Friday, 16 June 2017

Is Roger Penrose's Science of Consciousness Spooky? (1)

First things first. When the word “spooky” is used to refer to Roger Penrose's scientific and philosophical ideas about consciousness, I'm not being overly critical or even critical at all. That may sound odd or self-contradictory at first. However, I use the word “spooky” simply because it's so damn convenient. If I were being entirely critical of Penrose's scientific views on consciousness, I'd probably use RationalWiki's favourite word - “woo” (i.e. pseudoscience); or some such equivalent. In any case, one phrase, “spooky action at a distance”, became commonplace in the 20th century and that's about a scientific phenomenon which just about all scientists accept.

So I don't think that Penrose's work on consciousness is woo/pseudoscience. Certainly not! Having said that, I do have problems with it, as we shall see.

Despite all the above, I'm not scientifically qualified to class his physics as either “spookery” or “woo”. Then again, I do think I have various philosophical angles on his scientific claims. And they've led me to the word “spooky”; though not to the word “woo”.

Stuard Hameroff and Penrose

The obvious thing to say about Roger Penrose – in this context - is that he's neither a neuroscientist nor a (professional) philosopher: he's a (mathematical) physicist and a mathematician. In certain senses that's a disadvantage. In other senses it will be an advantage. In any case, it's not surprising that Penrose has worked with, amongst others, the anaesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff.

As a non-scientist myself, it's hard to find a secure entry into the scientific positions of Penrose. Then again, not all of Penrose's position are themselves scientific. Some are philosophical; others are derived from (pure) mathematics. Nonetheless, it can't be said that only experts can have anything constructive to say about the findings of neuroscience because Penrose himself – as just stated - isn't a neuroscientist. Not only that: many neuroscientists themselves may be philosophically, conceptually or argumentatively illiterate. That may be one reason why there's sometimes a lack of progress in “consciousness studies”.

I mentioned Penrose's non-scientific position and it's strange how many areas outside science (or at least outside of physics) have motivated Penrose's position on consciousness.

For example, we have his interest in a "Platonic reality", “mathematical insight” and creativity generally; as well as in Gödel's incompleteness theorem. All these things can arguably be seen to take consciousness beyond the realm of the physical and therefore beyond science itself. Nonetheless, Penrose himself wouldn't stress this aspect of his work. He is, after all, a committed and notable physicist and mathematician.

Technically, Penrose's main motivation is that there are elements of the brain - and therefore consciousness - which are nonalgorithmic and noncomputable. Prima facie, it may be wondered what the strong connection is between noncomputability and consciousness.

Anti-Reductionism and Spookery

Marvin Minsky graphically captures one aspect of Roger Penrose's (possibly) spooky science of consciousness: his anti-reductionism. Minsky said that Penrose "tries to show, in chapter after chapter, that human thought cannot be based on any known scientific principle”. Moreover, Minsky ties Penrose's spookery to his search for “new basic principles”. He continued by saying that

"one can carry that quest [for scientific explanation] too far by only seeking new basic principles instead of attacking the real detail”.

Finally Minsky says that “[t]his is what I see in Penrose's quest for a new basic principle of physics that will account for consciousness”. This is exactly what David Chalmers is also doing; though his (possible) First Principles are certainly not the same as Penrose's.

Thus could Roger Penrose's position be entirely motivated by scientific anti-reductionism? Doctor Susan Blackmore certainly thinks that this is an important motivation. Or at least the programme maker in the following quote does. She writes:

Finally they got to consciousness. With clever computer graphics and Horizonesque hype they explained that brave scientists, going against the reductionist grain, can now explain the power of the mind to transcend death. It all comes down to quantum coherence in the microtubules. And to make sure the viewer knows that this is 'real science' the ponderous voice-over declared 'Their theory is based on a well established field of science; the laws of general relativity, as discovered by Einstein.'...”

Sure, Blackmore's talking here about “near-death experiences” (NDEs). Yet those who believe in this – or at least some of them - have found succour in “quantum coherence in the microtubules”. Now don't those things sound very scientific? Of course we'll now need to know what quantum coherence is. (Or is it really a case of needing to know whether or not the believers in NDEs actually have any idea of what quantum coherence is?)

Of course Penrose and Stuart Hameroff can't personally be blamed for spook-lovers quoting their work. However, a psychologist or philosopher may tell us that these two fellows – both scientists - are motivated by very similar things. After all, Hameroff himself has talked about NDEs.

Specifically, Hameroff has said that when the brain dies (or stops functioning), the information within that brain's microtubules remains alive (as it were) or intact. Moreover, the information of the microtubules leaks out into the world (or, well, into the universe). Not only that: this microtubular information remains intact and bound together because of the power of quantum coherence.

Hameroff goes even further. He's stated that this phenomenon explains why the subject can experience – see? - himself hovering over his own body. That is, Hameroff seems to endorse near-death experiences. Yet even if “information” (P.M.S. Hacker would have a field day with this word – see here) did leak out into the universe, how would that make it the case that the body which hovers above also has a body and sensory experiences? Microtubular information in the air doesn't a physical person make. And without a physical body, there are no sensory experiences or anything else for that matter. Thus this is like claiming that if you turn the computer off and then smash it up so violently that its material structure shatters into dust, then the "information" inside would still be intact and would simply float in the air above it. In other words, the soul of the computer would still exist. Unless Hameroff is simply telling us about what he thinks people imagine (or hallucinate) when they're having a NDE. Though if that's the case, why all this stuff about microtubular information leaking into the air or even into the universe?

