Thursday, February 22, 2007

Anneli Jefferson and I on content holism

Content holism, to quote Gabriel Segal on this blog is the thesis that “the content of an individual’s concept depends on the totality of beliefs in which it features.”
The unattractive feature of content holism is that it loses a fantastically useful human invention that is central to rationality: error. We can see the problem clearly when we think about two types of disagreement : to use Quine’s terms, dogmatic disagreement and conceptual disagreement. Or less technically, genuine disagreements and disagreements that are merely verbal.
To illustrate with some examples:


Alf: Zed is dead.
Beth: No he is not, I just saw him in the library.


Alf: No not that Zed, I’m talking about Zed the astronaut, not Zed the librarian.

Here, what first appeared to be a disagreement turned out to be a misunderstanding. Of course this could have gone the other way.


Alf: Really! That is amazing, I thought he was dead, I just heard that he had died on the radio. It must be a hoax.



Alf: No that can’t have been Zed you saw. I’ve just come from the hospital where I saw him die.

So the three options for a disagreement are 1. Alf has a false belief. 2. Beth has a false belief. 3. It is merely a verbal disagreement and neither have false beliefs.
The problem with any kind of holism is that everything falls into the third category and we end up never having false beliefs. This doesn’t amount to the fantastic news that we are always right, it is just absurd.
I guess a typical attractive way of avoiding this problem is by rejecting holism in favor of moleculism. This is to say that the content of an individual’s concept is dependent on a subset of all the beliefs that concept figures in. Anneli pointed out the problems with this. It is hard to come up with a principled way of saying which the meaning determining beliefs are. The Analytic/ Synthetic distinction won’t do because you end up with the same problem, namely which beliefs are analytically true. In the above dialogue, the sentence “Zed is Zed” may express an analytic belief or may be not. Nils’s suggestion that we make a dictionary met with derision for some unfathomable reason. So here’s my solution. Save holism by changing it to “dispositional holism”.

The content of an individual’s concept depends on the totality of situations in which the individual is disposed to have a belief in which the concept features.

So now I’ll flag up some advantages of this amendment;
Old Holism: Two people share a concept if and only if they have all the same beliefs in which the concept features. (absurd. Intuitively false)
New Holism: Two people only share the same concept if they are disposed to have the same beliefs given the same experiences. (Of course! This is true! Hooray!)

Disagreement problem solved: If Alf and Beth had a genuine disagreement then Beth must have had experiences such that, had Alf had those same experiences, then Alf would be disposed to believe as Beth does. This is the case. Had Alf seen Zed in the library, Alf wouldn’t have believed that Zed was dead. If Beth had watched Zed die in hospital, then Beth would believe that Zed was alive. The genuine disagreement depends on different experiences.

However, with the merely verbal disagreement this doesn’t happen. So even if Alf had just seen Zed (the librarian) in the library, he would not be disposed to believe that Zed (the astronaut) was still alive.

We can make of this a simple rule about belief content.
S grasps the content of p iff S is disposed to believe that p in situations where it is obvious that p.
Or a variation:
S grasps the content of p iff S is disposed to believe p in situations where the evidence warrants a belief that p.

This is supposed to be a mirror of truth conditional semantics.

This might frightened some linear thinkers since it is introducing epistemological terminology. But hey, it is these for these reasons I started studying epistemology. “Belief” is an epistemological term, and therefore so is “concept”.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

A personal identity argument for Altruism

Professor Segal ended his hand out on his talk on personal identity with the brilliant sentence: Which do you want to be?

This at once accords with my “no right answer” pragmatic approach to questions of personal identity whilst at the same time revealing the paradoxical and unstable nature of this solution. To show what I mean I want to talk about the Bernard William's preference ordering question. All A’s memories are erased from A’s brain and put into the brain of B. B’s memories are likewise moved into A’s brain. (I am using “memories” here trying to be as neutral as possible, you can flesh it out with whatever (non fleshy) stuff can be plausibly transferred in this way.). Either A body or B body gets a million pounds after the experiment, the other gets tortured. You are A to start with. Which body gets tortured. It is up to you.

What underlies this dilemma is an assumption of egoism. The personal identity questions can then be thought of as a reductio argument against egoism. Parfit himself took it to be so, although this is rarely spoken of. At the heart of most world religions there is a sense that egoism rests on an illusion, a lie. In Buddhism your real self is no self. In Hinduism there is only one soul, Atman, that is within all of us, the individual ego is an illusion. Jesus Christ tells us that we are all in God and God is in all of us, and we should love each other as ourselves.

In the William’s dilemma the utilitarian or the altruist will be indifferent whether A or B gets tortured, since it is irrelevant whether either is in some sense himself. The egoist is confused though since he does not want to get tortured, but does not know who “he” will be, or where his illusory “ego” or “soul” or “self” will reside. The dilemma can be seen as a reductio against egoism. Asking the egoist "who do you want to be", undermines his very criteria for making the decision.

Let us bring in some “irrelevant” details. Suppose young healthy but bad at business A is running an orphanage and has worked very hard to keep it running, she has dedicated her life to it. She is also humble and altruistic. She is kidnapped by scientists and has her memories swapped with B, a woman she knows to also be altruistic and humble, but to have better business acumen, greater intelligence and an old and cancer ridden body. The scientist offer her this choice: after the experiment, either A body or B body will get a million pounds and inherit the orphanage. The other body will be tortured and killed. The Altruistic A in this circumstance should certainly choose A body and B mind to run the orphanage, since that is the best result for the kids.

