Notes on Sellars and Philosophy of Nature

– Sellars spends a good deal of time in his essay ‘Aristotelian Philosophies of Mind‘ critiquing said philosophies of mind on the grounds that they represent a prescientific way of thinking about intellect, cognition, etc. They’re simply outdated, Sellars seems to say (though his goal is more to elucidate when/how such ideas went wrong than to simply knock them around).

– I suspect that some of these critiques can be deflected if we distinguish between a scientific account of how (say) sensation works and a philosophical account of the nature of sensation, or what sensation is. James Madden notes in ‘Mind, Matter, Nature’, that it is the latter, not the former, which Aquinas is offering, and thus far from being refuted by our given psycho-physical understanding of the brain is open to really just about any empirical findings.

– Put another way, Aquinas’ account of sensation as caused by physical impressions on our organs from which the forms are abstracted by the intellect into a formal identity between the knower and known isn’t a play-by-play description of the physiology of the brain – if this were so, than this would be a rather easily refutable theory (to use Sellars example, if this account were a scientific account of what cognition is, then if I thought of a lion, I would have to have a lion in my brain and in my eye! Easily refutable would be an understatement) Aquinas’ account of the mind may jive more easily with this or that empirical finding, but on its own its simply a category mistake to take it as an empirical account of cognition or sensation.

– A case in point would be in Sellars’ closing, where he cites findings in the empirical science of the brain against the existence of the active intellect (and as it happens, I think the passive/active intellect can map very well onto contemporary accounts of cognition).

– Madden also points out, keeping with the theme above, that the accusation of being prescientific is absolutely correct if the Thomistic philosophy of nature (form, matter, etc) is taken to be an account of the conduct of science – Madden affirms that when it comes to the empirical sciences, it is indeed a proper methodology to exclude things like form, final cause, etc. These are concepts which serve as the ground of the empirical sciences – the nature of physical law, change, etc. This being the case, Sellars’ objections lose some force, since what he’s critiquing as being a prescientific kind of empirical science is in fact a more fundamental consideration.

A Few Short Book Reviews

IMG_20150411_083155 (1)The World of the New Testament has proven to be an outstanding resource for study of the historical and cultural background of the New Testament. There are essays on every imaginable subject, from monotheism to the social status of women and children to Jewish dietary laws to zealots to weights and measurements to exile to slavery to geographical and archaeological studies of the New Testament lands, all with extensive bibliographies for those wishing to pursue more specialized studies. Highly recommended for those looking to get a good ‘lay of the land’ perspective on the New Testament from a historical, cultural and social standpoint.

Later Medieval Metaphysics is a collection of specialized and generally technical essays around the subjects of language, ontology and language. Topics include Duns Scotus on the subject matter of metaphysics, Buridan and Aquinas on the existence/essence distinction, Avicenna on types and tokens and the power of medieval logic. These are, as noted above, technical essays – this is clearly not an introductory volume as it assumes at the minimum a working knowledge of the three main subjects. The discussions on essence/existence and logic are especially technical and quite dense. Despite its advanced reading level, the essays are well-written and are a good place for the student of medieval philosophy to really get deeper into the subject.

Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma is a book that I was very excited about – I had it pre-ordered several months in advance and it has not disappointed. The basic idea that the author, Kevin Diller, has is to tie Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga together into one unified epistemological front, and it’s quite interesting to watch this project unfold. This book could serve as a good introductory text to the thought of both Barth and Plantinga – there’s no new ground broken here, as Diller simply sets out the overall ideas that Barth/Plantinga are known for. Properly basic beliefs, warrant, Barth’s theology of revelation, foundationalism and much more are laid out thoroughly (though not in an overly technical manner) and then synthesized – and that’s where the new ground is broken. Highly, highly recommended for anyone interested in philosophy of religion and religious epistemology.

How God Became Jesus is a multi-author reply to Bart Ehrman’s latest book ‘How Jesus Became God’. I haven’t read all of Erhman’s book, but as a state-of-the-field report of early christology, and early Christian devotion to Jesus, ‘How God Became Jesus’ has been a solid read. Essays from Michael Bird, Chris Tilling, Simon Gathercole, Craig Evans and Charles Hill cover various aspects of Erhman’s claims, ranging from Jesus’ self-understanding, how the early Christians thought of Jesus, and Paul’s divine christology, which is Chris Tilling’s field of study (and on which he has recently published a very well-received book). Interactions with classic and contemporary work in the field (ranging from Hengel, Hurtado, Bauckham and others) make this an excellent guide for those looking to learn more about earl Christology.

