Archive for February, 2014

dereta parboIn this discussion over at Edge, Joshua Knobe presents some recent findings of experimental philosophy on the problem of personal identity. Experimental philosophy, which sounds oxymoronic,  is the new and trendy (if it still is?) fashion for philosophising rooted in actual experiments, often of a psychological nature.  The examples I’ve read have all been perfectly acceptable and useful – and why shouldn’t they be? No one ever said philosophy couldn’t be inspired by science, or draw on science. In this case, though, I was not altogether convinced.

After a few words about the basic idea of experimental philosophy, Knobe introduces a couple of examples of interesting problems with personal identity (as he says, it is one of the longer-running discussions in philosophy of mind, with a much older pedigree than discussions of consciousness). His first example is borrowed from Derek Parfit:

Imagine that Derek Parfit is being gradually transformed molecule by molecule into Greta Garbo. At the beginning of this whole process there’s Derek Parfit, then at the end of the whole process it’s really clear that Derek Parfit no longer exists. Derek Parfit is gone. Now there’s Greta Garbo. Now, the key question is this:  At what point along this transformation did the change take place? When did Derek cease to exist and when did Greta come to exist? If you just have to reflect on this question for a while, immediately it becomes clear that there couldn’t be some single point — there couldn’t be a single second, say – in which Derek stops existing and Greta starts existing. What you’re seeing is some kind of gradual process where, as this person becomes more and more and more different from the Derek that we know now, it becomes less and less right to say that he’s Derek at all and more and more right to say that he is gone and a completely other person has come into existence.

I’m afraid this doesn’t seem a great presentation of the case to me. In the first place, it’s a text-book case of begging the question. The point of the thought-experiment is to convince us that Parfit’s identity has changed, but we’re just baldly told that it has, right from the off. We should be told that Parfit’s body is gradually replaced by Garbo’s (and does Garbo still exist or is she gradually eroded away?), then asked whether we still think it’s Parfit when the process is complete. I submit that, presented like that, it’s far from obvious that Parfit has become Garbo (especially if Garbo is still happily living elsewhere); we would probably be more inclined to say that Parfit is still with us and has simply come to resemble Garbo – resemble her perfectly, granted – but resemblance is not identity.

Second: molecule by molecule? What does that even mean? Are we to suppose that every molecule in Parfit has a direct counterpart in Garbo? If not, how do we choose which ones to replace and where to put them? What is the random replacement of molecules going to do to Parfit’s DNA and neurotransmitters, his neurons, his capillaries and astrocytes? Long before we get to the median sage Parfit is going to be profoundly dead, if not reduced to soup. I know it may seem like bad manners to refuse the terms of a thought experiment; magic is generally OK, but what you can’t do is use the freedom it provides to wave away some serious positions on the subject – and it’s a reasonable position on personal identity to think that functional continuity is of the essence.  ‘Molecule by molecule’ takes it for granted that Parfit’s detailed functional structure is irrelevant to his identity.

In fairness we should probably cut Knobe a bit of slack, since circumstances required a short, live exposition. His general point is that we can think of our younger or older selves as different people. In an experiment where subjects were encouraged to think either that their identities remained constant, or changed over time, the ones encouraged to believe in change were happier about letting a future payment go to charity.

Now at best that tells us how people may think about their personal identity, which isn’t much help philosophically since they might easily be flat wrong. But isn’t it a bit of a rubbish experiment, anyway? People are very obliging; if you tell them to behave in one way and then, as part of the same experiment, give them an opportunity to behave that way, some of them probably will; that gives you no steer about their normal behaviour or beliefs.  There’s plenty of evidence in the form of the massive and prosperous pensions and insurance industries that people normally believe quite strongly in the persistence of their identity.

But on top of that, the results can be explained without appealing to considerations of identity anyway. It might be that people merely think: well, my tastes, preferences and circumstances may be very different in a few years, so no point in trying to guess what I’ll want then without in any way doubting that they will be the same person. Since this is simpler and does not require the additional belief in separate identities, Occam’s Razor tells us we should prefer it.

