Month: April 2017

Haack and Dummett on The Justification of Deduction

Susan Haack nicely diagrammed the problem of circularity in her 1976 paper, The Justification of Deduction. In that diagram, she drew a direct parallel to the circularity of the inductive justification of induction, as outlined originally by Hume. Haack argues that justification must mean syntactic justification, and offers an illustrative example argument to show why semantic justification fails – namely, that it is an axiomatic dogmatism: deduction is justified by virtue of the fact that we have defined it to be truth preserving.

Haack goes on to argue on syntactic grounds that justification is a non-starter on at least five other fronts, in addition to being circular. However, Dummett in his 1973 paper by the same name, showed that the only kind of justification that made any sense was semantic justification. First, because syntax necessarily relied on semantics for its meaning, and secondly because the whole point of justification in the first place is confidence in the function of logic as a means of preserving truth values.

Still, Dummett was able to show not only that the justification of deduction was circular, but also that any attempt to do so leads inevitably down one of the horns of Agrippa’s Trilemma. As Haack pointed out, we could simply assert the justification definitionally. But, in attempting to avoid this dogmatic horn, Dummett points out that we have only two other options: the regress horn, or the circularity horn. In the first case, this would mean crafting a set of rules of inference that could be used to independently justify deduction. These new rules would require a language and a theory of soundness and completeness all their own, which in turn, require justification, and then the process would descend yet another level. In the latter case, two different sets of rules of inference might be used to justify each other, in perpetuity. Obviously, none of these options is satisfying.

Later in his paper, Dummett attempts to explain how a set of inferential rules might be justified by reference to a theory of meaning for the object language within which it is contained. Essentially, he argues that the soundness and completeness theory of logic provides what a theory of meaning provides for a language: a functional understanding of its use. In other words, if we are to justify logic at all, we must first have a theory of meaning that shows how sentences can carry truth values. But this seems to me to begin the slide back into circularity, because as Dummett goes on to explain, our definitions of true and false themselves determine the means by which we achieve the meanings of sentences judged by those definitions. All we’ve done is to shrink the circle.

Haack and Dummett continue the debate in subsequent papers, but reach no conclusion. I am inclined to wonder, myself, whether any of it matters. The justification problem in induction has been evident for over three hundred years, and the problem of deduction for around seventy-five. Yet somehow, both of these tools of inference continue to be used and taught — and both still seem to be yielding results that most of us find satisfying most of the time.

In a word, yes, some forms of justification are circular (and it seems that no form of justification actually appears to work). But perhaps the problem isn’t what we think it is. Perhaps the process of inference is somehow more fundamental than language. Perhaps it is a feature of consciousness that resides below the level of language, rendering it impervious to notions like justification. Or, perhaps the justification of logic will someday come out of the neurological study of the brain, as an explanation of the evolutionary advantage of a linguistic mind, to a primate that would have otherwise perished on the plains of Africa.

Is it possible to act selflessly?

The following is my attempt to answer a question posed to me recently.

When I look at the question, it seems to focus on the individual. So, I think the easiest way to begin this, is to start with the self. Since I’m no Derek Parfit or Bernard Williams, and the question seems to be focusing on moral sentiment and moral choice, I’m going to reduce the ‘self’ to just that part we always end up talking about, when we talk about choice: The Will. Lacking a more sophisticated understanding of consciousness, I’m going to cobble together a rudimentary theory of the conscious self from Schopenhauer (Freedom of The Will), Dennett (Freedom Evolves, Consciousness Explained), and Peter Ulric Tse (The Neural Basis of Free Will).

Schopenhauer’s basic sketch of the conscious self, while not scientifically accurate anymore, is vague and general enough not to conflict with the a simple “modular” or “functional” understanding of the mind (one theory currently being batted around in science these days). So, I’m going to take his model as read, with some technical embellishments: The conscious, motivated, active self is (for our purposes), a neurochemical process of the brain that gives rise to a sensual consciousness (awareness of the outside world), a self-consciousness (awareness of our desires and intentions), and a ‘will’ embedded within that self-consciousness, from which all intentions to act originate, and upon which all chosen intentions are acted by that self. 

