Quick response to Graham Harman's comment

If you haven’t noticed, Graham Harman has been attacking Metzinger’s theory of consciousness for some time now. Although I do not totally agree with everything Metzinger has to say (he is an internalist whereas I am an externalist), I do agree with him that the self is not an object, but rather, a function. It is an operation rather than a thing or repository. Accordingly, over at Larval Subjects, I said:

Now, you can take issue with functionalism as an explanation of mind, but Metzinger is only taking it to its logical conclusion, so if you are going to fault him on this point, then you will need to also confront the huge literature defending functionalist explanations of the mind e.g. Global workspace theory, Dennettian multiple-drafts theory, etc.

In response, Graham Harman had this to say:

Nonsense. I can just as easily say “Metzinger will need to confront the huge literature defending substance e.g., Aristotle, Suárez, Leibniz etc.” And Metzinger doesn’t do this. Nor does he need to, especially. He makes a philosophical argument for why the self isn’t a thing, and it’s a rather feeble argument, one that can be dispatched in a few pages. You can’t send people to the library every time they corner you philosophically.

Harman doesn’t seem to realize that Metzinger is not the only one to present the “feeble” argument that the self is not a thing, but rather, a function. Julian Jaynes said the same thing. So has William James, Daniel Dennett, Bernard Baars, Jesse Prinz, Robert van Gulick, David Armstrong, William Lycan, just to name a few (out of dozens). Moreover, there are thousands of articles on Global Workspace Theory and Multiple Drafts theory, which Metzinger takes up and modifies in terms of his functionalist phenomenal self-model theory. Is Harman really that naive to think that he can “dispatch” decades of rigorous argumentation and scientific theorization in a few pages? Has Harman even read the necessary background literature to adequately critique functionalism as a theory of mind? Has he ever read Daniel Dennett? Or Bernard Baars? Does Harman realize that there are thousands of articles published in the field of consciousness studies every year? I find it humorous that Harman thinks he is competent enough to dismiss 30 years of functionalist theorizing as “feeble” when he doesn’t even have a detailed account of the mind, except to say that the mind is an object. They even have working computer models of consciousness as a function. Does Harman even have a competing theory of consciousness? Does he even have a working counter-definition of consciousness? Or any concrete critique of Metzinger’s testable claims about how consciousness functions? What is Harman contributing to the field? Does he realize that people like George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have been demolishing the idea that the self is literally an object for twenty years? Where does Harman get off feeling intellectually superior to Metzinger? Does he really think he has “cornered” functionalism as a theory of consciousness? Metzinger has at least made a concrete contribution towards investigating the hard issues related to mind and consciousness. Harman is stuck in the clouds, thinking that discussions of Leibniz and substance are actually relevant to contemporary models and explanations of consciousness and cognition. Until Harman is willing to actually read the literature, develop a working counter model of consciousness, or step outside his comfort zone of pure philosophy, I won’t take his critiques of Metzinger very seriously. If you want to read a real critique of functionalism, read someone like Ned Block or Thomas Nagel.



Filed under Philosophy, Random

6 responses to “Quick response to Graham Harman's comment

  1. I think I agree with your observation that it is ultimately foolish to try to take on a whole field without having dedicated any time to trying to figure it out (have you read Harman’s Guerilla Metaphysics? it’s all basically a series of dismissive and shallow remarks about a good number of authors I doubt Harman spend much time reading, except for his “favorites”), but I think in this particular case one might quote Galileo – “in the sciences the authority of thousands of opinions is not worth as much as one tiny spark of reason in an individual man” – and suggest that the point Harman is making (however awkwardly and irritatingly) is that if one has an argument and I disagree with it, I can counter that argument without necessarily knowing much about the argument’s context. It would help to know some context, but it’s not necessary in order to debunk the argument. Don’t you think? Otherwise we will all be reading all there is to read about X before we can say anything about it.

  2. Allen

    Are those working computer models of consciousness as a function actually conscious do you think? If not, what would it take to make them conscious? How do you propose verifying that conscious experience have actually been generated?

    Why is it that particular arrangements of matter should give rise to experiences of pain, and other experiences of pleasure, and others no experience at all? Nothing in my conception of arrangement or matter or any combination of the two would have lead me to predict such a thing.

    Do you think I should be concerned with how I arrange my books on my shelf, lest I damn some poor being to months of agony? How can I be sure?

  3. Allen

    And speaking of Leibniz, what do you think has caused you and Harman to hold such different beliefs? Not the proximate causes, but the big-picture ultimate causes of your divergent views? What processes have led to this sad state of affairs?

    What do you think it would have taken to have avoided this unpleasant disagreement? Different outcomes on quantum rolls of the dice? Different deterministic causal laws? Different initial conditions for the universe?

    Or do you think Harman could just “choose” to be reasonable?

  4. Gary Williams

    if one has an argument and I disagree with it, I can counter that argument without necessarily knowing much about the argument’s context.

    Mikhail, I think that is more or less what Harman seems to be saying. My problem with Harman’s “critique” of Metzinger is that he seems to mainly attack him on issues of style and tone e.g. Metzinger’s “scientism” or supposed “arrogance”. Although I haven’t read Harman’s actual review of Metzinger yet, I highly doubt that Harman is going to have anything concrete to say about Metzinger’s model of consciousness. He won’t, for example, bring up problems with his definition of consciousness or challenge any empirical claims. Moreover, Harman seems to think that my point is that he needs to read thousands of article in order to be competent to review Metzinger. My point is merely that one should read at least a few articles on the subject before jumping in, otherwise you will be out of your element and your review will be kind of anachronistic. Harman doesn’t seem to understand Metzinger’s “no self” theory largely because he has a limited understanding of what functionalism actually says and accordingly, his “critique” is stuck on the level of style rather than substance. And why Metzinger? It isn’t like Metzinger was the first person to critique the self as an object. This is a common trope in philosophy of mind and one that has a considerable history of argumentation. If Harman wants to critique functionalism, he would benefit from reading more traditional critiques of functionalism before attempting his own.

    Allen, the creator of the consciousness model does not claim that the model is conscious, only that it is a model of the functionality. And moreover, it is not a model of “experience” (such as simple pain), but rather, a model of higher-order cognition which is understood in terms of a global workspace for rebroadcasting information.

  5. “My problem with Harman’s “critique” of Metzinger is that he seems to mainly attack him on issues of style and tone…”

    Yes, he does like that, doesn’t he? Unless it’s a critique directed at him. It’s irritating but it’s certainly part of the profession and we often do it, Harman’s just more open about it which, he thinks, makes him awesomely open and sincere. Plus, his argument – I don’t have to read the whole corpus to debunk an argument, as true as I think it is, does not seem to apply to his critics since he often counters their objections with “you need to read everything I wrote about this topic to understand my point”…

    Again, I direct you to his Guerilla Metaphysics – pick a chapter or section (say, on Derrida) and you’ll get the same approach: a couple of dismissive remarks here and there, some point about “interesting” or “relevant” and so on. One shouldn’t be surprised really. I’m sure Harman’s main motivation behind writing something about Metzinger has little to do with his argument, it’s just another rhetorical move in some complex game of investing in philosophical ideas to get some return.

    • I didn’t know he wrote on Derrida. Of course so many (IMO) get him wrong that’s hardly surprising if he misreads him or dismisses him. Lots of smart people have. (Look at Habermas’ critique which seems to really be the basis for many people’s view of Derrida)

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