Philosophy by Humans, 1: Concepts Don’t Work That Way

by Luke Muehlhauser on September 27, 2011 in Philosophical Methodology

Cross-posted at Less Wrong.

Philosophy in the Flesh, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, opens with a bang:

The mind is inherently embodied. Thought is mostly unconscious. Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.

These are three major findings of cognitive science. More than two millennia of a priori philosophical speculation about these aspects of reason are over. Because of these discoveries, philosophy can never be the same again.

When taken together and considered in detail, these three findings… are inconsistent with central parts of… analytic philosophy…

This book asks: What would happen if we started with these empirical discoveries about the nature of mind and constructed philosophy anew?

Sometimes I try to summarize my view of philosophy by saying, “I think good philosophy basically just is cognitive science, plus math.” Lakoff and Johnson’s book is a decent exposition of what that statement means to me.

So what would happen if we dropped all philosophical methods that were developed when we had a Cartesian view of the mind and of reason, and instead invented philosophy anew given what we now know about the physical processes that produce human reasoning?

What emerges is a philosophy close to the bone. A philosophical perspective based on our empirical understanding of the embodiment of mind is a philosophy in the flesh, a philosophy that takes account of what we most basically are and can be.

Philosophy is a diseased discipline, but good philosophy can (and must) be done. This sequence, “Philosophy by Humans,” is my take on how to do philosophy when you take cognitive science seriously.

 

Conceptual Analysis

Let me begin with a quick, easy example of how cognitive science can inform our philosophical methodology. The example below shouldn’t surprise anyone who has read A Human’s Guide to Words, but it does illustrate how misguided thousands of philosophical works can be due to an ignorance of cognitive science.

Consider what may be the central method of 20th century analytic philosophy: conceptual analysis. In its standard form, conceptual analysis assumes the “classical view” of concepts, that a “concept C has definitional structure in that it is composed of simpler concepts that express necessary and sufficient conditions for falling under C.” For example, the concept bachelor has the constituents unmarried and man. Something falls under the concept bachelor if and only if it is an unmarried man.

Conceptual analysis, then, is the attempt to examine our intuitive concepts and arrive at definitions (in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions) that capture the meaning of those concepts. De Paul & Ramsey (1999) explain:

Anyone familiar with Plato’s dialogues knows how [conceptual analysis] is conducted. We see Socrates encounter someone who claims to have figured out the true essence of some abstract notion… the person puts forward a definition or analysis of the notion in the form of necessary and sufficient conditions that are thought to capture all and only instances of the concept in question. Socrates then refutes his interlocutor’s definition of the concept by pointing out various counterexamples…

For example, in Book I of the Republic, when Cephalus defines justice in a way that requires the returning of property and total honesty, Socrates responds by pointing out that it would be unjust to return weapons to a person who had gone mad or to tell the whole truth to such a person…. [The] proposed analysis is rejected because it fails to capture our intuitive judgments about the nature of justice.

After a proposed analysis or definition is overturned by an intuitive counterexample, the idea is to revise or replace the analysis with one that is not subject to the counterexample. Counterexamples to the new analysis are sought, the analysis revised if any counterexamples are found, and so on…

The practice continues even today. Consider the conceptual analysis of knowledge. For centuries, knowledge was considered by most to be justified true belief (JTB). If Susan believed X but X wasn’t true, then Susan couldn’t be said to have knowledge of X. Likewise, if X was true but Susan didn’t believe X, then she didn’t have knowledge of X. And if Susan believed X and X was true but Susan had no justification for believing X, then she didn’t really have “knowledge,” she just had an accidentally true belief. But if Susan had justified true belief of X, then she did have knowledge of X.

And then Gettier (1963) offered some famous counterexamples to this analysis of knowledge. Here is a later counterexample, summarized by Zagzebski (1994):

…imagine that you are driving through a region in which, unknown to you, the inhabitants have erected three barn facades for each real barn in an effort to make themselves look more prosperous. Your eyesight is normal and reliable enough in ordinary circumstances to spot a barn from the road. But in this case the fake barns are indistinguishable from the real barns at such a distance. As you look at a real barn you form the belief ‘That’s a fine barn’. The belief is true and justified, but [intuitively, it isn’t knowledge].

