Philosophy of mind is weird

by Neil Rickert

More correctly, philosophy of mind seems weird to me. Perhaps that’s because I think more like a scientist than like a philosopher.

I have been reading “Intentionality and Myths of the Given: Between Pragmatism and Phenomenology” by Carl Sachs. In the first few chapters, the author reviews the positions taken by a number of philosophers, and I am already seeing weirdness.

Take this quote:

Perceptual experience is passive as opposed to active, in McDowell’s vocabulary, because he follows Kant in thinking of `activity’ in terms of freedom. I can freely endorse or withhold assent from judgements, but I cannot freely endorse or withhold assent from perceptual episodes — if what I see is a salt-shaker on the table, then I cannot not see that there is a salt-shaker on the table. My concepts of `salt-shaker’ and `table’ are passively actualized in the shaping of sensory consciousness as it relates to the objects experienced. (Kindle location 3164)

And that seems weird.

To illustrate, I would consider a wall thermometer to be passive.  It doesn’t actively do anything, but you can read the temperature from it.  A clock, by contrast, I consider to be actively involved.  The clock runs an oscillator (a swinging pendulum or a vibrating balance wheel or a vibrating tuning fork or a quartz oscillator).  And it is actively counting the oscillations.  A sundial is a passive way of determining time, but it does not work nearly as well as the active clock.

When we think of perception, we see that it is adjusting the focus of the eyes; it is adjusting the iris; it is moving the eyes in saccades; is is finding harmonic content in the varying sound pressure.  It is hard to see how that could be called “passive”.

The faculty of reason

McDowell and others discussed in the book talk about a “space of reasons” or a “faculty of reason.”  As best I can understand it, McDowell seems to be saying that because he does not have to think about the details of perception (whether that object is a salt-shaker), therefore perception is passive.

He is possibly thinking of cognition along the lines of Fodor’s “Modularity of Mind” thesis.

The entire modularity thesis seems wrong to me.  I don’t believe that there is a faculty of reason.  I see reasoning (or thinking) as learned behavior.  And I see it as behavior that depends on clever ways of calling upon perception.


The view expressed seems to invite dualism.  The picture being suggested is a faculty of reason that is isolated from reality, with a passive perception feeding it information from reality.  This is similar to the viewpoint of AI (artificial intelligence).  But whatever “reasoning” is done in an AI system is abstract reasoning based on a symbolic calculus with no necessary connection to reality.  And that’s the old “mind/body” problem that suggests a need for something like Cartesian dualism.

I’m not suggesting that McDowell is a dualist.  Rather, the suggestion is that he seems to be looking at mind in a way that cannot explain our experience.  This is perhaps why a number of philosophers suggest that consciousness doesn’t actually exist or is only an illusion.

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