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Tim Crane interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Tim Crane asks whether knowing whether knowing what wine tastes like eludes physics and whether not being a materialist means he has to be an immaterialist. He thinks people misread Descartes. He doesn’t think what is thought about implies a difference in thought content and that externalism relies on this and so is faulty. He thinks that the world is divided into natural real unities and that naturalism is a methodological not a metaphysical position. He finds Wittgensteinians can be dogmatic, rehabilitates the myth of the given and discards qualia. He’s a fan but but not a follower of Fodor, has tolerant views about religion, thinks Stephen Hawking is wrong about philosophy and that the analytic/continental divide is not straightforward. He finds Husserl’s intentionalism an escape route from Frege-Russell and doesn’t think Meinong insane. This makes him a most bodacious groove.

3:AM: Why did you become a philosopher? Were you philosophical as a child or was it something that you grew into? Or was there something that happened?

Tim Crane: I was brought up as a Roman Catholic, I think that must have had a lot to do with it. Catholicism is the most philosophical branch of Christianity, it seems to me. One philosophically fascinating aspect of Catholicism is the very strange conception of reality it presents (the incarnation, the eucharist, judgement day etc.). Another is that its thinking aims at precision: the traditional ‘catechism’ (a kind of training manual for catholics) gives you relatively precise answers to questions like ‘who made you?’, ‘what is grace?’ and so on. I remember finding that all rather satisfying and fascinating. When I was being confirmed (this is when you renew the vows as a semi-adult that were taken on your behalf when you were baptised as an infant) I remember we had some kind of question-and-answer session with the local Bishop. I asked the Bishop, ‘do you believe in Adam and Eve?’. I was really proud of this question. I think I was 9 or 10. The Bishop probably found this a bit annoying, and avoided the question by saying that even if the biblical story was not ‘literally true’, there still must have been a first man and a first woman. I wasn’t familiar enough with the question of chickens and eggs to pick holes in this, but my father thought I had him on the run.

My parents were rather liberal Catholics and we went to a liberal church, Blackfriars in Oxford. This is where I first saw the great philosopher Michael Dummett, who was a regular at this church. Blackfriars was full of philosophers, actually, and when I was a teenager I attended some brilliant evening lectures on God and philosophy by Brian Davies (now a professor of philosophy at Fordham University). I found this utterly fascinating: there was this sense of all these strange ideas described in a complex vocabulary – somehow, I thought, if I grasped this whole business, it might unlock the mystery of things. Or maybe I just didn’t like the idea that there were all these complex ideas and words I didn’t understand, and I wanted them explained to me.

I decided to study English literature at university, but soon switched to philosophy. I had a pedantic cast of mind, and getting clear about those strange ideas (substance, mode, attribute) and complex texts really appealed to me. I was not good at the kind of eloquent rhapsody which the best English literature students could do so well, and I preferred the dry, simple, pedantic style of analytic philosophy. My first year essay on Keats’s ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’ would have confirmed all of his views about ‘cold philosophy’. It was terrible. By this time I had abandoned Catholicism, but even during my short militant atheist period I maintained an interest in western religious art and music. Now I’m not a militant atheist, just an atheist. In fact, in a largely atheist country like the UK I think it’s a bit silly to be a militant atheist.

3:AM: You are a top philosopher of mind. You think thinking about and tasting wine is a great way to start to get at the philosophical problem that the mind raises. You say that if we think a little about our knowledge of the taste of wines we come up against knowledge that eludes physics and the best science we have. Can you say something about the uses of wine tasting for philosophy and why this should make physicists less confident that they can produce a theory of everything?

