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University Of Hawaii

Philosophy and Commitment: Left, Right and Center
a presentation by Sir Peter F. Strawson
at the University of Hawaii 10/18/01 & 10/20/01


The topic of consciousness is just now quite centre-stage in philosophical discussion in English-speaking countries; and discussion there is often concentrated on what is really quite an old question:

the question of the relation between the purely subjective or experiential contents of consciousness on the one hand and its neural, or at any rate physical, underpinnings on the other. I call the question quite an old one because it was addressed by the philosopher who was certainly responsible for originating modern philosophical concern with these subjective or experiential contents. I mean, of course, Descartes. His answer to the question is well-known but no longer generally accepted. The relation, in his view, was one of two-way causality, or mind-body interaction, through the pineal gland. Through that glandular medium bodily responses to external stimuli were held to cause states of consciousness -feelings, sensations, thoughts, volitions- and these in turn, through the same medium, were held responsible for bodily movements, amounting, in some cases, to action.

Al though this account, with it’s reference to a particular bodily organ, has no plausibility at all, elements of it retain some appeal at least in some philosophical minds. Thus the notion of causal dependence, at least in one direction, has both some initial plausibility and some skilful and sophisticated philosophical defenders. The direction in question, of course, is that of the causal dependence of events or states of consciousness on bodily states or events – of mind on body. The initial plausibilitym is at its clearest in the sensations of pain or heat seem to be the obvious outcomes of physical bodily reactions to external stimuli; so also visual and auditory experiences; and it is now known, at a more sophisticated level, that appropriate stimulation of the nervous system can induce a whole range of states of consciousness. As for philosophical defenders, it is perhaps sufficient to adduce a recently published book, The Conscious Mind, by a very able young philosopoher, David Chalmers. Call such a view quasi-Cartesian in that it accepts without question the genuine reality of inner or subjective experiences, their existence as separate and undeniable items in the world, of which we can be as certain as, perhaps more certain than we can of anything else. When, earlier, I spoke of the ‘neural underpinnings’ of experiential states, that phrase might itself have seemed to carry the hint of an inclination, though not a whole-hearted commitment, to such a view.

Certainly not a total commitment. There are other views exposed for sale in the philosophical market-place which might, though with a certain wryness, accommodate the phrase, but give it quite different interpretations. The interpretations I have in mind, though differing among themselves, have this in common: they effectively deny the separate existence of conscious experiences as distinct real items. The most extreme form of this tendency goes further still: it involves not only denying the separate existence of such items, it denies them real existence altogether. The doctrine is that the complete story of the world, of everything that happens in it and of the explanation of it all, could be told in the language or languages of the physical sciences, including of course, the terms of neuro-science. This is known as ‘eliminativism’; and many, including myself, would judge it to be mad. A more temperate-seeming interpretation is known as ‘functionalism’. It might also be called, somewhat ironically, a form of interactionism. What it offers is an account of the real or essential nature of what we call conscious experiences. It is universally agreed that external impingements on the human organism cause internal happenings which may in turn cause bodily movements, some of which may amount to, or be involved in, what we call ‘actions’. The doctrine is that what we call conscious experiences, or states or events of consciousness are essentially just those internal states or happenings which are both ultimately caused by external impingements and cause and explain human action. Thus a state of what we call ‘anger’ or ‘fear’ or its onset can be understood as just that internal state or happening which causally mediates between the initial bodily reaction to some external stimilus on the one hand and some movement or action on the other. So far, it seems, so unthreatening; unthreatening, that is, to the genuine existence of conscious states or events as we normally understand them; for, apart from their causal role, the intrinsic nature of these intermediaries is left unspecified. But if we reflect that human action in the world essentially involves bodily movement and that events in the nervous system and musculature which are themselves the causal outcome of external stimuli are also plausibly held to be causally necessary and sufficient for the production of bodily movement – then it seems that we may have to think again. We begin by cheerfully casting (some) states or events of consciousness in a reassuringly interactionist role – the mental contents bridging the gap between bodily input and bodily output; but now it begins to seem that the causal intermediaries, the gap-fillers, are themselves physical. So the ‘functionalist, if he is to be true to his original proposal, seems to be forced to identify the events and states of consciousness, which we so freely evoke to explain human behavioural reactions, with just those physical events and states which seem adequate to carry the causal burden. We are allowed, indeed, to retain the old terminology; but it will serve as little more than a decent covering for our ignorance; and the outright eliminativist will be able to claim the moderate-seeming functionalist is really just a timid member of his own party, lacking the courage to be open about it.

