A Word on Our Being Here

It’s a marvelous fact that there’s anything at all.  All of this, somehow, is.  How is that?  This the strange sort of “deep question” that philosophers tend to wonder about, at least those philosophers who tend to wonder about those so-called “deep questions.”

What does it mean to say that a philosophical question is deep?  Well, let’s contrast a deep question with a shallow one. Suppose I ask “Is there milk in the fridge?” This is a rather shallow question.  At least if I ask it in a normal context, you’re not going to be particularly puzzled by it.  Consider now the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”  This question, at least on the face of it, seems perfectly reasonable to ask.  It does seem like there just as well could have been nothing.  Or does it? Presumably, if there was nothing, we wouldn’t be around to ask that question, but we shouldn’t be hubristic as to think that there only is anything at all so that we could ask that very question.  Or should we?  Regardless of what your thoughts on the matter are, it seems clear that this question is deep in a way that “Is there milk in the fridge?” is not.  At the very least, it is puzzling, or, at the very very least, it seems puzzling.  It seems to need some untangling in order to be made sense of, and it seems that you can really dive into the tangles of it.  That’s what makes it a paradigm philosophical question—it’s deep.

A deep question is often dismissed too easily.  You might be tempted to answer as follows:

The question of why there is something rather than nothing assumes that nothing could have been, but nothing could not have been, since, if nothing was, then it would be, and then there would be something, not nothing.  Case closed, right?

Well, maybe.  But maybe not.  Let’s consider the question from a different angle.  It seems that, before you were born, there was nothing (at least for you).  It also seems, at least to many people, that, after you die, there will be nothing as well (once again, at least for you).  Finally, it seems possible that you could have never been born, for instance, if your parents had never met. So, we can reframe the question with respect to each of us.  Each of us can ask, “Why is there something rather than nothing for me?  Why am I here at all?”  Now, on some interpretations, this question might not seem deep at all.  You might think,

I’m here because things went the way they happened to go.  One particular sperm met up with one particular egg, and that’s why I’m here.  Things could have gone countless other ways, but, fortunately for me, they went the way they went.  Why should this be puzzling?

Well, consider for a moment what happened after that sperm and that egg met up.  You came to be.  You were not, and now you are.  You’re here.  What’s the deal with that?

Once you find yourself puzzling over this question, it’s hard to deny that there’s something there.  This “something” is the marvelous fact of our being here.  Here we are.  That’s something.

* * *

Perhaps you’d like to deny the fact of our being here.  I don’t know why you would, but perhaps you would nonetheless.  Regardless of your thoughts on the matter, there’s really is no denying that you’re here.  Don’t just take my word for it—there’s a pretty good argument.  It comes from the 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes, and it goes like this: To doubt that you’re here, you’ve got to doubt that you’re thinking, since, if you’re thinking, that’s something you’re doing here, and, if you’re doing something here, you’re here.  However, you can’t doubt that you’re thinking, since, to doubt that you’re thinking, you must entertain the thought that you’re thinking, but to even entertain such a thought is to think it!  As soon as you have this thought in mind, the argument succeeds.  You’re here.

Philosophical arguments are rarely so powerful that there is simply no denying them, but I take it that this is one of those arguments.  It’s not that no one should deny it.  Rather, it’s that there is literally no such thing as doing so.  If you think you’re denying it, you don’t actually know what it is that you’re doing, because . . . well . . . that’s the argument again.

I don’t think that Descartes’ argument should be particularly controversial, but I do think it conclusively shows that we can’t possibly deny the fact that we’re here.  This is an interesting fact about us.  No other animals in the world find themselves in such a predicament.  Other animals have to worry about not being able to eat something, not being able to run away from something, or not being able to mate with something, but they never have to worry about not being able to deny something.  No lizard, rabbit, or chimpanzee has to worry about anything like Descartes’ argument.  Perhaps we should take a hint from them and not worry about it, but now what is this it that we’re worrying about?  Once you get it, you can’t really forget it, not actively at least.

Once you start thinking in this way, you realize that it’s something rather strange to be us.  We’re the weird sorts of things that ask questions like,

Who are we?

Why are we here?

What’s the point of all this?

We are the ones who concern ourselves with ourselves, the ones for whom our very being here is an issue. As far as we know, we’re the only ones on Planet Earth who are like this. Perhaps there are some aliens out on some far off planet like us, and, of course, we should keep these potential friends in mind as we think about ourselves, but, at least for the time being, we’re on our own here.

* * *

What is it about us that makes us all alone here on this planet of ours?  I take it that the answer is straightforward: Language.  We’re the only creatures here on Earth that have a language. By “language” here, I don’t simply mean a “means of communication.”  Lots of creatures on this planet communicate with one another in all sorts of complex and fascinating ways.  What I mean by our having language is our having the sort of language by which we can talk in this way, the way that I’m talking now.  We can ask ourselves who we are, what we’re doing here, and what we ought to make of ourselves.

The early 20th century German philosopher Martin Heidegger said that language is “the house of being.”  That’s the funny sort of thing that philosophers who fancy themselves poets say.  According to Heidegger, philosophers and poets, people who think and make with words, are the guardians of the house in which language speakers like us dwell.  Now, it’s unclear to me precisely why language needs guarding.  Guarding from what? Presumably, it cannot be guarded from particular people who speak it.  Language can only guard language with language, and language itself isn’t the sort of thing that people can be told to get away from.  If you tell someone to go away from language, the house of being, then, since you’re talking to them, you’ve already let them in!

As I understand it, language has an open door policy.  The job of philosophers and poets, those who think and make with words, shouldn’t be to guard the house of being, but to let everyone in and show them around!  Welcome to the house of being!  In our house, there are many mansions.  With our words, we speak of many things and go to many places.  There are all sorts of things we can say and do with language.  By saying and doing these things we make ourselves who we are by taking ourselves to be who are.  Who are we?  We’re us—the speakers and thinkers of these words.  We’re the builders of this house.  Let’s make ourselves at home here.

—-

I haven’t posted on this blog in quite some time.  Mostly, that’s due to being a full-time Ph.D. student now, with most of my philosophical efforts being focused on papers that I’m writing for my program.  Still, sometimes I’m able to find a bit of time to do some philosophical writing for a more popular audience, and this is the result of some of that time.  It was just published in the Winter 2016 volume of Property Zine, a really cool little zine published by some really cool people from Boston.

Rödl, Brandom, and the Puzzle of Rational Boundedness

Suppose I’m hiking in the woods in New Hampshire.  I’m going down the path, and about 100 feet in front of me, I see a large black bear.  Not wanting to disturb it and become bear-food, I quietly turn around to find a different path.  My friend, who was a few hundred yards behind me and eager to see the view that lies at the end of this trail, sees me walking back and asks why I turned around. While this is just one question, we can break down what he’s looking for into two separate requests.  The first thing he’s looking for is a causal explanation.  Seeing me coming down this way is something unexpected, and he wants to know what made it the case that I would come back down rather than continue.  The second thing he’s looking for is a justification.  Since he’s quite eager to see the view at the end of the trail, he wants to know what reason I have to come back down the mountain.    When I say, “There was a bear up there, so I turned around,” it seems like I’ve provided an answer to both of these questions.  With one speech act, I’ve both causally explained my actions and justified them.

To explain how it is possible to causally explain something by justifying it, it seems that we must say that, somehow, intentional actions are causally bounded by rational standards.  Intentional actions, by their very nature, conform to standards of rationality.  A contrastive example of non-intentional action will make this clearer.  A foot spasm isn’t an intentional action.  We can give a causal explanation of a foot spasm, perhaps citing the workings of the nervous system and whatnot, but we can’t explain a foot spasm by justifying it.  There is no such thing as explaining a foot spasm by justifying it because its cause isn’t a rational one.  Intentional actions, by contrast, are bounded by rational norms, and it’s in virtue of this boundedness that we can casually explain them by justifying them.

That much seems clear enough.  Explaining this boundedness, however, is not an easy task.  In fact, I think exploring the conflict in two different approaches to this question will bring light to a fundamental division in two otherwise quite similar philosophers.  Sebastian Rödl and Robert Brandom are both analytic philosophers who see their philosophical work as an attempt to revive the insights of Kant and Hegel in contemporary philosophy.  However, though they share this common orientation, they differ quite radically in their approach in explaining rational boundedness.  Rödl, staying true to Kantian methodology, employs what we’ll call a formalist approach—he aims to explain the concept of rational boundedness in virtue its “transcendental form,” a form that he thinks is inherent in the structure of self-consciousness itself.  Brandom, drawing more centrally from his reading of Hegel, wants to understand rational boundedness as the product a distinctive form of social interaction involving mutual interpretation.  His approach can aptly be called an interpretationist one.

The question I’m concerned with here is whether these two approaches are just two different but mutually compatible ways of approaching the same phenomena, or whether there is a genuine conflict between the two approaches.  Brandom seems to think that the former is true, whereas Rödl is adamant that the latter is the case.  I’m inclined to side with Brandom here in thinking that the two approaches can be pulled together, and, after describing both approaches, I’ll attempt to do this.  First, let’s look closely at each of the respective approaches.

The Formal Level

The first explanation of rational boundedness we’ll explore is Sebastian Rödl’s.  We will call Rödl’s explanation a formalist one since he takes it to be true simply in virtue of the form of the concept of rational boundedness.  Rödl takes himself to be doing a sort of transcendental logic.  An investigation into the nature of rational boundedness, for Rödl, is an investigation into the nature of reasoning, and the way to investigate reasoning, he thinks, is by reasoning.  Accordingly, Rödl’s methods are entirely a priori.  The answer he comes up with is the following: Reasonsers like ourselves, through the act of reasoning, both conform to and represent things as conforming to an order of reason.  We conform to an order of reason in action by representing that action as conforming to an order of reason in thought.  The action and the thought, Rödl claims, are one in the same thing.  If Rödl’s account sounds unusual, that’s because it is.  On most traditional accounts of action, I think about what to do and then act.  On Rödl’s account, however, an action is an embodied practical thought.  The rest of this section is dedicated to spelling out this view.

The first thing we need to do in order to elucidate Rödl’s view is get a clearer sense on what he means by “order of reason.”  We should understand the concept of an order of reason by contrast to an order of nature.  An order of nature is a system of laws of nature to which physical, chemical, or otherwise natural objects and events conform.  Representing something as conforming to an order of nature gives us the ability to provide a naturalistic explanation, in which we explain some set of natural phenomena by unifying them under natural laws.  An order of reason, on the other hand, is the structure of a system of norms.  Beings that represent themselves as belonging to such a system bring their actions in accord with these norms.  Accordingly, if someone is bound by an order of reason, saying some action of theirs conform to that order functions as a causal explanation of it.  Whereas naturalistic explanations involve mere things conforming to an order of nature by mere nature, intentional explanations involve living agents conforming to an order of reason by way of reason.

Now we need to say a few more things about reasoning itself.  For Rödl, reason and self-consciousness are two sides of the same coin, so saying something about how he thinks about the latter is necessary to explain how he thinks about the former.  What distinguishes self-conscious awareness from immediate awareness of objects outside of myself is that I have self-conscious awareness of some object not by observing that object, but by being that object.  The first-person knowledge that comes by way of self-consciousness is what Rödl calls “spontaneous knowledge.”  This conception of spontaneous knowledge enables Rödl to give a distinctive account of the relationship between thought and intentional action.  His line of thought is as follows:

Thinking that I ought to do X in the course of practical reasoning is self-consciously representing it as a thing-to-be-done—it’s representing it as conforming to an order of reason.  Rödl wants to say that, in thinking the very thought which represents an act as conforming to an order of reason, I enact that thought.  Conclusions of practical thought, Rödl claims, are actions.  Thus, intentionally acting and representing ones actions as conforming to an order of reason are one in the same thing.  Because of this identity, I spontaneously know about my action by representing it in self-conscious thought as conforming to an order of reason.  I act by thinking a thought, and I know my thought just by thinking it. Causality of thought, according to Rödl, is its own kind of causality, and beliefs and actions are the sorts of things to which this kind of causality applies.  The order that structures thought is the form of the relationship between self-consciousness and its means of representation.  Because it is completely contained in the form of self-consciousness and its means of representation, it is apt to call this order formal, and it can be investigated a priori.  This formal order just is what Rödl calls, the “order of reason.”  It is what binds thought and action.

I find Rödl’s formalist explanation of rational boundedness to be rather elegant, but I think it leaves a lot of questions to be asked.  I’m left wondering: what is self-conscious thought?  Rödl is very clear about the formal structure of this thought, but he doesn’t give us any way of explaining it by appealing to anything other than self-conscious thought.  In fact, Rödl actively rejects this project. He endorses a thesis he calls “true materialism,” in which we ought to conceive of material reality not only as an object of receptivity but as an object of human spontaneity.  If the term “materialism” is supposed to be consoling to naturalists, I doubt that it is; I’m unsure what “material” even means at this point.  It seems that self-conscious thought, on Rödl’s view, is supposed to be some sort of sui generis substance.  It is a substance that I know of by having spontaneous knowledge of it—by being this substance.  But once again, I can’t help but asking, what is this substance, and why is there any of it in the first place?  Rödl doesn’t offer a form of explanation that can satisfy me here.

The Interpretationist Level

Let’s now turn to the explanation of rational boundedness offered up by Robert Brandom.  Like Rödl, Brandom is very influenced by the German Idealist tradition of Kant and Hegel.  However, unlike Rödl, Brandom also takes his project to be a continuation of the pragmatist tradition, both traditional American pragmatism of James and Dewey, and the more contemporary pragmatism of Richard Rorty.  It is from Hegel, I believe, that he draws his distinctive brand of interpretationism from which he is able to give an account of rational boundedness while (in his mind) staying true to the pragmatist tradition.

Reasoning, for Brandom, is constituted by engaging in a particular set of social practices.  Through some combination of biological dispositions and social conditioning, we get inculcated into social practices in which certain patterns of behaviors end up being communally treated as correct or incorrect.  These communally adopted attitudes for or against certain patterns of behavior institutes social norms, standards of correctness within a social practice.  Among these social norms are ones that license various practical inferences as good ones—if you’re entitled to do A, you’re entitled to do B; if you’re committed to doing C you’re not permitted to do D, and so on.  To reason is to operate in according with these communally endorsed social norms.  What Rödl would call the “order of reason,” on Brandom’s pragmatist view, is just the structure of the social norms that codifies these “good moves.”  Being rational, according to Brandom, is being “bound or constrained by these norms, being subject to the authority of reason.”

Now, it may seem like Brandom has run into a dilemma here regarding rational boundedness: if norms of rationality are socially instituted, how can they be genuinely binding?  What is it about the social institution of norms that makes it such that our actions must conform to them?  To see an answer to this question in Brandom’s work, we must appreciate the way in which Brandom’s view is a particular species of interpretationism.  The term “interpretationism” is often associated with Donald Davidson’s theory of meaning which explains meaning in terms of how one might construct a theory of meaning to provide a consistent interpretation the linguistic and non-linguistic behavior of a foreign language speaker.  Davidson’s interpretationism is what we might call a one-way interpretationism: the theorist interprets the speaker whose meanings are in question, but that speaker need not interpret the theorist as interpreting him in order for the theory to make sense.  On the other hand, Brandom’s theory of normativity (and meaning as well, for that matter) is what we can call a two-way interpretationism: it only holds up from within the context of mutual interpretation.  Norms are instituted through mutual interpretation, and, only in the context of mutual interpretation, can we view norms as genuinely binding on our actions.

For Brandom, norms themselves are not causally efficacious when it comes to binding our actions.  It is our normative attitudes, the interpretation of each other as being bound by norms, which has causal efficacy.  Still, Brandom thinks that we can only make sense of these normative attitudes by talking about norms that guide the adoption of those attitudes, so the normativity is conceptually irreducible on Brandom’s account.  To see how this sort of view is supposed to work, let’s look at an extended example with human agents who are significantly less conceptually sophisticated than ourselves: cavemen, let’s say.  If Yog the caveman interprets a deer as being bound by norms, he will have expectations regarding the deer’s behavior, and these expectations will show themselves in Yog’s behavior as he interacts with the deer.  For example, he might expect that, if the deer sees him coming, it will run away, and so he makes sure to hide behind the bushes on in his approach.  Yog’s interpretation of the deer as bound by norms has had a causal effect on his behavior.  Still this case does not show that Yog must understand the deer as genuinely bound by norms.  It is possible for us to think about Yog’s interpretation of the deer’s actions in terms of the alignment of various biological dispositions and predict the same results.  However, the same is not the case if Yog were to interpret another interpreter.

Let’s now look at such a case: Yog interprets Gor, another caveman, as bound by norms.  Like the deer, interpreting Gor as bound by norms gives Yog certain expectations regarding Gor’s behavior.  Unlike the deer, however, Gor also interprets Yog as being bound by norms, roughly the same norms that Yog is interpreting Gor as bound by.  Let’s suppose now, that, if Yog takes Gor to have violated a norm, he will hit Gor with sticks, and if Gor takes Yog to have violated a norm, he will hit Yog with sticks.  Since neither Yog or Gor want to be hit by sticks, this will lead both of them attempt conform to the other’s expectations by trying to behave in the way that he expects the other will be interpreting him.  The result of this two-way interpretation with the attempt to conform to the other’s expectations is a mutually reinforcing set of expectations that stabilizes behavior.  Remember from the last paragraph that these expectations intrinsically linked to normative attitudes, and so the behavior emerges as intersubjectively stabilized by these expectations must be seen as normatively guided.  There is no way to interpret the behavior non-normatively.  In these mutually reinforcing expectations, we must see Yog and Gor as genuinely bound by norms.

