Saturday, 30 June 2012

Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind IV: Behaviourism

Before I start the fourth post of the Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind series, I want to admit the fact that I'm quite sympathetic to Behaviourism. 

The Behaviourist movement was influential in Philosophy during the 1930's, 40's and 50's with its influence beginning to wane significantly in the 1960's. The Behaviourist movement in Philosophy was motivated in part by answering concerns first raised in Descartes work. And in part by the need to for an account of the mental which would be compatible with materialism and the new scientific world view. While the motivation behind methodological Behaviourism was largely derived from the lack of progress made in the field of Psychology which at that time relied heavily on introspective methods. We have two very different and distinct ways of ascribing mental states and concepts, we can ascribe them on the basis of first person introspection or alternatively we can ascribe them to others on the based on their behaviour. Many philosophers have been deeply suspicious of the ascription of mental states by the means of first person introspection which seems to lead to accepting some kind of Cartesian project.

But according to Behaviourism, the talk of hidden mental events which cannot be observed is totally mistake.The Behaviourist holds that the behavior of an organism is completely exhausted by its observable response to stimuli. The psychology of the said organism simply consists in the relationship between the various stimuli and response. This position was prominent not only in Philosophy but was also widely accepted in psychology with its most notable proponents being B.F Skinner and John B. Watson. For the behaviourist, talk of a hidden mental realm which exists between the stimuli and the response is a fiction. Being in the mental state is no more than the tendency to react to certain stimuli with certain responses. For example, being in pain is no more than a tendency to move away and vocalize the sound  'Ouch' when hit by hard a object with considerable force.  

As you can see this simple form of Behaviourism is rather lacking. As behaviour is neither necessary or sufficient for the ascription of a mental state. Take the example of an extraordinary actor who was pretending to be in pain, if the actors acting skills were so refined in that his behaviour was indistinguishable from someone who was actually in pain. This would show that behaviour alone is not necessary for the ascription of a particular mental state. For a brief period of time during the 1940's a plant toxin called Curare was used as anesthetic. In fact Curare does not work as anesthetic but merely causes the total temporary paralysis of a particular subject. A patient being operated on while paralyzed by Curare would be in considerable pain but would not be able to provide any observable evidence indicating their pain. This example shows that behaviour is also not sufficient for the ascription of pain, as it is possible to be in pain without any observational behaviour. 

Another problem for Behaviourism as outlined by those like Skinner and Watson, is the distance between certain mental states and the observational behaviour which would confirm that particular mental. Take the belief that Oxford University is the best University in the United Kingdom, what behaviour would verify this. It seems it could be near impossible isolate the correct behaviour for ascribing such a belief.  

Philosophers did not have to accept such radical methodological behaviorism, with the majority behaviourist philosophers adopting what is commonly referred to as Logical Behaviourism. Logical Behaviourism is not a theory regarding how experimental psychology should be undertaken it is instead a semantic theory about the meaning of mental terms. According to Logical Behaviourism, the attribution of a mental state to a person or animal simply consists in saying that the person or animal is disposed to behave in a certain way in certain circumstances. For example saying James is thirsty is simply to say that James is disposed to drink water if exposed to an appropriate opportunity to drink some water. This is a considerable improvement over basic behaviourism as it allows the behavioural analysis to open ended or infinite, so it seems we are much better equipped when we are dealing beliefs and other complicated subject matter. We may be able to analyse the belief that Oxford is the best university in the United Kingdom into an opened set of behavioural statements, such as 'Remarking on the reputation of Oxford as a University when asked'. Even if it is not possible in practice to complete such a set of dispositions, the fact that it remains logically possible is enough for maintaining Logical Behaviourism. Logical Behaviourism is also advantageous as it does not require that the abandonment of mental talk as long as we remember that talk of the mental could be replaced by a complete behavioural analysis. 