Free will seems essential to this question. Schopenhauer, of course, argued against such a thing. But I don’t think his argument is conclusive. In short, if we’re looking backward in time, causal explanation chains are not necessarily evidence of causal necessity looking into the future (see Hume, on Induction). Further, it has been shown that sub-atomic indeterminacy can play a role in the way neurons function (see Tse, and Dennett). Thus, it seems there is room to suppose at a minimum, that absolute determinism is not a certainty (and, at best, that there is some sort of freedom of the underlying will that does not necessarily violate physical causation). Thus, I think we can tentatively accept the idea of an underlying will that is at least possibly free. 

But even if all that is wrong, Schopenhauer still gives us a get-out-of-jail-free card, for the purposes of the class. He defines a conventional notion of freedom at the beginning of his essay that he calls “negative” freedom; meaning, in a phrase, “I am free to do as I will” (regardless of whether the will itself is free). In short, I am unimpeded or uninhibited in the choices available to me, in the basic physical sense. Since this conception of freedom is enough to get us to the point where we have to start making choices, and value judgments about our choices, I think this might be an acceptable “plan B” for answering this question.

So, we have a conscious self that is free to choose to act or not, on the intentions presented to it by it’s will. The next question would be (restating the original question a bit) is it possible for this self to act ‘selflessly’? Here, I think we have a straightforward answer, in both the metaphysical and logical sense:

  1. The will is contained within the consciousness that corresponds to it’s identified self.
  2. The will cannot present intentions to any other self, than the one to which it corresponds.
  3. The self cannot act upon intentions not presented to it by its own will (I will expound on this point, below).
  4. Therefore, it is not possible to act selflessly. 

On premise three: Here, it might be tempting to ask, “but what about other people’s stated intentions? Can’t we act on those?”. To this, I would appeal to Schopenhauer’s conception of consciousness. If some friend is making an appeal to me (to act in some way), he would be presenting my sensual consciousness with a motive. The sensual consciousness would pass that motive to the self-consciousness, and the self-consciousness would report back the intentional desire to act from the will. At this point, I could choose to act on the impulse and respond positively, or I could deny the impulse and respond negatively to my friend. Even if I respond positively, I am still fundamentally acting from the self, because it is my will that gave rise to the impulse to act. This means (at least logically) that I could not possibly be acting selflessly. Therefore, all acts are selfish acts.

But this whole discourse from the raw metaphysical possibility seems a bit impoverished. Perhaps we mean to ask, “Is it possible to act purely from altruistic motives”? Or perhaps, “Is acting altruistically also acting selfishly”? These are much more difficult questions, I think. Mostly, because they’re intensely psychological. For the first question, I’d lean on my Schopenhauer again, and say yes it is possible to act from an ‘altruistic’ motive, because though we characterize the motive as “altruistic”, it is still fundamentally a motive experienced and intention exhibited by a self, thus it is necessarily (by definition?) acting ’selfishly’. 

The second question is more interesting, and more perplexing. It’s essentially asking how motives interact in the mind. Perhaps even, what are the basic nature of these two motives (altruism and selfishness). If these two are not mutually exclusive, what happens when they “mix” in the mind? Is it an additive mixture, or a subtractive one? However, if they are exclusive, what calculus is taking place to privilege one over the other? What circumstances or other motives might have an effect on that calculation? Is the mixture or calculus something we can reduce to a principle? If so, would that function as a moral fundamental (even if not THE moral fundamental)?

