Monday, October 30, 2006

Ich bin ein Plakat!

Ich habe die folgende Rede in der Station Bismarkstrasse (U7) in Berlin gelesen.

Ich bin ein kaltes Bier
Ich bin ein spannender Film
Ich bin ein echtes Schnäpchen
Ich bin ein cooler Rockstar
Ich bin ein schickes Handy

Ich bin ein Plakat!

Was für eine Identität. Das ist Personal Identität, wie du möchtest, wen du brauchst, wie du denkst. Dafür funktioniert die Identität.

Philosophy as Peacocking

peacocking (v.): to give off an expensive (evolutionary) signal. e.g. when peacocks maintain pretty feathers to attract females.

According to The Undercover Economist (which attributes this to Michael Spence), pursuing a degree in philosophy is an act of peacocking:

"Spence himself first used his insight to show why students might choose to pursue a degree in philosophy, which is difficult but does not lead to specific career opportunities, like an economics degree or a marketing degree. Assume that employers would like to hire smart, diligent workers but can't tell from an interview who is smart or diligent. Assume also that everyone has to work hard to obtain a philosophy degree, but lazy, dumb people find it particularly troublesome.

"Spence then shows that smart, diligent people can prove they're smart and diligent by going to the trouble of getting a philosophy degree. ... It is merely a credible signal, because a philosophy degree is too much trouble for lazy, dumb people to acquire."


Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Names of Elliot

I am reading a poem that says that the naming of cats is a difficult matter, because Elliot thinks that it isn’t just one of the holiday games that you are used to get when he tells you that a cat must have three different names, because there’s the name that the family use daily and there are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter, while Elliot believes that Plato, Admetus, Electra, and Demeter are sensible everyday names, but he tells us that a cat needs a name that is particular, that’s peculiar and more dignified, or else he thinks that you cannot keep his tail perpendicular, or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride, he also believes that there is a name that no human research can discover, but the cat himself knows, and will never confess, because he wants me to notice a cat in profound meditation, and think that his mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation, of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name, the ineffable effable effanineffable deep and inscrutable singular name.

Keeping Morality within Limits

One of the reasons I believe it’s really difficult to come up with the right morals for eating is that, in general, it’s very difficult to come up with the right thing to do. I tend to think that morality should be more piecemeal than not. I believe strongly in that every claim (moral or not) has a limit beyond which lies insanity. It’s never good to have more of the same, to have the same theories to explain everything, or to cover every single case. This is something I learned from Pereda’s metaphilosophy.

In any case, I think Sam’s last comment is a very good example of how easy it is to take insane claims out of our theories. I thought we were getting into an agreement, but now I think not. This is what Sam thinks

“the principle is that given any paradigm, eating vegetables is always at least as preferable as eating meat. (i want to say more preferable, but i expect some weird counterexamples.) and by that i don't mean only eat vegetable or only eating meat, but for every eating decision.”

I think this is insane. First, no moral claim can stand given ANY paradigm, just like no scientific theory can stand given ANY paradigm. Think of the paradigm in which we find a way to feed cows with less environmental cost than to produce fungi and plants, then it makes no sense AT ALL to encourage eating fungi and plants. This is just insane.

Second, it’s supposed to be true for every eating decision. This, again, is a sign of insanity (boundlessness). There are clear boundaries in life. Making absolutists claims like ANY paradigm and ANY decision, is just insane. What if I have a peculiar disease that doesn’t allow me to eat vegetables or fungi. According to Sam’s boundless claims, it’s still preferable for me to eat vegetables of fungi. Or take another case, what if my surroundings are packed with cows and vegetables that I can’t digest, and I there are no other sources of nutrients. Is it sill preferable to eat the indigestible? This is just insane.

Things get worse when Sam joins his two limitless claims. He thinks he has a theory that is useful for any paradigm, and any decision, and which “exhausts all possibilities”. I think all these three properties, being true for any paradigm, being good for all decisions, and exhausting all possibilities, are probably the paradigmatic features of the worst possible theories. Good theories are characterized for lacking all three of them. Sam doesn’t agree. He goes as far as claiming that he’s happy to have a vegetarian moral theory that covers everything in an exhaustive manner.

Having good theories is difficult. Recognizing their limits is a virtue. Moral theories in particular have to take into account environmental dynamics to make their claims. To fix the content of a claim to any particular object within the environment (e.g. vegetables and fungi) would be seriously disadvantaged given that change exists. That is what vegetarianism wants to do, which Sam extrapolates, and what makes it a seriously disadvantaged theory (if not insane).

Friday, October 27, 2006

Anti Principled Agreements

I believe we’ve come to an agreement. We both agree that principled forms of Vegetarianism (what Sam, a bit misleadingly, calls moral Vegetarianism) make no sense. Something pretty similar should be said of any other Principled moral for eating, like Animalianism.

We also agree that, based on the same inflexible paradigm of monoculture farming, principled Vegetarianism destroys the rainforest less than a principled Animalianism. We disagree, however, in that I think this relational property of principled Vegetarianism doesn’t make it good. That way of reasoning has two problems.

