THEMES IN MY PHILOSOPHICAL WORK
This paper is an overview of my philosophical work. It follows closely the structure of the handout I used as the basis for a talk on this topic at the 2000 meeting of the Austro-Slovene Philosophical Association. The section-headings mention major themes, and various key concepts are indicated by boldface terms in the text.
invoked the notion of supervenience in my doctoral disseration, Microreduction and the Mind-Body Problem,
completed at the
In subsequent work I moved away from the idea that materialism requires that the properties posited in psychology and the other special sciences, and in ordinary discourse, need to be correlated with (or identical to) physics-level natural-kind properties via universally quantified biconditional bridge laws (or via type-type identity statements). I called my position a version of nonreductive materialism, since such bridge-laws and/or property-identities were widely considered a prerequisite for intertheoretic reduction; cf. Horgan (1993c, 1994b). I continued to stress that inter-level relations between properties should not be metaphysically sui generis within a materialistic metaphysical view, i.e., should not be fundamental laws alongside those of microphysics. One way I made this point, in Horgan (1984d), was in terms of the idea of cosmic hermeneutics: a LaPlacean intelligence should be able to deduce, from a complete microphysical history of the world plus an understanding of meanings of non-physics-level terms and concepts, all the facts about the world. In order to accommodate the fact that higher-level facts and properties can sometimes supervene on lower-level facts and properties in a way that depends on non-local goings-on, in Horgan (1982b) I introduced the idea of regional supervenience (although I only gave it this name in Horgan 1993b). Later Mark Timmons and I explicitly argued (Horgan and Timmons 1992a) that metaphysical naturalism requires that supervenience relations be explainable in a naturalistically acceptable way; we articulated a format for such explanations, and we argued that the supervenience of mental properties on physical properties could be explained via this format to the extent that mental properties are functional properties. I stressed the explainability requirement in Horgan (1993b), were I introduced the term superdupervenience for materialistically explainable supervenience.
I have had ongoing, increasing, worries about the extent to which higher-order properties instantiated in our world are, or are not, superdupervenient on physics-level properties—and also about what would count as a materialistically acceptable explanation of supervenience (and why). One source of worry, which as I said was already present when I was writing my dissertation, is the conceivability—and hence the presumptive metaphysical possibility—of worlds that are physically just like ours but different with respect to the distribution of phenomenal mental properties. (This is closely related to what Joseph Levine (1983) calls the “explanatory gap” and what David Chalmers (1995, 1996) calls the “hard problem” of phenomenal consciousness.) Another source of worry, stressed for example in Horgan and Timmons (1993) and in Horgan (1994a), is that intentional mental properties seem to involve semantic normativity, a feature that threatens to prevent their supervenience on the physical from being explainable in a materialistically acceptable way. In Horgan (1994a) I argued that in light of this problem, a position worthy of serious consideration is what I called preservative irrealism about mental intentionality. Yet a third source of worry is my current belief, stressed in Horgan and Tienson (in press), that occurrent intentional mental states like thoughts and desires have a constitutive phenomenology—which means that the first worry applies to these mental states too.
2. Conceptual Austerity, and Contextually Variable Parameters of Concepts and Discourse.
The idea that philosophically interesting concepts are often relatively “austere” in the requirements for their correct application has been a persistent theme in my work—as have the contentions (i) that often these concepts are governed by certain implicit, contextually variable, parameters, and (ii) that in certain contexts—including contexts where philosophical puzzles are being raised—the contextual parameters tend to take on settings that considerably raise the standards for correct application of the concepts. These ideas are reflected in my compatibilist approach to the problem of freedom and determinism in Horgan (1979, 1985a); in the defense of folk psychology in papers such as Horgan and Woodward (1985), Horgan (1987a, 1993a), Graham and Horgan (1988, 1991), and Henderson and Horgan (in press b); and in my causal compatibilism about mental causation and causal explanation in Horgan (1989b, 1991a, 1993c, 1994b, 1998a, 2001a).
