Special Topics In Crazy Metaphysics
January 20, 2012

Forgive the long blockquote, but I think this puzzle from philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel (who blogs at The Splintered mind) earns it:

In Anglophone philosophy since the 1960s, the dominant approach to the mind has been materialism: the view that human beings are naturally evolved beings, wholly made out of material stuff like elementary particles, with no immaterial soul of any sort. On materialistic views of consciousness, the reason that we have a stream of conscious experience is that we have brains that represent the world, can guide us in goal-directed action, and that are massively informationally connected in complex self-regulating loops. It is that fact about the complexity of our organizational structure that is responsible for our having a stream of conscious experience so that there’s “something it’s like”, phenomenologically, to be us, or to be a mouse, while there’s nothing it’s like (we ordinarily think) to be a toy robot.

But the United States appears to have all those same features! The citizens of the United States are massively informationally connected, in complex self-regulating loops – not in the same way neurons are connected, but just as richly. The United States engages in environmentally responsive coordinated action, for example in invading Iraq or in taxing imports. The United States represents and self-represents, for example via the census and in declaring positions in foreign policy. As far as I can tell, all the kinds of things that materialists tend to regard as special about brains in virtue of which brains give rise to consciousness are also possessed by the United States.

The United States is a large, spatially distributed entity. But why should that matter? Isn’t it just morphological prejudice to insist that consciousness be confined to spatially compact entities? The United States is composed of people who are themselves individually conscious. But why should that matter? We can imagine, it seems, conscious aliens whose cognition is implemented not by neurons but by intricate networks of interacting internal insects confined within their bodies, where each insect has a minor animal-like consciousness while the organism as a whole has human-like consciousness and intelligence. (Maybe such aliens are much-evolved descendants of bee colonies.) In the vast universe, it seems likely that intelligent environmental responsiveness, and consciousness, could emerge in myriad weird ways. It seems chauvinistic provincialism to insist that our way of being conscious is the only possible way. So why not regard group organisms as possibly conscious? And if so, why not the very group organisms in which we already participate, given that they seem to meet standard materialist criteria for consciousness?

This notion strikes me as being somewhat similar to Heidegger’s notion of Dasein — though I could be wrong about that, since I still have only the fuzziest notion of what Dasein is supposed to be. (Nor, if the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Martin Heidegger is to be believed, can real philosophers agree on a single account. Which should surprise no one.) Still, the fact that the Dasein label has been applied to both individual human beings and entire nations suggests a certain level of conceptual overlap.

There is a key difference, though: Dasein is a category of being within phenomenology, the field of philosophy which examines structures of experience while bracketing the question of whether the objects of those experiences are real. In other words, a phenomenologist might say that we sometimes have the experience of being part of a larger conscious body called a nation, though that conscious body may or may not exist outside of our experiences. Schwitzgebel, on the other hand, is not bracketing: he is suggesting that, in a very real sense, the United States is conscious.

With that in mind, some questions:

1.) Am I horribly misreading Heidegger? Wouldn’t be the first time.

2.) For the materialists who follow this blog (and who I occasionally successfully bait into replying to posts like this): Is Schwitzgebel’s theory correct? Why or why not?

3.) How big or small can a composite conscious entity be? What’s the criteria for determining when one exists and one does not? For example, can a family be collectively consciousness? What about all of humanity?

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Thinking About Nothing
June 5, 2011

Over at Talking Philosophy Mike LaBossiere wonders if is possible to think nothing. His conclusion:

First, as Hume noted, the mind always seems to have something going on-some perception or another. Hence, a man is never really thinking about nothing-there is always something in the blender. Second, it could be argued that unlike a blender, a mind cannot engage in its function without some content. Thinking might be more like cutting-while one can make a motion with scissors, they are not cutting unless they have something to cut.

In the case of doing nothing, a man could be doing nothing in the sense that a blender could be blending nothing. Of course, the obvious reply is that while the blender is blending nothing, it is not actually doing nothing. After all, by doing it is doing something. Even thinking about nothing would be doing something, namely thinking about nothing. As such, as long as a man is doing, then he would be doing something-at the very least he is doing. What he is doing, of course, might not amount to much-hence we could be forgiven if we exaggerate and say we are doing nothing.

