Rorty's New Mark of the Mental

Professor Rorty has claimed (‘Incorrigibility as the Mark of the Mental’, The Journal of Philosophy, June 25,1970) that the only thing that distinguishes events in the stream of consciousness (henceforth ‘mental events’) from physical ones is that sincere first-person reports of mental events are treated as incorrigible; he argues that because of this, mental events may eventually “disappear” even though life somehow continues much as it is now. I have argued (‘Rorty’s Mark of the Mental and His Disappearance Theory’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, September 1974) that incorrigibility is not the mark of the mental; and if it is not, the view that it is obviously gives no support to his disappearance thesis. In response to this, Rorty has offered a new mark of the mental (‘More on Incorrigibility’, ibid.). I shall argue that his new theory of what distinguishes the mental is incompatible with his view that mental events may eventually disappear.

My argument against the claim that incorrigibility is the mark of the mental is that after-images are mental yet sincere first-person reports about them are not treated as incorrigible. If a person reported that his after-image had 12 sides and the figure responsible for it had in fact 13, it would surely be in order to challenge his report.

Rorty grants my point, and offers a new mark of the mental. A statement that p asserts the occurrence of a mental event if ‘there are no accepted procedures for resolving doubt [whether] p, given that [the report that] p fits into a pattern of sincere reports made by a subject S, even though it fits into no more general theory’. The key expression is ‘pattern of sincere reports’. On his old theory, something would fail to qualify as mental if there were procedures for challenging a single report about it (as there are for after-images). On his new theory, after-images can qualify as mental even if there are procedures for challenging a single report as long as there are no procedures for challenging a multiplicity of reports. And Rorty claims, I believe correctly, that there are no such procedures. He suggests that if a person repeated his claim about an after-image a number of times, we would probably give in and regard the case as grounds for doubting our general theory correlating the number of sides of an after-image with the number of sides of the physical object responsible for it.

It would seem then that Rorty has provided a new mark of the mental that will withstand my counterexample. But he has avoided one problem only to create another. He wants a mark of the mental that will enable him to claim that at some time in the future mental events may cease to have the characteristic in question and so will in a sense disappear, and that this could happen without any important change in our lives. This view, the disappearance thesis, will seem more plausible if we remember that his mark of the mental is what may be called an extrinsic characteristic. Thus the events in question could continue to have the same intrinsic characteristics (as would be required for there to be no important change in our lives) yet cease to be mental provided that they lost the extrinsic characteristic that we have been considering. Rorty defends this view in the following argument (he has generously agreed in a letter that the argument I sketch is the only argument he has to offer):
For something to be paradigmatically mental, it must be private. For something to be private, it must be such that one and only one person can make incorrigible reports about it. At some time in the distant future, scientists may make such great advances in the study of the brain that there will be grounds for challenging reports about the stream of consciousness. Then challenges to first person reports of mental events will be in order, and such reports will cease to be incorrigible. As a result of this, the stream of consciousness will cease to be private and therefore will cease to be mental. Mental events will have “disappeared”.
The trouble is that with his new mark of the mental the argument no longer works. He formerly held that at some time in the future, scientific advances may justify us in overruling a sincere first-person report about the things we now call sensations; and that at that time they will cease to be sensations because first-person reports about them will cease to be treated as incorrigible. With his new mark of the mental, the situation is quite different. For intense pains, for example, to cease to be mental we would have to be prepared on the basis of a scientific theory to reject not merely single but repeated first-person reports of intense pain. We would have to respect the verdict of a scientist observing something in a person’s brain—perhaps the firing of a certain C-fibre—even if the scientist’s verdict conflicted with repeated claims on the part of a sincere person that he was undergoing intense pain. But it seems clear that the grounds for rejecting the scientist’s claim would be at least as good as the grounds Rorty now has for rejecting the claim of a scientist that a person was repeatedly miscounting the sides of his after-image. Thus, replacing ‘p’ with ‘I am experiencing intense pain’, there would continue to be ‘no accepted procedure for resolving doubt about the existence of an intense pain given that its existence fits into no more general theory’. So intense pains would still bear the mark of the mental; they would not have “disappeared”. [If the person only claimed that he was in mild pain or claimed that he had a pain that was only slightly different from the pain that the scientist attributed to him, we might agree with the scientist; in this case, Rorty would be in a position to claim that at least some sensations had disappeared. But if the existence of mental events is incompatible with materialism, a materialist obviously needs to get rid of all of them, not just some of them.]

This is true despite the fact that if the theory correlating pain with brain states were correct, there would probably be no occasions when sincere reports of an individual regarding intense pain conflicted with the claims of a scientist observing his brain. This is the case because what counts for Rorty is not whether such conflicts would actually occur but whether there would be a procedure for resolving them in favor of the scientist if they did, and it seems obvious that there would not.

Rorty's New Mark of the Mental
Author(s): R. I. Sikora
Source: Analysis, Vol. 35, No. 6 (Jun., 1975), pp. 192-194
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of The Analysis Committee
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