2006/01/13

Everything

Apparently McDowell reacts to the problem of the insufficiency of (physical) causal relations to justify our intensional states being about the world by just subsuming the (empirical) world into that which is intensional. That is, "the world" is shot through with conceptual content. The world is only "given" to us in the sense that that which is in the world is thinkable and therefore itself is conceptual. For of course a mere existing thing has no features--not even, say, spatial presence--that could be ascribed to it; but then it seems that there is only exculpation (release from responsibility) for thinking the world is one way rather than another. If one is correct, it would on such a view be only be chance and we could have no expectation of finding out whether any intensional state "about" the world actually is "accurate" to it. So, since the empirical world is conceptual, this solves the problem: all there are are things that can be content for conceptual states. Sense data is already conceptual and therefore contentful. So your cup of tea, or your windchime, these are things that are conceptual. It's not a property so much as their being things at all consists in filling out some conceptual profile or another.

Contrast this with Davidson, who seeks to merely make us content with causal relations. The problem of course is that since mental events (and I think we could gloss this as chunks (as opposed to time slices) of states) supervene on physical ones and the mental "world" is unlawful, there is no way to tell what mental events will follow one another. There is no external constraint on how intensional bits of the world relate (or don't) to the world. It may seem as though I am equivocating over states as opposed to events, and certainly Davidson would insist that events are what we must be talking about. But in fact I don't find convincing ground for preferring one terminology over the other, but would rather interpret them both as ways of describing a mereologically separated bit of what there is: a bit of the total state of affairs at a time(s).

The difficulty is seeing how the internal "rational" mechanism that McDowell insists upon would work. Like Kant, he is doing metaphysics that pretends it is not metaphysics, and like him the justification for the description of what's going on that he gives is more post hoc than anything. That is, he says "Well, it works, right?" and one has a hard time saying why not. Here we can intervene by a bit of positing that many would find objectionable. Davidson relies implicitly on the notion that causation is not purely physical causation, but often interpreters of his work seem to think that he does think causation works on physical or causal principles and so his talk of mental states turns out to be unintentionally disingenuous. We can bridge the gap between the two (and McDowell has admitted the distance is not so far as one might initially suppose) by adding in non-lawlike causal relations. Supposedly, on a McDowellian conception of autonomy what's required is a strong sort of freedom to create thought in order to have thought that we would recognize as our own going on in some mind. That is, reflective or "second-order" consciousness interposing in its own stream of thoughts.

Unfortunately, I am not a compatibilist (at least not in any remotely normal sense), since I think that although "freedom" is real it is nevertheless a product of our natural life (qua human) rather than a metaphysical object of independent standing. (This stems from my insistance, somewhat like Quine's ontology/ideology thought, that language use underwrites ontology and not the other way around.) The non-lawlike causal relation is that which holds between intensional events/states and their denotata, referents, etc. This view is a sort of anomic monism (related to Davidsonian "anomalous monism"), fitting in the space between Kant and Wittgenstein (barely), one would hope. Of course, no one would actually buy this view. After all, what would be the use of positing a causal mechanism that does nothing but give us an excuse to claim that mental events' being in sequence amounts to anything other than a series of computational states? Or, having looked at that question, look at this one: why would we want to hold on to the notion that there are nonphysical bits of the world, in the first place?

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