If You Don’t Mind…

Questions for mind-body dualists:

1) What features of mental life, if any, are instantiated in the physical body? Memory? Intelligence? Learned cognitive skills? To put this another way, what aspects of mind besides pure conscious awareness require a metaphysical explanation?

2) If any aspects of mind beyond pure awareness have do a non-physical basis, then why do physical changes to the brain affect them? Why, for example, would brain trauma affect memory and cognition?

3) If consciousness merely inhabits the body, rather than being a product of the brain’s substance and activity, why can we delete it at will with anesthesia? Even if what anesthesia does is to force consciousness to leave the body temporarily, why doesn’t our subjectivity stay with it, instead of switching off when the brain is drugged?

Related content from Sphere

63 Comments

  1. Whitewall says

    A stroke can effect the brain by limiting certain functions. It is not a change to the brain but a depravation of the blood and oxygen needed for proper function. If the stroke isn’t fatal, with time and therapy, the brain as it was can begin to properly function again without having to remake itself to do so. Anesthesia doesn’t seem to delete substance and activity, it merely suspends these things which resume after the drug wears off. No rebuilding required. Anesthesia isn’t permanent like a fatal injection of an agent for say an execution. I’m not sure consciousness leaves the body as much as it is rendered dormant in place.

    Posted March 9, 2016 at 1:46 pm | Permalink
  2. Dedicating Ruckus says

    I am not a philosopher, and so the following should be taken merely as the ramblings of an untrained thinker, without any claim of being representative of any particular established philosophical school. However:

    From antiquity, a metaphysical/dualist position on minds was intuitively obvious, because it was immediately visible that things with minds (including animals) behaved differently from things without, in all the obvious ways (responsiveness to stimuli, learning, &c.). (The Catholic position has it that the “animal soul” and the “rational soul” (that humans have) are metaphysically separate things as well, but I don’t understand that position well enough to really argue or summarize it.) The materialist position only became viable as we began to understand computation, and particularly in the twentieth century as we actually got computers; one could argue that the mind is doing the same thing a computer is doing, except more sophisticated in some sense, and thus it might be entirely material.

    Someone once wrote, regarding software, “Formal logical proofs, and therefore programs — formal logical proofs that particular computations are possible, expressed in a formal system called a programming language — are utterly meaningless. To write a computer program you have to come to terms with this, to accept that whatever you might want the program to mean, the machine will blindly follow its meaningless rules and come to some meaningless conclusion.” It seems to me that anyone who writes software must immediately see the truth and the importance of this. When working with a human, there is a sense of both partners recognizing the same goal and collaborating on it; this is true even when one partner is subordinate, as an assistant or similar. Because of this goal-orientedness, it tends that the actions of both partners are fundamentally in accord with the goal; small errors correct themselves due to the intelligence of the partner. By contrast, anyone with significant experience in software — with debugging, in particular — has seen the routine disaster of a small error snowballing blindly into an entirely erroneous result. The computer does not catch this; it is following a meaningless computational procedure, not acting toward the achievement of a goal, and unless the computational procedure itself contains sanity checks and safeguards, it will have no qualm doing something stupid and insane. (The most pedestrian example is perhaps anyone who has ever typed “rm * .o” or some such fumble-finger.)

    I would argue that this goal-orientedness is another example of a mental quality that is best explained by a metaphysical distinction between mind and matter. (Somewhat more rigorously, the “goal” is likely a real but non-physical thing, an idea, with which the non-material mind interacts, much as under Aristotelian philosophy it interacts with forms or postulates.) In pursuit of commercial success, untold effort has gone into duplicating this in software, in every kind of “smart assistant” program or “DWIM” functionality; these works only ever show themselves to be vulnerable to exactly the same problem, recursively. (The canonical example here is the command-line DWIMmer that autocorrected (the equivalent of) “rm *~” to “rm *” when there were no backup files in the directory.) The materialist counterargument is that this is simply a product of the software being insufficiently sophisticated, and good enough software could in fact become indistinguishable from human in this matter. I note that this point is non-falsifiable, and seems to be put forward as part of a circular argument in which its only evidence is that materialism must be true, and thus this vaguely-plausible fig leaf for materialism must as well. Certainly, nothing about the development of actual software has suggested to me in any way that this gulf can be overcome.

    Regarding your questions 2 and 3, I have thoughts as well, but less well-formed ones, and I am running out of time in which to type this comment. Perhaps I will reply again regarding them.

    Posted March 9, 2016 at 2:17 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Robert,

    I’m not sure consciousness leaves the body as much as it is rendered dormant in place.

    If consciousness is immaterial, how can a physical intervention render it dormant?

    Posted March 9, 2016 at 3:52 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Ruckus,

    Your post seems mostly to do with intentionality. My own opinion is that intentionality is independent of consciousness, and that the antique position was due to lack of any persuasive account as to how intentionality could enter the world by gradual, selective processes. (More on that here.)

    Posted March 9, 2016 at 4:00 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    I see I used the same title for the 2006 post linked above, and this one. Hard to be original!

    Posted March 9, 2016 at 4:02 pm | Permalink
  6. Whitewall says

    Well Malcolm…like the “computer voice” on the original Star Trek would say…”working”.

    Posted March 9, 2016 at 4:12 pm | Permalink
  7. Musey says

    My son is an anaesthetist. (That’s what we call them and how we spell the word here and in the UK). I’m going to ask him what he thinks and I’ll let you know, when he gets back to me.

    Posted March 9, 2016 at 6:17 pm | Permalink
  8. Dedicating Ruckus says

    It seems that your earlier posts are arguing that consciousness is separate from intentionality by using evolution as a source of intentionality that is (seemingly) devoid of consciousness. I don’t have a problem with granting evolution as a source of intentionality. But evolution (or rather, the tendency among self-reproducing systems to change over generations in a manner that makes their reproduction more efficient) seems to be an inherent feature, not even of this universe, but of existence itself (we can see it in entirely artificial simulated settings, for instance). From a theist viewpoint, in which existence itself is founded on a mental basis (and thus, presumably, conscious), there is no contradiction between evolution as a source of intentionality and the equation of intentionality with consciousness. (This does also mean that ants, plants and bacteria may be seen as “conscious” in some sense.)

    Regarding your second question, it is inescapably a feature of any non-trivial mental dualism that the mental has a two-way causal relationship with the physical. (I regard any dualism that deals with consciousness alone, such that p-zombies are allowed, as being trivial.) Stimuli applied to your physical body cause reactions in your mind, and vice versa. Many of these changes can be lasting and profound, e.g. learning a language (which is mediated by entirely physical vision and hearing). I don’t see why it’s a difficulty that other physical phenomena, such as brain damage, might have other mental effects. I of course cannot explain precisely why some given stimulus (or damage) produces some given effect; but then, neither can the materialists. We are both at the level where we have established the plausibility of observed events in our model, but not explained them rigorously.

    Regarding your third question, a similar analysis can apply. I will note that there are a fair number of anecdotal cases in which, while under anesthesia, people do indeed remember time passing and even recall correct information from the proceedings, during time when they should have been unconscious. These incidents tend to be dismissed by the scientific establishment under the same circular argument, that materialism must be true and therefore it couldn’t have happened. However, even without these, it isn’t necessarily a problem; we already know that there must be bidirectional causal links between consciousness and matter, and so there isn’t any real reason why one of these shouldn’t be a material means of suspending consciousness.

    Posted March 9, 2016 at 6:30 pm | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    DR (what a curious handle, by the way),

    While your points do keep the door open for dualism, I think that for everything except consciousness itself — which remains, I admit, without a compelling materialist account — they seem to “over-determine” the phenomena. I have, for example, offered what I believe is a perfectly plausible account of the origins of intentionality that requires no dualistic metaphysics, no teleology, and no consciousness at all, in bacteria or otherwise.

    This is likewise the case for all other mental phenomena, save for subjective awareness itself. Memory, calculation, learning, stimulus/response, voluntary action — we have machines that can do all of this, and to posit instead a ghostly interaction that participates in all of this seems me to, as Occam put it, “multiply entities beyond necessity” (to say nothing of raising possibly testable issues having to do with conservation of energy).

    That said, I must make make clear that this does not constitute in any way a refutation of dualism (I’d be a famous man were I able to pull that off), but it does weigh the scales of parsimony somewhat away from dualism, I think.

    (Regarding anesthesia, the simplest response to the cases you mention is to say that such patients were not properly anesthetized. In any event, such reports don’t alter the fact that the total deletion and subsequent restoration of consciousness is manifestly possible, and is in fact commonplace.)

    As an aside, I should also make clear that as tempting as epiphenomenalism is for the materialist, I think the objection noted here is a very strong one. So I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers here.

    My point, really, is that I think a coherent materialist account can reduce the residuum of what still needs explaining to nothing more than the subjectivity of conscious awareness. (Which is still, of course, a very big question.)

    Posted March 9, 2016 at 8:09 pm | Permalink
  10. Dedication Ruckus feat/ KUTTHROAT

    Posted March 9, 2016 at 8:30 pm | Permalink
  11. Dedicating Ruckus says

    @Malcolm:

    I would argue that the machines we have which notionally duplicate various human mental capacities are in fact doing nothing of the kind. I have been something of a student of these claims, and it strikes me that they take a certain common form:

    1. Some enterprising and ingenious engineer or team thereof puts enormous time, effort and thought into allowing a computer or robot to more-or-less successfully duplicate some small and usually uninteresting part of what a human does utterly automatically. (An example would be the integration of sensors with effectors to enable rapid-feedback dynamic action such as balancing a pole on a platform; the demonstration I saw of this, while impressive, still required long and detailed human tuning of a mathematical model for any individual system it interacted with.)