Brandom wants to say none of this needs to be explicit in the heads of Yog and Gor.  Such mutually reinforcing expectations among community members can exhibit themselves as norms implicit in practices.  By the time that that members of community become explicitly aware of the norms, representing them to themselves, they will already have been implicitly acting in accord with the norms for some time.  Explicit awareness of the norms emerges over the course of history in good Hegelian fashion, and Brandom’s own work is a contribution to this explicit awareness.  Explicit expressions of these norms, according to Brandom, constitute logic.  Logic is an expression of the norms by which we are rationally bound.

An Attempt to Collapse the Levels

Brandom’s explanation of rational boundedness that I discussed in the previous section is part of a much larger project pursued in Making It Explicit.  Crudely put, the project is to put forward a theoretical framework which allows us to understand the meaning of linguistic items in terms of their use.  For Brandom, language is fundamentally a set of social practices with a normative structure governing the various correct “moves” that one can make.  Within the context of this normative social practice, semantic content ends up being conferred; the moves of the practice end up being about things.  I’ve explained Brandom’s semantic theory in an earlier post, but the present point is this:  Brandom’s basic philosophical commitment that semantic concepts must be understood in terms of socially instituted normative ones precludes him from taking the concept of representation as theoretically fundamental in any sense.  He must explain how such concepts end up being applicable to structures of linguistic practice but are themselves inessential to its function.  This means that being bound by these norms cannot mean representing these norms as guiding one’s actions.

This is where Rödl thinks Brandom’s account must fall short.  Rödl claims that we can’t understand normative vocabulary without also understanding representational vocabulary.  For Rödl, being bound by a norm essentially means representing oneself as being bound by that norm.  Without an understanding of this representation, one cannot understand normative notions, and, with no understanding of the normative notions, Brandom’s use of normative vocabulary loses its sense.  The result, according to Rödl, is a bunch of misleading concepts of reasoning, inference, commitment, and entitlement, that, although they appear to be ordinary normative concepts, aren’t actually the concepts we’re familiar with.  If we try to think of reasoning apart from representation, our rational concepts all fall apart.  At best, we’re left with quasi-commitments, quasi-entitlements, but we don’t actually have any sense of these things, and so the theory can provide no explanatory illumination.

Rödl’s challenge is a serious one, and a serious attempt to answer it will go right to the heart of Brandom’s project.  Though Brandom has acknowledged the depth of Rödl’s challenge, I’m not aware of any place that Brandom has explicitly attempted to respond to it.  However, I think an attempt can be pulled from the resources Brandom provides in Making It Explicit.  In this section I’ll try to sketch such an attempt.

The ultimate goal of Making It Explicit is what Brandom calls “self-referential expressive completeness.”  Brandom is attempting to express how a member of a community which has the normative practices he specifies in Making It Explicit can achieve command of the expressive resources sufficient perform the very expression that Brandom performs in Making It Explicit.  Put a bit more colloquially, Making It Explicit is a book about what practices one needs to be engaged in in order to write Making It Explicit.  Brandom achieves his goal of self-referential expressive completeness just in case he is able to express the practices that makes his expression of those practices possible.  The final expressive resource that Brandom offers in Making It Explicit is the concept of representation.  Given that expressive completeness is his goal, it would be odd if Brandom introduced the concept of representation unless he thought that he needed to use it in order to put forward the theory in Making It Explicit.  I think Rödl makes it clear that he does need to use this concept.  Further, I think Rödl makes it clear how representation must be used:  Brandom’s expression of these normative practices, insofar as it is an explicit one, consists in representing us all as bound by the norms embedded in these practices.

Though Brandom doesn’t say what I’ve just said explicitly (or at least not in those terms), I think it’s perfectly compatible with his picture.  It is important to remember that the philosophical theory offered in Making It Explicit is essentially conducted from the point of view of an interpreter, and the interpreter himself is essentially embedded in the normative practices he is attempting to express.  As applied to the particular author of Making It Explicit, this is to say, Brandom is one of us, and his whole theory is conducted from within the discursive practice which he takes us all to be engaging in.  In Making It Explicit, Brandom represents us as bound by certain norms.  He then goes on to say that, if we represent ourselves as bound by those norms, we can understand this very act of representing each other as bound by norms. Saying that we “represent each other as bound by norms” is a way of talking about the convergence in mutual interpretation that we saw in Yog and Gor from within that system of mutual interpretation.  Expressing the web normative relations which confer semantic content is Brandom’s basic goal in Making It Explicit, but he fully realizes that expression can only take place from within that web of normative relations.

Now, if we keep all of this in mind, we can see something interesting happen.  If we are to be charitable in our interpretation of Brandom, then we must at least entertain a picture in which we represent ourselves as bound by the norms that he represents us as bound by.  Further, we should attempt to use the same set of normative concepts that Brandom is using to think about that representation.  However, in using these concepts to think about our own act of representation, we’re binding our thoughts under the very norms that Brandom is representing our thoughts as being bound by. Thus, in our very act of entertaining the representation, we must see ourselves as conforming to the norms that Brandom is representing us as being bound by.  If Brandom’s theory really is expressively complete, we cannot both understand Brandom and claim not to be bound by the norms he expresses.

To clarify that last point, let’s contrast it with a different example.  Suppose you say, “every person should eat three meals a day.”  I can hypothetically represent myself as being bound this norm while maintaining a certain sort of cognitive distance from it such that I’m not actually bound by it.  This is to say, I can imagine what it would be like if I were to take myself to be bound by such a norm without actually being bound by that norm.  However, in representing myself as bound by a set of norms that accounts for the very possibility of that representation, no such cognitive gap is possible.  Insofar as the concepts I employ to entertain the representation are founded upon these norms (and I represent them as such), then, in representing myself as bound by these norms, I cannot help but think that really am bound by them.   Thus, I cannot even entertain the thought of the representation without understanding myself as being bound by that representation of the norms.  Cognitively representing ourselves as being by these norms and practically taking ourselves to be bound by these norms are the very same thing. 

We are now in a position to bring this discussion back into contact with Rödl.  Let’s recall that, for Rödl, the distinctive feature of self-conscious thought is it takes place in an order of reason, a “formally represented order.”  With such an order, a subject’s action which falls under that order is identical with a subject’s thought that represents that action as falling under that order.  We can see that our reflections on Brandom fit this characterization in a peculiar way.  Practically taking ourselves to be bound by these norms in action is identical with our representing ourselves as bound by these norms in thought.  This “practical taking,” Brandom will want to say, is a particular sort of action—it is situating ourselves in the intersubjective normative space that Brandom calls “the space of reasons.”  Here, I believe, lies the root of Brandom’s disagreement with Rödl.  While, for Rödl, our thoughts and actions are inherently bound to the formally represented order of self-consciousness, for Brandom, self-consciousness is something we actively achieve: situating ourselves in the space of reasons is achieving self-consciousness.

Brandom wants to say that the norms have authority over us only by way of our acknowledgement of them as having authority over us—our taking ourselves to be bound by them.  Rödl objects that, if norms derive their authority from our acts of taking ourselves to be bound by them, then there is no way to think of those acts as guided by our representation of the norms.  However, our reflections on Brandom shows that there is a case in which this is not true: if cognitively representing oneself as bound by those norms and practically taking oneself to be bound by them one in the same, then the act of taking oneself to be bound by norms is guided by the representation of those norms.  This is true, even though the representation internal to the act.

The conclusions in the last paragraph perfectly fit the formula that Rödl gives us for self-conscious thought, and it is no coincidence: practically situating oneself in the space of reasons, we can now see, is an act of self-conscious thought.  In fact, we can say something even stronger: it’s the act of self-conscious thought, or, perhaps more precisely, it is a generalized formula for such acts.  It is possible to see every act of self-consciousness as an act of practically situating oneself in the space of reasons by representing that act in thought as conforming to the order of that space.  In acting by representing the normative order into which my act fits (seeing myself as committed to performing such an act, for example), and representing myself as responsible for the action, I situate myself in the space of reasons, both cognitively in thought and practically in action.  As we think such thoughts and performs such acts, we achieve self-consciousness.  Thus, self-consciousness comes to fruition over time, through the course of human history.  Thinking of self-consciousness in this diachronic way is exactly the result that should make both parties happy if they do indeed wish to stay true to the spirit of Hegel.

The puzzle of rational boundedness has turned out to be a puzzle regarding the nature of self-consciousness.  In Hegel’s famous chapter on self-consciousness in the Phenomenology of Spirit, the issue of two conflicting conceptions of self-consciousness only gets resolved through a fight to the death.  If Rödl and Brandom’s disagreement really were intractable, perhaps the only Hegelian resolution would consist in Brandom and Rödl fighting to the death.  Fortunately, such a fight shouldn’t be necessary; Brandom and Rödl’s respective approaches can be united under a single conceptual framework—a Hegelian one.

Wilfrid Sellars and the Hard Problem of Consciousness

(In this post, I promise that the next post will be a continuation of this one.  That didn’t end up happening.  When I do write the second part of this post, I will just add it in to this one.)

The Hardest Problem

Suppose I’m looking at a red rose.  Assuming I’m not blind, I presumably have a certain sort of subjective experience that accompanies this looking.  There is something it is like to be looking at this red rose.  For example, there’s something it’s like to experience this redness that I’m experiencing right now.   This task of explaining the subjective character of my experiences—the fact that there’s something it’s like to be conscious—is what David Chalmers has called the “hard problem of consciousness.”

Chalmers is certainly right to identify this as a “hard problem,” and I’d go even further to say that it’s the hardest problem in all of philosophy.  If anyone says that it isn’t that hard, they either don’t really understand the problem, they’re trying to ignore it, or they know something that they aren’t telling everyone else.  That’s because almost all philosophers agree that we really don’t know how to solve this problem in a satisfactory way yet.  Lots of philosophers have theories, but, for any theory that anyone proposes, there will be many people who find it completely unacceptable.

Wilfrid Sellars

Wilfrid Sellars

In this post, I want to explore one interesting way of dealing with the hard problem of consciousness that’s drawn from the work of the mid-20th century philosopher, Wilfred Sellars.  I’ll lay out the methodology, explain some difficulties that one might expect it to face, and offer some ways of thinking about how we might extend the proposal to resolve these difficulties.  First, however, let me explain why this problem of consciousness is so hard by going through the difficulties that a scientific attempt at explaining consciousness will inevitably encounter.

Neuroscience Comes Up Short

Some people would like to claim that, eventually, neuroscience will give us a full answer to this hard problem of consciousness.  While it’s not particularly controversial to claim that one’s neurobiological states are causally sufficient for one’s conscious states, the claim that one’s neurobiological states fully explain one’s conscious states is rather dubious.  I think that a thought experiment conjured up by the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in the late 1600s still makes this point pretty well.  Imagine you could enlarge the brain to the size of a giant factory.  If a neuroscientist was to give you a tour of that factory, you could see all the parts moving, and the neuroscientist might be able to point to some mechanisms and tell you which states of consciousness come about when which mechanisms are operative.   No matter how thoroughly you tour this giant factory, however, the neuroscientist won’t be able to point out consciousness itself.  Even worse, on the basis of looking at the mechanisms alone, it seems like the original questions still remains: why does this qualitative state come about with that mechanism?  We know from experimentation that it does, but why?

There is what philosophers of mind have called an explanatory gap between knowing the physical facts about the brain and knowing phenomenal facts about conscious experience.  To illustrate this gap, the Australian philosopher Frank Jackson proposed a famous thought experiment.  He has us imagine, Mary, the world’s leading color scientist.  She’s an expert of unparalleled sorts in the neurophysiology of vision, and she knows all there is to know about the brain processes that occur when one sees a red rose.  Mary, however, has been completely color blind from birth.  Given her knowledge of all the physical facts, does she now know what the subjective quality of seeing red is like?  Or, when she gets an operation to restore her color vision and sees a red rose, will she learn something new about conscious experience?  Our intuition tells us that Mary will learn something new about conscious experience by actually seeing the rose.  She learns what this conscious experience is like.

The result of Jackson’s thought experiment, it seems, is that the subjective quality of a particular conscious experience can only be known through a first-person perspective, not through the third-person perspective of scientific investigation.  But where does this leave us when it comes to actually explaining consciousness in scientific terms?  Will we forever be in the dark when it comes to understanding why this experience of red accompanies a certain neurophysiological event that is causally related to certain wavelengths of light hitting the retina?  Some philosophers, like Colin McGinn, think that we will be forever in the dark.  On McGinn’s view, the solution to the problem of consciousness is simply beyond the scope of our feeble human minds which didn’t evolve to worry about such difficult problems.  Just like chimpanzees will never be able understand the Big Bang Theory, we will never be able to understand how consciousness arises out of inorganic matter.  Most people think that McGinn is jumping to pessimistic conclusions a bit too hastily.  Still, it seems clear that a radically new strategy is needed.

Another Way at the Problem                                                                            

The most popular way of thinking we might reduce conscious experience to something less mysterious is by reducing it to brain states.  But that’s not the only way we might try to reductively explain it.  Another possibility is to try to explain first person conscious experience in terms of a special set of judgments or attitudes towards propositions.  Wilfred Sellars, one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, attempts to do just that.  Sellars’ strategy is a linguistic one.  He starts first with perceptual reports, and then explains the role that “subjective seemings” can play in the context of such reports.

In my last post, I outlined what Sellars calls “the game of giving and asking for reason,” as it has been developed by Robert Brandom.  The game of giving and asking for reasons is a set of social norms in which various utterances come to be treated as entitling the performer to some utterance, committing her to some, and precluding entitlement to others.  On neo-pragmatist accounts of language, the role an utterance plays in this game is what makes it a meaningful one.  An utterance that that plays no role in this game is just nonsense.  That’s why a baby’s “Goobla-Glooba-Looba” is a nonsense utterance; it doesn’t do anything in this game.  On the other hand, “That’s red,” does have consequences in the game of giving and asking for reasons.  For example, it commits me to the claim “That’s colored,” and it precludes me from be entitled to the claim “That’s blue.”

Sellars thinks we ought to understand all of awareness in terms of this game of giving and asking for reasons.  This might sound like we’re just ignoring the problem, or retreating to a crude form of verificationism in the face of it, but that’s not what we’re doing.  Let me explain a bit.  Like Kant, Sellars thinks that the judgment is the basic unit of contentful thought.  Judgments are the basic contentful thing that can play a role in the game of giving and asking for reasons because they’re the basic unit of content for which we can take responsibility.  “Inner judgments”—judgments about our subjective experience—only make sense against a background of judgments that are intersubjectively evaluable, since, if a judgment can’t be intersubjectively evaluated, we cannot be held accountable for it (this is the familiar conclusion of Wittgenstein’s famous “Private Language Argument”).

Now, with this way of thinking about language and awareness in mind, let’s turn to Sellars’ account of perception.  Suppose I look at a rose and say, “That’s red.”  On Sellars’ account, this perceptual report has two dimensions: First, it is a distinct and reliable response to a stimulus that is in fact red.  This is made possible by the simple fact I have cognitive faculties which have evolved to discriminate this stimulus in my environment, and I’ve been trained to make this sound when I’m struck with a stimulus of this sort.  Second, it functions as a move in the “game of giving and asking for reasons,” where it carries a certain inferential weight. The inferential weight it has is directly tied to the fact that it is recognized by the participators in the game as a reliable response to a stimulus that is in fact red.  In understanding that it has this inferential weight, I’m able to understand my utterance as not merely responding to the red stimulus, but as noninferentially reporting it.  It is this latter dimension that distinguishes a human saying that something is red from a parrot squawking out “Red!” whenever there’s a red object in front of it.

In the context of this account of perception, Sellars thinks he can explain subjective “seemings”—the way things appear to subjective experience.  A subjective seeming, according to Sellars, is just what we report if we’re inclined to make a perceptual report, but, for some reason, we hold back on actually doing so.  If I’m looking at a rose, for example, and I say it looks red or appears as if it’s red, I’m making a report that’s weaker than saying it actually is red. If for some reason, the rose wasn’t red (perhaps it’s actually a white rose with red light shined upon it in such a way to make the rose itself appear red), this report would still be acceptable.  In making it, I’m not committing myself to saying that the rose actually is red—only that I’m inclined to think so.

Now let’s look at the case of Mary the color scientist again in this Sellarsian perspective.  For Sellars, Having observational knowledge that something is red requires being reliably disposed to respond differentially to red stimuli and understanding the inferential significance that this response has in the game of giving and asking for reasons.  Since Mary is, after all, a color scientist, she already understands the inferential weight of these various color concepts.  She knows, for example, that if something is scarlet, it is also red, and that, if something is red all over, it can’t also be blue.  When Mary first walks outside and sees a rose, she’s suddenly disposed to form color judgments in a noninferential way.  If Mary was a good Sellarsian, then upon getting the surgery she might say, “So this is what it’s like to be able to elicit color judgments noninferentially!”  But there’s no fact of the matter about what that is—she’s just saying, “Now I’m able to elicit color judgments non-inferentially.”  The new “understanding” that she has just been endowed with is a practical one: an understanding of how to link noninferential judgments up with inferentially articulated concepts.  She does learn something, but it’s this new ability, not some particular phenomenal fact.  Accordingly, physicalism is not threatened.

