Monday, September 23, 2013

Philadelphia-Area High School Ethics Bowl

UPDATE: 8 December 2013

Congratulations to all the teams that took part in the ethics bowl.  A team from Cherry Hill High School East won the competition and will represent our region in the national competition in April 2014.  It's great that Villanova's Ethics Program, led by Dr. Mark Doorley, again organized the event and that so many volunteer judges and moderators made themselves available.
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Also, the second Philadelphia area High School Ethics Bowl will be held on December 7th, again hosted by Villanova University.  Contact me if you would like information on volunteering to help with the event (I was a judge last year and it was a great experience).

http://www1.villanova.edu/villanova/artsci/ethics/hsethicsbowl.html

GPPC 2013-2014 Program of Events

The Greater Philadelphia Philosophy Consortium 2013-2014 program is up on the website: http://www.thegppc.org/

Please check it out.  Looking at the fall schedule, I’d ask you to please make special note of November 16th which is the date for our Public Issues event (see below). 


Save the Date
GPPC Public Affairs Symposium:
America the Philosophical by Carlin Romano and Public Philosophy in the U.S
Saturday, November 16th, 2013 1pm – 4:30 pm
Free Library of Philadelphia Central Branch (Main Auditorium)
1901 Vine Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103   Phone: 215-686-5300

Panelists:
        Anita Allen, University of Pennsylvania
        Peter Catapano Editor, "The Stone," The New York Times
        Cheryl Misak, University of Toronto/New York University
        Carlin Romano, Ursinus College

Carlin Romano’s book, America the Philosophical, argues that philosophy, has a deep and wide role to play in American intellectual life and culture.  The degree to which it fulfills this role today, or should do so in the future, is a question which fits naturally into our long-running Public Issues Forum series.  A great panel of speakers will join us, and we hope you will participate as well. (Here is an essay by Carlin summarizing his thesis:http://chronicle.com/article/Is-America-Philosophical-/131884/ )


Monday, September 02, 2013

Russellian Monism and the Identity Theory of Properties


Here is a draft paper on a topic discussed a fair amount on this blog in the past.
Comments or suggestions are welcome.

Russellian Monism and the Identity Theory of Properties

[UPDATE: 6 Sept. 2013 - Very slightly revised from 2 Sept. version]

Here's the introduction:

Russellian Monism is an attractive approach to the mind/body problem. It promises to put both mental and physical phenomena on a common ontological ground. By providing a place in nature for the qualitative properties featured in conscious experience, it disarms prominent conceivability arguments against materialism. Russell’s approach can be strengthened by employing elements of a more contemporary metaphysical framework.  There is a particularly good fit with an account of the nature of properties set out by C.B. Martin and John Heil. Labeled the identity theory of properties, this view posits that properties are at once dispositional and qualitative.

This paper is organized as follows. In section one I offer an overview of Russell’s theory. In section two I briefly show how a key insight from Russell’s work has figured in contemporary debates in philosophy of mind. Section three takes a closer look at Russell’s metaphysics; this prepares the way for seeing how his theory might be modified in light of more recent work. Section four introduces the idea that the metaphysics of dispositional and categorical properties can play a role in a Russell-style account. Section five outlines the identity theory of properties and argues that its features can strengthen Russellian monism. In section six I consider objections to the modified theory, and discuss where it needs to be supplemented in order to more fully address the challenges of explaining mind.

 
 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Spinoza: Notes on Body and Mind

[These are notes written as part of an abandoned paper project]

Beyond Parallelism: Body, Mind, and Individuation in Part II of Spinoza’s Ethics
(Page references to Curley, 1994)

Summary: the body is a pattern of unified activity; the mind is shaped by the interaction of this pattern with its environment.

     To begin, the nature of the human body/mind is founded on the basic individuation of things; here’s IID7:
And if a number of individuals so concur in one action that together they are all the cause of one effect, I consider them all, to that extent, as one singular thing. (p.116)
So a composite individual is defined in terms of the coordinated action of its parts.

