|RADICAL EXTERNALISM OR BERKELEY
by E. J. Lowe
REPLY TO LOWE
by Ted Honderich
These two papers are from Radical Externalism: Honderich's Theory of Consciousness Discussed -- a book of that title and also an issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies, both edited by Anthony Freeman. Prof. Lowe's paper is a response to the target paper by Prof. Honderich to which you can go, Radical Externalism, which introduces and summarizes the theory of consciousness.
Ted Honderich’s ‘radical externalism’ (Honderich 2006) concerning the nature of consciousness is a refreshing, and in many ways very appealing, approach to a long-standing and seemingly intractable philosophical conundrum. Although I sympathize with many of his motivations in advancing the theory and share his hostility for certain alternative approaches that are currently popular, I will serve him better by playing devil’s advocate than by simply recording my points of agreement with him. If his theory is a good one, it should be able to stand up to the strongest criticisms that we can muster against it. I shall do my best to articulate some of those criticisms as forcefully as I can.
Honderich begins his account with what he calls a ‘datum’ about consciousness: that consciousness is something we have. If this is just another way of saying that all of us are — at least sometimes — conscious, then I have no quarrel with it. But I have an uneasy suspicion that it amounts to more than just that: that it involves a potentially problematic reification of consciousness. There have been past philosophers who have illicitly reified consciousness, treating it as some mysterious kind of thing or stuff, either located inside our heads or, even more mysteriously, somehow outside of space altogether. Honderich is, of course, emphatically opposed to such views. But I suspect that it would be no less of an illicit reification to regard consciousness as something — some thing or things — located outside our heads. And yet this is what Honderich himself seems to do.
A crucial claim, which seems to have axiomatic status for Honderich, is that ‘with respect to consciousness, there is no difference between appearance and reality’. By appealing to this principle, he seeks to justify his view that whatever consciousness seems to consist in, it does consist in. I shall not question the principle here — not that I think that it is perfectly unquestionable. However, I do wonder whether Honderich applies it correctly in generating his theory. Let us see how he applies it in the case that he uses for illustration — our perceptual consciousness of the page now before us. He asks: what does our consciousness in this case seem to consist in? And he answers: it seems to consist in the page’s being there. Ergo, applying the principle, our consciousness of the page just is the page’s being there (‘in a way’, at least). And the page, of course, is something ‘extra-cranial’ — literally located outside our head. But this argument has the air of sleight of hand about it. Here is another way of construing the application of the principle concerning appearance and reality to the case of perceiving the page. In normal circumstances, when I perceive the page, my consciousness is such that the page seems to me to be there. Since, ‘with respect to consciousness, there is no difference between appearance and reality’, what I may conclude is that there is no difference between the page’s really seeming to me to be there and its merely appearing or seeming to seem to me to be there — that’s all. Construed in this way, the principle doesn’t license any very exciting ontological conclusion: it doesn’t license any inference of the form ‘Consciousness seems to be F, therefore consciousness is F’, but only a conclusion of the form ‘Consciousness that something seems to be F is identical with consciousness that something seems to seem to be F’. I venture to suggest that what philosophers have traditionally meant by the principle that Honderich invokes is much closer to what I have just implied than it is to Honderich’s reading of it. Thus, it is something like my interpretation of the principle that is traditionally taken to rule out the possibility of our being mistaken about what we seem to be perceiving: for, according to that interpretation, it makes no sense to suppose that it only seems to us that we seem to perceive an F, when really what we seem to perceive is a G.
This last point merits, perhaps, a little elaboration. Traditionally, philosophers have contended that we can be mistaken about what it is that we are perceiving, but not about what it is that we seem to be perceiving: for instance, that we may be mistaken in thinking that what we are perceiving is a bent stick, when in fact what we are perceiving is a straight stick, but that we can’t mistaken in thinking that what we seem to be perceiving is a bent stick. It is this sort of contention that I take to be implied by the appearance-and-reality principle as it is traditionally interpreted, not the sort of contention that Honderich attempts to support by appeal to the principle. In short, I think that whereas philosophers have traditionally construed the principle as having only epistemic import, Honderich turns it into one with distinctively ontological import. Consequently, the unwary reader who accepts the principle as traditionally interpreted, but fails to spot the new gloss that Honderich gives it, may be too readily persuaded to swallow the rather startling conclusion that Honderich seeks to derive from it.
