Picture: Peter Hacker. Peter Hacker made a surprising impact with his recent interview in the TPM, which was reported and discussed in a number of other places.  Not that his views aren’t of interest; and the trenchant terms in which he expressed them probably did no harm: but he seemed mainly to be recapitulating the views he and Max Bennett set out in 2003;  notably the accusation that the study of consciousness is plagued by the ‘mereological fallacy’ of taking a part for the whole and ascribing to the brain alone the powers of thought, belief, etc, which are properly ascribed only to whole people.

There’s certainly something in Hacker’s criticism, at least so far as popular science reporting goes. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read newspaper articles that explain in breathless tones the latest discovery: that learning, or perception, or thought are really changes in the brain!  Let’s be fair: the relationship between physical brain and abstract mind has not exactly been free of deep philosophical problems over the centuries. But the point that the mind is what the brain does, that the relationship is roughly akin to the relationship between digestion and gut, or between website and screen, surely ought not to trouble anyone too much?

You could say that in a way Bennett and Hacker have been vindicated since 2003 by the growth of the ‘extended mind’ school of thought. Although it isn’t exactly what they were talking about, it does suggest a growing acknowledgement that too narrow a focus on the brain is unhelpful. I think some of the same counter-arguments also apply. If we have a brain in a VAT, functioning as normally as possible in such strange circumstances, are we going to say it isn’t thinking?  If we take the case of Jean-Dominique Bauby, trapped in a non-functioning body, but still able to painstakingly dictate a book about his experience,  can’t we properly claim that his brain was doing the writing? No doubt Hacker would respond by asking whether we are saying that Bauby had become a mere brain? That he wasn’t a person any more? Although his body might have ceased to function fully he still surely had the history and capacities of a person rather than simply those of a brain.

The other leading point which emerges in the interview is a robust scepticism about qualia.  Nagel in particular comes in for some stick, and the phrase ‘there is something it is like’ often invoked in support of qualia, is given a bit of a drubbing. If you interpret the phrase as literally invoking a comparison, it is indeed profoundly obscure; on the other hand we are dealing with the ineffable here, so some inscrutability is to be expected. Perhaps we ought to concede that most people readily understand what it is that Nagel and others are getting at.  I quite enjoyed the drubbing, but the issue can’t be dismissed quite as easily as that.

From the account given in the interview (and I have the impression that this is typical of the way he portrays it) you would think that Hacker was alone in his views, but of course he isn’t. On the substance of his views, you might expect him to weigh in with some strong support for Dennett; but this is far from the case.  Dennett is too much of a brainsian in Hacker’s view for his ideas to be anything other than incoherent.  It’s well worth reading Dennett’s own exasperated response (pdf), where he sets out the areas of agreement before wearily explaining that he knows, and has always said, that care needs to be taken in attributing mental states to the brain; but given due care it’s a useful and harmless way of speaking.

John Searle also responded to Bennett and Hacker’s book and, restrained by no ties of underlying sympathy, dismissed their claims completely. Conscious states exist in the brain, he asserted: Hacker got this stuff from misunderstanding Wittgenstein, who says that observable behaviour (which only a whole person can provide) is a criterion for playing the language game, but never said that observable behaviour was a criterion for conscious experience.  Bennett and Hacker confuse the criterial basis for the application of mental concepts with the mental states themselves. Not only that, they haven’t even got their mereology right: they’re talking about mistaking the part for the whole, but the brain isn’t a part of a person, it’s a part of a body.

Hacker clearly hasn’t given up, and it will be interesting to see the results of his current ‘huge project, this time on human nature’.

30 Comments

  1. 1. Ken Aizawa says:

    I am not sure that Hacker would deny that Jean-Dominique Bauby thinks. The passage from Wittgenstein that seems to matter a lot to Hacker is “Only of a human being and what resembles (behaves like) a living human being can one say: it has sensations; it sees, is blind; hears, is deaf; is conscious or unconscious”. Of course, thinking does not appear on this list, but one can extrapolate. And so Hacker might say that J-D Bauby does think, since he displays the requisite behavior, albeit in an uncommon way.

  2. 2. Peter says:

    Yes, you’re right – I expect something along those lines is what he would actually say.