Even with all of this being said in favor of Logical Behaviourism there still seems to be one crucial objection to overcome namely that behaviour is neither necessary or sufficient  for the ascription of mental states. But it can be argued that this objection can also be overcome by adopting a richer notion of what constitutes behaviour. The most successful attempt at this was made Hempel in his 1935 paper The Logical Analysis of Psychology. Adopting a verificationist theory of meaning and construing behaviour in the widest possible sense it can be argued that Hempel showed that behaviour is both necessary and sufficient for the ascription of mental states. But whether we are willing to accept Hempel's verification theory of meaning and his wider notion of behaviour which includes every physical fact about a subject is a different matter. For one verificationist theory of meaning have been shown to be hugely problematic and much of what Hempel takes to be Behaviour is deeply debatable. As Hempel seems to be using the word behaviour in way that is contrary to our every day understanding of the term. In fact I believe Hempel's theory has many features in common with some of the identity theories that took the place of Behaviorism in the philosophical community.  

A number of other objections have made against Logical Behaviourism. Concerns have made about how Behaviourism fails to provide an account of mental-mental causation. Take the following the example 'Jill's fear of dogs and her belief that a dog is in front of her causes her to run away'. Behaviourism seems to struggle to explain such cases mental-mental causation as it appears that there is no way to explain such cases in terms of explicit behaviour. Again it could be argued that this objection could be avoided by adopting a richer notion of what constitutes behaviour to include facts about the persons physiology. This is related to another objection about the alleged circularity of the behaviourist project, there will be a vast number of appropriate responses to any one stimuli with differing responses being largely down to the differing beliefs of the subject. Therefore it seems there is no way to analyse away the mental without positing beliefs or desires that are not explicitly observable in behaviour.  

I'm going to finish off with one final objection (and one bad joke) to behaviourism, it seems that we do not access our own mental states by observing our own behaviour but through first person introspection. This alleged absurdity with behaviourism is often put in the form of a joke. 
Two behaviourist psychologists are talking to each after sex, one of them says to the other 'I see can that you enjoyed yourself, but how was it for me'?

Friday, 29 June 2012

Philosophy Video: Daniel Dennett: Can we know our own minds

In this TED Talk from 2007 well known Philosopher of Mind, Daniel Dennett outlines a number of experiments which are meant to show that we do not have the privileged access to the contents of our own mind. Some of Dennett's views are considered quite controversial by some within the field (for example his denial of the existence of Qualia). This talk expresses Dennett's outlook on such issues but if the talk has one fault it is that he fails to outline the philosophical importance of the experiments discussed in the lecture. The lecture seems to be mainly based on a chapter from his 2005 book Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness. I would recommend that anyone who found this particular talk interesting and wants to know more about the particular change blindness experiments and their philosophical implications read the aforementioned book.   

Chapter 3, Explaining the ''Magic'' of Consciousness, Sweet Dreams, MIT 2005

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Is a Philosophy degree worth doing?

It is possible to sum up my answer to this question in one word, YES. But nonetheless I will provide some of my thoughts to back up my assertion and make my case that Philosophy is possibly one of the best degrees you could do.

Philosophy is an oft ridiculed degree and it is my opinion that this unfair. Their is a strong perception that all philosophers do is to pose unanswerable and ridiculous questions making the subject completely trivial. This is a total misrepresentation of Philosophy as I understand it. Philosophy has and always will be at the forefront of trying to get grips with some of the most important issues there are. Research in Applied Ethics and the Philosophy of Mind are just two areas of philosophy were cutting edge research is being undertaken which may change the way we think about many important issues.  

The importance of Philosophy as both foundational to the sciences and asking some of the most important questions that face us on a day to day basis. I can see this can be clearly missed by those who don't really understand philosophy or have bought into the myth portrayed by many in the media that philosophy is a useless and trivial academic pursuit. Some of this criticism may arise from the high profile that certain deconstructionists such as Derrida have received. It should be pointed out that Derrida's work has been somewhat more influential in the field of literary criticism. I feel Philosophers should be somewhat aggrieved with the treatment Philosophy often receives. 

