Saturday, September 12, 2020

Twelve rounds with Kant (part 3)

Artist unknown, but found on as excellent a layman's
introduction to Kant as I've ever seen
.

Today, as a third step in my effort to better understand Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1781–7), I will attempt to find fault with it.

Using a simile from a sphere I'm more at home in, this is going to be like trying to compete with Daigo or Sonic Fox through haphazard button-mashing. To confront someone like Kant, who's armed with a comprehensive homebrewed epistemology, one must either find fatal inconsistencies within his conceptual apparatus (which I doubt I'm qualified to do) or otherwise counter it with a proximately comprehensive alternative scheme—which I do not possess. I have inklings and opinions, yes, but these are insufficient to put a dent in something so densely armored by internal substantiation.

I won't be snatching at the low-hanging fruit for the Kant critic—his insistence on the ideality of space and time. This position was controversial during Kant's own life, and has become veritably indefensible since the development of non-Euclidean geometries and of Einstein's theory of relativity. To sum up the difficulties these present: contrary to Kant adducing Euclidean geometry as evidence of a priori concepts of space, geometry contains more than just a kernel of empiricism, and as it turns out, non-Euclidean geometries may be more useful to us when we're talking about the trajectory of a photon over trillions of miles (since the curvature of spacetime will bring parallel lines toward convergence or divergence when they're traced across supercluster-scale distances). And if time, as the pure form of inner sense (as Kant claims), has no independent existence, then how do we explain the necessity of correcting for relativistic dilations in GPS satellites' computations?

Responding to non-Euclidian geometry as a "gotcha," Kant might just shrug and say that Euclid's Elements remains a catalog of the a priori concepts which make possible our coherent experience of life on planet Earth. And he might say that whatever's going on with orbiting clocks doesn't displace time from is position in his scheme as the pure form of inner sense. He might also dare to venture that time, as we experience it, might not be identical to the physical process that makes a satellite's clock run a few microseconds slower than a terrestrial timepiece. My guess is that these new facts would compel Kant to make some relatively minor emendations to the Critique, but he wouldn't find in them sufficient cause to demolish his edifice and start over.

So what now?

Let me begin in earnest with the first few sentences of Kant's posthumously published Introduction to Logic (1800). Regardless of my mixed opinion of Kant's epistemology on the whole, I absolutely, one hundred percent, triple-underlined agree with him here:
Everything in nature, whether in the animate or inanimate world, takes places according to rules, although we do not always know these rules...all nature, indeed, is nothing but a combination of phenomena which follow rules; and nowhere is there any irregularity.
Reading this passage for the first time was no revelation: long before I cracked open any of Kant's books, my conviction on this point was identical to his. This may account for why, after reading BF Skinner's About Behaviorism (1974) as research for writing a character in All the Lonely People, I become a convert to radical behaviorism, however out of fashion it might be.¹ I'm sure that most of us understand and accept that the relations in nature tabulated (incompletely) in the laws of physics are absolutely binding. And yet, we typically exempt ourselves from these relations of necessity when we talk about "mind" as a causal agent or espouse a belief in "free will," characterized as a transcendental independence from causal contingency. The contradiction is obvious: either the atoms of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, etc. that constitute our bodies obey the same laws which those atoms do in any other context, or we let those atoms flout the rules which govern them everywhere else so long as they're busy composing meat. With all due respect to Whitehead and Harsthorne's belief that "the whole influences the parts" (with which I don't entirely disagree), I can't accept the proposition that different rules apply to "dead" matter and living beings. Complexity in form merely begets complexity in behavior: the total organism, made up of interrelated parts, systems, and processes, affects itself in subtle and enigmatic ways, but we are mistaken to confound the unpredictability that emerges from complexity as randomness, spontaneity, or independence from the laws of physical causation.

