The Mind-Body Problem

There is a very interesting conversation that’s been going on here in the thread of responses. Much of it is ground well traveled, but interesting none the less. I also came across this book review, which revolves around the same issue, which is basically the hard problem of consciousness or the mind-body problem.

As to the thread of responses, a few comments regarding some of the responses that I thought significant. Many of the objections to Keith’s (one of the respondents) line of reasoning went something like this: “If one were to take your view, there would be no reason to investigate or experiment in the area of neurology.” But all such a charge reveals is that the greater point is being missed. It would be like someone asserting that because he had just learned that God was not going to be seen with a telescope or found sitting on a planet somewhere that we should give up astronomy and close down NASA. It also completely overlooks the fact that some of the most prominent and influential people in science and medicine have been people who were theists and believed that the mind could not be reduced to matter-in-motion. It is a ridiculous charge because it is so false to the history of science and medicine. The Christian belief in the soul or spirit has hardly hindered the progress of modern science or medicine.

Another interesting comment was made by Bernard, another respondent. He wrote: “Actually, you (Keith) are taking your pre-existing prejudice on the matter and dressing it up as an argument.”

“This has a close analogy to your approach to free will. There’s nothing wrong with doing this. I’d just ask you to own it, instead of pretending you have discovered some compelling philosophical argument in theism’s favour. In the end, what we do here is construct stories, and admitting this allows us to pay due respect to the stories of others.”

First, in response, it appears to me, on the surface anyway, that Bernard, JP, and clearly Burk (the other respondents) argue or strongly imply that their philosophical naturalism/scientific naturalism is more than a story—that somehow it is a one-to-one correspondence with reality and the “Truth”. They often say something like, “well since we all agree the sun in hot,” then this confirms that aspect of my materialism as being “truer”. But clearly we can all agree the sun is hot and such in no way gives “materialism” an advantage in its grander narrative about reality in general.

In other words, we could all simply say that Bernard, JP, and certainly Burk are “taking [their] pre-existing prejudice on the matter and dressing it up as an argument.”

Further, I’m not sure JP or Burk agrees with Bernard as to the narrative nature of their worldview. They certainly do not argue that way. It is something they need to own up to much more than Keith does and, in fact, I think Keith does own that aspect to his worldview.

Now to the book review. The reviewer, Colin McGinn, basically gives a favorable review and takes us through some of the extremely fascinating findings of the author, V.S. Ramachandran. But then he asks this question and elaborates:

What should we make of all this? It is undoubtedly fascinating to read of these bizarre cases and learn about the intricate neural machinery that underlies our normal experience. It is also, in my opinion, perfectly acceptable to propose bold speculations about what might be going on, even if the speculation seems unfounded or far-fetched; as Ramachandran frequently remarks, science thrives on risky conjecture. But there are times when the impression of theoretical overreaching is unmistakable, and the relentless neural reductionism becomes earsplitting. This is progressively the case as the book becomes more ambitious in scope. Ramachandran will often qualify his more extreme statements by assuring us that he is only proposing part of the full story, but there are moments when his neural enthusiasm gets the better of him.

And I would add that this “enthusiasm” also gets the better of Burk, JP, and Bernard. And then the reviewer goes on to point out the key problem:

Ramachandran acknowledges no limit to neural reductionism, but there is a very big issue here that he slides over: the mind–body problem. His suggestion that by identifying the part of the brain involved in voluntary decision we turn a philosophical problem into a neurological one could only be made by someone who does not know what philosophical problem is in question—to put it briefly, whether or not determinism conceptually rules out freedom of the will. That question cannot be answered by pointing to one case of brain damage or another. Learning about the parts of the brain responsible for free choice will not tell us how to analyze the concept of freedom or whether it is possible to be free in a deterministic world. These are conceptual questions, not questions about the form of the neural machinery that underlies choice. His book has all the charm of an enthusiast’s tract—along with the inevitable omissions, distortions, and exaggerations.