collaboration with Jim Woodward that produced Horgan and Woodward (1985) began
shortly after I joined the
3. Minimalism in Ontology (Four Phases)
My work has long been informed by a strong inclination toward a fairly minimalistic ontology. My pursuit of ontological minimalism has gone through four discernable phases, three of which will be described in later sections. The first phase involved the pursuit of “paraphrase projects”: ways of systematically paraphrasing or “regimenting” discourse about various putative entities into discourse that avoids Quineian “ontological commitment” to those entities—often via appeal to nonstandard logico-grammatical constructions like adverbial predicate-modifiers and non-truth-functional sentential connectives. This approach was pursued to avoid events (including mental events and actions) in Horgan (1978a, 1981a, 1982a) and Horgan and Tye (1985, 1988); to avoid numbers in Horgan (1984c, 1987c); and to avoid objects of the propositional attitudes in Horgan (1989a). But in the course of trying to find ways of “paraphrasing away” discourse about such putative entities as symphonies, corporations, and sentence-types, I came to believe that paraphrase projects probably could not be successfully carried through for all the various kinds of putative entities that I was disinclined to countenance ontologically. Something different, and more radical, seemed needed.
4. Contextual Semantics: Truth as Indirect Correspondence
The idea that came to mind, as a way of eschewing ontologically problematic entities without either (i) paraphrasing away the discourse that posits them or (ii) claiming that such discourse is false, was to “go soft on truth”—i.e., give up on the idea that truth is always a direct correspondence-relation between language (or thought) and world. Instead, construe truth as semantically correct affirmability, under semantic standards that involve implicit contextual parameters and often require only indirect correspondence with denizens of the mind-independent, discourse, independent, world—rather than direct correspondence. (Direct correspondence is a limit case, in which the contextual parameters are maximally strict.) First I called this approach “language-game semantics,” and then “psychologistic semantics,” before Mark Timmons and I began to call it contextual semantics. Articulating and defending contextual semantics has been an ongoing project for me, and some of my work on it has been collaborative with Timmons. See Horgan (1986a, 1986b, 1991b, 1995b, 1998c, 2001b), Horgan and Timmons (1993, in press), and Timmons (1999). The turn to contextual semantics ushered in the second stage of my minimalism in ontology. The guiding idea here is that numerous statements have these features: (i) they are true under the semantic standards that normally govern their correct use; (ii) they carry Quineian ontological commitment to entities that are not denizens of the mind-independent, discourse-independent, world; (iiii) they cannot be paraphrased into, or “regimented” by, statements that eschew apparent ontological commitment to the offending entities; and (iv) they are not true under limit-case, direct-correspondence, semantic standards.
5. Metaethical Irrealism
interest in metaethics began in the course on this topic I took with William
Frankena when I was a graduate student at the
On the negative side, we have been attacking various contemporary versions of naturalistic moral realism, often deploying a thought experiment we call Moral Twin Earth. As a recipe for deconstructing a given version of moral realism, the basic idea is this: (i) assume, for argument’s sake, that humans bear relation R to natural property P, where P is whatever natural property the given form of naturalism identifies with moral goodness and R is whatever relation it claims is the reference relation linking the term ‘goodness’ to P; (ii) assume that some specific normative moral theory (say, some version of consequentialism) comes out true if ‘goodness’ refers to P; (iii) consider a Twin Earth scenario in which people bear relation R to a somewhat different natural property Q, where a different normative moral theory (say, some deontological theory) comes out true if ‘goodness’ refers to Q. When one confronts the given version of moral realism with the appropriate kind of Moral Twin Earth scenario, we argue, then the view under scrutiny ends up exhibiting one of these two objectionable features: either it is committed to a chauvinistic form of relativism, or else it yields very little determinate moral truth. See Horgan and Timmons (1991, 1992a, 1992b, 1996a, 1996b, 2000a).
