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February 19, 2007



Have you ever heard of Kathleen Akins' response to Nagel's "What is it like to be a bat?" : "What is it like to be boring and myopic?" It's a rollicking good read and gives an astonishing account of what we do indeed know about bat consciousness, circa 1993.


"Eventually, I believe, current attempts to understand the mind by analogy with man-made computers that can perform superbly some of the same external tasks as conscious beings will be recognized as a gigantic waste of time. The true principles underlying the mind will be discovered, if at all, only by a more direct approach."

This is an empirical claim with categorical elements. Empirically, if we cannot make progress demonstrating meaningful registry between computational models and what's actually happening in people, then it casts serious doubt on whether any models showing the same outward competencies have anything to do with how minds really work. Of course, one can also always define the mind so that a residue of "unexplained true principles" remain, so categorical factors can control how we evaluate the claim's accuracy.

However, the motivation for taking the narrowing category seriously weakens as more and more of our mental life comes in for computational explanation. At the time of writing, neurological computationalism was all promises and very little execution, but two very active decades of progress have elapsed since. The empirical side of the claim appears to be in serious danger, though as many folks as ever are willing to define mind in a way that withholds any possibility of intersubjective investigation from ever coming to bear. If science of mind continues on its current trajectory, the empirical side would collapse altogether, and the only residue of Nagel's claim that could be regarded is true is the position that no amount of functional explanation can get at a subjective truth that is posited but unmeasurable in any way, so the true principles that matter remain undiscovered. Those who wanted to maintain this view would have to convince interlocutors that those things matter (starting with that they have some veridical existence).

Of course, for us to get to that position, science has a great deal of work to do.

Incidentally, Nagel is also reacting to a strong wave of eliminitivism sweeping through philosophy of mind at the time, exemplified by "Neurophilosophy" published the same year. Modern philosophy of mind is, I think, less eliminitivist than it was, though cognitive scientists seem to remain old fashioned realists or eliminiativists rather than joining philosophers in the new middle ground pioneered by Hofstadter, Dennett, Carruthers and so on.

Nathan Smith

The particular claim of Nagel's that Nato quotes is, indeed, an empirical one. It is not quite the type of empirical claim Nato treats it as, however. It is an empirical claim about future intellectual history. Perhaps Nagel will turn out to be wrong. Perhaps (let's call this case "a") computational theories of mind will not be recognized as a waste of time, because they are actually true. Perhaps (b) computational theories of mind ARE a waste of time, but will never be recognized as such, either because we will keep on following the blind alley forever, or because intellectuals will get interested in something else and forget about computational theories of mind too completely to go back and judge whether they were worthwhile or not, or because we will all be annihilated by nuclear war next week. Or (c) perhaps computational theories of mind will fail but in the process trigger new, unexpected insights unrelated to those they were pursuing, so that future generations will see the theories as quite beneficial, though not for the reasons their founders hoped. Any of these would disprove Nagel's specific empirical claim but, of course, would be irrelevant to Nagel's real argument.

For Nagel's real claim here is not exactly an empirical one; it is an argument at a somewhat higher level, which exposes the futility of approaches that are "empirical" in a certain sense (though dogmatic and anti-empirical in a deeper and more important sense). Research "demonstrating meaningful registry between computational models and what's happening in real people" would be case (c) above: it would show us something interesting, perhaps even practically useful, about the mind-brain interface; but it would no more vindicate computational models AS A THEORY OF THE ULTIMATE NATURE OF THE MIND than you would prove that a pool is infinitely deep by dipping a long stick in it and failing to touch the bottom.

I am perhaps not qualified to respond to Nato's claim that "more and more of our mental life is coming in for computational explanation." Knowing the ideology of the natural sciences, I have hardly any doubt that this claim would be made regardless of what was actually going on in the field. History contains so many examples of intellectual cliques who turned out to be totally misguided that I am disinclined to regard claims of great advances in knowledge until they have a broad practical impact. The proof that a discipline has actually started achieving something worthwhile is when it starts yielding profitable businesses. People who pursue a course of study for the sake of money rather than ideology are in a sense more trustworthy. When mega-corporations spring up offering to help people retrieve lost memories, or enhance their cognitive powers by blocking the neural pathways that create distractions; when people who want to study history or marine biology settle for cognitive science because it's a good career move; then, and not before, will I be inclined to concede, as a probability at least, let's say, that "more and more of our mental life is coming in for computational explanation." Right now these purported advances have had, as far as I can tell, no impact on ordinary people's lives, and my expectation is that they're illusory.

