Interview by Richard Marshall.
Dan Robinsonis author or editor of more than 40 books, including Wild Beasts & Idle Humours: The Insanity Defense from Antiquity to the Present, An Intellectual History of Psychology, The Mind: An Oxford Reader, and Aristotle’s Psychology. He is former editor of the Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology. Dr. Robinson has also published widely on the constitutional history of the U.S. and its philosophical foundations, with original research appearing in the International Journal of Constitutional Law and The American Journal of Jurisprudence. He is coeditor of The American Founding: Its Intellectual and Moral Framework. Here he discusses consciousness,criticises the scientistic approach of much contemporary philosophy of mind, the irritation of Descartes, the sources of moral praise and blame, moral realism, forgiveness and punishment, Kant and Reid, Kant's First Critique, Kant's Transcendental Idealism and an aside on the insanity plea in law ...
3:AM:What made you become a philosopher? You’ve been one for quite some time – has the role changed over that time, and has it lived up to your hopes (if hopes you had) when you began?
Dan Robinson:The path was winding but not unguided. I recall in my final high school year a new book by Ross Ashby – “Design for a Brain”. It fed my fledgling interest “how does it work” questions. At University matters became more focused as a result of courses in Physiological Psychology and what now would be called “Neuroscience”. At the same time, and thanks to Berkeley, Descartes, Newton and lesser lights my interest extended to optics and the extraordinary design of the visual system. After finishing an M.A. I was fortunate to be hired as a Research Scientist in what was then the Electronics Research Laboratories of Columbia’s School of Engineering. I was all of 23 years old and now found myself surrounded by some of the finest talent in Applied Physics and Electrical Engineering. My eight years there greatly shaped my thinking about how problems must be defined and how different problems call for sometimes radically different methods of analysis. Meanwhile, I earned a Ph. D. in Neuropsychologyand found myself escaping Manhattan a day each week to give the advanced seminar in Sensory Psychology at Princeton. Meanwhile, a long-term attachment to history of ideas matured into systematic study. The reigning shibboleths in Psychology(except for the ever suspect “Freudians”) were empiricistic and behavioristic; the “tabula rasa” somehow getting goal-directed behavior out of the “empty organism”. Those of us who studied the utterly selective filtering of sensory systems didn’t need Kant to establish that the representations of what is “out there” are determined by the functional organization already in place – even in the womb! The point I wish to emphasize here is the rich interdisciplinary commerce between philosophical and scientific modes of analysis. So, at this point, I was “doing” philosophy, even when explaining making clear “what the frog’s eye tells the frog’s brain”.
As for behaviorism, it seemed to support a species of determinism incompatible with my own direct sense of volitional powers. I recall thumbing the pages of Hooker’s “Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity” (Locke cites him approvingly, so I dove in…) and pausing over his discerning distinction between appetite and desire. At the same time, the “neuro” flock was insisting that character, free will, criminality, etc. were simply “folk” notions soon to be fully explicated by studies of brain function. Behaviorism and neuroscience – usually strange bedfellows – were in full agreement here. I was sure both were wrong and that neither could begin to identify what it is about an issue that renders it “moral”.
I took Skinner’s “Beyond Freedom and Dignity' to be a foolish and dangerous bit of salesmanship for a position that was less than compelling even at the level of rats in mazes. Then there was “Violence in the Brain” that would have us understand the inflamed urban summer of 1968 as evidence of neuropathy! I traced some of this back to the rise of Medical Jurisprudence in the 19th century. A pattern was obvious: Once the State was satisfied that an otherwise felonious act was actually the product of mental disease, the defendant metamorphosed into a patient and trial procedures lapsed into semi-clinical pathology conferences. Again, the science called for deeper and, yes, philosophical reflection. I tried to pull much of this together in my “Wild Beasts and Idle Humours” (Harvard), tracing the history of the law’s engagement with varieties of insanity; and, as well, the major debates within philosophy regarding responsibility, determinism, etc, in my “Praise and Blame” (Princeton). By this time (some 25 years ago), my vocation (philosophy) had fully overtaken my profession (neuropsychology) and there would be no turning back. But nothing had been wasted. If one is to assess materialist theories of mental life, it’s not a bad thing to have a good working knowledge of the organization and functions of the nervous system.
3:AM:One of the many areas you’ve worked in has been philosophy of mind and the topic of consciousness. You make a distinction between consciousness and mental life don’t you – could you sketch what is at stake with this distinction and how you characterize it? Is this linked to your argument against certain approaches to cognitive neuroscience where you clash with the likes of Dennett and Searle? Is it because they don’t incorporate a view of human nature into their approaches to cognition and consciousness that you find their theories less than satisfying?
