Been There/ Done That

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Explaining what?

I have almost finished the final version of my paper "Can phenomenal concepts explain the explanatory gap?". As I have said before, it is a reply to Chalmers' "Phenomenal Concepts and the Explanatory Gap", which poses a big dilemma for the phenomenal concept strategy. In my paper I try to find a way out of the dilemma.

The PC strategy aims to offer an alternative explanation of the explanatory gap in terms of the features of phenomenal concepts. A key issue is how to characterize the explanatory/ epistemic gap to be explained. Chalmers says that what has to be explained is our epistemic situation with regards to consciousness. But this seems too much: what poses the problem for physicalism is the fact that we can conceive of zombies, or more in general, P&~Q (where P is a physical description and Q is a phenomenal description of the world). So, what the PC strategy aims to explain is precisely this conceivability.

However, Chalmers insists that we should understand the epistemic gap between P and Q as involving beliefs about Q that are true and justified. Why? Well, the answer seems to be that the conceivability argument against physicalism requires Q to be true, because only then can the possibility of P&~Q be a problem for physicalism. But, why does this entail that the epistemic gap involves the truth and justification of our beliefs about Q? I don't see why.

Chalmers said (in response to my talk in Milan) that he understands the epistemic gap to be explained, in a topic-neutral way, that is, it does not involve phenomenal states. However, it does seem to involve phenomenal knowledge. There are different options here. One could say that if you characterise this "phenomenal" knowledge topic-neutrally, even a zombie could have that kind of knowledge. Another option is to say that that notion of phenomenal knowledge involves phenomenal states, by definition, otherwise it would not be phenomenal knowledge. What Chalmers wants is a third option: phenomenal knowledge is characterised topic-neutrally but zombies cannot have it, because they are not conscious. I tend to believe this is not plausible.
To sum up, there are two problems with Chalmers' argument. 1) It is not clear why the epistemic gap involves the truth and justification of Q, in addition to the inferential disconnection between P and Q. And 2), it is not clear that Chalmers can have the cake and eat it: he needs a notion of "phenomenal" knowledge that is topic-neutral but that zombies cannot have, but this seems dubious.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Taller in Girona

Today I have learned that my paper has been accepted at the IX Taller d'Investigació en Filosofia, to take place at the University of Girona on 8-9 January 2007. I'm very pleased, because the previous "Talleres" have been very enjoyable, and this one looks to be even better! The TIF (as it is usually known) is a small but very fruitful graduate workshop organized in Spain every year, just after the Christmas break, in some University in Catalonia or Valencia (whose philosophy departments have people involved in either Logos or Phrónesis, two very active research groups in Spain).

This year, the talks look very interesting: a lot of philosophy of mind and language, and above all, lots of friends! It seems that the TIF is becoming more and more international, and that's great! I can't wait!

My talk will be entitled ""Do you know what it feels like for a girl?" (Defending the Phenomenal Concept Strategy)", and it is part of my long-going project of using lines from Madonna's songs as titles for my papers (or whatever). ;-)
My first attempt was, of course "We are living in a material world (and I am a material girl)". There, I argued that Madonna herself is a materialist. In this new paper, I argue that, since she seems to have doubts about the possibility of inferring phenomenal truths (such as what it feels like for a girl to do X) from a physical description of the world, she must be a type-B materialist! Which is great, because type-B materialism just needs a big icon to become more popular.

(A bit) more seriously, my paper is a reply to Stoljar's "Physicalism and Phenomenal Concepts", and again, my aim is to defend the phenomenal concept strategy from his objections. Well! I am so fond of that strategy, and it is usually so misunderstood...

Maybe tomorrow I'll say a bit more about the paper (and the content).

Monday, October 23, 2006

Phenomenal Concepts, This and That

This morning I have been revising (once more...) my reply to Chalmers' "Phenomenal Concepts and the Explanatory Gap". In this paper, Chalmers poses an important objection against the phenomenal concept strategy, and in my reply I try to defend the strategy.
The phenomenal concept strategy tries to respond to conceivability arguments in this way. Remember that CA say that a sentence such as (1) 'if the physical facts are such and such, then Luce is in pain', if a posteriori, has to be false at some possible world. The PC strategy replies by saying that the aposteriority of such sentence can be explained merely in psychological terms, independently of the modal status of the sentence. That is, the sentence is a posteriori because of the nature of the concepts involved, not because it is contingent.

I think this is a very promising strategy. The problem comes when we try to give an account of the difference between physical and phenomenal concepts, so that it follows that sentences such as (1) are a posteriori.