As in most counterexamples to the JTB analysis of knowledge, the counterexample to JTB arises due to “accidents” in the scenario:

It is only an accident that visual faculties normally reliable in this sort of situation are not reliable in this particular situation; and it is another accident that you happened to be looking at a real barn and hit on the truth anyway… the [counter-example] arises because an accident of bad luck is cancelled out by an accident of good luck.

A cottage industry sprung up around these “Gettier problems,” with philosophers proposing new sets of necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge, and other philosophers raising counter-examples to them. Weatherson (2003) described this circus as “the analysis of knowledge merry-go-round.”

My purpose here is not to examine Gettier problems in particular, but merely to show that the construction of conceptual analyses in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions is mainstream philosophical practice, and has been for a long time.

Now, let me explain how cognitive science undermines this mainstream philosophical practice.

 

Concepts in the Brain

The problem is that the brain doesn’t store concepts in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, so philosophers have been using their intuitions to search for something that isn’t there. No wonder philosophers have, for over a century, failed to produce a single non-trivial conceptual analysis (Fodor 1981; Mills 2008).

How do psychologists know the brain doesn’t work this way? Murphy (2002, p. 16) writes:

The groundbreaking work of Eleanor Rosch in the 1970s essentially killed the classical view, so that it is not now the theory of any actual [scientific] researcher…

But before we get to Rosch, let’s look at a different experiment:

McCloskey and Glucksberg (1978)… found that when people were asked to make repeated category judgments such as ‘‘Is an olive a fruit?’’ or ‘‘Is a dog an animal?’’ there was a subset of items that individual subjects changed their minds about. That is, if you said that an olive was a fruit on one day, two weeks later you might give the opposite answer. Naturally, subjects did not do this for cases like ‘‘Is a dog an animal?’’ or ‘‘Is a rose an animal?’’ But they did change their minds on borderline cases, such as olive-fruit, and curtains-furniture. In fact, for items that were intermediate between clear members and clear nonmembers, McCloskey and Glucksberg’s subjects changed their mind 22% of the time. This may be compared to inconsistent decisions of under 3% for the best examples and clear nonmembers… Thus, the changes in subjects’ decisions do not reflect an overall inconsistency or lack of attention, but a bona fide uncertainty about the borderline members. In short, many concepts are not clear-cut. There are some items that… seem to be “kind of” members. (Mills 2002, p. 20)

Category-membership for concepts in the human brain is not a yes/no affair, as the “necessary and sufficient conditions” approach of the classical view assumes. Instead, category membership is fuzzy.

Another problem for the classical view is raised by typicality effects:

Think of a fish, any fish. Did you think of something like a trout or a shark, or did you think of an eel or a flounder? Most people would admit to thinking of something like the first: a torpedo-shaped object with small fins, bilaterally symmetrical, which swims in the water by moving its tail from side to side. Eels are much longer, and they slither; flounders are also differently shaped, aren’t symmetrical, and move by waving their body in the vertical dimension. Although all of these things are technically fish, they do not all seem to be equally good examples of fish. The typical category members are the good examples — what you normally think of when you think of the category. The atypical objects are ones that are known to be members but that are unusual in some way… The classical view does not have any way of distinguishing typical and atypical category members. Since all the items in the category have met the definition’s criteria, all are category members.

…The simplest way to demonstrate this phenomenon is simply to ask people to rate items on how typical they think each item is of a category. So, you could give people a list of fish and ask them to rate how typical each one is of the category fish. Rosch (1975) did this task for 10 categories and looked to see how much subjects agreed with one another. She discovered that the reliability of typicality ratings was an extremely high .97 (where 1.0 would be perfect agreement)… In short, people agree that a trout is a typical fish and an eel is an atypical one. (Mills 2002, p. 22)

So people agree that some items are more typical category members than others, but do these typicality effects manifest in normal cognition and behavior?

Yes, they do.

Rips, Shoben, and Smith (1973) found that the ease with which people judged category membership depended on typicality. For example, people find it very easy to affirm that a robin is a bird but are much slower to affirm that a chicken (a less typical item) is a bird. This finding has also been found with visual stimuli: Identifying a picture of a chicken as a bird takes longer than identifying a pictured robin (Murphy and Brownell 1985; Smith, Balzano, and Walker 1978). The influence of typicality is not just in identifying items as category members — it also occurs with the production of items from a category. Battig and Montague (1969) performed a very large norming study in which subjects were given category names, like furniture or precious stone and had to produce examples of these categories. These data are still used today in choosing stimuli for experiments (though they are limited, as a number of common categories were not included). Mervis, Catlin and Rosch (1976) showed that the items that were most often produced in response to the category names were the ones rated as typical (by other subjects). In fact, the average correlation of typicality and production frequency across categories was .63, which is quite high given all the other variables that affect production.

