Nyāya Substance Dualism

In a previous post, I went over an argument for the existence of God that was formulated by philosophers in the Nyāya tradition. Here my aim is to provide a brief summary of some Nyāya arguments for substance dualism, the view that mental and physical substances are radically distinct.

The categories of substance and quality were fundamental to Nyāya metaphysics. A substance is the concrete substratum in which qualities inhere. An apple, for instance, is a substance, and redness is a quality that inheres in it. Substances can be complex and made up of parts (like an apple) or simple and indivisible (like an atom).

Nyāya held that in addition to physical substances, there are non-physical ones. Our individual soul – that is, our Self – is a non-physical substance. Like atoms, individual souls are simple and indivisible, and hence eternal (since destroying an object is the same as breaking it up into its constituent parts, and simple substances do not have any constituent parts). Consciousness, and different conscious states like desires and memories, are qualities that inhere in the substantial Self.

The primary philosophical adversaries of Nyāya belonged to two different camps. The first was Cārvāka, which claimed that only physical substances exist, that the mind does not exist apart from the body, and that the self is reducible to the totality of the body and all its functions. The other was Buddhism, which rejects physicalism but denies the existence of the substantial Self. Buddhism replaces the idea of the Self with a stream of momentary causally connected mental states. Nyāya was engaged in a protracted series of debates with both Cārvāka and Buddhism. Versions of the arguments I summarize in this essay were developed and defended by Nyāya thinkers such as Vātsyāyana (5th century), Uddyotakara (7th century) and Udayana (10th century), among others.

Against Physicalism 

Nyāya came up with a number of arguments against physicalism. The one I focus on here has interesting similarities to arguments found in contemporary debates within the philosophy of mind. It can be stated like this1:

(P1) All bodily qualities are either externally perceptible or imperceptible.

(P2) No phenomenal qualities are externally perceptible or imperceptible.

(C) Therefore, no phenomenal qualities are bodily qualities.

The argument is deductively valid, so let us examine the premises. As the term suggests, externally perceptible bodily qualities are features of the body that can be directly perceived by external agents. Color is an example of an externally perceptible quality. Everyone who can see me can see that the color of my body is brown. An imperceptible quality is a feature of the body that cannot be directly perceived, but can be inferred through observation and analysis. Weight was a common example used in Nyāya texts. You cannot directly perceive my weight, but if I stand on a weighing machine, you can know my weight by looking at the number displayed by the machine. P1 states that all physical qualities are exhausted by these two categories.

Let us movie on to P2. Phenomenal qualities are the features of conscious experience: the subjective, first person what-it-is-likeness to have an experience. The experience of color, pleasure, pain, desire, and memory are all examples of phenomenal qualities. P2 draws on the intuition that phenomenal qualities are essentially private.

To say that phenomenal qualities are not externally perceptible is to say that I cannot immediately know what it is like for you to have an experience. I have direct access to externally perceptible qualities of your body like color, but I don’t have direct access to your phenomenal qualities. I may be able to infer based on your behavior that you are in pain, but I don’t experience your pain in the immediate, first person manner that you do. The contemporary American philosopher Thomas Nagel made a similar point in his classic paper What Is it Like to Be a Bat? We may be able to observe how bats behave, and how their organs, brain and nervous system work, but we can’t know what it feels like, from the inside, to be a bat. Only a bat knows what it is like to be a bat.

If phenomenal qualities aren’t externally perceptible, perhaps they are imperceptible qualities like weight. But this is extremely implausible. Phenomenal qualities are not externally perceptible, but they’re clearly internally perceptible. The whole point is that I have direct perceptive access to phenomenal qualities – my conscious experiences are given to me in a basic and immediate fashion. Even if I don’t know that my experiences are veridical, I always know what the features of my own experience are. Thus, phenomenal qualities are not imperceptible.

Since phenomenal qualities are neither externally perceptible nor imperceptible, they are not physical qualities. If physicalism is the thesis that only physical substances and their qualities exist, and the above argument is sound, we must conclude that physicalism is false.

Against No-Self Theory 

The above argument by itself does not get us to the kind of substance dualism that Nyāya favored. Buddhists, after all, are anti-physicalists, but they do not believe that the Self is an enduring substance that persists through time. Instead, Buddhists view a person as nothing more than a series of sequential causally connected momentary mental states. The 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, and more recently, the British philosopher Derek Parfit, came to roughly the same conclusion.

Again, the Nyāya canon has several arguments against the Buddhist no-Self theory, but I will touch on just two of them here. The first of these is that the Self is necessary to explain the first person experience of recollection or recognition. The intuition here is something like this: If I notice a tree and recognize that it is the same tree I saw a few days ago, there has to be a subject that was present both during the first experience and the second one for recollection to occur. Similarly, if the desire to eat a banana arises in my mind at t2 because I remember that I previously enjoyed eating a banana at t1, there has to be a subject that existed during the initial experience that occurred at t1, and persisted through time until the recollection at t2. Without the Self – a substance that endures through these different points in time – the experience of memory is a mystery.

