Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Richard Requests Reasons

Richard requests (in a comment thread below) reasons for my acceptance of verificationism. The audacity! Well, I made a half-hearted gesture in their general direction in a previous post, but let's begin to lay them out a bit more carefully.

By "verificationism," I don't mean the old-fashioned philosophy of the early 20th Century. I only mean V:

V: If S knows what S means by an X, then S has an idea of what S would take as evidence that the X correctly described a given object and what S would take as evidence that the X incorrectly described another given object.

I don't have an elaborate theory of meaning as the old positivists did. I don't reduce evidence to phenomenal states as they did. I simply offer necessary conditions of meaning in V.

Reasons for V:

1. Imagine that someone uses a word (a noun, verb or adjective) and you inquire as to its meaning. Upon being told, you nod and inquire as to how to recognize when the word was correctly applied to an object - you request circumstances of warranted assertability. Your interlocutor then shrugs and admits that there isn't any such way, that there aren't any such circumstances. Do you not become the least bit suspicious? Do you smell a rat, a poseur, or at best a deluded person who doesn't realize that he isn't saying anything? If you answered yes, then you have at least a toe in my camp.
So, reason 1 says that if a person has no idea how to tell whether what he's saying is true, then he doesn't know what he's saying and doesn't mean anything by it. He thinks he does, but then the mind is a subtle and devious thing, isn't it.

2. Knowing the meaning of a word typically enables one to use it warrantedly. Circumstances in which this is not so are unusual and usually correctable by consultation and rehearsal with people who do know how to use it warrantedly. When we find a word that everyone concerned admits cannot be used warrantedly, we have an anomaly. Here we have a choice: expand our conception of meaning to include the slovenly item, or move it into the category of potentially meaningless terms. As an analytical philosopher, I need a reason to wax vague about meaning. There being no reason here other than people's feeling that the term has meaning, I opt for the debunking.

3. When in particular cases, such as "zombie," we have components of a definition that militate epistemically against each other, I cry foul. Consciousness being private, and its evidence being behavioral, zombies are things that one is by definition not entitled to have even the slightest bit of evidence for. (This reminds me of the guy selling a snake oil remedy. When I asked how I would know it worked, he said that it was only a "subtle" cure, meaning one that I couldn't know of. For such a cure I will pay very, very little indeed.)

By the way, Richard's is a philosophy blog with archives from which the philosophy enthusiast can profit.