Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Noë: Thinking versus Behaving

to insist that thinking and feeling happen in the brain is rather like insisting that speech — talking — happens in the brain. We could not speak without the brain, to be sure. But speech also depends on many other physical processes — such as articulatory movements in the mouth and throat, and also respiratory activity. And of course it depends on social circumstances, and needs. People speak, and they do so thanks to their brains, and mouths, and throats, and much else besides (e.g. the existence of socially shared linguistic practices!)
So, here is really the nub of something important. Speaking is a behavior, hence clearly constitutively involves more than just the brain.  Now, the proposal can be that thinking and feeling are also behaviors, in which case they too would constitutively involve more than just the brain. But, the analogy breaks down if thinking and feeling are not behaviors, but mental processes.  Didn't analytic philosophy work through this about fifty years ago?


  1. "Didn't analytic philosophy work through this about fifty years ago?"

    I don't know what "analytic philosophy" did, but in EPM Sellars (personified by the mythical Rylean ancestor Jones) proposed to attack thought by modeling it based on overt speech. Ie, he postulated a mental process that produced thoughts in a way analogous to how overt speech is produced. Jones then taught his fellow Rylean ancestors how to think about their own thoughts as analogous to their overt speech, thereby developing an ability to report in some detail and with some degree of credibility what they were thinking. In so doing, Jones in a sense made private thoughts subject to the intersubjectivity he considered necessary for justification. Ie, people could then "compare notes" re their thinking using a common methodology.

    To that extent, Jones rendered thinking behavioral, but observed and reported from a 1-POV rather than a 3-POV. At least that's my totally unauthoritative take on it.

  2. A personal note. As a virtual student of Jones, I have come to view thoughts as not only modeled by overt speech but as actually being formulated but unvocalized speech. I've conducted completely unscientific, credibility-free experiments such as entering a meditative state that I assume more-or-less corresponds to Zen "no-mind" wherein I stop the internal dialog while viewing a feature rich scene. I'm clearly subject to confirmation bias, but FWIW it seems to me that despite being fully aware of the environment I'm not having anything reasonably describable as "thoughts". (Do try this at home!)

  3. The plausibility of the EPM analysis, it seems to me, depends on just what features of natural language are supposed to be imputed to thought. I'm ok with having mentalese, like natural languages, have a combinatorial syntax and semantics, but maybe not other things, like "feature checking" as articulated in the minimalist program.

    I vaguely understand the EPM idea, but I don't see how it is of that much help in understanding how vision works (which is something about which scientists have some decent ideas). I also don't see how one reconciles this thought-modeled-on-language idea with the similarities, such as they are, between chimps and humans. Other animals do appear to think, even though they don't appear to have natural language. I buy wholesale, I guess, the Chomskyan idea that natural language is a cognitive capacity unique to humans in the way trunks are unique to elephants.

  4. Jones' idea wasn't to hypothesize that thoughts are equivalent to overt speech in any sense, only to suggest overt speech as the basis for a model of thought that would allow his fellow Ryleans to evolve a vocabulary that could be used to discuss and report their own thoughts. The model would evolve just as any model does as more insight is gained, so some assumed features initially assumed to be shared with overt speech might be eliminated, features not initially assumed to be common might be added, and features unique to thought (if any) would be added. Perhaps the relationship is analogous to that between a solar system and the Bohr model, which wasn't right but presumably helped a generation of physicists to gain better insight into actual atomic structure.

    Sorry, but I don't see how this relates to vision. And because overt speech is the just the basis for the assumed model for thought, thought itself need not be or require language. So, I don't think there is a conflict between an organism sans language having thoughts.

    All said as if I had a good grasp of that part of EPM, which I don't. Take it with a grain (shaker) of salt.