Towards A Good Samaritan World

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Nato provides high-quality feedback in the comments. For the full text, link here. I excerpt:

Reduction is simply the explanation of a complex higher level phenomenon in terms of lower level, simpler phenomena, physical or not.

Yeah, I'm not saying that reductionism is bad, in general, just that it's not always appropriate.

It is true that science is methodologically blind to things that follow no rules and have no detectable properties. That said, if souls have physical effects, then I presume they are studiable and to some degree reduceable.

Hmm. The main "detectable property" of souls is that that's what we are. Our experience of souls is more immediate and fundamental than our experience of physical matter. Souls also have physical effects: they occupy human bodies and make decisions. It does not follow that they are "reducible." (To what, anyway?) Relative to the physical world, it is probably most useful to say that souls do not follow rules, though probably there is some sense in which they do. Think about the statement "I can imagine anything I want." It's useful for shattering the paradigm of the physical world: I can do things in my imagination that I can't do physically, e.g. be king of England. But I probably cannot conjure up in my head a great unwritten novel superior to the finest work of Tolstoy. There are limitations, but perhaps not "rules" that govern the activity of souls. (Though with respect to affecting the physical world, of course, souls are subject to physical rules.)

[S]cience is certainly very slow to consider non-physical answers, since that wouldn't fit any intersubjectively definable aspects of the scientific universe.

I applaud Nato's penetrating point here: that science restricts its attention to intersubjectively definable phenomena is a source of many of its virtues. For example, this narrowing of its subject material is the reason that things can be proven in science in a way that can't be achieved in some other fields. And since, for some reason, the human condition in this life is such that interaction between persons appears to be impossible independently of the physical world, this gives science a physicalist prejudice.

Nonetheless I have two objections. 1) Just because science is methodologically blind to the non-intersubjectively definable aspects of the... universe," it in no way follows that these aspects don't exist. The physicalist focus is, as it were, a policy decision, which then morphs into an ideological principle, and that's where the problems begin. 2) Despite the dependence of intersubjectivity on the physical in this world, one of the most mysterious yet characteristic aspects of life is that intersubjectivity is not reducible to its physical enablers. Language, as a number of philosophers have discovered, is indeterminate: one can logically create weird meanings of words in natural language that yield the same truth-conditions for all propositions as do the real meanings, yet somehow we are able to distinguish the real meanings from the absurd, artificial ones. People can understand poems which machines never could. Science cuts itself methodologically off from the resources of this mysterious super-physical intersubjectivity; this abdication is fine, admirable even, for some purposes, but it is too impoverishing to provide the basis for a sane human worldview.

As for the intentional stance and heterophenomenology, it's easiest if you just wiki them...

The discussions Nato refers me to are here (intentional stance) and here (heterophenomenology). Intentional stance is part of a three-way classification which says we can regard things from the physical point of view, the design point of view, or the intentional point of view, and this affects our interpretation. Heterophenomenology seems to be nothing more than listening to what people say but also observing their actions. Both ideas seem question-begging to me, but the discussions are brief. Nato says:

[T]hese two tools, amongst others, we can arrive at an account of consciousness that takes our subjective experiences seriously, allows for us to have real intentions and desires, but doesn't require an unsupportable level of realism.

A statement like this leaves me scratching my head. An "unsupportable" level of realism? Unsupportable by what? I think therefore I am is the most fundamental knowledge there is. Any knowledge that is based on sensory experience is contingent by comparison (we might all be Brains in a Vat, eh?). It is with respect to scientific claims, not our own subjective existence, that "supportability" is an issue.


  • Just a few notes:
    Heterophenomenology comes into its own only in action, when a researcher attempts to find out why peoples' experiences seem to them the way that they do. It's a sort of intermediate stance between the behaviorists dismissal of verbal reports and the hard realist's insistance that (honest) verbal reports are auhtoritative not only regarding how experiences seem to the speaker, but how the experiences really are. During the actual experiments, (eg. color phi phenomena and "blind sight" experiments in subjects with scotoma in the V1 visual system) the subject's reports of their experience are compared with their actions, the experimental conditions and other measurements to try to determine where and when certain decisions and discriminations are made in the brain, why the subject perceives their experience the way they do, and so on. Heterophenomenology is just a codification of the most effective way of investigating human phenomenology, giving appropriate weight to each data modality. Critical phenomenologists, of course, would regard HP as too hard boiled, but it's just difference of degree - at the end of the day, all the best science fits the HP mold anyway.

    The intentional stance is actually a method to salvage "real" intentions from those who feel that original and derived intentionality are so qualitatively separate that the the latter can never gird up the former. The situation in which those essentialists finds themselves is that there's no circumstances under which original intentionality can arise. Some philosophers, seeing this problem, go in an anti-realist direction, saying intentions don't have any reality of our own and are nothing more than useful descriptions of behavioral regularities. With the intentional stance taken in full*, the original and derived distinction is demoted in favor of a more nuanced definition that nonetheless allows for people and to a lesser extent other animal to have intentions in the sense we normally think of them. The above sketch may be a little opaque, but maybe not, so I'll leave it.

    *Dennett's part in promoting the intentional stance was not so much in inventing it as defending it and defining its scope in a way that allowed its non-tendentious use in philopsophy as well as cognitive ethology and so on.

    By Blogger Nato, at 2:37 PM  

  • By the way, if you want to define the soul as the the dynamical system of content that composes a person then I'm all for souls existing. Like most complex dynamical systems, minds also don't obey rules in the same direct way that, for example, an electron does. In fact, being such a tightly integrated, complex dynamical system, the mind is perhaps the least directly rule bound system in the Universe.

    I doubt that this is enough common ground to count as agreement, however.

    By Blogger Nato, at 2:47 PM  

  • And just because I love Dennett so much, here's his latest on HP:

    By Blogger Nato, at 3:51 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home