Monday, 15 May 2017

An objection from intuition or normal use of terms

I'm posting some more provisional thoughts I have about the underlying motivations for accepting the objection from ill-fit as a case of 'one man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens'. That is to say, the structure of the argument is taken to show that if our intuitive concepts and explications and refinements of our intuitive concepts are in conflict, the intuition is to be preferred. Specifically, should any criteria of demarcation not be in accordance with our strongly-held intuitions, one of the two must go, intuition prevails at the expense of demarcation criteria.

This form of intuitionism is, in part, the guiding principle seen in, for example, 'common sense' theories, such as folk psychology, folk physics, 'common sense' realism and intuitive correspondence theories (although 'common sense' realism and correspondence theories are, in virtue of being defensible philosophical theories, rather than indefensible empirical theories, on far surer footing than either folk psychology and folk physics). Such commonsensicalism is designed to protect major revision to our way of seeing the world, our Weltanschauung. In small amounts it's good to heed this call to refrain from unprompted and unnecessary revision; I argue in its more general form it is false; more specifically, it's often the intellectual scaffolding that holds up the objection from ill-fit, and directed at demarcation criteria that do not fully cohere to our intuitive conception of what statements are empirically significant.

There exists tension between the proposed amendment or revision to a community's intuitions or commonplace ways of speaking [call that proposed amendment an explication, or E] and the intuitive concepts or ways of speaking [call these I]. We are left with a disjunction  [EI], the acceptance of I, and the rejection of EBut why not reason differently to the conclusion that a community's intuitive concepts or ways of speaking are mistaken? Under what conditions it would be appropriate to reject I and accept E?

In section 1, I cover one objection from ill-fit, that is, to accept and reject E. In sections 2-2.3 I set out general reasons to accept and reject E. Section 3 addresses how under what conditions the apparent conservatism when faced with conceptual underdetermination may lead to minor concept-revision. Lastly, in section 4 I show how it is appropriate to reject I and accept E in the case I am most concerned with, viz. the objection from ill-fit is not appropriate when applied to explications of intuitive concepts about which sentences fall on either side of proposed demarcation criteria.

1. The objection from ill-fit

Imagine how the following story must play out to from a linguistic community's point of view: a philosopher declares to the community a certain form of longstanding activity or a way of conceptualising the world and our place within it, as well as our entrenched forms of discourse, as fundamentally mistaken. What's more, the philosopher has arrived at this conclusion through the employment of armchair philosophical introspection: they yield only theory

Consider the two following examples: the Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna may find a small following after presenting the idea that language qua language fundamentally mismatches the world, that a number of apparently pertinent questions are nothing but a category mistake, and we must do away with these questions. Nāgārjuna may be interpreted as advocating a form of quietism, and subsequently we ought to 'reject commitment to some or perhaps even all kinds of entities by adopting a type of pretense or make-believe stance... all without exception is conceptual construction; in other words, even allegedly ultimately real entities are themselves just conveniently established fictions' (Priest, 2011, 144).

Some corollaries within Buddhist traditions (such as Nāgārjuna's development of the Madhyamaka school) may be found in Rudolf Carnap's own arguments for metaphysical deflationism and a deflationary theory of truth (Tanaka, 2014; Priest et al. 2011; Finnigan, 2011), and there will be a small number of Carnapians that accept his arguments: 'truth is truth within a framework; the ultimate truth is that nothing is really true (i.e., true in virtue of some real, intrinsic properties that are independent of frameworks)' (Priest, 2011, 145).

However, after the discussion has (provisionally) settled, the conclusion usually drawn by the wider linguistic community is usually that this form of radical conceptual or linguistic revision is out of place. Why is that?

Focusing on a specific issue of intransigence within the philosophical community, this commonsensicalism is the skeletal structure holding up a common reply to the demarcationist programme, specifically that the demarcationist has mangled certain concepts or ways of speaking such that they bear little similarity to their pre-theoretic use. This leads to giving far more weight to intuitions or ways of speaking over any attempt to clarify or explicate certain concepts: if there exists tension, the wider community will generally find that fault will invariably lie with the renegade philosopher, and like Nāgārjuna and Carnap's dismissal of ways of speaking, a relatively small number of members of the community will be convinced of the arguments in favour of demarcation (although in this instance, there is the fine line to be drawn between arguing in favour of revision of our concepts and claiming that these concepts accurately describe the feature of the world). 

