This is conceived as an informal and spontaneous annex to my more extensive blog, Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon

30th July 2013

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The Incommensurability of Consciousness?


I’ve just posted a longish piece — What is it like to be a serpent? — to my other blog, which is a kind of expansion and extrapolation of The Future of the Pit Viper, which I originally posted here. 

Some of the questions that I have considered in this newer post might be said to be concerned with the incommensurability of consciousness among distinct species: if different species with different sensory and cognitive architecture must employ an equally distinctive transcendental aesthetic to arrive at a distinctive, species-specific Weltanschauung, it would seem that these Weltanschauungen must be profoundly incommensurable, with no hope of bridging the gap between them.

If consciousness is incommensurable among species, then the idea of exchanging consciousness that I suggested some time ago here in Voluntary Incarnation might be as unworkable as inter-species transplantation (being, as it is, the inter-species transplantation of consciousness). My fantasy of going on safari not as a human hunter but as a lion on the Serengeti may prove to be impossible no matter how sophisticated our technology, if our minds are incompatible.

We know that there is at least a rudimentary community of consciousness being human beings and other species — i often point out to others that the most profound relationships in a person’s life are as likely to be with companion animals as with other human beings — which suggests that consciousness is in its diverse forms is not quite absolutely incommensurable.

I think something not unlike this may be the case among species, and I make this speculation on the basis of a particular dream I experienced some time ago, and which I wrote about in I Dreamed a Dream…

In my dream I “experienced” (if it could be called that) prepredicative experience, i.e., conscious awareness without concepts or language. If someone had suggested the possibility to me of someone born to conceptual and linguistic consciousness being able to “turn back the clock” and to experience the world from the perspective of prepredicative experience, I would have been skeptical, and perhaps even dismissive. But having gotten a taste of just such an experience by way of a dream, I have a different attitude now. 

Perhaps even if the “fit” between different forms of consciousness is not exact, and perhaps even if a particular species lacks entire classes of conscious awareness, it might still be possible to inhabit such a mind and to experience the world from this perspective.

In this sense, the possibility of technologically-enabled transfer of consciousness would be like a dream, and reentering one’s own life (by which I mean life in the body to which one is born) would be like waking from a dream.

Knowing whether one is a man who dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly who dreamed he was a man, might be even more difficult to discern than the traditional story suggests. 

Tagged: philosophy of mindconsciousnessincommensurabilitytranshumanism


17th April 2013

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Mind and Civilization: Consequences of Transhumanism


Mind and Civilization: A Developmental Perspective

In my post Mind and Civilization: A Developmental Perspective, I considered how the embodiment of minds in organisms that experience a natural history shapes the minds in question, and how, in turn, civilization is shaped by minds shaped by natural history, so that, both directly and transitively, civilization is shaped by natural history.

There is much more than could be said on this head. The whole of evolutionary psychology, which is a rapidly growing and ambitious field of study (and one that I touched upon in The Temporal Ecology of Mind, Confirmation Bias and Evolutionary Psychology, and Suspicion: Beyond the Agency Detector), and I did not even attempt to take evolutionary psychology into account when writing about how mind shaped by its embodiment shapes civilization.

Another Perspective on Embodiment

After writing the above-mentioned post about Mind and Civilization, in a frame of mind in which I was thinking about how the embodiment of mind shapes civilization, I realized that I had written about embodiment in a slightly different context.

Previously in Voluntaristic Incarnations: Thought Experiments I wrote about some of the possibilities (and the disturbing moral consequences) presented by the technologies that are now and will continue to be important in the debate concerning transhumanism.

The possibilities for the embodiment of mind in the wake of realized transhumanist scenarios is limited only by our imagination, and if machine consciousness should emerge from the same admixture of technology and human enhancement, even further possibilities will come into play — including possibilities that human minds literally could not even imagine.

Transhumanism and Posthumanism

The terms “transhumanism” and “posthumanism” are not yet at present clearly distinguished, and the uses of each are conventional and therefore admit of different conventions employed by different writers. The Wikipedia articles on transhumanism and posthumanism characterize the latter as a “critique of humanism” and the broader concept that includes within it the idea of transhumanism (along with antihumanism, etc.). This makes of “transhumanism” the more narrowly defined term, and I will adopt this convention. 

An interesting thought that I will not develop at present, but which occurred to me when I saw antihumanism classed with transhumanism as a posthumanist critique of humanism is the relationship between Foucault’s thought, which has been called “antihumanist” and transhumanism. While no one would call Foucault a transhumanist, or even a proto-transhumanist, it is interesting to speculate whether Foucault’s critique of humanism made transhumanism possible (or contributed to making it possible).

