My Philosophy – A Rough Sketch

This brief (though not as brief as I had hoped!) outline of my general philosophical commitments was spurred by this challenge from fellow Patheos blogger Leah Libresco. It is a snapshot of my philosophical views at this time and subject to continuing revision for clarity, as well as for content if arguments arise which demonstrate my views to be seriously inadequate. I invite and welcome critical comments.

Edit 1: I took out the jargony, potentially confusing headings for each section. Thanks to Vlad Chituc and Eric Steinhart for the criticism.

Edit 2: I made a small change of language in the section about my “relativism” to make it clear that this is not an “anything goes” relativism but one in which serious judgments come into play regarding which “worlds” to accept or reject. Anything absolutely does not go. Many “worlds” are uninhabitable because they make no sense, while others are less preferable because they make less sense, and these judgments are reasoned and open to critique. Thanks to Eric Steinhart for this one.

Edit 3: I’ve tightened up the language regarding the arts so it doesn’t read like I’m making such a strong claim regarding the equivalent sense-making powers of science and art. I am not shifting my position, just clarifying the language. Thanks to Eric Steinhart for spurring this.

Edit 4: I replaced some references to materialism with references to monism because, depending on how materialism is construed, my initial language could be misleading. “Monism” seems to fit better as it expresses my anti-idealism while holding more clearly to my view that there can be great explanatory value in positing non-material phenomena. Thanks to Vlad Chituc for helping me see the lack of clarity here.

Edit 5: I added a tiny bit to the first paragraph to clarify that it is my view of philosophy I am expounding, not a general view. Thanks again to Vlad Chituc.

General Philosophical View

My philosophical outlook is heavily informed by Pragmatists like Dewey and Peirce, as well as their intellectual descendants Quine and Goodman. In keeping with them I hold that philosophy is a creative, collective human enterprise and that the purpose of philosophy is to solve human problems. Broadly speaking, we should judge the quality of our philosophy by asking whether it satisfactorily resolves or clarifies the problems with which we are faced. Philosophy, in my understanding, does not aim at “truth” (I argue traditional conceptions of truth are untenable or less useful than might be imagined) but a weaker yet more practical goal, “understanding”. Ultimately the question we should ask of our philosophical ruminations is “Does this make sense?” Pragmatism does not hold that all ideas need be “useful” in a limited sense, meaning directly practical. If an idea is “useful” in that it clarifies other ideas in the process of inquiry that’s good too, so there’s a broad understanding of “pragmatic” in play here. Furthermore, fallibilism is central to my philosophical thinking: I am committed to the idea that my ideas might be wrong (indeed, probably are wrong). The following sketch of my philosophical position is therefore to be seen as a work-in-progress, the result of one mind, striving with others, to make better sense.

Epistemology, Metaphysics, and Aesthetics

This is where my Humanist and Atheist buddies go crazy, because here I out myself as a “radical relativist”! Well, it’s true – but it’s not as bad as you think. In my epistemology and metaphysics I’m heavily influenced by Nelson Goodman (Harvard philosopher, collaborator and colleague of Quine, art-lover and all-round philosopher-king) and Catherine Elgin (my dissertation adviser, student of and coauthor with Goodman, and totally awesome person). Goodman was a “constructivist”, which meant that he held that human beings  construct our reality. We do not “apprehend” reality. We do not “discover” it. We construct it out of our experience and thoughts. Goodman observed that there is no “a priori” knowledge, no intuitive truths, and no unmediated experience. Everything we experience and think comes shaped in some way by our cognitive mechanisms and our structures of thought. Furthermore, he observed that we do not have access to something called “reality” – we simply never experience it. So the naive view of knowledge-construction, in which we compare our ideas to “reality” and then see if they fit, cannot be correct: we have no experience of “reality” with which to do the necessary comparison. What we do, rather, is compare some construct with another construct and decide which construct more fully satisfies whatever need we have. Therefore, it simply makes no sense to ask of a given construct “Is x real?” Rather, we must ask “If we view x in this way, does it make sense?”

An example: is Pluto a planet? This question exercised many in 2006 when Pluto was “downgraded” from planet status when a formal definition of “planet” was adopted by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The answer, of course, depends on what we choose to consider as a “planet”. And the answer to that depends on what use we wish to make of the concept of “planet” – what sort of sense we want to make.  The IAU felt the standard definition of “planet” no longer made sense, and so they changed it, and suddenly, Pluto was not a planet. While it might seem intuitive to say that Pluto hasn’t changed, and that our ideas about it have changed, Goodman would reply instead that we have changed Pluto. We made it a planet (constructed it as such within our representational schema) and now, like Gods, we have unmade it – and the world in which Pluto is a planet and the world in which Pluto is not a planet are different “worlds” we can create.

