Pure Causal Reference vs Kripke’s Sceptic

A lot of my PhD was dedicated to arguing in favor of a causal-hybrid solution to Kripke’s (1982) meaning-scepticism.

For those unfamiliar with this particular brand of scepticsm, it is basically the idea that there is no such thing as meaning a particular thing (or indeed anything) by any word. Kripke has his own ideas on what is going on when we communicate, but not everyone accepts them. Actually, declaring that there was no such thing as meaning, rather that we simply behave in accordance with what the rest of our linguistic community accepts, has produced quite a reaction over the years. This largely consists in trying to prove Kripke wrong – a position that I have myself adopted. For a good overview of what has been written on this topic, I would recommend http://philpapers.org/browse/kripkenstein-on-meaning/

Just a few days ago (and months after I’d submitted my thesis) I came across a paper by Richard B. Miller, where he argues that Devitt’s hybrid-causal theory doesn’t work as a theory of reference, but that a purely causal account does. This is based upon an argument from Sterelny (1983), (which I haven’t read yet, so  my thoughts on it are very preliminary and subject to revision). This isn’t a complete treatment of Miller’s ideas, rather I’m just making a start on how they might be applied in the context of taking a fresh look at causal theories of reference

Consider the grouping of a  term such as tigers or kangaroos. In very simple terms, a causal theory of reference works by a speaker baptizing a sample of a kind, that they have perceptual (and hence causal) contact with, with a particular name. This word is passed on to other speakers through their causal contact with the original baptizer and the reference grounds in that kind when other speakers use it in virtue of the causal chain that leads back to the original baptizer and the sample of that kind. A word like ‘tiger’ refers to tigers and not aardvarks because there are tigers in that causal chain, but no aardvarks. The theory functions in a similar way for proper names.  As a theory of meaning, we would use it in a comparable way.

There is a problem with this theory though. Devitt and Sterelny describe it as “the problem of discovering in virtue of what a term is grounded in the cause of a perceptual experience qua-one-kind and not qua-another” (1987, 254).  This is usually known as the ‘qua problem’. In the case of a name, we might have baptized an individual with a particular name, but our perceptual, and hence casual, contact with them has not been with all of that individual throughout all of time. In time, our contact with this individual is finite for any particular grounding. We are only with them for particular times and we only have perceptual contact with the parts of them we can see. In the case of an individual, we might ask why the reference of the name grounds in the whole individual for their entire life, rather than just a particular time-slice or unattached part of them.

The solution that Devitt and Sterelny (1987) explore, and that Devitt sticks with into his later work such as Realism and Truth (1997), is to introduce  descriptive element. In other words, the baptizer needs to have some idea – some mental content- about the thing that they are naming. For example, you need to have an idea that you are naming a whole individual, despite the limitations of your causal contact with them.

This causes a problem for using a causal theory of reference to solve Kripke’s meaning scepticism as this mental content is not immune from sceptical attack. I hope to publish something about how I’d solve this issue soon, but in the interim, pp 134-136 of A sceptical guide to meaning and rules, by Martin Kusch (2006) gives a good run down on on why this is such a problem. Miller has a different way of dealing with the qua-problem, and I’m wondering what this might mean for dealing with Kripke’s challenge.

Miller’s approach is not to solve the qua-problem using mental content to specify how a word refers. Rather he avoids it by advocating a purely causal relation between a word and its referent.

According to Miller, Sterelny (1983) argues that an additional requirement should be added to the grounding of reference –  the grounder of the name (the speaker) must have acquired the capacity to reliably recognize  the kind referred to. Miller formulates it as follows:

The speaker S can use his perceptual contact with x to ground ‘N’ on the kind Q if x qua Q causes S to acquire a reliable ability to discriminate Qs.

This ‘tightening up’, as Miller puts it, of the causal relation, solves the issue. Individuals – in this case individual kangaroos – have the causal powers that they do in virtue of the classes to which they belong. My preliminary reading of this is that the class is not of time-slices of kangaroos or un-detached kangaroo parts. Miller states that the disposition a speaker gains is not to think of an individual when confronted with it’s time-slice, so I think I am on the right track, even though I feel the need to think more on it.

In stating that the relevant causal class is the one that gives a speaker a disposition to think ‘kangaroo’ when exposed to kangaroos, Miller appears to moves his argument into difficult territory.

This is because dispositions to think or act a certain way are finite in nature and the extension of ‘+’, for example is (in theory) infinite. Once the numbers get too big, we are no longer relying on what a speaker is disposed to do, rather we are relying on that they would be disposed to do under an idealized situation. In saying we know how an idealized speaker would respond, we are saying that we already know what the right way to react is – and that’s exactly what Kripke claims we cannot know (because there is nothing to know).