For example, Popper (1959, 65-66; cf. 95) says that in order to be empirically significant,

‘... the theory [must] allow us to deduce, roughly speaking, more empirical singular statements than we can deduce from the initial conditions alone. … A theory is to be called [empirically significant] if it divides the class of all possible basic statements unambiguously into the follow two non-empty subclasses. First, the class of all those basic statements with which it is inconsistent (or which it rules out, or prohibits): we call the the class of the potential falsifiers of the theory; and secondly, the class of those basic statement which it does not contradict (or which it “permits”). We can put this more briefly by saying: a theory is [empirically significant] if the class of its potential falsifiers is not empty’.

However, this conception of empirical significance excludes isolated existential statements of the form 'There exists an X'. Popper (1959, 94-95, 101; 1983, 161) provides a number of motivating reasons to adopt a way of speaking that treats isolated existential statements as empirically non-significant, but my interest here is not to cover these reasons. Rather, my interest is the diagnosis of the commonsensical attitude that permits trumping this proposed revision to pre-theoretical conceptual schema by an appeal to present practices and intuition.

For one example of this commonsensicalism in action, Kneale (1974, 207) objects to Popper's criterion of demarcation on the following grounds:

'there is a strange departure from the ordinary use of words in maintaining that hypotheses of natural law are empirical, because they are open to refutation by experience, while denying that [isolated] existential statements can ever deserve the same title. … Indeed, if the word "empirical" is to be applied at all to propositions... , there is a much better case for applying it to those which may be established empirically than for applying it to those which may be refuted empirically'.

Kneale's argument shares some affinities with a Moorean argument: Popper claims to revise our conceptual categories, but the revision is on the face of it absurd. Rather, we must look at Popper's conclusion (i.e. we must no longer treat isolated existential statements as empirically significant) as itself a reductio of his project, rather than taking Popper's arguments to effectively undercut our intuitive concepts. Consequently Kneale can reject Popper's attempt at revision. 

Consequently, the community's intuitions regarding empirical significance and the acceptability of demarcation criteria are at odds with one another: intuition and common use rules in treating isolated existential statements as empirically significant; the proposed criterion rule out treating isolated existential statements as empirically significant. What plausible rational reconstruction of the motivations for the community's objection would provide reason for rejecting the demarcationist project?

As Carnap (1961, v.) recognises, concept-revision occurs, if not by fiat, then by other means, namely (to use his earlier terminology, 'rational reconstruction'): 'The old concepts did not ordinarily originate by way of deliberate formulation, but in more or less unreflected and spontaneous development. The new definitions should be superior to the old in clarity and exactness, and, above all, should fit into a systematic structure of concepts. Such a clarification of concepts, nowadays frequently called “explication”, still seems to me one of the most important tasks of philosophy, especially if it is concerned with the main categories of human thought'.

But it cannot possibly be, as Carnap writes in his 'Intellectual Autobiography': 'Although I was guided in my procedure by the psychological facts concerning the formation of concepts of material things out of perceptions, my real aim was not the description of this genetic process, but rather its rational reconstruction - i.e., a schematized description of an imaginary procedure, consisting of rationally prescribed steps, which would lead to essentially the same results as the actual psychological process' (1963, 15; italics added). The very issue of Popper's criterion producing fundamentally different results than in Kneale's intuition--the two are not one in the same.

2. Intuitions, everyday use, and avoidance of concept change

One common form of reasoning that motivates raising objections from ill-fit is as follows: no one would dispute that epistemic and linguistic communities have certain pre-theoretical intuitions about how the world hangs together and our place and relationship within it. There is a 'folk-cosmology' in play, what we can call an intuitive conceptual scheme. We can call this form of commonsensicalism a form of intuitionism.

Or, if we wish to be approach this objection differently, without an appeal to our pre-theoretical intuitions, we use certain terms in everyday discourse in ways that are not in dispute, ways of speaking that are entrenched within our interaction with one another. We can call this form of commonsensicalism natural language philosophy.

If a philosopher should attempt to revise a community's intuitive conceptual scheme or assert that a community change their use of entrenched terms, on what grounds should we take their proposal for a revision seriously? These sorts of things aren't open to revision simply by fiat.