the positive side, Timmons and I have been developing and articulating a
version of metaethical irrealism that we now call nondescriptivist cognitivism. A version of the position is set
forth in Timmons (1999), and a more recent version appears in Horgan and
Timmons (2000b). The basic claim is that although moral judgments are genuine
beliefs and moral statements are genuine assertions, their overall content is
not descriptive content. There is a connection to contextual semantics: we hold
that the distinction between descriptive and nondescriptive content turns on
whether or not a given judgment or statement is governed by tight semantic standards—that is,
semantic standards that conspire with the mind-independent,
discourse-independent, world to fix determinate correct affirmability (i.e.,
truth); cf. Horgan (1996, 2001b), Timmons (1999). We claim that moral judgments
and statements have nondescriptive content, in the sense that the semantic
standards governing them are not tight. On our view, a moral belief is a
certain kind of commitment state—an ought
commitment—with respect to what we call a core descriptive content. For instance, the belief that the
6. Post-Analytic Metaphilosophy
began collaborating with George Graham during an invited visit to his
department at the
As we worked to articulate our reasoning as clearly and explicitly as possible, we came to appreciate that our arguments reflected a certain general conception of philosophical methodology—one that we believe is actually at work implicitly in much philosophical theorizing past and present, often without being recognized for what it is. In Graham and Horgan (1994), a metaphilosophical paper, we named this methodology Post-Analytic Metaphilosophy. One leading idea is that philosophical inquiry into the workings of philosophically interesting concepts and terms—ideology, as we called it—is a broadly empirical matter, even though often it can be comfortably pursued from the armchair because much of its data is very close at hand (die vom Armchair aus zuhandenen Daten, as we came to call such data after helpful linguistic consultation with my colleague Tom Nenon). Another key idea is that intuitive judgments about what is right to say about various concrete scenarios—e.g., Gettier cases of justified true belief that seem not to be knowledge, Twin Earth scenarios in which the word ‘water’ seems to have a different meaning because people use it to refer to some clear potable liquid other than H20, etc.—really have the status of empirical data for ideological reflection, in much the same way that intuitive judgments about grammaticality and grammatical ambiguity count as empirical data for linguists who are constructing theories of natural-language syntax.
Graham and I also generalized our earlier use of the term Southern Fundamentalism, now employing it for the general ideological hypothesis that philosophically interesting terms and concepts typically are relatively austere in their ideological commitments, rather than being opulent. We also acknowledged, however, that such concepts often are philosophically puzzling because they exhibit ideological polarity that involves “opulence tendencies”—something that we suggested is often the result of (i) implicit, contextually variable, parameters that govern the concepts, and (ii) a tendency for these parameters to take on a maximally strict setting in contexts where philosophical problems are being posed. There are close connections here with contextual semantics, and specifically with the contextualist versions of compatibilism I favor concerning both the freedom/determinism issue and the mental causation issue—and also (although I myself have not written about this) with contextualist approaches to the problem of Cartesian skepticism in epistemology.
6. The Sorites Paradox and its Implications for Semantics and Metaphysics
I have long had a serious side-interest in paradoxes, and occasionally I find myself writing about them. I have addressed Newcomb’s problem in Horgan (1981b, 1985b), the Monty Hall problem in Horgan (1995a), and the two-envelope paradox in Horgan (2000b, 2001c) and in work now in progress. In general I am inclined to believe that the paradoxes discussed in philosophy are often more difficult, and more philosophically deep, than they initially seem to be. (I concur with the memorable closing statement in Quine (1966): “Of all the ways of the paradoxes, perhaps the quaintest is their capacity on occasion to turn out to be so very much less frivolous then they look.”) In my work on Newcomb’s problem, for example, I reluctantly came to believe that “one box” reasoning and “two box” reasoning are in stalemate with one another, and that this fact reflects a deep internal tension within our ordinary notion of rationality itself. And my work on the two-envelope paradox led me to the conclusions (i) that epistemic probability is intensional in a way that is widely unappreciated, and (ii) that because of this intensionality, there are forms of nonstandard expected utility some of which are rationally appropriate to maximize and some of which are not.
