Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Freedom, determinism and Indeterminacy

Disputes over free will and determinism are old ones, and here I just want to sketch in some of the ways in which such debates might be affected by the notion of culture, or language-based consciousness, that's been developed here.

My position on the issue can be described as "compatibilist" -- the at-first-sight odd idea that free will and determinism can go hand-in-hand. Determinism, of course, is pretty much required by a naturalistic or physicalist account of consciousness and culture (leaving aside quantum indeterminacy, which wouldn't affect the argument here in any case). But free will is another matter -- it's bound up with notions of agency, culture, and that cultural Indeterminacy Principle that was the topic of the previous post. As we'll see, I think free will and determinism are compatible simply in the sense that both are indispensable in their particular ways.

Compatibilism is a philosophical position that goes back a fair way, but it's never really surmounted the common intuition that the two are fundamentally incompatible, an intuition well captured by the so-called "Consequence Argument" (quoting from SEP):

1. No one has power over the facts of the past and the laws of nature.
2. No one has power over the fact that the facts of the past and the laws of nature entail that only one future is possible (i.e., determinism is true).
3. Therefore, no one has power over the facts of the future.


But the tack I want to suggest here is that, in situating an agent in the midst of a causal sequence, this argument is in fact conflating two properly distinct orientations or "modes of discourse", one that deals with causation and one that deals with agency.

This might be seen as a version of "Multiple Viewpoints Compatibilism", for philosophical categorizers. Within the perspective of causation -- what I'll call the mechanistic orientation -- the notion of "freedom" is either meaningless or pointless, since the only alternative to saying that our behavior and our will is caused is to say that they're uncaused or random. And within the perspective of will -- i.e., the agency orientation -- the notion of cause appears simply as reason or intention, which is always present no matter how minutely we examine ourselves (or others, to the extent we're able). In the latter orientation, freedom does indeed have meaning, but it means precisely that our will, our behavior, and the facts that result from that, are determined by our own reasons/intentions, rather than by some other force or agency (e.g., "fate", as Sartre suggested some while back*) that might be manipulating them. Given different facts (that is, counterfactually), from the mechanistic orientation our present behavior would be different and so, therefore, would the future facts -- and from the agency orientation, our reasons/intentions would be different, and so, therefore, again, would the future facts.

Now, Dennett has put forth a version of "Multiple Viewpoints", with "Intentional" and "Personal" Stances contrasted with a Deterministic one, and arguing that the former are simply more pragmatic when dealing with certain complex systems. My feeling is that, while the idea of the "stance" is a good one, this isn't quite right, nor sufficiently far-reaching. The "Intentional", in fact, isn't really a "stance" at all, but applies literally to all conscious or aware entities (and is only metaphorically, or, worse, sentimentally applied to non-conscious mechanisms like thermostats). And the "Personal Stance", or what I'm calling the agency orientation, hasn't to do with the complexity of an entity, but rather simply with the fact that we're in communication with it. If we encountered an alien species that was without language, for example, it wouldn't make sense (and certainly wouldn't be practical) to adopt a Personal Stance toward it regardless of how "intelligent" or complex individual organisms appeared to be (they might, in fact, even be manufactured rather than evolved entities). If we're able to establish communication, on the other hand, then, regardless of the "natural" status of the beings involved, the agency orientation comes into play and a moral dimension comes into being. And what enforces this is precisely that cultural Indeterminacy Principle mentioned above -- because they cannot deal with one another in a purely instrumental fashion, beings in mutual communication are in an inherently moral as opposed to instrumental relationship with one another (and the attempt to deal with one another instrumentally or manipulatively is itself widely viewed as an immoral act).

Thus, the notion of an "agent" -- the "one" assumed in the Consequence Argument above -- has meaning only within a particular orientation, in which "causation" has, at best, only a secondary significance, after "will" or "purpose". Within the mechanistic orientation, on the other hand, the notion of an "agent", in the true sense of the word, simply vanishes, to be replaced by causal sequences. Both orientations are needed --mechanism because of its obvious practical benefits, and agency because of the inescapable moral dimension. But trying to conflate the two, as the Consequence Argument does, is just a mistake -- and the result is often the sort of confusion and mystification that we find in the unfortunate, homunculus-like image of the "ghost in the machine".

