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’.