In my paper, I was trying to explain Hill & McLaughlin account (in their (1999) paper, in PPR), but it is not easy to explain it clearly and briefly!
One thing they seem to say is that phenomenal concepts are self-presenting (that is, we can apply them just by virtue of being in the state they refer to), whereas physical concepts are not so. This seems right, but why should this explain that phenomenal concepts are not a priori connected to physical concepts? It seems that more needs to be said in order to infer the a priori disconnection between physical and phenomenal concepts from the fact that the norms we use to justifiably apply physical and phenomenal concepts are different. I'm not sure how to motivate this move.
Another thing they say is that the mechanisms we use to fix the reference of physical and phenomenal concepts are psychologically different. This could explain why concepts such as 'C-fibre firing' and 'pain' are a posteriori related. Still, what are those reference-fixing mechanisms, and why do they have the consequence that the corresponding concepts are not a priori related? H&M say that we fix the reference of 'pain' by means of a recognitional disposition, and the reference of 'C-fibre firing' by means of a physical-theoretical description. This seems right. Is this enough to explain why those two concepts are not a priori connected? This seems more promising to me: there could be an explanation hidden there, somewhere! This is something I'll attempt to flesh out in my thesis.

However, I prefer to take (what I take to be) Loar's line: being a priori connected is a psychological property, which either holds or does not hold between two concepts, and it is just a brute psychological fact that they are so (un)connected. I guess that "a brute psychological fact" is a psychological fact that cannot be explained in psychological terms, but rather in terms of a lower-level (neurobiology, or whatever).
So the crucial claim of this version of the strategy might be the following: it is possible (and plausible) that our cognitive systems are such that physical and phenomenal concepts are not a priori connected (this psychological fact might just be a consequence of structural facts about the realization of our cognitive systems). Then, this explains why sentences such as (1) above a posteriori. This explanation is compatible with (1) being necessary. So (1) being a posteriori does not entail that (1) is false at some possible world. So the conceivability argument fails.
I think this is very promising line of reply. Notice that it is not committed to (1) being necessarily true. It just says that there are plausible claims about our concepts that, if true, would entail that (1) being a posteriori has nothing to do with it being contingent. Therefore, inference from a posteriority to contingency is not warranted, unless one shows that those plausible claims about our concepts are wrong.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Picture from the Milan conference

Well, I'm learning to post images! Let's see if this works...
This picture was taken by Sistemas Complejos, in Cesano Maderno (Milan), at the 7 Sifa conference. I presented there my reply to Chalmers' paper "Phenomenal Concepts and the Explanatory Gap", and Chalmers himself was kind enough to be among the audience, and come to talk to me after my presentation. (A very distant ancestor of my paper is here). It was a very useful discussion (and photo session) ;-).

Thursday, October 19, 2006

On Metaphysics, Free Will and Folk Concepts

Thinking about philosophy is the new hobby for philosophers: what is philosophy about; how should it be done; is there a fact of the matter; can any progress be made; has any progress ever been made; etc?

Chalmers himself has an interesting view on some of these questions. He gave a talk at the Milan conference I attended recently, about what is a terminological dispute and how can we know whether a given philosophical dispute is terminological or not, and why it matters. It was fascinating!

I was thinking a bit about this yesterday at the Graduate Seminar. Jules gave a very interesting talk about Feminist Perspectives on Free Will. Her main aim was to suggest that feminist concerns intersect with the discussion on the metaphysics on free will. She was arguing (if I remember correctly) that some feminists put forward accounts of free agency that are incompatible with the libertarian notion of free will. Jules suggested then that this might motivate an argument against libertarianism.

There was some discussion about whether there were different notions of free agency involved in that argument or not, and about the connection between the "folk" notion of free will and the "metaphysical" notion of free will. I was thinking that if we accept a view of metaphysics such as the one advocated by Frank Jackson in 'From Metaphysics to Ethics' (and elsewhere), then we can maybe answer some of those questions.
Let me explain this a little bit. According to Jackson (and many more, I believe), conceptual analysis is very relevant for metaphysics. In particular, if you want to investigate the metaphysics of X, you have to do two things: (i) you have to offer a conceptual analysis of the concept of X, in terms of, say, the role that X plays (R). Then, you have to (ii) find out what facts about the world, if any, satisfy description R. Then, we can answer questions such as 'are there any Xs in the world?' or 'is entity Y a case of X?'. For instance, if you are a physicalist, and you want to find out whether there is free will, then you have to offer an analysis of 'free will' in terms of D, and find out whether D is satisfied by any physical facts. If you want to find out whether a particular action is free or not, you have to find out whether it satisfies D or not.

