November 12, 2012

A Yangist's Thought Experiments: 1: Murder, Suicide, Misery

Now and again, I daydream a nightmare.  These nightmares, after enough reflection, have instructed my ethical and metaethical positions quite succinctly, but almost always reaffirm or just slightly alter the positions which I most often defend.  However, I'd like to know how other people react to these nightmarish scenarios and whether they're inclined to conclude the same conclusions from the same thought experiments.

I'll be retelling the scenario as I thought it in an actual nightmare that I had.  I've adjusted some tertiary details.  If there is already an analogous trolley-car version of this thought experiment, please let me know.



You may complete your thought experiment here if the frame doesn't load correctly, and I'll update this blog with thoughtful responses.  If you answer these questions in your own blog or website, please forward the link to me in this blog's comments section.

Favorite Response:


I received a handful of responses in recent weeks.

My favorite response came on 12/9/2012 at 6:20:25.  He answered, "I cannot answer the question," and for the following reason:
"The situation ant the question is too unreal to have a real answer. It is impossible to imagine what I would do in such a situation."

I fully agree.  In fact, it's how I feel about most ethical thought experiments.

Also, Yangist texts do not clearly indicate that one response is more correct than another is.  This is why I call it a Yangist's thought experiment, and not a Yangist thought experiment.

October 28, 2012

An Alternative Zhuangist Rejection of Evil Daos

Donald Sturgeon, another Chinese philosopher and a cool dude who developed an online "e-text system" for easy research of Chinese classics, recently discussed how, in light of Zhuangzi's rather extreme epistemological and metaethical relativism, Zhuangist adherents can adequately criticize other schemes/commitments by which people evaluate, and then perform their actions (Daos [], for Sturgeon and many other philosophers).

[Autobiographical aside:]
It was my consideration of these exact types of problems that made me move away from working in Chinese philosophy exclusively (as I started reading this stuff at thirteen, and made such criticisms about five years into my reflection on it) and helped me embrace Yangism without concern for Daoist disapproval.

Sturgeon's proposed Zhuangist criticism says: "The Zhuangist criticism of the [evildoer] is not so much that he is wrong, but that he is stupid" when the evildoer adopts a Dao to which the evildoer would reply inconsistently from his present stance if his Dao were the common practice in a life which differs from his own.

I offer my criticism of Sturgeon's perspectival account in the comments section.  The most relevant portion of that criticism is here:
“Commitments which do not hold true in the Daos of maximally many people are intellectually misguided.”. Call that P. The Nazi baby-killer can then respond, “P does not hold true in the Daos of maximally many people.” It would follow that P is intellectually misguided.

I think this shows that Sturgeon's version of an adequate Zhuangist criticism against evildoers' Daos is Zhuangist-refuting.

I add here that Sturgeon's version is infinitely regressive, and so knowing whether a commitment holds for maximally many perspectives is problematic.  It doesn't seem clear that we should consider counterfactual perspectives (B) and compare them from our current perspectives (A), but that we should not consider more deeply counterfactual perspectives (C) and compare them against every counterfactual perspective to that perspective (B), and so on, thus creating uncountably infinitely many perspectives from which to evaluate any Dao.

I think that the assumption which contributes to these problems is the idea that somehow the philosophy of the Zhuangzi has to avoid committed and unchanging stances from which to claim that a Zhuangist is right and that his opponents are wrong.  In fact, Zhuangists take plenty of time to tell people exactly why they're wrong.  Nevertheless, I think that Sturgeon is half-right.  Zhuangists criticize that we should consider alternative perspectives when we adopt the commitments which make our Daos.  However, the Zhuangzi is always showing that some alternative perspectives actually reveal hidden losses, and that we should commit ourselves to a Dao that has the greatest payoff in practice.

Zhuangzi's criticism can be comparative, and it doesn't have to refute itself, saying instead, "If, in a situation S, someone has two commitments X' and X'', and if commitment X' brings a lower loss in S than X'' has in S, and assuming equal payoffs for X' and X'', X' dominates X'', and we should commit to X' in S."