While counter-intuitive, this makes sense as a way of looking at things because, if you think about it, at every stage of the definitions game it is we who have created the terms. There simply is no ultimate answer to the question “Is Pluto a planet?” which I can demonstrate is binding on everyone else: there are merely different constructions which make more or less sense. Indeed, there may be worlds in which Pluto is a planet and worlds in which it is not, and they can both make equal sense! And, thus, I am a relativist (and something of a Skeptic when it comes to truth) – my framework does not commit itself to definite answers to ontological and metaphysical questions (it is non-committal in these areas), and admits of varying equally-valuable attempts at sense-making.

But this is a strictly bounded relativism. Constructions, if they are to make sense (and therefore be useful to us in advancing understanding), must fulfill certain stringent criteria, both internal and external: they must be coherent (non-contradictory), and have a decent scope of application, for instance (a tiny”world” which only explains some fraction of phenomena is of little use). Goodman refers to his criteria of judgment here as that of “reflective equilibrium”. And we have good reason to prune out “worlds” which are not as valuable as others – why live in a world which makes less sense than another?

This, in practice, ends up pruning out the vast majority of potential constructions – and the constructions which remain, I argue, are the very ones familiar to freethinkers everywhere: they will tend to be naturalistic, monistic, empiricist, and materialistic. Therefore, I will tend to sound like a standard rationalist, naturalist, monist when I speak for a general audience or write for this blog. But - and here’s where I differ, I think, from people like my fellow Patheos blogger Adam Lee, whose general philosophical commitments you can see here – I see myself as choosing naturalism,  monism, and empiricism as ways of constructing the world, not as “the way the world is”. I say to myself “In my judgment, we make more sense if we use the tools of empirical inquiry within a naturalistic, monistic, framework” rather than “The real world exists and it really is all made up of just matter and what stems from matter.” In principle, if a “world” could be constructed which made more sense than the world I have constructed, I am committed to living in the more sensical world - but the proposer must demonstrate that the new “world” actually makes more sense than the one I currently inhabit.

Why is aesthetics put here too? Because I agree with Goodman and Elgin that art plays a role in helping us make sense, and can make sense in ways which the sciences cannot (for solid reasons, not because they are magic). Therefore, the arts, like the sciences and humanities, are a way of making worlds – we construct reality with film and music in ways not so dissimilar to the ways we do so with scientific test and theory.

Ethics

My ethical view is intimately bound up with my other views (if you can’t see how that can be read Rawls – he took the idea of reflective equilibrium from Goodman, by whom he was influenced strongly, and used that to construct his ethics, which he called “political constructivism”). Remember, I think the tools of inquiry we call “naturalism”, “monism”, and “empiricism” the best ones we have available because they make the most sense. Within that framework I then construct an ethics which works with what we understand about human beings from our investigations: we are biological organisms with experiences to which we attach valence (desires, hopes, sufferings, joys). We observe there are other creatures too which, as far as we can tell, also have valence-infused experiences. The philosophy of ethics is the process of working out how we can ameliorate the predicaments that arise when different agents with different valence-infused experiences interact with each other (i.e. ethics is just as Pragmatic, for me, as everything else). The question “What is good?” has no answer in the abstract. Nor can we appeal to an independent realm of moral truth for answers to ethical questions. It is only in the context of valence-giving agents with a diversity of desires and goals that the question makes any sense – and ethics is the branch of philosophy concerned with tackling such questions (technically this view is a “stance-dependent” view of ethics).

Very little is required to get a basic working ethical theory out of a naturalistic worldview: very briefly, if I value the experiences which for me have positive valence (which I must by definition), then I am bound, in the name of consistency, to value the experiences of other similar agents which have positive valence for them (for I observe they are like me). To not care about another’s good while I care about my own, when there is good evidence to demonstrate that others are like me in relevant ways, is to be inconsistent (and that doesn’t make sense). And thus the fundamental Humanist ethical commitment – to the basic dignity of all persons – is simply an outgrowth of the sort of organisms we seem to be and the sort of experiences we find ourselves being able to have, plus a commitment to making sense (not being contradictory).