But let me move on. Honderich wants to maintain that all there is to my perceptual consciousness of the page is the page’s being there. More particularly, he wants to deny that the page’s being there is just the ‘content’ of a state in my mind or head which serves as the ‘container’ or ‘vehicle’ of this content. His point is that my consciousness of the page just doesn’t seem to be like that — it doesn’t seem to involve anything more than the page’s being there. Other philosophers have noted this and sometimes make the point by saying that perceptual consciousness seems to be completely ‘transparent’ or ‘diaphanous’: in perception, we seem simply to be directly confronted by certain objects, such as the page before us, without the presence of any medium through which they are presented to us. However, that such a ‘medium’ doesn’t seem to be present doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t present, contra Honderich’s version of the appearance-and-reality principle — as the following example may help to convince us. We are, I take it, all familiar with the experience of being completely absorbed by a drama played out on a television screen or at the cinema. In such a state of absorption, we are entirely oblivious to the patterns of light and colour flickering across the screen, because we are attending intently to the dramatic goings-on that are being depicted. If we do turn our attention to the screen itself, we lose all sense of the reality of the dramatic events that formerly engaged our rapt attention. Clearly, however, the patterns of light and colour were still there on the screen while we were attending to the drama, even though we were oblivious of them at the time — and if they had not been, we would have been unable to attend to the drama. Why shouldn’t matters be the same with perceptual consciousness quite generally? All of us, it may be suggested, are able to attend to features of our perceptual consciousness which stand to the objects of perception in a relation analogous to that between the pattern of light and colours on the cinema screen and the dramatic scenes depicted there. If we fail to do so most or even all of the time, that should be unsurprising. It is not clear to me that anything that Honderich says refutes this suggestion or reveals any incoherence in it. This is not to say that I necessarily want to endorse the suggestion myself, just that I don’t think that it can be dismissed as easily as Honderich seems to think it can.
Now I want to focus on a key implication of Honderich’s doctrine of radical externalism — an implication which makes his choice of the epithet ‘externalism’ to describe his position distinctly contentious, in my view. According to Honderich, as we have seen, my consciousness of the page is just a matter of the page’s being there. The implication, of course, is that when I cease to be conscious of the page, the page ceases to be there. This conclusion seems inescapable, given the supposed identity between my consciousness of the page and the page’s being there: for, given this identity, when my consciousness of the page ceases to exist (when, for instance, I close my eyes or turn away), the state of affairs in which this consciousness supposedly consists — to wit, the page’s being there — likewise ceases to exist. In short, for objects like this page, esse est percipi. It turns out, or so it would seem, that Honderich’s ‘extra-cranial’ objects of perception are very much like Berkeley’s ideas. Of course, Honderich himself explicitly repudiates ‘what were first called ideas in the history of British empiricism and ended up as sense-data’, so that what I have just alleged may seem entirely inapposite. I don’t think so. For Berkeley notoriously contended that he was defending common-sense realism against the kind of indirect or representative realism that he found in the writings of Locke. He emphasized that he was not trying to turn things into ideas but, rather, ideas into things — thereby reversing what he saw as the sceptical direction of empiricist thought in the hands of materialists like Locke (see Berkeley 1975, p. 193). It seems to me that, at least in some respects, Honderich is in the same direct realist tradition as Berkeley.
In what sense is Honderich a ‘radical externalist’, in view of what I have just said? Certainly, he wants to say that the objects of perception, such as the page that I now perceive, are ‘extra-cranial’ and located in space at some distance from the perceiver’s head. And yet, as we have just seen, he is committed to saying that this page is something that will cease to exist once I cease to perceive it. The pages that other people perceive are not strictly identical with the one that I perceive, since they depend for their existence on those other perceivers, just as this one depends for its existence on me. But now we have to ask: what exactly is the nature of the space that this page occupies? Is it strictly identical with the space that is occupied by the pages perceived by other people? Indeed, is it strictly identical with the ‘physical’ space that is occupied, according to Honderich, by various imperceptible atoms, upon which (he thinks) the perceptible pages also partly depend for their existence? (In this respect, of course, Honderich is no latterday Berkeley, since Berkeley rejected altogether the existence of imperceptible matter.) From what Honderich says, it would seem that he thinks that there is just one space in which all these things — both those that depend for their existence on perceivers and those that don’t — are housed. But can he offer any compelling argument for believing that this must be so? Berkeley thought that there was no good reason to identify visual space with tactile space. Does Honderich have any good reason to identify the perceptual spaces of different perceivers and all of these with the space occupied by imperceptible physical objects such as atoms? What he says is that ‘The page’s being there, and more generally your world of perceptual consciousness, is things being in space and time, with such further properties as colour, and being dependent on a scientific or noumenal world underneath and also dependent on you neurally’. And what this suggests is that, in his view, there is just one ‘space and time’, or space–time. But what isn’t clear is what entitles him to this assumption. After all, he goes on to assert that ‘A world of perceptual consciousness is not the physical world’: so why should a space of perceptual consciousness be physical space?
