Friday, April 14, 2017

Wiggling chairs

I loved reading Eli Friedlander's "Missing a Step Up the Laddeer" (which I'm sure was open access when I got it, but which doesn't seem to be any longer). I might do a series of posts on it (cue nothing at all for three weeks followed by a "what I saw on TV last night" post instead).

Having said that I like the paper, there are some bits of it that I don't get. Perhaps blogging about them will help me understand.

For instance, on pp. 58-59 Friedlander says:
I can will to move my hand, but I cannot in the same sense will the chair to move. My act of will, I would like to say, cannot connect directly to the chair. I can only move my body which is the one to move the chair. But Wittgenstein asks himself what would it be like to find out that something is essentially not in the scope of my will. For this negation to make sense, one must be able to conceive of the possibility of trying to will such-and-such and not being able to do so. Someone asked, for instance, to try to will the chair to move, might concentrate on the chair intensely, fasten his gaze on it, narrow his eyes, and express determination. But would this count as trying to will the chair to move and finding out that it is the kind of thing that does not obey the will? There is no trying and discovering that the chair is out of the range of my will. It would be as nonsensical as trying to find out whether sounds can be colored.
The first sentence sounds plausible enough. Actually, I'm not sure that I can will to move my hand in any different sense than that in which I can will to move a chair by psychic means. I can, though, move my hand or, if it is restrained or paralyzed, try to move it. I cannot move a chair in the same way. Nor can I try to move a chair in the same way or the same sense. A doctor might ask me to wiggle first one hand then the other, and perhaps also ask me to wiggle each foot in turn to test for something or other. But if she then said, "Now wiggle the chair" she would either be kidding or else using 'wiggle' in some other sense, one that involves moving over to the chair and applying physical force to it. That's what I take the first part of this quoted passage to be getting at.

But the experiment with psychic powers seems perfectly intelligible to me. The chair won't move, of course. Telekinesis is not possible. Still, denying (or affirming) its possibility makes sense in a way that denying or affirming that sounds can be colored does not. Doesn't it? A magician might, after all, seem to move physical objects through sheer mental power, while no magician could ever even seem to color sounds. Doing so is unimaginable because the idea is unintelligible--the words make no sense (and 'because' here just means '=').

It's a minor point, if I'm right, but a) it's good to be right, and b) I wonder whether I'm missing something. Is attempting to use psychic powers that I know I haven't got really intelligible? Does my thinking that it is reveal some level of superstition on my part, a refusal or failure to rule out completely the possibility that people might have psychic powers? Is it like, or related to, the following question of the rationality of buying lottery tickets? It is often said that it is irrational to buy lottery tickets because the chances of winning are so small, but if you get a dollar's worth of pleasure from buying the ticket then it is rational to pay a dollar for a ticket. But then you only get that pleasure because you imagine that you might win, which is irrational of you. If you really comprehend the smallness of the odds of winning then having a ticket would give you no pleasure at all. And if you really understood how the world works, perhaps the very idea of psychic powers would seem not just false but nonsensical to you. The words 'psychic powers' (and others of the same kind) would be completely withdrawn from circulation in your conceptual economy.

That doesn't seem right though. My not thinking about, or even slightly believing in, psychic powers doesn't mean that these words have no meaning. And 'meaning for me' is not really a thing. "Those words have no meaning for me" just means I don't use those words. Or that's how it seems to me, anyway.


  1. A sneeze, for example, is an action that is outside the control of the actor, thus the action lacks an agent (although it has a performer that "undergoes" the action). I take the notion of "will" in the quote to refer to what I would call the intention to perform an intentional action (thus an action with an agent). I take the intention as something having the ontological character of another action immediately preceding the act in question; in some cases we can intend to perform an action and then think better of it, or, e.g., the mere intention to move one's arm causes one to wake up from sleep even without actually moving one's arm. But if one is compelled to sneeze, it's awfully difficult and sometimes impossible to "will" oneself not to sneeze, or to intend and try effectively not to sneeze; one finds oneself powerless in the face of other bodily determinants of the action. Some languages distinguish these two types of actions morphologically or syntactically. BTW, with agentive actions, the reason for the action, different from the intention, comes from the subject's (more or less unified) system of knowledge, understanding and interests (mind), whereas with the sneeze type, the reason for the action comes from somewhere else in the body. Yes, the example is a negative one, but I would guess that one would be able to find positive examples of the powerlessness of "will" vis-a-vis the subject's otherwise controllable own body.

    (I would like to identify myself, but the choices offered are not working for me. -- James Dennis)

    1. Thanks. Yes, I can intend to move my hand in a way that I cannot intend to move a chair (even if I intend to try to move the chair psychically). And willing can be a kind of act that precedes another act, as when I summon up my will before doing (or failing to do) something difficult.

