Monday, 24 August 2009

Williamson Interview

I came across this interview of Timothy Williamson by 3:AM Magazine (via Nothing of Consequence). Here are two questions from the interview, both of a meta-philosophical nature, that I found particularly interesting:

3:AM: In your last book you again insinuate yourself into contemporary philosophical thought and say that not only has it made errors but it has actually taken a disastrous wrong turn. You call this the ‘linguistic turn’, which develops into ‘the conceptual turn’. This is radicalism without a hat. Could you briefly outline the main argument that philosophy that thinks that its sole job is to analyse language/concepts is wrong and why this is such an important point?

TW: The linguistic turn and the conceptual turn took many different forms. All of them were, in one way or another, responses to a methodological challenge to philosophy that the development of modern experimental science has made more and more urgent: how can philosophers expect to learn about the world without getting up out of their armchairs to see what it’s actually like? The idea was that whatever philosophers have to do, they can do on the basis of their understanding of their native language, or perhaps of some ideal formal language, or their grasp of the corresponding concepts, both of which they already have in the armchair. In some sense philosophical questions are linguistic or conceptual questions, either because they are about our own language or thought, or because they are the kind of questions that can be answered from principles that we implicitly accept simply in understanding the words or grasping the concepts. In reply, I argue that the attempts to rephrase philosophical questions as questions about words or concepts are unfaithful to what contemporary philosophers are actually interested in. For example, philosophers of time are interested in the underlying nature of time, not just the word ‘time’ or our concept of time. As for the principles that we implicitly accept simply in understanding words or grasping concepts, I argue that there aren’t any. A language is a forum for disagreement; contrary to what many philosophers have thought, it doesn’t impose an ideology. People who take wildly unorthodox views, even about logic, are not ‘breaking the rules of English’. Although the linguistic turn and the conceptual turn involve radical misconceptions of philosophy, in my view, I don’t regard them as avoidable accidents. Probably they were stages that philosophy had to go through; we can only determine their limitations if lots of able people are doing their utmost to defend them. But by now we can see their limitations. As an alternative, I show how we can answer the methodological challenge to armchair philosophy without taking the linguistic or conceptual turn. For example, thought experiments, which play a central role in contemporary philosophy, involve offline applications in the imagination of cognitive skills originally developed through online applications in perception. Those skills go well beyond the minimum required for understanding the words or grasping the concepts. Our ability to perform thought experiments is really just a by-product of our ability to answer non-philosophical questions of the form “What would happen if …?” Philosophy is much more like other forms of inquiry than philosophers have often pretended.

And the second question, which I'm sure will get a few people worked up:

3:AM: Many of my friends are Wittgensteinians, others phenomenologists. Should they stop?

TW: It would be unhealthy as well as boring for philosophy if everyone did it in the same way. We need a wide gene pool of ideas and methods. Nevertheless, some ideas and methods are better than others. When it comes to writing the history of twentieth century philosophy, the works of Wittgenstein, Husserl and Heidegger will presumably remain major texts, given their originality and vast influence. But from a historical point of view, it also seems clear that in recent decades the Wittgensteinian and phenomenological traditions have not adequately renewed themselves. Although books continue to be published in both traditions, they are recycling old ideas rather than engaging with new ones. Part of the attraction of such a tradition for its adherents is that it constitutes an intellectual comfort zone in which they are given pseudo-justifications for not bothering to learn new ways of thinking. At their best, the Wittgensteinian and phenomenological traditions share the virtue of patient, accurate description of examples. In that respect the analytic tradition has learned from them, I hope permanently. But once the examples started giving results that didn’t suit them, Wittgensteinians retreated into their dogmatic theoretical preconceptions while pretending to do the opposite. As for phenomenology, if a phenomenological description of experience is one that mentions only facts the subject knows at the time, fine. But it shouldn’t be confused with a description of facts about appearances, since one often knows facts that go beyond them. You can know that you are seeing a computer screen, not just that you seem to be seeing a computer screen. I argue in Knowledge and its Limits that the privileging of appearances results from the fallacy of assuming that we must have a cognitive home.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

A Counterexample to Setiya

In his book, Reasons Without Rationalism, Keiran Setiya posits the following necessary truth about intentional action:
Belief: When someone is acting intentionally, there must be something he is doing intentionally, not merely trying to do, in the belief that he is doing it.

