Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Rorty's Antipodeans

From Rorty's book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

Far away, on the other side of the galaxy, there was on planet on which lived beings like ourselves – featherless bipeds who built houses and bombs, and wrote poems and computer programs. These beings did not know they had minds. They had notions like “wanting to” and “intending to” and “believing that” and “feeling terrible” and “feeling marvelous”. But they had no notion that these signified mental states - states of a peculiar and distinct sort - quite different from "sitting down", "having a cold", and "being sexually aroused". Although they used the notion of believing and knowing and wanting and being moody of their pets and their robots as well as themselves, they did not regard their pets or their robots as included in what was meant when they said, "We all believe..." or "We never do such things as..." That is to say, they treated only members of their own species as persons. But they did not explain the differences between persons and non-persons by such notions as "mind", "consciousness", "spirit", or anything of the sort. They did not explain it at all; they just treated it as the difference between "us" and everything else. They believed in immortality for themselves, and a few believed that this would be shared by the pets or the robots, or both. But this immortality did not involve the notion of a "soul" which separated from the body. It was a straightforward matter of bodily resurrection followed by a mysterious and instantaneous motion to what they referred to as "a place above the heavens" for good people, and to a sort of cave, beneath the planet's surface, for the wicked. Their philosophers were concerned primarily with four topics: the nature of Being, proofs of the existence of a Benevolent and Omnipotent Being who would carry out arrangements for resurrection, problems arising out of discourse about nonexistent objects, and the reconciliation of conflicting moral intuitions. But these philosophers had not formulated the problem of subject and object, nor that of mind and matter. There was a tradition of Pyrrhonian skepticism, but Locke's "veil of ideas" was unknown, since the notion of an "idea" or "perception" or "mental representation" was also unknown. Some of their philosophers predicted that the beliefs about immortality which had been central in earlier periods of history, and which were still held by all but the intelligentsia, would someday be replaced by a "positivistic" culture purged of all superstitions (but these philosophers made no mention of an intervening "metaphysical" stage).

In most respects, then, the language, life, technology, and philosophy of this race were much like ours. But there was one important difference. Neurology and biochemistry had been the first disciplines in which technological breakthroughs had been achieved, and a large part of conversation of these people concerned the state of their nerves. When their infants veered towards hot stoves, mothers cried out, "He'll stimulate his C-fibers." When people were given clever visual illusions to look at, they said, "How odd! It makes neuronic bundle G-14 quiver, but when I look at it from the side I can see that it's not a red rectangle at all." Their knowledge of physiology was such that each well formed sentence in the language which anybody bothered to form could easily be correlated with a readily identifiable neural state. This state occurred whenever someone uttered, or was tempted to utter, or heard, the sentence. This state also sometimes occurred in solitude and people reported such occasions with remarks like "I was suddenly in state S-296, so I put out the milk bottles." Sometimes they would say things like "It looked like an elephant, but then it struck me that elephants don't occur on this continent, so I realized that it must be a mastodon." But they would also sometimes say, in just the same circumstances, things like, "I had G-412 together with F-11, but then I had S-147, so I realized that it must be a mastodon." They thought of mastodons and milk bottles as objects of beliefs and desires, and as causing certain neural processes. They viewed these neural processes as interacting causally with beliefs and desires - in just the same way as the mastodons and milk bottles did. Certain neural processes could be deliberately self-induced, and some people were more skillful than others in inducing certain neural states in themselves. Others were skilled at detecting certain special states which most people could not recognize in themselves.

In the middle of the twenty-first century, and expedition from Earth landed on this planet. The expedition included philosophers, as well as representatives of every other learned discipline. The philosophers thought that the most interesting thing about the natives was their lack of the concept of mind. They joked among themselves that they had landed among a bunch of materialists, and suggested the name Antipodea for the planet - in reference to an almost forgotten school of philosophers, centering in Australia and New Zealand, who in the previous century had attempted one of the many futile revolts against Cartesian dualism in the history of Terran philosophy. The name stuck, and so the new race of intelligent beings came to be known as Antipodeans. The Terran neurologists and biochemists were fascinated by the wealth of knowledge in their field which the Antipodeans exhibited. Since technical conversation on these subjects was conducted almost entirely in offhand references to neural states, the Terran experts eventually picked up the ability to report their own neural states (without conscious inference) instead of reporting their thoughts, perceptions, and raw feels. (The physiologies of the two species were, fortunately, almost identical.) Everything went swimmingly, except for the difficulties met by the philosophers.

