Sunday, February 27, 2011

Qualia and Operationalism

“Phenomenology,” the study of the qualities of experience, has a long history in both Eastern and Western philosophy. In its modern European version phenomenology has two post-Enlightenment roots. First, in its claim that experience has its own structure that can (and must) be explicated in order to establish the foundations of epistemology, the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger is thoroughly Kantian (by way of 19th century German transcendental idealism), as are the subsequent “Continental” movements of structuralism, deconstructionism etc. (Merleau-Ponty, with his emphasis on the role of the whole body in defining the phenomenal field, is an exceptional character in this community, and I will have something to say about Sartre in the discussion of Buddhism below.) Second, modern phenomenology is a response to the dramatic development of modern science and particularly to the perceived threat posed to humanism by the potential triumph of empiricism and the resulting absorption of the study of human nature into physical science.

It is not hard to see, then, why the naturalist movement in philosophy of mind, primarily a movement of English-language philosophers and scientists, resisted acknowledging the troublesome significance of phenomenology through the middle of the 20th century. A partisan narrative developed where the “Continentals” were resolutely non-scientific (holding, as they mostly did, that phenomenology was wholly autonomous from physical science) and often anti-scientific while the “Analytics” studiously ignored phenomenology and developed materialist philosophy of mind as part of a larger interdisciplinary (and largely empiricist and scientific) movement that eventually came to be called cognitive science, and that for its first fifty years or so had a strong ideological commitment to operationalism, and to some extent still does. Only in the past few decades has “consciousness studies” become an active area for cognitive scientists.

This doesn’t mean that phenomenology didn’t bedevil the naturalists from the first. The first major operationalist movement, behaviorism, had many variants, a lively theoretical literature and was an impressive generator of experimental protocols, but as a popular psychology (a theory of psychology intuitively persuasive to the average person) behaviorism was never really even a candidate for widespread acceptance, and the essential (popular) problem was, without doubt, behaviorism’s manifest failure to accommodate ordinary intuitions about qualia.

The primary motivation for behaviorism was to make a science of psychology. The primary strategy was methodological: strictly hew to the methods of empirical science and ipso facto science will be the result. This operationalist ideology entailed the elimination of reference to “unobservables.” Behaviorism developed a semantic for psychological words that held that psychological predicates referred to intersubjectively observable dispositions to behave. There is more to be said for this approach than is commonly recognized nowadays; Wittgenstein, who had much to tell us about the problem of meaning, also advanced what I find to be persuasive arguments about qualia and I will return to him in what follows. However at the moment we want to see how behaviorism, popularly understood, floundered over the problem of qualia.

Consider the word “pain.” If we take the behaviorist line in its literal, popularly-understood sense the word “pain” refers to wincing, grimacing, certain vocalizations (such as “ouch!”) and so forth. One problem with this is that the set of behaviors that might be identified as pain behaviors is indefinitely large (that is, it is not apparent what parameters fix the extension of the set), and there are other problems, but the crucial problem in the current context is that most people have a strong intuition that wincing, grimacing and so forth are caused by pain, that is that the word “pain” in fact refers to the feeling of pain and furthermore that this feeling is playing a causal role in the production of the “pain behavior.”

Behaviorism’s more sophisticated descendent, functionalism, turned out to be no better able to handle the issue of conscious qualitative experience. Consider this problem for functional-role semantics, which holds that the “meaning” of a word is nothing more or less than what the speaker achieves by its utterance: imagine a person whose color spectrum is inverted. Where ordinary people see red, this person sees blue and vice versa. However, growing up in the same linguistic community, this person would use color words exactly like the rest of us. Ask the inverted-spectrum person to, say, go out to the car and get the blue bag and they will return with the correct bag just as reliably as anyone else. But, the defender of phenomenology argues, what everyone else means by “the blue bag” is the bag with that quale, which is the ordinary person’s experience of the color blue: and the “invert” does not have that experience.

