The American Pragmatists by Cheryl Misak

This is an entry in a series called The Oxford History of Philosophy, written by an expert on the philosophical school known as “pragmatism”. Here’s how Oxford University Press describes the book:

Cheryl Misak presents a history of the great American philosophical tradition of pragmatism, from its inception in the Metaphysical Club of the 1870s to the present day. She identifies two dominant lines of thought in the tradition: the first begins with Charles S. Peirce and Chauncey Wright and continues through to Lewis, Quine, and Sellars; the other begins with William James and continues through to Dewey and Rorty. This ambitious new account identifies the connections between traditional American pragmatism and twentieth-century Anglo-American philosophy, and links pragmatism to major positions in the recent history of philosophy, such as logical empiricism. Misak argues that the most defensible version of pragmatism must be seen and recovered as an important part of the analytic tradition.

According to Professor Misak, “the most defensible version of pragmatism” is the version initiated by C. S. Peirce and Chauncey Wright in the 19th century and carried forward by C. I. Lewis, W. V. Quine and Wilfrid Sellars in the 20th. She argues that it is more defensible because it considers truth to be less subjective. In the caricature or simplification of pragmatism as set forth by William James and criticized by G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell, true statements are those that “work for us”. If religious beliefs make your life better, for example, they’re true. By contrast, the tradition that began with Peirce treats truth more objectively. Statements may “work for us” even though they’re false. The Peircean pragmatists see a stronger relationship between truth and how the world is, regardless of human goals or interests.

It isn’t easy to briefly explain what pragmatism is, but Prof. Misak gives it a try in the Preface:

Pragmatists are empiricists in that they require beliefs to be linked to experience. They want their explanations and ontology down-to-earth (natural as opposed to supernatural) and they require philosophical theories to arise out of our practices. As Peirce put the pragmatic maxim, we must look to the upshot of our concepts in order to understand them….

[But] pragmatists reject the part of empiricism that says that all of our beliefs originate in experience and that our beliefs can be linked in an atomistic way to discrete experiences…. They reject any naturalism that gives ontological priority to matter or physicality — they want to consider whether value, generality, chance, etc. might be part of the natural world. They are holists, taking their view to encompass all of science, logic, mathematics, art, religion, ethics and politics. Unlike most of their empiricist predecessors, they fence off no realm of inquiry from the principles they set out.

In the Conclusion, she adds:

The core pragmatist thought is about the human predicament. We must try to explain our practices and concepts, including our epistemic norms and standards, using those very practices, concepts, norms and standards. This is the pragmatist’s task and we have found that, within the pragmatist tradition, there are different ways of trying to fulfill it.

I’ll finish with a brief example of pragmatist thinking. The great Scottish philosopher David Hume is sometimes viewed as a skeptic (e.g. he believed there is no rational basis for ever thinking that one event causes another). The pragmatist John Dewey, however, saw Hume as a predecessor:

While in his study, Hume finds skepticism compelling, but as soon as he leaves that secluded place of theoretical philosophizing, skepticism loses any force it might have had. The skeptic’s doubts, as Peirce would put it, are paper doubts [107].

According to the pragmatists, what matters, even from a philosophical perspective, is how our ideas connect with our lives outside the philosophy class.

Update (January 2020): Without realizing I’d already read it, I read it again. More here.

The Data From All the Senses, Part 2 (Lengthy)

When I refer to “sense data”, I mean information that’s conveyed in one of several ways, either through one of our many senses (of which there are more than the five Aristotle counted), or by whatever other means information makes its way into our stream of consciousness (for example, the introspection that allows us to carry on inner soliloquies). Philosophers sometimes use the term “qualia” to refer to “the introspectively accessible, phenomenal aspects of our mental lives”, but “sense data” emphasizes the informational aspect of our experience. I also think it’s appropriate to think of our conscious experience as a whole. The term “data”, understood as a collective noun, emphasizes what’s often called “the unity of consciousness”.

A term that could be used is in place of “sense data” is “sensorium”. Wikipedia cites the Oxford English Dictionary:

A sensorium is the sum of an organism’s perception … where it experiences and interprets the environments within which it lives…. In medical, psychological, and physiological discourse it has come to refer to the total character of the unique and changing sensory environments perceived by individuals. These include the sensation, perception, and interpretation of information about the world around us by using faculties of the mind such as senses, phenomenal and psychological perception, cognition and intelligence.

As David Chalmers put it in the article I quoted a few days ago: “What unites all of these states is that there is something it is like to be in them. All of them are states of experience.”

