Monday, August 16, 2010

Dretske on meaning

We have had occasion to address the problem of intentionality in recent posts on Daniel Stoljar and Jerry Fodor. You will recall that the intentionality of a mental state is (as contemporary philosophers tend to understand it, anyway) its meaning or “aboutness,” its “pointing” beyond itself in the way that a word or symbol points beyond itself. For example, when I think that the cat is on the mat, my thought is about or “points to” the cat’s being on the mat in a way that is analogous to the way the sentence “The cat is on the mat” points to or is about the same state of affairs, or the way a drawing of a cat on a mat is about or points to it. The difference is that while words, pictures, and material representations in general lack any inherent intentionality or meaning of their own – they have intentionality only insofar as we impart it to them – thoughts have it intrinsically. So, if a thought is as material as a word token or a picture is (for example, if it is identical to a brain process), what explains the fact that it has intrinsic intentionality while they lack it? That, in a nutshell, is the problem intentionality poses for the materialist.

You will also recall that I have suggested that what makes this problem so difficult for the materialist is the very conception of matter that he has inherited from early modern thinkers like Galileo, Descartes, Hobbes, and Boyle, who abolished final causality or immanent teleology from their conception of the natural world. For the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition that the early moderns overthrew, a kind of “meaning” pervades the natural order from top to bottom. This is taken to be manifest not only in the usual examples – the functions of biological organs – but even in basic causal regularities. If some cause A reliably generates a certain specific effect or range of effects B – rather than C, D, or no effect at all – then in the view of the Scholastics, this can only be because A inherently “points to” or “aims at” the generation of that effect, as to a final cause. But it is not only that causes “point forward” to their effects; effects also “point backward” to their causes given the Scholastic principle that whatever is in an effect must in some way be in its cause. (I discuss and defend this principle of proportionate causality in Aquinas.)

When immanent final causality was abandoned and the rest of the Scholastic analysis of causation fell away with it, causes and effects came to seem essentially “loose and separate.” This not only opened the way to the famous Humean puzzles about causation and induction, but also made the intentionality of the mental especially difficult to assimilate to a materialist metaphysics. For if the material world, being (so it was held) devoid of any immanent final causes or teleology, is thereby devoid of any inherent “pointing to” or “aiming at,” then it is hard to see how a mental state’s “pointing to” or “aiming at” something beyond itself can be accounted for in material terms.

With this background in place, let us take a look at some of the ideas of Fred Dretske, whose work on intentionality has been particularly influential within contemporary philosophy. What is sometimes called the “crude causal theory” of meaning or intentionality holds that a material symbol will represent whatever causes “tokenings” or instances of it in a law-like way. For example, instances of the word “cat” will represent cats if they are regularly caused by the presence of cats. Like other contemporary proponents of naturalistic theories of intentionality, Dretske emphasizes that a crude causal theory is inadequate, because it cannot account for cases of misrepresentation. For instance, “cat” can represent cats even when cats do not cause tokenings of it – such as when grandma, due to poor eyesight, tells us that the cat is on the mat even though it is really the dog that is on the mat.

In order to deal with this problem, Dretske, again like other contemporary naturalists, appeals to the notion of function. Let’s consider how this goes in his article “Misrepresentation,” which originally appeared in Radu Bogdan, ed., Belief: Form, Content, and Function (and was more or less incorporated later into Dretske’s book Explaining Behavior: Reasons in a World of Causes).

Dretske begins by introducing the notion of a “natural sign,” which is a more or less reliable indicator of the presence of something insofar as it is typically caused by that something in a law-like way. Hence, expanding metal is a natural sign of a rise in temperature; a northerly-flowing river is a natural sign of a downward gradient in that direction; spots on the face are a natural sign of measles; and so forth. Natural signs can be said to have a kind of “natural meaning,” which Dretske abbreviates as meaningn: spots on the face meann that measles are present, expanding metal meansn that the temperature is rising, etc. Dretske takes the notion of meaningn to be a plausible starting point for a naturalistic account of meaning, but it can, in his view, hardly be the whole story insofar as it does not give us what we need in order to account for misrepresentation. For a natural sign cannot misrepresent anything, precisely because it represents whatever causes it. To use Dretske’s example, when the doorbell malfunctions, what its ringing meansn is not that the doorbell button has been pushed (since it hasn’t been), but rather that there is electrical current flowing in the doorbell circuit. Of course, we might interpret the ringing as meaning that the button has been pushed and thus (under the circumstances) take it to count as a misrepresentation, but in that case the “meaning” in question derives from us, and in particular from the purposes to which we put doorbells, and is not there naturally in the material processes themselves.