Here one might respond by pointing out that we have no way of knowing if any two people experience “blue” surfaces the same way. This is Wittgenstein’s point with the analogy of the beetle in the box: it can’t be that the phenomenal word refers to an individual’s private experience. At this point the defender of qualia ups the ante. Suppose there was a person who behaved, responded and so forth in appropriate ways such that they seemed to take psychological predicates just as naturally as everyone else. Imagine further, however, that this person had no private experience: a non-conscious “zombie.” Surely, the argument goes, one couldn’t consider such a creature to be a “person”? Surely we mean by “person” a being that has some experience? Aldous Huxley in his novel Brave New World, an early critique of operationalism’s qualia problem, is making the same point: when the quality of experience comes to be considered simply insignificant for “psychology” then that discipline is no longer what most people would consider to be psychology at all.

This whole genre of thought experiments comes together as the “absent qualia” argument. The argument is that complete functional descriptions fail to capture the quality of experience just as utterly as complete physical descriptions do. One of the biggest successes in philosophy of mind in recent years has been the work of David Chalmers, who argued in The Conscious Mind that, faced with the problem of qualia, we have no choice but to concede that materialism is false and that reality includes at least two kinds of properties, physical properties and phenomenal ones.

The philosophy of mind community acknowledged the problem of consciousness in the 1970s and 80s through some seminal work by Ned Block, Frank Jackson, Saul Kripke, Thomas Nagel, John Searle and others. Prior to Chalmers the “mysterians” such as Colin McGinn had argued for a kind of epistemological (or “property”) dualism (we must concede that consciousness cannot be incorporated into physical science, but maybe we can concede this without giving up materialism). But Chalmers’ sporting brief for metaphysical dualism represents a kind of apotheosis for the problem.

I read Chalmers as writing in a Berkleyan spirit. John Locke elaborated a system of various “properties.” There were primary properties, the essential physical properties of the object; secondary properties, the causal properties of the object such that it caused the mental representation to be as it was; and tertiary properties, the properties of the representation (Locke would say “impression”). In other words a fairly messy tangle. Berkeley, whose views appear strange when presented out of context, made what was in fact a common-sense (and thoroughly empiricist) suggestion: if the mental representation (the “idea”) is the only thing that we, in actual fact, experience, and there is an intractable problem about the relationship between the idea and the “material world,” why don’t we cut the Gordian knot by simply saying that ideas are constitutive of the world, and be done with the problematic “matter” altogether? After all we can only know about the ideas. So let’s just call our ontology “idealism” and move on. Chalmers’ move is very similar: embrace mind-body dualism so that we can forget about it.

I appreciate Chalmers not only because he is audacious, but because he focuses on the metaphysics, which is where the problem and any possible solution of the problem of consciousness lie. The key strategic move in the present book is to point out that “mind” is a heterogeneous concept. Thus we have not one “mind-body problem” but (at least) two. Granting this we can apply different theories to different problems without self-contradiction. In the last chapter I advanced a version of meaning externalism as the right semantic of intentional predicates, to replace the representationalist account. The view that intentional predicates refer not to mental contents but to relationships between whole persons and their environments is essentially an operationalist view. At the same time I do not think that any kind of operationalism will do for phenomenal predicates; that is, I agree that the absent-qualia problem cannot be overcome by any operationalist strategy. The problem of consciousness needs an entirely different treatment than the problem of intentionality.

However the only sort of “dualism” that I am willing to consider seriously is the dualism of form and matter to which I appealed in the discussion of rationality (and I take that to be a major concession). The question of the form-matter distinction is an interesting question for general metaphysics (and physics), and it is at the level of general metaphysics that it will have to be resolved one way or another: it is not ultimately, I argue, a problem particular to the metaphysics of mind. So the hope for a natural semantic of psychological predicates is still alive, granting that human beings may be possessed, like everything else in nature, of formal properties that are different from physical properties. Other than that (admittedly major) caveat, it is my view that there are only physical properties. So I will now have to argue that there are no phenomenal properties. A successful argument will have to persuade the reader that the absent-qualia problem has been satisfactorily addressed.

