Searching the brain to find the mind is like searching outer space to find God.
Motto: Study everything, join nothing.
Selected for the The Times of London's 100 Best Blogs List (15 February 2009)
The problem can be set forth in a nice neat way as an aporetic triad:
1) Consciousness is real; it is not an illusion.
2) Consciousness is wholly natural, a material process in the brain.
3) It is impossible that conscious states, whether object-directed or merely qualitative, be material in nature.
It is easy to see that the members of this triad are collectively inconsistent: they cannot all be true. Any two of the propositions, taken together, entails the negation of the remaining proposition.
And yet each limb of the triad has brilliant defenders and brilliant opponents. So not only is consciousness itself a mighty goad to inquiry; the wild diversity of opinions about it is as well. (The second goad is an instance of what I call the Moorean motive for doing philosophy: G. E. Moore did not get his problems from the world, but from the strange and mutually contradictory things philosophers said about the world, e.g., that time is unreal (McTaggart) or that nothing is really related (Bradley).)
The above problem is soluble if a compelling case can be made for the rejection of one of the limbs. But which one? Eliminativists reject (1); dualists of all types, and not just substance dualists, reject (2); materialists reject (3).
I agree with Strawson that eliminativism has zero credibility. (1) is self-evident and the attempts to deny it are easily convicted of incoherence. So no solution is to be had by rejecting (1).
As for (2), it is overwhelmingly credible to most at the present time. We live in a secular age. 'Surely' -- the secularist will assure us -- there is nothing concrete that is supernatural. God and the soul are just comforting fictions from a bygone era. The natural exhausts the real. Materialism about the mind is just logical fallout from naturalism. If all that (concretely) exists is space-time and its contents, then the same goes for minds and their states.
Strawson, accepting both (1) and (2) must reject (3). But the arguments against (3), one of which I will sketch below, are formidable. The upshot of these arguments is that it is unintelligible how either qualia or intentional states of consciousness could be wholly material in nature. Suppose I told you that there is a man who is both fully human and fully divine. You would say that that makes no sense, is unintelligible, and is impossible for that very reason. Well, it is no less unintelligible that a felt sensation such as my present blogger's euphoria be identical to a state of my brain.
What could a materialist such as Strawson say in response? He has to make a mysterian move.
He could say that our understanding of matter at present does not allow us to understand how conscious experience could be wholly material in nature, but that it is nevertheless wholly material in nature! Some matter is sentient and some matter thinks. My euphoria is literally inside my skull and so are my thoughts about Boston.
(Compare the orthodox Chalcedonian incarnationalist who says that the man Jesus of Nazareth is identical to the Second Person of the Trinity. Put him under dialectical pressure and he might say, "Look it is true! We know it by divine revelation. And what is true is true whether or not we can understand how it is possible that it be true. It must remain a mystery to us here below.)
Or a materialist mysterian can say that our understanding of matter will never allow us to understand how conscious experience could be wholly material in nature. Either way, conscious experience, whether intentional or non-intentional, is wholly material in nature, and falls entirely within the subject-matter of physics, whether a future physics achievable by us, or a physics which, though not achievable by us, is perhaps achievable by organisms of a different constitution who study us.
If I understand Galen Strawson's view, it is the first. Conscious experience is fully real but wholly material in nature despite the fact that on current physics we cannot account for its reality: we cannot understand how it is possible for qualia and thoughts to be wholly material. Here is a characteristic passage from Strawson:
Serious materialists have to be outright realists about the experiential. So they are obliged to hold that experiential phenomena just are physical phenomena, although current physics cannot account for them. As an acting materialist, I accept this, and assume that experiential phenomena are "based in" or "realized in" the brain (to stick to the human case). But this assumption does not solve any problems for materialists. Instead it obliges them to admit ignorance of the nature of the physical, to admit that they don't have a fully adequate idea of what the physical is, and hence of what the brain is. ("The Experiential and the Non-Experiential" in Warner and Szubka, p. 77)
Strawson and I agree on two important points. One is that what he calls experiential phenomena are as real as anything and cannot be eliminated or reduced to anything non-experiential. Dennett denied! The other is that there is no accounting for experiential items in terms of current physics.
I disagree on whether his mysterian solution is a genuine solution to the problem. What he is saying is that, given the obvious reality of conscious states, and given the truth of naturalism, experiential phenomena must be material in nature, and that this is so whether or not we are able to understand how it could be so. At present we cannot understand how it could be so. It is at present a mystery. But the mystery will dissipate when we have a better understanding of matter.
This strikes me as bluster.
An experiential item such as a twinge of pain or a rush of elation is essentially subjective; it is something whose appearing just is its reality. For qualia, esse = percipi. If I am told that someday items like this will be exhaustively understood from a third-person point of view as objects of physics, I have no idea what this means. The notion strikes me as absurd. We are being told in effect that what is essentially subjective will one day be exhaustively understood as both essentially subjective and wholly objective. And that makes no sense. If you tell me that understanding in physics need not be objectifying understanding, I don't know what that means either.
As Strawson clearly appreciates, one cannot reduce a twinge of pain to a pattern of neuron firings, for such a reduction eliminates the what-it-is-like-ness of the experience. And so he inflates the concept of the physical to cover both the physical and the mental. But by doing this he drains the physical of definite meaning. His materialism is a vacuous materialism. We no longer have any idea of what 'physical' means if it no longer contrasts with 'mental.'
If we are told that sensations and thoughts are wholly material, we have a definite proposition only if 'material' contrasts with 'mental.' But if we are told that sensations and thoughts are material, but that matter in reality has mental properties and powers, then I say you are talking nonsense. You are creating grammatically correct sentences that do not express a coherent thought.
Besides, if some matter in reality senses and thinks, surely some matter doesn't; hence we are back to dualism.
Why is Strawson's mysterianism any better than Dennett's eliminativism? Both are materialists. And both are keenly aware of the problem that qualia pose. This is known in the trade as the 'hard problem.' (What? The other problems in the vicinity are easy?) The eliminativist simply denies the troublesome data. Qualia don't exist! They are illusory! The mysterian materialist cannot bring himself to say something so manifestly silly. But, unwilling to question his materialism, he says something that is not much better. He tells us that qualia are real, and wholly material, but we don't understand how because we don't know enough about matter. But this 'theological' solution is also worthless because no definite proposition is being advanced.
Strawson frankly confesses, "I am by faith a materialist." (p. 69) Given this faith, experiential items, precisely as experiential, must be wholly material in nature. This faith engenders the hope that future science will unlock the secret. Strawson must pin his hope on future science because of his clear recognition that experiential items are incomprehensible in terms of current physics.
But what do the theological virtues of faith and hope have to do with sober inquiry? It doesn't strike me as particularly intellectually honest to insist that materialism just has to be true and to uphold it by widening the concept of the physical to embrace what is mental. It would be more honest just to admit that the problem of consciousness is insoluble.
And that is my 'solution.' The problem is real, but insoluble by us.
Strawson's latest banging on his mysterian materialist drum is to be found in The Consciousness Deniers in The New York Review of Books.
Rod Serling's Twilight Zone was an outstanding TV series that ran from 1959-1964. The episode "The Lonely" aired in November, 1959. I have seen it several times, thanks to the semi-annual Sci Fi channel TZ marathons. There is one in progress as I write. One can extract quite a bit of philosophical juice from "The Lonely" as from most of the other TZ episodes. I'll begin with a synopsis.
James A. Corry is serving a 50-year term of solitary confinement on an asteroid nine million miles from earth. Supplies are flown in every three months. Captain Allenby, unlike the other two of the supply ship's crew members, feels pity for Corry, and on one of his supply runs brings him a female robot named 'Alicia' to alleviate his terrible loneliness. The robot is to all outer appearances a human female. At first, Corry rejects her as a mere robot, a machine, and thus "a lie." He feels he is being mocked. "Why didn't they build you to look like a machine?" But gradually Corry comes to ascribe personhood to Alicia. His loneliness vanishes. They play chess with a set he has constructed out of nuts and bolts. She takes delight in a Knight move, and Corry shares her delight. They beam at each other.
But then one day the supply ship returns with news that Corry's sentence has been commuted as part of a general abolition of punishment by banishment to asteroids. Allenby informs Corry that there is room on the ship only for him and 15 lbs of his personal effects. Alicia must be left behind. Corry is deeply distressed. "I'm not lonely any more. She's a woman!" Allenby replies, "She's a robot!" Finally, after some arguing back and forth, Allenby draws his sidearm and shoots Alicia in the face revealing her electronic innards. Corry's illusion of Alicia's personhood — if it is an illusion — dissipates and regretfully he boards the ship. The thirty minute episode ends with Serling's powerful closing narration:
On a microscopic piece of sand that floats through space is a fragment of a man's life. Left to rust is the place he lived in and the machines he used. Without use, they will disintegrate from the wind and the sand and the years that act upon them; all of Mr. Corry's machines — including the one made in his image, kept alive by love, but now obsolete — in the Twilight Zone.
The episode raises a number of philosophical questions. Here are just some of them.
Q1: Does personhood depend on what something is made of?
Corry is aware that Alicia, 'out of the box,' is a robot, a human artifact, and this knowledge inclines him to regard her at first as incapable of instantiating those attributes we associate with personhood: sentience, the ability to feel and express emotions, the ability to reason, and others. His thought is: She can't be a person because she is not made of flesh and blood. But why should personhood require any particular material constitution? Why couldn't personhood be realized in different sorts of stuff? Not just any kind of stuff, of course, but sufficiently well-organized stuff. (You can't make a valve-lifter out of sawdust and spit, or a Phoenix monument out of ice, but the valve-lifter function is realizable in a variety of different materials with the right sorts of properties.) In human beings such as Corry personhood is realized in a biologically human material substratum. But what is to stop personhood from being realized in some other sort of substratum, perhaps even a nonliving substratum? Is being biologically alive a necessary condition of personhood? (If I am not mistaken, John Searle would answer in the affirmative.)
When Allenby shoots Alicia in the head, revealing the electronic gadgetry inside, Corry's sense that Alicia is or was a person dissipates. But if someone had blown open a whole in Corry's skull, revealing brain matter, no one would take that as proof that Corry was not a person. Why is only one kind of material constitution capable of supporting consciousness, self-consciousness, and the rest of the attributes of personhood? Is personhood perhaps a functional notion?
Q2: If a person can be built, does this show that a person is purely material, or does the mind-body problem exist in this case as well?
Suppose that by the assembly of the right kind of material parts, one constructs a non-biologically-human but nonetheless full-fledged person. I don't mean what philosophers call a zombie, but a full-fledged person such as Alicia is portrayed as being in the TZ episode we are discussing. Thus the supposition is that this robotic person does in reality feel sensations and experience emotions. (Don't worry about how we would know this to be the case. After all, how do I know that my wife in reality feels sensations and experiences emotions? Not that doubt it for a second.)
The robotic person has a mind and a body. How then does the mere fact that the robotic person was constructed from material parts, indeed biologically inanimate material parts, show that she is purely material? Dualism, and perhaps even substance dualism, seems compatible with being constructed from material parts. Or does a person's having a material origin show that dualism is false?
Q3. Is mentality or personhood a matter of ascription? A matter of the taking up of Dennett's "intentional stance?"
As Corry interacts with Alicia, he gradually comes to accept her as a person and a friend. After pushing her away in one scene, he interprets her verbal report, "You hurt me," and her tears as evidence of personhood. Could it be maintained that personhood is not a matter of some 'inner' reality, but a matter of ascription from the point of view of one who takes up the "intentional stance" with respect to an object of interpretation? Could one say that Alicia is a person, but that her personhood is not intrinsic but ascribed from without? But then you would have to say the same thing about Corry. Is it coherent to think of Alicia and Corry alone on their asteroid ascribing personhood to each other, thereby constituting each other as persons? For more on Dennett's views and my critique of them, see my Dennett category.
Q4. Is personhood and the uniqueness essential to personhood engendered by love?
Alicia was made in man's image, and "kept alive by love" as Serling intones in his closing comment. Alicia's value to Corry has something to do with his perception of her as unique, as a Thou to his I, as an irreplaceable individual, and not merely as an interchangeable instance of properties. Personhood seems to include such notions as irreducible individuality, ipseity, interiority. These are not empirical attributes. How are they given? How constituted? Are they engendered by love? Josiah Royce had interesting things to say on this topic. Do we first become persons in a loving I-Thou relation? See Royce category; in particular, Royce Revisited: Individuality and Immortality.
A repost from 16 December 2012 with minor edits.
The easy explanations—dreams or hallucinations—I could discount quickly, because my experience—and the experience described by anyone who's had a near death experience or other experiences that involve God directly—is different in quality and memory from a dream or hallucination. It's just entirely different. The memory is as precise and accurate now, years later, as it is when it's happening.
So then I thought it must be due to chemical changes or chemical releases in a dying brain. I did a lot of reading about that. If my experience had lasted five, six, seven minutes, maybe even eight minutes, I am sure that no matter how real it seemed to me, I would have said that's a reasonable explanation. But the people who resuscitated me would say that I was without oxygen for up to thirty minutes.
It took them ten or fifteen minutes to figure out, first, that I and my boat were both missing. Then once they identified where they thought I was, they started their watch. They're used to doing this—you have to know the timing so you can recognize whether you're trying to rescue someone or you're trying to go for body recovery. So on the watch it was fifteen minutes, but about thirty minutes in all. I tend to stick with the fifteen minutes, because that's an absolute timing. But even at fifteen minutes, that is way longer than can be explained by a dying brain. The human brain can hang on to oxygen for maybe five or six minutes, and so even if you give it another four minutes to go through its dying process, that still doesn't add up to fifteen minutes. And so after I looked at all that, my conclusion was that my experience was real and absolute.
To paraphrase Blaise Pascal, there is light enough for those who want to see and darkness enough for those who don't. Atheists and mortalists will of course not be convinced by Neal's report. Consider her first paragraph. She underscores the unique phenomenological quality of OBEs. Granting that they are phenomenologically different from dreams and ordinary memories, there is nonetheless a logical gap between the undeniable reality of the experiencing and the reality of its intentional object. Into that gap the skeptic will insert his wedge, and with justification. No experience, no matter how intense or unusual or protracted, conclusively proves the veridicality of its intentional object.
Phenomenology alone won't get you to metaphysics. Everything I am perceiving right now, computer, cup, cat, the Superstition ridgeline and the clouds floating above it (logically) might have a merely intentional existence. How do I know I am not brain in a vat? If I cannot prove that I am not a brain in a vat, how can I know (in that tough sense in which knowledge entails objective certainty) that cat, cup, etc. are extramentally real? The skeptic can always go hyperbolic on you. How are you going to stop him?
The other consideration Dr. Neal adduces will also leave the skeptic cold. Her point is that her brain had to have been 'off-line' given the amount of time that elapsed, and that therefore her experiences could not be the product of a (mal)functioning brain. We saw in an earlier post that Dr. Eben Alexander employed similar reasoning. The skeptic will undoubtedly now give a little a speech about how much more there is yet to know about the brain and that Neal is in no position confidently to assert what she asserts, etc.
The mortalist starts and ends with an assumption that he cannot give up while remaining a mortalist, namely, that there just cannot be mental functioning without underlying brain activity, and that therefore no OBEs can be credited if they are interpreted in a manner to support the claim that consciousness can exist without a physical substratum. How does the mortalist/materialist know this? He doesn't. It's a framework assumption. He certainly doesn't know it from any natural-scientific investigation. It is clear that some brain changes are followed by mental changes. That shows that embodied consciousness is dependent on the brain. But it says nothing about consciousness in its disembodied state.
In the grip of that materialist framework assumption, the mortalist will do anything to discount the veridicality of OBEs. Push him to the wall and he will question the moral integrity of the reporters. "They are just out to exploit human credulousness to turn a buck." Or they will question the veridicality of the memories of the OBEs. The human mind can be extremely inventive in cooking up justifications for what it wants to believe. That is as true of mortalists as it is of anyone. To paraphrase Pascal again, there is enough darkness and murk in these precincts to allow these skeptical maneuvers.
Our life here below is a chiaroscuro.
There is no proof of the afterlife. But there is evidence. Is the evidence sufficient? Suppose we agree that evidence for p is sufficient just in case it makes it more likely than not that p. Well, I don't know if paranormal and mystical experience is sufficient because I don't know how to evaluate likelihood in cases like these.
So let's assume that the evidence is not sufficient. Would I be flouting any epistemic duties were I to believe on insufficient evidence? But surely most of what we believe we believe on insufficient evidence. See Belief and Reason categories for more on this.)
Those who believe that it is wrong, always and everywhere, to believe anything on insufficient evidence believe that very proposition on insufficient evidence, indeed on no evidence at all.
This old entry, which had been languishing in the old Powerblogs archive, still strikes me as making some important and plausible points. Here it is again, spruced up and supplemented.
There are philosophers who seem to think that doctrines held by great philosophers and outstanding contemporaries don't need to be studied and refuted but can be shamed or ridiculed or caricatured out of existence. Daniet Dennett is an example:
Dualism (the view that minds are composed of some nonphysical and
utterly mysterious stuff) . . . [has]been relegated to the trash
heap of history, along with alchemy and astrology. Unless you are
also prepared to declare that the world is flat and the sun is a
fiery chariot pulled by winged horses unless, in other words,
your defiance of modern science is quite complete you won't find
any place to stand and fight for these obsolete ideas. (Kinds of
Mind, Basic Books, 1996, p. 24)
This is an amazing passage in that it compares the views of distinguished dualist philosophers such as Richard Swinburne to the views of astrologers, alchemists, and flat-earthers. It would be very interesting to hear precisely how the views of Swinburne et al. are in "defiance of modern science" -- assuming one doesn't confuse science with scientism. But let's look at what Dennett has to say in his more substantial (511 page!) Consciousness Explained (1991).
Dennett there (mis)characterizes dualism as the doctrine that minds are "composed not of ordinary matter but of some other, special kind of stuff. . . ," and materialism as the view that "there is only one sort of stuff, namely matter -- the physical stuff of physics, chemistry, and physiology -- and the mind is some nothing but a physical phenomenon." (33) "In short, the mind is the brain." (33)
Plausibly and charitably read, however, a substance dualist such as Descartes does not hold that minds are composed of some extraordinarily thin intangible stuff. The dualism is not a dualism of stuff-kinds, real stuff and spook stuff. 'Substance' in 'substance dualism' does not refer to a special sort of ethereal stuff but to substances in the sense of individuals capable of independent existence whose whole essence consists in acts of thought, perception, imagination, feeling, and the like.
Dennett, who often comes across as a sophist, is exploiting the equivocity of 'substance' as between stuff and entity metaphysically capable of independent existence. For example, when we speak of Socrates as a substance, we are not referring to his proximate or ultimate matter, but to his capacity for existence on his own, in contrast to his pallor which, as an accident of Socrates as substance, cannot exist on its own but only in a substance, and indeed only in the very substance of which it is the accident, namely, Socrates.
The main point is made very well by the prominent idealist, T. L. S. Sprigge:
It is often difficult to get people to realize that the
non-physical mind of which Cartesians speak is not, as some have
thought it, 'a ghost in the machine' of the human body, since
ghosts and 'spirits' such as might appear in a seance are, in
contrast to it, as physical, if made of a finer stuff, as our
ordinary bodies. When we speak of the mental we do so mostly or
entirely in metaphors (more or less sleeping) of a physical kind:
we grasp ideas and have thoughts in our minds. Whatever the real
source of this materialism which is endemic to most of our
thinking, it is not surprising that there should be a theory of
existence which follows its leadings. As thinkers we are subjects,
but the natural object of thought is objects and it is only with
effort that the subject turns its thoughts upon its own
un-object-like nature. (Theories of Existence, pp. 46-47, bolding
Dennett Plays the Interaction Card (Canard?)
Now Dennett trots out the "standard objection to dualism" which to Dennett is decisive. Ignoring non-interactionist types of substance dualism, Dennett tells us that mind and body, if distinct things or substances, must nonetheless interact. But how could the mind act upon the brain? How could a mental state make a difference to a brain state if mental states lack physical properties?
A fundamental principle of physics is that any change in the
trajectory of any physical entity is an acceleration requiring the
expenditure of energy, and where is this energy to come from? It is
this principle of the conservation of energy that accounts for the
physical impossibility of "perpetual motion machines," and the same
principle is apparently violated by dualism. This confrontation
between quite standard physics and dualism . . . is widely regarded
as the inescapable and fatal flaw of dualism. (35)
Now any unprejudiced person should be able to see that this "fatal objection" is inconclusive. Notice first of all that Dennett is
presupposing that mental-physical causation must involve transfer of energy. For Dennett's objection is essentially this:
a. Energy must be transferred to a physical entity to cause a change
b. No energy can be transferred from an immaterial to a material
c. No immaterial entity such as a mind can cause a change in a
material entity such as a brain/body.
But why should we accept the first premise? Why should we endorse a transfer theory of causation? Note that to assume a transfer theory of causation is to beg the question against the dualist: it is to assume that the mind must be material. For only a material thing can be a term in an energy transfer. Dennett thinks that dualism must collide with standard physics because he foists upon the dualist a conception of causation that the dualist will surely reject, a conception of causation that implies that there cannot be any nonphysical causes.