When people learn artificial categories, they tend to learn the typical items before the atypical ones (Rosch, Simpson, and Miller 1976). Furthermore, learning is faster if subjects are taught on mostly typical items than if they are taught on atypical items (Mervis and Pani 1980; Posner and Keele 1968). Thus, typicality is not just a feeling that people have about some items (“trout good; eels bad”) — it is important to the initial learning of the category in a number of respects…

Learning is not the end of the influence, however. Typical items are more useful for inferences about category members. For example, imagine that you heard that eagles had caught some disease. How likely do you think it would be to spread to other birds? Now suppose that it turned out to be larks or robins who caught the disease. Rips (1975) found that people were more likely to infer that other birds would catch the disease when a typical bird, like robins, had it than when an atypical one, like eagles, had it… (Murphy 2002, p. 23)

(If you want further evidence of typicality effects on cognition, see Murphy [2002] and Hampton [2008].)

The classical view of concepts, with its binary category membership, cannot explain typicality effects.

To be fair, quite a few philosophers have now given up on the classical view of concepts and the “necessary and sufficient conditions” approach to conceptual analysis. But I wanted to begin with a clear and “settled” case of how cognitive science can undermine a particular philosophical practice and require that we ask and answer philosophical questions differently.

Philosophy by humans must respect the cognitive science of how humans reason.


 

References

Battig & Montague (1969). Category norms for verbal items in 56 categories: A replication and extension of the Connecticut category norms. Journal of Experimental Psychology Monograph, 80 (3, part 2).

Gettier (1963). Is justified true belief knowledge? Analysis, 23: 121-123.

De Paul & Ramsey (1999). Preface. In De Paul & Ramsey (eds.), Rethinking Intuition. Rowman & Littlefield.

Fodor (1981). The present status of the innateness controversy. In Fodor, Representations: Philosophical Essays on the Foundations of Cognitive Science. MIT Press.

Hampton (2008). Concepts in human adults. In Mareschal, Quinn, & Lea (eds.), The Making of Human Concepts (pp. 295-313). Oxford University Press.

McCloskey and Glucksberg (1978). Natural categories: Well defined or fuzzy sets? Memory & Cognition, 6: 462–472.

Mervis, Catlin & Rosch (1976). Categorization of natural objects. Annual Review of Psychology, 32: 89–115.

Mervis & Pani (1980). Acquisition of basic object categories. Cognitive Psychology, 12: 496–522.

Mills (2008). Are analytic philosophers shallow and stupid? The Journal of Philososphy, 105: 301-319.

Murphy (2002). The Big Book of Concepts. MIT Press.

Murphy & Brownell (1985). Category differentiation in object recognition: Typicality constraints on the basic category advantage. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 11: 70–84.

Posner & Keele (1968). On the genesis of abstract ideas. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 77: 353–363.

Rips (1975). Inductive judgments about natural categories. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 14: 665–681.

Rips, Shoben, & Smith (1973). Semantic distance and the verification of semantic relations. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 12: 1–20.

Rosch (1975). Cognitive representations of semantic categories. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 104: 192–233.

Rosch, Simpson, & Miller (1976). Structural bases of typicality effects. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 2: 491–502.

Smith, Balzano, & Walker (1978). Nominal, perceptual, and semantic codes in picture categorization. In Cotton & Klatzky (eds.), Semantic Factors in Cognition (pp. 137–168). Erlbaum.

Weatherson (2003). What good are counterexamples? Philosophical Studies, 115: 1-31.

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

TaiChi September 27, 2011 at 12:55 am

If meaning “ain’t just in the head” as Putnam taught us, and to understand the meaning of a word is roughly equivalent to possessing the relevant concept and linking it to the word, then it seems that concepts aren’t entirely in the head, either. But in that case, why suppose that studies concerning the judgements of language users all by themselves determine the nature of concepts? The philosophical conclusions you draw depend on the contentious and now unfashionable philosophical thesis of internalism. Rather than philosophy lagging behind cognitive science, perhaps cognitive science is lagging behind philosophy.