The original formulation of this problem related to arithmetic where the ‘infinite extension’ of functions appeared to be an issue. It might not be clear how this applies to kangaroos, but consider that we have had a finite number if times that ‘kangaroo’ has been applied to particular animals in the past – even collectively. Kripke’s sceptic might well ask why we trust a finite causal chain to justify a potentially infinite future usage of that word? They could argue that ‘kangaroo’ refers to tangaroos –  kangaroos up to March1 2015, and then both kangaroos and tigers thereafter.

It would take a while to completely explain why this can’t be, but a summary of my position is that because reference is causal-determinate, ‘kangaroo’ can’t refer to tigers in the future unless the word has some how been causally connected with tigers in the past. The only way the sceptic can try to salvage their position is by claiming that we were wrong about the nature of the categories kangaroo and tiger. You might buy that there is no objective difference between kangaroos and tigers, but I don’t.

It is also not clear how Miller intends to deal with issues of normative value – the notion that there is a way that we ‘ought’ to use a certain word a certain way. This is not unique to his particular causal theory – I believe that even Devitt’s hybrid theory needs some clarification if we are using it for these purposes, but that is a story for another day.

Overall though, as long as it is the causal history that meaning is grounded in, and not the disposition to react a certain way, then Miller’s account does not fall to the same objections are disposition based accounts. If he can overcome the qua-problem, which is what I’m working on testing at the moment, then he adds another important variation to a causal solution to the problem of meaning-scepticism. Given that Kusch’s (2006) main objection to this sort of solution was the qua-problem, I’d say it was worth considering.



Devitt, M. (1997). Realism and truth (2nd ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Devitt, M., & Sterelny, K. (1987). Language and reality. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.
Kripke, S. (1982). Wittgenstein on rules and private language. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.
Kusch, M. (2006). A sceptical guide to meaning and rules. Chesham, UK: Acumen Publishing.
Maddy, P. (1984). How the causal theorist follows a rule. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 9(1), 457-477. doi:10.1111/j.1475-4975.1984.tb00072.x
McGinn, C. (1984). Wittgenstein on meaning. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell Publishing.
Miller, R. (1992). A purely causal solution to one of the qua problems. Australasian Journal of Philosophy. 70(4), 425-434. doi: 10.1080/00048409212345301
Sterelny, K. (1983). Natural kinds terms. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 64, 100-125.

Beyond Earth is definitely not beyond imagination

I confess that my expectations of what Civilization: Beyond Earth would be like were probably unrealistic and unseasonable. So I understand that it might just be me that was disappointed. It isn’t a bad game, but it doesn’t feel like it’s a great game in the way that earlier incarnations of the franchise have been.

In thinking about my reaction to this game, I wondered if  part of the problem is that I don’t play the vanilla versions of Civilization much any more. The mods, for Civ IV in particular, added customization, depth, storyline and visual texture. Importantly, some of the more notable full conversions, added entire story-lines in unique worlds. In my opinion, the example of this – for Civ IV at least – is Fall from Heaven II. Sure, it played to the stereotypical fantasy archetypes, but it did so with style and ridiculous re-playability.

Now, I can’t put my finger on all the reasons why Beyond Earth seems less playable as I don’t have the language to express what is wrong with certain aspects of the game design.

What I can say is that I was disappointed with the lack of depth in the storyline woven through the progression of certain tech achievements.

The discovery of nanotechnology could lead to massively disruptive consequences, as it did in Accelerando. Even if things didn’t get quite that out of hand, the effect could have been a bit more profound. While on the subject of nano-tech, why did it’s discovery lead to the development of a (presumably faster-than-light) warp gate? For a game that sold itself with a lot of talk about having future technology at last slightly based on actual science, I thought this was a bit weak.

The divergence of the affinities should introduce more conflict and it should do so in a more thoughtful way. The division between affinities would be one of the most important events in human/post-human history. Choosing to adapt to the environment instead of destroying it and/or choosing to avoid the perceived enslavement to certain technologies drive massive amounts of narrative in books like the Hyperion Cantos. In Civ BE, there is a bit of urgency, but not much.

On reflection, I think my problem with Civ BE was indeed that my expectations were unrealistic. It’s a computer game. So expecting the depth that might be found in a book, or even a good movie, is probably a good way to court disappointment. Since starting to write this, I went back and played the un-expanded version of Civ IV. Now that is a good game. But it’s nothing compared to the expansion packs or modded versions. So perhaps the same thing is true of the basic, un-expanded, un-modded version of Civ BE.

