Bakker acknowledges that since giving up on intentionality entails giving up the mind, indeed the self, the consequences of eliminativism seem dire:
Sunday, January 11, 2015
A reader asks me to comment on novelist Scott Bakker’s recent Scientia Salon article “Back to Square One: toward a post-intentional future.” “Intentional” is a reference to intentionality, the philosopher’s technical term for the meaningfulness or “aboutness” of our thoughts -- the way they are “directed toward,” “point to,” or are about something. A “post-intentional” future is one in which we’ve given up trying to explain intentionality in scientific terms and instead abandon it altogether in favor of radically re-describing human nature exclusively in terms drawn from neuroscience, physics, chemistry, and the like. In short, it is a future in which we embrace the eliminative materialist position associated with philosophers like Alex Rosenberg and Paul and Patricia Churchland.
Bakker acknowledges that since giving up on intentionality entails giving up the mind, indeed the self, the consequences of eliminativism seem dire:
You could say the scientific overthrow of our traditional theoretical understanding of ourselves amounts to a kind of doomsday, the extinction of the humanity we have historically taken ourselves to be. Billions of “selves,” if not people, would die -- at least for the purposes of theoretical knowledge!
Here, as Bakker notes, he is echoing Jerry Fodor, who in Psychosemantics wrote:
[I]f commonsense intentional psychology really were to collapse, that would be, beyond comparison, the greatest intellectual catastrophe in the history of our species; if we’re that wrong about the mind, then that’s the wrongest we’ve ever been about anything. The collapse of the supernatural, for example, didn’t compare; theism never came close to being as intimately involved in our thought and our practice -- especially our practice -- as belief/desire explanation is… We’ll be in deep, deep trouble if we have to give it up.
I’m dubious, in fact, that we can give it up; that our intellects are so constituted that doing without it (I mean really doing without it; not just philosophical loose talk) is a biologically viable option. But be of good cheer; everything is going to be all right. (p. xii)
Fodor’s certainly correct, both about the consequences of eliminativism, and about everything’s nevertheless being all right. Or at least, everything’s going to be all right for commonsense intentional psychology; for scientism and materialism, not so much. For we cannot possibly be wrong about commonsense intentional psychology. We know that eliminativism must be false. We needn’t worry about suffering post-intentional depression because there’s no such thing as our ever being post-intentional. But scientism and materialism really do entail eliminativism or post-intentionalism. Hence they must be false too.
This is, of course, ground I’ve covered in great detail in several places. There is, for example, the very thorough critique I’ve given of Rosenberg’s book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality and some of his other writings in a series of posts. I there show that none of the arguments for eliminativism is any good, and that eliminativism cannot solve the incoherence problem -- the problem of finding a way to deny the existence of intentionality without implicitly presupposing the existence of intentionality.
Bakker tells us that, though he once found the objections to eliminativism compelling, he now takes the post-intentional “worst case scenario” to be a “live possibility” worthy of exploration. It seems to me, though, that he doesn’t really say anything new by way of making eliminativism plausible, at least not in the present article. Here I want to comment on three issues raised in his essay. The first is the reason he gives for thinking that the incoherence problem facing eliminativism isn’t serious. The second is the question of why, as Bakker puts it, we are “so convinced that we are the sole exception, the one domain that can be theoretically cognized absent the prostheses of science.” The third is the question of why more people haven’t considered “what… a post-intentional future [would] look like,” a fact that “amazes” Bakker.
Still incoherent after all these years
Let’s take these in order. In footnote 3 of his article, Bakker writes:
Using intentional concepts does not entail commitment to intentionalism, any more than using capital entails a commitment to capitalism. Tu quoque arguments simply beg the question, assume the truth of the very intentional assumptions under question to argue the incoherence of questioning them. If you define your explanation into the phenomena we’re attempting to explain, then alternative explanations will appear to beg your explanation to the extent the phenomena play some functional role in the process of explanation more generally. Despite the obvious circularity of this tactic, it remains the weapon of choice for great number of intentional philosophers.
