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Driving the Ghost from the Machine

Alan Brody reviews The Metaphysics of Mind by Anthony Kenny.

The most famous theory in the philosophy of mind is René Descartes’ view that each human being consists of a mind (which is a non-physical, purely spiritual thing) inhabiting a body, which is completely material and subject to the laws of physics. This theory, called Cartesian Dualism, was ridiculed by Gilbert Ryle, who called it the Dogma of the Ghost in the Machine. Anthony Kenny wants to explain mental phenomena in terms of the physical and its capacities. He argues against the Cartesian view according to which the mind and its contents are non-physical, non-publicly observable phenomena that interact with the physical brain “in a mysterious manner that transcends the normal rules of causality and evidence.” (p.1)

Surely a desire to understand the mind in this way seems reasonable. Isn’t it plausible that some day artifacts (androids) entirely composed of the physical will be capable of human-like behaviour? If their actions can be explained in physical terms, it seems reasonable to hold that our physical nature provides the basis for explaining our behaviour in the same way.

Kenny wants to follow Ryle in ridding the bodily machine of the Cartesian ghost but without embracing Ryle’s behaviourism. A mental item (a belief, for instance) cannot be explained as just a specific set of dispositions to behave, since being alike mentally, for example sharing a belief, can be expressed by different behaviours. (p.3)

Furthermore, we cannot identify the mind and its states with a brain, a computer, states of either, or as cognitive scientists think, in terms of the ways in which those states function to process or produce outputs. It is true that humans are physical beings “with certain abilities which constitute their minds.” (p.15) But these views fail to accurately capture the mind’s structure. To see why, Kenny presents an examination of that structure as influenced by Wittgenstein.

A brain or computer might process inputs into outputs in certain ways, but the manner in which it does so does not constitute the mental. Consider what happens when someone speaks – what is required for that output to be part of our language? To be more than just a physical occurrence, but a meaningful utterance as well, the output must represent or convey information. To do that, the output needs to be correlated with information so that it becomes, through conventional associations, a symbol that has that meaning. So what gives meaning to the brain’s or computer’s output is something ‘external to it’ – not as the behaviourists thought, a specific set of behaviours, but the way it functions and is used as part of a ‘social activity.’ (p.153)

It is within the above framework that Kenny offers, in a non-technical manner, an analysis of various mental notions: soul, spirit, will, abilities, faculties, dispositions, self-knowledge, sensation, observation, imagination and intellect.

Kenny’s approach to understanding the mind seems appealing, but I think that it can be shown to be flawed. To see why, let’s first turn to his discussion of free-will and the notion of an irresistible impulse.

For Kenny, a free action is one that is done because the person in question wanted to do it although they had the ability to do otherwise if they had wanted. Now, sometimes people deny that an act was free, because they believe that the person succumbed to an irresistible impulse. However, an impulse is a want and wants “are attributed to people on the basis of what they do when it is open to them to do otherwise.” (p.48) As a consequence, says Kenny, “there is something self-contradictory in the notion of an irresistible impulse.” (p.48)

I would like to raise a challenge to the above argument. Consider how in having an urge to do something, we feel like doing it. But, there is nothing in the nature of what it is to feel like doing something that implies anything about it being subject to control. For example, it is common for smokers to say that they have an urge to smoke, and to do so, even though they know that smoking is harmful and would rather stick to their resolution not to smoke. So we can, without inconsistency, hold that an impulse is irresistible if it does or can bring about an action in spite of the preference of the person concerned for doing otherwise.

At this point, Kenny can defend his position by utilising his other argument against the notion of an irresistible urge, as well as previous points he has made about the mind – but it forces him to show how controversial his philosophical hand really is. The other argument asks us to consider a case in which the excuse for a crime was that the person succumbed to an irresistible temptation. Whether or not the person had a history of such crimes, we could equally interpret the succumbing as showing either that the criminal couldn’t resist the temptation or that he didn’t want to resist it. How do we know that he was, on each occasion of the crime, unable rather than just unwilling to control the temptation? But if “the same behavioural evidence can be taken with equal justice as evidence for contrary mental phenomena, it is clear that the alleged mental phenomena are metaphysical fictions.” (p.48) So Kenny can defend his position by replying that mine unnecessarily commits us to certain aspects of Cartesianism thereby generating undecidable metaphysical questions.

But should we really accept a view of the mind that does not allow peoples’ private experiences to be conceptually independent of how they behave? Doesn’t it make sense to suppose that some non-human entities, for example, animals, fishes, birds, insects or extraterrestrials, might see colours that are entirely different from the ones we see? Suppose that extraterrestrials and androids appeared to speak our language and used all of our colour terms exactly as we do. Although they say that they see red in the presence of objects that appear red to us, how do we know that what they refer to as ‘red’ doesn’t look completely different to them? We could not tell from their behaviour alone if what they see is the same or different in colour from what we see. Perhaps they even experience no colours at all but process incoming stimuli in a way that allows them to behave and to use language as if they do. Their brains might be so different from ours that we could not even rely on a similarity to ours in order to decide the issue. For a view to reject such considerations as nonsensical, meaningless or impossible seems to be a good reason for challenging that view.

The strength of Descartes’ belief that there are mental entities whose existence and nature are independent from their behavioural manifestations can be exhibited dramatically by considering the experience of virtual reality. Virtual reality machines create experiences in accordance with a computer program. Given sophisticated enough technology, we could put on a virtual reality suit and experience something that looked and felt just like a three dimensional painting of the Mona Lisa. But what one is aware of is not behaviour, or behavioural capacities, or the ways in which something physical brings about or causes behaviour. It is something with Mona Lisa-like qualities that exists as a constituent of one’s experience. What it is like is not captured in terms of the ways in which something does or can behave. Now, how can we explain what kind of entity that Mona Lisa-like thing is? The Cartesian can point out that there is a major problem in identifying the entity with something physical such as a brain state or process. The physical stuff of the brain (for example neurons, atoms, sub-atomic particles, waves) is not coloured and shaped into anything Mona Lisa-like. If we dissected the brain, we would not find a miniature Mona Lisa. But if we hold that the stuff of the brain can be identical with the virtual Mona Lisa then – at the time that that type of thing exists – it must, to be that type of thing, have properties that make it Mona Lisa-like. And that means that it must be coloured and shaped like the Mona Lisa. But brain states do not occur in the form of coloured, shaped Mona Lisa-like entities. So, the Mona Lisa-like entity cannot be identical with the physical and must instead be an entity of a different sort.

The Cartesian position has features to it that are capable of being defended by formidable arguments. The challenge – to provide an account of the mind in terms of physical phenomena without either mis-analysing its nature, leaving something out or ending up in logical absurdity – seems to be still standing in spite of Kenny’s attack. Kenny’s analysis fails to capture what experience and its content are like and how they determine the meaning of our terms. However, Kenny has provided the description of an important alternative with a defence that helps us to think and get clear about the nature of the mind.

The Metaphysics of Mind by Anthony Kenny is published by Oxford University Press at £6.99 for the paperback. (ISBN 0-19-283070-8)

© Dr. Alan Brody 1995

The illustrious Dr. Brody used to live in New York but his mind and his body both moved to New Mexico recently.

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