* "So, contrary to what could be believed, the imaginary world occurs as world without freedom: nor is it determined, it is the opposite of freedom, it is fatal." The Psychology of Imagination, Washington Square Press, 1966 (1948), p. 221.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

An Uncertainty Principle for culture

This blog is, as the short blurb on the upper right indicates, focused on the "naturalistic" explanation of consciousness and culture, meaning that I view those phenomena as part of the natural world, and therefore as subject to causal processes as any other part of that world. (Here, "that world" simply refers to the physical or material world, and so is distinct from notions of a separate mental world, realm, aspect, or orientation, regardless of whether or not any of the latter "supervene" on the physical.) Both consciousness and culture are viewed as mechanisms, in other words. So, given that, and supposing that we continue to make progress in understanding those mechanisms, the question is whether we could eventually come up with a truly predictive science of psychology and sociology/anthropology? That is, would we at that point be able to calculate individual and social behavior?

I think the answer is no. And that's because I think, in fact, that there's a fundamental obstacle to such predictive calculations when made by those who are themselves part of the phenomena being calculated -- which is that such predictions become themselves part of the phenomena. If I try to predict your behavior and communicate this prediction to you, then that prediction itself becomes a factor in your subsequent behavior, that the original prediction hadn't incorporated. I might try to keep my prediction from you (or incorporate my telling you as part of a subsequent prediction which I don't tell you about, etc.), but just by having access to the same calculations I use, you'd be able to, in a sense, predict my predictions, and then decide whether or not to behave as predicted. And the same sorts of considerations would apply society-wide or culture-wide -- any such predictions, or indeed any such techniques for making predictions, would themselves tend to alter the society or culture in ways external to the predictions themselves. (In some cases, it's true, the predictions might be made recursive and the alterations may converge to a stable configuration -- and then, and to that extent, a predictive science of psycho-cultural phenomena is possible -- but there's no indication that that would happen at all, much less to what extent.)

In this way, then, I think it's appropriate to speak of a cultural Uncertainty Principle, analogous to (though of course not as rigorous as) Heisenberg's physical Uncertainty Principle (see also the brief remark at the end of this post)-- both involve the unavoidable disturbances introduced by observer/predictors, and the limits those disturbances present to precision. In the case of cultural Uncertainty, though, because of the nature of the phenomena, those limits also have moral implications, but I think I'll need another post to get to that.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The platonists and the aliens: a science fiction fable

In an interesting debate in the comments to this post, Steve Esser made an assertion to the effect that, while the tokens we use to represent mathematical objects are arbitrary and conventional, the "logical and mathematical relations" we use are not, and, were it possible to "replay the tape" of (presumably cultural) evolution, those would be replicated. His point in making this hypothetical statement is that it illustrates that such relations are, as he puts it, intrinsic to reality and not merely human inventions or conventions. And that in turn may buttress the case for the existence of abstract objects -- i.e., for platonism, of at least a mathematical variety.

My position is a different one, though, as I said in a response, it may look similar up to a point -- I think that the mathematical entities and relations we use are indeed human inventions, but useful inventions as opposed to mere conventions, and this usefulness would lead to the reappearance, in some form, of at least the simpler and more basic ones -- that is, there would be at least some degree of convergence, based upon practical utility, in any replay of the tape. But it's interesting that the " tape" metaphor was famously used by Stephen Gould in Wonderful Life to make just the opposite assertion -- in his hypothetical, the replay of the evolutionary tape would be very unlikely to replicate the same biological forms we see today (such as ourselves). The point he was concerned to make was that we commonly fail to appreciate just how varied are the options that evolutionary processes have before them -- nature, for Gould, is no platonist.

In any case, with that as setup, here's the fable:

Imagine that we finally encounter technological aliens. I think we underestimate the problems involved in translating the communicative processes of radically dissimilar life forms, but let's say that those problems are mutually ironed out and communications are established. At that point there was some consternation on the human side when we had a hard time even detecting, in the alien culture, anything that looked like mathematics as we understand it, and what we did find seemed to bear little resemblance to the concepts, objects, or relations that we use. Now, platonism had long since won the day within human culture, and so this seemed puzzling to say the least, particularly in understanding how they could have developed a space-warp drive without even discovering complex numbers. But human mathematicians were in any case happy to share such insights into the intrinsic nature of reality with their alien counterparts, and in doing so they even learned from the aliens a few computational tricks, involving some fictitious "entities" and highly dubious "relations", but which nevertheless turned out to greatly simplify certain crucial calculations.

