Author Archives: philonous13

About philonous13

My name is Paul So. I'm an undergraduate student from University of Maryland and my major is Philosophy. My interests in Philosophy are mostly in Philosophy of Mind such as the naturalistic theories of intentionality, explanatory role of content (i.e. mechanism vs. intentionality), mental causation, Eliminative Materialist debate, Folk-Psychology, Concepts, Externalism vs. Internalism debate, and others. I do have some minor interests in the Free-will debate (Compatibilism) and Personal Identity. I have a growing interest in Meta-Ethics. My blog focuses on philosophical topics related to Philosophy of Mind.

Jordan Peterson’s Pragmatism

For those of you who don’t know Jordan Petreson, he’s a clinical psychologist and professor of Toronto University who criticizes C-Bill 16 in his YouTube video. However, I’m not going to comment on his critique of the bill, but rather his exchange with Sam Harris in the podcast. Actually, I probably won’t talk about the actual exchange because it was painfully long. To be honest, I never really listened to it but simply read the summary of the whole exchange. I had the feeling the exchange wouldn’t go well because Jordan Peterson has a highly eccentric view that’s foreign to Sam Harris. I’m not talking about his view on free speech, but rather some of his beliefs in Jungian Psychoanalysis and his Joseph Campbell-esque take on religion. In other words, Peterson believes that there are “deeper” truths found in archetypes embodied in mythologies, folklore, and stories. If things couldn’t get any worse for Sam Harris, Peterson reveals that he accepts the pragmatist view of truth. To paraphrase Peterson, he says that truth is whatever is conducive or useful to the survival (and presumably flourishing) of the human species.

This isn’t a radically novel or new view since William James argued for a pragmatist view of truth. Before anyone dismisses pragmatism, people should keep in mind that the nature of truth has been a hot debate for centuries especially in contemporary Analytic Philosophy. There are many different theories such as the correspondence theory of truth, coherentist theory of truth, deflationist theory of truth, and so on. Pragmatism is one among many theories of truth and it has eminent supporters such as William James, Charles Pierce, John Dewey, Robert Brandom, and so on.

What many pragmatists have in common is that they often understood truth in terms of whatever is conducive to empircal investigation. For example, a scientific theory that makes useful and accurate predictions would be “true” according to a pragmatist because a theory that makes accurate and well-tested predictions is conducive to empirical investigation. While a pragmatist take on truth isn’t entirely original on Peterson’s part, what is new is that he doesn’t take this broadly standard pragmatist view of truth but proposes his own Jungian twist:

“Here’s an answer: individually, such that the family thrives; at the family level, so that society thrives; at the societal level, so that the ecosystem thrives—today, tomorrow, next week, next year, and across time. That’s the ultimate Piagetian equilibrated state (and Piaget, by the way—although few know this—was trying to solve the problem of the relationship between science and ethics. That’s what drove him his entire life).

The individual who acts in this manner is the mythological hero, who confronts the unknown with attention and intent to communicate, who obtains the gold from the eternal dragon of chaos (an evolved representation of the predatory/promising domain beyond the safety of the campfire), and who distributes that gold to the community. He rescues the youthful virgin from the predatory reptile. That’s St. George. It’s the oldest story we know of. It’s in the Enuma Elish, the Mesopotamian creation myth, upon which the opening lines of Genesis are historically predicated. Can’t you see the evolutionary relationship?

That’s the archetypal hero. That’s first, a way of behaving; second, a representation of acting; third, a way of organizing society around that action and representation; fourth, a society that then selects, through masculine competition, for the best contender to that representation; fifth, what is selected for by women, who peel off the top of the masculine competition. They outsource the impossible cognitive task of mate selection to the male dominance hierarchy. A hero emerges at the top of the competition. He gets all the girls. Human females are mother nature, the selection apparatus, the choosy maters (that female chimps are not).

The archetypal hero is a super-meme. It has been around so long that we have adapted, biologically, to its existence, just as we have adapted in every way to the three hundred million year old dominance hierarchy, which is more permanent—more real, even from a strictly realist perspective—than such evanescent phenomena as amphibians, reptiles, and mammals: older even [than] trees. The closer you are to the archetypal hero, the more likely you are, at least as a male, to win the dominance hierarchy contest that makes you attractive to women.

