Notes on Sellars and Philosophy of Nature

– Sellars spends a good deal of time in his essay ‘Aristotelian Philosophies of Mind‘ critiquing said philosophies of mind on the grounds that they represent a prescientific way of thinking about intellect, cognition, etc. They’re simply outdated, Sellars seems to say (though his goal is more to elucidate when/how such ideas went wrong than to simply knock them around).

– I suspect that some of these critiques can be deflected if we distinguish between a scientific account of how (say) sensation works and a philosophical account of the nature of sensation, or what sensation is. James Madden notes in ‘Mind, Matter, Nature’, that it is the latter, not the former, which Aquinas is offering, and thus far from being refuted by our given psycho-physical understanding of the brain is open to really just about any empirical findings.

– Put another way, Aquinas’ account of sensation as caused by physical impressions on our organs from which the forms are abstracted by the intellect into a formal identity between the knower and known isn’t a play-by-play description of the physiology of the brain – if this were so, than this would be a rather easily refutable theory (to use Sellars example, if this account were a scientific account of what cognition is, then if I thought of a lion, I would have to have a lion in my brain and in my eye! Easily refutable would be an understatement) Aquinas’ account of the mind may jive more easily with this or that empirical finding, but on its own its simply a category mistake to take it as an empirical account of cognition or sensation.

– A case in point would be in Sellars’ closing, where he cites findings in the empirical science of the brain against the existence of the active intellect (and as it happens, I think the passive/active intellect can map very well onto contemporary accounts of cognition).

– Madden also points out, keeping with the theme above, that the accusation of being prescientific is absolutely correct if the Thomistic philosophy of nature (form, matter, etc) is taken to be an account of the conduct of science – Madden affirms that when it comes to the empirical sciences, it is indeed a proper methodology to exclude things like form, final cause, etc. These are concepts which serve as the ground of the empirical sciences – the nature of physical law, change, etc. This being the case, Sellars’ objections lose some force, since what he’s critiquing as being a prescientific kind of empirical science is in fact a more fundamental consideration.

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Reading Notes 2/15/2015: The Metaphysics of Modality and Philosophy of Mind

My reading the last few days has generally been drawn from ‘The Possible and the Actual: Readings in the Metaphysics of Modality‘, and ‘Philosophy of Mind: Contemporary Readings‘. A few notes on the former and latter:

– Regarding modality, I generally took it for granted that modalities are, as it were, ‘built-in’ to reality. An interesting thesis I read, however, by Nicholas Rescher, is that possibilities of the modal variety are mind-dependent. That is, what Rescher calls ‘hard core’ possibilities – possibilities that are totally unactualized – exist only in the mind conceptually. This took me for a bit of a loop, because how good modality be mind-dependent? Surely possibility has to be a real feature of the real world. But then I thought a bit harder – perhaps by distinguishing possibility from contingency, the former having to do logical necessity and the latter having to do with metaphysical non-necessity. Keeping that distinction in mind, modal idealism isn’t so farfetched sounding. Modal possibility can exist firmly within the mind while metaphysical contingency can exist firmly within the real order of things. If, however, one were to take Plantinga’s line of actualism, in which possible worlds are constructed out of states of affairs, then modal idealism wouldn’t have as much appeal. An interesting line in Rescher’s argument is geared towards denying any kind of Platonic ‘space’ for possibilities to exist in outside the natural order – so if one took a slightly Platonic line, then modal idealism would indeed be rather senseless.

– Regarding philosophy of mind, I guess it never occurred to me that functionalism, if true, functions (haw haw) as an argument against reductive physicalism, which is a little funny because, as is well known, functionalism is a materialist theory of mind – this seems to be fairly well known in the literature, though, and I’ll chalk this one up as my own lack of thinking it through. Multiple realization (or realize-ability) also seems to pose a threat to more reductive flavours of physicalism, but I’m not quite sure I have a good enough grasp on MR to really come to any conclusions.