     Following the discussion of the parallelism of mind and body as modes following from the corresponding attributes of God, Spinoza makes some surprising claims in IIP12 and 13:
Nothing can happen in that body which is not perceived by the mind […] The object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body…and nothing else. (p.123)
However, when it comes to human beings, both of these statements will be superseded by the account which follows.
     The key is to understand the nature/form/essence of the human body as opposed to simple bodies.  Here is the start to the scholium to IIP13:
From these [propositions] we understand not only that the human mind is united to the body, but also what should be understood by the union of mind and body.  But no one will be able to understand it adequately, or distinctly, unless he first knows adequately the nature of our body.  For the things we have shown so far are completely general and do not pertain more to man than to other individuals, all of which, though in different degrees, are nevertheless animate. (p.124) 
So we need to know more about what distinguishes the human body from other bodies.
     Now we move to the interlude on the nature of bodies which follows IIP13.  Spinoza discusses bodies in terms of their motion and rest – it must be said that he does not successfully present a complete non-circular account of bodies (there is no definition of a ground level simple body independent of its motion or vice versa).  But overlooking this for present purposes, Spinoza gives us an account of how a number of bodies can unite to compose a further composite body or individual.  Here’s the definition following A2``:
When a number of bodies, whether of the same or of different size, are so constrained by other bodies that they lie upon one another, or if they so move, whether with the same degree or different degrees of speed, that they communicate their motions to each other in a certain fixed matter; we shall say that those bodies are united with one another and that they all together compose one body or individual, which is distinguished from the others by this union of bodies. (p.126)
The nature and form of such an individual is defined in terms of this union.  We see here that the component parts only matter to this nature qua their participation in the unifying action (consistent with IID7).
     L4 strengthens the point by asserting that this nature or form will be retained upon substitution of like parts (p.126).  L5 and L6, by defining the fixed relationship of motion among the united parts in terms of a ratio of motion of rest, is intended to convey a notion of yet more flexibility to the composite body to retain its nature under changing conditions.
     The scholium to L7 goes further to contemplate second and third order composite bodies, each of whose components has different natures (i.e. different patterns of union), which can maintain their form in myriad additional circumstances:
 And if we proceed in this way to infinity, we shall easily conceive that the whole of nature is one individual, whose parts, that is, all bodies, vary in infinite ways, without any change in the whole individual. (p.127)
This passage foreshadows the human striving toward God’s perfection that we find later in the Ethics.
     Spinoza concludes in the body postulates that the human body “is composed of a great many individuals of different natures, each of which is highly composite.”  It can “move and dispose external bodies in a great many ways” (p.128).
     These complex characteristics of the body underlie the complex nature of the human mind, discussed in IIP14 and IIP15.  Our ideas about external objects follow from the affects these have on our complex body. In fact, the subtlety of the complex body allows Spinoza to define imagination and memory (IIP16 and IIP17) which adds a critical temporal dimension to the workings of the associated human mind.
     With this in place, the subsequent propositions replace the simple picture of mind/body union which originally followed from the parallelism of thought and extension.  The mind is associated with the complex composite body; and constituted as it is by a unified action of its many different parts, it does not know the body or itself in any simple or complete manner (IIP19):
 The human mind does not know the human body itself, nor does it know that it exists, except through ideas of affections by which the body is affected.  (p.131)
I interpret this as follows:  The body is not simple passive thing sitting in a vacuum, but rather has a nature defined by an enduring pattern of complex activity (which is capable of acting as a unified higher order cause).  Within the totality of God/Nature, this pattern is defined relative to all its interactions with the world which lies outside its nature. (Note that this could include non-essential interactions which take place from “within” the spatial dimensions of the body as well as “external” bodies.)  The mind only knows the body (the pattern) as it is affected.
     In IIP20 and IIP21, another element is introduced which adds further nuance to the mind, that is, in addition to defining the mind as the idea of the body, there also exists the idea of the mind (idea of the idea).  So to the extent the mind knows the affections of the body, it knows the ideas of these affections (IIP22).  It follows that as the mind only knows the body via the affections, it only knows itself “insofar as it perceives the ideas of the affections of the body” (IIP23, p.133).
     Looking ahead, IIP23 is cited when S wants to assert we are “conscious” of our striving to preserve our being (IIIP9)
     I think IIP24 is particularly helpful for deepening our understanding the human mind and the scope of consciousness:
The human mind does not involve adequate knowledge of the parts composing the human body.” Dem.: The parts composing the human body pertain to the essence of the human body itself only insofar as they communicate their motions to one another in a certain fixed manner… and not insofar as they can be considered as individuals, without relation to the human body. (p.133)
The body’s essence is the unified pattern of action.  Each part could be separated and interact with the world in some other manner (and will do so after I die, for instance), but this has nothing to do with our essence.  Nevertheless, God’s idea of the part includes its connections with a great many ideas which go beyond the part’s participation in our body’s essence (and thus with the idea that constitutes our mind).  Hence our mind does not know its parts as individuals.
     The picture of the human being here is not that of a lump of matter, but that of an activity.  Not only that, but the human mind is shaped by this activity as it continually bumps up against everything else in its environment. (Again, I note that there can be things “within” the body which also don’t contribute to the pattern). 
     While the derivation of IIIP6 and 7 is debated by scholars, it is certainly the case that the discussion of the nature of humans/composite individuals in Part II sets the stage very clearly:  the striving to preserve the unified activity of its parts is the essence of such an individual.
(Note: nothing distinguishes humans/living things/other things in terms of ontological categories: differences are due to degrees of complexity in pattern and interactions.)