While I would love to cite every passage of the Zhuangzi to make this case, I think the clearest example of this line of reasoning comes in the story of Cook Ding.  The Zhuangzi states through Wen Hui that Cook Ding's method is the wiser of other butchers', and if we consider the situation from dominant strategies, it's easy to understand the reasoning for Wen Hui's applauding Cook Ding's perspective.
  • Cook Ding's situation S is butchering an ox.
  • Assume X' to be for Cook Ding to perceive the ox as a spatially proximal combination of spatially separate parts.
  • Assume X'' to be for Cook Ding to perceive the ox as a fully connected whole.
  • The loss from of X'' is the price of one cleaver every month or every year, plus extra maintenance costs.
  • The loss from X' is the price of one cleaver for at least nineteen years, without any extra maintenance costs.
  • We can assume that the payoffs for X' and X'' are equal (the same amount of butchered ox meat).
From this, it follows that X' dominates X'' in S, so we should commit to X' in S.

Some may notice that I've drifted in my usage of commitment as I've made this economic analogy.  It appears that strategies of game theory more adequately describe the "commitments to Daos" that Sturgeon, others, and I had been discussing.  If we approximate Zhuangzi's basis for criticism or adulation to the ways which the dismal science uses, we allow for plenty of situational contexts from which we can consider all of the varying strategies which we might employ and incorporate into our Daos.  Zhuangzi's work could comment that we often employ strategies, but don't weigh them intelligently against other strategies, and sometimes don't even have a clear notion of a game from which to compare strategies, because we haven't indicated any losses or payoffs.

Zhuangists can offer direct, game-theoretic criticisms against evildoers' strategies toward certain payoffs (or adopting a commitment to a Dao which affords a certain lifestyle), and they can do so constructively, by comparing the evil strategies to better strategies, whether we're making use of warped trees and hollow gourds, training horses for dressage, or butchering oxen.  The Dao of Infanticidal Thrill-Killing or some other widely detested way of life needn't be wrong because it violates some stuffy orthodoxies.  Zhuangists (and Yangists, too) can intellectually criticize that it's far from an optimal strategy if, for instance, the baby-killer considers that his living longer is a sort of payoff.  Some evildoers will not consider the costs of their acts, but Zhuangists need not reason them out of their Daos any more than we need to reason dogs out of busy traffic; Zhuangists can find another use for them, since Zhuangists can apply counterfactual perspectival breadth to forge a Dao which approaches equilibrium.

August 29, 2012

Philosophical Amputations: 3: Normative Lexicography

I'm going to risk some redundancy for another attempt to hack at some of the sophistry that philosophers exploit.  Like my other charges, I'm going to prod at philosophers' linguistic fallacies which they use to enable philosophical discourse.  Unlike them, I want to poke at a problem that laypeople who actually meet and talk with philosophers experience -- philosophers' assumption that people don't "really" know what they mean by what they say.

The issue that I'm going to raise here often arises in what philosophers call "philosophical interest."  It's come up more and more in lieu of the pursuit of truth, such that what passes for philosophy instead is a sort of talk about how other philosophically trained people will be interested in engaging an argument that another philosopher writes.

In some studies, this kind of talk can work fine, because experts in other fields have an already defined and narrow field of inquiry from which other studies are likely to be very distal to the ones that they themselves study.  Anatomists and sociologists, for instance, work in partly overlapping areas.  The former studies interactions within a single human body, while the latter studies interactions among human bodies.  It's clear that their studies inform each other in many respects, as certain anatomical facts comprehensively explain certain facts about human socialization, and vice versa.  However, those revealed facts from the anatomist are not so "sociologically interesting" in the sense that they don't directly relate to the experiments that sociologists undertake or to the causal relationships that they're usually trying to find.

