October 21, 2005

In defense of reification

All right, y'all, I'm newly full of book-learnin' on intelligence and home sick with a sinus infection, so we're going deep.

Reification is the process of regarding something abstract as something real, concrete, and/or material. We are reifying when we decide that something we are looking at, talking about, or thinking of is real -- it's not just a useful model of how things work or a clever trick of the mind. According to some schools of thought, notably epistemological realism, to talk of anything that is not indisputably concrete as if it is commits a fallacy. For example, someone who says "we are giving some of our democracy to the Iraqi people" is wrongly implying that there is such a thing as democracy, that it's something that can be possessed, that we possess it, and that it can be doled out in part to other people. There are further fallacies that could be asserted. I once held the (rather dogmatic) view that there was no such thing as "society". One could similarly argue that there is really no such thing as "the Iraqi people" in any coherent sense, only groups of disparate individuals. Or consider the Xinhua example "the Chinese people believe that Taiwan is part of China". If we are to reify "the Chinese people" as the official Chinese government press would intend, then the statement makes no sense. Granting Taiwan as part of China makes the Taiwanese people part of "the Chinese people"; thus, there should be no dispute between Taiwan and the mainland Chinese government, but there obviously is.

The anti-reificationist position (I'll call it "AR" for short) has considerable value, especially with respect to political discussions. Clearly, terms like "soccer mom", "blue stater", and "welfare queen" poorly reflect the essential attributes of the people to which they allegedly apply; they are stereotypes, usually coined to serve a political purpose that requires a group of people to be viewed in a narrow and (usually) misleading way. Pointing out this distortion of the truth is a valuable contribution to rational discourse. Nevertheless, despite its utility I have problems with AR.

My first problem with AR is that its use is not so much focused on the form of the argument as the object. A fallacy is generally a statement that is not true on its face, regardless of its subject, because of its form. For example, if I say "Some cats have three legs, therefore my cat has three legs," there's a problem with the proposition even if it is true that some cats have three legs and that group includes my cat. The problem is the "therefore"; it is simply not the case that my cat has three legs because cats have been known to be in a three-leggish way from time to time. AR does not work like this. If I say "cats are spunkier than dogs", you might say via AR that I'm wrongly arguing there's such a thing as spunk, that it can be had, and that it can be quantified and measured. And you'd be right. If I'd said, on the other hand, "monkeys have more hair than people do", then I am not reifying and it's fine. The only thing that distinguishes statements that violate the AR principle is whether there's any question about the reality of the subject. Unfortunately, there is often quite a bit of controversy about whether something is real: consciousness, design in nature, institutional racism... you name the topic, there's some kind of existential argument going on that supercedes AR.

For example, if I say "people have more intelligence than cows", then those on the watch for "speciesism" will take umbrage at my claim of human superiority. But they'll do so, not by saying they disagree with my factual claim (though they obviously do), but by asserting that I'm not actually making a factual claim; I'm just reifying intelligence and my statement is wrong, ipso facto. What's the difference? Well, if you told me you thought I was wrong about this, I could try to convince you that I'm not. I could show you studies, say, that demonstrate humans are unparalleled in their use of tools and symbolic language, and that cows seem to have little to no ability in these things. And I could argue that, whatever intelligence is, those properties are part of it and they can be compared qualitatively at the very least. But if you tell me it is not possible that I am right, then the conversation has to stop there. It's as if you have said intelligence does not exist, and I am either a fool or a blackguard for suggesting that it does. Maybe you really wanted to say "who are you to say what's intelligent? You're just an arrogant bigot justifying his meat-eating lifestyle!" but that would have been ad hominem. Asserting AR is far more refined -- and rhetorically effective.

My second problem with AR is that, by categorically labeling all such arguments as a priori fallacious, it may well do violence to the very notion of what it means to be human. This is where Jeff Hawkins' book On Intelligence enters my rambling prose. He is an engineer by trade, lead designer for such ubiquitous devices as the PalmPilot and cellular phones, and he has always been fascinated by the brain. Hawkins is among those neuroscience theorists who argue for a "connectionist" model of the brain, but he goes further still. He notes that a study has demonstrated that there are neurons in 21st-century American brains that fire only when viewing a picture of Bill Clinton. We can't even get computers to recognize general faces consistently, yet the brain can unambiguously specify Bill Clinton's face. Computers are, in principle, much faster but they haven't got what the brain's got, and Hawkins thinks he knows why:

There are as many if not more feedback connections in visual cortex as there are feedforward connections. For many years most scientists ignored these feedback connections. If your understanding of the brain focused on how the cortex took input, processed it, and then acted on it, you didn't need feedback. All you needed were feedforward connections leading from sensory to motor sections of the cortex. But when you begin to realize that the cortex's core function is to make predictions, then you have to put feedback into the model; the brain has to send information flowing back toward the region that first receives the inputs. Prediction requires a comparison between what is happening and what you expect to happen...