But perhaps the deepest and most philosophically potent paradox on which I have worked is the sorites paradox, which evidently arises ubiquitously in connection with vagueness. The paradox and its morals are addressed in Horgan (1990, 1993d, 1994c, 1995b, 1997a, 1998b), in Horgan and Potrc (2000, in press), and in work of mine now in progress. According to my treatment of vagueness, which I call transvaluationism, vagueness by its very nature exhibits a certain kind of benign logical incoherence: vague terms and concepts are semantically governed by mutually unsatisfiable semantic requirements—a fact that surfaces explicitly in the sorites paradox. This kind of incoherence is benign because a form of logical discipline remains in force with respect to the semantically correct use of vague terms and concepts, and this discipline quarantines the incoherence so that it does not generate malignant results—such as rampant logical commitment to statements of the form (F & ~F).
Transvaluationism about vagueness has important philosophical consequences, both for semantics and for metaphysics. Regarding semantics, transvaluationism leads to the conclusion that truth, for vague statements and vague judgments, must always be indirect correspondence to the mind-independent, discourse-independent, world—rather than direct correspondence. (Here my work on vagueness comes together with contextual semantics.) Regarding ontology, transvaluationism leads to the conclusion that ontological vagueness is impossible—i.e., the correct ontology, whatever it might be, cannot include vague objects, vague properties, or vague relations.
This repudiation of ontological vagueness is a third stage in the evolution of my ontological minimalism. I now find myself eschewing not only putative entities like symphonies, corporations, and numbers, but also putative entities like mountains, tables, and persons—because the latter, if they were real, would be essentially vague in certain respects (e.g., vague with respect to composition, and/or with respect to spatiotemporal boundaries). I do not regard my position as a radical repudiation of common sense, however, because in my view the semantic standards that usually govern discourse and thought are indirect-correspondence standards rather than direct-correspondence ones. Direct-correspondence standards, the limit case, operate only in fairly unusual contexts, e.g., contexts of serious ontological inquiry. (They do not operate even in scientific contexts, insofar as the posits of scientific theory are vague—as they very often are). Thus, most of our discourse and thought does not carry ultimate ontological commitment to its vague posits, but only what I call regional ontological commitment. As such, many of our statements and judgments employing vague terms and concepts are indeed true—that is, they are semantically correct, under the contextually operative semantic standards that govern them.
What minimal ontology of concrete particulars is the correct one, given the impossibility of ontological vagueness? I believe that a strong case can be made for the view that there is really only one concrete particular—viz., the entire physical universe, which I call the blobject. I briefly argued for this position in Horgan (1991b), where I called the view “Parmenidean materialism.” But Matjaz Potrč persuaded me that this is not a good name, because evidently the object that Parmenides called “the one” was supposed to be entirely homogenous—whereas the physical universe surely exhibits enormous spatiotemporal complexity and nonhomogenity. Potrc and I now call the view blobjectivism; we defend it in Horgan and Potrč (2000). In Horgan and Potrč (in press) we further elaborate the view by addressing certain questions for blobjectivism posed by Tienson (in press). Blobjectivsm is the fourth, and most recent, stage in the evolution of my ontological minimalism.
Perhaps the only way to go any further in this minimalist direction would be to repudiate my metaphysical realism and join the ranks of the global irrealists who deny that there is a mind-independent, discourse-independent, world at all. But I doubt that I will ever take that step, partly because I find global metaphysical irrealism unintelligible; cf. Horgan (1991b, 2001b).
8. Connectionism and the Philosophy of Psychology
John Tienson joined the
Tienson and I realized early on that that we had similar ideas about what was wrong with the classical, computational, paradigm in cognitive science—and about what was potentially most philosophically interesting about connectionism. Beginning with Horgan and Tienson (1988b), the paper we wrote together for the 1987 Spindel Conference, we produced a series of collaborative papers and then a book that explained what we took to be in-principle problems for the classical computational view of cognition, and also described a connectionism-inspired nonclassical framework for cognitive science that potentially could overcome the problems faced by “classicism.” See Horgan and Tienson (1988b, 1989, 1990a, 1992a, 1992b, 1993, 1994a, 1994b, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999a, 1999b); Horgan (1997b, 1997c); and Tienson (1997).
