Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Neurofundamentalism



Simply put, neurofundamentalism is the belief that brains are creators. Where traditional theists believe in an all powerful God, neurofundamentalists believe in all powerful brains. But where traditional theists struggle against scientific materialism, neurofundamentalists fully embrace science in the certain conviction that it will eventually be confirmed that brains create images, models and symbols. Whilst neurofundamentalists await revelation from the gods of neuroscience, they draw attention to their sacred neurological equivalent of the Turin shroud ("grid cells" and "place cells") and declare these as solemn proof of the capacity of brains to generate their own tools. Yes tools. For what are models and images if not tools? But neurofundamentalists go much further than this. Not only do they claim that brains construct models and images, but according to neurofundamentalists, they also trade in some of the most sophisticated tools ever to have been devised by culture: symbols, signs and codes.

Like their traditional counterparts, neurofundamentalists come in various creeds, from idealists who are unshakeable in their conviction that everything we experience is a construct of the brain, to those of a more moderate persuasion who claim that brains only construct models if and when the need arises.

As preposterous as any of this may sound, it is a matter of demonstrable fact that neurofundamentalism is the current orthodoxy in the cognitive sciences and the philosophy of mind. The opponents of neurofundamentalism, on the other hand, are a small, fragmented and largely ignored minority. And like any reasonable people these thinkers also look to science and reason for evidence. Unlike neurofundamentalists though, they know that the search for what-was-never-there is a futile enterprise. In more than half a century of careful searching, not a single symbol has ever been found in any of the countless brains examined in this quest for the holy grail of neurofundamentalism.

It should be perfectly obvious that tool-use only evolves where intelligent agents are surrounded by raw materials and are fully embedded within fluctuating and often hostile environments populated by other intelligent competing organisms. Brains are not agents, their environment is relatively stable, they have no access to raw materials and they are in no direct competition with other intelligent organisms. There is no way in the world that brains are capable of constructing models, forming images or of generating and encoding symbols. These are the exclusive products and techniques of cultural evolution, not biological evolution. The necessary evolutionary antecedents of culture are completely different from those of biology. 

Whenever a theory assumes that biology can do what culture has become capable of doing under very different circumstances we should be on our guard because it is very likely that a vital distinction has been missed. Let's hope that neurofundamentalism is not as tenacious as its more traditional equivalents.


Wednesday, 3 December 2014

"Get a Life" by Donald Brook: A Review

This review was originally published in Artlink Magazine Vol.34 No.3 here.


Get a life is a deceptive book, not because its author seeks to misdirect the reader, nor because he is in any way naive about the implications of his theories, but because the ideas it contains are so entertainingly and unthreateningly presented, yet on close examination they turn out to have teeth — sharp ones.

This new ebook by the British-Australian art theorist Donald Brook is a compendium of papers, articles and biographical recollections that trace Brook's developing thought from the mid 1960's to the present day. The various "perls" (a pun on the computer programming language), as he calls them, are strung together with chronological recollections of Brook's many involvements with the Australian artworld during the same period as well as several descriptions of other formative, informative, extraordinary, exasperating and sometimes poignant episodes and encounters.

For the last 50 years Brook has been weaving together various closely interrelated strands of conceptual analysis leading to the formulation of a body of theories with significant implications for our understanding of art, culture and perception — issues that are as relevant today as they ever were. Whether a modest ebook is the most appropriate or impactful means of disseminating these ideas remains to be seen, but it would be a mistake to conclude that the contents of this offering apply merely to the production, theory and consumption or artworks or even to the wider machinations of the artworld. Even a brief scan should be sufficient to persuade even the most skeptical reader that this book is packed with ideas, thought-provoking challenges to orthodoxy and even several powerful conceptual tools that could easily keep a diligent theorist employed for a very long time indeed.