If Honderich cannot make good the claim that objects in a world of perceptual consciousness occupy literally the same space as the physical atoms posited by science, then his ‘externalism’ is misleadingly named, it seems to me. If all it amounts to, when we say that the perceived page is ‘extra-cranial’, is that it lies at some distance in my perceptual space from the place occupied by my perceived head, without any implication that either the perceived page or the perceived head are themselves located in the physical space occupied by atoms and other such physical objects studied by scientists, then Honderich’s ‘externalism’ is quite unlike that of those modern self-styled externalists who claim that the objects of thought and perception simply are complex aggregates of atoms situated in physical space. These latter theorists certainly don’t want to maintain that the objects of perceptual consciousness depend for their existence upon perceivers and, indeed, would describe as internalist any theory that did maintain that. Part of the problem here is that the internal–external distinction is ambiguous. On the one hand, it may be interpreted in spatial terms — and, in these terms, what is ‘external’ is quite literally located ‘outside the head’, i.e., is ‘extra-cranial’. On the other hand, it may be interpreted in terms of dependence — and, in these terms, what is ‘external’ is what exists independently of, or ‘outside’, consciousness. According to Honderich, the page that I perceive is external in the sense of being ‘extra-cranial’. But it also seems not to be external, inasmuch as it would not exist if I were not perceiving it: for its being there, according to Honderich, just is my consciousness of it. By emphasizing the ‘extra-cranial’ character of the page, Honderich seems to be endorsing a full-blooded direct realism. But once we take into account the consciousness-dependence of the page according to his view of it, the air of realism seems to dissipate, just as it does with Berkeley’s protestation that he is defending common sense.
An important aspect of Honderich’s argumentative strategy is to suggest that his ‘radical externalism’ is manifestly superior to the alternative positions available — taking these to be, on the one side, out-and-out physicalism and, on the other, some sort of phenomenalism or — worst of all, it seems — dualism (‘better named spiritualism or mentalism’). But I think that Honderich weakens the case for his own position by characterizing some of the opposing views uncharitably and even, at times, unfairly. He suggests, for instance, that phenomenalists must believe in ‘sense-data’ and that the ‘argument from illusion’ can only be construed as aiming — and failing — to support that belief. But it is possible to endorse the view that — as Honderich puts it — there is ‘a sufficient neural condition for perceptual consciousness’ without contending that the immediate objects of perceptual consciousness are ‘sense-data’. Consider the proposition whose truth Honderich denies in this connection: ‘You could have a brain in a vat stimulated so as to produce consciousness indistinguishable from what we call consciousness of a page’. Someone who believes this to be true needn’t contend that what the brain would be conscious of would be a sense-datum or mental image of a page. More generally: it is not necessary to contend that hallucinatory experiences are experiences of anything at all, in the sense that there are certain objects of which the persons undergoing such experiences are conscious — objects that are not ‘extra-cranial’ but somehow either inside their brains or not located in space at all. For it is perfectly possible to characterize hallucinations as experiences which merely seem to the persons undergoing them to be perceptions of objects — perceptions, that is, of ordinary ‘extra-cranial’ objects such as pages — even though, in such cases, not only are no such objects there to be perceived but nothing else is perceived either. A case of seeming to perceive a page doesn’t have to be taken to be a case perceiving a seeming page — a mental image of a page, say.
