On Philosophy

March 25, 2008

Paper: The Pragmatism of Simple Agents

Filed under: Epistemology,Papers — Peter @ 12:00 am

Peirce’s project, at least as it appears in The Fixation of Belief, is to demonstrate the psychological plausibility and inevitability of the scientific method. By appeal to a conception of doubt as a mental irritant, and to our natural tendency to compare our beliefs to those of other people, Peirce argues that the scientific method is, ultimately, the only way to rid ourselves of doubt that is consistent with those dispositions. He then buttresses this picture with an appeal to a specific conception of reality, and, in How to Make Our Ideas Clear, of truth as well. This picture is, on one level, very satisfying, because it explains why we are psychologically certain of the scientific method, even if it isn’t epistemologically immune to skeptical scenarios, and even if it falls short of Cartesian standards for belief. But Peirce’s account is not completely free of problems; we might complain, for example, that he has left no room for objectivity or that his conception of reality seems both unnecessary and overly metaphysical. More significantly, we might worry that his account is lacking a much needed defense of the scientific method in more than psychological terms. Defending the psychological acceptability of the scientific method is certainly important, but just because we as a species have a tendency towards the scientific method, or that the scientific method satisfies our inquisitive urges, doesn’t necessarily mean that the scientific method is any good, objectively speaking. Addressing these problems requires a perspective from which we can make observations about the scientific method in action, both in order to justify it, and to speak about it in terms that are distinct from the sometimes confusing details of human psychology. To that end I propose considering very simple agents and observing what methods are productive for them. Because of their simplicity it will be easy to understand the structure of their inquiries and it will be easier to argue that some particular strategy for inquiry is better than another. And from this simple account I claim that a clearer picture of how our more complicated scientific method works and why it is successful for us will emerge.

1: Peirce’s Project

Peirce’s account of the scientific method is based on a theory about the human psychology of doubt. He claims that with respect to particular opinions we can be either in a state of doubt or of belief and that we seek to be in a state of belief and to avoid doubt. But of course we can’t just decide whether to be in a state of doubt or belief, and so Peirce further supposes and that what puts us into a state of doubt or belief is, at least in part, dependant on the standards for belief and doubt that we have come to accept. We might think of such standards as a measure of “fit” between a particular opinion and the rest of our beliefs and observations, with what matter in terms of “fit” being a combination of our innate psychology and learned dispositions. Admittedly, with respect to the claim that what makes us believe or doubt may differ from person to person, this may not, at first glance, seem to be Peirce’s position. After all he criticizes the Cartesians, who claim that we must doubt our beliefs if certain skeptical scenarios can be constructed. Peirce says that such doubt is imagined, not real, and thus is not a proper motivation for inquiry and the revision of our beliefs. And he will appeal to this fact in defense of the scientific method, arguing that it does not have to demonstrate its conclusions, only ensure that there are no reasonable grounds for questioning them. Such claims might seem to imply that grounds for belief and doubt are a fixed part of our psychology. But that would contradict what Peirce later says concerning alternative methods for belief fixation, namely that the people who accept those methods are actually guided in what they believe and doubt by them, such that someone who accepted authority would be put into a state of belief by pronouncements from that authority, unlike us, who would still doubt. This does not necessarily contradict Peirce’s claims about the imagined doubts of the Cartesians, but what it reveals is that such claims must be made from the perspective of someone who accepts the scientific method as a guide for belief and doubt, as a defense against a Cartesian criticism of the system; they are not meant to apply to true Cartesians, who may actually doubt.

However, allowing such flexibility in what leads us to believe or doubt might seem to make Peirce’s project impossible. It could be that the standards of doubt accepted by some people are such that they simply don’t care about having their theories agree with experience, and so such discrepancies may not cause them to enter into a state of doubt. Peirce takes the method of tenacity, the refusal to acknowledge evidence contradictory to ones beliefs, and the method of authority, taking the pronouncements of certain authority figures to be the only evidence worth considering, to be examples of such systems. If that was all there was to it then we would still be stuck with the method of tenacity or of authority, since the motivation to revise them would be lacking. It would also undermine the validity of the scientific method. Even though Peirce isn’t setting out to defend the scientific method from an objective standpoint he is trying to show that it has a certain kind of universal psychological appeal; if it turned out that the scientific method wasn’t universal than that would seem to make it substantially the same as the method of tenacity or authority. So, to explain how we have managed to escape such systems, and to illustrate a difference between the scientific method and the alternatives, Peirce maintains that there is a common conception “that another man’s thought or sentiment may be equivalent to one’s own”, and that it is an impulse too strong to be suppressed (116-117). Although what puts us into a state of doubt or belief is somewhat mutable Peirce seems to be taking our respect for each other’s beliefs as something with a special status that is more widely shared and less flexible. Since the methods of tenacity and authority don’t lead to agreement, at least not in all places and times, people may thus be led to doubt the validity of those methods because of that sentiment, and eventually come to what we would deem to be better strategies for belief fixation. In contrast, the scientific method takes seriously other people’s beliefs, since one of its core premises is that inquirers will eventually be led to the same conclusions, and hence is more psychologically acceptable.

Peirce realizes though that the belief that the scientific method will produce the same results for everyone simply can’t be sufficient on its own. Obviously any method for belief revision could come with the belief that it will produce universal results. The a priori method in philosophy seems to be brought up by Peirce as an example of just this phenomenon: the philosophers believe that the a priori method will produce universal results because of their faith in the special nature of reason, but that faith disappoints them. Thus Peirce is moved to think that mere belief in the convergence of opinions is insufficient; we must have a reason to think that the method really will produce agreement. Because of the failure of the a priori method Peirce concludes that to produce agreement it must be an external permanency that guides us, not features of our own minds. Thus he introduces reality as just such an external permanency, which is unaffected by our thoughts, and which affect the senses of everyone in the same law-like ways. Because acceptance of reality, so conceived, is part of the scientific method, he claims, we can thus rest assured that the method will lead us to agreement. Of course Peirce admits that, so defined, we cannot directly argue for the existence of reality. However, he has four arguments that he thinks should lead us to just accept this idea without proof, which revolve around arguing that we won’t be led to doubt that conception of reality or that we are already committed to it in some way. It is unclear what the point of these arguments is given the shape of Peirce’s project. Since he seems to be arguing that the scientific method has a unique kind of psychological acceptability whether we should accept the existence of reality seems to be beside the point. Even if that conception of reality was necessary for the acceptance of the scientific method it would appear that he should argue that we do or will be led to accept it, not that we are rationally required to accept it. Perhaps then we can charitably interpret these arguments as designed to reveal the undeniable psychological plausibility of the notion, as further evidence that the scientific method is a good fit given our psychology.

Since a concern with truth also seems to be a deep rooted and universal psychological inclination it would seem natural for Peirce to conclude his account with a description of how the scientific method includes a plausible conception of truth and how that conception strengthens the attractiveness of the method, paralleling the discussion of reality. But in terms of The Fixation of Belief, the Peirce paper which I am primarily concerned with here, it is not clear what position Peirce took on truth. He does make a few leading remarks at the end, stating that the scientific method is the only one that can go wrong, which he indicates we should find more plausible than a method that can never go wrong. But, while this suggests that the scientific method has a unique understanding of truth or a unique relationship to it, it does not amount to an account of truth. It would fit the sprit of the paper, I think, if Peirce had asserted that we are only comfortable with an idea of truth where true statements correspond in some way to reality and thus that we should simply accept truth as such and, furthermore, believe that the scientific method will produce claims that have the right sort of correspondence to reality, even though that correspondence can never be checked.

Peirce does take a position on truth in How to Make Our Ideas Clear, but it is not at all like his discussion of reality. There he indicates that truth, in general, is defined in terms of the method that people accept, such that whatever their method leads them to believe they call true. Thus in terms of the scientific method Peirce states that truth amounts to the opinion that is “fated ultimately to be agreed upon by all who investigate”, because, given the standards of objectivity that are part of science, we will only be satisfied with a belief that all competent investigators concur about. Obviously such a belief would make the scientific method slightly more psychologically acceptable, since we would prefer our method to lead us to the truth, but it doesn’t really distinguish it from any other method, since they all call true what they lead people to conclude.

So Peirce’s project in a nutshell, as I have described it, is to show that the scientific method has a universal psychological appeal, such that, given certain universal facts about what causes people to enter into a state of doubt, in the long run the scientific method is the only method that will really put doubts to rest. In a way this is even a kind of argument for the scientific method, since it might be taken to imply that everyone accepts certain very basic rules for belief revision and that these basic rules, such as respecting the viewpoints of other people, lead to an acceptance of the scientific method. If that was true then it would mean that no one could consistently deny the scientific method, and in that way we might be forced into accepting it as true.

2: Problems Facing Peirce’s Project

But while Peirce’s project paints an attractive picture of the scientific methods it is, unfortunately, subject to two kinds of criticisms. One is an external criticism, directed at how satisfying an account of the scientific method can be that defends it in terms of facts about our psychology, rather than facts about why it is an objectively superior method. Suppose we encounter a species with a different sort of psychology that leads them to accept some other, radically different, method. Surely it won’t be the case that both methods are equally good and thus that we are free to be led by our psychological inclinations. Rather it seems likely that one method or the other will be better in objective terms, and thus that we would have reason to use that method, no matter how psychologically unacceptable it is to us. Given that, it seems as if it should be at least possible to say in objective terms why, to the best of our knowledge, the scientific method is a good method. On the other hand, while such criticisms might seem important to us they don’t necessarily make Peirce wrong; we might accept his account of the scientific method as presented and simply seek an additional defense of that method from an objective standpoint. But there are internal criticisms of Peirce’s project to deal with as well, which argue that Peirce’s account of the scientific method isn’t psychologically plausible or that it won’t be the case that everyone will be led to accept a single version of the scientific method. If such criticisms can’t be addressed then it would seem that we really would need a defense of the scientific method in objective terms, if only to justify our choice of one particular psychologically acceptable method among many.

The first problem in terms of the psychological plausibility of the account arises in connection with Peirce’s appeal to our inherent tendency to take seriously the beliefs of other people, which he assumes will motivate us to accept a method that appears to lead to agreement in the long run. If we take Peirce at his word here, however, he simply seems to be wrong. Consider religion. Obviously there is no widespread agreement as to what variety of religion is correct, but few people are brought to doubt their religion or the epistemological merits of faith because of that. Indeed religion seems to be an example of the method of authority triumphing over that sentiment. Similarly, we might plausibly suppose that someone who accepted the method of authority might be unfazed by differences in opinion; they might just assume that others are listening to the wrong authority. To solve such problems it would be natural to appeal to something like objectivity; we would assume that people had a natural tendency to seek agreement only with respect to objective matters, the bread and butter of science, and to take agreement as irrelevant with respect to the subjective, including such things as religion, art, and hallucinations. But Peirce’s account seems to leave no room for such a notion. If we were to introduce objectivity it would have to be as another basic part of our psychology, meaning that we would have to assume that people are naturally inclined to take certain things as objective and others as subjective and that the judgment as to which is which may be informed by later development. We would have to grant that judgments about objectivity may vary because in real life people don’t agree, and because we have no other suitable primitive psychological notions to explain those differences with. Since objectivity limits the applicability of the scientific method it is thus possible for there to be some people who take nothing to be objective, or take to be objective things that the scientific method doesn’t lead to agreement about (such as hallucinations) and thus reject it for failing to produce that agreement. This would essentially bring us in a full circle, back to the position we were in before the appeal to a universal tendency to respect each other’s beliefs, where it would seem that the scientific method would be psychologically acceptable only to some. Thus if we are to successfully develop a more nuanced understanding of the tendency to respect each other’s beliefs that reflects our actual dispositions, and if we are to introduce an account of objectivity that doesn’t undermine the entire project, a more subtle approach will be needed.

