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 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 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 functioning brain? The fact that we cannot understand how the brain could be a semantic engine 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 can 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, labelling 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.
Passing a lady in the supermarket I catch a whiff of patchouli. Her scent puts me in mind of hippy-trippy Pamela from the summer of '69. An olfactory stimulus in the present causes a memory, also in the present, of an event long past, a tête-à-tête with a certain girl. How ordinary, but how strange! Suddenly I am 'brought back' to the fantastic and far-off summer of '69. Ah yes! What is memory and how does it work? How is it even possible?
Let's start with the 'datanic' as I like to say:
1. There are (veridical) memories through which we gain epistemic access to the actual past, to events that really happened. The above example is a case of episodic personal memory. I remember an event in my personal past. To be precise, I remember my having experienced an event in my personal past. My having been born by Caesarean section is also an episode from my personal past, and I remember that that was my mode of exiting my mother's body; but I don't remember experiencing that transition. So not every autobiographical memory is a personal episodic memory. The latter is the only sort of memory I will be discussing in this post. The sentence in boldface is the nonnegotiable starting point of our investigation.
We now add a couple of more theoretical and less datanic propositions, ones which are not obvious, but are plausible and accepted by many theorists:
2. Memory is a causal notion. A mental image of a past event needn't be a memory of a past event. So what makes a mental image of a past event a memory image? Its causal history. My present memory has a causal history that begins with the event in 1969 as I experienced it.
3. There is no action at a temporal distance. There is no direct causation over a temporal gap. There are no remote causes; every cause is a proximate cause. A necessary ingredient of causation is spatiotemporal contiguity. So while memory is a causal notion, my present memory of the '69 event is not directly caused by that event. For how could an event that no longer exists directly cause, over a decades-long temporal gap, a memory event in the present? That would seem to be something 'spooky,' a kind of magic.
Each of these propositions lays strong claim to our acceptance. But how can they all be true? (1) and (2) taken together appear to entail the negation of (3). How then can we accommodate them all?
Memory trace theories provide a means of accommodation. Suppose there are memory traces or engrams engraved in some medium. For materialists this medium will have to be the brain. One way to think of a memory trace is as a brain modification that was caused at the time of the original experience, and that persists since that time. So the encounter with Pam in '69 induced a change in my brain, left a trace there, a trace which has persisted since then. When I passed the patchouli lady in the supermarket, the olfactory stimulus 'activated' the dormant memory trace. This activation of the memory trace either is or causes the memory experience whose intentional object is the past event. With the help of memory traces we get causation wthout action at a temporal distance.
(Far out, man!)
The theory or theory-schema just outlined seems to allow us to uphold each of the above propositions. In particular, it seems to allow us to explain how a present memory of a past event can be caused by the past event without the past event having to jump the decades-long temporal gap between event remembered and memory. The memory trace laid down in '69 by the original experience exists in the present and is activated in the present by the sensory stimulus. Thus the temporal contiguity requirement is satisfied. And if the medium in which the memory traces are stored is the brain or central nervous system, then the spatial contiguity requirement is also satisfied.
Question: Could memory traces play merely causal roles?
Given (2) and (3), it seems that memory traces must be introduced as causal mediators between past and present. But could they be just that? Or must they also play a representational role? Intuitively, it seems that nothing could be a memory trace unless it somehow represented the event of which it is a trace. If E isthe original experience, and T is E's trace, then it it seems we must say that T is of E in a two-fold sense corresponding to the difference between the subjective and objective genitive. First, T is of E in that T is E's trace, the one that E caused. Second, T is of E in that T represents E.
It seems obvious that a trace must represent. In my example,the sensory stimulus (the whiff of patchouli) is not of or about the '69 event. It merely activates the trace, rendering the dispositional occurrent. But the memory is about the '69 event. So the aboutness must reside in the trace. The trace must represent the event that caused it -- and no other past event. The memory represents because the trace represents. If the trace didn't represent anything, how could the memory -- which is merely the activation of the trace or an immediate causal consequence of the activation of the trace -- represent anything? How a persisting brain modification -- however it is conceived, whether it is static or dynamic, whether localized or nonlocalized -- can represent anything is an important and vexing question but one I will discuss in a later post.
Right now I want to nail down the claim that memory traces cannot play a merely causal role, but must also bear the burden of representation.
