Thursday, 3 September 2015

Descartes' Menagerie of Demons (2015)

From The Philosopher, Volume CIII No. 2

By Danko Antolovic

Recent films like The Matrix trilogy and Science fiction in general have made many people familiar with the Cartesian demon: a powerful entity able to intercept all the mind's inputs and outputs and manipulate them in order to create an impenetrable illusion - the matrix - in which I think, I perceive and in which I think, I act - yet which is, in reality,  entirely generated by the demon.

René Descartes introduces such a demon in his Meditations on the First Philosophy, in which he seeks to ascertain what, if anything, is absolutely true. He argues as follows: the evidence of my senses is not reliable because it is logically possible that all of my sensory impressions are fabricated by the demon: I may not have a body, nor sense organs, the world may not exist at all, there may be no such things as matter and space. All that I am sure of is that I think and I know that I think, therefore I cannot be nothing. I must be something, a thinking thing, and no demon can deceive me into believing that I am if I am not. (I use the first person singular here to denote analytic introspection, just as Descartes did originally.)

Descartes further asks:
I have established something that I am certain of - I exist - but why is it that I am certain of it? 
It is, he argues, because I can see it very clearly, with complete immediacy. He then asserts an important principle: what I can see very clearly in my mind must be true. What else do I see very clearly? I see that I have certain ideas, and they must be something and not nothing because it is I, the thinking thing that exists, who has them. All my thoughts truly exist, my perceptions also exist insofar that they are a form of my thoughts, even if their content is fabricated by the demon. Further, I see very clearly certain relationships between my ideas. For example, I have the idea of the triangle as a geometric figure, and from that idea it follows that the sum of its angles always equals two right angles: to see that, I can follow a simple geometric proof, each step of which I can clearly grasp. Similarly, any other mathematical truth is equally evident.

In this principle of 'seeing things very clearly' Descartes encounters a second demon, the demon of sensory habit. This demon does not have the mind-enslaving, matrix-spawning power of the first demon (in fact, philosopher David Hume secured quite a firm grip on its pointed tail a century later), but it is a sly and seductive imp: it makes me extrapolate commonplace sensory experiences into universal truths. For instance, the idea of a triangle and the theorem about the sum of its angles follow from Euclid's axioms of ordinary geometry, and these axioms are self-evident because they describe, in a somewhat idealised fashion, my common sensory experiences. The 'ordinary' geometry describes a so-called flat space, the only space that most of us will ever perceive, but our actual physical space is in fact very slightly curved, because of the proximity of a large mass, our Earth. This is not of purely academic concern either: the Global Positioning System (or GPS), which keenly impacts our modern life, takes into account this non-flatness of space in order to provide accurate locations. If we could draw a large triangle in space near the Earth, by shining laser beams from one satellite to another, we would find that the sum of its angles is slightly but measurably less than 180 degrees.

I see clearly that the sum of angles of a triangle adds to two right angles, but this clarity is an illusion created by the two demons: the first one created a sensory world of the flat space for me, and the second made me believe that my habitual sensory impressions constitute a universal truth. Had the matrix-demon fashioned my sensory world to appear like the vicinity of an enormously dense stellar object, such as a black hole or a neutron star, my intuition of triangles would be noticeably different.

I must therefore suspect my intuitions. I cannot deny my self-awareness, nor the reality of my thoughts, but most of my intuitions are derived from the sensory world, and are therefore subject to demons' influence. I find within me the speculative ability to set my own rules (axioms), independent of the senses, and investigate where they lead by drawing various interesting and self-consistent conclusions from them. But even here I see the hand of the habit-demon: I follow the rules of logic and insist on self-consistency as an abstract requirement, but I really do it because these things work in the real world and make intelligent discourse possible. But if the reality is demon's illusion and there isn't anybody to conduct intelligent discourse with, then I may well let the devil take all logic and consistency: what still remains is my self-awareness and the clear intuition of my existence as the Cartesian 'thinking thing.'

Having established the reality of himself as a thinking thing, Descartes asks : where did I come from? If I had created myself, I would have the remarkable ability to create something from nothing, and surely I would be aware of that. On the contrary, I find no such ability in me, and I see that I am a very limited being. Something greater than me must have created me, and that thing itself does not need a creator, and is God. Moreover, I have a very clear idea of God, and since a finite thing cannot give rise to an infinite one, this idea was placed in me by this greater being, and therefore God exists.

Appealing repeatedly to the principle that what is seen clearly must be true, Descartes continues: the idea of God includes every perfection, and therefore it must include existence, because that which exists is more perfect than that which does not. It is contradictory to think of God as non-existent, and therefore again, God must exist. Finally, all deception, however cunning, is an imperfection, a sign of weakness, and therefore the perfect God cannot be a deceiver. Because of God's perfection I know that I am not at the mercy of a demon, and - and this is an astounding feat of circular reasoning - because of that same perfection and honesty of God, I can be certain that what I see clearly must be true.

Objections to Descartes' reasoning about God were raised early on by his contemporaries. We could say that Descartes fell prey here to a third demon, the demon of the childhood's 'Why?' which must have an answer to every question. It is not malevolent, this sprite of infantile curiosity, but with its childlike insistence on answers it can seduce me into preferring a flawed explanation over no explanation at all. How flawed? For one thing, it does not follow that the idea of an infinite being could not arise within me, by my own power: I can envision finite beings that are less limited than me, and the idea of an infinite being is an abstraction from that, a postulated absence of any limitation. I grasp such a concept the same way I grasp the Euclidean concept of an infinite line: not as a concrete thing, perceived in all its parts, but as an absence of any upper bound on its length. It is true that I do not know my origin as a thinking thing, but it does not follow that my speculative concept of an infinite being corresponds to anything transcending my thought or existing outside it.

