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.

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Epistemic Solipsism of the Present Moment

February 17, 2008

keinholz.jpg

The philosophic point of view that nothing can be known to exist (and perhaps nothing does exist) beyond the “sense impressions” we are having right now… Reading this page… And who are we? Are we only thought balloons of somebody else’s mentality? Am I sleeping on the operating table of the evil Doctor Galvani, dreaming you dreaming me? Am I a brain-in-a-vat?

Richard Sala, “My Father’s Brain”

And how do I know that you are not all robots, cleverly mimicking the patterns of human behavior. Give you a Turing Test?! After all, some people seem to be barely human. Perhaps we need to cut open some people to find out. Or peer into their heads/brains/minds.

Nothing exists, but the clear mirror of mind, reflecting…nothing.

And then there’s Philonus, of course, the one chatting with Hylas in the dialog by George Berkeley (and nattering on about drainage). You know, the philosophical conversation that proves that “to be is to be perceived.” Nothing exists when we don’t see it or hear it (trees falling in the forest and all that) but for the mind of God, who is eternally watching. As Bertrand Russell relates in his History of Western Philosophy:

There was a young man who said “God”
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the Quad.”

REPLY

Dear Sir:
Your astonishment’s odd:
I am always about in the Quad,
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be,
Since observed byYours faithfully,GOD.

Berkeley intended his philosophic works to be a refutation of atheism and of materialist science. He was particularly annoyed at the glorious reception given to Newton’s theories, especially that of universal gravitation, which was, after all, an occult force, or a force acting at a distance. (How in heaven’s name could one object ever act upon another without any physical contact!!?) No one had ever seen it! No one knew how it worked! They just believed in it because it made so many things simpler.

Did George Berkeley have the last laugh? The university was named for him, and Hume, another man with some wonderfully subversive ideas, did say of his work that it admitted of no refutation…but, alas, carried no conviction. There’s a backhanded complement for you. As for Samuel Johnson, he kicked a dirt clod and pronounced, “I refute him thusly.” Just so do the running dog lackeys of the empiricist scourge support their simpleminded theories of the nature of the world.