Joshua Katz

Joshua Katz

 

Let’s be clear, the treatment of Professor Joshua Katz is just the latest example of American stupidity, hysteria, callousness, violence, cowardice, and general vileness to occur in American universities. How people can justify this evil is beyond me. As for his so-called friends—the ones who ran for the hills for rather obvious political and popularity reasons—they are most contemptible of all. And notice that students are among the worst offenders here, immature fools that they are. All this should be condemned as strongly as the latest mass killing in America. It’s just the American psyche doing what it has always done—destroy and destroy again–and always with the same self-congratulatory façade. It makes you sick.

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Ed Erwin (1937-2022)

Ed was a genuinely good man–and reviled for it. He was tough and gentle at the same time. He was also an exceptionally good philosopher. 

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Holism and Existence

 

 

Holism and Existence

 

Holism is an ontological doctrine: it says that the existence, nature and identity of individual things depend on their place in a wider whole consisting of other individual things. To be a certain entity is to stand in a network of related entities: the being of one thing is bound up with the being of other things existing in the same totality. Thus we cannot analyze a whole into parts that have an existence and identity independently of the whole to which they belong. The whole is reflected in the individuals that make it up. I will argue that no such doctrine can possibly be true, because it leads to absurd consequences.

            Let’s first consider the strongest possible form of holism, which I will call cosmic holism. This is the doctrine that everything in the universe has a nature that includes every other thing: nothing can exist without all the other things in the universe existing (think Hegel). This is certainly an extreme doctrine and not one with any immediate plausibility, but it may be said that we should be open to the possibility that common sense (and science) are simply wrong about the nature of things—we are under an “illusion of plurality”. Really, everything is connected to everything else, inextricably so. What is the argument against such a view? Here is one argument: if that were so, nothing could come into existence unless everything came into existence with it. That would mean, for example, that an atom of hydrogen couldn’t come existence at the time of the big bang unless dinosaurs came into existence at the same time, since hydrogen atoms and dinosaurs depend on each other for their existence according to cosmic holism. But that seems completely false: things come into existence in a temporal sequence, some before others. Holism implies that everything must come into existence simultaneously, since the identity of any one thing is bound up with the identity of every other thing. Cosmic holism precludes sequential coming-into-existence. In fact it leads to the idea that there has to be a God that creates everything simultaneously, since the being of every individual thing is bound up (allegedly) with the being of every other thing. So cosmic holism looks to have a problem with history—with things coming to exist at different times. It ties the existence of things too closely to the existence of other things, thus ruling out the emergence of things over time.

            Now consider conceptual holism: the doctrine that concepts join together to form indissoluble wholes. Each concept owes its identity to the other concepts with which it shares a conceptual scheme. Again, we have a problem with respect to development over time: you can’t have one concept at time t without having all your concepts at t. For the identity of a particular concept is fixed by all the concepts that are possessed by the thinker in question at a given time. So that implies that a thinker must acquire all his concepts at the same time: now no concepts, now all concepts! You can’t acquire your concepts over time, one after the other. Once all the concepts are in place they determine the identity of any concept in the whole set, so any individual concept cannot be possessed without the possession of the whole set of concepts. But surely we can acquire our concepts over time in such a way that earlier concepts can be possessed before later ones are. And here is a second problem: if each concept has its identity fixed by the whole of which it is a part, then won’t each concept end up being identical to every other concept? For the same whole fixes the identity of each concept: each concept has its content determined by the whole of which it is a part, but there is only one whole, so each concept must have the same content. Only if we deny conceptual holism can this consequence be avoided: there has to be something about each concept that is independent of the whole, in which case concept identity is not fixed holistically. In fact, the very idea of concepts as parts of a larger whole collapses under conceptual holism, since each concept is said to be individuated by the whole of which it is a part—it has no other identity. But parts can never be identical to wholes. The trouble is that holism leads to the dissolution of the individual concept into the whole of which is held to be a part. The only way to avoid this consequence is to weaken the holism so that it allows some independent identity to the individual concept, but then we have abandoned the doctrine. We are now contemplating some sort of hybrid theory according to which a concept has its own specific atomic identity and a penumbra of holistically determined content. That is a very strange animal, part discrete beast and part herd.