  3. 3. Ken Aizawa says:

    Following up on your thought, however, it is less clear to me what Hacker would say about those who suffer total locked in syndrome. What about the folks who are not enabled? Who cannot even move their eyelids? They don’t behave like a living human being, but they *could* with the right set-up, e.g. some sort of brain-computer interface. But, that would probably make thinking a dispositional property (which is probably Wittgensteinian anyway). That, however, seems to place greater demands on the range of conditions under which the disposition would be able to manifest itself. I don’t know how that would go for Hacker. So, I think that you are on to something in this regard.

  4. 4. Charles Wolverton says:

    Having had the good fortune to encounter Damasio and his holistic view of “the mental” early in my foray into the consciousness world, I was never tempted by the brain in a vat gambit. Hence, for me there is no question that (as I understand his condition) it was Bauby the person who authored his book. His brain didn’t provide the emotional motivation to embark on such a Herculean task, nor the encouragement to carry on, nor the necessary I-O functions (degraded though they were), nor the biological support for the brain.

    On the other hand, since I find it useful to view a person as a (very complicated, of course) stimulus-response system in which the brain receives stimuli (from all parts of the body including intra-brain stimuli) and plans actions for either immediate or future action, it is unclear to me what would happen in the postulated “total locked-in syndrome”. With no prospect of any action, immediate or future, what would be the content of “thinking” assuming such a model? Perhaps something analogous to muscle atrophy would occur, ie, thinking would in some sense just wither away. (For the sake of anyone in such a state, I can only hope it would, and quickly.)

    Prof Aizawa, would you elaborate just a bit on what you mean by “that would probably make thinking a dispositional property”? As I interpret the statement, it appears to describe as “thinking” a functionality so downgraded that I expect many (though not I) would object.

    As an aside, thanks to Peter for introducing Hacker, someone of whom I was not aware but clearly should be (I really hate “what it’s like to be …”!) What would you guys recommend as an intro (hopefully less than a five volume set!)?

  5. 5. Peter says:

    He seems prepared to loosen the connection with behaviour to some degree. He says:

    We agree that, for the most part, behaviour is neither necessary nor sufficient for a wide array of mental phenomena – pretence and deception are sometimes possible, and concealment, suppression and paralysis are also conceivable, But it does not follow that the mental is not conceptually connected to its behavioural manifestations, or, conversely, that the relevant behavioural manifestations are not conceptually bound up with the mental phenomenon they manifest. and it is incorrect to say that ‘the phenomena in question can exist completely and have all of their essential properties independent of any behavioural output’. What is posible some of the time may not be possible all of the time.

    I’m not sure exactly how to construe this, but it seems as if he thinks you need the behaviour or at least the capacity for the behaviour, in order to acquire the concept, but that once you have the concept you can occasionally deal with it without the connected behaviour.

    We would naturally want to ask him at this point: in those exceptional cases, then – is the thinking in the brain in those cases? I don’t know what he would say to that.

  6. 6. Peter says:

    Charles – if you want a lighter intro, you could get Neuroscience and Philosophy: Brain, Mind, and Language which contains extracts from Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience plus the responses from Dennett and Searle and further defence from Bennett and Hacker.

  7. 7. Peter says:

    …and it’s half the length of the original!

  8. 8. Vicente says:

    Well, a haircut might change my mental states if I think it was too expensive for what I got, a bad cortexcut is definitely going to make me angry.

    Charles reference to Damasio just reminded me an idea I am beginning to have, and is related to this post. It is clear that Damasio is one of the best neurologists ever, I admire his work, just read his last book, really good, or Dennett a brilliant philosopher of mind… a some others. What I find amazing, incredible, is that they almost deny the phenomenological experience. I have come across highly educated scientists, and discussed with them the problem of consciousness, and I could feel that they really didn’t understand the “hard problem” profoundly.

    Here in CE you can see many commenters neglecting the fact of qualia, many time referred as the two qualiaphiles/qualiaphobes camps.

    The only explanantion I have is that not anybody has the sensitivity, the capacity to “see” to understand the breach between their inner world and the outer one, despite it might be the most important thing is their lifes, and irrespective of their best education in the field, case of Damasio or Dennett. There must be something that allows some to experience that fact, and not to others.

    It is either that or I, and those who feel alike, are suffering some kind of paranoia.