The philosophers who had come on the expedition were, as usual, divided into two warring camps: the tender-minded ones who thought that philosophy should aim at significance, and the tough-minded philosophers who thought that it should aim at Truth. The philosophers of the first sort felt that there was no real problem about whether the Antipodeans had minds. They held that what was important in understanding other beings was a grasp of their mode of being-in-the-world. It became evident that, whatever Existential the Antipodeans were using, they certainly did not include any of those which, a century earlier, Heidegger had criticized as "subjectivist". The whole notion of "the epistemological subject", or the person as spirit, had no place in their self-descriptions, nor in their philosophies. Some of the tender-minded philosophers felt that this showed the Antipodeans had not yet broken out of Nature into Spirit, or, more charitably, had not yet progressed from Consciousness to Self-Consciousness. These philosophers became town-criers of inwardness, attempting to bully the Antipodeans across an invisible line and into the Realm of the Spirit. Others, however, felt that the Antipodeans exhibited the praiseworthy grasp of the union of polemoj and logoj which was lost to Western Terran consciousness through Plato's assimilation of ousia and idea. The Antipodean failure to grasp the notion of mind, in the view of this set of philosophers, showed their closeness to Being and their freedom from the temptations to Which Terran thought had long since succumbed. In the contest between these two views, equally tender-minded as both were, discussion tended to be inconclusive. The Antipodeans themselves were not much help, because they had so much trouble translating the background reading necessary to appreciate the problem - Plato's Theaetetus, Descartes's Meditations, Hume's Treatise, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, Hegel's Phenomenology, Strawson's Individuals, etc.

The tough-minded philosophers, as usual, found a much more straightforward and clean-cut question to discuss. They did not care what the Antipodeans thought about themselves, but rather focused on the question: Do they in fact have minds? In their precise way, they narrowed this question down to: Do they in fact have sensations? It was thought that if it became clear whether they had, say, sensations of pain, as well as stimulated C-fibers, when touching hot stoves, everything else would be plain sailing. It was clear that the Antipodeans had the same behavioral disposition toward hot stoves, muscle cramps, torture and the like as humans. They loathed having their C-fibers stimulated. But the tough-minded philosophers asked themselves: Does their experience contain the same phenomenal properties as ours? Does the stimulation of C-fibers feel painful? Or does it feel some other, equally awful, way? Or does feeling not come into it at all? These philosophers were not surprised that the Antipodeans  could offer noninferential reports of their own neural states, since it had been learned long since that psychophysiologists could train human subjects to report alpha-rhythms, as well as various other physiologically describable cortical states. But they felt baffled by the question: Are some phenomenal properties being detected by an Antipodean who says, "It's my C-fibers again - you know, the ones that go off every time you get burned or hit or have a tooth pulled. It's just aweful."?

It was suggested that the question could only be answered experimentally, and so they arranged with the neurologists that one of their number should be wired up to an Antipodean volunteer so as to switch currents back and forth between various regions of the two brains. This, it was thought, would also enable the philosophers to insure that the Antipodeans did not have an inverted spectrum, or anything else which might confuse the issue. As it turned out, however, the experiment produced no interesting results. The difficulty was that when the Antipodean speech center got an input from the C-fibers of the Earthling brain it always talked only about it's C-fibers, whereas when the Earthling speech center was in control it always talked only about pain. When the Antipodean speech center was asked what the C-fibers felt like it said that it didn't quite get the notion of "feeling", but that the stimulated C-fibers were, of course, terrible things to have. The same sort of thing happened for the questions about inverted spectra and other perceptual qualities. When asked to call off the colors on a chart, both speech centers called off the usual color-names in the same order. But the Antipodean speech center could also call off the various neuronic bundles activated by each patch on the chart (no matter which visual cortex it happened to be hooked up to). When the Earthling speech center was asked what the colors were like when transmitted to the Antipodean visual cortex, it said that they seemed just as usual.