Besides, the value of conceptual analysis depends very much on what one intends it for. If one wants to simply describe the linguistic facts, then perhaps it is inadequate to that task, as Wittgenstein thought; but if one sees conceptual analysis as constructive, as a way of regimenting natural language so as to provide us with suitable resources for describing the world clearly and accurately as Russell thought, then it seems to be appropriate philosophical tool.

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tetsuo September 27, 2011 at 4:27 am

While reading this i got the idea that this article is attacking the current standards for “how to order things in nature”

I have two things to say in response:

1. Direct Instruction and i guess the scientific method in general both claim/prove that you can cut reality at the exact joints required to make only those hypotheses that explain the thing available. (So we can come up with unfalsifiable set of data on what a “red” is).

2. Only real data about a thing should be stored, flat things that say something concrete about the thing. Categorizing the thing in a scale with other similar things, meta infomation, should be done for each unique question posed.
For example: We store all the facts about dolphins in a database(like has lungs, has fins, has sonar), but not labels(is mammal, is fish, etc..). You can then query the database for things you want, for example, all things with fins, and then dolphins will fit the meta label, do the same thing for all things with gills and the dolphin will not be in the result.

In short: Labels are situational and should be clearly defined as to what kind of characteristic they scan for and what they’re use is.

As a knowledge designer. I would store all the simple facts in a database, and then use a conditional script to select the best label for any given query at that moment. This means i throw away the current concept of “fish” whatever it is, and make it concrete by asking: “What specific characteristics are you interested in for this particular query?” (We can decide on common queries that we want to make international standards, like we have now for fish, but we need to make clear in what situations that standard even means anything)

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antiplastic September 27, 2011 at 7:53 am

Wilfrid Sellars said that the role of philosophy in the modern world is to help us reconcile the ‘manifest image’ (our world as it manifests itself in our situated, moment to moment subjectivity) and the ‘scientific image’ (our world as presented to us through the abstraction of quantitative modeling). Thus, he thought the goal in philosophy was “to know one’s way around”, or to be at home in the world when our conflicting visions might otherwise make us disoriented.

Conceived in this way, philosophy is a kind of therapy. It was Socrates himself who said that the goal of philosophy is to teach yourself how to die. That is, to teach yourself how to prepare to make the transition from the realm of Being to the realm of Nonbeing, again one might say by making oneself at home in the world according to one’s best understanding of it.

You might even go further, and say that philosophy is a kind of grief counseling. Nietzsche said that God is dead, but thought that our culture had not yet acknowledged, much less adjusted, to this fact; he took himself to be pointing the way towards a self-conception which discarded the idea that we might be beholden to some external, nonhuman authority.

Now, you might say, as you might about Balinese Folk Music or Scandinavian Death Metal, that you find even slight exposure to these genres rebarbative and not worth pursuing at the expense of some more seductive tune. It’s good that you are starting to hedge your rhetoric – ever so slightly – with the qualifier “good”, as in you are merely presenting your opinion of what “good” philosophy is instead of making ex cathedra pronouncements on its One True Essence. But this kind of arrogant manifesto-ish language is the sort of thing that will make you cringe when and if you revisit it in 3 to 5 years, like the Katy Perry tattoo you thought would stand the test of time but are now realizing you will have to carry around until you’re in the coffin. Why not simply say you find certain aspects of philosophy interesting and others tedious, and drop the soi-disant iconoclasm that proclaims people with different tastes than yours “diseased”? Simply intoning slogans scientistically at people is actually much less persuasive than you might imagine.

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antiplastic September 27, 2011 at 8:15 am

Funny also that you should cite Fodor, who is (in)famous for having declared that neurobiology is in principle irrelevant to philosophy of mind. If you want a smug, complacent anti-scientific outlook, there it is. But more relevant to the current topic is that it is one of the many, many, many nuances omitted from the Grand Manichean Narrative you’re peddling wherein intellectual history is the relentless thumping by science (and the noble Leninist-Yudkowskist vanguard) of dunderheaded philosophers who “just argue about definitions all the time”.

