Saturday, 28 October 2017

On Definitions of 'Consciousness': Merriam-Webster Dictionary (3)

Consciousness. 1 a: the state or fact of being conscious of an external object, state, or fact.

The definition above gives what philosophers call “intentionality” a key role within consciousness. Intentionality is basically about how consciousness is directed outwards towards external objects, events, etc.; or inwards towards mental states, emotions, images, thoughts, etc. (Intentionality can also be called directedness or aboutness.)

As you can see, this definition may be seen as a characterisation of a property of consciousness; rather than a characterisation of consciousness itself. Despite that, we can solve that problem by saying the following:

The very awareness of external objects, etc. constitutes consciousness.

This means that instead of “predicates of consciousness”, we have a partial “is of identity” here:

intentionality = (or is partly constitutive of) consciousness

Nonetheless, some philosophers may see this distinction between consciousness and its properties/functions as being bogus. It may not make much sense to characterise consciousness other than by mentioning its various properties. Daniel Dennett, for example, also takes a parallel (see my 'On Definitions of “Consciousness”: Dennett and Others') position in that he argues that consciousness simply is the set of properties (e.g., functions, processes, behaviour, overt speech, etc.) which we call 'consciousness'.

In opposition to that view we have those philosophers who stress consciousness “as it is in itself”. They talk about “qualia”, “phenomenal properties”, “what it is like”, etc. However, can't these things also be seen as properties of consciousness rather than being consciousness itself? Again, perhaps this simply shows us that we're searching for a ghost (“in the machine”?) when we discount all these so-called properties of consciousness. That is, we may be treating consciousness as what philosophers once called a “substance” (or, perhaps, a Kantian noumenon).

In any case, there's a contemporary position on this debate that's worth mentioning here. This is the position called “phenomenal intentionality”. Here is a broad account of this position:

While many contemporary theories of intentionality attempt to account for intentionality in terms of causal relations, informational relations, functional roles, or other 'naturalistic' ingredients, PIT aims to account for it in terms of phenomenal consciousness, the felt, subjective, or 'what it’s like' (Nagel 1974) aspect of mental life.”

Even here I suspect that all we have is old philosophical ground which has been re-christened with a neologism (or Derrida's 'sign-substitution') – i.e., “phenomenal intentionality”. Nonetheless, that doesn't stop it from being old ground with a (slightly) new emphasis.

1 b : the quality or state of being aware especially of something within oneself.

The notion of intentionally is continued in this part of the Merriam-Webster definition.

In this case it's said that consciousness is “being aware especially of something within oneself”. This can be deemed to be internal intentionality in that this “something” is “within oneself”. In other words, there's no reference here to external objects/events/conditions/facts/etc.; or even to any mental “representations” of external things.

It can also be argued here that these are higher-order descriptions of mental states which incorporate both a notion of a self and what's called self-consciousness. In addition, a human subject can be conscious of an external object (or an internal thought/emotion) and also be aware that he or she is so.

In this case, self-consciousness needn't necessarily about a self as a “substance”. In David Hume's book, for example, the self is simply whatever occurs within a person's mind or what "runs through" his or her consciousness (i.e., as long as there's some kind of “awareness” of what runs through the consciousness).

It can be said that most animals don't have this higher-order capacity. Nonetheless, do human animals always need to be aware (however that word is cashed out) of their consciousness of an external objects and internal states? Or are these things higher-level additions to consciousness?

2: the state of being characterized by sensation, emotion, volition, and thought.”

This part of the Merriam-Webster definition appears - on the surface - to bring on board what philosophers call qualia. Or, at the least, it adds sensations and “how things feel” into the pot. In opposition to the intentionality mentioned above, there's no reference here to external objects, states or facts. Nonetheless, when a human subject is conscious of such things, then that may also include sensations, emotions, etc. However, such mental states or properties aren't themselves representations of – or about - objects, states or facts; and neither are they, strictly speaking, thoughts.

Thus when one is conscious of the flowers in a garden, one will also be aware of all the colours and smells of those flowers. The colours and smells are (as it were) over and above the flowers in the garden. And just as flowers have the properties of colour and smell, so one's consciousness of those flowers will made up of sensory properties (or qualia). However, various kinds of philosopher and scientist (from idealists to realists) may question that bifurcation between the properties of flowers and the properties of those consciousness states which are of (or about) the flowers. This has been called “the phenomenological fallacy”. (There is also a parallel - ontological - question about the bifurcation between properties and the objects which have properties.)

In addition, that consciousness of a flower garden may be accompanied by an emotion; which is also above and beyond the conscious representation itself.  Therefore what are called the “intentional objects” of consciousness (flowers in this case) are fused with emotions or feels; which can themselves be described as - or broken down into - qualia.

This total package-deal of consciousness is the subject of part 3 of this definition:

3: the totality of conscious states of an individual.”