First, it presupposes that ‘harming less than’ is equivalent to ‘doing something good’; but this is, clearly, a mistaken inference. Take, for instance, two different ways of torturing someone. I can torture someone by slowly chopping off his limbs and making sure he dies not because of the chopping but because he bleeds to death. I can also torture someone by just cutting off his pinkie. The latter does less harm to the person. Does that make it good? I believe not.

Second, it makes it seem like we only have two options from where to choose; but there are many options here. It’s not true that the only options available are:

V2 Eat soybeans by principle (conditionalizing on the paradigm).
A1 Eat cows by principle ((conditionalizing on the paradigm).

Sam’s morals for eating, for example, are neither Vegetarian nor Animalian. I mistakenly labeled it as ‘lower caloriesm’. He’s right in that it seems more like cheap (low cost) environmentalism, or environmental economics. As you can see, it allows for the ingestion of meat to take place. That makes, to my mind, a more sensible view. I must say, however, that I don’t endorse it. This is owed to my conviction that it is very difficult to come up with the right morals for eating. And, I believe, we haven’t done enough research to work this out. This, however, goes beyond the limits of this post. So I’ll present my reasons for believing this, in a different post.

As an ending note, let me correct Sam’s interpretation of the Harvard analogy. My claim is that in having a policy of admissions that effectively results in picking up only upper class, white, and Christian students, Harvard University is endorsing a racist policy. I didn’t mention anything about the student that accepts such an offer.

I believe that things get fuzzier when it comes to the consumer of the racist practice. It is clear to me that if, as the consumer that benefits from that practice, you also endorse it then you are also morally wrong. It is not clear to me what happens when you just benefit from it without endorsing it. I tend to think that if taking the offer has the consequence that the racist practice is nurtured an maintained, then it is morally wrong to do so; and that is so even if you don’t endorse the policy in question. Of course, there is an important problem here about negligence, and what is expected to be known by a student who accepts the offer. I’ll leave it like that.

Moral Claims

I am reading this book called The Undercover Economist. It is blah. But I quite like this chapter about externality charges. The author discourages the moral tone in environmentalism: "If they (made evident the environmental cost of our actions), environmentalists could argue their points from an economic standpoint; much of the moral tone would drain outof the environmental debate, but the environment itself would be much more effectively dealt with."

This closely parallels Eduardo and my debate on the ethics of eating. (Kind of funny, because I only read this chapter after posting my 2 posts and 3 comments.) But it is important to separate moral posturing from morality. The view I support is motivated by environmental-cost concerns, the "moral vegetarian" view is motivated by ethics of animal suffering; but they are both moral views insofar as they are making moral claims about what we ought to do. So similarly, environmentalism does not cease to be a moral issue even if you take the moral tone out of the debate and replace it with economic analyses.

So, the moral of the story (har har har!): Ethicists have much to learn from economists, but maybe economists can listen to the ethicists a bit too, before making the confusion between claims motivated by moral concerns and moral claims.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Lower Caloriesm and Principled Vegetarianism

Sam’s V3 is conditionalized, and so, open to interpretation. If, for example, the world were such that animals were lower in the food chain than vegetables, then V3 would become some form of animalianism. In order to avoid making it an inconsistent view, it’s better to call it “Lower Caloriesm”. I personally do not defend any view. I’m neither an animalian nor a vegetarian. I think it’s quite difficult to come up with the right morals for eating.

I still think V2, the principled vegetarian, is wrongheaded. The case is similar to Kant’s claim that lying is wrong in principle. It follows that if you have to choose between lying and betraying your friend, you should betray your friend. Like Kant, V2 does not endorse that you should eat the rainforest (Kant doesn’t endorse that you should betray your friends); but, also just like Kant, V2 ends up having us (as we do now) eating up the rainforest (like we end up betraying our friends if we follow Kant). To me, this is wrongheaded.

Sam claims that “just because some stuff that some vegetarians eat are produced as a result of deforestation, doesn’t mean that vegetarianism endorses deforestation.” First, it should be said that soybeans are not just some stuff that some vegetarians eat. Soybeans are the main product that all vegetarians eat. That’s why soybeans endanger the rainforest!

Second, similar reasoning to the former would go: just because sometimes your moral principles have it that you betray your friends, doesn’t mean that you should betray your friends. I think this is wrong. If your moral principles endorse action A and B follows as a result, and you know B follows as a result of doing A, then you endorse B as a result of endorsing A.

If this were not the case, then it would be too easy to get off the hook. I could endorse using nuclear plants to generate energy, but just because consuming that energy results in polluting the environment, it doesn’t mean I endorse radioactive pollution; or nuclear tests for sovereignty that don’t endorse the destruction of the arctic pole, or preferential admissions for Lacrosse athletes that don’t endorse racism. That sounds too easy!

Even if V2 does not defend the destruction of the rainforest it endorses a course of action that is destroying the rainforest. It is just illusory to think you can defend V2 just by saying you don’t endorse its bad consequences. Remember, V2 is a moral claim.