In his second argument for God's existence, Descartes more or less repeats the well-known proof proposed by Anselm of Canterbury: imagine the most perfect of all things; if it does not exist, it is less perfect than it would be if it did, and so is not the most perfect; therefore the most perfect thing must exist, and is God. Much has been said and written about Anselm; let us just pursue the point that this most perfect being must be omnipotent, since not being able to do something is an imperfection. So, can the omnipotent God create a stone that is too heavy for him to lift? If he is omnipotent, he must be able to do everything, including depriving himself of omnipotence or being both at once. The notion of omnipotence includes its own opposite and leads to contradictions, and the God of Anselm and Descartes is either self-contradictory or else transcending logic and contradiction, and is incomprehensible in either case.

Why is any of this important? During the last few centuries, empirical/scientific way of thinking has effectively superseded the older reliance on beliefs that cannot be justified with the evidence of the senses. To be sure, many unfounded propositions are regularly bandied about in public and private discourse; however, when it comes to practical decisions that entail allocation of scarce resources and hard effort, be these decisions public or private, we exercise sober factuality and do not act on the basis of augury, prayers, sacrificial offerings or hallowed traditions. We are expected to be scientific about it, and we approach all hypotheses as potentially false, trusting them only when they are backed by incontrovertible evidence.

Descartes' 'Meditations' are a remarkable early attempt of a scientific mind to come to terms with the implications of the method of skeptical inquiry. Descartes takes skeptical empiricism at its word, and asks: 'All right, what can I know for certain if I follow this method?' The stark answer is: nothing, except my own thoughts. Now, scientific judgment deals in probabilities rather than in absolute certainty, and it is easy to respond that the straightforward alternative - the world exists and looks something like the image presented by our senses - is a likelier one than Descartes' fantastically contrived matrix-demon. That is not an entirely honest answer, however: we deem the demon unlikely because our practical knowledge tells us that such a feat would be enormously difficult to pull off within our sensory world. What is likely or unlikely outside the sensory world, and that is where Descartes' hypothetical demon resides, we have no means of judging. It is more honest to admit that we cannot distinguish a 'real' sensory world from seamless illusion, and that the entire empirical enterprise proceeds on the assumption that the demon does not exist, since we could do nothing about it if it did.

More significant than the demon itself, for modern empirical thought, is the chasm that Descartes' reasoning opened between the knower and the known. I know myself as a thinking thing with absolute clarity, and I know nothing certain about the physical things that I perceive with my senses. That distinguishes, in Descartes' view, the mind and the (hypothetical) body as two entirely different substances right from the start. Later in the 'Meditations,' after he had re-established the existence of the physical world by means of divine goodness, Descartes again observes that the mind is perceived as one, clear and indivisible, while all bodies are divisible and subject to erroneous and imperfect knowledge. It can be said that scientific empiricism operates within this framework of Cartesian duality to this day.

Modern empiricism tacitly accepts the existence of a lucid mind, a knower behind all the factual knowing. There is a self that is not mistaken about its existence, somebody who (discounting the verifiable effects of sleep, inebriation, illness or random distractions) sees things clearly and whose thoughts exist reliably. The knower is susceptible to the habit-demon, but that demon can be exorcised relatively easily: on one hand, there are provisional, inductive generalisations that we draw from sensory experience, and we call them scientific theories. But we can also draw abstract generalisations, axiomatic systems of pure mathematics, which are constructs of the mind independent of the evidence of the senses, and as long as we are conscious of the difference, the habit-demon has no dominion over us. And then there is the sensory world which, in agreement with Descartes, we acknowledge as something that is independent of our will and thought. We accept the simplifying assumption that something distinct from the knower, an objective knowable world, lies behind the sensory evidence, and that it is not a fabrication. The great open question of scientific empiricism is whether this duality of knower and known is resolvable or not.

Subsuming the sensory world under my 'self' by a pure act of mind seems to be possible only as a fantasy... 

Descartes himself bypasses this duality by invoking the agency of God, the omnipotent, never-deceiving being in whom all intellectual difficulties are resolved. But this is only a subterfuge that stops further inquiry. The omnipotent being is self-contradictory, the ultimate idol-demon that stands outside any logical discourse available to the human mind and admits only of solitary, all-abandoning faith: a credo quia absurdum (I believe, because it is absurd).

Without invoking supernatural help of such calibre, we may attempt to resolve Cartesian duality by absorbing the sensory world into the mind itself: what we perceive as sensory input is the product of the mind, the world is maya, an illusion which the spirit is trapped in. This is not an illogical position, but it is difficult to see where to go with it. I perceive my conscious mind as an indivisible entity, known as well as it can be, and I 'see clearly' that it is not generating my sensory world. If the world is the mind's product, it must be coming from some part of my mind that I have no access to, and which is then already in the realm of the matrix-demon. Is it possible for me to gain that access, to awaken into an enlightened state from which I can see the unity of the knower and the known? Not by any immediately obvious act of my conscious mind. Meditative traditions prescribe practices by which such states can be supposedly attained, but they generally work on the physiology that surrounds the mind, and thereby tacitly acknowledge the phenomenal world as independent and capable of influencing the mind. That is hardly anything new, and there is little reason to believe that meditative traditions have somehow spiritually accounted for the sensory world. Subsuming the sensory world under my 'self' by a pure act of mind seems to be possible only as a fantasy.

We can also take the opposite approach and assume that the objective world truly exists, and that knowledge of it is a reflection, a trace of the world within some physical entity capable of retaining such a trace; in other words, we will subsume the knower under the known. We will then follow the images of the world through sensory organs and into the nervous system; inside, we will discover memories, which are accumulated records of earlier traces of the world; we will find neural structures that classify, process and summarise past and present traces of the world, and other structures that initiate actions on the basis of this processing, all the way out again to the motor signals that move the body and make it act upon the outside world. And the matrix-demon will say: 'I hope you enjoyed my little show. It is a pity you weren't available to take part in it.'

