On Philosophy

July 9, 2007

Absurdly Strong Knowledge

Filed under: Cutting Edge Philosophy,Epistemology — Peter @ 12:00 am

The word knowledge is used with two different meanings, one weak and one strong. In a weak sense knowledge means basically the same thing as “justified belief” (or better yet: beliefs we should have given our epistemic position), which means that the things we know may very well turn out to be false. In a strong sense knowledge refers only to warranted true beliefs, where warrant is simply a label for whatever is needed to be added to a true belief to make it knowledge (note: warrant is not the same as justification, it can be shown that warrant is necessarily stronger than justification). The strong sense of knowledge is felt by many to be the more intuitive understanding. But already there seems to be something absurd about the strong definition. Specifically from our point of view knowledge, so defined, seems simply to be a label to hang on whatever we believe to be true. Since we are rational people believing something to be true is basically equivalent to believing that we know it. And moreover it becomes hard to see how the concept of strong knowledge is a valuable tool in addition to our concept of truth; since strong knowledge requires the belief to be true a procedure to separate true beliefs from false beliefs must be a necessary part of any procedure to determine when we have knowledge, since only true beliefs can be knowledge. But with such a procedure we no longer have any need for knowledge, since we already have truth. And if we can’t devise a procedure to sort the true beliefs from false beliefs then we can’t devise a procedure to determine when we have knowledge. So either way strong knowledge seems superfluous.

But the absurdity of strong knowledge doesn’t stop there. Recently Michael Blome-Tillmann has written a paper entitled “The folly of trying to define knowledge” where he expands on Trenton Merricks’ work to show a surprising fact about warrant. Merricks’ argument shows that warrant, whatever it is, entails truth. Consider: if a belief can be warranted and false then it can be warranted and accidentally true (to be accidentally true is when some fact unrelated to the warrant makes the belief true). But a belief cannot be warranted and accidentally true, because that would make that belief knowledge, by definition, and there are several thought experiments which imply that strong knowledge requires that the truth of the belief be connected to its warrant. And thus a belief cannot be warranted and false. And so by this argument if a belief is warranted then it is true. And Blome-Tillmann has expanded this argument to show that this also holds for belief, because if it is possible for someone to be warranted to believe some fact and not actually believe it then it is possible for them to be warranted to believe it and believe it accidentally, which makes it an accidentally true belief. And so by the same reasoning warrant must entail belief. Blome-Tillmann thus concludes that if warrant implies a true belief then warrant implies knowledge. And obviously knowledge implies warrant. So knowledge is not distinct from warrant, rather warrant is simply another name for knowledge.

Now obviously if warrant implies truth and belief it must be fairly strong itself. One candidate for warrant is justification from true premises. Another is belief for reasons that are actually reasons for the belief being true. Warrant then is probably as strong as knowledge in its strongest sense. Which means that the earlier problem I posed for strong knowledge, namely its being a basically redundant label for truth, can’t be solved by an appeal to warrant. By an appeal to warrant I refer to the idea that maybe a study of knowledge (specifically a study of the warrant component of knowledge) can improve our epistemic situation in a way that a study of truth cannot. If warrant didn’t imply truth we might reason that while a procedure for determining when we had warrant wasn’t as good as one for determining when we had truth, but perhaps it could give us some clue as to which of our beliefs are more likely to be true. But, given that warrant entails truth, a procedure for determining truth is necessarily simpler than one for determining when we have warrant (or at least not more complex).

Another possibility for saving strong knowledge might be to throw in justification (or something similar) as an additional component of knowledge. But it is hard to defend this move, since given the strength of warrant justification is redundant. Since having warrant necessarily entails truth then having a warrant is justification, and so adding justification to this is pointless. A better move might be to break warrant itself into components, and then look for a way to determine when we have some of those components, making the possibility that we have warrant more certain. But there are problems with this move as well. Since warrant entails truth together the components of warrant must entail truth. Perhaps it is just my lack of imagination, but I can’t see any way to construct warrant that doesn’t slip in truth in some form. For example, if warrant is justification from true premises then obviously knowing when we have true premises requires us to be able to determine what is true. In general to guarantee truth about claims in a domain we need to start with some true claims in that domain (for example, in mathematics we start with axioms). Of course we can still study whatever else makes up warrant. But then aren’t we just studying weak knowledge? Why pretend that we are trying to understand strong knowledge when it is only weak knowledge that we are really after a better understanding of?

