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Lingyin temple, Hangzhou

Ineffability and judgment

Why would the ineffability of ethics preclude ethical judgments? Of course, if we construct ‘judgment’ as ‘meaningful proposition’ the answer is obvious, but we do not need to do that. Couldn’t a judgment take on a different form, say that of an action, or an attitude? Or do we lack objective criteria for two such judgments to be the same, i.e., wouldn’t we be able to decide whether we agreed on the ethical aspect of an action unless we were able to discuss it? But why would that be the case? (And why think that the ability to discuss does come with any guarantee?)

Although the mark of a happy life can not be expressed, it must be an intrinsic aspect of our actions, not something over and above them. And that suggests that it is accessible even though it is ineffable. In general the question whether we need a verbally explicit statement of ethical principles must be distinguished from the question whether there can be such a statement. For if the answer to the first is negative, the answer to the second becomes immaterial from an ethical point of view. Whether we can do without verbalisations presumably depends on whether other means of conveying ethical principles are available. Would poetry, music, action itself, qualify?

Could we say that the ‘experiences of the second kind’ that Wittgenstein mentions in ‘A Lecture on Ethics’ (i.e., not experiences of facts in the world, but experiences that pertain to the world as such), although ineffable, do have an intersubjective potential? I.e., they point towards similar experiences other people may have had in virtue of which they are able to understand what Wittgenstein is aiming at? That would go beyond the mere recognition of other subjects as willing subjects, since it would actually differentiate between people, and could be the basis of moral conversation (instruction, etc.)

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: spring 2004

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Amsterdam

Tidbits

Ah, the eternal issue of footnotes. There are those who honestly feel that footnotes are a sign of sloppiness (in writing, and hence probably also in thinking): either what is stated in the footnote is important for understanding what is said in the text and then it should be part of the text; or it is not, and then it can be left out. Purists …

Others delight in the possibilities of adding ‘irrelevant’ details, side-remarks, hedges, that footnotes offer: entire underground battles are being fought there, scores are settled, new enemies are made. Here you can state an opinion without arguing for it, this is the place to display your knowledge and learning even if it has nothing to do with the topic. Exhibitionists …

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: spring 2003

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Sliema, Malta

Ineffability

There is an interesting parallel between Davidson’s arguments against the analysis of metaphor in terms of simile, and Wittgenstein’s way of arguing that religious expressions are not similes in ‘A Lecture on Ethics’. In both cases the point is that something ineffable is explained in terms of something that is expressible, or to put it differently, that something that does not have cognitive content is equated with something that has. Essentially, it is the distinction between showing and saying that is at stake in both cases.

Martin Stokhof
from: Interpretation
date: fall 2001

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Summer Palace, Beijing

On Sartre on love, lust, and subject

It seems that the entire issue centres around the notion of a subject, or a self. If we start from the assumption that there is indeed a notion of subject that is fundamental, i.e., that cannot be conceived of as somehow constituted by more basic facts, or, reversely, as being constructed from those, we run into the kind of problems addressed by Sartre. Which is not to say, of course, that the analysis he gives is correct if we do grant him the assumption he makes. More on that below. First, let us examine the assumption just indicated a little further.

At the background operates an even more fundamental prejudice, viz., that it is entities (objects, individuals, perhaps even ‘Gegenstände’) that constitute the raw material that the world is made of. This picture is right at the heart of almost all of our western ways of thinking, be they philosophical, scientific, or just those of everyday. It should emphatically not be equated with some kind of material atomism. The platonistic views, the various forms of idealism that have plagued us for so long, the materialistic approaches that have both enriched us and bereft us of so many things that are intrinsically worthwhile, they all share this assumption. They are but different ways (and radically different they are, in some respects) of filling in this picture. The reference to ‘Gegenstände’ is not coincidental: even the view of logical atomism does not succeed in really freeing itself from this idea, viz., that the rock-bottom of what there is, can be, indeed must be, conceived of in terms of individual entities. It is clear that the very notion of a subject as an irreducible category, in terms of which many things simply have to be explained, is almost part and parcel of this picture. And again, it does not matter whether we are dealing with a common-sense notion, or with a more speculative, metaphysical way of conceiving of it: all these different notions take for granted that subjects are real and irreducible.

