Thursday, May 26, 2005

Geoffrey Madell on Indexicals

This is from Geoffrey Madell's Mind and Materialism (Edinburgh: Edinbugh University Press, 1988) "It has been clearly recognized by some that the fact of indexical thought presents a special problem for physicalism. The problem is seen most clearly in in relation to the first person. Thomas Nagel put his finger on it in his paper 'Physicalism" (Journal of Philosophy, 1965). Let us envisage the most complete objective description of the world and everyone in it which it is possible to have, couched in the objective terminology of the physical sciences. However complete we make this description, "there remains one thing I cannot say in this fashion--namely, whcih of the various persons in the world I am'. No amount of information non-indexically expressed can be equivalent to the first-person assertion "I am G. M.' How can one accomodate the existence of the first person perspective in a wholly material world? A complete objective description of a particular person is one thing, the assertion, The person thus described is me is something in addition. But this information isn't of a character whcih physical science could recognize. If reality comprises (of) assemblies of physical entities only, it apperas utterly mysterious that some arbitrary element of that objective order should be me. (p. 103).

Madell spends an entire chapter defending this claim.


Blue Devil Knight said...

If I am a physical, biological system, then this argument is specious (I can refer using spatial and temporal coordinates). If I am not, then (at least in the quote) the argument begs the question.

I am not always sure these arguments are serious they are so obviously flawed. I hate to say it, but frequently get the impression that Christian philosophers are much more concerned with coming up with a bunch of convincing arguments than sound arguments. At one point, Dembski wrote:

I’m not going to give away all my secrets, but one thing I sometimes do is post on the web a chapter or section from a forthcoming book, let the critics descend, and then revise it so that what appears in book form preempts the critics’ objections. An additional advantage with this approach is that I can cite the website on which the objections appear, which typically gives me the last word in the exchange.

(the quote is from here). That quote makes me sick: Dembski dresses himself in academic cloth and language, but is really a sneaky manipulative witness to Jesus (and after having read his books I know his arguments are as specious as the one about indexicals above). This kind of dissemblance sickens me: talking of 'secrets', as if it is some kind of espionage where you are manipulating, rather than directly interacting with your interlocutor in good faith. Despicable. Even if your interlocutor has a good counterargument, at least you get the last word because it is in a book (spurious, incidentally).

Reading this gave me a violent allergic reaction to sites like this. Sorry, but I have to say "Seacrest, out!"

Victor Reppert said...

Sometimes I put an argument on the site just to see what people think, but what I will do then is simply put out both sides and not endorse either side of the debate. I did that with the discussion of Satan and the problem of evil. But in this case I happen to think that the argument from indexical has some merit. This was a follow-up to my discussion of "Why Indexicals Can't Be Eliminated," which can be found below. And the argument is defended in considerably more detail in Madell's book, as I pointed out.

When Nixon discovers that he is Richard Nixon, and hence is the very person a moment ago he was hoping to see impeached, he learns something. Fromm his own point of view, he learns "I am Richard Nixon." But, if we replace it with "The guy who walked over to impeach Nixon headquarters is Richard Nixon," then it's not going to motivate him to stop wanting Nixon impeached unless he identifies HIMSELF with the man he was trying to get impeached.

I hate to say it, but I'm pretty sure you don't understand the argument. The people at the Internet Infidels Discussion Board are having trouble understanding it was well, which suggests to me that I am being less than clear.

CalvinOstrum said...

I don't think you have been all that unclear at Internet Infidels. I think rather the main problem many of your interlocutors suffer from there was nailed by Thomas Nagel in his chapter "Evolutionary Naturalism and the Fear of Religion". It seems that many "infidels" have such a fear of (or perhaps just distate for) religion that they want to stop at the earliest point any argument they perceive as perhaps leading to it, even if this does risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Their position is somewhat understandable given the kind of things said for example by Dembski quoted here, which I note with interest you have not said anything directly about.

