Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Stupid things philosophers hear

Here's a running list of things philosophers get annoyed at hearing from people not familiar with the subject. It might be a recurring theme for me to post in the future so add your own if you please.

-What is your personal philosophy of life?

-Can there be morality without god?

-Doesn't natural selection show that altruism is impossible?

-And my personal favorite for now is this (paraphrasing) response from an evolutionary psychologist to a philosopher on a video blog:

“Psychologists aren't concerned with the truth. We just want an accurate description of how the mind works.”

-Everything is just a state of mind.

-Also see the idiotic comments on the comments section of the New York Times' The Stone to these three articles (here, here and here).

The Stone and Boylan on Rights.

the New York Times has a segment written by (mostly anyway) contemporary philosophers about philosophical topics called The Stone.

Michael Boylan has this article about the nature of rights. He mentions Confucian and Islamic conceptions of moral obligation and contrasts them with a (Classical Liberal) rights approach. he is skeptical of non rights based approaches due to their non universality (their "relativism").

I have responded in the comments section that Boylan is wrong at least about Confucius. I also argued that the particular type of rights approach as practiced in modern legal procedures and other formal conventions in the west are the result of a reaction to protect against the what had distinctive occurred in western history of oppressing those very rights. I argued that China did not develop such an explicitly procedural approach because they never had, until very recently, a history of religious, speech and thought oppression by the state as seen in western history which needed that kind of formal protection. But that doesn't mean that Confucius was not concerned with those rights (or with associated cognates of those rights within an ancient Chinese value framework). Surface practices as embodied in laws, explicit discourse, and other conventions may be misleading. Their existence may depend on historical accidents (such as reactions to specific past events) as opposed to differences in actual values.

This is kind of like a genealogy of morals values (or actually in my case, genealogy of explicit and conspicuous moral practices) much as that given my Nietzsche though I argue ultimately for a kind of underlying moral universalism despite superficial differences in practice whereas Nietzsche ultimately uses his genealogy to argue for a moral Nihilism.

Here's my response:

I disagree profoundly with the premise that Confucius thought the community and its conventions were the standard by which all right and wrong conduct is to be judged [and not natural rights which are inalienable and fundamental to every person]. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is not a single passage [AFAIK] in the Analects to suggest this while there are several suggesting or even explicitly saying that some obligations the majority owe to the individual or minority group are universal, owed to those in every community.

Confucius believed in objective human nature and that persons have natural functions and roles and that when these functions and roles are retarded or go unrequited due to oppressive actions by the state or some other powerful force, there is a wrong that is committed against that oppressed person or group.

It's interesting that Boylan contrasted Confucius's "relativist" approach to the universalist one of the Golden Rule. That is ironic because Confucius espoused both the positive and negative (or 'Silver Rule') Golden Rules hundreds of years before anyone known to have done so in the west (see Analects 15:23, e.g.). It's right there in the Analects along with passages that praised past "Cultural Heroes" who overthrew oppressive social conventions and the ruling elites enforcing them.

It's also an interesting historical note that China has never had a history of brutal religious oppression until the 20th century when it accepted Marxism, a decidedly western "universalist" moral framework. There has never been a pogrom in China's history nor any laws forbidding the practice of certain religions, nor forbidding unsanctioned thoughts or behaviors.

While Europe's history until modern times is almost completely stained with religious and political intolerance (such as the Spanish Inquisition among countless other monstrous examples) where people were literally burned alive, decapitated, tortured or drowned for having thoughts or speaking outside of the official state-sanctioned lines. Millions have died because of religious wars where one side tried to prevent the other side from practicing their right to pray to whoever they wanted. With a history like that it is no wonder that modern western society would seek to put in place formal processes trying to protect people's right to think and speak.

It is wholly fallacious to believe that this modern system of formal legal protections embodying a rights approach is somehow unique to the west or superior to other less formal or procedural approaches to protect human rights (such as cultivating Confucian ren). That blinds one to the historical reality that the more explicitly formal/procedural approaches in affect today in the west were put in place because of the need arising for their existence due to all the wanton conspicuous blood shed from Europe's far more oppressive history where basic human rights such as the freedom to worship whatever one wanted or to say what one wanted were *not* respected, indeed were commonly punishable by torture, death and warfare.

Analects 17:2 suggests that human nature is universal and Analects 2:23 saying that the conventions of the community though important are also contingent and can be oppressive thus are not beyond reform. These passages and many others clearly indicate that Confucius did not think that human beings should always conform to the conventions of their society and conform to their values but that societies' conventions and values should always conform to human nature to be natural and correct.