            Finally, consider causal holism: the doctrine that causation works holistically, so that a given cause always includes a wider totality of causes. Suppose we claim that every cause in a certain domain includes every other cause in that domain: then it will follow that every cause is identical to the same totality of causes (e.g. every action is caused by the entirety of a person’s psychological state). But how can different effects have the same cause? Won’t we end up saying that the effects are identical too? Again, in order to preserve some individuality in the cause we will need to qualify the holism, i.e. abandon it. There must be something about the cause that is not fixed by the whole of which it is a part. And won’t that be the cause in question? Holism inevitably leads to the collapse of individuality—the merging of the individual into the crowd. Of course, the individual may play a role in the crowd, but it doesn’t follow that its very identity is determined by the whole in which it plays that role. Atoms play roles in larger wholes too, but they are still atoms. There is always more to an individual thing than the role it plays in the groups to which it belongs—whether it is a physical atom, a human being, or a concept.

            It follows that reality can always be divided into parts: it is always analyzable into autonomous units. Reality is always a synthesis of separable entities (or just a collection). It never consists of indivisible wholes whose parts (sic) have their identity fixed by the whole. That idea is ultimately incoherent. Holism is impossible.[1]

 

Colin McGinn

[1] There was a time when the “holism of the mental” was a favored doctrine, though it never progressed much beyond metaphor. No one ever mentioned that this was a more limited version of Hegelian metaphysics, but the logic of both is the same. Here I have stated the doctrine sharply and literally with a view to reductio. The upshot is that analysis is the proper way to proceed in science and philosophy. Reality is a multiplicity not a seamless unity.

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Morality as a System of Categorical Modals

 

Morality as a System of Categorical Modals

 

We express our moral beliefs in sentences like these: “Murder is wrong”, “Stealing is wrong”, “Generosity is good”, and “Violence is bad”. What do they mean? Some have said they are equivalent to categorical imperatives, others suggest that hypothetical imperatives provide a better analysis; the concepts of duty or obligation are frequently brought in; the word “ought” is deployed. I want to suggest that the propositions in question are modal in character: the concepts of necessity and possibility can be used to analyze what moral statements mean. Thus “Murder is wrong” means “You must not murder”, and “Generosity is good” means “You must be generous”. The “must” here is specifically moral—it isn’t the “must” of logical necessity or metaphysical necessity or epistemic necessity. It isn’t that people can’t do otherwise than be generous, or that it is certain that people are generous. No, the thought is that one must morally be generous and not murder or steal. That is, there is a specifically moral “must” in our language (or our use of language). What is the evidence for this? We say things like, “You must visit your grandmother soon” or “I really must remember her birthday this year” or “We must do something about global warming”. We subscribe to such assertions as that promises must be kept, lies must not be told, gratitude must be shown, kindness must be practiced, justice must prevail. Some things we can do and not invite moral rebuke, but other things we can’t do without inviting moral censure. There is a contrast in our thinking between what it is possible to do morally and what it is necessary to do morally. These are perfectly good uses of “possible” and “necessary”, and they don’t mean what they do in non-moral contexts (modals are notoriously protean). They are entirely natural ways of expressing our moral attitudes. Thus moral language is modal language.

            If so, we would expect modal logic to apply to moral language. One central rule of modal logic is that necessity implies possibility: what is necessary is possible. This rule has its counterpart in the well-known principle that “ought” implies “can”: you cannot be obliged to do what you can’t in fact do. If you must see your grandmother tomorrow, than it must be possible for you to see her. No one can say “I must cure cancer tomorrow” when everyone knows that this is not possible. As necessity implies possibility, so moral obligation implies the ability to carry out the action in question. Of course, “can” doesn’t imply “ought”, as “possible” doesn’t imply “necessary”. Thus the basic rules of modal logic apply to moral reasoning.

