Thursday, March 10, 2011

Errol Morris Wrangles Philosophy

Having been a graduate student in philosophy many years ago and studied Thomas Kuhn, Saul Kripke, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and others mentioned in the following posts, I found this philosophical rant by film-maker Errol Morris fascinating. This brings back memories of my graduate student days, of the philosophy of science, of paradigm shifts, of possible worlds, of meaning, or reference, etc. In these postings Morris has exorcized his demons of graduate school.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Some of my favourite "moments" in the above essay:

I asked him, “If paradigms are really incommensurable, how is history of science possible? Wouldn’t we be merely interpreting the past in the light of the present? Wouldn’t the past be inaccessible to us? Wouldn’t it be ‘incommensurable?’ ”


I call Kuhn’s reply “The Ashtray Argument.” If someone says something you don’t like, you throw something at him. Preferably something large, heavy, and with sharp edges. Perhaps we were engaged in a debate on the nature of language, meaning and truth. But maybe we just wanted to kill each other.

The end result was that Kuhn threw me out of Princeton. He had the power to do it, and he did it. God only knows what I might have said in my second or third year. At the time, I felt that he had destroyed my life. Now, I feel that he saved me from a career that I was probably not suited for.

This reminds me of my student years. I constantly questioned my professors and found them wanting. Sure they were learned and smart, but most were brittle and dead to new ideas and were resistant to questioning. They preferred the students to sit at their feet and lap up the wisdom on offer.

Kripke’s theory provides an alternative to what had become known as the description theory, an amalgam of ideas proposed by Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. (And to that mix, in the ‘50s and ‘60s you can add Peter Strawson and John Searle.) Here’s one way to distinguish between Kripke’s theories and the description theory that preceded it.

You have two fish in a fishbowl. One of them is golden in color; the other one is not. The fish that is golden in color, you name “Goldie.” The other fish you name “Greenie.” Perhaps you use the description “the gold fish” and point to the one that is golden in color. You are referring to the gold fish, Goldie. Over the course of time, however, Goldie starts to change color. Six months later, Goldie is no longer golden. Goldie is now green. Greenie, the other fish — the fish in the bowl that was green in color — has turned golden. Goldie is no longer “the fish that is golden in color.” Greenie is. But Goldie is still Goldie even though Goldie has changed color. The description theory would have it that Goldie means the fish that is golden in color, but if that’s true then when we refer to Goldie, we are referring to the other fish. But clearly, Goldie hasn’t become a different fish; Goldie has merely changed his (or her) appearance.

It’s Kripke’s version of “Where’s Waldo.” If the description theory (courtesy of Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein) is correct, then Goldie is on the right. If Kripke’s historical-chain of reference theory is correct, then Goldie remains Goldie no matter what color Goldie is.

You could also think of Goldie and Greenie in terms of beliefs, although this is not how the description theory was originally framed. Goldie is the fish that you believe is golden in color. But Goldie starts to change color. I can believe anything I want about Goldie. I can even believe that Goldie isn’t a fish, but Goldie — that fish out there swimming around in a fishbowl — remains Goldie.

These were the kind of logical "puzzles" I loved. This was why I graduate student pursuing logic in the philosophy faculty.

The most important and most controversial aspect of Kuhn’s theory involved his use of the terms “paradigm shift” and “incommensurability.” That the scientific terms of one paradigm are incommensurable with the scientific terms of the paradigm that replaces it. A revolution occurs. One paradigm is replaced with another. And the new paradigm is incommensurable with the old one. He made various attempts to define it — changing and modifying his definitions along the way.

When I read Kuhn's book the issue of "incommensurability" never came up. I took the simplistic view that a paradigm switch was a benign "larger view" that incorporated the previous science as a special limited case. So in Einstein's theory Newtonian equations hold as a limited case when speeds are near zero. Sure there were philosophical differences. Newton viewed space and time as absolute and Einstein showed they were dynamic and relativistic depending on your frame of reference.

