Monday, February 28, 2011

Vallicella on Existence and Completeness

Vallicella says

Why can't there be complete nonexistent objects? Imagine the God of
Leibniz, before the creation, contemplating an infinity of possible worlds, each
of them determinate down to the last detail. None of them exists or is
actual. But each of them is complete. One of them God calls
'Charley.' God says, Fiat Charley! And Charley exists. It is exactly
the same world which 'before' was merely possible, only 'now' it is actual.
I say: if the God of Leibniz is contemplating something, then there is something he is contemplating. And I say that if each of them is determinate down to the last detail, some things are equivalent to them. And if each of them is complete, at least one of them is complete. All of the consequents imply existential statements, and whatever follows from the consequent, follows from the antecedent. I may be wrong, but all of this looks like an elementary example of the quantifier shift fallacy. If it is possible that a unicorn exists, it does not follow that some unicorn is such that it possibly exists. 'Possibly Ex Fx' does not imply 'Ex possibly Fx'.

The very last argument (that the possible world is identical in all respects, save actuality, to the world that actualises it) is similar to an argument that Burley considers in his Questions on the Perihermenias. I will dig it out later, meanwhile I have an old comment on it here.

Wine Dark Sea

In a burst of self-improvement this week I am now halfway through Virgil’s Aeneid, in the Penguin Classics translation by David West. Whenever I read an ancient author I am mindful of Colin Wilson’s claim in The Occult that the ancients were colour-blind, citing Homer’s famous expression ‘wine dark sea’ as proof that ancient people could not distinguish between blue and red. This has always struck me as an astonishing and implausible claim. (1) I’m not an expert, but elementary psychology suggests both that colour blindness has a neurological basis and elementary biology suggests that neurological changes in the human brain take millions of years, not a few thousand years; (2) there are ancient paintings with reasonably accurate colours such as those at Pompeii (3) people wrote about rainbows in the book of Genesis.

Nonetheless I kept a sharp eye out for colour words in Virgil, and it turns out there are a few. Mostly purple, but lots of greens and yellows. Also two references so far to things that have ‘many colours’. The first a flock of birds, the second to the ‘thousand colours of the rainbow’.

As for Homer’s sea, there is a discussion here about whether or why Homer got it wrong. I always took it as a poetic allusion. The sea in the Mediterranean can look like dark wine sometimes, particularly when deep and transparent. In any case, a better translation is ‘wine faced’. There is something else here suggesting that the ancient Greeks did have a limited colour perception - Xenophanes apparently described the rainbow as having three bands of color: purple, green/yellow, and red. But this conflicts with Virgil’s allusion to the ‘thousand colours’ of the rainbow – perhaps it was a Greek vs Roman thing? See also this.

Why I am not reading Virgil in the original Latin? Well I do, but it is hard going. Partly because my Latin vocabulary is limited to technical terms of logic and philosophy – there no colour words in Ockham as I recall. Partly because the Latin poets did not use a natural word order and reading them is a bit like undoing a complex jigsaw puzzle.

On the fact that philosophical and logical vocabulary is so limited, perhaps this supports my claim that the reason for believing in ‘queer objects’ must not be observable or empirical, that arguments for their existence should involve no reference to the observable world. The reason Ockham does not use many colour words is not to do with colour blindness.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Existential import at

Whenever I check the traffic for this blog, I always have a look at the Google queries that got people here. Some of them are quite eccentric, such as people asking whether it will rain tomorrow, and getting this post on future contingents, which they probably didn't want. However, those asking for Existential Import probably got what they wanted. Google ranks this blog #3. As for the second, at, their answer illustrates perfectly the conflation that I discuss here. It says:

Existential Import: The implications of a proposition as to what exists. If a proposition entails the existence of something, then it has existential import. It should be noticed that in the predicate calculus the universal quantification (∀x)(Fx → Gx) has no existential import, since it is true when nothing is F.

This confuses the question of whether (A) a universal proposition like "all dragons are fire-breathing" implies what traditional logicians call the particular or I proposition "some dragons are fire-breathing ", and (B) whether the I proposition "some dragons are fire-breathing" implies the existential proposition "fire-breathing dragons exist". The first part of the definition 'the implications of a proposition as to what exists' is correct. But the second part (that the universal can be true although nothing is F) is too strong. Those of a realist disposition (such as Meinong and possibly the Phoenicians over at camp Vallicella) may hold that 'some things are F' may be true even when no F's exist.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Being, subsistence, existence etc.

Vallicella is still going on about the Intentionality problem. Here is his ‘aporetic triad’ again.

1. We sometimes think about the nonexistent.
2. Intentionality is a relation that ties a thinker to an object of thought.
3. Every relation is such that, if it holds, then all its relata exist.

He wonders (albeit hesitantly) if we can resolve the problem by distinguishing between different ‘modes of being’. He says

Some will be tempted at this point to distinguish between two modes of being,
a strong mode and a weak mode if you will, call them existence and
subsistence. The relations principle could then be reformulated to say
that if a relation R holds, then all of R's relata have being (either exist or
subsist). This seems to allow a solution of our problem. When Tom
thinks about a nonexistent item such as a mermaid, he does indeed stand in a
relation to something, it's just that the item in question subsists rather than
exists. The object of thought has being but does not exist.
But of course we already addressed that problem in a few places, e.g. here. Consider
Tom is thinking about a mermaid, but nothing is a mermaid.