The Buddhist response was that causal connections between momentary mental states could explain the phenomenon of memory. If the mental state at t1 is causally connected to the mental state at t2, that’s all that’s needed for the mental state at t2 to recall the experience at t1. The Nyāya rejoinder was that causal connections were not sufficient to account for how a mental event can be experienced as a memory. When I recognize a tree I saw few days ago, it isn’t just that an image of the previously perceived tree pops into my mind. Rather, my experience is of the form: “This tree that I see now is the same tree I saw yesterday.” In other words, my present experience after seeing the tree involves my recognition of the previous experience as belonging to myself. Similarly, my current desire to eat a banana is based on my recognition of the previous enjoyable experience of eating a banana as belonging to myself. One person does not experience the memory of another, and in much the same way, one mental state cannot remember the content of another. So a single entity that persists through time must exist.

The second argument for the Self takes for granted what we might call the unity of perception. Our perceptions aren’t a chaotic disjointed bundle despite the fact that they arise through different sense organs. There’s a certain unity and coherence to them. In particular, Nyāya philosophers drew attention to mental events that are characterized by cross-modal recognition. An example would be: “The table that I see now is the same table I am touching.” We have experiences that arise through different channels (in this case, my eye and my hand), but there must be something that ties these experiences together and synthesizes them to give rise to a unified cognitive event. In other words, the Buddhist no-Self theory might be able to explain the independent experiences of sight and touch, but for the object of both experiences to be recognized as one and the same, there must something else to which both experiences belong, and which integrates the experiences to give rise to the unified perception of the object. Again, it seems we must admit the existence of the Self.

Needless to say, all these arguments were (and remain) controversial. The debates between Buddhist and Nyāya philosophers got extremely complex over time. They involved increasingly fine-grained analyses of the phenomenology of recollection/recognition, and increasingly technical discussions on the metaphysics of causation. Similar debates took place between other orthodox Indian schools of thought that believed in the Self (Mīmāṃsā, Vedānta, etc.) and their Buddhist no-Self rivals. A good place to start for further reading on this subject would be the collection of essays in Hindu and Buddhist Ideas in Dialogue: Self and No-Self. 

Notes

[1] The argument I’ve presented here is based on Kisor Kumar Chakrabarti’s formulation in Classical Indian Philosophy of Mind: The Nyāya Dualist Tradition. 

An Introduction to Phenomenal Conservatism

Phenomenal Conservatism (PC) is a foundationalist theory of justification that can be applied to perception as well as the a priori. Michael Huemer formulates PC like this:

PC: If it seems to S that p, then, in the absence of defeaters, S thereby has at least some degree of justification for believing that p (Huemer 2007).

PC takes seemings to be the epistemically relevant mental states. Seemings are appearances that something is the case, such as the appearance of a desk in front of me. It seems to me that there is a desk in front of me. Seemings are propositional attitudes: it seems to S that P is the case. For it to seem to S that P, the proposition <P> must be the content of S’s seeming. But just because seemings are propositional attitudes, it doesn’t follow that they lack a phenomenology. Seemings have a feel of veridicality; they present their contents as if they were the case. In other words, seemings have assertive content. Contents that are presented to the subject assertively have a phenomenology of, for lack of a better descriptive term, truthiness.

PC is a form of internalism about justification, which is the view that justification supervenes on the mental states of the subject, or things that are epistemically accessible. To say that justification supervenes onto the mental or the accessible is to say that there cannot be a change in mental states or what is accessible without a change in justificational status. The version of PC that takes the supervenience base to be mental states without an accessibility requirement is called mentalism, and it can be seen as a form of reductionism about justification. The version of PC that takes the base to be epistemically accessible things is called accessibilism, and is a version of non-reductionism about justification. Mentalism can give a reductive analysis of justification in terms of properties of mental states, whereas accessibilism takes access to be a primitive, epistemic notion which cannot be reductively analyzed without circularity. PC can be formulated in either way, but I take it to be a hybrid because seemings are both mental states and intrinsically accessible to the subject.

PC can be construed as either weak or strong foundationalism. If it is taken to be a version of weak foundationalism, then seemings are not sufficient for fully justified beliefs based on them. Beliefs based on seemings, on this view, would have some justification, but not enough for full blown justification. Those beliefs must also be supported by other beliefs, or other epistemically relevant states. If PC is a version of strong foundationalism, then seemings are sufficient for fully justified beliefs. Beliefs based on seemings are fully justified, absent defeaters. Huemer’s version of PC can be seen as a hybrid, where some seemings may not be sufficient for full justification, while others are. The hybrid nature of Huemer’s version of PC can be seen in the, “at least some degree of justification” clause.

Justified beliefs can be defeated by various considerations. PC allows for defeat, which means that beliefs based on seemings can lose their fully justified status. For example, if I look at a pencil submerged in a glass of water, it seems to me that the pencil is bent. Lacking background knowledge about what happens when straight objects are submerged in water, I form the belief that the pencil is bent. I now have a belief that is at least partially justified. But then I pull the pencil out of the water and see that it is not actually straight. Puzzled, I search wikipedia for an explanation, and learn about what happens when pencils are submerged in water. My belief about the pencil being bent is now defeated by counter evidence.

In some future posts I will explore objections to PC, such as the problem of cognitive penetrability, the Sellarsian dilemma, and the problem of the speckled hen. I will also examine issues related to the nature of seemings, and whether seemings form a homogeneous class of mental states, or if there are distinct kinds of seemings. Finally, I will explore the connection between PC and ethical intuitionism.

Works Cited

Huemer, Michael. “Compassionate Phenomenal Conservatism.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 74.1 (2007): 30-55. Web.

