Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Arizona Bill commits the existential fallacy

In a post today, Maverick Bill talks about fictional and incomplete objects again, which reminds me of an idea that originally occurred to me in February 2011, and which I developed in a series of posts on logical intransivity.

The idea was that there are certain verbs – I call them logically intransitive – which take a grammatical but not a logical accusative. Let me explain. In the sentence ‘Tom is looking for a wife’ the verb ‘wants’ is logically intransitive. It clearly has a grammatical accusative (‘a wife’), but there is no object corresponding to that term, i.e. the sentence can be true (Tom really is looking for a wife) without there being any person or wife to whom the term corresponds. Clearly so, for Tom would not be looking for one, if he had already found her. By contrast ‘Tom has found a wife’ is logically transitive. It cannot be true unless there is someone to whom ‘a wife’ corresponds.

I developed the idea as follows. There is a certain species of bad philosophy which proceeds by taking sentences which are not existential with respect to their accusative, because of logically intransitive verbs, and converting them into sentences which are existential with respect to the same accusative. This typically happens in two ways.

(1) By converting a logically intransitive verb phrase into a logically transitive one. For example by translating ‘Tom is thinking of a mermaid’ into ‘Tom stands in the relation ‘thinking of’ to some mermaid’. Clearly the first sentence does not imply the existence of mermaids because of the logically intranstive ‘is thinking of’. But the second does, because of the transitivity of ‘stands in the relation ‘thinking of’ to’. Bill commits this fallacy here when he argues “When Tom thinks about a nonexistent item such as a mermaid, he does indeed stand in a relation to something”.

(2) By converting a sentence from a passive to an active form, so that the object of the logically intransitive verb becomes its subject. Since subject terms (generally, not always) are existential, the sentence when converted implies existence, whereas before converted is does not. Both of these are specific versions of the existential fallacy, i.e. arguing from premisses which are not existential to a conclusion which is existential.

Arizona Bill’s blog is a wonderful and rich mine for instances of the fallacy. In today’s post there are at least three. In the first set of sentences below, the verbs ‘want’ and ‘imagine’ are clearly intransitive, and to not imply the existence of any table.

(A1) I want a table, but there is no existing table that I want
(A2) I want a table with special features that no existing table possesses.
(A3) In the first case I imagine the table as real; in the second as fictional.

In the next three sentences, he converts grammatical object to grammatical subject, in order to imply the existence of the wanted or imagined objects.

(B1) The two tables I am concerned with, however are both nonexistent.
(B2) There is a merely intentional object before my mind.
(B3) The table imagined as real is possible due to its ontic character of being intended .

Of course, this leads to the inconsistency of implying the existence of a non-existent object. In (B1) above, he asserts the existence of the tables by the apparently referring subject term ‘the tables’, then denies it using the predicate ‘non existent’. Bill usually evades this, when he can be bothered to, by claiming there are two sorts of existence.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Appeals to phenomenology

IN his latest post on ‘pure ficta’, Arizona Bill wheels out what looks like an argument from revelation.
If Ed denies that there are merely intentional objects, then he is denying what is phenomenologically evident. I take my stand on the terra firma of phenomenological givenness. So for now, and to get on with it, I simply dismiss Ed's objection. To pursue it further would involve us a in a metaphilosophical discussion of the role of phenomenological appeals in philosophical inquiry.
Well, it probably would involve us in such a discussion, and I wouldn’t want to go there, correct. I don’t recognise the validity of any kind of appeal to revelation in strictly philosophical enquiry.
None of these men [the pre-Socratics], it is to be noted, tried to answer these questions by an appeal to any revelation, to myth, or religious knowledge of any kind; but attempted to extract the answer by using their reason; and they used it almost without reference to sensible observation and experiments. Why was this ? Clearly because they were convinced that the thing they sought lay deeper in the heart of the world than the superficial aspect of things, of which alone the senses could tell them. (Modern Thomistic Philosophy, R.P. Phillips, London 1934)
But is Bill really making such an appeal? I don’t think so. He is actually appealing to premisses which are uncontroversial, such as our ability to create fictional characters, imagine centaurs etc, and then arguing from such uncontroversial premisses to a more controversial conclusion. So it’s a matter of logic, not ‘phenomenological appeal’. The argument looks like this:
(1) You cannot write or understand a story without thinking about various fictional characters. (2) When you create a fictional character, you bring before your mind an intentional object. (3) The existence of such intentional objects is therefore phenomenologically evident.
I can buy the first premiss. The second I can understand only figuratively. What is an intentional object? The third I reject. It is bizarre to make an existence claim about things which purportedly do not exist, and such existence is far from evident. It’s a neat example of the fallacy of logical intransitivity. You start with a premiss containing a logically intransitive verb, such as ‘imagine’, ‘desire’ and so on. A logically transitive verb is one which takes a grammatical accusative but not a logical one. The accusative of the sentence ‘Jake wants to marry a mermaid’ is ‘a mermaid’, but the sentence is consistent with ‘nothing is a mermaid’. A logically transitive verb, by contrast, requires a real object. The truth of ‘Jake married a mermaid’ requires that some person is such that she was married by Jake. The fallacy consists in drawing a conclusion that contains a logically transitive verb, and which for that reason is existential. The fallacy is a specific instance of the more general existential fallacy, in which we erroneously draw an existential conclusion from non-existential premisses.

