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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Warning: Philosophical Content

I absolutely love philosophy first thing in the morning. Before the day is fully light, before the household is fully awake, before my first cup of coffee has fully kicked in, a good philosophical discussion banishes the pres-dawn mental haze and makes me feel, once again, intellectually capable. And so this morning my gratitude goes out to John Searle and the New York Review of Books, September 24 issue.

John Searle, you came to Kalamazoo years ago and spoke to the WMU philosophy department in Friedmann Hall. Your topic was consciousness in nonhuman animals, and one sentence you uttered has remained sharp and bright in my memory all these years. In memory it takes, as it did when I first heard it, the form of a poem. Here, then, arranged as it echoes in my mind, is what you said:

People who think
dogs don’t think
don’t know dogs.

I believe it was during your lecture that day (though it may have been something I read subsequently) that I was first exposed to your justly famous “Chinese Room” argument refuting so-called “Artificial Intelligence.” All these years later, whenever my patience is tried by those who would equate human beings and programmed machines (and there will always be those who will do so), I take comfort in the existence of the mind of John Searle. Dogs think, computers don’t. There is at least a pocket of sanity in the world!

What I read this morning, Dr. Searle, was your review of Paul A. Boghossian’s book, Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism, and, as usual, I was cheered by the lucidity of your exposition and arguments; however, just as you want to go beyond Boghossian’s text to what you identify as the “real target” of his book, I would like to push harder to find the motivation behind the motivation you identify behind the motivation B. identifies. Be patient, please. I have no desire to obfuscate or change the subject, a flaw you correctly point out in relativist arguments. And—let me be clear about this—I have no desire to argue for epistemic relativism.

It was only at the end of your review, in the discussion on motivation for relativist claims, that I was able to locate clearly the itch that had begun from the first mention of claims by “some Native American accounts” that their people emerged from inside the earth (i.e., North American earth) rather than migrating to North America across the Bering Straits. You point out that the relativist can only allow both accounts to be true by “changing the subject” so that each group holds a theory and each group is only claiming truth within its theory—whereas, you remind your readers, the truth value of the nonrelevant facts has not been addressed. A scientific theory is not about a social or psychological point of view but about independent fact as supported by evidence. Fair enough. We can agree on what a scientific theory is.

Your last paragraph reaches farther but then closes the door. The motivation for relativism and constructivism, you state, is “more profound than Boghossian allows for, and it bears interesting affinities with earlier forms of Counter-Enlightenment Romanticism....” You cite Isaiah Berlin and hint that the creation of a “multicultural democracy” seems, to some people, to demand the abandonment of “objectivity.” I wish this had been the end of the first half of your article rather than its conclusion. Allow me to go on from here?

Boghossian sees “political correctness” (a phrase I detest) as part of the motivation for the arguments he rejects, and you go deeper into this motivation by bringing in Berlin and Romanticism. I would like to go deeper still, because I see much more to the background motivation than a political vision (although part of what I see definitely includes that vision), and the clearest way to find our way around in the huge, inchoate, largely inarticulate motivation, as I see it, is to begin with a consideration of what constitutes a scientific theory.

Typical atheist claims begin with the assumption that religion is a theory about reality. With that assumption in place, the atheist proceeds to set scientific theory against a religious account, e.g., evolutionary theory vs. Adam and Eve. No, what does the scientific evidence say? Scientific conclusion, naturally, wins hands down. But scientific atheists and philosophical relativists have smuggled their conclusion into their original assumption. The question we need to ask is whether we’re dealing with rival theories about reality, and I would argue that we are not.

Just yesterday in my new book order delivery there arrived two copies of Karen Armstrong’s new book, A Case For God, and I could not resist opening this book immediately. Only a few pages into it so far, already I recommend this book for anyone who believes science and religion are doing the same thing, religion just doing it badly while science does it superlatively. (A friend of mine, a visual artist, is always suspicious of fellow artists who natter on and on in words about what they’re trying to do with paint on canvas. I feel the same way about analyses of poetry. The poem, the painting, the musical composition, either succeed or fail on their own terms. Analysis may add to a discussion of the success or failure, but in another, very real sense, it is beside the point, something else entirely.) Armstrong begins by distinguishing mythos from logos. I will not repeat her discussion here but refer you to her book. The point is that science is quintessential logos, and yes, argument and evidence are the world of logos. Mythos does not fail on these terms because its terms were always something else. (A pencil sketch does not fail as a painting: it never tried to be one.)

David Hume and Henry Bergson, along with the later American pragmatists, identified the human animal as active in nature. Unlike rooted plants, we must observe, plan and act in order to survive. That, Bergson argued, is the real function of intellect, to pave the way for action. Science, child of intellect, gives us tools for action. What science cannot give are the kinds of reasons that are teleological in nature, those “ends” we also call meanings. Survival? Why? For what greater or higher or more lasting good? Science can afford to shrug and say no such further goods exist, but that does not put an end to human longing.

Over the years, the myth I have found most meaningful, the one to which I return again and again, is that of the Ein Sof and the subsequent shattering of the Vessel. It is the task of human beings, according to this myth, to gather up the scattered sparks, and the ultimate goal is the recovered unity of all that is, the redemption of the world. I see in this myth a call to social action, to environmentalism, to personal kindness, to all kinds of striving to be a better person. It is a story that tells me how to live.

Science describes, myth prescribes. The “conflict” between the two is of recent origin, according to Armstrong. If we cannot get beyond it, I say, we put ourselves in a dilemma situation, forced to choose between rejection of rationality or rejection of meaning. Neither of those brave new worlds appeals to me.

