Friday, 1 November 2019

More on "Theory" in the Humanities


This is a follow up to the previous post that cast a skeptical eye on the ability of the humanities to produce knowledge or meaningful understanding.  I want to comment here on the possibility of constructing a humanities based “theory” to elucidate the world, ourselves, or the relation between the two.

To see deeper into the problem with the assumption that something such as a theory emanating from a humanities discipline can reliably provide information about the world – including the mind of an author – I will consider the description of one such theory, Derrida’s deconstructionism, as provided in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP).  What is deconstruction according to this article?  One of Derrida’s earliest answers is described as follows:

Simply, deconstruction is a criticism of Platonism, which is defined by the belief that existence is structured in terms of oppositions (separate substances or forms) and that the oppositions are hierarchical, with one side of the opposition being more valuable than the other. The first phase of deconstruction attacks this belief by reversing the Platonistic hierarchies.

Supposing that Plato’s alleged hierarchies are mistaken, it is unclear what value there is in reversing them.  The reversal of a false hierarchy isn’t necessarily a true one.  For example, if we reverse the false hierarchy, men are superior to women, we get the equally false, women are superior to men.  Moreover, if Plato himself is guilty of some form of complex fiction writing, i.e. failing to engage in anything other than his own abstractions that lack grounding in reality, then reversing them is to similarly play in the realm of fiction, much like analyzing Tolkien’s works for hierarchies among Orcs, and then reversing them; what could that possibly teach us?  Perhaps it could teach us something about the opinions of the author of the reversal, but without both more context and a relatively sophisticated psychological theory applicable to the author, it is not easy to say what would be learned here.

The SEP entry continues:

On the basis of the reversal… we can see that something like a decision (a perhaps impossible decision) must have been made at the beginning of the metaphysical tradition, a decision that instituted the hierarchy…

This is plausible.  Decisions – assumptions, presuppositions, etc. – as to the rules and axioms of investigation must be made prior to any inquiry.  It does not follow, however, that such decisions are arbitrary, unfounded, unjustified, or not conducive to discovering the truth.  They may be just the right decisions required to uncover the structure of reality, and the reasoning they initiate may be logically sound.  What this means is that there is no reason to believe that the mere act of reversing the result of such decisions will lead to a better account of reality. 

Now let us turn to the second phase of deconstruction:

The previously inferior term must be re-inscribed as the “origin” or “resource” of the opposition and hierarchy itself.

There are a couple of problems here.  First, as just noted, because the need to rely on “decisions” – axioms, rules, etc. – in order to get inquiry off the ground does not entail that the decisions are bad or conducive to falsehood, it follows that we cannot assume that any hierarchy that results is necessarily wrong.  Hence, to elevate what Plato saw as the less valuable of two parts of a hierarchy – say matter over form – is not necessarily to do anything important or revealing.  Nor does it follow that the inferior term must have some fundamental or central role in the creation of the hierarchy.  Perhaps Plato elevated form over matter because he was in fact obsessed with the material – maybe he feared the physical body – and felt some paradoxical need to overwhelm it – put it in its place – in his theory; but perhaps not.  The mere fact that there is a decision here tells us nothing, because similar decisions are required for any inquiry, including Derrida’s. 

In general, from the fact that a hierarchy is incorrect, it doesn’t follow that the previously inferior term is the origin of the hierarchy itself.  Consider:


            Non-human animals are more intelligent than humans.

This is, apparently at least, the wrong way around, so we must reverse the hierarchy:

            Humans are more intelligent than non-human animals.

It does not follow that re-inscribing “non-human animal” as the “origin” of this opposition and hierarchy is correct, or even makes any sense.  On the contrary, it appears that if anything it is a preference for, or bias toward, the human that is the origin here.  At any rate, it is the relation between the two that is the cause of the hierarchy, not any one on its own, so to propose a theory of reversal and inversion on a priori grounds is simply suspect.


Secondly, unless we assume that Plato himself discovered something deep and true about the essence of reality in his hierarchical oppositions, he just messed up the order, any act of inversion will tell us nothing.  So… how do we know that Plato was right here?  Suppose someone divides the world into red things and geometric objects, making the latter more important than the former.  This clearly seems to be a hierarchy that tells us nothing about reality, so inverting it so that the red things are more important will similarly tell us nothing. 

Well, perhaps I am not properly considering the nature of this re-inscription, so: 

How would this re-inscription or redefinition of appearance work? Here we would have to return to the idea that every appearance or every experience is temporal. In the experience of the present, there is always a small difference between the moment of now-ness and the past and the future… this infinitesimal difference is not only a difference that is non-dualistic, but also it is a difference that is, as Derrida would say, “undecidable.” Although the minuscule difference is virtually unnoticeable in everyday common experience, when we in fact notice it, we cannot decide if we are experiencing a memory or a present perception, if we are experiencing a present perception or an anticipation… Insofar as the difference is undecidable…[it] destabilizes the original decision that instituted the hierarchy.


