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Free «Descartes’ “Conceivability Argument” » Essay Sample

1. Present and explain Descartes’ “conceivability argument” presented on page 54 of the Descartes reading.  What is the argument?  How does God’s guarantee of the truth of “clear and distinct ideas” figure in the argument?  Is it true that we can conceive of a mind without a body?  Doesn’t a mind always take up at least some space?  If we reject the “divine guarantee” of clear and distinct ideas being true, is there any other reason to think that conceiving of the mind without the body shows that they are really distinct?  Explain your answer!

Rene Descartes was a substance dualist, which means that he believed that a human person is mind and body: an immaterial substance (or spirit) that holds a special relation to a certain physical body, namely its own body. For Descartes, a person, or a self, is a simple and indivisible thing with no parts that cannot be “made” out of anything. For example, when I think of an object, according to Descartes, it is “I” who thinks of that object; it is “I” who is the subject of experience; neither my body nor my brain, for Descartes believed that a body’s behavior is dictated completely by mechanical laws, which determine their movement, and that, the body itself is incapable of thinking.

Descartes was convinced that there is definitely a distinction between mind and matter; between one’s body and one’s self. One of those reasons is the “conceivability” argument, which he used to support his claim. As he so characteristically puts it, he can “clearly and distinctly” perceive, the possibility of himself existing without a body. In other words, his premise is that it is conceptually possible to exist in completely disembodied state. In effect, since this is true, it follows that a person cannot be identical with a body.

A skeptic, of course, could ask how these “clear and distinct” ideas can be considered true with any certainty. Descartes’ response to the skeptic is that God, whom he assumes to be a benevolent creature, is the one that guarantees their truth. For without God, there is not even the possibility of knowledge.

Personally, I agree with Descartes in that I can conceive of mind without a body. One such example is dreaming, where quite often one might perceive one’s self without a body. Moreover, there are also many documented cases of people who have described out-of-body experiences. Regardless of the truth validity of those accounts, existing without a body is at least conceptually possible. Nevertheless, when it comes to proving the validity of those “clear and distinct” perceptions, the argument falls short – and will remain to fall short, without the benevolence of God.

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One more possible objection is that claim that a mind must always take up some physical space, a conception that is naïve, to say the least. The mind problem is certainly a very controversial issue, and the reason for this is that it is very early from a scientific point of view, clearly and distinctly to describe and assess terms like the brain and the mind. Therefore, until the natural sciences catch up with the philosophy of mind, Cartesian dualism will continue to hold its merit, despite its weaknesses. 

2. On page 59 of the Descartes reading, Descartes presents his “divisibility argument” for mind-body dualism.  In your paper, present and critically evaluate this argument.  Be sure to clearly state the argument at the beginning of your paper.  Now address the following questions:  Why does Descartes think you can never divide the mind?  Is he correct?  Why does Descartes think that you can always divide body?  Is he correct?  Do you think Descartes’ argument is a good one?  Why or why not? 

Besides the “conceivability argument”, Descartes also used the divisibility argument to defend dualism. He claimed that a person is a simple and indivisible substance, one that, despite any changes in its properties, will remain the same person. So, Descartes conceived the mind as essentially indivisible, for thinking otherwise, he believed, would be irrational. One’s body on the contrary, can be broken down to its parts, and most importantly it takes up physical space. The “divisibility argument”, therefore, translates into the following: since a person is a simple and indivisible substance that persists through time, and since a body can be broken down to parts, it follows that a person cannot be identified with one’s body.

In my view, however, Descartes divisibility argument is weak and open to challenge. As mentioned above, the word “substance” implies a thing that remains the same through time. Though, what does this actually mean? Who is this subject of experience that, despite any changes in its properties, can always remain the same? What I mean to say, is that to identify, for instance, glue as a substance and describe its properties, which will, in turn, be used to describe the substance itself - is an acceptable procedure. Nevertheless, applying the concept of “substance” to a thing like a person, one that is distinct from its body and which remains the same, is definitely problematic. In essence, the problem with Descartes’ argument is this; on one hand, he claims that a person is distinct from one’s body because a person is a simple and indivisible substance while the body is divisible and spatially extended. Though, on the other hand, a person is a substance because he is different from his body. In other words, his reasoning is circular, and one has to take for granted Descartes’ premise. That is why I believe that the “divisibility argument” is weak in supporting Cartesian dualism. 