Here it can said that even though conscious states (or a single conscious state) can be broken down phenomenologically, they can still be regarded as as wholes. In addition, perhaps it hardly makes sense to speak of a single mental state. This means that just as every part of a single mental state makes up a seamless whole; so each mental state is hardly distinguishable form both previous and forthcoming mental states. However, in terms of a philosophical (or phenomenological) analysis, it is indeed possible to break mental states down. This is done when a philosopher (as it were) circumscribes a single mental state and then describes – in words – what's often called (by philosophers) its “content”.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

On Definitions of 'Consciousness': Dennett and Others (2)

The first thing that many people may say about Daniel Dennett's definition/s of the word 'consciousness' (or what he takes consciousness to be) is that he doesn't define the word at all. He either tells us what it's not or talks about something else entirely: things like functions, brain processes, behavior, evolution, engineering, and the like.

However, Dennett (as a “scientistic” Rylean) has much support for his position in neuroscience and science generally.

For example, here's Alexander Luria (in Consciousness and Self-Regulation) also arguably and paradoxically ignoring what it is he's talking about. Thus:

Modern views... regard human conscious activity as consisting of a number of components. These include the reception and processing (recoding) of information, with the selection of its most important elements and retention of the experience thus gained in the memory...”

Of course if someone argues that Luria is ignoring consciousness in the above, isn't that to simply beg the question? The assumption here is that consciousness is something over and above the “reception and processing (recoding) of information”, etc. Who says so? There are philosophers and even psychologists who say so. Here's the American psychologist Ulric Neisser (in his Cognition and Reality):

The treatment of consciousness as a processing stage is unsatisfactory in a still more fundamental way. It does justice neither to the usages of the word 'consciousness' in ordinary discourse nor to the subtleties of experience.”

Despite that, the assumption (if that's what it is) that functions, processing, behaviour, etc. aren't examples of consciousness (or even consciousness itself) needs to be defended. Indeed we can indulge in some sceptical psychologising here and quote Dennett himself (as found in John Horgan's The End of Science). According to Dennett, “mysterians” really “don't want consciousness to fall to science”. What's more,

They like the idea that this is off-limits to science. Nothing else could explain why they welcome such slipshod arguments.”

And here's another definition of 'consciousness' – by the neuroscientists Robert Thatcher and Erwin Roy John (in their Foundations of Cognitive Processes) - which Dennett would approve of. (Or, at the least, he'd approve of the spirit of the definition, if not every letter.) Thus:

Consciousness is a process in which information about multiple individual modalities of sensation and perception is combined into a unified multidimensional representation of the state of the system and its environment, and integrated with information about memories and the needs of the organism, generating emotional reactions and programs of behavior to adjust the organism to its environment. The content of consciousness is the momentary constellation of these different types of information.”

Indeed the thesis that “multiple individual modalities of sensation and perception” which are “integrated” into a “momentary constellation” is very much in tandem with Dennett. Consciousness, to Dennett, is what happens when it “all comes together”. Yes, there's no “place where it all comes together”.

Bernard Baars (in his A cognitive theory of consciousness) also argues that

consciousness as a set of messages posted on a large blackboard for all cognitive subsystems to read”.

It's true that there are problems with these kinds of definition. For example, Alvin Goldman (in his paper 'Consciousness, Folk Psychology, and Cognitive Science') writes:

We can easily conceive of a (nonhuman) system in which informative representations are distributed to all subsystems yet those representations are totally devoid of phenomenal awareness.”

We can also say that this passage doesn't tell us about consciousness itself either. It does tell us that we could have a “system” which is functionally very like a human subject, yet which doesn't have consciousness. It is, in fact, a take on the question: Why is there consciousness at all? Thus, in our context, it's beside the point. Indeed we can say that Baars, Dennett, etc. are simply changing the subject. What's more, they may be evading the issue entirely. Goldman seems to agree with this position. Or, at the least, he puts this position when he says that his own

discussion strongly suggests that only the phenomenal notion of consciousness is the one intended in common usage”.

To get back to Dennett's ostensibly negative definitions of the word 'consciousness'. We can say that defenders of consciousness (or qualia) also often tell us what consciousness isn't, not what it is. For example, Thomas Nagel (in his well-known 'What Is It Like to Be a Bat?') writes:

It is not analyzable in terms of any explanatory system of functional states, or intentional states, since they could be ascribed to robots or automata that behaved like people though they experienced nothing.”

A Dennettian could of course reply:

Who says that consciousness “is not analyzable in terms of any explanatory system of functional states, or intentional states”? Indeed I can say that even if I also believe that it's indeed the case that “they could be ascribed to robots or automata that behaved like people though they experienced nothing”?

So is Nagel also begging the question here? Simply because robots or zombies can be described functionally (also intentionally?), that doesn't automatically mean that human consciousness can't be so described. For one, perhaps biological (or human) functionality (as with John Searle) is simply different to non-biological functionality. And even if it is the same, the fact that robots or zombies can also be described functionally doesn't automatically mean that consciousness isn't a matter of functions, processes, behaviour/action, systems and whatnot.

George Rey, along with Nagel, also tells us (in his paper 'A Question about Consciousness') what consciousness can't be. Thus:

... whatever consciousness turns out to be, it will need to be distinguished from the thought processes we ascribe on the basis of rational regularities.”

This seems to be an even more extreme position than the functionalist one just discussed in that thought itself (i.e., not only “the content of thought”) is rejected as being a possible component of consciousness.