I happen to believe that counterfactual reasoning should be informed. It is up to agricultural engineers and ecologists to find out what would happen if this or that change takes place. However, Sam seems pretty confident about his reasoning. The damage to the rainforest would be greater if cows were eaten instead of soybeans,. Furthermore, he claims that we would get more calories if we planted more vegetables where we plant corn for cows. If I were allowed to engage in this a priori counterfactual reasoning, then I would say that we would get lower environmental costs if we found a better way to feed cows. For example, cows would not destroy the rainforest if non-monoculture farming took place.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Reply to Eduardo

It is just a matter of fact that eating soybeans in such a big amount is destroying the rainforest. There’s nothing more to be said here.

It is a matter of fact about the current agricultural practice, debatably. Vegetarianism, however, is not about the current agricultural practice. It is a general position that requires counterfactual reasoning. And what I am saying if everyone who is a vegetarian now starts to eat meat, then it would be destroying the rainforest even quicker (because it would take even more land to produce one calorie of meat than one calorie of soy -- those cows have to eat something). Conversely, if everyone who eats meat now converts to vegetarianism, then the land we are currently using to produce food for cows can be used to plant, say, soy. Consequently, we wouldn't need to deforest the rainforest. By the way, there are monoculture pasture farming of cows that are destroying the rainforest too, and that is killing the land because the land loses all its soil after about 10 years.*

Vegetarians defend V2. V2 does not have the consequence you think it has. Namely, V2 does not imply deforestation. Just because some stuff that some vegetarians eat are produced as a result of deforestation does not mean that vegetarianism endorces deforestation. In fact, I would say the practical action would be to plant vegetables where we currently plant corn (which is what we feed to cows). Then with the same space, we produce more calories.

It follows from V3 and the actuality that vegetables are lower than the animals we eat (except maybe snails) on the food chain that we should eat vegetables only. But good, I need to clarify this: V3 is a moral claim, but it is not a claim motivated by moral concerns about animal suffering. The latter is what I call the moral version of vegetarianism, short-handedly and perhaps confusingly.

* reference: "Industrial agriculture and beef production for example, is a major cause of deforestation in the Amazon, to raise cattle. This is not even for local needs, but to meet fast food restaurant demands in the Northern countries."

On the Vegetarian Strawman

I think Sam’s argument is unsuccessful. I believe he misconstrues my argument, and that the vegetarianism that he defends is quite weak.

Take the following two vegetarian positions:

V1 Eat the rainforest
V2 Don’t eat animals, be kind to them

My argument is somehow different to what Sam thinks, It doesn’t point out that the vegetarian claims we should defend V1). That would be, as Sam claims, like building up a strawman. Rather my argument is a reductio ad absurdum. It starts (literally) by attributing V2 to the vegetarian and agues that V2 has a ridiculous consequence. As a matter of fact, it has V1 as a consequence. It is just a matter of fact that eating soybeans in such a big amount is destroying the rainforest. There’s nothing more to be said here.

So, unless vegetarians in fact do not defend V2, then I’m either building up a strawman or simply mislabeling the claim. I do think, however, that many a people that call themselves “vegetarians” embrace V2. Thus, it can be said that my argument successfully shows that some form of vegetarianism (V2) is ridiculous.

Sam presents vegetarianism as defending V3

V3 Eat closer to the bottom of the food chain to avoid environmental cost

I want to say three things about V3. First, this is not a vegetarian argument in principle. It is, as we might put it, a utilitarian form of vegetarianism. It is compatible with eating animals, if we could just find an animal pretty low in the food chain. Second, if V3 is not a moral claim, then it is not vegetarian. Sam thinks V3 is a non-moral claim.

I don’t know what to think about this. V3 is telling us (and Sam with it) what to do when we eat. In so far as moral claims are claims about what we should do, V3 is a moral claim. Furthermore, I think V3 better be a moral claim. If it isn’t, V3 is no vegetarianism at all. It would just be the same as claiming V4

V4 Eating closer to the bottom of the food chain avoids environmental costs

I still think V3 is different from V4. No matter what you think about moral naturalism, it is just not true that you can get an imperative from V4 alone. Thus, if V3 is non-moral, then it is compatible with V4, and it is totally consistent for someone to defend V4 and still eat meat. And that’s because V4 is no vegetarianism.

Third. I guess that makes V3 a moral claim, or a claim about what we should do when thinking what to eat. The problem is that, as I claim with my first point, it is a utilitarian or consequentialist claim: you should eat vegetable if you want to reduce environmental cost. This way of putting things, however, falls prey of similar problems to those of endorsing V2. As any consequentialist claim, V3 most endorse the consequences of its imperative claims. And, as we can clearly see, eating at the bottom of the food chain (i.e. eating soy-beans) in fact is destroying the rainforest. I'm not sure, thus, that it's the cheapest environmental way to go.

I guess this is a way to show either that V3 gets us back to V1, or that we should go and do some research before claiming that eating at the bottom of the food chain has the lowest environmental cost. No matter how intuitive that claim might be.