This spooky anti-reductionist motivation is further explained by the philosopher and materialist Patricia Churchland and also the philosopher Rick Grush. According to Blackmore,

they suggest, it is because some people find the idea of explaining consciousness by neuronal activity somehow degrading or scary, whereas 'explaining' it by quantum effects retains some of the mystery”.

Churchland is even more dismissive when she says (as quoted by Blackmore):

Quantum coherence in the microtubules is about as explanatorily powerful as pixie dust in the synapses.”

To put it more philosophically and simply, Penrose and Hameroff's position appears to be a defence of traditional dualism. Or, at the very least, the belief in NDEs certainly backs up traditional dualism. And, as we've just seen, Hameroff has defended NDEs.

Dualism, Intuition and Free Will

Traditional philosophical dualism has just been mentioned. Here again we can tie Hameroff and Penrose to the concerns (or obsessions) of traditional philosophy. That is, Hameroff hints that his and Penrose's positions may solve the traditional problems of free will, “the unitary sense of self” and the source and nature of intuition/insight. More specifically, all these philosophical conundrums can be explained by quantum coherence in the microtubules. In terms of simply-put examples, free will is down to quantum indeterminacy; non-locality is responsible for “the unity of consciousness”; and quantum computing (i.e., non-algorithmic processing) is the baby of “quantum superposition”.

In the technical terms of mind-brain interaction, and as a result of accepting mind-body dualism, the brain and mind can be mutually involved in quantum “entanglement” which is “non-local”. Thus, put simply, we can have mind-to-brain causation. Though this would of course depend on seeing the mind as not being the brain or not even being physical (in a strict or non-strict sense). This would put both the mind and brain in the same holistic package and that would help all of us explain.... just about everything!

Another example of Penrose going beyond science/neuroscience is his reliance on Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorem. These show him that the brain can (or could) perform that which no computer could perform. From that, Penrose concludes that consciousness may be non-algorithmic. And, as a further consequence, it will be the case that the brain and consciousness can't be accounted for in terms of a Turing-machine computers. And if this were the case, it would take Penrose beyond Artificial Intelligence and perhaps beyond all physicalist notions of mind and consciousness.

Now for free will.

As many philosophical commentators on free will have stated, how would quantum randomness give us free will? (That's a question from those philosophers who accept the words “free will” in the first place.) Indeed how would it give us any kind of coherent consciousness or cognitive activity? Having said that, it's not the case (or not necessarily the case) that something's being non-algorithmic (or non-computable) is also a case of its being random in nature. Penrose, for one, doesn't square his own version of “state reduction” with randomness. 

Despite just attempting to save Penrose's position from accusations of randomness, his “objective state reduction” can still be explained in terms of stochastic processes. Such processes would also be indeterministic; as well as probabilistic. However, does the stochastic, indeterministic or probabilistic give us something better than (pure) randomness when it comes to the brain, mind and consciousness? Surely free will, for one, can't be any of these things. (Though that would depend on definitions and a whole host of other things.) And how would consciousness - as well as cognitive activity generally - fair when it comes to stochastic, indeterministic or probabilistic processes? Nonetheless, computers fair well with these things. That is, indeterministic, probabilistic or stochastic processes can be implemented in computers. In other words, such processes are computable! Thus that must also mean that they can be found in brains too. However, does that automatically answer the question as to whether or not these strange things can give us free will, systematic cognitive activity and consciousness; as well as the (phenomenological) unity of consciousness or the self?



1 The Hard Problem of Consciousness (to use Germanic capitals) isn't answered by anything that Penrose has to say. Or at least that's often the accusation. Whatever it is that Penrose has to say about microtubules, intuition and quantum this, that and the other, none of it will tell us why we have subjective experience; or why the experience of a red rose is the way it is.

Quantum mechanics may be at the heart of the nature of consciousness; though it doesn't (as yet) answer the hard question. It doesn't tell us why quantum x gives rise to non-quantum experience y or why experience y feels the way it feels.

In terms of subjective experience, Penrose's quantum business doesn't explain to us why we experience “the unitary sense of self” either. A philosopher like Daniel Dennett - and I tend to agree - would say that we don't actually have an experience of the unitary sense of self... though, if we do....Having said all that, these hard questions may be entirely bogus.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Metaphilosophy: Examples and Problems (4)

What is Philosophy?

It's perhaps ironic that Ludwig Wittgenstein's rejection of metaphilosophy (or, at the least, his rejection of the analogy between a metalanguage/object-language and metaphilosophy/philosophy) can itself be seen as being metaphilosophical in nature. (This position can be found in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations; as well as elsewhere.) After all, one needs to take a position beyond (meta) or “about” the possible relation between philosophy and a metaphilosophy in order to see that relation as “nonsense”. Of course we can say that, in this case, all sorts of philosophers have therefore engaged in metaphilosophy.

However, when philosophers like Wittgenstein have told us what philosophy is, what they've really told us is what they think philosophy should be. In other words, their positions weren't descriptive: they were normative.

Take the proto-analytic philosophers of the late 19th century and early 20th centuries (e.g., Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein).

