Monday, November 21, 2011

Can I Reason My Way To Moral Principles? Or Do I Need Some Other Kind of Knowledge?

Preamble  (Warning: I haven't proof read this entry yet)
    For those of you who haven't been following or have forgotten what I've written about Kant here are some technical terms that will allow you to understand what I've written here.  This is a section of my paper that I'm working on.  For some reason when I write an essay that I need to turn in, I get writer's block, but if I write on the same topic in my blog, it comes out more easily. So that said, any feedback is welcome, it'll probably help me improve my paper.
Back to the technical stuff.  I think all you need to know is that the Formula of Universal Law (FUL) is the law that says what ever action I'm thinking about doing, if I want to know if it's morally correct or not, I test whether it passes this test: "I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law".  
Should We and Can We Exclude All Empirical Facts from Our Moral Reasoning?
     Kant says we should exclude empirical considerations if we are to come up with a purely rational system of ethics.  The thought is we cannot learn anything about what is morally right by appealing to what people actually do.  There are 4 main problems with trying to come up with moral principles by referencing empirical facts:  First, convention doesn't tell us what is right, it only tells us what convention is.  Think of slavery, it was convention at one point in time but few people would argue now that is was right.  If moral philosophers had appealed to convention at that time they would have concluded that it was morally right.  Second, observing individual actions tells us nothing about the motives for the action--perhaps the motive for the action was self-interest; these are unknowable to the observer, and given humans' capacity for motivated reasoning, probably also unknowable to the agent.  Given these facts it would be impossible to abstract any general principle of action by observing behaviour.  There is a third kind of empirical moral reasoning Kant wants to exclude, this is moral judgment by appeal to examples.  Every example (think of a fable or religious story) that we hold up as "good" action has to be good because of some principle; so it follows, we would do better to discover the principles that allow us to call certain behaviours "good"--a behaviour can't be good just because we say it is.  The fourth type of empirical consideration we should ignore are facts particular to the conditions of humanity.  The reasoning is that because all moral principles will be rational principles the laws that are derived from reason must apply to all rational creatures.  Moral principles would lose their status as absolute if we said that certain ethical laws only apply to humans but not to some other rational being.
     That we should derive our moral principles from reason is prima facia appealing, but before we throw our lot in with Kant and divorce empirical facts from our moral reasoning there are two issues we should explore.  The first is whether--with the possible of exception of social norms--it is even possible to eliminate empirical content; and second, if it is desirable. 
     Is it possible to have an ethical system that excludes empirical considerations?  To answer this question there are two species of empirical fact I think we should explore: internal and external.  By internal I mean facts about human psychology, and by external I mean facts about the world.  Although Kant makes not direct reference to human psychology I think he considered it a part of the "contingent conditions of humanity" (p. 408).  We also might be able to infer that there is something particular to humans, in respect to their capacity to reason because in several places Kant refers to "human reason" in the context of it being something different than that of a purely rational being (p. 404, 408).  
     If we accept that there are psychological traits that are particular to humans and these traits distinguish us from "purely rational beings" it seems that we would do well to discover how these  psychological traits influence our reasoning.  Consider the analogy of a computer.  If we want a write an algorithm for a computer we need to know something about its operating system.  We need to know what kinds of operations a certain operating system does well and does poorly; if we don't take these things into account and assume that whatever the computer spits out is correct, we might have some problems.  It seems that the same goes for humans.  We have a law--the FUL--which we want the rational part of the mind to apply to maxims of action.  But to assume that whatever the rational mind spits out is correct is to overlook how things can go wrong.  Psychology has discovered many ways which we can corrupt our reasoning process: confirmation bias, wishful thinking, confusing cause for effect, motivated reasoning, and so on.  If we fail to take into account how our reasoning can go awry, we are likely to come up with incorrect answers and have no way of knowing they are so.  In a way there's a sort of chicken and egg problem here; we can't have much confidence in our reasoning unless we understand how it can go wrong but we require reasoning to discover how our reasoning can go wrong.  let me explain...
     The scientific method is a good example of how our psychological shortcomings are taken into account so we have a better chance of reasoning to the correct conclusion.  The use of double-blind, placebo controlled, replicated studies helps to control for our cognitive biases.  The more we know about human biases, the better we can control for them in our reasoning.  In science, we learned about our cognitive biases in conjunction with doing scientific research; the approach was not binary.  I think the same holistic approach will yield comparable benefits in moral reasoning.  The more we become aware of our cognitive biases and blind spots, the more effectively we can correct for it in our reasoning.  So, given our human proclivity for motivated reasoning, amongst other cognitive shortcomings which Kant repeatedly points out, it does not seem possible that we could have much faith in the correctness of our reasoning without at least a minimal understanding of these phenomena.  On this view, an ethics devoid of all empirical considerations might work in purely rational beings without any of our disadvantages, but as humans we require some empirical knowledge of our psychology before we can put any stock in our "rational" conclusions.
External Empirical Facts (I.e., Facts about the World)
     Kant wants to deny that empirical conditions can substantially influence the outcome of applying FUL—its prescriptions will hold in all contingencies. But it seems that there may be some cases where facts about the external world influence the acceptance of rejection of a maxim by the FUL.
      Suppose there is a plant called the Aleeval plant which for whatever reason cannot be grown commercially, is necessary for the maintaining our global climate in equilibrium, and whose roots are the most delicious food in the world. When human population levels were such that even a steady diet of the root for every man woman and child would have no measurable impact on the plant's population, the decision of whether to eat the Aleeval root did not enter the moral real. Put otherwise, if I asked “should I eat Aleeval root to my heart's content?” the action would have been universalizable. But the empirical facts about the world have changed, and now if everyone eats the root, all life on our planet will die; if I ask “should I eat Aleeval root to my heart's content?” the FUL will reveal the action is not universalizable. Eating the Aleeval root has entered the moral realm. So it seems, contrary to what Kant says, the FUL will not always yield objective answers, some will be contingent upon empirical facts about the world.
     There is a reply open to Kant, which is we are applying the wrong maxim to the FUL. As it is now our test maxim is “is it permissible to eat unlimited Aleeval root?”, and given this maxim, changes in the world will yield different outcomes. However, perhaps the correct maxim is “should I consume resources at unsustainable rates (i.e., beyond replacement rates)?” If this is our maxim then empirical facts can vary and this will determine whether the maxim comes into effect, as with any ethical situation, but its standing as a universal moral principle will remain constant. In the context of our example this means if I apply the more general maxim then human and the Aleeval population can perpetually rise and fall and my actions , so long as I follow the general maxim, will always be appropriate. This reply works well but Kant says that the FUL will output the correct answer to any subjective maxim. So, strictly speaking, the generalization reply is not open to him. 

OK, that's enough for now.  I'll talk about if we should exclude empirical facts from our moral reasoning later...gotta submit my rough draft which was due 4.5 hours ago....



Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Why Are Locke's 'Complex Ideas' Easier to Comprehend than his 'Simple Ideas'?

