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.