Tuesday, February 18, 2020

On one argument for dualism

I’ve never been impressed with the argument that our conscious mental states just seem very different from physical states like neuronal firings. When teaching today, I thought of a reason why not to be impressed with the argument. The following thing could easily happen. You first learned language A, and you learned that a flower called X in A smells a certain way ϕ, but when learned this you didn’t actually see the flower—you just smelled it. Years later, you learned language B, and you learned from a photo what a flower called Y in B has appearance ψ. Now you say: to smell ϕ is very different from looking ψ, so X ≠ Y. That’s clearly a poor line of thought. Smells are very different from visual appearances, but the same object can have a smell and a visual appearance. It seems to me that the mistake here isn’t very different from the argument that conscious mental states just don’t seem to be like neuronal firings…

Of course, I am not a physicalist. But generally I think arguments for dualism from intentionality are much stronger than ones from phenomenal consciousness.

9 comments:

Atno said...

Seems to me like this is not a good analogy. The dualist could say that maybe X is Y after all, but the point is that smelling X IS indeed very different from seeing Y, and if they refer to the same object, that still doesn't explain how they're so different and how so radically distinct elements can be combined in one substance like that.

I also think that intentionality is a bigger problem than consciousness. Especially determinate intentionality with abstract concepts, and also reason (mental causation by virtue of meaning and logical/rational relationships, instead of physical laws). But consciousness is still a very big problem, I think.

Atno said...

I think the biggest issues with consciousness are that we can (or at least some of us claim we can) directly see an enormous explanatory gap between qualia and physical facts, as in, there can be no explanation (solely from physical and biological facts) why we see something as Red, hear a melody instead of just registering sound waves, why some salts and electricity in the brain should lead to a feeling of joy, or pain, or fear. There is no way to reduce one to the other here, and the connections appear radically contingent. The famous arguments develop this intuition (Zombies; Knowledge Argument; China Brain; etc).

Alexander R Pruss said...

Smell and color are very different properties, but I don't see why it is puzzling that very different properties are combined in a single object. Similarly, position, spin, charge and mass are very different properties, but they are combined in a single electron.

Michael Gonzalez said...

A spoonful of Wittgenstein would make all of this go away. I blame Descartes, and hope that he is someday resurrected so I can thoroughly beat him for what he's done.

There is no mystery of either consciousness or intentionality, but we can't see that if we're stuck inside what Wittgenstein called the "bild" ("worldview"?) in the shadow of Descartes. If you think that sound waves, light, etc. impinge on bodily receptors and are translated into an inner image or somehow become a conscious experience in our brains, you will always be befuddled. But that is manifestly mistaken. Completely. The inner-outer distinction it takes for granted is wrong (see Hubert Dreyfus' work, following from Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger; or, for a more experimentally based look at this mistake, see Alva Noe's book "Out of Our Heads" and Kevin O'Regan's "Why Red Doesn't Sound Like a Bell"). And the terms are being deployed in a way that transgresses the bounds of sense (i.e. is meaningless, given the conceptual framework on which the terms even have meanings... see anything by Peter Hacker... I recommend starting with "Human Nature: The Categorial Framework").

But, rather than just give you a reading assignment, let me give my brief and clumsy attempt at some of the philosophical "therapy" that I believe is needed:

1) Mental talk differs from physical talk only because it refers to a specific set of capacities that belong to only some creatures. Note: It belongs to the creatures; not to their brains. I agree that it is impossible to equate mental experiences with brain processes, but we should never have tried to do that (again, it's all Descartes' fault historically; but I don't want to spend to much space on history). The animal as a whole is the only proper subject for mental predicates. The animal sees the red rose, smells the orchid, etc.

2) Intentionality is a big philosophical muddle surrounding some peculiarities about how we talk, and the central concept is the relation of thought to reality. The analysis needs to be conceptual and linguistic. For example, when dealing with the matter of believing, suspecting, knowing, etc. "that p", we need to consider the grammar of such a sentence. Verbs can take nominalization or sentiential accusatives, but the "content" in either case is a potential answer; not an object. It's the answer I would give if asked what I (fill in the blank with a verb: believe, suspect, whatever). That means that the propositions are the terms in which my belief, suspicious, etc. would be expressed if asked. But that doesn't mean that what I believe, suspect, etc. just is that proposition itself. This is true of believing, suspecting, etc. that fairies exist or that some abstract statement (e.g. a mathematical one) is true.

Obviously, this single example doesn't resolve the whole mess of intentionality, but I'm pointing out the linguistic-conceptual nature of the problem. It is no mystery when unraveled this way. Same goes for consciousness.

Michael Gonzalez said...

3) The whole idea of "Zombies" is just taking this non-sense (not "nonsense" in the derogatory way; but strings of words that lack meaning when analyzed) to its pinnacle. The very meanings of the terms for capacities associated with consciousness are built on behavioral criteria for ascription. We literally wouldn't know what we were talking about when asking about possessing or lacking consciousness, if we didn't first have behavioral criteria for ascribing consciousness to a creature, so that the word has meaning at all. And even that requires us to talk about different uses of the term "consciousness". For example, there is the matter of being "rendered unconscious" and "regaining consciousness", and that whole way of talking depends on behavioral criteria that are usually present in such cases. But then there is the separate matter of being conscious of something (say, conscious or aware of something that catches and holds your attention, like a bee in the room) vs. failing to be conscious/aware of something (maybe you haven't noticed the bee yet). In either case, if we didn't have behavioral criteria for noting that an animal or human has become aware of the bee, or has awakened from sleep, or whatever, we wouldn't have the concepts or sentences to even ask the questions about consciousness. So, when we ask about a so-called p-zombie, we are trampling all over the conceptual scheme on which the questions themselves even make sense. Any being which walks around in a room and proceeds to avoid the obstacles as they go, then ceases to be able to do so when the lights go out and starts groping around and bumping into things, then blinks their eyes when the light comes back on and stops having to grope... is able to see!

Atno said...

Pruss,

Spin, charge, mass, etc. are concepts that can be given a mechanistic analysis. Smell, color, the feeling of pain, the feeling of love, are completely, radically different things from one another and admit of no mechanistic analysis. As I said, there is an intuition - one that is captured and can be brought out by arguments such as Zombies, the Knowledge Argument, etc - that there is a deep explanatory gap between physical and biological facts and facts of consciousness. If you don't have that intuition, fair enough, but it is at least a real widespread intuition that tends to captivate both materialist and dualist philosophers alike.

It's obvious to me that the qualitative feelings I get when I see a painting by Monet; or a person I love; or a plate of food; are completely distinct from my brain states or any conjunctions of physical facts, and are at best contingently linked to such facts.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Atno: Why can't the ability to feel awe at a painting or love for a person be a set of capacities that the animal as a whole properly possesses?

As an example, you can look all over the engine of an airplane for the capacity to fly, and you will never find it. Flight is a capacity of the airplane as a whole. Sure, it couldn't do it without a well-functioning engine; but the engine doesn't fly, the plane does. Likewise, brains do not feel awe or love and brain states do not explain those feelings. We couldn't feel those things if we had no brains (we would be dead without brains). But feeling awe or love or anything else is a property of the living animal. The animal as a whole is the only proper subject of "feeling" predicates.

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