But Zombies!

I think this is a very promising way of trying to tackle the hard problem of consciousness.  Still, many will doubt that this actually explains conscious experience.  Perhaps it explains my experience-related behavior; however, if that’s all we’re after, we might as well just stick to a reduction in terms of brain states.  The problem with a neuroscientific explanation isn’t that it fails to explain my consciousness-related behavior, but that it seems like it’d be able to explain my behavior just fine without conscious experience being what it is, and so consciousness remains unexplained.  This same problem seems to arise for this account.  Conscious experience, it seems, could be left out the picture entirely.

To illustrate this worry a bit more elaborately, let’s employ a famous philosophical example: “philosozombie picphical zombies.”  A philosophical zombie is a person who looks and acts exactly like a normal person, but who lacks conscious experience entirely.  There’s nothing it’s like to be a philosophical zombie in much the same sense that there’s nothing it’s like to be a rock.  Now, most people agree that philosophical zombies aren’t actually possible, but the puzzle is to explain why they’re not possible.   Any satisfactory theory of consciousness must do this, and it’s surprisingly hard to do so.The zombie issue raises some real concerns for any neuroscientific explanation of consciousness.  It seems that all that neuroscience gives us is an explanation of the neural events that are tied to certain stimuli, and the behaviors that those neural events induce, but it leaves open the question of why there’s any subjective experience that accompanies these neural events.  The zombie issue makes this explicit.  Why couldn’t there be a zombie that has the same neural events as me that induce the same behaviors, but for whom there’s nothing it’s like to have these neural events?  Presumably, there can’t be such a being.  But why?  Doing more neuroscience doesn’t seem like it’s going to answer this question.  At the very least, we’re going to have to supplement this neuroscience with some serious philosophy to explain how it actually answers the question.

Does the Sellarsian account of conscious experience help us at all here?  At first glance, it might seem just as hopeless.  For starters it isn’t clear that actually having conscious experience is a necessary requisite to making the sort of observation reports that Sellars describes.  All we must be able to do in to make those observation reports is to reliably discriminate things in our environment and make linguistic moves whose inferential significance is tied to these reliable discriminations.  A zombie, it seems, could do both of these things.  Even more, all that a report of a subjective seeming requires is the ability to reliably detect when one is inclined to make an observation report, and it seems like a zombie could have this capacity as well.  If the Sellarsian account

In response to this objection, the Sellarsian should be quick to note that we’ve only just explained one particular set of judgments—reports of subjective seemings.  These sort of judgments have been paradigmatic of the hard problem of consciousness.  However, the way we think of consciousness—the thing that separates us from zombies—includes a whole host of other judgments.  When the objector concludes that a zombie could perform reports of subjective seemings in accord with the Sellarsian model, they are merely conceiving of the consciousness that the zombie would still be lacking by clinging to the other sets of judgments that we make and have not yet explained.  The bold Sellarsian claim is that, once we account for all of the judgments account that a person might make that factor into our conception of conscious experience, there’s literally nothing else that needs explaining—we just need to need to figure out what all of these sorts of judgments are and how we might pragmatically explain them.

In the previous section, I used the Sellarsian strategy to explain just a few judgments: reports of subjective “seemings” and their relationship to ordinary observation reports.  This gave us enough to explain something about what’s going on in the case of Mary the color scientist, but, of course, there is much more explaining to do in order to account for everything we include in our concept of conscious experience. The suggestion, however, is that we know how to do it in principle.  All we have to do is explain the inferential significance of a move in the game of giving and asking for reasons, and how this move is tied to the various discriminative abilities we might possess.  Holding fast to the bold Sellarsian claim means maintaining that there is a lot more explanatory work to be done, but insisting that we have the means to do it, and, as we do so, we will be getting a richer and richer understanding of conscious experience.

Some Lingering Doubts and the Path Ahead

Perhaps you’re doubtful about the potential of this approach to provide all the things a genuine account of consciousness is supposed to provide.  Sellars’ approach, you might think, will never actually be able to account for the content of conscious experience.  Some people think that this content of subjective experience is something called “qualia,” this strange, purely qualitative stuff that we first-personally know, but could never quite explain from outside of the first person.  Other people will insist that the content of conscious experience is the objects in the world that we in fact experience.  In either case, it doesn’t seem (at least on the face of it) that these things can be explained purely in terms of the discriminative capacities of organisms and the moves they’re able to make in the game of giving and asking for reasons.  Why not?  Well, it seems that the subjective character of our conscious experience—the what-it’s-like-ness of conscious experience—is essentially tied to the content of our experience.  And it is hard to see how we could explain this on the Sellarsian approach.  How could our holding back on commitments about the way the world is (the Sellarsian account of subjective “seemings”) somehow contribute to the content of our experiences?

In my next post, I will attempt to extend the Sellarsian approach to explain how this might be so.  The strategy I employ, drawing from Hegel and Robert Brandom, is explaining the particular way in which we understand the contents of our consciousness as representations of things in the world.  I will cash out representational content in such a way that it reduces to the Sellarsian raw materials we are allotted.  One of the main allures of the Sellarsian strategy is that these raw materials are naturalistically unproblematic (as I explained in my previous post).  Using these raw materials to explain the nature and content of conscious experience will give us a crucial piece of the puzzle in connecting the scientific and the manifest image.

Playing the Game of Language: An Introduction to Contemporary Pragmatism

Intuition Turned on Its Head

Perhaps the most peculiar trick that we’ve developed as a species is the ability to make noises with our mouths that somehow end up being about things in our world.  We can talk to others about the things that we stumble upon in the world.  We can express our views on what those things are like.  We can agree, or disagree, or agree to disagree.  When you think about it for a moment, this is a very befuddling ability of ours.  How should we go about trying to explain how it works?  Let’s start with a suggestive thought experiment:

Imagine you’re a toddler in sitting in a crib.  You constantly see a bunch of adults moving around you, making all sorts of strange noises with their mouths.  Eventually, seeing that they often make these noises while looking at or gesturing towards various objects, you realize that these noises signify different things around you.  “Hat,” for example, signifies to those things that the adults put on their heads.  Gradually, you learn how to make these noises with your mouth as well, giving you the ability to talk about things just like the adults.  Perhaps you want the adults to give you the hat, and so you say, “Hat!” in the hopes someone will give it to you.  Slowly but surely, you learn how to string these noises together to fully express your thoughts and desires, and, like that, you come learn language.

This picture of language implies that words mean what they do in virtue of the things they represent in the world.  We string them together to explicitly express our experiences and thoughts, our feelings and desires, and so on.  Clearly, this is the most intuitive way to think about language, and, until the middle of the 20th century, most philosophers thought that it worked this way.  That was until a philosopher named Ludwig Wittgenstein published a book called Philosophical Investigations, now widely considered the most important philosophical work of the 20th century.

Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein famously started the Investigations by laying out this intuitive picture that most of us take for granted.  He then goes on to argue that it’s completely, utterly wrong.  If we want a fundamental model for thinking about language, he argues, we shouldn’t think of it as a means for explicitly representing our thoughts or experiences, our beliefs or desires, or anything like that.  It is really just a practice, something we do that’s woven seamlessly into our other activities.

The striking thing about Wittgenstein’s suggestion is that, on his view, only once we’re thoroughly immersed in this practice are we able to possess the sort of understanding that will allow us to know what we’re doing by speaking a language.  If we don’t understand what we’re doing when we begin to speak a language, the intuitive way I’ve just described a toddler’s learning of language is impossible.

On Wittgenstein’s way of thinking about things, one is blindly conditioned into the social practices of language, and it is only by way of competence in these practices that one can be said to have any concepts or understanding at all.  Here’s one passage from the Investigations that tries to illuminate this idea:

“A child has hurt himself and he cries; then the adults talk to him and teach him exclamations and, later, sentences; They teach the child new pain-behavior.

‘So are you saying that the word ‘pain’ really means crying?’—On the contrary: the verbal expression of pain replaces crying, it does not describe it.”

When reading this, it’s easy to get tempted into thinking that crying is just a way of expressing the thought that one is in pain, and, when we learn language, we’re just learning a more efficient way of expressing this inner emotion.  Wittgenstein, however, is saying the exact opposite of this.  Crying is just what we do when we’re in pain, and saying we’re in pain is, at root, the same sort of thing.  If we think of language in this way, the notion of representation entirely drops out as a fundamental explanatory feature.  In the first and most central instance, there is no thought or experience  that these verbal expressions attempt to capture; one just does them.

The issue of whether or not we ought to think of language in this broadly Wittgensteinian fashion is one of the great dividing lines in philosophy.  One way of drawing this division is to say that representationalism stands on one side, and pragmatism stands on the other.  We can think of this distinction between representationalism and pragmatism in terms of two opposite orders of explanation.  For the representationalist, we should explain our use of language in terms of how we employ various words and sentences to convey meaning.  For the pragmatist, on the other hand, we shouldn’t explain the use of language in terms of meaning.  Quite the contrary, the meaning of words and sentences is to be understood in terms of how these things are used in language.

While Wittgenstein famously said that the meaning of a word can be explained in terms of its use, he did not actually provide a theory about how that explanation should go.  Wittgenstein was not particularly keen on philosophical theorizing.  In fact, he thought there should be no philosophical theories at all!  Many contemporary pragmatists, however, don’t share this sentiment and believe that we can offer a systematic theory of meaning in terms of use.  In the rest of this article, I’ll give an outline of what this sort of theory looks like and why we should favor it over a representationalist one.

Speech Acts, Social Practices, and Pragmatic Force

According to Wittgenstein, speaking a language is more like playing a game than painting a picture.  To get a clearer conception of this, Wittgenstein has us consider a society of builders who have a primitive language that they use when they’re building.  One builder will utter “Slab!” and, upon hearing it, the other builder will hand him a slab.  The builder might then utter, “Block!” and, upon hearing this utterance, the other builder will hand him a block.  Looking at this language, we can see that the function of these utterances is not to conjure up some picture in the heads of the ones to whom it’s spoken.   While it’s possible that the utterance “Slab!” might elicit the mental image of a slab, it’s clearly unnecessary in order for the utterance to do what it’s supposed to do.  Insofar as the utterance pushes the hearer to get a slab, so to speak, it has accomplished its goal.

The ability an utterance might have to “push its hearers” in various ways is called the “pragmatic force” of an utterance.  Insofar as we think of utterances primarily in terms of their pragmatic force, it is apt to think of them as actions aimed to perform a particular function.  Following Wittgenstein and thinking about language in this way, a field in philosophy of language emerged called speech act theory.  Perhaps the most famous speech act theorist, J.L. Austin, gave some examples of how we should think of the main function of various familiar utterances in terms of their pragmatic force.  Suppose you’re getting married and the judge says, “I now pronounce you man and wife.”  Here, she’s not simply making a statement about what she’s pronouncing; she’s doing something—namely, legally binding you together in marriage.  The function of this is utterance should not to be thought of in terms of what her words mean, but, rather, what they do.

This notion of “pragmatic force” may sound somewhat magical, as if it’s straight from Star Wars, but it’s not really mysterious at all.  All you need is a bunch of people acting together and censuring each other’s behaviors such that they conform to certain patterns of actions.  In the words of John Haugeland, you just need a bunch of conformists. Conformists imitate the behaviors of each other, such that patterns of behavior emerge, and censure behavior that deviates from these patterns.  In the context of this conforming behavior, social practices emerge, and, in the context of these social practices, certain actions will result in certain sets of behaviors.  Speech acts are one class of actions that can have that effect, and that effect is what I’ve been calling their “pragmatic force.”  So, the reason the judge’s words have the pragmatic force that they do is because there are certain socially enforced patterns of behavior in which the act is contextualized.

Traditionally, the pragmatic force of an utterance has been seen as supplementary to its meaning.  However, some pragmatists have boldly claimed that, rather than merely being supplementary, the pragmatic force of an utterance is all there is to the meaning of an utterance.  Much like Wittgenstein’s primitive builders, the only thing our utterances do is “push people around” in various ways; there is no meaning they have over and above that function.  This suggestion will likely be met with incredulity from skeptical readers.  While it may make sense to think of the primitive “language” of Wittgenstein’s builders purely in terms of pragmatic force, it is easy to point out that their language is far from our own.  In fact, it is probably a stretch to call it a language at all.  While the utterance “Slab!” is going to causally initiate an action involving slabs, there is no sense in which it is a statement about a slab which may be true or falseOur sentences, on the other hand, are about various things in the world and they can be true or false . . . or, at least, so it seems.

One route that some pragmatists have taken is to deny that our sentences really are about things in the world, or really can be true or false.  Richard Rorty famously took this route, arguing that the idea that our sentences or thoughts mirror the world, representing the way things really are, is simply mistaken.  Rorty’s suggestion, however, is pretty hard to swallow.  It seems that, if I say “The cat is on the mat,” it’s about the cat and whether or not it’s on the mat.  If the cat really is on the mat, then my sentence has said it like it is, so to speak, and so it’s true.  If pragmatism must come at the price of denying this obvious intuition, then wouldn’t we be all the wiser to simply deny pragmatism?  It seems so.  We’ll have to do better than that if we want to explain language in pragmatist terms.

Brandom

Robert Brandom

While Rorty wants to scrap the notion of representation altogether, Robert Brandom, one of Rorty’s students, thinks we can have our cake and eat it too.  Brandom thinks that we can account for the representational aspect of our language, the fact that we’re able to speak about various things in the world, strictly in terms of the pragmatic properties of those speech acts.  This is a bold and exciting prospect, and Brandom has spent considerable effort working out in detail how to do it.  If successful, it’s a genuinely revolutionary project for philosophy, dissolving longstanding problems about the nature of understanding.   It takes Brandom 700 pages to lay out this theory in his book, Making it Explicit, and even then there’s unfinished business to attend to, so my short summary of his view here will be a rough outline at best, but here it goes:

Brandom’s Game of Giving and Asking for Reasons

Let’s return to the game metaphor for a bit, since it’s one that Brandom finds particularly helpful.  To start, let’s take the example of chess.  What do you need to do in order to play chess?  Well, at the very least, you need to know the rules, play according them, and enforce play that accords with them (if you don’t stop your opponent from moving a rook diagonally, you’re no longer playing chess).  We can talk about the state of game at a particular point in terms of what Brandom calls deontic statuses: what you must do in some circumstance and you’re allowed to do in that circumstance.  If your king’s in check, for example, then you must make a move such that your king will no longer be in check, and there will be some set of moves that you’re allowed to make that will accomplish this goal.  The players of any game must be what Brandom calls “deontic scorekeepers,” they keep track of and enforce these deontic statuses.

Our linguistic practices, Brandom thinks, can be articulated in much the same way.  We are players in what Brandom calls the “game of giving and asking for reasons,” the most fundamental game we can possibly play.  This game can be centrally articulated in terms of two sorts of deontic statuses, commitments and entitlements.  Commitments are what you’re obligated to do according to the rules of the game, and entitlements are what you’re allowed to do according to the rules of the game.  In the same way that I alter the deontic statuses of the chess game when I move my rook to put your king in check, when I make a claim, I have altered the set of deontic statuses in a linguistic community.

Now, in chess, we understand all these deontic statuses explicitly.  We’re usually explicitly told the rules, and, when we correct behavior in others, we do so by telling them what the rules as well.  However, when it comes to the linguistic game that Brandom describes, we must be playing before we’re able to say that we’re playing, since our ability to say things is the very thing this game is supposed to explain.  So Brandom says that we start following the rules implicitly, without an explicit understanding of what they are.  These implicit rules just are the norms of the social practices that emerged through conformist behavior that I described in the previously section (Well . . . Brandom is actually rather picky about how he wants to think about social norms, and he’d have a few issues with the way I’ve described them, but we can leave that aside for now).  Within the context of these norms, speech acts are able to be socially significant.

Employing the terminology of Rebecca Kukla and Mark Lance (students of Haugeland and Brandom respectively), we can say that each speech act has a specific output and input.   The output is what the speech act does to those to hear it (what I’ve been calling the pragmatic force), and the input is what enables us to perform it.  Brandom claims that the output and the input of a speech act entirely accounts for the meaning of the speech act.  What makes this claim interesting for Brandom is that he insists that these outputs and inputs be construed in purely pragmatic terms, in terms of the outputs and inputs of other actions.  This means, for example, the input for the assertion “There’s a cat!” can’t include actual cats as an irreducible component.  Meaning is accounted for from entirely within the playing of the game, not from any things external to the game like cats.

Of course, Brandom does think that cats have something to do with the meaning of the sentence “There’s a cat!”  The cat is of course, causally responsible for my utterance of this sentence, and I’m disposed to make utterances of this sort only if cats are present.  Furthermore, gameplayers are able to keep track of my reporting abilities such that they can infer from my claiming that something is a cat, that it’s a cat.  My own authority in making non-inferential claims like this is derived from others granting me such authority.  On this account, even though what entitles me to the claim “There’s a cat!” it has everything to do with cats, it’s not the cat itself that entitles me to this claim.  I am entitled to the assertion that there’s a cat not because of the cat itself, but because I’m a member of a community that recognizes me as a reliable reporter of cats, and, accordingly grants me the authority to make such claims.