Over to you Bill.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

On the mode of being of poets

Arizona Bill has some more ideas about modes of being here, so we can pick up where we left off last year (see modes of being of hobbits). Bill picks up on a passage from Scotus’s Ordinatio cited by Lukas Novak (Ord. I, dist. 36, q. un., n. 46 (ed. Vat. VI, 289). The Latin is from the Logic Museum, the English from Bill’s post.

[46] Et si velis quaerere aliquod esse verum huius obiecti ut sic, nullum est quaerere nisi 'secundum quid', nisi quod istud 'esse secundum quid' reducitur ad aliquod esse simpliciter, quod est esse ipsius intellectionis; sed istud 'esse simpliciter' non est formaliter esse eius quod dicitur 'esse secundum quid', sed est eius terminative vel principiative, ita quod ad istud 'verum esse secundum quid' reducitur sic quod sine isto vero esse istius non esset illud 'esse secundum quid' illius.And if you are looking for some “true being” of this object as such [viz. of the object qua conceived], there is none to be found over and above that “being in a qualified sense”, except that this “being in a qualified sense” can be reduced to some “being in an unqualified sense”, which is the being of the respective intellection. But this being in an unqualified sense does not belong to that which is said to “be in a qualified sense” formally, but only terminatively or principiatively — which means that to this “true being” that “being in a qualified sense” is reduced, so that without the true being of this [intellection] there would be no “being in a qualified sense” of that [object qua conceived].

The puzzle about the ‘being’ of objects of thought was a common topic in medieval literature and there were many attempts at solving it. Peter of Cornwall has a go at it here. (The English translation is my hurried attempt).

Sed nomen accidentis aliquando repraesentat aliquid in opinione secundum Aristotelem; ut ‘Homerus est aliquid, ut poeta’, hic ‘poeta’ repraesentat aliquid in opinione, quia secundum Aristotelem Homerus est poeta non sequitur ‘ergo Homerus est’. Ergo nomen substantiae potest aliquid repraesentare in opinione. Ergo sic dicendo ‘Caesar est homo’ potest ly ‘homo’ stare pro homine in opinione. Et sic erit vera.But the name of an accident sometimes represents something in opinion according to Aristotle [De. Int. 11 21a25sqq]. For example ‘Homer is something, namely a poet’ – here ‘poet’ represents something in opinion, for according to Aristotle, Homer is a poet, but ‘Homer exists [est]’ does not follow. Therefore the name of a substance can represent something-in-opinion. Therefore when we say ‘Caesar is a man’, the word ‘man’ can stand for a man-in-opinion, so it will be true” Note that according to the medievals, past objects such as Caesar or Homer no longer exist.

Bill objects that this kind of thing is a form of ‘psychologism’.
For if the being of the purely intentional object reduces to the being of the act, then the purely intentional object has mental or psychic being -- which is not the case. The object is not a psychic content. It is not the act or a part of the act; not is it any other sort of psychic reality.
According to this objection, Homer is a poet and a man, and not an opinion or an intellection. I reply, Homer as conceived or as represented or as the object of opinion is a man. And ‘Homer’ stands for a man as the object of opinion, or as Peter Cornwall says ‘man in opinion’. So this trivial objection to the view does not stand. Whether it withstands deeper scrutiny is a more difficult question. Ockham has a more sophisticated view, see here, p. 366, by distinguishing the mode of reference or ‘supposition’ of words like ‘chimera’. Is the sentence ‘a chimera is understood’ or ‘thought about’ true or false? Ockham says that if the term ‘chimera’ is read as having ‘personal supposition’, so that the sentence is true if ‘chimera’ is satisfied by something in reality which is thought about, then if it false. But if it is read as having ‘simple’ or ‘material’ supposition, i.e. as referring to language or concepts, then it is true. For Ockham’s understanding of supposition theory, see here.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Macaulay on Scholastic logic

“Mr. Mill is exactly the writer to please people of this description. His arguments are stated with the utmost affectation of precision; his divisions are awfully formal; and his style is generally as dry as that of Euclid’s Elements. Whether this be a merit, we must be permitted to doubt. Thus much is certain: that the ages in which the true principles of philosophy were least understood were those in which the ceremonial of logic was most strictly observed, and that the time from which we date the rapid progress of the experimental sciences was also the time at which a less exact and formal way of writing came into use.