A second problem for Peirce’s project is his description of reality. As he defines it reality is a heavily metaphysical notion. It is metaphysical in the sense that while reality is described in terms of properties it has, such as an external permanency, the cause of our sensations, etc, nothing is said about what it is in a way that would allow us to identify it. Indeed it seems like such an idea would be most at home within a Kantian picture of the world where reality itself is forever unknowable and where all we really have access to are sensations. And if that isn’t enough to convince you that Peirce’s “reality” is highly metaphysical I would point out that we could easily replace “reality” with “god” without any substantial changes in the scientific method as described; instead we would claim that god is an external permanency which is the source of our sensations and that a belief in god is essential to the scientific worldview, yielding a position reminiscent of Berkeley’s. This by itself should make us suspicious of including such a concept within the scientific method, especially if that concept plays as an important role as Peirce claims. And the aforementioned arguments that Peirce gives for his conception of reality do not solve this problem; if anything they aggravate it since they could be given for any metaphysical notion that we took as important for the scientific method.

Of course Peirce’s fundamental motivation for this conception of reality seems to be the conviction that such a belief is required for us to find the scientific method plausible. But such a claim hardly fits with the picture of doubt and belief that he has constructed. The idea that we need some principles to demonstrate the validity of our method seems strangely Cartesian. Peirce has been advocating a conception of inquiry in which the central idea is that doubts are raised only by genuine evidence against the propositions we hold to be true, not vague metaphysical worries, so that we might be satisfied with beliefs that are simply the best we are able to come up with, even if the possibility for the future revision of those beliefs exists. If we simply apply that idea to our method of inquiry itself we should conclude not that we need something like an appeal to reality to remove our doubts about it, but rather that no doubts need arise, so long as our method doesn’t fail us by producing bad theories. So, even if Peirce is right and we do require some assurance that our method will produce agreement, since other methods, such as the a priori method, have made that promise and failed, it would seem that the assurance would be best provided by actual progress towards agreement. Because we could equally well provide justification for the a priori method by appeal to metaphysical principles, but that wouldn’t make it a viable alternative to the scientific method.

This may imply that any discussion of reality should just be omitted from a discussion of the scientific method. But, like objectivity, it seems hard to reconstruct a version of the scientific method without some position on reality. After all, we test our theories in the scientific method by attempting to compare them to reality; we would not accept or reject a theory because of how well it applied in the context of a dream or a hallucination. Obviously there is some overlap between drawing a distinction between the real and the unreal and objectivity and subjectivity, perhaps we might even explain one in terms of the other. And I maintain that without some account of these distinctions we cannot be said to have given an account of the psychological acceptability of the scientific method, rather we would be endorsing a family of methods, each of which makes different judgments regarding reality and objectivity, and which thus proceed in radically different ways. At the very least it needs to be shown that there is a tendency towards convergence in these distinctions in order to make the claim that the scientific method will lead to agreement more plausible.

Finally, Peirce’s definition of truth is not without its problems either. Although truth is defined much less metaphysically it still feels very much like an empty notion. We may grant that the end products of the scientific method are true, but what does it mean to say that they are true? If truth is defined only as the end of inquiry, that doesn’t make for a very satisfying definition of truth, nor a very useful one. Additionally, truth is not something we withhold our judgment from until some indefinite time in the future, rather it is often of significant importance to us now which of a number of alternatives are true. Indeed such considerations seem very much bound up with the process of inquiry. More specifically, scientists don’t prefer one theory to another just because the scientific method tells them to, they prefer one theory to another because they conclude that one is more likely to be true or closer to the truth, a judgment that itself is based on evidence. Again, as with reality, it appears that truth is a distinction that has a role to play in activity of scientific inquiry, and thus that Peirce is doing a disservice to his description of scientific inquiry by putting truth essentially outside it as a conclusion to inquiry as a whole (just as he put reality outside it by making it a precondition for our acceptance of the scientific method).

Although these problems might seem disconnected from each other I think that they stem from a single source: the fact that any method for inquiry will be bound up with something like a complicated conception of reality that includes ideas about what is real and under what conditions we have access to reality, and that these ideas determine how the method is actually used. But Peirce’s picture of reality is sparse and his psychological theory doesn’t indicate how we might come to agree on these issues; ultimately this creates a disconnect between the method Peirce says that we will find psychologically acceptable and the scientific method.

3: Towards a Clearer Conception of the Scientific Method

To reiterate, there are two kinds of problems facing Peirce’s account. One is the problem of defending the value of the scientific method from an objective standpoint, where we could conclude that the scientific method is good for the people who use it (in terms of survival, perhaps, because it leads to “more accurate” beliefs), not just from a subjective standpoint as Piece does, where all we can say is that we are inclined to believe it or that it is psychologically comfortable. Secondly, we have a number of essentially similar problems, all of which revolve around developing clear and psychologically acceptable descriptions of concepts such as objectivity, reality, and truth so as to explain their role in inquiry within the scientific method and why we draw those distinctions as we do. Such an account would have the benefit of bringing us closer to a description of the scientific method as actually practiced, and it would remove the need for Peirce’s abstract and somewhat problematic definitions. Of course it is impossible to give the “correct” definitions for such concepts, but we can aim to give definitions that reflect distinctions in the actual investigative practice and which are objectively useful to the investigator (i.e. lead to “successful” theories more often).

Even though they are different problems, however, I think that they can be solved with essentially the same approach. Consider then how we might go about arguing that the scientific method is an objectively good method for forming beliefs. That would involve arguing that in a wide range of circumstances and for a wide range of interests that the beliefs that the scientific method produces will be effective. But if we chose to consider humans in a complicated society making such an argument will be incredibly complicated, for obvious reasons. Moreover it might not even be the case that the scientific method is universally preferable: if using any other method besides that of authority is taken as a grievous error by society using the scientific method in anything like its full scope could be downright dangerous. But this simply illustrates that what we are after is a defense of the scientific method modulo such “irrelevant” factors, which also helps with the problem of the excessive complexity of such an analysis. What it would seem that we want then is a discussion of the scientific method in terms of very simple agents, agents who aren’t part of a complex society, and who don’t have preconceptions and biases that may close off certain investigative possibilities. Such an investigation might also solve the other problem facing Peirce’s account, that of providing a more plausible and pragmatic account of certain concepts used in inquiry. At least it may if we approach the problem by building up the scientific method, piece by piece, for our agents by developing accounts of these distinctions simple enough to fit into their psychology and which we can defend as useful for them. Thus we would arrive at a picture of the scientific method in which it as a whole is beneficial for these simple agents and where each of its components is clearly defined and independently productive.

In order to do that we must describe a psychology for our agents, complicated enough that they could develop ideas concerning inquiry and put them to use shaping how their beliefs develop, but simple enough that we avoid the complications associated with human psychology. Furthermore, to simplify my description, I will omit any discussion of how these agents develop cognitive apparatus (i.e. how they learn); all that matters for our purposes is to demonstrate that some kinds of cognitive apparatus are better than others. Obviously then the agents must have some mental apparatus that we can think of as constituting predictions or theories about the world (which I will just call predictions to distinguish them from our more complicated theories, although they are analogous). On the basis of these predictions the agent is led to act, and those actions may be either be to their benefit or disadvantage. We can understand these predictions, in the simplest possible terms, as conditional statements where the antecedent involves a pattern that the agent attempts to match up to the previous inputs it has received and the actions it has taken, and whether the consequent is an event that is predicted to occur subsequently. Obviously there must be substantial complexity in the pattern matching if these predictions are to do any real work, but pattern matching is a well understood problem. Of course choosing to act in accordance with a particular prediction (such as taking actions so that the antecedent of a prediction will match) is itself an action. So to allow the agent to make predictions about its own process of inquiry (meta-predictions which are applied to object predictions) we can further suppose that the agent attempts to apply any relevant predictions when making the choice whether to use a prediction or not. These would be meta-predictions whose patterns match, at least in part, that object prediction itself, and which predict success or failure as a result of choosing to act in accordance with that object prediction. If this meta-prediction predicts failure then the agent will not in fact choose to act in accordance with the object prediction, and if the object prediction is blocked often enough then it will be discarded completely. Thus in this way the agent can be said to have ideas about its process of inquiry, as object predictions that are repeated blocked by meta-predictions from being used can be thought of as being rejected by the agent. And an agent will have objectively better meta-predictions if they lead the agent to use only their best object predictions.

Such agents are, admittedly, quite dissimilar from us. Indeed they don’t have concepts, and even describing them as having beliefs would be a stretch. Because of these differences some allowances must be made when understanding what their meta-predictions imply for our own process of inquiry. Previously I claimed that it would be best to understand how certain conceptual distinctions involved in the scientific method would be useful for such agents, but our agents don’t have any concepts. I take it as natural to simply understand a pattern or part of a pattern involved in a prediction as something that could be a concept for us, given that patterns either match or don’t match for them, while concepts either apply or don’t apply in a given situation for us. If that is too much of a stretch then we are free to embellish the psychological machinery of these agents, assuming that the patterns in their predictions have a bound on upper length, but that they may contain tokens which are substituted for predefined patterns. Then we could consider these tokens to be concepts, and these token/concepts would prove useful by making possible more complicated patterns; it all amounts to the same thing though.

Assume that these agents are in a world that is not completely random, meaning that there is some statistical regularity. And if there is some statistical regularity it will be the case that past performance often usefully serves as a guide to future performance. In other words, like the world we live in. In such a world a simple and very useful meta-prediction would be one that predicts failure for the use of an object prediction if it has failed with enough regularity in the past. And this meta-prediction could be made even better if it was changed to be more in line with the laws of probability, to be more sensitive to sample size, etc. But while such technical improvements are useful they will only get the agent so far; there are a large number of object predictions (we might even assume the agent develops new object predictions at random). And because the agent’s actions are directed by the predictions it has been entertaining it is unlikely that its past experience will have anything to say about a new prediction until it tries it out a number of times. Obviously this is inefficient.

What is needed is more data. And at this point let us further suppose that our agent is not alone in the world, but that there are other agents as well and that they have a language through which they communicate. Although we could tell a story here about how the agents developed a language and learned about each others’ existence I see no need to; for the purposes of this paper we can assume it is just built into them. Given these conditions a further improvement that could be made to the meta-prediction is if it made estimates concerning the probability that a prediction will be successful not just based on the agent’s experiences alone, but on the experiences of other agents as communicated through language as well. If the world works the same for all the agents this modification will have the effect of providing a much larger amount of evidence to base estimations concerning probability off of, which will obviously make those estimates more accurate.

