Deirdre McCloskey has replied to my last Sweet Talk post on Ideas vs Institutions!
John Dewey: Evolution’s First Philosopher
From The View of Life:
With this work, Dewey attempted to lay waste to philosophy not grounded in science. He was comfortable doing this because, unlike his contemporaries and most of his successors, Dewey embraced evolutionary thought.
As is apparent from the label he was assigned as Evolution’s First Philosopher (courtesy Jerome Popp, a scholar of John Dewey), Dewey was among the first philosophers to openly state that Darwin’s theory would change philosophy forever. He earned this title in part by concluding:No one who has realized the full force of the facts of the connection of knowing with the nervous system, and of the nervous system with the readjusting of activity continuously to meet new conditions, will doubt that knowing has something to do with reorganizing activity instead of being isolated from all activity, complete on its own account. … The development of biology clinches this lesson, with its discovery of evolution. For the philosophic significance of the doctrine of evolution lies precisely in its emphasis upon continuity of simpler and more complex organisms until we reach man (Dewey, 1953, p. 337).
That last line speaks to the notion of pragmatism as global supervience. The minimalist on truth only seeks understanding. To explain a phenomenon is to put it in simpler terms, to look at its parts and their interactions, and the parts of the parts. But at the foundation of all this standing under? Only useful posits.
Do meta-ethics without the baggage
A useful exercise for thinking about moral philosophy is to actually stop thinking about moral philosophy. If the non-cognivist’s thesis is correct, you can think about other evaluative or expressivist modalities that don’t carry the same baggage, and then draw parallel lessons.
Take humor. It’s much less controversially non-cognitivist. Few people defend an “objective” or truth-apt theory of humor. In fact sometimes its extremely difficult to articulate why something is funny. Nonetheless, patterns emerge about the real circumstances or properties humor is liable (but not guaranteed) to supervene to. That is, humor begins as an irreducible Humean projection that down the road can assume propositional content.
But that non-cognitive germ of humor has a few important implications. What’s funny isn’t fixed or absolute. It can change with history, and potentially with genetic engineering. That is, it has a dependency relationship to lower level phenomena, and isn’t intrinsic or ‘real’ in nature.
We can plausibly attribute our industry-era loss of rituals to many factors. Increasing wealth has given us more spatial privacy. Innovation has become increasingly important, and density and wealth are high enough to support fashion cycles, all of which raise the status of people with unusual behavior. These encourage us to signal our increasing wealth with more product and behavioral variety, instead of with more stuff. With increasing wealth our values have consistently moved away from conformity and tradition and toward self-direction and tolerance. Also, more forager-like egalitarianism has made us less ok with the explicit class distinctions that supported many farmer-era rituals. And our suppression of family clans has also suppressed many related rituals.
These factors seem likely to continue while per-capita wealth continues to increase. In that case overt ritual is likely to continue to decline. But there is no guaranteed that wealth will always increase. Robin Hanson on the decline of ritual.
"As if" Intentionality is incoherent? No. "Reality" is what’s incoherent
This is a rejoinder to a comment left on my last post defending eliminative materialism:
the crux of Feser’s argument has to do with intentionality specifically. Your response has not addressed how an eliminativist materialist can account for intentionality without making an appeal to ‘as-if’ intentionality (which, as Feser explains, is not truly intentionality at all). He further points out the incoherence of flat-out denying that intentionality exists.
The problem with addressing “intentionality” directly is that it is too generic. I’d rather pick a specific manifestation of intentionality and work my way down through the layers of supervenience to try and understand how it comes about. To extrapolate from my memory example, I am saying intentionality (and meaning generally) is an abstraction of a system’s role or use in a larger system.
An S-R latch is nothing more than a electrical mechanism that reliably returns the same output. To call that “memory” requires an added step, whereby the ability to store a electrical state is treated as information “about” a past event that helps an organism act in the present. Yet there is no “original” aboutness, nor any “aboutness” per se outside of the stored datums use in a larger system of survival. Intentionality is not “as if.” It is and always has been a pragmatic abstraction.
The comment goes on:
[Feser’s criticism is that] the underlying assumption that everything can be explained as a purely material process is fundamentally flawed. It is the incoherence of the underlying materialist philosophy that Feser is criticizing, not the fact that materialists use convenient abstractions.
People spill too much ink trying to defend pragmatic abstractions as “real” as opposed to pseudo-real or “as if”. My view as a metaphysical quietist is that this is mostly a debate over semantic turf. I call myself a materialist but I don’t mean that in the old substance monist sense. By it I really am referring to the pragmatic theory of global supervenience. Consider this paragraph from my post:
does Feser disagree that mental states are macro-phenomenon which supervene to neural computation and configurations of matter over a timeline of efficient causes? That’s the substantive issue at stake.
This is me implicitly re-framing the debate about materialism to a debate about global supervenience. Namely, “intentionality” globally supervenes on neural computation iff any two worlds with the same distribution of neural properties have the same distribution of intentional properties as well.
See: In Defense of Global Supervenience (1992)
To paraphrase Quine, even the very foundations of physics, elementary particles, are only real as pragmatic “posits” that may just as well be described as the gods of homer. There’s no as ifs, ands or buts about it.
Anonymous said: Edward Feser wrote a blog piece entitled 'Eliminativism without Truth.What do you think of this critique of eliminative materialism? I think Feser has pretty much destroyed it
Based on this series of posts, Feser seems to be motivated by little more than a semantic commitment to what counts as “real”.
