[This is the second section of the paper reproduced here in full. Unfortunately, the subsequent sections are too long for a blog-page. Hence, I will only post excerpts for those sections]
The sentient subject
The study of the thinking, sentient human subject has always been a central concern in philosophy in any tradition. However, only with the Cartesian rationalist tradition did the concern directly relate to the concept of mind as a seperate substance, an additional joint of nature. As the Cartesian tradition of substance dualism lost its appeal in subsequent centuries due to serious challenges to the idea of a separate substance by empiricists like David Hume and John Locke, the discussion of mind itself, as a substantive concept, was progressively abandoned. In contemporary times, the situation for the Cartesian tradition worsened even further after Gilbert Ryle’s influential critique of the concept of mind as the ghost in the machine (Ryle 1949).
Nonetheless, the concern about the sentient thinking subject remained, especially after the work of Immanuel Kant, because the subject was viewed as the center of the complex network that related language, thought, and reality: the domain of human knowledge. Thinking of human belief as a fact about humans, it is natural to view human belief as the content of mental states, states that humans attain when they have belief. Beliefs thus are viewed as contentful mental states par excellence of a subject. The step from belief to knowledge is deemed natural since knowledge is taken to be a species of belief: knowledge signals the attainment of a restricted kind of belief-state, namely, a state of true belief for which the subject has evidence.
It was then thought that specific beliefs can be identified in terms of structured meaningful propositions such as that the earth is round. The proposition, a linguistic entity, represents the belief that the earth is round by a systematic grammatical construction out of individual meanings of words such as earth and round. These sounds are phenomena in the external world to be accessed by perceptual systems, but the meanings of these words must themselves be mental entities since they constitute the mental states of the typically sentient subject: the content of the belief that the earth is round is constituted of mental entities EARTH and ROUND; these entities endow the sounds earth and round with meaning. We thus have a set of mentalistic concepts: belief, knowledge, meaning, consciousness. The ‘Cartesian’ angle on these concepts is hard to miss.
Since the concepts of belief and knowledge in their ordinary usage are taken to denote mental states, some notion of mind is at least indirectly implicated, although a direct mention of it is forbidden due to Rylean strictures. In this indirect sense, concepts of belief and knowledge define the contours of contemporary philosophy of mind, and some of cognitive science, that takes the form of (study of) folk psychology. I will discuss the concepts of belief and knowledge more fully in the next two essays.
Similar remarks apply to the concept of consciousness. It is a ubiquitous part of folk psychology that we view human subjects as beings which routinely attain states of consciousness. For example, John Searle (1992, xii) declares at the very beginning of his study of the mind that we ‘all have inner subjective qualitative states of consciousness, and we have intrinsically intentional mental states such as beliefs and desires, intentions and perceptions.’ Colin McGinn (1989) opens his influential paper on the mind-body problem with the observation that philosophers have been trying for a long time to solve the specific problem of consciousness which continues to be ‘the hard nut of the mind-body problem.’ We need some explanation of why we have these mentalistic concepts—belief, knowledge, meaning and consciousness—and what they do for us. The study of these concepts then qualify as a study of the mind, in the indirect sense outlined.
Cutting through many-dimensional controversies covered in a vast literature, two broad perspectives have emerged in the philosophical literature. These perspectives are in serious conflict. The first perspective, often called folk psychology as noted, says that the availability of these concepts in fact points towards an implicit and largely correct theory of mind; the task is to make it explicit. In their ordinary usage, these concepts are already laden with explanatory value; all we need is to make proper scientific use of them. The neuroscientific perspective says, on the other hand, that these concepts have a value at most as components of a false theory; a genuine theory of cognition will dispense with these concepts. Each of the ordinary concepts of belief (Stitch 1983) and consciousness (Dennett 1991) are to be eliminated from a putative science of the mind (Churchland and Sejnowsky 1992).
The debate has been stultifying since, while folk psychology is untenable at various points (Mukherji 2006, this volume, Essay 8), neuroscience has done nothing to replace it in the critical cases (Mukherji 1990; Bennett and Hacker 2003). In particular, as we will see, fatal problems of explanation seem to block any coherent neuroscientific account of consciousness, not to mention beliefs and meanings. Although a careful review of the (astronomical) literature is warranted at this point—a task that is beyond the scope of this essay—it is not entirely unfair to surmise that neither folk psychology nor neuroscience has much explanatory chance for the mental domain as commonly envisaged. Suppose so. Nevertheless, these concepts are here to stay with us in ordinary discourse. What do they do for us?
What I propose to do is to move away from the folk psychology/neuroscience debate, and launch an independent philosophical examination of these concepts to see if a general account of their value can be extracted outside the theory of mind. One option that seems particularly promising in the given historical scenario is that these concepts are not designed to play (genuine) explanatory roles in naturalistic theories at all; their value appears to be located elsewhere. As noted, I will concentrate on the concept of consciousness for the rest of this essay; concepts of belief and knowledge will be taken up in the next two essays.
The strategy adopted here is different from other attempts to set the problem of consciousness aside. For example, in the paper cited earlier, McGinn (1989) suggests that the problem of consciousness falls under what he calls the principle of Cognitive Closure: ‘A type of mind M is cognitively closed with respect to a property P (or theory T) if and only if the concept-forming procedures at T’s disposal cannot extend to a grasp of P (or an understanding of T).’ McGinn thinks that consciousness is a property that we are cognitively incapable of understanding; in that sense, consciousness is not a problem, but a mystery.
Following Thomas Nagel and others, I have myself suggested a more general version of the closure principle earlier to raise the design problem: our grasp of the world is restricted to what kind of creature we are (Mukherji 2010, Chapter One; also, this volume, Essay One). However, I do not think that consciousness is a mystery that cannot be understood by the human mind. As proposed, consciousness can well be understood as a normative/ascriptive concept; to view consciousness as a real/naturalistic property of human nature is probably not warranted. However, several qualifications are needed to properly articulate the suggestion, as we will see.
(To be continued)