Friday, 14 December 2012

Dennett's Objection to the Language of Thought Hypothesis

The well known philosopher Daniel Dennett formulated one of the first serious objections to the language of thought hypothesis (LOTH) in his review to Jerry Fodor's (1975) foundational book on the subject. Dennett's objection is essentially that it is possible for their to be propositional attitudes without explicit representation. To make his point Dennett introduces an example:
In a recent conversation with the designer of a chess-playing program I heard the following criticism of a rival program: “it thinks it should get its queen out early.” This ascribes a propositional attitude to the program in a very useful and predictive way, for as the designer went on to say, one can usefully count on chasing that queen around the board. But for all the many levels of explicit representation to be found in that program, nowhere is anything roughly synonymous with “I should get my queen out early” explicitly tokened. The level of analysis to which the designer's remark belongs describes features of the program that are, in an entirely innocent way, emergent properties of the computational processes that have “engineering reality.” I see no reason to believe that the relation between belief-talk and psychological talk will be any more direct. (Dennett 1981: 107) 
The rival but critical chess programmer assigns a propositional attitude to the rival program; namely that the rival program thinks it should move its queen out into play early in the game. Such an ascription of a propositional attitude is both useful and predictive. For example when we wish to program our chess computer to play the rival program we may consider the fact that the other program thinks it should get its queen early and respond by making sure we have an adequate defense for such an event. But if we understand how chess programs operate we know that there is no internal representation within the code of a chess computer which represents the propositional attitude that the program 'should get its queen out early'. Dennett sees no reason why the relation between our standard everyday belief talk and talk of psychological processes will be anymore direct than in the chess program/computer example. 

The chess program doesn't have  a dispositional or potential, belief regarding the early movement of its queen. Rather it operates with the belief that it ought to get its queen out early in the game.There appears to be lots of everyday examples where we reason using certain rules of inference without directly or explicitly representing this rules of inference.  

This objection from Dennett hasn't been particularly well received and it is widely regarded that Language of Thought theorists can provide a more than an adequate reply to such objections. The standard reply involves distinguishing between the rules regarding the way Mentalese data structures are manipulated and the data structures themselves. The Language of Thought hypothesis is not committed to every rule being explicitly represented. It is a nomological fact that in a computational device can be explicitly represented some have to be hard wired into the system. It is in this way that language of thought theorists do not have to contend that rules will be explicitly represented, it is data structures that have to be explicitly represented. With these data structures being manipulated formally by rules, causal manipulation is not itself possible without explicit tokening of these representations. It is possible to account for dispositional propositional attitudes in terms of an appropriate principle of inferential closure of explicitly represented propositional attitudes. 

A chess program involves at least some certain explicit representations (for example chess board, pieces and some of the rules). Which of the rules of the program are explicit and which are implicit is an empirical matter of fact. What Dennett's objection essentially does it point to the fact that some rules may be emergent out of the implementation of explicit rules and data structures. This does not undermine the language of thought hypothesis, as it possible to account for these emergent rules in terms of data structures and explicit representations. 

Dennett D (1981), Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1981

Did Wittgenstein have Asperger's Sydrome?

Wittgenstein is now commonly featured on lists of people suspected to have asperger's syndrome. As Wittgenstein is deceased it may impossible to ever definitively prove that he in fact had asperger's. It is well established that posthumous diagnosis of psychological conditions or syndromes is highly unreliable but this still hasn't quietened the debate regarding whether many of history's great minds in fact had asperger's syndrome. 

Many have become interested in the question of whether Wittgenstein had asperger's, with much of this contemporary interest in the question of whether the great philosopher had asperger's being stirred up by Michael Fitzgerald's 2004 book 'Autism and Creativity: Is there a link Between Austim in Men and Exceptional Ability'. In this book Fitzgerald gives Wittgenstein as a case study, claiming that the development from the ideas of the Tractatus to the Philosophical Investigations was in part caused by Wittgenstein's social development. With the method taken in the Philosophical Investigations having a particular focus on the social dimension of language. Fitzgerald alleges that this development mirrors the personal development of many people with asperger's syndrome. This is certainly a rather contentious claim, in fact there are group of Wittgenstein scholars called the new Wittgensteinians who rejected the traditional view that there are two separate Wittgenstein's as such, rather contending that the clear distinction between the thought of the early and late Wittgenstein is false. If such a interpretation is correct (I personally doubt it is) it seems to seriously undermine  Fitzgeralds example of Wittgenstein as a case study of social development.  