The knowledge argument revisted

In my post on the knowledge argument, one response in the comments section argued that my argument only argued against red qualia (or any color qualia not light or dark since all known linguistic communities have at least these two basic color concepts/terms) and thus not effective against Jackson's argument against physicalism. Her example is that we may think of someone who is raised in an all white environment. Assuming that it is possible to do so without any shades of white such as coming from shadows or from closing of one's eyes etc, I think this approach misses the rhetorical point of my argument.

The argument I made is meant to show that the quintessential example of a color qualia (red in Jackson's example) can be doubted that it has the private property it is alleged to have by culturally relativising red. If red qualia goes by way of relativism, what is to stop all color qualia including light or dark qualia going with it? What makes these more special as qualia that red is not? Now the burden is at least shifted. That was the intended rhetorical point of my argument.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Varieties of time travel

There are two ways in which backwards time travel may be possible without the usual paradoxes popping (grandfather, auto-infanticide etc) up. One is involving a causal loop and the other involves a branching or forking universe. These two scenarios have been elaborated by David Lewis's famous paper Paradoxes of Time Travel.

But there seems to be other possibilities. Consider the following possibility which I have never heard anyone mention:

Consider a world where the growing-block world is true and God in that world had wanted to "rewind" the course of the world, its entire history to some point before the furthest point the block's edge has advanced. The universe is "reversed" and I'd imagine that things would go like a rewound dvd video to some previous time. Then if determinism is true in that world, it would "replay" like it has the last time to that furthest point again. Now this kind of backward time "travel" is only backward in the "internal" time relative to those in the block universe but it occurs in the regular temporal direction in some external time or their "god's time." So it's "internal backwards" but not external backwards.

I think that this time travel scenario avoids the paradoxes as well but it may remain to be questioned whether this is a "real" case of backward time travel. It seems to fit my understanding for a possibility of time travel.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

There ain't nothin' about Mary

The knowledge argument purports to show that physicalism is false. The arguments exploits our intuition that Mary learns something new when she sees red for the first time for its rhetorical force. But if we can show that that intuition may not shared for a group with different native linguistic-conceptual color scheme the argument may lose much of its persuasiveness. The linguistic color scheme one employs is a historical contingency. It may have been that one was born into a society that employs a different scheme. If one's intuitions on philosophical issues turn out to be different based on that contingency, that would cast some doubt as to the substantiveness of findings based on that intuition. The argument goes something like this:

Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal chords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’.… What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not? It seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then is it inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete. But she had allthe physical information. Ergo there is more to have than that, and Physicalism is false. (From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article “The Knowledge Argument)

Before I turn to my basic argument, I need to give a little primer on linguistic relativism. It has been known to linguists that many language groups have different color terms than ours. For example, native English and modern Chinese speakers both have the same number of basic color terms and both languages partition the color spectrum in essentially the same way but other languages do not partition the color spectrum the same way.

Similarly, languages are selective when deciding which hues are split into different colors on the basis of how light or dark they are. English splits some hues into several distinct colors according to lightness: such as red and pink or orange and brown. To English speakers, these pairs of colors, which are objectively no more different from one another than light green and dark green, are conceived of as belonging to different categories.[1] A Russian will make the same red-pink and orange-brown distinctions, but will also make a further distinction between sinii and goluboi, which English speakers would simply call dark and light blue. To Russian speakers, sinii and goluboi are as separate as red and pink or orange and brown. (wiki article on color terms. See also wiki article “linguistic relativity and the color naming debate” and “linguistic relativity”)

Some languages such as certain Trans-New Guinea languages only have two basic color terms (dark and light!) and all colors are considered a shade of those two basic colors. Likewise, some languages have more than we do and native speakers tend to speak of, and presumably think of, more basic colors concepts. Keep in mind that it has been shown by anthropologists and cognitive psychologists that people all over the world can see and make color distinctions the same way we do (unless they are colorblind of course). It's the way that they partition and group the colors on the spectrum that is culturally/linguistically distinctive. It should be noted that "color relativism," that is, this notion that color term differences reflect differences in cognitive differences in color concept classification and that this classification is in turn a function of cultural/linguistic norms is still a controversial thesis among linguists, anthropologists and cognitive scientists. But if the relativists are correct, even partially, my argument follows.

My skeptical question as relating to the issue of color qualia is this: let's say that there is someone, call him Larry, who has lived an otherwise normal life except that for whatever reason, Larry has never seen a particular shade of yellow before. This shade only spans one nanometer on the color spectrum and may be a rare shade of yellow so it may not be a big deal that Larry has yet seen such a shade. One day he comes across this shade which we will call 'mellow.' Has Larry learned anything new by perceiving mellow for the first time? Has he learned anything new much as Mary presumably learns upon seeing red?

