Monday, August 07, 2006

Dennett on Fictions about Consciousness

Dan Dennett, in his seminal work, Consciousness Explained, says some confusing things about the ontological status of claims about consciousness. Sometimes, he seems to say there are facts about consciousness that we can get right or wrong; at other times he compares claims about consciousness to the claims of fiction writers about their fictional worlds -- claims that simply can't be wrong, any more than Doyle could be wrong about the color of Holmes's easy chair (CE, p. 81). The first strand tends to be emphasized by those who find Dennett appallingly (or appealingly) committed to the possibility of pervasive and radical mistakes about consciousness (Alva Noe calls Dennett the "eminence grise" of the new skepticism about consciousness), the second strand by people attracted (or repulsed) by the promise of an end to questions about what our "real" conscious experience is, underneath our reports.

Both strands of Consciousness Explained have their appeal, but I can't seem to reconcile them. One can't get it wrong in one's reports about one's consciousness, it seems to me, if there are no facts about consciousness underneath one's reports. Fiction writers can't make errors of fact about their fictional worlds.

I've written a paper outlining my confusion more fully, forthcoming in a special issue of Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences. Dennett has written a very gracious reply to my criticisms in sections 2-3 of "Heterophenomenology Reconsidered". Among other things, he suggests a helpful analogy. Imagine cavemen brought into the 21st century; to describe what they see, they'll be forced to use metaphorical language (a pencil might be a slender woody plant with a black center that marks square white leaves, etc.). I'm amenable to this way of thinking about our phenomenological reports: Despite the apparent nearness and familiarity of experience, our tools for thinking about it and our conceptualizations of it are very weak and primitive. But nothing Dennett says in his response seems to me to remove the tension between the we-often-get-it-wrong strand of his work with the we're-fiction-writers strand. The cavemen, of course, aren't fiction writers. They can't, like Doyle, make their claims true simply by uttering them. Of course they use metaphor, as Dennett emphasizes; but metaphor and fiction are two entirely different beasts.

When I pressed Dennett about this in an email, he responded with the interesting suggestion that I was thinking too narrowly about fiction. Not all fiction is novels; there are "theoretical fictions" like quarks (maybe) or functionalist homunculi. And of course the rules governing the use of theoretical fictions in science are quite different from those governing novels.

If Dennett really endorses this (and I don't want necessarily to hold him to a quick remark in an email), it seems to me represent a shift of position, given his earlier talk about Doyle and Holmes's easy chair. But I don't know if it entirely resolves the tension, or how appealing it is as a view. Claims involving theoretical fictions, for instance, probably should not be evaluated as true or false. Rather, they are helpful or unhelpful, provide an elegant model of the observable phenomena or don't. Is this really how we want to think about our phenomenological claims?

Rather than novelists or positers of theoretical fictions, I'd rather see the person reporting her phenomenology as like a witness on the stand. She aims (if sincere) to be speaking the literal truth; and her claims can come close to it or can miss the mark entirely. Perhaps, in some ways, she will be like a caveman asked to report a drive-by shooting, stuck with inadequate conceptions and vocabulary, forced to (witting or unwitting) metaphor; but there's still a realm of facts that render her claims, independently of her or our judgment, true or false or somewhere in between.

Addendum, August 10: Pete Mandik reminds me in a comment that Dennett has spoken at length about "theoretical fictions" in earlier writings on belief and desire attribution -- for example in his magnificent essay "Real Patterns" (1991) and in the Intentional Stance (1987). There, Dennett's examples of "theoretical fictions" are things like centers of gravity and equators, not quarks and homunculi. (Dennett cited no particular examples in his email to me.)

Now, I'm more inclined to think that claims about centers of gravity are literally true than claims about homunculi. So if that's the kind of thing Dennett has in mind, my last remark above may be off target. On the other hand, the rules governing "theoretical fictions" of that sort match very nearly those governing literal language. This brings us even farther from the Doyle, saying-it-makes-it-true model in Consciousness Explained.

22 comments:

Tanasije Gjorgoski said...

I wonder if Dennett there wants to give account for infallibility of "it seems/looks like" propositions vs. propositions which don't include those.

Take for example Müller-Lyer Illusion, where person is asked to compare the length of two straight lines.

One can ask two questions:
1."which line is longer?", and it is true that what is reported might be wrong , and probably will be, though it can be also right.
2."which line looks longer to you?", and in this case, if the subject reports sincerely, the report can't be wrong.

