, be that a sense-datum of reading about the moon crater on a website, or the sense-datum of talking to my astronaut friend who visited the moon. And likewise, the knowledge by acquaintance of the biggest crater by the astronaut has to be cashed out in terms of his acquaintance with the sense-data of his exploration of the crater, or the sense-data of his looking through a telescope. In the case of particulars then, Russell is committed to a strong reductionism whereby any knowledge by description of a particular can, in principle, be reduced to knowledge of sense-data. We thus come to what Russell calls a fundamental epistemological principle: “Every proposition which we can understand must be composed wholly of constituents with which we are acquainted” (p. 117). For Russell then, all knowledge of the moon crater as a particular thing (e.g. the fact that it is 13km deep), no matter how abstract, must rest on original first-person acquaintance with the sense-data of the moon. Of course, prior to us being acquainted with the largest moon crater such that we know it is 13km deep, we could have had only some knowledge by description of it, namely, “The biggest crater on the moon exists somewhere, but we’re not sure where yet”.

The epistemological implications of this principle run deep, for it seems like Russell would want to apply it to cases where people claim to have descriptive knowledge of entities that, in principle, no one could have ever been directly acquainted with e.g. God. If we asked what it means to understand the proposition “God exists”, a theist persuaded by the ontological argument might say it requires an understanding of the phrase “an absolutely perfect being exists”, for that is the conclusion of the argument it tries to establish (on the premise that a perfect being is most perfect, and existence is a perfection). But if we were to accept Russell’s epistemological principle, we would need to be acquainted with the concepts of absoluteness and perfection in order to properly understand the proposition “God exists”, for it seems reasonably agreed that theists are not basing their description of God on sense-data of God, except for perhaps schizophrenics. Does Russell’s theory of knowledge prevent us from being acquainted with universals like “perfection”? It’s hard for me to reconstruct what Russell’s actual view is on this question, for we would need to know more about Russell’s views on how we learn about universals. He does say, however, that in regard to learning the universal concept of “yellow”, that “Not only are we aware of particular yellows, but if we have seen a sufficient number of yellows and have sufficient intelligence, we are aware of the universal yellow” (p. 111).

If the case of yellow is analogous with the case of perfection, then it seems we would have to have been acquainted with a sufficient number of perfect beings in order to understand the concept of “perfection”. However, it is highly debatable as to whether anyone has ever been acquainted with a perfect being in his or her lifetime. Thus, if the ontological argument seeks to establish the existence of a perfect being, and such an argument requires the prior acquaintance with the concept of perfection in order to understand the conclusion, and it is only possible to learn about perfection through acquaintance with perfect beings, then the ontological argument cannot actually establish what it seeks to establish (namely, that a perfect being exists). In other words, because we must be acquainted with the concept of perfection in order to know what a “perfect being” is (as per Russell’s principle), and Russell’s principle seemingly indicates that we can only learn about such a concept through acquaintance with perfect beings, then the ontological argument cannot possibly go through because it requires that we know in advance what it sets out to prove, namely, that there exists a perfect being through which we learned about the concept of perfection. But since it seems plausible to suppose that we have no direct acquaintance with perfect beings as finite creatures, then we cannot learn about the concept of perfection in the way theists require, and thus we do not really understand (and thus know) the phrase “a perfect being exists”. That is, if we can not understand that phrase without being acquainted with a perfect being, and the only reason we would have for thinking a perfect being exists is the ontological argument, then it is plain that the argument does not work, for it assumes that one has a prior acquaintance with perfection. But as we have seen, the possibility of having an acquaintance with perfection is what it sets out to prove! One would have to show that you can learn about the concept of perfection without ever being acquainted with perfect beings. This might be possible, but if it were so, then it would be of no help to the theist using the ontological argument, for any supposed jump from having a conception of a perfect being to there actually being a perfect being wouldn’t necessarily follow if we establish that we can learn about perfection without there actually being any perfect beings.

Leave a comment

Filed under Philosophy, Theology

Thoughts on the fundamental problem of representation

I’ve been thinking a lot about the so-called “fundamental problem of representation”: what is a representation and how does it work as a representation? How do representations represent? We need to first answer what a representation is. Many philosophers seem to agree that it has something to do with “standing in”. The obvious example is a photograph. A photograph of a cat is a representation of a cat because the photograph “stands in” for the real cat. How does this work? Well, it seems to need an interpreter to interpret the photograph as a representation of a cat. But if we want to explain how the brain represents something, it obviously won’t do to posit an interpreter, for this is just a homuncular explanation.

So the photograph example is kind of a nonstarter when it comes to understanding how the brain represents something. Many philosophers believe that in order for the brain to perceive the world, it must form a representation of the world. In this way, perceiving the world is seen as forming a model of the world, which is used to compute action plans. But is this really a scientific explanation? When a brain perceives a cat, what does it mean for brain activity to “stand in” for that cat? This “standing in” function is obscure. For this reason, Eric Dietrich prefers to talk about representations as “mediators”. A representation is a mediator between a stimulus and behavior.