But what of the proposition itself — that consciousness indistinguishable from consciousness of a page could be produced by suitably stimulating a brain, in the absence of a real, ‘extra-cranial’ page? Honderich is clear that his radical externalism must deny the truth of this proposition — not, it seems, on purely logical, conceptual or more generally purely a priori grounds, because he seems to concede that the question of its truth or falsehood is an empirical matter. That being so, radical externalism has made itself a hostage to fortune and a rather perilous one at that, it seems to me. For the empirical evidence thus far available doesn’t look favourable to it. We don’t need to go to the length of creating and experimenting upon brains in vats to see this. There is plenty of already existing evidence which suggests that a sufficient means of producing a conscious visual experience as of seeing a page is to arrange for the wavefronts of light impinging upon a person’s retinas to replicate those that would impinge upon them if the light came from a source illuminating a page placed in front of the person’s eyes. This, indeed, is precisely how holograms work. Other evidence that points in the same direction is provided by ‘virtual reality goggles’, which give those wearing them a quite compelling sense of being visually conscious of a real external environment. No doubt such devices are not yet capable of producing conscious experiences absolutely indistinguishable from those typically enjoyed by the unaided senses in normal, everyday perception. But it would be a rash philosopher who put money on this never being achieved. Honderich is to be commended for his candour when he affirms that ‘According to radical externalism, there isn’t a sufficient neural condition for perceptual consciousness’. Unfortunately, there not only seems to be no a priori reason to think that radical externalism is correct in this regard, but also the empirical evidence already available points strongly in the other direction.
Could it be that part of the appeal of radical externalism for Honderich is that it seems to provide an escape from scepticism concerning ‘the external world’? I strongly suspect that that is so. Honderich, I suspect, concurs with the many philosophers over the ages who have blamed scepticism on a supposedly mistaken ‘indirect’ theory of perception — the sort of theory that maintains that our conscious engagement with our physical environment is always mediated by mental states whose intrinsic nature is such that those very same states could exist even in the absence of such an environment. I confess, however, that I have never really understood why scepticism should be blamed on any particular theory of perception, nor how by advocating another theory of perception we could somehow hope to evade the sceptic. For the sceptic simply trades on the inescapable fallibility of all human cognition. The proper response to the sceptic is not to try to evade or undercut the doubts that he seeks to sow, by endeavouring to render his very attempt to raise those doubts incapable of articulation. Whatever account of human knowledge and its sources in perception and reason we try to give, it must be one that acknowledges our thoroughgoing fallibility. The sceptic only presents a challenge to those who mistakenly claim certainty for anything within the scope of human knowledge. We defeat him not by trying to prove that something is, after all, known with certainty, but only by refusing to play his game and acknowledging the true lesson that he has for us. This is that knowledge of what is real can only be had at the expense of foregoing any claim to certainty with regard to what we know at any given time. To allow that my current consciousness could be indistinguishable from the consciousness of a suitably stimulated brain in a vat is not in any manner to concede, in all seriousness, that I might well be a brain in a vat. I do not have the slightest reason to take the latter hypothesis seriously. In particular, the mere fact that I cannot rule it out with absolutely certainty is not even the slightest reason to suppose that it is true. No doubt much more can and should be said on this and related matters concerning scepticism. The main point that I would insist upon at present is that we cannot hope to defeat the sceptic by changing our theory of perception. Apart from anything else, the sceptic will simply point out that a theory of perception is indeed just that — a theory — and, as such, as fallible as any other claim to knowledge that we may make.
I said earlier that I felt that Honderich is unfair to some of his opponents’ views. His characterization of dualism, in particular, is something of a parody. As Honderich has it, the dualist maintains that ‘consciousness is somehow non-spatial and hence not physical’. He alleges that ‘its problems are ... owed ... to its asserting that consciousness is out of space and in fact of a mysterious nature’. Setting aside the historical Descartes, whose views on these matters are all too often pronounced upon without any attempt to refer to solid textual evidence, I venture to say, as a self-confessed latterday dualist, that I have not the slightest inclination to say that consciousness is ‘non-spatial’, save in the following completely innocuous sense. Consciousness, I consider, is not a stuff of any space-occupying kind, in the way that gold and water, for example, are. But, equally, it is not any kind of non-space-occupying stuff. Indeed, I don’t really understand what a non-space-occupying stuff could possibly be. Consciousness, I consider, is not any kind of thing or stuff at all. Rather than saying, with Honderich, that consciousness is ‘something we have’, I just want to say that all of us are, at various times, conscious. We are ‘things’, in a very broad sense of ‘thing’, and we occupy space. The reason why it doesn’t make sense, in my view, to ask where our consciousness is is just that this question involves a category mistake, by treating ‘our consciousness’ as if it were some thing or stuff which, like us, is capable of having a spatial location. It makes just as little sense, I suggest, to ask where our weight or our height is. I am here, sitting in this chair, but my weight and my height aren’t sitting in this chair. The only sense in which a location can be attributed to my weight and my height is via me: it is just the sense in which they are my weight and my height, and I am sitting in this chair.
