Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Noetic Glue: Dead in the Water?

My previous post dealt with the concept of 'noetic glue.' An interesting comment on the topic was written by Andy, and he linked a slightly longer version of the comment to his blog, Under The Sun. At first his criticsims seemed to severely undercut my theory, but as I reflected on it I was not quite so ready to pronounce noetic glue dead. His first criticism was that the concept of noetic glue begs the question. "Is noetic glue rational?" he asks. "If so, then emotions-as-noetic-glue are redundant. If not, then emotions-as-noetic-glue are wrong."

At the risk of sounding like a moron, I'm not certain I follow his objection. Is he saying that if it is rational to believe in noetic glue then noetic glue keeps that belief in place and that is question begging? I think it is evident that this is false because noetic glue and the idea of noetic glue are two different things. Noetic glue can hold a belief in noetic glue or a concept of noetic glue in place without resorting to question begging. Since that seems evident, I doubt that was the true nature of his objection. Or if it was, perhaps he has some counter to the argument I just stated. The last thing I want to do is be uncharitable with my characterizations of someone else's idea.

What else could he mean? I'm not certain, so I'm going to depend on Andy here to expand on his objection.

Regardless, Andy goes on to say that he believes that noetic glue is not rational. He then says, "if a question is close enough then one should vacillate, or (usually better) suspend judgment." Lets deal with vacillating first. I don't think it's ever better to vacillate, but I also don't think I was clear about what I had in mind when I first mentioned it. I did not mean someone who might lean one way and then the other for a while but never settles on a position because they think the arguments on both sides are good. I was referring to the kind of person who is 'fully convinced' of one position until a rhetorician who holds the other comes along and then he switches because of smooth talk. Then the person could switch back to the first position whenever presented with a slick (not necessarily rational) argument. I don't think anyone believes that this is good.

As far as suspending judgment goes, I think noetic glue can be a good mechanism for just that purpose. There are times when arguments seem to weigh heavily in favor of the position one is against ('seem to' being the operative words). It is in this sort of circumstance that our emotions can actually keep us from being swept away to a false position. To remain tethered by emotions, however, is wrong. We have certainly surrendered rationality if we do that.

Johnny Dee also had some good comments. I think he is right to say that saying that these concepts are the glue is probably extreme. He then suggests that truth itself should probably fill that role, but it's the very point when the truth of a proposition is in doubt that noetic glue would be showing its effects the most. I'll have to do further research on the intellectual virtues (any book recommendations will be gladly received).

Most of what I've posted has come from the 'thinking out loud' mode. I had toyed with this idea for a long time, but never written anything or put it up for a challenge, so thanks to everyone who has contributed to the discussion. I hope it continues. You never know, we may be on the ground floor of discovering something exciting!


Anonymous said...

Sorry for the confusion; thanks for replying in good faith. What I mean is: Is it rational to have (use) noetic glue; is it rational to stick to our positions until the evidence against them is sufficiently strong? If it is rational, then we don't need emotions in order to justify it; reason alone justifies it.

If you're not talking about justification, but only about descriptive psychology--"emotions do in fact tend to serve as noetic glue"--then I agree; but that's psychology, not philosophy, and that's why I claim that emotions-as-noetic-glue is philosophically redundant. A rational person would not need emotions in that role, because her reason would already fill it. And the many other anti-rational effects of emotions would still urge that emotions be bracketed away from reasoning.

The same argument holds in the case of suspending judgment. If it's rational to suspend judgment--and I agree that it is--then we don't need emotions to urge us to suspend judgment.

(As an aside, in your description of vacillation, it seems to me that the irrational part is the certainty, not the vacillation. One simply should not swallow a new position whole.)

To summarize: if you are merely speaking descriptively about a psychological effect of emotions, that's fine as far as it goes, but I don't see where it goes; I don't see any philosophical cash value. If, on the other hand, you are speaking normatively about a role that emotions should play in philosophical reasoning, then I think you're wrong :-).

I hope this is a clearer statement of my argument; if not I'll try again.


Johnny-Dee said...

Here are some reading recommendations on the intellectual virtues:

Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics: the whole thing is important but especially book VI.

Thomas Aquinas, Treatise on the Virtues: this little book I have is an excerpt from the Summa Theologiae, part 1, questions 49-62. See especially questions 57-58.

Linda Zagzebski, Virtues of the Mind (New York: Cambridge Univ Press, 1996). This is a recent attempt to make sense of epistemic justification completely in terms of intellectual virtues. I don't think she succeeds in this big project, but several little jewels about epistemic virtue can be found in the book.

W. Jay Wood, Epistemology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997). This is not a great epistemology book, but it does have a chapter that is enlightening about the intellectual virtues.

Michael Depaul and Linda Zagzebski, eds., Intellectual Virtue (Oxford: Oxford Univ Press, 2003). A colletion of essays from leading epistemologists/ethicists on intellectual virtues. I haven't read this myself, but it looks good.

If you need more, search for journal articles by Robert Roberts, John Greco, Ernest Sosa, and the authors listed above. If you need more, you know where to find me.

Anonymous said...

It occurs to me that when we call something 'rational' we can mean two different things: 1) it conforms to objective rational standards; or 2) in my case it is a process that contributes to my reason's conforming to objective rational standards. (1) is really what is at stake in justification. But it seems to me that Joshua's proposal is that noetic glue is an ancillary to reason relevant our attempts to be rational. If you are concerned with the theoretical philosophical question of whether noetic glue can be rationally justified, this would lead to a different line of thought than the practical philosophical question of how we human beings can use noetic glue in being rational. The latter would require us to do some descriptive psychology in order to see what we're dealing with; but it is a genuinely philosophical question. It seems to me that this is parallel to the traditional question of how intellect is related to imagination: one answer was that any exercise of reason or intellect is justified by objective standards alone, but that as a matter of fact human beings need their intellect to rely on their imagination in order to meet those standards. And it may well be that a case can be made that emotional 'glue' is necessary in the way imagination is necessary.