Here again we have a negative take on consciousness when David M. Rosenthal (in his paper 'A Theory of Consciousness') tells us that “[w]e cannot explain consciousness in terms of what is not mental”. Then he trumps this by concluding that “explaining consciousness in terms of conscious states will be trivial and uninformative”! This sounds like another hint at Kantian noumena; or, perhaps, a hint at “intrinsic [phenomenal] properties” - the inexplicable, unanalysable and primitive!

Alvin Goldman recognises this problem of defining consciousness in terms of what it's not. He writes (in the paper already quoted) about three such positions:

Each [position] tries to explain the consciousness of a state in terms of some relation it bears to other events or states of the system: (1) its expressibility in verbal behaviour, (2) the transmission of its content to other states or locations in the system, or (3) a higher-order state which reflects the target state.”

(1) to (3) are opposed to

[o]ur ordinary understanding of awareness or consciousness seems to reside in features that conscious states have in themselves, not in relations they bear to other states”.

Indeed Goldman goes one step further (though he's stating Ned Block's position here) and says that

at least one sense of 'consciousness' refers to an intrinsic (rather than a relational) property, called phenomenal consciousness”.

Again, wouldn't Dennett say that consciousness is (at least partly) “expressibility in verbal behaviour”, “the transmission of its content to other states or locations in the system” and so on?

In addition, what does it mean to talk about the “features” which “conscious states have in themselves”? This makes such features sound (again) like noumena. And if they are noumena, then perhaps a Dennettian may say: No wonder we can't say much - or anything - about them! What is it for a a feature of a conscious state to be “intrinsic”, rather than “relational”? Can we so much as grasp that distinction or those terms?

To get back to Dennett himself.

Take his well-known and often-repeated claim that “there is no single central place (a Cartesian Theater) where conscious experience occurs”. Now, obviously, that's not a definition of consciousness. It doesn't tell us what consciousness is either. Instead it tells us where conscious experience doesn't occur. Thus isn't consciousness simply assumed in this part of Dennett's definition?

An addition to the “multiple drafts” explanation is more helpful. Dennett tells us that there are "various events of content-fixation occurring in various places at various times in the brain". This may mean that consciousness amounts to these “various events” whose “content-fixation occurring in various places at various times in the brain”. However, the question still remains:

What are these various events? Are they constitutive of consciousness?

If so, does that mean that these brain events are consciousness? Or do they simply underpin consciousness? If this is all about brain events, processes, functions, behaviour, etc., then many would argue that Dennett simply isn't talking about consciousness. He's talking about, well, brain events, functions... Nonetheless, A Dennettian may simply reply by saying that such people are – again! - simply begging the question against. That is:

Why are you simply assuming that brain-events, functions, processes, behaviour/action, etc. can't be – or aren't – constitutive (or examples) of consciousness?

Saturday, 21 October 2017

On Definitions of 'Consciousness': Introduction (1)

There have been countless definitions of the word 'consciousness'. Indeed there have also been hundreds of books on consciousness. It's a debate that's hot and trendy. However, it's also often pointless. The main reason for this is that people are nearly always talking about different things when they talk about consciousness. More relevantly, they define the word 'consciousness' in very different ways. Moreover, many who talk or write about consciousness never actually get around to defining the word 'consciousness' at all. True, they may have their own tacit or unexpressed pet definitions deep within their minds; though they never explicate or articulate such definitions precisely or in any detail.

As a result of all this, perhaps it would be wise to adopt a deflationary view of the word 'consciousness'. That's what the English philosopher Kathleen Wilkes did when she wrote that

"perhaps 'consciousness' is best seen as a sort of dummy-term like 'thing', useful for the flexibility that is assured by its lack of specific content".

We can agree with Wilkes and also see the word 'consciousness' as a bundle-term. It is so because it has so many meanings, definitions and connotations.

Though if the word 'consciousness' is indeed a dummy- or bundle-term, then surely spending any time on definitions may seem a little pointless. Then again, in the case of Wilkes' other example of the word 'thing',  if we can even define that word to some degree of approximation and detail, then surely we can do the same with 'consciousness'.

The psychologists James Ward and Alexander Bain (writing at the end of the 19th century and as quoted by Edward Titchener) took a strong line against the ostensible liberalism (or pluralism) of people like Kathleen Wilkes. Ward and Bain believed that it's precisely the fact that the word 'consciousness' is a dummy- or bundle-term that traps us in the mud. They wrote:

'Consciousness' is the vaguest, most protean, and most treacherous of psychological terms.”

With words like that, one can see how it didn't take long for behaviorism to take up its hegemonic position in psychology and philosophy in the 1920s and beyond.

In addition, judging by Professor Ward's use of the word 'protean', one can also conclude that not only did he believe the word 'consciousness' to be vague, he also believed that it could be made to mean what any writer, philosopher or layperson wanted it to mean. (Think here of the “spiritual” uses of the word 'consciousness'.)

Thus, as a result of all this, William James (writing at roughly the same time as Ward), didn't offer his readers a single definition of the word 'consciousness' in his well-known book Principles of Psychology.

Thus, in 1913, John B. Watson had this to say (in his paper 'Psychology as the Behaviorist Views it'):

The time seems to have come when psychology must discard all references to consciousness... This suggested elimination of states of consciousness as proper objects of investigation in themselves will remove the barrier from psychology which exists between it and the other sciences.”