Third, all this talk of the marvelous and superior is not scientific talk at all; it is evaluative talk, and not susceptible of scientific justification. Ramachandran is not functioning as a neuroscientist when he asks what makes us special in the evaluative sense; he is making judgments of value on which his scientific expertise has no inherent bearing. That is fine—but he should acknowledge what he is doing and defend it appropriately. He is just not clear what general question he is seeking to answer, eager as he is to delve into the brain and share its wonders with us.

And it is exactly this failure, “His suggestion that by identifying the part of the brain involved in voluntary decision we turn a philosophical problem into a neurological one could only be made by someone who does not know what philosophical problem is in question…” that explains why Burk, Bernard, and JP do not understand what Keith is pointing out.

And of course none of this is to say that the brain, mind, and body are not one. They are inseparable. No one is suggesting that the mind is a ghost in the machine as it were or an invisible cloud hanging over our heads like thought balloons. The mind, the spirit, the soul is life itself. I’ve noted this before from a quote by Davd B. Hart:

It is something of a modern habit of thought (strange to say) to conceive of the soul—whether we believe in the soul or not—as a kind of magical essence or ethereal intelligence indwelling a body like a ghost in a machine. That is to say, we tend to imagine the relation between the soul and the body as an utter discontinuity somehow subsumed within a miraculous unity: a view capable of yielding such absurdities as the Cartesian postulate that the soul resides in the pituitary gland or the utterly superstitious speculation advanced by some religious ethicists that the soul may “enter” the fetus sometime in the second trimester. But the “living soul” of whom scripture speaks… [The soul] is a single corporeal and spiritual whole, a person whom the breath of God has awakened from nothingness. The soul is life itself, of the flesh and of the mind; it is what Thomas Aquinas called the “form of the body”: a vital power that animates, pervades, and shapes each of us from the moment of conception, holding all our native energies in a living unity, gathering all the multiplicity of our experience into a single, continuous, developing identity. It encompasses every dimension of human existence, from animal instinct to abstract reason: sensation and intellect, passion and reflection, imagination and curiosity, sorrow and delight, natural aptitude and supernatural longing, flesh and spirit…the body must be regarded not as the vessel or vehicle of the soul, but simply as its material manifestation, expression, and occasion. This means that even if one should trace the life of the body back to its most primordial principles, one would still never arrive at that point where the properly human vanishes and leaves a “mere” physical organism or aggregation of inchoate tissues or ferment of spontaneous chemical reactions behind. All of man’s bodily life is also the life of the soul, possessed of a supernatural dignity…

The talking past one another in the post noted comes from a failure of scale, in the sense of the distance or depth behind observations. To say that if I pull this pin, there is a chemical reaction that leads to an explosion, as if that alone somehow sums up what happens during a suicide bombing, is to miss the distance and depth behind the mechanics in relation to everything else. When Burk, JP, and Bernard tell us we should just wait and science will solve the mind-body problem, it would be like suggesting that if we just watch enough pornography and break it down further we will finally figure out love. And of course no one is even suggesting that science or medicine not fully and comprehensively pursue every lead and charge full steam ahead, but none of that has anything to do with Keith’s or the reviewer’s point.

There is a distance and depth behind neurons firing and my awareness of my life, my hopes, my dreams, my sense of love, beauty, and even good and evil. To suggest that by breaking the mechanics down further and further we should somehow account for that awareness and sense is to miss the forest for the trees and to display an egregious failure of reflective imagination not to mention an embarrassing failure of philosophical aesthetics.

This entry was posted in Colin McGinn, Eric Reitan, mind/body dualism, V.S. Ramachandran. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Mind-Body Problem

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    Good to see you back in the swim. It looks like you are dropping a load of mysticism/pantheism on the problem, which doesn't seem like a great solution. It is sort of equivalent to saying that God causes the rain to fall. This kind of thing is exactly what has been replaced via our increased knowledge, and:

    A- is fundamentally superstitious
    B- fails to explain anything
    C- fails in efficacy as well, as much as we may pray for one or another outcome, etc.