But in any case, even if "more and more" is being explained, that is not enough to count as a point in favor of mind-brain supervenience at all. Let's suppose that the total explananda of subjective experience is 100. Further suppose that in year 1990, 10 units of subjective experience have been explained; in year 2000, 20 units, in year 2010, 30 units. Is this trajectory going to reach 100? Or is it going to "asymptote" towards, but never quite *to*, 100? Or is it going to asymptote somewhere below 100, say, at 50, leaving half of our subjective experience unexplained-- perhaps because the other 50 of our subjective experience *is not supervenient on the physical world at all* (because the mind is thinking without, so to speak, "jotting it down in the neurons," like a person doing sums in his head)?

That science will explain "more and more" of the life of the mind is exactly what the agnostic about mind-brain supervenience would expect. There is, after all, a mind-body interface; if thoughts are sometimes manifested in actions, undoubtedly they sometimes occur physically in the brain; and we can learn something, maybe a little, maybe a lot, about them, by observing the brain.

But is the "more and more" knowledge about the brain "asymptoting" to explain "everything" about subjective experience? The question is unanswerable, and that's the whole point. *WE* don't know what "everything" about subjective experience is, because subjective experience is private; private, yet nonetheless real. This is the point Nagel and I (I think we are on the same page here) are making. The physicalist approach to the mind may, like alchemy, motivate useful experimentation even if it is based on false premises, and if mind-brain supervenience is rejected as an unprovable and unscientific hypothesis, there is no reason that should discourage the cognitive sciences from finding out what they can through their methods. But the reason that the physicalist philosophy of mind fails has nothing to do with the outcome of any experiments. It is closer to home than that.


As a quick note, I should have noted more clearly that the "more and more" applies in a general sense; I would not say that science's current state of advancement has already gutted Nagel's hypothesis. If I were to place cognitive science on a curve, it's where medicine was in the 1930s. Of course, I think Nathan's idea is it's about where phrenology was in the 1830s.

Then again, phrenology was quite popular in society but rejected by those pointy headed elitists in mainstream academia.

David Alexander

Nagel: The reductionist program that dominates current work in the philosophy of mind is completely misguided, because it is based on a groundless assumption that a particular conception of objective reality is exhaustive of what there is. Eventually, I believe, current attempts to understand the mind by analogy with man-made computers that can perform superbly some of the same external tasks as conscious beings will be recognized as a gigantic waste of time. The true principles underlying the mind will be discovered, if at all, only by a more direct approach. (The View from Nowhere, p. 15-16)

I think part of the explanation of the modern weakness for physicalist reduction is that a less impoverished and reductive idea of objectivity has not been available to fill out the project of constructing an overall picture of the world. The objectivity of physics was viable: it continued to yield progressively more understanding through successive application to those properties of the physical world that earlier applications had discovered.


Nagel's conclusion seems to be of both a negative and a tentative character-- "suggest that the physical is not its only possible interpretation"-- but it contains the hint of some new objectivity that transcends the physical. In the 200+ pages that follow Nagel's emphasis is on heightening various problematics, and I don't think he pretends to offer the new, higher notion of objectivity that integrates the subjective and objective perspectives.

I don't think that Nagel is speaking in terms of a claim of something new in objectivity, but something old. He argues that the demands are misguided in the first place, that somewhere things have gotten off track, and that we have begun to inculcate in our societies an arbitrarily constricted view of what is veridical (to use Nato's hi-falutin' terminology).

Some of this reminds me of a remark of Aristotle's about the folly of those who do not understand the varying degrees of precision which are properly to be expected from differing kinds of subjects. I also wonder if there is not an at least twofold motivation underlying the desire to constrict epistemology a priori (and then, sometimes absurdly, demand proof but only proof admissiable within that terminology)- the desire to concieve of the world as something over which we can bear unlimited power which is subtly exhilirating and self-flattering, and a kind og goldrush mentality, an unreflective feeling of inertia from the success of scientific discoveries and an impatience with the more difficult mastery of the self.

I am also reminded of Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, who was also said to have brought the questions of objectivity to a pitch they had not previously reached but not to have resolved them. I agree with you that there is a new vision of the coherence and desirability of a broader veridical authority that needs to be ushered in, or brought back from the blinding of the Enlightenment.


Regarding David's inertial mentality to science - it's true that science has become to a great many "the magic that works." Even those frustrated with western medicine like their herbal pharmacists to clothe themselves in the accoutrements of science to assure themselves that someone has tested to make sure the gingko biloba or whatever will serve for whatever ails them. To scientists I think it's more like being on the winningest team in baseball. It's perfectly preposterous to propose knocking them out of the finals, since they've won every World Series in the last 150 years (or whatever).

But of course, both of those kinds of thinking do more to obscure underlying truth than reveal it. More on that later.

And welcome David!

David Alexander

Thanks Nato.

