Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Twilight Zone

Most of the “pop culture and philosophy” books that have flooded the Borders and Barnes and Noble shelves in recent years seem to me to be pretty schlocky. Their purported justification is that they introduce philosophy to people who wouldn’t otherwise read it. But since the “philosophical significance” of the subject matter is usually vastly overstated (30 Rock? Jimmy Buffett? The Atkins Diet?!) and the philosophy dumbed down, it is questionable whether they really do much good on this score.

Still, there are pop culture topics that are worthy of philosophical consideration. As our pal Bill Vallicella has noted, The Twilight Zone is one of them. Naturally, a volume on that subject has appeared, and while I have not yet read Philosophy in the Twilight Zone, it looks interesting and I plan to do so. In any event, anyone who has watched the show can think of examples of episodes which raise serious philosophical questions.

In “The Man in the Bottle,” a genie grants a down-on-their-luck couple four wishes. This turns out, of course, to be less of a blessing than they assume it will be. Watching this episode as a youngster spawned one of the first philosophical thoughts I can recall ever having: Why couldn’t the couple wish for ten or twenty more wishes, as the husband suggests doing at one point? The genie just says that “wishing for more wishes is not permitted,” but this limitation seems arbitrary. It also seems easy to get around, for why couldn’t the husband just respond: “OK, then in that case I wish you hadn’t imposed that arbitrary rule!” And if the genie then said that that was also something that couldn’t be wished for, why couldn’t the husband reply that his wish in that case is that that rule had never been imposed?

The indeterminacy illustrated by this example – the difficulty of “nailing down” the content of a certain rule or statement so that what one wants it to rule out really is ruled out – is in fact part of the larger theme of the episode. Every wish the couple makes – for money, for power – turns out to have unforeseen unhappy implications, and there seems to be no way to add detail to the description of the content of the wish to make absolutely certain that no further iteration of the same basic problems can crop up. Readers of Wittgenstein, Hayek, or Kripke will appreciate the difficulty. There is also moral and political significance to the problem the episode raises. We are often prone to think of personal and social problems in terms of what would happen if only we could “press a button.” In fact this is a very foolish way to think, because human life and human problems are typically far too complicated to boil down to a single factor, the alteration of which would solve everything.

In “A Most Unusual Camera,” a gang of petty criminals acquires a camera that takes pictures of events that have not yet occurred. It turns out that the knowledge of future events that they acquire by means of the camera is one of the factors that lead to the realization of said events. Obvious fodder for those interested in time travel paradoxes and questions about determinism and free will. In “It’s a Good Life,” omnipotent 6-year old Anthony Fremont terrorizes a small town. He is clearly selfish, callous, and willful, and causes unimaginable suffering to those around him. But he is only 6, and arguably lacking in understanding both of the moral law and of the consequences of his actions. So, does he have sufficient moral responsibility for it to be morally permissible to kill him so as to save the town from the horrors he inflicts upon it? Discuss. In “A Kind of a Stopwatch,” a man acquires a watch that can stop time. I’ve used it in the classroom for years to illustrate the question that initiates the Aristotelian argument from motion: Why is the world dynamic rather than static? Why does it undergo change rather than being “frozen in place,” as the episode’s characters are when the stopwatch is pressed?

You get the idea. Of course, The Twilight Zone has other, non-philosophical charms. Perhaps there is some deep epistemological issue raised by the famous “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”; but the reason it is so many people’s favorite episode is simply that it gives a good scare. (It made it at least a little harder for my 5-year old daughter to get on the plane to London with her mother last week!)

And then there is the excuse it gives me to link to a classic Manhattan Transfer video. Enjoy:

Manhattan Transfer- TWILIGHT ZONE theme 1979 from Coleccionista80 on Vimeo.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Popper’s World 3

The Self and Its Brain: An Argument for Interactionism, a long exchange between philosopher Karl Popper and neuroscientist John Eccles, is among the most significant 20th century defenses of mind-body dualism. I do not agree with every aspect of their approach, but the book is filled with interesting things and deserves more attention than it has received in contemporary philosophy of mind.