What is Transhumanism?

There are, of course, many definitions of transhumanism.

Jason Xu writes in the first of his Seven Transhuman Declarations that:

1. Technology should re-engineer the human body to eliminate aging, enhance intelligence, and morph into creative forms that will be faster, stronger, and more artistic than the bodies nature gave us at birth.

And that…

2. We are always human beings no matter how much we modify our bodies.  All human beings deserve basic rights regardless of appearence or abilities.

While Nikola Danaylov’s more widely-distributed A Tranhumanist Manifesto makes the following radical moral claim:

Substrate is morally irrelevant. Whether somebody is implemented on silicon or biological tissue, if it does not affect functionality or consciousness, is of no moral significance. Carbon-chauvinism, in the form of anthropomorphism, speciesism, bioism or even fundamentalist humanism, is objectionable on the same grounds as racism.

Interestingly, Danaylov’s manifesto incorporates ideas from both Nietzsche and Sarte. Danaylov writes:

Human is a step in evolution, not the culmination.

Which is almost a paraphrase of a famous line from Nietzsche:

“Man is a rope stretched between the beasts and the Superman — a rope over an abyss. A dangerous crossing, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous trembling and halting. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal.”

Danaylov also wrote:

Existence precedes essence. Human is a process, not an entity. One is not simply born human, but becomes one. That process of becoming is ongoing and thus the meaning of human is re-defined in every one of us.

"Existence precedes essence" is perhaps Sartre’s most famous formulation of existentialism (and something I have written about several times; cf., e.g., Existence Precedes Essence). By invoking this formulation from Sartre, Danaylov is either making transhumanism the heir of existentialism or an expression of existentialism.

Embodiment after Transhumanism

Whereas existentialism was keenly (if not morbidly) conscious of human finitude, and especially the human finitude that takes the form of death, transhumanism, whether or no it be descended with modification from existentialism, is concerned to mitigate human finitude. 

Transhumanism begins with the quest for eternal life that has been a human dream since the emergence of consciousness of being alive meant also self-consciousness of death: something that was absent in the animal kingdom until self-awareness evolved.

While transhumanism begins at the Fountain of Youth, it does not end there. In my above-mentioned Voluntaristic Incarnations: Thought Experiments I explored some of the more fantastic possibilities for the embodiment of the mind in the wake of transhuman-enabling technologies that would make embodiment voluntary, and, given voluntary embodiment, the form of that embodiment would also be voluntary.

Civilization After Transhumanism

The short version is that transhumanism will, in the long term, transform civilization, and will therefore be as much transcivilizationism as transhumanism.

If I am correct that embodiment and its natural history has shaped civilization, then the liberation from involuntary embodiment will surely shape future civilization, if transhumanism can realize its goals to this extent.

Voluntary embodiment will, in the long term, mean the voluntary shaping of civilization following the embodiments freely chosen in the later transhumanist era.

A New Form of Civilization

Transhuman civilization, should it come about, will be a fundamentally different form of civilization than that which we have known heretofore. Civilization heretofore has been a consequence of the embodiment of the mind, and is predicated upon the involuntary embodiment that is intrinsic to natural history.

Transhumanism means an end to natural history, and in its place will be a history that is freely chosen, in bodies freely chosen. A civilization predicated upon voluntary incarnation must, in some form, constitute a negation of a civilization predicated upon involuntary incarnation. 

In a certain sense, this transhuman civilization must be a non-naturalistic civilization, and I mean this in all the senses invoked by “non-naturalistic.” The consequences will be manifold and complex, and beyond the prediction of anything more than the barest outline.

To begin to suggest the contours of a non-naturalistic civilization, in both its desirable and undesirable aspects, will be a task for a future post. 


Tagged: philosophyphilosphy of technologyphilosophy of mindtranshumanismposthumanismcivilizationembodiment


13th April 2013

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Mind and Civilization: A Developmental Perspective


Fetishizing the Disembodied Mind

Even those who have had no great respect for rationality have, in the past, fetishized human rationality, treating it as a disembodied mind that happens, by pure chance, to become lodged in a body. Thus man is called the “rational animal,” which makes rationality the differentia for man within the genus of animalia.

This isn’t what Descartes actually said when he formulated his mind-body distinction, but this is the lesson that many took away from Cartesian dualism, and it is this view of the mind as only incidentally related to the body that recent philosophers of mind have strongly reacted against. The view that has replaced this fetishized Cartesianism is a view that emphasizes the embodiment of the mind.

