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America's Counter-Revolution
The Constitution Revisited

From the back cover:

This book challenges the assumption that the Constitution was a landmark in the struggle for liberty. Instead, Sheldon Richman argues, it was the product of a counter-revolution, a setback for the radicalism represented by America’s break with the British empire. Drawing on careful, credible historical scholarship and contemporary political analysis, Richman suggests that this counter-revolution was the work of conservatives who sought a nation of “power, consequence, and grandeur.” America’s Counter-Revolution makes a persuasive case that the Constitution was a victory not for liberty but for the agendas and interests of a militaristic, aristocratic, privilege-seeking ruling class.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Thought for the Day

[M]eaning something is a matter of intending....
Thus in a mere seven words, Anthony Kenny, the Aquinas and Wittgenstein scholar, disposes of materialism and determinism. (The rest of the book shows why mind/body dualism is not a viable alternative.)

Source: The Metaphysics of Mind (Oxford Paperback, 1989, 21).

18 comments:

Jim Lippard said...

How so? It doesn't rule out materialism (or physicalism) unless meaning and intention are not reducible to physical properties, which is not demonstrated by those seven words. I don't see how it does anything to rule out determinism, either.

Sheldon Richman said...

There is no way to account for meaning in purely material terms. Meaningful speech reduced to material processes would be nonsense. To intend is to choose what one intends. It's part of the concept. What else can it mean? How can it make sense to intend X without choosing to intend X?

Are you saying you have not chosen the meaning you intend to convey? How then does it qualify as meaning or intention?

Einzige said...

Meaningful speech reduced to material processes would be nonsense.

In other words, "Meaning reduced to a material thing would be meaningless," which is simply begging the question.

I confess to not knowing what meaning is, but it's not clear to me that it is necessarily immaterial.

Sheldon Richman said...

What question was begged? What this really shows is that the irreducibility of meaning (the verb) and understanding is axiomatic, or a priori. You can't escape it. It's presupposed by any conversation. To argue that it is really somethig else is self-contradictory.

You don't know what meaning is? By what criteria did you choose your words? Or didn't you choose them?

Understanding and intending meaning are different sorts of things from neurochemical processes. That's not clear on its face? We have different ways of describing the things. One's understanding can be keen or dull; one's meaning can be valid or invalid. What's a keen or dull neurochemical process? Meaning (the verb) and understanding require underlying neurochemical procesesses, but that only indicates that the former are not reducible to the latter. If A requires B, it can't be the case that A is nothing but B.

Sheldon Richman said...

If I painted a sign with the words "Beware of Dog," would an analysis of the paint, the cardboard, and the wooden post be an exhaustive account of the thing? Would an inquiry into the meaning of the squiggles spelling out the words "Beware of Dog" be superfluous? If not, why not?

Sheldon Richman said...

Picking up an example from Gilbert Ryle (The Meaning of Mind): imagine two people watching a game of chess. One is a grand master, the other knows nothing of the game. Both watch. One understands; the other does not. Neurologically, they may be identical. There's no reason to believe a priori that different things are going on in their heads. It's an empirical question.

But: even if something different is going on, let's not put the cart before the horse. It's the grand master's understanding that creates the difference in his head, not the other way around.

Don't say his brain is different because of his earlier learning. That just moves the process back a step. Learning is the result of listening, reading, and observing, and then talking to oneself about what one has heard, read, and observed; in a word, understanding.

Einzige said...

At the risk of overstepping the bounds of decorum, I'd like to recommend a book to you: What Is Thought?

I found it a good read, myself.

Sheldon Richman said...

Einzige--Recommending a book can never overstep bounds, as far as I am concerned. Thanks for the reference. I took a quick look at the description and saw this: "Thus the mind understands by exploiting semantics, or meaning, for the purposes of computation;".

Interesting that the author speaks of understanding, meaning, and purpose. I hope he doesn't attempt to reduce these to DNA, since it would empty them of meaning. Also, minds don't understand. (Strictly speaking, there is no mind [noun].) Persons do.

It cannot be doubted that we here at Free Association are communicating; which is to say, we are intending, meaning, and understanding. Could any scientific discovery ever prompt us to say, "Oh, wait! In light of this discovery I now see that contrary to what I thought, we weren't really intending, meaning, and understanding. It was just our brains pulsating."?

I don't think so.

Jim Lippard said...

"Understanding and intending meaning are different sorts of things from neurochemical processes."

And wetness is a property distinct from the electrochemical properties of H2O, but that doesn't mean it's not an emergent property reducible to physical properties.

