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06/18/2014

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Ben

The humanities and humanistic social sciences don't aim to make predictive empirical claims.
But they're worthwhile areas of study anyway.
So, why think philosophy needs to be worthwhile in a way that the (other!) humanities aren't?

Marcus Arvan

Hi Ben: Thanks for your comment. A couple of thoughts in reply.

First, I don't think the humanities or social sciences reach determinate answers either--and that every time we turn a "soft science" (speculative psychology) into a *hard* science, we actually begin to discover real, determinate answers.

Second, I do not think the aim of many of the humanities is propositional truth (what philosophers are after). Fiction writers and poets are looking to *express* feelings and *demonstrate* experiential truths about the human condition (e.g. What love and forgiveness involve in a concrete case (of two characters) in a way that we currently lack scientific methods for investigating. We don't yet have the power to explain, for instance, every feature of *me*. At least right now, science lacks the ability to account for and explain such things...and so we are left with art, literature, film, etc. to *move* us in various ways, so that we *experience* complex emotional and existential truths that we lack any other method (for now) for getting at.

So, those are my thoughts. Humanities and social sciences *would* be better if they had the methods of hard science at their disposal (much as psychology is now better off), but, in lieu of such methods, we have nothing left to do *except* to engage in humanistic/social scientific inquiry.

Pete Mandik

Hi Marcus, Thanks for your continued kind words about SpaceTimeMind. I've been really enjoying and nodding vigorously in agreement with your recent run of posts on metaphilosophy. Thumbs up to "Natural Philosophy" and "philosopher-scientists." I'm inclined, though, to think that some of your first-order philosophy, in particular the anti-physicalism, doesn't quite hang with this metaphilosophy. Maybe you'd be better off joining me and the other Type-Q Materialists:

http://www.petemandik.com/philosophy/papers/typeq.pdf

We'd love to have you!

Marcus Arvan

Pete: Thanks--but not going to happen. Physicalism is false. :)

Seriously, though, I'll read your paper with an open mind. I mean, there's no *way* you'll convince me, but I'm a compatibilist about openmindedness. Even if there's no way you'll convince me, openmindedness is compatible with there being no way you'll actually convince me. Oh wait, that doesn't make any sense, does it? Okay, so I'm a libertarian about openmindedness--in which case I promise: I'll be openminded. ;)

joe

The tradition of analytic philosophy, on the whole, has never been particularly naturalistic. Just sayin'...

Charles

Very nice post, thanks. I have a few questions if you don't mind.

1. I'm curious as to what kind of empirically verifiable predictions you have in mind, especially when it comes to those areas that science cannot get at completely. You mention normativity. Can you give examples of predictions that a 'natural' philosophy of normativity would make?

2. What do you think about applied/normative ethics, political philosophy, and normative epistemology, i.e., questions such as "how should we behave?", "how should we organize society?", "how should we form and revise our beliefs?", etc. Should answers to those questions make empirically verifiable predictions as well? What would such predictions look like?

3. Couldn't analytic philosophers respond as follows?
Many (most?) analytic philosophers working on some concept X do not try to *determine exactly* or *define* what X is (call that endeavor "definition"), but rather to *clarify* and *improve our understanding* of X by pointing out things that X involves, implies, entails, presupposes, and the like (call that endeavor "clarification").
"Clarification" seems valuable, especially given that X is generally something that matters to us and to our worldview, e.g., 'knowledge', 'truth', 'ought', 'goodness', 'freedom', 'action', 'mind', etc.?
Moreover, it seems that only "definition" requires and/or presupposes epistemicism about vagueness. "Clarification" seems perfectly compatible with there being no determinate definition of X. Even though there is no determinate answer to the question "what is X exactly?", there might still be some truths (determinate answers) about what X involves, implies, presupposes, etc. Take the claim that knowledge is factive (that you can't know something that's false). That claim seems correct and denying it seems wrong. We realized this by pursuing "clarification" regarding the concept of knowledge. At the same time, claims like this one don't seem to be empirically verifiable predictions.
If that's true, then people doing "clarification" are engaged in neither conceptual analysis (as you understand it) nor natural philosophy.
Isn't that a worthwhile niche for analytic philosophers to occupy?
I suspect that this is already how many of them see their job description.

eyeyethink

wow, charles just asked exactly the three questions I had. cheers.

eyeyethink

I also have a fourth question, which was almost addressed in the "mislead by language" thread, but not quite.

There's a self-undermining objection. Philosophy, according to Marcus, is "little more than an exercise in battling argumentatively over how to interpret vague concepts for which there is no determinately correct interpretation (i.e. no truth at all)".

However, that itself is a piece of philosophy, namely, a piece of metaphilosophy.

So if Marcus is right that there is no philosophical truth, then there is at least one philosophical truth--in which case Marcus' view is false.

Possible rejoinder: "Metaphilosophy isn't really philosophy." Yet wouldn't this be another attempt to precisify a term ('philosophy') for which there's no correct precisification?

Jason Streitfeld

Hello, I was going to say something similar to Charles. I think you are begging the question by assuming that the value of analytic philosophy depends on whether it provides truth-evaluable descriptions of (or predictions about) the world.

Jason Zarri

Hi Marcus,

To me your post seems to presuppose too sharp of a distinction between what is empirically verifiable (and hence what counts as 'determinate') and what isn't--surely we could construct a sorities-series for the increasing exactness and fruitfulness of physics. Any view that rejects some form of epistemicism (and I'm not saying by any means that I accept it) has to face up to the dread problem of higher-order vagueness. To me it seems like a choose-your-poison- kind of a situation, and though Williamson's view is problematic, it isn't necessarily false (in an epistemic sense of 'necessarily'). Also, isn't math precise despite not making any empirical predictions; and doesn't physics inherit whatever precision it has from its incorporation of math?

But even if it is true, it doesn't help conceptual analysis (in your sense): As I understand Williamson's view, the extension of a predicate supervenes may supervene both on usage and external factors, but of course for vague terms we can't *know* the sharp cutoffs of their extensions because otherwise they wouldn't be vague. And if we can't know that in principle--which is what their vagueness consists in--trying to determine their exact bounds a priori is futile. So trying to give a conceptual analysis of a genuinely vague term such as BALD would end in failure. But then conceptual analysts could just deny that the concepts that interest them are vague. (Does COMPOSITION, for instance, admit for borderline cases?)

But in any case, I think we more sound reasons for rejecting that sort of conceptual analysis:

First, whatever the correct account of vagueness may be (and perhaps we lump together distinct phenomena when we use that term) it requires it we have cognitive access to mental representations which, by themselves, have necessary and sufficient criteria of application, and since at least the work of Eleanor Rosch that this is false.

Second, the kind of conceptual analysis you discuss has had an illustrious history of failures--I can't think of any non-trivial, uncontroversial analysis of any concept of philosophical importance. We might disagree (as philosophers and those in academia generally are wont to do) about why that is so, but if anyone thinks I'm wrong I'd be interested to see what they have to offer as an example of a successful analysis.

Finally, in case anyone is interested, I posted a parody of that sort of conceptual analysis on my own blog here:

http://www.scholardarity.com/?p=3999

Jason Streitfeld

Hi again. One more question. If you say that nothing could *possibly* make Williamson's epistemicism true, then isn't it also the case that nothing could make it false? I.e., it's not an empirical claim at all, is it? So if it is determinately false, that is not because of any empirical/predictive value.

Tom Hewitt

Hi Marcus, another interesting post, thank you.

You say in reply to Ben, above, 'Humanities and social sciences *would* be better if they had the methods of hard science at their disposal (much as psychology is now better off), but, in lieu of such methods, we have nothing left to do *except* to engage in humanistic/social scientific inquiry.'

But I ask, will the humanities benefit from the scientific method? If, e.g., music is fundamentally fuzzy-edged in its ontological standing with the world, how does a scientific-reductionist approach help in our 'understanding' of our experiences of and with it? Music, surely, is even more susceptible to indeterminism that a table. I do believe that music (and the arts generally) are fuzzy-edged in the kind of way described by Kosko (fuzzier than tables!).

Pete Mandik

Thanks, Marcus. If your open mind is in a hurry, you can skip to section 3 and start there.

Marcus Arvan

Joe: You write, "The tradition of analytic philosophy, on the whole, has never been particularly naturalistic. Just sayin'..."

I reply: For hundreds of thousands of years, physics and psychology weren't particularly naturalistic, either. How well did *that* work?

Here's what physics was before becoming naturalist/making determinate predictions:

1. "All is water" (Thales)
2. "All is fire" (Heraclitus)
3. "All is flux" (Heraclitus)
4. "All is the boundless." (Anaximander)
5. Etc.

All speculative B.S. Since making determinate predictions? Relativity, quantum mechanics, computers, etc.

Here was psychology prior to making determinate predictions:

1. The mind has an id, ego, superego (Freud).
2. The mind is simply behavior/operant conditioning (Skinner)
3. The mind is striving for self-realization (the Humanists).
Etc.

Also, rampant speculation.

Just because philosophy has never had a tradition of making determinate predictions is *no* reason to think that it shouldn't--and the history of human inquiry provides innumerable reasons why it should.

Marcus Arvan

Charles: Thanks for your comment!

First, you write: "1. I'm curious as to what kind of empirically verifiable predictions you have in mind, especially when it comes to those areas that science cannot get at completely. You mention normativity. Can you give examples of predictions that a 'natural' philosophy of normativity would make?"

I reply: I am writing a book on this right now. I think Hobbes had roughly the right *idea* in mind when, in Leviathan, he attempted to give a systematic and empirically respectable theory of (A) how we use normative concepts and language ("good", "evil", etc.), and (B) how those concepts figure into practical deliberation. I believe that science can help us settle these issues, and that any moral philosophy worth taking seriously must cohere with the science. To which I say: many moral theories (hard-core moral realism) simply do not. Basically, I want to say--with Hobbes--that we can derive normativity, and moral philosophy, *only* from an empirically respectable theory of how normative concepts function, and how practical deliberation works (something Kant was also trying to do...speculatively).

So, that's my first answer. Science must inform and constrain moral theorizing, for *it* tells us what our concepts really are (to the extent that they have any determinate meaning), how we really deliberate, etc. In turn, an empirically informed moral philosophy will--I believe (and argue in my book)--cohere in turn with actual moral behavior, *predicting* certain types of moral judgments over others.