Dominus Mortis is another book I was very excited about receiving – it’s actually become one of my favourite specialized studies. Medieval christology, theological metaphysics, modern theology, Luther and his theology and more are all discussed clearly, and though this is a specialized study it’s not so technical as to be inaccessible. In fact, given the dense subject matter (the hypostatic union, the impassibility of God, etc), I was pleasantly surprised by just how easy it was to read. What I absolutely love about this volume, though, is the brief summary and conclusions at the end of each chapter – the argumentation can often be dense and it’s very helpful to have a recap at the conclusion of every chapter. The overall thesis of the book, that Luther was not a passibilist in his doctrine of God, is a very provocative idea that one doesn’t hear often, and the exegetical and theological arguments deployed are quite interesting. This is definitely an essential book for Luther studies and for anyone who wants to learn more about theological metaphysics, medieval christology ( I learned a completely new concept, that of ‘suppositional carrying) and Luther’s doctrine of God.

Jesus is Lord, Caeser is Not is another multi-author volume, this time on the topic of the anti-imperial rhetoric in the New Testament. This particular volume serves as an excellent introduction (though critical) to the field, with two essays focusing on the development of the anti-imperial trend in NT scholarship and the rest of the essays critiquing specific theses. Topics range from anti-imperial themes in Romans, Acts, John, and Phillipians, the emperor-cult of Rome, the place of the state in relation to the church. This book is a good overview of anti-imperial studies in the New Testament that covers a large amount of ground with plenty of bibliography for those interested in further study in just how subversive the New Testament really is in terms of power and politics.

Mind, Matter and Nature: A Thomistic Proposal for the Philosophy of Mind has a number of strengths. It’s a comprehensive survey of contemporary philosophy of mind, laying out, interacting with and critiquing all the major positions (matieralism, eliminativism, functionalism, dualism, emergentism, etc) in a very fair and even-handed way. While it presents the viewpoints fairly and thoroughly, it’s not especially technical and could function as an introduction to the field (indeed, the author states that the book assumes no prior knowledge of philosophy of mind). Following the interactions with the contemporary positions is a very good exposition of Aristotliean philosophy of nature, getting into things like form, matter, change, and hylomoprhic dualism. Following this exposition is the real purpose of the book, which is a Thomistic philosophy of mind, taking an Aristotliean line on subjects like sensation, form, intellect, mental states and the soul. Overall, this is a well-argued and even-handed contribution to philosophy of mind.

A New Heaven and a New Earth is one of the very few books on eschatology I’ve read (and I haven’t completely finished it yet), and it follows more or less themes that have become popular through the work of N.T. Wright in ‘Surprised by Hope’ – vocation, the goodness of creation, the vocation of man as an image-bearer, how man builds for the Kingdom, etc. What I’ve enjoyed so far, apart from the ‘damn greek philosophy’ charge in the first section of the book, is how the topics like judgement and power aren’t sugar-coated. Judgement here is seen as something from God that will destroy the wicked for the benefit of the righteous, and power is seen as a natural kind of thing and not itself inherently an evil. The chapters on man’s vocation do a bang-up job of laying out things like temple imagery and man’s vocation as reflecting God’s glory into creation – so far, this is a great book, full of sound exegesis and biblical exposition as well as a good amount of interaction with non-biblical material (especially concerning judgement) and other scholars in the field.

Rational Reality and Inherent Intelligbility

One of the great contributions Kant made to philosophy was the place he afforded the human mind: no longer was the knowing agent seen as the merely passive recipient of sense-data from which he inferred and deduced – the knowing agent was, from Kant onwards, the creator of the world of his experience. With Kant, we see the idea that through the concepts, the mind structures the phenomenal world. We, as it were, make the world out of the raw data of experience (this is taking the basic two-worlds interpretation of Kant – there is some dispute over whether this is how he actually saw his philosophy). We can never know the thing in itself because we have no experience of the thing in itself. Our experience is with the phenomenal world of appearances.

Hegel took this further. For Hegel, the mind doesn’t simply structure the the raw data of experience – thought constitutes nature itself. Roughly, Hegel holds that there the concepts of Kant don’t merely exist in the mind but have mind-independent existence. Reality is knowable in every way because reality is itself Thought. So, for example, a knowable thing, more or less, equals all the thoughts we can have about it. The real, for Hegel, is the rational, and vice versa – for something to be is for it to be known, and this is the identity of knowing and being. The common element with Hegel and Kant is that both more or less proceed from the individual, the ‘I’, to the world.

T.F. Torrance, in ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’ (primarily pages 108-116), takes a decidedly different route. He takes reality to be not rational but intelligible inherently – and he locates our ability to know it not in the active power of the individual mind but in our shared communication and experience of reality.