The problems of reconciling irregularity-free physical law with free will and the existence of the soul (or mind) impelled Kant to take these beliefs halfway out of bounds in the "Transcendental Dialectic" section of the Critique. We'll probe Kant's "transcendental ideas" some other time. For now, it will suffice to say that Kant's efforts to safeguard these ideas against materialistic skepticism imply a potential weak point in his ideology: his unwillingness to treat the subject of his Transcendental Deduction's "I think" as a material entity, and the probability that this reluctance predetermined some of his investigation's conclusions.² For this unwillingness, we mustn't judge him too harshly. Kant lived before Darwin and Freud, belonged to a milieu in which psychology was treated as a sub-discipline of metaphysics, and was not unduly concerned about scientific materialism's potential long-term effects on individual and public morality. However, the assumptions and blind spots resulting from Kant's overemphasis on the arcane "rational" part of the Aristotelian notion of the "rational animal" directly and indirectly inform the parts of the Critique that I find problematic.

(I must parenthetically acknowledge that in criticizing Kant within the framework of scientific materialism, I am altogether omitting the epistemological and metaphysical examination of that framework, and Kant would demand I hand over the receipts of that audit before he'd listen to anything I might have to say. I will save that for a later time, with the reminder to myself that I got myself into this mess by pondering the ontological position of mathematical entities, a topic which still awaits my post-Critique reassessment.)

If we grant that association can be grounds for skepticism, the resemblance between Kant's map of sense perception and mental activity and medieval formulas of psychology (see below) warrants mention.³ As we have ample reason to distrust the world-model of the medieval synthesis (however fascinating it might be), the Scholastic trappings of Kant's system invite a cautious application of Ockham's razor.


The Scholastic and Kantian models are cleanly delineated and populated by clearly (if abstrusely) defined "faculties," each of which handles one sensible or intellectual material and hands it off to the next agent in the chain, fashioning cognitions from the raw material of sensory input the way factory workers along a conveyor belt convert metal components into manufactured goods. As abstractions, these models handily bracket the conspicuous phases in events which defy a thoroughgoing examination. When our knowledge of how a living human beings operates on a moment-to-moment basis is restricted to what can be gleaned by the dissection of cadavers and from psychological introspection, they are adequate; probably they are the best that can be hoped for. As methodological refinements and improved instruments disclose the physiological complexity of organic life on a molecular scale, categorical terms that were once serviceable for events which we could only observe indirectly, imprecisely, and at some remove, now tend to obfuscate rather than clarify the data we possess. This is as true of our ideas about the propagation of light through interstellar space as of our ideas about our ideas.

As an armchair Skinnerian, I surmise that most of the "faculties" Kant enumerates in the Critique—receptivity, intuition, the understanding, inner sense, reason, judgement, the imagination, and so on—could be more usefully sorted into the two broad categories of stimulus and response in an organism. All we are doing here is switching a set of abstractions for a different set of abstractions in hopes that the alternative better optimizes accuracy and communicability with regard to the same body of complex (and, in most settings, still inscrutable) physical events.  

We cannot overemphasize that the categories of "stimulus" and "response" are still abstractions, and are therefore imprecise. However, the formula has the advantage of combining a parsimonious framework with adaptability to complexity.

In the interest of defining our terms: let's say that a stimulus is any event that prompts a change in the organism (or a certain part or parts of the organism), and the response is that change. External stimuli originate outside of the body; internal stimuli (which are also responses) originate within the organism, and consist of different parts of the body influencing the operations of other parts, such as when the activity of the endocrine system modifies the activity of the nervous system (i.e., when our mood affects our thinking). We must take care to remember that whenever we treat any response as a unitary event, we are flattening information in order to make use of it.⁵

Let's take a stab at translating some of Kant's faculties and their "species" (listed in the last post) in terms of stimuli and responses and see if they make more sense. I will not be going about this in any kind of systematic way, and must stress that this is an exercise, not a treatise. Also, I will be intercalating some staid but unspeakably haunting paintings by Giorgio de Chirico with the text, just to add some color and character to an exceedingly matte discourse.

