Sunday, August 2, 2009

Part 3a. Representationalists Are From Mars…

"What we've got here is a failure to communicate."
— Luke, in Cool Hand Luke

I alluded earlier to the difficulties that can arise when a traditional, representationalist philosopher of mind talks with someone who has a non-representational viewpoint. [brief apology] In short, both can leave the discussion thinking the other is rather daft — or at least seriously deluded. I had that experience earlier today as I reread an explanation of Fodor’s representational theory of mind; I found myself frankly stunned that this could be considered relevant to contemporary cognitive science. At the same time, I know plenty of people have left discussions with me shaking their heads and marveling at my seeming inability to grasp the most basic of philosophical principles.

Here I’m going to explain what I believe is the primary reason for this. I’ll argue that the conflict goes deeper than a clash of opposing views, asking the big questions and coming up with fundamentally different answers. What’s really happening is that the two camps are asking fundamentally different questions. When people on one side of the debate try to answer the key questions posed by the other side, their answers are likely to sound irrelevant, blatantly wrong, or, at the very least, quite odd.

Categories of Questions
Let’s start by considering the various categories of questions that get asked about mental life and cognition. The standard journalistic breakdown works pretty well:

What is a belief? What is intention? What is cognition? What is sensation? What is consciousness? etc.
These are the big ones — the deep, profound, make-your-head-hurt philosophical questions. (Of course, I’m assuming they’re being asked philosophically, not in the ordinary way in which children might ask for definitions of words they haven’t yet learned.) I’m leaving these for Part 6, where I’ll argue that these are essentially empty questions for which non-representationalists should not need to provide answers — at least, not answers that purport to state a global truth. Now, I wouldn’t dream of making that argument just yet because it would probably alienate nearly everyone, leaving nobody to continue reading Parts 4 and 5, much less Part 6. So kindly forget what you’ve just read, and let’s move on.

Where is consciousness located? Where does cognition take place? etc.
This is the heart of the debate about extended cognition. There’s a close relationship between WHO questions and WHERE questions; your answers to the latter depend on whether you think consciousness (or cognition, or any other aspect of the mind) is the type of thing that could extend beyond the brain into the body, and/or out into the wider world. For that reason, I’m going to defer these questions to Part 6 as well. (However, in Part 4 I will start to examine how looking outside the brain naturally leads to a non-representationalist view, and vice versa.)

3. WHO
What types of beings can be conscious? Or feel pain? Or have thoughts or beliefs?
Again, these answers will depend on what you believe pain or belief or consciousness is. So again, I defer to Part 6.

4. WHY
Why is our mental life the way it is? Why do we think? Why are we conscious?
Nowadays, when these sorts of question get asked (outside a religious context), it tends to be in relationship to evolutionary biology or evolutionary psychology. While I find these fascinating and some of them are relevant to the discussion here, they’re a little tangential, so I’ll leave them to another time.

5. HOW
How does our mental life work? How do we come to think, believe, and understand things about the outside world? How do feelings and sensations and other conscious experiences come about?
Finally, some questions I’m going to address sooner rather than later. Both representational and non-representational accounts give a fair bit of attention to these types of questions — though in quite different ways. These are what I’m going to focus on in the remainder of this section (which I’ll continue in other posts; this one is pretty long already).

A few WHEN questions are tied in with the HOW questions. I won’t go into those now, other than to give a little Wittgensteinian teaser: “Compare: ‘When did your pains get less’ and ‘When did you stop understanding that word?’…Suppose it were asked: ‘When do you know how to play chess? All the time? or just while you are making a move?’” (footnote with section 151, Philosophical Investigations)

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