Monday, November 2, 2015

Kant’s Dove, Neurath’s Ship, and Archimedes’ Point

Kant: The light dove, cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space.

Neurath: We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support.

Descartes: Archimedes, that he might transport the entire globe from the place it occupied to another, demanded only a point that was firm and immovable; so, also, I shall be entitled to entertain the highest expectations, if I am fortunate enough to discover only one thing that is certain and indubitable.

I would like to examine our capacity for ‘original’ thought in light of these three passages.

Assume that an original thought will take the form of a counterfactual.
  • If there were unicorns Amelia would be pleased.
  • If nudity were unexceptionable the world would be a better place.
Regarding the first, we get our concept of a kind of animal the same way we do our name for it, from our encounters with the animals.

But our encounters are (alas!) wholly lacking in unicorns.

So, while ‘dolphin’ is our name for dolphins, ‘unicorn’ is not our name for unicorns.

We have no name for unicorns.

Nor do we have a concept of unicorn. And since we have no concept of unicorn we cannot understand what the counterfactual expresses.

This, of course, seems manifestly nuts: “I understand what the counterfactual means perfectly well. Even Amelia understands it, and she’s only five.”

Actually, you don’t.

The concept ‘unicorn’ would be of a particular kind of animal; but that kind is over the modal horizon from us. And since our cognitive capacities are rooted in our encounters with the actual, it’s over our cognitive horizon too.

If the sentence expresses a thought, it’s a completely general one about animals vaguely like horses with a single horn in the middle of their forehead, etc. But that’s not a thought about unicorns.

The second example is where the constraints on thought really kick in.

The rationale for nudism lies in its preferred name: ‘Naturism’. Being naked, or at least not much caring whether anyone is naked or not, would be more natural to human beings. And if we acted more naturally, the evils deriving from entrenched oppressive conventions would appear less ineluctable.

As it happens, physical modesty, including the wearing of clothing, is a cultural universal. The best explanation for this universality is its presence in the cultural toolkit of that group of ‘behaviorally modern’ humans from which all present-day humans are descended.

This cultural toolkit has formed the human social world in which we live, and in which the developmental psychology of every human being for at least the last 50,000 years was formed. Clothing appears to be implicated in the control of sexual clues, and thus of sexual arousal, in the absence of a human estrus cycle.

But that’s not all. However skimpy, clothing has one universal feature: it has always been more than merely functional. Clothing involves aesthetic decisions in such a way as to make the wearer distinctive. It is self-adornment. And it is a particular kind of human person who finds a need to self-adorn.

How we dress does not just express certain facts. Our way of dressing can constitute what is expressed: facts about ourselves, our views about the world and about our relations to others. Clothing is a convention constitutive of important features of our humanity which would simply not exist without it.

While I generally disapprove of rhetorical questions, the force of these considerations demands one:

From what Archimedean point does the advocate of naturism advance his preference?

The naturist’s standpoint has to be the same as the rest of us. Thus he cannot after all be indifferent to whether people are clothed or not. Such preference is, like Amelia’s for unicorns, over the cognitive horizon.

This again seems manifestly nuts. Of course he can prefer that we be naturists.

This confuses the thought that we can be naturists with a completely general thought about creatures vaguely like us, with a different deep cultural history, different constitutive conventions, a different developmental psychology, etc. They could be naturists.

But that’s not a thought about us.

Naturism advocates commit what should be known as the ‘Kant’s Dove’ Fallacy. They pay so much attention to an unwanted feature of a state of affairs that they fail to realize that a change in that feature would not improve the state of affairs, but undermine it – and with it would go their capacity to disvalue the feature.

Suppose that behaviorally modern humans had adopted other arrangements. After all, nothing is less ‘natural’ than clothing. Likewise for other deep conventions. Then exactly the same human beings – members of the species homo sapiens – may have come to exist, the same gametes producing the same token zygotes, etc. But those individuals could not share our goals, our ways of flourishing, our values.

Nor we theirs – even though they would, in some sense, be us.

A misconceived Platonism ignores the particular, definite sort of creatures we are, and aspires to the status of bodiless pure minds. We are not bodiless pure minds but social creatures with a particular concrete history. That history sets limits to what we can think of, what we can value.

But we shouldn’t bemoan this fact, since our possessing some concrete history or other is also the condition of the possibility of our thinking, or of valuing, anything.

We’re all stuck here together on Neurath’s Ship. Don’t try to take apart too much at one time.

Take a lesson from the coherence of utopian projects of all sorts.