            The modal analysis also comports with the sense we have that morality is binding—that it leaves us with no alternative but to do what is right. Morality restricts freedom; it cuts down our options. But so does modality generally: the number 2 has no option but to be even (it isn’t free to be odd), and epistemic necessity eliminates all alternative possibilities (I can’t not be in pain given my current epistemic situation). If I must repay that debt, then I have no alternative but to repay it—no moral alternative. I have no choice in the matter; I am not morally free to act otherwise. We are bound to do what morality requires of us, and moral necessity captures this idea.

            Modality also captures the meaning of prudential statements, as in “I must eat less sugary food” or “I must exercise more frequently”. Again, this is a perfectly natural way to express our prudential attitudes. But the connection between morality and prudence is conceptually close: we can even view morality as a kind of extension of prudence to other people. If it is prudent for me to take care of my health, then it is moral of me to be concerned about other people’s health. The Golden Rule makes this connection explicit: do to others what you would want done to you, i.e. what you would do for yourself if you could. Thus I must do for others morally what I must do for myself prudentially—not harm them and promote their welfare. Given that a modal analysis of statements of prudence is plausible, so is a modal analysis of moral statements plausible. The same conceptual apparatus applies to both, i.e. modal concepts.

            None of this is yet to say how these uses of “must” should be analyzed, and that will be open to debate depending on one’s view of the content of morality. I have only given a theory of the logical form of moral statements, taking the moral modals as primitive for this purpose. The canonical form of a moral proposition is, “Everyone must X”, where “X” ranges over action types (e.g. “Everyone must refrain from murder”). Moral sentences are a special type of modal sentence: that is their correct semantic analysis. If we were giving a truth-theory for moral sentences, we would first translate them into the corresponding modal paraphrase and then offer a Tarski-type theory of truth for these modal sentences (or some other type of formal semantics, according to preference). We might try to construct a Kripke-style modal semantics for moral discourse following these informal ideas.[1]        

 

[1] The inspiration for this paper came from a road sign I saw the other day: “Right lane MUST turn right”.

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Driving and Abortion

 

Driving and Abortion

 

It is legal to drive. But driving causes death. So if we are pro-life, we should be anti-driving. Therefore driving should be made illegal. Moreover, drivers know the risks they run by driving—there is a non-zero probability that they will kill someone in an accident—so it is unethical of them to drive. The people who might be killed are adults, children, and sometimes the unborn (pregnant women can be involved in fatal accidents). The probability of killing one’s own unborn baby by driving is finite and even calculable (let’s say it’s 1 in 10,000). In imaginable cases the probability of a fetus dying by car accident might be equal to the probability of its dying by abortion. We could eliminate the risk by making driving illegal, or at least we could reduce the risk. Of course, people might still drive illegally, given the advantages of driving, but we might hope to reduce the number of accidents by making it illegal; at any rate, the law would then be moral, which it is not as things stand. So should we make driving illegal?

            It is legal to have an abortion. But abortion causes death (trivially). So if we are pro-life, we should be anti-abortion. Therefore abortion should be made illegal. Of course, people might still have illegal abortions, but we might hope to reduce the number of abortion-related deaths by making it illegal; at any rate, the law would then be moral, which it is not as things stand. Why isn’t this argument just like the anti-driving argument? It might be said that they differ in that in the case of abortion death is certain but not in the case of driving. That is quite true, given the current state of medical technology, but it doesn’t undermine the parallel, because driving is still a case of knowingly risking the lives of other people—including unborn babies. If the abortion procedure only sometimes led to the baby’s death, it would still involve knowingly causing death in a non-zero number of cases (suppose that 1 in 3 abortion procedures resulted in the death of the fetus). The difference between driving and abortion is quantitative not qualitative. And bear in mind that current speed limits substantially increase the risk of fatalities—yet we don’t insist that no one drive at more than 20 miles an hour. We don’t generally think that any activity that predictably leads to death should be made illegal, or is ipso facto unethical. We weigh things up and then formulate guidelines taking everything into account. The same goes for swimming, diving, flying, motorcycling, climbing, or just going out for a walk. We could eliminate all deaths by abortion simply by making sex illegal and slapping serious penalties on breaking the law (or we could substantially reduce the number of abortions this way), but no one thinks this would be a sensible way to proceed. It makes perfect sense to restrict abortion in certain ways—say, by limiting it to the first few months of pregnancy—but a total ban on it is too much like a ban on driving simply because it predictably leads to death. So even if we are pro-life it doesn’t follow that abortion should be illegal, or that it is intrinsically unethical. It’s just that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages—as in the driving case. There is room for disagreement about detail in both cases (What should the speed limit be? When is abortion not acceptable?), but as a matter of principle the cases are alike. And this is accepting that the fetus qualifies as an instance of “life”: the mere fact that lives are lost because of a certain activity does not imply that that activity should be made illegal or is intrinsically unethical.

