Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Intellectualism Refuted (Part I)

"Let us not forget this: when 'I raise my arm', my arm goes up. And the problem arises: what is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?" 
—Ludwig Wittgenstein
In the next several posts I intend to explore the philosophical doctrine of intellectualism and to contrast this with a principled alternative that avoids many of the shortcomings that accompany the intellectualist view. Intellectualism takes many forms, but in each case the foundational assumption holds that intelligent action, in all its varied manifestations, is the result of one or more forms of conceptual thought, judgement, computation, reason, ratiocination or intellection. So, when animals act intelligently on the basis of anticipated future states of affairs, these actions are taken by intellectualists to be the product of logical operations conducted at some level in the brain.

Brains are extremely complex organs and neuroscience, being a relatively youthful field of enquiry, hasn't yet discovered any clear and unequivocal evidence of these postulated logical processes. It would probably be fair to say then, that much intellectualist thinking is simply the consequence of widespread uncertainty about what kinds of mental states or processes might legitimately qualify as the inner correlates of the many sophisticated things that animals (including human animals) are capable of doing and is therefore simply a convenient way of saying that brains process inputs that lead eventually to behavioural outputs of one kind or another. Likewise, when people speak of "perceptual judgements," very often, all that is meant is that perception is a skilful capacity to discriminate between similar objects or attributes etc. If intellectualism were merely a matter of convenience of this kind, then there really wouldn't be anything worth debating. As it is though, the assumptions and commitments of intellectualism are far reaching, not only for perceptual theory but for a wide range of fields throughout the cognitive sciences, philosophy and potentially medicine also.

If the stakes are this high, then it obviously matters a great deal that theorists get it right about whether brains compute information relayed via neurological data representations or whether, as a growing minority of theorists and researchers argue, this explanatory route is untenable. Theorists like Dan Hutto and Eric Myin maintain that brains are best understood as embodied, embedded and enactive organs of response and intentional action that do not—indeed cannot—produce their own inner representations. The vicious logical regresses that emerge as soon as such intention-directing representations are invoked lead to the unavoidable conclusion that such representations must be an impossibility. Theories that reject representationalism therefore deserve to be taken very seriously. So what is needed in order to propel anti representationalism forward is a coherent explanation of how intelligent predictive behaviours could emerge and evolve whilst at the same time avoiding any of the errors of intellectualism. As I progress through this discussion I will explore how predictive behaviours can be explained in the absence of the conceptual powers that are such a indispensable part of the intellectualist's story.

My views on the subject of intellectualism are motivated by the conviction that conceptual skills have arrived on the evolutionary scene only relatively recently with the emergence of language and that these skills are supplementary to other vitally important non-conceptual skills that are widely misunderstood and overlooked. Like language, these skills are representational but unlike language they do not permit the contemplation of abstractions of the kind that are a central feature of verbal communication. It is my view that these non-conceptual skills pre date our linguistic capacities and continue to be skills that we  regularly deploy in our intentional interactions with the world. When we struggle to find words to express our intentions, it is often precisely these skills that we are labouring to translate into linguistic form, not another equally semantic but indirectly accessible "Language of Thought" or "Mentalese" as is hypothesised by many intellectualist thinkers.

Despite its intuitive appeal, the Language of Thought hypothesis is far from an established fact about cognitive processing. What is beyond dispute though, is that organisms possess both genetically inherited as well as environmentally conditioned predispositions to respond to their causal encounters with the world. To have learned something is therefore to develop a disposition to behave in a particular way. Very often the best way of demonstrating that you have learnt how to do something is simply by doing it, not by describing it. A verbal description of a procedure, no matter how finely nuanced, is no proof of competence. For this reason I take our skills of performance and exemplification to be both logically as well as evolutionarily prior to our skills of description, but in each case it should be noted that a dispositional theory of representational capacities is fundamental to an understanding of all intelligent action. On this basis I also take the view that the capacity to envisage future states of affairs is by no means a fundamentally conceptual aptitude. If we wish to understand how animals are capable of anticipating the immediate future—of how predators are often remarkably skilful in predicting the behaviour of their prey—then there are really only two explanatory routes available to us: conceptual or non-conceptual. I intend to show that the conceptual route is both logically and evolutionarily infeasible.


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