If the picture is so compelling, and also so successful in many ways, one might ask if there is an alternative. In fact, certain physical theories provide an answer (and, though perhaps not an alternative picture, at least an alternative language). Acknowledging the notion of a field as something as basic as that of an entity, these physical theories do brake the bonds of the old picture. (And that these are strong bonds can be deduced from the fact that even in this realm the attempts to reduce fields to the interactions between entities are numerous.) But pointing out this feature of physical theories is not enough. We must see whether this idea, which has limited application, can be generalised sufficiently. This extended idea would take the notion of an event, or that of a process, as basic. The world (in all its aspects) then consists, not of entities making up complex situations, but of events located in space-time, of processes unfolding themselves. Entities on this alternative picture are best conceived of either as regularities across events, or as bundles of such. (This kind of view is scarce in western philosophy, perhaps the best-known example being Whitehead’s process metaphysics. Interestingly, situation theory provides another example, at least under a certain interpretation. In other traditions this picture is more common.)

The idea of individuals as convenient labels for certain collections of events might strike us as completely absurd, at least at first sight. After all, it is we who, by acting and being in certain ways, ‘make’ events, not the other way around. Or so we feel (and hence, we think). But this is certainly not a good argument. (In a happy phrase of Kant’s, it might be an instance of mistaking the unity of experience for the experience of a unity.) A very rough indication of some reasons why one might nevertheless entertain this idea, involve the following observations. Notice that in our idea of an individual, the criterion of spatio-temporal continuity plays a decisive role. Now we may observe that although the application of this criterion is unproblematic in most cases, there are circumstances in which we find it somewhat harder to apply. One instance is that of a certain type of biological entities that are referred to as ‘colonies’ (certain jelly-fish are examples, as are corals, and perhaps also, but at a higher level, ants). (There is an analogy with problems that arise when we want determine the identity conditions for so-called ‘collective individuals’, such as groups, but I will not go into that now.) Another instance is provided by the phenomenon of metamorphosis, either in real time (caterpillars and butterflies), or in fantasies (frogs and princes). If we take this observation seriously, we must conclude that spatio-temporal continuity may be a good, efficient, successful way of carving up such ‘stuff as we are made of’, but that it certainly is not a necessary feature.  Sufficiently distant (from us) observers might individualise the same stuff quite differently. (The relevance for the issue at hand is obvious: even a temporary merging of stuff might by such an alternative criterion constitute a single individual.)

Even for the few who find the alternative picture sketched above not implausible, there is, of course, a problem, viz., how to account for the undeniable fact that we do have a notion of a self, of some personal identity. It seems that here several routes are open. One of them, which strikes me as not altogether far-fetched, is to look upon the self, in sense of the ‘I’ that we identify with, as being a partly biological, partly social construction. The biological source is mainly based on application of the spatio-temporal continuity criterion, which, although not completely unproblematic here (dreaming, sleeping), seems applicable to the events that we think we participate in, and which, on this account, go into making us up as separate individuals. The social constraints are more of a functional nature, and seem to be based, to a certain extent, on some preliminary stage of biological make-up. But notice that the two are not strictly temporally ordered. Psychotic disorders of various kinds provide relevant material here. (Cf., also Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage.) Taking our lead from this admittedly very rough idea, we can now see that the issue at hand needs to be reformulated: given that, as we undeniably do, we  have a notion of a self (for whatever reasons), but taking into account that this notion is essentially a construction, not something fundamental,  the issue turns out to be anthropological, rather than metaphysical in nature. An account of lust and desire, of love and tenderness, should take as its starting point neither our material biological make-up, nor seek refuge in some metaphysical realm, which is not to deny that such factors do play a role. The crucial phenomena to be accounted for appear on the anthropological level: it is how we see ourselves, and how we act in these matters given the way we see ourselves, that is all important.

