Monthly Archives: April 2014

Kant’s Transcendental Idealism

Immanuel Kant use to be my most favorite philosopher, but nowadays I’m not so sure anymore. Now, I certainly think Kant is one of the most influential and important philosophers ever. For one, the “analytic” and “synthetic”  distinction was first explicated by Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason. While Kant’s predecessors did talk about the distinction in terms of ideas and experience (i.e. Hume), he was probably the first to use the terms “analytic” and “synthetic” as a way to make the distinction. This distinction, whether philosophers like it or not, had such an important impact in philosophy that it has a lasting influence even up to the contemporary Analytic tradition. It even survives Quine’s challenge to the distinction, though it is no longer non-controversial. Kant also had an important influence in contemporary ethics and political philosophy. The contemporary deontological ethics, Contractualism, and John Rawls’ Theory of Justice are influenced by Kant’s views on ethics. Kant was among the few philosophers to make an innovative (though in my opinion deeply flawed) argument for Philosophy of Religion known as the Moral Argument for the existence of God. Lastly, Kant’s liberal theory of international relations which is that international trade among the republics would decrease war and bring peace is an influential theory among international relation scholars.

So Kant seems like an important philosopher, but how come he’s no longer my favorite philosopher? I acknowledge that Kant still influences me when it comes to doing ethics. While I don’t agree with Kant’s deontological views about lying, I do think that his attempt to find a principled and systematic manner to derive normative claims from some ideal rational procedure is on the right track. The categorical imperative, or more specifically the formula of humanity, seems to be on the right track though it is still far from error proof. I do disagree with him that the only morally praiseworthy motive is that which is from duty, but I digress. I think my real problem with Kant is Transcendental Idealism, which I think most philosophers, especially those who do epistemology, would find troubling.

Kant’s Transcendental Idealism is really complicated, especially given that it is written in his convoluted and long book Critique of Pure Reason. I won’t go into details about Transcendental Idealism, but it basically boils down to the distinction between the phenomenal (appearance of things or experience) and noumenal (things-in-themselves). Kant basically thinks that our mind is capable of apprehending experience in terms of a priori intuitions (i.e. space-time) and concepts (i.e. causation, substance, necessity, possibility, etc.). Our minds ultimately organize our experience according to intuitions and concepts that are innate, which is how reality appears in a certain way to us. However, Kant comes to the conclusion that ultimately we can never know the true nature of reality (noumenal) and only know our experience (phenomenal). The role of reason, for Kant, is to make postulates beyond experience such as God, soul, free-will, beginning of time, etc. However, Kant thinks that ultimately reason will come across antinomies or contradictions that will prevent it from comprehending the noumenal.

Kant’s Transcendental Idealism was pretty much an essential part of his philosophical career and it had an important influence on the philosophical tradition known as German Idealism. However, ever since the decline of German Idealism (as well as British Idealism), the influence of Kant’s Transcendental Idealism pretty much fell out of favor even among Analytic philosophers. A lot of this probably has to do with Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore’s attempt to shift away from a philosophical tradition influenced by Kant to Analytic philosophy. In Bounds of the Senses, an Analytic Philosopher P.F. Strawson tries to salvage some essential aspects of Kant’s Transcendental Idealism. However, even Strawson wouldn’t go as far to endorse Kant’s radical claim that we can never know anything about the nature of reality. From what I know so far, the only concept from Kant’s Transcendental Idealism that is still influential is the “Transcendental Apperception” or also known as the unity of consciousness (this became apparent to me when my mentor Georges Rey talked about it in his philosophy of mind class).

So what is it about Kant’s Transcendental Idealism that turns most analytic philosophers off? As my friend Ryan Carmody pointed out, its a non-starter for contemporary epistemology, since Kant’s distinction between the noumenal and phenomenal denies that there is such thing as knowledge. Most of our knowledge is about the external world, but Kant’s distinction between phenomenal and noumenal suggests that we are never justified in believing in the external world. Kant could allow that we only know our experience that presents the external world in a certain manner, but obviously this doesn’t take as very far. Kant even denies that we can know anything about our true nature, since even our “soul” belongs to the noumenal. We can only know the phenomenal experience of ourselves, but not our true nature. So even self-knowledge goes out the window. In effect, we pretty much don’t know anything.