But how do philosophers invent most of the questions and problems that then become "philosophically interesting?"  And more, how can non-philosophers then separate the wheat from the chaff?   Philosophy prides itself on being the amorphous profession, one in which its methods of inquiry can fit any discipline and provide productive criticism and alternative perspectives from certain data.  Being "philosophically interesting" can't be probing at that aforementioned kind of difference.  That previous sentence is misleading.  The difference is still about a narrow sub-domain of our empirical knowledge, but what exactly the "interesting" content is is not obvious.

Philosophers, however, occasionally blurt out the "interesting" domain of study and the vanity of the methods that they apply when seeking to understand that domain, as Peter Millican does at the end of his introductory lecture on epistemology:


While I agree with a portion of what Millican says (that we're not setting God's-eye standards for determinations of knowledge), there is a problem that would have avoided the whole issue right at the start if they had caught it as laymen do, and it may perhaps enlighten Millican here and other philosophers not to chase their own tails and then recommend a move that everyone else does as a matter of everyday practice.

At this point, a typical example, one that laymen experience when they deal with philosophers, will offer more explanatory force.  In it, we can imagine a layman (LM) making claims to knowledge who confronts a skeptic (SK), who sucks the layman into his rhetorical game:

LM: "I know that I have a hand, that there is no rational solution to the square root of 2, and that I will still be alive for the next nanosecond, etc."
SK: "Well, how do you really know those things?  Maybe you're a brain in a vat, and that it's not really your hand.  Maybe we just don't have the right mathematics, and it's incorrect to say that the square root of 2 is non-rational.  Maybe lightning just struck you, and you've just died."

This ought to tell us that the "philosophically interesting" content of their discourse is the lexicons of human languages (in Millican's video above, the use of the headword know).

But once the skeptic has outlined the domain of his investigation, he has already succumbed to two unique fallacies by pursuing his method of criticism.  The first fallacy is a forced category shift from which no layperson wants or needs to follow.  Skeptics (and philosophers, too) play this game by forcibly contrasting what was the framework or narrative from which the non-academic masses provide meanings to their terms to some other framework or narrative where the terms were never intended to be used.  Consider the following: What if I'm living in a dream world, and then a mad scientist puts my imaginary brain into a vat?  Does that mean that I'm thrust into a deeper illusion than I just was when I was living under the previous illusion?  Don't even attempt to answer the question!  If you're tempted to address that question, you're already playing into the philosopher's bigger mistake.

This bigger mistake, I think, is the most insulting part of the philosophical attitude (and I think the part that turns most people away from it).  Rather than accepting what regular people mean in circumstances when they use terms, and investigate from there, they attempt to form a more "philosophically interesting" narrative assumes that the regular person was proposing a sort of universal definition which must apply in all situations.

This, too, marks the drastic separation between the laity and philosophers.  Regular people are only offering a loose descriptive lexicography of their senses of words as they mean it when they say it, to have a message which is clear enough for practical uses.  Philosophers wrongly assume that our descriptive lexicon is on trial, that we're supposed to subject our linguistic habits to some sort of normative lexicography, and where the meaning that a layman gave for a certain term or proposition was supposedly a statement about how we should use the term in any imaginable situation.  This means that laypeople can disarm most philosophers with a single sentence: "If that's what I meant by the phrase, I would have used a different one."  Further philosophical challenges amount to semantic mavenism (in the very sense that Stephen Pinker dismisses "grammar mavenism"), which assumes that specialists are going to enforce a "correct" account of a meaning of a term that no regular people use in the situations that the "mavens" prescribe.

The fallacies of normative lexicography break down into a number of different false assumptions:
  • It is false that a single grapheme, phoneme, or related x-eme of a language must correspond to exactly one all-inclusive sense or subscribe to just one universal definiens.  The syntactic elements of natural languages inject and surject into our semantics, but they do not biject it!
  • It is false that meanings for terms come from conformity of an x-eme to the truths of the world.  Meaningfulness is a matter of consensus among users of a language, and the illustrations that said language provides under a particular framework or narrative.
  • The idea that we're attempting to propose some supreme, unalienable, objective fact about the world when we're conveying a message is mistaken, and further (and philosophers should know this!), logically impossible (because of the infinite regress of ambiguity).  The framework or narrative by which we provide meaning to our sentences is confined to life as we comprehend ourselves living it.
  • It is false that we could get a better grasp of the extralinguistic world by probing at the mere linguistic conventions of a community.  We can aim for consistency in interpretation.  We can aim for factuality in statements.  But those issues come after we've conveyed an already meaningful message.