Giorgio de Chirico, The Vexations of the Thinker (1915)

• An intuition may be identified as the initial moment of response to a stimulus. Light striking the eye. A scent wafting under the nostrils. Compression waves stimulating the auditory nerves. Kant calls intuition "the way by which objects are given to us by means of sensibility;" it is then the immediate awareness of an object, which presupposes a physiological response. We "filter out" most of the stimuli bombarding us at any given instant—we do not respond to them; they elicit no change in us. These are not intuitions. An intuition is an incipient response, or a low-level response.

Kant expresses a valuable insight when observing that sensory input in and of itself does not contain the context and sense that the human subject imposes upon it. "The combination (conjunctio) of a manifold in general can never be given through the senses," he writes, "and cannot, therefore, already be contained in the pure form of sensible intuition."

Again, I have to wonder how Kant might have pondered the problem of external stimulus and internal response differently if could have sat at his writing desk with recent perusals Charles Darwin's On The Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871) still coloring his private discourse regarding the eye and the brain. Though he more or less correctly contends that we add something (in his formulation, the synthetic a priori judgements of the categories) to incoming sense data, much of the concreteness he ascribes to his abstractions is misplaced, and his theory is vitiated by these assumptions.

The ontogeny of the eye necessitates the existence of an organism to which it belongs: there are no such things as "intuitions without concepts" (except perhaps in cases of catatonia). Sight presupposes a seeing entity. A working eye does not passively "collect" light the way a kitchen pot catches rainwater, but responds to it: the photons which excite the retina don't even touch the optic nerve, much less the brain. In the very process of converting external light to biochemical signals, a kind of Kantian synthesis occurs well before the higher faculty of "understanding" is brought to bear.
 
Giorgio de Chirico, Conquest of the Philosopher (1914)

• The concept is a reification of the relation of a stimulus property to the behavior of an organism over which it exerts some control.⁶ When we say that a child has learned the concepts of colors and shapes, we are describing the functional influence that certain parts of her environment have begun to exert over her. In practice, this formulation actually differs little from Kant's definition, except that the Kantian system implicitly treats the concept as a transcendental thing we store in our heads. If we'd prefer to move beyond the epiphenomenal in treating of concepts, we could point to the behavior of animals: when we longitudinally observe a bird differentiating between species of butterflies it can eat safely and species of butterflies that make it vomit, we are seeing conceptual behavior. No two butterflies, even of the same species, are identical; neither are any two contexts in which a butterfly appears. However, the insectivore nevertheless selectively and differentially responds to general stimulus characteristics, as we observe when it pursues a individual of the species Speyeria cybele for predation and allows a Danaus plexippus to pass by.

Autobiographical leavening: Danaus plexippus in my mother's kitchen,
fresh from her chrysalis. Mom named her "Rachel."

Where Homo sapiens is concerned, conceptual behavior is braided with verbal behavior. A dog can exhibit stimulus discrimination with regard to, say blue objects, demonstrating a functional relation to blue as a stimulus characteristic. The verbal behavior of human beings allows us to isolate blue as an abstract property, communicate information about an object with that property in the complete absence of any objects with that property, use the vocal or textual stimulus blue to elicit the conditioned seeing of that property, and so on.

In taking the cognitive behavior (and its associated epiphenomena) of the verbally behaving human individual as a baseline for his investigation into reason and the faculty of understanding, Kant surmises that the "lower" animals must lack consciousness and are incapable of understanding. (Twenty-first- century neurologists disagree.) Knowing what we now do about the emergence of disparate species from common ancestors, and the biology of the animal nervous system, it's probably more accurate to say that Homo sapiens does not possess any endowments that are qualitatively different from those of apes, birds, or cetaceans, but we must allow that the ways in which we put those endowments to use through our capacity for and use of language has resulted in a qualitative difference in how we, as an aggregate, function in the world. This splitting of hairs might be beside the point if Kant's disinterest in treating the human subject as an organism instead of as an "intelligence" did not color his entire system.⁷

Giorgio de Chirico, Vast Metaphysical Interior (1917)

