Lost in Space

Danger! Danger!

Originally uploaded by Pete Mandik.

Subjects distinct from me must have non-experiential causal grounds distinct from me. Plausibly, these distinct causal grounds are physically distinct (or so I argued in “Evans, Experience, and Abiding Causal Grounds“) Subjects distinct from each other must be physically distinct from each other (or so I argued in “Dualism, Physicalism, and Spaceballs“) However, the previous remarks leave open the question of where subjects are. In other words, just because subjects are individuated spatially, doesn’t mean that their spatial locations are identical to the locations of the physical processes that constitute their individuating properties. For example, a version of externalism may be correct whereby the supervenience base of Smith’s mind is larger than his brain, but that leaves open the possibility that Smith’s mind and brain are located in the same place.

One place where the question of the location of subjects is brought to a head (pun intended) is in Dan Dennet’s thought experiment in his famous “Where Am I” article. In brief, the thought experiment involves having your brain separated from your body, but your brain remains in (remote) control of the body via radio links. While viewing your disembodied brain with your remotely (yet self-) controlled eyes, you are invited to contemplate: where am I?

The thought experiment helps show, 1 that its not obvious that we should identify the subject’s location with the brain’s and 2 what a plausible alternative is, namely that the subject is where it seems to the subject to be. Another way to describe the two main options is in terms of vehicles and contents. That the subject be located 1 where the vehicles of the mental representations are, namely in the brain or 2 where the contents of the mental representations say the subject is, namely where the (perhaps brainless) body is.

In his “Locating Subjects of Experience in the Natural Order” (available as a video podcast here), Rick Grush argues for the latter view. As he puts it in an abstract, he is

“arguing that the subject is primarily a content-level phenomenon, roughly, the subject is implicitly defined or determined by the contents – including perceptual and experiential – jointly grasped. And because many of the contents grasped have implicit and explicit location information built into them, the subject determined by these contents has its location determined by the location-relevant aspects of those contents.”

One thing I find problematic with such a view is that it involves the identification of what something is (in this case, with what its location is) with how it is represented. Or, more briefly, it identifies something’s being F with its being represented as F. I think this notion is deeply problematic and one of the main problems I have with it is that I think nothing can consist in its being represented. A very brief argument for this view goes as follows. We can represent things that don’t exist. But failing existence, those “things” instantiate no properties whatsoever. Thus, representing is not property confering. Nothing instantiates a property in virtue of being represented. (I say more about this line of thinking in my “Unicorns and Monitoring Theories of Consciousness”)

Now, this line of argument against representation being property-conferring is only denying that representation bestows properties onto the intentional objects of representations. I do not wish to deny that representations themselves have properties. Nor do I wish to deny that representations have contents. What remains, then, is the view that whatever representational content amounts to in terms of properties, it amounts to properties of the representations. It seems, then, that the preferable choice in answering “where am I?” is the vehicular choice: the subject is where the brain is.

Royale With Cheese
Fig 1. Photograph by Pete Mandik. Who is where his brain is.

3 Responses to “Lost in Space”

  1. charles says:

    “We can represent things that don’t exist. But failing existence, those “things” instantiate no properties whatsoever. Thus, representing is not property confering. Nothing instantiates a property in virtue of being represented.”

    I have to confess that I don’t really follow the argument (caveat: I have not read the paper to which Pete refers). Compare: animals can hunt for food that isn’t (really) there; but failing to exist, food that isn’t there cannot result in nourisment; thus, hunting cannot result in nourishment. Or: computers sometimes crash when running programs; programs that crash computers cannot run successfully; therefore computers cannot successfully run programs. In other words, I don’t see why the fact that x sometimes fails to f implies that x must always fail to f. Is there something in the paper that should make me think that this schema should apply for representation? Sorry if I’m missing something obvious.

  2. Pete Mandik says:


    Thanks for your remarks. Maybe the following will be helpful. My argument concerns what is or isn’t logically entailed by representation. One of the key points concerns the existence of the things represented. The existence of representations of unicorns does not entail the existence of any unicorns. And because of this, the existence of representations of unicorns cannot entail the instantiation of any properties by unicorns.

    To relate this to you example concerning hunting, if it is indeed the case that animals can hunt things that don’t exist, then the mere fact that an animal is hunting does not logically suffice for there to be any nourishment. Whether hunting does sometime lead to nourishment is a point about causal relations between hunting and eating, not logical relations.

    One further thing, I don’t see that this has much to do with failure, so I don’t see that your computer argument fits the relevant schema.



  3. Pete Mandik says:

    Further reflection on Chales’ comment churned up these further thoughts:

    The expression “thinking about unicorns” is an idiom that doesn’t actually attribute relations between thinkers and unicorns. This is analogous to how “kicked the bucket” doesn’t actually attribute relations between a deceased person and a bucket. We can tell that no relation is attributed because a person can think about unicorns/kick the bucket even though no unicorn/bucket exists.

    It won’t do to point out that sometimes the “thing” in question does exist. What matters is that sometimes it does not. Even in cases in which the cause of death involves an actual bucket (because the deceased literally tripped over a bucket, say) it is not entailed by the mere fact that they “kicked the bucket” in the idomatic sense (i.e., died) that any bucket was involved, since the mere fact that one is dead does not logically entail what the cause of death is. (Being dead is logically consistent with various bucket- and non-bucket related causes of death.)

    Compare this last (non-parenthetical) point to the following. Though some triangles are isoceles, some are not. Because not all are isoceles (even though some are), the following is true of all triangles: whatever triangularity consists in, it does not consist in being isoceles. It consists merely in being a planar figure with three angles and this is true even of figures that are also isoceles. Analogously, whatever representation consists in, since there are representations of things that don’t exist (and therefore have no properties) representation cannot consist in conferring properties to the things represented, and this is true even of representations of things that do exist.