The range of ‘thing’ in ‘nothing’ covers absolutely everything whatsoever – existing objects, objects with being, subsisting objects. ‘Thinking of the nonexistent’ covers even ‘thinking of a non-thing’. A mermaid is not a thing, not any kind of thing, not even a subsisting Meinongian thing, and still Tom can think of a mermaid. Different kinds of existence or being is no good.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On proving logic

Siris has some interesting posts on a method of representing the four types of proposition (universal affirmative, universal negative, particular affirmative, particular negative) but I found it hard going. Propositions are represented by ‘stacking ‘ one term on top of another. But you wouldn’t really understand this unless it were explained that the stacking relation means ‘every’ or ‘some’ or whatever. I.e. this


means ‘every man is an animal’. So, what is the advantage? Since you need the quantifier ‘every’ to explain it, why not just use the quantifier itself? Thomas Reid in his essay on Aristotle’s logic considered a similar method used by Aristotle and his followers to demonstrate the validity of the syllogism (the ‘dici de omni’). But he objects that when the axioms of this method are put in plain English, they does not seem to have that degree of evidence which axioms ought to have. He says

It may even be suspected, that an attempt, by any method, to demonstrate that a
syllogism is conclusive, is an impropriety somewhat like that of attempting to
demonstrate an axiom. In a just syllogism, the connection between the premises
and the conclusion is not only real, but immediate; so that no proposition can
come between them to make their connection more apparent. The very intention of
a syllogism is to leave nothing to be supplied that is necessary to a complete
demonstration. Therefore, a man of common understanding, who has a perfect
comprehension of the premises, finds himself under a necessity of admitting the
conclusion, supposing the premises to be true; and the conclusion is connected
with the premises with all the force of intuitive evidence. In a word, an
immediate conclusion is seen in the premises by the light of common sense; and,
where that is wanting, no kind of reasoning will supply its place.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Aquinas the alchemist?

William Connolley is still hard at work banishing junk science and nonsense from Wikipedia. This edit is very funny. But then I saw the claim in that article about Thomas Aquinas being an alchemist*. This is an idea perpetuated throughout the murkier corners of the internet, but I can see little evidence for it.

Searching the complete works of Thomas for 'alchimicum' or 'alchimicae' yields only two results. The first here, where he says "the sale of a thing does not seem to be rendered unlawful through a fault in its substance: for instance, if a man sell instead of the real metal, silver or gold produced by some chemical (alchimicum) process, which is adapted to all the human uses for which silver and gold are necessary, for instance in the making of vessels and the like". As usual there is the problem of whether he means 'chemical' or 'alchemical' - there is a similar problem with the word 'astrology' as I noted here. But in any case, he is clearly mentioning this as an example - the actual subject of the section is fraud, and whether it is legal or not to sell something that has been transformed into gold by some chemical process.

The only other section I could find was here where he says "Water may cease to be pure or plain water in two ways: first, by being mixed with another body; secondly, by alteration" (aqua suam puritatem et simplicitatem potest amittere dupliciter, uno modo, per mixtionem alterius corporis; alio modo, per alterationem). But again it is merely an example. Of course what he is talking about here is a bit weirder (the transformation of plain water into the blood of Christ). But even there, he is not claiming there is any chemical process going on.

*Now sadly removed by Connolley after I mentioned it, but I am sure someone will put it back, since it says so on the Internet.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Book VII of the Metaphysics

The big one: Thomas' commentary on Book VII of Aristotle's Metaphysics. As with all the commentaries here, it is closely linked to Aristotle's text. In this case, William of Moerbeck's Latin translation from the Greek, in parallel with Ross's English translation from the Greek. The text also includes links to Averroes' commentary on the Metaphysics, in the Latin that translated from the Arabic (from an edition published in Venice in 1562), also links to a 14th century manuscript of William's translation.

Book VII is at the heart of the Metaphysics. It is very difficult to understand. Thomas's commentary is usually very clear, and helps a bit.

Ockham and Brentano-equivalence

I talked about 'Brentano equivalence' a few times, e.g. here. It is the thesis that "some A-B exists" is convertible with "some A is B", and is closely connected with the thesis that existence is not a predicate. Something very similar can be found in Ockham's Summa Logicae, Book III, part 2, chapter 26. Parallel Latin-English below. Note that the similarity is not exact - Brentano also held that 'every A is B' is equivalent to the negative 'no A is not B', or to 'not: something that is A and not-B exists'. Ockham, by contrast, agreed with Aristotle that 'every A is B' is affirmative, and that it implies the particular 'some A is B'.

On the confusion about the 'existential import' of the universal proposition, I have a piece here.