• In the A Deduction, Kant ascribes the mental acts of association and reproduction to the imagination, which he intricately connects with the faculty/function of synthesis, and characterizes by its spontaneity. By this spontaneity, Kant undoubtedly refers to the constant activity of the organism: the body exists in a perpetual state of multitudinous response to stimuli, both externally received and internally generated. If the organism under consideration is a member of Homo sapiens with verbal behavior ingrained in its repertoire, unuttered words and conditioned "sights" and "sounds" (i.e. one's "internal monologue," "mental images," a "song in one's head," etc.) will accompany his or her externally observable responses. This subjective experience is an epiphenomenon of this unceasing activity of the human organism as such.

Giorgio de Chirico, Eternity of a Moment (date unknown)

• Kant defines synthesis as "the act of putting together different representations together, and of comprehending their manifoldness in one item of knowledge." The term is used with such promiscuity throughout the Critique, and in so many specialized contexts, to make its extraction from Kant's intricate framework a rather difficult operation. In the manner in which Kant describes it above, at least, we can say it refers to relations between stimuli, many of which we can assume to be verbally conditioned—i.e., an audible or textual "sign" that alters the probability of subsequent behaviors, or nonverbal stimuli that entail some verbal response, whether overt or covert. When Kant talks about "bringing synthesis to concepts," he may be talking about stimulus induction or generalization—such as we see when the proposition "all objects have weight" is expressed practically by, for instance, a person holding a cigarette up to his lips instead of bringing it halfway up to his mouth and then letting go of it. (We can guess he's had enough experience dropping things over the course of his life to hold on to anything he intends to use or have at hand.)

What Kant calls pure synthesis must be nonverbal in nature. We can attribute it to operations of the nervous system that "organize" sensory data, such as when we "automatically" arrange our visual field so that we perceive depths, distances, and spatial relations instead of a nebulous motley of colors. Kant calls this a function of the understanding or the mind; we would rather call it a function of the nervous system. Only when we go deep into the metaphysical weeds does this distinction matter.

What Kant diagrams as an act of synthesis involving the pure forms of intuition, the pure concepts of the understanding, and the mediating principles of the schemata may be more clearly and generally articulated in terms of an organism's endowments. We respond to the external stimuli that our bodies are "built" to respond to, and we respond to them in the ways we are "built" to respond to them. We see electromagnetic radiation when its wavelength ranges between 300 and 780 nanometers; but we feel it (as heat) when its wavelength is less than 300 nanometers and greater than one millimeter. But certain species of snake can respond to the infrared spectrum as a visual stimulus; dogs can evidently detect thermal radiation with their noses. Broadly speaking, what an organism can sense and the manner in which it senses has far-reaching ramifications for how that organism operates in its environment (as well as under its own skin), as do the genetic endowments that dispose it to "instinctive" responses to certain stimuli: a newborn human needs no training to scream when it experiences pain or discomfort, for instance. Moreover, a species capable of "learning" acquires and performs new kinds of behavior in a way dependent on its organic makeup: for instance, the unstructured "education" of crawling is sufficient to teach a human infant to avoid going over a steep drop-off without having to experience the punishing consequence of actually falling and injuring itself. 

None of this is incompatible with the basic precepts of Kant's doctrine of a priori forms of understanding, and vice versa: Kant merely examined in terms restricted by anthropocentrism and mentalism a characteristic of any total organism.

Giorgio de Chirico, The Double Dream of Spring (1915)

• As mentioned earlier, transcendental apperception might be loosely identified with self-awareness—but in calling it such, we grossly obscure its function as a load-bearing member in the Kantian edifice. If you'd like to better understand its importance to Kant, you might wish to skim this passage from the A Deduction...
Necessity is always founded on a transcendental condition. There must, therefore, be a transcendental ground of the unity of consciousness in the synthesis of the manifold of all our intuitions, and therefore also a transcendental ground of the concepts of objects in general, and therefore again of all objects of experience——a transcendental ground without which it would be impossible to think any object for our intuitions. For this object is no more than that something the concept of which expresses such a necessity of synthesis.