If Dawkins was wiser, he would have been Carl Jung. An archetype is the ultimate meme.” 

Unlike most pragmatists, Peterson’s version of pragmatism is more or less centered on Jungian archetypes than scientific and epistemic values. Not only is this very odd, peculiar, and eccentric, but it’s practically useless. For example, Jungian archetypes can’t tell us whether or not we should accept the Copenhagen interpretation or the Many Worlds Interpretations of Quantum Mechanics. A pragmatist who argues for mathematical elegance as an underlying value of theoretical investigation can easily opt for the Many Worlds Interpretation, but Jungian Archetypes can’t really say anything informative. After all, Peterson’s version of pragmatism is extremely anthropocentric, so it’s indifferent to inquiries that do not bear immediate relevance to the human condition. It seems that for Peterson the word “truth” is more or less facts about the human condition than impersonal facts. However, this is obviously too narrow.

Peterson might reply by saying that Jungian Archetypes can provide guidance on productive empirical investigation by pointing out stories of an ostracized and persecuted genius who found the truth and tries to share it with the masses. Plato’s allegory of the cave, Prometheus stealing fire from the gods, Biblical Prophets warning Israel, the Buddha searching for enlightenment, and other stories can convey deep insights into how to conduct empirical investigation. However, there are two problems with this possible response. First, such archetypes presuppose certain epistemic and scientific values in the first place, so Peterson’s pragmatism collapses into a classical version of pragmatism. In other words, truth is not really about archetypes because they are just mythological vehicles for scientific and epistemic values. Second, these stories or mythologies are open to different interpretations as there are different possible archetypes one can ascribe to them.

What I find ironic about Peterson is that on one hand he deeply opposes Postmodernism (he even calls Jacques Derrida a dangerous man), but on the other hand his Pragmatism is practically in the same ball park as Postmodernism when it comes to truth. Both are subjectivists about truth. They think truth is mind-dependent as oppose to mind-independent. As a result, they have a highly anthropocentric conception of truth. How can Peterson justify his pragmatism but denounce Postmodernism?

It’s becoming clear that Peterson is not exactly well informed and equipped to deal with the philosophical subject of the nature of truth. This isn’t very shocking as Peterson is more or less a clinical psychologist who comes from a Jungian tradition rather than a trained philosopher or someone who is relatively well read in the literature.

I’m Back

As most of you already know, I’ve been neglecting my blog for over a year because a lot has happened. I’m basically preoccupied with my new life in graduate school  where I’m working on my thesis to get a Masters in Philosophy. I’m writing seminar papers, attending seminars, interacting with professors, socializing with new friends in campus, and working on my thesis. I also traveled to conferences to present my papers and just recently I applied to over 20 PhD programs. Along the way, I lost around forty pounds through dieting and exercising. Again, a lot has happened in a couple years.

Those aren’t the only reasons why I didn’t blog for the past two years or so. Most of the time I simply don’t know what to write. After i’m finished with seminars and TA’ing, I simply want to hit the sack or turn off my critical mind for a bit while watching Netflix shows, playing PS4, or socializing with  my new friends. However, I’m prepared to come back to my blog and post weekly on issues. I do want to remind my readers that almost none of my blog post will have a quality of a well-written and well-argued seminar paper because I want to keep this semi-casual. This doesn’t mean I won’t introduce any argument in my post because, again, this blog is intended to be a philosophy blog.

In my next blog post, I’m going to write about the exchange between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson. This may surprise some of you because in the past I strongly disliked Sam Harris. However, overtime, I begin to change my mind as I listen to his podcasts. I still think Sam Harris is deeply wrong and philosophically uninformed on the topics of Freewill and Meta-ethics, but I’m beginning to see that he’s at least relatively competent enough to hold a decent interview and conversation with philosophers like Daniel Dennett, David Chalmers, and Peter Singer.


