Monday, 2 August 2010

Consciouness as emergent in a Newtonian sense

Landscape (C) Tom Tomos 2010
Here's an hypothesis which treats brain states as analagous to Newtonian motion:
(1) Brain states are distinct at any given moment in time
(2) Brain states are different at times t1, t2 ... t n
(3) In virtue of (1) brain states at any time t could be said to be in ‘position’ p
(4) In virtue of (2) and (3) brain states can be said to be in 'positions' p1 at t1, p2 at t2 ... pn at tn.
(5) Substituting these terms into Newton’s standard laws of motion we can obtain equations for ‘velocity’ of brain states and even ‘acceleration’
(6) The equations can be obtained, one from another by standard processes of integration (and differentiation)
(7) Here’s the speculative bit; perhaps consciousness is what ‘drops out’ of the process of integration. Perhaps it is just what the constant of integration is.  Another view of the equations would say that the first integration yields consciousness and a second integration yields self-awareness and perception of phenomenal aspects of the world.
(8) I have no idea what the SI units would be!
(9) It seems to me to be a not implausible idea, after all we are aware of our thought processes sometimes ‘speeding up’ and ‘slowing down’
(10)  The absolute value of the constant of integration depends on the initial conditions.  Perhaps there is a threshold in terms of brain complexity (numbers of neurons*) and the levels at which consciousness and then self-consciousness (including awareness of phenomenal aspects of the world) emerge.
(11)  This approach has the advantage of being empirically testable in this world.
(12)  There would be implications in this model for 'machine' consciousness and for the consciousness of large 'virtual' machines such as the web.
* See New Scientist 31 July 2010 p.38 'It's not what you've got...' for more on neuron numbers.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Teleological doubts

Karen Neander's summary exposition of Teleological Theories of Mental Content at the Stanford site is a very good introduction to what is, after all, a complex topic.

Regarding teleological explanations generally, I find that, especially when we get to the 'belief' level of explanation (Millikan, Dretske, Price et. al.) that the explanations (which are usually of behaviour) are invariably post hoc; and hindsight is a wonderful thing! Now there's nothing wrong with behavioural analyses per se, but I do not think that they get us close to a real sense of telos. At risk of a poor mixed metaphor, they tell us why the cart follows the horse and nothing about why the horse is going that way in the first place. These 'behaviourist' explanations seem always to be 'back-propagating' in ascribing 'causes' to observed 'effects'. I would be happier with a theory which could accurately predict 'effects' from 'causes', which seems to be a more scientific approach (rather than a social scientific approach).

Apropos this point, Neander puts forward a scenario described by Paul Pietroski (1992), which I’ll quote.

In the beginning, the kimu are simple-minded, color-blind creatures. Then Jack is born with an internal mechanism that produces a certain brain state, B, in response to certain wavelengths of light. Jack enjoys the resulting sensation as do those of his descendants who inherit the mutation and the mechanism. As Pietroski wants to describe the case, B has the content, red. Jack's descendants see red and are attracted to it, which leads them to climb to the top of the nearest hill every morning to see the rising sun. As luck has it, they consequently avoid the dawn-marauding predators, the snorf, who hunt in the valley below, and as a result (and solely as a result of this) there is selection for the mutation. The point of the story is that Millikan's theory does not allow the story to be told this way. On her theory, Jack's descendants do not represent red, and so cannot see red or desire to see it. For it wasn't the mapping between B and red, but between B and snorf-free-space that was most crucial for the fitness of Jack and his descendants. Thus, on Millikan's theory, Bs mean snorf-free-space (or fewer snorfs this way, or something of this sort) and there is no representation of red by the kimu.1

On this point Neander ascribes a certain position to Carolyn Price (2001), which seems to raise problems for the Millikanian approach.

