Skip to main content

Smith's Argument Against the Compatibility of Naturalism and Concept Correction

In this post, I'd like to look at Smith's argument that Dretske/Tye/Lycan-style naturalistic accounts of concept acquisition can't account for the possibility of correcting faulty concepts.

As with the other arguments we've discussed from the book, Smith doesn't explicitly lay out his argument in standard form. But I think it can be expressed fairly as follows:

1. If the views of Dretske et al.  are correct, then the act of introspection requires that the representation of its referent comes to us pre-packaged with a conceptualization.
2. If the act of introspection requires that the representation of its referent comes to us pre-packaged with a conceptualization, then we cannot introspect our experiences in a non-conceptual way.
3. If we cannot introspect our experiences in a non-conceptual way, then we cannot compare what is non-conceptually represented in experiences with a concept.
4. If we cannot compare what is non-conceptually represented in experiences with a concept, then we cannot correct concepts.
5. Therefore, if the views of Dretske et al. are correct, then we cannot correct concepts.

The argument is clearly valid. Furthermore, (1) seems to be true in virtue of the views of the authors referred to in the premise, and (2) and (3) are at least prima facie plausible, if not something in the neighborhood of analytic truths. But why does Smith think we should accept (4)? From our discussion in the previous post, we see that (4) expresses Smith's view that the only way to correct mistaken concepts is via comparing the concept to its referent via non-conceptual awareness of the latter to see if they "match". But why think that? It seems to me that there are at least three reasons to doubt (4).

First, it doesn't take too much trouble to think up epistemically possible ways to correct our concepts even if our introspected experiences come pre-packaged with them. Off the top of my head, here are three: (i) Those who regularly produce and retain concepts that are wrong about things are likely to die quickly (e.g., "That creature running toward me is friendly"; "These (poisonous) berries are nutritious", etc.), and are thereby naturally selected out of the gene pool. By contrast, those with more accurate concepts are more likely to survive and reproduce. (The argument is supposed to be independent of Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism, so let's leave it aside for another day.); (ii) less drastically, faulty concepts can be corrected or replaced by inference through rudimentary hypothesis-testing. Concepts that are inept or inferior with respect to helping us navigate our way through the world are revised or replaced; (iii) faulty concepts can be corrected through communication with others and testimony. Perhaps there are some fundamental problems with each of these proposals, but unfortunately Smith doesn't tell us what they are.

Second, whatever one thinks of these epistemic possibilities, Smith's argument should immediately make one think something must be wrong with premise 4. For if we can’t correct concepts that can't be directly compared to their referent to see if they "match", then truth-conducive theoretical reasoning, including scientific theorizing, is impossible, and I don't think even Smith wants to grant that. 

Finally, it's not clear how Smith can accept (4) without accepting a logically inconsistent set of propositions.  This is because he later wants to argue that we can have indirect, inferential knowledge of God through inductive and deductive reasoning. Given that clearing the decks to make room for the the latter claim is the primary aim of the book, it would seem that Smith is committed to rejecting (4).

That's it for now. Next time, we'll look at Smith's argument against  the compatibility of naturalism and concept formation.


Popular posts from this blog

Notes on Mackie's "Evil and Omnipotence"

0. Introduction
0.1 Mackie argues that the problem of evil proves that either no god exists, or at least that the god of Orthodox Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, does not exist. His argument is roughly the same version of the problem of evil that we’ve been considering.
0.2 Mackie thinks that one can avoid the conclusion that God does not exist only if one admits that either God is not omnipotent (i.e., not all-powerful), or that God is not perfectly good. 0.3 However, he thinks that hardly anyone will be willing to take this route. For doing so leaves one with a conception of a god that isn’t worthy of worship, and therefore not religiously significant.
0.4 After his brief discussion of his version of the problem of evil, he considers most of the main responses to the problem of evil, and concludes that none of them work.

1. First Response and Mackie's Reply
1.1 Response: Good can’t exist without evil; evil is a necessary counterpart to good.
1.2 Mackie’s reply:
1.2.1 this see…

Notes on Swinburne, "On Why God Allows Evil"

Notes on Swinburne’s “Why God Allows Evil”

1. The kinds of goods a theistic god would provide: deeper goods than just “thrills of pleasure and times of contentment” (p. 90). For example:
1.1 Significant freedom and responsibility
1.1.1 for ourselves
1.1.2 for others
1.1.3 for the world in which they live
1.2 Valuable lives
1.2.1 being of significant use to ourselves
1.2.2 being of significant use to each other

2. Kinds of evil
2.1 Moral evil: all the evil caused or permitted by human beings, whether intentionally or through negligence (e.g., murder, theft, etc.)
2.2 Natural evil: all the rest: evil not caused or permitted by human beings (e.g., suffering caused by hurricanes, forest fires, diseases, animal suffering, etc.)

3. The gist of Swinburne’s answer to the problem of evil: God cannot – logically cannot -- give us the goods of significant freedom, responsibility and usefulness without thereby allowing for the possibility of lots of moral and natural evil. This is why he has al…