November 08, 2007

descartes' doubt, improved

Follow-up to descartes' doubt from henry

A critical evaluation of Descartes’ method of doubt

Descartes introduces us to his doubt with a recollection of being "struck by the large number of falsehoods" he had believed in his youth, and "the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice" he had based on them. He concludes from this, he tells us, that it is necessary once in his life "to demolish everything completely and start right again from the foundations" if he is to establish any kind of stability, here taken to mean certainty.

There is an immediate problem with the project evinced here, and that is shown through the use of the building metaphors. In the first place, Descartes sees the falsehoods he believed at a young age as the foundations on which he based a doubtful edifice. The solution to this, he considers, is to "demolish everything" and "start right again from the foundations". The problem here, is that it is unclear whether he is demolishing everything, as he suggests, and if this is the case, why any foundations remain.

To narrow the scope of his scouring of his beliefs for falsity, he says that "Reason now leads me to think that I should hold back my assent from opinions which are not completely certain and indubitable". In order to quicken the process, he aims straight for the foundations of his beliefs, since finding a flaw there would rule out a whole subsequent edifice.

He goes on to say that the senses have either been the source or the means by which he has come to believe what he has accepted as most true, but since he has apparently found the senses to have deceived him, he considers it wise not to trust completely those who have deceived him even once.

The immediate problem here, it seems, is that it is not imprudent to trust someone after they have deceived you, if you can (as in the case of senses) understand why they may have done so, and in which circumstances they may be reliable or not, but this is not enough for Descartes. Any doubt rules out the senses altogether.

Descartes, at least in this sense, is remaining consistent with his earlier decision to rule out anything which shows itself dubitable. True, he said this about opinions, rather than a particular means of receiving opinions, but if the means are dubitable, for Descartes at least, so are the opinions received therefrom.

However, there may be more of a problem here than at first appears, and this certainly becomes clear later in the Meditations. Descartes says that the senses have deceived him, but it is not clear how the senses could do this. Descartes undermines the ordinary mind-set of taking sense perceptions for granted by referring to the examples of his dreams, in which he likens his condition therein to that of a madman.

Dreams, presumably, then give us an example of the senses deceiving someone. There seems a problem, though. Deception seems a matter of making a bogus truth statement about events. It is far from clear how the senses would be in a position to make truth statements about sensory data along with simply presenting that data.

Descartes himself hints at this problem, although apparently unawares, when he says "I have been tricked by exactly similar thoughts while asleep!". Here he describes it as the thoughts about the data which mislead him, and this seems more truthful, since it seems to be his interpretation of the senses' information which is wrong, shown by the possibility of lucid dreaming, for example.

Interestingly, Descartes suggests some sort of understanding of the idea of the material of the senses being inherently true or at least devoid of truth value, when he goes on to describe the materials from which composite creatures are made being true, regardless of the truth or falsity of those composite creatures. This is an interesting question, but it seems again to avoid placing blame where it belongs, on the reasoning participant as misinterpreter, and the point seems to be that these fundamental materials do not require interpretation, but rather simple experience. Descartes, however, does not seem to notice this.

Descartes attempts to carry on the process of doubt, but struggles with his habitual opinions, which are seductive, and to counter-act his tendency to believe them, he throws himself whole-heartedly against them. Rather than simple doubt, from a position of neutrality, we have an active belief, pretentious though it is, against his former opinions. This amounts to the hypothesis that a powerful demon is misleading him through his senses.

I consider this hypothesis to be all-important to Cartesian doubt. I think it defines it, perhaps much more than it ought to. I would argue Descartes is not from this point on looking for what can be doubted, but rather what must be true given this hypothesis. Descartes gives a list of the qualities he must have as a thinking thing, for example. He must be something "that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions". I believe Descartes gives this list because these are the characteristics necessary for him to be misled by a demon by means of his senses, and as such those that are beyond doubt, given this scenario.

A final and I would say representative problem is raised by one of the replies, in which Descartes likens the process of doubt to tipping out a basket of apples, in the hope of discovering whether any are rotten. The trouble raised by this is that, within the metaphor, Descartes places himself outside the basket, which would seem to create another meta-metaphorical basket in his metaphorical head, which presumably would need tipping out also.

