Is Speaking Acting?

Is Speaking Acting?

We have grown accustomed to the phrase “speech act”, so much so that we regard it as a truism: of coursespeech is a type of action! It is an action we perform with our mouth and larynx as opposed to our hands or feet. Assertion is something we do—it is an intentional action. Nor is it an action merely in the very broad sense the word “action” allows: as when a physicist speaks of action at a distance or action and reaction, or a physiologist speaks of the action of the digestive system, or a psychologist speaks of reflexes as actions. No, the word is meant to imply intentional goal-directed intelligent conscious action, like preparing for a party or an exam. It doesn’t just mean uttering words, making sounds come out of your mouth, flapping your lips about. Speech is not action merely in that trivial sense. The idea of the speech act, as it is commonly understood, is supposed to be opposed to the idea simply of picturing a fact or expressing a proposition or stating a truth or pronouncing a word; a speech act is held to be an action that does something with words—gets something done, like making the hearer bring you a glass of water. Speaking is a practical activity, according to this conception, like farming or building a house. And since speaking is the primary form of language, language itself is to be conceived as action-oriented: knowing a language is a species of knowing-how, an ability to act in the world—intentionally, consciously, purposively. So we have been schooled to believe. I will argue that this is all wrong, from top to bottom; it is simply not true that speaking is acting in this full-blooded sense. It is not an action at all, save in a very attenuated and trivial sense (not the sense intended by its proponents). The “pragmatic turn” is an error.

I begin with an easy point. If assertion is an intentional action, it must be accompanied by an intention, namely the intention to assert. But people who assert do not in general have such an intention, because they don’t have the concept of assertion. They are not linguists or philosophers of language (certainly not speech act theorists). People don’t classify their utterances as assertions, even when they are (or interrogatives, imperatives, optatives, performatives, or exhortatives). They just say things a theorist may classify in this way; such classification is generally alien to them. So, it is not true that whenever someone makes an assertion, he or she does so under the aegis of an intention to assert. The speaker may have other intentions, like intending to inform or embarrass or contradict the hearer, but she doesn’t typically have an intention to make an assertion (a speech act theorist might have such an intention). Moreover, it is hard to see how she could have such an intention, since there is no agreement on what an assertion is: is it an attempt to communicate knowledge to the hearer, or just belief, or mere consideration, or a mental act of imagining? Are we to suppose that the ordinary speaker has a view about which of these theories of assertion is correct? No, she just comes out with a sentence that we characterize as an assertion; no such notion need enter her head. So, the category of assertions cannot be defined as those speech acts that are performed with the backing of an intention to assert—for there is no such intention in the normal case. All we have, at most, is a variety of intentions that might accompany assertions, e.g., the intention to inform the hearer of something (which might be accomplished in many ways, not all them via assertoric speech). And there might be no intention at all, just a kind of reflex or habit of speech, like rolling the tongue around the mouth or smacking the lips or swallowing one’s saliva (what are called “sub-intentional actions”). Isn’t a lot of idle chatter like that, or mumbling to oneself, or speech produced by rote? Sometimes words just pop out without any guiding intention, automatically, reflexively.

What if all speech were thus reflexive? Would that stop it being speech? Would no language be spoken in such circumstances? What if we came across a speech community (possibly not human) that produced words and sentences without any conscious deliberation, without guiding intentions, even without much in the way of intelligence? It is all pretty pointless, just a way to pass the time, with no ulterior aim in mind. Would we describe this strange activity as not speech at all? No: we would say it is a kind of degraded or purposeless speech, but still speech. The sounds uttered would have the structure and semantics of a language but lack its normal human pragmatic dimension. It might strike us as silly, gratuitous, surplus to requirements, but it would still be speech—the utterance of linguistic expressions. The same is true of a speech community that eschews all outer speech and sticks to inner speech, which completely lacks the pragmatic properties that our speech often exemplifies. This would still be speech but not be an action at all, in the sense intended by speech act theorists. The property of serving inter-personal purposes of familiar kinds is contingent to speech as such, i.e., the production of words and sentences in a language. Speaking itself is not essentially tied to achieving extra-linguistic aims. It consists only of acts in the trivial sense, i.e., things people or objects do, as opposed to what happens to them (e.g., blink as opposed to having a speck enter the eye). In principle, linguistic use could be stripped down to the basics and still be a case of speech; it might serve no purpose at all, or a purely individual purpose (say, as an aid to thought), or be just a hobby people share. It is not even clear that it requires consciousness or means-end reasoning or practical rationality.

