Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Orwellian or Stalinesque

Now that we've discussed Taylor Carman's paper "On the Inescapability of Phenomenology," what do you all make of his conclusion about Dennett's proposed explanation of the phi phenomenon: "If we are unable to choose between the Stalinesque and the Orwellian hypothesis in the case of perceptions of very quickly flashing spots of light (i.e., color phi phenomenon), then, it is not because the two hypotheses are equally good when extended to the general case, as Dennett seems to suggest, but because they are equally bad."

You all saw the moving and color changing dots, so is it indeed "utterly preposterous to suggest that no one can ever really see continuity, movement, or color change in the phi phenomenon" (p. 75)?

No yes or no answers: do at least seem to care about this subtle point. 


  1. Everybody is going to see the situation of apparent motion differently. What if one person did not see the spot in the middle, while others did? Or what if someone didn’t notice that the dots looked like they were moving around in circle rather they were individually blinking? Wouldn’t this just be a situation with the difference between the person who could see the “apparent motion” and the one who didn’t by how his or her brain is wired? In neither case would the situation be considered a false memory? This is a physicalism point of view I suppose. For example, people are constantly making lists to go to the grocery store some people may prepare for bed the same way each night by: brushing his or her teeth, putting on pajamas, then getting into bed or preparing for the day in the same order by: eating breakfast, brushing his or her teeth, then getting dressed. We have order to our lives which appears to be sequential. People remember things as they see them or don’t see them. Maybe people tend to fill in gaps at times because our brains like sequential order.

  2. I am not sure if i am getting Dennet's position correct, but he seems to be claiming that there is no difference between perception and cognition. If that is the case, then I think that his position is incorrect. There seems to be a distinction between the two types of phenomenon. Perception seem to be something like the sensing of direct external stimuli. On the other hand, cognition seems to involve concepts, which are formed by perception and amenable to what Prinz calls organismic control. That is, if it is raining outside and I look out the window, I cannot help but see that it is raining. However, even if it is not raining I can willfully token the concept "rain." If Dennet is claiming that when we "see" it rain we are really just using concepts to judge that it is raining, then there is no difference between perception and cognition, or more accurately, there is no perception at all only cognition. If this is Dennet's position, then I feel that it is too strong to be correct.

  3. To employ the ambiguity of an optical illusion and thus insist that "perceptual seeming" must collapse into "conceptual contents of judgements" is effectively countered in Carmen's critique of Dennett (invoking the insights of Merleau-Ponty):

    • Merleau-Ponty (p. 73): intellectual accounts of perception ignore the "embodied & environmentally situatedness of experience".
    •Again, Merleau-Ponty (p.76) ... rejects any analysis of consciousness in terms of ... qualia, ... that has determinate objective properties of its own, independent of the intentional content of experience."

    Dennett may have cogent arguments against the phenomenologic aspects of consciousness; the color phi phenomenon is not a very strong one.

  4. Sorry I took so long, I was having trouble posting.

    I doubt that Dennett would claim that the subject did not see color change or movement. The two choices illustrate that the subject's qualia (as they are conceived) are fallible. Dennett does want to deny qualia, but only for the reason that he thinks that the notion of qualia is misunderstood. Thus we can have the kind of experience as seeing motion or color change when there is none.

    In his paper "Quining Qualia", (which I don't believe was cited or part of the books cited by Dennett in Carman's paper) Dennett goes through what he considers his denial of qualia. The paper is a very interesting read, and I can’t exactly go through it all. He considers that the philosophical definition of qualia as an experience which is: "ineffable, intrinsic, private, and directly or immediately apprehensible in consciousness". It is put more favorably at times as: "the qualitative or phenomenal features of sense experience", but in defining those descriptive words we may tend to use similar descriptions. Dennett poses examples that force us to reconsider qualia as they are formulated, showing ways in which they may not have the properties listed above.
    The claim in phenomenology seems to be that the subjective understanding of qualia IS the only true understanding (forgive me if I'm not entirely correct), but "we normally think in confused and potentially incoherent ways when we think about the way things seem to us". Dennett does not deny experience (most people link physical and phenomenal experience, i.e. neural correlates of consciousness), but qualia talk which is distinct from judgments about experience seems impossible because qualia does not necessarily have the properties it is assumed to have. When we figure out that our experience was wrong, that the circles were not in fact moving, we may want to claim “I must’ve filled in my experience with incorrect information regarding the motion of the circles (Stalinesque)” or “I experienced motion because my memory altered the events to be consistent with what I would expect from the world (Orwellian)”. However, Dennett does not actually have to choose between the two options because the claims come from our misunderstanding of qualia. If we don’t privilege qualia, then our experience could be considered “relative” and “a result of our responses to public properties in idiosyncratic manners”. So we can judge that there is motion depending on the physical experience that accompanies the phi phenomenon, where it may be possible that certain viewers do not experience motion. One particular illustration Dennett uses is the ability to taste phenol-thio-urea, which some humans experience as bitter and others experience it as tasteless depending on other things they’ve tasted.

    I can't say how much or how little I agree with this position (it usually takes me some time to figure out who I agree with, and a lot of the time, I take the Louis Armstrong on jazz position (as expressed by Ned Block about qualia): "if you don't know what jazz is by now, you ain't never gonna find out"), and I wish I could explain more of the arguments from the paper, but I don't exactly have time to write a paper on it at the moment.

  5. I do think that both claims are equally bad as Carman says; however, I am also unwilling to say that the subject did not see any kind of color change or movement. Instead of the example telling us something direct about our brains, I think it tells us something more specific about our vision system and also about judgment of perception. The perception of the phi phenomena is a lot like the perception of something that is actually moving and changing color, so close that the eye and thus the brain cannot discern the difference.


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