There are different kinds of scientists, for instance the more epistemically chaste Michael Polanyi who understand science in a quite different light then those who chronically conflate philosophical materialism with being a scientist. For them of course, there is no final inning because they don't understand science as properly being totalistic in scope. It is the difference perhaps in defining science as "methodological naturalism" versus science as "the investigation of material casality". They can seem the same but they can end up world's apart. And since naturalism in the first is the baseline or measure, materialists who belabor empirically enigmatic stances on the part of non-materialists will often be seen cozying up to strident assertions about multiverses as if they were empirically grounded at the same time, with an effective disregard for empirical foundation. This is because, as I said, the bottom line is not the empirical but the materialism itself.


I should have noted that as inflated as one might become about being the winningest team in baseball, one should be careful of assuming one is the best team in sports.

But I find most scientists' blind spots to be fairly localized and their philosophical overreaches remain within their area of inquiry. Dawkins' point about the selfish gene was a philosophical one and it wasn't in itself an overreach, but then he's gone on to take further philosophical positions that (I think) reveal him to have traveled far past his expertise. Chomsky has done the same from linguistics over to cognitive philosophy. As far beyond their initial position as they have expanded, however, I don't think they've gotten to to point of view that science exhausts philosophy and in that is an implicit admission that science's totalism is, if extant, limited.

I will say that a great many scientists are willing to make the leap that science exhausts (discoverable) illata. Of course, so do I, but the argument therefor comes from outside science. One might say science supervenes on epistemology, not the other way around.

David Alexander

You make the leap to science's capacity to encompass all that is veridical, but you do it from first person consciousness. Logically you can construct possible and likely history that is prior to your present consciousness and prior to the consciousness of others around you. You believe that these histories explain your present consciousness, or that a history can eventually be constructed that does, but you can't after all be certain that boundary conditions that always accompany your experience of consciousness and your registry of other human consciousness explain consciousness. I suspect, not having read much of Nagel, that Nagel elaborates this much better and at greater length. They might afterall be the necessary stage for the play of something that is totally other. From your first person awareness you cannot it seems to me clearly identify except by resort to articles of faith, present outward aids to your logic upon which the logic depends. When I referred to memes I had more in mind Dennett's elaboration on Dawkins and shall we say correction of Dawkins and his description of our systems of valuations as merely being particularly powerful memes that have invaded, colonized, infested us previously. I am thinking that taking Dawkins and Dennett's position on this can actually establish a principle that cognitively limits the actual performance of the minds operations. If we must assume that the mind is invaded by outward forces forcefully at some points and we must adopt a view of ourselves as the memes which colonized us from without then there is an implicit denial of the freedom of the first person consciousness to examine and perhaps modify any belief presently held. There is supposedly some meme against which the mind cannot turn. Thus the mind's autonomy, the freethinking of the mind, is enslaved. The reason I bring this up is that in present attempts to bridge the gap between the consciousness either philosophically or empirically, and to show the minds subservience to the material, logic seems in actuality to be belabored, limited from its experiencable freedom and operations, for purposes of fulfilling the materialists doctrines which it seems to me should somehow be brought to consciousness rather than consciousness being brought to it.


I should be clear - I regard many things as veridical that are not illata. Rocks have a very uncomplicated, uncontroversial ontology, but I think it's worth the trouble to say that centers of gravity have a veridical existence, and that they are not reduceable to anything physical, though they are supervenient on the physical. There also exists four prime integers between 0 and 10. The ontology of abstracta is controversial but still not particularly complicated. Then we move on to rivers. Do rivers exist in any enduring sense? It would seem so, though their position and component parts are constantly mutating.

One might be tempted to say that one or more of the abover aren't truly veridical; they're just projected on the world. That truly is an impoverished ontology, and not a very useful one, even for science. So, I have no trouble going as far as to say we can select a waltz as veridical and the glarblejamper dance as not without being arbitrary. Then again, these dances borrow their reality from minds, which share the ontology of rivers. But real they are, and would be discoverably so even for visiting aliens without a concept of dance.

This is a truly complicated ontology, however. Is it a river, or an abritrary collection of water atoms? It has to be both, and one has to apply the correct version in the correct context. Worse, the definition of river has fuzzy edges. Is it a veridical river if the water source isn't natural? There's no fact of that matter except with respect to the applicable definition of river.

So are minds just meme-nests? Well, if you want to study memes qua memes, that may be a good way to look at it - it's hard to say exactly how veridical memes are (or, it's hard to say how memes are veridical)*. Does the truth or falsity of the meme remove self-determination from the mix? Not in the context we care about(I claim).

*I would say that "memes are veridical" should evaluate to true if a hard version of the meme paradigm yeilds explanatory power clearly superior to the original fuzzy concept of an idea. I.e. the memes would need to consistently feature transmissable, semi-stable substructure beyond that obvious at first glance.