Locke's Complex Ideas

     Most of what we've talked about so far (in relation to ideas) concerns ideas, generally considered, and simple ideas.  Recall that all ideas have as their source either perception or reflection on the operations of the mind; and in the case of simple ideas the mind is always passive (II. xii. 1).  In other words, where simple ideas are concerned, the mind cannot create them nor can the mind have any complex idea which is not made up of one or more simple ideas.   Let's take a more detailed look at what this means and what Locke has to say about complex ideas.
     The general theory is that simple ideas are the material out of which we construct complex ideas.  When we construct complex ideas the mind is active; the mind is active in three main ways: "1. combining several simple ideas into one compound one, and thus all complex ideas are made. 2. By  bringing two ideas, whether simple or complex, together; and setting them by one another, so as to take a view of tehm at once, without uniting them into one; by which way it gets all its ideas of relations.  3. Separating them from all other ideas that accompany them in their real existence; this is called abstraction: and thus all general ideas are made" (II. xii. 1).
     Lets break this shit down...wika wika... The first type of activity of the mind that produces complex ideas is compounding, or mixing of 2 or more simple ideas (that we already have stored in our memory).  Example of such ideas are: beauty, gratitude, a man, an army, the universe.  When we contemplate things like beauty or the universe we consider them to be one unified thing but they are made up of many simple ideas.  'Beauty' is made up of all our different ideas of physical qualities along with the idea of perfection; 'the universe' is made up of the collection of all the ideas of things that are in the universe.  There are an infinite number of ways and combinations we can unify different our various basic ideas to form new ones, much like there is an infinite number of ways we can combine physical materials to form new objects.   At the end of the day, however, our complex ideas are ultimately comprised of simple ideas, just as the most complex objects are made of their fundamental materials.
      Of the infinite ways simple ideas can be compounded they will all generally fall under 3 headings: Modes, Substances, and Relations.  A mode is like a concept; it doesn't correspond to anything in the physical world.  Things in this list include, beauty, theft, politics, happiness, triangle.  You may say, "well, triangles exist in the physical world".  True, but the concept of a triangle (ideas of closed figure, 3 sides, 3 interior that add up to 180 degree) doesn't require that a physical triangle exist. 
     Substances are combinations of simple ideas that represent distinct and particular things that exist in the physical world.  For example if we affix to the idea of substance the simple ideas of weight, hardness, ductility, and fusibility we have the idea of lead.  If we affix to the idea of substance the simple ideas of a human-like shape, with power of motion, thought, and reasoning, we get the complex ideas of 'human'.  We can also further combine complex ideas of substance.  If we combine the idea of 'a soldier' with the idea of 'several' and we get the new substance (i.e. thing) 'army'.
     Finally, there are complex ideas of relations where we compare one idea (simple or complex) with another to form a new idea.   For example, if I compare the idea of a small box with a big box I can get the new idea of 'bigger'.
     Despite our capacity to form even "the most abstruse ideas, who remote soever they may seem from sense, or from any operation of our own mind...are derived from sensation or reflection, being no other than what the mind, by ordinary use of its own faculties, employed about ideas, received from objects of sense, or from the operations it observes in itself about them" (II. xii. 8).  In other words, no matter how complicated your ideas and concepts, they are all reducible to their origins as simple irreducible ideas.
    You may have noticed I di'int go into detail about abstraction and are very much irritated at me for not doing so.  I feel your pain.  I'll talk about that laters...



Monday, November 14, 2011

The Mission: To Determine How Locke Thinks We Perceive Ideas of Concepts

     In the first chapter of book two of The Essay Concerning Human Understanding Locke says all knowledge (the materials of which are ideas) comes from one of two places: "external, sensible Objects; or about the internal operations of our minds, perceived and reflected on by our selves."  Basically, this means ideas can come from either sense perception of the external world or internal reflection of our mental processes.  In the last post we focused on the former (in terms of sense perceptions and memories of past sense perceptions) and I didn't think there was definitive evidence for a purely imagistic interpretation; I think we could also ascribe to Locke a less simplistic representationalist theory of mind.  Bottom line, there's weak evidence but there's no knock down evidence (IMHO).

Ideas from Sense Perception Revisited
     Just as I finished writing this last line I found the following passage (II. i. 2.) "[...] our senses, conversant about particular sensible objects, do convey into the mind several distinct perceptions of things [...] and thus we come by those ideas, we have of Yellow, White, Heat, Cold, Soft, Hard, Bitter, Sweet, and all those which we call sensible qualities [...]."  
     I think this passage indicates that sense perception-produced ideas are imagistic, but not necessarily visual.  Obviously, when we sense coldness we don't see anything, but in a general way we can say there is a sensible quality to coldness.  Of course, in this context we are not talking about having these general ideas as abstracts; how do I perceive them in non-sense (ha!) situations?  For example, in this paragraph we are talking about "coldness" in an abstract way, it is unlikely that any of you felt cold because you read that word.  Moving on...

Ideas from Perception of the Operations of the Mind
     How does Locke talk about ideas that we obtain through perceiving and reflecting on the operations of our own mind?  Lets define operations of the mind first.  The operations of the mind are the thoughts and attitudes we have toward the (usually?) sense ideas we have.  For example, perception, thinking, doubting, believing, reasoning, knowing, willing or any other mental activity like abstracting, compounding, and comparing, of which we can be conscious.  Regarding these internal objects of the mind Locke seems to take the position that we can only be said to be having them when we are conscious of them.  Just as with sense ideas, the more I attend to the details the more clear and distinct the ideas will be, so too of ideas of operations of the mind.  "Yet unless he turns his thoughts that way, and considers them attentively, he will no more have clear and distinct of all the operations of the mind...than he will have all the particular ideas of any landscape...who will not turn his eyes to it (II. i. 7.). 
     This position makes sense in that in is a bit strange to say you have an idea if you aren't conscious of the idea; but on the other hand I'm not sure it's a necessary condition.  For example, you 'doubt' that sweet baby Jesus was sweet--maybe he cried a lot.  In order do say you have the idea of doubting SBJ was sweet do you have to be consciously aware of the thought "I doubt SBJ was sweet"?  I think it make more sense to say this is a disposition.  
     Consider another example: you are doing some maph problems.  In order to 'have' the idea of addition and subtraction to you have in your mind the the thought "I am adding this...weeeee! and now I'm subtracting this......woohoo!...This is me adding and subtracting".  I'm not sure this is how it happens.  I can't speak for others but if I had a little voice talkin' jive like that er'time I did maph it would take me years to do a problem set.  It makes more sense that these ideas are latent in some way.  We can call them to the fore of our consciousness if we want, but I certainly don't need to in order to do maph...and I'd say the fact that I can add and subtract is fairly good evidence that, in some capacity, I have the ideas of addition and subtraction.
     OK, finally, after much torture I think I have a passage of some relevance to our task of interpreting what Locke thinks about ideas as concepts.   In his discussion of how our mind abstracts from the particular to the general he says something like this:  a) we use words to stand for our internal ideas of particular things, b) if we had to make a word for each particular thing of which we have an idea, we'll need a heck of a lot of words (infinity), c) to prevent this we abstract general ideas from particular ideas "by considering them as they are in the mind such appearances, separate from all other existences and the circumstances of real existence, as time, place..." (II. xi. 9).  So there we have it! Finally, the smoking gun!  General ideas (abstract ideas) are appearances.  For further confirmation, a few lines later Locke refers to general ideas as "precise, naked appearances in the mind". 
     There is still a question about how we should treat simple ideas about the operations of our mind (non-sense ideas) because when we engage in composition and enlarging we "put together several of those simple ideas [the mind] has received from sensation and reflection, and combines them into complex ones" (II. xi. 6).  I can understand how we form new ideas from those derived from perception but we are still unclear about the representational content of our ideas of "doubting", "believing", "reasoning", and "knowing".  So, saying that we mix simple ideas from both perception and reflection to get complex hybrid ideas doesn't give us any clue as to what the mind-operation idea content is like when we perceive it.  And then there's the problem of what it is like to 'have' those complex ideas when we recall them after having had them.
     There is one final passage methinks fit to discern the views of Locke in regards to whether he thinks our ideas (both of perception and reflection) are imagistic, but of course we might contend that it is (once again) an extended metaphor and not necessarily a precise description.  Here we go: external and internal sensation "are the windows by which light is let into this dark room" (i.e. the theatre of the mind). "For, methinks, the understanding is not much unlike a closet wholly shut from light, with only some little openings left, to let in external visible resemblances, or ideas of things without; would the pictures coming into such a dark room but stay there, and lie so orderly as to be found upon occasion, it would very much resemble the understanding of a man, in reference to all objects of sight, and the ideas of them" (II. xii. 17).  Well, finally! Although, I have no idea how we have images of ideas that arise out of reflection (concepts, attitudes, etc...); but apparently they are also like "picture in a dark room" upon which we occasionally shine the light of awareness.  Or as the late great Ronnie James Dio would say, "like a rainbow in the dark!"