I will mention one possible problem with your exposition (and Madell's). This is that the issue is not so much about "indexicals" as it is about so-called "de se" propositions and "first person" points of view. Strictly speaking an "indexical" is a token in a public language and not a component of a proposition or a mental state. In fact, the mental term a person uses to refer to himself is not actually an indexical in the traditional sense, since its reference is always to the person himself and does not depend upon context. (Who is to say that different people are using "the same" mental term, unlike their public use of "I", which is more clearly various tokens of the same type?). I think that considering the matter as a one closely related to semantic issues of public language might cause some problems.

Another point is suggested by an offhand comment of one infidel to the effect that arguably many more parts of language and thought are indexical. Indeed, in some sense from an internalistic point of view almost all public language could be considered indexical in that, for example, when one says "Richard Nixon is a crook", one means something like "The person called Richard Nixon *around here* is a crook". And you are talking from an internalist point of view, so you cannot invoke a Kripke-style analysis of proper names, I think.

Of course, this in fact in some sense makes a totally objective point of view even harder to make sense of. Rather than losing first-person facts, we risk losing third-person ones (as I take Berkeley and Kant to be arguing) although I think they surely must remain as the underlying stuff that allows us to unify the various sets of first-person facts (assuming we believe in other minds, which is a notorious problem which I just accept on faith and very strong habit).

I suspect that Peter Unger's new book, "All the power in the world" (largely available on line) is probably good on this, although I have only started to read Chapter 1, "The mystery of the physical". It seems that Unger has recently changed his views rather dramatically.

I might try posting another clarification to the infidels board although it seems like it would be rather pointless.

Brandon said...


I can refer using spatial and temporal coordinates

Can you elaborate on this? How do coordinates yield self-reference? What do you mean by a temporal coordinate? I believe it is commonly accepted that time isn't physically manifested, at least not in a way that can be coordinated. What is being coordinated? Synapses? Brain fibers? And exactly what is reading the significance of those coordinated things?

Blue Devil Knight said...

First, I apologize for my previous post. It was over the top and ad hominem. I should not have posted it, and I should separate my annoyance at Dembski from other Christian thinkers, and will remind myself to show more restraint before I post at someone else's blog.

Second, as for the question from Brandon...

Coordinates don't yield self-reference: self-reference yields spatiotemporal coordinates. Just as when I have thoughts about a particular heart attack in a rat (e.g., right now, or last night), that induces a spatiotemporal coordinate frame for the heart when it is having the heart attack. Apply such reasoning to myself when I think "I ate at Fred's Diner last night" or "I am sitting down right now." I don't mean to suggest that indexicals are not interesting instances of the phenomenon of reference (in fact, I think that a lot of the seeming mysteriousness of consciousness rides on the perspectivalness inherent in certain indexical representational systems our brain uses to navigate the world), but the claim that they prove physicalism/naturalism is false is outlandish. To show this would require first showing the disanalogy with the heart attack case without begging the question.

Invoking coreferential terms (morning/evening star; me/the person who killed my father), as Victor did, doesn't help the argument. It serves to throw yet another interesting and complex psychological feature into the mix, serving to obfuscate things. (Yes, it is very interesting that when we learn that X is Y, we have acheived a significant cognitive acheivement, but this is an epistemic, not metaphysical, acheivement). Again, parity of reasoning arguments with patently physical things (morning/evening star) suggest that the problem isn't one of basic ontology, but psychology and reference.

Unless there is an argument that reference can't be naturalized, or an argument that the 'I' is somehow different from the heart at (x,y,z,t), the argument is weak (Dretske, in my opinion, has done the most to ground reference naturalistically).

I probably won't be able to keep following this thread, as I'm running a bunch of experiments. However, at the very least it was fun to see how you are trying to incorporate cutting-edge philosophy into novel arguments against naturalism. I am happy to see that my naturalism seems to be able to hold up to it. :-)

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