SOPhiA 2021

Salzburgiense Concilium Omnibus Philosophis Analyticis

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Programme - Talk

Additive transformative rationality
(Philosophy of Mind, )

A Whenever we ask what makes humans different from animals, our rationality seems to be a good place to start. But how much different are we from non-rational animals? Matthew Boyle (2016, 2012) discusses and criticises the view that humans are just another animal with some cognitive upgrades. According to such additive theories of rationality, rationality is a capacity that is added to or sits on top of older capacities of "believing-on-the-basis-of-perception and our acting-on-the-basis-of-desire" (Boyle, 2016, p. 528). Boyle advocates a transformative view of rationality; one on which the capacity to scrutinise and self-regulate our beliefs and intentions has profound effects on the "lower" capacities such that we cannot consider them to be shared by rational and non-rational animals. Even if rational animals sometimes act and believe unreflectively, their perceptual and motivational states have a "distinctive form of predication". Boyle's view rests on an argument by John McDowell against non-conceptualism. According to McDowell, judgements must appeal to reasons that are reflectively accessible to the subject. They can only be accessible in a way that allows for reflective scrutiny if their contents are conceptualised (see McDowell, 1994, p. 46-47). His assumption seems to be, however, that perception and desire are non-conceptual for non-rational animals. Thus, the perceptions and motivational states of non-rational animals must be different from those of rational animals. Boyle_s criticism of additive theories is that they fail to account for our capacity of rational belief and action as these require the conceptualisations of certain perceptions or motivational states as reasons for belief or action. Because perceptions and motivational states are not conceptualised on this view, they cannot inform rational belief and action. Non-conceptual content in perception can only lead to "instinctive" belief (see Boyle, 2016, p. 543). An additive theory like this cannot account for our capacity to ask whether what we perceive is really a good reason to believe. Boyle's view is essentially about judgements, where for "any judgment J of a rational subject S, a normal explanation of S's judging J must appeal to reasons available to S's reflective scrutiny" (Boyle, 2016, p. 543). His view is that non-conceptualised contents from animal perception and desire cannot lead to judgements. Because humans have the capacity to judge, the inputs of reflective processes cannot be those of animals. There are two ways to read this: one is that Boyle is only committed to saying that all human perceptions and desires are capable of being reflected upon and scrutinised. The other one is that rational capacities are active in every instance of belief and action. If rationality is transformative and not merely additive, that seems to suggest that not a single perception and desire is untouched by rationality. But humans don't only judge. I would like to argue that sometimes we act and believe on "brute impulses". Boyle's view does not make these disappear and fails to account for their possibility. In an important sense, however, even actions or beliefs of rational beings that are based on brute, non-conceptual instincts are in an important way different from those found in non-rational animals. Using a functionalist framework, I want to propose a view that combines transformative and additive aspects into one theory. I think Boyle's argument rests on a misrepresentation of additive theories. There is a characterisation of these that avoids Boyle's argument and can account for our capacity of reflective scrutiny. Characterisations of additive theories have to make it clear what is added on top of what. What do we have in common with non-rational animals and what exactly is added that makes us the reflective beings we sometimes are? Boyle presents additive theories as adding the rational capacity of reflective scrutiny of reasons to the lower capacities of non-rational animals. On this characterisation of additive theories, there is an interaction problem (see Boyle, 2016, p. 553) because rational self-assessment requires conceptual content that cannot be given by the perceptual and motivational states of non-rational animals. However, transformative and additive theories of rationality are not incompatible if we consider the capacity of conceptualisation itself to be that which is added to the lower non-rational system. This could be what Evans had in mind when writing that the lower capacities provide "the input to a thinking, concept-applying, and reasoning system" (Evans, 1982, p. 158). The capacity to apply concepts to the outputs of perception and motivational states - which makes rational scrutiny further down the line possible - is what is added to the capacities of non-rational animals. Non-rational perceptions and motivations are still very different from their counterparts that do not belong to a subject with rational capacities. Even when I hit the table unreflectively in my rage, for example, I can reflect on this afterwards and come to believe that I did not really have a reason to be angry. Boyle is not clear on how he understands the type of transformation of the lower capacities when they serve as the inputs of rationality. I think that the debate can be enriched by a functionalist approach. A "holistic" modification of overall functional roles of lower capacities could be described as transformative. Such a holism, however, comes with certain caveats regarding the individuation of mental states. Taken too far, holism can lead to cases in which one type of mental state would have to be described as different mental states depending on the functional system in which it is integrated. If perception is transformed on a functionally holistic view, I take that to be a reason for believing that transformative and additive aspects of a theory are not mutually exclusive. Certain capacities can either be transformed or not, depending on how widely the functional net is cast, so to speak. The capacity to conceptualise our perceptual and motivational states can "sit on top of" the capacities we share with non-rational animals. We sometimes act and believe "instinctively", i.e., without explicit representation of support relations between our reasons and our attitudes. Perception has the same functions in rational animals as in non-rational animals. The capacity of conceptualisation of contents as reasons gives perception and desire new causal roles, transforming the overall system they are part of. The important point that differentiates this view from Boyle's is that the lower capacities survive the functional modification and are still exercised in rational beings.

Chair: Agnieszka Proszewska
Time: 15:20-15:50, 11 September 2021 (Saturday)
Location: SR 1.003

Yannick Kohl 
(University of Luxembourg, )



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