On Wilkins on metaphysical determinism

by Neil Rickert

John Wilkins has an interesting post, titled “Metaphysical determinism“, and this post will consist of some rambling comments on John’s post.

I’ll start by saying that I agree with much, but not all, that John says.  I’ll be commenting mostly where I disagree, but I hope the reader will understand that there is a lot of agreement.  I am making this a post here, rather than a comment on John’s blog post, because I think it will help show where I disagree with some of the conventional wisdom.

Starting at the beginning, John writes:

There is a hypothesis called the Sapir-Whorf Thesis (also known as linguistic relativity) in language that one can only think what one’s language permits you to think, and indeed forces you to think.

I’d say that “indeed forces you to think” part of that is why Sapir-Whorf is considered either controversial or obviously false.  It seems an obvious truism that one can only say (or express in language) what one’s language permits one to say.  Some people, including some philosophers, seem to believe that thinking is linguistic.  Others, self included, believe that thinking is not limited to what we are able to say.  Those who see thought as limited to what can be said are probably the one most concerned about Sapir-Whorf.  Some of the discussion that I have seen is on the question of whether one’s ability to discriminate colors is limited by the number of color word in the language.  Those of us who believe that thought is not limited to what can be said are likely to think it a silly issue.

There’s another problem with Sapir-Whorf in its strongest form.  And that’s the fact that language itself is dynamic.  We can coin new words if we need them.  The history of science is a history of extending language so as to make it possible to speak about issues that could not have been discussed in the language without such an extension.  So concern that the capabilities of ones language could control what can be thought seems to be an over-reaction.

Conceptual schemes have been criticised. Donald Davidson once gave a talk, titled “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme”, which attacked the coherence and salience of this notion.

I disagree with Davidson on that.  I see conceptual relativism as unavoidable, but as not being any kind of threat to our ideas of rationality.  I won’t further comment on that here, though I might take it up in a future post.

From there, John goes on to define what he means by “metaphysical determinism” and to explain its significance.  As part of that, he says:

Obviously nobody thinks that science is incapable of changing its metaphysics (beyond a few who want to claim that science is just another religious worldview like their own, and so a matter of faith). But there is underneath this view the idea that somehow metaphysics forces scientists and occasionally scientific views to think in particular ways. It is this that I think is false, or at least only weakly true.

That’s an example of where I agree with John.

Personally, I don’t see how metaphysics is even possible, except by means of making up stuff.  So I try to avoid any metaphysical commitment.  However, scientists often do see their scientific theories a metaphysical, as rules that govern the universe.  During the Newtonian era, it seems clear that many scientists took Newton’s laws to be metaphysical.  And, more recently, they have taken Einstein’s relativity to be metaphysical.  There’s a huge change between a Newtonian metaphysics and a relativistic metaphysics, which is partly why that change is considered an example of a Kuhnian paradigm shift.

Other scientists see theories as mainly pragmatic and epistemic, rather than metaphysical.  And people who look at it that way, tend to see the change from Newton to Einstein as relatively minor and progressive.  I concur with that way of looking at science.

I wondered aloud how it might be this way, and decided that we had by then swallowed the idea that world views force our thinking; when instead it seems to me that scientists are more moved by facts and experiments, and good explanations, than by philosophical ideas, and that when they do philosophy (like all scientists they do it a lot less well than they often think), they invent a philosophical justification for what they would do in any case.

I’d say that John is about right there, on scientists.  As he says, they are moved by facts and experiments rather than by assumed philosophies.  He is also right that they tend to invent the philosophical justification that they need, though perhaps without thinking that they are engaged in philosophy.

My fundamental rule is: never believe what a scientist says, but instead believe in what they do.

That’s a good principle.  I would like to add a similar principle – never believe what a philosopher says, but instead go by what the philosophers do.  The difficulty is that most of what philosophers do is in the saying, so that might be an impractical principle.

… and as I often say, when scientists do philosophy they usually do it badly …

When scientists do philosophy, they probably don’t think of themselves as doing philosophy.

