I was recently sent the cognitive neuropsychologist Chris Frith's latest book: Making up the Mind, subtitled 'How the Brain Creates our Mental World'. Reading the book reminded me of another recent work containing a controversy between Daniel C. Dennett and Peter Hacker (amongst others): Neuroscience and Philosophy: Brain, Mind, and Language.
Here Hacker takes cognitive neuroscientists to task for their 'conceptual confusions' regarding terms like 'inner representations', 'information', 'mental processes' and the like. His argument is not trivially with their choice of language. Rather he claims that a surface clarity of presentation obscures deep underlying confusions about the nature of our mindedness. Such supposed tacit confusions within cognitive neuroscience are, Hacker claims, what drive much of the putatively empirical theorising. Clear them up and what seems to need to be explained will be quite different. Neuroscientific work can go ahead, but wrongheaded conflations of neurological and psychological functions can be put aside.
In reply, Dennett suggests that Hacker fails to take note of the way in which terms such as 'internal representation' (or what have you) are actually used by cognitive neuroscientists. Hacker is supposedly committing the very fallacy he accuses the cognitivist's of: failing to pay attention to the actual 'grammar' of the terms employed in the language games of cognitive neuroscience. Attend to this and the appearance of conceptual confusion will, on the whole, be dissipated.
I propose to use Chris Frith's book as a test to see who is right in this debate. If Dennett is right, then the plaudit from Oliver Sacks on the back cover 'Chris Frith is well known for his extremely clear thinking on very complex psychological matters' will be to the point. If Hacker is right, Frith's clarity is a surface illusion which masks a considerable lack of conceptual clarity. Once this confusion is uncovered, we would no longer find ourselves wanting to ask and answer many of the questions Frith poses.
Now I'm afraid I'm going to spoil the story and let you in on my diagnosis. This diagnosis is in fact one which undoubtedly owes something both to Dennett himself - although not the Dennett of Neuroscience and Philosophy: Brain, Mind, and Language, but rather the Dennett of, for example, Consciousness Explained or Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness - and to Hacker. It is as follows:
Frith's work is fatally compromised by a tacit conception of the relation between the brain and the self which tacitly positions the self at the receiving end of putative 'information processing' which goes on in the brain. (When I say 'tacitly' what I mean is: the only way to make some kind of sense of the explanatory structures Frith mobilises is by considering them as presupposing some such positioning of an inner self; I do not for one moment suppose that Frith ever says anything of the sort about an 'inner self', and it is not of interest to me whether or not he even explicitly believes or disbelieves that 'the self' exists (whatever believing or disbelieving that would amount to). I'm not trying to describe his explicit theory of the mind, but rather to describe what seems to me to be a tacit commitment which underlies the way in which he develops his theories.) Experience is accordingly considered as a kind of 'output' from brain processes, tacitly conceived of as a kind of delivery to 'consciousness'. Consciousness is conceived of as a kind of inner screen or a 'mental world': the 'representations' which are delivered from a neurological working over of the deliverances of the senses are displayed there. We are accordingly said to be mistaken if we think we have direct experience of (what now becomes) the 'external' world. Cognitive neuroscience can show (as the book's subtitle suggests) that 'the brain creates a mental world' which does not concord with reality in interesting respects; it is of this inner world that we are 'directly' aware.
Frith lets us know (pp.188-189) that he is fully aware of the temptations in psychology to commit the 'homunculus fallacy'. That, in effect, is pretty much the fallacy that Dennett refers to when he talks of the inner 'Cartesian theatre'; the homunculus is the viewer of the inner goings on in such a theatre. But somewhat bizarrely Frith traces the fallacy to the temptation to suppose that we rather than our brains are in control of our actions. This, he suggests, is an illusion: our brains are in control, and they merely give us the illusory experience of being agents. This isn't the right characterisation, however, of the basic metaphysical mistake involved in making the homunculus fallacy.
It can be difficult to find a successful analogy through which to understand the homunculus fallacy, since it is so very bound up with the difficulties we have in thinking about the relation between our very own experience and its physiological substrate. But consider attempts to explain the forward movement of a car. Fuel is injected and ignited in the engine, pistons turn, crankshafts rotate, and spinning wheels grip the ground. The car goes foward. Essentially, we do not take ourselves to be required to provide an explanation of how a car resting on the ground is able to harness the power of the movement of its own wheels. The explanation is already over by this point. It is not as if this wheel movement has to be fed back into another inner system, turn some further crankshafts of an inner car, and cause its inner wheels to move.
So too: light from a waterfall hits the retinae, optic nerves are excited, striate cortex is innovated, etc. The person sees the waterfall. The consciousness of the waterfall is the consciousness belonging to the whole person seeing it and who's neurological functions subtend this perception. We do not need to suppose that there is some 'output' from visual processing into a kind of 'inner' visual field; we do not suppose that the brain provides 'inner representations' for the perusal of another consciousness. We do not need to 'harness' in consciousness, as it were, the firings of the visual cortex. The explanation just was of our consciousness of the waterfall, and it's now already over.
But hang on a minute!, Frith would say, 'the whole point of my book is to provide reasons for believing why 'our perception of the world is a fantasy', why 'it may feel as if we have direct access to the world and to our bodily states, but this is an illusion caused by our brain'. And, yes, he'd be right, I have yet to consider his actual claims. Furthermore, Frith claims to not be interested in explaining consciousness. Now I think that this extraordinary idea - that he's not interested in explaining our consciousness (what else is he doing?), comes primarily from a non-transitive conception of consciousness as something fairly epiphenomenal. Consciousness becomes something extrinsic to our perceptuo-motor engagement with the structures in our lifeworld. All of that engagement, all of those perceptually guided responses, can apparently occur without 'consciousness'.
In Frith's book it seems that we are to be said to be conscious of something in our environment, not if it effects our non-verbal behaviour, but only if we can put it into words in order to respond to questions. I do not see why certain behaviours should receive such a privileged position as criterial for the 'presence of consciousness', but let me leave this for another time and turn to the arguments of Frith's book.