Friday, November 9, 2012

Mind-body problem: the missing ingredient

To: Peter J.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Mind-body problem: the missing ingredient
Date: 11th November 2008 12:38

Dear Peter,

I have read the two episodes of the story, 'The Missing Ingredient' which you emailed on 1 November.

As a piece of fiction, my main complaint would be that you spend too much time giving the mise en scene with the result that you lose the essential element of pace. This is an exciting story, or should be. The challenges should come thick and fast. You need to set the reader's head spinning.

A minor quibble is the use of the present tense, 'Holmes folds his paper and lays it on the table,' which doesn't work, although that can easily be fixed.

The substantial point is one that McGinn himself expresses: 'The crime looks quite impossible to explain in his current state of information'. In other words, the mind-body problem is insoluble because of one fact which we have not noticed, or one assumption we have not challenged, or etc.

What are Holmes' chances? He picks at the idea that the defining aspect of consciousness -- that which generates the 'hard' problem -- is related to the notion of there being something 'it is like' to experience, e.g. the taste of chocolate (to give Nagel's example from 'What Does it All Mean?'). We can talk about chocolate, exchange opinions about chocolate, but at the end of the day even if I licked your brain while you were tasting chocolate I can't taste your taste of it. No amount of objective information, given in any form you please, is sufficient to 'capture' this essentially subjective quality.

This claim has been subjected to endless scrutiny, from every side. You have Holmes asking whether the 'what it is like' aspect is 'identical' or 'non-identical' to something else ('mind') but that already involves a whole chain of assumptions: that the 'what it is like' can be conceived as an entity (by definition, the relation of identity only holds between entities); that there is indeed one thing that philosophers are talking about when they talk about 'what-it-is-likeness'; that the willing agreement of the average person who has not studied philosophy to accept that 'I can't taste your taste of chocolate' is evidence that deserves to be respected as 'data'. And so on.

Wittgenstein's private language argument is deadly against the latter idea. You think that you have an absolute, clear example of a datum when you consider the taste that the taste of chocolate has for you. Is it still a datum one minute or one second later? Your past self is as inaccessible as 'another mind' so far as the alleged datum is concerned. 'Always get rid of the private object in this way: imagine that it constantly changes, but that you do not notice because your memory is constantly deceiving you,' says Wittgenstein.

There is a wealth of knowledge which human beings have about what it is like for other human beings. I don't know a lot about your circumstances, but you could tell me and then I would gradually form an accurate picture of what it is like to be you. That's what writers and novelists do: they use words to convey, reliably and accurately, a picture of the character of an individual, making it plausible that they would do the things that they do in the story.

The idea that we are chasing something else, a metaphysical 'what-it-is-likeness' somehow separate or over and above the knowledge that we have of one another is a myth.

However, Holmes is right about one thing: there is *something* we are not getting. In my book, I argue that the 'something' in question is not describable. It is beyond language. It lies in the fact of indexicality, which cannot be expressed in any other terms than the tautological. This is not a 'solution' to the mind-body problem, because it doesn't even recognize the question.

All the best,