"Inflate and Explode" argument about consciousness (Splintered Mind blog)


EXCERPT: Here's a way to deny the existence of things of Type X. Assume that things of Type X must have Property A, and then argue that nothing has Property A.

If that assumption is wrong -- if things of Type X needn't necessarily have Property A -- then you've given what I'll pejoratively call an inflate-and-explode argument. This is what I think is going on in eliminativism and "illusionism" about (phenomenal) consciousness. The eliminativist or illusionist wrongly treats one or another dubious property as essential to "consciousness" (or "qualia" or "what-it's-like-ness" or...), argues perhaps rightly that nothing in fact has that dubious property, and then falsely concludes that consciousness does not exist or is an illusion.

I am motivated to write this post in part due to influential recent work by Keith Frankish and Jay Garfield, who I think make this mistake.

Some earlier examples of the inflate-and-explode strategy include:

Paul Feyerabend (1965) denies that mental processes of any sort exist. He does so on the grounds that "mental processes", understood in the ordinary sense, are necessarily nonmaterial, and only material things exist.

Patricia Churchland (1983) argues that the concept of consciousness may "fall apart" or be rendered obsolete (or at least require "transmutation") because the idea of consciousness is deeply, perhaps inseparably, connected with false empirical views about the transparency of our mental lives and the centrality of linguistic expression.

Daniel Dennett (1991) argues that "qualia" do not exist, on the grounds that qualia are supposed by their nature to be ineffable and irreducible to scientifically discoverable mental mechanisms.

Unfortunately, philosophical enthusiasts for the importance of conscious experience tend to set themselves up for the inflate-and-explode move, making Feyerabend's, Churchland's, and Dennett's critisms understandable.

The problem on the enthusiasts' side, as I see it, is that they tend to want to do two things simultaneously:

(1.) They want to use the word "consciousness" or "phenomenology" or "qualia" or whatever to refer to that undeniable stream of experience that we all have.

(2.) In characterizing that stream, or for the sake of some other philosophical project, they typically make some dubious assertions about its nature. They might claim that we know it infallibly well, or that it forms the basis of our understanding of the outside world, or that's irreducible to merely functional for physical processes, or....

Now if the additional claims that the enthusiasts made in (2) were correct, the double purpose would be approximately harmless. However, I'm inclined to think that these types of claims are generally not correct, or at least are quite legitimately disputable. Thus, the enthusiasts unfortunately invite inflate-and-explode. They invite critics to think that those dubious claims are essential to the existence of consciousness in the intended sense, such that if those dubious claims prove false, that's sufficient to show that consciousness doesn't exist.

The reason I think that Feyerabend, Churchland, and Dennett are inflating the target, rather than just correctly interpreting the target, is that I believe the enthusiasts would much more readily abandon the dubious claims, if required to do so by force of argument, than they would deny the existence of consciousness. Those claims aren't really ineliminably, foundationally important to their concept of consciousness. It's not like the relation between magical powers and witches on some medieval European conceptions of witches, such that if magical powers were shown not to exist, the right conclusion would be that witches don't exist. Even if we must jettison thoughts of infallibility or immateriality, consciousness in our communally shared sense of the term still exists. The core conception of phenomenal consciousness in philosophy of mind is, I think or suspect or at least hope, the conception of the stream of experience that it is almost impossible to deny the existence of -- not that stream-of-experience-plus-such-and-such-a-dubious-property.

Frankish's and Garfield's more recent illusionist arguments, as I see them, employ the same mistaken inflate-and-explode strategy. Keith Frankish (2016) argues that phenomenal consciousness is an "illusion" because there are no phenomenal properties that are "private", ineffable, or irreducible to physical or functional processes. Jay Garfield (2015) denies the existence of phenomenal consciousness on the broadly Buddhist grounds that there is no "subject" of experience of the sort required and that we don't have the kind of infallibility about experience that friends of phenomenal consciousness assume.

Now it is true that many recent philosophers think that consciousness involves privacy, ineffability, irreducibility, infallibility, or a subject of experience of the sort not countenanced by (some) Buddhists; and maybe they are wrong to think so. On these matters, Frankish's and Garfield's (and Feyerabend's and Churchland's and Dennett's) criticisms have substantial merit. But it does not follow that consciousness is a mere illusion or does not exist. We can, and I think normally do, conceptualize consciousness more innocently. We need not commit to such dubious theses; our shared conception can survive without them....

MORE: http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/201...plode.html

RELATED: Illusionism (Conscious Entities blog)

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