Punished by a Philosopher

I was slightly tempted to discuss a new book that lays out the argument for considering The Toddler to be a toddler (The Toddler In Chief by Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University). But even thinking about that subject would be a form of punishment.

Instead, I’m going to consider a different kind of punishment: being subjected to a bad philosophical argument. It’s not the worst kind of punishment. It’s often interesting or amusing to consider what a philosopher says, however implausible it might be.  Punishment is what came to mind, however, when I went from reading about the Toddler book to reading Richard Marshall’s interview with Yale philosophy professor  Michael Della Rocca. (Note: This isn’t the typical post I’ve published in recent years in terms of either subject matter or length; there’s nobody watching if you’d like to turn back now.)(PS: Another option is to read the final few lighthearted paragraphs.)

Professor Della Rocca specializes in metaphysics and early modern philosophy — “Early Modern” primarily refers to the ideas of Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Leibniz and Locke, all published between 1615 and 1715.

This is the argument that Della Rocca makes:

… in virtue of what are [any two things] A and B not identical? If one answers: “in virtue of being in different locations,” then the question just re-arises in a different form: in virtue of what are these locations not identical? … So this response … goes no distance toward offering genuine illumination on the issue of what it is in virtue of what A and B are distinct.

Why do we need “genuine illumination” on what makes A and B distinct? If we have what seems to be an excellent reason to believe A and B are different things (one’s here and the other is over there), why shouldn’t we believe they’re different without being required to explain the difference sufficiently well?

Della Rocca continues:

I take such why-questions seriously—i.e. I think that they demand an answer, and I’m certainly not alone here. Such questions are for me a hallmark of rationalism. Rationalism can mean lots of different things to different people, but for me the Principle of Sufficient Reason (the PSR) is central to rationalism. The PSR is the principle according to which there are no brute facts that obtain or no things that exist without an explanation. That is, each thing or each fact has an explanation. The PSR is the guiding force of Leibniz’s and Spinoza’s work….

The Principle of Sufficient Reason tells us that every fact, including whether or how A and B are different, requires a sufficient (genuinely illuminating? satisfactory? compelling?) reason to admit the difference exists or explanation for why or how it exists. But must we accept that Principle? Is it true?

Professor Della Rocca doesn’t say. Instead, he points out that philosophers often demand reasons and explanations, and once you start down that road, there is no reason to stop until you get to the finish line, i.e. you are justified in demanding reasons or explanations in every case, until you get one that’s “sufficient”. That is the Principle of Sufficient Reason. (Bright children who keep asking “why” questions until their parents lose patience may be covert adherents of the PSR.)

[Philosophers] accept explanatory demands in particular domains, and I point out that it seems right that they do accept these explanatory demands. I think that explanatory demands are the lifeblood of philosophy, and you don’t need me to say that they make sense and should be taken seriously. People already do take them seriously. After showing that certain explanatory demands are accepted, I then try to make life difficult for my interlocutors by showing how the explanatory demands that they already accept lead to surprising or even troubling consequences.

He holds that one such troubling consequence is being forced to accept the principle known as the “Identity of Indiscernibles”.

This is the case with my defense of the identity of indiscernibles. I begin with explanatory claims that very many philosophers embrace or seem to embrace—claims to the effect that such-and-such a situation is to be ruled out precisely because it would involve inexplicable facts. I then ratchet up the pressure by showing how this explanatory demand generates momentum to go further and, in this case, eventually generates pressure to accept the identity of indiscernibles and indeed the full-blown PSR.

I believe the idea here is that if we cannot sufficiently explain what it is, for example, for A and B to be in visibly different locations, not only should we withhold judgment, but A and B aren’t in different locations at all. The same rule applies to the other apparent differences between A and B, their color, their size, I suppose their importance, whatever difference you care to name. But if there are no differences between A and B, they must be the same thing. They are identical. A = B.



Since the variables A and B can be assigned to anything, we end up with a version of the classic philosophical position called “monism”. Generally speaking, monism is the position that reality is one thing and not a collection of things. The ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides is credited (or discredited) as an early monist. Della Rocca thinks Parmenides was serious about what sounds like an incredible position:

Parmenides, as I interpret him, is a strict monist in the sense that he denies that there are any negations or distinctions whatsoever (i.e. one thing’s not being another). Indeed, for Parmenides, such distinctions, such negations, and any multiplicity are unintelligible—they cannot even be thought.

Parmenides’ successors—notably Plato and Aristotle—were haunted by Parmenides’ vision, and they sought to make the world safe for distinctions and multiplicity. Whether they succeeded is another matter. My view is that this move in Parmenides from the PSR to a strong version of monism or a rejection of all distinctions and multiplicity is repeated time and time again in the history of philosophy. Attempts to avoid this result either by limiting the PSR or denying it outright fail.

