Monday, November 6, 2017

What famous philosophical argument gets too much love?

This week we asked philosophy faculty the following question:
What famous philosophical argument (observation, distinction, view etc.) is given entirely too much attention or credit? Why?
Here's what they said:

Matt McCormick: Searle's Chinese room

Does a computer program that correctly answers thoughtful questions about a story actually understand it?

In Searle’s thought experiment, a human, playing the part of a CPU, uses the computer code equivalent of instructions for answering questions about a story in Mandarin. The human doesn't know Mandarin, but through the instructions in the code, can, by hypothesis, answer questions as if she understands the story.

Searle maintains that when we imagine ourselves in this position it is intuitively obvious that we don't understand the story in Mandarin. He concludes that this shows that machines accurately modeled by this process (i.e., Turing Machines) don't think or understand.

The thought experiment capitalizes on gross oversimplifications, misdirection, and a subtle equivocation. Several implicit assumptions are false once we draw them out:
  • My armchair imaginings about this caricatured scenario accurately capture what a sophisticated artificial neural net computer is doing. 
  • My intuitions about what I would and wouldn't understand in this imaginary scenario are reliable indicators of the truth in reality; 
  • People are reliable judges of when they do and don't understand; 
  • If I was playing the role of a dumber part of a larger, smarter system, I would be apprised of whether or not the system itself understands.
Once we unpack what would comprise such a system, particularly with modern artificial neural networks trained with machine learning, then we realize how cartoonish Searle’s story is, and the intuition that these machines cannot understand evaporates.

Randy Mayes: The Euthyphro dilemma

The original form of this dilemma concerns piety, but in today’s ethics classes the word “good’ is usually inserted for “pious,” and it is reformulated for monotheistic sensibilities: Is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?

If we choose the first horn, we must allow that it would be good to eat our children, assuming God willed us to do so. Choose the second and we admit that goodness is a standard to which God himself defers.

Almost always the lesson drawn is that morality is (a) objective and (b) something whose nature we may discover through rational inquiry, regardless of our religious beliefs. Which is just what traditional moral philosophy assumes and does. Hurrah!

It’s a lovely piece of sophistry.

Socrates has created a false dilemma that also begs the question against his opponent. Euthyphro has complied with Socrates' request for a definition. A definition of P is a set of necessary and sufficient conditions, Q, for P. If correct, it is neither the case that P because Q or that Q because P. This question only makes sense if P and Q are simply presumed to to be different.

The truth: it is fine to define the good as what a morally perfect being commands (or wills.) However, it provides no insight into the content of such commands. It provides no reason to believe that such a being exists or that we could recognize it or know its will if it did.

Tom Pyne: Determinism

Determinism is the source of much mischief in philosophy.

Thus Determinism:

For every event there is a cause such that, given that cause, no other event could have occurred.

The mischief stems from its early modern formulation. Peter van Inwagen’s is representative:
  • P0 = a proposition giving a complete state description of the universe at any time in the past.
  • L = all the laws of nature.
  • p = a proposition stating some event that occurs (Electron e’s passing through the left slit; Pyne’s walking home by way of D Street on November 6, 2017)
  • N = the operator ‘it is a natural necessity that’
Determinism is:
If P0 and L, then Np
It is impossible for e not to pass through the left slit.

It is impossible for Pyne to go home by F Street instead.

Now Determinism is true.

It’s this formulation that’s wrong.

Notice that it appeals to laws of nature, but nowhere to causes.

But are there laws of nature? Not literally. Scientific ‘laws’ are (heuristically valuable) idealizations of the causal powers of objects.

This consideration enables us to avoid the natural necessity of p. Which is just as well, since we are committed to denying it in the electron/slit case by statistical mechanics and in my case by everyday experience.

I have the causal power sufficient to go D Street and the causal power sufficient to go F Street. Determinism properly understood won’t rule this out. Whichever way I go it’s not a miracle.

Garret Merriam: The emotion/reason distinction

The distinction between cold-calculating reason and hot-blooded emotion runs deep in Western thought. The distinction has caused hectic debates in moral psychology and philosophy of mind. It strikes us as obvious that the faculty we engage when doing math is a fundamentally different faculty than the one we engage when reading love poetry. So obvious, we assume there’s no good reason to doubt the distinction.

There’s good reason to doubt the distinction.

For starters the distinction is more prominent in Western thought than in Eastern. In classical Chinese philosophy the word xin refers to both the physical heart and seat of emotions, but also the locus of perception, understanding and reason. The closest approximate translation in English is ‘heart-mind.’ When conceptual categories blur across geographical boundaries that suggests the distinction might be a cultural artifact rather than a fundamental categorical one.