So what is sense data? From what is ordinarily called the “mental” point of view, sense data is information expressed as sights, sounds, smells, feelings, thoughts and so on. Although a computer can run a program perfectly well with one source of information (the data stored as tiny magnetic regions on a hard drive, for example), creatures like us need more. We require lots of information about the world in order to survive and it’s beneficial to collect that information in more than one way (echolocation would be especially handy at night). 

Hence, we evolved with various capacities for collecting information about the world inside and outside our bodies. If the information we collect is accurate, it will generally allows us to maneuver successfully and avoid difficulties. If it’s garbled, incomplete, hard to understand, illusory or even hallucinatory, it will tend to be less helpful.

From what is ordinarily called the “physical” perspective, however, sense data is activity in our brains. Scientists, of course, can only detect what’s happening in our brains up to a point, since the technology is so new. We, however, have a front row seat, metaphorically speaking. In fact, we each have a metaphorical theater to ourselves. We each experience some of the activity in our brains as sense data, i.e. sights, sounds, smells, feelings, thoughts and otherwise. Nobody understands how this works yet – how or why particular kinds of activity are experienced in particular ways – but that seems to be only a matter of time.

Among professional philosophers, the idea that sense data or conscious experience is brain activity is controversial, although not so much among scientists who study the brain. The so-called “identity theory” has been debated for decades and various alternatives have been offered. Nevertheless, it still seems to me that mental activity is brain activity, somewhat like heat is the motion of atoms or molecules, a cloud is water vapor and a squirrel is a collection of cells. 

One big objection to the identity theory that seems very wrong is that it leaves no room for minds or mental activity. Many philosophers used to believe that the mind is a mental substance that’s somehow attached to the physical substance of the body (and that made sense if a person’s mind or soul was supposed to float away post mortem). Very few philosophers think that today. Yet there are still those who believe that mental properties are very different from physical properties. Property dualism, in particular, is the idea that consciousness is a fundamental property not reducible to physical properties.

I don’t see any good reason to believe that. The simple, most plausible explanation for why so-called mental events or properties seem different from so-called physical events or properties is this: when we’re conscious, we experience some physical events in our brains as mental events (what I’m calling “sense data”), but we never experience other physical events, either in our bodies or outside them, in the same way. The traditional way of describing this distinction is to say that we have direct experience of what’s happening in our conscious minds and indirect experience (via our eyes and ears, for example) of everything else. 

Consider what we know about perception and feelings like pain or hunger. Stimuli of various kinds come in contact with specialized cells in the body. Electrical impulses make their way via the nervous system to the brain. A tiny number of these impulses are combined with the brain’s own contributions, resulting in conscious experience. It’s the activity in the brain itself that ultimately counts.

You really could be a brain in a vat and have a vivid mental life, assuming the technology existed to allow your brain to receive the necessary stimuli (and thus the necessary information to process) and to react accordingly (by seeking new stimuli, for example, as in “Hey, what’s that noise over there?”). Using the traditional terminology, It’s the end product (the sense data) that you are “directly” aware of. So long as that information kept arriving and your brain could react appropriately, your world would seem the same.

It’s the things that information is about, whether it’s the sunburn on your back, a band playing in the park or your daughter’s first day at school, that we are “indirectly” aware of (again using the standard terminology). But all of it is (or was or will be) physical stuff, whether it’s the band in the park, the electrical stimuli or the brain’s own activity. It’s all ultimately composed of things like quarks and bosons (and maybe some dark matter or dark energy, whatever those are).

But the direct vs. indirect distinction can be misleading in at least two ways. First, calling our awareness of things outside our brains “indirect” suggests that there could be a more direct way of being aware of such things. But how could that possibly be? How could I possibly be more aware of the chair I’m sitting in than by sitting in it, looking at it, measuring it, touching it and so on? Experiencing something outside of us isn’t and cannot be the same as experiencing the brain activity that’s part of us. Nevertheless, using our senses to gain knowledge about such things is the ideal, most direct way there could possibly be.

Second, saying that we are directly aware of sense data may suggest that our awareness is complete. It’s sometimes said that we have “privileged access” to our sense data. That’s certainly true, since nobody else has the same access to our sense data that we do. Similarly, the Stanford Encyclopedia article on sense data lists this as the third defining feature of traditional sense data theories: “Sense data [has] the properties that perceptually appear to us”. That’s usually understood to mean that we can’t be mistaken about what our sense data is. We may interpret our sense data incorrectly, but if you have blue sense data, your sense data is definitely blue, even if the thing your sense data is about (the wall in front of you, for example) isn’t blue at all. It could be a different color, as we usually describe such things. In reality, it’s got no “color” (the blueness you actually see) in itself at all. 

