Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The mind-body problem

Reading Braver's Groundless Grounds and this article on LSD made me think again about the mind-body problem. David Cockburn's An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind (following Locke, as I recall) argues that there's no special mystery about how one thing can interact causally with a very different kind of thing. A fork, a child, and electricity are all quite different, but there is no official mystery about how a child's sticking a fork in an electric outlet can result in a shock. Or at any rate the only officially mysterious part of such an event is how the (physical) child can experience (conscious) pain. But why is that any more mysterious than electricity causing burns? Or, for that matter, electricity itself? Or gravity? Or matter? Or causation?

And is this right? The (officially) hard problem of how a body or brain, something like a steak, could be conscious is a) a result of thinking of matter in a certain kind of way, i.e. as mindless, when the most obvious material beings, ourselves, are not mindless, and b) less hard than the body problem, i.e. how so much as a steak can ever be at all? That is, there seems to be a problem of how the physical can interact with the mental because we have construed the (essence of the) physical in a particular kind of way that excludes its mental aspects. But that's a problem with our construal, not with the nature of reality. It doesn't reveal an independent mystery but invites an investigation and reconsideration of our concepts and how (and why) we have formed them as we have. What does seem to be an independent mystery is stuff itself. We might be able to explain, say, force in terms of other elements of physics, or even take the concept out of physics completely, but whatever concepts we use there is still stuff that we try to explain or describe. The existence of stuff is not really a problem though. It's just there, buzzing away as mass-energy or vibrations or whatever. You can't ask why it's there as if anything else could explain it because then both that other thing and how it is supposed to explain anything would have to be explained. You're just left with the buzz.

The LSD essay also reminded me of Bill Hicks. This is pretty well known, but if you haven't seen it it's worth watching, partly just because it's well known and often quoted, so if you don't know it you'll miss those references. But as popular philosophy it's not bad. And it's funny that he made a living as a strand-up comedian when a lot of what he did, as far as I can tell, was more like preaching. It (I don't mean this particular clip, but his material generally) almost is a kind of philosophy, albeit a sloppy kind with few if any arguments.


  1. you say: "there seems to be a problem of how the physical can interact with the mental because we have construed the (essence of the) physical in a particular kind of way that excludes its mental aspects. But that's a problem with our construal, not with the nature of reality."

    I know too litle about the mind-body problem, but I'll ask anyway: How sharp is the contrast here meant to be for you between problems with the way we construe concepts and problems with the nature of reality? -

    I ask that because it seems that dead bodies are materially exactly like living bodies, and the difference between dead and living bodies does not seem to be a matter of what we construe or don't construe. It seems to be a matter of the nature of reality. And someone who would want to object to what you say here could use that to make her case. Now, since there seem to be a patch of agreement between you and the imaginaty objector--agreement about the contrast between what is a matter of the nature of reality and what is a matter of what we construe--I thought that maybe the problem might be in this patch of agreement. Does this seem plausible?

  2. I don't have anything useful to say about the mind-body problem, but thanks for the Bill Hicks clip. It's been awhile since I've listened to/thought about him. (Your comments about his style seem spot on.) Also, I just skimmed that LSD article, but noticed that it says Bill Wilson (AA co-founder) turned on in later days. Given my recent paper on the virtues of the twelve steps (and reading Wilson), I thought that was interesting (and somehow makes sense). (And thanks for your comments about that essay!)

  3. I know too litle about the mind-body problem, but I'll ask anyway: How sharp is the contrast here meant to be for you between problems with the way we construe concepts and problems with the nature of reality?

    Me too, but I'll answer anyway. I think the contrast is meant to be fairly sharp because I don't so much mean the contrast between, say, language and reality, but rather the contrast between a certain kind of philosophical theory (or perhaps a non-philosophical but still somewhat technical picture) and reality. I'm reacting against both Descartes and contemporary philosophers who say things like "the problem of consciousness is the last remaining great mystery." One way that Descartes creates a problem for himself is by defining material substance and mental substance as he does. That isn't a matter of ordinary language causing problems on its own, although perhaps there was something there already that led Descartes into a blind alley. And the contemporary philosophers (and scientists) who treat the problem of how a brain or body could be conscious as not just the question most interesting to them but as the objectively most puzzling thing there is seem to be making a somewhat similar mistake. If we change our theory of matter (which I think is what David Chalmers has proposed, at least roughly speaking) then the problem might disappear. I'm probably mixing too many different things together here, or simply not seeing clearly.