The oft-repeated challenges to this ethical view are seen, under this view, as the result of questionable assumptions: “What makes killing wrong?”, someone might ask, seeking for some uber-rule which superimposes itself on the situation. To which I reply “Ethics emerges from predicaments – it is not imposed from above.” A critic might ask, too, “What gives your ethical view force over others, so that you can expect others to abide by it?” To which I reply “Don’t you remember why we started discussing this in the first place? We have problems to solve! I am offering this as a solution to a shared problem in which you are implicated. You cannot now say you are uninterested in my solution and remain a sensical agent.”

More fully worked out ethical philosophies like preference utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism (and even specific metaethical theories), by my view, are (like scientific theories or artworks) attempts to make sense of our ethical experience. The question “Which one is true?” is not one my philosophical framework understands – only “which one helps us ameliorate the ethical predicament in which we find ourselves?” Any ethical theory is to be judged by comparison to other ethical theories and their outcomes for agents-with-values, and cannot be judged  “on their own”. This opens me up to a constrained form of moral relativism, in which there may well be equally sensical moral constructions which are mutually incompatible. That’s OK. In fact, that’s valuable: that seems to me to help us understand why many ethical questions are profoundly difficult: there may well be literally no “absolutely right” ethical answers, only “righter” and “wronger” ones.

But, just as with my views on epistemology, any relativism here is strongly bounded by the nature of our moral experience, and any ethical view which does not adequately account for those facts will be found seriously deficient. In other words, for me, ethical experience is primary, and ethical theorizing is what we do to make sense of our ethical experience. What we simply cannot do (and what my view directly opposes) is willfully ignore ethical experience and act as if things like desires, pains, psychological sufferings etc. simply do not have the characteristics they seem to have (I consider it instructive that many of the worst atrocities committed by people against others began by denying elements of ethical experience or questioning well-founded judgments regarding the status of other agents – people are de-humanized (i.e. erroneously constructed as different to ourselves) as a prelude to justifying immoral acts against them). The theory that we are biological organisms living together in society, and that this produces certain conflicts and questions as to how to act, is so sense-making that to give it up would be to our great detriment – and so it is from that basis which I begin the ethical endeavor.

Conclusion: How is this “Humanist”?

The obvious question arises “If these are your ethical commitments, why call yourself a Humanist?” The simple answer is that these commitments cash out into a set of values which are consistent with the values captured by the umbrella term “Humanism”: a respect for persons, methodological naturalism, atheism (worlds with God in make less sense), a clear-eyed meliorism, and fallibilism above all. While my philosophy (particularly my epistemology and metaphysics) may seem really, really weird to some other Humanists, I think it defensible and rigorous. Furthermore, it is fundamentally centered on human beings and our concerns, placing us at the creative center of all our intellectual enterprises. To me, little could be more Humanist than that.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

    In my epistemology and metaphysics I’m heavily influenced by Nelson Goodman

    Oh my god I love Nelson Goodman. I realize this isn’t the most important part of this post, but I largely agree with you (no doubt due to my love and admiration of Goodman) and I simply must relish the pleasure of reading someone who is also influenced heavily by Goodman’s work. You don’t meet many in the skeptic community, definitely not many in the academic mathemathics community (my professional world).

    I’m reading “Languages of Art” right now, which is slow going now that I’m in the more technical sections, but I raced through “Ways of Worldmaking.”

    • James Croft

      That’s great! “Languages of Art” is one of my FAVORITE philosophical books. I absolutely adore it. It was taking a class based on that book which made me want to pursue graduate level study. My only frustration with Goodman is that he never addressed ethics, and I’m desperate to know what he would have done with that field!

  • http://metabelief.blogspot.com Josiah

    James,

    I really liked this whole piece, its challenging and risky to write this kind of piece for public consumption and I like both the style and the content. I do have a quibble, which is probably caused by your efforts to be concise. If that is the case feel free to ignore the quibble and just read the compliment.

    “if I value the experiences which for me have positive valence (which I must by definition), then I am bound, in the name of consistency, to value the experiences of other similar agents which have positive valence for them”

    I think that “valuing the positive experiences of other agents” is a value itself and not a logical relationship. My counter point here would be that there is nothing logically inconsistent about being a sociopath. This critique isn’t particularly damaging to what you’ve written, which is nice because again, I really liked this post.