So did “science” “discover” that “concepts don’t work that way”, while philosophers remained ensconced in their ignorance of neurology? Funny story, and one that doesn’t fit your GMN. Wittgenstein, one of the greatest proponents of philosophy as a therapeutic enterprise, seems to have figured it out a good half century before your earliest “scientific” citation. One might also point to Quine and his attack on analyticity from within, or, heck, even Heidegger, Derrida, or Rorty, all of whom seem to have made this “discovery” through other channels.

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Mark September 27, 2011 at 12:43 pm

the Grand Manichean Narrative you’re peddling wherein intellectual history is the relentless thumping by science (and the noble Leninist-Yudkowskist vanguard) of dunderheaded philosophers who “just argue about definitions all the time”.

This is awesome.

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Zeb September 27, 2011 at 1:03 pm

antiplastic, that was great. Makes me want to go back and read all your other comments again. I’m glad you mentioned Heidegger and Derrida – I was thinking that the research Luke cited about the blurriness of concepts reminded me of post-modernists, but then I decided I didn’t know what I was talking about enough to even comment. Makes me want to go read those guys now too.

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TDC September 27, 2011 at 4:16 pm

I can’t comment on the “Manichean” thing and whether your tone/outlook on philosophy as a whole is wrong, but I do appreciate the approach you took to arguing about definitions and the distinction between the typical and atypical. I’m becoming increasingly frustrated by my attempt to study metaethics, and I think this may be part of the problem.

Looking forward to the series.

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6 Inch Pecks September 27, 2011 at 8:19 pm

But this kind of arrogant manifesto-ish language is the sort of thing that will make you cringe when and if you revisit it in 3 to 5 years, like the Katy Perry tattoo you thought would stand the test of time but are now realizing you will have to carry around until you’re in the coffin.

+82 Karma Points

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Adito99 September 27, 2011 at 9:44 pm

To be fair, quite a few philosophers have now given up on the classical view of concepts and the “necessary and sufficient conditions” approach to conceptual analysis.

Interesting that several of you overlooked this bit.

In any case, this was an interesting post. I’ve been trying to figure out how best to characterize the way people use words so some science on the topic is very welcome.

Taichi and Tetsuo

You guys seem to be hitting the same point. That organizing references is important. I think if conceptual analysis is used in this way then it could be useful. But I suspect it doesn’t need to be very rigorous. As it stands now people are perfectly capable of finding common ground once they’ve noticed they use words differently. If I say “love” and mean “sensations caused by dopamine release” and you mean “demonstrated commitment over time” then we can solve the problem by referring to things that are not disputed. In this case undisputed terms would be words like “brain,” “dopamine,” and “demonstrated commitment.” That last one might need to be unpacked a bit but you can see where I’m going with this. If this approach works then what does conceptual analysis have to offer? Unless we have good reason to think that our current words cannot be reduced into concepts that communicating agents can agree on then it seems the work of the conceptual analyst is done.

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Bob Smith September 27, 2011 at 10:20 pm

the mind is not material. If 40 billion neurons are moving in a coordinated fashion then the source of that coordination is not found inside the neurons, it stands outside the neurons and controls them. Most people here, however, won’t understand what I’m talking about, will succumb to cognitive dissonance, think I’m talking gibberish and will go do something else.

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shreddakj September 28, 2011 at 12:39 am

That book you quoted from at the start looks really interesting, and I’d love to read it, but unfortunately it isn’t available in kindle format (Like so many other books I’d like to read), and I live in New Zealand so shipping is kinda expensive (hence why I prefer kindle books!)

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Cartesian September 28, 2011 at 8:29 am

Hi Luke!

Category-membership for concepts in the human brain is not a yes/no affair, as the “necessary and sufficient conditions” approach of the classical view assumes. Instead, category membership is fuzzy.

I don’t see how this is a problem for the “classical view.” I mean, the fact that category membership is fuzzy is absolutely no surprise to philosophers, especially those who have been studying the paradox of vagueness since the ancient Greeks. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/sorites-paradox/

I suppose you’re assuming that, in order for a classical analysis to work, the necessary and sufficient conditions themselves must be perfectly precise, non-fuzzy, etc.

But why think that? Sure, philosophers don’t have much to show for their endless pursuit of analyses. But let’s assume there are at least a few good definitions out there. “Bachelor,” for instance, seems pretty well-defined by “unmarried adult male eligible for marriage.” That’s fairly close. Let’s assume it works.

