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Imagining god creating poppies

Richard Marshall interviews Alexis Burgess.

Alexis Burgess is a groovy indie-rocking philosopher who finds logic and the metaphysics of language the key, what with his deep thoughts on truth, fiction, realism, reference, existence, identity, indeterminacy and all. He is a Kripke fan and thinks David Foster Wallace is sensationally awesome, especially when considering those long sinewy strung out sentences that go hazy towards the idiomatic before consoling themselves in some other kind of hinted vernacular that crosses over, you know, with a sleighted horse-whipped goof. When not philosophizing he’s doing a theatre thing so is not only mathematical, logical and metaphysical but all art and drama too with a lo-fi sound getting his buzz. He loves xphi’s logo but his armchair has sentimental attachments so he’s stayed away from Josh Knobe’s fire-jack up to now. He’s a philosopher in search of a soundtrack which makes him like, exceptional.

3:AM: Why did you become a philosopher? Was it a decision that surprised you?

Alexis Burgess: I think it surprised my mom more. My parents are both mathematicians, so I started out as a math major by default. But my dad’s a philosopher as well, so I had a hunch I might be interested in the subject. Freshman spring, Alison Simmons taught a terrific historical introduction that got me hooked. Here was a subject that used mathematical rigor to probe the sorts of “deep questions” I had brooded over as an angsty teenager. I took a few psychology courses too, but I remember being disappointed by the standards of argument in the discipline. Philosophy satisfied my fetish for deduction without sacrificing relevance to the human condition.

3:AM: You’ve recently joint authored a book, Truth, surveying recent enquiries into what it is for something to be true. Now although this is a grand topic, many people outside of philosophy will feel they know something about what truth is. A glib postmodernist might say that truth is whatever hegemonic forces enforce, but you point out that something passing for truth might not be truth, and that raises the question, ‘so what is it that this phony truth is passing for?’ Yet you have established to your satisfaction that truth might just be a useful fiction, which might be what the phony postmodernist might have been fishing for. So you are genuine hard core. Philosophers, as always, go a lot further than most folks in following their line of thoughts. Is this taking an idea for a very very long walk something that attracts you to the art?

AB: This is a nice irony. Saying that truth is a convenient fiction certainly does have a postmodern ring to it. As I think you’re suggesting, though, my work on truth is definitely executed within the so-called analytic tradition in philosophy, which prides itself on clarity and precision. So it should be comparatively easy to tell whether I’m committed one way or the other on most any claim about truth you’d care to evaluate — to engage my views using plain English, with a reasonable hope of getting somewhere in the debate. Sometimes this attention to detail can get tedious. But nobody said the truth would always be exciting.

3:AM: An example of this is thinking about the distinction between a ‘nominal’ meaning of truth, which just tells us what the word ‘truth’ means, and the real definition which is supposed to give us what the thing itself is. Can you say why you think this is an important distinction to keep in mind if we want to understand why philosophers disagree on how to answer the question, ‘what is truth?’

AB: I think this is one of the most crucial distinctions in philosophy generally. Another way the nominal v. real contrast gets marked is as “conceptual analysis v. metaphysical reduction”. Like you said, the basic idea is to distinguish between the content of a representation—like a word or mental symbol—and the nature of thing being represented. The word ‘water’ refers to water: H2O. But presumably many of the chemical facts about H2O aren’t included in the meaning of the word ‘water’. Intuitively, you don’t have to know the real definition of water (the stuff) in order to grasp the meaning of ‘water’ — to know the nominal definition of the word. Going in the other direction, there might be claims “built in” to the very meaning of a word that don’t actually reflect the nature of whatever the word picks out in the world.

I think something like this is going on in the case of ‘true’. The meaning of the word seems to be given, at least in part, by the equivalence between asserting that something’s true, on the one hand, and asserting that very thing, on the other. (For example: saying that it’s true that water’s transparent is in some sense equivalent to just saying that water’s transparent.) But this seemingly trifling principle leads to paradox. Consider a “liar” sentence like: This sentence is not true. Is it true or isn’t it? Our equivalence principle seems to say that if it’s true, it’s not; and if it’s not, it is. But it’s got to be one or the other, and it can’t be both. Contradiction. So, one might conclude, the property of truth must not satisfy our trifling equivalence principle, despite the principle’s being built into the very meaning of ‘true’. Indeed, if you’re feeling brazen, you might even conclude that truth just doesn’t exist.

3:AM: There used to be three dominant theories about truth in play – the realist/Correspondence theory, the Idealist/coherence theory and the pragmatist/utility theory. How come contemporary Anglo/American philosophers tend now to ignore the last two?

AB: Well, the short answer is: because we figured out that they’re false. But of course there aren’t really any refutations in philosophy, just increasingly daunting research projects. Michael Lynch has done as much as anyone to place pragmatism and other unfashionable theories of truth back on the intellectual agenda. People interested in these alternatives should grab a copy of his anthology, The Nature of Truth: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives.