This, in effect, is my main objection to Sarte’s analysis. Where Sartre goes wrong, – and he does go wrong, I think, even if we grant him his metaphysical notion of subject –, is that he blurs over the distinction between biological, psychological, social, metaphysical, and aesthetic aspects and the concomitant reasons and causes. The unitary notion of subject forces one to either take a reductionist stance, which he obviously rejects, or to try one’s hand at a unificatory, higher-level analysis, e.g., in terms of an exclusively metaphysical notion. The latter is Sartre’s line and that is where he goes wrong. And he has to go wrong, because of the monolithic nature of the subject that he uses. The alternative view allows at least room for another approach that is neither reductionist nor transcendent: on the heterogeneous view of the subject one can acknowledge all aspects as real and, most important of all, as unrelated (to a certain extent, i.e., at least unrelated to such an extent that we do not fall into the reductionist pitfall). Neither are we forced to deny that they are present at the same time: in desire and lust, as well as in love and tenderness, all these aspects can be distinguished, albeit not always in the same form and to the same extent. Which is not to say that the heterogeneous approach by itself provides such an analysis. For that we need the one thing that philosophers almost always refuse to look at: our personal experience.

One important characteristic of the notion of a subject, or self, is that it refers to a limit. A subject is something that is distinguished from other things, – other subjects, or objects. (In effect, from within a subject all other subjects appear as objects, albeit of a special type.) This raises two questions. One concerns the nature of this limit, the other the reality thereof.

A distinction that seems relevant here is that between a limit  that sets off one part of reality from another, and a limit  that defines a certain entity. A border between two countries is an example of the first kind, the ordinal number omega one of the second. Let us call them ‘limit-between’ and ‘limit-to’. What is the nature of the limit of a subject?.

One way to answer this question is to investigate the notion of transgression of a limit. Transgression of a limit-between means transcendence in a more or less literal sense; crossing of a border, going from one location to another. The moment someone transcends a limit-between, he cannot be said to belong to either location, to be an integral part of what is on either side. This means that the limits of a subject are not limits-between a subject and other subjects. (Of course, the subject can recognise limits-between itself and other subjects, but then it reflects upon itself from the outside as it were, i.e., it regards itself and the others basically as objects.)

It seems therefore that the limits involved are limits-to, transcendental conditions  that define the subject, rather than delimit it. Transgression of a limit-to means re-definition, broadening or narrowing down, changing one’s identity. In the context of lust such a change is the incorporation of the other, or the letting oneself be incorporated. That being so, the crucial question is whether this incorporation is appropriation. It seems not, for to appropriate something, or someone, means to make it, or them, my own, it is to change relationships, not relata. But in this very act of transgression it is the ‘my’ that is re-defined.

As for the reality of limits, it is important to note that any transgression is both conscious and temporary. Is it reality that changes, or the subject’s self-image? Which raises a preliminary question: is there a reality to a subject distinct from its self-image? A quick ‘yes’ presumably only indicates that we can look upon subjects as objects, but that is beside the point.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 10/01/1997

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Parking Victor Hugo, Toulouse

The realism of situation theory

The realism of situation theory is not a naive realism in this sense that through the concept of ‘attunement’ it incorporates an element that represents a more Kantian perspective. But it is limited: for within the sphere of real situations there is also the distinction being made between states of affairs and courses of events. The difference between these two types of ontological entities is supposed to reside in the role that time plays. And that means that time is interpreted in a purely realistic fashion. There is no room for ideality of time. In connection with this the question arises how such a realistic interpretation of time is related to the classification of localities, which include time, as uniformities.

Truth values (polarities) do not have an ontological counterpart in real situations. (This is another point of resemblance between situation theory and the ontology of the Tractatus, cf.: ‘My fundamental thought is that the “logical constants” do not represent.’ (4.0312).) Truth values are instantiations of polarities, and one could also have instantiations such as ‘good – bad’, ‘beautiful – ugly’, and so on. (Aside: Are all instantiations of polarities bi-valent? Probably not.)

How real, in the sense of independent, are situations? Not very much, in view of the fact that they need to be interpret as partial and given that they can only be grasped through the postulated uniformities. For those reasons they run the same risk as the Kantian ‘Dinge-an-sich’: postulated as the substrate of what is knowable but unknowable themselves, there is no doubt that someone will come along and dismiss them as useless postulates.

