Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Anomalous Monism is Neither. Discuss Amongst Yourselves.

Kevin Vond left a comment on the last post (discussion with Gerardo Primero) and mentioned Donald Davidson's article "Mental Events," which got me thinking this morning. I think that Davidson is, in basic metaphysical terms, the very opposite of the sort of eliminativism that I am discussing: eliminativism about symbolic content playing a causal role in the functioning of the nervous system, on a reasonably well-naturalized model of nervous system function. And I think that Davidson is guilty of the mereological fallacy.
Davidson's view in "MEs" is that he can simultaneously hold that metaphysically speaking intentional states and causes just are identical with neural states and causes (or, intentional properties supervene on neural properties), and meaning holism, the view that parts of language have meaning (are interpretable)only within a larger context of an entire language and the web of intentional states that are also being attributed to a particular person. Thus the "anomalous" part is that there can be, according to this "anomalous monism," no "psychophysical laws," nomological rules for mapping back from the neural processes to the intentional processes.
Thus brain states, according to Davidson, just are intentional states under a different description (and I see where Kevin picks up on the Spinozistic side of this). This is precisely the view that Wittgenstein opposes. Davidson locates all of the causal power in the linguistic and logical relations between propositional attitudes (beliefs, desires, etc.). These attitudes are individuated in terms of their propositional content. This is sometimes called a "sentential" model of mental representation, involving as it does sentences, understood as tokens of propositions, in the head. It's more useful to call it a formal model: formal representation and supervenience on physical processes go together. This intentional realist camp includes Descartes, Kant, Chomsky, and Fodor as well as Davidson.
I think that this may be all wrong (I think that representational models of mind may be all wrong), on the basic grounds being discussed in the last post. Note also that elsewhere Davidson ("Thought and Talk") argues that non-linguistic animals can't have intentional states, because intentional states are propositional attitudes. Thus the subsequent interest in whether animals could learn grammar. This is Chomsky's view as well, at least the early Chomsky would argue that animals could not think (he's more liberal on that now). Of course that is backwards, thought precedes talk by a very long way. Understanding sea slugs is indeed a big help.
PS Kevin and Gerardo, "Discuss Amongst Yourselves" is a reference to a popular humor show in the US, just a joke!
(Also thanks and a tip o' the hat to Brood's Philosophy Power Blogroll for the shout-out.)

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm. I do not think that I said that Davidson's position is that of Wittgenstein, in fact it is not. The two diverge quite distinctly on the notion of cause. Mental predicates cannot be viewed as causes in most interpretations of Wittgenstein, whereas in Davidson they necessarily must be, as "causal concepts". I take up this disagreement in my three (of four) part comparison of the two thinkers:

    (part III, which has links to parts I and II: )

    I think you are incorrect in supposing that Davidson is representationalist. In fact he broadly known as an anti- (or non-) representationalist thinker, one that refuses any realist or representation-based account of truth or justification. The differences between Wittgenstein and Davidson are not non-representationallist and representationalist, but on the order of mental predicate causation. Wittgenstein wants to set up an ultimate cause/reason distinction so as to leverage his "therapy", whereas Davidson wants us to understand that reasons, beliefs and fears are "causal concepts" which allow us to understand the world as objective as seen through the confirming orientation and behaviors of others (you and I have experiences and beliefs that are caused by the same events in the world, and these beliefs indeed do cause our own behaviors).

    I think that part of this problem is that modern philosophy took up a caricature of Descartes, as a representationalist thinker falling victim to among other things, the homunculus problem, when in fact if you look closely at his position, he does not consistently hold a representationalist view of knowledge at all (there are moments when he touches at it). This caricature was forwarded as modern philosophy attempted to make epistemology its primary territory of argumentive dispute. It is highly likely that this distortion of Descartes' position originated from Thomas Reid's 1764 misreading of Descartes. (See Steven Nadler, John Yolton and Behan.)

    The result is that Descartes theory of ideas is rather unsubtly read, cast into a question of epistemology and skepticism. What is interesting is that as Wittgenstein attempts to unwind this skeptical travesty, he (and Ryle) actually approach positions not too far (at least not categorically far) from Descartes own preoccupations. Wittgenstein undoes Reid's Critique, not so much Descartes.

    Part of the problem is that the cartoon Descartes makes a very good villain, subject to all kinds of silly pictures of the mind. One can with Wittgensteinian aplomb (something we are all good at, including myself), say, "The Cartesian View of the Mind..." or "The Cartesian Theatre..." without having to wrestle with the implications of some of his statements such as:

    "nevertheless, as I have already shown, we must not hold that it is by means of this resemblance [come from the camera obscura image at the back of the eye] causes us to perceive objects, as there were yet other eyes in our brain with which we could apprehend it." - Dioptrics

    Here are some thoughts on the matter:

    Now the trick is, even though many today might hold a Cartesian Theatre of the Mind conception, Descartes himself probably did not. It is that having a narrative ancestor on which to blame the whole thing is just too rhetorically helpful. Descartes becomes an Ur-sinner of the modern mind. The Primal Father to be struggled against. There is this kind of straw-man need, perhaps it is requisite. The problem is that despite the facility that a Descartes "picture of the world" nemesis affords our position, the comfort with which we may hold our valued, disseminating critique, it leads to several kinds of misinterpretations if we really want to do more than put ourselves at a historical fulcrum point of philosophical correction, setting the ship right. Such a broad-brush understanding denies any careful consideration of, for instance, the role of the notion of God in Descartes, or his debt to Scholastic philosophy, or, a sure understanding of the kinds of corrections that Spinoza was making to Descartes in the first place (how much they actually agreed), become obscured.

    Now, there are good arguments for connecting Davidson to Spinoza. Floris van der Burg writes an excellent book on the matter show how Davidson is a kind of post linguitic-turn Spinoza. I am not aware of any arguments that make Spinoza either a non-monist, or a representationalism. I think the same can be said for Davidson. For Davidson truth is not a matter of matching up a correct representation with a correct part of the world. Rorty, a forwarder of the Cartesian Representationalist Mistake theory, testified to that. In fact there is always a triangulating, public dimension of truth such that any matching that is done happens through our interactions with others. And it certainly is not grounded in representation. The primary confusion in thinking so is to not see that the holding of beliefs to be true is an action itself, one whose force depends on the rest of the social and material relations in the world: or, what Wittgenstein might call, "the rest of the mechanism".

    As for what I did say, if I recall, it is that Davidson's position agrees with the one that you put forth in the brief paragraph that I quoted, primarily that mental predicates are attributions to persons and not brains.

    I'm glad though I got you to look closely at Davidson, if only to disagree with him. Perhaps too I can get you to let go of the idea that Descartes is a Cartesian too!

    We must think how "a picture held us captive" even the picture we treasure of Descartes.

    The best. K.