skip to Main Content

The Reflexive Problem in Analytic Philosophy: Illogical Logicians

On some topics, most analytic philosophers embrace assertions that involve gross violations of logic and common sense. For instance, determinism is either accepted as true, or it is at least taken to be a perfectly likely and reasonable position despite the fact that the logical problems of arguing for determinism can be explained to an uninitiated class of undergraduates in about three minutes. Possibly the most extreme and ridiculous idea commonly accepted, or at least regarded as a perfectly reasonable proposition, is the notion that consciousness does not exist. There seems to be more than one reason for this puzzling state of affairs.

Analytic philosophy devotes itself to the logical analysis of arguments and to trying to define each word in the name of precision, accuracy and disambiguation. The analytic philosopher stares at a piece of paper or a computer monitor and tries to assess things like validity, entailment and soundness. The situation is comparable to the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator category called “sensate.” The sensate person is the one who describes and comments on what is present in front of his nose. This is contrasted with the “intuitive” category in which a person focuses more on context, and thus, meaning.

If presented with a clock, the sensate person would describe the clock in detail – noting its weight, its mechanism, its appearance, the materials from which the clock is made, etc.. The intuitive person in the same situation notes the function, meaning and implications of the clock. The intuitive person notes that the existence of a mass-produced clock, if such is the case, implies the existence of an industrial or post-industrial society. The clock, which measures minutes and perhaps even seconds, implies a society concerned with the precise measurement of time. This points to a fairly regimented and coordinated social organization such as when people show up for classes or for work and when the class and work ends. The intuitive person may never pay much attention to the physical qualities of the clock since these are largely irrelevant to the clock’s meaning and function, except for the implications concerning its manufacture.

All people of normal intelligence are capable of taking both sensate and intuitive points of view. However, analytic philosophy definitely emphasizes the sensate. It is similar to formalism in literature and painting in this regard. Formalism confines itself to the study of what appears between the covers of a book and within the frame of a painting. Authorial and painterly intent and other extra-textual considerations are purposefully omitted. To someone naturally inclined to the contextual or holistic point of view, analytic philosophy often seems to ask the wrong questions and to emphasize odd features of what is analyzed, taking all the interest out of a subject.

The sensate perspective has certain advantages. It is particularly suitable for considering items in their uniqueness and individuality. The holistic perspective tends to skip immediately to implications and the invisible features of an item; its meaning, function and purpose which are all related to context. Arthur Koestler’s concept of a holon is a way of marrying the two perspectives since holons are items considered as being a whole, an individual, and as a part; a part of larger system or context.

The almost exclusive preoccupation with the sensate perspective seems to contribute to the strangeness of views popular among analytic philosophers. The concept of a performative contradiction is mostly foreign to them. The reason for this seems to be that the sensate perspective omits reflexive implications. This is because in studying an argument in front of one’s nose, what is behind one’s nose is specifically left out.

So, analytic philosophers can see that a statement like ‘there is no truth,’ or ‘this sentence is false,’ involves a contradiction in the first case and a paradox in the second. But they appear incapable of acknowledging that determinism as a philosophical position has similar problems or the performative contradiction of the popular view that consciousness does not exist.

Francis Crick’s “astonishing hypothesis” is quite typical of the thought of an analytic philosopher – “‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” (Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, 1994, p. 3)

Considered in isolation, as words on a page, Crick’s assertion does not seem contradictory. The contradiction arises reflexively, between the person making the assertion or reading the assertion and the argument. The argument has reflexive implications concerning the person making the assertions – namely, that if these assertions are true, then it is also true of the person making these assertions and these assertions are also “no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

Performative contradictions arise when the person making an assertion or giving an argument is implicated in the argument too. The fact of the contradiction will remain invisible so long as one confines one’s gaze to the words on the page or the monitor. A person must be aware of the reflexive implications – what the argument says about the person examining or making the argument.

A particularly clear case might be the assertion that human reason is incapable of making valid truth claims, or of discovering the truth. Here the performative contradiction is clear. The arguer would be using human reason to provide reasons for thinking that human reason is a useless tool for discovering truth. The more skeptical one is about human reason, the more one invalidates a philosopher’s ability to write anything meaningful about human reason. One is using the very tool that one has discarded as useless. Either the tool is not useless after all, in which case one is wrong, or it is useless and one’s assessment of the tool is worthless. Either way, there is no evidence possible for rejecting human reason as a whole.

So, when Daniel Dennett claims that we are not conscious, it does not bother either him or other philosophers partly because the sensate perspective omits the reflexive implications for the person making the assertion or for the person reading it. How can Daniel Dennett make the assertion if he is not conscious? Where does his theory reside, if not in his mind? And how could a person read and assess this assertion without the benefit of consciousness?

Similarly, determinism is immensely popular with professional philosophers. The fact that one is thereby compelled to argue for determinism and is likewise compelled to accept the arguments does not bother them because they ignore reflexive problems. Only the person who is arguing for free will believes he is able to choose whether he argues for his position or not, or whether he finds the arguments involved plausible or not. The determinist philosopher is a mindless automaton who is even worse than someone blindly following orders, because at least the order follower might notice a discrepancy between what he actually thinks is right and what he is ordered to do.

Philosophers have become quite ingenuous in trying to evade these implications, including redefining rationality itself, or claiming that computers “argue.”

Daniel T. Willingham in “Critical Thinking; Why Is It So Hard to Teach?” (Summer, 2007, American Educator) argues that the notion that critical thinking can be taught as a separate set of skills is false. The concept of “critical thinking” was introduced as a way for liberal arts courses to be presented as useful. The actual content of high school and college classes was said to be irrelevant. It was the critical thinking skills that are transferable between subject matters that the students are really learning and benefiting from. However, Willingham proves that a person cannot think “critically” or reliably well about a topic about which nothing is known. The main reason for this is that “background knowledge,” really just “knowledge,” is necessary to assess plausibility.

