Monday, August 25, 2008

The Real Hard Problem (Cont'd)

In my last post I argued that Chalmers' distinction between the psychological and the phenomenal concepts of mind misses what is in fact the most peculiar feature about human mindedness, namely, that our psychology is manifest through our phenomenology. Chalmers focuses upon what are in fact aberrant cases of human wakeful consciousness (sensations like pain, or the fact that minor chords are often associated with a dour feeling, or a struck funny bone ) in order to bring out a supposedly general concept, viz., the phenomenal. The phenomenal concept of mind designates that feature of consciousness that, like pain, supervenes upon otherwise psychologically specifiable states. The hard problem in philosophy of mind is too account for this queer property.

Chalmers' phenomenalism is of course very unlike the phenomenalisms characteristic of the early twentieth century. Traditional phenomenalisms focused upon phenomena as the objects or contents of conscious states (usually confusing or conflating the distinction). Chalmers’ notion of the phenomenal is closer to Brentano’s concept of inner consciousness than it is to these theories. Brentano characterized inner consciousness as a sort of second-order awareness that accompanies all conscious acts. Brentano’s inner consciousness—like, presumably, Chalmers phenomenal awareness—is necessarily second order in that is must always accompany an object-directed act (the act’s ‘primary content’). Presumably Chalmers (like Husserl) would disagree that all mental states are intentional, for not all mental states are object-directed or object-consciousness. But this should not affect the secondary status of phenomenal consciousness, so long as we admit that there is no such as ‘pure consciousness’ (mystics to the contrary). Chalmers, Brentano and Husserl would all agree—I think—that in order for phenomenal consciousness to arise, something else must be going on as well, whether that something else is object-directed or not. 

However, from the fact that phenomenally conscious states need not be object-directed (intentional), it does not follow that object-directed states need not be phenomenal. Chalmers makes this unwarranted inference—and is not aytpical in so doing. He does so because, given different definitions of objectivity, there are different ways of accounting for intentionality (computationally, truth-semantically, informatically, etc), but the point is that none of these get at the fact that there are objects--and therefore a world--for us only insofar as we are conscious. This important blindspot has unfortunately eclipsed for many thinkers any true interest in (Husserlian) phenomenology, for lack of understanding the conceptual terrain in which it works. (NB: because of the ambiguities associated with the term phenomenal, I prefer to use the term ‘personal’: what is characteristic about human intentionality, as opposed to say either computer or dog intentionality, is that it is personal). 

What is that terrain? Above I stated that in order for phenomenal consciousness to arise, something else must be going as well (although it need not be object-oriented, contrary to Brentano). Alternatively, as I just argued, in order for there to be object-oriented consciousness for persons, this consciousness must be phenomenal—or better, personal. Notice the modal terms: must be this, must be that. There is a necessity here. Contra Chalmers—as I noted in the last post—the co-occurrence of the phenomenal and psychological in the unity of personal consciousness is not a matter of mere empirical or contingent fact, but one of necessity. The question is, what sort? 

Brentano observed that mental phenomena are characterized by a certain unity unlike that exhibited by physical phenomena. Mental phenomena—all the various contents of any given moment of consciousness—are unified internally, rather than externally; unlike the co-occurrence of physical phenomena, mental phenomena do not just happen to be next to each other (successive in Hume’s sense). This unity is supplied by the fact that all mental contents of a momentary act of consciousness are unified in one consciousness. The various contents and objects of a momentary act of consciousness (the 'specious present') don't just happen to be in the same 'place' in the way that the books and bed and desk I own just happen to be in this room with me now. The unity that underlies the contents of consciousness is tighter and more rigorous than the merely spatial co-location of items in my room. (This is of course an old point, going back at least to Kant, even Leibniz). Hume’s mistake, according to Brentano, was to believe that since there was no simple, detectable entity underlying the various presentations, there was no self. Mental phenomena do not appear to (in the dative) a self; the self is the unity of mental phenomena in one consciousness. Hume’s mistake was to confuse unity with simplicity, and Kant’s mistake was to confuse the appearance of external, material objects to a self with the presentation of a self’s own mental acts to itself (in a secondary, rather than dative manner, as discussed above).

We therefore need a way to talk about the unity of consciousness and mental phenomena—the unity of the phenomenal and the psychological in the personal—in a way that does not presuppose that his unity is a contingent matter of fact. That is to say, the unity involved here is of a logical or conceptual, rather than factual, sort. Brentano began the application of mereological concepts to the philosophy of mind, Husserl then formalized and extended this notion, putting it at the heart of his systematic phenomenology. When I claim, as I often have before, that phenomenology is a sort of formal science, it is this that I have in mind. 

