January 21, 2015

The Mind-Body Problem

This article in the Guardian is a great example of a standard narrative about the mind-body problem. Beyond the bizarre glamorizing of the same half dozen or dozen thinkers (philosophers as rock n roll stars, drinking espressos, talking philosophy while on a yacht around Greenland, etc.), there is much here to think about. And not just because it is a article written for a non-academic audience. The central moves in the article are ones which are endemic to academic philosophy of mind.

A central theme can be found in these paragraphs:
By the time Chalmers delivered his speech in Tucson [in 1994], science had been vigorously attempting to ignore the problem of consciousness for a long time. The source of the animosity dates back to the 1600s, when René Descartes identified the dilemma that would tie scholars in knots for years to come....
The mind, Descartes concluded, must be made of some special, immaterial stuff that didn’t abide by the laws of nature; it had been bequeathed to us by God. This religious and rather hand-wavy position, known as Cartesian dualism, remained the governing assumption into the 18th century and the early days of modern brain study. But it was always bound to grow unacceptable to an increasingly secular scientific establishment that took physicalism – the position that only physical things exist – as its most basic principle. And yet, even as neuroscience gathered pace in the 20th century, no convincing alternative explanation was forthcoming. So little by little, the topic became taboo.
It was only in 1990 that Francis Crick, the joint discoverer of the double helix, used his position of eminence to break ranks. Neuroscience was far enough along by now, he declared in a slightly tetchy paper co-written with Christof Koch, that consciousness could no longer be ignored.
On this retelling, there is a connection between philosophy of mind and philosophy of religion. According to it, dualism used to be a religious view, having to do with souls, the limits of science, and the glory of God. Then with modern science secularism came on the scene, and all the nonsense about dualism, and with it the stuff about the need for God went out the window. But in the process science couldn't actually explain consciousness. And this was supposedly brought out by people like Crick, Koch, Nagel, Chalmers and McGinn. Against them are the hard core science people such as the Churchlands and Dennett who see the mysterians as losing nerve about the possibilities of science, and so unwittingly aiding the confused, religious people, and so aiding the opponents of secularism.

There are three things I find fascinating about this narrative.
First, it really brings out why, and in what way, consciousness and the mind-body problem get such a grip in the broader culture. Like Fodor's objections to Darwinian theory or Nagel's criticism of reductivismChalmers' objections to physicalism touched a nerve because the possibility of zombies got connected to much broader cultural issues regarding secularism and religion. What Chalmers did in his book was take arguments that were already familiar for decades in academic philosophy (put forward by Nagel, Jackson, Levine and others) and do two things which on the surface might have seemed contradictory: a) he made the arguments formally clearer and more precise in a way that excited academic philosophers, and b) he connected the arguments to other topics such as artificial intelligence and quantum mechanics in a way which excited the general public. Chalmers' book seemed to hover in a magical middle space where it could engage simultaneously with David Lewis (arch materialist and academic philosopher) and Deepak Chopra (new age guru). The Conscious Mind of course has nothing to say about religion or secularism. If anything, the dualism Chalmers advocates is thoroughly a-religious (just the way Descartes' dualism is often presented in philosophy of mind classes). In fact, Chalmers' book is so a-religious that he doesn't even discuss the topic. Which ultimately left it open for any reader to bring her perspective to the book, and see what they wanted to see in the book. For some it was just a scientific book addressing consciousness (qualia as just another fundamental particle). For others it was an academic taking new age philosophy seriously (whoa, is that panpsychism!). For yet others it was making possible a defense of traditional religion (yes, science can't explain everything).