Some have gone further than Fitzgerald in asserting that Wittgenstein has asperger's syndrome. Example being the Japanese psychologist Y. Ishiskaya who in his paper 'Wittgenstein and Asperger Syndrome: Did Wittgenstein have this syndrome?' concludes that Wittgenstein in fact did have Aspergers, classification ICD-10. This diagnosis was undertaken by examining Wittgenstein's social interactions throughout his life and concluding that much of Wittgenstein's social behavior was consistent with an individual with Asperger's syndrome.  
His interpersonal relationships were characterized by ego-centricity and a lack of concern or empathy for others as well as a lack of a sense of social interaction. He tended to be detached and isolated from others, but did seek close relationships with a few people, often one person at a time. The conduct of his daily life was dominated by the tendency to be obsessive, stereotypic, and persistent. He was reported to have been clumsy, and his accent and intonation when speaking to have been bizarre.(Abstract, Ishishkaya 2003) 
All of this according to Ishishkaya is taken to be sufficient to diagnose Wittgenstein with Aspergers syndrome. The validity of historical diagnosis is subject to serious scrutiny with many people being suspicious of such posthumous diagnosis.  

However there appears to be significant evidence that Wittgenstein displayed many of the traits that are associated with asperger's syndrome. Many of the stories and accounts featured in Ray Monk's brilliant biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein seem to be quite consistent with the claim that Wittgenstein in fact did have asperger's syndrome. It seems that the claim that Wittgenstein may of in fact had asperger's syndrome to pretty plausible, I suggest that anyone interested in claims regarding whether Wittgenstein did in fact have asperger's read Ray Monk's biography. While Monk never claims or states that Wittgenstein had asperger's syndrome it appears that Wittgenstein's personality and character is at least consistent with a diagnosis of asperger's syndrome. 

While it will not be possible to definitively answer the question of whether Wittgenstein had asperger's syndrome, some of the evidence does point towards a diagnosis of Wittgenstein being aspergic. The problem with both Ishiskaya and Fitzgerald's claims is that posthumous diagnosis of such conditions is highly unreliable. With all that being said the possibility that Wittgenstein was aspergic may better help us understand both the man and his work a little bit better. 


Fitzgerald M, (2004), Autism and Creativity: Is there a link Between Austim in Men and Exceptional Ability
Monk R (1991), Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, Vintage 

Monday, 10 December 2012

Book Review: Free Will: A Contemporary Introduction by Robert Kane

Written by Robert Kane a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who himself is a well respected academic who has written numerous papers on the topic of Free Will. The book aims to provide an introduction to the wider subject matter of Free Will. With the book being divided up into a number of short chapters discussing different theories and positions on Free Will and its relation to moral responsibility.  

The book is divided logical into chapters each discussing a different topic. It is clear from how the book is laid out that the book is aimed to be a course text for undergraduate level teaching, with it being possible to model a course which roughly followed the chapters of the book. The book presupposes absolutely no knowledge about the subject matter, with the first chapter providing an introduction to the Free Will problem. Where the book really succeeds is in providing an accessible introduction to each of the topics discussed, while also examining some of the arguments from the leading contributors to the debate. Robert Kane is an excellent writer fairly assessing each position and argument discussed in terms that anybody could understand.  

Where the book will probably fall short is for those interested in the topic but are not undertaking a introductory or undergraduate course. As the book is pretty formulaic and only gives summary introductions to each of the topics discussed.Those who are interested in reading about Free Will for enjoyment or out of interest may be better suited by purchasing another book. Though I could see someone reading Free Will: A  Contemporary Introduction while reading a collection of essays alongside it. As Kane's book would provide a good introduction to the topic matter allowing you to then read a more in depth exposition of the positions taken in the book with Kane providing Suggested Reading at the conclusion of each chapter.However, it would be probably more interesting to read a book such as Daniel Dennett's 'Freedom Evolves' which is an extended defense of the compatibilist position on Free Will. 

However this book is still to be commended and makes for a excellent contemporary introduction to the topic of free will and is generally considered to be the best of its kind. The clear limitation in regards to this book is that is clearly intended for use alongside a course in the subject matter. I would recommend that anyone doing a undergraduate on Free Will purchase this book as it is sure to help in some regards. The only criticism I could have would be the book is rather pricey for such a short tome and is currently selling for £15 on 

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Alleged Impossibility of Moral Responsibility: Galen Strawson's Basic Argument

Galen Strawson the son of the famous English philosopher P.F Strawson is probably best known for his positions on free will and his exposition of panpsychism. But today we are going to be taking a detailed look at Strawson's Basic Argument.

Galen Strawson believes that true moral responsibility is in fact impossible as we cannot be the cause of ourselves. Galen contends that the argument does not require that either determinism or indeterminism be the case, with the argument demonstrating the impossibility of free will either way. Strawson's Basic Argument has produced much interest and to many unversed in philosophy seems very plausible. However the argument hasn't had quite the same effect on those working in the field of academic philosophy, something that it appears Strawson (1994) is somewhat befuddled with.  