– The most interesting thing I’ve read in the PoM volume is a Kripke-flavoured argument by Joseph Levine regarding qualia – in a nutshell (because the argument is fairly long), he argues that there is an ‘explanatory gap’ in a statement like (1) Pain is c-fibers firing that there isn’t in a statement like (2) heat is molecules in motion – (2) can be functionalized while (1) cannot. From this, he argues that the truth or falsity of (1) is inaccessible epistemically. Levine accepts that qualia are real (or at least accepts that the intuition we have that qualia are real is something we should follow), and since he doesn’t want to take the eliminativist line, he’s left with a bit of a head-scratcher. I’m going to go into more detail about the argument at a later time, so for now, this is all you get.

Notes on Supervenience

– The basic idea for supervenience is that there is no change in the mental (M) unless there is a change in the physical (P). Put differently, no mental activity without physical activity – the mental supervenes on the physical.

– What supervenience attempts to secure, generally speaking, is a non-reductive physicalist account of the mind – ie, this isn’t a simple identity theory (mind = brain) or an eliminative theory. In other words, it’s a theory of the mind that aims at an account of the mind that, while not reducing the mental to the physical, shows the mental to not be independent of the physical.

– There are various accounts of supervenience, but generally it’s accepted that it must be of the strong kind to be a really physicalist theory of the mind. This means, roughly, that in no nomologically possible world (this move is made so as to preclude the metaphysical possibility of, say, dualism) :

‘Necessarily, for each property M in M,  if anything x has M, then there is a property P in P such that x has P, and necessarily if anything has P it has M.’ (‘A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind’, p. 579)

– As Jaegwon Kim notes, its difficult to see exactly how this isn’t a reductive theory – if for M it’s necessary for P, there it certainly seems like M entails P. Kim goes so far as to declare that supervenience won’t give up a nonreductive theory of mind, in fact.

– A further difficulty (and the above is a very crude sketch of one objection) comes when the issue of causation comes into play – Kim appropriately dubs his theory of causation ‘supervenient causation’ – M causes P because M supervenes on P. Kim holds to a theory of ‘causal explanatory exclusion’, or the doctrine that there is at most one full, complete causal explanation for a given event, and this, coupled with his principle of ‘causal closure’ –  any physical event that has a cause at time t has a physical cause at t – seems to really nix any idea of mental causation in the bud, which is precisely what Kim is trying to hold on to (the spectre of epiphenomenalism is always hovering nearby). If M causes P, and M supervenes on P, and M really is distinct from P, then it would appear that we have two causes of P – M and P. But given Kim’s commitment to the causal priority of P, what causal role is there really for M? It seems that epiphenomenalism has been invited in here.

A Few Good Links

I’ve been in a bit of a blogging slump, so in lieu of a post of my own here’s a few good links I’ve found today:

A few 3:AM interviews:

Tim Maudlin –

‘Philosophy of mathematics is a large and fascinating area about which I have had nothing at all to say. I am a mathematical Platonist in the simple sense that I believe clear, unambiguous mathematical propositions (e.g. Goldbach’s conjecture or the Axiom of Choice) to be either true or false independently of whether or not they can be proven. Indeed, it seems obvious to me for many different reasons (including, of course, Gödel’s theorems) that infinitely many mathematical truths are not theorems of any intuitively acceptable proof system. So I believe in a “world” of mathematical fact in virtue of which clear mathematical propositions are either true or false. But I do not take these mathematical facts to be materialist or naturalistic in any interesting sense. I would not, myself, regard this as a “counterexample” to naturalism or materialism, because I never thought of those doctrines as making any claims about mathematics. But perhaps I am idiosyncratic in that regard.’

Tim Crane –

‘What I am against is the idea that in the search for the correlates of consciousness, we already have a clear idea of what we are looking for, and we have to find the neural correlate of that. I don’t think we are in this situation: we are fundamentally confused about what consciousness is. For instance, we have no proper understanding of the relationship between conscious thought and conscious sensation. The various forms of thought and sensation are underpinned by very different neural mechanisms; so how can the neural correlate of their conscious natures be the same? I don’t think we are yet in a position to make such speculations. To make progress, we have to have a good conception of the phenomenology of consciousness, among other things. I think we are very prone to errors about this, for all sorts of reasons…’

Timothy Williamson 

‘Anyway, I am indeed saying that it is necessary what there is. Necessarily everything is necessarily something. There could not have been more or fewer things than there actually are, and which particular things there are could not have been different. What is contingent is only what properties those things have, and what relations they have to each other. I call that view necessitism. Its denial is contingentism.’