      Still, "I can will to move my hand" sounds odd to me, because moving one's hand is not normally difficult. Thinking of willing as intending could help to make more sense of it.

  2. I've always thought of "will", insofar as I've ever thought of it (and I may be off the mark here), as the level you move to when an intention meets some resistance. E.g., if one's arm "falls asleep", and then one tries to move the arm in the normal way, but the intention doesn't go through and the act can not be performed. One can "will" one's hand to move with whatever intensity, but nothing is happening.

    BTW, do you think the obsession with the notion of "will", especially in 18th-19th cent. European thinking has something to do with the failure to separate the description of the neurobiological mechanisms of agent- controlled action from the "folk" ways of understanding action, influenced perhaps by the conventional linguistic categories (not to mention the "moral" categories) of, say, German? -- JD

    1. (Sorry for the delayed response--this ended up in the spam file for some reason.)

      I think you're right about will and resistance. As well as willing in response to failure, though, it's also possible to (try to) 'will oneself' to do something difficult. You resolve to do it, think positive thoughts, etc. This can be called willing (as can the kind of thing you describe with a hand that won't move). I don't know how different this is, but it needn't involve nothing happening.

      The question of the origin of interest in the will is an interesting one, but I've no idea what the answer is.


  4. I'm not sure about the "experiment with psychic powers" bit. I am thinking of what you said in terms of On Certainty and what it makes sense to 'know' (and hence what allows for the possibility of doubt and *testing* etc.) and the things that are the hinges about which knowing occurs. For instance, does it actually makes sense right now to 'test' whether we can wiggle a chair at a distance? Are we in any doubt? As if maybe we simply hadn't learned the trick and could now pull it off? Doesn't 'not moving things at a distance' form a part of our foundation? We don't need to check because the question itself is nothing but idle? Language on a holiday?

    But thinking about 'will' does get us into all sorts of difficulty. We want to say too much and give enormous credit to this 'will' thing. But, as W points out, will only describes certain circumstances for us and is not the name of some powerful force within ourselves. It's much simpler than that. Hence,

    “I really do think with my pen, because my head often knows nothing about what my hand is writing.” (Culture and Value)

    It seems easy to imagine some mysterious process when we discuss 'willing'. As if willing explained what happened, and our difficulty is simply knowing the extent of this mysterious power. The range of things that can be said to "obey my will" seems coextensive with the things I am able to do but we defer credit to this intermediate 'will' thing. We even learn that we can impress ourselves on the outside world as well (we can 'bend others to our will', etc). But the will gets introduced as this independent character, somehow separate from us, and we spend more time trying to figure out the nature of this 'will' thing than in describing what we can and cannot do (if that is even interesting, because the question only seems to grab us if the 'will' is imagined as something real in itself). Will becomes a thing in the world in its own right rather than simply a way that we describe what goes on in certain circumstances.

    “What is troubling us is the tendency to believe that the mind is like a little man within.” (Remarks to John Wisdom)

    Then of course there is always Dr Strangelove and his independently minded right hand :)

    1. does it actually makes sense right now to 'test' whether we can wiggle a chair at a distance? Are we in any doubt?

      I am not in any doubt, and nor are you by the sound of it. But if someone were to doubt it, wouldn't it make sense to invite them to try it? This would be a demonstration rather than a real test, at least for me, but it still seems like one possible reasonable response. People make claims about psychic powers. Why not use science to prove these claims false? Partly I mean this as a rhetorical question, although you might also answer that the ability of some magicians to fool scientists is a good reason not to rely on experiments in such cases. See, for instance, the film An Honest Liar, about James Randi. I'm genuinely not sure what to say about this. I do like it when someone like Uri Geller is put on the spot and made to try to repeat his illusions in controlled conditions, but maybe it's better to regard that kind of demonstration as a rhetorical move rather than as a real experiment. The result is not in doubt, after all. At least for some of us.

      I'm not sure I would go so far as to say that "will only describes certain circumstances for us," but I agree with you that the idea of will is a bit of a minefield. It's easy to think of it, mistakenly, as an occult force.

    2. I've been rereading On Certainty and I have been struck by the difference W makes between propositions that act empirically and those that do not. One of his biggest questions in tangling with Moore is the divide between what it makes sense to say we know and when saying it makes no sense. Tied up in this is the idea of what it does or does not make sense to doubt. I can't help but imagine that W would not think the idea of whether or not we can move things at a distance by stint of will alone is a proposition that has empirical status. What do we learn growing up? Do we learn that the issue is undecided? The idea of magicians doing such stuff only appears real to the credulous, to people who did not learn as kids that some things do not make sense to believe in. And its not an issue that we might be wrong about it (he even has things to say about what we accept as simple math equations in that regard), simply that the world we learned in this culture does not include it as a question for debate. And in some sense those propositions that hold fast are themselves subject to revision as things that hold fast become fluid and fluid things are made fast. W is not interested in whatever reality there is behind the scenes, just what it is that people are doing.

