What I'm Currently Working On

I haven’t uploaded anything to this blog in a while so I figured I would post a brief overview of what I’ve been thinking about and working on. I should start regularly uploading normal blog posts soon.

My current research is almost entirely based on a theory of belief formation and its implications for epistemology, rationality, and Streumer’s argument that we can’t believe a global normative error theory.

The theory of belief formation that I’m working with is called the Spinozan theory. The theory is situated as an alternative to the Cartesian theory of belief formation. The Spinozan theory says that we automatically form a belief that p whenever we consider that p. This means that the process of belief formation is automatic and outside of our conscious control. This theory has serious implications for several areas, such as rationality and epistemology.

In terms of epistemology, lots of philosophers working in that area will talk about belief formation in ways that presuppose a Cartesian theory. The Cartesian theory says that the process of belief formation and the process of belief revision are on par; both are within our conscious control. When we form a belief we base it on considerations like evidence. We consider the evidence for and against the proposition and then we form a belief. However, if the Spinozan theory is true then this is a misrepresentation of how we actually form beliefs. According to the Spinozan, we automatically form a belief whenever we consider a proposition. We may be able to revise our beliefs with conscious effort, but that process requires more mental energy than the process of forming a belief. If the Spinozan is right, we need to investigate whether or not we can do without talk of control over belief formation in epistemology.

The Spinozan theory entails that we believe lots of contradictory things. That we believe lots of contradictory things runs contrary to our ordinary view of ourselves as relatively rational creatures who do their best not to hold inconsistent beliefs. If any plausible account of rationality requires at least a lot of consistency among our beliefs, then we’re pretty screwed. But we might be able to work with a revisionary account of rationality that sees being rational as a constant process of pruning the contradictory beliefs from one’s mind through counterevidence. The problem with that sort of account, though, is that belief revision is an effortful process that is sensitive to cognitive load effects, whereas belief formation is automatic will occur whenever one considers a proposition. So, we’ll basically be on a rationality treadmill, especially in our current society where we’re bombarded with things that induce cognitive load effects.

Another project that I’m going to start working on is applying the Spinozan theory to propaganda. I think that somebody interested in designing very effective propaganda should utilize the Spinozan theory. For example, knowing that belief formation is automatic and occurs whenever a person considers a proposition would help one design some pretty effective propaganda, since one’s beliefs can root themselves in their mental processes such that they influence one’s behavior over time. If you throw in some cognitive load enhancing effects then you can make it more difficult for people to resist keeping their newly formed beliefs.

The last project I’m currently working on is a paper in which I argue against Bart Streumer’s case against believing the error theory. According to Streumer, one cannot believe a global normative error theory because one would believe that one has no reason to believe it, which we can’t do according to him. I think that if we work with the Spinozan theory then this is clearly false, since we automatically form beliefs about things that we have no reason to believe. My guess is that proponents of Streumer’s view will push back by arguing that they are talking about something different than I am when they use the word, “belief”. But I think that the Spinozan theory tracks the non-negotiable features of our ordinary conceptions of belief enough to qualify as an account of belief in the ordinary sense.

For those interested in the Spinozan theory, click this link. I should be regularly uploading posts here soon.


Seemings Zombies

Let’s assume that seemings are sui generis propositional attitudes that have a truthlike feel. On this view, seemings are distinct mental states from beliefs and other propositional attitudes. It at least seems conceivable to me that there could be a being that has many of the same sorts of mental states that we have except for seemings. I’ll call this being a seemings zombie.

The seemings zombie never has mental states where a proposition is presented to it as true in the sense that it has a truthlike feel. Would such a being engage in philosophical theorizing if presented with the opportunity? I’m not entirely sure whether the seemings zombie would have the right sort of motivation to engage in philosophizing. If we need seemings or something similar to them to motivate philosophical theorizing, then seemings zombies won’t be motivated to do it.

But do we need seemings to motivate philosophizing? I think we might need them if philosophizing includes some sort of commitment to a particular view. What could motivate us to adopt a particular view in philosophy besides the fact that that view seems true to us? I guess we could be motivated by the wealth and fame that comes along with being a professional philosopher, but I’m skeptical.

Maybe we don’t need to adopt a particular view to philosophize. In that case we could say that seemings zombies can philosophize without anything seeming true to them. They could be curious about conceptual connections or entailments of theories articulated by the great thinkers, and that could be sufficient to move them to philosophize. I’m not sure whether or not this would qualify as philosophizing in the sense many of us are acquainted with. Even people whose careers consist of the study of a historical figure’s intellectual works seem to commit themselves to a particular view about that figure. Kant interpreters have views about what Kant thought or argued for, and my guess is those views seem true to those interpreters.

