Welcome to the latest incarnation of Maverick Philosopher. This post will remain at the top of the queue to give new and some old readers an idea of what this site is and isn't, what goes on here, and what is not permitted to go on here. Like the site itself, this introductory page is under permanent construction and reconstruction. It will take shape bit by bit over the coming weeks and months.
1. Why 'Maverick Philosopher'? Since I am a philosopher and what is done here is mainly philosophy, it is appropriate that 'philosopher' be in the title. As for 'maverick,' this word derives from the name of the Texas lawyer Samuel Augustus Maverick (1803-1870) who for a time was a rancher who ran cattle that bore no brand. These unbranded animals of his came to be known as mavericks. The term was then extended to cover any unbranded stock and later any person who holds himself aloof from the herd, bears no 'brand,' resists classification, strives to be independent in his thinking or mode of living, is religiously or politically unaffiliated, and the like. (Cf. Robert Hendrickson, QPB Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, p. 473.)
According to Atran, people who decapitate journalists, filmmakers, and aid workers to cries of “Alahu akbar!” or blow themselves up in crowds of innocents are led to misbehave this way not because of their deeply held beliefs about jihad and martyrdom but because of their experience of male bonding in soccer clubs and barbershops. (Really.) So I asked Atran directly:
“Are you saying that no Muslim suicide bomber has ever blown himself up with the expectation of getting into Paradise?”
“Yes,” he said, “that’s what I’m saying. No one believes in Paradise.”
This post assumes that Harris has fairly and accurately reported Atran's view. If you think he hasn't then substitute 'Atran*' for 'Atran' below. Atran* holds by definition the view I will be criticizing.
If we are to be as charitable to Atran as possible, we would have to say that he holds his strange view because he himself does not believe in the Muslim paradise and he cannot imagine anyone else really believing in it either. So Muslims who profess to believe in Paradise with its black-eyed virgins, etc. are merely mouthing phrases. What makes this preposterous is that Atran ignores the best evidence one could have as to what a person believes, namely, the person's overt behavior taken in the context of his verbal avowals. Belief is linked to action. If I believe I have a flat tire, I will pull over and investigate. If I say 'We have a flat tire" but keep on driving, then you know that I don't really believe that we have a flat tire.
Same with the Muslim terrorist. If he invokes the greatness of his god while decapitating someone, then that is the best possible evidence that he believes in the existence of his god and what that god guarantees to the faithful, namely, an endless supply of post-mortem carnal delights. This is particularly clear in the case of jihadis such as suicide bombers. The verbal avowals indicate the content of the belief while the action indicates that the content is believed.
Now compare this very strong evidence with the evidence Atran has for the proposition that "No one believes in Paradise." His only evidence is astonishingly flimsy: that he and his ilk cannot imagine anyone believing what Muslims believe. But that involves both a failure of imagination and a projection into the Other of one's own attitudes.
The problem here is a general one.
"I don't believe that, and you don't either!"
"But I do!"
"No you don't, you merely think you believe it or are feigning belief."
"Look at what I do, and how I live. The evidence of my actions, which costs me something, in the context of what I say, is solid evidence that I do believe what I claim to believe."
Example. Years ago I heard Mario Cuomo say at a Democratic National Convention that the life of the politician was the noblest and best life. I was incredulous and thought to myself: Cuomo cannot possibly believe what he just said! But then I realized that he most likely does believe it and that I was making the mistake of assuming that others share my values and assumptions and attitudes.
It is a bad mistake to project one's own values, beliefs, attitudes , assumptions and whatnot into others.
