You can’t make metaphysics out of fudge

Philosopher Jerry Fodor has written a wonderfully entertaining review of Galen Strawson’s new book ‘Consciousness and Its Place in Nature’ for the London Review of Books.

In his book, Strawson looks at the assumption that consciousness arises from the physical matter of the brain and comes to the startling but coherent conclusion that maybe everything has the capacity for consciousness.

Fodor explains it like so:

So, then, if everything is made of the same sort of stuff as tables and chairs (as per monism), and if at least some of the things made of that sort of stuff are conscious (there is no doubt that we are), and if there is no way of assembling stuff that isn’t conscious that produces stuff that is (there’s no emergence), it follows that the stuff that tables, chairs and the bodies of animals (and, indeed, everything else) is made of must itself be conscious. Strawson, having wrestled his angel to a draw, stands revealed as a panpsychist: basic things (protons, for example) are loci of conscious experience. You don’t find that plausible? Well, I warned you.

Fodor is always a great read (just have a look at the first paragraph of the review) and he often writes amusing and original articles.

One of his papers (and for the life of me I can’t remember which) takes the form of him explaining a philosophical argument to his aunt.

His ideas causes all sorts of controversy in cognitive science. For example, he argues that humans have a language of thought – a sort of common basic code that all thought is based on.

Artificial intelligence researchers love this approach, as you might expect, but it drives many people nuts as they object to the ideas that the mind is just an information processor and that concepts and beliefs can be independently represented in the brain.

My favourite retort is from a book by Still and Costall called ‘Against Cognitivism’ (ISBN 0745010253) who write that Fodor’s theories are

“where one tries to keep a reasonably straight face while presenting the absurd consequences of the scheme as exciting theoretical revelations”.

Have that sir!

There’s a funny tagline at the bottom of Fodor’s review relating to such criticisms which made me chuckle:

Jerry Fodor teaches philosophy and psychology at Rutgers University. Everyone wonders why he is writing still another book about the language of thought.

And if anyone knows the name of the Fodor article I can’t remember, do let me know!

Link to review of ‘Consciousness and Its Place in Nature’ (via 3Q).
Link to details of book.

4 thoughts on “You can’t make metaphysics out of fudge”

  1. Fodor’s Guide to Mental Representation: The Intelligent Auntie’s Vade-Mecum, Mind, New Series, Vol. 94, No. 373 (Jan., 1985), pp. 76-100; reprinted in: Readings in philosophy and cognitive science, Pages: 271 – 296, MIT Press 1993, ISBN 0-262-07153-3

  2. If everything is made of the same sort of stuff as the oceans, give or take (hydrogen, oxygen, pinches of this and that) then everything has the potential to be a tsunami.
    Seriously. I’ve done the math to derive hydrodynamics from the kinetic theory of atomic motion: going from the idea of atoms in empty space to a description of fluid flow is a standard topic in graduate-level statistical mechanics. Believe me: THAT is a hard problem.

  3. To argue against panpshychism is not appropiate to use the strategy reduction ad absurdum or an slippery slope type argument. (but following the kidding perhaps when someone has epilepsy its a kind of tsunami waves in neurons)
    The point is how matter is organized and which level of complexity it has and, of course, its fine grained components.
    The panphychism position is appealling though very hard to test sicientifically.

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