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Friday, April 07, 2017

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Philosophy and Language

Dear Friends,

This Sunday we are discussing the topic: Philosophy and Language.

In my essay I do not discuss the issues of philosophy of language, but
rather the philosophical problems people have discussed because of the
vagaries of language. The mind-body problem (soul-body problem) is a
problem in philosophy because people like Descartes did not have the
right language to describe the functions of the brain: if Descartes had
access to a magnetic resonance imaging machine (MRI) I doubt there would
have been a duality or mind-body problem these past few centuries.

In the meantime don't forget you can also follow the group at MeetUp
https://www.meetup.com/PhiloMadrid-philosophy-group/ .

Philosophy and language

One of the most spectacular events in modern philosophy was the Evil
Deceiver argument by Rene Descartes. You will remember that Descartes
was trying to find something certain to what exists. And the evil
deceiver was an argument not to trust any beliefs since beliefs might be
put there by some evil deceiver. We know the rest.

The problem with this sort of scepticism is that we cannot really take
the argument to its logical conclusion. And the logical conclusion would
be to doubt everything including the vary language we use to express our
scepticism. We have here a good example of how I want to interpret this
subject, Philosophy and Language, not as a discussion in the philosophy
of language, but rather something more basic. How philosophical problems
can emerge because of the language we use.

My example from Descartes describes a very serious issue in philosophy.
At the time of the 1600s what really exists was an important question to
understand the world. Whilst language highlights the limits of
philosophy (eg use of terms like evil deceiver, god, soul), in the same
way that infinity highlights the limits of mathematics, the evil
deceiver argument is still good "intuition" as demonstrated by the
scientific method. A method based on the understanding data, probability
and statistical methods and, therefore, very prone to error as much as
knowledge. But the bottom line is that certainty is based on methodology
and not contemplation. Today, we understand the "evil deceiver" argument
because from biology we understand how parasites and bacteria function.
And as conceptual words for a "deceiver", "falsehoods" and
"manipulation" we would use today such terms as "marketing", "dogma" and
"ideology".

We can safely say that the limits of our language are also the limits of
philosophy in the same way that the limits of mathematical understanding
are also the limits of science. But I use the evil deceiver example as
an illustration to set out the nature of my interpretation of the topic.

Indeed, I would argue that the evil deceiver argument is the equivalent
of intellectual entrainment. Descartes contributed an even more serious
problem in philosophy: the mind – body problem. This problem has been
discussed for centuries and continues to be discussed even today. And
even more telling, the concept that we possess two entities, a mind and
a brain, still persists today. But this wouldn't be so bad if we didn't
also think that we have a soul and a body. This duality idea is well
engrained in our language.

If, however, Descartes had access to data from a Magnetic resonance
imaging (MRI) machine I doubt he would have come up with the duality
problem and to continue talk of minds, or souls. As an analogy, our use
of "mind" today is more akin to talking about having a chocolate
birthday cake. There aren't two cakes: a chocolate cake and a birthday
cake.

The mind body (brain) problem has been one of those very serious history
changing events in philosophy, a topic we discussed recently, that these
concepts have engrained themselves in our psyche and language. The truth
is that we only have one cake for our birthday and we only have one
thought generating organ in our body, i.e. the brain.

But there is a viscous circle type of issue here. Our lack of knowledge
of the world means that we don't have the linguistic tools to describe
new experiences. Consequently we revert to our inadequate language or
concepts to describe new experiences. A good example of this is the use
of the concept of "ether" to describe quantum mechanical phenomena, for
example, light.

But quantum mechanics challenged the millennia held beliefs that
"certainty" must mean "universal". Our historical idea of "certainty"
that it must be precisely the opposite of our own epistemological
limitations is just false: certainty is not the opposite of our
feebleness, weakness and intellectually limits. But this meme of
certainty to mean universal, has probably been the single most damaging
concept for the development of human beings. And we find this language
in such words, deity, god, infinity, omnipotent and so on.

Indeed, our state of language today creates the dichotomy that what we
know for certain is that the scientific method is the most reliable
certainty we have: a method that, at heart, is based on the uncertainty
of probability. Our language does not help us here either. From the
discipline "science" we derive the noun "scientist" or "biology" to
"biologist" or "politics" to "politician" and then make the mistake to
assume that failures of the practitioner are the failure of the discipline.