More formal experimental work verifies that background knowledge is necessary to reason scientifically. For example, consider devising a research hypothesis. One could generate multiple hypotheses for any given situation. Suppose you know that car A gets better gas mileage than car B and you’d like to know why. There are many differences between the cars, so which will you investigate first? Engine size? Tire pressure? A key determinant of the hypothesis you select is plausibility. You won’t choose to investigate a difference between cars A and B that you think is unlikely to contribute to gas mileage (e.g., paint color), but if someone provides a reason to make this factor more plausible (e.g., the way your teenage son’s driving habits changed after he painted his car red), you are more likely to say that this now-plausible factor should be investigated. One’s judgment about the plausibility of a factor being important is based on one’s knowledge of the domain.

Assessing plausibility is thus a key part of rational evaluation. As stated, ignoring reflexive implications helps the analytic philosopher maintain the fiction that his philosophical positions are rational and reasonable. Another position popular with such philosophers is the computer theory of mind (CTM). Since computers lack consciousness, emotions, love, the capacity for friendship, a conscience or a capacity to appreciate beauty, this idea is ridiculous in the extreme.

CTM might be called the zombie or robot theory of mind. This is of a piece with determinism – that the phenomenology of assessing, deciding, and reflecting and then choosing is an illusion and that really one is being driven by physical deterministic forces.

The people who seem to be most attracted to the zombie theory of mind tend to be those with a strong scientific bent. Since most science is committed to a third person perspective and consciousness can only be perceived directly from a first person perspective that would seem to be part of the explanation.

Another objection is an ad hominem against those philosophers – but it is an ad hominem relevant to their background knowledge and their sense of plausibility. It is frequently the case that people who are extraordinarily gifted in mathematics have a corresponding deficiency in emotional intelligence. This deficiency sometimes contributes to scientists’ attraction to science in the first place, as mentioned by Oliver Sacks in Uncle Tungsten.

Some years ago, after an hour long conversation with a young man who had at the time recently completed a degree in cognitive science, I said that I hoped he did not mind me commenting that he seemed exceptionally low in emotional intelligence. His brother had been listening to our conversation too and during the course of the hour, the faces of both brothers had remained entirely impassive. No smiles, frowns, quizzical looks, etc.. This stone-faced demeanor tends to be the giveaway. Low emotional intelligence means an inability to identify or articulate what one is feeling. This inability also means such people are unable to identify what other people are feeling so that facial expression is of no help to them. Severely autistic people sometimes learn what expressions mean by the use of rule-books but will never become as proficient as someone of normal emotional intelligence.

My observation about the young man’s low emotional intelligence may seem wildly inappropriate and potentially offensive and thus rather unintelligent itself. However, my guess was correct and my interlocutor with no hesitation, betraying no offense whatsoever, immediately replied, “Oh, absolutely.” He then went on to tell me that up until two years ago he did not think emotion existed.

For a normal person, it is rather hard to imagine just how emotionally challenged one would need to be to come to that conclusion. His inability to identify or articulate his emotions or the emotions of others had led him to think that the statement “emotions do not exist” was plausible.

Apparently, when he looks within and considers his subjective experience, there is a gaping hole; a blank, where emotion should be. This means that phenomenologically, his life experience truly does resemble some of the characteristics that might be attributed to a hypothetical robot or zombie. Thus the zombie theory will be considerably more plausible to philosophers with low emotional intelligence and low emotional intelligence is over-represented among Anglo-American philosophers. Such people tend towards symbolic logic and the more technical, less touchy-feely aspects of philosophy and these areas of philosophy even enjoy a special prestige due to their sheer difficulty and technicality – “Gee, you must be smart to do that hard stuff.” And then there is the wide spread acceptance of John Locke’s statement that philosophy is the handmaiden of science with its attendant affinity for logical positivism.

There is one additional factor and that is that most analytic philosophers are atheists and are deeply committed to materialism. In this regard they follow the advice of Screwtape in C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, not to argue directly for their point of view. If arguments are provided, it makes the reader aware that arguments are necessary and the reader may also become aware that alternatives are possible. To simply assume the truth of materialism and make it the undergirding of everything means the topic of materialism is not even raised and thus the truth of materialism is never discussed or questioned.

Denying the existence of consciousness marks the apogee of a consistent materialism. Materialism also seems to imply determinism and thus one finds grown men ignoring all sorts of contradictions and absurdities, all in a good cause. With the incentive of reinforcing materialism, arguments and contradictions are accepted that would result in an F if an undergraduate were to offer them in an essay.

Dennett is delightfully candid when he says:

It is not that I think I can give a knock-down proof that dualism, in all its forms, is false or incoherent, but that, given the way that dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up. (Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained, 1991, p. 37)

This mystery, however, is the truth regarding the relationship of consciousness to matter. We have no idea whatsoever how brain activity could give rise to consciousness and subjectivity.

For the non-analytic philosopher nonetheless educated in that style of philosophy, there is a special piquant pain associated with being told that logic and analysis are the key to good thinking, while watching analytic philosophers embrace absurdities and contradictions with smiling nonchalance. But the charge of hypocrisy requires acknowledging reflexive implications. Merely analyzing arguments and sticking with what is in front of one’s nose by definition will mean that one never considers the argumentative consequences for what lies behind that nose.

Originally published:

Richard Cocks

Richard Cocks is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and has been a faculty member of the Philosophy Department at SUNY Oswego since 2001. Dr. Cocks is an editor and regular contributor at the Orthosphere and has been published at The Brussels Journal, The Sydney Traditionalist Forum, People of Shambhala, The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal and the University Bookman.

Back To Top