On Philosophy

July 18, 2006

More on Intentionality (Part 3)

Filed under: Intentionality — Peter @ 12:35 am

Today I will again respond to defenses of externalism, both from here, and some that I have made up on my own.

The first objection takes the following form: although you may have shown that we are not conscious of the effects of externalism on the mind perhaps there is some unconscious, non-causal, connection between our minds and the external world. There are two ways to respond to this, a weak way and a strong way. The weak way is to define thoughts as necessarily being part of consciousness. Although we may have unconscious motivations, dispositions, ect, none of these things are thoughts. Thus by definition if externalism has any relevance to the contents of thoughts it must be part of our consciousness, and thus noticeable by us. I call this the weak response because while I think it is obvious that it is essential to a thought that it be conscious I admit that not all philosophers see it this way. The strong response is to run another experiment designed to reveal if there are any unconscious impulses that are attuned to the existence of the bubble. We do this by asking the subject to guess whether the bubble has popped or not. If they guess correctly we give them a piece of chocolate, and if they guess wrong we smack them with something blunt (make sure your volunteers are willing). If the person never achieves better than 50% accuracy this is pretty good evidence they aren’t sensitive, even unconsciously, to the existence of the bubble. (Such experiments have a well-known history of revealing unconscious knowledge/sensitivity.) Although you can run this experiment for yourself (and I have), you can also take a look at professional studies of “esp”, some of which are set up in a similar manner. Performing this experiment, or looking up the results of previous research (but remember to find studies from neutral parties, don’t expect the esp foundation to conduct unbiased studies) reveals that if there is an unconscious awareness of the bubble it is small enough to be hidden by experimental error.

The next objection is as follows: “Take the classic example from Putnam. … Say someone can’t tell the difference between an elm tree and a beech tree. They want to buy an elm tree. Someone sells them the tree but later someone tells them that it was actually a beech tree. Now their phenomenal experience might be identical. (The tree looks the same to them) But clearly the intent wasn’t the same. They didn’t want an elm tree. They wanted a beech tree. Thus a difference is made, but it is a difference that is made in the future.” This is supposed to show that internalist accounts are missing something, namely the difference between the person who wanted the beech tree and the person who wanted the elm tree. If internalism really couldn’t give an account of this I would agree that it should be discarded. However simply reading the example closely reveals that there is indeed phenomenal different even when the person cannot physically distinguish between them: they have expectations as to what it will be called by other people (one will be called “elm” and one will be called “beech”), specifically then the person sees the tree and thinks “this is a tree that is called an elm”, even if they don’t know which physical characteristics distinguish one kind of tree from another (because they were told it was an elm by the sales person). Remember that our experience of something is not just how it looks or how it feels, our phenomenal conception is all of the properties that we associate with it, and that includes what it is called by people.

A third possible response is that the effect of intentionality, whether conscious or unconscious, is simply too small to be noticed (a possibility I briefly mentioned above). This is a strange position to hold. We could of course run more experiments to reduce the experimental error, but of course this doesn’t eliminate the possibility of such an outside influence, it just makes it vanishingly small. The best response to give to such doubts is perhaps an appeal to Occam’s razor, specifically that it is simpler to assume that internalism is a complete account of how the mind works than to assume that internalism explains most of how the mind works with just a touch of externalism thrown into the mix.

Another possible response is to defend intentionality as not determining the content of specific thoughts but the content of “classes” of thoughts. Under this interpretation it is not a specific thought about the bubble that has its content determined by the intentional relation but the content of a class of thoughts that is the “template” from which all my specific thoughts about the bubble are derived. This interpretation would still fall into the same problems facing the standard theory, so we make the additional assumption that this class is “timeless”, specifically that it is related to the bubble when the bubble existed, but because the class itself is timeless it can provide us with the content for our thoughts even when the bubble is gone. Of course this is basically the same as reintroducing the theory of forms in another guise, and thus I would reject it for the same reasons that we doubt the existence of the forms. (For example because the timeless cannot affect that which changes over time.)

Let me end with a challenge to externalists. If the external world does have a real, non-causal, effect on our minds design and run an experiment that shows the existence of that effect, the results of which would surely throw doubt on the internalist position (and would shut me up, as well as revolutionize physics).

The original post, Part 1, Part 2



  1. Wouldn’t Putnam’s argument be more concrete if the scenario was someone buying a painting, but then later learns that it’s a forgery? This situation is pretty common. Even if you’re the only one who knows that your painting is a forgery, it’s still off-putting, ‘cos you wanted a painting by the real artist, but now you just have a near-perfect copy.

    Comment by Carl — July 18, 2006 @ 2:12 am

  2. Peter, most of your rejoinders seem still to partake of the assumption that for the mental to be mental it must be open to introspection. As I said this is a common belief among internalists but not necessarily among externalists. Consider your experiment of having a person guess. Well for the guess to be worthwhile it must clearly have some degree of access to all mental states. If that isn’t true then asking a person to guess is about as useful as asking an uninformed person to guess what part of their brain is at a particular voltage.

    Your whole argument rests on the assumption that for the mental to be mental it must causally affect my phenomenal experience. But I just don’t buy that.

    So this isn’t an issue of ESP or related phenomena. To consider externalism in those terms is fundamentally to misunderstand what externalism is about. Fundamentally it is a debate about what descriptions ought count as mental. As I’ve said, your taking the internalist view of what is or isn’t mental and critiquing externalism in terms of that. But that’s just circular.

    By talking about these causal experiments you are just showing that you miss the point of what many externalists are arguing about. That’s why, when I gave the Putnam example, I didn’t say it was an argument against internalism. That’s because clearly the internalist can come up with a modification that accounts for it. (Say making anticipation part of the mental description in question)

    But if the issue is simply what ought count as the mental then this achieves nothing. At best one can ask whether when I make an intention I am actually including these particular anticipations. But how do we establish that? There doesn’t appear to be any useful empirical way of determining that. Even if we ask further questions we may simply be creating a new intent different from the earlier one.