Pete Mandik said...

Eric, I think that for Dennett the resolution of the tension between what you see as two different views on consciousness will boil down to what he thinks of the ontological status of intentionality. In his paper "Real Patterns" (J. Phil. 1991, I believe) Dennett adresses the question of whether the ontology of contentful states posited by one who adopts the intentional stance are really real or mere (useful) fictions. In that paper Dennett defends a semi-realism about intentional states whereby there is a third category between the really real and the merely fictional. There's a lot of discussion in that paper of the sorts of examples he mentions in his email to you concerning theoretical entities. It may not, then, be much of a shift on his part afterall.

I hope this helps.

Cheers,

Pete

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Tanasije! I agree there's an interesting and important distinction between 1 and 2; but I'd like to problematize 2. The main place I do this is in Section IV of my comments on Titchener's introspective training manual (you should be able understand Section IV without having read the prior sections); or more briefly, see this post. I'd be interested to hear what you think!

Helpful comment, as usual, Pete! I should go back and re-read "Real Patterns". I'm a big fan of the style of semi-realism about attitudes that he endorses in that paper; I think he gets it exactly right. I'm not inclined to think the same thing can go for phenomenology, though. The difference, I'd suggest, is that phenomenology is ontologically basic while dispositional belief ascriptions are ways of classifying or interpreting patterns in more ontologically basic happenings (incl. behavioral and phenomenal and cognitive dispositions). Maybe that's where Dennett and I part company.

Tanasije Gjorgoski said...

Hi Eric, I read the previous post you point to and the chapter IV of your comments.
I think I understand the issues to which you point, and I thought about them. It seems to me that those issues come from the way one tries to approach the question of what the infallibility of those reports is grounded in, and that you are attacking the view where those reports are seen on some kind of sense-data.
In trying to sketch possible alternative, I ended up wringing longer text, so I posted it on my blog here. I am much interested if you think that the alternative account successfully addresses the issues you point to.

tanasije gjorgoski said...

Oops, instead of "seen on some kind of sense-data" , "seen as based on some kind of sense-data"

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

An interesting post over at your site, Tanasije! I've posted a brief reply over there.

Ignacio Prado said...

But it could be argued that, because of the transparency or diaphanous quality of subjective experience, our description of the intrinsic character of our own phenomenology __will have to be__ metaphorical.

We individuate our experiences almost entirely in intentional terms. In effect, we define the subjective character of experiences in terms of what they are experiences of (e.g., 'fire-engine red' or 'salty like an anchovy'). We have no literal, descriptive language for talking about the phenomenal quality of an experience in absence of its representational or informational properties. When we try to invent such a language, we are usually reduced to mixed-modal, associative metaphors (e.g., "that red is like a loud sound," "that blue is like a cool breeze," "that muted trumpet tone is like a damp cloth").

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment Ignacio! You point to an interesting phenomenon: describing our experiences in terms of the objective things that they are experiences of ("salty", "rough"). Indeed, when we leave behind such manner of description, we tend to be left with weak metaphors -- at least when it's sensory experience at issue. I could say more; but maybe I'll work up a post on this instead!

Regarding Dennett, though: I think this fact supports his caveman analogy, but not the idea of fiction, either in the novelists sense or in the "theoretical fictions" sense. Or if it does, I'm still at a loss to see how.

Pete Mandik said...

Eric, if something like Ignacio's point is correct--that we are forced to describe our phenomenaology in intentional vocabulary--it is not a huge leap to conclude that conscious phenomena are reducible to intentional phenomena. Combine that with the semi-realism about the intentional that you've already admitted finding appealing and BLAMMO: phenomenal fictionalism.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Your first comment has been rattling in my brain for a few days, Pete. I just added an addendum to the main post in light of it, as you'll see.

Your latest point is a doozy too -- like much of the best philosophy it seems so obvious in retrospect! Maybe Dennett can and should go that way. But I would not. If there's any reducing to be had here, I'd say it's the intentional in terms of the phenomenal (as dispositional patterns in the phenomenal). I interpret the difficulty Ignacio raises as one pertaining only to the description of phenomenology, not the ontology.

Andrew Jewell said...

Ignacio, I'm not certain what you mean by "phenomenal quality of an experience" but I'll have to disagree that all we can say about mental states involves intentional ascription or metaphor.