I can’t resist responding to another jibe that Honderich directs at dualism, or ‘spiritualism’ as he scornfully describes it, when he asserts that ‘Spiritualism in its carry-on about a self or subject or the mind faces overwhelming objections’. Of course, if the ‘self’ or ‘subject’ or ‘mind’ is supposed to be some sort of immaterial and spatially unlocated thing or stuff — a ‘spirit’ — it may indeed face overwhelming objections. But I take it that any sensible view of the self holds that selves are no different from persons and that persons are incontestably subjects of experience. In this sense, I am a ‘self’, as is any other human person. And that I exist and have thoughts and experiences is quite as much a ‘datum’ as Honderich’s ‘datum’ that ‘consciousness is something we have’. Indeed, I don’t really know what to make of Honderich’s ‘datum’ other than to interpret it as a slightly misleading way of saying that we exist and have thoughts and experiences. As for what we are, I am strongly inclined to think that we are not simply identical with our biological bodies, nor with any particular part of them, such as our brains (see Lowe 1996, ch. 2). But that by no means commits me to saying that we don’t possess spatial locations and spatial properties, such as height. In short, there are varieties of ‘dualism’ which do not even remotely resemble the unfriendly caricature of it that Honderich presents.
Towards the end of his paper, Honderich mentions certain criteria which he thinks a theory of consciousness must satisfy, contending that radical externalism alone plausibly does so. For reasons just adumbrated, I don’t accept his contention that dualism — properly conceived — cannot accommodate the subjectivity of consciousness, because I don’t accept his criticisms of the dualist conception of the self as a subject of consciousness. Honderich himself, I note, makes no attempt to offer a positive account of what he takes ‘us’ to be, so it seems to me that his account of the subjectivity of consciousness in terms of its (partial) dependence upon us is rather thin as it stands. However, a more serious difficulty, it seems to me, arises for Honderich in respect of his fifth criterion. This is that ‘a theory [of consciousness] must not make impossible what is actual, which is causal interaction between consciousness and the physical’. He contends that dualism (or ‘spiritualism’) fails this test, whereas radical externalism passes it. Why does he think that dualism fails it? Because ‘[t]hose who follow Descartes take consciousness out of space, and therefore postulate causes and effects that are nowhere’. I have already explained why I think that this charge rests upon a caricature of dualism. A dualist can maintain that I am located in space and that there is no more problem about ‘locating’ my consciousness than there is about locating my weight and my height, which no one denies are capable of ‘causal interaction with the physical’. But Honderich’s theory, by contrast, does face a difficulty in this regard. For remember that I raised earlier the following question, apropos of Honderich’s claim that my consciousness of the page just is the page’s being there. Is the perceptual space of the perceived page identical with the physical space in which the atoms studied by the physicists are located? Nothing in Honderich’s theory, as far as I can see, explains why it has to be. But if it isn’t — if each person’s perceptual space is distinct from everyone else’s, and all of them are distinct from the physical space of imperceptible atoms — then it is Honderich who has a problem of causal interaction on his hands. The problem now is not how things that aren’t in space can causally interact with things that are, but how things that are in different spaces can interact with each other. If this problem can’t be solved by Honderich’s theory, then radical externalism can’t achieve what he claims for it at the very end of his paper, namely, ‘making all of consciousness persuasively understood a subject for science’.
Berkeley, G., 1975: Philosophical Works, Including the Works on Vision, ed. M. R. Ayers (London: Dent).
Honderich, T. 2006: ‘Radical Externalism’, The Journal of Consciousness Studies, this issue.
Lowe, E. J. 1996: Subjects of Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
REPLY TO LOWE
by Ted Honderich
Jonathan Lowe does not dispute what he calls the principle that with respect to consciousness there is no difference between appearance and reality. But, he says, as devil's advocate, there is an air of sleight of hand in using it to pass from the proposition
Your perceptual consciousness of this page seems to consist in an existing of the page
to the proposition
Your perceptual consciousness of this page does really consist in this existing of the page.
But what he finds in the argument is not so much dexterity or cunning that issues in mistake, deception or bafflement but rather plain mistake. The mistake, or anyway unnecessary choice, is the first proposition. He has an alternative, which is
Your perceptual consciousness of this page seems to consist in a seeming existing of the the page.
From this different proposition about seeming seeming, all that follows is
Your consciousness is the page's really seeming to be existing.
As he remarks, we in a way stay with epistemology here rather than ontology -- stay at the level of thoughts and the like rather than what they are about. Certainly there is a lot of difference between 'If it seems to be an F, it is' and 'If it seems tobe an F, that's what it seems to be'.
