Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Ayn Rand vs. Philosophy in the Flesh: Part 1 Metaphysical Realism and the Correspondence Theory of Truth

I've just started reading a 1999 book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson entitled "Philosophy in the Flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought". The reviews claim that it "radically changes the tenets of traditional western philosophy." Needless to say, this caught my eye. Given the plague of contradictions in most contemporary philosophy, anything which claims to challenge them warrants examination.

This isn't my first foray into Lakoff and Johnson. I had to write a paper on the use of figurative language in translation for my MA in Applied Linguistics. As part of my research on the nature of metaphor I came across the earlier work by Lakoff & Johnson, "Metaphors We Live By". I had to say that the concept was interesting, the idea that metaphors are primarily derived from biological experience, e.g. that Descartes dualism was bunk and that our minds and bodies are an integrated unit. However, I found some of the later conclusions they drew from this argument to be rather sloppy. I ended up using more of Kovesces' work in the final write-up.

What tickled my interest though was the concept of the embodied mind. This is something which Ayn Rand was villified for by the philosophers of her day, embodied objectivism. So, I find it interesting that cognitive science is now producing ideas which seem to echo theories suggested by Rand. As the authors of this volume claim that their "embodied" philosophy "offers radically new and detailed understandings of what a person is", I was interested to see how much these understandings differ from those of Rand. Unfortunately they left her out of their list of philosophies to criticize. So, I've decided that, as time allows, I will analyze their arguments from an Objectivist point of view and see where they're the same, where they're different, and which is left standing.

PART ONE: Metaphysical Realism and the Correspondence Theory of Truth

Well, I hadn't hit page 26 before I found myself hitting the Ayn Rand Lexicon and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to double-check definitions.

I don't think L&J's definitions of cognition or the cognitive unconscious are too problematic. Instead they seem highly compatible with Rand's assertion that concepts are subsumed into the unconscious and guide our thought automatically at a certain level of operation. Until a concept has been integrated into one's consciousness, that concept will only appear in the conscious mind. However, once it has been integrated into one's value system, it becomes a part of one's functional unconscious.

Where we start to see some conflict is when they start to take on two issues, metaphysical realism and the correspondence theory of truth. Now, I realize that they didn't have Objectivism in mind when they were writing their book, but if Objectivism has answers to their problems, then they haven't succeeded in doing away with these fundamental philosophical concepts.
Metaphysical realism, by the way, is basically the assertion that the world is as it is independent of our minds. That is to say, that it doesn't matter what I may feel about the matter, that either there is a puppy licking my feet or there isn't. Period. I may be crazy. There may not be a puppy licking my feet. But if there isn't then there are ways of testing reality to determine whether or not there is, indeed, a puppy there. Reality is. Existence exists. The assumption of a common reality is primary to any attempt to use language. Teaching language would be impossible without it. Just imagine trying to explain "tree" to someone who doesn't know English and has never seen one before. You would probably have to resort to showing a picture, exotic gestures, or perhaps driving them out to a forest. You couldn't explain "tree" disconnected from a common experience of reality.

Nevertheless, this is the first concept that L&J attempt to take on. So, let's look at what they offer.

Their first offering is the color problem. They suggest that "human concepts are not just reflections of an external reality, but they are crucially shaped by our bodies and brains, especially by our sensorimotor system."

Intitially they offer nothing new: that color does not exist as such beyond wavelengths of light at various frequencies, or "electromagnetic radiation" for a more technical term. What we call "color" is how our brains interpret these wavelengths. They further argue that if our concepts of color are directly derived from our interpretation of the properties of light reflected from surfaces then our categorizations of color concepts would reflect the categories of reflectance. They proceed to point out that our concept of color has an internal structure in that some colors are focal. (That is to say that what we consider really really red, would be the central red, and more derivative forms of red may be thinks that are purplish red or orange red, etc.) The problem is that the actual categories of reflectance do not mirror this structure, so this means that our concept of color is "inextricably tied to our embodiment".

