Against Pure A Priori-ism

In a recent article for Aeon magazine, Prof. Bruce Russell argues that all our justified beliefs ultimately rest on a priori justification. At first glance, this appears to be quite a claim, for surely some of our justification is a posteriori – how can empirical propositions such as, say, the sun will rise tomorrow, because it has risen in the past (the inductive proposition par excellence) turn out to be justified a priori? Russell argues that even induction is justified a priori – a contentious claim, to say the least, but not an indefensible one. The question of its viability, then, hinges on the quality of the arguments given in its defence. It is important to note at the outset and keep in mind Russell’s definition of a priori justification – this will prove significant later: Continue reading


Reading Notes 2/15/2015: The Metaphysics of Modality and Philosophy of Mind

My reading the last few days has generally been drawn from ‘The Possible and the Actual: Readings in the Metaphysics of Modality‘, and ‘Philosophy of Mind: Contemporary Readings‘. A few notes on the former and latter:

– Regarding modality, I generally took it for granted that modalities are, as it were, ‘built-in’ to reality. An interesting thesis I read, however, by Nicholas Rescher, is that possibilities of the modal variety are mind-dependent. That is, what Rescher calls ‘hard core’ possibilities – possibilities that are totally unactualized – exist only in the mind conceptually. This took me for a bit of a loop, because how good modality be mind-dependent? Surely possibility has to be a real feature of the real world. But then I thought a bit harder – perhaps by distinguishing possibility from contingency, the former having to do logical necessity and the latter having to do with metaphysical non-necessity. Keeping that distinction in mind, modal idealism isn’t so farfetched sounding. Modal possibility can exist firmly within the mind while metaphysical contingency can exist firmly within the real order of things. If, however, one were to take Plantinga’s line of actualism, in which possible worlds are constructed out of states of affairs, then modal idealism wouldn’t have as much appeal. An interesting line in Rescher’s argument is geared towards denying any kind of Platonic ‘space’ for possibilities to exist in outside the natural order – so if one took a slightly Platonic line, then modal idealism would indeed be rather senseless.

– Regarding philosophy of mind, I guess it never occurred to me that functionalism, if true, functions (haw haw) as an argument against reductive physicalism, which is a little funny because, as is well known, functionalism is a materialist theory of mind – this seems to be fairly well known in the literature, though, and I’ll chalk this one up as my own lack of thinking it through. Multiple realization (or realize-ability) also seems to pose a threat to more reductive flavours of physicalism, but I’m not quite sure I have a good enough grasp on MR to really come to any conclusions.

– The most interesting thing I’ve read in the PoM volume is a Kripke-flavoured argument by Joseph Levine regarding qualia – in a nutshell (because the argument is fairly long), he argues that there is an ‘explanatory gap’ in a statement like (1) Pain is c-fibers firing that there isn’t in a statement like (2) heat is molecules in motion – (2) can be functionalized while (1) cannot. From this, he argues that the truth or falsity of (1) is inaccessible epistemically. Levine accepts that qualia are real (or at least accepts that the intuition we have that qualia are real is something we should follow), and since he doesn’t want to take the eliminativist line, he’s left with a bit of a head-scratcher. I’m going to go into more detail about the argument at a later time, so for now, this is all you get.

The Logic of Committment

In ‘Personal Knowledge’, Michael Polanyi makes a couple of interesting meta-logical points. After a sustained examination of just what it means to assert something as true, he reaches the following conclusion:

…’if ‘p is true’ expresses my assertion or reassertion of the sentence p, then ‘p is true’ cannot be said to be true or false in the sense in which a factual sentence p is true’ declares that I identify myself with the content of the factual sentence p, and this identification is something I am doing, and not a fact that I am observing. The expression ‘p is true’ is therefore not itself a sentence but merely the assertion of (an otherwise unasserted) sentence, the sentence p.  To say that ‘p is true’ is to underwrite a commitment or to sign an acceptance, in a sense akin to the commercial meaning of such acts. Hence we cannot assert the expression ‘p is true’, any more than we can endorse our own signature; only a sentence can be asserted, not an action.’ (‘Personal Knowledge’, p. 254)

The distinction between the act of assertion (which cannot be true or false – or, to use more modern terminology, is not something which can have a truth-value) and the content of that sentence (which can be true or false, or have a truth-value) which is asserted serves to clear away some logical problems that Polanyi sees as rising out of the habit of ‘disguising’ an act as a sentence and serves to also lay the groundwork for showing just where commitment itself comes into play.

