04 June 2011

My new philosophy pals: any comment?

I'm delighted to welcome some philosophers to my humble blog, and thank them for their astute (for the most part!) comments on my little post about Sausages. It seems a chord of sorts has been struck, which is a good thing (don't sweat what I mean by "good", folks. I wear my heart on my sleeve).

I would now like to divert some of the learned attention towards a previous post on my blog: "THINGS do not possess ATTRIBUTES; SYSTEMS exhibit BEHAVIOURS". I respectfully propose that much of what is thought of as "analytic philosophy" is playing with words that may or may not be good labels for their proposed referents, and may change meaning over the course of the argument, rendering an apparently valid argument pants (in a new terminological structure). The solution is to remember that things in our world are in fact systems; attributes are not sensible things to attach to them. Like "redness", "softness" etc - these are not attributes that things possess, but descriptors of behaviours when these systems interact with other systems. That changes the game somewhat.

Discuss :-)


  1. I have a proposed counterexample and a question.

    PC: an electron (which is currently thought to be an elementary particle, right? If not, then substitute something that is) and its charge (which is the principal attribute that determines how electrons interact with the other things in the same system, right? If not, substitute something that is).

    Because it seems to me that in order to have a system that exhibits behaviors, you have to have things that interact and whose interactions constitute the behavior of system. And in order for those things to interact, they must have attributes that determine how these interactions proceed. And so if there were no things with attributes there would be no systems that exhibit behaviors.

    Q: What's the difference between a thing that possesses an attribute and a system that exhibits behaviors? Why couldn't it be interesting and useful and not inaccurate to describe a system that exhibits behaviors as a thing that has attributes?

    So, even if it was systems all the way down, and the electron (or whatever) was fundamentally a system that exhibits behavior, why would it have to be inaccurate or unhelpful or misleading to think of it also as a thing with attributes, particularly when we are thinking about how it interacts with other "things" in the context of a larger system (such as a molecule).

    And I wonder, respectfully, if you could point to a specific instance of an analytic philosopher committing a fallacy of equivocation ("playing with words... [that] may change meaning over the course of the argument") of the sort you describe (a failure to notice that e.g. "redness" is not a simple attribute but a complex behavior of a complex system) in which this equivocation is not an isolated mistake made by an individual but is so widespread that it makes sense to attribute this mistake to "much of what is thought of as 'analytic philosophy'." Thanks.

  2. Well, electrons are indeed thought of as pretty fundamental, but the point there is that their charge still represents a *behaviour*, not a label as such, and I would suggest that it is still more fruitful to think of their charge, mass etc as behaviours, rather than attributes. So it's not a counter-example - more just an illustration of how things get weird when we hit the fundamentals. Can you actually think of a *macroscopic* counter-example?

    As for the equivocation charge, again (and I hate to keep dragging him up, but hey) I refer you to William Lane Craig's attempt to resurrect the Cosmological Argument by sticking the Kalam label on it. "Everything that begins to exist has a cause. The Universe began to exist. Therefore the Universe has a cause." (Briefly). The term "begins to exist" has two different meanings between the first and second clauses of this argument. The first refers to things (systems!!) in this universe; the second refers to the overall universe itself.

  3. Hi Shane,

    Thanks for the reply. Sorry it took me so long to respond. I wrote too much and have had to split my response into two parts.

    You say,

    charge still represents a *behaviour*, not a label as such

    This way of thinking about the attribute "charge" is completely in line with how philosophers think about attributes in general.

    Philosophers bring what we're calling "attributes" to bear for two main reasons: to account for "causal powers"--i.e. the electron's capacity to enter into various electromagnetic interactions or to influence the behavior of other objects; and to account for resemblances--i.e. the degree of similarity between this electron and that one, or the degree of dissimilarity between this electron and this mechanical pencil. These resemblances are also behavioral in nature. So philosophical discussion of "attributes" is closely tied to behavior of the "things" that possess them. Attributes are not thought of by philosophers as mere "labels" you can attach to things independently of how they interact with other things.

