Tuesday, March 29, 2011

How do you know that the author of these words has a mind?

To: Paul C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: How do you know that the author of these words has a mind?
Date: 1 June 2001 11:56

Dear Paul,

Thank you (for the second time) for your e-mail of 22 May with your essay for the Philosophy of Mind program in response to the question, ‘How do you know that the author of these words has a mind?’

This is an original and interesting approach to the question, which brings together a number of important issues concerning the nature of language and the mind.

Your strategy, in dealing with this question, is to distinguish the concept of ‘author’ from the more general concept of maker or producer; and similarly to distinguish the concept of a ‘word’ from the concept of a sound, or marks on paper, or a magnetic pattern on a hard drive.

To produce words, rather than mere sounds or marks on paper that a hearer or reader mistakenly takes to be words requires an author: a conscious being who possesses the capacity for linguistic communication, and who has selected those particular words in order to convey his or her meaning. (Regarding the gender issue, you will find as you do more reading that contemporary academic philosophers have largely settled on using ‘she’ and ‘her’ instead of ‘he’ and ‘him’, so as to avoid any suggestion of sexist bias. When you see it everywhere it begins to jar.) It would be theoretically possible, as you say, to program a computer to produce random words which just happened, by pure fluke, to give the appearance of (an attempt at) reasoned argument.

There is a web site where you can log into a ‘random essay generator’ which produces a perfect pastiche of, e.g. an essay on deconstructionism. In this case, the piece is quite senseless, yet disturbingly looks as if it means something.

So if it is indeed the case that these are *words* or if it is indeed the case that what have before you has an *author*, then there is no further question to raise concerning whether the individual that produced it has a mind.

However, there is one remaining ground for doubt, which some philosophers have taken seriously. This relates to what has been termed the ‘problem of other minds’. So I would tentatively add a fifth condition to the four that you list in your conclusion:

If GK is a zombie, indistinguishable physically and in its behaviour from a ‘normal’ human being but for whom ‘all is darkness inside’, then GK is not an ‘author’ and what GK has produced are not ‘words’.

The question is whether the idea of such a being is intelligible. According to the mind-brain identity theory it is not intelligible. A brain of a certain sort has got to possess, or give rise to a mind of a certain sort, because all the mind is is a brain functioning in certain ways. On the other hand if you are tempted by mind-body dualism, at least of the non-Cartesian variety, then there does seem to be conceptual room for a doubt to arise. If the mind is merely a product of physical processes, which is not identical with those very processes, then it does seem conceivable that there could be an individual in which the physical processes occurred, which did not give rise to corresponding mental processes.

Physics would have nothing to say about these ‘psycho-physical’ connections. The connection could break down at any time, and there would be no visible effect on the physical world. Hence, it might be the case (for all you know) that the connection has broken down in the case of GK, and that as a result a piece that *would* have been composed with the intention of conveying a meaning is nothing more than a collection of patterns which a reader mistakenly interprets has having been so intended.

I have one extra thing to say regarding your fourth conditional, ‘If GK is purely consciousness then I would dearly like to know how he got the Pathways unit to me’. As you will discover in the Philosophy of Mind program, it makes a big difference whether one is a Cartesian dualist who believes in mind-body interaction, or a ‘epiphenomenal’ dualist who holds that the causation is one way only, from the physical to the mental. If GK is a Cartesian consciousness, then one has to posit a mysterious capacity of the soul to ‘move’ the ‘animal spirits’ (in the pineal gland, according to Descartes) and vice versa. If GK is an epiphenomenal consciousness, then it was GK’s physical body, not GK, that physically brought about a chain of causes and effects which resulted in the pages that you hold in your hand. Which might raise a worry...

Good work!

All the best,

Geoffrey