Nathan Smith

I have a feeling that I agree with much of what David Alexander is saying, but I'm not sure I fully understand him. Consider the proposition: "Materialism is self-discrediting because if we are mere colonies of memes, then we are not freethinkers able to seek truth, and therefore the thoughts that lead us to materialism are untrustworthy." Does that summarize all or part of what Alexander argued in the last post, or did I miss the point?


As a side note, I don't think the most enthusiastic meme realists regard brains as nothing more than blank slates on which memes write themselves. I can't say I feel competent to estimate their opinions regarding how universally a mind can reject memes, but I do love Dennett's old chapter in Elbow Room called "Self-Made Selves". It's not a memeticist's account of self-creation, but it is consonant therewith.

David Alexander

"Materialism is self-discrediting because if we are mere colonies of memes, then we are not freethinkers able to seek truth, and therefore the thoughts that lead us to materialism are untrustworthy." Does that summarize all or part of what Alexander argued in the last post, or did I miss the point?"

Not exactly. It is more along the lines of: "The verisimilitude of the portrait that materialism draws of our inner consciousness is observably untrue since contrary to notions such as Dawkins and Dennett's that thoughts invade us and are us, contrary to the idea that material processes compel our thoughts so that there is no freedom, we have only to exert our first person awareness and bypass supposed limits on the minds freedom of ranging. We are not observably compelled to maintain thoughts against our will. A tune that we cannot get out of our heads is not in any way adequate as a summative symbol of what our thoughts and our rational capactities consist of. Therefore, if we try to apply Dennet and Dawkins's conception of the consciousnes we only end up curbinh the real free play of the mind, it seems to me.

David Alexander

Thank you, Nato, for the reference. I do know in Darwin's Dangerous Idea that Dennett says there is no us outside our memes and genes by which to judge our memes. He rebukes Dawkins on this point.


I think taking a "meme's eye view" doesn't require (or even expect, usually) that a meme somehow bludgeon its way into one's mind. Typically, the assumption is that the meme would "wish" to have itself taken up by a mind then further promulgated. In order to do so, it would need some method of entree that fits well with existing memes and whatever other environ-mental factors.

This is largely just a perspective change, however, as we all take for granted the concept of intellectual vectors that it describes. Someone who has listened only to classical music may be expected to not take immediately to grindcore or hip hop, we predict a libertarian will welcome an economic proposal consonant with free markets and so on.

Dawkins' use of of the meme concept seems uneven and tendentious, but Dennett is broader. For Dennett, we significantly assemble ourselves from memes, and continue the assembly process throughout life. The meme concept allows us to see the process from the intellectual component's view and so gives us another critical perpective with which to examine the ideas in our lives. If anything, its goal is to give us *more* free will, not less, as it offers another method of self-examination.

Some will, of course, go off the deep end and attempt to reduce minds to nothing more than meme collections. This is a potentially valid move if one wants to study cultural transmission of ideas or something similar in which one is interested in identifying systemic features. Economics does this as a matter of course. The problem is when one tries to take the simplifying assumption as veridical. That is surely fallacious.

David Alexander

"For Dennett, we significantly assemble ourselves from memes, and continue the assembly process throughout life. The meme concept allows us to see the process from the intellectual component's view and so gives us another critical perpective with which to examine the ideas in our lives. If anything, its goal is to give us *more* free will, not less, as it offers another method of self-examination."

Thank you for the conversation. It is not immediatley clear to me if anthropomorphising our thoughts, which is apparently what we are talking about, am I right?, is more helpful or hindering. I suppose if oone keeps it clear in their mind it may prove an aid. I think it was in this thread or another that you mention what sounded like a kind of taste or experience of sublimity in the dialogues and debates you had with a friend of yours and I have thought about that a number of times. I am currently reading dialogues of Plato and the vision of good that is brought before the mind in them seems to coincide with what you were talking about, a sincere dialogue in a mutual search for truth. being something sublime.


Regarding sublimity - that was Nathan Smith ;) He's not *always* wrong, of course.

Regarding the dubious usefulness of anthropomorphizing our thoughts - just so. In the hands of some - Susan Blackmore is, I think, a good example - it can be enlightening. In others - Dawkins - it's frequently a method of demonizing* a creed at an additional remove from its followers. In yet others - sociobiological eliminativists - it's a dramatic way of shocking audiences with the pretense that mental life is an illusion or whatever. It's clearly an interesting idea that is nonetheless prone to abuse.

*This choice of words is not accidental, considering the traditional remove that blaming sickness or misbehavior on a demon placed between a person and their actions, opening up a less psychologically harsh path to change.

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