The greater problem, as I see it, is that when philosophers do philosophy, they usually do it badly.  Doubtless, I disagree with philosophers on what is good philosophy.  But let me put it another way.  Philosophers wallow in tradition.  This is unlike science, which respects tradition only for as long as it supports the science, then it overturns the traditions and establishes new ones.

It seems to me that there are lots of philosophical issues that arise out of science.  But philosophers seem to be so busy wallowing in tradition, that the rarely notice those issues.  Perhaps if philosophers were more sensitive to new issues arising from science, their field would not have a reputation as being useless to science.

One of the real contributions to science is to ask the questions that everybody thinks are obvious; and it is this that the scientist critics of philosophy fail to understand.

One of my reasons for starting this blog, was to be able to ask the questions that everybody (including philosophers) thinks are obvious.  My experience is that the philosophers go back to wallowing an tradition and thinking that the questions are obvious.  In my opinion, they are missing important issues that they should be investigating.

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5 Comments to “On Wilkins on metaphysical determinism”

  1. Science can only deal with the natural world: “physics”, and metaphysics, which means beyond physics, is the province of philosophy. Science is not philosophy, it deals with pure knowledge, not wisdom.

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  2. “Others, self included, believe that thinking is not limited to what we are able to say.”

    I agree. There are certain concepts that you can’t effectively communicate to others, because there are no words or good analogies to describe them. I will say however that I believe that the majority of thinking is linguistic. People that think are generally thinking in their language and with words and sentences.

    There are some people such as Terrance McKenna (and myself) that think that certain catalysts such as psilocybin cubensis (magic mushrooms) helped to facilitate or create language by promoting linguistic thinking, through symbolic representation mediated by but not limited to the effects of synesthesia (“seeing” sounds or “hearing” sights for example). Regardless of this being true or not, it makes me think about human life prior to having what we consider “language”. How did people think? They would have been thinking in ways outside the scope of language, that’s for sure. There’s no reason to believe that we’ve lost these non-linguistic ways of thinking. We can use a primarily semantic way of thinking, but it’s when we want to organize many thoughts or express them that the syntax becomes important to communicate these ideas effectively to others.

    “So concern that the capabilities of ones language could control what can be thought seems to be an over-reaction.”

    I couldn’t agree more.

    “However, scientists often do see their scientific theories a metaphysical, as rules that govern the universe”

    Yes, and that is one example of where scientists have faith in that assumption, just like other religions. When it is said to describe the universe in only one way, that’s fine. It’s a different thing entirely to say that THIS IS HOW THINGS ARE. It requires faith like any other religion and I think there are many constituents of the scientific community that fall in this line of thinking — they think that they are on a quest for ultimate “truth” when they have to have faith in such an assumption.
    I do think of science as a religion as well, but a very non-traditional religion, and a religion with no concept of theism. Just a few similarities off the top include: there are rules that are followed in the quest for “truth” or “knowledge” (e.g. scientific method vs. biblical doctrine), faith in superiority of certain mental faculties over others (e.g. in science “reason and the physical senses” is seen as superior to “intuition or any spiritual faculties” — which is the opposite case for many theistic religions), and the laymen have faith in the scientific community (assuming that they aren’t being lied to by those specialists that understand the complicated esoteric language, just as theists assume that their pastor’s interpretation of the bible is adequate). We can find all the differences in the world between what we call “science” and “religion”, but I can find just as many similarities as well. I don’t intend to debate whether or not science is a religion because it is just going to come down to how we define the terms (which may differ).

    “Other scientists see theories as mainly pragmatic and epistemic, rather than metaphysical. And people who look at it that way, tend to see the change from Newton to Einstein as relatively minor and progressive. I concur with that way of looking at science.”

    I agree. It is minor and progressive in my opinion because none of them are fundamentally more “true” than the other. They are just ways of describing different aspects of the universe that appear to have overlap.

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  3. If you consider the human brain and its ancestry then there is a lineage that goes back to before language. Those brains still did a job that lesser brains did not. We can see those differences between many species with brains. So, it appears brains can do stuff without language.