A theory that appealed only to meaningn would therefore be no advance on a crude causal theory. What we need to add, Dretske says, is the notion of “functional meaning” or meaningf. As indicated, we ordinarily count even the malfunctioning doorbell’s ringing as meaning that the button has been pushed because it is the function of the doorbell to tell us when someone is pushing it. In this case the function derives, again, from us, but Dretske suggests that there are also natural functions that might provide a naturalistic ground for meaningf and, in turn, for the possibility of misrepresentation. Such functions most plausibly derive from biological need. Dretske gives the example of marine bacteria possessing a sensory mechanism called magnetotaxis, by which they are able to propel themselves along the earth’s magnetic field. For example, such bacteria living in the northern hemisphere are able to propel themselves toward magnetic north. Now the function of this mechanism may be to allow the bacteria, who thrive only in oxygen-free environments, to avoid oxygen-rich surface water. We might say, then, that the meaningf of such a sensory state in one of these bacteria is that oxygen-free water is present in this direction. And this is what the state will meanf even in the case where no such water is present, because (say) we have placed a bar magnet near the bacterium and thereby disoriented it. Hence we seem to have a naturalistic conception of meaning which can account for misrepresentation.

But as Dretske himself acknowledges, even this will not quite do. One problem is that it is not obvious how it accounts for meaning where biological need is not in question, though Dretske thinks the account might be extendable in a way that does account for such cases. What he thinks is a more serious problem is what he describes as the indeterminacy of biological function. If we say that the function of the bacterium’s sensory states is to indicate where oxygen-free environments are, then it seems we have an account of misrepresentation of the sort the naturalist is seeking. But why describe the function of the sensory states this way? Why not say instead that their function is to indicate the direction of geomagnetic north, or even just to indicate the direction of magnetic north? Any of these would be a plausible candidate for the function of the sensory states in question. But if we take the last of these options, then the bacterium’s sensory state does not misrepresent the environment when we place the bar magnet near it. For it really does detect (the bar’s) magnetic north in that case.

That what the bacterium ultimately needs is oxygen-free water rather than to propel itself to magnetic north per se does not help to eliminate the indeterminacy. To borrow another example of Dretske’s, if what I need is vitamin C, it doesn’t follow that any state of my perceptual-cognitive apparatus has to meanf or represent something as containing vitamin C; representing it as a lemon or orange will suffice, since being a lemon or orange is correlated with having vitamin C.

To find a naturalistic ground for the possibility of misrepresentation, then, we need in Dretske’s view to add some further element to the story; and he proposes that this further element has to do with an organism’s having (unlike the bacterium, which is sensitive only to magnetic north as an indicator of oxygen-free environments) more than one way to detect the presence of something that it needs either to seek or to avoid. So, suppose a creature needs to avoid a certain kind of tree that is poisonous to it, and that it can identify the tree either by its leaf pattern or by the texture of its bark. When it has either an internal sensory state I1 which meansn that the leaf pattern is present, or an internal state I2 which meansn that the bark is present, the creature will go into a further state R that leads it to run away. Now R itself in this case does not meann either that the leaf pattern is present or that the bark is present, because there is no regular correlation between either one of those, specifically, and R; either one could cause R. But R does meann that the tree is present, because whether it is via the leaf pattern or via the bark that the tree causes R, it will reliably cause R. And since it is its need to avoid the tree that causes the creature to go into state R, what R functionally means, meansf, is specifically that a tree of the sort in question is present, rather than that the leaf pattern is present or that the bark is present; the indeterminacy that characterized the bacteria example has been eliminated. Moroever, R will have this meaningf even if we present the creature with a fake tree with the same leaf pattern or the same bark texture. Hence we will have, in that circumstance, a case of misrepresentation, and one that can be accounted for in naturalistic terms.

To Dretske’s credit, he acknowledges that even this supplemented account is not free of difficulty. For even if R does not meann that the leaf pattern is present, specifically, or meann that the bark is present, specifically, why could we not say that R has a disjunctive meaningn, namely that R meansn that either the leaf pattern is present or the bark is present? But if we say that, then indeterminacy enters the picture yet again: R could meanf, that is to say, functionally mean, either that a tree of such-and-such a kind is present or it could meanf that either the leaf pattern or the bark is present, and there will be, in this case as in the bacteria case, no non-arbitrary way to favor one over the other as the “true” function or meaningf of R. And if we say that the latter, disjunctive meaningf is the true one, then once again we do not really have a case of misrepresentation at all: When we present the creature with a fake tree, since at least the leaf pattern or bark texture will in that case be present, the creature’s sensory state represents things accurately. Misrepresentation has, therefore, still not been explained naturalistically.

Dretske further acknowledges that this indeterminacy problem will reappear for any even more complex system as long as we can identify for it some corresponding more complex disjunctive property the detection of which might be characterized as its function. His response to the problem is to propose one final wrinkle to the theory. Suppose now that we have a creature capable, through conditioning, of continually adding to the number of properties of the tree to which it is sensitive. Hence while at one point it is sensitive only to the leaf pattern and to the texture of the bark, it might come later to be able to detect also the tree’s visible root structure, still later its average size, and so forth. If, as in our previous example, we think of the meaningn of R in this case as some disjunctive property, then since the disjunctive property in question will change as the creature adds to the properties to which it is sensitive, the meaningn of R will also change over time. And that would entail that, if we thought of the function of R as the detection of this disjunctive property, then that function, and thus the meaningf of R, would also change over time.

