Today in Some Materialist Options

I can’t do the reading today, because (as I mentioned), I actually don’t have a real copy of the textbook for this course, so I’m trying to puzzle out what is meant by “materialist options” in the lecture notes.

A major question of course in philosophy is, “is there a soul?” and another way to ask that is, “is the mind something different from the brain?” and so forth. In a lot of ways, “mind,” “soul,” and “consciousness,” are interchangeable words, not necessarily because we ascribe the same denotative meaning to them, but because they sort of functionally fit into similar logical propositions the same way — I might not believe in a divinely-ordained, transcendent spirit, so I might say that I have Mind instead of Soul, but if my notion of Mind still fits in with this Homonculus Paradox, then we might as well say that by Mind I mean Soul for these practical purposes.

And so the notes here are about different ways of understanding certain things that seem to be transcendent (what that Jackson fellow might have called “qualia”, but what we might as easily just say are “non-obvious properties”) to the body or to experience, and how they might fight into a materialist framework. Here’s an example of the Behaviorism theory:

I actually don’t 100% get how to establish a context for this one. Like, wanting coffee is a disposition to behave in certain ways…as opposed to what? What’s the alternate theory here? If we compare this to Jackson’s notion of qualia, he isn’t arguing that “wanting coffee” is not a function of the brain, just that knowing that it’s a function of brain is insufficient to knowing the experience of wanting coffee.

So, we might say that “wanting coffee” is a hidden, invisible, inner component if we were being materialists — we’d say something with neurology-sounding words, for instance, like, “the brain is made of neural networks that respond in contextually-appropriate ways, so we can’t see the behavior of the ‘desire-for-coffee’ network pattern until the ‘do-you-want-coffee’ stimulus occurs.” But this is a question of granularity — there’s nothing about your appearance that suggests wanting coffee because that’s not where wanting coffee happens (i.e., on the face, though obviously that’s absurd, you can 100% look at a person’s face and tell they want coffee, but for the sake of this argument let’s pretend); it happens in the brain, and I can’t see brains.

But even if I could see brains, I still might not be able to see that you wanted coffee, because “wanting coffee” is a behavior of the brain, not a quality. In the same way I could look at a person and not see a tango, or even the potential for a tango, unless the music was playing and they were dancing. (This brings up the distinguishability criteria: is a person who has the potential to tango functionally distinct from a person who doesn’t? Well, I don’t know, maybe — I suppose we could hypothesize a set of characteristics that other expert tangoists are keen on, in the same way we might say that the fact that I can’t look into your brain and see the potential for wanting coffee is not an issue of distinguishability but of resolution [here’s “sensitivity”, right? I don’t have a specific sensitivity to the truth of your brain functions].)

What does this prove, though? A behaviorist still has to explain the mechanism of behavior — wanting coffee is a disposition of the machine-body, but why is it that disposition and not some other? And how does knowing how the mechanism operates comport with knowing what it’s like to want coffee?

Here’s a second part, about the Identity Theory:

This is a bad argument, because “heat” actually describes two different kinds of things — one is a subjective state (how hot does this feel?) and one is a quantitative, corroborative state (what temperature is it?). Of course they’re contingent on each other, but they’re hardly identical; we can agree that 80 degrees Farenheit is a relatively high mean molecular energy for the atmosphere in May, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is going to walk around saying, “how about this heat, huh?” Now, I’m not suggesting that the gap between you thinking 80 degrees is pleasantly cool and my thinking it’s uncomfortably hot isn’t caused by physical processes, but I think it’s a mistake to try to argue the necessity of physical processes without first acknowledging that gap.