3. On pages 20-23, Descartes presents his “wax example.”  Discuss the wax example, and explain Descartes’ view about the role of thought and the senses in gaining knowledge.  Why does Descartes focus on a piece of wax at this point in the Meditations?  What is his goal in examining the wax?  What is the true nature of the wax according to Descartes, and how does he arrive at this conclusion?  Do you agree with him here?  How do you think we know about what the wax really is?  In perceiving the wax, are we just making a sort of judgment in thought, or do our senses play a crucial role?  Would Descartes agree or disagree with what you are saying? 

When considering our perception of material objects, Descartes used the wax example to argue that our perception of the wax is intuitive, and it becomes possible thanks to the mind; not sense perception. In this argument, Descartes considers the case of a fresh wax. The piece of wax has a certain color, shape, and size. It is cold and concrete, and it is also sweet like honey while it gives off the odor of flowers. If anyone were to hit it on another surface, it would create a distinct sound. The point Descartes makes is that our sense perception supposedly tells us what a wax is. Though, if one were to put that piece of wax near fire, all these properties of the wax would be lost. Wax would lose its flowery smell and its taste; it would melt down and lose its shape, color, and size. In addition, it would become almost impossible to grab and difficult to handle, and it would no longer make the distinct sound it did before upon hitting another surface. It would simply remain an object that extends in space; one that everyone would agree that it is still a piece of wax. Descartes, then, goes on to argue that, since all of the piece’s properties have changed, and since it admittedly remains the same piece of wax, it follows that the wax as a substance cannot be identified with its physical properties and is not perceived by our senses. Therefore, it is actually only the mind, according to him, that intuitively perceives the piece of wax; neither the senses, nor imagination.

I find Descartes’ example as a very clever argument in favor of his rationalistic and dualistic philosophy, for it shows that sense perception is not reliable, and it also presents a thing as having two substances: a material one with physical properties that are subject to change and an immaterial substance clearly distinct from its material form. The fact that the argument is a clever one, however, does not make it correct. In his example, Descartes places his piece of wax near the fire and observes how all its properties change due to this interaction. Though, he is wrong in claiming that all its properties change. First of all, the wax would not lose its color if it was melt on a clean surface. Above all, despite the differences in its volume, its mass would remain the same. This means that if I were to hold a melting pot, it would have the same weight either with a cold piece of wax, or with wax that has been melt. In other words, the fact that wax melts down or freezes at a certain temperature is just another observable property of the wax. Of course, this kind of thinking is mostly due to the progress of natural sciences like chemistry, which had not been achieved in Descartes time.

Nevertheless, I also find Descartes’ conclusion, “it is the mind alone which perceives the piece of wax”, to be faulty. He is correct to pinpoint that the senses alone may not be enough to understand what that piece f wax is, but he is wrong to infer that the senses play no role at all. Descartes would obviously disagree, yet in my opinion, neither mind nor the senses alone are enough so as to perceive an object. Instead, one needs both. One needs both the “tangible” sense data one gets from perception, and a mind to form an all-encompassing concept, which shall provide the proper context in order for the object to be understood as a piece of wax. It is essentially consciousness, as a higher function, that fills in the gaps, and unites concept and sense data into meaningful perception. 

4. Explain what Ryle means when he claims that the whole idea of mind-body interaction is a “category mistake”.  Present and discuss the three main examples of category mistake offered by Ryle, and then explain how this sort of error applies the question of how the mind is related to the body.  Why does this show, according to Ryle, that there is no distinct and separate thing called “mind” and that there is only bodies behaving in various ways?  Do you think Ryle is correct about the mind?  Explain your answer. 

Descartes’ dualistic philosophy considers a person to be both an immaterial and a material substance, although the relation between the two is a rather mystical one. Ryle defines dualism, as “the dogma of the ghost in the Machine”. It is exactly this kind of dualism that he rejects, by claiming that it is a category mistake to treat the mind as an immaterial substance. To understand what a category mistake is, Ryle gives the simple example of a university. If one visited Oxford, he would walk around the campus and see a number of colleges, libraries, playing fields, museums, scientific departments and administrative offices. After having seen all that, if one were to ask where the university actually is, he would be making a category mistake. The reason is that he would be placing the university in the same category that he placed the other buildings. Though, the university is not another building for someone to see, but the sum of all the others and their organization.