Nonetheless, R will still be a reliable indicator of the tree over time, and thus meann that a tree of such-and-such a sort is present over time. Hence, if we are to regard R as having some stable meaningf or functional meaning over time, Dretske says, the only such meaning available for it to have – since the disjunctive property is not stable over time – is that a tree of such-and-such a sort is present. And since it will have that meaningf even when triggered by something other than the tree (e.g. a fake tree having the same leaf pattern, or whatever), we have a naturalistic basis for explaining misrepresentation.

What should we think of Dretske’s account? There are, I believe, several problems with it. To begin at the end, if Dretske’s final revision really shows anything at all, the most it shows is that if R has some meaningf that is stable over time, then that meaningf must have to do with the detection of the tree. But that’s a big “if.” For why not say instead that R has no stable meaningf over time? What is there in the physical facts that determines that R meansf, stably, that a tree of such-and-such a sort is present, as opposed to having an ever-changing series of disjunctive meaningsf? Dretske offers us no answer. But if what R really has is nothing more than an ever-changing series of disjunctive meaningsf, then at any particular time t R will not be misrepresenting that which triggers it. Dretske’s final account is really no less subject to indeterminacy problems than are the accounts he acknowledges to be inadequate.

Of course, that might seem counterintuitive. Surely it is at least extremely plausible to say that R has the function of getting the creature to avoid trees, and does not plausibly have the ever-shifting alternative functions in question? I agree, but the problem is that we need to know how a materialist (like Dretske) can account for this, consistent with the conception of matter we have seen he is committed to, on which there are no inherent ends or purposes in nature. For if a materialist tries to solve the problem in question by postulating such ends or purposes as a way of explaining how R can have a determinate function, then he has thereby ceased to be a materialist and returned to a more or less Aristotelian or Scholastic conception of nature.

Some of the other things Dretske says point in the same direction. Recall that he claims that what he calls “natural signs” have at least a kind of “natural meaning,” even if not the kind of meaning that might explain misrepresentation. But how can a materialist justify even that modest claim? What licenses a description of expanding metal (say) as a “sign” of a rise in temperature, or as “meaning” that the temperature is rising? True, when we observe the expansion, we can (given our background knowledge) infer that the temperature is rising. But how does that show that the expanding metal has, all by itself and apart from our knowledge of it and its properties, a semantic property like “meaning”? Did it have “meaning,” or count as a “sign,” before any human beings were around? “Meaning” to whom, in that case? A “sign” to whom? In fact there would seem to be no “meaning” or “sign” literally present at all until intelligent creatures like us come along and, discovering that a rise in temperature causes metal to expand, come to take expanded metal to “mean” or be a “sign” of a rise in temperature.

Now something like built-in meaning might plausibly be attributed to expanding metal, spots on the face, and other examples of the sort Dretske gives if we were to adopt an Aristotelian-Scholastic conception of nature, on which final causality or directedness-to-an-end is inherent to patterns of what Aristotelians call efficient causality (that is, to what moderns mean when they speak of causality). If, as I put it earlier, causes inherently “point forward” to their typical effects and effects inherently “point backward” to their causes, then Dretske’s examples might do the sort of work he needs them to do. But the whole point of the early moderns’ chucking out of Scholasticism was to get rid of this sort of immanent teleology.

Yet as I have noted many times before (e.g. in this post, and in The Last Superstition and Aquinas) this sort of move is extremely common in contemporary materialism. When proponents of “naturalistic” theories of mind help themselves to notions like “natural meaning,” “biological function,” “algorithms,” “programs,” “information,” and the like, they are either using these terms in a figurative way – in which case they cannot do the work they are intended to do – or they mean them seriously, in which case those who use them are tacitly acknowledging that the Aristotelians were right after all and that modern materialism rests on a mistake. What I like to say of the moderns in general can be said of the work of contemporary naturalists in particular: What’s new in it isn’t true, and what’s true isn’t new.


  1. It is interesting to speculate about what drives Prof. Feser to give these free lessons; for surely some people pay good money to receive these lessons, and others expect good money to give them. I understand that Prof. Feser may just be interested in the topics, which often drives this “pro bono” contributions, not unlike how programmers who love what they do give their work away for free. But Prof. Feser also could just sell books, since (after his success with the Little Yellow Book) he obviously can spin a good sale, especially with the post-TLS exposure. It begs the question then: what driveth him to give these free lessons? Class practice? (And unless you speak of him in the third person, you never quite provoke him into telling you.)

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  3. Comrade shooosh, geese and golden eggs. I've bought all of his books, except Nozick, Locke is in the mail - fair is fair. Perhaps he is operating on a divine economy.

    "Your Father in Heaven knows you need these things, rather seek ye first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness and everything else will be given unto you."