In fact three arguments (or perhaps three versions of one argument) will now be presented, drawing from three separate canonical sources. As in the discussion of Plato in the last chapter, it is not so much my goal to explicate the canonical sources with an historian’s precision as it is to use some excellent philosophy as a springboard and inspiration. This does not mean that I am giving myself a license to anachronism or idiosyncrasy. I am simply asking the reader to consider the arguments (and the interpretations) on their merits as they pertain, if at all, to the problem of phenomenal properties. The second part of the chapter will again appeal to heterogeneity and explore the implications of recognizing that consciousness, unlike intentionality, is not a supervenient quality. When this is recognized it turns out that we can avail ourselves of a kind of materialist theory that fails when used to address intentionality

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Resolution to the Problem of Rationality

To summarize, the proposal is that the property humans (and any number of other probably-existing forms of life) have of “being rational” is a formal property, “formal properties” understood as mathematical (relational) properties that can be formalized (another way of saying they supervene on physical things). If this is correct then the metaphysical problem will be about formal properties: is materialism incompatible with the existence of formal properties?

Form/matter dualism is the only plausible version of dualism that I know of, and Plato’s arguments for the immortality of the soul from the eternal nature of form are the only plausible arguments for dualism I know. One doesn’t get as much out of it as one might think. One doesn’t even get one’s very own soul, because there’s really only one indivisible soul. Not much of an account of freedom, either: being as rational as possible is being optimally free.

What can be said is that the present argument locates the problem of form in the general area of “metaphysics,” showing that it is not in any metaphysically unique way a particular problem for “philosophy of mind.” While that may seem a fairly innocuous conclusion I think it does have some merit. The conclusion shows that predicates like “rational” and “computational” need not entail reference to representations, only to formal organization (and isn’t that Fodor’s goal?) If this is right then the Platonic resolution to the problem of rationality is not only compatible with the operationalist elimination of mental representation, it reinforces it with the observation that formal organization is ubiquitous in nature. The argument that rationality is a formal property blocks human exceptionalism, when exceptionalism is argued for from the supposed (ontological) uniqueness of rationality.

I don’t know what I think about the cosmological question about the innate organization of the universe or the lack thereof. I don’t know enough. But I have made a little progress on the dilemma seemingly posed by Plato and Wittgenstein. The key move was to see that “mind” is a heterogeneous enough concept that different psychological predicates turned out to be about very different things. The technical expression of the dilemma was that although mental representations seemed untenable, rationality understood as grasping and respecting the logical relations that obtained between the propositions seemed ineliminable. If form is accepted into our ontology then we can see how logical relations are “built in” to states of affairs themselves. What would it mean to say that a Platonist was a realist about “states of affairs” if he or she didn’t think that states of affairs had the same logical relationships with each other as those shared among propositions?

The interpretation of form/matter dualism that I have developed here holds that there is only one ontological fact aside from the fact of the physical world itself. This is Aristotelean in that there is nothing other than the physical particulars, only they are formally organized to a degree that seems contingent (I take Aristotle’s substances to be like this). This view might be incompatible with a strict interpretation of materialism (like Daniel Dennett’s prohibition of “skyhooks”). For me that would not be traumatic. There is the question of just what a sophisticated physicist or cosmologist might say about what primary being is. That is a worthwhile question but unfortunately I fear that I may already have strayed too far from the metaphysics of mind. The short answer is that you will not find a great deal of unanimity.

Meanwhile the real caper here is to try to square the operationalist account of representation offered in the first half of the chapter with this Greek-revivalist story about rationality. The idea is that the operationalist picture of language as use is one that can be developed in the context, if you will, of a world with some formal organization. In fact locating formal organization in the world looks like another way to eliminate representations, since part of their justification was that their semantic contents were needed to explain logical relations.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Wittgenstein and Aristotle?

I’m afraid that some readers will be growing impatient as they read the foregoing discussion of a kind of Platonic resolution to the problem of rationality. Hadn’t I just, in the first half of this same chapter, argued for an operational theory of intentional predicates? Not only that, but when one suggests that the non-physical property of “meaning” can be washed out of the ontology of mind and language (replaced with an externalist account of intentional predicates as describing relations between persons and environments), that would be about as nominalist as one could go, surely?

Maybe not. The Platonism that I am offering has only one element of basic ontology besides matter. Form is indivisible, not divisible; a unity, not a multiplicity. There is only one form really: only one (perhaps inexplicable) ontological fact beyond the fact of the existence of something rather than nothing. Putting the question of Plato and Aristotle’s own views of species as “fixed natural kinds” to the side in favor of a view of species informed by evolutionary biology, it can be seen that putative “forms” such as the property of “cowness” or “lyrehood” are not genuine examples of form. Some categories (types of species, types of artifacts) come-to-be and pass away.

