Analytic Philosophy: Word games?
June 28, 2013 9:17 PM   Subscribe

Recently I've been listening to some very interesting podcasts on the mind-body problem and I've been caught up in the various different approaches that one can take to the problem. I was really excited until, upon further reflection, it seemed to me that most of what we use to attack this problem in America (analytic philosophy) is basically just word games, logic puzzles and thought experiments, with no real basis in reality. Help?

Imagine everyone in China gets a two-way radio. Now imagine everyone behaves according to a neuron-like rule book. Now imagine we shrink the nation of China down to the size of a brain. Does the nation of China have consciousness?

A very interesting mind-game, but what relationship do thought experiments like these have to anything like reality?

I guess my biggest beef with analytic philosophy is that a lot of it seems to devolve into (what amounts to) logic puzzles and word games as a means of arriving at fundamental truths -- but I feel like it's possible that there is nothing in particular about the English language (or even logical thought patters) that is especially good at describing reality.

I would like to be convinced that the whole enterprise is "worth it", I suppose, before I invest further time and energy into this line of enquiry. Does this make any sense?
posted by Avenger to Religion & Philosophy (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You should check out Ludwig Wittgenstein, a major contributor to what is now considered "analytic philosophy". He famously derided much philosophy as "taking language on holiday", a gripe not unlike your own.
posted by phrontist at 9:55 PM on June 28, 2013

"but I feel like it's possible that there is nothing in particular about the English language (or even logical thought patters) that is especially good at describing reality"

English language seems to work fine for most everyday activities of English-speaking people, which presumably have a lot to do with "reality". So where, exactly, does language fall short?
posted by phrontist at 9:59 PM on June 28, 2013

Language is itself a product of reality, and specifically the brain. So are logical thought patterns, and the intuition that these patterns are valid or useful.

What source of wisdom and epiphany do you propose that will bypass the engine of language?
posted by Gyan at 10:09 PM on June 28, 2013

Your question is very big. A few things to read that may be useful -
SEP on Thought Experiments
SEP on Intuitions
SEP on Analysis

Wittgenstein had a lot to say about whether philosophical analysis is possible or useful or what its nature is. He is sort of a beast unto himself; very influential, but most present-day philosophy has not adopted his attitude toward these issues.

Part of what philosophers are doing is trying to capture our concepts and categories - and our responses to thought experiments are supposed to help delineate the murkier parts of what our pre-existing concepts are. (Or, in cases where several concepts are in conflict and we can't hold all of them jointly, to help us work out which way of bending and flexing them can best accommodate our intuitions.)

A couple of obvious objections -

-Who says our concepts map onto the world in a correct way? For that, you might be interested in reading up on Kant. (Kant's Transcendental Arguments; Kant's Critique of Metaphysics)

-Who says our intuitions about these very weird edge cases are useful in illuminating deeper concepts? For some of the mind-body questions, we may not know enough yet to determine the right answer. For example, the "can a giant inanimate system become conscious by instantiating the right computational state" question might seem like it has an obvious answer now, but maybe we will learn something about the brain in the future that makes it clear that the answer is something else. Is that your concern? That we're just not in possession of relevant facts to decide what to say about some of these examples?

A final point -
The mind-body problem has a bunch of famous thought experiments or examples that are "catchy" and often get discussed. One thing to keep in mind about these examples is that each was introduced as a move in response to a particular argument or position. So they don't function in isolation, they are meant to support quite specific positions; this context sometimes gets lost since the cases are fun and interesting to think about on their own, but then one ends up thinking "wait a minute, what does this have to do with anything".
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:15 PM on June 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

As phrontist says, English (or natural language in general) is pretty good at describing the world, and not just in the mundane ways of daily life, but in pretty much every way possible. No one has suggested that the natural sciences are engaging in mere "word play," even though such work is wrapped up in natural language.

Now, one of the ways in which philosophy is different from the natural sciences is that the former's focus is not on the collection and organization of empirical data, but rather conceptual analysis. In a way then, philosophy is not limited (or better: perhaps largely concerned with, it has different concerns) to the domains that science is.

Yes, in a way, philosophy is nothing more than "word games," but does this have to be derogatory? These word games establish the consistency of various arguments. If the very concepts being employed are inconsistent, but are supposed to be accurate in describing the world in the way they do, how can we think the actual world could be that way? In philosophy, a good deal of argumentation is showing how someone's position cannot be the case due to certain reasons. This seems like a form of progress in terms of establishing what the world might actually be like. (I.e.: these answers to issues about the mind-problem problem cannot actually obtain, because they are inconsistent, or what have you.)

If you go back in time to when people did both philosophy and science (or what was then known as natural philosophy), you can see easily how these "word games" are pretty important.