Setiya’s requirement builds on Anscombe’s insight that “intentional actions are ones to which a certain sense of the question ‘why?’ has application.”(Anscombe [2000], Intentions. p. 11, §6.) In specifying precisely what that sense is, Anscombe notes that “this question is refused application by the answer: ‘I was not aware I was doing that’.” (Ibid.) Setiya takes this to suggest a conception of intentional action according to which an agent must know that she is performing a certain action in order to count as performing that action intentionally. Thus, we arrive at what may be called the Strong Knowledge Requirement for intentional action:
Strong Knowledge Requirement: For all agents, φ, if an agent is φ-ing intentionally then that agent knows she is φ-ing.
However, after considering Davidson’s example of the teacher who is intentionally making ten carbon copies as he writes even though he is unsure that he is pressing hard enough to successfully do so, Setiya concludes that the Strong Knowledge Requirement is unsound. Since there are times we do not know that we are successfully performing an action we are intentionally performing, such knowledge cannot be a necessary condition for intentional action.

The first revision Setiya makes to Anscombe is to switch from a knowledge to a belief requirement. This yields what may be called the Strong Belief Requirement for intentional action:
Strong Belief Requirement: For all agents, φ, if an agent is φ-ing intentionally then that agent believes she is φ-ing.
However, as Setiya acknowledges, the Strong Belief Requirement does little better than the Strong Knowledge Requirement vis-a-vis the carbon copy case. Insofar as the carbon-copier is unsure about whether or not he is making ten copies, he does not believe that he is making ten copies. Setiya therefore proposes a second modification to the Strong Knowledge Requirement. He claims that to count as φ-ing intentionally, one need not believe that one is φ-ing. One only needs to believe that one is performing some action ψ, where ψ is either identical with φ or an intentional action one is performing with the end of φ-ing. Moreover, he holds that one’s belief that one is ψ-ing must be true; to wit, ψ must be an action one is actually performing rather than merely attempting to perform. Thus, we arrive at what I take to be Setiya’s considered position with respect to intentional actions:
Moderate Belief Requirement: For all agents, φ, if an agent is φ-ing intentionally then that agent believes truly that she is ψ-ing, where ψ-ing is either identical to φ-ing or an intentional action performed with the end of φ-ing.
It should be clear that the Moderate Belie Requirement is nothing but a restatement Belief. This revision of Anscombe's (alleged) Strong Knowledge Requirement allows Setiya to successful address the carbon copy case since there is an intentional action (i.e., pressing hard while writing) that the carbon-copier believes truly that he is performing, and which is performed with the end of producing ten copies.

I wish to argue that Belief fails to capture a necessary truth about intentional action. To this end, I will be attempting to construct a counterexample to Belief; a case in which we would plausibly regard an agent as acting intentionally even though the agent fails to meet the necessary condition it specifies.

The Prosthetic Limb Example*:
Consider the case of an arm-amputee, Jesse, who has a thought-controlled prosthetic arm grafted to his shoulders. Let us suppose that Jesse has to demonstrate the functionality of his thought-controlled arm to a Research and Development panel. However, just before the demonstration, Jesse gets an anonymous letter saying that the researchers, out of fear that their funding will be cut, have conspired to trick him into thinking that his prosthetic arm is functioning properly even though it is not. According to the anonymous letter, the researchers will ask Jesse to perform a number of tasks and observe him closely for an indication that he is about to perform the requested action. Then they will remotely cause the arm to perform the various tasks using a wireless signal from a computer. Thus, according to the anonymous letter, while it would appear to him that he is controlling his prosthetic arm with his thoughts, it will actually be the researcher’s computers that will be determining the arm’s movements.

However, let us suppose that (unknown to Jesse) the anonymous letter is completely unreliable, and that the researchers have concocted no such plot. All the movements his prosthetic arm makes are in fact being caused by his thoughts rather than by the scientist. As he is standing before the panel, a ball is thrown towards Jesse and he catches it with his prosthetic arm. He is then asked to throw the ball, and he complies. Moreover, let us assume that the thought process preceding the movement of the thought-controlled arm are of the same kind as that which would precede the movements of Jesse’s normal (i.e., non-prosthetic) arm. However, since he is unsure about the reliability of the anonymous letter, Jesse remains unsure that it is his thoughts that are causing the arm to catch the ball. Even as he is performing the action he can’t help but wonder if it is actually the researchers who are controlling the arm’s movements with a remote device. In short, there is no action (i.e., moving his arm, catching the ball, throwing the ball) that Jesse believes he is performing. Still, it seems perfectly natural to say that Jesse caught and threw the ball and that he did so intentionally. The upshot is that, contra Belief, Jesse intentionally catches and throws the ball even though there is no action that he believes he is performing.

There are two strategies for resisting the unpropitious consequences of the Prosthetic Limb Example that appear worth considering:
(Strategy 1): Argue that Jesse has not performed an intentional action when he catches or throws the ball.

