Archive | December, 2012

Thought and Consciousness – A Crucial Contemporary Debate

17 Dec

An important book came out this year. The volume ‘Cognitive Phenomenology’, edited by Tim Bayne and Michelle Montague, collects articles for and against the thesis that thought is a kind of conscious experience. This debate is both deeply strange and deeply important.

It is deeply strange as it is an argument over the very general character of human conscious experience. But each person involved in the debate is (as far as I am aware) a human, and has the power to introspect his or her own conscious experience. One would think, then, that this group of humans would be able to settle these questions just by introspecting, and finding out what human experience is like. And yet, when introspecting, the people on one side of the debate claim to find something very different from those on the other side.

Non-believers in cognitive phenomenology claim to find in introspection only sensory experience: feelings, emotions, visual and auditory imagery, etc. Believers in cognitive phenomenology claim to find, as well as these sensory aspects, a distinctive kind of thought constituting experience, for example, the experience of realising you’ve found the solution to a problem. An alien reading this volume would probably assume that Earth is populated by two very different species of intelligent life, one of which has much richer conscious experience than the other. On the assumption that this is not the case, philosophers on one side of this debate are deeply deluded about the nature of their own experience.

The debate is deeply important because the vast majority of twentieth century accounts of thought, at least in the Analytic tradition, dealt with thought in isolation from consciousness. Twentieth century Analytic philosophers thought that we could divide up human mentality into two distinct components: conscious states, defined as states such that there is ‘something that it is like’ to have them, and thoughts, defined as states with truth-conditional content. Two of the most influential accounts of thought, Jerry Fodor’s ‘language of thought’ hypothesis, and Donald Davidson’s interpretationalism, treated thought as a phenomenon that has absolutely nothing to do with consciousness. If thought is itself a kind of conscious experience, then all of these accounts are radically off target.

For a long time ‘consciousness’ was a bit of a dirty word, and many philosophers and scientists preferred to pretend consciousness didn’t exist; ‘feigning amnesia’ as John Searle put it. Eventually it came to be accepted that, however much certain philosophers might wish it away, consciousness is a real phenomenon, and must somehow be incorporated into a scientifically respectable world view. Nonetheless, Analytic philosophers consoled themselves with the belief that thought could be accounted for without having to worry about pesky consciousness. But if thought just is a kind of consciousness, then the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ is really a hard problem of mentality in general.

If believers in cognitive phenomenology are right, and I’m inclined to think they are, then Analytic philosophers of mind are only just starting to properly focus on the phenomenon they’re supposed to have been trying to explain for the last seventy years.

Tax avoidance – How cynical to deny the legitimacy of moral judgement

14 Dec

You don’t have to be a professor of moral philosophy to know that there’s something wrong with Starbucks arranging their affairs so that they pay zero tax in the UK. It’s very difficult to argue to the contrary. But David Giamaulo and Geoffrey Wood, writing in the Guardian on Saturday, have a novel strategy for doing so: they deny the legitimacy of moral judgement itself! ‘There are some universally agree moral principles – do not kill is pretty widely accepted – but does this really fall into the same category?…Some will say one thing, some another. Universal moral principles are of the greatest importance, but are not a guide to every detail of life.’

They remind me of certain first year moral philosophy students, who assure you in seminars early in their degree that ethical discussions are a waste time, as it’s all just ‘a matter of opinion.’ The response is obvious. Whilst Aristotle was right in saying that ethics is not as precise a science as physics or mathematics, nor is it just a matter of personal preferences, like whether one prefers sweet or savoury. Ethics is a matter of informed, careful, rational judgement, not arbitrary preference. And society is best when citizens engage thoughtfully and actively in the moral concerns of the day. This is what happened on Saturday when hundreds engaged in civil disobedience as an expression of their deep concern over the way Starbucks and others have chosen to arrange their tax affairs.

Presumably Giamaulo and Wood would also like citizens to shut up about equal rights for women and minorities, the harm multinational cause to the environment, and the effect of transfer pricing on the developing world (a loss of more than the global aid budget according to Christian Aid). After all, there are no ‘universally agreed moral principles’ in these areas, so we might as well just sit back and let lobbyists decide government policy. What cynical men they are.