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Sunday, May 8, 2011

Word Play Part III: Philosophistry

      Continued from Part II

Let X be any set and let T be a family of subsets of X.  Then T is a topology on X if (and only if):

-Both the empty set and X are elements of T
-Any union of arbitrarily many elements of T is an element of T
-Any intersection of finitely many elements of T is an element of T

Now it’s okay if you don’t really understand most of the above.  Just know that it makes perfect sense if you have a basic knowledge of set theory.  The important thing is that this is the definition of a topology.  You will find it day one in nearly any topology course.  It will be in the first chapter of any topology textbook you read.

This is the way mathematics works.  It’s the way mathematicians work.  The first step, the very first step, is to lay out the precise meaning of the thing you’re analyzing.  Once everyone knows what a topology is, what the word refers to, then you go about proving that every topology has this that or the other cool property.

Incidentally, a lot of physics also works this way.  I started to conduct a simple survey counting the number of times I ran across a definition during some random week of classes, but I decided to stop after a single two-hour lecture.  Seven definitions in only two hours.  We were starting a new topic, and just like mathematicians, physicists tend to start by laying out their terminology.

This is nothing new to me, nor should anyone find this kind of thing unusual.  It is very common not just in math and physics but in academia in general.  It’s rare for someone to walk into an economics course and not find definitions of terms like “supply and demand.”  It is highly unusual for those studying French culture to disagree on what France is, or for geneticists to endlessly debate what constitutes a gene.  Most of the time, when people get together and study something, they start by specifying what exactly they’re studying.

Contrast this to your typical philosophy class, or most any philosophy literature out there.  I took three philosophy classes in undergrad, and nowhere in any of those courses did I see any philosophers openly attempting to define their terminology.  I saw plenty of discussion that amounted to hashing out definitions, but it was always couched in language that worked to disguise that fact.  It seemed that philosophers preferred to think of themselves as investigating the “true nature” of things, instead of just hammering out definitions.  I guess it sounds more impressive that way.

But when I step back and examine my philosophy education next to the education I received in math and physics, it seems utterly ridiculous.  I spent an entire semester studying the philosophy of mind, and I still have no idea what the word “mind” is supposed to mean in that context.  It’s as if the entire philosophical discipline hasn’t gotten as far as the first day of topology class.  Ask five topologists for a definition of “topology,” and you’ll get five identical answers.  Ask five philosophers of mind what the word “mind” means, and you’re likely to get several different answers.  And I don’t just mean the same answer expressed five different ways, with slightly different word choices.  Some of those answers will be incompatible with one another.

This is a very strange thing when you stop to think about it.  How many fields of study do you know of that haven’t reached an agreement on what precisely they’re studying?  And remember that “we don’t yet know all the properties” is very different from “we have no common definition.”  The definition of a topology does not immediately tell you that the real numbers are a topology, you have to work that part out for yourself.  Pinning down every single detail of a thing is not necessary for creating a working definition.  So I’m not complaining that philosophers of mind don’t have the whole mind thing figured out yet.  I’m complaining that they don’t even seem to have a common referent for the word “mind.”

Here’s an example where this lack of common referent bites philosophers in the metaphysical butt.  There’s a whole wealth of scientific evidence telling us that our thoughts, feelings, and emotions are all a direct consequence of whatever particular state our brain happens to be in.  Building on this, some philosophers have suggested that the brain is the mind; the two are identical.  After all, the brain is what gives rise to all those phenomena we think of as mental.

One (of several) critiques of this claim points out that while a particular brain state may cause me to feel happy, it is rather ridiculous to go around saying that my brain feels happy.  I am the one feeling happy, not my brain.  So while the brain may cause all of the mental phenomena, it is not the mind because it is not the one experiencing those phenomena.  It is perhaps linked to the mind, but the brain is not itself the mind because it does not experience.

So which one is right?  Is your mind simply your brain because that’s what gives rise to all your mental events, or is your mind something other than your brain because your brain does not experience things like happiness or pain?

This question has the exact same problem as another question.  If a tree falls in the middle of a forest, and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Now I know nobody really takes that question seriously these days, and that’s okay.  I’m just using it to demonstrate a point.  Suppose that a couple of people did take this question seriously.  One person could reasonably answer by saying that of course the tree still makes a sound.  After all, the thing we call sound is just a pressure wave traveling through the air.  The falling tree still creates a pressure wave, even if that wave doesn’t reach anybody’s ear.  So yes, the tree makes a sound.

