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Internalism and Descartes’ Demon and Stuff

Interview by Richard Marshall.

Katalin Farkas’s main area of research is the philosophy of mind. She defends an uncompromising internalism about the mental, and an equally uncompromising conception of the phenomenal availability of mental features. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she has great admiration for Descartes, and hopes to make a modest contribution to restoring his reputation after a century or so of bad press.

In recent years, she has been working on the nature of perceptual experiences, where she hopes to combine a philosophical investigation about the phenomenal character of experiences with a study of empirical results from the psychology. Her current project is to create an empirically informed philosophical account of standing states, especially of beliefs, and their relation to knowledge. Here she discusses internalism and externalism, the extended mind thesis, the Twin Earth thesis, Descartes and dualism, intentionality, knowledge-wh ascriptions and knowledge that doesn’t aim at the truth. Read on…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Katalin Farkas: I have no idea, really, but like many people, I have a couple of anecdotes that I can wheel out when this question is asked. There is a family story about me when I was around three years old, and I spent a day with my grandmother. Apparently, I kept asking questions, which she patiently answered. Finally, I seemed to have had enough, and said: “Why do you keep answering, why don’t you say what Dad says?” “What’s that?” my grandmother asked. I replied: “There is no cause or purpose to everything in the universe, Kati”. My father was a philosopher, and it was very typical of him to say something like this to a 3-year old. He often shared quite abstract thoughts with our cats. I remembered what he said well enough to repeat it, which shows an early interest in fundamental questions and a tendency to be a bit of a smart alec — which I think is a good preparation for being a philosopher. When I was in primary school, it looked like I might have some talent in mathemat-ics. I won the national mathematics competition in Hungary when I was 11. Subsequently it turned out that I entirely lacked mathematical genius. But philosophy is similar in some ways to maths, and my father was a philosopher, so philosophy was a natural choice for me. I ended up doing a joint degree in mathematics and philosophy, gradually losing interest in maths and becoming more and more interested in philosophy.

3:AM: You are an internalist about the mental and an admirer of Descartes who was also one of those wasn’t he? So could you start by sketching out what the internalist claims?

KF: In the Meditations, Descartes introduces the Evil Demon hypothesis. How do I know that I am not deceived by an Evil Demon to experience and believe all the things I do, when in fact none of the things I take to exist are real? There is no earth, no sky, it’s all an illusion caused by the demon. But even if I was deceived by a demon, Descartes claims, I would still think and hence exist. Moreover – and this is the crucial bit – I would still think the same thoughts and have all the same experiences, emotions, intentions, and so on, as I do now. So the mind is autonomous in the follow-ing sense: although it is, of course, causally influenced by the environment, in principle it would be possible for me to be the only existing thing in the world and yet have all the same mental features as I have now. This is internalism.

3:AM: So internalism opposes externalism. This has become a popular position hasn’t it over the last few years and has been the position that has undermined Descartes’ influence in many philosophers’ eyes. Can you say what you take the main claims are of this other position to be so we can see where your disagreement lies?

KF: Yes, externalism is pretty much the orthodoxy, and the kind of uncompromising internalism that I defend, which says that all mental features are internal, is rare. Externalists say that some mental features essentially depend on things outside us. So victims of an evil demon, or people who live in the Matrix, cannot think certain thoughts or have certain experiences that we have. Not because they are not prompted to have these episodes – we assume that they can have hallucinations and il-lusions that match exactly our experiences. But when an inhabitant of the Matrix has a perfect illu-sion of drinking water, her thoughts and experiences are still different from those of ours. It’s a very counter-intuitive idea, in my view.

3:AM: Why don’t you think that the boundary between the internal and the external in this context is the skull or the skin of the thinking subject?

KF: Imagining that you are the victim of the Evil Demon reduces your world to a perspective, to how things appear from your point of view. In the demon scenario, things are very different from the way they actually are, but they still seem exactly the same. This is what the mental consists of: it’s how things seem to you, either in thought, or experience, or emotions. (Hence the title of my book The Subject’s Point of View). How this is realised materially is a different question and lies, to a great extent, outside the scope of philosophy. So as a matter of natural law, maybe you need a brain, or a whole nervous system, or a whole body, or even things outside your body (though this is un-likely), to sustain the same appearance. It’s an empirical question, interesting in its own right, but the philosophically significant boundary lies not around the skull, but between what does and does not make a difference to appearances.

3:AM: Is internalism as you conceive it a matter of phenomenal intentionality without com-promise, that is, that there really is no reason for thinking that some kind of external-ism is required alongside the ‘narrow intentionality’?

KF: Indeed, there is no no reason. Everything that deserves to be called “mental” is a matter of how things seem (in a suitably broad sense), and “phenomenal” is of course another name for how things seem. So the root of all mentality, including intentionality, is the phenomenal. I admit that there is a danger here that the issue becomes terminological: does it matter that we call this or that “mental”? In my book I attempt to offer a picture on which the nature of the mind is is connected to issue of personhood. This picture motivates the uncompromising internalism I defend.

