Report: The 11th and 12th Tokyo Colloquium of Cognitive Philosophy (TCCP)

12 January, 2009 TSUTSUI Haruka, NISHITSUTSUMI Yu, Brain Sciences and Ethics

The 11th and 12th Tokyo Colloquium of Cognitive Philosophy (TCCP) was held in the autumn of 2008.

○The 11th TCCP (31/10/2008)
Yu Nishitsutsumi “The Possible Extension of Somatic Marker Hypothesis to Ethical Problem”

Yu Nishitsutsumi, a collaborative research fellow of UTCP and research assistant to the neuroscience literacy project, gave a presentation on the possibility of applying Antonio R. Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis (SMH) to ethics. According to SMH, emotion is an essential factor in any decision-making. Nishitsutsumi claims that the application of this hypothesis to moral decision-making is in fact problematic, and she clarifies what causes this difficulty.

  SMH makes two claims: first, whenever we make a decision, emotions play a biasing role. In the situation of decision-making, we unconsciously evaluate and narrow down options based on our emotions. Thus emotions help us to make a decision. Second, the components of emotions are the information of the development of somatic states induced by stimuli. This information is conveyed in a neural network formed by the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), other cortices (particularly somatosensory cortex), and subcortical structures (amygdala, thalamus, and basal ganglia).

  There is a famous experiment which gives empirical support to SMH. In this experiment, normal participants and patients with damage to the VMPFC are assigned a gambling task. While the former generate aversive somatic responses to taking risky choices, the latter do not. The latter take a risky option despite their knowledge of its being risky. The expectation of future disadvantage does not affect the patients’ choice. They cannot control their action because they do not have access to the information of the development of somatic states, which functions as a cautionary signal.

  Thus Damasio reveals the importance of emotion in our decision-making. But it is not clear whether this applies to every kind of decision-making. Can we extend the “somatic marker” framework to moral decision-making? Nishitsutsumi points out that when applying SMH to moral decision-making, we should consider the peculiarity of moral decision-making.

  First, consider a moral dilemma. When we confront a moral dilemma, we waver between conflicting moral norms, like “Do not harm” or “Do not tell a lie”. In such a situation, what is at issue is the end, not the means, of an action. Generally, in moral decision-making, we have to evaluate the purpose of an action. Consider that the same behavior can be evaluated as morally good or bad depending on whether it is caused by single-hearted kindness or intention to get rewards. To evaluate a behavior’s moral status, we have to know what kind of purpose has motivated one to behave. Yet, we cannot always see one’s purpose clearly only from how she behaves. Thus it is difficult to see if one’s decision is biased by moral motive or not relying only on behavioral clues. When we need to assess the moral quality of an action or a decision to act, we have to see its purpose, which is hard to know only from the appearance of the action itself.

  Second, a moral decision is largely cultural-dependent. Hence the same somatic state may represent different contents. As for the cultural dependence of morality, Nishitsutsumi agree with Jesse J. Prinz’s argument against evolutionary ethicists’ claim. Evolutionary ethicists hold that there are universal moral norms because all humans have an innate moral module, which is acquired through evolutionary process. They mention some empirical facts, which are behavioral or neuropsychological, to buttress their claim. Yet, according to Prinz, all of them do not prove innateness.

  Nishitsutsumi’s point is summarized as follows: if we want to apply SMH to ethics, we have to be careful about the peculiarity of morality. In moral decision-making, we need to assess the purpose or intention of an action, not only an action itself. Furthermore, moral purposes people intend to achieve in the given situations differ depending on their culture. Thus, the application of SMH to moral decision-making has to be kept in close contact to anthropological and socio-psychological studies.

  The implication SMH might have about moral decision-making cannot be disregarded, because SMH seems to be related to the problem of assessing the moral ability and responsibility of brain-damaged people. This problem becomes a more and more important one nowadays. Yet the careless extension of neuroscientific knowledge must be avoided. Nishitsutsumi’s study is of great significance in that it warns against a rushed conclusion and clarifies the points which we should pay attention to.

○The 12th TCCP (28/11/2008)
Katsunori Miyahara 
“Perception and Concept: A Phenomenological Argument for Non-conceptual Perception”

  Katsunori Miyahara is a doctoral student at the department of history and philosophy of science and research fellow (DC1) of JSPS. He specializes in phenomenology, and in his presentation he scrutinizes John McDowell’s conceptualism about perceptual content from a phenomenological point of view. Depending on Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of perception, Miyahara argues against McDowell's conceptualism and suggests a new framework to understand the relation between perception and concept.

  McDowell is a representative conceptualist on perceptual content. His claim that perceptual concept must be conceptual is derived as follows. Empirical thoughts must be systematically revisable according to the ways the world is experienced. That is, our perceptual experience must enable us to make a judgment of whether our beliefs are true or false, and our belief system must be able to undergo some revision according to the judgment. For these things to be possible, our perceptual experience must be able to stand in rational relations to our thought. According to Davidson, rational relations can hold only between things that have conceptual content. Hence, our perceptual experience must be conceptual.

  McDowell does not mean, however, that perceptual experience is a kind of thought. The difference between them consists in whether any attitude is determined toward a presented conceptual content or not. As for thought, we take some determined attitude toward its content. In contrast, the content of a perceptual experience is merely passively given; our attitude toward the content is undetermined. Hence, while it is possible for us to give up a thought by actively changing our attitude toward its content, it is impossible to throw away our perceptual experience away by changing our attitude toward its perceptual content. By taking an endorsing attitude toward the content of perceptual experience, we can make a perceptual judgment.

