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Ideas of William Lycan, by Text

[American, b.1945, Professor at the University of North Carolina.]

1979 The Trouble with Possible Worlds
02 p.279 The Razor seems irrelevant for Meinongians, who allow absolutely everything to exist
     Full Idea: A Meinongian has already posited everything that could, or even could not, be; how, then, can any subsequent brandishing of Ockham's Razor be to the point?
     From: William Lycan (The Trouble with Possible Worlds [1979], 02)
     A reaction: See the ideas of Alexius Meinong. Presumably these crazy Meinongians must make some distinction between what actually exists in front of your nose, and the rest. So the Razor can use that distinction too.
02 p.281 Maybe Ockham's Razor is a purely aesthetic principle
     Full Idea: It might be said that Ockham's Razor is a purely aesthetic principle.
     From: William Lycan (The Trouble with Possible Worlds [1979], 02)
     A reaction: I don't buy this, if it meant to be dismissive of the relevance of the principle to truth. A deep question might be, what is so aesthetically attractive about simplicity? I'm inclined to think that application of the Razor has delivered terrific results.
09 p.302 Maybe non-existent objects are sets of properties
     Full Idea: Meinong's Objects have sometimes been construed as sets of properties.
     From: William Lycan (The Trouble with Possible Worlds [1979], 09)
     A reaction: [Lycan cites Castañeda and T.Parsons] You still seem to have the problem with any 'bundle' theory of anything. A non-existent object is as much intended to be an object as anything on my desk right now. It just fails to be.
09 p.302 If 'worlds' are sentences, and possibility their consistency, consistency may rely on possibility
     Full Idea: If a 'world' is understood as a set of sentences, then possibility may be understood as consistency, ...but this seems circular, in that 'consistency' of sentences cannot adequately be defined save in terms of possibility.
     From: William Lycan (The Trouble with Possible Worlds [1979], 09)
     A reaction: [Carnap and Hintikka propose the view, Lewis 'Counterfactuals' p.85 objects] Worlds as sentences is not, of course, the same as worlds as propositions. There is a lot of circularity around in 'possible' worlds.
09 p.304 Treating possible worlds as mental needs more actual mental events
     Full Idea: A mentalistic approach to possible worlds is daunted by the paucity of actual mental events.
     From: William Lycan (The Trouble with Possible Worlds [1979], 09)
     A reaction: Why do they have to be actual, any more than memories have to be conscious? The mental events just need to be available when you need them. They are never all required simultaneously. This isn't mathematical logic!
12 p.312 Possible worlds must be made of intensional objects like propositions or properties
     Full Idea: I believe the only promising choice of actual entities to serve as 'worlds' is that of sets of intensional objects, such as propositions or properties with stipulated interrelations.
     From: William Lycan (The Trouble with Possible Worlds [1979], 12)
     A reaction: This is mainly in response to Lewis's construction of them out of actual concrete objects. It strikes me as a bogus problem. It is just a convenient way to think precisely about possibilities, and occasionally outruns our mental capacity.
1987 Consciousness
1.1 p.2 If energy in the brain disappears into thin air, this breaches physical conservation laws
     Full Idea: By interacting causally, Cartesian dualism seems to violate the conservation laws of physics (concerning matter and energy). This seems testable, and afferent and efferent pathways disappearing into thin air would suggest energy is not conserved.
     From: William Lycan (Consciousness [1987], 1.1)
     A reaction: It would seem to be no problem as long as outputs were identical in energy to inputs. If the experiment could actually be done, the result might astonish us.
1.1 p.3 In lower animals, psychology is continuous with chemistry, and humans are continuous with animals
     Full Idea: Evolution has proceeded in all other known species by increasingly complex configurations of molecules and organs, which support primitive psychologies; our human psychologies are more advanced, but undeniably continuous with lower animals.
     From: William Lycan (Consciousness [1987], 1.1)
     A reaction: Personally I find the evolution objection to dualism highly persuasive. I don't see how anyone can take evolution seriously and be a dualist. If there is a dramatic ontological break at some point, a plausible reason would be needed for that.
4.0 p.37 I see the 'role'/'occupant' distinction as fundamental to metaphysics
     Full Idea: I see the 'role'/'occupant' distinction as fundamental to metaphysics.
