2005/09/06

Bifurcationism?

Although a huge and growing field in philosophy, Cognitive Science and Philosophy of Mind have fundamental problems at their cores. Expecially in the case of Phil Mind, we see that the basics of the inquiry are not even agreed upon. Indeed, it is not the case that the general area of inquiry or any particular types of approaches are generally accepted. In this vein let us consider qualia. The following are merely suggestions not to be construed as indicating my position.

I do not propose to solve or speculate about a solution to the problem of the subjective experience qua experience as it may turn out to be different from experience described in purely physical terms. I think rather that this is one of the deep problems of philosophy, where our language truly fails us. By deep problem, I mean that it is easy to tell that the third-person perspective description of consciousness, of mind, is entirely possible just in some sort of physical description. (It may include a functional description, but in any case has to do just with mechanically describable systems.) And it is easy to tell that the first-person description of subjective states, that they are sad or happy, that there is red or glowingness or beauty or discordance, are not possible to reduce to physical description. We have what you might call basic or foundational intuitions that tell us that such reduction takes away something essential to a proper understanding of subjective, conscious experience.

A proper explanation would show both (i) that all first-personal experiences can be described third-personally and vice versa and (ii) what it is that is "lost" when reducing subjective experience to physical description, or at least why it is that it appears something is lost. Phil Mind is no closer to solving either of these than it was before. Colin McGuinn has, I believe, written that the problem may be insupperable. I would like only to add something that may aid in this connexion.

It is perhaps possible to remove a philosophical difficulty by showing that a position is incoherent, or that a term is empty, or by assimilating the meaning os seemingly disparate terms to each other; it is also possible to solve a problem by showing that the difficulty is in the mind of confused philosophers and has not to do with what is the case. If it is the case that the language of subjective experience, with its expressions and non-empirical denotations, cannot be satisfactorally reduced to third-person description (and so forth for explaining physical reality in terms of subjective qualia), we may suppose that the two types of description just treat of "entities" that do not occupy any of the same classes. On assumption that there is an external world that our senses reliably contact, we can say that, for instance, the orange I am holding reflects to me light at an average wavelength and luminosity (X,Y); this is true. It is also true that the orange is orange. A simple case of colorblindness is sufficient to demonstrate that '(X,Y)' and 'orange' are not synonymous, and that the former does not entail the latter. That is clear especially if we construe 'is orange' to entail its appearing orange (...to me); but let us not.

But that road leads us into the labyrinthine tortures of the literature, from which has come only a great confusion--and enough hot air to put a battleship in orbit. The problem may just be that the levels of description are incommensurable. On the one level there is a description of physical events. On another there are the "mental" events. The third-person perspective gives the one, the subjecive description the other, as far as we shall be concerned. The levels of desciption have to do with their objects: the one with (arbitarily) discreet measurable and predictable events, the other with possibly discreet possibly unmeasurable unpredictable events (that is, from the first-person perspective). I would suggest that the way to get a satisfactory beginning to dissolving the problem then is the following. First, take seriously (which is not to say agree with) Davidson's pseudo-epiphenomenalism; second, take seriously the possibility that this is not even a problem, but a peculiarity of our navigation of the world. As language reflects our navigation of the world (yes, there is a lot of technical talk at this point, and too bad for you, dear reader) just in the sense that our understanding is mediated through it; if our language, or a language cannot be made to bridge what may only appear to be a gap, it may be that the subject matters are just different enough not to be worth trying to fuse. In this way we may be able to "give up" honorably.

4 Comments:

Blogger eripsa said...

2 points:

1) My experience is of qualities that are not described by any 3rd person perspective. The existence of such qualities demand explanation. This is not a problem that goes away by waving your hands and saying "nothing to see here."

2) The distinction between 1st and 3rd person perspectives is NOT one of 'levels of description'. I am entirely content to say that levels of description are non-reducible: you dont get biology out of chemistry, or sociology out of biology. (You might be able to get chemistry out of physics, I dont know). But the description of an act of consciousness from the 3rd person, and one from the 1st person, are exactly identical levels of description. Neither is more priviledged than the other. They are not reducible to each other because there is nothing to reduce. Each is phenomenologically basic and derivable from the intentional structure of consciousness.