DR:I take consciousness to be a state of receptivity with successive frames held together by short-term (buffer?) storage and longer chains forged into whole ensembles. Mental life is prospective, marked by possibilities and plans. There is, to be sure, that famous “problem of consciousness” that allegedly inserts a permanent gap between all things physical and all things mental. But even if the gap were filled – perhaps by one of the endless surprises yielded by quantum physics – there would remain the differences among persons in the matter of their plans; the different incarnations of the same person over the stages of life. Consciousness is the open shutter. Mental life is the actual or imagined plot, often unfolding in ways not anticipated by the author. Dennett and Searle are leading figures and need no advice from me. What I find lacking in their work – in all of today’s “cognitive neuroscience” – is a disciplined awareness of the misleading results of studies conducted in utterly artificial contexts. What we are offered is a version of the sci-fi extraterrestrial, sent to earth to study humans and to return with an accurate account of their nature. The account turns out to be the percent of average adults of water, sodium, potassium, etc. All the numbers are correct, but the nature of human nature has been missed entirely.
3:AM:Is one of the reasons that you have thought hard about some of the philosophers of the past – Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Reid and so forth – is that you see them as doing what modern philosophers like Dennett and Searle are not doing – offering a more rounded approach to the issues about mind and consciousness?
DR:Absent the philosophers cited in the question, it is not clear what Searle and Dennett would take to be a problem warranting sustained philosophical concern. Today’s leaders of thought, once the jargon has been replaced with well-formed English sentences, are doing very much the same thing as their precursors. If there is to be validly claimed progress, it will be by making clear precisely what earlier thinkers overlooked or couldn’t know, or by showing how their conclusions are not supported by the arguments leading up to them.
On this matter of what “they couldn’t know”, I find little cause for concern. The cited philosophers – as with the Hippocratic physicians – were well aware of the strong connection between pathological states in the brain and the patient’s perceptual, motor and cognitive powers. The thick book of clinical neurology adds informing pages even as I type, but the general picture has been in place since ancient times. As for the logical or conceptual adequacy of their major conclusions, I find the early “greats” rather more careful in defining their terms, sharpening their arguments and testing the specific implications to be drawn from the theories they oppose. Hume, for example, would have the concept of causality formed from the constant conjunction of paired events. Reid argues that a creature, itself lacking in active (“agentic”) power, could have no means by which to impute causal powers to external events.
Locke’s Newtonian theory of a mind furnished by elementary ideas (corpuscles?) merges them into more complex assemblies, absent which there would be no mental furniture at all. Kant argues that it is by way of the pure (non-empirical) intuitions of time and space that all sensory encounters must be spatiotemporal, and by way of the categorical framing of sensations that bona fide experiences become possible. Descartes showed, by way of his original development of analytical geometry, that Euclid’s “Elements” could be reduced to an algebra requiring no visible figures at all. In other words, one may readily ”cognize” without benefit of perception. One could carry this story on for hundreds of pages. The great minds in the history of ideas are alive and well, even if the corporeal carrying cases have long ago entered what Washington called the Mansion of Silence.
3:AM:Are you irritated that contemporary philosophy of mind and consciousness seem to avoid engaging properly with the greats of the past – for example – you find contemporary discussions of Cartesianism distortions of what Descartes actually thought don’t you? How do contemporaries misunderstand Descartes and why does it matter? Is it just historical accuracy that’s at stake, or is it that you argue that we’re missing important and good arguments about how to tackle questions in philosophy of mind and so in danger of making unnecessary errors that were already diagnosed as such by the philosophers of an earlier day?
DR:Well, I’m not nearly as irritated as Descartes would be! There is first simple ignorance as the source of libel. Thus, the “Cogito” has silly Descartes trying to prove he exists. Of course, the “Cogito” is not an answer to the ontological question, “Do I exist?”. It’s an answer to the epistemological skeptic who insists that every knowledge-claim may be the delusional creation of an evil demon out to befuddle us. Fine, but to be deceived, I must BE! Oh, but what about Descartes’s fuzzy “substance dualism”? Yes, we call it the mind/body problem and it won’t be solved by rants, raised eyebrows and a begging of the question.
3:AM:So do you think we have made revolutionary progress in explaining consciousness and our mental life as many working in the field seem to think we have? Is scientisma danger in this field and that you think we need to re-understand ‘folk psychology’ approaches to this topic?