By utilizing a hierarchical structure of prediction-making machines, suggests Hawkins, the brain is constantly forming sets of complex predictions that become what he calls "invariant memories". No one knows what the world is like directly, but only indirectly, through one's senses. Intelligence is, in effect, a nested prediction algorithm making and adjusting predictions of everything: whether something is preceived as a chair, a dog, or Bill Clinton's face depends on what we have predicted in the past about the properties these things should have. If Hawkins is right, then he's not reifying anything by speaking of intelligence: viewed from an engineering standpoint, saying a person is equipped with intelligence is no different than saying my car is equipped with an automatic transmission.

But even if he's not reifying anything, our brains are. It is, in fact, all they do:

People are real, trees are real, my cat is real, the social situations you find yourself in are real. But your understanding of the world and your responses to it are based on predictions coming from your internal model... Throughout this book, you could substitute the word stereotype for invariant memory... without substantially altering the meaning. Prediction by analogy is pretty much the same as judgment by stereotype... If my theory of intelligence is right, we cannot rid people of their propensity to think in stereotypes, because stereotypes are how the cortex works. Stereotyping is an inherent feature of the brain. The way to eliminate the harm caused by stereotypes is to teach our children to recognize false stereotypes...

In summary, reification, far from being a fallacious process, seems to be the only way we can know anything. We should focus on improving our understanding of abstract things rather than denying their reality.

Posted by The Greatness at 10:30 AM | Comments (0)

August 11, 2005

Disjunct afterlife

... that was the subject heading on a spam message I got today. As it happens, it dovetails nicely with my topic.

Philosophers, especially epistemologists, in discussing matters of human behavior generally assume that they are dealing with a "rational agent". Such an entity is presumed to operate in a manner consistent with its beliefs so as to achieve maximum benefit. People are not generally rational all the time, but when articulating principles of ethics or knowledge it's useful to pretend so. In arguing for the notion of justification, such a line of thought is used to construct sophisticated arguments that, in the end, too often reduce to "if only an irrational person would believe that, then believing it isn't justified." The end of that philosophical rainbow is unsatisfying, but we'll let it pass.

I'm more interested in how that assumption relates to a further assumption often made by philosophers: that such rational agents cannot live (or not for very long, anyway, lest they become, shudder, irrational) in a conscious yet undecided state with respect to any proposition. This flavor of argument usually starts at fundamental scales of life, as in perception, though it can be generalized further. For example, Plantinga says in Warrant and Proper Function -- I'm paraphrasing -- that if somebody sees a red apple, he can't help but perceive it as being red. If that person believed all apples were green, this "being appeared to redly" requires that he quickly act to change his noetic system in some way, for it would be strange indeed for someone to long remain in a state of abeyance as to the truth of "all apples are green" after being subjected to such a perception. That it would be strange is the important thing. Strange by definition is unexpected behavior, which is generally taken to also be irrational. Thus, according to this assumption, our rational agents should never be involved in such behavior.

I suspect this principle of non-abeyance often does hold for perception, due to its visceral and strongly manifesting attributes. How am I going to pretend the apple isn't red? It's a tough job to ignore such a thing as it hangs outside my window; I could try all week but still fail at it, slowly going mad in the process. And there's another reason, stemming from a similar question: Why am I going to pretend the apple isn't red? Even if somebody showed me a turquoise apple, I might suspect some funny business but it wouldn't faze me to accept that some apples are turquoise. The color distribution of apples holds no purchase on my psyche.

But what if it did? Isn't it possible that other, more important aspects of my noetic system might depend so much upon the proposition that I would work mightily at ignoring the allegedly red apple? Human beings (in fact, perhaps all living beings, to lesser degrees) operate on a hierarchy which probably looks a lot like Maslow's famous hierachy of needs. Physiological (food), Safety (shelter, work), Community, Esteem, and Self-Actualization (being, thinking) drive us from the bottom up. Like the anvil of a thunderstorm pointing the way, self-actualization decides what we appreciate, where we live, what we do, and what (or whether) we eat. But just like in a thunderstorm, if our anvils of higher thought get too far from the lower, denser clouds of more primitive needs, we will fall apart. Let's take the most dramatic possibility. Suppose my day-to-day thoughts, morals, actions, choice of career, choice of spouse, even diet, were dependent on the notion that God exists, but learning that some apples are red decisively undercuts that notion (perhaps my theology declares that the merciful Lord declared all apples to be green, for green is a holy color). There is ample documentary evidence to suggest that when believing people lose faith, their lives are completely upended, rearranged to fit their new belief system. Such a rearrangement would have a significant cost to me; perhaps I would choose a wider diet, a flashier job, a more liberal morality, and lose current job, friends, even spouse in the process. Life would be totally different.