     From: William Lycan (Consciousness [1987], 4.0)
     A reaction: A passing remark in a discussion of functionalism about the mind, but I find it appealing. Causation is basic to materialistic metaphysics, and it creates networks of regular causes. It leaves open the essentialist question of WHY it has that role.
4.3 p.42 Institutions are not reducible as types, but they are as tokens
     Full Idea: Institutional types are irreducible, though I assume that institutional tokens are reducible in the sense of strict identity, all the way down to the subatomic level.
     From: William Lycan (Consciousness [1987], 4.3)
     A reaction: This seems a promising distinction, as the boundaries of 'institutions' disappear when you begin to reduce them to lower levels (cf. Idea 4601), and yet plenty of institutions are self-evidently no more than physics. Plants are invisible as physics.
4.3 p.42 Types cannot be reduced, but levels of reduction are varied groupings of the same tokens
     Full Idea: If types cannot be reduced to more physical levels, this is not an embarrassment, as long as our institutional categories, our physiological categories, and our physical categories are just alternative groupings of the same tokens.
     From: William Lycan (Consciousness [1987], 4.3)
     A reaction: This is a self-evident truth about a car engine, so I don't see why it wouldn't apply equally to a brain. Lycan's identification of the type as the thing which cannot be reduced seems a promising explanation of much confusion among philosophers.
4.3 p.42 We reduce the mind through homuncular groups, described abstractly by purpose
     Full Idea: I am explicating the mental in a reductive way, by reducing mental characterizations to homuncular institutional ones, which are teleological characterizations at various levels of functional abstraction.
     From: William Lycan (Consciousness [1987], 4.3)
     A reaction: I think this is the germ of a very good physicalist account of the mind. More is needed than a mere assertion about what the mind reduces to at the very lowest level; this offers a decent account of the descending stages of reduction.
4.3 p.43 Teleological characterisations shade off smoothly into brutely physical ones
     Full Idea: Highly teleological characterisations, unlike naïve and explicated mental characterisations, have the virtue of shading off fairly smoothly into (more) brutely physical ones.
     From: William Lycan (Consciousness [1987], 4.3)
     A reaction: Thus the purpose of a car engine, and a spark plug, and the spark, and the temperature, and the vibration of molecules show a fading away of the overt purpose, disappearing into the pointless activity of electrons and quantum levels.
4.3 p.43 Mental types are a subclass of teleological types at a high level of functional abstraction
     Full Idea: I am taking mental types to form a small subclass of teleological types occurring for the most part at a high level of functional abstraction.
     From: William Lycan (Consciousness [1987], 4.3)
     A reaction: He goes on to say that he understand teleology in evolutionary terms. There is always a gap between how you characterise or individuate something, and what it actually is. To say spanners are 'a small subclass of tools' is not enough.
4.3 p.43 One location may contain molecules, a metal strip, a key, an opener of doors, and a human tragedy
     Full Idea: One space-time slice may be occupied by a collection of molecules, a metal strip, a key, an allower of entry to hotel rooms, a facilitator of adultery, and a destroyer souls.
     From: William Lycan (Consciousness [1987], 4.3)
     A reaction: Desdemona's handkerchief is a nice example. This sort of remark seems to be felt by some philosophers to be heartless wickedness, and yet it so screamingly self-evident that it is impossible to deny.
4.4 p.45 Teleological functionalism helps us to understand psycho-biological laws
     Full Idea: Teleological functionalism helps us to understand the nature of biological and psychological laws, particularly in the face of Davidsonian scepticism about the latter.
     From: William Lycan (Consciousness [1987], 4.4)
     A reaction: Personally I doubt the existence of psycho-physical laws, but only because of the vast complexity. They would be like the laws of weather. 'Psycho-physical' laws seem to presuppose some sort of dualism.
4.4 p.45 Teleological views allow for false intentional content, unlike causal and nomological theories
     Full Idea: The teleological view begins to explain intentionality, and in particular allows brain states and events to have false intentional content; causal and nomological theories of intentionality tend to falter on this last task.
