10 May 2010

McDowell on Gjelsvik on McDowell on Rorty on Davidson on Brains in Vats

McDowell's criticism of Davidson on pages 16/17 of "Mind & World" has always bothered me. The topic is what Davidson says about brains in vats, based on the testimony of Rorty in "Pragmatism, Davidson, and Truth". It turns out that there's a volume of "Theoria" made up of critical essays with McDowell's responses, and this comes up there. I didn't know McDowell had responded to any of those essays until a few hours ago; I was excited to find them. McDowell's return to this argument was the best thing I found in there.

M&W 16/17: "Suppose one feels the worry in this familiar form: so far as the picture goes, one might be a brain in a mad scientist's vat. The Davidsonian response seems to be that if one were a brain in a vat, it would be correct to interpret one's beliefs as being largely true beliefs about the brain's electronic environment.... But the response to the brain-in-a-vat worry works the wrong way round. The response does not calm the fear that our picture leaves our thinking possibly out of touch with the world around us. It just gives us a dizzying sense that our grip on what it is that we believe is not as firm as we thought."

And then McDowell has this footnote; I'll bold the part that's always upset me:
"It takes care to say precisely why the response is unsatisfying. It is not that we are being told that we may be egregiously wrong about what our beliefs are about. If I protest that some belief of mine is not about electronic impulses or whatever but about, say, a book, the reply can be: "Certainly your belief is about a book -- given how 'a book' as you use the phrase is correctly interpreted." The envisaged reinterpretation, to suit the hypothesis that I am a brain in a vat, affects my higher-level beliefs about what my first-level beliefs are about in a way that precisely matches its effect on my first-level beliefs. The problem is that in the argument Rorty attributes to Davidson, we ring changes on the actual environment (as seen by the interpreter and brought into the interpretation) without changing how things strike the believer, even while the interpretation is supposed to capture how the believer is in touch with her world. This strikes me as making it impossible to claim that the argument traffics in any genuine idea of being in touch with something in particular. The objects that the interpreter sees the subject's beliefs as being about become, as it were, merely noumenal so far as the subject is concerned."

In "Experience" (Theoria volume 70, issue 2-3), Olav Gjelsvik complains about this passage in just the way I have in the past: "McDowell allows himself a description of the case Davidson would hardly subscribe to, namely that “we ring changes in the actual environment without changing how things strike the believer”. Davidson,in this mood Rorty describes, would hardly let in the line “without changing how things strike the believer”." Gjelsvik makes the obvious point that "how things strike the believer" is, for Davidson, a matter of which beliefs the believer holds, and McDowell grants that those change with environmental changes in his footnote (what I mean by "a book" is not a book, if I've never come into even remote contact with books). So what's supposed to be the problem for Davidson, here?

McDowell's response clears things up (after regretting that he tried to make much out of a secondhand report about an oral remark about such a tricky topic):
"When I spoke of ringing changes in the actual environment without changing how things strike the believer, I was not talking about what an interpreter might come up with when faced with something that is undoubtedly a brain in a vat. Davidson’s remark, I took it, was meant to respond to the sceptical thought (or supposed thought), supposedly entertainable by each of us, “Perhaps I am a brain in a vat”. How things strike me (which I would express by saying such things as that there seems to be a computer screen in front of me) is given by the current state of my consciousness. In the thought experiment, we are invited to switch - without changing the current state of my consciousness - between the case as I take it to be, in which there really is a computer screen in front of me, and the case in which my visual experience is produced by electrodes implanted in the brain that, in this alternative scenario, is all there is to me. The putative reassurance of Davidson’s remark was that even if the case is the second of these, my beliefs (which I express by saying, for instance, that there is a computer screen in front of me) are still mostly true; it is just that my expressions of them need to be interpreted as being about the electronic environment of the brain that, on this hypothesis, I am. I stand by my claim that this is not much reassurance. But for someone who thought it was, it would be exactly the point - contrary to what Gjelsvik says - to allow the line “without changing how things strike the believer”. The whole point of the supposed reassurance would be to grant to the sceptic that the difference between the two scenarios would not make a difference to the state of my consciousness, but to deny that this threatens the thesis that most of my beliefs are true."

McDowell took "the Davidsonian response" to the brain-in-a-vat worry to grant that one's experience is indistinguishable from the experience of a brain in a vat, but that this shouldn't worry anyone because brains in vats have mostly true beliefs, too. This is supposed to be a plausible line for Davidson because for him "experience", "consciousness" etc. are epistemically inert to begin with. So McDowell didn't just (somehow) forget that the radical interpreter would change how he took things to be striking the believer to fit with changes ringed in the environment; he took Davidson's response to grant to the skeptic that "how things strike my consciousness" can swing wildly free of how the world is. And then the argument about "the veridical nature of belief" "comes too late", just as McDowell says, for the skeptical claim about experience is left untouched, and that's the spot that itches.

This is much more plausible as a criticism of Davidson, and I no longer hate that part of "Mind & World". I don't think it quite works as a criticism of Davidson (because I don't think that that is how Davidson actually thinks of brain-in-a-vat skepticism or of "experience"), but it's intelligibly directed against a "Davidsonian" view. And addressing it helps McDowell better get into view that what we need is a conception of a natural happening which is the world's impressing itself on a thinker. I think some of McDowell's criticisms of Davidson in "Mind & World" are less than perfect (as McDowell eventually recognizes in "Avoiding the Myth of the Given"), but he's certainly right that making sense of such a conception is a desideratum, and that Davidson was ill-poised to give it to us.