Friday, December 05, 2008

Being Thirsty and Thinking You're Thirsty

Here's a passage from David Velleman's recent essay, "The Way of the Wanton" that caught my attention (earning a rare four hm's in the margin, plus a question mark and exclamation point):

Attentively reflecting on one's thirst entails standing back from it, for several reasons. First, the content of one's reflective thoughts is not especially expressive of the motive on which one is reflecting: "I am thirsty" is not an especially thirsty thought, not necessarily the the thought of someone thinking thirstily. Second, attentive reflection is itself an activity -- a mental activity -- and, as such, it requires a motive, which, of course, is not thirst. Reflecting on one's thirst is, therefore, a distraction from acting on one's thirst, and in that respect is even a distraction from being thirsty. Most importantly, though, consciousness just seems to open a gulf between subject and object, even when its object is the subject himself. Consciousness seems to have the structure of vision, requiring its object to stand across from the viewer -- to occupy the position of the Gegenstand (p. 181, emphasis in original).
Let's go one point at a time.

Does reflecting on thirst entail "standing back" from it? It's not clear what this metaphor means, though Velleman's subsquent three reasons help clarify. But before we get to those reasons, let's just wallow in the metaphor a bit: Standing back from one's thirst. I don't want to be too unsympathetic here. The metaphor is inviting in a way. But I at least don't feel I have the kind of rigorous understanding I'd want of this idea, as a philosopher.

On to the reasons:

(1.) Per Velleman: "I am thirsty" is not an especially thirsty thought, not necessarily the thought of something thinking thirstily.

Walking across campus, I see a water fountain. The sentence "Damn, I'm thirsty!" springs to mind as I head for a drink. Is this not a thirsty thought? It seems reflective of thirst; it probably reinforces the thirst and helps push along the thirst-quenching behavior -- so it's thirsty enough, I'd say. Is it not a thought, then -- or at least not a thought in the self-reflective sense Velleman evidently has in mind here? Maybe, for example, it's simply expressive and not introspective, an outburst like "ow!" when you stub your toe, but as it were an inner outburst? (Is that too oxymoronic?)

So let's try it more introspectively. As it happens, I've been introspecting my thirst quite a bit in writing this post, and despite having had a drink just a few minutes ago I find myself almost desperately thirsty....

Okay, I'm back. (Yes, I dashed off to the fountain.)

All right, I just don't get this point. Or I do get it and it just seems plain wrong.

(2.) Per Velleman: Attentive reflection is a mental activity that requires a motive, which is of course not thirst. It's a distraction both from acting on one's thirst and from being thirsty.

Does mental activity require a motive? If an image of a Jim wearing a duck-hat comes to mind unbidden as I talk to Jim, need there be a motive? (Or is that not "mental activity"?) And even if there is a motive for reflecting on one's thirst, why can't that motive sometimes be thirst itself? For example, reflecting on my thirst might be a means to achieving drink -- for example, it might help ensure that I order something to drink at the restaurant. And as such, it needn't be a distraction from acting on one's thirst; it might be part of so acting. And finally, is it a distraction from being thirsty? Well, not in my experience! Darn, I'm getting thirsty again! I can imagine a kind of contemplative attention to one's thirst (as to one's pain) that in a certain way renders that thirst (or pain) less compelling. Maybe something like that is achieved in certain sorts of meditation. But that doesn't seem to me the standard case.

(3.) Per Velleman: Consciousness opens a gulf between subject and object, requiring its object to stand across from the viewer.

Huh? There's nothing wrong with metaphor per se, but they're hard to work with when you don't see eye to eye. Velleman develops the metaphor a bit in the next paragraph: As a subject of thirst, thirst is not in one's "field of view" -- rather things like water-fountains are. In self-reflection, one's thirst is in the field of view. Now this seems to me mainly a way of saying that one is not thinking about one's thirst in the first case and one is thinking about it in the second. (Is there more to it than that? If so, tell me.) But then that brings us back to the issue in (2): Is there a competition, as Velleman seems to believe, between feeling thirst and acting thirsty, on the one hand, and thinking about one's thirst on the other hand? Or do the two normally complement and co-operate?

Can we venture an empirical prediction here? If I suggest to subjects that think about whether they are thirsty, then set them free, will they be more or less likely to stop by the fountain on their way out than subjects I invite to think about something else? I'm pretty sure which way this one will turn out. Now I suspect this test wouldn't be fair to Velleman for some reason. (Maybe the suggestion will also affect thirst itself and not just reflection on it?) So if one of you is sympathetic to him, maybe you can help me out....