It seems that most folks would say "no.” If mellow is similar enough to a shade of yellow Larry is familiar with, Larry may not even realize he is seeing a shade of yellow he has never encountered before. It would be a wholly uneventful event for Larry. The “no” answer seems plausible for assume that the answer is yes. Larry gains a new color concept corresponding to the qualia associated with mellow. He has a new color experience analogous to the first experience of seeing red in the original knowledge argument. The color segment of the color spectrum may be divided into shades and these shades may be further divided into sub-shades of those sub-shades further divided and so on perhaps ad infinitum (I'm assuming that the color spectrum is continuous but even if it is not but divisible into very fine sub-shades, my reductio argument follows). So ex hypothesi knowing and experiencing a segment of the color spectrum for the first time, even if a tiny segment corresponding to a shade of some familiar basic color as Larry presumably has in my scenario is to know and grasp a new color concept, then we can ask what happens when instead of seeing mellow, Larry sees a shade of yellow that is also a shade of mellow perhaps occupying half the length on the color spectrum as mellow. If he also learns a new color in this scenario (we will call this sub-shade 'sub-mellow') then we may reiterate the question mutatis mutandis of whether he learns a new color concept and so on. There seems to be no clear line to draw when Larry does not learn of a new color concept from ever so fine divisions of shades of yellow. But if there is no line to draw and the color spectrum is continuous then seeing any shade for the first time of arbitrary spectrum span implies learning an (uncountable) infinite number of new color concepts. That I think is absurd.

Each of us normally sighted individuals may see many new shades of familiar colors everyday. And each of those shades may be divided into sub-shades. But it is preposterous to say that we learn an infinite number of new color concepts on a daily basis. So Larry does not learn a new color concept simply by seeing that shade of yellow for the first time. He simply sees yellow, not gain a new “mellow” color concept.

Now imagine that a tribe of people that makes only the two dark-light basic color distinction and their possible reaction to the Mary though experiment. Will they say that Mary learned anything new by seeing red which presumably they think is just a shade of their super-color "dark"? It may be that they would say "no" much as we do to the hypothetical case of mellow I gave above and for the same reasons we give. For them, red is just some shade in the basic super-color dark. Our intuitions about the knowledge argument seem to be sensitive to the linguistic color scheme we actually employ. If accidents of our birth influences the direction our intuitions point regarding some thought experiment, there may be good reason to be suspicious of insights those intuitions are supposed to offer us.

This so far of course, a limited application of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis for color terms to explain qualia. Much as many think that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is a skeptical hypothesis regarding realism of natural properties or kinds, my attempt has been to use the hypothesis as a skeptical attack on qualia. Thus, if my skeptical attack is correct we, under another color schemes may not agree that Mary would learn anything new upon seeing red. She may simply dismiss it at most simply as a perhaps odd shade of "dark" or "black" much we under our color conceptual scheme presumably view the person first seeing the uneventful mellow for the first time.

One possible response to my argument thus far is that it only shows that red qualia (or any color qualia not light or dark since all known linguistic communities have at least these two basic color concepts/terms) does not have the epistemic properties ascribed to it by the knowledge argument and thus it is not effective as an argument against physicalism in whole. Though there are no red qualia, there are still white and black qualia for no known linguistic communities lack these basic color concepts and thus all communities presumably concede that there are qualia corresponding to white and black qua basic colors.

The argument I made is meant to show that the quintessential example of color qualia red can be doubted that it has the private epistemic property it is alleged to have by culturally relativising red. If red qualia goes by way of this kind of relativism, what is to stop all color qualia including light or dark qualia going with it? What makes these more special as qualia that red is not? Now the burden is at least shifted. This is the main rhetorical point of my argument.

Lastly I'd like to see an X-PHI experiment comparing survey responses of two linguistic groups: a group composed of native language speakers of a language that does not recognize the color red as a unique primary color but a shade of some supercolor such as "dark." The other group does recognize red as a primary color such as native English speakers. The speakers of the language that doesn't recognize red should be from a group that also has not had much influence from western culture or any cultures that partitions the color spectrum in a different way. Of course that will be hard and in practice no culture is so discrete from the linguistic and cultural influence of others but there still are some cultures that are relatively isolated. Many speakers of the Trans-New Guinea languages are so isolated even today. They would be a good group to sample because as I've mentioned, they only recognize two basic primary colors (dark and light). They would serve as a good comparison group with Native English speakers, e.g. To test the intuitions on the knowledge argument compared to the control group of native English speakers would be a good way, in my view, to see if there is anything substantive and sound about it. Let's say that the non control group doesn't think that Mary learns anything new once she sees the apple for the first time, that would go in some ways in showing that it is conceivable Mary learns nothing new when she sees red for the first time contrary to Jackson's original claim in his argument.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Daily affirmation

All of us must live in constant contradiction. Philosophers wage constant war against it.