Carolyn Price (2001), who offers a detailed teleological theory that closely follows Millikan's in some respects, also defends Millikan's interpretation of the kimu's representation. She claims that this interpretation does a better job of explaining their behavior by making it seem rational. In doing so, she endorses the idea that the point of making content ascriptions is to rationalize behavior. The thought is that a desire to avoid snorf is a better reason for climbing to the top of the hill than a desire to watch the sun rise is. A number of responses are possible. One is to contend that a desire to watch a sun rise is a good enough reason for climbing to the top of a hill. One might also argue that, while her interpretation explains why the kimu climb to the top of the hill, it provides a peculiar explanation of why the kimu crowd into snorf-infested spaces when the snorf are near red: i.e., on this interpretation, the kimu reliably mistake snorf-infested spaces that are near red for snorf-free spaces. Which interpretation best rationalizes the behavior can therefore be disputed. A different response is to question whether it is the role of content ascriptions to rationalize behavior. 2

The question is, do teleological theories of meaning content offer a sufficiently rigorous explicatory framework?

1. Neander, K. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

2. Ibid.


Pietroski, P., 1992, "Intentional and Teleological Error", in Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 73: 267-81.

Price, C., 2001, Functions in Mind: A Theory of Intentional Content, Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Image: ‘The Wood for the Tress’ © Tom Tomos 2010

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Not the όλ story

My starting point is the assertion that words in everyday languages have indeterminate meanings, with meaning dependent on the lexical ‘bubble’ in which each individual utterer and hearer lives. I live in a predominantly English ‘bubble’ with smatterings of American, Welsh, French, German, Latin, Greek... and perhaps ending up with little Elvish and less Orc. None of ‘my’ words mean precisely the same as any of ‘your’ words. And that is exactly what you would expect if you were a subscriber to the holistic philosophy implied by the first-order logic expounded by W V Quine and others. But if you do so subscribe, most of what I’ve so far written would be nonsense, or unintelligible at any rate. For Quine’s first-order logic will only allow for the existence of material things – those which we label with nouns. In order to describe the properties of things he should have to allow second-order logic. Then we could accommodate descriptive words such as Welsh and Elvish. But Quine does not admit of second-order logic in his scheme of things. Now, the indeterminacy of meaning and the fact that the meaning of no individual symbol can be identified until the meaning of the system as a whole has been identified may be true of arbitrary ‘natural’ languages within the propositions of a logical system. But that is not the way in which normal language (as a means of communicating) works. As Peter Winch says, ‘ is speakers of a language who attempt to say what is true, to describe how things are. They do so in the language they speak; and this language attempts no such thing, either successfully or unsuccessfully. [...] [Languages] do not attempt to describe anything at all. If we do want to speak of a ‘relation between language and reality’, this is not a relation between a set of descriptions and what is described...’ (Winch, P., (1987) p.196 Trying to Make Sense, Blackwell, Oxford, UK.) It is just this final point which causes H P Grice’s claim that there is a triangular relationship between reality, language and a speaker to collapse.

A better approach to meaning is to learn the lessons of second-generation cognitive science and to approach meaning on the basis of (1) the embodiment of concepts and of mind in general, (2) the cognitive unconscious, (3) metaphorical thought and (4) the dependence of philosophy on the empirical study of mind and language. In short, the principles espoused by Lakoff and Johnson in Philosophy in the Flesh, if you know what I mean!

Image: Indeterminate Landscape © Tom Tomos 2010

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Slippery Meaning

What do things mean? Humpty Dumpty said that things meant just whatever he said they did, no more, no less. If I utter a phrase, is my intention relevant to the meaning of the words or do they have independent meaning as they swim around in our common lexical pool? Is there a common pool? Wittgenstein talked of, ‘The familiar face of a word, the feeling that it has assimilated its meaning into itself, that it is a likeness of its meaning’ [Philosophy of Psychology – A Fragment xi §294 (1953 / 2009) Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, UK].

Anyone familiar with the first (Anscombe and Rhees) translations of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations will know that seltsam and merkwürdig are translated as queer, whereas the latest revision to Anscombe's text by Hacker and Schulte give odd, strange, and curious for the former and remarkable, strange, curious or extraordinary for the latter, depending on context. Now I know that Grice talks about intentional meaning within a 'linguistic community', but that notwithstanding, I should have thought that it ought to be possible to translate from one tongue to another without significant loss (or change) of meaning - otherwise where does meaning lie at all?

