Theoretical Reasoning and Practical Behaviour


In a recent discussion on the relationship between phenomenology and hetrophenomenology an interesting criticism was made by philosopher Jennifer Pepin which I think warrants a brief discussion. The criticism on the face of it seems so outlandish that it may seem appropriate to dismiss it with a smile. However I since I have seen examples of this sloppy thinking used by other philosophers I think it is important to clarify explicitly what is wrong with the criticism. The criticism was as follows: A person who is a Hetrophenomenologist upon seeing a wild wolf run aggressively towards him cannot judge that the animal is about to attack but must rather stand there and consult a scientist before acting.  Now as I have said this caricature is so silly it is likely to bring a smile to most reasonable people’s faces. It could be taken to indicate that the person using such silly caricatures is so desperate to avoid the standard methods of science being applied to the mind that they will cling to any absurd caricature that helps them keep the mind as the last sanctuary of magic and mysticism. I will argue below that this is not the case, rather Jennifer, thinks Dennett is guilty of similar caricatures so she is playing him at his own game.

In a different context Alva Noe made similar criticisms. He was commenting on a recent spate of articles by psychologists and neuroscientists on issues discussing evidence that animals are conscious. Noe noted that we should not be impressed by these articles. We already know that animals are conscious we don’t need science to prove this for us. He went onto note that people who need a scientist to convince themselves that animals are conscious have something seriously psychologically wrong with them.

Another example of this thinking is seen by Massimo Pigliucci when discussing Trolley Problems he noted an interesting neuroscientific study. In the study people were asked the standard ethical questions about whether you would push a fat man over a bridge to save the lives of two other people about to be hit by a train. When these questions were being asked people were having an F-Mri scan done on them. The interesting discovery was that people who typically gave the pure utilitarian answers had brain patterns consistent with being a psychopath. Psychologist Bernard Baars used this study as a stick to attack utilitarian philosophers with. In our Facebook group ‘Philosophy, Science and Utube’ he launched a savage personal attack on Peter Singer, claiming that he was a psychopath and that his ethical theories can be dismissed on these grounds.

I should be clear from the start that neither, Jennifer, Massimo, or Alva launched such a stinging attack on their opponents. But they did however all make the similar mistake of confusing a theoretical view point with a question of lived practical day to day affairs. All humans have certain folk intuitions which are vital to helping us mediate our lived world of experience. These folk intuitions are so deeply embedded into our thought processes that we just take them for granted and barely even notice them as we go about our daily affairs. Some of these folk theories are vital for our day to day survival and if our brains are damaged in certain ways this will result in our practical engagement in the world being severely impaired[1]. Our folk theories are not always correct, for example, humans are Intuitive Dualists (See Paul Bloom’s Descartes Baby), but it doesn’t follow that dualism is true. In fact we have overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Nonetheless a child who was not born with this intuitive dualism would suffer severe developmental delays; for example, Autistic children suffer developmental delays as partial result of not being intuitive dualists (Baron-Cohen 1995). So here we can see a clear case of where our folk-psychology which leads to false philosophical conclusions can be very important for a child’s development.

Now let us now consider Alva Noe’s discussion of animal consciousness. There is a sense where he is correct. If a person went through their lives thinking that all other animals were not conscious. This would at the very least indicate a lack of empathy. Such a lack of empathy may affect the person’s interactions and behaviour towards animals and their fellow man. However, the preceding considerations have little to do with theoretical considerations. A philosopher or scientist who is considering the evidence for x or y cannot merely uncritically rely on their intuitions as they investigate what the truth is on a particular subject they are studying. Rather they have to construct tests which will either support or refute their intuitions or conjectures. Philosophers like Dennett and Descartes argue that animals MAY not be conscious, they are presenting theoretical arguments that they think support their position. The same thing is true of philosophers like Donald Davidson who argue that non-linguistic animals MAY not have propositional attitudes, and of scientists like Marion-Stamp Dawkins who argues that animals MAY not have consciousness. There is no reason to think that a person’s theoretical views must override a person’s intuitions. So, for example, people who discover an evolutionary/neurological explanation for his love of their child don’t simply stop loving their child. Likewise, a scientist could argue on theoretical grounds that some animals are not conscious; but while he theoretically believes this proposition, his intuitive folk psychology could override this theoretical belief in the scientist’s day to day activities. So while Alva is correct that a person who instinctively did not experience animals as conscious and needed scientists to prove that they are would be extremely odd. None of this really shows that there is anything wrong with scientific studies into animal consciousness nor that there is anything wrong with the public’s fascination with the topic.

It should be noted that if Alva could show that people who hold certain theoretical positions on the topic of animal consciousness behave in a certain way towards animals in daily life then this view would be very interesting. Noe has provided no such evidence, however it is certainly worth looking into. However, prior to providing such evidence, Noe’s observation that people who needed a scientist to tell them an animal is conscious would have something wrong with them, is of absolutely no consequence to the study of animal cognition and consciousness.