    -Josiah

    • James Croft

      I appreciate the quibble and the kind words! This is something I’ve gone back and forth about. I’m not ENTIRELY certain that if I value my own positive experiences I am logically entailed to value those of others even if they are like me in morally salient respects. What makes that position more tenable, in my mind, is my pragmatic approach to ethics, which basically reminds us that ethical disputes serve a purpose. And one of the things we find we need to do when ethical disputes arise is justify ourselves to other agents when we do things which affect them, and particularly justify when it is OK to constrain others’ actions (we might even say that a judgment that it is unethical to do X is in many cases effectively a judgment that I am justified in preventing you to do X). And I think it is very difficult to construct a justification of an action which cashes out as:

      “For a set of identifiable reasons I care about my own positive experiences. I observe, too, that the same sorts of reasons would lead to you valuing your positive experiences. I am inflicting a negative experience upon you which I know you have cause not to value. And yet I am justified in doing so and you are not justified in attempting to prevent me.”

      The sociopath might be logically consistent, but in order to remain so they must, I think, accede to the reasonableness of us restraining their action.

      I’m not sure if this makes sense. I am more sure of my epistemology and metaphysics than my ethics.

    • http://songe.me asonge

      I just wanted to jump on your bandwagon a little, Josiah and agree with you re: logical entailment of universalism. I think it’s contingent on a social being. Personally, I’ve been thinking that I have no clue whether any “agent” that isn’t social in nature would have a morality, or if moral propositions would make very much sense for such a being. Other than that, I appreciate (and I’m impressed by) the straightforward way you laid out your philosophy.

  • http://nonprophetstatus.com Vlad Chituc

    My comment I left on Facebook clarified and expanded for broader discussion here: though I’m not sure how much I can engage with it here considering my Lent commitments.

    First, When you say “Philosophy does not aim at “truth” (traditional conceptions of truth are untenable or less useful than might be imagined) but a weaker yet more practical goal, “understanding” that strikes me as a VERY strong claim. I know a lot of people who would disagree (myself included). Are you speaking for what philosophy is, or what you think it should be? That’s not really clear.

    “Very little is required to get a basic working ethical theory out of a naturalistic worldview”

    This is also very strong and hard to argue. If you are committed to materialism or naturalism (either ontologically or methodologically), then keep in mind what this commits you to (save a few modified cases I don’t take you to be endorsing). All that exists/you have epistemic access to are physical things, so if ethics exists/you have epistemic access to it, then there has to be some clump of matter out there that you can point to and say “There. There is morality/ how I know morality.” This is easy to do with chairs [points to chairs] more fuzzy with say, political states [points to clumps of neurons of all the people on earth with concepts of the political state that might reach some critical threshold necessary to constitute a state in a meaningful sense]. This seems impossible to do with moral rules or the moral good. Your position seems a bit confusing because you dont seem to think there’s a good in an abstract sense, but still seem to treat “positive valance” as the good. Not only does this leave you still with Moore’s open question argument (it’s not clear that “positive valance = the good” in the same sense that “h20=water.” It makes no sense to ask “but is H20 reallllly water? The same doesn’t hold for positive valence), but it doesn’t follow from the idea that since you value positive valance, naturalism somehow requires that you value everyone else’s out of consistency. I think you’ll see there’s a really relevant difference here: you value your positive valance, ostensibly because you experience it. You don’t experience the positive valence of someone in new guinea, so why should you care? Even if you say “their experience is like mine,” then that doesn’t commit you to valuing their experience. Do you value the literal experience, or that you can have the experience? It seems to me that you actually value the subjective experience of positive valence, and since that’s the only positive valence you can experience, it’s quite the leap to say that you ought value everyone else’s positive valence just because they too can experience it (since you value your experience of it, not that you have it in the abstract).

    Anyway, this is all to say that it requires a lot to get morality off the ground in a naturalistic framework (and you’re better off going for a non-natural framework)

    General comments: it would have been nice to see you spend less time citing and referencing other philosophers. It also would have been nice to see less jargon and a bit more conceptual explanation (“Epistemology, Metaphysics, and Aesthetics: Bounded Radical Relativist Constructivist?” I swear to god its like you just threw darts at a philosophy textbook). I find that jargon and overrelliance on citing other philosophers tends to muddle my thinking. Really explicitly spelling out what you think in more plain language lets you parse out some of the assumptions we kind of ignore when we just bust out fancy words.

