Hard or Impossible? Neil Rickert’s attempt to ‘explain consciousness.’

Neil Rickert was at it again attempting to ‘explain consciousness’ over at PS at the imperative-phrased invitation of Joshua Swamidass to: “Tell me how you think consciousness evolved.” https://discourse.peacefulscience.org/t/rickerts-ideas-on-consciousness/3684/

Neil had written this: “What it really boils down to, is that there is no such thing as metaphysical truth. There is only conventional truth. And different social groups will disagree over their social conventions.”

TSZ poster BruceS answered Neil’s challenge and addressed part of its background assumptions: “Another fan of Rorty-style pragmatism… Seems to be a cult among TSZ moderators.” So perhaps this is worth discussing here as well (though obviously the lone religious theist moderator at TSZ Mung was forgotten in BruceS’s comment).

I too reject the notion that “there is only conventional truth,” a view, however, that this site’s founder Elizabeth Liddle also seemed to hold. In the fields I have studied, this is a view held largely by social constructivists, which is often turned into a kind of ‘sociologism’ – the ideology that holds all things can be explained by appeal to societies or groups alone. This view, however, unfortunately comes at the cost of other ‘truths’.

Thus, I respectfully disagree with Neil and believe that the claim “there is no such thing as metaphysical truth” is just his own convenient fiction. It would seem that he has taken a massive detour away from ‘metaphysical truth’ and is now trying to ‘explain’ something that cannot actually be explained. Additionally, it appears that this detour has had to do largely with an attempt to create a ‘religion substitute,’ along the lines of Daniel Dennett’s evolutionistic-atheist worldview.

Rickert tells: “I was a deeply committed Christian for part of my life. But I came to doubt that, long before I started to study human cognition.” https://discourse.peacefulscience.org/t/rickerts-ideas-on-consciousness/3684/4 It thus seems that it was instead a reaction against YECism that had an important role in Neil leaving whatever Christian community he had been ‘deeply committed’ to, prior to taking up a pastime study of human cognition. If not for YECists, he might still believe in metaphysical truth & a Creator who loves us – all people – even Neil.

Rickert writes about his, “study of consciousness, where I have to look at how people make conscious assessments of what is true.” He admits that he holds “a view which many people – perhaps most people – will see as wrong. That’s why it is difficult to explain consciousness.” Yet, this makes the mistake of suggesting that it is merely other peoples’ fault why he can’t ‘explain consciousness,’ rather than taking responsibility for his inability or lack of success to convince others about how ‘consciousness evolved’ (implied: naturalistically, without need, use or role for a supernatural Creator) on himself. Maybe ‘consciousness’ simply can’t be ‘explained’ and hence there is little value in trying to do so (unless or even if one is trained as a PhD in the field and has made it their life’s passion). Otherwise, I don’t understand the ‘that’s why’ implied in Neil’s assessment of the professed difficulty of ‘explaining consciousness.’

I find the rejection of YECism dilemma fascinating and surely relevant for the TSZ community, most of whom reject YECism. It is not one commonly faced where I grew up, so please excuse if my questions come across as ignorant or insensitive. However, I did personally face and had to grapple with the ideology of YECism as told to me by a person who I highly respect still to this day and who has become a very successful practitioner in his chosen field of study & expertise (non-academic), which has nothing to do with the age of the earth. I even thought YECism had some glimpse of merit for a time, before realising that what had to be ignored and discounted in order to remain a YECist displayed errors too voluminous to seriously entertain.

Does rejection of YECism lead some people into a crisis of faith? How do we face or encounter YECists as still respectable and worthy human beings even though we wholeheartedly disagree with the ideology that they have embraced (as part of their consciousness)? I believe Neil is right to wonder about these things. And I believe it would be wrong to act unjustly towards or to treat people in an inhumane way simply because they hold an ideology that is damaging usually to no one other than themselves and their local religious community, as if I held any power as ultimate judge over the care for their souls by demanding that they turn away from ideological YECism.

“We can, of course, sit back smugly knowing that we are right and that the YECs are wrong.  But, at the same time, the YECs can sit back smugly knowing that they are right and that we are wrong.” … “People do not like explanations of what they already take for granted.  They don’t believe that an explanation is needed, since they already take it for granted.  And, if pointing out that what they take for granted depends, in part, on social conventions, then they are likely to see that as questioning what they take for granted. / This is why it is hard to explain consciousness.” – Neil Rickert https://nwrickert.wordpress.com/2019/02/21/the-hard-problem-of-consciousness/

My concern with the social constructivist and ‘social convention’ approach to ‘truth’ is that it places the utmost difficulty on the doorsteps of other people, rather than accepting responsibility on one’s own doorstep by insisting that one *can* ‘explain consciousness.’ It is surely unfortunate, however, because Neil may not have had to face this dilemma in a different Christian community, given that YECists constitute a rather large minority view among Christians worldwide (despite what R. Byers says). Indeed, most Christians don’t get upset with each other about ‘evolution’ or ‘consciousness’ as they go about their regular lives of prayer and worship and aren’t upset by it in their beliefs or relationships with others at their local churches.