 

Pragmatism and Two Forms of Naturalism: Guest Post by Danny Krämer

American Pragmatists and the first wave of Naturalism

What I call the first wave of naturalism took place in the early 20th century and includes such philosophers as Ernest Nagel, Sidney Hook, Roy Wood Sellars and – one of the great figures of American pragmatism – John Dewey. Dewey was the one of the pragmatists that saw himself explicitly as a naturalist. Nowadays there is a debate about how to understand naturalism. What does a naturalist view entail and what not? Is it mainly an epistemological or a metaphysical position?

The situation was even worse at the time of the first wave of naturalism. All these philosophers said was that philosophy should be more closely connected to the sciences and that everything that exists is natural. But of course everything depends on what you mean by the word “natural”. I will argue that Dewey’s naturalism is of a different kind than the one that was made popular by the second wave of naturalism.

Two forms of Naturalism

What I will call the second wave of naturalism is the movement that started with the work of W.V.O. Quine. Quine famously denounced the project of “first philosophy”. The classical aim of philosophy was to build a structure of fundamental knowledge for the empirical sciences to rest on. With Quine’s critique of the analytic/synthetic distinction and therefore of the notion of a priori knowledge that is prior to science, this project was said farewell. Philosophy must talk from inside the sciences. But this rejection of “first philosophy” developed into a more radical way of seeing the things. The main thesis of a – what I call it – “strict naturalism” are as follows:

  • The epistemological thesis: The methods of the natural sciences are the only one that yield genuine knowledge.
  • The ontological thesis: The only entities that exist are the entities of our most well established sciences – especially fundamental physics.

This form of naturalism is a reductive physicalism of a very hard nosed sort. Of course, there are very few that hold such a strong view but some philosophers hold it and it is one picture of naturalism that floats around in the public discourse. The other form of naturalism is nowadays often called “liberal naturalism”. It is non-reductive in ontology and even though it has great respect for the natural sciences, it has also respect for other forms of rational inquiry. (We will come to this in a minute.)

The interesting part of this is that Dewey wrote a paper with Hook and Nagel, where they answered some critiques, which accused them to be crude 1 mechanists. The paper is called “Are naturalists materialists?” and it defends a form of non-reductive materialism, that could stand model for some of the views that liberal naturalists develop nowadays.

The core of Naturalism

What makes these two forms of naturalism forms of naturalism? I think there are three main themes a naturalist position is about:

  1. Anti-supernaturalism: All forms of naturalists deny, that we need things like god, angels, immaterial souls etc. for our best explanations of the world and therefore we should not accept that they exist. Of course there are many other things that seem to be supernatural, for example numbers, moral values, possibilities etc. You could say it in this way – using some phrases from Roy Wood Sellars son Wilfrid Sellars: There are many things in our manifest image of the world that seem to be incompatible with our scientific image of the world. While the strict naturalist tries to eliminate or reduce the things of the scientific image, the liberal naturalist takes them at face value as long as he needs them for the best explanations of the world. Some entities cannot be reduced to entities of the natural sciences, not because they are supernatural, but because they are nonnatural in the sense of dependent on human actions and intentions. So one has to be cautious of not conflating the natural/supernatural distinction and the natural/artificial distinction. The concepts of common sense and the human sciences on the one hand and the concepts of the physical sciences cross classify. (For more details one should see for example Jerry Fodor’s Special Sciences or John Dupre’s The Disorder of Things)
  1. Scientific Realism: Every naturalist should be a scientific realist. (Not every naturalist, actually, is a scientific realist, but I think that is wrong. But that is another discussion.) If you do not belief that the entities of the scientific image really exist, but are only useful fictions for empirical prediction, then the conflict between scientific and manifest image does not even arise. But the manifest image has some supernatural things in it and if you do not want them in your ontology, you should have to say how the world functions without them. But at least every naturalist has great respect of the development of the natural sciences since the scientific revolution. That is one motivation to even become a naturalist.
  1. Second Philosophy: This phrase I borrow from Penelope Maddy. If there is no “first philosophy” left after Quine, what to do? The strict naturalist would say, “Nothing! Let’s just do science!” Penelope Maddy’s answer is we just do second philosophy. We do not try to find a fundamental part of our knowledge that grounds science. Science needs no grounding. But there are still some philosophical questions left. What makes a question to a philosophical one? Well, these questions are the one that scientists do not ask, because they are either too abstract and not of great interest for the practitioner or they are about the interpretation and the integration of scientific theories into our overall theory of the world. Certainly, in questions of physics the physicist has authority. But if it comes to how we understand a physical theory and how we integrate it with our other theories, there is some work to be done.

Two pragmatist traditions

That fits well with the project Dewey had in mind. The empirical method he mentions for example in Nature and Experience, and that he also wanted to use in philosophy, is not what is nowadays known as the search for the scientific method. Famously there was not one method of science to be found, neither by the Vienna Circle nor by Popper or anyone else. And there is also no special philosophical method to be found. Interestingly Quine, who was at times a hardliner, said, in a softer mood, that under science he understands our entire web of beliefs and that he regrets that the word science in English only means natural sciences. As it seems he had a broader field of empirical investigation in mind. And if we take Anti-reductionism seriously, we should take seriously that there are phenomena that cannot be understood in the same way as bosons and fermions.