Edu's argument is knocking down a strawman. It is an unfair characterization of the vegetarian position. Of course no one is advocating chopping down rainforests for soy. That's not what they want.

It is obvious that the environmental cost / calorie produced goes up as you move up the food chain. That is to say, a calorie of beef costs way more to the environment than a calorie of soy (or corn or grass, but we cannot eat grass). This should be evident from the fact that cows have to grow skeletons to support their meat, and we don't eat those bones. So what vegetarians, at least the sensible non-moral version i support, are advocating is to eat closer to the bottom of the food chain to reduce environmental cost. Instead of the acres and acres of fields that are producing corn in iowa for animal feeds, plant some plants there! perhaps soy, or rice, just something we would eat. In this sense, eating less meat reduces the environmental cost.

Think about it, rainforests could be just as well chopped down to produce things we feed cows. and in that case, it is even less inefficient.

Of course, i actually think all monoculture agriculture is bad. And you should never plant just one crop, but instead use some kind of natural foodchain to produce multiple crops (and animals) on a farm. But since our current paradigm is dominated by industrial monoculture farms, then i'd rather those monoculture farms produce things for humans to eat, instead of for the animals human eat to eat -- for the sake of environmental cost.

Note: this is Sam's argument, though posted by Edu

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Two views on Mind, Concepts and Language

To understand the way in which cognition, the nature of the mind and language relate to each other it is useful to see how two different views on either one of these topics work in comparison to each other.

There is a view on language, concerning the content of proper and common nouns, which claims that their meaning is solely their referent. According to this view, proper nouns have individual objects as referents and common nouns sets of objects. Concepts are similarly understood as just sets of objects. Thus, to know a concept one must know its extension. A view of the mind as causally structured and determined, follows this view. If the mind is an information processing system, it does its processing by taking input and giving output. All these can be understood as the way the mind interprets the environment.

Another view on language claims that the meaning of proper and common nouns is the referent plus a mode of presentation of it. In other terms, the meaning is partly the referent and partly the meaning of a definite description. Concepts are equally defined as having more than just extension; they have, also, an intension. It is difficult to see, however, what an intension is (unlike extensions, intensions are not objects) and, thus, how it relates to the human mind. So there is not an explicitly causal account of the nature of the mind. If the mind is an information processing system it is not clear, neither that it relates causally with the input (environment), nor that the interpretation of the input is a causal function. Two prominent accounts of properties (modal realism and the theory of universals) have been developed to account for intensions. Both, however, leave the processing relations unexplained. This is owed to the fact that there is no causal mind-intension relation; neither for the modal realist view, nor for the view that posits universals.

At this point it is important to note the similarities between both views: the linguistic position they take concerning the meaning of proper and common nouns determines (and is determined by) their view about concepts and about the nature of the mind. Thus, evidence coming from any of these different areas can help getting things clear in the other two. It can be, for instance, that a better view on concepts, and cognition in general, helps us get the story about the mind straight, and also about language. Suppose, for example, that it is shown that the mind works by establishing causal maps of the objects in the environment. Such a view would exclude the possibility of concepts being more than extensions of objects and, with it, the need for something else than referents to determine/constitute meaning.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Mind, Language and (Culture?)

The goal is to give an account of the relation between cognitive and linguistic features of humans and the way they relate with the environment. The elements proposed for the story are the following: theories of mind (as a cognitive property possessed by all humans), concept-word mappings (as part of the nature of language development), and practices that result from the relation between humans and their environment.

The story goes, roughly, like this. The practices that result from the relation between humans and their environment are determined bidirectionally by the theory of mind developed and the language used.

The parts would be explained, roughly, as follows. One of the most interesting developments in infants is their capacity to distinguish mental from physical objects, and to ascribe mental states. Such a capacity can be understood in terms of having a theory, a theory of mind. In order to predict behavior, humans in general (not only infants) make use of this theory.

In order for a sound (or a physical object) to be meaningful it must be mapped into a concept. Language is, in part at least, learned through linguistic interaction with competent (or more competent than oneself) speakers. A very important tool (among many others) to do the word-concept mapping is the theory of mind. Children as young as 3 years of age are said to used this capacity in order to identify intensions from speech and, thus, determine the meaning of new words. Here language development depends on theory of mind development.

The connection between the former looks, roughly, like this. Within the lexicon there is a set of terms that refer to mental states, the ‘mental’ entries of the lexicon. A language that overtly uses more mental entries allows for the infant to develop a richer theory of mind, partly because it allows for more word-mental concepts mappings and, so, the acquisition of more mental concepts. Here the development of the theory of mind depends on language development. And, so, we get a bidirectional language-cognition determination.

Now, for the third and most spooky element in the story, the story might go like this. There are important differences in the ways in which human groups relate with their environment (it is difficult to say, however, how to individuate groups if not in terms of these practice-relation differences). The claim here is that this relation between humans and their environment is highly determined by the Theory of Mind-Language (ToML) cognition that is developed. For example, if a highly developed and detailed ToML includes the claim that only human beings have mental states, or that only animate objects have mental states, the individual will relate differently with the environment (partly constituted by non-human objects and inanimate objects) than if the ToML is quite minimal and does not include such distinctions.

