Monday, November 2, 2009

Fodor and Spinoza

Spinoza has what is called a "double-aspect" theory of mind. Spinoza argues that the universe is both the mind and the body of God. Thus everything comes under both a physical and a psychological description. This is a promising line of argument for philosophy of mind: if Spinoza is right, our project is not to reduce or translate the psychological to the physical. (A puzzle is what is called Spinoza's "panpsychism": on his view everything comes under both descriptions. What seems promising in the case of humans is just mysterious when said about, say chairs.)

Last week during class it occured to me that Jerry Fodor elaborates a line of reasoning that has some striking similarities to Spinoza. (I'm writing this here in class with the students, by the way.) Fodor's idea is that the semantic properties of the intentional mental states/processes and the physical causal properties of the brain states/processes might come together at the level of syntax. In a way Fodor pushes the approach further than Spinoza: his appeal to the formal structure of the grammar of the proposition, on the one hand, and the formal structure of the physical causal mechanism, on the other, could serve as the bridge between the two "aspects" (descriptions), thus producing "psychophysical laws," lawful relations between the two kinds of formal organization.

Notice that it's going to turn out that the brain (or nervous system, or body, or what have you) is also formally organized. My view is that (so far at least) this is right, and important: traditionally (Plato, Descartes) the formal structure of the rational mind was a metaphysical bar to translation between the intentional and the physical. But for an approach like Fodor's to work, it must be that the physical system is also something that comes under a formal description. It is the two formal descriptions that might map onto each other. If this is true than we can draw two conclusions.

First, there is no metaphysical problem here that is unique to the philosophy of mind. The rational structure of thought is (just) another instance of the formal structure of physical objects in general. The question about why the physical universe is formally organized may be interesting and important, but once we see that it is a general metaphysical problem we have effectively overcome this particular problem qua a problem for philosophy of mind.

Secondly, another bit of mysterious 17th century philosophy is called to mind: the "synchronicity" of Leibniz and Malebranch. Here the idea was that some third causal power (they used "God" here in a technical sense) has caused the mind and the body to be coordinated. This is also not as strange an idea as it seems at first. The formal structure of the world informs both the form of the body and the form of the language/mind.

I continue to think that there are no "representations" in the brain, and that intentional predicates are made of whole persons, not brains. But my appreciation of Fodor has deepened. The main problem I have with Fodor is that his arguments have been so extensively elaborated (by him!) that they are a kind of rabbit whole; one either writes a book on Fodor, or leaves him alone.


  1. Hello

    Very interesting. I had some difficulties to understand because I never hear about Fodor before.

    But I'm a student of Spinoza and this analogy with the mind philosophy is very interesting to me.

    What do you think about the Spinoza's imanent idea about the world? There are no real separation between mind and body...

  2. If there are no representations in the brain, then what IS in the brain?

    Why does damage to the brain result in loss of information (memories for instance), if that information is not in some way stored (a.k.a., represented) there?

  3. The debate about representation vs. eliminativism is a large one. Here is one bit: I don't think "explanations" of brain operations that refer/appeal to representations are explanatory. For example, when you tell me that remembering your mother's face consists in "seeing a little picture" of your mother, or imagining a rhinocerous is "seeing a little picture" of a rhino. This adds nothing to understanding nervous system function. The problem starts with the model of perception.

  4. I too like this idea, though I'm not sure Fodor's the first one I'd have thought of as presenting it.

    One thing you might consider to help you resolve the "puzzle of panpsychism" is those things that might likely be between humans and chairs on the mental continuum: certain pharmaceuticals, such as aspirin or LSD. It may be hard to see what the mental description of a chair would be, but that may very well just be because the description of the mental properties of a chair would likely be extremely boring. Trying to explain how an aspirin can relieve a headache might lead us to say that there may be some latent mental properties in that physical substance that--while nowhere near as interesting as human minds--may be more interesting than the mental properties of chairs.

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  6. Hello prof,

    Its Joan from one of your classes of phylosophy of psychology. I was just passing by becase I wanted to recomend you a book. Its called "My Stroke of Insight" by a neuroanatomist called Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D. Its about how she went through varios stages of consciousness while her neurons were loosing conexions, thanks to a hemorrage in her left side of the brain, the one associated with the language and objective processing of information, and the sence of time and space. Hope it helps with anything,


    PD. I think I'm taking phylosophy next semester with you! Haha! :P

  7. Hi, this is Raj Reddy,

    I think Spinoza meant that the universe is one substance--God--and that the physical and mental are two -but perhaps not the only-- aspects of the one substance. Humans are part of the universe then---and not separate from it.
    Physical sensation--tactile, visual, audio etc., emanates from God as does the mental. The world emanates from God. But God is not manifest but unmanifest, and that is why Spinoza says that the world is God's mind and body--because God is unmanifest and emanates the world---the world is God's form. Humans then are part of the body and mind of God.
    It is fundamental to Spinoza that GOd is being, pure being, and God's emanation, what we group roughly into mental and physical --arises from that which is nothing but pure being sans form. Since the world owes its existence--its existing, to God and God is pure being separate from the world then If the emanation were to end--God being, would remain. God is separate from the world yet emanates it while remaining unchanged, transcendent and untouched by it.
    The world's true and final character then must be none other than being.
    The fundamental character and significance of the world --must be taken from the fundamental character of God--which is being.
    So, the true characterization of the world, it would be fair to say--is that it consists of variations of manifest being--being in form---arising from the fundamental nature of God, which is pure unmanifest being.
    In this light, the mental and sensual-which make up the world--are fundamentally only being---and certainly neither corporeal nor mental.
    So, it may be the case that if you knock someone on the head he has no thoughts--he is out. But the entire situation is an emanation of GOd--and therefore fundamentally neither mental nor physical.

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