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Sunday, May 10, 2009

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Hi Bill,

As I have mentioned before, I've yet to come across an intellectually satisfying theory of the mind. There is always some remainder. For the materialist, that remainder is subjectivity. For the dualist, it's the interaction between the mind and the body. As far as I can tell, neither position has any advantage over the other. It is a theoretical stalemate. I don't have the answers, but the fact that it does seem so intractable suggests to me that we aren't asking the right sort of questions. Some of our starting premises have to be mistaken.

I've got to say, though, I don't find Nagel's "What is it like to be a Bat?" argument that convincing. The problem, it seems to me, is that it undercuts the foundation for any empathy for any other living thing. I may not be able to echolocate, but if I saw a bat being tossed in a fire alive, I would wince. I would have some idea of the pain it would be going through. The fact that some blind people have learned to echolocate suggests that I may be able to close the gap between my mind and the bats' with further experience. I don't see how jumping the species barrier makes the "what is it like" problem any worse than trying to imagine what it would be like to be, say, Bill V.

In summary, I think the gap between the subjectivity of minds is not as wide as is generally assumed. However, the gap between subjectivity and objectivity very well may be.

Thank you for your patient responses to my comments.

Interesting post. McGinn's argument seems similar to van Inwagen's - he argues in Metaphysics (I think) that while thinking and subjectivity are mysterious, immaterial things are no better at helping us to understand thinking and subjectivity than material things. I have always felt that the correct dualist response to this sort of objection is to hold that the mind is constitued by subjectivity, qualia, etc., rather than those features being supervenient on a non-subjective immaterial base, which I suppose is pretty much what you have said above.

One objection to this response however: If I am essentially constituted by consciousness etc, then it seems to follow straightforwardly that if I stop being conscious or exemplifying subjectivity (fall into a deep coma, say) then I no longer exist. I know that it is considerations like these that have prompted folk such as Howard Robinson to claim that we are actually timeless souls. But that seems like a bit of a price.

Also, have you encountered the book 'The Conscious Self' by a chap called Chris Lund? He defends the notion of the subject as a 'metaphysically basic particular' in his case for substance dualism.

Spencer writes, "The problem, it seems to me, is that it undercuts the foundation for any empathy for any other living thing." It's been a while since I've reread the article in question, but I didn't come away with that impression.

Matt,

Right, what you are saying is essentially what I am saying.

We experience our consciousness as intermittent. But couldn't this be explained by saying that embodied consciousness is negatively affected by the vicissitudes of the body?

I think you are referring to David H. Lund, *The Conscious Self: The Immaterial Center of Subjective States.* Thanks for drawing this to my attention. It is a 'must read' for me. Do you have a copy? Want to sell it?

Bill,

To put the point differently, if I can exist across periods when I am not conscious, then consciousness cannot be the fundamental stuff from which I am constituted, so then I must (so the argument goes) be fundamentally constituted by something non-conscious. And then McGinn's argument seems to have bite. I'm not sure how bringing the body in here can help; I'm not identical to my body, nor is it a part of me.

Yeah, I meant David Lund sorry. I do have a copy, but I'm afriad I am loathe to part with it! For one thing, I haven't finished it yet. It seems to be going for a reduced price on amazon.com at the moment though, and they always give me excellent service.

Matt,

I almost never sell or give away books, and the few times I have I have regretted it. I understaned your reluctance to part with a good book. So I should take your advice and buy the thing on Amazon.

It may be that when you are not conscious you are really just not conscious of being conscious -- yet you are still conscious for all that. I'll have to review Leibniz's perception/apperception distinction.

Also, as I explained above, I think it is a mistake to think of consciousness as a stuff.

Bill,

I sense there is an inescapable problem here. On the one hand you want to say that there are individual mental subjects, that these subjects are 'parcels of consciousness', property-possessors, continuants in time, and can be said to be in states. On the other hand they have a 'wholly un-object-like nature' and 'cannot be construed in objectivising terms'. Isn't there a tension here? Surely to say something is individual and has properties is precisely to objectivise it, regardless of whether it is 'stuff' or not?

I don't see a way around this. It's as if language, with its subject-predicate structure, is tailored for the third-person world. Forced to use it to describe the first-person world we project our experiences as best we can onto pseudo-objects with pseudo-properties. I appreciate that this teeters on the edge of eliminativism. My thought is not that experience 'isn't really there', rather that we lack the means to communicate it and analyse it. Hence the feeling that it's disconnected from what we know about the physical world and there as if by magic.

David,

A perceptive comment. There is indeed a very vexing problem here. The subject of consciousness -- that which is conscious -- is not an object of consciousness, and cannot be an object of consciousness. Anything that is objectively identified (whether mental contents, the body, the brain) is by the very fact that it is objectively identified not the subject of consciousness. And yet I am talking about it or trying to talk about it.

The subject is not nothing, and yet it seems ineffable. It borders on a contradiction: the subject is not nothing, but it is also not something. A positive theory of the subject or self may be impossible. All we can have is a negative knowledge of what it is not. We arrive at a limit beyond which we cannot go by discursive means. So perhaps one must just abandon discursive means and try such nondiscursive means as meditation. Philosophy reaches a limit beyond which is the mystical.