This doesn’t mean that we can always accurately describe what our sense data is or even know what we’re sensing. Data, after all, is sometimes vague, incomplete, too complex to understand and even inconsistent. (Imagine seeing an object directly in front of you that isn’t there when you try to touch it.) It’s reasonable to say that sense data always has the properties that perceptually appear to us, so long as we don’t take that to mean we are always clear about what those properties are.

The most popular objection to sense data theories is that they break the link between us and the external world. If we’re only aware of sense data, how do we know that anything outside our own minds even exists? How do we know that there is a physical world at all? Or perhaps you and I are like Keanu Reeves before he was unplugged.

Given the sense data I’ve had over the years and am still having, I’m very sure that there is a physical world outside my mind that contains New York City, our cat, Rice Krispies and aluminum siding. But am I absolutely, completely, 100% certain beyond any doubt whatsoever? Not really. I could get an extremely, extremely big surprise one day.

But so what? I’m not absolutely, completely, 100% certain that the world wasn’t created 10 seconds ago, with geological strata and historical records in place and all of us enjoying false memories of years gone by. Being able to conceive of a very different world doesn’t make that very different world plausible. Philosophers (some of them) are paid to worry about these things, and many have tried to prove beyond any possible doubt things we and they already know to be true. But the quest for absolute certainty on this or almost any other topic is a waste of time. It’s impossible to achieve and wouldn’t be of any use if it was.

In conclusion, I should mention that, in a 2009 survey of philosophy professors, graduate students and others who follow academic philosophy, only 19% of the respondents accepted or leaned toward “sense-datum theory” or “qualia theory” in the philosophy of perception. However, applying simple labels to philosophical theories is extraordinarily difficult. The most popular answer was “other” with 43%, but coming in second was “representationalism” with 26%. Another article in the Stanford Encyclopedia describes representationalism or representative realism as follows:

… our immediately experienced sense-data, together with the further beliefs that we arrive at on the basis of them, constitute a representation or depiction of an independent realm of material objects — one that we are, according to the representationalist, justified in believing to be true.

I couldn’t (and didn’t) say it better myself.

PS — It’s very difficult to contract Ebola in a country with a decent public health system, so please don’t worry. It’s not spread like a cold or the flu. If you’re in a country with a poor public health system and people are getting the disease, please don’t expose yourself to the bodily fluids of someone who has a high fever, body aches, etc. You can only get it from the bodily fluids of someone who already has symptoms.

Bet on Achilles to Beat the Tortoise

Many are the times I’ve thought about Achilles and the tortoise:

Zeno concluded from this and other paradoxes that motion is an illusion, so it’s important to show why Achilles will beat the tortoise. Otherwise, we’ll all have to sit very still.

Zeno’s argument goes something like this:

1) When Achilles starts running at point A, the tortoise is already at B.
2) By the time Achilles reaches point B, the tortoise is at point C.
3) By the time Achilles reaches point C, the tortoise is at point D.
4) This series can be extended forever.
5) In order to catch up, Achilles will have to perform an infinite series of tasks in a finite amount of time.
6) It’s impossible to perform an infinite series of tasks in a finite amount of time.
7) Therefore, Achilles can never catch up to the tortoise.

But we know that mighty Achilles is going to catch up to the tortoise and win the race. Fast runners beat slow walkers. Hence, the paradox.

In his book A Brief History of the Philosophy of Time, Adrian Bardon suggests that Aristotle had a good response to Zeno. Aristotle apparently argued that Zeno’s paradox rests on confusing “an abstract value (i.e. time), which is mathematically divisible into instants, with actual change, which is not literally composed of infinitesimal units of change”. In other words, Aristotle distinguished between “the rules for time (as a mere abstraction) and those for change (as a real phenomenon)”. Maybe Aristotle was right, but I’m not sure Zeno would have been convinced.

Bardon also discusses the mathematical concept of a “limit”, which “allows for an infinite number of finite quantities to add up to a finite sum”. That’s the idea mentioned at the end of the video. Many have concluded that Zeno can be answered using this concept, although Bardon asks: “Can a limit be a real endpoint to a real process, or is it just a new mathematical convention that disregards the metaphysical question about time and change with which Aristotle and Zeno are struggling? Does it really help matters to say that [motion or change] represents convergence on a limit? That wouldn’t have sounded like real motion to either Zeno or Aristotle”.