Perhaps Platonism is as much to “blame” as Cartesianism, and certainly recent philosophy has reacted against Platonism as resolutely as it has reacted against Cartesianism. (I believe that this reaction has overshot the mark, but that is not a point I will try to argue here.)

The Significance of the Embodiment of Mind

This reaction has also taken place in anthropology. In crude terms, those who study human development once assumed that human beings descended from a “smart ape,” whereas now the view is more that human beings descended from a bipedal ape, leaving hands free to manipulate the environment, and it was this bipedal ape using its hands to help it survive, that benefited from increasing brain size and increasing cognitive capacity.

As I said, this is the crude version. Our earliest primate ancestors probably already had binocular color vision, which already requires a brain of significant size. Being able to recognize the ripeness of fruit by sight is a survival advantage, while swinging through the branches of trees is aided by binocular vision which gives depth perception.

Nevertheless, even the crude version has something to teach us, as it makes us more keenly aware of bringing a developmental perspective to mind, and the role that the body plays in the development of mind.

If the mind is essentially embodied (rather than being accidentally or incidentally embodied), and we acknowledge that bodies have a natural history, then it follows that the embodied mind has a natural history also.

Beyond this, thinking in terms of the embodiment of mind forces us to think in developmental terms of the works produced by the mind — which Kevin Kelly calls the "technium" and which includes civilization — which is in turn of function of the development of the body.

The Embodied Mind and Civilization

It seems likely that different body plans of an intelligent organism would result in different forms of civilization; we need not assert that these different forms of civilization will be absolutely different, because it is likely that, in some respects, they would closely resemble (or overlap with) some of the forms of civilization human beings have put into practice.

If, for example, invertebrate organisms, or organisms with an exoskeleton, attained intelligence and self-consciousness, and created the kind of civilization that could be built by such bodies and which would enable the growth in the numbers of such organisms (and those organisms such intelligent beings would domesticate), the institutions and infrastructure of such a civilization would, of necessity, be distinct from the institutions and infrastructure of civilization that serves the needs of vertebrates.

Thus how exactly the mind is embodied is likely to profoundly shape the highest cultural institutions of a given sentient species, and this is a hard saying for the Platonist, who imagines the highest productions of the intellect to be objective, impersonal, and abstract — like a disembodied mind — instead of being rooted (or even “mired”) in the human, all-too-human appetites and motives of the body.

What Features of Embodiment Matter?

In a post on The Place of Bilaterial Symmetry in the History of Life I implicitly considered the role that a body plan innovation such as bilateral symmetry might have in the history of life, which in turn would have consequences for the emergence of mind so embodied in bilaterally symmetrical bodies, which in turn would have consequences for any civilization that would emerge from the intelligent activities of such bilaterally symmetrically embodied intellects.

Here I am verging on counter-factual conditionals that we will not be able to “cash out” (in the sense of the term used by William James) until we have explored a significant portion of the universe and have made a survey of other forms of life, other forms of mind, and other forms of civilization (if any of these are to be found). This would constitute the future science of civilizations of which I have written previously.

While a complete formalization of an exposition of how body plans are conducive to the emergence of civilization — or even the emergence of a peer civilization, which would be an industrial-technological civilization not of specifically human origin — must await evidence, which is not forthcoming at the present scope of our civilization, we can still work to clarify the conceptual issues involved.  

Microcosm and Macrocosm of the Mind

There is a sense, in the big picture, that the civilization we build is the embodiment that the mind creates for itself. Civilization is a product of the mind, and the mind is at home with it. 

We may thus someday, when we have our future science of civilizations in hand, be able to formulate the traditional doctrine of microcosm and macrocosm in more rigorous terms than we have any right to expect of such Hermetic ideas.

The embodiment of the mind provides the mind with content drawn from its own experience, which is meaningful and valuable precisely because it belongs to the mind as its own. The mind, in turn, builds an embodied structure in which mind can flourish, and this embodied structure is ultimately (and continuously) shaped by the embodiment of the mind. 

In other words, the microcosm and the macrocosm reflect each other, and not for Platonic reasons, but for developmental reasons rooted in natural history.

Tagged: cartesian dualismDescartesphilosophy of mindcivilizationembodimentphilosophyPlatonism


23rd May 2012

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The Prodigal Philosopher Returns

Some years ago I became exasperated with contemporary philosophy of mind. I stopped reading books in philosophy of mind and I stopped making an attempt to keep up with what was going on in the field. It had come to seem pointless to me, not because I had lost interest, but because the issues and problems that had come to dominate the work of Anglo-American analytical philosophers seemed pointless to me. I didn’t get it anymore. This is not terribly unusual. Philosophers often find that the work of philosophers coming from different traditions seems unmotivated to the point of arbitrariness. Bertrand Russell, who was a close collaborator with Wittgenstein during Wittgenstein’s early period thought that Wittgenstein’s later work was trivial and without value; Russell thought that Wittgenstein’s work had become pointless.

