Reading Colin McGinn

In June I visited Jason Anthony Pannone, the librarian at the Harvard Philosophy Department’s Robbins Library. Jason offers individual and group tutorials on locating materials in Harvard libraries. He gave me a number of tips on using the extensive Philosophy Resources at Harvard.

I was carrying Ted Honderich’s huge Theory of Determinism, and Jason mentioned a recent post on his Robbins Library Notes blog about the spat between Honderich and Cornell philosopher Colin McGinn.

The Making of a Philosopher, by Colin McGinn

I picked up a copy of McGinn’s popular “The Making of a Philosopher,” which follows McGinn from his undergraduate degree in psychology and an interest in Continental philosophy, especially Edmund Husserl, to his years in the center of Anglo-American Analytic (AAA) philosophy, from winning the John Locke Prize at Oxford to becoming a professor in the U.S. at Rutgers.

McGinn contrasts the perennial static condition of philosophy with the dynamic growth of science, with a wry comment on older scientists (like me) who venture into philosophy.

“I venture to suggest that philosophers tend on the whole to be persons of considerable intelligence, many of them highly competent at science, and endowed with excellent thinking skills. It’s not that if you let some real scientists loose on philosophical problems they would have all the answers for you in a matter of days. In fact, when scientists, particularly distinguished ones, try their hand at philosophy—usually after they have retired—the results are often quite inept, risibly so. So what is it that makes philosophy so hard? Why do we still have no proof that there is an external world or that there are minds other than our own? Why is freedom of the will still so hotly debated? Why do we have so much trouble figuring out what kind of thing the self is? Why is the relation between consciousness and the brain so exasperatingly hard to pin down?” (p.200)

McGinn describes three views of philosophy.

  • the traditional Platonic realm of elevated and profound study of ultimate reality, the soul, etc.
  • the analytic view that philosophy consists of a bunch of meaningless pseudo-questions, including the later Wittgenstein and Ordinary Language philosophers. ‘Thus we never normally say “the will is free” or “human actions are determined by law and causality” in ordinary speech, so these sentences are ipso facto under suspicion of meaninglessness. ‘ (p.202)
  • the view that philosophy is just immature science. ‘Here the idea is that what we now call philosophy is just the residue of problems left over as science has eaten up more and more of what used to be called philosophy.’ (p.203)

McGinn’s own view, dubbed “mysterian” by Owen Flanagan, is that our human intelligence, our epistemic apparatus, is just “not cut out for the job.”

“Perhaps, then, that is the explanation of philosophical intractability more broadly; philosophical problems are of a kind that does not suit the particular way we form knowledge of the world. The question then is what it is about the problems and our intelligence that makes the latter unsuited to the former.” (p.204)

Problems in Philosophy, by Colin McGinn

McGinn developed his mysterian ideas in his 1993 book Problems in Philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry. Then he wrote a popular treatment in The Mysterious Flame (1999).

“The central conjecture of my book is that there is a certain cognitive structure that shapes our knowledge of the world, and that this structure is inappropriate when it comes to key philosophical problems. I call this the CALM conjecture, short for Combinatorial Atomism with Lawlike Mappings. Roughly speaking, you understand something when you know what parts it has and how they are put together, as well as how the whole changes over time; then you have rendered the phenomenon in question–CALM.” (p.206)

“Natural entities are basically complex systems of interacting parts that evolve over time as a result of various causal influences. This is obviously true of inanimate physical objects, which are spatial complexes made of molecules and atoms and quarks, and subject to the physical forces of nature. But it is also true of biological organisms, in which now the parts include kidneys, hearts, lungs, and the cells that compose these. The same abstract architecture applies to language also: Sentences are complexes of simpler elements (words and phrases) put together according to grammatical rules. Mathematical entities such as triangles, equations, and numbers are also complexes decomposable into simpler elements. In all these cases we can appropriately bring to bear the CALM method of thinking: We conceptualize the entities in question by resolving them into parts and articulating their mode of arrangement.”