‘Wittgenstein could indeed have had a daughter. But no past, present, or future person could have been a daughter of Wittgenstein, at least not in the biological sense (obviously he could have adopted many actual women). Nor could any actual sum of atoms have been identical with a daughter of Wittgenstein, it could only have constituted such a daughter, and constitution isn’t identity. Rather, for a necessitist, something that could have been a daughter of Wittgenstein is a merely possible person, and a merely possible concrete object. It is neither concrete, a person, nor a daughter of Wittgenstein, but it could have been all three. Similarly, there could have been no tigers, if evolution had taken a different turn. In those counterfactual circumstances, all the actual tigers would have been merely possible tigers—non-concrete non-tigers that could have been concrete tigers. So it is contingent what kinds of thing are instantiated.’

aeon’s David Dobbs on why the selfish gene needs to die

‘It’s a gorgeous story. Along with its beauty and other advantageous traits, it is amenable to maths and, at its core, wonderfully simple. It has inspired countless biologists and geneticists to plumb the gene’s wonders and do brilliant work. Unfortunately, say Wray, West-Eberhard and many others, the selfish-gene story is so focused on the gene’s singular role in natural selection that in an age when it’s ever more clear that evolution works in ways far more clever and complex than we realise, the selfish-gene model increasingly impoverishes both scientific and popular views of genetics and evolution. As both conceptual framework and metaphor, the selfish-gene has helped us see the gene as it revealed itself over the 20th century. But as a new age and new tools reveal a more complicated genome, the selfish-gene is blinding us.’

A really cool chart on the philosophy of science –

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(I’d probably put myself between scientific and structural realism, leaning a bit closer to structural realism, while recognizing that no one position here can do science justice. Some theories are purely instrumental – some are much more realist.)

A great Russell quote:

“I still think that truth depends upon a relation to fact, and that facts in general are nonhuman; I still think that man is cosmically unimportant, and that a Being, if there were one, who could view the universe impartially, without the bias of here and now, would hardly mention man, except perhaps in a footnote near the end of the volume; but I no longer have the wish to thrust out human elements from regions where they belong; I have no longer the feeling that intellect is superior to sense. I used to think of sense, and of thought which is built on sense, as a prison from which we can be freed by thought which is emancipated from sense. I now have no such feelings. I think of sense, and of thoughts built on sense, as windows, not as prison bars.” (‘My Philosophical Development’ (1959), p. 213)

And, on the topic of Russell, An Aristotelian-Thomistic response to Russell’s problem of induction –

‘And so to respond to Russell’s claim: what is existential or particular or singularcan refer either to the thing understood, or the way of understanding. If the latter, it’s false to say that experience is particular; if the former, then the particular is no more opposed to the universal than it is to the particular.’

Notes on the Unity of Consciousness

– The unity of consciousness (UoC) broadly refers to the fact that consciousness comes to us in and is experienced as a unified form (duh). I don’t have this conscious experience and that conscious experience – I don’t experience a series of discrete ‘bits’ but rather have one single experience of consciousness. Or, to be a bit more precise, all my experiences occur within one unified consciousness. This is a fairly old idea, with lots of arguments that go back as far the neo-platonists (for those interested in a more contemporary exploration of and argument for the unity of consciousness, see William Hasker’s ‘The Emergent Self‘). Kant called it the ‘transcendental unity of apperception, and David Bentley Hart gives a good description from a more classical point of view:

‘…in order for there to be such things as representation, or reason, or conceptual connections, or coherent experiences, or subjectivity, or even the experience of confusion, there must be s single unified presence of consciousness to itself, a single point of perspective, that is, so to speak, a vanishing point, without extension or parts, subsisting in its own simplicty.’ (‘The Experience of God’, p. 197)