The materialist says: mind and body cannot interact because interaction requires transfer of energy, and only bodies can be the
transferers and transferees of energy.
The interactionist dualist says: Since mind and body do interact, interaction does not require transfer of energy.
Let M be a type of mental event and B a type of brain event, and let m and b be tokens of these types. Perhaps there is nothing more to causation than this: m causes b =df (i) b follows m in time; (ii) Whenever an M event occurs, a B event occurs. On this regularity approach to causation, Dennett's objection dissolves.
Indeed, on any theory of causation in which causation does not consist in a transfer of a physical magnitude from cause to effect, Dennett's objection dissolves. Therefore, the objection can be made to stick only it is assumed that the transfer theory of causation is true of all types of causation. But then the question has been begged against dualist interaction.
There are two key points here that need to be developed in subsequent posts. One is that the nature of causation is not a physics problem. The natural scientist can tell us what causes what, but is singularly ill-equipped to tell us what causation is. The second point is that it is not at all clear that causation, even in the physical world, is a physical process. It is not all clear, in other words, that the causal structure of the physical world is itself something physical.
Dennett thinks that the incoherence of dualism is so obvious that it doesn't require "the citation of presumed laws of physics." (35). Casper the Friendly Ghost is all the help one needs. He can pass through a wall, yet grab a falling towel. But that's incoherent, since something that eludes physical measurement cannot have physical effects. The mind, as 'ghost in the machine,' is no better off. Only physical things can move physical things. But the mind of the substance dualist is not a physical thing, ergo, the mind cannot act upon the body.
But again, Dennett is just begging the question against the dualist as I have already explained.
St. Alphonsus Liguori, Preparation for Death, p. 11:
My Lord, since Thou hast given me light to know that what the world esteems is all mere vapour and folly, give me strength to detach myself from it before death detaches me.
I find it very interesting that 'detach' is being used in two very different senses in this passage. The one sense is spiritual while the other is physical.
The saint is praying that he be given the strength to detach himself spiritually from the transient objects of worldly desire before death physically detaches him or his soul from his body. The saint is not assuming that physical detachment will occasion spiritual detachment. To expect such a thing would be naive. It would be as if a man who spent his entire life 'on the make,' in hot pursuit of property and pelf, pleasure and power, were suddenly at death to renounce the earthly lures and to have a burning desire to meet his Maker.
The saint is assuming, though, that spiritual detachment can be achieved only while one is in the body, and that after one quits it one will be stuck with the spiritual attachments one has at the hour of death.
Physical death does not have the power to detach me spiritually from worldliness with its vapours and follies. For this is possible: my body dies but my soul lives on fully attached to the objects of worldly desire. We may speculate that Hugh Hefner is presently still lusting after nubile females. It is just that he presently lacks the physical apparatus with which to realize his lusts.
This too is possible: I remain physically attached to my body while living spiritually detached from the bagatelles of this life.
This is a fertile field for further thought. What exactly is spiritual attachment? How is it put in place, and how is it mitigated? One mode of mitigation is by meditation: one distances mentally from one's thoughts; one observes them as from a distance, refusing to live in or lose oneself in them.
And how can the soul be physically attached to the body if only one of them is physical? Is perhaps the soul's physical attachment to the body reducible to a special sort of spiritual attachment whereby I become embodied by spiritually attaching myself to a chunk of the physical world, a particular animal organism? By taking a particular animal organism to be me?
Jacques and Malcolm are currently fired up and doing battle over qualia. To stoke the fire further, here is post from a couple of years ago, from 15 September 2015, to be exact. It strikes me as beautifully written, rigorous, and true. (Surprise!)
In Does Matter Think? I wrote:
. . . I don't dogmatically claim that matter could not have occult or hidden powers. Maybe the meat between my ears does have the power to think. But then that meat is not matter in any sense we currently understand. And that is my point. You can posit occult powers if you like, and pin your hopes on a future science that will lay them bare; but then you are going well beyond the empirical evidence and engaging in high-flying speculations . . . .
I now add that I am using 'thinking' in the broad Cartesian sense that covers all intentional or object-directed experiences; but I also hold that non-intentional experiences are unintelligible to us on the basis of current physics. My thesis is that, given what we know about the physical world from current physics, it it unintelligible that the phenomena of mind, whether intentional or non-intentional, be wholly material in nature.
I grant that what is unintelligible to us might nevertheless be the case. But if such-and-such is unintelligible to us, then that is a fairly good reason to believe that it is not possibly the case. A theological example may help clarify the dialectical situation. Christians believe that God became man. Some will say that this is impossible in the strongest possible sense: logically impossible, i.e., in contravention of the Law of Non-Contradiction. For what the doctrine implies is that one person has both human and divine attributes, that one person is both passible and impassible, omniscient and non-omnisicent, etc. One response, a mysterian response, is to say that the doctrine of the Incarnation is true, and that therefore it is logically possible. The fact, if it is fact, that the Incarnation is unintelligible to us -- where 'unintelligible' means: not understandable as possibly true in a broadly logical sense -- does not show that the doctrine is impossible, but that it is a mystery: a true proposition that we, due to our limitations, cannot understand.
A materialist can make the same sort of move in one of two ways. He could say that our understanding of matter at present does not allow us to understand how conscious experience could be wholly material in nature, or he can say that our understanding of matter will never allow us to understand how conscious experience could be wholly material in nature. Either way, conscious experience, whether intentional or non-intentional, is wholly material in nature, and falls entirely within the subject-matter of physics, whether a future physics achievable by us, or a physics which, though not achievable by us, is perhaps achievable by organisms of a different constitution who study us.
If I understand Galen Strawson's view, it is the first. Conscious experience is fully real but wholly material in nature despite the fact that on current physics we cannot account for its reality: we cannot understand how it is possible. Here is a characteristic passage from Strawson:
Serious materialists have to be outright realists about the experiential. So they are obliged to hold that experiential phenomena just are physical phenomena, although current physics cannot account for them. As an acting materialist, I accept this, and assume that experiential phenomena are "based in" or "realized in" the brain (to stick to the human case). But this assumption does not solve any problems for materialists. Instead it obliges them to admit ignorance of the nature of the physical, to admit that they don't have a fully adequate idea of what the physical is, and hence of what the brain is. ("The Experiential and the Non-Experiential" in Warner and Szubka, p. 77)
Strawson and I agree on two important points. One is that what he calls experiential phenomena are as real as anything and cannot be eliminated or reduced to anything non-experiential. The other is that there is no accounting for experiential items in terms of current physics.
In the Comments, Vlastimil V. asked:
But, what exactly, according to you, is matter in the sense we currently understand? And does matter so conceived really exclude, a priori, that it thinks? About this the physicalist would love to hear more details.
It is matter as understood by current physics. And yes, one can know a priori that matter so conceived cannot think or feel. Note that I am not saying that matter anyhow conceived can be known a priori to be such that it cannot think or feel. I admit the very vague, very abstract, epistemic (and perhaps only epistemic) possibility that God or some super-intelligent extraterrestrial or even human being far in the future could get to the point of understanding how an experiential item like a twinge of pain could be purely material or purely physical. But this is really nothing more than an empty gesturing towards a 'possibility' that cannot be described except in the vaguest terms. It is nothing but faith, hope, and hand-waving.
An experiential item such as a twinge of pain or a rush of elation is essentially subjective; it is something whose appearing just is its reality. For qualia, esse = percipi. If I am told that someday items like this will be exhaustively understood from a third-person point of view as objects of physics, I have no idea what this means. The notion strikes me as absurd. We are being told in effect that what is essentially subjective will one day be exhaustively understood as both essentially subjective and wholly objective. If you tell me that understanding in physics need not be objectifying understanding, I don't know what that means either.
As Strawson clearly appreciates, one cannot reduce a twinge of pain to a pattern of neuron firings, for such a reduction eliminates the what-it-is-like-ness of the experience. And so he inflates the concept of the physical to cover both the physical and the irreducibly mental. But by doing this he drains the physical of definite meaning. His materialism is a vacuous materialism.
Strawson frankly confesses, "I am by faith a materialist." (p. 69) Given this faith, experiential items, precisely as experiential, must be wholly material in nature. This faith engenders the hope that future science will unlock the secret. Strawson must pin his hope on future science because of his clear recognition that experiential items are incomprehensible in terms of current physics.
But what do faith and hope have to do with sober inquiry? It doesn't strike me as particularly intellectually honest to insist that materialism just has to be true and to uphold it by widening the concept of the physical to embrace what is irreducibly mental. It would be more honest just to admit that the mind-body problem is insoluble.
I tend to the view that all philosophical problems can be represented as aporetic polyads. What's more, I maintain that philosophical problems ought to be so represented. You haven't begun to philosophize until you have a well-defined puzzle, a putative inconsistency of plausibilities. When you have an aporetic polyad on the table you have something to think your teeth into. (An interesting and auspicious typo, that; I shall let it stand.)
Consider the problem of the existence of consciousness. Nicholas Maxwell formulates it as follows: "Why does sentience or consciousness exist at all?" The trouble with this formulation is that it invites the retort: Why not? Why shouldn't it exist? The question smacks of gratuitousness. Why raise it? To remove the felt gratuitousness a motive has to be supplied for posing the question. Now a most excellent motive is contradiction-avoidance. If a set of plausibilities form an inconsistent set, then we have a problem. For we cannot abide a contradiction. Philosophers love a paradox, but they hate a contradiction. So I suggest we put the problem of the existence of consciousness as follows:
1. Consciousness (sentience) exists.
2. Consciousness is contingent: given that it exists it might not have.
3. If x contingently exists, then x has an explanation of its existence in terms of a y distinct from x.
4. Consciousness has no explanation in terms of anything distinct from it.
A tetrad of plausibilities. Each limb makes a strong claim on our acceptance. Unfortunately, this foursome is logically inconsistent: the conjunction of any three limbs entails the negation of the remaining one. Thus the conjunction of (1) and (2) and (3) entails the negation of (4). So the limbs cannot all be true. But they are all very plausible. Therein lies the problem. Which one ought we reject to remove the contradiction?
Note the superiority of my aporetic formulation over Maxwell's formulation. On my formulation we have a very clear problem that cries out for a solution. But if I merely ask, 'Why does consciousness exist?' there is no clear problem. You could retort, 'Why shouldn't it exist?' 'What's the problem?' There is a problem because the existence of consciousness conflicts with other things we take for granted.
(1) is absolutely datanic and so undeniable. If some crazy eliminativist were to deny (1) I would show him the door and give him the boot. (Life is too short for discussions with lunatics.)
(4) is exceedingly plausible. To explain consciousness in terms of itself would be circular, hence no explanation. So it has to be explained, if it can be explained, in terms of something distinct from it. Since abstract objects cannot be invoked to explain concrete consciousness, consciousness, if it can be explained, must be explained in physical and physiological and chemical and biological terms. But this is also impossible as Maxwell makes clear using a version of the 'knowledge argument' made popular by T. Nagel and F. Jackson:
But physics, and that part of natural science in principle re-ducible to physics, cannot conceivably predict and explain fully the mental, or experiential, aspect of brain processes. Being blind from birth—or being deprived of ever having oneself experienced visual sensations—cannot in itself prevent one from understanding any part of physics. It cannot prevent one from understanding the physics of colour, light, physiology of colour perception and discrimination, just as well as any nor-mally sighted person. In order to understand physical concepts, such as mass, force, wavelength, energy, spin, charge, it is not necessary to have had the experience of any particular kind of sensation, such as the visual sensation of colour. All predictions of physics must also have this feature. In order to understand what it is for a poppy to be red, however, it is necessary to have experienced a special kind of sensation at some time in one’s life, namely the visual sensation of redness. A person blind from birth, who has never experienced any visual sensation, cannot know what redness is, where redness is the perceptual property, what we (normally sighted) see and experience, and not some physical correlate of this, light of such and wave-lengths, or the molecular structure of the surface of an object which causes it to absorb and reflect light of such and such wavelengths. It follows that no set of physical statements, however comprehensive, can predict that a poppy is red, or that a person has the visual experience of redness. Associated with neurological processes going on in our brains, there are mental or experiential features which lie irredeemably beyond the scope of physical description and explanation.
(2) is also exceedingly plausible: how could our consciousness (sentience) exist necessarily? But (3), which is a version of the principle of sufficient reason, is also very plausible despite the glib asseverations of those who think quantum mechanics provides counterexamples to it.
So what will it be? Which of the four limbs will you reject?
(1) and (2) are not reasonably rejected. One might reject (3) and hold that consciousness is a brute fact. Or one might reject (4) and hold that consciousness in us does have an explanation, a divine explanation: the source of consciousness in us is God's consciousness.
But it might be that the problem is genuine but insoluble, that the problem is an aporia in the strongest sense of the term: a conceptual impasse, an intellectual knot that our paltry minds cannot untie. Accordingly, all four limbs are true, but we cannot understand how they could all be true.
But this invites the metaphilosophical rejoinder that all genuine problems are soluble. An insoluble problem would then be a pseudo-problem. Thus arises a metaphilosophical puzzle that can be set forth as an aporetic triad or antilogism:
5. Only soluble problems are genuine.
6. The problem of the existence of consciousness is not soluble.
7. The problem of the existence of consciousness is genuine.
This too is an inconsistent set. But each limb is plausible. Which will you reject? I would reject (5): a problem needn't be soluble to be genuine.
There is no easy answer, ragazzi.
I was going to add to this old draft from 15 December 2009, but it looks like I won't be getting around to it. So here it is.
Robert Cummins (Meaning and Mental Representation, MIT Press, 1989, p. 12) regards it as a mistake "for philosophers to address the question of mental representation in abstraction from any particular scientific theory or theoretical framework." Thus we ought not naively ask, What is mental representation? as if there is something called mental representation that is common to folk psychology and such theories as orthodox computationalism and neuroscience. "Mental representation is a theoretical assumption, not a commonplace of ordinary discourse."
The right way to proceed, according to Cummins, is to "pick a theoretical framework and ask what explanatory role mental representation plays in that framework and what the representation relation must be if that explanatory role is to be well grounded." In other words, one takes a theory such as orthodox computationalism and then one asks: what must the nature of mental representation be if this theory is to be both true and explanatory?
So the question of mental representation is not a question of 'first philosophy,' i.e., a question to be settled independently of, and prior to, empirical research, but a question in the philosophy of science exactly analogous to the following question in the philosophy of physics: what is the nature of space given that General Relativity is true and explanatory? The properties of physical space are for physics to determine. Philosophy's role is correspondingly modest, that of a handmaiden. To coin a phrase: philosophia ancilla scientiae, philosophy is the handmaiden of science, similarly as it was the handmaiden of theology in the Medieval period. Philosophy becomes the philosophy of science. And according to Quine, who is quoted by Cummins on the fontispiece of his book, "Philosophy of science is philosophy enough."
It ought to be the same, Cummins thinks, with psychology. Whether or not there are mental representations becomes the question whether or not the best theories in cognitive science and psychology posit mental representations, and the nature of the representation relation is to be read off from whichever theory is taken to be true and most explanatory.
But there is a problem with this view. If we want to know about physical space and the nature of matter, we turn to the physicist. And if we want to know about the brain, we turn to the neuroscientist. But if we want to know about the relation of mind and brain, we cannot base ourselves solely on empirical science.
Here is one consideration. The extant empirical theories imply the existence of mental representations. But surely their existence is not obvious. Looking at a photograph of a mountain, I become aware of the mountain and some of its features via the picture. Here it makes sense to say of the picture that it is a representation of the mountain. But when I look directly at a mountain, there is no phenomenological evidence of any epistemic intermediary or representation: I see the mountain itself. I don't see sense-data or representations or any kind of epistemic deputy.
Perhaps I will be told that I am nonetheless aware of an internal image but not aware of being aware of it. Compare the case of walking into a room and seeing a depiction of Hillary Clinton so realistic and convincing that I take it to be Hillary herself. In such a case I am aware of an image, but not aware of being aware of an image. Why couldn't it be the same with outer perception? One crucial difference is that I can come to be aware of the Hillary-image as an image. But I cannot come to be aware of any supposed internal image that mediates my outer perception. This is particularly obvious if the internal image is a brain state. I cannot, while gazing at the mountain, 'focus inwardly' and become aware of the brain state that is supposedly mediating my perception of the mountain. Given this fact, I suggest that it is unintelligible to say that there is an internal image that mediates outer perception. The word 'image is' being misused. An image that I cannot become aware of as an image is in no intelligible sense an image of something.
No doubt the brain and its states are part of the causal basis of perception. And there is no doubt that an organism's brain is in (some) of the states it is in because of what is happening in its environment, e.g., bright light is being reflected from a snow field into the organism's eyes. But to say that some of the brain states represent the environment makes no sense assuming that 'represent' has the sense it has when we attend to the phenomenology of representative consciousness. To speak of material representations literally in the head is to read back into a third person conception of the world notions that make sense only from a first-person point of view.
You may agree with what I just said or not. But the discussion we will have about these matters surely does not belong to any empirical science. It belongs to first philosophy. The question of whether there are mental representations at all, for example, cannot arise within disciplines that presupposes their existence. And the relation between a first- and third-person view of the world cannot be treated within an exclusively third-person point of view. Finally, there is the point that the claim that science alone can clarify these questions is itself unscientific and so an instance of (negative) first philosophy.
"And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us . . . . (John 1:14)
Physicalism is popular among philosophers these days. So it is no surprise that Christian philosophers are drawn to it as well, including those who subscribe to the central teaching that God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, the Logos or Word, became man in Jesus of Nazareth.
Incarnation, whatever else it involves, involves embodiment. How is God the Son during his earthly tenure related to his body? Trenton Merricks assumes that "God the Son . . . is related to his body just as you and I are related to our respective bodies." ("The Word Made Flesh," 261.) One might have thought that the embodiment relation that connects the Son to his body would have to be very special or even sui generis; after all, the Logos is sui generis and so it might naturally be thought that any relation into which it enters would inherit that sui-generic quality. Merricks, however, assumes that divine and human cases of embodiment are cases of one and the same embodiment relation. The divine case is just a special case. Call this the Same Relation assumption. (My tag, not Merrick's).
And what relation is that? On physicalism, "You have a body if and only if you are identical with that body." (294) So the Same Relation assumption in conjunction with physicalism yields the conclusion that the Incarnate Son is "identical with the body of Jesus." (294) So in becoming human, the Incarnate Son "became [numerically identical to] a body."
This does not make much sense to me and I find it more worthy of rejection than of acceptance. My problems begin with physicalism itself.
The physicalism in question is not physicalism about everything, but about beings like us, minded organisms, if you will, which include all human animals. (If there are so-called 'abstract objects,' then they are not physical, and presumably before the Incarnation, no member of the Trinity was a physical object.) Physicalism is "the claim that each of us is a physical object." (294). Now there is a sense in which it is obviously true that each of us is a physical object, and that is the sense in which it is obviously true that each of us has a body; but one quits the precincts of the obvious and the datanic and enters the space of philosophical theories when one claims that one has a body by being numerically identical to a body, or that the the 'is' in 'Each of us is a body' is the 'is' of identity.
For this is not obvious. How do you know that the 'is' in 'Each of us is a body' is not the 'is' of composition? (Compare: 'Each of these statues is bronze.' That can't mean that each of the statues is identical to bronze or to a particular hunk of bronze. A statue and its proximate matter have different persistence conditions both temporally and modally.)
But we are discussing physicalism. I am not asserting that we are composite beings. And I am not espousing substance dualism either. I am merely considering whether physicalism about minded organisms is an intellectually satisfying position. Does it command our assent? Merricks thinks it is "pretty obvious" that physicalism is true. (294) I don't find it obvious at all. And as Hilary Putnam once quipped, "It ain't obvious what's obvious."
On physicalism, I am identical to the living, breathing, sweating animal wearing my clothes. Of course, I am not always sweating and not always wearing clothes; but if I cease breathing, I cease living and, on physicalism, I cease existing. (The physicalist claim is obviously not that I am identical to a corpse or an inanimate hunk of human-looking flesh and bones wearing my clothes.) To underscore the obvious, when I speak of identity I mean numerical identity.
One might find physicalism hard to swallow. If x and y are identical, then whatever is true of x is true of y and vice versa. That is necessarily so, and part of what we mean by 'identity.' But it is true of me that I am a "spectator of all time and existence," (Plato, Republic VI) whereas that is not true of my body. So I can't be identical to my living body. To take a less grand example, I am now thinking of a girl I used to know. So is my body thinking of her? The whole body? Some proper part or parts thereof? Presumably not the plantar fascia in my left foot. My brain? The whole brain? Some proper part thereof? How could any portion of the brain be the subject of acts of thinking? That doesn't make much sense. In fact, it does not make any sense. A bit of highly organized meat is the subject of acts of thinking in the broad Cartesian sense of 'thinking' which includes memorial acts? Are you serious?
Could it nonetheless be true that what thinks in me when I think is the brain or some portion thereof? I suppose, but then it would be a mystery how it is true. The Incarnation may be a mystery, but if we are trying to understand the Incarnation physicalistically, then physicalism had better not be a mystery too. I'll come back to this point below.