In John Ford’s movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962), Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) becomes an archetypal hero for shooting and killing Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), the paid stooge of the cattle barons. But Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) – literally hidden in the shadows – is really the man who shoots him. Stoddard gets Doniphon’s girl and goes on to a spectacular political career – governor, senator, etc. Doniphon is the unsung hero. After many years, Stoddard, following Doniphon’s death tells a local newspaper editor what really happened, but the editor refuses to print it, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

A legend that is not true can never become fact, but it can get printed as fact, anyway. With Hippasus, it is pretty easy to imagine why the legend of his drowning got “printed” even before there was printing. Someone believed that there should have been a crisis even if there wasn’t any. They believed that the Pythagoreans should have been upset about the discovery of incommensurable magnitudes. But it was a retrospective belief, that is, a belief formed hundreds, if not thousands of years, after the crisis was supposed to have occurred. I find it mildly amusing – possibly even ironic – that Kuhn’s metaphor for “incommensurability” could have been derived from a Whiggish interpretation of an apocryphal story.

This is simply wonderful. I love the way Morris has brought his film-making into this discussion. And I love the way he nails Kuhn.

But there is a messier problem. Why stop at historical relativism? Why not imagine each and every person in a different island universe? And indeed, Kuhn at least in one instance seems to embrace that possibility. In one particularly bizarre passage in “The Road Since Structure,” he suggests that his critics are writing about two different Thomas Kuhns – Kuhn No. 1 and Kuhn No. 2.


To me Kuhn’s claim – that there are two Thomas Kuhns plus two books by the same name and author – suggests that there may be no coherent reading of Kuhn’s philosophy. Kuhn, of course, sees it differently. For Kuhn, the multiplicity of Kuhns and Kuhn-authored-books-with-the-same-title provides further proof of his belief that people with “incommensurable” viewpoints can’t talk to each other. That they live in different worlds.

This is the slippery slope of solipsistic theories of knowledge.

Years ago, Bertrand Russell wrote “Nightmares of Eminent Persons” (1954). (Supposedly, he was trying to meet alimony payments.) Among the various nightmares – the Mathematicians’s Nightmare, Stalin’s Nightmare, the Psychoanalyst’s Nightmare, Dr. Bowdler’s Nightmare – is the Existentialist’s Nightmare. At the conclusion of the nightmare, the existentialist is screaming, “I don’t exist. I don’t exist.” Poe’s raven appears, speaking in the voice of the French poet Mallarm√©: “You do exist. You do exist. It’s your philosophy that doesn’t exist.”

I absolutely love this little tale of being hoisted on your own petard.

I often think of the attraction of smoking, that it simplifies the world into three parts. There’s you, there’s the cigarette, and everything else is the ashtray.

(This catches Errol Morris' latent hostility toward Thomas Kuhn who threw his ashtray at Morris.)

Please remember: This is not an empty intellectual exercise. It is not a matter of indifference whether it was God or natural selection that produced the complexity of life on earth. Nor whether there is such a thing as global warming. The devaluation of scientific truth cannot be laid on Kuhn’s doorstep, but he shares some responsibility for it.

One more parable. For those who truly believe that truth is subjective or relative (along with everything else), ask yourself the question – is ultimate guilt or innocence of a crime a matter of opinion? Is it relative? Is it subjective? A jury might decide you’re guilty of a crime that you haven’t committed. You’re innocent. (It’s possible. The legal system is rife with miscarriages of justice.) Nevertheless, we believe there is a fact of the matter. You either did it or you didn’t. Period.

If you were strapped into an electric chair, there would be nothing relative about it. Suppose you are innocent. Would you be satisfied with the claim there is no definitive answer to the question of whether you’re guilty or innocent? That there is no such thing as absolute truth or falsity? Or would you be screaming, “I didn’t do it. Look at the evidence. I didn’t do it.” Nor would you take much comfort in the claim, “It all depends on your point of view, doesn’t it?” Or “what paradigm are you in?”

(I like the way this makes clear that relativism is not an answer and Kuhn's incommensurability in of no use, and in fact a real danger as a glib answer. Morris still harbours a grudge against Kuhn and I have one for a "philosophy of education" professor I had who treated my claim that moral judgements could be objective as rank foolishness. But I didn't buy into ethical relativism and that outraged this professor. I am a realist who can subscribe to G. E. Moore's "ethical non-naturalism" or to Sam Harris' program to develop a science of morality. I waver, but one thing I'm sure of, moral judgements are of real facts not subjective whims or culturally defined tastes.)