      One thing he wants to avoid is the scientistic idea that everything is worth testing, that everything CAN be doubted. Its not simply all up for grabs. Some things we say about the world have logical or grammatical status, and other are empirical. We start making grave mistakes when we confuse the two. Again, W wants to show that it makes no sense to say we know certain things (as Moore puts forth) because the lives we lead do no bring certain things into question.

      If someone WERE to doubt it, as you suggest, we would not understand them. And it is not something to be decided scientifically. Some propositions the *look* empirical, simply are not. Not to us, at least, and he attempts to show what such cultures might be doing by saying the go to the moon at night etc. Does the chair disappear when I'm out of the room? He goes through plenty of examples to highlight what things hold fast for us and what things do not.

      That was my take on On Certainty, at least :)

    3. Thanks, this all sounds right.

      I'm still not completely sure, though, that I want to say that we would not understand someone who believed that telekinesis might be possible. On the one hand, I'd be at least somewhat puzzled by such a person. On the other hand, there are a lot of these people around. If we count everyone who is superstitious as being one of these people then perhaps most people fall into this category. Am I just going to say that I don't understand them? Perhaps that really is the thing to say.

      Secondly, it still doesn't seem right to put telekinesis together with colored sounds. It seems clearer that I cannot imagine the latter than it does that I cannot imagine the former. Perhaps that doesn't matter, as long as I cannot in fact imagine, or conceive of, either.

      I need to think about both questions more.

    4. I think you are right to point out that we can *imagine* people for whom living as if telekinesis were real made sense. We live in a world where Harry Potter movies gross millions upon millions of dollars, families visit the fantasy lands at Disney each year, and folks dress up and attend comic conventions. We indulge ourselves in fantasy quite often and with relish (I know I do :) ). The world of make-believe is a frequent companion in our lives. But it IS language on a holiday. Imagining a different world IS idling behavior. And there is nothing wrong with that unless we can no longer tell the difference.

      So I guess it does make sense that we can play along and suspend our disbelief when the occasion requires, but I'd like to think those are specific sorts of occasion, and not simply when confronted with the unexpected. Because when we are not idling, when we are not 'on vacation', we pretty much DO know the difference. In fact, everything speaks for our beliefs and nothing against. And the dreams and fantasy worlds we inhabit in our imagination are not some sort of evidence that has weight. If we have a problem its when we start to confuse our imagination with 'the real thing'.

      The last entry in On Certainty, written two days before his death goes "Someone who, dreaming, says "I am dreaming", even if he speaks audibly in doing so, is no more right than if he said in his dream "it is raining", while it was in fact raining. Even if his dream were actually connected with the noise of the rain." What happens in our dreams and imagination are simply not the same as what our ordinary daily lives entail....

      So I guess in a sense it is very true that we can imagine what things would be like IF such things were true, but it may be another thing to inhabit beliefs in our ordinary life that they in fact ARE true.

      Kids in our culture may make those distinctions less well than adults, but eventually seem to accept that things like telekinesis are not 'unsolved mysteries'. They learn to make the judgments of our culture. The only thing mysterious is how it actually *looks*as*if* it were happening. We are more open to testing where the hidden strings are than even for a moment accepting that the mind really works that way. In movies, sure! But nothing else in our daily lives outside the vacations we take from it even suggest such things.

      I think you are right not to put telekinesis together with colored sounds. Telekinesis pretends to be publicly observable, but colored sounds have to do with how sense data is processed individually and is personal. The interesting thing about synesthesia is that apparently there *are* folks who experience sounds with color.

      I have a friend who is a drummer and he has talked of this a bit. I need to ask him more about what its like, but I have a much easier time believing that my own sense experience does not cover the entire possibility of the human range. I may have no personal experience that relates to it, but as the private experience of other people it is not something I can test for either. My willingness to accept it as possible does not depend on anything *I* can experience myself or in such wise better know about the world. It seems bizarre, but no less than that some people actually like horror films and Opera. As a matter of experience, it just seems that different things 'happen' to different people, and it is sometimes a puzzle we can sit in front of the same things and be impressed so differently by them.

      Just the thoughts that struck me this morning. I appreciate the conversation :)

    5. Me too! But I think we agree, so I won't say much in reply.

      Thanks for bringing up the case of synesthesia. I had forgotten about that.