     From: William Lycan (Consciousness [1987], 4.4)
     A reaction: Certainly if you say thought is 'caused' by the world, false thought become puzzling. I'm not sure I understand the rest of this, but it is an intriguing remark about a significant issue…
4.4 p.45 We need a notion of teleology that comes in degrees
     Full Idea: We need a notion of teleology that comes in degrees.
     From: William Lycan (Consciousness [1987], 4.4)
     A reaction: Anyone who says that key concepts, such as those concerning the mind, should come 'in degrees' wins my instant support. A whole car engine requires a very teleological explanation, the spark in the sparkplug far less so.
4.4 p.46 The distinction between software and hardware is not clear in computing
     Full Idea: Even the software/hardware distinction as it is literally applied within computer science is philosophically unclear.
     From: William Lycan (Consciousness [1987], 4.4)
     A reaction: This is true, and very important for functionalist theories of the mind. Even very volatile software is realised in 'hard' physics, and rewritable discs etc blur the distinction between 'programmable' and 'hardwired'.
5.4 p.54 Functionalism must not be too abstract to allow inverted spectrum, or so structural that it becomes chauvinistic
     Full Idea: The functionalist must find a level of characterisation of mental states that is not so abstract or behaviouristic as to rule out the possibility of inverted spectrum etc., nor so specific and structural as to fall into chauvinism.
     From: William Lycan (Consciousness [1987], 5.4)
     A reaction: If too specific then animals and aliens won't be able to implement the necessary functions; if the theory becomes very behaviouristic, then it loses interest in the possibility of an inverted spectrum. He is certainly right to hunt for a middle ground.
5.4 p.57 A Martian may exhibit human-like behaviour while having very different sensations
     Full Idea: Quite possibly a Martian's humanoid behaviour is prompted by his having sensations somewhat unlike ours, despite his superficial behavioural similarities to us.
     From: William Lycan (Consciousness [1987], 5.4)
     A reaction: I think this firmly refutes the multiple realisability objection to type-type physicalism. Mental events are individuated by their phenomenal features (known only to the user), and by their causal role (publicly available). These are separate.
5.4 p.57 Intentionality comes in degrees
     Full Idea: Intentionality comes in degrees.
     From: William Lycan (Consciousness [1987], 5.4)
     A reaction: I agree. A footprint is 'about' a foot, in the sense of containing concentrated information about it. Can we, though, envisage a higher degree than human thought? Is there a maximum degree? Everything is 'about' everything, in some respect.
5.4 p.59 Identity theory is functionalism, but located at the lowest level of abstraction
     Full Idea: 'Neuron' may be understood as a physiological term or a functional term, so even the Identity Theorist is a Functionalist - one who locates mental entities at a very low level of abstraction.
     From: William Lycan (Consciousness [1987], 5.4)
     A reaction: This is a striking observation, and somewhat inclines me to switch from identity theory to functionalism. If you ask what is the correct level of abstraction, Lycan's teleological-homuncular version refers you to all the levels.
5.4 p.60 If functionalism focuses on folk psychology, it ignores lower levels of function
     Full Idea: 'Analytical functionalists', who hold that meanings of mental terms are determined by the causal roles associated with them by 'folk psychology', deny themselves appeals to lower levels of functional organisation.
     From: William Lycan (Consciousness [1987], 5.4)
     A reaction: Presumably folk psychology can fit into the kind of empirical methodology favoured by behaviourists, whereas 'lower levels' are going to become rather speculative and unscientific.
5.5 p.62 Pain is composed of urges, desires, impulses etc, at different levels of abstraction
     Full Idea: Our phenomenal experience of pain has components - it is a complex, consisting (perhaps) of urges, desires, impulses, and beliefs, probably occurring at quite different levels of institutional abstraction.
     From: William Lycan (Consciousness [1987], 5.5)
     A reaction: This seems to be true, and offers the reductionist a strategy for making inroads into the supposed irreducable and fundamental nature of qualia. What's it like to be a complex hierarchically structured multi-functional organism?
5.6 p.69 The right 'level' for qualia is uncertain, though top (behaviourism) and bottom (particles) are false
     Full Idea: It is just arbitrary to choose a level of nature a priori as the locus of qualia, even though we can agree that high levels (such as behaviourism) and low-levels (such as the subatomic) can be ruled out as totally improbable.