The fundamental problem appears to be that from the start, Descartes’ ideas about foundations are confused. Indeed, in later Meditations he begins to take foundational points apparently arbitrarily, through the introduction later on of “natural light” seemingly ex nihilo. Perhaps this is where the process of doubt might be improved.


descartes' doubt

Descartes introduces us to his doubt with a recollection of being "struck by the large number of falsehoods" he had believed in his youth, and "the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice" he had based on them. He concludes from this, he tells us, that it is necessary once in his life "to demolish everything completely and start right again from the foundations" if he is to establish any kind of stability, here taken to mean certainty.

There is an immediate problem with the project evinced here, and that is shown through the building metaphors. In the first place, Descartes sees the falsehood he believed at a young age as the foundations on which he bases a doubtful edifice. The solution to this, he considers is to "demolish everything" and "start right again from the foundations". The problem here, is that it is unclear whether he is demolishing everything, as he suggests, and if this is the case, why any foundations remain.

To narrow the scope of his scouring of his beliefs for falsity, he says that "Reason now leads me to think that I should hold back my assent from opinions which are not completely certain and indubitable". In order to quicken the process, he aims straight for the foundations of his beliefs, since finding a flaw there would rule out a whole subsequent edifice.

He goes on to say that the senses have either been the source or the means by which he has come to believe what he has accepted as most true, but since he has apparently found the senses to have deceived him, he considers it wise not to trust completely those who have deceived him even once.

The immediate problem here, it seems, is that it is not imprudent to trust someone after they have deceived you, if you can (as in the case of senses) understand why they may have done so, and in which circumstances they may be reliable or not, but this is not enough for Descartes. Any doubt rules out the senses altogether.

Descartes, at least in this sense, is remaining consistent with his earlier decision to rule out anything which shows itself dubitable. True, he said this about opinions, rather than a particular means of receiving opinions, but if the means are dubitable, for Descartes at least, so are the opinions received therefrom.

However, there may be more of a problem here than at first appears, and this certainly becomes clear later in the Meditations. Descartes says that the senses have deceived him, but it is not clear how the senses could do this. After a brief explication of the ordinary mind-set of taking certain sensory truths for granted, with the provisional conclusion that he would have to be mad to doubt the existence of his own body, etc., Descartes undermines this by referring to the examples of dreams, in which he likens his condition therein to that of a madman.

Dreams, presumably, then give us an example of the senses deceiving someone. There seems a problem, though. Deception seems a matter of misrepresentation, and can we rightly say that the senses are misrepresenting something when Descartes experiences flight in his dreams? The essential question seems to be, how would the senses themselves go about making a truth-statement about what they show? And if they are unable, are they not also incapable of being deceitful?

Descartes himself hints at this problem, although apparently unawares, when he says "I have been tricked by exactly similar thoughts while asleep!". Here he describes it as the thoughts which mislead him, and this seems more truthful, since it seems to be his interpretation of the senses' information which is wrong, shown by the possibility of lucid dreaming, for example.

Interestingly, Descartes suggests some sort of understanding of the idea of the material of the senses being inherently true or at least devoid of truth value, when he goes on to describe the materials from which composite creatures are made being true, regardless of the truth or falsity of those composite creatures. This is an interesting question, but it seems again to avoid placing blame where it belongs, on the reasoning participant as misinterpreter, and the point seems to be that these fundamental materials do not require interpretation, but rather simple experience. Descartes, however, does not seem to notice this.

Descartes struggles then, with his habitual opinions, which are seductive, and to counter-act his tendency to believe them, he throws himself whole-heartedly against them. Rather than simple doubt, from a position of neutrality, we have an active belief, pretentious though it is, against his former opinions. This amounts to the hypothesis that a powerful demon is misleading him through his senses.

I consider this hypothesis to be all-important to Cartesian doubt. I think it defines it, perhaps much more than it ought to. I would argue Descartes is not from this point on looking for what can be doubted, but rather what must be true given this hypothesis. When he describes himself as "a thinking thing" in the second meditation, he then gives a list of what I believe are the qualities necessary for the deceiving demon hypothesis to work. He must be something "that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions". I believe Descartes gives this list because these are the characteristics necessary for him to be misled by a demon by means of his senses, and as such those that are beyond doubt, given this scenario.

