Sunday, December 17, 2006

William Hasker on intentional content

I have been re-reading William Hasker's The Emergent Self (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1999), which I consider to be a contempoary classic in the philosophy of mind. This is his description in the first paragraph on our common-sense conception of the mental.

Let us begin with a modest proposal: there are intentinal conscious experiences. There are, that is to say, such episodes as a person wondering whether it is going to rain, or believing that this has been an unusually cold winter, or deciding to let the credit card balance ride for another month. In typical cases such as these the
intentional content of the experience, what the experience is about, is something distinct from the experience itself, something that could exist or obtain (or fail to exist or obtain) regardless of whether or not the experience occurred. These episodes are consciously experiened; when we have them we are aware of having them, and there is "something it is like" to be having them.

Of course eliminative materialists think that none of this is true, but I think functionalists really are less than complete literalists about this as well. There is a good case to be made, in fact, for the claim that functionalism is really eliminative materialism disguised, and that there is a case to be made for taking one's eliminativism "straight" if you are going to take it at all.


Blue Devil Knight said...

In your commentary, you contrast functionalism and eliminative materalism. But functionalism and eliminative materialism are consistent with one another. You can be a functionalist about psychological states, but think that propositional attitude psychology will be eliminated, and there will be a better functional psychology to replace it.

Also, your picture of eliminative materialism verges on misleading. As you know, the eliminativists believe in some kind of mental content (e.g., the Churchlands). They just don't believe in one particular psychological theory (propositional attitude psychology).

Be careful not to conflate intentionality (Husserl and the phenomenologists) with modern-day propositional attitude psychology. You can be an eliminivist about one and not the other.

We've hashed through this, though, and I suspect the terminology 'eliminative materialism' will make it so that it will always be easy to mischaracterize what it means.

Hasker is a materialist, no? Some kind of 'emergentist' or at least a nonreductive physicalist?

Anonymous said...

Hasker is an emergent substance dualist, which is to say that he thinks matter has the power to, when particularly arranged, give rise to minds (that are logically capable of existing apart from the body).

Blue Devil Knight said...

matter has the power to, when particularly arranged, give rise to minds

So if two physical systems are in the same physical state (with complicated spatiotemporal organization) they will be in the same mental state? Or is there wiggle room for mental states to not supervene on the physical?

Edwardtbabinski said...

HASKER: "These episodes are consciously experiened; when we have them we are aware of having them, and there is 'something it is like' to be having them."

The question remains what that "something" really is and why it is so.

It does not strike me as self-evident that philosophy provides convincing answers to such questions, since the words that philosophers juggle are not the things in themselves. Science at least comes a bit closer, relatively speaking, to juggling around with things in themselves.

Philosophy is better at asking the big questions than answering the big questions in ways all philosophers can agree upon simply on the basis of philosophy.

Victor Reppert said...

I think Hasker thinks that supervenience is false. The mind, even though it is caused to exist by matter, exists indeopendently of matter and can, for example, exercise free will in the agency libertarian sense. An entire chapter is devoted to this claim.

I am having, at this moment, a thought about Blue Devil Knight. I think he is an atheist, I think he is a former student of Paul Churchland, I think he is a neuroscientist. I remember having some interesting discussions with him on eliminative materialism which left me deeply puzzled about what really counts as eliminiativism. These seem like beliefs to me, that is propositional attitudes. There is something that it is like to be in those states of mind. After all that discussion I had trouble thinking of how you could possibly be eliminating propositional attitudes if the states that will replace those attitudes actually do the job of propositional attitudes.

I know that the Churchland say that they believe in mental content and that this nevertheless doesn't involve propositional attitudes. Even though some conception of content may be compatible with eliminativism, when I try to describe what I do when I say, try to think through a philosophical problem, or what you do when you analyze neuroscientific data, what you end up with suffices in my book to be propositional attitudes.

There's not much of any substitute for actually reading Hasker's book. Many people on the materialist side have a caricature of dualism which this book will blow into little tiny pieces.

Anonymous said...


As has been pointed out, Hasker is an Emergent Dualist. He believes that the mind emerges from a properly order physical system. What makes you think that, given this, you could subtract the brain and be left with a mind? Are you talking postmortem? Is this a weird version of the zombie argument?

Blue Devil Knight said...

I have Hasker's book, and will read it someday when I have time to properly engage with it.

I understand the resistance to eliminative materialism. I am glad such resistance exists, as premature acceptance of EM, if it were false, would be much worse than falsely accepting prop attitude psychology. As I've said, I'm an agnostic materialist about all this, but usually end up defending the Churchlands because I know their work better than most people I run into (and such people typically haven't actually read much of their work).

That said, I have never experienced a proposition. My visual experience, for instance, which I take to be a canonical case of conscious experiences with rich representational content, seems to be nonpropositional in its representational structure. It doesn't seem crazy to claim that all of my experiences rest on such nonpropositional representational content, which would contradict your and Hasker's claims.

It could be that the propositional attitude theories are merely heuristic overlays that are very useful for explaining the behavior of language-using organisms, but which don't actually conform to the representational formats used by real brains (i.e., prop attitude psychology rests on a theorists' fiction).

However, we certainly do argue, justify, reason (with one another) using a symbol-system: it's called language. The fact that this idiosyncratic, evolutionary recent, intersubjective representational system is well described by rules and symbolic representations (a la Fodor/Chomsky) doesn't imply that the brains which produce them use the same format.

The best serious technical work on this topic is by Smolensky, especially his book The Harmonic Mind, where he goes beyond the name-calling typical of the Fodor-Churchland fracas and gets his hands dirty with the psychological modelling. It isn't neuroscience that Smolensky is doing, but neuroscience has so far to go to catch up with this debate that we need technically competent psychologists speculating in the meantime.

Staircaseghost said...

I heard a talk by Patricia Churchland recently in which she stated that the choice of the term "eliminativist" to describe the early iterations was driven by what the term meant in the philosophical community at the time, and that if she had it to do over she might have preferred the label "revisionary materialism". She cited the essence of the position as coming from an offhand remark from Kant to the effect that "the categories of experience are not given in experience" -- in other words, as any science progresses, folk concepts are abandoned or revised, and it is highly unlikely that the concepts of folk psychology will somehow remain immune to such revisions.

Unknown said...

Even though I'm agnostic, I've had firsthand experience of astral projection. It was more realistic than any other experience I've ever had, including my lucid dreams. It would be irrational for me to dismiss my astral projection experience, unless I intend to dismiss all other less realistic experiences. Although I realize that I can't "prove" this to other people, I've felt compelled to find rational explanations for the existence of the soul. Materialism is out of the question, while idealism and traditional forms of dualism seemed incoherent and/or contradictory. I had already developed theories about how physical processes shape the soul, and two funny words popped into my head: emergent dualism. I Googled it and discovered William Hasker's philosophy. I must say that I'm extremely impressed.