Speech certainly requires an ability to utter words (externally or internally), but that is a far cry from what the speech act theorists had in mind. Maybe it also requires the capacity to utter words freely, voluntarily, spontaneously; but again, that is not what the idea of speech acts is intended to suggest. The idea is to contrast actual language and speech with conceptions that operate with such thin notions as expressing a proposition or stating a fact or saying something; speech, it is thought, does much more than that (though also that). The contention is that speech involves doing things with words in a sense that goes beyond merely uttering them in such “acts” as saying, expressing, stating, and the like. The underlying thought is that language is not merely symbolic representation but goal-directed action performed in a social context. But this conflates competence and performance, and interprets performance in a much too inflated way. Linguistic competence is a cognitive capacity not a sensorimotor skill; and linguistic performance is not essentially a matter of social coercion or education or whatever other goals it may on occasion possess. Speaking is not in its essential nature an act of interpersonal manipulation (good or bad): it isn’t a social instrument, a tool for getting ahead, a means of achieving one’s goals. Speaking is uttering words you understand to form sentences; what you go on to use these words or sentences for is another matter. Understanding a language is not act at all; it is a cognitive state. Thus, language is not speech and speech is not action (in the intended non-trivial sense of “action”). Competence is not performance and performance is not goal-directed intentional behavior (except in certain cases). Knowledge of language is not practical knowledge in the sense intended by the “pragmatic turn”; it is not a disposition or capacity to perform acts that achieve chosen ends (it isn’t knowing how to do these things). Semantics (and syntax) is not pragmatics. Knowing a language is not like knowing how to build a nest or catch a fly with your tongue. It is more like knowing-that than knowing-how, as in “I know that ‘snow is white’ is true if and only if snow is white”. Speech act theory, as it has come down to us, is really an over-intellectualized form of behaviorism. Speech isn’t a deed. In speech sounds are produced, trivially so, which is an active faculty, but it is not constitutive of speech that it be a full-blooded intentional act in the style of speech act theorists.[1]

[1] The philosophers I have in mind as spearheading this movement are Wittgenstein and
Austin, though they had many followers. Obviously, I have Chomsky in mind as resisting this kind of neo-behaviorism.

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Attitudes to Memory

Attitudes to Memory

Let me distinguish memories from our attitudes towards them. Memories, though changeable, are relatively static compared to our emotional response to them. The memory may fade or disappear with time (or it may not) but our feelings about it are quite plastic and can even reverse valence. A painful memory can become affectively neutral or even quite pleasurable in the light of later developments. What was once serious can become amusing. This is because we mature with time, gain perspective, see the bigger picture. It is attitude that determines trauma not memory content as such. Two people could have memories with the same content but vary in their emotional attitudes towards that content. Childhood events that were emotionally difficult at the time no longer seem so in retrospect. Proust was the master of this psychic domain: how we feel about what we remember not what we remember. The affective aura of a memory is separable from the memory itself. Memory affect is detachable from memory content. This means that a memory could be fixed and immutable while its affective charge is plastic and variable. We might not be able to rid ourselves of certain memories, but we may be able to alter their emotional force. In principle, we could change our emotional relation to memories at will while remaining completely powerless to change the memory itself. In practice, we could lessen the negative impact of a memory while leaving the memory intact. When people speak of “letting go” of the past or “moving on” from it, they mean lessening its emotional hold on them not lessening the presence of the memory itself. They mean something like remaining tranquil in the face of the memory not abolishing it altogether. The impossibility of the latter does not imply the impossibility of the former.

I mean this point to apply to the feasibility of rebirth therapy. Someone might object that simulated rebirth will leave memories intact, so not provide a way of freeing oneself from their malign influence. But this conflates memory retention with memory influence: you could retain the memory but not its affective charge. The affect could be reduced or neutralized without needing to get rid of the memory trace itself. A machine or drug could alter one’s attitude to a memory without altering the memory per se; similarly, the rebirth procedure could have the same kind of effect. So, it is no objection to the efficacy of the procedure that it leaves memories intact, because it doesn’t necessarily leave their affective charge intact. The question, then, is whether, empirically, such a change can be brought about by the procedure, given that it will do nothing to erase the memories as such. By finding, or creating, a new self within oneself, in the act of rebirth, it might well succeed in altering the emotional power of memories—as already happens with the normal passage of time and experience. If we can tap into the pre-trauma childhood self, we might be able to distance ourselves from the memories laid down by negative life experiences. Death abolishes all trauma, and birth begins with a pre-traumatic blank slate.[1]

[1] Rebirth therapy exploits a discontinuity in the removal of trauma: first, simulate death in order to abolish trauma; second, simulate birth so as to encourage the formation of a new untraumatized self. The time gap between these two phases allows the psyche to gather its forces after symbolically annihilating itself. There is something of existentialist psychology in this conception—the idea that we have the power to re-shape ourselves, to create a new facticity (as Sartre would say). I see also elements of Freud, Maslow, Goffman, Laing, and others.

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Foundations of Psychotherapy

Foundations of Psychotherapy

Say what you like about Freud but at least he had a general theory of the nature, origins, and development of human personality. It centered on psychosexual dynamics, and repression figured prominently. It covered the emotions, neurosis, unhappiness, the family, dreams, jokes, art, morality, and other things. But we need not follow Freud into the intricacies of psychoanalysis; we can attempt our own theory of the human condition with similar ambitions in mind. We can adumbrate a general conception of personality that may be used in therapeutic contexts. We already have a wealth of information about this domain, because we have each lived human lives and been subjected to the travails thereof. We just need to assemble this information into a general framework of understanding and then recommend the appropriate course of treatment for what ails us. I actually don’t think this is difficult; the truth lies close to the surface. It is not, however, easily converted into ameliorative protocols; and my proposal may well seem drastic and potentially dangerous, certainly not reassuring.