Your second question is: 2. What do you think about applied/normative ethics, political philosophy, and normative epistemology, i.e., questions such as "how should we behave?", "how should we organize society?", "how should we form and revise our beliefs?", etc. Should answers to those questions make empirically verifiable predictions as well? What would such predictions look like?"

I reply: Yes. One of the biggest problems with philosophical theorizing in moral and political philosophy is that it is *not* informed by our best empirical knowledge of human behavior and deliberation. Here too, I think science should constrain philosophy and philosophy inform science. So, for instance, philosophical decision-theory might predict (as I think it does) that certain norms of equal treatment--morally and politically--are more *stable* than others, comprising an equilibrium point between the competing interests of competing agents. Rawls, for instance, predicts that his principles of justice will be more stable--at least in a society whose citizens have a well-developed sense of justice--than alternative social-political schemes. Whether Rawls is *right* is something that science can and should investigate. If he's *not* right--if human beings' sense of justice (and higher-order interests and motivations) do not conform to his model--then his model should be rejected on empirical grounds. Similarly, consider libertarianism. One of the biggest complaints about it--one that I am sympathetic with--is that it is perniciously utopian and inherently unstable (viz. free markets result in increasing wealth disparities, which result in institutional capture, which result in "crony capitalism", thus undermining libertarian institutions). Here too libertarianism at least implicitly makes a prediction (this is how human beings *should* interact!), and this is a prediction that empirical science might rule out as completely unrealistic.

I believe moral and political theory need to go down this route far more--teasing out the empirical predictions of different theories of practical reason, moral behavior, and then leave it up to empirical science to verify or falsify the model.

Your third comment is: "3. Couldn't analytic philosophers respond as follows? Many (most?) analytic philosophers working on some concept X do not try to *determine exactly* or *define* what X is (call that endeavor "definition"), but rather to *clarify* and *improve our understanding* of X by pointing out things that X involves, implies, entails, presupposes, and the like (call that endeavor "clarification")."

I reply: Imagine baldness-investigators saying, "We are trying not to determine what baldness is precisely, but we are attempting to *clarify* what baldness is." The right thing to say here is that the baldness investigator is already making a silly mistake. Vague terms cannot be *clarified*, as they are vague. All one can do with a vague term is make semantic *decisions* (i.e. precisifications), thus *constructing* new ways of making the term more precise. So, for instance, two baldness investigators over here might settle on their preferred precisification (one that sits with their intuitions) and two other baldness investigators over there, who do not find the first two's account "plausible", develop their own account of what "baldness" is. This is pure silliness. There is no answer!. They are making up answers they like as they go along. The term bald is irreducibly vague, and attempts to *make* it precise--like trying to cram a square peg in a round hole--only alter the concept, creating a new one (viz. whittling away the edges of a square to make it now round). This isn't *discovering* anything. It is making "facts" up, when those facts are just ongoing semantic decisions.

Finally, look, I am not saying that conceptual clarification is completely wrongheaded. I made this clear in the comments section of "Misled by language?" The point is to not seek *artificial* levels of clarity. I gave a general strategy for how to do this. Vague language has--as you mention--a couple of aspects: (A) clear, central domains of application, and (B) indeterminate, penumbral domains of application where there is no answer as to how use the term/concept correctly. I think we can do conceptual analysis fruitfully to get clear on the former, but that once we lapse into the latter area, we are engaging in pointless, frictionless concept manipulation. Finally, I gave a method for figuring out when this is: it is *precisely* when we begin to battle over interminable debates over *whether* X is a case of "Y". (Viz. "Is he bald? You think so, I don't think so. Let's see if we can figure out the answer", or, "Are tables composed of particles or not? You think so, I think not. Let's see if we can figure out the answer!"). The moment we begin to wade into stuff like this, I argue, we've gone too far. We should then retreat to more determinate ground (viz. "Well, look, the *relevant* think is that some people have hair, others don't" or, "Well, look, does it really matter? We can all agree there are particles arranged in table-y ways such that we can set glasses on them, etc. So, let's go investigate *those* phenomena--particles, etc.--and set the question of whether "tables" really exist aside as one lacking a determinate answer.

Marcus Arvan

eyeyethink: Thanks for your comment! You worry that my account is self-undermining.

You write: Philosophy, according to Marcus, is "little more than an exercise in battling argumentatively over how to interpret vague concepts for which there is no determinately correct interpretation (i.e. no truth at all)".

But wait: I *never* said this. I said that philosophy *can* turn into that...when we go beyond clear, predictive meanings of terms and wade into debating the "correct" interpretation of concepts in penumbral cases (viz. "Are tables composed of particles, or are particles just arranged 'table-wise'?).

Moreover, the argument I gave for this is in no way self-defeating, or based on the kind of "vague-language-mining" I am criticizing. I have given *empirical* arguments that our language is vague, that epistemicism is empirically the wrong way to think about vagueness, and once we understand these facts, we have *empirical* reasons to think that a certain kind of philosophy--a certain *kind* of conceptual analysis--is likely to be mistaken and fruitless, leading to precisely the kinds of interminable debates philosophers all too often find themselves in.

Ben

Marcus:

The claims you attribute to the Presocratics, Freud, Skinner, and the humanistic psychologists all could easily be interpreted as falsifiable empirical claims to me. Presumably they would have to be, in order to be speculative. If so, the problem with them is not that the people who made them lacked proper naturalistic aspirations, but that they lacked the methodologies to back their aspirations up. You want to tell humanists "Have naturalistic aims!" but if these thinkers are as you interpret them, they do not need to be told that. They have the aims you want already; they just lacked good means to achieving them.

On the other hand, I doubt all the projects you list are best interpreted and evaluated on naturalistic terms. Certainly many people do not view psychoanalysis in this way; it can support what many people reasonably take to be a valuable kind of self-understanding, so long as this kind of self-understanding is not mistaken for anything like a causal explanation.

Marcus Arvan

Jason Zarri: Thanks for your comment!

You write: "To me your post seems to presuppose too sharp of a distinction between what is empirically verifiable (and hence what counts as 'determinate') and what isn't--surely we could construct a sorities-series for the increasing exactness and fruitfulness of physics."

I reply: my post presupposes no such thing. I talked about this in the comments section of my previous post, "Misled by language?". I think Quine was right to hold that there is no determinate analytic/synthetic distinction, and thus, there is no *determinate* border between what comprises an empirical prediction and a non-empirical one. Fortunately, none of this prevents us from making empirical predictions, any more than vagueness prevents us from being able to pick out bald/non-bald people. Since language is vague--since what it *is* an empirical prediction is vague, but empirical predictions are necessary to lend our concepts any real amount of determinacy--we should strive, just as we do in picking out bald people, to do the best we can, making as many predictions that we might be able to set up empirical tests for as we can. The fact that there is vagueness even here does not undermine my account. For *science* can help us determine which things can be tested and which cannot--at least insofar as this is *determinately* possible.

In short: yes, I want to go "all the way down the rabbit hole" and say that vagueness infects all of our investigations, but that our *aim* should be to try to do philosophical theorizing that makes clear empirical predictions (something which is plainly not a priority in analytic philosophy today).

You write: "Also, isn't math precise despite not making any empirical predictions; and doesn't physics inherit whatever precision it has from its incorporation of math?"

I reply: "Mathematical and logical concepts are *alone* among concepts we have in being perfectly precise, absent empirical predictions. This is precisely why we can do fruitful "a priori math" but not fruitful "a priori philosophy". Aside from logic--which is purely formal--all of the concepts philosophers work with are vague in ways that mathematical concepts are not. It is *that* vagueness that poses the problems I am raising--so math and philosophy do not face the same problems because they do not work with the same kinds of concepts (determinate ones in math, indeterminate ones in philosophy--pure logic aside).

You write: As I understand Williamson's view, the extension of a predicate supervenes may supervene both on usage and external factors, but of course for vague terms we can't *know* the sharp cutoffs of their extensions because otherwise they wouldn't be vague. And if we can't know that in principle--which is what their vagueness consists in--trying to determine their exact bounds a priori is futile."

I reply: So Williamson's view comes to this...

(1) Vague terms have sharp boundaries.
(2) Those sharp boundaries supervene on usage, etc.
(3) Nothing about usage can in *principle* explain where the sharp boundaries are.

To which I call bullshit. QED :) Seriously, though, either (1) facts about usage *explain* where the sharp boundaries are (in which case they *should* be knowable in principle), or (2) facts about usage do *not* explain where the sharp boundaries are, in which case the sharp boundaries are the equivalent of fairies, phlogiston, and aether. End of story.

Marcus Arvan

Ben: I think you're taking the analogy too literally. Yes, the Presocratics were making empirically falsifiable things. The point I was trying to make is that a priori investigation is no way to get at truth. It was no way to get truth in *their* case because it lacked sound empirical methods (viz. the scientific method), and it is no way to get at truth in *our* case because we philosophers are mucking around with fundamentally indeterminate concepts.

The point, in other words, is that although a priori speculating is messed up for different reasons in each case, IT IS MESSED UP -- in different ways in different domains. *They* shouldn't have done it because there is a better method (the scientific method). *We* shouldn't do it because our terms are fundamentally vague, and scientific predictions are necessary for lending our inquiries a *suitable* level of determinacy (as opposed to the kind running on frictionless-ice--to use Wittgenstein's metaphor--that a priori conceptual analysis too often results in).

Marcus Arvan

Charles: A quick follow-up, as there is something in your comment that I forgot to reply to.

You write: "Take the claim that knowledge is factive (that you can't know something that's false). That claim seems correct and denying it seems wrong. We realized this by pursuing "clarification" regarding the concept of knowledge. At the same time, claims like this one don't seem to be empirically verifiable predictions."

I reply: it is wrong to think that philosophers *discovered* through clarification that knowledge is factive. The average, ordinary person knows that. (This is, I think, one of those--all too common cases--where analytic philosophers make themselves out as having made a "discovery" that is, in reality, totally trivial and basically known by everyone anyway).

Marcus Arvan

Jason: You write, "One more question. If you say that nothing could *possibly* make Williamson's epistemicism true, then isn't it also the case that nothing could make it false? I.e., it's not an empirical claim at all, is it? So if it is determinately false, that is not because of any empirical/predictive value."

I reply: I wasn't as clear as I should have been--as I didn't intend to make a modal claim. All I meant to say is: there is nothing in the world that *does* make Williamsonian epistemicism true, and stuff that *does* make it false (i.e. conceptual processing, human behavior, etc.)

Marcus Arvan

Hi Tom: Thanks for your comment!

