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October 16, 20051 response
Consider an intense (e.g. sexual) pleasure. I see no reason why some lucky person who had never experiences pain couldn't experience such a pleasure. Even if a person can only enjoy a pleasure by means of some contrast (itself a debatable point), mundane 'neutral' experience is enough of a contrast with intense pleasure: pain is not required. And I would take this one step further: not only could you experience pleasure without having experienced pain, you could experience pleasure even if nobody ever experienced pain.
October 16, 20052 responses
Alexander George and Amy Kind
October 15, 20051 response
According to the Turing Test, if you have an extended email conversation probing to see whether your interlocutor is a person or a machine and you eventually decide it is a person, but it turns out to be a computer, then we ought to say that the computer is intelligent. Taken as a test for consciousness (probably not Turing's own intention), there are two important considerations in favour. One is that the test provides a neat way of avoiding any prejudice against computers on the grounds that they don't look human. The other is the thought that at the end of the day our best evidence that other people are conscious may be their intelligent linguistic behavior. There are also two important considerations against the test. One is that there seems no reason to say that the computer couldn't fool us without being conscious. The other is the thought that my confidence that other humans on conscious might depend on my knowledge that I myself am conscious and that you and I have a similar biology.
One attraction of this analogy stems from the distinction between hardware and software (program) for computers. Computers are physical things, but the same program may run on physically different computers, so the states of the program are not to be identified with particular physical states. Instead, it seems that program states are to be understood 'functionally', in terms of their causes and effects, which may in turn be other program states. What makes the analogy attractive is the thought that mental states might also be functional states. Thus the same kind of thought might be 'run' on or 'realized' in different physical states on different occasions, just as the same program might be run on different types of computer hardware. One attraction of this idea is that it seems to capture the intuition that mental states are not simply identifiable with lumps of matter, while avoiding any suggestion that they are spooky non-physical stuff.
'Because' is often used as the connective of explanation, and a great many of the explanations we give are causal. But not all: explanations in pure mathematics and at least most philosophical explantions are not causal, but are still given with a 'because'. So the appearance of 'because' in your example does not in itself show that desires are causes of actions (though I think they are).
By the way, here is a non-causal explanation I particularly like. Suppose a bunch of sticks are thrown in the air, so they spin and tumble as they fall. Now take a snapshot of the sticks before any of them hit the ground. More of the sticks are near the horizontal than near the vertical. Why? The answer is because there are more ways for a stick to be near the horizontal than near the vertical. This is a geometrical not a physical fact, so it is not a cause, but it provides a lovely explanation. (To see that it is a fact, think of a single stick with a fixed midpoint. How many ways can it be vertical? (Tw0.) How many ways can it be horizontal? (Many.) A similar argument works for 'near the vertical' and 'near the horizontal'.)
But what about the specific connection between desire and action? Some philosophers have in fact denied that this is a causal connection, but the view that it is causal is not just a philosopher's presumption. It is a commonsense view too, and one backed by straightforward considerations. In a typical case, the desire is distinct from the action and prior to it, and if you hadn't had the desire, you would not have performed the action. These are the characteristic symptoms of causation.
October 10, 20051 response
I'm not sure what you mean by "unconcious". If something braodly Freudian, then I'm not in a position to answer this. But there is another notion of "unconscious" that figures heavily in comtemporary empirical psychology: It is the idea of processing or information that is inaccessible to conscious reflection. For example, the standard view in linguistics nowadays is that our ability to speak and understand our native languages depends upon all sorts of unconcious processing. The evidence for this view is the explanatory success of linguitic theory. It is possible, for example, to state an extremely general principle governing when a pronoun can be "bound by" an antecedent (that is, "refer back" to it) which will account for why the first but not the second of these can mean that John saw John in the mirror:
There are all kinds of similar contrasts that the principles explain. Compare, for example:
The former cannot mean that Bill thinks it would be wrong for him to commit suicide. It can mean either that that it would be wrong for some unspecified person to kill Bill or that it would be wrong for Bill to kill "him", where who that is is determined by context. The latter can mean only that Bill thinks it would be wrong for Bill to commit suicide. It cannot mean that Bill thinks it would be wrong for some unspecified person to commit suicide. Why? Well, "binding theory" explains that too.
The principles of binding theory appear to be correct for all known human languages. The question therefore arises why all normal human beings end up speaking a language for which those principles are correct. A priori, there are lots of possibilities, but the one that seems most plausible is that the principles of binding theory themselves (or something nearby) are known, unconciously, by normal human speakers and that these principles figure in the processing that leads us to hear these sentences as we do. Indeed, these principles are plausibly known innately, since they are not plausibly learned. But they are not, again, something most people consciously know.