     From: William Lycan (Consciousness [1987], 5.6)
     A reaction: Very good. People scream 'qualia!' whenever the behaviour level or the atomic level are proposed as the locations of the mind, but the suggestion that they are complex, and are spread across many functional levels in the middle sounds good.
8.4 p.90 Physicalism requires the naturalisation or rejection of set theory
     Full Idea: Eventually set theory will have to be either naturalised or rejected, if a thoroughgoing physicalism is to be maintained.
     From: William Lycan (Consciousness [1987], 8.4)
     A reaction: Personally I regard Platonism as a form of naturalism (though a rather bold and dramatic one). The central issue seems to be the ability of the human main/brain to form 'abstract' notions about the physical world in which it lives.
8.4 p.91 I think greenness is a complex microphysical property of green objects
     Full Idea: Personally I favour direct realism regarding secondary qualities, and identify greenness with some complex microphysical property exemplified by green physical objects.
     From: William Lycan (Consciousness [1987], 8.4)
     A reaction: He cites D.M.Armstrong (1981) as his source. Personally I find this a bewildering proposal. Does he think there is greenness in grass AS WELL AS the emission of that wavelength of electro-magnetic radiation? Is greenness zooming through the air?
8.5 p.96 'Physical' means either figuring in physics descriptions, or just located in space-time
     Full Idea: An object is specifically physical if it figures in explanations and descriptions of features of ordinary non-living matter, as in current physics; it is more generally physical if it is simply located in space-time.
     From: William Lycan (Consciousness [1987], 8.5)
     A reaction: This gives a useful distinction when trying to formulate a 'physicalist' account of the mind, where type-type physicalism says only the 'postulates of physics' can be used, whereas 'naturalism' about the mind uses the more general concept.
n1.6 p.131 Two behaviourists meet. The first says,"You're fine; how am I?"
     Full Idea: Old joke: two Behaviourists meet in the street, and the first says,"You're fine; how am I?"
     From: William Lycan (Consciousness [1987], n1.6)
     A reaction: This invites the response that introspection is uniquely authoritative about 'how we are', but this has been challenged quite a lot recently, which pushes us to consider whether these stupid behaviourists might actually have a good point.
1999 Introduction - Ontology
p.10 p.10 People are trying to explain biological teleology in naturalistic causal terms
     Full Idea: There is now a small but vigorous industry whose purpose is to explicate biological teleology in naturalistic terms, typically in terms of causes.
     From: William Lycan (Introduction - Ontology [1999], p.10)
     A reaction: This looks like a good strategy. In some sense, it seems clear that the moon has no purpose, but an eyeball has one. Via evolution, one would expect to reduce this to causation. Purposes are real (not subjective), but they are reducible.
p.5 p.5 'Lightning is electric discharge' and 'Phosphorus is Venus' are synthetic a posteriori identities
     Full Idea: There is such a thing as synthetic and a posteriori identity that is nonetheless genuine identity, as in lightning being electrical discharge, and the Morning Star being Venus.
     From: William Lycan (Introduction - Ontology [1999], p.5)
     A reaction: It is important to note that although these identities are synthetic a posteriori, that doesn't make them contingent. The early identity theorists like Smart seemed to think that it did. Kripke must be right that they are necessary identities.
p.6 p.6 Functionalism has three linked levels: physical, functional, and mental
     Full Idea: Functionalism has three distinct levels of description: a neurophysiological description, a functional description (relative to a program which the brain is realising), and it may have a further mental description.
     From: William Lycan (Introduction - Ontology [1999], p.6)
     A reaction: I have always thought that the 'levels of description' idea was very helpful in describing the mind/brain. I feel certain that we are dealing with a single thing, so this is the only way we can account for the diverse ways in which we discuss it.
p.9 p.9 A mental state is a functional realisation of a brain state when it serves the purpose of the organism
     Full Idea: Some theorists have said that the one-to-one correspondence between the organism and parts of its 'program' is too liberal, and suggest that the state and its functional role are seen teleologically, as functioning 'for' the organism.
