Saturday, February 09, 2008

It's a good day for comics.

Anyone who's ever tried to figure out Dennett will appreciate this. Go.

10 comments:

undergroundman said...

Is it worth trying to figure out Dennett's view on consciousness, then?

ADHR said...

Kinda. I think he's got some interesting things to say. Unfortunately, he's Dennett. Great stylist, but tends towards obfuscation. I'm not expecting complete clarity, but Dennett tends to go too far the other way. For example, I still have no idea what to make of the fifth chapter of The Intentional Stance.

undergroundman said...

I like Freedom Evolves, although I haven't really gotten that far. Have you read it?

He's refreshing in that he doesn't write like he's imitating Kant (at least so far).

All philosophers tend towards obfuscation because deep down their arguments aren't as solid as something like mathematics; they're really more intuitions, guesses, and opinions. :p

ADHR said...

I've got Freedom Evolves, but put it down to go work on some other things. I've also got Breaking the Spell sitting on my pile of books to read.

Who else writes like Kant? Someone living, that is; Hegel doesn't count.

Meh. :P I'm not convinced that science is any more solid than philosophy. At the end of the day, you have to take your presumptions and intuitions and run with them -- see where they take you.

undergroundman said...

I guess I don't know who writes like Kant, as I don't read much philosophy, especially modern. It just seems that most philosophy that I read isn't well-written, and tends towards confusing circumlocution and unintuitive statements more than necessary. Then they try to pass off these unintuitive, often shocking statements as perfectly reasonable and uncontroversial.

The nice thing about science is that it can be checked by reality. Philosophy is mainly checked by common sense/intuition i.e. "logic", yet the only people who read philosophy have the same sort of "common sense" as their philosophical colleagues. The same complaint applies to mainstream economists, who often use advanced econometrics to produce meaningless results and often abstract away some of the most relevant factors. People get sucked into a system and can't get out of it.

What would you point to as the most important accomplishment of modern philosophy? By someone alive, let's say, and in the past 20 years.

I suppose I'm fairly unqualified to speak on philosophy as I have either a knee-jerk reaction of disagreement with many of the philosophy's most precious premises or I found them to be not worthy of the tiresome attention that is paid to them.

For example, you've noticed that I don't like splitting ethics/morality into utilitarianism , deontology, and virtue ethics. Rather, what is good or right is determined by a complex mix of individual and sociological factors -- there is no one "right" way, although there is certainly a way that I think is right at the moment, and I will certainly argue for its relative benefits. I suppose I am a consequentialist, but if I happened to feel at one moment that a "deontological" action (in this case, necessarily not for the greatest good) was more fulfilling, I would do it. All people are not worth the same. Our morality is based on a reciprocal expectations. It should be obvious to any philosopher, as it was to Adam Smith, that neither deontology nor utilitarianism really matter to us when we go about our actions. Given that we don't act as if these moral theories matter, why should we pretend that they do in the abstract? Philosophers like to preach and pretend to be paragons of moral excellence, but few of them are saints.

I'd probably sacrifice a billion lives for eternal life, a million lives for a completely clean environment, and a thousand lives for, say, 10 million dollars. Can I generalize that? No, but why should I have to? I (conservatively) expect that 99% of people, if it really came down to it, would do the same, assuming they didn't have to watch the slaughter and didn't know the people.

Philosophers think everything needs to be generalized. It's a mistaken application of our ability to abstract things to the general case. Though, this is off the cuff, and likely I'll change my mind at some point.

ADHR said...

You should read some recent stuff. There's a tendency to be much more careful

(although some of what you describe still sneaks through).

I'm not convinced that science is often checked by reality. I'm persuaded by

Quine's claim that experience won't completely decide theoretical positions; at

the end of the day, you're still going to have to make a non-empirical choice.

(Although Quine himself wouldn't have phrased it that way.)

The "someone alive" bit makes it rather hard, as some of the names I might've

given (Rorty, say, or Davidson, or Rawls) have passed recently. I could go with

Dennett, whose work is quite wide-ranging into psychology and cognitive science.