“The style which the Utilitarians admire suits only those subjects on which it is possible to reason a priori. It grew up with the verbal sophistry which flourished during the dark ages. With that sophistry it fell before the Baconian philosophy in the day of the great deliverance of the human mind. The inductive method not only endured but required greater freedom of diction. It was impossible to reason from phenomena up to principles, to mark slight shades of difference in quality, or to estimate the comparative effect of two opposite considerations between which there was no common measure, by means of the naked and meagre jargon of the schoolmen. Of those schoolmen Mr. Mill has inherited both the spirit and the style. He is an Aristotelian of the fifteenth century, born out of due season. We have here an elaborate treatise on Government, from which, but for two or three passing allusions, it would not appear that the author was aware that any governments actually existed among men. Certain propensities of human nature are assumed; and from these premises the whole science of politics is synthetically deduced! We can scarcely persuade ourselves that we are not reading a book written before the time of Bacon and Galileo,—a book written in those days in which physicians reasoned from the nature of heat to the treatment of fever, and astronomers proved syllogistically that the planets could have no independent motion,—because the heavens were incorruptible, and nature abhorred a vacuum!” [Edinburgh Review, March 1829]


Friday, July 26, 2013

Philosophical naivety

Attentive readers of this blog will know that I have been working on a book about Wikipedia for the past year. As part of the background research, I have been reading Lewis Hyde’s book Common as Air. The following passage deserves quoting in full:
The British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion once addressed himself to the puzzle of how to psychoanalyze a liar and at one point in his argument he makes this striking claim: "The lie requires a thinker to think. The truth, or true thought, does not require a thinker—he is not logically necessary."
What can this mean? Bion compares the working psychoanalyst to a scientist, and in the case of science the point would seem to be that truths of the natural world are independent of the particular people who conceive of them. If Franklin and his friends were right that electrical charges always appear in equal and opposite amounts, the correctness of the insight would still exist had they never been born. Once the Leyden jar had been invented, someone else would have soon come upon this truth. Similarly, once Franklin declared his idea, anyone else could do the experiments in question and arrive at the same conclusion. Of "work that corroborates the discovery of others," Bion writes, "even if it requires a thinker it does not require a particular thinker and in this resembles truths—thoughts that require no thinker." Human minds in general are where such thoughts appear, but these thoughts do not depend on any one such mind.
The point gains clarity by way of its opposite: "The lie and its thinker are inseparable," Bion writes. "The thinker is of no consequence to the truth ... In contrast, the lie gains existence by virtue of the epistemologically prior existence of the liar." Lies require a liar, and as such they say something about the liar, they are thus better fitted than truths to the task of gratifying the self-regard or narcissism of the individual who makes them. Any work that simply replicates a truth known to others lacks narcissistic appeal. No "I" can get much from it. When it comes to truth, however, as the poet Rimbaud wrote, "it is wrong to say: I think. One should say: I am thought"
Eighteenth-century thinkers might have framed ideas such as these not so much in terms of truth versus lies as of truth versus opinions. Opinion, in Franklin's day, acted as a sort at middle term between truth and error, denoting any belief that was not yet, or could never be, confirmed by sense experience, experiment, and reason. Like lies in Bion's view, opinions reside with particular peoples in particular places. Englishmen in London observe the first day of the week as their day of worship, Turks in Constantinople observe the sixth: there may be truth in one case and error in the other, but no experiment or line of logic will tell us which is which. True knowledge, on the other hand, does not suffer the contingency of opinion. Lightning is electricity no matter if it is described by Dalibard in Paris or by Franklin in Philadelphia. As Newton suggested in his "Rules of Reasoning in Philosophy", the cause of the tailing of stones should be the same "in Europe and in America"; the cause of "the reflection of light* should be die same "on our earth and the planets."
Opinions can never be detached from persons and places in that way. More to the point, because they require a thinker, as Bion says of lies, opinions are potentially divisive. Truth, needing no particular embodiment, can lead to concord; opinion, on the other hand, produces sects and tactions, and makes it difficult to move from any group of private selves to "the public good."
What is he on about? It is a wonderful example of “the confusions and absurdities of scientists and science journalists when they encroach ineptly upon philosophical territory”, as Vallicella neatly puts it (although Hyde is not a scientist, but a professor of creative writing). Taking the points in turn.