Si autem propositio dubitabilis in qua praedicatur esse exsistere per propositionem de inesse vel de possibili habeat pro subiecto nomen connotativum vel respectivum vel negativum vel unum compositum ex multis nominibus, quandoque potest demonstrari, quandoque non.Now if there is a dubitable proposition in which existential being is predicated by an assertoric or de possibili proposition, and the proposition has for a subject a connotative, relative, or negative name, or one composed from many names, sometimes it can be demonstrated and sometimes it cannot.
Talis enim propositio semper aequivalet uni propositioni in qua praedicatur passio de subiecto, saltem large sumendo passionem. Sicut ista proposito ‘eclipsis est’ aequivalet isti ‘aliquid eclipsatur’; et ista ‘calefactivum est’ aequivalet isti ‘aliquid est calefactivum’; et ista ‘habens tres angulos aequales duobus rectis’ aequivalet isti ‘aliquid est habens tres angulos aequales duobus rectis’.For such a proposition is always equivalent to a single proposition in which an affection is predicated of a subject, at least when we take "affection" broadly. Thus the proposition, "An eclipse exists" is equivalent to "Something is eclipsed"; and "A heatable thing exists," is equivalent "Something is heatable"; and "Something having three angles equal to two right angles exists," is equivalent to "Something is a thing having three angles equal to two right angles."

Friday, February 18, 2011

Sense data according to Hume

Here is a different version of the sense-datum argument from the one you probably learned in the history books.

(1) Although this object looks circular, it is not circular (it's elliptical)
(2) Plates are not elliptical
(3) This object is not a plate
(4) We'll call it a sense-datum
(5) There is nonetheless an actual plate corresponding to the sense-datum.

The argument is valid, unlike the sense-datum arguments parodied and rejected by philosophers like Austin. It starts right away with the premiss that this thing, which you took to be a plate, is not circular at all. It looks circular, but isn't. And if plates are circular, it clearly can't be a plate.

Is the argument sound? Is the first premiss true? Why do we think that the sense-datum is not circular, even though it looks circular? Hume tells us (in connection with a different example, in the Treatise, Book I part iv sec. 2 "Of Scepticism with regard to the Senses") that we come to this 'by reflection' or by 'studied reflection'. Imagination or 'fancy' suggests that the datum is circular, that it is just the way it looks. Reason or reflection tells us that it is not circular. For example, we can look at the datum as an artist sees it and as he represents it in a flat picture, as an ellipse.

The final step of the argument is curious. Why do we suppose there is anything circular there at all? Hume has an interesting theory about this. I paraphrase him as follows. There is naturally an opposition between the two mental forces of imagination and reason, for they are telling us contradictory things. Imagination suggests the datum is circular. Reason and reflection tell us it is not. To set ourselves at ease, we invent a new theory which seems to reconcile both: the philosophical system (i.e. the representative theory of perception) that posits the double existence of the sense-datum and its external object. This satisfies our reason in allowing that the sense-datum is not circular, while agreeing with our imagination in attributing the circularity to something else, which we call an 'object'.

This philosophical system, therefore, is the monstrous offspring of two
principles, which are contrary to each other, which are both at once embrac'd by
the mind, and which are unable mutually to destroy each other.

The imagination tells us, that sense-data have all properties that we commonly suppose them to have (plate sense-data are round, sense-data of straight sticks in the water really are straight). Reflection tells us that they really do not have thise properties. We escape the contradiction between these opinions by a fiction which conforms to both reflection and fancy, by ascribing the contrary features to different things - such as the circularity to the object, the ellipticality to the datum.

Not being able to reconcile these two enemies (reason and fancy), we try "to set ourselves at ease as much as possible, by successively granting to each whatever it demands, and by feigning a double existence, where each may find something, that has all the conditions it desires". Were we fully convinced that the datum was circular we would never run into this idea of a double existence, since we would find satisfaction in the first supposition, without looking any further. Again, if we were fully convinced that the datum was elliptical, we would be as little inclined towards the theory of double existence, since in that case we would clearly perceive the error of the belief that it was circular, and would not bother with it any more.

'Tis therefore from the intermediate situation of the mind, that this opinion
arises, and from such an adherence to these two contrary principles, as makes us
seek some pretext to justify our receiving both; which happily at last is found
in the system of a double existence.

Absolutely my favourite bit of Hume.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Braille eye (thought experiment)

Imagine the following scenario. Instead of light rays, the page of text before me throws out a film consisting of a braille version of the page, which somehow reaches my eye (Lucretius has a similar idea, though without the Braille). Unlike light, this film is solid and can be felt. Inside my eye is a miniature finger that moves across the film until it finds the word it was looking for (for example ‘dog’).

Two questions: (1) what is the proximate object of my search? Is it the film itself, which the miniature fingertip is feeling its way across? Or is it the original text which emitted the film? (2) How actually is this different from the way that my fovea searches the retinal image? The image stays constant and fixed while my retina moves around it – rather as though the fingertip were attached to the eye, and I had to move the whole eye in order to move the fingertip.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Can Google think about dogs?

Vallicella asks here whether a Martian scientist can determine the mental state corresponding to ‘thinking about dogs’ by monitoring the neural state of the thinking person?

And I ask whether a Martian scientist could determine the ‘software content’ corresponding to a search for ‘dogs’ in Google by monitoring the hardware states of the Google search engine. Probably not (see complicated looking picture of inside Google). Do we conclude there is more to Google than what can be known even by a completed computer science?