But if the agents are in a realistic world it will not be the case though that all of the reports made by other agents are accurate. There will be some topics in their language that correspond to things that are intrinsically subjective, and which will thus work differently for all the agents. There will also be cases where agents will make inaccurate reports because they are in situations where their perceptions are distorted. And there may even be parts of the language where it is used inconsistently and so the agents might miscommunicate when they use it. In all of these cases it would be better for the agent’s estimations of probability if they ignored those reports. This brings us to our first “concept” which I designate [O], a pattern that matches only those reports which are “reliable”, i.e. those made on topics which are primarily independent of the reporting agent’s psychology and which are made under conditions where their senses are working properly. Since these are the reports that track the actual events in the agents’ experiences that carry over from one to another obviously making probability judgments based only on [O] reports will be an improvement. And since I have omitted any mention of the learning dynamics that is all am required to say, that such a distinction would be beneficial to them. But it seems plausible that the agent’s could develop that distinction via feedback concerning which reports were the basis for correct meta-judgments and which weren’t.

Of course if agents can make inaccurate reports then it is probably also the case that they can have inaccurate experiences or experience things that are purely subjective, such as hallucinations. Let us further suppose that there is some regularity to when such distortions occur or how they present themselves (a real life example would be feelings, which are presented in their own distinct way to us, and which we thus are easily able to recognize as subjective). Furthermore, let us also suppose that these distortions are not themselves worth predicting; they can’t be usefully used to predict anything substantial, nor are they intrinsically important to the agent’s goals. Again, this seems to be how the world we find ourselves in works: although we may hallucinate or misperceive I know of no theories which accurately predict facts important to our survival on the basis of them, nor are they intrinsically relevant to our survival. Thus it would be better for our agent’s estimations of probability if they discarded such experiences. And this constitutes the second concept I am interested in, [R], which matches only those experiences that are deemed “reliable” in the way just discussed. Again, this says nothing about how such a distinction might be developed, but it seems plausible that, like [O] it might be developed through feedback concerning which kinds of experiences and under which circumstances make the basis for good judgments concerning probability. Or, if the agent already has a concept such as [O], it might be developed though a kind of short-cut, whereby the agent applies its standards for [O] reports concerning reliable conditions and topics to its own experiences.

Finally, in any realistic situation simply entertaining a prediction will cost an agent something, both in the time it takes the agent to consider whether to employ it, and because every prediction takes up some cognitive space that the agent could be using to store some other possible prediction. And unfortunately for our agent its current meta-prediction has the potential to lead it to entertain a large number of predictions that simply waste space. Because the agent is making its judgments about those predictions based only on experiences deemed [R] and interactions with other agents deemed [O], any prediction that has an antecedent that requires a non-[R] experience or non-[O] report to match will never be considered to have any evidence for or against it. Of course this is not to imply that the agent will never use that prediction. The meta-prediction will obviously not block object predictions that lack support, otherwise genuinely novel predictions would never have a chance to be tested. Thus the meta-prediction may pass this object prediction, and occasionally the agent may have the appropriate non-[R] experience that is required to trigger its use. And it may even be that this prediction is occasionally successful, although it can’t be regularly successful, since, as previously mentioned, anything that was part of a regularly successful prediction would be deemed [R]. But, even so, such an occurrence is not worth throwing out the cognitive apparatus developed so far. That cognitive apparatus is useful because in when a prediction matches a non-[R] experience and is successful that success is a fluke. And so the agent would be better off getting rid of all of their dead-weight predictions, even if a minority of them are practically effective some of the time. To prevent the meta-prediction from passing these dead weight predictions a third concept must be introduced, [S]. [S] is a concept that matches the theories under examination themselves, rejecting theories that can only match non-[R] experiences because of their structure (either because they match things like feelings or because they match only under conditions where the agent’s experiences are unreliable). Although, unlike [R], this concept cannot be extrapolated from another already developed, it is not hard to imagine a learning-dynamics that could give rise to it, as it could be developed by gradual improvements which match more and more kinds of predictions, with those that go too far losing out because the agent’s competitors have access to a greater number of useful predictions.

After all these improvements are in place the agent’s meta-prediction works something as follows: it evaluates predictions based on evidence, where evidence is a certain class of experiences and reports of experiences, and it only considers those predictions that it knows how to evaluate. To me this looks a lot like a version of the scientific method stripped of any conception of simplicity or historical precedent.

4: From Simple Agents to Peirce and Beyond

Obviously these simple agents, no matter how they develop, will always be somewhat alien. But I think that, as mentioned above, there is something resembling the scientific method in them. They develop better predictions through a process that looks a great deal like experimentation; they take their predictions and attempt to compare them to the available evidence. And ultimately that is what makes the scientific method unique: in it alone are theories evaluated by what appears to be an external standard independent of our psychological inclinations. More importantly, I think that the “concepts” I have described as useful to them can be plausibly seen as having analogues in our own conception of the scientific method. [O] seems to correspond to a something like our notion of objectivity, since the agents effectively use it to distinguish between reports that they can and can’t trust. Likewise, we think of some reports as being objective, and thus worth considering, while others we take to be subjective, and thus best set aside when doing science. Similarly [R] seems to correspond to our “ordinary” (i.e. pre-philosophical) conception of reality, which I take in its most naïve form to distinguish between experiences that we can reliably generalize from, the content of which we take to be real, from those that aren’t properly the basis of such generalizations, such as hallucinations, the contents of which we consider unreal. Similarly, for our simple agents [R] separates the experiences they will use as evidence from those that they won’t. Finally, [S] too seems to track a distinction that is naturally made by scientists, although there is no universally accepted word to describe it. The distinction in question is between those theories that can be tested, and thus which scientists will consider seriously, versus those that can’t, and which will thus be rejected out of hand[1]; a distinction between the substantial or meaningful theories and those lacking in substance or meaningless. As described [S] performs a similar function for our agents since it leads them to reject without further consideration those predictions that they can’t match to [R] experiences (real experiences).

One concept may appear to be lacking for these simple agents, however, is that of truth. Does this imply that truth is an essentially redundant notion, serving no purpose of its own, as some have claimed? On the contrary, I am inclined to take a cue from Peirce here and assert that their meta-prediction as a whole, their standards for inquiry, define what truth is for these agents. The concepts discussed here then do not supplant truth, rather they are partially definitive of it. And thus truth would amount to something like “X is true if and only if is substantial/meaningful and agrees with reality (the content of the real experiences of agents and reliable reports)”. Obviously I can’t “prove” that this constitutes a conception of truth or something like it for the simple agents, but I can show that it has certain properties that we would expect of a conception of truth. First it is something that these agents can never be sure that they have with complete certainty, since there is always more to learn about reality (as contained in future experiences), just as we think that we will never be able to know with complete certainty whether our best scientific theories are true. Secondly, the definition strongly implies that something can be true only if it corresponds with reality, and correspondence is an extremely intuitive way to capture truth in the eyes of many. To see how this is so consider a very simple theory, one that asserts that “all X are Y”. To consider what this theory asserts we must consider what X and Y mean. Given that the truth or falsity of this statement is determined by whether the agent takes that assertion to fit with its experiences, X and Y can only mean “things giving rise to experiences that the agent would deem ‘X’ to match to when the agent is exposed to them in circumstances where the agent would judge them to be [R]” and “things giving rise to experiences that the agent would deem ‘X’ to match …”. And if the statement is actually true it must be the case that there will never be an [R] experience in which ‘X’ will match without ‘Y’ matching. Which seems to imply that it can be true only if it expresses the way things “actually are”, since, in this case, to be true it must be the case that the things X and Y refer to really are co-extensive as the theory asserts, otherwise [R] experiences in which they come apart would be possible, and hence it wouldn’t be true.

Since the method of inquiry that is best for these agents seems to reflect significant and practically important distinctions within the actual scientific method it seems possible then that we might be able to use them to address the problems facing Peirce’s account of the scientific method. The first problem I described as facing Peirce’s project was that it didn’t give a plausible account of our tendency to take the beliefs of other people seriously, which Peirce leaned on heavily, because of our apparent willingness to ignore those beliefs in many cases. The [O] distinction, or objectivity, our corresponding concept, can be easily added to this account to provide an explanation of that tendency that agrees with our observations. Instead of supposing that people are disposed to take each other’s beliefs seriously in general we can suppose that they are disposed to take each other’s beliefs seriously in objective matters. Indeed this is exactly how [O] functions for our simple agents, it tells them which reports to ignore and which reports to take seriously when deciding the validity of their predictions. Similarly [R] or a conception of reality significantly similar to it, could also serve to replace Peirce’s troublesome metaphysical definition of reality. And, again, it can also explain why some experiences are taken to be relevant in the scientific method and other aren’t systematically, eliminating the possibility that the scientific method won’t produce agreement because inquirers won’t agree on what constitutes evidence. Finally, we can improve Peirce’s account of truth, not by denying that truth is the end of inquiry, but by making it better reflect the standards of scientific inquiry, such that a true statement is one that reflects reality, and so on. Understood in this way a conception of truth becomes a general guide to inquiry, such that thinking about which possibility is true under such a conception reveals which one the scientific method would endorse, or what we would have to do to get the scientific method to endorse one of them. But while such concepts are easily added to Peirce’s description of the scientific method, but simply tacking them on is not by itself an end to the difficulties

It may be true that adding such distinctions to Peirce’s account would make it better reflect the reality of scientific inquiry. However, by introducing such concepts that account would also become more complicated as well. Peirce seems to aim to show that the scientific method is the one method that is completely psychologically acceptable. But when we add these additional distinctions it would appear that this also opens up the possibility that people will draw these distinctions differently, yielding different and incompatible versions of the scientific method that they will find acceptable. One way out of this dilemma would be to simply claim that fundamentally we all draw the same conceptual distinctions, at least when it comes to matters of “rationality”. Such a claim doesn’t seem likely to be true, however, and it is far too “rationalist” to ever be accepted by someone like Peirce. So if we accept that people may draw these distinctions differently what we need is some psychological force that will eventually lead them to converge, and not just as a matter of convention but to some psychologically unique point. I think that frustration might do the job. It is psychologically plausible to suppose that people become frustrated when their theories lead them to undertake unsuccessful actions or when their theories are insufficient to predict the results of their actions. Now, as I have just discussed with respect to the simple agents, there is an optimal way to draw these distinctions, one that leads to the largest number of successful theories. If the distinctions are drawn differently then people will either end up having more false theories, leading to unsuccessful actions, or too few theories, preventing them from using them as a guide for successful action. In either case people will be frustrated, and that frustration, I suppose, will lead them to draw those distinctions so as to minimize that frustration. Thus ultimately those distinctions will be made in the same way by everyone, since which distinctions are objectively best is a fact that is independent from individual psychology.