I submit that in such a situation it would not be strange for me to ignore the red apple. Indeed, I might even be irrational in accepting this apple, as obvious as it appears to be; maybe I decide it is a false apple sent by the deceiver. Living in consonance with absolute truth has a price that is too high to ever recover, so I would choose to believe something that could be true (but isn't) instead in order, ironically, to achieve maximize benefit. Shades of Pascal's wager here, and of every other ideological struggle we have to face.

Ed. note: I asked a real epistemologist about this, and he thinks I'm right. Actually, he thinks I'm recapitulating an argument by Quine. I'll have to check that out.

Posted by The Greatness at 09:33 AM | Comments (0)

April 11, 2005

The Nature of Justification

I promised everybody some thoughts on the nature of justification and how it related to politics. I don't know if anybody cared to see me make good on that promise, but in any event, I'm not sure it matters. Pointless spewing of a blogger's thoughts simply because they are his is, deep down, the raison d'etre of most of the blogosphere. So let's get started!

The best known account of knowledge is "justified true belief" theory, which stipulates that in order to know something (call it P -- all philosophers do),

  1. One must have (good?) reason(s) to believe P,
  2. One must believe P, and
  3. P must be true.

There are some technical problems with this theory as a coherent, exhaustive definition of knowledge that have to do with justification (google 'Gettier' for some examples), but it's close enough for our purposes. We don't have knowledge if we have an unjustified true belief, a justified false belief, justified true unbelief, or some combination of failings like unjustified and false.

For someone to attack a knowledge claim, it is necessary to sever one of these three legs of knowledge. Imagine I assert P: "the sky is red." You know the sky is blue. If you wanted to change my mind, you have a few choices:

Note that the rhetorical strategy for convincing someone that something is false if they believe it to be true doesn't differ in any way for any P. I could just as easily have argued against your sapphire worldview using the same methods. The exasperation of someone forced to use the third option is an indication of two things: how hard it can be to change someone's mind when it is made up, and how futile the argumentation can become, full of impotent sound and fury. No matter what I think of such a person, I cannot convince him that P by hurling invective at his belief or his justification.

My example P of a red sky is a bit simplistic on more than one count, of course. Anyone who asserts P can expect to reap a blue whirlwind, and we'd say he deserved it. How could anyone think the sky is anything but blue? Totally unjustified, irrational, nay immoral, that anyone would believe that P! On the other hand, even if there were such a person, we wouldn't waste our time arguing the point; believing such a thing is weird but not necessarily dangerous. Also, a binary notion of belief isn't realistic. I know that we all believe a great many things, each to a different degree and based on varying quantities of Pure Uncompromising ReasonTM, life experiences, intuition, what somebody told me, etc. Some examples on my current continuum of belief:

Along this continuum of belief that forms my unique noetic system, there are countless propositions, some consciously placed, others unconsciously sorted. It is in this messy world -- the real one -- that the above rhetorical strategy is usually employed, but to no better effect. Take P to be "speed limits save lives." We can find people who assert P and others who assert ~P in this case. It is an issue that has social value much beyond that of the red/blue sky debate, for persuasion of most people to ~P if P is true will, by extension, cost lives. And most people don't believe P or ~P nearly as strongly as they believe the sky is blue. This is an important issue where reasonable people differ but could be persuaded to change sides if presented with strong evidence for or against. Do we see any consensus emerging from the speed limit question? Far from it! Surf the Net and you'll find "speed kills" zealots who blame the speed-hungry auto industry and the Feds for lack of oversight, as well as unrepentant (and paranoid) speeders who say limits are a front for greedy actuaries and municipalities. Each group has its own favored studies and reasons for why the other studies are wrong, even suspect. Motives of the opposition figure prominently. At times it seems people are more interested in arguing the intrinsic worth (or lack thereof) of speed limits than attempting to chart their consequences.

We hope that when we consider maximally important P's that we will be able to persuade a solid democratic majority and not perish. But isn't that hope as vain in the real world as it was in my red/blue one? Maybe using the standard rhetorical strategy, but not in general, I think. I'm convinced there are effective means of persuasion that do not rely principally on destroying someone's justification or questioning his motives. Methods of persuasion which instead patiently present the evidence and ask: what do you think of P now that you've seen all sides? And count on the other person to be open minded.