They believed that all philosophy is (or should be) the analysis of what they called “propositions”. Why did they believe this? Basically it was because they also believed that propositions captured the joints of reality or the world. (Or at least the analysis of such propositions did.) Now, from a metaphilosophical position (or intuitively - if one accepts intuitions), this seems like a remarkable claim. Why should propositions have any direct relation to the world - never mind be capable of uncovering its “deep structure”? This may of course be an intuitive response based on seeing propositions as simply linguistic items; which wasn't seen to be the case with these early analytic philosophers. Propositions were seen as being part of world – at least of the abstract world.

Not long after this, it can be seen that other philosophers and schools of philosophy also took what can be seen as a metaphilosophical - as well as normative - position on the question “What is philosophy?”.

For example, the logical positivists wanted to erase metaphysics from the philosophical world. The ordinary language philosophers went back to the position of seeing the fundamental importance of analysing propositions. Except that this time they were thinking in terms of natural-language statement rather than logical or abstract propositions. From this position arose the metaphysical stance that ordinary language itself is – or should be - paramount in philosophy. Ignoring the nature of everyday language - “ordinary language philosophers” argued - leads to “metaphysical nonsense”, illusions and “meaninglessness”.

There's also the explicit metaphilosophical question of whether philosophy should be descriptive or “revisionary” (i.e., normative). This was exemplified by, amongst others, Peter Strawson in his book Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (1959). One consequence of accepting a descriptive stance is to believe that philosophy is – or must be - continuous with science.

Here it's very clear that a decision as to whether one does descriptive or revisionary philosophy is a metaphilosophical in nature. After all, a philosopher could do both. Indeed another metaphilosopher may reject this descriptive/revisionary “opposition” entirely.

First Philosophy?

There are of course massive philosophical assumptions involved in a belief in a First Philosophy. Can there be such a thing as a First Philosophy? And, even if there is such a thing, why should it be ontology, logic, epistemology or even politics? Can such a First Philosophy truly come before all other kinds of philosophy or is it just a case that philosophers have assumed that without actually displaying it?

Perhaps more relevantly (that's if the questions just asked aren't in themselves metaphilosophical), is First Philosophy metaphilosophy? Is taking the position that ontology, logic, epistemology, ethics or politics is a First Philosophy a metaphilosophical position. Does it matter anyway?

It's also quite possible that there can be a conflation between those philosophers who believe that philosophy must have a First Philosophy and those very same philosophers being metaphilosophers. Unless, of course, the championship of a particular First Philosophy is an example of metaphilosophy!

Take the case of Descartes.

Descartes took epistemology to be First Philosophy - at least as seen from a 20th century perspective. Indeed one well-known book of his is called Meditations on First Philosophy. (Descartes didn't use the word “epistemology”.)

Descartes believed that the Cogito - and everything that followed from it - would be foundational; not only to philosophy itself but also science. This is almost the same position Husserl adopted some 200 years later.

Husserl himself developed the “phenomenological method” in order to enable philosophy to provide a “foundational science” of cognition whose results would then be used in science. Thus Husserl believed that philosophy had a very distinct role. He also believed that he knew exactly what that role is.

Further back (as well as in less detail), ontology was once deemed to be First Philosophy. (Ontology – or at least “metaontology” - is experiencing a modest comeback in recent years.) In the 19th century, it can be argued that Frege believed that logic is First Philosophy. In the 20th century, analytic philosophers have variously seen the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind to be First Philosophy. (Though, of course, they never used the words “first philosophy” - certainly not with platonic capitals!) Emmanuel Levinas and even Jacques Derrida can be seen as seeing ethics – or Ethics - to be First Philosophy. (Levinas, in his Totality and Infinity, actually said this.) However, in terms of Continental philosophy as a whole, one can easily argue that most post-World War Two philosophers saw politics (or, at the least, the philosophy of politics or even political philosophy) as being First Philosophy.

Politics as First Philosophy?

Perhaps the best and most interesting examples of seeing politics as First Philosophy can be seen by those who advanced “critical theory”. The work of Jürgen Habermas can also be put in this mold. Indeed, when such philosophers called their work “postmetaphysical thinking”, was that an acknowledgement that politics had become primary in their philosophies?

Going back in time, it can be argued that Martin Heidegger's believed politics to be First Philosophy. However, it's certainly true that he would haven't said that himself. Nonetheless, as an adherent of a postmetaphysical approach, Heidegger did see metaphysics as being strongly connected to the ills of modern society. Surely that's a political - or at least a moral - stance on metaphysics and philosophy as a whole.

Ironically, Heidegger's essentially conservative (or “reactionary”) position influenced Derrida's own stance on the deconstruction of Western metaphysics. Derrida too placed ethics or politics in the First Philosophy position. He too saw very strong connections between metaphysics and bad politics or bad morality. (Again, Derrida, like Heidegger before him, would never have put it this simply himself.) More precisely, Derrida wanted to question the many “assumptions” of previous Western philosophy. Why? Because he took a political and/or ethical stance against all of them them; as well as against their consequences. Thus politics was First Philosophy to Derrida.

Philosophy and Science

One of the most important metaphilosophical pursuits is seeing whether or not philosophy is or is not a science. In addition, this pursuit will also involve the adumbrating the similarities and dissimilarities between philosophy and science. (A strong distinction between science and philosophy was of course made by the early (as well as late) Wittgenstein and some of the logical positivists.)

Firstly, it can be argued that philosophical questions don't have empirical answers. They can't be answered with recourse to experiment or observation. (Timothy Williamson, Laurence BonJour and others think otherwise.) In parallel to this, some philosophers have argued that only science can answer questions which involve empirical elements. However, surely it can't be the case that a question which includes empirical elements has no philosophical elements. Indeed even a question or statement that's seemingly entirely empirical must include philosophical assumptions and may, as a consequence, need a philosophical analysis.