Briefly speaking, the claim would be that relevant differences in the relation between humans and their environment will be accompanied by relevant differences in the mental section of their lexicon and, thus, with relevant differences in the complexity and specificity of the Theory of Mind.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Metaphysics of Syntax and Cognitive Development

Quine (“Ontological Relativity”, “Two Dogmas”, and elsewhere) forcefully argued, to my mind convincingly, that matters of meaning are always matters of ontology. Theories of meaning (i.e. what ‘gavagai’ means) are theories of what there is. This is a view about semantics. I would like to extend it to syntax.

Think of syntactic categories as something like the pool of meanings that you get to pick from. In a sense, this is more than just a way of thinking about syntax. For every lexical item it is true that you have to pick between kinds of roles it can play. The translation is not direct, so let me make it more explicit. When we decide about meaning we modify our ontology. When we decide about syntactic category we modify our ontology, but also our metaphysical framework.

Take the following syntactic categories: verbs, nouns, transitive verbs, intransitive verbs, prepositional phrases, and sentence complements.

Now thinking about the following metaphysical categories: actions, objects, relations, causal relations, associations, properties and mental entities.

Do they fit together? It has been argued that, at some point in language development, children determine the content of words by using syntax. My guess is that what children do can also be well described by saying that children determine the content of words by using metaphysics. Take a new word ‘mem’ and its family ‘memming’, ‘memmed’ and ‘memmer’. It seems likely that children can connect the morphological and syntactic differences (those that come when the new word is used in sentences) by just using a simple metaphysical framework: words ending with ‘ing’ denote actions, some others with ‘ed’ denote properties, and those with appear by themselves, denote whole-objects. Furthermore, when sentences within sentences denote mental phenomena.

I guess one might say, but that’s just what syntax is. To which I would reply that that is just what metaphysics is. Of course, the important thing here is that, unlike a good part of the metaphysical tradition, we have very good empirical support now. Or, to put it somehow differently, this categorization is the product of the interaction of an organism with its environment. Metaphysics is not a given, experience independent knowledge. It’s rather more like something that we do, very often, and very naturally so. It could still be a priori, if by ‘a priori’ we don’t mean experience-independent, but rather data-independent. In this sense, ‘a priori’ would just mean ‘something that we do with theories and concepts’. But this requires a different text, one that might come later.

There is, still, another fight to be dwelt. And that is the developmental fight concerning cognition. I claim that all these metaphysical categories are present since early on in human cognition (experience) of the world. It has been shown that infants as young as 4 months of age already behave in accordance with the existence of objects, with their being solid and continuous in time, and with a good notion of what space and time is. Some, Elizabeth Spelke among them, want to follow Kant in claiming this to be a priori or given. Others follow Piaget in taking this as a contingent product of humans in the particular environment they live in. I tend to believe more in this second approach. Young infants, endowed with a powerful information processing system, one that is able to self-revise and self-modify (plasticity), come up with metaphysical categories that put some order to their experience. Through experience other more specific and powerful cognitive capacities, such as language (5 years of age, when fully competent) and logic (late adolescence) are developed.

In a sense, on this view, syntax (and with it language and logic) builds upon this metaphysic framework. The framework is general enough for infants to do it. Thus, the neural connections necessary for it to take place leave open space for various syntactic, lexical, pragmatic, moral, aesthetic and many other kinds of structures to be carved deeper, stronger, and more precisely in.

Reading Ourselves

Three facts come to mind:

(1) Children focus on the speaker’s intensions in order to learn the meanings of words.
(2) It is easier for children to extend the use of a word (e.g. ‘dog’) than a sign (e.g. a drawing).
(3) Novel actions or words (unlike signs) are easily learned and extended in use.

This suggests a relation between intensionality and extendibility. It is easier to extend the use of a sign when it is associated with a speaker’s intensionality than when it isn’t. But not only, it (obviously) also suggests a lack of intensionality (or at least, a lack of recognition of intensionality) in physical, external, subject-independent signs (e.g. a drawing). Children’s theory of mind easily picks up the distinction between physical and mental; it is difficult, however, to have a clear-cut criterion for borderline cases, such as texts, drawings, and works of art. Thus, initially, there is a big set of objects, which are not recognized as having any intensions. Infants might start with humans as endowed with intensions. Adults certainly recognize intensions in objects that exist independently of any particular human individual (e.g. texts, drawings, music, and more). What is the mechanism underlying this difference?

Here’s a hypothesis, a very simple, obvious, hypothesis: we start associating mental properties with human individuals (there’s a good chance that infants have the capacity to distinguish human from non-human objects), and then extend certain features to other objects (e.g. animated objects) by making them, somehow, subjects (i.e. objects with intensions). These extensions are difficult to make, but they are essential.

Another more interesting case is reading. Reading can be seen as the result of one of these extensions: i.e. extending intensionality to physical, external, subject-independent signs. This extension, however, is special. It extends to inanimate objects. Thus, intensionality is attributed indirectly. Unlike speech, gazes, and other behavior, a drawing and a text can be perceived without the presence of a speaker. This is, I guess, what is so strange about reading (e.g. texts, drawings, paintings, etc).