This was a common charge against Kant even during his time. A lot of his contemporaries accuse him of radical skepticism, which Kant denies. Even though Kant was not a radical skeptic about the existence of an external world, he comes pretty close to a radical skeptic of knowledge. In fact, I personally think Kant’s Transcendental Idealism is just a fancy version of philosophical skepticism about knowledge. This might be an uncharitable and unscholarly interpretation of Kant, which I admit given that I am not a professional Kant scholar. I did, however, read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (though his second edition) and some secondary sources about Kant’s Transcendental Idealism (try Henry E. Allison’s “Kant’s Transcendental Idealism”). From what I can recall, Kant didn’t deny that there is such thing as knowledge, but rather he tries to redefine knowledge within his own framework. What motivates Kant to do this is that he was responding against two strains: Dogmatism and Skepticism. Kant disagreed with rationalists and empiricists like Leibniz and Locke that we have direct access to reality through reason or experience. Kant also disagreed with philosophers who came close to denying that we have any knowledge at all (i.e. Hume). Kant called philosophers like Leibniz and Locke “dogmatists” because he was worried that they came close an optimism that we can find some ultimate answer to most philosophical questions about reality. Kant wanted to emphasize that we cannot find such an answer given our epistemic finitude. Kant also balks at radical skepticism, since he thinks we do at least have some kind of knowledge. So, Kant wants to find a middle ground between Dogmatism and Skepticism. He thinks that we do not have direct access to reality, but rather we actively construct our understanding of reality from innate concepts and intuitions. Thus, knowledge is not a passive relation to reality, but rather an activity that requires some experience.

Is Kant’s redefinition of knowledge successful? Many contemporary philosophers are trying to redefine knowledge ever since Edmund Gettier presented the Gettier problem which challenged the traditional definition of Knowledge as true justified belief. However, most of these philosophers often try to redefine knowledge in such a way that reasonably allows us to have at least some knowledge about the external world. However, Kant doesn’t bother to redefine knowledge in such a way that allows us some knowledge of the external world. Kant’s framework wouldn’t allow knowledge of the external world, but only how it appears to us. As I pointed out earlier, Kant wouldn’t even allow knowledge about our true nature, which is a big trouble for anyone who believes in an inkling of self-knowledge. Furthermore, Kant’s Transcendental Idealism suffers from a problem that can potentially render it incoherent. In fact, his friend Moses Mendelssohn probably brought it up. Kant’s Transcendental Idealism states that “causation” is an a priori concept that helps us organize our experience in causal terms. Furthermore, space and time are a priori intuitions that renders raw experience into spatial and temporal manifestation. However, if space, time, and causation are just inside our head, then how did something “out” there “cause” me to have a certain kind of experience? In order to explain how I had such an experience, I need to ascribe the very concepts and intuitions to reality. However, this is contrary to what Kant wants.

Whether or not Kant’s Transcendental Idealism succeeds in redefining knowledge is up to the reader, but I personally think it should be evident that its a non-starter for contemporary epistemology. No philosopher would want to redefine knowledge in such a way that excludes any possible knowledge of the external world. Kant’s Transcendental Idealism had its run in the history of philosophy, but it has become irrelevant to contemporary epistemology. Perhaps Kant’s Transcendental Idealism is relevant to cognitive science, since he does think that our minds have innate a priori concepts and intuitions that construct our experience in a certain manner. However, its doubtful that Kant’s Transcendental Idealism is even helpful to cognitive science given that he denies we can know anything about reality including our own minds. I still think Kant is an important philosopher, but his relevance lies mostly in contemporary Ethics, Political Philosophy, International Relations, and the Analytic-Synthetic debate (though his relevance in that debate is questionable given that his theory of analyticity is not widely accepted).

Uploading a Mind?

I’m not an expert in Singularity, but I think I can talk about the topic of “mind-uploading” from the perspective of philosophy. What prompt me to discuss about this topic is the movie that recently came out called Transcendence. Check out the link here. Basically, at some point in the trailer the protagonist Will gets his mind uploaded to a computer. I think I want to focus on that part of the trailer in this blog post.

I want to start with what exactly we mean by “uploading”. I’m pretty sure that anyone can go online or find a computer science textbook to find out what the term “uploading” means in a technical sense. Usually, when people talk about uploading things, they are talking about uploading data or information. What would constitute data? Well, if one is uploading a digital data, then data just means a sequence of binary codes (0 and 1). If one is uploading a picture, one is essentially uploading a certain sequence of 0’s and 1’s. I’m not a computer scientist, so perhaps what I’m saying about uploading is wrong. Nonetheless, my main point is that when we talk about uploading a data we already have available sources (i.e. computer science text book) that can explain what it means to upload a data.

However, when we talk about uploading a mind, do we understand what it means to upload a mind in a way that is analogous to uploading a data? We understand what a data is, but it is far from obvious we understand what a mind is. I think this is where the problem begins with the concept of “mind uploading”. We are only beginning to understand various facets of the mind from memory to vision. With the recent development of brain scans (i.e. MRI, PET, CAT, etc.) as well as the mapping of neurons (i.e. connectome), we can gather as much information about the brain. However, we still have a long way to understand the brain. There are some aspects of the mind that we are still struggling to understand such as intentionality and consciousness.