  4. My hunch is he naturally learns by writing, and by learning, he learns to teach better. And in the course of teaching, he hears new objections of gaffes which he feels he must rework or address in his own understanding by writing them out. And so on. Plus, you can't sell what you don't write, so he might as well get this stuff "down on paper" whenever he gets the chance, which makes it that much easier to submit to a journal or collate as a book. Just my hunch, since that's how I tend to blog. Only less successfully and less prolifically heheh.

  5. Oh, and I of course believe the supernatural virtue of charity makes him generous with his wisdom. ;) I think the word "apostolate" is not too far off the mark.

    Oh, and as for the content of this post... you mean the good doctor wants us to stay on topic?! I'm perusing his more recent posts in this vein (on Chomsky, Stoljar, Fodor) before commenting on this post.

  6. Does Dretske allude to Peirce at all? For Peirce, the expansion of the metal, or the smoke from a fire, is an "index" (in the order of 'secondness'), while an oscillating needle on a thermostat, or a fire hazard placard, is an "icon" of the deeper indexical reality. Dretske seems to think a high enough aggregate of secondary, stimulus-response competencies would suffice to guide functional survival, but this doesn't get us to the properly biosemiotic level of "sign" as as I think Peirce meant it. Obviously, all these terms are retroscriptive and don't reside in nature apart from semiotically capable entities, which remains Dretske's problem.

    I also wonder if Dretske engages with Searle's "connection principle" (about the need for *consciously* represented function rules) as he presented in _The Rediscovery of Mind_.

  7. Ed

    How does the A-T notions of final causality better account for misrepresentation than Dretske's?

    I understand that natural signs in nature better accords with the A-T theory but I don't see A-T having any better way of accounting for misrepresentation.

  8. "Plus, you can't sell what you don't write, so he might as well get this stuff "down on paper" whenever he gets the chance, which makes it that much easier to submit to a journal or collate as a book. Just my hunch, since that's how I tend to blog."

    Sounds right.

    I wonder if historians will look at our epoch of blogging and note its cause was shown to be a collective cultural keyboard fetish.

  9. I am beginning to wonder about this need of modern philosophers to express themselves using all kinds of sub-texted, super-texted, and starred-predicate languages. In addition to being a tacit admission that words need to be horse-whipped into meaning what the philosopher wants them to mean, it has taken on the character of an elite patois and has become a sort of hothouse fetish. The verdict of history upon this period of Western civilization is going to be singularly bizarre.

  10. Keep wondering, Matt, because I'm right there with you.

  11. Hello all,

    The answer to the Comrade’s question is, I guess, “All of the above.” Philosophical blogging serves many ends. It’s a way to work out one’s thoughts by writing them out; a way to test out ideas one intends to present in a more formal way elsewhere; a way to promote ideas one believes in (such as A-T, in my case) and to discuss, for those who are interested, how they are related to other approaches and how they apply to specific issues; a way to help those who are interested in learning more about the ideas in question; and so forth.


    Good question, though hard to give a brief answer to. The first thing to say is that finding out how error is possible is not going to involve looking for some kind of mechanism or causal process, whether of a material sort or a quasi-material sort. As I explained in my most recent post on Churchland and in my post on Stoljar, it is a fundamental misunderstanding of dualism to suppose that it is in the business of “postulating” “ectoplasm” or some other mysterious kind of quasi-material “stuff” as an alternative “explanatory hypothesis.” The whole point of dualistic arguments is to show that that scientistic-cum-materialistic model of understanding does not apply to the intellect. To argue that the intellect is immaterial is not to argue that it is “made out of” some alternative kind of “stuff”; the whole point is rather to emphasize that it isn’t “made out of any kind of “stuff” in the first place. We need to break out of that conceptual straightjacket if we are going to understand the intellect.

    The second thing to say is that we need at the same time to bring back in the whole Scholastic metaphysical apparatus the rejection of which is what led moderns into their pinched conceptual straightjacket in the first place. The four causes, active vs. passive intellect, intelligible species, the role of phantasms, the whole ball of wax. We also need to note the difference between intellect on the one hand and sensation and imagination on the other, and the unique situation our having both material and immaterial aspects of our nature puts us in. Neither animals nor angels (with a qualification in the latter case) are capable of error the way we are. Animals because they are purely material, and thus lack intellect. Only what can make a judgment in the first place can make a false judgment; and animals, though they can feel frustrated when things don’t go as they expect, don’t strictly speaking make false judgments because they don’t make judgments at all. Angels cannot err with respect to natural things, and this has to do with the different way in which the know things, given that (unlike us) they are pure intellects. (Though fallen angels can err with respect to supernatural things; it’s complicated. Aquinas talks about all this at ST I.58.5) Error for us arises because we know things by composing or dividing ideas, either of which might not be done in a way that corresponds to reality. God and angels do not know things in that manner. (See ST I.85.5-6)


    Sometimes that kind of stuff can be useful in setting out and comparing various alternative formulations of a thesis or an argument, making a chain of reasoning as explicit as possible, etc. But it is definitely overdone, functioning sometimes merely to hide obscurantism behind a false impression of “scientific” rigor and to serve as a kind of shibboleth which signals “Look at me, I’m part of the ‘serious philosophy’ club!” In other words, it is (sometimes) just the sort of thing the late Scholastics were so often accused of.