Most of the definitions of psychological projection I have read imply that it is only undesirable attitudes, beliefs and the like that are the contents of acts of projection. But it seems to me that the notion of projection should be widened to include desirable ones as well. The desire for peace and social harmony, for example, is obviously good. But it too can be the content of an act of psychological projection. A pacifist, for example, may assume that others deep down are really like he is: peace-loving to such an extent as to avoid war at all costs. A pacifist might reason as follows: since everyone deep down wants peace, and abhors war, if I throw down my weapon, my adversary will do likewise. By unilaterally disarming, I show my good will, and he will reciprocate. But if you throw down your weapon before Hitler, he will take that precisely as justification for killing you: since might makes right on his neo-Thrasymachian scheme, you have shown by your pacific deed that you are unfit for the struggle for existence and therefore deserve to die, and indeed must die to keep from polluting the gene pool.
Projection in cases like these can be dangerous. One oftens hears the sentiment expressed that we human beings are at bottom all the same and all want the same things. Not so! You and I may want "harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding" but others have belligerence and bellicosity as it were hard-wired into them. They like fighting and dominating and they only come alive when they are bashing your skull in either literally or figuratively. People are not the same and it is a big mistake to think otherwise and project your decency into them.
I said that the psychologists classify projection as a defense mechanism. But how could the projection of good traits count as a defense mechanism? Well, I suppose that by engaging in such projections one defends oneself against the painful realization that the people in the world are much worse than one would have liked to believe. Many of us have a strong psychological need to see good in other people, and that can give rise to illusions. There is good and evil in each person, and one must train oneself to accurately discern how much of each is present in each person one encounters.
God is self-existent. The universe is not. As Hugh McCann puts it, unexceptionably, "the universe is directly dependent on God for its entire being, as far as time extends." (Creation and the Sovereignty of God, Indiana UP, 2012, p. 27.) God is a sustaining causa prima active at every moment of the universe's existence, not a mere cosmic starter-upper. Now if God is self-existent or a se, while the universe depends for its entire being (existence, reality) at each instant of its career on the self-existent creator, then I say that God and the universe cannot be equally real. God is more real, indeed supremely real. The universe is less real because derivatively real. The one has its being from itself, the other from another. I say that there is a difference in their mode of existence: both exist but they exist in different ways. McCann, however, will have none of this:
Existence does not admit of degrees. A world sustained by God is . . . as real as it could [would] be if it sustained itself. (Ibid.)
Let's see if we can sort this out.
0. To keep this short, I will not now worry about the difference, if any, between modes of existence and degrees of existence.
1. The underlying question is whether it is intelligible to posit modes of existence or modes of being. I maintain that it is intelligible and that it is simply a dogma of (most) analytic philosophers to deny the intelligibility of talk of modes of existence. See my "Existence: Two Dogmas of Analysis" in Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives in Metaphysics, eds. Novotny and Novak, Routledge Studies in Metaphysics, forthcoming. But not only is it intelligible to posit modes of existence, in several areas of philosophy it is mandatory. The present subject is one of them.
2. One thing McCann and I will agree on is that there is a sense of 'exist(s)' according to which God and the universe exist in exactly the same way. This is the quantifier sense. Let 'g' be an individual constant denoting God and 'u' an individual constant denoting our universe. We can then write
For some x, x = g
For some x, x = u.
Removing the individual constants and replacing them with a free variable yields the predicate expression 'for some x, x = y.' I grant that this predicate is univocal in sense regardless of the value of 'y.' In plain English the predicate is 'Something is identical to ___.' So in the quantifier sense of 'exist(s),' God and the universe exist in the same way, or rather in no way: they just exist. In the quantifier sense of 'exist(s),' it makes no sense to speak of modes of existence or degrees of existence. Isentity-with-something-or-other does not admit of degrees. So in the qauntifier sense of 'exist(s),' It makes no sense to say that God is more real or more existent than the universe.
In the quantifier sense of 'exist(s),' then, existence does not admit of degrees and no distinction of mode or degree can be made between a universe sustained by God and a self-sustaining universe. If this is what McCann is saying, then I agree.
