Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A Priori Metaphysical Possibility (by guest blogger Jonathan Ichikawa)

Some philosophers think that we can't know any propositions to be possible a priori. One way to argue that we can't do this might go something like this: at best, you can only know something to be conceptually possible a priori; but conceptual possibility doesn't entail real (metaphysical) possibility, for which armchair investigation isn't enough. This is because, as Kripke demonstrated, some conceptual possibilities are metaphysically impossible.

(Hesperus is not Phosphorus is metaphysically impossible because 'Hesperus' and 'Phosphorus' refer rigidly to the same object ­something that requires empirical investigation to establish. But it seems in some sense conceivable. We might call this a mere conceptual possibility.)

I agree that not all conceptual possibilities are metaphysical possibilities. But I think that, given a priori access to conceptual possibility and conceptual impossibility, we can get some a priori access to metaphysical possibility. Because I think there is an a priori link between conceptual and metaphysical possibility.

Here's a principle that might be true and a priori:

For any proposition q, if q is conceptually possible but metaphysically impossible, then there is some conceptually possible proposition p such that p -> []~q is conceptually necessary. (That's a material conditional and the box of metaphysical necessity.)

Why believe this principle? For one thing, for any such q, ~q is an a posteriori necessity, and a posteriori necessities follow a priori from empirical facts and concept possession. Since all empirical facts are conceptually possible, this is sufficient to prove the principle.

This principle gives us an a priori test for metaphysical possibility. (I'm assuming a priori conceptual modality.) Take some conceptually possible proposition q. If it is conceptually impossible that some conceptually possible proposition p is such that p conceptually entails necessarily not-q, then q is genuinely metaphysically possible.

For instance, it is conceptually possible for the Bears to have won the 2007 Super Bowl. Furthermore, there is no conceivable proposition p such that it is a priori that if p, then it is metaphysically impossible for the Bears to have won the 2007 Super Bowl. Therefore, it is metaphysically possible for the Bears to have won the 2007 Super Bowl.

If this is right, then one upshot is that it's worth getting clear on what conceptual possibility amounts to, and how it works.

I'd like to thank Eric for the opportunity to guest-blog for the past few weeks, and to thank everyone who's read and offered valuable comments. I hope and believe that this has helped get me back into the habit of philosophical blogging ­ I'll be continuing back at my own blog, There is Some Truth in That. I hope to see some of you there.

[And from Eric: Thanks so much, Jonathan, for your thought-provoking posts!]

Monday, February 26, 2007

Is Philosophy Ever Profound?

I can't recall ever having had the inclination to call a bit of philosophy "profound". I've been wondering recently what's behind attributions of profundity.

The opposite of profound might be "superficial". I do think some philosophy is superficial. For example, if one critiques Descartes's Meditations by complaining that he ignores somatic sensations in the gut, that critique is superficial (unless one draws something interesting and general from that observation). But it doesn't seem to follow that any critique of the Meditations that fails to be superficial is consequently profound.

Is profundity a matter of striking at the core of an issue? Berkeley strikes at the core of our conception of "material objects" in his suggestion that there are none such, but only minds and their experiences, co-ordinated by God. Ayer strikes at the heart of ethics when he says there are no moral facts. Yet these thinkers are not, I believe, the sort often labeled profound. Nor are those who give straightforward responses to their arguments in defense of mainstream opinion. Perhaps their views are too clear and comprehensible to be profound?

A philosopher writes about a matter of considerable importance; it's hard entirely to understand what he is saying, but you get hints and glimmers; any attempt to express it in familiar terms (or in newly-invented but clearly articulated terms) seems to fall short; straightforward objections seem to miss the mark, because they depend on exactly what the text does not provide, a plain interpretation that cannot plausibly be shifted to accommodate difficulties. If you are prone to philosophical trust -- if you believe that there is an elusive truth behind the text that you don't quite understand and that plain-speaking philosophers always (even necessarily?) miss -- then perhaps you will consider the text profound. Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Wittgenstein invite this sort of attitude. In contemporary "analytic" circles, maybe Davidson and McDowell do (among devotees).