There is certainly work in the experience of time that suggests that any particular experience is a structured mix that combines perception of what is occurring at that time with memory and anticipation (see, e.g., Horwich 1987) – experience has content that is temporally structured to include a past, present, and future component.  What is not clear, is whether there is no way to distinguish these at all; even fuzzy boundaries can be boundaries, and who knows what cognitive science might discover.  Moreover, it is unclear why this undecidability would invalidate Platonic arguments about, say, the form of the good, or the nature of mathematical knowledge.  There may be an argument for this, but since Platonic metaphysics is the result of a long period of contemplation and analysis, there is no obvious move from a feature of momentary perceptions to the results of long, thorough contemplation. 

When reflecting upon the nature of number or goodness, one may be doing little more than staring out of a window, pen and notebook in hand, mulling over arguments of Frege and Russell, or Kant and Aristotle.  The perception of the trees and birds beyond the pane of glass may – though may not – be an essentially entangled mix of what is seen then with memory and anticipation.  It is not at all clear, however, what impact this has on one’s reflection of Frege’s attempts to translate the Peano axioms into axioms of the predicate calculus.  Suppose, as one read The Foundations of Arithmetic, one’s perceptions were consistently temporally mixed in just this way: what is the significance of this fact for reflecting on whether the logical reduction of arithmetic is sound?  It would seem that the inability to separate the temporal components of experience would have no bearing on this.  Further, even if one cannot separate out the components of experience at the time they are happening, it doesn’t follow that one can’t look back on one’s experience with the benefit of additional information and then disentangle the strands, which might lead to a principled way to do so in general.  In short, it is not at all clear how the alleged features of temporal experience would undermine the choice of axioms and rules of inquiry that are required to get any investigation off the ground.  Conversely, if such features do destabilize all such choices, then they would undermine the principles that undergird the deconstructionist inversion.

So this is an example of a theory applied to a text that is supposed to result in something interesting and informative about reality.  However, if the text itself is simply off base, then the move proposed by this theory will not likely tell us anything interesting or informative; at least it gives us no reason to suppose so because it offers no means of correcting the text other than rearranging its parts, which is of not help if the text is fundamentally incomplete.  Moreover, we have to have some reason to believe that the inversion proposed by the theory is a good move: likely to be informative, corrective, truth-conducive, or what have you.  For this, more than a priori reflection on texts is required, because what we want to know is when texts are better or worse at getting things right.  Inverted Plato vs. Regular Plato leaves us in no position to judge.  It is like being told that A believes that P and B believes that not-P.  Without evidence from outside their belief states, we have no way of adjudicating between them.

So, until we can demonstrate that humanistic writing, that isn’t grounded in math and science, can reveal something about reality, then any attempt to reverse, pervert, subvert, or otherwise undermine previous such writing cannot be said to amount to knowledge of anything.  What, then, can it tell us?  I am not sure.  Perhaps something about the mind of Derrida, but I am not sure what that would be without more empirical evidence about him and how human minds work in general; i.e. not without some science. 

Obviously more has to be said to make the case.  In particular, I am, here, relying on a single source about a single aspect of a single author’s work, so it would be illegitimate to generalize from this single case.  It is, however, illustrative of the point I made in the previous post: that a non-scientific theory of texts applied to texts to create other texts does not seem to be the kind of thing that will generate knowledge of the world; at best it would generate knowledge of the applier of the theory, but even that would be suspect without detailed empirical investigation.  So, the question is what the theory – in this case a principled inversion – could possibly teach us about the world.

Let me end with a limited defence of Plato.  It seems to me that his “elevation” of forms had to do primarily with an observation, that Euclidean geometry, which is an a priori and formal axiomatic system, manages to correctly describe space.  He proposed, along Pythagorean lines, that the explanation of this is that reality itself is ultimately mathematical in nature, so that it shares its form with the Euclidean axioms.  If this is correct, then the basic structure of reality is timeless and unchanging, in which case the idea that the world is a place of change and flux must be some kind of mistake or illusion.  This may be wrong, but it is reflection on the basis of a mathematical-physical knowledge and observation.  So, to return to the original point, it is far from obvious why a general “inversion” of the resulting system would be true, interesting, or valuable.

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Can the Humanities Survive?

As a philosopher, my professional home is in the humanities faculty.  Lately I have come to think that philosophy, at least the kind that interests me, belongs in the faculty of science.  I am not fully convinced, but this post outlines some of my doubts about the humanities.  In a later post, I hope to look at the other side: what is valuable and necessary about the humanities.  For now, here are my tentative thoughts.