The aliens, as it happened, were as puzzled by our own "mathematics" and our own technological success as we were of theirs, but, since the idea that "abstract objects" might have an actual existence hadn't occurred to them, they took a more pragmatic approach to the problem. Complex numbers, it turned out, weren't really of much use to them, though they were polite about it, but they too found that other human abstractions and relations did work better than their own, and these they simply incorporated into their version of mathematics quite readily, since they didn't feel that they were in any way thumbing their noses (they did have noses) at intrinsic reality in doing so.

Eventually, though, a human-alien team working on the problem of reconciling the two versions announced a fairly comprehensive revision of mathematics/[rough alien equivalent] which brought together the most efficient and useful concepts, objects, and relations from both traditions. Humans, working within their platonist assumptions, were torn -- some were scandalized by the revision, and felt that, in its alien-inspired portions, it really amounted to little more than an assortment of cheap tricks; some even began to have doubts as to whether mathematical abstractions really did exist in nature, rather than being just a handy and practical way of organizing our thoughts about nature. Others, however -- the more progressive platonists -- hailed the revision as a fundamental change in our understanding of the true nature of reality. For these people, our old mathematics, though appearing to provide us with a grasp of the abstract objects inherent in the universe, had actually mislead us in certain subtle but critical ways, which the revision had fixed -- and this now was the new, the really real, intrinsic reality.

And then, just as this progressive view was taking hold, and platonism had regained its old confident self within the airy reaches of human higher learning, another technological alien race was discovered....

The moral: Oh, something like -- "Even platonists need to be elastic" (which is admittedly a bit limp).

Friday, November 18, 2005

Fractal culture

Having gotten back into what I've sometimes called "special consciousness" (meaning language-based consciousness) lately, in talking about abstraction and concept formation, I thought it would be useful to look again at the proper framework or context for that kind of consciousness, which is culture. And the question I want to raise here is, when we refer to a culture -- i.e., not the concept of "culture", but a particular instance or example of it -- what do we mean by that? In particular, how do we determine what or whom it includes, and how do we establish its boundaries?

Well, an obvious sort of boundary might be a political one -- "a culture", in that sense, refers to a national culture, and extends to the borders of a state. But it's clear that the notion of a culture is, or can be, larger than a political entity. Another, and at least potentially larger, boundary would be a language, and this also seems like a "natural" boundary since a culture depends upon communication, and a common language clearly defines a cultural space that includes its speakers, excludes its non-speakers. The evolution of different languages, in fact, might seem to resemble a kind of cultural "speciation" in the way it impedes further influence external to the language speakers. But there's another, and potentially even larger type of cultural boundary to be considered, and that would be religion (or religion-like ideology) -- so that all of "Christendom", for example, can be considered a culture, or all of Islam or others, that include not just a number of states but different languages as well.

But now the idea of "a culture" starts to seem complicated, if not confusing. Because, while a religion can include multiple states and languages, it's also true that a language area can include multiple religions, a state can include multiple languages as well as religions, and so on. There doesn't seem to be any neat hierarchy of boundaries that would allow us specify a culture in a simple or unambiguous way. Furthermore, this complexity/confusion extends downward from these larger formations as well, so that we can and often do speak of the culture of regions, of cities, of organizations, of neighborhoods, of cliques, even of meetings, and the boundaries of these "cultures" seem to be nested or overlapping in many different ways.

Now, one response to this kind of usage is just to throw up one's hands and say that "culture" is a vague and general word with different applications, and let it go. But, as I've indicated in earlier posts (see the list at the top of this recap), I think that the concept actually has a reasonably precise and fundamental meaning -- one that clarifies the confusion above, accounts for this apparent diversity or complexity of usage, and provides the basis for understanding how culture functions as well. And this is the idea that "culture" really does exist, and really only exists, as a structural imprint in the mental apparatus of each language-using individual -- an imprint acquired in the course of learning a native language, and developed and maintained in the course of social interaction through the rest of a person's life. Each such imprint or memotype is unique, as I've said, because of its dependence on the unique individual experiences that it's made from. But when such individuals associate, however few and however briefly, their interactions bring their cultural imprints into greater semantic alignment, and this group harmonization, as long as it persists, can then be said to constitute a kind of micro-culture. In this way, any one individual is typically a member of a number of such micro-cultures (family, workmates, friends, etc.), which overlap in ways that are sometimes quite fluid or changeable, but also comprehensible. And these "memotypes" will also display similarities on the largest scales of tribe, nation, language/ethnicity, and religion/ideology as well, which is what underlies the sense of referring to these groupings as cultures. The encultured individual, in other words, constitutes a kind of cultural atom, out of which particular cultures of various sorts, on different time scales, and on varying levels, are built. "Culture" becomes a fractal-like phenomenon.