No doubt there are things I believe which are false and things which I disbelieve which are true; I hold this meta-belief unswervingly. But which ones? Living a life consistent with truth requires that I regularly expunge false positives and negatives. Alas, a life unbesmirched by falsehood is impossible. I therefore live my life hoping that in dialoging about "big issues" I will fix the major defects on my propositional list, and that in the process some smaller bugs will get squashed. I don't always feel right, but I do feel justified.

Posted by The Greatness at 05:35 PM | Comments (0)

March 23, 2005

I must make this entry - I have no choice

I have been very absorbed in the work of Daniel Dennett as of late. An athiest and a strict materialist through and through, Dennett nevertheless believes we have free will. His most recent book, "Freedom Evolves," outlines a case for soft determinism that I find quite persuasive. In many ways it is a continuation of his sweeping discussions in "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" about strong AI and the ability to incorporate free will into machines using evolutionary considerations.

Dennett argues that the usual discussion of "free will" is trapped in predictable ruts due to determinism/indeterminism debates (he thinks them irrelevant to the question) or monism/dualism debates (he finds no merit in dualism). His argument follows a different form: there are several ways we could define free will, and only some of them are "varieties of free will worth wanting." Say you were lining up for a golf putt, and you missed. If determinism is true, there really wasn't a way you could have made the putt. But from Dennett's perspective, because we have the ability to, say, choose to practice our golf game, there exists a set of circumstances in which we can make future putts. Indeed, evolutionary forces have brought us to this level of sophistication -- and morality (consider the ant, thou sluggard) -- by allowing our brains to communicate with our "future selves" in such a way that we can plan out remedial golf work to improve our putting "fitness." That we can improve our fitness for something so mundane is a happy by-product of evolution. (And I suppose members of the PGA tour wouldn't have trophy wives without such a "mundane" skill.) Incidentally, his definition of consciousness falls neatly out of that picture. Dennett's consciousness is like a micro-version of those goal setting worksheets they used to make us do in high school: "How do I see myself in five minutes? I see myself making a sandwich, because I'm hungry."

Some would rightly say that this is not what we mean when we say we have free will. Dennett rather brazenly sidesteps thousands of years of philosophy by taking this course. But is this notion really so new? Having free-will-from-our-perspective, if not free-will-from-an-outsider's-perspective (which is what we usually mean), doesn't seem that different from Calvinism to me. Moreover, because it doesn't require determinism to be true or false, this view allows for miracles without changing the central thrust of the theory. Perversely, Dennett's work contains the etchings of a monist Christian theology -- just don't expect him to flesh it out!

Posted by The Greatness at 10:49 AM | Comments (0)

January 18, 2005

Plantinga's Epistemology

Since Raul recently wrote an excellent piece touching on how important it is to know why you know -- and since I'm trying to insert old TG.com stories into the new archive -- what follows is a reprint of my retrospective on noted philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga. (More current stuff on the subject can be had at Certain Doubts, which is possibly the most abstruse blog in existence.)


Recently I wrote someone a check for $500. I believed it would clear because my bank account had over $500 in it. I said to myself, "I know this check will clear." And it did actually clear. However, I discovered two things after the check cleared: 1) I mistakenly wrote the check from the wrong account, which did not, at the time of writing, have $500 in it; and 2) unbeknownst to me, my tax refund was directly deposited in that account the day before the check cleared, bringing its balance above $500. So even though I had good reason to believe something would happen and it did, I didn't know it was going to. (By the way, this is an excellent reason why a greedy application of Ockham's Razor isn't advisable. The most parsimonious explanation for the check clearing would not have been the truth.) This sort of accidental problem of knowledge is called a Gettier problem, after Edmund Gettier, who wrote a hugely influential paper simply titled "Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?" Now many, many people have written responses to that paper, because before Gettier it was generally believed that knowledge equaled justified true belief (though Wittgenstein had touched on it previously, albeit unceremoniously). Quite of few of them would fix my Gettier problem by saying that my justification was not really justification at all. But if my justification was not sufficient, how much more careful should I have been? Do I have to be able to justify everything I know? And what do I mean, exactly, when I say I'm "justified" in believing something?