Another option, one that Rickert might like to consider, is that consciousness is something that can’t actually be explained, certainly not ‘scientifically’. It may even be a God-given reflection of human beings as ‘ensouled’ creatures. Consciousness may thus simply be always something greater than what can be grasped by highly limited, finite human minds, rather than a temptation toward trying to become god-like in our self-understanding; a topic not meant for full comprehension. At some point, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Bahai’s and others must simply admit we don’t have all of the answers and consciousness, as well as some ‘metaphysical truths,’ are surely strong candidates for such an admission.

Leaving the Church because one can’t understand/explain why YECists couldn’t change their minds when faced with a huge amount of ‘strictly scientific’ evidence for an ‘old earth’ may indeed be felt by some as a very difficult but necessary situation to face. It is not one that perplexes me and I have never faced any pressure from a religious person inside a ‘house of worship’ to adopt their hypothesis about the age of the Earth. I have been calmly told about their views, but never with insistence. There is help, however, for those who have experienced pressure or insistence. Indeed, this is precisely what the BioLogos Foundation was built to encounter, as it is made up largely of former YECists who didn’t turn away from religious faith but found a way to embrace theology without accepting YECism, i.e. while rejecting YECist ideology.

Please consider this as an attempt at understanding and simply offering an answer to Rickert’s dilemma, rather than at dictating any particular solution to the problem. As it involves his own personal history that he has volunteered on the internet on this extremely sensitive topic, I certainly do not wish to put any words in Neil’s mouth or to misrepresent him or his view. I do not wish to ‘out’ his thoughts or character about anything he wishes to keep private. Please do forgive my inability to ‘explain’ these things more clearly, as I’m just trying to understand what if any link there might be between rejecting ‘metaphysical truth,’ trying to ‘explain consciousness’ and leaving a church due to what might appear as YECist fanaticism and refusal to accept scientific knowledge about the Earth, creatures and people on it.

474 thoughts on “Hard or Impossible? Neil Rickert’s attempt to ‘explain consciousness.’

  1. Neil,

    The reason I brought up your earlier confusion regarding heliocentrism and geocentrism was because the mistake you were making then is analogous to the one you are making now.

    You thought that the choice of coordinate system forced the choice of model, so that a geocentric model could be converted into a heliocentric one simply by changing to a heliocentric coordinate system, and vice-versa. That’s not correct. A geocentric model remains geocentric even when expressed using heliocentric coordinates. A heliocentric model remains heliocentric even when expressed using geocentric coordinates.

    You are making an analogous mistake in this thread.

    You wrote:

    And that description language is, unavoidably a human construct. And the way that we use “true” is inextricably tied to the structure of that description language.

    And:

    I am taking how we connect those words to reality as part of what I mean by the structure of language. And how we connect them to reality affects what we take to be true.

    You used “the planets move in elliptical paths” as an example of this, but it’s a bad example. “Planet” is connected to a certain kind of object, “move” is connected to a certain kind of action, and “elliptical” is connected to a certain kind of figure. But none of those connections forces us to choose the Keplerian model over the Ptolemaic. One can just as easily say “the planets don’t move in elliptical paths.”

    The coordinate system doesn’t force the choice of model, and neither does the descriptive language.

  2. BruceS: I am not sure why you are using that phrase ‘metaphysical truth’.

    I was using the phrase “metaphysical truth” as a way of engaging with Neil, since he introduced that phrase. It’s not one that I would use to express my own considered views.

    I understand your comments to be saying that it is possible for us to say true things about the world. You are not saying that truth has some kind of metaphysical nature, e.g. as in Correspondence theories of truth. Rather, I suspect you are using some kind of pragmatist concept of truth.

    One of the most important ideas I’ve gotten from Sellars is that the correspondence theory of truth is not only basically correct but also fully compatible with as austere a nominalism and naturalism as one might wish. One of the things that Rorty got wrong — and this is a mistake that’s really quite central to his entire approach, and not incidental to it — is that if you agree with Nietzsche that “God is dead”, then you should reject the correspondence theory of truth entirely.

    This is the substance of my ongoing disagreement with Neil over the years: he thinks that accepting the correspondence theory of truth amounts to crypto-theism (which is why he thinks keiths and I are theists malgre lui), whereas I think that we can and should make sense of the correspondence theory of truth in completely naturalistic terms.

    One philosopher who I think has been extremely clear about this idea (and its implications) is Ruth Millikan:

    “If any certainty has emerged from the last thirty years of philosophy [writing in 1984] it is that a pure correspondence theory of truth is vacuous. By a pure correspondence theory of truth I mean a theory that signs or representations, when true or correct, are true or correct merely by virtue of there being a, some, mapping function that maps these representations onto parts of the world or reality. Following in the wake of Quine, Wittgenstein of Philosophical Investigations, and many others it is now easy to remind ourselves why a pure correspondence theory will not work. It is because mathematical mapping relations are infinitely numerous and ubiquitous whereas representation-represented relations are not. If any correspondence theory of truth is to avoid vacuousness, it must be a theory that tell us what is different or special about the mapping relations that map representations onto representeds.

