Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Follow-up on "Does the PI Literature Beg the Question?"

I was pleased to get the large number of interesting comments to the last post. Here is the latest, from "Noldorin":

"You've raised some very interesting points here. Indeed, too many of the arguments relating to the relationship between the mind and body tend to take a circular form. Monism/physicalism is the easy resolution to this, which is the core of your stance (correct me if I'm wrong). To me however, this denies the emergent nature of the mind, and treats it as a mere automaton. Consciousness, almost be definition, is an emergent entity - it cannot be understood from anything but a holistic viewpoint, which is very much what modern neurology and psychology seem to suggest.

Of course, the dualistic view has own problems too, which you highlighted at the start of your article. I however prefer to resolve the issue in another way. To me, the mind is inextricably tied to the "hardware" of the brain, yet this does not mean the mind is nothing more than the brain. If we consider the simple thought-experiment of transposing the mind (or to be clear, the physical brain even) to another body, to me, the identity clearly follows the mind. More problems however arise when you consider the concept of a cloned body. (Ignoring the science, I think this is perfectly acceptable philosophically.) Hypothetically two identical bodies and brains may then exist at some point, from which they would consequently evolve and diverge. What then if the "original" mind has already ceased to exist by the time the cloned one comes into existence? Does that transfer the identity of the original person to the clone? While this can be resolve (superficially) by the physicalist's view, I am most inclined to accept that both identity and the mind cannot in general be distinctly labelled, but rather they exist in some level of hierarchy, which can branch and fork. In this sense, the mind is not independent from the body, yet nonetheless exists as some higher level."

Here is one of my basic schticks that I posted in the earlier comments but that Noldorin may have missed: Stomachs don't eat lunch. Persons eat lunch. This is not to deny that the stomach performs a necessary function (for a mammal at least, as it happens in the human case, although perhaps not necessarily for a person, which is a member of a much larger set than the set of all humans). The semantics of the phrase "eating lunch" is external, or wide: we understand "eating lunch" as something that a whole, embodied person is doing out in the world. Part of the sense of "eating lunch" is a denoting of a relation that the person has to his/her environment.

Of course where I'm going with this is to the "wide content" account of intentional predicates ("He believes that...", "She desires that...") developed notably by the Wittgenstein-influenced Hilary Putnam ("Brains in a vat," Twin Earth etc.) and recently elaborated with great lucidity by Tim Crane (Mechanical Mind, 2003)and by Andy Clark (Supersizing the Mind, 2008) among others (don't miss Bennett and Hacker, Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience, 2003). This is a style of physicalism that accommodates the "emergent" intuition of Noldorin. In fact my view is that it is a mistake to identify mental processes with brain processes, or indeed with any processes located entirely inside one's skin (that would be internalism, or narrow content, tightly related to representational theories of mind, viz Jerry Fodor).

Brains don't think. They don't imagine, they don't solve problems, they don't remember, believe, desire, hope, fear, "picture," "hear," they don't dream or hallucinate or perceive. They do not "construct worlds." There are no images, words, or symbolic content of any kind "in" brains (there is no "inside" to a brain, except as there is an inside to a bone, or a stomach). Like eating lunch, thinking is something that a person does (I think that there cannot be disembodied persons, of course that follows from holding a physical-continuity theory of personal identity as I do).

I'm not someone to write over-long blog posts, let me end this one with the following consideration that I think is under-appreciated and illustrates the practical importance of this seemingly abstruse discussion (and this is the bottom line, I think, of Bennett and Hacker's excellent book): if it is a mistake, as I think it is, to hold to a representational theory of mind, or even an information-processing model of nervous system function, then so long as we do we will be sabotaging ourselves from understanding what the brain really does. We understand (I take it) what the stomach does, that is, the role that the stomach plays in the overall process of the human eating lunch. But so long as we commit the homuncular fallacy - the fallacy of thinking that the brain helps the human to think by thinking itself - we cannot come to understand the real role that the brain plays in the overall process of the human thinking. In fact it appears that under the current theoretical regime (representationalism) we have absolutely no idea.


  1. It was great to see such a quick and thorough reply to my comment.

    I did skim over most of the other comments on the previous posts, though perhaps I didn't quite get the full picture of your concept of the identity/reality of the mind. This post has made it significantly clearer to me though, I think. Your viewpoint is a rather unique one (from my experience), yet I do find it a pretty effective attempt at reconciling the holistic view of the mind's role and function (which I strongly agree with) with the physical view. When I say holistic, I am basically referring to your point that the workings of the mind simply cannot be taken out of context. "The mind exists not only as a consequence of the brain, but of the entire environment." This is a philosophy that is in fact supported well by science. (As a physicist primarily, I find it often helps to draw correlation with universal theories.) The fact that no system can be considered in isolation, along with the fundamental importance of the observe in both relativity theory and quantum mechanics, does lend to the belief that the mind is rather more intractable from the environment then we sometimes like to think. This is not to say that there is nothing that we might denote the "mind" that exists on a higher ontological level, but that it is wrong to talk about it in isolation (among other things).

    It seems from your previous post that certain aspects of physics and their extension into metaphysics also interests you... I will certainly keep an eye out for any future posts of that variety!

    Alex Regueiro (Noldorin)

  2. "There are no images, words, or symbolic content of any kind 'in' brains"

    While I agree with your holistic approach, the spirit of this quote, and its literal interpretation, it may overstate the case.

    Per Sellars, "awareness ... is a linguistic affair" and "knowing ... is being able to justify what we say", which emphasize the importance of language - in particular, propositions - in our mental life. Hence, although I certainly don't think propositions are stored in the brain as ASCII strings, there must be some sense in which "what we know" - or more specifically, "know-how to say" - are "in memory", ie, "in the brain".

    My completely unsubstantiated, off-the-wall speculation is that what is "in memory" (in some sense) are the motor neuron excitations that in response to an appropriate stimulation of sensory neurons by, for example, an aurally or visually presented question could cause vocalization of an answer in the form of a simple assertion. So, if someone is asked “who played the title role in ‘Hud’” (obviously dating myself!), the vocalizable answer – indexed somehow in terms of sensor neuron outputs – would be essentially “played back”, possibly abbreviated (“Newman”), prepended or post-pended with a stored multi-use phrase (“as best I recall, it was …”, “… , I think”). This idea doesn't seem to violate the holistic perspective since it is dependent not only on the brain but on other parts of the body as well. It is also consistent with my suspicion that we are merely stimulus-response systems distinguished only by the extreme complexity of the stimulus processing and the occasionally very sophisticated responses.

    One regular occurrence that gives me some confidence in this model is being asked (usually by my wife for help in working a crossword) a completely out-of-the-blue question (like the example above) and often responding with seemingly no delay, sometimes even before the question is completed. To envision the processing as involving parsing the question; conducting who-knows what kind of search of possibly stale "memory" for who-knows-what indexed who-knows-how; formulating a reply from scratch; and mustering the appropriate motor neuron stimuli to vocalize that rely, all in the available time, seems fanciful. Of course, so does google's response times, so I don't mean to suggest that this experience proves anything.

    Any comments on this idea, even if dismissive (with reasons, of course), are appreciated.