It’s always been unclear to me, in social protest, is the important thing to be there, to be arrested, to be beaten, to be in the newspaper, to be booked, or to be incarcerated? Maybe all of the above.

Given the events in Wisconsin and other states, the above questions are as relevant today as they were in the 1960s protests against the Vietnam war.

The issue of murder, mass murder, has stayed with me over the years. It’s certainly part of the film that I made with Robert S. McNamara, “The Fog of War.” I remember sitting in the Firestone Library and reading volumes upon volumes of the transcripts of the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal. Ultimately I had the opportunity to go with Robert McNamara to the International Criminal Court [ICC] in the Hague, to show “The Fog of War” to the court, and to answer questions with McNamara.

And my two favorite moments from that experience – going with McNamara to visit the archivist for the ICC. McNamara told him, “I wish that they had these statutes governing war crimes back when I was secretary of defense,” and the archivist replied, “But, sir, they did.” Another completely bizarre experience, beyond Kafkaesque, seeing Milosevic on the stand. None of the proceedings had anything whatsoever to do with the content of the charges against him. It was all procedural — procedures about procedures about procedures, epicycle upon epicycle upon epicycle. And yet, the knowledge that Milosevic’s crimes were being addressed, even if only in a vague and uncertain way, was gratifying. At least someone was doing something.

I'm from the same generation as Errol Morris, so I'm very much caught up in the same issues as he is. Not just graduate school, not just philosophy, not just war & mass murder, but a stance toward life that was prevalent in many of the 60s generation.

Years later, I’ve come to realize that there was a debate embodied here about the nature of language – of whether truth is socially constructed or whether ultimately concerns the relationship between language and reality. I feel very strongly, even though the world is unutterably insane, there is this idea that we can reach outside of that insanity and find truth, some kind of certainty. ... There are endless obstacles and impediments to finding the truth – You might never find it; it’s an illusive goal. But there’s something to remember, there’s a world out there that we can apprehend, and it’s our job to go out there and apprehend it. It’s one of the deepest lessons that I’ve taken away from my experiences here.

This is more than philosophical. Morris makes it clear that this is a living issue with him, present in his films, and present in his engagement with the world.


LICHANOS said...

I am a bit younger than you, but also a former student of philosophy. I am struck by how tightly in Kuhn's grip Morris is held still, and I am equally struck by how vivid my bad memories of philosopher-academics are. Maybe only crazy people study philosophy these days.

I have come to reject the entire approach to epistemology that is assumed by Morris' essays, with all its entertaining and fascinating [language-logic] puzzles. Kripke's lectures - which I had just started reading, by coincidence - are just another, more clever, installment in the house built by men who believe that only the examination of language brings knowledge. Peter Abelard in the 12th century felt the same way.

Moreover, only the examination of contemporary language counts - historical evolution of concepts is irrelevant. It's a static and quite strange view of language. It also makes it impossible to create or understand a metaphor or a joke, but then, those are in short supply amongst the Anglo-American philosophical crowd.

Children associate words and things without a theory. Even animals do. Is a Kripkean theory required to do it? No. So what is happening? Perhaps something very different from what armchair philosophical investigators assume is going on.

I'll put my money on the scientists, even the drones doing Kuhnian 'normal' science over the philosophers any day. If they think philosophically, they might even do more creative science.

RYviewpoint said...

Lichanos: You are right that Kuhn has haunted Morris. But if a prof had thrown a heavy ashtray at me nearly killing me and if he had forced me out of the school, I too would have been haunted. I would have been vengeful. Morris comes off sane but deeply haunted by the experience.

I agree that Anglo-American philosophy went off the rails under the influence of the "later Wittgenstein" with all the ridiculous "ordinary language" philosophy. But I did and still do enjoy the puzzles of connecting language to reality.

I don't have your taste for continental philosophy. I find it wierdly disconnected from reality. I'm more of a pragmatist. I like science because scientists don't get hung up about "deep problems". Instead they get on with figuring out critical experiments to test Mother Nature and they work hard building models and theories to try and capture not just what is known but to uncover deep relationships that lets us know what is behind the "appearances".

I think you are off on a false trail if you think that Kripke's theories are needed to "associate words and things". Kripke was concerned with building models that captured an understanding much like a scientist but one on the philosophical side of the fence, i.e. in the fields of logic and epistemology.