A final problem is perhaps raised by one of the replies, in which he likens the process of doubt to tipping out a basket of apples, in the hope of discovering whether any are rotten. The trouble raised by this is that, within the metaphor, Descartes places himself outside the basket, as it were, which essentially seems to create another, if you like, metametaphorical basket in his metaphorical head, which presumably would need tipping out also.


October 16, 2007

mackie – argument 3: supervenience cont.

Follow-up to mackie – argument 3: supervenience from henry

mackie -

"And how do we know the relation that it signifies, if this is something more than such actions being socially condemned, and condemned by us too, perhaps through our having absorbed attitudes from our social environment?"

this is the more interesting question. how do we know that our values, which we use as a basis for morality, are the right ones? and this is still open, I think, unless you are happy to assume that human happiness (or anything else) is an end in itself.

if morality is to work, do we need to establish absolute ends? is it then a matter of relatively valuing those ends, and can there be some objective standard by which we do so?


mackie – argument 3: supervenience

mackie -

"What is the connection between the natural fact that an action is a piece of deliberate cruelty - say, causing pain just for fun - and the moral fact that it is wrong? It cannot be an entailment, a logical or semantic necessity. Yet it is not merely that the two features occur together. The wrongness must somehow be 'consequential' or 'supervenient'; it is wrong because it is a piece of deliberate cruelty. But just what in the world is signified by this 'because'?"

to me, the because is about classification. it is a piece of fruit because it is an apple; it is wrong because it is cruelty. so it seems that mackie is wondering how an action is classified as being wrong. my solution to that is to say that it's to do with relation to a goal. if the goal is human happiness, acts of cruelty are apparently counter-productive to human happiness, being what is apparently an abuse of both people involved.

so actions are wrong or right according to how they relate to valued goals. as much as they speed the goals, they are right, as much as they interfere, they are wrong.


mackie – argument 2: peculiarity (plato and the Forms) cont.

Follow-up to mackie – argument 2: peculiarity (plato and the Forms) from henry

so we have a number of human subjects, naturally good, but ignorant.

the knowledge of the Form of the Good, then, according to plato, gives them the direction necessary to fulfil their pre-existing desire and potential to be the best moral creatures they can be.

objection -

One problem for the view, at least if it is to avoid the idea that values are intrinsically motivating, is that it would appear to involve the idea that values motivate because humans desire to do what is good and recognise pursuit of values as doing what is good. But pursuing the good in that way - doing things because you think it is good and desire to do what is good - would not ordinarily be thought of as a way of being morally good (rather, it would be a way of being a moral fetishist).

Consider, for instance, the following contrast. In case one, a person sees a child drowning, judges that it would be right to save the child's life, and then is simply motivated to act in order to save the child's life. In case two, a person sees a child drowning, judges that it would be right to save the child's life, and then acts on their general desire to do what is right.

It seems to me that the former case is close to what we ordinarily think of as moral action; the latter looks like the sort of surrogate that might be engaged in by someone who is really amoral.

reply -

so case one, the person judges that it would be right to save the child, and then acts to save the child. in case two, the person judges that it would be right to save the child, and does what they judge to be right.

but if what they judge to be right is to save the child, then isn't there some kind of law of identity going on there? the right thing is saving the child, saving the child is the right thing.

but if I'm right, the important thing is the reason for doing it, and how we articulate that. I would argue that there's a sort of "second-order" aspect to it, which is valuing the child's life. it is more admirable or moral to value the child's life than it is to act out of a sense of abstract moral duty. but then, where does that sense of moral duty come from?

it might be that a moral sense is linked in irrevocably with the value of human life and experience. so that while "doing it because you think it's right" looks different to "doing it because you care about the child", the difference is one of human value being either implicit in the first case or explicit in the second.


October 10, 2007

mackie – argument 2: peculiarity (plato and the Forms)

mackie says - "Plato's Forms give a dramatic picture of what objective values would have to be. The Form of the Good is such that knowledge of it provides the knower with both a direction and an overriding motive; something's being good both tells the person who knows this to pursue it and makes him pursue it. An objective good would be sought by anyone who was acquainted with it, not because of any contingent fact that this person, or every person, is so constituted that he desires this end, but just because the end has to-be-pursuedness somehow built into it."