Other philosophers believe that philosophy is (or should be) continuous with science. However, seeing science and philosophy as being continuous is far from seeing them as being two aspects of the same discipline.

Take W. Quine after his logical positivist days.

Quine too saw science and philosophy as being continuous. He didn't see philosophy itself as being a science. Indeed he placed science in a higher rank than philosophy. In simple terms, science told us “what there is”, and only then did philosophy (or logic and ontology) get to work on what science has told us.

Three Specific Examples

Analytic Philosophy

Many analytic philosophers (at least until relatively recently) certainly wouldn't see the position – or positions! - of analytic philosophers to be metaphilosophical in nature. Yet in order to see philosophy as being (according to the Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy) "the disinterested pursuit of knowledge for its own sake" (or even to see it as being a – purely? - theoretical and technical pursuit), one has to have taken various metaphilosophical positions on philosophy itself. The analytic approach and the analytic style, after all, didn't simply fall from the sky into the laps of philosophers. Thus I can only presume that at least some analytic philosophers studied a few philosophers who certainly couldn't have been classed as analytic philosophers. Not that every analytic philosopher - and certainly not every student of analytic philosophy - will have needed to engage in these navel-gazing reflections. It only needs to have been the original analytic philosophers - as well as a few later ones - who did so. The rest will have simply ridden on the backs of these prior metaphilosophical reflections on the proper (or true) nature of philosophy.

It's also very ironic and surprising (at least to me) that some analytic philosophers have been influenced by a strain of Richard Rorty's (or pragmatist) thought. They too see philosophy in broad terms. In terms of politics, some of them believe that analytic philosophers should be much more “politically committed”. And, in parallel, they believe that philosophers should stop obsessing about many (or all?) of those traditional and trite philosophical problems.

This itself begs philosophical questions. Why be politically committed at all? Moreover, why be committed to specific political goals? I mention specificity because you can bet that such (pragmatist) analytic philosophers will be committed to very specific political goals. This can be expressed in another way by asking a simple (though long) question:

If a philosopher became committed to the wrong political goals and actions, would such a proponent of “political commitment” be just as happy with that as he would be if the philosopher concerned were committed to his own political goals?

I doubt it.


It seems be clear the pragmatist position on philosophy (as with others) is normative in nature. Perhaps, in at least certain cases, it's also moral or political. By definition, most pragmatists believe that philosophy should be a applicative (indeed pragmatic) pursuit. Of course philosophical questions may need to be asked as to what philosophical pursuits are practical and why usefulness is so important.

Pragmatists may also say that philosophy should help us develop “fruitful lives” or “meaningful lives”. This begs even more philosophical questions. What kind of meaningful lives? What is it to have a meaningful life? Why should we care at all about having a meaningful life? And, more sceptically, one can't help but assume (as with analytic philosophers earlier) that when a pragmatist talks about developing a “meaningful life” he has something very specific in mind. (Such as, say, becoming “politically engaged” or even religiously engaged.)

Richard Rorty - who's sometimes called a neopragmatist - is even more explicit about the nature of his non-philosophical ends. He explicitly states that philosophy should be a tool of the philosopher's political, social and cultural goals, causes and dreams. This position clearly needs a non-pragmatic philosophical defence in order to stop it from being philosophically circular in nature. Yet Rorty - being Rorty - would probably have denied that and said something “ironic” or clever such as:

One's philosophical commitments to specific political, social and cultural goals is ultimately a mater of faith, not philosophy or reason.

So when pragmatists - and even a few analytic philosophers - say that philosophy should treat “real problems”, another philosopher can simply ask: Why? He can also ask: What, exactly, is a “real problem”? Even a commitment to “applied ethics” (which, presumably, tackles real problems) can motivate such questions.

For example, take the ultimate meta-ethical question: Why be moral at all? If a philosopher takes a position of amoralism or immoralism; then, presumably, he wouldn't have much work to do in applied ethics or ethics generally. Or perhaps he would. It's feasible that he could take an amoral or immoral position on all ethical positions. Though surely that would be hard work.

Philosophical Naturalism

Philosophical naturalism is certainly a metaphilosophical position in the simple sense that it takes a position on how philosophy should be done. Moreover, it says that there is indeed progress in philosophy if and only if (to use a cliché from analytic philosophy) philosophy takes strong account of science. Philosophical naturalists therefore believe that philosophical problems are “tractable through the methods of the empirical sciences”. Thus if science progresses or can solve problems, then so too can (naturalistic) philosophy.

Psychology is such a science; at least according to Quine. In his Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (1977), he wrote:

The stimulation of his sensory receptors is all the evidence anybody has had to go on, ultimately, in arriving at his picture of the world. Why not just see how this construction really proceeds? Why not settle for psychology?”

There are of course philosophical problems with philosophical naturalism and not all these problems will be relevant to all debates on metaphilosophy. The main problem is whether or not naturalistic philosophy can completely forgo the normative (at least in epistemology) and thus ever be entirely descriptive (if that ever was - or could be - the case).

Some naturalistic philosophers go one step further than Quine and other naturalists by actually doing science. One may therefore ask: If they actually do science, then aren't they scientists? How are these philosophers – called “experimentalists” by some - still actually philosophers? What does it mean to say that experimental philosophers do science?