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Psychology of Grappling: Wrestling vs BJJ

Wrestling vs Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

     I've had a couple of glasses of wine so I apologize in advance for any incoherence beyond the usual.  My whole life (20 years of it, anyway) I've been a wrestler but in the last 2 weeks I've finally started to understand what it means to be a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) player.  
     Lets begin first with wresting.  Wrestling is all about breaking your opponent's will.  If you can establish physical dominance, then he will break mentally, then you win.  Wrestling practice focuses on establishing physical dominance---both strength and enduance; technique, although important, is only one of the means by which you accomplish your ultimate goal--breaking the will.  In practice the coach tries to break your will by pushing your physical and mental limits; this prepares you for competition.  I have to admit, there is something deeply satisfying when you break your opponent's will.  You can usually feel when it happens.  It satisfies something primal.
     BJJ is different.  BJJ is all about outsmarting your opponent.  It's physical chess but you don't win by force, you win by anticipating your opponents moves and countering them.  I've messed around with BJJ on and off for over a decade but it's only in the last 2 weeks that I finally understood what it was about.  For the last 10 years I've been doing BJJ as a wrestler; but BJJ doesn't work that way.
     The beauty of BJJ is that a less physically gifted opponent can beat the physically gifted opponent if he's clever.  The most difficult thing for a wrestler to do is to adopt the practice mentality of BJJ.  In wrestling you never ever ever let yourself get pinned (or beaten in any way) in practice because if you allow yourself to get beaten in practice it will happen in competition; also you will develop a mentality of losing.  In wrestling practice, if you are going to get pinned in practice or taken down, you fight out of it as if your life depended on it--as though you were in a match.
     BJJ is the opposite.  In BJJ practice you allow yourself to get beaten to understand what not to do and to practice getting out of that situation.  The mentality is the opposite from wrestling; in BJJ practice, the more you lose, the more you learn--assuming you analyze why you lost and how you might escape next time.  In fact, many BJJ players will intentionally allow their practice opponents to put them in a bad situation in order to figure out how best to escape it.  
     The most difficult thing for a wrestler doing BJJ is to adopt the mentality that it's ok to lose in practice.  For ten years I was a wrestler doing BJJ--this explains why I plateaued after 2 years, but as of a few weeks ago I had this revelation.  It's not easy undoing almost a lifetime of habits but it's the only way to learn...

Or maybe I'm just getting too old for the wrestling mentality...

Saturday, November 12, 2011

What Does "Bigger Than" Look Like in the Mind? Part 1 Locke's Ideas

The Prolem: Are All Locke's Ideas Necessarily Imagistic?
     Those of you who are facebook friends know I that I recently posted about a little issue I'm having wif my Locke paper.  Here's the prolem: most of my analysis and criticisms of Locke's epistemology rest on the premise that, for Locke, all ideas are images in the theatre of the mind.  I've read a couple of secondary sources that corroborate this interpretation but after frantically scanning my paper last night I realized that I don't a any direct quote from Locke to support this assertion.  
     Now, it is fairly evident that he thinks ideas caused by sense perception are images but Locke is aware that there are other types of ideas.  Locke says we get all our ideas one of two ways: through sense perception or through reflection.  By reflection he means comparing, mixing, and abstracting from the sense perception ideas.  For example, I have an idea (image) of a chair and of a large chair.  By comparing these two ideas I can create the new ideas of size and relative size, or "big" and "bigger than".  That much is clear in Locke, but what isn't clear is the phenomenological (what-it-is-like-to-have-ness) properties of the ideas size or "bigger than".  Another way to state it would be to ax, what does it mean to experience ideas of concepts?  This is the prolem I'm having; I'm not sure what Locke thinks about, it's time to do a little reading of the primary "litra-cha".

Ideas Produced by Sense Perception
     Lets start with what I know, or at least what I think I know about how Locke thinks about ideas produced by sensory perception (did you get all that?).   The relevant passage is this, "But our ideas being nothing, but actual perceptions in the mind, which cease to be any thing, when there is no perception of them [...]".  So from here it appears fairly easy to ascribe an imagistic theory of mind to Locke but now I'm not so sure.  Sure he says ideas are perceptions in the mind but does this necessarily mean the perceptions have to be images?  I don't think this passage on its own is sufficient to make that case.
     Lets consider some of the language he uses to talk about perceiving ideas, in the context of memory, that occur in this same paragraph.  He says the purpose of memory is to "revive again in our minds those ideas, which after imprinting have disappeared, or have been as it were laid aside out of sight".  To talk of ideas "laid aside out of sight" certainly sounds imagistic, but notice he qualifies the phrase with, "as it were" in order to indicate an analogy, not a statement of fact.  Still no verdict.
     However, later in the paragraph, again discussing the purpose of memory, he says that memory allows us to "bring in sight, and make appear again, and be the objects of our thoughts, without the help of those sensible qualities, which first imprinted them there".    Again, phrases like "bring in sight", "make appear again" and "objects of our thoughts" sound very imagistic but there is no reason why Locke my not be using them as analogies.  In particular the phrase "objects of our thoughts" does not necessarily imply images, he might simply be saying "the content of the idea about which we are conscious".  I can't see why this commits him to an imagistic theory of mind, or even a phenomenal theory of mind.  
     He could be just about any brand of representationalist.  All he's really saying is that there is something in the content our perception of 'X' and in our recalling our perception of 'X' that are similar (the same?).  Maybe in the case of sense perception we can ascribe an imagistic or phenomenological theory to Locke but there's nothing that unusual in saying our memory of a perception and the actual perception have some imagistic qualities in common.  In regards to ideas and recollections of concepts, however, I don't think we have any evidence one way or another to determine Locke's position....more research


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Bird Is a Word: Having Locke's Ideas

Having Ideas
     What does it mean to have an idea?  Does it require we have some image in the theatre of our mind?  Where do ideas come from? Can we make our own or do they all come in through the senses? For contemporary philosophers 'having a idea' usually implies some sort of disposition; something like, if a circumstance arose where a collection of beliefs and images were appropriate then I could have conscious access to the idea.  So why disposition?  Well, I think it has something to do with the fact that we can't simultaneously hold all of our ideas at the fore of our consciousness (how confusing would that be?) but we need to explain how we can access ideas we've had in the past. 
    One thing about dispositions is that they imply that you've had the idea before but you've relegated it to some place in your memory for future use (appropriate circumstances/context or maybe just daydreaming...).  So, at some point the idea "got into you"...unless of course you were born with it; but that's a different topic.  
      If I tell you to put the idea of a bird in your mind, what happens?  You probably get some sort of image of a bird.  Now think about where you got your idea of the bird.  The story is probably something like, when you were a kid out with your parents, there was a bird in your visual field and your parents indicated it and told you to call it a bird.  The point is that you had some sort of sensory experience that initially "produced" in your mind the idea of a bird.  And because you don't always go around with the idea of a bird at the front of your consciousness, the idea of 'bird' is stored somewhere for later use.   The main point for Locke's purposes is that it all started with you having a sensory experience of a bird, which incidentally, is a word.
     For Locke all ideas had their origins as sensory experiences...well, mostly.  Sensory experiences provide the raw material from which the activities of our minds can form new more complex ideas by comparing, compounding, and abstracting from the raw material. So, we can compare this type of 'having an idea' (havingE an idea) with the dispositional type (havingD an idea).   To make it more explicit 'havingE' an idea means something like seeing a picture of something in your head whereas the 'havingD' an idea means that it is contained in your memory but you can only really 'haveE' the idea in your memory when you have already had it and pull it to the fore of your consciousness.
     For Locke there is really only havingE ideas; we can't haveE ideas we are not directly conscious of in the sense that we must perceive them in the theatre of our mind as an image.  For this reason we can interpret Locke as saying the experience of sensory perception and the experience of recalling something we previously experienced will in some way be the same sort of experience; they both involve conscious awareness of some image in the theatre of the mind.
     Ok, so lets get that straight one more time.  If I haveD an idea of a bird (which is a word) stored in my memory the only way I can haveE that idea is if I perceive it as an image in the theatre of my mind.  Also, I can haveE an idea of a bird if I'm looking at a bird--the physical properties of the bird produce in me a mental image of...a bird!  So here's the quextion: if both recalling an idea and havingE an idea produced in our minds through sensory perception both involve perceiving some mental image, how can we distinguish between the two types of experiences?

     In the term paper I'm working on this issue is a sub-issue, here's a little bit I've written on it so far, I apologize for the lack of ebonics...I hope you can still understand me :)

Btw, I enjoy writing in my blog way more than writing essays...why?  This essay is KILLING me!