Monday, November 14, 2005

What is an abstraction?

This question occurred to me as I was reading a little more about the supposed platonism revival mentioned in the previous post, and alluded to by Steve Esser in a couple of recent posts. Platonism makes what I think to be the "classic" (so to speak) mistake of reifying at least certain kinds of abstractions (mathematical and geometric, principally, but also possibly property-like) -- that is, it makes "things" out of abstractions, and then, having done that, it has the problem of determining the ontological status of the things, including where they exist, etc. Without going any deeper into platonism itself at this point, I'll just say that I don't think abstractions as such, of any kind, are things at all, and so have no ontological status, special realm, etc., to worry about. Apart, that is, from their existence as concepts, or psychological/cultural constructs, in which sense they are part of each individual's cultural imprint and exist as physical states in each individual's brain. Thinking about that, however, made me wonder about how such concepts are formed in the first place, and what that might say about the nature of abstraction itself?

For example, consider what happens when a child is learning to speak (or, for that matter, when an anthropologist is learning a language in another culture) -- someone points to something and utters a word, "dog" say. The pointing is an action that directs or focuses attention, but there's no indication from that alone what the utterance is supposed to "mean" -- within the field of attention, it might refer to a particular object (a proper name), a type of object, a property of an object, or a behavior or a process. In the early stages of language-learning, in fact, these distinctions themselves would be meaningless, and the very notion of an "object" might be unclear (though this might also be hard-wired in some fashion, giving rise to "natural objects", e.g., mama and dada). But after repeated pointing-acts accompanied by the same utterance, it's noticed that there is something in common in the phenomenal field to which attention is directed, and a generalization is made and tested -- the child herself does the pointing action and utters the sound whenever a dog-like object presents itself, and then looks for confirmation. But this "noticing" can't be a simple observation, it has to involve some kind of structuring -- that is, the repeated uttering of a sound in different circumstances generates, in a sense, a commonality to those circumstances. This is because the elicited structure will almost certainly be wrong initially ("wrong" as defined by the ones doing the pointing) -- "dog" will need to be distinguished from "cat", for example, or "squirrel" (or maybe "pillow"), "red" from "orange" or "pink" (or "ball"). So it isn't that the sound simply links to, or labels, a pre-existing structure, it's more like the pointing-and-uttering behavior as a whole has forced experience to take on a structure. And then, in an iterative and essentially social process of generalization and distinction, the structures will be aligned -- the "meaning" of the utterance will be brought into semantic harmony with everyone else (a process that continues all through life, though not with such major adjustments).

After some initial concepts have been formed in this way, more sophisticated abstractions of abstractions can be formed, so that "animal" can be used for both dog and squirrel (but not pillow), or "color" for both red and orange (but not ball), etc. And at some point after that, it starts to become possible to use words themselves to shape experience -- generalizations and distinctions can be made into verbal rules, and both communication and thought can come into being. But initially, and essentially, an abstraction is just a named common feature, element, or aspect of experience -- experience that may include other, already-formed abstractions. This sort of ability to create a semantic structure out of experience is also a linguistic capability just as syntax is, and its potential must be as built-in or hard-wired.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Science and its discontents

Steve Esser has a very good blog relating to philosophy, of mind and other matters, in which he approaches things from a somewhat different point of view than I do here. As the description of this blog indicates, I'm interested in what I call a "naturalistic" explanation of consciousness and related issues, or what's often called "physicalist" (or, a somewhat older term, "materialist"). Steve, on the other hand, in a recent post on what he sees as a renewed interest in platonism, writes in a concluding paragraph about a "meta-theme" he's been pursuing:

These metaphysical questions are difficult, and simple solutions obviously don’t work or the debates would have ended long ago. What this means to me is that the common presumption that something like physicalist monism should be the "default" metaphysical position is unfounded. More "extravagant" metaphysical systems need to be weighed in the quest to find a better mousetrap for explaining how the world works.

