Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Mind and its Place in Nature
Willem deVries


Summary by Marissa Anderson

Philosophy and the Mind As We Know It

This class’s discussion was led by professor deVries where he introduced philosophy and the concept of consciousness.  Most of what he told us, Dr. deVries explained, was stuff we already knew.  Philosophy takes a look at life, the known and the unknown, and tries to make sense of it all.  This is not necessarily an easy feat, especially when we discuss the concept of consciousness. 

We began the discussion with the short story “Strange Behavior” that was assigned for us to read before class.  The story was about humans going to visit an alien life form on the planet Gamma in the year 2050.  The planet Gamma was inhabited by two types of Gammas: the organic Gammas and the robot Gammas, which the humans had trouble distinguishing.  In order to explain what human life is like back on Earth, the Gammas and humans had a discussion of what a mind and consciousness are.  These did not translate to Gammese.  The humans concluded that the Gammas had no mind, were philosophical zombies, and therefore lacked what humans call “consciousness.”  The disconnect between the Gammas and the humans stemmed from a difference in interpreting the relationship between behaviors and actions and someone or something’s having a mind, or as the Gammas called it “the something else.”  The humans assumed minds were special entities that only their ‘possessors’ had real access too; the Gammas, in contrast, thought of minds not as special entities, but as whatever is exhibited in the complex behavior of intelligent beings.

The discussion turned to focus on pain and sensation.  Is pain a tangible object?  The neurotransmitters associated with pain can certainly be located in the brain.  But where exactly is pain coming from?  Does our tooth actually hurt, or are our brains misfiring?  Can we sense thoughts like we can sense a sight, sound, smell, or feel?  We know when we have a thought, but perhaps we do not sense it like we would from our afferent receptors.  The diction one uses to describe almost anything when discussing philosophy is key: words cannot be used as sloppily as we use them in daily rhetoric.  There is a relationship between the ways we acquire knowledge about the world around us and how we acquire knowledge of our own mental state.  But how do we acquire knowledge about our own mental state?  This relationship is very unclear; the human brain seems to be capable of several levels on consciousness.

Consciousness must be thought of as a marker of an organism’s status, known as creature-consciousness. 

State-consciousness deals with

Transitive consciousness addresses

For example: what you see in a hallucination purports to representation.  That is: one who is hallucinating may describe the light hanging from the ceiling as the sun.  The person is addressing that there is in fact a source of light; however what they describe the source of light as is not reality.  That hanging light is not the sun.  But how would you be able to tell the difference between reality and a vivid dream?  You may not be able to tell, or at least not on the surface until you gather more evidence to support or reject whether what you experienced was reality or not.

Do amoebas experience transitive consciousness?  Plants?  Dr. deVries thinks not…but how high up the ladder do we go until we reach conscious creatures?  The truth of the matter is that there is a gray area between the conscious and unconscious – we don’t actually know.  We begin by starting out with examples where we are familiar with the creature, such as humans or dogs, and work our way from there.  Conscious beings must have some representation of self.  However consciousness of something is not self-consciousness.  Self-consciousness is when one is very conscious of one thing in particular, namely oneself.  But we must remember that humans have the ability to be conscious of their consciousness.  Dogs probably cannot take an editorial standpoint on their mental state.  They just accept what they perceive as fact.  As far as we know: dogs are not capable of a second-order intentional state as humans are.  Humans possess the ability to reach this higher order of thought, in which we are capable of questioning our own thoughts and beliefs.  We can use our second-order desires to rule out our first order desires, such as fighting an addiction. 

The discussion moved to intentional states: representations of the world in a conscious state.  Intentionality, at first glance, seems to be relational, but it is not really relational.  The example presented: if you kick the bucket in the corner, you have thereby kicked the thing in the corner.  One can substitute a different description of the object in a normal relation salva veritate, but not in an intentional relation.  Intentional states represent something that may or may not be in existence, while sensory states present something to us, which is actual to us.  An example with a red rectangle was used.  A thought of a red rectangle is an intentional state, while seeing a red rectangle is a sensory state.