“The Current State of Play”

by Asher Kay

Riffing off something Dyke the Elder said in another thread:

Sometimes squirrels feel like a nut; sometimes they don’t. But when they do, they operate uncomfortably close to the boundary between ententionality and intentionality to find one. Within an evolutionary picture, that uncomfortable closeness is about what you’d expect. In a world where there’s a dominant intellectual tradition between human cognition has, for milennia, been set apart from the intelligent interactions with nuts and such by other species, it takes an enormous amount of untangling to get accounts of intelligent interactions that stand up to scrutiny.

No fricking kidding. Last night I was reading the beloved Stanford Encyclopedia’s entry on Mental Causation, and my heart just sank. It felt like a huge mob of philosophers, all jostling and shoving at the entrance to a flybottle. There was almost zero acknowledgement that all of these contortions of logic and all of these argumentative flaws could be set aside simply by rejecting mental/physical dualism. Then, a note of hope at the end (emphasis mine):

One possibility is that truthmakers for psychological truths include irreducibly mental properties. This is not the only possibility, however. Another is that psychological assertions are made true by physical states and properties, states and properties answering to predicates belonging to physics and chemistry. A view of this kind would endeavor to resolve the problem of mental causation, not by tinkering with the causal concept, but by rejecting the idea that mental properties are distinct from physical properties. All parties agree that mental predicates and descriptions differ from physical predicates and descriptions. Application conditions for mental terms and physical terms diverge in ways that preclude definitional reduction of the one to the other. Perhaps it is a mistake, however, to move from this linguistic fact to a substantive ontological thesis: mental and physical predicates designate properties belonging to distinct families of properties.

Whether anything like this could be made to work is an open question. To the extent that you regard the current state of play as unsatisfying, however, it is perhaps a question worth pursuing.

I looked around for more work by Robb and Heil (the article’s authors), and found this paper by Robb which argues that an identity theory (rejection of mental/physical dualism) solves the “exclusion problem” (roughly, that if physical stuff is causally relevant, it would seem to exclude mental stuff from being causally relevant, or vice versa). The fact that an identity theory would solve this problem seems obvious way beyond the need for a paper to defend it, but if you read the paper, you will see that Robb’s main problem is not making sense of his thesis — it’s making sense of his thesis to a community of people whose language for talking about the problem makes his solution difficult to even state.

Here’s an example. Robb is defending a “trope” identity theory (a trope theory is basically a kind of nominalism that says that universal types are really just instances that fall within a similarity class). In the paper, he responds to imagined objections pulled from the literature. One such objection is:

O4: The identity solution merely relocates the exclusion problem. While psychophysical trope identity may rescue the causal efficacy of mental powers (tropes), it still leaves open whether they are causally efficacious qua mental. Put another way: if mental powers are both mental and physical, why not think they are causally efficacious only in virtue of being physical? Closure would motivate this problem, and we’re back with, if not the same exclusion problem, at least very a similar one (Noordhof 1998; Shoemaker 2003, 434; Macdonald and Macdonald 2006, 552-3).

Now think about how you might answer such an objection. I might answer it in the following way:

If mental powers are both mental and physical – if being mental is really just being physical – then talking about them being efficacious “only in virtue of being physical” is either nonsensical or tautological.

I might even add “Duh!” at the end, depending on my mood. But here’s Robb’s response (part of it, actually — the whole thing is too long to quote):

R4: The general thought behind this objection seems to be that we will have solved the exclusion problem only if we finally arrive at something–of whatever ontological category–that’s only mental, that is, mental but not physical. Anything that’s both mental and physical, the thought goes, invites exclusion worries all over again. So, for example, Davidson’s (1980, 1993) desired stopping point is at mental events, which, he says, are physical. But since mental events are both mental and physical, exclusion worries arise, so that we must show that mental events are causes in virtue of their mental features (powers). Similarly, the line goes, if our desired stopping place is with these mental powers, it had better turn out that they’re not also physical, for then we get the same problem all over again, so that we must show that mental powers are causally efficacious in virtue of their mental features (higher-order powers). And so on.

But there’s something suspect in this general line of objection. If psychophysical identity at the desired stopping place continues to invite exclusion worries, why shouldn’t other psychophysical relations at the desired stopping place invite similar worries? Suppose, for example, that mental powers are in fact only mental–that is, mental but not physical–yet are immanent in (Yablo 1997, 275) or nothing over and above (Wilson 2005) the physical, where this may be spelled out in terms of, say, realization (Boyd 1980), the determinable-determinate relation (Yablo 1992), constitution (Pereboom 2002), metaphysical necessitation (Bennett 2008), de re, a priori determination (Jackson 2006), or something else. And suppose that immanence, in whatever form it takes, does in fact secure the efficacy of mental powers with respect to physical effects. Is there still a lingering worry that these powers are efficacious, not in virtue of being mental, but merely in virtue of being immanent in the physical (Lowe 1993, 632-3)? Maybe mental powers are efficacious, but only because they piggyback on their physical base powers. This appears to be, if not the original exclusion problem, one that’s very similar to it.