Della Rocca than presents his own take on monism:

I endorse Parmenideanism in my own voice for reasons stemming from the PSR…. Thus, there are no differentiated substances or beings, actions, knowledges (instances of knowledge), or meanings. There is, one might say, being or substance, but not substances or beings; there is action, but no actions. For me, these terms (“substance”, “action”, “knowledge”, “meaning”) are not count nouns, but are something like mass terms.

The challenge in each of these cases is this: we ordinarily think of actions, etc. as differentiated, as relational, but for me there is no good way to make sense of such differentiation, such relations, and so—in order to save or redeem the concepts of substance, action, knowledge, and meaning—we have to ascend to an undifferentiated, non-relational version of these phenomena, if they are to be saved or redeemed at all.

We take the reality that we were trying to capture in terms of differentiation and, instead, we capture it better by appealing to undifferentiated versions of these phenomena. In this way, my account is deeply skeptical, not in the tame sense of denying that we know that there are instances of these phenomena, but in the sense of denying that we have a coherent conception of these phenomena, at least of these phenomena as involving distinctions.

I think this is the structure of Della Rocca’s argument, even though it’s not how it’s presented in the interview:

1) The Principle of Sufficient Reason is a fundamental, highly plausible principle.

1a) It is so fundamental that it might not be justifiable, but to be consistent, anyone who has ever required a good enough reason to believe something exists or some statement is true should require a good enough reason in every case.

2) Once we accept the PSR, we realize that the explanations we ordinarily accept are insufficient, because we can ask for those explanations themselves to be explained.

4) Among the insufficient explanations are those that attempt to explain how or why two or more things are different (e.g., “you might think these two objects are different because they are in different locations, but in virtue of what are their locations different?”).

5) Since such explanations are insufficient, the supposed differences don’t exist.

6) The Identity of Indiscernibles is another plausible principle. But it says that if there are no differences between two things, the two things are only one thing; “they” are identical.

7) Therefore, we should adopt some kind of monism, the view that reality is somehow one thing; the universe doesn’t consist of many things (such as electrons and gluons, or apples and oranges). Neither does it consist of only a couple of things (like mind and matter).

8) In particular, we should think of certain things, action and meaning, for example, as one thing (action or meaning) rather than many things (e.g. the actions you performed yesterday or the meanings of the words in Della Rocca’s interview).

I don’t think I’ve expressed the argument very well, but, since it’s part of an interview, it’s not presented with crystalline clarity. No doubt it’s clearer and has more detail in Della Rocca’s articles or books.

Nevertheless, I think it’s nuts. On the face of it, denying that reality is made of different things, things that have relationships and distinctions between them, seems so wrong, so counterintuitive, one wonders if “all is one” means something deeply and obscurely profound, not what it appears to mean.

Anyway, here are a few observations.

The obvious place to start is the Principle of Sufficient Reason. What makes a reason or explanation sufficient? Ordinarily, when we evaluate a reason or explanation, we think it’s sufficient if it meets our purposes now and (we hope) in the future. But the Principle of Sufficient Reason doesn’t include a statement of purpose, so the meaning of “sufficient” is hard to determine.  If somebody is visiting our house for the first time, it would be helpful to tell them that there is a tree on either side of our driveway, and their leaves are (somewhat surprisingly) different colors. Asking for further explanations of these facts would be a waste of time. It wouldn’t change the original facts about location and color. It would serve no purpose.

But Della Rocca thinks apparent differences like location and color require further explanation. Perhaps physics could do the job. A physicist can explain various characteristics of spacetime and light. But only up to a point (or down to a point). The further the explanations proceed, questions will come up. Why do certain constants have the values they do? Is there a reason for the strong nuclear force to have the strength it does? Or is it a brute fact? If it’s a brute fact, the PSR is false. Does everything happen in a chain of cause and effect, even at the quantum level? Or are quantum events random? How about the Big Bang? Did it happen for a reason or simply happen? If there are any brute facts, or anything happens (or once happened) randomly, the PSR is false. Why presume it’s true, as Della Rocca does?

In step 5 above, there is a leap from “such and such explanations of difference X are not sufficient” to “the supposed difference X doesn’t exist”. But being unable to explain X doesn’t demonstrate that X is unreal. There must be other evidence for the existence of X, or why bother trying to explain it?  The most we should infer from our inability to explain something is that we don’t understand it as well as we’d like to. We might want to reserve judgment. If we want to further justify our belief in X’s existence, we have more work to do.