    I’d also argue that your framework would actually make a lot more sense endorsing some kind of property dualism: as it stands, materialism and naturalism are woefully unable to convincingly (or even at all) account for first person experience, general subjectivity, or intentionality. Insofar as we’re just positing things because they make sense, then it seems to me that you ought to consider endorsing some kind of naturalistic dualism (see: Chalmers).

    • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

      First, When you say “Philosophy does not aim at “truth” (traditional conceptions of truth are untenable or less useful than might be imagined) but a weaker yet more practical goal, “understanding” that strikes me as a VERY strong claim.

      I don’t think it is that strong. Most philosophy, for example, rests on the foundational logic of an informal bivalent truth system (every proposition is either true or false, not both), but there is no a priori reason to select that as the foundation for determining truth, as such, any “truths” deduced from such a basis are merely conditional truths: if we define truth this way, and restrict its behavior in this other way, then we make conclude…. . We do it because it largely makes more sense that multivalent systems, although those are useful for understanding the logic of more unusual phenomena.

    • James Croft

      Thank you for the response – this is very valuable to me.

      In short, here, I think your criticism of my ethics is more forceful than your criticism of my epistemology. Yes, I think the strong claim regarding traditional notions of truth is warranted. I do not see any way that a naive conception of truth can be sustained – or, if it can be sustained, I think it ends up being very weak and not very helpful. I’ve tried to sketch some reasons why I believe that in the piece.

      Remember I am not committed to either naturalism or materialism as ontologies but rather as tools for inquiry. If it turns out they cannot do what I want them to do I am happy to ditch them for better tools – but I know of no better tools, so it’s what I use. However, I do NOT take an entailment of naturalism and materialism to be that if ethics “exist” they exist “as matter”. My system is non-reductive (this is a critical point which I should address somewhere in the piece) and fully open to phenomena with epistemic validity at different levels of analysis. Nonetheless, I feel less committed to materialism than to empiricism, and perhaps that should be clearer in the article.

      I don’t unerstand your criticism of “positive valence”. It’s not an elegant term but I don’t mean it to stand in for some abstract notion of the good. Rather I observe that people actually do experience goods – not in an abstract way. And that is important data for my ethical theorizing (Dewey makes this move in A Common Faith).

      I think I spend rather little time referencing other philosophers, and I do so to give a sense of the heritage of my beliefs. I find that when I know where someone is coming from (in terms of their intellectual background) it helps me understand the central concerns of their philosophy, and I wanted to offer that to others to whom it would also be useful. I take the point about my jargon-ridden headlines: I was using this as an opportunity to write as a practicing academic philosopher, rather than for a general audience as I usually do on my blog, but it is certainly not wieldy ;P. I have removed them as I think they add little and can confuse due to some non-standard usage of terms.

      The difficulty with dualisms in general is that they require so much work to justify the dualistic distinction that the payoff really has to be quite large – and, in my judgment, no version I have encountered gives sufficient bang for the buck. But, as I say, I am not in principle opposed to it.

      On valuing the valences of others – you’re right, there is a significant difference in that I do not experience what they experience. But we bridge that difference, I suggest, through numerous observations which support the conclusion that, nonetheless, their experience of valence is likely like our experience. This data comes in many forms: we observe others’ behavior, we can investigate their biology, we can listen to their utterances and conclude: “Oh! There goes a thing which, in morally salient ways, is like me!” And I’m not sure you can then consistently say “But nonetheless, I care about my valences and not about theirs.” It seems to me at that point that you care about all or none.

      This point of view, incidentally, has the benefit of tracking closely how we seem to actually think about morality. We apportion moral significance to things based on their observed characteristics. And the characteristics we seem to care about are what might be called “capacities for ethical experience”. There are many things toward which we simply have no ethical responsibilities (stones, for instance). The things to which we have responsibilities are particular sorts of things characterized in reasonably identifiable ways which don’t seem that controversial for he vast majority of people.

      • http://nonprophetstatus.com Vlad Chituc

        Alright, cheating on Lent a little bit but I think this is a good cause since I think your comment is helpful (as well as your edits. Very much appreciate).

        Two quick notes, though. It’s still a rather large gap (particularly a naturalized one) from “Others experience like I do” to “we ought to apportion moral consideration to others insofar as they experience like I do.”