            Of course, it is highly relevant to the abortion issue whether the fetus qualifies as a being with a full-fledged right to life, but the point I have been making is that being pro-life is not in itself a sufficient reason to ban abortion—any more than it is a sufficient reason to ban driving (etc.). In both cases we are dealing with a regrettable necessity.       

 

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Abortion and the Body

 

 

Abortion and the Body

 

We hear it argued that a woman has the right to abort her unborn baby because she has a right to choose what happens to her own body. This is a bad argument. First, it begs the question: an opponent will insist that the fetus is not part of the mother’s body—it is someone else’s body that happens to be inside hers. The case is not like the organs of the mother’s body, which really are parts of her body. It is easy to imagine an intelligent conscious being living inside the body of a human: this would not be simply a part of the host’s body over which he or she has complete dominion. Second, the fetus is quite unlike the organs of the mother’s body in that it can be removed without causing harm to the mother—it isn’t part of her normal physiological functioning. Third, there is no absolute right to do with one’s body whatever one chooses to do: a mother could not choose to have all her limbs amputated because of some bizarre religious belief given that this would disable her from performing her maternal duties—she needs to stay able-bodied in order to raise her children. Fourth, if the fetus were part of the mother’s body, it would still be so when removed from it—just like any other part of her body. But no one argues that infanticide is morally permissible because the child is an erstwhile part of the mother’s body: she doesn’t have to right to do with this removed part whatever she chooses. The logic of bodily part-hood is completely different from the logic that governs the relation between a mother and her child, whether born or unborn. Is it to be supposed that the baby was once a part of her body but at birth ceases to be a part of her body? No, it was once inside her and now it is outside her: but that isn’t the same as once being a part and now not being a part (like a removed appendix). The rhetoric of “my body, my choice” is conceptually flawed, and only leads opponents of abortion to think that nothing better can be said to address their concerns. After all, the fetus remains inside the mother for nine months, but surely no one thinks that for this entire time there is no moral question about whether abortion is acceptable. Yet this “argument” is trotted out all the time as a defense of the legitimacy of abortion.

 

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Philosophy as Surgery

 

 

Philosophy as Surgery

 

The other day I was discussing a medical matter with my son, who is a surgeon, and he remarked, “I would take a knife to it”. The remark stuck with me and I began wondering if philosophy bears any analogy to surgery. Do we in philosophy ever “take a knife to it”, i.e. just cut it out, excise it, or slice into it? Pills and medicines have their uses, antibiotics can be effective, but is it sometimes necessary to put it to the knife? When something is incurable isn’t it sometimes best to just remove it surgically? Surgical metaphors abound in philosophy: we “dissect” an argument, offer “incisive” objections, “cut through” the bullshit, take a “scalpel” to someone’s position, and dismantle an argument with “surgical precision”. Wittgenstein spoke of philosophy as “therapy”, but isn’t surgery also a type of therapy—just of a more brutal and bloody type? A surgeon is a well-meaning butcher—but isn’t a philosopher at least sometimes a type of butcher? For a philosopher is also in the business of promoting human wellbeing by means that would otherwise appear violent. This is not always the philosopher’s modus operandi, of course, but isn’t it one tool in the philosopher’s toolbox? Sometimes things are just so contaminated, so thoroughly fucked-up, that you have to take a knife to them and get it over with.[1]

