A brood comb

….philosophical and other notes….

Mind and World – Note 2

Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on July 26, 2008

Because of various reasons, I left aside Mind and World for some time. But I had some notes for the part I read, so probably it is a good idea to write them down in proper form, while they are still fresh. I should also explain from the start, that I’m not writing this as analysis of the McDowell’s views in that book, but merely using it to contrast my views with it.

In the first post, I wrote about the basic McDowell’s move – he is not accepting the Given (the idea that something is given to us through receptivity, something unconceptual (‘bare presences’) which serves as a constraint on possible conceptualizations of what is experienced), but also he is not accepting that the receptivity is only causally influencing our thought, and that what can count as reason for holding a belief can be just another belief. Instead his solution is to see the experience as already conceptualized – that it represents things in the world as being thus and so…

I wrote there about my take on it – instead of talking about conceptualized experience, we can talk about concepts being in the world, and us as conscious beings, becoming aware of those concepts. What is Given (in some sense) then is the world, and with that the issue is addressed of how can our thoughts have bearing on the world.

And this of course is not very far from McDowell’s picture. Because, as he says in the second lecture – Unboundedness of the Conceptual:

That things are thus and so is the content of the experience, and it can also be the content of a judgement: it becomes the content of a judgement if the subject decides to take the experience at face value. So it is conceptual content. But that things are thus and so is also, if one is not misled, an aspect of the layout of the world: it is how things are. Thus the idea of conceptually structured operations of receptivity puts us in a position to speak of experience as openness to the layout of reality. Experience enables the layout of reality itself to exert a rational influence on what a subject thinks.

So, the world is also there taken as “conceptually rich”, however still the ‘phenomenal experience’ thingie is still assumed. And why would one still assume it, is I think pretty clear. It can do with a)the what-it-is-likeness, which one can still assume as not being in the world itself, and b)because of the possibility of us being wrong about how the world is…

I’ve tried to argue that both of those things are not definitive arguments against the view that there is no such thing as ‘phenomenal experience’. For the first thing, one can take the colors, sounds, and all those things WITH their what-it-is likeness as being in the world, and it is not clear why would one take only those things which can be quantified (mass, momentum, movement, position, and so on) as being in the world, and remove those former things. There is also the issue of different what-it-is-likeness of the colors, sounds, etc… for different people, but I think this can be easily accounted by, when we take into account the limits of our perception. We don’t need to suppose different subjective what-it-is-likeness – we can talk about one and the same object, and people with different limits of their perception that access that one and the same object. Then, depending on those differences, the one and the same thing can appear differently, but not in any way, in which the appearance will belong to the phenomenal experience of the subject, but in objective way, where the appearance is what the subject is accessing giving the limits of the perception. (Limits can be of biological nature, but also can have to do with
things like if there is a fog or not, do we carry glasses or not, have
we been drinking alcohol or not, knowledge what to put attention to
based on previous mistakes, and so on).

The other side of it is – how is it possible then that we are wrong if we are in such direct relation with the world seen as such (as full of concepts). The answer is not very hard – it is because of the limits of our perception and awareness in general. We become aware of this world, but not of the whole world – we become aware of parts of it. And in such way, even we are aware of the world, because the parts don’t fully determine the whole – we can make mistakes.

I want here to expand on this second thing, through an example… Kohler’s in his book Gestalt Psychology explains the following experiment. A subject is presented with two cardboard rectangles of different sizes. The smaller one is closer to the observer, and the bigger is further away… Kohler further says:

It is quite true, the rectangle at the greater distance [the larger one] appears much larger than the nearer one. But this is precisely what the Introspectionist does not accept as a true statement about the sensory facts. […] He will invite us to look through a hole in a screen which he holds before our eyes. The two rectangles now appear on homogeneous background, because the screen hides all other objects. Under those conditions the difference between the sizes of the rectangles will probably be somewhat reduced. […] He may darken the room, and turn the light only for a fraction of a second. This serves to exclude the movement of the eyes and of the head. […] [Given] practice I cannot here describe, and after some training, the rectangles may indeed assume the same size, even if the screen with its hole and any other devices are omitted.

But now we can ask the introspectionist – in what sense can we talk about things appearing certain size, WITHOUT them appearing at certain distance? Can a thing appear certain size at NO distance? Because if we really agree that both things assume “the same size”, which is this size, and also on what distance is it?

It seems straightforward to me that what is done in those experiments can be described thus – further limits are put on the subjects perception. In the case of ‘naive subjects’ the limit is done by external tools (screen/light flash), and in the case of the ‘trained introspectionits’ the limit is put there by the mind itself. We can’t talk about seing size at no distance, so given that we remove the information about the distance, we have now a lot of ‘size at distance’ possibilities. We have limit on the perception, so that we can see just certain aspect of the situation, but this aspect doesn’t determine the actuality – it can be size1 at distance1, or size2 at distance2. And now, when we have this limitation, we can “fix it” in both ways assuming it is on certain distance. That is why both cardboards will look same size – it is because we will pick one specific possibility of the undetermined perception for both things – we will imagine them both as size1 at distance1. What I want to point is, that it is not somehow then, that we are seeing the things wrongly, or that the perception presents them in wrong way. Simply we are putting limits to our perception (which go below the limits of our awareness), and then we are free to “play” with the undetermined variables. I’m sure that one can do it the other way arround – given two cardboards of same size at same distance, one can “with sufficient training” see them as cardboards of two different sizes at two different distances.

But if we try now to bring the talk of “phenomenal experience” here, what will we say? Will we say that the phenomenal experience itself is “underdetermined” somehow – will the “phenomenal experience” be some weird thing of which there can be ‘vague facts’? What would that even mean?

This kind of thinking can be generalized to all kind of illusions, only if one is ready to accept the limits of all different kinds. On other hand the case of hallucinations and dreams seem not as easy to address. One of the problems is that in the case of hallucinations and dreams, we don’t actually see anything, so talking about “limits of perception” is not just not enough, but obviously not applicable (as there is no perception to talk about).

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2 Responses to “Mind and World – Note 2”

  1. Trey said

    To say that one always has some conceptual content in experience DOES NOT put one in any kind of position to view the layout of reality…geez. If your experience of the world includes conceptual content then there is a contribution to the contents of experience by you..which means that in order to know the layout of reality you have to be able to separate what comes from you and what comes from the world. But how can you do this if even your distinction itself comes from your conceptual frame of reference? And the passage itself admits there is nothing for such a distinction to refer to…so then you just assume that the result is that the world itself must follow these conceptual takes on that world? Actually what I see here is full blown skepticism. Has this implication of his world view simply been ignored?

  2. Hi Trey…
    I’m sure I don’t know enough how McDowell’s system is supposed to work to comment on what you said, but I will try :). If for McDowell the world is represented as being thus and so (and that is what the conceptual contribution to experience amounts to), and if the world is thus and so (so, can be spoken of in terms of those same concepts which are included in the experience), then it is fully possible that the world is as it is represented in our experience – We might never know with absolute certainty that the world is as it is represented, but that shouldn’t be a problem, right?
    But then probably I don’t understand what you are pointing to.

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