I do not say that all who call themselves functionalists must find themselves finally committed to this conclusion. I say only that if this is what functionalism finally amounts to, then it too is profoundly unsatisfactory, indeed hopelessly and obviously wrong. For in that case it ignores or denies what is really a salient feature of our experience: the experienced or felt quality of events or states of consciousness, what Professor Tom Nagel famously referred to as ‘what it’s like’ to have various sensations, feelings, thoughts, inclinations, desires etc.

I shall mention, and then ignore altogether, another philosophical position which suffers from the same fatal flaw: namely reductive or logical behaviourism. I ignore it because Рand such is the fate of many philosophical excesses Рit is now quite pass̩. Interest has shifted to the scientifically, one might almost say physiologically, oriented aspects of the mind-body problem, as manifested, however disastrously, in functionalism as I have described it. I need hardly add that rejecting reductive behaviourism does not involve denying all those conceptual or logical links between attributions of states of consciousness and descriptions of human behaviour on which Wittgenstein so revealingly and effectively insisted.

For the time being I want to turn away altogether from problems concerning the mind-body relation. I shall come back to it later. In the meantime I want instead to consider some of the philosophical consequences, historically speaking, of Descartes’ bringing the subjective contents of consciousness to the centre of the 17th century philosophical stage. Those consequences have in part a somewhat paradoxical character. For Descartes, supreme rationalist as he was, may nevertheless be seen, in one light, as the ancestor of that line of British empiricists which began with Locke, continued with Berkeley and Hume and has, or had, descendants in our own day. Perhaps most notable among these was A.J. Ayer, who persisted to the last in defending and refining the essence of the tradition with unfailing elegance and skill and increasing sophistication. (I am please, incidentally, to pay this tribute to a former colleague who continued, almost alone, to carry the banner of a lost cause with such grace and gallantry).

What the British empiricists may be held to have inherited from Descartes, however much else they repudiated was precisely his placing of the contents of consciousness at the centre or starting-point of philosophical enquiry. Descartes named these subjective items quite indiscriminately ‘cogitationes’. For Locke they were ‘ideas’, as also for Berkeley; for Hume ‘ impressions and ideas’. (For Kant, who stands outside the empiricist tradition, though he has links with it, they were the ‘contents of inner sense’ which included, of course, the ‘contents of outer sense’ -the latter being known to some later empiricists as ‘sense-data’).

Now what did the early empiricists I mentioned do with this inheritance? The answers are various. The notion that “the subjective or contents of consciousness are necessary starting-points of enquiry may seem well enough in itself. But where do we go from there? Or, more threateningly, how do we go anywhere from there? Berkeley, of course, joyfully bites the bullet and plunges in continently into subjective idealism. Hume, the most sophisticated thinker and most elegant writer of the trio, settles officially for a scepticism, which is mitigated by an ironical acknowledgement that the force of nature is more powerful than the power of strict ratiocination. Locke is the least shackled by the inheritance. Though the clumsiest writer, and possibly thinker, of the three, he has too much common sense to be tempted by either idealism or scepticism; and, brushing them aside, settles for a view of perception and the physical world, and of our knowledge of these, which was compatible both with common sense and with the best science of the time. Some later empiricists were less realistic than Locke: phenomenalism, and the equivalent view of physical objects as’ logical constructions’ out of sense-impressions were really de-theologised versions of Berkeley’s idealism. Even more cautious empiricists who recognized no doubts about the genuinely independent reality of material bodies, other persons and other minds, continued to discuss, as if they were serious issues, the question of how we succeeded, on the basis of the immediately given inner contents of consciousness, in arriving at the knowledge we undoubtedly possessed of these independent realities.