The localisation of the INVOLVE-relation in the world is innocent realism. But the fact that the definition of a situation-structure includes the demand that these constraints are satisfies shows that they are (also) being used as entities of a higher ontological order.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 31/10/1991

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Rome

Philosophie pauvre

Philosophy’s alternative for scientism seems to consist in an indulgence in conceptual analysis, either quasi-scientific, as in much of contemporary analytic philosophy, or quasi-profound, as in much post-modernistic philosophy (especially when used in other humanities disciplines than philosophy itself). 

Scientism is insincere and a mark of narrow mindedness; and the alternatives testify to inability and unwillingness. Inability and unwillingness  to realise that on the one hand there is indeed a lot that science is not and will not be able to do, and on the other hand that the territory that it leaves uncharted can only  be entered with modesty and in full realisation of the limitedness of human rationality.

If there is a place, a role for philosophy with regard to that territory, it needs to be a ‘philosophie pauvre’:  a modest, hesitating, critically self-reflecting philosophy, one that suggests, asks, observes; not a philosophy that states claims, defends theses, projects visions. 

Scientism is the extrapolation of optimism, or rather, of the combination of optimism with curiosity. There is nothing wrong with either, as long as it is acknowledged that each has boundaries that are not their own. Transcending boundaries is what can, and should, happen within the domain of science. But it does not apply to the limits of science. That is what scientism loses track of, the distinction between boundary and limit, between the boundaries of what we currently know and understand, and the limits of understanding itself.

One area where what is at stake here becomes very clear is when we ponder the possible expansion of human life beyond our planet. The excitement that the very contemplation of that possibility creates (let alone the actual realisation of it) is deeply rooted in this optimism, in the longing for control and in the trust in our ability to gain that control. ‘Determining one’s own destiny’, ‘being the master of one’s fate’, the ideal applies to the human species as much as it does to the human individual. 

‘Philosophie pauvre’ opposes that. It counters the optimistic projections about the future  with simple observations about actuality:  the human condition, the constant failure of humans to live up to their ideals, to conquer their weaknesses, their inability to make sense of their own lives.  And their never failing urge to do so, to keep trying to do so. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 29/03/2019

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Vlieland

Cogito

Descartes’ cogito: `I think, therefore I am’. Can one know that one is thinking, but not know what one is thinking? Can one know that one exists, but not know what kind of being one is? If that is impossible, as it seems it is, doesn’t that imply that with the cogito already a whole frame, – of concepts, categories, etc. –,  has to be assumed? But then what kind of claim to a foundation does the cogito make? 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 22/06/1998

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Assyrian figurine, Louvre, Paris

Human thought and the Turing test

Characteristic for the Turing test is that thinking is considered to be an activity or process that is separated from (non-verbal) action, emotion and affect, intuition, and so on. The relation between thought and action is construed as a relation between a program and a machine that executes the program. Thinking consists in formulating instructions, action in their executions. (Traces of a Cartesian dualism are visible here.) Another characteristic, closely related to the first one, is that knowledge and thought processes are assumed to be expressible in rules. (This is closely connected to a representational view of thought.)

What does the Turing-test tell us about human thinking, human thought? Consider the following example. Suppose there are two columns of water that both indicate exactly and correctly the sea level at some point on the shoreline. Column A is directly connected to the sea at that point, via a system of pipes, say. Column B is a closed system in which the water level is determined by calculations that are programmed into the system. Both column ‘behave’ in exactly the same way, yet one would only say of what happens in column A that it is the result of tidal flow. This indicates that the identity of behaviour (or a process, event, action) is co-determined by the network of causal relations in which it is located.

The same seems to be true of human thinking, human thought. If there was a machine that would pass the Turing test, it still remains an open question what conclusion we would (need to) draw. What the example suggests is that one relevant factor is whether the machine is causally related to the kind of things that human thinking is intrinsically connected to: action, will, emotions, and so on. Thus, whether there will be a machine that passes the Turing test is an empirical matter; but what that will mean, for us, is a philosophical question.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 29/03/1992

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Napels

Notes from an encounter with Peter Hacker

Peter Hacker’s account of the relationship between philosophy and cognitive science raises questions that concern the ramifications of that position.