Recently I have returned to philosophy of mind and have tried to survey the present situation. A lot has happened in the interim. I have listened to John Searle’s lectures for The Teaching Company, Daniel N. Robinson’s lectures for The Teaching Company, Patrick Grim’s lectures for The Teaching Company, and Andrew Pessin’s lectures for The Modern Scholar series.

What marks the difference between continental philosophy of mind and analytical philosophy of mind (one least one thing, I should say) is not so much two different perspectives on the same thing — like the eliminative materialist saying that there is no such thing as mind in the world while the Berkeleyan idealist says that there is no such thing as matter in the world, but both agree that there is one world composed of one kind of metaphysical substance — as it is about two different points of departure, i.e., where we start when we begin to philosophize about the mind.

One of the things that bothered me about philosophy of mind was the predominately behaviorist cast of Anglo-American thought. I didn’t see the point of much of the struggles that attended simply recognizing that there is such a thing as consciousness (by which I mean subjective awareness) and that a strictly behaviorist account was inadequate.

Some recent analytical philosophy of mind has involved making a distinction between the “easy” problems of mind and what has come to be called “the hard problem” of consciousness. I believe that this distinction is due to David Chalmers, who has had a big influence in contemporary philosophy of mind.

I found this distinction to be interesting, since it is taken analytical philosophy so long even to get to the point where it is willing to consider arguments that there is such a thing as subjective awareness. I realize now in hindsight that part of my exasperation with analytical philosophy of mind was its belaboring of the mere recognition of consciousness, and that many of the issues that analytical philosophers had been discussing and calling “philosophy of mind” were philosophy of mind without any recognition of consciousness, which strikes me as perverse. For me, philosophy of mind was always about the hard problem of subjective awareness.

Contemporary analytical philosophers of mind like to formulate thought experiments based on philosophical zombies (and I have written about them also recently in A Note on Soulless Zombies), in which questions are asked such as whether a zombie twin that is functionally identical to me would be distinguishable from me even if it lacked consciousness. This strikes me as strangely self-referential, as though the analytical philosophers who have denied the very existence of mind in the form of conscious awareness have been engaging in a kind of “zombie philosophy” — i.e., formulating a philosophy of mind that pretends to be adequate but which is ultimately about mind without consciousness.

I find myself asking the reflexively obvious question, such that: if two philosophers formulate philosophies of mind, and each of these seems adequate to all aspects of intelligence and mind, with the one exception being that one philosophy of mind includes subjective awareness while the other simply doesn’t address it at all — i.e., functionally equivalent philosophical doctrines with subjective awareness being the only difference — are the two philosophies distinguishable? Is the zombie philosophy that postulates mind without consciousness just as adequate an account of mind as a philosophy of mind that says something about consciousness?

Here I return to my point about analytical and continental traditions having a different point of departure in the philosophy of mind. When I abandoned analytical philosophy of mind, I did not stop reading works in the phenomenological tradition. But you can’t so much say that phenomenology has a theory of mind anything like the theory of mind one finds in analytical philosophy. Phenomenology and its study of the structures of consciousness begins with the recognition of subjective awareness of the central reality of consciousness; analytical philosophy of mind has only of late culminated in the recognition of subjective awareness as a central feature of mind — and, even then, probably the majority of Anglo-American analytical philosophers continue to be functionalists of some sort or other, willing to say that consciousness is illusory, peripheral, non-existent, not as it presents itself to be, or merely epiphenomenal.

In the meantime, psychiatry and cognitive science built a very different theory of the internal workings of the mind, isolated from the phenomenological account of the structures of consciousness, because the kind of people who created cognitive science came from a scientistic background and were therefore unlikely to have read Husserl or those who followed in his tradition. When they did turn to philosophy, they turned to analytical philosophy where they found no comparable analysis of the workings of the mind.

As a prodigal philosopher returning to philosophy of mind after many years of riotous living in ontology, epistemology, phenomenology, and even guilty pleasures like strategy, I cannot quite hope for the fatted calf of philosophy of mind to be served up for me exactly as I might like it, but I do definitely see possibilities.

While I could be said to have squandered my wealth on wild living in a distant country, I learned a lot while I was away. Now I know why I was dissatisfied with theories of mind as I read them in analytical philosophers, and simply knowing what the problem constitutes conceptual progress for me. I was lost, and now I am found.

