Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Part 1a: Philosophers Say the Darnedest Things

(Irreverent Reflections on Philosophical Dialogue: The Bare Beginnings of an Argument)

Start talking about human thought with the average Philosopher of mind (let’s call him Pom), and something peculiar happens. Say you’re discussing the topic of belief. Presuming that you yourself are not a philosopher, you’re likely to relate this topic to an actual situation in your real life. You might ask Pom how he would explain your belief that the mug in front of you is filled with coffee. (Naturally, this discussion is taking place at a café.) What will Pom say?

First let’s look at what Pom is probably not going to say. He is unlikely to talk much about specific situations that are relevant to you as an individual, such as your past history talking about and interacting with liquids and coffee shops and mugs and coffee. He is also unlikely to discuss the details of your present situation — the fact that you recently stood at the counter asking your friendly neighborhood barista for an extra-hot venti misto, subsequently handed said barista several dollars, and for the past fifteen minutes have been enjoying the steamy liquid you received in return.

In other words, facts related to your direct experience will not play any substantial role in the discussion. To the extent that Pom discusses events or states inside your brain, he probably will not attempt to link them together with your experiences in a coherent causal story (e.g., exactly how particular experiences have been leading to specific changes in your brain, and then how those changes translate into specific future responses and behaviors).

Instead, something rather surprising happens. Somehow Pom makes a shift from discussing reality to reasoning about abstract theoretical entities. Rather than explaining why right here, right now, you are having very particular thoughts about or reactions to a particular mug filled with dark brown liquid, Pom begins to explain how you — as a generic PERSON (for his purposes you’re essentially exchangeable with anyone, even perhaps a sophisticated machine) — are related to the general concept COFFEE. You come to understand that something in your head has a peculiar relationship not just with any old cup of joe, but with all the coffees that ever have been and ever could be.

Now, at this point you have to be pretty excited. This is profound stuff. You’ve probably never thought about it before, but as Pom keeps talking, you start to see that yes, it is quite remarkable that something inside you can be “about” something on the outside world. And indeed, it is wondrous that you can talk about objects that are not right in front of you, or speak a sentence that nobody in the history of the world has ever uttered before.

As Pom continues, you grow increasingly impressed by his mastery of the technical vocabulary that one appears to need to discuss the beliefs of even an ordinary person such as yourself. There are vehicles and formal properties and rules (Oh my!). You probably won’t leave the conversation with a better understanding of your own beliefs, but you’ll have had a glimpse into a fascinating, complex, and sophisticated way of talking about mental life.

The question is: How does that way of talking — that uniquely philosophical way of talking — relate to actual ordinary human experiences?

This is a question that I take quite seriously, and one that I believe I am entitled to ask. Most philosophy of mind discussions take place at least one step removed from reality (i.e., concrete or empirical data). But there is still an assumption that this specialized, more abstract language helps to explain what’s happening with our ordinary experience. (Mind you, we could also imagine the alternative — a philosopher might say, “Oh, no, the analyses we do don’t actually have any explanatory value for real human thinking or beliefs or intentions or whatnot, but they’re jolly good fun to play around with.” In this sense philosophizing might be more like creating a collaborative work of fiction. But I expect few philosophers are operating with that perspective.)

It may be obvious by now how I am inclined to answer the question: I think that when it comes to understanding the mind, most abstracted philosophical analysis fails miserably at the very tasks for which it is presumed to be necessary. However, that’s something I will have to demonstrate — and demonstrate quite carefully, since I’m arguing for a radical minority viewpoint.

For now, I’ll stick with making one key point:
[MAIN POINT OF THIS POST]: Philosophical discussions of mental life typically involve technical analyses of abstract ideas, often using specialized terminology — or at least common words (like concept, representation, properties, and even about) used in very specialized ways. Because this is the prevailing approach to the philosophy of mind, it generally seems to those within the field as quite a natural way to proceed, and perhaps the only useful way to proceed. It is worth taking a step back and reminding ourselves that ultimately, the value of this type of discussion is dependent on its ability to explain (or at help to explain) real-life human experience and behavior.

Of course, I’ve done nothing so far to explain why there’s anything wrong with the prevailing, abstract approach. And in fact, before I do that, I’d like to explore the various reasons why it seems so compelling. I will do that very soon. First, though, I should give some concrete examples of what I mean by technical, abstract philosophical analyses, lest it seem as though I am setting up a straw man. That will be the subject of my next post.

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