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Thursday, May 6, 2010

Can Swampkinds Be Deviants?

In my last post, I challenged philosophical appeals to deviants. Deviants are beings who have phenomenal knowledge (they know what it is like to X), but who have not had any experiences which could "earn" that knowledge. For example, a deviant is somebody who knows what it is like to see red, though who has never actually seen, imagined, or hallucinated red. I previously argued that deviants are plausibly impossible--the very idea of a deviant is not obviously coherent--and that, if we do our best to make the notion coherent, the possibility of deviants becomes an empirical question. Here I want to further support the argument that deviants may be inconceivable.

The argument I will now develop is that Swampkinds cannot be deviants--or, rather, that any claim that Swampkinds are deviants will carry undesirable philosophical baggage. Swampkinds are beings who are physically and functionally identical to human beings, and who have phenomenal consciousness, but who are created spontaneously as the result of a random bolt of lightning.

In my last post, I mentioned the Davidson-Millikan view, which states that we cannot attribute intentional states or attitudes to Swampkinds, because they lack suitable histories. To see the basic rationale here, consider the following scenario: a bolt of lightning strikes a jug of paint, causing droplets of paint to splatter over a canvas. The result is what appears to be a realistic portrait of an actual tree which is standing nearby. The image may be as realistic as we like, so that anybody would be justified in supposing that it was the work of a very talented artist. Is it a representation of that tree? According to Davidson (and Kripke and Putnam), it is not a representation of anything. It is not a picture of a tree, though it looks just like one. The paint-on-canvas lacks a suitable causal history, and so cannot be said to be of anything at all. This does not prevent it from being used as if it were a picture of a tree, of course; but knowing what we do about its causal history, we are limited in what we can say about it. We cannot, for example, call it a painting, even though there is no observable difference between it and a painting. What licenses us to call something a painting (or a representation, or as something exhibiting intentionality) is the right sort of causal history; without that, we cannot make any attributions of intentionality at all. So it is with Swampkinds--they lack causal histories which could make their neurological states about what they are supposed to be about. So they cannot have the requisite phenomenal knowledge. They cannot be deviants.

To claim that Swampkinds can be deviants, then, we must suppose that there is something intrinsic about certain neurological states which gives them intentionality. This is a philosophical commitment which is not so easy to make.

Dennett might object here on the grounds that I am excluding an alternative hypothesis: Intentional states need not be attributed on the basis of causal histories, nor need they be attributed based on intrinsic properties of neurological states. Rather, we are justified in attributing intentionality just in those cases where such attributions lead to useful predictions about the behavior of a system. Since the behavior of Swampkinds can be accurately predicted on the basis of such attributions, we are justified in attributing intentional states to them. This is the gist of Dennett's "intentional stance" view of intentionality (Dennett, 1987).

The problem here is that, according to the intentional stance, we cannot attribute intentional states on the basis of how a system might behave. Rather, we can only attribute intentional states when the behavior of the system justifies it. In the case of a Swampkind, attributions are only justified when some behavior justifies them. That is, we cannot say that a Swampkind has the requisite phenomenal knowledge--we cannot know that it is a deviant--until it has exhibited some behavior which justifies the attribution of the right intentional states. Yet, any such behavior would have to entail an experience which earns that phenomenal knowledge. So, if we adopt Dennett's intentional stance, we are only able to claim that those Swampkinds which demonstrate the right phenomenal knowledge are deviants; yet, by virtue of such demonstrations, they cannot be deviants. Thus, the intentional stance would seem to preclude the possibility of Swampkinds being deviants.

In conclusion, the claim that Swampkinds are deviants relies upon a difficult philosophical commitment: We must regard intentional states as intrinsic properties which have no relation to causal histories or possible future behaviors. This makes the appeal to Swampkinds in discussions of deviants far less appealing.


Dennett, Daniel C. (1987) The Intentional Stance. MIT Press.