The Mind-Body Problem, part II

We are continuing our excursion through a modified version of John Heil’s article “The Mind-Body Problem”. See Part I for our introduction. 

Materialism dissolves the mind-body problem by subtracting the mental as a distinct category. To avoid Cartesian dualism, you must end up with one type of thing, not two; monism rather than dualism. By eliminating mind, materialism ends up only with body.

Others, idealists, avoid dualism by moving in the opposite direction: all that exists are minds and their contents. The physical world is, as George Berkeley (1685–1753) would put it, a “mere appearance”. One advantage of idealism is that it is not hard to see how physical objects could turn out to be illusory. A disadvantage is that idealism addresses the world in a way deeply at odds with the tenor, if not the substance, of modern science. The sense is that idealism “works”, but only by tossing out the baby with the bath water. There are few idealists around today.

The urge for scientific respectability underlies the advent of psychological behaviorism during the first half of the twentieth century. Behaviorists were intent upon distancing themselves from reliance on introspective techniques to study states of consciousness prominent in the nineteenth century. By their lights this meant providing tough-minded “operational” characterizations of important concepts and shunning anything that might prove objectively unverifiable (B. F. Skinner, “Behaviorism at Fifty” 1963). The result was psychology minus the mental trappings. Behavior was to be explained by contingencies of “reinforcement” and “operant conditioning”. We are conditioned by our involvement with the world to do as we do. The mechanisms are simple but, in combination, yield complex responses. Psychology becomes a science of behavior, which occurs in public and can be scientifically observed and measured, not of mental events, which are supposed to occur in the immaterial, private mind, inaccessible to science.

Meanwhile, philosophers, inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s (Philosophical Investigations 1953, §38) insistence that “philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday”, were crafting a philosophical version of behaviorism. Gilbert Ryle campaigned against the “Cartesian myth”, the conception of minds as “ghosts in the machine”. The mistake, thought Ryle, was to regard mental events as private, inwardly observable goings-on that, while not quite physical, had physical causes (incoming stimuli) and effects (bodily motions). Ryle thought this picture stemmed from a “category mistake”: representing “the facts of mental life as if they belonged to one logical type or category . . . when they actually belong to another” (The Concept of Mind 1949, p. 16). A child, watching a parade, is told that a regiment is marching past. Puzzled, the child remarks, “I see soldiers, but where is the regiment?” The child thinks a regiment is something alongside or “over and above” the soldiers, a peculiar sort of object. So it is with us and the mind. Scrutinizing the body, we fail to observe the mind and conclude that minds must be organs like the brain but invisible to outside observers. Rather, Ryle thinks, talk of minds and states of mind is a way of indicating what intelligent agents do or would do under various circumstances. Thoughts and feelings are not inner states. Your thinking of Vienna is just a matter of your being disposed to remark on Vienna or respond with “Vienna” when queried.

Neither Wittgenstein nor Ryle denied that there were inner states, only that states of mind were identifiable with such states. Their aim was to challenge the picture of mental goings on as being causally related to physical goings on. Your forming an intention to stroll does not cause your subsequent strolling. Puzzling over mind–body interaction in such cases manifests a category confusion. Your intention “illuminates” or “makes sense of ” your subsequent action. Actions, which presumably have purely physical causes, are understood “in light of ” thoughts and desires. The philosophical mistake is to see these states as ghostly internal causes of behavior. [Many scholars of Wittgenstein and Ryle would deny that they are behaviorists, though strong hints in their work of behaviorism are undeniable. Of all the great philosophers, Wittgenstein might most resist brief summary.]

Despite attempts to move us away from the Cartesian model of minds as inner control centers, philosophical behaviorism came under fire from philosophers who found behaviorist analyses of mental states implausible. Such analyses seek to reduce talk of mental states to talk of behavior or behavioral dispositions. If you believe the ice is thin, you will avoid skating on it, or at least be disposed to avoid skating on it – but only assuming that you want not to fall through. Your wanting not to fall through could be analyzed behaviorally, but only by mentioning still further states of mind. What we do or would do depends, it would seem, on interrelations among beliefs and desires, and this resists reductive analysis.

So rather than identify minds with behavior, why not identify minds with brains? That’s the obvious scientific move, isn’t it?

Whatever states of mind are, they do seem to affect behavior causally and to be causally responsive to perceptual inputs from the environment. In the 1950s, U.T. Place (“Is Consciousness a Brain Process?” 1956) and J.J.C. Smart (“Sensations and Brain Processes” 1959), colleagues at the University of Adelaide, put forward a mind–brain identity thesis. Mental states, although not analyzable in physical terms, might nevertheless be identified with states of the brain: sensations are brain-processes. This is not something that could be worked out solely by attending introspectively to one’s own states of mind, any more than one could work out that lightning is an electrical discharge or that water is H2O, merely by reflecting on familiar properties of lightning and water. Identities of this kind are discoverable only after careful scientific study. When we investigate the brain, we discover that it has the kind of administrative standing in the processing of incoming stimulation and the production of behavior we associate with the mind. The simplest explanation for this coincidence of roles is that the brain is the mind, mental states are states of the brain.

Plenty of scientists and non-philosophers have thought this for a long time, why not philosophers?

Philosophers persist in seeing the task of reconciling mental and physical properties as fraught with difficulty. The “feel” of a state of mind, its “what-it’s-like-ness”, its “subjectivity” (Thomas Nagel, “What is it Like to be a Bat?” 1974), seem utterly unlike any physical properties we might hope to discover in the brain. Smart noted that this was so with lightning and electrical discharges, water and H2O. In both cases, properties encountered in experience differed from those we discover via scientific investigation, yet this does not prevent us from identifying lightning and water with electrical discharges and H2O, respectively. In the case of water and lightning, however, we compare properties of the appearance of water or lightning with properties of the stuff that gives rise to the appearance. In the case of minds and brains, the roles are reversed. What we are trying to explain are the appearances. It would be futile to suggest that we are aware only of the appearances of states of mind.

What do those scientists who say that “mental states are states of the brain” really mean by it? That mental states are nothing other than brain states? That brain states exist but mental states do not? Few scientists are ready to sign on to full-blooded eliminativism. So it’s not clear what their mind-brain identity claim amounts to. Moreover, cognitive scientists make full and free use of dualistic concepts. See BQTA “Materialists Who Don’t Mean It: the Dualism of Crick and Koch” https://better-questions-than-answers.blog/2017/09/02/materialists-dont-mean-it-the-dualism-of-crick-and-koch/

Next time, functionalism: is the mind to the brain as software is to hardware?

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