Immanuel Kant came up against this problem when he tried to establish a
universal moral code. The idea that we can derive derive universal moral
laws based on humanity was not an option for Kant. So he sought, like
his peers at the time and before, something independent from the world
we live in. But then again Kant and his peers did not have such language
concepts as human rights, charters of human rights, labour laws, duty of
care, genetics, viruses, bacteria, and DNA. The idea that a universal
moral law is universal because it applies to all human beings, all the
time, was not part of the language of the day. Nor the idea that we do
not know what is the right thing to do by just looking at individual
people. There are many things we can say about what is the right thing
to do for humanity and a lot of that isthe result of medical science;
jurisprudence, biology etc.

The idea that universal truths must somehow reside in our heads without
an explanation of how these truths get there is just a reflection of the
limits of our past epistemological state. A lot of what Kant said in his
moral discourse can be covered by the idea "do not abuse human rights
and do not introduce policies that are in conflict with the charter of
human rights." The difference is that Kant could not say this sentence,
but we can and yet still do not follow this dictum. And the problem
might not be with what a priori moral principle we have in our head, but
maybe because we have no respect for fellow human beings.

I have left the most important issue language creates in philosophy to
the last. We all agree that philosophy is the "love of wisdom" at least
the ancient Greeks said so; so it must be true (or not)! Earlier I
hinted at the problem of associating what a practitioner of a discipline
does and the discipline itself. Thus what philosophers do must surely be
different from what is philosophy. Thus our practice of categorising
and classifying things has more to do with our limitations to process
information than how the world happens to be ordered. It is very easy
for us to think of biology for biological things and quantum mechanics
to physics. It is only recently that researchers have discovered the
promising field of Quantum Biology.

Thus philosophy as a discipline (love of wisdom) is not the exclusive
domain of those who call themselves philosophers. And the irony is that
this is demonstrated by two great scientists today who are also critical
of philosophers and philosophy. I am thinking of Richard Dawkins and
Stephen Hawking. Yet these two scientists today have identified more
philosophical type problems for us than most of the practitioners of
philosophy. The love of wisdom and, more importantly, the philosophical
analysis of "experience", is something we all do and have to do; except
many people don't call it philosophy.

But of course, just because we have a more complex language today with
more precise concepts and vocabulary, it does not mean that we don't
come across problems caused by language. One of these problems is
translating scientific knowledge, that is couched in mathematics and
complex conceptual terminology, into ordinary language people can
understand. Sure there might be many people who are happy with
explanations like "it's a miracle" or the "lord works in mysterious
ways" but many more want to know such things as: why electricity charges
keep increasing when we have all this wonderful technology to generate
power?

Whilst many have a good idea why electricity charges keep rising, we
still have the philosophical question in political philosophy and
philosophy of economics: which is the right market model for an
efficient economy with equitable wealth distribution?

Again part of the problem is language: our sense of what is morally
just, or what is the right thing to do, is still based on what we
perceive of being good; politicians still fight with such terminology as
free-market economy, neoliberlism, state owned companies and
nationalised companies, profits and investments. Yet sociologists,
anthropologists, medical practitioners and psychologist keep telling us
that nutrition and stability are key factors for the development of
children; access to health care means that people are stronger and
therefore work more efficiently; that job satisfaction is more important
for most people in the long run than money remuneration after a certain
level of income.

To conclude, our love for knowledge or wisdom can only progress when we
have the means to exchange information about new experiences:
experiences that were never encountered before. Once our predecessors
realised that to pursue philosophy they required new languages rather
than the old natural language they opened the flood gates of knowledge.
Mathematics was one of those new languages.

I started by using Descartes as an example of the problematic issues in
our topic: but the genius of Descartes was not that he established the
"I" but that he used the right language, to describe a pressing problem
at the time, to the people of the time. Which formula do you understand
better (be honest): "I think, therefore I am" or "E=MC2"?

Best Lawrence



tel: 606081813
philomadrid@gmail.com <mailto:philomadrid@gmail.com>
Blog: http://philomadrid.blogspot.com.es/
<http://philomadrid.blogspot.com.es/>
MeetUp https://www.meetup.com/PhiloMadrid-philosophy-group/ .

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Metro: Bilbao
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from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Philosophy and Language

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