One of the more surprising claims Della Rocca makes is that there are no relations or distinctions. He begins by referring to actions and then broadens his thesis to cover substances, meanings and knowledges (which is, in fact, the plural of “knowledge”). Revisiting a paragraph from above:

… we ordinarily think of actions, etc. as differentiated, as relational, but for me there is no good way to make sense of such differentiation, such relations, and so—in order to save or redeem the concepts of substance, action, knowledge, and meaning—we have to ascend to an undifferentiated, non-relational version of these phenomena, if they are to be saved or redeemed at all. We take the reality that we were trying to capture in terms of differentiation and, instead, we capture it better by appealing to undifferentiated versions of these phenomena….  we [do not] have a coherent conception of these phenomena, at least of these phenomena as involving distinctions.

Della Rocca says we should think of substance, action, knowledge and meaning as “undifferentiated” phenomena. Yet he differentiates between substance, action, knowledge and meaning. Why? Following his lead, we have to ask what the difference is between substance and action, for example. Is there a “genuinely illuminating” explanation of the difference between them? Or between them and phenomena like quantity or intention?

For that matter, Della Rocca (like Parmenides did in the past) uses words to communicate. If there are no distinctions or relations, why choose one word rather than another? Why say “attempts to deny” instead of “deny to attempts”? Why not say “cornflakes green belief” when he greets a colleague in the philosophy department? If meaning is an undifferentiated phenomenon, the words one chooses and the assertions one makes shouldn’t matter.

Finally, the typical monist response to being challenged regarding the existence of different things is to invent new language. The English philosopher G. E. Moore once said (in his “Proof of an External World”) that he could prove the existence of the external world by holding up one hand and then the other while intoning “Here is one hand … and here is another”.

From the article on “Monism” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

[In “The Philosophy of Logical Atomism”, Bertrand Russell declared:]

“I share the common-sense belief that there are many separate things; I do not regard the apparent multiplicity of the world as consisting merely in phases and unreal divisions of a single indivisible Reality.”

Whether due wholly to argumentative force or at least partly to historical contingencies, such declarations [as Russell’s and Moore’s] had the effect of ending any interest in monism … for nearly one hundred years. And so philosophical fashion swung from some form of monism in the nineteenth century, to some form of pluralism in the twentieth century.

By “phases and unreal divisions”, Russell was referring to a standard response a monist might give to Moore’s proof of an external world. Again from the Stanford Encyclopedia:

For instance, when one claims that there is a hand here, the … monist might hold that what is strictly the case is that the world is handish here.

I don’t see much difference between “here is a hand and here is another” and “the world is handish here and also handish here”, or “handing here and also there”. But I don’t find monism appealing.

Wittgenstein is often quoted as saying “philosophy leaves the world as it is”. What he actually wrote (in German, Philosophical Investigations, 124) was on the relationship between philosophy and language: “philosophy leaves everything [i.e. the way we actually use language] as it is”. I don’t think that’s true, but what Wittgenstein wrote could be interpreted in a way that pertains to Della Rocca’s argument for monism.

Philosophers often argue about which terminology to use to describe facts they agree on. All philosophers agree that people have hands. But, if we want to be as precise and accurate as humanly possible, how should we talk about that fact? G. E. Moore insisted he had two hands, by which he meant that his hands were objects external to his mind, that is, part of the external world, something he would only bother pointing out when responding to “idealist” philosophers who denied such an external world exists.

Della Rocca would agree that Moore had two hands, and probably agree that Moore’s hands weren’t ideas in Moore’s mind or anyone else’s (like the idealists did), but he wouldn’t want to say that Moore’s hands were part of anything. I don’t know exactly what he’d say, but he’d have to somehow refer to them as aspects (?) of the one reality while denying that they are distinct objects related to each other (in Russell’s words: “unreal divisions of a single indivisible Reality”). He thinks that when we really get down to it, notions like “difference” and “relation” make no sense. That makes no sense to me. And people continue to have two hands regardless.

Philosophical arguments like the one between monism and pluralism (there are many individual things) have been going on for centuries. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Quoting Wittgenstein again:

Philosophy hasn’t made any progress?—If someone scratches where it itches, do we have to see progress? Is it not genuine scratching … or genuine itching? [Culture and Value, 86e].

And once more:

I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again “I know that that’s a tree”, pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell him: ‘This fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy” [On Certainty, 467].

I’m done. If you read this whole thing, you’ve been punished enough.

There Are Values and Then There Are Values

People got a lot of letters from Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher and historian of ideas. The New York Review of Books published a review several months ago (I’m behind on my reading) of the third volume of Berlin’s letters, covering the years 1960 to 1975. There’s one more volume to go.

One of the ideas Berlin argued for in his letters and elsewhere during his long career was “value pluralism”, the view that there is no one ultimate value. Instead, there are many values, some of which can conflict in ways that cannot be easily resolved (there is no “right” answer). Liberty and equality are two such values.

In Berlin’s words, from the review, value pluralism is:

The conception that there are many different ends that men may seek and still be fully rational, fully men, capable of understanding each other and sympathizing and deriving light from each other.