Of course Watson wasn't that concerned with the definitions of the word 'consciousness'. Instead he had a problem with consciousness itself. That problem was its non-scientific status (or even its metaphysical reality). However, there's a connection here. Perhaps the definitions of the word 'consciousness' are both so multifarious and vague precisely because of the non-scientific (i.e., private) nature of consciousness. If consciousness were as intersubjective a phenomenon as a cat or a neuron, then we wouldn't have such many multifarious and vague definitions.

Now let's move forward to the late 20th century.

We can also say that the spirit (if not the letter) of behaviourism was revived by eliminative materialists.

On the one hand, behaviourists didn't necessarily claim that consciousness isn't a feature of the human mind; they simply believed it to be non-scientific. Some/all eliminitive materialists (or at least Patricia Churchland), on the other hand, believe that “consciousness [might] go the way of 'caloric fluid' or 'vital spirit'”. Thus some people may think that eliminitive materialists simply want to eliminate “propositional attitudes” and the “folk psychology” which has partly been built on them. However, they may want to eliminate consciousness (or at least references to 'consciousness') in the long run too.

This would also explain why definitions of 'consciousness' are so vague and multifarious. Indeed, if consciousness doesn't so much as exist (at least as it's seen by many people), then of course the definitions of it will be vague and multifarious!

What Consciousness Does/Seems

One major problem with definitions of consciousness is that many philosophers, scientists or laypersons often fixate on what may only be a single aspect (though sometimes aspects) of consciousness and then go on to more or less ignore – or even deny – the rest. This is one reason why we have a vast of amount of sexy, titillating and pseudo-scientific theories of consciousness. That is, the philosopher, scientist or layperson overplays his angle on consciousness seemingly without realising that it may simply be precisely that: a single aspect.

In extremely broad terms, this can be seen in the debate between those who say that “consciousness is what consciousness does” and those who say that “consciousness is how consciousness seems”.

For example, arguably it can be said that the philosopher David M. Rosenthal is concerned with how consciousness seems when he writes (in his paper 'A Theory of Consciousness') the following:

Intentional and sensory properties constitute the most likely candidate [for a definition of 'consciousness']; all mental states have one or the the other.”

Of course it can be seen that there's a small fusion here. After all, doesn't the intentional have an impact on what consciousness does? Indeed the same can even be said about “sensory properties”. Don't sensory properties (or even qualia) carry information? And if that's the case, then sensory information can result in a person doing x rather than y.

Jerry Fodor has also made this point (in a review of Colin McGinn's The Problem of Consciousness) when he wrote the following:

It used to be universally taken for granted that the problem about consciousness and the problem about intentionality are intrinsically linked: that thought is ipso facto conscious, and that consciousness is ipso facto consciousness of some or other intentional object... concentrating on intentionality and ignoring consciousness - has proved a remarkably successful research strategy so far.”

On the other hand, John Searle (in his The Rediscovery of the Mind) connects intentionality to consciousness. Thus:

"Only a being that could have conscious intentional states could have intentional states at all, and every unconscious intentional state is at least potentially conscious... [T]here's a conceptual connection between consciousness and intentionality that has the consequence that a complete theory of intentionality requires an account of consciousness.”

Rosenthal connects the dots too. He writes:

Of course many mental phenomena, such as perceptual states and emotions, have both kinds of property [the “sensory” and “intentional”]; but other mental states exhibit only one of the two.”

As for the former position (i.e., “consciousness is what consciousness does”), this will elicit causal, functional, computational, evolutionary, neuroscientific, etc. definitions of the word 'consciousness'.

It's quite easy for the defenders of the former position to pay little - or even no - attention to the latter... and vice versa. Thus, immediately, we have definitions of the word 'consciousness' which seem to be about different things. And perhaps that's because they are about different things!

We can say, instead, that definitions of consciousness should include both what consciousness does and how conscious seems. Except, of course, that we'll then be in danger of supplying definitions which are far too long or detailed. In addition, some believers in the idea that consciousness is what consciousness does reject the phenomenal (or, say, qualia) outright – or see it as having little importance (at least to science). Similarly, those people who stress experience, subjectivity, qualia, “what it is like”, etc. may underplay what consciousness does; though, in this case at least, they're highly unlikely to ignore (or reject) the functional, neuroscientific, etc. aspects of consciousness.

*) To follow: 'On  Definitions of 'Consciousness': Examples (2)'.

Monday, 2 October 2017

The Problem with String Theory & Panpsychism: the Aesthetics of Theory-Choice (3)

Much is made (by both laypersons and scientists) of the fact that many mathematicians and physicists stress the “beauty” and “elegance” of their theories. Philosophical panpsychists do the same. Indeed the aesthetic values of both string theory and panpsychism may even be their major appeal.

So perhaps there's an over-indulgence in (or over-reliance on) aesthetics in both panpsychism and string theory.

String Theory

Lee Smolin (in his book, The Trouble With Physics) quotes string theorists talking about the beauty of the theory (or theories) in the following:

... 'How can you not see the beauty of the theory? How could a theory do all this and not be true?' say the string theorists.”

Smolin is at his most explicit when he also tells us that “string theorists are passionate about is that the theory is beautiful, or 'elegant'”. However, he says that

[t]his is something of an aesthetic judgment that people may disagree about, so I'm not sure how it should be evaluated”.

