Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man, Part 2

This is the reading for Saturday, June 15th’s meeting.  As usual, we will meet at 4:00 in the Dunkin Donuts meeting room outside exit 6 of Gangnam Station.

Sellars argues that there are two competing images humans have of themselves and the world.  The manifest image tell us that the world really is the way it appears; the world is explainable as a series of empirically perceivable, manifest objects. Humans are explainable through perceivable psychological objects such as thoughts, desires and beliefs.  The scientific image, on the other hand, insists that the world is not the way it appears.  Rather than the world being a series of basically perceivable objects like tables, the real truth of the world is that these perceivable, manifest objects are underlaid by unperceived objects that we theoretically postulate: atoms, or super strings, or something else.  As for the human, rather than being fundamentally explainable via perceptible thoughts and intentions, it is actually a neurophysiological system.  Sellars believes that these two competing images can actually be brought together in a synoptic image.

The Whole and the Parts: The Pink Ice Cube

There have been several past attempts to reconcile the manifest world with the imperceptible world.  The ancient Greek concept of the atom was, for a long time, considered to be the basic imperceptible building block of the world. Three possible relations between perceptible objects (this table) and their imperceptible atomic parts have been proposed.  First, the table and its atoms are the same thing, like a forest is identical with its trees.  Second, manifest objects really exist, and atoms are abstract or symbolic tools used by humans.  Third, it is the atoms that really exist, and the manifest objects are merely human appearances.

Sellars is most concerned with the first and third options.  That objects and their parts are identical is not an obviously paradoxical idea – we just need to show that systems can have properties that their parts do not.  A good example is a ladder; all the parts need to be arranged in a certain way in order to form a ladder.  However, a pink ice cube cannot be like that; atoms are not pink.  The pink ice cube presents itself to us as homogeneous,  a completed, irreducible whole.

Is the pink ice cube really pink?  If what an object really is is a collection of smaller objects, then every quality the object has must be because its parts have certain qualities and have certain relations with one another.  The pinkness of the ice cube arises because of the qualities of the parts of the ice and the relations between these parts.  What this means is that the ice cube is not really pink; it only appears as such.  If an object is a system of imperceptibles, then it cannot actually have perceptible qualities.  The third option is correct: manifest objects are only appearances.

This flies in the face of common sense; of course the pink ice cube is pink!  But the third option is a challenge not to particular facts, but to the framework in which those facts are interpreted.  While “the manifest framework of everyday is adequate for the everyday purposes of life, it is ultimately inadequate and should not be accepted as an account of what there is all things considered.” (SPR, 27)

The practical objection is we use manifest objects to get around, so that is the way things really are.  It is a strong argument, but it is entirely possible that,

“[T]he success of living, thinking and acting in terms of the manifest framework can be accounted for by the framework which proposes to replace it, by showing that there are sufficient structural similarities between manifest objects and their scientific counterparts to account for this success.” (SPR, 28)

What is Really Real About Thinking?

Modern philosophers such as Descartes held to a dualistic theory.  In Sellars’ terms, they believed that thought was like color: it could not be explainable in terms of physical theory.  Rather than dismissing thought as not being really real, they decided that mind and body were two separate entities, both equally real.

Since then, we have made enough headway in brain science to know that sensations, feelings and thinking in sentences (i.e., conceptual thought) are at least parallel with the brain.  However, it is difficult to account for the introspective quality of thoughts.  You apparently cannot crack someone’s brain open and read their thoughts; there is apparently something irreducibly first person about thinking.

The consequence of saying that thinking and brain processes are parallel is that it becomes easy to say that the SI is a symbolic tool; it is an artifact of human thinking, rather than an account of what really is.  The postulated theoretical entities of the SI are not really real; Greek atoms, super strings, and neurological processes would all be abstractions which rest upon the ultimate primacy of the manifest world.  The table and its brownness would be really real, and a homogenous thinking, feeling thing called “mind” would be equally real.