All of our rational inquiry – natural science, the humanities, social sciences, philosophy – are connected through – to use Wittgenstein’s term – family resemblance. While the strict naturalist only takes natural sciences serious the liberal naturalist also admits that the humanities or literary criticism can provide us knowledge as long as they take place in our family of rational inquiry. The liberal naturalist does not discriminate between evidence of the natural sciences, which is real evidence and evidence from the social sciences which is only derivative. He only discriminates between good and bad evidence, no matter where they come from. (Where the border between rational inquiry and pseudoscience lies, is of course another question.)

This division of perspectives can also be found in the interpretation of classical pragmatism. For Richard Rorty the most important thing the pragmatists did, was to replace the metaphysical notion of truth with a epistemological one. Rorty himself advocated eliminativism about the mental and his pragmatic understanding of truth led directly to his post-modernism. On the other hand there is Hilary Putnam’s work. He rejected the anti-realist theories of truths that the pragmatists got famous for. (At least the early and the late Putnam did. He talked about his anti-realist phase as a mistake in his philosophical career.) What was important for Putnam and why he was interested in the pragmatist tradition was, that philosophical problems should bear a connection to problems of everyday life and the pluralistic picture in ontology and epistemology. So, even Putnam never called himself a pragmatist, Putnam could be seen as a pragmatist and liberal naturalist par excellence.

Danny Krämer holds an MA in philosophy and is now working on a PhD. Danny’s research is on liberal naturalism, and you can find his blog here.

Two Arguments for Hedonism

In value theory, or axiology, there are two kinds of theory: monistic and pluralistic. Monistic theories posit one kind of intrinsic value, whereas pluralistic theories posit more than one. Hedonism is a monistic theory of value which posits pleasure as the single kind of intrinsic value.

There are two interesting ways of arguing for hedonism that I want to explore. First, there is the argument from moral disagreement. The second one is the evolutionary debunking argument. Both strategies trade on an alleged fact about pleasure, which makes them variants on a more general kind of argumentative strategy. The alleged fact that both trade on is that we are directly acquainted with pleasurable mental states. Pleasure, on this view, is a property of mental states (I won’t go into what sort of property here). Since we are directly acquainted with at least the phenomenal qualities of our occurrent mental states, and pleasure is a phenomenal quality of mental states, we are directly acquainted with pleasure.

Direct acquaintance can be spelled out in various ways, but for now let’s just take it as a factive relation between a subject and some property. The relation is factive because the property must actually exist and be accessible to the subject for that property to be a member of an acquaintance relation. You can’t be acquainted with something that doesn’t exist. Similarly, you can’t know something that isn’t true. To be directly acquainted with some property is to have a special epistemic perspective on that property. For example, being in pain is an acquaintance relation because subjects are in pain, and a particular subject’s pain is had by that subject, which means that no other subject can have that same pain.[1] The subject in pain has a privileged epistemic perspective with respect to her pain. She is directly acquainted with her pain, which means she does not need to make an inference to know that she is in pain, having it is sufficient. Others cannot have this privileged perspective on her pains, but rather they must infer that she is in pain from her behavior.

Before unpacking the first argument for hedonism, we need to consider the argument from moral disagreement:

  1. In any moral disagreement, at least one party must be in error.
  2. There is widespread moral disagreement.
  3. If there is widespread error about a topic, we should retain only those beliefs about it formed through reliable processes.
  4. If there is widespread error about morality, there are no reliable processes for forming moral beliefs.
  5. There is widespread error about morality (from 1 and 2).
  6. We should retain only those moral beliefs formed through reliable processes (from 3 and 5).
  7. There are no reliable processes for forming moral beliefs (from 4 and 5).
  8. We should give up all of our moral beliefs (from 6 and 7).[2]

The hedonist responds to this argument by denying 4. There is a reliable process of forming moral beliefs, which is the process of phenomenal introspection. Engaging in phenomenal introspection reveals that we are directly acquainted with certain phenomenal properties, such as pleasure. Since we are directly acquainted with pleasure, we can see that pleasure is good. According to Neil Sinhababu, “Just as one can look inward at one’s experience of lemon yellow and appreciate its brightness, one can look inward at one’s experience of pleasure and appreciate its goodness.”[3] There is a link between the goodness of pleasure and badness of pain, and the reasons why we morally praise and blame people. When somebody tortures an innocent person, a main reason we consider the torturer bad is because we know that pain is bad, and inflicting it for no reason is also bad. We morally blame the torture for inflicting gratuitous pain, which means that there is moral disvalue in pain (and ipso facto, moral value in pleasure). So, hedonism about moral value is true.

The second argument goes like this. Our moral judgment and belief formation processes evolved under conditions which did not select for their reliability. We should not believe things produced by unreliable processes. So, we should suspend our moral beliefs and refrain from moral judgments. However, we are directly acquainted with pain and pleasure, and by virtue of that acquaintance we know that pain is intrinsically bad and pleasure is intrinsically good. The origins of those beliefs do not undermine their reliability. So, pain is intrinsically bad and pleasure is intrinsically good. Assuming no other kind of moral belief can be saved from debunking this way, it follows that we should be hedonists.