Here's one case: "The problem with Descartes' physics is a conceptual inconsistency between his definition of true motion and his definition of quantity of motion. Newton alludes to this inconsistency in the De Gravitatione, wherein Newton argues that Descartes both takes the earth to be moving and not moving." (Physical Systems: Conceptual Pathways between Flat Space-time and Matter (Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science))

You could say that Newton is just playing "word games." Descartes has some concepts, and Newton is merely playing around with these concepts showing how their inconsistent. But it just so happens that Descartes applied this concepts to empirical reality, and Newton is trying to show that even though these are just concepts, they cannot hold because they'd lead to a contradiction.

The hope in philosophy is that we enumerate through the whole set of possible arguments on a subject, eventually come to a point where we have exhausted all the various arguments that can be given, and find ourselves at a natural consensus whereby there is only one consistent argument to give. The safe assumption at such a point would be that the world is accurately represented by this picture at which we arrive by consensus.
posted by SollosQ at 11:42 PM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

posted by flabdablet at 12:28 AM on June 29, 2013

Start with Lobster Mitten's first two links. Maybe also look at Williamson's _The Philosophy of Philosophy_.

That said, though there are some things to be said here, I don't find any of them entirely satisfactory. However, I still do (analytic) philosophy professionally.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 12:31 AM on June 29, 2013

On mind-body issues specifically:

Daniel Dennett's new book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, is in large part an exploration of the value (or not) of thought experiments, including one big section on thought experiments in the philosophy of mind.

I assume the podcasts you're referring to are Philosophy Bites; but in case not: there's plenty of discussion in the mind-body podcasts there about the legitimacy of "armchair" philosophy versus "practical" neuroscience. It's currently very often asserted that philosophical approaches to consciousness are dead-ends, while practical neuroscientific research will eventually reveal the answer. I think there are drastic problems with this position, and the unexamined assumptions it embodies – but you wouldn't lack for company if you were to reach that conclusion. In other words: there are lots of highly intelligent people who don't believe that the philosophical enterprise, as it relates to the mind-body problem, is "worth it".
posted by oliverburkeman at 2:10 AM on June 29, 2013

but I feel like it's possible that there is nothing in particular about the English language (or even logical thought patters) that is especially good at describing reality

There is no unmediated reality (which is to say that this sentence has no referent.) Another way to put it is that all perception is interpretation. Or, there's no end to the chain of signifiers.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:30 AM on June 29, 2013

I'd say that you're basically right and that it's not worth it. You're better off reading great literature or the great thinkers of the past.
posted by shivohum at 8:41 AM on June 29, 2013

People do continental or some crossover form of philosophy in america, too... You're not alone in thinking thought experiments can be misleading, reductionist or just irrelevant approaches, although of course phenomenology & existentialism have their own difficulties.

They're not easy questions, and the more particular you try to be, the harder it is to catch anything. (You always catch something with a beautiful broad poem, you just can't tell what it is...)
posted by mdn at 8:48 AM on June 29, 2013

I'm in the "not worth it" camp. Philosophy is mostly based on analyses of how we use language. So in this area, philosophy can yield pretty thorough analyses of what psychologists call folk psychology. It can identify contradictions in the conceptual vocabulary we use to talk about the mind and mental states and events, and identify contradictions between these concepts of what minds are and how they work and understandings of these processes based on empirical research. Philosophers try to resolve these contradictions in various ways.

In theory, this is a useful thing to try to do. The problem is researchers in cognitive psychology and neurology have rejected many folk psychological concepts as wrong or not empirically meaningful, and philosophers often don't understand science very well and tend to either ignore this or reject research as illogical if it fails to mesh with the common-sense conceptual framework their own debates are based in. Another problem is that common-sense conceptual frameworks like this are culturally specific.

If you're interested in this kind of thing, it would probably be a good idea to read work by researchers in related fields, rather than just philosophers. One place to start if you're looking for people to read might be Susan Blackmore's Conversations on Consciousness. It's set of short interviews with a sort of 'who's who list' of people who were publishing research and philosophy in this area about eight years ago. It includes neurologists and cognitive psychologists as well people with interdisciplinary backgrounds and some philosophers you'll recognize from the podcasts you've been listening to.

(I'm recommending this even though I think Blackmore is a bit of a flake. It's a great set of interviews, and she asks good questions.)
posted by nangar at 1:06 PM on June 29, 2013

that sounds about right
posted by thelonius at 2:18 PM on June 29, 2013

I think another way to put it: Philosophy is no more or less playing with words than mathematics is playing with numbers. Interpret this however you wish.
posted by SollosQ at 5:04 PM on June 29, 2013

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