You write: "But I ask, will the humanities benefit from the scientific method? If, e.g., music is fundamentally fuzzy-edged in its ontological standing with the world, how does a scientific-reductionist approach help in our 'understanding' of our experiences of and with it? Music, surely, is even more susceptible to indeterminism that a table. I do believe that music (and the arts generally) are fuzzy-edged in the kind of way described by Kosko (fuzzier than tables!)."

I reply: science already *has* begun to help us understand music and art better. It can explain, for instance, why certain chord progressions move us in the way they do, why certain song structures strike us as "catchy" or "beautiful" or "surprising", etc. Moreover, songwriters have already begun to make use of these findings--findings which, in vague ways, were already known (at least implicitly, or procedurally) by the best songwriters (Beethoven, Lennon, etc.)--even before science clarified them. Finally, science might well point out the *ways* in which music is fuzzy (viz. how people with different experiences interpret different song-structures differently, etc.).

Michel X.

I don't know about philosophy's relationship to science or the predictive powers of philosophy, but I thought I should perhaps mention a different angle. I don't know whether Unger has this in mind, but it strikes me that it fits pretty neatly with what he had to say.

A few years ago, a sociologist's book on multidisciplinary grant peer review (Michèle Lamont's "How Professors Think") sparked a fairly long-winded discussion in the philosophy blogosphere (two of the main ones were on Crooked Timber, here [http://crookedtimber.org/2009/05/20/michele-lamont-on-philosophers/] and here [http://crookedtimber.org/2009/06/08/disciplinary-pecking-order-what-defines-theory-what-is-a-philosopher-and-other-musings/]). Now, Lamont has almost nothing at all to say about philosophy or philosophers in her book, but she does observe that panelists from other disciplines think of philosophy as a "problem" discipline. Partly, she says, this has to do with the perception that philosophy is fundamentally "inward-looking"--which is to say, we care about our own little problems that nobody else can be bothered about, let alone understand without a full course on the topic. This, in turn, contributes to the fact that we don't recognize anybody else's authority over us and our work--only philosophers are qualified, we think, to evaluate philosophical work. Add to that the fact that the other fields with whom we tend to get lumped in (English, Anthropology, etc.) have been seriously affected by relativism and post-structuralist thought (which a great many of us don't take seriously), and you've got a discipline that doesn't play too well with others.

Here's where I think this links up with what Unger has to say: we've increasingly abandoned other fields to their own devices to concentrate on our own thing, and made little effort to reach out to them afterwards. We don't need to do the same things science does in order to have an impact; we can do much the same stuff we currently do, and still have an impact on other fields of inquiry (e.g. literary theory could use a hefty dose of the debates over truth in fiction and intentionalism). We just don't.

Now, that strikes me more as a failure of outreach than a failure of content or methodology. In fact, it's exactly the same kind of failure that's been bemoaned again and again with respect to the role of science in American public policy.

Jason Streitfeld

Thanks for the reply. It's not so clear that human behavior or natural processes could be used as evidence against Williamson. I wonder what sort of predictions you think Williamson makes which would lead to empirical falsification.

Marcus Arvan

Pete: Reading your Type-Q materialism paper now. I deny its starting-point. You say that neo-dualist arguments are based on (1) inferring dualist metaphysical conclusions, from (2) arguments for an epistemic gap. I don't think that's right. *Many* dualist arguments have that form. The argument that I think is definitive does not: it is metaphysical through-and-through. It holds that science can only describe *relational* properties (viz. electrons are things that behave thus-and-so), and that for there to *be* relational properties all, there must be fundamentally intrinsic, qualitative properties--a fundamentally different type of property--standing behind the relations. In other words, there must *be* two fundamentally different types of things, only one of which can in principle be explained by physical science. Ergo, dualism is true. This is not deriving dualism from epistemology. It is deriving dualism from the metaphysical nature of what it is for something to be a physical/structural object or property.

Marcus Arvan

Jason Streitfeld: The *same* sort of claim was made in defense of the "aether" after Einstein discovered relativity. Metaphysician after metaphysician said, "Well, Einstein has shown that *measurements* of space and time are relative, but nothing could in principle be used to provide evidence against absolute space." To which Einstein replied: "Whatever."

I say this jokingly, but the point is serious. Philosophers--like Williamson--have long given a priori theories that, they say, are immune from any sort of verification or falsification (viz. "The sharp-boundaries are just there, dammit, and they supervene on behavior...but cannot be *explained* by behavior"). Sorry, but this is precisely what phlogiston theorists did. It wasn't worth taking seriously then, and it isn't worth taking seriously now. Either Williamsonian epistemicism makes empirical predictions, in which case it is false, or else it doesn't, in which case it is totally ungrounded speculation--not to mention patently *implausible* speculation, given that it says (1) there are boundaries, (2) those boundaries supervene on behavior, but (3) *nothing* in measurable behavior could explain where they are.

An analogy: The Christmas-Gnome theory of ocean tides says that (1) there are Christmas Gnomes, (2) the ocean tides supervene on their behavior, but (3) there is no test we could run, even in principle, to explain the connection. This theory is not worth taking seriously. Nor is a theory of vagueness that ties its epistemic theory to *no* predictions that could possibly falsify it.

Pete Mandik

Interesting points, Marcus. Maybe you're not deriving dualism from something epistemic. I don't know, I'd need to hear more.

Why do you think it's true that "for there to *be* relational properties all, there must be fundamentally intrinsic, qualitative properties"? More to the point: Can you give me some reason for believing that there *are* any intrinsic properties that doesn't involve appealing to some allegedly special epistemic whatsit, like so-called direct acquantaince with phenomenal properties?

And here's a way of putting my worry about whether your metaphilosophy hangs with your antiphysicalism. If it is true that science only delivers relational properties, and, as you've been arguing in this post, conceptual determinacy requires testable predictions, then concept of so-called intrinsic qualitative properties is in deep doo-doo. Isn't it?

Jason Streitfeld

If I am reading your initial post correctly, you are saying that Williamson's view is most certainly false according to the available empirical evidence. But then you also say, "Either Williamsonian epistemicism makes empirical predictions, in which case it is false, or else it doesn't, in which case it is totally ungrounded speculation . . ."

But you are treating it as a hypothesis about the natural world. What if that is not the right way of looking at it.

I'm ignoring how Williamson himself might say we should look at it. He could be wrong about how we should look at it. The point I'm after is that the value, or even the truth, of claims such as Williamson's might not be best appreciated by thinking of them in terms of empirical hypotheses or speculations.

To illustrate, I'll consider your presentation of Williamson's thesis: "(1) there are boundaries, (2) those boundaries supervene on behavior, but (3) *nothing* in measurable behavior could explain where they are."

One way of explaining that might be to view the boundaries as irreducibly social.

You accept, I take it, that some words have determinate meanings. So there are boundaries, as far as the meanings of some words goes. Presumably those boundaries supervene on behaviour. But what empirical observations could allow us to identify those boundaries? What about the boundaries of the language we are using to frame our empirical investigations?

Marcus Arvan

Hi Jason: Thanks for your reply. However, I'm a bit confused by it on a couple of levels.

First, you write: "But you are treating it as a hypothesis about the natural world. What if that is not the right way of looking at it."

I reply: If (1) linguistic behavior, (2) how our concepts work, (3) how their boundaries are drawn, etc., are not hypotheses about the natural world, I have no idea what is!

Look, philosophers and physicists said the *same* things you are saying about the theory of relativity when Einstein first came out with it. "What if", they said, "space and time just aren't natural hypotheses at all? What if that is the wrong way to think about them?" To which Einstein said: then you're talking about inconsequential stuff that have *no* basis in reality. And, of course, since then we've seen the error of our ways. No one raises those questions anymore. Either Williamson's theory makes predictions, in which case it is false, or else it makes no predictions, in which case it is "not even wrong."

Anyway, later on in your comment you write: "One way of explaining that might be to view the boundaries as irreducibly social."

I reply: I have no idea what you mean by "irreducibly social." If you mean: not *explainable* in scientific, verifiable terms by how people actually behave, then I say the idea is nuts (just as it is nuts to talk about garden gnomes if one stipulates they "irreducibly" cause the ocean tides to go in and out).

Finally, you write: "You accept, I take it, that some words have determinate meanings. So there are boundaries, as far as the meanings of some words goes. Presumably those boundaries supervene on behaviour. But what empirical observations could allow us to identify those boundaries? What about the boundaries of the language we are using to frame our empirical investigations?"

I reply: I think, like, maybe only logical and mathematical terms have determinate meanings, and that's all. I don't think any other concepts do. And, what empirical observations do I think could establish where vague boundaries are? Answer: observations of how human brains process concepts. I already think we have an idea of how this goes. The cerebral cortex -- the part the brain that processes concepts -- is (1) massively redundant (there are literally millions of circuits that code for *almost* the same thing, which is why brains don't "crash" the way computers do), and (2) these massively redundant systems are continually updating themselves, drawing *different* conceptual boundaries all of the time (in which case, yes, empirically, Williamson is wrong--different people's brains code *bazillions* of different concepts -- or what Millikan calls 'unicepts' -- of "bald", "table", etc., and we can communicate effectively just insofar as our unicepts are *close* enough to others). Neuroscience strongly suggests that this is the right story, and that Williamson's notion that there is *a* concept of "bald" with sharp boundaries is empirically as wrong as one can imagine.

Marcus Arvan

Pete: I just emailed you with answers to your questions about how I defend dualism. No, it doesn't involve any epistemic "whats-it"--direct knowledge of phenomenal properties--of the sort appealed to in existing arguments for dualism. My new argument is thoroughly empirical in nature, and argues that physics cannot be complete. But I don't want to give the argument away before I publish it, so perhaps we can talk about it privately!

eyeyethink

Hi Marcus, I really share your skepticism about theoretical philosophy, and I greatly admire your heroics in answering all the objections being raised. You're a beast!

But I really am worried that the metaphilosophy makes similar mistakes, at least as presently formulated. I am particularly worried about requiring a strict empirical/non-empirical distinction (an issue raised above by others).

E.g., in response to the self-undermining objection, your claim was that your argument was empirical. Well, is it really? I mean, have you run trials with randomized variables, tabulated the data, etc.? I suspect you haven't, but I'm still perfectly willing to agree that your argument is "empirical" in one sense. Though it is not empirical in another.

You might argue that your data comes from your own experience as a philosopher in the profession. But this is rather like a sociologist saying her/his data comes from her/his experience living in American society.