Through writing (e.g. texts, drawings and else) humans have found a way to put their intensions out in a more ‘independent’ manner. This trick, however, has a cost. No text, drawing, or painting is as transparent as speech, gazes and other behavior in terms of the speaker’s mental state. Texts are better seen as tracks left by some intentional system at some given time. That this is true can be seen by anyone who dares to read any piece of text that was written by ‘her’, enough time in the past. Whatever it is that we read in those cases is certainly not what we currently think. Reading ourselves looks more like reading someone else. In trying to externalize our mental states we inevitably detach them from the process that they form a part of. They are detached from whatever it is that makes them part of a mental life. Thus, it can be said, in this very simply (non-metaphysical) sense that in writing texts, whatever it is that we put is something strange to ourselves.
It might very well be, however, that we have no better way to perceive, and eventually know or believe, something about ourselves. It might be, then, that all we have is the chance to collect these tracks, hints and clues that we leave behind. We then come up with a story, and stick to it. Though, as we’ve seen, the story will always, most certainly, be about someone else.

Furthermore, that is in fact the only thing we can do. For a complete track of us from ourselves is impossible. We would fall directly (and literally) into the third man’s pit, we would need to stand above, aside, or outside of ourselves; but who would stand above that external individual perceiving us? Perhaps that’s way, as a matter of fact, we rely on others to keep track of ourselves. This will be a nice interpretation, a close one, perhaps the best one, but it will still be nothing more than the recollection of hints, tracks, and clues mentioned above.

What is the problem here? Why are our theories, believes and desires about ourselves so detached from what we are? The answer must be simple: to theorize we must first perceive. When the same organism that is supposed to be perceived theorizes at the same time that it is supposed to perceive, then all you can get is delayed theorizing about delayed perception. Perhaps that’s a fact of all theories, concerning all phenomena. It is a peculiar idiosyncratic feature of humans that they feel they should have a better, infallible theorizing of their selves. Something would be wrong if they could.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Eat what you want! (please)

The bumper sticker read: Be kind to animals, don't eat them. Asides from the huge moral heteronomy that this message is presupposing, there is a strong inconsistency within the course of action that it proposes.

Let's suppose that not eating animals is kind for animals. There are two options, either we eat something else, or we die. The second option has the consequence that, if you want to be kind to animals, you should starve. The other option, however, has a more problematic consequence. Given the facts of how the environment is, if we eat something else but animals we end up killing them (not that kind), or starving. Thus, whatever we do, if we don't eat animals we'll end up doing something not kind to them, or to ourselves.

Here's why. If you eat something else, say, soy, then you'll end up modifying the environment and destroying the food resources for those animals you intend to be so kind to. If you don't believe me, take a look at this.

So let me see how the argument is supposed to go. Be kind to animals. Eat soy. If you eat soy you help increasing deforestation (e.g. Brazilian Amazon). However, if you help increasing deforestation then you help destroying the animal's environment and, with it, its food resources. Thus, the argument goes, “Be kind to animals, destroy their environment and eliminate their food resources.” What a way to be kind to animals!!

There's also the chance, I must admit, that being kind to animals implies not eating them, or anything that affects their environment. But then, unless Ecology is mistaken and it is not true that the world as a whole is an environment intricately connecting every single part with the rest as part of an alimentary/consumption chain, there is nothing left for humans to eat. Thus, the claim goes: Be kind to animals, starve!

This is what happens when you get to stupid arguments such as not eating animals in order to be kind. You get something like the following.

Be kind to animals. Destroy their food resources. (inconsistent)
Be kind to animals. Starve. (nonsensical)

Unless we find a way to step out of the alimentary chain without dying in the process (oxymoron?), be kind to yourself and eat animals.

Second Order Ontology

I want to defend a strong analogist position. According to my view, whatever sort of metatheoretical claim (e.g. realist, antirealist, etc) that we may want to make about natural sciences applies, mutatis mutandis, to theories of mind. Thus, if there is chance for a scientific realist, there’s also space for a mental realist. I think that views that hold natural sciences to be distinct and privileged theories are misconstrued (at the best) and metaphysically inconsistent (very often).

Theorizing is something humans do, but sometimes they do absurdly. Macedonio gives us a nice example

- General F improvised a discourse.
- He will be lost if he misreads it.

There’s some beauty to this case, since it’s not only showing absurdity but also how it is justified once it is embedded within a particular normative layer. Improvisation is in itself the art of always reading well for there’s nothing to be read. However, there’s also the misleading assumption that all discourses must be well read. When we mix both ideas, we find stupidity.

