Saturday, 7 July 2012

Book Review: The Puzzle of Ethics

The Puzzle of Ethics is written by Peter Vardy and Paul Grosch. The book aims to a function as a complete introduction to the subject of Ethics and thus the book is divided into two sections. Heythrop College Philosophy of Religion lecturer Peter Vardy handles the first section of the book which deals with different ethical theories. While Paul Grosch handles the second section of the book which discusses various issues in the field of Applied Ethics. 

This division of the book works quite well as it is very useful to have an understanding of ethical theory before approaching many of the questions in the field of applied ethics.There is however a couple of problems with this division it is often quite difficult to talk about ethical theory without taking about some of the consequences of that theory which means the distinction between ethical theory and applied ethics becomes blurred somewhat. Secondly many people may be far more interested in the second half the book and I can imagine this may lead to them skipping over all the important ethical theory contained within the first half of the book.  While I wouldn't advise readers to do this it something I feel that many readers will inevitably end up doing.  

These minor concerns aside Vardy and Grosch should be commended for the good work the have done in putting together this book. The book provides one of the more comprehensive introduction to Ethics around attempting to get to grips with both ethical theory and its application. The book will be easily followed by those with no philosophical background and will provide readers with a good solid introduction to some of the key ethical questions and theories. However the educated layman may find the book somewhat lightweight as the Puzzle of Ethics is a book the should be firmly placed in the Introductions to Philosophy category.  

I would recommend this book to anyone whose interested in the field of ethics and want a text that can introduce them to the topic, as this will suffice as a sterling introduction to the subject. It would also make a good read for those about to start a philosophy degree or undertaking an A level in the subject. I feel those who have done University courses in ethics may find the book a bit lightweight, but I would still recommend it as a useful read. As it's chapters do make for good introductions to a number of various subjects within the field of ethics.  

All this being said I would have to say that Grosch and Vardy have succeeded in producing one of the best basic introductory texts in the field of ethics. The book has rightfully received praise for this accomplishment and I thoroughly concur with such sentiment. I would recommend this book for any one who wants an Introductory book to ethics and moral philosophy. For readers who are more versed in the field this may not be quite the book your looking for.  

The book is widely available and in still in print meaning the book can be picked up at all good book stores or alternatively at Amazon.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Resources: A.J Ayer

Free Online Resources  

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy contains a solid article on A.J Ayer and his philosophy. The article discusses most of the important work undertaken by Ayer, and includes a useful section on meaning and truth as discussed by Ayer in his 1936 book Language, Truth and Logic.  

Squashed Philosophers: Ayer, written by Glyn Hughes this page aims to take the all important points of Language, Truth and Logic and present them in a way which will allow the reader to get to grips with the book within an hour. Glyn Hughes should be commended for what is a rather good abridged version of the book, though of course I still recommend that one reads the full book. 

There are two separate Wikipedia articles that may be of interest to those who are studying Ayer. Both are rather sparse and contain relatively little philosophical content, but they still may be worth a read. At the time of witting it appears that both articles are also free from any major blunders and misrepresentations. Language, Truth and Logic and A.J Ayer on Wikipedia. 

A series of lecture notes on Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic can be found online in PDF form. I believe that these lectures were written by Oxford Philosophy faculty member Peter Kail and they provide a great introduction to some of the ideas featured in Ayer's work. The lecture notes can be found at the following locations Lecture I: Introduction, Lecture II: The Verification Principle, Lecture III: Definitions, Reduction and The Verification Principle, Lecture IV: Analyticity, Confirmation and Holism, Lecture V: Critique of Ethics and Theology, Lecture VI: Minds

An article called A.J Ayer's Philosophy and It's Greatness can be found on UCL's website. Written by Ted Honderich the article provides a broad survey of Ayer's work as well as providing information on the general philosophical background in which he is work set against. 

Books on A.J Ayer 

A.J Ayer by John Foster is part of The Arguments of the Philosopher series which outlines the arguments of various influential philosophers and critically discusses the said arguments to an academic level. The first half the book is dedicated to Langauge, Truth and Logic, while the second half of the book discusses Ayer's later work. This book is currently the most conclusive book of the Philosophy of A.J Ayer and is unfortunately unavailable in paperback form at the time of writing.  

Another notable book worth mentioning is Ben Rogers brilliant biography of A.J Ayer which I would recommend to anyone who is interested in the life of the great Philosopher. The book can be picked up second hand for a couple of pounds on Amazon

The Philosophy of A.J Ayer edited by Lewis Eden Harris appears to be a very comprehensive survey of Ayers work featuring a total of 24 essays. Ayer himself replied 20 of the 24 essays contained in the book. As I'm not familiar with the book and due to the fact that it is currently out of print, I'm going to hold short of recommending the book. 