Popper famously distinguished between three “worlds” or levels of reality. (Though whether “levels” of reality is the right gloss on Popper’s theory is not clear. “Kinds”? “Aspects”?) World 1 is the world of physical entities and states – tables, chairs, rocks, trees, fundamental particles and forces, human bodies and behavior, and so forth. World 2 is the world of thoughts, sensations, and mental phenomena in general. World 3 is the world of scientific and philosophical theories, arguments, stories, social institutions, works of art and the like. World 3 differs from World 1 in that the entities comprising it are abstract; for example, though a theory or argument might be embodied in a particular book (a World 1 object) it does not depend for its reality on the existence of that book, or on any book or World 1 object at all. We could still consider the Pythagorean theorem, know it to be true, prove it, etc. even if every geometry textbook that had ever existed were destroyed. World 3 differs from World 2 in being objective or public, whereas World 2 is subjective or private. Your thoughts and experiences are directly knowable only to you, but World 3 objects are equally accessible to everyone.

The objectivity or “autonomy” of such World 3 objects as theories and arguments is especially evident in Popper’s view from the fact that they have logical relations – and in particular, unforeseen implications and unnoticed inconsistencies – that may not be noticed until well after we first consider them, but which were evidently there all the time waiting to be discovered. Naturally, he takes mathematics to illustrate the point vividly, but it is in his view no less evident from empirical scientific theories. The clearest mark of the reality of all three worlds is in Popper’s judgment the fact that World 3 has a causal influence on World 1, and does so only via World 2. For example, the scientific theories which entailed the possibility of nuclear weapons have had an obvious impact on the material world – they have resulted in various nuclear tests, in the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and so forth – but only because scientists carried out the mental activity of working out the implications of the theories and applying them.

Popper’s World 3 is often compared to Plato’s realm of the Forms, and Popper himself acknowledges that there are similarities. But he also emphasizes the significant differences between his view and Plato’s, not the least of which is that he takes World 3, despite its objectivity or autonomy, to be something “man-made,” its objects in the strict sense being what the human mind “abstracts” from their World 1 embodiment. Though Popper does not take note of the fact or develop the theme in much detail, this is clearly reminiscent of an Aristotelian or “moderate realist” approach to the traditional problem of universals, as distinct from the “extreme realism” of Platonism. (See here and here for a useful short account of the traditional Aristotelian-Thomistic-Scholastic approach to the issue and its significance.)

In other ways too Popper’s views as expressed in The Self and Its Brain overlap to some extent with Aristotelian ones. The emphasis on abstract thought – and thus on what is unique to human beings – as what is of greatest interest in the debate over dualism is very much in line with the classical Platonic-Aristotelian-Scholastic approach to this subject, which is quite different from the contemporary obsession with “qualia” and the like. There is also Popper’s acknowledgement of the reality of “downward causation” in physical systems and his consequent rejection of physicalistic reductionism even where non-mental phenomena are concerned. And there is his affirmation of the existence of objective “propensities” in nature, which (possibly) hints at something like the Aristotelian notion of potencies. (Though these last two themes take us beyond the World 3 thesis itself.)

On the other hand, there are some decidedly un-Aristotelian themes in Popper as well. There is, for instance, his denial of substance in favor of a “process” conception of the material world; and there is his rejection of essentialism, which he seems to assume is inherently Platonistic and committed to an a priori or “armchair” methodology. (This is a serious misunderstanding, and a very common one, which we Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) types find it rather tiresome constantly to have to rebut. See Oderberg’s Real Essentialism for the most thorough rebuttal, and pp. 30-38 for a reply to Popper specifically.)

