NED BLOCK'S ROYAL INSTITUTE OF PHILOSOPHY ANNUAL LECTURE
ATTENTION AND MENTAL PAINT
An Introduction by Ted Honderich
Ned Block studied at Harvard University and then taught next door at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and went on to be professor in the departments of philosophy and psychology and also in the Centre for Neural Science at New York University. A further and yet greater distinction is that he has not been at all converted by his locales to functionalism, the idea that what you are thinking or feeling at this moment is what is just a certain effect and cause, no matter what else is true or not true of it,
Block provides and considers a kind of evidence against two claims or theories about your seeing or otherwise perceiving something, say a red circle on a piece of paper. One theory is that you are somehow in a direct connection with the thing. The other is that there is something else in the story -- something that just represents or stands for the red circle, in something like the way of a word or name. More particularly, what Block calls the phenomenal character of your perceiving, maybe better called your consciousness in the perceiving, is not what it is taken to be by the claims or theories of direct or naive realism or those of representationism.
Rather, your phenomenal consciousness is or is a matter of what another philosopher in a superior way called mental paint and went on to deny. To allow this mental paint is to suppose your consciousness is or is a matter of a private inner thing that somehow resembles the red round thing on the paper, something somewhat like what used to be called a sense-datum, and at least some of what have more recently been called qualia. Block does say he is explaining your consciousness in a mentalistic way, by way of mental objects or qualities, unlike the way of naive or direct realism or common ideas of representations.
The evidence against direct realism and representationism, and for his theory, in plain words open to being misunderstood or misconstrued, is that if you look steadily at something, go on fixing your eyes there, and but just think of one part of what you are seeing, that part now looks different from the others in a new way. Get just a bit of the evidence for yourself. Try it for a start with Figure 2A. Keep looking steadily at a square dot but attend to one of the disks -- engage in thinking of one of the disks. That disk, if you're like me, now looks different from before. So there's mental paint.
There is more experimental evidence put together, having to do with other cases of attention and differences in the way things look. These complications are needed in order to defend the theory of mental paint further as against those of direct realism or representationism. If you are or have been a student only of philosophy, you are likely to be among those who have to work at keeping a hold on things in the lecture, the psychology. Still, you will not need help in getting a hold on the whole general line of argument [of the lecture] [so far and from here on].
It is that there are changes in the look of things, differences in what we can call perceptual consciousness. These attention-changes, as we can call them, have to have a certain explanation. In the case of the first lot of evidence, they can't be explained by the disk on the paper itself, which didn't change, and in particular they can't be explained by direct connection with it. And they also can't be explained by any difference in representation of the disk. So they have to be explained by way of the theory of mental paint. That theory has to replace the other theories.
Block says in an abstract of his lecture that in virtue of what you have heard he is a mentalist, a propounder/defender of mentalism. Evidently this is not to say that he is not a physicalist. It is not to say that he is among the contemporary defenders of the outlook that brain and mind, brain and consciousness, are so different that the second must not be physical. If you are persuaded by the use of the evidence having to do with attention and its effects, what account are we going to give of the difference?
The second last lecture in this book is Bernard Williams's about mainstream philosophy as a humanistic discipline. Philosophy is said to be what tries to make sense of our life, sometimes as an extension of science, but usually not. This philosophy is not scientism, not something assimilated to the aims and manners of science, not aspiring to an absolute, objective or universal view, and is in a way historical. I leave it to you, reader, to consider the extent to which the present lecture is not mainstream philosophy as conceived, whether or how much this matters, whether or not any departure from that philosophy was a good idea, what light this lecture throws on Williams's lecture.
There is also a simpler question. The whole tradition of private entities in perceptual consciousness, from Locke's ideas in the 17th Century to Ayer's sense data and a lot of people's qualia in the 20th Century, has fallen into doubt. In a sentence, the tradition makes our seeing rooms and desks like just seeing them on television. To what extent, if any, does this apply to mental paint?