This formation bears some similarities to the much earlier paradox of analysis, known since Plato's Meno. To summarise Michael Beaney's gloss, consider an analysis of the form 'A is B' where A is the analysandum (what is analysed) and C the analysans (what is offered as the analysis). Either 'A' and 'C' have the same meaning, thus analysis expresses a triviality, or they do not, and in which the analysans is incorrect. Subsequently, no analysis can be both correct and informative.

In this case (following Carnap, 1956, 8-9), any case of explication of the form 'D is in fact E' where 'D' is the explicandum (what is explained), the intuitive conceptual scheme, and 'E' the explicatum (what is offered as the explanation), the proposed revision or clarification of intuitive concepts. An explication qua explication must reveal something different than what was expected, otherwise the explicandum and explicatum are identical, and thus uninformative. But on what grounds should a community accept the explicatum when it differs from the explicandum? (Carnap himself recognised this similarity with the paradox of analysis: see ibid., 8, fn7.)

There is an intuitively good reason for the prima facie continuity of an intuitive conceptual scheme when faced with proposed revisions. What is in play is close to what Quine (1990, 14) called the 'maxim of minimum mutilation': it is reasonable not to alter or discard theories unless there is a positive reason to do so. This same principle must hold for a community's intuitive conceptual scheme and ways of speaking.

2.1 The avoidance of potential error

What motivates accepting the maxim of minimum mutilation? We can think of this avoidance of unnecessary change in the following way: Darrell Rowbottom notes that virtue is, in part, 'linked to avoidance of error' (2001, 151f.). Untested change is inherently risky. In this sense, the institutional virtue practiced by the community is, in the words of Horace, virtus est vitium fugere--'Virtue is to escape vice' (Epistles, I, i, 41.)--or 'error', as the word vitium can be translated (Sng, 2010, 6). The community practices restraint by adopting a principled course of action that has the lowest known likelihood of committing future error: the refusal to entertain other conceptual schemes unless there exists defeating evidence for the current conceptual scheme.

2.2 An analogy between social, economic and philosophic problems of tacit knowledge

There are other motivating reasons as well, some that are more clearly pragmatic than epistemic, but both linked to the avoidance of unnecessary change as being risk-adverse: this declaration of immediate displeasure with concept revision is, in virtue of being a motivation for adopting certain arguments, and not itself an argument, more of an attitude or way of seeing the world. 

For the commonsensicalist, is not unlike a Burkeian attitude of preferring tradition for tradition's sake; or to make a more recent example, the community is, like how Michael Oakeshott describes the default state of a community, in a current state of affairs, and do not know what will happen to them if they should drastically change their way of life. We are, in Oakeshott's words sentimentalists, even if the current state of affairs is not particularly well-suited for our living arrangements: it is far more likely that things will go worse than get better, and even if things should improve, there is something desirable about our current state of affairs in virtue of being in this state of affairs.

Related to that attitude of social conservatism is the more methodological Hayekian form of reasoning for resisting unnecessary change. This form of reasoning doesn't forbid any and all conceptual change, but only unnecessary change brought forward from individuals that claim some special knowledge: a community's social institutions have undergone proliferation and selective retention, and even if we are incapable of understanding what purpose they presently serve, we should be wary of the wholesale revision of social institutions on the basis of a priori reasoning. Reasoning from first principles cannot take into account the tacit knowledge dispersed within the members of the community, and therefore will almost certainly produce unforeseen and undesirable consequences. Analogously, we should be doubly wary of any revision of concepts if the reasoning given for abandoning pre-theoretical intuitions rests solely on philosophical speculation.

Given the similarities between these conservative attitudes within the social, conceptual and linguistic realms, the claim is that philosophers simply lack the requisite grounds for introducing any top-down and wholesale revision to our concepts without first demonstrating the resilience of the theory that motivated concept-change.

However, the theory is not resilient because it mangles intuitive concepts. Hence, following this reasoning, there can be no concept-change directed by the authority of a philosophical 'expert' that is not glacial in its movements, until this form of speaking has entrenched itself within the wider community. Perhaps, given enough time, the wider community will be not unlike the Mādhyamika philosophers, or Carnapian, or Popperian, in important respects to their conceptual schema, but until then, they are relegated to serving as an interesting, but ultimately unconvincing approach.