But while that is a psychologically plausible account it does lean on the claim that the scientific method, specifically a scientific method in which there are particular ideas about objectivity, reality, and what it takes to be a substantive theory, is objectively the best at yielding accurate theories. And that is a claim that Peirce would not be willing to make, since it goes beyond his aim of showing that the scientific method is psychologically inevitable. Unfortunately for Peirce I don’t see a way out of appealing to the objective superiority of the scientific method; without such appeal there simply seems too much room for variation in what might be taken to be the scientific method to claim that the scientific method, as we know it, is psychologically necessitated. I, however, would not back away from claiming that the scientific method is objectively best because I think that that claim itself is something we can test, and thus something which we can conclude with confidence. That conclusion is, however, dependant on certain facts:
1. The world displays regularities
2. There are multiple agents that have the ability to communicate\
3. The world works the same for all agents
4. Miscommunication and misperception is possible
5. Cases of misperception are not intrinsically important
6. Entertaining a prediction comes at some cost to the agent
7. The world is complicated enough that being better able to predict facts about it in general trumps simpler strategies
Each of these facts seems to be true, though. And, more importantly it would seem that if any of those facts aren’t true that the scientific method would eventually lead us to be aware of it (at the very least through the general failure of that method). Now some might call such reasoning circular, and in a sense it is; I cannot demonstrate that we aren’t suffering from massive cognitive defects and deceptions that make knowing anything impossible. But I still think it provides a strong kind of justification for the scientific method, because to deny that it is an effective method would seem to involve denying one of the conditions on that list, which few would. Furthermore, we not restricted to reasoning in this way about the scientific method alone; we could also ask what would have to be the case to make the method of authority or the a priori method work, and we can observe that those facts seem not to hold. Finally, given that the scientific method will only be successful if those facts hold this account is clearly the best we can do in terms of a defense of the scientific method, or any method, because clearly which method is best will depend on facts about the situation that we can’t know a priori, and so no matter what method we settle on to defend it we must appeal to facts in a way that will seem circular. Thus this defense of the scientific method really is a good one; it is the best we can possibly do and constitutes some improvement over taking the scientific method on faith or because of its psychological appeal.


[1] Or perhaps should be. String theory in its current form seems un-testable, and in its current form seems like bad science to some, since it has yet to yield any substantial results, and since the only argument in its favor is its mathematical simplicity.

March 24, 2008

Paper: The Relative Strength of Political Obligations

Filed under: Papers,Political Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

A Theory of Political Obligation develops a theory that purports not just to be correct, but intuitive as well. Indeed there are certain intuitions that it does respect, but, problematically, people are of divided opinion as to whether political obligations exist at all. Thus a theory claiming that membership in society produces such obligations will be unintuitive to those who deny that political obligations exist, and denials of their existence will be unintuitive to those who think that they do exist. It may be that the intuitions of one of these two groups of people are simply in error, but this situation cries out for an explanation of who is wrong and why. Another, seemingly unrelated, open question facing the theory is how the obligations described by it fit with the other moral and prudential obligations we recognize. How do we determine which obligation takes precedence in cases where they conflict? While this technical issue might appear to have nothing whatsoever to do with conflicts of intuitions regarding the existence of political obligations I maintain, contrary to initial appearances, that a theory concerning how the political obligations described by the theory fit with our other obligations can be used to explain why intuitions concerning the existence of those obligations vary as widely as they do.

But before I get into those issues allow me to first describe the theory, since it is not the comparative strength of political obligations in general that I am concerned with here, only the strength of the political obligations as described in A Theory of Political Obligation. The reconstruction I will provide of that theory here deviates in two substantial ways from the original version, for reasons I will explain later, but I think that it is faithful to its essence. To understand the theory precisely, and to explore its foundational assumptions, perhaps it is best to start with a situation simpler than a full blown society. Consider then a single individual who has various inclinations and desires. Naturally we expect that their desires and inclinations will change, even over the course of a single day, as their mood changes and their attention directs them towards different things. If they straightforwardly tried to follow their inclinations and desires as they occurred to them no good would come of it; as soon as they were pursuing one course of action other ideas would strike them, motivating them to drop what they were doing for something else. Thus to manage themselves effectively individuals must have a way to manage their behavior in a way that overrules such transient mental fluctuations. One way that might be accomplished is through commitments; individuals commit themselves to a course of action via a decision which they then stick to unless there is an appropriate reason to set aside that commitment, something more than a change in attitude (as explained in A Theory of Political Obligation, henceforward abbreviated as TPO, pg. 127). Thus it seems appropriate to speak of such commitments as generating obligations to act as we have committed ourselves, since it seems that rationality, or at least practical rationality, would require us to do so, all else being equal (a claim which we can back up, if necessary, by appeal to the fact that without a habit of sticking to our commitments we would be unable to effectively manage our lives).

Such individual commitments have nothing to do with political obligations directly. But, just as there are individual subjects, so there are so-called plural subjects, collections of people that might be described as constituting a single body, and they too might have commitments that serve the purpose of self-regulation, and which generate obligations to obey them. But before I discuss those joint commitments a few words must be said about the plural subjects.[1] Obviously the goal of this reconstruction is to illuminate a theory that says something about political obligations, specifically about how political obligations can stem from membership. And so plural subjects, whatever they are, must include among their number the large bodies of people that in fact constitute societies that we live in. This rules out certain natural characterizations of what a plural subject might be, such as a group of people that acts as one, because while certain groups do fall under that description, such as a well-trained covert ops team, actual societies are large and fragmented. Their members often act in ways contrary to each others’ interests, and even who is a member is subject to constant change. A better characterization of the kind of plural subject we are after is, perhaps, a group of people whose well-being is interdependent, and who think of themselves as a single group. Thus nation states constitute plural subjects because of their economic and social structures, such that the fortunes of everyone tend to rise and fall together. But the set of blue eyed people does not constitute such a plural subject; they don’t consider themselves to be a single group, and even if they did their well-being wouldn’t be appropriately connected. And this characterization admits of smaller groups within the nation state which are tied together more closely, such as family groups, which surely counts in its favor (just as the original definition of plural subjects found in TPO does, see pg. 166, 173).

A joint commitment then is like an ordinary commitment in the following ways: it binds the group to a particular course of action (TPO pg. 134), we say that the members of the group are obligated to abide by the joint commitment (TPO pg. 156), and we might defend that claim by appeal to the necessity of such efficacious joint commitments in order for the group to manage itself[2]. The major difference between the two is, naturally, that the joint commitment is a product of a plurality of wills while individual commitments stem from the will of a single person. That difference will be quite significant when it comes to the details of how joint commitments come about; for example, in determining whether every member of the joint commitment has to actively will it into existence or whether it is possible for some of the members to just passively go along with it (TPO pg. 178 discusses this issue). Such questions are interesting, but are irrelevant to the current paper; here we will just assume that joint commitments do exist and are as described in the book. And given this account I assume that how such joint commitments can be said to give rise to political obligations is obvious and uncontentious; to manage itself the plural subject jointly commits to various political structures. It is thus obligated to obey the rules produced by those structures because of its joint commitment to them.

I mentioned earlier that this reconstruction differs from the original theory it is based on and inspired by in two substantial ways; now that I have provided my reconstruction it is time to point out and defend those differences. One substantial difference is that in this reconstruction plural subjects are described in advance of, and independently from, joint commitments, while in the original version they are simply a way of referring to the people who are jointly committed (TPO pg. 145). This alteration exists to avoid the possible objection that the theory falls short of describing political obligation as we actually conceive of them, and that it instead describes only a similar notion mistakenly taken to be the real thing. Such a claim might be made because there are many people who are ordinarily taken to be members of political societies, such as infants, the mentally infirm, the apathetic, etc, but who are not members in terms of the original theory; given that they cannot be or are not part of the joint commitment they are not part of the plural subject. Under the reconstruction described here, in contrast, such people are part of the plural subject, so long as they don’t actively rebel against it, because they are still connected to other people in the right ways, and are thus obligated by the joint commitments made by those willing and able to commit and which are imposed on them[3]. This, I think, brings the theory much closer in line with an ordinary understanding of what constitutes membership in a political society and thus of who is subject to political obligations[4]. The second substantial difference is that to justify the claim that commitments in general, and joint commitments specifically, give rise to obligations the fact that they were necessary for effective self-regulation was appealed to, while in the original version of the theory the fact that joint commitments create entitlement to and ownership of future actions was appealed to (TPO pg. 154). Again, the alteration exists to avoid a problem, this time the problem that there is disagreement regarding whether joint commitments do actually create ownership of future actions (and whether ownership of actions, especially future actions, even makes sense, or whether it is more like claiming ownership of the number four, i.e. something that can’t properly be owned). Some may have different intuitions or demand an explanation for why joint commitments give rise to relationships of ownership and owing, or why ownership constitutes a motivating reason to act, that appeals to more than intuition. By providing an explanation of why such commitments should be honored as a matter of practical rationality such issues are avoided completely. Naturally I don’t want to categorically deny that the original theory may have the resources to address the problems raised here, but, even if it does, there are two advantages to this reconstruction for the purposes of this paper. First it leaves the claims of the theory about joint commitments and their obligations essentially unchanged; the same claims about the standing to rebuke and demand, the attitudes associated with joint commitment, etc all hold for the reconstruction since joint commitments are still taken to be essentially the same kind of a product of a plurality of wills as they were in the original account, it is only how they are linked to obligations that is substantially changed. Secondly, and equally importantly, issues concerning who is obligated and whether they are obligated arising for the original theory are effectively bracketed by the reconstruction, which allows us to focus solely on the strength of those obligations, the real purpose of this paper.[5]

But, however compelling this reconstruction is, it must be granted that the obligations stemming from joint commitments may sometimes obligate us to act immorally. Since we have a moral reason to reject any theory that tells us to do something immoral (perhaps by claiming that we are obligated to obey such immoral rules, all things considered) it is natural to assume that moral obligations outweigh political obligations. It is equally problematic to assume that political obligations are weaker than the obligations that stem from personal commitments; since personal commitments are so ubiquitous it would mean that there would rarely be a role for considerations concerning political obligation to play. Such difficulties open up a new kind of problem, namely how to determine when one obligation is more important than another. Some remarks are made concerning these issues (TPO 11.4 especially pg. 279), but they lean heavily on our personal intuitions. There it is argued that conformity to the joint commitment seems to be of great importance (perhaps because of its connection to the existence of social order), and thus that it trumps lesser matters. But this appeals to our personal judgment concerning how important the joint commitment and conformity to it is. And I’m not sure that this actually does reflect our natural judgments: speeding violates the joint commitment, but few take flaunting it in that way as particularly momentous or dangerous to the preservation to social order. Of course I certainly wouldn’t deny that we have intuitions about which obligations are more important, such as our intuition that ethical obligations are more important than political obligations, but I claim that these intuitions are not, by themselves, sufficient to settle this matter. Intuitions on these issues vary greatly from person to person, in all likelihood more so than intuitions regarding the existence of political obligations, since there is far more conceptual space in which they might diverge. Furthermore, these intuitions seem quite complicated: different kinds of obligations may be thought to have precedence depending on facts about the situation. And so intuitions do not clearly suggest a theory about the relative strength of obligations. In such a situation, where we lack a systematic theory to back up our intuitions, it seems to me that an appeal to them to settle a matter of such import may be in danger of reducing philosophy to opinion. I also grant that this may be a problem that can only be settled with a complete theory of obligations, which I don’t have the resources here to develop from scratch or to reconstruct from the writings of some other philosopher. Instead the strategy I will pursue to answer this question is a tentative one; I will pick out two different aspects of obligations, roughly understood, that suggest themselves as a basis for ordering obligations. I will pursue each of these possibilities independently, simply assuming that it is the right way, and the only way, to rank obligations. If both of these ways roughly correspond with the intuitive ordering we give obligations and with each other then I will take that as a non-conclusive reason to believe their pronouncements about the relative strength of political obligations.

