Words

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 21, 2009 in Reviews

I’m blogging my way through Sense and Goodness Without God, Richard Carrier’s handy worldview-in-a-box for atheists. (See the post index for all sections.) Last time, I discussed the introduction to section II.2, about Carrier’s idea that propositions (truth claims) must express predictions about what we should experience if the proposition is true (assuming that thoughts and emotions are also “experiences”). Today, I discuss section II.2.1 The Meaning of Words.

Remember, we must start by understanding words, as boring as that sounds. For if we are going to discuss how we can know things, and then what we know, we must carry on these discussions with words. So, we must understand what we are saying before we can say anything clearly at all.

Words

Words are communication tools. We invented so we could categorize things and more easily communicate our experiences to others and to ourselves.

The first distinction is between reducible and irreducible sensations. The word “cat” refers to a great collection of colors, textures, sounds, smells, thoughts, feelings, proportions, and behaviors. We can reassemble these in many different ways. For example, once we have seen a black cat and a white cat, we might imagine a black and white cat. But is a green cat a cat? The word “cat” is ambiguous because our word codebooks differ. Perhaps a green cat is a “cat” in my codebook because I’ve seen cartoons with green cats, and perhaps it is not a “cat” for the Papua New Guinea native.

But now consider the word “green.” We cannot reduce that to any of its component parts, like the cat. It’s just “green,” and that’s it. To know what “green” is, you must have experienced it yourself.

Carrier says that math and logic terms are exceptions to this, but he discusses them in a later chapter (see below).

Two common mistakes

Plato thought that ideas and numbers were actual “things” in a special, supernatural world. Carrier thinks this is a mistake, which Carrier discusses in III.5.4 Abstract Objects.

Another common mistake is to think the whole world is an illusion. Carrier explains:

Of course, the word “cat” can refer to different kinds of experiences, for instance a picture of a cat, a hallucination of a cat, or an actual cat… The difference will always lie in some aspect of experience – a picture will not meow, and a hallucination will not leave physical traces of having existed… However, since something that can never be experienced in any way can never affect you in any way (because any noticeable “effect” would be an “experience”), it is possible for there to be no relevant difference between an actual cat and a hallucinated cat.

…consider the movie The Matrix: if life in the “matrix” is in every way the same as real life, there will be no relevant difference. It will be a real life… But the movie described certain things that make this world different [from real life]: glitches, superhuman “agents”, and groups who can “wake you up” to the higher reality, where you can… see the machinery and circuitry that produces it all…

…it only makes sense to talk about the world as an illusion by reference to other possible experiences that would justify that label… If there is no way, even in theory, to tell that this world is not what it seems, then it is meaningless to claim that this world is not what it seems. For if no experience of any kind can… be had… except an experience in this world, then, by definition, no other experiences exist – there is no other world.

So if we cannot experience the “real” world any differently than the “illusion”, then whatever we are experiencing is the real world, in every meaningful way. Given that Carrier thinks propositions entail predictions about experience, this makes sense.

Knowledge is experience

Carrier says: “Without experience, there is no knowledge.” This includes all experiences, mental and sensory, emotions and thoughts, stubbing your toe, falling in love, reading a book, and imagining a thought experiment.

Definitions

Philosophers need to be very clear about the meanings of words if they are to evaluate the truth of propositions, which are composed of words. There are several kinds of definitions:

  • A lexical definition gives the meaning of the word as it appears in a dictionary.
  • A descriptive definition gives the meaning of the word as it is commonly used in conversation.
  • A stipulative definition is used to prescribe a new meaning for specific use, such as: “In this debate when we talk about ‘God’, we mean an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving personal being that created the universe.”

Carrier thinks that most people attach all kinds of added beliefs or “superstitions” to the meaning of their words, which confuses our conversations:

For example, take the concept of a “life-force.” We observe a certain behavior of chemical systems that is complex, active, self-perpetuating and self-maintaining… and we call it a “life-force”… But we often go beyond this and attribute some mystical property to it, or imagine that it is a kind of ‘force field’ that can extend outside the physical body. But there is no need to make such assumptions – they are not essential to what the word “life-force” really means in practice, what it actually refers to – and in fact these are false attributions, a superstition…

So, we must be careful not to attach superstitions to the meaning of our words, or communication will break down.

