Re: Towards an Understanding of the Mind

A reader solicited comments on two posts from Mike D at The A-Unicornist blog:

The first post just summarizes the mind-body problem. In the second post, Mike states his purpose to be the following:

For the purposes of this series, I’m not particularly concerned with the minutiae of the different schools of dualistic thought; rather, I’m focused on the overarching thesis that the mind is fundamentally non-physical. That is, the qualia of the mind — abstractions, semantics, and metaphor — all literally exist, but exist in some non-physical capacity. Dualists get in a pickle about how exactly those qualities exist; some say it’s in a separate realm or plane of existence (Platonic realism), some that they stem from the mind of God, etc. And again, those discussions aren’t really relevant here — I’m only concerned with the claim that those qualities do exist independently of the body.

He admits the problems he lays out do not in principle show dualism to be false. He appears to believe that a (physicalist) monist view is the most parsimonious explanation of the mind.

The first problem with dualism, according to Mike, is that we do not have a clear understanding of what a non-physical thing is. He claims we do have a coherent picture of what physical things are:

They have mass or energy that can be measured; they interact according to repeatable, reliable patterns we describe as physical law; and they exist spatiotemporally — that is, at a given location in space and time.

We do have an intuitive sense of what mass, energy, space, and time are. However, the exact nature of each can be, and is, debated among philosophers. It is possible to turn Mike’s argument back on him and assert that we don’t have a clear understanding of what a physical thing is. I would suggest our definitions of basic features of reality are rather intuitive. We can’t put them into words easily.

Mike goes on to try and define a non-physical thing in a negative fashion: it has no spatial dimensions, no mass, and no energy. What he needs to do is continue by defining the mind, the very subject at issue, and not just some generic non-physical thing.

Tentatively, we could (partially) define the mind as a thing that can exhibit direct (as opposed to indirect) intentionality, grasp concepts, be conscious, make judgments (about truth and falsehood), and reason. The dualist believes mere matter cannot exhibit these properties while the physicalist disagrees. But the physicalist cannot plausibly claim that the dualist’s conception of the mind is not as well-defined as the term physicalism itself or the physicalist’s own conception of the mind (which could be identical to the dualist’s).

The second and final problem with dualism, per Mike, is that there is no agreed upon mechanism of how the non-physical mind interacts with the physical body. His error here is to believe that there must be some mechanism by which the cause brings about the effect. But this would lead to asking by what mechanism the first mechanism brings about the effect and so on. It is better to realize that at some point in the causal chain a cause simply has the power to bring about the effect and there is no intermediate mechanism between the two. This avoids a infinite regress problem.

Plus, the physicalist faces “how questions” of his own. How does matter exhibit direct intentionality? How does matter become conscious? There is no known mechanism to point to to answer these questions either.

I think most physicalists and dualist can agree with the each other that the mind and body interact. What we disagree about is whether the mind is entirely physical or not. Neither has a detailed answer as to how the mind interacts with the body.

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