Symposium on Paul Churchland’s “Matter and Consciousness” (3rd ed., 2013)

UntitledI’m very glad to be able to kick off this symposium on Paul M. Churchland’s Matter and Consciousnessrecently reissued in a new (third) edition by the MIT Press.

Below the fold is a brief introduction to the symposium, followed by essays from our three contributors, Amy Kind (Claremont McKenna), William Ramsey (UNLV), and Pete Mandik (William Paterson).

Paul Churchland, as most of you know, is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, and the author of a number of books, including Scientific Realism and the Plasticity of Mind (Cambridge, 1979) and Neurophilosophy at Work (Cambridge, 2007). But Matter and Consciousness, which was first published by MIT in 1984 and then reissued in 1988, is certainly his best-known work, as it continues to set the gold standard for introductory texts in the philosophy of mind despite the decades that have passed since its first publication.

The three contributions to this symposium discuss several different aspects of Churchland’s book. Amy Kind, Professor of Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, begins by noting the time that has passed since Churchland’s book first appeared, and discusses some of the things that were (and weren’t) changed in revising his chapter on materialism and dualism. Pete Mandik, Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University, discusses Churchland’s argument for the possibility of introspecting one’s brain states “as such”, suggesting a few possibilities for what this idea might come to. And Bill Ramsey, Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNLV, discusses his own use of Matter and Consciousness in his college classes, then focuses in on some questions concerning Churchland’s account of the “semantic problem”, which is (in Churchland’s hands) the problem of explaining how our mental vocabulary gets its public meaning.

What unites all of them, of course, is a shared conviction of the abiding importance of Churchland’s work, and its value to the philosophical community.

And with that, here are the essays:

The comments on this post will remain open until mid-September for discussion of issues raised in these essays, as well as other aspects of Churchland’s work that readers would like to bring up.


  1. I confess I haven’t yet read the whole of the 3rd edition. But here’s a question for Amy, if she doesn’t mind my asking in ignorance. (I ask Amy, since she is addressing the metaphysical part of the book, but I’d be interested to hear from others too.) Do you think Churchland’s theory implies that cities are conscious entities? When he talks about life, he explicitly says that cities should count as living entities (p. 271); and when he then describes the types of things necessary for intelligence, consciousness, and introspective consciousness, it seems like cities would also meet those criteria if they were straightforwardly applied (such as exploiting information about its environment and its internal conditions to increase its order).

    What do you think?

  2. Hi Eric,

    My guess is that Paul Churchland is a bit torn between, on the one hand, a deep antipathy towards non-brain-centric multiple-realizability considerations and, on the other hand, a tendency towards information-processing functional characterizations that strike me as being pretty multi-realizable. In his 2002 paper, “Catching consciousness in a recurrent net,” he characterizes a conscious state as any cognitive representation that is involved in (1) a moveable attention that can focus on different aspects of perceptual inputs, (2) the application of various conceptual interpretations of those inputs, (3) holding the results of attended and conceptual interpreted inputs in a short-term memory that, (4) allows for the representation of temporal sequences.

    Speaking for myself, I don’t see that a city *couldn’t* be organized in such a way to satisfy all four conditions, but I wouldn’t think that everything that counts as a city is automatically going to be able to pull that off. And as for what Paul would say, I’m guessing that his antipathy towards multirealizability will largely dominate in his response.

    • Thanks, Pete! I’ll check out the 2002 paper. Terms like “attention”, “conceptual representation”, and “short term memory” seem at least *roughly* clear when applied to the human case. What a city would have to have or not have to satisfy those conditions might be tricky to assess! I could see “cheap” versions of all of those that pretty much any city would satisfy, or more specific versions that only very specifically structured organisms could satisfy. One of the nice things about the end of Matter & Consciousness is how Paul pulls away from commitments to specific structures toward, instead, a seemingly very broad and liberal view….

      • Amy Kind

        Hi Eric, Interesting question. I don’t think I have much to add to what Pete says. I haven’t read the 2002 paper, but I would have guessed Churchland’s views on multiple realizability would play a big role in answering the question.