We also have (for instance) *functional* descriptions of the states in question.

So while it may be the case that we are noncommittal about the subpersonal workings of our brains (Thompson talks about this in the same issue), this does not mean that we are silent about the nature of our psychological episodes. So (here is a very short list): We think that (i) we are in pain right now, (ii) that it is a sharp pain, (iii) that it is “sharp” just like the sharpness of a pulled muscle. We believe that (iv) John was in pain yesterday; that that he was (v) conscious of being in pain. There are even general folk-psychological laws about pain: (vi) if we wish to avoid pain, and if X causes us pain, then we will avoid X; (vii) pain causes the normal individual (without certain sorts of specifiable damage) to freeze-up; (viii) it is distracting to be in pain. In addition: (these are epistemological features) (ix) we track pain across situations, (x) it is robust, (xi) our observational practices can be tweaked to receive more information about the phenomena, (xii) and so on (call this: “insert favorite pain belief here”).

So far as I see it, considerations like this make "phenomenal fictionalism" look unmotivated.

Ignacio said...

Two Responses, first (1) to Dr. Scwitzgebel and then (2) to Andrew.

(1) Dr. Schwitzgebel says,

"Regarding Dennett, though: I think this fact supports his caveman analogy, but not the idea of fiction, either in the novelists sense or in the "theoretical fictions" sense. Or if it does, I'm still at a loss to see how. "

I can't see how to make the claims about fictionalism cohere either, but I can at least see the motivation for them in Dennett's philosophy. . .

Dennett thinks that if we are committed to subjective experience having a real nature that is independent of our judgments of how we take it to be, then we are committed to something like "real seemings." He also thinks that, if we are committed to real seemings, then we are committed to some kind view of consciousness as a Cartesian Theater, a stage upon which real seemings perform for the benefit of an observing self that makes introspective judgments about what goes on on stage (judgments which, by hypothesis, the observing self can be wrong about).

Now, Dennett does not think that any such view of consciousness can be made consistent with the ontological commitments of materialism. For, if materialism is the view that “consciousness” is just an alternative, higher-level description for what the brain does, and the brain works like a massively parallel information processor, then it follows that the Cartesian Theater view of consciousness cannot be identified with what the brain does (because of the functional asymmetry between the two models). So, rather than a series of real seemings whose nature an observing self can be right or wrong about, Dennett makes the content of consciousness something like a continuously updated representational model of how things stand in the world in relation to a self (which is itself, of course, the content of a representational model). In the language of Consciousness Explained, human consciousness is a patchwork of content-fixations that have varying degrees of behavioral immediate impact. The bigger the impact; the more conscious they are.

Now, Dennett is also committed to the view that “consciousness,” understood as describing what our brain does at a higher level of description, can work in ways that we can have incorrect beliefs about. By extension, we will learn more about what consciousness is like as we learn more science. I think you are right to point this out as something that is in tension with the fictionalist view described above. I do not think the tension is easily resolvable.

My own personal opinion is that we should be realists about consciousness, but intentionalists. I think this can allow one to have mistaken beliefs about consciousness without positing “real seemings," for in making mistakes in phenomenological judgments, we are just making mistakes about how the properties of our environment manifest themselves to us.

However, there are still a lot of problems to resolve, for (i) seeing that there is a red tomato on the shelf and (ii) thinking that there is a red tomato on the shelf while my back is turned to it are both conscious mental states directed at the same state of affairs (i.e., conscious mental states with the same intentional content or, at least, "conceptual" content). In trying to pick out the difference between these two conscious states with the same intentional content, the most salient difference seems to be the difference in what it's like to be in either of them. And, furthermore, the difference between what it's like to be in either conscious mental state does not seem to be exhausted by functional asymmetries such as the fact that in conscious mental state (i), but not (ii), the state of affairs that is the intentional content of my conscious mental state is available for demonstrative reference and attention-based action planning.

The functional description seems to leave something out, and if it is not some metaphysically problematic "first-person fact," then it's . . . I don't know.

Which brings me to Andrew. . .

(2) Regarding the first question: "Phenomenal qualities" are what people outside of Tufts generally call, without much angst, "qualia."