All the same, any Aristotelian must admire the non-ideological character of Popper’s approach to the mind-body problem. Unlike so many contemporary philosophers of mind, he does not fatuously pretend that a presumption in favor of materialism has somehow been established by modern science, or that dualism rests on “intuitions” or the like. He does not present the problem situation as if it were a matter of determining whether we ought to wedge the evidence of our ordinary experience into the Procrustean bed of naturalism or instead to lop it off entirely – as if these were the only alternatives worth taking seriously. Nor does he have any theological ax to grind; he deliberately avoids getting into the question of the soul’s immortality (and even expresses the view that he would prefer not to be immortal). He merely observes that reality clearly comprises at least the three sorts of thing in question and that any serious solution to the mind-body problem will simply have to accommodate this plain fact. As The Self and Its Brain shows, Popper is also much better informed about the actual history of the mind-body problem than contemporary naturalists tend to be. (As my series of posts on Paul Churchland indicated, many naturalists seem unfamiliar with anything other than the crudest caricatures of what non-naturalist philosophers of mind have actually said.)

In short, at least where the mind-body problem is concerned, Popper does not attack straw men and he respects Butler’s famous dictum that “Everything is what it is, and not another thing.” (I put to one side for present purposes Popper’s views in political philosophy and philosophy of science, contexts in which he is more open to criticism on these grounds.) He thereby stands acquitted of a charge John Searle raised in The Rediscovery of the Mind against his fellow contemporary philosophers of mind:

[W]e let our research methods dictate the subject matter, rather than the converse. Like the drunk who loses his car keys in the dark bushes but looks for them under the streetlight, "because the light is better here,” we try to find out how humans might resemble our computational models rather than trying to figure out how the conscious human mind actually works…

[W]e ought to stop saying things that are obviously false. The serious acceptance of this maxim might revolutionize the study of the mind. (p. 247)

Like Searle, Popper is in my estimation better as a critic than as a positive theorist. (I discussed an important anti-materialist argument of his in an earlier post.) Still, from an A-T point of view even his positive theorizing is closer to the mark than that of most other contemporary dualists.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Blogging note

In case anyone is wondering, the recent paucity of blog posts (or at least of substantial ones) owes to the fact that I have been on jury duty for nearly two weeks. On top of that, my wife is away for a week with two of the kids while I am watching the other three (or rather, scrambling to get others to watch them while I am at the courthouse). So, little time for blogging, much less getting any work done. Things should be back to normal by next week.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Pick-up lines from the philosophers


“Can I buy you a drink of water?”


[singing] “Don’t go changing, to try and please me. I love you just the way you are.”


[Says nothing. Waves his finger flirtatiously.]


“Are those real?”


“I couldn’t help noticing that you participate in the Form of the Hot.”


“You bring out the social animal in me.”


“Pinch me, honey, ‘cause I think I must be dreaming.”


“I can’t get you out of my mind.”


“Wow, great phenomena. What are the noumena like?”


“I’m willing. How about you?”


“Why settle for the last man when you can have the superman?”


“So, what is it like to be a babe?”


“What’s a nice girl like you doing in a possible world like this?”


“I don’t believe we’ve met.”


“Potency and act divide being in such a way that whatever is, is either a pure act, or else coalesces necessarily from potency and act as from its first and intrinsic principles. I say more about this in my books Aquinas and The Last Superstition.”

Thursday, July 15, 2010

James F. Ross (1931 – 2010)

I regret to inform my readers that philosopher James F. Ross has died. Here is the announcement from the University of Pennsylvania website, and here is an obituary posted by the Philadelphia Inquirer. Ross was one of the most important thinkers within the group of contemporary analytic philosophers who advocate a revival of Aristotelian, Thomistic, and Scholastic ideas and arguments. He was the author of several books: most recently, of Thought and World: The Hidden Necessities, and also of Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, Philosophical Theology, and Portraying Analogy (some of which can be read here via Google books). He also published many important articles, including “Immaterial Aspects of Thought,” “The Fate of the Analysts: Aristotle’s Revenge,” and “The Crash of Modal Metaphysics.” Here is his brief article on “Analogy” from The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought. And here is Ross’s webpage, with links to some other work of his available online. RIP.

