Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Absurd Beliefs

by Joe Miller

Via Jonathan Wilde, I see that Tyler Cowen asks readers to offer their most absurd beliefs. Tyler lays out the rules:
What is your most absurd view? Comments are open. Yes your comment should be crazy but serious too. It should refer to a view which you actually hold, but many other smart people consider untenable and bizarre.
For me, I hardly know where to start. I hold a number of, well let's charitably call them idiosyncratic philosophical views. First, though, a caveat. There are some philosophical views that I hold that the average layperson would likely find absurd but that most (or at least a lot of) philosophers seem pretty much to accept. So, for example, I think that there really is no such thing as the present. That, however, is a view that dates back to St. Augustine. Anyway, I'm going to restrict my list to those that philosophers (a group that includes not only professional philosophers, but also those who think pretty seriously about philosophy--i.e., everyone who reads this blog).
  1. Eliminative materialism. Yes, this is going to get me in trouble with all the psychologists with whom I share the third floor. I think that what we call mental states (indeed, I go further and argue that what we call the mind) do not exist. We have brain states and that's pretty much it. Psychology is the new phrenology. Neuroscience is where it's at.
  2. Qualitative hedonism. I spent five years of my life trying to articulate a coherent picture of Mill's claim that the quality of our pleasures is just as important as (if not more important than) the quantity of pleasure. I, however, took the odd extra step: I think not only that Mill is coherent on this point, but that he's actually right. Pleasure is the only good, provided that we understand the term properly. I'm not going to try to explain what that means here. Read the link. I dare you. You'd be something like the seventh person ever. The other six? Me and the five members of my dissertation committee.
  3. Anselm's ontological argument. I think it works. But it doesn't show that God exists. It shows that if our definition of God as "that than which none greater can be conceived" is conceptually coherent, then God exists necessarily. In other words, if God is possible, then God is necessary. The concept of God is not conceptually coherent, though, so my atheism is safe.
  4. The Enlightenment. Okay, lots of people kinda, sorta like the Enlightenment. But most intellectuals have rejected the idea that there is such a thing as Truth and that reason will lead us to it. I, however, completely reject postmodernism. I suppose that I should note that plenty of other philosophers reject postmodernism. Actually, all real (read: analytic) philosophers do so. But we analytic philosophers are, sadly, a distinct minority within the general intellectual world.
These are the big ones that I can think of right off hand. I'm sure that there are more that I come up with were I (a) less tired and (b) not already putting off the tons of work-related things I ought to be doing right now to write this post.

17 Comments:

Blogger Matt McIntosh said...

I'm with you on points (1) and (4). One of my weird beliefs -- that uman brains are simply not equipped to answer most metaphysical or ontological questions -- leaves me skeptical of (3).

As for (2), bah! You give yourself away Joe, you can't really be an elimintavist materialist and still be a hedonic utilitarian -- pick one! A real materialist would invent something like this, which is another of my weird beliefs. :)

12:10 AM  
Blogger Matt McIntosh said...

Human brains too, for that matter. Oy.

12:18 AM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...

Matt,
I'm not entirely sure why (1) and (2) are inconsistent. Yes, I would identify myslef with those who think that pleasure is a mental state, but I mean "mental" here in only a short-hand approximate way. That's just the term that is used in most of the literature to distinguish those of us who view pleasure as a sensation from those who view pleasure as something akin to satisfaction.

So my belief, then, is that pleasures are actual things that I feel. I talk about them using folk psychology because we don't know enough neuroscience yet to be able to pinpoint the exact brain state that corresponds to my feeling of pleasure. But we will at some point.

It's actually my eliminative materialism that makes my position on Mill so odd. I hold that there are qualitative distinctions in pleasures, which means, at bottom, that certain types of pleasures would have to activate different things in the brain.

I argue that certain kinds of activities (i.e., those that are associated with what Mill calls the higher pleasures) actually call on us to exercise our autonomy (that is, to make a choice that is grounded in our own individualism). That sort of activity results in a brain state that we describe as a better sort of pleasure.

