The Mereological Constraint



E-Intentionality, February 26th 2016, Pevensey 2A11, 12:00-12:50

Ron Chrisley: The Mereological Constraint

I will discuss what I call the mereological constraint, which can be traced back at least as far as Putnam’s writings in the 1960s, and is the idea, roughly, that a mind cannot have another mind as a proper constituent.  I show that the implications (benefits?) of such a constraint, if true, would be far-ranging, allowing one to finesse the Chinese room and Chinese nation arguments against computationalism, reject certain notions of extended mind, reject most group minds, make a ruling on the modality of sensory substitution, etc.  But is the mereological conjecture true?  I will look at some possible arguments for the conjecture, including one that appeals to the fact that rationality must be grounded in the non-rational, and one that attempts to derive the constraint from a comparable one concerning the individuation of computational states.  I will also consider an objection to the conjecture, that argues that it would confer on us a priori knowledge of facts that are, intuitively, empirical.

Audio (28.5 mb, .mp3)

2 thoughts on “The Mereological Constraint

  1. Hi Ron,

    Here are the main objections I raised over lunch:

    1. Consider a hypothetical scenario where a person contracts a serious degenerative brain condition, that requires a miniature surgeon to take up residence inside the patient’s brain, and continually repair the damage.

    This scenario fulfils every condition one might want for causal involvement of another mind: the patient’s brain would not function appropriately without the surgeon’s minded behaviour, and we can even stipulate (if so inclined) that the repairs cannot be carried out by any mechanism significantly less sophisticated than the surgeon, so that the mindedness of the surgeon is actually essential to the explanatory account (a condition stronger than any you have proposed).

    However, if the surgeon does not know what effect their actions will have on the patient’s decisions (aside from knowing that the brain will cease to function if they don’t repair it), it does not seem reasonable to say that the patient’s responsibility is undermined by the surgeon’s involvement.

    The reason for this is that the concerns of the patient do not really present themselves as concerns for the surgeon. A mentalistic explanation of the particulars of the patient’s behaviour will involve the beliefs and desires of the patient, not of the surgeon.

    We could imagine a different scenario, in which the surgeon can deliberately manipulate the patient’s decisions (and cares about them). In that scenario, the patient’s responsibility does seem undermined. Moreover, the beliefs and desires that an external observer will attribute to the patient will (to some extent) reflect concerns present for the surgeon; in this sense, it looks like the “mental spaces” of the patient and surgeon intersect in some way that does not occur when the surgeon can’t control the patient’s decisions.

    2. Even folk psychology recognises that the notion of responsibility requires a fair amount of nuance: autonomy is often understood in terms of degree, with coercion, drugs, infirmity, unconscious processes, and many other things contributing. From this point of view, impugning/undermining the responsibility of the purported realised mind does not seem like a problem – indeed, perhaps it is even a benefit!

    Warm regards,


  2. I have just uploaded a recording of this seminar – see the bottom of the original post for a link. Not sure why the file size is double that of the recording of Jonny’s presentation though!

    (Simon, thanks for your comments – I’ll reply soon.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s