maandag 23 juli 2007

Chris on Metaphysical Pragmatism

Chris at Mixing Memory has a worthwhile post criticizing what he calls "metaphysical pragmatism", the idea that, because of the successes of science, philosophical knowledge can be based on scientific knowledge in a way which obviates metaphysics. A commenter makes the point that the pragmatism involved was not the pragmatism of Peirce. Based on my (limited) knowledge of Peirce, I agree - and in one passage he minces no words in criticizing the metaphysical pragmatists of his day:

"The psychical sciences, especially psychology, are, if possible, even more necessitated to assume general principles that cannot be proved or disproved by their ordinary methods of work. The philosopher alone is equipped with the facilities for examining such "axioms" and for determining the degree to which confidence may safely be reposed in them. Find a scientific man who proposed to get along without any metaphysics - not by any means every man who holds the ordinary reasonings of metaphysicians in scorn - and you have found one whose doctrines are thoroughly vitiated by the crude and uncriticized metaphysics with which they are packed. We must philosophize, said the great naturalist Aristotle, if only to avoid philosophizing. Every man of us has a metaphysics, and has to have one; and it will influence his life greatly. Far better, then, that that metaphysics should be criticized and not allowed to run loose. A man may say "I will content myself with common sense." I, for one, am with him there, in the main. (...) But the difficulty is to determine what really is and what is not the authoritative decision of common sense and what is merely obiter dictum. In short, there is no escape from the need of a critical examination of "first principles"." (CP 1.129)

woensdag 18 juli 2007

It's coming from the feel that it ain't exactly real

(Or it's real, but it ain't exactly there).

Something is bothering me. I've been working on a paper dealing with historical linguistics and Whitehead's process philosophy. It's something I've been working on for some time: I had a go at it in my Ph.D. thesis but looking back, the idea seems quite half-baked and impressionistic as I presented it there. Things are a lot more clearer right now.

The attraction to the idea is that it might enable one to hold both a Platonistic view on linguistic structure with a thoroughly diachronic, historical view on language-as-such. The basic dichotomy Whitehead draws is between universals or "eternal objects" which are, in and of themselves, pure potentials, and events or "actual occasions", in which universals may actualize. Space and time is not given: an actual occasion or event gains its spatiotemporal location during its "becoming", during which it essentially relates to its whole relevant universe (past events, universals inferred from those, etc.).

Whitehead has been applied to language by, to my knowledge, only Michael Fortescue (2001, "Patterns and Process"). He basically regards language as a complex "eternal object" and defines the linguistic equivalent of an event with a "moment of linguistic cognition". I happily follow him here. Fortescue's book is a bit smorgasbord-like, though: virtually all of linguistics from discourse studies to language change and acquisition is dealt with, and historical linguistics relatively briefly.

Now, the problem.

I think there are compelling reasons to hold some kind of linguistic Platonism, either a Whiteheadian version, or a non-Whiteheadian one as has been developed by Jerrold Katz. By doing so, we avoid hypostasizing grammar, i.e. regarding the work of theoretical linguistics as relating to a "language organ" or to linguistic cognition, etc. Autonomous linguistics would be autonomous linguistics; neurolinguistics would be neurolinguistics. We would avoid subordinating linguistics to some kind of "first order" discipline. Also, I think there are very good reasons to hold that language is a normative system analogous to mathematics, logic, etc.: it's about "correct" and "incorrect" rather than "is" or "not-is".

There's a bit of a snag, though, when we try to account for (historical-)linguistic labels such as "Uralic", "Indo-European" or "Finnish" on such a conception of language as a Platonic object. Because "Finnish" refers to a determinate spatiotemporal location. OK, so we regard the phonology, morphology, etc. of Finnish as a Platonic object which exists eternally (as a potential or in some kind of Platonic realm) but state that it becomes Finnish only due to its actualization at a certain time and place in the actual world of events. Problem with that it of course that "Finnish" as a historical, linguistic entity has a lot of "temporal smear", has undergone quite a bit of change during its history, and the issue of genetic identity, i.e. on what grounds do we issue a label such as "Finnish" or "Uralic" on a spatiotemporally extended community of "linguistic events" which does not embody exactly the same structures through space and time?

An obvious solution would be to use Popper's World 3 - but I dislike it. It's too obvious, and I can't help thinking that regarding historically specific things as for instance Mozart's requiem (and by extension, a given language) as World 3 objects is a bit confused. (Rather, Mozart's requiem would be a Platonic object which happened to be discovered and actualized by Mozart, as well as in subsequent performances, etc.). Also, I believe it merely displaces the problem of genetic identity and genetic relationships.