Monday, July 12, 2010

On “intuitions”

As my recent post on Jackson’s knowledge argument indicated, contemporary philosophers are often going on about “intuitions.” Sometimes (as with Jackson) the point is to suggest that some argument one wants to rebut rests on nothing more than a disputable intuition. But intuitions are also often appealed to in a positive fashion, as a way to support some claim or other in metaphysics or ethics. Hence we have John Rawls’s well-known appeal to what our “considered intuitions” about justice have to tell us. Hence we have Daniel Dennett’s method in philosophy of mind of appealing to what he calls “intuition pumps” – thought experiments designed to draw out and fortify certain intuitions in defense of a certain line of argument. (By the way, “intuition pumps” are not only the latest thing in philosophical methodology. It seems they are also the latest thing in women’s footwear. Who knew?)

Now, the term “intuition” has a respectable traditional use in philosophy, to connote the mind’s direct grasp of abstract objects or fundamental a priori truths. But that is not the sort of thing that those who appeal to “intuition pumps” or “considered intuitions” in ethics have in mind. As Alan Lacey notes in an entry on intuition in the Ted Honderich edited volume The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, “recently… the term ‘intuition’ has been used for pre-philosophical thoughts or feelings, e.g. on morality, which emerge in thought experiments and are then used philosophically.”

This is most regrettable. It gives the impression that ethics and metaphysics are ultimately subjective, which is – certainly from an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) point of view (which is my point of view) – not at all the case. That is not to say that intuitions in the sense in question have no place at all in philosophy, but their role should be at most heuristic, a pointer to something objective, which alone can serve as a legitimate premise in a philosophical argument and after the discovery of which the “intuitions” can be put to one side.

“But as an A-T philosopher, don’t you think metaphysics and ethics should be in harmony with common sense?” Yes I do, but that does not mean that saying “It just seems commonsensical to me” is how an A-T philosopher thinks metaphysical or ethical claims should be defended. That gets the significance of common sense and intuition all wrong. The A-T philosopher doesn’t say “Such-and-such metaphysical and ethical claims seem intuitive and commonsensical; therefore they must be correct.” Rather, he says: “Such-and-such metaphysical and ethical claims are correct, and can be shown to be so on entirely objective rational grounds; and it is because they are correct that nature has made us in such a way that we tend to regard them as intuitive and commonsensical.”

So, in metaphysics, common sense regards skepticism about the external world as absurd, and the A-T philosopher agrees with common sense. But it is not that its commonsense status shows that realism about the external world is true; rather, the fact that realism about the external world is true is what accounts for its commonsense status. In ethics, common sense regards the direct, intentional killing of an innocent human being as gravely immoral, and the A-T philosopher agrees with common sense. But it is not that its commonsense status shows that such killing is immoral; rather, the fact that it is gravely immoral accounts for our intuitive sense that it is. And so forth. Nature has formed our feelings and intuitions so that they provide us with a rough and ready practical guide to what is true and good. But their intuitive status is a consequence of their being true and good, not the ground of their being true and good.

Moreover, feelings and intuitions are indeed at best only a rough guide, and a very general one. They do not give us much guidance vis-à-vis complex moral situations or difficult metaphysical questions, and they are not infallible even in simple cases. Even the feelings and intuitions nature has put into us are subject to distortion, through habituated vice, social conditioning, and perhaps even genetically influenced psychological deformity. And some feelings and intuitions that seem natural to us are in fact culturally relative. An obvious example would be the way in which foods which are considered by people of some cultures to be unbelievably disgusting and thus “obviously” not meant to be eaten, seem unremarkable or even delightful to people of other cultures.

In the moral sphere, people’s feelings and intuitions about various specific life and death issues – vigilantism, torture in “time bomb” scenarios, “mercy killing,” and so forth – can vary considerably. That is irrelevant from an A-T point of view, since natural law theory – the approach to ethics favored by A-T philosophers -- doesn’t appeal to “intuitions” to settle such questions. We can also all think of a number of sexual practices that at least many people find disgusting, but only some of which are contrary to the natural law. Others, though they may not be to some people’s taste, are (within marriage, anyway) of themselves morally unobjectionable. (I won’t elaborate, and I doubt that I need to.) Contrary to a standard caricature, natural law theory does not regard (some or even most) people’s sense of what is “icky” or “nasty” to be an infallible guide to sexual morality, any more than it is an infallible guide to what sorts of foods we should eat. What is good for us is defined by the ends which nature has set for our various capacities. Our feelings and intuitions can facilitate the realization of those ends but they do not define the ends. Rather, the ends determine the reliability of the feelings and intuitions.