    I don't have anything useful to say about the mind-body problem

    I'm not sure I do either. Thanks for your comment though. LSD and the Twelve Steps seem like an odd mix, but I guess if the LSD is used carefully (to gain a sense of humility perhaps, or to get more of a feel for a higher power) it could work. There's a difference between addiction and religious uses of drugs, after all.

  4. I'm not sure I understand your response to my worry.

    Basically, I am not sure I see how you fend off the accusation that you are putting forward an idealist view? How would you answer to someone who took your contrast (b/w matters of reality and matters of how we construe our concepts) to mean that you think it is up to us how we conceptualize?

    Also, if your answer is that we don't just choose at random how to conceptualize, then how would you answer them if they said that this answer implies that you think we conceptualize in response to facts we come in contat with in the world, and that this stongly suggests that the matter--despite what you say--is nevertheless a matter of the nature of reality?

  5. I think it's up to us what theories we develop to explain reality. Of course, some do a better job than others, and any that fail to match reality (the facts) are no good. By which I mean something like this: if we have six facts to explain and a theory handles five of them well but leaves one big puzzle, then it isn't a great theory. Perhaps it's the best we can do, or perhaps we will eventually solve the puzzle, but perhaps the puzzle is a sign that the theory itself is not so good. And then we might want to try to develop a different theory, or a different way of thinking about things. There are probably limits to how we can think about reality, but we surely have some freedom (as with different theories about gravity).

    I've perhaps already gone beyond my understanding of the mind-body issue, but there seem to be different ways of thinking about matter, or just physical things if the very idea of matter is problematic. We don't have to think of the essence of the physical as extension. Nor do we, I think, have to think of people as corpses with a mysterious addition. There are other options, including idealism, Spinozism, and perhaps metaphysical agnosticism. (I'm not sure about that, but I'll say it anyway for now.)

    Is the matter about reality? In a sense of course it is. But I don't think that one feature of reality is more or less mysterious than another. What's mysterious depends on what we can explain, and that depends on the models and theories we develop to explain reality. If they fail to do so completely it need not be reality that is to blame, so to speak, but the theories and/or models themselves. Perhaps everyone would agree with that, but I don't know.

  6. Maybe this goes beyond your interest, but what you say makes me think that there might be a difference--also in the case of the mind-body problem--between the theories we have about the essence of the physical, and the grammar of our natural language about the physical. Do you agree?

    If so, then what do you take the nature of the disagreements here to be: is it a theoretical disagreement, or is the source of the disagreement some unclarity about the natural grammar of the language about the physical. From what you just said it sounds like you think it’s the former, but from what you said before it sounds like you think that it is the latter. So I’m confused. I am probably misunderstanding you, but I cannot pinpoint where exactly.

  7. Yes, I do agree with that. If you're confused by what I say it's probably because I haven't thought this all through. But let me try to make some progress toward doing so, however slight.

    I'm not entirely sure what disagreements you have in mind. I had in mind people who are puzzled, so my target was more a certain kind of puzzlement than a debate or disagreement. And I meant to offer a very (VERY) rough sketch of a solution to this puzzlement: if you don't see how mind and matter can interact then maybe you need to change your idea of what matter is. (Actually I think all I really meant to do was record the fact that this idea occurred to me when I read some stuff about about Heidegger and LSD, but anyway...)

    I think Chalmers (and therefore no doubt others) might agree with this. He would just point out that it isn't exactly very helpful. Descartes, on the other hand, might disagree. So there's a possible disagreement for me to say something about. And I think this disagreement would be theoretical. Descartes develops a theory about the nature of matter and the nature of mind, and I disagree with these theories. Since I don't have an alternative theory to offer perhaps it would be misleading to call this a theoretical disagreement, but it's a disagreement about a theory.

  8. The disagreement I had in mind was b/w those who thought that our problem with the mind-body connection is a matter of the nature of reality, and those (like you?) who think that it is a matter of how we construe concepts.

    Let me see if I understand you now: Are you saying that the origin of the disagreement is some confusion about the grammar of our natural language about the physical, as well as pointing out that there has been theoretical attempts to resolve the confusion? What I'm not sure I understand is if you also wish to criticize the very attempt to resolve the issue with a theory or not.

    Anyway, have you read Rupert Read's paper on the mind-body problem? (I hope this designates only one paper). I started reading it about seven times now, and each time there was something different that got in the way of my finnishing the paper. Maybe I should go back to it now.

  9. I haven't read Rupert's paper, no, but thanks for the reference. I'll try to get hold of it.

    I'd like to make a distinction among those who regard the mind-body connection as a problem. In one camp would be those who regard it as one of perhaps many mysterious features of reality. In the other would be those who think of this problem in particular as something like THE mystery we have yet to solve. I have no particular objection to the first camp, although I am generally skeptical about the ability of philosophical theories to solve problems. My objection is more to the second camp. It's probably wrong to put Descartes in that camp, but the origins of the camp might be traced to him.