Well, some philosophical experimentalists actually do empirical tests. Isn't this is simply one step on from Quine's subservience to psychology? And, of course, psychology and cognitive science can tell you, for example, how it is that people reason. Or, in Quine's case, how it is that they take in “sensory stimulation” and what it is they do with that information. Indeed one step further on from this would be for such psychologists to see how physicists take in sensory stimulation and then see what they do with that information.1

The obvious question now is:

Why should the collective way in which physicists take in information - and then make use of it - be of interest to a philosopher?

If physicists - according to Quine and other naturalists - tell us what there is, then finding out how such physicists take in sensory information - and then make use of that information - will be relevant to what philosophers also do. If philosophers ignore all this, then they'll be philosophising in the dark; and thus, perhaps, they'll be relying on their intuitions (on which much has been written).



1 A metaphilosopher - or simply a philosopher! - may comment on the relation between intuitions and a priori theorising and reject both. As a consequence of this, he may well make use of empirical research in his philosophical work. This may therefore be seen as a metaphilosophical position in that if one rejects a priori theorising and/or intuitions (or at least rejects one's reliance on them in philosophy), then one most also reject the large chunks of analytic philosophy which are said to use intuitions to get the philosophical ball rolling – or indeed to do more than that. (Ontic structural realists, for example, take a very strong stance against philosophical intuitions and see them as being basically irrelevant.) Again it can be asked if this is simply a philosophical dispute, not an example of a metaphilosophical stance. Would this rejection of intuitions be what's called “experimental philosophy”? Not necessarily, though it can be.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Metaphilosophy: What is Philosophy? (3)

Do Dictionaries or Etymology Help?

Philosophy can be defined or described in accordance with how it's been practiced in the Western tradition. It can also be defined simply in terms of dictionary definitions or even according to etymology.

This latter approach isn't very helpful. At least not from a metaphilosophical perspective.

For example, saying that philosophy (for the ancient Greeks) was simply the study of all examples of knowledge isn't going to get us very far – or even anywhere. For a start, it simply begs the question: What is knowledge?

The etymology doesn't really help us either. Viz., philo = love; phia = wisdom. One problem with taking the etymology of the word “philosophy” seriously (at least on one translation) is that it seems to be the case that philosophy should be all about the self – or about the “lover of wisdom”. In other words, “how to live well” or “live the good life”; how to be fulfilled and happy; etc. Clearly all this has only been a very small aspect of Western philosophy and, perhaps, a big aspect of Buddhism. (In certain strands of existentialism it's mainly about living a sincere life – sincere to one's genuine/real self.) It can even be classed as egocentric (as, literally, in self-centred).

Here questions abound? Why should philosophy be all about how to live one's life? Why should I live the good life rather than the bad life? Etc.

Some have explicitly said that “philosophy is committed to self-knowledge”. There's some truth, historically, in that Socrates said “know thyself”. Though was that really about the self or more about the self's relation to knowledge and the world/reality generally? In other words, if one knows oneself (therefore one also knows where one's going wrong – intellectually), then one will have a better philosophical grip on the world or reality.

We can now skip to 17th-century “natural philosophy”; which turns out to be science (i.e., physics). That too begs a question: What's the difference between philosophy and physics?

We can of course answer the question “What is philosophy?” by asking a similar questions about the sub-branches of philosophy. For example, we can ask: What is metaphysics? Here too we can become all etymological and say that the Greek word meta-physika literally means "what comes after physics". That's not very helpful either. (What's meant by “after” or “meta”?) So let's forget dictionary or etymological definitions and go with the following.

Metaphysics was/is “the study of existence, causation, God, logic, forms and other abstract objects”. Why isn't metaphysics the study of cups or cats? Can one study existence in the abstract? Etc. The point here is that we can't help but be metaphilosophical (or simply philosophical) in pursuit of an answer to the question “What is metaphysics?”.

Thus the question “What is metaphysics”, as well as the main question “What is philosophy”, are seemingly metaphilosophical. Or at least we'd need to indulge in some philosophy of philosophy in order to get some answers or indeed some questions.

What is Philosophy?

Every stance on what philosophy is - or what it should be - will elicit the question: Why do you believe that philosophy is X? The philosophical opponent can easily tell the original philosopher his own view on what he thinks philosophy is (or what he thinks it should be). If that occurs (which it does, many times), then what will happen next? How is the what-is-philosophy question settled when rival views are on the market place? Surely the opposing positions on philosophy will be debated; though I doubt that the debate can be settled. And I also doubt that they can be settled by taking various metaphilosophical positions on the what-is-philosophy question.

Let's take a couple of examples.

One philosopher can say that philosophy is about finding the “fundamental nature of everything”. Why should a philosopher do that? And doesn't this meta-stance on philosophy simply assume that there is a fundamental nature of things taken individually (or to “everything”)? What if there are no such fundamentals? And, even if there are, why should a philosopher see them as important? (Though classing something as “fundamental” sort of gives the game away.)

Alternatively, a philosopher may say that philosophy is about (or should be about) intellectual unification. Specifically, unifying the insights from other disciplines; particularly science and philosophy itself. Another philosopher may say that such a meta-position is impossible. He may add that science itself is a meta-discipline which simply doesn't require philosophy. (Many scientists - particularly biologists - have said this.) Indeed such a philosopher may say that philosophy itself should incorporate science and its findings and thus - from such a place - it would be very difficult to take a useful (or genuine) metaphilosophical position on science.

The Question itself: What is Philosophy?