Tagged: philosophy of mindphilosophyzombiesHusserlphenomenologyanalytical philosophycontinental philosophy


15th March 2012

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Cartesian Formalism

One of the biggest and yet one of the least recognized blunders in philosophy (and certainly not only in philosophy) is to conflate the formal and the informal, whether we are concerned with formal and informal objects, formal and informal methods, or formal and informal ideas, etc. (I recently treated this topic on my other blog in relation to the conflation of formal and informal strategy.)

Formal thought presents both dangers and opportunities. The unfamiliarity of formal thinking (except among logicians and mathematicians) makes it difficult, and its difficulty makes us vulnerable to errors. However, all abstract theoretical thinking involves formal elements — indeed, language itself involves formal elements, especially in grammar, so that thinking is impossible without some degree of formality — so that formal thought is a necessary condition of formulating a theory.

Some time ago in Foucault’s Formalism I attempted to point out the neglected formalism of Foucault’s thought, often unrecognized because of Foucault’s exclusively prosodic exposition. But while a symbolic exposition of a formal concept or a formal system has the advantages of brevity, there is no essential reason we cannot give a prosodic or informal exposition of a formal concept. In fact, we do this all the time, mostly without knowing it.

There are exceptions to this lack of self-knowledge in theorizing. Mathematicians usually know the difference. Very often in the exposition of logical and mathematical ideas an author will inform you up front when they are giving you an informal exposition and when they will switch to a formalized exposition of the same.

Idealization can be a step toward formal conceptions. The idea of idealization is almost completely confined to continental philosophers; Anglo-American analytical philosophy has little or nothing to say on this topic, since Anglo-American analytical philosophy usually takes its formalism directly from logic. But in continental philosophy, where there is an explicit awareness of the role of idealization in thought (and this awareness is by no means always present), the distinction between idealization and non-idealization roughly corresponds to the distinction between formal and non-formal thought. 

One perfect example of idealization is the idea of the punctiform present. The debate other whether the human experience of time is punctiform or non-punctiform completely misses the point: to understand the point of consciousness analogously to a geometrical point (which, we recall, Euclid said had no parts, and is therefore unextended) is to liken a feature of experience to an ideal object (like saying that a tire is circular when it in fact only approximates an ideal of circularity). The punctiform present is a formal idea, and to analyze time in terms of the punctiform present is to engage in a formal analysis of time.

Similarly considerations hold for the theory of ecological temporality for which I have been giving an unfolding exposition on my other blog. If I should make the effort to do justice to the concept of ecological temporality with a fuller exposition, a formal theory of ecological temporality would be an idealization of demarcations within temporal processes that do not admit of unambiguous distinctions in empirical fact.

In the messiness of the real world no hard-and-fast distinctions can be made on the boundaries of micro-temporality, meso-temporality, exo-temporality, macro-temporality, and meta-temporality, but for the sake of a formal theory we drawn such distinctions. To divide up the continuum of experience into discrete parts always involves idealization and formalization; experience of the world does not come with handy little labels attached.

This is very much like the species problem, i.e., whether there are species in nature, or whether species are human constructs. When you have examples of, say, reticulate speciation (where population x can produce fertile offspring with population y, and population y with population z, but population x cannot produce fertile offspring with population z), it is very difficult to understand how this can be analyzed with the traditional species concept. In other words, the species concept is a formal idea of biology, and this formal idea gives us highly formalized systems of taxonomy. Linnaeus was a formal thinker.

It has been on my mind for some time to given an analysis of this in greater detail, though I haven’t yet made the effort to do so. At present I simply want to point out the formal character of some ideas not usually understood in these terms.

And all of this is simply to point out that Cartesian dualism can be best understood not as an egregious falsification of the integrated character of human experience (which is how most contemporary philosophers present it — I have noted in Naturalism and the Mind that almost all philosophers today, whatever their other differences, join in the condemnation of Cartesian dualism) but rather as an idealization and formalization of certain prominent features of human experience.

Descartes was a mathematician, and it is to be expected on this account that he was a formal thinker. Indeed, Descartes’ work lies at the foundation of analytical geometry, which is one of the greatest examples in all mathematics of the unity of formal and intuitive thought. Analytical geometry shows us the systematic interrelationship between geometrical entities revealed to us in geometrical intuition and the formulas of algebra which have been painstakingly arrived at through the abstract generalization of formal arithmetical thought.