What is it for something to seem to be an F? Let me speculate a bit. There is something that somehow leads to the proposition that it is an F. But you wouldn't just say that it seems to be an F rather than that it is an F if there wasn't also something or other that makes it unsettled whether it is an F. Let me call these items the positive ground and the negative or uncertain ground for the thing being an F.
In general, what is it for something to seem to seem to be an F? Well, I guess it is for there to be a prior positive ground and a prior negative or uncertain ground for a later positive ground and a later negative or uncertain ground for the thing's being an F. Rather a mouthful, but there it is.
If that is right, and something like it is surely right, you were certainly mistaken if you thought that what we call your awareness of the page was pretty simple. Lowe is asking you to discern quite a lot more in it. I can't discern it all myself, in my case. That four-part story is a lot richer than my experience. Are you aware of all that stuff when you see the page? No, you're not. This seems a pretty good start on a reply to our devil's advocate.
But maybe you can succeed in doubting that general analysis of propositions about seeming -- in terms of a positive and and another ground. That won't stop you from just saying about your consciousness what was assumed in the first proposal above, about seeming rather than seeming seeming -- that with consciousness what seems to be the case really is the case. As can rather grandly be said, you can go from epistemology to ontology. Your perceptual consciousness of the page is what it seems to be. Or, to retreat to the proposition that is pretty essential to Radical Externalism and also solid as a rock,
Your consciousness of the page can't have in it what it doesn't appear to have in it.
It this isn't what philosophers have traditionally meant by a principle of theirs about the impossibility of mistake, so what? Your consciousness isn't their property. And as for passing from epistemology to ontology, you can say that is the very point of the proposition and that you are in a lot of very good philosophical company. Indeed philosophers have not often done epistemology for its own sake.
Having made those two remarks, I feel an urge to confession. It is that it may possibly have been misleading of me to talk of your being conscious of the page as seeming to be such and such -- thereby allowing that in what we call your being aware of the page you not only have some positive ground for this being an existing of the page but also some ground for at least uncertainty. On reflection, anyway, that is not the fact of my perceptual life, and it is unlikely to be yours. If we really are to do phenomenology, by which I mean description of all and nothing more than all of a thing, and certainly there is reason to do phenomenology with consciousness, what it is to be conscious of the page is to given nothing but an existing of the page -- certainly no ground at all for doubting the thing.
Of course, you might have been reading Locke or Ayer or one their current residuary legatees, and been taken aback by the argument from illusion. But that supposed ground for a a certain scepticism about an experience is definitely no part whatever of the experience. I don't see an additional line on the page saying 'Don't trust your experience absolutely -- worry a bit philosophically'. And it's the experience that has been and is our subject matter right now, not an argument or theory by somebody else or ourself on some other occasion.
It was misleading, then, to talk of your being conscious of the page as seeming to be only an existing of the page (p. 00). It was better to propose what preceded this, which was the proposition that what you have in the episode, what is given or what is presented, is only an existing of the page. Are those metaphors? I guess so. Better a decent metaphor than many a literal thing. It's not as if the line of life that is thinking about consciousness is so full of literal general truths that we can ignore a guiding metaphor. And, of course, you can expect a metaphor to issue in or get translated into something literal -- in this case a theory, Radical Externalism.
Against my saying that in being aware of the page what you have is only an existing in a way of the page, Lowe asks if this comes to saying, just, that you were conscious of the page. Not surprisingly, he agrees with that. Surprisingly, however, all that he has against my proposition about what you have in the episode, putting aside his alterntive idea about seeming seeming and some traditional philosophizing, is that it leads on to a potentially problematic reification of consciousness. He allows that Radical Externalism does not make consciousness into a thing or stuff in a head, or a thing or a stuff absurdly somehow nowhere, but suspects that the theory does make consciousness into a thing or things outside a head.
Well, what any theory of consciousness is best described as concerned with is the question of what it is for something to be conscious. That invites, rightly, an answer that identify a property, fact or state of affairs with respect to the thing. Radical Externalism identifies what it is to be perceptually conscious as a certain extra-cranial state of affairs. That isn't to make consciousness a thing in an ordinary sense of the word, of course.
Lowe perhaps half-suggests that there is some general failing in taking consciousness to be a state of affairs with things in it. He perhaps half-suggests some antecedent general argument for seeing that this sort of answer is a mistake. As against, of course, particular arguments against Radical Externalism. He does not let us know what that general argument is. Could there be such a thing? Don't all theories of consciousness deal in a property, fact or state of affairs?