And for the Original Position as well.

Thomas Pyne
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. Tom, thanks for this interesting piece. You offer several different points of entry into this discussion and it's hard to choose just one, but I will try to be good.

    It seems to me that what you are fundamentally saying is that for a belief or desire to be about anything, that thing must exist and that we must be causally related to it in some way. (I won't drag the existence of abstract entities and possibilites in and ask you whether we have beliefs about such and if so what sort of causal relation to them makes that possible.)

    My question is this. Why can't I just respond, ok, so talk of unicorns is not about unicorns and preferences for a world that is better than this one are not preferences regarding this world. Nevertheless, it is obvious that we have meaningful exchanges using sentences of the sort that you identify. Hence, it follows that we have meaningful exchanges using sentences that are not about anything.

    I would suggest that the job of philosophy is to show how this is possible. This seems to me to fit a general pattern in philosophy, whereby our inherited concepts (knowledge, freedom, identity, rationality, etc.) imply that claims that we take to be obviously true (we have knowledge, we are free to choose, there is a unified self) etc. commit us to absurdities. The problem in each case is that the truths are evident, though the concepts we use to express them are in need of replacement.

    OK, I was going to try to be good, but I failed. When Darwin hypothesized the existence of a moth with a foot long proboscis, which was later confirmed, what was he talking about in your view? I do not see how receiving a package of Angraecum sesquipedale could put him in sufficient causal contact with Xanthopan morganii to have been talking about it. In general, what is going on when we hypothesize the existence of entities on the basis of their explanatory potential?

    1. We do have meaningful exchanges about Sherlock Holmes. We are using language, as Gareth Evans says, ‘connivingly’. And we’re not fooled.

      But with the unicorns and utopian projects we might well be fooled. We’d be trafficking in incoherence without realizing it. It’s important to point that out.

      Or else agree that naturists are only conniving at their preference.

      I resist the flat assertion that the examples you cite (knowledge, freedom, identity, rationality, etc.) form a pattern. Some of those (knowledge and rationality?) may be misconceptions. Some (identity?) may not. Therefore, to take it as a task of philosophy to unmask them, as opposed to understand them right, leaves me unpersuaded. Regarding the absurdities they lead to, those absurdities are often no more than affronts to common sense. And so much the worse for common sense – a deficient philosophy at best.

      Angraecum sesquipedale? I love learning stuff like this! Darwin was in a cognitive state with the same form as Amelia’s regarding unicorns: a general thought about some kind of moth or other with a big long thang. There is something (existential quantification) for whom feeding on this orchid is its ecological niche.

      I think an even better example than your nosy moth is the Cambrian beastie Anomalocaris, which I use in my Realism/Antirealism unit in metaphysics. The famous Burgess Shale in Canada, a locus for fossils from the ‘Cambrian Explosion’, yielded some finds that looked like weird shrimp. They were assignedthe taxonomic classification Anomalocaris (Weird Shrimp).

      Another find was classified as a jellyfish, Peytoia.

      Only years later it became clearer that they came from a single organism. Peytoia was its mouth, Anomalocaris its feeding appendages. The whole organism, an enormous arthropod for the time, was called Anomalocaris.

      So this encounter allowed us to have singular, object-directed thoughts about Anomalocaris - desperately wrong thoughts at first, to be sure. But the price of realism is a certain lack of epistemic closure.
      What’s the difference between the Xanthopan morganii case (and Pluto) and Anomalocaris?

      I think it’s something like this: Your thought is about that particular entity if it is sensitive to information from the entity. If not, it’s general thought about whatever-it-is-that…

    2. Tom, thanks, that helps.

      It seems like you're saying that there really isn't a lot of mischief that's going to occur with unicorn speech because most people are aware that they are speaking connivingly, just as when they are speaking about Sherlock Holmes, and that let's pretend stance in a conversation allows a meaningful one to take place.

      The naturist example remains very interesting, though.

      I want to agree that the naturist is mistaken when he says he has a preference for this world being one in which the people in it wear no clothes.

      I think your analysis of the mistake makes sense if the naturist really does take himself to be expressing a preference for this world being different than it is. He would be very like a child who claimed to want different parents, not realizing that different parents would have to have a different child.

      But a more generous interpretation of the child may be that she is expressing the desire that his own parents would change their behavior, so perhaps the more generous interpretation of the naturist is that he is predicting that if we were to all start behaving naturistically the future of this world would be very much more to his liking.