Our name for the recommended nonclassical framework for cognitive science was noncomputable dynamical cognition. Some key ideas are the following. First, human cognitive state-transitions are normally too subtle and complex to conform to any tractably computable transition-function over cognitive states—something that we claimed is a principal lesson of the family of related difficulties faced by classicism known collectively as the “frame problem.” Second, there is a form of mathematics that goes naturally with connectionist modeling, and is potentially more powerful as a basis for understanding cognition than the discrete mathematics employed in the theory and practice of computation—viz., dynamical systems theory. Third, in principle a suitably structured high-dimensional dynamical system, implementable by a connectionist network or a human brain, could subserve cognitive state-transitions that are too complex to conform to programmable representation-level rules. Fourth, in principle such a dynamical system could avoid the sources of the frame problem by accommodating much relevant information not in the form of explicit representations (as in classicism), but instead implicitly in the structure of the dynamical system itself. Such implicit information we called morphological content—the idea being that this kind of content is present in the standing structure of the system, rather than being explicitly represented by occurrent cognitive states.
the material later published as Horgan and Tienson (1989, 1990a) at a 1989
9. Epistemological Themes
the wake of my work with Tienson on connectionism and the philosophy of
psychology, I began collaborating with my
In Henderson and Horgan (2001), we argue that there is an important and insufficiently appreciated aspect of objective epistemic justification, over and above a belief’s having been produced by a reliable belief-forming process. We call it robustness of reliability (or just robustness, for short). The basic idea is this: for a belief-forming process to be robustly reliable is for it to be reliable in a very wide range of “epistemically relevant” possible worlds—roughly, worlds in which the epistemic agent undergoes appearances much like the appearances experienced in the agent’s actual world. The empirical beliefs of someone who is deceived by a Cartesian evil demon, for example, could be the products of belief-forming processes that are robust in this sense, and hence such beliefs could be objectively very well justified—even though those belief-forming processes happen to be thoroughly unreliable in the agent’s actual world.
In Henderson and Horgan (2000b, in press a), we draw upon and extend the methodological ideas that George Graham and I had set out under the rubric ‘post-analytic metaphilosophy’. We offer a nonclassical reconception of a priori reasoning and a priori knowledge—with a paradigm case being ideological inquiry within philosophy itself. The low-grade a priori, as we call it, is a form of inquiry and knowledge that is broadly empirical, and yet nonetheless is sufficiently distinctive—and sufficiently similar to the a priori as classically conceived—to still warrant the label ‘a priori’. Such inquiry typically seeks to discover conceptually grounded necessary truths, and it typically relies heavily upon empirical data (including intuitions about how to apply key concepts to concrete thought-experimental scenarios) readily available by armchair reflection.
10. The Limits of Systematizability
Tienson and I, in our work on connectionism and the philosophy of psychology, argued that human cognitive state-transitions evidently are not fully systematizable by exceptionless, general, psychological laws that take the form of programmable rules. Once this claim is taken to heart, one begins to appreciate that cognitive states need not be—and probably are not—fully systematizable by exceptionless psychological laws of any kind. This is consistent with their being partially systematizable by psychological generalizations that we called soft laws—that is, psychological laws that have ineliminable ‘ceteris paribus’ clauses adverting not only to lower-level exceptions like external interference or internal physical malfunction, but also to same-level exceptions characterizable at the psychological level of description; cf. Horgan and Tienson (1990b, 1996).