Obviously, I don't believe we have to be fictionalists or “metaphorists”(?) about sensory phenomenology or bodily sensations as a whole. The question is whether we have to be metaphorists about the irreducibly subjective character of sensations, which is what qualia are taken to be. To me, the only word you used in your reconstruction of our pain beliefs that pointed to its irreducibly subjective character was “sharp” and, certainly, the sharpness of a pain is metaphorical in a way the sharpness of a knife or the right-hand turn at an intersection is not. For the latter, you can give reductive definitions of “sharpness” in the objective, if vague, terms of some set of functional or structural criteria that would constitute being sharp (e.g., what can the knife cut?—what angle is the turn?).

If you think the functional and structural description of pain gives you all there is to our notion of the subjective experience of pain, then you are you right, you do not have to be a metaphorist about qualia.

You do, however, have to take on commitments such as believing Block's China Brain instantiates pain. You also have to find a way of individuating the functional states without relying their intentional content or in, in the case of bodily sensations, where in the body the sensation seems to be. I am just not willing to take on these commitments, and I don't like the currently available alternative options, so I am kind of at a loss. NB, I did not read the Thompson piece.

**********
Wow, that was long, and I have many papers and mojitos to finish in Miami this week.

Pete Mandik said...

Eric, I'm glad I was able to help. This is interesting stuff, and I look forward to what else you have to say on the topic. I tend to side more with Dennett on this sort of stuff, and I figure I'll have more to say on it both here and over at my blog. Cheers!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for your detailed thoughts, Ignacio! I think there may be a weak and a strong sense of a "Cartesian theater" view. If accepting a view involves only thinking that there are phenomenological facts that can be reported accurately or inaccurately, then I accept the view (though I hope it's compatible with materialism). But sometimes it seems like Dennett wants to bring more into the view.

I've been enjoying Brain Hammer recently, Pete. I'm looking forward to seeing some of your reflections about consciousness in the near future!

Andrew Jewell said...

Ignacio writes:

“Dennett thinks that if we are committed to subjective experience having a real nature that is independent of our judgments of how we take it to be, then we are committed to something like "real seemings." He also thinks that, if we are committed to real seemings, then we are committed to some kind view of consciousness as a Cartesian Theater, a stage upon which real seemings perform for the benefit of an observing self that makes introspective judgments about what goes on on stage (judgments which, by hypothesis, the observing self can be wrong about).”

---

I think you are quite right about this, and this is where I find Dennett’s view unmotivated. For (A) why should the folk commitment to "real seemings" commit us to anything but our beliefs being responsive to the right mental states? For instance, it being the case that I am in pain and my beliefs being responsive to it. And (B) why should the common (implicit) belief in the Cartesian Theatre be unrevisable? Take this model: once we thought water was made of spherical atoms easily pierced by pyramidal fire. This was wrong. However, there was still enough specification about what functional/relational features water possessed that we were able to continue to pick out a class of objects to investigate (actually, this is a lot more complicated than I can discuss here) and eventually identify as H20. Why not do the same thing for pain (You want to know what a pain is, and how we could be right about it being thus? Look to the functional descriptions we give ...)?

---

Ignacio writes:

(2) Regarding the first question: "Phenomenal qualities" are what people outside of Tufts generally call, without much angst, "qualia."

---

You’re right, of course. However, the challenge isn’t to say what people call it, but give a real, metaphysically responsible account of what such things could be and what evidence we have that they exist as described (I find the usual thought experiments deeply problematic). In any case, what I was doing here was expressing my frustration with such a task: painting me as Tufts-centric, hence as provincial, won’t solve that particular problem.

---

Ignacio writes:

Obviously, I don't believe we have to be fictionalists or “metaphorists”(?) about sensory phenomenology or bodily sensations as a whole. The question is whether we have to be metaphorists about the irreducibly subjective character of sensations, which is what qualia are taken to be. To me, the only word you used in your reconstruction of our pain beliefs that pointed to its irreducibly subjective character was “sharp” and, certainly, the sharpness of a pain is metaphorical in a way the sharpness of a knife or the right-hand turn at an intersection is not. For the latter, you can give reductive definitions of “sharpness” in the objective, if vague, terms of some set of functional or structural criteria that would constitute being sharp (e.g., what can the knife cut?—what angle is the turn?).