“Atheism is a lack of belief”

For quite some time there have been many atheists proposing that atheism should be defined as the lack of belief in the existence of God. Many people (including theists, atheists, and agnostics) dispute with this proposal because for them it fails to capture the intuitive meaning behind the term “atheism”. Supposedly, atheism is an antithesis of theism than a mere absence of theism. This is a common perception among many people except for proponents who argue for defining atheism in terms of the absence of belief. I want to briefly argue why this definition isn’t a very good definition of atheism.

“I don’t believe there is a god”

The statement “I don’t believe there is God” is an ambiguous statement. On the surface, it seems crystal clear to anyone who hears or reads it, but it is ambiguous between two claims with different logical forms: “~(I believe that P)” and “I believe that ~P”. The former has the negation sign “~” placed in front of “I believe that P” with its scope encompassing that statement. The latter has the negation in front of P (the content of belief). The former means that it is not the case I believe that P. In other words, It is not the case I have the belief about P. The latter means I believe that P is false.

Notice that “I believe that ~P” implies “~(I believe that P)” but “~(I believe that P)” does not imply “I believe that ~P”. In other words, if I believe that P is false, then it necessarily follows that I lack the belief that P is true. But lacking the belief that P does not imply that I believe P is false. For example, if I believe that unicorns do not exist (“I believe that ~P”), it necessarily follows I lack the belief that unicorns exist. But if I lack the belief in the existence of unicorns, it does not necessarily follow that I believe that unicorns do not exist. After all, it is logically possible that some person may not heard about unicorns before, consequently not possessing a concept about unicorns. Possessing a concept about unicorn is a perquisite to whether or not such a person assents or denies the proposition “unicorns exist”.

The definition of Atheism as “~(I believe that P)” (It is not the case I believe there is a God) is compatible with the definition of Atheism as “I believe that ~P”, because denying the existence of God necessarily implies lacking the belief in the existence of God. However, it is also compatible with the scenario in which someone lacks the concept “God”. The definition of Atheism as “I believe that ~P” requires the concept of P in order to negate or deny it. Without the concept P there is nothing to deny or negate. But the other definition “~(I believe that P)” is compatible with such a scenario.

This is where the definition of Atheism as “~(I believe that P)” is problematic. It is compatible with three scenarios that are incompatible with one another. It is compatible with both the scenario where I deny the existence of God, I lack the concept about God, and I possess the concept of God which I neither accept nor deny it. These scenarios are incompatible with each other, yet they are all compatible with the definition of Atheism as “~(I believe that P)”. After all, lacking the concept about God implies “~(I believe that P)” and possessing the concept of God yet neither accepting nor denying it also implies “~(I believe that P)”. Hence, both “I believe that ~P”, “I lack the concept about P”, and “I possess concept P but neither accept nor deny it” imply “~(I believe that P). This is very problematic.

The reason why this is problematic is that proponents of the definition of Atheism as “~(I believe that P)” are proposing it as a genuine alternative to the definition of Atheism as “I believe that ~P”. But if it is compatible with it, it is not a genuine alternative. Even worse, it is compatible with other scenarios such as lacking the concept about God or possessing the concept of God but neither accepting nor denying it. Moreover, when it is ambiguous between three meanings that are incompatible with each other, it is not a very helpful definition. To make matters worse, this opens up to the possibility of people equivocating between these meanings as they use the term “atheism” to mean “~(I believe that P)”. If they equivocate among these incompatible meanings, they are in effect making the term “atheism” meaningless by constantly switching into different positions. A very good example of this is where people utter the remark “babies are atheists too”. But this statement only make sense because lacking the concept about God necessarily implies lacking belief about God. But this is very different from saying that one has the concept God, but neither accepts nor denies it.

If people want to cease this equivocation, they have to chose one of the three possible meanings of “~(I believe that P)”. They are stuck deciding which meaning to choose, but all of them aren’t very appealing to proponents who want to avoid explicitly denying the existence of God. If they choose the first meaning, they are going back to the definition they once denied. If they choose the second meaning, the definition of atheism includes too many things including non-sentient entities that cannot possess any concept to begin with. If they choose the third meaning, the distinction between atheism and agnosticism is non-existent. Overall, they face a trilemma.