    And, since language didn’t appear fully formed, and since languages evolved, there doesn’t seem to be much of a case for claiming language is necessary for concepts.

    But the evolved brain prior to language only survived as many animal brains do today – helping the body stay alive, all the basic functional stuff that life consists of. We have no reason to think that the conceptual capacity or conceptual acuity of brains without language are particularly capable.

    And, because we have lost to extinction the points in time where human language was developing we don’t know to what extent the acquisition of language fed back into the development of the human and pre-human brain over evolutionary time. It seems likely that the acquisition of language feeds back to the accrual of even more sophisticated language, if there’s a social system that can maintain ideas across time so that the ideas don’t die out with the individuals. The spoken story of oral histories, the written symbols and word, printing, and electronic communication – all contribute increasingly to the maintenance and growth of concepts, through language.

    I agree we can have concepts without language. And that language change is sometimes due to the formulation of new concepts into language so that those concepts can be communicated. But that’s a pretty hard thing to pin down – to decide that some new concept that might be occurring in one’s head is actually a new concept. Sure, it may be new to you, but we all occasionally have bright ideas that we soon find have already been thought before, and have been expressed well.

    But the other problem with concepts that can’t be put into language is we have no means of deciding whether such concepts are just psychological states that have any real meaning, whether there is any truth in them outside our heads. Someone who has the conceptual conviction that he is Jesus in the second coming is really convinced he is experiencing a truth, along with all the other Jesuses. Someone who thinks they are having an out of body experience really do think they are. Someone who thinks that are experiencing astral projection really do think they are. When Alvin Plantinga thinks he has a sensus divinitatus I’ve no reason to think he isn’t honest in his belief, even if I think he is actually wrong in his belief.

    But there’s no reason to accept that any of this stuff is going on. The very simple examination of what a brain is, in the context of a great deal of study by science hasn’t shown any mechanism for any of this stuff, and has actually shown much of it to be false (out of body) and much of it is logically false (multiple Jesus claims). Because so much weird conceptual stuff is shown to be associated with a brain in an unusual state there’s could reason to be sceptical about all of it. Concepts without verification by sharing are very suspicious things.

    By their very nature they cannot be trusted to represent anything other than psychological states.

    I also agree that language can constrain one’s thinking. But the problem is that any system that relies solely on the mind as an arbiter of what is likely to be real is already on soft ground, already as open as we can be to self-deception. This is a problem with much of philosophy that, as you say, wallows in tradition. Part of the problem for philosophy is that much of it is just ideas formulated into language, and as such still exists as ideas, concepts, without any grounding in an external world, without any comparison.

    Unlike science, which is merely the more rigorous application of our senses and reason, which uses the correspondence between our senses and our reason as a measure of the ‘truth’ – not some ultimate certain and mystical truth, but merely a measure of the correspondence. This correspondence between our reason (as theories) and our senses (as experiments) is what scientific truth is, it’s what makes a fact, and yes it can change over time. But this is quite different from the change of, say, theological ‘fact’ as you move from Christianity to Islam, say, where Jesus is divine on the one hand, and not on the other.

    I agree that the language of science will be constraining too. The big difference, compare to philosophical language, or theological language, is that knowledge of this limitation is built into science. The extent to which science requires verification and falsification and other methods is to overcome our human fallibility. That is why science is adaptable and self-correcting – as much as that is possible in human hands. Sure, some individual scientist may be locked into his own pet ideas. But that’s not always a bad thing, since persistence with one’s ideas, one’s convictions to one’s own concepts, can provide breakthroughs. But on the whole it pays for science to be sceptical about new science, and thorough in its criticism of new ideas. There will always be young turks who want to make a name for themselves, or who see through old ideas in science that are locked in, who can provide breakthroughs. And all this challenging of accepted scientific dogma is encouraged, celebrated.

    Unlike much theology and many other mystical conceptual systems which treasure tradition, whether it’s right or wrong.

    The problems with science, which are very real problems, of constraint by language, of still relying on flawed human senses and reason, are still miniscule compared to the conceptual systems that don’t accept any challenge, that just make stuff up as vague concepts and then accept them as truths. Concepts are constrained only by the extent to which a brain can form them, through imagination, drug induced hallucination, psychotic state.