In the 1999 film The Ninth Gate, there is a scene in which the character named Boris Balkan delivers a lecture with the title ‘Demons in Medieval Literature’.  The movie does not present any significant lecture content, but it is certainly a plausible title that one can imagine delivered by a scholar of literature or classics or philosophy in numerous academic settings.  Further, I think that the role of demons as characters in medieval literature sounds like an interesting topic.  But the title moved me to consider a question: what could a talk on demons in medieval literature actually tell us?

There is one answer we can rule out, I believe, right from the start.  The talk can tell us nothing at all about demons for the simple reason that there are, so far as we know, none.  I will come back to this point shortly, for there are two ways this could be wrong: (1) demons in fact exist, contrary to what we may believe; and (2) non-existent entities can be the subject of truths (they can be the values of variables that render propositional functions true).  But for now let us assume that demons are non-existent and, accordingly, there is nothing to learn about them.

This leave the possibilities that the lecture could teach us something about either medieval literature, by conveying facts about a type of character that appears therein, or else something about medieval writers, by passing inferentially from information about the characters created by the writers to conclusions about them.

Starting with the latter, I will raise the following objection: it is not possible to learn anything about writers from what they write without a largely true psychological theory of (1) writers in general; (2) medieval writers; (3) medieval writers of demon stories; or (4) the individual writers under consideration.  In short, one must have a true psychological theory of the individuals involved, which would require a theory of psychology of sufficient generality that it covers the particular writers in question.  The reason for this is that the reasons people do things are complex, varied, and often opaque (to both themselves and others).  Accordingly, if we are going to draw any conclusions about a writer from what they write – really, any artist from what they create – then we need a theory that connects created work to the mind and character of the creator.

So, hoping to enlighten our understanding of past writers on the basis of what they write depends on some properly researched and correct cognitive science.  Now, the character in the movie is not a scientist but a humanist, so the question is whether training in a humanities discipline could equip one to form justified inferences from creation to the mind or character of the creator.  I don’t see any good reason to suppose that it could.  We wouldn’t suppose that humanities training equips one to be a medical doctor or chemist or police officer, so why does it allow one to function as a psychologist or other cognitive scientist?

Returning to the former suggestion, let us consider whether a humanist can tell us something about literature by analyzing the characters that lie within it.  This depends on what we think we can learn about a work by analyzing its characters, which will depend in part on what the analysis is and what it presupposes about the nature of literature.  Suppose, for example, that we think that a sudden in increase in stories about demons can be traced to a famous outbreak of plague, which caused people to search for some kind of understanding of the terror they were experiencing at the time.  This relates features internal to stories of a time to events external to those stories, in particular the emotions of the writers of the day, but once again we are drawing a conclusion about people’s minds on the basis of their writings, which would require a psychological theory, something humanists do not study as anything more than interested amateurs.

Perhaps, then, humanistic analysis can remain entirely internal to the world of the literature studied; humanists simply examine stories on their own terms, analyzing the nature of the fictions created.  The problem with this view is that there would seem to be nothing interesting to say about fictional creations themselves: they don’t exist, so presumably there is nothing to say about them except what the author intended to convey to us by creating them, which requires that we know something about the author, or the times in which s/he lived, which requires that we move outside the internal world of the fictional creation, to either a psychological theory about the author or a psycho-sociological theory about the relation between people and stories at the time the author wrote.  So the question remains, what does the humanist bring to this endeavour without scientific training?

Let me return now to the point I mentioned at the start.  Suppose, first, that there is something true to say about demons because they in fact exist.  If that is the case, then once again it is not people with training in humanistic disciplines but, rather, something like a demon biologist to whom we would want to turn for information about the creatures; if they are sufficiently sophisticated, we may need demon psychologists, sociologists, economists, etc. as well.  Assuming there are beings with the properties of demons, existing either in space-time or some other realm, then they would need to be observed and studied before we could draw any conclusions specifically about them, so empirical sutdy of some sort is required.