So, given that we have so much to learn about the nature of the mind as oppose to data, the term “mind-uploading” seems vacuous. However, to be fair, we do have a decent grasp on understanding brain processes that have to do with our sensory inputs like vision. However, when people talk about “mind-uploading”, they aren’t talking about uploading sub-systems responsible for processing sensory information. Instead, they are talking about what constitutes our personal identity. They are talking about uploading our personal identity or mental aspects of the mind pertinent to personal identity. If this is what people have in mind, then we are in an even deeper philosophical problem, since there is a debate between bodily theorist and psychological theorist about personal identity. Some philosophers think that the brain constitutes our personal identity (this doesn’t mean they are committed to type-identity theory of mental states, since they can argue that for humans what constitutes personal identity is their brain, whereas for a martian their own body constitute their personal identity), but others argue that its psychological continuity that constitutes our personal identity. A bodily theorist might insist that mind-uploading is impossible. So, If one is committed to believing in “mind-uploading”, then one presumably believes in psychological continuity account of personal identity. However, what constitutes our personal identity is still a philosophical problem.

Suppose psychological continuity of personal identity is the true theory of personal identity. Suppose we transferred some of person A’s personality to computer X, but others to computer Y. X and Y would be psychologically continuous with person A, but they are not identical to one another. We would have what is called the fission paradox of personal identity. Mind-uploading may not necessarily guarantee preservation of personal identity. Even if we try to imagine a scenario in which we upload every aspect of person A’s identity to a computer, there is still a problem of what exactly does it mean to upload things like (episodic/semantic) memories, beliefs, desires, intelligence, and such. What these things have in common is that they exhibit intentionality (or “aboutness”), but what does it mean to upload intentional states? Unlike data, we are far from understanding the phenomenon of intentionality. Maybe Mind-uploading can happen, but as for now I think it presumed an enthusiastic understanding of the mind.



Chomsky and the Mind-Body problem: Was Mechanical Philosophy really destroyed by gravity?

I recently watched the fourth episode of Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Cosmos. There was an interesting part of that episode when Tyson went over a bit of the history of science when Newton discovered a force in which two massive bodies effect each other in a distance without touching each other. This immediately reminded me of Chomsky’s critique of the Mind-Body problem, since he thought that the mind-body problem depended on Mechanical Philosophy. Newton’s discovery of gravity apparently undermined Mechanical Philosophy, since he discovered something that consists of causation without direct physical contact. However, something interesting happen after Tyson’s brief summary of Newton’s discovery of gravity. Tyson raised an interesting question “how can distant bodies effect each other across empty space without touching each other?” and then went immediately to Michael Faraday, who discovered that we are surrounded by invisible fields of electromagnetic forces, which could explain how gravity works. In other words, distant bodies may not touch each other, but the fields between them do. If Faraday’s idea of electromagnetic field could explain how distant objects interact with each other, then it could arguably vindicate Mechanical Philosophy. After all, while distant objects do not touch each other, there are intermediate fields that seem to connect them together. This connection could render an apparent empty distance between massive bodies an illusion, which consequently makes a phenomenon of “action from a distance” consistent with Mechanical Philosophy.

Now, I’m aware that Tyson’s Cosmos is not exactly the most reliable source when it comes to the history of science, since he didn’t give an accurate depiction of Giordano Bruno. Nonetheless, Tyson’s description of Michael Farady turns out to be fairly accurate, since Faraday did in fact try to unify gravity and electromagnetism together (check the other blog too). Unfortunately, Faraday’s attempt to unify gravity and electromagnetism was not entirely successful. However, Faraday’s attempt to find a mechanism for gravity was not uncommon. Before and After Faraday’s attempt to find a mechanism for gravity, there were many physicists and philosophers who tried to find a mechanism for gravity. Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity arguably found a mechanism, which is the space-time curvature, rather than forces, between distant bodies. Others argue that in quantum mechanics a graviton would be a mechanism that mediates gravitational forces between distant bodies.

On the face of it, Chomsky seems to be right that Mechanical Philosophy was destroyed by Newton’s discovery of gravity. However, Mechanical Philosophy as an explanatory research program or conceptual framework continues even after Newton’s discovery of gravity, arguably to this day. This may sound far fetched, but I think Chomsky’s claim that Mechanical Philosophy was killed by Newton’s discovery of gravity is overstated. The presumption that there must be some kind of intermediate mechanism between distant bodies continues after Newton’s discovery. Even to this day, graviton is hypothesized as a possible mechanism that mediates the gravitational forces between distant objects. I’m not claiming that Mechanical Philosophy as Descartes conceived of it is well and alive today. After all, Descartes would be baffled by the post-Newtonian theories of gravity. What I’m considering is that Mechanical Philosophy changed overtime through a series of different hypotheses about the intermediate mechanism between distant bodies. So, in some sense, Chomsky wasn’t entirely correct about the supposed death of Mechanical Philosophy.

I could consider writing about this as another philosophy paper. Perhaps I can argue that Mechanical Philosophy continues to be a viable conceptual framework despite Newton’s discovery of gravity. However, I don’t think I would include it in my current paper about Chomsky’s critique of the mind-body problem. The reason is that I already have a different approach, which is to state the mind-body problem within the framework of the Computational Theory of Mind (CTM). Chomsky thinks that the mind-body problem can’t be stated if one cannot define a “physical body”, but I think this is wrong since one doesn’t need a definition of a physical body. Instead, one could replace a “physical body” with computation to generate another mind-body problem. I’ll talk more about this in my next blog post.