Drive yourself sane?

From Drive yourself sane: using the uncommon sense of general semantics By Susan Presby Kodish, Bruce I. Kodish. No comment needed.

Since the Aristotelian language structure still dominates our language, let’s
take a look at what it involves. Aristotle’s ‘Laws of thought’ involve three
basic premisses. He proposed that a thing is what it is: A is A. For
example ‘Facts are facts’, ‘A fault is a fault’, ‘An apple is an apple’.
(This is known as the premiss of identity).

He proposed that anything must either be a particular category or class of thing
or not be that thing: Anything is either A or not-A. For example, ‘Something is
either a fact or not a fact.’ ‘Something is either a fault or not a fault.’
‘Something is either an apple or not an apple.’ (This is known as the premiss of
the excluded middle).

He proposed that anything cannot both be a particular thing and not be that particular thing: Something cannot both be A and not-A. For example ‘Something cannot both be a fact and not be a fact’. ‘Something cannot both be a fault and not be a fault’. ‘Something cannot both be an apple and not an apple’. (This is known as the premiss of non-contradiction).

The ‘laws of thought’ made sense in Aristotle’s time, before the microscopes and other instruments which have enabled us to develop modern physical science. Aristotle’s logic also made more sense before knowledge of other cultures and languages enabled us to develop modern social science. When we have only our senses to get our information, we view the world only at the macroscopic level, as described in Chapter 5. When we have only one culture and language which we consider ‘correct’, we view the world only from that point of view. These views support the common sense of a pre-modern-scientific era and ‘metaphysics’.

This pre-modern-scientific sense, as we’ve noted, leads us to sense certain ‘structures’, and therefore assume them as correct; for example, when we look out at the horizon it looks as if the earth ends, which at one time led to assumptions of a flat earth. It leads us to assume that things we can’t sense, like germs, can’t have effects. It leads us to assume that qualities reside in things: ‘This rose is red’. ‘The boy is lazy’. It leads us to assume that the way we and our culture categorise things is the way things are: ‘An apple is an apple’. ‘Psychologists are psychologists’. It leads us to assume that if something happened or someone experience something, some thing must exist to have caused the happening or experience: ‘My boss caused my failure’. ‘Because I’m aware of reading these pages, I must have some ‘thing’, like a ‘mind’, causing that awareness’. It leads us to assume that ‘things’ are separate from what they do.

In sum, following the ARISTOTELIAN ORIENTATION leads us to view the world as static and unchanging. It leads us to assume we can know all. It leads us to assume our categories exist in the world and cannot be changed. It leads us to look for single causes for events. It leads us to evaluate in either/or terms. It leads us to a lack of awareness of our own evaluating process. This orientation so pervades our culture that these ways of evaluating still, for most people, seem like common sense. [ p. 130]

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Korzybski’s Concept Salad

Intrigued that the philosopher Max Black had written about Korzybski (in the concluding chapter of Language and Philosophy, and that Peter Strawson had commented that General Semantics was “a subject which, to judge from the quotations from Science and Sanity, was hardly worth Professor Black's attention”, I had a look for myself. Korzybski’s Collected Writings, 1920-1950 contains a generous dollop of his theories about logic, language, life the universe and everything. The passage quoted below is representative.

As far as I can see, the book is a good example of what I call pseudo-scholarship. What he writes is copiously cited, using an eclectic range of sources from Russell to Wittgenstein to Łukasiewicz, but it hardly shows even a basic understanding of the sources. Why mention the ‘three laws of thought’ in the same chapter as Łukasiewicz? The ‘laws of thought’ formulation was outmoded well before the 1930s, and is not even Aristotelian (Aristotle does not mention the first, for example, and the English rendering of the second two does not capture exactly what he meant). Nor is it true that the second law is a negative statement of the first, nor that the third is a consequence of the first two.

What comes next is even weirder: that we could not properly investigate the semantics of the verb ‘is’ unless we studied all the disciplines he mentions. Logic is generally understood as a propadeutic or preparation for all the sciences, and a basic understanding of the copula ‘is’ is one of the first part of logic (actually the second stage of three, according to Aristotle). Why study colloidal chemistry in order to understand logic? Finally, Korzybski says that this will result in an A_ or non-Aristotelian system. Exactly why, is not clear. But judge for yourselves!

Let me recall the ‘philosophical grammar’ of our language which we solemnly call
the ‘laws of thought’, as given by Jevons.

1. The law of identity. Whatever is, is.
2. The law of contradiction. Nothing both can be, and not be
3. The law of excluded third. Everything must either be, or not be.

These ‘laws’ have different ‘philosophical’ interpretations
which help very little and for my purpose it is enough to
emphasise that: (1) the second ‘law’ represents a negative statement of the
first, and the third represents a corollary of the former two; namely, no third
possible between two contradictories. (2) the verb ‘to be’, or ‘is’, and
‘identity’ play a most fundamental role in these formulations. We should
not be surprised to find that the investigation of these terms may give us a
long sought solution. Such an investigation is very laborious and
difficult. The complete attempt to deal with the term *is* would go to the
form and matter of everything in existence, at least, if not to the possible
form and matter of all that does not exist, but might. As far as it could be
done, it would give the grand Cyclopedia, and its yearly supplement would be the
history of the human race for the time’, said Augustus de Morgan in his *Formal
Logic*, and this opinion I found fully justified.

