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Monday, April 13, 2009


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Hi Bill,

I am inclined to say that my experience of pain is a sign of harm, though not harm itself. I say this because non-conscious life forms like plants can be harmed (a biologist says "this plant is deformed, this plant is not".)My experience of pain conveys information about my form, I think. But I can't argue with you about "being pleased."

If we understand pleasure and pain to be "feelings" as in "emotions," then I will agree wholeheartedly with you that they are non-intentional. I would think, however, that pin-pricks and even other sorts of sensations via sense organs (like touch) ARE intentional in so far as they refer to their proper objects of sensation. Pleasure and pain can be sensed as a passion or feeling, but it can also be an object of sensation properly speaking (when I poke myself with a pin, I learn that the pin is pointy and sharp - and I thus receive its formal quality intentionally). Emotions are not intentional, but sensation (as in "the five senses") is. Often, pains and pleasures involves BOTH of these aspects and I suspect some of the confusion results from this.
Another clarification is maybe needed to distinguish between passions as received into a subject and as they refer in themselves. Part of the difficulty is the modern definition of "intentionality" as "aboutness." As received, passions are not received with an intention, but are purely passive states. As they are in themselves, they need refer to an object which brings about the change and thus refer to the object which causes these passions in a subject; so, in an act of pain, I pull away from the object, and in pleasure I tend toward the object of my affection.

You might want to add St. Thomas to your list of people who agree on this point, assuming you agree with my above analysis (so far, I think it matches up): FS, q. 22, a. 2. discusses the non-intentionality of passions in the sensitive appetite.

*All sensation necessarily involves both aspects as appetitive and apprehensive. All desire for or aversion from is in reference to an object of sensation (thus to an intentional sense perception) but is not in itself intentional.

Interesting post, Bill. I should be writing an honour's thesis on T.S. Eliot at some stage in the future. Since he wrote his doctoral thesis on Bradley, that might be a good excuse to read some of Bradley's work myself.

You said: "At most, argument and dialectic can remove impediments to 'seeing.' And if there were no 'seeing,' how could there be arguments?"

The truth of this is strikingly apparent in arguments over eliminative materialism. Ultimately, Dennett and co. are forced to claim that consciousness doesn't exist. They are forced to admit that they themselves are not conscious: they must admit to not having qualitative states. But if that's true, then how are they even able to argue about consciousness? If there really were no such thing as consciousness, every time it was brought up the eliminativist would simply be unable to understand what was being referred to.

But they do understand: they often admit that, while it sometimes seems to them that they have qualitative states, they never really have qualitative states: consciousness is an illusion. But, as Galen Strawson pointed out, to have the illusion of conscious experience is just to have conscious experience. In the case of consciousness, to 'see' is to believe; to understand what it means is to admit its reality. So it seems to me that the only way an eliminativist can be consistent is to be, in principle, completely unable to understand what non-eliminativists mean by the term 'consciousness'. True eliminativists, therefore, are incapable of arguing their case. They can never understand what is being contested. To claim otherwise is to no longer be an eliminativist, but a sophist.


Is it true that the elimitivists deny consciouness? My understanding is that they deny the terms by which we talk about certain qualities of consciousness, like beliefs, desires, etc.

As far as I know, materialists disagree on whether mentalistic terms like 'belief', 'desire', etc., are reducible to a non-mentalistic vocabulary. To use a term which I found in Foster (but which no doubt preceded him) this is the problem of analytical reductionism. That's not really what I was talking about.

What I was talking about was ontological reductionism. If conscious-states are identical with brain-states, and the external physical facts about a brain-state exhaust all the facts about it, then this rules out the qualitative, subjective states intrinsic to consciousness. Materialists may argue about whether it is really possible to devise a vocabulary to describe these states without recourse to irreducibly mentalistic terms ("My C-Fibers are firing!"). But even if that project were to fail, one could still maintain that, ontologically, every conscious-state is identical with a physical-state. And if physical states have no subjective, qualitative content (eliminativists aren't panpsychists) then it seems to me that the eliminativist is forced into the position of denying the existence of these states, that is, into denying consciousness. I really don't see any way around that.

Brodie you are very confused about the difference between reduction and elimination.

