Saturday, December 15, 2007

Churchland Again: How to Duck Some Objections

Other minds have been debating my Churchland post over at DuckRabbit, attributing to a certain H.A. Monk (a name I have assiduously but unsuccessfully tried to excise from this blog, since it is internally related to my identity on my other blog, The Parrot's Lamppost) various assertions that concede a bit too much to both materialist and Cartesian views on the mind-body problem. Though the discussion seems to have ended up in a debate on ducks and rabbits (which I thought would have been settled long ago on that site; in any case, see my "Aspects, Objects and Representations" - in Carol C. Gould, ed. Contructivism and Practice: Toward a Historical Epistemology, Rowman and Littlefield, 2003 - for yet another contribution to the debate) Duck's original post offers a number of points worth considering. (Have a look also at N.N.'s contribution at Methods of Projection. N.N. picked the right moniker, too, maybe because there are also two n's in "Anton".) Here is a version of what I take to be Duck's central criticism of what I said about Churchland:
It's true that the materialist answer "leaves something out" conceptually; but the reply cannot be that we can bring this out by separating the third-personal and first-personal aspects of coffee-smelling, and then (by "turn[ing] off a switch in his brain") give him only the former and see if he notices anything missing. That the two are separable in this way just is the Cartesian assumption common to both parties. (Why, for example, should we expect that if he simply "recognize[s] the coffee smell intellectually" his EEG wouldn't be completely different from, well, actually smelling it?) I think we should instead resist the idea that registering the "coffee smell" is one thing (say, happening over here in the brain) and "having [a] phenomenological version of the sensation" is a distinct thing, one that might happen somewhere else, such that I could "turn off the switch" that allows the latter, without thereby affecting the former. That sounds like the "Cartesian Theater" model I would have thought we were trying to get away from.
While I appreciate the spirit of this comment, I must say that I think it does not merely concede something to Churchland, it is more or less exactly what Churchland is saying, though you might want to add "seen through an inverting lens". Churchland indeed wants to deny that "the two are separable in this way"; in fact he takes an imaginary interlocutor sharply to task for asking him to provide a "substantive explanation of the 'correlations' [between "a given qualia" and "a given activation vector"]" because this "is just to beg the question against the strict identities proposed. And to find any dark significance in the 'absence' of such an explanation is to have missed the point of our explicitly reductive undertaking" (Philosophical Psychology 18, Oct .2005, p.557). In other words: if what we have here is really an identity relation - two modes of presentation of things that are exactly, numerically the same - how dare you insist that I should explain how they are related. They are related by being the same thing, Q.E.D.!

My post was largely directed as fishy moves like this. The problem is that we have two things that we can - and lacking any evidence to the contrary, must - identify (pick out, refer to) by two completely different procedures; yet Churchland wants to assert that they are identical. What notion of identity is at work here is hard to say.
Since Churchland rejects the notion of metaphysical necessity it cannot be "same in all PW's". But it must be more than "one only happens when the other happens" since that is a mere correlation. Even "one happens if and only if the other happens" could mean nothing more than that some natural law binds the occurrence of the two things together, which does not give us numerical identity. He wants to say "blue qualia are identical to such-and-such coding vectors", and we have to take this as meaning more than that there is evidence for their regular coinstantiation. But to make it theoretically sound, or even plausible, in light of the fact that we recognize the two ideas in totally different ways, he must offer two things, at least: (1) an explanation of why these apparently distinct facts (qualia/coding vectors) are actually one and the same phenomenon (what makes the one thing manifest itself in such dissimilar ways); and (2) experimental evidence of an empirical correlation between them. Yet he also tells us that we are "begging the question" if we ask for an explanation! And as for the empirical correlation, it is not just that no one has sat down and examined a subject's cone cell "vectors" and asked them, "Now what color do you see?"; the fact is that the whole idea of "coding vectors" is a mathematical abstraction from a biological process that almost certainly only approximates this mathematical ideal, even before we get to the question of how regularly the outputs of the process end up as the particular color qualia that are supposed to have been encoded.

I am not saying there is no evidence at all for the analysis Churchland offers (based on the so-called "Hurvich-Jameson net" at the retinal level and Munsell's reconstruction of possible color experiences at the phenomenological level), but that there is not even evidence of a strict correlation. Some of the things that Churchland discusses - for example, the fact that this analysis of color vision is consistent with the stabilization of color experience under different ambient lighting conditions (p.539) - strongly suggest that something about the analysis is right, but do not constitute direct empirical evidence for it. What we are really being offered is a notion of identity that has as its basis neither metaphysics, nor scientific explanation, nor sufficient quantitative evidence to establish a strict correlation. We can be excused for saying "no thanks" to this libation.