And of course, according to all that is known about the phenomenal world, I could not be present within that show. Nothing in the known physics translates the computations and signal processing within the nervous system (or anywhere else) into a subjective experience; I, the thinking thing, which cannot be mistaken about its own existence, do not arise from material phenomena which do not know that they exist. Not only is the world a construct of the demon: all the physiology surrounding my perceiving, knowing, feeling, willing, all the actions of the mind are part of the matrix. All except the element ergo sum in Descartes' famous cogito, that one part of the thinking thing which is aware of itself and cannot be fooled about it. This is roughly the argument which the philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz raised against materialist interpretation of the mind, half a century after Descartes, and that argument still stands.

Unless there is a way out. Perhaps there is something still unknown in the structure of the world, some subtle organisation of matter that lets mindless signal processing loop back onto itself, look into a mirror somehow, and give rise to self-awareness. That is a wildly speculative proposition, one which, as scientists, we are willing to entertain only because nothing can be a priori - self-evidently - excluded from the world of phenomena. If I could derive my existent self-awareness from the phenomenal world, I would know that both I and the world existed, the knower and the known would be reconciled, and Descartes' demon would be exorcised once and for all.

And so, following Descartes into modern scientific empiricism, we are left with a curious choice, a dilemma whose factual resolution, if a resolution is possible at all, must profoundly shake the cherished self-image of mankind. Either the 'thinking thing' is a solitary thought of unknowable origin and destiny, fundamentally different from the world which it perceives and of whose existence it can never be sure; or it is an ephemeral spray of self-awareness on the waves of the unthinking ocean below, a wisp of thought, a form bound to an unknown fate among all the other ever-changing forms of the material world.

Contact details:
Dr. Danko Antolovic is a scientist and technologist at Indiana University, in Bloomington, Indiana, United States.


Wednesday, 2 September 2015

What is Power? (2015)

From The Philosopher, Volume CIII No. 2

Perspectives and Speculations

By Gregory Kyle Klug

Elemental power?

What is Power? 

A Reuters headline of 18 April 2014 reads 'Powerful earthquake rattles Mexico, shakes buildings.' The earthquake is powerful in that it overcomes the resistance of land and buildings. Isaac Asimov writes of inventor Johann Gutenberg: 'he introduced printing as a powerful force in human affairs.' Printing enables ideas to be widely disseminated, thereby initiating thoughts in people's minds that would otherwise not have been initiated. The passive resistance offered by whatever else people were thinking is overcome by new ideas - ideas that originated in the mind of a writer. Even the active resistance of other people's ideas may be overcome with different ideas. John Locke's sub-title to his Two Treatises on Government reads, 'The false principles and foundation of Sir Robert Filmer and his followers are detected and overthrown.' Locke overthrows someone else's principles, and replaces them with his own. The change takes place in readers' minds as he convinces and persuades them using the power of intellect and imagination.

How then should power be conceived? The variety of contexts in which the word 'power' is used demonstrates the difficulty in establishing a clear and all-encompassing definition. Consider some other cases:
• Lord Henry in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray refers to his enemies, self-flatteringly, as 'all men of some intellectual power;'

• Musicologist Susan McClary describes Bizet's anti-heroine Carmen: 'She arouses desire' and 'apparently has the power to deliver or withhold gratification of the desires she instills;'

• Socrates articulates the capstone of Plato's Republic: 'Until...the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy...cities will never have rest from their evils-no, nor the human race...''

• Solomon writes: ' Where the word of a king is there is power; and who may say unto him, What doest thou?'
What do the power of an earthquake, intelligent enemies, a seductive gypsy-woman, philosopher-kings, and the printing press all have in common? If these and similar uses of the term are legitimate, which I take them to be, then any definition of power must be flexible enough to explain them all - and yet focused enough to distinguish power from similar ideas embodied by words like 'strength', 'might',  'influence', 'domination' and so on.

Webster defines power as 'the ability to do or act.' Perhaps this is true from some perspective, but intuitively it seems too simple and broad. Max Weber instead defines power as 'the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance.' But resistance, as seen above, may be either passive or active. Power is thus not limited to ' social' contexts. This notion is parallel to Locke's description of active power as an attribute of spirit and passive power of matter.

Two things, then, cause physical motion in the universe: firstly, the motion of other physical bodies - 'accidents' - which can be traced back to other physical motions and ultimately to the Big Bang; and secondly, spirit, or the will of conscious agency. The physical motion directly under the control of a human being exists in the form of its physical body; and while the energy of the body is determined by the laws of conservation, the available energy is like money in a bank account which one has the ability to spend or conserve at will. Thus the motion that I produce is different than that of the earth orbiting the sun, or a gust of wind blowing down a tree, or a rock rolling down a hill. What I do is determined by my will alone.

However, the forces of pain and pleasure that create incentives that influence my will. Like magnetic forces, they push and pull my decisions. The heat of the fire causes me to remove my hand; the hunger of my stomach causes me to pick berries in the field - whether to eat, or for hire so I can buy steak. Different people respond to the incentives of pain and pleasure differently. On one extreme, the hedonist seeks to lay down before the force of pleasure, allowing it to guide his or her actions despite harm caused to others. On the opposite extreme, the ascetic seeks to resist pleasure as a form of self-discipline. On another spectrum is the 'prudent' and the 'fool'.

The former foregoes pleasure or endures pain in the present for the sake of greater pleasure or less pain in the future; the latter doesn't know or care about the difference. The prudent takes time into account; the fool doesn't - but both are guided by the perception of pain and pleasure, whether present or future.

True power is the ability to choose freely despite the influence of pain or pleasure when necessary. In this sense, love, courage, and patience defy the predictions of pain and pleasure over one's actions. 'He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty,' Solomon utters, 'and he that rules his spirit than the one that takes a city.' The one who controls his passions, rather than is controlled by them, demonstrates as much and even more power than the man of war.

