The Mind-body Problem, part IV

This is the last part of our freestyle excursion through John Heil’s fine essay. See Part I for some introductory remarks. 

Philosophers with physicalist leanings are not as ready to throw in the towel on mental causation as David Chalmers and Jaegwon Kim are. What exactly are mental qualities, the so-called qualia? Describe a dramatic sensory scene: a sunset viewed from a tropical beach. Your description will invoke a panoply of vivid qualities: colors, odors, sounds. Were we to look inside your head, however, we would observe none of this. Colin McGinn asks “how Technicolor phenomenology could arise from grey soggy matter” (“Can We Solve the Mind–Body Problem?” Mind 1989, p. 349). As C. D. Broad reminds us, properties of brains seem utterly different from properties of our conscious experiences.

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that whenever it is true to say that I have a sensation of a red patch it is also true to say that a molecular movement of a certain specific kind is going on in a certain part of my brain. There is one sense in which it is plainly nonsensical to attempt to reduce the one to the other. There is something which has the characteristic of being an awareness of a red patch. There is something which has the characteristic of being a molecular movement. It would surely be obvious even to the most “advanced thinker” who ever worked in a physiological laboratory that, whether these “somethings” are the same or different, there are two different characteristics (CD Broad, The Mind and Its Place in Nature 1925, p. 622).

Suppose, however, we distinguish properties of things experienced from properties of experiences. The sunset is red, the breeze balmy, the sand warm, and the waves murmur softly. Colors, sounds, odors, and the like are not properties of our experiences of such things, but properties of things we experience, or at any rate properties we represent such things as possessing. The point was made by J. J. C. Smart (“Sensations and Brain Processes” 1959) in his original discussion of mind–brain identity, and, more recently, others have sought to demystify qualia by arguing that what have been regarded as irreducible qualities of conscious experiences are, in reality, only qualities we represent things as having (Gilbert Harman “The Intrinsic Quality of Experience” 1990 and William Lycan Consciousness and Experience 1996). Were that so, there would be no insurmountable gulf between mental properties, including properties of conscious experiences, and unexceptional physical properties. Much of the mystery of consciousness might be due to confusion over what experiential properties could be. This is an approach taken by “direct realists” such as John Campbell (“A Simple View of Colour” 1993; Berkeley’s Puzzle with Quassim Cassam 2014) and John Searle (The Rediscovery of the Mind 1992;  Seeing Things as They Are: A Theory of Perception 2015) in Berkeley. 

Here we have representation playing the garbage-bin role: embarrassing or inconvenient features of the world are consigned to representations of the world. Still, it is difficult to shake the idea that representings are themselves permeated with irreducibly mental qualities. Your being in pain might involve your representing a bodily state as painful, but this representing is, or certainly seems to be, qualitatively loaded. The so-called secondary qualities have long been held not to be part of the physical world. “Sounds, colors, heat and cold, according to modern philosophy are not qualities in objects, but perceptions in the mind.” David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature 1738. Cognitive science routinely informs us that colors cannot be part of the physical world. See BQTA  “The Science of Color”  and “Color and Shape”

What we might hope to learn from all this? The mind–body problem takes hold only when we respect the integrity of both the physical and the mental. More often than not this has meant accommodating the mental to the physical, thereby privileging the physical. The ideal solution would involve finding a niche for the mental within the physical realm, but that seems hopeless, no more promising than reduction or elimination. Perhaps we are deluding ourselves. Perhaps we have erred in letting Descartes set the agenda and assuming at the outset that the mental and the physical are mutually exclusive. Suppose, instead, it turned out that the mental/physical distinction were not metaphysically deep. In that case, we would have no mystery as to how mental (in the sense of non-physical) properties could have physical (in the sense of non-mental) causes or effects.

Consider Donald Davidson’s “anomalous monism”. Davidson is commonly read as holding that mental properties depend on, but are not reducible to physical properties. A mental event is an event with a mental property; a physical event is an event with a physical property. This leaves open the possibility of “token identity” without “type identity”: one and the same event could be both mental and physical by virtue of possessing a mental property and a (distinct) physical property. The problem of mental causation arises because we think that events have the effects they have solely in virtue of their physical properties. Mental properties “piggyback” on physical properties, but appear causally inefficacious.

Although this picture is widely attributed to Davidson, it is pretty clearly not what Davidson has in mind. Davidson speaks of descriptions and predicates, not properties. An event is mental, he holds, if it answers to (“satisfies”) a mental description; it is physical if it satisfies a physical predicate. One and the same event, including the event’s causally efficacious constituent properties, could answer to both a mental and a physical description. For Davidson, the mental– physical distinction is classificatory, not metaphysical. Everything in the world could be given a physical description and so counts as physical. Some portions of the world could also be described using mental terms. truthmakers for applications of mental predicates will be fully describable using a physical vocabulary. This is so despite the fact that, owing to very different application conditions, there is no prospect of analyzing mental predicates in physical terms.

A view of this kind treats “mental” and “physical” as classificatory designations, not fundamental metaphysical categories. In this regard it resembles Spinoza’s “neutral monism”. Spinoza (1632–1677) held that there is but a single substance possessing multiple “attributes”, including the mental and the physical. Finite physical or mental entities are modes of these attributes, ways of being mental or physical. Spinoza’s attributes differ from Descartes’s, however, in being attributes of a single substance and in being, at a deeper level, unified. In singling out attributes, we are “abstracting” in Locke’s sense, engaging in “partial consideration” of a substance. Abstraction is a mental act, but what is abstracted is in no way mind-dependent.

These are deep metaphysical waters, but the mind–body problem cries out for a deep solution. Perhaps it is time to abandon the Cartesian presumption that the mental and the physical differ in a fundamental way, along with all the many attempts at reconciliation beholden to the Cartesian presumption. As noted, such attempts have tended to privilege the physical. The mental is seen as reducible to or dependent on the physical in some way. The physical world is regarded as the real world as described by science. For Davidson and Spinoza, the physical is in no regard privileged. We have one world, variously propertied, describable in various ways, with various degrees of specificity. To imagine that dramatic differences in our modes of classification must reflect fundamental metaphysical discontinuities is to mistake features of our representations of the world for features of the world.

Or so Spinoza and Davidson think. Whether a move to monism represents progress or merely one more philosophical byway leading nowhere remains to be seen. Meanwhile, philosophers will continue to till familiar soil in familiar ways in hopes of bringing forth some new solution to the mind–body problem.

All of the ideas we’ve discussed have something to recommend them, but none solve the problem. Nor has the problem been “dis-solved”, exposed as a mere linguistic confusion or otherwise shown to be no problem at all. Every conceivable explanation of the relationship between mind and world seems to have fatal flaws. What a strange situation we find ourselves in!



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