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According to Ryle, the same logic applies to the mind-body issue. Philosophers like Descartes treated the mind as a thing, somewhat like the body; similarly mental processes involve cause and effect, but a different kind of cause and effect different from that of body movements. Like the university example, dualists considered the mind as another structure, one that was both similar to the body, but also completely different from it; that is why, although they do share a special – yet unidentified – relation, they do not directly interact, for that interaction would have to be mechanical.

Ryle points out to mistakes arise from misconceptions of everyday language. In other words, when one says “John has a heart” and “John has a mind” the word “has” is used in a different sense. So, while the former implies some kind of possession, the latter implies some kind of organization. In conclusion, Ryle argues that it is wrong to place the mind in the same category with matter. His conception of the issue is a kind of behaviorism, for he considers the process of thinking to be a part of one’s behavioral dispositions. Thought is not some kind of higher mental function that causes various behaviors, but behavior itself.

All in all, I believe that Ryle is right in exposing the absurdity that is involved in such a dualistic mind-body relation, and in exposing dualism’s inability to account for the interaction between mind and matter. Personally, though, I aspire to a more materialistic account of the issue. The discussion of mental states and free will is a meaningless one, for the body is completely governed by physical laws. There is nothing without the body, and nothing beyond it. There is only matter, and any event takes place in physical space and time. Thought processes and emotions are just chemical substances in the brain, which produce certain kinds of sensation. 

5. Present and evaluate John Searle’s “Chinese Room” argument (from his paper on Blackboard).    What is the distinction between “weak” and “strong” AI?  What is the distinction between syntax and semantics in the paper?  What is a “formal program” according to Searle?  Now present the thought experiment in detail. Why does Searle think that his thought experiment shows that “strong AI” can’t explain the mind?  Now present and explain the “systems reply.”  Why does Searle think it does not work?  Do you agree?  What is Searle’s own account of the mind and how does the brain figure in it?

The “Chinese Room” is a thought experiment that John Searle devised in1980 pertaining to the issue of artificial intelligence. In the context of information technology, weak AI refers to an inferior artificial intelligence, which simulates thinking (without understanding) while strong AI refers to artificial intelligence that is equal, or even superior, to human intelligence. In the “Chinese Room” Searle puts the reader in a room that has two slots used for communication. From slot 1 someone gives you a book with Chinese characters that you cannot understand since you do not know Chinese. You then get a second book, written in English with rules on how to construct other Chinese characters from those included in the first. The same routine takes place, but in this case you are given English characters and the questions posed to you are in English (which you understand). Outside the room, there are people (who know Chinese) who can engage in a meaningful conversation in Chinese, and in English with you through those slots; as long as you can successfully use the characters and the instructions you are given, despite the fact that you do not understand a word of your Chinese output. What is important here is that, in both cases, you can produce equally meaningful responses.

The first book is the “script”, the second is the “story”, and your output is your “response” to their “questions”. This process is similar to that of a computer. You, like the computer, are given a set of formal symbols; a guide with rules on how to construct other formal symbols from the previous ones (pretty much like a computer program); and by combining the two you can produce a certain output, which is analogous to what a formal program would do. Note that, in Searle’s use of the word “formal”, there is no meaning attached to the symbol, but only a symbol that is recognized and distinguished from another by its shape. Essentially, this is where the distinction between the syntactical and the semantic use of a symbol lies; the difference between AI and the human mind. An AI’s formal program arranges symbols in a completely syntactical manner, according to a certain set of rules while the human mind operates on a semantic level by arranging symbols and concepts, according to their meaning.

Based on this thought experiment, Searle argues that strong AI has nothing to do with human understanding. A computer uses symbols like one would use Chinese symbols in the “Chinese Room”, and the computer’s program does not in any way involve some kind of understanding.

The “Systems Reply” to the Chinese room, however, is an objection that points out to a possible error in Searle’s reasoning. It states that the fact that the person in the room does not have to understand the story and the meaning of symbols is of little value. The system’s reply focuses on the system as a whole (meaning, the first book, the instruction, the paper used to communicate, etc), and not the individual agent. In effect, the argument is that although the agent does not understand the story’s meaning, the system does. Searle’s response was to have the person in the room memorize all the characters, the symbols, and the constructing principles, so that any part of the system would belong to that person; in fact, the individual agent would become the whole system.

In my view, Searle is successful in exposing the absurdity of assuming that while the person in the room would not understand, the “system” would. In conclusion, I agree that AI cannot be compared to a human mind. AI is simulating machinery that imitates the processes of the mind. It merely operates in a syntactical manner; it runs on a formal program, a predefined structure and sets of rules while the human mind and human understanding have a semantic function. 