    2. Either that engineer, or the technological press reporting it, makes grand-sounding comments about how machines are “catching up” to humans and full artificial general intelligence must be just around the corner.

    3. The innovation either disappears, or goes into industrial production as a component for an unintelligent tool. Artificial general intelligence remains elusive.

    Even when machines trump humans in so-called intellectual pursuits, as for instance in chess, it is clear on analysis that the machine’s process is utterly alien to the human’s. Chess computers work by heuristically-guided exhaustive search of the future move tree, to a degree quite unthinkable to a human. Even in the carefully circumscribed, utterly quantified environment of chess, the only way to make a computational process defeat a human is to throw itself on the mercy of Moore’s law; it’s quite obvious that the same process couldn’t work, for instance, in real military strategy. Yet humans deal with the latter with only somewhat greater difficulty than the former.

    More generally, everything a machine can do, it can only do because of long human effort to give it that ability specifically. This applies even to neural networks; while these can manifest abilities whose mechanism is not obvious, they only do so when the same long human effort is put into training them. “Machine learning” is a misnomer; the actual human ability to learn — to encounter new information, incorporate it into an existing set of ideas, and use it as the basis for new coherent output — is something no machine has ever shown.

    It is this observable phenomenon I seek to explain via dualism. I agree that epiphenomenalism, or for the same reason a trivial dualism that concerns itself only with subjective experience and considers the rational intellect to be material, is wholly flawed. (The obvious demonstration of this, to me, is that both would allow for the existence of p-zombies, which I believe to be a bizarre philosophical aberration and an effective reductio ad absurdum of any position which allows them.) By Ockham’s razor, it seems reasonable that these two mysterious phenomena, rational intellect and subjective experience, are related; thus, I propose that both are generated by identical or related non-material components.

    @TheBigHenry:

    That looks interesting, but I’ve never seen it; my handle is the result of a random number generator and a large word list.

    Posted March 10, 2016 at 11:53 am | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    DR,

    It is trivially true that information-processing machines are the result of human engineering (although from a teleological perspective I suppose one could suggest that they are simply another rung on the ladder, or even that the “purpose” of evolved human intelligence is simply to act as a catalyst for the eventual development of self-improving, superintelligent machines).

    That machines do not instantiate memory, learning, and other cognitive processes in exactly the way human brains do is, to me, immaterial. The fact is that they can do all of these things, which to me demonstrates that ghostly mind-stuff, though perhaps sufficient, is not necessary. (Remember Occam’s words: “beyond necessity”.)

    The technology of AI is in its infancy; natural selection has had billions of years to get to where we are, while we have been making these machines for only a half-century or so (with apologies to Babbage and Lovelace).

    I’m no stranger to this stuff either: I’m a programmer myself, and as a good friend of one of the founders of Singularity University (and having attended one of their programs a couple of years ago), I do stay “in the loop”. I see no limits in principle to what machine learning can accomplish, and things are moving rapidly. I think the onus probandis is on anyone who pre-emptively announces, as you are doing, hard limits on what machine learning can do.

    I agree that epiphenomenalism, or for the same reason a trivial dualism that concerns itself only with subjective experience and considers the rational intellect to be material, is wholly flawed.

    We agree about epiphenomenalism, but as I’ve been saying throughout this thread, I do not agree that rational intelligence can only be built on an immaterial substrate. I do not see that the construction of artificial intelligence makes possible philosophical zombies in the strict sense, namely a being that is physically and behaviorally indistinguishable from a human being, but which is not conscious. (This is not the same thing as a humanoid robot, construct of obviously different materials, that is only behaviorally indistinguishable from a human.)

    For me the real mystery is consciousness.

    Posted March 10, 2016 at 12:42 pm | Permalink
  13. Dedicating Ruckus says

    Having glanced at that page, it seems to me to be an ordinary example of pop-sci AI-boosting, short on useful detail but rich in confused thought. I lack the time to investigate more deeply at this time, but I don’t think it contains much new or interesting.

    Regarding the Turing Test, I will first note that it is perhaps a flawed mechanism in that humans are often easily fooled; I’ll give the example of the ELIZA auto-therapy bot, which is laughably primitive, but has successfully fooled people (admittedly in constrained situations). However, I’ll offer the counter-prediction: I do not ever expect to see an AI which I can carry out a significant conversation with and be unable to distinguish it from human. The remaining predictions in that article seem not to have much to do with AI; we already know that Bayesian-or-equivalent data classification works, the “Internet of Things” is just a matter of existing hardware and software becoming more pervasive, and “using all five senses” is, in addition to being an awful idea, similarly just a matter of hardware.

    I admit that I cannot demonstrate a limit in principle to the capabilities of machine learning. I will merely note that there is if anything less observed evidence in favor of the possibility of AGI than against it. Like fusion power, it seems to be one of those technologies which is forever just around an apparently ever-receding corner. On prior probabilities, meanwhile, the determination depends entirely on which philosophical model you already subscribe to. If dualism is true, “AGI is impossible” is an antiprediction (the remaining possibility falling under the domain of computer hardware or software which can itself host or interface with the rational soul); if materialism is true, “AGI is possible” is an antiprediction. To rely on priors to argue for the philosophical model is circular.

    Posted March 10, 2016 at 1:27 pm | Permalink
  14. Mind and Body are words written on the same rock.

    Posted March 10, 2016 at 2:25 pm | Permalink
  15. Malcolm says

    DR,

    “Ever-receding” is a harsh judgment for a technology that is only a few decades old, and in which progress is accelerating very rapidly indeed. Surely it is not far-fetched to imagine that machine learning, which is really in its infancy, has some substantial “headroom” left to explore, especially as machines themselves become more involved in the iterative process.

    Yes, of course the SU blurb is “pop-sci AI boosting”, and not a closely argued philosophical paper on dualism. The point is only that things are in fact moving along briskly.

    I think we are beginning to talk past each other here, and I do not see where you have made any compelling case that human cognitive abilities are not the sort of thing “mere matter”, suitably arranged, can do, or that they are in any way inextricable from consciousness (which I agree remains a mystery for materialists).

    It certainly isn’t as if human reason is somehow infallible, nor that its proper function isn’t dependent upon the physical brain in a thousand obvious ways. For dualists to insist that it is, nevertheless, something of which only an immaterial entity might be capable (without, I must add, providing any argument as to why an immaterial learner or thinker should be assumed to have any advantage in the first place over a material brain) seems to me to be more of an act of faith than an act of reason.

    Posted March 10, 2016 at 2:52 pm | Permalink
  16. Like fusion power, it seems to be one of those technologies which is forever just around an apparently ever-receding corner.

    @Dedicating Ruckus:

    Your remark about fusion power struck a familiar cord. I am a retired staff member from Los Alamos National Laboratory and I know that our colleagues at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have been at it for many years now.

    As for your handle, my link is the result of a simple Google search for “Dedicating Ruckus”.

    Posted March 10, 2016 at 2:56 pm | Permalink
  17. ShrinkWrapped says

    There is an accumulating set of anecdotes suggesting the existence of conscious awareness independent of the biological substrate; ie people under anesthesia with flat EEGs or various NDEs; see Eban Alexander for a fascinating example. This suggests we may be able to begin to understand the nature and genesis of consciousness at some indeterminate point. All we need is a theory of consciousness and a good experimental design. I don’t expect it in my lifetime.

    Posted March 10, 2016 at 3:32 pm | Permalink
  18. Musey says

    This is from my son, Antony. He hasn’t had the benefit of reading the other comments so there is some overlap.

    Here are my short answers to your interesting questions, with a heavy medical slant, as you would expect!

    > 1) What features of mental life, if any, instantiated in the physical body? Memory? Intelligence? Learned cognitive skills? To put this another way, what aspects of mind besides pure conscious awareness require a metaphysical explanation?

    1. Many elements of mental or cognitive life are manifest in the physical body besides just conscious awareness. The converse is also true in that changes to the physical body can ultimately lead to neurocognitive changes. There is actually in many cases a very close link between the mind and body, and a number of pathological states are likely to be at least in part instigated/exacerbated by the mental state of a person. In children, ‘abdominal migraine’ is a condition in which recurrent abdominal pain is thought to be related to anxiety states rather than an organic disease state within the gut itself. Similarly, a sportsman who practices a repetitive movement over a sustained period of time is able to alter the pathways within his or her brain such that the movement changes from a conscious one requiring thought to an unconscious one.

    > 2) If any aspects of mind beyond pure awareness have a non-physical basis then why do physical changes to the brain affect them? Why for example, would brain trauma affect memory or cognition?