We are not born miserable, damaged, neurotic, unstable, or a complete mess—though there are no doubt genetic predispositions at work. It is the world—experience–that does these things to us. We don’t need psychotherapy in the womb. We are born a blank slate psychopathology-wise; we should therefore be empiricists about psychological disease, unease, imbalance (whatever we want to call it—and that matters). This is an oft-told tale: the hapless neonate is hit immediately with hunger, discomfort, frustration, disappointment, isolation, its own incompetence, and (of course) maternal displacement or deprivation (she’s always going away). It’s a rough old world, a world of inconvenience and hostility, hurt and misfortune. And it is like this for everybody, before we even get to serious cases of neglect, abuse, danger, and injury. The infant’s psyche is assaulted on every side. Nor does it get much better: as time goes by there is rejection, bullying, parental failure, injustice, feelings of inferiority, self-doubt, fear, and all the rest. The years are marked by damaging stimuli, periods of misery, general ennui, and worse (betrayal, heartbreak, illness). None of it is easy to cope with. And on top of all that the human psyche, especially in early years, is stubbornly retentive: we remember all this bad stuff, not just in explicit memory but in the deeper recesses of the psyche. There is thus a cumulative build-up of wounds, traumas, and stresses, as well as trivial slights and disappointments (also some good things!). Other people become sources of pain, agents of harm. The suffering psyche must carry this burden. Thankfully, memory is not perfect: memories fade, leaving only a trace of their former sting (or stab). Time heals, as they say, but only partially; the scars remain. There is one balm for all this accumulated damage: sleep. Each day we awake to a new dawn with the residue of the previous day somewhat attenuated. If memory were perfect and sleep non-existent, we would surely be a lot more (what shall I say?) fucked up—done over, beaten down. But again, this provides only partial relief to the struggling psyche. That’s why psychotherapists exist, to take up the slack, to supplement forgetting and sleeping (feeble, really, against the slings and arrows of outrageous etc.). Bad experiences and retentive memory, with little relief, are the human lot in life. We all know this is true, though we may be reluctant to admit it.

What is the solution? What can put a stop to this inescapable build-up of trauma, large and small? What can reverse it? An obvious idea is to zap the memory banks: just erase all that bad stuff from the psyche, so that we can go back to those blissful days before the world had its way with us. Maybe a drug, maybe hypnosis, maybe electroconvulsive therapy—anything would do. But this is clearly impractical: such methods will wipe out too much, or not enough, or leave us like newborn babies mentally. Reincarnation looks like it might be a way out, but there is no such thing, and anyway the same shit will happen again. Here is where I reach for my drastic and possibly dangerous therapeutic proposal: Controlled Rebirth. First, we simulate death; then, we simulate birth. We thus distance ourselves from the life we have lived up to now; we put it in the past, bracket it, deactivate it. It is as if our past life is someone else’s, no longer at the core of what we are. Concretely, you lie down, therapist by your side, and you pretend to die, possibly thinking of the person or animal you hope to meet on the other side. You have to do this with full conviction. Next you lie still for a while, whatever length of time seems right; you then signal to the therapist that it is time for you to wake up. She proceeds to act as psychological midwife, coaxing you back to life, as if this is your first experience of reality—you act the part of newborn baby. You don’t talk. Your helper may then take you on a soothing walk in your new world, as if experiencing it for the first time. You gradually adjust to your new reality. This protocol may be gone through once or several times, depending on felt efficacy; and it is best undertaken after a period of preparation in which your wounds and scars are patiently excavated and curated, lovingly examined. It demands complete trust in the therapist, and she must treat the process with the utmost seriousness. The purpose of the treatment must be fully understood by the patient (and assented to, of course). It won’t cure you of all your psychic ills, obviously, but it may help to mitigate them, reduce their hold on you. The spirit of the procedure is to recognize the causation of the presenting symptoms and provide a form of treatment that directly attacks the basic problem. This is a medical approach in its general form. Instead of the release of repression as in Freud’s practice, this approach advocates rebirth of the psyche in simulated form. It is to be judged by its efficacy (as most medical procedures are—it is often not known how they work). I call this Simulated Rebirth Therapy, or just Rebirth Therapy. I venture to suggest that it is probably no worse than all the others, and more theoretically well-founded. It acknowledges the indisputable facts of human life, which can be more or less severe, and it attacks them in a literal and methodical manner. The only way out of human life is renewed human life.[1]

[1] The element of drama and ritual should not be underestimated: rebirth therapy is a dramatic enactment of the basic fact of birth, ritualistically realized. It exploits the power of the theatrical—the ability to make things so by acting as if they are so. It is like a performative utterance gone existential. Or again, it draws upon the power of fantasy (a theme of Freud’s). Coming-of-age rituals are similar, though virtual rebirth is a step beyond, a harder climb. In it we choose to be reborn.

