Thursday, December 02, 2004

Vehicles and Objective Mind

Dan Arnold asked me about my reading of Vincent Descombes. Here's the answer for those who are interested:

As Heidegger notes in his commentary on Schelling’s treatise, the anthropomorphic criterion which establishes the basis for understanding is also assumed as the negative basis—that which is to be avoided—for scientific explanation. Positing the dualism of understanding and explanation without further reflection is tantamount to assuming this criterion to be self-evident and “its closer determination and formulation to be superfluous.” In order to redeem this dualism, such determination and formulation would be required. Insofar as the nomological status of explanation is at stake, the concept of the anthrōpos cannot remain de jure conceptually isolated on a protected terra incognita beyond the reach conceptual determination, though inquiry may de facto fail to identify a determinate concept for the mind or an adequate account of the laws explaining its existence in the world. For Heidegger, only an inquiry into “fundamental ontology” would be sufficient for the task. Otherwise, “ungrounded” claims such as Nagel’s or Chisholm’s about the irreducibility of mind and the entire “intentional idiom” to naturalized categories remain susceptible to Quine’s eliminativist interpretation of such claims, i.e., that they actually demonstrate the “baselessness of intentional idioms and the emptiness of a science of intention.” The “ambition for transcendence,” for Heidegger, can only be redeemed by first establishing the possibility of a system of freedom, i.e., of autonomous adaptive systems, or, upon the failure (a failure fated, according to Heidegger, by the very project of constructing such a system symptomatic of the meaningless willfulness of modern “technologism” and so the “culmination” of metaphysics) of this establishment, by beginning to discern a more fundamental freedom that resists any systematization. The decision between the options of this disjunction depends on the nature (or instead, perhaps, the Geschichtlichkeit) of the anthrōpos, which for Heidegger must involve an “unforgetting” of the historicity of human thinking and acting.

Since the problem of the anthropomorphic criterion cuts both ways, those who would abandon that ambition and instead attempt to naturalize the mind also assume the content of the criterion without demonstration. For example, in the case of artificial intelligence (especially in its early conception), it often seems that researchers maintain an implicitly Hobbesian preconception of thinking as algorithmic calculation, thereby frontloading their research with top-down rules which define in advance not only the possible procedure for calculation but the very meaning of it. Furthermore, Vincent Descombes (in The Mind's Provisions and elsewhere) reveals convincingly the persistent assumptions of Cartesian dualism among these self-proclaimed anti-Cartesians insofar as this research continues to presuppose a conception of mind as located in an inner sanctum that is detached from its outer environment. This anthropomorphism frequently goes unexamined.

In Hegel’s discussion of external teleology, this opposition (non-dialectically conceived) between milieu intérieur and external environment introduces the requirement of a mediating means between them in order to explain their interaction. Despite attempting to integrate mind into a mechanical structure by treating it as a generative grammar (“mentalese”) that is physically present within the organism, cognitivism remains a Cartesian type of “mentalism” (as Descombes labels it) because it maintains a fundamental mind-world dichotomy which necessitates the mediating bridge of mental causes, the discovery of which is possible through introspection into the inner mechanism of mind. Following in the tradition established by Descartes, cognitivists continue to look to internal processes—however variously understood—as the basis for philosophical speculation. For example, Chomsky claims that to understand is to interpret, and to interpret is to translate verbal input into meaningful utterances through the computational processes occurring unconsciously within the interior of the mind/brain. In opposition to such a move to interiority, Descombes argues for the Wittgensteinian thesis of the “externality of mind” such that “mind must be located outside, in exchanges among people, rather than inside, in the internal flux of representations” (Mind's Provisions, p. 2). Assuming for the moment the necessity of some sort of theory of “objective mind” (whether it be Wittgensteinian, Hegelian, or Descombes’s “anthropological rationalism”), it becomes clear that theories of interiority cannot be sufficient to account for the meaningfulness of the internal processes, regardless of their method or physical instantiation.

Another way to understand the critique of interiority and methodological individualism is to consider whether any theory such as Chomsky’s generative grammar is necessary for a mind to have representational content. This is to raise the question of the medium of thinking, or, in Brandom’s terms, the “vehicle” of a cognitive or intentional state. (See Robert Brandom, “From a Critique of Cognitive Internalism to a Conception of Objective Spirit: Reflections on Descombes’s Anthropological Holism,” Inquiry 47, issue 3 (June 2004): 236-253.) For the cognitivists of the computational-symbolic variety, some vehicle of thought, whether an ordinary public language or an unconscious physiological “brain writing” like Chomsky’s generative grammar, is necessary for a complete explanation of semantic content, because verbal inputs do not simply “go without saying,” i.e., become meaningful without some interpretive translation. From this perspective, the question concerns only what sort of computational process this translation consists in.

There are two interrelated tendencies to the Cartesian insistence that some such vehicle exists: first and more generally, the assumption of the existence of a vehicle of any kind is predicated on the necessity of some notion of an “inner process” in explaining thought and generating semantic content; secondly, the prospect of some sort of homunculus arises (if only a “debrained” one). Both cases bear on the anthropomorphic criterion, the first in terms of a theory of possessors of semantic content, and the second more specifically in relation to the scientific theories of consciousness. The latter will be addressed in the following chapter.

