Re: MD Rhetoric

From: Matt Kundert (
Date: Wed Nov 09 2005 - 00:04:34 GMT

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    I'm afraid I'm going to have to let you continue to speculate as to why I
    want to "give up" on the conversation. I mean, I've given my reasons:
    arguments at this point are fairly useless (which you seem to understand in
    some sense), we've been at it a while so why not give it a rest for a bit,
    we've gone in a circle and I have nothing new to say, you don't like the
    face I put on for the MD, I don't like your's, etc. I even said where I
    think we'd have to focus to move forward, i.e. making explicit our implicit
    potted genealogies of philosophy, but you don't want to do that, which makes
    predictable sense given the philosophical stance I think you've taken.

    You think "we've actually made some progress" (which I can agree with to a
    certain extent) by figuring out where we'll disagree. But maybe the reason
    I'm tired after reaching this point is because I've been circling this same
    point for at least two years as the point that we'll probably disagree, and
    I've been fielding arguments and such designed to address that point for the
    same length. My claim for some time about Pirsig has been, "I think Pirsig
    sounds like an essentialist and a pragmatist. Here's where he sounds like
    an essentialist ______ , here's where he sounds like a pragmatist ______ .
    I'm not sure which he is at heart, which he'd give up if pressed (I suspect
    essentialism if pressed by a skeptic, pragmatism if pressed by a relativist,
    but that still doesn't help when figuring out which he is at heart), but as
    far as I can see you can't put the two together. _If_ he is an
    essentialist, _if_ we _treat_ him as an essentialist (which looks like this
    _____ ), then I would say this about that...(with the bringing out of
    appropriate arguments and passages from Pirsig himself)." To my mind,
    you've outed yourself as an essentialist. And I've deployed a lot of
    arguments already. So until I can think of something new to deploy to help
    you understand what the problem is, I have nothing else really to say but
    what I've already said. Which I'll say again.

    DMB said:
    I guess I still don't understand the point or purpose of talking about
    "vocabularies".... Until then, if its within your capabilities, I'd ask you
    to either explain it or give it up and instead use concepts that make sense
    to the average person.

    I asked my girlfriend if she understood the basic gist if I opposed "the
    vocabulary of common sense" to "the vocabulary of physics." She thought
    about it briefly, and said, "Yeah, its like the difference between a
    specialist's terminology and the way we talk normally." I asked her if she
    could think of an example of the difference between those two vocabularies.
    She thought again, but couldn't really think of anything, so I coached her,
    "Well, how about the difference between calling _that_," and I pointed at
    her chair, "a _chair_ and calling it a cloud of electrons?" She said, yeah,
    that makes sense.

    The point is that using the "vocabulary vocabulary" is the same as using the
    vocabulary of common sense or the vocabulary of physics. It takes practice,
    you need to be taught it, just like any other language. It took her five
    minutes to understand what I meant by "vocabulary." When I first was
    reading Rorty, it took me about two tries to understand what he prima facie
    meant by "vocabulary." I told my girlfriend, though, that there may yet be
    philosophical problems with splitting a difference between "common sense"
    and "physics." So there may be. But she understood what I meant. So I'll
    give you three more examples before I quit trying to coach you. One, the
    difference between the vocabulary of common sense and the vocabulary of
    physics is the difference between calling it a "chair" and a "cloud of
    electrons." Two, the difference between the vocabulary of physicalism and
    Pirsig's vocabulary of pre-conditional valuation is the difference between
    saying "A causes B" and "B values precondition A." The chair/cloud of
    electrons doesn't care whether you call it a "chair" or "cloud of electrons"
    and neither does A nor B care whether you say one causes the other or one
    values the precondition of the other. Third (and here's where things get a
    little more interesting), the difference between the vocabulary of Christian
    mysticism and that of Buddhist mysticism is that in the former their
    descriptions of the mystical experience use the word "God" a lot and in the
    latter their descriptions use "Nothingness" or "Emptiness."

    DMB said:
    Firstly, I do not see how the neurological explanation can be seen as
    anything other than reductionist, which I thought you were opposed to. Can
    you explain how such a description escapes from reductionism?