October 12, 20051 response
The question what the relation is between thought and language is, to my mind, one of the most fundamental issues in contemporary philosophy. That is to say, what one's view is about this matter will profoundly shape one's views on many other topics. What one's impression is of the current state of play will, however, depend upon what one has read. There are, as you say, many philosophers would suppose that thought is somehow dependent upon language. One famous example is Donald Davidson, who argues explicitly for this conclusion in "Thought and Talk". On the current scene, John McDowell is perhaps the most visible proponent of the view. Hilary Putnam has held a version of this view in the last several years, and it can be found as well in the writings of Michael Dummett. I could easily continue.
On the other hand, however, there are plenty of philosophers who reject this view and hold, as you suggest, that the ability to think does not depend upon the possession of language skills. Jerry Fodor, for example, would certainly suppose that pre-linguistic children and many non-human animals are capable of thought. Christopher Peacocke holds a simlar view (see his paper "Concepts without Words", for example). In fact, it's probably fair to say that most philosophers of mind would be in this camp.
More interesting to me, however, is the fact that most linguists, I think, and the overwhelming majority of psychologists would also be in this camp. There is a lot of very interesting work being done in psychology nowadays on infant cognition and conceptual development: At the moment, one hot topic is acquisition of numerical concepts, for exmaple. This work simply presumes that infants are cognitive agents, and the success psychologists have had operating on that assumption gives us good reason to believe it. Moreover, much work in psycholinguistics proceeds on the assumption that word-acquisition at the earliest stages is, for the most part, a matter of associating words with concepts one already has.
It's important to be clear here what one means by "have thoughts". You speak, in part of your post, about "whatever goes through the heads" of platypi. That's one sort of thing one can mean. But you will note that I have tended to speak of whether a creature is a "cognitive agent", by which I mean: Should we really think of the creature as having beliefs, desires, intentions, and the like, that explain (or rationalize) its behavior the way our beliefs, desires, and the like explain (or rationalize) ours? The "should really" here is important, because we do of course explain animals' behavior in pyschological terms all the time. The issue is whether we should take such explanations fully seriously or should instead explain infants or animals' behavior in some quite different terms. The question what infants or animals have "going through their heads" and how similar it is to what goes through normal adult humans' heads is of less interest. As far as the status of animals is concerned, then, the place to look would be e.g. at ethnographic work on the great apes. Such work as with which I am familiar makes an impressive case that apes are cognitive agents in the relevant sense.
Note that this is not to say that the possession of language does not make some important difference to cognition. It pretty plainly does, and it's a nice question exactly what kind of difference that is.
October 12, 20052 responses
Alexander George and Amy Kind
October 11, 20052 responses
Daniel J. Velleman and Alexander George
To add a word or two to Dan's great response: there is no question
mathematics deals with infinite collections, but what those are, what
we mean when we make claims about them, which claims are correct —
these have been hotly disputed issues for thousands of years. (In
the history of mathematics, concern for these foundational questions
has waxed and waned. There have been times, for instance in the
early part of the twentieth century, when disputes over these issues,
were very heated and split the mathematical community. There have been
other times, for instance now, when mathematicians have been less
interested in these issues — although of course there are always
exceptions, like Dan.) The basic question — what does it mean to call a
set "infinite"? — is so fundamental that it's simply astounding that we
don't know how to answer it.
one way of looking at the matter, what Dan called "platonism", to say
that a set is infinite is simply to have given a measure of its size.
To say that a set is infinite is much like saying that it's got 17
elements in it: if you counted up the elements in the second set you'd
find there were 17 of them, and if you counted up the elements of an
infinite set you'd find there were infinitely many of them.
But on another of way looking at the matter, this is insane. How can one finish
counting up the elements in an infinite set? Isn't that what "infinite"
means, that the process of counting never stops? On this way of looking
at things, to call a set "infinite" is not to describe the size of some
actual collection, but rather to mark it off from all finite
collections: finite collections are ones for which the process of
counting their members eventually stops, while infinite ones are
collections whose elements we can keep on generating without end.
The first conception accepts the existence of the actual infinite:
a collection that actually contains infinitely many objects. The second
conception rejects this as unintelligible and talks instead of the potential infinite:
to say that a set is infinite is not to make a claim about the size of
an actually existing object but rather to say that each of its elements
can potentially be brought into existence. (The two conceptions will be
confused if you think that an entity that can potentially be brought
into existence really exists after all — and has the property of
potential existence attached to it. See here for some comments on a comparable error.)
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