Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Feser and Ross and me

Ed Feser has responded to my complaints about Ross's argument - sort of. Once again, I am flattered that Feser thinks my amateur philosophizing worthy of his attention. I always learn a lot from our exchanges, even if I am not ultimately convinced of his point. He (correctly) diagnoses my confusion between indeterminacy of meaning and physical indeterminism. But that confusion doesn't (I think) invalidate my main point: that Ross's argument never gets him beyond epistemological indeterminacy.

Oddly, Feser doesn't specifically respond to my critcism. Instead, he refers back to his American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly article. But in that article, he doesn't specifically respond to the epistemology objection, either. Here's what he wrote:

Dillard also suggests that Kripke’s point is epistemological rather than metaphysical—that his argument shows at most only that the claim that someone is thinking in accordance with a certain function (such as addition) is underdetermined by the physical evidence, and not that the physical facts are themselves indeterminate. This is odd given that both Kripke and Ross explicitly insist that the points they are respectively making are metaphysical rather than merely epistemological. Indeed, Kripke says that “not even what an omniscient God would know . . . could establish whether I  meant plus or quus,” because for the reasons given above, everything about my past behavior, sensations, and the like is compatible (not just compatible as far as we know, but compatible full stop) with my meaning either plus or quus. Nor does Dillard say anything to show otherwise.
That is, Feser merely states that Ross says that his point is metaphysical, not epistemological. But Feser doesn't give any additional reasons for us to believe that Ross has actually established this. Well, I agree that Ross says that - but I don't think he has established it.

Here's why. Note that Ross's argument is just as valid when talking about what another person is doing when (say) adding. That is, when I am trying to determine whether Hilda is actually adding, or merely simulating adding, all I can do is investigate her physical actions and responses. If Ross's argument is correct, then from a finite amount of data such as these I cannot determine whether Hilda is adding or not. So (if Ross is right) I can never know whether another person is capable of addition.

But note that from the above it doesn't follow that Hilda is not adding. It may be that Hilda is in fact doing something perfectly determinate. I just can't know whether she is or not. So it is clear that Ross's argument doesn't get us past the epistemological.

This point ties in with my second complaint about Ross: the double standard. If I can't say for sure that another person is not adding, then by the same token I cannot say for sure that a machine is not adding.*

In  his article, Feser almost makes the same point. Kripke's original point (if I understand it correctly) was, not only can I not be sure what someone else means when they say something, I cannot even be sure what I mean when I say something. That is, even my own thoughts are indeterminate in meaning. Ross obviously doesn't want this conclusion - his own argument relies on one's own thoughts being determinate. Feser points out that (using Frege's conception of meaning) we cannot infer from the external indeterminacy that there is no internal meaning. He writes:

Frege emphasized that the sense of an expression is not a private psychological entity such as a sensation or mental image, any more than it is something material. Thus he would hardly take an argument to the effect that meaning cannot be fixed either by sensations and mental images or by bodily behavior to establish that there is no determinate meaning at all.

But establishing that there is "no determinate meaning at all" is precisely what Ross needs for his argument. So the argument fails.

* Though it is not directly relevant to the argument, I want to point out that the situation is actually worse with respect to the machine than it is with respect to another person. We can open up the machine, trace its circuits or it mechanism or whatever, and deduce what it will do for a given input. With another person, we can only investigate the physical outputs: we can't open up Hilda's brain and trace its circuitry. Well, not yet, at any rate.


  1. "Feser, Ross and I", you mean? :-P

  2. I am reading Ross's original paper now and the only reason I haven't thrown it across the room in exasperation is that it's a pdf.

    I am looking specifically at/for his arguments that we can know humans doing math is determinate in a way that we can know calculators doing math is not. It's like a texbook example of how not to do philosophy.

    When I add up my check deposits at the end of the day at work, I usually pencil-and-paper maybe a dozen 3-5-digit numbers together, then check it on my calculator. If the numbers differ, I go with the latter result.

    How, I want to ask Ross, can I be more confident in the output of process known to be entirely physical than in one alleged to be nonphysical -- and yet the latter be the one that is, beyond any possible doubt, the determinate one?

    1. As anyone who remembers taking a math test in school knows, we can't even be sure we are adding and subtracting. Errors are pretty common. And that's why we invented calculators to begin with.

  3. Ghost, I had the same reaction at first. But (as Feser pointed out to me in his response) the issue here is whether the calculators output is determinate in meaning - not whether it is deterministic in operation.

    Imagine, for instance, an extra-terrestrial who observes you operating your calculator. ET might interpret your calculations as a sort of musical/artistic performance, with the clicking of the keys and the changing of display as the intended output. What Ross would argue is that it's not the physical properties of the calculator that determines the meaning of the output. So (Ross would claim) the issue of which is more accurate is irrelevant.