The second example is in some ways more interesting: the aim is to test whether people think emotional, impulsive behaviour, or the kind that comes from long calm deliberation, is more truly reflective of the self. We might, of course, want to say neither, necessarily. However, it turns out that people do not consistently pick either alternative, but nominate as the truest reflection of the person whichever behaviour they think is most virtuous. People think the true self is whichever part of you is morally good.

That’s interesting; but do people really think that, or is it that kindness towards the person in the example nudges them towards putting the best interpretation possible on their personhood – in what is actually an indeterminate issue? I think the latter is almost certainly the case. Suppose we take the example of a man who when calm (or when gripped by artistic impulses) is a painter and a vegetarian; when he is seized by anger (or when thinking calmly about politics) he becomes a belligerent genocidal racist. Are people going to say that Hitler wasn’t really a bad man, and the Nazism wasn’t the true expression of his real self; it was just those external forces that overcame his better nature? I don’t think so, because no-one wants to be forgiving towards Adolf. But towards an arbitrary person we don’t know the default mode is probably generosity.

I dare say this is all a bit unfair and if I read up the experiments Knobe is describing I should find them much better justified than I suppose; but if we’re going to have experiments they certainly need to be solid.

neuron questionBy now the materialist, reductionist, monist, functionalist approaches to consciousness are quite well developed. That is not to say that they have the final answer, but there is quite a range of ideas and theories, complete with objections and rebuttals of the objections. By comparison the dualist case may look a bit underdeveloped, or as Paul Churchland once put it:

Compared to the rich resources and explanatory successes of current materialism, dualism is less a theory of mind than it is an empty space waiting for a genuine theory of mind to be put in it.

In a paper in the latest JCS William S Robinson quotes this scathing observation and takes up the challenge.

Robinson, who could never be accused of denying airtime to his opponents, also quotes O’Hara and Scott’s dismissal of the Hard Problem. For something to be regarded as a legitimate problem, they said, there has to be some viable idea of what an answer would actually look like, or how the supposed problem could actually be solved; since this is absent in the case of the Hard Problem, it doesn’t deserve to be given serious consideration.

Robinson, accordingly, seeks to point out, not a full-blown dualist theory, but a path by which future generations might come to be dualists. This is, in his eyes, the Hard Problem problem; how can we show that the Hard Problem is potentially solvable, without pretending it’s any less Hard than it is? His vision of what our dualist descendants might come to believe relies on two possible future developments, one more or less scientific, the other conceptual.

He starts from the essential question; how can neuronal activity give rise to phenomenal experience? It’s uncontroversial that these two things seem very different, but Robinson sees a basic difference which causes me some difficulty. He thinks neuronal activity is complex while phenomenal experience is simple. Simple? What he seems to have in mind is that when we see, say, a particular patch of yellow paint, a vast array of neurons comes into play, but the experience is just ‘some yellow’.  It’s true that neuronal activity is very complex in the basic sense of there being many parts to it, but it consists of many essentially similar elements in a basically binary state (firing or not firing); whereas the sight of a banana seems to me a multi-level experience whose complexity is actually very hard to assess in any kind of objective terms. It’s not clear to me that even monolithic phenomenal experiences are inherently less complex than the neuronal activity that putatively underpins or constitutes them. I must say, though, that I owe Robinson some thanks for disturbing my dogmatic slumbers, because I’d never really been forced to think so particularly about the complexity of phenomenal experience (and I’m still not sure I can get my mind properly around it).

Anyway, for Robinson this means that the bridge between neurons and qualia is one between complexity and simplicity. He notes that not all kinds of neural activity seem to give rise to consciousness; the first part of his bridge is the reasonable hope that science (or mathematics?) will eventually succeed in characterising and analysing the special kind of complexity which is causally associated with conscious experience; we have no idea yet, but it’s plausible that this will all become clear in due course.

