Monday, July 29, 2013

Naturalism and the First-Person Perspective. A preliminary sketch

In recent times, scientific naturalism has been widely accepted among philosophical circles. Modern scientific naturalism, broadly construed, claims that all the elements of reality must fall within the purview of science. This means: (1) reality is what science says it is, and nothing more; (2) we must rely on scientific methods to investigate reality and to justify knowledge. From an ontological point of view, scientific naturalism could be understood as an inventory of facts and properties expressible in impersonal ways. As a consequence, naturalism poses a serious problem for the distinctiveness of first-personal phenomena. In fact, if we take naturalism to be the most comprehensive worldwide view according to which all there is is stated by science, specifically by physics, how can there be room for the claim that “I am GV”, that is, “I am” an individual subject capable of a personal point of view on the universe? Is my being GV a sort of misleading illusion produced by the brain? Is my being GV, and my claim “I am GV”, reducible to third-personal descriptions or facts, such as, for example, neural states, behavioral patterns or some other scientific explications? Naturalists tend to respond that no particular or distinctive properties are involved in first-personal phenomena. Such phenomena can be successfully eliminate or at least reduce to microphysical level. The main difference between a chair and me, they believe, is a matter of conceptual description not of actual constituents, i.e. physical particles and properties, that are obviously the same. If we press ourselves along this line of reasoning, naturally a question arise: are we going to lose something important about ourselves by assuming the truth of scientific naturalism as a general framework of knowledge and ontology?

Lynne Rudder Baker tackles this difficult issue in her latest book (Naturalism and the First-Person Perspective, OUP 2013). Following a twofold strategy, she intends to show that naturalism, in both its reductive and non-reductive forms, proves to be untenable. In order to accomplish the task, she gives in Part I a Core Argument along with some cases against reductive and eliminative approaches to first-person perspective. As such, the Core Argument does not need any metaphysical backing but avail itself of phenomenological explications of first-person dispositional characters (i.e. consciousness and self-consciousness). The second part of the strategy, that is, the elaboration of a general metaphysical background which consists in a kind of non-Cartesian picture of the human person ontology, it can be accepted or rejected on the base of considerations logically independent from those supporting the Core Argument. In sum, the first part relies on phenomenological analysis intended to dismantle naturalism by proving the irreducibility of first-personal facts, while the second part presents an ontology of human person more accommodating to the distinctiveness of first-personal dispositions.

The first-person perspective: the robust stage
Before dealing appropriately with naturalism, Baker draws on phenomenological analysis concerning first-personal data. Investigating first-personal characters provides materials in view of subsequent criticism of naturalism and sets the stage for ontological considerations which are further developed in detail; therefore, the distinction between the rudimentary and robust stages of first-person perspective, roughly corresponding to the distinction between consciousness and self-consciousness respectively, deserves scrupulous attention.
The robust stage qualifies the conceptual ability to conceive of oneself as oneself from the first-person. To recognize that “I am not only the thinker of the thought, but also I (thought of in the first person) am part of the object of my thought” (p.33), one have to possess a “self-concept”, that is, a concept of oneself from one’s own point of view, along with the ability to convey it with appropriate linguistic expressions like reflective pronouns such as “I (myself)”, “he (himself)” etc. As such, this kind of ability involving a complex use of language is properly possessed only by human beings which developed it at an early stage of their life usually not before the second year. This is precisely the most relevant mark of distinction between humans and animals. In fact, while a toddler can possibly refers to himself as himself by expressing, for example, disappointment to a fellow who has taken possession of “his” toys (Baker’s example), the same cannot occur in the case of dogs or other higher animals like chimpanzees.
However, the ability to correctly use reflexive pronouns does not amount to possessing a self-concept yet. This is where “I*”, intended to express complex sentences or “I*-sentences”, comes into play (we may think of I*-sentences as sentences which embed a ‘that clause’ such as ‘I doubt that I* will live to be ninety’ or ‘I whispered that I* am sorry’, etc.).

I” is a pronoun of direct reference. “I” is used to refer directly to oneself, regardless of how one characterizes oneself. “I*” is referentially opaque. “I*” is used to refer to oneself characterized in the first person, by means of a self-concept. (p.36)