The seemings zombies might still be able to philosophize, though. Maybe they would end up as skeptics, looking down on all of us doing philosophy motivated by seemings. We seemings havers end up being motivated by mental states whose connection to the subject matter they are motivating us to take stances on are tenuous at best. The seemings zombies would then adopt skeptical attitudes towards our philosophical views. But I’m still worried, because skeptics like to give us arguments for their views about knowledge, and my guess is a lot of sincere skeptics are motivated by the fact that skepticism seems true to them. I could just be naive, though; there may be skeptics who remain uncommitted to any philosophical view, including their skepticism. I’m just not sure how that’s supposed to work.

One reaction you might have to all of this is to think that seemings zombies are incoherent or not even prima facie conceivable. That may be true, but it doesn’t seem that way to me.


 

Mental Incorrigibility and Higher Order Seemings

Suppose that the phenomenal view of seemings is true. So, for it to seem to S that P, S must have a propositional attitude towards P that comes with a truthlike feel. Now suppose that we are not infallible when it comes to our own mental states. We cannot be absolutely certain that we are in a certain mental state. So, we can make mistakes when we judge whether or not it seems to us that P.

Now put it all together. In cases where S judges that it seems to her that P, but she is mistaken, what is going on? Did it actually seem to her that P or did she mistakenly judge that it did? If it’s the former, then it is unclear to me how S could mistakenly judge that it seems to her that P. Seeming states on the phenomenal view seem to be the sorts of mental states we should be aware of when we experience them. If it's the latter, then it is unclear whether higher order seemings can solve our problem.

If a subject is experiencing a seeming state and judges that it seems to her that P, then there has to be some sort of luck going on that disconnects the seeming state from her judgment such that she does not know that it seems to her that P. Maybe she’s very distracted when she focuses her awareness onto her seeming state to form her judgment and that generates the discrepancy. I’m not really sure how plausible such a proposal would ultimately be. Instead, if the subject is not actually in a seeming state, then we need to explain what is going on when she mistakenly judges that she is in one. One possibility is that there are higher order seemings. Such seemings take first order seemings as their contents. On this view, it could seem to us that it seems that P is the case.

The idea of higher order seemings repulses me, but it could be true. Or, in a more reductionist spirit, we could say that higher order seemings are just a form of introspective awareness of our first order seemings. But I am worried that such a proposal would reintroduce the original problem linked to fallibility. If I can mistakenly judge that it seems to be that it seems to me that P, then what is going on with that higher order (introspective) seeming? The issue seems to come back to bite us in the ass. But it might do that on any proposal about higher order seemings, assuming we have accepted that we are not infallible mental state detectors. Maybe we just need to accept a regress of seemings, or maybe we should stop talking about them. Like always, I’ll just throw my hands up in the air and get distracted by a different issue rather than come up with a concrete solution.

Nyāya Substance Dualism

In an earlier post, I went over an argument for the existence of God that was formulated by philosophers in the Nyāya tradition. Here my aim is to provide a brief summary of some Nyāya arguments for substance dualism, the view that mental and physical substances are radically distinct.

The categories of substance and quality were fundamental to Nyāya metaphysics. A substance is the concrete substratum in which qualities inhere. An apple, for instance, is a substance, and redness is a quality that inheres in it. Substances can be complex and made up of parts (like an apple) or simple and indivisible (like an atom).

Nyāya held that in addition to physical substances, there are non-physical ones. Our individual soul – that is, our Self – is a non-physical substance. Like atoms, individual souls are simple and indivisible, and hence eternal (since destroying an object is the same as breaking it up into its constituent parts, and simple substances do not have any constituent parts). Consciousness, and different conscious states like desires and memories, are qualities that inhere in the substantial Self.

The primary philosophical adversaries of Nyāya belonged to two different camps. The first was Cārvāka, which claimed that only physical substances exist, that the mind does not exist apart from the body, and that the self is reducible to the totality of the body and all its functions. The other was Buddhism, which rejects physicalism but denies the existence of the substantial Self. Buddhism replaces the idea of the Self with a stream of momentary causally connected mental states. Nyāya was engaged in a protracted series of debates with both Cārvāka and Buddhism. Versions of the arguments I summarize in this essay were developed and defended by Nyāya thinkers such as Vātsyāyana (5th century), Uddyotakara (7th century) and Udayana (10th century), among others.

Against Physicalism

Nyāya came up with a number of arguments against physicalism. The one I focus on here has interesting similarities to arguments found in contemporary debates within the philosophy of mind. It can be stated like this¹:

(P1) All bodily qualities are either externally perceptible or imperceptible.

(P2) No phenomenal qualities are externally perceptible or imperceptible.

(C) Therefore, no phenomenal qualities are bodily qualities.

The argument is deductively valid, so let us examine the premises. As the term suggests, externally perceptible bodily qualities are features of the body that can be directly perceived by external agents. Color is an example of an externally perceptible quality. Everyone who can see me can see that the color of my body is brown. An imperceptible quality is a feature of the body that cannot be directly perceived, but can be inferred through observation and analysis. Weight was a common example used in Nyāya texts. You cannot directly perceive my weight, but if I stand on a weighing scale, you can know my weight by looking at the number displayed by the scale. P1 states that all physical qualities are exhausted by these two categories.