More importantly, Smolin concludes:

In any case, [aesthetics] has no role in an objective assessment of the accomplishments of the theory.... lots of beautiful theories have turned out to have nothing to do with nature.”

Perhaps Smolin is going too far here. Surely it's the case that aesthetics has some role to play when it comes to theory-choice. And who's to say that whether a theory is elegant or not – at least in some sense - isn't itself an “objective” issue? Whether something is simpler than another theory is surely an objective fact. It's whether or not such simplicity can also be tied to elegance and beauty that's the issue here. (See later section.)

Despite that, Smolin does quote a string theorist (ironically enough), Leonard Susskind, arguing that simplicity and elegance aren't everything. (In this instance, Susskind talks about “anthropic theory”; though this is tied in with string theory – at least for Susskind.) Smolin quotes Susskind thus:

“… '… in an anthropic theory simplicity and elegance are not considerations. The only criteria for choosing a vacuum is utility...'.”

So with some – or all - theories, “utility” may – at some point - override “simplicity and elegance”. Isn't that also true of string theory? It can't be, surely. As yet, it can't be said that string theory has any utility, either in terms of technology or in terms of predictions and experiments. (Perhaps the anthropic theory may run somewhat free of string theory, at least according to Leonard Susskind.)


In terms of panpsychism, the philosopher Philip Goff stresses “scientific values” when he talks about panpsychism. (He says that “panpsychism is a scientific research programme in its own right”.) He also tells us that panpsychism is “parsimonious” and “extremely elegant”. In his piece, 'The Case For Panpsychism', he writes:

Panpsychism offers the hope of an extremely elegant and unified picture of the world. In contrast to substance dualism (the view that the universe consists of two kinds of substance, matter and mind), panpsychism does not involve minds popping into existence as certain forms of complex life emerge, or else a soul descending from an immaterial realm at the moment of conception.”

It's usually theories in physics and mathematics – not philosophy – which are seen to be “elegant”, “unified” and “parsimonious”. Perhaps that doesn't really matter. Perhaps philosophy too should adhere to these aesthetic values. Nonetheless, panpsychist philosophers are doing something that's very different to that which physicists and mathematicians do. There may indeed be similarities here and there; though, on the whole, surely the dissimilarities are more striking.

The Final Unification

Both string theory and panpsychism offer us so much. Primarily, they offer us unification. And these package deals also offer us their unifications in ways which are very neat and (as it's often put) “elegant”.

In any case, after so many failures in physics and the philosophy of mind, surely it's time to come up with a solution (or a theory) which offers us unification. Both panpsychism and string theory offer us such a solution.

String Theory

So what does string theory offer us? According to Lee Smolin:

[String theory] purports to correctly describe the big and the small – both gravity and the elementary particles...... it proposes that all the elementary particles arise from the vibrations of a single entity - a string – that obeys simple and beautiful laws. It claims to be the one theory that unifies all the particles and all the forces in nature.”

As evolutionary psychologists and cognitive scientists have told us, human beings have an innate need for both simplicity and explanation – sometimes (or even oftentimes) at the expense of truth. Thus, in the case of string theory, we may have a juxtaposition of the psychological need for simplicity and explanation along with highly-complicated and arcane mathematics.

Perhaps that highly-complicated maths is but a means to secure us simplicity and explanation. That is, the work done towards simplicity and explanation is very complex and difficult; though the result – a theory which is both simple and highly explanatory – evidently isn't. After all, in terms of the omnipresent Theory of Everything, for example, the science journalist and author, Dan Falk, suggests that

the ideas at the heart of the theory may turn out to be extremely simple – so simple, in fact, that the essence of the theory can be written on a T-shirt”.

(This wouldn't be that unlike the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy theory that the "answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything" is the number 42.)

Lee Smolin also tackles the issue of the aesthetics of physics within the specific context of scientific unification. And, of course, string theory is a great unifier. Smolin writes:

There are good lessons here for would-be unifiers. One is that mathematical beauty can be misleading.”

What's more, he concludes by saying that “simple observations made from the data are often more important”.

It's fairly hard to make sense of the word “misleading” here except to say that the statement “beauty is truth” may not be a truth itself. Or at least it may not always be applicable to every mathematical or physical theory.

The other point Smolin stresses is that maths should never run free of reality. Or, in this case, from “observations made from the data”. Of course theories (or at least hypotheses or speculations) often come before observations and data. However, they must still – at least at some point - be justified or legitimised by observation and data: or by reality.


In terms of panpsychism, it too is a unifying philosophical theory. For a start, it's generally regarded as a kind of monism. That is, it unites the seemingly physical with the seemingly non-physical. That means that it can hardly fail to be unifying. (The philosopher Philip Goff also says that “the nature of macroscopic things is continuous with the nature of microscopic things”.) More technically, if all entities (even the elements of fields and forces), are (to use Goff's term) “little subjects” (or little minds), then that must mean that there's no huge jump from these entities to human consciousness (or human minds). It's minds all the way down. What can be simpler than that? What can be more unified than that?