One component of our rough understanding of obligations is that ideally it would be best to satisfy every obligation. Let us call a strategy that satisfies all of our obligations the ideal path. Since the ideal path is a goal we can assume then that it is best to be as close to the ideal path as we can, and so that when obligations conflict we should break our obligations in such a way that we stray from the ideal path as little as possible. But how to determine when one course of action brings us farther from the path than another is still up for debate. So let us consider for a moment agreements to engage in some action under specific circumstances. Such agreements would be of the form: “if circumstances C obtain then you must do action X”. And let us further consider a set of such agreements where circumstances C are all relatively trivial. One agreement might be to speak in iambic pentameter whenever we are on the second floor of a building, another might be never to sit down while wearing something red. To one extent or another these circumstances are all under our control; if I need to sit down, for example, then I can always remove whatever red item I am wearing. Now suppose that we find ourselves in a situation were these conditional agreements conflict. To stick to the ideal path in such circumstances we must act so as to ensure that one or the other of the conditions that brings the conflicting obligations into play stops obtaining, which would end the contradiction between them. To free ourselves from those circumstances will require a certain amount of energy or sacrifice on our part, which will vary from agreement to agreement and situation to situation. Thus when we find ourselves in a situation where the obligations stemming from such agreements conflict in this way we can say that we are K distance from the ideal path, where K is a measure of the difficulty in freeing ourselves from the easiest condition. And this kind of talk strongly suggests that when we fail to fulfill one of our obligations that the distance we are from the ideal path is equal to the difficulty that we would have had in freeing ourselves from that obligation. This gives us the rule that we originally set out to find; when we find ourselves in situations where our obligations conflict, and where we must break at least one of them, we should break the obligation that, in normal circumstances, it would have been easiest to legitimately release ourselves from.

But, while this may seem unproblematic for the special kinds of agreements that I have been talking about, it may seem less plausible for other kinds of obligations, which don’t seem to have clear exit conditions. I agree that when it comes to ethical obligations that it doesn’t seem that they are escapable. But ethical obligations may be a special class of obligations, and, as inescapable, the difficulty of freeing ourselves from them is infinite, providing a justification for the intuitive claim that ethical obligations trump all other kinds of obligations. But when it comes to other kinds of obligations it does seem like there are ways of freeing ourselves from them. Consider, for example, the obligations generated by our individual commitments. It was already noted that a special act of will could overturn those commitments, and thus that the difficulty in freeing ourselves from such commitments is roughly proportional to the difficulty in making that particular act of the will. Similarly, agreements between two parties seem escapable as well, with the difficulty being equal to how hard it is to convince the other party to prematurely lift that agreement. (If you agree with someone to take certain actions it seems legitimate to say that you are no longer obligated to take those actions if you make them some offer such that the other party now agrees that you are no longer obligated by the terms of the original agreement.) Even the obligations to satisfy our own desires that stem from prudence/self-interest (or commitments we make to satisfy such desires, if such desires aren’t taken to intrinsically generate obligations) seem escapable, with the difficulty being how hard it is to change what we desire. It is no surprise then that there are ways to escape the obligations stemming from joint commitments, namely by leaving the plural subject, since the joint commitment applies only to that plural subject.

According to this theory making a judgment about how strong political obligations are requires a position on what it takes to leave a joint commitment, a claim that may itself be contentious. So let me begin with another thought experiment. Consider then a large plural subject, made of members who don’t all know each other. This plural subject is jointly committed to a number of different rules, one of which being that all the members must wear a particular kind of black hat. Because of this the members recognize each other by those black hats, since they don’t all know each other personally, and some of their rules exist to make sure that people wearing the black hats are honoring their commitments. Now suppose that a stranger arrives on the scene, who has no knowledge of this group, but who coincidentally happens to be wearing one of their peculiar black hats. The members of this plural subject may take this person to be another member and thus subject to their obligations, as well as outsiders who are familiar with the custom. However, it is quite clear that the outsider wearing the hat is not actually obligated, despite these perceptions, because they do not consider themselves part of the group or to be so obligated, even though everyone else takes them as publicly signaling their participation in that joint commitment, since this is the only thing that currently distinguishes them from the members[6]. What I claim this situation shows is this: whatever it takes to be a member of a plural subject it is at least partially dependant on the individual’s thinking of themselves as a member. This implies that all it takes to stop being a member of a plural subject is to stop considering oneself to be a member, which may be somewhat difficult because of habit, but not impossible.

I grant that some will disagree with this claim, and may think that the existing structure of the plural subject prevents such easy egress. Before I address such arguments let me first point out that they don’t win much in this context; one can physically leave actual plural subjects quite simply by making it to a border and renouncing ones citizenship[7]. In any case, one argument against this position might rest on the claim that, as someone who currently accepts the joint commitment, that they cannot so easily leave the plural subject through something as trivial as a change of attitude towards their own status as a member because they have accepted that they won’t (and are thus obligated not to), or that by not physically leaving it is understood that they agree to be part of the plural subject. But the problem with such rules is that they are predicated on the person’s being a member, and give them reason not to stop being a member. However, if they stop being a member obviously such rules cease to have any force. So while they are a member they aren’t breaking those rules, and when they aren’t a member they aren’t breaking those rules (because they apply only to members). Thus I conclude that such rules don’t have any real force since it is impossible to actually be in violation of them, no matter what you do[8].

Alternatively, the idea that cutting ones self off from a plural subject can be done via an act of will alone might also be argued against by appealing to the claim that the historical fact that we were once jointly committed still generates obligations for us, regardless of our current feelings about it. However, to hold that an obligation can depend on historical facts contradicts certain fundamental assumptions about obligations. Specifically, I take it as given that an obligation necessarily comes along with a motivating reason to act, even if that reason is not absolutely conclusive. Consider then a possible universe which is exactly like ours except that time in that universe began at a point equivalent to last Tuesday in the actual universe. Obviously there is no way to tell from the perspective of an inhabitant of this unusual universe whether it began on Tuesday or not, since after Tuesday events in that universe will proceed in exactly the same way as they do in the real universe. However, in this fictional universe there are no historical facts before that Tuesday, for obvious reasons, which is a substantial difference between the two, even if the inhabitants can’t be aware of that fact. Now if obligations could depend on historical facts then it would be the case that in this universe some such obligations would be thought to exist but would not, in actuality, since the historical facts they are thought to depend on, such as past commitments, are missing. But, as already observed, events in the two universes will proceed in exactly the same fashion; at least they will if our best scientific theories are right. Consequently, obligations dependant on historical facts must be epiphenomenal, i.e. without causal significance, since their presence, of lack thereof, has no impact on how events unfold. But if such obligations are epiphenomenal they can hardly be relevant to our reasons for action since their existence, and hence whether we act in accordance with them, has no observable consequences. This I take to be a reductio of the claim that obligations of any sort, and thus those stemming from joint commitment in particular, can depend on historical facts. Of course it is possible to bite the bullet and admit that obligations dependant on historical facts are independent of our reasons for action, but would be to make such obligations much weaker than supposed, not stronger.

In any case, to return to primary concern of this section, such an analysis of the strength of obligations makes political obligations seem relatively weak. Since freeing ourselves of our political obligations is relatively easy they rank among the other obligations that we are able to free ourselves of by what amounts to an act of will. Of course some acts of will are harder to make than others, and so I wouldn’t claim that every desire and personal commitment can trump political obligations. But it does seem that certain desires and commitments, which we hold to more firmly than our desire to be part of the plural subject, such as close personal attachments, may.

This brings us to the other strategy for evaluating the relative strength of obligations. The method discussed previously is very abstract; although the difficulty of freeing ourselves from particular obligations is obviously something that depends partially on the empirical world there is a sense in which it depends more on the abstract structure of that obligation itself, which brings with it the conditions that may free us of it. Such an abstract perspective on obligations is not to everyone’s liking. It is also possible to examine them from a naturalistic or empirical standpoint, focusing on the fact that obligations constitute a motivating reason to act. And it is easy to see the giving of reasons to individuals as the core of the obligation, and thus that which obligation is stronger ultimately comes down to which obligation constitutes a more psychologically compelling reason to act. Obviously few would embrace the idea that how people do act and decide which reason seems more compelling is necessarily how they should act. However, the idea that how people would act if they were exposed to all the facts and had reasoned correctly about them is how they should act does have some plausibility.

Under such an assumption it is also natural to assume that people usually have access to the pertinent facts and that they usually reason successfully, so that, unless special circumstances are involved, general patterns in human behavior reflect how people should act (modulo any widespread defects in human reasoning). According to this view then obligations stemming from certain kinds of prudence/self-interest and ethics are relatively strong. It should be obvious why obligations to oneself are strong under this view, so let me just say a few words about ethics. There are many people who would claim that ethics is a weak kind of obligation under this view, or that there isn’t any reason for them to be ethical, except for the fear of punishment. However, simply looking at the majority of human behavior indicates that when it comes to face to face interactions ethics usually has a strong say in the matter, especially with respect to core ethical principles such as not killing each other. Naturally there are occasional exceptions to this rule, such as anti-social personalities, circumstances of extreme desperation, and impersonal cruelty. But in such cases we can attribute actions that seem contrary to what is ethical to defects in reasoning, overshadowing by stronger obligations to survive, and a lack of awareness concerning all the facts about the suffering of other people, respectively. Thus it seems justifiable to claim under this method for comparing obligations that the reasons ethics provides are fairly strong ones.

The obligations generated by joint commitments seem much weaker in comparison. Obviously some joint commitments, such as the commitment to drive according to certain conventions, we will have to set aside, since obeying them accords with prudence, and so it is hard to say which of the two is really giving us reason to act in accordance with them or which is responsible for the strength of that reason. Instead I would like to turn our attention towards rules that seem contrary to ethics or to prudence, such as tax law. A simple inspection of such rules reveals an interesting fact; not only do the rules exist, but punishments for breaking them are enforced as well. But why do such punishments exist? Clearly there is no need to threaten to punish people who act against their own commitments or own self interest; people have reason to act in accordance with those obligations and so they generally tend to. And while there may be punishments for acting unethically the considerations discussed above reveal that such punishments exist to influence the behavior of the minority who act irrationally rather than the majority who will rarely consider actually acting unethically. But, when it comes to the rules stemming from joint commitment alone, punishment seems necessary, since many would conclude that it was rational for them to break unenforced laws when it would be to their substantial advantage. It would be absurd to think that many would pay their taxes if the associated punishments were never actually doled out. This doesn’t mean that joint commitments don’t constitute reason to act, but it does imply that, in general, those reasons are weaker than those that substantial self-interest generates, such that punishments need to be enforced so as to give people additional prudential reasons to conform to the joint commitment. Indeed there is data to support this claim: crime statistics suggest that roughly 1% of the population will engage in substantially unethical behavior (either acts of violence, theft, or fraud). In contrast NIDA (the National Institute on Drug Abuse) estimates that over 40% of the population has illegally used controlled substances on at least one occasion[9], which seems like a serious breach of the joint commitment given that simple possession for a first time offender can result in jail time. This implies, in terms of the general analysis of the relative strength of obligations introduced at the beginning of this section, that the obligations created by joint commitments are weaker than those generated by people’s persistent desires (or personal commitments associated with such), given that most people are swayed by those desires over the joint commitment in many circumstances.

Now this is not to say that the obligations generated by joint commitments are absolutely the weakest possible. It does seem likely that when it comes to our inclinations or fleeting desires that people in general would favor the joint commitment over them (although obviously this is an empirical claim, subject to confirmation). This seems to give the obligations of joint commitment roughly the same strength as they had under the previous strategy considered, namely that they are somewhere between commitments associated with our strongest and weakest desires. Since these two substantially different approaches to evaluating the strength of political obligations agree, at least roughly, if not on every detail, it seems to me that this gives us reason to believe these assessments, as mentioned earlier.