– The UoC is generally thought to be related to the ‘binding problem’, which John Searle explains as follows:

‘If you think of consciousness, for example, your present conscious field, as made up of the various elements – your perception of the chair over there, your feeling of the clothing against your back, the sight of the trees and the sky outside your window, the around of the stream coming in from below – then you are confronted with a number of serious problems. Most famously, you are confronted with the problem…of how the brain can bind all of these various elements together in a single united conscious experience.’ (‘Mind, Language, and Society’, p. 80)

– It may be helpful to distinguish the UoC from the binding problem, however, in the following way: the UoC is a metaphysical ‘problem’, while the binding problem is a psychological/biological ‘problem’.

– It’s fairly common to point to medical cases concerning brain trauma, surgeries, etc, as examples of how consciousness can break down (two oustanding sources for those interested in the biological/medical aspect of consciousness are, ‘Consciousness, A Users Guide‘, by Adam Zeman and ‘Mapping the Mind‘, by Rita Carter  – surely such traumas/injuries/surgeries/what have you prove that a disruption in the brain means a disruption in consciousness. But, going along with the distinction between the UoC and the binding problem, there should be a distinction between the empirical/psychological ‘ego’ (for lack of a better term) and consciousness – in short, a distinction between the UoC and psychological unity should be made. Hart also makes roughly this point in ‘The Experience of God’:

‘…it is necessary to grasp that what is at issue here is not mere psychological unity or integrity of personal identity or of private memory over time. These can be diminished, impaired, or largely destroyed by deep psychosis, brain damage, cortical surgery, drugs, amnesia, and so forth. The unity of consciousness, however, is immune to all disruption. When I say that consciousness cannot be reduced to material causes I am not denying that the regular operation of consciousness in corporeal beings are dependent upon the workings of the brain, or that the contents of consciousness can be radicaly changed or disrupted by physiological events. I am talking here only about the transcendental condition of consciousness, a simple and perhaps anonymous singularity of vantage, which makes subjective awareness and mental activity possible. It is present even when the ego’s psychological or cognitive operations have been disoriented, clouded or shattered. It is the failure to make this distinction – between, on the one hand, the unity of this transcendental perspective within the mind, and, on the other, the integrity of personal mental states…’ (p. 198-199)

– Searle spends a good deal of time defining consciousness as unified – it simply is a unified thing by definition. Hence, even in, say, split-brain patients:

‘If we think of the split-brain patients as having two centers of consciousness, then we are not thinking of a single consciousness that is broken in two, we are thinking, rather, of two separate unified conscious fields. What is unthinkable is that there should be an element of consciousness that is disunified. That is, it is unthinkable that my conscious states should come to me as a simultaneous series of discrete bits, for if all the bits were part of my conscious awareness at once, then they would all be a part of a single conscious field. If, on the other hand, we were to think, for example, of seventeen bits, each as having a separate existence, then what we are thinking of is seventeen separate consciousnesses, not one consciousness with seventeen elements.’ (‘Mind, Language and Society’, p. 82-83)

– It may be helpful to think of the UoC as related despite being distinct. Underlying the binding of my conscious experiences (experiences which take place within the field of consciousness) is the unity of consciousness itself:

Unity of consciousness ——–> binding

– Breakdowns within various perceptual modalites does not = breakdown in consciousness.

Thought Notes 9/22/2014

A significant but overlooked contributor to the topic of justification in Paul is Nicholas Wolterstorff, whose roughly forty page discussion in his book ‘Justice in Love’ is just outstanding, focusing on the traditional medieval definition of the ‘dik’ words as ‘justice’. He fleshes out the content of Gods covenant and the justice thereof to a degree not really seen in a lot of discussions on the subject. Locating the topic of justice within the broader picture of God’s covenant faithfulness is a good way to advance the debate on Paul’s thought. Here’s a great review/interaction of/with the book. To quote from the review:

‘Whereas, for Wright, what is revealed in God’s justification of the Gentiles is his “covenant faithfulness,” for Wolterstorff it is God’s “justice”: not the “mere fact” of covenant fidelity but its substantive content.’