The other suggestion that though demons do not exist, there can nevertheless be true propositions about them.  This would require a move away from a classic objectual interpretation of the semantics of demon claims toward the less common substitutional interpretation.  Roughly, the former insists that ‘there are demons’ is true if and only if there is some object or entity that can serve as the value of the variable in an existentially quantified proposition, such as (Ex)x is a demon ((Ex)Dx).  If there are no demons, then there are no values for x, and the proposition is false.  The same applies for any other proposition about demons, such as demons are tall.  So, if there are truths about demons themselves, despite their non-existence, then we must interpret ‘there are demons’ as expressing a proposition that is made true so long as there is a term that, when substituted for a in ‘a is a demon’ yields a truth.  As many philosophers have pointed out, this seems to remain quite obscure: how can a term, a linguistic entity, a, make it true that a is a demon if there are no demons?  I think this question hist the mark, but the idea is, roughly, that fictional realms have sufficient richness to make it true that, say, unicorns have horns but not demons, even though both are non-existent, merely fictional entities.  How this could be is unclear, but proposals are out there: e.g. non-existent entities subsist even if they don’t exist – not sure what to make of that, but even assuming subsistence is something above and beyond mere make-believe, how do we learn about subsistent entities?  Perhaps intellectual intuition – some kind of intellectual contact with the abstract realm – would do the trick, but assuming, again, that this isn’t a form of make-believe, this seems relevantly like perception to stand in need of some kind of scientific investigation; at any rate, it is hard to know what a training just in humanities could reveal here.

So, what kind of analysis could one do on texts under the assumption that fictional worlds somehow manage to support true claims about demons, unicorns, centaurs, or what have you?  Since, by hypothesis, there are no such creatures, the analysis will not involve empirical investigation other than a psychological or sociological investigation into the states of the creators of fictional worlds, which brings us back to the need for trained scientists.  So, the analysis must be a priori, perhaps a conceptual investigation of the relationship between various parts of the fictional worlds.  The question is what ‘conceptual analysis’ is in this case.  One can easily imagine investigating a work of fiction for logical relations between propositions: finding inconsistencies, for example, or looking for formal entailments of key propositions in the literature.  The latter would involve something like translating the language of the literature into first order predicate calculus and then using well defined derivation rules to see what is entailed by the logical form of the relevant sentences.  This may be of some interest, though it still depends on bringing a discipline external to the fictional world – mathematical logic – to bear on the analysis of the world of fiction, and most humanists do not receive such training and, indeed, many philosophers do not either.  Further, formal logic is, arguably, a mathematical discipline, so it is not clear that this is a way into texts that is open to specifically humanistic training.

Of course there are certain to be all kinds of theories that some will wish to bring to the analysis of literature.  Economic, psychological, sociological, mathematical, etc. ones will fall under the purview of scientists, but there are others that purport to be non-scientific but still informative: Marxist, postmodernist, deconstructionist, etc.  One could imagine an argument to the effect that such theoretical stances allow for an analysis that is both internal to the texts but also informative.  I am not sure how this is supposed to work.  Take the case of Marx, for example; he took himself to be uncovering laws that governed human history, in part via a detailed examination of factory records.  If Marxist analysis of history and economics turns out to be false, it can hardly tell us anything interesting about the internal world of a text: false laws of material reality can have little bearing on a fictional world that subsists independently of its creator.  Even if they turn out to be true, it is hard to see their relevance: the laws of physics may be true, but what can they tell us about a fictional world of unicorns or demons?

So the question is what a theory that is not a purely logical one – so, one that can be learned in a typical humanities department – can tell us about the internal relations of the parts of pieces of literature without at some point relating the parts of the literary work to alleged facts about human psychology, society, economics, biology, etc.  What can something like deconstruction or postmodernism tell us about a piece of text that isn’t either a logical analysis or a scientific one?  This is, I should reiterate, all premised on the already flimsy assumption that realms of non-existent beings are sufficiently robust to allow for true propositions in the first place, which is by no means obvious.

This is starting to sound a bit like the classic positivist argument against metaphysics, but there is a difference, perhaps slight.  I am raising no objection to the Russellian-Quinean-Davidsonian-Putnamian program of tying metaphysics to science.  Whether through indispensability arguments, ontological commitments, or what have you, there is plenty of room on my view for metaphysics in philosophy.  It is just that metaphysics is grounded in, broadly speaking, two realms: mathematics/logic and science; it is, in fact, part of those realms, as Quine believed.  Russell argued, famously, that a logical analysis of the logical form of denoting phrases shows us that they are, in fact, not referential terms but propositional functions: existentially quantified formulas.  This allowed him to eliminate the need for reference to subsistent but non-existent entities, but it is possible for the analysis to go the other way: to demonstrate the need to posit a kind of entity that we did not previously realize we needed; e.g. sets or universals.  So, again, this is not a general argument against metaphysics.

The worry is that when one constructs a theory to take care of interpreting texts but that is neither scientific nor mathematical/logical in nature, i.e. a theory that is purely internal to the text, then one is more likely to be imposing or projecting than revealing or detecting.  That is, one could be smuggling into the theory at the ground floor what are just one’s a priori presuppositions about human nature, society, economics, physics, medicine, what have you, and then contorting the interpretation of the text to fit the theory.  Since texts fail to push back against us in the way that chemicals or living human beings do, it is far easier to hold onto one’s literary theory in the face of any possible textual evidence than it is to hold onto a chemical or psychological theory in the face of any possible chemical or behavioural evidence.  And, again, all of this is on the presupposition that a substitutional interpretation of propositions about non-existent entities works.