To illustrate the point, consider the truth-conditions of a simple sentence like “I am overweight”. The phrase is true only if I am actually overweight. This is of course independent of how I may conceive of myself. But the sentence “I believe I* am overweight” (an I*-sentence) is true only if I have a self-concept. It is worth noting that while the “I” in the first sentence is eliminable (by translating the sentence in “GV is overweight”), the self-concept used in the second is not. In fact, the corresponding translation “GV believes that he* is overweight” would embed an attribution of a self-concept: “Whereas I*-sentences and I*-thoughts are self-attributions of first-person reference, he* (or she*)-sentences and he*-thoughts are attibutions to others of first-person reference […] At most, he*-sentences only attribute self-concepts but are no less first-personal for all that” (p.34). In sum, the use of “I” refers to the fact that I am the producer of the sentence, while the use of “I*” reveals that I am the one who is spoken of in the first person (so, reference is distinct from attribution and self-attribution of first-person perspective, and may be at most an indirect manifestation of a robust first-person perspective). According to Lynne Baker, this second character of first-person perspective, that is, the ability to have a self-concept or to express self-attributions of first-person reference, is an irreducible and ineliminable disposition of human beings.
Before moving to the rudimentary stage, two important points are to be mentioned. First, the reference to I*-thoughts does not imply the existence of “the self” as a distinct object in the world: “As we shall see later, I*-thoughts need no recourse to any peculiar object like a self, or a soul, or an ego. What one thinks of from a first-person perspective is oneself, an embodied person.” (p. 36). Second, we need to bear in mind that the kind of self-consciousness Baker is talking about is strongly connected with action and practical reflection. Not only “The capacity to use I*-language (i.e., a robust first-person perspective) is constitutive of self-consciousness” (p.39) as an abstract mental function, but also “We make sense of actions by asking for reasons and getting answers that start with ‘I thought that I*….’ or ‘I did not realize that I* was doing that’” (p.34).

The first-person perspective: the rudimentary stage
By introducing the rudimentary stage of the first-person perspective, Baker has the opportunity to throw some light on another important ontological differentiation between humans and animals.
The rudimentary first-person perspective identifies the perspective of a sentient being capable of intentional or goal-oriented behavior. Such a perspective involves the capacity to perceive the world from a particular spatio-temporal location without any reference to linguistic or conceptual abilities. To be a “perceiver” in this context means that the organism in question could be represented as an agent. Quite hastily, Lynne Baker excludes from her inventory not only plants, of course not sentient beings in that sense neither agents, but also spiders, which are said to possess a “too rudimentary” form of sentience and intentionality (see footnote n.15 p.41). I’m inclined to think that certain nonhuman species possess intentionality at a greater degree then it is usually recognized (I am inclined to think that at least all animals provided with eyes must share some form of rudimentary perspective). Such doubts, however, do not affect the central point that, according to Baker, human infants have essentially a rudimentary perspective, while nonhumans have it only contingently. The difference does not lie in the way they make use of rudimentary abilities, but in the relation between those abilities and the capacity to develop a robust first-person perspective.   

Nonhuman primates and other higher animals have rudimentary first-person perspectives: They are conscious, and they have psychological states like believing, fearing, and desiring. They have points of view (e.g. “danger in that direction”), but there is no evidence that they can conceive of themselves as the subjects of such thoughts. Much the same can be said for young human beings who can assert simple I-sentences without having a self-concept. For example, a toddler, just learning to speak, may say, “I want…” without yet having a concept of herself. Indeed, her assertion of “I want” may be equivalent to her assertions of “Baby want” or just “Want”. (p. 43)

Human infants and some other primates do not have a robust first-person perspective because they lack self-consciousness along with other related linguistic and conceptual abilities. Nontheless, human infants are a kind of organisms that essentially develop self-consciousness while chimpanzees and dogs are not. As a consequence, human infants are the only living beings which deserve the name of “persons” even if they lack self-consciousness. The inventory can be schematized as follow:

Human adults
Robust (self-consciousness)
Human infants (0-2 years)

Essentially rudimentary (consciousness)
Chimpanzees and other primates, dogs…etc

Contingently rudimentary (consciousness)
(Intelligent) animals
(“too rudimentary”)
Sentient beings (mechanic reactions, no intentionality)

There are two related problematic distinctions that might draw some criticism. As I see it, the distinction between dogs and spiders is a matter of degree and does not entail any strong ontological separation. This is of course a matter of argument. In any case, whatever it might be for spiders and dogs, the line between human infants and chimpanzees seems to me to be even more porous. Human infants (2 years, maybe less, before the acquisition of language) do not show something radically different from other primates in any of their actual capacities. In a certain sense, Baker seems to be aware of that when she turns to self-consciousness in order to find a distinctively human ability.

Creatures with only rudimentary first-person perspectives, along with creatures with no first-person perspectives at all, have only biologically given goals and drives that they cannot evaluate or modify, whereas beings with robust first-person perspectives can evaluate and modify their goals. Unlike chimpanzees, persons have many goals that are unrelated to survival and reproduction. (p. 44).

Persons can revise and modify their goals and drives whereas other primates cannot. Nonhuman animals are strongly depended on biological roles like survival and reproduction whereas human infants share “the further role of bringing into existence a person…” (p. 45). This is quite right; however, I am skeptical on how a child can show more competence in revising drives and goals than a chimpanzee. In the second part of the book, Baker will introduce the concept of temporal properties to solve this problem (it seems that an infant, according to Baker, possesses self-consciousness as a not yet developed temporal property, while a chimpanzee does not). In conclusion, it might be said that at least the attribution of personality to infants is in a certain degree dependent on the ontological researches developed in the second part of the book.

Before moving on to ontology, however, next time I shall analyse the Core Argument in detail.   

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