---

You’ll note that I said: “that it is “sharp” just like the sharpness of a pulled muscle” and this is a functional description that isn’t threateningly metaphorical. What is a sharp pain,? Well it is (i) something these two pains have in common, (ii) it occurred on these situations, (iii) it often involves pulled muscles (etc). In any case, what is going on here isn’t a classical reduction, but a functional description that allows us to pick out a class of objects that go by that name. It doesn’t (for instance) provide necessary and sufficient conditions for something being what it is: viz. the actual reduction of water to H20 involved a bridge or boundary layer of experimentation, the application of pre-scientific observational and physical techniques, a penchant for thinking of elements as separable and pure components rather than, say, on graded scale …
---

Ignacio writes:

If you think the functional and structural description of pain gives you all there is to our notion of the subjective experience of pain, then you are you right, you do not have to be a metaphorist about qualia.

You do, however, have to take on commitments such as believing Block's China Brain instantiates pain. You also have to find a way of individuating the functional states without relying their intentional content or in, in the case of bodily sensations, where in the body the sensation seems to be. I am just not willing to take on these commitments, and I don't like the currently available alternative options, so I am kind of at a loss. NB, I did not read the Thompson piece.

---

Obviously, I don’t think one needs to be committed to Block’s China Brain instantiating pain, because I don’t think the functional description is a reduction. In any case, the description will itself have a line that reads: “Block’s China Brain does not feel pain” and this is something that we should expect our theory of pain to eventually account. Yet I admit that, at the end of the day, I am willing to grant that our intuitions here could, and perhaps should, be revised. In such an event, I suppose that I have to wonder at your resistance to such an idea. Why is it that certain things are simply beyond the pale? Is the fancy metaphysics we want to construct more plausible than Block’s China Brain feeling pain?

AJPJ

Ignacio Prado said...

I tried posting last night, but I either clicked the wrong button or the post got deleted.

The short version of the post is:

(1)The point about Tufts was a joke, and I am equally laughing at myself.

(2)I think Andrew makes a useful distinction between the languages we have available for fixing the reference of an experience (so that we can identify it and individuate it), and a language for characterizing the experience itself.

(3) I still think individuation will rely on the intentional content of an experience in order to isolate the normal cause of the experience or the location in the body of the experience.

(4) Even after we have individuated the experience, we face the task of coming up with a language that gets at what of our phenomenology is like, which functional analysis seems inadequate for.

(5)I do find it conceivable that my intuitions might need to be adjusted, but it is hard, at this point, to see how a functional analysis of subjective experience explains what it is to feel something, though Thomas Metzinger's Being No One gets damn close.

andrew jewell said...

I now appreciate the joke.

I guess the "ultimate picture" I have here is of us coming into contact with internal states by virtue of the incomplete descriptions we give of them. Our descriptions, it turns out, might sometimes be wrong (call this "the price of scientific advance") but there is still *something* (presumably some subpersonal functional state: I take AI pretty seriously) we are observing, say, when we feel a pain or hallucinate a centipede.

So I am not offering an a priori functional *analysis*: the functionalism I would endorse isn't of this sort. Rather, I think we come into observational contact with interesting sub-personal functional states and that our beliefs about them, like observational beliefs in general, are typically true.

Finally, I see the criticism's I've voiced of Dennett's position as being completely consistent with other pieces of his position. For I take it that one only needs to look at scientific methodology in *general* (something all naturalists would allow) to argue against accepting his fictionalism. Admittedly, this is probably off topic. But my original post wasn't: I only wanted to point out that there were more resources available for individuating mental states than the metaphorical/intentional ones.

AJPJ

Thoughts said...

Did you spot the natural dualism in Consciousness Explained? In his more recent works such as "Where am I?" he almost explicitly confesses - see Dennettian Dualism. Reid would be proud of him.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Funny! I don't buy it, though. Something like the O'Regan/Noe view seems a more plausible interpretation.

Thoughts said...

Dennettian Dualism does suggest some of Dennett's supporters are not as Bright as they think they are. Incidentally, why wont you buy it? It is free after all!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

It's too fundamentally contrary to most of what he says. And Noe was a postdoc of Dennett's at the time he was working on some of the O'Regan/Noe material, which is some reason to think that Dennett might be sympathetic with it. (Maybe there are better, textual, reasons too but they don't leap to mind off-hand.)

Thoughts said...

You are right in the sense that Dennett would probably be appalled at a Cartesian Theatre on his nose but can he escape such a carbuncle? I think not....