Such glowing remarks beg a glaring question: if Brook has been a prominent and widely published member of the Australian artworld and his ‘perls’ have frequently been dispersed in international waters then why is he almost completely unknown outside Australia? It is tempting to jump to some scathing conclusions here about the narrow focus of the Anglo American outlook but whilst there is probably some truth in this conclusion I suspect that the factors involved are more complex than such a superficial response would suggest. 

The period of Brook's principal activity coincides with one in which Continental philosophy in general and Post-Structuralism in particular have held considerable attractions for many artists and art theorists. The clear reverberations of this cultural trend can still be discerned amongst much contemporary art and art criticism, yet throughout this period Brook's allegiances have remained firmly within the Analytic tradition, a tradition known more for its asceticism and restraint than its ability to enthral, entertain or even to mystify. The artworld isn't exactly renowned for its preoccupation with clarity, conceptual precision and disciplined enquiry and this presents a difficulty for any theorist aligned more with Wittgenstein, Ryle and J. L. Austin than Barthes, Derrida or Merleau-Ponty. This is not to say that Brook's writings are arid tracts with humble ambitions, quite the reverse, but what it does mean is that his rejection of much that is held sacred both within the Continental as well as the Analytic traditions of philosophy leaves him with few allies in the philosophy camp. Little wonder then that he continues to describe himself an artist and art theorist. But this also inevitably puts him into conflict with advocates of the transcendence of art or its intrinsic alterity and ineffability. Brook's claims are at once more substantial and more insightful and by diligent means he takes the careful reader on a journey that leads to some extraordinarily revealing realisations about the intimate and inextricable relations between representation, perception art and culture.

One of the most important additions to the toolkit of any bona fide pearl hunter is a implement for levering apart the two halves of shells that stubbornly conceal their contents. Over the years Brook has developed an uncanny knack of driving a critical wedge between what are commonly regarded as indivisible entities, of making distinctions where only ambiguity reigns. In the 1960’s he began to focus his attention on a curious division commonly encountered in commentaries on sculpture. In the paper "Perception and the Critical Appraisal of Sculpture" (1969) Brook describes how commentators often adopt one of two distinct forms of descriptive strategy that he defines as "Object Accounts" or "Picture Accounts". It turns out that these two approaches are the linguistic face of two radically different procedures of nonverbal representation, procedures that inform our everyday speech to a significant degree. Moreover, Picture Accounts are the result of cultural innovations of the kind exemplified by the 15h Century discovery of perspective and—incidentally—are centrally implicated in the perplexities of many optical illusions. Many such techniques that we now take for granted were completely unknown in ancient times, for example the knack of using blue pigments to depict aerial perspective. Only in recent years has it been confirmed — thus corroborating Brook's thesis — that colour perception for example is significantly informed by the cultural emergence of skills and materials capable of enhancing our genetically inherited capacities.

The emphasis on cultural innovation in Brook's thought is crucial and leads to several other important insights, perhaps the most prominent of which is a theory of what art actually is: an old canard perhaps but one that finds new life under Brook's discriminating lens. Brook argues that the artworld has a vested interest in claiming that art is a unique commodity that inheres only in works of art, whereas art is in fact the emergence of previously unexpected skills of human ingenuity that, once discovered, can subsequently be repeated and refined. Computer games, perspective, nicotine patches, photographs, particle accelerators, sculptures and even new forms of crime are all products of art. Whether these artefacts of art will be accepted by the artworld as works of art is, of course, a question that actually has very little to do with art. Furthermore, what follows, as Brook is quick to clarify, is the realisation that there is no such thing as art history, only the "construction of a rag-bag of stories about the ways in which certain loosely related cultural kinds have emerged, have changed, and have eventually been superseded."