And if this unanalyzed notion of the identity of phenomenological and biological facts is also being proffered in the name of some other philosophical position - say, Wittgenstein's - we should be no less skeptical. Merely proclaiming the lack of distinction between phenomenology and physiology, inner and outer, mind and world, something and nothing, etc. does not establish anything as a viable philosophical position on consciousness. Even adding the observation that one gets rid of philosophical problems this way does not establish it as a viable position. One gets rid of problems also by saying that god established an original harmony of thought and matter. If you can just swallow this apple whole, you'll find that the core goes down very easily.

Whoops, what happened to my erstwhile Wittgenstein sympathies? Well, maybe the apple I don't want to swallow is really this interpretation of Wittgenstein. Duck and I agree that being sympathetic to Wittgenstein does not require dismissing all scientific investigation of the brain (or the world in general) as irrelevant. But I don't think we agree on why. Duck quotes the following passage from the PI :
'Just now I looked at the shape rather than at the colour." Do not let such phrases confuse you. [So far so good; but now:] Above all, don't wonder "What can be going on in the eyes or brain?" ' (PI p.211)
What is Duck's view of this recommendation? He is not quite sure, but finally decides that philosophers' conceptual investigations will keep scientists honest, so they avoid causing problems for us philosophers:
In a way this is right... Don't wonder that... you thought that was going to provide the answer to our conceptual problem. But surely there is something going on in the brain! Would you tell the neuroscientist to stop investigating vision? Or even think of him/her as simply dotting the i's and crossing the t's on a story already written by philosophy? That gets things backwards. Philosophy doesn't provide answers by itself, to conceptual problems or scientific ones. It untangles you when you run into them; but when you're done, you still have neuroscience to do. Neuroscience isn't going to answer free-standing philosophical problems; but that doesn't mean we should react to the attempt by holding those problems up out of reach. Instead, we should get the scientist to tell the story properly, so that the problems don't come up in the first place.
For my part I don't think this is the point of Wittgenstein's various proclamations about the independence of philosophy from science. Wittgenstein was concerned that physicalistic grammar intrudes into our conceptual or phenomenological investigations, making it impossible to untangle and lay out perspicuously the grammar of phenomena. This is the root of what we call "philosophical problems". It is not the scientist who we have to get to "tell the story properly", it is the philosopher. The scientist does not have a fundamental problem with importing the grammar of phenomenology, thereby tying her physical investigations into knots. It is the other way around: the magnetic pull of physical concepts constantly threatens to affect conceptual investigation. To take a slightly oversimplified example, we say we can "grasp" a thought, but it is an imperceptible step further along the path of this metaphor that allows us to think we can capture it concretely - say, in a proposition, or a sentence of "mentalese" - in a sense that depends quite subtly on our ability to "grasp" a hammer or the rung of a ladder (picking it out as a unique object, self-identical through time, involved in a nexus of cause-effect relations, etc.). True, it takes quite a leap before you are ready to say, "The thought 'the cat is on the mat' just is this neuronal activation vector'", but that is one logical result of this sort of thinking. That we are ready to call this the solution to a philosophical problem just puts the icing on the cake; it is the dismissal of philosophy per se, in more or less the way we can dismiss morality by pointing out that we are all just physical objects made of atoms anyway, and who could care what happens to that?

When Wittgenstein says, "don't wonder, 'What can be going on in the eyes or the brain?'" he is using duck-rabbit-type phenomena to show that conceptual or psychological problems may not be tracked by any physical difference at all. In fact, there is a passage just after the one cited by Duck in which WIttgenstein lays it out as clearly as anyone could ask. He suggests a physical explanation of aspectual change via some theory of eye tracking movements, and then immediately moves to say,
"You have now introduced a new, physiological criterion for seeing. And this can screen the old problem from view, but not solve it". And again, he says, "what happens when a physiological explanation is offered" is that "the psychological concept hangs out of reach of this explanation" (p.212).
The point is very straightforward, and it is certainly compatible with what I have been saying about Churchland. The physical level of explanation just flies past the psychological concepts without recognizing or accounting for them. But in Duck's view, I am guilty of reintroducing the bogey of dualism and the "Carteisan theater" (I'm planning a post on Dennett soon so I'll avoid this bait right now):