            Wasn’t that the attitude of the positivists towards metaphysics? Metaphysics is so diseased (they thought), so riddled with pathology, that the only thing to do is amputate it. It’s no use tinkering with it, recommending this or that timid remedy; you just have to get rid of it once and for all. You eliminate it as you eliminate a diseased limb. Maybe some healthy tissue will have to go too, but surgery is not a precise science: the body as a whole will be so much healthier with the bad tissue removed. That was the position of the positivists: it wasn’t just a matter of intellectual error but of actual nonsense—disease of the intellect. The verification principle was the surgical tool that would effect this necessary amputation. Much the same could be said of the aspirations of the ordinary language philosophers—to remove whole swathes of traditional philosophical tissue. Rehabilitation was not the point. Wittgenstein was as much a surgeon as a therapist (as was J.L. Austin): he wanted to remove large parts of the traditional philosophical body. Ryle subjected Cartesian dualism to large-scale surgery—the complete excision of the ghost in the machine. Quine too wished to excise big chunks of traditional philosophy, like so many carbuncles or cancerous growths (meaning, sense data). The plan, in each case, was to remove whatever led to intellectual trouble—to take a knife to it. You don’t try to solve the problem but simply cut out what leads to it.

            Perhaps Nietzsche is the finest example of the tendency I have in mind. According to him, conventional morality is so contaminated by the Christian religion as to be beyond repair: a diseased mode of thought has infected the moral sense to such a degree that surgical removal is the only solution. Greek morality was not similarly contaminated, but Western morality was so steeped in Christianity that it needed complete amputation. Even the vocabulary of morality reflects this contamination (Schopenhauer had a similar view), with its talk of “commands”, “imperatives”, “duties”, and “ought”. At any rate, if we interpret Nietzsche this way, we can naturally conceive of his position on the surgical analogy: the idea of infection from an alien source that can only be remedied by complete removal (save perhaps a healthy stump). One might think that in our own age the idea of truth is in so much danger of infection from pathogens (relativism, post-modernism, etc.) that it too might be in need of surgical removal. How much more talk of “my truth” can the concept of truth take? The very idea of truth as opposed to opinion is in imminent danger of collapse, as people jostle for political power—each of us proudly bearing our own “truth”. When a word gets so debased that it no longer means what it is supposed to mean the option of surgical removal becomes real. One part of discourse can become pathological and infect another part, leaving no alternative but the knife. When words start to become meaningless the scalpel beckons. Hasn’t this already happened with words rooted in the institution of monarchy—what do “king” and “queen” really mean anymore? Such words have a tendency to vanish into quotation marks. In philosophy this fate has befallen such words as “vital spirit”, “ether”, “quiddity”, “life force”, “sense data”, “soul”, etc.—words that traded on certain kinds of outmoded theory. The word “essence” was viewed for a while as also in need of excision, but it turned out to be not as diseased as had been supposed. The word “materialism” has long been begging for the knife, but hangs on by the skin of its teeth for ideological reasons. In any case, the philosophical surgeon’s work is never done. Socrates conducted his marketplace surgeries and the tradition has continued to this day. The philosopher still needs the mindset of the surgeon, at least some of the time.

[1] One might facetiously suggest that the philosopher already has a name: brain surgeon. The philosopher certainly has his or her sights set on the operations of the human brain. Sometimes bits of the brain have to be removed (the bits housing philosophical pathologies).

