Ted Honderich , as he promised a while ago, has returned in triumph to the periodical which woundingly rejected him a couple of years ago. Back then, Honderich’s paper on ‘Consciousness as Existence‘ failed the peer review for the Journal of Consciousness Studies: now, a whole issue is devoted to a target paper from him and eleven responses.
In the interval, Honderich has not been idle. He published “On Consciousness”, a more substantial adumbration of the same theory, and others, notably Manzotti and Tonneau as mentioned here, have rallied to the banner of Radical Externalism which he has raised. There’s really no such thing as final vindication for a philosopher, but this surely represents a remarkable improvement in the reception accorded to his views, and it must be highly gratifying: all the more so because, on the whole, the reception accorded his paper is a fairly friendly, positive one.
It’s a good time for Honderich – he’s on television in the UK this week presenting his views on the justification for terrorism. He is generally perceived as saying that it is justified, but of course it’s more complicated than that – I think it’s something along the lines of his cautiously asserting the possibility of a denial of the doctrine that there can in principle be no circumstance in which no less than one of the proffered justifications for terrorist acts can be seen on moral grounds to possess the qualifying characteristics mandated of it (whatever and in whichever theoretical context those may, adequately described no doubt in the relevant papers, be presumed to be) under those theories, not here to be elucidated but sufficiently indicated, perhaps, by such.
Perhaps that’s a slightly unfair parody, but I find Honderich’s expositions always suffer from a strange kind of fogginess. He seems to be asserting something very bold, but amongst all the meandering prose you get a certain impression of the fist not quite connecting. It was just the same, many years ago, with his well-received book, Punishment: it looked as if he thought all punishment was wrong, but nothing half so bold as that was ever quite asserted.
And now, consciousness: he seems to be saying, in fact he surely does say, that my consciousness of something just amounts to the thing existing, which is certainly bold: bold to the point of barminess – but it turns out that it actually amounts to the thing ‘in a way’ existing: three little words which actually stand for a hefty additional apparatus. Tim Crane, in his response, accuses Honderich of equivocating on this, and I find it hard not to agree: in some places Honderich seems to lay stress on the simplicity of the thesis that consciousness is existence, just existence: in others, he explains that what he has in mind is a new and puzzling mode of existence in a second or possibly a third metaphysical world with complicated relations of dependency on other worlds to sustain it.
I find Honderich’s style rather engaging: it has a kind of gently self-deprecating humour. You’re a bit unfair, aren’t you? On the one hand you accuse him of being “foggy”, and then you complain that his brief statement of the main point is too terse: doesn’t include all the details, and therefore conflicts or equivocates with what he says elsewhere.
As Honderich fairly says, anyway, this particular piece isn’t a detailed, definitive exposition, just a presentation of the theory: namely, that for you to be conscious of something is just for that thing to exist, not in the underlying physical world, nor in the form of firing neurons, but in another, perceptual world, dependent both on the physics and the neurons but separate from them. In other words, for you to see something, the actual atoms and molecules of it have to be there in the physical world, and your neurons have to be firing in whatever way they do when you notice something: but your consciousness does not consist in wither of those things: it consists in the object’s being there in your perceptual world – not inside your skull.
You may find this a ‘hefty apparatus’, but I think it has a lot of intuitive appeal. Think of what people say when they talk about their perceptions – they use phrases like “there’s something there”, or “it’s gone”, even when they are not talking about an object but about the mere appearance itself.
Ah, mere appearances! Honderich can’t actually cope with those, can he? Since he says that your awareness of something is equivalent to it’s existing (in a way, blah de blah), it follows that illusions, dreams, imaginary things and mirages, must all also exist (in a way, yacketty smacketty). Harold Brown illustrates the difficulty quite neatly by asking about Kanisza triangles (those ones which ‘appear’ when three ‘pac-men’ are positioned so as to define their corners, but have no actual outlines). Do they exist (in a manner, yada yada)?
Honderich concedes that it isn’t clear how these triangles fit into his conceptual framework, but he reckons it is a minor issue of the kind a friendly graduate student could sort out for him. Surely it’s worse than that?
After all, one of the things Honderich particularly wants his theory to do is to banish sense-data style theories from the landscape. Many people have thought that we do not perceive the world directly, but through internal representations of some kind, and it seems to follow that all we ever really perceive is those representations. The main argument put forward for such views is the argument from error or illusion: if we perceived things directly, how could we ever be wrong about them? The error must creep in through our internal representation being different from reality. Honderich is very keen to deny this: indeed I think it is a major part of his motivation here. He asserts that perception is not perception of some representation or sense-data inside our head, it is the external existence of the thing perceived. But if you want to refute a theory whose main argument is based on problems over errors, your theory surely has to have a robust way of dealing with such errors?
I agree there’s more to be done in clearing up issues like this, but Honderich has a number of options open to him. He denies that conscious awareness is the perception of internal representations, but that doesn’t commit him to denying that there is any such thing as internal representations. It might well be perfectly reasonable to deny that the objects of perception are in the head while affirming that the objects of dreams and illusions are. This might imply that dreams and illusions are not perceptions, but what’s wrong with that – I’d say they’d better not be! In responding to Paul Snowdon Honderich exploits a distinction between affective and perceptual consciousness, which seems a viable enough path to take.
OK. I suppose it’s true that you can lash together a solution to any difficulty if you don’t care about the additional overhead in complexity and ontological commitments that you incur. As a matter of fact, the basic ontological housekeeping of Radical Externalism is its weakest point if you ask me.
I mean, you’ve got this object of perception – let’s be unimaginative and say it’s a chair. It’s not in the world of physics, it’s not in my neurons, it’s in this other place, this world of perception. Is that my world of perception, or the world of perception?
Let’s assume to begin with that there’s only one world of perception: is the chair I perceive there the same as the one you perceive? Strange if so, because it doesn’t look quite the same to you as it does to me. These differences are not really errors, just differences in point of view and the like: so Honderich can’t deploy whatever he may eventually come up with as a solution for errors (and if he could I think he’d find that his treatment of errors gradually eroded the rest of his theory away altogether). I think we’re forced to conclude that the objects of our perception are different. This looks worryingly as if the chair itself might split into two, but Honderich can retain the identity of the single chair intact in the world of physics and just allow it to have, as it were, different avatars in the world of perception.
However, if all the objects of my perception are separate from all the objects of yours, we might just as well say that we each have our own separate world of perception, containing the objects of perception special to us individually. So let’s move on to the hypothesis that we each have our own world of perception with its own objects: our own are directly accessible to us, but not at all to other people (or we should all have a perfect kind of telepathy). Now you can call such worlds external if you like, but it means nothing: if they’re particular to us and denied to everyone else, wouldn’t it be more reasonable to describe them as internal?
I think the point is not about perceptions being specific to individuals, but about their being distinct from my personal neuronal activity. If we can agree that they’re outside the skull, I think Honderich might not care all that much about your wanting to call them internal in some other vague sense. And your version of internality does strike me as pretty loose: my shoes are particular to me, but that doesn’t make them internal. Don’t get me wrong on all this – I’m not saying I’m signing up for membership of the Radical Externalists. But I would go along with what some of the respondents say: anything that cracks open the traditional ways we look at these things: gives us a new set of categories and concepts, must surely be welcome. Even if you don’t like the externalism, you’ve surely got to give two cheers for the radicalism?