All Your Philosophical Problems are Belong to Us: Wittgenstein Shows Philosophy the DoorPosted: January 29, 2013
So, I’ve been a bit obsessed with Wittgenstein lately. Once you understand the guy’s arguments, though, it’s pretty hard to shake them. There are no philosophical problems, we find, only empirical, aesthetic/moral (not moral philosophy, mind you), and logical ones.
The gist of his thinking is that the meaning of most words are determined by human behavior. Some words are not. We are tempted into believe that words that are determined by human behavior are like those words that are not. Take, for example, the classic “is my color red the same as your color red” problem. He shows us that the phrase “my color red” is nonsense, as in it doesn’t mean anything, like the word shnibble. The concept is simply not something that we can speak about, as “my experience of the color red” has no shared referant to ground the communication. We fall victim to the illusion because the grammar of the word “red” is like the word “chair,” but, alas, common grammar means nothing for our purposes. For more, check the Mark Alford website (a physicist whose website I have been reading compulsively in a desparate attempt to understand quantum mechanics) out or this alternately annoying and hilarious (as per the usual) David Foster Wallace essay.
Philosophical debates about “free will” are also silly, he shows us. There are as many ways of showing this as there are ways of discussing “free will,” but I’ll give you a couple of examples. Start with the idea of “willing that you move your leg.” You may feel free to even actually move your leg as you read in order to facilitate comprehension, but you’ll probably just feel like an idiot when you’re done. Can you say that you “decided” to move your leg, ergo you have free will? Why can’t that “decision” itself have been an inevitable mechanical response to the stimulus of a very dry blog post? The “will” present was just the set of mechanical steps that took place leading you to move your leg. “Well,” you might say,” I realized that I would feel like an idiot afterwards and ‘decided’ not to do it.” So what? Why can’t the mechanical process of deliberating and “deciding” also be pre-determined? What if Sam Harris tells you that the “decision” was made before you “experienced” it? Does this mean that there was no “decision” in the sense that we commonly use the phrase? Are all “decisions” really the same? You might say that the “experience” of a decision has to instantaneously coincide with the pivotal point in which it is made. This is also a useless distinction, but I’ve ineffectively harped on about “free will” enough to move on to the related concept of identify, “I”, or self.
His criticism of the concept of “I” are related to the “free will” thing. We use “I/me” and various other identity formulations for a bunch of loosely related communicative purposes, he says, and this bamboozles us into believing that there is some “I” like a little man inside of us that does all of the thinking and perceiving. (“I think therefore I am,” anyone?). Really, “I” am nothing more than just an amalgamation of mechanical processes without any overarching conceptual consistency, or at least without any conceptual consistency that can be meaningfully explored by way of philosophy.
Accordingly, the “hard problem” of consciousness, for him, doesn’t exist. The hard problem, in short, is the question of how our sense data is turned into the experience thereof. If you’ve followed me so far, you understand that Ludwig thinks this is nothing more than the grammar of our language getting the better of us. As he asks in Section 412 of the philosophical investigations, “But what can it mean to speak of “turning my attention on to my own consciousness”? This is surely the queerest thing there could be!” Queer indeed, Ludwig, queer in….deed.
Sure there is something there (as there is something there when we see a red color wavelenth or investigate mathematical/scientific determinism) but it can only be meaningfully discussed scientifically. So, suck it David Chalmers, he might say if he were around today. He probably wouldn’t say that, but he would probably suggest that he cut his hair.
People, professional philosopher-types included, make all sorts of blatantly wrong claims about him. For example, someone tells you that he is a linguistic determinist or that he doesn’t believe that neuroscience is a useful discipline, don’t believe them. He, like he says, “leaves everything as it is,” except for the arguments of philosophers about nonsense concepts.
For those so inclined, here are the Philosophical Investigations.