So, to put “intuitions” at the foundations of philosophical inquiry is to put the cart before the horse. Or, to switch metaphors, no serious philosopher – certainly no A-T philosopher – should be caught dead wearing intuition pumps.

Friday, July 9, 2010

When Frank jilted Mary

We had reason recently to allude to Frank Jackson’s famous “knowledge argument” against physicalism. You’ll recall that the argument goes like this: Physicalism claims that if you know all the physical facts that there are to know about people, then you know all the facts there are to know about them, period; for human beings are (says the physicalist) entirely physical. But now consider Mary, a master neuroscientist of the future. Mary has lived her entire life in a black and white room, and has never had any experiences of colors. Still, having studied all the relevant neuroscientific literature, she knows everything there is to know about the physics and physiology of color perception. Hence she knows, for example, everything there is to know about what goes on in someone’s brain when he sees a red object, everything there is to know about the surface reflectance properties of red objects, and so forth. Now imagine that she leaves her black and white room and sees a red object herself for the first time. Does she learn something new? Surely she does – she learns what it’s like to see red. But then, physicalism is false. For though Mary knew all the physical facts about human perceptual experience before she left the room, she didn’t know all the facts, since she learned something when she left the room. Hence there are facts about human nature, and in particular facts about conscious experience, that escape the physicalist story – namely facts about “qualia,” the subjective features of a conscious experience in virtue of which there is “something it is like” to have that experience.

Jackson first presented this argument is his 1982 paper “Epiphenomenal Qualia,” and repeated it in 1986 in “What Mary Didn’t Know.” (There were several precursors to the argument, such as Thomas Nagel’s “What is it like to be a bat?”, and similar but independently developed ideas, such as Howard Robinson’s deaf scientist example in his 1982 book Matter and Sense.) The argument has generated an enormous literature. Some of it is collected in the Ludlow, Nagasawa, and Stoljar edited volume There’s Something About Mary: Essays on Phenomenal Consciousness and Frank Jackson’s Knowledge Argument. You will find there also some later essays by Jackson in which he expresses second thoughts about the argument; for by the late 1990s he had recanted and embraced physicalism.

Why? For no good reason, in my view; nor in the view of Jackson’s fellow “knowledge argument” proponent Howard Robinson, whose (characteristically excellent) essay “Why Frank Should Not Have Jilted Mary” offers a penetrating critique of Jackson’s current views. (You can read part of Robinson’s article here, though the anthology in which it appeared – Edmond Wright’s The Case for Qualia – is well worth the purchase price.)

As Stoljar and Nagasawa note in their introduction to There’s Something About Mary, “the argument, [the later Jackson] said, contained no obvious fallacy, and yet its conclusion – that physicalism is false – must be mistaken” (p. 23). Again, why? We might distinguish two components of Jackson’s current position. First, there is Jackson’s justification for claiming that something or other must be wrong with the knowledge argument, even if it seems to be perfectly cogent; and second, there is his strategy for explaining away the apparent cogency of the argument by suggesting where a fallacy is most likely to be found in it. The second component involves appeal to a “representationalist” theory of consciousness, and interested readers will find in Robinson’s essay a useful discussion of the problems with Jackson’s application of this theory. (For my money the main problems are two: First, representationalism is, at the end of the day, merely a riff on functionalism, and thus cannot serve to rebut the knowledge argument any more than – by Jackson’s own lights pre-recantation – older versions of functionalism could. Second, the key notion of “representation” itself cannot be accounted for in physicalist terms, so that even a successful representationalist analysis of consciousness could not vindicate physicalism.)

But it is the first component of Jackson’s current position – and some remarks of Robinson’s that are relevant to it – that I want to focus on here. In his 2002 essay “Mind and Illusion” (available in the Ludlow, Nagasawa, and Stoljar volume), Jackson tells us that:

Much of the contemporary debate in the philosophy of mind is concerned with the clash between certain strongly held intuitions and what science tells us about the mind and its relation to the world. What science tells us about the mind points strongly towards some version or other of physicalism. The intuitions, in one way or another, suggest that there is something seriously incomplete about any purely physical story about the mind.