“… truths of the natural world are independent of the particular people who conceive of them”. Of course, but so are falsehoods. It is false that the earth is flat, and it is false that the moon is made of green cheese. These falsehoods are equally independent of the particular people who conceive of them. And yes, the correctness of the insight that electrical charges always appear in equal and opposite amounts would still exist had Franklin never been born. But equally, the claim that there is substance with negative weight that is released during combustion would be incorrrect, even if the inventor of the phlogiston theory (Johann Becher ) had never been born. If Hyde means that truth is mind-independent in some way that falsity is not, he is wrong. Both are mind-independent.

“.. once Franklin declared his idea, anyone else could do the experiments in question and arrive at the same conclusion”. Certainly, but the essential repeatability of scientific experiments is based on certain assumptions about causality, to which logical and epistemological issues are irrelevant. Certain true or false claims can be tested by experiment. Others cannot, e.g. claims about life after death, claims about parts of the universe which we could never possibly observe.

“Human minds in general are where such thoughts appear, but these thoughts do not depend on any one such mind”. False. Any thought depends on a thinker, and any thinker must have a mind. What Hyde probably means is that the truth of such thoughts is mind-independent. Sure, but as noted above, the falsity of such thoughts is mind-independent too.

“Lies require a liar, and as such they say something about the liar, they are thus better fitted than truths to the task of gratifying the self-regard or narcissism of the individual who makes them”.  To start with, this confuses lying with falsehood. A lie is an utterance known to be false, uttered with the intention to deceive. An actor is not a liar (not having the intention to deceive). One who utters a falsehood in good faith is not lying (because he or she does not realise it is a falsehood). And why shouldn’t truths be equally well-fitted to gratify self-regard? We often assert things we believe to be true in order to increase the esteem or regard in which others hold us. Why should truth be privileged over falsehood in this respect?

“… as the poet Rimbaud wrote, "it is wrong to say: I think. One should say: I am thought" ” It is unclear how this observation about thinking relates to truth and falsehood. If I think that the earth is flat, can’t I equally say that ‘I am thought’?

“Eighteenth-century thinkers might have framed ideas such as these not so much in terms of truth versus lies as of truth versus opinions.” The definition of opinion that he attributes to Franklin is idiosyncratic, and does not seem true of other eighteenth-century thinkers (Hume? Reid? Adam Smith?)

“… opinions are potentially divisive” Why? Is he suggesting that the truth is somehow privileged, that, merely as truth, it has some inherent power denied to error? I discussed Mill’s view on that here. “A piece of idle sentimentality”, Mill says, “which all experience refutes”.

Monday, July 22, 2013

On Folly

From the memoirs of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than evil. One can protest against evil; it can be unmasked and, if need be, prevented by force. Evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction, as it makes people, at the least, uncomfortable. Against folly we have no defense. Neither protests nor force can touch it; reasoning is no use; facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved—indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. So the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied; in fact, he can easily become dangerous, as it does not take much to make him aggressive. A fool must therefore be treated more cautiously than a scoundrel; we shall never again try to convince a fool by reason, for it is both useless and dangerous.
If we are to deal adequately with folly, we must try to understand its nature. This much is certain, that it is a moral rather than an intellectual defect. There are people who are mentally agile but foolish, and people who are mentally slow but very far from foolish—a discovery that we make to our surprise as a result of particular situations. We thus get the impression that folly is likely to be, not a congenital defect, but one that is acquired in certain circumstances where people make fools of themselves or allow others to make fools of them. We notice further that this defect is less common in the unsociable and solitary than in individuals or groups that are inclined or condemned to sociability. It seems, then, that folly is a sociological rather than a psychological problem, and that it is a special form of the operation of historical circumstances on people, a psychological by-product of definite external factors. If we look more closely, we see that any violent display of power, whether political or religious, produces an outburst of folly in a large part of mankind; indeed, this actually seems to be a psychological and sociological law: the power of some needs the folly of the others. It is not that certain human capacities, intellectual capacities for instance, become stunted or destroyed, but rather that the upsurge of power makes such an overwhelming impression that men are deprived of their independent judgment, and—more or less unconsciously—give up trying to assess the new state of affairs for themselves. The fact that the fool is often stubborn must not mislead us into thinking that he is independent. One feels in fact, when talking to him, that one is dealing, not with the man himself, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like, which have taken hold of him. He is under a spell, he is blinded, his very nature is being misused and exploited. Having thus become a passive instrument, the fool will be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. Here lies the danger ot a diabolical exploitation that can do irreparable damage to human beings.