A thought or two on consciousness

I’ve been studying philosophy of mind for a while, but recently I’ve been delving into psychology, cognitive science and some of the so-called hard sciences- biology, neuroscience, chemistry. A think you learn from a particular brand of philosophers is to always attempt to take into account things like intentionality, qualia and the unity of conscious experience. However, there is a sense that those first-rate problems take a back seat when you are constructing a theory of the mind (which is, to many, apparently different than a theory of consciousness). While we certainly need a theory of our psychological architecture, it seems odd to me that a theory of the mind could leave out these kinds of things. But it is easy to begin to feel them explained away and those folk-psychological intuitions begin to melt away in a sea of billions of neurons and synapses.

All this is to say, is this what happens to eliminativists and physicalists about the mind? Are they so wrapped up in the science of neural networks that when they do confront qualia they feel they are justified in ignoring the problem? If so, I don’t blame them. It’s hard not to feel the pull of these intuitions when all these powerful scientific fields converge on a single problem. The philosophy of it all begins to look like alchemy.


Alva Noë talks about why we are not our brains

The extended mind is an interesting theory of consciousness and cognition that attempts to reshape the way we look at what it means to be human. Does they mind end at our meaty borders? Can palm-pilots become external modules of the mind? I’m not so sure if there is much about the theory that is explanatorily interesting, but it is fun to think about nonetheless.

Russell on mind and matter

A stone at the top of a hill may start rolling, but it shows no pertinacity in trying to get to the bottom. Any ledge or obstacle will stop it, and it will exhibit no signs of discontent if this happens. It is not attracted by the pleasantness of the valley, as the sheep or cow might be, but propelled by the steepness of the hill at the place where it is. In all this we have characteristic differences between the behaviour of animals and the behaviour of matter as studied by physics.

B. Russell, The Analysis of Mind, p. 14.

I think Russell’s point is important to remember when doing consciousness studies: no matter what your view of ultimate or foundational reality is, there is a prima facie difference between brains that act for reasons and the brute mechanics of dumb matter. This either needs to be explained or explained away, but either way it needs to be accounted for.

The Evolutionary Explanation of Rationality

I take the following argument (word for word) from Steven Stich’s fantastic book The Fragmentation of Reason:

(1)Evolution is caused by natural selection.
(2)Natural selection will choose the best-designed (i.e., that most fitness-enhancing) system available in the gene pool.
(3)Over evolutionary time, a huge and varied set of options will be available for natural selection to choose among, and this set is very likely to include one or more that closely approximate a theoretical optimum.
(4)Systems produced by evolution can be expected to be about as well designed as it is possible to be.
(5)Our inferential system was produced by evolution.

Stephen Stich, The Fragmentation of Reason (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), 63.

For context, Stich is attempting to construct an evolutionary explanation of our belief that the human mind is rational (to whatever degree). He critiques every point, but what is most damaging to the case is that it is no way explains why the mind must be rational. There needs to be some ancillary proposition that states something like “Rationality has a monopoly on survival enhancing behavior.” I’m not positive that is a very helpful way to word it (I’m open to suggestions), but the missing premise needs to include something to the effect of survival-enhancing behavior necessitating rational beliefs. Since any missing premise built around that concept is probably wrong (and open to clear counterexample) there can be no evolutionary explanation of rationality (even if our minds evolved by the mechanisms of contemporary evolutionary theory).

Vic Reppert Presents a Teleological Argument from Minds

Is there a prima facie case for theism based on the existence of minds? Vic Reppert believes there is:

Now, how likely is it that minds should exist on the assumption that the basic causes are mental. Pretty likely, it seems to me. If theism is true, then from what we know of ourselves as rational creatures, we should expect that a rational being in charge of everything would create rational beings with whom He or She could communicate. But what if God does not exist, and the basic causes were non-mental. How there can be minds is at best difficult and at most impossible to explain. A lot of things had to happen just right in the development of the human brain in order for reason to be possible, if it is even possible at all. It looks, therefore, like the existence of creaturely minds confirms theism even if we cannot show that, for example, dualism is true. The existence of creaturely reason, therefore, confirms the mental character of the universe.

I think that this intuition- that minds are real and significantly differ from physical entities- does show that there is a case to be made for the teleological nature of the universe. Are there ways out of it? I think so. Russellian Monism may have significant difficulties, but it is not obviously plagued by the same problems as strict physicalism. Eliminative Materialism may skirt Reppert’s problem by deflating the ontological punch of the mind, but for some (ok, for most) this comes at too high a cost. One last “option” is too punt away the explanatory responsibility to forces poorly understood (Mysterians, Dennett):

“. . . the brain is an artifact, and it gets whatever intentionality its parts have from their role in the ongoing economy of the larger system of which it is a part — or, in other words, from the intentions of its creator, Mother Nature (otherwise known as the process of evolution by natural selection).”