  12. Commenting on Matt Beck's comment and Edward Feser's response to it -- or, as I sometimes say, "many (most?) professional philosophers are fools." They're sophists, not lovers of wisdom.

  13. @Damien:

    I think it is problematic to ask how AT accounts for misrepresentation since "misrepresentation" presupposes a representationalist theory of mind (TOM), and AT's TOM is not representationalist. I take it that the problem you are posing is, "How can AT account for illusory perceptions and the like?" I recommend the following essay for a discussion of the matter:

    This work is also illuminating:

    I think a major divide here hinges on the role of esse intelligibile and esse intentionale in Thomistic, and broadly Scholastic, thought, versus the inherently unintelligible referentiality of natural signs for someone like Dretske. Insofar as things are formally activated matter, they have an inherent intelligibility which is activated intentionally by the intellect on the basis of abstraction from phantasms. The point is that even if we make room for misperception in AT, we still do so with a robust theory of forms and finality.

    The following essays are also helpful:



  14. By what philosophical argument do you postulate that “Animals … are purely material, and thus lack intellect. Only what can make a judgment in the first place can make a false judgment; and animals…don’t make judgments at all.”

    Ethologists study and verify animal intelligence and judgement every day. A philosopher must defend such a bombastic subjective, anti-empirical claim.

    Hume can do it:

    Hume’s Argument for Animal Thought and Reason (from IEP, Animal Minds)

    David Hume famously proclaimed that “no truth appears to be more evident, than that beast are endow’d with thought and reason as well as men”. The type of thought that Hume had in mind here was belief, which he defined as a “lively idea” or “image” caused by (or associated with) a prior sensory experience. Reason Hume defined as a mere disposition or instinct to form associations among such ideas on the basis of past experience. In the section of A Treatise of Human Nature entitled, “Of the Reason of Animals,” Hume argued by analogy that since animals behave in ways that closely resemble the behaviors of human beings that we know to be caused by associations among ideas, animals also behave as a result of forming similar associations among ideas in their minds. Given Hume’s definitions of “thought” and “reason,” he took this analogical argument to give “incontestable” proof that animals have thought and reason.

    Hume finds it necessary to offer an argument for holding a belief. You may not like it, but it is a powerful argument from analogy – an especially useful form of argument given the subjective nature of the issue. Can you argue your case, or is it a matter of faith in Catholic dogma?

  15. JT:

    Simmer down?

    Judgment is a technical term in Aristotelian and broadly Scholastic discourse. Hence, bringing up Hume is a fallacy of equivocation, since Hume didn't think humans made "judgments" in the Scholastic sense. The term has to do with copular predicate logic as the core of language ("A is B [yet A is not numerically identical to B]"). To deny the power of intellectual judgment to non-human animals is NOT a singular claim of thinkers like Dr. Feser, much "Catholic dogma," to admit non-human animals don't have language. Konrad Lorenz expressly denied non-human animals had language. Wittgenstein made mincemeat of the anthropomorphism inherent in asking, e.g., what a lion 'means' by roaring or a dog 'means' by barking. Even Dan Dennett admits this "third-order representationalism" is what distinguishes us from other animals. Daniel Gilbert (Harvard, psychology) admits as much by saying the essential difference between animals and "the human animal" is that only the latter has a coherent *conception* of the future, a conception integrally related to language. Even mainstream Buddhism acknowledges an essential divide between human and animal cognition, which is, among other things, the Dalai Lama will never be a llama.

    Judgment is just the primary act of the intellect to say that "X is y". Animal cognition (sensation and perception) by contrast makes *no semiotic, verbal distinction between the sign and the signified*. Animal cognition just says, "X" as long as the stimulus impinges on the sense organ. Show a green apple to a cat and it is appeared to green-appley. Train it to hear "apple" when it sees the apple and then to meow for the apple when it hears "apple" and you still won't have the performing a conceptual judgment. The animal does not conceptualize any *difference between the sign "apple" and the apple itself*, since the whole point of training it to 'know' "apple" is so it goes for apples, not so it can ponder "apple" as such.

    But hey, don't just take my word for it. You really ought to read John Deely, Mortimer Adler, Joseph Donceel, David Braine, Adrian Reimers, Karol Wojtyla, Charles Taylor, C. S. Peirce, Walker Percy, Jacques Maritain, inter alii, for a rigorous account of the human difference. These days it's taken for a sophisticated, humane truism that there is just a difference of degree between human and animal cognition, but as Wittgenstein was fond of saying, "Everything is what it is and not something else." Respecting differences in reality is part of the ascesis of philosophy.