Also, it is vague to talk generally about 'eliminative materialism' without describing the target for elimination. I am an eliminative materialist with respect to phlogiston, for instance. The Chruchlands aren't eliminativists wrt consciousness (the are reductionists, and think that just as lightning is reducible to electrostatic discharge of a certain type, so consciousness will be reducible to some natural theory). Reduction is the opposite of elimination, as what is reduced is preserved in the ontology (i.e., temperature is reduced in stat mech, but that doesn't meant temperature is eliminated).

Valicella's arguments that pains aren't intentional states are historically interesting, but don't take into account modern day philosophy of mind as from Rosenthal, Dretske, Tye, and many others. There is a lot of work there though as the word 'intentionality' is used differently by all these folks, and it isn't clear how their use of the word maps onto Bill's use, which is more in line with the philosophers of yore.

Brodie said:
"If conscious-states are identical with brain-states, and the external physical facts about a brain-state exhaust all the facts about it, then this rules out the qualitative, subjective states intrinsic to consciousness."

This is the crux (though at this point we are getting away from intentionality, and more toward "qualia", so I worry this is getting off topic).

I would disagree, offering that the neural story doesn't "rule out" the experience, but it just means a scientist studying the brain won't have the experience of the brain he is studying. He could say "Oh, and in this theory of consciousness there is experience X of the subject when he goes through that brain state, and to have that experience you have to actually be in that brain state. However, I'm not in that state right now, and perhaps like a male doctor studying pregnancy, I will never be in that state. And frankly I'm confused why you would expect my theorizing to put me in that state. I can study photosynthesis and never photosynthesize. Also, perhaps like quarks, these experiences (an essential part of my neuronal theory) will never be directly observable by me, but they sure explain the data well, and we observe their observable consequences. "

Hi, Blue Devil Knight.

I don't think you've quite convinced me that I'm confused, at least not yet. You say that I don't understand the distinction between reduction and elimination. I am aware that the terms are, of course, distinct. But in the case of the reduction of conscious experience (I am talking about qualia, by the way, a point I should have been a bit more clear about earlier on) to non-conscious matter I believe that reduction necessarily entails elimination. As Dennett, Churchland, etc. all agree, matter has no intrinsic experiential component. As I said before, none of them are panpsychists or emergentists, property or substance. They are all materialists, believing that the physical facts exhaust all the facts about the universe, and that these physical facts, again, have no intrinsic experiential component.

It seems to me that there is no room in this sort of universe for conscious experience. One could try to reduce conscious experience to purely material processes and, in your own words, 'preserve the ontology'; but if these material processes have no intrinsic experiential component, and emergence is ruled out, then such an attempt to reduce conscious experience to these non-conscious material processes will necessarily entail that conscious experience doesn't exist--that there is no such thing. In this case, reduction does not preserve the ontology in question, but eliminates it. Hence reduction entails elimination. And as I argued before, one cannot use terms like 'illusion' to describe consciousness, because, to paraphrase Galen Strawson, having the illusion of conscious experience is just to have conscious experience. It seems to me that, to be a materialist, one must claim not to have conscious experience. To quote a polemical passage of Galen Strawson's:

"'They are prepared to deny the existence of experience.' At this we should stop and wonder. I think we should feel very sober, and a little afraid, at the power of human credulity, the capacity of human minds to be gripped by theory, by faith. For this particular denial is the strangest thing that has happened in the whole history of human thought, not just the whole history of philosophy. It falls, unfortunately, to philosophy, not religion, to reveal the deepest woo-woo of the human mind. I find this grievous, but, next to this denial, every known religious belief is only a little less sensible than the belief that grass is green."

As for your analogies, I don't think any of them are relevant to conscious experience. In each of your examples, there was never any question that all that needed explaining was structure, function, etc. It was never believed, so far as I know, that lightning, for example, was in some way irreducible to more basic physical components. Phenomenal aspects aside, of course, lightning is and always has been considered a purely material process. The whole point at issue is that there is a disanalogy between the reduction of conscious experience to material processes and the reduction of material processes to other material processes. In fact, to say that the reduction of conscious experience is analogous to the reduction of one physical process to another is to simply beg the question by assuming that all that needs explaining are the physical facts.