Descartes brought his mathematician’s perspective to his theory of mind, and in so doing gave us the rudiments of a formal theory of mind. To point out that a formal theory fails to capture the imperfections of empirical facts is to miss the point. A formal theory seeks the skeleton key to the world, and makes no attempt to describe the flesh and viscera in all their detail. You may as well refute an apple with an orange as falsify a formal theory with an empirical fact.

Tagged: Cartesian dualismDescartesphilosophyphilosophy of mindthinkingformalinformalformal thoughtecological temporalityformal theoriesgeometrical intuition


5th March 2012

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The Eye of the Other

It is when we look into the eye of the other that we recognize the consciousness of the other. Even if we feel that the reality of other minds is beyond philosophical demonstration, even if we are skeptics of other minds, it would be extraordinarily difficult to look into the eyes of another and not experience that immediate reaction of recognition of another mind.

When we look not only into the eyes of another being but also into the eyes of another species, there is simultaneously the recognition of the awareness of the other and of the alien nature of that awareness.

I especially remember an incident of this kind some years ago when I was at the East Mooring Basin in Astoria, Oregon. There are a lot of sea lions that rest on the docks at the East Mooring Basin — so many that the neighbors complain of the noise of the sound that they make.

I was walking along one of the docks at the East Mooring Basin, casually looking from side to side, and at a moment that I happened to be looking down at the water, at the very point that I was looking the face of a sea lion slowly emerged from the surface of the water and it looked directly at me with two large, baleful eyes. In that moment I experienced the immediate recognition of another sentient being as well as the utterly alien character of the awareness behind those eyes. 

A less intensely alien moment is when I look into the eyes of cat in a darkened room and see the brightness of their eyes that have been so effectively selected for light gathering in low light environments. We see each other and we recognize each other even as we also recognize that gulf that separates us.

Even if for philosophical reasons or for ideological reasons you feel compelled to deny the consciousness of other sentient beings, you would have to be quite thoroughly acculturated to this view to look into the eyes of another species and not feel that immediate recognition.

This feeling, this recognition, is a datum. It is not a sense datum; although it supervenes upon empirical circumstances and cannot exist without these underlying circumstances, the experience of recognition itself does not belong to sensory intuition. It belongs to intellectual intuition. It is an understanding. In fact, it is a recognition not all unlike how we recognize ourselves and know ourselves to be conscious beings.

The datum of recognizing the awareness of the other is important, as is the realization that this recognition is parallel to that self-recognition we call “self-consciousness.” If we are going to do justice to our intuitions, we have a philosophical obligation to elucidate these intuitions.   

Tagged: eyeconsciousnessawarenessphilosophy of mindsensory intuitionintellectual intuitionintuitionother minds


17th February 2012


Of Distinctions, Principled and Otherwise

Again, with special reference to the mind-body problem

One of the obvious weaknesses in the distinction that I made between that which is strongly distinct and that which is weakly distinct in Of Distinctions, Weak and Strong, was the fact that I provided no way to distinguish between weak distinctions and strong distinctions. Without some principle to identify the distinction between weak and strong distinctions, the distinction is arbitrary, and will be made differently by different persons.

Of course, any distinction whatsoever can be made, whether it is principled or arbitrary, but, as J. L. Austin put it in Sense and Sensibilia, “A distinction which we are not in fact able to draw is — to put it politely — not worth making.” I think that there is a way to coherently disagree with Austin, and I will try to show how this is possible.

Every principle implies a distinction. In fact, we could make a principle of the idea that, while every principle implies a distinction (viz. between the principle holding and the principle not holding), it is not the case that every distinction implies a principle. Often there is, in fact, a principle implicit in a distinction, but if we acknowledge the possibility of arbitrary sets, it seems to me that we must also acknowledge the possibility of arbitrary distinctions, for what is an arbitrary set but an arbitrary distinction?

There doesn’t seem to be much problem with strong distinctions such as the Cartesian distinction between body and mind. In fact, this distinction is so strong that overcoming the distinction is the problem, and not the other way around. When we place the mind-body distinction in the context of a mind-body continuum, acknowledging weak distinctions within that continuum, matters become much more problematic. 

A strong distinction such as that between body and mind seems to be rooted in the very fabric of the world. Such distinctions could be said to be natural distinctions. Natural distinctions occur between natural kinds. What exactly constitutes a natural kind is, of course, philosophically controversial. The weaker the distinction in question, the less likely it is to be accounted a natural distinction based on obviously distinct natural kinds. 

While weak distinctions are problematic in this sense, precisely their problematic character makes it possible to interpolate weak distinctions virtually at will. In so far as a weak distinction can be so difficult to discern that no principle is evident in making the distinction, and we can erect these weak distinctions almost arbitrarily, there is no question of the continuity of whatever is so distinguished. This can be a virtue, and it might also be employed as the distinguishing criterion of a weak distinction.