Okay, here’s a third part:

I guess this is fine. “There’s no need to assume that the desire comes from the Soul in order to explain why I want coffee,” that sounds true, though I think it starts to get a little stickier when we try to explain things more significant to humanity than whether or not we want coffee. But this also relies on a definition of “mental properties” that are transcendent of the physical processes of the brain, and I don’t think that’s necessarily what qualia are, at least not in Jackson’s estimation — they’re just physical processes that aren’t transmittable easily (or maybe fundamentally). The functions of coffee-desire and coffee-pursuit, while they explain the operation of the individual who wants coffee, are themselves insufficient to defining the experience of actually wanting coffee.

(Hm. I’m adding more things to my “what does it mean to know stuff?” idea. So far I’ve got distinguishability, corroboration, degree of utility, the CEFGW threshold, and now maybe it’s worth adding a “corroborative degree?” Is this issue with qualia not that that they can’t be transmitted or shared, but that the bandwidth for transmission is just not high enough to include all the details? We might imagine, if we go back to Frank who could see that extra color, that no amount of data about Frank would serve to know what it’s like to see that color, but could we also imagine some kind of neurosurgeon cutting his brain open and patching his visual cortex into my head? Would that be like knowing what he could experience?)

Anyway, check out these “problems” associated with the Identity Theory:

Oh yeah, “C-fiber firing.” Of course, don’t…don’t forget about that.

There’s another part here about Functionalism, which if I’ve got it right suggests that the things we think of as “desire” or “wants” or what have you are just very complex brain behaviors, and if we could see them broken down into tables or something they’d be less impressive I guess. I don’t know, I’m not sure what’s controversial about this idea, but I also don’t think it contradicts the qualia theory. But anyway, here’s an advantage that the notes describe comes along with Functionalism:

So maybe I’ve misunderstood Functionalism after all, because this doesn’t seem to me to imply autonomy, but the opposite of autonomy — the interior mechanisms that function in particular ways that resemble what we call “desires” are consequences of experience and genetics and instinct, aren’t they? If the physical world were very different — if coffee were always made with strychnine, for instance — wouldn’t I need many sorts of functions that are highly dissimilar from the ones I have now in order to live? And if I’m not anything other than the functions of my brain, then surely I would be very different if the physical world were.

Here’s the last part, on Eliminativism:

Sure, okay.

I mean, of course that could be true, anything could be true, and my saying, “well, I don’t know, it doesn’t seem like it could be true,” isn’t any different from some 18th century fellow in the Royal Society saying, “how on earth could there be light without a luminferous ether?” On the one hand.

But on the other hand, I remember reading this story, I think it was in Cosmopolitanism, about this fellow who’s in a village where the people have very little education and access to scientific knowledge, trying to explain why they should boil their water. And saying, “well, it kills all the germs” is meaningless to them, they don’t know what germs are, but saying, “okay, well, you let the bad spirits out when it starts bubbling,” that was convincing and they started to boil their water after that.

The purpose of this is not to say, “haha, look how backward the people in the village are,” but rather to say, “who gives a fuck about your germ theory?” In a certain respect, germ theory in this case is actually less useful than evil spirits theory, because while germ theory might be true (or, we should say, more true, or maybe less inaccurate, no scientific theory is perfectly true), if it’s not keeping people healthy it’s not very good, is it?

We can say that this is less true in questions of medical health, but what happens when we start talking about more abstract questions like belief? No one’s going to get cholera if they believe the wrong thing, are they? (Hahaha, well, if they don’t believe in germs they might; maybe abstract in a different way — things like moral belief, for instance, or a belief in God.) And if that’s true, then isn’t my ability to talk about, share, and otherwise communicate belief an essential quality of beliefs? To say then that the notion of “belief” will be replaced by neuropsychology is, it seems to me, tantamount to saying that the notion of “belief” is only the model that explains it, and not the way it exists in the culture, and I’m not sure I agree with that.

(Maybe it’s more simple to say that Eliminativism suggests that consciousness is wholly interior to the head, and that understanding it just requires better modelling of just what’s going on in there, and while that’s half true — the better we can model it, the more we’ll understand it — I’m not sure it’s right to describe consciousness as wholly interior, which means a neurological model may end up being incomplete.)