And yes, I do realize the irony of explaining my conception of the higher pleasures in terms of choices and individuality, since those, too are folk psychology concepts. Choice may be an illusion, but it's a necessary one. As soon as the neuroscientists catch up, I'll be able to explain all of this far more clearly. After I brush up on my biology homework.

11:57 AM  
Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

Number one I can digg, with a qualification. I do think that there is some sort of whole made up of the parts, call it consciousness... whatever.
Number two, possibly. When I've got some free time (lol) I'll take a gander at that thesis.
Number three... perhaps this is my own short-comings but I don't think it works. I base this wholly on the first premise, just as you do, but I come to the conclusion that if one is going to start with a faulty premise, the rest of the argument is worthless. That, and I'm still not entirely sure that possible == necessary holds.
Numero quatro. Again, I think this is one of those qualified agreements. I'm not saying that any of the post-isms really make, on the whole, the necessary qualifications, however... I know this is going to be a heck of a stretch and a big surprise, but I think that the whole idea of ideologues taking the reins of science (posited by Strauss and to a greater extent, Foucault) has some serious implications and is a valid approach to take when considering the Enlightenment. Okay, so perhaps a few of the post-isms have the right vector, but not much in the way of a solution.

I suppose, by responding to these things, that I have made some contribution to the absurd beliefs bit. Although, I must concede, I do have a soft-spot for the Great Deceiver.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

I'm good with 2 and 4.
Number 1 (eliminative materialism) I think can be answered in much the same way as wave/particle duality or the relationship between quantum and Newtonian physics. They operate on different levels. I agree that there is an underlying reductionist view, and yet the way our brain (mind) interacts with the world is more holistic.
Number 3 (Ontological Argument) Um, no. The argument seems self defeating to me. If God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived then God is limited to what can be conceived. (I will assume that we are speaking of what can be conceived by/in the mind of man)If God is therefore defined as the greatest thing that can be conceived by man, it stands to reason that God WAS conceived by man, and therefore does not exist necessarily.
Besides, from the Judeo/Islamo/Christian point of view, isn't God supposed to be beyond comprehension and therefore unable to be conceived (even/especially in the understanding)?
My own absurd belief: magic is real (mental/spiritual energy manipulation, not slight of hand).

3:34 PM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...

Rick,
Technically, the premise is that God is that than which none greater can be conceived, not the greatest thing that I can conceive or even the greatest thing that humans can conceive. It doesn't actually matter whether or not anyone has done the conceiving or whether anything currently in existence is capable of doing the conceiving. All the premise means is that we've defined God as the greatest thing that it's logically possible to conceive.

3:47 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Joe,
"Thus even the fool is convinced that something TWNGCBC exists in the understanding, since when he hears this, he understands it; and whatever is understood is in the understanding."
Sorry (not really), but I have to disagree with you. The entire point of the argument is that God IS conceived in the understanding (as that which...)and therefore exists in reality.

4:21 PM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...

Rick,
I think that the passage that you cite doesn't mean exactly what you say it means. Anselm isn't saying that I understand God. He's saying that I understand what it means to talk about TTWNGCBC.

Think of it this way. When I hear the term 'infinite' I understand what that means. What I cannot do is conceive of an infinite number (or an infinite anything else for that matter). I can understand what it means for something to be infinite even if I cannot conceive of an actual infinite thing.

So, too, with TTWNGCBC. I can't actually conceive what that thing would be like, but I can understand what it would mean for something to be TTWNGCBC.

9:38 PM  
Blogger Matt McIntosh said...

Okay Joe, that's good enough to get you off the hook consistency-wise, but now I have to ask the inevitable question: would you hook up to the experience machine?

11:41 PM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...

Bring on the Matrix. Yeah, I'd hook up; I've no real objection to the experience machine. I've never quite understood what it is that the "realness" of some experience is supposed to add. Perhaps the belief that my experience is real gives me some pleasure, but a properly functioning experience machine would also simulate the belief that my experience is real (or more properly, it would activate whatever brain state is active when I have the belief that my experience is real). I fail to see what the big deal is.

