It ain't in the head

By Jerry Fodor
The Times Literary Supplement, October 16, 2009

Edited by Andy Ross

Consciousness Revisited: Materialism without phenomenal concepts
By Michael Tye
MIT Press, 256 pages

Plato suggested that there is only one chair that is really a chair, the Chair on which no one can sit, the One Chair that is in Heaven. This kind of philosophical overkill, having once got started, has never stopped. Now there is externalism.

Externalism was invented by Hilary Putnam. For example, imagine two glasses, each of which is filled with what is, as far as we can see, the same sort of stuff, but one is filled with H2O, the other with XYZ. Only the H2O glass contains water. XYZ isn't water, however much it may appear to be.

This is supposed to raise troubles in the philosophy of mind. Just as the Putnam intuitions militate against the semantic view that word meanings determine extensions, so too they militate against the psychologistic view that concepts are mental representations of extensions. If meanings, concepts, and the like are distinguished by their extensions, then meanings, concepts, and the like "ain't in the head". Views of meaning and concepts grounded in the Putnam intuitions are said to be externalist.

If I read Tye right, he thinks that it's not just issues about meaning and mental representation to which the Putnam intuitions are germane, but also issues about consciousness and the nature of perception.

Here's a way of thinking about perception: What happens in perception is that one makes inferences from the phenomenal content of one's perceptual experiences to how things are in one's locality. Perceptual processes infer from the content of one's experiences to perceptual beliefs about things in the world. But perception doesn't feel very inferential. As Tye remarks, "it seems natural to suppose that vision involves direct contact with external things in standard veridical cases."

Tye is surely wrong to suggest that an indirect-perception theorist must say that one experiences a tomato by experiencing something else over and above the tomato. It's not part of the indirect-perception story that, in order to infer from the experience to the tomato, one must first infer to the experience from something else. One doesn't infer experiences, one just has them. The mind is active in perception but passive in experience.

Tye thinks that making sense of things in the world being directly perceived requires supposing that such things are part of the experiences from which perceptual beliefs arise. So it's not just semantic stuff like the contents of beliefs and concepts that is (partly) constituted by the external surround, so too is the phenomenal content of experience.

Tye is in pursuit of a theory not of the object of experience but of the phenomenal content of experience. Inferentialist theories of perception in psychology generally take for granted that the phenomenal content of an hallucinatory experience of the Chrysler Building might be arbitrarily similar to the phenomenal content of a veridical experience of the Chrysler Building. But that couldn't be true if the Chrysler Building is a part of the former but not a part of the latter.

Perceptual psychologists often hold that veridical perception and misperception both require inferences from the content of experiences to the content of beliefs, and that, in dreams, hallucinations, and the like, the content of an experience may be arbitrarily similar to that of a veridical experience. It's the inferences that somehow go awry. Perhaps the psychologists have got it all wrong. But their arguments are backed by quite a lot of explanatory success.

Tye tries very hard to make sense of the claim that things in the world are parts of veridical experiences of things in the world. He suggests an analogy to the doctrine that things that a proposition is about are part of the proposition about them: John is part of the proposition that John sneezed. But I think the analogy doesn't bear much weight. To say that John is part of the proposition that John sneezed is just to say that whether it's true that John sneezed depends on how things were with John.

For Tye, the problem of consciousness is to reconcile an exhaustively physical metaphysics with Realism about conscious experience. There really are not just tables and chairs but also the phenomenal contents of experiences of tables and chairs. Tye thinks that the phenomenal content of a veridical experience includes its object.

Tye's idea is that externalism offers to reconcile materialism with the consciousness of experience. The object of an experience is part of the content of the experience, and the content of an experience is assumed to be conscious content. But can we see and be conscious of things that we don't notice? Consider a brown moth sitting on a brown limb of a brown tree. One looks closely at the tree. Does it follow that one sees and is conscious of the brown moth?

If Tye says yes, you do see the moth, that's bad for him. He needs the principle that the constituents of experience are ipso facto conscious to connect his externalism with his story about why phenomenal content is compatible with physicalism. But if you see and are conscious of the moth, what more is required if you're to notice it? The moth is right before your eyes. And there's no failure of attention.

If Tye says no, you don't see the moth, that raises a question. Why does experience that contains a moth not contribute the moth that it contains to the perceptual belief that it causes? It looks like Tye can either have it that the parts of one's experience are ipso facto conscious, or he can have it that the object of an experience is ipso facto one of its parts. But it doesn't look like he can have both.

The natural way to deal with the moth is to say that the perceiver sees it but doesn't see it as a moth. Tye can't say the natural thing while also holding the externalist thesis that it's moths rather than moth-representations that experience of moths delivers to the corresponding perceptual belief. Tye assumes that what the experience of the moth delivers to perception is not a representation of the moth but the moth itself.

What perceptual experience delivers to the perceptual belief it causes is the X experienced as a such-and-such. What the X is experienced as determines what belief is formed in consequence of the seeing. I think externalism has outlived its usefulness.


AR Whew! It's hard work cutting Jerry Fodor down to size. Whether he would agree that my drastic buzz cut reflects the full glory of his convoluted thoughts is another matter, of course. Michael Tye is the man whose style statement at ASSC XIII I reported in June. The topic of externalism was the bone of contention between Ted Honderich and Colin McGinn in the spat I reported in the last chapter of my new book Mindworlds.