If I think no philosophy is profound, then maybe that's because I am not much prone to philosophical trust, and because I am doubtful that there are any important philosophical truths so complex that they cannot be clearly stated in 400 pages.

Or, maybe, emitting evocative hints and glimmers that defy clear interpretation and engender interesting thoughts in others -- maybe that just is profundity?

Friday, February 23, 2007

Dreaming, Belief, and Emotion (by guest blogger Jonathan Ichikawa)

Colin McGinn thinks that we believe what we dream. In his book Mindsight, McGinn raises lots of questions about dreaming and imagination, but only briefly considers the suggestion that we "no more believe our dreams than we believe our daytime reveries." That's my view. He rejects it on the grounds that without invoking belief, we cannot explain our emotional involvement with dreams. Here's a quote:

The sure test that dreams are suffused with belief is their ability to generate emotions that are conditional on belief, such as fear and elation—with which dreams are full. (p. 112)

The problem for the imagination model, then, can be stated thus:

(1) When I dream that p, I experience fear, elation, and other emotions of a certain type.
(2) Emotions like fear and elation, arising from an attitude that p, can only arise from a belief that p. Therefore,
(3) When I dream that p, I believe that p.

This argument strikes me as pretty bad. This parallels a puzzle in the philosophy of literature involving emotional responses to fictions. Fictions arouse emotions in us without causing belief; we seem to be happy that p, even though we do not believe that p. This is what philosophers of literature call the "Paradox of Fiction," and it takes the form of an apparently-inconsistent triad:

(1') When I read in a fiction that p, I experience fear, elation, and other emotions of a certain type.
(2) Emotions like fear and elation, arising from an attitude that p, can only arise from a belief that p. Therefore,
(3') When I read in a fiction that p, I do not believe that p.

It is generally accepted that (3') is true, so philosophers of fiction agree that it is either (1') or (2) that has to go. We may, with Kendall Walton, deny that we really experience fear and elation, but rather experience different, similar states, which he calls quasi-fear and quasi-elation. Or, we may say with Derek Matravers and others that belief isn't really necessary for fear; imagination can also play the role that belief often plays in fear, and likewise for the other emotions. I prefer the latter option, but I think it's obvious that one of these has to be right.

If we take the latter option to solve our puzzle about fiction, then we have also directly avoided the problem for the imagination model by denying the shared premise (2). If, on the other hand, we insist that these emotions include a cognitive element, denying instead that fictions really generate these emotions, then we may very well ask whether dreams really generate them either. It will be, perhaps, more plausible if we qualify our denial of emotional involvement in dreams thus: dreams don't involve emotions, except in the way that fictions do.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Leaving for Yue Today and Arriving Yesterday

Little is known about the ancient Chinese philosopher Huizi (or Hui Tzu, c. 300 BCE), but some of his paradoxes survive in the remoter chapters of the Zhuangzi. It's diverting to consider what reasoning might lie behind them. For example:

* I left for Yue today and arrived yesterday.
* I know the center of the world: It is north of Yen [in the north] and south of Yue [in the south].
* An egg has feathers.
* Wheels never touch the ground.
* No matter how swift the barbed arrow, there are times when it is neither moving nor at rest.
* Take a pole one foot long, cut away half of it every day, and at the end of ten thousand generations there will still be some left.
[Burton Watson, trans., except the first which is mine.]

The last two of these paradoxes are surprisingly close to Zero's famous paradoxes of motion in ancient Greece. (It is highly doubtful there was any influence.)

Consider the first of these: I left for Yue today and arrived yesterday. Is there any way to make sense of it?

Well, the following are plausible principles:
(a.) The last day you are in a locale is the day you left.
(b.) The first day you are in a locale is the day you arrived.
(c.) You are in a locale if at least 50% of your body is in that locale.

Now suppose I crossed over the border of Yue at exactly midnight, so that 50% of my body was in my home state at that instant and 50% was in Yue at that instant. It follows from (c) that:
(d.) I was in my home state both yesterday and today.
(e.) I was in Yue both yesterday and today.

By (a) and (d), I left for Yue today. However, by (b) and (e), I arrived yesterday.