Solomon understood power. 'Wisdom is better than weapons of war'. 'A soft tongue breaks the bone.' Throughout his writings, the ancient thinker identifies the limitations of physical power in comparison with other things: wisdom, words, and women. He also intimates that power, coveted as it is, is not the sole object of value in life:
To everything there is a season ... a time to be born and a time to die ... a time to weep and a time to laugh ... a time to get and a time to lose.
In the book of Genesis, the first thing God says to man and woman is, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.' The injunction implies various forms of power: procreative power - 'be fruitful and multiply'; physical power - 'subdue the earth'; and intellectual power - 'have dominion over' animals that are physically more powerful than you. Power in this broad sense is integral to what it means to be human. The constructive and cooperative exercise of power is, or at least should be, the province of the entire human race.

The story of the Garden of Eden illustrates how pain and pleasure are powerful forces determining human action. The object of resistance to moral power, therefore, is one's own tendency to succumb to the subjective 'force' of pain and pleasure despite perceived moral imperatives. Under this view, moral power is a paradox whereby one strives for mastery over the active resistance within oneself. Thus, Plato's 'power of philosophy,' whereby the lover of absolute truth rules the 'wild beast nature,' common to all, within himself.

Moral power is thus the ability to attain mastery over oneself. The exercise of moral power is by definition active, since inanimate matter is obviously incapable of moral or immoral action. The object of resistance, again, does not originate from any external source, but within oneself when tempted. As the New Testament author, James, writes: 'Every man is tempted when he is drawn away by his own lust and enticed.' This theme is developed throughout the Biblical canon, and is also evident in the Islamic conception of greater Jihad - the 'struggle against oneself.'

If power is the ability to overcome resistance, what then is the object of resistance to intellectual power? The etymology of the words used to describe the activity of the mind - taken to be the source of intellectual power - is illuminating. To process literally means to 'go forward.' To perceive literally means to 'grasp' or 'seize.' The one who processes information and perceives a conclusion 'goes forward and grasps' something. The conclusion resists passively by remaining hidden unless one observes and seizes it.

Or consider the word concentration. It literally means to 'bring to the centre.' This implies motion - subjective and metaphorical, but real nonetheless. One who concentrates 'pulls' something into the centre of his attention. The word calculate derives from calculus which in times past literally signified a pebble used to count with. Here again metaphorical motion is implied: the processing of pebbles.

Owen Barfield calls human languages a body of metaphors: Examples abound on every page of the dictionary. As C.S. Lewis also observes, it is impossible to speak of non-physical realities without in some way using metaphor. Other metaphors besides 'pebbles' may describe the object of intellectual resistance - 'intellectual ideas' for example. Appearances to the contrary, this is no escape from metaphorical speech: 'intellectual' is akin to the Latin intellegere, 'to distinguish' or 'choose between'; and the Greek idéa signifies 'form' or 'pattern,' akin to the verb ideîn 'to see.'

Once again, and inescapably, a physical sensation or activity - distinguishing different forms - is analogous to a subjective, metaphysical reality.

And what about imagination? Intellect and strength without imagination are powerless. Imagination thus causes something to exist that wouldn't exist otherwise. The power of imagination causes something to exist that wouldn't exist otherwise - either in the mind, or in the physical world through physical execution. Without imagination, reality would have remained formless and void. In terms of The Never-ending Story, imagination is confronted by The Nothing. The Nothing is the object of resistance to the imagination; to yield to it is to cease to imagine.

Yet if the ability to imagine -  that is, to conceive images or phenomenalistic ideas in the mind as if out of nothing - is indeed a unique form of power, what then is the object of resistance to it? The object of resistance to imagination is, familiarly, whatever else the subject's attention is occupied with.

Without imagination, reality will continue to be what it is - unable to be anything other than what it is, incapable of changing its state or course. The mind, apart from imagination, is occupied with reality simply as it is - determined either by nature or other minds. With imagination, however, one may conceive something other than what already exists. This act takes place in the mind, and the thing imagined can potentially (if it is not impossible by definition) be expressed and/or made real in the physical world. The one who imagines a doghouse in his backyard can chop down a tree and labor with this end result in mind. He works having imagined what he will make.

In his powerful 'I Have a Dream' speech, Martin Luther King imagined things that were different than the contemporary reality of race inequality in the United States, and that have since become reality to a significant extent (although not yet completely). Again, Ronald Reagan in his speech at the Berlin wall in 1987 said, 'Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!' He imagined and spoke something other than what his military foes had imagined, and saw his vision become reality not long after.

No one form of power seems to have absolute superiority. However, physical power often ranks lowest. The moral power of India under Gandhi's leadership overcame British rule in that country. The intellectual and creative power of humans has made us the most powerful species on earth (a status which implies the responsibility to serve our fellow creatures and care for the world we have inherited). Delilah's the sexual appeal overcame Samson's heroic might. In all cases, however, the feeling of power is profound and itself a powerful motivator of human action. Any conception of power that ignores the metaphysical forms thereof ignores with them the chorus of poets, prophets, and philosophers over the ages who testify to them, and surely also the evidence of personal experience and intuition.

Contact details: Gregory Kyle is a composer with a doctorate from the University of Northern Colorado and currently based in Phoenix, Arizona.

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Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Review: Epistemology ... After Roy Harris? (2015)

From The Philosopher, Volume CIII No. 2

Gustavo Fares


After Epistemology, by Roy HarrisPaperback: vi + 187 pp, Publisher: Brightpen, Gamlingay (2009), ISBN: 978 07552 1180 7

I have long maintained a special interest in the field of epistemology – under its ‘established’ conception as the examination of the nature, acquisition and scope of human knowledge.  The death of  Roy Harris, formerly Professor of General Linguistics in the University of Oxford,  in February 2015 recently prompted me to re-read and re-appraise one of his many books, After Epistemology.  I thought a new attempt to read and understand the book could provide me with some insights which had evaded me the first time around.