Arguing from the psychological, I would speculate that a kernel of selfish motive lies at the core of all actions, even those dominated by selfless motives. Logically speaking, this would still be an affirmative answer to your question (Yes, it is possible to act selflessly). However, perplexingly, I could also say, ‘no it’s not possible, because that kernel of selfishness is present’ — and both answers would be true, because both motives are present in my mind at the same time. But perhaps my speculation is incorrect? Perhaps only one motive can be present at a time? Somehow, I doubt that…

That’s what’s interesting about the psychological question. It’s not quite a paradox, because it’s not actually a binary. It’s like drops of black paint in a bucket of white paint. If there is a kernel of selfishness at the core of all my selfless acts, does it “pollute” my altruism? Am I being dishonest somehow if I don’t acknowledge it? Does my worry about being dishonest betray some “turtles all the way down” higher authority that I want to appeal to? Or is this more like microprocessor voltages (below 5volts of selfishness = altruism; above 5volts of selfishness = selfishness)? 

We might want to say this is where value judgments can help us out. Well, they may help us to clarify which of the two motives would dominate our intentions in some specific instance, but I’m not sure how that could get us to a universal principle (viz. Altruism Is Good, or Selfishness Is Good or Altruism is Bad or Selfishness is Bad). 

Mill, Kant, Preference and Universality

If you look closely at Mill’s arguments in Utilitarianism, he seems to be making a very strong response to Kant (perhaps against the Groundwork?). Mill accepts the notion of moral duty, just as Kant does. But he insists it derives not from any form of analytic (i.e., Kant’s notion of synthetic a priori) truth. Rather, Mill insists it derives from the apparently universal desire of mankind (individually, in aggregate) to seek its own pleasure. Aware of some of the contextual implications of this principle, Mill attacks head-on the charge of Epicureanism. But what strikes me as interesting, is the fact that, though he makes frequent reference to Kant, he never directly refutes Kant’s position, and never fully explains how the pleasure principle isn’t obviously and soundly refuted already by Kant’s explication of deontology (in the Groundwork). Mill just seems to ignore the problem of subjectivity in the hypothetical imperative, as described by Kant. Perhaps Mill is assuming that the apparently universal preference for pleasure somehow renders the hypothetical imperative a moot point? (i.e., since everyone prefers pleasure, it’s pointless to bother thinking in terms like, ‘if you seek pleasure, then you should do x’).

This idea of a universal preference is an intriguing one. Mill makes frequent appeals to preference – both implicit and explicit. What if we could actually identify a preference that is indeed universal to all human beings? I’m struggling, frankly, to think of one. Even something as intuitively obvious as “life” isn’t so obvious, when you consider the willingness of soldiers to throw themselves over the trenches, or the high rate of suicide among men in the west, today. Clearly, those folk do not have a preference for living. If something like life itself can’t be ascribed as a preference to all human beings, why should pleasure?

On the other hand, biology is notoriously fuzzy at the edges. Sometimes a horse is born with 5 legs. Is it no longer a horse? Sometimes humans are born with 3 x chromosomes, instead of an xy pair. Does that mean there’s no such thing as mammalian sexes? If we can accept these sorts of vaguenesses in distinction, then perhaps a “universal preference” could also be accepted as something slightly less than universal?

Perhaps, but when we start ascribing moral significance to such a thing as a preference, the game changes a bit. Because what are we really saying, when we say we can judge a behaviour as “right” or “wrong”? When I say something is or isn’t a preference of mine, nothing follows. I just go about my business, and you, yours. But when I take a preference of mine as a standard to judge you ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, I am implying a great deal more. It implies that, at the very least, I am licensed to condemn you for not sharing the preference — and at the most extreme end, that I am licensed to kill you.

But what if the standard isn’t some particular material preference (such as ice cream favors, or even living), but rather, for behavioral reciprocity? Now, if I have a preference for vanilla, and you have a preference for chocolate, but we both share (for example) a preference for not attacking people with differing preferences, then we might be able to negotiate a peaceful existence together. What’s more, we’d then be justified in self-defense against someone who didn’t share that meta-preference.

