Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Wanting truth: both ways

An article by Galen Strawson in The NY Times' philosophy column maintained that
the hard problem is not what consciousness is, it’s what matter is — what the physical is.
I read this recently in the context of a philosophy discussion group about the philosophy of mind (we are reading John Searle at the moment). Strawson's remark reminded me that in an earlier conversation, one friend had opined, in the midst of a heated back-and-forth about just where consciousness "arises" in the complex web from neuro to social, "I don't see consciousness as a problem." This remark occasioned a total break in conversation for a space of some seconds, until something like an uncomfortable "ohhh-kay, then" broke the silence.

The anecdote nicely illustrates, I think, something about starting points -- not our axioms, but our situated values, with which we embark into enquiry.

No one in our discussion is an out-and-out eliminativist, alas; if they were, I might be able to understand better. As it is, my attempts to understand eliminativism founder, but here's what I've got so far.

I think eliminativism arises from a kind of fixation on the deflationary experience of explanation, a deflationism run riot. There is often something about an really convincing explanation that makes us mildly disappointed; an "Oh, so that was all." (Cue the song "Is that all there is?") One of the tricks (the good tricks) of the scientific urge is to turn this deflation into an asset, to get us excited about that experience, the rush of delimiting the problem. At least in some cases, this deflationary stance in turn breeds reactionaries whose rallying cry is "But wait, there must be Something More..." It is easy to make a caricature of these latter as chasers after the MacGuffin. ("No such thing!") But the main point isn't about whether there is, or is not, Something More. It's about the animus that wants to pursue it without ever catching it, like King Pellinor after the Questing Beast; or conversely, the animus that wants to track down every last Something More until the very idea of Something More is eradicated -- because that's what it's after, really. One stance gets off on a high which is the glimpse of something ever-slipping beyond the horizon; the other gets off on the deflationary feeling of "That's all it ever was," which it parleys into a rush of "Ha, Got you!" (like when you finally thump the glass down trapping the running spider). (If you just step on them, you will have to substitute your own metaphor.)

Sometimes one wants very badly to cut through the issue of the satisfaction a style of thought is after, and instead to ask and to know, Which One of These (deflationists or something-more-ists) is "right"? This is obviously a clumsy formulation in this case -- there are far too many complicating questions -- but we still have an intuition about the bifurcation true/false, that only one of these terms can pertain. I however do not think the issue ("which is right?") can be separated from the question of the drive that motivates them. I know that I risk in this a sort of psychologistic reduction of philosophy, or even Bulverism (this was C.S. Lewis' joke-name (after its fictitious founder) for a dismissive attitude to any argument, dispensing with the reasons for the argument by "explaining" them instead, in radically ad hominem terms). Although I am (in modern, shorthand terms) a Kantian as regards faith and reason, I emphatically reject any psychologism that reduces truth to the function of "our sort of mind" (whether that "sort" is simian or bourgeois or postmodern or whatever); but I still deny that we have any unmediated access to a pure algebra of rationales hanging suspended in the Space of (Pure) Reasons.

Fichte famously said that philosophy was a function of temperament:
what philosophy a man chooses depends entirely upon what kind of man he is; for a philosophical system is not a piece of dead household furniture, which you may use or not use, but is animated by the soul of the man who has it.(Science of Knowledge, Introduction, sec. V)
Philosophers often recoil from this notion--as if it were offered as a kind of excuse, or a blanket explanation like phrenology. Taken as such it is clearly unacceptable, since it would derail the very idea of dialogue. But there is something to this notion of philosophical temperament, nonetheless. It's very hard to get a handle on, especially in one's own case, and most thinkers prefer to ignore the question entirely, or at best to marginalize it into the human-interest part of philosophy.

One who doesn't ignore it is Thomas Nagel. Here is a lovely and forthright passage from The Last Word:
In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper–namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. (p 130)
It is extremely difficult to entwine these approaches, to want truth and to want truth; to desire it both qua truth, and qua desirable. Philosophy is not accomplished by impossibly cutting oneself off from context, including the context within oneself. (Though it feels like that sometimes, and includes any number of impossible efforts.) No matter what sort of explanation appeals to you, ask yourself: why does it appeal? What is this "appeal"? Think enough about this and you will find yourself staring at the question of the nature of the Good.


  1. Galen is resorting to his usual routine. Most people barring eliminativists accept consciousness. Most people in the world of philosophy are materialists and believe that cerebral events just are consciousness. But how? They come to exactly the same point as Galen. However,some move on from there into various other positions such as dualism, eliminativism, epiphenomenalism, occasionalism and so forth. Galen has chosen to stick rather than to twist but really what is the difference between saying 'everything is consciousness and consciousness is everything. The materialist monist and the idealist monist are the face and obverse of the same coin of consciousness.

    Oddly enough I have been reading and thinking about G.S.'s position on narrativity recently and will post on it shortly. He claims and this aligns with your Fichte quote, that we have a basic orientation. His is episodic.

    1. Yes, I've encountered his anti-narrative stance as well. I took it as a challenge. I suspect the episodic of being a sort of narrativity.

      I didn't really address GS' arguments from the article itself, but I do think he puts the neutral monist case fairly well (though I am unsure that's how he'd describe himself, he's citing Russell with approval and R certainly defended that stance.) On many days I agree with him. I note that Russell's bit about how “We know nothing about the intrinsic quality of physical events, except when these are mental events that we directly experience” is quite close to Graham Harman's point about real and sensual objects/ qualities -- and Harman is as close to a panpsychist as you can get these day without being boring.

  2. Of course, the fact that eliminativists argue against the very notion of 'intention' and 'motivation' must complicate the nature of such an appeal, no?

  3. Yes, well, what can possibly motivate such an argument-against-motivation? (He asked smart-assedly). Does it even count as an argument if those who make it can give no account of what motivates them?

  4. That good old incomprehensibility charge... Aparently it leaves most eliminativists (including semi-eliminativists like Dennett) unfazed but I've not really caught on to how yet. In any case it seems that the eliminativist doesn't so much argue as point towards a vaguely futuristic scenario where all our (at least traditional) semantic conceptions collapse due to advancements in brain sciency "ah, so that was all" data-stuff (motivations are irrelevant of course here, it's SCIENCE after all, right?)...

    Talk about the once mighty fallen; philosophy reduced to techno-scientific spectatorship. Anyone brought popcorn?

    1. Of course I don't mean to be flippant here. I genuinely believe one may legitimately ask "Why do you think this is worth arguing?" of anyone; as an answer I might accept "I don't know but that's a good question," but not "there are no real questions." And sci-fi scenarios may function in, but not as, an answer.

      Also I'd like to add that the post, while engaging with eliminativism, is not intended as a knock-down critique thereof, nor is it meant to be primarily about that, or even about philosophy of mind. I consider the question of desire for truth to be basic in a certain sense. Which doesn't (I hope) mean I am merely naive about it.

  5. Very nice post Bryan. Hope all is well with you these days!

    Leon / After Nature