Thursday, September 13, 2007

Eliminative Reductionism

Quoting Paul & Patricia Churchland, Victor Reppert describes three kinds of reductionism: conservative, reforming and eliminative reductionism (ER).

Victor cites examples of the three different types of reductionism. However, I noticed that one of these examples is not like the others, and two of these examples are kinda the same!

The reduction of temperature to mean kinetic energy is given as an example of conservative reduction. Let's look at what these terms are. Temperature is something that is sensed more or less directly. Temperature is not an explanation. Temperature is simply being explained by the reduction to mean kinetic energy.

The reduction of Newtonian mass to relativistic mass is cited as an example of reforming reduction. Mass (or, weight, at least) is directly sensed, like temperature. Mass is not an explanation. The reduction replaces on explanation with another that is simply more precise.

The cited example of eliminative reduction is the replacement of phlogiston in favor of chemical oxidation. However, phlogiston isn't directly sensed. Combustion is sensed. Phlogiston is an explanation for something sensed (the combustion), and one that happens to be wrong. In this case, the eliminative reduction completely eliminates one explanation that doesn't work and replaces it with one that does.

We see a pattern here. Reduction is a form of explanation. Either we:

a) Introduce an explanation for something sensed, (conservative reduction)
b) Refine an existing explanation for something sensed, (reforming reduction)
c) Replace a failed explanation for something sensed with an effective explanation. (eliminative explanation)

The problem arrives if we mistakenly think that ER replaces the thing sensed with an explanation instead of replacing the faulty explanation for that sensed thing. I believe this is the mistake made by dualists when they cite ER in their arguments.

ER is invoked by dualists who claim that the reduction of certain human mental qualities to material systems eliminates those qualities. The argument sort of runs like this:

1) I feel X.
2) X is explained by a physical theory.
3) X is eliminated because it is merely the action of atoms (or whatnot).
4) Ignoring X as a delusion is unimaginable or threatens my ability to perform this syllogism.
5) Therefore, it is better to trust (1) than accept (2).

The flaw in the argument is in step (3). The direct sensations and experiences are not eliminated by ER. They are explained and predicted by ER. The only thing being eliminated are competing explanations that don't fare as well.

Let's look at free will in particular. Here' I'm talking about free will as a sensation or direct experience, not as an explanation for experiences.

The direct experience of free will is this: I perceive a selection of possible actions, I predict the outcome of each possible action, choose the action that I prefer, and see that my choice generally results in the intended effect. In this way, my choices have made a difference, and I have displayed apparent agency.

If my thinking process and my preferences were shown to be material mechanisms, this direct experience is unaltered. The direct experience is simply explained in terms of a prediction of physics. Free will is not eliminated.

What is eliminated? What is eliminated is the "idea" that there is some alternative to determinism and randomness known as "free choice". Yet this idea of "free choice" is not a direct experience. We don't directly sense that the world is non-deterministic. Rather, "free choice" is a supposed explanation for our actual experiences. (I hesitate to call "free choice" an explanation at all because it is neither predictive, nor logically coherent.)

So, a mechanistic theory of mind does not eliminate direct experiences free will. It eliminates a faulty and incoherent explanation for those experiences. And it is the role of every good explanation to displace poor ones.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The surge is working! So let's draw down troop numbers!

Yes, the Bush plan is just sooo coherent.

I don't know whether we should get out of Iraq now, or wait until we get a Democratic president. A withdrawal will require a major diplomatic initiative, and Bush has neither the competence nor the credibility to pull off anything remotely diplomatic.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

I was just searching for A.J. Ayer quotes online when I came across this brilliant idea at Everything2 by one Rose Thorn:
There are those who caricature Ayer (And the other Positivists), saying "AJ Ayer said that 'Any statement that is not empirically verifiable is nonsense'; Unfortunately this statement isn't empirically verifiable, therefore it is either untrue or nonsense." They are ill-educated cockweasels, fatuously trying to score points.

Ayer considered statements to be "literally meaningful" if they were either empirically decidable, or if they were analytic statements. Analytic statements are statements concerning a formal system. These systems need to start with certain postulates and definitions. The definition of literal meaning is just that: a definition that underlies the entire Positivist discourse.

If you find anyone caricaturing the positivists in this way, kill them. It's better for all of us. If you are a beginner at this, the best way is with "Language, Truth, and Logic" (The revised edition with the giant introduction acknowledging the flaws in the work).
LOL! I love it!

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Intuition and Explanation

What is an explanation?

We start from an intuition about the relationship between a proposition and a phenomenon.

For example, regarding the phenomenon "car crash." We notice a pattern in which the proposition "the driver was drunk" relates to the car crash phenomenon in a way that "apple pie was in the trunk" does not.

Another example, regarding the phenomenon that the "floor is slippery." We notice that "floor is brown" does not relate to the slippery floor phenomenon in the same way as "floor is wet."

We call this relation "explanation." This is our starting point. It is the primary intuition that there are explanatory relations.

The next step is to try to devise a formal definition of an explanation. Our formal definition should account for why "drunk driver" explains "car crash", but "pie in trunk" does not. Though our formal definition may be inspired by intuition, our definition should work without direct reference to intuition when examining any particular case.

In devising a formal definition of explanation, we must account for other intuitions about explanations.

First, it is intuitive that not everything is explained. If everything were explained, we wouldn't need or notice or search-for explanations. There is a distinction to be made. Some things are unexplained.

Second, I think it is intuitive that "car crash" does not explain "car crash". Restating the phenomenon does not make an explanation.

Third, it is intuitive that there must be some relevancy between the explanation and what is being explained.

These intuitions can come into conflict.

Our gut might tell us that "X explains Y, where X is defined as that which explains Y." However, this gut instinct would contradict the other intuition that trivialities are not explanatory. Upon reflection, we see that X merely labels the explanation without saying what it actually is.

This conflict is one reason why we want formal definitions of explanation. The idea is that we can at least classify explanations into types according to their conformance with all of our intuitions.

My claim is that the triviality intuition is more important than the primary intuition. The primary intuition tells us that there is a distinction, but the other intuitions tell us more specifically what isn't an explanation.

If we accept trivial explanations, we are saying that everything is at least a little bit explained automatically just by restating what it is we're explaining. I think we would be fooling ourselves if we accepted trivialities as explanations.

This is why prediction is a good formal criterion for explanation. It demands that an explanation be relevant to the observations by predicting them, and demands that the explanation not be a restatement of our observations. It also accounts for the fact that some phenomena remain unexplained because we lack predictive models of those phenomena.