Nothing is less popular today than to say that there is no millennium, that values collide, that there is no final solution, that one can only gain one value at the expense of another, that whatever one chooses entails the sacrifice of something else—or that it is at any rate often so. This is regarded as either false or cynical or both, but the opposite belief is what, it seems to me, has cost us so much frightful suffering and blood in the past.

John Banville, the author of the NYRB review, writes:

[Berlin] was keenly aware of the potential destructiveness of ideas, “ideas about what relations between men have been, are, might be and should be,” which in time become transformed into visions of a supreme good, and therefore a supreme goal, in the minds of leaders, “above all of the prophets with armies at their backs.” 

Ideas can be dangerous or beneficial, and also mistaken. Although he vigorously campaigned to “ban the bomb”, the great philosopher Bertrand Russell once supposedly said “I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong”. But would Russell have accepted death if ending his life resulted in global nuclear disarmament? (That’s not a likely scenario, of course, but it’s the kind of question philosophers have to deal with.)

So how much importance should we attach to our most favored values if we accept value pluralism and simultaneously recognize that our values might not be the best ones? I don’t know the answer to that, but it brings me to an article called “How To Win Your Next Political Argument” from New York Magazine.

The thesis of this article is that there are better ways to win an argument than by citing facts or by being confrontational. People will just dig in their heels if you hit them with too many facts or make them feel threatened. It’s better to get your opponent to try to explain his or her position, since people often can’t explain their position even to their own satisfaction and will thereby become less confident that they know what they’re talking about.

Another recommended tactic is to “change the frame”, which means appealing to values your opponent holds dear, not necessarily your own. So, us left-wingers are said to focus on “care/harm” and “fairness/cheating”, while right-wingers are equally attached to “loyalty/betrayal”, “authority/subversion” and “sanctity/degradation”. If you want to convince a Republican that Edward Snowden was justified in releasing government secrets, you’re going to have to keep in mind that “betrayal” and “subversion” are big concerns for Republicans.

I was coasting along through this article until I got to the end, at which point the author presents an example of how to argue in favor of gay rights with a right-wing opponent. For example:

“I think my main reason in favor of allowing gay people to be scout leaders is that I have some gay friends who were Boy Scouts growing up, and who seriously treasure the lessons they learned during that time.”

What a load of mealy-mouthed crap! I suddenly thought of the Sophists, the ancient Greeks who were somewhat unfairly criticized for teaching their students how to argue successfully in favor of any position at all. Plato claimed the Sophists were mere hired guns (swords?) with no respect for the truth and no principles of their own. 

It’s a good idea to tailor your argument somewhat to meet your opponent’s concerns, and it’s an excellent idea to recognize that values can conflict and none of us own the truth. On the other hand, I especially enjoyed what Isaiah Berlin had to say about the Republican Party in 1964:

I wonder…whether Goldwater followers are not simply the old 20 percent … who were isolationists during the war, did not want to go to Europe but to Japan towards the end of it, supported McCarthy and McCarran [both paranoid anti-Communists], and are in fact the old combination of Southern “Bourbons,” Texas industrialists, Catholic bigots, Fascists, lunatics, political neurotics, embittered ex-Communists, unsuccessful power-seekers of all kinds, as well as rich men and reactionaries, in whom America has never been poor…. This is the optimistic view.

Brutal honesty has its place too.

Logicomix: an Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou

This is an entertaining, fast-moving graphic novel (a very thick comic book) that tells the story of Bertrand Russell’s attempt to provide logical foundations for mathematics and also find a path to absolute certainty about the world. It is presented in the form of a public lecture given by Russell, in which Russell talks about his life and the recent history of mathematics and logic.  

The authors admit that this is a work of fiction, since some of the history has been changed for dramatic purposes or ease of exposition. But the work of great mathematicians, logicians and philosophers, including Cantor, Frege, Poincare, Hilbert, Wittgenstein, Godel and Turing, is accurately summarized. One theme in the novel is the apparent association between logical and mathematical skill and insanity. 

There are also interludes that feature the authors and artists working on the book — an act of self-reference that fits very nicely with the main theme of the novel — and attending performances of Greek tragedy in Athens.  

In general, the writing is better than the artwork, in particular because the characters’ facial expressions lack subtlety.  

There is also a helpful addendum that describes some of the main characters and concepts (one of the authors is a professor of computer science at Berkeley). This is how Godel’s proof of the Incompleteness Theorem is summarized: “Godel proved his Incompleteness Theorem by creating … a statement that … essentially says, in the language of arithmetic, ‘this statement is unprovable’. Any consistent axiomatic theory in which one can formulate such a statement must be necessarily incomplete: for either this statement is false, in which case it is both false and provable, contradicting the consistency of the axiomatic system, or true, in which case it is both true and unprovable, establishing its incompleteness“.  (4/15/11)