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.
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:
We want justified believes that have their origin in perception. (Empiricism)
Perception is a causal process. Events in the external world cause some perceptual data in our minds/brains.
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.
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.
I found two playlists of some recent conferences on consciousness. One is the The Science of Consciousness Conference 2016. There are some hours of presentations and panels on the state of the art theories of consciousness. You can see a good deal of empirical data and philosophical arguments. It is always interesting for me to see how scientists tackle such problems as consciousness, which seemed to be philosophical problems. I just watched the first video about the global workspace theory of consciousness and I must say that strengthens my conviction that we will have someday a totally materialist theory of consciousness.
The second one is the playlist of the Non-phisicalist Views of Consciousness Conference at Cambridge. Personally I think there is no way of a non-physicalist theory of anything (even so, it does not have to be reductive phsyicalism), it is interesting to see some arguments that a naturalist in the philosophy of mind has to face.
Really sad to hear that Hilary Putnam died today. He was one of the biggest influences in my undergraduate time and introduced my thinking to a lot of great ideas. I even wrote my master thesis about his thinking. For my understanding one of the greatest minds in 20th and 21st century Philosophy. You can find a list of his publications here.
Here I found a great site for everyone that is interested in good movies and Cognitive Science or philosophy of mind. This sites collects movies that are related to subjects of cognitive science. Of cause there are some classics like Inception, Bladerunner or Clockwork Orange. But there are also some exotic movies like the anime Akira that is well known in the anime community for its philosophical ingredients. Everyone can submitted some suggestions for the list.
So wether you search some good examples for your next paper or seminar or you just want to watch a good movie with some scientific or philosophical implications this list is for you!
There is a lot of discussion going on wether some of our concepts are innate or if every concept is learned. Of cause Jerry Fodor always points out that some simple concepts have to be innate to get conceptualization even started.
A new study shows that there is a universal structure of human lexical semantics. They used a method of double-translation and semantic networks to measure the proximity of meanings of concepts in 81 different languages. They write:
We propose a principled method to construct semantic networks
linking concepts via polysemous words identified by cross-linguistic
dictionaries. Based on the method, we found overwhelming evidence
that the semantic networks for different groups share a large amount
of structure in common across geographic and cultural differences.
Indeed, our results are consistent with the hypothesis that cultural
and environmental factors have little statistically significant effect on
the semantic network of the subset of basic concepts studied here.
Especially intersting are following points:
The concepts they used for the test where concepts like SUN, MOON, MOUNTAIN, DAY, NIGHT etc. First of all these are the perfect examples for simple concepts, the concepts a theory like Fodors Language of Thought Hypotheses needs.
It is very easy and imaginable to tell a story of evolutionary selection why exactly this concepts are universal. In the beginning of human life and in the evolution of other species it is pretty nice to represent features of your environment.
This are concepts you expect to be at least dependent on the georgraphical region where the language occurs. Maybe the concepts like MOUNTAIN are more important when you life in the Hymalaja then when you life in a region of plains. But the study shows that the universal semantic structure is not dependent on any geographical or cultural influence.
Of cause we can study concepts only indirect by looking at language. And the authors recognise this problem. That is why they try to provide a quantitative method to compare meanings of concepts. This study at least makes it plausible that some of our concepts are just universal and innate.