    I can't help your imagination here, DMB. This is all I got, from before: "A
    description is only reductionistic if it adds, after the details of the
    description, 'this is how things really are.' This is not how non-reductive
    physicalists describe things. They say, 'Here's a description of a table in
    terms of molecules' or 'Here's a description of an experience in terms of
    firing neurons.'" In the sense of "reductionism" you are using (where you
    can't see how a neurological explanation could _not_ be reductionistic) a
    neurological explanation is as reductionistic as your mystical explanation.
    But that means every explanation and description is as reductionistic as any
    other. There's a point there (about the malleability of language and the
    wealth of imagination human civilization has shown), but that's not what I'm
    talk about. In my sense of "reductionism," _by itself_ neurology is as
    reductionistic as mysticism, which is to say they _aren't_ reductionistic
    _unless_ they add on "this is how things really are." I'm not saying that
    and neither are you, though your anti-reductionism, I should argue, takes on
    a bad form.

    But even if you do come to appreciate that point, you still want to argue
    that at least some experiences cannot be redescribed into different terms.
    Your response is, "Let's say the mystical experience, as it is described by
    the one who experienced it, is description A and the same event, when its
    put in physiological-neurological terms, is description B. What's actually
    going on here is NOT two different ways to describe one experience." This
    is the typical phenomenological standpoint, roughly the same thing
    philosophers of the mind who believe in qualia, like Searle, would say. But
    that misses the force of the non-reductive position. As you point out, the
    mystical experience is under a description, description A. Rorty suggested
    40 years ago, in his seminal paper "Mind-Brain Identity, Privacy, and
    Categories" (the same paper that talks about the problems of using the
    epithet "category mistake"), that if we agree that experiences come under
    descriptions, then we should agree that we are taught what descriptions to
    give to what experiences--that that is the effect of being taught a language
    (when we are babies and such). Rorty's radical suggestion was that we could
    be taught to describe the mystical experience as description B, that
    description B could be our first-person description of our experience. He
    didn't suggest this to suggest that phenomenal descriptions were false, but
    that, because it was possible that we be taught a different way to describe
    things, that experiences don't come with pre-attached descriptions.

    I see you as arguing that (at least some) experiences do come with
    pre-attached descriptions, which is why I still see you as insisting upon a
    certain description of the mystical experience. I see the idea of
    pre-attached descriptions as a remenant of SOM, of thinking that the world,
    our experiences, can tell us the way they should be described.

    When you say that "Even if we could somehow get the mystic to be a scientist
    who could somehow observe the tissues of her brain even while having a
    mystical experience, we would still be talking about a multi-tasker. We
    would still be talking about two entirely different experiences," I
    understand your point, but its the same point I was making by saying that
    our descriptions are embedded in traditions of discourse, that its these
    contexts that determine the truth and validity of statements. In a sense,
    they are different experiences, but its the same sense as saying that, after
    accepting the MoQ, we live in a different world (something like what Bo has
    been saying). I'm inclined to say, "Well, yes, but not all that much has
    changed." Our descriptions do make up the world we live in, but we do live
    in the same world. You say that the experiences are entirely different, but
    I'm inclined to say, "Well, they are certainly different, because they are
    described differently, but the event they are describing was the same

    In a sense, I am talking about a "multi-tasker," but it seems to me that if
    one admits the possibility of multi-tasking, one would be willing to drop
    the notion of "entirely different experiences." They are different
    experiences, but they are of the same event (almost) irrespective of the
    descriptions we use (events, of course, are under descriptions, but the
    lowest common denominator between events is a thin spatiotemporal (or at the
    least, temporal) description). If you don't distinguish between
    different-experiences-yet-same-event, then you seem to be forced to say that
    there were two entirely different car crashes between the description by the
    guy in it (in terms of pain and such) and by the police investigator
    figuring out what happened to the car (in terms of glass, metal, bones and
    tissues). You're not saying that, though, but neither am I saying that you
    _have_ to describe a mystical experience (or _any_ experience) in terms of
    physiology. You say that describing a car crash in terms of smashed glass
    and crunching metal wouldn't explain "what its like to be in a car
    accident," but I'm not saying it would. To explain "what its like" you use
    a first-person vocabulary. But I am saying that describing in terms metal
    and glass and vectors and acceleration would be a description of the same
    accident and your choice of description depends only on which one is more
    useful for your purpose. I'm not saying that mystical experiences can
    _only_ be described in terms of neurology, I'm saying they can be, just as a
    table can be described as a "table" or as a "cloud of electrons." Which
    description we choose depends on what we are trying to do.