In Warrant: The Current Debate and Warrant and Proper Function, Plantinga explored the nature of what he calls "warrant," that stuff which transmutes true belief into knowledge. He argued that the JTB paradigm, by philosophical standards a relative newcomer born of the Enlightenment, is inherently normative; to be justified is merely to do one's epistemic duty, and to do otherwise is to invite ridicule for being irrational. Moreover, he showed that the noetic system that held to JTB, classical foundationalism, was itself irrational by its own standard. How was this accomplished? Well, classical foundationalism places an epistemic burden on every rational animal: if you say you know something, you had better have a good reason; and for every reason, you had better have a good reason for that, too; and so on, until you reach an unimpeachable epistemic core of beliefs which, being "properly basic," simply could not be false. So, in principle, for every proposition you accept, you should be able to explain how it was derived from such obviously true statements as

2 + 2 = 4

or

All men are mortal, and Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal.

But, Plantinga asked, what about the proposition

For every proposition you accept, you should be able to explain how it was derived from such obviously true statements as '2 + 2 = 4' or 'all men are mortal, and Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal,'

which one must accept if classical foundationalism is the correct way to view knowledge? Is it properly basic? Surely not. Nor does it proceed from properly basic statements, however indirectly. Thus, he concluded, there is something wrong with classical foundationalism at its core.


Plantinga has become famous in philosophical circles for such petard-hoisting feats of logic. In his early work, The Nature of Necessity, he tackled the esoteric field of modality with humor and aplomb ("Could Socrates have been an alligator?" asks one section on the potentialities of possible worlds), building up principles to be used in the ontological argument (God must exist in all possible worlds) and the problem of evil. Plantinga further elaborated these positions (among others) in God, Freedom, and Evil and God and Other Minds, and restated them in his third volume on warrant, Warranted Christian Belief. The last makes an impressive case for the rationality of theism in general and for Calvin's instigation of the Holy Spirit, the sensus divinitatus, as the external motivator of such belief. He maintains that through this mechanism, one can know that God exists in way that is properly basic. But since evidence is not required for theistic belief, neither can one expect to bludgeon an unbeliever into belief using evidence, however impressive. This theory of knowledge, known as "reformed epistemology," has played an essential role in the development of so-called "negative apologetics" that defend faith against charges of incoherence and irrationality. At the same time, it has refocused efforts on positive apologetics that approach evangelism with an understanding of how one changes their beliefs. (For a sampling of such work, I recommend the essay collection Reason for the Hope Within.)


I hold Alvin Plantinga in very high esteem, but I can't say agree with everything he's ever said. I'll close with some remarks on his recent work.


Plantinga has lately focused on two items: the problems of naturalism within science; and the consequent need for a replacement, "Augustinian" science that respects "what we know as Christians." In this, he is at least peripherally allied with the Intelligent Design movement. As a Christian who is also a scientist, I can identify with his feeling that there ought to be some way of connecting the two, though I'm not sure it will be widely regarded as "science." But I'm more concerned about his naturalism argument. Frankly, his probabilistic attack on naturalism through "Darwin's Doubt" seems itself rather dubious. The argument put forward by Plantinga, dating in part back to Darwin, states that one's own beliefs cannot be trusted if evolution is true, since evolution has no intrinsic interest in producing organisms that produce consistently true beliefs. He believes that the likelihood is low that evolution produced such a mechanism, therefore the only way we can believe what our own minds are telling us is to embrace theism, which provides an explanation for our rationality. Naturalists argue that, in fact, the likelihood is high; so the argument as formulated amounts, I fear, to yet another God-of-the-gaps position that erodes people's confidence in theism.


A probabilistic attack appears even less promising given that, in previous work, Plantinga set out to prove (!) that Christianity cannot be defended based on its probability and must be accepted as properly basic through sensus divinitatus -- which was installed within us by "God or evolution or both," as he is fond of saying. This anti-evidentialist position is supremely important for Plantinga's entire system of philosophy. So why would he do violence to it, in the face of tremendous consensus on evolution, by asserting that if evolution is true, then no such belief-producing mechanism is possible? Perhaps the opportunity to do some more petard-hoisting was simply irresistible, especially when considering the sanctimony of his naturalist opponents. The trouble is that evolution is true, even if naturalism isn't. There was no need for Plantinga to step into this mess, absent his logician's skepticism. There are already theistic evolutionary paradigms in which a sensus divinitatus could be said to develop because it gave certain creatures an advantage (see for example Teilhard or Dobzhansky). He might even say that the evolution was not directed toward particular body plans but that this aspect of the process was, as they say, "ineluctable" and resulted in creatures that could both 1) rule their environment and 2) know God in a basic way. It was this creature that God created in His image, and in our world, that creature is man. In one of Plantinga's possible worlds, maybe all of us, even Christ, was an alligator...

Posted by The Greatness at 03:11 AM | Comments (0)