This might seem unintuitive to some, but, even if it is, this analysis has other virtues, namely that it can explain why people disagree as to whether political obligations exist at all. I postulate that people have different expectations as to how strong an obligation has to be to really count as an obligation. Some have a high standard for what counts as an obligations, and this explains why they feel that obligations should be substantially recalcitrant to the will[10], a somewhat strong kind of obligation, and may be disposed to deny that our individual commitments generate obligations, since those obligations are very weak by any measure. People with such intuitions may therefore be led to believe that political obligations don’t exist, since they are a weak sort of obligation. But others have a lower threshold when it comes to obligations, such that they consider almost everything that generates reasons to act, including personal commitments, to be obligations. They are thus led to believe that political obligations exist, since they are stronger than that threshold. In this way the theory of political obligation can be reconciled with a range of intuitions concerning the existence of those obligations without denying that anyone is substantially wrong or confused, so long as we are willing to grant what the two strategies for analyzing the strength of obligations developed in this paper concluded, that political obligations are a relatively weak sort of obligation, which at least I find intuitive.


[1] This is the first major divergence from the theory presented in TPO. There plural subjects are defined just as the people who are involved in a joint commitment (TPO pg. 145).

[2] This is the second major divergence from the theory presented in TPO. In the original version obligations are argued to exist because of considerations of owing and ownership of actions (TPO pg. 157).

[3] Obviously the original theory can describe these people as having imputed obligations (pg. 41), but that is quite clearly not the kind of obligation that we are interested in. A satisfactory solution of the membership problem, I maintain, must demonstrate that members of society, which includes people such as the apathetic, the mentally infirm, etc, have real obligations. It is trivially obvious that all members of society have imputed obligations, and if such obligations were enough for a successful solution to the membership there would be no need for an involved theory concerning joint commitments at all. And so it would seem that a solution to the membership problem which assigns to some members only imputed obligations is not a complete solution.

[4] It also neatly solves the objections that Simmons raises, that the account in TPO doesn’t work given the largely passive nature of membership, and which substantial effort is made to avoid, for example at TPO pg. 178.

[5] A further advantage, in my eyes, is that the reconstruction is essentially free of any appeals to intuition since it is ultimately supported not by intuitive definitions, but rather by appeal to empirical facts, namely that certain strategies, i.e. honoring the joint commitment, are practically effective. I concede though that not everyone would consider that an advantage.

[6] It might be argued that historical facts might set them part from the group, such as the fact that they didn’t enter into that commitment in the past, but I take it to be impossible for the existence of an obligation to depend on historical facts, a claim I will argue for subsequently.

[7] I find this to be an unsatisfactory measure because it varies by location and wealth, which seems highly unintuitive to me, as it seems unjust to hold the poor and those unlikely to be born farther away from the borders to a higher standard. Indeed if our society makes them more obligated I would think that we were doing something substantially wrong.

[8] This also can be taken as an argument that agreements aren’t kinds of joint commitments since agreements don’t work this way. Indeed I would take this line of argument to provide reason to believe that agreements are given their obligating power, including the obligation not to unilaterally back out of particular agreements, by external social constructs and conventions that are independent of particular agreements, thus making skipping out on the agreement contrary to practical rationality because one is still subject to the larger social structures (assuming that we haven’t left the joint commitment as well), which frown on such behavior.

[9] According to a 2001 study.

[10] Although in TPO it was argued that obligations stemming from joint commitment were substantially recalcitrant to the will I have argued against that claim here, since it follows from the fact that such obligations are partly dependant on our present mental state that certain acts of will can rid us of them.

March 23, 2008

Paper: Certainty, Reason, and the Aim of the Meditations

Filed under: Papers — Peter @ 12:00 am

Almost everyone agrees on what Spinoza and Leibniz are trying to accomplish through their projects; they are clearly attempting to demonstrate metaphysical truths from principles that they take as appropriate foundations. Because it is natural to think of Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz as a group, I think there is a tendency to apply a conception of a rationalist project abstracted from their projects onto Descartes’s work, resulting in what I call the naïve reading of the Mediations. Under the naïve reading Descartes too is taken to be searching for philosophical truths, either through transcendental arguments or by using a special cognitive faculty. I argue that, despite their naturalness, such readings of the Mediations face significant problems either in the form of inconsistency with textual evidence or by taking Descartes’s project to have significant structural difficulties, such as the infamous Cartesian circle. Following Frankfurt, I develop an interpretation of the Meditations that takes Descartes to be primarily interested in certainty, not truth, and, following Hatfield, which understands the importance of the Meditations in relation to Descartes’s scientific projects. Specifically I claim that in the Mediations Descartes aimed to provide a foundation for his science that, by being certain, was immune from the kind of radical revision that his science constituted for the Aristotelian worldview. This interpretation has the advantages of fitting with the text and giving his project an interpretation under which it is at least structurally sound (i.e. doesn’t involve reasoning in circles), although it does drive a wedge between Descartes and the rest of the rationalists.

1: The Naïve Reading

That may sound like an unusual reading of Descartes, and since its plausibility is justified partially by the problems facing more natural and more philosophical approaches perhaps it is best to start with them. One popular reading of the First Meditation is to see it as portraying Descartes as concerned primarily with avoiding the possibility of error. There he asserts that “I should hold back my assent from opinions that are not completely certain and indubitable just as carefully as I do from those which are patently false” (7:18), and adds “once the foundations of a building are undermined, anything built upon them collapses of its own accord” (7:18). Admittedly, in context, that remark is directed not at the metaphysical system Descartes intends to construct, but rather at the mediator’s pre-existing belief system. But certainly if Descartes takes these remarks about foundations to be true of one system we have every reason to conclude that he would take it to be true of all systems, and so, taken together, they suggest a reason that might have led Descartes to begin his project by introducing skeptical doubts. Descartes, as we know, wants to establish something that is “stable and likely to last” in the sciences, and so he mustn’t allow any false propositions to be part of his system, especially at the beginning, as these false propositions will constitute an unsound foundation and, when used as a basis for further conclusions, will lead to even more false beliefs.

On the basis of such reasoning it is natural to conclude that Descartes wishes to reject absolutely everything in order to avoid beginning with such unsound foundations. Since it doesn’t seem, at least at this point, that we have any fail-safe way of distinguishing the true from the false (as evidenced by the fact that we do make errors, which we sometimes take as true for long periods of time), the only way to avoid error is simply to reject every belief that we have out of hand. Descartes’s later comparison of our set of beliefs to a basket full of apples (7:481), where bad apples can infect good ones and where we must empty the basket out completely so as to be sure of filling it with only the good ones, seems to support this reading of the Meditations. If we understand his project in this way his next step, the cogito, is in effect to produce a true belief from nothing; despite the fact that we have set aside all our preconceived opinions we are still able to demonstrate that the cogito holds, and thus that our existence is guaranteed, without appeal to any of the beliefs set aside. Thus the cogito is a known good apple which we can put back in the basket, and from there further claims can be built until we have recovered much of what we thought we knew, along with a new Cartesian metaphysics.

This reading, while tempting, is naïve, and one interpretive issue that faces it is that the picture of the Mediations as deductions from certain special propositions that need no foundation is difficult to support textually. But such issues are not the focus of this paper. A more significant problem with the naïve reading is that it takes Descartes’ philosophical project itself to be a substantially naïve enterprise. On reflection it is obvious that to get anywhere philosophically significant with the kind of certainty that Descartes is claimed to be after that certain principles of reason, such as logical laws, must be assumed to hold. Consider, for example, the cogito. Although there are many interpretations of the cogito I will simply consider Broughton’s reconstruction (118-9) as an example of this naïve reading:
1. If I have reason to doubt my existence then I must grant that it may be the case that it is something other than my existence that leads me to doubt that I exist.
2. If I believe I exist because I exist, or because of some deceiving cause, then I exist.
3. If I have reason to doubt my existence then I must grant that I exist.
If premises 1 and 2 are to be taken to establish 3 with certainty, and if the cogito is to be independent of all the beliefs that we have supposedly rejected because of the doubts, then it must be the case that we know that premises 1 and 2 are true in virtue of their logical structure alone and we must know that together they guarantee the truth of the conclusion, 3. Similar claims can be made about almost any reconstruction of the cogito along these lines; no matter how it is claimed that we arrive at it to really endorse “I think, I exist” we must accept some principle that informs us of the truth of the cogito as infallible, or at least beyond doubt. But then we must not have honestly emptied our minds of preconceived opinions as Descartes instructed us to, since surely such principles would have been tossed out with the rest. This observation, in conjunction with the naïve reading of the Meditations, implies that either Descartes was simply blind to his reliance on reason, an implausible mistake for a great philosopher to make, or that Descartes thought that reason was simply incapable of error, which also seems unlikely, since in the course of his formal training in logic surely Descartes must have encountered logical fallacies that were intuitively taken were taken as correct and had to be removed by training.

Of course it is possible for great philosophers to be in error or make mistakes just as mere mortals do, and so it isn’t prime facie impossible that Descartes thought reason was immune from error, and could be assumed to be so from the outset, or that he simply didn’t realize the essential role that reason played. But, unfortunately for the naïve reading of the Meditations, there is textual evidence that undermines these suggestions. In the Replies to the Second Objections, Descartes writes: “What is it if someone should perhaps imagine that the very thing whose truth we have been so firmly persuaded appears false to God or to an angel, and that as a consequence it is false, speaking absolutely? … For we are supposing a persuasion so firm that it can in no way be removed – a persuasion, therefore, that is exactly the same as the most perfect certainty” (7:145). The firm persuasion spoken of in this passage can be naturally interpreted, in context, to be the operation of pure reason (reason applied when all beliefs that might be doubted are set aside), which yields things such as the cogito. And yet in this passage Descartes admits that the conclusions reached in this way might be false, although if they were that we would never know them to be false nor have any grounds for doubting them. In light of that comment it seems unlikely that Descartes took reason to be necessarily immune from error (although he might have thought it was immune to detectable error), for, if he did, this passage would make little sense. If he believed in reason’s absolute infallibility he should have asserted instead that there is simply no way for certain beliefs to be in error, from any perspective.

If Descartes doesn’t take reason to be immune from the possibility of error then, if it is to be consistent, the naïve reading would have us believe that he must have overlooked the role of reason, and thought that he could make do without its principles until he had properly grounded them (lest possibly faulty principles of reason undermine the foundation). But this proposal too conflicts with the text: “the term ‘preconceived opinion’”, Descartes writes, “applies not to all the notions which are in our mind (which I admit is impossible for us to get rid of) but only to all the opinions which we have continued to accept as a result of previous judgments that we have made” (9A:204). It was preconceived opinions that Descartes thought we should rid ourselves of, and so here he is explicitly stating that he didn’t intend to empty his mind of everything at the beginning of the Meditations, but only of a certainly class of beliefs. Since the principles of reason do not follow from previous judgments, they would seem to be exactly the sort of thing that Descartes isn’t insisting that we must rid ourselves of. And, as indicated, they may very well be impossible to do without, since we can’t think or philosophize without them.[1] This leaves the naïve reading of the Meditations without a textual foundations, because Descartes explicitly admits that reason might lead us astray and that reason, among other things, is not to be put aside at the outset of the Mediations, meaning that the system Descartes will establish in this way does not appear to be incapable of being false (or, if it is, at least not as the naïve reading would have it, i.e. because the foundation contains only beliefs that must be true).