Sellars refuses this conclusion, and re-examines the case against option 3, the claim that it is the scientific objects which are really real.  The mistake in the case against (3) “arises from the mistake of supposing that in self-awareness conceptual thought presents itself to us in a qualitative guise.” Sensations and images are qualitative, but conceptual thinking cannot be equated with them.  Thoughts are presented as inner speech.  “It is no accident that one learns to think in the very process of learning to speak.” (SPR 32)

The danger is in the term “introspection.”  There is an analogy between our direct knowledge of our thoughts and our perceptual knowledge of the world, but the analogy is limited to both of them being non-inferential.  So in perception, we know a being as having a certain quality.  But in our knowledge of ourselves, “what we know non-inferentially is that something analogous to and properly expressed by the sentence ‘it is cold outside’ is going on in me.” If “the concept of a thought is the concept of an inner state analogous to speech, this leaves open the possibility that the inner state conceived in terms of this analogy is in its qualitative character a neurophysiological process.” (SPR 33)  As Spinoza famously said, no one knows what the body can do.

Consider chess.  While we think of chess pieces as being carved in a particular way, our concept of the game arises entirely from a set of relations; it does not actually matter what the king looks like (it could be the traditional piece with a crown, or it could be Darth Vader).  What matters are the moves of castling and check-mating.  The pattern of relations is what matters.  Hence, Sellars says,

 “Thus our concept of ‘what thoughts are like’ might, like our concept of what a castling is in chess, be abstract in the sense that it does not concern itself with the intrinsic character of thoughts, save as items which can occur in patterns of relationships which are analogous to the way in which sentences are related to one another and to the contexts in which they are used.” (SPR, 34)

If we conceive of thoughts as a network of relations, then there is no barrier in principle for equating conceptual thought and neurophysiology as we once equated chemical compounds and physics.  Conceptual thought can be preserved in the SI without qualitative remainder.

Sensation and Feeling

It is one thing to think “I am angry,” but it is quite another to feel angry, and it is one thing to think “I see a brown table,” but quite another to have the sensation of seeing a brown table.  We may be able to equate conceptual thought with the brain, but sensations and feelings are more difficult – it seems they are like the color of the ice cube: one homogeneous whole that cannot be broken down.  There are no angry neurons.

The problem is “how to reconcile the ultimate homogeneity of the manifest image with the ultimate non-homogeneity of the system of scientific objects.” (SPR, 36)  There is a choice to be made here: a complete identity of sensation and feeling with the brain, or a kind of dualism in which sensation only correlates with the brain.  Since dualism would once again make the MI the primary, adequate image of the human, he wants to defend the first option.

Sellars really only offers a promissory note for a solution.  If particles are specific things in space and time which can be conceptually cut up into other interacting particles, “then we would be confronted at the level of neurophysiology with the problem of finding the relation of sensory consciousness (with its ultimate homogeneity) to systems of particles.”

We could say that although for many purposes the central nervous system is a complex system of particles, when it comes to the relation of sensory consciousness to neurophysiological processes, we must penetrate to the non-particulate foundations and “recognize that in this non-particulate image the qualities of sense are a dimension of natural processes which occurs only in connection with those complex physical processes which, when ‘cut up’ into particles in terms of those features which are the least common demoninators of physical processes – present in inorganic as well as organic processes – become the complex system of particles which, in the current scientific image, is the central nervous system.”  The homogeneity of sense is the result of an interaction between parts of the brain and the object.

Putting Man into the Scientific Image

So even if we can fit conceptual thought and sensations into the scientific image, we still need to discuss the category of persons, who are confronted by standards (logical, ethical, etc) which they may or may not conform to.  At first glance, there is only one way: the categories of the person must be reconstructed in terms of the SI, like biochemistry might be reconstructed in terms of physics.  In response to this, one might say free agents can’t be physical systems.  But to say a person could have done otherwise is like saying a system failed to be a different state, or that its state was predictable, but this is not a description of a person.