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Philosophy of Skill

Philosophy of Skill

There is no such thing as what the above title describes. We have philosophy of knowledge, perception, thought, emotions, imagination, and action—but not philosophy of skill (except for some scattered remarks). You can’t take a course in philosophy of skill in a typical philosophy department. So, let’s create the subject—let’s put it on the map. We will begin with some good old-fashioned ordinary language philosophy—what we would say when and why. The OED sets the stage: for “skill” we read “ability to do something well; expertise or dexterity”. This is admirably terse, but it needs some expansion. I can walk well, but would we say that walking is a skill? What about breathing or excreting or sitting down or picking one’s nose? The bit that’s missing from the dictionary definition is difficulty and value: a skilled action is one that overcomes or minimizes a difficulty—it isn’t something easy and automatic—and it should be something that is valuable or worthwhile or good. We don’t say that an action is skilled if it is easy and of no account, however well done it may be—say, chucking mud over the neighbor’s fence for the hell of it. We don’t see competitions devoted to such activities, or public esteem for their agents. Expertise and dexterity help, but what kind of expertise and dexterity—not in mere mudslinging (or nose picking). The paradigms of skillful action include piano playing, surgery, and tennis—where we recognize that these are worth doing and require much dedication and practice. I will therefore say that skill involves overcoming obstacles to the achievement of a goal, as well as merit in the goal achieved (we don’t say “Jones is a skilled bullshitter” or “Wendy is a skillful annoying guest”). Synonyms for “skillful” include “talented”, “accomplished”, “adept”, “adroit”, “competent”—all positive terms of evaluation. So, a skill should require for its mastery some degree of training and effort and be directed to something meritorious. A skilled surgeon is properly so described, or a skilled craftsman. We admire skill precisely because skill requires dedication to an esteemed outcome in the face of obstacles to success. Skills are learned, acquired, honed, refined—all in the service of something good. This is the difference between skilled labor and unskilled labor (or simply being a thief). The idea of a skilled torturer sticks in the throat because it lacks the latter while it might conceivably involve the former; and the idea of a skilled food purveyor lacks the element of expertise and training. We are now moving towards an analysis of skill in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions: Xis skilled in doing A if and only if X can do A despite obstacles to doing A and A is a worthwhile thing to do.[1]We might add to this barebones analysis the further condition that X has to learn to do A by training and practice, and that worthwhileness can take many forms (so we can include surgery, tennis, and piano playing under the proposed definition). I will leave it to the reader to think through such examples as “skilled lawyer”, “skilled politician”, “skilled policeman”, “skilled chess player”, “skilled detective”, “skilled weightlifter”, “skilled philosopher”, “skilled predator”, “skilled postman”, “skilled butter-spreader”, “skilled lover”, “skilled thinker”, “skilled perceiver”, “skilled salesman”, “skilled cashier”, “skilled alcoholic”, “skilled gossip”, “skilled TV watcher”, etc. Which of these locutions sounds right and which wrong, and why?

Is talking a skill? I mean ordinary chatting about this and that, not public speaking or thespian performance. I think not: because we can all do it easily and without practice and training—it’s like eating or walking or avoiding pointy objects or biting your fingernails. There is no skill involved; this why no one is paid to do these things and there are no sports involving them. Writing is a skill, even if done poorly, because it has to be acquired by effort and it has merit; but mere talking isn’t. Swimming is a skill, but floating isn’t, or jumping into the pool. Playing a musical instrument is a skill, but singing per se isn’t—unless you take voice training lessons. Dancing may or may not be a skill, or mountain climbing. Talking is indeed an ability, a type of competence, but it isn’t really a skill—though it is like a skill such as speaking in a foreign language. Dropping a ball isn’t a skill, though throwing one is. Talking is like dropping a ball—it comes naturally, effortlessly. Animals are not usually spoken of as possessing skills, except metaphorically by comparison with human skills, because animals don’t generally work at improving their motor capacities; where they do, the term is appropriate. It would be strange to say that birds are skilled flyers or sharks skilled swimmers—though they are both good at these activities. They don’t admire other members of their species for their (ordinary) flying and swimming skills (as we don’t admire other humans for their bipedal walking skills). No obstacles had to be overcome by these species; they were born this way. Animals are generally good at excreting (they had better be), but no one thinks to congratulate them for their skillful acts of excretion. Talking is like excreting in this respect (as in other respects). Nor are perceiving, remembering, and thinking skills, though they may be involved in the exercise of genuine skills. The concept of skill is quite specific and is not to be identified with the concepts of ability or capacity or competence. It would be quite wrong to say that a blind man lacks the skill of seeing, since seeing isn’t a skill, though seeing can be described as an ability. I don’t see the cup in front of me skillfully.