I think that's well expressed -- but I also find it a sign of a disturbing tendency (or at least a possible tendency) to simply or effectively abandon the goal of understanding consciousness in a scientific sense. We can see something like that tendency again in a recent blog post by David Chalmers that interpreted Jaegwon Kim as backing away from physicalism, and adding: "... this makes at least three prominent materialists who have abandoned the view in the last few years". And, with a certain irony, I think we can also see this in the repeated hopes that maybe a "new physics" or some quantum oddity will be needed to cope with consciousness (see Conscious Entities, Nov 10/05) -- these hopes may appear to rely on science, but really, in their invocation of mysterious, unknown theories, become a way of effectively obscuring the problem.

This, of course, is making the assumption that resort to non-physicalist accounts of consciousness (or, generally, anything) represent a form of abandonment of science. I think that's the case, since I think that terms like "physicalist" or "naturalistic" really take their meaning from science -- that is, they can include anything that science itself includes. But it may be that some of this apparent tendency is not so much a reaction against science itself but really against over-reaching by some proponents of a scientific approach, particularly against the sometimes blustery defensiveness that such proponents can display when their grand claims are questioned. This isn't to question real or actual projects in neuroscience or cognitive science as such, in other words, but rather some philosophical stances that are influenced by the goals of such sciences, but are driven to make claims or denials that appear more ideological than scientific. And one of the more egregious illustrations of that is the claim, by Dennett, for example, and some of his more excitable "computationalist" followers, that "qualia" as such don't exist*. Now, qualia, as we've seen, have famously been called "the hard problem of consciousness" (Chalmers), and rightly so, I think, because, for all of Dennett's long-winded hard work manning his various "intuition pumps", the simple fact of phenomenal experience (call it what you will) leaves it still fundamentally ineffable, private, and immediate**. But Dennett's reason for trying so hard to deny this is made evident by just inverting the motivations he attributes to the defenders of qualia:
I suspect, in fact, that many are unwilling to take my radical challenge seriously largely because they want so much for qualia to be acknowledged. Qualia seem to many people to be the last ditch defense of the inwardness and elusiveness of our minds, a bulwark against creeping mechanism. They are sure there must be some sound path from the homely cases to the redoubtable category of the philosophers, since otherwise their last bastion of specialness will be stormed by science.

No doubt this is true for many, as we've seen from the revivals of dualism, panpsychism, platonism, and quantum mysticism. But the reverse wishes also exist: people who want so badly for "mechanism" to triumph that they're anxious to banish, deny, ignore, or "explain away" any phenomena that seem conceptually difficult for a mechanistic orientation -- even phenomena that are quite literally right before their eyes. But "ineffable, private, and immediate" experience, while problematic, doesn't equate to mystic, and certainly doesn't imply "non-physical" -- in an obvious sense, in fact, what we see, hear, touch, etc., is the very essence and basis of the physical. These "computationalists" concede too quickly and too much to the anti-physicalists in accepting their inferences, in other words, and their rigid defenses make their position more a matter of doctrine than of either science or philosophy -- in both ways, they hurt more than help the physicalist program.


*He either denies qualia exist, or, for him equivalently, claims that, for example, a sufficiently sensitive or discriminating machine for analyzing the chemical composition of wine (and, I guess, emitting the results using canned wine-snob phrases) would actually experience the taste of the wine.

** I've left out "intrinsic" from Dennett's list of deniable attributes since I'm unclear what he means by it.
I won't try to make a counter-argument for the other three attributes here -- I would say that I think Dennett mounts a good critique of a number of assumptions that have often gone along with qualia, and a more modest aim might have led to a better result. As it is, he's left with a reluctant late admission that there may indeed be "primary or atomic properties of what one consciously experiences" that are set by "one's current horizon of distinguishability", which in my view pretty much re-admits the core of what he's been arguing against (while clinging, a bit forlornly, to "current" to save face).

