Friday, May 18, 2007

Dennett, Pragmatism, and Animal Mind

Today's post is some sketching for a discussion of Dennett, both his basic philosophy of mind and his position on the minds of animals.
The "meta" stuff first: Dennett's basic view (The Intentional Stance) is that intentional (belief/desire) descriptions constitute a kind of universal hermeneutic that intelligent interpreters use to explain any system (including, say, paramecia and thermostats) that the interpreter does not understand at a lower level (the "design" level or the yet-lower "machine" level). "My car doesn't want to start." These intentional descriptions can be replaced as the design (the functional organization) of the system becomes better understood. "My car needs a new starter." This is an instrumentalist theory of mind: "mind" is a useful set of concepts for dealing with complex systems that are not (yet) understood in purely materialist terms. This pragmatist position appears to have the benefit, then, of buttressing materialism: when we appreciate that the intentional stance can be usefully applied to any dynamic system (the thermostat is an important example), we should also appreciate that there is no need of any transcendent source of intelligent organization, what Dennett has called "skyhooks" (Darwin's Dangerous Idea, one of Dennett's better books by the way).
I'm not sure that this grand materialist strategy works. The pragmatist component is key here, and thus we should think about standard problems for pragmatism. Pragmatist epistemology holds that we build up a conception (by this I just mean a system of description and explanation) of the world by trial and error, in the same way that evolution builds up our physical traits by trial and error (one of Dennett's best papers; "Why the Law of Effect Won't Go Away"). Thus the particulars of our conception are strictly contingent (underdetermined by the selection process): there are undoubtedly equivalently useful, or even more useful, possible conceptions that are very different from the one we happen to have, but we just have the haphazard selection history that we do. The beliefs are fixed by utility value, not by any traditional notion of "correspondence" with the world.
The problem here is that pragmatist epistemology is question-begging: why is it that some conceptions have more utility value than others? I'd guess they do because the world is more like this conception than it is like that conception. That is, the very fact of utility reflects environmental constraints on what we can and cannot (usefully) believe. And so intentional descriptions are ubiquitous because they pick out some deep feature of the world.
I think that what intentional descriptions pick out are relationships. I have been calling these "relational properties" but I'm not now sure whether these are properties or not (John Heil has got me thinking about the metaphysics of properties). But think of any formalizable relationship (modus ponens will do I think). All sorts of sets of things can come under these relational descriptions. I think that these relational forms are the "multiply realizable" things that persuaded functionalists to reject reductive materialism. That is, I think that materialism may indeed be false, because the mathematical/logical structure of the world is an a priori fact about the world (a forbidden "skyhook").
Well that's the first line I wanted to sketch out today. The other one is about Dennett's position on animal minds. A basic argument of mine is that both behaviorists and evolutionary psychologists do not have any principled reason to make distinctions between the semantics of psychological predicates applied to humans and those same words applied to many non-human animals. Dennett is squarely in this position. If it turns out that he doesn't think that intentional descriptions of human beings can be cashed out like they can for thermostats, then his entire project is a failure: the whole point was to naturalize psychology by showing that the intentional stance was a (mere) hermeneutic. Like all instrumentalist views, his only succeeds if it applies to human beings. Dennett suggests (Kinds of Minds) that the intentional hermeneutic in fact masks deep differences between the mental lives of humans and those of other animals, but one more time: either human intentionality can be cashed out into functional and physical descriptions, or he fails to naturalize psychology. Can't have it both ways.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Buddhism and Phenomenal Properties

The mind/body problem, in its contemporary, materialist form, splits into two distinct metaphysical problems. One is the problem of "intentionality," that is discussed in many of the other posts on this blog. The other is "phenomenology." The idea is that there is a quality, a feeling, that constitutes your experience of, say, seeing a red surface, or tasting a bit of chocolate, and this quality, the "phenomenal property" of the "mental state," eludes physical descriptions and explanations of the mental (for example neurophysiological descriptions). Thus, the argument goes, reductive materialism fails (Frank Jackson, Thomas Nagel, etc.). A slightly older incarnation of this argument in western philosophy is Husserl's claim a century ago that a free-standing "phenomenology," or study of phenomenal experience, was needed in addition to empiricist study of the physical world.
I am convinced that the problem of phenomenal properties is a pseudoproblem. I don't think that there are any such things as phenomenal properties. The best contemporary statement of the sort of view that I espouse is found in Wittgenstein, first stated in the Tractatus but consistent in all of his writings (and the subject of an earlier post on this blog). Experience of the world cannot be separated from the world itself. "I am my world." Wittgenstein enlisted the word solipsism to denote this argument. Experience is the means, the framework, through which we (by definition) experience the world. We cannot experience experience. "The limits of my language are the limits of my world." Phenomenal language is our tool for describing the experienced world.
This view is well-developed in the ancient tradition of Buddhism (anybody who is interested in consciousness needs to spend time with the Buddhist literature, a vast literature of consciousness dating back more than 2,000 years). In the Indian and Tibetan lineage we can see the concept of idealism used much as Wittgenstein uses the concept of solipsism. The mind creates the world, the mind is one with the world. Mental content is on the surface, but the practice of meditation brings us to communion with consciousness itself, which is described as emptiness, or alternatively as everything (the world). I suppose that I will have to go harvesting quotations from the Mahayana and Tibetan literature to illustrate the view as it is found in that lineage (sigh. Not that this will be difficult, the view is central). Today I have some quotations from the later Zen school of Buddhism that developed in China and Japan.
This semester in my Buddhism course I went over a couple of chapters in Alan Watts' still-essential Way of Zen and was struck by a couplet from the 15th century koan anthology Zenrin Kushu: the mind is "Like a sword that cuts, but cannot cut itself; Like an eye that sees, but cannot see itself." This is identical to Wittgenstein's view. Wittgenstein even gives us a little diagram with the eye outside of the circle of perception. I love the "sword that cuts but cannot cut itself." We experience the world, we move through the world: neither the world nor experience can be considered in detachment from the other. Dogen (1200-1253), perhaps the greatest writer in the Zen tradition, is forever making the same point, using the word shinchi, usually translated as mind-ground.
"The entire world is mind-ground; the entire world is blossom-heart. Because the entire world is blossom-heart, the entire world is plum blossoms. Because the entire world is plum blossoms, the entire world is Gautama's eyeball." (Moon in a Dewdrop, pp. 117-118).
Since this whole line precludes any possibility of phenomenology, it is interesting to note that Jean-Paul Sartre's existential theory of consciousness also entails that nothing can be said about consciousness, because, according to Sartre, consciousness is the "no-thing," pure negation arising dialectically from the concrete world.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