Are we stuck with our three old choices, then?  Dualism, in which both scientific objects and minds exist.  Or we could say there are no persons.  Or, we could say science is a symbolic tool generated by human perception.  Sellars insists there is a distinct fourth option, because to “say a person wanted to do A, thought B was his duty, but was forced to do C is not to describe him as a scientific object.”  It adds something more – that something more is the irreducible framework of persons.

To think of a being as a person is to think of it as being bound up in a network of rights and duties.  More basic than the is/ought distinction; to think of a being as a person “is to construe its behavior in terms of actual or potential membership in an embracing group each member of which thinks of itself as a member of the group” or a community.  The group was once the trip, now (almost) the brotherhood of man, and potentially the Kantian Kingdom of Ends.

An individual may belong to many communities.  “The scope of the most embracing community is the scope of ‘we’ in its most embracing non-metaphorical use.  ‘We’, in this fundamental sense (in which it is equivalent to the French ‘on’ or the English ‘one’) is no less basic than the other ‘persons’ in which verbs are conjugated.”  A little further on, he says “the fundamental principles of a community, which define what is ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘done’ or ‘not done,’ are the most common intentions of that community with respect to the behavior of members of the group.” (SPR, 39)

To think of a being as a person “requires that one think thoughts of the form ‘We (one) shall do (or abstain from doing) actions of kind A in circumstances C’.  To think thoughts of this kind is not to classify or explain, but to rehearse an intention.”  A person is a being with intentions.  Thus the MI is not reconciled with, but joined to, the MI.

Why This Essay Is Worth Reading

In the previous portion of the essay, Sellars claimed that the kind of being we are is dependent upon our image of ourselves.  The way we describe ourselves highlights certain possibilities for behavior and obscures others, as well as allowing certain explanations and prohibiting others.  The west has mostly taken its image of itself from theology, philosophy, art, and a certain notion of nature.  We have seen ourselves as thinking, feeling beings, and either as bearers of the image of God or as defined by our relation to either Hobbes natural state of war, or Roussau’s natural state of freedom.  But what would happen if we stopped drawing our image of ourselves from any of these sources, and began seeing ourselves as objects of science?

Sellars does not allow us to dismiss this question as a stupid and naïve scientific reductionism; it is a properly conceptual challenge to Heidegger’s hermeneutics, Hegel’s dialectics and Lacan’s borromean knot.  Rather than the world appearing in the clearing of human being, the world as it is all things considered would not properly appear at all.  Rather than self-relating negativity (a Hegelian term, and the basis of Zizek’s reading of the death drive), the human would be an organic lump indistinguishable from the material world (though I do suspect a genuine naturalization of psychoanalysis could be carried out).  No one knows what the body can do.

Conflicts with continental theory aside, it is a clear explanation of why language and community are so important.  Thought is carried out in language, which means language must have a causal or shaping role on thought.  When we learn how to speak, we also learn how to think.  The endless dissections of language that philosophers carry out are actually (partial) analyses of rationality itself.  I say partial because the more we see ourselves as objects of the scientific image, the more the biological underpinnings of language become vital to understand rationality.

Finally, every account of the biological underpinnings of rationality that I am aware of always end in stupid evolutionary sociobiology, which is the discovering of the origin and nature of rationality in the ancient past. It turns out guys love sex with hot young women and women just want to get married to rich guys!  Glory be, we have discovered the Platonic Good Beyond Being, and it is

But why would human “history” begin with the Greeks?  Our bodies are ancient, and our bodies are the seat of thought.  The term “materiality” usually refers to the social and economic conditions supplemented by a given ideology, but our bodies are far more ancient than any political economy.  Perhaps the only way to develop an image of the human which is not bound to short-lived epistemes or symbolic orders is to accept our status as subjects of science.


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