Why does Brandom work things out in this fashion?  One of the main reasons comes from Wilfrid Sellars, a philosopher who hugely influenced Brandom and Rorty before him.   Sellars argued that we can’t count something as serving as a reason for a belief if we consider it in complete independence of all our other beliefs.  This is because, in order for something to count as a reason for a belief, we must already possess an understanding of the significance that thing has in informing other beliefs.  In other words, we must understand that thing, having a concept of it, of the role it plays in the game of giving and asking for reasons.  Only once something has already been conceptualized within this game, can it serve as the basis for belief; unconceptualized things themselves cannot.  Now of course, once we already have the concept of something, and we understand how it factors inferentially with other beliefs, we can count the thing itself as entitling us to a belief.  But note that this isn’t really the thing itself; it’s the thing as we understand it.  If we want to explain the basis of all of this understanding, as Brandom does, we can’t rely on unconceptualized things themselves to do the heavy lifting.

These considerations motivate Brandom’s theory of meaning.  Rather than thinking about the meaning of a speech act in terms of what it refers to, Brandom thinks about the meaning of speech acts in inferential terms, in terms of how it factors into the premises and conclusions of the various inferences that we might make.  That is, the significance of a move is to be understood entirely in terms of how it affects other moves in the game, without relying on anything external to the game.  Commitment to some claims will commit me to others, entitlement to some claims will entitle me to others, and, most importantly, commitment to some claims will preclude entitlement to others.  So, for example, if I’m committed to the claim, “That’s a cat!” I can’t also be entitled to the claim “That’s a dog!”  This latter notion pragmatically explains the sense in which the claims “That’s a cat!” and “That’s a dog!” are incompatible.  Saying what claims a specific claim is incompatible with, Brandom thinks, allows us to account for its semantic content.

So far, I’ve mainly been talking about claims as a whole.  But what about words, the things that make up those claims?  Brandom wants to accommodate words within his inferential framework, by thinking of how the inferences which license a claim and which that claim licenses will change if parts of that claims are substituted out.  According to Brandom, two words have the same meaning if you can substitute them in for each other in a claim and preserve the same inferences.  So, “cat” and “feline” have the same meaning, just in case claims including the word “cat” will have the same inferential significance if we substitute the word “cat” with the word “feline.”  However, “cat” and “dog” have different meanings.  While, “That’s a Manx,” licenses an inference to “That’s a cat,” it does not license an inference to “That’s a dog.”  Quite the contrary, it precludes an inference to “That’s a dog.”

As I said at the beginning, Brandom promises to pull out a notion of representation out of this pragmatist framework.  To see how he thinks he can do this, consider a case in which you and I are both out in the park.  An animal is off in the distance and you say “There’s a dog! I think it’s a German Shepard.”   I, however, have better eyesight than you and I conclude that it’s a cat.  In this case, I might laugh and say, “You believe a cat is a German Shepard!”  Here now, I’ve acknowledged that both of our beliefs are about the same thing, however, the thing your belief is about is not the thing you think it is.  We can account for this effect of my speech act in pragmatic terms by showing how I’ve substitute my own commitments into your speech act in order to say what I take you to be committed to.  This ability to substitute different commitments into claims across different perspectives is what allows us to see our claims as being about things in the world.

Though I have left out several details, this is the basic way in which Brandom attempts to explain the meaning and representational aspect of speech acts purely in terms of their pragmatic properties.  If this theory is successful, Brandom can have his pragmatist cake and eat it too.

Why Pragmatism?

Brandom’s inferentialist framework is a way of explaining language in pragmatist terms, but why would we embrace pragmatism in the first place?  I’ve hinted at some of the reasons throughout this article, but I haven’t explicitly stated the upside of adopting a pragmatist theory of meaning and representation.  So, now I’ll take a moment to do so.  I believe there are two main upsides to this sort of pragmatism: an explanatory one and an epistemological one.

Let’s start with the explanatory upside of pragmatism.  To explain this upside, we have to consider what the point of all this philosophical theorizing is in the first place.  Here, I’ll draw again from Wilfrid Sellars.  The point of philosophy, Sellars says, is to “to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.”  He elaborates this claim by articulating to ways in which we might think about the world.  The first is the manifest image.   This is, roughly, the world as it pre-theoretically appears to us.  The manifest image includes things like tables and chairs, stop signs (and the fact that we should stop at them), claims and arguments, and so on.  On the other hand, there is the scientific image, the image that we come to know through rigorous scientific investigation.  It includes things like quarks and electrons, organic molecules, cells and circulatory systems, and so on.  One of the fundamental goals of philosophy, then, in the quest of explaining how things “hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term,” is to show how the manifest image and the scientific connect.  Among the main challenges in connecting these two images is explaining how we have things like claims that are about things in the world, in a world that, as far as we know, is made up of things like atoms and molecules.

So, here’s the explanatory challenge: How do we get things like claims that are about things, if such claims are ultimately just part of a world made up of atoms and molecules which aren’t about anything at all?  Pragmatism gives us a route to answering this question.  The two main raw materials we need to account for representational language, on the pragmatist story I’ve offered, are social practices and reliable dispositions to respond differentially to things in one’s environment.  Presumably, we can give a socio-biological explanation of social conformity that is able to account for the former, and we can give a neuro-biological explanation for the latter.  Both of these explanations will ultimately be rooted in evolutionary terms.  The great thing about explanations that appeal to evolution, from a naturalistic standpoint, is that they always bottom out in natural selection, a non-rational, non-intentional, purely causal mechanism.

So, when it comes to explaining meaning and representation on pragmatism, we have a way of connecting the dots from the scientific image to the manifest image.   If we take representation as primitive, however, no such explanation seems possible.  Social practices and dispositions to respond to environmental stimuli are both unproblematic from the standpoint of the scientific image, but representation itself is not.  Now, of course, representationalists have attempted to explain representation in naturalistic terms.  Most of these attempts have been regarded as problematic in various ways, and I don’t have the space to go over all of them here.  The point is this: if we can get a notion of representation out of social practices and reliable dispositions, as the pragmatist thinks we can, then there’s an explanatory path in sight, and we ought to follow it.

That’s the explanatory upside of pragmatism.  What about the epistemological one?  In Rorty’s book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, he criticized representationalism on largely epistemological grounds.  If one thinks of thought, in the first and foremost instance, as an attempt to represent the world, the following question arises:  How will we ever know that we’re representing things as they actually are?  If you’re a representationalist, this question is of crucial importance, and the classical representationalists struggled mightily with it.  Descartes, quite famously, attempted to derive knowledge of the external world from the inner certainty of his own thought.  But he didn’t get much beyond this without invoking God.  Locke thought that we could inductively infer from the coherence of the impressions that we have to the external world.

These traditional responses to the skeptical worry are foundationalist ones.  They start with some set of indubitable inner impressions, and they infer outward to the things that those impressions are supposed to indicate.  However, if the argument from Sellars that I mentioned in the previous section is roughly correct, no such strategy can work.  A mere internal sensation can’t license an inference an external thing unless we already have the understanding that such a sensation is a reliable indicator of that thing.  But, if inner sensations are the only thing we have from which to draw our concepts, then there is no way that we could understand these sensations in such a way that they license beliefs about the external world.  In the previous section, I employed this argument with reference to external objects, but it works just the same for internal sensations as well.  In fact, this was Sellars’ initial target when giving this argument.

While the representationalist must struggle with this difficult epistemological problem, for pragmatist, no such problem arises.  If our concepts of objects arise within a social practice in which we are conditioned to respond appropriately to such objects, then the fact that there is a reliable connection between the concept of an object and the object itself is built right into the nature of the concept.  Our entitlement to employ the concept is not, in the first instance, derived from the thing itself, but from the authority we are granted by fellow gameplayers.  With this way of thinking about things, the worry of epistemological skepticism is avoided.

While these reasons certainly do not conclusively justify this pragmatist project, hopefully they are able to provoke enough interest to justify further exploration into how the details of the project might be worked out.  Further,  I hope I’ve elaborated the theory enough to show that this it is at least a plausible way of thinking about language, one that might be able to accommodate the complexities and peculiarities of human language.  If this project is on the right track, we may be well on our way to finally understanding the nature of understanding.

Further Reading

Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosophical Investigations

Wilfrid Sellars: Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, and Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man

Richard Rorty:  Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

Robert Brandom:  Making it Explicit and Articulating Reasons

Deflating Deflationism

Truth Deflated

The concept of truth is surprisingly tricky to get a grip on.  We all have a pre-theoretical understanding of it.  If you tell me a bit of gossip you heard about in the National Enquirer and I respond by telling you that it isn’t true, you know what I’m doing there.  I’m, in some way, rejecting the story I’ve just told you.  Now, you might disagree with my assessment of your claims, and we might debate about the issue, but all of this presumes that there is a certain sense in which we both already understand what it is for claims to be true or false.

But does it really mean for something to be true?  Answering this question isn’t so easy.  One seemingly intuitive starting point is Aristotle’s famous phrase,

“To say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.”

While the grammar of this phrase may be somewhat confusing at first, giving an example will make it clear.   By Aristotle’s logic, if the cat is on the mat, then to say “The cat is on the mat” is to say something true.  On the other hand, if the cat is not on the mat, then to say “The cat is not on the mat” would be to say something true.  Combining these claims, we can say that the sentence, “The cat is on the mat,” is true if and only if the cat is on the mat.

Now, if we generalize from this example (using the variable “P” to stand for any sentence), we get what’s called the disquotation principle:

“P” is true if and only if P.

The disquotation principle clearly seems to capture something important about truth, but now we are faced with the question, what is the thing that it’s capturing?  One answer to this question would be to say that the disquotation principle captures the notion that P, the fact about the world, makes it the case that the statement “P” is true.  A statement is true if it correctly says what the facts are, and so, in the event that “P” is true, it is true because P.   Any theory of truth roughly along these lines would would be to a sort of correspondence theory of truth.

Rather than evaluating the correspondence theory of truth right now, let’s see if we have any other options.  I think we do, and I want to focus on an interesting one here.  What if we reject the question that might lead us to posit something like a correspondence theory of truth in the first place? What if we say that there really is no substantive property that the disquotation principle is essentially capturing?  That’s precisely what the deflationary theory of truth says.  According to deflationism, disquotation is all there is to truth.  Truth itself, on this view, isn’t a substantive property.  Rather, it’s just a device for disquotation, for endorsing things that people say.  On deflationism, if you say, “The cat is on the mat,” and I respond, “That’s true,” that’s just like me saying “the cat is on the mat,” as well.

To say that truth is just a device for disquotation isn’t to say that it’s not a useful device.  Quite the contrary, there are things we can do with language that are exclusively available to us via the truth predicate.  With mastery of the truth predicate, I can say, for example, “Everything Carl Sagan says in Cosmos is true,” without actually knowing everything he says.  In order to endorse everything Sagan says without the truth predicate, I’d have to literally say everything he said, but since I don’t know everything he says, I couldn’t do this.

Further, to say that no substantive explanation of truth should be given, is not to say that thinking of truth as disquotation does not help us explain anything.  Consider the example I started with about me telling you that a story in the National Enquier isn’t true.  We pretheoretically understand this as me somehow rejecting your claim.  Simply by noting that truth is a disquotation predicate, we can formally articulate this intuition.  If the statement “’P’ is not true” entails not-P, then if I tell you what you’ve said isn’t true, I’ve committed myself to the negation of what you’re saying.

Three Norms Concerning Truth

Deflationism is a popular view among philosophers nowadays.  Throughout history, this strange property of truth had remained utterly mysterious, but if deflationism is right there’s no mystery at all!  To say that something is true is just a way to endorse it.  Until relatively recently I figured that deflationism was probably the best way to think about truth, but an argument by Huw Price (in his paper, Three Norms of Assertability) has made me think twice about that.  After thinking about Price’s argument, I still think deflationism is basically right, but that it is a much less significant of a philosophical claim than it purports to be.

Price’s argument, of which I’ll give my own version here, centers on the fact that truth can be, and often is, normative for discourse.  To say something is normative is to say that it functions as a standard of correctness, something in regard to which you can succeed or fail.  Truth, it seems, can function normatively in an important sense.  For example, if I’m a witness in a trial, I ought to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth (so help me, God!).  In giving my testimony, I must aim at the truth.   Deflationism, it is argued, can’t account for the norm that governs this aim.

Now, it would be too quick to say that deflationism cannot account for any norms regarding truth.  For one, if the disquotation schema is correct, then P will always entail that “P” is true, and so in that case, whenever we say that P we should believe that “P” is true.  Likewise, if “P” is true it will always entail P, and so we should only say “’P’ is true” whenever we believe that P. So, the deflationist can accommodate this first norm:

Norm #1:  Say that P only if you believe that ‘P’ is true.

Of course, we only have reason to operate under Norm #1 if we have reason to be sincere.  I might ask you if my haircut looks good and you might, quite reasonably, say something that you believe isn’t true so you don’t hurt my feelings.  But still, since this norm is always implicit when assert things, you would never have reason to explicitly violate it. Explicit violations of Norm #1 account for the apparent contradiction involved in Moorean Paradoxes, things like “’P’ is true, but I don’t believe it.”

So that’s at least one norm that the deflationist can accommodate.  The deflationist also has no problem accommodating a second norm:

Norm #2:  Say that P only if you have good reason to believe that ‘P’ is true.

This is simply the Norm#1 plus an epistemic norm regarding having good reasons to say and believe things.  Norm #2, however, is not really a norm about truth at all.  Rather, it’s a norm about assertability, and the deflationist will have no problem here, since they are not limited to saying that assertability isn’t a substantive property.

But it seems that truth must be normative in another, stronger sense.  Consider this third norm, what we might call the objective norm regarding truth:

Norm #3:  Say that P only if ‘P’ is true.

Unlike the other two, this norm is not indexed to my particular beliefs or reasons.  It is completely independent of them.  Now, attempting to follow this norm, from my epistemically limited first-person perspective, will place the same boundaries on my behavior as Norm #2, but there is a difference in what will actually count as success or failure with regard to the two different norms.  I might believe something with good reason, and yet, it might nevertheless be false.  If this happens, there’s a certain sense in which I’ve failed. I haven’t failed with regard to Norm #2, but I have failed with regard to Norm #3, the objective norm of truth.

To show that there really is a failure here, we only need to reflect on the case in which I’m a witness in a trial.  If I say something that I’m justified in believing, yet nevertheless is false, there’s quite clearly a sense in which I failed.  We might say that this failure isn’t my fault, but, even so, it still is a sort of failure.  It seems paramount to an understanding of what it means to assert something as true to realize that, whenever I do, Norm #3 is operative.  So, if the thing I’ve asserted isn’t true, I’ve failed in a certain way.

Truth and Schmuth

Now the question to ask is whether a deflationist view of truth can account for this third norm.  Remember, the deflationist thinks the disquotation principle (“P” is true if and only if P) is all that there is to truth.  So, one way to address this question is to ask whether there could be a community of language-speakers who possess a disquotation predicate but who don’t possess a truth predicate.

Let’s start out by imagining a community of aliens that have a primitive language that is only used to express subjective states and give commands.  So, for example, Blorg the alien might go up to food vendor and say, “Hunger!  Eggs!” thereby expressing his hunger and demanding eggs.  Let’s also suppose that they have a predicate, “schmuth” which functions as a disquotation predicate.  Using this predicate, Blorg’s friend Morg might hear Blorg say “Hunger!” Eggs!” and say, “Everything Blorg says is schmue!”  Since “schmue” is a disquotation predicate, this would have the function of expressing hunger and demanding eggs as well.  But Morg might also say “’Hunger’ is schmue, but ‘Eggs’ is not schmue!  Steak!”  This would be disquoting “Hunger,” thereby expressing hunger, but rejecting the disquotation of “Eggs,” and demanding steak instead.

Since schmuth is a disquotation predicate, it will imply Norm #1, Say “’P’ is Schmue” only if you believe that P, if its speakers are to be consistent.   So, if Morg said, “’Hunger’ is schmue!” and yet wasn’t hungry, he’d be in violation of this norm.  We can also see how Norm #2 might be operative here.  It’s likely there will be various cases in which one will not be warranted in saying that something is schmue.  For example, if Morg has just said “Full!” and he then says “’Eggs’ is Schmue!” he might be violating this norm on account of being inconsistent.

Still, even though it functions as a disquotation predicate, schmuth isn’t truth.  When I respond to something you say by claiming that it isn’t true, there’s an important sense in which I’m disagreeing with you.  But with the case of Blorg and Morg, there’s no disagreement here.  We can chalk this up to the fact that, although Norm #1 and #2 are operative, there’s no objective norm regarding schmuth, no equivalent of Norm#3, “Say that P only if ‘P’ is schmue.”

This, you might think, is to be expected.  Speech acts like “Hunger!” and “Eggs!” aren’t declarative assertions, and it’s only declarative assertions that may be true or false.  It seems that, in order to show that truth must be more than disquotation, I’d have to show that a community could possess a disquotation predicate for assertions that still isn’t a truth predicate.  While this seems straightforward enough, it’s a bit problematic.  If declarative assertions are essentially truth-governed and truth is something more than just disquotation, then to demand that one demonstrate an assertive practice could employ a disquotation predicate that isn’t a truth predicate is to beg the question.  After all, if that were the case, any such practice would presuppose the truth predicate.