Really, I guess I am pointing rather than arguing. But what about it? For some, argument is the be-all and end-all of life. For others, it is not enough, and who's to say it should be?


Larry Hauser said...

Whatever else, Searle is always provocative. I look forward to reading this review.

It seems what you find most agreeable in Searle (his unrelenting hostility to AI) I find disagreeable: the Chinese room proves nothing I think. And what I find most agreeable (his unrenting hostility to relativism) you find disagreeable – at least somewhat, if I read you aright. At least we agree about the dogs ;-)

The most basic problem with Searle's argument, I think, is that it would infer the impossibility of thinking machines (artificial computers) from the possibility of unthinking ones (such as the system he imagines in the thought experiment). There's a huge logical gap here, and all Searle offers to bridge it – about “equal causal powers” and so on – are argumentative matchsticks. My paper “Nixin' Goes to China” ( makes these cases in some detail. My Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article ( explains the argument and the Postscript of that article elaborates a bit on the “basic problem”.

P. J. Grath said...

Hi, Larry. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment and for the links I'll have to follow up soon. (Our ULYSSES study group meets again in two days, so Stephen Daedalus and Leopold Bloom have first claim on me.) One clarification: I am not hostile to Searle's hostility to relativism. I don't buy it, either. I'll have to give some thought and study to what you cite as a faulty inference in Searle's argument, though (truth be told) I am probably out of my depth in discussions of AI. But another time?

dmarks said...

Dog philosophy...

I keep seeing a bumper sticker that says "Bark less. Wag more."

P. J. Grath said...

dmarks, I love that bumper sticker!

Larry Hauser said...

I'm not sure I understand your views concerning relativism, Pamela. You say you reject it, but then it seems you want make accommodations, somehow, for beliefs that science contradicts, such as the Ojibwa claim that their people emerged from inside the North American earth. This is not flatly contradicted by the scientific account of the Bering migration, you seem to suggest, because the Ojibwa claim is not would-be science. It seems you're saying that when science and religion seem to conflict, it's apples and oranges, somehow. Not just apples and rotten apples, as it seems to the skeptic.

I sympathize. Still, I'm left wondering how. What DO you say, after all, about Native American claims that their people emerged from inside the North American earth? Are they false? True? Neither true nor false (lacking a truth value certain old-time empiricists used to hold)? Or do you propose two different strains of truth, religious (mythos based), and scientific (logical & evidence based)?

Anyhow, here's what I think. Being contradicted by the Bering Strait story (which I believe is true) the Ojibwa story is just plain false. A fiction. Perhaps a useful fiction – lending the Ojibwa people a sense of pride and connection with the land, lending individual lives a sense of larger purpose, building group solidarity, etc. But still a fiction.

I'm uncomfortable with bifurcation of religious and scientific truth, if you were contemplating that. If, as a matter of scientific fact, it turned out that there never was a Jesus of Nazereth, or that he was never crucified, or that he never rose, these facts – by the lights of most Christians – would directly contradict the fundamental tenets of Christian belief. Believers believe their beliefs are, as matters of plain historical fact, just plain true.

And when religious claims are scientifically shown to be false the cost of believing them literally true, becomes unacceptable. You can have still love the stories as inspired inspiring fictions and you can still respect the traditions and values they encourage and support ... as many of us do. This raises the question: to what extent do the benefits of imbibing these stories depend on taking them to be literally true?

P. J. Grath said...

I should probably take more time to formulate a reply rather than take it directly off the top of my head, but your closing paragraph gives me my direction. My position is there is SO much more to truth than literal truth. Let me put it this way: there is a realm of literal fact, which is only (as I see it) one slice of the pie we call truth but which seems to be all that science can comprehend in the (to me) larger term. Hence the so-called "problem of metaphor."

Karen Armstrong makes the point in the introduction to her new book, THE CASE FOR GOD,
that Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris all posit their scientific atheism as a response to religious fundamentalism, "and all three insist that fundamentalism constitutes the essence and core of all religion," rather than seeing it as "a defiantly unorthodox form of faith that frequently misrepresents the tradition it is trying to defend."

Is poetry false? Is drama false? Do paintings "misrepresent" reality to a greater or lesser degree?

There is more to truth than fact. Science is good on fact. It oversteps its boundaries when it claims to pronounce on all of truth.

Larry Hauser said...

Porter Abbott said:

Pamela, I've tried every which way to get Google to let me make an entry on your blog. But to no avail. So here's my answer to your answer to Larry:

Fourth try. Pamela, you are quite right that we commonly talk about the truth in fiction, poetry, painting, etc. But the kind of truth is the "how true!" kind of truth. That is, we know just how that character feels, or we've met people like that, or, yes, isn't life like that, No good deed goes unpunished. In fact, this is what Aristotle, no less, said was poetry's great advantage over philosophy -- the way it bound thought and feeling together in its kind of truth. But what makes fiction fiction, that is, unfalsifiable, means that you wouldn't criticize Flaubert when, after arduous research, you determined that there was no such person as Mme Bovary married to a hapless doctor, etc.

So, if you agree, I think you and Larry are on the same wavelength. The Ojibway myth of origin is not true about where they actually came from but about their needs and feelings. The Kiowa myth of origin tells that they came into this world through a hollow log, which shortly got blocked up by a woman who was pregnant. This is why there are so few of Kiowa. It's a lovely story, told much better than I do by Scott Momaday. But the truth involved, important as it is, has nothing to do with where the Kiowa really came from. Right?

Over and out,