  3. Hi everyone, really great to see this symposium!

    I have the revised 1988 version and I haven’t seen the third edition but I don’t use this book in my courses mostly for exactly the kind of reasons that Amy points out (although I would recommend it as ‘further reading’). I like to think of myself as a physicalist, and even hope that some of my work might advance the physicalist agenda, but even so I think it is important to be fair to the opposing side and I certainly don’t think that Churchland is fair to the non-physicalist, especially contemporary versions of, and arguments for, the view. So I agree with Amy when she points out that there has been some work on developing a non-physicalist theory of consciousness but I would also point out that Churchland seems to think that only the physicalist can appeal to the explanatory success of neuroscience. But on any non-physicalist view where there are fundamental laws of nature connecting physical brain functioning (or computational processes that are equivalent to brain functioning) to non-physical phenomenal properties we would expect to see the kinds of neuroscientific explanations that Churchland appeals to. The only question here is: are these two properties (the brain/computational one and the phenomenal one) the same property? The reductive physicalist says ‘yes’ everyone else ‘no’ but all sides can allow that we can make some predictions about conscious experience based on brain activity.

      • I have always looked at this book as an expression of his personal vision of the field (this includes who he cites), not as a a comprehensive overview.

        The book has always been strongly partial to materialism. Changing that would alter the fundamental orientation of the book. Hence, I would be much more interested in whether he cites the “new wave” materialist arguments about identity theory and mechanistic explanations (e.g., Bickle, Bechtel, Polger, etc). That would be more revealing about how much he updated the book within its overarching materialistic framework.

        That said, his brief argument against property dualism from the original book still holds up well, and likely he doesn’t feel the need to go after every particular species of this doctrine (especially given the basic materialistic orientation of the book).

        • Hi Eric,

          I don’t think the point was that it wasn’t a comprehensive overview but was that it wasn’t a representative (or contemporary even for that time) one. One can be a physicalist, and have a bias towards that view, while still accurately representing one’s contemporary opponent’s views. I mean, suppose that some notorious contemporary dualist wrote an introduction to phil mind and insisted on treating physicalism as though it were the view put forward by Hobbes in the 17th Century (and offering the same kinds of arguments for it). One might reasonably complain that we have updated the view a bit since then.

          And what brief argument do you have in mind? Is it the evolutionary one? I don’t find that to be very convincing. If one is a non-physicalist then one will think that if certain physical structures, which are useful for the behavior they generate, are selected and there are fundamental laws that connect those physical structures to non-physical properties then you will get these non-physical properties via evolution; no problem. Of course there would need to be an explanation for why there were these fundamental laws (something that Nagel tried his hand at, with mixed success) but even there I don’t see why an insurmountable problem. Perhaps in the Multiverse we happen to be in the one place where the law was randomly instantiated…who knows? Either way that is a separate issue.

          • Richard: I was referring to his claim that the best evidence we have is that C is associated with complex structures, not distributed as promiscuously as properties like charge/mass. This is the obvious concern that will not go away, and is in his discussion of ‘elementary property dualism.’ My hunch is he still thinks this is right, and sees no reason to jump into the rabbit hole of discussing whether electrons have proto-experiences.

            Also, I agree that it is not representative of the field. As I said, I see the book as his personal vision, one in which materialism is the main view that is taken seriously, and admittedly other views (dualism, quantum theories) got short-changed a bit (at least from the perspective of their advocates).

            My hunch is he would stand by this orientation, and just doesn’t take dualism seriously enough to go into the details of so-and-so’s version of panpsychism that was published last year. Rather, given the very short space, and goal of the book, he spent time/space going over more substantive issues within a materialistic framework.

            I wonder if he goes into more detail of state space semantics and such, which is where he has done (by far) the most work since 1988. I, like Richard, am working with that version, as the new one isn’t on amazon yet.

  4. Hi all! I’m very happy to see this discussion on the web. I’ve been using the second (1988) edition of Matter and Consciousness for years in my PhilMind courses, and I’m excited to get the new edition and use it for years to come.

    My comment concerns the following claim from Bill Ramsey’s contribution:

    “Churchland’s proposal that we think of conceptual representation as activation vectors of a network seems much more in keeping with these latter accounts of representational content [viz., covariation and isomoprhism accounts] than the inferential role/network picture he endorses in chapter 3.

    I don’t see that this is so. In a number of papers, Churchland has explicitly drawn a connection between neural networks and conceptual-role semantics, arguing that the latter is most naturally implemented by the former. Moreover, his arch-nemeses on this issue, Fodor and Lepore, seem to agree. I have in mind passages like the following:

    “Fodor and Lepore (1992) recognize the state-space kinematics of neural networks for what it most assuredly is: a natural home for holistic accounts of
    meaning and of cognitive significance generally.”

