Sunday, May 15, 2011

Elan Mental

The claim that there is something (the quality of phenomenal experience) that cannot be explained by physical science is strictly analogous to the 19th century “vitalist” claim that the property of being alive could not be explained by physical science (the phrase “√©lan vital” was actually coined later, in 1907, by Henri Bergson in his book Creative Evolution). Consider all of the physical facts about physical states and processes in the body, the vitalist argued: singularly or together none of these facts entail that the body be alive.

This “hard problem” was never “solved.” It simply faded away as organic chemistry and physiology steadily explicated the physical mechanisms and processes occurring in various parts of cells, and in the various organs of the body. This took some time, well into the 20th century, but by the 1940s, anyway, it was no longer credible to claim that “life” was something that might not be present when these mechanisms and processes of organic chemistry were present, or might be present in their absence. “Life” will always be an ambiguous concept to some extent (there is ongoing debate as to whether viruses are living, for example), because it is an emergent property, but its physical nature is no longer seriously challenged. The concept of “consciousness” is now undergoing the same evolutionary process – not a similar process, the very same process.

This analogy has been prominently rehearsed by Patricia Churchland and by John Searle, among others. I will consider Searle’s version a little more closely by way of setting up the last chapter, where I will discuss the relationship between intentionality and consciousness. Searle makes an analogy between the solidity of a table and the consciousness of a brain: the table’s solidity is a macro-property that emerges from the micro-properties of the wood molecules (which are lattice-like). Consciousness, he suggests, is a macro-property that emerges from the micro-properties of neurons (although he doesn’t claim to know which micro-properties or why).

There are two problems with Searle’s analogy. First, in the case of the wood molecule and the table, they share the same property in the first place: the lattice-like structure of the wood molecule, like a folded piece of paper, just is solid (can bear weight by virtue of its structure). So solidity is not an “emergent macro-property,” solidity is already a property of the “micro” ingredients. If the question is “How can physical objects support weight?” then appeal to the weight-bearing nature of the wood molecule only pushes this question back a step. This problem with the analogy is irremediable: if the argument is that brains are conscious because neurons are conscious we have once again committed the hard-to-avoid error of including something mental in our purported recipe for the mental. If not, then the analogy does not go through: the wood molecules and the table share a property in common, so we do not have an actual example of a macro-property emerging from a micro-property (that is not to say that we couldn’t find such an example, only that this one isn’t it).

The second problem is more serious and to the point of the present discussion. Psychological predicates, as I argued at length in Chapter Two, are not predicated of brains or nervous systems but of whole persons. This goes for consciousness every bit as much as it does for intentionality. Brains no more feel or sense things than they think about or imagine things. Persons think and feel. Asserting this does not exclude me from the club of materialists in any way.

The crucial difference between intentionality and consciousness is that while intentional states are supervenient and therefore unexplainable through reductive materialism, phenomenal states are not supervenient and so a legitimate answer to the question “Why does it feel like that?” is “Because it is that specific physical body interacting with that specific physical feature of the environment (chocolate molecule, blue-reflecting surface, soft pillow etc)” – strict reductive materialism. We can say this, I think, even if we accept the argument that the question “Why does it feel like that?” is itself in a sense illegitimate since there is no way to fill in the sense of “that,” as Hume, Wittgenstein and the Buddhists argue. The basic insight is that having these conscious experiences is indistinguishable from having this physical body in this physical world.

There is only one sense in which we can coherently say that our own phenomenal experiences are in any way similar to those of other conscious beings, such that we can grasp a link between intentionality (universal among all intelligent beings) and consciousness (unique to each conscious being). In this book I have emphasized the distinction between intentionality and consciousness. The last chapter will explore the connection between them.


  1. Christopher Faille writes:

    Let me see if I understand you. I’ll take a broad view here of your posts going back many months, to when I first started following this blog.

    You believe that there is only one defensible form of dualism: the one that distinguishes between matter and form. It is possible (on roughly Platonic grounds) that the existence of a stuff and the existence of mathematical laws, formal regularities, exhibited by this stuff, are two quite distinct irreducibles.

    So let us use the term (mine, not yours) “shaped stuff” for the type of matter we actually find. Once we’ve acknowledged the duality within shaped stuff, we have done everything we need to do for dualism. Everything else, including all human facts about personality, intentionality, etc, can be explained as facts about shaped stuff, specifically the shaped things we call our bodies and their behavior, without creating or tolerating further schisms in the world or our view thereof.