So I must bebrief, and state but roughly, that in the Indo-European languages the verb ‘to be’ has at least four entirely different uses: (1) as an auxiliary verb, ‘Smith
is coming’; (2) as the ‘is’ of predication, ‘the apple is red’; (3) as the ‘is’
of ‘existence’, ‘I am’; (4) as the ‘is’ of identity, ‘the apple is a fruit’. The
fact that four semantically entirely different words should have one sound and
spelling appears as a genuine tragedy of the race; the more so since the
discrimination between their uses is not always easy.

The researches of the present writer have shown that the problems involved are very complicated and cannot be solved except by a joint study of mathematics,
mathematical foundations, history of mathematics, ‘logic’, ‘psychology’,
anthropology, psychiatry, linguistics, epistemology, physics and its history,
colloidal chemistry, physiology, and neurology; this study resulting in the
discovery of a general semantic mechanism underlying human behaviour, many new
interrelations and formulations, culminating in a A_ system. This semantic
mechanism appears as a general psychophysiological mechanism based on
four-dimensional order, present and abused in all of us, the primitive man, the
infant, the ‘mentally’ ill, and the genius not excluded. [Alfred Korzybski, Collected

Monday, February 14, 2011

More fads and fallacies

The argument about Gardner’s book goes on at Wikipedia. Mostly incoherent ranting, but there was an interesting comment here:

The main arguments given above are that the two critics are biased against the
book and have a POV that shouldn't be considered. Just by putting this out
plainly in itself shows the ridiculousness of the statement. It doesn't matter
at all if the critics are biased against the work, their critique [sic] is still
critique, no matter how incorrect it may be toward the work. Especially
considering the fact that all critics will have a POV, whether it is for or
against a subject. Picking and choosing which critic [sic] comments we should
include (which in terms of the people trying to remove this section above means
only including positive comments toward the work) is something that is
fundamentally against the purpose of Wikipedia and the neutrality we are trying
to achieve. We do not decide which critics' comments to include, we include all
of them.
Leaving aside the confusion between criticism which is biased (which usually means, the critic has some financial, emotional or other non-intellectual reason for making the criticism), and criticism which is plain mistaken, and leaving aside the fact that none of the main arguments referred to has actually claimed that the two critics ‘have a POV that shouldn't be considered’, there is an important point here. Wikipedia editors aren’t allowed to edit on the basis of their own view about what is correct. If I edit an article about the flat earth I can’t let my own view about the shape of the earth obtrude into my contributions. As the comment says, it doesn’t matter if the critics of the boook ‘The Earth is Round’ book are biased against the the work, their criticism is still criticism, no matter how incorrect it may be toward the work.

Now there is a Wikipedia policy called ‘due weight’. This requires that each article fairly represents all significant viewpoints that have been published by reliable sources, in proportion to the prominence of each viewpoint. And it notes that “the article on the Earth does not directly mention modern support for the Flat Earth concept, the view of a distinct minority; to do so would give 'undue weight' to the Flat Earth belief”. But in practice this only works for subjects where the majority view is manifest and obvious. In the case of a book such as Gardner's, which was published more than 50 years ago, giving due weight to criticism is difficult or impossible. As I noted in my earlier post, it is easy for the proponents of junk science to cherry-pick criticism from sources – some of which may even be reliable in the Wikipedia sense (i.e. published in a peer-reviewed journal) – to give the appearance of neutrality.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Parsing problem

An interesting opening to the Wikipedia article on linguistic relativity.

The principle of linguistic relativity is the idea that differences in the
way languages encode cultural and cognitive categories affect the way people
think, so that speakers of different languages will tend to think and behave
differently depending on the language they use.

Any ideas on how to parse that sentence? Probably 'differences' is subject to 'affect', but difficult to tell. On the talk page someone notes that the introduction is messy, and is possibly the result "of different editors putting in different bits of information", but "there also errors in grammar and style". Perhaps that is it.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

General semantics and general nonsense

I have been blocked again, and my changes to the article about Martin Gardner’s best known book reverted. This is all part of a long-running battle I have had with nonsense and junk science in Wikipedia for over three years. I fear that junk science is beginning to win.

I had corrected two claims in the article about Martin Gardner's excellent Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Gardner does not give ‘five common characteristics’ of cranks, as the article said, but only two (although he lists five ways in which the second charateristic – paranoia – is made manifest). And he certainly does not claim, as the article suggested, that we can judge a theory according to the psychological characteristics of its author. On the contrary, Gardner explicitly restricts himself ('except in a few cases') to theories so close to 'almost certainly false' that there is no reasonable doubt about their worthlessness. Thus, Velikovksy’s impossible theory of planetary motion, the flat earth theory, Atlantis, and of course ‘General Semantics’. He is not giving criteria to detemine the correctness of a scientific theory. Rather, he is taking theories that are generally recognized as bunk, and making observations about the people who promote them.