(Strategy 2): Grant that Jesse has performed an intentional action, but argue that there is an intentional action that he believes he is performing with the end of catching and throwing the ball.
I believe that (Strategy 1) is moribund. Firstly, we may say that Jesse either intended to catch and throw the ball, or he did not so intend. These exhaust all the relevant possibilities. Now, it seems highly implausible to say that Jesse did not intend to catch the ball. Clearly, his catching and throwing the ball was no accident. Nor was it the side-effect of some other action Jesse was performing. Moreover, we may safely assume that Jesse went before the panel with the intention of performing the various tasks asked of him (even if he was unsure he would be the one performing them). Additionally, when the ball was thrown towards him, it is clear that Jesse meant to catch it; this was the goal he had in mind when he moved his prosthetic arm to intercept it. Once it has been acknowledged that Jesse intended to catch and throw the ball, it is natural to regard his intention as the cause (in the broadest sense of the term) of his arm’s movements. In fact, since (ex hypothesi) the arm’s movements are not being controlled by the researchers, it is unclear what other explanation there could be of his catching and throwing the ball besides Jesse’s intention to catch and throw it.

Secondly, suppose it is later revealed to Jesse that the anonymous letter was unreliable and that he was actually controlling the movements of the prosthetic arm. In such a case, I believe we can imagine Jesse thinking to himself, “so I did catch the ball after all!” In other words, it is plausible that Jesse would take ownership of the action in the way one would take ownership of something one intentionally performed. Moreover, it would be implausible to suggest that Jesse’s belief that he performed the action retroactively made his action intentional. Jesse’s belief does not change the (metaphysical) status of his action from unintentional to intentional; at most, it changes his knowledge of the action’s status. Thus, we must conclude that Jesse’s actions were intentional all along, if we are to hold that it is intentional at all. It follows that Jesse’s actions were intentional even when he did not believe he was performing them.

According to (Strategy 2), there is in fact some intentional action that Jesse believes he is performing—namely, whatever thoughts caused the movement of his thought-controlled prosthetic arm. Unfortunately, (Strategy 2) also seems moribund. Ex hypothesi, Jesse’s prosthetic arm is controlled by the same kind of thought processes that are at play when he moves his normal arm. There is some debate over whether thoughts—particularly of the kind that features in the aetiology of bodily movements—may be considered intentional actions. But let us grant, if only for the sake of argument, that the relevant thoughts are themselves a kind of intentional action. Even so, the present proposal only seems remotely plausible if we identify the thought in question with ‘trying’ to catch or throw the ball, in the sense of ‘trying’ that accompanies all cases of intentional action. This is the sense of ‘trying’ that Davidson attributes to the carbon-copier, and which Davidson takes to be sufficient for the carbon-copier’s actions to be intentional. Thus, if we buy into Davidson’s framework, we can easily accommodate the intuition that Jesse’s actions are intentional.

However, this is not an option available to Setiya, who explicitly denies that ‘trying’ (in the above sense) fulfils the criterion imposed by Belief. He writes:
Despite what Davidson suggests, it is not enough that the carbon-copier is intentionally trying to make ten copies, in the paradigm sense of “intentional action” that involves belief. He is and must be doing specific things—for instance, pressing hard on the paper—in that paradigm sense.
In brief, Jesse’s act of trying to catch the ball (even if it is regarded as an intentional action) fails to meet Setiya’s specifications. Consequently, Belief entails that Jesse does not catch the ball intentionally. It follows that, by Setiya’s own lights, (Strategy 2) gets things wrong. Assuming that (Strategy 1) and (Strategy 2) exhausts all remotely plausible strategies for responding to the Prosthetic Limb Example, it remains a counterexample to Belief.

Admittedly, the Prosthetic Limb Example is an unusual case. Moreover, it is clear that in the vast majority of cases of intentional action, the agent is not in the position that Jesse finds himself in. Consequently, I do not see the Prosthetic Limb Example as posing a challenge to the claim that when we act intentionally we prototypically know that we are acting. Moreover, since I take Anscombe to be offering a prototypical generalisation, I do not believe the Prosthetic Limb Example represents a refutation of Anscombe’s account of intentional action. However, what Setiya purports to provide is not a prototypical generalisation, but a necessary truth. Unlike prototypical generalisations, necessary truths allow for no exceptions. Thus, as unusual as the Prosthetic Limb Example may be, it is sufficient to undermine Setiya’s claim that Belief is a necessary truth.

*This example is loosely based on the real life case of Jesse Sullivan. Here is a short video of Jesse's arm in action:

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