Monday, April 23, 2007

Some Comments from Blue Devil Knight, and a question

Blue Devil Knight wrote these very interesting comments in the combox a couple of days ago, to which I wish to pose a question:

To clarify one point in response to Jason, I never insinuated that we or other animals are not conscious (see my point 4). I have always said this was a crazy view. I think we are not unconscious bee people, but that doesn't mean our apian friends can't have internal states that refer, are true or false, trade in inferences, or communicate the contents of these states to other bees.
What I said (and it isn't a dogma, but something I can back up) is that arrogance about the ontology of consciousness is unfounded.

There are lots of intuitions that fly around. Some of the more popular ones:
1. No matter what the neuropsychological sciences reveal in the future, they will never address my concerns about qualia.
2. Zombies are possible.
3. Consciousness is merely a biological process like digestion or respiration. To disagree is to be no better than a vitalist.
I am up to date on the relevant science, and I can confidently say that everyone is just ignorant, and not in the same way that the young-earth creationists are ignorant. We are all ignorant: there is no science out there that, once learned, will clear things up, that will convince all but the most ideologically trapped person. We are like the presocratic philosophers grasping for a theory of physics. Some of us may be right, but nobody knows it and nobody has sound arguments. The confident folk produce mere predictions about a 'future brain science', predictions based on intuitions.
The people who think their predictions are obviously true are free to act as such, see where it leads them. And maybe one of them will end up, in 500 years, looking as prescient as Democritus. Or maybe someone will come up with a good argument that we should swallow their intuition pie.
I do think we are basically a complicated arrangement of molecules, but would no more be tempted to destroy a person than to wantonly destroy a Michelangelo, another "mere" bunch of molecules. Clearly the theist will need some help in thinking about the moral implications here if they would need convincing not to become a homocidal maniac in a solely natural world. But that takes us way past the relevant into the ludicrous.

VR: If we are at this early of a stage scientifically in understanding cognition (which means that there are a lot of overconfident philosophers and scientists out there on all sides of the issue), why commit yourself to ontological materialism, as opposed to an ontological agnosticism with respect to the mind. Of course you want to be a methodological mateialist or naturalist, no argument there. Given the fact that there are a lot of anti-materialist arguments out there, and let's say all of them rest in one way or another on intuitions of some kind which, as you say, we have to wait for future science to determine of they are legitimate or not, then why not say we have to study the mind scientifically and wait to see what develops?



At 4/24/2007 11:48:00 AM , Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

This is an interesting question.

When I weigh all the evidence it seems most reasonable that we live in a purely natural world (I discussed some of the reasons I am an atheist here and I still basically agree with what I said).

From my own ignorance about the ontology of consciousness, I conclude only that I am ignorant, not that my other reasons for being a naturalist are wrong. I draw no ontological conclusions from my ignorance, just as I draw no ontological conclusions from my ignorance of how proteins fold in cells.

If it turns out that consciousness is not natural, then I will probably become some kind of dual property theorist of a Chalmersian variety.

At 4/25/2007 05:57:00 PM , Blogger Victor Reppert said...

Though the question of atheism and the question of naturalism are, logically speaking, distinct. Thomas Nagel and the absolute idealists aren't theists, they just aren't naturalists either.

At 4/26/2007 07:52:00 AM , Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Yes, good point. There are lots of atheist non-naturalists (many of them are dualists about mind, or non-naturalists because of mathematical truths (platonists), or Heideggarians (who the heck knows where they fall, but they sure tend to be antinaturalist)).

Then there's the postmodernists.

Also, in the present-day sense of the term, even the logical positivists weren't naturalists. The claim to be a naturalist is "literally meaningless." When pronounced Britishly, LIT-rilly, it becomes quite intimidating to say something "literally meaningless."

Naturalism is the latest fad in the positivism-quine lineage. I expect there to be backlash (and there already is to some degree with Chalmers, Rosenberg, Kim, and others). It will be interesting to see what the next big fad will be, whether it will be anti-naturalistic or another cycle within the naturalistic regime. Or for you nonnaturalists, perhaps another epicycle.

At 5/02/2007 05:08:00 PM , Blogger Jason Pratt said...

Sorry for the delay; lots of busy-ness elsewhere.

BDK (and hereafter): {{To clarify one point in response to Jason, I never insinuated that we or other animals are not conscious (see my point 4). I have always said this was a crazy view. I think we are not unconscious bee people, but that doesn't mean our apian friends can't have internal states that refer, are true or false, trade in inferences, or communicate the contents of these states to other bees.}}

Yes, I know that you don’t insinuate that we are not conscious. Actually, my comment (found in Victor's previous post on the topic, from which he quoted BDK's reply to me) only makes tactical sense if I know very well that you _aren’t_ trying to claim that. {s} If it comes to that, the Furbee from Furman never really tries to claim or even insinuate that _he_ is unconscious either. It’s just a corollary that incidentally follows from his attempts at trying to get out from under the metaphysical implications of conscious action in distinction from mere automatic reaction.

