Friday, 9 May 2008

Open Question type arguments

At an ethics seminar yesterday I accused the speaker of, in effect, deploying Moore’s Open Question argument without a way of immunising his own positive account from its effects. Cycling back to the station I wondered how fair the question had been given that something akin to the Open Question argument can be deployed against any philosophy which advances an analysis of something. Only therapeutic and critical philosophy is unquestionably immune. At the station a colleague, by contrast, wondered aloud whether Moore had simply not read Frege and thus the extent to which the argument might simply be turned aside by conceding a distinction at the level of sense but not reference. Fortunately, I remember a paper in just this area. Unfortunately, I’m not at all sure that I follow the argument correctly. It goes something like this.

In ‘Intentionality and norms’ [in de Caro, M. and Macarthur, D. (eds) 2004 Naturalism in Question Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press] Akeel Bilgrami (pictured) suggests that a combination of ideas from Moore – via Kripke – and Frege undermines the possibility of equating intentional states and dispositions. In this, he follows Wittgenstein against Davidson. The argument, which is akin to White’s property dualism argument, runs, roughly, as follows. Any attempt to offer a definitional (analytic or a priori) connection between intentional states and first order dispositions falls to Kripke’s Moorean interpretation of Wittgenstein. One can ask, with Moore’s Open Question objection to ethical naturalism, “I have a disposition to F, but ought I?” If the answer is non-trivial then F is the content of a mental state over and above a mere dispositional state to F.

But as Bilgrami points out, modern identity theories tend to deploy a posteriori connections against which the Moorean question seems to have no force. Nevertheless, as he points out, even if there is an a posteriori identity between an intentional state and such and such a complex of dispositions, it is possible for a subject to doubt – through philosophical ignorance – that, although they intend to F, they have the corresponding dispositional complex. Making sense of this requires explaining the Fregean sense of the term to be analysed naturalistically. But this move faces a dilemma.

The problem is to articulate the conception of the state that the ignorant subject has. Thus the sense of the term has to be picked out using specific properties. Now these could either be naturalistic or non-naturalistic properties. But if the former, then Moore’s open question argument can again be deployed against what is a definitional connection. In effect this challenges the interpretative suggestion that the subject does conceive the state in this way. But if the latter, then, according to Bilgrami ‘there is no fully effective naturalistic reduction in the first place’ [ibid: 132].

This last claim is very brisk. Given that the form of naturalism being considered claims that there is an identity at the level of reference (between intentional states and complex dispositions) why should it matter that, at the level of sense, it admits intentional, normative properties? The problem is that making sense of the subject requires ascribing a conception that makes sense and this involves commitment to the properties deployed. Call this step X.

But suppose that articulation of the subject’s conception did deploy only non-normative naturalistic properties. Then there is either an a priori or posteriori connection between them and the normative properties. If the connection is a posteriori then this will not explain the conception a subject has who is ignorant of the philosophical analysis. If it is a priori, then again we can deploy the open question argument (and we cannot explain how the connection at the level of reference is supposed to be a discovery). Thus there looks to be no easy way to naturalise intentional mental states.

Even as I type it, I wonder about step X.

Postscript: I've found some discussion of this paper on the AHRC funded Transcendental Philosophy and Naturalism project blog here.