Posts tagged ‘intentionality’

Picture: Socrates looking at himself. Introspection, the direct examination of the contents of our own minds, seems itself to be in many minds at the moment.  The latest issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies was devoted to papers on introspection, marking the tenth anniversary of the publication of The View from Within, by Francisco Varela and Jonathan Shear (which was itself a special edition of the JCS); and now Eric Schwitzgebel has produced a new entry for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The two accounts are of course quite different in some respects. The encyclopaedia entry is a careful, scholarly account, neutral and comprehensive; the JCS issue is openly a rallying-cry in support of a programme flowing from Varela’s work.  This, it seems, called for an end to the ban on examination of lived experience;  the JCS gives the impression that it was something of a milestone, though Schwitzgebel’s piece does not mention it (he does cite an earlier paper by Varela, once again in the JCS).

What’s all this about a ban? Well, back in the nineteenth century, psychologists had no fears about using introspective evidence; it was thought that a proper scientific effort would lead to an objectively verifiable kind of phenomenology. We should be able to classify the elements of mental experience and clarify how they worked together, just by examining what went on in our own heads. A great deal of work was done on all this (It was a great disappointments for me to discover, on first opening Brentano’s Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, that it consisted almost entirely of this kind of thing, and that the only passage about intentional inexistence, the interesting issue, was the couple of paragraphs which I had already read as quotes in several other books.).  There was a gradual refinement of the methods involved, leading on to the great heyday of introspectionism, with Wundt and Titchener in the lead. Unfortunately, it became clear that the rival schools of introspectionism had begun to come up with results which in some respects were radically different and incompatible, and since our own introspections are by their nature private and unverifiable, all they could really do by way of settling the issues was to shout at each other.

This embarrassing impasse led to a reaction away from introspection and to the rise of behaviourism, which not only denied the usefulness of examining our inner experience, but actually went to the extreme of denying that there was any such thing as inner experience.  Behaviourism in its turn fell out of favour, but according to Varela there remained an instinctive distrust of introspection which continued to put people off it as an avenue of research. This is the ‘ban’ he wanted to see overturned.

Was there, is there, really a ban? Not exactly.  Apart from the most dogmatic of the behaviourists, no-one has ever tried to exclude introspection altogether. In recent times, introspective evidence has been widely accepted – the problem of qualia, thought by some to be the problem of consciousness, depends entirely on introspection. I think the real problem arises when we adopt special methods. In order to obtain consistent results, the old introspectionists thought extensive training was necessary. It wasn’t enough to sit and think for a bit; you had to have mastered certain skills of discrimination and perception. The methodological dangers involved in teaching your researchers what kind of thing they could legitimately look for are clear.

Unfortunately, it seems to be very much this kind of programme which the JCS authors would like to resurrect – or rather, have resurrected, and wish to gain acceptance and support for.  Once again we are going to need to learn how to introspect properly before our observations will be acceptable. What makes it worse for me is that the proposal seems to be tied up with NLP – Neuro-linguistic Programming.  I don’t know a great deal about NLP: it seems to be a protean doctrine which shares with the Holy Roman Empire the property of not really being any of the three things in its name – but for me it does nothing to render another trip down this particular blind alley more attractive.

Blandula I don’t know about that, but aren’t they right to emphasise the potential value of introspection? Isn’t it the case that introspection is our only source of infallible information? Most of the things we perceive are subject to error and delusion, but we can’t, for example, be wrong about the fact that we are feeling pain, can we? That seems interesting to me. Our impressions of the outside world come to us through a chain of cause and effect, and at any stage errors or misinterpretations can creep in; but because introspection is direct, there’s no space for error to occur. You could well say it’s our only source of certain knowledge – isn’t that worth pursuing a little more systematically?

Bitbucket Infallible? That is the exact reverse of the truth: in fact all introspections are false. Think about it. Introspection can only address the contents of consciousness, right? You can’t introspect the unconscious mental processes that keep you balanced, or regulate your heartbeat. But all of the contents of consciousness have intentionality – they’re all about things, yes? So to have direct experience of mental content is to be thinking about something else – not about the mental state itself, but about the thing it’s about! Now when we attempt to think directly about our own mental states, it follows that we’re not experiencing them in themselves – we’re experiencing a different mental state which is about them. In short, we’re necessarily imagining our mental states. Far from having direct contact, we are inevitably thinking about something we’ve just made up.

Picture: Infallible. I was pondering the question of my own infallibility recently.  Not as the result of a sudden descent into megalomaniacal delusion – I was thinking only of the kinds of infallibility which, if they exist, are shared by all of us conscious beings.