"There is no way to account for meaning in purely material terms" is an assertion, "Meaningful speech reduced to material processes would be nonsense" is another assertion, what's the supporting argument? Seems to me that meaningful speech is generated by and processed by material processes involving neural networks which represent terms through causal interactions with their environments and building associations between perceptual stimuli and actions.

It seems to me that you're ruling out naturalistic philosophy of language (such as the Kim Sterelny/Michael Devitt account in their book _Language and Reality_), as well as compatibilism on the free will issue (such as the sort defended by Daniel Dennett in _Elbow Room_ and _Freedom Evolves_) without any real argument.

Your arguments for irreducibility seem to me no better than an argument that color discrimination cannot be a neural process because we don't see those corresponding colors when we look at the neurons of someone's brain making such a discrimination.

Are you advocating mind/brain dualism? Substance dualism or property dualism?

Jim Lippard said...

In your sign example there is more to it than the physical properties of the sign itself, in virtue of its presence in the context of language-using beings and the representations in their brains. There's no meaning without a language and a set of users (or potential users) of that language. (In the case of a lost language, if the language is irretrievably lost, the meaning may also be irretrievably lost, unless it can be recovered through a process like cryptanalysis.)

BTW, I'm curious if you advocate something like John Searle's biological naturalism, which holds that consciousness and intentionality are emergent properties caused by brains ("the mind is what the brain does"). He says he's not a dualist--he's clearly not a substance dualist, and I can see the argument that he's not a property dualist (the mental properties are distinct), but since he says that first-person and third-person ontologies are distinct, he's at least an *ontology* dualist. Perhaps like Popper, with his "World One," "World Two," and "World Three."

Jim Lippard said...

"Picking up an example from Gilbert Ryle (The Meaning of Mind): imagine two people watching a game of chess. One is a grand master, the other knows nothing of the game. Both watch. One understands; the other does not. Neurologically, they may be identical. There's no reason to believe a priori that different things are going on in their heads. It's an empirical question."

And it's pretty well-established that there are neurological and cognitive differences. Experts "chunk" the chessboard patterns differently than beginners, for example (see, e.g., John R. Anderson's _Cognitive Psychology and Its Implications_). Different concepts will be activated in their brains. Given the description, I don't think it is possible that the same things could be going on in their heads--neurologically, they cannot be identical and it also be true that one understands but the other doesn't unless understanding has nothing to do with brain activity.

"But: even if something different is going on, let's not put the cart before the horse. It's the grand master's understanding that creates the difference in his head, not the other way around."

Yes.

"Don't say his brain is different because of his earlier learning."

Why not? That's the case.

"That just moves the process back a step. Learning is the result of listening, reading, and observing, and then talking to oneself about what one has heard, read, and observed; in a word, understanding."

Surely you're not suggesting that adult learning by these mechanisms are the only ways learning occurs. Initial language acquisition clearly does not involve perceiving words, reading, or talking to oneself. It involves (in part) making associations between signs and experiences.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Citing Ryle is certainly ironic.

If A requires B, it can't be the case that A is nothing but B.

Lightning requires a large electrostatic discharge from a cloud. This is because lightning is nothing but such a discharge. Lightning and current flow are the same thing described different ways. Similarly, couldn't what we prescientifically call thinking be complicated neural processes that we don't understand yet?

Presently, it is hard to imagine how all these different phenomena you are discussing (freedom, perception, understanding) fit into the natural world. Does this psychological fact about our imagination tell us something interesting about the metaphysical structure of the world? It seems to me, no. It is just a rather boring psychological fact. We are ignorant. Life, to the vitalists, seemed impossible to fit into the natural order. What they lacked was patience and imagination; what they had too much of was confidence in their intuitions about what could or could not be fit into the natural order. My money is on the neuroscientists (ahem!).

Have you seen Glimcher's book on the emerging field of neuroeconomics?

Sheldon Richman said...

Jim Lippard said: "In your sign example there is more to it than the physical properties of the sign itself, in virtue of its presence in the context of language-using beings and the representations in their brains. There's no meaning without a language and a set of users (or potential users) of that language."

Agreed. Something certainly goes on in the brain. I don't think I'd call it representation. Sounds reductionist to me. :)

Sheldon Richman said...

We risk missing the forest for the trees. Intending/meaning/understanding is one "thing" (an activity performed by persons not "minds"); a neurochemical process is something else. Need that be demonstrated? Whatever their relationship, each is what it is, something identifiable with a nature. That's implied by the word "relationship." Relevance is determined by one's inquiry (purpose). In this forum we are exchanging meaningful statements about what it means to intend/mean/understand; each of us receives the statements, interprets them, seeks to understand, and perhaps responds with other (hopefully) meaningful statements. The nature of the goings-on inside our skulls is not relevant to the purpose of engaging in meaningful discourse, since a description of them wouldn't shed light on intending/meaning/understanding per se. ("What does it mean to 'understand'? "It means some part of your brain becomes active." "No, you didn't get my question. What does it mean to understand?")
In that sense, intending/meaning/understanding is irreducible. If a neurologist were to tell me what is going on inside my head when I read the comments, I would not have an increased understanding of what it means to understand the words I read on the screen . Similarly, if a physicist tells me how those words appear on my screen, he would not aid my understanding of the arguments.