Similar considerations apply to Massimo’s observation that people who go for utilitarian solutions to Trolley problems have brain patterns of psychopaths. This is undoubtedly an interesting discovery. And an ethicist who ignored this fact would be foolish. However, from this interesting discovery it is massive stretch to argue that utilitarians like Peter Singer are psychopaths. It is pretty obvious that a person’s theoretical position on a topic in a philosophy discussion isn’t always a reliable indicator of their behaviour in a day to day life. So, for example, there is no evidence that a deontologist will always behave on ethical matters according to a list of ethical rules that they have formulated. Likewise the same thing is true of utilitarians. Peter Singer does not always behave as his theory maintains that he should. Philosophers are human’s and don’t always live up to their theoretical ideals. Because Peter Singer believes that Utilitarianism is the best moral philosophy doesn’t make him a psychopath. Philosophers should have the space to consider the pros and cons of a particular ethical system without being attacked on such a personal level. If people like Baars really want to maintain their personal attacks on Singer at the very least they will need some behavioural evidence to support their views.

I started this blog by discussing philosopher Jennifer Pepin’s erroneous views on hetrophenomenology. I should note that she is guilty of two things. Conflating theoretical beliefs with practical behaviour, and misinterpreting what hetrophenomenology is in the first place. Her claim that a hetrophenomenologist upon seeing an angry wolf running at him will need to consult a scientist to find out how to behave implies that a hetrophenomenologist bans the use of the intentional stance to interpret the behaviour of another. Obviously this is not the case. When discussing the Hetrophenomenological method in his ‘Consciousness Explained’ Dennett noted the importance of adopting the following stance:

This sort of interpretation calls for us to adopt what I call the Intentional Stance (Dennett, 1971, 1978a, 1987a): we must treat the noise-emitter as an agent, indeed a rational agent, who harbours beliefs and desires and other mental states that exhibit intentionality or aboutness, and whose actions can be explained (or predicted) on the basis of the content of these states. Thus the uttered noises are to be interpreted as things the subjects wanted to say, of propositions they meant to assert, for instance for, various reasons.” (Dennett: Consciousness Explained, p, 76)

So anybody who has read Dennett’s discussion of Hetrophenomenology in ‘Consciousness Explained’ chapter 4 pp. 66-98 will know that Dennett wants us to use the intentional stance. So there is no reason from Dennett’s point of view that he would not endorse using the intentional stance to interpret the behaviour of an oncoming wolf.

On the other hand, let us assume that (falsely) that Dennett was some radical behaviourist like Skinner. Nothing really changes in our interpretation of the behaviour of a wolf. In practical situations we will do what is expedient, our theoretical views usually don’t interfere with our daily survival unless we have a lot of time to use them. Perhaps if Skinner had unlimited time he could develop a stimulus response theory which is more practical than a folk-psychology approach, it is however doubtful.

At this point one may be wondering why I am wasting my time on such a silly caricature. My reason is simple I think it is very important that we do not attack theoretical positions by wrongly assuming that adopting them will have disastrous  behavioural consequences. Unless Baars, Noe, or Pepin can demonstrate their case that these theoretical approaches will have such behavioural consequences then their critiques amount to nothing more than a caricature. When I criticised Jennifer for caricaturing the hetrophenomenologist position she replied that Dennett does this to phenomenologists all the time. There is a grain of truth to this. However in this case fighting fire with fire is counter-productive.

To see this lets consider a very silly caricature of phenomenology. Husserl recommends that when doing phenomenology we perform ‘The Epoche’ which is the bracketing of all judgements about the existence of the external world. I could without further ado argue that according to people like Husserl when a wolf runs towards us we need to consult a phenomenologist in order to discover if the wolf actually exists in the external world. This is obviously an absurd interpretation of Husserl’s position and one that could only be adopted if I had decided to ignore Husserl’s actual argument and instead just lampoon him by accusing him of holding silly beliefs. I suggest that either side of a theoretical position adopting this approach simply cuts off discussion. So it is seriously counterproductive if your aim is to get at the truth.

If we take Jenifer’s criticism of hetrophenomenology as sincere (as opposed to a silly caricature) then it is simply wrong on two counts (1) It does not accurately characterise Dennett’s position, (2) It confuses theoretical questions as to what methodology to use in experimental situations with empirical questions as to how to live in practical scenarios.

Before finishing I want to briefly note that I am not arguing that theoretical beliefs do not have practical consequences for how a person lives. Rather I argue that if a theorist wants to demonstrate this in a particular case the burden of proof is on them to provide a compelling case. For example, I believe that a person’s views on human nature will have serious consequences on their views on politics. So, for example, I believe that a person who accepts Rousseau’s view of human nature will hold a different politics than a person who accepts Hobbes’s views on human nature. However, if I want to make this case I need to do it in a serious way and engage with social psychology etc. Just asserting that I think it is true is not enough.

I have argued at length in another paper that Dennett’s theory of the mind is partly determined by his own type of consciousness. I had to work very hard to prove this case and I don’t think I have yet met the burden of proof. All I am asking is that theorists like Baars, Noe and Pepin meet the same burden of proof when the make claims about what people’s theoretical beliefs prove about behaviour and type of mind.

[1]  For an interesting discussion of such a case see Antonio Damasio’s discussion of  Phineas Gage in his excellent ‘Descartes Error’

1 thought on “Theoretical Reasoning and Practical Behaviour

  1. Pingback: Some problems with phenomenology | Cognitive Scientism

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