Best Possible World: Gateway to the Millennium and Eschaton



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And this trialog progresses from there. It was an email discussion dating back to 1997. Capurro is openly theistic in his comments. This is my first experience of a philosophy of science discussion where the God question is treated matter-of-factly. I need to get a better handle on where Capurro is coming from, and where he might be headed? None of his metaphysics sources are contemporary, nor do I see evidence of any comrades in arms. It is difficult for me to imagine a similar discussion taking place on these shores.
R. Capurro, What is Angeletics? (2000):
Angeletics is different from angelology in that its purpose is to study the phenomenon of messages, independent of their divine origin, or, in other words, it studies this phenomenon within the boundaries of the condition humaine. This does not mean that studies relating to the fields of religion and natural sciences are excluded, but its specific focuses are on messages and human messengers.
....there is another neologism for you.
German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk pointed out that we live in a "time of empty angels" or "mediatic nihilism", in which we forget what message is to be sent while the transmission media multiply: "This is the very 'de-angeling' of current times" (Sloterdijk 1997). The word "de-angeling" stands out, in contrast to "evangeling", the empty nature of the messages disseminated by the mass media
Information science has come a long way, Cherubim.
[9/24]
Biosemiotics confronts materialism:
Levels, Emergence, and Three Versions of Downward Causation by Claus Emmeche, Simo Køppe and Frederik Stjernfelt (2000).


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9/17/02

Who's Keeping Score?



I have been actively searching the web since July, and I am still having difficulty seeing the forest for all those trees out there.
One surprise among many is the lack of scorekeepers. There are many catalogs of sites, but precious few commentaries that aim below the surface. For all the sound and fury, there must be some discernible trends. If so, they are not being well reported.
What I can say here is a highly speculative personally biased travelogue or web log.
In the 'end' it will come down to the gnostics vs. the agnostics. The gnostics will have all the momentum and will win hands down, but for the foreseeable future, the agnostics dominate. They remain the relatively silent majority, except when they are on a mission of deconstructing some gnostic's sacred cow.
In intellectual circles the dominant gnosticism is still materialism. Materialism has been brought down several pegs by the continued sniping of the postmodern agnostics, but now it is pretty much a standoff. I gather that the postmoderns go easy on the materialists because of their shared concern for a reactive resurgence of intellectual theism. Indeed, it has been noted that the philosophy ranks are being significantly infiltrated by junior faculty theists. If this is the case, these new kids on the block are wisely keeping a low profile. They are tending to their knitting, probably in the peripheral areas of ethics and the like. They are not ready for, and probably cannot even imagine a direct confrontation with the scientific-materialist establishment.
In the meantime, the materialists are being permitted what is likely to be their last hurrah: neurophilosophy. Neurophilosophy is mostly smoke with very little scientific or metaphysical substance, and so presents very little challenge for the skilled deconstructors. In neurophilosophy there is not much neuro- and even less philosophy, but it does make a good read for the armchair materialists. Along these lines, sociobiology presented more of a challenge to the agnostics, and that challenge has largely been met. Neurophilosophy is considered a relatively harmless spin-off.
Just from the last extended page I am picking up the notion that the principle challenge to materialism is now coming from the continent. The continental phenomenologists feel less inhibited by the fire breathing fundamentalists that inhabit these fair shores. They can talk about God without setting off a general intellectual alarum. Lines have not been drawn over there nearly to the extent they have been drawn here.
What we are also seeing is a continuation of the centuries old demarcation between British empiricism and French rationalism. There has been a lot back and forth, and strange bedfellows, but still the demarcation is there. The latest resurrection of this rationalism is in phenomenology and more recently in semiotics. These kinds of rationalism are seen as relatively harmless in Anglo-American circles because of their staunchly truncated, decapitated form. Atheistic rationalism is like a carriage without a horse, but this concoction goes back to the rabidly anti-clerical Philosophes of the French Enlightenment. Think Voltaire and Rousseau. Now it is relatively tolerant of only the most muted, existentialist elements of theism. Think Kierkegaard. And don't bother looking for froggy eschatologists.
So, is everything under control? Well, that can be hard to say.
Then there's 9/11. When someone throws a monkey wrench its hard to know the consequences. The allegedly underlying clash of civilizations is being reexamined on many levels, and I am sure that most of it is well below the surface of what one can discern on the Internet.
Certainly, the mutual line drawing among the gnostics has been exacerbated, but the folks to watch are the agnostics. Surely, postmodern pluralism is feeling more than a bit besieged by these developments and what it may perceive as gathering intellectual, cultural storm clouds. The postmoderns are the hot-house flowers of modern civilization. If the heat gets turned up even more, they are susceptible to wilting.
In times of trouble, messianic expectations rise. People may be less tolerant of intellectual cacophony. Coherence may move upmarket, uptown. Most folks will turn to their mainly prophetic traditions for coherence, but the locally visible global clashings will bring a few thoughtful ones to look beyond the traditions. It will take every ounce of web connection and amplification for the disparate thoughtful ones to find a higher coherence and bring it to the attention of the rest of us. It will be nip and tuck, but surely in the best possible world, the highest possible Gnosis will prevail in the end. Coherence is a mirage if it does not include that necessary reality. Our ultimate concerns will demand nothing less.
Or not. Or naught?

