Anyone in there?

June 21, 2010

*Is is possible to be wrong about whether or not you are in pain?
*Can a colorblind person know what the rest of humanity experiences when it sees things?
*Can we ever know what it is like to be a bat?

People generally fall into one of two camps on questions of this sort: 

  1. These questions are idiotic, a waste of time, and only really strange and intellectually eccentric people care about them.
  2. These questions are fascinating, albeit strange, and by thinking about them we can start to understand the phenomenon of mentality.

The vast majority of people is in the first camp.  For better or worse, I have always been in the second.  This is the province of the Philosophy of Mind, the discipline that seeks, or pretends to seek clarity regarding our notions of what it means to be conscious, have a mind, be a sentient, perceiving being, and not to be a machine, a robot, or a zombie.   (The latter category of being is much in vogue today, among philsophers of mind.)

I know of no better guide through this morass than Professor Daniel C. Dennett of Tufts University.  His 1991 book, Consciousness Explained is the best thing I have ever read on the topic.  His recent short book of lectures that revisits that earlier work, Sweet Dreams:  Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness is a great refresher on his ideas.  The word science is key:  Dennett is trying to use philosophy to clear away intellectual deadwood so that science may advance more rapidly.  He rejects the notion that philosophy has a primary role in formulating an explanation of consciousness, and for this he is labeled as reductionist, materialist, physicalist, mechanist, and several other more or less pejorative terms, some of which he is happy to accept, albeit with qualifications.

As a student of philosophy in college, I became disgusted with the narrowminded and dogmatic point of view that dominated the department, and I left to take a degree in art history.  One  intellectual luminary, who was my personal bête noir, Thomas Nagel, is the subject of frequent, sustained, and devastating criticism by Dennett.  Of course, I love that.  (Nagel’s essay, What is it like to be a bat? , is a “classic” in the field.)

I have seen Dennett on TV, and read opinion pieces of his in the NYTimes, and he has a tendency towards pugnacious and aggressive humor, but he has a right to it.  The people with whom he’s arguing need shaking up.  And he’s right!  At times, as when he discusses atheism, he seems a bit of a crank, but that too is probably a result of arguing with mystics who think they are scientists.  If the arguments of his critics seem, as he presents them, to be utterly ridiculous, that’s because they are.  The bigger question is why they continue to be revered as sophisticated philosophical investigators.

These books are not for those seeking an introduction to the topic, and if you are not familiar with the arcane and involved history of these questions in the philosophical literature, you will find them tough going.  Sorry, but I don’t know any books that do fit that bill.


The eternal subjectivity

May 9, 2009
subjectivity

Logo as colorblindness test

This is a new shirt of mine.  It’s from a line called ‘Penguin.’  That’s the logo, there on the front.  Can you see it?  Clearly?  As a colorblind person, this shirt appealed to me so much, I put aside my usual prohibition of wearing clothes with designer logos on them.subjectivity_det

I can make it out, barely, but then I know what to look for.  I don’t know if it’s a real colorblindness test chart:  Real ones don’t have dots that are clearly divided into different colors – see the little image here.  Dvided dots make the edges of the figure easier to see.

I show it to people, and they say they can make it out perfectly.  A strong pattern.  Are they messing with me?  Do they really see it differently?  How would I know?   Are we even speaking the same language about color?  Are we speaking the same language at all?  How can I, could I, ever know…anything?

Tear-jerking Episodes from
the
Life of a Young Philosopher

Kindergarten Teacher: Why have you colored the water with silver and white crayon?  Water is blue.
Me: Not when it comes out of the faucet.

Mother: What time does the clock say?
Me:I don’t know.
Mother: Look at the clock!
Me: But it’s always a little bit before or a little bit after whatever time I say it is.  Even if it’s exactly noon, it’s never really noon.  It’s a itty bitty second before or after…
Mother: Oh you…..!

Me: Yeah, so I see colors better in strong light. Everyone does. The less light we have, the less color there is. So if there’s almost no light, there’s almost no color. SO, in the dark, everything must be without color. Everything is colorless. Everything is clear, transparent!!
Sixth Grade Teacher and ClassmatesUproarous and derisive laughter. In the background, a few students are heard to start up a chorus of stamping feet and the shout of “Bovary, Bo-va-ry, Bo-VA-ry!”