The most detailed exposition of his Basic Argument appears in Strawson's 1994 paper 'The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility' where Galen outlines four different but very similar versions of the Basic Argument. What makes the Basic Argument a very interesting talking point is the fact that it can be outlined in a way which makes it easy for a lay men to understand while also presenting a serious challenge to the possibility of moral responsibility. 

Strawson begins by stating the argument in most basic form and that argument goes as follows: 

  1. Nothing can be causa sui - nothing can be the cause of itself 
  2. In order to be truly morally responsible for one's actions one would have to be causa sui, at least in certain mental respects
  3. Therefore nothing can be truly morally responsible. (Strawson 1994:5) 
It appears on the surface than this argument is valid as if we accept the premises the conclusion appears to follow. I'm going to leave the question of soundness to later. Strawson then goes onto then lay out ten point version of the argument, which himself he admits is a rather cumbersome version of the said argument. However he says that the argument can be put in a more natural form without losing much of what the more detailed and albeit more cumbersome argument had. The natural form of the argument is presented as follows: 
  1. It is undeniable that one is the way, one is initially, as result of heredity and early experience, and it is undeniable that these things for which one cannot be held to be in any way responsible. 
  2. One cannot at any later stage in life hope to accede to true moral responsibility for the way one is by trying to change the way one already is as a result of heredity and previous experience. For, 
  3. both the particular way in which one is moved to try to change oneself, and the degree of one's success in one's attempt at change, will be determined by how one already is as a result of heredity and previous experience. And
  4. any further changes that one can bring about only after one has brought about certain initial changes will in turn be determined, via the initial change by heredity and previous experience. 
  5. This may not be the whole story, for it may be that some changes in the way one is are traceable not to heredity and experience but to influence of indeterministic or random factors.(Strawson 1994:7) [But it is absurd to hold that this could somehow contribute to moral responsibility.] 
According to Strawson this demonstrates the impossibility of moral responsibility. The fact that our early character development is not in hands, due to it being down totally to our genetics and environmental factors (such as a caring home etc.) precluded the possibility. For Strawson to be morally responsible we must be able to choose what kind of person we are in conscious manner. However, later in life when we hope accede to true moral responsibility by trying to change our character we are led into a infinite regress. As any attempt to make a change oneself and the degree of success in such a change will come down to our previous experience  and our genetics, both of which are clearly out of our control. While this may not be the whole story in how we develop our personality or character traits any role that randomness plays does nothing in terms of making us morally responsible. Again how can we be responsible for something totally out of our control. 

In questioning the soundness of Strawson's argument it is important to question his concept of true moral responsibility. Strawson has quite a unique and striking conception of what it means for someone to be ultimately morally responsible. He introduces the notion of 'Heaven and Hell responsibility', what true moral responsibility entails for Strawson is that 'it makes sense at least, to suppose that it could be just to punish someone with (eternal) torment in hell and reward others with (eternal) bliss'(Strawson 1994:9). When you take moral responsibility to be such a serious matter it becomes clear why Strawson insists that we must be able to choose who we are to be able to achieve true moral responsibility. The reason that Strawson endorses such a conception of moral responsibility appears to be because he believes that such a conception lines up with our intuitive deep understanding of moral responsibility. 

This is where it seems to get at least problematic for Strawson's argument. As their are other conceptions of what moral responsibility which do not require that we choose how to be in certain mental respects. For example, a compatibilist conception of moral responsibility would contend that an individual would be morally responsible for his actions provided his act wasn't caused by a certain set of constraints (such kleptomaniac impulses, threats and instances of force). What Strawson fails to do demonstrate why his conception of moral responsibility is the correct one. What he does claim is that his conception of moral responsibility is broadly the intuitive conception held by the majority of the public. If this is all that Strawson is able to demonstrate then its clear doesn't show that moral responsibility is in fact impossible, the most it can do is show that moral responsibility cannot be of the kind Strawson endorses. In fact a number of results from experimental philosophy appear to show that the average laymen endorses a conception of moral responsibility which is in fact compatibilist. 

In order to show the impossibility of moral responsibility, what Strawson needs is a couple extra premises on his argument in order to be able to demonstrate that his conception of moral responsibility is the correct one. However this appears to be an impossible task and therefore the best he can do is claim that his argument shows that our deep seated intuitive understanding of moral responsibility is undermined. But even such a claim seems particularly dubious due to the fact Strawson endorses a rather extreme conception of moral responsibility. 

Strawson G, 1994, The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility in Philosophical Studies 75: 5-24, 1994, Kluwer Academic Publishers