The obviousness of physicalism seems to have vanished. Merrick does not give the following invalid argument, but what he says on 294 ff. suggests it:
Whatever has physical properties is a physical object.
Socrates has physical properties.
Socrates is a physical object.
Physicalism is true.
The argument is rendered invalid by an equivocation on 'is' as between the 'is' of class inclusion and the 'is' of identity.
What I have said does not refute physicalism, but it does show that physicalism is far from obvious and does not follow from such Moorean facts as that you and I have shape and mass. So I balk at Merricks' "it seems pretty obvious that physicalism . . . is true." (294) It is not obvious at all.
Can these objections be met by adopting property dualism? Merricks' view is that while we are physical objects having physical properties, we are not merely physical objects: we also have mental properties. "Persons also have mental properties." (295) Furthermore, these mental properties are irreducible to physical properties. Merricks tells us that his physicalism is consistent with property dualism. (295) I think it is fair to say that with respect to beings like us, he is a substance monist and a property dualist.
The idea is that the human individual having properties is a physical object, but that it has two different mutually irreducible sorts of properties, physical properties and mental properties. But how does this help? I am thinking about a girl I used to know, a particular girl, Darci. Is there a mental property corresponding to the predicate '___ is thinking about Darci'? I doubt it, for reasons I don't have ther space to go into, but suppose there is this strange property. Call it 'D.' Presumably it is an abstract object unfit to do any thinking. So it is not the subject of the thinking, that in me which thinks when I think.
Should we say that I am thinking about Darci in virtue of my instantiating of D? But who am I? On physicalism, I am identically this living body. So this animal body instantiates the mental property. But this brings us right back to our earlier question as to which part of the animal body does the thinking. Introducing a dualism of properties does not answer this question.
How Could a Non-Physical Object Become a Physical Object?
But even if physicalism is true, how could it, in tandem with the Same Relation assumption mentioned above, be used to make sense of the Incarnation, or rather the embodiment the Incarnation implies? How could the second person of the Trinity, a purely spiritual, nonphysical person, at a certain point in history become numerically identical to the body of Jesus? How could an immaterial being become a material being? I should think that an item's categorial status is essential to it. So if an abstract object such as the number 7 or the set of primes is nonphysical, then this object is nonphysical in all possible worlds in which it exists, and indeed in all possible worlds, full stop, given that 7 and the number of primes are necessary beings. If so, then in no possible world could the number 7 or the set of primes become a concrete item sporting causal properties and spatiotemporal locations.
Something similar holds for that necessary being which is the second person of the Trinity. Its purely spiritual, wholly nonphysical nature is essential to it. So, on the face of it, its embodiment in a particular human being cannot be understood as its becoming numerically identical to that human being. For then, per impossibile, it would have to quit its kind and become another kind of thing.
Now the above is an obvious and obviously powerful objection to which Merricks makes a daring response. He recommends rejecting the kind-essentialism that is at the back of it:
Believers in the Incarnation must reject kind-essentialism. Once kind-essentialism is rejected, it is hard to see why the non-physical God the Son could not become [numerically identical to] a human organism. Perhaps this is the sort of thing that might not seem possible merely upon reflection, given no relevant revelation. But the same thing goes for God the Son's becoming human. This is the mystery. (296)
I don't follow the reasoning here. Let us assume that we accept as revealed truth that God became man in Jesus of Nazareth. And let us assume that the Incarnation is, as Merricks says, a mystery. Now faith seeks understanding. Fides quarens intellectum. In this case we want to understand how God became man. How is understanding helped by the rejection of what appears to the unaided intellect as obviously true, namely, kind-essentialism? Is its falsity supposed to be a mystery too?
If I want to understand the Incarnation, I have to use principles that to the unaided discursive intellect appear secure. If I use the Incarnation to reject kind-essentialism, which is one of the principles that appear secure to the finite intellect, then I haven't made sense of the Incarnation; I have wreaked havoc on the discursive intellect. Would it not be better simply to rest with the Incarnation as mystery and forgo desperate attempts to make sense of it that violate very secure principles that are arguably definitive of finite understanding?
Why Not Reject the 'Same Relation' Assumption?
Suppose one wants to retain one's physicalism about humans at all costs and to accept the Incarnation as well. Would it not be better to jettison the 'same relation' assumption? Would it not be better to say that embodiment in the divine case is a different relation from embodiment in (merely) human cases? Suppose that in the merely human cases, to have a body, i. e., to be embodied, is just to be a body, i.e., to be identical to a (living) body, while in the divine case to have a body is something else, something perhaps incomprehensible to us in our present state. One could then be a physicalist without rejecting kind-essentialism.
Note that Merricks is not a physicalist about God or any of the persons of the Trinity prior to the Incarnation. He does not hold that every mind is physical. He makes an exception for the divine mind. Well, then he can make an exception in the way a divine mind becomes embodied should such a mind become embodied.
There seems to be two ways to go for one who aims to accept the Incarnation while also accepting physicalism about minded organisms. Accept either package A or package B:
Incarnation; physicalism; 'same relation' assumption; rejection of kind-essentialism.
Incarnation; physicalism; 'different embodiment relation' assumption; acceptance of kind-essentialism.
I should think that Package B is the more attractive of the two.
Merricks' paper is here. Many thanks to Professor Andrew M. Bailey for uploading it! Ditto to Kevin Wong for drawing my attention to it and for supplying me with a bibliography of recent work on physicalist Christology. Mr. Wong is a gentleman and a scholar!
Question: Is it my brain that feels and thinks when I feel and think?
Argument A. Meat can't think. My brain is meat. Therefore, what thinks in me when I think is not my brain.
A in Reverse: What thinks in me when I think is my brain. My brain is meat. Therefore, meat can think.
The proponent of A needn't deny that we are meatheads. Of course we are. We are literally meat (and bone) all the way through. His point is that the res cogitans, that in us which thinks, cannot be a hunk of meat.
Both arguments are valid, but only one is sound. The decision comes down to the initial premises of the two arguments. Is there a rational way of deciding between these premises?
A materialist might argue as follows. Although we cannot at present understand how a hunk of living meat could feel and think, what is actual is possible regardless of our ability or inability to explain how it is possible. The powers of certain configurations of matter could remain hidden for a long time from our best science, or even remain hidden forever. What else would be doing the thinking and feeling in us if not our brains? What else could the mind be but the living and functioning brain well-supplied with oxygen-rich blood? The fact that we cannot understand how the brain could be a semantic engine, an engine productive of and sensitive to meanings, is not a conclusive reason for thinking that it is not a semantic engine.
It is worth noting that the reverent gushing of the neuro-scientistic types over the incredible complexity of the brain does absolutely nothing to reduce the unintelligibility of the notion that it is brains or parts of brains that are the subjects of intentional and qualitative mental states. For it is unintelligible how ramping up complexity could trigger a metabasis eis allo genos. Are you telling me that meat that means is just meat that is more complex than ordinary meat? You might as well say that the leap from unmeaning meat to meaning meat is a miracle. Some speak of 'emergence.' But that word merely papers over the difficulty, labeling the problem without solving it. You may as well say, as in the cartoon, "And then a miracle occurs." But then it's Game Over for the materialist.
Our materialist would do better to insist that unintelligibility to us does not entail impossibility. Our inability to explain how X is possible does not entail that X is not possible.
My response would be that while unintelligibility does not entail impossibility, it is excellent evidence of it. If you tell me that a certain configuration of neurons is intrinsically object-directed, directed to an object that may or may not exist without prejudice to the object-directedness, then you are saying something unintelligible. It is as if you said that .5 volts intrinsically represents 1 and .7 volts intrinsically represents 0. That's nonsense. Or it as if you said that a pile of rocks intrinsically indicates the direction of the trial. (See The Philosophizing Hiker: The Derivative Intentionality of Trail Markers.)
No rock pile has intrinsic meaning or intrinsic representational power. And the same goes for any material item or configuration of material items no matter how complex. No such system has intrinsic meaning; any meaning it has is derived. The meaning is derived either from an intelligent being who ascribes meaning to the material system, or from an intelligent being whose purposes are embodied in the material system, or both.
Thus I am rejecting the view that meaning could inhere in material systems apart from relations to minds that are intrinsically intentional, minds who are original Sinn-ers, if you will, original mean-ers. We are all of us Sinn-ers, every man Jack of us, original Sinn-ers, but our Sinn-ing is not mortal or venial but vital. Intrinsic, underived intentionality is our very lifeblood as spiritual beings.
So if the materialist says that the brain means, intends, represents, thinks, etc., then I say that makes no sense given what we understand the brain to be. The brain is a material system and the physical, chemical, electrical, and biological properties it and its parts have cannot be meaningfully predicated of mental states. One cannot speak intelligibly of a voltage drop across a mental state any more than can one speak intelligibly of the intentionality of synapses or of their point of view or of what it is like to be one.
Of course, the materialist can pin his hope on a future science that understands the brain in different terms, terms that could be sensibly attached to mental phenomena. But this is nothing more than an empty gesturing towards a 'possibility' that cannot be described except in the vaguest terms. It is nothing but faith, hope, and hand-waving.
There is also the dogmatism of the materialist who insists that the subject of thinking must be the functioning brain. How does he know that? He doesn't. He believes it strongly is all.
So I give the palm to Argument A: Meat can't think. My brain is meat. Therefore, what thinks in me when I think is not my brain.
I do not absolutely foreclose on the abstract possibility that there be thinking meat. For I grant that unintelligibility to us is not invincible proof of impossibility. But when I compare that vaguely described abstract possibility with the present certainty that matter as we know it cannot think due to the very unintelligibility of the idea, then the present certainty wins over the abstract possibility and over the faith and hope of the materialist.
If you need to pin your hopes on something, pin them on the possibility that you are more than meat.
This is an addendum to Thomas Nagel on the Mind-Body Problem. In that entry I set forth a problem in the philosophy of mind, pouring it into the mold of an aporetic triad:
1) Conscious experience is not an illusion.
2) Conscious experience has an essentially subjective character that purely physical processes do not share.
3) The only acceptable explanation of conscious experience is in terms of physical properties alone.
Note first that the three propositions are collectively inconsistent: they cannot all be true. Any two limbs entail the negation of the remaining one. Note second that each limb exerts a strong pull on our acceptance. But we cannot accept them all because they are logically incompatible.
This is one hard nut to crack. So hard that many, following David Chalmers, call it, or something very much like it, the Hard Problem in the philosophy of mind. It is so hard that it drives some into the loony bin. I am thinking of Daniel Dennett and those who have the chutzpah to deny (1). But eliminativism about conscious experience is not worth discussing outside of the aforementioned bin.
Sophistry aside, we either reject (2) or we reject (3). Nagel and I accept (1) and (2) and reject (3). Those of a scientistic stripe accept (1) and (3) and reject (2).
What I didn't do in my original post was to state why a Nagel-type answer is better than a scientistic one.
Why not just reject (2)? One way to reject it is by holding that some physical processes are essentially subjective. Consider any felt sensation precisely as felt, a twinge of pain, say, or a rush of euphoria. Why couldn't that felt sensation be identical to a physical process transpiring in one's brain?
Here is an argument contra. Not every brain event is identical to a conscious experience. There is a lot going on in the brain that does not manifest itself at the level of consciousness. What then distinguishes those brain events that are conscious experiences from those that are not? There will have to be a difference in properties. But if the only properties are physical properties, taking 'physical' in a broad sense to include the properties mentioned in physics, chemistry, electro-chemistry, and so on, then there will be no way to distinguish between conscious and non-conscious brain events. Since there is that distinction, conscious experiences cannot be identical to brain events. (Don't forget: eliminativism has been eliminated.)
More simply, perhaps, the claim that a particular conscious experience is numerically identical to a brain event violates the Indiscernibility of Identicals. Necessarily, if x, y are identical (one and the same), then whatever is true of x is true of y and vice versa. Equivalently, if x = y, then x, y share all properties. (After all, if two putatively distinct items are in reality one item, then it is trivially the case that 'they' share all properties.) But conscious experiences and physical states do not share all properties. It could be true of a pain that it is bearable, excruciating, throbbing, non-throbbing, etc. But these phenomenal predicates cannot be true of a physical state such as brain state. Why not? Because physical states have only physical properties, and no phenomenal properties.
"But if the pain and the brain state are identical, then they must share all properties!" True, but which properties are those? The physicalist/materialist/naturalist can admit only physical properties. His aim is to reduce the mental (or at least the qualitatively mental) to the physical, but without eliminating the mental. That I claim is impossible. For again, conscious experiences are essentially subjective, as Nagel says, but there is nothing essentially subjective about physical states as physics and the related natural sciences conceive them. The materialist reduction doesn't work. Sensory qualia have not been show to be material in nature.
Someone who thinks that qualia just have to be material in nature might at this point go mysterian along the lines of Colin McGinn. The mysterian grants that we cannot understand how that twinge of pain or that sense of euphoria could be just a complex state of the brain, a pattern of neuron firings. But he insists that it is nevertheless the case. It is just that our cognitive architecture makes it impossible for us to understand how it could be the case. After all, if x is actual, then it is possible even if we cannot understand how it is possible. It is and will remain a sort of secular mystery.
In other words, the unintelligibility of the reduction of consciousness to matter is not taken as an argument against this reduction, but as an argument against our ability to grasp certain fundamental truths. Thus (2) and (3) above are both true and hence logically consistent; it is just that insight into this consistency is beyond our ken. What is unintelligible to us is intelligible in itself. In reality, my felt pain is identical to something going on intracranially; it is just that insight into how this is possible is impossible for us given how were are constructed.
There are problems with this mysterian way out that I may discuss in a separate post.
Two Ways of Referring to the Same Thing?
Another option for the materialist is to invoke the familiar idea that linguistic and epistemic access to one and the same item can be had in different ways, and that duality of linguistic and/or epistemic access need not be taken to argue ontological duality in that to which one gains access. Reference to one and the same item can be routed through different senses or modes of presentation. Different terms, with different senses, can be used to target one and the same referent. 'Morning Star' and 'Evening Star,' though differing in sense, can be used to refer to the same celestial body, the planet Venus.
Why not say something similar about the physical state I am in when I feel pain? Why not say that there are two ways of accessing the same physical state? The one mode of access is via neuroscience, the other is 'from the inside' via the pain's qualitative feel to the one who endures it. If so, there are not two states or events one physical and the other mental differing in mode of existence; there is exactly one state or event, and it is physical. Dualism is avoided. The upshot is that, contra Nagel, the third-person physicalistic approach to the mind does not leave anything out. One may go on to tax Nagel, Searle, and Co. with illicitly inferring a difference in mode of existence from a difference in mode of linguistic/epistemic access. Something like this objection is made by Christopher Peacocke in his review of Nagel's The View from Nowhere (Philosophical Review, January 1989.)
It's a nice try, a very nice try. And it is exactly what one would expect from someone who takes an objectifying third-person view. What's more, it would be in keeping with Occam's Razor if mind could be seamlessly integrated into nature. Unfortunately, the pain I am in is not a mode of presentation, or means of epistemic access, to the underlying brain state. Thus the Fregean analogy collapses. The sense of 'morning star' mediates my reference to Venus; but my pain quale, even if it is caused by the brain state, does not mediate my reference to it.
Let me see if I can make this clear. The suggestion is that the same physical reality appears, or can appear, in two different ways, a third-person way and a first-person way, and that this first-person way of access is no evidence of a first-person way of being. One problem is the one I just alluded to: there is no clear sense in which a pain quale is an appearance of a brain state. The former may be caused by the latter. But that is not to say that the pain quale is of the brain state. The felt pain does not present the brain state to me. It does not present anything (distinct from itself) to me. After all, the felt pain is a non-intentional state. No doubt it has a certain content, but not an intentional or representational content. One can describe it without describing what it is of, for the simple reason that there is nothing it is of. An intentional state, however, cannot be described without describing what it is of.
The Fregean sense/reference analogy therefore breaks down. The basic idea was that one and same reality can appear in different ways, and that the numerical difference of these ways is consistent with a unitary mode of existence of the reality. A felt pain, however, is not an appearance of a reality, but an appearance that is a reality. The appearing of a felt pain is its being, and its being is its appearing. And because this is so, the felt pain is a distinct reality from the brain state. Not only is it a distinct reality, it is a distinct reality with a distinct, irreducibly subjective, mode of existence.
Nagelus vindicatus est. There is something essentially incomplete about a third-person approach to reality. It leaves something out, and what it leaves out is precisely that which makes life worth living. For as Wilfrid Sellars once said to Daniel Dennett over a fine bottle of Chambertin, "But Dan, qualia are what make life worth living!" (Consciousness Explained, p. 383)
In vino veritas.
I conclude that if our aporetic triad has a solution, the solution is by rejecting (3).
Nagel replies in the pages of NYRB (8 June 2017; HT: Dave Lull) to one Roy Black, a professor of bioengineering:
The mind-body problem that exercises both Daniel Dennett and me is a problem about what experience is, not how it is caused. The difficulty is that conscious experience has an essentially subjective character—what it is like for its subject, from the inside—that purely physical processes do not share. Physical concepts describe the world as it is in itself, and not for any conscious subject. That includes dark energy, the strong force, and the development of an organism from the egg, to cite Black’s examples. But if subjective experience is not an illusion, the real world includes more than can be described in this way.
I agree with Black that “we need to determine what ‘thing,’ what activity of neurons beyond activating other neurons, was amplified to the point that consciousness arose.” But I believe this will require that we attribute to neurons, and perhaps to still more basic physical things and processes, some properties that in the right combination are capable of constituting subjects of experience like ourselves, to whom sunsets and chocolate and violins look and taste and sound as they do. These, if they are ever discovered, will not be physical properties, because physical properties, however sophisticated and complex, characterize only the order of the world extended in space and time, not how things appear from any particular point of view.
The problem might be condensed into an aporetic triad:
1) Conscious experience is not an illusion.
2) Conscious experience has an essentially subjective character that purely physical processes do not share.
3) The only acceptable explanation of conscious experience is in terms of physical properties alone.
Take a little time to savor this problem. Note first that the three propositions are collectively inconsistent: they cannot all be true. Any two limbs entail the negation of the remaining one. Note second that each limb exerts a strong pull on our acceptance. But we cannot accept them all because they are logically incompatible.
Which proposition should we reject? Dennett, I take it, would reject (1). But that's a lunatic solution as Professor Black seems to appreciate, though he puts the point more politely. When I call Dennett a sophist, as I have on several occasions, I am not abusing him; I am underscoring what is obvious, namely, that the smell of cooked onions, for example, is a genuine datum of experience, and that such phenomenological data trump scientistic theories.
Sophistry aside, we either reject (2) or we reject (3). Nagel and I accept (1) and (2) and reject (3). Black, and others of the scientistic stripe, accept (1) and (3) and reject (2).
I appreciate the appeal of the naturalistic-scientistic worldview and I don't dismiss it in the way I dismiss eliminativism about the mental:
Look, there is just one world, this physical world, and we are physical parts of it including all your precious thoughts, moods, and sensations. If you are serious about explaining consciousness, then you have to explain it the way you explain everything else: in terms of our best natural science. With the progress of science over the centuries, more and more of what hitherto was thought inexplicable scientifically has been explained. The trend is clear: science is increasingly de-mystifying the world, and it is a good induction that one day it will have wholly de-mystified it and will have cut off every obscurantist escape route into the Cloud Cuckoo Land of religion/superstition.
It is essential to see, however, that this worldview is precisely that, a worldview, and therefore just another philosophy. This is what makes it scientistic as opposed to scientific. Scientism is not science, but philosophy. Scientism is the epistemology of naturalism, where naturalism is not science but ontology. No natural science can prove that reality is exhausted by the physical, and no natural science can prove that all and only the scientifically knowable is knowable.
But it is not irrational to be a naturalist and a scientisticist -- an ugly word for an ugly thing -- in the way that it is irrational to be an eliminativist. But is also not irrational to reject naturalism and scientism.
And so the strife of systems will continue. People like me will continue to insist that qualia, intentionality, conscience, normativity, reason, truth and other things cannot be explained naturalistically. Those on the other side will keep trying. Let them continue, with vigor. The more they fail, the better we look.
Do those on our side have a hidden religious agenda? Some do. But Nagel doesn't. He is just convinced that the naturalist project doesn't work. Nagel rejects theism, and I believe he says somewhere that he very much does not want it to be the case that religion is true.
Nagel, then, has no religious agenda. But this did not stop numerous prominent, but viciously leftist, academics from attacking him after he published Mind and Cosmos. See the following articles of mine:
This entry continues a discussion with Dan M. begun here.
Before we get to the main event, a terminological quibble. A view that denies some category of entity I would call eliminativist, not nominalist. I say this because one can be a nominalist about properties without denying their existence. Tom is a tomato of my acquaintance. Tom is red and ripe and juicy and other things besides. It is a Moorean fact, I would say, that Tom has properties, and that, in general, things have properties. After all, Tom is red and ripe, etc. It's a datum, a given, a starting point. A sensible question is not whether there are properties, but what they are. Of course there are properties. What is controversial is whether they are universals or particulars, mind-dependent or mind-independent, immanent or transcendent, constituents or not of the things that have them, etc.