Limiting ourselves to descriptive lexicography does not beget incommensurable lexicons, as some philosophers suggest, because descriptive lexicography is plenty to keep people from saying, "Red bananas read newspapers," in English to mean, "I went to the supermarket yesterday," in English, too, without careful ad hoc qualification that they would have to concede upright in order to be understood.  With such concessions, the problem over incommensurable lexicons disappears as soon as the interlocutors interpreted said meanings to each other.  (That's also what allows English speakers to understand, "Let's bury the hatchet," to mean, "Let's reconcile our mutual opposition.")

I think the most convincing evidence of the vanity in the practice of normative lexicography is that philosophers, themselves, suddenly play the roles of descriptive lexicographers as soon as someone normatively challenges what they mean by what they say when they talk about "philosophy."  "No, no!" such a philosopher says, "That's not what I or we mean when we use the word philosophy.  If that's what I meant by that phrase, I would have used a different one."

But more, we don't really need a normative lexicography to challenge people's claims about the world, because if we clarify that people's seemingly separate meanings translate into something with which we agree, then the disagreement ends there.  But, if it doesn't, then the basis for the claim isn't going to be the vocabulary, or imaginary tales in which we have no reason to assume that our everyday lexicon should apply, but some separate fact which informs those claims.  But once we're discussing what the facts beyond the terminology that we use to convey those facts are, admitting pro tem a world beyond ourselves, the tools of our investigation switch from philosophy to science.  We shift the discussion from the coherence of the rhetoric to the facts of the matter, and philosophical interest drops out.

April 30, 2012

A Joke on Theories of Reference


A man walks into a bar.  A causal theorist of language is the bartender that night.  The man approaches the bartender in search of a woman.

Man: "I heard that I could get some play around here.  Who's the sluttiest girl in this place?"
Bartender (C): "If you're looking for some action, you should talk to Fiona."
Man: "Who's Fiona?"
Bartender (C): "Fiona names that which was so-named in this world, but could be differently named in some other possible world, and so anything I tell you about her would only be contingent and secondary to her direct reference."
Man: "Thanks a lot, dick!"

Clearly pissed off, the man curses the bartender and leaves, but returns the next night.  A descriptive theorist of language is the bartender that night.  The man approaches the bartender in search of a woman.

Man: "I heard that I could get some play around here.  Who's the sluttiest girl in this place?"
Bartender (D): "If you're looking for some action, you should talk to Fiona."
Man: "Who's Fiona?"
Bartender: "She's the woman with the six teeth and the eye patch at the end of the bar."
Man: "Thanks!
Bartender (D): "You're welcome."
Man: "You know, the bartender last night wasn't nearly as straightforward with me."
Bartender (D): "That's just how he gets his goat off!  He's always trying to jerk a flaccid designator into a rigid one."

Summary: 
  1. If you don't know what a referent for something is, you learn what it is by a description of it, not by masturbating possible worlds semantics.

April 12, 2012

Laozi's and Analytic Types' Consanguinous Philosophy of Language

It's here.

I disagreed, however, with this assertion:
"The question we should ask is not, ‘What does the text literally and mathematically say’, as if interpreting the Daodejing is like adding numbers, but rather, ‘What does the text mean?’"
If we take that kind of rigor to the text, we don't lose much of the text to inconsistency, and we can very neatly outline what the referent of '道' must be when one reads it with such rigor.  In so doing, we better understand "what the text means."