Of course, I am only infallible on certain points: the question is, which? One prime candidate is my own existence. Quite a few people these days contend that the ‘self’ is an illusion, perhaps a fading shadow of the idea of the soul, or kind of trick with smoke and mirrors.  If we are to believe Descartes and his cogito, however, my own existence is the one thing I can’t doubt. Non-existent people don’t doubt anything, so to doubt my own existence is to prove it – though some would be quick to point out that a momentary doubt doesn’t amount to all that much in the way of a self, and that everything else remains to be argued for.

There are, in any case, some other issues on which I may be infallible.  I might be infallible about certain aspects of my current experience.  I could certainly be mistaken (dreaming, deluded, illuded) about the fact that this is a dagger I see before me, but I couldn’t be wrong about the fact that it seems to me there’s a dagger before me, could I? The world might be an illusion, but even illusions are things.

Or to make it even less debatable, I could be wrong about having stubbed my toe just now, but I couldn’t be wrong about the sensation of pain I’m currently feeling, surely? Perhaps I never stubbed my toe; perhaps I don’t have toes and am just a brain in a vat somewhere; perhaps none of the world really exists at all and this current thought, with all its implied memories and feelings,  is just a weird metaphysical wrinkle on the surface of universal nothingness; but that experience of pain is finally undeniable. The sheer immediacy of pain seems to mean that there just is no gap between me and it into which any misunderstanding could creep.

And yet… We’re familiar these days with the strange deformations of awareness which can result from brain injury; people who no longer recognise their arm as belonging to them; people who feel pain in an arm they haven’t got any more; people who are blind but insist, in the teeth of the evidence, that they can see.  Isn’t it possible we could have people who believe themselves to be in pain when they aren’t? A competent hypnotist produces false and even absurd beliefs in subjects all the time and could probably induce such a state without the least difficulty?

Well, a hypnotist could certainly induce someone to say they were in pain, and behave as if they were in pain; but would the subject be in real pain? Unfortunately, the only way we can get at people’s real, inner, subjective states is through their reports, so if a hypnotist has interfered with their ability to report, we’re a bit stuck. These days, it’s true, we could put someone in a scanner and have a look at their brain activity; but that would still beg some philosophical questions.

It’s tempting to say, look, I have real pain in my toe right this minute and that – that – can’t be a mistake. I grant you could fool some person into declaring themselves in pain falsely, and even believing it. We could imagine Mary the Pain Scientist, who has lived since birth in a state of analgesia; then we tickle her toes and tell her that that’s pain. Of course she believes it. But these cases of error somehow just don’t touch the infallibility of the real cases, like mine. Mary, and the other deluded pain-claimants, are simply using the wrong words – they’re calling something pain which isn’t really pain. But let’s put words aside; that thing I’m feeling now – that’s what I’m feeling, and I can’t be wrong.

If that argument succeeds, it seems to do so only by descending to a level where the concepts of truth and falsity no longer apply: of course there’s a sense in which a mere wordless sensation can’t be false. It can still be real, but if the reality of my feelings is all we’ve established, we don’t seem to have added anything of substance to the cogito. And indeed if we put ourselves back into Descartes shoes, it seems impossible to deny that some wicked demon could have convinced us that we were in pain when we aren’t – that’s more or less what happened to Pain Mary.

This is murky territory, but my own guess is that while we can’t feel pain without feeling pain, we can believe we’re in pain without feeling real pain, and for that matter we can feel pain while holding at some level the erroneous belief that we’re not feeling pain. The feeling itself may be veridical in some loose sense, but it can coexist with a higher-order belief about it which happens to be false.

I feel reasonably happy about that because it is clearly the case that we can have false beliefs about our own beliefs;  indeed, it’s pretty common.  I absolutely believe that bungee jumping is safe, until I step onto the platform, when I find that some part of my brain, or perhaps just my legs and stomach, hold other views entirely.

But the mention of believing something with one’s legs reveals that beliefs are slippery and polymorphous. To believe something I don’t need to do anything; I can have beliefs about things I never thought of  (yesterday I believed that Kubla Khan’s smallest horse never used the St Malo ferry, and would have said so confidently and without hesitation if asked, though I never thought of the beast until now), and I can go on believing things while unconscious, perhaps indeed when dead (did Galileo stop believing that the Earth goes round the Sun when he died?) .

But what about good old straightforward thoughts? Surely my thought that I am thinking that A, is much less vulnerable than a belief that I believe that A? How could I be thinking about a nice cup of tea while thinking that I’m thinking about the ferry to St Malo? It’s certainly possible for the attention to wander from one topic to another by insensible degrees – but could I really be mistaken about what I’m thinking now? There seems a real problem in that to me.

Now of course introspection is systematically unreliable in dealing with questions of this sort. Since introspective thoughts are pretty much by definition second order – ie, they’re thoughts about thoughts – introspection only gives me access to half of the comparison. I can only think about thoughts I’m thinking about. If my real thoughts were not what I thought I was thinking, how would I know any different?