In the sociologist case, there's more of a tendency to say that any results are not really empirically based, but are more based on one individual's anecdotal evidence. Still, anecdotal evidence is empirical evidence in one sense. But here we go again with different precisifications of 'empirical'!

Here's another way we run into problems with 'empirical'. In order for your metaphilosophy to have practical consequences or whatnot, we'd need a criterion by which to judge the worth of various philosophical projects. But in making those judgments, I worry that we'd be playing messy word games again, using terms like 'empirically based' or 'significant verifiable predictions', etc.

The upshot is...why not be skeptical of this metaphilosophy as well? (You might ask: What's the alternative? I reply: If I'm a skeptic, I don't claim to know.)

Jason Streitfeld

Hi Marcus,

I shared eyeyethink's admiration of your diligence in responding to everyone's questions and objections. I've gone through all the comments and tried to put together a comprehensive response. I've selected a sample of your claims which I think are problematic. I've numbered them below. My responses are alphabetized.

1. “Just because philosophy has never had a tradition of making determinate predictions is *no* reason to think that it shouldn't--and the history of human inquiry provides innumerable reasons why it should.”

a.You are ignoring the fact that many fields of inquiry do not primarily aim at making determinate predictions. E.g., mathematics, the arts, logic. Many central aspects of philosophy do not obviously aim, and have never obviously aimed, at making determinate predictions. Even if philosophy were the only field of inquiry not to make determinate predictions, you still need some argument for why it should.

2. “we can derive normativity, and moral philosophy, *only* from an empirically respectable theory of how normative concepts function, and how practical deliberation works . . . [Science} tells us what our concepts really are (to the extent that they have any determinate meaning), how we really deliberate, etc.”

b. This runs afoul of the is/ought distinction: How can we derive normative statements (oughts) from descriptive statements about how something functions?

c. How can science tell us what our concepts are? Is a statement of the form “concepts are x” testable by empirical methods? This is not obvious. You are assuming that there are truths about mental entities (concepts, normativity) that can be discovered by the empirical methods of science. Why should anybody accept that assumption? It is, at the very least, controversial.

3. “The term bald is irreducibly vague, and attempts to *make* it precise--like trying to cram a square peg in a round hole--only alter the concept, creating a new one (viz. whittling away the edges of a square to make it now round).”

d. Okay, but what does it mean for a concept to be “irreducibly vague”? What if “irreducibly vague” just means its meaning is determined by social action and not any underlying facts about the world? If you say there are no facts which determine the answers that baldness investigators seek, then you are claiming that no empirical observations can falsify their hypotheses. They are looking for facts that do not exist. And yet, the term “bald” is still both meaningful and useful as a descriptor of natural phenomena. We can agree on that, for now. So we agree that we can have meaningful, useful concepts to describe natural phenomena, and yet there are empirical questions about the correct use of those concepts which cannot, in principle, be answered. To put it another way: There are concepts the correct use of which cannot be determined by scientific means, and yet which have a (more or less) correct use. After all, you would agree that attributions of baldness can be true or false. Science cannot reliably tell us which are which.

Now, what if Williamson’s claim about vagueness is of this sort? What if its truth or falsity is determined by social action and not any underlying facts about the world, so that no empirical observations can reliably tell us if it is true or false? It seems that it is of this sort, because it entails a claim about how and whether we can draw a line between determinate concepts and indeterminate ones. You claim that we cannot use empirical science to draw any such line: In response to Jazon Zari, you say: “there is no *determinate* border between what comprises an empirical prediction and a non-empirical one.” And yet, you claim that there is some “precise” point at which conceptual analysis becomes a waste of time: “it is *precisely* when we begin to battle over interminable debates.”

Such battles are caused by any number of factors having to do with practical interests. Whether we debate over the application of a term depends in large part over what is at stake. It does not obviously depend on there being a determinate answer to the question of correctness. And, indeed, according to you, there is no precise point when a concept becomes intrinsically vague. Science cannot, in principle, identify a particular line when the application of a concept becomes too vague to haggle over.

Here’s the rub. You have implied that concepts like “the application of a concept” are intrinsically vague already, which means that you cannot consistently hold that Williamson’s view is empirically false.

4. “Aside from logic--which is purely formal--all of the concepts philosophers work with are vague in ways that mathematical concepts are not. It is *that* vagueness that poses the problems I am raising. . .”

e. It’s not obvious that all philosophical concepts are vague. What about “truth,” “meaning,” and “value”? What empirical research project could answer that question? It is also worth considering the claim that mathematics and pure logic can completely avoid vagueness. Is there some empirical argument for that? If not, how can it be determinately true?

5. “either (1) facts about usage *explain* where the sharp boundaries are (in which case they *should* be knowable in principle), or (2) facts about usage do *not* explain where the sharp boundaries are, in which case the sharp boundaries are the equivalent of fairies, phlogiston, and aether. End of story.”

f. You’ve been taking a very Wittgensteinian line, but maybe not as far down the rabbit hole as you should be going. Why should we think that all facts about the use of a word tell us every correct application of that word? Your point is that there is no such thing as the correct application—that, with vague terms, we just make it up as we go along. But Wittgenstein’s point applies equally well to mathematics and not just ordinary language. Facts about usage cannot explain where any sharp boundaries are (though this point is not empirically demonstrable), but this does not mean that sharp boundaries are the equivalent of fairies, phlogiston or aether.

6. “there is nothing in the world that *does* make Williamsonian epistemicism true, and stuff that *does* make it false (i.e. conceptual processing, human behavior, etc.)” and, “The cerebral cortex -- the part the brain that processes concepts -- is (1) massively redundant (there are literally millions of circuits that code for *almost* the same thing, which is why brains don't "crash" the way computers do), and (2) these massively redundant systems are continually updating themselves, drawing *different* conceptual boundaries all of the time (in which case, yes, empirically, Williamson is wrong--different people's brains code *bazillions* of different concepts -- or what Millikan calls 'unicepts' -- of "bald", "table", etc., and we can communicate effectively just insofar as our unicepts are *close* enough to others). Neuroscience strongly suggests that this is the right story, and that Williamson's notion that there is *a* concept of "bald" with sharp boundaries is empirically as wrong as one can imagine.”

g. Let’s say you’re right, and neuroscience gives us a “strong suggestion” that Williamson is wrong. That does not justify the claim that Williamson is “empirically as wrong as one can imagine.” At best, it means that further investigation is required.

h. But I am not convinced you are right about what conclusions we can draw from the neuroscientific evidence. Your argument is: Our information processors continually update, drawing different conceptual boundaries all the time. But all that means is that our concepts are continually changing. It does not mean that any particular concept has or does not have definite boundaries. It still seems to me like the question Williamson is dealing with is outside the bounds of neuroscientific investigation, and for the reasons I stated above.

7. “Either Williamsonian epistemicism makes empirical predictions, in which case it is false, or else it doesn't, in which case it is totally ungrounded speculation--not to mention patently *implausible* speculation, given that it says (1) there are boundaries, (2) those boundaries supervene on behavior, but (3) *nothing* in measurable behavior could explain where they are.”

i. Whether it is “totally ungrounded speculation” is unclear. You have not shown that it is. If you want to show that it is ungrounded speculation, you need to address Williamson’s arguments. (By the way, I’m not saying I have any interest in defending his arguments. His arguments are beside the point. The point is in how we should understand the sort of claim he has given us.) And the Christmas Gnome analogy does not work.

8. “Look, philosophers and physicists said the *same* things you are saying about the theory of relativity when Einstein first came out with it. "What if", they said, "space and time just aren't natural hypotheses at all? What if that is the wrong way to think about them?" To which Einstein said: then you're talking about inconsequential stuff that have *no* basis in reality. And, of course, since then we've seen the error of our ways.”

j. It’s not that simple. The idea of space and time as mental categories is still alive and well, and Einstein has done nothing to touch that. Spacetime, according to general relativity, is not obviously a theory about the mental categories at all. But we don’t need to get into this. Maybe you’re right, maybe not. The more important point is that you are *assuming* that we should treat Williamson’s claim as a claim about physical facts. That is begging the question.

Jason Streitfeld

* I SHARE eyeyethink's admiration. Didn't meant to put that in the past tense. :)

Beau Madison Mount

Let's consider the case that you start with about nihilism and universalism about composition. Take universalism to be the thesis that spatiotemporal objects obey classical mereology and that every fusion of spatiotemporal objects is a spatiotemporal object. That entails:

(1) The number of spatiotemporal objects is either infinite or 2^n-1 for some finite n.

Why is (1) not a predictive empirical claim? It's about spatiotemporal objects, which are presumably an acceptable subject matter for empirical claims if anything is. If it's indeterminate, that can only be because either the predicate 'spatiotemporal' or the logical constants are indeterminate, since the claim can be formulated in second-order logic using only that predicate. If the former is the case, then that's a problem not just for philosophy but for physics, since presumably the question of what counts as spatiotemporal is of some importance to physics; if it's the latter, then that's a problem for everyone. Either way if (1) comes out indeterminate it's a pretty surprising and important discovery.

Sure, (1) is not a predictive empirical claim that is *testable through the methods of the natural sciences*, but why — absent narrowly verificationist background assumptions — should we expect that all important facts about the world must be amenable to discovery by instruments that humans can build? Maybe we'll never be in a position to know whether (1) is true or false — that doesn't make it any less a predictive empirical claim. (Physical theories, after all, also predict a lot of things that we may very well never be in a position definitively to confirm or disconfirm.)

Marcus Arvan

Hi Beau: Thanks for your comment and questions. I have to admit, however, that I'm very puzzled.

You write: Take universalism to be the thesis that spatiotemporal objects obey classical mereology and that every fusion of spatiotemporal objects is a spatiotemporal object. That entails:

(1) The number of spatiotemporal objects is either infinite or 2^n-1 for some finite n.

Why is (1) not a predictive empirical claim?"

I reply: It is not a predictive empirical claim because there is no experiment we could run -- even in *principle* -- to test the so-called "prediction"...which is just to say that it is not a *prediction* at all. To *predict* something is to say that such-and-such will happen if you do such-and-such. Mereological nihilism and compositionalism make no predictions in principle because they affirm all of the same basic spatiotemporal constituents (particles, etc.). The only difference between them is that compositionalism states that there is also a table spatiotemporally *coincident* with the particles. But, since they are (supposedly) spatiotemporally coincident, there is no *possible* empirical test that verify or falsify either claim. Which is to say, the views make no predictions.