3:AM: So now we have another ‘three cornered’ argument, but these days its realists vs antirealists vs deflationists. So what are these three new positions all about and who are the names that roughly map out onto this landscape?

AB: Deflationism basically says that there’s nothing more to the meaning of ‘true’ (and/or the nature of truth itself) than the trifling equivalence I mentioned in connection with definition. Correspondence theory is the main realist rival to deflationism today. It basically says that a sentence or proposition (or other representational entity) is true when it corresponds to reality in the right way. Sounds like common sense. But it’s proved quite difficult to give a plausible, uniform account of what this “way” amounts to. Some of the most famous philosophers of language started out as correspondence theorists and eventually became deflationists. Wittgenstein and Hartry Fieldare two examples—who don’t often come up in the same sentence. That said, Dave Chalmers’ recent poll of the profession revealed that correspondence theory is still more popular than deflationism. The second runner up was the epistemic version of antirealism, associated with Crispin Wright, according to which truth is something like super-justified belief.

3:AM: You kind of park the paradoxes of truth to the side of your book, but you’re interested in them. Recently you have thought about Tarski’s idea that the paradoxes reveal that we’re riddled with semantic errors. So, are we, and what difference does that make?

AB: We tried not to put them to the side. I think people are increasingly aware that we aren’t going to make much headway on the logic, semantics, or metaphysics of truth by pursuing them in isolation. One of the nice things about Tarski’s “inconsistency” idea is that it plays well with a deflationary theory of the nature of truth. Of course, the paradoxes very rarely come up in ordinary conversation or deliberation; and if ever they do, we have better sense than to follow the arguments where they lead.

At the same time, there’s something intellectually uncomfortable about continuing to use a concept like truth once you’ve decided it’s inconsistent. That was the main motivation for my fictionalism about truth. In more recent work — a manuscript called ‘Coping with Contradiction’ — I reexamine the practical question of what to do with inconsistent concepts. Kevin Scharp thinks they need to be replaced for serious theoretical purposes like linguistic semantics or mathematics. I’m not so sure. But I do think “conceptual ethics” will be an increasingly important and fruitful field of inquiry in the years ahead.

3:AM: A whole section of your book is devoted to your review of Alan Berger’s book on Kripke by saying, ‘If Kripke did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.’ Can you say why Kripke has a godlike status amongst philosophers?

AB: He’s widely regarded as a singular genius. And philosophers don’t use that term lightly. He made important contributions to mathematical logic while he was still in high school. He undermined a theory of reference that dominated philosophy of language for the first three quarters of the twentieth century. He laid the groundwork for Chalmers’ celebrated work on the mind/body problem. He had the first big idea on the paradoxes of truth since Tarski. He revived the profession’s interest in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. And all this without a PhD.

3:AM: Can you explain how Kripke’s approach helps to go deep into working out truth? So what’s his argument around, say, colours and whether they are ‘objective’ or not? And how does it differ from alternatives? He ends up being a kind of realist, discounting the claims that metamers turn natural kind terms like colour terms into failed natural kind terms, doesn’t he? Are you convinced?

AB: Kripke’s work on color is still unpublished. But one of his students, Mario Gomez Torrente, wrote an excellent survey of it for Alan Berger’s edited volume, Saul Kripke. John Locke famously distinguished so-called primary and secondary qualities. Colors and smells were supposed to be secondary, while shapes and sizes were supposed to be primary. Intuitively, primary qualities are “out there in the world”, ready to be studied by the sciences, while secondary qualities are mere “projections” of our sensory faculties—subjective impositions on the objective world.

Different philosophers have tried to make this rough and ready distinction more precise in different ways. But Kripke’s suspicious of the distinction. In his work on color, he argues against the subjectivist idea that redness, for example, is just a disposition to produce certain kinds of sensations in observers. The distinction we talked about earlier, between real and nominal definition, actually comes in handy here. Kripke doesn’t quite think this dispositional description gives the meaning of the term ‘red’, but he does seem to have a related view in the semantics of color vocabulary.

To use some jargon from Naming and Necessity (the book that undermined the traditional theory of reference I alluded to before), Kripke thinks such a description might be used to “fix the reference” of the term ‘red’—to determine what property the word picks out in the world. But, and this is the crucial bit, he doesn’t think much of anything about the intrinsic nature of redness itself follows from this reference-fixing. You can’t infer physical or metaphysical conclusions about the essences of color properties from the semantics of color terms. And I actually agree with all that. As you probably picked up from my review of the Berger book, however, I think there are good, independent reasons not to believe in objective color properties at all. The locus classicus for this kind of eliminativism is C. L. Hardin’s book, Color for Philosophers.