When it comes to the relationship between cognitive science and philosophical analysis I am always reminded of Jerry Fodor’s direct approach of the problem. In his seminal book The Language of Thought (p. 57) he relates the following encounter: ‘I was once told by a very young philosopher that it is a matter for decision whether animals can (can be said to) hear. “After all”, he said, “it’s our word”.’ As the context of this quotation makes clear, the issue was not just about hearing, but extended to a wide range of psychological predicates, including talking, thinking, reasoning. Fodor was not impressed by the argument, as is obvious from the way in which he continues his tale: ‘But this sort of conventionalism won’t do; the issue isn’t whether we ought to be polite to animals.’ And then Fodor goes on in his characteristic fashion to explain why, basically, there is no room for a separate enterprise called ‘philosophical analysis’.

If I understand Hacker correctly he would agree that perhaps the young philosopher was not quite as snobbish as Fodor makes them out to be, and that an argument may be construed to attach a basically human meaning to some of the terms the debate was about. Of course, it is not a matter of politeness whether animals think, but it isn’t a straightforward factual issue either. If anything, it is a matter of what the content of the concept of thinking is, i.e., of what the term means. And meaning belongs to the human sphere. 

That is quite the opposite view from Fodor’s, and one that was formulated and defended already much earlier by Wittgenstein, who claimed in Philosophical Investigations (II.xi; cf., also 360): ‘If a lion could talk, we could not understand it.’ The opposition is apt and relevant, since it is clear that Hacker’s analysis owes much to Wittgenstein’s observations concerning the way concepts are acquired and have meaning. 

Motivation: reductionism redux

Why is this important? New developments in cognitive science, in particular new techniques that give access to low level brain processes, suggest to many that finally reductionism is a goal that is coming within reach. Cognitive processes can be observed in vivo, i.e., concurrently with the corresponding processes in the brain. What thinking, feeling, speaking, various perceptual acts really are, we can see with our own eyes when we observe the various electrochemical processes in the brain run their course. And this is ontological reduction, not the linguistic substitute that logical positivism promoted, in which theories were reduced to others by reformulating the statements of the former in those belonging to the latter. This reductionism is the real thing: it explains the cognitive entities of  everyday in terms of neuronal entities.

The technical developments are real and we cannot rule out a priori that a reduction of this kind of some cognitive processes will indeed turn out to be feasible. (Although we certainly are not yet in a position to actually affirm that.) Several questions arise. Are there any cognitive entities that resist this kind of reduction? With regard to those concepts that are susceptible to reduction, does this affect all of their content, or will there be irreducible residues? And where reduction is feasible, what consequences does this have for the application of the concepts in question in their everyday domain?

Conceptual analysis versus empirical science

Hacker’s position on this is clear: philosophy deals with concepts and provides an analysis of their contents and logical relation relations; cognitive science is concerned with the neural conditions that determine the operation of the functions corresponding to these concepts and provides descriptively and explanatory adequate theories.

So, it seems that both with regard to method as well as with regard to content philosophy and cognitive science are strictly separated.  There is an a priori distinction between the conceptual analysis provided by philosophy and the  empirical investigations of cognitive science. This seems to suggest that no interaction  occurs between the two realms, but that is not what Hacker means. He does see a role for conceptual analysis vis à vis empirical science: conceptual analysis may provide the necessary conceptual clarity without which the empirical investigations may go astray. 

I wonder, first, whether philosophical reflection might not provide more than just conceptual clarity, i.e., whether it does not also provide actual empirical data; second, whether there may not also be an influence in the other direction, viz., from empirical science to conceptual analysis. And, third, whether one could not combine philosophical and scientific methods,  as is being done for example by people working in neurophenomenology. 

The main reason for thinking that this might be possible is the rather humdrum observation that after all the conceptual domain of philosophical analysis and the empirical domain of  cognitive science are both related to (not: coincide with) the same field of everyday phenomena. 

Interactions

Cf. the following quote from Hacker’s paper on emotions:

‘Moods are such things as feeling cheerful, euphoric, contented, irritable, melancholic or depressed; they are states or frames of mind, as when one is in a state of melancholia, or in a jovial or relaxed frame of mind.  […]  It is, therefore, unwarranted to characterise moods, as Damasio does, as emotional states that are frequent or continuous over long periods of time.’