A case in point is the novel by the Dane, Peter Høeg, which I read (in English) some years ago - and which I found unsatisfactory in many ways. I suspect because it was literature in translation. The original title is Frøken Smillas Fornemmelse for Sne. The UK version was rendered as Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow but in America as Smilla's Sense of Snow. Why should translation be at the cost of nuance?

Eric Baum, building on the ‘mind-as-metaphor’ hypothesis of Lakoff and Johnson in What is Thought? [2004, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA] describes how we use spatial orientation in our metaphorical descriptions of the ‘world’. For example, ‘up’ and ‘down’ regarding our moods. ‘I’m sinking into depression’. We use a conduit metaphor, for example, ‘the meaning is in the words’. But even simple prepositions are slippery. Lakoff and Johnson claim that they have near universal meaning when applied to these spatial metaphors, but do they? I have a small (and essential!) book for Welsh learners called Pa Arddodiad? [Which Preposition?] And it is essential because a straight translation of an English prepositional use (according to dictionary definition) does not always (or even often) lead to the correct prepositional use in Welsh. An example; ‘at the door’ is, in Welsh ‘wrth y drws’, but the preposition ‘wrth’ means, variously, ‘by’, ‘with’ or ‘to’, but not ‘at’. So, there is a slightly fuzzy concept of ‘someone being proximate to the door’ which has slightly different nuances from language to language. It leads one to question whether ‘languages’ are even natural kinds at all, or whether they are as slippery as the biological concept of ‘species’.

Image: Wittgenstein © Tom Tomos 2010

Thursday, 11 March 2010


I have been involved in a debate elsewhere concerning the identity of particulars, specifically in relation to propositions which P F Strawson (pictured) describes as ‘feature placing’ sentences. The contention was that such sentences, e.g., ‘It is warm here’ do not have an object. In his book Individuals Strawson gives other examples, ‘There is water here’, ‘Now it is raining’. Now it was this assertion, which seemed to fly in the face of my grammar-school understanding of subject and predicate, that prompted me to delve a little deeper. Having delved I remain unconvinced by Sir Peter’s argument, but I am, hopefully, better informed.

My reasons, briefly, are these.

Before developing his thesis of subject and predicate in Part II of his book, in Part I Strawson spends time exploring how it is possible to identify (and re-identify) particulars at all. He settles on the fact that we can identify ‘things’ (material objects) because of their ‘location’ in a fixed spatio-temporal frame of reference. We use such a framework, he says, ‘not just occasionally and adventitiously, but always and essentially’ [Strawson, 1959, p.24]. But the frame of reference he describes, where individuals can agree on the location in space and time of a ‘thing’ is the Galilean frame of reference based on Newtonian mechanics. And it is wrong. Einstein has shown that observers in inertial frames of reference (i.e., in relative motion to each another) cannot always agree on spatial locations and dimensions or simultaneity. Now all frames of reference are inertial frames and so to base identification of bodies on their spatio-temporal ‘locations’ fails. It must be allowed that at an everyday level the Galilean / Newtonian worldview serves as a good approximation to the Einsteinean universe, otherwise we would not be able to wander around or catch a bus (without performing Lorentz transformations on the ‘timetable’). Strawson’s claims, developed from his framework definition of particulars, ought to be universally true, not just in the Galilean approximation of an Oxford Senior Common Room. Related arguments can be made from a quantum-mechanical point of view.