  16. By

    Perhaps I should simmer. Animals-as-persons is a hot button for me, and many others, as you are aware. Any religion that makes claims about their subjective had better prove it or honestly admit to agnosticism on the matter.

    There certainly is a long list of people who share the idea that animals (especially mammals with brains and a CNS) are unconscious (neurologically impossible), unreasoning (I like Hume on this), and inferior because they do not think in words (is language necessary for thought, really?).

    I maintain that their animal view is merely a postulation that best fits with whatever dogmatic beliefs they hold. But to paraphrase Hume, “if animals generally resemble us in flesh and behavior, then we should reasonably assume our subjective experiences are likewise similar.”

    I read “Function of Phantasms” and see so much similarity with Hume’s sense empiricism that I do not understand the fuss of A-T v Hume - except for the immortality of the intellect, of course. So I think I will enjoy your link to ‘HOW THOMISTIC REALISM REFUTES RADICAL SKEPTICISM’.

  17. Reading the Thomistic/Skeptic paper with a gratuitous assumption that the A-T mantra of 'the intellect is the form of the human body (soul).'

    It's the same assumption of primacy of thought which Descartes makes and which is the purpose of the author to criticize!

    Given the ubiquity of our bodily sensations - feelings/emotions - why wouldn't a realist conclude that this is more fundamental than intellect?

    As I understand A-T 'knowing' as the intellect's act of making judgments, this is something all higher-order creatures have to do. To deny this is just crazy-making.

  18. Codge

    OMG, how could any 21st century person aware of cognitive science and neurophysiology (and its pathologies) do anything but laugh this stuff back to the middle ages - this is childish jibberish!

    And if phantasms ain't representationalist, what is?

    Dogs - the brutes - are just experiencing a whirlwind of disconnected sensations of particulars when at a new home they see a chair and jump in it to lay down (cuz they're universal, man), or bring a stick or ball to you to throw (cuz there is the universal of throwable/retrievable things).

    I am ROFLOL at this stuff! Y'all cannot be serious.

  19. “Animals … are purely material, and thus lack intellect. Only what can make a judgment in the first place can make a false judgment; and animals…don’t make judgments at all.”

    Whenever a dog comes on TV one of our dogs rushes at it and barks. Sounds like a false judgment to me.

    Given the close similarity w/ how animals with CNS take in and act on sensory data, your own epistemology of phantasms and intellect has to work in the same manner for us as them.

    I do not just appeal to Hume, but can just as easily say there is nothing in Codge's linked Thomism/Skepticism essay on perception/judgement that precludes any CNS creature.

    So, I would really like to hear the rational argument of why, say dogs cannot make intellectual judgments (reasoning for Hume) -- unless you want to say it is Catholic dogma.

  20. Ask a dog what he thinks about the debate.

  21. Codge

    Hah! Dogs are poor debaters. Honestly though, guys, I am shocked to read what A-T epistemology w/r sense perception actually says (thanks for the essays). I have so often read here of Ed's 'puzzlement' with Hume's theory. But seriously, the convoluted A-T theory I just read is out of sync with our modern understanding of cognition.

  22. JT:

    Semiosis is not intellection. Nor are phantasms themselves intellectual in nature. They are more or less what Hume meant by "impressions" and what neural representations are in current parlance. Denying representatiolism *as a theory of mind* does not mean rejecting representationalism per se. The problem with representationalism as a complete theory of mind is that it shifts cognitive focus from the objects of experience *to the ideas we have about those objects*.

    A dog barking at a dog on a TV is not making a judgment, it is evincing a response. Can the dog be taught not to bark at the TV-dog? Surely. But at no point is the dog taught to consider the conceptual difference between a "real dog" and a "fake dog." The whole semiotic series remains behavioral and representational, not intellectual and abstract.

    But these are technical points I hope you can explore from the authors I mentioned before.



    Let me share an anecdote:

    Some years ago I read a news story about an Italian mayor who outlawed curved-glass fishbowls, allowing only plane-glass aquaria and fishbowls. Why? He felt curved glass was cruel because it gave fish a distorted view of the world. If that doesn't strike you as bizarre and profoundly confused, then I suspect we can't have much more of a discussion.

    Do animals deserve to know the truth about the world? Is it wrong to lie to a dog? People deserve to know the truth and lying is wrong among humans but the notions of deceit and integrity as moral concepts have no place in the animal world. This is a key difference.


  23. Codge

    Thanks for the good post and links - I think I've read 1 and 3 sometime ago, and will do 2 shortly. (I forgot all the semiotics, but I recall it was important in explaining animal talk)

    On the fishbowl, I think it is incumbent on us to respect the subjective experience of animals. If somehow we knew it was stressful for the fish, then the guy had a valid point.

    Codge, are you saying that the brains of apes, whales, or wolves are not used to make decisions to navigate their natural homes? I am not sure they could move without some form of decision-making.

  24. "Codge, are you saying that the brains of apes, whales, or wolves are not used to make decisions to navigate their natural homes? I am not sure they could move without some form of decision-making."