Briefly, Polanyi argues that only something which can be true or false can be believed – belief can only be had if what you believe might be false. This introduces an element of risk to epistemology, and from there it follows that to hold a belief as true requires, or may even actually in itself be, an act of commitment. From this it follows, on Polanyi’s scheme, that our assertion of a given sentence as true isn’t so much a statement of the facts – he distinguishes between ‘I believe p‘ and ‘p is true’ (which is something you might expect to find in a school textbook) – but an expression of commitment:

‘Admittedly, to say ‘p is true’, instead of ‘I believe p‘, is to shift the emphasis within one’s commitment from the personal to the external pole. The utterance ‘I believe p‘ expresses more aptly a heuristic conviction or a religious belief, while ‘p is true’ will be preferred for affirming a statement taken from a textbook of science.’ (p. 305)

The truth, in a more metaphysical or ontological sense is, for Polanyi, something that is sought after by us and hidden from us – it is an object of passionate desire (intellectual passion) that reveals itself only after sustained inquiry. This is the external element of truth – the internal, epistemic sense of truth is that truth ‘can be thought of only by believing it’ – i.e., from within a framework of commitment.

What this roughly serves to show isn’t that we are doomed to throw up our hands and declare that there isn’t any truth, or that truth is ultimately a matter of attitude – far from it. While there are indeed ‘facts of the matter’, as it were, outside of us, independent of our own minds, what Polanyi’s logic of commitment shows is that in any talk, pursuit or thought of the truth , there is a personal, tacit and fiduciary act of commitment, from scientific inquiry (which I’ve written on in a bit more detail here) to the cold mechanics of formal logic.

Notes on the Principle of Sufficient Reason

– It was pointed out that most arguments from contingency rely on some version of the principle of sufficient reason. This is broadly true.

– Broadly (again), the PSR can be boiled down to the idea that for every true proposition, there is a sufficient reason for its truth. A somewhat different interpretation:

‘The principle holds that nothing takes place without a reason; for any occurrence, a being with sufficient knowledge would be able to give a reason sufficient to explain why it is as it is and not otherwise.’ (‘ Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion, p. 299)

– So, basically, it’s concerned with contingent states of affairs – why this, and not that kind of thinking. That’s pretty obvious – if it is the case that an occurrence could have been otherwise, it’s contingent. That’s pretty much the definition of contingent.

– It appears that, at first glance, the PSR stumbles when it comes to things like necessary truths. If the PSR applies to contingent propositions/events, what about necessary ones (I realize I’m mixing propositions/events, but you get the idea)? Or even the PSR itself? Is it just a brute fact? Put another way, why accept the PSR?

– Leibniz held that for necessary truths/propositions, their negation is a contradiction – and that this was the sufficient reason .

– Perhaps as a law of thought or a law of logic, rather than an existential ontological theory, it’s more solid. As an ontological theory it basically ends up being a causal argument – everything that begins to exist has a cause. This has the curious property of being a tautology, though – of something begins to exist, then by definition it has a cause. So it seems that it’s trivially true, which isn’t terribly helpful.

– But as a logical law, it seems better. It is the case that for every true proposition, there is a reason why it’s true makes more sense and is a bit less tautological. If something is true, then there is an explanation as to why it is true.

Note on Thought and Belief

I’ve harped on somewhat regularly about how I don’t think that thought/belief/thinking can be seen as an abstract over-against kind of thing. If Polanyi has taught me one thing and one thing only, it’s that all knowledge and belief is personal knowledge and belief. Knowledge is always had by a person; belief is always believed by a person. Belief always has an element of personal commitment (for the most part – I think you could argue that some belief just happens). To refer to Polanyi again, even strict formal logic has an element of the personal.

God and Logic

Logic, as Wittgenstein and Russell learned, is a very slippery thing. For starters, what is it? It’s not a physical thing – I don’t bump into logic on the street. It’s not necessarily reasonable – some things are perfectly logical while also being entirely unreasonable. But, oddly enough, like mathematics, we seem to be subject to it – regardless of its immaterial status. Is it odd that something immaterial is something to which everything material is subject?

One of the various ways in which John 1:1 can be translated is ‘In the beginning was the logic’. Logos has many shades of meaning – but suppose this is true, as Gordon Clark thought. Is logic uncreated, then? Is God logic? I say no – logic has far too many limits to be God. However, is God subject to logic? Can God do that which is illogical? If God can perform physical miracles, and is unlimited by the laws of nature, wouldn’t the same apply to logic? Can God make square circles? Married bachelors? I don’t think so – though part of me is tempted to say that if God decided to make a square circle, then we would simply have to redefine our notion of a circle. But generally, it’s agreed that God can’t do any of these things. Aquinas discusses this issue in a pretty definitive way in his Summa:

‘It remains, therefore, that God is called omnipotent because He can do all things that are possible absolutely; which is the second way of saying a thing is possible. For a thing is said to be possible or impossible absolutely, according to the relation in which the very terms stand to one another, possible if the predicate is not incompatible with the subject, as that Socrates sits; and absolutely impossible when the predicate is altogether incompatible with the subject, as, for instance, that a man is a donkey.’