But there's an element to "namelessness" that this article does not discuss, and that is in the ambiguity of "having a name."  My wager is that the Laozi is not raising a highly skeptical philosophy of language, since the text provides sufficient descriptions to isolate a clear referent for '道.'  I've generally assumed, as I thought other readers did, that "無名" in chapters 1, 32, 37, and 41 similarly refer being "nameless" in the sense of being "faceless," the way we English speakers might talk of "not making a name for ourselves."

My impression with the Laozi, more generally, is that it establishes a definition for the set U, and then attempts to extract further moral lessons from that amoral entity.  Laozi's Daoism, in this light, is just cargo cult set theory.

January 31, 2012

Philosophical Amputations: 2: Loaded Language and Reification

Perhaps the most aggravation in dealing with philosophers in person comes with their insistence that they're asking meaningful questions in virtue of the presence of a question.  That is to say this: Because philosophers have mastered a skill of constructing interrogative sentences, they prematurely conclude that the sentence as they state it has an answer to it.  I rarely encounter philosophers anymore who are outright challenging the meaningfulness of an inquiry on the basis that the person is seeking something that doesn't demonstrably exist at its outset.

I blame this on a historical misreading of linguistic philosophers and positivists, but also attribute it to the hefty exploitation of two oft-forgotten fallacies.  The first is the loaded language fallacy, which is the erroneous assumption that all previous assumptions to a sentence are true (or, of a question, satisfactorily answered).  The second is the reification fallacy, which is the fallacy of assuming that things exist because a name or definiens for such things exists.  Other fallacies play their roles in different situations with arguers, but overarching the whole assumption that questions imply the existence of meaningful answers are, I think, two fallacies that affect philosophers most.

Not too long ago, a philosopher handed me some sample questions and asked me whether empirical science could answer them better than philosophy could.  In handling them, I observed that they suffered loaded language and reification fallacies, so I figured that I could use the first case to show exactly how and where professional philosophers go amiss in the very foundations of their inquiries.
  1. Are there any genuine ethical obligations beyond the obligations to maximize the happiness and preference satisfactions of present or future beings?
The first thing that we can observe about this question is that it is not just one question.  By syntax alone, we can recognize that this is a conjoined group of questions and assumed sentences.  It's not the complexity, however, which is the error.  All proficient language speakers can import details and use recursion rules quite readily.  The problem here is that each sentence contains complex details, and with them further assumptions, which are prior to the establishment of the more complex questions and statements that succeed them.  Without some training in sentence parsing, these statements are hard to see on their own, and in that prosodic murk, "the question" can seem profound.  However, what we'll see is that "the question" is just an example of loaded language under which we can find much more basic and unanswered questions and unsubstantiated claims.

The first step is to work to detect ellipses that will aid in the separation of complex phrases into simpler sentences. They usually lie around coordinating phrases, adpositional phrases, and nominalized sentences.

Are there any genuine [and] ethical obligations [which are] beyond the [genuine and ethical] obligations[, which are for something] to maximize the happiness and [for something] to maximize the satisfaction [that is] of preferences [that are] of present or future beings?

Following this, we can outline exactly what sentences and questions the philosopher is assuming by dissecting the phrases into individual sentences.

