Thursday, 22 December 2016

Yearning for Consciousness--Part I


The philosopher of mathematics Hao Wang once observed that certain human inquiries reveal more about ourselves—for example, our interests and obsessions—than about the object inquired into. Wang made the suggestion as follows.
Einstein’s brain turned out to be no bigger than normal. What do these findings reveal about the origin of genius? The most important question may be why we perform these analyses at all, and what we really hope to find. Just as Einstein captured the essence of energy and matter in his famous equation, so we seek to capture the essence of genius. Our pursuit perhaps reveals more about ourselves than about the nature of genius (Hao Wang, 2000, emphasis added).
In such cases, the possibility remains open that the inquiry is pursued relentlessly even if there is no object to be investigated. This may be characterised as ‘Wang’s Puzzle’: why do serious inquirers spend so much effort on possibly nothing?
   While Wang posed the issue for the concept of genius, I will argue that a very similar suggestion is likely to hold for what some philosophers and psychologists characterise as mentalistic concepts. In particular, I will suggest that the concept of consciousness, as commonly envisaged, is something we need even if nothing in the world falls under it. In subsequent essays I will show that similar remarks apply to the concepts of belief and knowledge. In the context of contemporary philosophy, the suggested shift in the form of inquiry arises as follows.
The contemporary discipline of philosophy of mind, as the name suggests, may be viewed as a conceptual investigation of the mind in terms of its ‘mentalistic’ aspects. These mentalistic aspects include consciousness, perception, knowledge, belief, and intentionality. Sometimes some of these concepts are examined in terms of analysis of the linguistic contexts which appear to exhibit the need for these concepts. For example, putative mental states like belief and knowledge are examined via what have come to be known as ‘propositional attitudes’ like Galileo believed that the earth is round. It is thought that a detailed understanding of what such linguistic expressions mean in their standard contexts of use will throw light on the character of the corresponding mental states.
  It might seem that the suggested philosophical study of mind, especially the study of ‘mentalistic’ language, falls under the study of what maybe called the linguistic mind, the mind as shaped by, and represented in, language. With the focus on language, the study of mind becomes species-specific, as desired in the Cartesian angle on this topic (Mukherji 2000; see this volume, Essay 2). Also, since the proposed philosophical study is focused on ordinary, daily uses of the listed mentalistic concepts, it might appear to throw light on the common, universal—folk psychological—aspects of human nature.
However, such linguistic approaches do not exhaust the philosophical study of mind. Even though consciousness as a mental state is often studied via analysis of (first person) reports of experience such as I am in pain, the concept is seldom viewed as language-related. Sometimes mental concepts are studied more directly through introspection and analysis of specific states of experience, and reflections, including behavioural experiments, on the role of these concepts in human thought and action. In recent decades, some of these concepts—especially the concept of consciousness—have been vigorously studied via experimental investigations on the brain. These approaches appear to hold the promise of a genuine science of the mind.

 Despite these appearances, my contention is that such philosophical and scientific studies, focused on ordinary mentalistic concepts, cannot really be viewed as a naturalistic study of the mind. I will suggest that a biologically-anchored, theoretical concept of mind requires the mind to be a (genuine) property of every individual mind/brain of a species—often known as the requirement of methodological solipsism (Fodor 1981). In contrast, the philosophical concepts of consciousness, belief and knowledge are primarily interpersonal social devices; these are more likely to be normative concepts for that reason, on par with concepts used in enquiry of values such as ethics and aesthetics, rather than in naturalistic enquiry like physics and biology. 

(To be continued)

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