    So I confess as to being unable to see how this divide can possibly provide any evidence either for or against externalism. At best we are just arguing about the best way to talk about things like meaning, intent, and so forth. This just isn’t something that can be usefully discerned the way you are attempting.

    Comment by Clark — July 18, 2006 @ 11:29 am

  3. Just to put the above in a simple form: what is a thought? Fundamentally the externalist and internalist disagree on this. But this isn’t a disagreement about either causality or empirical evidence. Rather it is a disagreement about taxonomy.

    Comment by Clark — July 18, 2006 @ 11:30 am

  4. In addition to the points I will be making below I suggest you read the article “Intentionality and Experience: Terminological Preliminaries” by Galen Strawson (found in Phenomenology and Philosophy of Mind), which is an excellent read.

    I agree that you can define mental and any other terms you wish to be whatever you wish for the sake of argument, but in that case one would be making an argument in terms of mental*, not the concept of mental as it is really understood. I think it is an assumption that everyone can agree to: that for something to be part of consciousness the person must be aware of it, or at least able to become aware of it. The unconscious then is those things that can have a direct influence on consciousness without the person being aware of them. Taken together the conscious and the unconscious are the mind.

    Now a thought is something that can be part of consciousness, and is definitely part of the mind. Thus there are at least some aspects of some thoughts that we are aware of. If externalism has an influence on thoughts then we must conclude that the influence of externalism (some non-causal relation) then it must have an influence on consciousness, either by being part of consciousness or by being part of the unconscious (if it didn’t it either wouldn’t be part of a thought or thoughts wouldn’t be part of the mind, and those positions seem to deny what we mean by content and thought). Thus the effects of externalism, if they are real, should be noticeable at least some of the time by us.

    Of course you will reply that the difference is solely in how we define our terms, however this is what puzzles me: if you agree that there is no real effect on the world that is only accounted for by externalism then what grounds could we possibly have for saying that externalism is real? To be real a thing must have an effect on the world, if it doesn’t it is simply a fantasy or an idea about the world, and not a factual statement. In contrast internalism makes many predictions about what we will find in the world, predictions that agree with the findings of scientists (for example the prediction that brain activity will be correlated with particular thoughts, such that similar thoughts will correlate with similar activity). Thus if you really felt this way why didn’t you simply dismiss my objections to externalism as: “well, we are both right, its simply a matter of how we use words”; I think you didn’t because you have the sense that externalism is real, and correct, and I have the sense that internalism is real and correct, and these positions aren’t compatible with a position that it is simply a matter of definitions.

    Comment by Peter — July 18, 2006 @ 2:26 pm

  5. Peter I tend to be very distrustful of ultimate appeal to intuitions or supposed common sense of words. The former because I don’t see why our intuitions really tell us much. (My background is physics where most intuitions are typically wrong) The latter avoids the question of what is most helpful and gets caught up in terms of a public use of words that is typically equivocal and socially dependent. (i.e there’s no reason to assume these are stable in my opinion)

    Comment by Clark — July 18, 2006 @ 3:10 pm

  6. You should really find a copy of the Galen Strawson article then, because the only response I can give to that involves basically quoting large sections of the text. (Basically that we have to give words some definition, and that it makes sense to define them in ways that agree with our intuitions). Picking definitions based on common use is not the same as picking conclusions based on intuitions, which is a bad idea. That would be like some physicists defining matter as energy (and vie versa), sure they could do so without contradiction, but then they wouldn’t be talking about the concepts we usually associate with matter and energy. Likewise I argue that to pick definitions too far away from the broad ones I have given here is no longer to be talking about the concepts we usually associate with mind, ect.

    Comment by Peter — July 18, 2006 @ 3:20 pm

  7. This is why I gave a definition for about-ness that saved its common use as part of my work on intentionality, because otherwise I woudn’t have been talking about about-ness as we generally understand it.

    Comment by Peter — July 18, 2006 @ 3:22 pm

  8. Note I was distinguishing common use and intuition. However I think both are equally bad. I seem to recall having read this article of Strawsen’s a few years back. The best analogy I can make is to physics where the terminology bears a resemblance of the language of common use but clearly has a different meaning due to making the terms fit natural categories better. I think that common language is best left to common phenomena. My own view is reasonably close to Peirce’s notion of common sense that I discussed here. I just have an extreme skepticism of the admittedly very common tendency to appeal to common use of language as telling us much of interest philosophically.

    Comment by Clark — July 18, 2006 @ 7:03 pm

  9. But if you don’t accept form of common use in order to define words you run into problems: i.e. people end up defining words however is convient to them (for me thoughts mean automobiles), and communication becomes impossible. Physics terms sure aren’t identical to our common sense of their meaning, but they are awfully close. Likewise we want to keep our philosophical terms as close as possible to the common use of those terms, otherwise what are we really talking about?

    Comment by Peter — July 18, 2006 @ 11:23 pm

  10. Is it really true that philosophy tries to use common definitions? “Philosophical Realism” means just about the opposite of what a layman would guess. I think as long as you define your terms, it’s all good. The tricky part is that a lot of BS philosophy gets by by using terms with ambiguous definitions to cover their tracks. (Think, just about anything about “the infinite.”)

    Comment by Carl — July 19, 2006 @ 12:08 am

  11. Hey, I’m not saying all philsophy is good philosophy. On that note then how would you as an externalist define the mind, consciousness, unconsciousness, and thoughts?

    Comment by Peter — July 19, 2006 @ 12:17 am

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