On the podcast Mind Chat, philosophers Philip Goff and Keith Frankish discuss the philosophical problem of consciousness with Noam Chomsky. Goff is a proponent of panpsychism and Frankish of illusionism, where Goff characterizes these, respectively, as the view that consciousness is everywhere and the view that consciousness is nowhere. (This might be a bit of an overstatement in the case of Frankish’s position, given what he says during the podcast.) Chomsky’s own position is not easy to capture in a simple label, but I think that it can, to a first approximation, be described as a kind of modest naturalism. The discussion is very interesting, and what follows is a summary with some comments of my own.
Many readers will recall that I had a recent exchange with Goff myself ( The issues and arguments that arose there are highly relevant to the discussion with Chomsky and my comments on it below., , and ).
Where the study of consciousness is concerned, recent philosophy of mind has followed David Chalmers in distinguishing between “easy problems” and the “hard problem.” Identifying the neural correlates of various kinds of conscious awareness would be examples of an easy problem. By characterizing such a problem as “easy,” Chalmers doesn’t mean that it is trivial, or even easy in every respect. He just means that it is the sort of problem the solution to which seems clearly attainable using existing methods and standard scientific and philosophical assumptions. The “hard problem” is explaining why any of the neural processes in question are associated with conscious awareness, given that it seems at least prima facie possible that they could do what neuroscience describes them as doing in the complete absence of consciousness. (This is alleged to be shown by arguments like Chalmers’ “zombie argument,” along with other influential arguments like Frank Jackson’s “knowledge argument” and Thomas Nagel’s argument in his famous article “What is it Like to Be a Bat?”)
Chomsky is well-known for arguing that there are some things we may never be able to explain because evolution has molded our minds in such a way that they fall outside the range of our cognitive powers. This view has come to be known as “mysterianism,” and some philosophers, such as Colin McGinn, have applied it to the hard problem of consciousness, arguing that solving it is probably beyond our cognitive capacities.
Interestingly, Chomsky himself does not take that view. Indeed, in his exchange with Goff and Frankish, he suggests that the so-called hard problem is really a pseudo-problem. He points out that the fact that we can form an interrogative sentence does not by itself entail that it expresses a genuine question. With some interrogatives, there may be no possible way to answer them, and in that case, he says, we’re not dealing with a genuine question.
To illustrate this general point, he offers as an example the interrogative sentence “Why do things happen?” There is, he says, no possible answer to this, and so it is not a genuine question. Now, I don’t think this is actually a good example, because it seems to me that there is a plausible interpretation of this interrogative sentence on which it amounts to a real question susceptible of an answer. For example, it might be interpreted as asking why the world is such that change occurs in it, rather than being static in the way Parmenides and Zeno took it to be. And an answer would be Aristotle’s view that substances have potentialities as well as actualities, and that change occurs because these potentials are sometimes actualized.
Perhaps Chomsky would take all of this too to be suspect, but it would be better to have a less tendentious example to illustrate his general point. And that’s not hard to find. We could, altering another example famously given by Chomsky, consider the interrogative sentence “Why do colorless green ideas sleep furiously?” That clearly is something to which there is no possible answer, and it suffices to support Chomsky’s point that not every interrogative corresponds to a genuine question.
Now, Chomsky proposes that though a sentence like “What was it like to see the sunset last night?” asks a genuine question, the sentence “What is it like to see a sunset?” does not. Similarly, he says, “What is it like to see this red spot?” is a real question, but “What is it like to see red?” is not. There are, he says, ways we might go about explaining what seeing last night’s sunset was like or what seeing this red spot is like. By contrast, he claims, there is no way to go about answering questions about what it is like to see a sunset full stop, or what it is like to see red full stop. Hence these are pseudo-questions.
Yet these pseudo-questions seem, to Chomsky, to be the kinds that the discussion of the so-called hard problem focuses on. He doesn’t mention Nagel, but he seems clearly to have in mind questions like “What is it like to be a bat?” and the idea that neuroscientific research and the like cannot answer it. The reason there is such difficulty answering it, Chomsky thinks, is that interrogative sentences like these don’t convey genuine questions. What are labeled “easy questions” and “hard questions” concerning consciousness pretty much correspond, in Chomsky’s view, to genuine questions and pseudo-questions.