Rephrasing, they say that "color concepts are "interactional"; they arise from the interactions of our bodies, our brains, the reflective properties of objects, and electromagnetic radiation."

So far so good, I think. Rand says, "Sensations are the primary material of consciousness and, therefore, cannot be communicated by means of the material which is derived from them. The existential causes of sensations can be described and defined in conceptual terms (e.g., the wavelengths of light and the structure of the human eye, which produce the sensations of color), but one cannot communicate what color is like, to a person who is born blind. To define the meaning of the concept "blue", for instance, one must point to some blue objects to signify, in effect: "I mean this." (Intro to Objectivist Epistemology 52).

L&J then think they have struck gold when they declare that colors are not objective (that colors do not exist independently of the observer) and that they are not purely subjective (colors are not hallucinations). From this they claim that metaphysical realism fails, that color only makes sense in terms of an "embodied realism".

There are a couple problems here. First, colors are not objective, because they are not objects. Metaphysical realism, at least that as maintained by Objectivism does not claim that colors are objective, divorced from a human body.

"You are an indivisible entitiy of matter and consciousness. Renounce your consciousness and you become a brute. Renounce your body and you become a fake. Renounce the material world and you surrender it to evil." (For The New Intellectual, 142).

On the contrary, Rand singles out color as a sensation. Sensations can only ever be defined ostensibly. Taste would fit in this category as well. If you doubt this, simply ask a Japanese person to try and explain "shibui" to you. You can't possibly understand until you've experienced it. But even then, taste in and of itself is not an object in reality. It is a sensation generated by our brains in response to the operations of an object's properties upon our sensorimotor system. L&J claim the sky is not reflective, because it is not an object. No, but it is an array of objects which have a cumulative effect. The calculus of their objective properties invoke the stimulus which triggers our brains to recognize the day-time sky as blue. That "blueness" is only a function of how our brains perceive that stimulus does nothing to undermine the objective existence of that stimulus. Thus I think that metaphysical realism is nicely in tact. (One hopes that this isn't too terribly fundamental to L&J's argument, else it's already undone on page 25.)

Uh, oh! Turn the page and all of a sudden they're demanding that we give up the correspondence theory of truth. They state that if color isn't a metaphysical "primary quality" as defined by Locke, then we must give up on the idea that "truth lies in the relationship between words and the metaphysically and objectively real world external to any perceiver." This is an addition of L&J's and a misstep of many philosophers. Truth does not lie in the relationship between words and reality. "Truth is the identification of a fact of reality" (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 150.)

They states that a sentence like "Blood is red" cannot be true if red doesn't have objective truth value. But the statement does have objective truth a given context. Context is everything. Blood is not red, unless exposed to air. But in that case it is. What they ignore here is that we have an understanding of what it means for something to be red, even if it is an embodied reaction to sensory stimulus. We have a knowledge of what blood is. Blood is an objective existent. It is an object and has certain properties specific to it. Some of these properties have the effect of triggering a response in our brains that assigns to it the color red. These are all facts encapsulated in the statement "Blood is red". And there is no denying them. But once again, it depends on context.

Isolated sentences never appear in nature, they are the province of philosophers. Especially those who like to take advantage of disassociated context to manipulate the natural ambiguity of language. However, this ambiguity disappears when attention is paid to the context of an utterance within a stream of discourse. Discourse contextualizes utterances so that it is possible for them to have a truth value. Every utterance does have a specific meaning in a given context. It is only by creating unnatural representations of language that the truth value of any given statement can be called into question. Context is everything.

Well, that's all I have for now, but I look forward to seeing if they have anything more convincing to come. I hope so, or else I sure wasted my money on this one.


dave b said...

I am new to your blog, so bear with my addressing first your "flagship" statements.

A rational code of morality? That's a wonderful thought; after all, morality should make sense enough that you don't have to be a philosopher to determine what is moral and immoral/right and wrong. Of course, that is if by morality, one means to define in plain terms what is either moral (good) or immoral (the opposite of good). What I am not clear about is why religion is, for all purposes, categorized as irrational and superstituous.