This makes sense to me, for I can imagine what it means for something to mediate between a physical perturbation and physical behavior. But doesn’t a thermometer also mediate between a stimulus and a behavior? What makes neurons different from thermometers? Aren’t neurons just complex bio-machines? And machines are machines. But I’m convinced there is a difference between a thermometer and a brain. I think representations in the brain are genuinely mental whereas I do not think this is true of the thermometer. Why? I haven’t quite worked this out, but I think the difference is that the mechanisms of mediation in the brain are responding to meaningful information, whereas the mechanisms of mediation in the thermometer are not responding to meaning at all. Meaning is mental. Mental mediations are mediations in response to meaning. We can thus make a fundamental distinction between nonmental representation and mental representation.

But what is meaningful information? How can we understand meaning ontologically? I think the concept of affordances is useful here. Let’s start simple. Think of sucrose molecules. Now imagine a thermometer like machine that had sensors designed to respond to sucrose, mechanisms of mediation (“processing”), and then an output behavior (turning on a green light). We have no reason to think of this machine as instantiating any truly mental mediations. Its mediations are purely responding to the sucrose causally. But now imagine a bacteria. It too has biochemical sensors designed to discriminate sucrose, mechanisms of mediation for processing it, and output behaviors. Some people think I’m crazy for holding this view, but I genuinely think that in the case of the bacteria, the mechanisms of mediation are mental. Why? Because the sucrose affords something to the bacteria, namely, nutrition. The sucrose is thus meaningful to the bacteria, whereas sucrose is not meaningful to the machine. There is an affective valence even at the level of the bacteria, it is just hard to imagine. But put yourself in the “mind” of a bacteria. Its whole world has a valence. It is attracted/repelled by physical perturbations. But unlike the machine, the bacteria perceives these perturbations as genuinely meaningful, for the sucrose affords the possibility of an opportunity for helping maintain a norm (the norm of survival). I think this emphasis on survival and affective valence is important, because I think of it as a means to solve the frame problem. Having a norm which regulates behavior enables the mechanisms of mediation to be responsive to more than just brute causal information. In enables the perception of affordances. The norm of survival is the Ur-desire, the spark of mentation. Arguably, the category between life and nonlife is fuzzy, so it’s not quite clear where to draw the line, but that there is a line is undeniable. I don’t doubt that robots could in principle instantiate their own norms to solve the frame problem, but I imagine they will look similar to biological norms.

But what about neurons? Many contemporary philosophers of mind think that “mental stuff” only happens in sufficiently complex brains. I think this is a mistake, for any association of representation with strictly neural processes will fail to answer the fundamental problem of representation. I think Dietrich is right that the concept of mediation is the right way to understand representation. But I think that neural mediation is just one form of mediation. Evolutionarily speaking, neural mediation was highly adaptive for it allowed organisms to increase the complexity of the mediation between stimulus and behavior. More complexity in mediation leads to “deeper” processing i.e. more complex behavior. Neural processing allowed for the mediations to become “abstract”. By this, I mean that the mechanisms of response become sensitive to more “global” features of a stimulus profile. This is called an increase in invariance, for differences in low-level stimulus detail will make the “higher-order” circuits fire steady. Think of perceiving a chair. We can recognize a chair from almost any angle of viewing. As we change angles, the lower-level mechanisms of response fire only in response to very specific and low-level features of the chair. At higher levels of processing, the response is steady regardless of the lower-level features. In this way, we say that the representations in the brain have become more “abstract”. Language is the ultimate in abstract mediation, for linguistic “tagging” of the world enables us to respond to very abstract kinds of information, particularly in respect to social cognition and our collapse of human behavior into abstract folk psychological categories. The vocabulary term “mind” is one of these ultimate abstractions, for it abstracts over all physical behavior and gives us a new category of response: person. Such linguistic representations are meta-representational insofar as they allow organisms to represent representations, to mediate mediations. Many theorists, including myself, think that it is meta-representation which separates the mental life of humans from that of other animals.

In summary, the fundamental problem of representation is to understand what a representation is and to answer how it works as a representation. Representations are stand ins for stimuli. A stand in for a stimuli is a mechanisms of mediation between stimuli and behavior. There are two fundamental types of mediation: mental and nonmental. Nonmental mediation is ubiquitous in the physical world, whereas mental mediation is rare. Mental mediation is mental because the mechanisms of mediation are sensitive to affordance information, which is grounded by norms, the most evolutionarily basic being the norm of survival. Mental representations thus form a continuum of possible abstraction, with neural representations only being a kind of mediation, enabling deeper abstraction through stimulus-invariance. There is thus nothing mysterious about representation. The term itself is a shorthand description of the complex mechanisms of mediation intrinsic to an entity.


