Friday, June 24, 2011

Cartesian idol

Over at New APPS, Mohan Matthen writes:
You are standing in a large room. Above you, there looms a large red sphere suspended from the ceiling. When you look at the sphere, you are subject to a certain visual experience: call this experience E. For the sake of simplicity, think of E as an event in the Cartesian soul. E has certain phenomenal properties: it is an instance of phenomenal RED, of phenomenal LARGE, and so on.  To be clear, these phenomenal properties are characteristics of E. Traditionally, empiricists take experiences such as to be the ultimate source of empirical knowledge. This is the infamous Myth of the Given.
When a human subject has an experience like E, s/he tends to arrive at the belief that there is a large red sphere above. What explains this? A legitimate question, surely. There are two mental events here: an experience E, followed by the onset of a belief. Moreover, there is a pattern: experiences of the same phenomenal type lead to beliefs with the same type of content. Why?

According to Donald Davidson, E causes O.
This all seems horribly wrong to me, but maybe it's another case of my needing to read Davidson. Here are the protests I want to make while reading this:

  1. This is a very unlikely scenario. Why not pick a more normal experience, if it is ordinary experience that we want to understand?
  2. Why say that "you are subject to a certain visual experience" rather than, say, "you see something"?
  3. The Cartesian soul is introduced "for the sake of simplicity"!?
  4. The experience has phenomenal properties?
  5. Seeing a red ball leads to, or is followed by arrival at, belief that there is a red ball. Really? How long does this take?
  6. "Surely" it is legitimate to ask for an explanation of this alleged process or sequence of events?
  7. There are two mental events here. Says who?
  8. And one is supposed to cause the other. Is that true? And in what sense of 'cause'?
Here's a different, hopefully more realistic, example. Several times a day at this time of year I look outside to see whether there are any animals in the backyard. Let's say I see a groundhog. Let's say that I now believe there is a groundhog in the backyard. Are there really two mental events here? There are two verbs: see & believe. But is my believing a separate event from my seeing? I don't think so. I see, and I don't doubt my seeing. Why not say that it is my sanity that causes me to believe what I see? Or common sense?

Talk of experience might be meant to allow for possible hallucinations. Let's say that I find some mushrooms in my backyard and decide to eat them. I feel funny, and wonder whether they might be hallucinogenic. Now I look outside and, as well as a groundhog, I see that the ground appears to be moving like the surface of the sea. Is the groundhog real? I can't be sure, but real or not, I have an experience as of a groundhog that is plump, furry, etc. So is talk of phenomenal properties of the experience OK now? It still seems misleading to me, as if there were something that I see but this something might be physical or merely mental. Which implies that there are mental objects, which in turn implies that dualism of some kind is true. I don't want to imply that. If I'm seeing things, i.e. hallucinating, then I'm not seeing things, i.e. there are no things that I am seeing. Describing what I see is reporting on my symptoms, not describing the properties of some non-physical object. Or at least, I think that way of putting it is very misleading. A merely hallucinated groundhog cannot cause anything, including my belief in its existence.

I assume that Matthen is using Cartesianism as a way to make the debate clear, but perhaps in doing so he has revealed a dangerous flaw in its foundation. On the other hand, wouldn't Davidson and/or McDowell have spotted this? So I'm not sure what is going on. Matthen goes on to say:
I may experience the world as containing a large red sphere above and in front of me, but I am not forced to believe that the world is actually this way. My experience gives me reason to believe so, but I must evaluate this experience before I form a belief. Moreover, I am not forced to operate with the repertoire of concepts that experience provides: I may modify these or construct new ones.
I disagree. I think (and here I am theorizing, so I am extra likely to be wrong) that we believe what we experience by default. These beliefs can then be evaluated, as when I have eaten dodgy mushrooms and suspect an hallucination. But I don't think experience can be evaluated in that sense. It can be evaluated, I think, in these two senses: i) some part of my experience stands out as odd in some way, it doesn't fit, and I think about how to make sense of it (e.g. the strange object I see through the window might turn out to be a reflection in the window), ii) someone asks me what something was like and I give an evaluative account of the experience (this would not involve describing the phenomenal properties of the experience, it seems to me--I'm thinking of something like this: "You met the President! Wow, what was it like?" If I say it was exciting or no big deal or whatever then I am describing what the experience was like, but not by listing its phenomenal properties). Realizing that something is a reflection is not like realizing that the ground is not really moving like waves though. The former is finding how to see what is in front of you, while the latter is realizing that you cannot properly see what is in front of you. You then see the reflection as a reflection, whereas the apparent motion of the ground is something you simply have to remind yourself is not real.

In short I think that beliefs are not caused by perceptions. They are (trusted) perceptions. What if I get my belief not from direct perception (i.e. seeing it with my own eyes) but from a report on the evening news? A graphic shows the Dow Jones index gaining 50 points while the newsreader reports the same thing. I believe the report (without evaluating or thinking about it). Does seeing the graphic cause my believing it? Does hearing the newsreader cause me to believe what she says? Believing is something like a disposition to behave in certain ways (hmm--is this a sign that I'm going wrong?), but I would rather say that the news report disposes me to behave in those ways than that it causes such a disposition in me. My pension fund is related to the Dow, so if it goes up I might say "Oh good." But there isn't some thing (a belief) that causes such utterances and that is in turn caused by my hearing that the Dow has gone up, I think. Rather, I say "Oh Good" because I  hear and see the report. There is one step too many in the causal chain that has beliefs caused by perceptions or experiences, unless I am misunderstanding the notion of causality that is supposed to be involved.  

My problem is not really with Matthen, which is one reason why I'm not posting some version of this as a comment on his post (the other is consciousness of my ignorance of the literature in this area). His presentation of the issue seems fairly standard (judging by this, for example). It's the standard conception of the issue, or perhaps just the issue itself, that seems off to me. But that is quite possibly because I'm judging by simplified, introductory accounts of the issue.


  1. 'Seeing a red ball leads to, or is followed by arrival at, belief that there is a red ball. Really? How long does this take?'

    "the latest neurocognitive psychological studies have shown that…"

  2. I've tried three times to read the linked post. Once I made it past "For the sake of simplicity, assume this happens in a Cartesian soul...." and then I found the most ridiculous mis-statement of the Myth of the Given I've ever seen. I suspect that it's now become a term that people who've never read Sellars toss around, is the only way I can make sense of this.

    I enjoyed j's comment.

  3. Me too (on j's comment).

    Daniel, thanks. Your comments on Davidson on perception over on Leiter's Anscombe/Davidson thread are interesting too.

    I guess I shouldn't spend too much time worrying about Matthen's post, then, but I might go back to see what Mark Lance and Jon Cogburn have to say about it.