Still, there are those parsimonious souls who deny that there are properties. They accept predicates such as 'red' and 'ripe' but deny that in extralinguistic reality there are properties corresponding to these or to any predicates. These people are called extreme nominalists. It's a lunatic position in my view valuable only as a foil for the development of a saner view. But moderate nominalism is not a lunatic view. This is the view that there are properties all right; it's just that properties are not universals, but particulars, trope theory being one way of cashing out this view. My Trope category goes into more detail on this.
The present point, however, is simply this: a moderate nominalist about properties does not deny the existence of properties. So my suggestion is that if you are out to deny some category K of entity (i.e., deny of a putative category that it has members) then you should label your position as eliminativist about Ks, not nominalist about Ks. Dan is an eliminativist about mental acts, not a nominalist about them.
But this is a merely terminological point. Having made it, I will now irenically acquiesce in Dan's terminology for the space of this post. Dan writes with admirable clarity:
As you explain my proposal (I'll call it "Mental Act Nominalism" or "MAN"), an ontological assay of propositional attitudes will only turn up two entities, the agent and the proposition. The agent's having the relevant attitude (e.g., belief, doubt) to the proposition is not itself construed as an additional entity. You say that this view is committed to "a denial of mental acts and thereby a denial of the act-content distinction."
[. . .]
Turning to your concern. You suggest that "such a parsimonious scheme cannot account for the differences among" various propositional attitudes (belief, doubt, etc.). And after discussing some examples, you say they provide "phenomenological evidence that we cannot eke by with just the subject and the object/content but also need to posit mental acts." And you add: "The differences among [various attitudes] will then be act-differences, differences in the type of mental acts."
The gist of my reply is that we can perhaps account for the differences you speak of without committing ourselves to the existence of the relevant mental acts/states.
Consider these two situations:
(A) Dan wonders whether Bill owns cats.
(B) Dan believes that Bill owns cats.
(We may suppose there was a time lapse between them.) What should the ontological assays of (A) and (B) include? As you described MAN, its ontological assays of propositional attitudes deliver just two entities, the relevant agent and proposition. So on this approach, we get these two assays:
(A Assay 1) Dan, the proposition Bill owns cats.
(B Assay 1) Dan, the proposition Bill owns cats.
These assays fail to differentiate situations A and B. However, it's not clear to me that MAN has to be implemented in this way. Consider these alternative assays:
(A Assay 2) Dan, the relation wondering whether, the proposition Bill owns cats.
(B Assay 2) Dan, the relation believing that, the proposition Bill owns cats.
These assays do differentiate A and B, by virtue of the different relations. I think MAN is prima facie compatible with these assays, since the main aim of MAN is not to deny the existence of propositional attitude relations per se, but to deny the existence of mental acts or states consisting in the agent's having the relevant attitude. So, MAN must reject, for example, these assays:
(A Assay 3) Dan, the proposition Bill owns cats, the state Dan's wondering whether Bill owns cats.
(B Assay 3) Dan, the proposition Bill owns cats, the state Dan's believing that Bill owns cats.
So perhaps we can be realists about propositional attitude relations, but nominalists about propositional attitude states (of affairs). The former would give us a robust basis to differentiate different kinds of propositional attitudes, while the latter would preserve MAN.
BV: The issue is now one of deciding which tripartite assay to accept, mine, or Dan's. Where I have mental acts or states, he has relations. Mental acts are datable particulars, where a particular is an unrepeatable item. Dan's relations are, I take it, universals, where a universal is a repeatable item.
Suppose that Dan, who has not seen his elderly neighbor Sam come out of his house in a week, fears that he is dead. What does the world have to contain for 'Dan fears that Sam is dead' to be true? Suppose that it contains Dan, the relation fears that, and the proposition Sam is dead, but not the mental act, state, or event of Dan's fearing that Sam is dead. Then I will point out that Dan, the relation fears that, and the proposition Sam is dead can all three exist without it being the case that Dan fears that Sam is dead. The collection of these three items does not suffice as truthmaker for the sentence in question.
This is the case even if the relation in question is an immanent universal, that is, one that cannot exist instantiated. It could be that Dan exists, the proposition Sam is dead exists, and the relation fears that exists in virtue of being instantiated by the pair (Pam, the proposition Hillary is sad.) It is possible that all three of these items exist and 'Dan fears that Sam is dead' is false.
We need something to tie together the three items in question. On my tripartite analysis it is the mental act that ties them together. So I am arguing that we cannot get by without positing something like the particular Dan's fearing that Sam is dead.
How can a simple God know contingent truths, such as Bill owns cats? On the version of MAN that accepts bona fide relations, we say: God bears the relation believing that to the proposition Bill owns cats. There are just three entities to which this situation commits us: God, the relation, and the proposition. There is no state (construed as a bona fide entity) of God's believing that Bill owns cats.
BV: But if S bears R to p, this implies that R is instantiated by the ordered pair (S, p), and that this relation-instantiation is a state or state of affairs or event. It is clearly something in addition to its constituents inasmuch as it is their truthmaking togetherness. And this bring us back to our original difficulty of explaining how a simple God can know contingent truths.
To put it bluntly and polemically: Thomas Nagel is the real thing as philosophers go; Daniel Dennett is a sophist.
I am reminded of the Marx Brothers line: “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” Dennett asks us to turn our backs on what is glaringly obvious—that in consciousness we are immediately aware of real subjective experiences of color, flavor, sound, touch, etc. that cannot be fully described in neural terms even though they have a neural cause (or perhaps have neural as well as experiential aspects). And he asks us to do this because the reality of such phenomena is incompatible with the scientific materialism that in his view sets the outer bounds of reality. He is, in Aristotle’s words, “maintaining a thesis at all costs.”
That's right. When a line of reasoning issues in an absurdity such as the absurdity that consciousness and its deliverances are illusions, then what you have is a reductio ad absurdum of one or more of the premises with which the reasoning began. Dennett assumes physicalism and that everything can be explained in physical terms. This leads to absurdity. But Dennett, blinded by his own brilliance -- don't forget, he counts himself one of the 'brights' -- bites the bullet. He'd rather break his teeth than examine his assumptions.
Another thing struck me. Dennett makes much of Wilfrid Sellars' distinction between the manifest and scientific images. 'Image' is not quite the right word. An image is someone's image. But whose image is the scientific image? Who is its subject? It is arguably our image no less than the manifest image. Nagel quotes Dennett as saying of the manifest image: "It’s the world according to us." But the same, or something very similar, is true of the scientific image: it's the world in itself according to us. Talk of molecules, atoms, electrons, quarks, and strings is our talk just as much as talk of colors and plants and animals and haircuts and home runs.
The world of physics is the world as it is in itself according to us. Arguably, the 'according to us' gets the upper hand over the 'in itself' relativizing what comes within the former's scope much like Kant's transcendental prefix, Ich denke. Das 'ich denke' muss alle meine Vorstellungen begleiten koennen . . . . "The ''I think' must be able to accompany all my representations." (KdrV, B 131-2)
Arguably, the world of physics is a mind-involving construct arrived at by excluding the mental and abstracting away from the first-person point of view and the life world it reveals. I am alluding to an idealist approach to the problem of integrating the first- and third-person points of view. It has its own problems. But why is it inferior to a view like Dennett's which eliminates as illusory obvious data that are plainly not illusory?
Time was when absolute idealism was the default position in philosophy. Think back to the days of Bradley and Bosanquet. But reaction set in, times have changed, and the Zeitgeist is now against the privileging of Mind and for the apotheosis of Matter. (But again, matter as construed by us. Arguably, the scientific realist reifies theoretical constructs that we create and employ to make sense of experience.) Because idealism is out of vogue, the best and brightest are not drawn to its defense, and the brilliant few it attracts are too few to make much headway against the prevailing winds.
Now I'll tell you what I really think. The problem of integrating the first- and third-person points of view is genuine and perhaps the deepest of all philosophical problems. But it is insoluble by us. If it does have a solution, however, it certainly won't be anything like Dennett's.
Although Dennett's positive theory is worthless, his excesses are extremely useful in helping us see just how deep and many-sided and intractable the problem is.
Long-time reader writes,
I was going through some of your posts from earlier this month (Belief, Designation, and Substitution, January 10, 2017) and was interested in seeing your comment that "[l]inguistic reference is built upon, and nothing without, thinking reference, or intentionality.". . . I have to say that your above sentence was the first time I've heard anyone articulate what you have articulated in such a direct manner. It's something that certainly makes the most sense to me in terms of thinking about some of the broad discussion points in the field, but I'm surprised, actually, that no one I've come across has articulated this, and I'm curious whether that lacuna has to do with the analytic tradition's anti-metaphysical tendencies (of a more robust type of metaphysics, in any event): if one moves the object of analysis from questions about how language refers to how the mind refers, perhaps it gets one into hoary metaphysical waters that people back in the day would rather have left alone. Is this actually the case or am I missing something or is the whole thing simply too obvious for most people to bother mentioning?
But before we can discuss the primacy of the intentional, we must have some idea of (i) what intentionality is and (ii) what the problem of intentionality is. Very simply, (mental) intentionality is object-directedness, a feature of some (if not all) of our mental states. (The qualifier 'mental' leaves open the epistemic possibility of what George Molnar calls physical intentionality which transpires, if it does transpire, below the level of mind. I take no position on it at the moment. Dispositionality would count as physical intentionality.)
Suppose a neighbor asks me about Max Black, a stray cat of our mutual acquaintance, who we haven't seen in a few weeks. The asking occasions in me a thought of Max, with or without accompanying imagery. The problem of intentionality is to provide an adequate account of what it is for my thought of Max to be a thought of Max, and of nothing else. Simply put, what makes my thought of Max a thought of Max? How is object-directedness (intentionality, the objective reference of episodes of thinking) possible? How does it work? How does the mental act of thinking 'grab onto' a thing whose existence does not depend on my or anyone's thinking?
Why should there be a problem about this? Well, an episode of thinking is a datable event in my mental life. But a cat is not. First of all, no cat is an event. Second, no cat is a content of consciousness. It's an object of consciousness but not a content of consciousness. Cats ain't in the head or in the mind. Obviously, no cat is spatially inside my skull, or spatially inside my nonspatial mind, and it is only a little less obvious that no cat depends for its existence on my mind: it's nothing to Max, ontologically speaking, if me and my mind cease to exist. He needs for his existence my thinking of him as little as my thinking needs to be about him. We are external to each other. Cats are physical things out in the physical world. And yet my thinking of Max 'reaches' beyond my mind and targets -- not some cat or other, but a particular cat. How is this possible? What must our ontology include for it to be possible?
To get the full flavor of the problem, please observe that my thinking of Max would be unaffected if Max were, unbeknownst to me, to pass out of existence while I was thinking of him. (He's out on the prowl and a hungry coyote kills him while I am thinking of him.) It would be the very same thought with the very same content and the very same directedness. But if Max were to cease to exist while a flea was biting him, then the relation of biting would cease to obtain. So if the obtaining of a relation requires the existence of all its relata, it follows that intentionality is not a relation between a thinker (or his thought) and an external object. But if intentionality is not a relation, then how are we to account for the fact that intentional states refer beyond themselves to objects that are (typically) transcendent of the mind?
How is it that the act of thinking and its content 'in the mind' hooks onto the thing 'in the world' and in such a way that true judgments can be made about the thing, judgments that articulate the nature and existence of thing as it is in itself apart from any (finite) thinking directed upon it?
Now it seems to me that any viable solution must respect the primacy of the intentional over the linguistic. This thesis consists of the following subtheses:
A. Words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs and the like, considered in their physical being as marks on paper or sounds in the air or carvings in stone (etc.) are entirely lacking in any intrinsic referential, representative, semantic, or intentional character. There is nothing in the nature of the mark 'red' that makes it mean red. After all, it doesn't mean red to a speaker of German. It doesn't mean anything to a speaker of German qua speaker of German. In German 'rot' means red while in English the same sign is in use but has a different meaning. Clearly, then, marks on paper, pixels on screen, etc. have no intrinsic sense or reference grounded in their very nature. It is a matter of conventional that they mean what they mean. And that brings minds into the picture.
B. So any sense or reference linguistic signs have must be derivative and relational as opposed to intrinsic: whatever intentionality they have they get from minds that are intrinsically intentional. Mind is the source of all intelligibility. Linguistic signs in and of themselves as mere marks and sounds (etc.) are unintelligible.
C. There can be mind without language, but no language without mind. Laird Addis puts it like this:
Conscious states can and do occur in beings with no language, and in us with no apparent connection to the fact that we are beings with language. Thus we may say that "mind explains language" in a logical or philosophical sense: that while it is perfectly intelligible to suppose the existence of beings who have no language but have much the same kinds of conscious states that we have, including introspections of other conscious states, it is unintelligible to suppose the existence of beings who are using language in all of its representative functions and who are also lacking in conscious states. The very notion of language as a representational system presupposes the notion of mind, but not vice versa. (Natural Signs: A Theory of Intentionality, Temple University Press, 1989, pp. 64-65)
These considerations strike me as decisive. Or are there counter-considerations that 'cancel them out'?
The influential Austrian philosopher Franz Brentano took intentionality to be the mark of the mental, the criterion whereby physical and mental phenomena are distinguished. For Brentano, (i) all mental phenomena are intentional, (ii) all intentional phenomena are mental, and (iii) no mental phenomenon is physical. (Franz Brentano, Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkt (1874), Bk. II, Ch. 1.)
What is intentionality? ‘Intentionality’ is Brentano's term of art (borrowed from the Medievals) for that property of mental states whereby they are (non-derivatively) of, or about, or directed to, an object. Such states are intrinsically such that they 'take an accusative.' The state of perceiving, for example is necessarily object-directed. One cannot just perceive; if one perceives, then one perceives something. The idea is not merely that when one perceives one perceives something or other; the idea is that when one perceives, one perceives some specific object, the very object of that very act. The same goes for intending (in the narrow sense), believing, imagining, recollecting, wishing, willing, desiring, loving, hating, judging, knowing, etc. Such mental states refer beyond themselves to objects that may or may not exist, or may or may not be true in the case of propositional objects. Reference to an object is thus an intrinsic feature of mental states and not a feature they have in virtue of a relation to an existing object. This is why Brentano speaks of the "intentional in-existence of an object." It is also why Husserl can 'bracket' the existence of the object for phenomenological purposes. Intentionality is not a relation, strictly speaking, though it is relation-like. This is an important point that many contemporaries seem incapable of wrapping their heads around.
There are some interesting points of analogy between intentionality and potentiality. An intentional state exhibits
a. directedness to an object
b. an object that may or may nor exist
c. an object that may be, and typically is, indeterminate or incomplete.
For example, right now I am gazing out my study window at Superstition Mountain. The gazing is an intentional state: it is of or about something, a definite something. It takes an accusative, and does so necessarily. The accusative or intentional object in question presumably exists. But the intentional object is what it is whether or not it exists. The phenomenological description of object and act remains the same whether or not the object exists. Moreover, the object as presented in the act of gazing is incomplete: there are properties such that the intentional object neither has them nor their complements. Thus, to a quick glance, what is given in the intentional experience is 'a purplish mountain.' Just that. Now anything purple or purplish is colored, and anything colored is extended; but being colored and being extended are not properties of the intentional object. No doubt they are properties of the mountain itself in reality; but they are not properties of the precise intentional object of my gazing, which has all and only the properties it is seen to have. Furthermore, in reality, yonder mountain is either such that someone is climbing on it or not; but the intentional object of my momentary gazing is indeterminate with respect to the property of being climbed on by someone.
The potentiality inherent in a thing exhibits
a*. something analogous to intentional directedness: a potentiality is a potentiality for something, or to something. For example, a human embryo has the potentiality to develop, in the normal course of events, into a human neonate. But a human sperm cell lacks this potentiality. It has a different potentiality: it can combine with a human egg cell to form a zygote. A thing cannot just have a potentiality: every potentiality is a potentiality for something or to something. This something is not merely a something or other, but a definite something, analogously as in the case of intentional directedness.
b*. something analogous to the feature of an intentional experience whereby, from the occurrence of the intentional experience, one cannot infer the existence of its intentional object. Just as the intentional object may or may not exist without prejudice to its being an intentional object, a potentiality may or may not be realized. The embryo's potentiality to develop into a neonate may go unrealized -- and this without prejudice to the potentiality's being something quite definite and quite real.
c*. something analogous to the incompleteness of intentional objects. To revert to a hackneyed example, an acorn has the potentiality to become an oak tree. But this is not to say that there is some perfectly determinate (definite) oak tree that an acorn has the potentiality to become, a 50 foot oak tree the diameter of whose trunk is two feet, etc.
The same points can be made about dispositions. If a piece of glass is fragile, then it is disposed to shatter if suitably struck. There cannot be a disposition that is not a disposition to do something, to shatter, or explode, or melt. Second, the reality of a disposition is independent of its manifestation: a fragile piece of glass is fragile whether or not it ever breaks. From the fact that x is disposed to F one cannot infer that x ever Fs. This parallels a feature of intentionality: from the fact that x is thinking about Fs one cannot infer that there exist Fs that x is thinking about. (If I am thinking about unicorns it does not follow that there exist unicorns I am thinking about; if I want a sloop it doesn't follow that there is a sloop I want; if Ernest is hunting lions it doesn't follow that there are any lions he is hunting.)
Third, although a manifested disposition is a fully determinate state of affairs, this complete determinateness is not present in the disposition qua disposition. The disposition to shatter if suitably struck is not the disposition to shatter into ten pieces if suitably struck, although it is of course the disposition to shatter into some number or other of pieces, the exact number being left indeterminate.
Now here is a tough question: are dispositionality and intentionality merely analogous, or can we take it a step further and say that utimately there is no difference between dispositionality and intentionality? If that case could be made, then Brentano would be shown to be wrong in his claim that intentionality is the mark of the mental. For if the three characteristics of intentionality mentioned above are found below the level of mind in the physical world, then it looks as if intentionality cannot be the mark of the mental. Or should we stay instead that, since intentionality is the mark of the mental, and intentionality is found in nature below the level of mind, that there is something mind-like about all of nature?
These are just (half-formulated) questions.
Here is a simple indiscernibility argument for substance dualism, presented simply:
1. If two things are identical, then whatever is true of the one is true of the other, and vice versa.
2. It is true of me that I can (logically) exist disembodied.
3. It is not true of any body that it can (logically) exist disembodied.
4. I am not identical with any body.
The argument is valid in point of logical form, and (1), the Indiscernibility of Identicals, cannot be reasonably disputed. (3) too is irreproachable: it is surely impossible that a physical body exist without its body. My coffee cup can survive the loss of its handle, but not the loss of its very self. Destroy all its parts and you destroy it. So the soundness of the argument rides on the truth of (2). If (2) is true, there is no escaping the truth of (4). For an argument to be probative, however, it is not enough that it be sound; the premises must either be known to be true or at least reasonably believed to be true.
Do I have good reason to think that it is logically possible that I exist without a body? If so, then it is not necessarily the case that if you destroy all my physical parts, you destroy me. Well, the following is true and known to be true:
5. It is conceivable that I exist without a body.
By 'conceivable,' I don't just mean thinkable — round squares are thinkable -- I mean thinkable without logical contradiction. And surely it is thinkable without logical contradiction that I exist without a body. Read your Descartes. I had a student once, a hopeless materialist, albeit otherwise alert and intelligent, who just could not appreciate the point. He kept repeating, "But if I shoot you dead, then you cease to exist!" What I found bizarre was that his religious upbringing hadn't even softened him up for the conceivability of post-mortem existence. It was as if he was so sunk into his bodily existence that the mere thought of not being identical to his body was unavailable to him. So I branded him a Cave-dweller and gave up on him. And then some years later, I gave up on teaching entirely. Why spend your life among unteachable troglodytes?
But now comes the hard part. How do we move validly from conceivability to possibility, from (5) to (2)? (2) affirms the (broadly) logical possibility of disembodied existence. But it is not clear why being able to conceive a state of affairs should guarantee its logical possibility. Note that it would serve no purpose to stipulate that logical possibility just is conceivability. That would have all the advantages of theft over honest toil. Broadly logical possibility is a species of real possibility, and one cannot just assume that what one can conceive without contradiction is possible in reality. (On the other hand, one can be certain that a concept harboring a contradiction cannot have anything answering to it in reality.)
Consider the FBI, the floating bar of iron. If my thought about the FBI is sufficiently abstract and indeterminate, then it will seem that there is no 'bar' to the FBI's logical possibility. If I think of the FBI as an object that has the phenomenal properties of iron (e.g., hardness) but also floats, then those properties are combinable in my thought without contradiction. There seems to be no logical contradiction in the thought of a hard metal that floats.
But if I know more about iron, including its specific gravity, and I import this information into my concept of iron, then the concept of the FBI will harbor a contradiction. The specific gravity of iron is 7850 kg/cu.m, which implies that it is 7.85 times more dense than water, which in turn implies that it will sink in water. For someone with this richer understanding, the FBI is a bar of iron that both floats and does not float — which is a contradiction.