    No, I am saying that navigating a semiotic Umwelt does not rise to the level of intellection. It's all dyadic semiosis, not triadic, and certainly not quadratic. Behavioral adaptation is not what intellectual judgment is about, otherwise we could be conditioned to conceive of a triangle as a four-sided ball of jealous yarn. The difference between intellection and perception is that, once we "get" what a triangle is by definition, that notion orders our perception to true or false triangles in the Umwelt. A dog could be trained to bite any red object upon hearing the word "triangle" without having any notion that the objects are circles, triangles, squares, rods and so on. It's grasp of "triangle" would be a semiotic false positive.

    The question of a fish's discomfort in a curved bowl has no bearing on giving it a false or accurate picture of the world, since "the world" is itself an abstract notion beyond sense cognition (pleasant or otherwise).


  25. A good point:

    "The rule of parsimony in scientific inference first formulated by William of Ockham and later applied to research on animal behavior by Lloyd Morgan, proscribes the positing of an unobservable entity unless positing it can be shown to be necessary in order to explain observed phenomena. This rule directs us not to posit the unobservable power of conceptual thought, either in men or in other animals, unless we are unable to explain their observed behavior in any other way. Only if the power of conceptual thought is indispensable to explaining their behavior are we logically justified in positing it as a power they possess."


  26. I was thinking more like putting a prisoner in a cell where the most offensive sme;;s and horrid sounds are continuously assaulting the senses. I have no idea if seeing a magnified human or dog face would similarly upset a guppy.

    I must claim ignorance on semiotics. Is our core value really wrapped up in what we can conceptualize, or might it be the flourishing temperament of a life of desirable experiences.

    If the subjective experience of animals is not existentially our ulti,ate concern, what then?

  27. Another key point:

    "To say that only man thinks is as ambiguous and imprecise as to say that only man makes products or that only man is social or lives in organized society. If the word thinking covers problem solving of all sorts, then other animals think, for problem solving is not a unique human performance. It is, therefore, false to say that only man thinks, or that only human behavior indicates the possession of a power to think. … [T]he most precise statement of the difference of man, to which observable behavior can be interpreted as relevant, is as follows: only man has the power of conceptual thought, in addition to the power of perceptual thought; all other species totally lack the power of conceptual thought, while possessing in varying degrees the power of perceptual thought."

    -- ibid.

  28. And on a lighter note…,17165/

  29. Priceless from ONN! Isn't science awesome!

    Thanks, Codge. Your quote from Adler is spot on with what I have been trying to say. I am anxious to read it all.

  30. Does semiotics cover Alex?


  31. Keep in mind also the phenomenon of meta-conditioning, viz., an animal is conditioned to present *a whole range of desired behaviors* not just particular behaviors. This would account for the alleged "spontaneity" of Eric's responses to random objects. After ten years of relentless drilling over the same range of desired responses, it is only natural he would toggle through the only class of responses he's been given. ("What do they want from me now? Oh, 'color' might work. … Hey, she's happy, it worked!") As such, his responses don't get into, e.g. "the poverty of the stimulus" problem as in Chomskyan linguistics. By contrast, were Eric to look at a disc and just say, "Now that is just beautiful," rather than just emit any of a range of acceptable responses, then I'd be sold. This would show the uniquely generative and autonomously intra-stimulated nature of abstract human thought.

    You should like this piece:

    3) None of this is meant to denigrate animal intelligence, much less to give grounds for animal abuse. It was Descartes' theory of mind, after all, not the classical and Scholastic theory, which portrayed animals as sensless meat machines. Indeed, native animal intelligence HAD BETTER be impressive, otherwise the Aristhomistic notion of the "animal soul" is vacuous. I would go so far as to say that, on Aristhomism, the lion's share of human intelligence is basic animal and nutritive intelligence alone ("the body knows," reflexes, body maps, proprioception, non-verbal intuition, cravings, semiotic induction, phantasms, etc.). Moreover, we all know how much smarter numerous animals are in countless other tasks. I don't understand why many people get so touchy to hear it claimed that animals just happen to lack *the peak of our intelligence* when the peaks of their own forms of cognition are already marvelous? Straining to find abstract language in animals is to me like making dogs wear tennis shoes or sunglasses so they look "cuter", when in fact they are already stunning just naked and at home in their own nature. The delightful parallels between animal and human intelligence, while admitting a mysterious but clear difference, is all of a piece with the fundametally teleological and hierarchical classical/Scholastic worldview: elements, minerals, plants, proto-animals, animals, humans, saints, angels, etc. A vast hierarchy of tightly interlocked ANALOGICAL FINALITY. If animals showed no humanoid wisdom at all––or vice versa!––, we would be bizarre ontological danglers, which is what the basic gripe with Cartesianism is.