6. Present and explain Thomas Nagel’s view of consciousness from “What is it like to be a Bat?”  What is Nagel’s definition of consciousness, and why does he think that consciousness can’t be scientifically “reduced” in the way that other natural phenomena can?  Be sure to discuss his distinction between objective and subjective facts, and explain why subjective facts pose a special problem for scientific reduction.  What would it take to successfully explain consciousness, in Nagel’s opinion (see his discussion on “objective phenomenology” at the end of the paper)?  Do you think Nagel is correct in his overall conclusion in the paper?  Is it really impossible to explain consciousness?  Why or why not?

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Nagel discusses the issue of consciousness, and he does so by examining the character of experience. When it comes to a living organism, for example, a bat, Nagel asks the question “what is it like to be a bat”? The answer does not lie in explaining a bat as an animal through scientific terms, meaning its physiology and its abilities. It pertains to something beyond that: it asks what the subjective character of experience of that organism actually is. So, this is what consciousness refers to. He aims to reduce the phenomenological world down to materialistic terms, but he points out that it is not possible to do so without accounting for consciousness.

For a physicalist theory to be successful it must provide a physical account of the phenomenological features of the subjective experience; there must be a way to understand the character of experience in an objective manner. In other words, the issue of objectivity transforms the question into “what is it like for a bat to be a bat”? In effect, Nagel points out to our inability to describe the subjective experience of the bat due to our nature. This does not mean, however, that we should conclude that a bat does not have any meaningful experience at all.

Nagel also makes the distinction between objective and subjective facts. For example, a Martian with no understanding of visual perception could perceive physical phenomena like a lightning due to the objective nature of the phenomenon itself, but he could never understand the subjective character of a human perceiving the same phenomena as they are presented in our phenomenology. The objective fact lies beyond its appearance in one’s subjective experience.

Consciousness, however, poses a special kind of problem. In any other kind of physical phenomena, the less we depend on a subjective view point and our perception of it, the more accurate the reduction is. The reason for this is that we are not describing the impression it leaves on one’s senses, but its causes and effects in general. In reducing consciousness, however, things become much more complicate, because the subjective point of view is the only means available to approach consciousness. So, the further we go from the subjective character of experience and the more objectively we try to describe it, the further we go from its true nature. For the external appearance of a phenomenon, according to Nagel, constitutes the essence of it, and not just a viewpoint.

In the end, Nagel proposes that we should try to bring the subjective and the objective part of the experience closer by forming new concepts; to describe the subjective character of the experience without using imagination. He urges us to come up with concepts that would describe the subjective without assuming a certain viewpoint. In fact, he wants to try to describe those facts objectively as if they were to be understood by a being that cannot naturally have an analogous experience.

In my view, Nagel’s distinction between the objective and the subjective character of a phenomenon is a very important one, as well the reverse effect that reduction has on the phenomenon of consciousness. Nevertheless, I believe that escaping one’s own point of view is impossible; it is impossible to describe the character of another subject’s experience without the use of one’s imagination, and without reasoning by analogy. Therefore, Nagel’s proposal of a more objective understanding of the mental is futile, and man has to both recognize and accept the finiteness of the human mind. 

7. Present and evaluate A.M. Turing's test for machine intelligence (from the Turing reading).  First describe Turing’s test in detail—how does the test work?  Explain why Turing thinks it's a good way to address the question “Can machines think?”  Now present and discuss objection 4 (the argument from consciousness).  What is the objection, and what is Turing's response to it?  Then present and discuss objection 6 (Lady Lovelace's objection).  What is the objection?  What is Turing's response?  Now present your opinion of the Turing test.  Is this a good way to tell if a machine can think?  Why or why not? 

Alan Turing addressed the question “can a machine think” in his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” that he published in 1950. Essentially, Turing came up with that a test that would evaluate a machine’s intelligent behavior compared to that of a human. The basic criterion that it tests for is the machine’s ability to have a meaningful conversation like a human will.

The Turing Test, or the “imitation game”, involves three participants: an interrogator and two subjects: a man and a woman. The interrogator, who is in a different room from the other two, must determine who the man and who the woman are simply by conversing with them through a screen. Turing then proposed that the two subjects would be a human person and a machine, instead of a man and a woman. What the test does is to highlight a distinction between the intellectual and the physical capacities of man. Since the judge has no other way a telling man from machine, one is confined to the responses that appear on his screen. Turing considered the question “Can machines think?” as having no value, but he did believe that in 50 years time, an interrogator would have no more than 70% chance of distinguishing man from machine after a five-minute discussion.

