Wednesday 3 August 2011

Re/Mis-reading Bolton and Hill

As a quick reminder for when I can again get access to my books, now packed up in crates for a room move:-

Marking a student essay at the end of last week, I realised that I think of Derek Bolton’s and Jonathan Hill’s attempt to locate meaning in nature as having two key claims.

i) ‘the meaning (information) that regulates action is encoded in the brain’ [Bolton and Hill 2004: 86].

ii) Nature contains not just the patterns exemplified in billiard ball causation but also distinct patterns exemplified in intentional causation.

In my Essential Philosophy of Psychiatry I summarised the second point thus:

The explanatory power of everyday intentional or ‘folk psychological’ explanation derives from the causal power of reasons. But the historical division between reasons and causes voiced, for example, by Karl Jaspers puts this claim under threat. If, instead, one distinguishes between intentional and non-intentional causation, folk psychological explanation ceases to be exceptional and in need of special philosophical explanation and becomes instead a particular example of a more general phenomenon.

The second move is suggested in passages such as (if I had their book I am sure there would be a better passage):

The point is in brief that if the goal is explanation and prediction of intentional behaviour (complex organism-environment interactions), then the methodological assumption has to be that the agent is regulated by information about the environment, that is, by intentional states, either mental, or encoded in the brain, or both. It is, on the other hand, perfectly possible to do away with intentional concepts, but then only non-intentional behaviour can be predicted, for example, physical movements of the body. [ibid: 73]

So here’s the question for those with tidy minds. Are Bolton and Hill ‘bald naturalists’ in McDowell’s phrase or not? The first claim suggests that they are on the assumption that the states that what does the encoding can be described in bald naturalistic terms. That is, on the assumption that it is a reductionist statement. But of course, Bolton and Hill argue explicitly that it is not intended to be that. In my summary I said:

It is not intended as an attempt to reduce meaning or content to non-intentional terms. Such projects, according to Bolton and Hill, presuppose the fallacious distinction between reasons and causes and attempt to reconcile them by showing that one side is really an instance of the other.
Nor is the slogan a claim on behalf of the idea of Fodor’s language of thought hypothesis (discussed in the first section of this chapter). The authors reject representationalist or cognitivist explanations of mental content by invoking the later Wittgenstein’s attack on theories based upon static inner states or syntax. They present the following challenge.
[T]he point is that we can ask of any proposed model of encoding information: ‘In what sense is there anything semantic here?’ [ibid: 71]
Following Wittgenstein, they argue that what makes something meaningful is that it plays a role in the guidance of action.
[W]hat you have to add to, or have instead of, symbol manipulation, in order to achieve intentionality is the regulation of action, that is, meaningful (goal-directed, plastic) interactions with the environment. [ibid: 70]
Brain states do not encode meaning by embodying internal syntactic or sentence-like structures but by guiding action in accordance with norms.

But I took it that the encoding thesis was needed to do some work in making the application of intentional causation to humans less mysterious. I took it to be like that partly because, following the text, I approached the claims in the other order, so that the encoding thesis is used to explain or shed light on the otherwise dark talk of intentional causation when applied to people, a task the authors do indeed seem to accept. I summarised this idea thus:

How is it possible that reasons are a species of intentional causality? Is the information deployed in other intentional-causal sciences, such as biology, of the same order and explanatory of the meaning that is found in mental health care? The recent philosophical problem is not so much to determine whether reasons are causes but how it is possible that reasons are causes. The solution that Bolton and Hill propose is that the brain encodes meaning.

Having set up the problem this way, I wasn’t impressed by their deployment of Wittgenstein, was worried about the metaphor of encoding and was struck by the fact that it was brains that did this. All that suggested an implicit form of reductionism, albeit one not attempted in any detail, which contrasted with the idea that meaning or content is a whole person level phenomenon, not something for brains. Talk of brains guiding action was just a confusion etc etc.

But I now wonder whether the better way to read / use / teach Bolton and Hill’s idea is to ignore the encoding thesis and concentrate instead on the idea of intentional causation. If so then they should not be filed under ‘(unwilling) bald naturalism’ but something quirkier.

The basic naturalising move would then be not an encoding thesis to place meaning in something describable in more naturalistic terms: brains and brain states. It would be instead the claim of the ubiquity of intentional causation.

Now if there is to be no gap between this idea when applied to the dances of bees and to folk psychological accounts of people – a gap otherwise needing to be filled by the encoding thesis – this will place not just a thin notion of information out there in the world (on my previous reading the encoding thesis codes between full blown human semantic intentionality/intensionality and the thin information supposedly carried by brains and bees alike). Nor will that information be – as I would prefer – an abstraction from human semantic intentionality/intensionality: a facon de parler, a convenient short-hand. It will instead be a world full of semantic meaning, more McDowellian than McDowell. Pan psychism.

OK it is obviously not what the authors would intend. But I will at least try to re-read their claims in this way when I get the book back.

Bolton, D. and Hill, J. (1996; second edition 2003) Mind Meaning and Mental Disorder, Oxford: Oxford University Press