The second person could critique this position by saying that sound isn’t just a pressure wave.  Sure, we all know that pressure waves cause our auditory sensations, but it is the hearing, the sensation we have, that we mean by sound.  A pressure wave isn’t sound, it just causes sound when it hits an ear.  Since the tree’s pressure wave never hits any ears, it never gets a chance to cause any sound, so no, the tree does not make a sound.

The key thing to notice here is that there is absolutely no disagreement over what happens when the tree falls.  Both our hypothetical philosophisters agree that the falling tree creates a pressure wave, and both agree that this pressure wave never gets a chance to generate any auditory response.  The only disagreement between the two positions occurs with the use of the word sound.  The first person interprets the word sound to mean “pressure wave” while the other interprets it to mean “auditory sensation.”  This allows them to disagree over the answer to the question despite the fact that they agree completely on what precisely is going on.

If we defined the word sound ahead of time, none of this ridiculous discourse would take place.  If we define the word sound to mean “pressure wave,” then both parties will agree that the tree makes a sound.  If we define the word sound to mean “auditory sensation,” then both parties will agree that the tree does not make a sound.  So we see that the disagreement is in fact quite shallow.  It is nothing more than a disagreement over the meaning of a particular term.  Resolving the disagreement amounts to resolving a question of definition.  The back and forth between our hypothetical philosophisters does not represent anything profound about the nature of falling trees.  It’s just a couple of guys being douchebags.

Compare this to our philosophy of mind example.  Both parties are willing to accept the overwhelming scientific evidence and conclude that yes, brains do cause all those mental phenomena.  There is no disagreement over what is going on.  Both parties are completely capable of recognizing that brains cause thoughts and emotions but do not experience thoughts and emotions.  And even while recognizing these things, both parties are perfectly capable of maintaining their position.  This disagreement between “brain is mind” and “brain is not mind” does not reflect any disagreement over what is actually going on, over the “nature of things.”  The disagreement only arises with the use of the word mind.

If we defined the word mind ahead of time, we would have no need for any of this ridiculous discourse.  If we define the word mind to mean “that which produces our mental experiences,” then both parties will agree that this is in fact the brain.  If we define the word mind to mean “that which experiences thoughts and emotions,” then both parties will agree that the brain itself is insufficient.  This disagreement in the philosophy of mind does not represent anything profound about the nature of minds.  It is nothing more than a disagreement over the use of the use of the word mind.  It’s just a couple of guys being douchebags, and calling it a profession.

It's a five-part series, so you know the drill.  Next week, Word Play Part IV: Words Gone Wild


  1. Zaq, there are a number of problems with your case.

    First, I'd point out that philosophy is the womb of the sciences. If you asked most ancient (and even not-so-ancient) 'scientists' what their profession was, they would say 'philosophy'. Your own discipline of physics was once called 'natural philosophy.' Many of the natural sciences started as clusters of ideas in philosophy and later split off to become science once more information and more tools were available. This phenomena is not limited to ancient philosophy becoming science, it happens in the present as well: Philosophy has and still does contributed to psychology and neurosciences.

    Secondly, you are assuming that philosophical works must follow a single framework in which a proposed definition for X is given initially, and then is used to argue than A, B, and C follow, or that the proposed definition X seems to track reality. I agree that approach is sometime used and I have no objection to it. However, another approach I have run into is what I will term the 'musing' approach in which a philosopher effectively 'thinks out loud' (or in text) and by evaluating his thoughts in a logical framework tries to hammer down a definition of X. This approach too seems valid.
    Also, your claim that "I saw plenty of discussion that amounted to hashing out definitions, but it was always couched in language that worked to disguise that fact." is a subjective judgment. Can you provide examples of philosophers that provides a definition while attempting to hide the fact that that is what they are doing? Even if so, a definition (however phrased) is provided, so what's the issue?

    Regarding your example of philosophers arguing what 'mind' is, I think you are committing a fallacy that you yourself have attacked in the past. The fact that we don't at present know what a 'mind' is does not in any way imply that the discussion of 'What is mind?' is not worth having or that study is not warranted. Your claim that 'we don't know all the properties' being different from 'we have not common definition' is true, but irrelevant in context. In this case, we don't know all (or even many) of the properties of 'mind' THEREFORE we have no single accepted definition. Philosophers are still in the stage of asking questions and formulating ideas of what a 'mind' is, then sharing them with others, getting feedback, hearing colleagues ideas, and modifying their initial view of 'mind' as new ideas and information come in. Your assertion that "I’m not complaining that philosophers of mind don’t have the whole mind thing figured out yet. I’m complaining that they don’t even seem to have a common referent for the word 'mind.'" is also a red herring. As I have noted, philosophers are still in the very early stages of figuring out what a 'mind' is and thus don't have a single common definition.