    In more detail:

    “One of the great virtues of neural networks is that they can overcome the inevitable chaos, complexity, noise, and perspectival variety at the sensory periphery in such a way as to activate comparatively well-behaved and dynamically salient categories at higher levels of processing. If we wish to understand the significance–the meaning, the content–of those prototypical categories, the most revealing place to look is at their computational role within the overall cognitive economy and motor behavior of the creature at issue. This is why neural network researchers so often find it useful, in sleuthing out the cognitive strategy of some successful network, to examine the set of partitions that training has produced across the activation space of each of its distinct hidden layers, to examine their relations with adjacent partitions, to explore their causal interactions with the partitions across earlier and later layers, to examine the “receptive fields” of individual neurons, and their “projective fields” as well. … This returns us to a robust and recognizable form of meaning holism: it is conceptual role that counts. What is novel in the state-space or vector-coding approach is the fresh account it provides of what our cognitive economy actually consists in.”

    Both passages are from “State-Space Semantics and Meaning Holism” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 53, No. 3 (Sep., 1993), pp. 667-672.

    As a die-hard fan of network/role theories myself, I was (and continue to be) emboldened by Churchland’s suggestions in this paper and its many follow-ups. Of course, there are those pesky challenges that Fodor and Lepore raise, but I am confident that they can be overcome–again, in ways that Churchland has developed over the past two decades.

  5. Hi Eric, I am responding down here because I don’t like the smaller and smaller nested replies.

    You say,

    I was referring to his claim that the best evidence we have is that C is associated with complex structures, not distributed as promiscuously as properties like charge/mass. This is the obvious concern that will not go away, and is in his discussion of ‘elementary property dualism.’ My hunch is he still thinks this is right, and sees no reason to jump into the rabbit hole of discussing whether electrons have proto-experiences.

    I wasn’t suggesting that anyone go down any rabbit hole and I certainly wasn’t suggesting an exhaustive survey of cutting edge literature. Rather, I was suggesting that one fairly and accurately represent one’s opponent’s views, yes even when they are updated in light of current research, have evolved or been clarified by subsequent debate, etc. Nothing you have said addresses this point. He is clearly a very good writer and could have easily done this without the detailed kind of thing you are imagining and certainly without loosing the emphasis on physicalism.

    As for the argument against panpsychsim, that is a perfect example of the complaint I am voicing. Of course a panpsychist will agree that we have lots of evidence that consciousness is associated with (correlated with) the behavior of the brain. The question is whether these properties which are so associated/correlated are fundamental or not. They appeal to arguments which suggest to them that this is the case. By comparison the brain has a bunch of properties which turn out to be fundamental: being made of quarks and electrons, etc. Just as we need to explain how the physical object gets constructed out these fundamental physical elements so too the panpsychist needs an explanation for how our unified macro consciousness gets constructed from the fundamental consciousness elements (this is the combination problem and is something that could be used to cast doubt on panpsychism even while one was taking the view seriously and displaying a bias towards physicalism)

    • Richard: yes, there are more details he could have gone into, but he did not. That is different from mischaracterizing the position.

      Charges of consistent and gross inaccuracy or outright misrepresentation of others I would take much more seriously. But what I am seeing are criticisms of emphasis and level of detail. This is exactly what I would expect from a book representing someone’s personal vision of a field, an admittedly tendentious perspective.

  6. Eric: It is not simply that there are details that he leaves out. It is rather that he does mischaracterizes the positions and what would count as evidence for or against them. He consistently asserts that only the materialist can explain the success of neuroscientific explanations and that is just false. To anyone who keeps up with the work in this area, even just at a relatively casual level, this would be obvious. Again, the point is not one about emphasis or detail. It is about addressing the actual views that your actual current opponents endorse. Detail and emphasis are entirely besides the point.

    • Sorry but just to clarify the panpsychist will posit fundamental laws that connect non-physical properties to brain/computational processes so of course they will agree that the best evidence we have so far is that the kind of consciousness we have is associated with brain functioning. That cannot count as an argument against their view. That is why understanding and fairly representing the view you are attacking is crucial.

      • Amy Kind

        I agree with a lot of the points Richard has made in this thread (including the previous part of this thread above), but I thought I would still chime in here briefly.

        Textbooks naturally reflect the vision of the author, some more than others, and I think it’s perfectly OK for them to do so. So if a philosopher just wants to write an intro to phil mind textbook that presents the case for materialism, or a particular version of materialism, then I don’t have a problem with that. But if the philosopher explicitly discusses the case for dualism, ignores some of the stronger elements of the case, and then concludes that there is not much of a case for dualism, that seems to me problematic.