The series of articles on and around ‘General Semantics’ illustrates very well how easy it is for junk science to spread its tentacles through Wikipedia, creating the appearance of a coherent, well-sourced alternative scientific system, even when the reality is general nonsense. The article on General Semantics (not to be confused with actual semantics, please) does not represent the subject for what it is - a poorly organised, verbose, philosophically naive, repetitious mish-mash of sound ideas borrowed from abler scientists and philosophers, mixed with neologisms, confused ideas, unconscious metaphysics, and highly dubious speculations about neurology and psychiatric theraphy, according to Gardner (p. 281). Apart from a small 'criticism' section at the end, it is presented as though it were a serious academic discipline. There are many links to and from the article. For example, from Non-Aristotelian logic, although Korzybski’s rambling have very little to do with anything written by Łukasiewicz’s. From Semantic differential and Structural differential and (naturally) Neurolinguistic programming. Not to forget Map-territory relation and Institute of General Semantics. There is even a whole category for the subject.

Some of these articles are about genuine scientific subjects, with links inserted to give credibility to the junk. Others are just junk. Who can tell the difference?

Gardner, writing in 1952 , had a serious concern about the abandonment of ‘science ethics’ by American publishers in the mid-1950s. What difference did it make if the general public was misled? Gardner replied that it is not at all amusing when people are misled by nonsense and lies masquerading as science. “Thousands of neurotics desperately in need of trained psychiatric care are seriously retarding their therapy by dalliance with crank cults. Already a frightening number of cases have come to light of suicides and mental crack-ups among patients undergoing these dubious cures. No reputable publisher would think of releasing a book describing a treatment for cancer if it were written by a doctor universally considered a quack by his peers".

In 1952 his target was popular publishing. Today we have Wikipedia, an internet publication accessible to billions of readers, regarded by many of them (and by most of the popular media) as a reliable reference source. What would Gardner be doing about it if he were alive now? And who will take his place?

Wednesday, February 09, 2011


Nailed it! At last, I found the passage by Sartre I mentioned to Vallicella the other day. Being and Nothingness, Part Two, Chapter Two (Temporality).

If we study the relations of the past to the present in terms of the past, we
shall never establish internal relations between them. Consequently an
in-itself, whose present is what it is, can not 'have' a past. The examples
cited by Chevallier in support of his thesis, and in particular the facts of
hysteresis, do not allow us to establish any action by the past of matter upon
its present state. There is no one of these examples, in fact, which can not be
explained by the ordinary means of mechanistic determinism. Of these two nails,
Chevallier tells us, the one has just been made and has never been used, the
other has been bent, then straightened by strokes of the hammer; they appear
absolutely similar. Yet at the first blow the one will sink straight into the
wall, and the other will be bent again; this is the action of the past.
According to our view, a little bad faith is needed in order to see the action
of the past in this example. In place of this unintelligible explanation in
terms of being which here is density, we may easily substitute the only possible
explanation: the external appearances of these nails are similar, but their
present molecular structures perceptibly differ. The present molecular state is
at each instant the strict result of the prior molecular state, which for the
scientist certainly does not mean that there is a 'passage' from one instant to
the next within the permanence of the past but merely an irreversible relation
between the contents of two instants of physical time. Similarly, to offer as
proof of this permanence of the past the remanence of magnetization in a piece
of soft iron is not to prove anything worthwhile. Here we are dealing with a
phenomenon which outlives its cause, not with a subsistence of the cause qua
cause in the past state. For a long time after the stone which pierced
the water has fallen to the bottom of the sea, concentric waves still pass over
its surface; here nobody makes an appeal to some sort of action by the past to
explain this phenomenom; the mechanism of it is almost visible. It does not seem
that the facts of hysteresis or of remanence need any explanation of a different


Tim Crane has a great paper here explaining ‘propositionalism’. This the view (some call it “sententialism”) that all reports of intentional states can be analysed as propositional attitude reports. I alluded to this in my last post . If we can analyse ‘Tom is thinking about a unicorn’ as ‘Tom has a thought about a unicorn’ then we can set aside the problem of Tom’s relation to an exotic ‘intentional object’ and talk instead about his thoughts, and their purported relation to such objects.

How does that help? Modern logic already explains how the relational form of a proposition can be explained without invoking exotic objects. Consider

Jake believes there is a gold mine in Surrey
Jake wishes there were a gold mine in Surrey

We are not tempted to invoke such objects because the first sentence, for example, can be analysed as ‘Jake believes that for some x, x is a gold mine and x is in Surrey’. This does not entail the existence of any x. The fact that Jake believes p does not entail that p is true. Now imagine a language where the italicised words above are represented by a single word. For example, suppose that ‘to Ø’ is a verb meaning means ‘to believe there is’. Thus

Elizabeth Ø’s a man in the moon
John Ø’s a golden mountain
The Greeks Ø’d a winged horse

This verb takes a subject (a person) and an accusative or object – a thing whose existence is believed in. Grammatically it appears superficially to relate two objects. For example, the first sentence apparently relates Elizabeth to the man in the moon, a nonexistent object. But its semantics implies no such thing. “Elizabeth Ø’s a man in the moon” simply means that Elizabeth believes there is a man in the moon. Since her belief (as far as we know) is false, it follows that there is no man in the moon. Not even a non-existent man in the moon. We don’t need to invoke queer Intentional Objects to explain why each of the three sentences above is true, even though no man is in the moon, no mountain is golden, and no horse has wings.