This brings me to your claim: "Sure, (1) is not a predictive empirical claim that is *testable through the methods of the natural sciences*, but why — absent narrowly verificationist background assumptions — should we expect that all important facts about the world must be amenable to discovery by instruments that humans can build? Maybe we'll never be in a position to know whether (1) is true or false — that doesn't make it any less a predictive empirical claim."

I reply: if our aim as philosophers and scientists is to figure out (A) what we have evidence for, and (B) what is true and false -- and I certainly hope you think these are (or should be) our aims -- then "predictions" that can never, in principle, be verified are "not even wrong." They are propositions that we can, in principle, no confirmatory or falsifying evidence for. How is this any different than predicting that invisible garden gnomes make the tides go in and out? It is *metaphysically* possible that they do, but no serious discipline -- no discipline worth anyone's time -- will waste time on speculations of this sort.

Finally, you write: "Physical theories, after all, also predict a lot of things that we may very well never be in a position definitively to confirm or disconfirm."

I reply: sure--and people in the science community call those things speculative B.S., and give those theories up in favor of theories that explain the phenomena without all the B.S. (supersymmetric string theory is a case of this. Some of its proponents say it makes predictions, none of which have been verified. Others say it makes no predictions...all of which is why string theory is rapidly losing its luster in physics. Physicists *insist* upon confirmation and falsification. This is not verificationism (about meaning, etc.). It is simply to say that we can have no evidence for -- and shouldn't waste our time on -- things that cannot be verified or falsified in principle.

Marcus Arvan

eyeeyethink: Thanks! ;)

You write: "in response to the self-undermining objection, your claim was that your argument was empirical. Well, is it really? I mean, have you run trials with randomized variables, tabulated the data, etc.? I suspect you haven't, but I'm still perfectly willing to agree that your argument is "empirical" in one sense. Though it is not empirical in another.

You might argue that your data comes from your own experience as a philosopher in the profession. But this is rather like a sociologist saying her/his data comes from her/his experience living in American society.

In the sociologist case, there's more of a tendency to say that any results are not really empirically based, but are more based on one individual's anecdotal evidence. Still, anecdotal evidence is empirical evidence in one sense. But here we go again with different precisifications of 'empirical'!"

I reply: I'm not quite how to understand these passages. We know very well how the cerebral cortex is organized, and -- in increasing detail -- how it functions. It is *massively* parellel and redundant. The cerebral cortex, for instance, has an "outer layer" where neuroscientists can map out how the brain processes concepts (for instance, you can literally stimulate a single neuron, and the person will have a thought of "small" or have an experience as of hearing a Guns-n-Roses song. This is no joke! They do this prior to brain surgery). The networks that comprise this outer layer are then *nearly duplicated* in subsequent lower layers of the cortex. This is the brain's massive redundancy. (For a quick-and-dirty overview, see here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cerebral_cortex#Layered_structure ). So, I'm not akin to sociologist making "empirical claims" on the basis of living in society. I actually have a pretty good background brain science here. Further, you can also run trials of "forced marches" on vague concepts (Diana Raffman did so, I believe, in her book), and the outcome is what our theory of vagueness says: people draw very different boundaries in a forced march from instance to instance, case to case, in an ongoing manner, updating the boundaries they are apt to draw in an ongoing manner -- just as I am saying.

Finally, you write: "Here's another way we run into problems with 'empirical'. In order for your metaphilosophy to have practical consequences or whatnot, we'd need a criterion by which to judge the worth of various philosophical projects. But in making those judgments, I worry that we'd be playing messy word games again, using terms like 'empirically based' or 'significant verifiable predictions', etc."

I reply: This is actually a problem in every area of science. In physics, for instance, physicists debate what is worthwhile. Many people think string theory is worthwhile, others think it is not. Some think loop quantum gravity is worth spending time on, some don't. Etc. But what everyone DOES agree upon is one thing: what ultimately IS worth spending time on will come out in the wash. If supersymmetric string theory makes predictions (and it does), then if its predictions aren't verified -- and they haven't been so far -- then everyone will agree supersymmetry was a massive waste of time. (This is not a joke. There is an all-out crisis in the physics community right now on precisely this. Thousands of jobs, career reputations, and millions of dollars of funding hang in the balance. The money spent on the Large Hadron Collider was largely justified to policy-makers not merely as a means for finding one little thing -- the Higgs Boson -- but on the promise that it would likely deliver many other things too: micro black holes, extra dimensions, supersymmetric particles -- none of which have been observed.

Anyway, the point is this: there is always vagueness in what an "empirical" prediction is (this is something supersymmetry people have argued over too), and in what is therefore worth spending time on. What is NOT questioned in science is whether, ultimately, however this stuff shakes out, empirical predictions are what matter. I am saying philosophers should think the same way. Yes, there are metaphilosophical "problems" here -- but, as we well see in the sciences, they are problems that (again!) cannot be SOLVED so much as they simply have to be dealt with on an ongoing basis.

Marcus Arvan

Jason: Thanks for your thoughtful, and very detailed, comment. Let me work through it.

(1) You write: "You are ignoring the fact that many fields of inquiry do not primarily aim at making determinate predictions. E.g., mathematics, the arts, logic. Many central aspects of philosophy do not obviously aim, and have never obviously aimed, at making determinate predictions. Even if philosophy were the only field of inquiry not to make determinate predictions, you still need some argument for why it should."

I reply: I answered this issue in my comments above. Math and logic do not make predictions -- and do not fall prey to the problems I am raising -- because they deal with perfectly clear concepts. The problem philosophy faces is trying to reach (A) determinate a priori truths through (B) fundamentally vague concepts...which I claim to be a contradiction (an impossibility). Arts, on the other hand, do not aim at propositional truth so far as they aim to *express* or *demonstrate* VAGUE experiential truths (about emotion, the human condition, etc.) that we cannot adequately explain in scientific terms (at least not yet!). Finally, I *have* argued for why philosophy should make determinate predictions. It should make determinate predictions because, if it doesn't, it is *mere* manipulation of vague concepts, for which there can be no determinate answers (or philosophical truths to discover) at all. It is only *through* tethering philosophy to the world through predictions that our concepts have *enough* determinacy to be fruitful.

(2) You write: "b. This runs afoul of the is/ought distinction: How can we derive normative statements (oughts) from descriptive statements about how something functions?"

I reply: Read my book, if and when it comes out. ;) I argue that "genuine" normativity -- the kind moral realists, etc. are after -- is a fiction, and that we should instead understand "normativity" in terms of our normative *commitments*...which are natural, empirical phenomena.

(3) You write: "How can science tell us what our concepts are? Is a statement of the form “concepts are x” testable by empirical methods? This is not obvious. You are assuming that there are truths about mental entities (concepts, normativity) that can be discovered by the empirical methods of science. Why should anybody accept that assumption? It is, at the very least, controversial."

I reply: really? If concepts are not a natural phenomenon, I have no idea what is. Would you ask the physicist, "How do you space, time, and acceleration are natural things?" They would roll their eyes and tell you, "Run some experiments and get back to me." Similarly, I say: look at brain, and how it functions. It clearly does process concepts, including normative concepts. They are natural phenomena. If we can't agree on that, we might as well be doing astrology.

(4) You write: "Okay, but what does it mean for a concept to be “irreducibly vague”? What if “irreducibly vague” just means its meaning is determined by social action and not any underlying facts about the world?"

I reply: I have no idea what your question here means. How could something be (A) *determined* by social action, but (B) *not* by any underlying facts about the world? This is a contradiction. Suppose I were to say to you: "Ocean tides are determined by garden gnomes, but not any underlying facts about them." Huh? If garden gnomes existed and the determined the ocean tides, there would have to be facts *about* garden gnomes to explain how they affect the ocean tides. If not, then we're talking about magic and fairies.

(5) You write: "If you say there are no facts which determine the answers that baldness investigators seek, then you are claiming that no empirical observations can falsify their hypotheses. They are looking for facts that do not exist. And yet, the term “bald” is still both meaningful and useful as a descriptor of natural phenomena. We can agree on that, for now. So we agree that we can have meaningful, useful concepts to describe natural phenomena, and yet there are empirical questions about the correct use of those concepts which cannot, in principle, be answered. To put it another way: There are concepts the correct use of which cannot be determined by scientific means, and yet which have a (more or less) correct use. After all, you would agree that attributions of baldness can be true or false. Science cannot reliably tell us which are which."

I reply: no! This is like saying that because (A) science discovered that measurements of spacetime are relative to frames of reference, (B) there are no determinate, empirical facts about spacetime. That is a non-sequitur. What science teaches us is that (A) spacetime is relative to frames of reference, and (B) *this* is a determinate, confirmable fact. By a similar token, I am saying: science can, and does, indicate that brains have massively redundant arrays of what Millikan calls 'unicepts' (bald1, bald2, bald3, etc.), and that communication is possible only insofar as your class of unicepts--the unicepts your brain processes--are close enough to mine (so that we can "have some idea" of what the other person is on about...though no determinate idea!--since our unicepts are subtly different). Anyway, I am claiming that *these* are determinate facts. Science can (and, I say, does) suggest, determinately, that this is the character of vague language.

(6) You write: "Now, what if Williamson’s claim about vagueness is of this sort? What if its truth or falsity is determined by social action and not any underlying facts about the world, so that no empirical observations can reliably tell us if it is true or false."

I reply: I don't believe in magic. Neither should you. ;)

(7) You write: "You’ve been taking a very Wittgensteinian line, but maybe not as far down the rabbit hole as you should be going. Why should we think that all facts about the use of a word tell us every correct application of that word? Your point is that there is no such thing as the correct application—that, with vague terms, we just make it up as we go along. But Wittgenstein’s point applies equally well to mathematics and not just ordinary language. Facts about usage cannot explain where any sharp boundaries are (though this point is not empirically demonstrable), but this does not mean that sharp boundaries are the equivalent of fairies, phlogiston or aether."

I reply: Math is perfectly precise. The rest of language isn't. That's the difference.

(8) You write: Let’s say you’re right, and neuroscience gives us a “strong suggestion” that Williamson is wrong. That does not justify the claim that Williamson is “empirically as wrong as one can imagine.” At best, it means that further investigation is required.

I reply: fair enough. But I think enough facts are in to make a sound judgment. Science also strongly suggests that General Relativity is right. This doesn't show that Newtonian physics is as wrong as one can imagine...but, well, it's still wrong!

