Reality Conditions

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Dr. Kripkenstein: a horror story (Part 2)

Taking into account my last posts, it would seem that my position on the Thinker-Linker axis is moving steadiliy downwards. It is time for another serious and thoughtful post, the promised continuation to the first part on Kripkenstein. I will not summarize here the main points of the other post, because this one would become too long in that case. Just go there and read (or re-read) the first part.

The most obvious answer to Dr.K.'s argument, and the one considered at most length in the book, is that our meaning "plus" instead of "quus" can be explained in terms of dispositions. Even if before now I never thought of a sum involving numbers greater than 1000, I was and am disposed to give as answer to those sums the correct, "plus" answer instead of the "quus" one. To say that I had this disposition is to say that, if I had been asked how much is 1007 + 24, I would have given the answer 1031, and not 5, and likewise for other sums greater than 1000. This fact about my past (a fact made true by the actual, not hypothetical, condition of my brain at the past) entails that I meant my concept of "plus" to apply to the whole range of numbers, and this in turn justifies me in answering 1031 today. Let's call this conditional "if I had been asked...", p.

I think that if taken in a suitably broad fashion, a dispositionalist account of meaning must be correct. But Dr. K. has several replies to this theory, in the crude way I stated it above. I think that a more refined and nuanced statement of dispositionalism is possible, but Dr.K.'s objections are intended to be so general that they apply to any account of this kind. To put it bluntly, Kripkenstein says dispositions are not good enough to secure meaning. There are several reasons, at first glance powerful, which he gives for this. I will cite all of them, and as probably this will make the post already very long, attempt to answer to them in a Part 3 of this series.

A) My dispositions to give the addition of x and y as answer to questions of the form "how much is x + y ?" are also finite, although a much larger number than the number of actual sums I have thought of or performed. If given as a task to find the sum of two numbers so big I cannot even understand them, I am not disposed at all to give their sum as the answer; I am more "disposed" to not give any answer. If N is the largest number for which I have a stable disposition to answer correctly to sums, then the problem raised for sums greater than 1000 appears again for sums greater than N: it seems I cannot mean anything by addition as applied to such big numbers. This goes against our intuitive idea that we grasp the meaning of "plus" as applying to all numbers, even those so big we cannot think of them in a positive way.

B) As I am not perfect, there are many sums I would surely have got wrong if somebody had asked me about them. For these sums the p conditional turns out to be false. Dr. K. says that the dispositionalist account would entail we cannot make mistakes, because it gives the actual answers we are disposed to give as constituing the definition of "meaning", even if those answers are incorrect.

C) To answer A and B, we might try a "ceteris paribus" version of p: If I were in perfect mental health, and my memory capacity was extended infinitely, and......, then I would give in each case the "plus" answer. Dr. K. says these counterfactuals are so far away from the actual world that we have no way of evaluating their truth. And if "ceteris paribus" means simply "if I could do perfectly what I should do according to my meaning of +", then we are in a vicious circle.

D) [Quote] "Am I supposed to justify my present belief that I meant addition not quaddition, in terms of an hypothesis about my past dispositions? (Did I record and investigate the past physiology of my brain?)" Dr. K. is pointing here to the fact that we seem to have a "direct grasping" of the meaning of +, one that is independent of any hypothesis about what was my brain state and what dispositions it sustained when I carried out sums in the past.

E) The main problem with dispositionalism is that it gives a descriptive account of meaning, when meaning is in fact normative. Dispositions are just brute facts (neurological, for example), while the fact that I meant plus and not quus is one that intrinsically justifies my answering 1031 instead of 5, so "meaning" is a normative concept. How can the brute fact that at time t my brain state was so-and-so, justify me into anything?

Taken together, objections A-E agains dispositionalism seem to make a strong case against it. I will try to answer all these objections in Part 3; here I will just make some comments on Nagel's conclusion from the Krikpenstein argument, as he states it in The Last Word. According to Nagel, the problem with dispositionalist, behaviourist and other naturalistic accounts of meaning is basically Objection E: they lack the normative element in meaning. They try to "stand outside" our usual linguistic practice to make an "objective" description of it, but in doing so they miss the normative element which is only seen "from the inside". Nagel concludes that my meaning addition by "plus" is an irreducible normative fact: "I do mean addition by 'plus'; it is in a perfectly good sense a fact about me. But in response to the question 'What fact?' it is a mistake to try to answer except perhaps by further defining 'addition' for someone who may be unfamiliar with the term. It is a mistake to try to escape from the normative, intentional idiom to a plane that is 'factual' in a different, reductive sense". (I have copied the quote from this essay which discusses these same issues, as I have the book in a Spanish translation). I think this leaves intentionality as a complete mystery. The facts of meaning, insofar as they are definite facts, should at least supervene on specifiable natural facts*, and in that sense be reducible to them. My full answer to Objection E will come in the next post in this series; for the moment it is enough to note this link between Dr. K.'s argument and Nagel's philosophy as I have described it in my review of his book.


*Trying to explain meaning by reference to non-natural, metaphysical facts, like a Platonic intuition, is even worse; it is thinking our perplexity dissapears just by giving a deep-sounding name to it. I feel this with respect to other metaphysical positions like dualism in philosophy of mind and Platonism in philosophy of mathematics. Ultimately, only reductive explanations can explain something, if it can be explained at all. I know this is a strong statement that many philosophers would disagree with!

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