But please note that the quantifier sense presupposes a first-level sense. It is trivially true (if we are not Meinongians) that Socrates exists iff something is identical to Socrates. This presupposes, however, the singular existence of the individual that is identical to Socrates. Now while there cannot be modes of quantifier or general existence, there can very well be modes of singular existence. (The arguments aginst this are all unsound as I argue in my Routledge article.) God and Socrates are both singular and both exist. But they exist in different ways. The same goes for God and the created universe as a whole
That was but an assertion. Now for an argument.
3. McCann tells us that the universe U has the same reality whether it is self-existent or entirely dependent on God for its existence. But then what would be the difference between U as self-existent and U as non-self-existent? The things in it and their properties would be the same, and so would the laws of nature. Perhaps I will be told that in the one case U has the property aseity while in the other case it does not. But what is aseity? Aseity is just the property of being self-existent. Existence, however, is not a quidditative property, and neither is self-existence: they do not pertain to what a thing is. U is what it is whether it exists from itself or from another. It follows that aseity is not a quidditative property. The conclusion to draw is that aseity is a way of existing or a mode of existence.
In sum: there is a difference between U as self-existent and U as non-self-existent (dependent on God). This difference is not a quidditative difference. The nature of U is the same whether it self-exists or not. Nor is it a difference in general or quantifier existence: both are something. The difference is a difference in mode of singular existence. God and the universe exist in different ways or modes. These three questions need to be distinguished: What is it? Is it? How is it?
4. Could one say that the difference between U as self-existent and U as non-self-existent is that in the one case U is related to God but in the other case U is not? This cannot be right since God confers existence upon U. (McCann very plausibly argues that secondary or natural causation is not existence-conferring; primary or divine causation is and must be, as McCann of course maintains.) U is nothing apart from divine existence-conferral. It is not as if God exists and U exists, both in the sdame way, and they are tied by a relation of creation. Creation cannot be a relation logically subsequent to the existence of G and U: U has no existence apart from this relation. It is siply nothing apart from God. But this amounts to saying that U exists is a different way than G. U exists-dependently while G exists-independently. One can abstract from this difference and say that both exist in the general or quantifier sense, but that is a mere abstraction. U and G in their concrete singularity exist in different ways.
5. God is not a being among beings, but Being itself. This is a consequence of the divine simplicity affirmed by McCann in his final chapter. God is self-existent in virtue of being Existence itself. McCann's commitment to the divine simplicity is logically inconsistent with his claim that "A world sustained by God is . . . as real as it could [would] be if it sustained itself."
In his excellent book McCann resurrects and defends certain Thomist themes without realizing that some of these themes are inconsistent with key tenets of analytic orthodoxy, chiefly, the dogma that there are no modes of existence.
"As democracy is perfected, the office of the President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be occupied by a downright fool and complete narcissistic moron." – - H. L. Mencken, The Baltimore Evening Sun, July 26, 1920 (Via Bill Keezer, via Keith Burgess-Jackson)
The great and glorious day is come, my friends, and we finally have the president we deserve. God help us.
According to Snopes, the above quotation is not verbatim, but it is accurate in the main. See Snopes for context.
Just minutes before ambling by your place and seeing your link to Brooks, I had run across this riposte. It's worth a look, I think.
This administration has aggressively sought to hollow out all the mediating layers of civil society that stand between the atomized citizen and the Leviathan (those civil associations having been discussed by Tocqueville as by far the most important part of American life). I think Brooks is right that the "solitary naked individual" can easily feel himself alone against the "gigantic and menacing State", but it can go the other way too: the radically atomized individual -- for whom the traditional embedding in civil society, with its web of mutually supportive associations and obligations, no longer exists -- is left with only the State as friend, protector, and provider. This was creepily evident in, e.g., the Obama campaign's horrifying Life of Julia slideshow, in which a faceless female goes from childhood to dotage with, apparently, no human interactions whatsoever, and subsisting entirely upon the blessings that flow from the federal behemoth.