Of course “bachelor” is fuzzy, as you’d like to point out (and as we’ve always known). But of course the definition is fuzzy too! The definition can still succeed so long as the fuzziness of the definiens overlaps with the fuzziness of the definiendum. If we judge something to be a borderline case of “bachelor,” we should judge it to be a borderline case of “unmarried adult male eligible for marriage.” And vice versa. If that works out, the definition can succeed despite the existence of borderline cases. So it seems that classical analysis is consistent with category membership being fuzzy.

Take “knowledge” as well. Sure, we don’t have any non-trivial analysis (though Unger seems to have gotten pretty close back in the 60s with “non-accidental true belief,” and the so-called “safety” condition seems pretty close as well). But surely we’d agree on at least one necessary condtion: one can know that p only if one believes that p. That seems like a perfectly good necessary condition, and a perfectly good beginning of an analysis. Of course “knowledge” is fuzzy. But so is “belief”! Vagueness of concepts is apparently no barrier to stating necessary conditions (and, thereby, sufficient conditions). But then why think it’s a barrier to stating necessary and sufficient conditions, as we would do in a full-blown analysis?

So far from being devastating to the classical approach to philosophy, your post strikes me as just missing the mark. I can’t really see any reason for traditional philosophers to sweat.

——————–
The classical view of concepts, with its binary category membership, cannot explain typicality effects.

I don’t see this *at all*. I guess the problem is supposed to be this: “The classical view does not have any way of distinguishing typical and atypical category members. Since all the items in the category have met the definition’s criteria, all are category members.”

Surely the response is obvious, right? Suppose we give an analysis of some category concept. Typical members of that category would clearly fit the analysis. Atypical members would less clearly fit the analysis.

Bachelor = unmarried adult male eligible for marriage. Typical bachelors clearly fit the definition. Atypical bachelors less clearly fit it.

Since the classical view of analysis can avail itself of clear cases and unclear cases, and since this applies to the definiens as well as the definiendum, surely the classical view can explain typicality effects.

What on Earth is the problem?

Hope you’re well, Luke. And I hope you rethink your disdain for traditional philosophy! You have such great potential, but I regret that you seem to have been seduced by bad arguments from pseudo-philosophers. :-/

GO TO GRAD SCHOOL. Get more training. Kick ass.

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Ronald Seevers September 28, 2011 at 10:02 am

GO TO GRAD SCHOOL. Get more training. Kick ass.

Ding, ding, ding!

Great post by Cartesian and good advice for Luke.

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Cartesian September 28, 2011 at 11:10 am

I took another read of my last post, and I think I can make it a bit clearer.

Of course “bachelor” is fuzzy, as you’d like to point out (and as we’ve always known). But of course the definition is fuzzy too! The definition can still succeed so long as the fuzziness of the definiens overlaps with the fuzziness of the definiendum.

Here’s what I mean by “overlapping fuzziness.” I think we all accept that “red” in English and “rojo” in Spanish have the same meaning. Red = Rojo. Now “red” is a fuzzy concept; there are borderline cases of red. But the same goes with “rojo.” Clearly, two fuzzy concepts can nevertheless be the same in meaning, so long as they’re fuzzy in all the same places.

Surely the same could go with more complicated identifications, for example “bachelor = unmarried adult male eligible for marriage.” The concept “bachelor” is fuzzy. And so are the concepts “unmarried,” and “adult,” and “male,” etc. But so long as the combination of concepts “unmarried adult male eligible for marriage” is fuzzy in all the same places as “bachelor,” it seems like the right and left sides of the identity are genuinely equivalent in meaning.

What do we say of my 76-year-old stepfather who is unmarried? Is he a bachelor? Well, due to his age, it’s not clear. He’s an atypical case of a bachelor, as you’d say.

But it’s *also* unclear whether he’s an unmarried adult male eligible for marriage. Due to his age, it’s not clear that he’s really eligible for marriage.

So long as “bachelor” and “unmarried adult male eligible for marriage” are fuzzy in all the same places, the definition works.

And so of course the same could go with, for example, “knowledge” and “non-accidental true belief.” Sure, “knowledge” is fuzzy. But so is “non-accidental,” and “belief.” If the fuzziness perfectly overlaps, we’d have a successful analysis.