Induction and the Axiom of Choice

In this short but strange paper, Alexander George gives a mathematical "proof" justifying induction. The problem of (Humean) induction basically is:

Now as concerns the argument, its conclusion is that in induction (causal inference) experience does not produce the idea of an effect from an impression of its cause by means of the understanding or reason, but by the imagination, by “a certain association and relation of perceptions.” The center of the argument is a dilemma: If inductive conclusions were produced by the understanding, inductive reasoning would be based upon the premise that nature is uniform; “that instances of which we have had no experience, must resemble those of which we have had experience, and that the course of nature continues always uniformly the same.” (Hume THN, 89) And were this premise to be established by reasoning, that reasoning would be either deductive or probabilistic (i.e. causal). The principle can't be proved deductively, for whatever can be proved deductively is a necessary truth, and the principle is not necessary; its antecedent is consistent with the denial of its consequent. Nor can the principle be proved by causal reasoning, for it is presupposed by all such reasoning and any such proof would be a petitio principii.

George's proof uses the axiom of choice and a recent result called the Hardin-Taylor theorem. George's proof requires the axiom of choice. However, it seems to me that this would not make induction any less problematic because the grounds for skepticism on which the problem of induction is formed is analogous, indeed, very similar, to the grounds for doubting the truth of the axiom of choice. Consider the axiom of choice which basically states:

For it amounts to nothing more than the claim that, given any collection of mutually disjoint nonempty sets, it is possible to assemble a new set — a transversal or choice set — containing exactly one element from each member of the given collection.

This axiom presupposes the existence of a choice function for any collection of non empty sets, even infinite collections and even if we cannot specify the details of that function (for example by specifying a selection rule or the distinguishing property of the elements to be picked out). The function is assumed to exist under that axiom. Likewise the reason the problem of induction does not bother scientists, common folks and philosophers alike (who actually doubts the sun will rise tomorrow?) is because we assume that nature has principles of uniformity such as laws, etc even if we cannot directly observe such laws or discover them by deductive reasoning reason as Hume insisted. Hume suggest that we arrive at the principle of uniformity for any series of past events to continue to hold into the future by acts of "imagination" and inference through that imagining. To claim that we can discover the principles through observation is to beg the question, or worse, to get into a vicious circle (what would justify the principle?). To claim that we can discover them through deductive reasoning is to commit a category error.

Similarly, assuming the existence of choice functions is assuming that there is some regularity in any collection of items from a collection of non empty sets even when we cannot specify what that regularity is. We cannot prove it from the axioms (it is an axiom after all). In the case of induction we are not bothered by the "problem" of induction because we assume that our imagination in conjoining repeated contiguous events have some basis in a natural uniformity that is existing independently outside of our imagination (such as some natural law). We assume the existence of some law e.g., which we cannot directly observe but must infer the existence.

So "proving" induction from the axiom of choice seems to do no anti-skeptical work at all. It throws the problem in the lap of mathematics when the foundations of such reasoning can be put under a very similar skeptical lens as the foundations of our everyday inductive reasoning. This is made especially salient when we consider the reasons why mathematicians have accepted the axiom of choice. First, let's consider what George says about his proof:

But might there be some feature of the proof that compromises its ability to offer the kind of justification we are after? One aspect of the proof that suggests itself is its reliance on the Axiom of Choice....
But then he goes on:
Where a condition on conceptual coherence is consistency with ZFC, Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory plus the Axiom of Choice, a theory most mathematicians believe to be true and indispensable for the formal development of mathematics.

If this is the justification then it would render the whole proof implausible because as Penelope Maddy has correctly pointed out, mathematicians have "accepted" the axiom of choice largely because of pragmatic reasons (for ease of proving some theorems like Zorn's lemma). They haven't accepted it because of its philosophically sound obviousness (in fact, many of them and logicians and philosophers have skeptically questioned its truth much as the later have inductive reasoning). Given these pragmatic historical considerations, they seem to mirror the pragmatic considerations of why people accept inductive reasoning as generally true (how will we live without assuming natural regularity and uniformity?).

Many mathematicians are equally adept and comfortable working with axioms that are inconsistent with choice (such as the axiom of determinacy). Maddy's experience with mathematicians on the philosophical aspects of their discipline is similar to my own experience in asking them about foundational issues. They are, almost unanimously in my experience, far more pragmatic and anti-platonist than philosophers would believe and are in general less likely to have platonist intuitions than philosophers of math in my experience. When asked if they think the axiom of choice (or the Continuum Hypothesis) is true they will usually say something like "well, it's true under some models but not others." This is not them being flippant but stems from their general pragmatic outlook. So George's appeal to the authority of the mathematician in his reliance on that axiom for his proof of induction seems odd and rather unconvincing.