Perhaps proponents are comfortable with the third scenario. Perhaps what they mean by “lacking a belief in God” is “possessing the concept of God, but neither denying nor accepting it”. If they choose this meaning, they have to drop the remark that infants are atheists. Infants lack the concept about God, but so do countless entities like dogs, cats, elephants, rocks, trees, suns, and such. Once they define atheism as “possessing the concept God but neither denying nor assenting to it” they are in effect saying that they are neutral about theism. But this fails to capture what many people have in mind about atheism. People think being an atheist amounts to rejecting theism. Neutrality is the last thing anyone has in mind when they think about the rejection of theism. Moreover, this definition of atheism as neither accepting nor denying theism is too narrow. It excludes many individual atheists who explicitly deny the existence of God. Therefore, the definition of atheism as neither assenting nor denying a proposition “there is a God” cannot be satisfactory.

Since all possible meanings of “~(I believe that P)” have undesirable consequences, one might as well just reject “~(I believe that P)” as the definition of Atheism. The only competing definition left is denying theism, so Atheism should just mean denying theism. Whether or not one is justified in denying theism is another issue I won’t explore in this essay. I’m content to point out that if people are really committed to ~(I believe that P) then they should drop the label “atheism” and just adopt another term “non-theism”.

Revisiting Chomsky’s Critique of the Mind-Body Problem

It has been almost a year after I finished my Chomsky paper under Paul Pietroski’s supervision. I didn’t think very much about my paper until David King read and then praised it as an excellent and novel paper; he encouraged me to submit it to a peer-review journal. So, I tried to submit it to Mind & Language and Philosophical Papers (not at the same time), but they rejected it. I submitted it to Philosophia, but I have yet to hear from its editor’s reply. Since it is very difficult to get one’s paper published in any philosophy journal, I’m not very optimistic about my paper’s publication. Moreover, I only cited five sources in my entire paper, indicating that I’m not engaging with enough contemporary literature. I could have used a lot of feedback from a lot of people, but instead I only got a few feedbacks from Paul Pietroski and David King.

While I deeply appreciate David King and Paul Pietroski’s support, I do think that I should have many some big changes to my paper. For one, I wish I included Ray Jackendoff’s distinctions between mind-brain problem, brain-computational problem, and mind-computational problem from his book Consciousness and the Computational Mind (1987). Jackendoff thought there were many layers to the mind-body problem. First, there’s the brain-computation problem that asks how the brain implements computational processes. Second, there’s the mind-computational problem that asks how the mind relates to computational processes. Lastly, there’s the mind-brain problem that asks how the mind is realized in the brain via computational processes. If the first two problems are resolved, then the last problem could be resolved too. How is this relevant to my attempts to reformulate the mind-body problem? I think the mind-body problem can be reformulated in terms of the “mind-computation” problem according to Jackendoff’s terminology. Instead of having a very broad “mind-body problem” we can reformulate more specifically to the “mind-computation problem”.

By using Ray Jackendoff’s distinctions to re-formulate the mind-body problem, I could have argued that the reformulated mind-computation problem could avoid Chomsky’s critique. Here’s a recap of Chomsky’s critique: Chomsky denies that there’s such thing as a real mind-body problem discussed by philosophers because nobody has defined exactly what we mean by the “body” (Chomsky, 2000). Whereas Descartes’ Mechanical Philosophy already defined the physical in terms of a mechanistic automaton, contemporary Physicalism lacks a coherent definition of the physical.

My original solution was to argue that we can reformulate the mind-body problem in terms of the mind-computation problem within the framework of the Computational Theory of Mind, specifically Fodor’s Language of Thought or Classical Computationalism. Under this framework, we would come across another philosophical problem that Fodor worries about: the problem of abduction or global properties (Fodor, 2000; the mind doesn’t work that way). However, I currently think this is somewhat misguided, because there are many different competing definitions about “computation” in the context of philosophy of mind and cognitive science. Gualtiero Piccinini presents many different computational theories of mind (Piccinini, 2009) , including his own called the Mechanistic view (Piccinini, 2008).