TC: I think what I said must have been a little tongue-in-cheek; or maybe an exaggeration. It’s one of the failings of philosophers to exaggerate (it all began with the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales: ‘everything is water’). But I do think that if you are trying to think empirically about the relationship between conscious experience and the underlying physical reality, wine provides an excellent practical example. Winemakers manipulate the chemicals they are dealing with in a way that is very sensitive to the kinds of effects it will have on the subjective experience of tasters – this is not an accident. The subject of taste and smell (which are of course intimately related) is fascinating subject in itself on which there is currently some important interdisciplinary work being done. (I’d like to mention here the work done by Barry C. Smith and his colleagues at the Centre for the Study of the Senses at London’s Institute of Philosophy. The study of taste and smell is an aspect of the study of consciousness, and one on which I think we can get a concrete empirical grip.

Of course, the psychological and physiological nature of taste is one thing; the knowledge of how things taste is another. A taster’s knowledge of what it is like to taste wine may well depend on knowledge of the underlying physical reality, or it may not; it may simply depend on the knowledge they get from experience. They know that some wines taste like this, and others taste like that. Does this show that some knowledge eludes physics? I say that the knowledge of what it is like to taste wine (or to taste anything else, for that matter) eludes physics only in the sense that it is not knowledge that you could gain from reading the physics books. The question of whether physics can provide a theory of everything is a different one. Even if we ignore the ‘non-theoretical’ knowledge which we acquire through experience (such as the knowledge of what something tastes like) and concentrate on theoretical knowledge, there is no good reason to think that physics can literally give the theory of everything. Here I want to be really pedantic. Although everything may be subject to physical law, not everything can be explained or described in physical terms. Physics has literally nothing to say about society, morality and the mind, for example – but of course these are parts of ‘everything’. Of course, when physicists say ‘theory of everything’, they don’t really mean it; they mean a theory that unifies the fundamental forces. The only reason for being pedantic here is because sometimes unsuspecting non-physicists take them as meaning a theory of everything.

3:AM There are philosophers like Michael Tye who defend a materialist theory of the mind but you find all arguments for the position unattractive. Why can’t minds be material stuff?

TC: There’s that great Irish joke: a man is lost in the countryside, stops a passer-by: ‘how do I get to Dublin?’. The passer-by says ‘well, I wouldn’t start from here’. Rather than starting by talking in the abstract about materialism, dualism, ‘material stuff’ and things like that, I would rather start from somewhere else. Suppose we are interested in the mind or mental phenomena (consciousness, thought, emotion etc.). What sorts of things have minds, what sorts of things are the subjects of mental phenomena? The obvious answer is the person or the organism. The organism has certain mental capacities: perception, memory, imagination, decision-making and so on. Psychology as a science studies these capacities empirically; philosophy can have something to say about them at a more abstract level. Is there any reason to identify these capacities, or the possession of these capacities, with ‘material stuff’? What possesses these capacities is an organism, and an organism is a physical being in the sense that it has physical properties. And it is a plain truth that the basis of mental capacities is the brain.

But we have no reason to identify these capacities with material stuff – and nor should we identify them with ‘immaterial’ stuff! We should not identify them with ‘stuff’ at all. Stuff is not the issue. Capacities are capacities of the organism; capacities are not ‘stuff’ even if they are had by things that are made of ‘stuff’. In short: I don’t think it is helpful it is to think in terms of stuff and minds being ‘made of’ stuff. (Even Descartes, the leading dualist, did not think that minds were made of stuff: since minds do not have parts, they are not made of anything.) There is of course a famous argument to the effect that if mental states or capacities have physical effects, and the physical world is causally closed, then mental states themselves must be physical. David Papineau has developed this argument in more detail than anyone else I know. I have written quite a bit about this, a lot of it stimulated by David’s work, but my short response is that I can’t see why any plausible reading of the principle that the physical world is causally closed should rule out mental causation of physical effects. (A longer response can be found in chapter 2 of my book, Elements of Mind.) So if I was going to sum up my approach to this whole issue, I would say this: the question is often formulated in a very bad way – for example, by posing the question in terms of stuff. It’s better to start with the things we do know: for example, that there are people and other thinking creatures, who have mental capacities. Our next step should be to say something about these capacities.

