Monday, April 2, 2007

Animal Mind and the NeoCartesians

I have two projects that I am developing in this blog: one is a position on the mind/body problem, offering a theory of intentionality and a theory of phenomenology. The other is a defense of a realist psychology applied to non-human animals, that is, I think that the semantics of psychological descriptions is the same for intentional descriptions of humans and of, say, dogs. The two projects don't overlap in every respect, but there are important convergences. I have been developing a metaphysical theory of intentional "properties," and it turns out that this argument can be used against the "neoCartesians." Who are they? In the last part of the previous post I mention that it looks like both behaviorists and evolutionary psychologists don't actually have any arguments to the effect that psychological descriptions mean one thing when made of humans but another, perhaps metaphorical? thing when made of non-humans such as dogs. By their own lights, it looks like they can't sustain a difference. But there is a substantial argument, I then went on to say, amongst the cognitivists, referring specifically to Chomsky and his "generative grammar" argument and to Davidson's defense of the autonomy of psychology from the semantics of propositional attitudes. These are the "neoCartesians" as, like many 17th century rationalists, they think that humans are essentially distinct from ordinary (physical, natural) beasts on account of "the faculty of reason." The way the modern cognitivist argument goes is basically that language is possible because of the formal rules of grammar that allow for the production of infinite sentences (that's some of the Chomskian part), and that language is the formal architecture that makes thought itself possible: the intentional states (beliefs, desires, etc.) are individuated by their semantic content; a non-linguistic being literally can't be said to be in such states (that's some of the Davidsonian part). My literary audience at the College English Association Chapter meeting the other day was rather alarmingly congenial to this way of seeing things by the way. (And thanks to Nick Haydock of the University of Puerto Rico for asking for some more discussion of this.)
I don't think that the argument is a good one, and I mentioned last post some quasi-empirical reasons for thinking, for example, that thought and consciousness must in fact predate language, if by that we mean spoken human language, by a considerable time. But there is a deeper argument that is metaphysical and I think that this argument helps to reveal the foundations of the problem a little bit. It looks like the claim for human uniqueness, on this Cartesian-cognitivist version, is based on the allegedly formal organization of language. Mathematical and logical relations are transcendental, universal relations, demonstrably sound unlike the accidental caprices of nature. The rational mind breaks free of physical determinism, loses its "thinghood," and becomes an intentional agent. Thus Chomsky held that generative grammar enabled humans to form forward-looking plans, thus gaining rights (becoming Kantian ends), unlike the non-verbal animals, who were merely instinct mechanisms and conditioning machines (in recent years Chomsky has conceded much on this to the consciousness studies people). The contingency of some of the grammatical structure was made much of on the grounds that it showed that language emerged somehow randomly: the early Chomsky didn't want human behavior to come under behavioristic or genetic analysis and he explicitly constructed arguments to block it.
I am going to give a very compressed version of my metaphysics of intentional mental states, explaining its relevance for the question of animal mind. I think that psychological descriptions ("She's thinking of chocolate fondue," "He's struck by the immensity of the ocean," "They have sore feet") pick out relations between persons and their environments. It is a kind of "wide-content" view, I guess, although I'm not yet sure how comfortable I am with that. One thing that is persuading me is the surely right claim that intentional states are characteristics of whole persons, not of body parts (such as brains). At a minimum I think it's right to say that intentional attributions aren't referring to any part of a person, but to the person as a whole, that is as a person. But if that's right then intentional descriptions aren't physical descriptions of persons at all. They're formal descriptions, descriptions that various different physical systems could come under: descriptions of relations. Then here's the argument as it applies to the metaphysics of the mind-body problem: so far as intentional mental states are concerned, two poins: first, if it's true that intentional states are properly understood as relational states, then maybe we don't have to include mental representation in our model of mind, and second (this is what got me on to this), if it's true that the block to psychophysical laws in the case of intentionality is due to the formality of intentional states, then the metaphysical problem is not a problem specific to the philosophy of mind. Rather it is a general problem for metaphysics. Geometrical properties (roundness, triangularity) are ubiquitous, and they cannot somehow be "analyzed physically." Roundness isn't a property specific to metal, or stone, or plastic, or what have you. Transcendental formal properties are everywhere. So we must ask ourselves, are we really materialists if we concede that the universe is formally organized? Or does true materialism require a doctrine that things evolve randomly? Either way, this maybe settles intentionality as a metaphysical problem, anyway.
And here's the argument as it applies to the minds of animals: The formal structure of language is an extension of the deeper overall formal structure of the environment. Animal minds were already endowed with some formal structure prior to the (consequent) evolution of human language. It's not that rationality is not a real feature of humans, rather that nature was already exploiting the potential of formal organization long long before. Even the apparently arbitrary
grammatical structures of language are evidence of the inevitability of formal organization, not its improbability.

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