Sunday, February 20, 2011

Philosophy Not Worth Bothering With

[a.k.a., She Reads it so We Don't Have To.]

Among the less-well-known philosophers whom I have especially enjoyed, is Susan Haack, the author of a bracing survey, Philosophy of Logics (1978).   Recently I have been slowly working through her principle work on epistemology:  Evidence and Inquiry (1993).  “Working through” is the mot juste, for it is sometimes tough slogging.   She carefully distinguishes more sub-subcategories of philosophical stances than there are practicing analytical philosophers who might embody them, many of these labeled with Peirce-style neologisms (“foundherentism”) or with truly inscrutable homonyms like “science” and “SCIENCE” to subindex subtle distinctions in the senses of various terms.  Leading, in the worst instances, to passages like

    FOUNDATIONALISM does not imply foundationalism, nor foundationalism foundationalism. (*)

(Imagine trying to read that aloud!  For the capitals, I supposed one could shout, or flap one's arms like a chicken;  for the italics, tilt your head to the right ...)
Still, she’s good company, with a very level head.

As the book goes on, though, and as she gets past such reliable stalwarts of earlier years as C.I. Lewis, Hans Reichenbach, and Quine, she feels herself obliged to engage with an increasingly creepy set of characters, who apparently infest the Academy these days.  She diligently expounds their positions -- truly an unpleasant task;  but then, she gets paid for it.

Thus, on page 149, she conscientiously canvasses the arguments put forward by one Goldman, and combatted by one Cohen:

In Epistemology and Cognition, he faces the objection articulated by Cohen, that reliabilism yields counter-intuitive consequences under the hypothesis of an evil demon who brings it about that our beliefs are comprehensibly false.  If there is such an evil demon, reliabilism implies that we have no justified beliefs.

Oh does it now.
Look folks -- if the universe is ruled by an evil demon, --  then we’re f*cked.   Just --  f*cked.   No epistemology, no morality, game over.  Pawn your typewriter, and join the party, looting and raping till the sun goes down.

These essays do not aim at surpassing simple theism, since that is all that Cantorian Realism has to contribute along those lines -- no implications for morality, really, that I can see.   Sticking to the intellectual arena here, not from first principles, but the way Babe Ruth stuck to baseball.  It’s what I know.   But faced with such sciamachy between hand-puppets as the epic battle of Goldman vs. Cohen…. we wish to posit one further axiom, merely for intellectual hygiene:

=>  Our cosmos is not ruled by any demon.
=>  It is ruled by God, and God is good.  Or, as Einstein put it (in a strictly philosophical/scientific context),  “Boshaft ist er nicht”.

This is not  by any means  to deny the existence of demons, nor of their Dark Prince,  who has his fat thumb in many a soup-bowl.   But those sterile beings did not lay out the Creation, nor do they rule it now.  To find them, you have to dive head-first down the moral/philosophical toilet bowl.

If that seems more an Alexandrian thwack at the Gordian knot, than a genuine untying of it, it is still preferable to the usual alternatives.  Haack mentions two of them (p. 215):  one, that the Demon Hypothesis is “covertly unintelligible”; two, that “since the deception it hypothesizes would be absolutely undetectable, it is, for us, epistemically absolutely idle”.  Now, first, the Demonic Hypothesis (as I shall re-name it, since it is not merely about demons, but is itself demonic) is perfectly intelligible;  second, what is idle is to assume that the deception need be “absolutely” undetectable.   It would only have to be largely undetectable, to reduce human life to a travesty;  in the movie “Matrix”, eventually a doughty band actually does detect it.  
But in fact, we are not in this existential pickle, since God is good -- thank God.

Oh dear… it gets worse.
Reading on a bit, we come to this:
in Evidence and Inquiry (1993), p. 153:

By the time of Epistemology and Cognition, Goldman is making much more startling claims.  The division of labour now envisaged between philosophical analysis  and empirical psychology  assigns to the former  only the task of supplying a schematic account such as Goldman’s ‘criterion schema’ for the rightness of J-rules;  according to Goldman, it is for psychology to supply a substantive theory of justification, to adjudicate between foundationalism and coherentism, to determine whether there is such a thing as a priori knowledge…

Folks … psychology is a sub-branch of zoology.   And as such, all very well in its way.  After all, to zoology falls the welcome task of displaying the wondrous ways of Our Friend the Beaver.   But its philosophical significance  is next to nil.

Why, then, does this professional philosopher  yield to such abdication/self-abnegation?  The move does not seem to have anything to do with anything we have hitherto discussed (deficient commitment to theism or what not).  But Haack herself weighs in with a perceptive … psychological suggestion (ibid, p. 156):

I suspect that his aspirations to found a new interdisciplinary enterprise  in which psychology supplies the straw  and philosophy makes the bricks, since it has no very cogent motivation, may be explained in part by the hope that epistemology might come to share something of the prestige and intellectual excitement that the booming fields of AI and cognitive psychology enjoy.

Astute, that.


