Some people, I know, prefer to get their philosophy in written form; but if you like videos it’s well worth checking out Richard Brown’s YouTube series Consciousness This Month.

This one, Ep 4, is about mental contents, with Richard setting out briefly but clearly a couple of the major problems (look at the camera, Richard!).

Introspection, he points out, is often held to be incorrigible or infallible on certain points. You can be wrong about being at the dentist, but you can’t be wrong about being in pain. This is because of the immediacy of the experience. In the case of the dentist, we know there is a long process between light hitting your retina and the dentist being presented to consciousness. Various illusions and errors provide strong evidence for the way all sorts of complex ‘inferences’ and conclusions have been drawn by your unconscious visual processing system before the presence of the dentist gets inserted into your awareness in the guise of a fact. There is lots of scope for that processing to go wrong, so that the dentist’s presence might not be a fact at all. There’s much less processing involved in our perception of someone tugging on a tooth, but still maybe you could be dreaming or deluded. But the pain is inside your mind already; there’s no scope for interpretation and therefore no scope for error.

My own view on this is that it isn’t our sense data that have to be wrong, it’s our beliefs about our experiences. If the results of visual processing are misleading, we may end up with the false belief that there is a dentist in the room. But that’s not the only way for us to pick up false beliefs, and nothing really prevents our holding false beliefs about being in pain. There is some sense in which the pain can’t be wrong, but thatks more a matter of truth and falsity being properties of propositions, not of pains.

Richard also sketches the notion of intentionality, or ‘aboutness’, reintroduced to Western philosophy as a key idea by Brentano, who took it to be the distinguishing feature of the mental. When we think about things it seems as if our thought is directed towards an external object. In itself that seems to require some explanation, but it gets especially difficult when you consider that we can easily talk about non-existent or even absurd things. This is the kind of problem that caused Meinong to introduce a distinction between existence and subsistence, so that the objects of thought could have a manageable ontological status without being real in the same way as physical objects.

Regulars may know that my own view is that consciousness is largely a matter of recognition. Humans, we might say, are superusers of recognition. Not only can we recognise objects, we can recognise patterns and use them for a sort of extrapolation. The presence of a small entity is recognised, but also a larger entity of which it is part. So we recognise dawn, but also see that it is part of a day. From the larger entity we can recognise parts not currently present, such as sunset, and this allows us to think about entities that are distant in time or space. But the same kind of extrapolation allows to think about things that do not, or even could not, exist.

I’m looking forward to seeing Richard’s future excursions.


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