“Find the atoms and the laws of combination and evolution, and then derive the myriad of complex objects you find in nature. If incomprehension is a state of anxiety or chaos, then CALM is what brings calm. Question: Does CALM work in philosophy?”

“In Problems in Philosophy I argue that …[t}here are yawning gaps between [some] phenomena and the more basic phenomena they proceed from, so that we cannot apply the CALM format to bring sense to what we observe. The essence of a philosophical problem is the unexplained leap, the step from one thing to another without any conception of the bridge that supports the step. For example, a free decision involves a transition from a set of beliefs and desires to a particular choice; but this choice is not dictated by what precedes it—hence it seems like an unmediated leap. The choice, that is, cannot be accounted for simply in terms of the beliefs and desires that form the input to it, just as conscious states cannot be accounted for in terms of the neural processes they emanate from. In both cases we seem to be presented with something radically novel, issuing from nowhere, as if a new act of creation were necessary to bring it into being. And this is the mark of our lack of understanding. The existence of animal life seems like an eruption from nowhere (or an act of God) until we understand the process of evolution by natural selection; we can then begin to see how the transitions operate, from the simple to the more complex. But in philosophy we typically lack the right kind of explanatory theory, and hence find ourselves deeply puzzled by how the world is working.” (p.209)

“This message is not very congenial to the optimistic philosopher who wants to solve the deep problems that brought him or her to philosophy. For I am saying that this is a futile aim; my book could equally have been called The Futility of Philosophy…” (p.210)

On the contrary, I found McGinn’s CALM methodology quite congenial for understanding the classic “free-will” problem, in many ways because of the strong analogy with the process of evolution by gene variation and natural selection that works for him as an explanatory theory.

For what is Freedom but chance “combinatorial atoms,” possible thoughts or actions that can be combined in new ways as “alternative possibilities?”

And what is Will but the choice of an adequately determined mind acting in accordance with its character and values, making “lawlike mappings” of those fortuitous opportunities?

Going back to McGinn’s youthful training in ordinary language philosophy, which claimed the confusion was all the result of misuse of language, we can ask what is the ordinary use of “free will?”

As John Locke so clearly told us long ago, it is inappropriate to describe the Will itself as Free. The Will is a Determination. It is the Man who is Free. “I think the question is not proper, whether the will be free, but whether a man be free.” ” This way of talking, nevertheless, has prevailed, and, as I guess, produced great confusion.” (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, Chapter XXI, Of Power, section 24)

In our Cogito model, “Free Will” combines two distinct conceptual “atoms.” Free is the chance and randomness of the Micro Mind. Will is the adequate determinism of the Macro Mind. And these occur in a temporal sequence.

Compatibilists and Determinists are right about the Will, but wrong about Freedom.

Libertarians are right about Freedom, but wrong about the Will.

McGinn’s career as a professional philosopher turned on such a moment of freedom.  He was awarded the prestigious and remunerative (£150) John Locke Prize at Oxford. How he came to get it is a semi-causal chain started by a free action we should see as causa sui.

McGinn atttended A. J. Ayer’s class in which a single book would be elucidated in the course of the term.

“At the first session Ayer asked who had read the book to be discussed —The Nature of Things by Anthony Quinton. I happened to have just finished reading it, so I raised my hand; to my surprise no other hand went up, and a cold shiver went through me as Ayer fixed me with a beady eye. ” (p.78)

“The session continued, with Ayer giving the first presentation of the term, followed by what seemed to me like a very high-powered discussion, to which I did not even think of making a contribution. At the end of the class, however, Professor Ayer suddenly fixed gaze his on me, hunched at the back of the room, and announced, “The man at the back can pay for his virtue and give the presentation on chapter two for next week.” He didn’t even wait to see if I was agreeable to this brilliant suggestion. That was it: me, next week. ”

“I duly found myself in front of about forty clever people, ready to find fault with whatever I had to say. I read my essay aloud, staring self-protectively down at the page. When I had finished, I looked up, as red as a beetroot, with very clammy palms (which I always get when I am nervous), and Professor Ayer said, matter-of-factly, “Very good.”