I think something very similar goes on with second order properties and objects. I’m of the idea that concepts, theories, propositions and meaning are all the same thing. Furthermore, I’m convinced that they are all second order properties, that is, they are all relations or properties that exist because of the particular relation that an object, or a set of properties, bear in virtue of the way in which they relate to each other. I also believe that, as such, concepts, meaning, propositions and theories are ineliminable, though functionally reducible to first order properties. Thus, the second order property of being the father of X is, first, a legitimate (i.e. causally efficient) property, second, a property that an object O may bear in virtue of other first order properties (e.g. being a living organism capable of reproducing itself), as well as other second order properties (e.g. being part of a social network), and third, a property that is not identical to any first order property.

Some problems have been and keep being raised against accounts of meaning such as this one. A typical one, famously endorsed by Jaegwon Kim, says that all this properties do not, in fact, have causal powers; that they, at the most, inherit their causal efficacy from first order properties. I think, however, that all this is just as absurd as the example given by Macedonio. Kim takes something he calls “physical causation” as the honorary member of the causal efficacy club. Within it, I take it, he includes gravity and inertia. These, however, are also honorary members of the second order properties club. Both, gravity and inertia are properties that objects have in virtue of their standing in certain relations with other objects. Physical objects alone can be dismantled in all their first order properties without finding gravity in them. Gravity is, by definition, a relational property. The most basic causal forces that constitute Kim’s honorary club of causal efficacy are, themselves, relational properties. So why not take other second order properties, such as meaning something, or being true, or having a certain extension, as equally legitimate properties occupying an important part of our ontology?

A negative answer cannot be based on purely Aquinas’ like claims such as the fact that we don’t see meanings, and we can’t see propositions. Such reasoning would force us to reject inertia and gravity as well. And don’t reply by claiming that we can measure gravity and inertia, for we can do so with meaning and propositions as well. We have theories of physical objects to take care of the former task, and theories of mind to take care of the latter. There are good reasons to be an analogist.

Thus, continuing with Macedonio’s illuminating example. We might want to say:

-General K has accepted the efficacy of second order properties.
-He will be lost if we accepts the efficacy of the mind.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Radical Amnesia

It’s difficult to conceive a case of radical amnesia; more difficult, I think, than what it takes to conceive a case of radical skepticism. Cartesian and Matrix-like scenarios are little playgrounds in comparison to it. This is shown by the simple fact that a radical skepticism still allows me (as it in fact does) to write down these letters, and believe in all these stories. Radical Amnesia, however, is not that benign.

Think of the most exotic case of it. How would look like? I start writing down this text and at some point I forget its topic. But things can get worse. Let’s think of this gradually. At some point I simply can’t remember what I’m doing here. So leave things and go do something else. That’s a first step, the following ones are more interesting.

What if I forget that I am writing a text at all. I just find out that I’m sitting here, in front of a computer, with my hands on the keyboard, without any clue of what is going on. That can be worse; but there’s more.

What if I forget that I’ve been here before, that this is my house, and that is my computer? I might suddenly find myself at a stranger’s place, not knowing what to do, not knowing where to go.

What then, if one instant before finding myself lost I forget such a thing? How can I orient myself? I can start telling myself stories about who, and where I am, and what I am about to do. But this is still not radical enough.

Think about the case where you forget that you have beliefs, you forget all words, you forget all structure, you forget meanings, you forget names, you forget feelings, sensations and all that barrage of stimuli that constitute your experience. What then? Think about the case where amnesia is radical enough to become a second order lack of recall, you forget that you forgot to remember and, furthermore, you forget that you are in fact able to remember. Could you still come up with stories of evil demons and perverse matrixes that, after all, make sense of your stimuli?

Radical amnesia is exotic enough for us to forget what it is like to be humans, to feel, to see, to hear, to taste, to think, to believe, to desire, to want, to laugh, to smile, and even to conceive. This is not as much a recognition of the threat of radical amnesia as it is a statement of how central and necessary is memory for anything that we might want to call human. Memory is pervasive, and radical amnesia is nothing more than pure silence; and not even that, radical amnesia just isn’t.


It has happened before, enough times for me to realize how it works. That constant spleen that forces me to hate my state, is here again. However, this time it shows a different face. I’ve found out some things, made some discoveries, thanks to this stubborn resilience.

I’ve learned that after the third time I clip my finger nails off, it is time for me to leave. No place, no routine, and no environment can stand for the fourth. I don’t clip off my nails that often, though. They tend to grow slowly I tend to support their size for long periods of time. The idea of clipping them off never comes until the keyboard tells me how real they are. Touching the keys is not as easy as before, my fingernails get in the middle all the time. It is time for them to be pruned. This is the second time in this semester. I’m about to leave this place, I know.

I’ve also learned that I can’t subsist without doing this. I can’t keep going without telling me stories, without making noise, without demolishing my own previous views, without replenishing the army of figments that my imagination works with. I need to write in order to survive.

The time has come, then, for me to sit, and write. But writing down things is not a mere matter of putting the fingers on movement. It is a matter of having complete (or having the feeling of producing complete) pieces of writing. I need to feel roundness in the sentences. I need to empty my head, and this is the only way to do so. There is no sun today. It is cold outside. And I can’t stand myself. I need to write.

It’s all a matter of timing. And I need to spit what I can’t digest.