A strong distinction creates an explanatory gap. There is no explanatory gap with a weak distinction. Moreover, the uniformity and continuity of nature implies that the explanatory gap of a strong distinction can be bridged by a chain of weak distinctions. In other contexts this bridging of an explanatory gap resulting from a strong distinction by a chain of weak distinctions would be called, “the gradual ascent up Mount Improbable.” As it is, we are not talking so much about an ascent as about bridging a chasm, so that we might call this the gradual building out from each bridgehead until the structure meets at the keystone in the middle.

Tagged: mind-body problemphilosophyphilosophy of mindweak distinctionstrong distinctionmind-body continuumexplanatory gap


16th February 2012

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Of Distinctions, Weak and Strong

With special reference to the mind-body problem

A day or so ago in Naturalism and the Mind I posited a mind-body continuum in place of the traditional mind-body distinction familiar since Cartesian dualism. It has occurred to me that, wherever a traditional idealized distinction between two extremes is reformulated as a continuum, the traditional distinction can be reformulated in terms of distinct positions within the continuum.

Any point on a continuum must admit of one of five possibilities:

1) identical to the one end point, or

2) identical to the other end point, or

3) exactly midway between the one and the other end point, or

4) closer to the one end point than the other, or (finally),

5) closer to the other end point than the one.

This is simply the law of trichotomy for real numbers with finite end points for the continuum added, making for two further possibilities (though stated a little differently than is customary for the law of trichotomy).

Even with this very minimal schema of classification there are still several interesting derivations that can be made. If a point is not identical to the one end point, but is closer to the one than to the other, then it is farther from the other than it is from the one. This is one of many comparative relationships that will hold within a finite continuum.

Any two distinct points on a finite continuum will be separated by a certain distance from each other, and this distance will admit of being greater or less. Relations of greater and less are also comparative relationships, and comparative relationships are important because they are a step up from merely taxonomic or classificatory relationships.

Carnap made a tripartite distinction between taxonomic concepts (being the roughest and the least precise of scientific conceptions), comparative concepts, and quantitative concepts (which are the most precise of scientific concepts). Comparative concepts, being midway between classificatory and quantitative concepts, are an important stepping-stone on the way to scientificity, and admit of rudimentary formalization even when fully quantitative concepts are not possible or not yet practicable (cf. my Axioms and Postulates in Strategy).

Now, if a traditional distinction is reformulated in terms of two distinct points within a finite continuum extending from one extreme to the other, and in comparing the relationships between points in the finite continuum these relationships admit of greater or lesser proximity, the distinction so represented admits of greater or lesser proximity.

In other words, two distinct points on a continuum might be quite close together (though, since distinct, not identical) or they might be as far apart as the extreme end points. Where two points in a continuum are close together I will say that they are weakly distinct, whereas if they are (relatively) far apart, I will say that they are strongly distinct.

If we posit a mind-body continuum, then the traditional mind-body distinction is the distinction between the extreme end points of the continuum; these points are as far apart as possible, so if any two points at all are strongly distinct on this continuum, these two points are strongly distinct. Thus traditional Cartesian dualism represents a strongly distinct separation.

But I also suggested that, within the mind-body continuum, that there are closer relationships. For example, the distinction between a corporeal body and the function of a corporeal body (like the distinction between brains and neurological processes of the brain) is not nearly so great as the distinction between a corporeal body and an idea in the Kantian sense. We might say that a corporeal body and its function are only weakly distinct, as we might say that an idea of empirical science is weakly distinct from an idea in the Kantian sense.

Small differences in a continuum are weakly distinct; large differences in a continuum are strongly distinct. It will be obvious that both weakly distinct points and strongly distinct points are always symmetric, never reflexive, and while they may be transitive, they are not necessarily transitive but may also be intransitive. In fact, the most interesting cases will be the intransitive examples. 

If, for example, ideas of ordinary experience are only weakly distinct from empirical scientific ideas, and empirical scientific ideas are only weakly distinct from ideas in the Kantian sense, it may be the case that ideas of ordinary experience are yet strongly distinct from ideas in the Kantian sense.

It is possible that a detailed compilation of a mind-body continuum might yield sufficient examples of comparative concepts that a truly quantitative conception of the mind-body continuum might be within reach, and therefore also the possibility of a quantitative treatment of the traditional mind-body problem.

This is only the first sketch of the idea, so it is greatly wanting in detail, but it has a certain promise which, if considered sympathetically, suggests a new approach to a very old problem.