    How do we get to this result? For the most part, you get to it by considering an array of arguments that dualists of various sorts employ. All of these arguments make counter-factual or at least highly hypothetical assumptions: about color inversion, zombies, or science fictional mind transference. Your basic recurring move is to say that the arguments, in establishing these premises, presume their dualistic conclusions. They put the rabbit (something not reducible to the body and its behaviors) into the hat off stage, then they showily produce the rabbit on stage, like a bad magician.

    You point out that the arguments beg the question. Thus you believe your own anti-dualistic conclusions (aside from that initial dualism) established: or at least rendered plausible.

    My own view in mind/body issues is somewhat different. I’m not a full-fledged dualist, but I do believe there is a mystery here you haven’t reached, and my views on that mystery are mostly formed by Roger Penrose, John Searle [speaking of counter-factuals, have you mentioned the Chinese room and the argument over strong AI?] and behind them both, William James.

    But my objection to your reasoning is in essence this: the case that there is more to human personality than you have made room for is not dependent on the question-begging sorts of chalkboard-bound arguments you have allowed at all, but arises from real-world experiences.

    Such as this:

    That particular blog post of mine pursued a point discussed in your blog under the rubric of continuity. Continuity of identity is an iffy thing, and the notion that I am the same person as a was ten years ago is useful in some respects, misleading in others. Certainly if we do suppose a continuity, it is not the same for the ‘self’ whatever-that-means as it is for the body, as instances of fugue indicate.

  2. Hi, Mitchell Monaghan here,

    Yes, I agree that people can be described as generally what the universe is---since people are part of the universe.

    An explanation can be produced for everything and anything. One could even create an explanation to account for why there should be such a thing as and explanation or why the universe or why even existence itself.
    But folk differ as to what a valid explanation is.
    But surely, you are not claiming that explanation determines the nature of things. Rather, does not the nature of things produce the explanation? Are not words and thought part of a wider thing, a wider existence?
    Surely you recognize that there is something prior to explanation, prior to thought; that there is something whether it is explained or not and whether you speak or not.
    You don't need to explain the taste of a peach to taste it. You don't need to explain that something is, existence is, in order to be that or in that.
    What caused the universe? I may say that the universe was caused by
    existence generally, as was your body and thought.
    And what caused existence? If existence is considered a concept and concepts are mind--then mind causes existence.
    And what causes mind? Well, if we get reductive about it, the brain.
    And what caused the brain? The universe.
    And what caused the universe? existence taken as a generality.
    And what caused existence?......
    .....and so on.
    Yet in all this "explanation" is there not a something else beyond explanations? Something that needs no explanation, that is prior to explanation?
    I think no word or concept is needed for it and that if you and I had never thought in terms of explanation or description or definition or the universe or anything--still something is.
    Does that need anything at all, need an explanation or a formulation?
    Seems entirely obviously unmistakably patent---so obvious that it is ignored, like a fish who says, "what water?, I don't see any water".
    One may say that explanations are important in the realm of human life or even in the life of the universe, but if the universe end what significance is an explanation?
    And is there not silence there behind all thought? Is not the end of thought, the fall to silence of each thought, present even now? Are we not as much of silence as of thought? Is this not our daily experience?
    Do we then, not see ourselves beyond thought every moment?

  3. 'if the argument is that brains are conscious because neurons are conscious we have once again committed the hard-to-avoid error of including something mental in our purported recipe for the mental.'

    What if the most important type of neurons for our purposes are 'mirror neurons'? What if, what drives stuff mirror neurons do is a sort of Girardian mimesis? What if the only Evolutionary model giving rise to, and thus in a sense 'explaining'- the sort of activity we call philosophy of Mind, incorporates mirror neurons so that instead of embodied cognition you have cloud sourced cognition? Why would phenomenal states not be multiply realizable if that's the solution which is Evolutionarily stable? Girardian mimesis is about wanting to be the guy with phenomenal state 'x'- I don't just want to sleep with Odette but be Swann sleeping with Odette. If Intentional States always refer back to a sort of Evolutionary drive towards Girardian mimesis of Phenomenal states then they aren't multiply realizable because information is lost about hysteresis effects arising from phenomenal state mimesis is being thrown out along the way . But if information is thrown away by a system, it wont show law-like behavior or conserved properties.It's not a good system to be looking at.