It seems obvious to me that we are not dealing here with some kind of nominal, stipulative definition. The concepts in question have a pre-theoretical content and it is this content that is being captured and analysed in definitions (philosophy) and at the same time it is this content that motivates and directs empirical investigations (cognitive science).

My suggestion would be that this imposes restrictions on both conceptual analysis and empirical investigation. 

On the empirical side: it seems obvious to me that empirical investigations into everyday phenomena such as emotions, moods, knowledge, memory can not be dissociated from whatever content these concepts have in everyday life. Perhaps cognitive science may discover that certain distinctions should be drawn slightly differently, or that connections exists that are not apparent from the conceptualisation of these phenomena in everyday language. But it cannot attribute a different content to these concepts. If it does that, it studies something, but not emotions, moods, etc. This marks a difference with cases where science is able to correct common sense understanding, such the case of jade turning out to be two different kinds of chemical compounds, of that of light  having both a corpuscular and a wave nature’ 

So it seems to me that our first person experience, i.e., the content of these concepts as  it reveals itself in philosophical reflection, provides an empirical constraint on cognitive research. (From which it follows that there is a distinction to be made between the study of those concepts that allow for such reflection, such as emotions, moods and certain cognitive actions, and those that do not, such as perception. Interesting question: on which side of this divide are language and meaning?) 

This constraint, I propose, goes further than mere conceptual clarification, but actually provides additional empirical data that need to be accounted for by empirical theories.

But on the conceptual side, too, constraints arise. Conceptual analysis is not empirical research: philosophers traditionally don’t do experiments, use questionnaires, etc. Nevertheless, conceptual analysis is tied to empirical issues. For one thing, the fact that we have the concepts that we have by itself is an empirical matter. Different cultural and/or historical circumstances may give rise to (slightly) different sets of cognitive and emotional concepts. And the contents of these concepts themselves may change under the influence of both philosophical analysis and empirical research. To put it differently, in as much as our concepts embody a (rudimentary) conception of our selves, this very conception, and thereby the contents of those concepts, may change when we analyse it, both conceptually as well as empirically. 

In particular the last point means that although  there is a categorical difference between conceptual analysis and empirical research (here I agree Hacker), it does not follow that conceptual analysis is a priori to empirical research. The very object of conceptual analysis may change due to the results of empirical investigations, in much the same way as the empirical investigation must proceed on the basis of the results of conceptual analysis: there exists an ongoing interaction between the two. 

Also, it seems to me that this might have methodological consequences as well, in so far as it indicates that the idea of a combination of philosophical reflection and empirical research, i.e., of a first person and a third person perspective, may prove to be relevant if we are to gain a proper understanding of what such phenomena as emotions, memory, etc are. Neurophenomenology à la Varela, Thompson, Depraz and Vermersch may provide a model here, but it need not be the only one. I do feel that this is something that philosophers and cognitive scientists need to explore. 

Finally, the empirical and contingent nature of the concepts involved also provides an impetus to investigate to what extent these phenomena transcend the boundaries of the individual. Hacker quite rightly stresses that the attitudinal aspects of these concepts, viz., the fact that to have a belief, to reach a decision or to form a hypothesis, to be in a melancholy mood or to be proud, or jealous, are not isolated, instantaneous events or states, but phenomena that are related with all kinds of other properties and relations that individuals may have and enter into, with a whole network of cognitive and non-cognitive dispositions and capabilities.  But he tends to ignore that a substantial part of those capabilities (such as those that enter into the use of language) are  essentially social in nature, at least in this sense that the idea of only one single individual having these capabilities is conceptually incoherent, These concepts presuppose a social framework that allows them to be instantiated in an individual. Taking this seriously would provide us with an impetus to investigate to what extent modern cognitive science suffers from an individualistic bias, which may be due to its reductionist presuppositions and/or the limitations of its experimental toolbox. 

Consequences: identity

‘What X is for us’: what we are, is in an important sense what we think (feel, imagine) that we are. And in this sense reductionism might succeed that once we believe in (some version of) it, i.e., once we are willing to adapt our self-image to the particular picture it presents, we in fact become whatever that picture says we are.

(Note that such a development would have ethical consequences as well. That is one reason why imagination of what we are and, in particular, imagination of what we could be, as for example literature provides, is (also) of ethical importance.)

