Why did Tom give up his seat on the bus to someone frail and elderly? Perhaps only to impress his girlfriend, perhaps rather to be considerate, out of concern for the elder's welfare. Or maybe it was just a random act, entirely out of character, and due only to his being in a good mood. Alternatively, it might be quite in character for him to act that way. Kindness may be one of his character traits, manifest in that act.
Or so one might think without a second thought. Such reasoning seems typical of how we constantly try to understand people's conduct. Based on a body of troubling results in social psychology, however, an intriguing critique has been pressed against such character trait attributions. Here we shall review the most striking, best known results, and the arguments based on them.
The Attack Presented
The Milgram Experiments
In the early sixties, experiments conducted by the psychologist Stanley Milgram at Yale University had disturbing results (Milgram 1963, 1974). In multiple replications, moreover, the results have held up with impressive consistency. Milgram's experimental subjects believe themselves to be participating in a study of the effects of punishment on learning, and to be playing the role of “teachers” in that study. Here is the scenario. The experimental subjects are expected to administer electric shocks to “learners” (who are in fact Milgram confederates). In one version, the teacher/subject sees the learner/confederate strapped down to an electric chair in a separate room.
Natural theology has always had to contend with the argument from evil. The evil around us seemingly supports a deductive argument for the conclusion that there is no God of the sort affirmed by theology. More recently, natural theology has faced new problems, or old problems with a new urgency. Darwin, for example, showed how evolutionary design rivals Divine design, endangering the important Argument from Design. Suppose certain phenomena admit two rival, independent explanations. Any such explanation no better than its rival is insufficiently supported thereby. Theology had proposed Divine design as an explanation of the order around us. Evolutionary theory offers now a rival explanation that purports to be at least as good while independent of Divine agency.
Both of these attacks are “direct.” They both confront theology directly on its own ground, by countering its theses in one of two ways. One way is by direct refutation of a theological proposition: The evil we see leaves no rational room for an omnipotent, fully benevolent God. The other way attacks, rather, the cogency of theology's rational support: by arguing, for example, that Divine agency is no longer needed to explain the order of things.
Although both of these attacks are direct, the first is more direct, since it clashes frontally with the theological proposition that there is a God. From the premise that there is evil, it concludes that there is no God. The second attack is not frontal.
Davidson's epistemology, like Kant's, features a transcendental argument as its centerpiece. Both philosophers reject any priority, whether epistemological or conceptual, of the subjective over the objective, attempting thus to solve the problem of the external world. For Davidson, three varieties of knowledge are coordinate – knowledge of the self, of other minds, and of the external world. None has priority. Despite the epistemologically coordinate status of the mind and the world, however, the content of the mind can be shown to entail how things are out in the world. More exactly, Davidson argues, we could not possibly have the beliefs we have, with their contents, unless the world around us were pretty much the way we take it to be, at least in its general outline. We are thus offered a way to argue, to all appearances a priori, from how it is in our minds to how things are in the world. The argument is a priori at least in being free of premises or assumptions about contingent particularities concerning the world around us or our relation to it. From premises about the contents of our propositional attitudes, the argument wends its way to a conclusion about the general lines of how the world around us is structured and populated.
Before presenting his own account, Davidson rejects received views of meaning and knowledge. What follows will combine themes from his critique of alternatives with his more positive account and its way of dealing with the skeptic.
EPISTEMOLOGY AS A NORMATIVE INQUIRY
Descartes' epistemological inquiry in the Meditations begins with this question: What propositions are worthy of belief? In the First Meditation Descartes canvasses beliefs of various kinds he had formerly held as true and finds himself forced to conclude that he ought to reject them, that he ought not to accept them as true. We can view Cartesian epistemology as consisting of the following two projects: to identify the criteria by which we ought to regulate acceptance and rejection of beliefs, and to determine what we may be said to know according to those criteria. Descartes' epistemological agenda has been the agenda of Western epistemology to this day. The twin problems of identifying the criteria of justified belief and coming to terms with the skeptical challenge to the possibility of knowledge have defined the central tasks of theory of knowledge since Descartes. This was as true of the empiricists, of Locke and Hume and Mill, as of those who more closely followed Descartes in the rationalist path.
It is no wonder then that modern epistemology has been dominated by a single concept, that of justification, and two fundamental questions involving it: What conditions must a belief meet if we are justified in accepting it as true? and What beliefs are we in fact justified in accepting? Note that the first question does not ask for an “ analysis” or “ meaning” of the term “ justified belief”.