The Relation Between Sensing and HavingE ideas
     It is quite apparent that Locke sees a close relation between sensing something and havingE an idea of that thing. However, this does not necessarily commit him to the view that this is the only way we can haveE ideas because he speaks of havingE ideas when we dream, remember, abstract, and think of things in their absence (Stuart 40). It is clear from several passages that Locke maintains there is—perhaps--a self-evident difference between havingE ideas produced by perception and havingE ideas by recalling them.
      To make his point Locke asks us to consider our mental contents while we look at the sun (I hope he knew not to look directly at the sun!) at T1 and contrast them with our mental contents at T2 when we recall looking at the sun back at T1. He tells us that if we do so we will “as plainly find the difference there is between any Idea revived in our minds by our own Memory, and actually coming into our Minds by our Senses, as we do between any two distinct Ideas” (IV.ii.14). That is to say, the difference between our mental contents at T1 and T2 will be as evident as the difference between two unrelated ideas. His conviction leads one to wonder why, if the difference is so obvious, doesn't he explain that in which it consists?
      In IV. xi. 5, Locke offers a possible criterion by which we can distinguish both types of havingE ideas. The “manifest difference difference” between the Ideas “laid up in my memory” and those that are the result of sensory perception is that the latter type “force themselves upon me” and “I cannot avoid having” them. So, if we cannot avoid havingE an idea then we must be in the act of perceiving through the senses; and if we can “at pleasure” have the ideas of the scent and colour or a rose, for example, then we are havingE an idea of something we previously sensed.
      But does this distinction always hold? One objection to this distinction is to question the passive-active dichotomy. When Locke speaks of ideas “forcing themselves upon” him the implication is that in perception we are passive agents; however, this it not true. Obviously, I have some control over whence I direct my sensory organs but Locke easily meets this challenge. He can simply reply that while we may be able to chose whence we direct our sensory organs, there is no way for me to “unperceive” the ideas that have been produced though sensory perception; and it is in this respect that we are passive. 
       This is certainly true in some instances but perceptual psychology has demonstrated that we are often blind to sensory objects to which we do not consciously attend. 

 Before reading further click on the link and do the selective attention test:

The classic demonstration of this phenomena is observed in an experiment where the subject is asked to watch a video in which two groups of players—half wearing white, half wearing black—pass multiple basketballs between themselves. The ostensible task of the subject is to count the passes the white team makes. Since the subject is attending so strongly to their task, after watching the video when they are asked if they noticed anything unusual they do not report noticing a man in a gorilla suit that strolled right across the screen, despite the fact that he was in their visual field. The upshot of the experiment is that at least to some degree in perception we are not totally passive; if this were true subjects would notice the man in the gorilla suit.
      We do not always recall things “at our pleasure” is the other objection to Locke's distinction between how the two ways we come to haveE ideas in our minds is that . There are two related counter-examples to this assertion. The first is demonstrated by the impossible challenge of not thinking of monkeys when someone commands “don't think of monkeys”. If we interpret Locke in the strong sense of our being able to access ideas from our memory at our pleasure—that is we have total control of what we access--then we'd expect to be able to not think about monkeys when commanded not to do so! But, as most of us learned when we first encountered this paradoxical command, it one with which it is nearly impossible to comply. In fact, I would be willing to wager that at this moment the reader is vainly trying to block out images of monkeys!
      There are other instances where we have limited control over our thoughts, and in these case the ideas "force themselves" from within. Consider situations when you get a song stuck in your head—what's worse is that it's usually a song that you can't stand. Perhaps this is only anecdotal but it certainly seems like the harder I try to expunge the offending tune from my mind, the more entrenched it becomes. Certainly, I did not recall the idea of this song “at my pleasure”! Nightmares are another example of the lack of control we have over what ideas appear in our mind--for even after we wake up our attempts to will away the disturbing images from our minds are futile.
      One could argue that these counter examples do not entirely discredit Locke's position that there is an obvious difference between ideas produced through perception and accessing ideas that were “layed up” in the memory; however, I think that while we can maintain a distinction, to call it an obvious distinction is to overstate the case. What the above examples have demonstrated is that resting the distinction on the passive-active criteria does not apply to all cases.   I think Locke is correct in his premise that there is a distinction between havingE and idea as produced through sensory perception and havingE an idea as a recalling of a prior experience but I'm not sure that the criterion by which he distinguishes the two does the work he needs it too.  How should Locke make this distinction? Can we find a better way within his own work?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Mommy...Where Does Knowledge Come From? Locke's Empiricism

     For the research paper for my 17th century philosophy class I've chosen for my topic Locke's notion of simple ideas and their role in his epistemology.  So, what's all this mumbo jumbo about?  And who is John Locke? As most of you may know, John Locke was trapped on a strange island with a bunch of other people when their plane crashed.  But what many of you might not know, is that prior to crashing on the island in Lost, John Locke was a prominent 17 century philosopher.
     Locke is the grand daddy of empiricism--the philosophy that the foundation of our knowledge is sensory experience.  His philosophy is in obvious contrast with the rationalists Descartes and Spinoza who believed pretty much the opposite--that the foundation of all knowledge is accessible through rational refection.
   A super skeleton sketch of Locke's empiricism looks like this  (reduced  from about 500 pages to 6 lines):  
1.  There are no innate ideas...have you ever met a baby that knew how to do maph?  He gives quite a few different arguments against innate ideas but you get the gist of it.
2.  So, all knowledge must originate as ideas caused by sensory experiences.  (Perceiving something produces an idea of that thing in my mind).
3.  The mind then acts on these simple ideas to compare, connect, and abstract from them to form more complex ideas.

     In my essay I want to explore a couple of interrelated issues.  (1).  What is a simple idea?  and is this an intelligible concept? (2).  if we can come up with an intelligible notion of a simple idea, can it do the work Locke needs it to do to support empiricism, or do we need to allow some degree of innate knowledge?  Anyhow, you're going to follow along as I do my research...

Lets get in stahted in hah....

Ideas in General and their Origin
     For Locke, if someone reflects upon the origin of many universal truths "they would have found them to result in minds of Men, from the being of things themselves, when duly considered; and that they were discovered by the application of those Faculties, that were fitted by Nature to receive and judge of them, when duly employ'd about them."  If we translate this from Locke's beautiful prose it reads that knowledge of general truths is derived from the ideas that those objects cause in our minds through sensory experience. Enough with the generalities, lets get down to the nitty gritty of how this works.
     The contents of the Mind are ideas.  Er'body has a variety of ideas in their mind, such as Whiteness, Hardness, Sweetness, Thinking, Motion, Man, Elephant, Army, Drunkenness, Sippy-cup, Chains, Things that are Off the Chain, etc...How do all these ideas get into our mind?  Locke demonstrated that they can't be innate, so whence did they come?  
     Here he famously axes us so suppose the mind to be "white paper, void of all characters, without any Ideas"...all the ideas that fill our mind came from one source: experience.  All knowledge is founded on it and derived from it.  "Our observation employ'd either about external, sensible Objects; or about the internal Operations of our Minds, perceived and reflected on by ourselves, is that which supplies our Understandings with all the materials of thinking".
     So basically our knowledge has two subsources: sensation which gives us ideas through the perception of external things; these ideas include things like yellow, white, heat, cold, soft, hard, bitter, sweet...and anything else we call sensible qualities.  Sensible ideas are the result of the ideas that are produced in our mind through a causal relation to an external object.  For example, the chair causes in my mind the ideas of brown, wood, chair, etc..
     Reflection is the other source "from which Experience furnisheth the understanding with ideas is the perception of the operations of our own Minds within us" as it acts on the raw ideas is has received from perception to produce new ideas.  Basically, we can get new ideas when our mind manipulates, mixes, abstracts, and compares whatever ideas we already have (from perception). Acts of the mind include: perception, thinking, doubting, believing, reasoning, knowing, willing which give rise in us new ideas (about other ideas). 
     There are no other sources of ideas beyond sensation and reflection.  Ideas arising from sensation arise from without and concern external objects whereas reflection involves ideas about our mind's own operation.  Locke challenges us to "search our Minds" for ideas that didn't come from one of these two sources.
     Pay attention! The more numerous and varied the objects you come in sensory contact with the more simple ideas you will have; there is a parallel for ideas arising out of reflection--the is a direct relation to the amount of reflection one does and quantity of ideas one has about the operation of his own mind.  Also, there is a direct relation to the degree of clarity your ideas have with the the degree of attention you put into observing external objects and your mental operations.  If you don't pay attention your ideas will be unclear and your knowledge will rest on a shaky foundation--so pay attention!
     On our first ideas: At what point in our life do we have our first ideas? "When he first has any Sensation" then it is to these first sensorily derived ideas that we employ the mental operations of perception, remembering, consideration, reasoning, etc...In time the mind (can) reflects on its own mental ideas.  This means something like the having thoughts like "I am looking at the elephant", "I like elephants", "I am thinking about myself looking at the elephant", "I like thinking about myself looking at elephants" and so on...Through this process the mind gets more ideas--ideas from reflection.
The important point is that we need the initial sensory ideas first before the mind can go to work on them, after that, through continual reflection and more sensory ideas the sky is the limit.  Our minds are idea factories!
       Hint at a criterion for simple idea (finally, Yay!):  In receiving these basic ideas from sensory perception our minds are passive.  So long as our perceptual apparati are in good working order there is little we can do to avoid the intrusion of these first sensory ideas into our mind; and no one can be wholly ignorant of what he does when he thinks.  These are the simple ideas--the one's that the mind can do nothing to avoid or blot out, no more than "a mirror can refuse, alter, or obliterate [...] the objects set before it."  Ok, Locke, I'm going to hold you to that!