Inevitably the arguments are more subtly nuanced than a brief summary can possibly elucidate but it should be apparent that this ebook has a lot to offer anyone interested in getting to grips with issues that have stymied philosophers and art theorists for centuries. Theories of all kinds should be measured by their ability to enable insights and to explain puzzles that have so far eluded our best efforts. Ideally they should also be clear and the examples they provide, vividly accessible. Get a Life succeeds admirably in doing so and into the bargain we also get several other gems including one of the most ludicrously funny yet shockingly chilling recollections ever to have graced the pages of a book of theory. "Depravity in Wharfdale" is a masterpiece of storytelling that will leave you breathless with its laughable grotesquery.

Brook can certainly spin a yarn, but even though Get a Life is frequently entertaining his intention is clearly not to regale us nor to showcase his linguistic or critical prowess but to provide an opportunity for close scrutiny of radical ideas that are in genuine need of serious critical attention. Inevitably there are times where the measured discussion betrays a hint of irritation at the paucity of critical reception of his work but it is clear that Brook has more pressing repercussions to explore than to become embroiled in petty bickering or bitterness.

Get a Life is an immensely intelligent book. It is witty but never cocky, eloquent but never showy, insightful but never boastful, and challenging but never laboured. Of course, you will want to draw your own conclusions. I can only recommend that you get a copy (here).





Wednesday, 26 November 2014

I Act Therefore I Am



Rene Descartes famously declared "Cogito ergo sum" — commonly translated as "I think therefore I am." This belief—or article of philosophical faith even—that our agency exists as a purely private affair altogether disconnected from public interaction, continues to sponsor many misconceptions about the nature of mind. Whilst Descartes' theory of the immaterial mind may have been abandoned for more materialistic accounts, the vestiges of Cartesianism linger on in the widespread assumption that brains are somehow agents equipped with their own skills such as modelling, imaging, computation as well as sophisticated semantic or semiotic forms signal encoding so far impervious to all scientific attempts at decryption.

Philosopher Peter Hacker and neuroscientist Max Bennett use conceptual analysis to examine and highlight many of the conceptual errors that arise as a consequence of attributing to the brain skills that only a brain and body can perform. In response, many theorists and scientists simply dismiss Hacker and Bennett's criticisms as stipulative assertions and as the exhortations of language police. These theorists and scientists see no contradiction in supposing that brains have capacities of detection, despite the fact that brains contain no sensory organs. And they assume therefore that brains produce their own representations that they consult in order to go about their business. But what if these theorists and scientists are mistaken in dismissing Hacker an Bennett? Is a new paradigm called for? From my own Brookian point of view, an analysis of the evolutionary emergence of representational skills adds significant weight to Hacker and Bennett's challenge to  neurotheism and suggests that whilst many of the findings of neuroscience are important, much of the theory is significantly less perspicacious.

Representation is a social skill. It is something that we learn through communicative transactions with other similarly endowed creatures, most notably other members of our own species. Fundamentally representation is a co-operative exchange. According to Constance Classen (1993) "'Cogito ergo sum', literally means 'I put in motion together (coagitare) therefore I am'." The etymology is revealing: Co=together + Agitare= to act upon. 

Mindedness emerges through social interaction  through our varied skills as communicators.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

On The Indivisibility Of Brain And Body



The other day my four-year-old son mentioned his brain. I asked him if he had any idea where it was and he said he didn’t know. I was on the verge of explaining that the brain is where we do our thinking when I hesitated.  Saying that the brain is where thinking goes on is like saying that the heart is where circulation goes on or an oven is where food preparation occurs. The astrophysicist Carl Sagan once famously said: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” The same could be said of thought.

This doesn’t mean to say that we cannot understand thought, or that the brain is a black box forever closed to neuroscience. It simply means that thought is not something that can intelligibly be attributed to brains or neurons. Thought is something that skilled organisms do in virtue of tools and techniques that they acquire to a very substantial degree from culture – just like the tools and techniques etc. that enable food preparation.

Either thinking is an action or else it is not. If it is an action then it is mistaken to suppose that brains think, because brains are not agents and cannot act. Only embrained bodies – persons – are agents and only agents are capable of doing things.