        I think it might make this clearly to really nail down what it is about the experience of positive valence that makes it valuable to you. You could probably take two cases: first, that you have an experience of positive valence which you enjoy and thus want to promote; or second, that the capability for positive valence is important, over and above your experience of it. With these in mind, I think your argument breaks down—we can only value others (be it people/animals/whatever) in the second sense, but it seems like your justification of the value of positive valence comes from the first sense. And since the first sense is the only way I really see you doing work to ground the value of positive valence, I don’t see how you can coherently extend that to the second sense (since the second sense lacks what makes the first sense valuable to you—the experience of the valence).

        Anyway, I hope that wasn’t too abstract or hard to follow. In fact, I share your intuitions and am very sympathetic to the idea that I have reason to value other people based on similar experiences (in fact I probably endorse it), but I think an attempt to naturalize that argument fails.

        • James Croft

          Ah I see the criticism. I think the problem, for me, with your reply is the idea we need to “ground the value of positive valence”. That seems to me to be a strange thing to say. Our positive experiences have value because of what they are. What it means to say they have positive valence is that we value them. I don’t see that as requiring further grounding. We might coherently ask “why do you value what you value rather than other things you might value?”, but I don’t think we can ask “What is it about experiences we value which makes them valuable?” I think my response is going to be “That we value them.”

          It might help to outline a bit more what I’m trying to do here. I don’t think we can say much against the genuine moral nihilist who says there is no morality whatsoever. I don’t think our arguments will convince her. But, at the same time, they can hardly complain if we prevent them from harming others (and so there is no inconsistency in so doing).

          Those who would seek to morally privilege their own good over other agents who can experience similar goods have, I think, a difficult justificatory proposition too. They seem to want to justify the idea that they can, morally, treat us in a way we cannot, morally, treat them. I don’t see how such an argument can be maintained – and so, again, I think we are justified in preventing them from harming others.

          And that’s basically what I’m offering: a rationale as to why it’s at least legitimate to care for ourselves and extend that care to others while preventing nefarious agents from doing us harm, by restraining them if necessary.

  • http://carnedes.blogspot.com Carneades-Skeptic Griggsy

    Google covenant morality for humanity – the presumption of humanism for my take.Mine, this one and Richard Carrier’s goal theory are similar. Mine is different in that it combines subjectivism with objective morality.

  • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

    First, a minor point. I agree with Vlad that knowing which philosophers have influenced your ideas is not all that useful. Knowing that I’ve enjoyed and been influenced by Plato, or Dan Finke, or even James Croft, really tells you next to nothing about my philosophy, and if you assume you know something about my intellectual heritage, you’re going to think you know more than you do. The IDEAS are what matter.

    Speaking of which, what are these “traditional notions” and “naive conceptions” of truth to which you refer? Could you clarify some of that? Your example of Pluto seemed irrelevant, as it seemed to have nothing to do with truth, and only with how we classify things. Certainly there is a reality that we can compare our ideas to! If not, then I invite you to defy the construction of gravity, and fly like Superman. Or, to be less snarky, consider the speed of light in a vacuum.

    It’s true that we can define the speed of light on any number of numerical and measurement systems, and that the system we choose to use for expressing that speed is, ultimately, arbitrary, chosen by its based (one hopes) on what is most useful to us. But, the speed of light is what it is, regardless of how we express it. It would be just the same if we didn’t exist at all, if no life at all existed to give it a name, and try to measure it. This is reality. It is not “constructed” by us. And while it’s true that our ability to apprehend this reality, to understand it, is imperfect, that doesn’t mean we can’t strive to be less wrong about it.

    Your ethics section I need to examine further to see if I have any thoughts on it.

    • James Croft

      Hi Nathan!

      To your first point, I do understand there are people who find intellectual lineages to be less useful than others. I find them extremely useful, and I’m assuming I’m not the only one, so I offer a couple of sentences outlining that for those who might find it useful. How useful one finds it depends on how familiar one is with the philosophers in question. For instance, one commenter (by email) said he saw the influence of Dewey and Peirce in my thinking, while another recognizes the Goodman. For them, they now know what sort of “box” to put my ideas in and can relate them to other ideas in what I hope will be fruitful way.

      The naive views of truth I think untenable are essentially forms of correspondence theory, in which “truth” is determined to be “an idea which corresponds to reality”. This is the view you assume to be accurate in your examples regarding gravity and the speed of light in a vacuum. The trouble is I’m not sure how, beyond a strong intuition that the correspondence theory is correct, you go about justifying that position.