I believe this to be a misinterpretation of plato. the early socratic dialogues, if my memory serves, emphasise the inevitable nature of every man (or presumably woman) to seek their idea of the good as a key element of the ethical system put forth.

the justification for knowledge as being equivalent with virtue seems to hinge on this point, that since human nature tends by its nature towards the good, all that is needed is proper direction, not direction and motivation as mackie suggests.

in my understanding of the early socratic/platonic view of ethics, humans are intrinsically motivated, and intrinsically motivated such as to seek the good. so there is only one motive, towards the good. as such there is nothing for mackie's hypothesised Forms to over-ride.

the next question is whether this system, such as I understand it, constitutes an explanation of ethical objectivity.


mackie – argument 1: relativity cont. (the unknown children argument)

Follow-up to mackie – argument 1: relativity cont. from henry

the last post raised an issue that may be worth exploring.

if this hypothetical mansion dweller is wasting food, unaware of the hungry children on the slopes outside, are they acting immorally?

if the person believes that the alternative to throwing food into their basement incinerator is to leave it lying around the house to attract flies and develop harmful bacteria, are they acting immorally to throw it out?

does their ignorance make them immoral?

or is it that the action is immoral, but, since they have not knowingly given their consent to an immoral action, they themselves are not?

is immorality a quality of actions or of people?


mackie – argument 1: relativity cont.

Follow-up to mackie – argument 1: relativity cont. from henry

mackie says - "But it is not the mere occurrence of disagreements that tells against the objectivity of values. Disagreement on questions in history or biology or cosmology does not show that there are no objective issues in these fields for investigators to disagree about. But such scientific disagreement results from speculative inferences or explanatory hypotheses based on inadequate evidence, and it is hardly plausible to interpret moral disagreement in the same way."

I would argue that there may be more of a similarity than mackie is willing to hypothesise.

if I argue that it is right for me to recycle, and another person argues that it is wrong, we may share the same values as a basis for these two decisions, such as the good of the planet, or the good of mankind, and yet they believe that the world will end in an amount of time short enough to make planning for the sort of future in which recycling would have an effect a futile effort.

they may consider recycling as wasted time, which would be, if it is possible to be unwittingly immoral, a misappropriation of resources that might be redirected towards productive ends. the equivalent of throwing out food that could feed hungry children. if you believe it would be immoral to do so even if you did not know or believe there were hungry children, then recycling in this case seems equivalent.

so contrary moral opinions result not from differences in basis, but since morals, I would argue, can be seen as intricately linked with individual circumstances, they could result from varying speculative inferences and explanatory hypotheses, as well as more or less adequate evidence.

if that linking of morals in with circumstances, as set in relief against the idea of "monogamy" as an institution, or some kind of Form-like metaphysical "thing", makes morals automatically subjective for mackie, then there may be some argument against objectivity.


mackie – argument 1: relativity cont.

Follow-up to mackie – argument 1: relativity cont. from henry

mackie says - "Of course there have been and are moral heretics and moral reformers, people who have turned against the established rules and practices of their own communities for moral reasons, and often for moral reasons that we would endorse. But this can usually be understood as the extension, in ways which, though new and unconventional, seemed to them to be required for consistency, of rules to which they already adhered as arising out of an existing way of life."

this is interesting, and I like it as an idea, that moral reform is a sort of ironing out of inconsistencies in the original paradigm of morality. although that would open the question for me as to whether there's some over-riding paradigm, one which would be the most consistent, which would to some extent be common to everyone. whether that would have the objective validity that mackie's seeking is probably still an open question.


mackie – argument 1: relativity cont.

Follow-up to mackie – argument 1: relativity from henry

mackie says - "Disagreement about moral codes seems to reflect people's adherence to and participation in different ways of life. The causal connection seems to be mainly that way round: it is that people approve of monogamy because they participate in a monogamous way of life rather than that they participate in a monogamous way of life because they approve of monogamy."

mackie seems to say the same thing as I have, that disagreement about moral codes reflects adherence and participation in different ways of life.

is there an objective moral basis for these ways of life, seems to be the logical next question.

and if there is, does that count as objectivity for mackie, or does objectivity have to reside in the individual's apprehension of individual moral circumstances, rather than a more haphazard inherited and co-created collective adaptation to the demands of the environment.


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