January 30, 2011

Musing on the Pragmatic vs. Semantic Theories of Truth with Mozi

There was a very interesting post about truth that came a few days ago in Warp, Weft, and Way about Hansen's claims that the ancient Chinese thinkers did not use a semantic conception of truth, and that their evaluations for the truth of a claim were pragmatic rather than semantic.

Many people seem to agree on the latter claim. Chinese philosophers were very much more occupied with pragmatics over semantics. In my experience, it just goes with political science's and political philosophy's discourse. For them, truth of a "semantic" or objectively verified sort, is given only the consideration needed to implement a political plan, which is why you'll hear more about "cost-effectiveness" and other issues of expediency outmatching more permanent solutions that come at a significant, even if temporary, inconvenience. Hansen and I agree that the ancient Chinese care about semantic truth (as I qualify it below), or at least opted for true assertions over false ones, but that their arguments and discourse were not in defense a semantic sense of truth and falsehood, but on a pragmatic one.

I'll admit here that I (as a redundancy theorist) don't acknowledge "semantic" truth as a very coherent notion as it is normally discussed the rigors of formal semantics, but I'll entertain their difference as making a distinction between more "scientifically rigorously" true claims, versus pragmatically true (that is, expedient in fulfilling a stated goal).

The best reason that I know to give against the belief that the ancient Chinese philosophers clearly separated pragmatic and semantic theories of truth comes from Mozi. Mozi's work is very much a guided critique of the Confucians and the holes that they leave in their views due to a lack of rigor. Most importantly, the objective measures for a preferred or non-preferred action isn't directly stated in the 儒家 corpus of the time (though the 中庸 may be an effort at exactly that).

The issue with Mozi is that his decided semantic values, 是 and 非, which is the crux of Mohist consideration and consternation, are not easily derived into just plain-old Boolean values. 是非, even now, very much has a normative meaning, and these meanings are not qualified and separated in the Mohist canon, just as they are not so clearly done today (in Chinese-language logic books, 對 and 錯 are the most common natural-language stand-ins for Boolean values). We could take an extremely radical view on this, that Mozi equated or very closely correlated falsehood with evil, but the Mozi does not evidence such a stance.

Mozi's take on the fundaments of (the truth over the matter of) virtue (and the first instance of "是非") read very closely to Peirce's discussion on the methods of tenacity and authority in "A Fixation of Belief":
"古者民始生,未有刑政之時,蓋其語‘人異義’。是以一人則一義,二人則二義,十人則十義,其人茲眾,其所謂義者亦茲眾。是以人是其義,以非 人之義,故文相非也。是以內者父子兄弟作怨惡,離散不能相和合。天下之百姓,皆以水火毒藥相虧害,至有餘力不能以相勞,腐臭餘財不以相分,隱匿良道不以相教,天下之亂,若禽獸然。

"夫明虖天下之所以亂者,生於無政長。是故選天下之賢可者,立以為天子。天子立,以其力為未足,又選擇天 下之賢可者,置立之以為三公。天子三公既以立,以天下為博大,遠國異土之民,是非利害之辯,不可一二而明知,故畫分萬國,立諸侯國君,諸侯國君既已立,以 其力為未足,又選擇其國之賢可者,置立之以為正長。"

"In the beginning of human life, when there was yet no law and government, the custom was 'everybody according to his own idea.' Accordingly each man had his own idea, two men had two different ideas and ten men had ten different ideas -- the more people the more different notions. And everybody approved of his own view and disapproved the views of others, and so arose mutual disapproval among men. As a result, father and son and elder and younger brothers became enemies and were estranged from each other, since they were unable to reach any agreement. Everybody worked for the disadvantage of the others with water, fire, and poison. Surplus energy was not spent for mutual aid; surplus goods were allowed to rot without sharing; excellent teachings (Dao) were kept secret and not revealed. The disorder in the (human) world could be compared to that among birds and beasts.