Earlier on he sort of waves away Heidegger and Sartre, but this seems to me one area where continental philosophy has a lot to offer. (Warning: If there’s a way to talk about this stuff without sounding like sort of a pretentious ass, I haven’t found it yet. Excuse the dorm room philosophizing.) If I’m remembering my Sartre correctly, he argued that the self (“essence”) was, at its core, this endless void containing only a self-annhilating, ever-changing miasma. We are nothing but we can’t think nothing, so we’re willfully imprisoned by our own cognition until the day we die.

It’s not the sunniest view of the mind, and contemporary neuroscience would seem to undermine Sartre’s strident dualism*, but I think there’s a kernel of psychological acuity here. Counscious thought may be only a sheer gauze stretched over our vast animal subconscious, but it’s still the only part of my own mind I can directly experience. And unless I’m sleeping, it never really stops chattering away and gumming up the works of my subconscious processes. There are obviously tremendous advantages to conscious thought, but it’s also the source of a sadness which I suspect is unique to persons. We have a lot of ways of trying to run away from it, or at least temporarily dampen its effects, but we can never be rid of it — a conscious mind can’t even understand what it means to be unconscious.

As far as how one deals with that, I think David Foster Wallace has got the right idea. Recently I went back and reread his commencement speech to Kenyon University. If you haven’t checked it out yet, you should.

*Sartre took this so far he wound up arguing, ludicrously, that physical processes play no role in sexual desire.

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So Long and Thanks For All the Fish
June 3, 2010

Dolphin 1
Image via Wikipedia

I mentioned awhile ago that there was a debate going on in certain circles over whether or not dolphins are “non-human persons.” Of course, in order to debate whether or not members of a particular species are persons, you have to nail down what, exactly, personhood is. Sure enough, philosopher Thomas White has penned an article in which he establishes eight criteria for what meets a person and goes on to argue that the typical dolphin meets all of them.

Although philosophers debate the appropriate criteria for personhood, there is a rough consensus that a person is a being with a particular kind of sophisticated consciousness or inner world. Persons are aware of the world they belong to, and they are aware of their experiences. In particular, persons have self-awareness. And the presence of such a sophisticated consciousness is evident in the actions of such beings.

If we translate this general idea into a more specific list of criteria, we arrive at something like the idea that a person (1) is alive, (2) is aware, (3) feels positive and negative sensations, (4) has emotions, (5) has a sense of self, (6) controls its own behaviour, and (7) recognises other persons and treats them appropriately. A person also (8) has a variety of sophisticated cognitive abilities. It is capable of analytical, conceptual thought. A person can learn, retain and recall information. It can solve complex problems with analytical thought. And a person can communicate in a way that suggests thought.

 

Which I suppose is all well and good, though I’m still somewhat inclined to condense it all down to existentialist/Heideggarian “being-for-itself” concept. But what do you guys think?

 

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Flesh and The Look (Or: What is Love? Jean-Paul, Don’t Hurt Me.)
May 28, 2010

Description unavailable
Image by diametrik via Flickr

Yes, that’s right: I will continue to shamelessly reuse the joke in the title until I’m done trying to answer the question.

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre lays out a significantly darker conception of love than Aristophanes. For him, persons are forever torn between the “facticity” of their existence (that is, the factual presence and character of objects and phenomena in the material world) and the infinite freedom and nothingness of consciousness. Because this freedom is profoundly disturbing to us, we run away from it and impose limitations on ourselves, most notably by identifying ourselves with “the look” of others—the look being our own perception of their perception of us.

We can also direct the look towards others, and this is potentially an act of violence because it imposes definition on them and constrains their freedom. It draws them away from their consciousness into “flesh,” the medium by which they experience pure facticity.

So for Sartre, love and sex are just another way of acting out this struggle. Love is a way of diminishing the anguish of our internal struggle by identifying ourselves with the look of another who ostensibly “loves” us, while also directing our own look at that person in an attempt to enslave her and assert dominance.

In sex, one does this by causing such intense pleasure that it draws the other unbearably close to the flesh. And in both sex and love in general, the impulse one feels at any given moment is either inherently sadistic or inherently masochistic; one either wishes to dominate the other or be dominated.

I suspect there’s an inkling of truth in Sartre’s argument for the nothingness of consciousness, but the rest of this argument leaves me cold. For one thing, it admits no room for human empathy; everything is a power struggle. And even if you buy into such a relentlessly dark view of human nature, you have to deal with Sartre’s assertion that sex is purely about this power struggle—that there isn’t even a biological motivation. (No, really. He says that.)

Fortunately, Beauvoir is around to save the existentialist notion of love from Sartre.

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