Danny Krämer

On misunderstanding Dennett

Dennett’s new book From Bacteria to Bach and Back Again is producing some headlines these days. Some of them are rather positive but there are actually the headlines (again) that Dennett says consciousness does not exist. Take for example this video of Massimo Pigliucci and Dan Kaufman. They have a great talk about the underappreciated philosophy of Wilfrid Sellars. In the discussion of the distinction between the manifest image and the scientific image they are also talking about Dennett’s theory of consciousness.

They think Dennett says that consciousness does not exist. But I think they are just wrong. True, Dennett says that consciousness is like an “user-illusion”. But, first of all, also illusions exist and have effects on us.

They cite the analogy of a desktop PC and it’s user interface. Take the folders you see on your desktop. You put files in it and you can look inside them and so on. But if you look into your computer you won’t find anything that corresponds to the folder, you cannot look into anything that is like a folder and so on. The graphical interface is an useful illusion. Kaufman and Pigliucci agree on this.

On the other hand, they say, consciousness is nothing like that. To say that consciousness is an illusion is like ignoring the data. We know that there is consciousness and cannot just say it does not exist. But Dennett says nothing like that. The user interface also exists but some of its properties are just useful illusions. The same goes for consciousness Dennett’s view, I think. There is consciousness, it is a real phenomenon. I cannot see anywhere that Dennett denies this. But he says, some of the properties we think consciousness has — like infallibility of first person access etc. — especially those that let philosophers think consciousness cannot be a natural phenomenon, are just illusions.

So what does Dennett? He takes our philosophical thoughts about consciousness that come from the manifest image and hinder us in achieving a scientific understanding of the mind and explains how we came to these beliefs and how we can explain them, why they are so compelling. He does not try to eliminate the manifest image of the mind or something like that. He tries to build bridges from the manifest to the scientific image of the mind and in so doing laying some foundations for cognitive science.


Truth again…

puzzle-1152794_960_720What do we learn from pragmatists about the notion of truth? Actually, the theory that truth is an epistemic notion cannnot be right, at least so I think. Putnam wrote in his last years a great deal about that point. But he also wrote about why metaphyisical realism in a specific sense is still wrong. The sense he means, is that there must be one and only one single correct description of the world. So you can be a realist in your metaphysics without being a metaphysical realist in that sense.

Explaining truth with phrases like “correspondence with reality” will not bring us anywhere. Correspondence with reality is not really a clearer notion as the notion of truth itself. And even correspondence with reality can mean something different in a different context. For example, it should mean somehting different when we talk about truths in mathematics, or if we talk about truth in physics. So Rorty is right, when he claims, that there no essence of truth, that can be put in a definition. But contextualism does not imply that there is nothing interesting to say about truth.

And I think that is an important lesseon that we can learn from the american pragmatists. We cannot look at a notion in isolation. We must see in which context we use it and what this implies. We can use the notion of “truth” like we use the notion of “forniture”. Chairs, tables, a bed, all of these are furniture. But there is no definition of “forniture” that fits all pieces of forniture to have. Still we can know and inquier if something is forniture or not. And there are some commonalities. Likewise there are commonalities between all the uses in different context of the notion of “truth”. For example, that truth is not an epistemic notion. In mathematics that means: truth is not proveability. In ethics this means: truth is not general acceptance.

That is a philosophical insight that is worth having.

You want some readings?

The sociologist Patrick Baert wrote a paper about how the role and the perception of the philosopher in the public changed. That is a very good read for every philosopher who not just wants to handle academic puzzles but also real problems of our today society.

The Philosopher as Public Intellectual

The American Philosophical Association published a new guide for philosophers that search employment outside of academia. They write on their page:

Beyond Academia is intended to provide guidance in the form of resources, information, and advice to philosophers who are interested in exploring a wide range of professions outside of academia. It includes links to resources for non-academic career opportunities; data on non-academic careers, including new academic placement data and analysis; and biographical essays of philosophers who have successfully found ways to use their philosophical training outside of academia.

Beyond Academia: Professional Opportunities for Philosophers

And a some what older read: Carlo Rovelli explains that science is not about certainty. Science is all about fallibilism. Especially interesting is the contrast to religion he points out. Whereas the religion is stating certainties science teaches us that we can never be completely certain.

Science Is Not About Certainty

Have fun reading!


And another one (Pragmatist): William James (Part 2)

[Find the first part here: here. And the other parts about Rorty, Putnam and Pragmatism: Introduction, Truth , Peirce part1 and part 2.]psm_v77_d418_william_james

What is William James’ view of philosophy? Is he really a therapeutic philosopher like Rorty claims? What is even a therapeutic philosopher? This idea comes most popularly from Wittgensteins. A therapeutic philosopher is someone, who thinks that the problems of philosophy are just misunderstandings and everybody who believes that they are real problems should be cured like he has a mental illness. If you believe that there is a mind body problem, then read some therapeutic philosopher and he will show you that there is no problem to start with. (A metaphilosophy that is, most likely, wrong. There are some problems in philosophy, that are really problems.)

Actually, James is quoting Chesterton in the beginning of his lectures on pragmatism, with the following words:

There are some people – and I am one of them – who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy.

And then he himself continues:

I think with Mr. Chesterton in this matter. […] For the philosophy which is so important in each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means.

That are not the words of a philosopher who thinks that all problems in philosophy are just pseudo-problems that need to be cured. For James it is important to ask questions like how we life good and what our place as man is in the cosmos. His pragmatic method should settle metaphyical disputes, but settling is not dissolve.