"Double Aspect" Theories

Spinoza developed what is known as a "double aspect" theory of mind (remember that a "theory of mind" is a theory meant to explain the metaphysics of the mind/body relation). On Spinoza's view, everything comes under two descriptions, a physical description and a mental description. Behind this theory is a metaphysics that there is only one substance ("God," or "Nature"). There may be infinitely many descriptions ("modes") of things, but in our finitude we grasp only the physical and the mental. It is not clear to me whether this means that everything (the Parmenidean One) comes under the two descriptions or that every thing (you, me, the chairs we're sitting in) does. In the latter case there is a puzzle about the mental descriptions of the chairs; this is the "pantheist" interpretation of Spinoza.
One of the many promising lines of thought that are suggested by Spinoza's work is about the problem of mental causation: how could nonphysical things or properties interact causally with the physical world? On a double aspect view the strategy is to show that the mental and the physical are not in fact metaphysically distinct, and thus that there is no particular problem about causation (just, perhaps, the usual metaphysical problems with causation in general). A version of this is developed by Donald Davidson in his paper Anomolous Monism, where the physical token of the mental state plays the causal (physical) role, while the semantic content of the mental is not in a nomological (law-like) relation with the physical state.
John Heil (with profusely acknowledged debt to C.B. Martin) develops another Spinozistic line with a double aspect theory of properties. On Heil's view all properties are both dispositional (with "powers" to enter into causal relations) and qualitative (the "way things are"). Strictly speaking, Heil wants to replace the model of chains of cause-and-effect relations with a model of a "power web," where dispositions are seen as relational properties between dispositional partners. This has various advantages for metaphysics in general, such as providing for polyadic causal relations to replace the awkward discussion of "background conditions" etc., and resolving the temporal dilemmas arising from our intuitions about antecedent causes and subsequent effects. The payoff for philosophy of mind, I think (I need to ask Prof. Heil about this), is that the intentional and the phenomenal mental properties can then be seen to be one and the same properties, under different aspects. This is an exciting bit of work and I for one am going to spend more time with Prof. Heil's writings and bibliographies. However, I think that I have a view that is in some sense the opposite of Heil's. Is my view also a "double aspect" view?
On my view (if I had to acknowledge just one source, I guess I'd say Gilbert Ryle's The Concept of Mind), the story is: reductive materialism was the intuitive favorite theory of mind after the failure of behaviorism to account for phenomenal properties (and the early materialist articles by Smart and Place et al are largely concerned with afterimages and red sploches and so forth), but reductive materialism was taken to be definitively defeated by the problem of multiple realizability, and by 1975 Putnam and others were developing functionalism, which continued to have chronic problems with phenomenal properties. All "operational" theories fail to account for the "what it's like" of phenomenal experience. (This is Heil's starting point, I think, and the target of his Spinozistic strategy. The operational/intentional/dispositional aspect is one mode and the experiential/phenomenal/qualitative aspect is another mode of the same thing, that is, the same property). I say, taking the opposite path from the monists, that "mind" is a complex concept - a polite way of saying that there isn't really anything that corresponds to the traditional concept of "mind" - and that we need not one but two theories of mind. We need a story about the metaphysics of intentionality and we need a story about the metaphysics of phenomenology. I have been developing these ideas in this blog and won't add a long passage here this morning, but here's a taste: intentional properties are relational properties of persons, and phenomenal "properties" (not really properties at all) can't actually be described but can be, metaphysically speaking, explained with reductive materialism. Qualitative experience is a "property," that is, of bodies. The mistake, that became vicious during the transition from reductive materialism to functionalism, is to suppose that there is some one thing the "mind" and that therefore a theory of mind must account for the metaphysics of both intentionality and phenomenology. My working title has been A New "Double Aspect" Theory of Mind but this week I'm not sure whether that's a good title; my view is not a double aspect view in the sense that Spinoza, Davidson, and Heil develop.