David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: diderot (page 3 of 3)

Jerry Fodor on Galen Strawson on Consciousness

Seven points me to Jerry Fodor’s assessment of Strawson’s plainly named Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?. Some very hasty thoughts on the following:

There are three philosophical principles to which Strawson’s allegiance is unshakeable. The first is that the existence of consciousness (specifically, of conscious experience) is undeniable; that we are conscious is precisely what we know best. (To be sure, we can’t prove that we are conscious; but that is hardly surprising since there is no more secure premise from which such a proof could proceed.) Strawson’s second principle is a kind of monism: everything that there is is the same sort of stuff as such familiar things as tables, chairs and the bodies of animals. This, however, leaves a lot of options open since Strawson thinks that nothing much is known about that kind of stuff ‘as it is in itself’; at best science tells us only about its relational properties. What is foreclosed by Strawson’s monism is primarily the sort of ‘substance dualism’ that is frequently (but, he thinks, wrongly) attributed to Descartes.

The third of Strawson’s leading theses is a good deal more tendentious than the first two; namely, that emergence isn’t possible. ‘For any feature Y of anything that is correctly considered to be emergent from X, there must be something about X and X alone in virtue of which Y emerges, and which is sufficient for Y.’ But Strawson holds that there isn’t anything about matter in virtue of which conscious experience could arise from it; or that if there is, we have literally no idea what it could be. In particular, we can’t imagine any way of arranging small bits of unconscious stuff that would result in the consciousness of the larger bits of stuff of which they are the constituents. It’s not like liquids (Strawson’s favourite example of bona fide emergence) where we can see, more or less, how constituent molecules that aren’t liquid might be assembled to make larger things that are. How on earth, Strawson wonders, could anything of that sort explain the emergence of consciousness from matter? If it does, that’s a miracle; and Strawson doesn’t hold with those.

The emergence problem, as well as most the suggested answers, is not a new one, and I’ve found any of its proposed solutions to be exceedingly thorny. The French materialists of the 1800s ran in circles around this issue: some went full-force into vitalism (i.e., the assignment of some mysterious “life principle” to all matter) and declared any and all matter to be capable of judgment, while others tried to negotiate compromises of assigning some sort of proto-consciousness to matter. Diderot’s solution was one of the more sophisticated, but also someone question-begging: he called all matter to be “passively” conscious, made “active” through some kind of transformation. Is this emergence or not? The problem does not appear to admit half-measures; either the raw stuff of consciousness is there, or it’s not.

This separates the problem of consciousness from the lame “half an eye” attack on evolution, which is easily answerable by saying that half-eyes existed and were evolutionarily adaptive. It’s precisely the seeming holistic nature of consciousness that makes it maddeningly intractable. But I think this is the premise that needs to be attacked, because it makes the problem seem more unsolvable than it is.

Consider the problem another way. When I’m under anesthesia, it appears (to the best of my recollection) that “my” consciousness disappears. Maybe my body or parts of it are still “conscious” in a way, but whatever constitutes consciousness in this state is wildly different from what constitutes it when I am awake, in sheer virtue of it seeming not to be “mine.” There’s always the hypothetical possibility, of course, that my memory was turned off during that time and yet I still endured all that screaming pain consciously. (The very real experience of some people who are paralyzed but not rendered unconscious and insensate by anesthesia has always struck terror in my heart.) But it seems reasonable to say that I was truly not conscious during that time.

Two points follow. The first is to say that Strawson’s definition of consciousness must apply to me while I am under the knife and anesthetized (or, for that matter, when I am dead). This destigmatizes the word “consciousness” from what we associate as human experience. The second is to ask whether consciousness is necessarily experiential. Consciousness obviously is a prerequisite for experience, but without the brain and nervous system, we have to ask what’s left of consciousness: either a destigmatized notion of “experience,” or no experience at all. In this sense, Strawson’s argument is a complement to David Chalmers’s panpsychism, which famously maintained that thermostats can be conscious because they function analogously to connectionist networks. Strawson’s argument is wholly different, but the crux of the dilemma is the same.

All I can say is that having removed the domesticated notions of “experience” and “consciousness,” the anti-emergence claim should no longer seem horribly nonintuitive. Unfortunately, though, I think the converse applies as well: there no longer seems to be an intuitive argument for the anti-emergence claim. And thus the problem transforms itself into the functionalist vs. Searlian arguments of years ago–is consciousness everywhere, or just in some sorts of matter?–but in a form I happen to consider more compelling and universal, since it no longer argues from cognitive capacities and knowledge, but from raw experience.

[There remains the problem of “mineness,” which I’ll try to get to at some later date.]

Denis Diderot: Rameau’s Nephew

(This etext of Rameau’s Nephew seems to be an adequate translation, and it’s a short piece.)

