Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Metaphysics, Semantics, and the Mind/Body Problem

We can bring the idea of "metaphysics" down to earth by relating it to the idea of "semantics." If metaphysics is the study of what exists (in our time this is essentially the confrontation with materialism), semantics is the study of the meaning of words. If my friend is talking about "angels" I can think about whether such putative entities exist but, more subtly, I can ask what he means, or aims to communicate, by this word. Thus even if we tacitly accept (as many of our contemporaries do) a physicalist axiom (metaphysically speaking), that doesn't mean that there is no longer anything to discuss about the mind/body problem. In fact the semantic analysis of intentional and phenomenal terms (the psychological vocabulary) remains an open and even a pressing issue, even for the thoroughly modern physicalist.
For Descartes the mind/body problem was essentially an interaction problem. He did not question (that is, he had his reasons for accepting) the existence of both physical substance and mental "substance." The metaphysical problem as he saw it was about causal relations between them. Thus there was one sort of entity, body, and another, mind. But if we don't accept Descartes' underlying ontology the problem is altogether different. Specifically we needn't see "mind" as referring to one thing or having one meaning (this was Ryle's enduring point expressed in the very title The Concept of Mind). Once we see this we can take a crucial step: we can distinguish the intentional psychological vocabulary ("belief," "desire," etc) from the phenomenal psychological vocabulary ("pain," "sensation," etc). We can see that there are (at least) two metaphysical (semantic) problems here, not one.
To apply this, I think that the eclipse of reductive materialism in favor of functionalism on the grounds that intentional states superevene on (are multiply realizable in) physical states is justifiable (there is indeed a problem for reductive materialism here), but that doesn't preclude identity theory as applied to phenomenal states. And that insight opens up a whole new discussion in philosophy of mind.


  1. I'm reminded of Aristotle's 4 causes.

  2. OIM: An interesting but cryptic comment, if you happen to stop back here, I'd love to hear you elaborate that a bit

  3. After reading your blog, I will like to share my work. I have written a book, Man Is A Thought.

    This work tries to establish relationship between scientific theories and theological beliefs. Author explores if

    thoughts, their behavior, existence and interaction with mind can be explained with in scientific domain.
    Further to this, book also provides insight that why artificial intelligence fails to mimic man's ability to think,

    what limits rational intelligence to attain the status of pinnacle, how thought space can be perceived by humans


    At the end it has been suggested that it is a new beginning for mankind. And I reach at a point where I say:

    "A man is an oscillation of an image of thought in Real Time Space."

  4. The metaphisics is also known like ontology, the stufy of what exists it uses the ver "to be". There is no problem with the methapysisc with a chair because is something that exists and we can see it and touch it too but with respect of the angels not everyone belives in it and also we can not see it. Poeple that thinks that exist are knowm like: materialism, physicalism and naturalism. There exist some example of metaohysically vocabulary word like: consciousness, subject, mind, feeling , emotions, memory, souls, ect.
    Exist two mind/body problem there are: intentionality and the phenomenology. Tne intentionality is about something else. This have some words or vocabulary: belief, desire, ect. The phenomenology is the problem of the consciousness and is about body. Is has some vocabulary words like: pain, sensation, tastes, texture, ect.The semantics is the defeniton or meaning of the words.

  5. If we stop and think for a moment of what we know of what is an angel we didn’t have a lot to say I think this is all part of our faith. But in relation of metaphysic this doesn’t exist or if this exists have to have more evidence to prove and to can be study by metaphysic, because what I understand by metaphysic is that if you can see something then you can study no matter what it is. In relation with this I have a question, how we can define the word angel? We have a lot of meaning like something divine, beautiful, could have wings and other different significance but we don’t know which are the real meaning (Or I don’t know). In other way Descartes propose a method that we have to keep to have a way to continue. All of this is in relation to have something strong and durable.
    Nashka Villanueva

  6. Professor, regarding Descartes ontology and his separation of mind and body into two different things I think it comes as a consequence of religious beliefs, specifically Christianity. I agree with you when you say we have deeply internalized the concept that they are two separate things, because we were raised (most of us at least) in a catholic environment in which the distinction between mind and body is represented as the concept of body and soul.
    However when it comes down to my opinion, I don't disagree with dualism.I will explain shortly why.
    I would have to say that I prefer a non-reductive materialist approach, because it just makes sense to me. The idea of multiple realizabilty of intentional states makes perfect sense to me. We human can have beliefs and desires, but what about dogs and monkeys? I believe they too have beliefs and desires. This approach explains the intentionality problem but what about the phenomenal properties? We can't provide the same solution. Here the Chinese Room argument comes to mind.
    So really what I see here is that we are always going in circles because we can't really find one theory that can solve both mind/body problems, so I wonder, would this be because they are really two separate things?? It makes me wonder if perhaps the answer to the mind body problems has been presented to us by Descartes, and the answers have been there all this time.

  7. To have a healthy body, mind and spirit is to first integrate all levels of reality like nutrition, exercise etc. The 2 levels we all have i.e, physical and non-physical. Physical aspects are detectable by five senses – sight, taste, hearing, touch and smell). Non-physical aspects experienced by emotion, and other elements which we call them as “sixth sense".

  8. After reading your blog, I got intrigued by this: which is prior a semantic theory or a metaphysical one? to me it is the former but as always (alomst) intuition fails. Any thought?