      Before I proceed here let me be clear what I am NOT arguing (I think I have to do some work on the draft to make this clearer). I am not saying we simply “make up what is true”. We are not at liberty simply to alter our experience at will. That’s why my view is “constructivist” and not something like “creativist”. We CONSTRUCT out of components of experience and thoughts which we have, and we have to work with what we’ve got – we have no choice about that. So we cannot grow wings and fly (or just extend our arm and fly like Superman, cute outfit or no) – we simply find we cannot do so.

      But it’s a big philosophical step to move from that experience to saying that this is “because” there “exists” a force called “gravity” which keeps us on the ground. The laws of gravity are a HYPOTHESIS which makes sense of our experience. This is actually extremely clear in the case of gravity, ironically, because our understanding of gravity has changed so radically since the idea was first proposed (the false Newtonian conception giving way to the probably false Einsteinian conception etc.). Likewise with the speed of light in a vacuum. We construct out of our observations theories which try to make sense of the data.

      Now we might want to add a further hypothesis to this process, and hypothesize that there in fact “exists” a mind-independent reality which our theories are more closely approximating, and that this is why the constructed “laws” of nature seem to be stable and dependable, and why we can make scientific progress. And, indeed, I see that as an extremely powerful hypothesis – I know no better hypothesis than that. But let’s recognize that this, too, IS a hypothesis, a construction, which makes sense of things for us. I don’t know of any way – and I’ve never encountered a solid argument – which could get us beyond the idea that the “reality hypothesis” is a hypothesis.

      I invite you to submit an argument if you think you have one – it would really be quite an advance in philosophy!

      • John Figdor

        I, for one, appreciate you citing your influences. I think they actually tell an important part of the story.

        JPF

  • Laurence

    James, are you familiar with Simon Blackburn’s quasi-realism? His position, as I understand it, seems very similar to yours. He’s not interested in positing truth that has a metaphysical origin but rather earning the right to talk about truth by constructing it. This seems very compatible with Goodman’s views. I just finished studying his moral quasi-realism in my Metaethics class, and it really seems to jive well with how you view ethics. However, I think it provides a slightly sturdier framework than what you have. From what I’ve read of this, you seem much closer to a quasi-realist than a relativist. You should definitely check Blackburn out if you haven’t yet.

    • James Croft

      I haven’t checked Blackburn out yet but from your description I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some significant overlap. Goodman himself called his system “irrealism”, while Scheffler, working from it, calls his own “plurealism”. And “quasi-realism” seems a variation on the same theme. I definitely think a sturdier ethics is required, too, so it’s good to know one might be out there! The ethics here really is an extremely rough (and slightly hopeful) sketch.

      As for the question of “relativism”, that word seems to scare people, and I can understand why. I only mean it in a very strict technical sense: I can foresee in my system, in principle, incompatible but equally-valid responses to both ethical and epistemic questions. The responses we choose in such a situation are relative to our needs or perhaps even arbitrary: we may not have good reasons to prefer one construct over another. That’s all I mean.

      This does NOT entail that ALL such decisions will be arbitrary (that’s why this is a “bounded relativism). Nor does it necessarily entail that ANY such decisions will IN PRACTICE turn to to be arbitrary. Merely that it is possible IN PRINCIPLE that they MIGHT be.

      • Laurence

        To be clear, Blackburn’s quasi-realism is a metaethical theory and not a first-order one. Also, I think you would be better off not using relativism because that tends to mean something else even in technical philosophical circles.

        • James Croft

          I use it because Goodman used it, essentially, and I’m reporting his ideas. What would be a better word do you think?

          • Laurence

            Well, if you are down with Blackburn, I’d suggest using quasi-realism.

  • http://craigvolpe.com Craig Volpe

    Hey James,
    I really enjoyed reading this. I think you did a great job making your ideas clear to non-philosophers. I’ve never studied philosophy, and while I got lost trying to follow the comments, I think I understood everything in your main piece except for monism. I think for someone like me, materialism would be more understandable, but if monism is more accurate to your philosophy, it’s probably worth keeping at the cost of a little comprehensibility to the layperson such as myself.
    By the way, I had never heard of constructavism before, but the way you explained it makes a lot of sense to me. That just seems sensible to me to argue that we construct realities that best fit our experiences rather than declaring that we have knowledge of some innate truth. But that makes me wonder: does that mean there is no such thing as truth; or does it mean there is truth, but we will never have access to it because of the limitations our experiences impart on us?
    As always, thanks for making me think!

    Craig

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