3:AM: You don’t think externalism, of the sort that say Honderich and P.F. Strawson defend, can explain consciousness either do you?

TC: A lot of the debate about externalism strikes me as somewhat confused. Of course, what we think about is often external to us. Who would deny that? Descartes – often claimed as the original ‘internalist’ – did not deny this. So what is the issue? Contemporary externalists say that not just what we think about, but also the ‘contents’ of our thoughts – what we think, what distinguishes one thought from another – is externally ‘individuated’. What they mean is that (for example) when we think that water is all around us, this thought is essentially related to water itself, and so cannot be had in a world lacking water. I don’t think we need to commit ourselves to this strong claim about ‘individuation’ of thoughts. The assumption they rely on is that a difference in what is thought about implies a difference in thought (content). Without this assumption, there is no argument. But the assumption is not plausible, for the reasons I explain in chapter 4 of Elements of Mind.

Since I don’t believe in externalism, I don’t think it can explain consciousness! So I do think it’s important to distinguish between intentionalism about consciousness and externalism about consciousness. Intentionalism says that consciousness is a form of intentionality – the representation of things to the mind. Externalism says that these things have to exist in order for them to be represented, or presented. These are different views.

3:AM: When you argue that because we won’t find any simple correlates between consciousness and neural activity what we need to do is rearrange our current knowledge so we get a good idea of what consciousness is, you’re saying we’re confused not ignorant. Doesn’t a lot of the stuff coming out of x-phi and, say, the work of Schwitzgebel and Carruthers, show that we are systematically in the dark about our conscious states and so we’re more ignorant than you suppose?

TC: What I am against is the idea that in the search for the correlates of consciousness, we already have a clear idea of what we are looking for, and we have to find the neural correlate of that. I don’t think we are in this situation: we are fundamentally confused about what consciousness is. For instance, we have no proper understanding of the relationship between conscious thought and conscious sensation. The various forms of thought and sensation are underpinned by very different neural mechanisms; so how can the neural correlate of their conscious natures be the same? I don’t think we are yet in a position to make such speculations. To make progress, we have to have a good conception of the phenomenology of consciousness, among other things. I think we are very prone to errors about this, for all sorts of reasons; but I don’t think that Eric Schwitzgebel and Peter Carruthers have said anything which persuades me that such a job is impossible.

3:AM: Pat Churchland might say that you are being too pessimistic about getting the research programme sorted out so that we can get at a science of the taste of chicken soup, Chateau Latour and even wet slate. When Dave Chalmers suggests his zombie world, he’s just predicting that we can’t, she says. But aren’t you saying that there’s a necessary reason why science is going to hit a roadblock?

TC: It’s not a roadblock: it’s just an inevitable consequence of the difference between the knowledge you get by experiencing something and the knowledge you get when theorising about it. So I think you can have a science of the taste of chicken soup, or the taste of Chateau Latour. My point is only that knowing this science alone will not tell you what chicken soup or Chateau Latour tastes like. I make this point in my paper ‘Subjective Knowledge’.

3:AM: That top guys like yourself and Dave Chalmers discuss dualism will surprise a lot of people who have been beaten over the head for years by Dan Dennett and others saying that the Cartesian theatre view of the mind, of a disembodied homunculi, is a daft idea explaining nothing and requiring an infinite regress. But you have some careful thoughts about the idea of dualism, and even souls, which doesn’t buy substance dualism or immortal souls but does enable us to have a notion of persons as irreducible individuals, don’t you?

TC: Thanks for the leading question! Yes. As I said before I want to start, not with the exclusive and exhaustive opposition between Cartesian dualism and materialism, but with what we know about actual subjects of experience: people and other animals. I do think there is a place for something like a notion of substance, but I prefer the Aristotelian version of this notion to the Cartesian one. That is, I think that philosophy (and science) needs the idea that the world divides into natural real unities, and people and animals are among those unities. People might be substances in this sense (rather in the way that P.F. Strawson argued in Individuals). I don’t claim any great originality for this line of thought; my inspirations here are David Wiggins and my former teacher E.J. Lowe, as well as Aristotle and Leibniz.