July 6, 2007

Alexander Staudacher’s Response To Michael Pauen

Filed under: Cutting Edge Philosophy,Epistemology,Mind — Peter @ 12:00 am

Two days ago I presented an argument to the effect that if more than one qualia could be associated with a single internal state then it would be impossible to know which qualia we were experiencing. And part of this argument turned on the fact that the only way to defend knowledge of our own qualia given such an assumption would be to know the laws by which qualia operate, and that we could not rely on our knowledge of such laws because positing them presupposes that we can have knowledge of our qualia. Michael Pauen has presented a similar argument (Michael, P. (2006). Feeling Causes. Journal of consciousness studies, 13(1-2), 129-152) against the position that qualia are non-physical and epiphenomenal, also relying on the fact that we cannot know the laws by which qualia operate given such an assumption. Alexander Staudacher has written a response to this argument (Staudacher, A. (2006). Epistemological Challenges to Qualia-epiphenomenalism. Journal of consciousness studies, 13(1-2), 153-175) in which he claims that it is unsuccessful. And if Staudacher is right that may very well mean that my argument is flawed as well, since it is so similar to Pauen’s. However, I do not think that Staudacher’s response is successful, and so the argument against epiphenomenal qualia, and the possibility of more than one qualia being associated with a single internal state, is safe.

Staudacher raises three objections to Pauen’s argument. The first is that if we can’t have knowledge about epiphenomenal qualia then we can’t have knowledge about qualia under any theory. He claims that just as we can’t justify, according to Pauen, the proposed laws by which qualia operate then neither can we justify a claim that they are identical to certain functional properties, and takes this as a reductio ad absurdum of Pauen’s position. (Actually Staudacher presents analytical functionalism as the only way out, and says that if we can know the identification a priori then we can know the laws a priori. But obviously analytic functionalism is not the only way out, any theory which identifies qualia with something physical will do.) However this objection involves a false premise, that we must justify identity claims in the same way we justify laws. It should be obvious that this is not the case. For example, if it was claimed that Hesperus had a certain law-like effect on Phosphorous which explained why neither was seen at the same time we would require this law to be justified by observations of it in effect in other situations. But we don’t expect the claim that Hesperus is Phosphorous to be justified by observations of the identity relation (how can you even observe the identity relation?). An identify claim can only be disproved, either by making an observation in which identity is impossible (in this case seeing Hesperus and Phosphorous at the same time) or by demonstrating that such an identity would require the violation of some other known law (in this case possibly by requiring the planet to move too fast or in some other unusual manner in order to account for observations of both Hesperus and Phosphorous). So, epistemically, positing the existence of a law and positing an identification are significantly different. And, while we cannot justify positing laws for qualia without first being able to know what our own qualia are, we can justify positing an identification between our qualia and some part of our internal state, provided that we have never observed a qualia and the internal state it is supposed to be identical with “coming apart”, and that such an identification doesn’t contradict a theory about qualia with more empirical justification. Thus Staudacher’s first objection is not valid.