And so traditional analysis is consistent with fuzzy concepts, contrary to what Luke said.

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Pete September 28, 2011 at 11:14 am

“The mind is inherently embodied. Thought is mostly unconscious. Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.

These are three major findings of cognitive science.”

That “abstract concepts are largely metaphorical” is not a “finding” of cognitive science, as Lakoff & Johnson claim, but a very dubious (and IMO ultimately incoherent) *thesis* of these authors. Cf. Pinker, The Stuff of Thought, ch. 5, for criticism.

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Cartesian September 28, 2011 at 11:15 am

Not that this really matters, but in case you’re interested in the true biography, I mistakenly said “stepfather” up there when I really meant “father-in-law.” My parents are happily married. As am I. The end.

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antiplastic September 28, 2011 at 11:53 am

“The mind is inherently embodied. Thought is mostly unconscious. Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.

These are three major findings of cognitive science.”

That “abstract concepts are largely metaphorical” is not a “finding” of cognitive science, as Lakoff & Johnson claim, but a very dubious (and IMO ultimately incoherent) *thesis* of these authors. Cf. Pinker, The Stuff of Thought, ch. 5, for criticism.

Nor is it “of” cognitive science:

What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions – they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.

We believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things – metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities.

–Nietzsche, On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense (1873)

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Luke Muehlhauser September 28, 2011 at 12:46 pm

TaiChi and Cartesian,

Both of you seem to think I’ve misinterpreted philosophical practice, and Cartesian seems to think I’ve been seduced by pseudo-philosophers (Yudkowsky?), but really I’m just repeating what mainstream naturalistic philosophers have been saying for decades. See this.

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Cartesian September 28, 2011 at 6:14 pm


I’m just repeating what mainstream naturalistic philosophers have been saying for decades. See this.

I honestly didn’t see any connection between your claim to be merely repeating what others have said and the link you provided.

Your main claim in this post seemed to be this: “Category-membership for concepts in the human brain is not a yes/no affair, as the ‘necessary and sufficient conditions’ approach of the classical view assumes.”

That’s all Luke, right? Or did you take that from somewhere?

It doesn’t really matter. The point is that this is false. Sure, the concepts philosophers seek to analyze are vague, as are the concepts we seek to do the analyzing with. We’ve known that for a long time. But that’s no impediment to analysis, as I argued in my previous comments.

Think about it this way: Socrates asks Theaetetus what knowledge is. Theaetetus says “true belief.” Socrates’ response was NOT to say “Booo! You used a vague term (namely, “belief”) in your definition! You failed!” He did NOT seem to be assuming that “category-membership for concepts in the human brain is not a yes/no affair.” But surely he was a practitioner of this classical method if anyone was.

Nope, rather Socrates provided a case of true belief that wasn’t knowledge. And that strikes us all as pretty darn convincing (right?).

And at the same time it seems obvious that true belief is necessary for knowledge; we accept that necessary condition, despite the fact that “belief” is vague.

So, really, I don’t see how vagueness is an insuperable obstacle to classical analysis.

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About the “pseudo-philosophers” comment, sorry, that was probably unduly speculative and aggressive. I guess I’d rather just say “bad philosophy.” I think you’re being seduced by bad philosophy. Of course it’s not really wise to engage in this sort of psychological speculation from a distance, but maybe you’d like my two cents. When people convert to Catholicism, often their enthusiasm for their new religion leads to an overblown desire for hyperorthodoxy. They become “more Catholic than the Pope,” as they say.

There’s no similar expression for when someone converts to Naturalism, but it sure would be useful in this case! You made the switch to Naturalism, and your zeal for your new worldview has, in my opinion, led you to become hyper-Naturalistic, more naturalistic than Dawkins, or something. Dualism isn’t just false, it’s *obviously* false and silly. Theism isn’t just false, it’s downright ridiculous and doesn’t even merit an argument. That level of confidence has more in common with the Fundamentalist than with the sober Naturalistic philosophers I know and work with.

Again, I have a limited perspective. I just browse your blog once in a while. Maybe you still genuinely wrestle with these issues in your private moments instead of running roughshod over them. In any event, I just thought I’d point it out as a friend (I consider us friends!).