End quote. There are a couple of urban legends about the incoherence objection that eliminativists like to peddle, and Bakker essentially repeats them here. The first urban legend is the claim that to raise the incoherence objection is to accuse the eliminativist of an obvious self-contradiction, like saying “I believe that there are no beliefs.” The eliminativist then responds that the objection is as puerile as accusing a heliocentrist of self-contradiction when he says “The sun rose today at 6:59 AM.” Obviously the heliocentrist is just speaking loosely. He isn’t really saying that the sun moves relative to the earth. Similarly, when an eliminativist says at lunchtime “I believe I’ll have a ham sandwich,” he isn’t really committing himself to the existence of beliefs or the like.
But the eliminativist is attacking a straw man. Proponents of the incoherence objection are well aware that eliminativists can easily avoid saying obviously self-contradictory things like “I believe that there are no beliefs,” and can also go a long way in avoiding certain specific intentional terms like “believe,” “think,” etc. That is simply not what is at issue. What is at issue is whether an across-the-board eliminativism is coherent, whether the eliminativist can in principle avoid all intentional notions. The proponent of the incoherence objection says that this is not possible, and that analogies with heliocentrism and the like therefore fail.
After all, the heliocentrist can easily state his position without making any explicit or implicit reference to the sun moving relative to the earth. If he needs to, he can say what he wants to say with sentences like “The sun rose today at 6:59 AM” in a more cumbersome way that makes no reference to the sun rising. Similarly (and to take Bakker’s own example) an anti-capitalist can easily describe a society in which capital does not exist (e.g. a hunter-gatherer society). But it is, to say the least, by no means clear how the eliminativist can state his position in a way that does not entail that at least some intentional notions track reality. For the eliminativist claims that commonsense intentional psychology is false and illusory; he claims that eliminativism is evidentially supported by or even entailed by science; he proposes alternative theories and models of human nature; and so forth. Even if the eliminativist can drop reference to “beliefs” and “thoughts,” he still typically makes use of “truth,” “falsehood,” “theory,” “model,” “implication,” “entailment,” “cognitive,” “assertion,” “evidence,” “observation,” etc. Every one of these notions is also intentional. Every one of them therefore has to be abandoned by a consistent eliminativist. (As Hilary Putnam pointed out decades ago, a consistent eliminativist has to give up “folk logic” as well as “folk psychology.”)
To compare the eliminativist to the heliocentrist who talks about the sunrise or the anti-capitalist who uses capital is, if left at that, mere hand waving. For whether these analogies are good ones is precisely what is at issue. If Bakker or any other eliminativist wants to give a serious reply to the incoherence objection, what he needs to do is to put his money where his mouth is and show us exactly how the eliminativist can do what the heliocentist or anti-capitalist can do. He needs to show us exactly how the eliminativist position can be stated in a way that makes no appeal to “truth,” “falsehood,” “theory,” “entailment,” “observation,” or any other intentional notion. The trouble is that no eliminativist has ever done so. Even eliminativists usually don’t claim that anyone has done it. They just issue promissory notes to the effect that someday it will be done. But since whether it can be done is precisely what is at issue, this response just begs the question. (Readers who haven’t yet done so are encouraged to read Rosenberg’s paper “Eliminativism without Tears” and my three-part reply to it, here, here, and here. Rosenberg’s essay is the most serious and thorough attempt I know of to grapple with the incoherence problem. As I show, it fails dismally.)
The second urban legend Bakker perpetuates is the claim that the incoherence objection itself somehow begs the question. The way the Churchlands illustrate this purported foible of the incoherence objection is to compare the objector to someone who claims that modern biologists contradict themselves by denying the existence of élan vital. The Churchlands imagine such a person saying something like: “If élan vital didn’t exist, you wouldn’t be alive and thus wouldn’t be around to deny its existence! So you cannot coherently deny it.” As the Churchlands rightly note, this objection begs the question, since whether élan vital is required for life is precisely what is at issue. And the incoherence objection raised against the eliminativist is, the Churchlands claim, similarly question-begging.
But the parallel is completely bogus. The reason the imagined élan vital objection fails is that the concept of being alive and the concept of élan vital are logically independent. We can coherently describe something being alive without bringing élan vital into our description. Hence it would require argumentation to show that élan vital is necessary for life; this cannot simply be assumed. Things are very different in the case of the dispute about eliminativism. Here, what is at issue is precisely whether the relevant concepts are logically independent. In particular, what is at issue is whether the eliminativist can coherently speak of “truth,” “falsehood,” “evidence,” “observation,” “entailment,” etc. while at the same time denying that there is such a thing as intentionality. If he can give us a way of doing so, then he will have shown that the analogy with the élan vital example is a good one. But if the eliminativist does not do so, then he is the one begging the question. But, as I have just noted, eliminativists in fact have not done so. So, once again it is really the eliminativist, and not his critic, who is engaged in circular reasoning.
