Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The Regress Argument Against the Language of Thought Hypothesis

This objection has plagued the Language of Thought hypothesis (aka LOTH) since it's very conception. In fact Jerry Fodor included a reply to such objections in his 1975 book the Language of Thought, however these objections have refused to go away. It dubious whether such objections to the Language of Thought hypothesis do in fact under the hypothesis. 

Many of the supporters of LOTH often appeal to the idea of a language of thought to explain a number of things about our natural languages. For example the language of thought has been appealed to in order to explain the following: 

  • How natural languages (i.e French, English, Russian etc.) are learned 
  • How our natural languages are to be understood 
  • And finally how utterances in a natural language can be meaningful 
There are couple of instances in Fodor (1975) which empathize the points above. For example Fodor claims that natural languages are learned through a process of forming and confirming hypothesis regarding the translation of sentences in natural language into mentalese sentences. The LOTH gives us a representational medium in which the representation of the truth conditions of natural language sentences can occur. The Language of Thought theorist further posits that our natural languages are understood because such understanding consists in the translation of our standard natural language sentences into sentences in mentalese. Again sentences in our standard natural language are taken to meaningful in virtue of the meanings of the corresponding mentalese sentences.  

Simon Blackburn (1984) has claimed that either explanations of this kind lead to an regress as we ought to have to give an explanation of how a language of thought is learned, or that they are simply gratuitous because if it is possible to give a successful explanation which doesn't lead to regress, we ought to have given such an explanation for our natural languages without positing a language of thought at all. 

Fodor's response to such objections can be found in Fodor (1975) and goes roughly as follows:

  • The Language of Thought is innate it is not learned.
  • The Language of Thought is understood in a different sense to how we understand our natural language comprehension. 
  • That sentences in a language of thought are not meaningful in virtue of another meaningful language but rather in a completely different way. 
While Fodor's replies to the regress argument aren't totally plausible and may not convince everyone. But Laurence and Margolis (1997) have pointed out that the regress argument against LOTH (at least in the form that Blackburn presents it) relies on the assumption that the language of thought is only posited to explain certain facts about natural language acquisition and natural language comprehension. If it can be shown that there is other empirical phenomena for which the LOTH provides a good explanation then the hypothesis is not gratuitous in the way Blackburn suggests. In fact there does seem to be a good deal empirical evidence that can be best explained by positing a LOT (consider both the systematicity and productivity argument). 

Monday, 17 December 2012

An Introduction to Divine Command Theory

People still often attempt to make the connection between God and morality and is something theists often argue in favor of. Such theories have a long history in philosophy for example, Aquinas and many other philosophers and theologians have held the belief that all of morality is ultimately grounded in some particular theistic framework. Divine Command theory is essentially the claim that morality is dependent on God and his commands, with the moral good action being the one that is commanded by God. Of course the content of these various commands vary from religion to religion. What all versions share in common is that they claim morality ultimately rests on God. Divine Command theory has been widely criticized by philosophers but still carries significant weight in the religious community.  

First, I want to examine the supposed link between morality and God that Divine Command theorists claim there is. For one many in modern society don't believe in the existence of God, which appears to be problematic for the Divine Command theorist. As we may want to hold that many of those who do not believe in God are morally good people. It appears that the Divine Command theorist either has to hold that they are not morally good or that such individuals are only good when they're actions happen to coincide with the commands of God. Secondly, what if the God(s) is unjust as the ancient Greek gods of mount Olympus were portrayed to be. This again would seem to be problematic for Divine command theorists, however the majority of theorists would assert that God by definition couldn't be unjust. 

However if we accept that God is moral we are faced by another problem one that was first formulated by Plato over 2000 years ago. Namely, the Euthyphro Dilemma found unsurprisingly in the dialogue Euthyphro. Essentially the dilemma can be presented as such: 
Either acts are moral because God commands us to undertake them. Or alternatively God commands these actions because they are morally required. 
This taken in turn with the following premises seems to seriously undermine the Divine Command theory: 

  1.  For the claim that God is good to be both meaningful and true, there must be an independent criterion of goodness independent of God's commands
  2. If we accept that there is some criterion of goodness or morality independent of God's commands, then we have to accept that Divine Command theory is false. 
So we conclude that for the claim that God is good to be meaningful and true, we must reject Divine command theory. Some however do not accept that Euthyphro dilemma gives us grounds to reject Divine Command theory and that the command theorist can successfully answer the objection in a number of ways. 

However philosopher Ralf Cudworth the leader of the English platonists during the 17th Century also formulated an argument against the Divine Command theory. Cudworth's argument against the Divine Command theory can be summarized in the following way: 

  • 1) If Divine Theory is correct, God commanding us to torture an innocent child to death would be morally right. 
  • 2) However, it is not true that if God did in fact command us to torture an innocent child to death this command would make such an action morally right.
  • C)Divine Command therefore is false or incorrect. 

20th Century Philosopher and theologian, Philip L. Quinn (passed away 2004) best known for his defense command theory responded by asserting that it is not possible that God could command the torturing and ultimate death of a small child. However God could never command such a thing because God is inherently and necessarily just. This as many have pointed out appears to be absurd. If we take a look at the following presentation of Quinn's argument.

  • 1) Divine Command theory is correct, all moral requirements are ultimately derived from God's commands. 
  • 2) All moral requirements derive from God, before God made any commands there were no moral requirements. 
  • C1) No moral requirements can exist before a God has made divine commands. 
  • P3) However according to Quinn, even before God had ever made divine commands there were requirements of justice restraining his divine commands. 
  • C2) The requirements of justice constraining God's divine commands were not moral requirements. 
This line of argument appears to be terribly problematic, how can one say that the requirements of justice constraining God's commands were in no way moral requirements. It is commonly taken that justice is an important element or the aim of morality itself. Even if these kind of problems have always haunted Divine Command theory from its very conception, it is apparent that the argument holds a lot of sway among religious individuals and some academic theologians. 

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Philosophy Video: Introduction to Ethics and Moral Issues by Richard Brown

I have previously featured Richard Brown's Introduction to Philosophy video lecture series on this blog. However, Dr. Richard Brown has another online philosophy class this time dealing with ethics and moral issues. While ethics and morality, aren't Richard Brown's particular area of expertise (the majority of his research being undertaken in the philosophy of mind) it is very clear throughout the lectures that he has a very good understanding of the subject matter. Each lecture consists of a number of slides with Richard Brown running through the content contained on the slide in more detail. The course takes a largely historical approach after beginning with a lecture explaining philosophical ethics. The course would make a good starting point for those who want an introduction that allows them to read and engage with academic works in the field of ethics. While it doesn't make for a totally comprehensive introduction to the topic of ethics (mainly due to the fact the course consists of 8 lectures); anyone who has become interested in the topics of ethics and wishes to learn more would find this is a good starting point. 

The rest of the lectures can be found at: OnlinePhilosophyClass 

For those who wish to find out more about Dr Richard Brown I recommend you visit his academic page