If central concepts pertaining to human identity, such as will, consciousness, thinking, feeling, imagination, meaning, are concepts with a content that is determined by ‘What X is for us’, human identity is essentially a construct: historically, socially and culturally constrained and only partially individually maintained. We are in that sense what we think we are, although the freedom we have in thinking ourselves is constrained by social, cultural and historical factors (and, of course, physical and biological ones). In modern times science has become an important source for what we count as content of certain concepts. For example, our view of the material world is increasingly informed by scientific theories (albeit often distorted by popular misconceptions and simplifications). To the extent that this holds true also for the concepts that go into determining our identity, our conception of ourselves may change as well. 

Today, it seems, essential aspects of the contents of many of the central concepts mentioned above are determined externally, i.e., by reference to things outside the  individual mental realm. However, increasing influence of research in cognitive science (psychology, neurobiology) may change that. We may come to adopt, for example, a view on what meaning is that takes into account only what  can be explained in terms of individual, psychological and/or neurobiological properties. That would not be a better (or worse) account, since there is no fact of the matter that would provide an independent measure here: if meaning is what counts as meaning for us, then if we ‘change our mind’ about what meaning is, meaning indeed becomes something else. But then so do we: as these central concepts change, our identity changes accordingly. And so we may end up with a view of ourselves in which any differences that we now count as essential differences between, say, human intelligence and artificial intelligence have been obliterated, or a view in which we accept only explanations for our actions that are based on facts concerning our material (neurophysiological) make up. 

So, humanity may well come to an end by its own hand, not through physical destruction (although that is certainly not unlikely) but by conceptual elimination. After all, is that not how we got rid of a lot of other things?

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 20/12/2008

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Opera House, Oslo

The need for uncertainty

Suppose there were creatures with the following features. If something is the case, they believe it; if something is not the case, they believe it is not the case; they do not entertain any other thoughts, more specifically they don’t have thoughts of the form ‘Suppose A were (not) the case …’, ‘If B had not been the case …’, and so on. Would we say that these creatures had knowledge? They could serve as reliable oracles, as perfect encyclopaedias, but we wouldn’t want to say that they knew anything. So knowledge presupposes (among other things) our ability to be uncertain, to entertain suppositions, to consider situations that we know to be counterfactual.

Does this mean that the concept of an omniscient interpreter à la Davidson is incoherent? Not necessarily. Perfect knowledge about the world is compatible, at least so it seems, with counterfactual uncertainty, and hence with having the concept of being wrong. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
dat
e: 13/10/2000, 09/08/2001

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Den Oever

On unconditional commitment

Dreyfus, Kierkegaard, ‘unconditional commitment’. Remarkable thing about the case of Abraham is that we do not consider the issue from Isaac’s point of view. What would he have said? “I’d rather have a despairing Buddhist as a father than this unconditionally committed Christian …”? He might have, and that’s enough. The unconditional commitment of Abraham to his God might go against whatever views Isaac has concerning the way he wants to lead his life, and that really should be reason enough for us to reject, not just this particular unconditional commitment of Abraham’s, but the very concept itself. Given the fact that we lead our lives with others, and that hence, whether we like it or not, our actions directly or indirectly influence the lives of those others, an unconditional commitment, precisely because it is unconditional, i.e., also not conditioned by concerns about others, is intrinsically morally wrong. This is independent of the moral status of actual effects of some particular unconditional commitment, it is an objection to the concept as such.

My guess is that the concept is appealing for reasons quite similar to those that make people susceptible to the idea of living in ‘historical times’, witnessing ‘turning points in history’, and so on (Heidegger). We want our lives to be dramatic, exciting, important. Whereas in reality they are ordinary, humdrum, inconsequential, even if they turn out to make a difference. That sounds contradictory, but it is not. The point is: what is a decisive moment is decided by history (i.e., by reality in its temporal dimension and complexity), not by us, and it is hardly ever possible for us to discern while we are witnessing it.  Too often an event is labelled ‘historical’, something that ‘changes the world as we know it’ by contemporaries, and most of those events turn out to be completely unimportant. At best some of them may become regarded as symbolic for a much more complex and extended sequence of events. History is complex, much too complex for us who are witnessing it to grasp, and often also too complex for those who have the benefit of hindsight to fathom completely. There is no communis opinio among historians about the majority of the events that make up our history, not because of a lack of knowledge, but because of their sheer complexity combined with the unavoidable multiplicity of perspectives. So even if a certain event or action does make a significant difference, the claim of those participating in it that it does, in most cases will be completely unfounded.