For our purposes, we can be vague about the detail and think broadly of physicalism as the view that the mind is a purely physical part of a purely physical world. Exactly how to delineate the physical will not be crucial: anything of a kind that plays a central role in physics, chemistry, biology, neuroscience, and the like, along with the a priori associated functional and relational properties, count, as far as we are concerned.

Most contemporary philosophers, when given a choice between going with science and going with intuitions, go with science. Although I once dissented from the majority, I have capitulated and now see the interesting issue as being where the arguments from the intuitions against physicalism – the arguments that seem so compelling – go wrong. (p. 421)

This is a remarkable passage – remarkable for the breathtaking rhetorical sleight of hand it embodies. I do not mean to imply that Jackson is being insincere or intentionally manipulative of his readers; I am sure he is not. But – with all due respect to a philosopher whose work I have long admired, and still admire – that is only because he has evidently now “drunk the Kool-Aid” of physicalism so deeply that he is perhaps incapable of seeing how thoroughly tendentious and question-begging is his characterization of the philosophical situation.

Consider the way Jackson frames the issue here – as a debate between “science” and “intuition.” If that really were what the debate is about, how could any rational person fail to understand why Jackson has come to endorse physicalism? Indeed, how, in that case, could any rational person fail to join him in that endorsement? But in fact that is not what the debate is about; certainly Jackson has given us no reason to think it is. Jackson’s younger self certainly didn’t appeal to “intuition.” There is no such appeal in the formulation of the knowledge argument I presented above, and there is no such appeal in Jackson’s presentation in the two articles in which he first put forward the argument. Indeed, in “Epiphenomenal Qualia,” Jackson explicitly says that it is “unfair” to suggest that a qualia-based objection to physicalism must rest on an unargued intuition, explicitly distances himself from the “modal argument” against physicalism precisely because he takes it to rest on a disputable intuition, and explicitly favors the knowledge argument precisely because he there takes it to embody something more firm than an appeal to disputable intuitions!

Consider too that both sides can play the game Jackson is playing in the passage under consideration. The anti-physicalist could say:

We know from the very nature of “the physical” as that tends to be understood in contemporary philosophy that there can in principle be no physicalistic explanation of conscious experience. Arguments like the knowledge argument illustrate this point. And yet many contemporary philosophers have a strongly held intuition that a scientific view of the world requires a commitment to physicalism. Still, other contemporary philosophers, when given a choice between going with solid philosophical arguments and going with disputable intuitions, go with the solid philosophical arguments. Accordingly, they reject physicalism as a misinterpretation of science.

Is this as plausible as Jackson’s way of framing the issue? I maintain that it is far more plausible. And this brings us to the other problem with the passage from Jackson under consideration. Jackson casually assures us that “what science tells us about the mind points strongly towards some version or other of physicalism.” Physicalists say this all the time, of course. But it isn’t true, and Jackson certainly gives us no reason whatsoever to think that it is true. In fact, modern science points solidly away from physicalism, and the reason has precisely to do with the very issue Jackson thinks is “not crucial,” viz. “exactly how to delineate the physical.” For as I have noted in many places – most recently in a post on Chomsky – notions like “matter” and “the physical,” though they have (as Chomsky has rightly emphasized) at best a very elusive positive content in most modern thinking on the mind-body problem, nevertheless have also a very clear negative content. As I stated in the Chomsky post:

Whatever matter turns out to be, there are certain features that modern philosophers, and scientists in their philosophical moments, tend to refuse ever to attribute to it.