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9/25/02

Coherence Theory



Here is another subversion of materialism that I have been overlooking.
It stems from the problem, as partially explicated by Berkley, of representation wherein our perceptions and beliefs are supposed to represent or correspond to facts about an external world. The inherent dualism of representationalism and its attendant correspondence theory of truth, ensure their entanglement in the Cartesian problem of the connection between mind and matter. This problem has been a primary motivation for immaterialists and functionalists.
Although functionalism is usually presented as a species of naturalism, its metaphysical foundations are ambiguous to non-existent, and, rather as its name implies, it is seemingly open to a philosophical pragmatism that is far from naturalism. This is why Dennett's functionalism is eschewed by serious philosophers. Serious naturalists are thus left to struggle with increasingly convoluted theories of representation.
The only alternative to representationalism is some form of coherentism. In its crudest form, coherentism could be seen as a form of associationism as found in Anglo-American empiricism. Coherentism is a more direct descendent of Quine's semantic holism. With a therapeutic dose of rationalism and phenomenology, the holism of Quine can be exported to the Continent where, as coherentism, it is the epistemology of choice. The idealist and transcendental proclivities inherent in coherentism are kept in check by the Continental ambience of deconstruction.
It is the Continental semioticians who pick up the baton for coherentism. A break might come if the Continental semioticians connect with the Anglo-American informationalists. Coherentism would receive an added impetus, and it would be under less deconstructive restraint.
(I should note that epistemologists generally are being forced to turn to coherentism as the replacement for representationalism which remains entangled in its possibly intractable foundational problem, see for example: Coherence: The Price is Right. In fact the Computational Epistemology Lab at Waterloo has a series of articles mainly on the analytic side of coherence, but some verge off into a more robust phenomenology. Signs of creeping coherentism.)
In our postmodern milieu, coherentism is seen mainly as a lesser evil with respect to the foundationalism of materialism or the nihilism of deconstruction. In this negative manner, coherentism slips in the back door of postmodernism, but for how long can its natural expansionist tendency be contained? At what point will a robust rationalism return? The very limited coherence of existentialism and Marxism has been pretty well played out on both sides of the Atlantic.
[9/27]
In recent years philosophy has experienced an increased interest in things epistemic. I would suggest that this trend is partially in reaction to an increased scientific presence in other traditionally philosophical fields. Epistemology appears to be less susceptible to a naturalistic deconstruction. This is also true of ethics and aesthetics, of course, which remain active, but epistemology deals more with foundational, metaphysical issues and so it can serve as something of, at least, a defensive outpost against the prospect of a total scientific hegemony over human knowledge.
Perhaps surprisingly, the tone of the epistemological discourse is not particularly defensive. The continued, rather noticeable failure of AI and cognitive science to even get their feet in the epistemological door, after these many decades, is leaving the traditional epistemic community feeling relatively secure against such deconstructive encroachment.
And what is now beginning to appear in, say, the last ten years are signs of a nascent counter-offensive. It is, perhaps deliberately, muted, but still unmistakable to anyone who cares to observe. I suspect that the scientific community is blissfully oblivious. There are more than a few philosophers who are tired of being bullied by an imperial science on the one hand, and subverted by their deconstructive colleagues on the other hand. It is fair to say that these hard-core structuralists or phenomenologists are doing some retrenching and retooling in the shelter of epistemology. With coherentism now serving as a weapon and a rallying banner, they appear to be making forays into the wider intellectual arena.
But, there is a major caveat. Not many of these phenomenologists could be ignorant of the historically recent strong association of coherentism with radical idealism. When the scientific community is finally woken from is dogmatic materialist slumber, it will be screaming bloody murder, to be perfectly candid. I am sure that the some of these phenomenologists are being most cautious in their anticipation of this inevitable reaction.
And yet again, this coherentism is inherently, unboundedly expansive and probably already is taking on a life of its own that will override the best discretions of its practitioners. The thing to attend to now are signs of early reaction from the potential opposition. One can imagine the innocence of the counter-response, 'Coherentism made me do it'!
[Later]
It is worth noting that Alvin Plantinga, a heavy-duty theistic philosopher and epistemologist, takes a dim view of coherentism, despite his being a prime contestant of foundationalism. Let's check it out.
I attempt to follow Scott Oliphint's critique of Plantinga. Plantinga argues that both foundationalism and coherentism are open to skeptical attack, and most everyone agrees. But rather than take on the skeptic, Plantinga attempts to dodge him by proposing a novel and weak argument for theistic belief. He merely wishes to show that theism is no less warranted than certain other common beliefs, such as our belief in other minds. Perhaps by maintaining this lower profile, the theist can be less provocative to the skeptic, and hope to get along more amicably with her atheist colleagues. This is not quite your grandmother's theism. Oliphint suggests instead the much more provocative presuppositional position in which God provides the only sufficient ground for both nature and reason. God is the necessary and sufficient presupposition for any form of foundationalism or coherentism.
OK, Scott, I'll buy that. God serves as corner stone or cosmic glue, depending on the context. In the postmodern context, however, I would argue that glue is more needed than stone.