This original and transcendental condition is no other than transcendental apperception. Consciousness of oneself according to the determinations of our state in inner perception is merely empirical and always transient. There can be no fixed or permanent self in this stream of inner appearances. It is usually called inner sense, or empirical apperception. What is to be represented necessarily as numerically identical cannot be thought through empirical data. A condition that is to render such a transcendental presupposition valid must be one which precedes all experience and which makes experience itself possible.
...and this passage from the "do-over" B Deduction...
Only because I am able to combine a manifold of given representations in one consciousness is it possible for me to represent to myself the identity of the consciousness in these representations, that is, only under the presupposition of some synthetic unity of apperception is the analytic unity of apperception possible. The thought that the representations given in intuition belong one and all to me, is therefore the same as the thought that I unite them in one self-consciousness, or can at least do so; and although that thought itself is not yet the consciousness of the synthesis of representations, it nevertheless presupposes the possibility of this synthesis. In other words, it is only because I am able to comprehend the manifold of representations in one consciousness that I call them one and all my representations. For otherwise I should have as many-colored and varied a self as I have representations of which I am conscious...

I am conscious, therefore, of the identical self with respect to the manifold of the representations that are given to me in an intuition, because I call them one and all my representations, as constituting one intuition. This means that I am conscious a priori of a necessary synthesis of them, which is called the original synthetic unity of apperception, and under which all representations given to me must stand, but under which they must also be brought by a means of synthesis.
To be flip about it: self-awareness is overrated.

The primeval invention of language facilitated a diversity of ways in which the individual human being could respond to himself as an actor in the world and observe his own internal activity (one requires the conditioned verbal stimulus "I" to formulate the Kantian "I think"), and the cultural shift from tribalism to individualism and literacy amplified the importance the community placed on observing, reporting, and explaining in greater detail the constituents of introspection and "speaker-as-listener" events. As a product of such a social environment, Kant can be expected to place a high premium on self-awareness. But to the reader who's not enthralled by philosophical abstruseness, either version of the Transcendental Deduction amounts to a non-sequitur. 

Kant's distinction between transcendental apperception and empirical apperception contains the supposition of atomistic temporal "frames" comprising the lifeform's experience of itself as such, which is silly. I believe Kant understands this, but he's so invested in combating the "associationism" of eighteenth-century empirical psychology that he mistakenly or deliberately fails to see that a materialist account of a unified self is not impossible. In a "higher" organism such as Homo sapiens, the continuity and coherence of the conscious subject expressed in the "I think" is the epiphenomenon of the continuity and coherence of the organism, whose physical unity is as necessary to and contingent on its subsistence as the unity of Kant's "manifold" is to his thinking and knowing subject.

Let's consider a "lower" organism that is demonstrably incapable of thinking: a hemlock tree. One can "read" an individual Tsuga canadensis as a chronological diagram of perpetual synthesis between genetics and environment in the formation of a unique individual. After all, a genetic clone of a given hemlock would not develop into a perfect copy of the original if placed in an environment that was not absolutely identical to the one in which the first grew (which would anyway be impossible); while genetic variances between two hemlocks growing in the same place, at the same time, at the same elevation, in the same soil, under exposure to the same amount of sunlight, etc. (and not to mention the "accidental" differences in growth caused by such dynamic variables as the activity of animals, fungi, and other flora) will produce divergences in their forms.  

The appearance of the tree, and the variables and processes responsible for particularizing it, are analogous to the behavioral potential of a member of Homo sapiens at any given moment. A lifetime of operating in the world and being changed by those operations has produced an organism that, in simple terms, brings the baggage of its entire lived existence into its every transaction with the environment and with itself. This would be true even if the individual under consideration is one living 150,000 years ago in a pre-verbal social unit more like a pack than a tribe, performs little to no introspective behavior for lack of incentives and training, and lack the language to articulate and respond to himself as the "I" in "I think." In terms of the consistency of how he behaves on a day-to-day basis, he will be observed to possess a definite "self," as will any animal with which we might be acquainted. (Probably we could observe something similar in a living tree, though it would require superhuman feats of patience and attention to detail.)