Staudacher’s second objection is that if qualia are simply to be identified with whatever fulfills a particular causal role within the brain then our knowledge of our qualia is not special or first-personal in any way. This is, again, supposed to be a reductio ad absurdum of the position that we can know about our qualia because they do have a causal effect. But it is easy to explain why our knowledge of our own qualia is special, even if qualia are physical. The difference between our knowledge of our own qualia, and say someone who is observing the operation of our brain, is the content of our beliefs about them. In our beliefs about our qualia we are intentionally directed at them, as is the party observing our brain. But the way we are intentionally directed at them is not the same. Both a blind man and a man without any sense of touch may be intentionally directed at the same tree, but they will not be intentionally directed at the tree in the same way. The blind man will be intentionally directed at it through his expectations of the way the tree feels, and the man without touch will be intentionally directed at it through his expectations about the way it looks. Similarly we are intentionally directed at our own qualia through the way they feel, the way they affect our consciousness (a kind of inner sense, if you will), while the external observer is directed at them only though their observations of the device they are measuring our brains with. So our knowledge of our own qualia will always be uniquely first personal, even if qualia are physical, because of the way we are related to them and come to know them.

Staudacher’s final objection is that the radical possibility that we may not have qualia need not affect whether we are justified in believing in them, just as we can’t justify believing that our reasoning isn’t defective, but nevertheless treat conclusions based on reason as justified. Of course these situations are not as similar as Staudacher would like us to believe that they are. The ability to reason is a precondition of being able to consider whether our beliefs are justified, and so we may just accept it as something we must accept without justification. But qualia are not a precondition of doing epistemology. In any case Pauen only needs to lean on the possibility that we do not in fact have qualia in order to demonstrate that if qualia are epiphenomenal then we have no evidence that they exist (by pointing out that things would be exactly the same were they gone). But the possibility of having inverted qualia, or radically different qualia, or qualia that are really identical to some physical process can equally serve as an alternative to the possibility of non-physical and epiphenomenal qualia for Pauen’s purposes. Thus we do not need to posit the possibility of absent qualia in order to demonstrate that we have no evidence for epiphenomenal qualia. And my version of the argument is especially safe against this objection, because all I need to posit is the possibility of qualia altered without having any causal effect, and that very possibility is what my argument is a reaction to. Staudacher’s objection is based on the premise that we can ignore alternatives that are motivated by skeptical considerations when reasoning about justification, and, while we might accept that, he is begging the question if he thinks we can rule out considering the possibility of physical qualia in our epistemic considerations for that reason.

April 24, 2007

Relativism, Why Won’t You Die?

Filed under: Cutting Edge Philosophy,Ethics — Peter @ 12:00 am

Ethical relativism is a seriously problematic idea. First ethical relativism may be a self-defeating position if it rests on some kind of relativism about truth. If facts are relative then naturally ethical facts are relative. However if facts are relative then the fact that facts are relative is itself relative. Which means it may not be a fact for some people. But if it isn’t a fact for some people then it is a fact for those people that facts are facts for everyone. And if facts are facts for everyone then they are facts for those people and relativists alike. And thus relativism has just refuted itself. Now ethical relativism does not necessarily require endorsing relativism about facts in general, but it is hard to see how ethical relativism can be given a solid foundation without adopting some kind of relativism about truth. We might consider an ethical relativism that is in terms of facts about the individuals, such as: given your society and desires you should do X. Obviously X would then vary from person to person, making it in some sense relative. However it is an objective fact that X is what you should do given those factors, your society and your desires. And in that sense such a theory is not relative at all, certainly not much more relative than any other ethical theory, because all ethical theories relativize what you should do to the situations you find yourself in, at the very least. (It is OK to kill a person if that is the only way to save a great number of others, but it is not OK to kill a person otherwise. Thus the fact about whether it is OK to kill someone is “relative” to the situation.) The other problem for ethical relativism is the Nazi problem. An acceptable theory of ethics must allow us to claim that the Nazis were, in fact, wrong, and not that it is just our opinion that the Nazis were wrong. If our ethical theory doesn’t allow us to say at least that much then we aren’t really dealing with an ethical theory, but rather a kind of ethical nihilism, which says that there are no ethical facts but only opinions, emotive connotation, or whatever that pretend to be facts. The theory may give a detailed treatment of these facts, and explain why we think of them as ethical facts, why we think of them as giving us a basis to condemn the Nazis, but that doesn’t make them really ethical facts.