What we can do, however, is equip our aliens with speech acts that function exactly like assertions without presupposing that they essentially aim at truth.  Then we can see if disquotation gives us Norm #3, or whether it’s something extra, unrelated to disquotation, that we need for genuine truth come into the picture.  With this in mind, we can extend the example to include “assertions” and see how it turns out.  Let’s call these “assertions” (since we’re not sure whether they’re actually assertions yet) “schmassertions.”

Since “schmue” still functions perfectly fine as a disquotation predicate, there’s nothing stopping this alien language from using it for their schmassertions as well.  Blorg says, “Cat!” to schmassert that there is a cat on the lawn.  In response, Morg might say “That’s schmue!”  If he does that he’d be functionally schmasserting “Cat!” as well.  On the other hand, he might respond “That’s not schmue!  Dog!”   In doing so, he’d be rejecting the disquotation of “Cat!” and instead schmasserting that there’s a dog on the lawn.

It seems that Norm #1 and Norm #2 will still be operative for the schmuth predicate as applied to schmassertions.  But, will Norm #3 now suddenly be operative?  I don’t think so, at least not necessarily.  There’s nothing inherent in the disquotation predicate “schmue” that prevents Blorg and Morg from treating their difference here any differently than when Blorg said “Eggs!” and Morg replied “That’s not schmue!  Steak!”  If schmuth was really a truth predicate, then it’s essential that Norm #3 would be in effect here, and so there really would be a disagreement between Blorg and Morg.  But schmue, even though it still seems to work just fine as device for disquotation, doesn’t appear to put Norm #3 into effect.

Given the preceding analysis, I think we can assert (more than merely schmassert!) that “schmue,” while it functions as disquotation predicate just fine, is not actually a truth predicate.  Norm #3 is essential for truth, and we need something other than mere disquotation, to bring it into effect.  What we need is a notion of objective correctness.  While truth may just be a disquotation predicate, a disquotation predicate isn’t truth unless it’s used to endorse things as objectively correct. Accordingly, the deflationist, who insists that disquotation principle entirely accounts for truth, is leaving out a crucial detail.

Deflating Deflationism

Now, how should we proceed?  We could conclude that we’ve just went down the wrong path, a dead end, and we should have just stuck with correspondence theory of truth from the start.  For reasons I won’t discuss in detail here, I don’t think this is a good idea.  Basically, my worry comes down to the thought that any correspondence theory will end up starting out with problematic raw materials that will remain unexplained, namely the concept of representation.  While I think there is an important sense in which true claims can be seen in terms of correct representation, I think the explanation of this should come at the end of our theory of language, not the beginning of it.  This is a contentious claim, however, and I won’t press it here.

Another option is adding whatever we need to deflationism to account for the gap between Norm #2 and Norm #3.   In his book Truth and Objectivity, Crispin Wright proposes that, rather than simply being assertable (conforming to Norm #2), something must be superassertable in order to be true.  Something is superassertable just in case that, no matter how much investigation we do, and no matter how much knowledge we gain, it will continue to be assertable.  He thinks that we must “inflate deflationism” and construe truth as, minimally, something like superassertability.

While Wright proposes that we “inflate deflationism,” I think we should do just the opposite and deflate deflationism.  This would be to say that deflationism is basically right about truth but doesn’t actually answer the important philosophical questions that have made philosophers care about it.  What we’ve really been concerned with isn’t truth per se, but the norm of objective correctness to which we hold assertions, what this norm is and why it’s operative when we assert things.  On this view, rather than making truth something more substantive to explain why “schmuth,” when applied to Blorg and Morg’s schmassertions, isn’t really truth, we should look closely at why schmassertions aren’t really assertions.  Assertions, somehow, have objective content, they can be evaluated as objectively correct or incorrect, and this precisely what Blorg and Morg’s schmassertions lacked.  If they had this sort of content, they’d be bound under Norm #3.

The goal here would be to explain the objectivity involved in assertive practice first, and then deflationist truth would come along after all the real work is done.  In other words, the disquotation predicate would just be the cherry on top of the assertive practice sundae.  Now, to do this properly, we’d have to do it in a way in a way that does not presuppose truth.  Further, we need to do it in a way that does not presuppose representation.  Otherwise, we might as well help ourselves to the correspondence theory of truth from the start, since representation gives us all we need to invoke the corresponded theory of truth in an informative way.

I think the most extensive and promising project of this sort has been conducted by Robert Brandom in his book Making it Explicit, in which he tries to derive objective content, ultimately, from the norms involved in social practices and the attitudes of those immersed in these practices.  Now, this is quite a daunting task since it seems that objective norms like Norm #3 would have to transcend any of our social norms or attitudes that we might have.  Brandom thinks there’s a way of accomplishing this task, but I’ll save explaining exactly what that is for a later post.

Talking in Circles: Serious Dialogues on the Silliness of Everything

Here’s my recently finMr Thinkerished book of dialogues, a thought experiment of sorts, which had been over four years in the making.  Now, many philosophers conduct thought experiments, creative hypothetical scenarios designed to trigger certain philosophical intuitions, but this book is a thought experiment of a different sort; it’s about experimenting with thought, throwing oneself down the “philosophical rabbit-hole,” losing touch with reality, and trying to re-gain ones footing.

In the dialogues, the various characters get stuck in “The Loop,” an overarching and all-encompassing philosophical system that undermines any attempt to pin down the way things really are.  The stars of the dialogues are Mr. Thinker, a man driven mad pondering imThinker 2ponderable questions, a magical genie who desperately aims to answer to these questions, and Pete, a normal guy who causes all of this trouble by asking these questions.   In the process of falling hopelessly into the Loop, the characters have some rather earth-shattering encounters with things that are quite difficult to describe such as enlightenment, ego-death, mystical union, and even the book itself.   The journey takes you seemingly farther and farther down the rabbit-hole only to pop you out exactly where you jumped in, bringing the loop full circle.  All of this is followed by an epilogue which discusses some of the great “loopy” philosophers of the millennium such as Nāgārjuna, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein, and attempts to explain the sort of thing that just happened.

Tiny coverHopefully, Talking in Circles will take you for a pretty wild ride.  It may be written in a light and amusing fashion, but it’s not for the faint of heart!

If you want a physical copy so that you can read it wherever you want without having to look at a computer screen, you can get one here for really cheap (like three bucks!).

Nāgārjuna, Nietzsche, and Rorty’s Strange Looping Trick

Philosophers have lots of tools and tricks up their sleeves. They, of course, can use formal argumentation, they can employ all sorts of thought experiments to elicit various intuitions, they can lay out examples, dilemmas, dialectics, and do a whole host of other things. But I want to talk about one particular trick that only a select few philosophers have employed. This trick involves wrapping everything up in a philosophical system only to have that system knock itself down by its own internal means, and doing all in order to produce some sort of anti-philosophical result. I’ve come to call this the “looping” trick, and it’s one of the most philosophically curious things that I’ve ever stumbled upon.

The Loop and Wittgenstein’s Ladder

In my first year of college, I started reading Douglass Hofstadter’s book, Gödel, Escher, Bach. In this book, Hofstadter explores the paradoxical notion of a “strange loop” a sort of geometric structure and abstract concept illustrated by the art of M.C. Escher. What is a strange loop? Hofstadter describes it thusly:

The “Strange Loop” phenomenon occurs whenever, by moving upwards (or downwards) through the levels of a hierarchical system, we unexpectedly find ourselves back where we started.

Famously, it can be seen in the ever-ascending staircases drawn by Escher like this one:

Escher

Here, my concern is with philosophical strange loops. If you were to find yourself in a strange loop of this variety, it would seem as you are going farther and farther down a particular philosophical path only to end up right where you started. I’ve found that this strange looping structure is a recurring pattern in a certain type of philosopher: the systematically unsystematic philosopher. It is an odd stance to be in, but there’s been few philosophers throughout the philosophical tradition who have taken this stance, and they’re rather interesting.

When one says “unsystematic philosopher,” there is one person that pops into most philosophers’ minds: Ludwig Wittgenstein. Largely regarded as the most important philosopher of the 20th century, Wittgenstein thought there should be no philosophical theories. Such theories, he thought, only arose because of conceptual confusions. Ironically, however (an irony he well realized), Wittgenstein could not express this anti-philosophical thought without doing philosophy, and so his philosophy on his philosophy ended up coming out quite loopy. One of the best explicit explanations of loopy philosophy comes from Wittgenstein.  He writes,

If the place I want to get to could only be reached by way of a ladder, I would give up trying to get there. For the place that I have to get to is a place I must already be at now.

Anything that I might reach by climbing a ladder does not interest me.

Now, of course, if the place he is trying to get to is where he already is, then any of the positive steps forward he takes must undo themselves. And thus, one of the concluding remarks of his first great philosophical work, the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, is the following:

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

But where has he climbed? Well, just like the people climbing Escher’s self-connecting staircase, he has climbed right to the place where he began! Strangely, that’s exactly what we’d expect from someone who thinks that no philosophical theses should be advanced. Where would we expect to go? In this sense, Wittgenstein’s aim, at least in his early work, we might say is to loop philosophy, fitting it all into his system, then showing why his system is nonsense, thus showing why all of it is nonsense. The aim here, many commentators argue, is to inspire a sort of philosophical quietism. That is, to get us to all stop spewing philosophical nonsense and just shut up already.

Though the Early Wittgenstein is, in a strong sense, philosophically loopy, he is not an existentially loopy philosopher. That is, he doesn’t wrap himself and his personal ambitions up in the loop as well (at least not explicitly).  The next three thinkers I’ll talk about, Nagarjuna, Nietzsche, and Rorty, do just that.

Nāgārjuna

Nāgārjuna is arguably the most important Buddhist thinker after the Buddha himself. His philosophy is called the philosophy of the “middle way.” In his central philosophical text, the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (I’m not going to even pretend like I know how to pronounce that, but it means “The Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way”), he entertains what he takes to be all the possible philosophical views, rejects them all, and then rejects the philosophical view that rejects all philosophical views. This last part is quite important.

First, let’s take a look at this verse:

To think ‘it is,’ is eternalism,
To think ‘it is not,’ is nihilism:
Being and non-being,
The wise cling not to either.

Some people have interpreted Nāgārjuna here as positing some sort of ultimate Truth beyond the bounds of logic and traditional categorization, but this is almost certainly the wrong reading of Nāgārjuna. Rather, he wants to reject philosophical views altogether, putting nothing in their place. Consider this verse:

Everything is real, or not real,
Or real and not real
Or neither real nor not real;
This is the Buddha’s teaching.

I might add a bit, just for fun: Or neither neither real nor not real nor real and not real . . .  or neither neither neither real nor not real nor real and not real nor neither real nor not real and real and not real. And we could do this on and on, ad infinitum, but I think you get the point. In short, there is absolutely no philosophical claim about how things actually are being put forward here, since there is always an equally legitimate meta-claim, the negation of that claim, that could be put forward as well. And thus, Nāgārjuna arrives at the view of “emptiness,” the view that one can’t hold as a view. If you hold it as a view, you miss the whole point. Nāgārjuna writes,

The victorious ones have said
That emptiness is the relinquishing of all views.
For whomever emptiness is a view,
That one has accomplished nothing.

To this, you want to say, “But you just said a whole bunch of stuff about how emptiness is the right view!” And then it hits you: if emptiness is the right view, it can’t be the right view. It’s one giant paradox! Of course, this would be a problem for any view that was proposing itself as the truth of the matter, but Nāgārjuna isn’t proposing his philosophy as a system which captures the “truth of the matter,” even though it might seem that way. His philosophical position isn’t really a position at all. Rather, it’s a sort of philosophical act aimed at catapulting the reader into liberation.

What’s most interesting in reading Nāgārjuna isn’t really the particular philosophical views that he goes about rejecting, but the general strategy of having an all-encompassing philosophical view that rejects all philosophical views and then rejects itself. What Nāgārjuna is trying to do here is to loop the reader into enlightenment. In the Wittgenstein passage I mentioned earlier, he attempts to loop the reader into philosophical quietism. Nāgārjuna’s goal is a bit loftier, but, like Wittgenstein, Nāgārjuna does not provide the reader with any new philosophical theory. He rejects all views, but, without putting any opposing view in place, he leaves the reader right where they started.

This notion ended up becoming a common feature of much of Buddhist thought. We can see it arising again in the Zen Master Ch’ing-Yuan’s famous aphorism,

Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.

Philosophically, we’ve gone in a circle. Everything was undone, just for that undoing to be undone itself. The point all of it isn’t to see some new deep truth, but to change one’s perspective on what one already sees.

Nietzsche

Now let’s fast forward a millennium and a half, and move one continent westward. Our next thinker, Nietzsche, is a bit more of an unsettled soul than Nāgārjuna. Looking at Nietzsche will allow us to get some serious existential context for the loopiness just described.

One of Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous philosophical metaphors which comes from his first major work, The Birth of Tragedy, is that of the Greek Gods Apollo and Dionysius and their distinct forms of life. In Greek Mythology, Apollo is the Sun god, the god of light and reason. Above all, Apollo makes things clear and gives things form. On the other hand, we have Dionysius, the god of wine and ritual madness. For Dionysius, the world is a drunken blur, a primordial dance-party of sorts. The Apollonian and Dionysian each embody a tightly connected personal and metaphysical outlook on things, and we can see these distinct outlooks come out in some seemingly at-odds passages in Nietzsche’s work.

Consider first, Nietzsche’s notion of Giving Style, a sort of self-art that is “practiced by those who survey everything in their nature offers in the way of strengths and weakness, and then fit them all into an artistic plan.” Giving style is something that Apollo would do. It’s a way of making sense, artistic sense, of oneself. But here, we have a problem. In making oneself into a work of art, there is a sense in which one has created himself, but there is also a sense in which one has lost himself. One is always outside of their present self—an artistic projection. The downfall of the Apollonian is the realization that his whole world is an illusion, a mere dream.

Now consider the opposing notion of Amor Fati, the Latin phrase for “love of fate.” Endorsing this state, Nietzsche says, “I do not want to wage any war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse the accusers.” In this state, one has lost himself in a different sense. There is nothing to distinguish oneself from others. One has merged into the formless “Primordial Oneness” of reality. Now, this isn’t a problem for someone if they are perfectly content to blend into the primordial oneness, but the artistically inclined will be discontent here. There is no form, just flow, and, in that flow, anything distinctive about who one is completely disappears.

We might understand Amor Fati, as “dancing with the music” and Giving Style as a way of fighting against being overcome by the music in an attempt to make something of oneself. Ultimately, for Nietzsche, the flow of this music is all that there is to reality. It’s what Nietzsche called “becoming.” However, it’s in our very nature to fight against this flow, this eternal Dionysian becoming. We are the sort of beings that try to get a grip on things, including ourselves.

What are we to do once we realize this? Here’s the answer Nietzsche provides: “You shall become who you are.” When you think about it for a moment, you realize the peculiarity of this sentence. The idea of becoming implies a change, a going somewhere. And yet, the destination is right where one started because one always is what one is. Here, once again, we have stumbled into loopiness. Like Escher’s staircase on which one can walk endlessly upward and go nowhere, there is a strange circle of action in which one is both moving and staying put. This, it seems, might be the true state of becoming ourselves. It is a mesh between making something of oneself and flowing with the music. We see that struggling to make something of oneself is precisely the way in which one flows, and vice versa.

So that’s what we are? Not so fast. Here’s where the true loopiness of Nietzsche’s philosophy unveils itself: Let’s suppose that we try to identify ourselves as part of this Dionysian becoming, since that’s what Nietzsche says is really real. To do this would be to try to get a grip on ourselves, and this action is precisely the Apollonian form that we are rejecting by identifying ourselves in this flowing Dionysian sense. We’ve run into a paradox. The nature of reality is such that, in even trying to say what this nature is, we’ve already made a mistake. And so, even this statement, which is ultimately still a statement about the nature of reality, is a mistake as well.

Though the language is somewhat different, I tend to think that this is the same paradox that Nāgārjuna encounters. If we’re feeling particularly deep, we might call it the fundamental paradox of reality, or something really epic like that. This is not to say that reality is essentially paradoxical, as that would be to naively fall right into it. Rather, it is to say that the way in which we are forced to understand ultimate reality, if we do in fact try to understand it, ultimately leaves us with paradox.

However, even though they encounter the same paradox, Nāgārjuna and Nietzsche end up in radically different places. Nāgārjuna, after all, is a religious philosopher, a Buddhist, and Nietzsche is pretty deeply opposed to religious thought altogether. So why the difference? Well, it boils down to a difference in aims. Nāgārjuna’s whole point of theorizing in the first place, following the goal of the Buddha, is to alleviate suffering. Nietzsche, on the other hand, wholeheartedly embraces this suffering! He regards himself as a “tragic philosopher,” and tragedy, in Nietzsche’s view, is the greatest form of art. As such, Nietzsche’s philosophy is a thoroughly worldly philosophy.