Are some kinds of skill paradigmatic while others are so described only by analogy? The OED tells us that “skill” is primarily used to ascribe “manual or physical” skills. This is exactly right: hands are the primary locus of skill, with feet coming second, and other body parts following along, the mental kind of skill being a distant runner-up. The pianist and the carpenter are the paradigms—they are “good with their hands”. The skilled agent has skilled hands above all (footballers may loudly protest, but they are an unusual case). Hand skill is not the same as hand strength or endurance or sheer flexibility; it is a matter of fine-tuned dexterity—a word that covers a multitude of talents. For dexterity comes in many forms that don’t transfer much from one to the other: you can have finger dexterity in one domain but not in others (e.g., throwing a ball with spin versus playing the violin). The brain, of course, is centrally involved, but the hand is the part of the body where the skill shows itself. It is our skill with our hands that sets us apart from other species, and which led to our species dominance.[2] The human hand is designed for skilled action, because of its powers of gripping and its team of adaptable digits. A skilled lawyer or politician can handle difficult situations, quickly, nimbly, effectively; he or she can mend fences, hold people together, keep a firm grip on things. Lawyers and politicians tend to use hand gestures a lot when they speak, as if exhibiting their strong (but gentle!) hands—so caressing, so reliable. They are not inept or clumsy; they have the world in the palm of their hands. They won’t let you slip. And they are always shaking people’s hands—they are skillful at that. The skilled laborer, for them, is the salt of the earth, the repository of all that is good and wholesome: the skilled hand is the good hand, the virtuous hand, the industrious hand. Manual skill is something to be admired and prized. The more a man approximates to that paradigm the better he is thought to be. Thus, skill comes to occupy a position of social and political centrality. A man who does not work with his hands is hardly working at all (he is an egghead, a brainiac, a pencil-pusher, an “intellectual”). In any case, the concept of skill is centered on the hands and derivatively elsewhere. Not “In the beginning was the deed” but “In the beginning was the skilled hand deed”.

The concept of skill has been neglected by philosophy (analytical philosophy anyway—too closely associated with the laboring classes), but it has not been neglected by other disciplines. I am referring to economics and psychology, in which skill has always had a central role. In the case of economics, the concept comes in via the focus on labor as the engine of production—skilled labor being of paramount importance to an economy. It is skill that primarily drives economies, where manual skill holds pride of place. When the economist speaks of the contribution of labor to productivity, he really means skilled labor—the greater the skill of the workforce the greater the economic progress. What is called the division of labor is really the division of skill, in which each worker specializes in a particular sub-skill (say, nail sharpening in Adam Smith’s famous example). The more that different skills are parceled out to different agents, the greater the productivity, and hence the greater the wealth of the society. The philosopher could contribute to this subject by employing her specific kind of intellectual talent (skill?) to clarify the concept of skill. In the case of psychology, the study of skill has been there from the start; not behavior as such but skilled behavior. How are skills acquired? What learning methods work best? Are there transfers of training between skills? But philosophy, which borders economics and psychology, has had little time for the concept of skill, preferring to focus on the cognitive and the phenomenological. Even cognitive science has shied away from skilled motor performance (perception and reason being the favored subjects). There is nothing objectionably behaviorist about studying skilled action, which has its roots in the brain after all. So, I suggest making the philosophy of skill part of the philosopher’s regular agenda. Enterprising graduate students could specialize in the philosophy of skill (not much literature to read).[3]

[1] This may remind us of Bernard Suits’ definition of a game in The Grasshopper (1978).

[2] See my Prehension (2015).

[3] Whole dissertations could be written on the different skills (piano playing, wood carving, knife throwing). Interdisciplinary work could be undertaken. Journals could be founded (Skill Studies, Hand, Quarterly Journal of the Society for the Study of Human Skilled Behavior). Bitter controversies would ensue.

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On Matter

On Matter

Matter is very versatile stuff. And it is capable of amazing feats: it excludes other matter from its place; it exerts gravitational force; it can condense into black holes; it can be extremely hot or extremely cold; it can be positively or negatively charged; it can emit radiation; it can cause massive explosions; it can change from solid to liquid to gas and back again; it can travel at widely different speeds; it can combine into different life forms; it can chemically react with other matter; and it can produce consciousness. Space (and time) has nothing like this richness of capabilities, and what powers it does have derive from matter (as in General Relativity). Matter is multifaceted, a highly accomplished actor on the world stage. It isn’t just brute extension or simple solidity or bare occupancy. We tend to underestimate its talents because they are not visible to unaided sense and because we haven’t witnessed its entire history (no one has ever seen a black hole form). And this is before we get to exotica like dark matter and quantum mechanics. Many of these powers are unexplained, possibly inexplicable; yet we know they exist (e.g., electromagnetic charge). Some are counterintuitive or contrary to common sense (e.g., atomic bombs). There may still be surprises in store for us. Light has surprised us several times: its speed, its particulate make-up, the color spectrum. Matter is like planet Earth: far more active and changeable and varied than we tend to suppose (I am speaking of its geology). Matter, like Earth, has a long and tumultuous history: the big bang and the formation of galaxies; volcanic upheavals, drastic climate change, chemical revolutions. Neither is a dull dead lump. Earth produced life; matter produced consciousness: we don’t know how but we know it is so. The brain is made of matter organized in a certain way, and it is the basis of consciousness. This is one of its many achievements, and not wildly out of character: matter is capable of many remarkable things and this is just one of them, though perhaps the most remarkable of all.