The New Philosophers Carnival Is...


Monday, February 19, 2007

Do We Believe What We Dream? (by guest blogger Jonathan Ichikawa)

I guess it's pretty standard to think that when we dream that p, we believe that p. Why?

To clarify the question: obviously, if I dream that I'm a famous opera singer (when in fact I am not a famous opera singer), it's part of the dream that I believe I'm an opera singer, and it's false that I'm an opera singer. But the question I'm engaging in isn't whether I believe it in the dream; it's whether in fact I believe it during the time that I'm dreaming. (Compare: in the dream I am performing at the Met; in fact, I am in my bed, which is not at the Met.)

If I knew the correct theory of belief, this might not be too hard a question to answer. We'd just see whether my dream state falls under that theory. Unfortunately, I don't know what the right theory of belief is. But it looks to me like most of the candidate theories will make the "you believe what you dream" view problematic. That's good news for me, because I reject that view -- but it also makes me wonder whether I'm missing something, in light of the fact that the dream belief view is so standard.

So are there plausible views about belief on which it turns out that we believe what we dream? Laura is sleeping in bed, dreaming that she is in England. What could make it true that she believes herself to be in England?

Some philosophers hold that beliefs necessarily play a certain kind of functional role; that what it is for a mental representation to be a belief is for it to play a distinctive belief-like role in a subject's cognitive economy. But, dream beliefs do not appear to play many of the same functional roles as do prototypical beliefs. Functionalists are of course free to specify which cognitive functions are distinctive of belief, but I am skeptical about there being a satisfactory specification of the functional role of belief that includes Laura's representation I am in England, but excludes obvious non-beliefs, like the representation Laura has when she fantasizes about being in England while awake.

Likewise, if one is tempted by an interpretationalist or dispositionalist theory of belief, one will have difficulty granting belief status to dream beliefs. Let's observe Laura as she's dreaming. On what basis can we ascribe to her the belief that she is in England? She is not behaving as if she is in England – she is not
looking to the right before crossing streets. Neither does she give us utterances that are best interpreted as expressions of the belief that she is in England, so any kind of Davidsonian radical interpretation is out of the question. Indeed, she's exhibiting very little behavior at all, since she is asleep. What is it about Laura in virtue of which she believes she is in England?

Eric, I think, has defended a view relating beliefs to long-term dispositions -- Laura's I'm in England representation definitely isn't one of those. It'll be gone when she wakes up, if not sooner! Maybe Eric can clarify whether I'm interpreting his view right, and how dreaming could fit in.

So, why would anybody think we believe what we dream?

Friday, February 16, 2007

Do Atheists Commit Less Vicious Sexual Crimes?

This article suggests so. From the abstract:

This article examines associations between self-reported religious affiliations and official offense histories among 111 incarcerated adult male sexual offenders. Four categories of religiosity were devised according to self-reported continuities and discontinuities in life-course religious affiliations: atheists, dropouts, converts, and stayers. ANCOVAs indicated that stayers (those who maintained religious involvement from childhood to adulthood) had more sexual offense convictions, more victims, and younger victims, than other groups. Results challenge assumptions that religious involvement should, as with other crimes, serve to deter sexual offending behavior....

One is reminded, of course, of the Catholic church's troubles over the last several years. The average age of the youngest victim of the "stayers" was 9.5 years.

A few caveats: (1.) "Atheists" just means comparatively low reported religiosity, both childhood and present, and may not correspond to full-blown atheism. (2.) One cannot draw the conclusion that atheists are less likely, in general, to commit sex crimes, since rates of atheism and religiosity were not measured in the general population. (3.) The researchers (Donna Eshuys and Stephen Smallbone) seem to overlook the possibility that the "stayers" may come from a sub-population in which sex crimes are less likely to be detected and/or lead to jail time, in which case one might expect only the worst offenders to be incarcerated; or that maybe the more vicious sexual offenders are more likely to exaggerate their religiosity.

The general literature on the relationship between religiosity and crime is mixed and difficult to interpret. If only we could randomly assign religiosity! ;) Unfortunately, the social factors affecting religiosity are entangled with those affecting criminality. Furthermore, the literature may be distorted by the fact that null results are hard to publish and by the prior commitments of the researchers (many are from religiously affiliated institutions, for example).