The only quibble that I have with the experience machine as a utilitarian is that I'm obligated to maximize overall utility and not just my own. So maybe I avoid plugging in if you can't provide an experience machine for everyone. Or perhaps rather I should hold that you'd have to start by plugging in the most miserable person. How you'd know who that is...well, maybe when our neuroscientists are super-duper enough to build the experience machine, they'll also get around to perfecting utility meters.

12:10 AM  
Blogger Ocham said...

I tried, by consulting the usual internet encyclopedias, but failed, to understand what 'eliminativism' is. If you say 'I intend to pay you back that £50' that refers to an intention of mine. Eliminativism says that there are no such things as intentions. So, you am lying when you say you mean to pay back the money? Fetch the baseball bat!

An example used in the article I read was primitive people saying "the sea is angry". But isn't this their way of seeing the sea is rough? Or is it that they are saying that it is rough + something else that the eliminativist would have us eliminate? Fair enough, but if I say that Joe is angry then it is the roughness of the sea, as it were, that we have to eliminate, and then we appear to be left with nothing. Very confusing.

9:23 AM  
Blogger Ocham said...

Here's something else. Someone in a tutorial years ago suggested that when neuroscience had advanced far enough, we get close enough to the brain to understand neural states 'as they really are'. Our tutor replied that the room we were in was as close to England as you could get, but that you would have to get pretty far up in space to see England 'as it really is'.

Similarly paintings by Monet, the works of James Joyce &c. Some things you have to step back to understand.

Also, there used to be a theory in the data-mining community called 'visualisation'. That is that, if you want to understand large data sets, you have to convert them to pictures in order to understand them. Perhaps our understanding of emotions is similar. Indeed, Meinong said something to the effect that, as we perceive the darkness and lightness in the picture (say a picture of Gothic cathedral interior) through the visual sense, so we perceive aspects such as sombreness, sacredness, mystery &c through an emotional or aesthetic sense. This is not inconsistent with science. Just that the best way to understand the science would be through the very faculties that the human brain has designed for the purpose. (I believe enormous parts of the brain are devoted to picking up emotions and thoughts in other human beings).

9:50 AM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...

Ocham,
If you say 'I intend to pay you back that £50' that refers to an intention of mine. Eliminativism says that there are no such things as intentions. So, you am lying when you say you mean to pay back the money?

I think that the eliminativist would claim that this sort of charge is a category mistake. The claim is not that folk psychology terms are just reducible to brain states. The claim is that folk psychology is just radically incorrect. It's not that I'll eventually find the brain state that corresponds to [intends to pay you back that £50]. It's that the very language you are using doesn't even come close to describing what's really going on.

The closest analogy would be if you were to say, upon looking at a fire, "that pile of wood sure is phlogistonated." You're not really lying to me in making that claim. But what you are saying is, in some sense, much worse than just being wrong. We wouldn't say to you, "It's false that there is a lot of phlogiston in that pile of wood." Rather, we would want to say, "There is nothing in the world that is picked out by the term 'phlogiston' and as such, we ought to eliminate that term from our scientific vocabulary."

Just as talking about phlogiston is the wrong sort of thing to be discussing when talking chemistry, so too is talking about intention the wrong thing to be discussing when talking about consciousness.

11:42 PM  
Blogger Ocham said...

I understand your point. And you say "the very language you are using doesn't even come close to describing what's really going on". But my second argument was that, in we can't understand complex systems, such as the motorway system, without "stepping back". I have this Atlas which breaks down the UK into many smaller maps in about 100 pages. It's not very helpful when I drive to Birmingham, say, because you get lost in the detail. To understand "what's really going on" I turn to the large scale map on the cover which has much less detail, but shows London and Birmingham on the same page, and a nice road that connects them. By analogy, maybe the way we naturally understand "mental states" which, after all, was what the brain was designed to do, is the best way that we have.

