Don’t bet the chicken coop

Jerry Fodor

  • Thinking about Consciousness by David Papineau
    Oxford, 280 pp, £25.00, April 2002, ISBN 0 19 924382 4

A note to Royall Tyler’s elegant new translation of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji explains that ‘Hahakigi (“;broom tree”) is a plant from which brooms were indeed made and that had the poetic reputation of being visible from afar and of disappearing as one approached.’* Well, philosophers live in a thicket of such things; it is often very trying.

Consider, as an example, current philosophical discussions of consciousness. Lots of us think that, details aside, Lucretius had things about right. What there really is is atoms-and-the-void, and there’s really nothing else. True, the story about atoms is more complicated than Lucretius supposed; so, too, is the story about the void. But the underlying materialist intuition continues to be plausible; everything is the same sort of stuff as familiar, ontologically untendentious objects like rivers, rocks and stars. The whole world is that sort of stuff in its myriad configurations. So construed, materialism is a sound bet on a research programme: sooner or later, science will figure out what it is that everything is made of. The results from our first couple of millennia pursuing this programme have been pretty good. It now seems probable, for example, that not just rocks, rivers and stars, but also many animate things are material through and through. That’s most encouraging.

On the face of it, however, the problem of consciousness suggests that materialism can’t be true. ‘How can pain (which hurts so) possibly be the same thing as insensate molecules rushing around in nerve fibres?’ David Papineau asks. Good question; but one that seems, much like the broom tree, to slip away even as one tries to grasp it. Witness passages like this:

There is, of course, a rather different reason for doubting that the semantic power of ‘quasi-phenomenal reference’ can be found in the absence of genuine phenomenal subjectivity. For it is possible to doubt that the silicon ‘zombie’ would be a zombie to start with, on the grounds that the presence of appropriate representational properties may itself guarantee the presence of phenomenal subjectivity. This will follow if we adopt a ‘representational theory of consciousness’, according to which conscious properties are constituted by representational properties. On any such theory, a representational duplicate will necessarily be a conscious duplicate, which would mean that there is no possibility of a silicon doppelgänger who makes ‘quasi-phenomenal references’ and yet has no genuine subjectivity.

What on earth is that about? And where, oh where, has the broom tree gone? Papineau’s new book is a brave attempt to show that consciousness isn’t, after all, an intractable problem for materialists (‘Mystery – what mystery?’). But it strikes me as not convincing.

Here’s his view in a nutshell. There’s a ‘widespread conviction that materialism is false’; that, in particular, a conscious experience (say of a twinge, or of a shade of blue) is a different kind of thing entirely from the firing of a neuron; different, indeed, from anything at all that biochemistry is able to describe. Papineau calls this the ‘intuition of distinctness’. The main thesis of his book is that this intuition is ontologically unreliable. As things stand, he thinks, there’s no reason to doubt that materialism is right. Mental events (and states, and properties and so forth) are organised basic stuff, just like rocks and the rest.

There is, to be sure, a bona fide mind/ body distinction in the offing, but Papineau doesn’t believe that it’s ontological. Though mental things are (by assumption) a species of material things, it doesn’t follow that mental concepts are a species of material concepts. There can, after all, be many ways of thinking about the same thing; the concept ‘water’ is distinct from the concept ‘H2O’, but water is H2O nonetheless. Similarly, perhaps, the concept of a brain state and the concept of a conscious (‘phenomenal’) state are different ways of representing the same configurations of matter. Papineau thinks that the intuition of mind/body distinctness is a sort of hypostatic illusion in which a difference between kinds of concept is mistaken for a distinction between kinds of thing. Point this out, and the intuition goes away.

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