He’s not the first person I’ve read who doesn’t get it. The problem is marketing. “Eliminativism” has pretty awful connotations, doesn’t it? It sounds like something Stalin tried.
A better word might be Other-izing. It’s not that mental states like beliefs and thoughts have been eliminated, annihilated, never to be seen again. Rather, they’re just not metaphysical objects anymore. They’re something other than metaphysical.
Supervenience is an even better word. It’s uncontroversial that the macroeconomy supervenes on the aggregate decisions of all the individuals in the market. That doesn’t mean every predictive model of the economy has to be micro-founded. But it does mean that we should be suspicious of theories that treat the aggregate as a kind of sui generis substance, metaphysically separate from its component parts. Further, recognition of this fact helps prevents category mistaken claims or the fallacy of composition.
Similarly, does Feser disagree that mental states are macro-phenomenon which supervene to neural computation and configurations of matter over a timeline of efficient causes? That’s the substantive issue at stake.
In Part 1, Feser distinguishes between “real” intentionality and “as if” intentionality without ever actually explaining the difference. Materialists have very detailed schematics of their “as if intentionality.” All Feser has to do is point out what’s lacking. Instead he just hand waves by demanding that elusive substance known as “intrinsic”.
Maybe an example comparing the two views would be helpful. Take a mental state like having a memory.
A believer in mental materialism would predict that:
- After experiencing a memory, the memory must continue to persist in an inactive state of some material description if it is to be called upon again down the road.
Is a dormant memory still a mental state; is it intrinsic or derived or neither? If inactive memories count, do inactive beliefs count? What does a belief look like without the believing, a memory without remembering, in Feser’s view?
- Depending on the properties of the substrate and the method of storage, memories should become less reliable overtime, damaged or forgotten (eliminated? deleted?) as the substrate deteriorates.
As a memory fades or becomes compressed, is the mental state correspondingly less real; is the memory intrinsically worse or is its worse-ness derived from cellular damage and age?
- Memory’s physical contingency implies it has location and takes up space, which suggests the possibility of more than one type of memory based on material efficiency trade-offs.
How does an intrinsic view of memory explain the disunity between working memory and sensory memory? Is procedural memory of a skill or activity (aka muscle memory) part of a mental state or is it actually intrinsic to the muscle? How does an intrinsic view of memory explain the supervenience of long term memory onto other systems of memory, like declarative and episodic memory? Is memory necessarily self-contained, or is an intrinsic theory able to explain the ways memory systems interact with other systems, like language, vision and olfaction?
It’s not possible to look into the brain and see a memory. In fact, to the naked eye, the brain looks like a homogeneous kludge of grey and white matter. If you’ve ever looked at a computer’s hard drive, it looks like a homogeneous substance as well. While it’s easy to take the brain/computer metaphor too far, in this case it’s instructive. If our brain is at all like a computer, the homogeneity of the substance belies a deeper heterogeneity of the integrated circuitry.
In the case of computer memory, it’s possible to build a circuit that stores or “maintains” a bit of information using two NOR gates and feedback (an S-R latch). I don’t have a computer science background so I won’t risk botching the details. But as far as the metaphysics is concerned, it’s enough to know that the final state of system is determined by the electrical properties of the gates.
Needless to say, human memory is way more elaborate than a single storage element. Like computers, human memory has a more permanent, longer term storage (like a hard drive) as well as shorter term, working systems (like RAM or virtual memory). Our daily capacity to remember stuff is also pretty finite, benefiting from a night sleep to give our brains a chance to de-frag, as it were, via synaptic pruning.
Now, as long as we have our metaphysical caps on, it’s arguably incoherent to point at an S-R latch and say “look, there is memory!” Quantitatively, a logic gate is nothing more than the physical parts that compose the circuit, be it computer parts or networks of neurons. “Memory” as such is an abstraction. It is a function we ascribe to the system given its particular use in a larger system.
In fact all computation is abstract. Programmers are even taught to think in abstraction, i.e. semantically, before diving into the details of how to write their program. No one thinks out a computer science problem at the scale of physics. Instead, one takes off their metaphysical cap and puts on their higher-abstraction cap whenever it is more useful.
This suggests computation is something other than its metaphysical reality. Computation is a higher level of description of processes that ultimately supervene to purely physical phenomenon. Understanding this is important, as physical reality imposes truly intrinsic limits on computation. Even human information processing must obey the limits imposed by thermodynamics.
Feser’s incoherence thesis is based on the premise that we must do all our discourse as metaphysicians – that materialists are, in everyday life, committed to translating words like “belief,” “intention” and “memory” to their neural correlates. This is like insisting meteorologists are incoherent because they don’t describe weather patterns in terms of elementary particles. We know metaphysically that a cloud is simply a macro-view of the dynamic physics of swirling atoms, but building weather models that way is intractable. Instead, sophisticated meteorologists use abstract methods from statistical physics. Perhaps abstract concepts and ideas are a form of mental statistics.
If scientists are ever going to understand how the mind works they will have to be willing to set aside the abstract phenomenon like belief and intention that come to us naturally from the alluring sensations of phenomenology. I for one don’t care if you continue to call a memory “real” as long as you understand that it is not the same sort of “real” as the physical processes that underlie it.