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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

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Bill,

Thanks for a brilliant post!

(I should preface my remarks by confessing that I have no formal philosophical training, so my remarks are admittedly non-rigorous.)

You maintain that Dennett's work fails because he explains away the explanandum rather than merely reducing it. Is it possible to compress that even further? For example, could Dennett's work be considered an explanatory category mistake. In other words, is trying to explain a first-person experience in third-person terms like trying to explain numbers in terms of colors?

If I am understanding my own argument right, that would seem to make consciousness a basic explanatory category that therefore cannot be explained in terms of something else. Do you buy that?

Can 'truth' be explained in terms of non-truth? To assert that it can is rather a contradiction in terms, isn't it?

'Truth' is itself, it doesn't reduce to anything else. Likewise, it seems to be the case, with consciousness: it is itself, it doesn't reduce to anything else.

Or, as C S Lewis explained: "All explanations come to an end." To explain a thing is to see/understand it in terms of something else (generally, something more "basic" or epistemologically "prior"); but all explanations must, soon or late, reach the thing which is itself and cannot be further explained.

Hi Bill,

Consciousness is a very tricky issue, indeed. It seems we are left with denying consciousness (materialism) denying matter and keeping consciousness (idealism) keeping them both and having an uncomfortable gap between them (dualism) or positing the existence of some stuff that can do both things (aspect dualism). None of these is remotely satisfactory as far as I can tell.

But I think maybe we err in thinking of consciousness as a thing. Maybe we should be thinking of consciousness more as a verb. Note that consciousness is always transitive. You are always conscious of something. It makes no sense at all to say "I'm conscious but not conscious of anything." I'm not sure how much that helps.

By the way, since we are on the topic of mental states, I'd like to reiterate that I think you are wrong when you say that pain is not an intentional state. A doctor asking a patient if he has any pains is looking at pain as a sign of disorder in the body, a sign of harm. It is not merely self-referencing.

When I'm writing something and I'm stuck, I use the following trick on myself, "Sure, I don't have the answer, but if I did would it look like?" Maybe you should begin by explaining what an explaination of consciousnes would have to look like.

To whom (or what) do the terms "Feiglian" and "Nagelian" refer to?

Brian,

Herbert Feigl and Thomas Nagel. See http://www.umass.edu/philosophy/PDF/Aune/feigl.pdf. And http://philosophy.fas.nyu.edu/object/thomasnagel.

Marshall,

Thanks for the kind words. My point is that consciousness is irreducible. If you try to reduce it to something else, you will simply eliminate it. The reduction collapses into an elimination. So I am not saying that Dennett eliminates it when he should be reducing it, but that the very project of attempting a reductive account of consciousness is doomed from the start since it leads inevitably to the elimination of consciousness. It shows a fundamental lack of understanding of what consciousness is. It makes sense to identify lightning with an electrical discharge. That of course leaves out the appearing of the lightning to a subject. This is not a problem. But if you then try to give a reductive materialist account of the appearing of the lightning to a subject, you will end up leaving out the very thing that needs accounting, namely, the appearing.

What you say above is basically right. Consciousness cannot be explained in terms of anything unconscious.

Spencer writes, >>Note that consciousness is always transitive. You are always conscious of something. It makes no sense at all to say "I'm conscious but not conscious of anything." >I think you are wrong when you say that pain is not an intentional state. A doctor asking a patient if he has any pains is looking at pain as a sign of disorder in the body, a sign of harm. It is not merely self-referencing.<<

You just don't understand the issue. I've gone over this many times.

Illion,

Truth does indeed seem basic and irreducible. If you try to deny it ('There is no truth!') you presuppose it ('It is true that there is no truth.')

You cannot explain beliefs and desires by saying that there are no beliefs and desires. A successful explanation cannot be eliminativist.

Is this right? In one sense yes, of course. Yet shouldn't we distinguish between meaning and reference here? The eliminativist (of which I am not) is basically saying that the words we use are unhelpful and ultimately don't properly refer. It's akin to how many scientists think of something like ki (chi). If someone says, "explain meridian lines," it seems fair for a scientist to reply, "there are none."

Spencer,

No dualist worth their salt believes that consciousness is a 'thing'. Some (like me) believe that it's a substance, but in the philosophical sense of substance, the definition of which does not in any way imply materiality. When dualists talk about consciousness, they aren't talking about some thin, shade-like piece of quasi-matter, the 'ghost' of Ryle's 'ghost in the machine'. They are talking about interiority, subjectivity, experience itself, which, intrinsically and by definition, cannot be seen, weighed, or measured, even granted the tools and theory of an ideal physical science. When materialists assume that consciousness, if it is to exist, must be some quasi-material thing, they beg the question by assuming that all substances must be physical substances.

I'm afraid the idea that consciousness is just a verb makes no sense to me. It sounds like a very strange category mistake. Truth, for example, is irreducible; as Illion and Bill pointed out, to reduce truth to something else is to presuppose the irreducible truth of the reduction. We would be have explained nothing if we just sat back and said that truth is a noun; precisely what's at issue is the nature of the reality to which the noun refers. Similarly for consciousness. While we might use verbs to describe consciousness, what's at issue isn't so much the terms we use, but the reality to which those terms refer. You might say that the term refers to no reality, like Clark Goble's meridian line example. But to do so would lead to an elimination, not an explanation, of consciousness.

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