"Yet all this disorder was due to the want of a ruler. Therefore (Heaven) chose the virtuous in the world and crowned him emperor. Feeling the insufficiency of his capacity, the emperor chose the virtuous in the world and installed them as the three ministers. Seeing the vastness of the empire and the difficulty of attending to matters of right and wrong and profit and harm among peoples of far countries, the three ministers divided the empire into feudal states and assigned them to feudal lords. Feeling the insufficiency of their capacity, the feudal lords, in turn, chose the virtuous of their states and appointed them as their officials."
-- Mozi, 3:1 (trans. W.P. Mei)
The parallel between Peirce and Mozi is uncanny; and like Peirce, Mozi is describing the evolution of brute individual opinion to brute authoritarian opinion as a natural process in the fixation of a certain value. The difference, of course, is that Mozi is obviously more occupied with the fixation of true claims about virtue, and Peirce is more occupied with the fixation of true claims about Mother Nature.

Speaking from a standpoint of schools, a counterexample (and outlier in philosophical thought) is the School of Names (名家), an offshoot school from the Mohists in which Gongsun Longzi is very much toying with semantic truth in his "paradoxes" (which are ancient Chinese syntactic foibles rather than actual paradoxes). These discussions do seriously attend to the semantic conception of truth, of the acceptance of belief in statements that are not ethically laden or distracted with secondary evaluations. That, alone, should refute the claim that the ancient Chinese didn't have or use a "semantic" theory of truth. There were a group of thinkers who were targeting sloppy language and deliberately forming absurd conclusions in order to consider the truth of a matter independently of other valuations which distract from an evaluation for soundness, alone.

It's not that Chinese philosophers didn't argue that statements should be rejected because they are false (How else are they to challenge each other about the nature of 天, or 命, or 德 and still be worth taking philosophically seriously?), but that they did so in a roundabout way. Pragmatic arguments argue that implementation of a supposed plan will or will not yield the consequences that the plan proposes to produce or that the plan produces or does not produce more strongly undesired consequences than desired ones. This, just as much as any "less pragmatic" argument, is still an argument about facts, just facts over a different domain. The more scientifically rigorous, semantic argument ignores one's desires (it is impartial, like Laozi's 天), but just considers the consequences on their own terms. This narrower sense of truth is of greater appeal because it covers pragmatic arguments, as well; and if the general argument in politics is, "Plan x will or will not increase the people's general well-being," a "semantic" argument becomes indistinguishable from a "pragmatic" one. They'll all be truth-apt arguments that can be assessed for their own validity and soundness (that is, confirmation by experience).

January 23, 2011

Online Find: Cultural Studies Small Book Collection -- Yang Zhu (國學小叢書 -- 楊朱)

Another friend has located yet another online collection of Chinese-language philosophical resources. The most pertinent to this wedge of the Internet is a summary text of the life and thought of (who else?) Yang Zhu. The text is dated, but ought to make great winter reading. The most pertinent reading to recent conversations that I've had on Yangism begins on p.43. Like always, I'll have some reviews of the chapters as they're completed.

January 11, 2011

Jared Lee Loughner: Opinionation, Obsession, and Obliviousness

I was almost going to pass off this man as a fallacious, headstrong, hyper-politicized pseudo-philosopher with no means to a platform but violence -- a sort of young Ted Kaczynski, except without the academic merits and anti-fiat rather than anti-industrialism fanaticism. In fact, before posting this, I recommended that Gary Curtis write a post about this guy on his blog because his blog likely acquires a much greater readership than mine does. He declined, so I'll settle for writing the post myself. Stupidity of this magnitude really is too great to ignore.