Some of statements and arguments from metaphilosophers on philosophy seem patently obvious and also well-trodden. That is, they're simply of the traditional “What is philosophy?” variety.

For example, a metaphilosopher can say that philosophy doesn't rely on faith or revelation. Instead it relies on, say, reason; or, in 21st century pretentious terms, on “cognitive criticality”. Nonetheless, such a position of faithlessness or lack of revelation doesn't automatically make philosophy a science either. Traditional what-is-philosophy philosophers might have said that there's no need to rely on observations or experiments in philosophy..... A contemporary metaphilosopher may say, on the other hand, that some philosophers indulge in thought experiments (as Timothy Williamson does in his The Philosophy of Philosophy) which are very like the thought experiments engaged in by scientists (Williamson cites Galileo). Nonetheless, they're still not physical experiments; as is commonly understood in science. In addition, observations may be said to be prerequisites for just about any kind of philosophy. And it can also be said that observation (or at least a posteriori reasoning) can defeat a priori claims and statements (see Laurence BonJour).

Bertrand Russell on Philosophy

Bertrand Russell seems to have believed that when it comes to the definition of the word “philosophy” (or to a description of the practice of philosophy), one can't help but be metaphilosophical. (Of course Russell never used the word “metaphilosophy”; or even the words “the philosophy of philosophy”.) Russell wrote:

Definitions may be given in this way of any field where a body of definite knowledge exists. But philosophy cannot be so defined. Any definition is controversial and already embodies a philosophic attitude. The only way to find out what philosophy is, is to do philosophy."

Surely it can't said that a definition of the word “science” won't be equally as problematic as that of the word “philosophy”. In addition, one will need to take a philosophical stance on what science is (if not on the word “science”). Similarly, would all scientists agree on such a definition? (I doubt it.) Thus it can't be the case that simply because the word “philosophy” is about, well, philosophy that all definitions will be more problematic or controversial than definitions or descriptions of science.

Similarly, let's rewrite a bit of Russell from the quote above. Thus:

The only way to find out what science is, is to do science. (Or at least see how science is done.)

So it can be said that this controversy or problem includes the definitions of many words; unless one stipulates: This is how dictionary X defines the word Y.

Despite saying all that, the analytic approach to philosophy, for example, certainly “embodies a philosophic attitude” and that attitude is “controversial”. The same can be said of deconstruction, phenomenology, structuralism, etc. - virtually any way of doing philosophy. Of course one would now need to distinguish positions within philosophy from position on philosophy.

It's hard to grasp Russell's final sentence from the above. Namely: “The only way to find out what philosophy is, is to do philosophy." Surely there can't be such a case of a priori philosophising. Firstly, and at the least extreme, a student of philosophy must read the books of certain philosophers and only then can he write about the things they too have written about. He may even adopt the prose style of those philosophers. Later he'll probably make a self-conscious attempt to write a certain kind of philosophy in a certain kind of way. In no manner will he simply discover his own voice the first few times he writes philosophy. If he didn't do that, isn't it likely that he'd be doing stream-of-consciousness expressionism rather than philosophy? Unless, again, he's literally writing genuine philosophy from an a priori position; which, surely, is (almost) impossible. Sure, in order to “find out” if one can do philosophy one will need to “do philosophy”. And then one will discover which approach one likes. But an original position can't come from doing philosophy with a view from nowhere.

*) Next: 'Metaphilosophy: Examples and Problems' (4)

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Metaphilosophy: P.M.S. Hacker vs. Timothy Williamson (2)

Above: P.M.S. Hacker. Below: Timothy Williamson

The following is a commentary on P.M.S. Hacker's sixteen-page review (or 'Critical Notice') of Timothy Williamson's book The Philosophy of Philosophy. The review is an interesting account of what two analytic philosophers take philosophy and metaphilosophy to be. Williamson's own The Philosophy of Philosophy shows us what he takes metaphilosophy and philosophy to be. 

In basic terms, Hacker's critique is twofold. One, he doesn't really believe that The Philosophy of Philosophy is an example of the philosophy of philosophy. Two, he believes that Williamson - in parallel - pays too much attention to various disputes, subjects and problems which are firmly within the domain of analytic philosophy. Hacker's other main critique is, as one would imagine, that Williamson's criticisms of the “linguistic term” and “conceptual analysis” are both philosophically problematic and often historically and philosophically naïve - sometimes downright false.

Indeed Hacker seems to have a problem with just about every sentence in Williamson's The Philosophy of Philosophy. Hacker's relentless (if sometimes mild and subtle) sarcasm does grate after a bit. One is led to ask: Does Timothy Williamson really make so many fundamental schoolboy errors? (Perhaps Williamson once spilt Hacker's coffee in an Oxford college common room and he's never forgiven him.)


Matti Eklund sums up Timothy Williamson's The Philosophy of Philosophy in the broadest possible terms. He writes:

In one way,Williamson is conservative: he wants to defend (analytic) philosophy pretty much as it has tended to be done. In another, he is radical: he wants to correct what he regards as common misconceptions of the enterprise of philosophy.”

P.M.S. Hacker, on the other hand, takes another angle and says that that metaphilosophy is about “the nature of philosophy and its methods”. Such a pursuit, according to Hacker, has “been little discussed by recent analytic philosophers of the new persuasion”. More precisely, Timothy Williamson involves himself in the “rethinking of philosophical methodology”. This “involves understanding, at an appropriate level of abstraction, how philosophy is actually done”. Yet despite that, Hacker doesn't think that's what Williamson does. Instead he covers subjects and problems which have been well trod in analytic philosophy.