theme that has been much on my mind lately, although not yet much articulated
in my written work, is this: just as there are apparent limits to the
systematizability of human cognitive processing by way of general laws, so too
there could well be—and probably are—significant limits to the
systematizability of various kinds of normativity
to which humans are capable of conforming in their cognitive, linguistic, and
behavioral practices—notably semantic normativity, epistemic normativity, and
moral normativity. This idea is articulated and explored with respect to
epistemic normativity in Potrč (2000). The same general theme also is explored
in the work of two former doctoral students from
One way that this theme affects my current thinking is with respect to the further articulation and defense of contextual semantics. One might think that an adequately worked out version of contextual semantics should provide, at least in rough outline, a general and systematic formulation of the semantic normative standards that govern correct affirmability—in particular, correct affirmability of the indirect-correspondence variety. But increasingly I have come to think that such a formulation probably is not possible—not because contextual semantics is mistaken, but rather because semantic normativity is probably too subtle and too complex to be thus systematizable. To insist on such systematizability, on the grounds that otherwise human thought and human linguistic behavior could not conform to these semantic standards, would be to underestimate the capacities of human cognition.
11. The Whole Hard Problem in Philosophy of Mind
Ever since I wrote my doctoral dissertation, I have been worried about whether an adequate materialist account of phenomenal consciousness could be given, and about what it would look like. Things would go smoother if some version of functionalism were correct—perhaps a version that incorporates typical-cause connections between inner states of the organism and features of the distal environment. As I remarked in section 1 above, it appears that materialistically acceptable explanations are available for the supervenience relations linking physical properties to functional properties. But for the phenomenal aspects of mentality, at least, functionalism has always seemed to me implausible. One familiar way to make the point is in terms of the apparent conceivability of “inverted qualia” and “absent qualia” scenarios, a topic I have written about myself; cf. Horgan (1984a, 1987d).
potent dialectically is Frank Jackson’s famous thought experiment about Mary
the colorblind neuroscientist. Although I wrote one of the first replies to
materialists, seeking to show full respect for the intrinsic phenomenology of
phenomenal consciousness, advocate a type of position that John Tienson and I
have dubbed “new wave materialism.” This view asserts that although “inverted
qualia” and “absent qualia” scenarios are not metaphysically possible, they are
indeed conceivable; it also maintains that although
All of this underscores, and fleshes out in different ways, the so-called “hard problem” of phenomenal consciousness. I once thought, as many in philosophy of mind still do think, that the phenomenal and the intentional aspects of mentality are largely separable from one another. But lately, largely as a result of ongoing discussion with John Tienson and George Graham, I have come to believe that this “separatist” doctrine about phenomenology and intentionality is thoroughly mistaken. In Horgan and Tienson (in press) it is argued that phenomenology and intentionality are thoroughly and essentially intertwined—and in particular, that there is an essential “what it’s like” of having an occurrent thought, or of having an occurrent desire. This means that the whole hard problem—that is, the overall problem of explaining the phenomenal aspects of mentality—extends to paradigmatically intentional states too, thereby encompassing virtually the whole of human conscious (as opposed to unconscious) mental life.
I remain deeply attracted to materialism in philosophy of mind; I would like to believe that the mental is superdupervenient on the physical. But the whole hard problem looks very hard indeed, and I see no prospects currently in sight for dealing with it satisfactorily. Theories of mind that claim to do justice to phenomenology, and yet would be satisfiable by zombies who lack phenomenal consciousness altogether, do not seem credible. Much as I would like to be a materialist, at present I do not know what an adequate materialist theory of mind would look like.
My sincere thanks to Matjaz Potrč for initiating the Horgan Symposium that took place at the 2000 Austrian-Slovene Philosophical Euroconference, to Wolfgang Gombocz for organizing the conference, and to Johannes Brandl and Olga Markič for co-editing this collection. My deep thanks too to all the participating philosophers, for their very stimulating presentations. David Henderson and Mark Timmons each gave useful overview talks about their collaborative work with me. Others who gave presentations but did not submit papers to this volume were John Bickle, Bojan Borstner, Johannes Brandl, Bojidar Kante, Friderik Klampfer, Nenad Misčevič, and Diana Raffman. Thanks also to David Henderson, Mark Timmons, and John Tienson for discussion and feedback as I prepared the present paper and my reply to the papers in this volume.
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