In the light of Piccinini’s work, I should have pointed out that there are many different competing definitions of “computation” in the context of philosophy of mind/cognitive science that could potentially explain the mind. Instead of trying to define the “body” or “physical”, a very challenging task that some philosophers like Daniel Stoljar are confronting (Stoljar, 2010), we should at least define “computation” in the context of philosophy of mind and cognitive science. Unlike the terms “body” and “physical”, we already have competing coherent definitions about the term “computation” in the context of cognitive science and philosophy of mind.

Deciding which competing definition is true is just one aspect of the reformulated mind-body problem. Another aspect is that which competing computational theories can handle some of the most challenging problems about the mind: consciousness, intentionality, abduction, and others. From there I could discuss about the problem of abduction and then argue that the problem of abduction is a serious mind-computation problem. Whereas computational processes operate solely on syntactic or local aspects of each individual mental representation, abduction operates on semantic or global properties of the network of mental representations. It would seem that abduction is not congruent to Fodor’s Classical Computational theory of mind.

Fodor’s problem of abduction is a serious problem for his theory of the computational mind, but can it happen with other computational theories of mind? Fodor does argue that other theories like Connectionism doesn’t explain it any better. I’m not going to explain it here, so check it out in his book “The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way” (2000). Whether or not Fodor is correct, his problem of abduction is at least analogous to the AI-Complete problem (check the wiki article or this article). There are specific problems in AI there are very challenging for AI Researchers such as determining what computational processes can realize natural language. A lot of these problems relate to what is called the frame problem (check Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article). These problems are not unique to Fodor’s computational theory of mind, but pretty much any computational theory that tries to explain how the mind works.

These problems are part of the reformulated version of the mind-body problem or “mind-computation” problem. So, the mind-body problem can be reformulated as follows: (1) deciding which computational theory of mind best captures the appropriate definition of “computation” in the context of the mind and (2) philosophical problems that are either universal to every computational theory of mind or unique to some computational theory of mind. If we reformulated the mind-body problem in terms of (1) and (2) as the mind-computation problem, then we can easily avoid Chomsky’s critique of the mind-body problem as a vacuous problem. Because neither (1) nor (2) requires us to define the term “physical”, but only the term “computation”, which has plenty of competing theories defining it coherently, Chomsky’s critique doesn’t extend to the reformulated mind-computation problem. Unlike contemporary Physicalism which doesn’t define the physical, the computational theories of mind have their own understanding about the nature of “computation” in the context of the mind.

There are some objections I have considered. One possible objection could be from Searle. Searle could argue that the reformulated mind-body problem is wrong because it presupposes that there’s at least one correct computational theory of mind, but in fact every computational theory of mind is false. Searle could argue that his Chinese Room thought experiment (including variations of it) proves that every computational theory of mind is false, so the reformulated version of the mind-body problem should be rejected. Instead, we should accept another formulation of the mind-body problem that could just as well avoid Chomsky’s critique.

My only response to that objection is that at best Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment poses a challenge to the Classical Computational theory of mind, but not necessarily every other computational theory of mind that has been proposed after Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment (e.g. Piccinini’s mechanistic version of computation and Churchland’s connectionism). Moreover, Searle’s chinese room thought experiment is still controversial, so appealing to the thought experiment doesn’t provide sufficient ground to reject the reformulated version of the mind-body problem, but it does provide strong motives.

Another objection is that someone like Chomsky could argue that his critique could extend from the term “physical” to “computation”. It isn’t obvious that the term “computation” wouldn’t suffer from the lack of coherent  or meaningful definition as “physical”. If there is a wall with molecular configurations isomorphic to the formal description of the program “Wordstar”, it would be a computer that implements the program (Searle, 2002). This would be problematic because if anything like a wall qualifies as a computational process, then the claim “the mind is a computational system” is rendered trivial and vacuous. Consequently, even the mind-computation problem would suffer from an issue of defining “computation” just as the mind-body problem suffers from an issue of defining the term “physical”.

I think this is a much better objection than the first objection. In fact, there is an existing literature about this problem about finding a principled way to discriminate between a physical system genuinely performing computation from those that are merely described in terms of computation. The extant literature is covered by Piccinini in his Stanford Encyclopedia of Plato article “Computation in Physical Systems” (Piccinini, 2010). While many philosophers such as Ned Block (Block, 2002) and David Chalmers (Chalmers, 1996) dispute with Searle’s wall argument, the overall problem of discriminating physical systems performing genuine computation from others remains to be a real problem.