This experiment seemed not to have helped. For it was still obscure whether the Antipodeans had pains. It was equally obscure whether they had one or two raw feels when indigo light streamed onto their retinas (one of indigo, and one of neural state C-692) - or whether they had no raw feels at all. The Antipodeans were repeatedly questioned about how they knew it was indigo. They replied that they could see that it was. When asked how they knew they were in C-692, they said they "just knew" it. When it was suggested to them that they might have unconsciously inferred that it was indigo on the basis of the C-692 feel, they seemed unable to understand what unconscious inference was, or what "feels" were. When it was suggested to them that they might have made the same inference to the fact that they were in state C-692 on the basis of the raw feel of indigo, they were, of course, equally baffled. When they were asked whether the neural state appeared indigo, they replied that it did not - the light was indigo - and that the questioner must be making some sort of category mistake. When they were asked whether they could imagine having C-692 and not seeing indigo, they said they could not. When asked whether it was a conceptual truth or an empirical generalization that these two experiences went together, they replied that they were not sure how to tell the difference. When asked whether they could be wrong about whether they were seeing indigo, they replied that they of course could, but could not be wrong about whether they seemed to be seeing indigo. When asked whether they could be wrong about whether they were in state C-692, they replied in exactly the same way. Finally, skillful philosophical dialect brought them to realize that what they could not imagine was seeming to see indigo and failing to seem to be in state C-692. But this result did not seem to help with the questions: "Raw feels?" "Two raw feels or one?" "Two referents or one referent under two descriptions?" Nor did any of this help with the question about the way in which stimulated C-fibers appeared to them. When they were asked whether they could be mistaken in thinking that their C-fibers were stimulated, they replied that of course they could - but that they could not imagine being mistaken about whether their C-fibers seemed to be stimulated. 

At this point, it occurred to someone to ask whether they could detect the neural state which was the concomitant of "seeming to have their C-fibers stimulated". Antipodeans replied that there was, of course, the state of T-435 which was the constant neural concomitant of the utterance of the sentence "My C-fibers seem to be stimulated," state T-497 which went with "It's just as if my C-fibers were being stimulated," state T-293 which went with "Stimulated C-fibers!" and various other neural states which were concomitants of various other roughly synonymous sentences - but that there was no further neural state which they were aware of in addition to these. Cases in which Antipodeans had T-435 but no stimulation of C-fibers included those in which, for example, they were strapped to what they were falsely informed was a torture machine, a switch was theatrically turned on, but nothing else was done. 

Discussion among the philosophers now switched to the topic: Could the Antipodeans be mistaken about the T-series of neural states (the ones which were concomitants of understanding or uttering sentences)? Could they seem to be having T-435 but not really be? Yes, The Antipodeans said, cerebroscopes indicated that thing occasionally happened. Was there any explanation of the cases in which it happened - any pattern to them? No, there did not seem to be. It was just one of those odd things that turned up occasionally. Neurophysiology had not yet been able to find another sort of neural state, outside the T-series, which was a concomitant of such weird illusions, any more than for certain perceptual illusions, but perhaps it would some day. 

This answer left the philosophers still in difficulties on the question of whether the Antipodeans had sensations of pain, or anything else. For there now seemed to be nothing which the Antipodeans were incorrigible about except how things seemed to them. But it was not clear that "how things seemed to them" was a matter of what raw feels they had, as opposed to what they were inclined to say. If they had the raw feels of painfulness, then they had minds. But a raw feel is (or has) a phenomenal property - one which you cannot have the illusion of having (because, so to speak, having the illusion of it is itself to have it). The difference between stimulated C-fibers and pains was that you could have the illusion of stimulated C-fibers (could have, e.g., T-435) without having stimulated C-fibers, but could not have the illusion of pain without having pain. There was nothing which the Antipodeans could not be wrong about except how things seemed to them. But the fact that they could not "merely seem to have it seem to them that..." was of no interest in determining whether they had minds. The fact that "seems to seem..." is an expression without a use is a fact about the notion of "appearance", not a tip-off to the presence of "phenomenal properties". For the appearance-reality distinction is not based on a distinction between subjective representations and objective states of affairs; it is merely a matter of getting something wrong, having a false belief. So the Antipodeans' firm grasp of the former distinction did not help philosophers tell whether to ascribe the latter to them. 


  1. Completely off topic but that recent comment widget is broken on blogger. You can find a replacement [here]. I tried it on my blog and it works fine.

  2. Oh, I got it now, thanks for the tip.