Sunday, 15 February 2009

Fodor foo-ey

Warning: (amateur) philosophy ahead.

I like Jerry Fodor's articles in the LRB. They are always well-written, provocative, and often wrong. Here is a recent example. Jerry is talking about whether physical things can increase your brain capacity, so that in particular if you lose your notenook (PDA, whatever), have you literally lost (a part of) your mind. To kick things off, he needs a dubious definition:
The mark of the mental is its intensionality (with an ‘s’); that’s to say that mental states have content; they are typically about things. And (with caveats presently to be considered) only what is mental has content.
What? Where did that come from, in particular the `only' clause? There is no motivation for it. It's just like saying that only brains can have frabble, and so my notebook can't be a part of my mind because it isn't frabbly. The key point being that frabble is meaningless and so by definition unfalsifiable.

Once Jerry has got away with his definition, his path is clear to disparage fancy electronics and humble paper alike:
That’s not, however, because iPhones are ‘external’, it’s because iphones don’t, literally and unmetaphorically, have contents.
In other words, privileging wetware-implemented connotations above other kinds is what allows Fodor to say that notebooks don't have contents, and hence can't be parts of brains. But there's no reason for such prejudice. I like my red hardback notebook because it is better than my memory: I would rather use it than my aging wetware for some things. It's deeply unfair to say that just because neurons are inside and paper is outside, neurons are somehow better. Just because we don't know how, exactly, we access internal memory there is no reason to claim that someone (in Jerry's case a female someone) doesn’t have to think about (or, in any literal sense, ‘consult’) her memories; she just has them.

There's a lot more of this kind of thing in the article, including the claim that only minds can entertain modal connotations (`what ifs'), all of which seem to me to follow from the initial act of wetware apartheid. C'mon, Jerry, notebooks might not have feelings, but they certainly sometimes have contents.

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