In the article I linked above, the author points out that our natural embedding in civil society is a lever for the totalitarian State to use to compel obedience; Brooks, on the other hand, seems to see civil society and State as almost the same thing, and appears to argue that loyalty to the former should entail obedience to the latter. He speaks of "gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world", but he makes the gradation seem very gentle indeed, if not downright flat.
Response. We agree that disaster looms if the Left gets its way and manages to eliminate the buffering elements of civil society lying between the naked individual and the State. We also agree that the State can wear the monstrous aspect of Leviathan or that of the benevolent nanny whose multiple tits are so many spigots supplying panem et circenses to the increasingly less self-reliant masses. To cite just one example, the Obama administration promotes ever-increasing food stamp dependency to citizens and illegal aliens alike under the mendacious SNAP acronym thereby disincentivizing relief and charitable efforts at the local level while further straining an already strapped Federal treasury. A trifecta of stupidity and corruption, if you will: the infantilizing of the populace who now needs federal help in feeding itself; the fiscal irresponsibilty of adding to the national debt; the assault on the institutions of civil society out of naked lust for ever more centralized power in the hands of the Dems, the left wing party. (Not that the Repubs are conservative.)
I grant that a totalitarian State could make use of familial and other local loyalties as levers to coerce individuals as is argued in the Jacobin piece. But that is not a good argument against those local loyalties and what go with them, namely, respect for well-constituted authority and a defeasible presumption in favor of traditional beliefs and practices. Besides, it is precisely the strength of the institutions of civil society that will serve as a brake on the expansion of federal power.
In general, arguments of the form 'X is ill-advised because X could be misused' are unsound due to probative overkill: they prove to much. Most anything can be misused. Blogger buddy and fellow Arizonan Victor Reppert argued against Arizona Senate Bill 1070 on the ground that cops could use it to harass Hispanics or people who look Hispanic. Here is part of my response:
A certain distrust of law enforcement is reasonable. Skepticism about government and its law enforcement agencies is integral to American conservatism and has been from the founding. But we need to make a simple distinction between a law and its enforcement. A just law can be unjustly applied or enforced, and if it is, that is no argument against the law. If the police cannot be trusted to enforce the 1070 law without abuses, then they cannot be trusted to enforce any law without abuses. Someone who thinks otherwise is probably assuming, falsely, that most cops are anti-Hispanic racists. What a scurrilous assumption!
At this point one must vigorously protest the standard leftist ploy of 'playing the race card,' i.e., the tactic of injecting race into every conceivable issue. The issue before us is illegal immigration, which has nothing to do with race. Those who oppose illegal immigration are opposed to the illegality of the immigrants, not to their race. The illegals happen to be mainly Hispanic, and among the Hispanics, mainly Mexican. But those are contingent facts. If they were mainly Persians, the objection would be the same. Again, the opposition is to the illegality of the illegals, not to their race.
You write, "Brooks, on the other hand, seems to see civil society and State as almost the same thing, and appears to argue that loyalty to the former should entail obedience to the latter." I've read Brooks' piece about four times and I don't get that out of it.
The issue underlying the Snowden case is a very difficult one and may be irresolvable. Perhaps it can be formulated as finding the correct middle position between two extremes. On the one end you have the alienated, deracinated, twentysomething cyberpunk loyal to no one and nothing except some such abstraction as the common good or the good of humanity. On the other end end you have the Blut-und-Boden type who uncritically respects and accepts every form of authority from that of his parents on up though the mediating associations of civil society to the the authority of der Fuehrer himself. At the one extreme, the hyper-autonomy of the rootless individual, full of excessive trust in his own judgment, who presumes to be justified in betraying his country. At the other extreme, the hyper-heteronomy of the nativist, racist, xenophobe who justifies his crimes against humanity by saying that he was following orders and who invokes the outrageous "My country right or wrong."
In between lie the difficult cases. The brother of the Unabomber turned him in, or 'ratted him out' depending on your point of view. I say he did right: familial loyalty is a value but it has limits. I have no firm opinion about the Snowden case or where it lies on the spectrum, but I am inclined to agree with Brooks. It's bloody difficult!