I think Whitehead referred to this problem when he wrote that:

"(...) the complex nexus of ancient imperial Rome to European history is not wholly expressible in universals. It is not merely the contrast of a sort of city, imperial, Roman, ancient, with a sort of history of a sort of continent (...). The nexus in question does involve such a complex contrast of universals. But it involves more. For it is the nexus of that Rome with that Europe." (Process and Reality, p. 324).

A "nexus" in Whiteheadian is a spatiotemporally extended community of events, which exhibit the same universals through their relationships with each other. It's also part of my currently favoured solution to the problem mentioned above. Linguistic structures would exist Platonically but without any reference to their "togetherness", not to speak of labels such as "Finnish": this togetherness emerges in actual usage, and in the presence of linguistic events "in" each other (my comprehension of an utterance by another person would be a past linguistic event immanent in a present one: and the diachronic dimension created in such a manner, with the actualization of the same linguistic structures in both events, would account for genetic relationships).

However, it seems to me intuitively difficult to hold a Platonic view on linguistic structure with an emergentist view on language as a social, historical system of rules, which emerges from linguistic usage, with language learners relating to their language as they would to rules, etc. I think the intuitive difficulty is only apparent, though, and resulting from somehow unconsciously holding Platonic objects to be more concrete than they really are. There seems to be no real contradiction between linguistic structure being a Platonic object; and it's actualization in space and time to emerge from language usage.

But this leads to something else, and quite unrelated to the specifically linguistic issue above: is the relationship between Platonic objects and their actualization in space and time something to be explained? Does it need an explanation?

Individual languages of course have a great deal of contingency due to the arbitrariness of the relationship between meaning and phonological form: it is only within a linguistic system in which we "cannot doubt" that a cat is called a cat and in which calling it tac would be wrong (in others it might be kissa, katt, mácska, etc.). But the impossibility of even conceiving 2 and 2 to be 5 is I think, an important ground for holding mathematics to be Platonic.

The thing is that mathematics, logic, reason all appear to be working very well in making sense of the world. Peirce seemed to feel this was worth mentioning a number of times, at one point regarding the validity of abductive reasoning as conditioned upon the "hope" that "there may be some natural tendency toward an agreement between the ideas which suggest themselves to the human mind and those which are concerned in the laws of nature" (CP 1:80), at another point stating that "(...) every scientific explanation of a natural phenomenon is a hypothesis that there is something in nature to which the human reason is analogous; and that it really is so all the successes of science in its applications to human convenience are witnesses. They proclaim that truth over the length and breadth of the modern world. In the light of the successes of science to my mind there is a degree of baseness in denying our birthright as children of God and in shamefacedly slinking away from anthropomorphic conceptions of the universe." (CP 1:316).

The issue is, obviously, religiously relevant. Nagel, in "The Last World", mentions that while he remained a metaphysical materialist, the irreducibility of reason does make us be more at home in the universe than secularly comfortable. But it should be handled carefully: the irreducability of Platonic objects (to which we respond normatively) to the empirical, physical realm says nothing about the impossibility or possibility of, for example, human cognition and all that evolving naturalistically. It would seem to me to be eminently possible for the normative (such as language) to emerge in a community of people predisposed to look for it - though I think mind itself (with intentionality, valuation, etc.) would be presupposed.

maandag 16 juli 2007

Mark Vernon on the growth of conservative religion

Mark Vernon places some pessimistic footnotes to a WSJ article detailing a possible reversion in the European trend towards increased secularization, noting that, while religion may well be on the rise again in Europe, the kind of religion that is on the rise is of a rather conservative (and market-savvy) kind.

It struck me some time ago as well that the kind of christian writers and intellectuals who still "do" apologetics, and who answer the challenges posed to them by their atheist critics, are all of a rather conservative bent. Alvin Plantinga is a conservative protestant, Alister McGrath an evangelical, and then there was of course C.S. Lewis half a century ago. I don't necessarily like the theology they represent (I think there are problems with the classical theology of, say, Plantinga; and I find Lewis rather bleak, though still refreshing with his emphasis that Christianity isn't necessarily fun fun fun) but they do provide clear and occasionally strong arguments. I think that arguments such as those relating to reason and morality in Lewis' writings are as strong as apologetic arguments go (meaning, they serve as a rational "scaffolding" of faith).

A philosophical proposition cannot of course be a substitute for the God of religion - but apologetic arguments, even if they are ultimately not very compelling in and of themselves (I don't think philosophical arguments can be: their acceptability relates rather to how they fit within a worldview as a whole) do give the atheist critic something to bite in. And they might help setting a process of thought in motion. I fear that the much more subtle and abstract ideas of God as the condition for existence, the ground of being, etc.; or those of reason and faith as relating to different domains are much more dependent on background suppositions concerning us, the universe and our place in it. And they can be very difficult to understand. They demand a mindset tolerant of ideas which are hazy, at the edge of our knowing, and never quite completely formed.