      I don't see anything incoherent about that. I think he is mistaken in the sense that he is somehow imagining a future very like the present with the one difference that we are naturists, which is epistemologically infantile. In fact it's so stupid, that maybe yours is the more generous interpretation. What is dumber, believing that you are talking about something when you are not, or believing that a nearly universal and deeply ingrained behavior can be modified without negatively affecting anything else that one values?

      What scares me a little about your approach is that I want Susie to be able to say that she wishes you weren't such a fuddy-duddy. Are you going to tell her that it's not even possible for her to wish that because Tom Pyne is and always has been a fuddy duddy, so at best she is approving of a different possible world in which someone very much like her is married to someone very much like you except for being a fuddy-duddy? I'm being silly, but there is a semi-serious point to it, which is that it is tempting to say that people are speaking nonsense when they are really saying quite simple things we don't want to hear.

      That's a fabulous story about Anomolacaris, and I like your resolution to Angraecum sesquipedale. So, do I have you right when I say this: Darwin could not have been talking about Xantopan Morgani in particular, but he is certainly talking about our world when he predicts the existence of a creature with those characteristics?

      Am I right that your view entails that it is impossible to wish that the past had been different? If so, how do you understand regret?

    3. Randy,

      I think that regret is a rational moral sentiment. That is, there is a standpoint from which I can disvalue certain things in the past and wish that they have been otherwise.

      But it may not be possible to regret everything we may wish to regret.

      An African-American can regret the transatlantic slave trade, even if we (and he!) suppose that any possible world in which that “execrable commerce” never took place is one that doesn’t include him. If there are things we could coherently die for, then there are things that we could coherently wish we had never existed for. (A penetrating treatment of just such a wish is the neglected movie Donnie Darko.)

      But the African-American can’t regret a world that includes whatever gave rise to abolitionism. That would be over the horizon for that particular regret.
      An interesting contrast, if clothing and other deep conventions were natural instead of conventional we would have a standpoint for regret. We could just say, “Mother Nature is a B…ad Lady.”

      I have no strong views about the relation between personal identity and character. Hume’s view that our moral judgment of an individual just refers to his character seems to leave out too much complexity.

      I certainly wouldn’t demand, from Suzanne or anyone else, that I be excused for my faults by insisting that they constitute me!

  2. Imagine the following, which I'll call Inverted Rapture: instead of a situation where lots of people mysteriously disappear, leaving just their clothes behind (as in the movie Left Behind--NB, it's not about the clothes), consider a situation where lots of clothes mysteriously disappear, leaving just their wearers behind.

    Indeed, imagine all the clothes, of every person, disappear in this Inverted Rapture--even the ones that do not belong to anyone yet, like the ones on the rack at Macy's or Victoria's Secret, or the ones sitting on the shelves at Goodwill--so that there is not a single shred of clothing left on the planet.

    We can imagine that, right? Of course we can. Shoot, you just did imagine that. Some of you even smiled when you imagined that.

    But that's not imagining what the Naturists imagine (or try to imagine, if Tom is right). What they imagine is not just clothes flying off people, but conventions flying off people.

    Tom says this works with some conventions. But not all. Some conventions are 'constitutive' conventions. They don't fly off people. They can't fly off people. At least not if those people want to remain the same people.

    I've heard him give this argument more than once. I'm somewhat persuaded by it. People might quibble with the details of the particular example (like the Naturist/nudist stuff). But that's quibbling. The core of the view is that some conventions are constitutive conventions; some Cs are CCs.

    Here's my question: what's the best way of knowing which Cs are CCs?

    (Note, I'm still somewhat suspicious that there are CCs. But let that sleeping dog lie. My question here is just: granted that there are CCs, what is the best method of detecting them?)

    1. Russell,

      Being a realist about something condemns one to a lack of epistemic closure. Is this a deep, constitutive convention or one that it lies within our current time-slice horizon to affect? We can’t know by considering it, any more than we can know by inspecting someone, however carefully, that he was born in Milwaukee.

      One fallible test has probably already occurred to you: a notable recalcitrance to revision – even over a number of generations. The practice in question just seems natural to people (though on this view it isn’t, really), obvious, and somehow ‘right’. Other arrangements if they can be imagined at all seem deeply weird. Or just produce bafflement.

      We’ve known at least since the French Revolution what happens when utopian projects run up against deep conventions. In fact there’s probably a neglected argument for democracy in there somewhere. Since utopian projects seem weird to ordinary people, under democratic arrangements utopians will not be allowed anywhere near political power.