One of the arguments used against Turing’s Test, is the “argument from consciousness”. As Jefferson points out, it is not mere imitation of human behavior that can account for human intelligent, but it is rather consciousness that makes the difference. In other words, he argues, that merely manipulating given symbols, in order to produce a sonnet, is not the same as a human producing a sonnet due to a certain feeling that one experienced. Until that is the case, machine could not be said to match human intelligence.

Turing response to this objection runs along the lines of solipsism. He claims that, even if one were to accept Jefferson’s premise – that a sonnet should be composed by an intelligent subject of experience, to account as such, it is impossible to account for anyone else’s experience besides one’s own. So, in Turing’s eyes, Jefferson can deny that a certain machine is a subject of experience, but he cannot also verify another man’s experience either.

Another argument against Turing, is the “Lady Lovelace’s Objection”. According to Lady Lovelace, a machine can only do what it is instructed to do; no more than what its programming dictates. What is of importance for Turing though, is that the truth validity of this argument was bound to the present. In other words, while it is true that artificial intelligence could not perform anything more at the time, there was no reason to believe that such machinery could not be developed in the future; artificial intelligence could be programmed to have a proper framework that could function in a learning-like pattern.  As for the variation of the argument, “a machine can never really do anything new”, Turing casts doubt in any kind of original work. His line of reasoning is that even a product of human intelligence cannot really be considered “original” since one cannot be sure that it is not the product of the teachings bestowed upon a person, or the result of a hidden general principle that was followed.

Personally, I do not find the Turing Test as holding any actual value. With the benefit of hindsight, of course, Turing’s vision has not become a reality, for even today, artificial intelligence keeps failing the Turing Test. Though, even if a machine could deceive an interrogator in the test, this would simply imply some kind of progress in the imitation processes of the machine, and not prove that the machine has matched human intelligence, or become a mind itself. For, in my view, the difference between the human mind and computer intelligence is a qualitative, rather than a quantitative one. Computer intelligence will continue to progress, and be able to manipulate more and more data. The human mind, however, will remain the only kind of intelligence that can operate based on meaning. Syntactical functioning could never match semantic operation, and the battle of machine versus man, will always weigh on the side of consciousness. 

8. Present and explain P.S. Churchland’s response to the problem of consciousness, as presented in her article “The Hornswoggle Problem.” What is the difference between the “hard” problem of consciousness and “easy” problems of consciousness?  Why does she reject this distinction?  What is an “argument from ignorance,” and how does Churchland use this idea to attack the claim that there is a “hard” problem of consciousness?  How do claims about “vitalism” and DNA figure in her argument? 

In the beginning of her article, Churchland explains the difference between the “hard” problem and the “easy” problems of consciousness as they are usually perceived. The latter refers to issues like to the nature of memory, the nature of representation, or that of sensory-motor integration while the former refers to consciousness as a huge problem in itself. As Chruchland points out, however, such a distinction implies two things: the first is that the “easy” problems are considered to be likely to be solved, and the second is an unsupported belief that the “hard” problem would remain unsolved, even if the “easy” problems where addressed sufficiently. That is why she chooses to attack the notions through experiments because, as she explains, the fact that something is conceivably possible, does not translates into an actual possibility.   

Chruland, in fact, rejects this distinction between “hard” and “easy” problems, for our knowledge is lacking both in our conception and understanding of the brain, as well as that of consciousness. The mind-body distinction, she argues, is one that results from ignorance about the subjects at hand; it is one that obstructs the way to actual solutions. The argument from ignorance, erroneously assumes that one cannot know something, merely because science cannot explain it at present. A very convincing argument that she uses to back her claim is from the field of biology. Chruchland points out to the fact that, before 1953, it was believed that the riddle of the copying problem would be solved if scientist could fully address the issue of protein formation. Despite all odds, however, the copying problem proved to be connected to the base-pairing of DNA, and was actually solved before protein formation was explained. So, ignorance stood in the way of solving the copying problem for it turned scientific attention to the wrong direction, which can very well be the case also with consciousness. All in all, the “hard/easy” problems distinction is either false, or simply not helpful, and needs to be abandoned. 


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