Philip Goff writes:

Panpsychism offers the hope of an extremely elegant and unified picture of the world. In contrast to substance dualism (the view that the universe consists of two kinds of substance, matter and mind), panpsychism does not involve minds popping into existence as certain forms of complex life emerge, or else a soul descending from an immaterial realm at the moment of conception.”

And as Goff puts it elsewhere:

Yet scientific support for a theory comes not merely from the fact that it explains the evidence, but from the fact that it is the best explanation of the evidence, where a theory is ‘better’ to the extent that it is more simple, elegant and parsimonious than its rivals.”

Not accepting this position - according to Goff - “adds complexity, discontinuity and mystery”. This makes panpsychist monism seem very need and tidy. Or, as Goff often puts it, it makes panpsychist monism “elegant” and “parsimonious”. But does neatness, elegance and parsimony make this theory true? No really. Aesthetic criteria may contribute to our reasons for accepting it, though such things surely don't – in and of themselves - make a theory true, accurate or valid.

Yet anything can explain anything else if the links are suitably tangential. It's whether or not we should believe (or accept) that explanation that matters. Many religions, after all, explain many – sometimes all - things. It's true that Philip Goff may say that these positions don't hold much philosophical or scientific water; yet exactly the same is said about panpsychism. Indeed panpsychism (according to Goff) is classed as “crazy”.

So frustration about the nature of consciousness, the mind-body-problem, etc. shouldn't entirely motivate us to accept the elegant and parsimonious theory of panpsychism. There has to be more to it than aesthetics.

This is partly why Raymond Tallis (in his piece 'Against Panpsychism') correctly smells the “ontology of the gaps” (which is a variant of the “God of the gaps”) when it comes to panpsychism.

The panpsychist idea is that no theory has satisfactorily explained consciousness. Thus:

i) No theory has explained consciousness.
ii) Panpsychism explains consciousness.
Iii) Therefore we should accept panpsychism. (Or, at the least, do research on its behalf.)

The same is true of string theory. Thus:

i) No theory has satisfactorily offered us a grand unification of physics and cosmology.
ii) String theory does.
iii) Therefore we should accept string theory. (Or, at the least, do research on its behalf.)

Thus, after so many failures, surely it's time to come up with a solution. Are string theory and panpsychism such solutions?

Beautiful Theories and Reality

There's one strong aspect of this debate the needs to be stated here: the connection between theory and reality. Put simply, a "beautiful theory" (however it's defined) may have no connection at all to reality.

Smolin offers a powerful example of the disjunction of a beautiful theory and reality: the aether theory. Smolin asks:

Could there have been a more beautiful unification than the aether theory? Not only were light, electricity, and magnetism unified, their unification was unified with matter.”

Then Smolin also offers us an earlier example of such a disjunction. Thus:

There are many examples of theories based on beautiful mathematics that never had any successes and were never believed, Kepler's first theory of the planetary orbits being the signal example.”

Aesthetically, one may ask a very simple question here:

Why is unification beautiful in and of itself?

That will depend on both what one takes beauty to be. You can of course stipulate a link between an x which unifies and x thereby being beautiful. However, what is the aesthetics of such a link?

Is it that unification is also simplification? Thus perhaps we can tie unification to simplicity. After all,

If x is unified both within itself and to other things, then x is also simple.

That simply moves the problem on:

What is the aesthetics of the link between simplicity and beauty?

Thus according to the definitions commented upon above, the panpsychist theory must also be beautiful. That means, again, that we've a tight link between unification and simplicity; and both unification and simplicity tie together to make theory x beautiful.

*) See my 'The Scientific Problem with Panpsychism & String Theory (With Lee Smolin) (1)' and 'The Scientific Problem with String Theory (With Lee Smolin): Maths and Reality (2)'. To follow: 'Predictions and Experiments'.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Daniel Dennett's Elimination of Qualia

[Others] note that my 'avoidance of the standard philosophical terminology for discussing such matters' often creates problems for me; philosophers have a hard time figuring out what I am saying and what I am denying. My refusal to play ball with my colleagues is deliberate, of course, since I view the standard philosophical terminology as worse than useless—a major obstacle to progress since it consists of so many errors.” - Daniel Dennett (in 'The Message is: There is No Medium', 1993).

I'm going to start with an ad hominem and say that the real reason why Daniel Dennett is against qualia (or believes that the word qualia is “a philosopher's invention”) is because they're unscientific; not because he thinks that they don't exist (or aren't real).

Qualia are indeed unscientific. In fact many believers in qualia will happily admit that. They may also say: Qualia are indeed unscientific... and...?

It can be seen that Dennett's scientific attitude (as only partly exemplified by his position on qualia) was there from the very beginning of his professional career.

Dennett was taught by Gilbert Ryle and the former adopted the latter's position in defining first-person experiences in third-person (or behaviourist) terms.

What are Qualia?

Take Dennett's oft-quoted list of what he believes other people take qualia to be:

(1) ineffable
(2) intrinsic
(3) private
(4) directly or immediately apprehensible in consciousness.

What a terribly unscientific list we have there! Indeed, even if we were talking about something else (say, numbers), that list would still make that something else problematic from a scientific perspective.