But how do we resolve their metaphysical differences? The answer is that we don’t. This is because, like it or not, there isn’t really anything to resolve. Neither one of them is actually interested in taking some stand on the ultimate nature of reality. Sure, they seem to be taking a metaphysical stands of this sort, but we have to interpret this act instrumentally. Whether it is Nāgārjuna’s view of “emptiness” or Nietzsche’s view of “becoming,” the overarching metaphysical view that appears to be put forward by these two thinkers is not an end in itself, but part of an act. And what is this act? Well, it’s the greatest thing that can be done at that moment, whatever that is. For Nāgārjuna, in line with his Buddhist orientation, this is the act liberation from suffering. For Nietzsche, it is dramatic tragedy. Both Nietzsche and Nāgārjuna perform a strange looping trick in which everything comes together in its falling apart making way for the light of the unconceptualizable thing beyond.

Rorty

To give a context for understanding all of this, let’s now fast-forward another century and move over another continent to our final thinker, the American Pragmatist Richard Rorty.

Rorty was a bit of a maverick among the world of contemporary philosophy. He was trained in analytic philosophy, but, according to Rorty, much of this tradition rested on a mistake: the thought that to have knowledge is to “mirror” the world with one’s mind. On Rorty’s view, the beliefs worth holding onto are not the ones that mirror the world (this notion, Rorty thought, wasn’t even coherent), but the ones that allow us to cope with it. Accordingly, since we face different struggles than those who came before us, and those who come after us will face different struggles, we cannot cling to any understanding of the world we may have in the hopes we might have finally gotten it right. For Rorty, there is no “final vocabulary;” what we regard as truth is simply what allows us to cope at the current moment. Since the situations with which we have to cope are contingent, they could have been otherwise, what we regard as truth must be contingent as well.

The consequence of accepting Rorty’s views of contingency, when it comes to understanding oneself, is quite radical. Realizing contingency leads one to a position regarding oneself that Rorty calls “ironism.” An ironist, Rorty writes, is “never quite able to take themselves seriously because always aware that the terms in which they describe themselves are subject to change, always aware of the contingency and fragility of their final vocabularies and thus of their selves.” The ironist realizes that the truths he is holding, even the ones most central to his intellectual and personal outlook, reflect no final reality and are the product of his history, culture and language, and so he must only hold them ironically.

If we reflect on it for a moment, ironism can be quite a scary prospect. The idea of never being able to take yourself seriously doesn’t seem, at least on the surface, to be something that would help us “cope” with the world. But there’s a deeper problem. Holding a view of contingency must itself be contingent, and so, if one is an ironist, they must hold that ironically as well! Ironism cannot be the ultimately correct view, nor should we hope it to be. So what’s the point? Rorty is a pragmatist after all, so we should expect there to be a point, right?

To answer this question, we need to look at what Rorty thinks the aims of philosophy should actually be. He makes a distinction between “constructive” and “therapeutic” philosophy. While constructive philosophy aims to put forward a theory which says how the world really is, therapeutic philosophy is “designed to make the reader question his own motives for philosophizing rather than supply him with a new philosophical program.” Any “theory” put forward by therapeutic philosophy must only be put for its therapeutic aims, and it so it must treat itself ironically. Nodding to Wittgenstein’s metaphor that I mentioned earlier, Rorty says, “Ironist theory is thus a ladder which is to be thrown away as soon as one has figured out what it was that drove one’s predecessors to theorize.”

We must view Rorty’s entire philosophical system as one philosophical act. This way of looking at things is quite similar to the way we looked at Nāgārjuna’s philosophical “system” as one philosophical act aimed at getting its reader to achieve liberation, or Nietzsche’s as an act aimed at dramatic tragedy, but now thinking of Rorty we can put a new interesting spin on it. For a pragmatist like Rorty, when we say a sentence, what we’re doing in the most primary sense is performing an action, an action that has a particular significance in the social context in which we do it. This is a lesson Rorty learned from Wittgenstein. Not Wittgenstein’s early writing where talked about the ladder but his later writing where he seems to have left the ladder far behind.

Wittgenstein Again

When Wittgenstein published the Tractatus he thought he had solved all of the problems in philosophy. Accordingly, he quit. Been there, done that. Sometimes I think, half-jokingly, that he “beat the game.” But of course, there is no game, and if we do think of this whole thing as being a game, it’s not one you can beat. And that’s what Wittgenstein realized. Sixteen years later, he returned to philosophy to write Philosophical Investigations, which is now considered his most important work and to a large extent the most important philosophical work of the twentieth century.

The shift from Wittgenstein’s early work to his later work marked a shift from viewing language as a static way of representing the world, to an active doing, a practice that we are constantly engaged in. Meaning on this view is just a result of grammar, the way language is used. Ultimately, what we mean, the very way we are able to make sense of the world, is just a result of what we do, how we act. And thus, the ultimate meaning of things ends up just being a matter of what, ultimately, we want to do with ourselves.

But what do we want to do with ourselves? From Rorty’s point of view, we’ll never have a final answer to that question. The thing we should do with ourselves is “continue the conversation,” and that means never taking a final stand on what we ought to do with ourselves in the absolute sense. “Final stands” must only be done ironically, with the hope of undoing the final stands that take themselves seriously. Remember the Nāgārjuna quote about the wise clinging neither to being nor non-being? Well, thinking of that, now let’s look at a quote from Wittgenstein’s Investigations:

It’s not a Something, but not a Nothing either! The conclusion was only that a Nothing would render the same service as a Something about which nothing could be said. We’ve only rejected the grammar which tends to force itself on us here.

Now, this quote isn’t about the Loop. Rather, it is part of Wittgenstein’s famous “private language argument” where he argues against the idea of having private first-personal access to our sensations. But the resulting lesson can be carried over here. When forced into a paradox, change the grammar. And so with the “ultimate paradox,” rather than thinking that the ultimate thing lies beyond it and that we’ve come to the end of thought, our final vocabulary, we reject the grammar, and keep the conversation going.

When a student asked Rorty what the meaning of life was, he responded that it was quite simply “To envisage new modes of being.” In a way, this must be the overarching anti-view of any loopy philosopher.  Being loopy is a way of  seeing things as they are, but not clinging to them, of and giving form and style to oneself when need be, but always ironically, always with the possibility of revision in light of some new obstacle the world might throw at us.  In other words, it’s a way to be serious about taking things lightly.

(This is a modified excerpt from the epilogue of my book, Talking in Circles: Serious Dialogues on the Silliness of Everything, a book which is itself intended to be one big looping trick.  It also just won the 2nd place prize for the 3 Quarks Daily Philosophy prize.  Thanks to everyone who voted to get it into the finals, and thanks to Huw Price for judging.)

Why We’re Bound by Moral Reasons

Responding to Reasons

We humans are different than anything else we know of in the universe.  Chemically, we’re not too far off from other carbon-based things like the turkey sandwich in my refrigerator.  Biologically, we’re not too far off from other members of the animal kingdom like my Aunt’s cat Fluffy.  But we do something that nothing else in the known universe does: we understand and respond to reasons.  Robert Brandom marks us out from everything else in these terms:

We are the ones on whom reasons are binding, who are subject to the peculiar force of the better reason.  This force is a species of normative force, a rational ‘ought.’  Being rational is being bound or constrained by these norms, being subject to the authority of reasons.

Drawing from intellectual history, Brandom jumps on the phrase “rational animals” to mark out the sort of beings that we are.  Another way of making the distinction to highlight the essential normative element is to say that we are “responsible animals.”  Insofar as we are persons, we are held accountable for what we say and what we do, and we can hold others accountable as well.  We are things that can give and ask for reasons.  That’s what distinguishes things like us from things like the turkey sandwich in my refrigerator and my Aunt’s cat, Fluffy.

We are what we might call reason-responsive agents, and essentially so.   We can’t help it, just like my turkey sandwich can’t help but be carbon-based.  Of course, I can bop myself on the head in the hopes that I’ll enter into a coma and no longer be responsive to reasons.  But for now, I’m stuck being reason-responsive, and, if I have some inclination to bop myself on the head, I’ll have to deal with the question of whether it’s reasonable to do that.  Further, asking “Why should I take myself to be bound by reasons?” doesn’t make much sense; one is asking here what reasons one has to take oneself to be bound by reasons, thus implicitly  acknowledging their boundedness to reasons.  A more sensible question is, “Why should I take myself to be bound by this or that set of reasons?”  One set of reasons for which this question is particularly interesting is moral reasons, and that’s my topic for this post.  I’ll try to make the case here that, if we are bound by any reasons at all, we must be bound by moral reasons.

The Intersubjective Nature of Reasons

What are reasons, really, and why are there any in the first place?  Reasons are considerations that count in favor of something.  In the paradigm cases, they count in favor of an action that we might take or a belief that we might hold. The fact that we understand ourselves as having reasons follows directly from our nature as agents, as things that act in accordance with a will.  We act deliberately, and this requires the possibility of deliberating on our actions, weighing out the reasons for and against them.  When we become conscious of the fact that we are acting, we understand ourselves in normative terms, in terms of how we ought to act.  Explicit self-consciousness is a normative sort of self-consciousness.  We only become self-consciousness of our actions given the possibility of going astray.  As fallible agents, we might stray from what we have reason to do, and the reflective assessment of our actions aims to avoid this.

Reasons, on this view, are dependent on a normative conception of self-conscious agency, but I have not yet said what the substance of these reasons consists in.  One answer to this question might be to say, that our reasons merely rely on the possibility of straying from our own desires and goals.  If that was the case, then the only sort of reasons we’d have would be hypothetical reasons: reasons given our goals and desires.  While many find this answer intuitive, I think it’s incorrect.  I think that the standards we hold ourselves to in making sense of our own actions must be, not merely our own standard, but our collective understanding of correctness.  This is to say that these reasons must not merely be our own reasons given our desires and goals; they must be intersubjective reasons.

One famous argument for this line of thought comes from Wittgenstein.  His argument can be construed as follows:  In order to evaluate something as reasonable or not, there must be a possibility of acting unreasonably, of making errors with regard to reason.  There has to be a possibility of getting it wrong.  But if the only possible evaluator is me, I can’t get it wrong.  If I was the only possible evaluator there’d be no difference between thinking I am acting reasonably, and actually acting reasonably.  As Wittgenstein puts it “whatever is going to seem right to me is right.  And that only means that here we cannot talk about ‘right.’”  So without the possibility of public evaluation the whole notion of correctness or incorrectness goes out the window.  This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for me to privately evaluate my reasons for doing an action on some occasions.  It is quite often that I evaluate my actions to see if they are reasonable without asking anyone else about them.  But Wittgenstein’s point is that this private evaluation takes its conceptual basis on the public, intersubjective evaluation of reasons.

If being responsive to reasons just is being responsive to public standards of correctness in our performance of actions and formation of beliefs, the reasons to which we respond must be, in the paradigm case, intersubjective reasons.  This is not, of course, to say that whenever I have a reason to do X, you also have that reason to do X.  That would imply that, if I have a reason to play soccer (since I enjoy it), you also have a reason to play soccer (even if you hate it).   Rather, it is to say that you must be able to understand and appreciate my reason to do X, in order for it to really count as a reason.   Consider again how I’ve said that understanding ourselves as having reasons for various things is dependent on self-conscious awareness of our actions.  Now that we’ve seen that these reasons are fundamentally intersubjective reasons, we can see that this self-consciousness in virtue of which we understand ourselves as having reasons must be a social self-consciousness.  Our identities are social identities. 

The social nature of our identities goes hand in hand with the intersubjective nature of the reasons to which we are responsive.  An example will help shed some light on this fact.  Suppose I am four years old.  My mom sees me steal a toy from my three year old brother and stops me saying, “No.  We don’t steal.”  She is making a prescriptive claim here about how I ought to act, but she is she is making that claim by identifying the sort of thing that I am.  What is this “we” of which my mom speaks?  Is it just me and her?  Or is it just those in our family, our culture, or our country?  No, when she says “we,” she’s talking about all the things like her and me that there might be; every reason-responsive agent is included in the scope of her “we.”  My identity which guides my self-conscious reflection (my conscience) is founded on these sorts of normative corrections.

What’s Really Wrong with Acting Immorally

In this context we can explain why it is the case that, if we are normatively bound by any reasons at all, we must be bound by moral reasons.   Moral violations directly go against the reasons of others.  This is what makes a violation of a moral norm a distinctly moral one, and this is what is what makes moral norms categorical.  Violations of moral norms are unreasonable in the strongest sense because these acts cannot possibly be publically evaluated as correct.  To knowingly act immorally is to reject ones responsiveness to some reason or another.  Sometimes we are quite aware of this, as Christine Korsgaard points out in an example with which many of us can sympathize:

If I call out your name, I make you stop in your tracks. (If you love me, I make you come running.) Now you cannot proceed as you did before. Oh, you can proceed, all right, but not just as you did before. For now if you walk on, you will be ignoring me and slighting me. It will probably be difficult for you, and you will have to muster a certain active resistance, a sense of rebellion. But why should you have to rebel against me? It is because I am a law to you.  By calling out your name, I have obligated you. I have given you a reason to stop.

Of course, we might have a good reason for not stopping.  We might be late for an appointment, and we might explain this to this person next time we see her, and, if she herself is reasonable, presumably she’ll understand.  But we also might not have a good reason for not stopping.  In this case, we would simply block out (to the best of our ability) the reason imposed on us, rather than being able to justify our action either internally or externally.

The greater the moral transgression, the more substantive this rejection of responsiveness to reasons is, and the harder it becomes to not respond with appropriate actions to the reasons imposed on our minds.  In this context, we can explain what’s objectively wrong with utterly appalling acts like torturing a person just for fun.  When we consciously commit any immoral act there are some reasons that we must be rejecting, but, with regard to particularly immoral acts like torture, the reasons that we consciously reject are reasons paramount to a person’s entire existence; these are pretty big reasons.  These are reasons that (practically) nothing could over-ride (I’ll table the question in applied ethics of whether it’s wrong to torture in all conceivable circumstances for now, and just say that we’re not talking about one of those possible circumstances).

Hardly anyone would enjoy torturing someone.  In fact, most people, if forced to do it, would find it absolutely awful.  It’s not too hard to give a neurobiological explanation of why this is the case.  It probably has something to do with mirror neurons, and we can likely give some sort of evolutionary explanation as to why these neural features devolved.   This sort of explanation, however, would only explain why, given our biological make-up, we are disposed to be averse to torturing someone.   It wouldn’t say why there is anything morally wrong or unreasonable about torturing someone, in the same way that giving a biological explanation about why most of us would not find spinach flavored ice-cream appealing would not give us a reason to think that there’s anything wrong with eating it.  But, given the sort of explanation I’ve been articulating here, we can say, in normative terms why we find the the prospect torturing of someone absolutely awful.  What you’re doing when you’re torturing a person is denying your own responsiveness to reasons.  In a sense, you are denying the very thing that you are, your rational agency, the thing that makes you different from my Aunt’s cat Fluffy.  That’s the normative content behind the horrible pain that we’d experience if we were forced to torture someone, and it’s in virtue of this fact that we can understand acts like this as unreasonable in the strongest sense of the term.

 

How to Justify Your Reasoning Using Your Reasoning

I’ve become increasingly fascinated with presuppositional apologetics, a way of defending Biblical Christianity that’s gained quite a bit of popularity in recent years.  This is a form of apologetics originally crafted by the Reformed theologian Cornelius Van Till, and his followers, perhaps most notably Greg Bahnsen and John Frame.  However, in recent years, this approach has become quite popular among apologists on the internet who are not professional philosophers.   The most vocal of these internet apologists is probably Sye Ten Bruggencate.

Rather than trying to give positive evidence for the existence of the Christian God, the pressupositionalist attempts to show that any worldview other than the Christian one is untenable.  We can identify two main challenges to a secular worldview coming out of the this approach: an epistemological one and a metaphysical one.  Both are aimed at producing a reductio ad absurdum for a secular worldview.  The epistemological challenge asks how, on a secular worldview, one can be justified in believing basic truths and basic rules of inference.  The metaphysical challenge asks how one can account for or explain things like truth and logic on a secular worldview.  In my previous post, I tried to give a response to one popular aspect of the metaphysical challenge, how a naturalist can account for the laws of logic.  Here, I want to give a thorough response to the epistemological challenge, as it’s presented by Sye Ten Bruggencate.

Sye’s strategy is to try to ask a set of questions aimed to show that, apart form the Christian God, no one can have knowledge of anything.  While I am a (very liberal) theist, I think our epistemological views can stand just fine on secular terms, and so, naturally, I believe the presuppositional strategy is flawed.  But my goal here isn’t simply to show why Sye’s presuppositional strategy is flawed, since the best way to do that would most likely be to attack the positive claims that Sye puts forward as differentiating the biblical believer from the secularist.  In fact, actually playing Sye’s game and trying to straightforwardly answer all his questions is probably the worst thing to do in an actual debate.  But, I find responding directly to Sye’s attacks on the secular worldview a particularly interesting philosophical exercise.  So here we go:

A Hard Line of Interrogation

Sye follows a script pretty straightforwardly, so, while I’ve never actually had a back-and-forth with him, I’ve seen enough of his debates to have a pretty good grasp of his line of attack.  Sye’s first question usually looks something like this:

1.)    Is it possible that you could be wrong about everything you claim to know?