The term ‘event’ ordinarily implies change, and most changes are changes in a substance. Whether coming into being and passing away can be construed as changes in substances is a question we shall not consider here. A change in a substance occurs when that substance acquires a property it did not previously have, or loses a property it previously had. Whether fissions and fusions of substances can be considered as cases of losing or acquiring properties is, again, a question we shall not discuss in this paper. By ‘substance’ I mean things like tables, chairs, atoms, living creatures, bits of stuff like water and bronze, and the like; there is no need here to associate this notion with a particular philosophical doctrine about substance.
Besides events, we also speak of “states”. If “events” signal changes,“states” seem to be static things, “unchanges”, to use a term of C. J. Ducasse's; some examples of states would be my body's weighing 140 pounds, the earth's being nearly spherical in shape, and the presence of oxygen in this room. There are, however, good reasons for not taking this dichotomy of changes and unchanges, or of events and states, too seriously at the initial stage of developing a theory of events. For one thing, there are cases that are hard to classify e.g., the whirring of my typewriter, having a throbbing pain in the right elbow.
Reductionism of all sorts has been out of favor for many years. Few among us would now seriously entertain the possibility that ethical expressions are definable, or reducible in some broader sense, in terms of “descriptive” or “naturalistic” expressions. I am not sure how many of us can remember, in vivid enough detail, the question that was once vigorously debated as to whether so-called “physical-object statements” are translatable into statements about the phenomenal aspects of perceptual experience, whether these are conceived as “sense data” or as some manner of “being appeared to”. You may recall the idea that concepts of scientific theories must be reduced, via “operational definitions”, to intersubjectively performable procedures whose results can be ascertained through observation. This sounded good - properly tough-minded and hard-nosed - but it didn' t take long for philosophers and scientists to realize that a restrictive constraint of this sort was neither enforceable nor necessary - not necessary to safeguard science from the threat of metaphysics and pseudo-science. These reductionisms are now nothing but museum pieces.
In philosophy of mind, too, we have gone through many reductionisms; some of these, such as logical behaviorism, have been defunct for many years; others, most notably, the psychoneural identity theory, have been repeatedly declared dead; and still others, such as versions of functionalism, are still hanging on, though with varying degrees of difficulty. Perhaps as a result of the singular lack of success with which our earlier reductionist efforts have been rewarded, a negative image seems to have emerged for reductionisms in general.
I want to reopen the question whether the same bit of behavior, say an action we perform such as climbing a ladder, can be given both a “mechanistic” explanation, in terms of physiological processes and laws, and a “purposive” explanation, in terms of “reasons” (e.g., goals and beliefs). In a paper published in 1968, Norman Malcolm defended a negative answer. He argued that once an action has been explained by setting forth its physiological causal antecedents it is no longer open to us to explain it by citing the agent's reasons, that is, his beliefs, desires, intentions, and the like. Alvin Goldman immediately replied to Malcolm, arguing that mechanistic and purposive explanations are indeed compatible, that we can in fact characterize a type of situation in which one and the same behavior can be seen to be explainable both physiologically and rationally.
I want to reopen this debate not only because there is more to be said on this issue but also, and more importantly, because the issue has significant implications for some problems of much current interest in the philosophy of mind. A proper appreciation of the broader methodological issues and options involved will, I believe, help us to get clearer about some matters of current controversy. As we shall see, the question of explanatory compatibility leads us to more general questions about the pos-sibility of multiple explanations of a single explanandum, and the relationship between two distinct explanatory theories covering overlapping domains of phenomena.
SUPERVENIENCE IN PHILOSOPHY
Supervenience is a philosophical concept in more ways than one. First of all, like such concepts as cause and rationality, it is often used in the formulation of philosophical doctrines and arguments. Thus, we have the claim that ethical predicates are “supervenient predicates”, or that the characteristics of a whole supervene on those of its parts. And arguments have been advanced to show that the supervenience of moral properties undermines moral realism, or that, on the contrary, moral supervenience shows ethical judgments are “objective” after all. And, again like causality and rationality, the concept of supervenience itself has become an object of philosophical analysis and a matter of some controversy.
But unlike causality, supervenience is almost exclusively a philosopher's concept, one not likely to be encountered outside philosophical dissertations and disputations. The notion of cause, on the other hand, is an integral part of our workaday language, a concept without which we could hardly manage in describing our experiences and observations, framing explanationsof natural events, and assessing blame and praise. Something similar can be said about thenotion of being rational as well, although this concept is not as ubiquitous in ordinary discourse as that of cause. Supervenience of course is not unique in being a technical philosophicalconcept; there are many others, such as “haecceity” and “possibleworld” in metaphysics, “analyticity” in the theory of meaning, and the currently prominent concepts of “wide” and “narrow” content.
