Solipsism and Capitalism, Part 1 of 2

Reading modern epistemology often feels slightly claustrophobic. In Descartes, or Hume, say, there’s a sense of being confined, ‘shut up’ in our own heads, trying to get out. The best expression of this is the fear of solipsism: the (never really accepted but always present) fear that there might be nothing in the universe except us.

The way this gets set up in such writers goes like this: all I can really be sure of is my own perceptions – I know that I seem to see and hear certain things, but no more. Now I ask myself how I am to infer that there are also real objects out there that ‘correspond to’ or ‘lie behind’ my perceptions of them. But no argument to that conclusion seems very good. Oh dear. I will have to try harder, because if no such argument can be found, then I will have to conclude that there is nothing ‘out there’.

A major supporting argument for this anxious approach is the ‘argument from illusion’. It’s quite simple: sometimes I think I perceive a real object, but it turns out that I was wrong (hallucinating, dreaming, etc.) and there was no object. But my perception was just the same as when I (supposedly) perceive real objects. So how am I to tell the difference?

Now I want to point out how, in quite a simple way, this fear and this ‘claustrophobic’ tone are mistaken. But I should be clear that I’m concerned with solipsism (the possibility that there is no world and no existence apart from me) rather than scepticism (the possibility that I don’t know anything). Responding to scepticism means providing a comprehensive account of knowledge, what it is, how we get it, etc., which is heavy work. So I’ll shy away from that.

Why is the fear of solipsism mistaken? Philosophers are usually good at drawing out the implications of their starting points, so their mistakes usually reside in the starting point itself. Here, I would suggest, the mistake is that the basic ‘data’ of consciousness, the initial form of perception, can be understood through the two terms ‘self’ and ‘object’. Rather, I think, a proper understanding must involve three terms: ‘self’, ‘object’, and ‘world’.

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Mind-Body Dualism and Torture

I talked a bit yesterday about the recent release of a lot of documentation regarding the American torture system. In this post I want to make a more general point about torture .

Before doing so, I felt it should be emphatically pointed out that ‘ticking bomb scenarios’, and torture as the tragic but necessary last resort to save lives, is fantasy – in particular, the main point of torture in this case was to gain evidence to support the invasion of Iraq, whether or not that evidence was true.

Anyway, the conceptual point that interests me is that I think there is a tendency to think of torture as a temporary thing – unlike, say, amputating a hand, the purely ‘mental’ nature of torture means that although it’s incredibly unpleasant while it’s going on, after it’s finished the victim is basically the same as before.

For some lucky people this will be true, but in general I think this approach is too ‘Cartesian’, too prone to seeing the mind as something floating above and unlike the body. But minds can be cut into and dissected just as much as bodies.

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Capitalist Philosophy of Mind: Part 1 – Philosophical History

While I wouldn’t call myself a ‘Marxist’, I do identify with the idea of ‘historical materialism’, a term that has been used for Marx’n’Engels’ approach to society. I’m also very interested in philosophy, and so in this post I want to give a historical materialist account of the history of philosophy of mind.

What is ‘historical materialism’? It’s the belief that society forms an inter-connected whole, so that each part reciprocally influences other parts, and moreover that in this web, the dominant influence is had by ‘material’ factors: people’s concrete lived experience. For example, the forms of artistic expression that are widespread in a society will reflect the conditions in which most people live, albeit in complex ways.

This is sometimes mischaracterised as ‘economic determinism’, which is wrong on two counts. Firstly, it’s not (on my understanding) deterministic because it doesn’t claim that each individual’s actions must be the result of their material conditions – merely that the overally statistical averages will.

Secondly, it’s not (on my understanding) purely economic, since things beyond ‘economics’ narrowly-conceived can fall within ‘material conditions’: technology, sexual relations, climate, etc.

So with that hopefully a little cleared up, I want to talk about applying this to philosophy, in particular to dualism/materialism/physicalism in philosophy of mind. (As I use them, metaphysical ‘materialism’ is a different idea to sociological ‘historical materialism’, just as both are different from ‘materialism’ as a graspy, avaricious personality). This first post just runs over the major movements in the history of the subject in recent centuries.

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Descartes’ “Meditations” as a Mythic Hero Narrative

I’ve recently been re-reading Descartes’ “Meditations on First Philosophy” (again). I keep coming back to the book I think mainly because it’s easy to read. It’s short, it’s fairly to-the-point. Compared to something like Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”, it’s positively finger-food.

And it occurred to me that one of the reasons might be this: that the book is structured as a mythic hero narrative.

Disclaimer: this post will make most sense to those who are familiar with the work of René Descartes, famous 17th century French philosopher. Others are however welcome to read it anyway.

So why do I say that the Meditations is a hero narrative? Well, the overall structure is that it sets up (in the 1st Meditation of the 6) a problem (doubt) that threatens the everyday world (what we think we know), and to confront which the hero (Descartes) must descend into the ‘world of adventure’ (putting aside everything previously believed), where he struggles for his ultimate prize (a resolution of his doubts) for the central portion of the book (especially in Meditations 3 and 4) before emerging back into the everyday world and using the prize (philosophical insights) to resolve the initial problem (in Meditations 5 and 6).

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Attributions of Consciousness, Part 3: What the Hell is Matter?

Willand Van Orman Quine once said that the basic question of metaphysics can be put in three Anglo-Saxon monosyllables: ‘What is there?’ One very popular answer is ‘matter’. I am sceptical of this answer. In this post I want to trace the history of the concept of matter, and try to show it’s shortcomings. Around the 15th and 16th centuries, there emerged a concept of matter, about which we could say the following:

1) It’s essential nature is spatial – it occupies space, excludes other things from that space, and has no other defining characteristics. All material things have the exact same essence;

2) It interacts only through direct physical contact;

3) It’s nature can be knowna priori by “intellectual perception” or “intellectual intuition”;

4) It has no trace of consciousness to it.

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Attributions of Consciousness, Part 2

In a recent post I talked about trying to model people’s attributions of consciousness, not just as a psychological endeavour, but with the thought that since the notion itself is very nebulous, an understanding of what it does may illuminate the question of what it means.

The the idea that emerged from the discussion there was of a sort of competition between different ways of explaining things – on the one had, can we attribute beliefs and desires to something in a way that allows us to see how its movements make sense, vs. can we explain its movements simply by a rigid law or combination of rigid laws.

In this post I want to be a bit more detailed, and try to elaborate a little on how I see these two sorts of explanation as competing and interacting and potentially dissolving into contraditions.

So rather than talking about attributing consciousness, I’m going to talk about attributing two major features of consciousness, desires and beliefs (although ‘awareness’ of things might be a better word than beliefs, which sounds rather linguistic, like saying a sentence to yourself).

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