My answer to this question, unlike many people who have thought about it, and unlike many atheists who have interacted with Sye is, “No, it’s not possible that I could be wrong about everything I claim to know.”   But before I explain why I think this is the correct answer (and what exactly it means to make this claim), I want to say a bit about the opposite answer.  If you answer this question affirmatively (as most people do), Sye quickly responds,

But you see, there’s a problem there.  If you could be wrong about something, then you don’t really know it.  For example, if I say, “The speed limit outside is 25 miles per hour, but I could be wrong,” I certainly don’t know that the speed limit is 25mph.  And so, on your worldview, since you could be wrong about everything, you don’t know anything.  You’ve given up knowledge!  But you can’t do that, because that’s a knowledge claim, and so you contradict yourself!

It’s worth noting that Sye might just be straightforwardly wrong about this speed limit example.   Think about it for a moment: Suppose you’ve lived in this neighborhood your entire life.  You drive past the speed limit sign every day, and it’s always said 25mph.  You’ve also gotten pulled over once and received a ticket for going 35mph, ten over the speed limit.  This was all made perfectly explicit to you when you went to court.  Even further, you know that it’s in a residential neighborhood, and it’s a law in your state that the speed limit in these neighborhoods has to be 25mph.

Still, you’re not looking at the sign right now, and there is an infinitesimally small possibility that within the past few hours, the state legislature changed and the sign was replaced with a 35mph speed limit sign.  This would be an incredibly strange thing to happen, especially without any notice and for no apparent reason, but you can’t rule out the possibility with one hundred percent certainty.  Does this minute possibility mean that, if someone asks you the speed limit in your neighborhood, you wouldn’t be perfectly justified in saying that it is 25mph?  No of course not; you’re perfectly justified.  And, assuming that this infinitesimally small possibility doesn’t obtain, it seems correct to say that you know it is 25mph.  If, somehow, against all odds, the possibility did obtain, then you wouldn’t know that the speed limit was 25mph.  But that wouldn’t be because your belief isn’t justified, it’d be because your belief is false, and it’s justification that Sye is trying to attack at this point, not truth.

Fallibilism about knowledge, the view that we can know things without being entirely certain of them, is actually the majority view among epistemologists.   It might seem a bit counterintuitive when you first stumble upon it, but I think it makes quite a bit of sense when you think about it for some time.  The reason why the minute possibility of being wrong with the speed limit example doesn’t preclude you from having knowledge, is because this possibility is so far out there that it not a possibility that you need to consider when assessing your claims to see if they are knowledge.  So, for all intents and purposes, you are certain that it’s 25mph.  Suppose then Sye asks “But could you be wrong about fallibilism?”   One perfectly respectable answer here is to say “Sure I could.  It seems very clear to me that fallibilism is the correct view of knowledge, but I’m not one hundred percent positive.  I’m open for an argument for why it isn’t the correct view.”  This fits perfectly into the fallibilist view, so there’s no inconsistency here.

But let me step back to give my actual answer. (Sye demands that you don’t just give plausible answers, but you have to give the answers you in fact hold!  He’s not just doing this for intellectual enjoyment, after all, but to save your soul!)  Consider again the statement that Sye wants to bring into question: “It is possible that you could be wrong about everything you claim to know.”  There are two different ways we might express this statement.  The first is to say that, for all of our beliefs, it’s possible that each one might be wrong, which we’d symbolize like this: ∀x(◊Wx).  The second is to say that it’s possible that all of our beliefs, collectively, could be wrong, which we’d symbolize like this:  ◊(∀x(Wx)).   These are two clearly distinct claims, and the second does not logically follow from the first.  For example, it does not follow from the claim that it’s possible for anyone to be president (for all people, it’s possible that they might be president), to the claim that it’s possible for everyone to be president.  The second expression is much stronger, and thus, much easier to reject, than the first.

Whether he’s aware of it or not, Sye equivocates between these two expressions, and the trap that he tries to set rests largely on this equivocation.  It seems that the latter expression is the only one that, if true, has a serious skeptical consequence.  And, since, if you accept the statement Sye want to conclude that there is nothing at all that you do know, it seems that he has the second expression in mind.  However, if you reject the statement Sye responds “Ok, what do you know for certain.”  But this response is only appropriate if Sye is asking about the first expression.  If I say that it’s not possible for everyone to be president, I don’t need to name a particular person who I know certainly can’t be president; I only need to say that the nature of presidency is such that only one person can be president at a time.

Since Sye needs the stronger skeptical conclusion in order for his argument to work, the thing he must really be asking is not whether there is some particular thing that we can’t be wrong about, but whether we can be wrong about everything.  To this question, I respond, “No, it’s not possible that I could be wrong about everything I claim to know.”  My main line of reasoning behind this response is drawn from a set of arguments from Donald Davidson and Daniel Dennett.  These arguments don’t go to show that there is some particular thing we know for certain, but rather that the very idea of being wrong about everything makes no sense at all.

Consider the following example:  I am shipwrecked and find myself on an uncharted island with an unknown native population.  I stumble across one such native whose language is entirely foreign to me.  To understand what he is saying, and correlatively, what his beliefs are, I must take an interpretive stance towards him and see how he responds to stimuli in his environment.  This three-part relation between interpreter, speaker/believer, and shared stimulus is what Davidson calls “triangulation.”  In order to make sense of the native’s beliefs at all, I must attribute to the native the beliefs that he ought to have, and, in doing this, I must attribute mostly true beliefs to him.

Davidson’s idea is that the very notion of a having a belief only makes sense in this context of triangulation, and within this context, one must have mostly true beliefs.  We can relate Davidson’s point to a point that Dennett makes, that, in order to treat something as having beliefs at all, we must treat it as a rational being.  This is because, to treat something as having beliefs, we must predict it as acting in accordance with its beliefs and goals.  If all of our predictions fail, then there’s no meaningful sense in which we can say that it has beliefs at all.  Having mostly true beliefs and being largely rational is, in fact, a “presupposition” of having any beliefs to call into question in the first place.

Just like, once we understand what the concept of the presidency means, we know that it’s impossible for everyone to be president, once we sufficiently understand the concepts of belief and knowledge, we realize that it’s impossible for all of them to be false.  This also provides a response to one of Sye’s other questions that he sets up as a trap:

2.)    Could there be someone who cannot reason rationally?

If you respond affirmatively, as most people do, then Sye will ask you how you would know you’re not one of those people.  And then, no matter what you say, he’ll respond “But you see, you’re using your reasoning there, and that presumes you’re not one of those people.  Thus, you can’t prove that you can reason rationally.”  But the answer, if Davidson and Dennett are roughly correct, is no, there could be no such person.

Of course, it’s possible for a human being to not have any beliefs at all, perhaps someone in a cationic state.  It’s also possible for a human-being not have capacities to engage in the practice of reason-giving, such as a feral child.  But, for any person who actually reasons at all, their reasoning must be roughly in conformity with the norms of rationality.  Reasoning just is the word we have for the process of forming inferences in accordance with these norms.  Now, we can make mistakes in reasoning, and some people make more mistakes than others.  But the very notion of treating someone’s judgment as a mistake presupposes that they are in fact bound by these norms.

It is likely that, after giving any substantive answer to one of his questions, Sye will try to eliminate any force the point might have by asking:

3.)    But could you be wrong about that?

The answer to this question, if we are answering them in this sort of way, goes like this:  Well, in one sense yes, in one sense no.  We have to make a distinction between metaphysical and epistemic possibility (this is quite a useful distinction when dealing with presuppositionalists like Sye).  Metaphysically, the argument is such that, if it’s correct, it’s necessarily correct.  And since I’m putting it forward as something that is in fact correct, I’m putting it forward as some that is necessarily correct.  Davidson’s argument, much like the presuppositionalist’s in fact, is a transcendental argument.  It aims to show that the conditions for having beliefs at all are that most of our beliefs must be true.  So, on the picture that I’m putting forward, the picture that I’m taking to be correct, it is impossible for our beliefs to be massively false.

Still, this general way of thinking about belief and rationality is not entirely uncontroversial, and since there’s plenty of smart people that disagree with me, I think it’d be a bit arrogant to say that I know for certain that it is correct.  And so, I’d say that it’s epistemically possible that I might be wrong in thinking that Davidson’s argument shows most of my beliefs must be true.  This is to say that, while I believe it’s the right way of thinking about belief and I can’t see how I could be wrong, I’m open to an argument for why I might be wrong.  Here I’d ask the Sye, “Do you have an argument which would suggest that this is in fact the wrong way of thinking about belief?”

Perhaps at this point Sye would bring up a sort of Cartesian skepticism, and ask something like:

4.)    Isn’t it possible that you’re just in the Matrix, and thus massively deluded?

This is an interesting challenge to deal with.  We might the write up this challenge as the following argument:

  1. It’s possible that I’m in the Matrix.
  2. If I’m in the Matrix, all of my beliefs are false.
  3. Therefore, it’s possible that all of my beliefs are false.
  4. If it’s possible that all of my beliefs are false, I do not know anything.
  5. Therefore, I do not know anything.

I think this argument is formally valid, and so in order to reject the argument I’ll have to reject one or more of the premises.  Now, given that I’ve already rejected premise (3), and (3) follows logically from (1) and (2), I have to reject either (1) or (2).  Since I see no prima facie reason to think (1) is impossible, I think we ought to reject (2), and I don’t think it is too difficult to do this.

David Chalmers has made the case, quite convincingly I think, that the objects of belief for people in the Matrix are virtual objects.  That is, when a person in the Matrix has the belief “I am petting a cat,” they have a belief about a virtual cat.  Virtual objects are, in fact, very similar to non-virtual objects but differ in the fact that ultimately they are not composed of tiny bits of matter but are produced by computer code.  So, when someone in the Matrix says “cat,” it refers to a virtual cat, and, since there are virtual cats in the Matrix, the sentence “My Aunt has three cats,” may very well be true when uttered by someone in the Matrix.

On this line of reasoning, even if we are in the Matrix, our beliefs about the objects around us are still mostly true, and we still have a basic grip on what sorts of things these objects are, even if we’re wrong about the underlying metaphysical structure.  Chalmers, accordingly, calls the Matrix hypothesis a metaphysical, rather than skeptical hypothesis.  He sees the hypothesis as not categorically different from fundamentalist religious hypotheses, a “creation myth for the information age.”

This sort of explanation is exactly what we’d expect, given that we’ve taken Davidson’s arguments that most of our beliefs must be true to be transcendental ones.  If that’s the case, they can’t be contingent on the way the world happens to be, and so they ought to hold fast even in the Matrix.  And they do. Given this explanation of the Matrix scenario, the arguments from Davidson and Dennett which say that we must have mostly true beliefs, still hold even here.

Once Sye gets stumped, he often goes back to

5.)    But you’re using your reasoning to justify your reasoning!  That’s viciously circular!

To this, once again, I respond, that reasoning isn’t the sort of thing that can be justified.  It’s not as if I have my reasoning, and you have your reasoning, and mine might be right and yours might be wrong; reasoning just is the thing rational agents do that makes us rational agents.  To reason, just is to engage in this activity of responding to reasons, an activity that we are all necessarily in.

Now, of course, I can use reasoning in order to know if I’m being rational in a particular circumstance or another, but it makes no sense to try to use it to know if I’m rational generally, since the very possibility of using reasoning presumes that I am rational agent, a thing with the capacity of reason.

Somehow, Sye has taken this fact to be some sort of great epistemological problem, but it just means that the question is malformed.  Since the question of justification only makes any sense at all on the assumption that one has the capacity to reason, insofar as Sye can even ask me for justification for anything, the notion that I might not be able to reason is incoherent.  The reason why I can’t coherently ask my goldfish to justify its reasoning is because it’s not a thing that reasons in the first place.  Asking something this question and expecting that it might even attempt to answer it, presumes that it can reason, and thus, the question would not need to be asked in the first place.

6.)    But could you be wrong about that?

Once again: epistemically, yes, metaphysically no.  According to the way I’m thinking of these things right now, I couldn’t be wrong because I think the contrary is incoherent.  However, if you’d like to show me how the contrary is not incoherent, I’d certainly be willing to listen.

7.)    But you’re using your reasoning to justify your reasoning.

In straightforwardly repeating the challenge, without putting forward a positive reason, Sye is giving me nothing new to work with.  So rather than just repeating my claims forever, it seems more productive to look at what is going on here.  Sye’s goal here is to lead one into the epistemic regress problem. Traditionally, the problem might be set up like this:

  1. I want to say my belief that P is justified.
  2. If this is the case, then there must be some other belief (call it P’) which gives me reason to believe that P.
  3. But then I need another belief (call it P’’) that gives me reason to believe P’ and so on ad infinitum.

Traditionally, there are three standard responses to this problem:

  1. Foundationalism: the idea that at some point this regress terminates with basic beliefs for which we do not need to give reasons.  The problem was originally posed as the main motivation to hold a foundationalist picture of justification.
  2. Coherentism: the idea that reasons can loop back on themselves, that justification  isn’t completely linear, and a belief is justified just in case it fits into the most coherent justificatory network.
  3. Infinitism:  the idea that justifications of this sort can unproblematically go on forever (as far as I know Peter Klein’s basically the only person who holds this view).

While there might be defensible versions of all of these views, I will not defend one here.  Rather, I want to point out that there is also another line of thought that rejects the formulation of regress problem as having basically gotten things backwards.  The idea is this: the very notion of justification only makes sense in light of our practices of justification, and at a certain point, any justification will just come down to what our practices actually are.

This is a point that we can find at some points Wittgenstein’s work. In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein writes, “Once I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned.  Then I am inclined to say: ‘This is simply what I do.’” There are various ways of reading this thought-provoking passage, but one way we might read Wittgenstein here as saying that, after a certain extent of justification, all we ought to do is just refer to what the practices that we are mutually engaged in, which make knowledge and justification possible at all, actually are.  This is importantly different than any sort of foundationalism, since an appeal to actual practice isn’t an appeal foundational belief at all.

We cannot, of course, get outside of our practices in order to justify them.  But we can, from inside our practices, explain why they must be mostly truth-conductive, and that’s what I’ve tried to do with the arguments from Dennett and Davidson.  Even stronger, we can say that we must think of our practices as mostly correct in order for them to make any sense at all.  This would be to say that, by the very pragmatic structure of how our reason-giving practices work, our inferential practices and accordingly our beliefs must be treated as mostly be right.  Thus, in response to the regress problem, we can say that there is no reason to think that every belief needs an explicit justification, since that’s just not the way our practices of reason-giving work.

We can understand this point in terms of what Robert Brandom calls the “default and challenge” model of entitlement.   In this model, claims and beliefs be treated as justified by default, and only once appropriately challenged is there an obligation to bring forth explicit reasons for them.  We might think of default and challenge as a sort of “innocent until proven guilty” principle with regard to whether one is entitled to make a particular claim or perform a certain practice.   Without treating claims in this way, according to Brandom, there is no way to get the “game of giving and asking for reasons” up and running.  If we doubted literally everything everyone said, there’d be no common ground from which we could make sense of any discussion at all.

Let me give an example to make this clear.  In order to play soccer, for example, it is not enough that everyone else just be playing soccer; we have to think everyone else is playing soccer as well.  Only then will following the rules of soccer make any sense to us.  Likewise, in order to engage in rational discourse, it is not enough that everyone else just be rational; we have to think everyone else is basically rational.  To try to make someone give reasons for their beliefs without presuming that they are basically rational is to verge on incoherence.  It’s like trying to enforce a hand-ball penalty without presuming that the person is playing soccer!

For this reason we can say that the epistemic regress problem that Sye is trying to force us into is actually not a genuine problem at all.  This line of thought is certainly contested in philosophy.  But I’d love to see Sye to try to refute it.  My bet is that he’ll just come back, once again, with something like this:

8.)    You’re still trying to use your reasoning to justify your reasoning.

At this point, the skeptical inquiry is getting redundant.  In fact, it’s getting so redundant that it’s starting to lose its meaning.  And now that I’ve articulated the default and challenge model of entitlement, we can explain why this is the case.  By abandoning the default and challenge model of entitlement and asking for justification, even after justification has been given, Sye is abandoning the way the norms of justificatory practice actually work.  As I’ve said, we might think of epistemic practice as a game, and if you break the rules enough, you’re no longer really playing it.  Unless Sye plays by the epistemic rules and accepts justifications which connect a particular belief in question to our default-entitled set of beliefs, the very notion of justification, and thereby challenge, becomes meaningless.

Since he breaks all the rules of epistemic practice, particularly the default and challenge structure of entitlement, Sye’s speech acts eventually lose all of their normative force.  This is to say that, if the skeptic continues endlessly attempting to challenge any justification, his speech acts not only lose their perlocutionary force (in making one offer up a response), but their illocutionary force as well.  The speech act is infelicitous as a challenge in the same way that running up to two random people on the street and saying “I now pronounce you man and wife” is infelicitous as a marriage pronouncement.

A genuine challenge, in actual epistemic practice does have normative force, and an agent whose commitment is genuinely challenged has an obligation to defend that commitment, but Sye’s speech acts stop being treated as genuine challenges, and thus his interlocutor eventually feels no normatively obligation to answer them.  If you watch some of Sye’s debates you can literally see this happening.

Given that we’ve just seen how the default and challenge structure of entitlement is justified, we can now say that they ought to lose their normative force as they do, since there is no coherent challenge to be made if an appeal to our default-entitled set of beliefs will not be accepted as an answer to this challenge.  We can make this explicit to Sye, and say that’s why his challenges stop being the speech act he intends them to be, no longer counting as genuine challenges.  Thus, in telling Sye to get lost, we are saying to him that he is contributing nothing to conversation but mere words with no more normative force behind them than the barks of a dog.