If anyone is interested in my debate with Reppert over AZ SB 1070 from three years ago, it unfolds over three posts accessible from this page.
Religion is for old women, children, and womanish men. Without this clientele it would wither away. It is for the weak. The strong are able to face life without its false comforts and childish superstitions. It is used by priests and other religious professionals to exploit the gullible. It is a form of social control, an opiate that renders people accepting of their lot and subservient to the rulers of this world. It is indistinguishable from superstition and an enemy of science and enlightenment.
It would be an interesting exercise to write similarly onesided paragraphs about government, science, philosophy, poetry, chess, evangelical atheists, and so on.
Suppose you have no idea who Hitler's Minister of Propaganda was. If asked, you should say, 'I don't know,' not 'I'm not sure.' If, on the other hand, you think it was Joseph Goebbels on the basis of a history course taken long ago, then 'I'm not sure' is appropriate.
'Not sure' implies some knowledge of the subject matter but not enough to justify one's being, well, sure. 'Don't know' lacks this implication.
The Recent Referrers list pointed me to this old Feser post that links to a similar protest of mine. Excerpt:
At least the PC “non-sexist” stuff is not entirely the fault of copy editors, however. Many publishers of academic books and journals insist on this “inclusive language” nonsense, and it is an outrage. It is bad enough that one has to listen to PC-whipped academics at colloquia and the like gratuitously inserting “she” into their talks and comments wherever they can so as to prove their feminist bona fides. At least there one can just roll one’s eyes, say a quick prayer for the poor soul, and move on to the refreshments. But to have this ideological use of language foisted upon one by an editor is no more defensible than a requirement that all submissions reflect (say) a commitment to direct reference theory or four-dimensionalist metaphysics.
Ed outdid himself with the coinage 'PC-whipped.' I trust my astute readers will understand to which similar expression he is alluding.
The members of the philosophy department were so convinced by the lecturer's case against personal identity that they refused to pay him his honorarium on the ground that the potential recipient could not be the same person as the lecturer. This from a piece by Stanley Hauerwas:
It is by no means clear to me that I am the same person who wrote Hannah's Child. Although philosophically I have a stronger sense of personal identity than Daniel Dennett, who after having given a lecture to a department of philosophy on personal identity, was not given his honorarium. The department refused to give him his honorarium because, given Dennett's arguments about personal identity, or lack thereof, the department was not confident that the person who had delivered the lecture would be the same person who would receive the honorarium.
That has to be a joke, right? It sounds like the sort of tall tale that Dennett would tell.
My understanding of character, which at least promises more continuity in our lives than Dennett thinks he can claim, does not let me assume that I am the same person who wrote Hannah's Child. I cannot be confident I am the same person because the person who wrote Hannah's Child no doubt was changed by having done so. While I'm unable to state what I learned by writing the book, I can at least acknowledge that I must have been changed by having done so.
Hauerwas is confusing numerical and qualitative identity. Yes, you have been changed by writing your book. No doubt about it. Does it follow that you are a numerically different person than the one who wrote the book? Of course not. What follows is merely that you are qualitatively different, different in respect of some properties or qualities.
Perhaps there is no strict diachronic personal identity. This cannot be demonstrated, however, from the trivial observation that people change property-wise over time. For that is consistent with strict diachronic identity.
The overall quality of the Grey Lady's op-ed pages is piss-poor to be sure, but the rag of record can boast two very good columnists. One is Ross Douthat, the other David Brooks. The latter's The Solitary Leaker is outstanding and I recommend that you study it. Libertarians won't like it, see below, but I'm not a libertarian.
That said, I'll take a libertarian over a liberal any day. We can and must work with libertarians to defeat liberals.