Giorgio de Chirico, Metaphysical Interior of a Studio (1948)

• The understanding is variously identified with the "mind" as a whole. We will not attempt to redefine it here: the terms in which it is represented in the Critique are too dispersed and often fungible with any number of the other faculties Kant explicates at greater length. In other words, I'm not going to argue with Kant on this point because I'm not really sure what we'd be arguing about. However...


• "As all acts of the understanding can be referred back to judgements," Kant writes, "the understanding in general may be represented as a faculty of judgement." All well and good—but Kant could have done the literate world a solid and defined on the Critique's first page exactly what he meant by the word judgement. When a specific term is so integral to the intelligibility of your overall project, it would seem wise to endeavor to minimize any ambiguity that might surround it. This is one of the problems with an account of human experience or behavior relying on subjective mental events: as epiphenomena are impossible to observe from any remove, lack any measurable dimension, and are difficult to categorize except by arbitrary demarcations, a description relying on them might excellently speak to experience, but they make clumsy materials for extrapolating and articulating the rules of it, as Kant sought to do.

Since I have a bit of a headache as I type this, I propose we consult Plato—that is, let's peer at plato.stanford.edu and see how its editors boil down what "judgement" means to Kant. I am confident they will elucidate this vital topic in clear and parsimonious language, and certainly won't raise more questions than they answer:
...a judgment is a higher-order complex conscious cognition that refers to objects either directly (via the essentially indexical content of intuitions/non-conceptual cognitions) or indirectly (via the essentially attributive or descriptive content of concepts); in which concepts are predicated either of those objects or of other constituent concepts; in which concepts are intrinsically related to one another and to intuitional/non-conceptual cognitions by pure general logical forms/pure concepts of the understanding that express various modifications and, apparently, truth-functional compounds of the predicative copula; which enters into inferences according to a priori laws of pure general logic; which essentially involves both the following of rules and the application of rules to the perceptual objects picked out by intuition/non-conceptual cognition; and in which a composite objective representation is generated and unified by the higher-order executive mental processing of a single self-conscious rational subject. The crucial take-away points here are (a) a judgment’s referential bottoming-out in intuitions/non-conceptual cognitions, which thereby constitute directly-referential singular terms in singular categorical judgments, that cannot be semantically replaced by individual concepts or definite descriptions without change or loss of meaning (contrast, e.g., Thompson 1972 and Hanna 2001, ch. 4), (b) the “privileging of predication” (Longuenesse 1998, 104) over other sorts of logical operations, (c) the intrinsic logico-syntactic and logico-semantic form of the judgment, based on modifications or compound truth-functional relations of the predicative copula, (d) the rule-like character of the judgment, (e) the judgment’s unified conscious objective representational (i.e., semantic) content, and above all (f) its higher-order rationally self-conscious ground of objective unity.
Huh.

I feel that here it may be appropriate to refer back to Kant's Introduction to Logic:
Importance must not be confounded with difficulty. A cognition may be difficult without being important, and vice versa. Difficulty, therefore, does not decide either for or against the value and importance of a cognition. This depends on the magnitude or the number of its consequences....A knowledge without important consequences is called a mere subtilty. Such was, for instance, the scholastic philosophy.
The reason I'm harping on biological and behavioral alternatives to the Kantian scheme is because they belong to a more generally applicable framework for viewing the world, and reassembling Kant's ideas in such terms may make them a little more consequential (at least for me) and a little less academic.

Anyway.