Suppose a number of strangers visit me briefly. I want to remember them, but my power of memory is very weak and I know I will not remember them without the aid of some mnemonic device. So I have my visitors leave calling cards. They do so, except that they are all the same, and all blank (white). These blank cards are their traces, one per visitor. The visitors leave, but the cards remain behind as traces of their visit. I store the cards in a drawer. I 'activate' a card by pulling it out of storage and looking at it. I am then reminded (at most) that I had a visitor, but not put in mind of any particular visitor such as Tom. So even if the card in my hand was produced by Tom, that card is useless for the purpose of remembering Tom. Likewise for every other card. Each was produced by someone in particular and only by that person; but none of them 'bring back' any particular person.
Bear in my mind that I don't directly remember any of my visitors. My only memory access to them is via their traces, their calling cards. For the visitors are long gone just like the '69 experience. So the problem is not merely that I don't know which card is from which person; the problem is that I cannot even distinguish the persons.
Had each visitor left a differently colored card, that would not have helped. Nor are matters helped if each visitor leaves a different sort of trace; a bottle cap, a spark plug, a lock of hair, a guitar pick. Even if Tom is a guitar player and leaves a guitar pick, that is unhelpful too since I have no access to Tom except via his trace.
So it doesn't matter whether my ten visitors leave ten tokens of the same type, or ten tokens each of a different type. Either way I won't be able to remember them via the traces they leave behind. Clearly, what I need from each visitor is an item that uniquely represents him or her -- as opposed to an item that is merely caused to be in my house by the visitor. Suppose Tom left a unique guitar pick, the only one of its kind in existence. That wouldn't help either since no inspection of that unique pick could reveal that it was of Tom rather than of Eric or Eric's cat. Ditto if Tom has signed his card or his pick 'Tom Riff.' That might be a phony name, or the name of him and his guitar -- doesn't B. B . King call his guitar 'Lucille'?
If I can remember that it was Tom who left the guitar pick, then of course I don't need the guitar pick to remember Tom by. I simply remember Tom directly without the need for a trace. On the other hand, if I do need a trace in order to remember long gone Tom, then that trace must have representational power: it cannot be merely something that plays a causal role.
Traces theories have to avoid both circularity and vicious infinite regress.
Circularity. To explain the phenomenon of memory, the trace theory posits the existence of memory traces. But if the explanation in terms of traces ends up presupposing memory, then the theory is circular and worthless. If what makes the guitar pick a trace of Tom is that I remember that Tom left it, then the explanation is circular. Now consider the trace T in my brain which, when activated by stimulus S causes a memory M of past experience E. M represents E because T represents E. What makes T represent E? What makes the memory trace caused by the encounter with Pam in '69 represent Pam or my talking with her? The answer cannot be that I remember the memory trace being caused by the encounter with Pam. For that would be blatantly circular. Besides, memory traces in the brain are not accessible to introspection.
Infinite Regress. Our question is: what makes T represent E and nothing else? To avoid circularity one might say this: There is a trace T* which records the fact of E's production of T, and T represents E in virtue of T*. But this leads to a vicious infinite regress. Suppose Sally leaves a photo of herself. How do I know that the photo is of Sally and not of her sister Ally? If you say that I directly remember Sally and thereby know that the photo is unambiguously of her, then you move in a circle. You may as well just say that we remember directly and not via traces. So, to hold onto the trace theory, one might say the following: There is a photo of Sally and her photograph, side by side. Inspection of this photo reveals that that the first photo is of Sally. But this leads to regress: what makes the second photo a photo of the first?
Conclusion: To avoid both circularity and infinite regress, memory traces must possess intrinsic representational power. Their role cannot be merely causal.
A later post will then address the question whether memory traces could have intrinsic representational power. If you are a regular reader of this blog you will be able to guess my answer.
REFERENCE: John Heil, "Traces of Things Past," Philosophy of Science, vol. 45, no. 1 (March 1978), pp. 60-72. My calling card example above is a reworking of Heil's tennis ball example.
You are out hiking and the trail becomes faint and hard to follow. You peer into the distance and see what appear to be three stacked rocks. Looking a bit farther, you see another such stack. Now you are confident which way the trail goes. Your confidence increases as further cairns come into view. On what does this confidence rest?
Your confidence is based on your taking the rock piles as other than merely natural formations. You take them as providing information about the trail's direction, which is to say that you to take them as trail markers, as meaning something, as about something distinct from themselves, as exhibiting intentionality, to use a philosopher's term of art.