    This difference or specialness cannot be a merely formal specialness . . . . No kind of formal specialness is logically more special than any other . . . The specialness that turns a mathematical mapping function into a representation-represented relation in a given case must have to be some kind of special status that this function has in the real, the natural, or the causal order rather than the logical order. Thus, any coherent correspondence theory of truth must be part of our total theory of the world”.

    (From Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories, pp. 86-87)

    I think that Millikan is exactly right here: what we ought to have learned from Quine, Wittgenstein, and others (I’m also thinking here of Putnam’s arguments against “metaphysical realism” in Reason, Truth, and History) is that we cannot have a pure correspondence theory of truth — but that we can have a correspondence theory of truth that is part of our total theory of the world.

    Specifically it will be a theory about the evolutionary origins and ecological functions of those neurocomputational states that allow an organism to successfully coordinate changes in sensory states with changes in purposive behaviors.

    The question that divides “right-wing” Sellarsians such as Millikan and Churchland from “left-wing” Sellarsians such as Rorty and Brandom concerns, in large part, this point:

    Is the lesson to be learned from Quine, Wittgenstein, Sellars, Davidson,and Putnam that (1) we should endorse a purely semantic theory of truth a la Ramsey, in which all there is to say about truth is the semantics of the predicate phrase “is true” or (2) that we should naturalize the correspondence relation as part of our overall theory of animal cognition, including that peculiar kind of animal cognition that is human language?

    Rorty and Brandom take the first option; Millikan and Churchland take the second.

    I myself think that in some sense, both (1) and (2) are correct, which is why I am neither a left-wing nor right-wing Sellarsian. I think that Sellars himself was correct to say that we need to distinguish between truth in the broad sense — what he calls “semantic assertability” — in which case the rules that govern the predicate phrase “is true” are all one needs, and those rules will be language-game specific (so, different in mathematics than in ethics, for example) — and truth in the narrow sense, “matter of factual truth” or empirical truth, in which case we do need something like a theory of satisficing neurocomputational function (what Sellars himself called “picturing”).

    And that is why I said that pragmatism without cognitive neuroscience is postmodernism: without a theory of satisficing neurocomputational functions, all one is left with is a plurality of language games with their own distinct rules for using the “is true” predicate. (We really do need Millikan and Churchland to save Sellars from Rorty!)

    ETA: I’ve posted this link before; it captures my understanding of Neil’s point of view, (ie the “worst” argument).:
    Stove’s Discovery of the Worst Argument in the World
    https://web.maths.unsw.edu.au/~jim/worst.html

    The ugliness of Stove’s politics aside, I think he’s quite right to see “the Gem” as exerting an extraordinary influence on vast swathes of the philosophical tradition. One can see versions of it in Husserl, Heidegger, William James, Dewey (at times), Rorty, Putnam, Derrida, etc.

  3. keiths: You thought that the choice of coordinate system forced the choice of model, so that a geocentric model could be converted into a heliocentric one simply by changing to a heliocentric coordinate system, and vice-versa.

    Another totally failed attempt at mind reading by keiths.

  4. Neil:

    Another totally failed attempt at mind reading by keiths.

    Nope. Your own words betray you. Read this and this again.

  5. Kantian Naturalist: One of the most important ideas I’ve gotten from Sellars is that the correspondence theory of truth is not only basically correct but also fully compatible with as austere a nominalism and naturalism as one might wish.

    The correspondence theory basically says that true sentences are true. So it is compatible with everything, but only because it doesn’t say anything.

    This is the substance of my ongoing disagreement with Neil over the years: he thinks that accepting the correspondence theory of truth amounts to crypto-theism (which is why he thinks keiths and I are theists malgre lui), whereas I think that we can and should make sense of the correspondence theory of truth in completely naturalistic terms.

    I have said that about keiths. I don’t think that I have said it about you. I see your use of “true” as somewhat more subtle.

    If you want a completely naturalistic correspondence theory, then here’s one. The correspondences that we use between reality and our linguistic expression are conventional. So a completely naturalist correspondence theory should recognize that truth is a matter of human convention (particularly meaning conventions as part of language).

    Ruth Millikan: “If any certainty has emerged from the last thirty years of philosophy [writing in 1984] it is that a pure correspondence theory of truth is vacuous.”

    I agree with that. And the reason that I have criticized keiths view of truth as implicitly theistic, is because he does appear to be trying to go with a pure correspondence theory. But your own use is less pure, because you mix in social norms (which are, in effect, kinds of social conventions).

  6. Kantian Naturalist: Specifically it will be a theory about the evolutionary origins and ecological functions of those neurocomputational states that allow an organism to successfully coordinate changes in sensory states with changes in purposive behaviors.

    That’s a very helpful and interesting post. My thoughts:

    For me, big C Correspondence truth holds that there is a single metaphysical property shared by all true representations. For everyday talk and for scientific modelling, we are supposed to be able to somehow compare the state of the world with our representation of it and see if this metaphysical relationship holds. (The pertinent states of the world are sometimes called ‘truthmakers’).

