Jenann Ismael
Columbia University
Human beings think of themselves in terms of a privileged non-descriptive designator — a mental “I”. Such thoughts are called “de se” thoughts. The mind/body problem is the problem of deciding what kind of thing I am, and it can be regarded as arising from the fact that we think of ourselves non-descriptively. Why do we think of ourselves in this way? We investigate the functional role of “I” (and also “here” and “now”) in cognition, arguing that the use of such non-descriptive “reflexive” designators is essential for making sophisticated cognition work in a general-purpose cognitive agent. If we were to build a robot capable of similar cognitive tasks as humans, it would have to be equipped with such designators. Once we understand the functional role of reflexive designators in cognition, we will see that to make cognition work properly, an agent must use a de se designator in specific ways in its reasoning. Rather simple arguments based upon how “I” works in reasoning lead to the conclusion that it cannot designate the body or part of the body. If it designates anything, it must be something non-physical. However, for the purpose of making the reasoning work correctly, it makes no difference whether “I” actually designates anything. If we were to build a robot that more or less duplicated human cognition, we would not have to equip it with anything for “I” to designate, and general physicalist inclinations suggest that there would be nothing for “I” to designate in the robot. In particular, it cannot designate the physical contraption. So the robot would believe “I exist”, but it would be wrong. Why should we think we are any different?
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