Sellars on Mind and Language

I found this very interesting lecture by Sellars where he talks about dot quotes and its relation to ontology and the mind-body problem…all good stuff and worth a listen. But what really caught my interest was his comments at the beginning of part F where he seems to admit that some kind of causal theory has to be right for the way thoughts work but not for the linguistic meaning…is there any other way to interpret these remarks? Also, does anyone else feel like they are listening to Jimmy Stewart talk about philosophy??


On my way home from class today I realized that what Sellars says in these lectures vindicates something I thought of after someone objected that on my view names would fail the Church translation test. t thought you could just dot quite your way out of it so it is nice to hear Sellars talking about dot quoting ‘Socrates’.

Reduction v. Elimination

In the video of Quine I posted yesterday he says that it is only a terminological difference whether the physicalist says that they are identifying the mental with the physical or that they are eliminating the physical (“disavowing the mental”). This has never seemed right to me but it is hard to say what is wrong with  It seems to me that in one obvious sense of the word ‘reduction’ the identity theory cannot be reductive. The identity theorist holds that there is not the mind and the brain but that there is just the brain. This sounds like it is getting rid of the mind (“there is just the brain”) but it is not. One does not get rid of A# when one finds out that it is just Bb. One does not eliminate water when one discovers that it is H2O. Identity theorists have always been resentful of the talk of ‘reduction’, ‘elimination’, and ‘correlation’. Smart puts it well in his classic paper; “you can not correlate something with itself.” Water is not correlated with H2O it just is H2O.  Only if one is already assuming that ‘physical’ and ‘mental’ have different referents will one see the identity as eliminative. Surely there is all the difference in the world between saying that the true nature of the mental is that it does not exist and saying that the true nature of the mental is that it is neural! I mean, right?

On the other hand, Quine is right that at the semantic level the identification of mental and physical would allow us to “disavow” the mental terms in our ultimate theory since wherever we saw one we could replace it with the thing it was identical to (compare: we could eliminate the word “bachelor” from our language if we wanted to since it is really identical to “unmarried male”). In that sense eliminating the mental predicates from our completed theory wouldn’t affect any truth values of statements in the physical theory. This is surely right but the elimination/identification that is going on here is at the level of semantics (or concepts if one likes) not ontology. Now if one adds to this the Quinian thesis that one is ontologically committed to what one’s variables range over one will not be committed to mental entities at the level of particle physics. But this is not an embarrassment for the physicalist! The physicalist denies that the completed micro-physics will have to appeal to mental properties as basic constituents of reality and that is all that Quine has said here. It may still be the case that one is ontologically committed to mental items at a different theoretical level.

Now this way of talking is at odds with John Searle and Ned Block. According to Searle we cannot get an ontological reduction because consciousness essentially has a first-person ontology whereas brains have a third-person ontology but even so we can get what he calls a causal reduction. Now this sounds a lot like property dualism but Searle denies that it is. Block on the other hand argues that we can have a scientific reduction of consciousness (that is, we can find out that its essential property is being physical) but we cannot have an explanatory reduction of consciousness (that is an a priori conceptual reduction of consciousness). For Block identities are at bottom unexplainable which translates into the claim that they cannot be deduced from a completed micro-physics. They have to be postulated on the basis of additional explanatory power.

Glossing over some obvious differences Quine, Searle, Block, and even Chalmers seem to think that if we have an explanatory reduction of consciousness then we have really eliminated consciousness and so they think that (at best) we can give a causal/scientific reduction but that we cannot deduce the qualitative properties from the physical properties. But if we combine the Lewisian-Armstrong style of argument with 2-d semantics we can see how it would be possible to give this kind of explanatory reduction. We start with the correlations between qualitative states and physical states. As Dave noted there are several options at this point one of which is postulating an identity between the qualitative properties and the physical properties but instead of postulating this identity we should be able to deduce that it is true. Real identities are earned not postulated. I think we can do this, or at least see that it is in principle possible.

So the upshot is that on this view there is a difference between reduction and elimination that is more than terminological. When we reduce something we discover what the primary intension picks out in the actual world whereas when we eliminate something we discover that the primary intension doesn’t pick anything out in the actual world. Hence we reduce water to H2O and eliminate phlogiston. The physicalist can be reductive (claiming the the primary intensions pick out brain states at the actual world) but not eliminative (by denying that the primary intensions fail to pick anything out at the actual world) in this sense. But even so this is not reductive in the first sense: everything that was there before we started theorizing is still there after the explanatory reduction.