So I'm not sure whether the ascent of evangelical protestantism and conservative catholicism over their more liberal counterparts in Europe can be stemmed. The evangelicals and conservatives reach out. They, well, evangelize. Look for a Christian study group on a university campus and you'll meet them. Nothing wrong with that, mind you (I have my disagreements but also agreements with evangelicals, and the ones I've met are very pleasant people). And I guess I'm slightly more optimistic than Mark Vernon. If the evangelical movement is set to grow, I think it also might be set to become broader (see RightReason on the issue here.)

What is a "moderate religionist"?

This is a perhaps uncharitable little rant about the usage of "moderate" in connection with nouns such as "Christian" and "religionist". The usage should be known well-enough: it rears its head often enough in science vs. religion discussions whenever a non-fundamentalist theistic viewpoint rears its head. Connected of course is the position of non-Creationist Christians in the evolution vs. design struggle, dealt with by Ed Brayton here: Brayton and others want to stick to the program of keeping ID out of schools but do not have the interest in the eradication of religion of the "militant atheist" (the atheist counterpart of "moderate religionist" is "Neville Chamberlain atheist", a moniker proudly adopted by for instance Chris.

I'm in two minds about the whole evolution vs. design thing. Theologically, I can't make sense of anything but some kind of cosmological fine-tuning (and even that is somewhat troublesome). I don't believe any kind of scientific case for ID has been made. And I definitely don't think it belongs in schools as an alternative to Darwinian evolution. At the same time, I feel there is a tendency to overextend Darwinian models into areas where they clearly do not belong (such as cultural history, and the evolution of languages), and I am not at all sure whether the climate currently exists where ID hypotheses could be open-mindedly discussed, even if they were scientifically respectable. There is a kind of siege mentality among the pro-secular, pro-science American left. I like the nuanced stance taken by for instance the Telic Thoughts weblog, even if it hasn't convinced me yet that, as far as biological evolution is concerned, there is a respectable alternative to Darwinism.

My issue with the term "moderate religionist" is that it easily suggests that liberal Christianity is a diluted version of the "real" thing which is identified with some kind of fundamentalism or biblical literalism. And any departure from Biblical liberalism being regarded as a concession to "science". Historically, it's of course nonsensical. Biblical literalism is a very modern creature, and St. Augustine famously chided fellow Christians who clumsily sought to deduce natural knowledge from scripture. Also, there is nothing necessarily very moderate about non-Creationist versions of Christianity. Quite a few evangelicals accept evolution, and they are anything but "moderate" in the way they live their religion. The basic issue, I guess, is that the term itself suggests some kind of tribalism in which the most noisy and least bright outshout their more thoughtful fellows in both the "atheist" and "religionist" camps.

There is one important similarity between the reductionists and neo-positivists among the pro-science camp and their Biblical literalist detractors: both see only one domain of discourse, one which deals with propositions among empirically verifiable truths. For the one side, the lack of empirical proof for the existence of God is reason enough to reject it by analogy to teapots around saturn and fairies at the bottom of the garden; for the other, a discrepancy between our knowledge of nature and a literal claim from Scripture is reason enough to ditch the former. I'm not saying the two positions are equally sensible. The former is enormously more sensible than the latter. Nature and the processes that govern it stare us in the face every moment of the day: the seeming absence of a benevolent God is a problem for theology ever since the book of Job was written. But both seem to share some kind of naive empiricism, some kind of hostility to metaphysics, to propositions that do not relate to tangible evidence.

(This relates to an issue that has been bothering me. Should the many accounts of miracles in the New Testament be taken symbolically, literally, or both? Sometimes a symbolic meaning, for instance that of Jesus walking on the water, and Peter trying but failing, seems terribly obvious. The same goes for healing the sick, blind and crippled. At the same time, it seems to me that the reports of Jesus, and later the apostles, indeed healing the sick and the blind, written down mere decades after they occurred, are not just metaphors. Not to speak of the resurrection. A sign can literally occur, and yet be a sign).


The title of this weblog refers to my slowly realizing that, while I can't make much sense of "postmodernist" views concerning science and scholarship, I have preciously little in common either with the ideas concerning science, philosophy and religion of pro-Enlightenment detractors of PoMo such as Richard Dawkins and Steven Weinberg. My own area of specialization, historical linguistics, is firmly situated in traditional humanities research, which brings along a metascientific viewpoint which is as incompatible with reductionism and neo-positivism as it is with "postmodernist" logorrhea. Discovering this during the later stages of my Ph.D. research kindled my interest in philosophy in a wider sense. At the same time, I began to suspect that the central notions of Christianity (which, to me, is primarily exemplified by the very liberal Catholicism I grew up with in the Netherlands) might not be so outlandish as I first thought. Or perhaps outlandish, but nonetheless true.

This weblog is dedicated to exploring those issues.