Another way to see how hollow Bakker’s charge of circular reasoning is is to consider some parallel cases. Take the verificationist claim that a statement is meaningful only if it is verifiable. Notoriously, this principle seems to undermine itself, since no one has been able to explain how it can be verified. Suppose a verificationist accused his critics of begging the question in raising this objection. What could possibly be the basis for such an accusation? If the verificationist had given us some account of how his own principle could be verified, and the critic simply ignored this account but still accused the principle of verifiability of being self-undermining, then the verificationist would have a basis for claiming that the objection begs the question. But since the verificationist has not given us such an account, any claim that his critics beg the question against him would be groundless, and their objection stands.
Similarly, if eliminativists had given us some account of how they can coherently state their position without making use of any intentional notions whatsoever, and if their critics had nevertheless simply ignored this account and raised the incoherence objection anyway, then the charge that the critics beg the question would have some foundation. But this is not in fact what has happened. Eliminativists have not given an account of how they can state their position without using any intentional notions at all; typically they just wave away the problem by saying that it will be solved when neuroscience has made further advances. But in the absence of such an account, the charge that those who raise the incoherence objection beg the question is groundless. (Again, Rosenberg has come closest to trying to answer the objection head on. I have not ignored this attempt but rather answered it in detail, as the posts linked to above show.)
Another parallel: “Analytical” or “logical” behaviorism holds that talk about mental states can be translated into talk about behavior or dispositions to behavior. To say that “Bob believes that it is raining” is shorthand for saying something like “Bob will say that it is raining if he is asked, is disposed to go to the closet and grab an umbrella before leaving the house, etc.” One well-known problem with this view is that no one has been able to show how talk about mental states can be entirely replaced by talk about behavior and dispositions to behavior. In the example just given, it will be true that “Bob will say that it is raining if he is asked, is disposed to go to the closet and grab an umbrella before leaving the house, etc.” only if it is also true that Bob intends to tell us what he really thinks, desires to stay dry, etc. That is to say, if we analyze the one mental state (the belief that it is raining) in terms of behavior, the behavior itself has to be analyzed in terms of further mental states (such as the intention to say what one is really thinking and the desire to stay dry), and thus the problem is only pushed back a stage. And as it turns out, if we give a behavioral analysis of the intention and desire in question, the problem just recurs again. So it looks like no successful thoroughgoing behaviorist analysis can be carried out.
Now suppose the analytical behaviorist responds: “But this objection just begs the question, since we analytical behaviorists say that such an analysis can be given!” Obviously this would be a silly objection. The critic of analytical behaviorism has given a reason to think the analysis cannot be carried out, while the analytical behaviorist has failed to show that it can be carried out. So, until the analytical behaviorist succeeds in carrying out such an analysis, his charge that his critic begs the question will be groundless.
Similarly, critics of eliminativism have given reasons for concluding that the eliminativist needs to make use of notions which presuppose intentionality, so that no coherent statement of the eliminativist position can be carried out. To rebut this charge, it will not do for the eliminativist merely to accuse his critic of begging the question. The eliminativist has to provide the analysis his critic claims cannot be provided. Merely insisting, dogmatically, that it can be provided and someday will be provided is not good enough to rebut the incoherence charge. The eliminativist has actually to show us how to do it. Until he does, he is in the same boat as the verificationist and the analytical behaviorist. (Not a good boat to be in, since verificationism and analytical behaviorism are about as dead as philosophical theories get.)
The “lump under the rug” fallacy
Bakker wonders why we are “so convinced that we are the sole exception, the one domain that can be theoretically cognized absent the prostheses of science.” After all, other aspects of the natural world have been radically re-conceived by science. So why do we tend to suppose that human nature is not subject to such radical re-conception -- for instance, to the kind of re-conception proposed by eliminativism? Bakker’s answer is that we take ourselves to have a privileged epistemic access to ourselves that we don’t have to the rest of the world. He then suggests that we should not regard this epistemic access as privileged, but merely different.
