Monday, November 02, 2009


Thomas Riggins

Jerry Fodor, the American philosopher, has a review in the October 16, 2009 TLS entitled "The truth is not out there." This review is of Michael Tye's "CONSCIOUSNESS REVISITED: Materialism without phenomenal concepts" and Tye is a follower of Hilary Putnam a Harvard philosopher who defends a position called "externalism". A position Fodor suggests that "might have outlived its usefulness."

Well, what I want to know is, if the truth isn't out there, where is it? Marxists think the truth, such as it is, depends on both the "out there" and the "in there" (i.e., the head). Let us see what Fodor has to say.

To explain "externalism" Fodor uses the example of H20 vs. XYZ. XYZ is supposed to have all the properties of H20 but isn't really water! We have H20 on earth but suppose a counter earth exactly the same as earth except instead of our water they have something chemically different called XYZ. You can't tell the difference by looking but if you had a glass of XYZ and you thought you had H20 you would be wrong. So for your concept of what you were looking at to be correct it is dependent on external factors as well as your internal state of mind. The truth, it seems to me, is both out there and in there (there being the brain).

Fodor then gives two traditional philosophical ideas that externalism calls into question. The first is that if you learn the meaning of a word ("water") part of what you learn is the meaning of the word and second is that it is the meaning which determines the extension or reference of the word. It's H2O in the glass [oops-- it's really XYZ]. A word should extend to what it means-- that is water I see in the glass if and only if it is H20.

Externalism calls both these semantic rules into question, says Fodor. One or the other or both could be false. Why? Because, Fodor says, it seems that BEING H20 decides if something is WATER but H20 is NOT PART OF THE MEANING OF WATER. You know how to use the word "water" even if you have never taken a chemistry course and don't know anything about molecules of hydrogen and oxygen and how they get together.

Now words express CONCEPTS so if the meaning of a word is responsible for its extension so it is of the concept as well-- i.e., what we think with-- we think with concepts. Fodor gives an example of DOG. The meaning points outward from the mind to the dog and and inward to the concept as well. Fodor says "Fido is a dog" is only true if "Fido falls under the concept DOG" and vice versa. "A word," he says, "expresses a corresponding concept; a concept represents what the corresponding word refers to."

Fodor likes this way of thinking, which he calls the "representationalist view of concepts" [ it needs more work done on it ] but he says "I love it very much" [and why not?]. But, Fodor fears Putnam's ''externalism" could put the kibosh on this love affair. According to Putnam the meaning of the words you use and the concepts you use depend not only on what goes on in your head but also on the external world as well.

I don't see what is so upsetting about that. It is not the meaning as meaning that is at issue but the correct use of the concept. The glass appears to me to have water in it, or H20, two different concepts for the same thing but I am only correct in applying these concepts if the glass is not a glass of XYZ but one of water. How does this threaten representationalism? More specifically, how is Putnam justified in saying "externalism" means that the "mental representations of concepts" are not in your head because the meaning of the extension is not. What is not in your head is what is really out there in the external world-- a glass of XYZ. The fact that "externalism" has to be taken into account with respect to the truth conditions of your use of the concept WATER or H20 does not justify Putnam in saying the "meaning" of your concept "ain't in your head." It does justify your saying the truth of the correspondence of your judgment that your concept applies to the external world "ain't only in your head." I don't think either Putnam or Fodor is on base here.

Now we get to Tye's book. Fodor tells us that in both empiricism and rationalism "perception" goes like this: i get a percept [bow-wow] and I infer a nearby animal [dog]. Tye, however doesn't like the "infer" part in the above. Fodor quotes him: "it seems natural to suppose that vision involves direct contact with external things in standard veridical cases." Well, maybe-- but after introduction to philosophy we are supposed to understand that the image or sound of a dog is mediated by our senses and the brain infers what is out there. There is mediated contact not direct immediate contact.

Tye goes on: "When I perceive a tomato, for example, there is no tomato-like sense impression [this is just an assertion by Tye] that stands as an intermediary between the tomato and me. [I hope he doesn't think a tomato is in his brain!] Nor am I related to the tomato as I am to a deer when I see its footprint in the snow. [ You are related to the footprint and the tomato in the same way, however.] I do not experience the tomato by experiencing something else over and above the tomato and its facing surface. [Fodor asks is it the tomato or its facing surface we experience. I wonder if Tye infers the tomato from the facing surface?] I see the facing surface of the tomato DIRECTLY" [and infer the tomato indirectly.]

Fodor has a lot to say about this. "Experiences," he says, "are themselves modes of awareness; one doesn't INFER them, one just has them." Yes, but I do, consciously or unconsciously (it's up to the brain) infer from them to the external world. Fodor suggests the OBJECT of the experience is the tomato but I think that is an automatic brain inference we become conscious of the tomato we look at it--oops, better lighting, it's a really red apple.