It’s a fair point, but if my thoughts could be different from what I thought I was thinking, it would surely give rise to some very odd discrepancies between my behaviour and my expectations. In the case of beliefs, we’ve already noticed that discrepancies of a sort can arise, causing some minor inconsistencies in my behaviour over bungee-jumping, for example, as I stride confidently to the platform and then subside into panicky paralysis – but current thoughts seem a different and more difficult case to me.

How could that be so, though? Thoughts about my thoughts are second-order thoughts, and there is no magic connection between a thought and its target which guarantees accuracy.  It follows that there is simply no way of guaranteeing that second-order thoughts are not erroneous, and so there seems to be no way the infallibility I’m attributing to my own thoughts could arise.

The only answer I can see is that we must be wrong to assume that my knowledge of my own thoughts comes from second-order thoughts. The reason I know what I’m thinking is not that I have another true thought about what I’m thinking; instead, my knowledge just comes with the fact that this is what I’m thinking.

That radically contradicts the theory championed by some that conscious thoughts are exactly those for which there is a second order thought about the first thought. The error here, perhaps, has been to construct a model for our knowledge of our own thoughts which resembles our knowledge of the contents of a book. We know what that sentence says because we have a correct thought about it. But books have only derived intentionality (they only mean anything because someone has interpreted them as meaning something) whereas our thoughts have original intentionality (they mean stuff irrespective of what anyone thinks about it). It seems, then, that  the distinguishing property of a conscious thought is actually that the having of content and the knowing of content are inseparably the same.

I feel we’re frustratingly close to a new insight into the nature of intrinsic intentionality here. But I could be wrong.

Picture: star. The JCS has devoted its latest issue to definitions of consciousness. I thought I’d done reasonably well by quoting seventeen different views, but Ram L. P. Vimal lists forty, in what he acknowledges is not a comprehensive list. There is much to be said about all this – and Bill Faw promises a book-length treatment of the thoughts offered in his paper – but much of the ground has been trodden before.

A notable exception is David Skrbina’s panpsychist view. I have been accused in the past of being unfair to panpsychism, the belief that everything has some mental or experiential properties, and I remain unconvinced, but I was genuinely interested in hearing how a panpsychist would define consciousness. I think  panpsychists, who believe awareness of some kind is a fundamental property of everything, face a particular challenge in defining exactly what consciousness. For one thing they don’t enjoy the advantage which the rest of us have of being able to contrast the mindless stuff around us with mindful brains – for panpsychists there is no mindless stuff.  But sometimes it’s coming at a problem from a strange new angle that yields useful insights.

Skrbina very briefly puts a case for panpsychism by noting that even rocks maintain their own existence with a degree of success and respond to the impacts and changes of their environment.  This amounts, he suggests, to at least a simple form of experience, and hence of mind. But mind, he says,  has two aspects: the inner phenomenal experience and an outward-facing intentional/relational aspect. Both of these are characteristic of the mental life of all things; he acknowledges at least a prima facie difficulty over what counts as a ‘thing’ here, but it includes such entities as atoms, rocks, tables, chairs, human beings, planets, and stars.  In a footnote, Skrbina cites Plato and Aristotle as allies in thinking that stars might have a mental life, together with JBS Haldane’s view that the interior of stars might shelter minds superior to our own (perhaps not quite the same view – the existence of minds within stars doesn’t imply that the stars themselves have minds any more than the existence of minds in France suggests that France has its own mentality) and Roger Penrose who apparently has speculated that neutron stars may sustain large quantum superpositions and thus conceivably a high intensity of consciousness.

Skrbina does not, of course, believe that rocks have minds exactly like our own, and suggests that material complexity corresponds with mental complexity, so that there is a spectrum of mental life from the feeble, unremembered glimmerings experienced by rocks all the way up to the fantastically elaborate and persistent mental evolutions hosted by human beings. This is convenient, since it allows Skrbina to find a place for subconscious and unconscious mental activity, which can be regarded as merely low-wattage mentality, whereas on the face of it panpsychism seems to make unconsciousness impossible. But, he says, there is a fundamental continuity, and this applies to consciousness as well as general mentality. Consciousness, he suggests, is the border, the interface between the inward and outward aspects of mentality, and since everything posesses both of those, everything must have at least a simple analogue of consciousness. It might be better, he suggests, if we could find a new word for this common property of consciousness and reserve the term itself for the human-style variety, since that would accord better with normal usage, but we are nevertheless talking about a spectrum of complexity, not two different things.