Kant's interpretation of how our mental faculties arrange and combine representations isn't without merit, since even a behavioristic account is forced to use vague terms when an objective observation of the corresponding bodily processes requires laboratory instruments, and the information yielded in such an experiment won't be so detailed as to replicate what a subject "sees" when he hears a word spoken. The sequence of self-generated stimuli involved in a "speaker as listener" event (in which the subject verbally stimulates himself without speaking), the covert behavior of "problem solving," and the conditioning of new responses to stimuli experienced through conditioned seeing must either be explained through Scholasticistic models derived from introspection, which are incompatible with the framework of materialism, or employ terms that are compatible with the scheme of physical science, but expressed vaguely. Neither is ideal, but I'm inclined to prefer the latter.

One could write a PhD thesis on the reconcilability of Kantian cognitive theory with contemporary neuroscience; I have neither the expertise or the resources to explore that topic. But I can offer the simple opinion of a layman, with the caveat that I may not know what I'm talking about.

Logical behavior of the kind Kant describes in speaking of judgements as the combination and "testing" of representations is as empirically visible in the actions of a hungry lab rat that must select and press buttons of certain shapes in a certain order to receive food as in the university student who must deduce the proposition K  L K from a set of axioms on a midterm test. What the student does in the private act of problem solving stands at no qualitative variance from any event wherein a number of conditioned stimuli simultaneously elicit incompatible responses in an organism until one eventually prevails. In contrast to the button-pressing rat, which receives positive reinforcement or no reinforcement from its environment, the student working on an examination problem is subject to self-generated stimulation as he "tests" his current arrangement of symbols or his next potential operation on them. (We presume that over the course of his education, he has been conditioned to reject both arrangements of symbols that don't meet certain criteria, and operations that don't adhere to established rules, similarly to how he has also been trained to respond aversively to particular words when they are spoken in particular social contexts.)

The basic point is that the provenance of judgement is to be searched for in the animal body, not in the human mind. In reifying the judgement as a thing instead of an event, Kant negates the act's temporal dimension, reducing it to an insubstantial abstraction, when it would be more fruitfully considered as an increment in the organism's continuous activity, with determinants and consequences. What Kant got right, however, was his assertion that our "higher" thought (such as involves abstraction and highly differentiated conditioned responses to verbal patterns) is built over the substratum of Homo sapiens' "hardwired" endowments, which determine the range of stimuli to which we are receptive, the ways in which we receive them, and the immediate, "raw" effects of their reception—not to mention the ways in which the human organism operates upon and changes itself through its under-the-skin actions. These are the material bases of the Kantian schema and synthetic a priori judgement. Fair to say his interpretation of the cause was muddled, but he was quite lucid with regard to the effect.

That Kant managed to arrive at this territory with only introspection, anthropocentric mentalism, and eighteenth-century propositional logic to guide him is an absolutely staggering achievement.

Giorgio de Chirico, The Enigma of the Hour (1911)

That's all I have the energy for now. Later on, I'll attempt to examine Kant's transcendental ideas, try to better understand the nuts and bolts of his reasoning, and return at last to the question of mathematical objects.

But first, something fun and pointless.


1. Out of fashion among the educated public, I should say: the tech and entertainment industries are making a killing using Skinner as a how-to manual.

2. In the following passage, Kant waxes equivocal on the reasoning mind's supernatural independence from the contingency to which everything outside of one's head is subject:
Now supposing one could say that reason possesses causality in reference to appearances: could the action of reason be called free in that case, when it is precisely determined by the empirical character of reason (way of sensing) and rendered necessary by it? That character in turn is determined in the intelligible character (way of thinking). The latter, however, we do not know, but we indicate it only by means of appearances, which really yield us immediate knowledge only of the way of sensing (empirical character). An action, insofar as it is to be attributed to the way of thinking as its cause, nevertheless does not result from it according to empirical laws, that is, it is not preceded by the conditions of pure reason, but only by their effects in appearance of inner sense. Pure reason, as a merely intelligible faculty, is not subject to the form of time, or to the conditions of the succession of time. The causality of reason in its intelligible character does not arise or begin at a certain time in order to produce an effect; for in that case it would be subject to the natural law of appearances, which determines all causal series in time, and its causality would then be nature and not freedom. Hence what we can say is that if reason can possess causality with regard to appearances, then it is a faculty through which the sensible conditions of an empirical series of effects first begins. For the condition that lies in reason is not sensible, and therefore does not itself begin. Thus we get what we did not find in all empirical series, namely, that the condition of of a successive series of events can itself be empirically unconditioned. For here the condition is outside the series of appearances (namely, in the intelligible), and therefore is not subject to any sensible condition, nor to any determination of time through a preceding cause.
3. Image from A. Mark Smith, "Picturing the Mind: The Representation of Thought in the Middle Ages and Renaissance." Philosophical Topics, Vol. 20 No. 2, Fall 1992. (Yes, I just happened to have this on hand. Medieval philosophy is a hell of a rabbit hole.)