Time to take a break and work on the proposal for my Kant paper...due tomorrow : )

Do You Trust People Who Watch Jersey Shore? Kant and the Principle of Autonomy

The Principle of Autonomy

     One of my favorite aspects of Kant's moral philosophy is the principle of autonomy; however, as with any prima facia appealing idea there are usually problems lurking below the shiny surface.  I think I wrote about the principle of autonomy (PA) in an earlier post but for my own good I'm going to do a quick overview before I look at what I think might be problems.
     The principle of autonomy is the idea we are both the subject and legislator of the moral law.  To hold this lofty position anytime we act in a moral context, to determine how we should act we must do two things: (1) ax ourselves, "would I want the principle upon which I am acting to be a universal law of action?", that is to say, would it be a good thing if er'body did what I am about to do; and (2) we must treat er'body as an autonomous entity with its own ends (goals) which have equal value to our own.  Of course there are some constraints on what ends people can pursue (they are controlled by (1)) but the point is I can't treat people as means to my own ends, unless I give them full information about my ends and they consent to the terms and conditions of helping me achieve my end.
     So what does this all have to do with autonomy?  Well, according to Kant if people consider their actions in accordance with (1) and (2) they will be acting out of reason and it is only when you act out of reason that you are free.  A major assumption that Kant makes is that if we all ax ourselves (1) and (2) before we act er'body will always get the same answer.  Because we all get the same answer it means that we have discovered a moral maxim to which er'body will agree to submit and so you too must submit to it.  We are all both legislators and subjects of the laws that arise out of the application of reason to (1) and (2). 
     Example:  Suppose I want to borrow money but I know I won't be able to pay it back.  To determine if I should do this I first apply (1).  Hmm...would it be a happy world if er'body did what I was going to do?  Well, no.  First of all the guy you borrowed the $ from won't be jiggy with it and will prolly not lend any cheese to the next guy.  After enough people stop paying back loans, people will stop lending $...sound familiar?  So, (1) tells us we shouldn't do it because the financial system will collapse if do and nobody elx will be able to borrow money after us...including us.  So, not that it's really necessary at this point, but we also run our action though (2).  This time we discover that we can't do it because we are treating the lender as a means to an end that he doesn't share if he had full information.  I am tricking him into achieving my ends by lying about my intent to repay and I am frustrating his own ends of trying to make a living by lending $.  So, running our action through both (1) and (2) give us the same answer but for different reasons.  
     So what about the part where we are both subject and legislator?  Well, I'm the legislator in that I wrote the law that I ought not to trick the lender into lending me $.  It came from me! me! me! and I'm the subject because I have to follow whatever verdict gets spit out of the (1) and (2) formulations. 

Concerns with The PA
     Ironically, my main concern with the PA is the same thing that I like about it; that morality is something that can be grasped through internal rational reflection rather than something that is imposed on us as a set of alien rules.  So, what's not to like about empowering every person to reflect on their moral decisions?
     There are several huge assumptions that Kant is making in his system: (A) that everybody has an equal capacity to reason; (B) that reason is universal--that is, it functions the same in everyone's pointy head; (C) that (1) and (2) are the correct principles upon which to apply our reason and by extension found morality; (D) that (1) and (2) will never lead to mutually exclusive results; (E) that (1) and (2) can always give us a clear answer.  There are probably more problems, but I'll stop there and, because I'm feeling so gracious (and I don't feel like writing a 20 page entry) I'm going to grant Kant (C), (D), and (E).
     Let's get out our lasers, let set our tasers and point them at Kant's idea that the faculty of reason is universal.  You know what, I'm feeling even more generous than I thought.  I'm even going to grant him that er'body has the potential to reason equally and that it functions the same for er'body.  I think there still is a problem.  
     Even if I grant Kant all these assumptions, I'm still not convinced we'll all derive the same moral maxims because the ability to reason requires development.  As it is with any other capacity, even as basic as walking and drinking out of a cup,--or perhaps a better analogy--language, just because we have a capacity for something does not mean that er'body develops it or that they develop it equally or at equal rates.  I see no reason why this shouldn't also apply to the capacity to reason: anybody who has taught math or logic can attest to this.
    Here's the prolum: call me an elitist, but I just don't trust a lot of people's reason to be up to the task of determining right and wrong for themselves, much less as the "head of the Kingdom of Ends".  Now of course I could do it; but the Jersey Shore-watching masses...heck no! (I kid! I kid!...mmm....maybe not...)  And this illuminates another related problem; er'body thinks they're an expert on moral matters.       
     Think about it.  How often do you meet someone who says, "Oh! I have no idea what's wrong or right, I just ask my friends who study philosophy what to do because they know way more about this sort of stuff than I do".  No.  You never hear that.  Er'body thinks they're a world expert and contrary to what Kant would expect, there are differences of opinions, and most people are more than happy to let you know what those opinions are (ahem, I'm allowed to do it but they aren't).  Kant could reply, well they're getting different answers because they aren't applying (1) and (2), and I suppose he'd be right.  But I'm still not convinced that er'body would come up with the same answers if they did apply (1) and (2) because just as people learn and exercise reason at different rates and abilities in learning maph, I suspect the same is true in learning moral reasoning.
     I guess Kant could also give a complex reply that (1) and (2) commit us to a society in which people are provided with the means to develop their moral reasoning.  In a way he actually can be interpreted as built into (1).  How does that work?  Well, (1) commits us to actions that we want to universalize and it seems rational that we would want to universalize the principle that "people should be provided with the means to develop their rational capacities" (i.e., free/subsidized public education). 
     I guess the moral of the story is garbage in garbage out.  If you start out with a group of people with under-developed reasoning abilities you get crappy legislation but if you start out with philosophers you get nothin' but gold!
     Anyhow, that's enough writing for one night.  I actually did this 'cuz I'm trying to develop a term paper topic and wanted to see if this would be fruitful.  I'm not sure it was sufficiently so.  I have a few more ideas which I'll try tomorrow.
G'nite y'all!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Jesus and Burritos

     A couple of weeks ago I was coming home from work on a Saturday night (I don't work often lately because of school but they called me in) and decided it'd be easier to pick something up than to cook a meal at 3am.  For late-night food I like this place called "Taco Cabana".  They have a brisket burrito and it is...divine.
     Anyhow, the drive-thru was closed so I went in to order.  While I was waiting for my order I noticed one of the employees that was wiping down the tables.  He looked like he was in his late twenties and was not happy about wiping up tables after drunk people at 3am.  In fact he looked really depressed.  I guess I wasn't the only guy who was observing him because I noticed another guy watching him too.
     This other guy was wearing a shirt that said "preacher" on it and was all Jesused out with necklaces. (Seriously, what's with all the huge crosses people?  I thought Jesus already bore it for you...isn't that how the story goes?).  Anyhow...actually, no.  I have one more side rant. 
     What's with all these Christians getting tattoos of the cross and scripture?  As with most Christians they obviously either  have never even read the bible or don't follow it (yet will profess its truth).  God's pretty clear on these issues.  Leviticus 19:28 "Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord."   Notice he adds "I am the Lord".  That's so you don't get it confused with all the other voices in your headAnd as for all the icons of Mary, and manditory Jesus gear of crosses as earrings or pendants, "Thou shalt not make thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters beneath the earth" Deuteronomy 5:8.  For Heaven's sake people, it's the fucking 2nd commandment.  How am I supposed to take you seriously if you can't even keep/don't even know your second commandment?
     Ok, so listen my Christian friends.  You go ahead and believe whatever you like that's fine; but don't try and tell me the bible's true or Christianity is the one true religion when you don't even know what is written in the bible.  It just makes you look like an idiot.  Would you say of  any other book you hadn't read or ideology you hadn't studied that you KNOW it's true?  No, you wouldn't.  And if anyone ever told you they believed in something they'd never read or knew nothing about, you'd think they were ridiculous at best.  So why don't you take at least a tenth of the time most atheists have devoted to studying religion and at least learn what you believe; and if you really want to impress me, go learn some history of early Christianity.  At least then you won't be such easy targets;  and more likely, you'll find that you actually don't agree with a lot of what's written--and that no sane modern person could without doing Olympic-level mental gymnastics.  
    Enough with the ranting.  This was actually supposed to be a post that is somewhat sympathetic to Christianity.  Where were we?  Oh yeah, the preacher guy... Anyhow, the preacher guy gets up, walks over to depressed Taco Cabana guy, puts his hand on his shoulder, looks into his eyes and says something like,  "whatever you are going through right now just know that there is someone who loves you with all his heart.  He has infinite love for you and will always be there for you."  There was so much sincerity in his voice.  He really really believed it.
     You could see immediately Taco Cabana guy's body language change.  His eyes smiled.  He had spring in his step.  Where previously he had avoided eye contact with the customers, as he cleaned tables he asked me how I was doing, and how my night was.  This is some pretty cool stuff.
     Watching that transformation was a major epiphany for me.  Up until that point in my life trying to understand why anyone could possibly believe in any religion was beyond my imagination.  I just could never understand.  But here was my mistake.   I always looked at religion from a more intellectual point of view.  Even as a youth, I could not wrap my mind around the idea of a personal God.  Too many things just did not make sense.  But in that one fateful moment at Taco Cabana I understood why Christianity has such appeal.  In my analysis I was missing the human element of religion.  Who doesn't want to have some super power friend that loves them (sort of) unconditionally, looks out for them (even when he's "testing their strength"), and even (somehow) died for the mistakes they hadn't even made yet?  And Love and Hope.  What human being doesn't want those two things? 
     So anyway, I'm sure for most people this is the most obvious thing in the world, but for me this was a major revelation (but nothing to do with rapture).  At least now I understand why people believe.  Obviously it doesn't sway my own position one bit but I feel like I have gained a valuable insight into some of my fellow humans' belief systems.
    I'll leave it at that.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