        I’d also like to add that, though I think it is reasonable to note that citations reflect an author’s view of what work is worth citing, there has been lots of discussion lately throughout the blogosphere (that I won’t repeat here, but see about the under-citation of women, and one suggestion that has repeatedly surfaced is that implicit bias in many cases may affect one’s view of what’s worth citing. I personally would hope that authors take the possibility of such implicit bias into account and work to counter it, especially when updating work after 25+ years. And I do think there is a special burden in this regard on authors of texts that are marketed as general-purpose introductory texts.

      • Richard: Panpsychists typically want to connect experiential properties to much more than just brains. That is the concern.

        Obviously you can argue about whether that is sufficiently damning as a concern, but just because they have given more details in the past 20 years doesn’t mean they are worth addressing in kind, if indeed the enterprise is damned from the start. Quantum theories of consciousness have gotten much more complex, but it isn’t worth going down that rabbit hole in a book with a different emphasis.

        Again, I see a difference of emphasis that understandably bothers people who take alternate views more seriously. It does give dualism a quick and dirty shove out of the way, as he quickly moves on to the materialistic theories.

        Note also Richard that I am quite familiar with the views you keep repeating summaries of (especially Chalmers’ work exploring panpsychism). This isn’t a matter of not knowing about such work (and I know Paul knows about it), but of understanding why he might not feel it is worth going into such details. It is the spirit of giving a charitable (overly charitable?) take on the spirit in which one should read his book.

        But even given my attempt at charitable reading here, I have been very clear that you should not read the book as a dispassionate view of the field, but as a tendentiously materialist approach. Given that, I am a bit nonplussed and amused at the fact that people are giving so much concern to the fact that dualism gets short shrift in the book!

        • I think Amy puts the point much better than I could have and I don’t have much to add to what I have already said but I am still confused as to what you think the problem for the panpsychist is. So, Eric, you say,

          Panpsychists typically want to connect experiential properties to much more than just brains. That is the concern

          How is this a concern? Is the concern just that if you are a physicalist you should not take this kind of view seriously?

          • Richard, the notion that one’s light switch is conscious shouldn’t seem outlandish only to physicalists.

            That is the kind of root intuition he employs, and at some point he decided not to go into more detail down that road, despite the conceptual gap-based arguments that tend to drive people there.

            There is a fine line between an incredulous and an evasion of responsibility. But in a short book like this, sometimes you have to cut corners, and I actually like the decisions he made about what corners to cut.

  7. Eric, the notion that one’s brain is conscious shouldn’t seem outlandish only to dualists.

    And, as I have said, I am all for cutting corners but not when you cut them in such a way as to distort the positions you are engaging with. I think it is fairly obvious that you could keep the text short and punchy and be just as dismissive of the view but yet fairly represent what the view is, what it is actually committed to, and what the problems with the view really are. But I guess that’s just my personal vision of the field.

      • I actually think Amy’s line is a good candidate:
        “Compared to the rich resources and the explanatory successes of current materialism, dualism is not so much a theory of mind as it is an empty space waiting for a genuine theory of mind to be put in it.”

        I can understand how this might rub certain people the wrong way, but I would actually defend his claim. Note he is making a relative claim about the weight of positive stories the materialists have constructed (e.g., see Scholarpedia on theories of consciousness), versus the paucity of such stories from panpsychists or property dualists, whose projects are almost always negative.

        I interact with a lot of dualists, and what strikes me so consistently is their complete lack of positive story, their obsession with showing materialism is wrong. Yes, there are some exceptions to this, but as a rule, I don’t think he needs to back down from this sentiment. Perhaps to be more thorough he could have added something like “(though see X and Y for attempts to give positive stories)”.

        • I’m not a substance dualist, but this doesn’t seem like much of an objection. Ask a dualist for a positive story about the mind, and she’ll begin talking about the character of consciousness, the nature of rationality, what it is to believe or desire something, how we choose and guide our actions, and so forth. Of course these accounts will look different than the accounts we have of the material world, but that’s because dualists think minds are very different kinds of things than material bodies. Additionally, part of the reason why materialist accounts are so detailed and complex is that they’re *reductive*, whereas dualist accounts obviously are not: they are willing to take more things as explanatory primitives.

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