Perhaps this is what Mill was thinking when he suggested we all ought to regard each other equally, in the decisions we make? More thought must be done on this one…

Bernard Williams, Moral Dilemmas, and Utilitarianism

It would be amazing if ethics courses would stop trying to put me into some kind of Antonio Banderas / Heath Ledger fantasy nightmare, and actually start teaching me how to work on real problems in the real world. Everyone talks of trying to do "applied" ethics, and trying to remove all the 'abstractions' and deal 'directly' with our moral intuitions. But these scenarios just seem to me to be driving us further and further away from that goal

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A conversation with Artur Schopenhauer on his conception of freedom

The following is a dialogue between myself and Artur Schopenhauer, in which I basically try to interrogate the text as if I were talking directly to Schopenhauer, in an interview or discussion. All of Dr. Schopenhauer’s responses below come from the text of his essay, either as direct quotes or as slight rephrasing, in order to fit them into the flow of a conversation. It should be noted that I have not read World As Will And Representation (written before this essay), and that I have only a cursory knowledge of Schopenhauer’s biography. So, it is likely that additional context might have made this more insightful. In any case, this is meant only to offer an engaging way to consider the basic ideas contained within this essay, not as a serious critique of Schopenhauer, as such. I hope you enjoy it…

Me : Herr Doctor Schopenhauer, thank you for joining me, today.

Artur: You’re welcome. These days, I don’t have much else to do, and my hermitage in heaven is getting a bit stale. So, I need the outing.

Me: : As you know, we’re here to discuss your famous Prize Essay On The Freedom of the Will. To begin with, I want to take a page out of the philosopher’s playbook, and focus on your definitions. What do you think is meant by ‘freedom’?

Artur: When carefully examined, the concept of ‘freedom’ turns out to be negative… it signifies merely the absence of any hindrance or restraint… animals and men are called ‘free’ when their actions are not hindered by any physical or material obstacles — such as fetters, or prison, or paralysis. They proceed in accordance with their will… the concept in this meaning is not subject to doubt or controversy, and its reality can always be authenticated empirically.

Me : So, you take the common sense view of freedom to be the most compelling?

Artur: No, just the most obvious. In fact, it is perhaps the least interesting of the three different subspecies of freedom.

Me : Three ‘subspecies’? What do you mean?

Artur: Yes, as I was describing, freedom is a negative concept. The absence of restraint. But this means restraint is a positive concept, in the form of the power it manifests. The nature of this power can be seen in three different subspecies of freedom correspondent to it: physical, intellectual, and moral. I have only just begun to outline the physical subspecies.

Me : Are these three subspecies, in combination, what we mean when we use terms like “free will”?

Artur: Well, you’re jumping ahead a bit, but you are on the right track. With physical freedom, I do not take into account whatever may influence the will itself. For in it’s original, immediate, and therefore popular meaning, the concept of freedom refers only to the ability to act… However, as soon as we… consider the two remaining kinds, we are dealing with the philosophical sense of the concept, which leads to many difficulties.

Me : Let’s take the other two in order then, yes? What do you mean by ‘intellectual freedom’?

Artur: You are quite right to single out intellectual freedom first, because it is very closely related to physical freedom, but I cannot explain it properly unless we deal with moral freedom first.

Me : Well, in that case, what do you mean by moral freedom?

Artur: The key question here, is what is the true nature of the restraint to moral freedom. With physical freedom, I noted that material obstacles are the restraint upon physical freedom. It is present, when they are absent. In the case of moral freedom, however, it has been observed that a man, without being hindered by material obstacles, can be restrained by mere motives — such as threats, promises, dangers, and the like — from acting in a way in which, if these motives were absent, would have certainly expressed his will.

Me: Yes, I can think of several examples of this…

Artur: Of course, but the point is whether such a man is still free —

Me: I would say no, because the motive, provided it is sufficiently compelling, is more or less the same as a physical obstacle. To use one of the examples I thought of, I would certainly not act out my will, if I knew my will were to lead to direct harm to someone I loved.

Artur: You’re missing the point. If you refrain from acting, because you know it will harm a loved-one, you are acting in accordance with your will, not against it.

Me:: But isn’t that because my will has been restrained by the motive, in the same way that my physical action has been restrained by shackles?

