Monday 20 August 2012

On Conceptually Progressive Propositions

The following remarks were written around 2010 - early 2011, when I was training myself in Wittgenstein's later methods.

1. In some cases where we wonder at the (metaphysical, conceptual) possibility of something, imaginability, conceivability in full detail seems to be close to what is at issue - i.e., whether the thing can be 'worked out'. In other cases however, it is quite different. In other cases, the question is closer to: ought we conceive of this? (This is connected with what I want to call railed vs. unrailed sponteneous concept formation in Wittgenstein's philosophy of math, knowing how to go on vs. discovering how.)

2. An example: suppose someone says that when a cat weaves around someone's legs, they are asserting ownership of this person. (I was actually told this as a child.) We might now consider whether this is so, get puzzled, and then consider whether it is even possible for part of a normal cat's normal behaviour to turn out to amount to an assertion of ownership. Here, it is quite unnatural to think that any kind of conceivability or imaginability (however detailed) is at issue. We have seen the behaviour a hundred times. We can imagine it perfectly well. What, now, does it mean to imagine it being an assertion of ownership? (Furthermore, actually being such an assertion - by which I mean that it does not count to merely imagine that one is dealing with some extraordinary cat who can think and communicate with conventional signals, or indeed anything out of the ordinary.)

3. The assertion that the cat is asserting ownership, and countless others like it, have a special character - it is granted in advance, so to speak, that the cat is not asserting ownership by the usual criteria. Conceptually progressive propositions, but also linguistically progressive propositions. (The former are perhaps well seen as a proper subset of the latter.)

4. One feels like saying: here, a decision is needed (although this is misleading in that no conscious decision is needed, no freedom to decide either way need be felt, etc.).

5. Within such cases, one might distinguish those which as it were call for full-blown (literal?) acceptance, while others are not concerned with that, being, rather, quasi-metaphorical, quasi-analogies. But - and hopefully this is seems trite - there is no clear line between literal truth and analogy, figure, simile, metaphor. However, with the latter, one of the characteristic things is that a decision isn't really needed in the full sense. However, one may still reject or embrace ('work with') the idea, criticize it, modify it, etc.

6. (Simile as a minimal literalization of metaphor - in effect, the literal truth one gets to when one accepts a metaphor as a metaphor. Which isn't to say that all similes are such literalizations, but rather: given an acceptable metaphor, one can get a literally true simile.)

7. An interesting feature of the cat case is that, in a sense, the verification and falsification conditions are already in place. It is already clear that, if one accepts this kind of proposition at all, one will count 'the cat asserted ownership' true when the cat weaved around the person's legs, false otherwise. Obviously it will be a more subtle than that, for many reasons - vagueness about whether weaving took place, the possibility of the cat being in some pathological state which just happens to involve weaving, etc. - but still, the point remains that the working criteria are not the focus of the problem. Reflection on this leads to the comparison of the cat proposition (in its progressive use) with a proposal of the adoption of a norm of expression.

8. Whenever something like that is said (i.e. 'a norm of expression'), it looks as though something important is being skirted over too easily. This is connected with the fact that this is no merely conventional, arbitrary norm of expression. It is highly charged with significance, with meaning. Also: to say it is a norm of expression might suggest that it is not a norm of thought. That thought goes on underneath, and this norm relates to how the thought gets 'put into words'. But the cat case is obviously not like that.

9. To think of a badly treated mechanical device as suffering, feeling sympathy for it - this is a perfectly possible form of thought which, as a matter of fact, ordinary adults do not engage in. (Here my saying 'as a matter of fact' may give a wrong impression, namely that I think it would be 'just as good' to do that, or that we can't say anything against such a viewpoint, etc. But not at all. I'm not getting into that.) 

10. The cat case, and the case of the suffering vacuum cleaner, are interesting partly because they make trouble for a certain oversimplification of the working of language which is, in certain circumstances, natural for us.

11. The oversimplification is something like this: in cases where the working criteria are not an issue, but where judgement one way or the other sets a kind of precedent (for the remainder of a conversation or train of thought (internal monologue), at least), it may look like the issue is 'merely verbal', 'merely pragmatic', or something of the sort. But this is liable to be extremely misleading; it focuses on the comparison of such a case to that of, say, the adoption of a perfectly arbitrary label, to the exclusion of other comparisons. The consequences are very different here from those which follow an arbitrary labelling decision. (Associations.)

12. It is instructive to reflect that sometimes we accept provisionally a conceptual precedent for the purposes of a conversation (or even a private train of thought), but have misgivings about it. We feels, as it were, that quite possibly we can get on OK with it for now, that to start critiquing here might be impractical at this point (e.g. in an involved conversation where we will have to go to bed soon, or get off the phone or something), but that, were the stakes to be raised, so to speak, we would have to try to sort it out.

13. Consider a conversation of this sort. The limitations one characteristically feels in such discussions. (Consider especially the case where your conversation partner doesn't see any difficulty.) Thoughts have potential problems other than falsity! Truths, expressed in a certain way, can be almost false. One almost wants to talk here of a 'higher' kind of truth and falsity, of verification and falsification. (I think Hegel actually does something of this sort at the beginning of his Logic.)

14. 'They believe a machine suffers!' - this could be thought to be an inadequate, misleading statement in a similar way to 'Cantor showed that there are numbers larger than the number of natural numbers' - except in the first case, the thing is rejected as absurd, in the second case, accepted as mind-bogglingly wonderful. (There are, of course, reasons for these different treatments.) In both cases, an extended conception is being regarded from the point of view of a narrower one.

15. ((There is a false note here, interestingly. I feel like saying: no, those who believe that the machine suffers do not have an extended concept, it is we who have a restricted one. We've got more structure, so to speak. We could have a concept similar to but distinct from our concept of suffering, which we apply to machines. Thus we have a sort of distinction where they have none. Or, we could apply something like that more minimal concept across the board, and then add something for the case of "real suffering".))

16. The proposition that a machine suffers could actually be embedded, quite deeply, into a highly sophisticated conceptual framework. The point being: it is not a proposition which can only survive in very primitive or childish systems. One could talk of panprotopsychism (Chalmers), a continuum of organizational complexity, and with it a continuum of suffering. So complex human computers in disorder, on such a view, perhaps suffer about as much as an insect. How far can it be taken? To vacuum cleaners? Hot water bottles? Not the latter. (The human teleology (purpose) of the object, if such there be, would naturally not play any part in its placement on the continuum.)

17. How do we know that rocks aren't incredibly sad? If this is metaphysically impossible, how do we know that? This is another case where imagination seems quite irrelevent. There's nothing to picture except the rock - or one might imagine being sad. Both procedures are clearly idle!

18. I believe that any reason given to think that rocks aren't sad is going to be bunk. What is disturbing here is the strong inclination toward finding such reasons nonetheless. It suggests deep infelicities in our thinking.

Monday 13 August 2012

Changing the Past: An Examination of the Debate

Draft paper from the first half of 2011 here.

Coming soon: a post outlining recent developments in my account of subjunctive or metaphysical necessity. (Preview: A proposition is necessary iff it is, or is implied by, a proposition which is both counterfactually invariant and true. What remains is to explain what I mean by 'proposition' and 'counterfactually invariant'.)