  9. 9. John Davey says:

    “I have come across highly educated scientists, and discussed with them the problem of consciousness, and I could feel that they really didn’t understand the “hard problem” profoundly.”

    You need a background in mathematics and computers to become really ignorant, Vicente ! I have found that few physicists and biologists fall into this trap. That is because physicists in particular never confuse mathematics for reality. They know the universe is all this stuff, and ‘stuff’ is not mathematics.

  10. 10. John Davey says:

    Vicente

    PS I don’t find it credible that Dennett still maintains the position that he does. Of all of these guys, he is the least crazy. I think he probably feels he just cannot back down at this point in his life, like a lot of the AI bunch. It’s a pity

  11. 11. Simon says:

    “Not only that, they haven’t even got their mereology right: they’re talking about mistaking the part for the whole, but the brain isn’t a part of a person, it’s a part of a body.”

    Aren’t you taking it for granted that the psychological continuity account is true?

  12. 12. Peter says:

    I was paraphrasing Searle there (actually making him sound a bit ruder than he really was, I confess), rather than speaking for myself, Simon – but why does that view take the psychological continuity account for granted?

  13. 13. Vicente says:

    Peter,

    the phrase ‘there is something it is like’ often invoked in support of qualia, is given a bit of a drubbing

    The only drubbing I see is the one the author gives himself with his attack, without any logic in it.

    I quote:

    Any decent zoologist can no doubt tell you what bats do, what they enjoy, and what frightens them. That’s what the life of a bat is like. There’s nothing mysterious here.

    I suppose this is just enough to completely disregard the whole piece, at least for anybody who knows a bit about what we are dealing with.

    John,

    I don’t know if they are ignorants (I believe not), but if they are just pretending, it is wrong, and if they are not, it is even worse. Probably they are embarrassed to admit the mystery. It is a taboo for them. They think they are not real intellectuals or scientists if the deviate from a pure “materialistic” (1) point of view. It is funny because many philosophy and science giants, billions of times better than them, have had no problem to admit the mystery, maybe for that reason they were real scientists and men of knowledge. The worst thing a scientist (or a philosopher – knowledge lover) can do is to turn the back to the facts, it is like doctoring data. The most I could admit is that “qualia” are out range for science methodology.

    You are right, it is a pity.

    (1) as if the materialistic side was any clearer he he….

  14. 14. Charles Wolverton says:

    Peter – ordered it today. Thanks.

  15. 15. Vicente says:

    From Dennett’s response pdf:

    Consider their discussion of the fascinating and controversial topic of mental imagery.

    First they demonstrate–but I doubt anybody has ever doubted it–that creative imagination and mental imagery are really quite distinct and independent phenomena. Then comes their knockout punch: “A topographically arranged sensory area is not an image of anything; there are no images in the brain, and the brain does not have images.” (p183) As one who has argued strenuously for years that we must not jump to the conclusion that “mental imagery” involves actual images in the brain, and that the retinotopic arrays found therein may well not function as images in the brain’s processing, I must note that their bald assertion does not help at all. It is simply irrelevant whether “we would say” that the brain has images. Whether any of the arrays of stimulation in the brain that manifestly have the geometric properties of images function as images is an empirical question, and one that is close to being answered. Philosophical analysis is powerless to settle the issue–except by a deeply reactionary insistence that these image-like data structures, from which information is apparently extracted in much the way we persons (at the personal level) extract information visually from public images, don’t count as images. Such obfuscatory moves give philosophy a serious credibility problem in cognitive science.
    In fact, there are serious conceptual problems with the ways in which cognitive scientists have spoken about images, and knowledge, and representations, and information, and the rest. But it is hard, detailed work showing that the terminology used is being misused in ways that seriously mislead the theorists. The fact is that for the most part, these terms, as they are found in cognitive science, really are “ordinary language”–not technical terms that have been explicitly stipulated within some theory.

    This is the point were both, Dennett and Hacker, clearly show that they don’t understand what’s going on. Because mental images, are related to, but are completely different in nature from any neural topological array, and of course require of conceptual interpretation to become meaningful in the flow of consciousness, or as discussed in previous posts, to incorporate “intentionality”.