My point is that conscious matter is not something to recoil from (as Locke long ago urged): matter is capable of many amazing things and producing consciousness is one of them. No doubt this ability is deeply mysterious (as Locke also urged), but it appears to be so and the alternatives are unpalatable. It seems uncanny and impossible because we don’t comprehend the full nature of matter—its nature isn’t perceptually given. If we had found that the head was home to a remarkable ball of light, constantly changing, with many a variation of color and brightness, we might not be so inclined to jib at the suggestion that it is the basis of consciousness (by contrast, the brain has a dull dung-like appearance). But we have to accept that the brain is the de facto basis of consciousness, like it or not. It is just that its potency is hidden from us—like the explosive power of the atom (so much from so little!). There is no Second Substance allied with the atom that accounts for its explosive potential, as there is no immaterial substance tethered to the brain that accounts for its power to produce the mind. There is just matter exercising its astonishing range of abilities. The brain appears to offer the right conditions for this power to manifest itself, mysterious as that may be. Metamorphosis is not alien to matter; indeed, metamorphosis is endemic to it. We must not conceive of matter too geometrically, with shape and size predominating; nor should we think of it too practically, with solidity being its prime characteristic. We should recognize the impressive versatility and potency of matter, as evidenced in its behavior from the big bang to the present time. Matter contains multitudes.

One of the properties of matter I have not mentioned (there are several) is color and other secondary qualities. Some material things are red: how is this possible? By rights they shouldn’t be, because matter is objectively colorless. But matter interacts with the nervous system so as to give rise to impressions of color; it is capableof so doing. Thus, a color is “projected” onto a material thing and it sticks there, clinging to the surface, as it were. Color is, we are inclined to say, a mental property that has attached itself to insensate matter. Thus, the mental has invaded the physical, joined forces with it, infiltrated it: the two have become united in a single thing. This is not so far from what the brain does in relation to the mind: it brings mental and physical together (sensations and neurons). I will say that color is an “interaction effect”—a result of the interaction between external object and brain. It needs both: nothing is red without the joint action of object and sensory system. This suggests a bold hypothesis: consciousness is an interaction effect of the material brain. I mean this hypothesis to be super-speculative, as befits the subject. The brain interacts with the material environment in perception and with the material body in action, but it also interacts with itself—this is what is meant by neural “connectivity”. Neurons interact with other neurons in enormously complex ways and at different levels of description (electrical, chemical, informational, representational, phenomenological). The hypothesis, then, is that consciousness is an interaction effect of such myriad interactions. I don’t mean it is reducible to them; the effect is of an “emergent” character. This is quite commonplace with interaction effects from the chemical to the social. In some way we don’t understand, neural interactions give rise to conscious states; this is the kind of fact a conscious state emerges from.

Note how limited this claim is: it is not intended as explanatory, still less specific and detailed; it is merely a hypothesis about what to look for in searching for the neural basis of consciousness. Not in properties of individual neurons (like single action potentials), nor even in properties of ensembles of neurons (cascades of nerve impulses), but in interactions between neurons. Logically, it’s like looking for the origins of political movements in interactions between individuals: something new emerges from such interactions. The individual neurons have properties that may transcend what we know, and their interactions convert these properties into the conscious states we experience, by methods we don’t understand. There is therefore plenty of mystery in the interaction hypothesis, but it is not entirely toothless. We might call it “interactive materialism” (compare “central state materialism”); it is one class of materialist hypotheses, where by “materialism” we simply mean “brain-based”. Its full name might be “mysterian interactive non-reductive neural materialism”. We already know that parts of the brain can interact with other parts to produce properties not derivable from each part alone–as with language parts and emotion parts, or perception and thought parts, or memory and imagination parts. The interaction theory of consciousness extends this idea to the generation of consciousness itself—neural units interacting so as to produce (mysteriously) conscious experiences. Putting it in terms of the traditional identity theory, pain (say) is identical to an interaction of C-fibers and other associated fibers, not the firing of C-fibers alone. In principle, evidence could be found that supports this hypothesis (or refutes it). The underlying idea is that matter has the capacity to interact with itself and in special (unknown) circumstances this gives rise to consciousness. Brains provide these circumstances (we don’t know how) and they evolved millions of years ago (we don’t know when), thus unlocking yet another latent power of matter. The gravitational powers of black holes are released by increasing the density of matter; the mental powers of brains are released by suitable interactions between their constituents (of an unknown nature). No interactions between neurons, no consciousness.[1] Ordinary chunks of matter afford no such interactions between their parts, so they won’t be conscious; ditto for empty space. But the brain is essentially an interactive organ within its own confines, and on an unprecedented scale. This is the necessary correlate of consciousness, its material signature. But even if the interaction hypothesis is false, we can still say that consciousness is among the powers of matter, which is not the inert solid lump it has often been depicted as. Consciousness is as natural to matter as its other powers are. It is one of matter’s gifts to the world, for good or ill.

[1] This theory is no doubt wide of the mark, but it may not be as wide of the mark as every other theory hitherto proposed. Surely it is true that the brain’s interactive powers outclass those of any other natural object.

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Questions About Consciousness and the Brain

Questions About Consciousness and the Brain

I think it would be a good idea to investigate relations between consciousness and the brain that are not usually investigated. I don’t say these investigations are feasible, now or in the future, but the idea of them is worth pondering; they reveal how little we really know about brain-mind relations. Nor do I claim that answering these questions would solve the mind-body problem; on the contrary, this would at best provide data for a theory.