Academic Essays/Papers on A.J Ayer 
All of the following essays can be found on JSTOR or for free elsewhere online, while the resource isn't free many Universities have access to the service. 

Anthony Quinn provides a great biography of A.J Ayer which can be found online for free and was originally published in the Proceedings of the British Academy 94, 1997. This is perhaps the best freely available biography of A.J Ayer.  

Ayer's First Empiricist Criterion of Meaning: Why Does It Fail? is a four page journal article written by Philosopher David Lewis. In the article David Lewis outlines why the first formulation of the verification principle by Ayer fails due to the fact that it lets in patent nonsense. Available on JSTOR. 

Metaphysics and Meaning is a 1935 paper written by W.T Stace. Here Stace attacks Ayer's 1934 paper entitled 'A Demonstration of the Impossibility of Metaphysics'. Stace makes a number of thoughtful objections throughout the 22 page paper. It should be noted that Ayer responded to many of Stace's objections in another paper the following year. All of which can be found on JSTOR.  

Some Consequences of Professor A.J Ayer's Verification Principle is a 1950 paper written by D.J Connor which goes through some of the implications of Ayer's verification principle.  

Philosophy Video: Introductory Course by Richard Brown

Dr Richard Brown is a member of faculty at the City University of New York. He is also the associate professor of philosophy at LaGuardia Community College. This series of lectures makes up the online content for one of his taught courses at LaGuardia community college, namely Introduction to Philosophy. The lectures consist of a number of slides which are talked through by Dr Brown and these generally outline the key points very well. Dr Richard Brown is clearly very knowledgeable about the subject matter discussed and many people will find this content valuable especially if they have not studied philosophy formally. The first lecture is rather drawn out and aims to provide an answer to the question 'What is philosophy?'. Dr Brown takes historical approach throughout the course discussing a variety of important philosophers. Starting with the ancients the course moves through the history of philosophy right up to modern day philosophy of mind. This course is definitely a recommended watch or listen for those new to philosophy, even though the quality of each lecture varies somewhat. 

Lecture 2: Pre-Socratic Philosophy 
Lecture 3: Socrates and the Socratic Turn 
Lecture 4: Plato 
Lecture 5: Aristotle I : Logic and Rational Thought 
Lecture 6: Aristotle II: The Philosopher 
Lecture 7: Descartes I: The Method of Doubt 
Lecture 8: Descartes II: A Priori Knowledge and Mind/Body Dualism 
Lecture 9: Locke and Berkeley 
Lecture 10: Hume I : Empiricism and the A priori 
Lecture 11: Hume II : The Problem of Induction and the Self 
Lecture 12: Kant I: Synthetic A Priori Knowledge 
Lecture 13: Kant II: Transcendental Idealism 
Lecture 14: Contemporary Philosophy of Mind: Dualism and Materialism 

To find out more about Dr Richard Brown visit his personal website here.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind V: Identity Theories of Mind

With the Behaviourist project having collapsed under the weight of various objections, materialism was faced with the challenge of producing a theory which could account for both mental-physical and physical-mental causation. Identity theory was given its first modern formulation by a number of prominent philosophers in the 1950's. The most notable of proponents of identity theory were U.T Place, J.J.C Smart and David Armstrong, all of whom wrote reasonably accessible papers on the subject which can be found in a number of anthologies. 

All of these early proponents of identity theory advanced what is now known as a type identity theory. This theses stated that minds are equivalent to brains, for every type of mental event there must be a corresponding type of brain event. Just associating mental states with brain states simply isn't enough; they are in fact type identical. Every single mental state is equivalent to a physical event, namely a particular brain event (Identity theorists might extend the brain to include the Central Nervous System). Part of the reason why this reductionism was so attractive is that great progress had been made in other physical sciences. An example of a successful reduction would be reducing the complicated concept of heat to mean molecular motion. If the same could be done for mental states it would justify the feeling among the scientific community that mental states are in fact brain states. 

An example of such a reduction often proposed by the original type identity theorists is that of C-fibers firing being type identical to pain. Though we now know that this is bad neuro biology and in fact different types of pain involve the firing of different fibers. The statement that the firing of C-fibers is type identical with pain, is a form of reductive physicalism and claims that the realm of the mental is nothing more than the physical and that the mental can be totally reduced to the physical. You can see that in a way this is more radical than Logical Behaviourism, which can be put forward simply as a claim about the meaning of mental terms.  

Those who adopted the identity thesis were unable to put forward any empirical arguments for it. This was due to the fact that the most that can be empirically established is a correlation between mental states and brain states. It is perfectly possible that empirical science could refute the correlation as it did with C-fibers being identical with pain. Rather the identity theorist offers philosophical arguments in favor of identity theory. Here we are going to run through a number of arguments offered up as a reason to adopt an identity theory of mind.  