By the way, did I mention that this is a delightful and engaging article?

8 comments:

Anibal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anibal said...

Are Velleman´s reasons and distinctions on mental action- acting or feeling X- like Galen Strawson´s mental upcomings, intrusions, or "mental balistics": thoughts that burst spontaneously not necesarily connected to action?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, maybe so. However, if he limits what he means by "mental activity" or "thought" to a relatively narrow class, that takes some of the bite out of the latter parts of the essay where he endorses the idea of spontaneous action without thought. If he means to embrace something like Csikszentmihalyi's view of flow (which he cites and appears to endorse), then I think at least Csik's idea is that there isn't even thought in the broader (but still phenomenological) sense of "thought".

CWH said...

I think that your prediction is correct. As a psychologist I find Velleman's ideas on this subject (per your summary), difficult and incoherent.

If you add into the equation the fact that the perception or correct identification/ understanding of thirst is not necessarily an epistemic given, the situation becomes fairly complicated.

(I recently wrote a review on the ontogeny of hunger, thirst and satiety, by the way, that is in the current issue of Developmental Review, that you might find interesting.--Sorry for the plug).

I am also becoming a fan of some of Damasio's ideas, which seem to be exactly opposite Velleman's with respect to the subject-object-consciousness relationship.

Brad C said...

Hi Eric,

An attempt at understanding Velleman's point of view:

RE (1): Maybe he is starting from the thought that when you are reflectively thinking about yourself and your being in a state of thirst, you are not thinking about drinking water (or whatever) or being in a future satiated state.

The idea might be that our attention is focused on one thought at a time and to think about oneself being thirst is one thing while to thinking "thirsty thoughts" is another. This suggest that we gloss "thirsty thoughts" as thoughts about imbibing liquid, enjoying the experience, and the ensuing state of being satiated.

Does that much make sense to you?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, CWH and Brad!

CWH: I agree that we shouldn't take accurate perception of thirst, hunger, etc., as a given; and I agree that that makes the whole thing more complicated. Your article on the ontogeny of these sounds interesting. I'll look it up!

Brad: I feel the pull of what you're saying, and maybe that's part of what Velleman has in mind. I think it's a mistake, though, to think that attention always has to divide between targets (as I discussed in my old post "Attention, Objects, and Aims"). It can also nest, so that one attends to one thing in part by attending to another. I'm inclined to think that's what's going on when we attend to the fact that we're thirsty.

tsmithe said...

Two queries to your queries:

2) "Does mental activity require a motive? If an image of a Jim wearing a duck-hat comes to mind unbidden as I talk to Jim, need there be a motive?"

Why do you that, just because you are unable to see a motive instantaneously, there is no motive? It seems most sensible from a neurological point of view that every action in the brain (and as a consequence, the representation of each in consciousness) should have a neurological basis: each thought you have surely must be a response to a stimulus, be it internal or external. I venture that, with appropriate technology, the stimuli that cause thoughts such as your apparently random and spontaneous "image of a Jim wearing a duck-hat" could be ascertained as having a firm neurological basis.

3) "If I suggest to subjects that think about whether they are thirsty, then set them free, will they be more or less likely to stop by the fountain on their way out than subjects I invite to think about something else? I'm pretty sure which way this one will turn out. Now I suspect this test wouldn't be fair to Velleman for some reason. (Maybe the suggestion will also affect thirst itself and not just reflection on it?) So if one of you is sympathetic to him, maybe you can help me out...."

Indeed, I posit that the reason the subjects constrained to thinking about [their] thirst would be more likely to visit the fountain than those whose minds are free to digress is not because of the increased attention on said thirst, or the fact that, but owing instead to the desire to be free of the mental constraint.

Or am I misinterpreting? It seems what you write could also be interpreted to mean that there is no constraint, but only a suggestion. (In fact, rethinking about this now, it seems this is the most likely reading...). In this case, I would change my words to agree with you. I would be tentative however, because I would not like to be naively certain about the action of the suggestion in the brain.

tsmithe said...

It seems I missed a few words..

In the first query, rather than "Why do you that...", I mean, "Why do you think that...".

Later, I write, "not because of the increased attention on said thirst, or the fact that, ...", but intended to finish that second clause: "not because of the increased attention on said thirst, or the fact that the thirst may have been exaggerated by the imposed thoughts, ...".