Of course, the rock piles might have come into existence via purely natural causes: a rainstorm might have dislodged some rocks with gravity plus other purely material factors accounting for their placement. Highly unlikely, but nomologically possible. But please note that if you believe that the cairns originated in that way, then you could not take them as embodying information about the direction of the trail. It would be irrational in excelsis to hold both that (i) these rock piles came about randomly; and that (ii) these rock piles inform us of the trail's direction.
So if you take the rock piles as trail markers, then you take them as other than merely natural formations caused to exist by natural causes. You take the stacking and the placement as expressive of the purposes of a trail-blazer or trail-maintainer, an intelligent being who had it in mind to convey information to himself and others concerning the direction of the trail. This shows that any intentionality embodied in the cairns is derivative rather than intrinsic. The rock piles in and of themselves do not inform us of the trail's direction. They provide us this information only if we take them as embodying the purposes of an intelligent being. Of course, my taking of rock piles as embodying the purposes of an intelligent being does not entail that they do in fact embody the purposes of an intelligent being. But in most cases my ascription of a purpose corresponds to a purpose: I ascribe a purpose and the rock piles do in fact embody a purpose.
Thus there are two streams of intrinsic intentionality converging on the same object, one emanating from me, the other from the trail-maintainer. The latter's embodying of his purpose in the cairn construction is a case of intrinsic intentionality. And when I take the rock piles as embodying the trail-maintainer's purpose thereby ascribing to the rock piles a purpose, that too is a case of intrinsic intentionality.
The ascribing of a purpose and the embodying of a purpose are usually 'in sync.' There are rock piles that have no meaning and rock piles that have meaning. But no rock pile has intrinsic meaning. 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 but vital. Intentionality is our very lifeblood as spiritual beings.
I am rejecting the view that any sort of isomorphism, no matter how abstract, could make the rock piles mean or represent the trail's direction. No doubt there is an isomorphism: the trail goes where the cairns go. No one cairn resembles the trail to any appreciable extent; but the cairns taken collectively do resemble the trail. Unfortunately, the trail also resembles the cairns. But the trail does not represent the cairns.
Representation is most of the time asymmetrical; but resemblance is always symmetrical. I conclude that resemblance cannot constitute representation. Note also that the cairns might resemble things other than the trail. Thus the cairns taken collectively might resemble the path of a subterranean gopher tunnel directly below the trail and following it exactly. But obviously, the cairns do not mark this gopher tunnel. Note also that isomorphism is not sensitive to the difference between rocks whose stacking is artificial, i.e., an artifact of a purposive agent, and rocks whose stacking came about via random purely natural processes. But it is only if the stacking is artificial that the stacks would mean anything. And if the stacking is artificial/artifactual, then there is a purposive agent possessing intrinsic intentionality.
1. Materialism would be very attractive if only it could be made to work. Unfortunately, there are a number of phenomena for which it has no satisfactory explanation. One such is the phenomenon of representation, whether mental or linguistic. Some mental states are of or about worldly individuals and states of affairs. This fact comes under the rubric 'Intentionality.' How is this intentional directedness possible given materialist constraints? Following Chisholm and Searle, I subscribe to the primacy of the intentional over the linguistic. But let's approach the problem of representation from the side of linguistic reference. How is it that words and sentences mean things? How does language hook onto reality? In virtue of what does my tokening (in overt speech, in writing, or in any other way) of the English word-type 'cat' refer to cats? What makes 'cat' refer to cats rather than to pictures of cats or statues of cats or the meowing of cats? This, in linguistic dress, is the question, What makes my thought of a cat, a thought of a cat? And how is all this possible in the materialist's world?
2. The materialist has more than one option, but a very tempting one is to reduce reference to causation. The idea is roughly that the referent of a word is what causes its tokening. Thus 'cat'-tokenings refer to cats because cats cause these tokenings. Suppose I walk into your house and see a cat. I say: "I see you have cat." My use of 'cat' on this occasion -- my tokening of the word-type -- refers to cats because the critter in front of me causes my 'cat'-tokening. That's the idea.
3. Unfortunately, this is only a crude gesture in the direction of a theory. For it is obvious, as Hilary Putnam points out (Renewing Philosophy, Harveard UP, 1992,p. 37), that pictures of cats cause 'cat'-tokenings, but pictures of cats are not cats. Cats are typically furry and cover their feces. Pictures, however, are rarely furry and never cover their (nonexistent) feces. Yet I might say, seeing a picture of a cat over your fireplace, "I see you like cats." In that sentence, 'cat' is used to refer to cats even though what caused my 'cat'-tokening was not a cat but a non-cat, namely, a picture of a cat.
