Been There/ Done That

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Plans for the future

I have recently put together a research proposal for a postdoc position I have applied for. My new project is on consciousness and conceivability arguments, once again, but this time I plan to develop and defend a new strategy of my own, which I label 'the primitive account'. If you want to know more, just keep reading...

The phenomenal concept strategy is one of the most attractive responses to what is perhaps the main challenge to physicalism in contemporary philosophy, namely, the so-called conceivability arguments. Many versions of this strategy have recently been proposed, but on my view none of them is completely satisfactory. In this project, I aim to elaborate and defend an original version of the phenomenal concepts strategy which, I will argue, can successfully defeat conceivability arguments and therefore contribute to the defence of physicalism.
Conceivability arguments focus on phenomenal consciousness, that is, the aspect of our conscious mental states that has to do with what our mental states are like for us. Conceivability arguments attempt to show that since we can conceive of individuals (or possible worlds) physically identical to us but with different phenomenal properties, then it follows that these individuals (or worlds) are indeed possible, and therefore that physicalism is false. A crucial step in these arguments is the inference from conceivability to possibility.
The phenomenal concept strategy proceeds by attacking this inference from conceivability to possibility. Whereas advocates of conceivability arguments claim that the best explanation of the conceivability of zombies (i.e. physical duplicates of us who lack phenomenal consciousness) involves the possibility of such individuals, the advocates of the phenomenal concept strategy argue that there is an alternative explanation of such conceivability, which does not involve the possibility of zombies. This alternative explanation crucially appeals to the special features of our phenomenal concepts, that is, the concepts that we use to refer to our phenomenal states and properties, by virtue of what they are like for us.
The advocates of the phenomenal concept strategy argue that those features of phenomenal concepts are responsible for the fact that zombies are conceivable. This explanation usually works like this: it is claimed that phenomenal concepts have some psychological feature X such that all concepts with feature X will not be a priori connected to physical concepts. Then, this a priori disconnection between physical and phenomenal concepts explains why we are able to imagine zombies, without finding any a priori contradiction in such scenario. Since phenomenal and physical concepts lack the appropriate sort of psychological connection, they are not a priori connected, and therefore the hypothesis that their referents are separated is perfectly coherent.
In my recent work in my PhD (in which I explore several strategies against conceivability arguments) I have defended the phenomenal concept strategy from general objections that would affect any version of it, and I have also compared the different versions available in the literature. In this new project I want to further advance the discussion, by developing and defending my own version of the strategy, which substantially differs from the previous accounts. The main idea of this new account, which I label “the Primitive Account”, is that there is no need for the phenomenal concept strategy to postulate a psychological property X such that all phenomenal concepts possess it and which entails that, if a concept has it, then that concept is not a priori connected to physical concepts. The motivation for this view is twofold: on one hand, I will argue that current accounts of what such property X might amount to are incorrect, and on the other hand, I will argue that we do not need to appeal to any property X of phenomenal concepts, other than their conceptual isolation from physical concepts, in order to successfully explain the conceivability of zombies.
My defence of the primitive account will go through three steps, which will give rise to three different papers, as follows:
“Phenomenal Concepts: Recognitional or Quotational?”
In this paper, I will argue that a recent and influential account of what that property X of phenomenal concepts amounts to, namely, the Quotational Account of phenomenal concepts (suggested by Papineau and Chalmers, among others) is incorrect. This account claims that each phenomenal concept is associated with a token of the phenomenal kind it refers to. I will argue that this account cannot explain the fact that some phenomenal concepts refer to general phenomenal kinds, such as ‘sensation of seeing blue’ whereas other phenomenal concepts refer to more fine-grained kinds, such as ‘sensation of seeing indigo blue’. For each phenomenal token instantiates many phenomenal properties, both general and fine-grained, and therefore a single token cannot determine what property a phenomenal concept refers to. I will also argue that the Recognitional Account of phenomenal concepts, according to which phenomenal concepts are associated with dispositions to re-identify tokens of a phenomenal kind, is a better account of the reference-fixing of phenomenal concepts, since these dispositions can be more or less fine-grained, as required.
“Recognitional Concepts and The Explanatory Gap”
Here, I will argue that although the Recognitional Account is more plausible than its contemporary rivals, as an account of the nature of phenomenal concepts, it also faces an important challenge, namely, that of offering a satisfactory explanation of why physical and phenomenal concepts are not a priori connected. I will go through the different possible explanations of such conceptual disconnection that the recognitional account might appeal to, and I will argue that they are all unsatisfactory. On my view, these difficulties suggest that there might be no interesting feature X of phenomenal concepts which explains their conceptual isolation from physical concepts. Rather, this conceptual disconnection between physical and phenomenal facts might very well be a primitive fact about concepts, that is, a fact that does not have an explanation in terms of more basic psychological features of our concepts. This does not mean that there is no explanation of such conceptual disconnection whatsoever: there will very likely be a physical explanation, but this leaves open the possibility that there is no further explanation in terms of a feature X of phenomenal concepts of the sort proposed by philosophical accounts of phenomenal concepts.
“The Phenomenal Concept Strategy Revisited: The Primitive Account”
In this final paper, I want to explore the possibility that I suggest at the end of the previous paper, namely, that there is no philosophically interesting explanation of the conceptual disconnection between physical and phenomenal concepts (this is what I call “the primitive account” of such conceptual disconnection). If we assume that this account is correct, what would follow? On my view, we could still formulate a successful version of the phenomenal concept strategy against conceivability arguments. I will argue that this strategy is not ad hoc (since it can be independently motivated) and that it satisfies the criteria that are necessary in order to provide an alternative explanation of the conceivability of zombies, so that the inference from such conceivability to their possibility would be unwarranted. In particular, I will argue that, once we pay attention to the dialectics at play in conceivability arguments, it is clear that we can defeat them by merely formulating a coherent account of phenomenal concepts which entails that zombies are conceivable. It is not necessary to explain the conceivability of zombies via any further property of phenomenal concepts.


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