4. On "organ systems:" these too are abstractions. They are eminently useful ones, and wonderfully precise in terms of their practical applications (such as in medicine), but the demarcation between the circulatory and respiratory systems is literally academic.

5. In an experiment with his pigeons, Dr. Skinner may treat the act of pecking at a round blue button as a single response. When he does so, he is aware that he is simplifying a physiological process involving more neurons and muscle fibers than he could hope to count, and each temporal instant in which the "main" response occurs is itself a response to or result of the previous instant in the continuous organic state-change he is observing. For experimental purposes, however, something has to be quantified, and its instances of occurrence must be observable and unambiguous.

6. An alternative view of the concept, from BF Skinner's Verbal Behavior (1957):
We may summarize this analysis of traditional problems of reference by noting the relevance of certain traditional terms. The fact that a verbal response conditioned in the presence of a given stimulus is found to show some strength in the presence of another stimulus showing some of the properties of the first is often called Generalization. In both psychological and logical analyses a special activity on the part of the speaker is often assumed. But Generalization, like Metaphor, is merely a characteristic of stimulus control. The more precise control established by the community in Abstraction has sometimes caused this term to be applied to (1) the history of reinforcement producing the desired result, (2) the resulting response, and (3) the controlling property of stimuli. The term Concept Formation, taken over originally from logic and epistemology, has been applied to essentially the same process. Here Formation carries the sense of (1) but Concept continues to show (2) and (3). On the continuum extending from proper names to minimal abstract tacts, terms at the latter end have often been called Universals. In general, as we proceed along this continuum away from the proper name, the referent grows more difficult to identify. How we represent the ultimate controlling relation is often a matter of taste. In the present analysis we have spoken of defining properties and of classes of stimuli, and in casual discourse we can name these controlling concepts with suffixes such as "redness," "pyramidality," and so on. In a more sophisticated sense, we may speak of properties common to many instances as concepts, abstractions, universals, notions, and so on, as long as we keep the actual process of demonstration in mind. This is also the point at which the term "idea" might be revived for use through an operational definition.
7. Again, from Skinner's Verbal Behavior, touching on epiphenomena:
Part of the behavior of an organism becomes in turn one of the variables controlling another part. There are at least two systems of responses, one based upon the other. The upper level can only be understood in terms of its relation to the lower. The notion of an inner self is an effort to represent the fact that when behavior is compounded in this way, the upper system seems to guide or alter the lower. But the controlling system itself is also behavior. The speaker may "know what he is saying" in the sense which he "knows" any part or feature of the environment. Some of his behavior ("the known") serves as a variable in control of other parts ("knowing"). Such "propositional attitudes" attitudes as assertion, negation, and quantification, the design achieved through reviewing and rejecting or emitting responses, the generation of quantities of verbal behavior merely as such, and the highly complex manipulations of verbal thinking can all...be analyzed in terms of behavior which is evoked by or acts upon other behavior of the speaker.

8. The "two vocabularies" issue has been a persistent problem for behaviorism: the Skinnerian uses one language to speak casually of his inner state and of the motivations of others, and a totally different one when speaking technically of them. For a doctrine that sought a unification of discourse, this is admittedly a dismal failing.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not a big fan of reading about ethics but I just wanted to let you know that I love your old work on SMPS and that I sent you an email a little while ago. Hope you're doing well!

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