A very annoying question often put to Philosophy students is 'What are you going to do with that?'.  I feel there is two ways to answer this question. My initial reaction to such an impertinent question is when did the sole purpose of education become to simply get a high paying graduate job? Education has intrinsic as well as instrumental value, I feel that undertaking a Philosophy degree has enriched my life in a way that doing a degree in say Accounting wouldn't. The second answer to this question is 'Anything', I feel a Philosophy degree provides those who undertake it with the analytic and linguistic skills to really compete in competitive and dynamic job market. Quite frankly I feel that a degree in Philosophy is significantly more challenging than some other more vocational subjects that people seem willing to embrace with open arms. I would even go as far to say that Philosophy is one of the more challenging 

My thoughts on the practical use of a Philosophy degree aren't just the mad ramblings of one undergraduate Philosophy student but seem to be backed up by increasing real world evidence. Other the past couple of years I have noticed an increased number of articles in the British media promoting the usefulness of the degree in terms of post graduate employment and I'm glad to see that Philosophy is beginning to be treated with the respect it deserves. 

Further Reading 
Guardian Article on Post Graduate Employment

Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind III: Non-Cartesian Dualism

Not all Dualists are of the Cartesian variety discussed in the previous post in this series. These Philosophers are known as Non-Cartesian Dualists. One type of Non-Cartesian Dualism is known as a property dualism. Property Dualism only posits one kind of substance but this substance has two distinct properties namely mental and physical properties. One well known example of Non-Cartesian Dualism is Donald Davidson's Anomalous Monism. Davidson's dualism will not be our focus in today's post rather we will focus on another prominent example of Non-Cartesian Dualism. 

Lowe's Non-Cartesian Dualism 
E.J Lowe is probably the most influential dualist in philosophy of the mind at the moment, with his form of Non-Cartesian Dualism having made significant impact. Lowe is interested in the identity conditions in cases of strict identity for token items. Let me briefly explain the token/type divide which many readers may not be familiar with. Generally in our common usage of language when we talk about something be identical with something else; we are talking of type identity. Two relatives with a strikingly similar nose may be said to have the same nose, in this instance we are talking in terms of type identity. Token identity differs in that when we say that two things are token identical we really only have one token instance. 

Lowe's Non-Cartersian Dualism is interested in how an object can be picked out or individuated. For this purpose Lowe sets out five rules of identity, three uncontroversial and generally accepted and two rules of his own which are intended to clarify the relationship between the mind and body. 

Lowe's Rules of Identity 

  1. Before any sensible talk can be made about something it must be picked out or individuated. There are two ways of classifying things: i) Classification as individuation (eg. Descartes and Lowe are people) and ii) Classification as characterization where I go on to tell you certain things about various individuated objects (eg. Lowe works in a University department studying the Philosophy of Mind). 
  2. Leibniz's Law, this states that if two things which exist at the same time (say A and B), are  identical with one another then any properties of A must be properties of B and vice versa.  
  3. When we individuate things we make room for re-identifying it. Namely you ascribe particular persistence conditions. To individuate something in a meaningful way you must have some idea of what it is for something to come in and come out of existence. 
  4. Lowe's first rule. If two things have token identity (explained earlier) then they must have come into existence at same time and have the same persistence conditions. 
  5. Lowe's second rule. You cannot individuate one thing in two different ways but multiple characterizations of a thing can be possible.  
For Lowe this laws are meant to show us how it is possible that a person is not necessarily identical with their body but at the same time isn't separable from their body either. One clear example of this is that for Lowe I'm not identical with the mass or composition molecules that make up my body at any one time. As the mass of molecules that make up my body is liable to change over time and we wouldn't want to say I ceased to exist every time my bodily composition changed. According to Lowe a person is metaphysically dependent on their body, so a body is required for person-hood. E.J Lowe thinks that mind and body are distinct substances which happen to share a number of properties (for example person hood or self hood requires the existence of a body). 