  1. How localized is consciousness? Is it spread diffusely over large sections of the brain or is it more sharply confined to key areas? How many distinct areas is it localized in, if any?
  2. Is the rate of neural firing correlated with consciousness? Is there a threshold rate? Is a high rate associated with increased conscious activity?
  3. Which areas of the brain are the first to produce consciousness? Presumably this occurs in the womb, so the question is what part of the fetus brain first lights up with conscious states? What type of consciousness is this?
  4. What were the first conscious brains like? How similar were they to today’s animal brains? How many millions of years ago was this, and how soon after the first life forms evolved?
  5. How complex does a neural net have to be in order to produce consciousness? What kind of complexity is involved?
  6. How do the unconscious parts of the brain compare to the conscious parts? Is there any discernible neural difference?
  7. Is the simultaneity of conscious processes correlated with the simultaneity of neural processes, e.g., the simultaneity of perception and thought? How precise is the correlation?
  8. How far does neural density affect the presence of consciousness? If you stretch the brain out, does consciousness change? Does the distance between (connected) neurons matter?
  9. Does extracting particular chemicals from the brain matter to consciousness? If so, which? Are some chemical elements more important to consciousness than others?
  10. How much similarity is there between the neural correlates of language and those of consciousness? Is this greater than the similarity between the neural correlates of consciousness and other psychological faculties?
  11. Do phenomenological similarities map onto neural similarities? Are there are any laws governing such a mapping?
  12. Is the physics of the brain any different from the physics of other things? What about the chemistry?
  13. Are the dynamics of the brain the same as the dynamics of consciousness?
  14. To what extent do subatomic events affect consciousness? Are there any quantum psychophysical effects?
  15. How many neurons does it take to produce a conscious event?
  16. Does the cellular structure of the brain have any bearing on the structure of consciousness?

Are there any other similar questions that need to be added?

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My Left Arm

My Left Arm

Apparently, I have done the three things most likely to damage my right arm: drumming, kayaking, and tennis. All involve repetitive motions with the hand held high, and I have done a lot of each. In addition, my neck surgery caused some nerve damage to my right arm.  My left arm, however, is undamaged, as good as new, one might say. The trouble is, it is only my left arm and is therefore relatively underdeveloped compared to my right. During the last year I have undertaken to educate it, to work on improving it. This is my case report. It began when I realized I had to play tennis two-handed from now on, because I had lost power and accuracy in my right arm. Also, it hurt. So, I started using two hands for both backhand and forehand, practicing nearly every day. It has been nine months and I can now play two-handed tennis, which has its own charm. But the amazing thing has been the progress in my left arm, which has now taken on a new life, almost as if I have grown an extra limb. Or its partial paralysis has been cured, because I used to be highly right-handed. We tend to neglect our non-dominant arm (as it is normally described), letting it just hang there in an inferior role. The process has been fascinating: gradual but steady, as brain and muscle join forces, each developing in interaction with the other. I can feel the improvement from day to day. It’s slow, to be sure, too slow, but it happens. In hitting the backhand, you have to learn to rely on your left hand (assuming you are right-handed) and not expect your right hand to do the main work; it’s like a lefty forehand. The left side of your body gains a new autonomy. The will gets a firmer grip on it. It comes alive. It’s as if you have acquired a second body. A tennis coach said to me the other day that he loves the two-handed backhand, and I can see why: you use more of your body, you become symmetrical, you don’t droop on one side. You start respecting your sinistral self.

But the effects don’t just manifest themselves in tennis. My drumming has improved as my left hand acquired more dexterity. So did my guitar playing, because the fretting hand became more agile and controllable; the fingers got quicker, more connected to my will. But knife throwing was the real revelation. Throwing with my right arm is painful, so I had to focus on the left. At first it was hard even to get the knife to hit the target, let alone stick it. I had to learn how to throw with my left arm, as with throwing a ball. In tandem with this I was learning how to throw a frisbee lefthanded, which is incredibly difficult. Knife throwing is a complex skill, demanding much diligent practice; doing it lefthanded quadruples the difficulty. It was pretty frustrating. However, three months in, I can now throw it with power and accuracy, nailing a no-spin throw from, oh, ten feet or so (okay, I’m slightly exaggerating). It’s very satisfying, and miraculous-seeming. Wow, it went in! As it happens, I had to have a large tree removed from my property last week and I asked the guys if they would chainsaw me a slice of the trunk to use as a target. I now have three beautiful new targets each a couple of feet in diameter, mementoes of the tree (I was quite fond of that tree), which make excellent knife-beds—thethunk is delicious. I throw vigorously with my left arm, having raised it from the near-dead, like Lazarus; my right arm is quite jealous. So, the side-effect of disability has been ability. Would I like my right arm back, that old and reliable friend? Sure, but my left arm has stepped in to fill the gap with remarkable aplomb, and greatly to my surprise (I didn’t know it had it in it). Each moment of the day I can feel its coiled presence, ready to spring into action (it even types better than it used to). Body Wholeness, they call it. Bilateral Wellness. My advice: work on your left arm, you never know when you might need it. Dart throwing is a good place to start.[1]

[1] Has it added to the philosophical part of my brain? Not that I know of, but it isn’t impossible.