If we want to insist that thinking is not an action, then we face multiple difficulties and objections. For example, it would no longer be coherent to respond to the question “What are you doing?” by saying “I’m just thinking,” and we would face the formidable challenge of distinguishing between ongoing brain processes that are clearly not actions and the thoughts that we have decided do not qualify as actions either.

Similar absurdities arise when we entertain sci-fi fantasies about brains in vats. A brain in a vat wouldn’t have experiences, not even memory experiences. Strictly speaking, memory recall is not an experience. Whilst we have ways of recounting the past and these capacities – consciously entertained – often elicit emotional responses, these responses are not in the brain, they are embodied (including the brain of course). Not only are brains incapable of actions but they have no feelings either. They have no sense receptors. Nor do brains memorise feelings – they don’t have to. When we recall a memory the associated emotional responses are generated anew in the body including the brain. So a brain stripped of a body wouldn’t have feelings of any kind – either emotional or sensory. It would be a thing with a notional capacity to initiate actions but no opportunity to do so, nor to feel the embodied frisson of recall. And if the trauma of surgery did not kill it outright, the trauma of desperate isolation would almost certainly lead to a very rapid demise. Even people with locked-in syndrome are not “cut off” from sensation, and the accounts of those who have survived paint a unimaginable picture of desolation and despair.

Your brain is your body and your body is you.



Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Observational Drawing (a misnomer)



Art teachers often regard the techniques and discipline of observational drawing to be a fundamental skill for the preparation and production of artworks. To be skilled in observational drawing is to have acquired a range of sophisticated competences that only highly intelligent creatures are capable of learning — skills that have gradually emerged through cultural evolution and that in many cases have only been discovered in very recent history. Observational drawing is one of these remarkably late additions to our cultural toolkit.

Observational drawing is distinguished from other kinds of drawing by being specifically directed towards the depiction of observed objects and scenes as opposed to the depiction of imaginary or remembered subjects. It requires careful scrutiny and is an extremely time consuming skill both to learn and to practice, especially so in a world averse to all forms of delayed gratification. 

Observational drawing is difficult not only because its techniques do not come easily but because in many ways it involves one of the most contradictory and absurd forms of observation known to exist. In short, it demands the deliberate restriction of observation in the following ways: maintaining a fixed point of view, closing one eye and occasionally squinting. None of these procedures is essential to observational drawing but without them, it becomes a significantly more challenging prospect both to learn and to perform.

It should be obvious that our perceptual skills are not perfect. But the reason they are not perfect has almost everything to do with our sensory capacities and very little to do with our brains. When we see a balloon "disappear" into the distance we do not suppose that it has actually vanished. All that has happened is that our retinas are no longer picking up sufficient stimuli for us to see the balloon. The further things recede, the less we see of them. The same goes for failing light. At a certain point the cones of the eye become insensitive and only the intensity-sensitive rods are stimulated. As the light continues to dim, even the rods become insensitive. Likewise, when we squint at a scene, in order to draw tonal values, we deliberately restrict the sensory stimulation to our intensity-sensitive rods.

So it turns out that observational drawing is actually a very restricted form of observation, a pseudo, quasi, or partial observation — a form of looking that we have to strive both to learn and to perform because in many important respects it goes against everything that perception has evolved to do, i.e., to see things as they actually are.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Cultural Innovation In The Brain?

Neolithic stone arrowhead.
Anyone who follows this blog will know that I have been trying – amongst other things –to dismantle the idea that brains utilise inner representations, i.e. Representationalism. A recent discussion led to the following insights.

The story of the emergence and development of culture is the story of the emergence and development of representational practices. Representations are cultural artefacts. They are created by intelligent organisms for communicative purposes. Representations are tools of a fundamental kind but they are nonetheless products of cultural evolution, not biological evolution.