I Like Money, Wanna Hang Out? Kantian Ethics: Acting From Reason vs For Reasons

Preamble I loves me my preambles...
     First a few autobiographical notes: today I wrote my first midterm in 11 years.  I don't recall being so stressed about exams in undergrad but for some reason I was really worried about this one; maybe it's just a novelty effect and after a few more exams my reaction will settle down--I hope it will anyway.  I think part of my nervousness came from the fact that the way the exam was set up was a little unfair--that's my opinion anyway.
     Friday afternoon we were given the ELEVEN possible essay questions of which we were told the professor would pick 3.  It was explicit that it wasn't going to be a situation where he give 6 options and you chose 3 from the six--nope--there would just be three on the exam and those are the ones you are expected to answer.  I know undergrad was over a decade ago for me but I don't remember any professor doing anything like that especially with just the weekend to study. 
     Basically we had 3 days to learn enough content to write 11 essays from memory.  I think that's a bit excessive.  Anyhow, I stayed up Monday studying until 4:30am, took a nap 'til 8 am, got up, drank lots o' coffee and returned to studying.  When I got to class at 11:30am everyone looked like they were prisoners on the way to their execution.  A couple of people were saying that they expected to fail and would probably end up dropping the course. 
    The professor walks in and says, "I've decided to make things a little easier for you".  I've given you all eleven questions and I want you to pick either 2 about Descartes and 1 about Spinoza or vice versa".  Huge collective sigh of relief.  Anyhow, after my heart stopped pounding so hard from all the caffeine and adrenaline I took a few deep breaths and threw up Descartes and Spinoza all over the page.  In the end I did alright (I think).  Despite all the panic some good has come out of this...if anyone ever asks me about Scholastic, Cartesian or Spinozian metaphysics they'll get more information than they could ever want (and probably more than they did want).

Why Do We Study Kant?
      Ok, enough with the jibber-jabber lets ask an important question: Why bother studying Kant? Or any moral and ethical philosophy for that matter?  Doesn't it seem a little strange that people would commit so much time to studying something when all the true answers are right there in the bible?  The obvious question is, if philosophers are so curious about what is right and wrong and how to act, why they don't they just consult the bible where God has spelled everything out in black and white for everyone to read?  
     The answer is simple.  We do it just for fun.  We like to look at what some of the of the greatest human minds have dedicated their lifetimes to thinking about and point out the ways in which it does not measure up to the clear, unambiguous, logically consistent, intuitively correct divine teachings of sweet sweet baby Jesus and his fah-jah.  So, without further ado, lets entertain ourselves with Kants wacky ideas of morality arising out of our capacity to reason and freewill....

Still Trying to Figure out What We Can Know About Morality From the Concept of Freedom
     We left off with Kant's hilarious notion that morality is somehow connected to our ability to chose our own course of action (rather than following the perfect 600 or so rules in the bible).  Remember that Kant wants to show that it is a priori true that morality arises out of the concept of a good will; that is to say, that the one concept is contained in the other just as the concept of "unmarried man" is contained in the concept of "bachelor".   In his last attempt he had to go outside of the concept of the will and appeal to the additional concept of positive freedom in order to derive the concept of morality; but Kant doesn't want to have to appeal to anything beyond the conceptual boundaries of the will for his proof.  As a further note, recall that for Kant morality is the (hilarious) idea that the motive upon which you act can be willed as a universal law.

Freedom Must Be Presupposed as a Property of the Will of All Rational Beings
      In the previous entry I made we learned that in order to get the concept of morality out of the concept of a good will we need to presuppose the concept of freedom.  We know that if we have freedom, then we can say we have morality; so in order to make the step from a good will to morality we will need to show that the concept of a good will entails the concept of freedom, which in turn entails morality.  In technical terms it looks like Kant is trying to construct what is called a hypothetical syllogism--i.e.,  if A then B, if B then C, so if A then C. 
     The other silly idea that Kant has is that morality is universal.  Why is morality universal?  First, it's because of Kant's assumption that the faculty of reason works the same universally (dubious...).  Second is that because morality only applies to beings that are rational--it wouldn't make much sense to apply morality to irrational beings like spiders and mice--and since morality is derived from freedom, we need to prove that freedom is a property of rational beings.  Also if morality isn't universal it is less meaningful.  
     In terms of proving that morality is universal we cannot prove it is such by appealing to particular examples; for example I can't prove the universality of morality by saying, "I'm a rational being, I know I have freewill, so morality applies to me, therefore morality applies to all rational beings".  In a particular instance, the fact that you are rational might be a wacky quality particular to you.  You can't prove a general law deductively (a priori) by generalizing from empirical facts; doing so would be inductive reasoning and its conclusions don't have the same logical force as do deductive arguments.  So again, to show that moral law is universal we need to show that freewill is a necessary  property of being a rational being.
     The first step in Kant's proof that rational creatures have the property of freedom starts with a naked assertion that so long a rational creature has the idea that he is free in his actions then (somehow) this means that he is actually free.  Lets take a step outside of philosophy for a second and go back to the real world.  For the average Joe, even the above average Joe, the fact that Kant should even have to prove that humans have freewill is just kind of loco; of course we're free! look I'm going to decide to type an '8'...and now a '+'....look at me exercising my freewill!  Woohoo!  I don't feel like there's anyone in a control tower making me type '8' and '+'...but there are many philosopher (and indeed some modern neuroscience) that argue our freedom is an illusion; we think we are free but actually there is measurable neurological activity in the body for a movement before we have "consciously" decided to make the movement.  All that aside, my point is that in the normal world, what Kant is asserting isn't very loco, but in the philosophy world it's odd that he just asserts it without backing it up with an argument.
     The next step is to say that every rational being (who by definition also has a will) can only act according to the idea that he can choose his course of action (amongst alternatives).  Again, this doesn't sound too loco but it is important.  What Kant is getting at is that when we (as rational agents) choose a course of action from amongst alternatives, the selection of the course of action comes from within us, not from some external cause.  If our action is directed by some external cause then our decision to act one way rather than another cannot be attributed to reason.  Ahh!  This is a critical move, because Kant wants to make two crucial distinctions here: action from reason (as a faculty) and action for reasons--i.e., actions from inclination--where inclination is not free action but action from reason is.
     When you act because of inclination--for instance, an action out of instinct, character predisposition, etc..--then you are no longer acting as a free agent.  Your actions arise out of something other than your will (which arises out of reason); that is, they aren't rational.  You are being caused to act by factors outside of your reason when you act out of fear, or anger, or addiction, or even selfish desires.  As a rational being in order to be free we have to act out of our own (rational) principles, and since all external reasons for action (i.e., I want ice cream, so I go get the ice cream) are, well...external to us, if we act on them we are not acting from reason rather for reasons.
    To summarize this idea, if I am to consider myself as having freedom when I act, the principles according to which I act must come from within me, that is from my will.  If I act on external reason or act out of inclination, that is, I direct my action toward some external goal, then the cause of my action does not come from within, i.e., from the will, so I am not in these cases acting freely.
     This distinction is a little bit tough to grasp so lets look at some examples.  But before I give my examples I'll just explain how I think about the distinction.  In the case of acting from external causes (for reasons) in these types of actions if you asked yourself "why did you do that?" the answer would be "I did x because I wanted x or wanted to achieve x".  In actions that arise from reason, if you ask yourself "why did you do that?" the answer would be something like "I did x because that's what one ought to do". 
      Simple examples: Case 1.  You see a 100.00 on the ground and no one around so you pick it up.  This was not a free action because if you ask "why did you pick it up?" the answer will be something like, "I picked up the money because I like money...wanna hang out?" So you acted because of something external to you.
     Simple Case 2: You see someone drop 100.00 on the ground and you pick it up and give it to them.  This was a free action (*as I will present it) because if you ask "why did you return the 100.00?" the answer will be "I returned the 100.00 because that's what one ought to do".  Notice there is no external end to which your action is directed; it is a restatement of a principle of action.
    Edit:  Ok, after sleeping on it I want to revise my first example.  I don't think Kant would think you are aren't free in that case because it's not a situation to which we apply moral principles.  I think the following set of examples better illustrate what Kant's trying to say (what I think he means, anyway)
     Case 3: You're in a hurry to get to work and see an old lady that's struggling to cross the street.  She reminds you of your own wonderful grandmother; because of this you feel both compassion and nostalgia.  You stop and help her cross the street.  If you ask yourself why you helped her, your answer is, "because she reminded me of my grandmother and I felt compassion for her".  Basically you acted out of a feeling of compassion.  For Kant this is an external reason so you are not acting from your (internal) will, and this not acting in a moral way; you are acting for a reason (because you feel compassion, have memories of your grandmother), not from reason.  To further illustrate why this is, lets look at case 4.
    Case 4:  Same situation...old lady....reminds you of your grandmother...late for work...etc...This time when you ask yourself why you helped her across the street the answer is "because you ought to assist the elderly".  In this case your action arose out of a principle that is in no way related to how you feel about the situation.  Here you acted from your internal will because you acted on a rational principle (which are internally generated), that is, you acted from reason, not for a reason.
     So it seems that Kant is saying that since humans are not purely rational (we also have emotional inclinations and irrational preferences) we can sometimes act from our will (internal) and sometime act for external reasons (both external to our to our rational will and external goals).  When we act from the will we are acting from reason, so we are acting as free agents;  when we act for reasons we are not acting as rational agents so we are not free agents.  For now, to conclude lets just say that Kant has shown that so long as we are acting from reason we can say we are free.  I'm not sure I agree with his conclusion but I'll get into that later.