For me, this story is personally compelling for a number of reasons:
  • I have a huge interest in reasoning, especially through formal grammar and formal logic. Loughner apparently believed that he was an expert logician because he took an introductory logic class at Pima Community College (though his college professors there commented that he was a terrible student). In this respect, I can sympathize somewhat with Loughner's obsession with syllogistic reasoning and attempts at original and critical thought.
  • Loughner's (accused) murder of six people vindicates my strong belief that illogic is not benign and that "a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing." His ignorance of the fundamentals of logic, like the distinction between validity and soundness, and ass-backwards, meta-linguistic prattle speak volumes to the disasters that follow when people begin to imagine that they are geniuses or great visionaries before they demonstrate as much to anyone besides themselves. Loughner stands as a poster child for intellectual arrogance and dilettantism.
  • All philosophically well-trained people seek to show people who might let rhetoric alone sway them that grammars and logic are so powerful because they are so impersonal and not distracted by matters that are irrelevant to maximal coherence and the preservation of truth in arguments.
  • Loughner is an egoTist, but may or may not be an egoist, and we egoists may delineate ourselves well from this regular confusion by showing that that self-prioritization does not entail self-absorption.
  • At the time of this posting, I'm convinced that surviving a gunshot to the head while promoting free speech and open governmental engagement with the public is, among other things, a hugely compelling platform for Gabrielle Giffords' Presidential nomination in 2016 (No, there is no fan site!). We won't know until much later if she'll be will be able to serve at her present job in Congress, but I'd be amazed if she recovers and does not find immense political ascent because of it.
  • I was born and raised for the most part in Arizona, and I earned my B.A. in Philosophy from Arizona State University.
  • I've met other people like Loughner who were repulsed by logic and who came with their assumptions about how logic "ought to work", accusations that logic and grammar "didn't work in real life," or that they are "too controlling." I regularly worry that this population endangers me because these people do not bother to check themselves before they wreck themselves.
In my experience browsing introductory logic textbooks (which I did when I was teaching some children the basics of propositional logic and predicate logic), except equivocation, Loughner's fallacies are unsurprisingly not ones that people regularly learn in introductory logic classes. Many of them are really issues about abuses of language, especially the following four:
  1. Reification. -- This is the fallacy of confusing terms with referents for terms. More specifically, the reification fallacy occurs when one assumes that any lexeme or definition that one makes will necessarily contain a referent. Loughner believed that he was some sort of master of "conscience dreaming." However, conscience dreaming is just a noun phrase. It has no clear referent. I can only gather that Loughner believed that he was doing something very significant, but no one could know unless he explained what he was demarcating with his terms.
    • Here's an easy demonstration of the reification error: For argument, I'll say that I know everything about wigglewomps. Now, the term wigglewomp is meaningless because no speaker of any language knows what the referent for that term is because no one has defined it, and I haven't given any examples of what counts or doesn't count as a wigglewomp. My assertion of an expertise in wigglewomps, then, is just a vacuous truth until I show that there is a referent for the term that I am using.
    • More formally, the reification fallacy is this incorrect inference:
      1. I have a definition for x.
      2. Therefore, x exists.
  2. Neologism. -- Neologism is just a dime word that refers to a new coinage, usually a special qualification in the definition of a term that we regularly use. Sometimes an arguer will introduce a new lexeme and a new definition; but in other instances, he'll just change the definitions for terms that we regularly use. Neologism isn't a fallacy, per se, but it is a risky tactic in argument because it easily leads to equivocation and reification. Many arguers trap themselves in their solely comprehensible domains of discourse, and when that arguer fails to properly interpret his specialized terms and meanings against more common ones, he puts himself at constant risk of equivocating his new coinage with those coinages that are more familiar. Deceptive arguers use this trick deliberately in the hopes that a listener will not remember that his specialized definition was used in the argument, and thus enable the arguer's equivocation of their meanings later. What does he imagine a "mind controller," or the phrase "the first year in B.C.E." means?
  3. Equivocation. -- Equivocation occurs when someone treats two words with distinct meanings as though they were the same thing. This is exacerbated by superficial similarities among terms: homonymy, homophony, inexact synonymy, etc.
  4. Mere Validity. -- It is very easy to weave logically consistent ideas in artificially closed domains. Fiction is a clear example of this. However, even if the argument form is valid, it does not mean that the conclusions or premises are true. Loughner uses one rule of inference exclusively in his dialogs, modus ponens, and on his way he picked up a funny trick to convince himself of his statements (or so I'll accuse). In the conditional statement of his modus ponens arguments (e.g. P ⇒ Q), he wrote whatever he wanted to conclude as the consequent of that statement (Q) and then made any trivial action with minimal relevance to it the antecedent (P). He then stated the antecedent, and then, by modus ponens, his sought assertion followed.
    • Loughner's worst blunder is in this video, wherein he argues that his definition of a terrorist is implied by the fact that he defines it as such. His conclusion is true (and lifted from a dictionary), but the conditional premise is demonstrably false. I could define a terrorist to be all men who drink tea at noon, but that does not mean that terrorists are all men who drink tea at noon unless I make an excruciating effort in my use of terrorist* to ignore all of the connotations of the more common homonym, terrorist. Loughner does not do this. He rather uses the reification fallacy as the conditional premise.
    • It is also false that calling someone something bad implies that the argument that led to that description is ad hominem. I argue that Loughner is a murderer, but the argument that supports that assertion is not ad hominem.
In this pre-trial stage of the massacre, people seem to be very prone to speculate on the motives of the accused. If his uploaded videos and other online postings comprise his manifesto, there isn't any clear link. Nothing appears to imply that he must try to assassinate Gabrielle Giffords because some scribbled inference told him that he should do it.