So, does the worry about demons in medieval literature generalize?  Are the humanities either science in disguise or speculative fiction?

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Dualism and Racism

In a follow up article, Sartwell points out that his claim is not that Western Philosophy is unique in its dualism or the employment of its categories by oppressors.  Rather, his point is that:

…as modern white supremacism arose, together with colonialism and the slave trade, it made use of Plato-style, Descartes-style mind/body dualism, which is beautifully suited to political oppression, and that the conceptual structure of anti-black racism is identical to that of substance dualism. 

There are three issues worth pointing out here.

First, as I argued earlier, Descartes was driven to dualism not by concerns about race or nationality but, rather, by the fact that the creative production of language could not be accounted for by the mechanical philosophy (i.e. science) that insisted that the motion of material bodies is to be accounted for by appeal to universal, deterministic laws.  It follows from this that, to put it crudely, the motion of sound molecules emanating from a human mouth is not the result of mechanical causation and, therefore, cannot be the result of material bodies.  So, the argument is primarily the result of the inability to account for certain kinds of human behaviour in terms of the physics of the day. So the motivation is not racist.

Secondly, the fact that there is an isomorphism between two sets of views tells us very little.  For example, there is an isomorphism between the laws of classical mechanics and the motions of thrown stones, but it is not obvious that this means that early modern scientists are responsible for death by stoning.  Would Sartwell have Galileo, Descartes, and Newton give up on mechanics because of this sharing of form?  Of what about Einstein’s famous E = mc2, which was necessary for developing the atomic bomb?  Is this supposed to entail that Einstein and his work deserve the blame for the horrors of that weapon?  Einstein, like Descartes, was trying to figure out the nomological structure of the world, and it is unfortunate that some people will try to use that knowledge to destroy others.  What is unclear is what aspersions this latter fact casts on the discoverers of the knowledge.  It would seem that Sartwell’s case would imply that we should simply give up on scientific exploration because any particular piece of it could not only be put to morally problematic ends, but simply be isomorphic to them.  

Finally, not every conceptual tool that is used by racists is thereby tainted by association.  I am sure that many morally obscene views employ logical principles, such as modus tollens (implication).  I can imagine that no racist tract that has had any influence has failed to employ many of the basic principles of logic.  Is this sufficient to jettison these principles?  It seems that Sartwell thinks so, given that the fact that racists employed dualistic thinking is sufficient to tar the work of someone like Descartes as that of some sort of proto white supremacist.  This would mean that any time an evil ideology took hold, we would have to abandon whatever principles employed by the ideology, which would be to remove the tools – logic, evidence, reason, science, what have you – that the opponents of the bad ideology need to make their case.

In the end, I am not sure what conclusion to draw from the fact that some philosophers and racists are both dualists: after I suspect that some racists are also atheists, scientific anti-realists, socialists, or capitalists and, I would be willing to bet further, are happy to employ those doctrines in defence of their racism; does this on its own support any disparaging conclusion about, say, socialism?  I think Sartwell would need to demonstrate that Platonic/Cartesian style dualism is necessary for racism, that nobody is likely to have come up with the “but they are just animals” justification for horrific treatment of others without it. This strikes me as dubious.  The fact that advocates of evil seem willing to grab on to whatever suits their ends seems to suggest that whatever one writes could be perverted for such ends.  So, more is required to establish an interesting relation between dualism and racism than has been provided here.  

In sum, I think that the invocation of Descartes misses the true motivation of his substance dualism, isomorphism proves too little, and guilt by association is not only unreasonable but a double edged sword that will cut into the opponents of evil.  

Monday, 8 July 2019

Do Philosophers Misunderstand Descartes?

 In a recent essay, Crispin Sartwell connects what he sees as the philosophical preference for, and celebration of, one side of a series of dualisms – mind over body, culture over nature, human over animal, etc. – to the denigration and appalling treatment, by white male Europeans, of women and non-white people.  He argues that western, male philosophers elevated mind, culture and the human in association with themselves, while relegating body, nature, and animal to everyone else.  Accordingly, writes Sartwell, “white supremacy lurks at the heart of Western metaphysics”.  Rene Descartes is singled out as particularly bad here because he “separates mind and body as two fundamentally different sorts of things and arranges them in a hierarchy of value”, though in doing so he “echoes” Plato and Pythagoras, who were similarly egregious.