Why do I even bother to bring this up? Haven’t the above considerations pretty much decisively refuted relativism? Well, in my opinion they have, but papers keep appearing in support of relativism, no matter how many times it is rejected. Most recent is Kenneth A Taylor’s paper How To Be A Relativist. He claims that there is a version of relativism that avoids both the problems described above, and which is thus worthy of consideration. So let’s examine how his version of relativism responds to the above problems.

Taylor tries to solve the first problem by avoiding endorsing a full-blown relativism about truth by saying that what makes a principle ethically normative is that it is endorsed by competent reflection. Since he doesn’t define competent reflection as ideal or error-free reflection we can admit that what is endorsed by competent reflection may very well differ from person to person. But even a non-relativistic theory about ethics can accept such a claim. In a non-relativistic ethical theory you should do what follows from the objective ethical principles. However, no one reasons correctly all the time, and so such an ethical theory would endorse your acting in ways endorsed by your competent reflection, since that is the closest you can get to acting in agreement with the objectively correct ethical principles. To turn this idea into a form of relativism requires a further assumption, namely that there isn’t an objectively right way to improve our competent reflection. And Taylor does accept this additional claim:

There is no privileged stance, no transcendental ground, fixed once and for all, from outside of history and culture, from which we may determine by whose lights the “truth” is to be measured in such disputes. This is not to deny that we typically do measure by our own current lights and that we take ourselves to be entitled to measure by our own lights. But as dear as our own lights may be to us, they enjoy no antecedent privilege except that of being our own.

But to accept that our competent reasoning can’t be improved, in objective terms, is tantamount to accepting that there is no objective truth in general. For example, consider the simple claim: I am either at the store or I am not at the store. I accept this claim because I accept a certain principle of reason that implies that all statement of the form p or not-p are true. Now it is quite possible that someone else may not accept that fact as a basis for their reasoning, and thus may not come to the same conclusion that I do. But we must accept that it is a fact that the principle of reasoning I am employing in fact tracks the truth while whatever alternate principle they are using, which does not motivate them to deduce the same fact, is objectively inferior in terms of tracking the truth, a fact that would be easy to demonstrate to such a person (I would hope). If Taylor is saying that such principles of deduction are relative then he is throwing every fact into question, and as shown earlier this undermines the relativistic position itself. For the sake of charity then let us assume that Taylor doesn’t want to endorse a position that extreme. Which means that there are claims that we could all agree on, such as: the optimal course of action in order to satisfy your desires in this particular situation is X, the optimal course of action to fulfill everyone’s desires as much as possible is Y, etc, etc. Now of course there is still room for some disagreement. One group of people may call acting in way X ethical, while another may call acting in way Y ethical, etc. We could of course try to settle the dispute of which to call ethical by deciding which course of action is the most normative, or should have the most pull on the individual. But in a sense this is simply a word game. You and I may call different things ethical, but if we both agree on what is the optimal course of action given priorities X then we agree on all that matters. So there is a little room for relativism here, but not much, and probably not as much as Taylor seems to want, as there is nothing preventing us from discussing, under different standards, which priorities are better, given those standards.*

But that is really the superficial problem. Even if we grant that ethical relativism can exist without an assumption of complete relativism about truth Taylor’s position still fails to deal successfully with the Nazi problem. Taylor’s attempted solution is to point out that some of our norms may “travel”, meaning that to accept such a norm is not just to accept that we should act in a certain way, but to accept that others should act in that way as well. But the rub is that even if you endorse a particular traveling norm that doesn’t give me any reason to accept that norm, a point Taylor recognizes. Taylor’s solution to this is to suppose that most of us have come to accept that we should be governed by one another’s traveling norms. But this doesn’t solve the Nazi problem, nor is it a particularly convincing solution. It isn’t very convincing because it is easy to imagine a person or group who have the norm of refusing to be bound by the traveling norms of other people (xenophobes). And there would be nothing we could say to convince these people to drop this attitude, not even appeals to harmony between our groups, because they may not value harmony between different groups. Nor does it solve the Nazi problem, because it seems to imply that the Nazi’s have as much right to expect us to be conform by their norms as we have the right to expect them to conform to ours; as much right to condemn us as we have to condemn them. To endorse this is to admit that one is very confused about what is right and wrong.