However, there are aspects to his rhetoric that convince me that he thought in severe isolation. His attempted arguments don't try to address contrary objections. I see this happening a lot on Internet forums, personal blogs, and social networking sites. Users begin to write the opinions that they have on some topics where they have self-proclaimed insight or expertise, but don't really access resources that give the sort of criticisms that prompt the people to reconsider or revise one's already asserted position. There are definite problems that arise when the method of tenacity, even when it feigns logical rigor, dominates one's perspectives. Intellectual humility and falsifiability didn't even occur to this man, and many similar people who just close their ears to fallibility eventually convince themselves that their musings are divine. Loughner's actions are just a current instance that evidences such a claim.

UPDATE, 1/20/2011:


"I could say something sound right now, but I don't feel like it."
-- Jared Lee Loughner
I guess that he'll get around to it someday.

January 05, 2011

Altruism Wanes with Opportunity for Egoistic Gain

This comes from a presentation that was done by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Their talk claims that experimental data suggests that altruistic acts occur when one's options are closed to giving or keeping a gain, but that they always slide into egoistic tendencies when their options present them. Steven presents the aforesaid trend as a desire to seem altruistic to some imaginary audience, and has construed even the act of giving as an act of egoism, and thus he argues that all acts are still egoistic, just cooperatively so.



One aspect of the experiment that may lead these experiments' subjects to give their money may be risk-aversion in light of unexpected consequences. People are generally unaccustomed to instant rewards, and so might initially greet the experiment with skepticism, and thus try to hint at a willingness to cooperate with an imagined group of intra-experimental reciprocators. One way to test against this is to re-invite all of those subjects to see how much they'll give or take in subsequent scenarios, and then to check against an anticipated rate of profit for partaking in the experiment. It's not clear from this presentation that they've done this, but it would be interesting to see what changes might result. Highly egoistic results in light of this kind of test would speak very much to the vindication of psychological egoism.

January 01, 2011

Solutions to the Is-Ought Problem

There are two solutions to the is-ought problem: Define sentences that use ought normatively in terms of merely factual propositions, or deny that ought is meaningful at all. I'm going to present one way to do the former, and in doing so, undo the philosophical study of ethics by reducing it into studies for other fields.