The list above reminds me of David Hume's problem (as quoted by Kant in his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics) with monotheistic definitions of the word God which only include “ontological predicates” (such as “eternity, omnipresence, omnipotence”); none of which are in concreto (i.e., about God-as-a-substance). And qualia too, just like God, are given no “conditions of identity” (to use Quine's phrase): only conditions of attribution (as it were).

Let's give the members of Dennett's list of qualia attributes a quick scientific telling off.

(1) Ineffable. Nothing should be/is ineffable in science. At least not ineffable in principle (as the believers in qualia supposedly believe). If x is ineffable – especially ineffable in principle – then, almost by definition, it's unscientific.

(2) Intrinsic. The word 'intrinsic' isn't often explained or defined; at least not in relation to qualia. But the thought is that if qualia have intrinsic features, then they must also be scientifically irreducible. That is, there are qualities which are intrinsic to qualia and to nothing else. Thus even if there were an attempted reduction of qualia or of a single quale (which some philosophers believe is possible), it would still leave out what makes a “subjective experience what it is” (as Thomas Nagel put it).

(3) Private. The whole of the behaviourist movement (in philosophy and science) had a problem with privacy (as did Wittgenstein). In order to make both psychology and the philosophy of mind scientific, they had to get rid of everything that is private – at least when it came to the mind.

(4) Directly or immediately apprehensible in consciousness. This commits more than one sin. Until that last couple of decades, conciousness was verboten in science and even with many philosophers. And we also have the very Cartesian sounding “immediately apprehensible”. Why would scientists care about that which is immediately apprehensible? Indeed many scinetists wouldn't even accept it as a meaningful notion.


Dennett often lets Wittgenstein put his scientific position for him; which is strange really because Wittgenstein isn't usually cited to back-up what are often called “scientistic” positions.

Wittgenstein mentioned his box; which is taken to be the mind. Dennett puts qualia in Wittgenstein's box; instead of Wittgenstein's very own little beetle. (Wittgenstein doesn't mention qualia.) Dennett quotes Wittgenstein when the latter writes:

The thing in the box has no place in the language-games at all; not even as a something; for the box might even be empty. - No, one can 'divide through' by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.”

This can be said to be part of Wittgenstein's behaviourist phase; though, no doubt, many of his acolytes would deny that.

The “language-game” Dennett has in mind is science. However, for Wittgenstein's own argument, it didn't need to be science he had in mind. (In fact he didn't have science in mind.) His argument or position works regardless because it's really an argument against the possibility of a “private language”.

From a scientific position, the mind can indeed be seen as a black box –hence behaviourism and the reluctance to deal with consciousness.

When it comes to qualia the situation is worse because even though beliefs, desires, etc. can be connected to behaviour, the case of qualia isn't quite so clear-cut. After all, qualia may have no behavioural outputs; or, on some accounts, no “functional properties”. To some philosophers qualia may indeed have a functional role. However, the route from qualia to behaviour is so hazy or circuitous that, yes, qualia may as well be erased from the picture entirely. That would be the scientific thing to do.

Wittgenstein's problem with the possible beetle in the box was as strong as Dennett's problem with qualia. Dennett quotes Wittgenstein again saying that the beetle in the box (or qualia) is “something about which nothing can be said”. Dennett's concludes that the word qualia is a “philosopher's term which fosters nothing but confusion, and refers in the end to no properties or features at all”.

Dennett's Red Balls

Dennett displays his scientific credentials in a rather conventional manner when he deals with colour.

He believes that colour is a scientific property after all. This scientific story, of course, has nothing to do with qualia or “inner experiences”. Basically, Dennett deems colour to be a “relational property”. In his paper, 'Quining Qualia', he writes:

All but the last of these [redness] are clearly relational or extrinsic properties of the ball. Its redness, however, is an intrinsic property. Except that this is not so. Ever since Boyle and Locke we have known better. Redness – public redness – is a quintessentially relational property.”

Dennett seems to be making a pretty obvious mistake here. He's conflating the effects of a quale (or of a “colour experience”) with the quale itself. Indeed Dennett explicitly says that he's only concerned with “public redness”, not private redness.

What makes the redness of the ball public is its “relational or extrinsic” properties. Thus, in consequence, private redness must be a private property and, therefore, unscientific.

Indeed Dennett is so keen on the public properties of a ball (as opposed to the private ones) that he even champions non-material (or relational) properties.

For example, one relational property cited by Dennett is the ball's “belonging to Tom”. Now that's not a very scientific property.... surely?. Dennett's ball also has the relational property of being “made from rubber from India”. (It's the “from India” clause that's relational here; not the “being made of rubber”.) In fact Dennett goes one step further and includes the bizarre (though accurate) relational property of “having spent the last week in the closet”. (So why didn't Dennett also include the relational property of not being a banana or being thrown 187 times?)

Above and beyond that: red balls aren't a fit subject for science in any case. Red balls aren't natural kinds. Cricket balls aren't natural kinds. Indeed generic balls aren't even natural kinds. Sure, not being natural kinds doesn't automatically make them unscientific; though it does stop them from being, well, scientific.

What is Bitterness?

In the same paragraph as the colour example, Dennett also gives us a scientific account of what he wants from - what used to be called - “secondary properties”. This time he deals with taste instead of colour.

What is it for for an x to be bitter? According to Dennett, it's “to produce a certain effect in the members of the class of normal observers”. Bitterness, then, is also a relational property.