I don't see how my position could be construed as any kind of dualism. I see myself, in many ways, in the tradition of Wittgenstein, Ryle, Kenny, and Szasz.

Blue Devil Knight said...

The nature of the goings-on inside our skulls is not relevant to the purpose of engaging in meaningful discourse, since a description of them wouldn't shed light on intending/meaning/understanding per se.

If I gave you a drug that disrupted your ability to understand, it wouldn't help you to know what we gave you, and its pharmacological effects? To pick a fanciful example, what if you weren't quite sure how it affected your understanding, and we then told you 'It shuts down the part of your brain responsible for comprehending and producing transitive verbs.' You might find this information very useful, and it would increase your understanding of your own (deviant) understanding.

There are many things that seem effortless, that we have a common vocabulary for discussing. E.g., visual perception. It is effortless, seemingly simple: you don't have to think about it at all. But there are all sorts of details about it that are not introspectively available. For instance, explain visual illusions. Why, when you look at a moon on the horizon, does it look bigger than when it is directly overhead (even though it project an image with the same area on your retinas)? Another detail not revealed introspectively is saccades (rapid eye movements we make when taking in the world visually), and the fact that our visual processing is radically suppressed during saccades, giving us an illusion of a stable visual image. Then there's change blindness. Anyway, these are the types of things that psychology/cognitive neuroscience addresses experimentally.

Imagine an ancient greek philosopher: "I know what matter is. I just see it. I understand what it is, and philosophy won't add anything to it." While it is true that they had a concept of what matter was, that didn't mean that the experimental study of such things didn't help us understand it even more, and even radically alter our commonsense theories.

So, while I would agree that we can get by pretty well with our prescientific folksy theories of our own minds (this was Ryle's main point: "We possess already a wealth of information about minds, information which is neither derived from, nor upset by, the arguments of philosopher"), we shouldn't take these theories too seriously.

The scientific understanding of the mind we have right now is at about the level of the Greeks with respect to matter. Things are bound to get very interesting in the new sciences of the mind.

Sheldon Richman said...

Blue Devil Knight: Please keep in mind that my comments are responses to efforts to reduce understanding (and other mental activities) to physical processes, i.e., to imply that they are nothing but those processes. I don't deny there is much to learn about the brain. But it can't be the case that mind is nothing but brain. This is more clear when remind ourselves that mind is not a noun but a verb. There is nothing pre-scientific or folksy about that. Ryle was referring to expressions that assume a ghost in the machine.

Blue Devil Knight said...

But it can't be the case that mind is nothing but brain. This is more clear when remind ourselves that mind is not a noun but a verb.

I don't understand. Do you seriously want to try to make substantive metaphysical claims based on the part of speech we use to describe something? The brain does all sorts of things: controls the movement of the limbs, conveys information about the world (via sensory systems), etc.. These are all things you can describe with 'verbs,' but they are still simply things the brain does.

A more interesting case you could make is that the brain does not do these things in isolation from an environment or body. To understand how the brain's sensory systems represent what is happening in the world, we also need to understand the world (i.e., the stimuli, such as visual stimulation). Perhaps this is what you are getting at: thinking isn't merely the brain because to understand the brain's function we need to incorporate knoweldge of the world (that it represents) and the body (that it controls). This would be a very reasonable thing to say, and would be more consonant with how we actually study sensory/motor systems.

One historical point. Ryle's theory did two things: try to exorcize the ghost, and second try to articulate the theory of mind that we already know at some level (which is what my above quote from Ryle's 'Concept of Mind' gets at). It is the second task I was referring to, and he was essentially articulating our folksy theory of mind (which for him, is based only on behavior). In that quote, he expresses the attitude from my analogy with the Greeks and matter.

IMO, the best philosopher to read on this stuff isn't gonna come from Oxbridge analytic philosophy (head in the sand armchair analysis of 'ordinary' language). It comes from people like Dretske (for instance, his great book Explaining Behavior). He is much more nuanced, empirically sensitive, and clear than those old brits.

Sheldon Richman said...

Well, there's a lot of food for thought here -- or for brain activity -- but it's time to turn back to more pleasant subjects: ursupation, plunder, and war.