The picture of the late "twin towers" of the World Trade Center is used (for obvious reasons) along with the thought, "Imagine no religion"; as though all religion leads to what the destruction of the Trade Towers is now the symbol. Clearly not all religious expression or belief is equal; certainly not equal to that of the terrorists of 9/11 infamy.

Intolerance of religious belief for the sake of what? Is this simply a personal aversion to any thought of God, and/or how does one keep from being intolerant of those who are not likewise disabused of any interest in God, or the very idea that God is? The "burden of proof" for what? God? Does the anti-theist have no burden of proof? Who sets the rules for such "proofs" or, in general, for the discussion/debate?

I grant you, religion can be (as was famously said) an "opiate", but so can a love of knowledge, or an intense pursuit of reason. It is hardly just the religious who are dangerous; unless Mao, Hitler, and Stalin (to name only three) can be thought to have been religiously motivated. They were not.

You assert that "the religious" are "wrong". Just plain wrong about everything? Wrong about religion? Wrong about what? And you imply that religion precludes critical thought. How in the world is that proven other than by the kind of stereotyping that is normally done by racial and religious bigots?

It seems you somewhat revere Thomas Jefferson. He was hardly anti-theist across the board. Cherry picking quotes from Jefferson hardly seems rational, except as a means to make an already biased case. This seems dishonest and immoral. No?

American Anti-theist said...

Welcome to the blog. I always welcome criticism, but I don't hold punches. I just call 'em like I see 'em. So, with that in mind, let me address some of the issues you've brought up.

1. Glad you like the idea of a rational code of morality, one that makes sense, derived from reason, and doesn't need to rely on any hocus pocus or mumbo jumbo. That actually is the definition of rational, something that makes sense, that is based on reality, that adheres to the rules of logic.

Religion is an a priori assertion that a mystical being(s) or force(s) originated and control the universe and our lives. Superstitions are pretty much the same thing. The only difference is that religions are institutionalized sets of superstitions and superstition as a set is broader and includes things which are more folksy like knocking on wood or not stepping on cracks.

The assumption that such mystical entities exist in the abscence of proof is, once again by definition, irrational. Why? Well, since it is impossible to prove the non-existence of something, it is irrational to believe in something unless there is actually proof of its existence.

For example, were I to say that there are purple monkeys living somewhere inside the moon, you couldn't technically prove me wrong. You could only prove that there aren't purple monkeys in the place you happened to look. I could always claim that they moved. Or they were invisible. Or very small. Or that you have to believe in them to see them. The same is true with Nessie, Bigfoot, the lost city of Atlantis, Lemuria, alien abductions, and tales of demon posession, pixies, sprites, ad infinitum.

On the contrary, existence is a relatively easy thing to prove. If I say there is an apple in my refrigerator and I show you the apple, then it's proved. Simple. However nobody has ever produced a god, spirit, etc. or proved that such exist. There doesn't even exist a viable theoretical proposition by which such may be proved except to die and see for oneself. Yet, to believe in the existence of something with no tangible evidence despite the desperate intent to find such evidence simply reaffirms to me that such things do not exist in the first place.

To believe something in the abscence of any evidence in support of it, is distinctly irrational. Ergo, religion is irrational.

2. I tend to think that all religion is inherently blood-thirsty, oppressive, and cruel. This is why I am intolerant of it. Fundamentally, whenever and wherever a religion has managed to seize the reigns of political power it has been followed by arbitrary edicts, mandates, persecutions and, to make a long story short, an abundance of human suffering. There is no religion which is immune from this criticism. Every one has had their chance to be different in this respect and not a one has suceeded.

3. Intolerance of religion for the sake of enlightenment, truth, freedom, and the glory of mankind. Pagan superstitions are the shackles on the minds of humanity. If we could but shed them, we would be free to soar higher than any of us can possibly imagine. Or we could die groveling and gnashing our teeth at each other in the despair of the ignorant.

re: burden of proof--see above about proofs of existence.