  One of the major problems conceptualists have to solve is to explain the fine-grainedness of perceptual content. Perceptual content seems to be much more fine-grained than the concepts which describe it. For instance, it seems hardly possible to possess all the concepts which correspond to every red color we can perceptually distinguish. According to McDowell, this fine-grainedness of perceptual content can be represented by demonstrative concepts. He refers to the fact that we can make perceptual judgments concerning fine-grained contents by using demonstratives, such as “this shade of red”, and claims that we possess concepts corresponding to such contents. Miyahara points out that if McDowell is right, we can make a perceptual judgment about every contents we perceive. It seems hardly appropriate, however. Some perceptual judgments are made possible only after we shift our attention to some content which has been perceived but has not been attended to. McDowell has to explain why we sometimes need to shift our attention to make a perceptual judgment. One supposed response is that we have to shift our attention only to determine our attitude toward a perceptual content. Before shifting, the concept corresponding to the content of the inattentive part is already given. We cannot make a perceptual judgment just because our attitude toward it is undetermined.

  Thus, according to McDowell’s framework, we take no attitude toward the inattentive parts of perceptual content. Following Merleau-Ponty, Miyahara claims that it is a wrong assumption. Our attitude toward perceptual contents is often so ambiguous that they cannot be regarded as either completely determined or completely undetermined. In our experience, the structure of the whole field, including inattentive parts, is already considered. Inattentive parts are endorsed in a certain way. Hence, it is phenomenologically inaccurate to claim that we take no attitude toward inattentive parts. This is not to say, however, that inattentive contents are endorsed in the same way as attentive contents. For example, consider color constancy, which occurs when we see a white wall. Color constancy occurs only when some part of the wall is apparently white and the other part is so slightly dark that we can hardly notice its darkness. If the dark part of the wall is apparently dark, constancy does not occur. Color constancy becomes possible only when there is inattentive part of the wall, and it plays the backgrounding role. The attentive part, on the contrary, becomes a figure against the background and catches our attention. Thus, when we see something as an articulated whole, like one continuous white wall, there is a difference between our attitudes toward attentive and inattentive part of the perceptual content.

  Conceptualists would propose a counterargument as follows. Any perceptual content must be intentional; that is, it must be correct or incorrect according to the way things come out in experience. It is usually thought that rational relations, in which one term is determined to be right or wrong according to another term, can hold only between conceptual elements. Thus, there can be no “non-conceptual” perceptual content.

  Yet Miyahara shows that there can be a perceptual content which is intentional and non-conceptual. Consider an everyday illusion. When you are walking in a forest, you vaguely sense a broad flat stone some distance away. Approaching it, you find that you have mistaken a patch of sunlight as a stone. The subsequent experience, in which it revealed that there is no stone, gives a good reason to deny the first experience. Here, a kind of rational relation holds between these two perceptual experiences. These two experiences are intentional.

  In such a case, it might seem that the preceding experience is conceptual. There is one apparent reason; when approaching an illusory object, you make some bodily preparations. For example, the muscles of your eyes would be adjusted to focus on the stone. Merleau-Ponty even says that you already prepare to feel the surface of the stone under your feet. It seems that to make such bodily preparations, you have to previously possess conceptual contents about the existence of the stone and some of its properties. Thus, it seems that the illusory experience is conceptual.

  Miyahara claims that this is a phenomenologically inaccurate description of illusory experience. Concepts, by definition, can only represent determinate features as their contents. But, according to Merleau-Ponty, an illusory object is experienced as a confused structure or “l’indeterminé (the indeterminate)”, which has no determinate feature. Hence illusory experience is non-conceptual. Thus, there are non-conceptual perceptual experiences which are intentional in our everyday experiences, as exemplified by an everyday illusion.

  In fact, according to Miyahara, the phenomenon of color constancy can be understood in the same way as the illusion case. Remember the color constancy phenomenon when seeing a white wall. Suppose that, through a close examination, it is noticed that some part of the wall is not actually white. The content of the former experience is denied, just as the experience of an illusory stone. Thus, a perceptual experience as the non-conceptual intentional state is actually commonplace in our everyday life.

  Miyahara concludes that conceptualism is phenomenologically inaccurate. There are non-conceptual contents in our perceptual experiences. Then, it seems that the relation between perceptual contents fails to be rational in the normal sense. What kind of relation is there, then? Miyahara suggests that the clue to this question can be found in Merleau-Ponty’s idea of “motor intentionality.” Inattentive perceptual contents do not lead us to a perceptual judgment, but they have the power to enable us to make bodily preparations for a perceived object. Merleau-Ponty calls this kind of activity as “motor intentionality”. In motor intentional activities, intentionality emerges not from conceptual capacity but from the body in activity. Miyahara expects that Merleau-Ponty’s body schema theory would be the key to clarifying the relation between perception and concept.

  Miyahara’s study is unique and worthwhile as an attempt to bridge the gap between analytic philosophy and phenomenology. These two areas have very different approaches, yet they share some important problems. I hope that his research leads to further discussions and bridging studies between analytic philosophy and phenomenology.

Haruka Tsutsui (The University of Tokyo)

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