    1. Another problem is even more fundamental. And there's no easy solution. What do we really mean when we use the term "meaning?" Is this determinate in itself? And what makes it so if it is? It seems to me that unless we define "meaning" precisely we can't even begin to speak about "determinate meaning." After all, all math equations reduce to 0=0. What does it mean to say nothing is nothing?

    2. I agree that the immediate issue is whether calculators are determinate in meaning.

      What I can't seem to find is a clear, consistent criterion which makes it conceivable that an abacus being operated might be a musical/artistic performance, but not conceivable that a mammal shuffling numbers around in its brain and using its meat-whistle to announce a result is not conceivably the same kind of performance.

  4. Hi. New commnenter here. To give you an idea of where I'm coming from, my approach to philosophy is a very naturalised one, combined with a Wittgensteinian view of language. I broadly agree with Daniel Dennett on philosophy of mind.

    I haven't read Ross's paper (from a brief look it seems like very heavy going), but I have a response to Feser's rendition of the argument. Feser summarises Ross's argument as follows:

    (1) All formal thinking is determinate, but (2) No physical process is determinate, so (3) No formal thinking is a physical process..

    Feser suggests that Dennett and some other physicalists would accept premise (2). I doubt that Dennett would accept it in that form. I certainly wouldn't. What I would say is that the meanings of words are generally fuzzy, and so the truth of some utterances about reality is indeterminate, i.e. not fixed by the way reality is. As an example, the distinction between child and adult is fuzzy. For many individuals there is no determinate fact as to whether that individual is a child or an adult. But it would be absurd to call a typical 3-year-old an adult, or a typical 60-year-old a child. The use of language requires judgements to be made, but not all judgements are equally good. Hence our choice to describe some processes one way and other processes another way is not arbitrary. In that sense processes are not completely indeterminate. But let's assume that Feser's "determinate" is meant in an absolute sense, and I'll accept that descriptions of cognitive processes cannot be absolutely determinate. (And let me clarify that I'm not talking about epistemic uncertainty.)

    What about premise (1)? Here the term "formal thinking" requires clarification. We humans produce utterances, some of which are in accordance with formal logic, or even use the language of formal logic. Those utterances are the result of cognitive processes, and perhaps we might choose to refer to those processes as "formal thinking". But, if that's the basis on which we use the term, its use does not commit us to any particular view of what those processes consist of. And it doesn't matter if the language we use to describe those processes is necessarily fuzzy, so that our descriptions of those processes are to some degree necessarily indeterminate.

    We need to distinguish between (a) the abstract principles of formal logic and (b) processes which produce utterances that conform to those principles. I accept that the former are determinate in some sense. But it doesn't follow that the latter must be determinate (in any sense). I think Feser is conflating the two. Computers can be programmed to produce outcomes that conform to the principles of formal logic, including various mathematical operations, so presumably Feser won't deny they can do (b). (Of course current computers are far less sophisticated in their thinking than humans.) What more do we need than (b)?


  5. [...continued]

    Feser writes:

    "For one thing, to defend a rejection of premise (1) will require making use of the very patterns of reasoning the rejecter denies we ever really apply."

    The rejecter doesn't need to deny that. Sure, we humans make use of formal logic. That's just (b).

    I think the word "really" can cause problems here. When the physicalist picture of what's going on in our heads doesn't conform to our instinctive mentalistic picture (assuming we have one), we may be tempted to say that what the physicalist is talking about isn't the real deal. I think that's an unhelpful way of speaking. Ocean waves turned out not to be bodies of water moving laterally (as instinct tells us), but patterns of water moving up and down. This doesn't lead us to say that they're not real waves. In any case, we shouldn't mistake the choice of language for a substantive difference. If you insist on saying that we're not really applying formal logic unless what's going on in our heads conforms to your instinctive mentalistic picture, then call it "schmapplying formal logic" instead. In that case we don't need the application of formal logic, only the schmapplication of it.

  6. Hi, Richard, these are good points. I have thought about attacking Feser's (1), along the same lines as you lay out in your comments. But the consequences of denying (1) are, according to Feser, pretty dire. Let me try to play Feser's advocate for a bit.

    If we are never actually using logic (but, rather, shlogic), then nothing we ever say is true or false. No argument is ever valid, let alone sound.

    This would apply even to your reasoning leading to the conclusion that we are only schmapplying logic. But if you admit that your reasoning is not sound, then why should you have any confidence in its conclusions? So your denial of (1) is self-defeating.

    How would you respond to the above?

    1. "If we are never actually using logic (but, rather, shlogic), then nothing we ever say is true or false. No argument is ever valid, let alone sound."

