A friend in the news

You may remember a post in ’08 about Eric Schwitzgebel’s data on women faculty in the  philosophy profession.  If so, you may be interested in today’s NY Times article that conveys his views on an approach to studying consciousness.  The methodology has gotten quite  a bit of attention, and Eric’s comments seem to me to be just right.

(If you don’t, the post is worth another read for the picture of the profession we get.)

3 thoughts on “A friend in the news

  1. I find this quote, from Stephen Kosslyn, a professor of psychology at Harvard, strange/revealing:
    “The history of psychology is littered with fruitless debates that hinged on unverifiable claims about the nature of mental events, particularly those that are only accessible via introspection.”
    First, there’s the “unverifiable” part, which seems to suggest if only we can find some external ‘measure’ we can use, which of course makes no sense, all will be revealed. Then there’s the “ONLY accessible via introspection.” ONLY available by introspection?? But what else is there, in anything we do? I suppose I have a pro-phenomenologist bias, but the implicit suggestion in the quote that all we need is a way to be able to apply the traditional scientific method to consciousness (admitting it would need to be modified somewhat, but with the basic approach intact) seems just plain wrong. Which is a way, I guess, of agreeing with Schwitzgebel when he says: “The more I think about it, the more I worry that there is no good way to study this question.” Except that I think a phenomenologist can embark on such study and can glean lots of useful information, just (again) not information that will satisfy those wanting the kind of outcomes you can bet studying the reactions of billiard balls on a billiard table.

  2. Captiver, I think it’s a complicated situation.

    The consciousness studies journal where all this is to appear is certainly phenomenologically friendly, and perhaps even biased, so I don’t think this work is necessarily anti-phenomenologist. I think they may be asking quite different questions. Phenomenologists don’t really talk about knowing the specific contents of someone’s thought at some point in time, which these people are interested in, at least as starting points.
    In addition, the person Schwitzgebel is debating with does not see himself as doing science, so I don’t think necessarily what they’re concerned with is the inability to treat thoughts as billiard balls. (In fact, of course, science doesn’t get the billiard ball results in lots of heavily investigated areas, such as brain imaging.)
    Finally, Kosslyn is a special case, because he has advocated the idea that thought does or can involve mental images, and he’s taken a lot of flack. He has devised some quite rigorous means of testing his theories, which is really quite an accomplishment. So he is in some ways extra hard nosed about it; I don’t think we can assume Schwitzgebel agrees with him.
    I think instead the problem they’re facing is a fascinating one, rather like that of quantum mechanics, which is that the observation may change the data.

  3. While my “toolbox” isn’t yet up to the task of agreeing or debating with either position in the article, some of the findings are intriguing; specifically, Dr. Hurlbut’s findings on bulimics’ “mental catharsis”(?) and Professor Mason’s work with daydreamers.

    As a parent of a child with a severe cognitive disability, I’m always interested in research that does or may one day prove helpful in communicating across vastly different “inner realities”. I’ll suspend judgement until my “toolbox” is more workable, but please, keep up the discussion, and give us lots of links.

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