    This view of Correspondence truth requires a God’s eye view of the world to make the comparison which is how I interpret Neil’s view that Correspondence truth is theistic.

    I am not sure if this is your pure theory of Correspondence truth.

    In any event, I do agree that by making active inquiry about the world, we are able to ascertain small-c correspondences between our representations and the aspect of the world under study. That world could be affordances of some organism,or the domain modeled by some science, or some fields of philosophy (eg ethics). This will be a “satisficing” approach to truth, where we aim at improvement to be tested by further action and inquiry, and not at building static, offline, error-free representations (“mirrors”) of the world.

    For me this is not a Correspondence theory of truth, since the nature of correspondence between an organisms perceptual/action representations and the world will differ from those between language concepts and the everyday world as represented by human language use, and in turn will differ from the many different possibilities for correspondence between scientific models and the domain under study.

    To keep the post focused, I’ve deliberately avoiding modifying ‘true’ by the adjective ‘approximate’, but should be there as a placeholder to be filled in by a viable account of fallibility and progress.

  7. Neil,

    The correspondence theory basically says that true sentences are true.

    Um, no.

    So it is compatible with everything, but only because it doesn’t say anything.

    Again, no.

    How hard is it to type “correspondence theory of truth” into the Google search box, Neil?

  8. Neil,

    And the reason that I have criticized keiths view of truth as implicitly theistic, is because he does appear to be trying to go with a pure correspondence theory.

    No, you criticized my view of truth because you claimed that it depended on a “God’s eye view”, which in turn meant that I must be an implicit theist.

    I responded:

    That’s as silly as claiming that an architect can’t produce a “birds-eye view” drawing of a planned Martian colony, because there are no birds on Mars and in any case the colony hasn’t been built yet.

    Or that an “exploded view” of a fishing reel (hi, KF!) isn’t possible until someone has wedged some C4 inside and detonated it.

    Neil:

    For starters, “birds eye view” is a completely human term. It has nothing to do with birds. We know what we mean using that expression because it is completely human.

    keiths:

    You’re making my point for me. You don’t need a bird in order to assume a bird’s eye view, and you don’t need a God in order to assume what you’re calling a “God’s eye view”.

    The fact that things can be objectively true does not depend on theism. You made a silly mistake, Neil.

  9. Neil,

    And the reason that I have criticized keiths view of truth as implicitly theistic, is because he does appear to be trying to go with a pure correspondence theory.

    Neil, in the same comment:

    The correspondence theory basically says that true sentences are true. So it is compatible with everything, but only because it doesn’t say anything.

    If the correspondence theory doesn’t say anything, then it can’t be implicitly theistic.

    You’ve contradicted yourself in the span of a single comment.

  10. I remain unconvinced there is an objective view of anything, independent of viewer.

  11. petrushka,

    I remain unconvinced there is an objective view of anything, independent of viewer.

    Well, there doesn’t appear to be a God taking a God’s eye view, and we humans can’t take such a view. However, we can triangulate toward it through careful observation, reasoning, science, etc. The scientific consensus that the geocentric model is false was established through such a process.

    I think that qualifies as an objective truth, even though we can’t be absolutely certain of it.

  12. I think we can achieve reliable knowledge or reliable views. I see no reason to believe they are objective.

  13. The notions of objectivity and subjectivity are extremely useful, and a great deal of science’s success has resulted from efforts to reduce subjectivity and increase objectivity. Think double-blind experimentation and randomized controlled trials, for instance.

  14. petrushka,

    Out of curiosity, do you think that “the geocentric model of the solar system is false” is a true statement?

  15. keiths:
    petrushka,
    Out of curiosity, do you think that “the geocentric model of the solar system is false” is a true statement?

    I would say unproductive rather than false.

    It does represent what we observe.

  16. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen you use words like “true”, “false”, “right”, “wrong” at TSZ.

    They’re very useful, and I can’t see the point in avoiding them.

  17. petrushka:
    I remain unconvinced there is an objective view of anything, independent of viewer.

    I agree with this.

    keiths: The notions of objectivity and subjectivity are extremely useful, and a great deal of science’s success has resulted from efforts to reduce subjectivity and increase objectivity.

    I agree with this too. But I do not see it as contradicting petrushka’s point.

  18. keiths:
    I’m pretty sure I’ve seen you use words like “true”, “false”, “right”, “wrong” at TSZ.
    They’re very useful, and I can’t see the point in avoiding them.

    Well, I engage in foolish inconsistency. Shame on me.

    But god’s google would find a lot of places, particularly in my more recent postings, where I argue that ID is unproductive. I’ve asked a number of times for some ID advocate to describe a research program that follows from assuming ID.

    Now, the geocentric model led to Ptolemy, and Ptolemys precise measurements eventually led to other models. Possibly because his precision required epicycles, and that offended Occamites. My history is fuzzy on this. But once the door was opened to heleocentrism, progress was more rapid.

