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.

A Short Philosophy of Perception

A good definition of perception, in my opinion, is ‘to be aware of something’. We usually think of sight when we think of perception – that’s the knee-jerk definition, but obviously we can perceive through the other senses. I can perceive through smell, touch, hearing, taste, etc. There’s more to perception than biological processes, however.

Sense perception is both active and passive – passive in that my sense organs receive the sensory data of which I’m aware (they don’t manufacture the data) and active in that my sense organs are active things. My ears and eyes, though they are passive in the reception of data, aren’t simply sitting there, they are actively a part of the sense process.

Perception is more than just raw sensory perception, though – the mind plays an active role in the organization of sensory data into a meaningful and unified conscious experience. The mind can also perceive, though in a different way than sense perception – one can perceive a contradiction, for example. Again, there is an active and passive element to mental perception (and mental processes in general).

The interesting thing about perception, however, is that it’s not an act, or a deliberate thing, or something that we do – I can’t simply turn off or turn my sensory perception, or cease to be aware of things. There may be times when I’m not consciously aware of any given thing (someone may be in the room that I’m not aware of), of course, but that’s not something I can change by a kind of sensory act.

Beyond the active, conscious, sensory and mental aspects of perception, there’s the unconscious side of perception – and this unconscious perception shapes our conscious perception by shaping the way in which we perceive things. The sensory and mental aspects of perception are one part of the picture – the unconscious aspect can be thought of as a kind of formal cause to the conscious aspect. James K. A. Smith expounds the emotional aspect of perception in ‘Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works’:

‘Most often, and most fundamentally, there is an unarticulated (and inarticulable) set of dispositions and inclinations that are activated immediately upon perceiving a situation (my note: Smith refuses to think of perception in an abstract, subject-object way. Perception for Smith involves the whole person, and perception is always of a whole situation in all its grit and messiness) – because that perception is already an evaluation, a “take” a construal that is “seen” emotionally. The scene is colored with a certain affective hue that then inclines me to respond in certain ways. That emotional perception of a situation is not merely a hardwired, biological reflex…’ (p. 39)

The key thing to take away here is that perception is not a clean-cut process of noticing an object – perception isn’t static because the world isn’t static. To perceive is to perceive in a way that has been unconsciously shaped by our habits, which, by shaping our perception, shapes our actions in the world. The thing to note is that this means our perception is shaped by our action, which is shaped by our perception. Perception occurs at different levels, as I’ve already hinted at – there is conscious, active perception and deeper, unconscious levels of perception – these deeper levels are emotional levels, which were referred to in the quote above:

‘We have perceived and understood our situation in a certain light, although with little or no conscious reflection. This is a way of saying that our world (our situation) stands forth meaningfully to us at every waking instant, due primarily to processes of emotion and feeling over which we have little [conscious] control. And yet the situation is meaningful to us the most important, primordial and basic way that it can be meanginful – it shapes the basic contours of our experience. The situation specifies what will be significant to us, and what objects, events and persons mean to us at a pre-reflective level.’ (Mark Johnson, ‘The Meaning of the Body’, p. 59′, quoted in Smith, ‘Imagining the Kingdom’, p. 37)

Perception, as I’ve shown in this post, is a complex, multi-leveled phenomenon – far from being a mere static awareness, it’s an awareness that is shaped by what we do, which in turn shapes our awareness. There’s a lot of fertile ground here for further work – hopefully in the future I’ll do a bit more work on this subject. I’d like to tie in Polyani’s thought as well as Aristotelean.

I Just Kant Do It

In my more naive days, I thought two things (well, I thought more than two things, but for present purposes, only two are of importance): that causality was empirical and that Kant was way overrated. I know realize that causality is a metaphysical, not empirical category, but I still think Kant is way overrated. What Kant has showed me, however (and, if I may say so, through no small effort of my own – Kant isn’t exactly a paragon of clear writing) is that the human mind is not simply a passive receiver of empirical data from the world outside my mind.