    “I see conceptual relativism as unavoidable, but as not being any kind of threat to our ideas of rationality.”

    I agree with this broadly. This conceptual relativism applies to all humans. language generally, and science in particular, are intentional means of overcoming problems associated with conceptual relativism.

    “But there is underneath this view the idea that somehow metaphysics forces scientists and occasionally scientific views to think in particular ways.”

    Yes, but being aware of it and developing methods that try to compensate for it is what science does. It may be flawed, but it’s the best we’ve got.

    “So I try to avoid any metaphysical commitment. However, scientists often do see their scientific theories a metaphysical, as rules that govern the universe.”

    I would say not to the latter part. At least not those working at the boundaries of our knowledge. So some material science researcher might have a metaphysical interpretation of quantum physics that he expresses with more certainty than the current quantum physics shows – well, he’s only human. But read anyone who is involved at the boundaries of our understanding and their writing will be full of caveats, they will tell you, “this is my interpretation, but bear in mind that other don’t agree with me”. They know they are at the edge and that their metaphysical view is speculative. So, there is no particular body of science that has a fixed metaphysical view that constrains them in any way that can’t be overcome by a new idea, a new theory, a new experiment. They are metaphysically committed, just speculative. They know that our concepts are just models for what we take to be some reality out there, that our models do change over time.

    But scientific models do change in one direction – the direction in which the correspondence between what we think and what we sense increases in precision. This is part of the problem that quantum physics presents. It’s both puzzling, and so damned precise.

    This isn’t the case with conceptual systems. Some even wallow in the lack of correspondence and think they have discovered some insight into the workings of the universe, whether their system be some separate god, some all encompassing consciousness, some mystical system or other.

    “When scientists do philosophy, they probably don’t think of themselves as doing philosophy. The greater problem, as I see it, is that when philosophers do philosophy, they usually do it badly.”

    That’s the nature of philosophy, when any human does it. It’s free thinking at the edge of knowledge, where there is no corroboration by the senses. That’s OK. We do need to speculate, to come up with new ideas, to think about things in different ways, to consider all the options no matter how crazy they might seem. But eventually we need some means of assessing these philosophical ideas. It’s no good simply comparing one lot of fluffy concepts with another lot. Unfortunately, much to the dismay of people who would like more certainty in our knowledge, the only thing we can compare our ideas with are our senses. Science.

    “One of my reasons for starting this blog, was to be able to ask the questions that everybody (including philosophers) thinks are obvious.”

    Neil, I disagree with quite a few of your heretical ideas. I even think that some of your ideas aren’t as heretical as you think they are. But I fully support your objective here, and I fully agree with the sentiment of challenging the obvious: http://ronmurp.net/2011/09/06/stating-the-bleeding-obvious/

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    • Overall, our views are somewhat similar. So here, I am just going to pick a few bits on which to further comment.

      …, if there’s a social system that can maintain ideas across time so that the ideas don’t die out with the individuals.

      It seems to me that cultural folklore and cultural myths are systems that maintain ideas across time. And I see religion as a system of cultural folklore and myth, or at least as originating in that way.

      If that’s correct, then it is technology that killed God. Starting with ancient writing technology, then moving on to the printing press and eventually to modern digital technology, we have come up with far better ways of preserving ideas. That sort of recording technology has undermined the value of cultural traditions, and has made science possible.

      But the other problem with concepts that can’t be put into language is we have no means of deciding whether such concepts are just psychological states that have any real meaning, whether there is any truth in them outside our heads.

      Interesting. I would never talk about concepts in that way. Truth to tell, I don’t actually know what “concept” means, and I suspect that nobody else does either. Marvin Minsky would probably call it a suitcase word, because we pack many ideas into it.

      I would say not to the latter part. At least not those working at the boundaries of our knowledge.

      You were responding to what I said on seeing scientific theories as metaphysical.