What this example seems to show is that my failing to find a contradiction in my concept of X does not entail that X is logically possible; for it may be that my concept of X is insufficiently determinate, and that if I had a sufficiently determinate concept of X, then I would see from the concept alone that X is logically impossible. Now let's apply this to our problem. My disembodied existence is conceivable. But it might well be that my identity with my body is hidden from my powers of conception in a way similar to, but more radical than, the way the logical impossibility of floating iron is hidden from someone whose concept of iron is inadequate. It may be that my belief in the possibility of disembodied existence feeds on ignorance. How can I rule out this possibility?
If the only way to rule it out is by assuming the truth of (4), then the modal argument begs the question. So I conclude that the above argument is not rationally compelling or rationally coercive: a consumer of the argument can reasonably resist it. But the argument is rationally defensible and does provide a good though not compelling argument for dualism.
Joel Hunter writes,
I was purchasing shotgun ammo at a gun store a while back. The proprietor brought out a box of double-aught buckshot shells which he recommended as having "the power to separate the soul from the body." The proprietor was a 'good old boy,' not someone with whom a wise man initiates a philosophical discussion. But his colorful phraseology got me thinking.
The words 'soul' and 'spirit' carry a cargo of both religious and substance-dualist connotations. And that is the way I will use them. The soul is that in us which thinks in the broad Cartesian sense of 'think.' it is the subject of consciousness and self-consciousness and moral sense (conscience). It is the thinker of our thoughts and the agent of our actions. It is the ultimate reference of the first person singular pronoun 'I' in its indexical use. But I must add that the soul is these things construed as capable of independent existence, as having not only an immaterial nature, but also an immaterial nature capable of existing on its own apart from these gross physical bodies with which we are all too familiar. So 'soul' is a theoretical term; it is not datanic or theory-neutral. 'Consciousness,' by contrast, is theory neutral. If you deny that there are souls, you will be forgiven, and you may even be right. If you deny that there is consciousness, however, then you are either a sophist, a lunatic, or an eliminativist, which is to say, a lunatic. Sophists and lunatics are not to be debated; they are to be 'shown the door.'
A substance, among other things, is an entity metaphysically capable of independent existence. The soul is a substance. It does not require some other thing in which to exist. (Nulla res indiget ad existendum.) So it is capable of independent existence. We encounter it as 'attached' to the body, but it can 'separate' from the body. The question is what these words mean in this context. The problem is to ascribe some coherent sense to them. What is the nature of this strange attachment?
1. Only physical things can be physically separated and physically attached. (The toenail from the toe; the stamp to the envelope; the spark plug from the cylinder; the yolk from the white, etc.) The soul is not a physical thing; ergo, souls cannot be physically separated from or attached to anything. So in this context we are not to take 'separation' and 'attachment' in any physical or material sense, whether gross or subtle. So don't think of ghosts or spooks floating out of gross bodies. Spook-stuff is still stuff, while what we are talking about now is not 'stuffy' at all.
2. It follows from this that every physical model is inadequate and just as, or more, misleading than helpful. The soul is not like the pilot in the ship, the man in his house, the oyster in the shell, the prisoner in his cell. These analogies may capture certain aspects of the soul-body relation, but they occlude others so that on balance they are of little use. But they are of some use. The morally sensitive, for example, experience a tension between their higher nature and their animal inclinations. There is more to the moral life than a struggle against the lusts of the flesh, but that is part of it. Thus the resonance of the Socratic image of the body as the prison-house of the soul.
3. The soul-body relation cannot literally be an instance of a physical relation, nor could it be an instance of a logical or mathematical or mereological or set-theoretical relation. We can lump these last four together under the rubric 'abstract relations.' Presumably the soul-body relation is sui generis. It's its own thing. Just as it would be absurd to say that entailment is an instance of a physical relation, it is absurd to suppose that soul-body is an instance of a physical or a logico-mathematical relation. The soul is neither a physical entity nor an abstract entity.
4. It seems to follow that if the the soul-body relation is sui generis, then there can be no model for it borrowed from some more familiar realm. The relation can only be understood in 'soulic,' or as I will say, spiritual terms. It can only be understood in its own terms. So let's consider mental or spiritual attachment. I am attached to my cat in the sense that, were he to die, I would grieve. Clearly, this is not a physical relation. Whether he is on my lap or far away, the attachment is the same. Spiritual attachment is consistent with physical separation. And spiritual non-attachment (spiritual separation) is consistent with physical proximity and indeed contact.
We allow ourselves to become attached to all sorts of things, people, and ideas, especially our own ideas. Attachments wax and wane. Many are foolish and even delusional. We become attached to what cannot last as if it will last forever. We become attached to what has no value. We have trouble apportioning our degree of attachment to the reality and value of attachment's object. As has been appreciated in many religions and wisdom traditions, much of our misery arises from desire and attachment to the objects of desire. For Pali Buddhism it is desire as such that is the problem; on more moderate views inordinate and misdirected desire. We are also capable of non-attachment or detachment, and this has been recommended in different ways and to different degrees by the religions and the wisdom traditions. There can be no doubt that non-attachment is a major component in wisdom.
5. None of this attaching and detaching would be possible without intentionality. The spiritual self, by virtue of its intentionality, flees itself and loses itself among the objects of its attachment. Chief among these is the mundane self: the body, the personality, their pasts, and the myriad of objects that one takes to be one's own. My car, my house, my wife, my children, my brilliant insights . . . . And now I come to my speculation. The soul attaches itself to this body here in a manner similar to the way it attaches itself to everything else to which it attaches itself. So attaching itself, my soul makes this body here my body. I come to 'inhabit' this body here, thereby making it my body, by my having chosen this body as the material locus of my subjectivity, as the vehicle of my trajectory through space-time. But when" Where? How? I chose this fall into time?
I am telling a Platonic story. I am penning yet another footnote to Plato. Who can believe it? Well, consider the alternatives! You are not your body and yet you are attached to it. What is your theory as to the nature of this attachment? I know what you will say. And I will have no trouble poking holes in it.
The old man's libido on the wane, he thinks more clearly and more truly about sexual matters. And when the waning of all his physical forces and endowments reaches its term -- will he then think best of all, or not at all?
The dove soars through the air and imagines it could soar higher and with less effort if there were no air to offer resistance. But the dove is mistaken. The dove on the wing does not understand the principle of the wing, Bernoulli's principle. Are we like the dove? The dove needs the air to fly. Do we need the body to think? Is the body necessary for thought? Pascal says that our whole dignity consist in thought. Is our dignity tied of necessity to the flesh ?
Or are we like the rocket whose propulsion has nothing to do with wings, the rocket the principle of whose propulsion is Newton's Third Law of Motion: To every action there is an equal but opposite reaction?
A curious extrapolation and a strange analogy.
Are the Christian and Muslim Gods the same? Why not settle this in short order with a nice, crisp, Indiscernibility argument? To wit,
a. If x = y, then x, y share all intrinsic properties. (A version of the Indiscernibility of Identicals)
b. The God of the Christians and that of the Muslims do not share all intrinsic properties: the former is triune while the latter is not.
c. The God of the Christians is not identical to that of the Muslims.
Not so fast!
With no breach of formal-logical propriety one could just as easily run the argument in reverse, arguing from the negation of (c) to the negation of (b). They are the same God, so they do share all intrinsic properties!
But then what about triunity? One could claim that triunity is not an intrinsic property. A Muslim might claim that triunity is a relational property, a property that involves a relation to the false beliefs of Christians. In other words, triunity is the relational property of being believed falsely by Christians to be a Trinity.
Clearly, a relational property of this sort cannot be used to show numerical diversity. Otherwise, one could 'show' that the morning and evening 'stars' are not the same because Shlomo of Brooklyn believes of one that it is a planet but of the other than it is a star.
Now consider a 'mind' argument.
a. If x = y, then x, y share all intrinsic properties. (A version of the Indiscernibility of Identicals)
b*. This occurrent thinking of Venus and its associated brain state do not share all intrinsic properties: my mental state is intentional (object-directed) whereas my brain state is not.
c*. This occurrent thinking of Venus is not identical to its associated brain state.
Not so fast! A resolute token-token mind-brain identity theorist will run the argument in reverse, arguing from the negation of (c*) to the negation of (b*).
But then what about intentionality? The materialist could claim that intentionality is not an intrinsic property, but a relational one. Taking a page from Daniel Dennett, he might argue that intentionality is a matter of ascription: nothing is intrinsically intentional. We ascribe intentionality to what, in itself, is non-intentional. So in reality all there is is the brain state. The intentionality is our addition.
Now Dennett's ascriptivist theory of intentionality strikes me as absurd: it is either viciously infinitely regressive, or else viciously circular. But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the infinite regress is benign. Can I show that it is not without begging the question?
Question for the distinguished MavPhil commentariat: Are there good grounds here for solubility-skepticism when it comes to philosophical problems?
Let us meditate this Christmas morning on the sheer audacity of the idea that God would not only enter this world of time and misery, but come into it in the most humble manner possible, inter faeces et urinam nascimur, born between feces and urine, entering between the legs of a poor girl in a stable. Just like one of us, a slob like one of us. The notion is so mind-boggling that one is tempted to credit it for this very reason, for its affront to Reason, and to the natural man, accepting it because it is absurd, or else dismissing it as the height of absurdity. A third possibility is to accept it despite its being absurd, and a fourth is to argue that rational sense can be made of it. The conflict of these approaches, and of the positions within each, only serves to underscore the mind-boggling quality of the notion, a notion that to the eye and mind of faith is FACT.
The Most High freely lowers himself, accepting the indigence and misery of material existence, including a short temporal career that ends with the ultimate worldly failure: execution by the political authorities. And not a civilized Athenian execution by hemlock as was the fate of that other great teacher of humanity, but execution by the worst method the brutal Romans could devise, crucifixion.
In the Incarnation the Word nailed itself to the flesh in anticipation of later being nailed to the wood of the cross to suffer the ultimate fate of everything material and composite: dissolution. Christ dies like each of us will die, utterly, alone, abandoned. But then the mystery: He rises again. Is this the central conundrum of Christianity? He rises, but not as a pure spirit. He rises body and soul.
God is the Word ("In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word WAS God"); the Word becomes flesh; the flesh nailed to wood becomes dead matter and nothing Wordly or Verbal or Logical or Spiritual or Sense Bearing, and so next-to-nothing; but then the next-to-nothing rises and ascends body and soul to the Father by the power of the Father. Christ rises bodily and ascends bodily. A strange idea: bodily ascension out of the entire spatio-temporal-bodily matrix! He ascends to the Father who is pure spirit. So, in ascending, Christ brings matter, albeit a transformed or transfigured matter, into the spiritual realm which must therefore be amenable to such materialization. It must permit it, be patient of it. The divine spiritual milieu cannot be essentially impervious to material penetration.
Before the creation and before the Incarnation of the Creator into the created order divine spirit had the power to manifest itself materially, and in the Incarnation the power not only to manifest itself materially but to become material. The divine Word becomes flesh; the Word does not merely manifest itself in a fleshly vehicle. It becomes that vehicle and comes to suffer the fate of all such vehicles, dissolution. The divine spirit was always already apt for materialization: it bore this possibility within it from the beginning. It was always already in some way disposed toward materialization. On the other hand, matter was always already apt for spiritualization.
We humans know from experience that we can in some measure spiritualize ourselves and indeed freely and by our own power. We know ourselves to be spiritual beings while also knowing ourselves to be animals, animated matter, necessarily dependent on inanimate matter including air, water, dead plants and dead meat. (When an animal eats another animal alive, the first is after the matter of the second, not after its being animated.)
Whether or not we exercise our severely limited power of self-spiritualization, we are spiritual animals whether we like it or not and whether we know it or not: we think. Each one of us is a hunk of thinking meat. We are meaning meat. How is this possible? The matter of physics cannot think. But we are thinking matter. This is the mystery of the entanglement of spirit and matter in us. We live it and we experience it.
We could call it the 'The Little Incarnation.' Mind is incarnated, enfleshed, in us. The Little Word, the Little Logos, has always already been incarnated is us, separating us as by an abyss from the rest of the animals. Here, in us, we have an ANALOGY to the Incarnation proper. In the latter, the Second Person of the Trinity does not take on a human body merely, but an individual human nature body and soul. So I speak of an analogy. Incarnation in the case of Christ is not a mere enfleshment or embodiment. The Little Incarnation in us is the apparently necessary enfleshment of our spiritual acts in animal flesh.
The mystery of the entanglement of spirit and matter in us reflects the mystery of the entanglement of spirit and matter in God. Divine spirit is pregnant with matter, and accepting of the risen matter of Christ, but matter is also pregnant with divine spirit. Mary is the mother of God. A material being gives birth to God. This is how the Word, who is God, is made flesh to dwell among us for our salvation from meaninglessness and abandonment to a material world that is merely material.
Matter in Mary is mater Dei. Matter in Mary is mother and matrix of the birth of God.
For a different take on the meaning of Christmas, see my Incarnation: A Mystical Approach?
1. What is a zombie?
You will have gathered that a zombie is a creature of philosophical fiction conjured up to render graphic a philosophical issue and to throw certain questions in the philosophy of mind into relief. A zombie is a living being that is physically and behaviorally exactly like a living human being except that it lacks (phenomenal) consciousness. Cut a zombie open, and you find exactly what you would find were you to cut a human being open. And in terms of linguistic and nonlinguistic behavior, there is no way to tell a human being from a zombie. (So don't think of something sleepy, or drugged, or comatose or Halloweenish.) When a zombie sees a tree, what is going on in the zombie's brain is a 'visual' computational process, but the zombie lacks what a French philosopher would call interiority. There is no irreducible subjectivity, no qualitative feel to the 'visual' processing; there is nothing it is like for a zombie to see a female zombie or to desire her. (What's it like to be a horny zombie? There is nothing it is like to be a horny zombie. Indeed, there is nothing it is like to be a zombie, period.)
2. Where do zombies come from?
Zombies surface within the context of discussions of physicalism. Physicalism is an ontological doctrine, a doctrine about what ultimately exists, what exists in the most fundamental sense of 'exists.' The physicalist is committed to the proposition that everything, or at least everything concrete, is either physical or determined by the physical. To be a bit more precise, physicalism is usefully viewed as the conjunction of an 'inventory thesis' which specifies physicalistically admissible individuals and a 'determination thesis' which specifies physicalistically admissible properties. What the inventory thesis says, at a first approximation, is that every concretum is either a physical item or composed of physical items. As for the determination thesis, what it says is that physical property-instantiations determine all other property-instantiations; equivalently, every nonphysical property-instantiation supervenes on physical property-instantiations. This implies that all mental facts supervene upon physical facts. So if a being is conscious, then this fact about it supervenes upon, is determined by, its physical properties. This implies that there cannot be two beings, indiscernible with respect to all physical properties, such that the one is conscious while the other is not. This in turn rules out the possibility of zombies. For, if physicalism is true, once the physical properties are fixed, the mental properties are also automatically fixed.
3. What useful work do zombies do?
If zombies are metaphysically (broadly logically) possible, then physicalism is false. That's their job: to serve as counterexamples to physicalism. For if zombies are possible, then it is not the case that every nonphysical property-instantiation supervenes upon a physical property-instantiation: a zombie has all the same physical properties as its indiscernible non-zombie twin, but is not conscious. The possibility of zombies implies that consciousness is non-supervenient, something in addition to a being's physical makeup. So one anti-physicalist argument goes like this:
1. If physicalism is true, then every nonphysical property-instantiation supervenes upon a physical property-instantiation.
2. If zombies are possible, then it is not the case that every nonphysical property-instantiation supervenes upon a physical property-instantiation.
3. Zombies are possible.
4. Physicalism is not true.
This is a valid argument the soundness of which rides on premise (3). Here is where the fight will come. Without questioning the validity of the argument the physicalist will run the argument in reverse. He will deny the conclusion and then deny (3). In effect, he will argue from (1) & (2) & (~4) to (~3). He will deny the very possibility of zombies. He will insist that anything that behaves just like a conscious person and has the 'innards' of a conscious person JUST IS a conscious person.
Now I find that absurd: it is a denial of that subjectivity which is properly accessed only via the irreducible first-person singular point of view. Nevertheless, I will have a devil of a time budging my materialist-functionalist interlocutor. Materialists are objectivists: they think that anything that is not objectively accessible in the third-person way just isn't there at all, or it if is 'there,' is not to be taken seriously.
Can one support (3) in a manner so compelling as to convince the recalcitrant materialist? After all, (3) is not self-evident. If it were self-evident, then we would have a 'knock-down' argument against physicalism. But there are few if any 'knock-down' (absolutely compelling) arguments in philosophy.
Now zombies are certainly conceivable. But it is not clear whether conceivability entails metaphysical (broadly logical) possibility, which is in play in (3). So it is not clear whether the conceivability of zombies is a compelling reason to reject physicalism. The question of the relation between conceivability and possibility is a difficult one. There is some discussion of this in the conceivability category.
Now here is what Galen Strawson has to say:
4. Strawson on Zombies.
It is, finally, a mistake to think that we can know that ‘zombies’ could exist—where zombies are understood to be creatures that have no experiential properties although they are perfect physical duplicates (PPDs) of currently experiencing human beings like you and me.
The argument that PPD-zombies could exist proceeds from two premisses— it is conceivable that PPD-zombies exist,  if something is conceivable, then it is possible. It is plainly valid, and (unlike many) I have no insuperable problem with . The problem is that we can't know  to be true, and have no reason to think it is. To be a materialist is, precisely, to hold that it is false, and while materialism cannot be known to be true, it cannot be refuted a priori—as it could be if  were established. ‘Physical’, recall, is a natural kind term, and since we know that there is much that we do not know about the nature of the physical, we cannot claim to know that an experienceless PPD of a currently experiencing human being is conceivable, and could possibly (or ‘in some possible world’) exist.
This is just blatant question-begging on Strawson's part. We can't know that it is conceivable that zombies exist?! That zombies are conceivable is a very weak claim, and of course we can know it to be true, just by conceiving a zombie, whence it follows that we have excellent reason to think it is true. Strawson simply begs the question by assuming that materialism is true. He also begs the question by claiming that materialism cannot be refuted a priori. If you grant , as Strawson does, then what we have is an a priori refutation of materialism.
Strawson tells us that 'physical' is a natural kind term. What a strange idea! 'Water,' 'gold, 'tiger' are uncontroversial natural kind terms. They succeed in referring to what they were introduced to refer to despite our knowledge or ignorance of the nature of what they refer to. The ancient Greeks thought water was an element; Dalton held it to be HO; we take it to be H2O. Water turned out to be a lot different than we thought, without prejudice to the reference of 'water.' So if 'physical' is a natural kind term, then it too can refer to things very different in nature than what we might have supposed. And so Strawson thinks that 'physical' can refer to what is irreducibly mental or experiential in whole or in part. In fact, Strawson allows that the physical -- that which physics studies -- could be wholly mental.
I don't know what this means. Perhaps Vlastimil can explain it to me.
If matter (wholly material beings) could think, then matter would not be matter as currently understood.
Can abstracta think? Sets count as abstracta. Can a set think? Could the set of primes contemplate itself and think the thought, I am a set, and each of my members is a prime number? Given what we know sets to be from set theory, sets cannot think. It is the same with matter. Given what we know or believe matter to be from current physics, matter cannot think. To think is to think about something, and it is this intrinsic aboutness or original intentionality that proves embarrassing for materialism. I have expatiated on this over many, many posts and I can't repeat myself here. (Here is a characteristic post.)
But couldn't matter have occult powers, powers presently hidden from our best physics, including the power to think? Well, could sets have occult powers that a more penetrating set theory would lay bare? Should we pin our hopes on future set theory? Obviously not. Why not? Because it makes no sense to think of sets as subjects of intentional states. We know a priori that the set of primes cannot lust after the set of evens. It is impossible in a very strong sense: it is broadly logically impossible.
Of course, there is a big difference between sets and brains. We know enough about sets to know a priori that sets cannot think. But perhaps we don't yet know enough about the human brain. So I don't dogmatically claim that matter could not have occult or hidden powers. Maybe the meat between my ears does have the power to think. But then that meat is not matter in any sense we currently understand. And that is my point. You can posit occult powers if you like, and pin your hopes on a future science that will lay them bare; but then you are going well beyond the empirical evidence and engaging in high-flying speculations that ought to seem unseemly to hard-headed empiricistic and scientistic types.
Such types are known to complain about spook stuff and ghosts-in-machines. But to impute occult powers, powers beyond our ken, to brain matter does not seem to be much of an improvement. For that is a sort of dualism too. There are the physical properties and powers we know about, and the physical properties and powers we know nothing about but posit to avoid the absurdities of identity materialism and eliminativism. So instead of an ontological property dualism or an ontological substance dualism we have an epistemological property dualism, a dualism as between properties and powers we know about and properties and powers we have no idea about.
There is, second, the ontological dualism as between thinking and feeling matter and ordinary hunks of matter that do not think or feel. Even the materialist must admit that there is a huge difference between Einstein and a piece of chalk. How explain that some parcels of matter think and some do not?