3:AM: Kripke came up with a pretty radical interpretation of Wittgensteinian theory of meaning. You suggest that his Wittgenstein would part company from Kripke in important respects. This is interesting isn’t it? I always supposed that the Kripke’s Wittgenstein was Kripke. What’s going on?

AB: Kripke is pretty clear that he isn’t embracing the “skeptical solution” to the puzzle about rule-following. So in that sense, it’s fairly uncontroversial that KW is not K. (And as you implied at the start: that KW is not W.) That said, I’ve recently come around to thinking that Kripke’s non-reductive realism about reference in N&N is actually more similar to KW’s take on meaning than Kripke himself lets on. There’s definitely more work to be done here, in Kripke scholarship, Wittgenstein scholarship, and philosophy of language proper.

3:AM: You have a cool argument answering Kripke’s skeptic involving omelettes. Can you sketch what the issue is about and why your argument kills it?

AB: KW’s skeptical challenge is temporal: assuming for the sake of argument that our words are perfectly meaningful now, how can we be so sure that they meant the same things (or for that matter, anything at all) when we used them yesterday, last Sunday, or last year? After all, our past usage was finite, compatible with all sorts of bizarre deviations down the road. Now, the meaning skeptic wants to forestall the dismissive response that, by his own lights, he’s speaking gibberish. Hence his assumption about present meaning.

But what I argue in my note is that this concession gives the whole game away. We can actually answer the skeptic’s question by appealing to the fact that we (presently) intend to use our words fairly stably over time, with the same meaning from one day to the next. Granting that we presently mean to pick out those delicious eggy things with the word ‘omelet’, the best explanation of this fact is arguably the success of our stabilizing intentions. But of course, the success of these intentions entails that we meant the same thing by ‘omelet’ last Sunday. The point generalizes beyond brunch.

3:AM: You hardly say anything about Kripke on the philosophy of mind — but he’s made big contributions to the debates in that sphere as well hasn’t he? You’re impressed by his boldness in attacking functionalist theories “at its strongest point: what [Dave] Chalmers calls the ‘psychological’ aspects of mind.” So is functionalism a bad idea—do you agree with his arguments?

AB: Well, for what it’s worth, I think Kripke’s discussion of consciousness in N&N was the most important contribution to the philosophical side of the field since Descartes. Here’s the basic idea. Suppose some kind of physicalism were true. Then any mental state M should be identical (or reducible) to some physical state P. But identities are necessary, never just contingent. (Kripke established a more nuanced version of this premise by appealing to facts about reference uncovered earlier in the book.) This should be surprising, since it’s easy to imagine P existing without M, or vice versa.

Of course, conceivability isn’t an infallible guide to genuine possibility. (Here’s where Kripke effectively parts company with Descartes.) But when our imaginations let us down, there ought to be an explanation of the failure. Compare a case like heat = mean molecular kinetic energy. If that’s true, it ought to be necessary. It can seem contingent if we confuse heat (the thing out there in the world) with sensations of heat, because we can coherently imagine high molecular kinetic energy in the absence of any sensations, and vice versa. So we can explain away this illusion of possibility.

Notice, however, that this explanatory strategy doesn’t work with respect to consciousness. We can’t distinguish pain, for example, from sensations of pain. Pain just is pain-sensation! As you can imagine, physicalists have come up with a lot of nice replies to this argument, and I’d like to be a physicalist myself; but I’m not convinced Kripke has been adequately answered. That said, I’m less impressed by his arguments against functionalism, as a physicalistic account of the non-conscious aspects of the mind.

3:AM: Contemporary analytic metaphysics is sometimes thought of best as a trick of harmless deflationary use of semantic vocabulary. Richard Rorty and Huw Price are parade cases for this view that we’re not mirroring realities in our words. In other words, we may use the words but they don’t really have ontological reality beyond that. But you don’t agree with this—so in your view is contemporary metaphysics committed to mirrors of some sort. Can you say something about this?

AB: This is a nice question. I think the standard self-conception of metaphysicians today is that they don’t need to decide between correspondence theory and deflationism unless they’re specifically interested in the metaphysics of truth. The bulk of metaphysics is about the world itself, not our representations of it. Now, I think this attitude is completely appropriate at the beginning of inquiry. If we’re interested in whether or not God exists, for example, there’s no reason to expect at the outset that the answer will turn on the semantics of proper names or the nature of truth. But we also need to be open to the possibility that, as metaphysical inquiry proceeds, issues in the philosophy of language might become increasingly relevant in unexpected ways.

Michael Devitt has taken Rorty and others to task for jumping too quickly from views about truth to conclusions about reality, in his valuable book, Realism and Truth. Huw Price wants to make a similar move, from a deflationary theory of representation to a deflation or demotion of speculative metaphysics. I’m more sympathetic to Price’s project than I am to Rorty’s. But neither figure really faces up to the fundamental dilemma in this area. Deflationism about truth turns questions about representation into questions about reality, whereas deflationism about metaphysics turns questions about reality into questions about representation. It would seem we can’t do both, on pain of circularity.

