Explaining What It’s Like

As some of you may know, in celebration of my one year in the bologsphere I have been re-posting some of my favorite posts that did not receive as much attention as they should have in a series I call “This Day in History (of Philosophy Sucks!)” (previous installments here , here, and here). Well, I have decided to abandon the requirement that the post be exactly one year old…so here is the latest re-post originally posted in May 2007…

The real test for a theory of consciousness lies in its ability to explain the qualitative features of our experience. One promising strategy for explaining what it is like for us to experience the nice red and pink hues of the above sunset is what I have called ‘the higher-order strategy’

So, then, what is the higher-order strategy? Contemporary theories of consciousness can be roughly divided into two categories. There are those who accept the transitivity principle, and those that deny it. The transitivity principle is a hypothesis about the nature of conscious states that is inspired by our common sense understanding of those states. It is a platitude that some mental states are conscious whereas others are unconscious and when we think about the difference between them it is natural to say that an unconscious mental state is a mental state that we are not conscious of being in. For instance it is natural to say that an unconscious belief is simply a belief that we are not conscious of having. This leads us to formulate the transitivity principle as follows. A conscious state is a state that I am conscious of myself as being in (in some suitable way). There are, of course, different ways that one might be conscious of oneself as being in these various states and this gives rise to the different versions of higher-order theory but they all accept the transitivity principle. Now, the transitivity principle is supposed to be more than just an intuitive platitude about conscious states; it is supposed to be a theory about what conscious states are. So why should we take the transitivity principle seriously as a theory of consciousness?

Rosenthal argues that the transitivity principle’s chief virtue as a theory of consciousness lies in its ability to explain what a conscious state is (p 30). The higher-order strategy is simple.  We explain transitive consciousness (consciousness of) and then we explain state consciousness in terms of the first non-problematic theory. This would be uninteresting if it were only a theory of how beliefs came to be conscious the payoff, theoretically, comes in applying the higher-order strategy to qualitative states like pain, itches, tickles, orgasms, seeings of red, etc.  Since the first theory (that is, the theory of transitive consciousness) is truly taken to be philosophically non-problematic, that means that qualitative consciousness would also be philosophically non-problematic. Of course this means that a lot depends on just what this non-problematic account of transitive consciousness turns out to be, and that means that the core of the higher-order strategy lies in its theory of intentionality. I will return to this issue in future posts. For now I merely note the importance of the issue and point out that if there is such a non-problematic theory it would yield a huge payoff!

For the other side though, that is people who think that a state’s consciousness is something that is intrinsic to it, that is the end of the rode for them. Some mental states (perhaps all) are conscious and that is that. If we take this road, we are in effect admitting that consciousness is just a big mystery and throwing up our hands. What kind of an explanation is that? It isn’t one. It is in fact to give up the hope for a scientific explanation of this fundamental aspect of reality. So if it were to turn out that the transitivity principle could not give an explanation of qualitative consciousness then our reason for taking it seriously as a theory would take a severe blow.

Multiplying by Zero

The explanation for why division by zero is undefined often goes like this; To say that 6/3=2 is to say that 3*2=6. Now take 6/0=x we would have to find some number that when multiplied by zero gave us 6 (x*0=6). This we can’t do. So, since division and multiplication are inter-defined in this way (generally a/b=c if and only if c*b=a) we can’t divide by 0.

But another way of talking about the interdefinition is to start from multiplication and work back to division; so we can say that a*b=c if and only if c/b=a and c/a=b (e.g. 3*2=6 if and only if 6/3=2 amd 6/2=3). But this will not work for 5*0=0. One way works fine since 0/5=0, but the other fails since it tells us that 0/0=5. But 0/0 s indeterminate and so cannot equal 5. Therefore 0*5 is indeterminate.

Now it is true in a sense that 0/0=5 since according to our interdefinition this just means that 0*5=0 which is of course true. But the problem is that this will be true for any answer. So, suppose that you thought that 0/0=120. This is a perfectly good answer since 0*120=0. But since any number will do as an answer for 0/0 this is definied as indeterminate and the above argument should go through.

What’s the right answer to this problem?

Terminating Ambiguity

I have been working on my paper for my Terminator and Philosophy: I’ll Be Back, Therefore I am volume that I am co-editing with Kevin S. Decker. It is coming along nicely and is nearly ready to be sent to the press. Below is a link to the penultimate version of my paper which is an introduction to the ambiguity issue that we have been discussing around here lately. Any comments are appreciated!

Terminating Ambiguity: The Perplexing case of “The”

What’s the Payoff?

As some of you may know I am no fan of the ambiguity thesis, which is the claim that definite descriptions like ‘the author of this blog’ are ambiguous as betwee a refferential and attributive use (see here and here). But what hangs on this question? Say it turns out that definite descriptions are ambiguous, what’s the big deal? What do we gain (or loose)? Any thoughts?

Big Brain is Watching

A new study shows that researchers can tell what has been said and who says it solely by looking at MRIs!

Besides the obvious ethical implications (imagine portable MRIs at every airport scanning passanger’s brains to see if they have recently talked to someone on a terrorist watchlist or you wife checking to see if you talked to an ex, or a mother checking to see if her kid talked to that trouble maker down the street…privacy beware!) this is another fine example of the progress in brain reading (previously discussed here), and another nail in the coffin of those who argue that we will never be able to understand how mental phenomena are physical.

Brain Science and the Soul? As If!

I just came across this piece over at First Things where the author, a R. R. Reno makes the following ludicrous claim,

We often hear that modern science requires us to reject traditional Christian views of the human person. The argument goes something like this: If we can see the physical process by which ideas are associated or feelings felt or decisions made, then surely we must admit that human beings are nothing more than physical entities. The concept of a soul, so we are told, is irrelevant.

Well, it turns out that science now points us in a different direction…new scientific work on the brain offers an even more interesting and dramatic confirmation of traditional views of the soul. In a recent MRI study, “The Vulcanization of the Human Brain: A Neural Perspective on Interactions Between Cognition and Emotion,” Princeton brain scientist Jonathan D. Cohen has looked at patterns of brain activity while subjects respond to moral dilemmas and make moral decisions. It turns out that the brain patterns related to moral decisions need to be trained. The soul must be disciplined.

There is nothing in Cohen’s work which suggests that materialism is false! Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. What this provides, if anything, is some vindication of Aristotle’s line of thought that the virtues are learned…it tells us nothing about the nature of the soul! It certainly doesn’t show that there is some non-physical aspect to human beings.