      I think you are about right. Most physicists would see physics as epistemic rather than metaphysical, but some biologists seem to talk about physics as if they see it as metaphysical. This might be merely a way of dealing with a part of science in which one is not expert.

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      • “If that’s correct, then it is technology that killed God. Starting with ancient writing technology, then moving on to the printing press and eventually to modern digital technology, we have come up with far better ways of preserving ideas. That sort of recording technology has undermined the value of cultural traditions, and has made science possible.”

        I wouldn’t say that “technology killed God” on it’s own since the technology that you mentioned specifically has also been a medium for propagating those memes (religious memes, cultural traditions, etc.), from the ancient writing technology (scrolls, Talmud, Torah, which led to the Bible, etc.) to the printing press (the infamous 42-line Bible was one of the first works printed using Gutenberg’s printing press), and modern digital technology has further preserved that Bible and allowed near-global internet access to every electronic version available (KJV, NIV, NAS, CEB, etc). Even within those religions, the memes are so successful because members are taught to follow and propagate those memes for a reward, with the threat of punishment and eternal damnation if they don’t. It’s a relatively perfect meme which has stood the tests of time — over thousands of years of longevity, with exceptional fidelity and fecundity (due to, in part, Gutenberg and others). I do agree with you in some sense, that technology (especially that which was utilized in science) did help to catalyze the scientific revolution and this among other factors did start to put an end to the attribution of the unexplained as being merely “acts of God”. One could say this was a way that technology contributed to “killing God”. Since science was a way of explaining things that had been otherwise unexplained, it opened a door to questioning the church and it’s doctrines (e.g. if they were incorrect or deceptive about THIS or THAT, then they have lost their “infallible” credibility), and also an avenue to new exploration and curiosity rather than just looking at everything around us as “God’s creation” (and refusing to explore further). On the other hand, there are a lot of religious folks that suggest that science doesn’t disprove that God exists, nor that everything around us (including the mechanisms behind everything in scientific explanations) aren’t initially caused by God. Many do however dichotomize the two: Science vs. Religion (or God), and say that they aren’t compatible. I think that many of the religious “compatibilists” are popping up in more recent years than in the past as science has become so dominant, it serves as a way to continue practicing the faith and continue to recruit a larger congregation despite this scientific dominance. I even heard of the Catholic church saying that it would be ok to teach evolution as long as at some point, “homo sapiens” were given a soul by God, thus making it compatible with the religion (assuming that the book of Genesis among others was metaphorical rather than literal — as the story of “Adam and Eve” certainly wouldn’t be compatible anymore in a literal sense). Technology has also created many distractions which mean that people will have less time to “deal with” religion. We are busy with work, texting, surfing the web, etc., and have thus been separated from pre-industrial “nature”, which certainly affects people’s views on the importance of and need for “God”. When the quality of life (by some arbitrary metrics like life expectancy, etc.) “improves”, people have even less of a reason to fill voids with certain (not all) religious beliefs. If life seems good, and there’s less to be upset about (hunger, poor health, etc.), then the need for or focus on “God” seems to diminish by at least some amount. I will add that it is obvious that technology, specifically the types you mentioned (writing, printing, digital, etc.) have also been a way to propagate those scientific memes (or memes that are generally against a particular religion), which then can reach more people and potentially have an impact on “killing God” — assuming those people reached are not religious “compatibilists” of some kind.

        “Interesting. I would never talk about concepts in that way. Truth to tell, I don’t actually know what “concept” means, and I suspect that nobody else does either. Marvin Minsky would probably call it a suitcase word, because we pack many ideas into it.”

        I would never talk about concepts in that way either (“we have no means of deciding whether such concepts are just psychological states that have any real meaning, whether there is any truth in them outside our heads”). For one thing, every single thought that we have seems to be nothing more than a combination of psychological states which serve to (mostly) aid in survival (I think rather than concepts having “truth”, “concepts” appear to be used for pragmatic purposes). I think of all “concepts” as having as real of a meaning as any other, although I’m not sure how Ron is defining “real meaning”. “Meaning” to me is an internal interpretation of something, and thus attributing a “realness” to an internal interpretation seems to be irrelevant.

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