Category Archives: Meaning

Szasz, Kripkenstein and mental illness.

Imagine that you found a complex and utterly alien object, of unknown and mysterious origin, washed up on a beach. Sometimes it does lots of confusing and incomprehensible things – sometimes it does nothing. You suspect it might be broken. But you cannot definitely know this without any frame of reference regarding what it is actually supposed to do – or if in fact, it has any purpose at all.

Saul Kripke, in writing about the ‘machine objection’ defence of dispositional accounts of meaning, makes a similar point (it’s probably where I got the idea from).  You can only say that an adding machine is functioning correctly if there is some fact in virtue of which it’s outputs are correct or not.

Reflecting on what Thomas Szasz wrote about psychiatry (and by extension, psychology), it strikes me that this is the position he would say that these disciplines are in – that they are trying to ‘fix’ minds, when they don’t know what the criteria for ‘correct’ functions consist of – or if such criteria even exist. To fix minds in this position is to impose one’s own (or one’s society’s) criteria on what they should be doing.

It would be like modifying the alien object to do what you want, but claiming that what you are doing constitutes repair.

I’m not sure that Szazs is 100% right. But I’ll try to remember this analogy next time I have to explain his views to 1st-year psychology students.

Meaning and Marriage

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I pitched the following to The Conversation some time ago, was rejected, and since then I’ve been trying to work out what to do with it. In light of their publication of Kevin Donnelly’s piece arguing against marriage equality, I thought it was time to publish it here as it addresses many of his arguments.

‘We can’t have same-sex marriage, because that’s just not what “marriage” really means.’

This has been a theme of some comments at The Conversation, whenever marriage equality is mentioned. (Update: it actually the entire theme of a recent article published there) On a different scale, but with similar intent, some governments have legislated to define marriage in a certain way – examples include the Marriage Legislation Amendment Bill 2004 here in Australia and the Defence of Marriage Act (Sept. 21, 1996) in the USA. I would argue that in both cases, appealing to the real meaning of a word is problematic.

Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how or why particular words seem to have particular meanings. The idea that words should be used in some ways (and not others) is intuitively appealing. But on closer inspection, the idea that particular words mean, or refer to, particular things is sometimes quite tricky. In the case of marriage, it turns out to be particularly unhelpful.

In arguing that we should not enact same-sex marriage legislation because of the real meaning of marriage, the following question must be answered: Why do certain words mean certain things? There are, unsurprisingly, a number of theories. At the more radical end of the spectrum, Saul Kripke argued that there was no such thing as meaning anything by any word. I’m not going to go quite that far, not least because I think Kripke was wrong. It’s worth looking at how we might respond to scepticism about the existence of meaning as it highlights some of the difficulties in using the supposed ‘real’ meaning of marriage to justify denying same-sex couples the right to use that word.

So what is on the table in terms of backing up meaning?

‘Just look at the definition of the word’, some might say. Well, the definition of a word is what it is in virtue of the meaning of the word. If we can’t agree on the meaning, we won’t agree on the definition. On top of that, words are defined in terms of other words – words that we can also disagree about. So while we might start off arguing about the definition of ‘marriage’, we quickly move to disagreements over the meaning of ‘man’. Then we might quibble over the meaning of ‘male’. Every time you use a definition, I can claim that your interpretation of some word in that definition is flawed. If I were willing to extend my scepticism about the meanings of words far enough, there is no limit to how far this argument could go. What we need is an account of meaning that does not rely on our interpretations of other words.

We might look at the history of how a word has been used. So marriage would mean what it meant in the past, and should be used in accordance with how it has been used in the past. This might be tempting for those on the conservative side of this discussion. But if you acknowledge the fact that meanings change, you have to justify why the meaning of marriage should not change in this case. Also, how do you decide which bits of history to privilege? Do we include the history of other some cultures and not others?

Letting history go, some might appeal to the aggregate or majority view of how a whole group of people use a word right now, in the present. This might seem helpful, especially if the majority thinks as you do. But it is problematic nonetheless. If one person can be wrong about what a word means and how it should be applied, then it’s at least possible for a whole community to be similarly mistaken. A group of people thinking that something is true, and that thing actually being true are not necessarily the same thing. I’m not saying that it isn’t either, just that now you need an account of truth as well – we’ll leave that conversation for another day.

