A HISTORY OF THE MIND
Keywords: Mind- Body Problem - qualia - dualism -
I have a big fish to fry. But I shall have to spend the first half of the book in catching it; and until I have done so I am reluctant to make any great claims about its size or weight. Its shape, however, I can tell you right away. It has the shape of the Mind- Body Problem.
Mind- Body Problem
The mind-body problem is the problem of explaining how states of consciousness arise in human brains. More specifically (and I shall have to be more specific in due time) it is the problem of explaining how subjective feelings arise in human brains.
The vocabulary I have to work with may not serve me well. "Subjective feeling", already, is too vague a term. It is however the term commonly used, even in relatively technical discussions by philosophers, to capture the sense of what it is like to experience consciousness from the inside.
Examples of subjective feelings are the sensed redness of a rose, the feeling of a shiver down one's spine, the taste of Roquefort cheese. Each of us experience such feelings in the 'privacy' of our own consciousness, or so it seems. Their 'quality' is transparent to us, although it is not something we could easily communicate to someone else; and because quality is so important, indeed intrinsic to the feeling, philosophers sometimes refer to subjective feelings simply as 'qualia'. No one doubts that subjective feelings have quantitative aspects too: I might be able to tell you, for example, that one sensation of red was twice as intense as another. But what I could not tell you (if you did not already know) would be wherein the quality of redness lies.
Now here is the problem, as it emerges from three obvious facts of human life:
Fact I is the fact that when, for example, I bite my tongue I experience the subjective feeling of pain (and to remind myself of what that means, I am doing it now). This experience exists for me alone; and were I to try to tell you what it is like, I could do so only in the vaguest and most metaphorical of ways. My felt pain has an associated time (right now), an associated place (my tongue), an intensity (mild), and an affective tone (unpleasant), but in most other respects it seems beyond the scope of physical description. Indeed my pain, I would say, is not a part of the objective world, the world of physical material. In short it can hardly count as a physical event.
Fact 2 is the fact that at the same time as I bite my tongue there are related processes occurring in my brain. These processes comprise the activity of nerve cells. In principle (though not of course in practice) they could be observed by an independent scientist with access to the interior of my head; and were he to try to tell another scientist what my brain-based pain consists in, he would find the objective language of physics and chemistry entirely sufficient for his purpose. For him my brain-based pain would seem to belong nowhere else than in the world of physical material. In short it is nothing other than a physical event.
Fact 3 is the fact that, so far as we know, Fact I wholly depends on Fact 2. In other words the subjective feeling is brought about by the brain processes (whatever precisely ‘brought about by’ means). The problem is to explain how and why and to what end this dependence of the non-physical mind on the physical brain has come about.
It is a problem that has over the centuries filled philosophers with frustration, desperation, almost panic. Three hundred and fifty years ago Rene Descartes expressed his sense of helplessness:
'so serious are the doubts into which I have been thrown...that I can neither put them out of my mind nor see any way of resolving them. It feels as if I have fallen unexpectedly into a deep whirlpool which tumbles me around so that I can neither stand on the bottom nor swim up to the top.'
Descartes's own solution was to deny the obvious implication of Fact 3, and to plump for the hypothesis of dualism.
Dualism asserts that the universe contains two very different kinds of stuff, mental stuff (of which subjective feelings are made) and physical stuff which brains are made), and that these exist semi-independent of one another.
Thus in principle there could be minds with brains, and brains without minds. If and when these distinct entities meet and interact- as Descartes of course acknowledged that they do - it involves a handshake across a metaphysical divide.
The trouble with dualism is that it explains both too much and too little, and few philosophers have felt comfortable with it. More recently they have embraced various forms of monism.
Monism asserts that there is in reality only one sort of stuff, of which both minds and brains are ultimately made. And in its most extreme form, physicalism, it claims that particular subjective feelings are actually identical to particular physical brain processes (in the same way that a bolt of lightning is identical to an electrical discharge in the air).
Few feel comfortable with this either. It would imply, for a start, that only carbon-based living organisms like ourselves (with carbon-based brains) could have conscious feelings anything like ours. And philosophers have been loath to deny consciousness in advance to other kinds of life form with differently constituted brains.
It would seem chauvinist, to say the least, to suppose that if humanoid creatures had evolved on a far-away planet, using different elements as building blocks, these individuals could have none of the subjective feelings we do - no matter how intelligently and sensitively they behaved. It might be true that they could not, but the truth is certainly not self-evident. In any case, even if subjective feelings are as a matter of fact identical to physical states, this matter of fact would still cry out for explanation. If we were simply to acknowledge the identity we would have done nothing to dispel the sense of mystery about how it comes to be so.
Analogies with lightning bolts would not help either. For in the case of lightning there really is no mystery: any competent physicist could predict that an electrical discharge in the atmosphere would under appropriate conditions produce the flash and bang. By contrast, no one could even begin to predict that the electrical activity of a brain would produce the subjective feeling of tasting cheese.
Samuel Johnson wrote in Rasselas: 'Matter can differ from matter only in form, bulk, density, motion and direction of motion: to which of these, however varied or combined, can consciousness be annexed? To be round or square, to be solid or fluid, to be great or little, to be moved slowly or swiftly one way or another, are modes of material existence, all equally alien from the nature of cogitation.'
And for many modern commentators the same anxieties persist. Colin McGinn, the British philosopher, has written recently: 'Somehow, we feel, the water of the physical brain is turned into the wine of consciousness, but we draw a total blank on the nature of this conversion. Neural transmissions just seem like the wrong kind of materials with which to bring consciousness into the world...
The mind-body problem is the problem of understanding how the miracle is wrought.'
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