Torrance proceeds along this line: reality has intelligibility built in, as it were, into it, and we can know it because of the structures, reasons and necessities of things – these structures and reasons signify what they are, and as we allow our minds to fall under the power of these structures, we think in accordance with their natures. This, for Torrance, is truly scientific thinking – thinking after the nature or in accordance with the nature of a thing, and allowing our concepts and thoughts about it to be shaped by it as it discloses itself to us in our critical questioning.

Torrance takes a interesting line with just how we come to know the being of things, as he puts it – this is primarily through language (he quotes Heidegger’s famous saying about language being the house of being). Our experience of reality, of the intelligible structures of things, is the starting point for Torrance’s epistemology – from there, it is our sharing and our communication of that experience which he terms ‘objective’. He arrives at this because he thinks of this communication as part of our interpersonal and social existence – this is something Wittgenstein would have approved of. Our communication, our use of signs to communicate our experience of reality, is anchored in a ‘web of meaning’ – our use of signs, which is our use of language, is how being shows itself to us and thus how our web of meaning touches on reality.

This is ‘objective’ because, for Torrance, our very inter-personal relations within which our communication and sharing take place have an open-ended and transcendent structure built in to them – our shared experience points to something which is common to all people and so objective. Indeed, our personhood, for Torrance, has this open-endedness to it, because as he thinks of it, a person is only a person through relation to other persons – transcendence and objectivity is then built in to persons by virtue of the essential relational and communicative aspect of personhood.

Torrance’s approach can be roughly summarized as follows: against more modern conceptions of reality and personhood which arrive at reality through the I’, Torrance grounds the inherent intelligibility and objectivity of reality in our experience and in our social/communicative existences as relational beings. Our social existence thus serves itself as a sign which points to a transcendent and objective reality which is not of our making.

Thomistic-Wittgensteinian Concept Formation and a Problem For Naturalism

I’m reading Haldane’s and Smart’s debate, ‘Atheism and Theism’, and Haldane makes an interesting point regarding what he takes to be a problem for a materialist/naturalistic metaphysic – that of our formation of abstract and universal concepts – such as square or triangularity. He gives a quick look at the two more traditional options – innatism, where concepts are just, as the name suggests, innate. We’re just born with them.The other option is abstraction – where, again as the name suggests, we abstract our concepts from our experience with objects. He notes problems for each: on innatism, how many concepts are we born with, and why that many? How did they get there? Are we born with the concept of both square and rectangle? Why or why not? On abstraction-ism, he cites Geach’s argument:

‘In the late 1950s Peter Geach produced a powerful argument against this latter thesis [abstraction-ism]. The suggestion that the concept square, say, is acquired by experiencing a variety of square objects and attending to their squarenss, while bracketing their other aspects, is absurd because in order to attend selectively to the squareness of square objects you must already have the concept square: attending to an instance of a feature F as such, is to exercise the concept f.’ (p. 102)

Haldane proceeds to give an answer along Wittgensteinian lines – basically, our concepts are neither innate nor abstracted but taught. The later Wittgenstein more or else held that our language and understanding (and one may reasonably assume concepts to fall under those two headings) are developed, taught and shaped by our actually participating in life and non-linguistic activities – against, say Augustine, Wittgenstein holds that the public is prior to the private in language. As we become part of a community, we learn and acquire language from the community – so our concepts aren’t innate, since we have to be participating in the life of the community, and they aren’t abstracted, since by the same token the concept wasn’t available until it was taught.

Haldane then ties Aquinas in thus:

‘In order for something like the Wittgensteinian explanation to work it has to be the case that the child has a prior disposition or potentiality to form concepts under appropriate influences; it also has to be the case that there is one that is itself already possessed of the concept. Alice will not pick up the meaning of the term ‘cat’ unless she has a relevant potentiality, unless the structure of her receptivity is of the right sort. By the same token, that potentiality will not be actualized except by an intellect that is already active in using the concept, her older brother James, for example…here I am forging a link with Wittgenstein’s linguistic communitarian account of the origins of thinking in the individual, and that suggests diving these aspects of the intellect, at least in the first instance, between the teacher and the taught. In these terms one may say that Alice’s intellect is receptive to, or potentially informed by, the concept cat, while the mind or intellect of James who has already mastered the use of the term is active with, or actually informed by this concept. In teaching Alice the word, James imparts the concept and thereby actualizes her potentiality. This picture grants something both to innatism and abstractionsim. One the one hand, in order to explain possession of concepts a native power has to be postulated; but on the other it is allowed that, in a sense, concepts are acquired through experience.’ (p. 103)

The dilemma that Haldane sees for naturalism can be roughly stated as follows: given that neither innatism or abstractionism provide an adequate account of our grasp and use of concepts, something like the Wittgensteinian picture must be the case so as to avoid the horns of the dilemma. But if the Wittgensteinian picture is the case, then we have a problem of infinite regress: if the explanation of Alice’s conceptual ability is explained by James’ ability, then James’ conceptual ability calls for an explanation, and then that explanation calls for an explanation, and so on and so on. While the Wittgensteinian picture escapes the innatism/abstractionism dilemma, it opens itself up to the charge of infinite regress unless it can be shown coherently how concept-formation may have arisen.