      Feser is playing a shell game here. The issue isn't whether we can use logic in a deterministic way. The issue is, Is logic meaningful in itself. I say no. No formal logic or language has any inherent meaning any more than a photon traveling through space has any inherent meaning.

  7. Thanks for your reply, Robert. I'm not saying that we don't use logic. I'm saying that, when we use logic, what's going on in our heads may not conform to our instinctive mentalistic picture of what's going on.

    I'd like to add something to what I wrote earlier. The statements of formal axiomatic systems (e.g. maths) are not fuzzy. But out attributions of logical operations to people (e.g. "he's adding") are not themselves statements of axiomatic systems, and they are fuzzy, to varying degrees. I think it's more helpful to speak of fuzziness than indeterminacy, as to say that such attributions are indeterminate can give the wrong impression. The child/adult distinction is fuzzy. But to say that it's indeterminate may sound like one is saying that we can't make any such distinction at all!

    I haven't read Kripke, and I'm not sure what the point of his quadding example was supposed to be. But I would deny that anything very significant can be inferred from it. In general the concept of quadding is irrelevant and it's perfectly sensible to say that people are adding. There's no point in asking whether someone is adding or quadding unless we have in mind some real distinction. The only sensible distinction I can think of is whether the person is making a distinction (whether consciously or not) between cases where the operands are <57 and other cases. In general it's implausible that people are making such a distinction. So it would be misleading to say that they're quadding.

    I think we must always ask in such cases what the language conveys in the given context, and what real distinction is being made, if any. Philosophers are too inclined to come up with weird sentences, or weird contexts, in which it's difficult to make sense of the sentence, and then think that such weird cases tell us something of general interest. That said, weird cases can be useful for exposing the limitations of language.

  8. Feser likes that triangle example. So he used it again. But he points us where he wants to point us so we forget what's at issue in the first place.

    We already know what the Pythagorean theorem is. We've already attached a meaning to a^2+b^2=c^2. Most of us have this meaning hammered into us in high school. But suppose someone fluent in math managed to slip through the system with no knowledge of triangles and the Pythagorean theorem. If he stumbled upon a^2+b^2=c^2 what would he make of it? Would he immediately think, "Yes! Triangles!" Is that one meaning inherent in the equation? I don't think so. There's no clue that a, b, and c refer to sides of an imaginary figure. Equations can be compatible with many meanings. Beyond that, the triangle itself that the Pythagorean theorem represents is not determinate. How big is it? Is it tall and skinny or short and fat. The shape is indeterminate. If we're sent on a treasure hunt and told to bring back something that looks like a^2+b^2=c^2 there's no telling what we'll bring back. So again Feser is holding his example to a different standard of determinacy than the calculator.

  9. Regarding the double standard issue Feser writes:

    "All that is relevant is that if Hilda is in fact adding, it can’t be the physical facts about her alone that metaphysically determine that she is."

    But if the physical facts alone don't determine this, neither does Hilda's "metaphysical" intent. Suppose she does admit she's adding. But suppose a neuron misfires and she writes 9+9=17. Obviously it's an error to us physicalists. But like that calculator with a burnt wire, who are we to say the addition neuron wasn't "programmed" to misfire after so many hours? Or that Hilda wasn't "programmed" to lie?

    Fact is, if we're looking for reliability, we better look at the physical facts alone. And if we're looking for 100% correct addition, we better not take Hilda's word for it. It's our "metaphysical" intent that matters, not the calculator's or Hilda's. That's where Feser's double standard is. We can't necessarily trust what other people say about what they're doing even if they mean it. To us it's just more physical data.

  10. Hi Robert,

    I don't know if the following clarification matters to the disagreement between you and Feser. But I think it's an interesting one.

    You said: "Kripke's original point (if I understand it correctly) was, not only can I not be sure what someone else means when they say something, I cannot even be sure what I mean when I say something. That is, even my own thoughts are indeterminate in meaning."

    I think you're really close to understanding Kripke. However, the claim that I cannot determinately know the content of my thoughts differs from the claim that the contents of my thoughts are indeterminate. The claim about knowledge follows from the claim about thought indeterminacy, but the claim about thought indeterminacy doesn't follow from the claim about knowledge. For clarity, one might name the claim about knowledge of thought, "the inscrutability of thought". One might call the claim about content "the indeterminacy of thought". It's a bit like the difference between seeing a blurry image (a claim about image content) and seeing a sharp image through blurry glasses (a claim about our knowledge of image content).

    Was Kripke's conclusion about knowledge of thought or thought? I take it that his point was about thought itself. The weaker claim about knowledge had, at the time of Kripke's writing, already been made by Quine.

  11. >> the issue here is whether the calculators output is determinate in meaning - not whether it is deterministic in operation.

    I think that's Ed Feser's spin. In the J of Phil article Ross doesn't the word 'meaning' at all.