Now, Plato, Pythagoras, and Descartes are three of my three favourite philosophers, so this strikes a chord.  My introduction to Descartes as a student was, in fact, dualistic in nature.  On the one hand, I was told that he was the “father of modern philosophy” and a centrally important figure in the discipline.  On the other hand, he was regularly denigrated, often by the same professors, for his dualism and, in particular, its dismissive attitude toward the body and nature (including animals).  He was presented as both important and deeply troublesome, which I frankly found hard to reconcile.  It wasn’t just that he was wrong– it is easy to understand how someone could be both important and mistaken – but that he was bad or misleading or retrograde or threateningthese things are hard to reconcile with importance.

So, it is not surprising for me to see any philosopher, even one as talented, thought-provoking and thoroughly engaging as Professor Sartwell, associating Descartes with something as objectionable as white supremacism.  This really has been my experience overall: Descartes’ apparent importance seems to be relegated by many, if not most, philosophers to mere historical influence and not to any inherent or lingering value in his work.

Such thoughts have prompted me to reflect on the place of Descartes in the philosophical canon and I have become convinced that philosophers, as a rule, misunderstand, or only partially understand, Descartes.  I do not intend to insist that Descartes was morally pure and noble.  I do not even wish to question whether he was a white supremacist; I really have no idea. Rather, my topic here is the way in which his dualism of mind and body is typically presented in philosophical contexts.  To anticipate, in philosophy, Cartesian dualism is usually presented in isolation of his larger scientific works so that philosophers, accordingly, end up with an incomplete version of his theory that is abstracted, to the point of distortion, from his overall concerns.

To see this, note that Descartes was not just a philosopher but one of the preeminent scientists and mathematicians of his day.  He invented analytic geometry and outlined a sophisticated mechanics, cosmology, and theory of gravity.  He was one of the main thinkers that Isaac Newton realized needed to be addressed if natural philosophy were to advance.  Central to Cartesian physics is the rejection of Aristotelian forms in favour of mechanistic explanations.  For Descartes, the idea that bubbles rise in water because air shares a form with a region of space that is above the region for water is as occult and obfuscating as the idea that opium causes sleepiness due to its dormitive virtue.  Instead, motion is to be explained by chains of immediate contact governed by deterministic and universal laws of motion, laws that were models for Newton’s own three laws.  This mechanical philosophy, when combined with mathematics such as analytic geometry, resulted in a new way of understanding the world, one that had greater predictive and explanatory power than anything that had come before.  In short, motion is explained by appeal to mechanical laws and the properties of space, not forms.

Central to this idea is that all of space is governed by the laws of motion, since all of space is connected and isotropic.  Indeed, for Descartes, materiality itself is identical to spatial extension: almost any of the physical properties of a body can be eliminated while the body remains material.  For example, a piece of wax may change from white to colourless, scented to odourless, solid to liquid, rectangular to shapeless, etc., and remain physical nonetheless.  The only property essential to being a physical body is extension in space: whatever changes a physical entity undergoes, it must retain spatial extension if it is to remain physical in nature.  Accordingly, anything physical, for Descartes, must be governed by the laws of motion.  All motion, all physical change, must be explained by reference to the laws.  This is the nature of Cartesian physics and it follows from some pretty rigorous reasoning concerning the nature of space, bodies, and motion.   

But here is the problem.  Descartes noticed that the production of speech – one could view this as the motion of particles emanating from a human mouth – is utterly immune to mechanical explanation.  The mechanical philosophy succeeds better than anything prior in explaining motion and change in the physical world, but it fails to predict human speech patterns.  If Descartes is right, and all material entities are governed by mechanical laws, it simply follows that whatever it is that produces speech cannot be material; if it were, then the laws of motion would govern it.  Since the mechanical philosophy covers all of space, and spatial extension just is what it is to be physical, anything that is not governed by mechanical laws of motion is not in space.  

That is the argument.  It is derived from what was at the time the most successful approach to physical theory in existence and the observation that a certain kind of pattern in the world isn’t explained by the theory.  Like a good scientist, Descartes posited something that would explain the anomaly, which in his case was a non-spatial substance that nonetheless had causal powers (i.e. the power to produce speech).  An alternative, of course, would have been to expand the theory, but that seemed hopeless: how can one explain human speech in terms of inertia and energy?  To this day we don’t know how to integrate a good theory of human speech (and thought) with a causal/nomological view of reality.  The mind-body problem remains unsolved, and certainly, to Descartes, there appeared to be no way to broaden physics, which is predictable and deterministic, to cover speech production, which is unpredictable and creative. Another alternative would have been to simply drop the physical theory, but the alternative was occult and obfuscating to Descartes.  He concluded that there must be more here than the theory covers.  So, he made a posit.

