Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Defending the Humanities Through...Philosophy of Mind?

(cross posted at A Ku Indeed!)

Today I had a conversation with some colleagues about how to define the Humanities and how to best represent it in a curriculum. These are always contentious questions to talk about, as there are multiple disciplines within the Humanities, each with its own content, its own mode of presentation and approaches, and each with its own methodology. So coming to agreement on such “umbrella” questions is not an easy thing to do.

As the day went on, I continued to think about it as well as about the crisis of the Humanities (it being, as time goes on, funded less, having fewer students, coming under more and more attack by the public as useless). At one point my mind shifted to a different topic: I started thinking about how my Philosophy of Mind course — in which we are reading David Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind — was going. For a second I laughed a bit, thinking that the two subjects couldn’t possibly be more different. The gushy Humanities and the overly scientific and technical approach to consciousness grounded in property dualism, as undertaken by Chalmers. Then it struck me: maybe the two topics aren’t as far apart as I supposed. Wait, I thought...doesn’t Chalmers’ book provide us with an unintentional defense not only of the Humanities but also with a way of talking about its essence? No doubt, the connection is not without some faults and tensions, but it definitely made me think about subject in a different way. This is a long post, a bit rambly, and may not make total sense. If you can make it through, I'd love to hear your impressions of these inchoate thoughts!

Without going into too much specifics, Chalmers’ book is a full-throttle (and very technical) defense of the notion that consciousness does not, as he puts it, logically supervene on the physical. Another way to put this, in more layman’s terms, is to suggest that if you knew everything there was to know about all of the material and physical facts in our universe, you would not be able to predict or entail that consciousness would result from it. Essentially, consciousness is a further fact about the world that is not capable of being captured by the kinds of explanations and frameworks typically used by science. After and above all the physical explanations of human existence, the what it’s like to be human is left over, unexplained. Which means that there are non-physical facts because consciousness is an actual non-physical phenomenon that is not reducible to the physical. Science can’t capture it.

As a result, Chalmers argues that a full ‘theory of everything’ (the wet dream of the physicist) would need to talk not only about the fundamental components of physics (fundamental particles and basic physical laws) and everything that could be built up out of it (chemistry, biology, psychology, etc), but it would also need to talk about the fundamental components of consciousness (whatever they are), the laws that govern them, and everything that can be built up out of it. Essentially, the science of mind is an autonomous science apart from the science of everything else. Put the two together (and the bridge laws between them) and you’ve got your theory of everything.

It’s pretty clear here that Chalmers is a dualist. There are minds and then there’s the rest of the stuff. He’s not a substance dualist (a la Descartes) but rather a property dualist. What that means isn’t important for this discussion, but what is important is just the fact that if we want to “understand things” then there will be two fully autonomous explanatory domains, not one (as is usually accepted by science). Although Chalmers’ work is itself extremely technical and couched in the language of speculative metaphysics and (philosophy of) science, I started to think that his view very clearly mirrored the conversation about and crisis of the Humanities. I’ll split my brief thoughts on this into two parts – the first discussing the components of the Humanities, and the second discussing the autonomy of the Humanities.

Part I: The Components

To start off, I'm thinking that the basic connection is this: the Humanities is, in a way, the study of things from what Chalmers might call the what it’s like. The “what it’s like” just is, in his view, the stuff of consciousness. It’s how things look and feel from the first-person point of view. You might think - and I think this is the crux of my claim - that it’s the way in which things are experienced as significant, or as intelligible, from the point of view of the person(s) experiencing.

Typically, the Humanities as a discipline is said to track what it means to be human. If you were to think about this strictly in Chalmers’ sense, the Humanities would also involve psychology, biology and sociology, which also study the human — but from the third-person point of view. This makes me wonder whether it's right to say that the Humanities is about "being human" but rather that is about issues that arise when pondering things from the first-person point of view, or from human consciousness.

Just to clear something up quickly: I don’t mean by this that the Humanities is about the study of phenomenology (why is the what it’s like to experience red different from the what it’s like to experience blue). Phenomenology might turn out to be a part of the Humanities, but I'm thinking here rather that the Humanities is about the way in which the world is experienced at the level of meanings (which are embedded in consciousness). The what it’s like is a world of significance, and that component of experience is a real one that demands investigation. It's just as real as the table over there, or that chair. It's a fact, as Chalmers might argue, and it deserves our attention because it's an undeniable part of our world.

Admittedly, I haven't through about this for long, but just a few points on how to link this up to the Humanities:

A1. When we analyze the significance of the what it’s like — or the significance of human experience — we seem to get at the basic intuitions or “phenomenological axioms” that appear to (for whatever reason) constitute our way of experiencing things. Questions like “are we free?” (the what it’s like seems to imply it) and “is there a God?” (the what it’s like invites the question) and “how much can we know?” (what does the what it’s like tell me?) occupy this ground floor (there are many more, obviously, and there are axioms that seem implied by others; philosophy investigates them too).

As far as I can tell, philosophy concerns itself with these basic questions, having as a disciplinary aim identifying the basic axioms of the what it’s like (what makes experience significant to us?) and making the contours of those axioms clear and intelligible through critical analysis (Socratic method).