3:AM: You’ve engaged with Chalmers’ and Clark’s extended minds thesis. You say there are two ways of interpreting the thesis which are very different. Can you say what the dif-ference is between the two versions and why one of them is important because it points to a potential tension in our conception of minds or selves?

KF: There is a less interesting version which says that the material basis of mental features could extend beyond the skull. Imagine that some neurons in your brain are replaced by silicone wiring and bits of the wiring stick out of your skull. Your mind extends beyond your skull and therefore beyond the boundaries of your body! Andy Clark suggested at a couple of places that the possibility of this sce-nario is all we need to support the extended mind thesis. But if that’s all, it would hardly be a controversial issue.

There is a much more interesting version, which has to do with mental states which are not part of the stream of your consciousness – for example, those beliefs of yours that you are currently not considering. Call these “standing states”. The main function of these states is to guide behaviour. Now there could be someone who stores information not in her brain, but in an external device, but after consulting the device, would tend to behave exactly the same way as someone who stores in-formation internally. Say the difference between someone who knows phone-numbers by heart and someone who looks them up on her smartphone. The challenge is to give a principled reason why these two people differ in their standing states. And if you can store some of your beliefs on external devices, how can we stop this extending too far? This is the real tension which the extended mind idea introduces. For an intriguing and very accessible exposition of this problem read Brie Gertler’s paper “Overextending the Mind

3:AM: Twin Earth arguments purport to show that externalism is the right way to go about thinking about minds. Can you say what the Twin Earth argument is and what it is supposed to rule in and out and why don’t you think it works?

KF: Let me give a somewhat simplified version. Twin Earth is an imaginary planet, which is an exact replica of Earth, including all its inhabitants and their history. My Doppelgänger on Twin Earth is now answering questions posed by your Doppelgänger. So while I am thinking about Richard Mar-shall, my Twin is thinking about Twin Richard Marshall. The Twin Earth argument is this: since my Twin and I are thinking about different things, our thoughts must be different. But we are exact replicas, so whatever is responsible for the difference, must be external to us. This is the externalist conclusion. I don’t think this argument works, because it assumes that a mere difference in the ob-jects of thought implies a difference about the thoughts themselves. In contrast, my view is that the very same idea or thought can concern different things, depending on the circumstances.

3:AM: Descartes of course famously was a dualist and is supposed to have placed all the mind things in a ‘thinking substance’ of some sort, opposed to the bodily material stuff. But sensations, emotions, imagination and sensory perceptions are according to Descartes both mind and body things. Doesn’t this ruin his dualism and the claim that mind body substances are distinct?

KF: This is something not always appreciated in the popular conception of Descartes. He seemed to think that sensations, perceptual experiences, emotions, imaginations – all mental features with a phenomenal character – supervene on bodily states and require what he called the “union of mind and body”. This aspect of Descartes’s dualism often puzzles interpreters, since in addition to asserting that mind and body are distinct, he also says that they are “intermingled”. I propose an interpretation of the relevant texts that is coherent with dualism. The key is that on Descartes’s view, all the mental features just mentioned need a proximate cause outside the mind. So they depend on the body not for their existence, but for their causal origin.

3:AM: Are the causes of our experience also objects of the experience and what’s at stake in this ?

KF: It is usually assumed that the object of an experience (that is, a thing that you see, or hear, or touch) is among the causes of the experience. But clearly not all the causes of the experience are objects of the same experience: if you look at a tomato, one cause of the experience is the gardener who pro-duced the tomato, but you don’t see the gardener by seeing the tomato! Saying which causes of an experience are also objects of the experience is fundamental to our understanding of the nature of perception.

3:AM: What are we talking about when philosophers use the terms ‘intentionality of sensory experience’ and ‘intentionality of thought’?

KF: Intentionality is the mind’s direction upon objects. At least some sensory experiences are directed at things: for example, the visual experience involved in seeing a tomato is directed at a tomato. Thoughts are similarly directed: if you are thinking about a tomato, the tomato is the intentional ob-ject of your thought.

3:AM: You say the intentionality of sensory experience is constructed, but not that of the in-tentionality of thought. Why do you think this and why is it an important distinction?

KF: I think that sensory experiences are fundamentally objectless: they are mere modifications of the subject’s mind, ways that she feels. But if they come in a highly organised and predictible structure, they become suggestive of an external object that’s their source. The structure is essential in con-structing the object. Imagine that all your visual experiences were in constant swirl and motion, for example the way some acid trips are described. I think in that case your experiences wouldn’t have intentional objects – they would just form a bad trip. This contrasts with the intentionality of thought, where there is no phenomenon that parallels the mere feel.

3:AM: Arguments from the extended mind thesis has been used by yourself to argue that knowing wh ascriptions. Before you tell us about this, can you just sketch what a knowledge –wh ascription is and what is it contrasted with and what have arguments in the extended mind thesis got mixed up in all this?