  32. A random final thought:

    At the end of the day, if you conversed with Eric, you'd know you are talking with a parrot, and not with a human. If there weren't a distinct and meaningful distinction between these kinds of communication, there would be nothing sensational about Eric. The sensation is that, even though we know he doesn't think like a human thinks, it sure feels like it. Once you leave the room, Eric goes back to his unstimulated muteness. He doesn't generate anything creative, but of course, if he could, he would be no more sensational than a dwarf or a bearded woman is.


  33. Don't know how that happened. Obviously you should read my reply in 1), 2), 3) and "final random thought" order. heheh

  34. Codge

    I found Adler more open-minded than I had recalled from past encounters w/ his style. Good paper, and your summation was useful..

    Premack struck me as biased (kinda like many religious dogmatists), and this bias to anthropocentrism is what raises flags for me. Good link, nonetheless.

    I always enjoy your open-mindedness and your depth of understanding current fields of study. That said, how do you square the epistemology of Aquinas, who obviously over-rationalized the components and functions of the human intellect so as to make it square with tenets of the Church, with your modern understanding of cognition and neuroscience?

  35. The comments here are going berserk. I've posted the 33rd and 36th comment three times today. Gone again.

  36. I wondered where 1) and 2) were. Has this to do with any countries censoring the net?

  37. Codge

    In perhaps returning the info favor, I just found these fantastic podcasts - the most enlightening philosophy I have ever heard.

    I think Ed has probably used some of these podcasts to frame his blog posts of late.


  39. Hey, JT:

    Thanks for the link partiallyexamined looks like a decent diversion. ;)

    I am trying to be open-minded: but not so open-minded I don't close on anything (cf. Chesterton's quip about the mind and the mouth).

    A few points:

    1) I'm not in China proper so I seriously doubt my doodling is being censored. ;) Having a wireless USB connection makes for weird reinitializing problems, I guess.

    2) I think you are much too dismissive of Premack. He's an interesting case. He (and his wife, I think) originally began with a research project to raise and teach apes like human children, but over time his own empirical studies disillusioned him. I know of no religious dogmatism infecting or prompting his skepticism about animal language. He's the farthest thing from a lightweight or ideologue in ethology. Check out some reviews of his books at Amazon. In any event, C. H. Vanderwolf (if I may coach his diction a bit), in his delightful little monograph on neural behavior, makes the same point in numerous places: verifiable, genetic microphysical differences between humans and non-humans just mean we are dealing with different species, and therefore, with different essential capacities. This is, actually, all it means in a bare sense to say that "the rational soul is the form of the human": the teleology of "being a human" gives a formal account of why we see these differences. To reverse the order of explanation is mere bias. The form of the human obviously epxresses itself––genetically and behaviorally in fundamentally different ways thatn than the forms of other animals and beings.

    3) For animal semiosis to be like human semiosis, we would need to see the subjects coherently and consistently articulate that "x is a sign for X" rather than merely responding––in admittedly impressive ways!––to the fact that x is a sign for X. As Deely and Sebeok and Lorentz and Chomsky and MacKay, et alia note over and over in various places, the only 'supremacy' of human semiosis over animal semiosis is that the former enters the field of being per se, thus both allowing for 'things' to exist on their own, apart from dyadic exigencies (with respect to the agent's cognition), and for dwelling on *signs as signs*, rather than on signs as behaviorally determinant referents. It's not a slight against non-humans that they don't have the capacity to ponder signs as signs; it's just part of humbly facing the human experience. Indeed, it is often the case that entis rationis cause as much grief (in human cognition) as they provide for essential human 'superiority', so to speak. Biblically, humans are superior only in their culpability for failing to express the Word which makes them "worders". All things speak because all things are spoken: all things have a proper (scientific) 'ratio' because all things are the integrated medium of the Logos (Ratio Dei). Cf. Dionysius, St. Maxmius, St. Thomas, Poinsot, etc. *All creation* declares the glory of the Lord, albeit in *specifically analogous ways*. The Middle Ages actually had a robust sense of animal cognition insofar as various animals stood for (i.e. dynamically decemplified) numerous aspects of creation, many of which were not given to humans. Why else do you think, e.g., St. Francis called Sun and Moon and Body his Brother, Sister, and Donkey, respectively?

    4) As for my take on 'reconciling' modern cognitive studies, neuroscience, etc. with traditional metaphysics, you need to search my blog. Start with "the river in the river" and "no brainer" among others. Look also for "Ross".


  40. I did not mean to be too negative on Premack (and meant no religious connection with his opinions), I simply mean to say he is an older successful pro, and has formed strong opinions. He may be right. It seems with all animal research, the difficulty of their task seems to foster a bit of disillusionment over a lifetime. He is certainly not alone among researchers in his views on animal cognition.

    I see the using x-X as a fact being less sophisticated than understanding that it is a sign thing (triadic?).

    The more I am studying, the more clearly my thinking gets that dogs have a unique Umvelt from us as from ducks, etc. I just refuse to accept that we can degrade their subjectivity w/ non-verifiable allegations like 'therefore, they are merely material while we have the spirit of god.' I hate anthropocentrists.

    I will try to find Ross on your blog.