Lonesome metaphysics

Published on open Democracy, by Jane O’Grady, 30 October 2009.

The fashion for Turing-inspired physicalism and functionalism in the philosophy of mind denies the existence of the other, which Emmanuel Levinas and Timothy Sprigge put at the center of understanding the human condition.

In a footnote to ‘the Meaning of Truth’ (published 100 years ago), William James suggested a thought experiment: Suppose what appears to be a loving young woman is really an ‘automatic sweetheart (merely programmed, as we would now say). ‘Would anyone regard her as a full equivalent?’ asks James, and robustly answers ‘Certainly not’ in full expectation of his readers’ total, immediate agreement. How very different from the present consensus on consciousness which assumes that it is quite unnecessary, indeed exorbitant, to regard humans as other than automata. In effect the whole trend of behaviouristic theories of mind, and of the functionalist and cognitive science theories that have sprung from them is to dismiss James’s (and humanity’s) response to the automatic sweetheart question as primitive and whimsical.

(Here on open Democracy find the short-video The Matrix is the Matrix, 029 min). 

… Ultimately, then, Berkeley’s idealism does coincide with realism (as the early Wittgenstein puts it), but with a sort of dualistic realism (which the early Wittgenstein did not have in mind). And Berkeley unintentionally preserves the mind-thing gap that he was attempting to abolish, even if things, for him, are less thingy than in usual dualisms — archectypes in God’s mind of which human minds have ectypes. There are two types of thing in the world, perceiving stuff and perceived stuff; and a correspondence between them. And maybe there is a public sort of space, too, in which God keeps the archetype ideas in existence — not separately for each person, like a sort of virtual reality, but in a public sort of way. Where otherwise would the finite spirits be ‘present’?

But mental substances are still left cut off from one another, each bounded by (solid) ideas. Berkeley, like Descartes, neglected, as his physicalist successors neglect, the human aetiology of knowledge — that the way we become aware of the world and of the human conceptualisation of it is through the mediation of adults, primarily our mothers. Babies surely have a sense of other people, their emotions, etc, and interact personally and emotionally before they have a sense of things. They are introduced to the world, as they are humanised, by the adults around them. The first dichotymy is that of I-Thou, not I-It.

Ultimately, William James’s revulsion at the notion of an ‘automatic sweetheart’ is not that much of an advance on Turing. Of course noone could treat that notion seriously, James says, ‘[b]ecause, framed as we are, our egoism craves above all things inward sympathy and recognition, love and admiration. The outward treatment is valued mainly as an expression, as a manifestation of the accompanying consciousness believed in.’

This is still to treat the other merely in relation to oneself, the knower. So too are more modern attempts to champion subjectivity, qualia or intentionality against physicalist reductionism. Nagel’s ‘what it is like …’ formula, Searle’s Chinese Room, even Kripke’s a posteriori necessity, resemble the arguments of their opponents in reducing human awareness to a lone, discrete perceiver or set of perceivers – the single or joint observers of, and agents in, a passive reality. Physicalists are unintentionally Cartesian, and not just in the obvious way – being unable properly to dispense with the non-physicality of the mental – but in effectively assuming a unitary, rather than plural, starting-point. And this single or collective solipsism fails to do justice to the way human minds interact. (full text).

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