Daniel Dennett has attacked the idea of the Cartesian Theatre (‘a place in the brain where it all comes together’). I think he’s right that this is a mistake, but I think it’s a bit of a straw man. I believe that there is such a thing as the subject’s point of view, or the point of view of a subject of experience. This is part of reality and the subject-matter for psychological investigation. To believe in this (e.g. to believe that there is such a thing as the visual field) does not imply a belief in the Cartesian Theatre, as defined above.

3:AM: You want to resist reductionist tendencies that say that psychological reality can be reduced to the science of the mind or to physical features of the brain. You say that you are resisting scientism and not science, but why isn’t your position implying that scientific knowledge of minds eludes science as well as scientism? Can you say something about this?

TC: I like to think of myself as a naturalist – insofar as that term is at all clear. Although a lot of my work on the mind has been rather abstract and philosophical, I’m interested in psychology and neuroscience and I don’t think there are any principled distinctions between the kind of knowledge we get from science and the knowledge we get from philosophy. (I do think that philosophy and science are very different intellectual enterprises, but that does not mean that when we get knowledge from philosophy it is a different kind of knowledge.) If you are a naturalist about some subject-matter X, you should be open to all sources of knowledge about X. But I think of naturalism as an epistemically cautious enterprise. So naturalists should be open to reductionism where it seems to be available, but they should not commit to it as a metaphysical principle. As I see it, naturalism is a methodological rather than a metaphysical view. It’s because I am a naturalist, actually, that I am sceptical about physicalism. This might sound paradoxical, but what I mean is this: physicalism as it is formulated today is a very strong claim, it’s a claim about metaphysical necessity. In the now standard version which comes from David Lewis, it says that any minimal physical duplicate of the actual world is a duplicate in every respect.

On broadly naturalistic grounds, I don’t think we are in a position to know that this view (as opposed to some kind of weaker view, like emergence) is true. The evidence we have points only to causal correlations and to lawlike dependence between the mental and the physical; it is silent on the metaphysically necessary determination of the first by the second. Or so I say. As I said before, there are no a priori obstacles to the scientific knowledge of the mind, but the scientific knowledge of the mind is not all the knowledge of the mind that there is. This is not an objection to science, it is just a distinction between different kinds of knowledge.

3:AM: You deny P.M.S. Hacker’s claim that certain ‘grammatical’ remarks by Wittgenstein solve the problem of intentionality. There’s been a huge amount of recent work on intentionality – and philosophers following the Wittgensteinian lead such as Anscombe, McDowell. You find some of this stuff ‘provocative and suggestive’ but in the end unsatisfactory. What do you say are the main problems with this type of approach to issues of intentionality?

TC: I find a lot of what Wittgenstein says very interesting and stimulating, but I don’t think he had worked out the answers to a lot of the questions he posed (even to his own satisfaction, I am sure). But I am stimulated by what he says, and I have been inspired by many of his insights. One of the many things I have learned from him is the importance of paying attention to the diversity of phenomena, and of learning how we can be content with this diversity, without trying to fit everything into one mould or pattern. Another thing I think I have learned from Wittgenstein is the importance of not making things up: philosophers should not invent problems, and they should also be conscious of the risk of inventing pointless ‘technical’ machinery which do not offer real explanations, but often just re-state the known facts in a more complex way.