    Which leads, I suppose, to how I define progress.

    I don’t define scientific progress as anything objective, like TRVTH. I would define it in terms of utility. Incorporating both commercial utility and intellectual utility: whether a concept or model opens doors and suggests research.

  19. petrushka,

    Well, I engage in foolish inconsistency. Shame on me.

    I suspect it’s because you, like most of us, find the reasons for using those words to be far more compelling than any reasons for avoiding them.

  20. petrushka,

    Now, the geocentric model led to Ptolemy, and Ptolemys precise measurements eventually led to other models. Possibly because his precision required epicycles, and that offended Occamites. My history is fuzzy on this. But once the door was opened to heleocentrism, progress was more rapid.

    The Copernican model retained epicycles, and actually employed more of them than the Ptolemaic model did.

    I don’t define scientific progress as anything objective, like TRVTH. I would define it in terms of utility. Incorporating both commercial utility and intellectual utility: whether a concept or model opens doors and suggests research.

    Many scientific advances don’t have any commercial utility, and bogus ideas (like “N-rays”) can open doors and suggest research, but I would hesitate to categorize them as examples of scientific progress.

  21. keiths:
    petrushka,
    I suspect it’s because you, like most of us, find the reasons for using those words to be far more compelling than any reasons for avoiding them.

    It’s difficult to avoid colloquial speech. But this thread seems to be about establishing a foundational vocabulary. I simply don’t think true and objective mean what we want them to mean. Statments of fact are not true in the same sense as true statements in math or logic.

    Objectivity is a useful concept in science and in law, but I don’t see “things” as having objective properties. They may very well be seen by all humans in ways that can be trusted, but that isn’t what I consider objective.

  22. petrushka,

    It’s difficult to avoid colloquial speech.

    It’s not just difficult to avoid words like “true”, “false”, “right”, “wrong” — it’s downright counterproductive. And I think that’s true in formal settings as well as colloquial ones.

    Imagine taking a true/false test and insisting on using “U” (useful) and “N” (not useful) in place of “T” and “F”.

    Or imagine that someone asks “You were born in 1948, right?” — or whatever the actual year was — and you respond “I can’t say that it’s right, but I find it useful to believe that.”

    I simply don’t think true and objective mean what we want them to mean.

    You don’t think there’s a fact of the matter about whether or not you were born in 1948? Or about whether Winston Churchill ate Beef Wellington on D-Day? Or whether there’s a ninth planet beyond the Kuiper Belt? I would suggest that even if no human knows the answers, there is still a fact of the matter in each case.

  23. keiths:
    Flint,

    Here are a few questions to consider:

    1. Brains still operate when their possessors are in a dreamless sleep, under general anesthesia, or in a coma.That means that subjective experience can’t be an inevitable result of brain activity — it requires a certain kind of brain activity.Why do some kinds of brain activity lead to conscious experience, when others do not?

    Interestingly, the issue of Science News that arrived today had a short article about this. The goal was to determine if an unresponsive patient was conscious or aware. And the findings were that people in the states you describe (dreamless sleep, under general anesthesia, etc.) showed a distinctly different pattern of neurological activity than awake responsive people. So (at least tentatively) experience requires more than just any random brain activity.

    2. Consider the entire spectrum of organisms from viruses and bacteria through slime molds, flatworms, sea urchins and on to lizards, mice, and humans.They’re all physical systems.Which of them have subjective experiences, in your opinion, and which don’t?What is required in order for an organism to have subjective experiences?

    This strikes me as more semantic than substantive. Most of these (perhaps not viruses?) show a pattern of responses to different stimuli. I suppose this could be entirely autonomic. Maybe a clue could be whether the organism can be trained, or subjected to some cognitive test. I think this question might never be answerable — is hunger an experience? If so, experience is nearly universal.

    The real question is: What characteristics must a physical system possess in order to have subjective experiences?Looking at the spectrum of physical systems from rocks to lugnuts to thermostats to alarm clocks to engines…to your hypothetical conscious quantum supercomputer, which of these have (or would have) subjective experiences, in your opinion?

    Dunno. I speculate that some sort of decision tree would need to be implemented, and that tree would need to be somewhat sensitive to feedback. But absent some “mind” reading ability, subjective experiences are stubbornly internal. The old question of whether red looks the same to you as to me. Several human languages do not have separate words for green and blue.

    I doubt experience could be externally, predictively modeled. Conscious systems are intractably complex and dynamic. I once had what I considered a very bad experience, which by its nature was associated with many other concurrent experiences. So I decided to try to re-associate those reminders with positive experiences, and I think it helped. My suspicion is that subjective experience, while unavoidable to an aware mind, is inherently inaccessible. But I’d say experience can be explained and understood in neurological terms, distinct general and/or specific patterns of neuron firings, even if it can’t be shared or extracted from examining these patterns.