Whatever intricate processes occur in the brain, these cannot be the consequence of communication between inner organisms. Brains are singular organs, not communities of organisms competing in a hostile environment for available resources. So, the electrochemical impulses that shuttle around the brain and the structures that give rise to them must have evolved in an entirely different way from the many tools and technical artefacts of culture (computers being an obvious example).

Geneticists commonly speak of genes in representational terms (“encodings,” “information,” “signals" etc.) and this has been extremely successful in unravelling the mysteries of our most famous double helix. But no geneticist would ever seriously argue that DNA is literally a code. This usage is simply a convenience. Philosophers and cognitive neuroscientists, on the other hand, commonly treat anti-representationalist dissent with contempt and disregard.

There are no cultural innovations in your brain, and that necessarily includes representations and everything else representation enables, from images to computation.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Intellectualism Refuted (Part VII: Beyond Belief)


Gareth Evans (1982) argues that perception is belief-independent and in order to substantiate this claim he cites the well known example of the  Müller-Lyer optical illusion. He points out that despite any justified beliefs we may have about the actual lengths of the lines:  "[i]t will continue to appear to us as though, say, one line is longer than the other even when we are quite sure that it is not." Kelly (1998) endorses Evan's anti-intellectualist view that beliefs have no impact on our perceptions:

"Because perceptions are not subject to the canonical norms of rationality, then - because they are not, in other words, "rationally revisable" - they do not stand within the web of inferential relations that constitutes our beliefs, and ought not to be explained in terms of them."

For Kelly this web of inferential relations enables us to form beliefs, to make judgements and to infer conclusions. Despite the fact that there is no evidence to challenge this  conclusion, it remains a commonplace amongst philosophers to talk of "perceptual judgements" as if they are independent of "canonical norms of rationality." Evans is clear on this point. For him, judgement is connected with reasons and reasons are conceptual. If we are to avoid explaining perception by reference to "inferential relations" and "canonical norms of rationality" —of reasons— then something less extravagant than judgement is required.

We already have a candidate in Brook's theory of perception as a capacity to represent the things with which the  perceiver is engaged. In order to explore this conjecture it will be helpful to examine some frequently overlooked but nonetheless revealing anthropological research.

In one of the largest studies of its kind, Segal et al (1966) oversaw a global survey of cross cultural variations in susceptibility to optical illusions. The researchers found significant variance between differing communities and age groups. For example, some groups reported no difference between the lengths of the lines of the Müller-Lyer diagram. An earlier study by Hudson (1960), of culturally isolated South African children, encountered very similar findings. Both studies attributed the results to a lack of habitual exposure to pictures amongst the communities studied, and Hudson dubbed this: "pictorial illiteracy." In fact, even children well schooled in language and arithmetic skills (but lacking pictorial literacy) were not susceptible to what is commonly described as the "pictorial illusion of depth" and were therefore unsusceptible to the simulated spatial depth that many optical illusions exploit.

McCauley and Henrich (2006) write:

"For those who experience it, the illusion may persist, but susceptibility to the Müller-Lyer illusion is neither uniform nor universal. Moreover, a plausible argument can be made that through most of our species’ history most human beings were probably not susceptible to the illusion."

If this is true, and corroborating evidence can be provided from the art historical record as well as other sources (Deutscher 2010), then we have very good reason to suppose that our skills in the use of depictions are significantly implicated in the perplexities of such optical illusions. So, the conflicting responses we have when faced with the Müller-Lyer diagram are simply explained by the fact that we are disposed to represent the diagram in two different ways. We can treat the lines as a simulation of spatial depth or else we can treat them as two lines of equal length. No judgement need be imputed.

If the capacity to derive depth-cues from perspectival images is culturally acquired and is not an immediately available part of our genetically inherited perceptual repertoire then we have very good reason to suppose not only that perception is belief independent, as Evans claimed, but that perception is both non-conceptual and non-depictive. Language and depiction are skills that have developed through cultural evolution and both take time and practice to acquire. The capacity to imitate the behaviour of others on the other hand—to produce rudimentary versions of what Brook (1997) calls "Matching” representations—is an inherited skill upon which all of our more sophisticated communicative capacities supervene.