I could also point to the Churchlands, a composite entity composed of Paul and

Patricia Churchland, philosophers who are known for forcing neuroscience into

the philosophy of mind. The discipline seems to be moving away from the "Great

Man" model, though, and more towards multidisciplinary and multiperson

investigations of complex problems. Political philosophy is rife with this;

economists and philosophers are dialoguing back and forth regarding issues

international distributive justice, for example. I'm actually involved (as an

RA) in a project to increase that dialogue, and bring in some work from the

field of international business.

Reciprocal expectations is a contractarian morality. Sorry. ;) Part of the

problem, I think, is that intro philosophy courses, all the way up into

junior-level stuff, tend to focus on history. This is not surprising, as the

discipline is quite dense; if you don't know the history, the modern-day stuff

is hard to follow. But it leaves the impression that philosophy has stopped with fairly extreme views, that don't cover all the logical space. In addition to the three views you cite, in modern-day substantive ethics, you also find contractarian/contractualist approaches and "sentimentalist" (founded on moral emotions) approaches. And very few are all that extreme: they'll instead claim that, when all else fails, we should turn to utilitarian or deontological or virtue-based (etc, etc) matters, but not that these are all that's morally relevant.

It's also worth noting that there's a descriptive project of philosophical ethics that can easily be confused with the normative project. Part of what philosophical ethics tries to do is theoretically describe moral practice (which is why I think philosophers need to pay a lot more attention to things like anthropology). This is like how linguists try to come up with theories of grammar. The other arm, though, is normative: philosophers are trying to figure out if there's a way to be morally better than our current practices.

Honestly, I don't know a single modern-day moral philosopher who tries to be a paragon or a saint. The usual line is that moral philosophy (like all philosophy) improves your understanding.

I'm not convinced that generalization is a bad thing. Generalizing is a way of exploring whether and when a particular principle works. If it doesn't work at full generality, then either it should be rejected, or it should somehow be circumscribed.

undergroundman said...

Political philosophy is rife with this; economists and philosophers are dialoguing back and forth regarding issues international distributive justice, for example. I'm actually involved (as an RA) in a project to increase that dialogue, and bring in some work from the field of international business.

That's cool! What's an RA? I certainly think we need to treat developing countries better, even though I have the sneaking suspicion that, if the positions were reversed, they would be treating us worse than we treat them. That's just based on how they treat their own people -- really, many of them have dug their own graves (although of course it wasn't their fault, because of determinism -- the South had much worse conditions than the North).

It's also worth noting that there's a descriptive project of philosophical ethics that can easily be confused with the normative project.

Sure. But I find them interconnected. What you find right is, as I said, a function of your environment: you've read a lot of philosophy, so you have a quirky view of what's right. A Mormon finds it right to have a lot of children, donate a lot to the Mormon church, and basically follow Mormon tenets. I place a lot of value on the environment and competent people. Hitler and his people placed a lot of value on race and nationalism.


I'm not convinced that generalization is a bad thing. Generalizing is a way of exploring whether and when a particular principle works. If it doesn't work at full generality, then either it should be rejected, or it should somehow be circumscribed.


Generalizing has its place. I never said it was bad, but it doesn't always need to be applied. Kant's generalization doesn't work because everyone is different -- when I kill someone, I'm not implicitly saying that it would be OK for them to kill me. I'm saying it was OK for me to kill them, and that if they were me, they could have killed themselves (if that makes sense).

ADHR said...

I just noticed the formatting on my earlier comment completely fucked up... eep!

RA = Research Assistant. The debate the project focuses on is how to improve the lot of developing countries. The accepted wisdom is that we should just redistribute wealth; but, economically, that doesn't make a lot of sense.

Even though being raised a certain way can have some effect on the ethical views you initially accept, it's not deterministic. After all, people do reject their upbringing, or question and revise it.

Kant's principle has been resoundingly criticized in the literature, though. Those who consider themselves Kantians, in my view, revise the principle well beyond what the man himself would've agreed to. FWIW, Kant's insights into the workings of the mind still ring pretty true: I think there's some interesting work available (if not already done) drawing connections between Kant and modern-day cognitive science.

undergroundman said...

RA = Research Assistant. The debate the project focuses on is how to improve the lot of developing countries. The accepted wisdom is that we should just redistribute wealth; but, economically, that doesn't make a lot of sense.

Ah. That does require some smart economics. Have you heard of The Elusive Quest for Growth? What do you think of Jeffrey Sachs?

ADHR said...

I have not read it, nor have I (until now) heard of Sachs.