In his celebrated discussion of causation Hume identified four prima facie constituents in the relation of causation. As everyone knows, they are constant conjunction, contiguity in space and time, temporal priority, and necessary connection. As ordinarily understood, the causal relation is a binary relation relating causes to their effects, and so presumably are the four relations Hume discerns in it. But what do these four relations tell us about the nature of the entities they relate?
Constant conjunction is a relation between generic events, that is, kinds or types of events; constant conjunction makes no clear or nontrivial sense when directly applied to spatiotemporally bounded individual events. On the other hand, it is clear that the relation of temporal priority calls for individual, rather than generic, events as its relata; there appears to be no useful way of construing ‘earlier than’ as a relation between kinds of classes of events in a causal context.
What of the condition of contiguity? This condition has two parts, temporal and spatial. Temporal contiguity makes sense when applied to events; two events are contiguous in time if they temporally overlap. But spatial contiguity makes best sense when applied not to events but to objects, especially material bodies; intuitively at least, we surely understand what it is for two bodies to be in contact or to overlap. For events, however, the very notion of spatial location often becomes fuzzy and indeterminate.
Jonathan Edwards held the doctrine that ordinary material things do not persist through time but are at each moment created, and recreated, by God ex nihilo. He writes:
If the existence of created substance, in each successive moment, be wholly the effect of God's immediate power, in that moment, without any dependence on prior existence, as much as the first creation out of nothing, then what exists at this moment, by this power, is a new effect, and simply and absolutely considered, not the same with any past existence, though it be like it, and follows it according to a certain established method.
Thus, the present “time slice” of this table, although it is very much like the one preceding it, has no causal connection with it; for each slice is a wholly distinct creation by God. The temporal parts of this table are successive effects of an underlying persisting cause, God's creative activity. In arguing for this doctrine, Edwards offers the following striking analogy:
The images of things in a glass, as we keep our eye upon them, seem to remain precisely the same, with a continuing, perfect identity. But it is known to be otherwise. Philosophers well know that these images are constantly renewed, by the impression and reflection of new rays of light; so that the image impressed by the former rays is constantly vanishing, and a new image impressed by new rays every moment, both on the glass and on the eye … And the new images being put on immediately or instantly, do not make them the same, any more than if it were done with the intermission of an hour or a day. […]
“If the match had not been struck, it would not have ignited.” This counterfactual expresses a relationship of dependency between two events: the ignition of the match was dependent on the match's being struck. Here, the dependency is a causal one: the striking of the match caused it to light. We also say: the ignition was causally determined by the striking. The causal relation is a paradigmatic case of what I shall call relations of “dependency” or “determination” between events and states; in fact, it is the only relation of this sort that has been explicitly recognized and widely talked about.
The dominant place accorded to the causal relation is evident in the fact, for example, that the thesis of universal determinism is most often stated in some such form as “Every event has a cause.” The implicit assumption in such a formulation is that being determined comes to the same thing as being caused. This, however, requires reconsideration. There appear to be dependency relations between events that are not causal, and, as I shall argue, universal determinism may be true even if not every event has a cause. These noncausal dependency relations are pervasively present in the web of events, and it is important to understand their nature, their interrelations, and their relation to the causal relation if we are to have a clear and complete picture of the ways in which events hang together in this world.
In an earlier paper, “Concepts of Supervenience,” I characterized two distinct concepts of supervenience, “strong” and “weak,” and compared them with each other and with a third concept, “global supervenience.” In this paper I wish to correct an error in the earlier paper and present further material on supervenience, including a new characterization of strong supervenience, which I believe is particularly perspicuous, and a discussion of the adequacy of global supervenience as a determination relation. I shall also present a strengthened relation of global supervenience based on similarity rather than indiscernibility between worlds, which may well be a more useful concept than the currently popular conception of global supervenience.
A NEW CHARACTERIZATION OF “STRONG SUPERVENIENCE”
Let A and B be two sets of properties (closed under complementation, conjunction, disjunction, and perhaps other property-forming operations). A is said to weakly supervene on B just in case:
(I) Necessarily, for any x and y, if x and y share all properties in B, then x and y share all properties in A - that is, indiscernibility in B entails indiscernibility in A.
This corresponds in a straightforward way to the informal characterization of supervenience commonly found in the literature. As was shown in the earlier paper, weak supervenience can be equivalently explained as follows:
(II) Necessarily, for any object x and any property F in A, if x has F, then there exists a property G in B such that x has G, and if any y has G, it has F.
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