I’ve sat on this one for a bit because it is such a strange book, and I fear that a lack of context for it could easily lead a reader down the path of a wrong interpretation. Still, what is on the page is a fairly simple story; it’s the implications that are left ambiguous. The “I” who is the narrator encounters “He,” Rameau’s nephew, in the street, and has something of a one-sided conversation with him. “He” is something of a societal con-man, a poor man who has mastered polite conversation to climb his way to various functions and subsidence. Yet he is filled with contempt for those around him; his loves for art, opera, and his dead wife alienate him from the society he inhabits. He is often cynical, yet reveals the highest ideals at several points, and cries at his inability to bring them to life despite obvious intelligence and skill. “I” stands by and issues ultra-idealistic, naive remarks questioning “He,” taking a condescending Panglossian standpoint towards “He”‘s lack of ethics and integrity.

Hegel loved Rameau’s Nephew and declared “He” to be an advancement in consciousness, transcending “I”‘s conventional and unimaginative “honest self” construct. Lionel Trilling drew on Hegel’s interpretation in Sincerity and Authenticity to present a model of human evolution in which we conceived of an “inner self” strictly separate from our external behavior, one we could or could not be “sincere” to. “He”, Trilling says, is one of the earliest examples of the inauethentic self on full display; i.e., the man who forever measures the distance between his thoughts and the actions which he performs in society. Trilling states:

The moral judgement which the dialogue makes upon man in society is not finally rejected but coexists with its contradition, and upon its validity and weight depends the force of the idea that the moral categories may be transcended. And it is the Nephew himself who invokes the moral categories at the same time that he negates them–the moral judgement is grounded upon the cogency of Rameau’s observation of social behaviour and the shamelessness with which he exhibits his own shame.

To paraphrase, Trilling suggests that “He” has taken the first step towards Nietzsche’s analysis of ethics, not by condemning morality but by saying that it is not an authentic performance, so that morality is something that must be done with conscious intent, and may not reflect what a person has in their heart. (It is this position that Alasdair MacIntyre would later identify as the keystone weakness of Enlightenment ethics in his brilliant After Virtue.)

It is the “I” that first interests me. While “He” is hardly coherent in his beliefs, alternating between a Nietzschean destruction of Enlightenment values and a more arbitrary Schopenhauer-esque personal bitterness at the world, “I” does a fairly lousy job of refuting him. “I” is, if anything, less likable and certainly less interesting, and in no way could be said to represent Diderot’s own values. Even at the very end, when “He” declares that he’d rather beg favor than work for a bourgeois life, “I” spits on him, calling him amoral and lazy, all the while displaying the attitude of the well-off fat cat who’s just come from a salon. (The introduction by “I” is particularly obnoxious when read in this light.)

While “He” rants and trumpets himself, “I” offers token opposition, but what is “I”‘s reaction to “He”‘s charge of hypocrisy in the upper classes, attacking the shallow salons and social habits of the perfumed set, accusing them of not knowing good music from bad, and not recognizing life from death? “I” begins to acknowledge the hypocrisy of his own people, but only in parenthetical comments, not in his actual dialogue:

In all this there was much that we all think and on which we all act, but which we leave unsaid. That, indeed, was the most obvious difference between this man and most of those we meet. He owned up to the vices he had and which others have–he was no hypocrite. He was no more abominable than they, and no less. He was simply more open, more consistent, and sometimes more profound in his depravity.

Interesting that “I” excludes himself from this charge. Interesting that shortly after this observation, he once more attacks “He” for lacking exactly this consistency. “He” declares his praise for the cynic Diogenes, who abandoned corrupt society to live in squalor in pursuit of truth. “He” confesses that he likes the benefits of haute couture too much to leave them behind, and “I” viciously attacks him as a cowardly wastrel (with which “He” cheerfully agrees). This inconsistency is too great to be unintentional. “I” is more of a target than “He”: “I” admits “He”‘s points, but only to himself, and does not condemn himself for working within society. But for “He” to take advantage of the corrupt system is a betrayal. “I”‘s interest lies in protecting the notion of fair play within the system that “He” has damned. After all, it’s in “I”‘s best interests.

Diderot’s attack, I think, is the first critique of Enlightenment reformism, the notion that a system can yield intellectual integrity and incremental improvements even as its people are terrible hypocrites. Moreover, it shows one of the system’s brightest exponents (“I”) able to hear and understand criticism of the system while still condemning the messenger. “I” privately admits the strength of “He”‘s critique to himself, yet ends by publicly thrashing “He,” claiming “He” has no credibility. Yet of course, the critic’s credibility was ruined by openly criticizing the system in the first place. By straying from acceptable (hypocritical) speech, “He” loses authority in the very system his unacceptable speech attacks. “I”‘s argument is a more sophisticated variant of “Play by the rules. If you don’t like it, go to Russia.” One look at the Washington press corps today, and the similarities are painful.

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