7/9/05 16:10  
Blogger fizhburn said...

Interesting. But I would stress that you don't get "biology" out of "chemisty", even if chemistry and physics are actually reducible to physics, and biology is ultimately reducible to physics. Something's being alive is not, however, something that can be reduced to physics. In the same way, something's being like something can't be reduced to physics, either. A description of a conscious process from the third person if qua subjective necessarily uses 1st-personal language. E.g. "he experienced a very sad tableau." There is no description that is third-personal that can pick out the features sufficient for justifiying this tableau as "sad". That is to say, you would be requiring that an emotional response could be wrong. The 3rd-person description is, on the other hand, necessarily reducible to descrete logical and empirical (because scientific) terms, and therefore reducible to physics.

I'm not claiming this prevents you from using your "aspects" argument from closing the epistemic gap between 1st- and 3rd-personal accounts of conscious experience. I think you'll have enough trouble with the notion of an "aspect" and other things without my measly criticisms. Rather, I'm saying that an account of consciousness that incorporates epistemic theory to ground metaphysics can't solve the qualia problem, at least on the grounds we've gone over in relation to the seminar; an account that bases epistemology on metaphysics, if taking your route, then has to weasel around to accomodate your particular method of closing the gap. If you try to keep the two from interdependence I think you'll find some quite odd conclusions arising from your line, beginning with strong dualism.

Closing the epistemic gap explains how we can have two kinds of description for one spatio-temporal region, fine. But if that does not satisfy the demand for an "explanation" of "[t]he existence of such qualities, neither does it imply that I am hand-waving. I'm not saying that there is no explanation for their existence, I'm saying that a satisfactory explanation can't come from physicists, but rather (unfortunately, because I hate them) metaphysics and/or phenomenology. I should add that I think so at present in part because I don't see hard-core analytic philosophy having the tools to grapple with qualia... as evidenced by their meagre success at it so far.

7/9/05 18:38  
Blogger eripsa said...

I dont see why a 3rd person perspective needs to be reducible to physics. The best description of my TV for the usual purposes is in terms of its functional components, not the atoms that constitutes its mass and various properties. Some tasks might require a more fine-grained level of description, but that doesn't mean the functional structure has been reduced, merely redescribed. I totally accept a non-reduced naturalism. I am not a materialist.


The explanatory gap is simply the problem of how can one phenomena have aspects that are no percieved from different points of view. That is all there is to explain, and relying on phenomenology is not to rest any of this on metaphysics or epistemology. I am not employing a theory of knowledge in making a phenomenological distinction, I am just characterizing the kind of phenomena we need to account for in epistemic terms because it clarifies the nature of the problem.

Listen, we dont have an explanation of why anything exists, and on that level qualia are just as problematic as cabbages and kings. The problem is simply how the quality of experience is possible in a physical world, or how the same phenomena can be described as having inconsistent properties.

8/9/05 02:12  
Blogger beacon said...

But if the cognitive experience of a mind (m) cannot be reduced to physical quantities, then it cannot be construed as "science"; and this is what may be deemed a serious epistemic problem. It is a problem not because we may think that by viewing the nature of this enquiry as a science we are supposed to learn how to analyize mental experiences in terms of atoms or physical components; it is a problem because it means that the scientific method cannot apply to the query itself! If it is indeed true that only the owner of mind (m) can properly and meaningfully explain what he/she is experiencing (first-person phenomenology), then clearly there can be no plausible way for the scientific method to test the validity of such a "description", the way it tests (for example) the validity of a claim about the way some alkali reacts with an acid in a test tube.
This - I believe - is the essence of the problem. If my experience is indeed of qualities that are not efficiently described by any 3rd person perspective, then it is also not - in principle - to be scrutinized by means of "science". Now the question of what field or discipline of knowledge this would force us into, is another issue.

2/8/11 05:48  

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