  10. I'm not sure I understand the distinction between the two groups.

    1. Is there a distinction b/w them with regard to how they undertand the problem--what they understand the problem to be?

    2. Does the second group just thinks that the mind-body problem (whatever it is) is just more important than other problems?

    3. Does the second group think that other problems even exist? Or do they think that all other problems are reducible to this problem, or split off from this problem?

    4. How exactly does it show that a thinker thinks the mind body problem is THE problem?

    5. Is the first group suspicious of the possibility of solving the problem with a theory?

    Also, for some reason, I thought I could hear in the tone of what you wrote before that you don't think there is anything particularly mysterious about the mind-body connection. (Read's paper seem to have this tone, and perhpas I'm reading this tone into what you say.) So my question is, are you indeed suspicious about there being a problem in the first place? Or are you of the first camp?

  11. I'm not sure I really have much of a position to articulate or defend on this, but I can tell you what my suspicions (or prejudices) are, and maybe add to what I had in mind earlier. Quickly, here are the answers to your questions: 1. No, or at least not necessarily, 2. No (because of the answer to 3), 3. No, 4. He or she says so (I might be mis-remembering how many people say this, or how often, but I think it has been said), 5. Not necessarily, but it could include such people.

    I am suspicious of there being a real problem, yes. Can I prove that there isn't one? No. But I suspect that consciousness is no more mysterious than anything else, and I think consciousness is often regarded as the most mysterious or difficult part of the mind-body problem.

  12. I know some philosophers have strange views, but typically philosophers try to be polite. And it seems impolite to deny, for instance, that there is a philosophical problems, for example, about the identity of lumpl and Goliath, or about sorites, or about abortions, or about the ontological status of fictional characters, or of groups. It just seems incredible that someone should make such a claim. Is there a large group of philosophers who make this claim? Can you name some names?

  13. Well, maybe this is where I've gone (most) wrong. I thought this had been said often, or at least several times by big names, but a quick Google search reveals nothing except John Searle calling it the biggest problem in the biological sciences, and someone else calling it perhaps the deepest problem in science. I might try to combine this with the popularity of scientism to infer that many people probably believe the mind-body problem is one next to which all others in philosophy are relatively insignificant, but I won't.

  14. i don't understand where politeness enters into it.

  15. I haven't found philosophers to be reliably polite about other philosophers and their concerns, but they do tend to be careful about making sweepingly dismissive claims in print. Or maybe I just don't read the print in question.

    There are people who think the mind-body problem is the biggest problem in biology, but I can't find anyone who says it's the biggest (or only) problem in philosophy. I think that maybe I was recalling the beginning of Chalmers' book The Conscious Mind. He calls conscious experience the most mysterious thing in the world. He also says that "we understand the rest of the world far better than we understand consciousness." That's on page 1. On page 5 he says that consciousness is surprising, and that, like other natural phenomena, it cries out for explanation. This all taken together suggests that there are other mysteries but that none calls for investigation as consciousness does. That's the kind of thinking that I meant not to call wrong but to call into question.

    And all I really wanted to say about it is that reading what Braver says about Heidegger in his new book led me to ask the following question: Is it right that people who think of consciousness in this kind of way would be well advised to re-think their (scientific and/or philosophical) conception of matter, or of non-conscious nature? I don't have an answer to this question, but it somehow sounds right to me.

  16. That is, the answer 'Yes' has the ring of truth to it, or matches my prejudices.

  17. OK, I really should leave this alone, but let me try to clean up a little. It's not so much matter that people might need to reconsider but humanity or the nature of human beings. I think I referred to matter because that itself seems like an abstraction from more familiar things, such as human beings. So my thinking was something like this: in trying to analyze the nature of human beings people have broken them down into two types of thing and then struggled to get these two things together again. But if only they had done the initial analysis differently (or not done it at all) the problem would not have arisen. At least not in that form. And that's something to consider if the struggle seems impossible.

  18. I think I agree with your diagnosis. It seems to me right that to begin with two THINGS here--mind and body--is starting with the wrong foot. At least, this seems to me to be part of the problem. (I think Aristotle and Aquinas would agree.)

    Another part of the problem would have to consider the possibility that "MATTER" has no unified grammar. I mean, obviously there is something different about a human body when it is alive compared to when it is dead. In both cases it is a material thing. But it is material in two very different ways.

  19. Yes, matter is a tricky concept. And I think Aristotle and Aquinas had the right kind of approach to the mind-body problem.