The idea of an unconditional commitment is based on a similar misunderstanding of our lives: appearance to the contrary notwithstanding, it places us, as an individual, in the centre of things. The unconditional commitment is ours, even where (or should we say, precisely because?) it involves a complete surrender to God. As such it displays a complete disregard of the fundamental given that our life is always related to that of others, even if we live alone, in the remotest place on earth. Given that, whatever commitment we make to live our life in accordance with, it needs take into account others and therefore  can never be unconditional. The alternative is a fundamental dismissal of others as worthy of moral, ethical concern, something that unavoidably leads to nihilism. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 21/05/2003

Random thoughts on random topics

Channel

On the relation between experience and theoretical explanation

The ultimate justification of a theoretical explanation resides in the fact that it changes our experience. It allows us, not only to see things differently, but better: for our understanding of things is in the way we experience them. In that sense theories are a means, not an end in themselves.

A good example seems to be provided by certain mathematical theories, in particular geometrical ones, that, when really understood, change our ways of perceiving objects and their relationships. Or rather, allow us to perceive them differently. It is this added freedom of perception that deepens our understanding: things are not just like this, they are much more.

Similarly, mythologies, mystical explanations, good philosophy. (Is there something of this in Wittgenstein’s  remarks on Frazer?)

But, of course, this will work only if we realise that a new way of looking at things, a new way of experiencing them, is just that: one among many possible ways. The crux of the matter is that we should not exchange one view for another, but ‘collect’ them, exploit them, amplify them.  Of course, we can’t hold onto all of them at the same time (in  much the same way that we can’t entertain two different sets of certainties).  Which means that we should engage in flexibility,  change, train ourselves to switch back and forth, enjoying the distance in between.

To come to grips with the relation between experience and theory (in a wide sense) seems a crucial issue: experience alone will not do (pace the claims of sensualism) because experience never comes only by itself. It is always accompanied by feelings, thoughts, emotions that transcend it. (Even when we are not aware of this. This shows itself in how we act upon our experiences.) It is in this sense that we are not a database of experiential input and some calculating device. We need theory, not to knit the experiences together, but to understand that what holds it together in the first place: our own selves. But understanding ourselves in that way is not enough: the understanding remains sterile if it is not tested again in new experiences, or rather, in new ways of experiencing.

Another aspect: certain types of theories, say particle physics, or neurophysiology, are hard to fasten unto everyday experience. We may know that what looks as a solid material object is nothing but a swarm of particles, but we can not experience it in that way. Similarly, we may know that certain feelings arise from certain stimulation patterns in the brain, made possible by the production of certain neurotransmitters, but that is not an account of what we experience. This, too, points towards a distinction between the experiential aspect, or content, of an experience, and the accompaniments thereof. Experience is that total, not one of its components. And such theories as indicated above mainly pertain to the ‘data aspect’ of experiences. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 22-08-1998

Random thoughts on random topics

Orkneys

Monotonicity and intensional adjectives

Suppose we have a sequence of properties N1Nn such that: N1 ⊆ … ⊆ Nn. If A is the property expressed by an extensional, i.e., subsective or intersective, adjective, it holds that (AN1) ⊆ … ⊆ (ANn). Contrariwise, for some intensional adjectives this breaks down in an interesting way: we can have A(N1) ⊆ … ⊆ A(Ni) while we do not have: A(Ni+1) ⊆ … ⊆ A(Nn). Example: a one-guilder piece is a coin, is a piece of currency, is a material object. A blackened one-guilder piece is a blackened coin, is a blackened piece of currency, is a blackened material object. But although a false one-guilder piece is a false coin and a false piece of currency, it is not a false material object. This shows that somewhere along the line of N1 to Nn there is a break, between different kinds of properties, say characteristic and non-characteristic ones, and that intensional qualifications such as false are a means to determine where the break occurs. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 30/06/1998