Harris attempts to undermine the nature and implications of the classical model of language – roughly the idea that each word has a meaning which is either a physical object or a mental concept. and its implications through a In a succession of chapters, each he  providing provides  a critical, and in some cases a hostile, treatment of the views of one or more thinkers who espoused the classical model of language, including Plato and Aristotle, Francis Bacon, and the empiricists Locke, Hume and A.J. Ayer. This culminates in a discussion of Ferdinand de Saussure, who is acknowledged as the earliest thinker to appreciate that the words speakers use to say something do not always or typically function as names, and that it is quite wrong to suppose that each word ‘corresponds’ to a particular thing or type of thing, independently of the context and purpose of the utterance.

A chapter entitled ‘Beyond Saussure’ provides a brief introduction to what Harris calls integrationism, which is a certain approach to linguistics which he himself helped develop. The integrational approach rejects the notions of telementation classical model of linguistic meaning and replaces it by the classical model by the following two theoretical axioms: (1) What constitutes a sign is not given independently of the situation in which it occurs or of its material manifestation in that situation. (2) The value of a sign (i.e. its ‘signification’) is a function of the integrational proficiency which its identification and interpretation presuppose.

The notion of integration, as it applies to the study of signs and their meanings, is not immediately clear. ‘Integration’ suggests the bringing together into a coherent and structured whole a set of diverse elements – but, it may be asked, what are these elements and what constitutes this bringing together? Another work by Harris, his essay ‘Integrationism: A Very Brief Introduction’, offers a clearer explanation of his fundamental idea. He writes here that:
“The term integrational alludes to the recognition that the linguistic sign alone cannot function as the basis of an independent, self-sufficient form of communication, but depends for effectiveness on its integration with non-verbal activities of many different kinds. These include all those [activities] that do not depend in any way on being able to speak or write; i.e. most of the basic activities needed for everyday living (eating, drinking, bodily movement, standing up, lying down, walking, fetching and carrying, avoiding obstacles, using elementary tools, paying attention to objects and happenings in the immediate environment, etc.). This ubiquitous prelinguistic substrate of behaviour is a prerequisite for the emergence and maintenance of verbal communication in all its forms”.
This remark seems to say that a sign, or better, the use of a sign on a particular occasion, takes its meaning or communicative content from its connection to the non-verbal activities which speaker and hearer jointly engage in. If this interpretation is correct, integrational linguistics bears certain similarities to Wittgenstein’s ideas about the way the uses of words are woven into the fabric of various human activities or ‘forms of life’

How do the insights of integrational linguistics bear on our understanding of knowledge? Harris makes the point that what people know is revealed by what they do and say. He writes that “knowledge is a form of creative activity. This involves being able to integrate past, present and future experience in a productive programme directed towards a goal”. Further, that “knowledge is intrinsically goal-directed and commonly involves interaction with others pursuing related goals”. He goes on to say that the integrationist approach to knowledge could be regarded as a version of reliabilism, i.e. the philosophical theory that knowledge is belief formed by procedures found to be reliable in the past.

On this view knowing how to do something is more fundamental than knowing that something is the case. Truth enters the picture only if success or failure in our programmes of goal-directed knowledge depend on it. We have to live in the here-and-now, and this forms the intrinsic context knowledge. What we know, Harris says, may be revised in the light of new discoveries or developments in future, but we can’t wait for humanity’s best judgment.

All this is appears at once familiar and also controversial. It is reminiscent of the American pragmatist tradition with its emphasis on knowledge as inquiry, fallibilism, the practical consequences of holding a belief and so on. However, other philosophers think that the uncertainties of scientific theory and speculation presuppose a base of certainty. Isn’t there a species of knowledge which is certain and indubitable, in that it consists in one’s sensory contact with objects in one’s environment?

In Harris’s view, saying ‘I see a birch tree’ goes beyond sense perception, since such knowledge begins by identifying what is seen, and this involves interpretation. This in turn involves integrating present visual experience with past visual experience and (mysteriously) future experience. This last point seems particularly obscure, if only because integrating words into non-verbal activities is different from integrating present and past and future visual data, and Harris does not provide any explanation of the psychological mechanism of sensory integration.

When I look for my car in a parking lot and in due course I identify it, my memory of what my car looks like – its shape and colour, together with the number plate – comes into play; but this is not all, since my understanding of what a car is, and my belief that the red car at the far end of the parking lot is my car, involve the application of prior knowledge of the function of cars in general and the workings of this particular vehicle. This consideration in no way justifies the claim that my identification of my car is a matter of ‘integrating’ present and past visual data brought under an interpretation which is by its very nature uncertain. If we choose certain other examples, it becomes even more difficult to find Harris’s position remotely plausible. When I see my friend, am I supposed to be making a risky interpretation of what I see? When I hear a tune which is very familiar to me and I identify it as Auld Lang Syne, am I interpreting something in the nature of auditory experiences?

Harris proceeds to argue that philosophers often reduce knowledge (said to be a creative activity) to information (an abstract reification of what is known). Conflating knowledge with information begins with writing, the systematic record-keeping and expansion of archives, and data in a computer memory. “Information is the static, inert residue to which knowledge dwindles when subjected to persistent and systematic reification”. When I know something, I can proceed with any of a number of relevant activities, which might include telling someone about what I know. If I tell someone what I know, I convert knowledge into information.
“That conversion requires a process of communication. Information, unlike knowledge, is always second-hand or third hand or umpteenth-hand. It is available in principle to as many people as are linked in any particular chain of communication.  Knowledge, on the other hand, belongs to the individual or individuals personally engaged in its creation”.
Harris seems to regard knowledge as not just a creative activity, but a mental activity. But what are the distinctive characteristics of this activity? It can’t be simply a psychological event or state like a dull pain in the shoulder which a person may find it impossible to describe accurately. If I know something, I know something, and normally I am able to say what this is, e.g. the birch tree in my garden is taller than the rose bush. The propositional content of an instance of knowledge enters into the character of this knowledge and distinguishes it from other instances of knowledge.