(9) You write: "But I am not convinced you are right about what conclusions we can draw from the neuroscientific evidence. Your argument is: Our information processors continually update, drawing different conceptual boundaries all the time. But all that means is that our concepts are continually changing. It does not mean that any particular concept has or does not have definite boundaries. It still seems to me like the question Williamson is dealing with is outside the bounds of neuroscientific investigation, and for the reasons I stated above."

I reply: I don't see how neuroscientific evidence showing that (A) we have no stable, single concepts (as Williamson claims), but rather (B) a vast array of 'unicepts', where (C) there are no facts in the world that uniquely favor any particular unicept as 'correct', doesn't lend a great deal of support to my picture of vagueness and disconfirm Williamson's. I think your resistance to seeing these facts as disconfirming Williamson stems from your belief that his theory makes *no* predictions whatsoever. But again, I have said what is wrong with this. You say, "It still seems to me like the question Williamson is dealing with is outside the bounds of neuroscientific investigation, and for the reasons I stated above." I say: This is *precisely* the kind of misbegotten stuff people said in response to Einstein when he came out with relativity. They said, "It still seems to me like space and time are outside of the bounds of physical investigation." To which Einstein said: then you're talking about stuff that has no basis reality.

(10) You write: "Whether it is “totally ungrounded speculation” is unclear. You have not shown that it is. If you want to show that it is ungrounded speculation, you need to address Williamson’s arguments. (By the way, I’m not saying I have any interest in defending his arguments. His arguments are beside the point. The point is in how we should understand the sort of claim he has given us.) And the Christmas Gnome analogy does not work."

I reply: I've been thinking about Williamson's arguments since his book came out in the late '90s. The argument I'm giving is:

(1) Any theory of *language* worth taking seriously must make empirical predictions (since language is *clearly* a natural phenomenon).

(2) Either Williamson's argument makes empirical predictions, or else it doesn't.

(3) If it makes empirical predictions, its predictions are false.

(4) If it doesn't make empirical predictions, it is not worth taking seriously (it is "not even wrong").

Thus (from 1-4), either Williamson's theory is false or it is not even wrong.

I still submit this is a sound argument. Where have I gone astray?

(11) You write: "It’s not that simple. The idea of space and time as mental categories is still alive and well, and Einstein has done nothing to touch that. Spacetime, according to general relativity, is not obviously a theory about the mental categories at all. But we don’t need to get into this. Maybe you’re right, maybe not. The more important point is that you are *assuming* that we should treat Williamson’s claim as a claim about physical facts. That is begging the question."

I reply: It is that simple. Either we are talking about the world, or we are not (we are talking about mere "mental categories"). If we are talking about the world, we are doing something worthwhile. If we are merely mucking around with indeterminate mental categories vis-a-vis vague concepts unrelated to reality, then we're not.

This, obviously, is the crux of the matter between you and I, and between physics and philosophy. Although you deride the garden gnome analogy, I can't stress it enough. Go back and read the history of relativity. When Einstein came out with the theory, philosopher after philosopher came out in opposition saying, "But space and time *must* be objective." Indeed, it was only because people were absolutely convinced of this on "a priori" grounds that it took so damn long for relativity to be discovered. Einstein, though very smart, was *not* a "genius." His initial paper on the Special Theory of Relativity is very simple, conceptually and mathematically. ALL he did is take a single conceptual leap that "a priori" philosophy had prevented people from taking (and there were others--Poincare, etc.--who ALMOST got there, but got sidetracked by their obsession with the "obvious a priori truth" that space and time must be absolute). Rampant a priori speculation--except in math and pure logic (which are precise)--has never contributed substantially to human knowledge. It has only stood in the way, time and time again.

Ambrose

Marcus, I hope you don't mind my butting in briefly. There seems to be a lot of question-begging here.

"Rampant a priori speculation ... has never contributed substantially to human knowledge. It has only stood in the way, time and time again."

That's true only if we assume that the "speculations" of (i) Plato and Aristotle wrt "forms" or (ii) Hume wrt "causes" or "reason" or "knowledge" or, for that matter, (iii) Wittgenstein wrt "grammar" and meta-philosophy or (iv) Quine and Carnap wrt "analyticity" were not "substantial" contributions to "knowledge".

And why wouldn't they be? One reason is apparently that "the world" or "reality" consists of the kinds of things that can be scientifically or empirically tested. Now your opponents will ask why that is the whole of reality... It's hard not to see all of this, in the end, as a bare conflict of intuitions. (And, in any case, if there was a non-question begging argument for your position, it would have to be a non-scientific one based in some kind of (plausible) philosophical speculation; so there'd be a kind of self-defeat involved, a bit like the self-defeat in Carnap's attempts to characterize what he himself was doing...)

Jason Streitfeld

The problem with the garden gnome analogy is that it misrepresents what I'm saying. I said meaning may be determined by social action and not explainable by any underlying facts about the world. In your analogy, you replace both "social action" and "underlying facts" with the same thing, as if there is no difference between social action and underlying facts.

In any case, your position re Williamson still seems to beg the question. I also wonder how your position re mathematical concepts is empirically determined.

I do agree that a general theory of language should rest heavily on empirical predictions. A theory of meaning or vagueness, or of truth or justice, on the other hand, not so much.

Marcus Arvan

Jason: Thanks for your reply!

You write: "I do agree that a general theory of language should rest heavily on empirical predictions. A theory of meaning or vagueness, or of truth or justice, on the other hand, not so much."

I reply: I hope you don't mean this. If anything is an empirical matter, linguistic meaning is. Language is a *natural* phenomenon. And vagueness is a part of language. The idea you suggest -- that meaning and vagueness are not natural phenomena -- is no less absurd than the claim that spacetime is not a natural phenomenon. Linguistic meaning and vagueness, like spacetime, can measured and empirically observed.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Ambrose: of course I don't mind you butting in!

Anyway, I don't think it's question-begging. I am giving an *empirical* argument--based on human concept- and language-processing--that a lot of "deep" metaphysical questions are simply the result of being bewitched by vague language.

The argument here is not merely pushing intuitions. It is an empirical, *explanatory* argument: namely, that the best explanation of various phenomena (interminable philosophical debates about "forms", "universals", "composition") is that these things are the *empirical* result (1) language being vague, and (2) inquirers failing to properly understand that vagueness (believing there are answers in places where, *empirically*, there are none).

Here's a more intuitive way of perhaps putting the (empirical) argument here. The philosopher notes that we use the term 'table' to pick out certain things in the world (stuff we put laptops on, beer bottles on, etc.--tables!). "Aha!", the philosopher thinks, "there must *be* some fact of the matter of what constitutes a table."

And so the philosopher gets together with friends to debate what a table is.

My argument is simple: we have *empirical* reasons to think that this mistake.

The philosopher thinks that just because we use a term, "table", meaningfully, that it *follows* that there must be metaphysical facts of the matter about what tables are--facts that if we think carefully about enough, argue about carefully enough, we can discover.

My claim is that *empirical* neuroscience indicates that there are no such facts--that the philosopher is after "truths" (about what "tables" are) that *just* aren't there...because, empirically, there is no determinate fact of the matter for how to use "table" correctly (there are tons of slightly different unicepts, none of which are uniquely correct).

This is thoroughgoing empirical argument, based on nothing more than (1) observation, and (2) inference to the best explanation--two things that define the scientific method (the only method that, historically, has given us stable knowledge of how the world is).

Jason Streitfeld

I'm not convinced that "a theory of x cannot rely heavily on empirical predictions" implies that x is not a natural phenomenon.

Jason Streitfeld

Hi again, Marcus. By the way, I don't think you successfully countered my objection to your conclusion re the neuroscientific evidence. How do you scientifically distinguish a concept from a unicept? There is no empirical reason to conclude that our unicepts and/or concepts do or do not have any correct uses at all. How do you propose we establish a criterion of correctness using neuroscience? And how does the brain manage to establish determinate concepts in the case of mathematics?

Jason Streitfeld

One more point, Marcus. You might be interested to know that I think consciousness is both necessary and sufficient for intentionality. So if there are any intrinsic/qualitative properties at all, meaning and intention qualify.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Jason: Thanks for your replies!

You write: I'm not convinced that "a theory of x cannot rely heavily on empirical predictions" implies that x is not a natural phenomenon.

My reply is: why not? If something is a natural phenomenon, a theory of it should make lots of predictions about it. For natural phenomena--electrons, protons, neutrons, human behavior--are things that *do* things (i.e. function in various ways).

You write: "By the way, I don't think you successfully countered my objection to your conclusion re the neuroscientific evidence. How do you scientifically distinguish a concept from a unicept? There is no empirical reason to conclude that our unicepts and/or concepts do or do not have any correct uses at all. How do you propose we establish a criterion of correctness using neuroscience? And how does the brain manage to establish determinate concepts in the case of mathematics?"

My thoughts are: the brain has a vast array of very finely-grained dispositions (i.e. disposition1 to deploy "bald" as such, a disposition2 to deploy the same word slightly differently, etc.). We see these dispositions in massively redundant networks. We then note that such fine-grained dispositions do not fit onto the folk-psychological notion of a 'concept' (which is broader/less fine-grained than that). We then do what scientists do, and classify the actually observed phenomena--the plurality of fine-grained dispositions--utilizing an operational definition (i.e. 'unicepts' are those dispositions). This is how science works. We study phenomena, see that there are particular things out there in the world, and create operational definitions--'electrons' are phenomena that obey such-and-such equations, etc. Examination of the brain then might indicate (or might not!-I can't settle it a priori!) that mathematical notions--e.g. numbers--are represented very differently, with a perfectly or near-perfectly set of dispositions, thus indication that all of our "number unicepts" map onto the folk-psychological notion of a "precise concept" very well. In this way, science--through observation of phenomena--*provides* us with the best, most fruitful ways of classifying things.

Your final comment is: "One more point, Marcus. You might be interested to know that I think consciousness is both necessary and sufficient for intentionality. So if there are any intrinsic/qualitative properties at all, meaning and intention qualify."

