Friday, October 1, 2010

Carnap Part 3 and My Blog's Identity Crisis

Hello Friends,

Today I'm going to wrap up the overview of Carnap, and in future posts I will go into more detail.  On Tuesday I have to give a presentation on his paper "Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology" and I'll be using you guys as a practice audience.  I know! You can hardly wait!
Before I begin, as usual, I have to go off on a tangent.  After tracking the stats of my blog it became apparent to me that many of you don't read the philosophy entries (gasp!) but luuuvs you some anecdotal stories about my life.  So, I'm going to do my best to accommodate both groups of readers (yes, there are some that read the philosophy content).  The problem is that I realized that I can use the philosophy content aspect of my blog to strengthen my application package when I go through the next round of grad school applications in January.  But, then again, if an applications panel actually decides to read my blog they might find some things that could moderately move their decision in the wrong direction.  Hmmm, anyway, I guess I'll come to that bridge when I cross it...In the meantime, here's a quick status update on my life:

I finally feel like I've settled into a sustainable routine.  Studying every day from the moment I stubbled out of bed until my eyes could read no more was not effective.  After some trial and error I have, for the time being, found a precarious balance between studying, class, gym, and free time.  Of course I haven't had to write any major term papers yet so we'll see how long this balance lasts!  Nevertheless, after overcoming the initial shock of using my brain academically for the first time in longer than I care to admit, I'm getting some confidence back and feeling that this is indeed some thing I can do, not just want to do. 

Carnap Overview Part 3

     In a nutshell Carnap said this:  The entities that we choose to embrace in our beliefs, be they abstract or physical, are reflections of the linguistic framework we have implicitly or explicitly chosen to adopt.  In other words, our beliefs about our experiences can be traced back to linguistic structures we have adopted.  The important implications of this idea are as follows:  a) all knowledge systems are legitimate, but some are preferable to others on the basis of pragmatics, fruitfulness, and simplicity b)  the linguistic frameworks we choose to describe our experiences and beliefs are (should be) selected on the basis of pragmatics, fruitfulness, and simplicity c)  we cannot know the absolute reality of physical or abstract entities.   These 3 issues are intertwined, however, I'll do my best to focus on each one in turn.
Quick defining of terms: by language I don't necessarily mean natural languages, but linguistic frameworks to describing our experiences.
Lets examine the first implication, that all knowledge systems are legitimate.  Before I begin I want to clarify the vague notion of "knowledge system".  What I really mean is the collection of beliefs, both experientially and logically derived, that can be traced back to the fundamental tenets (or axioms) of your knowledge system.   At the ground floor our knowledge system is comprised of linguistic frameworks.  Lets step away from these extremely abstract notions for a second and use an example to illustrate what I'm talking about.  

For a moment lets imagine we have a very very primitive language and we don't yet have a concept for physical things.  We experience "objects" but we have no language to describe the experience.  One smart guy in our group decides that these experiences we have of objects in space-time we will call "physical things/objects".   Then he goes on to list the qualities a physical thing must have to be a physical thing; namely it has a temporal and physical location and physical extension.  Now we have a linguistic framework for physical things, and we can verify if an experience is of a physical thing by empirically determining if it conforms to our framework.  The language framework is legitimate because there are clear axioms (rules) for determining what constitutes "physical thing". 
Well, almost.  There's one more thing we need, it's called the rules of inference.  We need a clear set of rules to show how the rules interact with each other and empirical data.  There are deductive rules and inductive rules, but this goes beyond the scope of this discussion.  An example of a rule of inference is the transitive rule--if A equals B and B equals C, then A equals C.  So, any language is considered legitimate if it's basic axioms and rules of inference are spelled out.  Languages are equally legitimate to the degree that the axioms and rules of inference are clear.  
Nevertheless, different languages can lead to different systems of belief for several reasons:  The basic axioms could be different or the rules of inference could be different, or both.  An (over-simplified) example where the axioms are different would be if in another language, Language 2, instead of a physical thing linguistic framework, they adopt an idealist framework.  That is to say, instead of saying the objects of perception exist independently of our minds as physical objects, things are actually just mental phenomena--they exist only in our mind.  Before you go calling this view crazy, there have been many prominent philosophers who held similar views, you may have heard of Berkeley and (arguably) Plato.  

We can say that both the linguistic structures account for our experiences.  So long as language 2 states that all sensory experience (touch, taste, smell, vision, sound) exists only in the mind then indeed this is a legitimate account of experience.  There is no way of knowing if one Language is true and the other is false because the net result is the same and there is not objective test we could ever do to provide evidence.
Despite this problem, we can make a decision based on pragmatics, fruitfulness, and simplicity to choose which language framework to adopt.  With Language 2 and its idealist account, things start to get complicated if we want to tender the reasonable hypothesis that things continue to exist even when we are not directly perceiving them.  Idealism in it's simplest form implies that if I look away from an object, it ceases to exist (because things only exist in my mind when I perceive them directly).  The framework starts to look complicated if we want to adequately account for this phenomena.  It will require adding more axioms to our framework.  So, in this quick and dirty example we can make the pragmatic decision to adopt the language framework of physical things, because it is simpler.  It is very important to note that we can never say of any competing language structures that one is true and one is false, so long as they both account for the phenomena we seek to explain.  Simplicity is not a measure of truth.  
One final note which I will revisit in a future post is the idea that we cannot know the absolute reality of physical and abstract entities.  For any given entity there will be a variety of different linguistic (mathematical in the case of theoretical physics and science) structures to account for the phenomena.  In the case of electrons, we cannot ask if electrons have metaphysical reality, but we can say, provided we antecedently adopt the physical things linguistic structure, that we can answer this question through empirical and deductive means.  Notice, how we answer the question depends on previously adopted linguistic frameworks.  If we ask, do numbers exist? There is no metaphysical answer, but given the usefulness of numbers in explaining and predicting experience we can say it is useful and fruitful to adopt a framework that encompasses numbers.  But do numbers really exist?  We can't know, we can only say it's a useful framework to adopt.



  1. Professor Palmer,
    Maybe some of us would like to know: why does it take another person to explain philosophy? Don't philosophers know how to explain their own theories?


    Ok, so I would like to know and maybe most others don't.

    1. Just as with any specialized domain of knowledge there is jargon are there are assumptions about the audience's background knowledge. Since most philosophers are writing for other philosophers, an audience without some background in philosophy jargon and history of philosophy will often miss out on important content if they read the primary text alone. My goal is to (try to) explain the jargon and explain where the ideas fit in the context of historical philosophical debates.