A final coda: What about the fact that many aspects and ‘contents’ of conscious life seem to go unnoticed, and in that sense, are impersonal? In other words, how do Brentano and Husserl avoid the imputation that their respective sciences are introspectionist (which, by the way, both deny)?  Many have taken the results of phenomena such as change-blindness, attentional-blindness, blindsight, etc., to argue for the presence of non-conscious but nonetheless intentional contents of consciousness as a decisive refutation of the phenomenological method. While I won't go into details here, this attack is levied against a straw-man: neither Brentano nor Husserl have argued that the contents of mental phenomena were simply there waiting to be observed. Again, the argument relies upon the mereological theory of mind. Take the experience of a chord. As tone-stupid as they come, I could not begin to pull out the separate notes of any given chord. Are those separate notes present in my consciousness? Dennett takes this as proof that there are no qualia, and therefore that only heterophenomenology will be able to describe the real contents of my consciousness. Brentano takes a different line: those notes are there, but as mereological parts of the whole chord as a phenomena of consciousness. They are there, because I hear the whole chord, but they are not explicit objects of my attentional consciousness. More importantly, the whole chord is there, not as a sum of those notes, but again, as the whole that is mereologically prior to those parts. Husserl’s own phenomenology departs precisely from here, and this notion of the whole that is prior to its part is precisely what Husserl means by ‘synthetic.’ 


  1. You keep referring to your "argument" against Chalmers' claim that the psychological and the phenomenal are separable; but you don't have anything like an argument, as far as I can tell. Obviously I agree with you; I just don't see why a Chalmers fan can't say, "well, ok, you're making an unsupported dogmatic claim, whereas I'm making a claim supported by a crazy thought experiment. I win."

    I was pretty confused by this second post. I was about to write a thing about blindsight in response, but then realized that I can't even start guessing what you're trying to say about it. For example, the claim that "neither Brentano nor Husserl have argued that the contents of mental phenomena were simply there waiting to be observed", as a response to supposed problems for phenomenology raised by blindsight, seems like a non-sequitur. What I am I missing?

    I'm still not clear, also, on why you would substitute "personal" for "phenomenal." It's obviously not a direct substitution, since dog intentionality is phenomenal (probably; as you grant in the first post), but not personal (as you claim in the second). I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that you're doing the same thing I did in my Bristol paper, i.e., taking "personal" as referring to the mental whole (of mental holism), rather than to some entity separate from or standpoint taken with regard to that whole.

  2. Hey Roman, I'll take these in reverse order:

    I do not want to substitute one for the other, even though it probably came across like that above. I rather think of personal consciousness as a human-specific (so far as we know) sort of phenomenal consciousness. What sort? The sort that exhibits a robust constitution of objects. Dogs have a phenomenal consciousness, but they do not for instance abstract properties from these perceptions, nominalize them, and come up with the sorts of universals that typify objectivity in humans. I also doubt that dogs have something like what Husserl called categorial intuition, and insofar as categorial intuition is a feature even of human perception, then human perception is something quite different than dog perception, especially in terms of content. Of course, we need to specify what we mean by content, and it cannot mean the nake sense-qualities, but i take it that in dogs and humans alike sense qualities are not perceived but apperceived. I am ready to grant that these apperceived sense qualities are largely similar (although, in dogs they will lack color for instance). Also, the way I use it, personal mental states are essentially phenomenal; they belong to Chalmers' category of 'phenomenal mental concepts.'

    About blindsight: i had in mind here theorists like Dennett who claim that the fact of blindsight and attentional blindness discredit the phenomenological method. The brain makes you think that there'ss all this detail there, but there isn't. There is even systematic distortion; the brain is fooling YOU all the time; it happen most of the time that you are unaware of some of the contents of your own conscious states; there’s something about way the brain/mind works such that the brain is constantly pulling one over one you; but, you need experimental settings to tease this out, and therefore, just relaxing back in your armchair is never gonna provide a good science of consciousness. My point was that neither Husserl nor Brentano deny this. Both do however argue that the idea of non-conscious mental states is contradictory; all mental states, qua mental, come along with a secondary act of 'inner perception' or 'inner consciousness.' There are no, to use Leibniz' term, 'petite perceptiones' (This is a long story, though)

    You're right that I more meander around the topic than provide any solid argument, but here's one: Chalmers defines intentionality as a psychological concept. He does so because there are accounts of intentionality (functional, semantic, computational, etc) that do not involve any reference to phenomenality, and that's all Chalmers needs to put a mental concept into the psychological category. And I agree, certain phenomenal states like pain are not intentional. But MOST are. There are perfectly respectable phenomenal interpretations of mental concepts like perception, belief, desire, doubt, etc., that involve intentionality. For, it is impossible to imagine a perception, belief, or desire that is not the perception, belief or desire about something. Thus, for this class of phenomenal states, the tie to psychology via intentionality is not accidental or contingent, but essential. This, furthermore, demonstrates that phenomenality canont be described as only a simple 'qualitative feel,' and that many phenomenal states are internally complex (which Chalmers seems to deny: all complexity in phenomenality is supplied, according to Chalmers, by the underlying psychology which subvenes it) (ps did i just make up a new word--'subvene'?)