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Body Parts

Body Parts

Is the mind part of the body? I have not seen this question discussed before; it raises some ticklish questions.[1] I am not asking whether the mind is the brain—that question is very familiar; I am asking whether the mind is part of the body even if it is immaterial. That is, I am asking whether Descartes could or should say that his immaterial mind is (literally) a part of the body—like the heart or the kidneys or the brain. I am of the opinion that it is part of the body: for if not, what is it a part of? My mind is clearly a part of me, a particular human being, as the tiger’s mind is a part of it (the tiger). Let’s suppose it is an immaterial part; it is still a part of the animal, the organism, the biological unit. An animal is a functional unity of separable components, and the mind is one of them, in all its glory and complexity. It evolved as other animal parts did, and it functions to aid survival, just like other parts of the animal. The only question is whether it is also a part of the animal’s body. My heart is part of me and it is also part of my body (one might say the former holds because of the latter), but is the same thing true of my mind? Granted, it sounds funny to say so, but is it true? Here we must be on the look-out for conversational implicatures: would saying “My mind is part of my body” carry the implicature that my mind is a physical organ like my heart without logically implying that? Would it suggest (but not entail) that my mind is a visible solid object with a shape and color? It might well, say if you were listing all your body parts in a medical exam, but it doesn’t follow that this is what the sentence means. It just might not be relevant to the context, yet still perfectly true. Consider a lizard being described by a zoologist: would it not be true to say that the lizard’s elementary lizard mind is part of its brain, and hence its body? Its body is a functional system and the mind is part of that functional system, so it is really a part of its body. Or should we say it is part of nothing? Isn’t it in the lizard’s body (in its brain)? It isn’t in the air surrounding the lizard or underground somewhere. It is just a different kind of part from the lizard’s other parts, being (as we are assuming) an immaterial part. But immaterial things can have parts themselves and be parts of larger immaterial things, so parthood is not alien to them. Perhaps it belongs with other entities that make us hesitate to classify them as body parts—hair, saliva, feces, lung cavities, earholes. These too differ from paradigm cases like hearts and kidneys, but they are still clearly of the body—bodily, part of the whole body-system. The fact that they may be made of different material from that of the rest of the body does not disqualify them from being parts of the body. Similarly, the mind might be made of an immaterial substance and still be a part of the body—just an immaterial part.

The question clearly comes down to what is meant by “body”. Is it to be defined as meaning “material part of an animal”. The mind is clearly a part of the animal, but is it also a part of its body? That is the ticklish question. It seems to me that the word is not defined in these exclusive terms; it is neutral on the question. After all, we think of pain as bodily, and some emotions too, as well as some mental illnesses; so, we are ready to accept that some of the mind is bodily, and “physical” in that sense. Perhaps an element of stipulation is necessary, but the stipulation is principled: why not say that the mind is part of the body—why consign it to some other department of the organism? All the other organs of the organism belong to its body, so why insist that the mental organ belongs elsewhere? Why introduce this kind of division into the organism? Is it because of some outmoded notion of the human being as composed of a body and a soul and never the twain shall meet? But this is a pre-biological conception of the human animal, created by the need to reserve a part of the human being for divine purposes. The mind evolved from bodily origins millions of years ago; it was a natural product of the body not a divine intervention. It is better to think of the body more inclusively, so as to bring the mind within its boundaries—even if it is an immaterial thing. The concepts of body and immateriality are not logically exclusive. What if we discovered an area of the body occupied by an immaterial thingummy, though not a mental thingummy—wouldn’t we say we had found an immaterial part of the body (next to the kidneys, say)? What if we came to the conclusion (as physicists sometimes have) that so-called matter isn’t matter at all but something far more ethereal—fields of force, say? Would that make us say that the heart and kidneys are not parts of the body? Clearly not: we allow, as a conceptual matter, that parts of the body may be immaterial. So, there is no logical bar to counting the mind as part of the body even if it is immaterial (it clearly is if it is identical to the brain). The correct conclusion is that the body is not necessarily made of material stuff; it may be made of both material and immaterial stuff. The concept of the body does not exclude the mind from being part of the body; and it is reasonable to suppose that it is, implicatures notwithstanding. It is not that my mind is part of me but not part of my body; it is part of both. Thus, I am nothing but my body in this extended sense, but my body is more inclusive than tradition suggests. I am not divided rigidly into body and non-body. I don’t have a body and a mind; I have a mind in my body, as part of it. I therefore recommend this way of thinking: it dissolves needless dichotomies, pointless duplications. Just as we have dropped the old concept of soul, so we should drop the old concept of body. You can be as Cartesian as you like and still believe that the mind is part of the body. Dualism then becomes true of the body (if it is true at all).[2]

[1] What do the folk think about this question? A pilot survey conducted by me (one subject) suggests that the folk are not averse to describing the mind as part of the body, though their reasons remain obscure. This is a topic for future field research.

[2] The mind-body problem is thus the problem of how one part of the body is related to another part—the mental part to the physical part. It is the problem of unifying the body. It might be a mystery what unifies the body. Bone and flesh are unified in the body, though made of quite different materials; the mind-body problem has the same abstract form, but the two things are even more different.

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