Simple enough. So, what is the bearing of this on yesterday's discussion? Well, I think that we can see the metaphysical problem of free will in that way. There are two central questions, then: (I) what is the correct analysis of FREE WILL, and (II), for a given analysis, is it realized in the physical, deterministic world? (if we endorse physicalism and determinism, as we should!) ;-)

So I think it is clear that, if we understand the issue in this guise, Jules was right in that feminists concerns are relevant here. If they are offering a new analysis of the notion of free will, then they are participating in the debate about (I). For instance, Jules said that it follows from some feminist analyses that free agency is not an all or nothing matter, but it comes in degrees. If this is true, then the libertarian analysis of free agency (according to which a free agent is an uncaused cause) has to be wrong, because if it was true, free agency would not come in degrees.

One possibility, though, is that there is nothing such as THE concept of free will. Maybe the term is just used in different, incompatible ways by different users or in different situations. But in any case, it seems that the methodology suggested in (I) and (II) is still going to be very useful here, for each of those different notions.

This is where I thought of Chalmers' proposal. He said that when we do not know whether a dispute about X is terminological or not, maybe we should forget about X for a while, and discuss instead about the other concepts on the vicinity (applying (i) and (ii) to them). If everyone agrees on these other questions, then the former dispute was terminological indeed. However, I think that it is unlikely that such an agreement is forthcoming is this area! Which is good, after all. So, good news for feminists: they have lots of things to say about free will!!

Monday, October 16, 2006

On Physicalism (I)

I have been reading some interesting papers on the proper characterization of physicalism. A good one is 'Physicalism' by Andrew Melnyk, from the Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Mind. Another one was 'Varieties of Supervenience', by Robert Stalnaker, in Philosophical Perspectives 1996.
Melnyk introduces physicalism as the thesis that all entities (objects, properties, events, etc) are either physical in a narrow sense (physical_N), that is, entities posited by physics, or physical in a broad sense (physical_B), which are appropiately related to the physical_N. Of course, the central question is how to characterize that relation between physical_N and physical_B. One important candidate is the notion of supervenience: A supervenes on B iff, any possible world that is B-identical to the actual world is A-identical.
Melnyk argues that this notion of (global) supervenience might be a necessary condition for physicalism, but not a sufficient one, because there are accounts of, say, the mental, such that mental (globally) supervenes on the physical_N but is not, intuitively, physical_B, since on that account, the mental and the physical_N are distinct entities, causally related. These accounts satisfy global supervenience, but they do not seem to be physicalist accounts.
Melnyk suggests to complement supervenience with a realization claim. A kind X is realized by the physical_N iff X is a functional kind and some physical_N entity satisfies the functional role associated with X.
Melnys argues that realization seems to be a possible explanation of supervenience.
I think this sounds plausible. However, conceivability arguments are just committed to supervenience being a necessary condition for physicalism. In other words, CA assume that physicalism entails a supervenience claim, which is compatible with a realization-based notion of physicalism (since, plausibly, realization of X by the physical_N entails supervenience of X on the physical_N).

Saturday, October 14, 2006

On Zombies

Ok, I will say a bit more about my thesis.

Where were we? Yes, I said the other day that conceivability arguments aim to refute physicalism? How? Well, physicalism is committed to the claim that any possible world that is physically identical to the actual world must be identical in all respects. One version of conceivability arguments is the Zombie Argument. It starts by suggesting that we can conceive of a possible world that is physically identical to the actual one, molecule per molecule, but where no-one is conscious, that is, everyone is a Zombie (they lack phenomenal states). The first premise of the argument claims that this is a conceivable scenario, that is, there is no contradiction in the description of such a world. From this, it is inferred that such a world is indeed possible. Then, it follows that there is at least a possible world physically identical to the actual one, which differs in other respects, namely, with respect to the phenomenal facts. So physicalism would be false.

My focus in my thesis is on the inference from conceivability to possibility. I argue that this inference is not warranted. In particular as I said the other day I explore and defend two strategies: the exceptionalist and the non-exceptionalist. The non-exceptionalist strategy argues that the conceivability-to-possibility inference is wrong in general: for all cases of sentences, for all domains, it is wrong to infer from the conceivability of S that S is possible. Exceptionalists, on the other hand, claim that the conceivability-to-possibility inference is ok in most cases, unless phenomenal concepts are involved. In particular, when we have sentences that involve both physical and phenomenal concepts, since these two are so radically different, any inference from conceivability to possibility is going to be unreliable. The burden of this strategy is to explain what the relation between physical and phenomenal concepts is, such that it brings about this exceptional feature.

