The Mental, the Epistemic, and the Normative




Red Detector

Originally uploaded by Pete Mandik.

It’s not unheard of to encounter claims to the effect that there’s something irreducibly normative about things epistimic and/or mental, that failure of derivability of “ought”’s from “is”’s somehow is significant for philosophy of mind.

I’ve always found this to be a bit of a head-scratcher, though, and have had recent occasion to contemplate it again in commenting on Ignacio Prado’s Transcendental Argument Against Physicalism. The following is adapted from my comment on that post:

There are two main problems that arise for the claim that “statements about what we have reason to believe have the logical form of ought-statements, and ought-statements cannot be derived from is-statements”:

1. That you can’t derive “ought”’s from “is”’s isn’t exactly clear or noncontroversial. 2. That evidence for belief is relevantly normative isn’t exactly clear or noncontroversial.

Re 1. It’s not just any statement with an ‘ought’ in it that resists derivation from a statement without an ‘ought’. Consider,for example, hypothetical imperatives like “If you want to catch a fish, you ought to put a worm on your hook.” That may very well just be expressing a counterfactual conditional. For the allegedly nonreducibly normative, you need (a) genuinely categorical imperatives that (b) are truth evaluable. “You ought to put a fish on your hook” is a categorical imperative only on the face of it, for in certain contexts it will be clear that it is really just expressing the aforementioned hypothetical imperative. “You ought to pay your debt to me” might arguably be a genuine categorical imperative, but it remains open to be argued that it is not truth evaluable. It may instead simply function as a command (”pay me your debt”) or a long-winded hooray (”yay for those who pay their debts to me”).

Re: 2. So, what are the genuine truth evaluable categorical epistemic imperatives? Is an example “You ought to believe what the evidence supports”? If so, what makes you so sure it satisfies the criteria set forth in the remarks above?

8 Responses to “The Mental, the Epistemic, and the Normative”

  1. A.G. says:

    “Is an example “You ought to believe what the evidence supports”? If so, what makes you so sure it satisfies the criteria set forth in the remarks above?”

    I think such a demand will always be more understandable qualified by an “if” than left as a true categorical imperative. It would be helpful when battling creationists if believing the evidence weighed upon us with deontic force, but I just don’t see how it could be the case or why it’s even all that desireable overall.

  2. Pete Mandik says:

    A.G., I tend to agree. That does, of course, raise the question of what to insert as the antecedent of the conditional. Is there a better candidate than “If you want be rational…”?

  3. A.G. says:

    It depends on the context and of course, there may be cases where I would rather not believe in the evidence at all. Most of the time, I’d be happy with something like, “If I want to have time to relax and surf the net, then I ought to believe the evidence so I can get my work done quickly”. “If I want to solve problems the way X appears to do, then I ought to think about the evidence the way X appears to think about it.”

  4. Physicalist says:

    This discussion on the “normativity” of propositional attitudes and how to refute this as an argument for dualism reminds me of an attempt to support moral naturalism.

    The argument went like this, an “ought” (normative) statement can be converted into a “is” (fact) statement. This is done by adding prescriping X if Y is to occur.

    One ought to do X if one desires Y, because X leads to Y.

    We prescribe X if one desires Y.

    Let’s say “X” is having a warm house.
    One “ought” to do shut the window (Y) if they want a warm house (X).

    This shows that “oughts” can be converted into facts via prescription.

    This was formulated by Alonzo Fyfe.

    http://www.infidelguy.com/members/AlonzoFyfe/article_humeisought.shtml

  5. Pete Mandik says:

    Good point, Physicalist. That was pretty much the point that I was trying to make in my remarks on hypothetical and categorical imperatives.

  6. Richard Brown says:

    Hey Pete, welcome back :)

    I think you are right to be skeptical that these kinds of arguments show that there is a problem with the metaphysical claim that physicalism makes…but don’t you think think that people like Davidson are on to something different? Davidson’s claim was that the normativity of the mental showed that the mental was not explanatorily reducible to the physical, even though they were metaphyscially identical. This then would be a way of accepting physicalism without having to be Churchland…now I am not accepting this, I am merely asking whether you think that IF the mental were normative and the physcial were not THEN there would be a problem explaining one in terms of the other?

  7. Pete Mandik says:

    Hi Richard,

    I’d agree with that if then statement, but only on the condition that what is meant by “normative” in this context is something like “describable only in terms of true categorical imperatives”.

  8. Ignacio Prado says:

    Dear Physicalist,

    “This discussion on the “normativity” of propositional attitudes and how to refute this as an argument for dualism reminds me of an attempt to support moral naturalism.”

    I was not intending to give an argument for dualism. Or were you addressing someone else?