5:49 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

I have to agree with Ocham on this. There is almost always more activity that takes place on some sub-level of any event then is referred to. This it what my comment earlier was about when I mentioned the relationship between quantum and Newtonian physics. The optic laws we have about light reflecting from a mirrored surface have no relation to what is happening to the actual particles of light interacting with the particles of the mirror, but the laws still work. While I agree that the quasi-new age psychobabble of folk psychology is alot of bs, the idea of speaking of feelings, intentions or mental-states as an overall lay-terminology seems acceptable. For example saying, "I'm so happy for you," as opposed to saying, "My neurons are awash with endorphins at your situation." Of course I do hold the "absurd belief" that there is a discrete consciousness. That being said, whether that consciousness/soul/spirit is "connected" via the brain...*shrug*

7:19 PM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...

Ocham,
I see your objection here, but I guess that I'm not really sure why it shows that folk psychology is the appropriate "big picture" view.

You're certainly right that any understanding of the phenomenon that we call "intention" will involve something pretty complex and that we won't be able to understand that phenomenon without stepping back and observing a bigger picture. Why, though, should the bigger picture be the language of intentions rather than, say, a more developed conception of cognitive science?

Surely your claim is not that the human brian is designed to process experiences through the language of intention. Talk about pain or beliefs or intentions is just that--talk. It's language that is designed to explain certain phenomena. Our brains do carry out certain functions (e.g., what we call intentions), but whether that function really is pain or whether it is a brain state that we have (mistakenly) called pain is the very issue up for debate.

4:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What are your 50,000 thoughts a day creating?
Our thoughts create our reality. This is a simple truth known by all people involved on the spiritual path. It is one of the most taught universal principles in the personal development field. Yet it is one of the most misunderstood!
People practice visualisation, affirmations, they use hypnosis, subliminal programming or countless other tools to transform their lives. However they fail to recognise one key area in their lives that hinder these wonderful techniques from being effective.
They sit day after day visualising their perfect scene and yet nothing happens. Why? They have followed all the instructions to the letter! They have chanted and imagined! They have formed a colourful, vibrant scene in their minds and affirmed that this is their reality. Then all of a sudden things get worse! What is going on?
Would you like to know the secret? Would you like to know why these people get no results? Would you like to hear one powerful statement that explains everything?
Yes?
Good. I will tell you why these people get no results or even opposite results to those they are aiming for -simply because of the following truth. Consciously controlled thoughts such as visualisations do not materialise - ALL thoughts materialise!!!
Most people believe that if they visualise for 10 minutes a day their lives will magically transform. This is not the case. You must change your core thinking. You think approx. 50,000 thoughts a day. How many of those thoughts are working against your ten minute visualisation?
You can control the thoughts that enter your mind by changing the way you view the world. You can decide which thoughts you give energy to and which thoughts you discard.
The thoughts that you follow and give energy to become more dominant than the thoughts you discard. Your subconscious mind records these as your dominant picture on the issue at hand. You then move towards this picture because your subconscious mind starts making your outside world reflect the picture that you have stored internally.
Your mind should be on whatever you want. The picture you need to have is a positive vision of you already having achieved your goal. To realise this vision you need to focus and concentrate. Remember thoughts are real, they create your reality.
Let's say you have been visualising a new house. You spend your ten minutes in meditation picturing yourself living in your dream home. You finish your session and get up feeling positive that you will achieve your goal. Then during the day you get a heating bill through the post and exclaim "Oh no look how expensive this is I cannot afford to heat this house". Where is your focus in the present moment? What are you affirming? You are telling your subconscious mind that you cannot deal with what you have. You are affirming that your life is not how you want it to be. If you knew without doubt that within a week you would be moving to your new home would you honestly be worried about a heating bill? Perhaps other doubts creep in like "I should be happy with what I have", or "I will never get this house looking the way I want it" and so on and so on.
These thoughts that are not aligned with your goal. You are not giving complete attention to what you want. Whilst you are dealing with these other lines of thought your attention is not on your goal.
If you are aware of your thoughts you will suddenly realise that you have spent much more energy on counter productive thoughts than on creating a dominant picture of the goal you want.
Point your focus in the direction of you're the life you want. Think about what you want NOT what you don't want. It's that simple.
Your focus determines your reality. Change your focus and you change your life. lucid dream

1:59 PM  

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