If you and I go on the website of National Train Enquiries, and you find that the first train to London leaves at 6 am and I find that the last train to London leaves at midnight, we get to know different things; if you and I find that there is a fast train at 2 pm, we get to know the same thing. We can transmit the different things we know to others, and this may be said to be information. The person to whom we provide information to may be said, equally well, to have received information from us, or to have got to know certain train times, just as you and I had acquired knowledge or information from the internet. To elevate knowledge above information on the sole grounds that the former involves a creative act and the latter is abstract and second-hand is to put forward a spurious philosophical thesis.

What seems to be most novel in Harris’s is the project of attempting to apply this kind of integrational linguistics to epistemology. Among the consequences of this view is that the words ‘knowledge’, ‘know’ and their cognates don’t have a single meaning each – they do not signify a single concept with a single set of condition for its application – but they are put to different uses in different acts of communication, e.g. to make inquiries, to inform, to acknowledge the validity of an information source. It is a consequence which Harris fails to draw explicitly.

On the contrary, he says in so many words that ‘knowledge’ signifies a creative activity, or possibly a type of mental activity comprising a range of sub-types, without explaining the import of the adjective ‘creative’. It may be observed that this adjective generally carries an implication of commendation, by contrast to ‘routine’ and ‘nothing of special value’ (e.g. a writer with a creative talent in contradistinction to a hack who writes to order). A creative activity takes a stretch of time and an inquiry or period of research may result in a discovery that counts as a contribution to knowledge. But if I see my neighbour and acknowledge him, what is the sense of claiming to be performing a creative activity? If my neighbour gives me a sour look and I interpret it as an expression of displeasure at the fact that I tend to park my car in front of his garden gate, then perhaps my interpretation has something creative about it. But even here, it makes poor sense to suggest that my interpretation of what I see consists in the creative activity of integrating present and past (let alone future) visual experiences.

Harris' project may help persuade philosophers that epistemological inquiry is best carried out without the assumption that ‘knowledge’ signifies a single concept, but on the contrary concentrate on the study of the uses of this word and its cognates in integrative relationship to human activities involved in acts of communication.

But there is still the problem of explaining what is involved in a situation where someone has correctly identified the species of a tree and correctly replied to another person’s inquiry:  'it is a birch tree', by contrast to another situation when the first has, let us say, mistaken the birch tree for a eucalyptus for and so gives false information to the other. In the former case he  knows something, in the latter he does not know what he thinks he does. Yet this crucial question of how we get to know things  - by using our senses and relying on oral and written testimony? - is hardly touched upon in Harris’s account of how language works. The deeper mysteries of language use remain unexplored.

Reviewed by Zenon Stavrinides

When Alice met Wittgenstein (2015)

Alice having tea with the Mad Hatter, the Dormouse and the March Hare*
When Alice, Wittgenstein, and Russell
met at the
Mad Hatters Tea Party

by Eric Gerlach

Logic: The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with 
the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding.
– Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary
Many have recognized the striking similarities between Lewis Carroll's two famous books about Alice and Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, one of the most influential philosophical works of the last century.  Less well-known is that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was one of Ludwig Wittgenstein's favorite books in English, for him a logician's catalog of the ways language can be misused.  Wittgenstein included Carroll's name twice in the text, and there are many close parallels between points Wittgenstein makes about philosophical nonsense and the nonsensical interactions Alice has with Carroll's characters.

So, it seems likely that, at some point, Wittgenstein was thinking of Wonderland as he penned his investigations -  but like much in  Wittgenstein, nothing can be said with complete certainty. Nonetheless, there are some clues. Wittgenstein studied and later taught at Trinity College Cambridge, in the UK, the college where Bertrand Russell. and G.E. Moore were toiling over their task to put language on a logical footing. One connection between Carroll and Wittgenstein can be found in a note Martin Gardner includes in his Annotated Alice, which mentions that Bertrand Russell was thought by many at Cambridge to look like the illustration of the Mad Hatter in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and that Russell,  G. E. Moore  and John McTaggart, all close friends and colleagues, were known as 'the Mad Tea Party'.  Were the three compared to the mad tea party of Carroll's Wonderland merely because of physical resemblances, or are there philosophical comparisons as well?

There were actual mad tea parties in Victorian England, a technique used for teaching social behavior, such as following rules and interacting with others, to insane asylum inmates. It is likely that Carroll learned of such parties from his, favorite uncle, who was a Commissioner of Lunacy whose duties included inspecting asylums. Carroll developed early interests in mental disorders and mathematics following his uncle. and he clearly includes one in Wonderland, a place where time stands still and nonsense is spoken.  A universal and unquestionable logic, the dream of Russell, would also be an unchanging and eternal one, effectively outside of time.  We can also imagine that many at Cambridge found Russell's circle as incomprehensible as Alice found the Hatter's gathering.

Recall that Confucius said that the surest way to ruin a state is for the ruler never to suffer contradiction, and that when the ruler is wrong, he should be told.  An unchanging logic serves as a fine calculus for computers, but it is often unhelpful or even irrelevant when it comes to human interaction.  Logic should be centered on situations of interaction, not absolute certainty or the structure of isolated arguments.  When we are insecure, we long for unchanging answers and one-sided solutions, but when we are wise, we embrace life as an open and evolving adventure like Alice's, involving others.

