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Mind by Eric Matthews
Grant Bartley finds a lot to think about in Eric Matthews’ ‘brainy’ pondering of mind.
Mind is part of a neatly-designed matching set, the ‘key concepts in philosophy’ series by Continuum, which also includes Ethics, Epistemology, Logic and Language. In this book Professor Matthews outlines some of the philosophical problems of mind, the central problem arguably being the mind-body problem, about which you will soon find me being pedantically dualist.
The style of Mind is concise and clear, and Professor Matthews has the wisdom to communicate well the most important ideas of the many subjects through which he threads the narrative of his argument. The information throughout the book, drawn from several different philosophical systems, is both interesting and evidently relevant. The last chapter includes a round-up of Prof Matthews’ argument, and a summation of his conclusions so far about minds.
Professor Matthews starts in the Intro by noting what sort of thing can be meant by mind, and asking what the boundaries of the meaning of ‘mind’ might be. This initial clarification of his subject is itself an encouraging sign that the Professor’s higher mental processes are in good working order. Chapters One and Two are ‘Mind and soul’ and ‘Minds and brains’ – the first being a comparison of two definitions of soul, the second containing arguments based on various versions of the theory that mind and brain are identical.
Professor Matthews kicks off the argument proper by contrasting Aristotle’s musings on soul with Descartes’ cogitations on this concept. Aristotle defined soul as “the nutritive, perceptive and intellective faculties and movement” (p4). For Aristotle, then, mind is part of the soul, but not all of it. (His understanding of ‘soul’ is similar to its use in the Old Testament, I hear.) In Aristotle’s own jargon, the soul is the form of a living body. Professor Matthews defines this idea of ‘form’ very clearly, to be what I’d paraphrase as ‘the life in the body’s matter.’ With Aristotle and the Old Testament, I agree that the concept ‘soul’ can be usefully defined as this ‘life’ of an organism, in an Aristotelian sense – whatever one might eventually analyse this livingness to be. Mind is part of the living being in Homo sapiens, certainly – some of the time.
Which brings us neatly to Descartes, who equated soul with mind. He was perhaps a little cavalier in the way he used these terms, and some would say that he is the major source of the confusion of mind and soul to which people still succumb. But as Matthews says, Descartes iscertainly central in setting up the modern mind-body dichotomy, and thus delivering to us our major mind-body problem. He argued that we each have a body, which obeys physical laws, and a non-physical mind, and that the mind and body interact via the pineal gland in the brain. But what is the link between the mind and the brain? The mental and the physical are apparently two fundamentally different types of thing. How can there be interaction, even interdependence, between them?
The first part of the mind-body connection conundrum can be stated as the problem of how the contents of awareness are created through the contents and activity of the brain. Here we’re dealing with what David Chalmers justifiably called “the hard problem of consciousness”. The second part of the mind-body problem is the effectiveness of will in the physical world.
But what is the fundamental mind-body difference by which we can say there is a mind-brain problem? To Descartes, thought is not extended – thoughts do not take up space – whereas matter does. They are thus two distinct substances (p9). So for Descartes, mind is essentially different from the body, because the brain takes up space while thought does not. (Matthews elaborates the difference. The Cartesian mind “is to be conceived of as pure intellect or reason” (p11), while the Cartesian body is “a mechanical system.”)
The essential point is that mind and matter have to be conceived as two different and never-overlapping types of things. In this, Descartes’ mind vs body distinction perhaps provides the default setting for the Western worldview. But this distinction does mean we must ask, ‘What is it about brain states that enables an experiencing mind to exist?’ (This is another formulation of the mind-body problem, first part.)
To try and overcome the mind-body problems both 1 and 2, Matthews examines some objections to Descartes’ conceptual separation of mind and body. Some of these objections are sound, some open to doubt. But unfortunately, to then conclude, as Matthews and many others do, that mind-body dualism can’t solve the mind-body problem(s), is actually to ignore the mind-body problem, since the problem just is how two categorically different things, mind and brain, can interact. If there isn’t a difference between mind and brain, then there is no problem. Personally, I think that to deny mind-body dualism is to assume that the idea of the working of mind via the brain is not even expressible in mind/body terms. But, on the contrary, the question of the link between mind and brain is interesting exactly because we do meaningfully understand the situation in basically Cartesian dualist terms (and we should do). When we ask, “How are mind and brain connected?” we know the meaning of those two categorically different nouns. But our knowledge of the contrasting meanings of these two words also offers us a recognition that their connection is a mystery – embodied in our linguistic knowledge that we’re referring to two fundamentally different types of things by definition. That is to say, our knowledge of the different meanings of the words/concepts ‘mind’ and ‘brain’ means we know that there is a mind-brain connection problem – and that we know what this problem is, too.