In Part VIII I will explore Kelly’s claim (pace Evans) that “Perceptual content is, sometimes at least, irreducibly articulated in terms of dispositions by the perceiver to act upon the object being perceived.” In doing so, I aim to explain how this gives strong support to the thesis that perception is fundamentally a communicative capacity: “a disposition to act” in representational terms “on [or with] the object being perceived.”

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Intellectualism Refuted (Part VI: Do Animals Have Beliefs?)


"When we first begin to believe anything, what we believe is not a single proposition, it is a whole system of propositions. (Light dawns gradually over the whole.)" —Ludwig Wittgenstein

When Kelly (1998) examines Evans' suggestion that belief is a "sophisticated cognitive state: one that is connected with... the notion of judgement, and so, also, connected with the notion of reasons" he finds this "intuition" insufficiently threatening to would-be intellectualists. According to Kelly this allows intellectualists to maintain either that animal beliefs and perception are sophisticated conceptual states or else that animals have no beliefs because their perceptual states are non-conceptual whereas human perceptual states—or so the intellectualists might insist—are conceptual. Kelly makes a valid point, but I think Evans' intuition deserves closer consideration.

Any principled theory of perception must be consistent with an evolutionary account of the emergence of intelligent behaviours and as such it must be committed to a sparing view of the development of  conceptual capacities like beliefs. Evans was evidently wary of assuming that "sophisticated cognitive states" precede skills of concept formation. But perhaps what he most needed in order to substantiate this intuition was a theory of how conceptual skills might have evolved from other more commonly observable non-conceptual capacities. One possible component of such a theory can be discerned in the notion of demonstratives to which Evans also turns his attention. I will examine demonstratives later, with the intention of explaining how such utterances as "this," "that" and "here" gain their efficacy not as "demonstrative concepts", as some have argued (McDowell 1994, Loar 1997), but as conceptualisations of what are in fact non-conceptual skills of representation. For the moment though, it will suffice to say that skills of nonverbal representation (mimicry in particular) deserve to be considered as plausible precursors to sophisticated forms of symbolic communication and concept formation that would be impossible, or so I claim, without these prior capacities to produce, select and use non-conceptual (nonverbal) forms of representation.

Since the publication of Evans' book in 1982, the question of animal concepts has been the subject of widespread research. In 1994 Chater and Heyes undertook a meta analysis of the then extant research and found that: "[T]he idea of a concept has not been successfully decoupled from natural language, and hence there is currently no coherent account of what animal concepts might be." Since this time, no further evidence of animal concepts has come to light, and whilst it may be premature to suspend all enquiries, it appears that the assumption that animal capacities are intrinsically conceptual lacks substantive empirical grounds. Analytically speaking, the picture is little better. In 1982 — two years after Evans' death—Donald Davidson, whose work had a profound influence on Evans, published a widely cited essay, "Rational Animals," in which he argues that: "[I]n order to have a belief, it is necessary to have the concept of belief...[and]... in order to have the concept of belief one must have language." Like Wittgenstein (and perhaps Evans also), Davidson considered belief to be part of a system of propositions — the idea being that beliefs and rationality in general are acquired social traits.

It seems likely that Evans was motivated by similar considerations as those expressed by Davidson which suggests that his position was more substantive than Kelly gives him credit for. Nonetheless "Varieties of Reference" makes no mention of this reasoning and it is understandable therefore that Kelly finds the arguments unpersuasive. He is also right to point out that, in the face of a challenge to the supposed conceptual foundations of animal perception, intellectualists might simply insist that human perception is uniquely conceptual. Evans had an answer to this claim that I will explore next.



Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Intellectualism Refuted (Part V: Communicative Action Minus The Movement)



“A child who had never manifested in words, gestures, or play the working out of simple problems could not be said to work them out ‘in his mind’, any more than he could be said to know ‘in his mind’ the names of colours, if he was unable to say their names, or to point or to fetch the right colours when their names were called out. Thinking in ones mind (silent thinking, pausing to think) is not the most fundamental form of thinking, but instead presupposes thinking in play, work, or words.”

This passage from Norman Malcolm's 1977 essay "Thinking", emphasises the idea that mindedness is the consequence of skills acquired through active engagement with the world. Tempting as it is to conceive of the mind as a limitless inner workshop or skill-space for the ingenious generation of new capabilities, it is far better understood simply as a necessary component in all intelligent behaviour. But if this is so, then how is it possible for minded states to be executable independent of the actions of which they are necessarily part? As explained previously, intentional action is plausibly explained without reference to prior acts of predictive contemplation. In which case visualisation, anticipation, envisaging etc. are not prerequisites of intention or action. As Malcolm remarks: "Thinking in one's mind is not the most fundamental form of thinking." But, if we can act intentionally with no necessary antecedent acts of envisaging, then what is this more sophisticated form of thinking? How was it possible for mindedness to become stripped of its corresponding actions?
 "Thinking is movement confined to the brain." —Oleh Hornykiewicz
Working independently (in Australia and New Zealand), Donald Brook and Derek Melser have arrived at substantially the same conclusion on this question. Mindedness, they claim, develops as a result of learned competences in the social exchange of representations, i.e. communication. Such communication could include imitation, gestures, vocalisations, enactments and in our case: language. Mind is an inextricable feature of all communicative action, but some minded creatures—most notably humans—have become capable of inhibiting the movements that normally accompany action*. Mindedness then, is communicative action minus the movement.

This conclusion is well supported by evidence from developmental psychology. Early in the 20th Century, psychologists like Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky were the first to document commonly occurring patterns of language development in young children. They noted that preschool children pass through several phases of representationally directed action, beginning with imitation and then passing to "abbreviated demonstration," "speech-punctuated gesturing," "solitary speech" and finally "internalised speech." Something similar has also been observed in historical accounts of reading. According to Alberto Manguel (1996) the practice of "silent reading" was very uncommon until around the 10th Century. Prior to this time, reading was almost exclusively performed "out loud" and many wealthy readers even went so far as commissioning special reading rooms to which they could withdraw in order to read out their private correspondence etc.

These examples of internalised speech and silent reading underline the vital relation between the world involving skills of representation and their constitutive role in mindedness. The idea that it might be possible to read silently without first reading out loud or to plan one's actions "in one's mind" without first learning to intelligently negotiate obstacles, is not only a misunderstanding of the nature of skill and skill acquisition but a widespread misconception that continues to be a major source of confusion and philosophical argument.

In the next section I will explore the contention, attributed to Evans by Kelly (1998), that "perceptual content is belief-independent." Once again Evans' provides little in the way of evidence or argument, so the support for this view will have to be drawn from elsewhere. Nonetheless, there are  strong grounds for endorsing Evans' view that perception is belief independent.


*There is widespread evidence that many social animal infants engage in displays of mock aggression in which acts of biting etc. are only partially engaged. Such restrained displays presuppose the capacity for unrestrained aggression. Similarly, many higher apes engage in abbreviated gestures that are sufficient to elicit the same responses from conspecifics as would be expected from unabbreviated gestures.


Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Intellectualism Refuted (Part IV: Unanticipated Intention)



"Theories of mental content attempt to solve what is often referred to as Brentano's problem: the problem of explaining intentionality, explaining how mental states can be about things or be directed on to things in this way." —Karen Neander 2012

Previously I discussed the problems that arise as a consequence of conceiving of brains as representation containers as opposed to evolved organs of embodied response. I also raised some related objections to the notion of aboutness that many theorists claim is fundamental to the explanation of intentionality. My contention is that representations can only possess aboutness by virtue of their participation within an already intentionally directed system of rules. Without a rule to govern its use, even the most basic symbol is incapable of standing-in for anything (Bickhard and Turveen 1995, Bickhard 2004). If this is so, then the problem of explaining intentionality, raised by Neander in the above quote, runs into severe difficulties. Furthermore, if an inner representation is required to initiate an intentional action then this representation must itself be either intentional or unintentional. If it is intentional then it is a necessary condition that it also be initiated by another intentional representation and so on ad infinitum. If, on the other hand, the initiating representation is unintentional then the resultant behaviour cannot be intentional. I conclude therefore that inner representations are logically incapable of underwriting any form of intentional action — human or animal.

So, how can we answer "Brentano's problem" whilst avoiding the perils of infinite regress? In his “Philosophical Investigations,” (1953) Wittgenstein writes: "When people talk about the possibility of foreknowledge of the future they always forget the fact of the prediction of one's own voluntary movements.” Wittgenstein was concerned here with the question of why we are not surprised by our own voluntary movements. Despite the fact that we need not envisage any movement of our body prior to actually moving, we are invariably unsurprised by the outcome. As Wittgenstein suggested, and Gilbert Ryle (1949) further explored, where such voluntary actions are concerned, the action and its anticipation are one and the same thing. In other words, enacting a learned action is in itself predictive of the action's unfolding and therefore no prior act of contemplation is necessary for the behavior to qualify as being intentional. The learned capacity to do something presupposes its outcome. Another way of putting this would be to conceive of kinaesthetic learning (the learning of movements) as the acquisition of dispositions to move in certain ways in certain circumstances. These acquired dispositions are then capable of underwriting future intentional behaviour of the same kind.

If the above is correct, then there may be grounds to suppose that animals are capable of intentional action. Any questions we might have concerning anticipation and mindedness will have to wait until the next post, but what of perception? Was Gareth Evans correct in his intuition that humans and animals share certain perceptual characteristics? Gilbert Ryle (1949) argued that perception is less an action or procedure than an "achievement," and as Derek Melser (2009) remarks: "achievements necessarily imply prior active strivings." Melser contends that perception is a skill that depends on language acquisition and is developed through interaction with other perceivers in a process that he calls "tokening and concerting". On this view, perceivers engage in active dialogue about perceived objects that gradually accumulates into a perceptual repertoire of associated linguistic and behavioural responses. Melser also offers an important refutation of the commonplace assumption that perception is a relation between acts of perceiving and things perceived. He writes: "The question of what thing X is has the same answer as the question of what perceiving X is. [...] Hence they are not two things and cannot be 'related.'"

If language is essential to the development of perceptual skills as Melser claims, then Gareth Evans' view that animals and humans share certain perceptual states would seem to be in difficulty. Nonetheless there may yet be hope for anti-intellectualism. Like Melser, Donald Brook (1969, 1997, 2014) emphasises the cultural basis of perceptual skills but unlike Melser, he claims that perception is not exclusive to language-users but may be reasonably attributed to other creatures capable of producing nonverbal representations of the things with which they are engaged. The challenge for this theory is to provide evidence of these hypothesised causally influential but untriggered dispositions to represent. However, if it is true that many creatures are also capable of learning new behaviours, as is widely observed, then it follows—at least in principle—that they are capable of performing these skills and demonstrating them to other perceivers in just the way that Brook suggests. Indeed, if an animal learns a behaviour by observing and imitating the actions of a parent or sibling, then we have all the evidence we need that such an animal is a perceiver by virtue of its manifest capacity to imitate (to represent) this observed behaviour.

So the non-conceptual view that Gareth Evans is often invoked to defend would seem to have healthy grounds for support — so long as we bear in mind the importance of nonverbal know-how. As the arguments develop, we will see that this Rylean approach presents yet more significant challenges for intellectualism.