Non-Cartesian Dualism a more attractive proposition? 
It seems clear that a sophisticated Non-Cartesian Dualism, such as the Dualism offered by E.J Lowe and Donald Davidson is certainly superior to the Dualism offered by Descartes. But does this mean that it makes for a more attractive proposition than Cartesian Dualism and I would have to say that such Dualism is still extremely problematic. For example what is often taken to be the real problem for Descartes account namely Mind-Body causation seems to apply equally here and there seems to be no simple way to account for how the mind and body are meant to causally interact.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Introduction to Philosophy of Mind II : Positions on the Mind-Body Problem

In this post we will examine some of the various positions taken on the Mind-Body problem. An examination of the Mind-Body problem requires us to determine if the mental realm is different or the same as the physical. For example we might want to say that the mind is totally equivalent with our physical brain, though this position is by no means held by everyone. 

Theories about mind can be divided into two distinct varieties. One the one hand there are monist theories which claim that the world consists of one kind stuff or substance. On the other hand their are dualist theories which claim that world consists of two substances: typically the mental and the physical. Monism the theory that the world consists of one fundamental substance comes in four distinct varieties each of which I will briefly outline. 

Four Distinct Varieties of Monism 
  • Idealism or Solipsism, is the idea that the world is completely mental. Idealism claims that there is only one thing to our ontology, namely ideas. Idealism however suffers from a couple of serious problems. Firstly, Idealism seems to have problems in accounting for the persistence of objects. It seems that Idealist is going to struggle to explain how objects persist during periods of time when they are unperceived.  Secondly, experience appears to involuntary, what we experience appears to be caused by something beyond ourselves (a physical world perhaps?). Historically Berkeley is the best known proponent of Idealism and sought to avoid some of the apparent problems of Idealism by bringing God into the picture. The Solipsist extends this and claims that the whole of existence is constituted by their Ideas, everything is taken to be an Idea within their own mind. 
  • Physicalism: the physicalist makes the claim that there is only one kind of stuff and that stuff is of the physical kind. The Physicalist project requires that everything must at least be explained or reduced to the physical. Typically this has led physicalists to reduce mental properties and events to brain states or properties of the physical brain. For example a physicalist may claim that being in pain will ultimately be shown to be nothing more than being in a particular relevant brain state.  
  • Neutral Monism holds that reality is neither mental or physical as we understand the terms but really consists of one kind other stuff perhaps encompassing both the mental and the physical. 
  • Mental and Physical Monism, reality is essentially a single substance, but at the same time is both mental and physical. This leads to a kind of Panpsychism where the fundamental building blocks of the universe are to be taken both experiential and physical. Adopting such a position could lead us to hold that inanimate objects such as rocks may have some kind of conscious experience. One example of a prominent modern panpsychist would be the University of Reading's Galen Strawson.  
The major alternative to the forms of Monism is to adopt Dualism. The best known form of Dualism is substance dualism also commonly known as Cartesian Dualism due to the fact it originates in the work of the French Philosopher Rene Descartes. It this Substance Dualism that the rest of this post will most prominently focus on due to it's significant influence and historical importance. However it is important to note that their are other forms of Dualism. Substance or Cartesian Dualism isn't the only Dualist show in town. 

Unsurprisingly, Cartesian Dualism posits two different kinds of substance material bodies and thinking things. Descartes held that there is real distinction between minds and bodies, he felt that they were fundamentally different kinds of thing. Descartes differentiated between Res Cogitans- a thinking and Res Extensa an extended physical thing. What constitutes a person is a matter of  res cogitans not Res Extensa. Descartes offers up two different arguments to this effect, the argument from doubt and the argument from clear and distinct ideas. 

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Philosophy Video: Authors@Google: John Searle

This sixty five minute video see's international respected Philosopher John Searle come into Google's Californian headquarters to talk about his latest book. The said book being Freedom and Neurobiology: Reflections on Free Will, Language, and Political Power. This book published under abnormal circumstances as Searle mentions at the beginning of the talk consists of two essays, one on Political Freedom and the other on Free Will. The Google authors talk is solely related to the question of Free Will with Searle talking about Free Will for around half an hour with the rest of the video consisting of questions asked by various Google staff. Though not a philosophical audience many of the Google staff ask intelligent and insightful questions. As always Searle is a brilliant orator and remains one of my favorite lecturers on the subject of Philosophy of Mind even if I do not agree with every thing he says. Those interested in the question of Free Will might find this video worth a watch if they have free time.

