The consciousness myth

Nice paper from Galen Strawson. Hayek’s The Sensory Order (1952) is missing though (salient extract below). See also Hayek in Mind: Hayek’s Philosophical Psychology.


Hayek’s discussion of the mind–body problem speaks directly to a topic that has dominated philosophy of mind for the past 35 years – qualia (quale for singular), a term of art that denotes this subjective ‘‘felt’’ quality to consciousness – the ‘‘unexplained residue’’ (Hayek, 1952/1976, 1.19, 8.85) that physicalism has failed to explain. Indeed, it has been said that, ‘‘[t]he problem of consciousness is identical with the problem of qualia” (Searle, 1998, p. 28). Qualia-talk went into overdrive in response to an argument presented by Frank Jackson (1982). Jackson’s argument, known as the ‘‘knowledge argument,’’ was conveyed through a thought experiment that I’ve entitled ‘‘Monochrome Mary.’’ ‘‘Monochrome Mary’’ poses the following question. What, if anything, would be experientially different for Mary on her release into a full color world given that she’d heretofore lived her whole life in a black and white world? Could she anticipate the experience even though she was in possession of a complete physical description of reality? Jackson concludes that Mary would still experience something new, in case of the thought experiment, the color red. One line of thought that challenges Jackson’s argument involves an equivocation of ‘‘know.’’ Is Mary’s new-found knowledge propositional or know-how/ability-type knowledge? For Hayek, qualia are know-how (Hayek, 1952/1976, 2.7). The Mary puzzle is intended to make for the view that qualia cannot be reduced to the level of physics and hence there cannot be a unified theory of consciousness. Dennett (1991) terms these thought experiments as an ‘‘intuition pumps,’’ a pejorative swipe at the a priorism he sees generated by them. Jackson, it should be noted, has since retracted his original conclusion; he is now of the view that the sensory side of psychology is, in principle, deducible from the world’s physical nature. Jackson’s thought experiment bears a striking resemblance to Hayek’s discussion in The Sensory Order, 1.95. Hayek took inspiration from C. D. Broad, the idea that an omnipotent being would still not be able to predict the qualia associated with a substance, for example, ammonia (Broad, 1925, p. 71). Here Hayek poses the question: how could one communicate the idea of vision generally and color in particular to the congenitally blind? In The Sensory Order, 1.97 and 1.98, Hayek cites physicist Kenneth Mees’ thought experiment as illustrating the distinction between the physical and the phenomenal orders. Mees asks us to consider the case of a congenially and totally deaf person confronted by someone playing a violin. Moreover, he asks us to suppose that this person knows nothing of sound even in a theoretical way. Confronted by the actions of the violin player, to the deaf person the actions will appear irrational. But, says Mees, if our deaf person was a scientist, he or she would eventually figure out that the movements of the violin bow generated vibrations that could be detected by equipment (the science of acoustics). Now whatever the issues Hayek has with Mees’ example, his conclusion is this: ‘‘the congenitally blind or deaf can never learn all that which the seeing or hearing person owes to the direct experience of the sensory qualities in question, because no description can exhaust all the distinctions which are experienced’’ (Hayek, 1952/1976, 1.102). The similarity of the conclusion shared by Hayek and Jackson is uncanny.

Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness

Old review.

Dennett wrote me that he thought it the best written review he’d gotten in yonks. It’s been reprinted along the my other Dennett review in Daniel Dennett, Edited by John Symons, Critical Assessments of Leading Philosophers.


What My Dog Can Do: On the Effect of The Wealth of Nations I.ii.2

The intro to Jack Weinstein’s chapter.

In the midst of one of the most famous passages in The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith writes “nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog” (WN I.ii.2).

In and of itself, this is probably not a noteworthy sentence, but it has always rubbed me the wrong way because I have seen it happen. My late dog Mingus would regularly exchange his bone with his “best friend” Casey, and they would do so without conflict or negative consequence.