HOT Qualia Realism

A lot of philosophers seem to take the higher-order thought theory of consciousness to be eliminative or deflationary about consciousness; of course, it doesn’t help that people go around saying that we need to get rid of qualia or even that we should endorse the claim that we ourselves are zombies! But aside from this misguided rhetoric I just don’t see any argument which shows that the higher-order theory is eliminative or deflationary. Of course I do not deny that it is counter-intuitive but so is any cutting edge theory. Let us rehearse what I take to be the basic argument for the higher-order theory.

1. A mental state that I am in no way aware of myself as being in is not a conscious mental state

This seems to me to be a common sense platitude and maybe even an analytic truth. If one accepts this then some kind of higher-order theory of consciousness is true: (1) is the converse of the transitivity principle.

2. Certain kinds of thoughts can make us aware of things.

Thoughts that are seemingly unmediated by inference and represent the target as present make us aware of the target. if this isn’t true then higher-order thought theory is false, though some other kind of higher-order theory may still be true.

3. Phenomenal feel is a matter of what it is like for one to have conscious mental states

This also seems like a common sense platitude. If one accepts this then explaining phenomenal consciousness is just explaining what it is like for one to have conscious mental states.

4. What it is like for one to have a conscious mental state is determined by a higher-order thought

This is supported or at least made plausible by considerations about wine tasting and the like. In the wine tasting case one’s experience changes as one learns a new concept. It is consistent with this that applying a concept to one’s first-order states results in a change in phenomenal experience with no change in the first-order state’s properties (this is not the only thing this is consistent with of course). If this is right (and it is presumably empirically testable) then applying new concepts results in a change in what it is like for one to have the experience. If this is right then perhaps it is not too crazy to think that applying concepts is what results in phenomenal feel in the first place.

5. Only conscious mental states exhibit phenomenal feel

This is where the higher-order theory stands or falls. If it really is the case that there are no phenomenal feels when a state is unconscious then we really would have evidence that higher-order thoughts result in or produce phenomenal consciousness. It is not clear that this is true but it can be supported by philosophical analysis. For instance it is not at all clear that anything substantive hangs on whether we call qualitative properties  of which we are in no way aware phenomenally conscious or not. if all one means is that unconscious pains have some property in virtue of which they are pains and that when we are aware of ourselves as being in feels a certain way then there is no disagreement. if on the other hand, one means that the unconscious pain feel painful for the person that has it then it is not clear what that would even mean. Besides this there are no telling empirical reasons to think that it is wrong.

Now each one of these claims is more or less controversial but if one accepts them then one accepts the higher-order thought theory and it seems to me that nothing in these four claims rules out qualia realism. In fact it seems that if these five claims are true then we have succeeded in explaining what phenomenal consciousness is and if we ultimately identify the neural means by which all of this is implemented then we will have discovered that consciousness is physical.

As of right now it seems like we can conceive of creatures that have HOTs but which lack phenomenal feels but further empirical results may yet show that the HOT theory is the best theory of consciousness available (or if you prefer: it may show that it is true). The acknowledgement that it seems conceivable to have HOTs without phenomenal feel is enough to get qualia realism but not enough to show that higher-order thought theory is false. Is it really so strange that we should find out that qualia just are higher-order thoughts and that higher-order thoughts just are brain states? Sure, it is surprising; but is it more surprising than relativity theory, quantum mechanics,  or string theory? I should think that the discovery of the relativity of simultaneity, Bose-Einstein condensates, dimensionless point-particles, and 11 dimensional space-time are quite a bit surprising indeed!

Am I a Type-Q Physicalist?

In the previous post I tried to differentiate my view from type-z materialism. In this post I will address type-q materialism. Dave says, in Consciousness and its Place in Nature

Are there any other options for the materialist? One further option is to reject the distinctions on which this taxonomy rests. For example, some philosophers, especially followers of Quine (1951), reject any distinction between conceptual truth and empirical truth, or between the a priori and the a posteriori, or between the contingent and the necessary. One who is sufficiently Quinean might therefore reject the distinction between type-A and type-B materialism, holding that talk of epistemic implication and/or modal entailment is ungrounded, but that materialism is true nevertheless. We might call such a view type-Q materialism. Still, even on this view, similar issues arise. Some Quineans hold that explaining the functions explain everything (Dennett may be an example); if so, all the problems of type-A materialism arise. Others hold that we can postulate identities between physical states and conscious states in virtue of the strong isomorphic connections between them in nature (Paul Churchland may be an example); if so, the problems of type-B materialism arise. Others may appeal to novel future sorts of explanation; if so, the problems of type-C materialism arise. So the Quinean approach cannot avoid the relevant problems.