Now a moral relativist may object, and argue that the Nazi problem is unfair because it seems to require an objective basis on which we can say that the Nazis were wrong. Is this simply an instance of prejudging the question? It may be, but I contend that there are more than theoretical reasons for demanding an answer to the Nazi question; if we accept an ethical theory as true we need a guarantee that it won’t allow us to become Nazis. This requires more than the ability to condemn Nazis, as even an emotive theory of ethics allows us to do that. A satisfactory ethical theory needs to allow us to improve ourselves, to determine when we are ethically in error**. A relativist theory does not allow such corrections; it supports whatever norms we happen to have. And that is unacceptable.

* How to get back to objective ethics from here, my version: we all agree that we want to lead the good life (the life that maximally fulfills our desires). The best way to lead the good life is to be part of society (if it wasn’t societies wouldn’t stay around long, as people would be motivated by their desires to leave). If you are part of society then it is best to do what is best for society as a whole. And those actions are what we call ethical.

** We can phrase this in terms that make relativism almost self-defeating. Simply make the reasonable assumption that people’s ethical norms include the requirement to ethically improve their norms, which I think is a sentiment most share. Given that, our norms demand that we discover and endorse an objective ethical theory, in order to really improve our norms. We can’t accept a relativist theory, because we don’t want to just have our existing norms validated. Thus the norms of many, although not all, motivate a rejection of relativism. And if relativism says that the norms of these people can’t be rejected then relativism admits that there is nothing it can say against people who reject it in principle.

April 14, 2007

Johnannes Brandl’s Talk On Self-Consciousness

Filed under: Cutting Edge Philosophy,Mind — Peter @ 12:00 am

Today Johannes Brandl (University of Salzburg) gave an interesting talk entitled “The Relation Between Phenomenal Consciousness And Self-Awareness: A Persisting Confusion” which was quite enlightening. Below is my summary, based on the notes I took (so a condensed version). Because of my writing style it may seem as if the points I am making are my own, but they are not. Any comments of my own on the content of the talk will be in braces, (that is [like so]). Also note that my notes may contain errors and so the summary below may not be a perfect rendition of the talk; don’t rely on it if you want to seriously engage his claims.

The intertwining of consciousness and self-consciousness is something that analytic philosophy has inherited from phenomenology, resulting in the ubiquity or inseparability thesis, which claims that consciousness of any kind necessarily involves self-consciousness. But this is deeply unintuitive, intuitively these phenomena seem to require different explanations. My goal here is to defend our intuitions against the doctrines inherited by us from phenomenology and to draw a sharper distinction between reflective and pre-reflective experience, an appreciation of which can help us avoid confusions regarding consciousness and self-consciousness.

1 Intuitions
Intuitively phenomenal consciousness is simply having experiences, and self-consciousness is just awareness of the self, self-knowledge, that is grounded in experience. Intuitively then there is a difference in their cognitive requirements; phenomenal consciousness, requiring only experience, is simpler, and needn’t necessarily result in self-knowledge. Let us also keep in mind the distinction between conceptual and ontological claims. The relevant conceptual claim is that the concept of consciousness is required to understand the concept of self-consciousness. This claim seems trivially obvious, after all the word consciousness is built right into “self-consciousness”. More interesting, and worth debating, is the ontological claim, that consciousness is a more primitive property than self-consciousness, and can exist without it. It is important to keep this distinction in mind, since it is easy to confuse the two kinds of claims.