Functional neuroanatomy also casts doubt. While it’s common to refer to (so-called) emotional vs. rational ‘centers’ of the brain, closer examination shows our brains are not so neatly parsed. For example, the amygdala (traditionally an emotional center) is active in certain ‘cognitive’ tasks, such as long-term memory consolidation, while the prefrontal cortex (traditionally the rational center) is active in more ‘emotional’ tasks, such as processing fear.

The line between thinking and feeling doesn’t cut cleanly across cultures or brains. Perhaps this is because, rather than two fundamentally different faculties, there is instead a vague set of overlapping clusters of faculties that, upon reflection, resist a simple dichotomous classification.

Kyle Swan: Property owning democracy

John Rawls argued against wealth inequalities by arguing that they lead to political inequalities. The wealthy will use their excess wealth to influence political processes and game the system in their favor. Economists call this regulatory capture. To eliminate these political inequalities, eliminate economic inequalities.

But when we task the state to eliminate economic inequalities, we give it a lot of discretionary power to regulate our economic lives. This makes influence over political processes worth more to those who would game the system in their favor, giving them more incentive to capture it. The policies could backfire.

Rawlsians tend to invoke ideal theory here. They’re describing a regime where efforts to realize economic and political equality are implemented by cooperative actors who are in favorable conditions for compliance, so they can “abstract from...the political, economic, and social elements that determine effectiveness.” Policies don’t backfire in magical ideal-theory world.

Rawls can use idealizing assumptions if he wants, but he shouldn’t be so selective about it. For why do we need the state interventions associated with “liberal socialism” or a “property-owning democracy” in the first place? Well, remember, because the rich in “laissez-faire capitalism” and “welfare-state capitalism” use their wealth to game the system.

But this means that idealizing assumptions have gone away from his consideration of the disfavored regime-types. Otherwise, the wealthy there would be riding their unicorns to visit all the affordable housing they’ve built (or whatever), not trying to illicitly game the system in their favor. 

Russell DiSilvestro: Intuition and inevitability 

“It seems to me,”
The man said slowly,
“Your intuition’s no good.”

He quickly added,
“Nor mine, nor anyone’s,”
As if that helped things.

For if no one’s intuitions are any good
Why should I
Or anyone
How stuff seems
To you?

Perhaps his point was just that
And not that
P because it seems to me that P.

But then why say it?

Perhaps he was just
Being conventional
And pragmatic
And friendly.

But then why believe him?

After all
Nothing is more unbelievable than
At least the way he said it.

At least
That’s how
It seems
To me.

David Corner: Reason is slave of the passions 

In the Treatise, Book II, Part III, Sec III, Hume argues that
reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will; and secondly, that it can never oppose passion in the direction of the will.
I will focus on the second claim.

As one of my seminar students observed this semester, Hume qualifies this claim by providing an exception: Sometimes our passions are founded on false suppositions. An example: I suppose this glass to contain beer, and so I desire to drink it. When I judge that the glass actually contains turpentine, this desire vanishes

My desire to drink the contents of the glass is what TM Scanlon refers to as a “judgment-sensitive attitude.” Its judgment-sensitivity is like that of a belief; I revise my belief that the glass is filled with beer when I am given reasons for thinking that it is filled with turpentine. Indeed my desire to drink the contents of the glass seems entirely dependent on a factual judgment about its contents. Nearly all of what Hume calls “passions” are actually judgement-sensitive attitudes. The exceptions Hume cites would appear to be the rule.

Hume fails to see that the suppositions that provide the basis for most of our passions are really judgments, and that these judgments motivate us by providing reasons for acting- i.e. my motivation for drinking this liquid depends on reasons for thinking it is beer. The distinction between reason and passion may be more tenuous than Hume realizes.


  1. I'm kind of schizophrenic about David's argument, but I'm wondering whether the one Garret gives should push me completely over to David's side. I think it seems to me that they're independent of each other, and I'm doubtful neuroanatomy is the kind of thing that would make a difference in sorting out the debate between the two Davids (Corner and Hume). Maybe that debate isn't the one Garret had in mind when he talked about a sharp distinction causing "hectic debates in moral psychology," but it's the first one I thought of. So, Garret (or, any others), what would I be missing if I agreed about the brain stuff but disagreed about the desires-are-rationally-evaluable stuff?