One is wondering how Rorty could see an ally in James. On the other hand, Putnam appreciates James critique of the dichotomies like fact/value or theory/interpretation. He takes James direct realism in perception as example. And he holds up the pragmatic stance, that vocabular that is indispensible in our everyday practice should be taken metaphyisical serious. Putnam writes:

[If] there is one thing I have learned from classical pragmatists,  Peirce, Dewey, and
James, as well as from Wittgenstein, it is to take seriously – metaphysically seriously,
if  you  like  –  ways  of  talking  that  are  obviously  indispensable  to  our  lives  and  our thought.

That resonates with statements from James like this:

Common sense appears thus as a perfectly definite stage in our understanding of things, a stage that satisfies in an extraordinarily successful way the purposes for which we think.

And Another One (Pragmatist): William James (Part 1)

For Richard Rorty, William James played a special role in critizising the correspondence theory of truth. He writes:william_james_b1842c

William James said, “’The true’… is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just
as ‘the right’ is only the expedient in the way of our behaving,” Elsewhere he said, “The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for  definite,  assignable  reasons.”  His  point  in  analogizing  truth  to  rightness  and  to goodness was that once you understand all about the justification of actions, including the justification of assertions, you understand all there is to understand about goodness, rightness and truth.”

Unfurtunately, here again does Rorty quote some sentence completely out of context. But actually, James always struggled against the complaints that he would surrender the classical theory of truth. Espcially after his well known lectures about pragmatism. For example he wrote:

I will say here again, for the sake of emphasis, that the existence of the object, whenever the idea asserts it ‚truly,‘ is the only reason, in innumerable cases, why the idea does work successfully,…“

Even in the pragmatism lectures he writes:  „Copying is one genuine mode of knowing
(…)” And first of all, you should quote the well known formula of about ‘the truth’ with some more context:

‚The true,‘ to put it very briefly, is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as ‚the right‘ is only the expedient in the way of our behaving. Expedient in almost any fashion;  and  expedient  in  the  long  run  and  on  the  whole  course,  for  what  meets expediently all the experience in sight won’t necessarily meet all further experiences equally satisfactorily. Experience, as we know, has ways of boiling over, and making us correct our present formulas.

He is not giving any definition of “true” or similiar in this passage. A one sentence definition of something, like Rorty quotes it, would not suite James’ style of philosophy. A philosophy that can be put into one sentence is not worth its name, he once said. He is not searching for a definition of “truth” in isolation of any context. He is explaining the relations between  truth, justification, verification, utility and our social practices.

To be continued…

Perception, Conception and Apperception

John McDowell has put forward a point about perception in “Mind and World” that got a lot of attention. You can summarise McDowells argument like this:

  1. We want justified believes that have their origin in perception. (Empiricism)
  2. Perception is a causal process. Events in the external world cause some perceptual data in our minds/brains.
  3. Only a proposition can justify a proposition. That means, only a conceptualized content can justify other content.

If perception is a purely causal process that generates non-conceptual representations then perception cannot justify our perceptual believes. Therefore, perception must already be conceptual. rorschach_blot_01

This conclusion is very counter intuitive. If perception is already conceptual then newborn children and animals can’t have any conceptual believes. Also it is very plausible that there is non-conceptual content. Non-conceptual content is what is the same when I see a red tomato and a newborn child sees a red tomato.

When McDowell talks about the fact, that perception is already conceptual he means that we see something as something. We already form a perceptual proposition and don’t infer it from any non-conceptual data. Hilary Putnam commented on that and claimed that McDowell is right for some form of experience. He calls it – with a Kantian term – apperception. That is “seeing as”. You need concepts to see something as something. And you don’t need to first look at your sense data and then interpret it. The act of seeing something as something is not an inference. But there is also a kind of experience that does not need conceptions. That is just a seeing without any conceptualisation.

The biggest problem in McDowells argument is, that he claims that only propositions can justifiy propositions. That should be just plainly wrong. The strict dichotomy between reasons and causes, between the space of reasons and the space of natural laws is just a non-starter. How should this gap have come into the world? If we believe in evolutionary theories there must have been a stage where causes became reasons. And it is quite possible that some reasons are causes. It is maybe even quite propable.

If I have a good reason to take my umbrella – for example see rain outside – then this also causes some actions that lead me to taking my umbrella. Some reasons must be causes if they should lead to actions.

Reading Suggestions: No Man’s Sky, Animals and Philip Kitcher

Peter Suderman wrote a great article about the videogame No Man’s Sky. That is how media journalism should be. Not just stating facts of the game and rate them but put them in the context of our social, scientific and ideological world.

No Man’s Sky is an existential crisis simulator disguised as a space exploration game

Alva Noë reviews Jane C. Desmond‘s “Displaying Death and Animating Life. Human-Animal Relations in Art, Science, and Everyday Life”. Why do we love some animals more than others? How do we relate to animals and why do we seldom see the consequences that our behaviour has? Sounds like a really good read.

Why Do We Love Some Animals But Eat Others?

A little intelectual biography of Philip Kitcher by Mark Couch and Jessica Pfeiffer. I think the most interesting philosophers are the ones that engage in different topics and intervene in public discussions. Philosophy should not be stuck in the philosophical institutions in universities. Philip Kitcher is a great example of a great allround philosopher.

Against narrowness in philosophy