Second, this connection between the mind-body problem and broader issues of secularism in the culture is altogether absent in most philosophy of mind classes. I first read Chalmers' book as an undergraduate in a philosophy of mind class taught by Sydney Shoemaker. Shoemaker didn't agree with Chalmers' conclusions, but he took the book seriously, and the discussion in class was about whether any of the umpteen arguments Chalmers lays out in the book work. In this classroom setting there is a version of the narrative that is in the Guardian article: first, there was dualism, then materialist views like behaviorism, then identity theory, then functionalism. And then what?! Dualism again now? Shoemaker, like the scores of other materialists responding to Chalmers, saw it as his duty to show that for all the logic-y jargon and cool thought experiments, Chalmers' view was as retrograde as Descartes', and that to accept otherwise was unthinkable. But in a philosophy of mind class, this was all nicely separated from issues of secularism and religion ("after all, those are topics of philosophy of religion or political philosophy, and this is not a philosophy of religion or political philosophy class"). But how could they be so separated in class when they weren't so separated for the public? Because in class it was taken for granted, at least in the classes I was in, that the issue of God was moot and done with, and that as sophisticated thinkers in the classroom we are meant to know that defending property dualism is nothing like defending the existence of souls.
This leads to a kind of funny double talk in academia, which is most evident in introductory philosophy courses, where the general public are introduced to academic philosophy. In the intro classes it is still left open whether souls exist, and whether there is an afterlife. For most of the students in intro classes who will never be philosophy majors, this kind of connection to the religious seeming issues has to be put forward as a way to gain their interest, and not to mention their money. In such a intro class when one reads Descartes' Meditations or Plato's Phaedo all the rich resonances of the debates of religion and secularism are in the air, as if studying philosophy will help to engage with them and so connect one to the pressing issues in our culture today. But if one continues studying philosophy in academia, then those resonances are chopped up and butchered into dozens of sub topics, here philosophy of mind only, there political philosophy only, there philosophy of religion only, as if separating out the topics in this way is the way to make piecemeal progress. But then where and when do all the separated pieces get put back together again? Only if one is able to get tenure, and wants to become "a public intellectual". For the vast majority of academics who don't have tenure, or even for most tenured professors, who feel they need to prove their worth in their sub-discipline before they can branch out, putting things back together again is a luxury they cannot afford. Which, incidentally, is why public intellectuals like Dennett, Chalmers, Nussbaum, Rorty, etc. seem to move in a rarefied air. Because being able to put things back together for oneself, to pursue any topic that interests one and to move back and forth between academic discussions and public discourse in the culture more generally is another perk in academia that only some people get to have, like a 2-2 teaching load or giving seminars in which the main reading is one's work in progress.
Third, the historical narrative in the Guardian article, though interesting from a cultural point of view, is pretty much false all around. Was Descartes just a religious thinker who argued for dualism as a way of defending God's existence? Of course not. Anymore than Kant's philosophy can be reduced to him trying to make room for God. Or Berkeley's philosophy as nothing other than apologetics for God. The allure of a narrative like that in the Guardian article is that it makes it seem as if the author of the article, the people the article is discussing and the reader are all on the right side of history. That the people mentioned in the article are "the world's greatest minds", and that the whole of human history has been leading up to Chalmers and Dennett debating about consciousness on a yacht, as if these thinkers have more knowledge and more perspective than any previous thinker in human history. And why not? After all, we know so much more know; we know everything they knew back then, and much more; and who is the best of the best among us? Well, it must be these people who are the prestigious academics. These are the best of us, and what they say and debate must be what is most fascinating.
The trouble with this "who needs to think about the silly past" type of narrative is that it covers over precisely the kind of facts we need in order to get some clarity on the mind-body problem. The narrative makes it seem as if until modern science showed up, everyone was happy to be a dualist and just took it for granted. As if the only way one might wonder about the relation between the mind and the body is by asking: how can there be subjective experience when we are all just composed of atoms? And yet for thousands of years, across the world in different traditions, people have wondered about the relation of the mind and the body. And not just because they thought the mind was subjective or the body was inanimate.
We can put it this way: throughout human history there have been many mind-body problems. Many different puzzlements about how the mind and the body are related. Many questions in fact on what counts as the mind and what as the body. The version of the mind-body problem the Guardian article focuses on is an important contemporary version of the problem. But if we don't understand how this version of the problem is related to other versions of the mind-body problem, then we won't really understand what kind of puzzlement we are gripped by in the present. And to do that we need to look precisely in the places - like the history of our conceptual frameworks - which we are most apt to take for granted. Otherwise the search for any grand answers to the mind-body problem will be futile. Like someone saying, "Now science is finally able to address the question whether God exists" and then pointing to a whole bunch of physics without even once trying to clarify what concept of God they are talking about.

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