    2. I am someone who believes strongly in the physico-chemical model of the brain as a box within which there are a myriad of neurons, receptors and synapses that overall produce who we are. Neuroscience and transmitter theories behind things like movement, speech, even memory are quite well explained by these theories; consciousness, awareness, thought etc obviously far less easily explained. But, that doesn’t make me believe there is a suddenly a non-physical basis for something like awareness, it just means to me that we cannot yet explain how all those neurotransmitters and neurones combine in such a way as to allow me to know I exist. Therefore it seems to me completely intuitive that physical damage to the brain, the sole conduit of thought and consciousness can affect all these things. Again, there are many medical examples where specific regions of the brain are damaged/altered, and these lead to predictable, repeatable alterations in the mental or physical state. (For an interesting example, see the story of Phineas Gage, a famous patient who had an unfortunate accident with a tamping iron resulting in a complete change in personality. This story is taught to most medical students)

    > 3) If consciousness merely inhabits the body, rather than being a product of the brain’s substance and activity, why can we delete it at will with anaesthesia? Even if what anaesthesia does is force consciousness to leave the body temporarily why doesn’t our subjectivity stay with it, instead of switching off when the brain is drugged?

    3. I think consciousness is entirely a product of the brain’s substance and activity, I’m afraid (sorry to disappoint). Doctors are often accused of nihilism in this aspect. Nonetheless I don’t think believing everything we know and feel is produced within our brain means it is any less fascinating how little we know of how consciousness works. Anaesthesia is an interesting side point here. From a purely scientific perspective, most general anaesthetic agents act on certain receptors we know about, leading to an inhibition of neuronal conduction and loss of consciousness. These are the same receptors alcohol works on within the brain to a large extent, with some individual variations and obviously very different potencies. We know from molecular biology that anaesthetic agents work on these receptors and cause rapid and complete loss of consciousness. The crux of the matter of course, is what is the person ‘thinking’ while under anaesthesia, is there any subjective awareness at the time, even if it is not recalled upon waking? My opinion is that the vast majority of the time consciousness is entirely switched off by these drugs (actual awareness in an operating theatre – the kind people always worry about – is now extremely rare given the monitoring of agent concentrations and brain activity that is now possible). The person simply sleeps, then wakes up with no intervening consciousness at all. This is supported by experiments measuring brain activity via an EEG (like an ECG, but for the brain) in which the overall activity of the brain is reduced to below that seen when someone is asleep, when under anaesthesia. The extreme example of this is the ‘Thiopentone coma’ – an intervention sometimes seen in intensive care used to reduce the metabolism of the brain after an injury, as a protective strategy. Large doses of thiopentone, a general anaesthetic, are infused continuously while monitoring the EEG as a marker of brain activity, with the ultimate aim of reducing the electrical activity of the brain to zero (a neurologic equivalent to the flatline cardiac tracing seen in cardiac arrest). The medical benefits of this treatment are fairly equivocal, but I have on occasion wondered what is going on in that patient’s consciousness while the thiopentone infuses, and concluded that it is probably nothing whatsoever!

    Posted March 12, 2016 at 3:45 pm | Permalink
  19. Musey says

    Sorry, the comment repeated several times! Malcolm, maybe you can edit it so that it only appears once. As my darling husband has just said to me “Does Malcolm know that you’re a computer whiz?”

    You do now.

    Posted March 12, 2016 at 3:54 pm | Permalink
  20. Malcolm says

    Antony,

    Thanks very much for that. I’m not a dualist myself, so I am inclined to agree with pretty much everything you said here.

    I have to quibble about one thing you said, though:

    Neuroscience and transmitter theories behind things like movement, speech, even memory are quite well explained by these theories; consciousness, awareness, thought etc obviously far less easily explained.

    We should be frank about this: consciousness isn’t “less easily” explained by neuroscience; it’s a baffling, impenetrable mystery. Not only do we not have a theory about what consciousness is, and it virtue of what property the brain produces it, but we don’t even have any idea what such a theory would even look like.

    PS: Poor Phineas Gage! I first encountered his sad story as a boy, in a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! book.

    Posted March 12, 2016 at 9:57 pm | Permalink
  21. Musey says

    Thanks Malcolm! Ant has no idea who has has written to, he just answered your questions. Now that you’ve fixed the multiple entries I’ll tell him why I asked and direct him here.

    Posted March 13, 2016 at 12:38 am | Permalink
  22. Musey says

    I was enjoying the conversation, but obviously you’re a bit alike. I talked to Ant about his party arrangements and thanked him for his response to you…and he was a bit interested..did your blog friend reply? Well, of course.

    Not for a moment would I suggest that he is your intellectual equal,or soul mate, but he did say that “whoever this guy is, we pretty well think the same way, so we’re in agreement and what more can I say?

    His reasons for thinking that you’re of similar mind are the questions themselves. “These are exactly the questions that I would ask of dualists”. Apparently, you make perfect sense to him.

    Maybe he will address your “quibble”, maybe not. He’s reluctant to stray into my territory, but really, I don’t mind.

    I don’t think he’ll make a habit of commenting, but then we’ve all heard that before. Haven’t we?

    Posted March 14, 2016 at 1:42 am | Permalink
  23. Jacques says

    “1) What features of mental life, if any, are instantiated in the physical body? Memory? Intelligence? Learned cognitive skills? To put this another way, what aspects of mind besides pure conscious awareness require a metaphysical explanation?”

    The idea of a purely “physical” body or, more broadly, a “physical” reality taken to be distinct from “mental life” is already a deeply metaphysical idea. If you think about it, there is no way to eliminate “mental” things or properties from a realistic conception of the world. Obviously consciousness is a real thing in the world, which has no purely “physical” description or explanation as far as we can tell or imagine. But the same is true of actions and causation, for example. Also, values of various kinds are real if anything is real, and not just real “in the mind” or in “mental life”. (Moral values, yes, but also aesthetic and other kinds. Truth is a value, rationality is a value.) I don’t know if values or facts about value are “mental” exactly, but they certainly aren’t “physical” in the sense that philosophers seem to have in mind when they call themselves “physicalists”. One kind of “dualism” seems implausible (to me) precisely because it requires the idea of two neatly distinguished domains, the mental and the physical. This idea does not fit well with any natural understanding of the world. A better idea is to reflect more carefully on all the truths we know (or seeming truths we seem to know) and then see how general notions of the “mental” and the “physical” might be defined on that basis. (Or maybe rejected in favor of other notions.)

    Posted March 30, 2016 at 8:53 pm | Permalink
  24. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Jacques, for that thoughtful comment.

    My own feeling about this is that much of what we call “mental” is the sort of thing that could be unproblematically instantiated in a physical system without having to expand or stretch our commonsense understanding of “physical” (or at least it is hard to see in principle why such phenomena couldn’t be so instantiated.) Among these phenomena I would include even such things as valuation and intentionality. (I’ve had some arguments with Bill Vallicella about this, some of which are lost with his older blogs.)

    I think it important to pry these things apart from what I consider to be the real mysterium tremendum, which is subjective consciousness. I find functionalist arguments completely unpersuasive, but I am also leery of dualism for the same reasons you mention (among others).

    The best I can do when confronted with this mystery is to say I suspect that consciousness is somehow a property, or an aspect, of certain sorts of matter, suitably arranged — that there is simply more to the “physical” than our crude understanding allows. But in virtue of what properties or arrangements, exactly, this happens, and why, I can frame no hypothesis.

    Posted March 30, 2016 at 9:39 pm | Permalink
  25. Jacques says

    Hmm. I have trouble imagining how consciousness could be pried apart from intentionality and valuation. And I also find it hard to imagine how valuation, for example, could be explained as a physical phenomenon under a ‘common sense’ understanding of the physical. My intuitions go the other way! I think we don’t understand common sense about the physical world except on the basis of these ‘mental’ or quasi-mental notions. Just one example. If there are physical explanations in physical reality there are also some truths in physical reality. No explanations without truths. Likewise, there must be implications and other such ‘rational’ relationships between the claims or thoughts that constitute the explanation. But how are we supposed to fit such things as truths or implications into a ‘common sense’ understanding of the physical world? What could be the physical facts or properties or relations or whatever that constitute the truth of a statement, as opposed to its falsity? Or that constitute its implicatory relation to some other statement? I just can’t make sense of the idea. It seems, anyway, to be just as mysterious as the fact that there is subjective consciousness.

    Posted March 31, 2016 at 8:26 pm | Permalink
  26. Malcolm says

    I have trouble imagining how consciousness could be pried apart from intentionality and valuation.

    Really? So did (does) Bill Vallicella. This surprises me, as it seems quite straightforward to me.

    Intentionality is “aboutness”. Bill often used the example of a pile of rocks marking a desert trail. That it was “about” the trail was uncontroversial to him, but he ascribed it to the consciousness of the person who left the mark.

    But ants mark trails too, I pointed out, and their markings are “about” the trail just as much as a person’s pile of rocks is. Must we then assume consciousness on the part of ants to explain this?

    He never answered me. I do wish he would.

    (By the way, I am assuming that you are the same “Jacques” that I’ve seen over at Maverick Philosopher. Am I right about this?)

    Posted March 31, 2016 at 8:38 pm | Permalink
  27. Jacques says

    Hi Malcolm,
    Yes, same ‘Jacques’ as over there.

    I’m not sure about this example. (And certainly I don’t think it’s a straightforward matter!) First of all, I think it’s pretty plausible that ants are indeed conscious in some sense. They sure act as if they are conscious. For example, they do things that we are inclined to describe as “marking a trail”. Can anything really do that without being aware of the trail or intending (consciously) to mark it? I find the idea hard to understand. By contrast, if a cloud looks like Italy for half an hour, and it wasn’t caused to look that way by any conscious entity, it would surely be wrong to say that the cloud was (intrinsically or non-derivatively) “about” Italy.