Thus there's a difference between analysing different subjects and problems and philosophical methodology (or “understanding how philosophy is actually done”). For example, analysing (analytic) philosophy's various accounts of analytic statements and the a priori (as has been staple subjects for various analytic philosophers in the last 70 years or so) is not metaphilosophy or even methodology.

Hacker's general critique of Williamson (at least within the context of metaphilosophy) is Wittgensteinian. Wittgenstein is, of course, sometimes regarded as being a metaphilosopher. Hacker says that “since there is no investigating concepts other than by investigating the uses of words that express them, these questions are about words and their use”. Furthermore, “[o]ne must look and see how philosophy is actually done”. This, to Wittgenstein, was important. To Hacker it is also, I think, metaphilosophy. That is, looking at how philosophy is done is - at the least - a part of metaphilosophy.

To put this another way. One gets the feeling that Hacker doesn't believe that Williamson's Philosophy of Philosophy is an example of the philosophy of philosophy. This is the case in that we only seem to have (analytic) philosophy, rather than the philosophy of philosophy. Hacker offers us this example:

We are promised insight, rigour and courageous precision, but what we get is tens of pages of reflection on the sentences ‘All vixens are vixens’ and ‘Vixens are female foxes’, coupled with the admonition that ‘impatience with the long haul of technical reflection is a form of shallowness’.”

Prima facie, Hacker is perfectly correct. This isn't even the analytic philosophy of philosophy. It's just plain analytic philosophy. It's of course possible to have a metaphilosophical position on - or critique of - the philosophy of “analytic statements” (if that's what they are). For example, one could question whether or not such statements impinge on extra-philosophical areas or whether they are truly analytic (as with Quine). Is that what Williamson does? Hacker doesn't think so. All we get, instead, is an expression of “how the current Wykeham Professor of Logic does philosophy”. Does that mean that Williamson doesn't even tackle philosophical methodology in a metaphilosophical way? Not according to Hacker, who says that

[o]ne might expect a methodical investigation of how philosophy is actually done by the most eminent philosophers of the ages, or of the past age, or even just of the present age.”

Instead of that, “all we are shown is how the current Wykeham Professor of Logic does philosophy”. Of course one has to tackle philosophical subjects and problems in some way in order to see how philosophy is done. But seeing if the a priori is defeasible, or if metaphysical necessity is discovered a posteriori, isn't such a pursuit. I suppose that, in this case, we'd need to say how these subjects would be tackled in a metaphilosophical kind of way. And that's difficult! As soon as one attempts to do so, one seems to stop doing philosophy and start doing, for example, the history of philosophy or the sociology of philosophy. And these subjects are neither philosophy nor metaphilosophy. At least not on the reading of Nicholas Joll. He writes:

We might want to deny the title ‘metaphilosophy’ to, say, various sociological studies of philosophy, and even, perhaps, to philosophical pedagogy (that is, to the subject of how philosophy is taught). On the other hand, we are inclined to count as metaphilosophical claims about, for instance, philosophy corrupting its students or about professionalization corrupting philosophy...”

Yet despite Hacker's criticisms (as well as what's just been written), Hacker does adumbrate on what seems to be Williamson's various metaphilosophical positions. Hacker writes:

Three themes dominate the book. First, that it is false that the a priori methodology of philosophy is profoundly unlike the a posteriori methods of natural science; indeed that very distinction allegedly obscures underlying similarities. Second, that the difference in subject matter between philosophy and science is less deep than supposed; ‘In particular, few philosophical questions are conceptual questions in any distinctive sense’. Third, that much contemporary philosophy is vitiated by supposing that evidence in philosophy consists of intuitions, which successful theory must explain.”

You'd think that those three subjects were surely enough to fill any book of the philosophy of philosophy (or metaphilosophy). But, again, is this metaphilosophy?

Is a debate about the a priori and its relation to the “a posteriori methods of natural science” metaphilosophy or is it simply philosophy? Presumably the a priori method (if that's what it is) would need to have been distinguished from the a posteriori method from the very beginning. And that distinction is obviously philosophical. But is it metaphilosophical? If it is, then Plato, Hume, Kant and God knows who else were also metaphilosophers. In order to make a distinction between the a priori and the a posteriori it's the case that at least some kind of meta-position must have been taken. All philosophers will have needed to have taken some kind of meta position. Again, the problem is finding the purely meta in such philosophy.

Philosophy, the A Priori and Science

Hacker's long non-metaphilosophical investigations of Williamson's long non-metaphilosophical investigations of analytic philosophy's problems and pet subjects seem besides the point within the context of metaphilosophy. Nonetheless, Hacker's statements on the nature of philosophy - in a broader sense - are of interest. Specifically, whether or not philosophy is “an a priori investigation” and therefore radically at odds with “scientific knowledge”.

Williamson sees “fundamental similarities between philosophical and scientific knowledge”.

Williamson also makes a move from the “armchair” to what he says is “knowledge of truths about the external environment”. How does he make that move? Hacker says that “no examples of such knowledge are offered, and no explanation is given to render the ‘mays’ precise”.

One of Williamson's examples of a strong connection between science and philosophy certainly does seem bogus (as well as a little inane). Or, should I say, it does so (only) if we accept Hacker's account of that example. Hacker tells us that the

fact that Galileo and Einstein engaged in thought experiments does not make metaphysics any more akin to science than to chess or cricket (in which one may also reflect on what would happen or would have happened if ...)”.