    In addition, neurological tissue “geometrical” parametrization, is susceptible of quantitative physical measurement, which, of course mental images are not.

    This counting on our own introspective capabilities. Now, Hacker can surely provide us with a first person description of the experience of flying around using a sonar sense. No a “what is like to”, a first person description of the experience. If he doesn’t know what is a sonar sense, I suggest he asks a decent zoologist about it. Sometimes a decent zoologist is what is needed to comment some philosophical pearls of wisdom…

  16. 16. Simon says:

    Sorry Peter should have directed that better. Anyway by implication -in the context of biological (BC) vs psychological continuity (PC)- isn’t this just another way of saying bodies/organisms (BC) aren’t persons? I must admit it isn’t at all clear to me what one can take away from the traditional Personal Identity debate, as it appears to me as a false dilemma.

    & while I agree with Hacker on a fundamental level concerning the Mereology, I like others –even with embodied cognition etc- don’t think it is totally useless -in weak functional sense- to say the brain does much of the ‘brute’ cognitive processing.

    Likewise while his point about Dennett and Bat’s could be technically correct, -somewhat like asking what is your Zen nature and does a bat have one?- and it is in itself is pointless; but in a wider context I still think it useful. Somewhat similar to conceptualizing a hole by first describing a donut. A similar point can be made with him being technically correct that it isn’t matter ‘creating’ consciousness but the evolved organisms. Fine but I think many would then just say how does that matter arranged as that organism create consciousness?

  17. 17. Peter says:

    Thanks, Simon – I see what you mean.

  18. 18. A consciousness raising exercise « Mind Hacks says:

    [...] established theories it also tackles new ideas and controversies as they appear, with the fantastic coverage of philosopher Peter Hacker’s criticisms of just about everything in neuroscience and the [...]

  19. 19. Charles Wolverton says:

    “like asking what is your Zen nature and does a bat have one?”

    At first I thought this quite a good analogy, but on further reflection I think not. Perhaps wrongly, I understand the objective of such Zen questions as being heuristic, an aid used by a master to help a student to discover that not everything can be “grasped” with language and concepts, that not every well-formed sentence has meaning, et al.

    By contrast, I understand “what it’s like …” to be an attempt to explain the “subjective” aspect of experience. But to borrow from Rorty, that seems like trying to “explain the obscure by the even more obscure”. It isn’t clear to me why that is useful.

    “it isn’t matter ‘creating’ consciousness but the evolved organisms. Fine but … how does that matter arranged as that organism create consciousness?”

    I personally try to avoid using “consciousness talk”. But if one insists on using it, there still remain the questions of when it’s applicable and how its applied. In the case cited, I think Hacker should have said something like “‘consciousness talk’ applies only with respect to persons, not matter per se“. And since it appears that we don’t have a very good technical definition of “consciousness”, it seems best to avoid making unequivocal statements like those about what “creates” it. If we aren’t even clear on what it is, it seems unlikely that we know how it is created.

  20. 20. Charles Wolverton says:

    BTW, in case anyone has missed it, there is a very interesting essay by Jesse Prinz at On the Human, http://onthehuman.org/. (At least I found it interesting – judging from the dearth of comments, apparently a minority assessment.)

    Note that in the essay, Prof Prinz uses “qualia” in what appears (to me) to be a totally uncontroversial way. The only problem I have with qualia – or any other word/concept – is when used in a way that suggests a transcendental aura. In the essay the word seems to be used merely in the sense of “features of mental imagery”. Why would anyone question that usage? Or more to the point of some recent comments, why would anyone assume that anyone else would question it?

  21. 21. kenmeer livermaile says:

    We really have nothing to say about what a ‘brain in a vat’ might or might not think. We have no experience of such a thing. A disembodied brain (db) might think many things, but they might well not be like anything we think of as thought. They might be analogous to the vague sense of mental motion we sometimes have in sleep. A db might do that infamous thing — think pure thoughts. That the thoughts might have no relation at all to what we think of as the world makes them no less thoughts, and no less conscious.

    A sense of self? Reflective self-awareness? A personality? Again, we have no clue. We have yet, to my knowledge, not sustained a brain in a vat just as we have yet, to my knowledge, isolated the sense of self from the self.