    Posted April 1, 2016 at 9:35 am | Permalink
  28. Malcolm says

    Hi Jacques,

    They sure act as if they are conscious. For example, they do things that we are inclined to describe as “marking a trail”.

    From my point of view, you’re begging the question here.

    Before we go further, would you agree that the trail-markings are an instance of intentionality, in a way that an Italy-shaped cloud isn’t? After all, ants need food, and when an ant finds food and marks a trail to it, other ants use the trail to get to the food.

    Posted April 1, 2016 at 10:04 am | Permalink
  29. Jacques says

    Right, I realized that my comments would sound like ‘question-begging’. (And that was intentional :)) It’s hard to avoid the appearance of begging the question when dealing with absolutely basic understandings. For instance, how would you ‘argue’ against the view that some squares are circular without presupposing that squares just can’t be circular? And we have different fundamental understandings about this topic, it seems. To me, the fact that the ants are doing anything that might be reasonably called ‘marking a trail’ just is, already, strong evidence that they are doing something conscious and that the ‘marking’ derives its semantic power from their conscious activity; if they’re like clouds (and clouds aren’t conscious) then I’m inclined to say that, as a conceptually necessary fact, they aren’t really ‘marking a trail’…

    So I don’t know if I’d agree with you that the trail-markings (so-called) are an instance of intentionality in a way that the cloud isn’t. Suppose all that’s going on is this: (1) some ants make some ‘marks’ as they make their way to food, without any of them having any kind of conscious awareness that (a) their ‘marks’ correspond systematically to the trail, (b) there is a trail such that, if one takes that trail one has a better chance of finding food, or (c) later, other ants will have a better chance of finding food if they notice these ‘marks’. (2) Later on, other ants come along and respond to these ‘marks’ in some completely non-conscious, instinctual way, and this causes them to find food.

    Do 1 and 2 suffice for intentionality? I don’t think so.

    Posted April 1, 2016 at 11:01 am | Permalink
  30. Malcolm says

    Jacques,

    It’s hard to avoid the appearance of begging the question when dealing with absolutely basic understandings.

    Certainly true, as anyone who writes as much about political topics as I do knows all too well.

    My first reaction to your last comment was to say that if you are simply going to stipulate that intentionality requires consciousness, then we can proceed no further.

    But I don’t want to give up so easily. I’ll say, instead, that intentionality has a salient property, namely a kind of non-random “aboutness”, that distinguishes it from chance phenomena like the shape of a cloud.

    To return to my example, it is in a functional sense hard to differentiate between a trail-marker left by a human and one left by an ant. Both are followed by other members of their species to accomplish something that furthers their survival: finding food, in the ant’s case, or not getting lost in the wilderness, in the human’s.

    If we had designed mechanical ants and set them up with a way to forage for fuel, and to mark its location, once found, so that other ants could help fetch it for the colony, we could hardly do better — and anyone looking at such a system, knowing that we had designed it, would have no qualms about describing it as exhibiting intentionality. But in such a case we wouldn’t ascribe this intentionality to the ants, we’d ascribe it to the humans whom we knew to have designed it. And in this case I think we’d feel no need to ascribe consciousness to the ants; we’d be perfectly happy to imagine them to be nothing more than little machines, doing what they’re meant to do.

    My position is that it is possible, at least in principle, that ants actually are nothing more than little unconscious machines, doing what they’ve been set up to do — but that there is another process at work in the world, besides human design, that can create such devices, and so bring intentional phenomena into the world. I think it is only our prejudice that inclines us to insist that since we are conscious, and we create intentional phenomena, that consciousness is inextricably linked to intentionality.

    Posted April 1, 2016 at 12:04 pm | Permalink
  31. Jacques and Malcolm,

    I am thoroughly enjoying your discussion. It’s like watching a well-played tennis rally.

    I am reminded of the old joke about a rabbi in a small hamlet who is adjudicating a dispute between two men (with a small crowd of appreciative witnesses):

    The first disputant presents his claim, and the rabbi says, “You are right.” The second disputant presents his opposing claim, and the rabbi says, “You are right.” At which point an observer exclaims, “Wait a minute — they can’t both be right!” Whereupon the rabbi responds, “You are also right.”

    Posted April 1, 2016 at 12:51 pm | Permalink
  32. Jacques says

    Hi Big Henry,
    That’s a nice compliment, I think :)

    Malcolm, you write:

    “It is in a functional sense hard to differentiate between a trail-marker left by a human and one left by an ant. Both are followed by other members of their species to accomplish something that furthers their survival”

    I guess that’s right, but it seems to me that we can explain this kind of behavior (at a ‘functional’ level, at least) without imputing any property of ‘aboutness’ to anything under discussion. Suppose that seeing stones has some systematic kind of effect on how I move my limbs, where I end up, etc. Why add that the stones are ‘about’ the trail or the path or the destination, or anything at all? This is a purely causal story, and surely X may cause Y without ‘meaning’ or ‘referring’ to Y or anything at all. We do add that notion, of course, in the typical human case; my point is that if we’re merely thinking of the ways in which that case resembles the behavior of ants (taken to be ‘unconscious machines’) then there seems to be no reason for adding it. Maybe if you could explain more fully why you’re inclined to add this notion to that kind of description we could clarify the nature of our disagreement, e.g., what the special ‘non-random kind of aboutness’ is that you have in mind.

    At the risk of begging the question (which you too are risking here, of course) I think it’s easy enough to distinguish between genuine trail-marking in the typical human case and pseudo trail-marking in the case of unconscious beings; it’s just that the appropriate distinction is not drawn at a functional level, where the facts about consciousness are being deliberately ignored. The distinction, for me, is a basic one: the conscious human is thinking about the trail, the destination, etc., and so he means to mark it, while the unconscious being thinks nothing and means nothing although it may behave in ways that make it seem to conscious observers that he does.

    Another related issue is that I don’t see any reason to allow that nature literally designs organisms to do anything (if nature isn’t conscious). There are evolutionary explanations for facts about organisms, which advert to the ‘functions’ of their traits or parts. But there can’t literally be functions under this kind of theory, it seems to me. For instance, there are too many candidate functions for a given trait or part or behavior, and no non-arbitrary basis for choosing any one of these as ‘the function’. Is the function of the human cornea to enable us to see, or to enable sexual success facilitated by seeing, or to enable genetic propagation facilitated by sex, or to enable further mutations and adaptations facilitated by that? In practice we pick a ‘function’ on the basis of our human interests in a given context; from the standpoint of objective natural reality none of these has priority over the rest; but if that’s how things are in reality there is no fact of the matter as to what it is that any particular evolved trait or behavior is ‘about’.

    Finally, I think my earlier point is also relevant here. If you’re appealing to the explanatory role of X in arguing that something unconscious refers to X, then you must at least think that explanations are objectively real phenomena. But what ‘physical’ facts could possibly constitute an explanation, or the fact that one thought or statement is explanatory with respect to another?

    Posted April 1, 2016 at 1:19 pm | Permalink
  33. Malcolm says

    Jacques,

    I guess that’s right, but it seems to me that we can explain this kind of behavior (at a ‘functional’ level, at least) without imputing any property of ‘aboutness’ to anything under discussion. Suppose that seeing stones has some systematic kind of effect on how I move my limbs, where I end up, etc. Why add that the stones are ‘about’ the trail or the path or the destination, or anything at all?

    Because, I would say, the utility of these markers, and of the responses we have to them, are too particular, too specific, and to well-correlated to the “interests” of the ant or the human (i.e., finding food, or not getting lost in the wilderness), for us to maintain with a straight face that those functions and uses just occurred at random. After all, I can easily imagine a different response, just as physically plausible, that would have the ant marching off in the other direction, or spinning round in a circle, when it encounters these markers. It doesn’t, though: it follows the trail to the food.

    Can you really look at the exquisitely tuned mechanisms of living systems and not conclude, say, that the heart is “for” pumping blood, a snake’s hollow fang “for” injecting venom, or an albatross’s wing, with its remarkable locking mechanism, “for” gliding through the air? I certainly can’t, and it seems disingenuous to me for anyone to suggest that he can.

    Is the function of the human cornea to enable us to see, or to enable sexual success facilitated by seeing, or to enable genetic propagation facilitated by sex, or to enable further mutations and adaptations facilitated by that?

    Clearly (ha!), the cornea, on such an understanding, is a transparent cover for a delicate light-receptor, and a damned good one. Why would we have such light-receptors? For seeing. Yes, you can list all sorts of things that are made possible by seeing, many of which may be independently adaptive — sexual success, or hunting, or skill at billiards, or reading contracts. But transparency to the frequencies of light that the atmosphere is also transparent to, which in turn enables us to see, is the most parsimonious explanation for the existence of a cornea — just as being “for” seeing is the most parsimonious explanation for the existence of the fantastic little camera it’s mounted on.