LINE CONTENT FROM
1 Are there any genuine [and] ethical obligations [which are] beyond the [genuine and ethical] obligations[, which are for something] to maximize the happiness and [for something] to maximize the satisfaction [that is] of preferences [that are] of present or future beings? 0
2 Are there any genuine obligations [which are] beyond the [genuine] obligations[, which are for something] to maximize the happiness and [for something] to maximize the satisfaction [that is] of preferences [that are] of present or future beings? 1
3 Are there any ethical obligations [which are] beyond the [ethical] obligations[, which are for something] to maximize the happiness and [for something] to maximize the satisfaction [that is] of preferences [that are] of present or future beings? 1
4 Are there any genuine obligations [which are] beyond the [genuine] obligations? 2
5 The genuine obligations are [for something] to maximize the happiness and [for something] to maximize the satisfaction [that is] of preferences [that are] of present or future beings. 2
6 Are there any ethical obligations [which are] beyond the [ethical] obligations? 3
7 The ethical obligations are [for something] to maximize the happiness and [for something] to maximize the satisfaction [that is] of preferences [that are] of present or future beings. 3
8 Are there any genuine obligations? 4
9 Are the genuine obligations* beyond the [genuine] obligations**? 4
10 The genuine obligations** are [for something] to maximize the happiness [that is] of present or future beings. 5
11 The genuine obligations** are [for something] to maximize the satisfaction [that is] of preferences [that are] of present or future beings. 5
12 Are there any ethical obligations? 6
13 Are the ethical obligations* beyond the [ethical] obligations**? 6
14 The ethical obligations** are [for something] to maximize the happiness [that is] of present or future beings. 7
15 The ethical obligations** are [for something] to maximize the satisfaction [that is] of preferences [that are] of present or future beings. 7
16 Are there any obligations? 8
17 Are the obligations* beyond the [genuine] obligations**? 9
18 The genuine obligations** are Ψ*. 10
19 Ψ* = We maximize the happiness [that is] of present or future beings. 10
20 The genuine obligations** are Ψ**. 11
21 Ψ** = Something maximizes the satisfaction [that is] of preferences [that are] of present or future beings. 11
22 ^Are there any obligations? 12
23 Are the obligations* beyond the [ethical] obligations**? 13
24 The ethical obligations** are Ψ***. 14
25 Ψ*** = We maximize the happiness [that is] of present or future beings. 14
26 The ethical obligations** are Ψ****. 15
27 Ψ**** = Something maximizes the satisfaction [that is] of preferences [that are] of present or future beings. 15
28 ^^Are there any obligations? 16
29 Are the obligations* beyond the obligations**? 17
30 The obligations** are Ψ*. 18
31 We maximize the happiness. 19
32 The happiness is of present or future beings. 19
33 The obligations** are Ψ**. 20
34 Something maximizes the satisfaction. 21
35 The satisfaction is of preferences [that are] of present or future beings. 21
36 ^Are the obligations* beyond the obligations**? 23
37 The obligations** are Ψ***. 24
38 We maximize the happiness. 25
39 ^The happiness is of present or future beings. 25
40 The obligations** are Ψ****. 26
41 Something maximizes the satisfaction. 27
42 ^The satisfaction is of preferences [that are] of present or future beings. 27
43 Optionally, the happiness is of present beings. 32
44 Optionally, the happiness is of future beings. 32
45 The satisfaction is of preferences. 35
46 The preferences are of present or future beings. 35
47 Optionally, the preferences are of present beings. 46
48 Optionally, the preferences are of future beings. 46

'^' indicates redundant sentences.

With a quick glance, one can then pick off all of the unsubstantiated assumptions and unanswered questions that precede it, and one can see the unverified assumptions which the writer assumes in his question.
  • Line 16: Are there any obligations?
    This question has not been answered in any satisfactory way by philosophers, scientists, or anyone else.
  • Lines 19 and 30, 21 and 33, 25 and 37, and 27 and 40: The obligations are Lines 19, 21, 25, and 27.
    These supposed obligations are all contended philosophical battles.  They're not established anywhere beyond the assumption of the writing.  However, that may just be this individual philosopher's bias, so is not a fundamental error to all philosophers for that reason.  It's the presupposition that the obligations are specifically something without really establishing that they are that is the more fundamental error.
  • Line 29: Are there obligations* which are beyond the obligations**?
    This question assumes that there are collections of obligations to be compared.  The composer of this questions just assumed that there were these things called obligations in the world.  However, as Line 16 shows, he hasn't really substantiated that there are any such things.  The former error is reification and loaded language fallacy because it is demanding a comparison of dubiously presupposed things.
Those are just some statements that the author of the question assumed or did not contend in the formation of that question.  How can he hope to establish the existence of "genuine obligations" or "ethical obligations," much less an intersect among them, without first establishing that obligations themselves exist?