There is, so far as I can tell, nothing particularly objectionable about this kind of reasoning.  When one notices something that one’s theory doesn’t predict, it is not unreasonable to consider that maybe there exist things that are, at that point in time, outside the scope of one’s theory. This is particularly plausible when: (1) the theory is massively successful in its domain of application; and (2) there appears no plausible way to extend the theory to the new cases. At the end of the day, one may have to reject the initial theory in favour of something new, but at the early stages of the discovery, positing something otherwise inexplicable, and then seeking a theory of this new posit, is perfectly legitimate.  Consider the case of dark matter.  It was proposed because scientists noticed that observable matter was insufficient to explain the gravitational properties of the universe. So, rather than give up Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which is massively successful in its domain of application, cosmologists posited that there must exist something more to reality, dark matter, that manages, somehow, to exert gravitational force but is otherwise quite unlike ordinary matter.  This helps us to explain what we observe – the gravitational structure of the universe at the largest scales – but opens up new mysteries, which is to say, new avenues of investigation (what is dark matter, exactly?  Why is it so hard to detect directly? Etc.?).  This is very much like what Descartes did, and it is sound scientific reasoning.

So, whatever moral, political, or social hay people tried to make out of Cartesian dualism – and I take no stand here on this issue and am willing to grant that it was put to bad use – the impetus and thought process that led to it was that of scientific investigation.  In particular, Descartes was not a dualist solely for the reasons outlined in his Meditations, which was written later than his major scientific works.  It is not the result of reflection on perceptual error or the conceivability of thought existing without anything material (though the arguments in the Meditations do have something in common with his earlier arguments for the identification of physicality with extension and the infinite extension of space). These considerations buttress the case for dualism, but they are not the primary driver.

Now, once one is driven to account for those aspects of human nature unaccounted for by the best physics – language and thought – it is natural to place a special kind of value on those aspects.  Language and thought are, unsurprisingly, taken by Descartes as what is central to being human.  This is not surprising; after all, one’s own thought and speech are central to the particular person one is.  It does not follow from this that there is a hierarchy of race or gender, but it is not obviously wrong to suppose that the creative, non-mechanical aspects of human nature matter more than, or are special in some way compared to, the mechanical aspects, which we share with everything else in space-time.  Something that is unique and unusual is typically valued more than something common and ubiquitous.  I can certainly understand the fear Sartwell voices: once we separate out what is special to us – creative thought and speech – there may very well be an inclination to rank people’s possession of these special features on irrelevant bases, such as skin tone, and then form a moral hierarchy of race.  And Descartes certainly supposes that animals, lacking speech, lack the non-spatial substance that violates the mechanical philosophy and, so, lack minds of any kind.  All the same, the scientific argument for dualism has no such direct implications: it is entirely compatible with Descartes’ reasoning that animals possess a spontaneous nature that cannot be captured by his laws of motion.  A two-part hierarchy of mind over body does not necessarily lead to a fine-grained hierarchy based on species, gender, or skin colour.  Anybody who made that move solely on the basis of Descartes’ reasoning – even Descartes – is making a mistake. Mind-body dualism does not entail that male/female or white/non-white form a hierarchy of value.  There is nothing in Descartes’ scientific works that justifies such a hierarchy, and as natural as it may be for some unsavoury types to draw this conclusion, it cannot be said to rest at the ground floor or heart of Cartesian metaphysics.

So, Descartes was primarily being a reasonable, responsive, and exploratory scientist in positing the existence of a non-spatial substance governed by non-mechanical laws.  While his final position may have much in common with earlier, theological, moral, or metaphysical arguments for the existence of the soul, there is really no ground for saying that his view was motivated by or centred on white supremacism. Philosophers have long recognized that there is a problem reconciling explanation of human behaviour with that of other physical bodies in the universe.  The mind-body problem has prompted many to suppose that there is something to people that distinguishes them from the rest of the natural world. Descartes was in a relatively unique position, however, as one of the chief architects of the modern scientific view of reality.  When he noticed that even it could not reconcile human and non-human behaviour, he was quite understandably driven to posit something, i.e. some substance, that would account for what is observed.  Whatever immoral stances others have justified by appeal to mind-body dualism should not be blamed, by association, on Descartes’ scientific work.  Considered in its context, and properly understood, Descartes’ reasoning toward dualism is one of the most interesting case studies in the history of science.