It could be argued that what Robb’s response here is not substantially different from mine. But what strikes me, in this response and throughout, is that Robb never really abandons the language that distinguishes mental from physical. He is, in effect, trying to make his argument in a foreign language — one ill-suited to the point he’s trying to make. And further, he’s walking into a prevailing conversation that has already rejected his approach. The very first objection Robb cites is:

O1: Psychophysical property identity was undermined decades ago by the multiple realizability argument (Fodor 1974; Boyd 1980; Putnam 1980). Indeed, the contemporary debate is really just about how to save mental causation in the face of the non-reductive physicalism established by this argument. Proposing an identity theory at this point ignores these results and disengages from the contemporary debate.

Maybe that’s what it comes down to. We really want there to be something non-physical. We really want to save a bizarre idea of mental causation, however hobbled and jury-rigged, from the evil forces of non-reductive physicalism. We really want to be special in a way that squirrels can never be.


16 Comments to ““The Current State of Play””

  1. Yes. Also, yes.

    And for the record, I don’t really want to be nonsquirrelesquely special, although I think I make a better latte than most squirrels.

    I wonder, though, what it would take to get over this wanting, which is the same wanting that in a different frame does the god thing. Already at Descartes the dualism was strained and silly. Kant said ‘just stop it’ at some length. Wittgenstein tried it the other way then said whoops, never mind and showed how to bury the project. Rorty made philosophy history. Of course it’s tendentious to tell the story this way. Since we’ve accepted tactical pluralism as a fact and a virtue, what does the transcendence move accomplish that keeps it lively and productive?

  2. For now: Either we’re the consequence of a miracle, or the result of evolution. I take it the three of us leap to the latter. Okay. Then get the evolutionary story right. Forget EVEN all the Robb bullshit, which is in a discursive space that will lead you back inevitably to the dead end. Build an investigative ecosystem whose discursive dynamic weeds out the Fodors, Rortys etc. and composts them in anthologies for introductory philosophy courses.
    For us at the moment, it seems to me, that means throwing in our lot with Deacon — not because he’s the Einstein of evolved consciousness, but because he’s got the best evolutionary account in town; it confronts the complexity honestly; and he’s out there doing a lot of the twisting and tweaking for us so we don’t have to do it. He’s also intercepting a lot of what’s flying off the fan all the time.

  3. Right, so when I just said “lively and productive” I didn’t mean productive of progressive knowledge. Nevertheless something is being produced, both retail in Philosophy and wholesale in religion. And the ‘mistake’ of that has been at least potentially obvious for hundreds of years, with some pretty gnarly punctuation at Hume, Feuerbach, Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, Durkheim and Freud, without much effect. I’m all for just getting on with the new project, but insofar as we’re interested in translation, pedagogy and pluralism, there’s inevitably a parallel question about how to either sunset the gods or do what they do by other means.

  4. Everybody has a role to play, even if it’s only in a cautionary tale.

    Maybe the role Robb plays is to extend a tendril into the particular tradition of Philosophy of Mind that makes me want to rip my hair out. If those philosophers can say, “Oh, Deacon’s theory is basically an identity theory. It’s basically a trope theory”, a conversation can begin to occur. There they all are, standing around in tuxes with expensive glassware, talking about anomalous monism and multiple realizability. The guy who walks up and says, in effect, “Hey, I have an opinion about that” is not wearing a lab coat and toting Pyrex. He does not smell funny, and nor is his hair improperly brilled. He has an opinion that the others might consider a “toy” or “naive” view, but if he signals the right depth of understanding, the correct manners, he will shortly be considered an enjoyable eccentric — a refreshing challenge.

    Or maybe not. It’s a lot of reading and a lot of understanding to do just to convince a bunch of people who are willing to construct byzantine theories to avoid being squirrels.

    As to getting over the wanting, I have no idea. I am enthralled, fascinated and elated by every study I read that describes other animals doing cognitive things that we thought only we could do. I have a really hard time imagining feeling threatened by it, and I can’t grasp what would cause such a feeling. It’s everywhere, though — in the god thing, in our avoidance of “nihilism” in metaphysics, in the denial of intentionality to squirrels.