Artur: A sound mind would say that a motive can never act in the same way as a physical obstacle! Undoubtedly, the physical restraint easily transcends human bodily powers unconditionally, but a motive can never be irresistible in itself, and has no absolute power. It can always be offset by a stronger counter-motive, provided that such a counter-motive is present and that you can be determined by it.

Me: That’s quite a lot to take in. I guess I don’t understand what you mean by a ‘motive’. And, what do you mean by ‘whether I can be determined by’ a motive?

Artur: I am not ready to explain this completely, just yet, but here is one example for you, to help you see what I mean: the motive to preserve one’s life. Does that make sense?

Me: So, a sort of fundamental desire or instinct?

Artur: Close, but not quite. But we’re getting side-tracked here. Can we simply accept this example for now?

Me: Ok.

Artur: Great. Now, the motive to preserve one’s own life is perhaps the strongest of all motives —
Me: — But how did we determine that?

Artur: Grrr… Ok, can you think of a motive stronger than the self-preservation motive? The will to live?

Me: Hrm. No, not at the moment.

Artur: Right. So, it is the strongest of all motives, and yet it can be outweighed by other motives, for example, in suicide or in sacrificing one’s life for others —

Me: But wait! Doesn’t that make those motives the strongest motives, in the moment they are expressed? The strongest motive, by definition, is the motive that results in it’s own expression, yes?

Artur: My boy, you’re making my point for me. Though motives bring with them no purely objective and absolute compulsion, still one could ascribe to them a subjective and relative compulsion namely, to the person involved. And, now I can finally begin to answer your original question…

Me: Ok, I’m confused, what do you mean?

Artur: You’ll notice that all this talk of motives and restraints, which as been imposed upon one’s ability, relates to willing. So, the question remains: is the will itself free? So far, we have defined freedom according to the popular conception as acting “in accordance with one’s own will.” So, to ask whether the will itself is free, is to ask whether the will is in accordance with itself. This, of course, is self-evident, but also says nothing at all.

Me: Wait. So, you mean to ask not “am I free”, but “is my will free”? In other words, you think there is a difference between “me”, and my will?

Artur: Let me see if I can make it clearer for you. The empirical concept of freedom signifies: “I am free when I can do what I will.” Here in the phrase “what I will” the freedom is already affirmed. But when we now inquire about the freedom of willing itself, the question would then take this form: “can you also will your volitions?”, as if a volition depended on another volition which lay behind it. Suppose that this question is answered in the affirmative. What then? Another question would arise: “can you also will that which you will to will?” Thus we would be pushed back indefinitely…

Me: It’s an infinite regress!

Artur: Yes, that’s quite right. You can see then that it is impossible to establish a direct connection between the concept of freedom — in its original, empirical meaning derived from action — and the concept of willing.

Me: But I thought we already covered this. You said before that the physical understanding wasn’t enough, and that I needed to understand moral freedom as well. What am I missing?

Artur: What you’re missing is the point. You want to understand what freedom is, yes?

Me: Yes, that’s what I was hoping you could tell me.

Artur: Please, do try to follow me, then. In order to be in a position to apply the concept of freedom to the will, one must modify it by making the concept of freedom signify in general only the absence of any necessity. Thus interpreted, the concept retains its negative character, which I attributed to it from the very beginning. Accordingly, one must first investigate the concept of necessity. For this is the positive concept which gives meaning to the negative one — and which gives form to the power I described at first.

Me : Ok, so then is ‘necessity’ the same as the restraint you were talking about, at first?

Artur: Yes, but this needs to be explained better. Something is necessary which follows from a given sufficient ground… Only insofar as we comprehend something as the consequent of a given ground do we recognize it to be necessary. Conversely, as soon as we recognize something to be a consequent of a sufficient ground, we see that it is necessary. This is because all grounds are compelling.

Me : I don’t quite understand what you mean by ‘ground’ or ‘compelling’.