That being said: actually, you _did_ rather more than insinuate that animals other than us are not conscious. Your whole attempt at making reference to bees hinges on accepting them as being examples of unconscious animals. As you again make reference to in the quote above, as well as later throughout your replies. _We_ are _not_ unconscious bee people; but that doesn’t mean our (unconscious) apian friends...

...what? Can do things that are sorta kinda like inferences but not? That wasn’t how you had put it before; you had them doing a range of inferential activity. And your description of them here starts eliding over into conscious behavior pretty quickly. “Internal states that refer” or “are true or false”, are conscious evaluation references. _WE_ (the not-unconscious bee people) can evaluate and recognize the truth or falsity involved. The unconscious bee people can’t. Our rational evaluation of their behavior, is not their rationality--not in the sense at stake here. Whatever ‘knowledge’ they have is only ‘knowledge’ to _us_. (If in fact they are unconscious. They might be conscious to some degree instead. But that wouldn’t be of any help to your attempted point, as an example.) To say _they_ have knowledge, is to instantly import conscious existence as a tacit rider to that ‘they’.

Once again, the point is this: you’ve described the unconscious bee people doing things that conscious agents do. Except that the bees are, explicitly per example, _not_ conscious. This doesn’t look accidental to me. It looks like something that has to be done, in order to get conscious behavior from-and-only-from (ostensibly) unconscious behavior. But once you do that, my question is still left wide open: why should I treat you as being a conscious entity instead of an unconscious bee person?

(I did note before that there are socially convenient reasons for me not removing you with some ruthlessness from being an annoyance to me; so in that regard clearly the theist would not need convincing not to become a homocidal maniac in a soley natural world. Just as clearly, though, this is _only_ a matter of my own personal convenience--something most atheists, just like most of everyone else, recognize as _not_ being morality in other regards. Especially when the inconvenience has something to do with them. {s})

What you’re calling “arrogance about the ontology of consciousness”, is (as I said earlier) just the kind of “arrogance” you yourself have to enjoin in regard to yourself, for any of us to take you seriously as a person. Which ought to be a clue that what we’re talking about here isn’t really arrogance, though it may perhaps be intuition. Am I complaining, using a term like “arrogance”, that you expect us to take you and your reasoning seriously, and relate to you as a person? No!

But _that_ “arrogance” is what is at stake here. It’s _that_ “arrogance” which is our ground for saying that (to borrow my earlier analogous example) the Nazis _shouldn’t_ have shot the Jews in the head or gassed them or cremated their children alive, the way that my cousin could do to her Furbee if she wanted to.

I certainly applaud that you would be no more tempted to destroy a person than to wantonly destroy a Michelangelo--by which I suppose you mean a work of art created by a skilled person who cared intensely and intentionally about what he was doing, and hoped other people would intentionally care as well (not just be reactively impelled by it, though perhaps that too).

That reluctance is very theistic of you. {g} Perhaps you should have chosen a different subject for your example, like a beautiful naturally weathered rock outcropping. We may dispute whether an intentional artist made a rock or made humankind, but no one disputes an intentional artist named Michelangelo created works of art by Michelangelo.

But, what ground do you have for distinguishing between one and another complicated arrangement of molecules? Subjective taste preference? Social convenience? One man’s painting is another man’s target; and bombs make no distinction about the value of art during an invasion of Italy (or of France, for that matter.) And whatever else the Nazis were, they were not (for the most part) homicidal maniacs in any accurate sense of the term ‘maniac’. They were exceedingly lucid and rational about what they were doing.

Moreover, I may admire a painting by Michelangelo; much as I may admire the ingenuity that some designer put into a Furbee--or admire the taste of a cabbage shredded into cole slaw. But I don’t debate metaphysics with any of them; and if the cabbage was conscious it might have some complaints about my quite honest and sincere expression of admiration for it! {g} Your leveling of a man with an unsentient work of art, is not to your topical advantage (and matters certainly wouldn’t improve if you move the comparison to a beautifully eroded rock instead. Or a beautifully tasty Socratic cabbage. {g})

{{From my own ignorance about the ontology of consciousness, I conclude only that I am ignorant, not that my other reasons for being a naturalist are wrong.}}

I have no particular problem with that in itself. Though I think it should also be noted that the question of the ontology of consciousness is not primarily (or maybe even at all) a scientific topic; so, as it happens, we _can_ have more than just an intuition (I think it would be called a rational avoidance of category error) that neuroscience per se is _not_ ever going to be able to address _that_ concern about qualia. Call that arrogance if you like; I call it trying to be logically precise. {s}

For whatever it may be worth, though, I think you are not at all ignorant about the metaphysical (if not precisely ontological) status of consciousness in several key regards; especially insofar as they involve you yourself. Which recognition in regard to yourself, I of course support. (And then go on to draw some conclusions from that recognition. Ontological conclusions.)