Concerning the general issue of an inner process, one often finds two sorts of options in order to explain the possibility of semantic content: mentalist philosophy represents the choice of locating the mediation between the semantic and the physical in the syntactic level of computation; the alternative is to abandon the paradigm of interiority altogether in order to avoid understanding semantic content or sense-making as the result of an inner process of any sort. The latter choice represents the alternative to the fundamentally Cartesian picture that mentalist cognitive science persistently retains.

As for the positing of a mediating level of syntactic computation, Searle’s Chinese Room argument attempts to demonstrate his most important charge against cognitivism and artificial intelligence: “Syntax by itself is neither constitutive of nor sufficient for semantics” (John Searle, “Is the Brain’s Mind a Computer Program?” Scientific American 262, no. 1 (January 1990): 26-31). The point is that the execution of a computer program cannot in principle enable the machine to understand itself, to be aware of itself as so acting, or to produce determinate content in order to make sense of the world in which it functions. Cognitivists concede these points but insist nevertheless that the abstract causal dynamics which give rise to consciousness must in principle be the same whether in human brains or in another physical substrate. Such an insistence continues to rely on the Cartesian assumption that mind lies within an inner milieu distinct from the outer environment and can in principle arise without any connection to the historical and normative practices of that environment.

Searle’s point, while itself relying on its own type of Cartesian mentalism, can be defended differently by invoking Wittgenstein’s critique of the inner production of semantic content. Wittgenstein writes: “What we deny is that the picture of the inner process gives us the correct idea of the use of the word ‘remember.’ We say that this picture with its ramifications stands in the way of our seeing the use of the word as it is” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §305, translation modified). The difficulty to obviate for Wittgenstein is the assumption that his avoidance of the “inner process” picture of thought is tantamount to behaviorism, i.e., that all that exists are behaviors and events rather than thoughts and actions. From his perspective, it would do no good to propose some alternative res as the res cogitans, because it would only create an analogous “grammatical fiction.”

Of course, cognitivists purport to be resolutely anti-Cartesian insofar as they deny the substance dualism of res cogitans and res extensa, preferring instead to treat all real things as only material. Thus, both the approach of “mentalism,” i.e., cognitive science, and Descombes’s externalism presuppose a place in philosophy of mind for the concept of “objective mind” because both theories acknowledge and attempt to account for the “tacit knowledge” that potential knowers must be assumed to possess (not necessarily privately) when they make inferential judgments without formulating the explicit rules of inference that are involved. The ability to ride a bicycle apparently requires no concomitant ability make explicit the rules of inference about the relations of velocity, acceleration, angle of elevation, etc. which are implicitly involved in making a turn. Native speakers of a natural language can judge the competence of a linguistic performance without being able to articulate the rules governing such judgments. Cognitive science, based on the Cartesian move to interiority in locating mind, treats the conferral of significance on these practices (such as making the turn properly or judging a sentence to be meaningful) to be the achievement of the individual or even of the individual’s brain. This is so regardless of the specific theory of the form or matter of the mind, i.e., regardless of the composition of mens or the substrate of its realization. The problem of interiority is the problem of methodological individualism. The cognitivist’s vestigial Cartesianism reveals itself in the lingering desire to preserve the intuition of the autonomy of mind, where autonomy is interiorized in the individual.

Descombes cites Hegel in defense of a different sense of “objective mind”: “Individuality is what its world is, the world that is its own [was ihre Welt als die ihrige ist]” (PhG, p. 223; PhS, p. 185). The passage continues by associating the “individual” with the “cycle [Kreis] of its action,” which action Descombes understands to be essentially social. Thus, as opposed to the internalized objective mind in which mens is integrated into the mechanical processing of a milieu intérieur and thereby individually confers significance upon the data input from the external environment, Descombes’s theory of objective mind follows the Hegelian (and, in a sense, Heideggerian) tradition of the “ontological primacy of the social.” A full accounting of the Hegelian (and Heideggerian) context for such a claim extends beyond this scope of this posting, but a general sense of the point merits some discussion. The “social mind” that Descombes is considering consists in the historically constructed and institutionally maintained normative space which is “presupposed in every manifestation of intelligence on the part of the subject” (Mind’s Provisions, p. 65) and which would be akin to “a sharable ‘state of mind’ or a rule to follow, as a condition for the exercise of intelligent activity, a condition to which individuals would be subject in a manner not requiring their consent. . .” (Descombes, “Is There an Objective Spirit?” pp. 98-99). Such an order of meaning must be presupposed by any “individual” in order for meaning to be conferred upon an action, i.e., for an event to be an action.

In sum, the “anthropomorphic” criterion which grounds the methodological dualism of Erklärung-Verstehen can be given determinate content only with reference to this “objective mind,” which in turn can only be understood in terms of social practices. Since this criterion authorizes the use of concepts in “conceiving of the world” and since that authorization confers a privileged status upon these concepts, Descombes’s “anthropological rationalism” would seem to support the pragmatist thesis that “all matters of authority or privilege, in particular epistemic authority, are matters of social practice, and not objective matters of fact” (Robert Brandom, “Heidegger’s Categories in Being and Time,” The Monist 66 (1983): 389-90) .


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