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.

5 comments:

  1. This is exactly what happens in discussions of metaphysics all the time. Do you think what Wittgenstein said in the Tractatus-that 'philosophers' misunderstand the logic of our language and thus utter nonsense-is about this, because that's what I always think of when I witness it; or is that book too technical and nuanced for Wittgenstein's comment to be relevant? (asks Ben, from ASU phi)

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    1. I wouldn't limit Wittgenstein's or my take on philosophers' capacity to muddy the waters to any topic. Philosophers are full of crap about lots of issues.

      Wittgenstein, for me, has polar views. I either agree with them entirely, or I find them completely stupid.

      For instance, when Wittgenstein merely asserts the existence of "the mystical," or when he fabricates false categorical distinctions like "problems of life" vs. "problems of science," I can't help but think that it's stupid nonsense.

      However, I agree with 4, and 4.003 in particular: "Most propositions and questions, that have been written about philosophical matters, are not false, but senseless." Comprehensibility and clear grounds for confirmation and falsification, and not just the illusion of them, are essential to any factual endeavor.

      Now, what Wittgenstein means about "the logical form of our language," and what I discuss above are very similar. Wittgenstein is crediting early logicists with a discovery that much of what we utter is not explicitly the translation of that statement into a formal logic. I think that's true, but resolving that matter will not resolve all of the disputes as I raised them, as there will be plenty of sentences that one could parse, and then translate into formal logic, but which won't strictly imply a contradiction or be provably nonsensical. It's philosophers' assertions' and questions' bold and bald assumptions and their failure to answer more basic questions before moving to the more complex questions that appalls me.

      Notice above: The philosopher wants to ask me about the kinds of obligations that we have before he establishes that we have any kinds of obligations at all. Metaphysicians want to ask about the characteristics of things in the world before they do the real work of setting an empirical basis for deciding whether a thing has whatever characteristic.

      What's the empirical test that something is "material" vs. "immaterial?" What's the measurable demarcation of "a free act" vs. "a caused one?"

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  2. And just let me ask, do you think Wittgenstein's claim that the meanings of symbols change throughout the course of a proof is completely stupid? If it isn't, I don't understand him, and if I do understand him, then I have no idea what "proof" is supposed to mean.

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    1. If that's what he says, yes. I'm not so sure whether he says that, though, so you'll have to direct me to the appropriate source.

      As you phrased it, it's stupid for an obvious reason. Mathematics, and all formal languages, set their lexicon, syntax, and semantics in stone before they produce theorems. These are done through processes of definition and stipulation. The meanings are specifically, and artificially made to offer a static representation of a given statement so that one can reliably manipulate the symbols and derive propositions that the symbols state. That is, it's pretty damned important that P doesn't suddenly mean Q halfway through a proof.

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  3. I clearly remember reading just that, and later discussing it with someone else who apparently did too, without remembering whether it was in the blue book, or the brown book, or...? Your thoughts are precisely those that everyone else seems to have about his remark, though more usefully explicated. Thanks.

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