For at least some of them, this would seem to include sensory qualities like color, odor, taste, sound, and the like as common sense understands them. For the mechanistic revolution Chomsky alludes to was not merely, and indeed not even essentially, committed to the idea that material causation involves literal contact. It was also and more lastingly committed to some variant or other of a “primary/secondary” quality distinction on which there is nothing in the material world that “resembles” our “ideas” of the sensory qualities mentioned (as Locke would put it). If we want to redefine the “red” of a fire engine in terms of how its surface reflects photons at certain wavelengths, we can say that the fire engine is red. But if by “red” we mean the way red “looks” to us when we perceive it, then nothing like that exists in the fire engine, which is (if we think of color in these commonsense terms) intrinsically “colorless.” And so on for sounds, tastes, and all the rest. Color, odor, taste, sound, and the like – again, as common sense understands them (rather than as redefined for purposes of physics) – are reinterpreted by mechanism as projections of the mind, existing only in consciousness. This is the origin of the “qualia problem,” and the puzzle now becomes how to relate these “qualia” or “phenomenal properties” to the intrinsically colorless, odorless, tasteless particles that make up the brain just as much as they do external material objects.

Now if one insists on denying these sensory qualities to matter, then it seems clear that we do have a clear enough conception of “body” to generate a mind-body problem. More than that, we have a conception that clearly implies that the mind (in which alone these qualities exist) cannot be something material or bodily – that, at any rate, is the lesson drawn by early modern thinkers like Cudworth and Malebranche, and by contemporary writers like Richard Swinburne, who take the “mechanistic” conception of matter itself to entail dualism.

This lesson, I submit, is precisely what Jackson’s original knowledge argument illustrates. It shows in a new way what early modern philosophers like Descartes, Cudworth, Malebranche, and Locke, and contemporary thinkers like Nagel and Swinburne, already knew and pointed out many times over the centuries – that given the (mechanistic) understanding of “the physical” that all modern philosophers (whether they be Cartesians, idealists, or materialists) tend to take for granted, a “physicalistic” explanation of consciousness is in principle impossible. It is the moderns’ very conception of matter, rather than some “disputable intuition,” that opens the way to dualism. And insofar as modern science has committed itself to this conception of matter, it follows that modern science itself points to dualism and away from physicalism. I hasten to add, though, that this commitment is not really a “scientific” commitment at all, but a purely philosophical one.

And a mistaken one too, from the point of view of Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophers like myself. This brings me to some important remarks from Robinson’s essay. Robinson says:

The dialectical situation in which the knowledge argument is usually taken to be located is the following: it is accepted that physicalism gives an adequate account of non-conscious reality, which constitutes almost 100 percent of the universe, but struggles to accommodate certain features of mental life, namely the “what it’s like” or qualia of certain conscious states. These latter constitute “the hard problem” for physicalism. The fact that they also constitute such a tiny part of the world is presented as a reason for thinking that they cannot plausibly be held to refute a unified physicalist account.

I think that this constitutes a radical misunderstanding of the dialectical situation. What the argument really brings out is that only experience of the appropriate kind can reveal the qualitative, as opposed to purely formal and structural, features of the world. The kind of thing that Mary did not know, generalized from color vision to all the other sensible qualities, is essential to any contentful conception of the world, and physicalism without it would lack any empirical content. (p. 240)

There are two themes here that I want briefly to develop. The first is the entirely illusory character of the widespread assumption that “everything else has been given a physicalistic explanation,” so that the mind cannot plausibly be regarded as immune to such explanation. In fact, the reason it seems that “everything else has been given a physicalistic explanation” is precisely the reason that the mind cannot be “explained” in the same way. For “everything else” has been “explained” in a physicalistic manner precisely by carving off the aspects of mind-independent reality that do not fit the physicalistic model and relocating them in the mind, treating them as mere projections. Again, color, odor, sound, taste, heat, cold, and the like, as common sense understands them, were “explained” only by denying that these qualities really exist in the external physical world at all in the first place. Instead, color, odor, sound, and the rest were for purposes of physics redefined in physicalistically “respectable” terms – color in terms of surface reflectance, sound in terms of compression waves, and so on. Color, sound, etc. as common sense understands them were then reinterpreted as existing only in our conscious experience of the material world, rather than in the material world itself. In short, they are not truly “explained” at all, but just swept under the rug of the mind. (As I have argued before, the problem intentionality poses for physicalism has a similar origin.)