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9/26/02

Aristotle Gets Real



This is the headline I imagined upon seeing Michael Esfeld's article ARISTOTLE'S DIRECT REALISM IN DE ANIMA. Philosophers have been attempting to act upon this injunction for several millennia with but limited success, as is widely acknowledged. Michael may hereby have uncovered the source of all our difficulties.
It was a simple misunderstanding. We just misread Aristotle. Think of all the hassle we could have saved if only we had realized that Aristotle had already gotten real.
If you recall your school days, you may remember Plato and Socrates. Socrates got whacked, and Plato, his student, got whacked out on Ideas, and so he had trouble consummating his love. . Then along came the level-headed Aristotle to straighten everyone out with his Concepts. Concepts were like mini-Ideas, and more down to earth. They just lived in your head, and not in heaven.
Well, it turns out, according to Mr. Esfeld, that Aristotle wasn't so level-headed after all. A closer reading of Aristotle reveals a closet Platonist. Fortunately I have not read Aristotle nor Michael, so I can render my own, unbiased and spontaneous account, as I am won't to do.
Like you, I'm sure, and like Berkley, too, I was always bothered by concepts. How is a Concept supposed to be different from an Idea? What happens to an unconceived concept? Like the poor bereft and unperceived tree on the Quad, doesn't it or can't it go to heaven? Is St. Peter going to slam the gates? Need heaven be quite so exclusive? Just because a concept is intangible does not mean that it has to be immaculately conceived every time it pops into someone's head. Is a little cosmic telepathy going to kill us? Eat your heart out, Ma Bell.
To sum up, concepts, like ideas are either real or not. When push came to shove, Aristotle got real about concepts.
So, given telepathic concepts, why do we have to go to school, and where does that leave the tree on the Quad? Chomskian innate universal grammar and English grammar are not quite the same, so we end up declining Latin verbs. Go figure.
And about that tree. Next time you hug a tree, be more respectful. Please address it as 'Your Treeness'. Or are you so stupid as to think there are no trees in heaven? How do I know? Because I know that by elementary logic and reason that this has got to be the BPW. So this is almost heaven and we have trees here so go figure. Being only slightly less catty, I could quote Michael to the effect that the direct realism of our perceptions commits us to a conceptual structure of the world. Which is to say that atoms are concepts before we manage to reify them, as we are won't to do. Too much tree hugging and there are bound to be tree bambinos. We are just not quite cognizant of our powers of creation, but then we do have divine assistance.
Any questions?
I hear that John McDowell is outstanding in the direct realism field. Let's go see.
Well, his profile on the net is not real high. Check out Mind and World. He has managed to keep his essays off the net. Do we have to buy the book?

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9/29/02

Representation, Reduction, etc.