While I do agree with Russell that the mind has at times been given a place of prominence in philosophy and metaphysics that it doesn’t necessarily deserve, there can be no real doubt that in at least this one instance, Kant’s idea that the mind plays an active role in some kind of creation of the world of our experience. If the self was, for example as Hume thought, a bundle of impressions (granting for the sake of argument that this wasn’t an incoherent notion informed by radical empiricism), then there couldn’t really be any experience of the world because there would be no principle by which experience of sense-data could be organized to form any kind of coherent unity of experience at all. There would be only sense-impressions, one after the other, and knowledge of particulars only isn’t any kind of knowledge at all.

Notes on Perception

I’ve been rolling things around my head about perception – it’s a fairly interesting topic.

– What’s a good definition of perception? I’ll start with: to be aware of something in a way that establishes some kind of relation between the perceiving agent and the perceived object. Broad and vague enough?

– Not being a materialist, I’m fine with thinking of God in terms of perception. Torrance makes a good analogy:

‘What is meant here by ’empirical’ is not just that which is sensible and tangible so much as the experienced imperceptible and intangible. For an analogy taken from natural science which may be helpful, reference may be made to the spacetime structure of the metrical field, which is inherently invisible or unobservable but which is nevertheless regulative of all our creaturely and phenomenal experience.’ (‘Reality and Evangelical Theology’, p. 39)

– So perception is empirical, in the sense of being an aspect of our conscious experience, but it’s not limited to the sensible only.

– Things that puzzled some philosophers, like distance (Berkely) can be seen as our perception of a kind of ontological relation (maybe). Distance isn’t a thing out there that we see – I don’t see a tree, and another tree, and then a third thing called distance – but I’m aware (I perceive) the distance between the two trees as an aspect of their relation. It is real, but it’s not a real ‘thing’. Perhaps an example from particle physics, where the relations are as important as the actual particles themselves.

Polanyi on Intellectual Passions

‘Intellectual passions do not merely affirm the existence of harmonies which foreshadow an indeterminate range of future discoveries, but can also evoke intimations of specific discoveries and sustain their persistent pursuit throughout years of labour. The appreciate of scientific value merges here into the capacity for discovering it; even as the artist’s sensibility merges into his creative powers. Such is the heuristic function of scientific passion.

Scientists – that is, creative scientists – spend their lives in trying to guess right. They are sustained and guided therein by their heuristic passion. We call their work creative because it changes the world as we see it, by deepening our understanding of it. The change is irrevocable. A problem that I have once solved can no longer puzzle me; I cannot guess what I already know. Having made a discovery, I shall never see the world again as before. My eyes have become different; I have made myself into a person seeing and thinking differently. I have crossed a gap, the heuristic gap which lies between problem and discovery.

Major discoveries change our interpretive framework. Hence it is logically impossible to arrive at these by the continued application of our previous framework. So we see once more that discovery is creative, in the sense that it is not to be achieved by the diligent performance of any previously known and specifiable procedure.’ (Michael Polanyi ,’Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy’, p. 143)

Another Quick Knowledge Note

Almost without fail, when I’m asked about something, even something about which I have at least a little knowledge, my mind goes blank.

‘What did Descartes think about the mind and body?’

‘Uh…’

I then proceed to fumble through a few very poorly formed sentences trying to answer the question. I usually then spend about five minutes in a deep angst about my inability to retain information (I’m very, very absentminded and learn best when given a lot of time in which to immerse myself in the subject) before coherent responses begin to fill my head. Usually about an hour later, I could give a speech about the subject. So it seems like, at least for me personally, that knowledge needs a kind of momentum to emerge in a coherent form. Is there a name for this phenomenon?

Note on Perception, the Mind, Metaphysics, and Objects

I look at something, say, the table my feet rest on. I perceive the table. Is this purely a mental event (idealism)? Or is my perception that of a mind-independent object (realism)? If it were the latter, there would still be mental activity, obviously, even though the object itself is not mental. However, is the mind predisposed to reality or a blank slate of sorts? Chomsky did some interesting work in the linguistic arena that suggested that there is a universal sort of grammar hardwired into us. Perhaps this carries over into general perception? Perhaps we have (a la Kant) categories with which we impose order on the world of experience.

But suppose I were to suggest that it’s the world that imposes it’s categories onto us. T.F. Torrance goes into great detail on this subject, generally in relation to theology, but it applies to metaphysics as well. God is a reality independent of our thought or perception of Him, and based on His self-revelation we ‘generate’ concepts that are worthy of Him. We have to ‘unlearn’ (apophaticism) our preconceived ideas and allow the force of His reality to impress His own categories and concepts on our mind.