Is this true? Consider ‘physical’ in the following terms: There are many things in our experiences which we observe to behave in what we call ‘physical’ ways. Such experiences represent things which we assume to have a material nature independent of our experience. We then assume these physical objects to be the original cause of the experiences we have of them.
What does ‘physical’ in a metaphysical sense (!) mean, if it doesn’t mean this? Some definition with this level of complexity is needed, at least – otherwise we won’t grasp what we really mean by the word ‘physical’. I believe that in their experience of the world people automatically think through this sort of understanding of what ‘physical’ is. When we experience anything physical, or imagine any idea of living in the physical world, we assume an external physical world represented in our experience. I conceive of this as a sort of background-definition understanding of ‘physical’. This means we enjoy an automatically-felt experience of being in a material world which has an independent reality external to our minds. No good solution to the problem of the link between mind and brain could deny the embodied nature of our experience; nor should it, for to do so would deny the reality of much of the experience we’re trying to explain. The majority of our experience is of ‘being in the physical world’.
In contrast to a physical world assumed to be independently separate from our experience, the ‘mental’ specifically refers to the realm of the contents of experience. The distinguishing standard or archetype of the mental are the contents of experience: for instance, a sensation like the feeling of the warmth of the sun on your face as you shut your eyes, or a rational thought such as your experience of your understanding of this phrase. Because experiences are the standard of what is mental, if you ignore the contents of experience, you’re ignoring what’s definitional about the concept of ‘mental’. This also means that if you’re not referring to the contents of experience or their domain, you’re not talking about the arena of mind as such.
Mental and physical (or mind and brain, for that matter) are certainly different concepts – even complementary concepts. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to formulate our problem of the mind-body link in understandable language. I’d also argue that ordinary language refers to mind and body in this same sort of distinct dualist manner, although most people don’t generally bother defining their most basic assumptions about the world. But still, ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ are two fundamentally different basic categories of things to most people.
Mental and physical are certainly linked too: mind with brain. So if mind is still allowed to exist, connected with but conceptually distinct from body, then we must acknowledge a mind-body dualism – preferably one which doesn’t suffer from Descartes or anyone else’s idiosyncratic errors in philosophical analysis. (Descartes might most constructively be viewed here as instigating a ‘dualism research programme’ by trying to find a solution to this basic metaphysical problem, and failing gloriously.) Further, it must be possible for there to be some explanation of the mind-body connection, because my will influences my physical body, and my mind can perceive the physical world. A failure of imagination does not imply a failure of possibility. (This last point would also be my objection to Colin McGinn’s ‘the mind is beyond its own comprehension’ view, while we’re here.)
The immediate physical cause of the contents of human experience are called brain states: our mind states exist because our brain states do. Mind-Body Problem Part 1 thus is, “How can a brain state cause experience contents to exist? What’s going on here?” Curiously, in Aristotle’s jargon, these brain states would be called the material cause of the mind states. ‘Material’ cause would be a very misleading phrase to use to talk about the substance of mind itself, though. Properly speaking, the immediate substance of experience just is the contents of experience, that is, sensations and rational understanding.
To me the primary substance of experience is sensation. Sensations are things like the greenness of the glass of a bottle of beer; the smell of fresh-cut grass; the taste of salt; a feeling of the smoothness of fur; the background hum of a computer fan. The official jargon for such sensations is qualia. I prefer the word ‘sensations’ because it’s less jargony. But we mean by sensations all the qualities of experience present to the mind through the different modes of sensation – as distinct from language/reason. Whether concerning the external world or purely used in imagination, the sensational, experiential qualities in our minds are fundamental for giving experience its content, and so for there to exist anything distinctly mental at all. Rational/linguistic understanding needs the sensational qualities of experience to exist, and so reason is subsequent to sensation, in many ways. But sensations are not brain states. As Matthews himself says (p29), the brain processes which lead to an experience of the colour red aren’t themselves red. If we said they were, this would also commit us to saying for example that whatever complex brain state underlies the smell of a roast dinner, itself smells of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding; or that the brain states for hearing a reverbing electric guitar themselves sound like a reverbing electric guitar... But what would that even mean? And what would that imply if it were the case? Something else is going on in the brain other than simple experience-mimicry, isn’t it? But what? The question remains to be answered: How does the brain make sensations?