Monday, January 07, 2013

Upcoming Public Philosophy Events


For those of us in the Philadelphia area, the GPPC is sponsoring several events in the coming months which should be enjoyable and enlightening.  Everyone is welcome.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Newman: What Russell’s Structural Argument Needs

[UPDATE: 15 May 2013; edited for clarity]
As mentioned earlier here, Bertrand Russell’s work in his book The Analysis of Matter was dealt a blow by mathematician M.H.A."Max"Newman. Russell had built an argument supporting partial realism about the physical world. He said that while we are only acquainted with our percepts, there are causal connections between these and unperceived events external to the perceiver. He gave reasons to think that as a result, a system of relations among percepts can share the same structure as that of causally connected but unperceived events. We can therefore infer a great deal about the structure of the physical world. Newman pointed out that using conventional set-theoretic definitions of these terms, a shared structure in fact would not offer much information at all about the external world; formally any collection of things (of a sufficient cardinality) can be organized in relations so as to have a given structure.

Newman’s clearly argued and thoughtful paper, “Mr. Russell’s Causal Theory of Perception,” (also posted here) while delivering a negative result on this crucial point, was nonetheless sympathetic toward Russell’s project. Newman offered a suggestion as to what would be required in order to have a more meaningful result. He said we need to have, in addition to our individual percepts and the notion of a shared structure, some direct acquaintance with relations (and he points out that in some passages this sort of “modified theory” is what Russell seems to have in mind):
The conclusion that has been reached is that to maintain the view that something besides their existence can be known about the unperceived parts of the world it is necessary to admit direct apprehension of what is meant by the statement that two unperceived events are causally adjoined, i.e., happen near each other, temporally and spatially, or overlap, or do something of the sort. The central doctrine is then that while of percepts we have a qualitative knowledge, of other events all that can legitimately be inferred is their structure with regard to a certain directly known relation which may be called “causal proximity”(p.148 emphasis original)
In addition to the abstract structure, knowledge of the relation of causal proximity would give us leverage to extend our knowledge to the specific system of causal relations among the unperceived events (though still not their intrinsic qualities, in line with the “clear-cut” unmodified theory). Newman also points out potential disadvantages of introducing this modification: it adds an additional primitive notion of acquaintance or “direct apprehension” which needs to be better defined; it also might open the door to questioning why we can’t invoke even more sorts of direct knowledge of non-structural aspects of the world. He concluded the paper in this way:
It appears, then, that although a modified form of Mr. Russell’s theory makes an important assertion about our knowledge of the external world, a good deal of further argument will be necessary to show that this assertion is true. (p.148)
Russell wrote a letter to Newman following the publication of this paper (it is included in the second volume of Russell’s autobiography). In the letter, Russell conceded the argument and went on to say:
It was quite clear to me, as I read your article, that I had not really intended to say what in fact I did say, that nothing is known about the physical world except its structure. I had always assumed spacio-temporal continuity with the world of percepts, that is to say, I had assumed that there might be co-punctuality between percepts and non-percepts, and even that one could pass by a finite number of steps from one event to another compresent with it, from one end of the universe to another. And co-punctuality I regarded as a relation which might exist among percepts and is itself perceptible. (p. 259, emphasis original).
Newman’s commentary above sketches a notion of perceiving “causal proximity” or the idea of events being spatio-temporally near each other or perhaps overlapping. Russell singles out the notion of perceiving co-punctuality. If events overlap or are simultaneous, perhaps the notion of directly perceiving a relation between them is explicable.

 As I discussed before, Russell’s later book, Human Knowledge, did conclude that we must have some primitive (“animal” or “biological”) grasp of causation in order to have scientific knowledge. He also reiterated key themes from The Analysis of Matter (including, for example, the role of simultaneity in his theory of compresence). I didn’t see in my reading, though, that he specifically built on the notion of perceiving causal relations via co-punctuality as discussed in his letter to Newman.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Reduction as Idealization

I cannot remember who tipped me to this 1972 article in Science by physicist Philip W. Anderson called "More is Different".  It is an exploration of the notions of reduction and emergence.  The main thrust of Anderson's argument is familiar:

The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and construct the universe.  In fact, the more the elementary particle physicists tell us about the nature of the fundamental physical laws, the less relevance they seem to have to the very real problems in the rest of science, much less to those of society
The constructionist hypothesis breaks down when confronted with the twin difficulties of scale and complexity.  The behavior of large and complex aggregates of elementary particles, it turns out, is not to be understood in terms of a simple extrapolation of the properties of a few particles.  Instead, at each level of complexity entirely new properties appear...(p.393)

The article is worthwhile for a number of very nice briefly described examples of symmetry breaking and properties which emerge with scale.

There is a absurdly simple insight lurking in these sorts of discussions which I now belated appreciate.  We all realize that coarse-grained descriptions of phenomena which neglect fine details will be limited in their accuracy by definition.  But while reductive analysis of natural systems is extremely fruitful, it is also always an idealization.  Experimenters work hard to break down and isolate some phenomenon, and models and theories are constructed to best capture it.  The environment needs to be screened out  -- it is "noise" which we abstract from.  But what is lost in this idealization is not trivial.  In nature, there are no isolated systems, no ceteris paribus conditions (in fact, there is absolutely no reason to think the universe as a whole is some sharply bounded closed system).

When this is considered, emergent properties at higher levels of scale lose the sense of being especially surprising or mysterious.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Causal Knowledge is Primitive for Russell

I was rereading portions of Russell’s Human Knowledge (and making comparisons to The Analysis of Matter) with the goal of understanding his arguments regarding the role of structure in linking experience to the physical world. But I was struck by something else.  At the end of the book, his conclusions regarding how scientific inferences are justified trace this question back to the prior question of how we gain knowledge of causation. Causation is presumed in science, but causation is itself not explicated or justified within science: it is a pre-scientific concept.