A Naturalistic Conception of the Laws of Logic

The Problem

It is a standard notion in philosophy, going back to Aristotle, that what distinguishes us human beings from other animals is our ability to reason.   Unlike any other animals we know of, we conform to the demands of reason.  There are a few different dimensions to these demands.  First, reasoning is a practice that involves concrete interactions with the world, and along this dimension, it demands that we respond appropriately to the objects and events in the world, as well as to other rational agents, forming the right sorts of beliefs and engaging in the right sorts of actions.  Making the norms of this dimension explicit is the task of normative epistemology and ethics, as I see the disciplines, and making sense of what sorts of things these norms are and how they function is the task of meta-epistemology and meta-ethics.  The demands of reason also have a formal element, demanding that we follow the rules of inference, to infer from the beliefs we do have to what logically follows from them.   It is this latter dimension of reason that I will focus on here.

We can refer to standards of coherence and inference by which proper reasoning is bound as the “laws of logic.”  Construing this category broadly, it includes things like the law of exclude middle and modus ponens.  These laws constitute the principles of rationally forming judgments about the world. To form judgments that violate the laws of logic is to be incoherent or irrational, and so, as rational agents, we cannot help but think and act largely in accordance with these laws of logic.  And yet, anyone trying to explain the laws of logic on a naturalistic worldview seems to face a dilemma:

The first horn of the dilemma arises when we try to say that the laws of logic are dependent on the minds of us rational agents.  At first glance, we might try to think of these laws as human conventions, principles that we decide to adopt in order to foster reasonable agreement.  But this will not do.   If we did just make up the laws of logic, it seems like we would be able to change them, but that’s patently absurd.  There’s a further problem with this suggestion, and that is the fact that the very act of deciding on principles seems to presuppose rules of correct inference by which this decision could even count as a good one.  Suppose then, we try to say that the laws of logic are the result of the human brain.  This too faces difficulties, since it seems to imply that in a possible world where there are no brains, there would be no laws of logic, and this seems wrong.  In a world with no minds, a rock still can’t be something other than a rock; all of the things in this mindless world must still conform to the laws of logic.  In short, to say that these laws are mind-dependent on naturalism seems to imply that they are contingent, that they could be otherwise, and that is an untenable consequence.

On the other hand, if we try to think of the laws of logic as non-contingent, we face a different puzzle.  Even on the most metaphysically liberal naturalistic worldview, one seems to be committed to saying that natural stuff like atoms and molecules are causally responsible for everything else (whatever that “everything else,” if anything, may be).  But logical laws, though they certainly exist, are not the sort of natural stuff that atoms and molecules are.  One easy way to point this out is to point out that they are true.  It is true, for example, that from A and if A then B, B follows, and, while we may say true things about natural stuff like atoms and molecules, atoms and molecules themselves cannot be true or false.  Further, it is difficult to say how these necessary truths could be a direct consequence of the existence of atoms and molecules.  On the naturalistic position, it seems that we don’t get things that can be true or false unless we get agents capable of uttering sentences and thinking thoughts that can be true or false.  But if we make the laws of logic contingent upon thinking and speaking agents, it appears as if we are pushed back into the first horn of the dilemma.

This dilemma has led Christian apologists like Greg Bahnsen, Victor Reppert, and James N. Anderson to think the existence of the laws of logic constitute a powerful argument for theism as opposed to naturalism.  On Christianity, it seems like one can give a satisfying response to both horns of the dilemma.  Like us, God is a rational being capable of conceiving truths and so the nature of logical laws are preserved as the second horn demands, but, unlike us, God is a necessary being and so these laws (the outflow of God’s necessarily perfect mind) must be necessary as well, thus avoiding the first horn of the dilemma.  This is a version of the transcendental argument for the existence of God, and, as far as the standard arguments for theism go, I think this is one of the better ones.  However, while I think this argument may pose an insurmountable challenge to some forms of naturalism, I believe that there is a form of naturalism that can respond to this challenge in an elegant fashion.

My goal here is propose a middle way between the two horns of the dilemma available to the liberal naturalist.  This middle way includes providing an explanation of the rules of rational inference that has both a naturalistic component and a transcendental component.  The naturalistic component shows how these rules are a product of animal rationality that arises out of natural causal processes.  The transcendental component accommodates the obvious truth that these laws would exist even in a possible world with no rational animals at all, since they are the preconditions for any sense to be made of things at all.  The key to understanding this sort of explanation is appreciating the explanatory fecundity of what I call a “causal/conceptual” loop.  Elements in the naturalistic story are proposed as causally prior to the existence of logical laws, but these logical laws are conceptually prior to any of these elements since they are preconditions for the possibility of any explanation at all.

I’ll start with the naturalistic story.  I will then show how a transcendental picture allows us to fill the explanatory gaps left behind.

A Four Billion Year Long Story

Let’s start at the beginning.  About four billion years ago on planet Earth, perhaps in a hot spring or ocean vent, strings of nucleotides started bonding together through a purely chemical catalytic process.  This kept happening in random assortment, creating millions and millions nucleotide strands until, eventually, a pretty neat strand came about.  It was a ribonucleic acid (RNA) strand with the strange property of self-replication.  Though this RNA strand had the property of self-replication, it didn’t always replicate itself perfectly.  Sometimes the replica was slightly different than the original, and in some of these cases, the slightly different replica ended up with a more efficient property of self-replication.  In this latter case, we ended up with more of these more efficient self-replicators, replicating themselves.   And so began Darwinian evolution, the means to produce biological complexity out of a purely causal chemical process.

At some pretty early point in the evolutionary timeline, this process brings about organisms towards which we can adopt what Daniel Dennett calls the intentional stance.  That is, we can interpret these organisms as things acting in accord with beliefs and goals.  There’s no sharp line in the evolutionary timeline from when we can’t productively adopt the intentional stance towards an organism and when we can, but it seems like a safe bet to say that, we can adopt the intentional stance to something like a paramecium with some success.  When a predator attacks a paramecium, it seems as if the paramecium is trying to get away, as if it doesn’t want to be eaten.  In fact, it’s nearly impossible to not see its behavior in these goal-oriented terms.  Now, it doesn’t really want not to be eaten, or really believe that its predator a potential harm to it.  Of course not; it’s a paramecium!  But we can attribute these intentional states to it, and make sense of its behavior accordingly.

In order to treat the paramecium as having these intentional states, we have to treat it as a basically rational organism, as following the laws of logic.   Dennett says,

one gets nowhere with the assumption that entity x has beliefs p, q, r . . . unless one also supposes that x believes what follows from p, q, r . . . ; otherwise there is no way of ruling out the prediction that x will, in the face of beliefs p, q, r . . . do something utterly stupid, and, if we cannot rule out that prediction, we will have acquired no predictive power at all.

Here, we have the first glimpses of what I’ll call primitive rationality.  Now, the paramecium isn’t really rational, in the sense that we’re rational.  But we have to think of it as rational, in order to think of it as having beliefs and intentions.   And when we do this, we can make sense of its behavior, and we can predict how it will behave when it is thrown into various circumstances, even without knowing anything about its internal biology.

There’s a reason why we can think of the paramecium as rational with some success.  The sorts of behaviors that evolve by the process of natural selection are the once that make it such that the paramecium survives and reproduces, and when these behaviors inevitably evolve, it will seem as if the paramecium is itself trying to survive and reproduce.  Of course, it doesn’t really have a concept of self or death, but it acts as if it does, and if it didn’t act in that way, it wouldn’t be able to pass its genes on to make more things like it.  That’s the reason why evolution has made it the way it is.  When we make a claim like this, we’re adopting another stance, what Dennett calls the design stance, towards the paramecium, treating at as something that was made with particular goals in mind.  And now we’re also adopting intentional stance to evolution as the “designer,” the thing that makes organisms with the “goal” of survival and reproduction “in mind.”  Of course, evolution doesn’t really design anything; this attribution of intentions to it, as well, is merely instrumental.   And yet, this instrumental attribution is the only way we can explain, in an informative way, why it’s possible to instrumentally attribute rationality to the paramecium.

It’s not too hard to see how we can get a paramecium out of the fundamental laws of physics.  And we can see this paramecium as exhibiting primitive rationality, “choosing” its actions in accord with its goals in a way consistent with the laws of logic.   But of course, we haven’t solved the problem of naturalistically explaining the laws of logic yet, since all we’ve gotten is something that can be attributed rational behavior.  We haven’t gotten to the rules of rational judgement themselves yet.  We’ve only gotten a thing that can be seen as following these rules, and we still have no clue as to how these rules actually got there such that they could be followed.

So let’s fast forward a bit until we get some mammals.  Around 160 million years ago, our ancestors were small rat-like mammals (let’s just call them rats for simplicity).  These rats appear to have all sorts of beliefs about the surroundings they are in, about what sorts of things are food and what sorts of things are predators, and they seem to be relatively smart in their going about the world.  Now, what sort of rationality do these rats have?  Is it simply the same sort of “primitive rationality” that we saw in the paramecium?  If it is, it seems quite a bit less primitive.  It’s much harder thinking of the rat’s apparent rationality as a purely instrumental rationality attribution.  It seems as if the rat really is acting in accord with a will, with intentions and beliefs.  But how could that possibly be the case?  What other stuff happened between then and now?  Well, there was a billion years of evolution.   There was a billion years of back and forth between the “primitive rationality” that we attributed purely instrumentally to the paramecium and the “design motives” that we attributed purely instrumentally to the evolutionary process.  And, through this back and forth, animals came about that are truly purposive.   This is to say that we cannot regard thinking of rats as having reasons as merely a convenient shortcut, since now, if we did, without thinking of them as having reasons, we would be missing something.

There’s no clear-cut line between the paramecium and the rat which says at this point, we’d really be missing something if we didn’t think of these organism as genuinely purposive.  But since it seems that we can view the paramecium’s primitive rationality as “merely instrumental” and we cannot regard the rat’s in the same manner, this transition must occur.  Now, of course, these rats don’t sit around reflecting on their purposes.  But it’d be a mistake to think that, because of this lack of reflection, they don’t have any purposes at all.  They have what Dennett calls “unrepresented reasons.”  And the norms to which they conform are what Robert Brandom calls “implicit norms” of rationality.  But the story can’t end here.  We’re still in the dark about how these norms came about.  So far we know that the evolutionary process still causes animals to follow these norms, but we still don’t know what sorts of these things these norms themselves are, or how they came about.  So let’s fast forward even further.

Now we come to the great apes, our most recent ancestors, and here my story hinges on some empirical work in comparative psychology primarily by Michael Tomasello and his lab.  Apes are highly social in a sense that did not exist in animals before them.  Of course, the rats just discussed might appear to be follow rules in acting around other rats, in mating, in competing for territory, and so on, but there isn’t a particularly strong community-based social structure among the rats.   In the ape’s community, the primitive social norms that might be interpreted in the rat’s behavior have gotten quite a bit more complex.   We find a relatively rich normative social infrastructure, and within this infrastructure there are various communicative gestures that apes employ with the intention of instigating some action in another ape.

And then, in the context of this social infrastructure, something strange happens:  collective intentionality develops.  According to Tomasello, for this to happen, we must learn the trick of recursive mindreading.  He has us consider a case in which you’re at a bar, and you point to your empty glass to signal that you want more whisky.  By pointing at your empty class, the bartender reads your intentions, knowing what you want, and knowing that you want a drink.  Further, you, know that the bartender will know what you want.  And even further, the bartender knows that you know that he knows what you want.  This recursivity terminates in shared intentionality, a shared goal-oriented perspective on the world.  As far as we know, we’re the only living species that has learned this trick, and, accordingly, the only one that has this sort of perspective.

With the advent of collective intentionality, these rules of rationality that we’ve been privately following for millions of years now become our rules, and for the first time in history, animals understand each other enough to hold one another accountable when they fail to live up to them.  Now, of course, when I say that they “hold one another accountable,” this is not in the sense that we hold one another accountable by taking one another to court or something like that.  What I mean is that they are able to implicitly understand the concept of a normative transgression.  And, in holding each other accountable we can come to understand ourselves as being accountable.  To understand ourselves as accountable is to understand ourselves as bound by these norms.  Here then, marks the switch from implicit rule-following to explicit rule-following, from unrepresented reasons to represented ones.  In Proverbs it says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” but perhaps what it should have said is “The fear of messing up is the beginning all wisdom.”  Explicit understanding of ourselves the world in which we inhabit arises out of the awareness of the responsibility we take on for violating our shared norms of reason.

Once we explicitly understand ourselves as norm-bound agents, we can try to formally articulate the norms by which we are all bound.  And thus, the rules of rationality end up being articulated as the laws of logic and systematized by the discipline of formal logic.  We get principles things that look like this, (P∨∼P), and rules for manipulating these principles that look like this, {P,(P→Q)}⊦Q.  These are our explicit interpretations of the rules of rationality that we’ve all been implicitly following for millions of years.

If we come across aliens from another galaxy, it’s possible that their explicit interpretations of the rules of rationality might be quite different than ours.  Perhaps they use a form of propositional logic in which the only operator they use is the Sheffer stroke (thinking of logic in this way is perfectly coherent, but rather annoying for our feeble human minds).  In this system they would symbolize the law of excluded middle as (P|P)|((P|P)|(P|P)), and maybe that’s a law that doesn’t immediately click in their minds, just like P→(P→P) doesn’t really click in ours.  Even if this is the case, by virtue of the fact that they are rational beings, they will still be following the same norms of rationality as we are.  Therefore, since a logical system is just an explicit interpretation of the norms of rationality, their logical system will be isomorphic with ours.  And thus, when we say that both we and the aliens will discover the same laws of logic, we are saying that our explicit interpretations of the norms of rationality will be constrained in the same sorts of ways.

Looking Back at the Problem

Now we’re in a position to really answer the question.   Where do these laws of logic come from?  The answer to this question, as I’ve promised, has two sides.  On the first side, they didn’t come from anywhere; these just are the rules of rationality as they can be articulated by explicitly rational beings.  When rational beings came into existence by purely non-rational evolutionary processes, they came into being as following these rules.  And then, at some later point in time they became aware of themselves following these rules, and able to represent them explicitly.

But if our answer stopped here, it wouldn’t be satisfactory, since the nature of these rules of rationality still seems utterly mysterious.   We know the laws of chemistry come from the laws of physics, but no reduction seems possible at all when it comes to the rules of rationality.  So, the other side of the answer is to make a statement, not about nature, but about us.  It is to say that the rules that we interpret animals like rats as conforming to are the rules of rationality as made explicit by us.  When we see there as being implicitly logically-governed behavior in nature, we interpret nature in accordance with the way we understand ourselves as explicitly logical.  We think of the behavior of entities of nature as if they represented their rational behavior like we do, and so we see the paramecium and the rat as conforming to the laws of logic, our way of explicitly representing the norms of rationality.  These things don’t have the slightest clue what the laws of logic are.  But they behave as we do, and that’s how we see them.

We can only make explanatory sense of how we have become explicitly aware of logical laws by showing how we are the result of beings that evolved an implicit awareness of these laws.  And yet, we can only understand our natural ancestors as having implicit grasp of logic once we’ve garnered an explicit grasp of logic.  That’s the only way we can make sense of them as actually following the laws of logic. There’s what we might call a causal/conceptual loop here, in that our ancestors’ having evolved to behave rationally is causally prior to our ability to explicitly grasp and articulate these norms of rationality, but this ability to explicitly articulate rational norms is conceptually prior to understanding our ancestors as behaving rationally.

The reason it is unproblematic for an explanation to conceptually (but not causally) presuppose that laws of logic is that we cannot hope to get out of these laws conceptually, since they just are, to use P.F. Strawson’s phrase, the bounds of sense.  When sense-makers like us naturally evolve this just is the way in which we must make sense of things.  It’s is the essential structure of sense-making, so to speak.  And since explanation is a sense-making enterprise, and any coherent explanation will conform to sense’s bounds—the things we’ve come to describe as the laws of logic.

On this transcendental understanding, when we say that, even in a world where life never came about, the laws of logic would still apply, we are saying something about a possible world as we could make sense of such a world.  Insofar as this latter part is added, it is clearly true that the laws of logic would still apply in a lifeless world (even though there wouldn’t be things that would become aware of them).  If one wants to reject this latter condition, then I can’t say I even know what they’re talking about when they bring up this possible world!  When we talk about any other possible world, we have already made sense of it, making it intelligible, conceiving of it as conforming to the laws of logic.

This is a very Kantian sort of view, and I take the important lesson to be learned from Kant here to be the transcendental nature of certain norms.  Unlike traffic laws, the laws of logic are transcendental in that they are necessary conditions for any sense to be made of things at all.  That’s what makes them different.  The name “Kant,” especially when the word “transcendental” is also mentioned, will ring alarm-bells in the minds of many naturalists.  But I don’t think naturalists need be alarmed here.  Though my story includes a transcendental element, it seems that we can give a perfectly good naturalistic explanation of how it got there.  Of course the explanation of how we’ve come to make sense of things will have to be put in terms of the way we do in fact make sense of things; that’s the causal/conceptual loop that I’ve mentioned. I don’t see how we could get around it, nor do I see why we would want to.

(edited 4/27)