Skrbina’s exposition is brief, and he only claims to be providing a pointer toward a promising line of investigation. The idea of consciousness as the linkage or interface between inner and outer mentality does have some appeal. Skrbina’s distinction between inner and outer corresponds approximately to a view which is widely popular about there being two basic kinds of consciousness;  the phenomenal, experiental variety and the rest. Famously this kind of distinction is embodied in David Chalmers’ hard/easy problem distinction and Ned Block’s a-consciousness and p-consciousness, to name only two examples; the pieces in the JCS provide other variations.  Why not regard consciousness as the thing that brings them together, even if you’re not attracted by panpsychism?

Well, I don’t know. For one thing I think the non-phenomenal half of the mind is usually short-changed.  Besides phenomenal awareness, we ought also to distinguish between agency, intentionality, and understanding, all large mysteries which really deserve better than being smooshed together. We could still see consciousness as the thing that brings it all together, perhaps, but that doesn’t exactly appeal either: it seems too much like saying that the human body is the thing that holds our bones and muscles together; better to say it’s the thing they help to make up.

I must confess – and this perhaps is unfair – to being put off by Skrbina’s description of consciousness as the luminous upper layer of the mind. Apart from the slightly confusing geometry (it’s the upper layer of the mind, but between the inner and outer parts), I don’t see why it’s luminous, and that sounds a bit like the resort to poetry sometimes adopted by theologians who have run out of cogent points to make. Still, he deserves at least a couple of cheers for offering a new approach, something he rightly advocates.

Picture: Walter J Freeman.

In “How Brains make up their Minds”, Walter J Freeman set out to tackle the ancient issue of free will, but he also addressed many of the other fundamental issues about consciousness and thought. The book has an unusually even balance of neurology and philosophy, with similar ideas coming into play in both fields.

Freeman uses some familiar terms from philosophy in rather unusual ways. For him, intentionality does not mean “aboutness” in the way it generally does to contemporary philosophers. Instead, it means the property of being directed towards some object or goal. So in his eyes, the food-seeking behaviour of simple organisms displays intentionality even though there is no question of their having plans or acting deliberately. In his view, this is Thomas Aquinas’s original meaning, and a key foundation for consciousness. Aquinas is credited with a number of important insights which Freeman has incorporated into his own views.

‘Meaning’ also has a special sense in Freeman’s account, quite distinct from simple information. Freeman speaks of meaning in what sound at first like worryingly poetic or metaphorical terms, but the point is really a matter of context. Meaning, in Freeman’s sense, is given to mere information when it is set in the context of an individual mind, with all its multiple life experiences, history and characteristic quirks. This matches his views about the neuronal operation of the brain, where rather than discrete bits of data working their way through a program, he sees a mathematically chaotic pattern of activity in which the whole system comes to bear. Each brain has its own individual pattern of basic activity which provides a unique context in which meanings develop. It follows that meanings are, strictly, unique to particular individuals, and in stark contrast to Putnam’s famous doctrine, meanings are only in the head. Consciousness is the high-level pattern which brings the whole thing together, and emotional and moral self-control may well be a matter of how closely overall consciousness binds lower and more partial patterns of activity.

In Freeman’s view, the process of perception and action is not a two-way matter of inputs and outputs, but a one-way street of action on the world. Many people would agree that perception is an active business, not just a passive reception of impressions, but the idea that it consists entirely of action on the world sounds bonkers, and in fact Freeman does allow the outside world to influence our behaviour – the point is that all the ideas and interpretations bubble up from inside, and merely survive or fail to survive the impact of external reality. This is rather reminiscent of Edelman’s views and his analogy with the immune system, but Freeman draws from it the rather bleak conclusion that we are all, in a sense, in a state of solipsistic isolation from the world.

This creates a special problem for Freeman: how is it that we ever manage to overcome our isolation and communicate with each other? He sees social interaction as playing a mediating role, with processes rather similar to those which go on in the brain operating in the wider social sphere – though not so similar that society itself becomes a conscious entity. Freeman has a number of ideas about signalling and communication to offer, but I’m not sure he really manages to deal with the underlying problem, and it remains a weak spot in the theory.

What, then is the answer on free will? At times Freeman seems to assert free will, while at others he seems to deny it: in fact he ultimately considers the question an ill-formed one. We see actions in terms of freedom or determinism because we are wedded to linear causality, even though we know that it does not provide an adequate view of the world, and that circular causality and more sophisticated perspectives are often more appropriate. For the swirling chaotic patterns of the brain, dynamic analysis is a more appropriate tool than those based on linear causation, and when we apply it correctly, the old opposition between free and determined is no longer an issue.

There’s something in this, undoubtedly, but it doesn’t dispel the sense of mystery which has made the old debate such a long-running philosophical staple. There does seem, intuitively at least, to be something uniquely odd about the causality of our minds, but if the problem arose entirely from a lack of dynamic analysis, we should surely find some of the causality of the normal world more mysterious than we do?