(Of course, the whole issue is problematic, for if one were to ask why these approaches appear unconvincing, the reason given, more often than not, is psychologistic, sociological or linguistic, that is, it violates intuition or common use: it goes against common sense. The reasoning is entirely circular, and apparently a form of vicious circularity. And yet this same appeal to common sense prevents adopting wholesale viewpoints that are rightly considered to be not just outlandish but patently false! The circular reasoning of the larger community appears, at least before further conceptual analysis, from one end vicious [especially in the eyes of the minority] and from the other perfectly respectable to both the majority and minority [the minority does not, after all, accept every minority viewpoint]!)

2.3 Undue complexity, conceptual gerrymandering and ad hoc reasoning

There are additional metaphors drawn from the risk-adverse attitudes towards unnecessary concept-change, such as Neurath's ship; a related metaphor is found in Procrustes' bed: take, as an illustration, what Robert Nozick writes in the preface to Anarchy, State and Utopia:

'One form of philosophical activity feels like pushing and shoving things to fit into some fixed perimeter of specified shape. All those things are lying out there, and they must be fit in. You push and shove the material into the rigid area getting it into the boundary on one side, and it bulges out on another. You run around and press in the protruding bulge, producing yet another in another place. So you push and shove and clip off corners from the things so they'll fit and you press in until finally almost everything sits unstably more or less in there; what doesn't get heaved far away so that it won't be noticed. (Of course, it's not all that crude. There's also the coaxing and cajoling. And the body English.) Quickly, you find an angle from which it looks like an exact fit and take a snapshot; at a fast shutter speed before something else budges out too noticeably. Then, back to the darkroom to touch up the rents, rips, and tears in the fabric of the perimeter. All that remains is to publish the photograph as a representation of exactly how things are, and to note how nothing fits properly into any other shape' (Nozick, 1980, xiii).

I don't dispute what Nozick says here, and I think more often than not, it is appropriate to side on behalf of tradition. If we are to be risk-adverse, it is better to uphold Quine's maxim of minimum mutilation. Drastic changes to a conceptual scheme will have unforeseen conceptual consequences (analogous to Hayek's economic concerns), leading to the results detailed by Nozick: the unforeseen butchery of concepts.

But under what conditions can explication of concepts or modes of speech replace an intuitive conceptual scheme? Specifically, are there any set of circumstances that would lead an individual that presented the objection from ill-fit as recognising the appropriate replacement of a deficient intuitive conceptual scheme about the limits of empirical inquiry? Gradual replacement of a conceptual schema naturally occurs within communities, that is not in dispute. But is there a way to set out whether the community should seek to expedite the replacement of intuitive concepts in fields outside the natural sciences?

3. The differences between philosophy and natural sciences

One obvious objection to intuitionism and natural language philosophy is that there lacks some grand lineage to common sense or common use: they are themselves a form of theoretical reasoning, itself adopted surreptitiously by the community over the course of generations. Dan Dennett provides the objection as follows: 'There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination' (Dennett, 1995, 21).

Or take what John Maynard Keynes says about economic theory:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. (Keynes, 1936, 383-384)

While it may be appropriate to retain intuitive concepts or natural language when not presented with defeating evidence, revision, even in the short term, is not impossible: if there exists defeating evidence that is not explicable according to the present conceptual scheme, intuitive concepts must fall by the wayside. For example, as Carnap (1962, section 3) notes, ‘The prescientific term “fish” was meant in about the sense of “animal living in water”, while the zooligists’ explicatum means “animals which live in water, are cold-blooded vertebrates, and have gills throughout life”’.

We therefore have at least some idea of what instigates conceptual change: defeating reasons, more often than not defeating reasons that involve some form of empirical evidence. Outside the empirical sciences, in which empirical evidence does not play a role, there are, presumably, other ways to present defeating evidence. One obvious example is by reductio ad absurdum, which works within the conceptual framework to show its deficiencies compared to other frameworks: either the intuitive conceptual scheme leads to absurdity or contradiction.

So we have our two-step process: first, for any successful argument for the abandonment of the intuitive concept that isolated existential statements must be empirically significant, we set out ways in which the conceptual scheme leads to undesirable consequences, that is, absurdity or contradiction. Second, any elucidation of a replacement conceptual scheme must present itself as sharing enough commonalities to the rejected scheme, as well as satisfying a number of desirable features.