Philosophy Video: Peter Singer: The Ethics of What We Eat

This is an hour and thirteen minute guest lecture given by the influential and controversial preference Utilitarian Peter Singer. The lecture was delivered by Singer for the students of Williams College, a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts, USA. Earlier today I listened to the lecture given by Singer, where Singer outlines the various ethical questions surrounding 'What We Eat'. Singer does a great job at outlining the various ethical questions that surrounding our eating. The lecture also gives the viewer the feel of Peter Singer's preference utilitarianism though Singer provides no explicit explanation of his views during the lecture. Though this is probably due to the fact that he is lecturing to an audience that are probably already familiar with his ethical views. I thoroughly enjoyed Singer's lecture and would recommend it to anyone who wishes to engage with ethical issues surrounding our consumption of food. For those who are not familiar with Singer's overall ethical views, I recommend they read his very well written book, Applied Ethics

Introduction to Philosophy of Mind: I - The Key Problems in the Philosophy of Mind

This post will the be the first post in what I hope will become a 10 post introduction to the Philosophy of Mind. The Philosophy of Mind is probably one of the most exciting areas of current philosophical research and is of great interest to many. Philosophy of Mind is also one of the areas of Philosophy that pays the closest attention to developments in physical sciences. Today, I hope to clearly set out some of the key questions in the philosophy of mind which are still hotly debated about today. 

The Mind-Body Problem 
Possibly the oldest problem in the philosophy of mind. The Mind-Body problem was first raised by the early modern philosopher Rene Descartes who famously declared himself to be a primarily a thinking thing. The Mind-Body problem is concerned with what the relationship between the physical body and the mind. This is primarily a ontological question (ontology is concerned with what exists) - how many kinds of substance does the world contain? We appear to have a special place in the physical world as it appears that we have rich mental life which is not shared by many other things including inanimate objects and certain animals. What is the relation between our rich mental life and the physical world, does the mental emerge from the physical or is there interaction between the physical and the mental. In recent times many unversed in philosophy seem to consider the mind to be simply equivalent to the physical brain, but the Mind-Body problem is still hotly debated within Philosophy. 

The Problem of Consciousness 
Related to the Mind-Body problem is the problem of Consciousness. This area of the philosophy of mind consists of several key questions about the nature of Consciousness. Namely, what exactly is consciousness? How and why are we Conscious? Are there different kinds or levels of Consciousness, do dogs for example experience a lower level consciousness? The questions surrounding the problem of consciousness are part epistemic (related to knowledge and the scope of knowledge); for example is it problematic that it appears that I can know my own metal states by introspection but I cannot know yours through the same method. The problem is also partly ontological with some struggling to see how Consciousness fits in with the physical world doubting whether consciousness can arise from physically closed world. 

The Problem of Intentionality 
In my opinion the most dry of the hotly debated issues within the Philosophy of Mind, this is the problem of representation. How can it be that a mental state is capable of representing another kind of thing such as a belief or state of affairs in the world. Again there seems the overarching problem facing the whole of Philosophy of Mind of how a physical event like a brain state for instance can represent a belief or instance of thinking. How can my brain state B1 represent the belief that Glasgow is North of London. What does it mean to have beliefs and desires? A number of different solutions have been offered in response to this question, none seem completely satisfactory. 

The Problem of Qualitative States 
This relates to the fact that our Conscious states seem to have a particular conscious feel, for example when I eat a hotdog there is something what it is like to have that particular experience. Namely experience has a particular qualitative feel. This has raised significant problems for Physicalism as some Philosophers have suggested that no purely physical explanation could account for this qualitative part of conscious experience. But this seems to raise a problem concerning what exactly are these qualia (Qualitative feel) are. Some such as Daniel Dennett have contended that Qualia don't really exist in the fundamental sense that we believe. But this kind of view seems highly counter intuitive as it appears we have an incorrigible believe that experience such Qualitative states. The problem of Qualia seems to be a threat to those who hope to explain the Mind in purely physical terms and therefore is a very hotly debated issue.