  24. Keiths:

    If I were taking a true false test, I’d hope not to encounter questions in the form

    The cause of the civil war was…x
    The radius of an oxygen atom is…x
    The earth revolves around the sun
    There is a ninth planet
    Pi equals 3.141592

    There are statement that are reliably true. In law, we say, beyond a reasonable doubt. I used to worry that I couldn’t function on a jury, because I am hyper skeptical about eyewitness testimony. Then I got on a jury, and the defendent didn’t challenge any testimony. Nothing like TV at all.

    But I would say that worldly facts are not objective, regardless of how much it hurts to kick the stone.

    Earlier this morning, I peed and peed and peed, and still had to pee. Then I woke up, and still had to pee.

  25. Is it true that I dreamed? What exactly is a dream? Is the question of whether I dreamed any different than asking if Churchill ate some particular food on a particular day?

    Can you separate the question of the existence of a dream from the problem of what a dream IS?

    Oddly, it seems that dreams illustrate a particular aspect of the problem of consciousness, in that they are pure consciousness, unaffiliated with perception of “objective” reality.

  26. Neil Rickert: What’s the meaning of “closer to reality” here.

    Evidently you are not a realist under any system of realism. A constructivist or nominalist perhaps. Or surrealist.

  27. I think it is important not to conflate three separate issues:
    1. Process objectivity versus Product Objectivity.
    I’ve posted on the difference many times. Briefly, process objectivity only requires an intersubjective process with norms evolved for successful inquiry in the domain. Product objectivity requires a mind-independent world with a single correct ontology, ie carvable at its joints in exactly one correct way.

    2 Big-C Correspondence truth versus approaches to truth unburdened by metaphysical expectations. I described this earlier in thread. Big C Correspondence truth requires product objectivity; small-c only process objectivity.

    3. Scientific realism. It claims that the unobservables postulated by successful science latch onto mind-independent entities in the world. It requires process objectivity, small c correspondence truth. But those are not enough.
    It also needs further argument to justify realism about unobservables. The usual approach is IBE to realism as best explanation of the unreasonable success of scientific theories in novel predictions. It is a separate, open issue to decide what unobservable aspects of science are taken as real. Common suggestions are entities of theories, entities of experiments (but not theories), mathematical structures.

  28. Erik: Evidently you are not a realist under any system of realism. A constructivist or nominalist perhaps. Or surrealist.

    I’m a realist. I’m also a mathematician.

    When somebody talks of “closer to reality”, I want to know what metric they are using to determine that closeness.

  29. Neil Rickert: I’m a realist.I’m also a mathematician.

    When somebody talks of “closer to reality”, I want to know what metric they are using to determine that closeness.

    It is possible to want to know a metric to determine which model of the planetary system is closer to reality if you either think that those models can be measured by confusingly many metrics, or if you think that the models actually cannot be measured, or if you think that there is no such thing as reality distinct from the models. On all counts you are wrong and most likely not any sort of realist.

    You might be a mathematician, but in terms of epistemology of science you are pretty messed up. For everybody else it is quite easy to determine which model of the planetary system, Ptolemaic or Copernican, is closer to reality.

  30. I organize my life as if objects are real and historical statements are true or false.

    I have assumed that this thread had something “deeper” in mind.

    I don’t accept the notion that what we perceive are shadows of real things. I tend to think reality is shadows all the way down.

  31. Erik: For everybody else it is quite easy to determine which model of the planetary system, Ptolemaic or Copernican, is closer to reality.

    “Closer” implies a comparison.

    I am just asking what is being compared, and how is that comparison being made.

    Maybe it’s just your personal feelings (which would be subjective). That would at least tell me what you mean by “closeness”.

    For myself, I prefer the heliocentric system on pragmatic grounds. So, for me, “closeness” is in terms of usefulness. However, that does depend on how you want to use it. If the main concern is terrestrial navigation, then the geocentric model is probably more useful.

    Instead of making ridiculous assertions about me, why not simply tell us what you mean by “closer to reality”.

  32. Neil Rickert: “Closer” implies a comparison.

    I am just asking what is being compared, and how is that comparison being made.

    Yes, it implies a comparison. Duh.

    The comparison is between Copernican and Ptolemaic planetary models to how the planetary system is observed to operate in reality. And there cannot be too many reasons why you think all this is ultra hard: either you disbelieve the reality part entirely or the concept of modelling reality is over your head. Another duh.

  33. Erik: The comparison is between Copernican and Ptolemaic planetary models to how the planetary system is observed to operate in reality.

    Okay, fair enough. So it is entirely a matter of your personal subjective opinion.

    And there cannot be too many reasons why you think all this is ultra hard:

    I have not said that it is ultra hard. Rather, I have suggested that it is completely meaningless until you provide criteria on which you make that comparison.

    You were quick to criticize me for asking what was meant. And now, after three attempts, you seem quite incapable of telling what was meant. Perhaps you find it ultra hard.

  34. petrushka,

    If I were taking a true false test, I’d hope not to encounter questions in the form

    The cause of the civil war was…x
    The radius of an oxygen atom is…x
    The earth revolves around the sun
    There is a ninth planet
    Pi equals 3.141592

    That doesn’t respond to my point, which was:

    Imagine taking a true/false test and insisting on using “U” (useful) and “N” (not useful) in place of “T” and “F”.

