Friday, August 11, 2006

The Facts Are Not All In

I benefited from reading Daniel Stoljar’s book, Ignorance and Imagination: The Epistemic Origin of the Problem of Consciousness. The book defends the thesis that the problem of phenomenal conscious experience in contemporary philosophy of mind is rooted in our ignorance of a type of “experience-relevant non-experiential truth”. (See the brief blurb from David Chalmer’s blog here and also visit Conscious Entities and scroll down to see the recent review there[UPDATE 22 Feb.2007: the permalink is here]).

In defending his thesis, Stoljar does a great job reviewing and summarizing many of the debates of the last couple of decades. He invariably takes complicated arguments and simplifies their language and structure as he moves his discussion along. The book is valuable for this aspect alone.

In terms of his position, it’s a fairly modest idea – we’re ignorant about something relevant but of course he can’t say what it is! It does, however, seem a reasonable position to hold. He argues that this epistemic view of the problem is successful in undermining the conceivability and knowledge arguments which conclude that experiential truths are not all entailed by the non-experiential truths. Importantly, though, he is also arguing that none of the various philosophical/conceptual refutations of these arguments work. According to Stoljar the problem of consciousness is not one where the debate can be won “from the armchair” within the confines of philosophy of mind at the present time.

I’m sympathetic to this since I also think we need to triangulate on the problem using other considerations. At the same time, given the imperfect terms of the debate, I don’t think Stoljar is entitled to the conclusion that our ignorance is specifically of non-experiential truths. It is equally plausible, for instance, that the new truths would not be considered “non-experiential”, but as truths upon which both experiential and non-experiential truths (as we currently conceive of them) supervene. He considers a view very much like this (due to Russell), but concludes (wrongly in my humble opinion) that it is best thought of as an instance of his epistemic view.

I have some more thoughts provoked from my reading which I’ll try to develop into another post, but for now let me reiterate my admiration for the book: it’s very well written and is recommended for those who follow these debates.

1 comment:

Peter said...

I agree - it's a clearly expounded and wide-ranging account, with an outstandingly sensible conclusion. But if I'm honest I should probably have preferred something a bit bolder and less sensible.