Peter Singer and Katarzyna De Lazari-Radek provide a thought experiment to back up the argument:

Thalia Wheatley and Jonathan Haidt hypnotized subjects to feel disgust when they read an arbitrarily chosen word – in this case, the word ‘often’. The students then read the following,

‘Dan is a student council representative at his school. This semester he is in charge of scheduling discussions about academic issues. He often picks topics that appeal to both professors and students in order to stimulate discussion.’

Students who had been primed under hypnosis to feel disgust at the word ‘often’ were then asked to judge whether Dan had done something wrong. A third of them said that he had. The negative moral judgment was, of course, an illusion, created by hypnosis, and it gives us no reason at all to believe that Dan’s conduct was wrong. Presumably once the experiment was over, and the students had been debriefed, they would agree that Dan had done nothing wrong. Now suppose that the students had been hypnotized to believe that when they read the word ‘often’ they would develop a blinding headache. Soon after being given information containing the headache triggering word, they held their heads, moaned, asked for analgesics, and tried to find somewhere quiet to rest. Asked to rate how they are now feeling on a scale rating from ‘very bad’ to ‘very good’, they rated the experience as ‘very bad’. After the experience was over and they had been debriefed, would they change their judgment that they had a very bad experience because the judgment was induced by hypnosis? Presumably not.[4]

The point is that they were directly acquainted with the bad experience (headache pain), and regardless of the origins of the judgments made about the badness of their experiences, they were justified in believing that their experiences were very bad. Direct acquaintance is still doing the heavy lifting here, because it is by virtue of it that the students are still justified in maintaining that their judgments were reliable. In the first experiment, the students were not directly acquainted with the alleged badness of Dan’s actions, so there was nothing there to defeat the genetic defeater of their judgments (that being that they were formed by hypnosis). In the case of pain, direct acquaintance becomes a defeater-defeater, which means that it undermines the unreliable origins of judgments formed on its basis. Presumably, we can run a similar thought experiment about pleasurable experiences as well. So, the goodness of pleasure and the badness of pain are not undermined by evolutionary considerations, whereas other evaluative judgments are. So, hedonism is true.

Both of these arguments are interesting in their own right. But what I find most interesting is that they rely on direct acquaintance as a means of arguing for hedonism. It seems like arguments for hedonism will typically take this form: Judgments about the value of things with which we are not acquainted are subject to epistemically unacceptable doubt. Judgments about the value of things with which we are acquainted are not subject to epistemically unacceptable doubt. Judgments that are subject to unacceptable doubt are not justified. Hedonistic judgments are judgments about the value of things with which we are acquainted. So, hedonistic judgments are justified.[5] The way I would suggest challenging this kind of argument is by questioning whether direct acquaintance is the only way to mitigate skeptical doubt. Perhaps intuitions could do the job as well, which would open up the possibility of intuitionist ethics (which tends not to be hedonistic).

Endnotes

[1] Sameness being numerical identity in this case.

[2] Cf. Sinhababu, The Epistemic Argument for Hedonism.

[3] Ibid.

[4] (Singer and Lazari-Radek 267-268).

[5] Presumably, the hedonist’s definition of ‘pleasure’ will cover other phenomenal states, like aesthetic appreciation, otherwise there could be other phenomenal states that seem to have intrinsic value that are not hedonic.

Works Cited

Lazari-Radek, Katarzyna De., and Peter Singer. The point of view of the universe: Sidgwick and contemporary ethics. Oxford: Oxford U Press, 2014. Print.

Sinhababu, Neil, The Epistemic Argument for Hedonism.

 

Are Facts Socially Constructed?

I enjoy watching YouTube videos. The sorts of videos I usually enjoy discuss academic topics I’m interested in, like philosophy. I’m especially fond of videos that put forward ideas that are commonly regarded as radical, or even indefensible. I like the debates that those videos engender among the video-makers who discuss those topics. In the vein of being a fan of YouTube debates, I want to add my two cents to a topic that has been gaining traction within certain communities. The topic is social construction. In particular, I want to discuss a thesis put forward by Dr. Kristi Winters in several videos. Her thesis is that facts qua facts are socially constructed entities. I will put the links to the videos I reference below this post, and I will add links to the end notes that direct to the times I reference.

What are facts? There is a lot of debate in analytic philosophy about facts, such as their internal structure, their nature, and how we should represent them formally. Typical, contemporary views take facts to be true truth-bearers, obtaining states of affairs, or some kind of entity in which individual objects exemplify properties and stand in relations.[1] While there is a lot of debate going on in the literature, one thing that isn’t hotly debated is whether all facts are socially constructed. Save for various kinds of idealism,[2] most mainstream views don’t take all facts to be dependent on minds.[3] So, facts can be either mind-dependent or mind-independent.

I’ll throw out a particular view about the ontology of facts to get things rolling. What this view is meant to do is show that there are quite intuitive points of view on the nature of facts which don’t take them to be essentially socially constructed, despite Dr. Winters’ implication to the contrary.[4] I will take facts to be obtaining states of affairs. To obtain is just to be the case, or to be actual.[5] A state of affairs is a distribution of properties over individuals that (can) stand in relations to other individuals. There can be states of affairs with just one individual that exemplifies some properties, and there can be states of affairs where several individuals exemplify properties and stand in certain kinds of relations to each other.