So what's the moral? Maybe it's this. In situations like this, it will always seem like there's a natural way to bring out "what's missing" from a reductive account of some phenomenon. We grant the conceptual possibility of separating out (the referent of) the reducing account from (that of) the (supposedly) reduced phenomenon; but then rub in the reducer's face the manifest inability of such an account to encompass what we feel is "missing." But to do this we have presented the latter as a conceptually distinct thing (so the issue is not substance dualism, which Block rejects as well) – and this is the very assumption we should be protesting. On the other hand, what we should say – the place we should end up – seems in contrast to be less pointed, and thus less satisfying, than the "explanatory gap" rhetoric we use to make the point clear to sophomores, who may very well miss the subtler point and take the well-deserved smackdown of materialism to constitute an implicit (or explicit!) acceptance of the dualistic picture.
Absolutely, a physical explanation or description of consciousness is "conceptually distinct" from a phenomenological one. I can see no other possible interpretation of the passage about the eye-movement explanation of "seeing-as" phenomena. Does this make Wittgenstein a "dualist"? Certainly not in the Cartesian sense. True, Wittgenstein not only studied architecture and engineering and cited Hertz and Boltzmann in his early work; he also read (and failed to cite) Schopenhauer and James and had a deep appreciation of "the mystical", which he further identifies with "the causal nexus"; he says in the TLP that philosophy should state only facts, and that this shows how much is left out when all the facts have been stated. But is he now going so far as to suggest that there are different worlds, of scientific and mental reality? I seriously doubt it; and neither am I. There are different levels of explanation, or in his own terminology, different language games. This is not a Cartesian dualism but a point about the structure of thought. It is the same point that much of the Blue Book is based on.

I have not said much about my view of consciousness in this blog. But we're only just getting started, I've got time. I will say this, though: the resolution of the mind-body problem cannot be as simple as, for example, the New Realist (or "neutral monist") school hoped it would be. There, various aspects of reality were said to consist of a single "stuff" (read "substance", with various proposals for what this would be circulating at the time) which took on physical or psychological "aspects" depending on our interest, point of view, or whatever. This is a nice, compact view, but it does not do justice to the issue. There is a brain without which there is nothing in the world called "thinking", and a world without which nothing in a brain can count as "thought". There is every reason to believe that every event that ever counted as a thought took place in a brain, and that something was going on in the brain without which that thought would not have happened. This all has to be accounted for, and it is not sufficient to say that there are different aspects to some general substance or process. Sure, there are different aspects to everything, but this won't get us very far with the mind-body problem. How did an "aspect" of something that is also matter end up as consciousness? The problem is only pushed back. How can an "aspect" of whatever be self-aware, control its own actions, or compose a piano sonata? These are very peculiar aspects. If we could put them under an electron microscope we would not find out what we want to know about them.

I suspect that something like the following is the case: the various phenomena we call "the mind" are asymmetrically dependent on the brain, but the relationship is so loose that there is never anything like the "identity" relationship Churchland wants, nor a mere difference in points of view between the physical and phenomenological "aspects". We recognize certain psychological phenomena and talk about them and analyze them, and there is no such thing as a specifiable set of neural events that are necessary and sufficient for the instantiation of these phenomena - perhaps not even as types, and certainly not as specific thoughts, volitions, etc. There may be some wave oscillations in the brain that correspond to conscious states, but they are not those conscious states. There are particular portions of the brain that are primarily involved in certain aspects of our intellectual activity - emotions, language, memory, etc. - but there is not a specifiable neural "vector" that is "identical" to Proust's sensation of the taste of his mother's "sweet madeleines", much less to the flood of memories it evokes. Perhaps in Churchand's utopia we can replace Swann's Way with some mathematical specifications of its underlying neural activity without any particular loss, but I am not holding my breath.