This brings us to what might be seen as a more metaphysically loaded theory. Why does marriage mean one man and one woman? Because the correct meaning of that word is ordained by God. This is an appealing solution for some people. However, I think there are two main problems.

The first is that not everyone believes in God, and if they don’t they are not going to accept this argument. Worse, about something like marriage, there is disagreement between different kinds of theists. Let me be very clear, this isn’t about atheists versus believers. Nor is it just about same-sex marriage. If two people both believe themselves to be Christians and they have a disagreement of the form: ‘It’s not really marriage if it wasn’t solemnised by a priest’ or ‘It’s not really marriage if the woman doesn’t submit to the man’, then deciding on what grounds we pick one view over the other is going to be complicated. Going down the road of arguing about which one of these people are ‘real’ Christians is unlikely to lead anywhere constructive. All that has happened is that an additional can of worms has been opened and people of other faiths (or no faith) are no closer to being convinced.

Even if we accepted that a particular God does exist, and that They do have a particular idea of what a word means, we have to be certain that we have correctly interpreted Their meaning. Some might argue that God puts the correct concept directly into our brains, thereby bypassing the problem of interpreting His meaning. But if this were the case, how could we ever make mistakes in how we used this word? I imagine that even very devout people occasionally make mistakes when using words like marriage. If this is true, then it counts as evidence against God putting the concept of marriage into our minds in some direct way. And if that’s true, we are interpreting His word, allowing room for potential error. Humans are finite and fallible. And while an omnipotent being (by definition) could surely imprint a word on our brains so thoroughly and perfectly that we never use it in error, I do not see any evidence that this actually happens.

In light of these difficulties, legislating to protect the real meaning of marriage is difficult. Some might claim that we cannot change how the word marriage is applied in real life, because that new application is supposedly out of line with the real meaning. But this can only be rationally defended to the extent that the account of what constitutes meaning actually works – otherwise your argument is a house built on sand. Clearly, I don’t have all (or any) of the answers. But I would encourage people, whether they are people of faith or not, to think carefully about what philosophical baggage they might need to unpack whenever they talk about the ‘real’ meaning of a word.

photo credit: torbakhopper celebrate good times!!! marriage equality : castro rally, san francisco (2013) via photopin (license)

Philosophers’ Carnival 173

Welcome to the Philosophers’ Carnival #173. This edition contains a selection of some of the best philosophy blog posts to recently hit the web. Not all of these articles are easy reading, but they are all worth tackling nonetheless.

Two posts this month had stage magic as their theme. Tharindra Galahena explores why magic shows are interesting in How does a Rabbit Come out of a Top Hat? : Philosophy in a Magic Show. In Philosophy, Science, and Magic,  Nick Byrd takes a different angle and discusses how learning some things in philosophy (or science) can leave us feeling like we just saw a magic trick as our pre-reflective intuitions are undermined.

This is a feeling I’m familiar with, and still got a hint of when reading some of the posts featured below. Where things appear magical, or as Nick puts it, “they do violence to our assumptions about the world”, philosophers  and philosophy students alike would do well to recall Jonathon Creek‘s approach to solving mysteries – “We mustn’t confuse what’s impossible with what’s implausible.”

I shan’t editorialize any further except to say that if you have anything to say about any of these posts, in agreement or otherwise, please comment – the authors of these blogs will appreciate your interest. I hope you enjoy the carnival.

Posting on The Brains Blog, Brie Gertler presents an interesting discussion of privacy and dispositional beliefs. Implications for issues of privacy and the significance of a belief being occurent are also raised by John Danaher in his  discussion concerning Two Interpretations of the Extended Mind Hypothesis.

Richard Chappell from Philosophy, et cetera wonders if  Mark Schroeder’s Implicature is a satisfactory response to Parfit’s Trivality Objection.

Alexander Pruss explores the puzzle of  grounding overdetermination.

Tristan Haze presents the first of a proposed series of posts on de re modality in De Re Modality and Quantifying In.

Wolfgang Schwarz provides a detailed post on Robert Stalnaker’s account of self-location.