    This was the point of my talk about demons and witchdoctors from September
    15th. I said to you there that "Telling me that a mystical experience is
    only correctly described in the way that you tell me (voicing the tradition
    of mysticism), and that I'm blind to it otherwise, is like a witchdoctor
    telling us that the demons he sees surrounding a sick person (differently
    colored demons corresponding to the different kinds of mushrooms that'll
    cure the patient) can only be correctly described _as_ demons, in the way he
    and his tradition tells us. Otherwise we are blind to demons." The
    witchdoctor insists that unless you talk about demons, you aren't getting
    him right, you don't understand his experience, that neurons-talk is of a
    different experience then demon-talk. The bind is that we can accept that
    point. We aren't getting him right. But now we want to know why we _need_
    to get him right. If all that is hanging in the balance is getting him and
    his culture right, then we can hope our anthropologists do a good job. But
    if there is greater predictive power hanging in the balance, then our
    biochemists need to take an interest. Or if there's something else hanging
    in the balance, we'd like to know what it is and how we can be careful to
    preserve it. The stick is that in preserving it, we aren't likely going to
    take any evolutionary steps backwards to do it. We probably aren't going to
    preserve demon-talk because there doesn't seem to be much up-shot to it. We
    aren't going to preserve radical Islamic fundamentalism because they oppress
    women (not to mention that some of them like to blow stuff up).

    When it comes to mysticism I do think our culture will preserve it. But I
    don't think it will become preserved with a notion of "pre-intellectual
    experience," at least not one that looks something like the one you've been
    describing to me. I would predict that mysticism will evolve out of it
    because Western philosophers, following William James who said that the
    trail of the human serpent covers all (which he says in the same lecture
    that begins with the squirrel story that Pirsig talks about), have become
    very wary of trying to separate the human from the non-human, which is what
    I think a lot of your talk eventually hinges on.

    DMB said:
    You know when I will believe that there is no blindspot? When you give me
    some reason to believe that you actually can see the idea I've been trying
    so desperately to get you to see. Like I said before, you don't have to
    agree with it or like it or anything. I just what you to comprehend what
    I'm trying to say.

    Well, now you've totally taken all the sting out of your epithet and it
    seems silly to use it. Using "blindspot" in this sense is just saying that
    I have a gap in my knowledge base, in what I'm familiar with. But that's
    like me saying that you have a blindspot to contemporary Western philosophy
    (or more), both of us (probably) have a blindspot to the rules of cricket,
    most people (except the fair people at Oscar Meyer) have a blindspot when it
    comes to making hot dogs, and _everybody_ has a blindspot when it comes to
    what its like to be a tiger (since "what its like" requires us to adopt the
    first-person viewpoint and no one can ever do that). The trouble with your
    epithet now is that I've never claimed to be familiar with Eastern
    philosophy or mysticism. I've always acknowledged the fact that this is an
    area I'm lacking in. And I know that to gain a fuller understanding of what
    Pirsig is up to I will have to broaden my grasp of Eastern philosophy. I've
    never denied that either. However, just as much as I do agree that, to have
    a good grasp on what Pirsig is doing, you need to know some Buddhism, I also
    think its obvious that people need to know some Western philosophy. I'm
    mining one vein in Pirsig, but there are many others. I don't think I'm
    mucking up the other veins, but as much as you think that my mining of the
    Western philosophical angle has led me to distort Pirsig, I think you're
    distorting Pirsig because you neglect it.

    DMB said:
    And the lack of deviation from this "vocabulary" talk seems to entail a
    strange sort of preformative contradiction. I mean, if you have an array of
    vocabularies available and can select the right one for the right occasion,
    then why oh why can't you use one that won't confuse and frustrate the hell
    out of me. Why oh why don't use one that I can actually understand?

    Oh silly, that doesn't follow. If it did, then you wouldn't be able to say
    that I need to learn some Buddhism. Just because a person doesn't know a
    vocabulary doesn't mean that the vocab they don't know still isn't the best
    one for the job. It just means they don't know it. Just because you don't
    own a hammer doesn't mean that a hammer wouldn't work better then a crowbar.

    DMB said in his other little post:
    You and Rorty want to "restrict" what counts as valid in a way that seems
    very UN-pragmatic.

    Nah, that's just a premature judgment on your part because you admittedly
    don't understand what I'm talking about. My talk about validity being
    contextualized in traditions ("traditions" being another very simple idea
    you don't understand) is part of the move against a theory/practice
    distinction that you seem to want to get out from under, too. I just don't
    think you've made it yet.


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