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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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Davidson and the Causes of Action: A Problem of Permission

Philosophy of action has for decades focused on reasons; since Davidson, a good deal of debate has centered on the question of whether reasons are causes, whether those causes are occurrent or agential, and whether we can use reasons-explanations to replace causal explanations altogether in discussions of agency. My suspicion is that something is missing from the discussion. The focus on reasons comes from the conviction, first, that they provide us with the best way of explaining an action as something other than simply an event and, second, that it is by focusing on reasons (or, in a related branch of investigations, on endorsements of desires) that we bring out the role of the agent as deliberator. But is this dual approach sufficient to capture the notion of an agent? I suspect that it is not, and what is misleading in the standard account is that, by taking explanation and rational deliberation as its starting points, it fails to give adequate attention to the most basic aspect of action: it is often irrational and involves little or no deliberation.

Of course problems of irrationality—self-deception, akrasia, addiction—have taken a central place in analysis; but they are generally viewed as problematic in a secondary way: a theory of rational action is expected to account for them, but only against the backdrop of a pre-existing theory of rationality. The typical approach comes from the methodology of the sciences: first one formulates laws, then one goes on to explain away exceptions. Similarly, one first tries to come up with a generally rational explanation of action, then one attempts to explain away deviations from that rationality. But does this take matters in the order appropriate to a subject matter like action?

In his Dialectic of Duration, Gaston Bachelard takes on the orthodox view of Bergson, according to which time is fundamentally a continuity, which the intellect then breaks up artificially into a series of instants. Instead, Bachelard posits that in every field—action, psychology, science, poetry—it is the instant that is primary, with continuity being constructed in a secondary manner by the intellect. Thus, for example, memory involves particular moments that stand out—I remember waking up early, then a diploma being placed in my hand, meeting my roommate’s parents, and only then do I fill in the gaps between these events to evoke in memory a continuous commencement ceremony. Similarly in the domain of action: every action, for Bachelard, has at its central core the instant of permission. To act, I must give permission to do something. Whatever deliberation precedes the act, it is moot until I permit the performance of its dictates. Whatever consequences follow from my action—and whatever purposes are intended in it—are dependent ultimately on that instant. Thus, Bachelard opposes a phenomenology of the instant to that of duration, so that the continuity of action—its precursors and products—are dependent on the permission to act.

Davidson, I think, presents us with a similar scheme. In fact, it is the priority of the instant—or, in his case, the causal relation between reason and action—that allows explanation of action to be an explanation at all. But at the same time, Davidson conceals the cause by explaining the action as a bodily moment that is rationalized by a primary reason (a combination of a desire and a belief). The concealment is this: while the causation of an action by its corresponding reason explains the action, it explains it only because the action itself (along with its consequences) is explained by reference to its causal precursors. The emphasis on causality, so central to Davidson’s account, is only an explanatory feature that allows the past and future of the instant to be neatly brought together into a single whole. This creates a difficulty, and I think it is a difficulty that is internal to Davidson’s account: he cannot explain the very thing he is trying to explain.

To see this, let us take a look at Davidson’s view of freedom. His goal is not to reconcile freedom with determinism, but to show that freedom is a causal power. The central problem is that if the causal precursors of an action are themselves seen as actions—as something an agent does—then we are caught in an infinite regress because we must now account for the freedom of those prior actions. The way to resolve the problem is to posit precursors to the action that are not themselves something an agent does; they must be states or events that are not done in any sense, so that it makes no sense to even ask whether or not they are free. The solution, of course, is that an action is caused by reasons. The desires and beliefs that make up those reasons are states or events, but they are certainly not actions. Insofar as these reasons cause an agent to act, his action is intentional and free. And freedom, here, is a causal power because what makes the action free is precisely that it is caused by an agent’s reasons.

But I think Davidson cannot explain freedom as a causal power because he cannot explain the causality of reasons. He admits, essentially, that his account can only explain the causal precursors of an action provided that the action has already been carried out. Prior to this, there is no way to predict an action—that is, there is no way to derive the necessity of an action from its causal precursors (although statistical analysis can get us pretty close to this). Davidson’s major concern, then, is to show that something can be called a cause even in the absence of strict laws relating the cause to the effect. But what is lacking is any account of the agent’s role in this relation. If I act on my reasons, this involves an instant of permission—I do not just give myself a reason to act (as, say, Robert Kane’s analysis suggests), nor do I put an end to deliberation and let the final step in the deliberative process carry me to action (this is the overlooked Hobbesian account of action). Rather, I actively permit myself to act. It has seemed to many philosophers of action that if we start from this instantaneous act, we are stuck in an irrational and inexplicable kind of agent-causation. But I think that only holds so long as we emphasize the causality of the instant of “permission.” Instead, I am suggesting, the causal aspect does not underlie the instant of permission; rather, without the permission, we cannot explain causality at all.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Is Phenomenology Moribund? (Part I)

I think not. Here’s why.