Haldane forsees a possible way out by arguing for a kind of ‘fading conceptuality’ history of language:

‘…no history of thought or language can be philosophically adequate if it tries to meet the genesis problem by postulating ‘fading conceptuality’. Though it is not put in there terms, or indeed very often discussed at all, something of this sort is presumably part of a naturalistic versiuon of Wittgenstein’s linguistic theory. On this account the history of concept-formation and use is the history of language; a history that leads us back to pre-lingustic activities, back further to pre-mental life, to pre-replicating life and ultimately to pre-animate matter…what needs to be accounted for is a natural transition from the non-conceptual to the conceptual and that is not the same distinction as one between degrees of conceptual complexity. Doubtless Stone Age cave dwellers made fewer and less abstract discriminations than a contemporary physicist, but that is irrelevant; the point is that the ability to make any general classifications is a conceptual power.’ (p. 106)

While this line of argument isn’t a bullet-proof argument against a naturalistic theory of concept-formation, there do seem to be some genuine difficulties here.

Theory-Ladenness, the Given, Intellectual Passion and Theory Development

Over the last half-century or so, a particular story about philosophy has come under fire. Typically called ‘the myth of the given’, it’s the idea that there is ‘given’ in experience come content upon which we can build our structures of knowledge. Prominent modern criticis include Sellars and Rorty, though criticisms of this story aren’t new to the modern era – Thomas Reid, a contemporary of Hume, directed some pretty serious arguments against ‘the way of ideas’ – the theory that what we perceive directly are ideas, or representations, of the world. Another term common in the early 20th century was ‘sense’datum’, found in the work of Russell and Moore.

The main critiques of this family of ideas, as I see it, come from Sellars, Rorty and Reid. Sellars argues along epistemic lines – our immediately perceived ‘given’ doesn’t justify any other beliefs, contra classical foundationalism, which states (broadly) that a properly functioning noetic structure will, once you trace it all out, have its foundation in a set of immediately justified/perceived beliefs, on the basis of which other beliefs can be formed. Sellars, as stated above, basically says that our apprehension of the given, that is, our immediate perception of the given and the consequent immediate justification, doesn’t justify any further beliefs. Hence, the given cannot serve as a foundation.

Reid, characteristically enough, takes a more common-sense approach, and notes that if we take the way of ideas to be the case, three big problems present themselves: (1) that ideas/given don’t have any explanatory power – he doesn’t see how it’s the case that the perception of ideas does any more explanatory lifting than direct perception of objects – (2) representationalism leads to infinite regress (which has some similarities to Plato’s third-man argument) – and (3) the great skeptical problems of the early moderns – how do I know that my mental representations represent reality accurately? Rorty takes roughly similar lines to Reid’s third point, and from there develops some of his more (in)famous dissolution schemes for the mind. For further reference, the SEP article on Reid is fantastic.

The takeaway from this brief genealogy is this: the idea (haw haw) that we construct our structures of knowledge out of ‘given’ sense-data or ideas (read: empiricism) is, if not untenable, pretty shaky.

A further development of the critique of this philosophical story comes from the philosophy of science: the theory-ladenness of science. This idea states, more or less, that all observation is ‘theory-laden’ or conditioned by prior knowledge – what we see depends on our ‘theories’. The classical example is that of Aristotle and Copernicus looking at the sun – both are looking at the same star, but both see two completely different objects because of their theories. This is a fairly radical idea – this isn’t simply the fact that people interpret data different, but rather the theory-ladenness of science states that there is no neutrel data given. While Sellars’ critique is more epistemic (one could hold to his idea while affirming the existence of the given) theory-ladenness allows no such luxury. Two different observers with two different theories literally see two different objects. For a much fuller and substantially more technical discussion, head here.

Another interesting idea to come ffrom the philosophy of science (which I’ll only mention briefly to save time) is the idea of incommensurability – two different theories cannot map onto each other point-for-point. This thesis is tied to Kuhn and Feyerabend, and generally cashes out to saying that there is no neutral language which different theories can be translted into without some loss of information or meaning.