Now, elsewhere I have noted the fallaciousness of arguments to the effect that neuroscience has shown that our self-conception is radically mistaken. For instance, in one of the posts on Rosenberg alluded to above, I respond to claims to the effect that “blindsight” phenomena and Libet’s free will experiments cast doubt on the reliability of introspection. Here I want to focus on the presupposition of Bakker’s question, and on another kind of fallacious reasoning I’ve called attention to many times over the years. The presupposition is that science really has falsified our commonsense understanding of the rest of the world, and the fallacy behind this presupposition is what I call the “lump under the rug” fallacy.
Suppose the wood floors of your house are filthy and that the dirt is pretty evenly spread throughout the house. Suppose also that there is a rug in one of the hallways. You thoroughly sweep out one of the bedrooms and form a nice little pile of dirt at the doorway. It occurs to you that you could effectively “get rid” of this pile by sweeping it under the nearby rug in the hallway, so you do so. The lump under the rug thereby formed is barely noticeable, so you are pleased. You proceed to sweep the rest of the bedrooms, the bathroom, the kitchen, etc., and in each case you sweep the resulting piles under the same rug. When you’re done, however, the lump under the rug has become quite large and something of an eyesore. Someone asks you how you are going to get rid of it. “Easy!” you answer. “The same way I got rid of the dirt everywhere else! After all, the ‘sweep it under the rug’ method has worked everywhere else in the house. How could this little rug in the hallway be the one place where it wouldn’t work? What are the odds of that?”
This answer, of course, is completely absurd. Naturally, the same method will not work in this case, and it is precisely because it worked everywhere else that it cannot work in this case. You can get rid of dirt outside the rug by sweeping it under the rug. You cannot get of the dirt under the rug by sweeping it under the rug. You will only make a fool of yourself if you try, especially if you confidently insist that the method must work here because it has worked so well elsewhere.
Now, the “Science has explained everything else, so how could the human mind be the one exception?” move is, of course, standard scientistic and materialist shtick. But it is no less fallacious than our imagined “lump under the rug” argument.
Here’s why. Keep in mind that Descartes, Newton, and the other founders of modern science essentially stipulated that nothing that would not fit their exclusively quantitative or “mathematicized” conception of matter would be allowed to count as part of a “scientific” explanation. Now to common sense, the world is filled with irreducibly qualitative features -- colors, sounds, odors, tastes, heat and cold -- and with purposes and meanings. None of this can be analyzed in quantitative terms. To be sure, you can re-define color in terms of a surface’s reflection of light of certain wavelengths, sound in terms of compression waves, heat and cold in terms of molecular motion, etc. But that doesn’t capture what common sense means by color, sound, heat, cold, etc. -- the way red looks, the way an explosion sounds, the way heat feels, etc. So, Descartes and Co. decided to treat these irreducibly qualitative features as projections of the mind. The redness we see in a “Stop” sign, as common sense understands redness, does not actually exist in the sign itself but only as the quale of our conscious visual experience of the sign; the heat we attribute to the bathwater, as common sense understands heat, does not exist in the water itself but only in the “raw feel” that the high mean molecular kinetic energy of the water causes us to experience; meanings and purposes do not exist in external material objects but only in our minds, and we project these onto the world; and so forth. Objectively there are only colorless, odorless, soundless, tasteless, meaningless particles in fields of force.
In short, the scientific method “explains everything else” in the world in something like the way the “sweep it under the rug” method gets rid of dirt -- by taking the irreducibly qualitative and teleological features of the world, which don’t fit the quantitative methods of science, and sweeping them under the rug of the mind. And just as the literal “sweep it under the rug” method generates under the rug a bigger and bigger pile of dirt which cannot in principle be gotten rid of using the “sweep it under the rug” method, so too does modern science’s method of treating irreducibly qualitative, semantic, and teleological features as mere projections of the mind generate in the mind a bigger and bigger “pile” of features which cannot be explained using the same method.
This is the reason the qualia problem, the problem of intentionality, and other philosophical problems touching on human nature are so intractable. Indeed, it is one reason many post-Cartesian philosophers have thought dualism unavoidable. If you define “material” in such a way that irreducibly qualitative, semantic, and teleological features are excluded from matter, but also say that these features exist in the mind, then you have thereby made of the mind something immaterial. Thus, Cartesian dualism was not some desperate rearguard action against the advance of modern science; on the contrary, it was the inevitable consequence of modern science (or, more precisely, the inevitable consequence of regarding modern science as giving us an exhaustive account of matter).