I’ll start with a bold claim: there are only three defensible approaches to the philosophy of mind on the market today: physicalism, computational functionalism, and phenomenology. All three get something quite important right, while none of the three get it all right. You probably have no problem allowing for physicalism and functionalism. You might have a problem with phenomenology. Let me make a case.

First off, I grant that phenomenology is weakest in the area where both functionalism and physicalism are strongest: method. For obvious reasons, physicalism has the benefit of a method as strong as any in the natural sciences. Computational functionalism, for the same reason, has a method as strong as any devised in computer science and proof-logic. These are more or less standardized, more or less exact. One can tell, at least in a general way, when the method has been properly, and when improperly, applied. Phenomenology, alas, has nothing of the sort. Admittedly this is to the great frustration of phenomenologists and nonphenomenologists alike. We know that the phenomenological method involves operations like bracketing, describing, reflecting, reductions, and so on, but these concepts remain vague and just how they go together is, at this point, anyone’s guess. As a friend of mine once nicely put it, the danger with phenomenology is that there doesn’t yet seem to be any recognized criteria by which to police competing descriptions. I think that this is, unfortunately, basically right, and it is something to which serious phenomenologists need to be devoting more of their time.

To say that phenomenology, as yet, enjoys no defined method is only the most drastic way of putting things. Mitigating remarks should be added. More attention needs to be paid to the fact that phenomenology, while new as a specific science, is not a new sort of science. Phenomenology was supposed to be, at least initially, like mathematics. In my opinion, this is one of Husserl’s truly original contributions to philosophy in general and philosophy of mind in particular. So far as I can tell, while a few philosophers seemed to model their philosophy of mind on mathematics (Plato, Descartes, Leibniz), Husserl was probably first to make the modeling explicit. I think when put this way Husserl looks a little less fruity, and a little less wrong. Husserl’s proposal is that we study the contents of the mind similar to how we study numbers, fields, domains, topologies, etc.

Why is this proposal--that we approach the philosophy of mind like we approach mathematics--attractive? This proposal amounts to the claim that we can study the contents of the mind like we study numbers, planes, infinities, sets, and so on. Mathematicians study numbers, topologies, functions, sets, without any clear understanding or broad agreement as to what these things, really, are, or indeed, whether they are. And yet mathematics proceeds more or less on time and in fine fashion while remaining neutral about the ontological status of the objects it studies. In other words, what’s important in mathematics is that our knowledge of these objects is exact, clear and precise, not whether, how or where they are. If Husserl’s right, then we can treat the contents of the mind--Concept and Object, Truth and Proposition, Fact and Law, etc.--in like manner.

Of course, it may be the case that the ontological status of these objects does in fact turn out to influence the integrity of our knowledge about them, but again, this is just as much, and just as little, a problem for phenomenology as it is for mathematics. And no one accuses mathematics of being ‘moribund’ just because there is as yet no general and accepted agreement as to what that status might be. Phenomenology therefore is just as weak, and just as strong, as the science it is modeling itself after, and the same could be said respectively about physicalism and computational functionalism.

In the following post, I'll argue that in fact things stand even better for phenomenology than this. For only a science like mathematics--this will be the argument--could be adequate to the sorts of things mental contents are. Thus, while physicalism and computational functionalism may have more firmly established methods, unfortunately they are of the kind which are intrinsically inadequate to the sorts of objects they purport to study, viz., mental (or 'ideal') contents. And while phenomenology, I grant, as yet does not enjoy broad agreement or acceptance about just what its method ought to be, we do know enough to say that it is the sort of method which, if developed, at least would have a chance of working.

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Pope and the Cartesian Legacy

In his now infamous address in Regensburg, Pope Benedict XVI attempted “a critique of modern reason from within.” This critique is, ultimately, a critique of a naturalism, or scientism, which reduces the legitimate uses of reason to empirically verifiable truths. Benedict’s critique follows two lines, through which he attempts to show that modern reason is itself grounded in a fusion of Hellenism and Christianity, a fusion that cannot be repudiated either by the sciences or by theologians without an essential loss. First, he argues that science itself depends on a recognition of the world as rational, as subject to laws which human reason is capable of grasping. Scientific reason by itself cannot account for this correlation between the knower and the known; the grounding of scientific reason must, therefore, lie in a deeper and wider application of reason. In this regard Benedict invokes the Greek conception of logos and the Platonic tradition, which, ultimately, goes back to Parmenides' famous claim that thought and being are one. Second, and somewhat more obscurely, Benedict argues that the tradition of Western rationality also assumes a religious and an ethical ground, a ground that establishes a community, and which scientific reason overlooks at its peril. As Lee Harris nicely demonstrates, the reference to Islam and violence fits into this argument: Benedict’s goal is not to condemn Islam, but rather to insist that the rational community required as a backdrop for the sciences is a community grounded in an ethics and a faith that are fundamentally rational. If the West had not accepted reason over violence as a means of addressing conflicts, there could be no such thing as modern reason. Thus, insofar as modern reason cannot address faith and ethics, it denies the social conditions of its own possibility.