I continue to think on the nature of civil government, war, etc within the context of Christian theology. Wolterstorff makes a great point (somewhere, not exactly sure where off the top of my head) that government is essentially a rights-respecting entity (Wolterstorff thinks of rights as inherent). This allows for the state to ‘wield the sword’, to paraphrase the book of Romans, in the service of rights-defense.

I go back and forth on how important I think secondary sources are in philosophy/theology. I like sticking to primary sources myself. I haven’t read lots of commentaries on various philosophers and their thought – and all too often it seems that reading a secondary source is required to really understand said philosopher.

Here’s a comment I wrote regarding the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. It’s kind of a quick overview.

‘Kant was a transcendental idealist. His entire project was to overcome what he saw as the weaknesses of the dominant positions in epistemology, empiricism, where all knowledge comes thru the senses, and rationalism, where all knowledge is a priori. He also developed the analytic/synthetic distinction in a posteriori/a priori knowledge, which has been further developed by Saul Kripke into the necessary a posteriori and contingent a piori, and rejected by W.V.O. Quine. Kant’s project here was to figure out what the mind must be like for us to have any experience at all – which lead to his famous idealism, where he posits causality, space and time as constructions of the mind as well as his phenomenal/noumenal distinction.

His ethic is called the categorical imperative, which can be summed up in his famous maxim about acting in such a way that can be universalized as a moral law for all people. His ethics stem from his attempt to figure out how to make sense of our moral experience – its not too far removed from his method in epistemology. We have this inescapable sense of right and wrong, of duty, the sense of ‘ought’. Thru a long process I won’t go into here, Kant postulates
both freedom and God as necessary conditions for this experience of our moral life.

The categorical imperative derives from his grounding morality in reason alone – ethical reasoning for Kant cannot be derived from empirical data. Once you do this, that is once you discount the empirical, your moral reasoning is grounded in pure reason alone and hence is universal and hence binding on everyone else. Hence why Kant was able to assert that lying, for example, is always wrong.’

A lot of discourse in the area of ethics and moral philosophy (at least since Moore, Russell, et al) seems to try and use the tools of analytic philosophy to derive ethical truths (using ‘truths’ loosely). I’m not really sure how sympathetic I am to this approach. It appears rather unwise to use analytic tools to solve existential problems, and ethics is nothing if not existential.

Philosophy of Mine Notes

Reading philosophy of mind this last week it occurred to me that a lot of problems (not just in philosophy of mind, but in philosophy more generally) in the field occur because a single insight is taken for the whole truth of the matter, and solidifies into a position to be defended. Take, for instance, functionalism and behaviourism. Sound, if a bit obvious, insights: the mental play a functional, causal role and are manifested in behaviour. Yes, of course – but the problem is when that’s taken for the entire story.

Speaking of behaviourism, it didn’t occur to me until recently (yeah yeah, I’m late to this party, I know) that Wittgenstein anticipates, unconsciously it seems, behaviourism (I don’t think he ever called it that by name). Reading ‘Neuroscience and Philosophy’ by P.M.S. Hacker really drove this home, who argues that (a) what he calls the ‘mereological fallacy’, which is predicating things that are done by the whole person (thinking, perceiving) of the brain as if the brain does it on its own and (b) that things like qualia don’t exist, on the basis of (a). Hacker basically says: don’t exist, because if they existed, they would be an inner mental phenomena (which basically means brain phenomena), and since it’s incoherent to say that the brain experiences qualia, they don’t exist. John Searle notes that even if it’s correct to say that the brain doesn’t experience qualia, simply noting that the brain is where the biological processes of consciousness (which is pretty much qualia for Searle) doesn’t really give you grounds to say that it’s incoherent or doesn’t exist. In a nutshell, Hacker argues that qualia make no sense because (1) they are an essentially inner thing existing in the brain, and therefore aren’t manifested by behavior and (2) consciousness can’t exist in brains, because only whole persons are conscious, not merely brains.