On Some Current Controversies in Philosophy of Mind

Kriegel, ed. (2014), Current Controversies in Philosophy of Mind, Routledge.

I just used this volume in my Phil Mind class, hoping to find useful introductions to some current debates. The volume has five parts. Each part contains two essays. Ideally, the two essays would present opposite points of view so as to represent a current controversy.

Part 1: Mind and Body: The Prospects for Russellian Monism

Stoljar’s essay defines four kinds of Russellian Monism, three of which are pretty much absent from current debates because, as Stoljar points out, they have severe flaws. For my purposes, the essay presupposes way too much background not only in philosophy of mind but also in metaphysics.

Pereboom’s essay defends a specific version of Russellian Monism. The essay is clear and its level is appropriate for an advanced Phil Mind course.

Both essays in this section are fairly sympathetic to Russellian Monism, with minimal interaction between the two essays, so there’s not much of a controversy here. Russellian Monism is a trendy topic, so it’s good to have it covered somehow. It would have been better if one of the essays had attacked Russellian Monism. Physicalism and property dualism, which are the mainstream approaches to the mind-body problem and do constitute a major current controversy, are not addressed in depth.

Part 2: Mind in Body: The Scope and Nature of Embodied Cognition

Shapiro’s essay introduces embodied cognition and discusses a recent proposal by Goldman to the effect that much cognition is embodied, where embodied cognition is cognition that uses bodily representational formats (i.e., representations whose main original function is to carry proprioceptive information). Shapiro correctly points out that Goldman’s proposal fails to capture the more radical notions of embodied cognition—to the effect that cognition takes place (at least in part) outside the nervous system and that cognition does not involve representations.

Goldman’s essay responds by defending his thesis and pointing out that it was not his intention to capture the more radical proposals pertaining to embodied cognition.

This is a nice exchange that, by focusing on Goldman’s sensible proposal, sidesteps what is currently most controversial about embodied cognition (not to mention embedded, enactive, and extended cognition).

Part 3: Consciousness: Representationalism and the Phenomenology of Moods

Kind’s essay argues that intentionalism (the view that phenomenal character reduces to intentional content) does not do justice to the phenomenal character of moods. Therefore, intentionalism fails.

Mendelovici replies by giving an intentionalist account of the phenomenal character of moods in terms of affective properties that are not bound to any object. For example, the representational content of being in a fearful mood is the property of scariness unattached to any object. Therefore, Mendelovici concludes that intentionalism survives Kind’s objection. Mendelovici’s account sounds a lot more plausible for fearful moods than it does for generic anxiety or elation. Oddly, Mendelovici barely mentions Kind’s purported counterexamples and does not discuss them in depth.

This is a useful exchange on a current controversy. I wish the authors had discussed the important methodological question of how representational content ought to be attributed to arbitrary mental states for the purpose of evaluating intentionalism. Without some independently motivated way of establishing how to attribute intentional content, it’s all too easy to come up with ad hoc contents that mirror the phenomenal character of a mental state.

Part 4: Mental Representation: The Project of Naturalization

Kriegel’s essay argues that tracking theories of representation (a la Dretske, Millikan, Fodor, etc.) do not entirely account for the content of what he calls “internal representations,” where internal representations are representations whose content is shared (according to Kriegel) between ordinary people and brains in a vat.

Rupert replies that Kriegel’s notion of internal representation can be accounted for in terms of tracking theories plus features of the cognitive architecture.

This useful exchange is representative of the recent trend towards discussing the relationship between consciousness and intentionality.

Part 5: The Nature of Mind: The Importance of Consciousness

Siewert’s essay argues that phenomenal consciousness is necessary for obtaining language understanding, knowledge, and ethical value, based on how matters seem to us from a first person point of view. His argument seems to ignore the distinction between phenomenal consciousness and access consciousness. As far as I could tell, all that his arguments show is that we need access consciousness in order to have language understanding and knowledge (ethical value is another matter and may well be somewhat bound up with phenomenal consciousness).

Lee’s reply is hard to follow. He assumes that (A) if reductive materialism is true, then there can be non-conscious creatures (“zombies”) that are physically different from but functionally equivalent to human beings. He then argues that (B) if there can be such zombies, then phenomenal consciousness is of little epistemic significance (because knowledge can be attained without phenomenal consciousness). His conclusion is that if reductive materialism is true, then phenomenal consciousness is of little epistemic significance. The really interesting and controversial premise is (A), but Lee does not defend it or make it plausible.

This exchange opposes two equally uncompelling essays and is mostly disconnected from the recent literature.

Conclusion: a somewhat useful collection on an interesting selection of current topics in philosophy of mind. Many important current controversies in Phil Mind are not covered at all. I’m glad I read it and I learned from it, but I won’t use it again in class.