So, like the floor sweeper who is stuck with a “dualism” of dirt-free floors and a lump of dirt under the rug, those who suppose that the scientific picture of matter is an exhaustive picture are stuck with a dualism of, on the one hand, a material world entirely free of irreducibly qualitative, semantic, or teleological features, and on the other hand a mental realm defined by its possession of irreducibly qualitative, semantic, and teleological features. The only way to avoid this dualism would be to deny that the latter realm is real -- that is to say, to take an eliminativist position. But as I have said, there is no coherent way to take such a position. The eliminativist who insists that intentionality is an illusion -- where illusion is, of course, an intentional notion (and where no eliminativist has been able to come up with a non-intentional substitute for it) -- is like the yutz sweeping the dirt that is under the rug back under the rug while insisting that he is thereby getting rid of the dirt under the rug.
That the modern understanding of what a scientific explanation consists in itself generates the mind-body problem and thus can hardly solve the mind-body problem has been a theme of Thomas Nagel’s work from at least the time his famous article “What is it like to be a bat?” was first published to his recent book Mind and Cosmos. As we saw in my series of posts responding to the critics of Nagel’s book, those critics mostly completely missed this fundamental point, cluelessly obsessing instead over merely secondary issues about evolution.
Like Nagel, I reject Cartesianism, and like Nagel, I think a reconsideration of Aristotelianism is the right approach to the metaphysical problems raised by modern science -- though where Nagel merely flirts with Aristotelianism, I would go the whole hog. I would say that although science gives us a correct description of reality, it gives us nothing close to a complete description of reality, not even of material reality. It merely abstracts those features of concrete material reality that are susceptible of investigation via its methods, especially those features susceptible of quantitative analysis. Those features of reality that are not susceptible of such investigation are going to be known by us, if at all, only via metaphysical investigation -- specifically, I would argue, via Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics.
Be all that as it may, in the present context it cuts absolutely no ice merely to appeal to “what science has shown” about the other, non-human aspects of reality, as a way of trying to establish the plausibility of a radically eliminativist re-conception of human nature. For the issues are metaphysical, and science only ever “shows” anything of a metaphysical nature when it has already been embedded in a larger metaphysical framework -- in the case of eliminativism, in a naturalistic metaphysical framework. But to appeal to such a framework is, from the point of view of Aristotelians and other non-naturalists, merely to beg the question.
Bakker asks: “What would a post-intentional future look like? What could it look like?,” and he says that it “regularly amazes” him that this question hasn’t been explored in greater depth. But it really should not amaze him. After all, nobody bothers exploring in depth what a world in which round squares existed would be like. One reason for this is that there could, even in principle, be no such thing as a world where round squares existed, since the very notion is incoherent. We can’t explore the idea in depth because we can’t explore it at all.
Of course, nobody takes the idea of a round square seriously, whereas some people take eliminativism seriously. But the problem is similar. You can’t explore the idea of a post-intentional world in depth until you’ve first shown that the idea even makes sense at all. That is to say, you first have to solve the incoherence problem. And as I’ve said, nobody has done that. Of course, we can write stories in which people say things like “There is no such thing as intentionality” and in which people treat each other as if they didn’t possess mental states. But that is no more impressive than the fact that we can write stories in which people say things like “Round squares exist” and in which they attribute both straight and curved lines to the same geometrical figures. The former no more involves imagining a “post-intentional future” than the latter involves imagining a world with round squares. In both cases, all we’re really imagining is a world where people say odd things. But that’s no different, really, from the actual world, where all sorts of people say odd things (insane people, members of strange religious sects, eliminativists, etc.).
So, though its critics might be tempted to write off the project of imagining a post-intentional future as just so much “mental masturbation,” it really doesn’t even rise to that level. After all, there’s no such thing as paralytic onanism -- onanism of the literal sort, that is -- since paralysis rules out the anatomical preconditions of onanism. Similarly, onanism of the mental sort would require, as a precondition, the mental -- exactly what the eliminativist rules out. The closest he’ll ever get to imagining a post-intentional future is not through active fantasy, but rather a dreamless sleep.