I agree. And that’s it for words! Next up is II.2.2 The Meaning of Statements.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Sabio April 21, 2009 at 5:54 pm

Agreed !  In conversations, unfortunately, to come to agreement on these lanuage issues is very difficult.  The two conversants must be committed to progress and understanding, and usually conversation is primarily about persuasion and influence.

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Ben April 21, 2009 at 8:52 pm

I found Carrier’s coined phrase, “lingual superstition” to be very useful. 

Ben

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cartesian April 22, 2009 at 7:46 am

Luke,
I like you, and I think you’re sharp. But this book you’re reading includes some really bad philosophy. It reads like it was written by an undergraduate. Here are a few examples:

<em>The word “cat” refers to a great collection of colors, textures, sounds, smells, thoughts, feelings, proportions, and behaviors.</em>

No way man. “Cat” refers to cats. End of story. In the Matrix there are no cats (just as there are no spoons). Yet there are cat-ish colors, textures, sounds, smells, thoughts, feelings, proportions, and behaviors. Therefore, “cat” does not refer to those things. People in the Matrix <em>say</em> “There are cats,” but they’re wrong.

<em>We must always remember that words are labels we invented as communication tools. Plato got confused and thought that words, ideas, and numbers were actual “things” in a special, supernatural world.</em>

I”m sure that Plato would have agreed with you that words are labels we invented as communication tools. He did *not* think that particular instances of words existed in Plato’s heaven. He did think that abstract objects existed in Plato’s heaven. Types are abstract objects, so types of words and ideas are up there. Numbers aren’t types, but they’re still up in Plato’s heaven.

Why is this a mistake? Plato agrees with what you said about language.

Carrier said:
<em>Of course, the word “cat” can refer to different kinds of experiences, for instance a picture of a cat, a hallucination of a cat, or an actual cat…</em>

Pictures of cats aren’t experiences. Neither are actual cats. There could be pictures of cats and actual cats even if there were no one around to experience them.

<em>…it only makes sense to talk about the world as an illusion by reference to other possible experiences that would justify that label… If there is no way, even in theory, to tell that this world is not what it seems, then it is meaningless to claim that this world is not what it seems. For if no experience of any kind can… be had… except an experience in this world, then, by definition, no other experiences exist – there is no other world.</em>

I don’t get the argument here. It looks like it’s supposed to go like this:

(1) If no experience of any kind can be had except an experience in this world then no other experiences exist and there is no other world. (explicit assumption)
(2) It only makes sense to talk about the world as an illusion by reference to other possible experience that would justify that label. (explicit assumption)
(3) Therefore, if no experience of any kind can be had except an experience in this world, then it doesn’t make sense to talk about the world as an illusion. (from 1 and 2)
(4) If there is no way, even in theory, to tell that this world is not what it seems, then no experience of any kind can be had except an experience in this world. (implicit assumption)
(5) Therefore, if there is no way, even in theory, to tell that this world is not what it seems, then it’s meaningless to claim that this world is not what it seems. (from 3 and 4)

(4) looks pretty obviously false. Why think that’s true? You say you agree with Carrier on this, so maybe you can tell me whether I got the argument right, and if so, why you think (4) is true.

<em>So if we cannot experience the “real” world any differently than the “illusion”, then whatever we are experiencing is the real world, in every meaningful way.</em>

Yeah, that doesn’t seem to follow at all. So people trapped in the Matrix cannot experience the real world any differently from the illusion. But what they’re experiencing isn’t the real world. It’s a giant hallucination. So it sure looks like you’re wrong here.

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lukeprog April 22, 2009 at 9:46 am

cartesian,

I have already disagreed with – or at least seriously questioned – much of what Carrier has written. That will continue as I blog my way through his book.

Re: cats in the Matrix. Remember that Carrier writes that if there is nothing that could distinguish a Matrix-esque reality from “true” reality, then the fake reality is reality in every meaningful sense. The difference between a real cat and a Matrix cat is that, for example, real cats do not experience glitches where they walk by a doorway, then magically appear at the other side and walk past the doorway again. Such a phenomena is a sensation we might expect from a “Matrix cat” but not from a “real cat.”

Re: Plato. I wasn’t saying that Plato thought we invented words as communication tools. I’m saying the opposite. I’m saying that Carrier and I are claiming that words were invented as communication tools, but that Plato thought the abstractions represented by words actually existed in some kind of perfect form in Platonic heaven. And that’s a mistake. There is no Platonic heaven.