Dr. Winters likes the example of Pluto being reclassified as a dwarf planet. She believes that this demonstrates that facts about planets are socially constructed, because whether or not something is a planet is partly dependent on the classificatory conventions adopted by astronomers, and those conventions are products of social interactions among astronomers. If they changed the classificatory conventions, facts about the number of planets would change. So, facts about the number of planets are socially constructed. I hope I am not misrepresenting Dr. Winters with this reconstruction of her argument. I will now respond to this reconstruction.

If we are going to be scientific realists, then we should think that astronomers produce theories about things that exist independently of mental activity of any sort.[6] In other words, as realists, we should think of astronomy as developing an ontology of a certain aspect of the world we inhabit, namely the realm of celestial bodies and events. What their theorizing aims to do is reveal astronomical facts, which are constituted by properties distributed over individuals.

That astronomers changed the classification convention for planets such that it now excludes Pluto is one thing. That Pluto has the properties that qualify it as a dwarf planet rather than a planet within the classification convention is not socially constructed, but rather it is a mind-independent fact. The fact that Pluto has properties (p1…pn) is not dependent on the theories that astronomers believe, or any theories at all.

Furthermore, the fact that astronomers have such classification conventions is itself not socially constructed. That fact is just the distribution of properties over individual astronomers, wherein that distribution determines or grounds those naming conventions. That astronomers accept a classification convention is a fact about astronomers, and not the content of the classification convention. So, that fact is not constructed by the social processes that determined the contents of the classification convention.

If Dr. Winters objects at this point, I must ask, if the fact that astronomers accept some classification convention is mind-dependent, then what about the fact that that fact is mind-dependent? Is that fact also mind-dependent? If so, we end up with an ascending order of mind-dependency that either terminates in some super-mind, or keeps going to infinity. Think about it, if the second-order fact about the distribution of properties over astronomers is itself mind-dependent, on whose mind does it depend? The individual astronomers taken as a collective? What about the third-order fact that the second-order fact is mind-dependent? This process can repeat to infinity, and the minds of astronomers are not capable of housing this many facts. Unless we want to formulate this as some weird argument for the existence of God based on the social construction of facts, something’s gotta give. As far as I’m concerned, what’s gotta give is the implausible idea that all facts are socially constructed.

Now, I could just be misinterpreting Dr. Winters by imputing onto her ontological commitments about facts when she’s just making claims about epistemology.[7] However, she also claims that knowledge is constructed via social processes. Knowledge decomposes on analysis into various conditions, and any mainstream analysis includes truth as a necessary condition.[8] If knowledge is constructed, then presumably what that knowledge is about must also be constructed, otherwise there isn’t much to the claim that (some) knowledge is socially constructed.

Dr. Winters also talks about Kant’s noumenal/phenomenal distinction. I’m not sure how that’s supposed to help make sense of the social construction of facts. Perhaps she is adopting transcendental idealism, and she thinks that humans have a conceptual manifold along with pure intuitions of space and time, and these shape our experience of the world. Our experience of the world expresses itself within the conceptual boundaries allowed for by our constitution. The phenomenal realm is just what we experience as it is shaped by our mental constitution, and the noumenal realm is beyond our conceptual grasp. My worry here is that this is probably false. Even if it isn’t false, there are interpretations of the phenomenal/noumenal distinction that aren’t purely epistemic. Dual aspect views and two worlds views allow for metaphysical understandings of the phenomenal realm.[9] So, it isn’t obvious that Dr. Winters, if she is embracing transcendental idealism, is skirting by any ontological commitments when she says that facts are socially constructed.

Another worry is we would need an argument for why intersubjectivity determined by shared conceptual manifolds and pure intuitions of space/time entails that we ought to embrace a social constructionist ontology of facts. Up to now, we haven’t been provided with one.

So, if some truths are constructed, we’re back into the territory of metaphysics rather than epistemology. Whether or not truth-bearers are true or false must be sensitive to how the truth-bearer-independent world is at a given time.[10] Whatever aspect of the world that true truth-bearers must be sensitive to will be socially constructed, if knowledge of those truths is itself constructed. So, this isn’t just about epistemology if we take knowledge to be socially constructed. Dr. Winters could have stayed in the realm of epistemology by constraining talk of social construction to issues of justification and warrant in various social spheres. Perhaps standards of testimony are based on social norms, and those norms bias those standards in ways that are conducive to testimonial injustices against marginalized groups. However, she did not restrict herself to the realm of justification and warrant, so she does take on ontological commitments.

What Dr. Winters ought to do is check out the literature on the ontology of facts. She can then adopt a position that allows for some facts being socially constructed, such as facts about gender and race, perhaps. I actually recommend thinking about social construction in terms of grounding and dropping talk of facts entirely. So, to be socially constructed is to be grounded in distinctive social patterns.[11] The trick, then, is uncovering which social patterns are salient when considering particular social constructs such as gender or borders.

Endnotes

[1] Mulligan and Correia 2013.

[2] Some forms of idealism may allow for facts that are mind-independent, such as transcendental idealism. Transcendental idealism will come up again in this post.

[3] Mind-dependence is a necessary (albeit probably not sufficient) condition for something being socially constructed.

[4] Cf. 16:43-17:06. The way she states it implies that it’s quite obvious, given a certain amount of reflection on the nature of science, that facts are constructed by the social processes embedded within the institution of science.

[5] I’m leaving questions of modality aside. Assume that I’m talking facts as things that obtain in the actual world.