Uh-oh… Another page, another outrage.
We are used to philosophers, and scientists masquerading as such, attacking Faith, and believers;  well and good.  And debunking this or that belief as false or confused.   But now we find some wiseacres maintaining, not merely that many of our beliefs are epistemically shaky,  nor even that we may have no justified beliefs whatever (a point with some truth to it, if you’re a real stickler for justification, but one which should not be put in the hands of adolescents), but that we have no… beliefs…. tout court.   Such a position (admittedly attention-getting, like a flasher or a  flagpole-sitter) is espoused by the ineffable Paul Churchland, as well as by one Stich, whom we’ll not further identify.  (Nor could I tell you whether the surname rhymes with sick or with bitch.)  Evidence and Inquiry, p. 159:

Churchland holds that beliefs are mythical because not ‘smoothly reducible’ to neurophysiological states.  Stich, that beliefs are mythical because their content … violates the ‘autonomy principle’ to which psychological explanations supposedly conform.

She comments:

Churchland’s and Stich’s thesis that there are no beliefs  rests, at bottom, on misconceptions about what beliefs are.

This is to give them too much credit.   It’s not as though a bit more contact with actual people (rather than the pithed specimens they apparently surround themselves with) would set them straight.   Their attack on common sense is psychologically more akin to that supersceptic (there is one in every freshman dorm) who denies the existence of the external world:  taking him to some corner of the external world, say a playground, is not going to change his mind.
But in fact the Stich-Churchland position is logically in much worse case.  For, there is indeed a logical possibility that this coffee-cup I seem to be sipping from  does not exist.  It is an illusion, and we are all just brains in a vat (like in “The Matrix”).  In which case the evil demon above-mentioned is indeed at the helm.   It is possible.  Logically.   But even in that drastic case, we still have beliefs.  I still believe that I am sipping this coffee, though  alas  I am sadly mistaken.
( I’m pretty sure the Churchlands are an illusion -- possible an effect of swamp-gas -- but our beliefs are not an illusion.  They may well be mistaken, but they -- are.)
Indeed, the existence of beliefs is as solid as the Cogito.  I believe I have beliefs -- tiens, there's one right there!  For the attempt to impugn such things, cf. Wiki's article on "Self-Refuting Ideas".


Compare further:

Vico’s defense of the Geisteswissenschaften  against the claims of scientific naturalism  relied essentially on the principle that inner access to the products of our minds … yields a degree of certainty  unattainable in the natural sciences.
-- Noam Chomsky,  Rules and Representations (1980), p. 242

Giambattista Vico : filosofo, storico e giurista

Nor is it enough for these gentlemen   thus to reduce our view of humanity to that of sea-slugs -- a species about whom Churchland rhapsodizes.  Not only the comparitively intellectual notion of belief (somewhat problematic apud the sea-slug) but even that of desire (sea-slug: Must ... eat ... slime ....)  should be abolished:  we are merely and simply  automata -- albeit “connectionist” automata, a buzz-word that has snagged a lot of funding in recent decades.   “Beliefs and desires are of a piece with phlogiston,” he intones.

And what do we have in its place, to describe the wide world?  Why,  “vector-to-vector transformation, effected by a matrix of differently weighted synapses”.

The lay reader is expected to be stunned into silence before such big words.   (Hint:  They are trivial.)   And it is was partly to inoculate myself against such sciolist-scientistical flimflam that, having been accepted to college as an English major, but spent a year before entering  immersed in the nonsense of literary France, I abruptly changed my major to Chemistry (switching later to Physics and then Math) -- sheer intellectual prophylaxis.   For you need the confidence that comes with a certain background, to stand firm in the face of such faddish blasts, as issue from the fundaments  of the gentlemen above-referenced.   A splendid example of such unflappable phronesis   is provided by John Maynard Keynes, who, in his  Treatise on Probability (1921), performs a valuable civic service in exposing the crippling conceptual deficiences that can hide behind a gauze of mathematical formalism.

Now, I’m not being very nice about this.  Bounds of academic discourse and all that.  But the fact is, these clowns have adolescents under their intellectual care;  it would not be too much of a stretch to haul them up on charges of interfering with the morals of a minor.

And -- wonderful to relate -- the sober, analytical, sometimes even plodding Susan Haack, hitherto always scrupulously fair to all sides, seems suddenly to have had enough.  P. 170:

Rather than call them ‘anti-realists’ about intentional states, as Fodor does, I shall call them ‘atheists’.

You said it, sister!  Off come the gloves, and down come the masks!

[Stay tuned as the saga further unfolds.  The next chapter, “Vulgar Pragmatism:  an Unedifying Prospect”, promises to make thine each particular hair to stand on end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine.]

(*) The barbs above are meant as gentle, well-intentioned.  I have nothing but sympathy for any thinker whose intricately reticulate conceptualizations  outrun the resources of our everyday streetspeak.   As it happens, Ms. Haack, though an excellent analyst, is not much of a wordsmith, and her coinages drop like lead.  And she herself is baffled by similar abortive coinages (p. 198):
All Stich offers to persuade us that truth is not intrinsically valuable  is the observation that truth is just one of a whole range of semantic properties a belief might have (truth, TRUTH*, TRUTH**, .. etc.)[…].  Frankly, I have no idea even what it might mean to say that another culture picked out,say, TRUTH* instead of truth.

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