    Your issues with the question 'Is mind = brain?' are based on unstated assumptions that don't seem to be obviously true. Namely your paragraph "One (of several)...does not experience." claims that "I am the one feeling happy, not my brain." It also mentions the brain as causer of mental phenomena but not experiencer of such and that "the brain is not itself the mind because it does not experience." These claims rely on assumptions that selfhood (I, me) can be distinguished from a some particular brain/mind function or state. If 'self' is a component of your mind and brain = mind the it is not wrong to say that your brain (or at least a part of it) IS happy. You also assume that your brain is either the causer or experiencer of mental phenomena, but not both. This is also not necessarily true.

    As an aside, I would be interested in which philosopher's work on 'Is brain=mind?' you were referring to, as I question your reading of it on other points as well.

  2. I'd also like to comment on our earlier (and related) discussion on definitions containing properties. I agree with you that existence should not be part of a definition, but I strongly disagree with your assertion that you should not have properties in a definition. A definition of X IS a list of properties of X. To talk about X without ascribing some properties to it means that you have no definition. Your example that you define an electron as 'that thing we observed' without making properties part of the definition is a good illustration. When you are communicating with someone who is unfamiliar with an electron, 'that thing we observed' is utterly useless as a definition for a very simple reason: You could be talking about ANYTHING. 'A subatomic particle with negative charge and half-integer spin' is one thing that fits your definition, but so do 'that door we walked in through,' 'that cat over there,' and 'the sun.' A definition must include properties of the thing it defines; that's the whole point.

    This should not be construed as a claim that we should pick a definition and stick with it without changing it. It seems to me that there is a perfectly reasonable approach to take that allows for properties being part of definitions. You can observe something new and give it an identifier D that defines it to include properties X, Y, and Z. However, some of those properties are likely quite tentative. You just observed D, there hasn't been much study done on it. Those properties might turn out to be wrong, and then can be updated or modified as new information about D is found. Or further study might confirm them and they can then be solidified until and unless new information disproves them.

  3. Wow, you sure write a lot. I'll parse paragraph by paragraph.

    Also I don't think philosophy is entirely useless. I think a more accurate assessment would be to say that it is quite inefficient.

    P2: Invalid by what standard? The second approach seems to be a precurser to the first. You have to think about how you want to define things before you actually define them. The issue is that philosophers seem stuck on the second approach and rarely make it to the first approach.

    P3: If it is a subjective claim, then there seem to be a lot of people who agree. How many philosophers will say that their opposition is wrong, as opposed to saying that their opposition has poor definitions? It's the difference between saying "your definition of mind is not useful" and saying "the brain is not the mind" simply because it doesn't meet some criteria that wasn't in your opposition's definition of "mind" in the first place. The latter makes it seem like there's an agreed upon definition of "mind" when there isn't.

    P4: The problem then is that philosophers seem to still be in the early stages of most everything. How many centuries have philosophers discussed morality without agreeing on a definition of the word "good?" Again, it's not a worthless discussion, it's just taking waaaaay too long. And I think a part of it is the fact that philosophers rarely admit that they're hashing out definitions.

    More P4: The lack of a total classification of topological properties did not prevent mathematicians from agreeing on a definition for topology. Dark matter is an even better example. Physicists all share a common definition of dark matter, it's basically "that excess mass between what we calculate from theories of gravity and what we see." This despite the fact the we know very little about any properties such matter might have. What is preventing philosophers from reaching a definition from a very small set of known properties like physicists and mathematicians do?

    P5: I'm not not making any of those assumptions. I'm just saying that they don't disagree with known facts about the working of the brain. Thus, two people who agree that the brain causes feeling but does not itself feel can still write volumes debating whether or not hte brain is the mind, even though they agree on the "nature of things."

  4. Post 2: P1
    I did a bit more thinking about this. The problem I have with working properties into the definition of an electon is that when electron refers to "that thing we observed," then it exists (after all, we observed it). Once you add properties in, the definition is too functionally similar to "an electron is a particle with this charge and this mass, which exists." I wanted to avoid anything like that.

    Also, the definition I gave does include properties. The properties are just left as variables because at the time, physicists didn't know what those properties were.

    Besides, physicists all understood what "electron" refered to well before they figured out it's charge and mass. The definition served its purpose (everyone knew what the other people were talking about), so what's the problem?

    P2: This sounds like what I did. I treated the properties as variables because we didn't know what they were at the time we needed to define "electron."

    Wow, I'm also long-winded. We should team up and defeat the opposition through sheer volume.