Benedict’s argument is confusing, in the first place because he does not clarify the relation between these two weaknesses of modern reason and, in the second, because his account may strike many philosophers as somewhat outdated. On the point of ethics, for example, Benedict claims that
the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by "science", so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective "conscience" becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical.

The conflation of ethics and religion here is problematic; this conflation, I think, hurts Benedict’s cause more than it helps. But also, he paints a view of ethics that found its heyday in Logical Positivism and is now largely out of date in philosophy. At the same time, however, Benedict has a point. First, insofar as he is considering modern reason as a cultural, rather that simply academic philosophical, phenomenon, he may well be right in arguing that ethics is now seen as a subjective matter. Second, if we look at philosophical ethics, the major taxonomy by which moral philosophies are categorized remains, despite challenges, a division between cognitivism and non-cognitivism, a division that is itself based on questions of the relation of truth in ethics to truth in the sciences. That the sciences give us truth is presupposed; that ethics is capable of doing so is in question. In this sense, Benedict is certainly right—modern reason approaches ethics through the lens of the sciences, and reason is thereby prevented from reaching its full potential.

But it is also very odd that the main, or initial culprit in this move is, in Benedict’s picture, Immanuel Kant. The reason is that Kant narrowed the scope of what we can know to theoretical reason, and placed questions of ethics and religion in the domain of practical reason and outside of knowledge. Now, though this formulation does rest on a correct reading of Kant’s preface to the First Critique, there is now something of a consensus that in his more careful moments Kant distinguishes between knowledge (Wissen) and cognition (Erkenntnis), and that practical reason can give us the former, if not the latter (it is really the Kant-inspired Romantics, like Schleiermacher, who attempted to sever faith from reason). Furthermore, far from restricting the scope of reason to the physical sciences, Kant makes the practical into the genuine domain of reason. Truths about ethics and religion are, for Kant, given to us through reason and are therefore immune to empirical falsification. He was thus arguably the strongest supporter since the Greeks of the view that religion and morality are accessible to reason and must be evaluated on rational grounds. Moreover, on the other issue Benedict raises, that of the rationality of the empirical world as an assumption of modern reason, Kant did perhaps more than anyone before or since to build a foundation for this coherence of knowledge and the known.

I think the true transition to modern reason, as Benedict conceives it, occurs in Descartes. Famously, in laying out his approach in the “Discourse on Method,” Descartes suggests the following approach:

as for the opinions which up to that time I had embraced, I thought that I could not do better than resolve at once to sweep them wholly away, that I might afterwards be in a position to admit either others more correct, or even perhaps the same when they had undergone the scrutiny of reason.

This method, of course, is carried out in the “Meditations,” where complete skepticism is used to clear the way for certain knowledge sanctioned by reason. But of course, as is well known, Descartes leaves something out of this doubt. While he is engaged in his doubt and reconstruction, he must still live in the company of others, he must still act, and therefore he must have principles on which to act. He thus resolves
to obey the laws and customs of my country, adhering firmly to the faith in which, by the grace of God, I had been educated from my childhood and regulating my conduct in every other matter according to the most moderate opinions, and the farthest removed from extremes, which should happen to be adopted in practice with general consent of the most judicious of those among whom I might be living.
This move—to doubt all received opinions except those of custom and faith—is described by Descartes as a matter of expediency or prudence. And in the “Meditations,” he begins upon the course of establishing his skepticism with the claim that “it is the part of prudence not to place absolute confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived.” Prudence, in other words, is not itself placed in doubt; instead, it is prudence that first occasions that doubt itself. We can then see three underlying issues occurring in Descartes’ analysis:

(1) Prudence is the assumption by which we ground the method of philosophy and which in turn motivates that method.

(2) Morality, at least in the form accepted by the community to which Descartes belongs, is assumed as a truth not to be questioned.

(3) Consequently, since the method of doubt involves clearing the ground of received opinions in order to find a rational foundation for true replacements for those opinions, the ground of morality cannot be found in this way, since morality was not placed in doubt as part of the method.

The result of this approach is that whatever grounds morality later receives in Descartes’ work are not moral grounds—they are grounds derived from the knowledge he reaches through the application of his method. There is a dual move involved here: morality, specifically as involving the customs of a community, is assumed in the investigation; by means of the same move, morality is later based on scientific grounds and is thus deprived of its own sphere of rational inquiry. It is therefore not surprising that modern reason, on Benedict’s account, largely limits itself to the sciences and simply assumes a moral community as its foundation: that, after all, was the starting point of the founder of modern philosophy.

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