2: In Search of Certainty

Thus we are in need of a sophisticated reading of the project of the Mediations to replace our naïve one. And the first step towards such a reading is to take a closer look at how Descartes portrays his project in the First Mediation. In light of the issues just discussed, the primary problem with the naïve reading appears to be that it assumes a conception of Descartes’ project that owes more to a familiarity with the rationalists in general than with Descartes specifically. The naïve reading takes Descartes’s aim to be to deduce metaphysical truths from certain foundations, but that is not what Descartes portrays himself as doing. In the very first paragraph of the First Mediation Descartes establishes that his aim is to establish something that is “stable and likely to last” (7:17). Conspicuously he doesn’t assert that he wishes to establish metaphysical or scientific truths, but rather something that won’t be later significantly revised or overturned, which leaves open the possibility that this stable body of claims might be false in some way. Similarly, Descartes’ maxim that we should withhold our assent from any proposition that we have reason to doubt (7:18), again emphasizes a desire to find something indubitable with no concern to whether what is indubitable is true or false. And at 7:22 he further reiterates the claim that certainty is his goal. At least in the First Meditation then, where Descartes is setting up the project of the Meditations as a whole, certainty seems the primary objective.

This reading of the Meditations, as a search for an indubitable metaphysics by setting aside any foundations that could possibly be called into doubt, seems to fit what Descartes says in the first meditation, but it may appear, at first glance, that it is incompatible with the apple basket metaphor to which he appeals in the Seventh Objections. That passage may seem to provide strong textual support for the naïve reading, and we must find another way to interpret it if an alternative reading of the Meditations is to be consistent with the text. In that passage Descartes claims, at least at first glance, that the motivation for emptying out our minds is to prevent falsity from having any foothold, which seemingly commits Descartes to a search for truth since falsity, if unknown, poses no danger to certainty. Let’s take a look at the passage to see if another reading is possible:

Suppose he had a basket full of apples and, being worried that some of the apples were rotten, wanted to take out the rotten ones to prevent the rot from spreading. How would he proceed? Would he not begin by tipping out the whole lot out of the basket? And would not the next step be to cast his eye over each apple in turn, and pick up and put back in the basket only those he saw to be sound, leaving the others? In just the same way, those who have never philosophized correctly have various opinions in their minds which they have begun to store up since childhood, and (1) which they therefore have reason to believe may in many cases be false. (2) They then attempt to separate the false beliefs from the others, so as to prevent their contaminating the rest and making the whole lot uncertain. Now the best way that they can accomplish this is to reject all their beliefs in one go, as if they were all uncertain and false. (3) They can then go over each belief in turn and re-adopt only those they recognize to be true and indubitable. (7:481)

In this passage I have identified three sentences that may appear to pose problems for the reading of the Meditations under development. 1 might seem to imply that the problem with beliefs adopted since childhood is that some of them are false. But a closer look reveals that the real problem is that they have reason to think that those beliefs may be false, which means that they are not indubitable, as Descartes would wish, and thus that anything founded on them would be dubitable as well. This is to emphasize the fact that it is not their falsity that Descartes finds troublesome, which would be a problem in a search for truth, but that they might be questioned, that reasons to distrust them might be found, which is a problem in a search for certainty. But that is not the end of the difficulties this passage raises. In sentence 2 Descartes seems to assert that the method of doubt is a means to accomplish the goal of getting rid of false foundational beliefs. But I think it is reasonable to take that as simply poor wording on the part of Descartes or his translators, because in that same sentence he states that the false beliefs are to be eliminated so that they don’t make the whole collection uncertain. That is not what false beliefs would do; they would make the whole lot false. And so it is better to read this sentence as asserting that the possibly false beliefs, the dubitable ones, should be separated so as to remove uncertainty, which also fits the previous sentence better, given that Descartes has just been talking about a set of beliefs which in many cases may be false (not which are necessarily false). Finally, we must make sense of sentence 3, which appears to claim that the beliefs re-adopted will be both true and indubitable, or that truth and indubitability are the same thing (which obviously contradicts what he says at 7:145, as mentioned previously). It is hard to make sense of this sentence, but what Descartes may have had in mind is that the mediator using his method can re-adopt those beliefs that they “recognize to be true”, and that recognizing a belief as true is not to say that the belief is really true, but only that we can’t help but accept its truth. In other words, that it is indubitable. Thus this reading of the Meditations does seem like it can fit with what Descartes actually wrote in this passage, if not the ideas that it is most tempting to project on to him, but it remains to be seen whether it can be made to cohere with the overall project.

Before moving on, I wish to first say a few words about the meaning of reason and indubitability in this context. People can mean many things when they talk about reason. They can, for example, designate by it the term certain logical norms that they consider supremely rational. But under the interpretation I am developing, those are not the kinds of things that we would want to say are part of reason, and thus which are not emptied out of the mind by Descartes (as mentioned previously in the discussion of the passage at 9A:204). Because people can learn and unlearn such rules it is clear that they are dubitable. So when we talk about reason in this context we must mean something less, specifically something like the operations of the mind or pure intellect that make us simply see a connection of entailment between two ideas or propositions, such that we see one of them as necessarily following from the other (this fits with Descartes’s remark at 7:144 that certain intellectual activities give rise to spontaneous convictions in the truth of ideas, which I take to be the activity of reason). Since reason as such is primitive and innate, and not the result of a previous judgment or training, we don’t have to set it aside as dubitable as a result of the dialectic of doubt, again as mentioned in 9A:204. And we can use this understanding of what reason is to say what is dubitable as well: a claim is dubitable if and only if we can rationally entertain a scenario in which it is false. Obviously this means that the things reason compels us to believe, such as connections of entailment, are themselves indubitable, as reason won’t allow us to entertain a scenario in which they are false. Although Descartes never explicitly embraces such a definition of what is dubitable, it coheres with his method of doubt, given that he throws claims into doubt by giving explanations of how they could possibly be false.[2]

3: Interpretive Questions and Difficulties

With this understanding in place, we can now turn our attention to the problems and unanswered questions that this interpretation of the Mediations naturally raises. One of these problems is that, while we may not be able to doubt any particular claim that reason leads us to, we are fully capable of doubting reason as a whole, suspecting that our faculty of reason may be flawed and lead us to errors. Descartes himself seems fully capable of entertaining such doubts. At 7:145 he comments that reason might be false from some absolute perspective, which seems tantamount to admitting that reason as a whole is dubitable. Furthermore, the skeptical scenario Descartes constructs at 7:21, where he entertains the possibility that we have come about by chance and are highly defective beings, seems to cast doubt on the faculty of reason as well, since it is unlikely that the faculties of a defective being are especially reliable. If we accept the validity of such doubts then it would seem that nothing is indubitable, because even if we accept that we can’t help but accept certain beliefs we could still entertain the idea that those beliefs as a class might be false, in whole or in part, and thus we might be led to withhold our assent from them. And if that is the situation we find ourselves in nothing can get us out, because at that point there are no indubitable claims with which we might “prove” the correctness of reason. Overcoming this problem is one thing that we must do to improve the reading of the Meditations under development.

This reading also raises additional questions. We might wonder what makes the faculty of reason especially important for inquiry, given that there are other mental faculties that also produce spontaneous judgments. The senses, for example, seem to put ideas into our minds that we cannot easily deny. Now the obvious answer is that these other faculties are dubitable, but that response is not totally satisfactory given that reason itself also seems somewhat dubitable. Furthermore, the judgments of the senses are only dubitable in the sense that we may withhold our assent from them given appropriate motivation, although they will always present themselves to us unbidden. And it looks like we might say the same thing about reason, that it presents certain beliefs and inferences to us, but that we might still withhold our assent from them. Secondly, we might wonder what the importance of indubitable ideas is. If indubitably might come apart from the truth, so to speak, it would seem better to have true ideas, even if they might be doubted; certainly there is no logical problem with doing accepting dubitable beliefs as true since we already accept many things that Descartes takes to be dubitable. So to complete our interpretive task we must explain why Descartes aims at indubitable propositions, why reason plays a central role in this endeavor, and find a way to put reason as a whole beyond the reach of doubt or show how that problem might be defeated in some other way.

Let us turn then to other interpretations to see whether they can shed any light on these matters. I begin with Frankfurt’s interpretation in Demons, Dreamers, and Madmen. Frankfurt presents a reading of the Meditations similar to the one being developed here; he too thinks that Descartes is concerned primarily with finding something beyond doubt, and he thinks that Descartes is largely unconcerned with whether what he determines to be certain is true in an “absolute” sense (Frankfurt 25-6). Frankfurt also agrees that reason has a special place within Descartes’s system. He claims that Descartes doesn’t take seriously the possibility that he might be mad because madness undermines the mediator’s capacity for reason (Frankfurt 38). Descartes, on Frankfurt’s reading, is only concerned with reasonable grounds for doubt because reason is necessary for the investigation to be conducted at all, which he concludes partly on the basis of Descartes’ dismissal of madness as a serious possibility when considering grounds for doubt in the First Meditation (7:19). This provides an answer to one of the interpretative questions raised previously: reason has a special status because Descartes sees it as a precondition for our ability to conduct the Meditations. Frankfurt also has a suggestion as to why Descartes is after certain beliefs and not those that are “absolutely” true; he suggests that, since certainty as understood by Descartes entails coherence, certainty is all we really want of our beliefs because, if they cohere, we can never be in a situation where they can fail us or where we can be made aware of their absolute falsity (Frankfurt 179). Both suggestions seem like natural additions to the interpretation under development.

But none of these suggestions help deal with the problem created by the dubitability of reason itself. We can’t, for example, resist entertaining such doubts because we deem reason necessary. That justifies, at the most, proceeding as if reason were reliable, it doesn’t justify concluding that it is necessarily reliable. Nor might we appeal to the coherence of reason as sufficient, regardless of whether it leads us astray in other ways, because we might doubt that coherence; we may simply judge that it is coherent as a result of one of its flaws while inconsistencies lie in wait just beyond the bend. And, while we are on the topic of the shortcomings of Frankfurt’s interpretation, we might also question whether coherence is a worthwhile goal given that what our beliefs have to cohere with is allowed to be redefined (Descartes, for example, deemphasizes coherence with the senses). It is easy to construct toy systems that are as useless as they are coherent.