Pictures of cats aren’t experiences. Neither are actual cats. There could be pictures of cats and actual cats even if there were no one around to experience them.

Yup, I like this criticism. I’m not sure how Carrier would reply.

Re: pervasive illusion. Carrier’s reasoning here flows directly from his definition of “proposition”: that a proposition entails predictions about experience. By this definition, if there is no experiential difference between a real cat and a Matrix cat, then by definition there is no difference between the propositions “I see a cat” and “I see a cat that is probably an illusion being generated by a Matrix.” But only if there is no possible way to distinguish the two by experience (including the inner experiences of logic, memory, etc.)

I agree with Carrier’s reasoning about the Matrix only if his definition of “proposition” is assumed. But I do not assume his definition of “proposition.”

You shall see me sharply disagree with Carrier on many other points as I blog my way through the book, trust me.

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cartesian April 22, 2009 at 10:05 am

Remember that Carrier writes that if there is nothing that could distinguish a Matrix-esque reality from “true” reality, then the fake reality is reality in every meaningful sense.

Yeah, that’s just wrong though. The fact is that nothing could distinguish the Matrix from the real world. It was a perfect hallucination. Yet it wasn’t the real world. It wasn’t reality in ANY sense of the world. It was a hallucination. That’s the whole premise of the movie. Sure, nearly everyone in the Matrix believes that they’re experiencing reality, that things are as they seem, but these people are wrong. They have a lot of false beliefs. They are not actually experiencing reality. They’re hallucinating.

 

The difference between a real cat and a Matrix cat is that, for example, real cats do not experience glitches where they walk by a doorway, then magically appear at the other side and walk past the doorway again. Such a phenomena is a sensation we might expect from a “Matrix cat” but not from a “real cat.”

“Matrix cat” is like “stone lion.” Stone lions aren’t real lions. Matrix cats aren’t real cats. They’re hallucinations. But according to Carrier, they are real cats. So Carrier is wrong.
 

I wasn’t saying that Plato thought we invented words as communication tools. I’m saying the opposite.

I know. And I’m saying that you’re wrong. Plato would be happy to agree that we invented words as communication tools.
 

I’m saying that Carrier and I are claiming that words were invented as communication tools, but that Plato thought the abstractions represented by words actually existed in some kind of perfect form in Platonic heaven. And that’s a mistake. There is no Platonic heaven.

Plato would happily agree with you that words were invented as communication tools. But he would also say that word TYPES, those abstract objects, really exist. Since they’re not spatial, they must exist ‘outside’ of space. We call that Plato’s heaven. You deny the existence of Plato’s heaven, but this isn’t at all connected to the claim that we invented words as communication tools. These are just two different issues.
By the way, why don’t you believe in Plato’s heaven? Here’s an argument for it:
(1) The number 7 exists.
(2) There is no place in space where the number 7 exists.
(3) So the number 7 exists outside of space.
(4) We call “outside of space” “Plato’s heaven.”
(5) So, the number 7 exists in Plato’s heaven.
Which step(s) do you deny, and why?
 
I said:

Pictures of cats aren’t experiences. Neither are actual cats. There could be pictures of cats and actual cats even if there were no one around to experience them.

You replied:

Yup, I like this criticism. I’m not sure how Carrier would reply.

I hope he would reply by saying “Yep, I was just wrong there.” Why don’t you email him and ask him?

Carrier’s reasoning here flows directly from his definition of “proposition”: that a proposition entails predictions about experience.

He’s welcome to use the word “proposition” however he likes, but this is an incredibly non-standard definition of the word. The sentence “There are no predictions about experience” clearly expresses a proposition. Carrier seems to think that proposition is false. But nevertheless, it is a proposition on the standard philosophical use of the term (namely, bearer of truth value). But clearly that proposition does not entail predictions about experiences. Therefore propositions do not necessarily entail predictions about experiences. Therefore, Carrier’s definition is false.

 
I agree with Carrier’s reasoning about the Matrix only if his definition of “proposition” is assumed. But I do not assume his definition of “proposition.”

Hm. So by “I agree with Carrier on this,” you actually meant “I don’t agree with Carrier on this.” That’s an interesting way to put your position.
 

You shall see me sharply disagree with Carrier on many other points as I blog my way through the book, trust me.