    To invoke the tiresome computer analogy, a db is like a cp processor without anything but a power supply and its basic BIOS. Ad the other components, and the sucker thinks. Does the sum total of it’s ‘consciousness’ happen in the CPU or? Seems pointless to ask. We know that a functioning computer requires x, y, z. We know that they produce what is called computing, and that without a CPU, it’s just so many frog legs being jolted by juice. Computing is a concept, an abstracted gestalt, if you’ll indulge a layman’s use of the concept.

    Consciousness is a concept conceived by consciousness. Riddles and koans like ‘If the conscious self is an illusion – who is it that’s being fooled*?’ or (pick your fave Zen classic) point this out and also point out that it is only a concept conceived by consciousness, one of those endless loops like ‘why ask why?’

    *obviously, the illusion is being fooled. Illusions are real, just not what they seem to be.

    Descartes gonna rise again someday, I say. ‘I doubt that I exist therefore I exist’ is still one of the sweetest infinite loops devised.

    Here’s my analogy of this manner of questioning the riddle of consciousness: it’s like a sentient computer asking itself what it might think if it disconnected itself from itself. Say what?

    We can shout echoes into the void all we want, and listen to myriad different echoes, but they’re only echoes of the self, and as long as we’re shouting, the void isn’t void.

  22. 22. kenmeer livermaile says:

    Persnicketyism requires me to write the Cartesian loop fully: I doubt that I exist therefore I exist because I doubt that I exist therefore…

    It’s purty.

  23. 23. Simon says:

    Charles while I’m no Zen master what I’ve taken away from doing some reading on the subject is that while Koans on one level, do deal with the point you make, but they also operate in other ways to assist the student. This may be a false insight –I haven’t been tested- but in some ways similar to Hacker, once you start to make conceptual comparisons to gain an understanding you have missed the point, & that this avenue just won’t work. Like Koans, concepts are all poor tools, but they can help one come to a point where you ‘understand’ – only after you have abandoned them – that there is no understanding. The this’ness just is and you stop trying to conceptualise and just be. BTW this isn’t ignorance or giving up. Is there a word in English for non-knowing knowing?

    Anyway, regarding what it is LIKE, it seems to me that Hacker is saying it isn’t like anything so there is no comparison and it is a misunderstanding to even attempt to do so on this level. To this extent I think I agree with him, but I still appreciate where Nagel is coming from with a phenomenological approach, that while I cannot compare through direct thoughts or language the like’ness of the mental states of other entities, I can 3rd person this ‘concept’; again somewhat like conceptualizing a hole in a donut by thinking of a donut.

    BTW regarding sense date, mental images and extended minds I did read of Japanese research that was able to pick up individual words from scanning neural patterns–done under very tightly controlled circumstances- from images flashed to test subjects. Food for thought :)

  24. 24. Vicente says:

    Charles [#20], Prinz refers to qualia as “sensory items” in a vague fashion, and his discourse is totally uncontroversial because he says nothing about anything, to this respect.

    What I found very interesting is that he claims that pure abstract conceptual thought cannot be a stand-alone conscious content, as one always require of a sensory imagery “structure” to support the thinking process. This is an issue I have always been very interested in, but I have no clear conclusion.

  25. 25. Charles Wolverton says:

    simon –

    Thanks for the reply. FWIW, I agree with your take on koans. As for a “word in English for non-knowing knowing”, I doubt there can be one since I accept Rorty’s position (attributed to Sellars and Wittgenstein) that “to understand a concept is to master the use of a word”. I.e., no concept to understand, no word to master. Or trying to put that in a more Zen-like way, we could agree to call that way of knowing “zenknow”, but then mastering use of that word would presumably be never to think or speak it.

    I would suggest that sometimes the order is reversed, ie, use of a word over a period of time comes to define a concept. This is the essence of my complaint about use of the word “consciousness”. It is often treated as if it were a label of a concept, but its use so far appears to be so inconsistent – often even incoherent – as to suggest that whatever concept it supposedly labels is a chimera.

  26. 26. drew hempel says:

    Charles Wolverton makes a good point about words as concepts versus consciousness but there is an important exception. Consider Dan Zahavi’s work on self-alterity — which focuses on the word “I” as the exception. Even Chomsky admits that if humans didn’t rely on “I-language” then it’s possible humans could have similar perceptional ranges as other animals (i.e. rats that can see x-rays, bats that can see with sound, electric fish having telepathy, etc.).