2 Phenomenological Tradition
Phenomenology is often seen a method of philosophy that is heavily dependant on intuitions, but many of its claims are deeply counter-intuitive, this particular one being a case in point. The phenomenologists claim that consciousness and self-consciousness are inseparable, a claim that has been made by Zahavi in his writings on Husserl, Heidegger, and Sarte, among others. They claim that self-consciousness is part of every experience, and required for it. This claim is an ontological one, although in some places Sarte seems to treat the claim as conceptual as well, saying that consciousness without self-consciousness is absurd. But it does not seem so absurd intuitively. So this is a claim phenomenologists need to prove. But arguments are hard to extract from phenomenologists, so instead we turn to philosophers in the analytic tradition.

3 Gennaro’s Argument
Gennaro favors a higher-order theory of consciousness, which is not a model that is in good graces with the phenomenologists. But he does argue for their inseparability thesis. To get the argument going we must first turn to the logic of consciousness favored by the higher-order theorists such as Rosenburg. The particular distinction that interests us here is between a state being conscious and being conscious of something. The higher-order theorist bases intransitive consciousness in terms of transitive consciousness; they claim that a mental state is conscious only if the subject is conscious of it. We can call this the transitive principle. Additionally higher-order theorists make the additional claim that consciousness of something, when that something is a mental state, only makes that something conscious when it is represented in the right sort of way (that sort of way being unspecified). From these two claims Gennaro’s argument follows as a kind of argument to the best explanation. He argues that since
1. A mental state is conscious because the subject is conscious of it.
2. The subject is conscious of that state in some kind of special way
3. This special way is the fact that the subject is self-consciously conscious of it.
From this argumentative strategy Gennaro claims that the best explanation of why a mental state of conscious is that the subject is self-conscious of it. Obviously each step in this argument is open to criticism though. And, moreover, we could just turn it on its head, showing that we should be intuitively motivated, by the separation of consciousness and self-consciousness, to reject higher-order theories.

4 Block’s Distinction
Before we consider a stronger argument for the inseparability of consciousness and self-consciousness we must first be clear on some distinctions that Block makes. Specifically with respect to Block’s four kinds of consciousness: phenomenal consciousness (p-consciousness), access consciousness (a-consciousness), self-consciousness, and monitoring consciousness. Some of Block’s claims about these kinds of consciousness are as follows: He claims that p-consciousness is indefinable, that it is learnt in a distinctively first person way, and that it fits with a biological conception of the mind. He claims that a-consciousness is definable, as a state that is poised to be used in reasoning, action, and speech. More controversially he claims that p-consciousness can exist without a-consciousness, based on situations where we supposedly have access to some input but aren’t phenomenally conscious of it (habituated perception), and that a-consciousness can exist without p-consciousness, which he argues for by reflecting on examples like super-blindsight.

5&6 Kriegal’s Argument
Kriegal is going to argue that Block is partly wrong, and that a proper correction of his error leads to an understanding of consciousness in which it can’t occur without self-consciousness. This argument based largely on a paper of Kriegal’s entitled “Consciousness: Phenomenal Consciousness, Access Consciousness, And Scientific Practice”. Kriegal’s premises are as follows:
K1: Let’s admit that there is a clear conceptual distinction between p-consciousness and a-consciousness; p-consciousness is not dispositional, and a-consciousness is.
K2: The phenomenal character of a conscious mental state consists of qualitative and subjective character.
K3: Let’s call the categorical basis of accessibility (a-consciousness) subjective character [the categorical basis is the properties that give something a particular disposition; in my terms (since I identify properties with causal deposition) I would instead say that subjective character is the entity, defined categorically, that explains a-consciousness as part of some theory about it].
Kreigal agrees with Block that a-consciousness can exist without p-consciousness. But he denies that p-consciousness can exist without a-consciousness. He argues that in the case of habituated perceptions both a-consciousness and p-consciousness are missing, arguing that subjective character, the basis of a-consciousness, is missing, and so a-consciousness cannot be present.