“In order to improve my chances on the B.Phil I decided to enter for a voluntary examination called the John Locke Prize. This examination is for people aiming to win the prize of one hundred and fifty pounds, along with the prestige that goes with it. Traditionally, the brightest philosophy postgraduate at Oxford wins the prize…The examiners that year, 1972, for the John Locke Prize were Professor Ayer, Professor Hare (who had let me onto the B.Phil), and Brian Farrell, the Wilde Reader in Mental Philosophy—a fairly formidable crew.” (p.82)

“I turned up in “subfuse” for the first examination: white bowtie and shirt, dark suit, black shoes, cap and gown (this was compulsory: anything missing and you would be denied entry to the examination hall). I buckled down to the questions, writing about logical form, the coherence theory of truth, the nature of necessity, personal identity, the analysis of knowledge, and so on.”

“About a week later Professor Ayer informed me that my handwriting was so bad that I would need to have my papers typed by a professional typist in the presence of an invigilator to make sure I hadn’t cheated. Moreover, I would personally have to pay for this to be done. I expressed my misgivings, saying I had not acquitted myself at all well, and worried about the enormous expense of about fifty pounds that this was going to cost me. Ayer replied that I, or it, was “worth it,” so I reluctantly agreed—and anyway, you didn’t not do as Sir Alfred told you to do. I accordingly read my atrociously written papers aloud to a bored typist in the presence of an equally bored invigilator, who awoke to take exception to my inelegant use of the phrase “chunk of reality,” wincing all the way. I really must improve my handwriting, I thought. (Even today my writing is a miracle of illegibility.)”

“Then a week or so later, as I was sitting down for one of Kripke’s John Locke lectures, Professor Ayer conspicuously approached me in front of about five hundred people, clapped me on the back, and told me I had won the John Locke Prize—and by a wide margin. ”

Can you see the causal chain? Ayer picks out the one raised hand to lead the next discussion. He says “Very good.” He asks McGinn to invest £50 in a typed manuscript. McGinn, or it, is “worth it.” He claps McGinn’s back at the John Locke lecture.

Can you see the alternative possibilities? What if four students had raised their hands? Ayer might have selected the one closest to him to start next week.

Can you see the free action? McGinn raised his hand! There might have been others who read Quinton who did not. They did otherwise, as McGinn could have done otherwise.

McGinn’s reaction says it all.

“I wonder now what would have happened to me if Ayer had never asked me to have my papers typed (a highly unusual step, in fact), or if I had walked out when I felt like it or if I had just not sat for the John Locke Prize at all. Things would undoubtedly have been very different, and even now I feel a cold sweat at the alternative possibilities. Life and chance, chance and life.” (p.85)

I went back to read more of McGinn’s technical discussion of the free will problem in his Problems in Philosophy, and wrote him up for the Information Philosopher.

See Colin McGinn on I-Phi

Reading G. E. M. Anscombe

Elizabeth Anscombe was a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein and later served, with G. H. von Wright and Rush Rhees as the executor of his papers and as editor of his Philosophical Investigations.Her Inaugural Lecture as Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University in 1971 was entitled “Causality and Determination.” She explained that we had no empirical grounds for believing in a determinism that is logical necessary or even in the physical determinism that appears to be required by natural laws like Newton’s.

The high success of Newton’s astronomy was in one way an intellectual disaster: it produced an illusion from which we tend still to suffer. This illusion was created by the circumstance that Newton’s mechanics had a good model in the solar system. For this gave the impression that we had here an ideal of scientific explanation; whereas the truth was, it was mere obligingness on the part of the solar system, by having had so peaceful a history in recorded time, to provide such a model. (p.20)

She asks…

Must a physicist be a ‘determinist’? That is, must he believe that the whole universe is a system such that, if its total states at t and t’ are thus and so, the laws of nature are such as then to allow only one possibility for its total state at any other time? No.