Nor do we have to expend much thought to explain why the first inference below, but not the second, is invalid.

Jake Ø’s a gold mine in Surrey, therefore some gold mine is Surrey
Jake owns a gold mine in Surrey, therefore some gold mine is Surrey

The realist wants to explain the difference by invoking different sorts of relation. He may suppose that ‘owns’ is a genuine relation which requires the existence of its relata, whereas ‘Ø’s’ is a queer, intentional relation which, while still a relation, does not require the existence of all of its relata. Nominalists know better. For the inference

Jake believes there is a gold mine in Surrey, therefore some gold mine is Surrey

is clearly invalid. We cannot infer the existence of something from mere belief in its existence. This is the evidence, then, of a deep logical structure for verbs like ‘think’, ‘desire’, ‘know’. They are syntactically simple. But they are (probably) logically complex. This is merely a hypothesis. Possibly there may be some other explanation. But the alternatives (nonexistent objects) are both implausible and illogical.

There are difficulties with propositionalism, as Crane notes in the paper. I will discuss these later.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Thinking about something

The intentionality thread at Vallicella’s has died down a bit. Except for his note here, where he wonders whether to think is always to think of something. Are we thinking of anything when we think, e.g., that that Tom is tired? Yes, he says. If we are thinking that Tom is tired, then we are thinking about Tom, for we cannot think this without thinking of him. And “If I am thinking that nothing is in the drawer, or nobody is at home, then I am thinking about the drawer and the home, respectively.”

Is that right? If I think that nothing is a unicorn, am I thinking about unicorns? More later: I particularly want to follow up the idea I broached here that we can parse ‘Tom has a thought about a unicorn’ in two ways, as follows.

Tom / has / a thought about a unicorn
Tom /has a thought about/ a unicorn

Both are of subject – verb – accusative form, and the subject is 'Tom' in both, but the verbs and accusatives are different. The first verb is ‘has’, and the accusative is ‘a thought about a unicorn’. This seems no exception to our rule that ‘has’ is always non-intentional. Thus the sentence is inconsistent with there being no thoughts about unicorns. The second verb is ‘has a thought about’ and the accusative is ‘a unicorn’. ‘Has a thought about’ is clearly intentional, for the sentence is consistent with there being no unicorns. This suggests we can analyse some (perhaps all) mental states that appear to involve a direct relation between a person and a ‘weird object’ into a relation between a person and a propositional state whose description involves a ‘weird term’. This could make the problem of intentionality tractable. Perhaps. More later.

Blog traffic has soared after the post by William Connolley here. Welcome scientists! What does intentionality have to do with science? Well, quite a lot. Intentionalists like Vallicella believe that when we think, there must be something we think about: an ‘intentional object’. These objects have a weird ontological status that seems difficult to reconcile with materialist theories of mind. (A materialist theory of mind reduces all thoughts, feelings, emotions and all ‘mental states’ in general to physical brain states).

Friday, February 04, 2011

Quantifying over intentional objects

I emphasised earlier that the nominalist must at all cost pre-empt the Intentionalist’s driving a wedge between ‘some thing’ and ‘some existing thing’. This appears to be just what Peter Lupu has done here. Peter agrees that the consequence ‘Tom is thinking of a mermaid, so there are mermaids’ is invalid, but (apparently) for the reason that in the antecedent sentence the term ‘mermaid’ ranges over mermaids thought-of, i.e. intentional mermaids, and so is true. In the consequent, the same term ranges over ‘ordinary objects’, and so is false, and so the consequence is invalid.

There are many reasons against this. Some I have already given. I will repeat them, together with some more.

1. If Peter’s reason is correct, then the consequent of ‘Tom is thinking of an intentional object, therefore there are intentional objects’ is false, as the term ‘intentional objects’ ranges over ordinary objects (intentional objects being weird, not ordinary). But as I argued here and here, it would not be possible for the intentionalist and the nominalist to disagree at all unless they agreed on the meaning of categorical statements like 'no A is B' or 'some A is not B'. When the nominalist says that there aren't any intentional objects, he is denying exactly what the intentionalist asserts when he asserts that there are such things. They both agree that the scope of ‘intentional objects’ includes potentially any kind of objects, queer and straight, and the nominalist is denying there are any queer ones.

2. In ‘Tom is thinking of a mermaid, but there are no such things as mermaids’, the second ‘mermaid’ clearly picks up the scope of the first. So if the first ranges over queer objects, so does the second. But the second denies there are any such things. Indeed, we could leave out the second ‘mermaids’ and just say ‘Tom is thinking of a mermaid, but there is no such thing’, where it is clear that what the second sentence denies the existence of precisely what Tom is thinking of.

3. The sentence ‘Tom wants a cigarette’ does not assert that Tom wants some weird object that ‘a cigarette’ ranges over. No: Tom wants a real cigarette, and the only reason he wants one is because none is there. Intentional cigarettes are so unsatisfying.