But let us allow Strawson to develop his argument based upon good approximations to reality. His thoroughly worked exegesis of subject-predicate relations leads him to conclude (inter alia) in relation to the types of expression we have been discussing (he calls them ‘feature placing’ sentences) that because (he says) they do not satisfy his antithetical criteria of completeness / incompleteness vis-a-vis subject / predicate, then they are objectless. He argues that adverbial quantifiers of time and place do not imbue feature placing sentences or propositions with sufficient completeness to fit his criteria. This may follow logically from his arguments but even he admits that it does not always follow in our grammatical usage. I do not accept that adverbial quantifiers do not have that function. I think that philosophers ought to define subject and predicate relations in terms which accord with normal grammatical usage and that Strawson does not do so. Regarding the completeness / incompleteness criteria of his definition, Strawson borrows a metaphor from Gottlob Frege, that of saturation / unsaturation. It is a good metaphor. As any chemist will attest, there are degrees of saturation and it is perhaps here that Strawson’s problem lies.

Strawson, P F, Individuals, 1959 [2006], Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon.

ISBN 13: 978-0-415-05185-9

Friday, 5 March 2010

Cogito ergo Metuo


Poor old René! The butt of Ryle’s little joke and maligned to this day. But rightly so? Surely, versed in the up-to-date Hobbesean scientific method of his day he was as rational a reductionist as the most respectable modern philosopher of mind. So why did he publish his dualist account of mind and body? To my mind the answer lies in the influence of the Church and the long arm of the Inquisition (cue Dan Brown?).

Descartes’ contemporary critic Antoine Arnauld, writing in the Fourth Set of Objections to the Meditations said,

“It seems that [Descartes’] argument [that mind can exist apart from body] proves too much and takes us back to the Platonic view... that nothing corporeal belongs to our essence, so that man is merely a vehicle to the soul – a view which gives rise to the definition of a human being as anima corpore utens” (‘a soul which makes use of a body’).1

Descartes objected to this criticism by saying that in the Meditations he had proved “that the mind is substantially united with the body”.2 One of Descartes’ ‘disciples’, Regius had represented that Descartes’ view was that a human was an ens per accidens, a contingent entity which just happens to come into existence when a soul is joined to a body. Descartes’ rejoinder was strong, “you could scarcely have said anything more objectionable or provocative”. Continuing,

“The mind is united in real and substantial manner to the body [...] we perceive that sensations such as pain are not pure thoughts of a mind distinct from a body, but confused perceptions of a mind really united to a body. For if an angel were in a human body, it would not have sensations as we do, but would simply perceive the motions which are caused by external objects, and in this way would differ from a genuine human being.” 3

In asserting that a human being is an ens per se, Descartes seems to be drawing a distinction between the notional concept of a ‘pure mind’ (an angel) and the situation which actually obtains in real people.

It is worth speculating on why someone who was as rational a reductionist as Descartes allowed his work to be published in a form which can be described as ambiguous or equivocal. Ryle himself is quite helpful here. He acknowledges that Descartes was writing at a time when there were “widespread anxieties about the implications of seventeenth-century mechanics” when “Stoic-Augustinian theories of the will were embedded in the Calvinist doctrines of sin and grace; Platonic and Aristotelian theories of the intellect shaped the orthodox doctrines of the immortality of the soul.”4 Which is to say that ‘the Church’ took a particular stance on these issues – a stance which had led to Galileo’s trial and imprisonment. Descartes was aware of Galileo’s fall from grace. Writing in November 1633 to Mersenne of Galileo’s World System,

“I was told that [...] all the copies had been burnt at Rome and that Galileo had been convicted and fined. I was so astonished at this that I almost decided to burn all my papers, or at least to let no-one see them.”5
He goes on to say that he would not wish to publish a single word that the Church would disapprove of, preferring to suppress it rather than publish it in a mutilated form.6

It is at least worth inquiring whether his published works were ‘mutilated’ in order to deflect criticism or worse from the Church.

1 Quoted by Cottingham, J. in Monk, R. and Raphael, F. (Eds.) The Great Philosophers, (2001) London, Phoenix Publishing, p.123.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid. p.124
4 Ryle, p.147, quoted in Crawford, S. (2010) Aspects of Mind, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
5 Descartes, quoted in Cottingham, 2001, p.104.
6 Ibid.