I would agree that maybe a game that makes people really think about a big question like the future of humanity is never going to be a commercial winner. But part of what makes science-fiction exciting and compelling is that it challenges preconceptions and assumptions – in other words, it makes people think. So while Civ BE might be passable as a game, as a creative work of science-fiction, I think that it largely fails.

Degrowth, Innovation and ‘Big Stuff’

There have been a range of responses to Dr Samuel Alexander’s recent article on The Conversation: “Life in a ‘degrowth’ economy, and why you might actually enjoy it”. This post started off as my comment, but it got a little longer than anticipated. I think that I can appreciate why some people are worried about the concept of ‘degrowth’ – it’s not necessarily for frivolous reasons. Here are my doubts, and my assessments of them.

Without really thinking about it, I almost instantly nurtured a concern that a degrowth or steady-state economy might curtail the likelihood of societies reaching, or even aiming for, certain future technological or intellectual achievements. Perhaps the world might never have truly global high-speed broadband. Fusion power stations? Unlikely. Forget about the space elevator, moving to Mars or holidays on the moon. In fact, forget about space pretty much altogether. There will be no quantum home-computing, miraculous nano-tech, radical life-extension, mind-uploading, strong AI, cyborgs, vat-grown replacement organs, gene-tailoring, or full-sensory VR/sim-stim.

Intellectual and scientific achievements, or more precisely, the people and institutions who enable them, would seem to require certain amount of resources. Having people study full-time for eight to ten years and then spend the rest of their working lives thinking, researching, doing experiments with specialised equipment and/or really hard sums etc. must cost quite a lot, both in terms of money and energy. In a situation of scarce resources, academia might not look like a good investment to everyone. And if we do exist, are we going to have to make do without whiteboard markers? How am I to run a lecture if I can’t do a PowerPoint presentation (and then post it online so that students don’t have to attend anyway)?

The more I thought about this though, the more I began to suspect that my fears are at least slightly misguided or without the ethical weight that I had subconsciously attached to them. My responses to these worries fall roughly into 3 categories.

1. We are not really working towards these technological achievements in a meaningful or effective way in a ‘growth’ economy. So it’s possible that degrowth would not be the relevant causal factor that would stop them from happening.

2. We might still do these things still anyway and could if we really wanted to.

3. There might be some things that, for various reasons, we shouldn’t do, so not doing them would be a good thing anyway.

Response #1 stems from the concern raised by Neal Stephenson in his 2011 article, Innovation Starvation (and that Project Hieroglyph seeks to address). “Where’s my donut-shaped space station? Where’s my ticket to Mars?” asks Stephenson (2011). Likewise he (correctly in my opinion) points out the stagnation and vacillation that has limited progress in moving the U.S. to non-oil energy sources. (The same observation could quite plausibly be argued with coal in Australia.) The point here is that many of these innovations are not even on the drawing board and if they are, they are subject to the fickle nature of short-term commercial considerations. If we accept that economies that are both wealthy and growing do not necessarily “execute on the big stuff” (Stephenson, 2011), then we have less reason to think that less materially ostentatious steady-state societies will fail to deliver. The idea that we can only send rockets to the moon if the economy is both growing and strong does not necessarily stack up.

A similar thesis regarding academia might be defended as well. This is a bit less well developed and does not apply everywhere, but it is basically that having a wealthy, growing economy does not translate into more resources for higher education and research. In fact, depending on the government of the day, it can sometimes produce a reduction in spending on these areas.

If growth isn’t helping, then degrowth might not be such a problem.
Response #2 follows from this. An economy with less resources is not an economy with no resources. We just might have to be selective about what we try to do. It might also be that there has to be a change in how the economics of certain grand projects are construed. If we cannot borrow against the future and wait for our debt to be inflated away, then a different approach will probably be needed. There is a limit – obviously. But we would still have a lot of people, knowledge and a planet full of resources, and that has to count for something.

Similarly, academia and research need not be curtailed. We can probably still find the money if we really want to. And who knows, if there are no more PowerPoint presentations, perhaps our lecture halls will be packed with students once more. It should also be noted (if I wasn’t making it obvious enough already), that intellectual achievement and material wealth are not necessarily linked. True, that’s easy for a philosopher to say – I just need something to keep the weather and wildlife away from me and to be fed at regular intervals. But the same is likely to be true for at least some other academic disciplines. Activities that are more resource intensive (regardless of their nature) are going to require a correspondingly high level of political/societal consensus. This will mean convincing people that we need to channel a large chunk of their real resources (directly or not) into these projects. People will need to appreciate why this is important. So, somewhat radically, we might have to have a population that is better educated than it is now in order to convince them to support the building of a supercollider or space-station. Importantly, people will need to be able to see the potential benefits and accept the potential risks. If you cannot convince a society to support your project, you can always fall back on the observation of ‘givens’ as Stephenson’s ‘avout’ do in Anathem.

