Metaethics Confronts the World Knot (Part I)


Violent imagery from fantasy fiction included in order to turn this barren subject into something more compelling

The World Knot and its Place in Philosophy

The World Knot. A cursory Google search reveals that this imposing phrase was designed and marshaled by Arthur Schopenhauer to refer to the mind-body problem. Except that it wasn't. It's another minor contemporary philosophical myth, one of those false etymological origin stories we unconsciously reproduce again and again by inertia as if they were acknowledged truth. Notwithstanding, as my witty and sharp-minded professor Mário Guerreiro used to paraphrase, se non è vero, è ben trovato (from Italian; something like "even if it is not true, it is a good story"). The phrase 'World Knot' does a fairly good job at suggesting imagery of the muddled state of affairs that is the relationship between the mental and the non-mental.

The World Knot needs to be unsnarled if we are to make progress in many perennial questions. In this mysterious juncture we strive to find explananda, relata and other significative connections required to bring light to central problems in philosophy.

This World Knot is something we are constantly revisiting. And this is absolutely true concerning moral agents such as ourselves conducting foundational work on ethics. This is where Metaethics meets Philosophy of Mind.

In my previous entry on the subject, I've made a number of bold claims. I will reiterate a couple of them:

  • Contemporary analytic metaethics is ontologically committed to two types of existents - subjective and objective existents
  • Subjective existents are in some sense metaphysically "inferior", they exist only in virtue of there being prior objective existents
  • Subjective existents do a poor job at grounding normativity. If any ethical subjectivism is true, this is supposed to be very bad news
  • But what in the Seven Hells objectivity and subjectivity really are? What do they consist in, how do they differ?

    I will not present an exhaustive exposition of this severely tangled issue. I will, however, expose a number of auxiliary these of varying degrees of conceptual depth which, conjointly, I'll use in the attempt to grasp this distinction more clearly.

    Representation, Mind and Ontological Dependence

    Empiricist metaethicist Jesse Prinz has, in my view, presented the most painstakingly clear and detailed discussion [1] of the meaning of 'objectivity' in the field of metaethics and how it relates to minds in the Chapter 4 of his The Emotional Construction of Morals.

    At the risk of being unfair and too coarse-grained, I'll single out and discuss the two relevant ontic senses of 'objectivity' mentioned by Prinz; objectivity as mind-independence and objectivity as unrepresentedness, i.e., the property of not being represented.

    Tradition from Franz Brentano tells us that the 'mental' is the intentional. The intentional is the representational, that which is about something. But is the converse true, i.e., is the intentional the mental as well, is this a case of co-extension? That doesn't seem plausible at all. As an example, if any realist theory of computational implementation holds true (as I also claim), the domain of the 'intentional' is going to be very wide. It can get much worse; if certain varieties of pancomputationalism were to be true (I hold that this is extremely unlikely but this has been seriously considered by top-notch researchers such as the late theoretical physicist John Wheeler and the theoretical computer scientist Gregory Chaitin) then the entirety of empirical reality would consist of representation and that would mean automatic panpsychism.

    Given this cautionary tale, let's ditch objectivity as the "unrepresented" and venture further on what it means for something to be "mind-independent".

    'Mind-dependence' (and independence) is an asymmetrical relation of ontological dependence. But what counts as a mind and what does it mean to say that something is ontologically dependent to a mind?

    Letting go the Brentanian saying, attempts to individuate the "mental" are still very hard. Are image schemata 'mental' enough? What about implicit memory? Or, for Seven Heaven's sake, the control system for blood glucose? Also, perhaps it is the case that not the entire scope of mentality is apt for metaethics so we may only need to be concerned with a narrow portion of "the mental".

    Let's tentatively single out only psychological states that may have at least a proxy influence by the role they may play in moral judgement. That sounds fair enough. Resorting to intentional systems theory [2], a fauna comprised by beliefs, desires, intentions, urges, feelings and similar patterns specified by folk psychology emerges and seem apt enough. Enough for what counts as a mental state and a mind; a mind, an intentional system, a real pattern tractable exclusively through the adoption of the intentional stance. We will deem whatever entity whose epistemic access requires the intentional stance a "mental" thing.

    So, we now have our catalogue of mental things. How do subjective things relate to mental things? What is the relation involved?

    There are many possibilities. Prinz goes for a weaker kind of ontological dependence, supervenience over human psychology. One can also lean forward something stronger, like Michael Huemer [3] and go for an ontological relation of constitution. In this sense, moral posits (moral actions, facts, etc) in some way include intentional states, then they are subjective.

    I think the situation is not clear enough for us to devise a more fine-grained depiction of which is the relevant sense of ontological dependence so we'll have to go along with a sketchy coalition comprised by both our reflected and unexamined intuitions and traditions and steadily revise the details as we march forward.

    I'm interested at how this sketchy exposition matches some existing conceptions of the objectivity-subjectivity distinction. To start this series, I'll resort to a famous framework devised by philosopher John Searle.

    Brute and Institutional Facts

    This section is comprised by my personal exegesis of Searle's opus The Construction Of Social Reality [4]. I shall not go into exhaustive depth but hopefully I've gotten all the relevant details right.