Monday, 15 April 2019

Philosophy and Boxing

There is something about testing oneself.  I try my best to seek out challenges against which I can measure my abilities.  The tougher the challenge the better, so long as I can take the time to work my way up the skill ladder toward high level competence.  Once my training is done, however, I want to push myself against the very best available to see what kind of obstacle I can overcome.  It is only upon contact with the highest level of challenge that one truly knows who and what one is.  Without that external check, one’s internal processing can veer unimpeded toward fantasy and romance, leading one to believe all kinds of distortions about oneself and the world.  It is in facing a serious challenge that reckoning takes place, bringing with it clarity, knowledge, and insight.  Since understanding oneself is the goal of philosophy, and one cannot understand oneself without understanding one’s environment, facing up to serious challenge is the essence of philosophy.  That is why philosophers debate: we offer counter-examples, raise objections, propose thought-experiments, and construct arguments in order to challenge our own views as well as those of others whose views we are considering as, possibly, our own.

This is, however, also why we fight.  I am not talking about warfare or street fights, nor about heated anger, backstabbing, undermining, or political takedowns, though those may have some features in common with what I am discussing.  No, I primarily mean combat sports: boxing, MMA, Muay Thai, etc.  To enter into the boxing ring, for example, is to face a serious challenge head-on.  To test oneself against another person in controlled combat is to check one’s inner beliefs against the outside world.  Am I a good fighter?  Am I really in shape?  Might I make the Olympic Team?  Could I handle myself if my life were threatened?  Etc.  These are the sorts of questions that only others can answer for you, by standing across from you and attempting to knock you out, or at least down.  Of course, nobody should step into the ring without adequate training.  You must get fit and skilled by putting in the hours of working out, practicing, and managing one’s diet and sleep.  Nonetheless, after all that is done, there is only one way to know how good one is, and that is to face the challenge of another fighter.

One of the many interesting things about my personal favourite, boxing, is that it demonstrates a fine balance between rules and control, on the one hand, and creativity and unpredictability, on the other.  The basic principle of boxing is simplicity: four basic punches, simple footwork, efficient defence.  The goal is to combine these elements unpredictably to sow confusion in your opponent, which opens up defence and allows one to strike.  Ultimately, one aims to defeat one’s opponent, but the true goal is to know oneself: if one is good enough here, then one can push for even better fight partners; if not, one must step back and retrain.  

Now, the fight must be fair for the simple reason that if not, then the result tells us nothing about how good we are as combatants, and this holds especially for the victor. That is why enlightening combat must have rules and while, in general, the limits of boxing are agreed upon in advance, referees exist to, in part, enforce the limits.  For these reasons, street fights and backstabbing attacks in the workplace have limited philosophical value for the attacker: victory will occur without any gain in self-knowledge. There may be something to learn about how one reacts to an unfair, unprovoked attack, but the assailant will certainly learn nothing of value about himself/herself.  These are not, therefore, good fights.  One must fight fairly for oneself as much as for one’s opponent, for otherwise the opportunity for philosophical insight is destroyed.

So I remain unsurprised by the fact that I am drawn to both boxing and philosophy.  I understand why the ancient philosophers saw combat training as part of a philosophical life, and I am drawn to the interpretation of a philosopher such as Epictetus as a kind of wrestling coach (see here for an interesting take).  Put simply, there is no philosophy without understanding, and there is no understanding without challenge.

Philosophy is often portrayed nowadays as excessively combative (see, for example, the opening paragraphs of this interesting essay) and while, much as in boxing, one can certainly step out of bounds in philosophical debate – and unfortunately, there are no referees to bring things back in bounds – in general, I am suspicious of this complaint.  Intellectual combat, within the rules and conducted fairly of course, is necessary to test one’s beliefs for philosophical value.  It is far too easy for anyone to get lost in flights of fancy dressed up in philosophical language, but ultimately leading nowhere. Much as one can be the greatest boxer in the world in one’s mind, one can be the purveyor of the greatest philosophical knowledge in one’s mind.  Training in the gym is some indication of one’s skill in combat, but only a good opponent can tell us the truth.  Similarly, a coherent philosophical system is some indication of insight, but only philosophical combatants can reveal the truth.  Too much sympathy with a philosopher’s views can in fact be counter-productive for him/her if it interferes with the level of critical engagement required to see just how far the views can be pushed.  

Certainly philosophical exchange should be fair and reasonable, without personal, gratuitous, or otherwise inappropriate attacks because victory by such means tells us nothing about ourselves as philosophers. However, I think philosophical debate, like all intellectual pursuits, is inevitably combative and rightly so. This can lead to painful experiences, to be sure, but pain is a large part of learning, as any boxer will tell you after he/she drops his hands in front of a good coach!  Philosophers should not shy away from the combative elements of the discipline, though we should do what we can to abide by fair standards and rules that apply to all.  I wonder what the philosophical equivalent of a weight-class would be…

Oh, and if you are in Kingston and want to learn how to box, here is the place to go.