According to Carnap (1962, 7), any criterion of empirical significance should be similar to the intuitive concept, precise, fruitful and as simple as possible. The underlying idea is put by Hempel (1952, 663), with reference to Carnap, as follows: ‘it should be possible to develop, in terms of the reconstructed concepts, a comprehensive… and sound theoretical system’. Any criteria will be correct or incorrect only relative to these adequacy conditions (Popper, 1935, 37f; Hempel, 1952, 663).

Surprisingly, the only substantive difference between what is included or excluded from empirical significance under Popper and Carnap's respective criteria are as follows: Popper's criterion functions on the level of individual sentences within a larger linguistic framework, while Carnap's criterion functions on the level of linguistic frameworks. Since the negation of a sentence within a linguistic framework must itself be meaningful within the linguistic framework, Carnap concludes that isolated existential statements, in virtue of being negations of universal statements, must necessarily be empirically significant. Popper, on the other hand, demurs. Thus Popper excludes isolated existential statements while Carnap's includes isolated existential statements. If we take Carnap's criterion to (more or less) track the intuitive concept of empirical significance as operating on the level of theoretical frameworks, Popper's criterion satisfies the similarity condition by shifting the focus away from theoretical systems and towards sentences within a broader theoretical framework that encompasses statements that are either empirically significant or empirically non-significant; it is also as precise, fruitful, and as simple Carnap's criterion. This bypasses the concerns raised in sections 2.2-2.3.

In sum, if Popper's criticism of Carnap's treatment of isolated existential statements as empirically significant should succeed, we have suitable grounds to reject the intuitive conceptual scheme: there is a positive reason to alter or discard the intuitive conceptual scheme, since it produces an absurdity, namely, paradigmatically empirically non-significant sentences qualify as empirically significant. Kneale's objection to this (presumably) successful criticism therefore is not like Moore's argument: appealing to the intuition that isolated existential statements are empirically significant cannot lead to disregarding the very criticism raised by Popper (or, for that matter, any modern-day demarcationist interested in concept-revision, so long as they adhere to Carnap's approach to concept-revision).

To bring this post full circle, perhaps some relevant insight can be drawn from the parable or simile of the raft--one of the most famous parables in Buddhism. It is so popular that undoubtedly many people that know next to nothing about Buddhism are familiar with the simile. I do not use it in an attempt to appear somehow more knowledgeable than I am, and I do not pretend that I am providing a fair or even an accurate interpretation of the parable--my familiarity with Buddhism is rudimentary at best, and merely as an interested outsider, having read only a few articles on similarities between Buddhist philosophy and analytic philosophy. 

However, having read the simile of the raft, I thought it does provide some solace in letting go of our intuitive concepts, even if the solace is through (intentional?) misunderstanding or (accidental?) reinterpretation for different ends; or, it may be a story we tell ourselves that helps instigate a shift in our view, not unlike moving one's head slowly from side to side to dispel a momentary optical illusion, so that we can see the object of inquiry in a different light: nothing of real importance is lost if we let go our old picture of the world, for there was nothing there but the picture.

The Blessed One said: "Suppose a man were traveling along a path. He would see a great expanse of water, with the near shore dubious & risky, the further shore secure & free from risk, but with neither a ferryboat nor a bridge going from this shore to the other. The thought would occur to him, 'Here is this great expanse of water, with the near shore dubious & risky, the further shore secure & free from risk, but with neither a ferryboat nor a bridge going from this shore to the other. What if I were to gather grass, twigs, branches, & leaves and, having bound them together to make a raft, were to cross over to safety on the other shore in dependence on the raft, making an effort with my hands & feet?' Then the man, having gathered grass, twigs, branches, & leaves, having bound them together to make a raft, would cross over to safety on the other shore in dependence on the raft, making an effort with his hands & feet. Having crossed over to the further shore, he might think, 'How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands & feet, I have crossed over to safety on the further shore. Why don’t I, having hoisted it on my head or carrying on my back, go wherever I like?' What do you think, monks? Would the man, in doing that, be doing what should be done with the raft?"

"No, lord."

"And what should the man do in order to be doing what should be done with the raft? There is the case where the man, having crossed over, would think, 'How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands & feet, I have crossed over to safety on the further shore. Why don’t I, having dragged it on dry land or sinking it in the water, go wherever I like?' In doing this, he would be doing what should be done with the raft..." (MN 22, cf. Bhikkhu, 2017, 300)


Bhikkhu, Ṭ. (Geoffrey DeGraff) trans. (2017). Handful of Leaves: An anthology from the Sutta Piṭaka.

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