     From: William Lycan (Introduction - Ontology [1999], p.9)
     A reaction: This seems an inevitable development, once the notion of a 'function' is considered. It has to be fitted into some sort of Aristotelian teleological picture, even if the functions are seen subjectively (by what?). Purpose is usually seen as evolutionary.
p.9 p.9 Biologists see many organic levels, 'abstract' if seen from below, 'structural' if seen from above
     Full Idea: Biologists don't split living things into a 'structural' level and an 'abstract' level; ..rather, they are organised at many levels, each level 'abstract' with respect to those beneath it, but 'structural' as it realises those levels above it.
     From: William Lycan (Introduction - Ontology [1999], p.9)
     A reaction: This is a very helpful distinction. Compare Idea 4601. It seems to fit well with the 'homuncular' picture of a hierarchical mind, and explains why there are so many levels of description available for mental life.
2000 Philosophy of Language
Ch. 1 p.13 Singular terms refer, using proper names, definite descriptions, singular personal pronouns, demonstratives, etc.
     Full Idea: The paradigmatic referring devices are singular terms, denoting particular items. In English these include proper names, definite descriptions, singular personal pronouns, demonstrative pronouns, and a few others.
     From: William Lycan (Philosophy of Language [2000], Ch. 1)
     A reaction: This list provides the agenda for twentieth century philosophy of language, since this is the point where language is supposed to hook onto the world.
Ch. 6 p.94 Could I successfully use an expression, without actually understanding it?
     Full Idea: Could I not know the use of an expression and fall in with it, mechanically, but without understanding it?
     From: William Lycan (Philosophy of Language [2000], Ch. 6)
     A reaction: In a foreign country, you might successfully recite a long complex sentence, without understanding a single word. This doesn't doom the 'use' theory, but it means that quite a lot of detail needs to be filled in.
Ch. 6 p.94 It is hard to state a rule of use for a proper name
     Full Idea: Proper names pose a problem for the "use" theorist. Try stating a rule of use for the name 'William G. Lycan'.
     From: William Lycan (Philosophy of Language [2000], Ch. 6)
     A reaction: Presumably it is normally used in connection with a particular human being, and is typically the subject of a grammatical sentence. Any piece of language could also be used to, say, attract someone's attention.
Ch. 8 p.120 Meaning must be known before we can consider verification
     Full Idea: How could we know whether a sentence is verifiable unless we already knew what it says?
     From: William Lycan (Philosophy of Language [2000], Ch. 8)
     A reaction: This strikes me as a devastating objection to verificationism. Lycan suggests that you can formulate a preliminary meaning, without accepting true meaningfulness. Maybe verification just concerns truth, and not meaning.
Ch. 9 p.136 The truth conditions theory sees meaning as representation
     Full Idea: The truth conditions theory sees meaning as representation.
     From: William Lycan (Philosophy of Language [2000], Ch. 9)
     A reaction: This suggests a nice connection to Fodor's account of intentional thinking. The whole package sounds right to me (though the representations need not be 'symbolic', or in mentalese).
Ch. 9 p.142 Truth conditions will come out the same for sentences with 'renate' or 'cordate'
     Full Idea: A Davidsonian truth theory will not be able to distinguish the meaning of a sentence containing 'renate' from that of one containing 'cordate'.
     From: William Lycan (Philosophy of Language [2000], Ch. 9)
     A reaction: One might achieve the distinction by referring to truth conditions in possible worlds, if there are possible worlds where some cordates are not renate. See Idea 7773.
Ch.10 p.150 A sentence's truth conditions is the set of possible worlds in which the sentence is true
     Full Idea: A sentence's truth conditions can be taken to be the set of possible worlds in which the sentence is true.
     From: William Lycan (Philosophy of Language [2000], Ch.10)
     A reaction: Presumably the meaning can't be complete possible worlds, so this must be a supplement to the normal truth conditions view proposed by Davidson. It particularly addresses the problem seen in Idea 7770.
Ch.10 p.153 Possible worlds explain aspects of meaning neatly - entailment, for example, is the subset relation
     Full Idea: The possible worlds construal affords an elegant algebra of meaning by way of set theory: e.g. entailment between sentences is just the subset relation - S1 entails S2 if S2 is true in any world in which S1 is true.
     From: William Lycan (Philosophy of Language [2000], Ch.10)
     A reaction: We might want to separate the meanings of sentences from their entailments (though Brandom links them, see Idea 7765).