What’s the payoff here, then? Where does all this leaves us? In a way, I’m not quite sure. We can clearly see that, with the above ideas in hand, that science and theory-development is far from a cold, value-free logical enterprise, a mere accumulation and manipulation of the facts – science and theory-development is a thoroughly human undertaking.

All our scientific research and theory-development takes place within a framework of prior knowledge – this is the theory-ladenness of science. This framework is what enables us to ‘see’, as it were – let’s call this frameowork our ‘eyes’. As we continue to research and develop – less by shutting up and calculating and more by way of instinct-led groping – we make discoveries. Things are discovered which change the framework – which changes our eyes, so to speak. Thus Polanyi:

‘Major discoveries change our interpretive frameowork. Hence it is logically impossible to arrive at these by the continued application of our previous interpretive framework. So we see once more that discovery is creative, in the sense that it is not to be achieved by the diligent performance of any previously known and specifiable procedure. This strengthens our conception of originality.. The application of existing rules can produce valuable surveys, but does not advance the principles of science. We have to cross the logical gap between a problem and its solution by relying on the unspecifiable  impulse of our heuristic passion, and must undergo as we do so a change  of our intellectual personality. Like all ventures  in which we comprehensively dispose of ourselves, such an intentional change of our personality requires a passionate motive to accomplish it. Originality must be passionate.’ (‘Personal Knowledge’, p. 143)

‘From the start of this book [Personal Knowledge] I have had occasion, in various contexts to refer to the overwhelming elation felt by scientists at the moment of discovery, an elation of a kind which only a scientist can feel and which science alone can evoke in him. In the very first chapter I quoted the famous passage in which Kepler announced the discovery of his Third Law: “nothing holds me; I will indulge my sacred fury.” The outbreak of such emotions in the course of discovery is well known, but they are not thought to affect the outcome of discovery. Science is regarded as objectively established in spite of its passionate origins. It should be clear by this time that I dissent from that belief; and I have now come to the point at which I want to deal explicitly with passions in science. I want to show that scientific passions are no mere psychological by-product, but have a logical function which contributes an indispensable element to science. They responded to an essential quality in a scientific statement and may accordingly be said to be right or wrong, depending on whether we acknowledge or deny the presence of that quality in it.

What is this quality? Passions charge objects with emotions, making them repulsive or attractive; positive passions affirm that something is precious. The excitement of the scientist making a discovery is an intellectual passion, telling that something is intellectually precious and, more particularly, that it is precious to science . And this affirmation forms part of science. The words of Kepler which I quoted were not a statement of fact, but neither were they merely a report of Kepler’s personal feelings. They asserted as a valid affirmation of science something else than a fact: namely the scientific interest of certain facts, the facts just discovered by Kepler. They affirmed, indeed, that these facts are immense scientific interest and will be so regarded as long as knowledge lasts. Nor was Kepler deceived in this majestic sentiment. The passing centuries have paid their cumulative tribute to his vision, and so, I believe, will the centuries yet to come.

The function which I attribute here to scientific passion is that of distinguishing between demonstrable facts which are of scientific interest, and those which are not. Only a tiny fraction of all knowable facts are of interest to scientists, and scientific passion serves also as a guide in the assessment of what is of higher and what of lesser interest; what is great in science, and what relatively slight. I want to show that this appreciation depends ultimately on a sense of intellectual beauty; that it is an emotional response which can never be dispassionately defined, any more than we can dispassionately define the beauty of a work of art or the excellence of a noble action.

Scientific discovery reveals new knowledge, but the new vision which accompanies it is not knowledge. It is less than knowledge, for it is a guess; but is more than knowledge, for it is a foreknowledge of things yet unknown and at present perhaps inconceivable. Our vision of the general nature of things is our guide for the interpretation of all future experience. Such guidance is indispensable. Theories of the scientific method which try to explain the establishment of scientific truth by any purely objective formal procedure are doomed to failure. Any process of enquiry unguided by intellectual passions would inevitably spread out into a desert of trivialities. Our vision of reality, to which our sense of scientific beauty responds, must suggest to use the kind of questions that it should be reasonable and interesting to explore. It should recommend the kind of conceptions and empirical relations that are intrinsically plausible and which should therefore be upheld, even when some evidence seems to contradict them, and tell us also, on the other hand, what empirical connections to reject as specious, even though there is evidence for them – evidence that we may as yet be unable to account for on any other assumptions. In fact, without a scale of interest and plausibility based on a vision of reality, nothing can be discovered that is of value to science; and only our grasp of scientific beauty, responding to the evidence of our senses, can evoke this vision.’ (p. 133-135)