The second chapter of Mind starts by explaining materialism (the idea that ‘nothing is distinctly mental, everything is physical’). Materialism might have a superficial glamour because we all respect physical science, but consider this: we can all be more sure of the existence of our experience than we can of anything else whatever – even the material world. Yet experience is the standard of what belongs in the distinct category of mental. So whence materialism?
One form of materialism is the modern theory that mental events are identical to brain events (‘mind-brain identity theory’, unsurprisingly). This was proposed in the 1950s by JJC Smart, and there are now whole sets of such identity theories, which pretend to answer Descartes’ duality problem by denying it exists. They deny that there’s a distinction between the mental and the physical, particularly in the brain. But the problem of how experience arises from the physical world cannot sensibly be argued away by saying that there is no experience. (What’s an argument, for a start?) Yet for a materialist to admit experience and say instead, “Experience belongs in the category of material” would be to deny the essential meaning of both ‘mental’ and ‘material’. As I argued, the concept of material implies something beyond-the-mind, ie that there’s something essentially non-mental, about anything material. But experiences are not non-mental; they’re the contents of awareness. Experiences are not material by definition.
You can’t solve a problem by kidding yourself about the meaning of the words involved in understanding the problem. ‘Mental’ and ‘physical’ must be kept conceptually distinct, or the words physical and mental are denied their real meanings. (Don’t get me going on the word ‘spiritual’ – although ‘Spiritual is the essence of the personal’ is a good analytical starting point.) Confusing the definitive meanings of words is an endarkening process, for sure.
Matthews puts forward a materialist argument of his own, based on behaviourism; it is ingenious, but wrong. Behaviourism doesn’t address the contents of consciousness, only the physical effect of these contents. So, like the identity theories, his behaviourist theory doesn’t address the problem of the existence of mind – meaning primarily and definitionally, the question of how contentful experience exists. All mind-body identity theories which miss this problem are, well, missing the point. Saul Kripke’s ‘rigid designator’ theory, explained on p34, I otherwise agree with. This theory says that names always designate the same things in all possible worlds. Kripke is right that the only way we could define pain (for example) is by its painfulness. But I’d argue this very fact implies a dualist conception of reality rather than a materialist or identity theory. Generally all non-dualist theories in one way or another clumsily blur the meaning of the concepts ‘mental’ and ‘physical’. Both physicalism and information theory reported by Prof Matthews fail for the same reason.
Eliminative materialists such as the Churchlands must also be added to the list of non-dualist outlaws. Eliminative and other materialists deny the existence of anything distinctly mental. (I wonder how they got that idea?) Matthews notes that strict materialists logically would have to eliminate the experiencing mind altogether. But the only way of doing that is through universal sentiencide. Because they can’t press that button, all non-dualists must perform their atrocious language acrobatics instead.
I think that to get their language-distorting ‘mind is brain’ speaking, many mind-brain identity theorists unknowingly shorten the phrase ‘is connected to’ to ‘is’. But mental means ‘Belonging to or present to an experiencing mind’. The mental can only (and exhaustively?) be described with reference to the mind and its contents. The physical world, by contrast, is by definition something external to our minds and their experiences – otherwise we’d be straightforwardly talking about idealism. Idealist theories say that the external world is mental too (and not just crazy) – albeit that this mental external world often looks as if it’s some other non-mental stuff, some so-called ‘material’ stuff. But in a proper idealism, there’s only minds, experiences, and the apparently physical behaviour of some other ‘physicalesque’ mental stuff, within you or without you.
At the risk of either assuming idealism or denying that your experience has any content at all, the correct thing to say is that mind states and brain states are different things, and different types of thing, even though they evidently are intimately connected. The hard problem of consciousness just is figuring out how this connection works. But that’s a much longer story. (I’m developing a plausible solution to M-B problems 1 and 2 in a big fat book. One way into the problems I’ve found fruitful is to start by analysing what the concepts ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ actually mean, as we have just done. As general methodology, I would always recommend the method of considering the nuances of what it is you’re trying to explain.)
As you can possibly understand, I don’t align myself with the trajectory of Professor Matthews’ discussion after our difference of opinion over his use of ‘mental’. But Professor Matthew’s book nevertheless remains a lucid and intelligent introduction to the philosophical problems of mind. I say this even though I disagree with the conclusions he draws. Read it as a sharp foil for formulating your own thoughts on these meticulous matters of mind. I hope the other books in the series are as direct and informative in explaining their debates.
© Grant Bartley 2007
Grant Bartley is a writer living on a small raft at the edge of conceptual space.
• Eric Matthews Mind – Key Concepts In Philosophy London/New York Continuum 2005: ISBN 0826471129, £8.99 pb.