‘Now nothing is opposed to the idea of being except non-being. Therefore, that which implies being and non-being at the same time is repugnant to the idea of an absolutely possible thing, within the scope of divine omnipotence. For such cannot come under the divine omnipotence, not because of any defect in the power of God, but because it has not the nature of a feasible or possible thing. Therefore, everything that does not imply a contradiction in terms, is numbered amongst those things, in respect of which God is called omnipotent: whereas whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility. Hence it is better to say that such things cannot be done, than that God cannot do them. Nor is this contrary to the word of the angel, saying: “No word shall be impossible with God.” For whatever implies a contradiction cannot be a word, because no intellect can possibly conceive such a thing.’ (I Q. 25, Art.3)

Interesting stuff. Aquinas was a sharp fellow.

Linguistic Musings

I’ve tried to write a post on language several times now – but each time I end up simply staring at the screen, unable to formulate my thoughts. One reason for this, I think, is because in a way we are kind of trapped in language – that is, we can’t step outside of it to get an ‘objective’ look at it. It’s different than say, working on a car – you can always step outside the car to get a good look at the whole thing -you’re working on. This isn’t to say that constructive things can’t be said about language, because they obviously can. But, at least for me, anyways, there’s some interesting built-in limits to the study.

In his ‘Tractatus’, Wittgenstein thought he had nailed down language in about 70 pages and a few propositions. He later came to realize that language goes far, far beyond simply picturing the world – one simply has to read the ‘Blue’ and ‘Brown’ books and the ‘Philosophical Investigations’ to see that Wittgenstein came to see language as being a vast, rich, puzzling tapestry – things like context, analogy, language games, culture, syntax all come into play with language.

Heidegger said that language is the house of being – this is one reason why I’m wary of attempts to dissect and analyze language with purely logical tools. To be sure language can be analyzed in this way, often with great results, but language can’t be conceived along purely logical lines.

Musings on Wittgenstein and Certainty

Reading through ‘On Certainty’ is interesting – because there are very few certain conclusions that Wittgenstein comes to.  It seems odd that an investigation into the nature of knowledge and how we know things doesn’t really offer any firm, certain conclusions. But perhaps, despite a non-systematic format and method, a few things can be gleaned that shed light on the problems of certainty.

‘In the course of our conversations Russell would often exclaim: “Logic’s hell!” – And this perfectly expresses the feeling we had when we were thinking about the problems of logic; that is to say, their immense difficulty, their hard and slippery texture.

I believe our main reason for feeling like this was the following fact: that every time some new linguistic phenomenon occurred to us, it could retrospectively show that our previous explanations were unworkable. (We felt that language could always make new, and impossible, demands; and this makes all explanation futile.)

But that is the difficulty Socrates gets into trying to give the definition of a concept. Again and again a use of a word emerges that seems not to be compatible with the concept that other uses have led us to form. We say: but that isn’t how it is! – it is like that though! and all we can do is keep repeating these antitheses.’ (‘Culture and Value’, p. 30e)

The problem emerges in the last paragraph: the fluid nature of language is a real barrier to examining things like certainty and logic. This is why Wittgenstein adopts a more ‘therapeutic’ method of investigation, working, wading and kneading through the issues and problems.  Perhaps no clear, concise answer appears – but can such an answer even be feasible given the limitations imposed on us by our language?

Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, with Stephen Law.

Here Alvin Plantinga presents and defends his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism with/against Stephen Law, himself not a theist. A fascinating argument and a fascinating discussion well worth your time.

Roughly speaking, the EAAN has its roots in C.S. Lewis’s book ‘Miracles’ where he states that naturalism undercuts its own justification. Plantinga has developed it into a fairly formidable argument.

‘Naturalistic evolution gives its adherents a reason for doubting that our beliefs are mostly true; perhaps they are mostly mistaken; for the very reason for mistrusting our cognitive facultiesgenerally, will be a reason for mistrusting the faculties that produce belief in the goodness of the argument.’

– Alvin Plantinga – taken from – an outline of a lecture Plantinga gave on the argument. Again, well worth reading. It’s fairly technical but provides good context for the argument.