Follow up to: The End of Cartesian Demons
This is a recanted essay!: As a result of feedback with others who have read this, I now recognize this essay as misleadingly incomplete and partially inaccurate. I keep it up as a record of how I have previously thought, but do not stand by all of it.
A commenter on this blog by the name of Tom Mitchell who has a blog called Drip by Drip left a lengthy comment on my essay “The End of Cartesian Demons” challenging my idea that any statement that is meaningful will entail some experiences must occur and some experiences must not occur.
His comment is too lengthy to repost, so I recommend you read it, but I will do my best to summarize his criticism:
Tom’s first point is that there are statements which Tom refers to as motivators which provide reasons for action independent of the truth of the statement.
For instance, Jimmy might think that “Journalism is cool, and he would make a great journalist”. This statement motivates Jimmy to study journalism regardless of whether or not it is actually true, so long as Jimmy thinks it true. Some of these motivator statements may even be self-fulfilling.
The argument is that since these statements are not held for their truth content and yet still are meaningful to the person, then there are meaningful statements which do not specifically require a set of experiences to be true and/or a set of experiences to be false.
Tom’s second point is that what I said about Cartesian-like hypotheses (such as solipsism, the Simulation/Matrix argument, the dream hypothesis, Cartesian demons, etc.) is false, and that these statements can matter despite having no testable in principle outcome because they can function as motivators.
For instance, someone who is a for-some-reason convinced solipsist may become depressed and lonely by thinking they are the only real person. Furthermore, someone who thinks they’re in the Matrix might hunt for Morpheus.
Thus, this second argument says that these theories do have practical outcomes because they change how people act, again independently of whether the theory is true, or even capable of being true.
Are We Debating Definitions?
The first question I wonder about is whether we are not truly disagreeing over theories, but disagreeing about definitions. I wonder if Tom has a certain idea of the definition of meaningful than the one I used in my essay. As I mentioned in “The Folly of Debating Definitions”, it is worthless for us to decide which meaning of meaningful is the correct one, as long as we acknowledge our differences and choose one.
So when I said “any statement that is meaningful will entail some experiences must occur and some experiences must not occur”, I meant “I am defining a statement to be described as meaningful if it entails some experiences must occur and some experiences must not occur”.
But perhaps this was entirely unfair of me, since the word meaningful also commonly has the connotation of “only things called meaningful are worthy of discussion”, thus suggesting that we should never talk about things like solipsism if they don’t entail a certain set of experiences to be true and/or false. I do agree with this, yes, but I don’t want to assert my argument in the very definition of the word, because that would render me hopelessly circular.
So perhaps it’s best if I instead said this:
(1) I am defining a statement to be described as truth-apt if it entails some experiences must occur and some experiences must not occur, thus capable of being true.
(2) I am defining a statement to be described as meaningful if it worth considering.
(3) I am arguing that statements which are not truth-apt are not worth considering, and therefore not meaningful.
I think this makes my argument far more clear and helps relieve some of Tom’s first criticism. Thus what I was saying about meaningful statements needing to entail experiences was indeed true, but it was a conclusion from my argument, not a definition.
Therefore, for clarity I will now be making the distinction between something that is truth-apt and something that is meaningful, even if I think every truth-apt claim is meaningful and that claims that are not truth-apt aren’t meaningful. I think the very truth-apt nature of a statement; the very possibility that the statement could be true, is what makes the statement meaningful, and nothing else does.
Motivated by Motivators?
But what of Tom’s statements he calls motivators, statements that motivate you to preform certain actions by you thinking they are true, regardless of if they are true? I don’t think these motivator statements are actually any different from other statements, and therefore aren’t anything special that could derail my argument. Upon reflection, I think all truth-apt statements are motivators, and therefore they fit nicely into my theory instead of derailing it.
Consider the example Tom gave of the statement “Journalism is cool, and I, Jimmy, am going to be a great journalist”. In his example, Tom said that if Jimmy really reflected on this statement, he would find it unjustified because Jimmy doesn’t really have any special journalist knowledge or talents, and really doesn’t know anything about journalism.
Yet this statement is still motivating, and it causes Jimmy to act. Why? Simply because Jimmy thinks it is true.
Looking for Truth-Apt
This becomes clear when we look at the statement in depth. The statement “Journalism is cool, and I, Jimmy, am going to be a great journalist” is actually two different statements, both of which specifically anticipate certain experiences, thus making the statement truth-apt.
“Journalism is cool” predicts that Jimmy will find journalism to be a rewarding and interesting career. “I, Jimmy, am going to be a great journalist” predicts that Jimmy will be successful in a chosen career of journalism. If either of these two experiences do not occur when they could, Jimmy’s statement was false.