Let us movie on to P2. Phenomenal qualities are the features of conscious experience: the subjective, first person what-it-is-likeness to have an experience. The experience of color, pleasure, pain, desire, and memory are all examples of phenomenal qualities. P2 draws on the intuition that phenomenal qualities are essentially private.

To say that phenomenal qualities are not externally perceptible is to say that I cannot immediately know what it is like for you to have an experience. I have direct access to externally perceptible qualities of your body like color, but I don’t have direct access to your phenomenal qualities. I may be able to infer based on your behavior that you are in pain, but I don’t experience your pain in the immediate, first person manner that you do. The contemporary American philosopher Thomas Nagel made a similar point in his classic paper What Is it Like to Be a Bat? We may be able to observe how bats behave, and how their organs, brain and nervous system work, but we can’t know what it feels like, from the inside, to be a bat. Only a bat knows what it is like to be a bat.

If phenomenal qualities aren’t externally perceptible, perhaps they are imperceptible qualities like weight. But this is extremely implausible. Phenomenal qualities are not externally perceptible, but they’re clearly internally perceptible. The whole point is that I have direct perceptive access to phenomenal qualities – my conscious experiences are given to me in a basic and immediate fashion. Even if I don’t know that my experiences are veridical, I always know what the features of my own experience are. Thus, phenomenal qualities are not imperceptible.

Since phenomenal qualities are neither externally perceptible nor imperceptible, they are not physical qualities. If physicalism is the thesis that only physical substances and their qualities exist, and the above argument is sound, we must conclude that physicalism is false.

Against No-Self Theory

The above argument by itself does not get us to the kind of substance dualism that Nyāya favored. Buddhists, after all, are anti-physicalists, but they do not believe that the Self is an enduring substance that persists through time. Instead, Buddhists view a person as nothing more than a series of sequential causally connected momentary mental states. The 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, and more recently, the British philosopher Derek Parfit, came to roughly the same conclusion.

Again, the Nyāya canon has several arguments against the Buddhist no-Self theory, but I will touch on just two of them here. The first of these is that the Self is necessary to explain the first person experience of recollection or recognition. The intuition here is something like this: If I notice a tree and recognize that it is the same tree I saw a few days ago, there has to be a subject that was present both during the first experience and the second one for recollection to occur. Similarly, if the desire to eat a banana arises in my mind at t2 because I remember that I previously enjoyed eating a banana at t1, there has to be a subject that existed during the initial experience that occurred at t1, and persisted through time until the recollection at t2. Without the Self – a substance that endures through these different points in time – the experience of memory is a mystery.

The Buddhist response was that causal connections between momentary mental states could explain the phenomenon of memory. If the mental state at t1 is causally connected to the mental state at t2, that’s all that’s needed for the mental state at t2 to recall the experience at t1. The Nyāya rejoinder was that causal connections were not sufficient to account for how a mental event can be experienced as a memory. When I recognize a tree I saw few days ago, it isn’t just that an image of the previously perceived tree pops into my mind. Rather, my experience is of the form: “This tree that I see now is the same tree I saw yesterday.” In other words, my present experience after seeing the tree involves my recognition of the previous experience as belonging to myself. Similarly, my current desire to eat a banana is based on my recognition of the previous enjoyable experience of eating a banana as belonging to myself. One person does not experience the memory of another, and in much the same way, one mental state cannot remember the content of another. So a single entity that persists through time must exist.

The second argument for the Self takes for granted what we might call the unity of perception. Our perceptions aren’t a chaotic disjointed bundle despite the fact that they arise through different sense organs. There’s a certain unity and coherence to them. In particular, Nyāya philosophers drew attention to mental events that are characterized by cross-modal recognition. An example would be: “The table that I see now is the same table I am touching.” We have experiences that arise through different channels (in this case, my eye and my hand), but there must be something that ties these experiences together and synthesizes them to give rise to a unified cognitive event. In other words, the Buddhist no-Self theory might be able to explain the independent experiences of sight and touch, but for the object of both experiences to be recognized as one and the same, there must something else to which both experiences belong, and which integrates the experiences to give rise to the unified perception of the object. Again, it seems we must admit the existence of the Self.

Needless to say, all these arguments were (and remain) controversial. The debates between Buddhist and Nyāya philosophers got extremely complex over time. They involved increasingly fine-grained analyses of the phenomenology of recollection/recognition, and increasingly technical discussions on the metaphysics of causation. Similar debates took place between other orthodox Indian schools of thought that believed in the Self (Mīmāṃsā, Vedānta, etc.) and their Buddhist no-Self rivals. A good place to start for further reading on this subject would be the collection of essays in Hindu and Buddhist Ideas in Dialogue: Self and No-Self.

Notes

[1] The argument I’ve presented here is based on Kisor Kumar Chakrabarti’s formulation in Classical Indian Philosophy of Mind: The Nyāya Dualist Tradition.