[6] Dr. Winters may not accept realism, especially if she has sympathies for transcendental idealism.

[7] Cf. 21:06-23:16 for her clarification about ontology and epistemology.

[8] Setting aside the knowledge-first theorists, who presumably also take knowledge to be factive, just not subject to analysis into other concepts.

[9] Cf. Stang 2016.

[10] Besides claims about truth-bearers, but let’s set that complication aside.

[11] Schaffer 2016.

Works Cited

Mulligan, Kevin and Correia, Fabrice, “Facts”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/facts/>.

Schaffer, Jonathan. “Social Construction as Grounding; Or: Fundamentality for Feminists, a Reply to Barnes and Mikkola.” Philosophical Studies (2016). Web.

Stang, Nicholas F., “Kant’s Transcendental Idealism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =<https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/kant-transcendental-idealism/>.

Dr. Winters’ Videos I Address

What Sargon of Akkad Doesn’t Know About Social Constructs
A Chat With Prof. Philip Moriarty on YouTube Atheism

Why The Presentation Argument for Property Dualism Fails

In my post, The Presentation Argument for Property Dualism, I examined an argument that targets property reduction and attempts to conclude that for any purported reduction of one property to another, there is a residual appearance left over. The residual appearance requires some property to which it corresponds, so any attempt at property reduction actually generates more properties.

One objection is that this argument relies on property intensionalism.[1] What this means is that we individuate properties by how we think of them rather than by extension. The argument for property dualism seems to require this principle of individuation:

(PI) If it’s not a priori that <F> and <G> are coextensive, then F and G are not identical.[2]

The principle says that if it isn’t a priori knowable that the concepts <F> and <G> have the same extensions, then the properties F and G are not identical. PI is at home with the view that the epistemology of properties is wholly a priori.[3] In essence, if we have two concepts that on reflection seem not to have (necessarily) identical extensions, then they pick out distinct properties. We can know which properties exist by analyzing our concepts of them.

The problem with PI is that it just seems like a form of property intensionalism. After all, why think that our a priori reflection on the extensions of our concepts reliably yields facts about properties that exist independently of those concepts? It seems like a massive coincidence without some dependence between properties and our concepts of them. But any dependence between concepts and properties that allows one to derive PI runs the risk of making properties unacceptably mind-dependent.[4] By unacceptably mind-dependent, I mean there must be some metaphysical dependency between properties and concepts such that it is more than just a coincidence that a priori reflection on concepts produces knowledge about properties in a reliable manner. Such metaphysical dependency is either a God-given pre-established harmony between concept and property, or some kind of idealism about properties, which ultimately amounts to idealism about almost everything.

The proponent of the presentation argument could respond by saying that PI and property intensional are conceptually distinct. One could maintain PI without embracing the anti-realist sounding doctrine of property intensionalism, as is possible in my example of pre-established harmony. Perhaps proponents of the presentation argument could just say that our concepts reliably pick out properties that are not themselves individuated by those concepts.[5]

For the view that concepts reliably pick out properties that aren’t individuated by those very concepts to work in the presentation argument, the appearance properties must not be individuated epistemically, but rather metaphysically.[6] However, appearance properties seem to be individuated epistemically. After all, appearances are the wheelhouse of the internalist epistemologist, and as such they seem to be subject to intensional individuation if anything is. So, even if we grant that PI is compatible with an extensionalist individuation scheme for properties, the presentation argument still seems to rely on things whose very nature entails intensional individuation conditions.[7]

Given that the presentation argument’s reliance on PI is part and parcel with intensional individuation conditions for (at least) appearance properties, there is another problem proponents of the argument must face. An extensionalist about property individuation holds to objective individuation conditions for properties. For example, the dispositional properties revealed by modern physics are individuated objectively; they are not individuated by something like PI. The property intensionalist is going to accept the same properties as the extensionalist, since the extensionalist typically endorses a scientific methodology for discovering properties. That scientific methodology will yield results that both the intensionalist and extensionalist have independent reasons to accept.[8] But the extensionalist has an advantage here, since all the properties both she and the intensionalist can agree to are those properties that we consider causally efficacious. All the causal work in the world can be done in virtue of the properties that a pure extensionalist individuation scheme is committed to. The intensionalist is going to have additional properties, and those properties are either causally inert or causally efficacious. If they are causally efficacious then they causally overdetermine the events they enter into alongside the extensionally individuated properties. If they are causally inert, then they are committed to epiphenomenal properties.

The first horn of the dilemma assumes that causal overdetermination is theoretically vicious, but there are reasons to doubt this.[9] If the intensionalist has independent reasons to think that causal overdetermination is ok, or a good thing to believe in, embracing the first horn shouldn’t bother her. The second horn is more problematic, though. We have good reasons to think that mental states are able to enter into causal relations. The appearances cited in the presentation argument seem to cause proponents of the argument to advance it, and they cause me to reflect on it, as well as property individuation. If those appearances weren’t there, theorists would lack motivation to formulate the presentation argument. Even less plausibly, embracing the second horn would entail that appearances are not among the things that cause us to discuss appearances. I, for one, am not brave enough to accept such a result.