Daniel Dennett, Kinds of Minds (New York: Basic Books, 1996), 52-53

This is your standard Dennettian non-answer, but I suspect this is what many professional philosophers have in mind when confronting what we all take to be genuine mental entities.

Flanagan on Descartes’ Modal Argument for Dualism

I’ve just started reading through Owen Flanagan’s book The Science of the Mind and he presents Descartes’ Modal Argument as follows:

1. I cannot possibly doubt that I exist as a thinking thing. (This was established as we tried to doubt our existence and found ourselves, therefore, affirming it.)
2. I can doubt, however, that I have a body, and thus that I exist as a physical thing.
3. Therefore, thinking is essential to what I am. My body is not. Furthermore, I know my mind more easily than I know my body. “From this I knew that I was a substance the whole essence or nature of which is to think, and that for its existence there is no need of any place, nor does it depend on any material thing so that this ‘me,’ that is to say, the soul by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from body, and is even more easy to know than the latter; and even if body were not, the soul would not cease to be what it is.”

Flanagan goes on to praise the intuitive merit of the argument based on the epistemological principles laid down in earlier passages of the book. He does believe it has a problem, however, and claims that it has a missing premise. I claimed as much in an earlier post, but his missing premise ends up looking much different than mine based on the alternative construction of the argument. He calls this missing premise “alpha”:

Alpha: when an entity is known for certain to have property x, but not known for certain to have property y, then x is essential to the entity and y is not.

Obviously, this assumption is false. He gives the example of a geometry student who comes to believe- with certainty- that a set of three Cartesian coordinates makes a triangle, but fails to see that the internal angles of this triangle add up to two right angles. The problem is an epistemic problem.

I see this objection as a cousin to the host of objections relating to conceivability-entails-possibility. Likewise, the best answer to this objection is fairly weak: either you simply see that it is possible to exist without your body or you don’t. I do see that it is possible (I am not simply failing to see that it is impossible). I am then warranted in my belief that I am not essentially a body.

Edited to Add: While I think Alpha is wrong as a fast and tight principle, it seems that if something fits the criteria laid out in the principle, one has reasons (and probably good reasons) for suspecting that it describes essential properties. If all we had was Descartes’ argument -AND- you were convinced that the second premise (I can doubt, however, that I have a body, and thus that I exist as a physical thing) is true then we would be epistemically in the clear for believing that we are not essentially body.

Descartes presents the replacement argument to the princess

I’ve been discussing Descartes’ version of the replacement argument with a chap here, and since I can’t find an online copy of the dialogue I’m going to type out the relevant passage from a printout. This is from a book no one will probably ever see again, but I printed off the passage from a friend who stumbled upon it.

Elizabeth: How are they connected?
Descartes: Well, it’s really to do with possibilities. If it is possible for thinking to go on apart form a body then…
E: [Interrupting] But is it possible? That’s the question.
D: All right, I’m coming to that. I did say “if”. If it is possible for thinking, and the body, to exist in separation then…
E: [Impatiently] Yes, yes, then what-does-the-thinking isn’t the body. I can quite see that. But what you’ve got to do is to get rid of the “if”. That is, you’ve got to show it to be possible for thinking to go on apart from a body.
D: Precisely, and that is where what I know and don’t know, comes in.
E: Go on.
D: Well, I know certainly that I am thinking and at the same time I can doubt that I have bodily attributes. So I can perceive the one thing, the thinking, apart from the other. And since this perception is clear and distinct it must be possible for the one thing to exist apart from the other.
E: Just a moment. You said :since this perception is clear and distinct.”
D: Yes.
E: And therefore you really are no more than a thinking thing?
D: Exactly.
E: All right. Well now, isn’t is possible that your perception is clear, but only as far as it goes? And that it doesn’t go far enough for you to know the truth? In other words, isn’t it possible that you really do have bodily properties although your knowledge of yourself doesn’t go beyond your mental properties.
D: No. You must distinguish between clearness and completeness. Certainly there may be things about me which I haven’t clearly perceived. But that doesn’t affect what I have clearly perceived. And, having clearly perceived that I am a thinking thing, I know that I can exist as such. That is, I know that what I am certain of- my intellectual faculty- is enough for me to exist with. And if it is enough for me to exist with, then I really am distinct from anything bodily.
E: So, the principle of your argument is: if I can clearly perceive something to be such-and-such while I cannot clearly perceive it to be so-and-so, then it can exist simply as such-and-such.
D: Yes.

This is a fascinating exchange that, as far as I can tell, has many components of the discussion that has cropped up around Plantinga’s version. More on that as we progress into an analysis of Plantinga’s presentation of the argument.