When Wittgenstein published (with Russell's foreword) his Tractatus (1921), he believed his truth table method would serve as the basis for a fixed logic, and it is still taught in classrooms today.  But later, Wittgenstein abandoned the idea of a single, universal and univocal logic, and argued in his Philosophical Investigations (1953) that we practice a diverse variety of language games and forms of life related to each other by family resemblances, without any universal logic underlying them all. It could be said that Wittgenstein departed from Russell's dream of a single logic much as Alice left the Hatter's tea party after having her fill

This 'later Wittgenstein' argued that the meaning of a thing, word, statement, rule, or practice is not fixed by a single logic, set of rules or final authoritative interpretation, but rather is determined by use in context.  Just as a brake lever functions when it is connected to the rest of the train cabin, when we examine things as if they are universal, outside of particular situations, we become confused about how they work.  There are many ways that language functions, like the variety of tools found in a toolbox or controls found in a train cabin, and we can change the games we play and forms we live.  Knowing how to act is not based in conceptions of language, logic or mathematics, but in feeling familiar with situations that we do not need to fully understand.

This leads us to a problem found all over Wonderland.  Those who do things our way feel familiar to us, and those who do not, feel unfamiliar, odd and curious - words that Alice and Wittgenstein use frequently in their investigations and adventures.  Because meaning is not fully fixed by any single standard and things can be used and interpreted differently by ourselves and others in an unknown number of ways, we must determine for ourselves how much to agree or disagree with others in each interaction, deciding when to ignore, when to attack, when to negotiate, and when to surrender to ways that differ from our own.  Such a range of responses is illustrated by the ways the Mad Hatter, March Hare and Queen of Hearts treat Alice. Their example shows how some responses can result in absurdities and nonsense when we refuse to use the positions of others to examine our own for mistakes and misunderstandings.  Sometimes, we find ourselves having to continuously compromise, painfully at times.  Wittgenstein enjoyed quoting Schopenhauer's story of porcupines cuddling for warmth on a winter's day, advancing and retreating until they find a comfortable distance.

Like Russell, we can dream of a cast-iron logic that puts an end to contradictions and disputes between ourselves and others, and an objective science of human behavior that saves us from continuous suffering and insanity, like the original positivist dream of Auguste Comte.  And Russell like Comte, longed for a scientifically planned socialist society which would use logic and sociology to resolve human dilemmas with mathematical clarity, arriving at univocal solutions that silence the voice of doubt and reproach.  It would be lovely if there was a logic or science of human interaction which could solve all of the contradictions we suffer interacting with others, but human life would be hardly recognizable.  Interactions are often open-ended and confusing for us all, though we can become more familiar with them, more at home in the ways we continuously become confused.  Looking at Wonderland this way can lead us to a greater understanding of the ways that we understand and misunderstand each other, showing us the forms of life we share and the ways we have been playing these games. Is it the way Wittgenstein did too?

Recall the opening scene of Wonderland, in which Alice unknowingly falls into a dream and spies the White Rabbit, an animal that wears a watch and worries about being late.  This absurdity draws Alice into Wonderland.  In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein says that a dog can fear his master, but doubts that a dog can fear his master tomorrow,  as a dog has as little use for tomorrows as a rabbit does for a watch.  The White Rabbit worries he is breaking a rule, never be late, and is failing to conform to the wishes of the Queen and formal society.  Wittgenstein is said to have never read a word of Aristotle, but the classically trained Carroll had and was certainly aware that the White Rabbit is the absurd combination of an animal that reasons. That, of course, is how Aristotle defined humanity.  Like humanity, rules and games are both ideal and real, abstractions put into practice, which Wittgenstein argues can confuse us when we think of ideals and universals apart from the real and particular, as if they are simply ideal and entirely in the mind like Wonderland.

Following the White Rabbit, Alice finds a three-legged glass table, a golden key, and a small door that leads to a garden.  Carroll preferred playing outside with children to socializing in halls with colleagues.  Alice finds that when she is small enough to go through the door the key is out of reach. The key may stand for the Golden Rule, 'Treat others the way you would want to be treated', preached alike by Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Muhammad and many others.  It can be easy to forget such a universal and transcultural rule in our daily interactions, as it often does not seem to work or fit.  As Ambrose Bierce said, Christianity is marvelously suited for the needs of one's neighbor.  Others do not treat us as we want to be treated, and so it seems fitting to forget the rules and return the favor.  Or could the key stand for logic itself, the ideal key for resolving contradiction and debate, graspable in the abstract but somewhat out of reach in actual interactions?

Whatever the truth of the matter, Alice is frustrated by the gap between herself and the key and begins to cry, then commands herself to stop.  We are told that Alice often pretends to be two people, gives herself advice but fails to follow it, and once punished herself for cheating at a game of croquet she was playing against herself.  There is a gap between the two Alices, one who focuses on herself and her mistakes, prescribing rules and morals, and one who focuses on other things, forgetting to follow orders.  This is much like Freud's superego and id, scolding parent and forgetful child, as well as the Red and White Queens in the land behind the Looking-Glass.

Alice thinks the door leads to paradise, like a child who dreams of the day she becomes an adult and her problems are over, but when Alice finally gets to the garden she finds a homicidal tyrant  presiding over a game of croquet played with animals that refuse to conform to the rules, much like the two sides of herself.  Alice does not make sense of this, nor does she solve the problems of Wonderland.  She never gets to use the golden key, as her tears sweep her out of the situation while she is tiny.  Similarly, she does not win the game in the Queen's garden, nor is she cleared of suspicion in the courtroom of the king, but rather grows large and angry, declares it all to be nonsense and ends the dream of Wonderland in anger.  Alice begins timid and forgetful like the White Rabbit, and even obeys his orders, but she ends bold and judgemental like the Queen of Hearts, and even dares to contradict her own execution order.