Anscombe is familiar with developments in quantum physics. She notes thatMax Born dissociated causality from determinism. And she mentions Richard Feynman’s suggestion (following Arthur Holly Compton) of a Geiger counter firing that might be connected to a bomb “There would be no doubt of the cause of the explosion if the bomb did go off,” she says. So there can becausality without determinism. (p.24)
She notes that C. D. Broad, in his 1934 inaugural lecture, had considered indeterminism, but he had added that whatever happened without being determined was “accidental.”

He did not explain what he meant by being accidental; he must have meant more than not being necessary. He may have meant being uncaused; but, if I am right, not being determined does not imply not being caused. Indeed, I should explain indeterminism as the thesis that not all physical effects are necessitated by their causes. But if we think of Feynman’s bomb, we get some idea of what is meant by “accidental”. It was random: it ‘merely happened’ that the radioactive material emitted particles in such a way as to activate the Geiger counter enough to set off the bomb. Certainly the motion of the Geiger counter’s needle is caused; and the actual emission is caused too: it occurs because there is this mass of radioactive material here. (I have already indicated that, contrary to the opinion of Hume, there are many different sorts of causality.) But all the same the causation itself is, one could say, mere hap. It is difficult to explain this idea any further. (p.25)

Indeed it is. We wish that Anscombe had tried.But she goes on to say Broad naively assumed that our actions were therefore randomly caused. Apparently aware that randomness as a cause of action had been criticized since antiquity, she calls Broad naive.

Broad used the idea to argue that indeterminism, if applied to human action, meant that human actions are ‘accidental’. Now he had a picture of choices as being determining causes, analogous to determining physical causes, and of choices in their turn being either determined or accidental. To regard a choice as such – i.e. any case of choice – as a predetermining causal event, now appears as a naif mistake in the philosophy of mind, though that is a story I cannot tell here.

Again, we could hope she would have told us more.

Anscombe recounts the severe criticism of scientists’ suggestions that indeterminism could account for human freedom.

It was natural that when physics went indeterministic, some thinkers should have seized on this indeterminism as being just what was wanted for defending the freedom of the will. They received severe criticism on two counts: one, that this ‘mere hap’ is the very last thing to be invoked as the physical correlate of ‘man’s ethical behaviour’; the other, that quantum laws predict statistics of events when situations are repeated; interference with these, by the will’s determining individual events which the laws of nature leave undetermined, would be as much a violation of natural law as would have been interference which falsified a deterministic mechanical law. (p.25)Ever since Kant it has been a familiar claim among philosophers, that one can believe in both physical determinism and ‘ethical’ freedom. The reconciliations have always seemed to me to be either so much gobbledegook, or to make the alleged freedom of action quite unreal. My actions are mostly physical movements; if these physical movements are physically predetermined by processes which I do not control, then my freedom is perfectly illusory. The truth of physical indeterminism is then indispensable if we are to make anything of the claim to freedom. But certainly it is insufficient. The physically undetermined is not thereby ‘free’. For freedom at least involves the power of acting according to an idea, and no such thing is ascribed to whatever is the subject (what would be the relevant subject?) of unpredetermination in indeterministic physics. (p.26)

Nevertheless, Anscombe is surprised that indeterministic physics has had so little effect on the thinking of philosophers of mind, who remain mostly determinists.