    I happily grant your point (although I think you are making a bit of a ‘motte-and-bailey’ move here) that the very idea of “function’ is a human construct, and one that is not intrinsically present in Nature. But what of it? That we are human, and are the only ones who describe the world in terms of ‘function’, doesn’t mean that we have to limit the use of the term only to things that humans create. Having created the categories by which we understand the world, we can apply them as we like, no? It is enough for me that what I can easily see to be ‘functions’ and ‘purposes’ exist in the natural world; I don’t see any need for them also to be represented, in any mind other than our own, as functions in order for them to exist. And so I do not think that Nature must be conscious to instantiate that thing we call ‘intentionality’; nor do I think that the beings in which it is instantiated must necessarily be conscious themselves.

    Another example: if you believe that humans have unconscious drives, affinities, and aversions, then aren’t those ‘about’ their objects and referents (and therefore intentional)?

    Finally, I don’t really think I’m begging the question in the same way you are here, as our positions are not symmetrical. I am only suggesting that it may or may not be the case that intentionality requires consciousness, and, trying to gain some insight, have been looking for examples of unconscious intentionality. I’ve also suggested a natural mechanism by which it might arise. You, on the other hand, seem simply to be stipulating that intentionality, by definition, implies consciousness.

    Posted April 1, 2016 at 4:02 pm | Permalink
  34. Jacques says

    Hi Malcolm,

    I’ll try to address a few of these points separately, as each seems to be quite tricky.

    You say that given the utility of the markers (and other things) it can’t be maintained that their “functions and uses just occurred at random”. Well, I’m not sure that would be so absurd a claim. What is “random” in this context? If it means something like “uncaused” or “having no cause that we can identify” (which is one meaning of “random”) then I agree it didn’t occur at random; rather, it was all caused, in particular by what we may call ‘natural selection’. In the same general way, if the wind is blowing a certain way then some cloud might resemble Italy for a while, and that too would not be a random occurrence in the present sense. But it also would not be the kind of thing that intuitively compels us to attribute design or ‘aboutness’. What is it that I’m overlooking here? Why would it be so absurd for me to deny that the ants (if totally unconscious and mechanical) are referring to something or doing something that is ‘about’ something?

    I agree that it seems totally counter-intuitive to deny that the eye is ‘for’ seeing or that the snake’s hollow fang is ‘for’ injecting venom. Maybe it’s even impossible for us to believe that these things have no functions or purposes. But I’m not sure what follows. If it really is so hard to deny these things then that may support belief in some kind of conscious designer of nature (or parts of it, anyway). Or not, if your view is correct. But I don’t see why I need to deny these admittedly strong intuitions in order to defend mine.

    Posted April 1, 2016 at 7:35 pm | Permalink
  35. Jacques says

    I don’t think I’m simply ‘stipulating’ that intentionality requires consciousness. Could we agree, at least, that in the most familiar and paradigm cases of ‘aboutness’ we also find consciousness? And could we agree that in those cases consciousness seems to be essential to the fact that there is ‘aboutness’? I think this seems pretty reasonable. Right now I am thinking about you. What makes it the case that my thoughts are about you? Well, surely the fact that they are conscious states has something to do with it. The marks I’m typing are about various things. Why? Again, it seems that conscious states enter into any plausible explanation, somehow. I consciously intend these marks to mean X, and you are aware of my intentions and consciously interpret them to mean X… It doesn’t seem to me that there are any especially clear or obvious cases of intentionality that don’t involve consciousness somehow. So it’s not mere stipulation to hypothesize that consciousness may be necessary for intentionality. True, there are some interesting cases, such as those you’ve mentioned, which may count against the hypothesis; but then it’s also not entirely obvious that they are cases of intentionality either, as we are presently debating that question. Anyway, I don’t think either one of us is ‘begging the question’ in a definitely unacceptable way. It just is an inescapable problem in this kind of disagreement.

    Posted April 1, 2016 at 7:40 pm | Permalink
  36. Jacques says

    Unconscious drives and the like are interesting. Not sure what to say about that kind of thing. I am somewhat skeptical of the idea that people have unconscious ‘beliefs’ or other states that would have to be intentional. An unconscious ‘drive’ or ‘affinity’ might be nothing more than a behavioral disposition (which is not conscious). And I don’t know that dispositions are ‘about’ anything; at least, I doubt that they are ‘about’ things in the way that beliefs are ‘about’ things.

    Posted April 1, 2016 at 7:45 pm | Permalink
  37. Jacques says

    Maybe I didn’t explain my skepticism about the concept of a function or purpose adequately. I didn’t mean to argue that functions can’t be real or objective simply in virtue of the fact that our concepts of these things are ‘human constructs’ (as all of our concepts are, of course). Instead I meant to point to a difference between these concepts and some others. Unlike some other concepts, these ones have no determinate or correct applications apart from interests of ours; this makes truths involving them less objective than some others. It’s similar to (or maybe the same as) the problem of the ‘causal theory of reference’. What is the cause of my use of the word ‘Aristotle’ on a given occasion? There are too many causes to settle the question of what my use of the word means. (Though it is a perfectly objective fact that each of these things is a cause of my use of the word.) Sometimes people say ‘It refers to the thing that is the common(est?) cause of the many uses of the word in your language’, or something along those lines. But I think this implies that people often mean or refer to something entirely independent of anything they have in mind, mean to talk about, etc. (And that seems false to me.)

    So you may be right that the most parsimonious explanation of the cornea is that it’s for seeing; but what is parsimonious in one explanatory situation may not be in another, and there are multiple defensible ways of characterizing parsimony, and multiple defensible ways of weighting the explanatory value of parsimony against others. Since it doesn’t seem that anything in nature favors any one of these kinds of explanations or descriptions over others, I see no reason to say that the cornea is really for seeing rather than some other purpose facilitated by seeing. (Of course, if purposes can be nailed down by the consciousness or intentions of a designer (or someone) this problem goes away.)

    Posted April 1, 2016 at 8:03 pm | Permalink
  38. Malcolm says

    Hi Jacques,

    If nothing else, we are getting our positions outlined pretty clearly here, which is nice.

    Now I’ll try to work through your latest remarks.

    What is “random” in this context? If it means something like “uncaused” or “having no cause that we can identify” (which is one meaning of “random”) then I agree it didn’t occur at random; rather, it was all caused, in particular by what we may call ‘natural selection’.

    This is clear, and good, and of course I agree. What surprises me is that this does not in turn carry you the rest of the way to my position; I think this is because I see natural selection as something qualitatively different from the wind blowing clouds, despite their both being unconscious processes, and you prefer to see them, because they are both unconscious processes, as essentially equivalent. (I’m getting a whiff of question-begging there, too, I have to say.)

    Consider artificial selection, for example dog-breeding. I think that you would agree (correct me if I’m wrong about this) that the products of such selection — the morphological or behavioral traits sought after, and achieved, by selection by humans, such as herding ability (border collies), speed (greyhounds), sensitive scent-detection (bloodhounds) — are ‘for’ something. In the case of dog-breeding, we choose the function, and tune it with selection.

    In natural selection, there is no conscious agent to choose what functions will be tweaked and optimized, but other than that the process is just the same. But are the eagle’s wing, or, its eyes, or its talons, any less superbly adapted ‘for’ flying, or detecting prey, or seizing it, than they would be if a human had controlled the selection? Would they not obviously be examples of exquisite ‘design’, were we not arbitrarily limiting the meaning of the word?

    My own feeling about this, given that the ‘designs’ of living systems are tuned and optimized to their obvious functions to a degree of perfection and complexity that even we are incapable of, is that either we need to expand the meaning of ‘design’, or we simply need a new word. But for us seriously to suggest that the eagle’s wing is not, in some essential sense, ‘for’ flying seems to me quite at odds with common sense — and stubbornly so.

    What is it that I’m overlooking here?

    What you are overlooking, when it comes to the fantastically coordinated behavior of an ant colony, or the exquisite ‘design’ of an eagle’s wing, is that if you take away the ‘aboutness’, there is simply no reason why such things would ever come to exist in the world. You could jumble atoms around, or let clouds drift in the wind, until the heat-death of the Universe and never come close to either of them.

    If it really is so hard to deny these things then that may support belief in some kind of conscious designer of nature (or parts of it, anyway).

    Agreed. Were it not for Darwin’s insight, we would be forced to such a belief, I think.

    But I don’t see why I need to deny these admittedly strong intuitions in order to defend mine.

    I’m not sure which intuition you refer to here. Yours seemed to be that the things we’ve just described aren’t ‘for’ anything, which would indeed be a contradiction of those ‘admittedly strong intuitions’.

    I don’t think I’m simply ‘stipulating’ that intentionality requires consciousness. Could we agree, at least, that in the most familiar and paradigm cases of ‘aboutness’ we also find consciousness?

    I will certainly agree that where there is human ‘aboutness’ we also find consciousness, but only so far as to say that humans are conscious. (What I mean by that is that I think that even in humans there are unconscious intentional states.)

    But on my view, I also see ‘familiar and paradigm’ cases of ‘aboutness’ in all living systems (e.g., all the examples above). So while I see your point, I’m reluctant, for the sake of rigor, to cede that much ground here.

    Right now I am thinking about you. What makes it the case that my thoughts are about you? Well, surely the fact that they are conscious states has something to do with it. The marks I’m typing are about various things. Why? Again, it seems that conscious states enter into any plausible explanation, somehow.

    For all of these examples, yes. What, however, if while you are typing, you take a sullen tone in your writing because the remarks I’ve made remind you, quite unconsciously, of a teacher who used to harass you at school?