  5. A thought about sunsetting the gods:

    I think a sizable part of the problem is territorial — science infringing on philosophical ground. And a sizable part of that is the idea that there’s no place for armchair or “a priori” thinking. Maybe a good development for philosophy is to try for a sort of “Canberra plan” approach, where we examine concepts and metaphors from the front end and work back. It seems to me that the most successful partnerships between science and philosophy recently have been in the cognitive sciences, where there’s a focus on the content and process of thought, both empirically and (for lack of a better word) phenomenologically. People like Mark Johnson (who I mentioned before), Andy Clark (who thinks Merleau Ponty is cool and studies robotics), Daniel Dennett (who pals about with all sorts of Santa Fe-like people), Joshua Greene (who works in a “Moral Cognition Lab”), and many others seem to be getting traction in a landscape with more than its fair share of spinning wheels.

  6. From this NYTimes article.

    Michael A. Steele of Wilkes University in Pennsylvania and his colleagues have studied the squirrels’ hoarding behavior, which turns out to be remarkably calculated and rococo. Squirrels may be opportunistic feeders, able to make a meal of a discarded cheeseburger, crickets or a baby sparrow if need be, but in the main they are granivores and seed hoarders. They’ll gather acorns and other nuts, assess which are in danger of germinating and using up stored nutrients, remove the offending tree embryos with a few quick slices of their incisors, and then cache the sterilized treasure for later consumption, one seed per inch-deep hole.

    But the squirrels don’t just bury an acorn and come back in winter. They bury the seed, dig it up shortly afterward, rebury it elsewhere, dig it up again. “We’ve seen seeds that were recached as many as five times,” said Dr. Steele. The squirrels recache to deter theft, lest another squirrel spied the burial the first X times. Reporting in the journal Animal Behaviour, the Steele team showed that when squirrels are certain that they are being watched, they will actively seek to deceive the would-be thieves. They’ll dig a hole, pretend to push an acorn in, and then cover it over, all the while keeping the prized seed hidden in their mouth. “Deceptive caching involves some pretty serious decision making,” Dr. Steele said. “It meets the criteria of tactical deception, which previously was thought to only occur in primates.”

  7. We are currently/perpetually revising our general education core down at school. This is a passable description of the process.

  8. It’s the dark side of empathy, anticipating the other’s move so you can counter it. Squirrels that are particularly adept at hiding their nuts are also the best at finding other squirrels’ nuts. Evidently chimps suck at hiding food: they like to compete with each other and they’re not very good at sharing, but once they find food they’re big blabbermouths about revealing its whereabouts.

  9. Or maybe not. It’s a lot of reading and a lot of understanding to do just to convince a bunch of people who are willing to construct byzantine theories to avoid being squirrels.

    Sigh. Sad, but true. I try to keep up with the moving goal posts sometimes, but it’s damn hard to do the work necessary building a positive and rigorous project, while also talking people out of their self imposed labyrinths of orthodoxy…let alone the day job 8/

    Its not what we don’t know that thwarts progress on unanswered questions; it’s what we’re sure we do know.

  10. I had a moment in the Gen Ed meeting today when I saw red, when the entangling masses of ignorance, aggressive timidity, and self-defeating illusion felt like they were going to smother me. At that moment I had no interest at all in thinking through what my colleagues’ seeming commitment to perpetuating their own misery and inflicting it on new generations might be for. I was ready to give up the whole effort to inch things along to something a little more life- and intelligence-affirming, to fling my poo like a frustrated chimp. Fortunately another colleague kept his wits about him and patiently kept the virtues of the new plan in view while the others slowly got used to a new way of thinking. We’ll have to do the same thing with the whole dang faculty before we can get anywhere at all. This is an analogy, but I’m danged if I’m going to explain it right now to you intelligent people I hang out with on purpose.

    More directly re: squirrels, chimps, people and gods I was reminded of this famous passage from Marx’s Capital, vol. 1, ch. 7 (note: early enough that he’s still getting stuff in position rather than altogether saying what he means yet):

    Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. We are not now dealing with those primitive instinctive forms of labour that remind us of the mere animal. An immeasurable interval of time separates the state of things in which a man brings his labour-power to market for sale as a commodity, from that state in which human labour was still in its first instinctive stage. We pre-suppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. And this subordination is no mere momentary act. Besides the exertion of the bodily organs, the process demands that, during the whole operation, the workman’s will be steadily in consonance with his purpose. This means close attention. The less he is attracted by the nature of the work, and the mode in which it is carried on, and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as something which gives play to his bodily and mental powers, the more close his attention is forced to be.

    I’ve always thought this was good to think with. I wonder if that remains true in light of the current discussion, and if so how. You’ll see that (here at least) he puts a lot of distinguishing weight on consciousness, which leads us back to Deacon. Can Deacon’s consciousness do the work Marx wants it to here? Would we want it to?

