Friday, July 31, 2009

Overview: Where All of This Is Headed

It may take a while for me to get to the end of my argument. Therefore, so as to not keep readers waiting indefinitely, I’d like to give a general overview of where my reasoning is headed (at least right now; this is all subject to change as I work through it). I’ll keep updating this post with live links as I write up each part. Below is the basic sequence, with indications of which pieces I think should be straightforward and uncontroversial; which will take some work to explain; and which are potentially contentious claims that I will have to argue strenuously for. (See "This is Not a Thesis" for more on why I intend much of what I say not to be controversial.)

1. Philosophers Say the Darnedest Things
[full text; see also my clarifications]

Philosophical discussions of mental life (for which representationalism is the dominant paradigm) tend to focus on the abstract rather than the concrete.
There are a variety of other ways to describe what I mean here — e.g., these discussions tend to reason from the particular to the general, or to look for shared, common factors that lie beneath the details of everyday experience. Use whichever one makes the most sense to you. However you want to explain what distinguishes philosophical discussions about mental life (about representations, phenomenal qualities, etc. and how they interact) from less philosophical sorts of discussions of behavior and experience (about specific, physical human bodies, their environments, and how they interact) is fine with me.
(This is an elementary observation — I don’t expect it to be controversial.)

2. The Allure of the Abstract
[full text]

There are a variety of compelling reasons why these discussions go that way.
I have some ideas about what these reasons are but am also very open to other suggestions — anything other than “That’s the only way we could possibly explain mental life.” Anyone who believes that, please share any evidence and arguments you have for it… provided they’re not couched in the very language whose use you’re trying to justify (that’s cheating).
(It doesn’t matter too much which reasons you agree with, if any. This section mainly serves as preparation for future arguments and as an attempt to avoid trivializing the appeal of the kind of thinking that I’ll later argue against.)

3. Representationalists Are from Mars, Non-Representationalists Are from… well, Earth [3a, 3b, 3c, 3d]
Representationalism and Non-representationalism don’t just give us different answers to the same questions; they raise fundamentally different questions. (Which helps explain why to people on each side, the opposing point of view can seem so darn silly.)
This is probably the most critical piece for me to get across. I will attempt to demonstrate how these two approaches carry conflicting assumptions about what would count as an explanation of intentionality, consciousness, knowledge, or any other aspect of mental life.
(This one definitely needs a lot of explaining. I'm expecting that getting my point across will require many different examples — which I'll do in Part 4.)

4. It Takes a System…
[Intro: 4a
Wittgenstein: 4b-i, 4b-ii(a), 4b-ii(b), 4b-ii(c), 4b-ii(d), 4b-iii, 4b-iv
More to come]

Non-representational perspectives on mental life seem to crop up more frequently in systems-centered approaches to behavior and experience. I’ll give a variety of examples — not only in sources familiar to philosophers, but also in other disciplines. Here I’ll draw on some of my non-philosophical training, bringing in systems-based approaches to human movement, nervous system development, and group dynamics (in addition to some philosophy and robotics, and even a quick nod to Buddhist teachings). I hope to clarify how these are relevant to the issues philosophers are concerned with, and at the same time proceed in a completely different way.
(I think the biggest risk here is that representationalists will come away thinking I've missed the point, that these alternative approaches don't address the most important issues in understanding mental life. I'll try to dispel that in Part 6.)

5. You Can’t Get There from Here [Not yet posted]
Non-representationalism is unsuited to answering the types of questions that are raised within a representationalist model. When advocates of embodied cognitive science engage in the standard philosophy of mind debates, it’s not surprising that either their claims end up sounding extreme (Noë, perhaps?) or they fail to push their arguments to their logical conclusions and fall back on representations (Clark). The playing field is far from level.
(I'm not sure how people will react to this. Fans of representations may happily agree with me here. I may be annoying allies more than opponents… though that will quickly change when we come to Part 6.)

6. The Conjuring Trick, Revealed [Not yet posted]
Representationalism is deeply flawed.
This is the part where I will attempt to demonstrate that representationalism, as it currently stands, is fundamentally untenable — even incoherent. I won't just argue that it's wrong; I want to clearly illustrate that the methods representationalists use could not possibly achieve the goals they are aiming to achieve. I think this becomes clear once you really understand Wittgenstein's later works, but few people seem to (not a big surprise, given his indirect, enigmatic writing style). I'll try again here, without the aphorisms. (And hopefully with some help from sympathetic co-writers who understand what I'm talking about.) I'll bring in the idea of empty questions, as explained by Derek Parfit in Reasons and Persons. I will attempt to show that the the questions lying at the core of conventional, representational philosophy of mind — the ones that seem to be deepest, and most profound — are actually just empty. It's time to let them go and just move on.
(I suppose it goes without saying that this part will be contentious! My aim is still that my conclusions be self-evident once I'm done, but I know that's very wishful thinking.)

7. Philosophical Throwdown
If there are enough people reading this blog by the time I get to this point, I think it would be fun to host a debate here between representationalists (of any stripe, even those sympathetic to mainstream embodied cognitive science) and me and any other radicals.

8. Conclusion

By this point, the revolution will have been successful and all philosophers, theorists, and scientists worldwide will have fully embraced radical embodied cognitive science. (We'll have to rename it "conventional embodied cognitive science.")
Okay, maybe not... But no matter how these ideas get received, a natural next step is to ask, for those of us who do adhere to the radical viewpoint, what are the best ways to go about applying it? I look forward to the day when there is sufficient support for these ideas to begin putting them to widespread practical use. Until that time, I will stick to the task of trying to promote basic understanding of this approach — one blog post at a time.

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