Just before she reaches the tea party, the Cheshire Cat tells Alice that the Hare and Hatter are both insane, as is everyone else.  He explains that a dog growls when angry and wags its tail when happy, while a cat growls when happy and wags his tail when angry.  Alice says she calls it purring, not growling, and the cat says she can call it whatever she likes.  Every position appears backwards to its opposite.  Like the hybrid White Rabbit, the Hare and Hatter are animal and humanity, the informal and formal gathered together.  Hats were proper attire in Carroll's day, and the Hatter, who plays the role of logician, is wearing a hat which he later admits is not his own but one he sells to others.  In Through the Looking Glass, the White Knight, whom many compare to Carroll, says he plucks butterflies from the air and sells them as mutton pies to feed himself, much as a logician or philosopher plucks ideas from thin air and sells them to students.
He said I look for butterflies That sleep among the wheat: I make them into mutton-pies, And sell them in the street.  I sell them unto men, he said, Who sail on stormy seas; And that's the way I get my bread - A trifle, if you please.
When Alice approaches the tea party, the Hare and Hatter see her and shout, 'No room! No room!'.  Are they saying Alice is not welcome, or could  they perhaps be saying that they are outdoors and thus there is 'no room'?  Alice interprets this as an insult, and sits down in retaliation.  The Hare offers her wine, but then admits there isn't any.  Alice says this is rude, and the Hare replies that it is rude to sit down without being invited.  The Hatter tells Alice that she needs a haircut, which Alice says is also rude.

The Hatter replies with a riddle, a riddle which goes unanswered, 'Why is a raven like a writing desk?'.  Why are we rude to others who are rude to us, treating them the very way that they treat us?  This remains an unsolved riddle of existence. Alice says, 'I believe I can guess that'.  The Hare replies, 'Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?'.  Alice agrees, and the Hare replies, 'Then you should say what you mean'.  This is absurd, for as Wittgenstein argues we can say something without meaning it, but when we say something and mean it we mean it in saying it, such that the two are not separate, and we are not in a position to make rulings about the intentions of others apart from their words and actions.  Indeed, Alice protests, and says, 'at least I mean what I say ? that's the same thing, you know'.

Now the Hatter jumps in, playing logician, and misinterprets Alice in the way that Wittgenstein thought Russell misunderstood logic.  The Hatter objects that the two are not the same, and says that 'I see what I eat' is not the same thing as 'I eat what I see'.

One of the first lessons learned in formal logic is that If A then B is not the same thing as If B then A.  The Hatter gives an excellent example, as seeing each thing we eat is very different from eating each thing we see.  However, when Alice says, 'I mean what I say', she is saying she meant the thing she said, not that she always means what she says.  She is not making the universal claim that she is incapable of telling a lie, but making the particular claim that when she said she could guess the answer, she also meant it, and that this is the same thing as saying she meant it and also said it.  In logic and mathematics, A + B is the same thing as B + A, such that 'Alice said and meant it' is the same thing as saying 'Alice meant and said it'.

The Hatter's logic is flawless, but he misunderstands Alice's position.  Alice is an unwelcome intruder, and the Hatter is looking for her to make mistakes.  Is there a parallel between Russell and Wittgenstein here? Wittgenstein says we make 'the easy transition from some to all' when we project the particular way a thing is used or what it means to all possible cases.  What sometimes happens might always happen, but not necessarily.  Philosophers often interpret their own positions as general, allowing for exceptions, but interpret their opponents' positions as universal, contradicted by exceptions.  Rules and positions can be universal and absolute, but they need not be.  If I say that Sam is good, you do not know if I am saying he is perfect in every way, if he is good with some flaws, or that he is a terrible person and thus makes a good choice today as we need to hire a hitman.  Hans Sluga uses the example of a mother telling her daughter to stay in the house, trusting her daughter is wise and reasonable enough to know that when the house is on fire her ruling no longer applies.

In fact, madness was Russell's greatest nightmare. 

According to Wittgenstein, Russell misunderstood logic because he thought it is universal like arithmetic, rather than rooted in particular situations.  Is the idea of absolute certainty a foundation for sanity or is it delusion, the confusion of a dream with reality as Alice does her dream of Wonderland and the Hatter his interpretation of Alice?  Those at Cambridge who compared Russell and his circle to the Hatter's tea party likely thought so.  When Russell was invited to discuss works of literature and philosophy on the radio, he was passionate about many subjects, but only lukewarm when discussing Alice in Wonderland, possibly because he hated others thinking he was mad and resented the comparison of himself to the Hatter.

In fact, madness was Russell's greatest nightmare. When Russell was seventeen, he attempted to strangle a friend to death, fully intending to murder him, and barely managed to stop himself.  Only a few years later at Cambridge, as a fellow student of McTaggart and Moore, Russell learned his uncle Willy had suffered a nervous breakdown, strangled a vagrant and stabbed two men, killing one.  Willy Russell never recovered, and lived out his years hidden away in an asylum, lapsing into a catatonic dreamworld much like Wonderland.  Bertrand Russell became terrified that madness would suddenly take him, as he had only been a breath away from becoming his uncle, and he was haunted by the dueling images of being strangled by a madman or strangling someone as a madman.  One cannot ask for a more dysfunctional image of human interaction. For much of his life, Russell felt as if he was a fish in an aquarium, cut off from the warmth of others.

On the other hand, one of the happiest moments of Russell's youth was learning Euclidean geometry at the age of eleven from his older brother Frank.  Mathematics promised him the universal and eternal, as well as assertions that cannot be contradicted.  Unfortunately, he soon discovered that the work of Euclid rested on axioms, principles that remained unproven.  And so, for much of his life and career, Russell sought a solution to the extent that the American pragmatist and psychologist William James wrote to Russell: 
My dying words to you are, 'Say goodbye to mathematical logic if you wish to preserve your relations with concrete realities'.   
Significantly, in response, Russell wrote to a friend: 
I would much rather, of the two, preserve my relations with symbolic logic.   
This is Wonderland stuff, as is the fact that Russell worked with Whitehead for a decade to publish the Principia Mathematica in 1910, a book few can read that takes 362 pages to prove that 1 + 1 = 2.  And then, in 1911, the very next year, Wittgenstein showed up at Russell's rooms without warning...

Contact details: Eric Gerlach email: 

*This illustration appears in The Nursery Alice, a shortened version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1890, featuring enlarged and coloured versions of the original drawings by John Tenniel.