Well, this is a very brief introduction! More is forthcoming in the near future...

On Penguins

Doing a PhD is not just about writing a PhD. Fortunately, you can distract yourself with other philosophical activities, that are supposed to be good for you, so that you don't feel so guilty for not being at home working on your thesis in that very moment.
So a good source of educative distraction are the Friday Seminars in my Department. Yesterday it was specially interesting and touching, since we had a Sheffield graduate doing the seminar. It was my good old friend David Liggins, who was a PhD student not long ago, and yesterday he was an invited speaker at the seminar! Quite an event. He suggested a very interesting and somehow intriguing view about how we can communicate using matehmatical statements. For instance, we can communicate something by using the sentence 'The number of penguins at Ely is zero' (which, according to nominalists, is false since it is committed to the existence of numbers), because we all share the belief 'The number of penguins at Ely is Zero iff there are no penguins at Ely'. Therefore, when we hear the former, we can come to believe that there are no penguins at Ely.
This sounds plausible, but I was puzzled by one consequence of the view: if you are a philosopher who does not believe in numbers, then you do not share such a belief, because you think that the right-hand sentence is true while the left-hand sentence is false. Then, this view is not supposed to be true of the very same people that propose it, becase they do not believe in the existence of numbers!

Thursday, October 12, 2006

My thesis plan

Today, to get our hands dirty, but not too much, I will explain very briefly what my thesis is about.

Ok, so there is a metaphysical claim, called 'physicalism' that says that everything is physical. Simple enough? Not quite: it's quite hard to formulate precisely. But putting that aside.There are many philosophers that deny physicalism. One important source of problems for physicalism are the so-called conceivability arguments (against physicalism). So in my thesis I examine these arguments and argue they do not work, that is, they don't succeed in refuting physicalism. So this is my modest contribution to the defense of physicalism...

The thesis is in 6 chapters, as follows:

(O. Introduction (Why not?))
1. Conceivability arguments (where I explain what these are).
2. Strategies against conceivability arguments (where I introduce the two main strategies: exceptionalism and non-exceptionalism, and I also propose a new classification of conceivability arguments).
3. The non-exceptionalist strategy against conceivability arguments (where I defend this strategy from Chalmers and Jackson's attacks).
4. The exceptionalist strategy I (where I explain the different versions and argue for my favourite one).
5. The exceptionalist strategy II (where I defend the exceptionalist strategy from Chalmers' objections).
6. The exceptionalist Strategy III (where I defend this strategy from Stoljar's objections).
7. Conclusion (where I recapitulate and suggest that the best way to block the conceivability arguments is by means of a mixed strategy, with aspects of both. So we can all be happy).

Well, maybe it does not sound very exciting like this... but I will try to flesh that out a bit more soon!


If you want to write a good thesis, one important thing is to have Good Sight. So today I went to have an Eye Test. The result: I need new glasses, so I ordered a new pair (which will be ready, hopefully, in one week). And, since I was there and it was easy, I decided to change my style. So I ordered new frames also. So with my new glasses and my new style, maybe I'll get some inspiration to continue re-writing chapter 1...

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Been There? Done That?

Ok, this is it. The Beginning, at least.
So, what's the purpose of this blog?

Well, the main reason is that a have a PhD thesis to finish, in one year. In this academic year. In Philosophy. More preciseley, I have to rewrite the 50,000-words draft that I already have. Anyway, I still have to produce a complete and final version, from the first word to the last. Although I guess I will use a lot of the material I already have. Or maybe not so much... who knows? It's a big journey, a big adventure. And this is supposed to be the journal of that journey. I will write about how it's going, how it is NOT going, about all the things that get me going during this period, about what I will go through...Do you want to know more? Then drop by, sometimes, if you fancy... Comments, suggestions, tips, advice, criticisms, jokes, etc. are more than welcome.

So, what's with the title of this blog? First, it's bit ironic, since writing a thesis is THE thing I haven't done, THE place I haven't been yet. But hopefully, we will also treat more familiar topics and domains as we go along. And secondly, this title reflects the fact that I tried to get a blog once before, but it didn't quite work... hopefully this one will live longer!

One last thing that you might be wondering: what is the title of such an opus magnum, e.g., my thesis? The provisional title by now is 'Consciousness, Conceivability and Concepts'. Or Con Con Con. Or C C C, for the super keen.

Maybe tomorrow I'll explain what it is about...