I'll proof read this later my eyes are closing and my mind is pulp...

Friday, October 14, 2011

Sub-atomic Stir-Fry and the Indivisibility of Spinoza's God

Warning: This is some wacky stuff.

Spinoza's Spin on Modes

     The chair I'm sitting on is a mode of God, the one and only substance.  Yup it is.  So I guess in a way I'm sitting on God.  "King of the castle! King of the castle!".  But wait, I'm also a mode of God, so I guess in a way God is sitting on himself.  That sounds strange.  Before we gaily launch ourselves into Spinoza's theory of modes lets do a quick review of terminology...
Substance:  The most fundamental level of existence/being.  All things are made from substance.  For Descartes everything was made of 1 or 2 distinct substances (Mind and Body) while Spinoza argued that everything is made of just one substance (God/Nature).
Attribute:  The fundamental property of a substance.  For Descartes thoughts are the principle attributes of Mind and extension is the principle attribute of Body.  For Spinoza thought and extension are both conceptually distinct attributes of one substance (God/Nature).  For both Spinoza and Descartes a substance can be known through its principle attribute(s); that is by reflecting on an attribute we can know to which substance it pertains.
Mode (Descartes):  For Descartes modes are properties that depend for their existence on primary attributes.  For example, a chair's weight, shape, and texture all depend on the chair being extended; and imagining a chair depends on the attribute of thought.  Another way to phrase it is that "a mode presupposes a particular attribute".
     Just like files are in a computer, modes are in a substance; this means that modes don't exist apart from substance, rather they are states of a substance.  Don't make the mistake Hansel makes in the early 2000's comedy classic "Zoolander" and think that by opening up the computer he can find the files in the computer; that is by pulling apart a substance you will find its, just as the files are states of electromagnetic configurations of the computer's insides; modes are just different ways a substance can be arranged/presented to us.  This is called the inherence relation; modes inhere in substances.  Inherence relations are dependence relations; modes depend for their existence on the substance being in a certain state.
     Modes also have a conceptual relation to substance.  The idea is that it is impossible to conceive of a mode without also conceiving of the substance in which it inheres.  For example, you can't conceive of a rectangular black (modes) computer without also conceiving of a body (substance); you just can't.  If you manage to do this, let me know and I will write a letter about it, and bring it to Descartes.  To summarize conceptual relations we can say that modes (eg. shape, texture, weight) are incomprehensible without presupposing the concept of a substance (body).

Spinoza's Account of Modes
     Every particular thing that exists is either a mode or a substance thus all finite things (minds and bodies) are modes of the one and only substance...God/Nature.  Since you are not God, you are a mode of the substance that is God (I'm going to go out on limb and assume that if there is a god he doesn't read my blog).  Though out the entry do not confuse Spinoza's notion of mode (any particular body or mind as a state of God/Nature) with Descartes' (properties of attributes).  How does it feel to be a mode?  Does it feel any different from being a finite substance as Descartes argues?  All feelings aside, lets see who has the more compelling argument...

Intuitive Unease With Monadic Monism (Say that 5 times fast...)
     It seems a little odd to say that particular things aren't independent entities but different states of one thing.  So, the table my computer is on isn't an independent substance with independent existence,  rather it is a state of God/Nature.  Things get even more loco when we interpret 'modes' in the Cartesian sense, that is, as properties.  Within the tradition (say in a BBC voice) properties can be regarded as universals or particulars.  The properties-as-universals view says the roundness of a wheel is an instance of a universal roundness.  All round objects partake in this one magical universal roundness.  Anyone who took a Phil 101 course will recognize this view from Plato's theory of perfect forms.  The properties-as-particulars view says, no, the roundness of the wheel is particular to only that wheel, all you other wheels out there, get your own damn roundness!
      It seems that no matter how we interpret Spinoza's view on modes, be it as universals or particulars, it arouses (heh heh...he said arouse) in us a sense of intuitive unease.  Suppose we interpret Spinoza as subscribing to the universal meaning of modes; then regarding a giraffe, for example, we are in a position of saying that God/Nature contains within it the universal property of "giraffeness" and our particular giraffe is simply an instance of God/Nature's "giraffeness".  On the other view, properties as particulars, we say this giraffe is a particular state of God/Nature; a giraffe is God/Nature is a particular state that we will call a "giraffe state"--but this giraffe state is not something inherent in God/Nature; it is the property we ascribe to God/Nature when it is in a giraffe configuration.  So, in the universal view, the property inheres in God/Nature and in the particular view things are properties that are brought about through different configurations God substance.  
     Because interpreting Spinoza's modes as Cartesian modes (properties) just seems wack, other less wack interpretations are sometimes used.  But despite wackiness it is still possible to make sense of the idea that particular things (minds and bodies) are properties/features of God.  The argument goes something like dis:
1.  Spinoza sees individual bodies (extended modes) as states of a substance.
2.  He also sees individual thoughts (modes of thought) as states of a substance.
3.  Spinoza's naturalism requires we interpret modes as states.