So far we understand subjective character as both a necessary part of p-consciousness, and as the basis of a-consciousness. Let us further define subjective character as the sense of our ownership of mental state, of them having a “me-ish” character. Even Block said that p-consciousness seemed “me-ish”; that “me-ish”-ness is their subjective character. Now we can argue that:
P1: That primitive self-consciousness (subjective character) is a necessary component of p-consciousness.
P2: Primitive self-consciousness (subjective character) is the categorical basis of a-consciousness.
P3: All consciousness is p-consciousness or a-consciousness.
∴ From the above it follows that all consciousness involves primitive self-consciousness.
Unfortunately the fact that we have two arguments for the conclusion that self-consciousness is a necessary part of consciousness actually weakens the position, since the arguments treat self-consciousness as something different, revealing a fundamental ambiguity in the use of the term.

7 What Is Subjective Character?
Let us investigate this subjective character a little more thoroughly. We must ask ourselves: how does experience acquire this subjective character and become conscious? Different theories will yield different explanations, three of which being:
1: higher-order theories- experience has subjective character because another thought is directed at it in the right way.
2: self-representational theories- experience has subjective character because the experience is representing itself.
3: global broadcasting theories- experience has subjective character because they are made globally available for reflection, action, ect.
And these three theories are not totally unrelated. The structures of one can be seen as building on the others. A system doing the right kind of global broadcasting could give rise to self-representational experiences. And a system with self-representational experiences might also contain higher order experiences directed at other experiences. And, furthermore, this makes the inseparability thesis ambiguous. Is it supposed to be the subjective character that is generated by higher order thought, or by self-representation, or by broadcasting that is a necessary part of consciousness?

8 Saving Our Intuitions
Going back to our original definition of self-consciousness, we defined self-consciousness as self-knowledge on the basis of experience. This would seem to indicate that it is the subjective character generated by higher order thought that is self-consciousness. The subjective character generated by self-representation and global broadcasting can be seen as being part of consciousness that is not self-conscious, saving our intuition that the two are distinct. Furthermore the distinction between self-representational subjective character and global broadcasting subjective character can be seen as lending support to a further intuitive distinction, that between reflective and pre-reflective consciousness, although perhaps that is a topic for another time.

9 Conclusion
The conclusion to draw from all of this is that the analytic arguments for the inseparability thesis backfire. They instead reveal that there are different kinds of subjective character, each equally candidates for primitive self-consciousness. And hence we can pick whichever one we like so as to best retain our intuitions.

[My impressions of this talk were favorable overall. It was very sharp, and brought a number of interesting distinctions into focus. My only quibble is with defining self-consciousness as self-knowledge. I admit that the term is ambiguous, but in my mind it is associated more closely with self-awareness, which in turn seems like access awareness to information about the self. Which happens at basically the most fundamental level (it is the basic me-ish-ness of experiences, not the structured and conceptualized me-ish-ness), and in my theory about consciousness it is required for any experience to be conscious. But this is not a point of contention about content, it is a point of contention about naming. So no matter what your opinions are about what we should label with the term “self-consciousness” it is important to take away the lesson that there are several possibilities, and that to avoid error through equivocation or vagueness you must specify what kind of subjective character you are designating with the term; don’t leave it up to the reader’s interpretation.]

August 25, 2006

It’s Not So Easy to Get Rid of Downwards Mental Causation

Filed under: Cutting Edge Philosophy,Mind — Peter @ 12:31 am

Recently John Gibbons published an article titled “Mental Causation without Downwards Causation” (Philosophical Review, Vol. 115. #1), in which he argues that mental properties are only the cause of other mental properties, and never of physical properties. This amounts to a kind of epiphenomenalism, in which the mind runs its own course, and is never really the cause of physical states of affairs (for example my thoughts couldn’t be considered to be the cause of this paper, since it is composed of completely physical properties). I disagree, but I can’t simply dismiss his claims as based on a flawed conception of the mental (say a dualistic conception), since he and I both agree that mental properties supervene on the physical.