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Knowledge, experience, and Mary

I've said a number of times that the casual way in which "consciousness" is used to refer both to awareness or phenomenal experience as such, on the one hand, and to language- or concept-based experience, on the other is liable to obscure and confuse issues, and an excellent example of just such a thing seems to me to be the so-called "knowledge argument" used against physicalist/materialist explanations of mind. It takes the form of a (needlessly arcane) thought experiment involving a woman, Mary, who is stipulated to know everything physical about color vision, but who is also stipulated to have lived all her life in a monochromatic room, and so doesn't know "what it's like" to see red, say -- hence, there must be some knowledge that's inherently non-physical. Like other such arguments against physicalism (e.g., the conceivability or zombie argument), this gains what persuasive power it has by appealing to presumed anti-physicalist intuitions, and so has a kind of question-begging feel to it, but it can be perplexing at first sight.

The key to its solution, though, is just to distinguish between knowledge and experience, both of which may be physical states, but different physical states. Mary may know everything physical about color vision but still not have experienced color vision, and this wouldn't tell you anything about whether or not the experience itself was a physical state. With this understanding, we can attack the argument in a number of ways:

  • If the phrase "know what it's like" to feel something is just used as a synonym for feeling that thing -- so that, for example, pre-verbal infants, or cats, or bats could also be said to "know what it's like" to experience such-and-so even though they lack concepts -- then the word "know" is just being used to mean two different things. There may be no facts, physical or otherwise, left over from Mary's knowledge in the first sense of "know", even though she lacked experience in the second sense of "know".
  • On the other hand, if we're really talking about things like the concept of "red", e.g., then we would just say that, according to physicalist interpretations, the premises of the thought experiment are self-contradictory -- it cannot be the case both that Mary has complete physical knowledge of color vision and that she lacks the experience of color vision (which is either a form of, or an essential ingredient of, physical knowledge).

The last case might seem a little more arguable, in that people might want to say that physical knowledge, as such, is objective knowledge, and is independent of phenomenal experience, which is inherently subjective. But this then gives the game away -- if you define "physical knowledge" as knowledge devoid of phenomenal content, then you hardly need a thought experiment to show that some knowledge is not physical (I'd say, in fact, that all knowledge is not physical in that sense), but you win the point only by definitionally begging the question.

In general, it seems to me that this debate, like many in this area, has been sustained by a failure to recognize how important is the distinction between basic phenomenal consciousness (i.e., experience) and the distinctive features of language-based consciousness (e.g., knowledge).

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

"Whereof we cannot speak"

As much as I've disliked the phrase "the external world" (see below), I've long admired that last proposition of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, often translated (a bit sententiously perhaps) as, "Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent" -- followed by nothing. It has a teasing, mysterious, Zen-like quality to it, that may at least partly be due to the fact that it's paradoxical, or self-contradictory -- since the subject clause itself, brief though it be, speaks of that "whereof we cannot speak". And I don't think this is a mere quibble -- that very paradox illustrates an important understanding of both the limitations and the power of thought and its medium, language. There are some things which, by their nature, are beyond, or at least outside of, thought as such, but which at the same time, owing to the recursive, object-making nature of language, are "containable" by thought -- thought can hold them, in a fashion, even if it cannot reach them. And a very simple, mundane example of this is simply phenomenal experience itself, the stuff out of which thought is made.

But, speaking of what we cannot speak of, what about that "environment" mentioned parenthetically in the previous post as something altogether outside of knowledge, properly speaking -- should or can anything be said about it? The problem is that, once we're at the level of "saying" anything, we're immediately above the level of the foundation and into the social/cultural realm -- there is no way, in other words, of using abstractions like words that could ever get us "below" or beyond, in any sense, the basic level of phenomenal experience. But there is the word "environment" itself, after all (we could call it the "noumenon", or "external world" even, were it not for the representationalist baggage those terms bring with them) -- what can be meant by that? Suppose that we think in terms of two distinct contextual levels, an epistemological level and an explanatory (scientific) level. Then, on the epistemological level, given the epistemological inversion referred to in earlier posts, the "environment" simply names the principle that the world of conscious experience is a given, independent of conscious agency -- it isn't really a "thing" or "realm" at all, in other words. Within the explanatory level, on the other hand, when we're trying to formulate one of those efficacious "myths" that Quine speaks of (as, for example, in this blog generally), then it can be useful to think of the environment as an externality that stands in a determinate but possibly complex relationship to phenomenal experience. In this sense, and in this context, we could retain three different levels involved in language-based consciousness -- knowledge/belief (i.e., the cultural imprint), phenomenal experience, and environment, all of which are physical, all of which knowledge can embrace, but not all of which knowledge can be.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Internalizing "externalism"

