Friday, February 28, 2014

Mind-body problem and the nature of philosophy

To: Graham H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Mind-body problem and the nature of philosophy
Date: 1st November 2011 12:44

Dear Graham,

Thank you for your email of 21 October, with your first essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, 'What is philosophy? Illustrate your answer using the example of the mind-body problem.'

In this essay you do a very good job of raising the question what, if anything philosophy as a distinct discipline has to contribute to the mind-body problem.

It occurs to me that the very phrase 'mind-body problem' has associations which a scientist hostile to the idea of philosophy might reject. Less tendentiously, one might speak instead of the question of 'the place of mind in nature', which leaves open the possibility that the question would be fully answered by results and theories arising from the science of psychology.

Offhand, I can't think of a psychologist whose views about philosophy are as obnoxious as Hawking. But let's assume we have one, whom I shall call Curt. The place of mind in nature is a complex question, studied by biology, experimental psychology, neuroscience and computer science. It takes an interdisciplinarian to thread their way through the different ways in which these areas of science connect and interact, but that's not philosophy. It's part of the scientific enterprise to seek broader views and forge connections between the disciplines.

Curt's view is that all departments of philosophy should be abolished, and specifically that research projects in philosophy of mind transferred to departments of computer science, neurophysiology etc. at a great saving to the taxpayer. How would you defend philosophy, in this scenario?

There's a complication here, in that many contemporary philosophers, following the example of W.V.O. Quine are coming to see their activities and research as continuous with that of scientists. So much so, that you now find departments of 'cognitive science' where it is difficult to draw any line at all between the contributions of academic philosophers and scientific researchers.

From this perspective, one might defend the study of the history of philosophy as useful preparation and groundwork for the kinds of question which arise in this interdisciplinary scenario, thus resisting Curt's scepticism about the value of philosophy as such. However, such study would be severely limited, to something much more like the study of the history of science in the context of a physics or chemistry degree.

If this isn't satisfactory (and you can gather from the program that I don't think it is) then what we are looking for is a line of argument or a question, which demonstrates that philosophy is still valid and useful as an approach to the question of the place of mind in nature. It would be a question that science alone -- that is to say experimental inquiry, empirical theorizing -- cannot satisfactorily answer, a question for which you specifically need the tools of the philosopher.

What are these tools? You talk of thought experiments (gedankenexperiment), reductio ad absurdum, axiomatic proof. You also mention the terms 'analysis' and 'dialectic'. However, this wouldn't convey much information to someone who was ignorant of philosophy. Scientists use thought experiments (famously Einstein when he discovered the Theory of Relativity). The tools of logic, such as reductio or axiomatic proof, apply in any discipline.

What is it about the mind-body problem, therefore, which is so intractable? The crucial point, it seems to me, is that we don't exactly know what the problem is. Science needs precisely formulated questions and research procedures. But you can't conduct research if you don't even know what question you are putting to nature!

It was Descartes who made an invaluable contribution to philosophy by formulating the question about the nature of the mind in a way which refuses to yield to a scientific approach. We are not even in the business of science until we have a subject matter, a domain of inquiry. That subject matter is the material world and all that is included in it, including the movements of the material bodies we know as 'human beings'. So far so good. But Descartes had (or thought he had) an argument which rules out from the start any possibility that the study of human beings as part of the material world can possibly lead to an understanding of the nature of the mind.

I am talking about Descartes' argument for mind-body dualism. You more or less state this in your essay, but I'm trying to give this a twist so that it becomes clearer why the merely 'scientific' approach is inadequate.

Obviously it is, if Descartes is right. Of course, you can just assume blithely that he is wrong without bothering to engage in his argument. That's more or less what the 'Australian materialists' Smart and Armstrong (both philosophers!) do, in appealing to Occam's Razor. The simplest empirical hypothesis is that mental events are *in fact* identical with physical events. Subsequent debates (in particular Kripke's considerations on the nature of identity in 'Naming and Necessity') have put this view into disrepute, because it simply fails to engage with the logic of Descartes' original argument. The continued attraction of epiphenomenalism, which you cite, is evidence that science does not resolve the question.

Will Curt be convinced? He can always say, 'I'm just not interested, you debate the issue if you want, I don't see the point.' My response to Curt is that it is a fact that we are beset by particular views about the nature of the mind -- about the nature of our own selves -- that we find profoundly 'tempting'. At the beginning of the program, I suggested that maybe Martians aren't tempted in this way. But we are. The only way to deal with this is by engaging the temptation on its own terms, using the tools of analysis and dialectic. Philosophy is ultimately nothing more than getting clear about things that confuse us. But, in order to do this, we need to admit that we are confused.

All the best,

Geoffrey