Two things, then, may be said with confidence. First that this concern with subjective experience, with the inner contents of consciousness, was, historically, a major factor in modern post-Cartesian philosophy, and not only in the empiricist tradition; second, contemporaneously, as I remarked at the outset, that the same concern is central to the current scientifically slanted preoccupation with the relation of mind and body. And, in view of this, it may seem surprising, and in need of explanation, that the significance of inner experience is notably minimized or downplayed in the work of two of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, one on each side of the Atlantic: one who died in mid-century, the other, happily, with us still. I have in mind Wittgenstein for Europe and Quine for America. Not that either of them was touched, was ever remotely touched with either reductive behaviour or any hint of eliminativism.
Far from it. So the reasons for this curious relative neglect or downplaying of the inner life as subjectively experienced are still to seek. And, curiously and interestingly enough the reasons in the two cases could hardly be more different from each other than they are. Take Quine first. He is far from denying the distinct reality of inner experience: he speaks, indeed, of its ‘heady luxuriance’. The trouble with it, in his view, is precisely that; it is so headily luxuriant as to be quite unmanageable by the natural sciences; and philosophy in his view is continuous with science or, as he quotably says, ‘philosophy of science is philosophy enough’. There is no reason to think that he would deplore neurological investigation into the physical basis of consciousness; but, I conjecture, the dependent term of the relation, i.e. subjective experience, would still, in all its intimately experienced detail, remain out of reach of scientific capture. If we still demand some philosophically acceptable representation of states or events of consciousness, then, in Quine’s view, contemporary states of, or events in, the physical organism will have to serve. Wittgenstein’s position is completely different. He does not speak, as Quine does, in the name of natural science. Indeed he deplores as utterly misguided any attempt to approach problems in the philosophy of mind through natural science. Rather, he speaks in the name of philosophy itself; and contends that understanding of the nature of mental events and processes has been, and still is, hopelessly obscured by the assumption that their essential character is to be found in what belongs to the inner or subjective experience of thinker or agent. While he is no more a behaviourist than Quine is, he insists that our concepts of the mental must involve a reference to outer or behavioural manifestations, not simply as evidence of the events or processes in question, but as criteria, as belonging, so to say, to their essence. And this is to hold across the board, from such relatively simple notions as that of pain to such relatively complicated ones as that of understanding. The arguments are familiar and I will not repeat them; but I must stress again that Wittgenstein is by no means a behaviourist. He is not, as we say, in denial.

So we have these two powerful strains in twentieth century philosophy, both tending to divert attention away from the intrinsic character or felt quality of inner or subjective experience – one towards natural science, the other towards observed human behaviour or ‘forms of life’. Still, as I have repeatedly emphasised, neither of the principal representatives of these two strains of thought wishes in the least to deny the reality of that from which they divert attention. So, while acknowledging the force and influence of both strains, we are still left with the obdurate fact of subjective experience itself; and may, or may not, feel that more is called for than either protagonist of these two approaches has to offer. And perhaps this feeling may be partly responsible for a current preoccupation with the question I began with: viz., that of the relation between the experiential contents of consciousness and what we assume to be its physical basis; what can somewhat inaccurately be referred to as the ‘mind-body problem’ or, somewhat tendentiously, as ‘the problem of consciousness’.

If we reject, as I think we must, those reductive theories which purport to explain consciousness by effectively explaining it away altogether, we seem to be left with either old-fashioned two-way interactionism or the less demanding alternative of one-way causal dependence of the contents of consciousness on the physical i.e. on states or events in the body. I call it less demanding because it is manifestly an area in which empirical research already goes on and, indeed, in which some successes have already been registered. One reason philosophers may have for hesitating over this approach is the following. It may seem that if we envisage a causal dependence of consciousness on body, and if, as seems plausible, a thorough-going causal story could be told in purely physical terms, relating external stimuli to the bodily movements involved in action, then the contents of consciousness will appear as mere epiphenomena, having no causal or explanatory role in the history of the world or the individual – a gratuitous extra or a meaningless decoration. From this epiphenomenalism we rightly shrink.

But fear of this consequence is misplaced. Of course, when someone acts, parts of his or her body move. But the action does not consist simply of these movements. The agent is doing something for a purpose, with a reason. If we could indeed trace an uninterrupted and complete causal route through the physical organism from external stimulus to those bodily movements – which, of course, in practice is highly doubtful – then indeed we would have explained the bodily movements. But we would not have explained the agent’s action. That would require a quite different vocabulary. What was the agent doing? and why? There are, in fact, two different accounts to be given here, two quite different stories to be told. One is told in the language of the physiologist, of nerves and cells and synapses and muscles. The other requires the language of the biographer or novelist, the language of motives, desires, intentions, feelings, aims. The stories are not in conflict with each other.

But we cannot, at this point, simply relax with a sigh of relief and leave the matter there. For though the stories do not conflict, there must be some connection between them. Only someone rash enough to deny altogether the physical basis of mind or consciousness would deny this. And so we are still left with the great question: what, in general and in detail, is the nature of this connection? Is it causal? If so, is it one-way or two-way? Are there psycho-physical laws, and, if there are, how fine-grained can they be? But now, it is time to draw attention to, and to examine, an implicit assumption that underlies such questions as these, and indeed much of the whole debate in this area. This is the assumption that the mental, on the one hand (understood in the strict or limited sense of inner or subjective experience, whether sensation, feeling, thought or whatever) – that the mental in this sense on the one hand, and the physical or material on the other, belong to entirely distinct and discrepant ontological categories. Of course this assumption is rejected by those committed, in one direction or another, to reductivist extremes; by Berkeleyan idealists who reduce the physical to the mental, and by logical behaviourists, some functionalists and neuro-scientifically inspired eliminativists, who in a variety of ways seek to reduce the mental to the physical. But, such extremes apart, this assumption of a radical distinctness of nature, so emphatically promulgated by Descartes himself, has effectively prevailed in succeeding centuries in Western philosophy. It is, after all, a very natural assumption to make. What could be more different in nature than the fleeting and insubstantial contents of consciousness and the solid and substantial objects that we see and feel in space around us and, by extension, whatever items or forces in space make up or constitute those objects?