I have not learned so much from the followers of Wittgenstein, with a few exceptions (e.g. the writings of G.E.M. Anscombe, or John McDowell). I find a lot of what the followers say dogmatic and ideological: fitting things into a simple model in a way that strikes me as rather un-Wittgensteinian in spirit. Wittgensteinians often rely on uncritical appeals to notions like ‘grammar’ when it is not at all clear what this means (sometimes ‘grammatical’ truths are just necessary truths, sometimes conceptual truths, sometimes something else; but whatever they are, they are not grammatical truths). They sometimes go on as if Wittgenstein has demonstrated that philosophical problems rest on some simple errors or linguistic/conceptual confusions. I think very few philosophical problems are like this, and the Wittgensteinians have failed to make anything like a plausible case that they are. Given the complexity of the issues surrounding intentionality, it is very unlikely that some simple confusion is at the heart of all the difficulties here. Wittgensteinians often lack a historical sense too. They speculate about the origins or sources of philosophical problems without apparently acknowledging the fact that the problems we have derive from particular texts in particular intellectual and cultural traditions.

Problems come and go over time, and to understand why is a difficult historical task. If one wanted to find the origin of a problem, historical research and close attention to texts is what is needed, not unconstrained speculation about the ‘pictures’ that philosophers must be in the grip of. Again, I find this unappealingly ideological. (Think of all the rubbish that has been written about ‘Cartesian’ views of the mind and how they are responsible for all today’s errors in the philosophy of mind.) I have a general moral: great philosophers may be great, but that is not a reason to follow them. Don’t be a follower. Work it out for yourself.

3:AM: The approach of some of the philosophers involved in this approach to intentionality, in particular McDowell, takes Wilfred Sellar’s attack on the myth of the given as a key to making progress. You take issue with his understanding of what the ‘myth’ is don’t you, siding with Charles Travis’ understanding of it, and then argue that in perception we need a phenomenological non-mythical given. Is that right? Is this in a way saying that something like qualia are necessary givens?

TC: I think we can rehabilitate the idea of the given, but I have no use for the notion of qualia. I think what is given to us – in visual experience, say – are the ordinary things around us. You are absolutely right that I side with Travis against McDowell on this question. However, I depart from him in thinking of consciousness and experience in terms of the idea of representation or intentionality.

3:AM: If Wittgenstein and his followers is someone you are reluctant to follow, is Jerry Fodor and his idea of a mental architecture including a ‘Language of Thought’, more to your liking? Do Fodor’s views mesh with your own approaches to the mind?

TC: I started out as something of a follower of Fodor – my first book, The Mechanical Mind was a defence of many Fodorian ideas. I’m still a fan, Fodor is great; but I’m not a follower (don’t be a follower). The ‘Language of Thought’ hypothesis is very speculative, and although there are some interesting general arguments in its favour, I can’t see that it is the future paradigm for cognitive science. Of course, computational models are still central to the study of the mind. But I now find myself less sympathetic to Fodor’s ‘industrial strength’ realism about computational psychology, and more sympathetic to views that take seriously the idea that computational models are just that: models.

Robert Cummins’s 1980s book, Meaning and Mental Representation got a lot of things right, I feel. And recently I’ve belatedly realised how many insights there are in Daniel Dennett’s work, something I rather neglected when I wrote The Mechanical Mind. The other part of the 1980s project which I now find uninteresting is the attempt to give a ‘theory of content’ by stating conditions in non-intentional terms for something to represent something else. Well, I say ‘uninteresting’, but I guess I mean ‘a failure’. A real naturalistic approach, I would claim, should take the reality of mental representation as a natural fact. A lot can be said about this fact, but there is no need to say it all in terms of necessary and/or sufficient conditions which are stated in non-intentional terms. The idea that naturalism might require that all the truths should be stated in a particular kind of vocabulary now strikes me as a very peculiar one. I suspect it derives from Quine, like many of the peculiar ideas in contemporary analytic philosophy.

One thing I like about Fodor’s recent work is his attack on what he calls ‘pragmatism’: the idea that mental representation is not a basic fact about us but should be explained in terms of ideas like practice, inference or abilities. Fodor’s arguments against pragmatism are very interesting and although I don’t find all of them convincing I do think that the underlying thought – that representation is fundamental and prior to inference, practice etc. – is dead right.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, November 16th, 2012.