OK, sports fans, it looks like we are closing in on the quarry, at last: the remaining core of the debate between materialists and the rest of the world. I had started this search in the ontology arena, but the action appears mainly in epistemology.
Representationalism had been the leading epistemic theory at least since Descartes. But now it is about dead in the water.* Although the diehard materialists will continue beating on it indefinitely, there is just no life left in its poor bones, as is obvious to the wearied onlookers. Where does that leave us?
That leaves us with coherentism, direct realism and connectionism as the only paths forward. Connectionism is the last gambit for the materialists, but they appear less than happy with its prospects. Conceptually, connectionism is totally opaque. Even if it were the answer, we would never be able to know it. On the other hand, our own minds are conceptually transparent to a miraculous degree. This gross mismatch in conceptual impedances is what has the connectionists in a funk. Reverting to the concept of the 'grandmother cell' is a non-starter.
It is a given that as long as the AI people get funded, they will continue make insubstantial claims while ducking out of every philosophical discussion, along with their camp followers, the transhumanists. Intellectual conversation about the mind is left with no alternatives besides dualism and idealism.
Direct realism is compatible with both Cartesian dualism and idealism, but as long as the coherentists can keep a glove in the ring, they will exert a strong pull toward the latter. And right now, direct realism is getting the most attention. Its proponents admit that it has a distinctly miraculous tinge, but then whoever said that the cutting of the world-knot would not invoke higher powers. With immaterialism the miraculousness can be more evenly distributed in a panpsychic fashion. It then becomes less add hoc. I doubt that any of the direct realists are unaware of their immaterialist option, they just don't want to raise too many red flags at once. They are content to be the stalking-horse for the anti-materialists generally.
After spending most of the last century being beaten over the head by the materialists, the anti-materialists can be forgiven for just wanting to savor the turning of the tables that direct realism represents. But before long they will have to move on to something more positive, and very likely that will be a version of coherentism, leaving the Cartesians relatively isolated. However, when they get around to reading this web site, or anything remotely like it, they will have an opportunity for more than a few second thoughts, I'm sure.
For us, for now, we consider the prospects for participation, or at least for a more creative lurking, and that entails an examination of the status quo and the dispositions of the players.
---------------------------
Of immediate interest is the presence of a theological dimension to the discussion of epistemology. It is a rather modest presence, highlighted by Plantinga's early attack on coherentism. There have been only minor theological counterthrusts. If Plantinga's authority is allowed to prevail, it will significantly diminish theological participation in this important anti-materialist discussion.
Behind the theological concerns is the intuition that theology must have a foundation. Coherentism looks too much like the shifting sands in the desert, too prone to fashion and other human interests. There are thoughtful theologians who see coherentism and immaterialism as the way to move beyond the fundamentalist mindset, but they do not have the intellectual weight of Plantinga. Susan Haak's 'Foundherentism' (c. 1993) has received little theological notice. We'll remain watchful, but this is not where the action is now.
[10/1]
* My announcement of the death of representationalism may have been a tad premature. It is now doing business as 'intentionalism'. In particular see Alex Byrne's defense of it. According to Alex, it is still the biggest debate in philosophy. I haven't figured out if the alleged opponents of intentionalism, qua representationalism, have a positive position or not.
Now I'm looking at Benj's response to Alex.
[10/2]
I am not finding anything substantially new with Byrne. Intentionalism is the weakest form of naturalism with respect to the mind. It is the lowest common denominator of representationalism and all the concomitant varieties of naturalism or physicalism, be they functionalist, computationalist, connectionist, etc. On top of that, the only intentionalism being actively defended is a 'weak' intentionalism which does not attempt to explain the phenomenal character of imagination, among other obvious oversights. But even in this most diluted form of naturalism that still has any substance, its counterintuitive quality remains blatant.
The intuitive bottleneck of intentionalism is its claim that the fullness of experience resides entirely in the thoughts that allegedly comprise that experience. Our intuition is that phenomenal experience causes thoughts rather than being comprised by them. This is more than an intuitive bottleneck, it is a logical contradiction, unless one is willing to engage in the lifework of chopping that logic, which appears to be the case with the remaining handful of active intentionalists.
How can one explain this dogged tenacity of these intentionalists? What is the dog that is wagging this intentionalist tail? The dog is plainly the scientific establishment and all those who partake of its worldview. The vast majority of these folk remain blissfully unaware of this intentionalist structure on which their vast enterprise rests so uneasily. If the handful of intentionalists were tomorrow to throw up their hands in defeat, would the dog even notice its missing tail? It could perhaps just be seen as one more postmodern deconstructive encroachment. But the desperate tenacity of intentionalism's defenders argues for something more intellectually dramatic. Intentionalism represents the last claim that science has for presenting a coherent and complete worldview. By default, intentionalism has become the logical corner stone of that world.
This is my opinion. I wonder, though, why this putative fact is seldom remarked by either side of this debate. Am I entirely misconstruing its potential historical significance? Perhaps the participants and small audience no longer see the possibility of, nor harbor a desire for, any substantive resolution. As long as the beer flows, this intellectual wake will persist, even whilst the deceased waxes aromatic.
-------------------------------
If there were to be a turning point in this debate, it would come as a combination of internal and external factors.
On the inside would be an arbitrary but significant shift in the conceptual terms of the debate. It would be sufficient to motivate some of the observers to finally get involved. This would include one or more prominent philosophers, and an ample number of concerned laypeople, such as ourselves. The public scrutiny would be sufficient to bring the diehard materialists to their senses, or to bring the opponents to declare victory and move on.
However, this scenario has had opportunities to play out in the past, and I believe there has to be one important additional ingredient. There must be an attractive intellectual alternative, either to the debate or to the naturalism being debated. Desultory though this debate on intentionalism may be, it is the biggest show in philosophy. That alternative would almost surely include elements of immaterialism, rationalism and theism. The locus of the debate might shift from between materialism and dualism, to one between dualism and immaterialism. Without such an alternative, the debate would eventually fragment and dissolve into the wider postmodern cacophony. This last possibility is what most observers would likely predict.
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