Now the question is “which do you want to be?” Let’s ask this of A before the op. Does she live on as the A body with the B mind? Her life’s work lives on. She chose this combination over the other to fulfil her life’s work. But it seems just as reasonable to say that she chose to die in order that B could live on in her place.

What this reveals to me is that the idea that values and desires are intrinsically subjective and not matters of fact seems to crumble in the face of these personal identity conundrums. Although it is true that people are generally more motivated by their own desires that those of complete strangers, this is better explained through ignorance than any intrinsic lack of objective value. I know this is too brief but in the absence of any fact of the matter about personal identity, it seems that value must be objective of necessity. Egoistic desires can then be seen to be irrational if they don’t stem from ignorance.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Nils and the Ten Pound Note

Nils and the ten pounds, a tale with a mereological moral.

For the last two weeks at William Bynoes’ (legendary) metaphysics group we’ve been talking about things and parts of things and whether things are identical to the parts of them. Today Ali Oduncu from UCL named the wood that his chair was made of WOOD and named the chair CHAIR. I was ok with naming the chair CHAIR, but naming the wood that the chair was made of WOOD I thought a little confusing. So I thought of this example from true life.

Nils asked me to lend him ten pounds. I said I would so long as he promised to pay me back the ten pounds he owed me. I gave him a ten pound note and wrote Jonny on it. He spent it on lager and I haven’t seen it since.
Now let us imagine a bizarre counterfactual situation. Nils gives me the ten pounds he owes me. But I’ve forgotten about it by now, so I ask him what that is in his hand. He says it is the ten pounds I lent him. I go to the bar and buy drinks and get three pounds change.
The ten pounds I lent Nils is identical with the ten pound note with Jonny written on it.
The ten pounds that Nils gave me was identical with the ten pounds he owed me.
The ten pounds he owed me was identical with the ten pounds I lent him.
The ten pounds he gave me was identical with the ten pounds I spent at the bar.
The three pounds change was part of the ten pounds I took to the bar.
So the three pound coins in my hand are a part of the ten pound note with Jonny written on it.

I have no mereological stance, but for the sake of argument I say that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Identity is not transitive. There are infinite things.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

what is a speakers proposition?

Tzu – Wei Hung gave a talk last night that utterly baffled me. My failure to understand I think was to do with the word “proposition” and perhaps certain assumptions about what cognitive states it is possible to be in. The puzzle that the talk drew out was that given a contextualist infinite regress argument it seems that there is an unbridgeable gap between the speakers proposition and the sentence proposition. I fear to say exactly what the regress argument is because I’m fairly certain I haven’t got it right, but it seems that if you try and remove the context sensitivity out of a sentence you end up with another context sensitive sentence. This sentence in turn can be clarified by another sentence. Presumably there will be an infinite number of these clarifications, therefore there will be no sentence that expresses the proposition that the speaker was trying to express. Although I don’t see that there is necessarily going to be an infinite number, I am a great fan of language and am willing to accept that this part of the regress argument is true. So when I write “John is ready” I mean “John is ready for the written exam” which means “John is ready for the Metaphysics written exam on Tuesday the tenth of April, 2007” by which I mean “John has written the exam time down in his personal organiser and has a clear idea of which topics he is going to answer.” And so forth.
I guess the puzzle is that it seems clear that none of these sentences is going to express exactly the proposition I had in mind. Some are too vague, others too precise. They can’t all express it, since this would mean that the speaker's proposition is infinite and we are assuming this is impossible. So there is an unbridgeable gap between the speaker proposition and the sentence proposition.
Now I wonder what the speaker's proposition is. Gabe’s suggestion was that it is the propositional content of what it is that the speaker is trying to express by the sentence. Tzu-Wei said that the speaker grasps the truth (conditions,) of the proposition when he grasps a proposition. Propositions are it seems at least minimally true or false. If we take some kind of belief norm of assertion, then we can say that the speaker proposition is the propositional content of the belief that he is asserting. Then here comes the analytic philosophy assumption that I think is too blatantly false to have been assumed for so long.
1. In order to believe a proposition one must grasp its truth conditions.
There are of course a number of ways of expressing this thought.
1* In order to believe a proposition one must know in which possible worlds the proposition is true.
This is certainly unrealistic since even to individuate a possible world would require an infinite cognitive effort.
1** In order to believe a proposition one must have a criteria for assessing the truth of p.
The problem with 1** is that if you believe p it seems that you have already assessed that p is true using some criteria.
1*** In order to believe a proposition one must have a translation schema such that the proposition is true if and only if some sentence in one’s language of thought is true.
Does anyone believe 1***? Or does everyone apart from me believe 1***? The problem with 1*** is that is really is infinitely regressive.
For me the problem with the whole notion of grasping a proposition by grasping its truth conditions is that it is possible that the world could be such that it is not determined that a particular belief is true or false, or true and false or neither.
Examples. I believe that John feels cold. John doesn’t know whether he feels cold or not. Is my belief true or false?
I believe that there are twice as many numbers as even numbers? Do I grasp the truth conditions of this proposition?
I believe that President Bush is unpopular. Is it not possible that the world is such a way that were I omniscient I still wouldn’t know whether Bush was unpopular or not?
I believe that space time is infinite and that the laws of physics are constant throughout. Do I really grasp the conditions under which this proposition is true and under which it is false? If we are to assume that I cannot grasp the infinite then I certainly don’t grasp the truth conditions of this proposition. But I believe it none the less.