You may be ignorant about what implications logically follow from what we _can_ discern concerning logical distinctions between (for instance) consciousness and unconsciousness. But then, those sorts of implication are what AfR proponents are routinely discussing, and I’m fairly sure you aren’t altogether ignorant about _that_ either. {g} Otherwise you’d be surprised to learn that Victor’s DangIdea2 site is about discussing what these implications can (or cannot) logically imply about the truth of atheism and/or naturalism or various alternatives to them. (Hopefully without topical conflation there. {s}) And I would be surprised to hear that you would be surprised to hear _that_.

Have a good week (since I probably won’t be able to check in again for another week at least),


At 5/10/2007 02:02:00 PM , Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Jason said:
“Internal states that refer” or “are true or false”, are conscious evaluation references

Not in the framework I described. The whole point of the original posts about the bees is that we can ignore the question of consciousness but make progress on reference, truth/falsity, etc. My (preliminary) naturalistic analysis of these terms did not advert to my consciousness or their consciousness, but the not-necessarily-conscious information processing operations found in garden-variety nervous systems. That extended set of comments is here.

Just like the thermometer in a thermostat, whose function is to indicate (refer to) the temperature in the world, can malfunction (get it wrong), so an animal's internal sensory representation ("designed" by natural selection) has the function of indicating (referring to) the state of various features of the world, and can get it wrong. To get more complicated, truly cognitive or semantic systems that have intensional contexts, we would need to add memory and other features (as I discuss too much in the post referred to above).

You might say that this isn't how you use the term 'refer', or that you mean something else by 'truth/falsity' than the ability to be incorrect about some state of the world. That is fine. But a good deal of progress has been made by focusing more narrowly on the representational properties of biological systems I adumbrated, even while sidestepping the question of consciousness.

As for my views on moral justification in a naturalistic worldview, I don't have as developed a view, but I have described it some here in an acrimonious argument with JD (I regret the tone of some of my posts, but subtract that and I still largely agree with what I said). Ultimately, I can't be a realist about moral claims (i.e., no ahistorical, abiological, apsychological, acultural truth would be violated by destroying a beautiful work of art, but that doesn't mean that destroying beautiful works of art is justified!).

Moral argument and justification must ultimately make appeal to claims that are rooted in our (psychoculturally conditioned and biologically influenced) sense of right and wrong, which means we don't have a fixed set of moral truths, but is more Aristotelian, with morality an evolving suite of practical knowledge which interacts with factual knowledge and reason in our attempt to paint the best world that our minds can imagine, to enable human flourishing the way a gardener tends his orchids.

Also, I recently became convinced that theists don't have any more resources than naturalists for justifying foundational moral claims. That happened due to the discussion and debate I had here, where ultimately it comes down to there being no difference between naturalists and theists in their ability to "ground" moral knowledge in ultimate truths. Basically, you have two forms of the Euthyphro dillemma (the straightforward one from divine command theory, and an analagous one for divine nature theory, which are both discussed at that post).

I will probably avoid arguments about morality, though, to keep the focus on the original topic of natural representational systems and the success of the divide/conquer strategy. Ultimately, I think it gets down to you saying when I analyze biological representational systems, I am not analyzing what you are really interested in. Fine. I am interested in how animals work, and what neural processes might be true/false, refer, or make inferences in some kind of anemic sense that doesn't get at the special senses which you seem to be using.

At 5/10/2007 02:23:00 PM , Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Just a few paragraphs from the debunkingchristianity post:

All in all, I think as in epistemology, so in morality: there are no foundations. We operate in midship and struggle along trying to make sense of the world and paint it a better place, where the moral hues are painted by our brain, not by God.


Just like we can apply concepts of flourishing and health to plants and ecosystems, so we can do the same for individual humans and cultures. A child confined to a dark room for the first six years of life would not flourish the way a child loved by two parents would flourish. You could then ask me to justify the claim that human life should flourish, or justify the claim that maximizing human flourishing is a good thing. Ultimately, I think the universe doesn't care if humans suffer or flourish, any more than it cares if flowers flourish. However, there are objective differences between flourishing and nonflourishing flowers, and the same goes for people.


Starting with the minimalist liberal moral kernel, that flourishing life is better than nonflourishing life, gets us a lot of mileage. It has produced the best governments in history.

At 5/10/2007 02:44:00 PM , Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Ooh ooh, one more quote:

At any rate, being human, having a brain that hues the world morally, doesn't bother me metaphysically any more than being a human that paints the world with colors. While there are problems with this view if you are attached to moral realism, it doesn't preclude the discovery of beauty, morality, and wonder any more than the perception of shades of red.

Whoever said that is just right on.


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