Continuing the Metaphor

Another interesting dynamic:

On the one hand, information processing accounts of the human mind are not new. Neither is the metaphor that the mind works pretty much like a computer, with the neurphisiological structure as the hardware, and the knowledge and cultural information as the software. It is also not news that this metaphor has been insufficient for some. There just seem to be too many qualitative differences (e.g. highly complex linguistic competence, and poetic as well as theoretic capacities, among others) between one and the other.

On the other hand, connectionist accounts of the mind have increasingly claimed that connection speed and capacity limitations are in fact cognitive capacities of the mind. They account, among other things, for important epistemic differences in early infancy, such as the difference between retrieving hidden objects that were previously visible and not bieng able to do so. These accounts claim that knowledge is task dependent and, moreover, that it develops in accordance with the speed of connection. The difference that they account for, however, is more likely a qualitative than a quantitative one. The difference between having or lacking knowledge, between representing or not an object, is qualitative enough. The question is, then, how do these theories account for such a change in terms of hardware differences such as strength of connection? The answer is surprisingly old and well known: through self-reference. The model proposed (Munakata, et. al. 1997) is such that the system (hardware) is able to revise itself by using the information (software) encoding through previous experiences. More importantly, while revising itself the system modifies itself (the connection strength is modified, at the very least).

How should we modify the computer metaphor, then, in order to fit our qualitative needs? I think we have a very plausible suggestion here: all we need is to make the computer in the metaphor a little bit more plastic and self-conscious. All we need is a hardware that is able to modify itself given its own software. The mind is still very much like a computer.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Evolution of Kantian Morals

Contemporary theory of Morality (a.k.a. metaethics) is thriving in empirical, psychological and evolutionary arguments to the point that one (or other) moral system is supposed to be correct. A philosophically minded person might be reluctant to accept that the deontologists versus consequentialists debate might be solved by evolutionary reasons. Things, however, seem to go that way. A famous argument has it that, for instance, a Kantian-like moral theory cannot be correct given the demands that it puts over motivation for action. A high motivation for our duty, as opposed to ‘our survival’ doesn’t seem to fit well what we know (or think we know) about human psychology and emotions.

However, once we take a look at how debates in psychology take place, things appear to be different. The way in which research and discussion takes place in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics (to mention a couple) is surprisingly similar to that of philosophy and its history. Suffice it to say that almost all theoretical approaches presuppose a theoretical dichotomy: domain specific or domain general, nature or nurture, maturation or learning, given or acquired, Plato or Locke.

Thus, in an effort to continue proving that debates concerning normative ethics, or how to pick between Kant and Mill, will not be so easily solved by an appeal to Biology, Evolution theory or Cognitive Psychology I hereby present what intends to be an evolutionary account of a Kantian-like version of how normative ethics should go.

Let’s start by laying down my presuppositions. I am assuming that human cognitive capacities are the result of an evolutionary adaptation. Thus, I am assuming that it is by means of their cognitive capacities that human animals have managed to survive. As a consequence it seems acceptable that any practice that points towards an improvement of such cognitive capacities will be evolutionarily advantageous.

Forget the biological side now. Let’s go to the normative ethics side of my claim. I am assuming that autonomy is a core element to a Kantian version of normative ethics. In short, I am assuming that an ethical theory that demands that all our actions be the result of self-determined deliberation processes, as opposed to externally-imbued deliberation processes (and or imperatives), is a Kantian ethical theory.

Now, how do these two assumptions work together? The answer lies in the cognitive processes implied by both, the biological and the ethical side. On the one hand, the ethical claim that a morally correct action is that which results of a self-determined deliberation process, presupposes a rationally competent and critical individual. For an individual to behave according to the “Do as you want so far as you determine your own will” dictum, the individual must be able to engage in highly complex cognitive processes such as the representation of different courses of action, comparing the available options looking for advantages and disadvantages, and questioning previous assumptions in order to determine which option is better to follow. In short, this Kantian version of an ethical theory demands that the individual exercise her metacognitive capacities.

On the other hand the biological claim that it is by using their cognitive capacities that humans have managed to survive through evolutionary history presupposes a complex use of cognitive capacities. Though it seems that a good amount of basic cognitive capacities are shared between apes and human animals, it seems clear that there is an important difference in what respects to high order cognitive processes, such as those labeled as ‘metacognition’. Human’s use of representation is distinctive in that there is a conscious access to concepts and not just an unreflective use of them.

Hence, both the Kantian ethical theory and the evolutionary account of human cognitive capacities seem to stand on a common basis: the advantages of using high-level cognition. If it has been evolutionarily advantageous to develop such a complex cognitive apparatus, why couldn’t a cognitively complex ethical theory (such as a Kantian-like theory) be fit for such an organism? After all, a Kantian like theory has the exercise of high-level cognitive capacities (those that explain why humans are where they are in evolutionary terms) as one of its consequences.

Furthermore, it has been hypothesized that such a use of high-level cognition helps humans in their constant effort to improve their knowledge (science) of the environment. We seem to have yet another evolutionary reason to think that there is space for a Kantian like ethical theory within an organism such conceived.