    If this pantheism is a way for you to back your way into a more realist philosophical position and acceptance of the science of what is going on, then fine. But it doesn't add to our knowledge or theory, rather only weakly goes toward reconciling observations with your pre-existing narative / theological setup without lending it any increased support. Quite the opposite, since much that is explicit in that theology has to be thrown out the window during this retreat to mysticism/Spinozism/pantheism.

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  2. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    Thank you, it is good to be back. Now, ummm, what? None of what you assert makes any sense given my post, the book review, or anything else in the post. Come again?

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  3. Burk Braun says:

    To be more specific, McGinn's basic point is that Ramachandran shouldn't poach on his territory as a philosopher, whose problems are big, even huge, perhaps beyond the good doctor's conception. But the fact of the matter is that Ramachandran is pursuing one clear theory- materialism- and engaging with it, interrogating it as best we can do right now. And the results are aligning better and better with observations, which is to say that more of our mental functions can be successfully reduced as time goes on and our technical powers to find the material correlates of mental function improve.

    All this is likely to make the very big (even hard!) problem of philosophy go away completely, as vitalism went away a century ago. Consciousness will simply be the internal perspective on our brain functions, many of which are specifically adapted to provide a certain kind of internal view of its processes.

    “Learning about the parts of the brain responsible for free choice will not tell us how to analyze the concept of freedom or whether it is possible to be free in a deterministic world. These are conceptual questions, not questions about the form of the neural machinery that underlies choice.”

    This is pure whistling past the graveyard. If we do live in a deterministic, mechanistic world, then the question of whether it is “possible to be free” is a waste of time. We are not free, in mechanistic sense, even as we obviously can not predict the course of our own or other's fates, and thus feel and are free in practice nevertheless, by way of our various forms of ignorance.

    Lastly, “The soul is life itself, of the flesh and of the mind; … a single, continuous, developing identity. It encompasses every dimension of human existence, from animal instinct to abstract reason: sensation and intellect, passion and reflection, imagination and curiosity, sorrow and delight, natural aptitude and supernatural longing, flesh and spirit…the body must be regarded not as the vessel or vehicle of the soul, but simply as its material manifestation, expression, and occasion.”

    This was the focus of my diagnosis of pantheism, etc. Alot of blah blah blah about how everything is one, one is everything, thus nothing can be analyzed, nothing can be said other than in supernatural wholeness and reverence, etc… it is alot of nothing, however putatively elevated the sentiment. What could this view ever contribute to knowledge? Nothing- even as it may, with a little incense and singing, make us feel more divine!

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  4. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    “To be more specific, McGinn's basic point is that Ramachandran shouldn't poach on his territory as a philosopher…”

    Not true at all. Read it again. He is simply pointing out that Ramachandran should either own his own philosophizing or at least realize when he is doing it.

    “And the results are aligning better and better with observations, which is to say that more of our mental functions can be successfully reduced as time goes on and our technical powers to find the material correlates of mental function improve.”

    Not true at all. And that is McGinn’s point. To have read his review and my post and then write what you just did, only proves the point. You have no idea what the problem is.

    “Learning about the parts of the brain responsible for free choice will not tell us how to analyze the concept of freedom or whether it is possible to be free in a deterministic world. These are conceptual questions, not questions about the form of the neural machinery that underlies choice.”

    “This is pure whistling past the graveyard. If we do live in a deterministic, mechanistic world…”

    That is the big “if” we are discussing however. This is not whistling past the graveyard, it is simply pointing out the obvious.

    Lastly, “The soul is life itself, of the flesh and of the mind; … a single, continuous, developing identity. It encompasses every dimension of human existence, from animal instinct to abstract reason: sensation and intellect, passion and reflection, imagination and curiosity, sorrow and delight, natural aptitude and supernatural longing, flesh and spirit…the body must be regarded not as the vessel or vehicle of the soul, but simply as its material manifestation, expression, and occasion.”

    “This was the focus of my diagnosis of pantheism…”

    The idea that Hart is a pantheist is laughable. You have no idea what you are talking about. To say that the soul is life is not to equate God as being the same as the material world, which is what pantheism describes.

    McGinn’s analysis is spot on.

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