Why do I care about this issue? Well, if academic moral philosophy has no great positive effect on one's moral character (as I'm inclined to think), then one might hope for religion as a better source. I'm not especially optimistic about that either (though I have some hope that there may be particular religious practices with positive moral effect), but I haven't yet explored the empirical literature as much as I'd like.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Dreaming in Color (by guest blogger Jonathan Ichikawa)

Thanks to everyone for some really interesting discussions about methodology last week. I found them valuable, and will continue to think about them. But for now, I'd like to turn to a discussion of a different issue.

One of my pet theories is the imagination model of dreaming. I used to blog about it on Fake Barn Country (may it rest in peace) a lot. According to the imagination model of dreaming, when we dream, we do not have false beliefs, as Descartes assumed we do. Instead, we imagine things, much the same way we imagine when engaging with fictions or deliberate daydreams. Similarly, on this model, we don't experience percepts -- the kinds of sensory experiences we have while perceiving -- while dreaming. Instead, we have imagery experiences.

My first contact with our Splintered Mind host was through this 2002 paper: Eric Schwitzgebel, "Why Did We Think We Dreamed in Black and White?", Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 33 (2002), 649-660. Eric remarks on a surprising pattern: In the 1950s, just about everybody thought that dreaming was a black and white phenomenon. Dreaming in color was considered a sign of insanity. Today, most of us report that we regularly dream in color. How strange!

Eric theorizes that the explanation may have to do with the predominant film media. People who watch black and white movies describe themselves as dreaming in black and white; nowadays we self-attribute technicolor dreams. He's got some cool data to support this theory.

I think that if this theory is right, it provides support for the imagination model of dreaming. If the sensory-like content of dream experience is pretty much like waking experience, it's very weird that black-and-white movies should make dream experience black and white. Watching black-and-white movies doesn't cause my waking experiences to be black-and-white. The imagination theorist's explanation is much easier. He may say that the familiarity of black-and-white film associates black-and-white imagery with imaginary events; when I tell myself a story while sleeping, I imagine watching it occur, and I do so in black and white, because that's what I'm used to in fictions.

Monday, February 12, 2007

What is "Rationalization"?

Kant concludes Chapter One of the Groundwork suggesting that the value of formal moral philosophy over "common" moral reasoning is this: It serves as a counterweight to our tendency to be led astray in our moral thinking by wishes and inclinations. One might say it helps us guard against rationalizing.

On the other hand, one might worry that moral philosophy actually gives such powerful tools for rationalization that we're better off going with our common-sense gut feelings about right and wrong.

I don't aim to addres that (partly empirical) dispute now. But it does raise the question, What exactly is rationalization, in this pejorative sense? Philosophers haven't discussed this much (though Al Mele has a nice piece in PPQ 1998).

Here are two first approximations:
(1.) A moral conclusion that X is permissible is a rationalization if it flows from a reasoning, or quasi-reasoning, process with the goal (conscious or not) of justifying X. [The "goal" account.]
(2.) A moral conclusion that X is permissible is a rationalization if it flows from a reasoning, or quasi-reasoning, process that was bound to result in the judgment that X is permissible, largely independently of the quality of the reasons for that conclusion, because the reasoner is influenced by non-moral considerations. [The "predetermination" account.]

(1) and (2) are often related: If you aim to justify doing X then you might not be very sensitive to the quality of the reasons in its favor. But the two can come apart.

(A.) Goal without predetermination: I start thinking about whether it would be okay to ask a co-worker out on a date. I think about the question primarily because I want to come to the conclusion that it is okay. And I do come to that conclusion. However, it actually is morally permissible in this case, and had it not been I wouldn't have come to the conclusion that it was.

(B.) Predetermination without goal: I am so enchanted by the idea of a communist revolution that I can't think straight about it. I sincerely want to reject a particular act of communist revolutionizing if it's morally wrong, but I can't give it a fair hearing in my mind; so almost regardless of how poor the reasons, I will endorse it.