    Can you actually think of a *macroscopic* counter-example?

    Not really. All of the macroscopic "objects" I can think of could clearly be straightforwardly described as systems. I can think of a lot of things I would regard as both, but nothing macroscopic that would definitely not count as a system.

    But I'm still not sure how significant this "things with attributes"/"systems with behaviors" distinction is. You're clearly right that it would be a mistake to see my TV or even my kitchen table as a simple object with simple attributes. And you're probably right that WLC is making exactly this mistake--inferring that, (to continue with the table example) because each of the table's legs and its top must have begun to exist, the table itself must have begun to exist. This is clearly fallacious. The table--the larger system--might be very different from its parts. There could, for example, have been an infinite sequence of table parts, each of which replaced some earlier part, such that the table itself has always been there, even though each of its parts began to exist. Even if each of the parts had to have begun to exist. And so you couldn't infer that the table itself must have begun to exist from the fact that table legs must begin to exist.

    But this point has been known to philosophers for a long time. David Hume made it in 1779.

    And there's a debate going on in metaphysics about whether there really are tables and TVs at all. The idea is that once you recognize that the table and its "attributes" are reducible to the behavior of a vast and complicated system of elementary particles, the table itself, seen as a distinct object, seems superfluous. Not everyone takes this to be a reason to disbelieve in tables, and most people seem to recognize that it would still be useful to use the word 'table' to refer to these systems and words like 'flat' and 'hard' to describe the behavior of the system. But this point about systems and behaviors is one that analytic philosophers understand and have not ignored.

  4. Part 2:

    William Lane Craig

    I'm of two minds here. Part of me wants to be understanding and sympathetic--after all, you can't help it if the philosophers you interact with are dumb-dumbs who don't take science seriously. And it pains me that the philosophers most often encountered by scientists are antagonistic to science. It pains me that philosophy has a bad reputation among scientists.

    But the other part of me wants to yell at you for thinking that the conduct of a philosopher who holds a "research" position at Biola and operates a chain of churches in Atlanta would serve as an exemplar of what "much of what is thought of as analytic philosophy" is like.

    According to a recent survey of professional philosophers, almost 73% accept or lean toward atheism; only 14.6% of respondents lean toward or accept theism. So the typical analytic philosopher is an atheist.

    And it seems to me that most of the theists in analytic philosophy take science seriously--at least, the proportion of christian philosophers who take science seriously (who accept an old earth, evolution, etc) is higher than the proportion of the general public who do. The christian philosophers who have been my colleagues and teachers have all been extremely smart, thoughtful people who respect science and take it seriously. The fact that WLC, Alvin Plantinga, or William Dembski don't understand science or take it seriously doesn't mean that analytic philosophers as a group don't.

    So, please, please, please, please don't think that WLC is a representative sample of what analytic philosophy has to offer or what analytic philosophers do. He is not typical. Seriously, please. It is not at all accurate to pain all or "much" of analytic philosophy with a WLC brush.

  5. Mr Zero, thanks for that, and bravo! I accept that I may have been a little too hasty and broad-brushy in my characterisation. I don't think I can reasonably disagree with anything you have said there. I would say that part of my abreaction to some of these types of argument has been generated by having to wade through stuff by the likes of Plantinga or Craig or Lennox or Swinburne. Admittedly these punters have a magic space pixie to sell, and it's not as if one would expect honest argument from them, so I do feel that I may have unfairly tarred a wide field with an indiscriminate brush.
    Thanks for the welcome news that the field of philosophy is not in quite such a parlous state as we scientists sometimes assume from the behaviour (!) of the barrow-boys who have a problem with what we're doing. :-)

  6. I don't understand what "pants" means in the context you used it in. "Firked nether garments" or "deep breaths" doesn't make sense there.

  7. I meant to type "Forked" ... But it still doesn't make sense to call an idea "pants." Was that a typo on your part? If so, for what?

  8. Pile of pants. Load of mince. Nonsense. Idiocy. Frivolous foolishness. It's a technical term. Don't sweat it :-)