So, the proponent of the presentation argument must accept PI, and thereby is either committed to pre-established harmony between concepts and properties, a massive coincidence, or idealism (anti-realism) about properties. If the proponent attempts to disavow property intensionalism yet hold to PI, she will find herself lapsing back into property intensionalism once she introduces appearance properties into the mix. The proponent is also committed to the same properties as the extensionalist, as well as many more properties individuated intensionally. But, there are plausible reasons to think that the causal work in the world is done by the properties we individuate extensionally. So, the proponent of the argument must either embrace causal overdetermination, or epiphenomenalism about appearances. I argued that the latter is less plausible than the former, so the proponent must adopt overdetermination. At this point in the dialectic, the proponent must give us good, independent reasons to think overdetermination obtains in the causal order. Until then, we remain at liberty to deny the conclusion of the presentation argument, and remain physicalists.

End Notes

[1] Howell 104-105.

[2] Ibid 105.

[3] Ibid 106

[4] Ibid 106-107

[5] Ibid 107-108.

[6] Ibid 108.

[7] Ibid 108-109.

[8] There’s a strong case to be made for science as the most reliable way for detecting many if not all properties that are instantiated, and that case can be made independently of the individuation debate.

[9] Cf. Sider 2003.

Works Cited

Howell, Robert J. Consciousness and the Limits of Objectivity: The Case for Subjective Physicalism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013. Print.

Sider, Theodore. “What’s So Bad About Overdetermination?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 67.3 (2003): 719-26. Web.

The Presentation Argument for Property Dualism

In this post I am going to lay out an argument for property dualism called The Presentation Argument (TPA). TPA is no longer a prevalent argument for property dualism used by philosophers. Max Black originally formulated it, J.J.C. Smart dealt with it,  and Stephen White has recently defended it (Howell 103; cf. White 2010 & Smart 1971).

According to Smart,

“. . . it may be possible to get out of asserting irreducible psychic processes, but not out of asserting the existence the existence of irreducible psychic properties. For suppose we identify the Morning Star with the Evening star. Then there must be some properties which logically imply that of being the Morning Star, and quite distinct properties which entail that of being the Evening Star. Again, there must be some properties (for example, that of being a yellow flash) which are logically distinct from those in the physicalist story.

Indeed, it might be thought that the objection succeeds at one jump. For consider the property of “being a yellow flash.” It might be seem that this property lies inevitably outside the physicalist framework . . .” (Smart 63).

The point being made is that reduction works for two seemingly distinct things or objects, but when it comes to properties, it seems problematic. Smart’s example shows that reduction works when discussing the Morning and Evening Stars, since they are both Venus. But there are distinct properties of Venus which serve as the truth conditions for propositions about the Morning Star, and those are not the same properties which serve as the truth conditions for propositions about the Evening Star. So there has been no reduction of properties, but only things. Smart makes the point in terms of psychic properties and processes, where “processes” seemingly denotes types of things.

When applied to the case of reducing the mind to something more fundamental, such as the physical, TPA becomes more salient. Consider reducing some token instance of a mental property to a token instance of a physical property of the brain. The property token of pain would be reduced to the property token of c-fiber firing. But there is still the appearance of pain, the qualitative feel, which seems quite distinct from the property token of c-fiber firing, or any of its properties. In other words, the appearance of multiple properties is explained by the existence of multiple properties that account for those appearances (Howell 104). In the case of informative property identity statements, it appears as if the number of properties increases (Howell 104).

So, attempting to reduce mental properties to physical properties will leave an appearance residue that must be accounted for by more properties. If those properties are construed as physical, then there will still be more appearances left unaccounted for. Reducing the appearance of pain to some property of c-fiber firing will leave the appearance of the appearance of pain which itself must be reduced to something physical, or be accounted for by properties that do not appear to be physical. If they’re reduced to something physical, you get another iteration of the problem, thus adding more physical properties to your ontology without fully explaining the appearances.

TPA has it that any attempt at property reduction produces more properties. In the case of the mental, there will either be unexplained appearances along with a very large (infinite?) number of physical properties of the brain, or appearances that have non-physical properties as their grounding. So, physicalists who attempt to reduce seemingly mental properties to something more fundamental actually bloat their ontology with appearance properties which are fundamentally mental, or with physical properties and unexplained appearances.

What should be noted is that this is not a unique problem for physicalism about mental properties. Rather, it is a problem for any attempt at property reduction, although what generates it seems to be closely tied to considerations about phenomenal states (Howell 2013). In the case of the Morning Star and the Evening Star, reducing the properties determining the truth conditions for propositions about the Morning Star to those determining the truth conditions about the Evening Star (or vice versa) leaves an appearance residue which will need to be explained. There is nothing overtly mental about this iteration of the problem, and it can generate its own version of TPA. However, note that it still relies on appearances as that which needs to be explained. So, it seems fundamentally tied to considerations about phenomenology.

In a future post, I will present an objection to TPA in all its forms. In the meantime, let me know what you think about this argument in the comments section, or tell me if I’ve been unclear in my presentation of the argument.

Works Cited

Howell, Robert J. (2013) Consciousness and the Limits of Objectivity: The Case for Subjective Physicalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smart, J.J.C. (1971) “Sensations and Brain Processes,” in David M. Rosenthal (ed.), Materialism and the Mind Body Problem. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

White, Stephen. (2010) “The Property Dualism Argument,” in George Bealer and Robert Koons (eds), The Waning of Materialism: New Essays. New York: Oxford University Press.