It is worth noting that the reverent gushing of the neuro-scientistic types over the incredible complexity (pound the lectern!) of the brain does absolutely nothing to reduce the unintelligibility of the notion that it is brains or parts of brains that are the subjects of intentional and qualitative mental states. For it is unintelligible how ramping up complexity can trigger a metabasis eis allo genos, a shift into another genus. Are you telling me that meat that means is just meat that is more complex than ordinary meat? You might as well say that the leap from unmeaning meat to meaning meat is a miracle. Will you say that consciousness emerges from certain parcels of sufficiently complex matter? But then it is not matter any more, is it? It is an emergent from matter. Emergentism is a form of ontological dualism. What's more, the word 'emergence' merely papers over the difficulty, labeling the problem without solving it. Do you materialists believe in miracle meat or mystery meat? Do you believe in magic?
There is, third, a dualism within the brain as between those parts of it that are presumably thinking and feeling and those other parts that perform more mundane functions. Why are some brain states mental and others not?
The materialist operates with a conception of matter tied to current physics. On that conception of matter, it is simply unintelligible to to say that brains feel or think. I tend to hold that this unintelligibility is a very good reason to hold that it is not my brain or any part thereof that thinks when I think, and that it is not my brain or any part thereof that feels when I feel. (I am using 'think' in the broad Cartesian sense to cover all instances of intentionality, and 'feel' to cover all non-intentional conscious states and events.)
"But from the fact that such-and-such is unintelligible to us now it does not follow that it is not the case." True. Two possibilities. It might be the case that p even though we will never understand how it is possible that p, and it might be the case that p, even though we cannot understand at present how it is possible that p. The first is a mysterian position, the second is not mysterian but a pin-hopes-on-future-science position.
My thesis is that it is reasonable to hold that when I think and feel it is not my brain or any part of it that thinks or feels. But who knows? Maybe future science will prove me wrong. It is just that I wouldn't lay any money on being wrong.
(This is a repost from February 2013 slightly emended, except for an addendum added today. Reposts are the reruns of the blogosphere. You don't watch a Twilight Zone or Seinfeld episode just once do you?)
A couple of days ago I had Nicholas Humphrey in my sights. Or, to revert to the metaphor of that post, I took a shovel to his bull. I am happy to see that Galen Strawson agrees that it is just nonsense to speak of consciousness as an illusion. Strawson's trenchant review of Humphrey's Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness is here. Unfortunately, I cannot see that Strawson has shed much light either, at least judging from the sketch of his position presented in the just-mentioned review:
There is no mystery of consciousness as standardly presented, although book after book tells us that there is, including, now, Nick Humphrey's Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness. We know exactly what consciousness is; we know it in seeing, tasting, touching, smelling, hearing, in hunger, fever, nausea, joy, boredom, the shower, childbirth, walking down the road. If someone denies this or demands a definition of consciousness, there are two very good responses. The first is Louis Armstrong's, when he was asked what jazz is: "If you got to ask, you ain't never goin' to know." The second is gentler: "You know what it is from your own case." You know what consciousness is in general, you know the intrinsic nature of consciousness, just in being conscious at all.
"Yes, yes," say the proponents of magic, "but there's still a mystery: how can all this vivid conscious experience be physical, merely and wholly physical?" (I'm assuming, with them, that we're wholly physical beings.) This, though, is the 400-year-old mistake. In speaking of the "magical mystery show", Humphrey and many others make a colossal and crucial assumption: the assumption that we know something about the intrinsic nature of matter that gives us reason to think that it's surprising that it involves consciousness. We don't. Nor is this news. Locke knew it in 1689, as did Hume in 1739. Philosopher-chemist Joseph Priestley was extremely clear about it in the 1770s. So were Eddington, Russell and Whitehead in the 1920s.
One thing we do know about matter is that when you put some very common-or-garden elements (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sodium, potassium, etc) together in the way in which they're put together in brains, you get consciousness like ours – a wholly physical phenomenon. (It's happening to you right now.) And this means that we do, after all, know something about the intrinsic nature of matter, over and above everything we know in knowing the equations of physics. Why? Because we know the intrinsic nature of consciousness and consciousness is a form of matter.
The main point of Strawson's first paragraph is surely correct: we know what consciousness is in the most direct and unmistakable way possible: we experience it, we live through it, we are it. We know it from our own case, immediately, and we know it better than we know anything else. If Dennett doesn't know what a sensory quale is, then perhaps the cure is to administer a sharp kick to his groin. Feel that, Dan? That's a quale. (I am assuming, of course, that Dennett is not a 'zombie' in the technical sense in which that term is used in philosophy of mind discussions. But I can't prove he isn't. Perhaps that is the problem. If he were a zombie, then maybe all his verbal behavior would be understandable.)
In the second paragraph Strawson rejects an assumption and he makes one himself. He rejects the assumption that we know enough about the intrinsic nature of matter to know that a material being cannot think. The assumption he makes is that we are wholly physical beings. So far I understand him. It could be that (it is epistemically possible that) this stuff inside my skull is the thinker of my thoughts. This is epistemically possible because matter could have hidden powers that we have yet to fathom. On our current understanding of matter it makes no bloody sense to maintain that matter thinks; but that may merely reflect our ignorance of the intrinsic nature of matter. So I cannot quickly dismiss the notion that matter thinks in the way I can quickly dismiss the preternaturally boneheaded notion that consciousness is an illusion.
I agree with Strawson's first paragraph; I understand the second; but I am flabbergasted by the third. For now our man waxes dogmatic and postures as if he KNOWS that consciousness is a wholly physical phenomenon. How does he know it? Obviously, he doesn't know it. It is a mere conjecture, an intelligible conjecture, and perhaps even a reasonable one. After all it might be (it is epistemically possible that) the matter of our brains has occult powers that physics has yet to lay bare, powers that enable it to think and feel. I cannot exclude this epistemic possibility, any more than Strawson can exclude the possibility that thinkers are spiritual substances. But to conjecture that things might be thus and so is not to KNOW that they are thus and so. All we can claim to KNOW is what Strawson asseverates in his first paragraph.
Here is Strawson's argument in a nutshell:
1. We know the intrinsic nature of consciousness from our own case.
2. We know that consciousness is a form of matter.
3. There is nothing mysterious about consciousness or about how matter gives rise to consciousness; nor is there any question whether consciousness is wholly physical; the only mystery concerns the intrinsic nature of matter.
The problem with this argument is premise (2). It is pure bluster: a wholly gratuitous assumption, a mere dogma of naturalism. I can neutralize the argument with this counterargument:
4. If (1) & (2), then brain matter has occult powers.
5. We have no good reason to assume -- it is wholly gratuitous to assume -- that brain matter has occult powers.
6. We have no good reason to assume that both (1) and (2) are true.
7. We know that (1) is true.
8. We have good reason to believe that (2) is false.
Further Thoughts: Strawsonian Theology? (20 September 2015)
Strawson tells us that he is assuming that we are "wholly physical beings." Now a proposition cannot be true or false unless it is meaningful. But what does it even mean to say that we are wholly physical beings given that this entails that some wholly physical beings are conscious and self-conscious? What does 'physical' mean if beings as richly endowed with mentality as we are count as "wholly physical"? There is a semantic problem here, and it looks to be a failure of contrast. 'Physical' contrasts with 'mental' and has a specific meaning in virtue of this contrast. And vice versa. So if nothing is mental, then nothing is physical in the specific contrastive sense that lends 'bite' and interest to the thesis that we are wholly physical. To put it another way, if nothing is mental and everything is physical including us with our richly endowed inner lives, then the claim that we are wholly physical is not particularly interesting. It is nearly vacuous if not wholly vacuous. It has been evacuated of its meaning by a failure of contrast. If we are wholly physical in an umbrella sense that subsumes the contrastive senses of 'physical' and 'mental,' then Strawson has merely papered over the problem of how the mental and the physical are related when these terms are taken in their specific senses.
Suppose Einstein and his blackboard are both wholly physical. We still have to account for the fact that one of them is conscious and entertains thoughts while the other isn't and doesn't. That is a huge difference. What Strawson has to say is that in us thinking and feeling beings powers of matter are exercised that are not exercised in other, less distinguished clumps of matter. Hidden in the bosom of matter are powers that a future physics may lay bare and render intelligible.
But if Strawson widens his concept of matter to cover both thinking and nonthinking matter, does he have a principled way to prevent an even further widening?
If minds like ours are wholly physical, why can't God be wholly physical? God is a mind too. Presumably God cannot be wholly physical because God is not in space and is not subject to physical decomposition. But if we can be wholly physical despite the fact that we think and are conscious -- if there is nothing in the nature of matter to rule out thought and consciousness -- then perhaps there is nothing in the nature of matter to rule out material beings that have no spatial location and are not subject to physical decomposition.
If an advanced physics will reveal how meat heads like us can think, then perhaps there are other properties and possibilities of matter hitherto undreamt of. Consider Christ's Ascension, body and soul, into heaven. Christ's Ascension is not a dematerialization: he ascends bodily into a purely spiritual, nonphysical, 'dimension.' Without losing his (resurrected) body, Christ ascends to the Father so that, after the Ascension, the Second Person of the Trinity acquires Christ's resurrected body. On our ordinary way of thinking, this is utterly unintelligible. God is pure spirit, pure mind. How can Christ ascend bodily into heaven, and without divesting himself of his body, enter into the unity of the purely spiritual Trinity? It is unintelligible to us because it issues in a formal-logical contradiction: God is wholly nonphysical and also in part physical. A mysterian would say it is a mystery. It happened, so it's possible, and this regardless of its unintelligibility to us.
On Strawson's approach there needn't be any mystery here: some parcels of matter have amazing powers. For example, we are wholly material and yet we think and feel. It is truly amazing that we should be thinking meat! If so, God might be a parcel of matter that thinks, feels, and -- without prejudice to his physicality -- has no spatial location and is not subject to physical decomposition. If so, the Ascension is comprehensible: Christ ascends bodily to join the physical Trinity. It is just that he sheds his particular location and his physical mutability. He remains what he was on earth, an embodied soul.
The same could be said of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven. She too entered bodily into heaven. On a Strawsonian theology, this might be rendered intelligible without mysterianism.
To sum up. If matter actually thinks and feels in us, as Strawson holds, then he has widened the concept of matter to embrace both 'ordinary' matter and sentient, thinking, 'spiritual' matter. But then what principled way would Strawson have to prevent a further widening of the concept of matter so that it embraces God, disembodied souls, angels, and what not?
The eyes you see in the mirror when you look at yourself are not seeing eyes but seen eyes. Strange but true: your seeing eyes are and must remain invisible.
Here are some thoughts that may provoke a fruitful discussion with Vlastimil Vohanka on the topic of mysterianism in the philosophy of mind and in theology. He kindly sent me his rich and stimulating paper, "Mysterianism about Consciousness and the Trinity." The paper is available here along with other works of his. His view is that a mysterian line is defensible in both the philosophy of mind and in Trinitarian theology. I have some doubts.
There are different sorts of materialism about the mind, among them eliminative materialism, identity-materialism, and functionalism. There is also mysterian materialism. Here is a little speech by a mysterian materialist:
Look, we are just complex physical systems, nothing more. And yet we think and are conscious. Therefore, we are wholly material beings who think and are conscious. We cannot understand how this is possible. But what is actual is possible whether or we we are able to understand how it is possible. So the fact that we cannot understand how it is possible that thinking and consciousness are nothing more than brain activity does not show that they are not brain activity. It shows that the how is beyond our understanding. What we have here, then, is a mystery: a proposition that is true and non-contradictory despite our inability to understand how it could be true.
What motivates this mysterian materialism? Two things. There is first of all the deep conviction shared by many today that there is exactly one world, this mind-independent physical world, that we are parts of it, that nothing in us is not part of it, and that it and us are wholly natural and in no respect supernatural. This naturalist conviction implies that there is nothing special about us, that we are continuous with the rest of nature. We are nothing special in that we have no higher origin or higher destiny. There is no God who created us in his image and likeness. And there is no higher happiness other than the transient and fitful happiness that some of us can eke out, if we are lucky, here below. We are irremediably mortal and natural, like everything else that lives, and anything (conscience, consciousness, self-consciousness, ability to reason, love and longing, sensus divinitatis, etc.) that suggests otherwise is susceptible of a wholly naturalistic explanation. Part of why people embrace the naturalist conviction is that it puts paid to central tenets of old-time religion: God, the soul, post-mortem rewards and punishments, the libertarian freedom of the will, man's being an image and likeness of God, etc. So hostility to religion is certainly, for some, part of the psychological (if not logical) motivation for the acceptance of the naturalist conviction.
Now take the naturalist conviction and conjoin it to the intellectually honest admission that we have no idea at all how it is so much as possible for a wholly material being to think and enjoy conscious states. The conjunction of the Conviction and the Admission generates a mysterian position according to which one affirms as true a proposition that one cannot understand as possibly true, a proposition that for us is and most likely will remain unintelligible, namely, the proposition that we are wholly material beings susceptible of exhaustive natural-scientific explanation who nonetheless think, feel, love, make moral demands, feel subject to them, etc.
This mysterianism is an epistemological position according to which our contingent but unalterable make-up makes it impossible for us ever to understand how it is possible for us to think and be conscious. The claim is not that thought and consciousness are mysterious because they are non-natural phenomena; the claim is that they are wholly natural but not understandable by us. Our cognitive architecture (a phrase I believe Colin McGinn employs) blocks our epistemic access to those properties the understanding of which would render intelligible to us how we can be both wholly material and yet the subjects of intentional and non-intentional mental states.
Well, this mysterianism is certainly to be preferred to an eliminativism which argues from the unintelligibility of a material thing's thinking to the nonexistence of its thinking. But eliminativism is a lunatic position best left to the exceedingly intelligent lunatics who dreamt it up. I won't waste any words here refuting this mindless doctrine; I have wasted words elsewhere.
We should note that one could be a mysterian in the philosophy of mind without being a mysterian materialist. One could be a mysterian substance dualist. Some maintain that the interaction problem dooms substance dualism. A mysterian might hold that substance dualism is true, that mind-body interaction is unintelligible, that interaction occurs, and that our inability to understand how mind-body interaction occurs merely shows a cognitive limitation on our part. It seems obvious that there is nothing in the nature of mysterianism in the philosophy of mind to require that one be a mysterian materialist/physicalist/naturalist.
We should also note that one could be a mysterian in areas other than the philosophy of mind, in theology, for example.
Mysterianism as a general strategy rests on a fairly solid foundation. First of all, it is a self-evident modal axiom that actuality entails possiblity. It is also self-evident that if x is possible, then it does not follow that we are in a position to understand how it is possible. So it may well be that there are certain objects and states of affairs and phenomena whose internal possibility we cannot discern due to our irremediable cognitive limitations. Apparent contradictoriness would then not argue unreality.
But surely there is something very strange about maintaining that there are true mysteries. A true mystery is a true proposition that is unintelligible to us, though not unintelligible in itself. Now here is my difficulty in a nutshell. If a proposition either is or entails a broadly-logical contradiction, then I wouldn't know what I had before my mind if I had such a proposition before my mind. And if I didn't know exactly which proposition I had before my mind, I wouldn't know exactly which proposition I was claiming was both true and mysterious.
Bear with me as I try to clarify my objection.
Before I can take a position with respect to a proposition I must know what that proposition is. I must know the identity of the proposition. But a proposition that strikes my mind as unintelligible is not one about whose identity I can be sure.
I count four positions or attitudes one can take toward a proposition: accept as true, reject as false, suspend judgment as to truth-value, practice epoché , ἐποχή. Pithier still: Accept, Reject, Suspend, Withdraw. The first three are self-explanatory. By Withdraw I mean: take no position on whether or not there is even a proposition (ein Gedanke, a complete thought) before one's mind. (The notion of Withdrawal is derived via Benson Mates from Sextus Empiricus.) Withdrawal goes farther than Suspension. To suspend is to refuse to accept or reject a well-defined proposition while accepting that there is such a proposition before one's mind. In the state of Withdrawal I take no position on whether or not there is a well-defined proposition before my mind. In the state of Withdrawal I have before my mind a verbal formulation, and the senses of its constituent words, but I take no position on the question whether the verbal formulation expresses a proposition.
Example. A Trinitarian says, 'There is exactly one God in three divine persons.' Studying the doctrine I come to the conclusion that I can attach no definite sense to it on the ground that it seems to me to entail one or more logical contradictions. That is not a case of rejection or of suspension; it is a case of epoché. I 'bracket' (to borrow a term from Husserl) two questions: the question as to truth-value, and the more fundamental question as to whether or not there is even a proposition (a unified, coherent, sense-structure) before my mind as opposed to an incoherent, un-unified bunch of word-senses.
Suppose you say to me, "Snow is white and snow is not white." Being the charitable fellow that I am known to be, I would not churlishly impute to you the assertion of a formal-logical contradiction. I would take you to be using a contradictory form of words to express a non-contradictory proposition, perhaps, the proposition that snow is white where I didn't relieve myself, but not white where I did. Or something like that. The time-honored method of showing an apparent contradiction to be merely apparent is by making a distinction in respect of time, or respect, or word sense.
But if someone insists that he means literally that snow is white and snow is not white where there is no distinction in respect of time, respect, or sense of the word 'white,' then I wouldn't know what the content of the assertion was. I wouldn't know which proposition my interlocutor was trying get across to me. For if my interlocutor was otherwise rational, the Principle of Charity would forbid me from imputing a contradiction to him. I would have to practice withdrawal.
If you say with a straight face "Snow is white and snow is not white" and you are neither equivocating on any term, nor making any distinction with respect to time or respect, and I charitably refuse to impute to you the assertion of a formal-logical contradiction of the form *p & ~p,* then I must say that I have no idea at all which proposition you are trying to convey to me. And so I naturally practice epoché with respect to your utterance.
(I grant that there is a sense in which a self-contradictory proposition -- *No dog is a dog* for example -- is intelligible (understandable): for if I did not understand the proposition I would not understand it to be self-contradictory and thus necessarily false. What I mean by 'intelligible' here is 'understandable as broadly-logically possibly true.' On this narrow use of 'intelligible,' a claim to the effect that no dog is a dog or that snow both is and is not white is unintelligible.)
Back to the mysterian materialist. I must put his asseverations within the Husserlian brackets. He bids me accept propositions that as far as I can tell are not propositions at all. A proposition is a sense, but the 'propositions' he bids me accept make no sense. For example, he wants me to accept that my present memories of Boston are all identical to states of my brain. That makes no sense. Memory states are intentional states: they have content. No physical state has content, or could have content. So no intentional state could be a physical state. The very idea is unintelligible. To be precise: it is unintelligible as something broadly logically possible. The vocabularies we use when speaking of brain states and mental states respectively are radically incommensurable. Axon, dendrite, synapse, etc. on the one hand, qualia, intentionality, content, etc. on the other. Even if one were to know everything there is to know about the electro-chemistry and neuro-anatomy of the brain one would still have no clue as to how consciousness arises from it. By consciousness, I mean not only qualia but intentional (object-directed) states.
But where there are no thoughts one can always mouth words. So one can mouth the words, 'Memories are in the head' or 'Thoughts are literally brain states.' But one cannot attach a non-contradictory thought to the words.
No doubt there is an illusion of sense. There is nothing syntactically wrong with 'Thoughts are brain states' or 'Sensory qualia are physical features of the brain.' And the individual words have meaning. What's more, the words taken together seem to convey a coherent thought in the way in which 'Quadruplicity drinks procrastination' does not seem to convey a coherent thought. But when the meaning is made explicit, the unintelligibility becomes manifest.
To say of a sensory quale q that it is identical to a brain state b is to say something that is unintelligible. For if q = b, then they share all properties, by the Indiscernibility of Identicals, a principle than which no more luminous can be conceived. But it is plain that they do not share all properties: the quale but not the brain state has a phenomenological feel, a Nagelian what it-is-like, an element of irreducible subjectivity. Thus the materialist identity claim is seen with a just a tiny bit of reasoning to be utterly unintelligible.
If you tell me that one and the same item in my skull has both physical and phenomenological properties, then I say you have changed the subject: you now have a dual-aspect theory going. I will then press you on what this third item is that has both physical and phenomenological features.
Suppose you stick to the topic but make a mysterian move. You grant me that it is unintelligible for us that q = b, but insist that it is intelligible in itself. You say it is true in reality despite the irremediable appearance of unintelligibility. It is true and non-contradictory in reality that sensory qualia and thoughts are nothing other than events or processes transpiring inside the skull. You say it is true and non-contradictory that when I think about Boston that thinking is just something going on in my head, adding that it is and will remain a mystery how this could be.
My objection can be put as follows. We have a verbal formulation (VF) such as 'Qualia are brain states.' VF expresses the unintelligible-for-us proposition (UFUP) *Qualia are brain states.* We are told that VF is true even though we, with our cognitive limitations, cannot understand how it is true or even how it could be true. So there must be a true intelligible-in-itself proposition (IIIP) distinct from (UFUP) to which we have no access. How is IIIP related to VF? It cannot be that VF expresses IIIP. VF expresses UFUP. So we are supposed to accept a proposition to which we have no access, a proposition that stands in no specifiable relation to VF. But surely that I cannot do. I cannot accept a proposition to which I have no access.
The formulations of the trinitarian theist appear to be in the same logical boat. I am of course assuming that the logical problem of the Trinity cannot be solved on the discursive plane. That is, one cannot solve it in the usual way by making distinctions. If one could solve it in this way, then there would be no need to make a mysterian move. The doctrine would be rationally acceptable as it stands, though not rationally provable since the triunity of God can be known only by revelation.