As I said, I like you and I think you’re sharp. I think you should give up on Carrier’s book and read some better books. Carrier’s book looks like a waste of your time. :-/

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lukeprog April 22, 2009 at 11:07 am

cartesian: Sure, nearly everyone in the Matrix believes that they’re experiencing reality, that things are as they seem, but these people are wrong.

Not given Carrier’s definition of what it means for a proposition to be true (experiences). If the experiences are exactly the same in every possible way for real cat and Matrix cat, then both things have the same truth value (for Carrier). Yup, that’s an unusual definition for “proposition,” but then he’s coming from an Ayer mindset.

cartesian: I know. And I’m saying that you’re wrong. Plato would be happy to agree that we invented words as communication tools.

Ah, then I’ve misrepresented Plato. I’ll fix that.

cartesian: (1) The number 7 exists. (2) There is no place in space where the number 7 exists. (3) So the number 7 exists outside of space. (4) We call “outside of space” “Plato’s heaven.” (5) So, the number 7 exists in Plato’s heaven. Which step(s) do you deny, and why?

I might deny (1) or (2), depending on how we define “exists” and “in space.” Surely, I need to study nominalism/realism/conceptualism more, but it seems to me that abstractions are just potential patterns of experience that we have given names. To say they “exist” in the same way that a chair exists, or even in the same way that God is supposed to exist (timeless, spaceless) is not correct, as far as I can tell.

cartesian: Hm. So by “I agree with Carrier on this,” you actually meant “I don’t agree with Carrier on this.” That’s an interesting way to put your position.

No, I meant “I agree with Carrier that if we assume his definition of “proposition” then…” But you’re right, I didn’t make that explicit, and I’ll fix it.

Carrier’s book doesn’t give much in the way of arguments, but it is remarkable in that it present a “worldview in a box,” covering all aspects of reality and intellectual life. So I want to present on view of what it could mean to be an atheist with views on all sorts of things, even if many of them are false. I’m not defending his arguments, but presenting his view as one among many.

That said, I’m already thinking about the next book to blog through. I was thinking of “Naturalism Defeated” or “Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview.” Do you have a recommendation?

cartesian, I do my best and part of this blog is so that I can learn things and journal my way through the learning process (see my “Mapping the Kalam” series, for example). I do not have a Ph.D. in philosophy and I know it. I appreciate your knowledgable criticisms, especially if you can point me to relevant educational materials. For example, do you have a favorite summary of the arguments for/against nominalism/realism/conceptualism?

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cartesian April 22, 2009 at 12:13 pm

I’m already thinking about the next book to blog through. I was thinking of “Naturalism Defeated” or “Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview.” Do you have a recommendation?
…do you have a favorite summary of the arguments for/against nominalism/realism/conceptualism?

I think that Naturalism Defeated would be a little heavy at this point. Phil Foundations for a Christian Worldview has a lot of nice introductory stuff. It’s sort of like Moreland and Craig’s miniature version of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on subjects they care about. You’ll probably disagree with them on a lot, so it will be of limited value for you if you’re looking for a worldview in a box.

I think you should consider these books:
http://www.google.com/books?id=UuwAjEESwX4C&printsec=frontcover#PPP1,M1

http://www.google.com/books?id=tTmcAYn-uC0C&printsec=frontcover#PPR9,M1

http://books.google.com/books?id=eNWOvlsC1FAC&printsec=frontcover#PPP1,M1

I bet you’d also really like this book:
http://books.google.com/books?id=9RNtGgAACAAJ

And this book:
http://books.google.com/books?id=RYFmTdrbwUQC&printsec=frontcover#PPP9,M1

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lukeprog April 22, 2009 at 12:15 pm

Thanks for the recommendations! I may blog my way through Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, but maybe I’ll do “Arguing About Religion” if I like what I see there. There are lots of epistemology and meta-ethics books on my reading list, too – any favorites on those subjects?

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lukeprog April 26, 2009 at 7:30 am

cartesian,

I am reading the Loux book on metaphysics and it is awesome. Thank you.

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Blue Devil Knight May 1, 2009 at 10:32 am

 It’s like Carrier wrote that without knowing anything about Quine, Sellars, and other post-positivist philosophers.  He’s just awful. Penelope Maddy’s book ‘Second Philosophy’ is very good for catching up on post-positivist scientific epistemology. Carrier seems to think you need to settle the epistemological questions before you can ground science. What a quaint view.

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lukeprog May 1, 2009 at 7:13 pm

Cool, I will have to check out that Maddy book.

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