Why do I think this, or even have a right to hold it out as a reasonable objection? Just because I think psychological concepts are not he rigid, well-articulated concepts that you find in much analytic philosophy. There is a way you can talk about things that are not uniquely or cleanly definable (Wittgenstein: "You are not saying nothing when you say 'stand roughly there...'"; a quote that is roughly accurate!). Talking about them is intellectually interesting in philosophy, important in clinical psychology and ethics, satisfying in the arts. It has been recognized by some neuroscientists and philosophers (Varela and others) that unless you have some kind of scientific phenomenology to begin with, you can't hope to reduce anything to neurology. But that position presupposes that there is something like a science of folk psychological concepts, on something like the lines that Husserl, Sartre and others tried to give us. And Wittgenstein too, in a certain sense: only his phenomenology of mind is imbued with the understanding that part of the "science" we are looking for involves the recognition of the vagueness or circumstantial relativity of concepts.

So how about a vague specification of cone cell coding vectors? "There is a 95% correlation between this coding vector and observed reports of red sensations." I could live with that. But it still doesn't give us a claim to "identity", nor does it justify saying that these are different "aspects" of the same event. They are different things that generally must happen
in order to recognize something as red. But I can say I dreamed of a red balloon and no one will say, "Oh, but there were no cone cell vectors, you couldn't have." And of course even my memory of a red balloon is a memory of something viscerally red, with no conce cell activity to show for it.


Duck said...

Thanks Anton! I've been a bit busy but I hope to respond soon. Can you post (or otherwise make available) the article you mention? (I don't have the Gould volume handy ...).

N. N. said...


You write, "The scientist does not have a fundamental problem with importing the grammar of phenomenology, thereby tying her physical investigations into knots."

What do you make of neuroscientists ascribing mental predicates to brains or parts of brains?

By the way, if someone wanted to read your dissertation, what would they have to do to get a copy of it?

Anton Alterman said...

The point I was trying to make is that language that discussion of the mental is imbued with language that presupposes physical relationships - you can't really get away from it, it is the nature of ordinary language (which Wittgenstein once referred to as "ordinary - physicalistic - language". Neuroscientists can make errors of judgment in ascribing mental predicates to the hypothalmus (or whatever) but that is more a cultural and intellectual fault than something embedded in language. For an elaboration of the point - and one not particularly indebted to Wittgenstein - I highly recommend Lakoff & Johnson's book, Metaphors We Live By.

My dissertation, by no coincidence, is entitled Wittgenstein and the Grammar of Physics, Grad Center 2000. There is a dissertation service that distributes the copies. Don't know what it costs, but if you are really interested and this is too expemsive, email me and we can talk.

N. N. said...


I'm familiar with the passage in Philosophical Remarks that you're referring to:

The worst philosophical errors always arise when we try to apply our ordinary--physical--language in the area of the immediately given.
All our forms of speech are taken from ordinary, physical language and cannot be used in epistemology or phenomenology without casting a distorting light on their objects."

I was reminded of these remarks of Wittgenstein's when I first read your post. I must confess that I don't yet have a handle on what Wittgensteinian "phenomenology" amounts to.

I have a friend who's currently a student at CUNY. I'll see if I can get him to drop by the Graduate Center and obtain a copy of your dissertation. It sounds like an interesting read.

Anton Alterman said...

Right, and there is more like that in the manuscripts. It is central to my interpretation of W - ordinary language is not some really great, perspicuous point of reference that solves all our problems for us, but a complex and confusing landscape that we must navigate carefully or else we get stuck in a physicalistic bog, trying to describe mental concepts in terms that are not well suited to them.

The Philosophical Remarks IS W's phenomenology! (The first version of it, at least.) It would take too long to go into this here. One day hopefully I'll publish something about it. There is no literature I know of that explains the PR properly, though Baker and Hacker (in V.3), the Hintikkas (up to a point) and David Stern get much of the background material right. Another problem is that the standard translation of the PR is EXTREMELY misleading. Several years ago I proposed to W's literary executors that I and a colleague who has translated Kant work up a new translation of the PR. This proposal was unceremoniously shot down twice, and then I was told that instead, Roger White, who is responsible for this mess in the first place, would be asked to improve it. This was several years ago, and I have no reason to believe he has been working on anything of the sort. I don't know how anyone could hope to understand the book from this perfectly misleading translation.

I'm happy if anyone wants to read my dissertation, since I still pretty much stand by the content. If I were to publish it, though, it would probably have a lot more chapters, and in some places, a bit less detail.

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N. N. said...


I've got my hands on your dissertation, and am about a quarter of the way through. I find your project of great interest, and am enjoying the read. However, I have a question or two. I looked for your e-mail address on the blog, but couldn't find it. If you wouldn't mind answering them, you can e-mail me your address at