Needless to say, there is a connection being made here between the a priori (or at least the importance of the armchair) and the realities of scientific thinking. Yet surely any “thought experiments” that Galileo and Einstein engaged in about concrete empirical specifics - even if they led to general or universal laws – wouldn't have been examples of armchair philosophising or apriorising. (Hume and other empiricists have told us that even claims of universality and law always go beyond the empirical and the observational.) In addition, the fact that such scientists sometimes thought about things - and didn't always require experiments to do so - didn't make them armchair philosophers or apriorists. If that were the case, every one of us would be an armchair philosopher or an apriorist. And stating these armchair thoughts in the guise of conditionals or hypotheticals doesn't advance Williamson's case either. Here again it's something we all do; except, of course, for the fact that we don't use the word “conditionals” or “hypotheticals”.

Despite all the above, Hacker does admit that there is some metaphilosophy in The Philosophy of Philosophy. He tells us that Williamson “informs us” that philosophy is “an armchair science”. In addition:

It consists of thinking, without any special interaction with the world beyond the armchair, such as measurement, observation or experiment would typically involve.”

Now that passage, surely, is metaphilosophy. It's about philosophy. It's not about a subject in philosophy. And it's not an analysis of a problem within philosophy. It is, in fact, a huge thing to say that philosophy is an a priori pursuit. We can of course ask if it is such a thing. We can even ask if it's possible, in principle, for there to be such a thing. Thus would these questions be metaphilosophical too in the sense that in order to answer them we'd need to philosophise about the nature of the a priori and whether a discipline could ever be entirely a priori (or even a priori at all)?

Whatever the answers to these questions are, Hacker also says that Williamson “holds that philosophy can discover truths about reality by reflection alone”. That, for one, isn't a scientific position. Despite that, Williamson believes that “some philosophical truths are confirmable by experiments”. That means that even though “philosophical truths” are armchair phenomena, there's nothing to stop them being backed-up or “confirmable” by scientific experiments or other a posteriori factors. (Like Laurence BonJour's position on a priori statements.) After all, if a philosophical truth is indeed a philosophical truth, some would say that it can hardly be contradicted by a scientific experiment and it - almost as a consequence of this - must therefore be confirmable by them. Though that would depend on whether an experiment can impact at all on certain/any philosophical truths. (For example, it can be said that a scientific experiment could have no import on a moral truth or on the metaphysical necessities discovered while sitting in Williamson's armchair.) In addition, in the case of certain philosophical truths, it can also be said that scientific experiments can neither confirm nor disconfirm them. In other words, experiments are basically irrelevant to (most/many) philosophical truths.

Hacker's account of Williamson further stresses the latter's ostensible belief that philosophy isn't that different from other kinds of thought and, indeed, from science. Hacker writes:

... since philosophical ways of thinking are no different in kind from other ways, philosophical questions are not different in kind from other questions (4). Most importantly, philosophy is no more a linguistic or conceptual inquiry than physics (21).”

Williamson again bridges the chasm between philosophy and science when he says that “[p]hilosophy, like any other science (including mathematics) [...] has evidence for its discoveries”.

Williamson then says that “philosophy is no more a linguistic or conceptual inquiry than physics”. Does that mean that philosophy both is and is not like science? Does it depend? Alternatively, philosophy can clearly be about “the world” or “the nature of reality” without it thereby being a science. (Williamson gives the following examples: “Contemporary metaphysics studies substances and essences, universals and particulars, space and time, possibility and necessity.”) And that's certainly true. Here again we can ask whether or not science can either confirm or disconfirm such world-directed philosophical/metaphysical statements. Or, alternatively - as with certain logical positivists - we can say that they're not amenable to scientific scrutiny at all because (as with the most extreme logical positivist position) world-directed philosophical claims are “meaningless”.

More broadly, these strong distinctions and connections between science and philosophy are surely important and indeed metaphilosophical. Though, here again, such a subject has been part of the staple diet of analytic philosophy since Wittgenstein in the 1920s (or even before). So, on the one hand, this is clearly metaphilosophy. On the other hand, if this is metaphilosophy, then metaphilosophy has been part of (analytic) philosophy for a very long time.


Hacker's review of Williamson's The Philosophy of Philosophy becomes even more explicit – indeed crashingly so! - when he concludes with the following words:

The Philosophy of Philosophy fails to characterize the linguistic turn in analytic philosophy. It fails to explain why many of the greatest analytic philosophers thought philosophy to be a conceptual investigation... It holds that philosophy can discover truths about reality by reflection alone, but does not explain how. It holds that some philosophical truths are confirmable by experiments, but does not say which. It misrepresents the methodology of the empirical sciences and the differences between the sciences and philosophy. It has nothing whatsoever to say about most branches of philosophy.”

Yes, characterising the “linguistic turn” in broad and contextual terms would indeed be metaphilosophy. A philosophical analysis of some of its problems and assumptions wouldn't be. The same is true about “conceptual investigation”. For example, arguing that conceptual analysis alone doesn't do justice to “metaphysical reality” wouldn't be metaphilosophy... or would it?

Despite that final declamation against Williamson, Hacker does say that The Philosophy of Philosophy “does provide an adequate ‘self-image’ of the way Professor Williamson does philosophy”. And even that ostensible plaudit is, I believe, subtly sarcastic.