I reply: Ah, I see! We'd have to have an extended debate on phenomenology and intentionality then. I'm against the "phenomenal intentionality" movement, as I think consciousness is neither necessary nor sufficient for intentionality. Although I do think phenomenology is a *type* of intentionality--and a unique type at that!--I think it plain that Zombies would have intentional states; that their Zombie bodies would say things, uttering sentences, that genuinely *about* the world around them (e.g. their bodies would say, "I see tree over there!) in virtue of their brains' dispositions. I have a hard time seeing how this can be denied, given that their brains *would* track in their environment, and be disposed to say things like, "I see a tree over there" only when there *is* a tree over there (in which case I have a hard time seeing how their utterance isn't *about* the tree). But yeah, we would have to have an extended debate about this! :)

Marcus Arvan

Jason: a quick follow up my last point. Consider a Zombie World. Zombies have no consciousness. But zombies (1) point to trees, (2) say things like "I'm talking about that tree over there", and (3) their brains dispositionally track trees in their environment. Do you really want to say, in the face of all this, that their brain states, language, etc. is not "about" trees? If you are, I want to say I have no idea what "about" is supposed to mean if not simply "consciously aware of" in which case your account (1) begs the question, stipulating that consciousness is necessary and sufficient for aboutnesa, and (2) incredibly implausibly at that, since there are a number of obvious ways in which a Zombie's brain *responds* to and represents trees!

Jason Streitfeld

Hi Marcus . . . I'm afraid I can't follow you into Zombieland. I liked the movie, but I don't think zombies are conceivable. But I will say this, if some organism is pointing to a tree and making sounds that strongly resemble familiar speech patterns about trees, then I will assume that organism is both conscious and talking about trees. If you somehow convince me that it is not conscious, then I will say, "well, I guess it's not really talking about anything, then. How odd."

You say, "If something is a natural phenomenon, a theory of it should make lots of predictions about it."

A scientific theory, yes; but why must all useful or interesting theories about natural phenomena be scientific? Wouldn't you agree that conscious experience is a natural phenomenon? Why, then, do you think we cannot give a comprehensive empirical account of phenomenal consciousness? Or would you say that p-consciousness involves fairies or magic?

Regarding the neuroscience of unicepts, you say: "We then note that such fine-grained dispositions do not fit onto the folk-psychological notion of a 'concept' (which is broader/less fine-grained than that). We then do what scientists do, and classify the actually observed phenomena--the plurality of fine-grained dispositions--utilizing an operational definition (i.e. 'unicepts' are those dispositions)."

So you find some dispositions in the brain relating to how we process information and realize that they do not map onto discrete concepts, so you then . . . conclude that there are no discrete concepts with definite boundaries? How? Why?

Who says that concepts should map to neurological dispositions, anyway? What empirical investigation gave you that conclusion?

Marcus Arvan

Hi Jason: I don't blame you for not wanting to join me in Zombie Land. I grew up as a philosopher under Dennett, and thought all things dualism and Zombies to be absurd...until about 5 years ago. Then I got my head on straight! :)

Anyway, you write: "If you somehow convince me that it is not conscious, then I will say, "well, I guess it's not really talking about anything, then. How odd.""

I reply: Really? You want to say the Zombie's not talking about anything when it's standing there saying, "I'm talking about that tree, dammit!" Of course, it's not *consciously* talking about the tree. But it is talking about it! Suppose it then gave a lecture on Wittgenstein's Tractatus. It wouldn't be talking about the Tractatus? Really? I was reading Thomas Levenson's book "Einstein in Berlin" today and philosophers and physicalists were apoplectic about the relativity of space and time. They said things like, "*That's* not space and time. Einstein is talking about measurements. But space and time are the objective background against which all measurements are taken. Thus, his theory can't possibly be about space and time!" Suffice it to say, I think your denial of intentionality to Zombies is akin to this. The Zombie points to things in the world. It says, "I'm referring to *that*". If that's not aboutness--in any empirically respectable sense--I have to confess that I have no idea what is.

You write: "But why must all useful or interesting theories about natural phenomena be scientific? Wouldn't you agree that conscious experience is a natural phenomenon? Why, then, do you think we cannot give a comprehensive empirical account of phenomenal consciousness? Or would you say that p-consciousness involves fairies or magic?"

I reply: to the first part, yes! For a theory about a natural phenomenon to be useful, it must be *predictive*. Otherwise, the theory is -- as Wittgentein put it -- "just gassing." The natural world is a world of stuff doing things. A good theory explains *how* the stuff does things. And that's a matter of making, and verifying, predictions. To the second part--on consciousness--I have an unpublished paper on this, so I don't want to spoil the argument here, but in brief, I hold--as Wittgenstein did--that the subject (phenomenal consciousness) is a *limit* to the world; where this is, quite literally, akin to consciousness being a moving spotlight or laser gliding across the face of a DVD, playing the information off to us as observers (see my "A New Theory of Free Will" for a detailed argument for I think this-http://philpapers.org/rec/ARVANT-2 ). Anyway, so, on my account, consciousness is a bit unique. It's a limit to physical information...and I make an empirical case (in my unpublished work) that the un-physically-measurable but directly-experiencable qualities of consciousness *must* exist. In other words, my argument is that a proper understanding of the nature structure *predicts* the explanatory gap and quantitative/qualitative duality. Which of course is what we observe.

You write: "So you find some dispositions in the brain relating to how we process information and realize that they do not map onto discrete concepts, so you then . . . conclude that there are no discrete concepts with definite boundaries? How? Why?"

I answer: Imagine asking the same question of someone studying particle physics. "So we find some perturbations of fields that have determinate values, extensions, etc, so you then...conclude that there are distinct particles (electrons, protons, neutrons)? How? Why?" The answer is plain. The *phenomena* tell us that. When we look at the world, the measurements indicate that there are protons, electrons, neutrons, neutrinos, etc. Physicists carve up the world that way because it works, and because the predictions the theory that uses those classifications makes successful predictions. By a similar token, I say, when we look at the brain, we don't *see* phenomena that anything like the folk-psychological phenomenon of a "concept" (any more than we look at particle physics, we see Democritus' indivisible 'atoms').

You write: "Who says that concepts should map to neurological dispositions, anyway? What empirical investigation gave you that conclusion?"

I answer: Who says? The *science* says. Concepts, whatever else they are supposed to be, are supposed to be meaningful units of representation--i.e. *something* that codes for "table", "chair", etc., that is, paradigms of what the folk call "concepts." I say brain science shows there is no such thing. Your brain and mine do not code single "concepts" for tables, chairs, etc., and we do not communicate by "sharing the same concept." This is just not how brains work. Each person's again--to the extent that these things are understood at all--contains very different dispositions, *very* finely grained ones, than other people's brains do. These are the closest things in the physical world to what the folk call "concepts." They don't map on very well, but as a matter of what there is in the world, they come the closest--just like electrons, protons, neutrons come "the closest" to Democritus' "atoms." Empirical inquiry, in other words, taught us there are no atoms in that sense. There are the new, more finely-grained things: protons, neutrons, electrons, neutrinos, hadrons, bosons, etc. And, I say, neuroscience does the same thing for "concepts." There are no concepts in the brain. There are only 'unicepts.'

Jason Streitfeld

Re zombies: Yes, Really! But again, I don't think zombies are conceivable.

Re p-consciousness: so you are a quietist about phenomenal experience? We can know what it is like, but więc annoying meaningfully discuss it?

Re concepts: you claimed to be making the same question in physics, but you are not. All you've argued for is the claim that concepts do not exist in the brain. That does not mean that there are no concepts. If you want to deny the reality of concepts, you would seem to be dramatically shifting from your original position.

Also, I'm not so sure I would agree that concepts are units of representation. Do you have a scientific argument to back up that claim?

Jason Streitfeld

Sorry, my phone went into Polish mode. I didn't mean to write "więc annoying." I meant, "we cannot say anything interesting..."

Jason Streitfeld

To explain my position about consciousness and intentionality: Imagine lightning strikes a bucket of paint, splashing it across a canvas. The result is a remarkable resemblance of a nearby tree. I would not say the lightning painted a picture of the tree. I would not say it was a picture of the tree at all. The same goes if the lightning made the paint form what looked liked a statement about the tree. I would not say it was a statement at all, let alone one about the tree. The fact that something has physical features resembling a representation or statement does not make it a representation or statement. The sounds and sights must be intended as such, and that requires consciousness.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Jason: Thanks for keeping the conversation going. It really has been a lot of fun!

You write that you really think Zombies wouldn't have intentionality--they wouldn't represent or say anything about the world around them--even though they would walk around, sit on chairs, say things like, "There's a tree over there", and "Dammit, Jason, I'm *referring* to that tree over there!" ;)

The question then is why you think this, and whether you have any good grounds for thinking it. Your second comment--at least broadly--suggests your reasons...

You write: "To explain my position about consciousness and intentionality: Imagine lightning strikes a bucket of paint, splashing it across a canvas. The result is a remarkable resemblance of a nearby tree. I would not say the lightning painted a picture of the tree. I would not say it was a picture of the tree at all. The same goes if the lightning made the paint form what looked liked a statement about the tree. I would not say it was a statement at all, let alone one about the tree. The fact that something has physical features resembling a representation or statement does not make it a representation or statement. The sounds and sights must be intended as such, and that requires consciousness."

I reply: If you think Zombie brains wouldn't have intentionality because their brain states are analogous to paint splashed on a tree by lightning, then I think you have an overly simplistic--and false--view of how brains function. Brains do not simply receive information from the world around us, in a passive manner akin to a tree receiving paint splashed on it. Brains do take in information. But they have a remarkable set of *other* informational processing capacities. Among other things, they are able to process recursively and at many different higher-orders, or levels. So, for instance, the Zombie brain does not simply receive an "image" of the Mona Lisa (akin to light splashed on a tree). The Zombie brain is able to direct itself to use the term "Mona Lisa" various ways. So, for instance, if I were to point to a table and say to the Zombie, "Mona Lisa?", it would say, "No. That is not what I am referring to. 'Mona Lisa' refers to the painting over there, not this table." Do you see what is going on here? The brain is able to respond in a higher order way to various questions *about* what its internal states are *about*. It is able to USE but also MENTION the term 'Mona Lisa.' It not only USES the term in a way that "tracks" the Mona Lisa (it does not apply the term to tables, chairs, or bears oh my!); it also MENTIONS the term, 'Mona Lisa', and says *of* the term, at a higher order, that the term refers to the painting, not tables and chairs.

None of this is like paint splashed on a tree in the likeness of a Mona Lisa. It's not like that any more than a chimpanzee--by an incredible stroke of luck--accidentally typing Shakespeare's Hamlet is the chimpanzee *intentionally* typing Shakespeare's Hamlet. Intentionality is not a matter of mere similarity. It is a complex interplay of several higher-order functions that paint splashed on a tree does not have, but which Zombies would have (if they are possible).

Finally, you say: "The sounds and sights must be intended as such, and that requires consciousness."