Filed under Philosophy, Psychology

In Defense of Naturalism: A Response to Timothy Williamson

In a recent article in The Stone,  Timothy Williamson has some strong opinions on the intellectual strength of naturalism as a comprehensive worldview. What does Willamson mean by naturalism? He says ” [Naturalists] believe something like this: there is only the natural world, and the best way to find out about it is by the scientific method.” This is supposed to be a bad thing. Why? Because, for starters, the current science of physics might be superseded by a different physics in the future. Hence,  “Naturalism becomes the belief that there is only whatever the scientific method eventually discovers.” And how does Williamson characterize the scientific method? “[Science] involves formulating theoretical hypotheses and testing their predictions against systematic observation and controlled experiment. This is called the hypothetico-deductive method.”

What’s the problem? For one, Williamson doesn’t think this method can handle the science of mathematics. Moreover, “Which other disciplines count as science? Logic? Linguistics? History? Literary theory? How should we decide? The dilemma for naturalists is this. If they are too inclusive in what they count as science, naturalism loses its bite.” Apparently, “I don’t call myself a naturalist because I don’t want to be implicated in equivocal dogma. Dismissing an idea as “inconsistent with naturalism” is little better than dismissing it as “inconsistent with Christianity.” And coming to the crux of his attack on the intellectual respectability of naturalism, Williamson says “Where experimentation is the likeliest way to answer a question correctly, the scientific spirit calls for the experiments to be done; where other methods — mathematical proof, archival research, philosophical reasoning — are more relevant it calls for them instead…Naturalism tries to condense the scientific spirit into a philosophical theory. But no theory can replace that spirit, for any theory can be applied in an unscientific spirit, as a polemical device to reinforce prejudice. Naturalism as dogma is one more enemy of the scientific spirit.”

I find this whole article to be fantastically misguided in its attempts to attack naturalists as “dogmatic” or antiscientific in “spirit”. For one, I think Williamson has not adequately captured the intellectual core of naturalism as a worldview. In my opinion, the essence of naturalism is not a defense of the “hypothetico-deductive method” as the only worthwhile method of inquiry. Rather, the essence of naturalism is the claim that there is no supernatural realm and no supernatural entities inhabiting that realm. The essence of naturalism is thus negative, in the sense that it denies that there is something beyond the natural world (whatever that might turn out to be). But contra Williamson’s caricature, naturalism, in my view, does not impose strict edicts on the best method for investigating the natural world. Naturalism is merely the view that the natural world is all there is, with nothing extra left over.

Of course, one can step into dogmatic waters in trying to explicate what exists in the natural world. But I don’t think naturalism is required to say what the ultimate constituents of the natural world is, be that atoms or some kind of quantum foam. Is there only one universal super object and all other objects are merely modes of that super object? Or are there a lot of fundamental objects? I take it that we can’t decide on these issues from the armchair. But this is not a failure of naturalism for naturalism is essentially a reactive enterprise. Our species’ religious history has caused us to inherit theological baggage such that many people would say that there exists both a natural world and a supernatural world. Naturalism is simply the thesis that the supernatural world is a figment of our overactive imaginations. In order to make this claim, the naturalist need not say anything substantial about the best method to inquire about the natural world. It is only a thesis about the fictive status of historically proposed supernatural realms like heaven and hell as well as the supernatural entities which inhabit these realms like angels, demons, and gods.

Accordingly, we can see that Williamson has it exactly backwards in regards to the supposed “dogmatism” of naturalism and the scientific spirit. For who is more dogmatic? The naturalistic who “dogmatically” proclaims the supernatural realm is an illusion based on the latest and greatest brain science, or the supernaturalist who proclaims he “just knows” the supernatural realm exists because he has faith in it? For this is the great advantage of naturalism: what it “dogmatically” proclaims to exist (the non-supernatural reality) is, in principle, discoverable or encounterable by means of our fleshy sensory apparatuses coupled with whatever tools we can harness, like the telescope or atom-smasher. In contrast, what supernaturalism dogmatically proclaims to exist is not, in principle, encounterable by such flesh for the supernatural is defined as being outside of time and space. Of course, supernaturalists often claim that supernatural entities do in fact interact with our world, but such claims cannot be brought into the respectable scientific arena of prediction and manipulation, so the claims are often left unprincipled and taken on faith. And of course, supernaturalists often report experiences of the supernatural. But in regards to explaining such experiences, it strikes me as obvious that brain science and evolutionary theory (including theories of cultural evolution) does a better job of accounting for why people believe their experiences of the supernatural are veridical. A better explanation than “the experiences are accurate” is that the brain is capable of causing hallucinations that are triggered by specific cultural contexts such as being raised in a religious environment where the interpretational framework of supernaturalism exists. It remains to be seen if a far-future atheistic society would interpret hallucinations in the same way as most people do now.

In conclusion, I have attempted to argue that Williamson is wrong to claim naturalism’s most basic claim is about the hypothetico-deductive method being the only method of inquiry. Instead, naturalism’s most basic claim is that the supernatural realm implicitly and explicitly assumed to exist by religious people throughout history is in fact, fictive. All that exists is the natural world. But naturalism as a basic thesis makes no claims about about (1) what the natural world is most fundamentally or (2) what the best method(s) for inquiring about that world are. Both of these questions need not be completely resolved in order for us to see that supernaturalism (the only true opponent of naturalism) is intellectually bankrupt.


Filed under Philosophy, Theology