Peter Berkowitz has an excellent column under an awful title: Tenets of Liberal Education Underpin Government Abuses. (I am assuming, perhaps wrongly, that Berkowitz chose the title.) The problem is not liberal education. The problem is the hijacking of liberal education by leftists, and the PoMo Prez who is a product of left-hijacked educational institutions. Excerpt:
The administration’s misleading of the public reflects a teaching that is common to much literary theory, sociology, anthropology, political theory, and legal theory on college campuses today: Knowledge is socially constructed, and therefore the narrative is all.
The very word 'narrative' should raise eyebrows and and set off your LBD (leftist bullshit detector). A narrative is a story, and stories needn't be true. Talk of narratives is a way of suppressing the crucial question: But is it true?
Knowledge is socially transmitted, but not socially constructed. The very notion is incoherent.
This is an entry from the old blog, first posted 28 December 2005. It makes an important point worth repeating, especially in light of such recent scandals as the harassing by the Internal Revenue Service of individuals and groups whole political views differ from those of the current administration.
In an age of terrorism, enhanced security measures are reasonable (see Liberty and Security). But in response to increased government surveillance and the civil-libertarian objections thereto, far too many people are repeating the stock phrase, "I have nothing to hide."
What they mean is that, since they are innocent of any crime, they have nothing to hide and nothing to fear, and so there cannot be any reasonable objection to removing standard protections. But these people are making a false assumption. They are assuming that the agents of the state will always behave properly, an assumption that is spectacularly false.
Most of the state's agents will behave properly most of the time, but there are plenty of rogue agents who will abuse their authority for all sorts of reasons. The O'Reilly Factor has been following a case in which an elderly black gentleman sauntering down a street in New Orlean's French Quarter was set upon by cops who proceeded to use his head as a punching bag. The video clip showed the poor guy's head bouncing off a brick wall from the blows. It looked as if the thuggish cops had found an opportunity to brutalize a fellow human being under cover of law, and were taking it. And that is just one minor incident.
We conservatives are law-and-order types. One of the reasons we loathe contemporary liberals is because of their casual attitude toward criminal behavior. (We loathe them qua liberals: the cynosure of our disapprobation is the sin, not the sinner.) But our support for law and order is tempered by a healthy skepticism about the state and its agents. This is one of the reasons why we advocate limited government and Second Amendment rights.
As conservatives know, power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We have no illusions about human nature such as are cherished by liberals in their Rousseauean innocence. Give a man a badge and a gun and the power will go to his head. And mutatis mutandis for anyone with any kind of authority over anyone. This is the main reason why checks on government power are essential.
The trick is to avoid the absurdities of the ACLU-extremists while also avoiding the extremism of the "I have nothing to hide" types who are willing to sell their birthright for a mess of secure pottage.
Having followed your link to McGinn's review of Kurzweil's book, "How to Create a Mind," it seems to me that there's something McGinn is missing that weakens his critique. Mind you, I agree that Kurzweil is mistaken; but there's a piece of Kurzweil's view of things that McGinn doesn't see (or discounts) that is is crucial to understanding him.
I don't pretend to be an expert on Kurzweil; but I've been a software engineer for over two decades where McGinn has not, and there are some habits of thought common to the computer science community. For example, computer software and hardware are often designed as networks of cooperating subsystems, each of which has its own responsibility, and so we fall naturally into a homunculistic manner of speaking when working out designs. And this is practically useful: it aids communication among designers, even if it is philosophically perilous.
Anyway, here's the point that I would make back to McGinn if I were Kurzweil: patterns outside the brain lead to patterns inside the brain. A digital camera sees a scene in the world through a lens, and uses hardware and software to turn it into a pattern of bits. Other programs can then operate on that pattern of bits, doing (for example) pattern recognition; others can turn the bits back into something visible (e.g., a web browser).