I leave the subject of what you have in seeing the page, the givenness, presentedness or immediacy -- and the matter of reification -- with an uneasy awareness that somebody needs to do some more thinking about the givenness or the like, maybe you. Let me remark again only that the fact in question, as I take it to be, is not clearly or even half-clearly the traditional philosopher's proposition that we can be mistaken about what we are perceiving but not what we seem to be perceiving. Having comes before thinking about, judging, inferring and so on -- a lot of what happens in that part or side of consciousness that is its reflective side. So having comes before mistakes can or cannot happen. It's prior. It's all of the data, not what happens when you start think about it. There is no thinking about it that can make it less than all the data, deprive us of a hold on what was not there and what was.
Lowe moves on to the point that other philosophers have said that perceptual consciousness is transparent or diaphanous, where that means we are confronted by certain objects, without the presence of any medium through which they are presented to us. I'm sure that these philosophers weren't Radical Externalists, and I'm pretty sure they weren't on the way to being such -- did they talk about the content of consciousness, thereby distinguishing it from something else in consciousness?
But the main point to be made here has to do with Lowe's reinstatement of the medium.
'...that such a 'medium' doesn't seem to be present doesn't necessarily mean that it isn't present, contra Honderich's version of the appearance-and-reality principle...'(p. 00).
Rather, the medium could be what is called present but not attended to, like the light and colour flickering across the television screen when we are attending to the news from Iraq or the play.
Well, I contentedly deny that there is a parallel with and within consciousness. Of course there is a lot of neural explanation of your being perceptually conscious, a lot of stuff analagous to the light and colour on the screen, but being conscious of the page isn't also being conscious of something called a medium. You can't attend to a medium either. You can try to think about your consciousness, of course, but that is not to succeed in noticing something extra when or after you're seeing the news. I'm glad the devil's advocate, when he takes off his horns, doesn't necessarily want to endorse the suggestion himself. It is in fact a case of that old bad habit mentioned elsewhere in his piece, a category mistake -- putting a relation between me and somethings into the category of things in my consciousness.
I can be about as quick with the objection, heard of before now, that Radical Externalism is reheated Berkeley. The first reply is that the theory is indeed that what it is for your to be perceptually conscious is really for things to be in space and time outside your head. I'm sure Berkeley didn't say or commit himself to that. But if he did, then of course he has been monstrously misunderstood by an awful lot of philosophers, including Lowe, and I am delighted to welcome him to a happy band of brothers and sisters.
To which Lowe replies that I allow that a world of perceptual consciousness ceases to exist when you cease to be conscious in a certain way. I do indeed allow that, and positively want the proposition in the interest of providing my fellow-workers with a further facet of the large fact of subjectivity.
Does this response make a world of perceptual consciousness very much like Berkeley's ideas, or sense-data? There seems to me a pretty good answer to that. Go back to the physical world, or rather the perceived part of it -- the chairs as against the atoms. In the absence of perceivers, after the cataclysm, or if it ever happens that we're all asleep, it won't exist. It doesn't have in it what is dependent on bats. It is tied to the existence of observers in general, whatever difficulties there are with the fact.
In what sense does that demote the perceived physical world into being a 'mental' world? Well, I accept, without a lot of strain, that my world of perceptual consciousness at the moment is 'mental' in a similar or related way (2004, p. 00). I can live with that. In short, there is a lesser truth related to esse est percipi for each of the perceived physical world and a world of perceptual consciousness -- both related to esse est percipi despite differences between them.
Moreover, that your world of perceptual consciousness can rightly be said only to be similar or related to the perceived world in the given way, and also in other ways, is not a weakness of Radical Externalism. It is in fact part of a strength. We know about the strength or at any rate the ambition of each of spiritualism and devout physicalism -- one in catering for subjectivity and one in catering for causal interaction. In order really to satisfy those two criteria, it will of course be true that Radical Externalism is in away similar to but definitely not identical with each of the alternatives.
Lowe presses his case about reheated Berkeley by asking what space it is that is occupied by things in a world of perceptual consciousness. He supposes, rightly, that the best answer is the space of the perceived and the unperceived physical world. However, it puzzles me he seems to want an argument for this proposition or assumption. He gives no reason for thinking this cannot be part of Radical Externalism. This space turns up in a lot of worlds, including the world of science, which is not ctually identical with the physical world -- and also the worlds of fashion
Certainly there are problems about the nature of space and space-time. But what is the problem about the proposition that when, as we ordinarily say, you and I see the plume poppy in the flower bed, my consciousness consists in things of a kind and yours does, and they are in the same space as physical objects? And hence that there is this fundamental difference between Radical Externalism and Berkeley's idealism?