I agree that scientists are more likely to find "knowledge" but don't count philosophy short. It helps you understand the darkness beyond our scientific knowledge. It helps you explore where there are no signposts. It is a kind of scientific "poetry" that opens up possibilities but the scientists are the ones who come in and do the mining of physical gold.

LICHANOS said...

I pretty much agree with your comment. Don't know why you assumed I am a devotee of continental philosophy - I am not!! Actually, if I had to name my favorite philosophe, it would be David Hume.

Perhaps you are right about Kripke - I will continue reading him. Like you, I enjoy the ride, even though I don't agree with the goal. It can keep you sharp. And I certainly wouldn't junk philosophy. Dan Dennett is a good example of a thoughtful philosopher who actually cares what scientists are finding out, in his case, about mind and consciousness.

I too am haunted by my college days. Perhaps I was like Morris, too idealistic and naive about what to expect to find there. I never seem able to get it out of my system - it sticks in my craw like a betrayal remembered.

One annecdote - an emminent guy who was my advisor was vaguely annoyed by my ideas about consciousness, which were not his ideas, and suggested that I read a book he knew of that examined learned behavior in animals, one-celled animals! Since I saw consciousness as a continuum in the animal kingdom, he thought I might like it. I read through it, and found it fascinating. When I reported back on my opinions, he groaned. "I didn't think you'd take it seriously!"

RYviewpoint said...


I was very naive when I went to college. I put professors on a pedestal. Sure I was critical of the ideas they presented and loved to argue, but I kept thinking they had the "secret sauce" and I never could figure out how I could get at it. The more I studied the less I knew while they always presented themselves as fully self-confident and argued their positions with no acknowledgement of second thoughts or uncertainties.

One reason I quit my PhD was that I didn't think I was "worthy". But that really reflected the fact that I have never been "socialized" into the intelligentsia. They were demi-gods. I had no intellectuals that I knew as a youth. Professors were like aliens plunked down on earth. They were fascinatingly different. Now I realize they had feet of clay. I had an inkling then, but let my self-doubts undermine me. But I'm glad I ended up in high tech. Teaching philosophy would not have let me be happy.

Some of the philosophy I studied was complete crap: existentialism & phenomenalism & ordinary language philosophy. Thank God I was too early for the insanity of Derrida & Habermas & & Foucault, and the other continental "philosophers". (My head still hurts from trying to read Heideggar's "Being and Nothingness". If I knew he was a Nazi I would have refused to read the idiocy.)

Hume is a good solid philosopher. Definitely worth reading.

I too am a fan of Daniel Dennett. He does interesting stuff, and he is an interesting guy.

I'm a big fan of Bertrand Russell. I enjoy reading his student Wittgenstein but don't take him that seriously. Wittgenstein has nice insights, but he took himself far too seriously. Russell is solid, both feet on the ground. Wittgenstein is interesting but less useful if you want a solid theory. He was a puzzler more than a philosopher.

I like David Chalmers, but ultimately I don't agree with him. For me, the mind is just the brain and consciousness is simply the confabulatory part that makes sense of our experiences to ourselves. And from the split brain experiments, it is very clear that consciousness is not "privileged". It is easily fooled and simply "makes up" its understanding of the self.

I take seriously the continuity across life. Higher mammals have minds like ours but without language. I wouldn't go so far as to impute "mind" to single-cell life, but neurons are neurons. Once you have enough and they are organized appropriately, you get mind. Nothing mysterious about that.

What is mysterious is how we share a "reality". Here is where I think Wittgenstein is useful. He was anti-dualism and argued that there really are no private minds. We read minds directly through expressions and our empathy. A pain is truly shared. That is how we can inhabit one world. Mind is shared. Language is the tool that has helped externalize our minds into a common experience.

Lichanos said...

Even though it's verboten as a 'critical' tool, I tend to take a biographical approach to Wittgenstein:

As for the French 20th century ones you mention, I agree totally. I was not quite too late though...

I share some of your views about community of mind: certainly it helps to think about that when studying 'ordinary language!' Of course, W would say, "learn a language, learn an illusion," but, better than nothing!

Now, what do you think of the really great philosopher of the 2oth century - Jean Baptiste Botul?