    The kind of existents (posits) Searle is mostly interested in are facts. Facts for Searle are understood in a very customary way; facts are the truthmakers of true statements.

    Brute facts are a type of objective existent and institutional facts are a type of subjective existent. Brute facts are facts that do not depend on human institutions for their existence and institutional facts are those that do.

    Lets get more specific on what this means.

    Searle's taxonomy is actually much more intricate and multi-layered. At the base level, there are mental and non-mental (what he dubiously calls "brute physical") facts. The priority of brute facts over institutional facts is not only ontological but logical.

    Searle is famous for rejecting the Bentramian maxim as a criteria of individuation for "the mental". But since the mental phenomena he deploys for the grounding of institutional facts are generally beliefs and certain kinds of utterances this won't be a problem for our discussion for they fit our established repertoire of what counts as a mental entity.

    From the primacy of the ontological ladder upward, institutional facts are first mental and then intentional, collective, functional, agentive and status-conferring.

    Institutional facts are "collective" in their dependence of collective intentionality, that is, a special kind of co-occurrence of the intentional states of at least two intentional agents generally coordinated by particular speech acts. They require agreements or endorsements, be they tacit or straightforward, between at least two intentional agents. In Searle's terminology, the collective is also the social.

    Institutional facts are also "functional" in that they involve the collective assignment of a function to a certain entity.

    And they are "agentive" because the functions attributed are intended, that is, they require a willful deliberation by intentional agents. Agentive functions are therefore contrasted with what many philosophers call "natural" functions - such as the the job carried out by the blood glucose control system which, if working properly, will chemically "warn" the central nervous system once blood glucose levels are about to compromise the organism's homeostasis. In this, Searle draws a crisp line between the "natural" and the "artificial" or "man-made". I find this contention to be extremely problematic but shall not utter here my reasons of why I believe this is false.

    The last property that defines institutional facts, that of being "status-conferring", requires a bit more explanation. Head with me with the following example:


    It is a fact that Ice, the Valyrian steel greatsword of Lord Eddard Stark, has the function to behead deserters from the Night's Watch (or any other human being, for the matter).

    For Searle, it is clear that this fact is an agentive fact for Ice is an artifact, a sword that was forged, that was deliberately created by blacksmiths in Ancient Valyria. But this fact is not a brute fact - although it is related to brute facts in special ways.

    The function that confers the ability to decapitate is contingent upon a relation between the properties of the blade (such as the microscopic molecular regularity of the edge) with the properties of the necks of human renegades from Castle Black (such as the hardness of the spinous process of human skeletons). In that, Searle claims that the assignment of this function is ultimately due to brute facts, which in his framework is another way of saying the that the function itself is extrinsic to any mental state.

    Contrast this with the related fact that Ice, a heirloom of House Stark, is a cerimonial tool employed by the Warden Of The North in particular classes of capital punishment. This attribution for Searle is a status-conferring function for there is, allegedly, no intrinsic connection between this particular object and the particular capital punishment rites of the North. For what we know, the traditions could have been very different and other weapons (or no weapon at all) could have been fixed by agreement and used for that judicial purpose. To sum it, status-conferring functions are said to be arbitrary in a way causal-conferring functions are not.

    Searle explicitly acknowledges that the relation of ontological dependence involved is one of constitution.

    Institutional facts, being a subclass of intentional facts, are constituted by intentional states. And being collective, i.e., social facts, they are constituted by agreements among rational beings.

    A common way by which institutional facts may come into being is through utterances such as declarations.

    Let's try some more examples to see how this works. According to this framework, it is a brute fact that the atomic number of the main element of the alloy out of which Vallyrian steel is made of is 26. This means that, if it were the case that all Westerosi, Essossi, Giants, the Others or any other sentient being of the Known World in the A Song Of Ice And Fire saga had vanished, the atomic number of the main element of the alloy out of which Vallyrian steel of would still be 26. Or so the story goes (the story of John Searle, not necessarily of George R. R. Martin's).

    Brute facts are therefore facts that can be obtained irrespective of the existence of any intentional systems - minds.

    It is, however, an institutional fact that Maiden's Day is a holiday in the calendar of the Faith of the Seven. If it were the case that all those that implicitly or explicitly uphold this tradition had vanished - be them hardcore followers of the Seven or simply mere observers of this chronological custom - then it would not be true that Maiden's Day is a holiday in the calendar of the Faith of the Seven. For the truthmaker of the sentence 'Maiden's Day is a holiday in the calendar of the Faith of the Seven' is itself constituted by the recognition and endorsement of Maiden's Day. And that's what makes it subjectively real.

    If all traces of the agreements that make the fact of Maiden's Day obtainable had vanished from all minds, Maiden's Day would cease to exist. If future Westerosi archaeologists, historians or cultural anthropologists were to discover an inscription documenting this custom, Maiden's Day could have its metaphysical status reverted back from non-existence into existence. Or so the framework predicts.