KF: This is going to be a bit complex. First, know-wh ascriptions. We often ascribe knowledge to peo-ple by saying that they know where, or when something happened, or who or what or which things have a certain nature. I know where I was born, you know what your mother’s name is. These are know-wh ascriptions. They are contrasted with know-that ascriptions: you know that your mother’s name is … well, you know what it is, I’m afraid I don’t. Now to the extended mind thesis: this thesis states that we can have beliefs in virtue of having access to information stored on an external de-vice. A normal case of believing that NN’s phone number is 12345678 is to be able to recall from memory that NN’s phone number is 12345678. According to the extended mind thesis, you can have the very same belief simply by having reliable and easy access to this information on your smart phone. I suggest that extended mind scenarios are better described as cases of knowledge rather than cases of belief. Our ordinary ways of talking suggest this. You ask me if I know my brother’s phone number, and I say sure, reaching for my phone. So I claim I have knowledge here, and it’s best described as know-wh: I know what his phone-number is. At the same time, I probably don’t have the belief that my brother’s phone number is … well, whatever it is. If I’m right, then this is possibly a case of knowledge without belief, which goes against one of the central tenets of con-temporary epistemology.

3:AM: So why don’t you think that these knowledge wh ascriptions don’t reduce to knowledge that. Are you going up against Williamson and Stanley, for instance, in this? Why are they wrong and you right?

KF: What I just said already explains this. I don’t know that my brother’s phone number is … whatever it is – if I did, I could state this knowledge, but I can’t. But I still speak the truth when I say that I know what my brother’s phone number is. You see, I can state this knowledge fully. This goes against the standard analysis of know-wh, on which you know-wh only if you know that p, where p answers the wh-question.

This also goes against Williamson and Stanley insofar as they assume the standard analysis of know-wh, but these kind of cases don’t really present a problem for Williamson and Stanley’s ac-count of practical knowledge. However, I have a bunch of quite different know-wh cases which do potentially challenge their account. I call these practical know-wh. For example, a good joke-teller knows when it is time to tell a certain joke. The standard analysis then would require that she knows a proposition which specifies the time for telling the joke. However, there won’t be just one such proposition: in different contexts, different propositions will give the right answer.

3:AM: So is it your view that there are some kinds of knowledge that doesn’t aim at the truth?

KF: Yes. Edward Craig says that the function of ascribing knowledge is to flag reliable sources of in-formation. I say that’s true for factual knowledge; in addition, we ascribe practical knowledge in order to identify reliable performers of certain actions. This is a cognitive achievement that is simi-lar to factual knowledge in important ways, but it is evaluated in terms of success in action, rather than in terms of the truth.

However, I am sceptical of the existence of another kind of allegedly non-truth related knowledge: namely knowledge of things, or objectual knowledge, sometimes called “acquaintance knowledge” – the kind of knowledge that’s involved in knowing people or places. The reason is not that knowing someone is reducible to propositional knowledge; it isn’t. It’s rather that it’s not really knowledge at all. In this way, it is similar to knowledge “in the biblical sense”. I hope it’s clear that knowledge in the biblical sense (ie. having had sex with someone) is not reducible to propositional knowledge – but it’s not really knowledge in a sense that matters to epistemology.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books that you can recommend to the readers here at 3:AM that will take us further into your philosophical world?

KF:

The first has to be Descartes’s Meditations, which is arguably the best philosophy book ever written. One brilliant thing about it is that it will offer something to a high-school student who has just started to be interested in philosophy, but also to someone who has studied philosophy all her life. It’s quite rare to find something like that in contemporary philosophy. I chose the next two books because they express some of my approach to philosophy. I am convinced that studying the history of philosophy is very important even for people interested in contemporary research. Philosophical questions don’t just pop up without a context: their history matters a great deal.

So I’d like to recommend a forthcoming book: a History of Philosophy of Mind in the 20th and 21st century, edited by Amy Kind. Apart from history, another great source of inspiration for philosophers of mind is to read philosophically inclined cognitive psychologists. They tackle some of the same questions we are interested in: what it is to be human, what is the distinguishing feature of human mind. I have two colleagues at the Central European University, Gergely Csibra and Gyorgy Gergely, whose work on these matters is fascinating.

Unfortunately they don’t have a book laying out their views, so I’m going to recommend another book by a developmental psychologist: The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik.

The next book is connected to my growing interest in epistemology in the last few years. I really enjoyed reading Edward Craig’s Knowledge and the State of Nature.

Last but not least, let me recommend Elements of Mind by Tim Crane. It’s officially an introduction, it’s very clear and accessible, but it is permeated by Tim’s own’s views, so it has a substantial content. I think it’s an example of how best to do philosophy. Incidentally, the book is dedicated to me, so that’s extra reason for me to like it.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, February 4th, 2017.