By the way, it doesn't take many rules to prove the existence of something, it just has to be. If you can't produce it, or show evidence of it's effect on the material universe, how do you know it exists? Like I said earlier, anti-theists aren't trying to prove anything. We just don't believe you. So the burden of proof is yours. Prove me wrong. I dare you.

4. I would hardly call Mao, Stalin, or Hitler blinded by "a love of knowledge" or "an intense pursuit of reason". These people were maniacs. With the exception of Hitler, they were atheistic maniacs, yes. But atheism in itself is not a philosophy, nor a moral code. It is simply not a belief in yours. The moral codes that all of those people ascribed to were colectivist, statist, dehumanizing philosophies maintaining that the good of the many outweighs the good of the few or the one. A morality not unlike that shared by religion.

The flaw is that altruism leads to blood-shed. It is always easy to sacrifice oneself and others to a goal which is "greater than oneself". Altruism is the core evil that drives both religion and collectivist philosophy. Only a philosophy that upholds the recognition of the inviolate rights of the individual in society can secure for us a future free of brutality and wasted life. Those who value their own lives above the lives of others and who believe that there is only this life, and no second chances, will think carefully before jeapordizing their lives in some ideological crusade. Fanatics are all too willing to die and to shed blood. The only difference between a fanatic and a moderate is a degree of belief, not the substance. A fanatic believes more piously than a moderate. If anything, moderates are more hypocrites than anything else.

5. Religion precludes critical reasoning because to deny he evidence of the senses and hold a vague emotional sense of existence as supreme is the antithesis of critical reasoning. Critical reasoning entails starting from established facts and reasoning towards new knowledge. Starting from your emotions and reasoning towards what you want to prove is decidedly uncritical.

The existence of scientists who claim religious belief hardly disproves this. Human beings have an amazing capacity to believe two conflicting things at the same time. The trick is to keep the two contradictory ideas from recognizing each other. But this is also not very conducive to critical reasoning in the long run. I think you'll find that this kind of mental gymnastics is responsible for a lot of the psychological dysfunction in intelligent people.

Logic is the art of non-contradictory identification. If there is a contradiction then something is wrong with your premises. Critical reasoning depends on this. You cannot expect belief in the abscence of proof and then rigorously pursue the logical exploration of facets of reality at the same time. The means and method are contradictory and mutually exclusive.

I revere Thomas Jefferson. But I am not Thomas Jefferson. He also kept slaves, but even though I despise discrimination in any form, I don't hold that against his ideas. Although I find it hypocritical that he loathed slavery and still perpetuated it. No, that would be the logical fallacy of ad hominem (the fallacy of attacking someone's beliefs because of personal foibles). What I admire about Jefferson, or anyone for that matter, is the content of their minds, and the strength of their ideas. Those ideas that are irrational, that do not hold up to the rigorous examination of truth are worthless, regardless of who originated them. Those ideas that endure the sustained attack of reasoned enquiry are worth notice and more in-depth evaluation, also regardless of who originated them.

What quotes have I cherry-picked? Have I taken them out of context? Then show me the context I have misappropriated. Have you read the Bible in it's entirety and can you swear by every word in it despite its internal contradictions? I imagine you haven't or can't. The assumption that one must take an all or nothing approach to knowledge is another irrationality of the religious. The advance of human knowledge is made up of arguments that draw on support from a variety of sources. These are called theories. And theories are made or broken by the advent of new facts.

Knowledge is a continually evolving system. Religion is fixed and dead in that its only recourse to escaping its contradictions and fallacies is to pretend they never existed. The Knowledge born of scientific thought purges the bad ideas and welcomes the newly born ideas consistent with the comprehensive model of reality as is best known at the time.

I agree with certain sentiments of Jefferson and I respect his achievements. I disagree with others. I agree with some of Dawkins' ideas. I disagree with others. Reasonable human beings do not make themselves into acolytes chained by absolute loyalty to the sentiments of others. A reasonable human being weighs arguments themselves and makes up their own mind, based on facts and evidence.

Present your facts and evidence, if you want to dance. Until you can...well, warrantless claims will always be the immoral ones.