Indeed, practically anything can cause a 'cat'-tokening: cat feces, cat hair, cat caterwauling. Suppose I see Ann Coulter engaged in a 'cat-fight' with Susan Estrich on one of the shout shows. I say, "They are fighting like cats." Nota Bene: my use of 'cat' in this sentence is literal, but it is not caused by a cat! (My example, not Putnam's).
4. Our problem is this: what determines the reference of a word like 'cat'? What makes this bit of language represent something extralinguistic? 'Cat' is a linguistic item; a cat is not. (French 'philosophers' take note.) In virtue of what does the former target the latter? If both a cat and a pile of cat scat can cause a 'cat'-tokening, then the causal theory of reference is worthless unless it can exclude these extraneous (excremental?) cases.
The problem is that 'cat' refers to something quite specific, cats, whereas 'cat'-tokenings can be caused by practically anything. To solve this problem, a notion of causation must be invoked that is also quite selective. It turns out, however, that this selective notion of causation presupposes intentionality, and so cannot be used in a noncircular account of intentionality. Let me explain.
4. Context-Sensitive versus Context-Independent Concepts of Causation. We often in ordinary English speak of 'the cause' of some event, a myocardial infarction say, even though there are many contributing factors: bad diet, lack of exercise, hypertension, cigarette smoking, high stress job, an episode of snow-shoveling. Which of these will be adjudged 'the cause' is context- and interest-relative. A physician who gets a kick-back from a pharmaceutical concern will point to hypertension, perhaps, so that he can prescribe a massive dose of angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitor, while the man's wife might say that it was the snow shoveling that did him in.
To take a more extreme example, suppose a man dies in a fire while in bed. The salient cause might be determined to be smoking in bed. No one will say that the flammability of the bedsheets and other room furnishings is the cause of the man's incineration. Nevertheless, had the room and its furnishings not been flammable, the fire would not have occurred! The flammability is not merely a logical, but also a causal, condition of the fire. It is part of the total cause, but no one will consider it salient. The word is from the Latin salire to leap, whence our word 'sally' as when one sallies forth to do battle at a chess tournament, say. A salient cause, then, is one that jumps out at you, grabbing you by your epistemic shorthairs as it were, as opposed to being a mere background condition.
Putnam cites the example of the pressure cooker that exploded (p. 48). No one will say that it was a lack of holes in the pressure cooker's vessel that caused the explosion. A stuck safety valve caused the explosion. Nevertheless, had the vessel been perforated, the contraption would not have exploded!
What these examples show is that there is an ordinary-language use of 'cause' which is context-sensitive and interest-relative and (if I may) point-of-view-ish. A wholly objective view of nature, a Nagelian view from nowhere, would not be able to discriminate the salient from the nonsalient in matters causal. In terms of fundamental physics, the whole state of the world at time t determines its state at subsequent times. At this level, a short-circuit and the current's being on are equally causal in respect of the effect of a fire. Our saying that the short-circuit caused the fire, not the current's being on, simply advertises the fact that for us the latter is the normal and desired state of things, the state we have an interest in maintaining, and that the former is the opposite.
The ordinary notion of cause, then, resting as it does on our interests and desires, presupposes intentional notions. I cannot be interested in or desire something unless I am conscious of it. And I cannot adjudge one state of affairs as normal and the other as abnormal unless I have interests and desires.
5. Recall what the problem was. The materialist needs to explain reference in physicalist terms. He thinks to do so by invoking physical causation. The idea is that the referents of a word W cause W-tokenings. The reference of a word is determined by the causal influence of the word's referents. So it must be cats, and not pictures of cats, or the past behavior or English speakers that causes 'cat'-tokenings. But surely the past behavior of English speakers is part of the total cause of present 'cat'-tokenings. (See Putnam, pp. 48-49.) 'Cat' does not refer to this behavior, however. To exclude the behavior as non-salient requires use of the ordinary interest-relative notion of causation. But this notion, we have seen, presupposes intentionality.
6. The upshot is that the above causal account of representation -- which is close to a theory proposed by Jerry Fodor -- is viciously circular: it presupposes the very notion that it is supposed to be reductively accounting for, namely, intentionality.
It is broadly logically impossible that there be a hand that both draws itself and is drawn by itself. So what the Escher print represents is B-L impossible, and in this sense 'incoherent' and 'unintelligible.' But the Escher drawing itself is coherent and intelligible as a representation. And so we can say that we understand the drawing while also saying that we do not understand that which is depicted in the drawing.