REPLY: McGinn needn't disagree with any of this, though he would bid you be very careful about 'see' and 'recognition.' A digital camera does not literally see anything any more than my eye glasses literally see things. Light bouncing off external objects causes certain changes in the camera which are then encoded in a pattern of binary digits. (I take it that your 'bit' is short for 'binary digit.') And because the camera does not literally see anything, it cannot literally remember what it has (figuratively) 'seen.' The same goes for pattern recognition. Speaking literally, there is no recognition taking place. All that is going on is a mechanical simulation of recognition.
To the extent, then, that sensory images are encoded and stored as data in the brain, the notion that memories (even remembering to buy cat food) might be regarded as patterns and processed by the brain as patterns is quite reasonable.
REPLY: This is precisely what I deny. Memories are intentional experiences: they are of or about something; they are object-directed; they have content. One cannot just remember; in every case to remember is to remember something, e.g., that I must buy cat food. No physical state, and thus no brain state, is object-directed or content-laden. Therefore, memories are not identical to states of the brain such as patterns of neuron firings. Correlated perhaps, but not identical to.
Of course, as you've noted fairly often recently, a pattern of marks on a piece of paper has no meaning by itself, and a pattern of marks, however encoded in the brain, doesn't either. But Kurzweil, like most people these days, seems to have no notion of the distinction between the Sense and the Intellect; he thinks that only the Sense exists, and he, like Thomas Aquinas, puts memories and similar purely internal phenomena in the Sense. I don't think that's unreasonable. The problem is that he doesn't understand that the Intellect is different.
In short, Kurzweil is certainly too optimistic, but he might have a handle on the part of the problem that computers can actually do. He won't be able to program up a thinking mind; but perhaps he might do a decent lower animal of sorts.
REPLY: Again, I must disagree. You want to distinguish between sensing and thinking, and say that while there cannot be mechanical thinkers, there can be mechanical sensors, using 'thinking' and 'sensing' literally. I deny it. Talk of mechanical sensors is figurative only. I have a device under my kitchen sink that 'detects' water leaks. Two points. First, it does not literally sense anything. There is no mentality involved at all. It is a purely mechanical system. When water contacts one part of it, another part of it emits a beeping sound. That is just natural causation below the level of mind. I sense using it as an instrument, just as I see using my glasses as an instrument. I sense -- I come to acquire sensory knowledge -- that there is water where there ought not be using this contraption as an instrumental extension of my tactile and visual senses. Suppose I hired a little man to live under my sink to report leaks. That dude, if he did his job, would literally sense leaks. But the mechanical device does not literally sense anything. I interpret the beeping as indicating a leak.
The second point is that sensing is intentional: one senses that such-and-such. For example, one senses that water is present. But no mechanical system has states that exhibit original (as opposed to derivative) intentionality. So there can't be a purely mechanical sensor or thinker.
As for homunculus-talk, it is undoubtedly useful for engineering purposes, but one can be easily misled if one takes it literally. McGinn nails it:
Contemporary brain science is thus rife with unwarranted homunculus talk, presented as if it were sober established science. We have discovered that nerve fibers transmit electricity. We have not, in the same way, discovered that they transmit information. We have simply postulated this conclusion by falsely modeling neurons on persons. To put the point a little more formally: states of neurons do not have propositional content in the way states of mind have propositional content. The belief that London is rainy intrinsically and literally contains the propositional content that London is rainy, but no state of neurons contains that content in that way—as opposed to metaphorically or derivatively (this kind of point has been forcibly urged by John Searle for a long time).
And there is theoretical danger in such loose talk, because it fosters the illusion that we understand how the brain can give rise to the mind. One of the central attributes of mind is information (propositional content) and there is a difficult question about how informational states can come to exist in physical organisms. We are deluded if we think we can make progress on this question by attributing informational states to the brain. To be sure, if the brain were to process information, in the full-blooded sense, then it would be apt for producing states like belief; but it is simply not literally true that it processes information. We are accordingly left wondering how electrochemical activity can give rise to genuine informational states like knowledge, memory, and perception. As so often, surreptitious homunculus talk generates an illusion of theoretical understanding.