The second, conceptual part of the bridge is a realignment of our ideas to fit the new schema; Robinson suggests we may need to think of complexity and simplicity, not as irreconcilable opposites, but as part of a grander conception, Complexity-And-Simplicity (CAS).

The real challenge for Robinson’s framework is to show how our descendants might on the one hand, find it obvious, almost self-evident, that complex neuronal activity gives rise to simple phenomenal experience, and yet at the same time completely understand how it must have seemed to us that there was a Hard Problem about it; so the Hard Problem is seen to be solvable but still (for us) Hard.

Robinson rejects what he calls the the Short Route of causal essentialism, namely that future generations might come to see it as just metaphysically necessary that the relevant kind of neuronal activity (they understand what kind it is, we don’t) causes our experience. That won’t wash because, briefly,  while in other worlds bricks might not be bricks, depending on the causal properties of the item under consideration, blue will always be blue irrespective of causal relations.

Robinson prefers to draw on an observation of Austen Clark, that there is structure in experience.  The experience of orange is closer to the experience of red and yellow than to the experience of green, and moreover colour space is not symmetrical, with yellow being more like white than blue is. We might legitimately hope that in due course isomorphisms between colour space and neuronal activity will give us good reasons to identify the two. To buttress this line of thinking, Robinson proposes a Minimum Arbitrariness Principle, that in essence, causes and effects tend to be similar, or we might say, isomorphic.

For me the problem here is that I think Clark is completely wrong. Briefly, the resemblances and asymmetries of colour space arise from the properties of light and the limitations of our eyes; they are entirely a matter of non-phenomenal, materialist factors which are available to objective science. Set aside the visual science and our familiarity with the spectrum, and there is no reason to think the phenomenal experience of orange resembles the phenomenal experience of red any more than it resembles the phenomenal experience of Turkish Delight. If that seems bonkers, I submit that it seems so in the light of the strangeness of qualia theory if taken seriously – but I expect I am in a minority.

If we step back, I think that if the descendants whose views Robinson is keen to foresee were to think along the lines he suggests, they probably wouldn’t consider themselves dualists any more; instead they would think that with their new concept of CAS and their discovery of the true nature of neuronal complexity, that they had achieved the grand union of objective and subjective  – and vindicated monism.

langsamHarold Langsam’s new book is a bold attempt to put philosophy of mind back on track. For too long, he declares, we have been distracted by the challenge from reductive physicalism. Its dominance means that those who disagree have spent all their time making arguments against it, instead of developing and exploring their own theories of mind. The solution is that, to a degree, we should ignore the physicalist case and simply go our own way. Of course, as he notes, setting out a rich and attractive non-reductionist theory will incidentally strengthen the case against physicalism. I can sympathise with all that, though I suspect the scarcity of non-reductive theorising also stems in part from its sheer difficulty; it’s much easier to find flaws in the reductionist agenda than to develop something positive of your own.

So Langsam has implicitly promised us a feast of original insights; what he certainly gives us is a bold sweep of old-fashioned philosophy. It’s going to be a priori all the way, he makes clear; philosophy is about the things we can work out just by thinking. In fact a key concept for Langsam is intelligibility; by that, he means knowable a priori. It’s a usage far divorced from the normal meaning; in Langsam’s sense most of the world (and all books) would be unintelligible.

The first target is phenomenal experience; here Langsam is content to use the standard terminology although for him phenomenal properties belong to the subject, not the experience. He speaks approvingly of Nagel’s much-quoted formulation ‘there is something it is like’ to have phenomenal experience, although I take it that in Langsam’s view the ‘it’ that something is like is the person having the experience, which I don’t think was what Nagel had in mind. Interestingly enough, this unusual feature of Langsam’s theory does not seem to matter as much as we might have expected. For Langsam, phenomenal properties are acquired by entry into consciousness, which is fine as far as it goes, but seems more like a re-description than an explanation.