Now, I sympathize with Chomsky’s view that the so-called hard problem of consciousness is a pseudo-problem. As I said in my exchange with Goff, I would say that the problem arises only if we follow Galileo and his early modern successors in holding that color, odor, sound, heat, cold, and other “secondary qualities” do not really exist in matter in the way common sense supposes them to, but instead exist only in the mind (as the qualia of conscious experience) and are projected by us onto external reality. If you take this position, you are stuck with a conception of matter that makes it impossible to regard consciousness as material. The solution, I would say, is simply not to go along with this assumption in the first place, but to return to the Aristotelian-Scholastic view the early moderns reacted against, and which is compatible with the commonsense view of matter. The so-called hard problem of consciousness then dissolves. As Chomsky’s remarks later in the discussion make clear, he would be sympathetic with part of this story (though not, I’m sure, with the neo-Aristotelian bit).
It doesn’t seem to me, though, that Chomsky’s specific way of making the point about pseudo-questions is likely to convince someone who doesn’t already agree that the so-called “hard problem” is a pseudo-problem. The reason is that questions like “What is it like to see a sunset?,” and “What is it like to see red?” seem to me interpretable in ways that are susceptible of an answer. For example, if you had never seen the color red, you might naturally ask precisely a question like the second one. And if someone then showed you a red object, you would surely think that your question had been answered. Or, if someone said “Well, it’s sort of like seeing dark orange, though not quite. But very different from seeing pale blue,” then you might judge this answer to be at least somewhat illuminating.
I imagine that Chomsky would respond that this misses his point, and that what he is criticizing is rather an interpretation of the interrogative sentences in question that would not be open to answering in ways like those I’ve described. That’s fair enough, but then it seems to me that the examples don’t really do the work he needs them to do. He would need to develop a more metaphysically substantive point about the problematic nature of the notion of qualia. But then this metaphysical point would be doing the work, and the simple linguistic way of making it that he resorts to at the beginning of the discussion would drop out as otiose.
Conscious and unconscious
The point about pseudo-questions, Chomsky says, is one of the sources of his reservations about the recent literature on the so-called hard problem of consciousness. It is one reason why, though he does think there are genuine mysteries that we are unable to solve, he isn’t convinced that the nature of consciousness is one of them.
Another problem he has with the recent literature, he says, is that he thinks that conscious and unconscious mental phenomena are so deeply intermingled that he doubts that we can extract the former out and still be left with a coherent picture. He gives the example of uttering a certain sentence in the course of a conversation. Obviously a person who does this is conscious, but the decision to utter the sentence is not itself conscious in the same way that, say, a runner might consciously decide to start running when he hears the starting pistol. (The example is mine, not Chomsky’s.) The runner might have the explicit thought “Time to go!” but the speaker doesn’t think “Time to utter this sentence.” He just does it.
This is indeed a very important point, and Chomsky notes that it fits in with his well-known work in linguistics, which posits unconscious mechanisms and rules that underlie linguistic competence. But in my view it is a point that has been developed in a more penetrating way by thinkers in the phenomenological tradition (such as Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty) than by the broadly functionalist or computationalist approach in analytic philosophy of mind that Chomsky’s work is closer to.
Indeed, as Hubert Dreyfus has argued (under the influence of this phenomenological tradition) it is a mistake to think of the unconscious on the model of rules (such as Chomskian rules of universal grammar). For rules always have an explicit content that must be understood before one can apply them. And to appeal to further rules in order to determine the interpretation of the first set just raises the problem again at a higher level, which threatens a vicious regress. (See e.g. the discussion of rule-following beginning at p. 174 of Dreyfus’s book What Computers Still Can’t Do.)
Moreover, Dreyfus points out, this computationalist model is an inheritance from the post-Cartesian approach to scientific explanation, according to which explaining a physical event involves identifying the laws by which it follows of necessity from antecedent events, in a manner that might be modeled by a machine. But this mechanistic model only works when we abstract out of it anything that smacks of the psychological – consciousness, intentionality, and so on. (This is precisely why Descartes had to relocate consciousness out of the material world and in a separate res cogitans, as Chomsky himself emphasizes later in the discussion with Goff and Frankish.) Hence an approach that appeals to computational rules, given its essentially mechanistic character, precisely leaves out what is distinctive of the mental, and thus cannot coherently claim to account for the mental.