    Have you ever driven down the highway while having an animated discussion with a friend, and then realized that you have no memory of the last fifty miles? During that time you will have committed thousands of little intentional acts, all performed, it seems, quite unconscious.

    My own feeling is that our sense of a ‘plenary’ consciousness is, in large part, an illusion, and that our real consciousness is far ‘gappier’ than we can, under normal circumstances, ever be aware of. (If I may digress for a moment, I say this because for quite a few years I was trained in a system of inner work in which the first task is a series of exercises designed to show us how much of what we do is, in fact, not particularly conscious at all. The thing thing about consciousness is that it cannot see its edges. Consciousness can only be aware of itself when it is present.)

    An unconscious ‘drive’ or ‘affinity’ might be nothing more than a behavioral disposition (which is not conscious). And I don’t know that dispositions are ‘about’ anything; at least, I doubt that they are ‘about’ things in the way that beliefs are ‘about’ things.

    Do you not think that you can have an unconscious belief? (One commonly taken middle ground here is that we can have unconscious intentional states, but they must be the sort of thing that is at least potentially conscious.)

    So you may be right that the most parsimonious explanation of the cornea is that it’s for seeing; but what is parsimonious in one explanatory situation may not be in another, and there are multiple defensible ways of characterizing parsimony, and multiple defensible ways of weighting the explanatory value of parsimony against others.

    I think you are trying too hard here. The obvious explanation for why eyes exist in the world — i.e., to enable the creatures who possess them to see — towers, it seems to me, so far above any other possible account of their raison d’être that to talk of ‘weighting’ other stories against that one just seems intuitively, obviously disingenuous.

    …I see no reason to say that the cornea is really for seeing rather than some other purpose facilitated by seeing.

    I understand the hierarchy of causes you are trying to establish here, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s beside the point. Seeing is logically prior to “some other purpose facilitated by seeing”, and these other, more final causes will not be achievable without being able to see. So yes, you could say that corneas are for watching Netflix, but far upstream from that is their more general purpose: to enable us to see.

    Posted April 1, 2016 at 9:33 pm | Permalink
  39. Malcolm says

    P.S. Sorry that last comment ran on so long!

    Posted April 1, 2016 at 9:41 pm | Permalink
  40. Jacques says

    Malcolm,
    Thanks for a very interesting exchange. I’m not sure that I really understand your position, now that it’s laid out more clearly. I’m going to have to think more about some of your latest points, and get back to you. But a quick ‘dialectical’ thought: you seem to be implicitly granting my ‘question-begging’ line of thought, and basing your own reasoning on it, when you argue (for example) that the products of natural selection are fundamentally like the products of conscious “artificial” selection in dog-breeding. Generally you seem to be arguing that since nature operates in roughly the way that a conscious designer would operate, were he in nature’s shoes, nature deserves to be considered a designer and some products of selection deserve to be considered intentional. As I say, I’m going to think more about this argument; but it does seem you agree with me here, implicitly, that our basic understanding of intentionality involves conscious _intending_ (Otherwise, why is it worth emphasizing that natural selection operates like artificial selection, or that they’re indistinguishable at the functional level?) And then you want to extend this basic understanding of the concept (reasonably enough, perhaps) to other cases where there is no conscious intending.

    Posted April 1, 2016 at 10:03 pm | Permalink
  41. Malcolm says

    Jacques,

    Generally you seem to be arguing that since nature operates in roughly the way that a conscious designer would operate, were he in nature’s shoes, nature deserves to be considered a designer…

    Yes! Exactly. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck…

    …and some products of selection deserve to be considered intentional… it does seem you agree with me here, implicitly, that our basic understanding of intentionality involves conscious _intending_.

    I want to clarify this. What I am saying is that natural selection, acting upon self-replicators capable of “descent with modification”, is a purposeless, non-intentional process that is nevertheless capable of introducing ‘forness’ and ‘aboutness’ into the world.

    What I am asking you to let go of here is the idea that such a process must itself be conscious and intentional in order to produce such results. Indeed, as a non-theist, my belief is that our own intentionality is the result of this wholly purposeless and unconscious ‘design’ process.

    Because of all this, I think that we can (and should) pry apart consciousness and intentionality, and consider them as wholly separate phenomena. Consciousness is a great mystery. In my view, though, intentionality is not.

    Thank you too, Jacques, for what has been, as you say, a very interesting exchange.

    Posted April 1, 2016 at 10:49 pm | Permalink
  42. Jacques says

    Earlier you said that if we didn’t have Darwinism we’d be forced to infer that a conscious designer of nature exists. Why would that be, if not because our basic understanding of design, function and aboutness in general (not just in the human case) ties these notions to conscious intending? If instead the ant’s trail were a paradigm of intentionality on the same level as, for example, my use of words to refer, then our pre-Darwinian ancestors would have been under no pressure to make this inference. But then, if we actually agree that the basic general concept of intentionality depends on intending, your inference from Darwinism plus ‘obvious’ facts about nature seems optional. It’s hard to believe that the wing is not for flying, but it’s also hard to believe (even for you, I’m suggesting) that a totally unconscious process could produce real intentionality rather than the mere appearance of it (which is what most Darwinians think, of course). So I don’t claim you’re wrong but I don’t think I’m compelled to agree. It seems both of us have to “let go” of some fairly strong intuition in order to hold on to the beliefs we like.

    Posted April 2, 2016 at 8:55 am | Permalink
  43. Jacques says

    A further thought prompted by your claim that our own intentionality is derived from this non-conscious kind… Earlier you appealed to the functional indiscernability of human trail marking and ant trail marking, suggesting that this is a reason to ascribe intentionality in both cases. Does this inference work the other way too? If functional criteria are enough to settle the question, why not simply deny that we ourselves have a special conscious kind of intentionality? You could claim that our intentionality is _exactly_ like that of a wholly unconscious machine, and that the conscious phenomenology is epiphenomenal, i.e., that the fact that my thoughts are about you has nothing to do with the fact that I am consciously intending to refer. But that seems wrong to me.

    Posted April 2, 2016 at 9:00 am | Permalink
  44. Malcolm says

    Hi Jacques,

    I am traveling today, so must be brief:

    Earlier you said that if we didn’t have Darwinism we’d be forced to infer that a conscious designer of nature exists. Why would that be, if not because our basic understanding of design, function and aboutness in general (not just in the human case) ties these notions to conscious intending?

    Well, that would be the reason. In the absence of an understanding of natural selection, we’d have no other place to go, and only one idea about where “forness”, “aboutness” and “design” could come from.

    …your inference from Darwinism plus ‘obvious’ facts about nature seems optional.

    Well, yes, it is, of course. What I’m hoping is to secure your agreement that it is, at least, plausible.

    You could claim that our intentionality is _exactly_ like that of a wholly unconscious machine, and that the conscious phenomenology is epiphenomenal, i.e., that the fact that my thoughts are about you has nothing to do with the fact that I am consciously intending to refer.

    Yes, I could, and in fact I mostly do. I ascribe a far lesser role to consciousness than most people do, and I think that a great deal of what we believe, decide, intend, etc. happens quite unconsciously. (Julian Jaynes suggested that humans weren’t conscious at all, in the ordinary way, until very recently in our history. He may be wrong, but again I find his account plausible.)

    So, then, what IS consciousness? As I’ve said, that for me is the mystery. As I wrote here, I can’t go all the way to epiphenomenalism. But I think we can have intentionality without consciousness.

    Posted April 2, 2016 at 9:31 am | Permalink
  45. Jacques says

    “In the absence of an understanding of natural selection, we’d have no other place to go, and only one idea about where ‘forness’, ‘aboutness’ and ‘design’ could come from.”

    Okay, but I think you may be missing my point here. I don’t mean to challenge the assumption that an understanding of NS offers us a new or second way of understanding these concepts. Instead, I’m challenging your earlier claim that it’s only in the special case of human intentionality that we naturally or conceptually associate intentionality with conscious intending. You made this claim, I think, in order to clarify a dialectical point: According to me, our paradigms of intentionality are all based on intending; according to you, this is true of some (human) paradigms but not others: “I also see ‘familiar and paradigm’ cases of ‘aboutness’ in all living systems”. I took you to mean that, prior to any view about NS, these are also paradigms of intentionality. And if that were right, there’d be no pressure on you to give up the belief that these systems are intentional just because you take them to be unconscious and unintended. On the other hand, if prior to any view about NS, _all_ paradigms of intentionality (or apparent intentionality) are also cases of conscious intending (or apparent conscious intending) then you’ll be under great pressure to respond to facts about NS in the way that most evolutionists do, i.e., by saying that these systems appear teleological and intentional but aren’t really. And, moreover, my line of thinking would definitely not be question-begging (in a bad way) if everyone takes all paradigms to be cases of consciousness.

    Does that dialectical point make sense? Anyway, the argument I’m suggesting here is that, if prior to NS people _did_ take all living systems to exhibit design, and took that to strongly encourage belief in a conscious designer, then _that_ powerful inclination is itself evidence for my claim that design is conceptually linked to consciousness. Again, I’m speaking here of our concept of design, assuming that we can figure out facts about our concept by considering our inclinations and dispositions to apply it.

