Monday, April 30, 2007

Is Phenomenology Moribund? (Part II)

Alright, I finally scrunched in some time between grading logic tests to continue my argument from the previous post.

It has been argued--no, not argued really, just asserted--that phenomenology is moribund. Or at least as moribund as logical positivism. Since I work on phenomenology, I am naturally chafed by this assertion. Take that for what it's worth. I admit that phenomenology suffers from some pretty serious deficiencies, especially in questions of method ("analytic philosophy," I might interject, is not immune to this either apparently). But I also think that there's a lot to be said for it, and that many of the charges lobbed at it don't stick.

In particular, I was in the middle of arguing that phenomenology ought to be ranked along with physicalism and computational functionalism as one of the three serious approaches to the philosophy of mind. Each of these approaches models itself off a more accepted, perhaps more respectable science. Physicalism is modeled off the natural sciences (especially biology), computational functionalism off of proof-logic, computer science, robotics and AI--and phenomenology off of mathematics.

I ended the previous post by claiming that the former two, while enjoying stricter and clearer methods, are not adequate to what the mind, most likely, is. Conversely, while phenomenology suffers from a vague and discombobulated method, it is more adequate to what the mind, most likely, is. So now to that case.

Why not physicalism? Physicalism is the thesis that mental states are just states of the central nervous system. In the most radical forms (Churchlands), it is the thesis that the predicates of folk psychology are archaic left-overs from the Iron Age that will slowly drop out as we learn to talk about the brain in more precise, scientific ways. But not all physicalisms need be so radical. What they all must share is the thesis that, ultimately, to be in some 'minded' state is to be in a specifiable physical state. No mental property of a world will differ from another without a corresponding physical difference. Or, for creatures with mental states, to be in the same physical state is simply to be the same.

It should be noted that physicalism so defined is compatible with most computational functionalisms, insofar as one can be both a computational functionalist and an intentional realist. Thus to further define the physicalist theory of mind in a way which precludes its compatibility with computational functionalism, we should add the following rider: a theory is physicalist iff, per minded creatures, to be in the same physical state is simply to be the same, and physical states are not consituent.

Let me explain what I mean by ‘constituent.’ Constituency is typified by propositional states. This means that the constituent states are complex, with ‘parts’ related and defined in systematic ways. Further, these parts are solely defined by these systematic roles. If physical states are constituent, then they are constituent in just the same way that propositions are constituent. This is what computational functionalists of the intentional realist variety argue. The problem is that it does not seem remotely plausible that any physical system, qua physical (this is the important clause), could instantiate the laws of constituency. Thus, as I will shortly argue, since thoughts (the contents of the mind) are necessarily constituent, this means that it is unlikely that brain science will ever be mind science. Hence, my argument: 1) thoughts are constituent; 2) the laws of constituency violate the laws of physics, and vice versa; 3) thus, a physicalism that denies constituency a fortiori denies thoughts; 4) but there are thoughts with constituent relations; 5) hence, physicalism is false.

This sort of argument is found in Sellars, in Quine and Davidson, also in Fodor. It is the problem that Frege, Husserl and Sellars have attacked under the various banners of classical empiricism, psychologism or associationism. The primary difficulty these latter suffer is logical. When modern day physicalism stopped talk about impressions and the stream of consciousness, reverting to neurons and dendrites and so on, it no doubt got rid of some rather metaphysically dubious entities, but doing so did not at all address the logical problem that was the real issue in the first place. That issue is this: the laws of logic do not conform to the laws of physics, and any system which obeys only physical laws will not be able to respect some of the more peculiar laws of logic. For instance, physical relations can only obtain between two actually existing entities or states of affairs, but not so in logic. Another question I’ve never found a good physicalist answer to: Let’s say that there is a physical instantiation in my brain of the belief: ‘Some Roses are red’. Where is the logically equivalent belief that ‘Some roses are not nonred’? Or ‘Some red things are roses’? Or ‘Some red things are not nonRoses’? Are these logical properties of that belief really there like its physical properties, such as mass, volume, density and charge? Similarly, what about the semantic relations this belief entails. If I believe that some roses are red, I also believe that some roses are colored, that something is red, that something is extended, that some plant is red, that something that my girlfriend finds endearing when given as an unsolicited gift is red, etc. Again, are these semantic features of the belief really there along with its physical features? And where is ‘there’? That ‘something is red’ cannot be a unique feature of this belief, because it would also be a feature of the belief that ‘Some stop signs are red.’ Are both of these specific beliefs related to the more general belief which is situated elsewhere, or is the more general belief merely there in both in the same way that two different objects can enjoy the same mass? All of this just strains my credulity. I don’t see how it can be right. Physicalists may have answers to these questions, and I would love to hear them, but I haven’t found them. Of course, most physicalists would argue that while the objects of propositional attitudes are constituently structured, the physical states themselves are not. But this just seems weird to me.