I know that sounds a bit big-headed at first. We've had the unresolved is-ought problem for as long as we've had Hume's philosophy, whose most relevant passages that establish the is-ought problem can be found in A Treatise of Human Nature:
"Those who affirm that virtue is nothing but a conformity to reason; that there are eternal fitnesses and unfitnesses of things, which are the same to every rational being that considers them; that the immutable measures of right and wrong impose an obligation, not only on human creatures, but also on the Deity himself: All these systems concur in the opinion, that morality, like truth, is discerned merely by ideas, and by their juxta-position and comparison. In order, therefore, to judge of these systems, we need only consider, whether it be possible, from reason alone, to distinguish betwixt moral good and evil, or whether there must concur some other principles to enable us to make that distinction.
"If morality had naturally no influence on human passions and actions, it were in vain to take such pains to inculcate it; and nothing would be more fruitless than that multitude of rules and precepts, with which all moralists abound. Philosophy is commonly divided into speculative and practical; and as morality is always comprehended under the latter division, it is supposed to influence our passions and actions, and to go beyond the calm and indolent judgments of the understanding. And this is confirmed by common experience, which informs us, that men are often governed by their duties, and are detered from some actions by the opinion of injustice, and impelled to others by that of obligation.
"Since morals, therefore, have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be derived from reason; and that because reason alone, as we have already proved, can never have any such influence. Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality therefore, are not conclusions of our reason.
"No one, I believe, will deny the justness of this inference; nor is there any other means of evading it, than by denying that principle, on which it is founded. As long as it is allowed, that reason has no influence on our passions and action, it is in vain to pretend, that morality is discovered only by a deduction of reason. An active principle can never be founded on an inactive; and if reason be inactive in itself, it must remain so in all its shapes and appearances, whether it exerts itself in natural or moral subjects, whether it considers the powers of external bodies, or the actions of rational beings.
"It would be tedious to repeat all the arguments, by which I have proved [Book II. Part III. Sect 3.], that reason is perfectly inert, and can never either prevent or produce any action or affection, it will be easy to recollect what has been said upon that subject. I shall only recall on this occasion one of these arguments, which I shall endeavour to render still more conclusive, and more applicable to the present subject.
"Reason is the discovery of truth or falshood. Truth or falshood consists in an agreement or disagreement either to the real relations of ideas, or to real existence and matters of fact. Whatever, therefore, is not susceptible of this agreement or disagreement, is incapable of being true or false, and can never be an object of our reason. Now it is evident our passions, volitions, and actions, are not susceptible of any such agreement or disagreement; being original facts and realities, compleat in themselves, and implying no reference to other passions, volitions, and actions. It is impossible, therefore, they can be pronounced either true or false, and be either contrary or conformable to reason."
-- David Hume, (A Treatise of Human Nature, Book III, Part 1)
I'm going to eliminate the issue formally by actually showing how normative claims are made and how we can undo the error that "a conformity to reason" does not yield claims whose illocutions are different from a speaker's assertion of facts.
How do we even argue ethics in non-academic environments? Well, it's complicated, but I think that we could simplify it with a sample dialog. Suppose that someone (A) says the following to another person (B):
A: You really ought to quit smoking.
B likes to smoke. He has no intention of quitting, and he doesn't really appreciate A's prescriptive tone, so we can reasonably say that a conversation of this sort might continue with this:
B: Why should I?
How does A (or anyone who asserts what another person ought to do) respond? Well, he probably does so most easily by saying this:
A: You ought to quit smoking because Φn.
Here, Φn is just some other sentence or sentences (which we can translate into logical forms and then define into a single proposition), all of which argue [Φn ⇒ *Ought*(b,Φm)] ∧ [*Ought*(b,Φm) ≝ "B ought to quit smoking." (or an equivalent translation of that sentence)]. This is a problem for the is-ought problem because we are always arguing for prescriptions on the basis of assertions of fact. This means that we're always going about ethics the wrong way (that is, arguing on facts for a proposal of what we ought to do) or it means that normative or prescriptive claims translate into some sort of truth-apt assertions to make the discourse coherent.

The issues that are at the center of all ethics are just these questions: What is this Φn, exactly, and what axioms prove Φn? All of the schools of contemporary normative and metaethics answer these questions in different ways, but they never deny that the model under which the problem arises doesn't exist. No one argues that arguments for and against normative claims and prescriptions don't exist, that people don't actually argue this way. Ethicists' burdens are to interpret what the arguments assert and then to argue why they are correct or incoherent.

It's pretty straightforward from here. We have no reason to deny that Φn exists. In fact, logic tells us that there are trivially many reasons that we could pose for *Ought*(b,Φm) via the weakening rule ([P ⇒ [Q ⇒ P]]). Our burden, however, is not the providence of just any assertions that we could vacuously write as sufficient conditions for *Ought*(b,Φm) because *Ought*(b,Φm) is what someone in B's situation is denying (B asserts ¬*Ought*(b,Φm)). Φn must convince B of *Ought*(b,Φm).

Here are just a few examples of what Φn could be:
Φn1: A: Smoking causes lung cancer.
Φn2: A: I'll kill you [B] right now if you don't quit smoking.
Φn3: A: You're smoking at a gas station.
Φn4: A: I am speaking on behalf of God.
These examples of false and true assertions could convince B. But we should always remember that B may very well have retorts (Φo) that frustrate A's effort to convince him of Φm. For some instances:
Φo1: B: Good! I hope I die of lung cancer!
Φo2: B: You couldn't kill a fly, pussy!
Φo3: B: This is a smokeless cigarette.
Φo4: B: God doesn't exist.
However, all of these assume some coherent means of blocking an argument which we could express as follows: That I ought do something means that all of the propositions which identify what it means to say that I ought do something are true. When we do this, however, we also outline all of the merely factual propositions (Φq) that comprise the prescriptive proposition *Ought*(b,Φm).