Could this apply to our knowledge of the external world as well? That as we come into relation to the being of objects, reality itself impressions its own concepts upon us? The worlds being forces itself on us as we attempt to penetrate into the nature of reality, forcing us to abandon our categories as we inquire more deeply.

Maybe, maybe not. I’m not sure it makes sense to speak of all that without conceding that the mind is predisposed to reality (the fit of the intellect to reality, to use the medieval phrase. This isn’t to say that our mental operations create the reality we perceive (et esse percepti, I think is the phrase) but rather that our mental categories make sense of the world of sensory experience. Perhaps our categories can be abandoned or reshaped in the light of true being.

David Bentley Hart on Consciousness and Knowledge

‘Consciousness does not merely passively reflect the reality of the world; it is necessarily a dynamic movement of reason and will toward reality. If nothing else is to be concluded from the previous chapter, this much is absolutely certain: subjective consciousness becomes actual only directed through intentionality, and intentionality is a kind of agency, directed toward an end. We could never know the world from a purely receptive position. To know anything, the mind must actively be disposed towards things outside itselff, always at work interpreting experience through concepts that oly the mind itself can apply. The world is intelligible to us because we reach out to it, or reach beyond it, comng to know the endless diversity of particular things within the embrace of a more general and abstract yearning for a knowledge of truth as such, and by way of an aboriginal inclination of the mind towards reality as a comprehensible whole. In every moment of awareness, the mind at once receives and composes the world, discerning meaning in the objects of experience precisely in conferring meaning upon them; thus consciousness lies open to – and ventures into intimate communion with – the forms of things. Every venture of reason toward an endm moreoever, is prompted by a desire of the mind, a “rational appetite.” Knowledge is born out of a predisposition and predilection of the will toward beings, a longing for the ideal comprehensibility of things, and a natural orientation of the mind toward that infinite horizon that is being itself.'(David Bentley Hart, ‘The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss’, pp. 238-239)

Some Thoughts on Thought

Every once in a while, I like to engage in some less-than serious philosophical thinking (by this I mean pure speculation with no serious intention of solving any problem or doing anything besides occupying some free time) – this particular time, it was about thought.

There was a great episode of Cowboy Bebop in which a cult sought immortality by uploading their souls (or minds, or selves, I don’t remember exactly) to the ‘web’. This has always been an interesting topic – one that’s received a lot better attention in sci-fi than in actual science, in my opinion. But at any rate, a really interesting subject. Every once in a while one hears about how our brains are really digital, or digital supercomputers, or something along those lines – pure nonsense, I say. Conceptual confusions, to take a page from Wittgenstein’s playbook. Stanley Jaki, in his book on the subject (entitled Brain, Mind, and Computers) commented that in every age, the mind/brain is conceived as whatever technology is most exciting, for lack of a better term. It’s been depicted as hydraulics, electrical circuits, waterworks, and in our time, its most often portrayed as a computer – unfortunately, there seems to be a rather negative side effect to this practice: it’s the tendency to take as real or concrete a metaphor that simply helps us grasp an abstract or puzzling or difficult concept.

But suppose that our self really can be uploaded to the web – again, one can find some serious discussions on this topic (seriously mistaken, in my view, but serious nonetheless) with a simple Google search. Would that pretty much end the mind/body debate (which, for the record, I think is a debate that is more misplaced that anything, but just for the sake of argument assume otherwise)? Would there be an aspect of us that is immaterial (I’m using immaterial in the classical sense – not as some weird kind of substance but in the more [say] Thomistic sense, such as the immaterial intellect)? Probably not, if its digital and can be uploaded to the internet – I have a hard time imagining how something digital can also be immaterial. So we’d end up being material objects and nothing more – our selves (or mind, or soul, or whatever you care to call it) is simply the material part of us that survives the death of our bodies. That doesn’t seem too coherent though, but who knows. Perhaps our digital self takes the place of the immaterial soul. Maybe the word ‘digital’ is just being redefined – kind of like the word ‘nothing’ in the contemporary debate about the origin of the universe. Definitely something to look into – though I think I trust the sci-fi writers to make more sense of such an idea than the science writers.