Hilary Putnam continues to generate well reasoned answers to interesting questions. This month we feature his post on Rational Reconstruction.

The authors at PEA Soup were certainly hard at work on their meta-ethics over February. argues that normative necessity is not distinct from metaphysical necessity – or at least that Fine (in Gendler and Hawthorne, Conceivability and Possibility, Oxford, 2002) does not show that it is. Following from this, Finally, Doug Portmore argues that appealing to parsimony is not a good reason to defend metaphysical naturalism against metaphysical pluralism. (For what it’s worth, I’m inclined to agree with Doug on this).

In considering a cross-over between the Problem of Evil and the Ontological argument , Michael Almeida of The Prosblogion asks, Which Worlds are Possible? Some that are quite bad, apparently.

At Practical Ethics, Carissa Véliz argues that we shouldn’t necessarily hold ethicists to higher moral standards, though we should commend them for intellectual honesty even if they are sometimes morally inconsistent.

In Moral Blindness, Cruelty, and Three Faces of Responsibility, Paul Boswell  argues that even if an agent is morally blind, they can still be considered to be cruel.

Following from Peter Railton’s Dewy lecture, Eric Schwitzgebel considers Depressive Thinking Styles and Philosophy, wondering if some of the thinking styles associated with depression might actually be an aid to  working as a philosopher.

Finally, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong  asks, Does Philosophy Matter?  (Spoiler Alert: Yes. Again, I’m inclined to agree)

If you have some philosophy, or philosophy-related posts on your blog, and you would like to see included in subsequent carnivals, please go to the Philosophers’ Carnival homepage and make use of the submission form. Thanks for reading.

Brains (or Hands) in Vats

Tristan Haze over at Sprachlogik wrote this post about a particular argument relating to being a Brain in a Vat (BIV) a while ago. I started to write a comment on it this morning, but it got slightly too long, so here we are.

I have to agree that much ink has been spent on the following kind of argument:

  1. If you’re a brain in a vat then you don’t have hands
  2. You don’t know that you’re not a brain in a vat
  3. Therefore you don’t know that you have hands

Haze argues that the there is good reason to not accept (1). Essentially, he claims, there is a sense in which if you were a BIV, that hand-talk still expresses a proposition. Despite what Putnam said, even if you were a BIV, ‘hands’ still means something.

I don’t really want to get into Putnam today, but as a defender of a kind-of causal theory of reference, I would agree for slightly different reasons. Meaning, for a word like ‘hands’ comes from the causal chain of use and it would not really matter if the chain were partly (or even entirely) in a simulated environment.

What I was interested in, and was happy to see that Haze acknowledged, was that knowing that her have hands says nothing either way about whether or not we are living in a simulation or not.

Since premise (1) isn’t unambiguously true, the modified argument ends up something like this:

  1. If you’re a brain in a vat then you have hands in a different way than if you weren’t a brain in a vat.
  2. You don’t know that you’re not a brain in a vat
  3. Therefore you don’t know that you have ‘real’ hands or simulated hands that are, for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from ‘real’ hands.

Is the conclusion worth worrying about? For everyday purposes, probably not, since the only doubt you have about your hands is unrelated to the everyday experience of your hands. Imagine  someone in a Matrix-style simulation, whose simulated body has no hands, while their real body still has them (even if, as in the movie, they don’t actually use them). Would this person be particularly comforted to be told that it’s OK because they ‘really’ have hands? I think not.

My conclusion indicates that I’ve assumed the simulation to be perfect in the sense that (unlike Neo’s experience of the Matrix) there is nothing in what we perceive  or experience that gives us reason to think that the world around us is not what it seems. For those not familiar with BIV and deceiving demon scenarios, this is normal – we would hardly worry about whether or not we were in a simulation if we could tell the difference between it and reality.

What is important to note is this: you can’t perceive your way out of a perfect simulation.  “But I have hands!” you cry, whilst gesturing dramatically. Yes, you perceive and experience your hands, but since the problem is trusting one’s perceptions, this doesn’t tell us much either way.

Can you reason your way out of the vat? I don’t have a definite opinion. But at this point, I suspect not.