Below I have produced a model that has some decent efficacy in outlining all of the constituents of a prescriptive or normative statement, which I will write from A's perspective:
  1. You, B (b), want Φp. [Want*(b,Φp)]
  2. You want that you don't want Φp, but that you get it. [*Want*(b,¬*Want*(b,Φp)) ∧ *Want*(b,*Get*(b,Φp))]
  3. If you get Φp, then you won't want Φp. [*Get*(b,Φp) ⇒ ¬*Want*(b,Φp))]
  4. You are more likely get Φp given Φm, but are less likely to get Φp given not-Φm. [P(*Get*(b,Φp)|Φm) > P(*Get*(b,Φp)|¬Φm)]
  5. Your doing something is Φm. [Φm = *Do*(...b...)].
  6. That you ought Φm is the previous assertions (Φq) 1 through 5. [*Ought*(b,Φm) = [Φq1 ∧ [Φq2 ∧ [Φq3 ∧ [Φq4 ∧ [Φq5]]]]]]
  7. The facts of Φn imply (4).n[P(*Get*(b,Φp)|Φm) > P(*Get*(b,Φp)|¬Φm)]]
English has made good progress in conflating two different senses of the word ought, which has made this reduction much easier to achieve than it would be in a different language that differentiated its predictive sense (e.g. "He ought to be here by now,") over its more obligatory sense (e.g. "People ought to floss their teeth regularly."). This ambiguity is actually a good clarification, as ethical statements, then, reduce into wants and expectations of others' wants, and those things can be empirically investigated matters. The prescriptive language is some simple abbreviation for the more complex argumentation, but that argumentation is not, itself, moral, just a common tool of speech that we use to influence social behavior (which is what language primarily does for us).

The problem with our regular talks on these subjects is that we (when we resemble people A) assume all of the assertions that we don't make in a discourse, all of which we (when we resemble people B) can quite easily deny. We're not challenging what "ought be" on the grounds of some other prescription (because we could always regress by demanding more justification for that prescription) or another "value on High". We just submit and challenge them on the grounds of the assertions of our wants and incentives.

We can look at Φn again, but this time add the remaining constituents to make them more closely match the members of Φq. We can see that by explicitly stating Φq1 and Φq4 and some immediately accepted consequences from the assertions that were made above parenthetically, that A has indeed presumed these facts when he was arguing with B.
Φn1: A: Smoking causes lung cancer.
(You don't want to die of lung cancer, but you more likely will if you continue smoking, yet you more likely won't if you stop smoking.)

Φn2: A: I'll kill you [B] right now if you don't quit smoking.
(You want not for me to kill you, and I more likely will if you do continue smoking, and I more likely won't if you stop smoking.)

Φn3: A: You're smoking at a gas station.
(If you smoke at a gas station, you more probably will explode. You want not to explode, and you more probably won't explode if you quit smoking.)

Φn4: A: I am speaking on behalf of God.
(God is vengeful if ye obeyeth not his Word. He shall not smite thee if ye cease thy smoking; but his wrath will be upon you with such continued acts of sin. To the more, you wish not be smitten by him.)
If I have not yet convinced you that you are talking about facts over wants specifically when you are making prescriptions, I'll leave comments open to objections. (This skeleton should present enough to state objections to the details or to request them if you want them.)

I have mentioned already that this tactic of reinterpretation completely removes ethics as a self-standing philosophical study. Any issue over what all people ought to do will have to comprehend the universal wants of humanity or the universal facts that determine all people's individual wants. No philosopher will be able to give an adequate account of such things, since individual objections regarding personal wants cannot be refuted by mere logical analysis. Ethicists and other philosophers have to take many of their assertions at face-value. For instance, a philosopher often cannot reasonably charge that one's claims to have peculiar or unfeasible wants are self-deceptive. His investigative tools are just inadequate to raise that kind of objection. The tools for the sincere investigation of human nature must be empirical, not philosophical. Without this direct interference against philosophical musing on ethics, all claims over what is "right" versus "wrong" remain, as some disgruntled commentators have rightly seen it, veiled emotional battles for singular Utopian ideals.