I think I am not on board with Fodor when he writes: "THE MIND IS ACTIVE IN PERCEPTION; but it is PASSIVE IN EXPERIENCE; which is to say that PERCEPTION IS INFERENTIAL BUT EXPERIENCE ISN'T." I'm not sure you can separate EXPERIENCE and PERCEPTION this way. Fodor asks how do we become aware of the phone ringing and says we don't "hear it (as one might say) 'directly'." But is it not more natural to say( after Philosophy 101) I become aware of the ringing because my brain picks up an auditory sensation, translates it, and makes my consciousness aware that the phone is ringing?

A few lines above I jestingly hoped that Tye didn't think the tomato he was looking at was in his brain. Fodor thought that Tye did believe something like that but then said to himself it wasn't possible for a philosopher to hold such a position-- that a tomato could be part of Tye's phenomenology (not a CAUSE of it but a CONSTITUENT). But he finds the following quote in Tye's book: "An object's looking F ... [isn't] a matter of an object's causing an experience which represents simply that something is F. The experience one has of the seen object is one into whose content the seen object itself enters." Hmmmm.

Following Fodor's lead let us assume that F is the Chrysler Building (CB). Fodor says Tye is trying to expound a theory of the PHENOMENAL CONTENT of our experiences. Fodor says only God knows where the phenomenal content of the CB is [well when I look at the CB it is in my mind i.e., the result of a brain event in my head] but there is no question where the CB is [42nd Street and Lexington in New York City]. So Tye can't really mean what he says-- i.e., that the CB is itself a constituent of my phenomenal content of it. I know that philosophers can be big headed, but they don't have heads big enough to contain the CB!

Tye's view is very counterintuitive and Fodor takes the time to tell us how Tye tries to make it more easily understandable. He draws an analogy from the philosophy of BERTRAND RUSSELL. Russell held that the things propositions were about were parts of the propositions about them. Fodor says that John is part of the proposition that John sneezed. It's true Russell talked that way but Fodor says, rightly I think, that Tye can't really make this appeal to Russell because the analogy between parts of propositions (Russell) and parts of experiences (Tye) "doesn't really bear much weight." Saying John is a part of a proposition simply means the truth value of the proposition depends on something about John. This "doesn't license claiming that John is part of an experience of his sneezing...."

What is the point of all this? Fodor says Tye wants to reconcile a physical metaphysics with a Realist [materialist] account of consciousness, of our conscious experience. The way to do this, Tye thinks, is by an EXTERNALISM which holds that the OBJECT of a veridical experience is part of the phenomenal content of the experience. [I'm not even going to discuss the problems of "illusory" experiences although Fodor does in his review].

Fodor says that a big problem for materialists is that since a conscious experience is, for them, the result of a brain state "assumed to be material through and through" the question is HOW CAN A BRAIN STATE BE CONSCIOUS''? Tye wants to solve this problem by making the content of direct perception is both part of the experience and "BY ASSUMING THAT THE CONTENT OF AN EXPERIENCE IS IPSO FACTO CONSCIOUS CONTENT." But Fodor thinks the available evidence is against this idea. He says that Tye is aware of this evidence and tries to explain it away but he has to add ever more "wheels and gears" to get his theory to run.

An aside here. Materialists need not ask the question as to how a materialist brain state can be conscious. Consciousness is a PROPERTY of matter-- for humans a property of the brain. It is not a KIND OF MATTER. According to Lenin, "To say that thought is material is to make a false step, a step towards confusing materialism and idealism." [CW vol. 14 M&E-C quoted in FML p. 116, see below].

I don't think we need to go over all the cases discussed the case of the CB was enough to make Tye's theory seem impossible. Fodor concludes that the evidence we have from psychology and other sciences indicates the what "perceptual experience delivers to the perceptual belief is not the X but the X experienced-as-such-and-such; and it's what the X is experienced as that determines what belief is formed in consequence of the seeing." This is a perfectly good position that a materialist can take and there is no need to try and construct a counter factual "Materialism without phenomenal concepts."

Fodor concludes that "externalism has just about outlived its usefulness. It looks as if its recent incarnations are just complicated ways of restating its premisses. In fact, he decides that Putnam's form of externalism is not needed to explain the meaning of having conscious content in the mind [brain] because REFERENTIAL CONTENT is all that is necessary for any philosophy of mind or language. And this is how Marxists, at any rate, in holding to DIALECTICAL MATERIALISM would put it: "It is not the things themselves, or their properties and relations that exist in man's consciousness, but mental IMAGES or reflections of them, which convey more or less accurately the characteristics of the objects cognised and are, in this sense, similar to them [Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninsm, Moscow, 1961)

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