Mingus was both very empathetic and emotive. Like many border collies, he was smart, could communicate his desires clearly, and was tremendously attentive to his caregivers’ moods, suggesting, already, many Smithian traits. As many animal behaviorists will insist though, these descriptions may be anthropomorphizations. I loved Mingus dearly and was certainly susceptible to projecting meaning onto his actions beyond his capabilities.

Whether Mingus had intent or not, my designation of Mingus as worth affective consideration is compatible with Smith’s moral psychology. On the one hand, because sympathy is, for Smith, an “illusion of the imagination”—people can even sympathize with the dead—emotions need not actually be present in the observed for the spectator to sympathize with them (TMS I.i.1.13). Under Smith’s schema, my fellow feeling with Mingus would be no less sympathy if he himself did not have the thoughts or emotions I judged him to have. And, while he was likely incapable of the impartiality required for Smithian moral agency on his own, this does not disqualify him from my consideration. He may be designated, in Alejandra Mancilla’s terms, a “moral patient” that we advocate for (Mancilla, 2009, pp. 3, 6).

One the other hand, if Mingus did have intent (which I think is the case) I would have been in the most qualified position to know it. Because sympathy works best with those who are closest to us—those in our inner circle of sympathy—I could best interpret his behavior, facial expressions, and voice. I knew Mingus almost his entire life and he had only the briefest time to socialize to other humans before my wife and I adopted him (we rescued him from a Humane Society when he was a few months old). My family knew his preferences, tendencies, behaviors, and moods, and he knew ours; the entire household dynamic including all the human interrelationships, was significantly affected by his presence. This was painfully and repeatedly confirmed when Mingus died unexpectedly and the sociology of the house had to be renegotiated.

Mingus was family even by Smith’s definition; for him, familial relationships are not biologically defined. “The force of blood,” Smith writes, “exists no-where but in trag­edies and romances.” Familial love is instead the “habitual sympathy” of those “naturally bred up in the same house” (TMS VI.ii.1.5–8). In short, losing him was not like losing a family member, it was actually losing one, and the Smithian framework for intimacy, communication, empathy, and care all support this point of view. As a result, whatever claim Smith makes about dogs and exchange does not extend further than the single assertion about economic capability. It has no consequences for the human-animal relationship.

Nevertheless, even though whether I anthropomorphize Mingus is irrelevant to the question of whether I can sympathize with him, it is indeed relevant to whether or not he was capable of exchange since the latter implies intent. Smith’s claim that dogs do not engage in contract appears to me false, but my belief does not make it so anymore than Smith’s writing confirms it. An empiricist system like Smith’s can be as indeterminate as any behaviorism, and the impartial spectator is fallible enough that even our deepest convictions may become corrupt (ASP 72).

Identifying whether dogs have intent is problematic, especially since there is disagreement as to what content such intentionality would have. Neuroscientists can, of course, photograph brain activity, but materialist descriptions of thinking are also subject to interpretation. Smith’s comment on dogs place us squarely in the classic philosophical problem of other minds and Smith’s corpus does not have the resources to solve it.

Recognizing the metaphysical and philosophical limitations of Smith’s approach, then, my intent in this paper is not to ask whether dogs engage in contract per se, but what happens to Smith’s account of humanity if they can. I will offer more evidence to suggest that the possibility is believable, but my emphasis will be on the text rather than the fact of the matter.

This textual approach is further justified by a commentator who claimed that Smith’s remarks about dogs be considered an essentialist definition of human beings. He claimed that Smith was arguing, not simply that people are the only ones who make contracts, but that making contracts is a necessary part of what it means to be human. If Mingus’s behavior challenges Smith’s veracity, and if the commentator is correct—if Smith defines a human life in this context—then Smith’s error might call his other writing into question as well. My task in this discussion is to ask if it does, and if so, how much. To do so, I engage in detailed exegesis on WN I.ii.2 and argue that this sentence is neither a definition of humanity nor intrinsically connected to the rest of Smith’s work. I conclude by explaining why I think this examination is relevant and important. To these purposes, unless otherwise specified, I will regard exchange and contract as designating the same behavior: consciously giving another creature, in Smith’s words, “this for that” (WN I.ii.2).

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