Why not computational functionalism? Computational functionalism to my mind sufficiently answers the logical problems that plague the physicalist. I consider it to be phenomenology’s real rival. My problems with computational functionalism are primarily of an epistemological and semantic sort, and these, it has to be admitted, are always less surely footed. Computational functionalism is, I take it, necessarily internalist and representationalist. And there are any number of reasons why neither of these epistemological and/or semantic positions is likely correct. Here are some reasons why: 1) Following Turing, computational functionalists must argue that mental states are discrete states; one is either in that state or one is not. So let’s take an example: there’s a loud bang, and I turn my head and both see and hear a car roar off. I come to the belief ‘That was a backfire.’ I haven’t the foggiest idea what a backfire is. I just know that it is a loud, gun-like bang some cars make and which emanates from tailpipes. My mechanic, on the other hand, can no doubt say quite a bit not only about what a backfire is, but about what caused it, how to prevent it, how different car models suffer from different likelihoods of backfire, etc. Consequently, when my mechanic comes to a belief, ‘That was a backfire,’ her belief is not the same as mine. Thus, according to computational functionalists like Fodor, we have in fact different beliefs. Fodor takes observations like this as evidence against holism. I take it as evidence against computational functionalism. It seems plausible to me that I and my mechanic have the same belief, only hers is more informed, and more variegated than mine. Husserl, who allows that fufillment and truth is a function of degrees and range, can allow and account for this; computational functionalists cannot. 2) According to computational functionalism, to be in a mental state is to be in a discrete internal state. The content of that state is internally determined. This is why computational functionalists have to be representationalists. This however restricts whatever can be said about the content of that state to whatever is actually there internally. Thus, mental representations (semantically contentful internal states) can only consist of entered data and the rules (ie ‘concepts’) for manipulating that data. But consider this (a sort of example found in NoĆ«): you reach in to a black sack and feel something hard, smooth, with some variation in texture, shaped somewhat cylindrically. After a few moments, almost spontaneously, as it were, you realize that you are feeling a lighter. Husserlians want to argue that the content of that belief ‘Here’s a lighter,’ does not exist inside the skull, nor outside in the world; it is ideal; it does not exist at all. Not so computational functionalists. Presumably the moment of realization occurs when the restricted data that I am receiving tactilely is sufficiently processed up to the point where I (whatever that is!) realize that I should access the ‘lighter’ function and compute the relevant data accordingly. I don’t think this is wrong in its basics. The disagreement is whether we need this realization to be the running of the lighter function, or the actualization of an ideal content. The represtationalist answer runs into some pretty serious difficulties. What is the relation between the representation and the object? Does this representation obtain whether I realize it or not? Then how do I know what it does obtain? What is the relation between myself and this representation? The computational functionalist has to answer these questions. Husserl, on the other hand, does not, at least not anymore than the mathematician does. Finally, the computational functionalist qua representationalist has be committed, I believe, to the experiential plenum: all content is there all at once and in full to/as the mind. But this probably not correct. In the lighter example, phenomenologist qua content externalist can argue that the content of that experience is there through the particular real (reelle) parts of my experience (the smoothness, hardness, room-temperature-ness, etc) but only the latter are really experienced; the lighter as such, the lighter, which is the real content of my experience, is there as a whole, as it were, virtually. Husserl can make sense of this phenomenological fact; the computational functionalist cannot. Hence, the argument here boils down to the following: 1) externalist and reliabilist arguments about semantic, epistemological and experiential content are probably right; 2) computational functionalism, as internalist and representationalist, is incompatible with such externalism; 3) hence, computational functionalism is probably wrong.

Let me say that I can imagine how computational functionalists would respond to these objections, and they would be good responses--unlike the physicalists. So I in no sense pretend that this is knock-down. But I do not need a knock-down argument. I don’t necessarily want to argue that phenomenology is obviously better than these other two, only that it ought to be considered as a serious, if equal, rival.

So what is the phenomenologists’ answer? The contents of the mind are ideal, exhibiting ideal relations. The same is true of mathematics. The rules of the mind exist--if that word is appropriate at all--like the rules of chess exist. Husserl’s insight, I think, was to realize that the sorts of issues he was dealing with earlier in his career--namely, how is it that the rule-like manipulation of symbols, which no ‘intuitive’ understanding need accompany or underwrite, can nonetheless express true mathematical results?--applied to the range of mental states as such, and even further, to the range of ordinary, thoughtless ‘chit-chat’. This is the phenomenon that fascinated Husserl throughout his life; it is the one constant that perdures from the very beginning through the very end and through all the changes; it is, in a sense, the one question all of phenomenology is trying to answer. And it is, finally, simply a damn good question, one that ought to be more central in philosophy of mind, and one which, more than the others, phenomenology gives a good answer for.

In a final post, I will explain more fully what phenomenology is in its own terms, and also explain why some of the more indirect arguments for its moribund status are themselves, truth be told, moribund. Stay tuned.

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