DR:Just what is the progress? Epiphenomenalism and emergentism are simply physicalism grown shame-faced. The identity thesis hinges on “what you mean by ‘is’”. Supervenience, carried to the end of its tether finds one in the patient gaze of Berkeley! The fMRI, an alleged improvement over the telephone switchboard theories of my youth, establishes once again both diffuse and localized functions of the brain. Agreed! Agreed! From the age of the Egyptian embalmers until today, technical progress in “neuroscience” has been extraordinary. Nonetheless, the gap between the physical and the mental is as wide as ever. Much maligned “Folk Psychology” is the realistic data base calling for credible explanations. Well, we have these: Jack and Jill went up the hill BECAUSE there was water there. What is added to this from studies of their brains?
3:AM:Another area you’ve discussed is the sources and use of moral praise and blame. In it you target moral relativism as something to be challenged. Before you explain your argument, could you sketch for us what you mean by moral relativism here and say a little about why you think it is both prevalent and problematic.
DR:Let me be contemporary. There are now courts and tribunals assembled to determine if there have been violations of something called “universal human rights”. Presumably, these are possessed wherever human beings are found, and extend equally to all who qualify as “human”. Grave violations are judged to be “crimes against humanity”. Alas, there are comparably enthusiastic defenses of each culture having its own values not subject to hegemonic suppression by others. These two feet will not fit into one slipper. Moral relativism is the thesis that requires the contextualization of moral appraisals. It is not skeptical about morals but rejects the universalization of one set of principles over all competing sets. The facts supporting it are, as it happens, not supportive at all. One can say that, had Jane not been hungry, she wouldn’t have stolen the biscuit. Had Jack good renal function, he would not have stolen a kidney. If Mary were a better writer, she would not have stolen the plot. Here we illustrate the connection between context and the CONTENT of a moral fault. But the fault is that of STEALING.
3:AM:Doesn’t determinism make any kind of moral realism difficult? Why don’t you think determinism is a hindrance to moral realism?
DR:Determinism renders morality itself something of a chimera. If my actions are dermined by my motives and sentiments, and if these are determined by, e.g., brain states and genetic predispositions over which I have no autonomous control, then I am only able to react, not act. To be morally responsible is (with tricky exceptions) to be causally responsible for an outcome at once foreseen and desired as a result of actions I had the power to withhold.
3:AM:Doesn’t moral luck and unconscious motivations and other psychological states also create problems for the realist here? How do you overcome the challenge of holding people responsible for states beyond their control, which you’d think a moral realistis committed to?
DR:No, the moral realist does not hold responsible any whose actions proceed from states beyond their control, unless they participated in the creation of those very states. As for “unconscious motivation”, I have long regarded the term as oxymoronic, not unlike “nonvolitional willfulness”. Moral luck is a different matter. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that there are genetic lotteries by which both good and bad varieties are distributed. If, in fact, the consequences are positive in the one case aqnd negative in the other, then praise and blame must be proportioned in ways that take out the nonvolitional bits. This is both theoretically dubious and practically impossible, but it indicates a recommended perspective.
3:AM:How does the moral realist deal with forgiveness and punishment?
DR:Both forgiveness and punishment presuppose an offender with active powers who recognizes the justness of punishment and the moral value of forgiveness. We would not punish Deep Blue for a failing chess move or forgive the thing out of compassion. For the moral realist, punishment in some elusive sense restores the balance disturbed by the offense.
3:AM:Kant’s and his first Critiqueis someone who looms large in your thinking. One thing that comes across in your work is how you link Kant with Reid. This is fascinating. Can you say something about what their intellectual relationship was? Do you see Kant as a proponent of ‘common sense’ so we should read Kant in terms of Reid’s direct realism or common sense realism?
DR:There were strong “political” reasons for Kant to keep a distance between himself and that “Popularphilosophie” easily equated with the “Common Sense” Scottish school. This defensive move appears in Kant’s “Prolegomena” where the school of Reid, Beattie and Oswald is dismissed as depending on that “Gemeine Menschenverstand” of the unreflecting masses. But Kant surely read either all of Reid’s “Inquiry” or redacted versions. Reid’s critique of Humeprefigures Kant’s own critique of Hume’s account of causality. Reid’s critique of Hume on the issue of personal identity and the entire drift of the “ideal theory” toward skepticism certainly overlap with Kant’s own analysis. And Kant’s thesis according to which our representations of objects in the external world being necessarily Euclidean finds a very fertile anticipation in Reid’s chapter “Of Seeing’ and the section on “The Geometry of Visibles”.
3:AM:Some of the secondary literature takes Kant to be an Idealistbut his transcendental Idealismisn’t really idealismis it? Is it better to understand Kant in terms of justifying Newtonian science and the objectivity of nature - which seems a long way from Idealism? And if we see him as grasping at philosophical threads following from Newton should we understand him as also rejecting the metaphysical approach of Leibniz? And on a related issue, why do you resist drawing a sharp line between the manifest image and the scientific image of reality even though you are sympathetic to Karl Amerik’sapproach where he does draw a sharp line?