One thing that hasn't been addressed, or adequately clarified in my view, is that there are two distinct but importantly linked meanings of the term 'substance'. In one sense a substance is a concrete individual thing of a given kind. In the other sense it is a kind of stuff. As far as my understanding goes, Descartes never thought of the mind in the latter sense as a kind of stuff.

David,
I am in agreement with what you wrote in the first paragraph. But we appear to part company in your second paragraph. Leastways, I don't think we lack the means to express or communicate our experiences. All one need do is browse through Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" to see how capable our language is in conveying the nuances and subtleties of our psychological experiences.


Bill,
Unless ones accepts your view of what the self is, I don't see why the subject of consciousness (that which is conscious) could not be an object of consciousness. I think that human beings are conscious beings and they are substances (in the first sense I mentioned above) that exist in this world. The same is true of animals.

By the way, this appears to be a very interesting blog with some good discussion.
I apologize in advance for the brevity of my response above. I am very interested in the philosophy of the mind, but am only able to spend a limited amount of time doing it.

Bill,

This is more about your response than the topic, so forgive me if it goes too far afield. But would you say that consciousness is unique in this regard - being a question that, perhaps, even philosophy reaches a limit of inquiry with? Or do you consider other questions to be similar to it? (Even other mind-related topics.)

Hal,

You're right, it is important to keep those two senses of 'substance' separate. I've made that point many times. Unfortunately, nonphilosophers are unaware of the use of 'substance' to refer to an individual thing of a certain kind. And so in attempting to communcate with them 'substance' is word perhaps best avoided.

>>I think that human beings are conscious beings and they are substances (in the first sense I mentioned above) that exist in this world. The same is true of animals.<<

Just as there are different senses of 'substance,' there are different senses of 'conscious' and 'consciousness.' Suppose a man receives a high voltage electrical shock. He 'loses consciousness' as we say. A moment later he 'regains consciousness.' This difference can be explained in purely behavioral third-person terms. What philosophers call a zombie could exhibit this difference in behavior. It is certainly true that human beings are conscious beings in this sense of 'conscious' and also that they are substances in the first sense.

But I am speaking of consciousness as we experience it from the first-person point of view. Anything that I identify as an object of consciousness, by the very fact that I have so identified it, is not the subject of consciousness.

Bill, et al - Please forgive me if this is "too far afield" or strikes you as "just whacky," but how would telepathic phenomena (assuming there are such...) fit into this quite rigid separation of the subjective/objective and the first-/third-person frameworks? If two subjects could share the "same" subjective state, how would such distinctions be maintained?

PS - I appreciate the virtues of skepticism about telepathy, mind-melding, etc. But I don't think they can be dismissed on purely logical grounds.

Hi Bill,

I must say I was startled by your suggestion above that we might be "not conscious of being conscious".

If consciousness is *in esse* our subjective awareness and perceptions, as you have always maintained against eliminativism, then how can it be imagined to exist in their absence?

Bill,


"Just as there are different senses of 'substance,' there are different senses of 'conscious' and 'consciousness.' Suppose a man receives a high voltage electrical shock. He 'loses consciousness' as we say. A moment later he 'regains consciousness.' This difference can be explained in purely behavioral third-person terms. What philosophers call a zombie could exhibit this difference in behavior. It is certainly true that human beings are conscious beings in this sense of 'conscious' and also that they are substances in the first sense."


Since neither of us is a behaviorist, I agree with you that we need to distinguish behavior from consciousness. But I think we have different conceptions of how they are related.
I think the sort of behavior you are talking about in your example is a criterion for distinguishing consciousness from unconsciousness. When the victim of the electric shock begins to move, stand up and then tell us what a horrible experience he just had, then we can attribute consciousness to him. In other words, this behavior is partly constitutive of what it means to be conscious.
Perhaps we tell him that we were worried that he would never regain consciousness. He could respond that he never lost consciousness, that he heard us calling to him but that he was paralyzed and unable to move. Then our earlier attribution to him of unconsciousness was mistaken. So the behavioral criteria we use for predicating consciousness is defeasible.

I have trouble believing that a philosophical zombie could tell us that he was really conscious when we all thought he was unconscious. How could such a zombie be able to distinguish between being unconscious and being conscious but paralyzed?

"But I am speaking of consciousness as we experience it from the first-person point of view. Anything that I identify as an object of consciousness, by the very fact that I have so identified it, is not the subject of consciousness."

It seems to me that consciousness is a precondition for having experiences. So I don’t think we can experience consciousness itself, rather it is being conscious that enables us to have experiences.
Perhaps I don’t understand what you mean by the phrase ‘an object of consciousness’.
I thought you meant anything in particular that we were conscious of. So my being conscious of the bottle of beer on my desk would mean that the bottle of beer is an object of consciousness. Is that a correct interpretation of what you mean by that phrase?

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