Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Making up the Mind 4: Summary


So let's summarise the results of the discussion so far. First, Frith tells us that he can use the 'big science' of brain scanners to provide an objective check on the goings on within minds otherwise inaccessible to us other than by putatively scientifically untrustworthy first-person reports. We saw, however, that this strategy cannot work: for the brain scanners to provide information about the mind, we must rely on correlations drawn up between the information from the scans, and what the scannees tell us.

Next, Frith tells us that the neuropsychological findings he cites provide evidence for the following idea: that we are not in truth in direct perceptual contact with the world, and that the brain presents to consciousness a picture of the world but disguises all the unconscious inferences that have gone in to making it up. Cases of illusion and hallucination and brain damage are cited to make this case. I have argued, however, that the neuropsychological facts force no such conclusion on us. The conclusion is drawn because of the way the facts have been presented. And they have been presented under the conceptual spell of three inter-related metaphysical pictures:

  1. Objectifying fallacy: Instances of our intentional relatedness (in the sense of 'replete with intentional directedness', not in the sense of 'intended') to the world - in perception or thought, for example - are re-described as if they are mental objects or inner events or states.

    An intentional act of seeing of a plant pot now becomes an inner representation, a kind of mental object. Cases of illusion or hallucination are described as cases in which we are presented only with mental objects, rather than cases in which intentional relatedness fails - as if to say, when it seems to me that I see something but don't, there must nevertheless be something that I see!

  2. Mereological fallacy: Intentional, psychological, properties are attributed to a mere part of the human being, albeit a very important part: the brain. The central nervous system is credited with a range of human abilities such as recognition, inference-making, knowing, representing, etc. These however are properties and abilities that are surely only really sensibly attributed to agents, people, subjects. Often it is clear that the attribution of the human powers, e.g. of representation, is metaphorical and the metaphor can be legitimately cashed out in properly neurophysiological terms. However at other times the brain is described as if it were a competing agent with the person who's brain it is, descriptions which give rise an un-earnt sense of mystery.

  3. Homuncular fallacy: The person, who's consciousness of the world would normally be taken to consist in their perceptual relation to it, now becomes an interior witness of the 'inner representations' (objectifying fallacy) arrived at and served up by the brain (mereological fallacy). Consciousness itself - a kind of inner powerpoiont presentation with the brain at the 'change slide' controls - now inevitably becomes a complete mystery.

As a result of these conceptual confusions we arrive at a situation which is even worse than Frith suggests - that we do not have direct contact with the world. Taken together, these three fallacies provide a kind of triple alienation of the living human being from their immediate environment and from other people. We might have thought that when I am conscious of a flowerpot, I am in a direct intentional relation to it:

Perceiving Subject <----> Perceived Object

But no. First the nervous system is (mereologically...) taken as the proximal subject of experience. This then serves up (entifed...) representations into a kind of inner mind space or consciousness. The (homuncular...) person or self must then resort to perusing the contents of this inner space in order to satisfy themselves with whatever remnants of the idea of a perceptual contact with a flowerpot are left there.

Inner Perceiving Subject ----> Inner Representation <---- Brain Inferences <---- Sensory Stimulation

As a general scheme for explaining human experience this is clearly a disaster. Not only is it founded on three highly dubious metaphysical pictures. It also leaves completely un-understood our capacity to enjoy visual consciousness itself. Our natural consciousness of the world around us becomes internalised into a mysterious inner process. It becomes so mysterious that Frith will tell us in the Epilogue that the book is just 'not about consciousness'. This is perhaps unsurprising. If the business of guiding action and generally getting around the place and staying safe can all be carried out by the right hand-side of the above schematic - i.e. by the brain processes:

Inner Representation <---- Brain Inferences <---- Sensory Stimulation

then what serious role is there left for the inner perceiving subject who becomes somehow aware of what is served up by the brain:

Perceiving Subject --->

If, instead of supposing that human consciousness occurs at the inner end of a host of neurological processing of objectified psychological entities, we supposed that human consciousness just is our intentional relatedness to the world, then we will be free to see the neurological processes and sensory stimulations as part of its realisation or implementation.