    Posted April 2, 2016 at 5:13 pm | Permalink
  46. Jacques says

    Just to clarify something in that last comment: if prior to knowing about NS people thought that all living systems seemed designed, and (as we seem to agree) took that to indicate a conscious designer, then it may be dubious or even question-begging to claim that NS offered us a new way to understand how things can be designed — rather than saying that it offered us a new way to understand how they can appear to be designed despite not being designed, as is the more common lesson drawn here. So I’m trying (maybe kind of ineffectually) to challenge your right to retain these intentional concepts once you grant NS, etc.

    (But I’ll grant for now that your position is, at least, far _more_ plausible than it initially seemed to me!)

    Posted April 2, 2016 at 5:16 pm | Permalink
  47. Malcolm says

    Hi again Jacques,

    I took you to mean that, prior to any view about NS, these are also paradigms of intentionality. And if that were right, there’d be no pressure on you to give up the belief that these systems are intentional just because you take them to be unconscious and unintended.

    Prior to NS (thank you for introducing the abbreviation here), we had no inkling of anything other than human (and therefore conscious) intentionality. Therefore any intentional phenomenon in the material world, whether it be a map of Paris or an ant’s food-trail, would be an instance of “derived” intentionality, which would necessarily have some basis, somewhere, in “original” intentionality. For the map of Paris, the source would be the mind of the mapmaker; for the ant’s trail, it would be the mind of God.

    NS introduced a radical alternative that in my view opens another possibility: intentionality with no grounding in any mind whatsoever. The concepts of “original” and “derived” don’t map cleanly onto this, so we’d need a new word. I suppose we could call it “emergent” intentionality.

    And, moreover, my line of thinking would definitely not be question-begging (in a bad way) if everyone takes all paradigms to be cases of consciousness.

    Right, it wouldn’t. You could even have it in two flavors: conscious ants, or ants that derive their intentionality from a conscious God.

    Anyway, the argument I’m suggesting here is that, if prior to NS people _did_ take all living systems to exhibit design, and took that to strongly encourage belief in a conscious designer, then _that_ powerful inclination is itself evidence for my claim that design is conceptually linked to consciousness.

    Well, yes, it was, until we learned about NS. That was a game-changer, because it showed there was another way.

    …it may be dubious or even question-begging to claim that NS offered us a new way to understand how things can be designed — rather than saying that it offered us a new way to understand how they can appear to be designed despite not being designed, as is the more common lesson drawn here.

    To me, this is an irritating distraction in all discussions of this subject. It is nothing more, it seems to me, than a quibble about the definition of “designed”. It’s as if a 19th-century Flamenco musician came along and looked at a Gibson Les Paul and said “that’s no guitar!”

    What could we do? We could say “well, there are more kinds of things we call “guitars” nowadays”, or we could say “we call that an electric guitar”, or we could just come up with a whole new word for the now-expanded class of six-stringed, fretted instruments.

    So, in the same way, I’m fine with any of these three options:

    1) To agree that ever since NS we now have a second process we also call “design”;

    2) To call design-by-NS “natural design”, or something like that;

    3) Or just to chuck the word “design” altogether, and come up with a new word that covers both processes.

    Seriously, I think all this haggling over the definition of this word is a huge time-waster, and it seems to happen whenever this topic comes up. As the Buddhists say, it’s the “finger pointing at the moon”.

    Posted April 2, 2016 at 10:28 pm | Permalink
  48. Jacques says

    Hi Malcolm,
    At the risk of irritating you (more) I’m going to have to object here. I don’t think this kind of debate is pointless. Some of the most important philosophizing is about how words should be defined, I think. Words track concepts, at least sometimes, and concepts sometimes track essences or natures or other important phenomena. In figuring out how best to use or define a word, we’re sometimes also figuring out how to understand the phenomena (e.g., design or intentionality).

    Consider a different example. A 19th century person is told that, in 2016, there are two kinds of women: ‘cisgendered women’ and ‘trans-women’. He’s told that people of both kinds are, of course, women. The only difference is that in the first case they count as women in virtue of facts about their chromosomes, their natural functional physiology and reproductive life-cycle, whereas in the second case they count as women in virtue of none of *those* things but, instead, in virtue of the fact that they ‘identify as’ women, the fact they’ve had some surgeries to make their penises look like vaginas, the fact that they are taking drugs that cause them to have some of the secondary sexual characteristics of cisgendered women, etc.

    I’m not sure what your view is on this trendy issue, but I think the preceding line of thought is totally absurd. It’s not something that we can just decide to accept, or not, as rational thinkers who have some grasp of the concept [woman]. I think that, in reality, those we are supposed to call ‘trans-women’ are just not women, period; I think that ‘trans-women’ is related to ‘women’ in roughly the way that ‘toy gun’ is related to ‘gun’. If someone were to say “Oh, we call these women ‘trans-women’, just as we call a Les Paul an ‘electric guitar'”, I would think the person was abusing or misunderstanding the concept [woman] but not the concept [guitar]. I’d claim that there is a real natural phenomenon out there, woman-ness, which our concept [woman] tracks more or less, and we can’t rationally use words expressing this concept in any old way we please; our rational use of such words is constrained by reality, by the nature or essence that our concept tracks. So the rational response to this new use of words would not be to translate from one idiolect to another, or introduce some new stipulation; it would be to point out that there is nothing in reality to which the relevant concepts can be applied in this fashion.

    Posted April 3, 2016 at 11:19 am | Permalink
  49. Malcolm says

    Jacques,

    While I generally agree with the points you make here, and am myself a stickler for preserving precise discriminations in language, I think arguments like this can easily break down into matters of contrary intuition, with no higher authority to appeal to. (That said, I share your opinion about the word “woman”.)

    What is at issue here is what essential object-properties a word picks out. Returning to my 19th-century Flamenco guitarist, it’s clear that for him there are some essential properties of a “guitar” that a Les Paul does not instantiate. Would a seven-string guitar, otherwise indistinguishable from the one he plays, be a “guitar”? A steel-stringed version? One with an eleven-fret scale? I’d say all of those are “guitars”, but listing exactly what properties are essential to a word is, at bottom, an arbitrary matter of convention. (The idea that words can even, in principle, correctly and congruently map well-delineated categories that are themselves ontologically intrinsic features of reality, as opposed to human perceptions and constructs, is a hoary and ancient topic I’m reluctant to take up in this thread.)

    I’m veering dangerously close to postmodernism here, which I detest — but it’s the same thing, I think, with “design”. For me, the essential concept the word picks out is the tuning of an object to a function; who or what does the tuning is not the point. For you, though, and so many others, the properties of the designer seem also to be part of the essence of the word’s meaning, and so it is always a sticking-point. As far as I am concerned this hill simply is not worth dying on, and so I surrender it to you.

    With that in mind, I now add option #4:

    4) We invent a new word that describes an unconscious and unteleological process that creates things that otherwise bear all the hallmarks of design, and are indistinguishable from designed objects.

    I do this with considerable reluctance, though, because surrendering “design” also puts at risk nearby territory, such as “for” and “about”, which are not going to be easy words to replace. It’s just so much simpler, I think, to choose option 1) or 2) from my previous comment, and just to say that that in NS we’ve found a new way that design can happen.

    Posted April 3, 2016 at 1:20 pm | Permalink
  50. Malcolm says

    P.S. I should add also that we are freer when discussing words like “design” than we are with words like “woman”, which have implications in law. A redefinition of the former will not send 220-pound guys with mustaches into our daughters’ shower rooms.

    Posted April 3, 2016 at 1:39 pm | Permalink
  51. Malcolm says

    P.P.S. Just to beat this to death: in programming terms, I would add a “DesignedBy” property to the “DesignedObject” base-class.

    Posted April 3, 2016 at 2:56 pm | Permalink
  52. That would raise hackles in the mustache demographic.

    Posted April 3, 2016 at 4:11 pm | Permalink
  53. Jacques says

    Hi Malcolm,
    If we define ‘quasi-design’, or ‘q-design’ for short, along the lines you suggest, then we can also define new terms corresponding to ‘for’, ‘about’, ‘function’, etc. Instead of saying that the eagle’s wing is designed for flying we say it’s q-designed q-for flying. But I gather you’d like to say that the wing (whether designed or merely q-designed) really is for (and not merely q-for) flying. And in that case I’m going to have the same kind of puzzlement as before. What is it for something to be ‘tuned to a function’ in the absence of any conscious intending on the part of anyone? I would think it just comes down to the fact that the thing is very likely to bring about some kind of effect, e.g., wings are very likely to cause flying, or at least much more likely than lots of other things. I assume you think there is more to the concept than that, e.g., more to the fact that wings are for flying. You’d no doubt say that flying is the function for which wings were selected in evolutionary history. But (repeating an earlier worry) it will also be true that the very long continuous series of slight mutations ending up with what is now a wing consists of countless other more or less wing-ish things, most of which were selected for things other than flying. (And it will be intuitively obvious, at any given stage in this series, that the wing-ish thing is ‘for’ something or other, often not flying, in the same way that it seems obvious to us at the moment that the wing is for flying.) And won’t the fact that each of those was selected ‘for’ something come down to the bare fact that it happened, at the time, to be quite likely to produce the state of affairs it was ‘for’? If that’s all there is to ‘for-ness’ then I’m not sure the notion is appropriate here.

    But the funny thing is that, despite now feeling a bit clearer about the source of my resistance to your view, I’m also liking it a lot more.