This kind of reification (not just for obligations, but almost everything under philosophical inspection -- art, love, knowledge, philosophy, goodness, freedom, causality, entities, et al.) enables philosophers to claim they're really working with something that actually exists, namely "abstractions," or "concepts," or "ideas" without establishing their existence prior to the conjecture.  This assumption keeps itself afloat by carefully preaching to the already converted.  That is, people who already assume that we have minds that are clap traps of "concepts," etc., will tacitly accept this and some categorization of those things.  However, not one philosopher has proven that they existed.  They've argued at length that the claim to their existence may not imply a strict logical contradiction, but they have not remotely established the existence of those things, or that they are even things.

That assumption, too, is yet another reification fallacy.  It just exists at a morphological level.  In the case of obligation, they observe people who predicate, "x is obliged to...," to so many observed events, and then they reify that predicate with a nominalized obligation, which then inserts into its own argument and renders it tautological: "x is obliged to obligations."  But this is a failed route in the establishment of the concept, since, "x is obliged to obligations," just states, "x is obliged to the y to which x is obliged," and so says nothing more than other definitional truisms do.  The empirical fact, whether people are obliged to anything, is not established in this manner, and perhaps it isn't established at all.

My current hypothesis is that people avail themselves of this trick because it allows a language user to assume that their newly coined variable y somehow inserts into their universe of discourse as more than just reification, while freeing them from the harder burden of demonstrating that assumption.  This allows philosophers to forego the real empirical work of proving or demonstrating that obligations (or other things) exist and go straight to the conjectures in which they wonder about obligations in more complex questions and sentences.

Philosophers, by in large, just get it backwards.  They're drawing elaborate maps of assumed territories that they don't prove exist.  They assume that the ability to produce a sentence or question implies that the sentence is meaningful or that the question has a means to its answer.  They incorrectly derive an 'is' from a 'what'. These are linguistic errors.

Empirical scientists' greatest wisdom was in their inversion of the philosophical method: to do the experiments, to demonstrate the existence of things to every human's satisfaction, and to build their terminology from the breadth of their discovered territory.  That's the direction real knowledge takes, and which conceptualism abhors.

January 07, 2012

Philosophical Amputations: 1: "Brute Facts" and "Institutional Facts"

For those readers who I have, I should start by apologizing for not providing much content over the previous months.  I have focused most of my attention on linguistic projects (think Khan University for foreign languages), and the time that I've spent in philosophical dialogues occurred in Warp, Weft, and Way (specifically here, here, and here) and some other places.

But a new year is upon us, and in efforts to keep my New Years resolution (as I said I would last year), I decided that I would force myself to dedicate at least a certain amount of time to some philosophical topics.

But more still, my exposure to the philosophical literature and lectures has left me disappointed by the very nature of the philosophical venture, and so much of my attention has turned from doing philosophy (attempting to answer philosophical problems) to doing what I'll call an amputating approach to philosophy -- telling philosophers that the distinctions, definitional underpinnings, and other groundwork for the explanatory models that they aim to provide or address are themselves incoherent nonsense.

That said, I don't get invited to many philosophers' parties.  They don't like much being told that their salaries are won by sophisticated con artistry.  It's a heavy sword.  It's hard to swing.

Thus, for filler between talks about Yang Zhu and most of my "hardcore" Analytic stuff, I decided that I would open a subtopic -- Philosophical Amputations -- to outline some of those terms which exist in philosophy, but which fizzle to nonentities upon some basic logical inspection.

This first one came from John Searle's lecture series on the philosophy of language, specifically his discussion of "brute facts" and "institutional facts."