Response #3 is a bit more complicated and does not apply to academia so much. What I’ve put here is just a sketch and does not address the full nuance of such an idea. What I am not doing is passing judgment on space exploration or any of the other potential future technologies that I mentioned earlier.

In one sense, to say that there are some things we shouldn’t do is a bit of an over-simplification. Rather, I would say that there are some things that we really should think very carefully about before we commit to doing them. Now, if we were in a steady-state economy, we could not avoid this as easily as we do now. I think that one of the results of present-day economics and politics is the ability, both individually and collectively, to not think about what we are doing, why we are doing it and where these decisions might take us in the future. So we still might have fantastically advanced but dangerous nano-tech. But only if enough people so convinced of the risk/benefit balance that they will materially support it.

There is another stronger and broader sense in which #3 can be construed though. It is that the appeal of some of these technologies are symptoms of our individual and collective inability to deal with the fact that we are short-lived, unfulfilled, irrational, passionate and sometimes unpleasant animals, living on one isolated planet (that we seem intent on ruining) in an uncaring and absurd universe. My worry is that space exploration, for example, might be appealing because it allows us to avoid thinking too hard about difficult subjects like the economy that mysteriously grows forever, or what sort of environment we are leaving for future generations. It isn’t totally implausible that sufficiently advanced space travel and habitation technology could allow (some) people to avoid the reality of these problems, carrying our maladaptive ideologies and economics along with us as we go. This is a concern of some space-exploration detractors – we might simply end up making a mess of other places. So maybe this is a case where we just need to develop a better attitude to how we relate to the universe. Dan Simmons’ Ousters perhaps? I would argue that we could do worse than Peter F Hamilton’s Edenists as well.

Please note that I cannot rule out that some technologies or achievements are ethically or morally problematic in a way that is independent of their ability to allow us to avoid dealing with (or thinking about dealing with) certain problems. Thus, it is possible that they might turn out to be no great loss, because they were a bad idea in the first place. The arguments for other technologies and projects are probably going to be different for each. For example, radical life-extension has different ethical complications to immersive VR or colonising space. What these things do have in common is that they are worth thinking about and involve choosing certain values.

Response #3 is the one that has the least amount of potential easy answers. It’s necessary to consider whether or not we should do something rather than simply asking whether or not we can do it. The answers are rarely a straight yes or no affair. Many things fall into the category of ‘Yes, if certain conditions are met’. For example, we might be that we could ethically colonise space if we preserve and integrate into the environments we find there, rather than exploit and degrade them as we have done on Earth. It would be OK to build a space elevator, if certain environmental, social and economic conditions are met. Some things might seem too dangerous or otherwise just too unethical to pursue. But I am willing to speculate that there would be a lot of ‘big stuff’ that we could do with a clear conscience if we put some serious thought into it.

Would a de-growing or steady-state economy stop us from expanding our knowledge, stifle innovation and education and stop society from ever creating and completing the kind of grand projects that Neal Stephenson has in mind? Not necessarily at least. Would our approach to these things have to be different? Definitely, but as Stephenson (2011) and I have observed, our current economy isn’t really enabling these projects anyway. Our approach might have to be much more inclusive at a political and economic level. Because of this, we might have to think really hard, at a collective level, about what it is that we really want to achieve. There might be some projects and technologies that we ought to avoid. But if we have to carefully consider our options, we might be able negotiate a path that is environmentally/economically sustainable, reasonably ethical, and still have room for the great innovations and ventures that Stephenson would like to see.

So it begins

So, this is the first post in my new project. This all might start a little slowly. But I only submitted my PhD thesis about two weeks and have not quite recovered. I do want to keep in the habit of writing regularly and (perhaps irrationally) believe that my opinions are worth sharing with other people, so here we are.

Further to what is in my ‘about’ page, I should clarify a few things. My aim on this blog is to put forward well-reasoned and considered opinions and positions on events, comments, actions, ideas, advertisements, books or whatever else strikes me on a given day. Consequently, I will not be breaking any news or rapidly commenting on events as they unfold. As the name suggests, I will try very hard to live by my own advice, which is to stop and think before speaking/tweeting/posting on Facebook/hitting ‘publish’ etc. I am just going to call things as I see them, with an Australian (or even a Newcastle and Central Coast) perspective. Some content may be dangerously nerdy.

I am also not aiming to be super-scholarly here, though I may test ideas here to to see if they are worth pursing.

The blog is still under construction, so things will solidify over the next few weeks.