  1. The Argument from Explanation: Favored by J.J.C Smart, he contends that we should adopt identity theory by appealing to Ockham's Razor. It possible for us to explain everything in terms of the physical without having to appeal to special mental entities which lie outside the physical realm. 
  2. The Argument from Causation: Noting that certain physical events are caused by mental events and appealing to the causal closure of physics, we are supposed to conclude that all mental events are equivalent with physical events. 
But there are a number of problems facing the type identity theories of mind. So have contended that type identity theories are chauvinistic. This is due to the fact that they deny the possibility of multiple realizability. For example say we accept that the firing of C-fibers is equivalent to pain, we seem to be denying the possibility of animals such as dogs having pain. This is due to the fact that other animals do not have the same neuro biology as us and pain may be realized in different ways in different species. This means the firing of c-fibers is not necessary for pain. It seems that this problem can be avoided by introducing an element of species relativity to the theory, so instead of saying that pain is equivalent to C-fibers we say that pain in human is equivalent to C-fibers firing and pain in dogs is equivalent to the firing of D1 fibers. 

But a species relative type identity theory may still be to restrictive. For example it is possible that pain in me could be realized in a different way from how it is realized in you. There seems to be plenty of empirical evidence showing that different parts of the brain can take over functions typically associated with other parts of the brain in patients with brain damage. One example would be patients who experience the phenomena known as blindsight.  Another objection that can made against type identity theory, namely that it assumes the completeness of physics (the belief that physics will ultimately give us an explanation of all phenomena). Clearly our current physics doesn't give us a complete explanation of phenomena. Claiming that physics means the complete theory of everything given to us at the end day, is merely trivial  to claim that everything is physical. 

In response to the many of the objections made against type identity theories, many identity theorists adopted a weaker form of the doctrine. Token identity theories are weaker in the sense that a token identity theorist doesn't hold that a given mental state is identical with a particular brain state, but rather that mental states are identical with some kind of brain state. In its very weakest formulation a token identity theorist holds that every time that an individual is in some mental state the subject must also be in a some kind of physical state. But generally most token identity theorists want to make a stronger claim namely that every mental event is dependent on some kind of physical event. This an asymmetric relationship as the mental depends on the physical, but the physical is not dependent on the mental. This is normally described by saying that the mental supervenes on the physical. Though there are many problems relating to how we are meant to spell this out (See Horgan). 

A number of problems remain for the token identity theorist, including how fine grained should any of the proposed token identities be, how the theory will impact on generalizations which folk psychology relies (for example it could become apparent that there every pain is a unique one off). But the problem that really led to the demise of identity theory is Kripke's critique of materialism, which I will not go into here as to properly cover the subject matter would require a dedicated post.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Book Review: Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Objections to a Science of Consciousness

Sweet Dreams was published in 2005, and is one of Dennett's lesser well known books, but I would contend is still of great importance if one wishes to fully understand Dennett's stance on consciousness. The product description written on Amazon makes out as if the book is some kind of direct follow up to his 1991 book Consciousness Explained. In fact this books content is largely from the content Jean Nicord lectures given by Dennett. This book more directly deals with many of the objections that have been put to Dennett's theory of consciousness and see's Dennett reply to these objections in a more head on style.  

The book of course is better understood if one has read Dennett's first book Consciousness Explained, but any avid reader in the philosophy of mind will be familiar with many of the objections he attempts to formulate a reply to in this book. Topics include the possibility of Zombies and Frank Jackson's now infamous Mary's Room argument. Large amounts of this book can be seen as attacking the idea of Qualia and the idea that there is some particular aspect of consciousness which is out of the reach of science. 

Dennett does make some revision to his original theory of consciousness as outlined in 1991's Consciousness Explained in reply to certain objections and to fit better what new research has outlined. But the changes are minor and you won't have missed much if you decide to not to read this book. Though the chapter further detailing how we might advance a third person science of consciousness is both interesting and valuable.  

Dennett is a great writer and this book is no exception, each chapter deals with its primary issue well and can be easily read by educated layman unlike many highly academic philosophy books. The only weakness is that the book often repeats itself, this is probably due to the contents have being originally presented in the form of Jean Nicord lecture series. While this repetition is noticeable it only slightly detracts from the book.   

The real value of the book lies in the sections which tackle head on the objections that have arguably plagued modern Philosophy of Mind. Even if one doesn't agree with Daniel Dennett's views this is valuable reading for all who are interested in the topic of consciousness. Though it should be said that this follow up is not essential reading unlike his 1991 Consciousness Explained

Available from very few book stores and on Amazon.