    Or imagine that someone asks “You were born in 1948, right?” — or whatever the actual year was — and you respond “I can’t say that it’s right, but I find it useful to believe that.”

  35. petrushka,

    Is it true that I dreamed? What exactly is a dream? Is the question of whether I dreamed any different than asking if Churchill ate some particular food on a particular day?

    That doesn’t respond to the questions I posed:

    You don’t think there’s a fact of the matter about whether or not you were born in 1948? Or about whether Winston Churchill ate Beef Wellington on D-Day? Or whether there’s a ninth planet beyond the Kuiper Belt? I would suggest that even if no human knows the answers, there is still a fact of the matter in each case.

  36. Neil, to KN:

    If you want a completely naturalistic correspondence theory, then here’s one. The correspondences that we use between reality and our linguistic expression are conventional. So a completely naturalist correspondence theory should recognize that truth is a matter of human convention (particularly meaning conventions as part of language).

    Truth is not merely a matter of human convention, and I’ve addressed that already:

    You used “the planets move in elliptical paths” as an example of this, but it’s a bad example. “Planet” is connected to a certain kind of object, “move” is connected to a certain kind of action, and “elliptical” is connected to a certain kind of figure. But none of those connections forces us to choose the Keplerian model over the Ptolemaic. One can just as easily say “the planets don’t move in elliptical paths.”

    The coordinate system doesn’t force the choice of model, and neither does the descriptive language.

    The assignment of words to concepts is a human convention, but that doesn’t make the geocentric model true in some languages but false in others.

  37. Keiths:

    I would say true or false in ordinary conversation, and I use the verb to be and its various tenses in ordinary speech, but when trying to be precise, I like to avoid them.

  38. keiths:

    You appear to reject the usefu/not useful here:

    Imagine taking a true/false test and insisting on using “U” (useful) and “N” (not useful) in place of “T” and “F”.
    Or imagine that someone asks “You were born in 1948, right?” — or whatever the actual year was — and you respond “I can’t say that it’s right, but I find it useful to believe that.”

    But nonetheless you accept it here:

    The assignment of words to concepts is a human convention, but that doesn’t make the geocentric model true in some languages but false in others.

    Since the heliocentric model is only an approximation, and the actual “center” is a barycenter (granted, located within the sun), and you don’t seem to object to the notion that a geocentric model works well when we’re dealing with terrestrial navigation or earth orbits. That is, a useful model for some purposes but not others.

    For that matter, most orbital calculations for satellites use Newton’s formulas, not because they are “true” but because they are close enough to be useful.

    We would seem to have different categories here. “Born in 1948” falls into one category, and “the moon goes around the earth” falls in another — the first being true in the sense you use it, and the second being useful in the sense Neil uses it.

  39. keiths:

    2. Consider the entire spectrum of organisms from viruses and bacteria through slime molds, flatworms, sea urchins and on to lizards, mice, and humans. They’re all physical systems. Which of them have subjective experiences, in your opinion, and which don’t? What is required in order for an organism to have subjective experiences?

    Flint:

    This strikes me as more semantic than substantive. Most of these (perhaps not viruses?) show a pattern of responses to different stimuli.

    Sure, but the question isn’t whether they respond. Even a mere thermostat can respond to a change in temperature. The question is whether the stimuli evoke subjective experiences.

    I suppose this could be entirely autonomic. Maybe a clue could be whether the organism can be trained, or subjected to some cognitive test.

    About 15 years ago, a research team trained networks of about 20,000 rat neurons to fly a simulator straight and level in the face of wind shear and other perturbations. Such networks can be trained, but I’d question any claim that they therefore must be conscious, and that it must feel like something for them to fly the simulator.

    I think this question might never be answerable — is hunger an experience?

    It certainly can be. I think we all know what it’s like to feel hungry. The question is, does it feel like anything to be a hungry amoeba? A hot thermostat?

    My suspicion is that subjective experience, while unavoidable to an aware mind, is inherently inaccessible.

    The problem with that is that it’s tautological, if you define “an aware mind” as one that has subjective experience. On the other hand, if by “aware” you simply mean that it partially models its environment and/or its own state, then awareness need not be accompanied by subjective experience. Think of a self-driving car; it’s aware of its position, its speed, the road, obstacles, etc. But does it feel like anything to be a self-driving car?

    But I’d say experience can be explained and understood in neurological terms, distinct general and/or specific patterns of neuron firings, even if it can’t be shared or extracted from examining these patterns.

    Chalmers would likely agree with you, but he would categorize that as one of the “easy” problems. The hard problem would be to explain exactly why those patterns give rise to felt experience.

  40. Flint,

    You appear to reject the usefu/not useful here:

    <snip>

    But nonetheless you accept it here:

    The assignment of words to concepts is a human convention, but that doesn’t make the geocentric model true in some languages but false in others.

    Not sure how you got that impression. I didn’t say anything about the usefulness of the geocentric model in that quote. I was disputing Neil’s claim that truth is a mere matter of linguistic convention.