I've long felt that the phrase "the external world" (as in "our knowledge of") has seemed a bit crude or clumsy -- first, by its rather presumptuous (question-begging) division of things into two worlds, one of which was "external"; and second, by the absurd image it evokes of a "little person" inside a skull peering out, just as in the old homunculus straw man. Why not, instead, just speak of the world as such, and our knowledge of it?

Well, because there are the problems with our perception of the world -- we perceive things (solid surfaces, e.g.) that aren't there, and fail to perceive things (atoms, radio waves, e.g.) that are there. This opens up that familiar gap between appearance and reality, and that in turn leads to the notion that reality is what's "outside", in some sense, while "appearance" is what's inside, in presumably the same sense -- in other words, it leads to just that awkward splitting of the world.

"Awkward", because once the world has been split in this way, it becomes a problem to knit it back together. Representational accounts of perception are formulated but are riven with difficulties -- are such "representations" dependent in some fundamental way on the external reality they're supposed to stand for, e.g.? Or are they simply internal mental structures that have at most a derivative, referential relationship to anything "external"? Such questions relate directly to the significant issue of how we can come to know anything of this external world.

(As an aside, I'll note that the disputes surrounding this issue seem to me to be a prime example of the kinds of confusions or at least unnecessary complications that result when the distinction between language-based consciousness and more general awareness is neglected. Thus Putnam, e.g., seems to be unnecessarily involved in some sort of metaphysics of "natural kinds" [but that Burge, with his social/cultural turn, avoids], which might lead you to think that the problems disappear if we simply reject such metaphysical entities -- but which would be wrong. In trying to understand or explain consciousness in general, the problems go beyond just such culturally-mediated structures as beliefs or concepts.)

But notice that, though we've split things in general into an internal and an external realm, consciousness itself retains its intuitive unity. What if, instead, we were to think of consciousness as a binary structure, as I've been arguing? Might this have the effect of moving the gap or split in the world inside consciousness? And would there be any benefit to so doing? Well, for one thing, the idea of so-called "natural kinds" seem immediately more plausible if we're speaking of "natural" or evolved structures of consciousness rather than of metaphysical structures. More importantly, I think, we're able not only to maintain the distinction between a mental structure and its meaning, but also to move both structure and meaning inside the general structure of consciousness -- because now we're speaking of two different mental structures. Thus, for example, when we see something red, in addition to perceiving red (the presentation of the quale "red" in the world-manifold component of consciousness), we also experience red (the "apprehension" or effect of this token by/on the actor/controller component) -- the content of the apprehension is just the quale or token itself, and the meaning of the quale or token is just the apprehension (i.e., its effect).

Such an internalizing of the split, of course, looks as though it leaves some epistemological concerns unresolved, assuming we continue to work within a representationalist framework -- multiplying internal components of consciousness doesn't appear to address the question of the relationship between either quale or token and the "external world". But this then becomes another reason to consider the epistemological inversion mentioned earlier, whereby the phenomenal world that consciousness presents is regarded as both the foundation and building material of all knowledge, and knowledge is seen as layered structures, of greater or lesser extent, built on top of, and out of, experience (and the environment is not considered as an object of knowledge in any sense). Wouldn't that make "truth" inherently, and disconcertingly, subjective? No, because, in speaking of "truth" or "knowledge" at all, we're speaking of consciousness in its special or language-based sense -- in this sense, truth admits of degrees, and both truth and knowledge become inherently social and practical (the latter being the feature that recovers a notion of objectivity). Here's a passage from Quine that makes a similar point -- it's toward the end of his "Two Dogmas of Empiricsm", in which he compares the objects of physical science with the gods of Homer, stating that the "epistemological footing of the two "differ only in degree and not in kind":
Both sorts of entities enter our conception only as cultural posits. The myth of physical objects is epistemologically superior to most in that it has proved more efficacious than other myths as a device for working a manageable structure into the flux of experience.