I think most people, even without much investigation, could shoot down most of what Searle has claimed here.  But let's take it piece by piece.
  1. "The brute fact doesn't require a human institution in order for it to exist."
    • Searle's own example does not exemplify this claim.  Take the sentence, "The Sun is [about] 93,000,000 miles from the Earth."  First of all, that fact only exists because of an institution -- measurement.  The decision to define an arbitrary length as a unit (say, a centimeter, or a league, or a li), demands the institutionalization and standardization of that length as that length and not any other.  The fact follows from the institution of that measuring system.
    • But can there by any facts that are not institutional?  No.  The entire delineation of facts versus non-facts is a "human institution."  It's a distinction between the observations that we make and, more or less, its "agreement" with the sentences that one uses to code that observation.  Those sentences are built on a lexicon of terms and predicates that are the institution of a certain language, and thus the fact is just the comparison of a decoded sentence and our observations.
    • But this has an interesting consequence.  It means that all facts are merely tautologies of a given language.  Consider the measurement example that Searle gave.  We could, at any time we chose, make a neologism for a unit between the Earth and the Sun.  Let's call it a "solarterron."  Now, if someone asks, "How far away from the Sun is the Earth?" I can now respond, "It's one solarterron away."  But what have you really learned about the distance?  Well, unless you know what a "solarterron" codes, you have learned nothing.  The answer isn't contained in the sentence, alone, though the truth-value of that sentence is true by definition, and as such is tautological.  The answer is contained in the empirical observation which is independent of the way in which we describe it.  The sentence is merely a code which a person must decode and compare to his observations and experience.  If the code says something that doesn't match the empirical data, then it's false, and it's true otherwise, and those true facts are ultimately definitionally true for that given language, and so are tautological (or conversely, are contradictory).  There is no "bruteness" to the relation.  There's the observation, which is independent of language, and then there's a description which can match the observation and be true or fail to match it and be false.  All facts, truth, and the rest depend on the language, and they follow from the language's underlying definitional foundations for their establishment.
  2. "The Sun and the Earth are that far apart no matter what anybody thinks."
    • That's not true, either.  The Earth and the Sun are that far apart because we observe it to be that far away, and so think it is that way, and the statement is true because we have an institution that makes it true by definition.
  3. "They [regulative rules] regulate behavior that can exist without the rule, whereas some rules not only regulate behavior, [...] but they constitute the very behavior that they regulate, in that isn't even behavior of that kind unless they are following a certain number of the rules."
    • Searle's example of the regulative rule: "Drive on the right side of the road," can just as well be a constitutive rule if we reinterpret his statement.  Is it really driving in any conventional sense if the people don't agree on an institution for driving on certain sides of the road?  Well, what we want most out of this rule is to avoid collisions, which impedes driving in the sense that we normally would mean it.  If by "drive," Searle only meant, "Travel any distance by operating a motor vehicle," then the rule really is regulative in that sense.  However, if Searle meant by "drive," "Travel to destinations safely and securely by operating a motor vehicle (in Southern California)," then the rule actually constitutes the behavior, since driving on the left side of the road in Southern California is decidedly unsafe.  A behavior that we may read as regulative in one sense is equally constitutive in another sense.
    • One can see the explanatory power of constitutive rules over a falsely distinguished class of regulative rules in other contexts.  "Do not kill another human unless you must do so to defend yourself."  Why then, do you suppose that slave-owning societies try so hard to dehumanize their slaves?  Why do many wars receive a propagandist's spin that the enemy is a threat to personal safety?
  4. "In the case of driving, people had to make up their minds."  In effect, they institute a lane directionality rule.  But this is not the case with the game of chess.
    • Actually, that is exactly the case with the game of chess.  In order to constitute the game, people had to assign movement roles to pieces and relevant protocols for play and end of play.  Those can be changed at any time upon agreement of the players.  A game called "Knightmare Chess" does exactly that.  Any "official regulations" of chess exist only within the officials' dominion (e.g. "official tournaments").
Often in philosophy, we find jargon that muddies the waters to make them seem deep.  The "brute fact" and "institutional fact" are two such junk terms, since we have no definitive criterion by which one could substantially categorize a fact under the former heading, but not the latter heading simultaneously.  We can handle all of our descriptions of rules and so forth without this extra contrivance, and in the interest of accurate and parsimonious understanding of the matter at hand, we should pluck it from our brains and cast it into the fire.