Artur: The necessity of a logical cause will be the conclusion from valid premises. The necessity of a mathematical cause will be the equality of the terms on either side of the operator, and the necessity of physical cause will be its immediate effect. In all these cases, with equal strictness, the necessity is attached to the consequent when the ground is given. The ground is my conception of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, something I don’t have time to explain here, but you can read my doctoral thesis for a full treatment. Suffice to say, everything that is grounded has a proper cause.

Me : Ah, ok. Well, then you must be saying that all causes necessitate their effects, is that right?

Artur: In a word, yes. The absence of necessity would be identical with the absence of a determining sufficient cause. Still, we think of the accidental as the opposite of necessary.

Me : Wait, what? Why? Isn’t an accidental cause still a cause? If so, how could it not be sufficient?

Artur: There is no conflict between these views, each accidental occurrence is only relatively so. For in a world where only accidents can be encountered, every event is necessary in relation to its cause, while in relation to all other events which are contemporaneously and spatially contiguous with it, the event is accidental.

Me : Ok, this is confusing. You seem to be agreeing with me. But what does all this have to do with freedom?

Artur: I must concede, this is the most problematic notion of my idea of freedom. Since the mark of freedom is absence of necessity, that which is free would have to be absolutely independent of any cause and would therefore have to be defined as absolutely accidental.

Me : Absolutely accidental? This is getting even more confusing. Are you saying that freedom, to be ‘real’, would have to be somehow disconnected, or even violate, causal necessity?

Artur: That is precisely what I am saying. It coincides in a singular fashion with the concept of freedom, but I don’t guarantee that it is conceivable. At any rate, that which is free remains that which is in no respect necessary, that is, not dependent on any ground. If we apply this concept to the will of man, it would mean that an individual will in its manifestations (volitions) would not be determined by causes or by sufficient grounds at all.

Me : This is astounding. Are you actually saying that there is no freedom?

Artur: Well, yes, I suppose so. But more must be done to prove it, before we can be certain. At the moment, I am simply setting the criteria by which we might identify a will that is free. A free will then, would be the will which is not determined by grounds — and since everything that determines another must be a ground, in real things a real ground, that is, a cause — a few will would not be determined by anything at all. The particular manifestations of this will (volitions) would then proceed absolutely and quite originally from the will itself, without being brought about necessarily by antecedent conditions, and hence also with being determined by anything according to a rule.

Me : But why should identifiable antecedent causes necessitate a lack of freedom? Just because I can look into my past and point to a chain of causal events — even necessary ones — that led me to the present interview, surely that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a choice, nor that I did not have the power to act on that choice, does it? To suggest that a causal explanation is evidence of some sort of necessity, one must be able to demonstrate that these causes stripped me of my capacity to choose.

Artur: When we try to deal with this concept, clear thinking abandons us because, while the positing of a ground, in all of its meanings, is the essential form of our entire cognitive faculty, we are here asked to refrain from positing a ground. But every consequent of a ground is necessary, and every necessity is the consequent of a ground. Still, there is no lack of a technical term for this concept: liberum arbitrium indifferentiae… such a free will of indifference includes the peculiar feature that for a human individual equipped with such a feature, under given external conditions which are thoroughly determined in every particular, two diametrically opposed actions are equally possible.

Me : But there must be some way out of this paradox! Clearly, I feel like I am willing my choices freely. How can I feel free, and yet be completely compelled by causal necessity?

Artur: One cannot get away from the negative conception of freedom, without involving oneself in vacillating, hazy explanations, behind which hides hesitant indecision, as when one talks about grounds which do not necessarily bring about their consequents.

Me : Well, I may not be able to get away from it, but I don’t have to like it! In any case, we’ve run out of time for this episode, I’m afraid. Next time, we’ll be moving on to your conception of consciousness, if you’re available.

Artur: Yes, I think I still might be able to talk some sense into you. An explication of my view of consciousness that may help to clear a few things up for you.

Me : Well, thank you for your time Doctor Schopenhauer, and until next time listeners, keep thinking!