It's not quite clear what “certain effect” Dennett is referring to here. Whatever it is, it must be objective (or intersubjective). Presumably it's objective because it will be behaviourally expressed by “the class of normal observers”.

Do we learn anything about bitterness by such uniform behavioural responses – even if they're examples of uniform “overt behaviour” (such a vocalised statements)? No; we learn about how persons react to bitterness. Uniform reactions to bitterness aren't themselves bitterness. (They are, well, uniform reactions to bitterness.) This is almost equivalent to saying that the throwing a ball is the same as the smashing of a window. That is, the throwing of a ball resulted in the smashing of a window; just as the tasting of something bitter leads to a “certain effect in the members of the class of normal observers”. Basically, Dennett is fusing (or conflating) cause and effect.

In addition to that, it's possible that a seemingly bitter piece of food can have a uniform “certain effect” even if it tastes differently to each person tested. Or, alternatively, something that tastes the same can have different certain effects in the class of normal observers.

These standard philosophical possibilities will of course be rejected by Dennett because they're unscientific. He would probably tell us that we have no way of knowing if these possibilities are actualities. And if that's the case, then such possibilities are merely idle from a scientific – if not a philosophical – point of view. Again, qualia differences don't make a difference. Behavioural differences do make a difference.

Alvin I. Goldman expresses Dennett's scientific position on these possibilities when he says that Dennett's

claim is that there is no way to distinguish between these competing stories either 'from the inside' (by the observer himself) or 'from the outside', and he appears to conclude that there are no genuine facts concerning the putative phenomena experience [or differences] at all”.

This reiterates Dennett's Wittgensteinian point that there are no facts about the private. And, of course, this is something that has been repeatedly debated in Frank Jackson's What Mary Knew scenario.

Considering Dennett's scientific leanings, it's perhaps not a surprise that he believes that Mary “knew everything about colour”. Dennett believes this because Mary's complete understanding of neuroscience, physics, etc. couldn't fail to supply her with complete knowledge. (Including experiential knowledge?) However, Dennett is wise enough to realise that the full knowledge so often posited for Mary would almost be miraculous in real terms. In fact Mary would need to be (virtually?) omniscient to have it. Thus, by definition, of course Mary would know what red looks like if she were omniscient.

Despite all that, here again one can accept that qualia have no factual status (just as they have no scientific status) at the very same time as accepting that they exist or are real.

It's here, I suppose, that Dennett could ask me the following question:

If qualia have neither scientific nor factual status, then exactly what kind of status do they have?

Well, at a prima facie level, I don't have an immediate answer to that.

Peacocke's Pseudo-analysis of Experience?

Intersubjectivity (or, as it is sometimes called, objectivity) has always been primary in science. And, lo and behold, Dennett says that “no intersubjective comparison of qualia is possible, even with perfect technology”.

That's true; and there are a handful of philosophical arguments which demonstrate that. And since it's taken that qualia don't exist (or may as well not exist) as far as science is concerned, then by definition no intersubjective comparison of qualia is possible and neither would one be accepted.

Thus Dennett would automatically rule out Christopher Peacocke's analysis of an experience. Peacocke writes:

Our perceptual experience is always of a more determinate character than our observational concepts which we might use in characterising it.”

Surely this wouldn't as much as make sense to Dennett. It's an analysis of something that's entirely private and indemonstrable.

Perhaps Dennett would now ask:

How do we know it's “more determinate”? How do we know it goes beyond our “observational concepts”?

According to Dennett's logic, could an individual even offer an analysis of one of his own experiences? Some would say: Why not? Though surely Dennett would say: No he couldn't. Or, at the very least, Dennett may say:

Analyse away if you wish. However, it serves no scientific - or any other - purpose.

In that, perhaps he's (partly) right.

Indeed even Christopher Peacocke himself says that “the nonrepresentational properties of another's experience would be unknowable”. And surely we can now offer the Wittgensteinian and Dennettian point that they would also be unknowable to the subject analysing (?) his own experience. In fact isn't it the case that the former leads to the latter? That is, because they are unknowable to third persons then, in effect, they must also be unknowable to the subject undergoing the experience. That is the obvious conclusion to this (late) Wittgensteinian logic.


Considering Dennett's 'scientism' as regards qualia, you'd think that if scientists accept qualia (at least as described by philosophers), then he'd accept them too. After all, philosophical naturalists believe that what science (not individual scientists!) says goes, goes.

Erwin Schrödinger (1887–1961), for example, once wrote the following:

The sensation of colour cannot be accounted for by the physicist's objective picture of light-waves. Could the physiologist account for it, if he had fuller knowledge than he has of the processes in the retina and the nervous processes set up by them in the optical nerve bundles and in the brain? I do not think so.”

Schrödinger mustn't have believed that even a scientifically omniscient Mary would know what red looks like. Of course it would be moronic to now conclude:

If Erwin Schrödinger believed that qualia exist, then qualia must exist.

Indeed it can even be argued that what Schrödinger says above isn't really a commitment to qualia in the way some philosophers of mind (as well as laypersons) are committed to qualia.

And of course not all scientists accept qualia. Indeed I suspect that the majority of scientists haven't even given the subject of qualia serious thought.