In its Aristotelian version Platonic form-matter dualism becomes a kind of non-reductive materialism: primary being is substance, the unity of form and matter. From the doctrine of the unity of form, though, it appears that this must be a kind of “non-reductive formalism” as well, as every particular with a formal property has that property, not by virtue only of the formally-organized parts of that particular, but by virtue of the entire formal organization of the material world: all geometric shapes (for example) are tokens of the one thing.

We know that by this point Wittgenstein would be fuming, but as usual with him we might not be certain exactly why. Of course Wittgenstein would have none of this Platonic talk. “The idea that in order to get clear about the meaning of a general term one had to find the common element in all its applications has shackled philosophical investigation; for it has not only led to no result, but also made the philosopher dismiss as irrelevant the concrete cases, which alone could have helped him to understand the usage of the general term. When Socrates asks the question, ‘what is knowledge?’ he does not even regard it as a preliminary answer to enumerate cases of knowledge.” (Blue and Brown Books; italics in original). Wittgenstein’s operationalist account of functional-role semantics is an arch-nominalist position: there is human behavior, a highly-adaptive and plastic process that changes over time, whose constants are determined by the biological (probably the best choice) nature of the human body and the human “mode of life.” “Property” names (like all names) really pick out parts of language, and the criteria for the proper application of language are essentially operational. Insofar as this line is developed as a strategy to naturalize meaning I think it’s a good one.

But I have never thought that philosophy of mathematics was a particularly strong point for empiricists, and that is troubling considering that Wittgenstein devoted a considerable portion of his writings to the development of an operationalist theory of mathematics. In any event I am unpersuaded by Wittgenstein’s view that extending the known proofs of mathematics is nothing more than an elaboration of a kind of “language game,” specific to humans by virtue of our particular “form of life,” such that there was no such system of entailments until some human (for example) elaborated it. It’s counterintuitive: isn’t the fact, that we can work our way from one part of mathematics to another, evidence that mathematical reasoning is coherent? Doesn’t Wittgenstein’s ultra-nominalist view of mathematics overstate the possibility space: the different ways “mathematics” could go?

However, it may be that the two treatments of the two different parts of intentionality - an eliminativist, operationalist argument to the effect that mental representation/content is not part of the reference of intentional predicates, on the one hand, and an Aristotelean argument to the effect that rationality is nothing more nor less than a formal property and that formal properties, if they exist at all, are ubiquitous – are compatible. According to Wittgenstein there are no abstract entities, of course, but it is important to appreciate how far Wittgenstein went in his naturalization of meaning, and how central to this were his ideas about mathematics. Wittgenstein saw mathematical behavior as a “technique,” a technique for living. “Living” is the operational verb that replaces the Cartesian verb “knowing”: a case of knowing how rather than knowing that. Wittgenstein rejected the passivity of the representational theory and insisted on viewing language as a physical behavior that aimed at getting on with the business of life.

Granted that the Aristotelean world is one where every concrete particular is a union of matter and form, the “form of life,” understood as the vital activities of a being of that kind, would exhibit formal properties. In fact “behavioral ecology” develops an entire narrative, largely mathematical, about the ratio of nutrients per square meter to species population per square meter, showing the correlations between these functions and genetic transmission and so forth. The human “form of life,” if it is anything at all, is a product of the same natural history as that of the human organism; the rationality of humans, like the harmony of musical instruments, is an expression of form.

Within this form of life, that stress made no more emphatically by anyone than Wittgenstein himself, the criteria for use of psychological predicates can be understood operationally such that no mental content is implied. In fact Wittgenstein and Aristotle come together in a sense around “form of life” or what Aristotle would call the telos of an organism. They both suspected that explanations about what sort of thing a thing was and what sort of life a thing led were more informative than explanations about what sort of things a thing thought. Wittgenstein thought that the notion of mental content made no sense. I take the argument from the form-matter distinction to show that “computation” need not necessarily entail mental representations; organizational complexity equivalent to the syntactical complexity of language is found throughout nature. Finally, Wittgenstein’s functional-role semantics and Aristotle’s teleological account of biological explanation are very similarly motivated. They come together in the area where functionalism replaces reductive materialism as a response to the supervenient nature of the functional property.