4. Similarly in ‘this house lacks a bathroom’, the scope of term ‘bathroom’ does not include a non-existing bathroom. The statement is merely equivalent to the negative statement ‘this house does-not-have a bathroom’.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Willliam Connolley on Existence

I have always used the article ‘Existence’ as a bellwether of progress in Wikipedia. For years I have watched as the article is improved, then degrades, then improves again. The problem is that ‘existence’ is (as Aristotle appreciated) about the most general subject you can get. Wikipedia is awfully bad at general subjects, which do not involve amassing hundreds of little easily verifiable facts, but rather assessing many facts for notability, choosing the notable ones, then presenting them in an organised way with a decent thread that makes for a readable and informative article, rather than a laundry list. The more general the subject, the worse the article, and so the most general subject of all, the summum genus of all genera, is likely to be the worst. And a real stinker, too.

Now William Connolley “British software engineer, writer, and blogger on climate science” has had a go. I generally appreciate Connolley’s contributions to Wikipedia. He has worked hard to reinforce rational and reasonable and ‘scientific’ approach to articles on science and junk science and pseudoscientific nonsense generally, and that is not so bad. But his attempts at improving “Existence” perfectly illustrate the problem when people who are intelligent and articulate but educated in one subject area try to tackle another subject in which they are perhaps not so competent.

I was intrigued by his edit here where he removes a brief discussion of the existential quantifier which explains how mathematicians would express ‘a four-leaf clover exists’ by defining Px as ‘x is clover’, Qx as ‘x has four leaves’ and writing ‘Ex Px & Qx’. This is essentially correct but Connolley removes it with the wonderful comment “this article is essentially entirely about philosophical goo and dribble. lets not taint it with anything like maths”. Oh dear. You learn from even the most basic acquaintance with the history of logic that existence is one of those questions that lie at its core. As I have occasionally said, e.g. here, the question of whether ‘some A is B’ is equivalent to ‘some A-B exists’ was resolved by Brentano, further developed by Peirce and Frege – who were philosophers or mathematicians or both - and that this was an important, perhaps the most important, contribution to the development of ‘mathematical logic’ in the mid-19th century. Even Wikipedia (see e.g. the articles on mathematical logic and particular on the history of quantification) is pretty clear about this.

Another irritation is Connolley’s remark about ‘goo and dribble’ – he means ‘philosophy’. ‘Existence’ is difficult not just because it has a long and complex history in philosophy, with a close affinity to other subjects like philosophy of language, Aristotelian logic and mathematical logic. Like philosophy in general, the subject is connected in the popular imagination with non-scientific subjects like mysticism, meditation, crystals and suchlike. But that is something else. Metaphysica sunt, non leguntur.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Continental to Anglo

David Brightly offers this hilarious translation of Continental philosophy into Anglo-analytic at Bill Vallicella's website here.

In reality every cube has 12 edges. But one could think of a cube without thinking of something that has 12 edges, and indeed without thinking of something that lacks 12 edges. If you know what a cube is, and I ask you, "How many edges does a cube have," you might reply, "I don't know." During this exchange you are most assuredly thinking of a cube, but a cube indeterminate in respect of the property of having 12 edges. What you have before your mind is an incomplete object, one that, because incomplete, cannot exist. Your thought has an intentional object, but it is an object that does not exist.In reality every cube has 12 edges. But one could think of a cube without thinking it has 12 edges, and indeed without thinking that it has edges at all. If you know what a cube is, and I ask you, "How many edges does a cube have," you might reply, "I don't know." During this exchange you are most assuredly thinking of something, but you are neither thinking it has 12 edges nor thinking it has some other number of edges.
Another example. Peter shows up at my door. I note that he is wearing a brown leather vest. Now anything made of leather must be made of cow leather or horse leather or alligator leather or . . . . But the leather vest that is before my mind as the object of my visual experience is indeterminate with respect to type of leather. What is before my mind is an intentional object.Another example. Peter shows up at my door. I note that he is wearing a brown leather vest. Now anything made of leather must be made of cow leather or horse leather or alligator leather or . . . . But I don't know of what kind of leather the vest I can see is made. What I can faithfully say about the vest is severely limited.
Peter's vest is brown, and in reality everything brown is colored. But the intentional object of my visual experiencing is brown but not colored. Extracting the principle, we may erect the following thesis:Peter's vest is brown, and everything brown is coloured. But though I think of the vest as brown I don't at this moment think of it as coloured. Extracting the principle, we may erect the following thesis:
Non-Closure Under Property-Entailment: Intentional objects, reflecting as they do the finitude of the human mind, are not closed under property-entailment.Non-Closure Under Property-Entailment: We can't know everything about a thing and at any moment there can be aspects of it that we are not thinking about. If an X is a Y and I'm thinking about an X it doesn't follow that I'm thinking that it is a Y.
It follows from this principle that no merely intentional object exists. (For everything that exists is complete.) But that is not to say that they are denizens of Meinong's realm of Aussersein. Talk of merely intentional objects does not commit one to Meinongianism. One could take the line that merely intentional objects are "ontically heteronomous" to borrow a phrase from Roman Ingarden: their existence is parasitic upon the existence of the mental acts whose intentional objects they are.