A2. Moreover, the existence of the the types of questions pointed to by philosophy tend to have a powerful impact on the lives of real people. So it’s not just that free will questions or concerns about the existence of evil are theoretical or conceptual questions that we can identify as central components of our "landscape of significance". They are experienced or felt in fundamental ways as well. As far as I can tell, discussion of the impact of the enduring questions (and the ways that they intersect in practice) in human lives is the field of literature.

A3. Framing the big questions cannot be done without language. This raises issues about language: are essentially, the what its like has language not as a medium, but as a constitutive component. We feel things, ask questions, understand ourselves and others through languages. This makes the study of languages a component of the Humanities.

A4. Lastly, part of the human experience is the communication through language of those basic questions, or of the impact of those questions. This makes communication a field of the Humanities.

Or at least that's how I'm thinking in a rough and ready way at the moment (very likely more rough than ready).

Part II: The Autonomy of the Humanities

Chalmers’ main arguments in his book deal with the issue of whether consciousness is an autonomous subject matter. He says that it is, because the existence of the facts about consciousness cannot be denied, and because consciousness cannot be understood through scientific frameworks. This entails a clear claim: that any attempt to understand the world as a whole must include the study of consciousness as an autonomous subject matter that gets added to scientific pursuits, not entailed by them.

If the Humanities is really just the ways of trying to grapple with the basic ways of talking about the meaningfulness of the what its like, as I suggested above, then from Chalmers’ book we should have an indirect and strong defense of the Humanities. Namely,

B1. If Chalmers is right, and if my claims above are arguable, then none of the above fields (philosophy, literature, communications, language) could be entirely understandable through a third-person methodology such as science. As it stands, this seems to be true (though there are some disagreements on language, perhaps): science seems entirely baffled at the end of the day when it comes to explaining the big questions posed by philosophy, understanding the impact explained through literature, laying out how communication or language works, and so on.

Instead, science seems to do a good job of explaining some of the psychological correlates to these fields and components is possible (such as: what neurons are firing when I ask about God?), but it can’t explain or get at the significance of the actual what it’s like that lies behind each one of those fields. What is it like to ask about God? Or free will? Why is the question is a basic human one? What's it's answer? Science has nothing to say.

Some people will reject (B1). These questions and fields could all, in principle, be explained by science. If so, then Chalmers is wrong: consciousness, which is the stuff of the Humanities, is not an autonomous domain. We may feel conscious, and we may feel as if we experience things in terms of meanings, but these are pseudo-experiences to one day be fully understood in terms of neuro-biology. However, if we are to take consciousness as real, and as autonomous, then so too should the Humanities and it's concerns.

B2. Of course, a person could accept that the Humanities is real, as is consciousness, but argue that the Humanities are “useless” (and so is consciousness useless?) and not worth defending or studying. There are two clear replies.

First, if Chalmers is right about consciousness, we do not understand everything when we talk simply about physical sciences. That's a powerful claim unto itself.

Second, the fact that we are so wedded to the definition of use that is bandied about by (physical) science is proof that we don’t take consciousness seriously, since we judge consciousness - and the Humanities - in terms of the categories of scientific explanation (which are employed from a framework of the third person point of view). This is, in effect, a massive category mistake. Taking consciousness seriously means thinking of "explanation" and "use" in two separate and autonomous ways. If we refuse to do this, and instead insist on the categories used by science, then we aren't taking consciousness seriously.

Of course, there’s a further argument, perhaps: none of the non-Humanities fields can be engaged in without the what it’s like as a foundational component. Scientists approach their data using consciousness, after all. Which means that they are organizing data (in the largest sense in which this phrase can be understood) in ways that presuppose Humanities-type issues. Experiencing the world at all implies that meanings and frameworks of significance are being employed. Which means that you cannot participate in science, or math, or psychology, or what-have-you without also engaging in it in ways that would have to be understood in the terms of the Humanities. Essentially, there is an arguable position here that there’s no such thing as a purely scientific approach. A truly intelligible scientific approach relies on, as a precondition, an assumption about the intelligibility of the Humanities (as understood in A).

Ending (good lord, finally), I think Chalmers’ book points to at least one claim: that we take consciousness for granted, and so then think that when we discuss the world in third-person terms, that these sorts of explanations are all that really matter. Part of the mistake points back to that fact, however, that we simply take consciousness for granted. If we could learn to not take it for granted, we would see how it is fundamental and impacts everything, without fail. This, in itself, seems to be the crisis of the Humanities.
We’re too close to it for it to matter to us, and we live in an age which is ruled by science. Like consciousness (and perhaps because, as I’ve suggested, the Humanities really is the study of the various ways of being conscious or the what its like), the Humanities and its parts simply get taken for granted and even devalued in an age that has rejected dualism and instead opted for the kind of physicalistic monism that Chalmers finds false. And this fools us into thinking that what grows on top of the necessary ground of the Humanities (the sciences) can not only be understood in isolation, but that it is really all that matters at the end of the day.

Okay, enough stream of consciousness.

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