It seems to me that (B) is more usefully (and intuitively) thought of as "rationalizing" than (A), thus favoring the predetermination account.

Note by the way that neither account appeals to the quality of the reasons. For example, no matter how sound my justification for the permissibility of the revolutionizing, if my goals and sensitivities in employing that reasoning aren't right, I'm still rationalizing.

(These ideas arose in conversation with UCR grad student Joshua Hollowell and are as much his ideas as my own. I post them here with his permission.)

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Why Do People Worry about Whether Intuitions Are Evidence? (by guest blogger Jonathan Ichikawa)

I wanted to say a little more about philosophical methodology and naturalistic challenges to a priori investigation. A key point of dispute between, let's call them, naturalists and rationalists, seems to involve the proper role of intuitions in philosophical methodology.

Again, I'll start by describing a hypothetical disagreement, running the risk of caricaturing the arguments in question. If that's what I'm doing, it will be instructive to see how the real views are different from my presentations of them here.

Archie: Consider twin earth, which is kind of like regular earth, but where there's no H20. Instead, there's this other stuff XYZ, which is not H20, but is superficially very similar to H20. It's clear and quenches thirst, etc. Introspecting, we discover in ourselves the rational intuition that XYZ is not water. Intuitions are good evidence; therefore, XYZ is not water. Therefore, externalism about content is true.

Eddie: It's not rational to blindly treat your so-called "rational intuitions" as evidence. We can't calibrate our intuitions to check their reliability, and it's totally mysterious how it is that they could be reliable. We shouldn't just trust them. We should go administer surveys instead. If we want to know whether XYZ is water, we have to go see how the folk use the word 'water'.

In my last dialogue, I claimed there was no real disagreement, even though they clearly thought there was. This time, I think they're both agreeing to something silly. According to traditional methodology, our intuitions are supposed to be evidence? Why? I think the most attractive position is this one: Experimental Eddie is right that we shouldn't treat our intuitions as evidence, but both he and Armchair Archie are wrong that traditional methodology commits to intuitions as evidence.

When I judge that that stuff on twin earth is not water, how shall we understand the reasoning I run through? Not, I suggest, like Archie said:

(1) I have the intuition that XYZ isn't water. (introspection)
(2) So, XYZ isn't water. (1, principle about intuitions)

(I'm omitting (3) So, content externalism.) Instead, we can understand the reasoning as not involving any premise about intuitions, or based on introspection, at all:

(3) All and only H20 is water.
(4) XYZ isn't H20.
(5) So, XYZ isn't water.

This argument is valid and plausibly represents the reasoning we go through to ourselves. And no premise is based on introspection or a claim about an 'intuition'.

Someone will say: "but the only way you could know (3) is by intuition." Since I don't know what intuitions are, I won't try to evaluate that claim; the point is that (3) is something that everybody should agree we can know, and that therefore its invocation in this judgment about a thought experiment shouldn't be problematic. (Do you doubt that we know (3)? That's to doubt whether we can recognize the possibility of fake water.)

This argument, of course, is a posteriori, because premise (3) is. But there's an a priori version of it, too:

(3') All and only things that are F are water, where 'F' stands for whatever it is that it turns out makes up water.
(4') XYZ is not made up of F.
(5) So, XYZ isn't water.

Whenever possible, we should avoid putting argument in terms of 'intuitions'. I suggest that this is almost always the case.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

"Experimental Philosophy" -- Wide and Narrow

I'm a philosopher. For some reason, this hasn't prevented me from running experiments when I've felt they could shine some light on an issue troubling me. (I examined whether people still reported dreaming in black and white in the U.S. and in China, as part of exploring how well we know our own stream of experience; for similar reasons, I've given people beepers and had them report on their sensory experience; I'm also trying various things aimed at discerning whether ethicists behave better than other people.) By 20th-century standards, this is highly unusual behavior for a philosopher!

But as I'm sure you've noticed, this is the 21st century. I must be a man of my times, for I find I have company -- most notably the company of a group who call themselves "Experimental Philosophers" and perceive themselves, self-consciously, as a movement -- with a blog, for example, and bibliographies. As a movement, Experimental Philosophy ("X-Phi"!) has received considerable attention, both positive and negative (e.g., here and here).