I'm not quite sure what you're getting at in your neuroscientist example. You say that you're a reductionist vis-a-vis conscious experience, but then say that the patient is having conscious experiences that are in principle inaccessible to the neuroscientist. This seems to me to be a flat out contradiction. If consciousness is reducible to purely material processes, and material processes are intrinsically non-experiential, and there is no possibility of emergence, then it is impossible for there to be subjective 'experience' in the brain the neuroscientist is studying. By studying the external, objective, physical structure of the brain-state, the (ideal) neuroscientist would necessarily know all that can be known about that brain-state. To say that there is an additional experiential component, immune to scrutiny by physical science, is to abandon materialism and commit oneself to dualism (or panpsychism).

That the neuroscientist will not be having the experience that the patient is having is true, of course. I take this part of your example to be directed at my claim that to deny the existence of conscious experience entails not understanding what the term 'conscious experience' even refers to--rendering the person who makes such a claim unable to understand what's at issue. That, in short, to understand what subjective experience is is just to have subjective experience. But I don't think your neuroscientist example refutes my claim for the following reason. Again, as your example rightly shows, to understand that someone is having a particular conscious experience does not require that I have had or am having that experience myself. I can imagine being pregnant--sort of--but, being male, I will never have the actual experience of being pregnant. My claim, however, doesn't require that, to recognise a particular brain-state to be accompanied by a conscious experience, I have to have had, or be having, that particular conscious experience. All that my claim requires is that the neuroscientist knows what it is like to have conscious experience. He doesn't have to be able to undergo the experience of pregnancy himself, or ever undergo it, to understand that being pregnant is accompanied by conscious experience. It is only necessary that he has conscious experiences of some sort. If the neuroscientist had never had a conscious experience before, then the 'essential' part that conscious experience plays in his neuronal theory would make absolutely no sense to him. It would signify nothing, explain nothing. It couldn't even be a useful hypothetical entity about whose existence we remain agnostic, because for the hypothetical entity to serve a role in some explanatory theory requires some understanding of the nature of that hypothetical entity. But in the case of conscious experience, the only way to understand its nature is to actually have conscious experience, and it is impossible, to my mind, that someone can have a conscious experience but remain agnostic about whether they're actually having a conscious experience. They can be agnostic about the verisimilitude of its content (maybe they're experiencing a unicorn in a dream), but they can not be agnostic about the experience itself in the same way that one can be agnostic about the existence of quarks.

Blue Devil Knight:

You say: "Valicella's arguments that pains aren't intentional states are historically interesting, but don't take into account modern day philosophy of mind as from Rosenthal, Dretske, Tye, and many others. There is a lot of work there though as the word 'intentionality' is used differently by all these folks, and it isn't clear how their use of the word maps onto Bill's use, which is more in line with the philosophers of yore."

Now, an uncharitable way to read this claim is that you're just appealing to the authority of your favorite philosophers and stipulating that 'intentionality' will mean what they say it means. But then we could just go ahead and appeal to other contemporary philosophers who are at least as well-respected as Dretske and Tye. Perhaps you're not just appealing to authority to stipulate a definition (even if you were, it would be nice if you told us what it is about this different use of 'intentionality' that rules out Bill's argument about pleasure and pain). Perhaps instead you're just saying that Bill's use of it is bizarrely different than current uses, and that if Bill wants to get his argument off the ground he has to engage with the different uses of 'intentionality' in contemporary philosophy.

Now if you're going the second route, you're at least on a road that might lead somewhere (as opposed to the first route, which has a very conspicuous 'dead end' sign posted at its beginning). But you still need to at least give some examples of the ways in which Bill's 'intentionality' differs importantly from contemporary uses. You need to do that to convince people like me that there's even a shadow of a problem here, because as far as I can see, Bill's use of 'intentionality' does not differ on its face from the way that 'intentionality' is used in contemporary philosophy.

When asked to explain the term 'intentionality,' most philosophers will say something about 'aboutness.' If anything is central to the concept of intentionality, it's that relationship of aboutness. It seems to me that Bill's appeal to intentionality does not presuppose any particular theory of intentionality, but simply the basic idea of 'aboutness.' You could represent his argument as follows:

1. A state is intentional if it has an object (i.e., 'is about something')
2. Some pleasures and some pains do not have objects.
3. Therefore some pleasures and some pains are not intentional states.