Ghosts and machines
This brings us to some further important points raised by Chomsky concerning the origins of the modern mind-body problem. Gilbert Ryle famously characterized Descartes’ dualism as the theory of the “ghost in the machine.” It is often supposed that modern philosophy and science after Descartes preserved his mechanical model of matter while getting rid of the “ghost” of the Cartesian mind. But as Goff points out, Chomsky’s view is that the truth is closer to the opposite of this, and in particular that with Newton, modern thought essentially “exorcised the machine while leaving the ghost intact.”
What does Chomsky mean by this? He notes that the mechanical conception of nature that was put at the center of modern science and philosophy by Galileo and his successors conceived of matter on the model of machines. The idea was that the various phenomena studied by the sciences (solar systems, organisms, or whatever) could be understood as operating according to the same principles as mechanical artifacts (watches and the like being a favorite paradigm). This approach to explanation was adopted by all the major early modern thinkers.
But Descartes held, correctly in Chomsky’s view, that certain aspects of the human mind could not be accounted for on this mechanical model. For this reason he posited a separate principle to account for them, the res cogitans or thinking substance, and Chomsky takes this to be a perfectly ordinary sort of move to make in scientific investigation. (Not that Chomsky agrees with Descartes. He is merely objecting to those who represent Descartes’ positing of the res cogitans as if it were suspect from a scientific point of view or otherwise intellectually disreputable.)
Now, with Newton, Chomsky notes, modern physics abandoned a strictly mechanical model. What he means is that the early mechanists thought that the simple push-pull kind of causation that one sees in watches and the like could provide a model for how the physical world in general works, but Newton posited forces that did not operate in this way, and indeed the operation of which he did not explain or claim to explain at all. Gravitation seemed as “occult” as anything the medieval Aristotelians talked about. Newton’s work was nevertheless accepted because of the tremendous predictive success afforded by its mathematical representation of nature. Newtonian physics did not truly explain the phenomena with which it dealt, but carried the day because it described them so well.
In the history of physics after Newton, Chomsky says, the prevailing attitude came to be that anything was acceptable if it could be given a precise mathematical expression. The predictive success of such mathematical theories is what mattered, and the metaphysical question about explaining why things worked in the way the mathematics described receded into the background. For practical purposes, “matter” came to be treated as just whatever accepted physical theories happen to say about it. But, Chomsky notes, as early twentieth-century thinkers like Bertrand Russell and Arthur Eddington pointed out, physical theory actually tells us very little about what matter is actually like. It gives us only mathematical structure and is silent about what fleshes out that structure.
In this way, the early moderns’ clear and concrete conception of the natural world as susceptible of an exhaustive description on the model of a machine or mechanical artifact has been abandoned. In its place we have a highly abstract mathematical description of nature that tells us very little about its intrinsic nature. But at the same time, the Cartesian idea of the mind as the repository of qualities that cannot be given a mechanical or mathematical analysis remains. Hence, Chomsky concludes, what contemporary philosophy and science are left with is the “ghost” but without the “machine” – the reverse of the standard assumption, after Ryle, that modern science leaves us with the machine and has exorcised the ghost.
This is a longstanding theme in Chomsky’s work, which I’ve discussed before. As my longtime readers know, I am entirely sympathetic to it, and regard it as the key to understanding the intractability of the mind-body problem. The mechanical-cum-mathematical model of nature presupposed by modern materialism itself generates the hard problem of consciousness. Materialism thus cannot in principle solve that problem. Thinkers like Nagel have been making this point for decades, and are often wrongly thought to be carrying water for some variation on Cartesian dualism. But as Chomsky’s example shows, by no means does one have to be any kind of dualist to see the point.
Panpsychism and illusionism
Now, Russell argued that what we know best is consciousness itself, and that everything else we know, including physics, is derivative from this. He also held, again, that physics tells us about the abstract mathematical structure of matter, but not about its intrinsic nature. But if we suppose that consciousness is identical to properties of the brain, then it would follow that introspection gives us knowledge about the intrinsic nature of at least one material object, namely the brain itself. And this might give us a basis for extrapolating about the intrinsic nature of the material world in general.
Russell himself did not take this in a panpsychist direction, but later thinkers, such as Galen Strawson and Goff, have done so. Goff argues for panpsychism by way of an appeal to simplicity or parsimony. I have explained, in my exchange with Goff linked to above, why I think this argument fails.