The philosophers most central to this movement tend to poll undergraduates regarding their moral intuitions or their intuitions about traditional philosophical examples and puzzles. Tired of hearing one philosopher say something like, "Well, of course, our ordinary intuition in cases like X is such-and-such" and another respond with "Well, I don't have that intuition!", they quite sensibly decided to go out and see what people's intuitions actually were. Only in philosophy would it take sixty years to think of doing this! (I chose sixty years as approximately the beginning of the tendency to take ordinary intuition as the principal court of philosophical appeal; it's salutary to reflect on the brevity of this period relative to the entire history of philosophy.)

One might doubt how much we can learn about the world by polling undergraduate intuition (other than learning what undergraduate intuitions are -- which is actually a pretty important thing), but at a minimum the movement should put to an end cavalier philosophical appeals to ordinary intuition. It's good metaphilosophical conscience.

Construed as such a project, experimental philosophy is relatively fresh, controversial, and coherent as a movement. But here's the strange thing: Such philosophers often characterize "experimental philosophy" as experimental work done by philosophers [caveat: see comments section] to shine light on philosophical disputes (e.g., here). In this broader sense, "experimental philosophy" is much less coherent as a movement, and much older; and much of it is hard to distinguish from the sorts of things psychologists do.

In discussions of "experimental philosophy" I think there's often a problematic ambiguity between these broad and narrow senses, as though, implicitly, the participants assume that polling intuitions is the only kind of experimentation a philosopher could do that would shed light on a genuinely philosophical dispute....

Monday, February 05, 2007

What Do Analytic Philosophers Analyze? (by guest blogger Jonathan Ichikawa)

Hello, Splintered Mind readers! I'm pleased to be guest-blogging, and
thanks to Eric for the invitation. I'm looking forward to some good
discussions over the next couple of weeks.

I thought I'd start off with a question in philosophical methodology.
There's a certain kind of disagreement that sometimes comes up about
how to go about doing philosophy -- it connects to lots of deep
issues, and from the way people talk about it, it sure seems like it's
a big ideological disagreement, but I have a pretty hard time wrapping
my head around just what the disagreement is supposed to be.

The debate I have in mind tends to occur between traditional
philosophers who think that lots of interesting philosophy is a
, and philosophers who think that we have to go out and do
empirical investigation to learn anything interesting. Roughly -- and
only roughly -- speaking, some philosophers like thought experiments,
and others like psychological experiments.

Sometimes, I feel debate between these camps goes something like this.
Maybe I'm caricaturing, but I don't think so:

Archie: I'm using a priori investigation to learn about the
nature of knowledge.

Eddie: When you say 'knowledge', are you talking about something out
there in the world? Or are you just studying the concept of

Archie: Oh, I definitely am interested in knowledge out there in
the world
. I'm using a priori investigation to learn which
things are instances of knowledge -- that thing out there in
the world.

Eddie: That's hopeless. How can a priori investigation teach
you something about something out there in the world? At best, a
investigation could give you insight into which things fall
under the concept knowledge. That's a merely psychological

Archie: No, it's not just a psychological question -- I agree that
would be uninteresting. I'm learning about the nature of knowledge,
that thing in the world!

You may anticipate my confusion from the way I set up this dialogue.
I can't see what this disagreement is supposed to be about. Here are
the two questions that we're supposed to be contrasting:

(1) Which things are knowledge?
(2) Which things fall under the concept KNOWLEDGE?

But these two questions are identical. Or, at least they're
equivalent. For after all, it is a tautology that all and only things
that are knowledge are things that fall under the concept KNOWLEDGE.

So what is it that this disagreement is supposed to be about? It
can't be that Armchair Archie is illicitly attempting to adjudicate
from the armchair what actual cases of knowledge there are in the
world, because this would be an obvious and ridiculous mistake. It
can't be that Experimental Eddie's question presupposes that
'knowledge' is a natural kind term, because it doesn't; "which things
are trains?" has just the same structure as "which things are
knowledge?", and nobody thinks trains are natural kinds.
(Furthermore, "Which things fall under the concept WATER?" can't be
answered a priori.)

