Doing, Feeling and Weaselling

Anon: “I agree with your take on mental states as conscious or felt states (seemingly unpopular in philosophy).”

Unfortunately, that one sentence already illustrates that it could not be that you agree with me — or even understand what I mean!

What I mean is that “weasel words” like “mental” and “conscious” are really just synonyms of “felt” — but they are being used as if they meant something else or something more. Your sentence, to my ears, reads as follows:

— “I agree with your take on felt states as felt or felt states (seemingly unpopular in philosophy)” —

What seems to be popular in (some) philosophy is the kind of vacuous redundancy that the above transcription unmasks.

Anon:  “however, I was surprised to find that you do not accept that plants and bacteria are cognizing.”

“Cognize” is not a weasel-word but a very vague place-holder for what is going on inside an organism to generate the capacity to do (some of) the kinds of things that (some) organisms can do

Cognitive science is the field of research that is trying to find out (reverse-engineer) what those internal goings-on (structures, processes) are, that generate (cause) those doing-capacities.

This would just be a very strained way of stating the obvious if it were not for the fact that some of those internal goings-on (in some organisms, sometimes) are felt states (or, perhaps more modestly, they are states that generate not only doing but feeling).

There is another distinction we make, within the category of “doings.” We distinguish “cognitive” doings from (what we could call) “vegetative” doings. 

The cognitive/vegetative distinction is clear on both ends of what might (or might not) be a continuum. When organisms are doing things that we think involve “thinking,” we tend to call those doings (or the internal goings-on that generate them) “cognitive.” And when they are doing things (like thermoregulation, digestion, immunosuppression, etc.) that we think do not involve “thinking,” we call those doings (or the internal goings-on that generate them) “vegetative.”

This “cognitive/vegetative” distinction would be completely vacuous if it were not for the existence of feeling. For cognitive doings also tend to be felt, whereas vegetative doings do not. And many (but not all) cognitive doings tend to be felt as deliberate or voluntary. They feel as if “we” (not just our bodies) were causing them.

So the “cognitive/vegetative” distinction is correlated with the felt/unfelt (as well as the voluntary/involuntary) distinction.

That’s why the question of whether we should call the internal goings-on that generate the doings of plants and bacteria “cognizing” is not just a terminological question: it depends on a matter of fact: Do plants and bacteria feel?*
—*I have no problem with the word “sentient,” which is not yet another weasel-word. It simply means “capable of feeling” when it is said of an organism, and is homologous with “felt” if it  is said of an internal state.”  It is useful for making distinctions among the nominal, verbal and adjectival senses of the notion and phenomenon of “feeling” — in English. Both English and German could, awkwardly, express “sentient state” as well as “sentient organism” with “felt state” (“gefühlter Zustand”) and “feeling-capable organism” (“gefühlfähig Organismus”), but it would sound even more awkward in English than the already more agglutinative German (though even German changes the root in its Latin-free version of “sentient organism”: “empfindungsfähig Organismus.” In Romance languages like French the Latin root, from “sentire” — “to feel” is evident in « sentir » “feel,” « état ressenti » “felt state” and  « organisme sentient » “sentient organism.”  In a pinch, English could make do without “feel” or “feeling,” relying only on “sense,” “sensing” “sensation,” (whether sensing a surface, a sound, a sorrow, or a significance), “sentient” (for both species and states) and “sentience.” — This is all just a trivial linguistic matter, but weaselling is not.

Anon: “Those who seek to argue for bacteria or plant sentience often argue that they are cognitive agents and hence have minds – with some going further and saying they are conscious.”

Those who seek to argue for bacteria or plant feeling often argue that they are feeling-capable doers and hence have feelings – with some going further and saying they feel.

We know that bacteria and plants can do things, The question is whether they can feel. (This is also the only biological domain where the other-minds problem is factually and morally nontrivial; it would also be nontrivial if we had Turing robots: synthetic but totally indistinguishable from us in their doing-capacity.)

Anon: “Wouldn’t it be more natural to argue that mental states are cognitive states such as memory or ‘knowledge’ in cells?”

De-weaselled and disambiguated:  “Wouldn’t it be more natural to (argue) that internal states are cognitive states such as memory or ‘knowledge‘ in cells?”

Once it’s de-weaselled of “mental” this just becomes a question about whether or not an organism has felt states, and if so, which ones are felt (or somehow accompanied by feeling). And this may again involve the fuzziness of our notion of the boundary between vegetative and cognitive functions (doings).

Anon: “Wouldn’t it be more natural to argue that our empirical findings of sensory-based motor control extend our concept of cognition, but by doing to disassociate it from the mind?”

De-weaselled and disambiguated:    “Wouldn’t it be more natural to argue that our empirical findings of sensory-based motor control extend our concept of cognition? (Wouldn’t arguing that it is just) “doing” disassociate it from feeling?”

No, it would not be more natural to conflate doings with feelings. Nor would it be true that they are the same thing.

Internal states can be cognitive or vegetative. They are cognitive only in organisms that can feel (when they are feeling).

Anon: “If you want to describe all of these phenomena as merely ‘doings’ it would seem that we lose useful scientific vocabulary to describe what is happening.” See: https://aeon.co/essays/how-to-understand-cells-tissues-and-organisms-as-agents-with-agendas

That article describes remarkable doing-capacities of organisms. But the question of whether (and why!) any of them are felt is begged.

“Scientific vocabulary” is not at risk. It is just over-interpreting (if it attributes feelings where there aren’t any) — or underestimating (if it implies that explaining doing-capacity is all there is to explaining feeling — or, worse, that all there is is doings and doing-capacity). 

No, robots are not mid-way between doing-capacity and feeling-capacity. They either just do, or they also feel. The same is true of living organisms, from single cells to mammals: They either just do, or they also (sometimes) feel. 

To anthropomorphize is to attribute feeling where there is none. And where there is none, none is needed. 

The hard problem is explaining how and why those organisms that do feel, feel.

Needless to say, “agent” is a weasel-word. There are just unfeeling doers (like rocks, rockets, and, I think, rhizoids, rotifers and rhododenra) and feeling doers (like mammals and mollusks), and the boundary (for feeling, not doing) is all-or-none.

The rest is just explaining how and why they can do what they can do — and, for the intrepid, also how and why they those that feel can feel. Other than that, the “cognitive/vegetative” continuum is arbitrary, and nothing is at stake.



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