I’m not exactly sure how to approach this problem since it is beyond my knowledge and expertise. The problem of finding a principled basis to discriminate a physical system performing genuine computation from others that are merely described in terms of computation is a very broad problem pertinent to the computational theory of mind. If any physical system is performing computation (including the milky way, the sun, or others), the the computational theory of mind is stating something very trivial.

While I cannot tackle the whole problem, I do think there’s a response that can protect the reformulated version of the mind-body problem. Suppose that it’s the case that every physical system performs computation of some sort (this is known as Pancomputationalism). If that’s the case, then it is true that “the mind is performing computation” seems quite trivial. However, it isn’t trivial to state that the mind performs a very specific kind of computation in a certain way. Even in the context of pancomputationalism, it wouldn’t be trivial to say that “the mind performs computation via connectionist neural networks than symbol manipulation.” That statement isn’t as trivial as “the mind performs computation” in the same context. This is because the specific claim about the nature of computation in the context of the mind could have been false. It’s logically possible that in a pancomputationalist world the mind performs computation via symbol manipulation than connectionist neural network or vice versa. Hence, the mind-computation problem, specifically (1) there are competing theories with different definitions of computation in the context of the mind, isn’t rendered entirely trivial.

This isn’t the most rigorous way to write an academic philosophy paper, but this is more or less a rough sketch about what I could have rewritten; perhaps I can rewrite my paper in a more rigorous and clear manner. If my Chomsky paper gets rejected again, I might revisit it and make changes according to the proposed changes that I wrote in this blog entry. I might also add more citations.

Some Brief Thoughts on (Semantic) Holism

I haven’t posted a blog entry for months, mostly because I have no idea what to write for my next entry. However, this time I do know what i’m going to write for this entry, but it’s going to be very brief. It’s more or less about my personal research about (semantic) Holism. Specifically, it’s the view that the semantic content of some belief is determined by it’s relation to the web of beliefs that it’s a part of. I’m in the stage where I’m asking myself a question that could be problematic for Holism.

In particular, the question is whether or not the phenomenon of contradictory beliefs (i.e. cognitive dissonance) poses a problem for Holism. This is where I need to introduce my distinction between interpersonal contradictory beliefs and intrapersonal contradictory beliefs are important. Interpersonal contradictory beliefs  are about contrary beliefs existing in different minds. So, belief that P and belief that not-P exist independently in different minds. Based on my superficial reading of Ned Block’s encyclopedic article about Holism, a large portion of the debate about Holism is about interpersonal contradictory beliefs posing a problem of making generalizations about psychology. Intrapersonal contradictory beliefs are contrary beliefs within a single mind. So belief that P and belief that not P exist within the same web of belief inside someone’s mind. In the light of this distinction, my question is really whether or not the phenomenon of intrapersonal contradictory beliefs poses a problem for Holism.

What motivates my suspicion that contradictory beliefs constitute a problem for Holism is the following. Suppose that inside someone’s mind there are two beliefs: belief that P and belief that not-P. Both beliefs possess meaning contrary to one another, so they cannot be semantically related to each other in the way that the concept “ancestor” is semantically related to “descendant”. However, according to Holism, a content of a belief is determined by it’s relation to the web of beliefs. If the belief that P is related to the rest of the beliefs that include the belief not-P, how can its content be determined by them?

I’m assuming that (intrapersonal) contradictory beliefs cannot determine each other’s meaning within a web of belief, but this is a huge assumption on my part. I’m also assuming that consistency is one of the requirements for beliefs to determine each other’s content, but this too is a huge assumption that could be faulty. Perhaps Holism does not require consistency as one of the conditions for beliefs to determine each other’s content. But, If Holism cannot account for contradictory beliefs, then I think this flies in the face of empirical psychology. After all, Cognitive Dissonance is one very well known phenomena when one becomes aware of one’s contradictory beliefs. Nonetheless, I can’t exactly know for sure until I do some further research. I am worried that given my ignorance and inexperience, my suspicion about holism maybe misguided. It would be nice if anyone could provide a helpful and constructive feedback.