It has taken the inventions of indeterministic physics to shake the rather common dogmatic conviction that determinism is a presupposition or perhaps a conclusion, of scientific knowledge. Not that that conviction has been very much shaken even so. Of course, the belief that the laws of nature are deterministic has been shaken. But I believe it has often been supposed that this makes little difference to the assumption of macroscopic determinism: as if undeterminedness were always encapsulated in systems whose internal workings could be described only by statistical laws, but where the total upshot, and in particular the outward effect, was as near as makes no difference always the same. What difference does it make, after all, that the scintillations, whereby my watch dial is luminous, follow only a statistical law – so long as, the gross manifest effect is sufficiently guaranteed by the statistical law? Feynman’s example of the bomb and Geiger counter smashes this conception; but as far as I can judge it takes time for the lesson to be learned. I find deterministic assumptions more common now among people at large, and among philosophers, than when I was an undergraduate. (p.28)

See G. E. M. Anscombe on I-Phi

Increasing Information

The standard interpretation of the second law of thermodynamics is that the disorder in the universe is increasing. This appears to mean that information should be decreasing.

Some philosophers and scientists took this to mean that all the information existing today must have been present at the creation of the universe. This view was consistent with the idea of an intelligent, all-knowing designer.

Increasing Information. In our open and expanding universe, the maximum possible entropy is increasing faster than the actual entropy. The difference between maximum possible entropy and the current entropy is called negative entropy.

To give this very positive quantity a positive name, we call it “Ergo.”

Ergodic processes have room to increase the information structures in the universe. The Arrow of Time points not only to increasing disorder but also to increasing information.
The universe is its own observer.

“Soft” Causality. Events are always caused but not always determined. An event is caused by prior and proximate events (technically those within its relativistic light cone from the past), but not every event is predictable. Indeed, as logical philosophers would put it, determinism is not true. The determinism we have is merely “adequate determinism“.
Soft causality does not entail strict determinism.

A Corollary. The universe is creative. Information structures and processes are emergent. Deterministic phenomena are emergent. Some laws of nature are emergent. Knowledge of the present did not all exist in the past. Thecreative process continues. Life and humanity are a part of the process. What gets created is in part our responsibility. We can choose to help create and preserve information. Or we can choose to destroy it.
We are free to create our own future.

What is Information?

Information philosophy is an attempt to examine many classic problems in philosophy from the standpoint of information.

What is information that merits its use as the foundation of a new philosophical method of inquiry?

The simple definition of information is the act of informing – the communication of knowledge from a sender to a receiver that informs (literally shapes) the receiver.

Information theory is the mathematical quantification of communication to describe how information is transmitted and received. Information science is the study of the categorization, classification, manipulation, storage, and retrieval of information. Cognitive science is the study of mental acquisition, retention, and utilization of knowledge, which we can describe as actionableinformation.

Actionable information has pragmatic value.

In our information philosophy, knowledge is the sum of all the information created and preserved by humanity. It is all the information in human minds and in artifacts of every kind – from books and internetworked computers to our dwellings and managed environment.

We shall see that all information in the universe is created by two processes, the only ones capable of generating and maintaining information against the dread second law of thermodynamics, which describes the irresistible increase in disorder or entropy. We call these anti-entropic processes ergodic. They should be appreciated as the creative source of everything we can possibly value, and of everything distinguishable from chaos and therefore interesting.

One process has formed the macrocosmos of galaxies, stars, and planets. This process drives the expansion of the universe and gravity. The other process has generated the particular forms of microscopic matter – atoms, molecules, and the complex molecules that support biological organisms. It includes all quantum cooperative phenomena.

Quantum phenomena control the evolution of life and human knowledge. They help bring new information into the universe in a fundamentally unpredictable way. They drive biological speciation. They facilitate human creativity and free will.

Although information philosophy looks at the universe, life, and intelligence through the single lens of information, it is far from mechanical and reducible to deterministic physics. The growth of information over time – our principle of increasing information – is the essential reason why time matters and individuals are distinguishable. Increasing information explains all emergent phenomena, including many presumed “laws of nature.”

In information philosophy, the future is unpredictable for two basic reasons. First, quantum mechanics shows that some events are not predictable. The world is causal but not determined. Second, the early universe does not contain the information of later times, just as early primates do not contain the information structures for intelligence and verbal communication, and infants do not contain the knowledge and remembered experience they will have as adults.

See I-Phi for more on information

The Information Philosopher Blog

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