    So from the perspective of Zen — the word comes from the Chinese Ch’an which comes from the Sanskrit Dhyana which means “concentration.” The Indian philosophy of advaita vedanta relies on concentration of the I-thought as “vichara” or self-enquiry. There has been a similar interpretation of Socrates relying on the I-thought. Peter Kingsley, for example, connects Pythagorean philosophy to Indian mind-body transformation in his OUP published Ph.D. thesis — “Ancient Mystery, Magic, and Philosophy.” (1996)

    So the “concept” of the I-thought is based on inference and as Dan Zahavi emphasis only the “I” is a word that transcends its own meaning. The practice of vichara is literally to repeat I-I-I at the exclusion of all other thoughts, not as a meaningless repetition but instead a logical inference to find the source of thoughts as consciousness. Buddhism argued that this practice of relying on the I-thought was just another reified concept about consciousness. But the repetition of the I-thought is just the early stage of the practice and the result itself can only be logically inferred without any words itself to define consciousness.

  27. 27. Charles Wolverton says:

    I just stumbled upon a very informative exchange – relevant to the second paragraph in my comment 4 above – involving none other than Jesse Prinz (of current OTH essay fame – see comment 20 above) and Alva Noe, with Ken Aizawa and Gary Williams as interlocutors:

    http://philosophyandpsychology.com/?p=884

    The issue discussed is how to interpret statements by Noe such as ““to perceive you must be in possession of sensorimotor bodily skill”. In the exchange, various candidate interpretations are explored that can be summarized roughly (not necessarily either accurately or completely) as:

    1. One needs the ability to literally move around, presumably to get more detailed perspectival information about the target object

    According to this interpretation, anyone with severe (not necessarily total) mobility would suffer substantial loss of perception. As Gary Williams notes, that seems unrealistic.

    2. One need only have specific perception-related motor abilities, eg, saccading

    It seems clear that Noe has in mind much than such limited capability.

    3. “perception requires a history of action” with respect to the target object (Ken A paraphrasing GW)

    FWIW, I agree that this gets closer to what Noe may have meant, but it seems to me still too restrictive. What about a person born immobilized but with, for example, full sensory capabilities?

    As is usually the case in such discussions, the vocabulary seems too imprecise to definitively determine what a quoted phrase means unless the author is available to explain.

    So, I’ll just restate in the vocabulary of Noe’s quote above what I had in mind by that paragraph in comment 4. From my stimulus/response-planning perspective, perception might require the presumption of the sensorimotor skills necessary to execute any planned response. Complete inability to respond (at least without Herculean effort ala Bauby) might in time negate that presumption, causing the perceptive capability to atrophy. Ie, in the absence of the ability to execute a response (with a tolerable level of effort) there is no motivation to plan one and therefore no need to maintain the processing facility that converts sensations into perceptions. (Eg, per Prinz’s essay, the intermediate level processing in V2-V7, with feedback from the high level “concept” processing in IT.)

  28. 28. Arnold Trehub says:

    Think about it. When you are awake doesn’t it feel like you are at the center of a surrounding space full of stuff and events? Isn’t this what consciousness is like? Aren’t your toes below your head? So isn’t your body a part of the space that you are in? If this is the case, where are you? See: http://people.umass.edu/trehub/YCCOG828%20copy.pdf

  29. 29. Ken Aizawa says:

    Re: Charles

    “Prof Aizawa, would you elaborate just a bit on what you mean by “that would probably make thinking a dispositional property”? As I interpret the statement, it appears to describe as “thinking” a functionality so downgraded that I expect many (though not I) would object.”

    Sorry to be so long in responding. I am not good at reading comments …

    So, the idea is that thinking is a dispositional property as is, to take the pedestrian example, solubility. Salt is soluble (in water) means that under certain conditions, such as standard temperature and pressure, a bit of salt placed in water will dissolve. Or, to use other (philosophically) common locutions, under the right conditions, salt will manifest its disposition to dissolve. Turn to thinking. Given certain sort of conditions, such as being connected to a functioning vocal tract and not being paralyzed by curare, the dispositional property of thinking will be manifest.

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