    One more thought about this. Suppose I accept your view that NS really did ‘design’ things in some robust sense. Why is it that I _shouldn’t_ infer now that NS is conscious, on your view? Do you think panpsychism or some similar theory is implausible?

    Posted April 3, 2016 at 8:09 pm | Permalink
  54. Malcolm says

    Jacques,

    I gather you’d like to say that the wing (whether designed or merely q-designed) really is for (and not merely q-for) flying.

    Well, right, I would. I’d just like to expand the concept of “design”, now that we know of another, hitherto-unsuspected process that can design things, to include this new process. Much of our disagreement here is just due to the fact that I’m willing to give the word “design” more latitude than it originally had, and you are reluctant to. (I’m perfectly happy to acknowledge we are talking about two very different kinds of “designers” here.)

    Really, given my own doxastic setup, as a Darwinist and a non-theist, what makes the most sense might be for me introduce terms like, say, “first-order” design, which would be what NS does (and which created us), and “second-order” design, which is what we do.

    You’d no doubt say that flying is the function for which wings were selected in evolutionary history. But (repeating an earlier worry) it will also be true that the very long continuous series of slight mutations ending up with what is now a wing consists of countless other more or less wing-ish things, most of which were selected for things other than flying. (And it will be intuitively obvious, at any given stage in this series, that the wing-ish thing is ‘for’ something or other, often not flying, in the same way that it seems obvious to us at the moment that the wing is for flying.) And won’t the fact that each of those was selected ‘for’ something come down to the bare fact that it happened, at the time, to be quite likely to produce the state of affairs it was ‘for’? If that’s all there is to ‘for-ness’ then I’m not sure the notion is appropriate here.

    The problem of intermediate stages is an important one for NS generally: how do you select for a little wing-stub that doesn’t yet get you into the air? How is that adaptive? If Darwinists can’t come up with an explanation of that sort of thing, the whole edifice comes down. But that isn’t what we’re arguing about here: I will assume for now that there were adaptive advantages at each stage that led to proto-wings, and that once they got to the point where a creature could use them to fly, then the selection pressure to make them really good for flying “took off”. In their earliest stages, were they selected because they conferred some other advantage — temperature regulation, for example? If NS is correct, I have to assume so. But that doesn’t diminish one whit how superb an eagle’s wing now is for flying, and I don’t doubt for a minute that its “design” has been tuned and tweaked to optimize flight for a very long time now.

    But the funny thing is that, despite now feeling a bit clearer about the source of my resistance to your view, I’m also liking it a lot more.

    That makes my day! (I like it too.)

    Why is it that I _shouldn’t_ infer now that NS is conscious, on your view?

    Because NS doesn’t strike me as the kind of thing that can be conscious. After all, “natural selection” is just another way of saying that in a given environment, some organisms are more likely to die, while other, slightly different, organisms are more likely to survive (and to have offspring). Why would we think a differential death-rate would be conscious?

    Do you think panpsychism or some similar theory is implausible?

    Not strictly so; I suppose we could posit that Nature itself is conscious, and is constantly manipulating environments and DNA so as to to produce soaring eagles and nerdy bloggers. But although I can’t refute the hypothesis, I don’t feel much of a pull to believe it, either — especially if the main reason to do so is because I am stuck on some particular definition of a few words. I’d rather just update the words to reflect a new and broader understanding of the way the world works.

    Posted April 3, 2016 at 9:18 pm | Permalink
  55. Jacques says

    “especially if the main reason to do so is because I am stuck on some particular definition of a few words”

    But, in my view, that isn’t the reason. Did Einstein just introduce new definitions of words like “space” and “time”? It seems better to say that he altered our concepts or conceptions of these things (which may involve changing definitions of words along the way). When I claim that, as I understand it, concepts like [design] and [for] are grounded in the concept of consciousness or conscious intending, I’m not making a report about how people now or in the past use the word “design”. Just as, when I say that a ‘trans-woman’ is not a kind of woman or a toy gun is not a kind of gun, I’m not (or not only) reporting on the uses of the words “woman” or “gun”. Still, there can be reasons for changing our conception of reality, and maybe you’ve given a good reason for doing so in this case.

    “Why would we think a differential death-rate would be conscious?”

    Here I’m a bit puzzled by your attitude. The reason would be our new belief that this process _designs_ living systems. You seem to be taking for granted a very deflationary view of the process of NS — a mere differential death rate — while wanting to inflate our view of its results — not just the appearance of design, but design.

    Posted April 4, 2016 at 6:23 pm | Permalink
  56. Malcolm says

    Hi Jacques,

    For me, having been raised by two scientists, and having had a keen interest in paleontology (and therefore Darwinism) since I was a boy, this expanded idea of “design” has been with me all my life: that people can design marvelous things, but so too can natural selection.

    It wasn’t until I was much older, and started reading both philosophy and the intellectual history of Darwinism, that I realized that what had always been an expansive term for me had a much narrower meaning for some people. So nothing at all has changed about my conception of reality — and when I began taking an interest, still later on, in philosophy of mind, the view of intentionality that I have described here came to me quite naturally. (It was helped along by the ideas of G.I. Gurdjieff, and my personal efforts with his practical system, which quickly — and, I might add, depressingly — showed me how much we can do completely unconsciously.)

    You seem to be taking for granted a very deflationary view of the process of NS — a mere differential death rate — while wanting to inflate our view of its results — not just the appearance of design, but design.

    I do take that for granted, but in light of what I’ve said just above, it isn’t “deflationary” to me; it’s simply the way I’ve always thought about it. As I’ve said repeatedly, I don’t fuss about the difference between the “appearance of design” and “design” — because for me “design” has always had the expanded meaning I’ve been ascribing to it here, so I’ve never had to bother with that discrimination.

    Posted April 4, 2016 at 8:15 pm | Permalink
  57. Jacques says

    Malcolm,
    That’s all very interesting! I’m going to have to learn more about Gurdjieff. (I’ve always been curious.) But I didn’t mean to make a point about you in particular; rather I meant that what we have to decide here isn’t just about words but rather about basic metaphysical assumptions.

    My point about ‘deflation’ was that it seems a bit arbitrary to view NS as just a differential death rate, or something like that, while viewing its products as not-just-apparently-designed. Wouldn’t it make more sense to be ‘deflationary’ about both, or ‘inflationary’ about both?

    Posted April 5, 2016 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  58. Malcolm says

    Jacques,

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to be ‘deflationary’ about both, or ‘inflationary’ about both?

    All I can say to that is that I simply have always had an understanding of how NS works (by differential death-rates), but also have known, for as long as I can remember, that this is the process that created all the exquisite living systems we see in the world. Whether that’s inflationary or deflationary, I guess, is just relative to what one’s expectations are, so I’ve never thought about that aspect of it.

    Certainly I can understand that if the concept of “design” has, for you, always (and only) meant “conscious” design, then promoting NS to that role would seem “inflationary”. But it isn’t for me.

    At any rate, I think we’re clear now about each other’s views!

    Posted April 5, 2016 at 12:43 pm | Permalink
  59. Jacques says

    Well, at the risk of being _really_ tedious, I don’t think that whether it’s deflationary depends on one’s expectations. There’s also a more objective way to distinguish. On one metaphysical picture of the world, all of this stuff — the process of NS, including all of its fleeting products — is nothing more than a complicated system of cause-and-effect relationships. It is wholly non-teleological and non-intentional in every respect. On another picture, this stuff is more than just cause-and-effect relationships, but involves teleology and intentionality. So I’m not asking you to explain how you personally came to have certain beliefs or concepts, or why those seem natural and intuitive to you; instead I’m asking you to ‘rationally reconstruct’ your position, to explain the seemingly arbitrary choice to accept the first metaphysical picture in some respects and the second picture in other respects. To me, anyway, it seems like it would be more rational to accept just one or the other across the board.

    But I can certainly understand if you think it’s time to draw this discussion to a close. I have trouble doing that, you may have noticed :) Especially when I have such a fascinating interlocutor!

    Posted April 5, 2016 at 1:19 pm | Permalink
  60. Malcolm says

    Hi Jacques,

    …it seems like it would be more rational to accept just one or the other across the board.

    Right you are. Here’s how I square that circle, if you like:

    All design is ultimately non-teleological, if you trace it back to its fundamental origin, which is NS.

    NS can produce designed things directly, or it can produce designed things, like us, that in turn produce other designed things.

    So when we focus on human designs we are looking at one, more indirect, aspect of this process, whereas when we look at an eagle’s wing we are focusing on another. But at root they are both just manifestations of the wholly non-teleological action of NS.

    I guess that on your view I have now completely deflated everything!

    Posted April 5, 2016 at 1:30 pm | Permalink
  61. Malcolm says

    I’ve found this conversation fascinating too, by the way. You’ve really held my feet to the fire here.

    Posted April 5, 2016 at 1:32 pm | Permalink
  62. Malcolm and Jacques,

    I just finished reading “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics” by Carlo Rovelli, which I recommend to you because the last chapter touches on some of the issues you have discussed in this thread.

    Posted April 6, 2016 at 7:50 pm | Permalink
  63. Malcolm says

    Well, Jacques, the thread’s gone quiet, so I guess we’re done. It was really a pleasure working through these ideas with you.

    Posted April 9, 2016 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *

*
*

You can add images to your comment by clicking here.