The early moderns generally recognized that this entails a kind of dualism – that it is simply incoherent to suppose that one can get rid of the sensory qualities so reinterpreted by further relocation and redefinition, any more than one can get rid of literal dirt that one has swept under a rug by further application of the “sweep it under the rug” strategy. Contemporary writers like Thomas Nagel see this too – see that it is precisely the physicalist’s own understanding of what “reductive explanation” involves that precludes in principle a “reductive explanation” of conscious experience itself. But contemporary physicalists, forgetful of the history of their discipline, cluelessly draw precisely the opposite conclusion: “Come on, we’ve gotten rid of all the other dirt in the room by sweeping it under the rug; so why wouldn’t we be able to deal with the dirt under the rug in the same way?”

The second theme from Robinson I want to call attention to is his suggestion that “only experience of the appropriate kind can reveal the qualitative, as opposed to purely formal and structural, features of the world.” What he is getting at is this. When the natural world is denuded of the qualitative features common sense takes it to have – color, odor, taste, sound, and the like, as we experience them in everyday life – what we are left with is an entirely abstract structure, the sort of thing physics expresses in the language of mathematics. But it is simply incoherent to regard the mind-independent world as nothing but an abstract structure; there must be something which has the structure. Moreover, to deny the existence of the qualitative features themselves – as some eliminative materialists have suggested doing as a way of “solving,” by brute force, the problem qualia pose for physicalism – would in effect be to cut off the scientific redefinition of nature from any empirical support at all. We would be denying, in the name of science, the very existence of the conscious experience from which scientific inquiry proceeds (a paradox that was not lost on the ancient Greek atomist Democritus, as I noted in an earlier post).

Bertrand Russell, E. A. Burtt, and other early twentieth-century thinkers were well aware of these problems. Russell’s solution was to suggest that the sensory qualities which the moderns had redefined as mere projections of the mind have to be put back into the natural world after all. Accordingly, something like what philosophers now call “qualia” were, for Russell, the intrinsic features of the external physical world – that which “fleshes out” or makes concrete the otherwise abstract structure described by physics. Contemporary philosophers like Michael Lockwood, David Chalmers, and Galen Strawson have followed Russell’s lead, and Robinson’s position seems to bear a family resemblance to theirs. The trouble is that, given the “mental” character modern philosophers tend to attribute to the sensory qualities, this Russellian approach seems to lead to a kind of idealism or panpsychism, on which the natural world is mental through and through (though Russell and Lockwood, at least, try to resist this consequence). This is, I think, a less mad view than physicalism is, but it is mad all the same.

From an Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view, the mistake was opting for a mechanistic-cum-quantitative conception of nature in the first place, and philosophers of mind have been on the wrong track ever since Descartes, Hobbes, and Co. The value of the knowledge argument is that it shows, as Robinson puts it, that “classical physicalism is broken-backed from the start” (p. 243). But Cartesian dualism, property dualism, idealism, panpsychism, etc. are at best only less bad than physicalism. The correct remedy is a full-blown return to Aristotelian-Thomistic hylemorphism, on which alone the quantitative picture of the world presented to us by modern science can properly be understood – as an important part of the correct story about the natural world, but never the whole story.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Oderberg on ethics

Two recent pieces on ethics from David Oderberg: “The Doctrine of Double Effect,” from T. O'Connor and C. Sandis, eds., A Companion to the Philosophy of Action; and a popular lecture, “Why I am not a Consequentialist.” (Warning: PDF files)

Monday, July 5, 2010

Back from Prague

And exhausted. But Metaphysics: Aristotelian, Scholastic, Analytic was a very interesting conference, and evidence that serious old-fashioned metaphysics is very much alive. Keynote speakers were Michael Loux, Peter van Inwagen, E. J. Lowe, Edmund Runggaldier, Uwe Meixner, David Oderberg, Robert Pasnau, and myself. (Another keynote speaker, Gyula Klima, had to cancel at the last minute, but his paper was read in his absence.) There were other interesting presentations as well. (Here is a shot of me with Robert Pasnau. I am not asleep in the photo, by the way, but merely looking down at a handout! But I’ve been asleep much of today…)

Regular blogging to resume this week.