    For that matter, most orbital calculations for satellites use Newton’s formulas, not because they are “true” but because they are close enough to be useful.

    Right, and that supports a point I’ve been making to petrushka. Truth is not merely a matter of utility. Newtonian mechanics doesn’t become true merely because it’s useful.

    Another example: Suppose you’re trying to smuggle a Jewish friend out of Nazi Germany. It’s useful for you to forge some papers and to claim, to the border guards, that your friend is not a Jew. It’s even useful to believe that temporarily, if you can swing it, so that you’ll be a more convincing liar. A useful belief, but not true. Your friend is still a Jew.

    Truth and utility are not synonymous.

  41. petrushka,

    I would say true or false in ordinary conversation, and I use the verb to be and its various tenses in ordinary speech, but when trying to be precise, I like to avoid them.

    The following sentence is both precise and true:

    The number 5 is an integer.

    Why avoid the word “is” in that sentence?

    And again, suppose someone asks:

    You were born in 1948, right? (or whatever the actual year was)

    If you were trying to be precise, wouldn’t you say “Right”, thereby pinning down the precise year? Or would you respond “I can’t say that it’s right, but I find it useful to believe that”, leaving the actual year of your birth unspecified?

    And if the latter, do you really think there’s no fact of the matter regarding whether or not you were born in 1948?

    Also, I don’t see why you would want to limit words like “true”, “false”, “right” and “wrong” to colloquial speech. There are plenty of non-colloquial contexts where those words are useful, including the aforementioned true/false tests and courtroom questioning and testimony.

  42. keiths:

    I was disputing Neil’s claim that truth is a mere matter of linguistic convention.

    Neil, now:

    Just to be clear, I have not made such a claim.

    Neil, earlier:

    So a completely naturalist correspondence theory should recognize that truth is a matter of human convention (particularly meaning conventions as part of language).

    [emphasis added]

  43. keiths,

    You will note that I never used the word “mere” and I never used the expression “linguistic convention”.

    You cannot define meanings by “mere linguistic convention.”

  44. keiths: There are plenty of non-colloquial contexts where those words are useful

    Overuse of the verb to be and its tenses results in nebulous statements that fail to communicate.

    Not picking on anyone; just looking at the first paragraph of the OP:

    What it really boils down to, is that there is no such thing as metaphysical truth. There is only conventional truth.

    Guaranteed to lead to unproductive discussions.

  45. BruceS,

    Thank you for that response! I confess that I’m not happy with the distinction between big-C Correspondence theories and small-c correspondence theories because I don’t think that capitalization is a helpful way of indicating a conceptual distinction.

    But I do agree that there’s an important distinction that you’re making here.

    Here’s another way of indicating the relevant distinction: that between formal correspondence and material correspondence.

    Formal correspondence treats the correspondence relation as fully expressible in mathematical logic. Material correspondence treats the correspondence relation as a causal relation between elements in the material or natural world.

    Putnam’s worries (in Reason, Truth, and History) about the incoherence of “metaphysical realism” (in his sense) turns on mathematical logic, and especially his use of the Lowenheim-Skolem theorem. I believe that a close analysis of his arguments for “internal realism” turn on his arguments against “metaphysical realism,” and his arguments against metaphysical realism rely on the Lowenheim-Skolem theorem.

    The key idea here seems to be that given a set of sentences expressed in first order logic, there is no unique model for those sentences. And since metaphysical realism seems to require that there is, then metaphysical realism is false.

    I believe this is very close to Millikan’s point that “pure correspondence theories” are “vacuous”, though no one (to my knowledge) has related Putnam and Millikan in this way.

    However, her main point is that we can have correspondence as a natural rather than logical relation, and that the way of understand correspondence is not in terms of mathematical logic but in terms of cognitive science.

    I believe that much of what is problematic in Sellars’s notion of “picturing” is that he was not able to clarify the distinction between correspondence as a logical relation and correspondence as a natural relation. Thus he vacillates — quite consistently across his texts — between “picturing” (with an explicit allusion to Wittgenstein in the Tractatus) and “mapping” (with an explicit allusion to Edward Tolman’s theory of cognitive mapping).

    Millikan, to her credit, recognizes the importance of the distinction and drops the formal or logical correspondence relation. This allows her to focus on the material or natural correspondence relation in her theory of the causal factors that allow signs or states to function as representations. In her version of teleosemantics, this means having been brought about as a result of past natural selection. Karen Neander has a different version of teleosemantics in which states function as representations by virtue of how they are used in guiding behavior. I am not yet well-versed in the distinction between “producer teleosemantics” and “consumer teleosemantics” but see here.

    The larger point is that there’s a nice Sellars-Millikan-Churchland-Neander etc. axis here that rehabilitates the correspondence relation from mathematical logical criticism that Putnam develops and Rorty adopts.

    But as you rightly point out, this means that there is not a single unique correspondence relation, and so I should not speak of the correspondence relation but rather of indefinitely many correspondence relations, each realized in a distinct form of animal life.

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