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Old student notes on random philosophy articles

Philosophy can be fun. Sometimes.

Sometimes I like to return to philosophy in order to get the sort of intellectual stimulation that reading history doesn't provide. E.g., Todd Moody, “Distinguishing Consciousness” (1986). Richard Rorty, “What Do You Do When They Call You a ‘Relativist’?” (1997). (Silliness: “What should Brandom’s strategy be when charged with a relativistic disbelief in the reality of intellectual progress? The obvious option is Kuhn’s: ‘to substitute evolution-from-what-we-do-know for evolution-toward-what-we-wish-to-know,’ thereby switching from progress toward a focus imaginarius to improvement on the historical past. This amounts to switching from pride in being closer to Reality to pride in being farther from the cavemen.” As if pride in being farther from the cavemen isn’t precisely a result of thinking that our beliefs are truer, closer to reality, than the cavemen’s! Rorty's relativism is idiotic.) Don Ihde, “Postphenomenological Research” (2008). T. L. S. Sprigge, “Consciousness” (1994). C. Ram-Prasad, “Saving the Self? Classical Hindu Theories of Consciousness and Contemporary Physicalism” (2001). Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like To Be a Bat?” (1974). (Says some of the same things I said more succinctly in the first few pages of my paper on the mind-body problem. It’s pretty incredible that Nagel’s paper was extremely influential, since the gist of its argument is utterly obvious to anyone who can think straight. But, as I like to say, philosophers are typically little more than institutional role-bearers, so an argument that doesn’t conform to current institutional norms—groupthink—will seem bizarre or revelatory.)[1]

Todd Moody, “Naturalism and the Problem of Consciousness” (2007). Wrongheadedness: “I agree with John Searle that ‘[W]e really have no notion of the mental apart from our notion of consciousness’ (18). That is, what makes a state a mental state in the first place is that at least some states of that type are conscious states. They occur ‘in consciousness,’ as we say. We experience them.” Years ago I sometimes wrote as if ‘mental’ and ‘conscious’ were, in effect, synonymous—because I thought, and think, that the so-called mind-body problem is really the consciousness-body problem (or “mystery,” as Chomsky prefers to say)—but that was an unjustified restriction of the concept of mental or mind, which is broader than that of consciousness. Nearly all mental activity is not and cannot be accessible to consciousness. I don’t know why philosophers dogmatically insist on identifying mind with consciousness. (Leibniz was already beyond that.)

Martin Morris, “On the Logic of the Performative Contradiction: Habermas and the Radical Critique of Reason” (1996).[2] Like much of Continental philosophy it’s almost unreadable. One is, as ever, tempted to say of all this “critique of reason” crap from Nietzsche through the Frankfurt School to poststructuralists and postmodernists—reason is domination, an expression of power-relations, exploitative, mythological, oversimplifying (“language lies”), irrational, full of gaps and silences and leaps of faith, riddled with all sorts of “dialectical” contradictions and negations and arbitrariness—including Habermas’s attempt to rehabilitate reason or whatever his project was with the “theory of communicative action,” that it’s of little intrinsic worth but is significant only as an expression of certain social or institutional pathologies. And clearly one ought to be very skeptical of anything that is apparently so hard to communicate lucidly. But as a semi-Hegelian I’m convinced there must be some merit to every major philosophical movement, especially one that, in various forms, has lasted for so many decades. There’s surely something worth salvaging in all this skeptical Continental stuff. Buried in it are important truths. It only needs someone with the ability to think and write clearly and unpretentiously to sort through it and extract the rational kernel. (Ha, irony.) And I have to admit, when you’re trying to think the limits of reason, the nature of reason, you’re engaged in a rather difficult task.

Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (2012). Unconvincing. Somewhat like Todd Moody’s paper, it assumes that because to us the relation between consciousness and matter is utterly mysterious, scientific naturalism—materialism—is fatally flawed. In other words, because we can’t understand how material processes give rise to consciousness (or intentionality or value), materialism must be false. So we have to turn to…something else. The obvious alternative isn’t even considered, namely that the problem isn’t with materialism but with the limitations of human cognition. The fact that we can’t conceive how matter, through evolution, gives rise to mind doesn’t entail that matter doesn’t give rise to mind.