Chomsky’s own criticism of Goff is that he thinks that panpsychism does not in fact sit well with the whole range of empirical evidence. In particular, he says that when we take account of the neural phenomena associated with conscious experience, we have reason to conclude that while human beings are conscious, tables, say (which have nothing like the complexity of our nervous systems), are not. There are also intermediate cases, such as fish, where it is not entirely clear what we should say. But what we don’t have is any basis for concluding that consciousness exists all across nature, from human beings to ordinary inanimate objects to fundamental particles. (Goff, as I noted in my exchange with him, is massively overgeneralizing from a handful of cases.)
Goff replies by saying that this objection of Chomsky’s presupposes that we know more about matter than one would otherwise expect Chomsky to think we do, given his endorsement of Russell’s and Eddington’s point about how little physics tells us. But Chomsky responds by noting that Goff overstates things when he suggests that science tells us nothing about the nature of matter. It doesn’t tell us nothing, just much less than many people suppose. And we can have evidence for thinking that some theories tell us more about it than others do. In particular, Chomsky repeats, neuroscience gives us grounds for concluding that while we are conscious, tables and the like are not.
Here too, I am completely sympathetic with Chomsky. What I would add can be found, in part, in my exchange with Goff linked to above. I would also direct the interested reader to my detailed discussion of Russell’s and Eddington’s structural realism in chapter 3 of Aristotle’s Revenge, especially at pp. 158-94. The view is susceptible of a variety of interpretations, and it is too simple to say flatly that physics tells us nothing about the nature of matter.
Chomsky also engages with Frankish’s illusionism. Frankish is skeptical of the idea that, in addition to one’s awareness of (say) the taste of the coffee he is drinking, he is aware via introspection of some inner and radically private quale of the taste of the coffee. The reality is that, in consciousness, we are aware of features of the world and of our reactions to them. We are not, over and above that, aware of some inner Cartesian realm of qualia.
Chomsky’s response is that he is partially sympathetic to this, but that he would be opposed to throwing out of the picture the psychological reactions we have to the world that people have in mind when they talk about consciousness. He thinks that the fact that these are genuine phenomena is evidenced by our ability to theorize about them. (He says that Nelson Goodman’s book The Structure of Appearance is a good example of how one can develop a substantive analysis of the way things seem to us in conscious awareness, whether or not Goodman’s account is ultimately successful.) Chomsky is also sympathetic to Russell’s view that consciousness is in fact what we know best.
Frankish replies by suggesting that the neural processes underlying introspection can distort things just as much as those underlying perception do. But as Chomsky goes on to point out, while what consciousness tells us about this or that object or event is certainly fallible, it doesn’t follow that the reality of consciousness itself is an illusion. (Here’s an analogy – mine, not Chomsky’s. Suppose I find that a certain person, Fred, is a chronic liar. This gives me good reason to doubt the things Fred tells me. But it hardly by itself gives me any reason to think that Fred himself doesn’t exist.)
It might seem that, as with Goff, Chomsky thinks that Frankish takes too far an insight that they have in common. But Frankish suggests that in fact he and Chomsky are basically in agreement apart from some terminological issues. In any case, here too I am sympathetic with Chomsky’s remarks, though I imagine that I have a more conservative view than he and Frankish do about how far science might revise our commonsense perceptual representation of the world. (The interested reader is directed to what I have to say about the primary versus secondary quality distinction at pp. 340-51 of Aristotle’s Revenge; about representationalist theories of perception at pp. 106-13; and about neuroscientific evidence vis-à-vis introspection and perception at pp. 442-56.)
Politics and economics
Goff’s and Frankish’s conversation with Chomsky ends with a brief discussion of matters of politics and economics. Chomsky says that the excesses of 1920s capitalism were corrected to some extent beginning in the 30s, leading eventually to a somewhat more humane form of capitalism by the 50s and 60s. Then, he thinks, Reagan and Thatcher turned the world back in the direction of something like the 1920s kind of capitalism. But, he suggests, something like the reforms that partially corrected that kind of capitalism might occur again.
Chomsky’s description is highly tendentious, which is not to say that I disagree with everything about it. But his discussion is too brief, and the issues too complicated, for it to be worthwhile commenting further here. I’ll simply direct the interested reader, first, to this post on my own views about the pluses and minuses of capitalism; and second, to this relatively recent post about Chomsky’s politics.
Reading Rosenberg, Part VIII [on neuroscience and the reliability of introspection]