Showing posts with label intentionality. Show all posts
Showing posts with label intentionality. Show all posts

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.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Content externalist solutions to sceptical problems

A standard solution to general sceptical problems is to move to an externalist account of content. Grossly oversimplifying, if what makes a thought be about horses is that it has a causal connection with horses, then thoughts about horses can't be completely mistaken. This sort of move might be thought to be anti-realist, though I think that's a poor characterization. If this sort of move works, then we couldn't have thoughts and yet have our whole system of thoughts be completely mistaken. And hence, it seems, scepticism is dead.
But it just occurred to me that there is a hole in this argument. Why couldn't the sceptic who accepts the externalist story about content still say: "So, if I am thinking at all, then global scepticism is false. But am I thinking at all?" This may seem to be a completely absurd position—how could one doubt whether one is thinking? Wouldn't the doubt be a thought? Yes, the doubt would be a thought. Hence, the person who doubts whether she thinks would not be able to believe that she doubts. And, of course, the person who thinks she's not thinking has a contradiction between the content of her thought and the fact of her thought, but it's not so obvious that that's a contradiction in her thought (just as a contradiction between the content of an astronomical belief and an astronomical fact need not be a contradiction in the thinker's thought). Besides, the Churchlands think that they have no thoughts, and have given arguments for this.
If I am right in the above, then the content externalist move does not solve the problem of scepticism—it simply radicalizes it. But it raises the cost of scepticism—it forces the sceptic to stop thinking of herself as thinking. And as such it may be practically useful for curing scepticism if the sceptic isn't a full Pyrrhonian, in the way a rose or some other creature that has no thoughts is. However, if the motivation for the content externalism is to solve the problem of scepticism, rather than cure the sceptic, then the motivation seems to fail. (One difference between solving and curing is this. If a theory T solves a problem, then we have some reason to think T is true by inference to best explanation. But if believing a theory T would cure someone of a problem, inference to best explanation to the truth of T is not available. Though, still, I think the fact that believing T is beneficial would be some evidence for the truth of T in a world created by the good God.)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Computers and questions

Consider the following BASIC computer program:

input a
input b
print a+b
I run the program, and it pauses for input. I press "5" and "enter". Then it pauses for input again. I press "7" and "enter". It then displays "12".

Intuitively, the computer has answered the question: "What is 5+7?" But that's projection. From the marks on the screen and one's memory of the input, one can deduce that 5+7=12. But the computer program can be interpreted in a variety of ways. We could, for instance, take the program to answer a different question, the question of what an inscription of the decimal number equal to 5+7 looks like. In this case, the program's answer shouldn't be interpreted as a number, but as a numeral. Or we could take the program to answer the question of what the result of converting 5 and 7 (or maybe the ASCII codes 53 and 55) to binary, then adding the results together, and then converting back to decimal would be. And so on. There is an infinity of questions we could take this program to be answering.

All of these questions are different, and which one we take the computer to be answering is completely up to us. For, in fact, it is not the case that the computer is answering a question. Rather, we are using the computer to find an answer to some question or other, and there is an infinite number of questions we could be using the program to find an answer to. (We could be using the program to find an answer to the question whether the "enter" key works or not!)

It seems very implausible to suppose that there is any way of adding complexity to this program in such a way that it will become determinate which question the program is answering. Therefore computers simply cannot answer determinate questions.