Individual Bodies as States of Substance
         You own a subatomic Chinese restaurant and need to make a stir-fry for some quarks.  You start chopping up a carrot into 1000 pieces, then chopped each piece into a 1000 more pieces, and for good measure, you repeat the process one more time.  You take one of the those pieces, and being the Zen master you are, ask yourself, if the carrot still exists. 
     In traditional theology God wasn't conceived as being extended for the reason that if he were, he could be divided infinitely out of existence, and then sweet baby Jesus would have no one to take care of him in heaven.  But Spinoza was no traditional theologian; he made the bold move of ascribing extension to God but did so in a way that defended God from being able to be chopped and divided into oblivion.  The way he did this way to say that individual bodies are not God being individuated, rather these are just God is affected--i.e., comes to exist in certain states.
     He uses the following example to explain his position:
Matter is everywhere the same are distinguished in it only so far as we conceive matter to be affected in different ways, so that its parts are only distinguished modally, but not really.  For example, we conceive that water is divided and its parts separated from one another--in so far as it is water, but not in so far as it is corporeal substance.  For insofar as it is substance, it is neither separated nor divided.  Again, water, insofar as it is water, is generated and corrupted, but in so far as it is substance, it is neither generated nor corrupted.
So what does he mean?  Essentially he is drawing a distinction between water as "water" (the liquid, with chemical properties x, y, z) and water as a corporeal substance.  We can divide the water into its constituent molecules and send each one into a different corner (fact: the universe has corners) of the universe and we can say the water is divided but we cannot say that the water ceases to be corporeal; or in modern parlance--matter. 
    So, how does this support the interpretation that individual modes inhere in God, rather than the interpretation that modes are simply caused by God (by waving his magic wand)?  Actually, before we look at that, consider what's at issue.  If we say that God causes bodies to exist then we have something closer to a traditional notion of God, that God creates everything and God is separate from his creation(s).  Recall Spinoza's conception of God is that God simply is everything that exists; there is no separation between "God" and "Nature", they are one and the same.
     With that in mind, lets see what happens if we interpret this water example in the "God causes existence" view.  First of all we notice that the example Spinoza uses is of a finite mode--a certain quantity of water--to demonstrate divisibility.  Keep in mind the purpose of this example is to show that attributing extension to God doesn't leave him vulnerable to the divisibility problem.  If, as this first interpretation suggests, God causes/creates modes/individual bodies (as opposed to modes being states of God) then the divisibility of water shouldn't be a threat to God anyway, because God isn't the water, he just created the water.  The fact that Spinoza uses a finite body (water) to show that divisibility isn't a problem for a God who is extended is evidence that Spinoza thinks individual bodies are modes of God, and individual bodies aren't simply created by God.  Again, Spinoza wants to show that an extended God isn't susceptible to the divisibility problem; to show this he argues that even though a finite body can be infinitely, it never ceases to be a corporeal substance--that is, its existence is unaffected even as part of a sub-atomic stir-fry.

Individual Thoughts as Modes of Substance
     Here's an interesting thought:  your mind is nothing more than your idea of your body.  It is a complex idea that contains various other ideas about particular states of your body and parts of your body.  I'm not sure I really understand what he means, but that's what he says...Also my mind is a collection of ideas in God's mind.  I think this means that, since God has infinite thought and my mind is finite, my mind is some of God's ideas; my mind can't have all of them (Spinoza's wrong!) because I am not perfect or finite.  Some of the ideas I partake in are God's ideas of my body.  Lets see if I can make that clearer.  God's got all the ideas in his mind.  Humans get (to share/have access to) some of them, and that is what a mind is--the sliver of God's ideas/thoughts that comprise your mind.  Some? All? of those ideas are ideas about states of your body and parts of your body.  Something like that...
     So, again, how do we relate this all back to the idea that we are all modes of God?  I think it goes a li'l something like this: Because God has all the ideas (ever!) in his mind, individual ideas must be states of his mind, so, our minds, in turn, (i.e., the collection of ideas that comprise them) are simply states of God's mind.  Yay! I'm Jesus!  All the ideas we have exist in God--they are features of God--so when they are expressed (in a particular mind) they must be expressed as modes of God--not separate independent entities that God has created. 

Modes and Spinoza's Naturalism
     Ok, if you've made it this far either you are a rabid Spinoza fan or you enjoy seeing me stumble through explanations of things I have difficulty understanding myself.  Let briefly return to something we talked about in the very beginning: relations of inherence dependence and relations of conceptual dependence.  Recall an inherence relation is the notion that something's existence depends on it inhering in something more fundamental.  For Spinoza particular bodies and individual minds are the products of inherence relations to God as substance; they are particular expressions of properties that inhere in God.  That God is infinitely extended allows him to express that extension in particular bodies; that God has infinite (non-contradicting) thoughts allows finite collections of those thoughts to be expressed as minds.  The finite expressions of the infinite qualities that inhere in God are modes, be they bodies or minds.  So, we can say that there is an inherence relation between God and modes because all qualities inhere in God.
     Also there is a way in which God causes modes to come about through the natural laws.  Modes (individual minds and bodies) are caused to come into existence as the result of never-ending causal chains that follow the laws of nature.  There is no "act of creation" outside of the products of causal chains that follow laws of nature.  In this sense there is a causal relation between God and modes.
     Both causal and inherence relations are types of conceptual relations. Consider causal relations: if something is the effect of something else, we can know something about it by knowing its cause.  This applies to modes and God because in order for use to know the qualities of a particular mode (the effect of God) we need to know something about its cause (God); we can say the concept of a mode can be known through its cause, for this reason we say causal relations are a species of conceptual relation.  
     A similar parallel can be observed between inherence relations and conceptual relations.  If we want to know the properties of some particular thing we would want to know the properties of the more general thing in which it inheres.  For example if we want to know the properties of a wooden table we would do well to know the properties of wood.  The same applies in Spinoza's model: if we want to know the properties of a particular mode we need to know about the substance in which the particular thing inheres, i.e., God.  Notice that if we want to better understand the concept of an particular mode (a table/a mind) we can better understand it if we refer to the concept of the thing in which its properties inhere.  For this reason inherence, like causation, is also a species of conceptual relation.
     Now for Spinoza, any time we want to make a distinction between two things we have to apply the principle of sufficient reason (PSR); that is, we have to provide a sufficient reason for which we should consider the 2 things distinct.  Spinoza doesn't see any sufficient reason for which we should distinguish between causal and inherence relations; after all they are both conceptual dependence relations--one thing (a mode) depends on the concept of something (causally/ontologically) prior  to it.  Basically, if there is no real difference in explaining something through causal relations rather than inherence relations then the 2 notions should be collapsed into on: a conceptual relation.  Restated, unless we can come up with an situation where an inherence relation explains something that a causal relation doesn't or vice verse we should consider them one and the same.
     So, why should we care about collapsing these two terms?  Because Spinoza's naturalism doesn't allow for different rules to apply to different things.  That is what naturalism is: there is one fundamental set of laws for everything including God, including humans.  Hand-waving appeals to special connections or properties is illegal.  To repeat: there is only one set of fundamental rules and they apply to everything.  So, if we adopt the typical theological views we see that there are different rules to explain how God exists and functions than there are for how finite individuals exist and function.  God can break physical laws that humans, for example can't.  
     More specifically Spinoza was concerned with the inconsistencies of the Cartesian view which required 2 kinds of dependence relations.  Recall for Descartes' 2 substance system of Mind and Body, these 2 substances do not inhere in God but still depend on him for their existence--that's one type of dependence relation--one without inherence but still of causation.  Then there are the attributes and modes of Mind and Body (substances) that do inherence relations.  Recall that, for example, the properties of an  body--e.g., a chair--inhere in its attributes; that is, the properties of hardness and weight depend on hardness and weight inhering in extension, which in turn inheres the substance of body.  So in the Cartesian system we have 2 types of conceptual dependence relations--one that includes inherence and one that doesn't.  With naturalism, you have to have the same rules for everything, so Spinoza rejects Cartesian dualism, mostly because it smacks of Dualism... depend for their existence on
     How do we apply this to the argument that Spinoza's modes should be seen a inhering in God?  Well, if God just caused modes (particular mind or bodies) to exist without their properties inhering in him then we'd have two different kinds of conceptual relations; that is, an inconsistent set of rules.  Why? Because if modes don't inhere in God then we have a non-inherence conceptual relation between God and modes but and inherence conceptual relation between modes and their properties.  Lets use the table as an example, I can  know of its properties by knowing it is extended.  The properties of hardness, shape, and weight all inhere in extension; I can conceive of them through the concept of extension because of the inherence relation; that is, I can know about the properties of the table because I know it is extended.  So as we can see we have one type of conceptual relation--between God/subtance and modes--that doesn't involve inherence and we have another type of conceptual relation--between modes and their properties--that does involve inherence.  Having 2 sets of rules without sufficient reason is barred by Spinoza's naturalism, thus, in interpreting Spinoza's notion of modes we must interpret him as saying that modes inhere in God, not that God creates modes.

If you read this whole thing, you are Jesus.  That took me over 3 hours.  I'm gonna proof read this tomorrow, sorry if it's full of mistakes...