A main project in Human Knowledge is to identify those unacknowledged postulates which undergird our scientific pursuit of knowledge: “what must we be supposed to know, in addition to particular observed facts, if scientific inferences are to be valid?” (p.513). He ends up with five postulates in total, but notably it turns out all of them “involve the concept of ‘cause’” (p.508).

 How do we know these postulates, then, if indeed we do know them, given their reliance on our knowledge of causation? Russell can only point to our gaining a primitive grasp on cause via our pre-linguistic biological know-how: “Knowledge of general connections between facts has its biological origins in animal expectations “(p.514). It was advantageous in evolutionary terms for our animal expectations to roughly conform to processes in the physical world. The physical world apparently has causal laws, and animal inferences are adapted to these.

 When evaluating the thesis of empiricism, Russell understands that strictly speaking this kind of knowledge is something beyond experience (at least as these terms are usually employed in the debate): “Either, therefore, we know something independently of experience, or science is moonshine” (p.524).

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Russell and Structural Realism

My interest in Russell’s The Analysis of Matter came originally from the perspective it offers in sorting through the problem of mind. Recently, thanks to a couple of papers linked to on twitter by @LogicalAnalysis, I learned about its connection with recent work on Structural Realism in the context of philosophy of science. (This continues a long-standing tradition for me where philosophy of mind serves as a “gateway drug” leading to the exploration of a wide range of philosophical concerns - btw this analogy was inspired by this parody poster).

 Very roughly, Russell said that while we only have access to percepts (units of phenomenal perception), and lack access to external objects, these percepts do lie at the end of causal chains which link them to counterparts in the world. He argued that because of this linkage, the structure of our percepts is shared with that of the counterparts, allowing us to draw inferences about this structure.

 In the 2001 “Is Structural Realism PossibleStathis Psillos discusses the Russellian view as one of several paths toward Structural Realism (SR). Its construction from a starting point of bottom-up empiricism marks it in Psillos’ language as an “upward path” toward SR. The “downward path” characterizes approaches which look to save a broader scientific realism from objections by limiting the realism to certain of the mathematically described structural portions of the theories.

  James Ladyman has a very nice SEP entry on SR, which lays out the contemporary research. In his taxonomy, he distinguishes “epistemic” SR (which includes Russell’s given its basis in concerns about knowledge of the external world) from “ontic” SR. Some versions of the latter (including Ladyman's own work) look to make the case that structure is all there is; that is, they take an anti-realist approach to non-structural elements of physical world (e.g. objects), rather than just taking an agnostic approach based on the epistemic difficulties of knowing about them.

 While I have a lot more to read on this topic, I have an initial suspicion that both approaches to SR have a shortcoming which has to do with causation. Russell invokes causal relations as giving rise to structure, but doesn’t provide details regarding how causation works. Without more to the story, he is apparently left with the claim that we can make the appropriate inferences based on logico-mathematical structure. And this left him open to a logically based criticism due to M.H.A. "Max" Newman (1928 – see discussion in this article by Demopoulos and Friedman). This criticism argues that the inference based only on structure fails because a set of relations among any set of units with sufficient cardinality can be shown to be consistent with it (for a paper which concludes this argument lacks force, see a 2003 article by Ionnis Votsis).

 When it comes to ontic SR, I think it is pretty clear that the formal mathematical structures in physical theories don’t provide a theory of causation, and such a theory will need to invoke additional ontology (e.g. properties, objects) to serve as part of its explanatory apparatus. Therefore, we can’t conclude structure is “all there is.” Psillos has another paper which, in part, argues against ontic SR from this basis.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Upcoming GPPC events

Philosophy on Film Series - Estrangements

The Greater Philadelphia Philosophy Consortium is sponsoring a film series at the Bryn Mawr FilmInstitute again this year featuring commentaries by GPPC philosophers.  There are 3 films on consecutive Thursday evenings beginning March 29th.