To sum up my objection. We are offered a verbal formulation, e.g., "There is one God in three divine persons." This verbal formulation expresses a proposition that is unintelligible to us. (It is unintelligible to us because contradictions can be derived from it using given doctrinal elements and unquestionable notions such as the transitivity of identity.) We are assured, however, that while the manifest proposition is unintelligible to us, the verbal formulation expresses a second proposition that is true and intelligible in itself. But since this proposition is inaccessible, one annot accept it, reject it, or suspend judgment with respect to it.
If you tell me that there are not two propositions, but that one and the same proposition is both unintelligible to us but intelligible in itself, then I will ask you which proposition this is.
I suppose what I am saying is that a true proposition that is a mystery is an item so indeterminate that one cannot take up any attitude to it except that of Withdrawal or epoché as I defined this term.
By a philosophical foil I mean a view or position that contrasts with other positions in such a way as to highlight the often superior qualities of the other positions. Foils are useful for mapping the spaces of theories and as termini of theoretical spectra. Consider the spectrum of positions stretching from extreme nominalism to Plato's Theory of Forms. The end points are reasonably viewed as foils. It seems to me that some philosophical positions are valuable and worthy of study only as foils and not as serious candidates for the office of 'true theory.' Here are two of several examples. Since everything in philosophy is controverted, I expect these will be too. The foil of one is the truth of another. Ain't philosophy grand? But I like the following examples, and I am the man whose intellectual and spiritual exigencies I am most interested in satisfying.
The most obvious objection to eliminative materialism (EM) is that it denies obvious data, the very data without which there would be no philosophy of mind in the first place. Introspection directly reveals the existence of pains, anxieties, pleasures, and the like. Suppose I have a headache. The pain, qua felt, cannot be doubted or denied. Its esse is its percipi. To identify the pain with a brain state makes a modicum of sense, at least initially; but it makes no sense at all to deny the existence of the very datum that gets us discussing this topic in the first place. But Paul M. Churchland (Matter and Consciousness, rev. ed. MIT Press, 1988, pp. 47-48) has a response to this sort of objection:
The eliminative materialist will reply that that argument makes the same
mistake that an ancient or medieval person would be making if he insisted that
he could just see with his own eyes that the heavens form a turning sphere, or
that witches exist. The fact is, all observation occurs within some system of
concepts, and our observation judgments are only as good as the conceptual
framework in which they are expressed. In all three cases — the starry sphere,
witches, and the familiar mental states — precisely what is challenged is the
integrity of the background conceptual frameworks in which the observation
judgments are expressed. To insist on the validity of one's experiences,
traditionally interpreted, is therefore to beg the very question at issue. For
in all three cases, the question is whether we should reconceive the
nature of some familiar observational domain.
Even if we grant that "all observation occurs within some system of concepts," is the experiencing of a pain a case of observation? If you know your Brentano, you know that early on in Psychology From an Empirical Standpoint he makes a distinction between inner observation (innere Beobachtung) and inner perception (innere Warhnehmung). Suppose one suddenly becomes angry. The experiencing of anger is an inner perception, but not an inner observation. The difference is between living in and through one's anger and objectifying it in an act of reflection. The act of inner observation causes the anger to subside, unlike the inner perception which does not.
Reflecting on this phenomenological difference, one sees how crude Churchland's scheme is. He thinks that mental data such as pains and pleasures are on a par with outer objects like stars and planets. It is readily granted with respect to the latter that seeing is seeing-as. A medieval man who sees the heavens as a turning sphere is interpreting the visual data in the light of a false theory; he is applying an outmoded conceptual framework. But there is no comparable sense in which my feeling of pain involves the application of a conceptual framework to an inner datum.
Suppose I feel a pain. I might conceptualize it as tooth-ache pain in which case I assign it some such cause as a process of decay in a tooth. But I can 'bracket' or suspend that conceptualization and consider the pain in its purely qualitative, felt, character. It is then nothing more than a sensory quale. I might even go so far as to abstract from its painfulness. This quale, precisely as I experience it, is nothing like a distant object that I conceptualize as this or that.
Now the existence of this rock-bottom sensory datum is indubitable and refutes the eliminativist claim. For this datum is not a product of conceptualization, but is something that is the 'raw material' of conceptualization. The felt pain qua felt is not an object of observation, something external to the observer, but an Erlebnis, something I live-through (er-leben). It is not something outside of me that I subsume under a concept, but a content (Husserl: ein reeller Inhalt) of my consciousness. I live my pain, I don't observe it. It is not a product of conceptualization -- in the way a distant light in the sky can be variously conceptualized as a planet, natural satellite, artificial satellite, star, double-star, UFO, etc. -- but a matter for conceptualization.
So the answer to Churchland is as follows. There can be no question of re-conceptualizing fundamental sensory data since there was no conceptualization to start with. So I am not begging the question against Churchland when I insist that pains exist: I am not assuming that the "traditional conceptualization" is the correct one. I am denying his presupposition, namely, that there is conceptualization in a case like this.
Most fundamentally, I am questioning the Kantian-Sellarsian presupposition that the data of inner sense are in as much need of categorial interpretation as the data of outer sense. If there is no categorization at this level, then there is no possibility of a re-categorization in neuroscientific
What is astonishing about eliminative materialists is that they refuse to take the blatant falsity of their conclusions as showing that they went wrong somewhere in their reasoning. In the grip of their scientistic assumptions, they deny the very data that any reasonable person would take as a plain refutation of their claims.
Memory loss points to the materiality of mind while memory's exercise points to its immateriality. Mind is mysterious, but memorial mind is even more so, situated as it is at the crossroads of intentionality and time.
I have always thought the 'hard problem' vs. 'easy problem' distinction in the philosophy of mind to be rather silly.
Here, with a response by McGinn. Merits the coveted MavPhil imprimatur and nihil obstat.
In fairness to Churchland, it is her letter, not her, that Cavell calls "hysterical." A politically incorrect word these days, I should think. Isn't 'hysterical' etymologically related to the Latin and Greek words for womb? According to the Online Etymology Dictionary:
Too many of the academic philosophers of consciousness are overly concerned with the paltriest aspects of consciousness, so-called qualia, and work their tails off trying to convince themselves and others that they are no threat to physicalism.
While man's nobility lies in the power of thought whereby he traverses all of time and existence, our materialists labor mightily to make physicalism safe for the smell of cooked onions.
It's a win for McGinn.
The view for which McGinn is known is a jejune prediction, namely that science cannot ever solve the problem of how the brain produces consciousness. On what does he base his prediction? Flimsy stuff. First, he is pretty sure our brain is not up to the job. Why not? Try this: a blind man does not experience color, and he will not do so even when we explain the brain mechanisms of experiencing color. Added to which, McGinn says that he cannot begin to imagine what it is like to be a bat, or how conscious experience might be scientifically explained (his brain not being up to the job, as he insists). This cognitive inadequacy he deems to have universal epistemological significance.
Alongside the arrogance, here is one whopping flaw: no causal explanation for a phenomenon, such as color vision, should be expected to actually produce that phenomenon. Here is why: the neural pathways involved in visually experiencing color are not the same pathways as those involved in intellectually understanding the mechanisms for experiencing color. Roughly speaking, experiencing color depends on areas in the back of the brain (visual areas) and intellectual understanding of an explanation depends on areas in the front of the brain.
Now what does this snark and misdirection have to do with anything McGinn actually maintains? Nothing that I can see. Here's McGinn:
Churchland’s account of my arguments for our cognitive limitations with respect to explaining consciousness bears little relation to what I have written in several books, as anyone who has dipped into those books will appreciate. What she refers to as a “whopping flaw” in my position (and that of many others) is simply a complete misreading of what has been argued: the point is not that having a causal explanation for a phenomenon should produce that phenomenon, so that a blind man will be made to see by having a good theory of vision. The point is rather that a blind man will not understand what color vision is merely by finding out about the brain mechanisms that underlie it, since he needs acquaintance with the color experiences themselves.
Churchland 0 - McGinn 1.
The articles below should help you understand some of the issues.
What follows are some ideas from London Ed about a book he is writing. He solicits comments. Mine are in blue.
The logical form thing was entertaining but rather off-topic re the fictional names thing. On which, Peter requested some more.
Let’s step right back. I want to kick off the book with an observation about how illusion impedes the progress of science. It looks as though the sun is going round the earth, so early theories of the universe had the earth standing still. It seems as though objects are continuously solid, and so science rejected the atomists’ theory and adopted Aristotle’s theory for more than a millenium.
A final example from the psychology of perception: in 1638, Descartes takes a eye of a bull and shows how images are projected onto the retina. He finally disproves the ‘emissive theory of sight’. The emissive theory is the naturally occurring idea that eyesight is emitted from your eye and travels to and hits the distant object you are looking at. If you ask a young child why you can’t see when your eyes are shut, he replies (‘because the eyesight can’t get out’).
Scientific progress is [often] about rejecting theories based on what our cognitive and perceptual framework suggests to us, and adopting theories based on diligent observation and logic.
We reject ‘eyebeams’. We reject the natural idea that the mental or sensitive faculty can act at a distance. When we look at the moon, science rejects the idea that a little ethereal piece of us is travelling a quarter of a million miles into space. Yet – turning to the main subject of the book – some philosophers think that objects themselves somehow enter our thoughts. Russell writes to Frege, saying “I believe that in spite of all its snowfields Mont Blanc itself is a component part of what is actually asserted in the proposition ‘Mont Blanc is more than 4,000 metres high”. Kaplan mentions, with apparent approval, the idea that the proposition ‘John is tall’ has two components: the property expressed by the predicate ‘is tall’, and the individual John. “That’s right, John himself, right there, trapped in a proposition”. The dominant theory in modern philosophical logic is ‘direct reference’, or object-dependent theories of semantics: a proper name has no meaning except its bearer, and so the meaning of ‘John is tall’ has precisely the components that Kaplan describes.
BV: I too find the notion that there are Russellian (as opposed to Fregean) propositions very hard to swallow. If belief is a propositional attitude, and I believe that Peter is now doing his grades, it is surely not Peter himself, intestinal contents and all, who is a constituent of the proposition that is the accusative of my act of belief. The subject constituent of the proposition cannot be that infinitely propertied gnarly chunk of external reality, but must be a thinner sort of object, one manageable by a finite mind, something along the lines of a Fregean sense.
The purpose of the proposed book is to advance science by showing how such object-dependent theories are deeply mistaken, and also to explain why they are so compelling, because of their basis on a cognitive illusion as powerful as the illusions that underlie the geocentric theory, or the emissive theory of sight.
What is the illusion? The argument for object dependence is roughly as follows
(1) We can have so-called ‘singular thoughts’, such as when we think that John is tall, i.e. when we have thoughts expressable [expressible] by propositions [sentences, not propositions] whose subject term is a proper name or some other non-descriptive singular term.
(2) A singular term tells us which individual the proposition is about, without telling us anything about it. I.e. singular terms, proper names, demonstratives, etc. are non-descriptive. They are ‘bare individuators’.
BV: This is not quite right. Consider the the first-person singular pronoun, 'I.' This is an indexical expression. If BV says, 'I am hungry,' he refers to BV; if PL says 'I am hungry,' he refers to PL. Either way, something is conveyed about the nature of the referent, namely, that it is a person or a self. So what Ed said is false as it stands. A use of 'I' does tell us something about the individual the sentence containing 'I' is about.
Examples are easily multiplied. Apart from the innovations of the Pee Cee, 'she' tells us that the individual referred to is female. 'Here' tells us that the item denoted is a place, typically. 'Now' picks out times. And there are other examples.
There are no bare items. Hence there cannot be reference to bare items. All reference conveys some property of the thing referred to. But variables may be a counterexample. Consider 'For any x, x = x.' One could perhaps uses variables in such a way that there is no restriction on what they range over. But it might be best to stay away from this labyrinth.
One criticism, then, is that there are no bare individuators. A second is that it is not a singular term, but a use of a singular term that individuates. Thus 'I' individuates nothing. It is PL's use of 'I' that picks out PL.
(3) If a singular term is non-descriptive, its meaning is the individual it individuates. A singular term cannot tell us which individual the proposition is about, unless there exists such an individual.
The course of the book is then to show why we don’t have to be forced into assumption (3). There doesn’t have to be (or to exist) an individual that is individuated. The theory of non-descriptive singular terms is then developed in the way I suggested in my earlier posts. Consider the inference
Frodo is a hobbit
Frodo has large feet
Some hobbit has large feet
I want to argue that the semantics of ‘Frodo’ is purely inferential. I.e. to understand the meaning of ‘Frodo’ in that argument, it is enough to understand the inference that it generates. That is all.
BV: 'Frodo' doesn't generate anything. What you want to say is that the meaning of 'Frodo' is exhausted by the inferential role this term plays in the (valid) argument depicted. Sorry to be such a linguistic prick.
What you are saying is that 'Frodo,' though empty, has a meaning, but this meaning is wholly reducible to the purely syntactical role it plays in the above argument. (So you are not an eliminativist about the meanings of empty names.) But if the role is purely syntactical, then the role of 'Frodo' is the same as the role of the arbitrary individual constant 'f' in the following valid schema:
(Ex)(Hx & Lx).
But then what distinguishes the meaning of 'Frodo' from that of 'Gandalf'?
Meinongian nonentities are out. Fregean senses are out. There are no referents in the cases of empty names. And yet they have meaning. So the meaning is purely syntactical. Well, I don't see how you can squeeze meaning out of bare syntax. Again, what distinguishes the meaning of the empty names just cited? The obviously differ in meaning, despite lacking both Sinn and Bedeutung.
We don’t need an object-dependent semantics to explain such inferences, and hence we don’t need object-dependence to explain the semantics of proper names. If an inferential semantics is sufficient, then the Razor tells us it is necesssary: Frustra fit per plura, quod potest fieri per pauciora.
BV: You should state explicitly that you intend your inferential semantics to hold both for empty and nonempty names.
And now we see the illusion. The proposition
John is thinking of Obama (or Frodo, or whomever)
has a relational form: “—is thinking of –”. But it does not express a relation. The illusion consists in the way that the relation of the language so strongly suggests a relation in reality. It is the illusion that causes us “to multiply the things principally signified by terms in accordance with the multiplication of the terms”.
That’s the main idea. Obviously a lot of middle terms have been left out. Have at it.
BV: So I suppose what you are saying is that belief in the intentionality of thought is as illusory as the belief in the emissive theory of sight. Just as the the eye does not emit an ethereal something that travels to the moon, e.g., the mind or the 'I' of the mind -- all puns intended! -- does not shoot out a ray of intentionality that gloms onto some Meinongian object, or some Thomistic merely intentional object, or some really existent object.
You face two main hurdles. The first I already mentioned. You have to explain how to squeeze semantics from mere syntax. The second is that there are theoretical alternatives to the view that intentionality is a relation other than yours. To mention just one: there are adverbial theories of intentionality that avoid an act-object analysis of mental reference.
This shot of the old philosopher by the fire with his shootin' ahrn nicely complements some of the combative things he says in the Zan Boag interview at NewPhilosopher. (HT: Karl White.) For example, "I don’t read much philosophy, it upsets me when I read the nonsense written by my contemporaries, the theory of extended mind makes me want to throw up…so mostly I read works of fiction and history."
The surly (Searle-y?) reference is to externalist theories of mind such as Ted Honderich's and Clark and Chalmers' The Extended Mind.
I found this exchange interesting:
You say that consciousness is a real subjective experience, caused by the physical processes of the brain, and that where consciousness is concerned, the appearance is reality. Can you elaborate on this?
John Searle: Consciousness exists only insofar as it is experienced by a human or animal subject. OK, now grant me that consciousness is a genuine biological phenomenon. Well, all the same it’s somewhat different from other biological phenomena because it only exists insofar as it is experienced. However, that does give it an interesting status. You can’t refute the existence of consciousness by showing that it’s just an illusion because the illusion/ reality distinction rests on the difference between how things consciously seem to us and how they really are. But where the very existence of consciousness is concerned, if it consciously seems to me that I’m conscious, then I am conscious. You can’t make the illusion/reality distinction for the very existence of consciousness the way you can for sunsets and rainbows because the distinction is between how things consciously seem and how they really are.
You also say that consciousness is a physical property, like digestion or fire.
John Searle: Consciousness is a biological property like digestion or photosynthesis. Now why isn’t that screamingly obvious to anybody who’s had any education? And I think the answer is these twin traditions. On the one hand there’s God, the soul and immortality that says it’s really not part of the physical world, and then there is the almost as bad tradition of scientific materialism that says it’s not a part of the physical world. They both make the same mistake, they refuse to take consciousness on its own terms as a biological phenomenon like digestion, or photosynthesis, or mitosis, or miosis, or any other biological phenomenon.
Part of what Searle says in his first response is importantly correct. Since the distinction between illusion and reality presupposes the reality of consciousness, it makes no sense to suppose that consciousness might be an illusion, let alone assert such a monstrous thesis. It amazes me that there are people who are not persuaded by such luminous and straightforward reasoning. But pace Searle it does not follow that consciousness is a biological phenomenon. If biological phenomena are those phenomena that are in principle exhaustively intelligible in terms of the science of biology, then I don't see how consciousness could be biological even if it is found only in biologically alive beings. Can the what-it-is-like feature be accounted for in purely biological terms? (That's a rhetorical question.) And that's just for starters.
In the second response, Searle claims that consciousness is a biological property and that this ought to be "screamingly obvious" to anyone with "any education." Come on, John! Do you really want to suggest that the philosophical problem of consciousness as this is rigorously formulated by people like Colin McGinn is easily solved just be getting one's empirical facts straight? Do you really mean to imply that people who do not agree with your philosophy of mind are ignorant of plain biological facts? If consciousness were a biological phenomenon just like digestion or photosynthesis or mitosis or meiosis, then consciousness would be as unproblematic as the foregoing. It isn't.
Why is it that there is a philosophical problem of consciousness, but no philosophical problem of digestion? Note the obvious difference between the following two questions. Q1: How is consciousness possible given that it really exists, arises in the brain, but is inexplicable in terms of what we know and can expect to know about animal and human brains? Q2: How is digestion possible given that it really exists, takes place in the stomach and its 'peripherals,' but is inexplicable in terms of what we know and can know about animal and human gastrointestinal systems?
Obviously, there is a philosophical problem about consciousness but no philosophical problem about digestion. And note that even if some philosopher argues that there is no genuine philosophical problem about consciousness, because one has, say, been bewitched by language, or has fallen afoul of some such draconian principle as the Verifiability Criterion of Cognitive Meaningfulness, no philosopher would dream of arguing that there is no genuine philosophical problem of digestion. It needs no arguing. For whether or not there is a genuine problem about consciousness, there is a putative problem about it. But there is not even a putative philosophical problem about digestion. The only problems concerning digestion are those that can be solved by taking an antacid or by consulting a gastroenterologist or by doing more empirical gut science.
This is why it is at least possible with a modicum of sense to argue that the philosophy of mind collapses into the neuroscience of the brain, but impossible sensibly to argue that the the philosophy of digestion collapses into gastroenterology or that the philosophy of blood filtering and detoxification collapses into hepatology. There is no philosophy of digestion or philosophy of blood filtering and detoxification.
It is obviously not obvious that consciousness is a biological phenomenon. Searle is brilliant when it comes to exposing the faults of other theories of mind, but he is oblivious to the problems with his own. Searle 'knows' in his gut that naturalism just has to be true, which is why he cannot for a second take seriously any suggestion that consciousness might have a higher origin. But he ought to admit that his comparison of consciousness to digestion and photosynthesis and mitosis and meiosis is completely bogus. He can still be a naturalist, however, either by pinning his hopes on some presently incoceivable future science or by going mysterian in the manner of McGinn.
More on Searle in my appropriately appellated Searle category.
J. P. Moreland is against it. Me too. More generally, I oppose any amalgamation of classical theism and materialism about the mind. (See my "Could a Classical Theist be a Physicalist?" Faith and Philosophy, vol. 15, no. 2, April 1998, pp. 160-180.) Here are some excerpts from Moreland's piece:
Christianity is a dualist, interactionist religion in this sense: God, angels/demons, and the souls of men and beasts are immaterial substances that can causally interact with the world. Specifically, human persons are (or have) souls that are spiritual substances that ground personal identity in a disembodied intermediate state between death and final resurrection . . . .
[. . .]
In my view, Christian physicalism involves a politically correct revision of the biblical text that fails to be convincing . . . .
[. . .]
The irrelevance of neuroscience also becomes evident when we consider the recent best seller Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander. Regardless of one’s view of the credibility of Near Death Experiences (NDEs) in general, or of Alexander’s in particular, one thing is clear. Before whatever it was that happened to him (and I believe his NDE was real but no not agree with his interpretation of some of what happened to him), Alexander believed the (allegedly) standard neuroscientific view that specific regions of the brain generate and possess specific states of conscious. But after his NDE, Alexander came to believe that it is the soul that possesses consciousness, not the brain, and the various mental states of the soul are in two-way causal interaction with specific regions of the brain. Here’s the point: His change in viewpoint was a change in metaphysics that did not require him to reject or alter a single neuroscientific fact. Dualism and physicalism are empirically equivalent views consistent with all and only the same scientific data. Thus, the authority of science cannot be appropriated to provide any grounds whatsoever for favoring one view over another.