One objection that comes immediately to mind is like the one that Spencer suggests: pains (and perhaps pleasures) 'carry information.' You touch a hot stove, you feel some pain, and that pain 'carries information' about the hot stove (namely, that it will hurt you if you touch it). I suspect that more than a few contemporary philosophers would try to develop this idea and incorporate it in their theory of intentionality (certainly it seems that theories of 'tracking intentionality' want to do that sort of thing).

Bill might respond, as would plenty of other philosophers from at least Anscombe onward, that this objection mistakes the *cause* of an experience for its *object*. The hot stove certainly causes the pain in your hand; but the pain in your hand is not 'about' the hot stove, not even 'about' the heat. Of course, the heat will trigger typical avoidance behaviors, and you will learn from the experience that hot stoves will hurt you. But it is a bit bizarre to say that the pain in itself 'carries information' about the damage (real or potential) to your hand. The same goes for pleasure. If I rub my arm in a pleasant way, I experience some pleasant sensations in my arm. But those sensations aren't 'about' my hand rubbing my arm. Of course, because I am a minimally intelligent animal I can figure out that my hand rubbing my arm is the cause of the pleasure. But that's quite a different thing from its being the *object* of the pleasure. I might not be in a position to know what the cause of any given pleasure is, yet I would certainly still be experiencing pleasure. There may not even *be* any immediate external cause to the pain at all. The same doesn't go for non-controversially intentional experiences like seeing an object. Even if there is a sense in which I do not know what the object I see is (as when I look underneath the hood of a car and, because I know nothing about cars, have only the vaguest idea what any of the particular items are), I still know what I am seeing.

I suppose one might want to re-interpret pain and pleasure states so that the pleasure or pain itself is the intentional object of the experience. But then, what is a pain or a pleasure? A sensation? So then the sensation is its own intentional object? Even if something like this would go through, it's going to be a very different sort of thing from vanilla cases of intentional states like sight, hearing, or conceptual thought.

It's also worth noting that quite a bit of the difficulty of these cases has to do with conceptual problems about pleasure and pain, and not so much with intentionality. One can say, of course, that 'pleasure is said in many ways' and just say that the obviously intentional pleasures (e.g., "I am pleased that Bill Valicella thinks some pleasures are non-intentional states") just use 'pleasure' terms in a different way than we find them in descriptions of non-intentional pleasure, but there are some good reasons to wonder if that's really satisfactory.

Laying those problems to one side, though, I think there is an excellent prima facie case for there being non-intentional pleasures and pains. The fact that some contemporary theories of intentionality do not preserve a distinction between causes and objects isn't Bill's problem. Of course, if you want to defend those theories against Bill, you should; I'm sure he'd be pleased to do so. But you can't just allege that he uses 'intentionality' in an antiquated way and dismiss his argument as failing to pay attention to contemporary philosophy.


Very nice response. Yes, in the case of qualia reduction entails elimination. And the idea that consciousness could be an illusion is a complete non-starter. Thanks for the Galen Strawson quotation. Where did you find it? He's quite right even if his mode of expression is extreme.


Your response, too, is very good and shows a thorough grasp of the issues. We are in basic agreement except for one detail. You write, >>one might want to re-interpret pain and pleasure states so that the pleasure or pain itself is the intentional object of the experience. But then, what is a pain or a pleasure? A sensation? So then the sensation is its own intentional object? Even if something like this would go through, it's going to be a very different sort of thing from vanilla cases of intentional states like sight, hearing, or conceptual thought.<<

I think it would be better to say that a pain, though not itself an intentional experience, can become the object of a distinct experience which is intentional and has the pain as its object. For example, I feel a pain and then I reflect on it. The act of reflection is directed to the pain that has just occurred. Even if the act of reflection is simultaneous with the pain, I think we should say that there are two conscious experiences, one non-intentional, the other intentional, with the latter taking the former as its object.

Hi, Bill.

The Strawson quotation is from 'Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?' from Imprint Academic Press, 2006(I think it's a special edition of 'The Journal of Consciousness Studies').

And djr: Thanks for making more clear for me the difference between a cause and an object regarding intentionality. I'm quite new to philosophical discussions of intentionality.

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