As I found out last Friday we can add David Rosenthal to the list of type-q materialists ion addition to Mandik and Weisberg. I agree with Mandik and Weisberg when they complain that it is not obvious how these problems arise for the Quinean. Take for example the type-b Quinian. She will hold that there are mind/brain identities but will go on to deny that these identities are necessary (nothing is necessary). This immediately defuses Dave’s objections to type-b materialism. There are no strong identities for the type-q position (a strong identity is a necessary truth that cannot be known a priori and is just brute). Nor are zombies an issue since the type-q will grant that they are conceivable (while muttering “whatever that means”) but so what? The identities are not necessary (nothing is, remember since modal cannot be given coherent truth-conditions) so the conceivability of zombies is irrelevant to the truth of materialism at the actual world. Zombie sonly get their bite from the necessity of identity. So problems of type-b materialism do not arise for the Quinian.

But I grant that modal talk is meaningful even though ultimately dependent on empirical justification. True empiricists wait until there is empirical evidence that merits the revision of intuitions. They do not consider every alternative as relevant; rather they make decisions about about what is most likely the case based on parsimony, simplicity, and elegance as well as explanatory power and congruency with known empirical data. Until we have some very good reason to reject [](x=x) I take the proof of it to be convincing and to justify believing that identities are necessary. Modal theory is a theory and so should be held to those standards. I claim that according to those standards basic modal intuitions should be trusted. Things get complicated quick but the necessity of identity is surely safe!

But even so there is much in the type-q position that I agree with and re-reading Pete and Josh’s paper I can see why people would say I was a type-q materialist. Their basic argument, as I see it, is that if Quine is right then every concept is open to revision in the face of empirical discoveries. Thus conceptual analysis of the concept of consciousness a priori will do us no good because Quinians cannot rule out that the concept will not need to be revised in the light of future empirical evidence. I agree in principle with this. For instance I have argued that empirical evidence suggests that it is possible that pain and painfulness come apart contrary to our initial a priori intuitions about pain. This is a key part of my counter  to the zombie argument. But notice that my argument is intrinsically modal in nature. I claim that pain asymbolia shows that it is conceptually coherent that painfulness is a contingent property of pain and so our a priori intuitions about pain are suspect until the empirical issue is settled. Discovering what actually is the case has the effect of ruling our some a priori conditionals. Ao, we can know a priori that if painfulness is an intrinsic feature of pains then various things follow and we can know that if painfulness is not an intrinsic feature of pains then various other things follow. We then need to know which is actually the case. I even agree that this might count as revising our concept of pain to include painfulness as a contingent property.

And I certainly agree with the characterization of the a priori physicalist deduction,

Consider the following scenario. I am angry, but not consciously so. I storm around the house bashing into things and grumbling, but when asked, I snarl, “I’m not mad!”  Later, my anger becomes conscious, and I see that my interlocutor was correct. I was angry, but the anger was nonconscious. Then I became conscious of the anger, and there was something it was like for me to be angry. Most folk will find this a plausible story, and certainly not one that is confused or contradictory. Thus, a reasonable clarification of “there’s something it’s like for the subject” is “the subject is conscious of being in a state.” But being conscious of something can plausibly be cashed out in functional terms. Thus, if we find the physical conditions that realize this state, we can reason, a priori, from the physical facts to the phenomenal facts.

I can even agree in principle with their expression scientism,

But more to the point for current research, the industry of modal intuition-mongering loses its reason for being. It is of little interest if zombies are conceivable. They are, in that nothing can be ruled out from the armchair. We cannot tell today where empirical results will drive us tomorrow. And whether zombies are possible or not depends strictly upon what our best theory says. And that is a matter for science to determine. Maybe qualia can be captured in a functional theory of the mind; maybe they cannot. That is for science to decide, not a priori philosophizing.

So maybe I am a type-q physicalist but one who thinks that even there is some use for a priori reasoning. Also, one who thinks that if Quine is wrong the view is still at least conceivably right and this shows that we do not have enough empirical evidence for a priori arguments to do more than reveal which side of the debate we are on. This suggests that even those who do not accept the Quinian views about empiricism should be hesitant to conclude that their a priori intuitions are correct in this case.