Of course not all the experts would agree either with Frankfurt’s interpretation of Descartes or the variation under development. Hatfield, for example, construes Descartes project differently. He acknowledges that passages such as 7:145 and the wording of the First Meditation may lead us to believe that Descartes is seeking certainty instead of truth, and that such a reading of the Meditations points towards a way of avoiding the infamous Cartesian circle, since Descartes would only be aiming to demonstrate that we can be certain of god’s existence, which requires no questionable appeal to claims that are supported by god’s existence (Hatfield 172). However, Hatfield thinks that the existence of the divine guarantee, found in the Fourth Meditation, rules out that interpretation. It is beyond the scope of this paper to investigate exactly what Descartes is doing in the Fourth Meditation, but, given that Hatfield sees it as posing an interpretive problem, some treatment of it must be provided. I take it that it is not in dispute that going into the Fourth Meditation, before the truth rule is in play, that all we can say about our conclusions is that we are certain of them, which allows that they may be false in some absolute sense (if we could conclude that they were true at this point then there would be no need to establish a truth rule, we would already have such a rule). And in the Fourth Meditation Descartes concludes that clear and distinct perceptions are true (7:62). Putting those two claims together, what we can conclude is that the Fourth Meditation purports to establish that it is certain that clear and distinct perceptions are true. But that doesn’t mean that they are true, because, as has already been noted, things that we are certain of might be false, and so it may be that the conclusion of the Fourth Meditation is false. In other words, clear and distinct perceptions may mislead, even though we are certain that they won’t. What, then, is the point of the truth rule? Well, if something is true, then it is clear that nothing will contradict it, and so we can take Descartes as saying in the Fourth Meditation that reason will not contradict beliefs we take as certain (remembering that we simply find various ideas and inferences to be certain without justification; thus it is conceivable that they might conflict). Thus the Fourth Meditation can be understood as providing a kind of consistency proof for reason (Frankfurt develops a similar interpretation of the truth rule in his chapter 15).[3] This doesn’t disprove Hatfield’s proposed interpretation of the Fourth Mediation, but it does show that what Descartes says about truth there need not contradict the reading of the mediations under development.

Let’s now consider what Hatfield says about the other interpretive problems facing us, namely whether reason as a whole is dubitable and what Descartes’s goal in establishing an indubitable metaphysics was. While Hatfield recognizes the possibility that reason itself may be cast into doubt, he doesn’t see a way for Descartes to escape this problem either. He writes that Descartes, by his own standards, cannot rule out the defective origins hypothesis by appeal to god, since if true it would throw the existence of god into doubt, nor is he justified in simply presupposing that the intellect functions properly (Hatfield 231). Hatfield does, however, propose a solution to our other interpretive problem. He suggests that it is important to read the Meditations in the context of Descartes’ concerns in physics and with overturning Aristotelianism. Descartes’ physics was based on different principles and a different way of looking at the world than the systems that had preceded it, and thus its very foundations would seem questionable to many. Thus, Hatfield suggests, we can read the Meditations as an attempt to guide the readers to use their faculty of reason, the pure intellect, both in order to clear away the confused principles central to Aristotelian physics and to lend credibility to the foundations of the new physics (Hatfield 232-4, ch. 9). This certainly seems to be a plausible idea, and if we can show how indubitability is essential to that aim we will have solved one of our interpretive problems.

4: Problems Solved and Questions Answered

So while neither of the experts have solutions to all of our interpretive problems they had ideas that solved different problems, and so it falls to us to put those pieces together into a cohesive whole. The best place to begin is by addressing what might be thought of as the central question facing any interpretation of Descartes: what is the aim of the Meditations? Under this interpretation Descartes is taken to be aiming at certainty, but why is certainty to important to him? Well for Descartes certainty is a kind of mental state where belief cannot be shaken by any coherent skeptical scenario. The term skeptical scenario is one that I have borrowed from Janet Broughton’s book Descartes’s Method of Doubt. There she uses the term skeptical scenario to refer to a shared structure present in the doubts raised by Descartes in the First Mediation (Broughton 64). Specifically she states that these doubts all consist of conceivable situations in which the beliefs to be thrown into doubt turn out to be false and where some mechanism is posited that is causing us to have the beliefs that we do despite their falsity. Positing that we might be dreaming, for example, is a skeptical scenario because the waking world could be different than the beliefs that our dreams cause us to have. And so this suggests that Descartes takes avoiding skeptical scenarios to be a worthwhile goal.

With that in mind we can fit the pieces together, beginning with the motivation Hatfield proposed for Descartes: attempting to found a new science and to overthrow what passed for science at the time. But Descartes didn’t just want to establish a new science; the opening lines of the First Meditation reveal that he wanted to establish a lasting science, one that would be free from the kind of overthrow he was attempting to affect of Aristotelian science. But how can we free our science from the possibility of substantial future revisions? Given the nature of his own science, I think Descartes realized that scientific revision only occurs when new theories can be proposed that are worthy in their own right and which explain how the scientists working under the old theory came to falsely believe it to be correct, by demonstrating how things may appear to be as the old theory claimed. After all previous scientists must have had some reasons for espousing the theories that they did, either in the form of evidence or certain metaphysical positions. Proposing a substantially different theory thus requires some explanation of how these old reasons were misleading, otherwise they will seem to contradict the new theory, making it much less plausible. Descartes’s science does this, for example, by proposing a mechanism for vision that involves only extension, and which could lead people to falsely believe that colors exist in the objects themselves as the old science maintained. In a way then every new scientific theory constitutes a kind of skeptical scenario for existing theories: it describes a world in which the previous scientific beliefs turn out to be false and it explains how the evidence apparently supporting those theories was really misleading. Therefore Descartes’s science (or at least its basic principles) could be guaranteed to be free from the possibility of future revision if it could be shown that no skeptical scenario could touch it, since revision requires a new scientific theory that acts as a kind of skeptical scenario for the old science. In other words, certainty precludes scientific revision. Thus we can explain Descartes’ search for certain propositions instead of true propositions. It would appeal to Descartes the scientist to uncover the final science, and it would be greatly reassuring to him to uncover that such a final science was possible; Descartes lived in an era where it was widely accepted that to have knowledge was to have come to beliefs via a process much like deduction, making error impossible. The overthrow of Aristotelianism surely shook such beliefs, perhaps suggesting that knowledge of that kind was impossible and that mankind might have little or no knowledge. Such worries could all be put to rest if the new science had special protections against revision that Aristotelian science had lacked.

Furthermore, following Frankfurt, we can take Descartes to think that the ability to reason correctly is a precondition for constructing skeptical scenarios, especially scientific skeptical scenarios, on the basis of his dismissal of the madman. Thus Descartes’ project is free from worries about our ability to reason, because if we can’t reason then no one can properly construct a science that genuinely counts as a skeptical scenario to his (and proposing an alternative science is implicitly to endorse reason). On the other hand, if reason does function properly, then the Mediations can in fact do what Descartes takes them to, namely to establish the basic principles of his science as indubitable and thus immune from rational revision. Our last interpretive difficulty is thus surmounted: Descartes does not falsely presuppose that reason functions properly, given what his aims are. Now this may seem to contradict what was established earlier, namely that the defective nature doubt raised by Descartes himself casts doubt on reason (since, according to this interpretation, Descartes should properly dismiss possibilities that imply that reason is defective, as he does with the possibility of madness). However, if we attend closely to Descartes’s presentation of the defective nature, it becomes apparent that Descartes uses the same language to talk about it as he did to talk about the deceiving god, implying that in this skeptical scenario we are supposed to be deceived about the truth of various propositions, not that we are unable to reason correctly.

The solution to the interpretive difficulties discussed then is, in a nutshell, to reject considering only Descartes the philosopher, and instead to look at what the Meditations might have meant to Descartes the scientist. If we look only at Descartes the philosopher we are naturally led to think that he must have been after epistemological or metaphysical truths, but there is no reason to think that Descartes the scientist understood the Meditations in such terms. Now I admit that such a reading of the Mediations and its importance to Descartes may seem highly counterintuitive, especially given that Descartes writes in his introductions that he aims to demonstrate certain facts about god and about the immortality of the soul. But given that he fails to demonstrate the immortality of the soul, that such an introduction would make it much more likely for his work to be published, and that he comments in a private letter that the Meditations contains the foundations of his physics, I conclude that such intuitions are not conclusive reasons to reject this reading. On the other hand this reading is recommended by its ability to smoothly handle certain persistent interpretive difficulties; given the aims of Descartes the scientist, he is free to assume that certainty constitutes the end of scientific inquiry and that all possible theories are acceptable to reason as part of what might be thought of as a set of preconditions for the possibility of scientific inquiry. Although such premises might be questioned it wouldn’t be productive for Descartes the scientist to worry about them, since he is ultimately interested in particular scientific claims, not whether scientific claims in general are possible. In this way the notorious Cartesian circle and similar troubles are avoided completely. And surely that speaks in favor of it.

Ultimately then this reading is not motivated by anything Descartes says directly, ultimately it is motivated by problems that certain simpler readings of the text raise. Following Frankfurt this reading solves some of those problems by taking Descartes to interested in certainty, and by taking his claims regarding truth to speak only about how we can be certain that some of our beliefs are true, and not as justifying the earlier stages of the project. And, following Hatfield, this reading takes Descartes’s conception of reason, and thus of certainty, to be tied to a conception of the cognitive faculties, such that reason is not a set of external guiding principles, but rather a feature of how we actually think. Thus, as Hatfield suggests, Descartes may be understood as exploring our cognitive faculties in the Meditations to discover what is certain for us. But this reading departs from both these authors by explaining the aim of the Meditations in terms of Descartes’s scientific endeavors, as a search for a scientific foundation that would not be subject to future revision. This explains why Descartes took the human cognitive faculties associated with reason and the intellect and made them both central and foundational; those faculties constitute a precondition for the very ability to do science. And it explains why Descartes’s made certainty his goal; certainty for Descartes essentially amounts to an immunity to revision or correction. So let us suppose then that we accept this reading because it can solve these problems and because it at least isn’t contradicted by the text. What consequences does that have for our understanding of philosophy as a whole, assuming we take cues about how to philosophize from Descartes? The lesson would seem to be that a philosophy which stands by itself, as the naïve reading took the Meditations to stand by itself, is often problematic; it runs into difficulties involving circularity and sometimes we might have trouble understanding what the point of it all is. And the solution to such difficulties, the new reading seems to suggest, is to take philosophy as essentially connected to non-philosophical projects, both in order to give that philosophy direction and to provide a stable starting point for it.


[1] Hatfield also takes this passage to indicate that Descartes accepted reason from the outset of the Meditations, even though this passage might be interpreted in a very limited sense as asserting only that some things are left in the mind, not necessarily reason, which may be restricted to a set of notions, possibly ideas, such as of god, of body, etc. Hatfield writes “he acknowledges that the First Meditation doubt could never empty the mind totally; that would be to abandon thinking altogether. In effect, he contends that … the principles of reasoning cannot be negated through a process of doubt. Not only are they called upon in evaluating the reasons for doubt but they also for the indelible structure of the mind.” (92) Obviously this isn’t the only possible reading of the passage, but it fits with it and charitably blocks attributing Descartes a rather elementary oversight.

[2] Broughton too takes this to be what dubitability is for Descartes. See especially chapter 4 and the discussion of skeptical scenarios.

[3] Of course such a proof of consistency doesn’t actually prove anything, but given that Hilbert once made a similar mistake, and that Descartes was writing significantly before the advent of formal metamathematical reasoning, I think we can forgive him that error.


Broughton, J. (2002). Descartes’s Method of Doubt. Princeton University Press
Cottingham, J., Stoothoff, R., & Murdoch, D. (1984). The Philosophical Writings of Descartes vol. 2. Cambridge University Press
Frankfurt, F. (1970). Demons, Dreamers, and Madmen. The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.
Hatfield, G. (2003). Descartes and the Meditations. Routledge

December 12, 2007

Two Papers

Filed under: Papers — Peter @ 12:00 am

Dialectic in the Republic
The Significance of Frege’s Attempted Reduction of Arithmetic to Logic

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