    Claims on entities with the standing of Searlean brute facts would be denied by many gangs of philosophers that are willful enemies of objectivity stronger ontic senses; American Pragmatists, Post Modernists and Social Constructionists for example could claim that this alleged "brute fact" that Iron has an atomic number of 26 is not really non-institutional - for surely the mathematical and chemical framework that allows us to make such statement has a traceable recorded origin in the history of science, from the Western adoption of hindu-arabic numeral systems we use to represent natural numbers to the Mendeleevian grid that replaced previously endorsed taxonomies of the elements.

    Surprisingly, I staunchly side with Searle when it comes to these kinds of arguments. I hold that they are a product of a confusion between the representational systems which are employed to stand in or represent the information expressed by a given entity or system in the world with the information itself. Searle is absolutely right on this; we cannot mistake the institutions and conventions (such as the english language, the hindu-arabic numeral system, the edifice of atomic theory, etc) required to state a given fact with the fact itself. The fact that we call iron 'iron' and we use '26' to represent the quantity 26 is irrelevant.

    Final Transitory Observations

    I have attempted to be as charitable as possible in my expositions. Now I shall finish this entry not with clamorous resolution but, again, with enigmatic conundrum; I personally believe very little of what has been stated.

    More centrally, the seemingly common-sensical Searlean framework is explicitly guilty at a viewpoint I hold to be seriously mistaken; that we may devise an empirically responsible theory of ontology under which different existing entities receive "higher" or "lower" ontological statuses. I hold that it is false to assert that reality comes in degrees or hierarchical ranks.

    Why should we care? Well, tradition says that, if we are to care about anything, we should care about our moral values. Moral values are said to be inescapable, to unavoidably bind our predicament, to frame our human condition as deeply as anything could. Infuse this sermon with as many dramatic additions as you'd like. The main problem is that there exists a very strong case in moral philosophy which states that in order for all of this to work, our values need to be grounded in a foundation of extraordinary character, something at least as metaphysically safe and fancy as Searle's arid and impersonal "brute facts" but most probably something even more demanding. But, at glance, it seems wildly absurd to suggest that human morality can receive any such treatment.

    Many of these turmoils are a consequence of our conceptions of the ontic senses of objectivity and subjectivity and, again, on the classical subject/object distinction itself.

    Something has to be made concerning this deep-seated contention that objective entities are in some relevant sense extramental entities. Stay tuned.

    [1] J. J. Prinz, The emotional construction of morals, Oxford University Press, 2007.
    abstract = {Jesse Prinz argues that recent work in philosophy, neuroscience, and anthropology supports two radical hypotheses about the nature of morality: moral values are based on emotional responses, and these emotional responses are inculcated by culture, not hard-wired through natural selection. In the first half of the book, Jesse Prinz defends the hypothesis that morality has an emotional foundation. Evidence from brain imaging, social psychology, and psychopathology suggest that, when we judge something to be right or wrong, we are merely expressing our emotions. Prinz argues that these emotions do not track objective features of reality; rather, the rightness and wrongness of an act consists in the fact that people are disposed to have certain emotions towards it. In the second half of the book, he turns to a defense of moral relativism. Moral facts depend on emotional responses, and emotional responses vary from culture to culture. Prinz surveys the anthropological record to establish moral variation, and he draws on cultural history to show how attitudes toward practices such as cannibalism and marriage change over time. He also criticizes evidence from animal behavior and child development that has been taken to support the claim that moral attitudes are hard-wired by natural selection. Prinz concludes that there is no single true morality, but he also argues that some moral values are better than others; moral progress is possible. Throughout the book, Prinz relates his views to contemporary and historical work in philosophical ethics. His views echo themes in the writings of David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche, but Prinz supports, extends, and revises these classic theories using the resources of cutting-edge cognitive science. The Emotional Construction of Morals will stimulate and challenge anyone who is curious about the nature and origin of moral values},
    author = {Prinz, Jesse J.},
    citeulike-article-id = {13591439},
    posted-at = {2015-04-24 19:10:16},
    priority = {2},
    publisher = {Oxford University Press},
    title = {The Emotional Construction of Morals},
    year = {2007}
    [2] D. Dennett, "Intentional Systems Theory," in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Mind, {. {M}c{L}aughlin, {. {B}eckermann, and {. {W}alter, Eds., {OUP} {O}xford, 2011.
    author = {Dennett, Daniel},
    booktitle = {{T}he {O}xford {H}andbook of {P}hilosophy of {M}ind},
    citeulike-article-id = {14034324},
    editor = {{M}c{L}aughlin, {B}rian and {B}eckermann, {A}nsgar and {W}alter, {S}ven},
    posted-at = {2016-05-13 00:53:25},
    priority = {2},
    publisher = {{OUP} {O}xford},
    title = {{I}ntentional {S}ystems {T}heory},
    year = {2011}
    [3] Unknown bibtex entry with key [Huemer2005a]
    [4] J. R. Searle, The construction of social reality, Simon and Schuster, 1995.
    author = {Searle, John R.},
    citeulike-article-id = {14034285},
    posted-at = {2016-05-13 00:53:24},
    priority = {2},
    publisher = {Simon and Schuster},
    title = {The construction of social reality},
    year = {1995}

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