    1. Hi Kyle,

      Obviously I can't speak for either of the Davids, but for my part, my post is agnostic about the claim that desires are rationally evaluable (though full disclosure, I think at least some can be, in part for the reasons David C suggests). So far as I can tell, the two claims are completely independent: even if there is no clear distinction between reason and emotion it doesn't necessarily follow that desires are rationally evaluable. After all, some reasons are not rationally evaluable, since presumably some reasons act as 'bedrock reasons' for us, reasons we take to be primitive and beyond the need for justification or evaluation. Likewise, even if at least some desires are rationally evaluable it doesn't follow that there is no clear reason/emotion distinction. 'Reason's domain' may simply stretch over many lands, including the reason-free desires. By the same reasoning, either claim might be false, but it would not follow that the other claim was false as well.

  2. Hello David Corner,

    I'd like to poke a bit at your argument. I'm left very unsatisfied with this account of desires... how does this account handle the fact that after I realize that the glass does not have turpentine (and therefore don't want to drink it) that I still want to drink beer and will probably go seek out beer elsewhere?

    1. Hi Stan. Thanks for your comment.

      First of all, I don't intend to argue that there is nothing resembling a Humean desire that might motivate us on some occasions. Something like that may be at work in the case you mention. These seem most often at work in our basic bodily urges, like hunger or thirst. When I am hungry, this state is not usually motivated by reason, and it seems clear that hunger is not usually a judgment-sensitive attitude, though It may be in some cases. Discovering my dinner to be full of worms, I may lose my appetite for a while.

      So a general (or standing) desire to drink a beer, which persists after discovering that this glass is filled with turpentine, is a good candidate.

      Of course, I am interested in drinking beer over water, and it may well be that I have reasons for this preference, even though water would do just as good of a job satisfying my thirst. (I can’t say for sure, because I have never tried it.) I may want to drink the beer because it is tasty, refreshing, and (let’s face it) because it contains alcohol. The “becauses” here mark my reasons for wanting beer instead of water. We would normally read "want" as indicating desire, but notice in this case that my want/desire for beer is founded on reasons for preferring beer to other liquids.

      One might wish to argue that it is ultimately Humean desires that are at work in my search for something tasty, etc. It’s not obvious to me that this is true, but I’ll grant the point. Practical reason operates (at least in part) by giving reasons in favor of (or in opposition to) some action, so it appears that reason still plays an important role in my motivation, and this is something that Hume does not seem to think possible.

    2. I see now, do you think that this account echoes and/or is continuous with Professor Merriam's comments on the reason, emotion, and how much closer they may be than assumed?

  3. Totally agree with Professor Merriam's piece. Many times in our culture we take too religiously the notion that the first to get emotional in an argument loses. It seems impossible for humans to be completely emotionless regarding propositions.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Ryan. I would add that not only is it basically impossible to be emotionless in an argument, it would often be bad if we were. Some topics (e.g.--the holocaust) demand an emotional response, and if we don't feel one then we are missing something important about the subject matter.

  4. In reply to Randy, I'm going to put on my philological hat for a second and disagree in viewing Euthyphro's Dilemma as a "lovely piece of sophistry." To me it describes a cosmological antinomy perhaps worthy of Kant, and is nontrivial. Do we live in a world where the gods--or God, not mentioned in the dialogue but imported in our discussion of it--are creative/legislative for physis & cosmos? Or, are the gods (and even the Divine itself) emergent properties to Nature (to physis, in Leibniz's sense of natura naturans)? I believe we are thinking anachronistically when we import our post-monotheistic presumption of a creator God, an arche-God, commencing and commanding, into the dialogue. In my view, the dilemma speaks in its own terms and operates within Greek paganism. I read it less as a dilemma and more as a reductio ad absurdum of any understanding of the gods which exempts them from that preexisting physis/cosmos/logos from which they themselves have emerged. The gods too have an origin in Socrates's (and Plato's) way of thinking. The gods are not wholly responsible for and tyrannical over the coherence of intelligible and sensible worlds, but that role is reserved for the Good which is beyond Being (ergo beyond divinities as well). The gods do not die, but they are born, they emerge within a preexisting metaphysical and moral world order. I'm not endorsing this view. Just saying that I doubt Plato or Socrates would recognize themselves in how history has read what they may have understood as a reductio ad absurdum as if it were a dilemma. Their orienting theology was very different than ours.

    1. Anonymous, thanks for this, very interesting. It sounds to me like you are saying that the question Socrates is posing is in fact a deep and important one, or at least was at the time. That strikes me as being consistent with my claim that it is an inappropriate reply to Euthyphro's proposed definition, and in fact adds Red Herring to the list of fallacies Socrates'adroitly commits thereby.

      But I can see how a more generous reading would amount to Socrates'pointing out that it is widely agreed that the gods are part of nature, and it is not clear how anything that is part of nature could be the ultimate source of a necessary truth about nature itself.