Likewise, Moody—and apparently most or all other philosophers of mind—takes it as uncontroversial that there is no necessary connection between consciousness and its neural correlates. It’s the old Kripkean argument in Naming and Necessity. As Nagel says, “experience of taste seems to be something extra, contingently related to the brain state—something produced rather than constituted by the brain state. So it cannot be identical to the brain state in the way that water is identical to H₂O.” Or, to quote Moody, “there is nothing about neural states that necessitates their being correlated with conscious states.” This leads to the conclusion that, from the perspective of evolution (natural selection), consciousness is inessential. “In terms of detecting the environment and driving behavior, those neural states would be just as good—empirically indiscernible, in fact—even if they were not associated with consciousness, or even if consciousness did not exist at all.” So there’s no reason why it shouldn’t have been zombies that evolved rather than conscious beings (since all that natural selection needs is the neural state; it doesn’t need the conscious state contingently associated with it). Thus, “evolutionary theory offers no explanation of why consciousness exists at all.”

To refute this argument, all you have to say is that the apparent non-identity of a conscious state with its neural correlate is a reflection of human ignorance. To us, yes, consciousness is nothing like a physical state of the brain. But there is no reason to say it can’t be a particular type of emergent state of the brain. That the experience of taste seems different from a brain state doesn’t mean it is different.

(As Nagel says, the Kripkean point is basically Descartes’ argument for dualism. “Descartes said that since we can clearly conceive of the mind existing without the physical body, and vice versa, they can’t be one thing.” And that’s true: consciousness is different from the body, from the brain—an extended, massive thing, unlike consciousness—from neurons, etc. But this doesn’t mean consciousness has to be different from the emergent state of billions of nearly instantaneous 'interactions' between cells in the brain. It could very well be that state, since we don’t have such a clear intuition about the nature of that sort of emergent state as we do about the body in its massive physicality.)

On alternatives to some kind of teleological explanation of consciousness and cognition (which he favors), Nagel says this: “First, there is the hypothesis that the initial appearance of a code-governed [self-]replicating system [i.e., life] that started the evolutionary process was a cosmic accident, and that subsequent accidental mutations provided the set of successive candidates on which natural selection operated to generate the history of life. This hypothesis makes the outcome too accidental to count as a genuine explanation of the existence of conscious, thinking beings as such.” Um, what? Why? How? Huh? Because an explanation incorporates an element of chance it isn’t an explanation? I have to congratulate Nagel on his discovery of this odd new law of logic.

Philosophy can be fascinating and difficult, but, sadly, an extraordinary amount of what's written, and what's judged to be of high quality, is hopelessly muddled and/or misconceived. (As I said in a footnote, panpsychism is a great example of this. Book after book, paper after paper, is written on the subject, each publication frequently containing ingenious arguments, but the whole enterprise is an embarrassing waste of time. This is one thing John Searle is right about.[3])

[1] Nagel's paper is summarized on Wikipedia. E.g., "Nagel famously asserts that 'an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for the organism.'" What a stroke of genius. Philosophers had been writing about and puzzling over the subjective, qualitative character of consciousness for centuries. That's the whole point of the mind-body problem, after all! What's Nagel's big contribution then? His paper had an impact presumably only because the philosophical community had become so ahistorical and so influenced by physicalism, behaviorism, and functionalism (which attained new heights in the '80s) that sensible intuitive thinking had been thrown out the window. (This isn't to say, incidentally, I'm not a "physicalist" or materialist. I'm a "non-reductive physicalist"—i.e., not a believer in Nagel's fanciful panpsychism, which strikes me as idle and ridiculous speculation, in fact little more than the substitution of one paradox for another. Nothing is gained thereby.) Don't ask me why most philosophers are so lacking in the capacity for sensible abstract thought. I suppose it only reflects the fact that most people in general are deficient in that capacity. This statement, as far as I can tell, isn't merely invective, a gratuitous insult, but rather the literal truth.

[2] On the notion of performative contradiction, which is a common and obvious criticism of postmodernism and all its forebears, such as Adorno, here's a useful quote: “a radical critique of reason purporting to show that there exist no theoretical or philosophical ‘foundations’ that can secure the ‘rationality’ of reason beyond its historical, and therefore particular, embodiment, nevertheless performs a ‘rational’ critique by doing so and hence is said to involve a ‘performative’ contradiction of inconsistency.”

[3] To repeat: notwithstanding the arguments of clever people like David Chalmers, Galen Strawson, and Thomas Nagel, the idea that fundamental constituents of nature such as electrons are conscious (or proto-conscious or whatever) is virtually meaningless. It's like, okay, go ahead and believe that if you want—you can't be proven wrong—but, first of all, it still leaves consciousness itself and its relation to the physical world a mystery. Secondly, it can't be tested and it's of no practical significance. Third....what are you, insane? Are electrons alive? Are they non-living but conscious? It's bizarre that people spend years of their life writing about this nonsense.

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