I don’t really know anything about Yudkowsky. He’s probably a super nice guy! I did read some posts he wrote about zombies; that’s actually something I’m qualified to comment on and I can tell you that those posts were pretty disappointing. Not very good philosophy. Downright bad, to be honest. :-/

But maybe his robot ethics stuff or whatever he does is better!

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DaVead September 29, 2011 at 10:08 am

I agree that there are problems with the methods of analytic philosophy, but I give credit where it’s due for the incessant self-evaluation and reconfiguration of the discipline, both with and without the aid of cognitive science.

So, how does pointing out these problems (while ignoring all attempted solutions) bolster methodologies based in cognitive science? We need to assess the assumptions and tools used by cognitive science independent of the failings of outdated practices in analytic philosophy. Obviously, if we assume the validity of cognitive science, then we can use its findings to derail methodologies based on other assumptions. But why should I take this kind of argument seriously over another that derails cognitive science by first assuming conceptual analysis, quantified modal logic, phenomenology, deconstructionism, Marxist theory, Judaism, etc.?

If you like science, do science. But before polemicizing about non-science, you need to realize that you’re operating within a necessarily recursive system — science for the sake of science, and interpreting a rich and boundless world of human meaning strictly in terms of true/false, empirical/non-empirical binaries. This makes anything you communicate incommensurable with other systems (symbolic, religious, conceptual, hermeneutic etc.). Do all these philosophers doing conceptual analysis, or anything else contrary to cognitive science, share your stipulated presuppositions? I doubt it. If they did, then you could complain there was some kind of inconsistency or that they were epistemically ‘in the wrong’.

This idea that philosophy is only supposed to churn out theory/person/society-neutral Truths that correspond directly with the “natural” world seems unfounded wherever it crops up, and usually needs first to be assumed to be defended. Oh, and just to opine: to think that human science in 2011 is providing this is just ridiculous.

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OriginoftheWhores October 1, 2011 at 11:53 pm

I hope you read criticism before going totally nutz over this one.

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OriginoftheWhores October 1, 2011 at 11:56 pm

I think Luke you maybe are going to far without critique of yourself. I suggest you read some contrary literature (like 2011′s Truth by Analysis: Colin McGinn).
And also how is this a new view of concepts ? Wasn’t Wittgenstein saying it much before?

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Joni October 11, 2011 at 8:22 pm

I don’t really know anything about Yudkowsky. He’s probably a super nice guy! I did read some posts he wrote about zombies; that’s actually something I’m qualified to comment on and I can tell you that those posts were pretty disappointing. Not very good philosophy. Downright bad, to be honest. :-/

You made me curious. I enjoyed the zombie-sequence and found it convincing and insightful, but I haven’t really spent that much time thinking about philosophy. Could you explain the bits you disagree with, or refer me to material that explains it in different light or something?

And yeah, sorry for the offtopic.

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Nate October 15, 2011 at 3:43 pm

Guys, this is brilliant stuff! Philosophers should be afraid.

Actually, I think we should apply similar arguments to other fields full of nonsense, like Mathematics. For instance, I’m currently doing some empirical research on the nature of numbers, and they don’t seem to be anything like Mathematicians seem to think they are. For instance, I wrote down 1+1 = 2, and I noticed that 1+1 and 2 don’t seem to be identical at all! For instance, 1+1 was slightly to the left of 2, and it had a much different shape. Also, both objects seemed to be composed of ink, which surprised me. In fact, 1 doesn’t even seem to be identical to 1, since they are in different locations! I’m definitely going to do further research. I just hope Mathematicians start paying more attention to empirical work like this.

Also, I was thinking about the number 2, and I realized that whenever I think of it, I vividly remember the time that I was supposed to share one of my two cookies with my sister, but I went ahead and ate both of them. So, I think my number 2 is much different than most people’s. I’m going to do some more research and try and figure out if my number 2 still has most of the properties other people think the number 2 has. I hope to publish my research soon.

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Mike Young October 21, 2011 at 4:52 am

O dear lord Nate that was funny.

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seo January 31, 2012 at 10:05 am

The very heart of your writing whilst appearing agreeable initially, did not sit perfectly with me after some time. Someplace within the paragraphs you actually managed to make me a believer but just for a while. I nevertheless have got a problem with your jumps in logic and one would do well to help fill in those gaps. In the event you can accomplish that, I would surely end up being amazed.

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