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Our best scientific picture depicts us as sophisticated meat robots. Organized by biological evolution, physics ultimately explains the movements of our bodies and the firing of the networks in our brains.

This reductionist understanding presents us with a challenge. What do we do when mechanistic explanations seem to run in parallel with mentalistic explanations?

Suppose you are persuaded by the arguments of a (hypothetical) philosopher, Smith. When asked to explain why you are persuaded, you will talk about the logic of Smith's arguments, and the reasons why you think Smith's description of the world is better than those of his colleagues. However, if you also accept the scientific picture of our world, you implicitly claim that there is another explanation for your attitude towards Smith. Implicitly, the motions of the atoms and molecules in you, Smith and the world collectively cause you to utter the words "Smith is better than his colleagues!"

Can both explanations for your opinion of Smith be true at the same time?

Similar questions surround the concept of "intentionality." Intentionality is the aboutness of a thought. When you think about Smith's theory of mathematics, you take yourself to be thinking about mathematical objects. But, on the molecular view of the situation, it is more difficult to locate the subject of mathematics in the molecular description of your thoughts. Can the interactions of molecules ever be said to constitute thinking about mathematics? 

This problem of intentionality is considered a live problem in the philosophy of mind.

Finally, if we don't see any conflict in maintaining conceptual and physical explanations of the same phenomena, then we can ask whether the two sorts of explanations are really comparable. For example, is a subconscious inference an admissible form of epistemological justification?

Suggested Reading

See Intentionality at Wikipedia and Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


*To help set expectations for attendees, we, the organizers, are trying out ways of rating meetup events for technical level and contentiousness. The more stars in the rating, the more important it is to be familiar with the concepts discussed or to have read work on the topic in question before going into the meeting. The more chili peppers in the rating, the more likely it is that members will be staking out positions, stating their own arguments for conclusions, and the more comfortable we all are with criticism of those ideas. The meetup organizer will ultimately be responsible for setting the tone and keeping the the meeting on track.

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  • Brian

    So what happened at Robo-wars?

    May 9, 2014

    • Adam

      As we always will. I mean they... as they will...

      1 · May 9, 2014

    • Rick O.

      We're waiting for The One

      May 9, 2014

  • eric

    Can all I's and We's be converted to It's? By translating 1st and 2nd person perspectives to 3rd person perspectives what do we gain, what do we lose? Why restrict truth to It language? It only seems to solve the "problem" of intentionality by translating 'intention' as 'behavior'. You know the old joke about the two behaviorists? One says to the other...can you please tell me how I feel?

    2 · May 7, 2014

    • Rick O.

      Let's suppose there is a model that maps my brain and can make predictions. Then I may also suppose a model that proves that model wrong.

      May 8, 2014

    • Rick O.

      my favorite Economist joke (there aint many of them) from my student days:

      3 people shipwrecked on an island with a can of beans - engineer, physicist, and economist. They need to figure out how to open the can. Engineer proposes a lever device. Physicist proposes a fire. Economist says "first, assume a can opener."

      1 · May 8, 2014

  • jerryvp

    A paraphrase from Simone Weil's essay, On Scientism... de Broglie says henceforth determinism can never be held again except as a postulate. But it never was more than a postulate except to the mind of a physicist. Look to the sea, and see if the waves reveal a rigorous certainty.

    2 · May 5, 2014

    • jerryvp

      Weil's essay is pro-philosophy and to a degree anti-philistine. The would-be philistine she schools happens to be a physicist. .. My own assent is to the reasonableness of parallel description.

      May 6, 2014

  • Chad B.

    Anyone who isn't afraid of robots hasn't seen "Heartbeeps."

    1 · May 6, 2014

  • mariann

    Part III: As for your last question- as much as I love- LOVE- phenomenology I do think its too optimistic about our human (fleshy robot) capacity to experience things-in-themselves, without any reference to the things going on in our subconscious.

    1 · May 6, 2014

  • mariann

    Part II: We still have work to do, though. It gets tricky once you start to explore how concepts are sensory inputs as well. We don't just experience the things that are happening to our five senses- we also perceive ideas, concepts, vague feelings, and memories- all which are given shape or interpreted through words. I hate to bring up Saussure again- but he states a similar limitation with empirical science as it attempts to pin down meaning. Even if we could empirically observe the molecular activity of the brain as it attaches a concept- like math- to speech, and even the minute steps involved in the speech utterance- we still would have many unanswered questions. What is this "consciousness" apprehending the concept "math"? Where does the concept come from? Is my apprehension of it accurate? And are we fixing a proper sign to it, when we speak about it?

    May 6, 2014

  • mariann

    The renewed emphasis on the body, rather than the soul, is probably the most important philosophical innovation in the West. Ancient and medieval theories of the pure soul or intellect, the thinking-thing as the prime mover of the universe, simply do not explain our lived experiences as happening in, of, and to our bodies, which are basically fleshy robots.

    2 · May 6, 2014

  • Jack

    Ivan---Sorry, but my molecules are tied up that evening.

    2 · May 6, 2014

  • Thrashionalist

    Just to clarify the rating system: One out of three stars means little-to-no preparation/advance knowledge expected. Three out of three peppers means we should expect a very argumentative atmosphere. Ivan, does this sound accurate?

    1 · May 5, 2014

  • Jenny T.

    Wow, love the title.

    1 · May 5, 2014

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