On Philosophy

July 2, 2007

More Thoughts On Kylie’s Puzzle

Filed under: Mind — Peter @ 12:00 am

This post won’t make total sense unless you read my previous post on this topic two days ago.

As portrayed by McKinsey the dilemma presents us with two bullets we might bite, but as I see it there really are four possibilities. One possibility is to accept that content externalism is false. Certainly there are content internalists who are more than willing to bite this bullet. But there are a number of arguments supporting content externalism, and to bite this bullet would require us to refute all of them. Let us simply accept externalism as too entrenched to get rid of so simply, and look for other ways to resolve the dilemma. The second possible bullet to bite would be to accept that we can have a priori knowledge about the external world. Certainly biting this bullet has a certain historical precedence, and a few modern defenders as well (Sawyer, S. (1998). Privileged Access to the World. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 76(4), 523-35 and Miller, R. W. (1997). Externalist Self-Knowledge and the Scope of the A Priori. Analysis 57 (1), 67–75). However I think we are fully justified, given the historical failure of this position to adopt a “put up or shut up” towards biting this bullet, either produce some new knowledge about the external world that we can then verify, or admit that getting such knowledge without experience of the external world is impossible. Of course philosophers who wish to bite this bullet usually provide reasons for being unable to actually produce such knowledge (Sawyer does, for example). But if such reasons exist then the dilemma is solved without biting any bullets, we can simply argue that by virtue of those reasons Kylie can’t actually have a priori knowledge of the external world. Thus accepting that we can have a priori knowledge of the external world seems as undesirable as accepting the falsity of content externalism. A third bullet we might bite as a way to resolve the dilemma, not mentioned by McKinsey, is the possibility that our qualia aren’t connected to the content of our thoughts. This bullet is, I think, also unacceptable. To bite it would be to open the door to a radical variety of skepticism, where it is reasonable to doubt that we are thinking what we think that we are thinking. We might think that we are reasoning about the McKinsey argument, but, unbeknownst to us, we might really be thinking of bananas. Clearly this is absurd. And forth we might accept that we don’t have privileged access to our own qualia. But this is also absurd. Not only does it make radical skepticism about our own experiences in general a possibility (I think I am in pain, but am I really in pain?), but it makes it possible to doubt the existence of consciousness itself. Now in a recent paper (McKinsey, M. (2002). Forms Of Externalism And Privileged Access. Nous 36 (s16), 199–224) McKinsey has said that he favors biting this bullet, and Haukioja’s proposal (Haukioja, J. (2006). Semantic Externalism and A Priori Self-Knowledge. Ratio 19 (2), 176–190) is essentially also an attack on this premise (specifically on whether we can know our concepts are natural kind concepts). However neither philosopher wants to deny that we have access to our own qualia, but in the context of the original dilemma it is not exactly clear what denying that we have privileged access to the content of our thoughts entails, at least with respect to consciousness, which is one of the reasons I am addressing the dilemma with an eye to its connections with consciousness. My proposal then can be seen as an elaboration and clarification on McKinsey’s, in some ways, but in which it is clear that we don’t have to bite any of the four bullets, at least as detailed here.

Another possible way out of the dilemma is argue that even though the qualia of a thought depends on its content that we can’t conclude that water exists on the basis of experiencing the thought that water exists. Obviously we haven’t experienced what such a thought would be like given that water was actually XYZ or if there was no water at all. And so the only way we could know that the qualia of a particular thought implies that H2O exists (and not XYZ) would be if we had verified that the world did indeed contain H2O, and not XYZ. Then we could indeed conclude that H2O exists on the basis of the experience of that thought. But obviously it is impossible to come to know this connection between particular qualia and the contents of the world a priori. And thus the deductions involved in Kylie’s puzzle cannot actually be preformed a priori, and hence there is no dilemma. But there is a problem with this solution: it can’t account for the inverted earth thought experiment. Famously Ned Block encouraged us to think about what our experience would be like if we were transported to a world exactly like this one, except that all colors are inverted, and at the same time if we were to have lenses installed that preformed another color inversion (making our perceptual inputs as they always were). It seems obvious that as far as we can tell things will be the same, which means that our qualia are unchanged. However, over time we will come to mean by “red” “green”, and vice versa. But since this change isn’t a functional change we won’t behave any differently, and this implies that either we are unable to express the fact that our conscious experiences have undergone a change (absurd) or that our qualia are the same in both situations. That rules out this solution as a possibility. However, despite its flaws, attacking the inference from knowing that we are experiencing a certain qualia to a claim about what exists does seem to be on the right track, which brings us to my proposal.

I mentioned previously that my proposal could be seen as an extension and clarification of McKinsey’s. Let me say a few words then about McKinsey’s solution. McKinsey proposes that we have privileged access only to the properties that individuate thoughts, and that “It is necessarily true that if a person’s thought is individuated by a given property Φ, then Φ is logically narrow.” (McKinsey 2002) My proposal does not contradict these principles. As I see it qualia are what individuates thoughts (as they define what the thought feels like, consciously, to us), and not only do qualia individuate thoughts, but we have privileged access to them as well. And, as I have argued, qualia, as shown by this argument, supervene on only the operation of the brain, and hence are logically narrow. Now this is an extension of McKinsey’s solution because it ties the argument to a claim about the nature of consciousness. Specifically it can be used to show that externalism about content forces us to adopt a doctrine of internalism about consciousness. And of course it has the added advantage of making a claim about what exactly the individuating properties of thoughts are, which McKinsey is silent about.

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