Sunday, 28 September 2008

how to be a duff analytical philosopher 2

I thought I'd test whether I was being prima facie unfair in my last post by randomly sampling a piece of contemporary analytical philosophy. The latest piece reviewed in the Notre Dame Reviews (excellent on-line philosophy reviewing site, with email feeds of reviews as they come in) will do just fine. Here is the text of the review which, as it happens, is of a book by Jens Harbecke called Mental Causation: Investigating the Mind's Powers in a Natural World (which, if you really want to buy it, will cost you €119.00).

To recall: What I claimed was that the ability to spin a wonderfully complex, dense, logically rigorous, theoretically-inclined, answer to a putative problem facing the serious philosophical inquirer is often a function of some astonishingly un-self-reflective assumptions regarding the decontextualised meaningfulness of the premises deployed therein. And that - question for one moment our right to feel so assured in the meaningfulness of the terms of the questions raised and hopefully answered by the philosophical project, and - both the viability, and the need, for the explanatory project, rapidly appear uncertain.

Here then is a sample of the kind of argumentative structure which the book is said by the reviewer, David Robb, to deploy:

(MC) Mental events cause physical events.

(CP) The realm of the physical is causally complete. [This is earlier glossed as, "for all physical events further physical events can be identified that figure as their sufficient causes" (p. 18).]

(NI) Mental events are not identical with physical events.

(NO) Physical events are not pervasively, or systematically, causally overdetermined.

And of course the struggle worked with in the book is that of trying to reconcile these apparently contradictory premises, or to see which is least painfully ditched.

But, and here's my concern: What kind of tin ear do we need to effect or deploy in order to get ourselves into a state of mind where we would be likely to find ourselves caught up in the above struggle? First we would need to assume that we knew how to use the term 'mental'here - assume that there was an off-the-shelf multi-purpose use available for us to know. Next, that we understand what a mental 'event' amounts to. Next that there is some kind of univocal notion of 'cause' to which we can help ourselves. And so on. The kinds of pickle we could get ourselves into thereby - which pickles, if we keep our logically rigorous hats on will start to seem extremely intriguing - can but be imagined. The only options will seem to be the accepting or rejecting of the premises. A particularly tinny tin ear will be needed to start to happily deploy a concept like 'physical' as an adjective to describe different events: mental events, physical events, etc. We will need to be perfectly happy with the idea that football matches, atomic collisions, and my raising my arm all describe 'physical events' in a relevantly similar sense of 'event', and a manageably similar sense of 'physical'.

Correlatively, a whole host of distinctions that are deployed in normal discourse - such as that between actions and events, doings and happenings - will have to be portrayed as somehow (how?) fairly insignificant compared with the allegedly far more 'deep' or 'significant' (why?) distinctions or non-distinctions drawn on or made by the philosophical theory under consideration. And strange locutions will need to be called upon (such as 'the event of my coming to believe that...') to get what at first glance appear like quite disparate phenomena (note: even 'phenomena' hardly does justice to the diversity of what we are here discussing) to fit within the one question-and-answer schematism.

Analytical philosophers often (in my experience) take 'continental' philosophers to task for their obscurantism and fanciful way of expressing themselves. What I am urging is that - logical rigour aside - the non-obscurantism of some ('duff') analytical philosophy is but a sham. The language appears crisp and familiar, but when we pause to think, we realise we are being invited to use clear-enough everyday terms radically out of context with at best a mere appeal to intuition as to what these allegedly timeless terms mean here, now, in the mouth of this analytical philosopher. At least the 'continentalist' wears his obscurantism on his sleeve.

So, to-recap:

I switched off the cooker because I thought the pot was burning.

must be taken as an exemplification of the alleged 'thesis' that:

(MC) Mental events cause physical events.

before we can get the whole discussion going. And what I am claiming is that it can hardly be innocent to suppose that any of these four words 'mental', 'events', 'cause', 'physical' have any very obvious meaning when put together in this kind of way. Sure, I know what it is for someone to have a mental illness. Sure, I know what a corporate event is. Sure, I know what physical exercise is. Sure I have some beliefs about the human causes of global warming. But do I therefore - on the basis of this contextual know-how - know what it is for 'mental events to cause physical events'?

Well, do I?