  11. I was just reading Carl’s piece on gender and the division of labor. That seemed to me to deal with a well delimited phenomenon (read, happens all the time); and, involving choices, involves “consciousness” however understood. Now, i don’t think you can say yet “Deacon’s consciousness. He himself says he hasn’t gotten all the way to that yet. But you can say, a consciousness consistent with the way it came to be a well delimited phenomenon that Carl can ep[itomize and quickly and smoothly get us to understand. Clear cases are to be treasured. When we have them, we can get an intelligent start on the “how possibly” questions on relatively smooth ground. Since we’re not Cartesians or Kantians, we’re not going to be distracted by transcendental accounts, so we can settle down onto historical and evolutionary turf: Deacon’s turf. That’s why the long passage Carl quotes is “good to think with”, all the better because of the distinguishing weight it puts on consciousness — putting us on the qui vive. So, how in the world did the situation Carl describes come about? (And how big an army of minds will it take to make headway on an answer?) In fact, being able to specify (to the granting agencies?) the size and shape of the required army of intellect would be a big step forward.
    Focusing on the “how possibly” questions, and rejecting transcendental answers describes the major transition in Foucault’s thought between THE ORDER OF THINGS and his later work. The key transitionary work is the one on Nietzsche and history — the distinction between origins and beginnings is one of the code phrases. Foucault decisively made the transition, with inevitable little backslidings here and there. Deacon has done so as well. The intellectual world as a whole has not, as Asher laments. In fact, some people want to hang on to a distinction between explanation and cause precisely because there’s no way causal explanations can be transcendental (beyond what you can get your teeth into, for those who aren’t familiar with the term) and explanations seems to preserve the possibility.

  12. Hi–I am just joining this conversation and haven’t read Carl’s piece on gender and the division of labor: can someone point me to it? I like Foucault’s transition myself, responding to Dyke the Elder’s post, but his history of the present has its own point of view and his examples of power/knowledges and what he excludes from his purview is itself a power/knowledge, hence the absence of any real study of gender and male power in his researches, although “the hysterical woman” does make it into The History of Sexuality, v. 1, and the women’s movement as it refuses the identity ‘woman’ gets another good thumbs up in one of his interviews. While I like the combo of grand theory and historical particularity in Dyke the Elder’s recent paper “Freedom to Work” I miss any reference to gender in his critique of our current “socio-romantic” idea of the ideal of retirement to leisure after a life of meritorious (assumed to be paid) work. What is missing is that the reproductive gendered labor that women do is not something that we retire from, since husbands, lovers, ageing parents, children, and grandchildren continue to need love, care and domestic labor of some sort or other. I assume that this means this kind of labor is the good “thermodynamic” kind in that it promotes the reproductive loop of the human species, but, on the other hand, this may not be so good if one has come to despair of the contributions of the human species to the ongoing ecology of life on this planet.

  13. Hi Ann! If I remember correctly, some part of Foucault’s point is that there’s no escape from power/knowledges. So your feminism is also a power/knowledge with exclusions, a point of view, and so on. Can this even count as a critique? As I understand it in the context of the current discussion, the things discourses do are enabled by the ways they’re constrained – a discourse that was successfully about everything would be like Borges’ map. This then shifts the ground of critique from shooting the inevitable excluded ducks in their lonely barrels, to seeing what’s accomplished by a particular system of constraints, how it evolved, what its possibilities are in relation to available resources and agendas, and so on. DtE has also been arguing that the costs of inevitable constraint can be somewhat dissipated by discursive pluralism, which I think is a neat point to see showing up in this context.

    I’ve done a whole bunch of gender/division of labor posts here over the years, but I think the one we’re referencing and the most currently on point would be my tangential take on the Slaughter controversy.

  14. I think this earlier post on Sarah Palin and gender in Ming China also fits the drift of the discussion, although I’m starting to worry that we’ve hijacked Asher’s thread….

  15. I’m perfectly happy. What’s got me thinking is the idea of an individual person’s work being part of a larger “teleodynamic” system. We’ve all considered the analogy of the animal as a “cell” in the “body” of the larger ecosystem, but I’d never really thought about what things like retirement would mean in this context — or gender roles for that matter.

    Also intriguing is the idea of normativity in Ann’s mention of “good” work. I have been thinking for a while about normativity as an ontological feature. It seems to me that if humans’ great trick was to subvert the natural order by extensively modifying the environment, it could also be said that we’ve subverted the normative order by taking motivation from outside the realm of “what’s good for the cell is good for the organism”.

  16. Nice! I’m not sure we’ve subverted anything. I think what we’ve done is embody in a particular way. The thing where we are or could be outside nature is the mirror trap of species arrogance, no?

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