Before I begin though allow me to illuminate exactly how I interpret “supervene”. There are several ways to view supervenience, but the definition I will use here is that a property P is a supervenient property when P can be “realized” by different collections of physical properties, and that the only conditions of P being “realized” are physical properties. For example the color green is supervenient on the physical properties of surfaces. Only surfaces with the correct physical properties count as green, and the only reason a surface may or may not count as green are the physical properties. The claim that the mental is supervenient on the physical is of course a bit more complicated than the case of color, mental properties supervene on functional ones, which supervene on the physical. Even though the mental does supervene on the physical the relationship is much more complicated than the case of color, even though they are of the same kind.

With that out of the way we can now address the paper’s claims head on. First I will address the core deduction of the paper which proceeds from two premises. The first premise is that the causes of physical properties are solely physical properties, which I will accept given that I am a materialist, and thus think that the physical universe is causally closed. The second premise is that supervenient kinds are not physical, since they cannot be identified with a physical kind. This I will also accept. From these premises Gibbons concludes that supervenient kinds are not casually relevant to the physical properties of physical kinds. I argue that these premises do not entail this conclusion, because at a particular moment the supervenient property can be said to be identical to the physical properties that realize it, even if in general it is not identical to those properties, and thus be said to be the cause of physical properties. In other words when analyzing a specific system at a specific moment if a supervenient property, say the color green, was being realized by a specific collection of physical properties, say the chemical composition of its paint, then it would be natural to identify that instance of the supervenient property with the properties that are realizing it in the moment, although not in general, that is a specific instance of the color green can be identified with the chemical composition of the paint for a specific object at a specific moment. Perhaps the best way to see this is with an example. Let us consider a ball painted with an unusual green paint. It is dropped into a liquid that reacts only with this specific paint and combusts as a result of that reaction. What was the cause of the ball combusting? Well clearly it was the paint, because if the ball hadn’t been painted in that way it wouldn’t have burnt. However the cause can also be said to be that it was colored green, because if it hadn’t been green it wouldn’t have burnt (because it would have had to be some other color, which wouldn’t have reacted).

Now let me turn to the specific examples that seem to support Gibbons’ conclusion. First there is the example of the bridge. A bolt on a bridge snaps with a loud sound, causing the bridge to collapse. It would seem that the description of the bolt snapping suddenly supervenes on the bolt snapping suddenly and loudly. And, according to Gibbons, the bridge’s collapse is caused only by the bolt snapping suddenly, not suddenly and loudly, thus supporting his conclusions. It is true that the bolt snapping suddenly causes the bridge to collapse. If the bolt hadn’t snapped suddenly the bridge wouldn’t have collapsed. However, it is also the case that if the bolt hadn’t snapped suddenly and loudly the bridge wouldn’t have collapsed ether, and thus the bolt snapping suddenly and loudly can also be considered a cause of the collapse. The reason this is so is because when we consider what would have happened if the bridge hadn’t collapsed suddenly and loudly we must take away both the suddenness and the loudness (not simply one or the other, we are not negating a logical connective here). The pigeon example can be resolved similarly. We are asked to consider a pigeon trained to peck at scarlet. Scarlet supervenes on the color red, and so when the pigeon pecks at a scarlet triangle is the cause the triangle’s being red or being scarlet? Again I would say both, because if the triangle hadn’t been scarlet the pigeon wouldn’t have pecked, and if it hadn’t been red the pigeon wouldn’t have pecked either (because then it certainly wouldn’t have been scarlet), and thus I conclude that both the triangle’s redness and its scarlet-ness are causes of the pigeon’s pecking.

So then, what do I think? Well, I am led to conclude that besides physical to physical causation there is also mental to physical causation, physical to mental causation, and mental to mental causation, and that these last three causal connections all supervene on the physical to physical causal connections. I will however leave a defense of that position for another time. I also encourage you to read Gibbons’ paper for yourself, since it is an interesting piece even if you disagree with its conclusions.

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