But how does the truth-apt nature of this translate into motivation? Simply because we act on every bit of knowledge that we consider — if we want to make toast, and think the statement “putting bread in the toaster will produce toast I can eat” accurately reflects reality, then we act upon this truth-apt statement. If Jimmy thinks “Journalism is cool” accurately reflects the reality of journalism and Jimmy’s future careers, Jimmy will act upon this truth-apt statement.
We even act upon statements that we think are false. If Jimmy wants toast but thinks “banging my head against the wall will produce toast” is a false statement that does not accurately reflect reality, Jimmy will act upon this by not banging his head against the wall, and instead seeking some other course of action.
Therefore the truth-apt nature of the statement is required for Jimmy to be motivated, which seems contrary to what Tom was suggesting.
Putting The Truth in Truth-Apt
Now let’s look deeper into Tom’s first criticism: specifically, the idea that these motivators remain motivating even if the justification for them is shaky. While yes, these statements do have to be truth-apt in order to be motivating, do they actually need to be accurately held? Or can a false statement be motivating even if the subject thinks the statement is true?
Clearly this can be the case: a person could be motivated to become a journalist because he thinks “Journalism is cool”, only to later find journalism a very boring profession. But all this means is that there is a difference between what a person thinks and what is actually real, which I have repeatedly acknowledged.
The fact that people are erroneously motivated by false facts they think are true is actually one of the biggest reasons to value true facts and want knowledge, so you don’t accidentally sabotage your own goals. If you were only motivated by true-in-reality facts regardless of what you thought of them, then you would have little to no reason for knowledge.
Don’t Forget the Self-Fulfilling Nature!
But lastly what are we to make of the specific case of self-fulfilling motivators? For instance, we could easily imagine Jimmy thinking the career of journalism is worthwhile only because he once thought “Journalism was cool”, and would not have found the career of journalism to be worthwhile otherwise.
I think this is slightly bothersome to consider in of itself, but is no detriment to the theory I’m proposing, simply because holding a belief does change reality — it changes something about you, namely you now hold a certain belief. For an analogy, consider the sentence “This sentence is being said aloud”. It is false right now because you are merely reading it, but it would be made true in a self-fulfilling fashion were you to speak it aloud.
This self-fulfilling nature is because the statement is also self-referring, it describes a reality that the existence of the statement itself influences. This is the same for “Journalism is cool” in a way: since saying “Journalism is cool” means “I subjectively find journalism to be a rewarding experience”, holding this belief itself can confer that subjective experience just by holding the belief itself.
How Motivating is a Demon?
Now we can address Tom’s second point that these Cartesian-like hypotheses can function as motivators and therefore are meaningful. This clearly squares against the idea that motivators must be truth-apt, because Cartesian-like hypotheses are not truth-apt. How can you be motivated by something you cannot know is true?
I think we see this distinction specifically in the kind of motivation that is happening: Tom’s examples are of people motivated by the truth-apt versions of the Cartesian hypotheses; which I did talk about being possible versions that are meaningful, but not the versions people currently seem to hold and discuss.
For instance, consider the idea of someone looking for Morpheus. Surely this is someone who is anticipating finding Morephus, and thus thinks the Matrix argument entails a specific prediction: “If the Matrix argument is true, Morpheus exists somewhere I can find”. This means the person is motivated by a truth-apt version of the Matrix argument.
I think Tom actually recognizes this, because he says:
To summarize, the existence of a Cartesian demon, or the matrix, or whatever is a valid concern because of its potential as a motivator of human action. It cannot tell us anything about what we are experiencing and what we will not experience; but it can shape what we have the potential to experience.
The last sentence is a contradiction: if something is shaping what you have the potential to experience, it is making it so that you will not have certain experiences, thus making the statement testable-in-principle (we can look and see if we have that experience, potentially) and truth-apt (there is an experience that can be true or false).
Specifically, we are motivated to find truth because of what I mentioned in “Meaningfully True”: we have goals we want to satisfy, and we need true knowledge to satisfy them. Thus, we are individually motivated to care about certain truth-apt statements, because they have the potential to affect how we go about our goals.
Furthermore, no one can be motivated to care about a statement that is not truth-apt, because it entails nothing that can even affect them. If they are motivated, it can only be because they are anticipating an experience, and thus considering something that is truth-apt.
For these two reasons, I think my theory actually includes a lot of what Tom was looking for, once we clear up the somewhat confusing language I was using.
I invite Tom to continue the dialogue by showing where he agrees and disagrees.
Before commenting further, please note that this is a recanted essay that I no longer agree with.
I now blog at EverydayUtilitarian.com. I hope you'll join me at my new blog! This page has been left as an archive.