But natural as the assumption is, it can be questioned and, though I am reluctant to mention sources, it has been questioned by some recent thinkers. In a partial and tentative way I shall question it myself; or at least suggest some pointers towards doing so. I begin, not with the fleeting contents of consciousness, but with the complete human being, the individual man or woman. This is certainly a corporeal, hence physical, being; but it is also a thinking and feeling being, a subject of conscious states. Surviving Cartesians, if there are any, may want to say that it really consists of two distinct entities, one physical, one spiritual, standing in a mysteriously intimate relation with each other. But few would now be found willing to embrace this dualism of substances. Rather, it will generally be acknowledged that what we have here, in each individual case, is a unitary being, a single substance, the subject of both physical and mental predication; so that any residual dualism must attach to its states rather than itself.

But let us pursue the question a little further. The human being, man or woman, acts. He (for simplicity I use the gender-neutral pronoun in the way sanctioned by long-standing legal practice) speaks, says something. Now certainly some bodily movements are essentially involved in this happening – the movements which result in the emission of sounds. But obviously the movements and resulting sounds are not all that is involved. The speaker is saying something: he utters words which, in the circumstances of their utterance, have a meaning; and the speaker, in uttering them, means something by them – even if it is not always exactly what the words, in the circumstances, mean. So we have the speaker both making certain bodily movements and meaning something by what he says. So his total action, we may be inclined to say, has both a physical aspect and a mental aspect. So far, so harmless. But there is a danger: the danger of reproducing, on a smaller scale, the error that the substance-dualist makes on the larger scale: of supposing that the total action consists of two processes, quite distinct in their nature, running concurrently – the act or process of moving and the act or process of meaning, the physical act or process and the mental act or process. And this is fairly obvious nonsense – think of trying to separate the two, even in thought. But it is a nonsense which goes with, is required by, and perhaps requires, the larger nonsense of two-substance dualism. What we have here then, in the action of saying something, is a unitary thing, a unitary action – with, one may indeed harmlessly say, a physical aspect and a mental aspect.

Now it seems a natural and legitimate extension to say that what applies to a speaker’s saying something applies also to any conscious intentional voluntary action on the part of any human agent. Natural and legitimate because, in discussing the case of saying something, I have appealed to nothing which is not characteristic of any case of conscious intentional action. Every such action is equally a unitary thing with both a physical and a mental aspect.

What I have presented so far has been, I think, cogently and, I hope, persuasively argued. My next step is different; it is openly and unashamedly speculative; and I have to acknowledge that the main source of the idea is the partly unpublished work of someone else, another philosopher, who is a close relation, indeed a son, of my own: namely Dr. Galen Strawson; though I have to add that he approaches it from a very different angle, presents it, in a different form, and announces it firmly as something to be accepted whereas I view it as purely speculative.

So what is this speculative thought? Well, we are to move from the conscious or mental aspect of human act ion to the contents of consciousness, conscious experience in general. And the thought is, to put it concisely, that the indissoluble unity of the physical and mental, which we have found at the level of intentional action, goes all the way down. Of course we have ample grounds, of a non-speculative, indeed experiential, neurological kind, for believing that all conscious thought or experience has some sort of physical ‘basis’ or’ realisation’ or whatever. For sure, the physical is relevantly present and involved wherever the experiential occurs. The philosophical and hitherto unsuccessful search has been for a convincing account of the nature of the relevance. The speculative suggestion now being entertained is that it is neither correlation nor identity: that the experiential and the physical in all such cases are to be seen, as in the case of intentional action, as different aspects of a single unitary thing.

I call this a speculation and it certainly is no more; for I see no convincing argument for it, neither can I conceive of any way in which it might be empirically tested, let alone established. My own natural and persisting inclination is to believe something different. When we move away from the case of conscious intentional human action, where I think the above argument is conclusive, into the area of sensations, feelings, passing thoughts, I am naturally inclined to accept a dualism, not of course of the individual human being itself, but rather of its states – so I am faced once more with the question of the relation between the conscious experience and its physical correlate, a question to which it seems the best I can hope for is some sort of causal answer; and, of course, precisely the question which my speculative suggestion, if accepted, would displace; though, no doubt, it would raise questions enough of its own.