Tuesday, December 13, 2011

More on Spinoza on error

Spinoza's main theory of intentionality is simple. What is the relationship between an idea and what it represents? Identity. An idea is, simply, identical with its ideatum. What saves this from being a complete idealism is that Spinoza has a two-attribute theory to go with it. Thus, an idea is considered under the attribute of thought, while its ideatum is, often, considered under the attribute of extension. Thus, the idea of my body is identical with my body, but when we talk of the "idea" we are conceiving it under the attribute of thought, and when we talk of "body" we are conceiving it under the attribute of extension.

But there is both a philosophical and a textual problem for this, and that is the problem of how false ideas are possible. Since presumably an idea is true if and only if what it represents exists, and an idea represents its ideatum, and its ideatum is identical with it, there are no false ideas, it seems. The philosophical problem is that there obviously are! The textual problem is that Spinoza says that there are, and he even gives an account of how they arise. They arise always by privation, by incompleteness. Thus, to use one of Spinoza's favorite examples, consider Sam who takes, on perceptual grounds, the sun to be 200 feet away. Sam has the idea of the sun impressing itself on his perceptual faculties as if it were 200 feet away, but lacks the idea that qualifies this as a mere perception. When we go wrong, our ideas are incomplete by missing a qualification. It is important metaphysically and ethically to Spinoza that error have such a privative explanation. But at the same time, this whole story does not fit with the identity theory of representation. Sam's idea is identical with its ideatum. It is, granted, confused, which for Spinoza basically means that it is abstracted, unspecific, like a big disjunction (the sun actually being 200 feet away and so looking or the sun actually being 201 feet away and looking 200 feet away or ...).

Here is a suggestion how to fix the problem. Distinguish between fundamental or strict representation and loose representation. Take the identity theory to be an account of strict representation. Thus, each idea strictly represents its ideatum and even confused ideas are true, just not very specific. An idea is then strictly true provided that its ideatum exists, and every idea is strictly true. But now we define a looser sense of representation in terms of the strict one. If an idea is already specific, i.e., adequate (in Spinoza's terminology) or unconfused, then we just say that it loosely represents what it strictly represents. But:

  • When an idea i is unspecific, then it loosely represents the ideatum of the idea i* that is the relevant specification of i when there is a relevant specification of i. When there is no relevant specification of i, then i does not loosely represent anything.
Here, we may want to allow an idea to count as its own specification—that will be an improper specification. When an idea is its own relevant specification, then the idea loosely represents the same thing as it strictly represents, and it must be true. I am not sure Spinoza would allow a confused idea to do that. If he doesn't, then we have to say that specification must be proper specification—the specifying idea must be more specific than what it specifies, it must be a proper determinate of the determinable corresponding to the unspecific idea i.

An idea, then, is loosely true provided that it loosely represents something. Otherwise, it is loosely false. Error is now possible. For there may not exist an actual relevant specifying idea. Or, to put it possibilistically, the relevant specification may be a non-actual idea.

What remains is to say what the relevant specification is. Here I can only speculate. Here are two options. I am not proposing either one as what Spinoza might accept, but they give the flavor of the sorts of accounts of relevance that one might give.

  1. A specification i* of i is relevant provided that the agent acts as if her idea i were understood as i*.
  2. A specification i* of i is relevant provided that most of the time when the agent has had an idea relevantly like i the ideatum of an idea relevantly like i* exists (i.e., an idea relevantly like i* exists), and there is no more specific idea than i* that satisfies this criterion (or no more specific idea than i* satisfies this criterion unless it is significantly more gerrymandered than i*?).
I think Spinoza would be worried in (1) about the idea of acting as if a non-existent idea were believed. This is maybe more Wittgensteinian than Spinozistic. I think (2) isn't very alien to Spinoza, given what he says about habituation.

Loose truth and loose representation may be vague in ways that strict truth and strict representation are not. The vagueness would come from the account of relevant specification.

I don't know that Spinoza had a view like I sketch above. But I think it is compatible with much of what he says, and would let him hold on to the insight that fundamental intentionality is secured by identity, while allowing him to say that privation makes error possible by opening up the way for ideas which are sufficiently inspecific in such a way that they have no correct relevant specification.


Sami said...

3 Questions (not really related to your post, just thought this was the best way to ask):
What do you think the soul is and what do you think it is supposed to do?
Did the Exodus from Egypt actually happen, or is it one of the Biblical metaphors?
Do you know about superdeterminism or epiphenomenalism? I would appreciate arguments against either of them.

Alexander R Pruss said...

1. I think the soul is a substantial form. See <a href="http://AlexanderPruss.com/papers/Forms.html>this paper</a> on what substantial forms are.

2. Yes it literally happened, because it is a type of our escape from sin.

3. A simple argument against simple versions of epiphenomenalism is that if epiphenomenalism is true, then my belief that I am seeing a computer is not caused by my seeing a computer, and that's absurd. I don't know what superdeterminism is.

Sami said...

I have read that apparently there is not much evidence for the exodus, so that kind of worried me.
I am having an absurd argument with someone at the time, he believes that our conscious will is an illusion, and that computers are conscious (functionalism). He also believes that God already decided and is causing what each and every one of us is doing. On one hand, the rational part of my head thinks he is crazy. The less rational part is afraid he is right. I am often confused at how free will and God coincide, and I am not sure it is impossible to make a computer that acts like us, or models the brain somehow.
Thanks for answering though.

Alexander R Pruss said...

There may not be much evidence for the Exodus if one brackets the Old Testament. But why bracket the Old Testament?

The question of how God's grace and our free will go together is one of the hardest questions in theology. But I think you can comfort yourself with this thought: Except for a few crazy people, every view, including Calvinist ones, says that they do go together.

Thomas Henry Larsen said...

Sami, regarding superdeterminism, check out Molinism.