3:AM: Now here’s a great thought experiment you propose we should be thinking about: “Imagine God creating a field of poppies. There’s no need for Her to survey the field and stipulate that this poppy will be identical to itself, and distinct from that poppy, that poppy, etc. Intuitively, the identity/distinctness facts come along for free; they seem to be nothing over and above the relevant existential facts.” So what’s the puzzle? Why is it an important issue?

AB: The physicalist typically thinks that consciousness is nothing “over and above” certain kinds of brain activity, describable in the impersonal languages of neuroscience and cognitive psychology. My though experiment is supposed to pump the intuition that facts about numerical identity (what’s expressed by the ‘=’ sign) are nothing over and above existential facts. I then present a puzzle for this intuition.

If the identity or distinctness of some arbitrary A and B is settled by their mere existence, one would expect there to be an explanation of how/why the relevant existential facts “sometimes” make it that A and B are identical, and other times entail that they’re distinct. But it’s actually quite difficult to come up with any such explanation, without circularly appealing to the notion of identity itself. I think the right moral to draw from this puzzle is a kind of deflationism about identity, which is significant insofar as it limits the proper role of identity talk in metaphysics.

A lot of metaphysical debates are still routinely couched in terms of identity and distinctness. Think about the puzzles of personal identity, or the mind/body problem. If we reformulate these issues without using the notion of identity, it’s entirely possible that some problems might dissolve, some new solutions might materialize, or some old solutions might start to seem more plausible than they did before.

3:AM: If Kripke is a giant of contemporary philosophy, the late David Foster Wallace is a giant of contemporary novelists. You see him as a philosopher of language too don’t you? Can you say why you are writing about Wallace and what he contributes to philosophy?

AB: His undergrad thesis on free will was recently published with commentary by professional philosophers, and it’s easy to read his fiction as philosophical parable. I’m in the process of writing a little piece about his take on descriptive v. prescriptive linguistics. I think we’re about to see a big boom in DFW scholarship. His intellectual and personal struggles have always resonated with me, so I was very happy for the opportunity to contribute something to the literature.

3:AM: You think about Wallace. Your fave album is Modest Mouse’s This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About, which is a heap of ironies in your case. Are you into indie rock generally or is this a special one-off? You are also involved in drama. So why are the arts important to you? Do they help with your philosophical broodings? Do you write fiction and play in a band? Have you other key influences in this area?

AB: I actually got bored a lot as a kid, so the irony was unintentional. I stumbled on the album in ’97, and my taste in music changed overnight. There’s a stunning intimacy to their lo-fi sound during these early years, like you’ve got a standing invitation to rehearsals. The lyrics are poignant but not sappy; witty without being insincere. “I changed my mind so much I can’t even trust it / My mind changed me so much I can’t even trust myself.” You asked about theater too. Yes, I do write and act in plays at Stanford, along with other faculty and students. (A big shout out to Karola Kreitmair and A/K/A Theater Company!) I’m currently working on my first full-length script, on time and freedom. Some philosophical topics are best approached viscerally rather than intellectually, I think. At the very least, it should have a good soundtrack.

3:AM: Are you interested in the work of xphi and burning armchairs?

AB: Not really. Not yet, anyway. But it’s a fabulous logo. Most of the stuff flying under the xphi banner is conceptual analysis conducted using the experimental methodology of cognitive psychology. I have my doubts about the epistemology of psychology, as well as the arguments against a priori conceptual analysis. But I’m happy to let other flowers bloom. Kwame Anthony Appiah has a wonderful book, Experiments in Ethics, exploring how the philosopher’s toolkit might be expanded along empirical lines, beyond conceptual analysis. For the time being, though, I’m happy enough in my armchair. My mom got it for me my first year of grad school, and it still works.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books you could recommend to the truth seekers here at 3:AM, apart from your own book which of course we’ll be dashing away to read straight after this?

AB: My all-time favorite has got to be Thomas Nagel’s collection of essays, Mortal Questions. It’s one of the first books my dad gave me to read when I finally got around to asking him what philosophy was. I’m still thinking about bats and brain bisection. If you’re looking for a more systematic picture of Nagel’s philosophical outlook, though, you’ll want to pick up The View from Nowhere. Other favorites are Language, Truth and Logic, by A. J. Ayer; The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn; and the Kripke books we’ve been talking about. These are all pretty short, by the way. The best ones usually are. For aficionados, I’d recommend Huw Price’s, Facts and the Function of Truth, which had a profound impact on me when I was in grad school, and deserves to be better known.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 2nd, 2012.