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Two Types of Empiricism

 

 

Two Types of Empiricism

 

Type I empiricism says that all knowledge comes through the five senses. Type II empiricism says that all knowledge derives from experience. Neither entails the other. The senses could be the sole source of knowledge without being conduits of experience: the process might be entirely physical-causal, or proceed by way of blindsight and analogues thereof. And experience could be the source of all knowledge without the five human senses being involved: there might be no body at all, or different senses, or experiences of a type other than experience of sense. Type I empiricism focuses on specific human organs; type II empiricism focuses on the concept of experience as such.[1] It is type II empiricism that we are dealing with when we say things like, “All ideas derive from impressions” or “Beliefs must have an experiential foundation”. Type I is usually a steppingstone to type II: for it is quickly pointed out that we need to include an inner sense in order to make room for self-knowledge (“ideas of reflection”). A natural response to type I empiricism is to ask what motivates such a view—why should we believe it? It sounds like a stipulation we can happily ignore: what is it about knowledge that requires it? A rationalist will simply scoff at it. But type II empiricism has a clear rationale: knowledge requires reasons, and experience looks like the only possible source of reasons (ultimately speaking). Knowledge can’t just come from nowhere; it has to be based on something: but what else could that be except experience—impressions, presentations, sensations, events of seeming? Things strike us a certain way and we form beliefs based on this striking: that’s how knowledge works, isn’t it? Otherwise it is all groundless piffle, mere posturing. So all knowledge must be based on experience—or else not be knowledge at all. This reflection puts two familiar types of epistemology in peril: religious and rationalist (and course these were in the empiricist’s sights). We are instructed to believe religious teachings because they appear in the Bible or are intoned by clergymen in fancy robes, but none of this affords the kind of individual subjective impression of truth that knowledge requires; it is just so much taking on trust (“faith”, “revelation”, “tradition”). But the empiricist is having none of it: he wants an actual human experience that provides a real reason for the belief in question.  Similarly, the rationalist tells us that certain ideas are found woven into the innate fabric of the mind: but then, there are no experiential reasons for such items of alleged knowledge. We just have them, but we can’t say why. We don’t have them because things seem a certain way to us; we have them simply because we were born having them. Their rationality thus comes into question. The empiricist is thus unhappy with the “brute knowledge” assumption of the rationalist, i.e. knowledge without experiential reasons. But what can the empiricist say about such knowledge?           

Ideally, he could say that mathematical knowledge has its own proprietary mode of seeming that provides the necessary experiential grounding—“I have the distinct and vivid impression that Pythagoras’s theorem is true” etc.—but the trouble is that such experiences don’t seem to exist. The only alternative, then, is to declare that the knowledge in question doesn’t really exist (it’s all tautologies or human conventions). The problem here is actually quite severe, because the type II empiricist has hold of a solid point, but this type of knowledge poses a serious threat to it. For we can’t just concede empiricism defeated by counterexample and move on to another theory: empiricism has to be true (in the sense intended), and yet it appears not to be true for this type of knowledge (also logic and ethics). This may prompt us to search for some other notion of experience capable of meeting the case—some sense in which we do have experiences of mathematical facts. Here is where philosophy reaches that state in which we just want to scream (“It was all going so smoothly and then this!”). A priori knowledge has always been difficult, but this makes it irritatingly difficult. Empiricism looked so good, so manifestly sensible, and yet it can’t apparently be made to fit the case of one large category of knowledge—but not in such a way that we can simply move to a superior theory that dispenses with its central tenet. And surely we don’t want to say that a prioriknowledge is mysteriously experience-based! What we need, evidently, is the idea of a priori experience, but that idea looks hard to make sense of. If we had it, though, we could say that all knowledge rests on experience, thus vindicating type II empiricism.[2]

 

Colin McGinn             

[1] See my papers “Rationalist Empiricism” and “Seeming”. My first paper on this subject was “A Priori and A Posteriori Knowledge” (1976).  It has been troubling me a long time. Good trouble, though.

[2] Notice the form of the classic formulation: “A posteriori knowledge is knowledge based on experience; a prioriknowledge is knowledge not based on experience”. So what is it based on? We get the rather unhelpful, “Knowledge based on reason”. We can see how experience can provide a basis, but how does reason do anything comparable? What does it serve up that can play the reason-providing role of experience without being experience? The answer is obscure at best–hence the appeal of a generalized empiricism. Thus we have the problems besetting Western epistemology from Plato on. Epistemology shouldn’t have been this difficult!

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