So what gives? Is there a genuine disagreement in the ballpark?

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Parable of the Farmer of Song (Mengzi 2A2)

No, he doesn't harvest music!

One must work at it, but do not aim at it directly. Let the heart not forget, but do not help it grow. Do not be like the man from Song (Sung). Among the people of the state of Song there was one who, concerned lest his grain not grow, pulled on it. Wearily, he returned home, and said to his family, 'Today I am worn out. I helped the grain to grow.' His son rushed out and looked at it. The grain was withered. Those in the world who do not help the grain to grow are few. Those who abandon it, thinking it will not help, are those who do not weed their grain. Those who help it grow are those who pull on the grain. Not only does this not help, but it even harms it.

This parable appears in the middle of a larger fragment, Mengzi (Mencius) 2A2 (Bryan Van Norden, trans.). The standard interpretation these days (e.g. P.J. Ivanhoe) is this. Just as the man of Song harms his grain by trying to force it to grow, so also we can harm our moral development by trying to perform grand acts of morality before we are psychologically ready to do so -- i.e., before we'd feel happy and unresentful doing so.

Two considerations may seem to compel this interpretation. First, Mengzi often uses agricultural metaphors to talk about the cultivation of moral goodness. And second, the sentence preceding the parable is: "Consequently, I say that Gaozi never understood righteousness, because he regarded it as external." Hence, the "it" at the beginning of the parable might naturally be understood as "righteousness".

But here are two problems: First, its plausibility. It seems strange to say that "Those in the world who do not help the grain [i.e. morality] to grow are few." Are people generally as eager to work at becoming more virtuous as this farmer is to help his grain? And furthermore, is trying to force oneself to be virtuous such a bad thing? -- something that generally harms one's moral development?

Second, Mengzi never says, anywhere else, anything like "That would be a morally good thing to do, but you would resent doing it, so you shouldn't do it. Take it slow, instead." On the contrary, Mengzi seems to demand instant moral behavior from everyone and is unsatisfied with half-measures (e.g. 3B8, 7A39, 1A3).

A better interpretation of the parable, I think, comes from looking at 2A2 as a whole. 2A2 begins with long discussion of the "unperturbed heart", the "floodlike qi [breath/vital-energy]", and courage. The kind of courage Mengzi most admires is strength of moral conviction (which seems to be the core of "sageness", e.g., in 5B1) -- not being blown about by the winds of circumstance and drawn away from one's convictions by the temptations of personal advantage. If no circumstance, good or bad, could perturb your heart and interfere with your breath [qi], then you will be unshakeable from morality: This is having a "floodlike qi". Immediately before the parable of the farmer is this:

Gongsun Chou said, "I venture to ask what is meant by 'floodlike qi.'"

Mengzi said, "It is difficult to put into words. It is a qi that is supremely great and supremely unyielding. If one cultivates it with uprightness and does not harm it, it will fill up the space between Heaven and earth. It is a qi that unites righteousness with the Way. Without these, it starves. It is produced by accumulated righteousness. It cannot be obtained by a seizure of righteousness. If some of one's actions leave one's heart unsatisfied, it will starve. Consequently, I say that Gaozi never understood righteousness, because he regarded it as external."

In this broader context, I'd suggest the parable is not about the cultivation of morality or righteousness per se but rather about the cultivation of a floodlike qi -- i.e., steadfastness of character. Plainly this is related to morality for Mengzi, but it is not the same.

What is it, then, to try to force one's character to grow, per the farmer of Song? Maybe this: Overestimate one's steadfastness. Allow oneself to be put into situations that bring out the bad in people, thinking that you can resist in a way others can't -- allowing yourself that "one more drink", saying to yourself "I won't yield to temptation this time", or "politics won't corrupt me", or "if I get [money, power, influence, the promotion, etc.] I won't be like those other people". There are few of us who don't overestimate ourselves in that way; and so overestimating ourselves we put ourselves in situations that greatly harm our moral character.

This interpretation, although only subtly different from the standard, is different enough to avoid the latter's difficulties.