Langsam believes, as one would expect, that phenomenal experience has an inexpressible intrinsic nature. While simple physical sensations have structural properties, in particular, phenomenal experience does not. This does not seem to bother him much, though many would regard it as the central mystery. He thinks, however, that the sensory part of an experience – the unproblematic physical registration of something – and the phenomenal part are intelligibly linked. In fact, the properties of the sensory experience determine those of the phenomenal experience.  In sensory terms, we can see that red is more similar to orange than to blue, and for Langsam it follows that the phenomenal experience of red similarly has an intelligible similarity to the phenomenal experience of orange. In fact, the sensory properties explain the phenomenal ones.

This seems problematic. If the linkage is that close, then we can in fact describe phenomenal experience quite well; it’s intelligibly like sensory experience. Mary the colour scientist, who has never seen colours, actually will not learn anything new when she sees red: she will just confirm that the phenomenal experience is intelligibly like the sensory experience she already understood perfectly. In fact because the resemblance is intelligible – knowable a priori – she could work out what it was like before seeing red at all. To that Langsam might perhaps reply that by ‘a priori’ he means not just pure reasoning but introspection, a kind of internal empiricism.

It still leaves me with the feeling that Langsam has opened up a large avenue for naturalisation of phenomenal experience, or even suggested that it is in effect naturalised already. He says that the relationship between the phenomenal and the sensory is like the relation between part and whole; awfully tempting, then, to conclude that his version of phenomenal experience is merely an aspect of sensory experience, and that he is much more of a sceptic about phenomenality than he realises.

This feeling is reinforced when we move on to the causal aspects. Langsam wants phenomenal experience to have a role in making sensory perceptions available to attention, through entering consciousness. Surely this is making all the wrong people, from Langsam’s point of view, nod their heads: it sounds worryingly functionalist. Langsam wants there to be two kinds of causation: ‘brute causation’, the ordinary kind we all believe in, and intelligible causation, where we can just see the causal relationship. I enjoyed Langsam taking a pop at Hume, who of course denied there was any such thing; he suggests that Hume’s case is incomplete, and actually misses the most important bits. In Langsam’s view, as I read it, we just see inferences, perceiving intelligible relationships.

The desire to have phenomenal experience play this role seems to me to carry Langsam too far in another respect: he also claims that simply believing that p has a phenomenal aspect. I take it he wishes this to be the case so that this belief can also be brought to conscious attention by its phenomenal properties, but look; it just isn’t true. ‘Believing that p’ has no phenomenal properties whatever; there is nothing it is like to believe that p, in the way that there is something it is like to see a red flower. The fact that Langsam can believe otherwise reinforces the sense that he isn’t such a believer in full-blooded phenomenality as he supposes.

We can’t accuse him of lacking boldness, though. In the second part of the book he goes on to consider appropriateness and rationality; beliefs can be appropriate and rational, so why not desires? At this point we’re still apparently engaged on an enquiry into philosophy of mind, but in fact we’ve also started doing ethics. In fact I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that Langsam is after Kant’s categorical imperative. Our desires can stem intelligibly from such sensations as pain and pleasure, and our attitudes can be rational in relation to the achievement of desires. But can there be globally rational desires – ones that are rational whatever we may otherwise want?

Langsam’s view is that we perceive value in things indirectly through our feelings and when our desires are for good things they are globally rational.  If we started out with Kant, we seem to have ended up with a conclusion more congenial to G.E,Moore. I admire the boldness of these moves, and Langsam fleshes out his theory extensively along the way – which may be the real point as far as he’s concerned. However, there are obvious problems about rooting global rationality in something as subjective and variable as feelings, and without some general theory of value Langsam’s system is bound to suffer a certain one-leggedness.

I do admire the overall boldness and ambition of Langsam’s account, and it is set out carefully and clearly, though not in a way that would be very accessible to the general reader. For me his views are ultimately flawed, but give me a flawed grand theory over a flawless elucidation of an insignificant corner every time.