Nor is the fact of the dependence partly on a perceiver of a world of perception consciousness enough to make the name 'externalism' misleading. For a start, however some theorists have used a term, one thing does not become internal to another in an ordinary sense or in any other significant way, by being dependent on it -- think of more or less any effect and its preceding causal circumstance. It seems to me remarkable to suppose that a dependence of a thing on something else, maybe a pile of coal on the mining industry, dissipates the air of realism of the thing. I take it there is some misunderstanding between Lowe and me.
Do I also weaken the case for the theory by uncharitable or unfair characterizations of alternative views? Should more time have been spent distinguishing the various items that philosophers have brought into the world as objects of perception as a result of the argument from illusion? Why should that have been done when the point of importance, given my argumentative strategy, was simply the undisputed one that the new objects of perception shared a non-realist character? If somebody says all conservatives are generous, and I think I can show that general proposition is false, do I also have to spend time distinguishing among conservatives? As for my usages, say 'spiritualism', they are defined. And there is a lot to be said, I think, for something less than piety in approaching covertly persisting orthodoxies.
Lowe is on better ground, indeed strong ground, when he objects to my views that Radical Externalism's view of perceptual consciousness faces only or exactly the possibility of future empirical refutation by stimulation of the brain in the vat. While some more might be said of that, it is simplest to concede that we can see now on logical grounds or the like that if a brain in a vat comes to be perceptually conscious -- anyway of the wrong scene -- then Radical Externalism fails. Fortunately I do not even have to think about taking back something else more important -- that it is also possible now for Radical Externalism to describe the case in terms of other than perceptual consciousness, and to do so for good reason.
Leaving aside the diagnosis of Radical Externalism as providing an escape from scepticism, and coming on to my supposed unfairness in characterizing dualism, I must defy my devil's advocate and plead not guilty, indeed not in sight of guilty. Except perhaps in giving too brisk a summary of a theory at the beginning of this book, and in particular too brisk a summary of alternatives to it.
If you will put up with my cavilling in self-defence, however, here are some passages from that summary. The first is about the history of the philosophy of mind.
'That history has had in it the main proposition that mind and brain -- including your mind and brain a minute ago -- are two things, this being "dualism"...' (p. 00)
The second passage is about something else, 'what still has the name of dualism'. It is Cartesian dualism, as is said, which takes consciousness out of space and is better named spiritualism or mentalism. Unfortunately for me, it is also referred to as just 'dualism'.
Putting aside the cavilling, it remains my position, as you have heard in an earlier reply, that the principal alternatives to Radical Externalism are devout physicalisms, some of which can be argued to be dualisms in the generic sense, and the specific dualism that is spiritualism, of which no doubt there are species (p. 00). To these alternatives, as you know, Radical Externalism is in my book superior.
Lowe comes in the end not to be devil's advocate, but advocate of himself, perfectly properly. His book Subjects of Experience is now on my reading list, but for the meanwhile I must go on his lines above.
'...selves are no different from persons and...persons are incontestably subjects of experience. ... As for what we are,... we are not simply identical with our biological bodies, nor with any particular part of them, such as our brains...' (p. 00).
Until I learn some more, I shall be unhappy in the view that this is a spiritualism in my sense. What is said about it in order to reduce its mystery is that these subjects are in some relation to biological bodies, and bodies have spatial properties. With respect -- I do mean respect -- that seems to go nowhere towards making these subjects either spatial or unmysterious. They're not at all like weight or height. Descartes himself, after all, had his notorious egos in some or other relation with our spatial bodies.
But read Lowe's book. In the meantime, don't suppose, to come to the end of his comments above, that it is in fact Radical Externalism that has a problem with causal interaction in connection with perceptual consciousness. Worlds of perceptual consciousness are unlike subjects. They not only in real space in virtue of, and only to the extent of, being in some elusive relation to something that really is.
For two other discussions of Radical Externalism and replies, go to Radical Internalism by Stephen Priest, with a reply to Priest, and Honderich's Radical Externalisms by Paul Snowdon, with a reply to Snowdon. You can also go to excerpts from all 23 papers in the issue of Journal of Consciousness Studies and the book.
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