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.


5 thoughts on “Re: Towards an Understanding of the Mind

  1. It seems that the best retort by the physicalist would be to say that the assumptions of physicalism have led to increased understanding, while the assumptions of dualism (of any sort) have not. Is there any known body of … evidence (for lack of a better term) which could shed light on such a claim? Now, this would not actually demonstrate that the physicalist is right—it could be that the dualist is merely being sloppy somehow. But it seems to me that in the end, these things should be adjudicated by whether they give the agent superior ability to “navigate reality”. I use that term instead of something like “control”, because “control” does nothing to expand or alter my current desires.

  2. I would counter that it has not led to an increased understanding of the mind itself so much as it has led to an understanding of the correlates of the mind. In light of my last post on the Enfield poltergeist (actually links to someone else’s posts), we could also ask which position is better in navigating that reality.

  3. If we can distinguish ‘mind’ from ‘brain’ appropriately (and I suspect we can, although not necessarily with “clear and distinct ideas”), I almost certainly agree. A science focused on control and domination will be very limited in understanding any being with true (irreducible) agency.

    As regards the Enfield poltergeist, I’m afraid even if the entire thing is granted, it doesn’t seem to provide any way to make progress on dualism. There is a difference between developing satisfying explanations which lead to nothing new, and developing satisfying explanations which open up new vistas to explore. Can thinking on the Enfield poltergeist do the latter? Trees which bear no fruit are cut down and thrown into the fire.

  4. If some kind of dualism is the best explanation of the mind then that is all the fruit that tree needs to bear. The truth needs to take priority over whether an hypothesis “opens up new vistas” or we are no longer really seeking the truth.

    The terms “navigate reality” and “open up new vistas” are vague so I may not understand how you are using the them.

    Presumably the child in the Enfield case who was levitated and thrown around the room knew whether this was faked or not. If she knew it was not faked then physicalism would make it impossible for her to navigate the reality she found herself in. By “navigate reality” I took you to mean making sense of reality and being able to choose future actions in a rational way.

    By “open up new vistas” you might be alluding to a new research program. It’s been awhile but I think some kinds of research are put forth in Soul Hypothesis: Investigations into the Existence of the Soul.

  5. Actually, I suspect that the way you know something is true is because it leads to further truth, and in a non-cancerous way. I do not think it is a coincidence that God is the source of life, that he is love, and that he is truth. The truth sets free. Free to do what? Free to live. When YHWH presents commandments to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 30, he doesn’t frame it as a choice between truth and falsity, but between death and life.
    The reason I said “navigate reality” is that too narrow a definition of ‘truth’ leads to a Nietzschean scheme where all truth really does is allow you to better dominate reality, to exert more power over reality. This kind of truth is constitutionally incapable of really challenging one’s extant desires. And so, you can get stuck in an infinitesimal sliver of reality. You can learn more and more about less and less. It’s rather Tower of Babel-ish. What the Tower of Babel folks refused to do was to spread out into all creation. They refused to better “navigate reality”. They preferred a tiny pond to the vast ocean.
    Thanks for recommending The Soul Hypothesis; it has an NDPR review, which starts boldly:

    Most books advocating dualism are defensive and modest in tone. They tend to admit that a scientific naturalism explains almost all reality, but plead that there are reasons for thinking it cannot cope with consciousness — the ‘hard problem’. This book is quite different. Its view is that humanity through the ages has recognised that there is plainly something special about the dynamic inner life of the mind — humans have souls — and that the reasons given nowadays for abandoning this belief are tendentious, both philosophically and scientifically. Folk psychology remains central to our status as human beings, no progress has been made in giving a physicalist account of consciousness and, most striking, progress in neurology leaves us little better off than were the ancient Greeks in moving from some elementary correlations between brain and mind to positively explaining our mental life in physical terms.

    That’s exactly what I was looking for; thanks! One symptom of said lack of progress is explained by philosopher Charles Taylor and also sociologist Christian Smith:

    Much contemporary moral philosophy, particularly but not only in the English-speaking world, has given such a narrow focus to morality that some of the crucial connections I want to draw here are incomprehensible in its terms. This moral philosophy has tended to focus on what it is right to do rather than on what it is good to be, on defining the content of obligation rather than the nature of the good life; and it has no conceptual place left for a notion of the good as the object of our love or allegiance or, as Iris Murdoch portrayed it in her work, as the privileged focus of attention or will.[1] This philosophy has accredited a cramped and truncated view of morality in a narrow sense as well as of the whole range of issues involved in the attempt to live the best possible life and this not only among professional philosophers, but with a wider public. (Sources of the Self, 3)

        But why ask about the human good or human goods? A tendency in Western modernity—particularly in its politically liberal, individualistic modes—has been to replace questions about what is good with questions about what is right.[5] Even if real goods exist, many argue, inquiries about them only produce disagreement and conflict. Others deny outright the existence of any human good, recognizing only infinite possible goods determined by individual desires and cultural invention. In either case, this view says, what really matters in the end, what should focus our attention is the right, not the good. In practical terms, society should do no more than protect the right and rights by ensuring equal opportunity, just procedures, individual self-determination, individual civil and human rights, and so on. Questions about what is good are not “society’s” to answer but must devolve to individuals to decide for themselves in private. (To Flourish or Destruct, 3–4)

    We’re getting dumber and dumber about what’s inside. The problem is, diagnosing the problem is a far cry from prescribing a cure. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 4:19–20 that the Kingdom of God consists not in talk, but in power. There seems to be rather little power visible in a lot of Christianity, making me suspect that much of it has been reduced to commandments taught by men (Isaiah 29:13–14). What happened? Am I simply blind to what is going on? Or might the strong delusion of 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12 be apropos? Did Jesus guarantee that wide swaths of people who claimed to be his disciples would never recapitulate Ezekiel 5:5–9?
    I am greatly vexed, and have been for several years now. The fantastic happenings prophesied in Isaiah 58 don’t really seem to be happening, and Romans 2:24 teaches me to question those who claim to know God first.

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