I reply: I've just shown that it *doesn't* require that. Intentions don't require consciousness any more than trees require paint. Intentions simply require certain higher-order, recursive forms of informational processing enabling certain forms of language USE and MENTION.

You also ask me about phenomenal consciousness.

You write: "Re p-consciousness: so you are a quietist about phenomenal experience? We can know what it is like, but we cannot say anything interesting about it or meaningfully discuss it?"

I reply: Not exactly. I've said that I think that we can say a number things about it *indirectly* (that phenomenal consciousness must exist, that its qualities are simple/indescribable, etc.). But, yes, in terms the qualities themselves, I do not think we can describe/explain them, and for the simple reason that they are *simple*. Red just looks red, end of story--and its redness is indescribable. This is not, by the way, just a case of intuition-mongering. My empirical argument for dualism entails that any reality *must* have simple elements that cannot be possibly described within the system. (My argument here, though again I don't want to give it fully, is somewhat akin to Cantor's incompleteness theorem in mathematics. I believe I can show that there are some truths in any *physical* system that cannot be expressed within that system, and hence, inevitably generate precisely the explanatory gap--and "simple qualia" problem--we face.

On concepts, you write: "Re concepts: you claimed to be making the same question in physics, but you are not. All you've argued for is the claim that concepts do not exist in the brain. That does not mean that there are no concepts. If you want to deny the reality of concepts, you would seem to be dramatically shifting from your original position."

I reply: okay, if concepts aren't anything in the brain, can you tell me what they might be? For instance, if you were to say to a particle physicist, "All you've shown is that electrons, protons, neutrons, etc. are particles, that does not mean that Democritus' atoms do not exist", the physicist would ask you, "Okay, then, where might these so-called atoms be? They're not included in our best theory of particle physics." If you gave me some idea what you think concepts would be if they weren't in the brain, I could tell you whether I think the conception you have makes any empirical sense.

You also write: "'m not so sure I would agree that concepts are units of representation. Do you have a scientific argument to back up that claim?"

I reply: I was speaking loosely, and just trying to follow folk-psychology. If you were to ask an ordinary intelligent person, "What's a concept?", they would probably say, "They're just how we representations of categories of things. My concept of a 'table' picks out and represents tables. Etc."

Jason Streitfeld

Hi Marcus,

Thank you, too, for continuing to engage. Unfortunately, you've misunderstood me a little. You wrote, "If you think Zombie brains . . . " I've been pretty clear about this: I don't think anything about zombie brains, zombie fingers or zombie anythings, because I don't think they are conceivable. If a brain is instantiating intentional states, then it is instantiating consciousness. You can't say, "but it's a zombie brain" and expect me to go along, because "zombie brain" is nonsense to me.

You ask, "if concepts aren't anything in the brain, can you tell me what they might be?"

I can think of some ways of talking about concepts, but I'm not sure I could offer a compelling definition. One way, for example, might be this: Concepts are regulatory principles and/or algorithms which structure intentional action. But I haven't read enough of the literature on this topic to be of much help. It just seems very wrong to assume that either they are neurological dispositions or they are not real.

Also, you didn't address the concern I expressed about how you seem to have shifted from your original position. Is your view that there are no concepts, or is it that there are only vague concepts? Or is it that most concepts are vague, but some (specifically, mathematical concepts) are not vague?

You say, 'If you were to ask an ordinary intelligent person, "What's a concept?", they would probably say, "They're just how we representations of categories of things. My concept of a 'table' picks out and represents tables. Etc."'

I highly doubt that. But would you say public polling a reliable way to get at the nature of concepts?

My intuition is that the concept of "table" does not represent tables. I would rather say that the concept of table structures our intentional states with respect to tables. It does not represent tables to us, because we could not recognize any such representation if we did not already have the concept of a table. But, again, I haven't read enough of the literature to express anything more than an intuition.

Marcus Arvan

Jason: I fear we are talking past one another now, given our different understandings of consciousness. Since you think Zombies are impossible, you're presumably a physicalist--believing that consciousness just *is* some set of brain or functional states.

I don't think this is right--I'm a dualist--but that is immaterial (pardon the pun). My point was simply that one needn't invoke *any* claims about consciousness in order to account for intentionality. Intentionality, I argued--and I haven't seen any counterargument from you that I am wrong--is simply embodied by certain recursive, higher-order abilities of categorization and recognition. If you think those capacities=consciousness, then you agree with me on intentionality.

You then write: "I can think of some ways of talking about concepts, but I'm not sure I could offer a compelling definition. One way, for example, might be this: Concepts are regulatory principles and/or algorithms which structure intentional action. But I haven't read enough of the literature on this topic to be of much help. It just seems very wrong to assume that either they are neurological dispositions or they are not real."

I reply: Okay, but I *agree* that 'concepts' are regulatory principles/algorithms that govern intentional action. My point was merely that the only such algorithms in the natural world are in brains, and the algorithms in brains are far finely-grained (qua 'unicepts') than the folk-psychological notion of a "concept".

You then write: "Also, you didn't address the concern I expressed about how you seem to have shifted from your original position. Is your view that there are no concepts, or is it that there are only vague concepts? Or is it that most concepts are vague, but some (specifically, mathematical concepts) are not vague?"

I reply: I see, looking back over the long train of this conversation, that I began it by talking about "concepts." Early on in the conversation I was using that as a term of art, whereas I really only think there are unicepts. So, yes, I am with Quine (and, I think, the later Wittgenstein) that there are *no* concepts--except perhaps numerical ones--and only 'unicepts'.

You then write: "You say, 'If you were to ask an ordinary intelligent person, "What's a concept?", they would probably say, "They're just how we representations of categories of things. My concept of a 'table' picks out and represents tables. Etc."' I highly doubt that. But would you say public polling a reliable way to get at the nature of concepts?

I reply: no, I don't think public polling is a reliable way to get at the *nature* of anything, besides what individuals and groups of people assent to. All I'm suggesting is that individuals and groups of them are apt to assent to certain types of claims about concepts: namely, that concepts are how we structure the world (e.g. "table" is a concept that picks out tables). That's all. I think many people would assent to this picture. And I think brain-science indicates that there are no such things.

Finally, you write: "My intuition is that the concept of "table" does not represent tables. I would rather say that the concept of table structures our intentional states with respect to tables. It does not represent tables to us, because we could not recognize any such representation if we did not already have the concept of a table. But, again, I haven't read enough of the literature to express anything more than an intuition."

I reply: Then I think you have a very idiosyncratic conception of concepts! Again, I think most people would say that our concept of "table" represents tables. But maybe I'm wrong about that. Does it matter? My primary claims throughout this conversation is that, on *any* plausible disambiguation of the traditional term "concept", there aren't actually concepts, only unicepts (again, logical and mathematical instances aside).

Jason Streitfeld

Hi Marcus,

I won't take issue with your conception (or is it uniception?) of intentionality. I guess I'll have to look into what Millikan says about unicepts, since I cannot figure out (from what you've said) how they are supposed to be different from concepts. You've suggested that they more "finely grained" than concepts are, but that assumes that concepts cannot be too finely grained. I don't get it.

Doesn't "finely grained" imply that they are more precise? That they have clear boundaries? Perhaps concepts range over unicepts? I'll have to read and think more about that.

You say, "My point was merely that the only such algorithms in the natural world are in brains, and the algorithms in brains are far finely-grained (qua 'unicepts') than the folk-psychological notion of a "concept"."

That's your claim, but I still don't see an argument for it. Why think that the algorithms must exist as neurological dispositions in order to be real? Perhaps they exist by virtue of behaviours that brains help produce, and not simply as neurological dispositions.

Jason Streitfeld

Oh, and I don't think my suggestion about concepts is idiosyncratic at all. It may not be popular in some circles, but there are plenty of philosophers who do not adopt a representational view of concepts. I prefer to think of them as abstractions which supervene over processes, but not over the coding for those processes. To take a software/hardware analogy: the computer code exists as software, but that is not the algorithm/concept. The computer code runs on a machine, but the machine is not the concept/algorithm, either. The algorithm/concept occurs in the processing of the code through the machine. That's why I think we have to take behaviour, and not just neurological dispositions, into account when we try to figure out what, if anything, concepts actually are. But I tend to think we are better of regarding them as abstractions without definite physical boundaries. (That is not to say that they don't have definite abstract boundaries, of course. So I'm being agnostic about Williamson's thesis for now.) I hope that helps clarify my approach.

Elio

The first thing I thought, reading this interesting article, and in particular when you wrote "Indeed, philosophical speculations on the basis of concepts alone do not have a very good record" was Kant: "Thoughts without content are empty, (intuitions without concepts are blind)". Your suggestion that the entire conteporary analitic philosophy could lie on the presupposition of Williamsonian epistemicism about vagueness is intriguing but I think we should better examine the problem in depth. I think that the problem is that a lot of analitic philosophers tend to overrate the power of the classic logic (a "simple" logic of the first order!) and to think that a pure, rigorous philosophical answer should rely only upon the solid basis of that. They also think that is possible to reflect and to speak about the "Logical possibility" without considering the world, even if what they have in mind when they do that, is always a particular conception of the world. So how you clearly understand, the problem is the criterion of definiteness which they presume, a criterion which is entirely bounded exclusively with a classical conception of logic and semantic. I agree when you write "I am increasingly coming to believe that philosophy must follow suit. Analytic philosophy deals with concepts...but concepts are indeterminate, and determinate only insofar as they make predictions. ", I would like to add, as Kant could have done, that a determinate concept is a concept of a possible experience. I don't know if that is the same thing as saying "prediction" but surely what philosophy need is to understand that tere's no logical possibility if we don't take in consideration a logic of experience, if we don't understand that there's no valid answer in the realm of the pure logic, when we talk about problems "of the world". (It is also quite stupid to expect a "determinate" answer regarding complex problems on the basis of the pure logic, when we know that the human thinking is not reducible on that. Is like trying to start a car with a club)

Marcus Arvan

Hi Elio: Thanks for your comment! I hadn't thought of that point by Kant ("element of possible experience"), but yes, that's what I (and Unger) have in mind. Many philosophical concepts are empty because *no* possible experience (no prediction) could verify/falsify them.

Despite this, I'm one of those who thinks standard 2-valued logic is the way to go. I haven't thought about alternative logics in a long time, but all of the non-standard versions seemed to me (last time I checked) to have serious, serious problems. I don't think 2-valued logic has any serious problems, but that it is sometimes *abused* by people with bad theories of linguistic meaning (e.g. traditional philosophical views about propositions). But who knows, maybe I'm wrong!

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