Tagged: Cartesian dualismphilosophyphilosophy of minddistinctioncontinuumlaw of trichotomymind-body problemmind-body continuummind-body distinctioncomparative conceptsCarnap


15th February 2012

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Naturalism and the Mind

On my other blog I have posted a series of attempts to define naturalism, including:

●  A Formulation of Naturalism
●  Two Thoughts on Naturalism
●  Naturalism: Yet Another Formulation, and
●  Naturalism and Object Oriented Ontology

I began with the idea that, “Naturalism is on a par with materialism, and philosophically is to be treated as far as possible like materialism,” and went on to suggest that we can characterize naturalism in parsimonious terms, following our initial formulations as far as they will go, and only appealing to anything that transcends these original formulations when that initial formulation breaks down. In this way it makes sense to speak of deflationary naturalism.

But what is that which transcends our materialistic, mechanistic, or quantitative formulations? The answer is this: Mind. Thus we can formulate naturalism as materialism plus whatever is required to account for the mind. This immediately raises the familiar spectre of Cartesian dualism.

If you are an eliminativist materialist, there’s no problem. You simply deny that there is anything in nature that corresponds to mind and there is no need to go beyond materialism since nothing transcends materialism. If, however, you find this denial unsatisfying, you must go farther.

There are, of course, no end of alternative formulations to account for the mind. Searle, for example, calls his formulation biological naturalism. Searle doesn’t want to posit anything beyond the brain and neurological processes, and above all he doesn’t want to posit Cartesian dualism. If there is anything that philosophers today can agree upon it is their common condemnation of Cartesian dualism. 

The problem with the attempt to get beyond Cartesian dualism — which did, admittedly, have a stultifying effect on philosophy of mind for some time — is that contemporary philosophers are simply trying to scrap the distinction without recognizing that it is an approximation of an important truth: that a thought is a different kind of thing than a body.

I just read this on the Wetwiring blog:

The mind/body idea was a hack, a kludge. It was a solution (if inelegant) to a series of difficulties that arose out of human thought and the history of ideas (with the waning of religion and the waxing of science proper in the seventeenth century). It should be dispensed with. Not replaced, not finessed, not supplemented. Dropped. With this, some new possibilities appear.

This is what most philosophers of mind today are trying to do, but not very well, in my opinion. The attempt to abandon Cartesian dualism leads to conceptual kluges that are only employed out of a desire to avoid the appearance of a mind-body distinction at any cost.

So when I say that naturalism is materialism plus whatever is required to account for mind, I am not trying to reinstate Cartesian dualism, but I am also not going to go out of my way to avoid a clumsy distinction that nevertheless captures an important truth. So I guess I stand with those who want to supplement the mind-body distinction as a first, rough approximation upon which we can improve.

I suggest that one way that the mind-body distinction can be supplemented is by replacing the distinction with a continuum: the mind-body continuum. If there are degrees of reality that depart from strict materialism, they do not therefore necessarily constitute mind, and, vice versa, if there are degrees of reality that depart from a strict interpretation of mind, they do not therefore necessarily constitute body. 

Searle’s biological naturalism seems, to my mind, to have this character. Searle acknowledges that thoughts are different from bodies, but his answer to what thoughts are is that they are neurological processes. Now, neurological processes are not identical with the brain considered merely as an artifact, but they aren’t mind in the traditional sense. Thus I would say that neurological processes, which are not themselves bodies but which transparently supervene upon the brain as body occupy one degree (as it were) away from body on the mind-body continuum. 

Searle’s position strikes me as a species of reductivism. While he has recognized that a thought is a different kind of thing than a material body, he instead identifies thoughts with neurological processes. Well, again, a neurological process is a difference kind of a thing than a thought. We experience a neurological process as a scientist studying the brain, whereas we experience a thought as a conscious thinker.

On the other hand, in contradistinction to neurological processes being one degree away from strict materialism, an idea in the Kantian sense (a locution that Husserl often employs to indicate an idea that has nothing corresponding to it in nature) entertained by the mind in thought comes close to exemplifying the extreme “mind end” of the mind-body continuum, but any thought that involves some connection to the empirical world (and thus the vast bulk of our thought in actual fact) departs at least one distinguishable degree from ideal mind and lies along the mind-body continuum between mind and body. 

Thus mind and body stand in an important relationship to each other, and this relationship is continuous (as in materialism), but even while there is a continuity between mind and body, the two are still distinguishable.

Tagged: Cartesian dualismHusserlSearlebiological naturalismmindmind-body problemnaturalismphilosophyphilosophy of minddeflationismreductivismeliminativism