Maybe Zeno’s argument does require a subtle and sophisticated response. But what struck me as weak about his argument was one of the premises listed above:

6) It’s impossible to perform an infinite series of tasks in a finite amount of time.

Really? Who says? Isn’t that what we do every time we move from point A to point B? Having arrived at point B, haven’t we also traveled 1/2 of the distance, 1/3 of the distance, 1/4 of the distance, 1/5 of the distance and so on? Isn’t this a clear example of performing an infinite series of tasks in a finite amount of time? Granted that the tasks overlap, but it seems fair (albeit boring) to describe what we’ve done this way, without having to explain what the mathematical concept of a “limit” is or draw a distinction between the rules for speaking about time and the rules for speaking about change.

Perhaps this is mere sophistry and Zeno would have considered it such, since he and the Sophists were contemporaries. I think it’s a simple truth that moving around involves doing many little things by doing one big thing. Take that, Zeno!

On a similar note, the English philosopher G. E. Moore wrote a famous article called “Proof of an External World”. In that article, he said he could prove the existence of the world outside our minds by drawing our attention to his two hands: “by doing this, ipso facto, I have proved the existence of external things”. Whether that’s a great argument or not is an open question. Moore defended his argument, however, by pointing out that skeptical philosophical arguments (such as proving motion to be an illusion) often rely on philosophical intuitions or generalities (such as premise 6 above) that we have much less reason to accept than the common sense beliefs they supposedly refute.

All right, it’s safe to start moving again.

Philosophical Relativity by Peter Unger

Unger argues that some philosophical problems have no solution because certain key terms can be understood in two different ways. Since neither way of understanding these terms is better than the other, there is no correct solution to the problems in which these terms play a role.  

He offers the word “flat” as a typical, non-philosophical term that has two such senses. In one sense, something is flat if it is relatively flat compared to other things of a similar or different nature, depending on the context. Kansas is flat compared to Vermont, and the tops of coffee tables are flat compared to lots of other objects. Unger calls this the “contextualist” case.  

In another sense, however, Kansas clearly isn’t perfectly or absolutely flat, nor are coffee tables. The only thing that is flat in this sense is probably a plane as defined in geometry. Unger calls this the “invariantist” case, since the meaning of the specified term in this case doesn’t vary from context to context.  

Unger identifies four philosophical problems that he thinks are subject to this kind of ambiguity: the problems of knowledge (the word “know”), free will (words like “can” and “could”), causation (“cause”) and explanation (“explain”).  

For example, we commonly say that we know many things, but, when pressed, we confess that we could be wrong. Which standards must be met for knowledge to exist? Should our everyday standards be applied (“I saw a dog in the car going by”) or much more stringent standards that would rule out any possibility of error (“I  stopped the car and confirmed that a dog was present by sight, touch and hearing; discussed the matter with other observers; and then performed a series of medical tests to verify that the dog was a living organism with canine DNA”)?  

As Unger points out, we could still be wrong relative to the very highest standards, except possibly with knowledge of the “Cogito, ergo sum” variety (“I know that there is something”.) Understanding terms in the invariantist fashion can obviously lead to skepticism, but Unger argues that skepticism may be warranted — there is no right answer when it comes to choosing between contextualist and invariantist positions. He offers extended discussion of semantics vs. pragmatics and semantic intuitions, but his basic point is that some important terms are ambiguous and there are no compelling reasons to choose one meaning over another. 

There are at least three different kinds of relativity involved here. First, there is the idea that the meanings of some terms are relative to the context in which they are used (this is the position called “contextualism”). Second, there is semantic relativity: the idea that the meaning of certain terms is relative to certain assumptions, e.g. the standards that are appropriate for saying that someone knows something. Third, there is philosophical relativity: the idea that some semantically relative terms are philosophically significant, and that this semantic relativity results in certain philosophical problems having no solution. Unger argues in favor of all three kinds of relativity. 

It seems quite correct to say that some terms are contextually and semantically relative, and that some of these terms play a key role in philosophical disputes. I’m not sure that this explains why these disputes are hard to solve, however. For example, it seems clearly true that if we understand “know” in the ordinary sense, we know many things, and if we understand “know” in the ideal sense, we don’t know much at all. Unger doesn’t spend much time explaining why this ambiguity is so crucial. Few philosophers would deny that this kind of ambiguity exists, yet they would continue to argue about the nature of knowledge and justification, and whether or not there are grounds for choosing between the ambiguous meanings Unger describes.  (5/16/12)