DR:Let’s begin by noting that signal addition to the second edition of the “Critique”, Kant’s “Refutation of Idealism”. Clearly, he opposes all usual versions of the ism. Where to begin? Leibnizprovides an instructive starting point. He was tied to his Principle of Sufficient Reason, illustrating it by proposing perfectly equal weights balanced on a fulcrum. Nothing will take place. But just in case there is the slightest increase in the weight on one side, that side will move down, its opposite moving up. Absent a sufficient reason (“cause” in a special Leibniziansense) nothing takes place. Now, what of empty space? It is NOTHING, and nothing, as Lear teaches, will come of nothing. Rather, there are objects standing in certain relations such that they are spatially cognized. This is what Leibniz means when he defines space in terms of “a certain order in the community of substances.” Space is a product of our experience with objects, but of course our cognition fails to map onto the mathematics of space. It is not an immediate apprehension, but the result of actual commerce with objects. Kant argues against this in a sustained fashion in defense of his own thesis that space constitutes the very framework of experience. Far from being derived from experience, the pure intuition of space enables experience. On this account, the Newtonian conception of time and space as absolutes fares no better. If, indeed, space were an enduring, mind-independent, infinite something, it could not possibly be an object of experience or something confirmed by experience.
Now, back to “idealism”. Kant takes an original turn, distinguishing between transcendental forms of idealismand realism. By transcendental idealism he takes all appearances, “as mere representations and not things in themselves, and accordingly…space and time are only sensible forms of our intuition, but not determinations given for themselves or conditions of objects as things in themselves”. The transcendental realist regards space and time as independent of sensibility, existing independently of us (CPR, A369). Thus independent of sensibility, sensibility itself provides no means by which to determine if it is a figment of experience or something actually “out there”. Skepticism ensues.
On the scientific vs. manifest images, I begin with Wilfred Sellar’s “man-in-the-world”. I would draw a sharp line between the two if “science” were an arid exercise in reductionism and the world as a large lab. In my view, Aristotle offered a systematic science of “man-in-the-world”, including the biological, moral, civic, aesthetic dimensions of life – actually LIVED LIFE. There is nothing in principle preventing a developed and scientific engagement with this real world, this world that is manifest and intelligible.
3:AM:Is it right to see Kant as correcting both the errors of empiricism and of rationality?
DR:Well, so he thought. How well the correctives work is the serious business of Kant scholarship. My poor efforts here appear chiefly in my “How is Nature Possible? Kant’s Project in the First Critique”. The question is taken from his “Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics”. Think of it: We are incessantly bombarded with randomly arriving bits of energy, some falling within the range of sensitivity of our sense organs. Out of the welter we fashion systematic bodies of knowledge, scientific laws, practical means with which to meet the challenges of daily life. How is all this possible? And if, indeed, our sensory systems operate in a distinctly human domain – different from that of the bat and the bee – how is it that our scientific laws are not mere expressions of species-limited subjectivity? Kant attempts to answer this question and his attempt remains one of the truly extraordinary achievements in the philosophical canon.
3:AM:Are there lessons for contemporary philosophers of mind and consciousness in Kant’s unity of apperception?
DR:Kant’s efforts here take off from Hume’s associationistic theory. That hot, black, viscous, aromatic cup of COFFEE requires the synthetic unification of all such properties in a given consciousness. To be experienced, an object’s constituent properties must be synthesized in a unity requiring a unity of self. Philosophy of mind has a spotty record in addressing “selfhood”, ever fearful of backing into dreaded substance dualism.
3:AM:How far have these philosophical considerations helped in your work surveying the field of the insane and the insanity plea? Is there a final theory saying how the law should deal with the insane or is any law in this domain going to be relative to the shifting notions of what counts as madness?
DR:The gnawing problem here is the absence of the sort of expertise which juridical decisions and procedures require. There has been progress in mental health law; an increased respect for the rights of those judged to be incompetent. I have opposed great reliance on psychiatric testimony and find merit in the properly informed jury to reach sound judgments.
3:AM:And finally, are there five books other than your own that you can recommend to the readers here at 3:AM that will take us further into your philosophical world?
DR:Thomas Reid, “An Inquiry into the Human Mind”
Thomas Aquinas, Questions 90-108, “Summa Theologiae”
Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics”
R. G. Collingwood, “The Idea of History”
Matthew Arnold, “Culture and Anarchy”
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