I'm with J.P on the irrelevance of neuroscience to the philosophy of mind, and vice versa, but with three minor exceptions that I explain in the third article cited below.
The other day I referred to the following bit of dialogue from the new HBO series, True Detective, as sophistry. Now I will explain why I think it to be such. Here is the part I want to focus on. The words are put in the mouth of the anti-natalist Rustin Cohle. I've ommitted the responses of the Woody Harrelson character.
I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self aware; nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, a secretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody’s nobody. I think the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.
Sorting through this crap is as painful as reading the typical student paper. Where does one start with such a farrago of Unsinn? But here goes. The main points made above are these:
1. The emergence of consciousness and self-consciousness in human animals is an accident, a fluke of evolution.
2. We are each under the illusion of having, or being, a self when in fact there are no selves.
3. We have been programmed by nature to suffer from this illusion.
4. The honorable thing to do is to deny our programming, refuse to procreate, and embrace our extinction as a species.
Each of these theses is either extremely dubious or demonstrably incoherent, taken singly, not to mention the dubiousness of the 'is'-'ought' inference from (3) to (4). But in this entry I will address (2) alone.
'There are no selves' is what our anti-natalist means when he say that everybody is nobody. For it is a Moorean fact, undeniable even by our anti-natalist, that every living human body is some living human body or other. He is not denying that plain fact but that these living human bodies are selves.
Now 'There are no selves,' if asserted by a being who understands what he says and means what he says, is asserted by a conscious and self-conscious being. But that is just what a self is. A self is a conscious being capable of expressing explicit self-consciousness by the use of the first-person singular pronoun, 'I.' Therefore, a self that asserts that there are no selves falls into performative inconsistency. The very act or performance of asserting that there are no selves or that one is not a self falsifies the content of the assertion. For that performance is a performance of a self.
The claim that there are no selves is therefore self-refuting.
Assertion is a speech act. But we get the same result if one merely thinks the thought that one is not a self without expressing it via an assertive utterance. If I think the thought *I am not a self,* then that thought is falsified by the act of thinking it since the act is the act of a self.
The point can also be made as follows. If there are no selves, then I am not a self. But if I am not a self, then I do not exist. Perhaps some living human body exists, but that body cannot be my body if I do not exist. What makes this body my body is its connection with me. So I must exist for some body to be my body. My body is my body and not my body's body. So I am not identical to my body. I have a body. 'This body is this body' is a tautology. 'I am this body' is not a tautology. If I exist, then I am distinct from my body and from any body.
So if I am not a self, then I do not exist. But the thought that I do not exist is unthinkable as true. Only I can think this thought, and my thinking of the thought falsifies its content, and this is so even if 'I' picks out merely a momentary self. (I am not committed by this line of reasoning to a substantial self that remains numerically the same over time.) So we have performative inconsistency.
This reasoning does not show that I am a necessary being, or that I have or am an immortal soul, or even that I am a res cogitans in Descartes' sense. What it shows is that the self cannot be an illusion. It shows that anyone who carefully considers whether or not he is a self can attain the certain insight that he is at least as long as he is thinking these thoughts.
Soviel Schein, soviel Sein
There is another way of looking at it. If each of us is under the illusion of having a self or being a self, then who is being fooled? To whom does this false seeming appear? There cannot be illusions in a world without conscious beings. An illusion by its very nature is an illusion to consciousness. So if consciousness is an illusion, then it is not an illusion. The same holds for the self. If the self is an illusion, then the self is not an illusion.
There cannot be Schein (illusion) without Sein (being). "So much seeming, so much being."
One of the tasks of philosophy is to expose and debunk bad philosophy. And there is a lot of it out there, especially in the writings of journalists who report on scientific research. Scornful of philosophy, many of them peddle scientistic pseudo-understanding without realizing that what they sell is itself philosophy, very bad philosophy. A particularly abysmal specimen was sent my way by a reader. It bears the subtitle: "Without recognising it, Oxford scientists appear to have located the consience [sic]." In the body of the article we read:
This isn't some minor breakthrough of cognitive neuroscience. This is about good and bad, right and wrong. This is about the brain's connection to morality. This means that the Oxford scientists, without apparently realising what they've done, have located the conscience.
For centuries we thought that the conscience was just some faculty of moral insight in the human mind, an innate sense that one was behaving well or badly - although the great HL Mencken once defined it as, "the inner voice which warns us that someone may be looking". It's been used by religions as a numinous something-or-other, kindly bestowed by God, to give humans a choice between sin and Paradise.
Now, thanks to neuroscience, we've found the actual, physical thing itself. It's a shame that it resembles a Brussels sprout: something so important and God-given should look more imposing, like a pineapple. But then it wouldn't fit in our heads.
Henceforth, when told to "examine our conscience", we won't need to sit for hours cudgelling our brains to decide whether we're feeling guilty about accessing YouPorn late at night; we can just book into a clinic and ask them for a conscience-scan, to let us know for sure.
Part of what is offensive about this rubbish is that a great and humanly very important topic is treated in a jocose manner. (I am assuming, charitably, that the author did not write his piece as a joke.) But that is not the worst of it. The worst of it is the incoherence of what is being proposed.
I'll begin with what ought to be an obvious point. Before we can locate conscience in the brain or anywhere else we ought to know, at least roughly, what it is we are talking about. What is conscience?
Conscience is the moral sense, the sense of right, wrong, and their difference. It is the sense whereby we discern, or attempt to discern, what is morally (not legally, not prudentially) permissible, impermissible, and obligatory. It typically results in moral judgements about one's thoughts, words and deeds which in turn eventuate in resolutions to amend or continue one's practices.
The deliverances of conscience may or may not be 'veridical' or revelatory of objective moral demands or or objective moral realities on particular occasions. Some people are 'scrupulous': their consciences bother them when they shouldn't. Others are morally insensitive: their consciences do not bother them when they should. If subject S senses, via conscience, that doing/refraining from X is morally impermissible, it does not follow that it is. Conscience is a modality of object-directed consciousness and so may be expected to be analogous to nonmoral consciousness: if I am thinking that a is F, it does not follow that a is F.
So just as we can speak of the intentionality of consciousness, we can speak of the intentionality of conscience. Pangs of conscience are not non-intentional states of consciousness like headache pains. Conscience purports to reveal something about the morally permissible, impermissible, and obligatory (and perhaps also about the supererogatory and suberogatory); whether it does so is a further question. Suppose nothing is objectively right or wrong. That would not alter the fact that there is the moral sense in some of us.
Can conscience be located in the brain and identified with the lateral frontal pole? If so, then a particular moral sensing, that one ought not to have done X or ought to have done Y, is a state of the brain. But this is impossible. A particular moral sensing is an intentional (object-directed) state. But no physical state is object-directed. So, by the Indiscernibility of Identicals, a moral sensing cannot be a brain state.
So that is one absurdity. A second is that it is absurd to suggest, as the author does, that one can examine one's conscience by examining a part of one's brain. Examination of conscience is a spiritual practice whereby, at the end of the day perhaps, one reviews and morally evaluates the day's thoughts, words, and deeds. What is being examined here? Obviously not some bit of brain matter. And if one were to examine that hunk of meat, one would learn nothing as to the thoughts, words, and deeds of the person whose hunk of brain meat it is.
If a person's feeling of guilt is correlated with an identifiable brain state, then one could perhaps determine that a person was feeling guilt by way of a brain scan. But that would provide no insight into (a) what the guilt is about, or (b) whether the guilt is morally appropriate. No brain scan can reveal the intentionality or the normativity of guilt feelings.
There is also a problem about who is doing the examining in an examination of conscience. A different hunk of meat, or the same hunk? Either way, absurdity. Examining is an intentional state. So, just as it is absurd to suppose that one's thoughts, words, and deed are to be found in the lateral frontal pole, it is also absurd to suppose that that same pole is doing the examining of those contents.
I have emphasized the intentionality of conscience, which fact alone sufficies to refute the scientistic nonsense. And I have so far bracketed the question whether conscience puts us in touch with objective moral norms. I say it does, even though how this is possible is not easy to explain. Well, suppose that torturing children to death for sexual pleasure is objectively wrong, and that we have moral knowledge of this moral fact via conscience.
Then two problems arise for the scientistic naturalist: how is is possible for a hunk of meat, no matter how wondrously complex, to glom onto these nonnatural moral facts? And second, if there are such facts to be accessed via conscience, how do they fit into the scientistic naturalist's scheme? Answers: It is not possible, and they don't.
Have I just wasted my time refuting rubbish beneath refutation? Maybe not. Scientism, with its pseudo-understanding poses a grave threat to the humanities and indeed to our very humanity. David Gelernter is good on this.
Consider this argument:
1. Tom believes that the man at the podium is the Pope
2. The Pope is an Argentinian
3. Tom believes that the man at the podium is Argentinian.
The argument is plainly invalid. For Tom may not believe that the Pope is an Argentinian. Now consider this argument:
4. Tom sees the Pope
2. The Pope is an Argentinian
5. Tom sees an Argentinian.
Valid or invalid? That depends. 'Sees' is often taken to be a so-called verb of success: if S sees x, then it follows that x exists. On this understanding of 'sees' one cannot see what doesn't exist. Call this the existentially loaded sense of 'sees' and contrast it with the existentially neutral sense according to which 'S sees x' does not entail 'X exists.'
If 'sees' is understood in the existentially loaded way, then the second argument is valid, whether or not Tom knows that the Pope is Argentinian. For if Tom sees the Pope, then the object seen exists. But nothing can exist without properties, properties most of which are had independently of our mental states. If the object has the property F-ness, then the perceiver sees an F-thing, even if he doesn't see it as an F-thing. So Tom sees an Argentinian despite not seeing him as an Argentinian.
Now seeing in the existentially loaded sense might seem to be a perfectly good example of an intentional or object-directed state since one cannot see without seeing something. One cannot just see. Seeing takes an object.
But whether existentially loaded seeing is an intentional state depends on what all enters into the definition of an intentional state. Now one mark of intentionality is aspectuality. What I am calling aspectuality is what John Searle calls "aspectual shape":
I have been using the term of art, "aspectual shape," to mark a universal feature of intentionality. It can be explained as follows: Whenever we perceive anything or think about anything, we always do so under some aspects and not others. These aspectual features are essential to the intentional state; they are part of what makes it the mental state that it is. (The Rediscovery of the Mind, MIT Press, 1992, pp. 156-157)
The phrase I bolded implies that no intentional state is such that every aspect of the object is before the mind of the person in the state. Suppose you see my car. You won't help being able to see it is as bright yellowish-green sport-utility vehicle. But you could easily see it without seeing it as a 2013 Jeep Wrangler. I take this to imply that the set of perceived aspects of any object of perception not only can be but must be incomplete. This should be obvious from the fact that, as Husserl liked to point out, outer perception is essentially perspectival. For example, all sides of the car are perceivable, but one cannot see the car from the front and from the rear simultaneously.
This aspectuality holds for intentional states generally. To coin an example, one can believe that a certain celestial body is the Evening Star without believing that it is the Morning Star. One can want to drink a Manhattan without wanting to drink a mixture of bourbon, sweet vermouth, and Angostura bitters. As Searle says, "Every belief and every desire, and indeed every intentional phenomenon, has an aspectual shape." (157)
Intentional states are therefore not only necessarily of something; they are necessarily of something as something. And given the finitude of the human mind, I want to underscore the fact that even if every F is a G, one can be aware of x as F without being aware of x as G. Indeed, this is so even if necessarily (whether metaphysically or nomologically) every F is a G. Thus I can be aware of a moving object as a cat, without being aware of it as spatially extended, as an animal, as a mammal, as an animal that cools itself by panting as opposed to sweating, as my cat, as the same cat I saw an hour ago, etc.
But now it seems we have a problem. If that which is (phenomenlogically, not spatially) before my mind is necessarily property-incomplete, then either seeing is not existentially loaded, or existentially loaded seeing is not an intentional state. To put the problem as an aporetic tetrad:
1. If S sees x, then x exists
2. Seeing is an intentional state
3. Every intentional state has an aspectual shape: its object is incomplete
4. Nothing that exists is incomplete.
The limbs of the tetrad are collectively logically inconsistent. Any three of them, taken together, entails the negation of the remaining one. For example, the conjunction of the first three limbs entails the negation of the fourth.
But while the limbs are collectively inconsistent, they are individually very plausible. So we have a nice puzzle on our hands. At least one of the limbs is false, but which one? I don't think that (3) or (4) are good candidates for rejection. That leaves (1) or (2).
I incline toward the rejection of (1). Seeing is an intentional state but it is not existence-entailing. My seeng of x does not entail the existence of x. What one sees (logically) may or may not exist. There is nothing in or about the visual object that certifies that it exists apart from my seeing it. Existence is not an observable feature. The greenness of the tree is empirically accessible; its existence is not.
It is of course built into the intentionality of outer perception that what is intended is intended as existing whether or not the act or intentio exists. To put it paradoxically (and I owe this formulation to Wolfgang Cramer), the object intended is intended as non-object. That is, objects of outer perception are intended as existing independently of the mental acts that 'target' them, and thus not as merely intentional objects. But there is nothing like an 'ontological argument' in the vicinity. I cannot validly infer that the tree I see exists because it is intended as existing apart from my seeing. This is is an invalid 'ontological' inference:
A. X is intended as existing independently of any and all mental acts
B. X exists.
If the above is right, then seeing is an intentional state that shares the aspectuality common to all such states. A consequence of this is a rejection of 'externalism' about outer perception: the content of the mental state I am in when I see a tree does not depend on the existence of any tree. The object-directedness of the mental state is intrinsic to it and not dependent on any extrinsic relation to a mind-independent item. To turn Putnam on his head: the meaning is precisely 'in the head.'
Are there problems with this? We shall see. Externalism is a fascinating option. But I am highly annoyed that that typical analytic philosopher, Ted Honderich, who defends a version of externalism in his book On Consciousness, makes no mention of the externalist theories of Heidegger, Sartre or Butchvarov. How typical of the analytic ignoramus, not that all 'analysts' are ignorant of the history of philosophy.
No matter how you squeeze and beat, you won't get meaning from a hunk of meat.
Addendum (12/27). It occurred to me that the above aphorism can be read in two ways. I intend that it be read in the first way!
Here are a couple of theses that are part of my credo, though I do not merely believe them, but think I have good reasons for believing them:
Thesis 1: One cannot get mind from matter no matter how the matter is arranged or how complexly arranged. That mind should arise from matter is unintelligible.
To appreciate the force of this thesis, let's run through some objections. And I do mean run: what follows has to be cursory.
Objection 1. "There is no question of getting mind from matter; mental states and properties just are states and properties of the material world, patterns of behavior perhaps, or patterns of neural activity."
Response 1. Of course I reject identity theories that reduce the mental to the physical, whether they be type-type identity theories or merely token-token identity theories. I have written an 'unconscionable' number of posts on this topic I and am not inclined to repeat myself in any detail. But if you tell me that, say, my thinking about Prague is identical to a complex state of my brain, I would dismiss that as obvious nonsense and for a very good reason. My occurent thinking, at this moment, is of or about or directed to an object that, for all I know, was nuked out of existence -- God forbid -- a second ago and this without prejudice to my act of thinking's now being about precisely the object it is about. Now this intrinsic object-directedness or intrinsic intentionality of my act of thinking -- to use the philosopher's term of art -- is not a property that it makes any sense to ascribe to any physical object or state. Now if x has a property that y lacks, or vice versa, then of course x cannot be identical to y.
Objection 2. "There simply are no mental states as you claim, and the argument from intentionality you give can be run in reverse so as to prove it."
Response 2. The objector is suggesting the following argument: "(1) If mental states such as thinking about Prague are anything, then they are brain states; (2) such mental states exhibit intrinsic intentionality; (3) no physical state, and thus no brain state, exhibits intrinsic intentionality; therefore (4) there are no mental states."
This eliminativist argument issues in a conclusion that is obviously, breathtakingly false, and so one of the premises must be false. The stinker is of course (1).
Objection 3. "Granted, it is unintelligible that mind should arise from matter as conceived in current physics. But the matter that we know might hide and contain within itself occult powers beyond the ken of current or any future physics, including the power to give rise to mind."
Reply 3. The game is up when materialists reach for occult powers. The only matter we know about is the matter of ordinary experience and physics. And there is no place in matter so conceived for occult powers that give rise to mind. If you tell me that what thinks when I think is an intracranial hunk of meat, then you are ascribing a power to matter that destroys the very concept of matter that you started with and that you need to articulate your materialism.
Thesis 2: That matter should arise from mind is not unintelligible.
Why not? Because intrinsic to mind is object-directedness, or object-positing. Mind by its nature is of objects distinct from mind. Mind has the power to create objects distinct from itself and its states. This power is not occult. It is open to us in reflection. The entire material cosmos could be be just a huge system of intentional objects for a sufficiently capacious and powerful mind. The thought is thinkable. It is intelligible. That is not to say it is true or to say that we have good reasons for believing it. It has its difficulties, but it makes sense in the way it makes no sense to maintain that mind arises from matter. That is an absurdity that can be seen to be such by hard thinking.
So we get an asymmetry. Matter could, for all we know, be the product of mind, but mind could not, for all we know, be the product of matter.
I am reading Ted Honderich, On Consciousness (Edinburgh UP, 2004) and trying to get a handle on just what his theory of consciousness as existence amounts to. An awkward and quirky writer, he doesn't make things easy on the reader, and doesn't seem to realize that in this very fast brave new world of ours the writer must get to the point without unnecessary circumlocution if he wants to keep his reader glued to the page. Here is an example of Honderich's style, from p. 206:
The other option from spiritualism now deserves the name of being devout physicalism. You can say and write, in a career that keeps an eye on some of science, maybe two, and is forgetful of reflective experience, that being conscious or aware of something is only having certain physical properties in the head. Usually this cranialism is a matter of only neural properties as we know them -- thought of computationally or with microtubules to the fore or in any other way you like.
[Note the awkward placement of "Maybe two." It belongs right after "eye."]
Nobody not on the philosophical job of trying to approximate more to some of science or horse sense believes this either. We all know, to make use of a pefectly proper and enlightening parody, that consciousness, isn't just cells, however fancily or fancifully conceived. Everybody on the job tries to give a place to or register what they know when they're not on the job. But they can't do it if they have it that consciousness has only neural properties or conceivably silicon or otherwise physical properties, no matter how they are conceived additionally.
Honderich's thought is not so much expressed as buried in the above mess of verbiage. Here is the thought which is correct as far as it goes expressed in three sentences.
Devout physicalism is the main alternative to spiritualism, or substance dualism. But only someone who fails to reflect on his actual experience could suppose that being conscious of something is a matter of the instantiation of neural properties in the brain. Both philosopher and layman know that consciousness is not brain cells, but the philosopher trying to be scientific is apt to forget it.
Here is Colin McGinn's savage review of Honderich's book. Be aware that there is personal animus between the two men.
a. Tom is thinking of a unicorn
b. Unicorns do not exist in reality
c. Tom's mental state is object-directed; it is an intentional state.
d. The object of Tom's mental state does not exist in reality.
e. The merely intentional object is not nothing.
f. The merely intentional object enjoys intentional existence, a distinct mode of existence different from existence in reality.
David Brightly in a comment constructs a similar set:
By analogy with your (a)--(f) can we not also consistently assert the following?
a. This tapestry, rather beautifully, depicts a unicorn.
b. Unicorns do not exist in the (C1)-sense.
c. The tapestry is object-directed; it is a depictional entity.
d. The object of the tapestry does not (C1)-exist.
e. The merely depicted object is not nothing.
f. The merely depicted object enjoys depictional existence, a distinct mode of existence different from (C1)-existence.
Whereas my view is that when Tom thinks of a unicorn, he is thinking of something, an item that exists merely as the object of Tom's act of thinking, but does not exist mind-independently,
has the analogy,
When the tapestry depicts a unicorn, it is depicting something, an item that exists merely as the object of the tapestry's depicting, but does not exist tapestry-independently.
First, the intentionality of Tom's thinking is original while the intentionality of the tapestry is derivative. The tapestry is not intrinsically intentional, but derives its intentionality from a mind's taking of the merely physical object as a picture or image of something else. By itself, the tapestry depicts nothing. It is just a piece of cloth.
Given the first point, my second is that there are not two kinds of intentionality or object-directedness, but only one, the intentionality of the viewer of the tapestry who takes it as representing something, a unicorn. 'Derivative' in 'derivative intentionality' is an alienans adjective.
Third, if there are not two kinds of intentionality, then there is no call to distinguish, in addition to (C1)-existence (real existence) and intentional existence, depictional existence.
In this way I think I can avoid multiplying modes of existence by the multiplicity of types of physical things (scribbles on paper, trail markers, grooves in vinyl, etc.) that can be taken to represent something.
Can one learn all about human sexuality by studying the human organs of generation? The very notion is risible. Can one learn all about human affectivity by studying that most reliable and indefatigable of pumps, the human heart? Risible again. It is similarly risible to think that one can learn all about the mind by studying that marvellously complex hunk of meat, the brain.