Introduction to Philosophy of Mind 1

We each have a mind. We know this by simple introspection. Indeed, if we know anything at all, each of us knows: “I think.”

Even the most radical of the Greek skeptics (from which later forms of skepticism arose) did not claim: “Nothing exists.” If there is any self-refuting statement it is: “There is nothing.”

Now, of course, opinions vary wildly about what there is. Such is the nature of metaphysics, the study of what there is. But one phenomenon that must be accounted for in any plausible metaphysical theory is the self-conscious mind. We each know that we “are” such a thing, or that we “have” such a thing.

There are many approaches to the metaphysics of mind, but we will focus on the two broadest and most encompassing “camps,” which are: Materialism and Dualism. The wide array of theories about mind either fall into one of these camps or are “fringe” or implausible enough (or are differentiated by mere semantics that amount to a “distinction without a difference”) that they do not warrant our discussion here.

We have talked about materialism in general, and we have shown how materialism goes hand-in-hand with empiricism/scientism. In short, empirical scientist hold a materialist metaphysics because only matter and the forces acting upon it are accessible to the five senses that produce in us empirical experiences. Of course, there is so-called “inner sense” that is the awareness of our “inner” states, so scientists are motivated to make “inner sense” an “emergent” sense that results from brain-states in some way. Thus, “mind” and “inner sense” must be explained in terms of matter/forces, such as brain-states.

In the context of our discussion about evolutionary theory, this connection between empirical science and materialism about mind should be intuitive. But we can cast it in argument form:

1) Matter and the forces acting upon it are the only metaphysical entities accessible to the senses.

2) The senses are the only means by which we can have any ideas about reality in the first place.

3) So, our ideas about reality are necessarily grounded in materialism.

4) Our awareness of the emergence and evolution of life consist of strictly empirically-based ideas.

5) So-called “mind,” and our awareness of it, must have evolved along with every other aspect of reality, and this must have been physical evolution, as nothing non-physical is accessible to the senses (including “inner sense”).


6) Anything we can say about “mind” must be said in terms of matter/forces that are empirically-based, and “mind” has some material basis so that it could evolve along with the life that sustains it.

Now, even the “matter/forces” materialists are committed to can be ambiguous. For example, the “force” of gravity is not taken to be some occult (hidden) thing that is separate from matter itself. Indeed, the view Einstein popularized states that the “force” of gravity is nothing more than a curvature in space/time resulting from the existence of matter (with mass). And the view of gravity emerging from quantum mechanics states that the “force” of gravity is nothing beyond the existence of sub-atomic particles called “gravitons”. Even the “forces” of quantum theory are explained in terms of “fields” that are themselves very tiny distortions of space/time resulting from tiny, tiny particles of… wait for it…: Matter.

So, it is widely thought that “materialism” would be better called “physicalism,” even though empirical “physics” ultimately reduces to “matter.”

We have talked about reductionism, and this is the grand reductionistic model: Biology reduces to chemistry which reduces to physics; and physics studies “the physical,” which in turn reduces to matter. So, empiricism/scientism just is naturalistic materialism. And that perspective motivates and ground all scientific (and much philosophical) discussion of mind. Minds in some way reduce to living brains (and perhaps central nervous systems).


Dualism vs. Monism

Dualists (and pluralists) insist that mind cannot be adequately explained in terms of matter. Dualists posit that there is something non-material (non-physical) over and above empirically-accessible entities. What we call “mind” is not empirically-accessible because it is not reducible to matter. So, there are at least two “sorts” of things in reality: matter and mind. Thus, dualists are “dual” (two things), and pluralists are “many” (more than two things) about existence, while materialists/physicalists are “monists” (one thing) about reality.

Scientists respond to dualism with Occam’s Razor: Don’t multiply entities beyond necessity! There is no need of appeal to some occult “thing” that is non-physical and not empirically accessible, because ultimately science will get to the bottom of what mind is, and “the bottom” will be found to be matter after all.

Dualists respond: “When all you have is a hammer [empiricism], everything looks like a nail [something material].” And dualists argue that there are features of mind that cannot be explained by grounding these features in matter. So, they argue, there is indeed something else besides matter.

Scientists ask: “Okay, fine. Then explain how this ‘something else’ is connected with the body. What is the mind/body connection? We know that the ‘mind’ does affect the body, and the body certainly does affect the ‘mind’. So explain how these ‘two different things’ relate to each other.”

And there, dualists are stumped. Descartes famously (infamously) waved his hands at the pineal gland  located deep in the brain, although he offered no actual account of how this tiny gland could be the connection between a physical brain and a non-physical mind. So, here materialists triumphantly proclaim: “See! At least our account of ‘one thing’ is a real account! We can explain how a drug that affects the brain affects the mind, because there is nothing to ‘mind’ over and above the brain; affect the brain, and you necessarily affect the ‘mind’.”

So, dualists respond: “Impressive! But perhaps not so much, because you just wave your hands at terms like ‘affects’ and ‘nothing over and above’ without really explaining what they mean. Please explain exactly what relation you think the mind has to the brain.”

At this point in the debate, materialists divide into three main camps. There are slight variations, but these three main camps represent the most plausible and by far most widely held of the materialists’ perspectives about the mind/body relation.


Eliminative, Reductive, and Identity-Theory Materialism

A few philosophers and scientists will posit “other” views (such as “revisionist materialism”), but these really amount to “distinctions without a difference,” as even “hybrids” such as revisionism can be cast in terms of eliminative or reductive materialism. These are indeed the major versions of materialism about mind.

What distinguishes these versions of materialism is their various suggested mind/body relations. Here is a brief set of definitions, which we will develop in more detail as we go along.

Eliminative Materialism — There are no strictly mental phenomenon. The inward-looking perspectives we have about our own “minds,” including pains, beliefs, and other psychological states are incredibly-poorly defined; and when these “purely” psychological phenomena are finally well-defined, we will see that “they” are nothing beyond brain phenomena. So, most of what we call “mental phenomena” are really just “folk” perspectives that can and must be rigorously defined as brain states. Well-known proponents of this view include: Dennett, Rey, and the Churchlands.

Reductive Materialism — There are well-defined mental phenomena, but these can be accounted for strictly in terms of brain states. We are not just “confused” and poorly-defining our mental states. But metaphysical talk about these mental states can and must be “reduced” to metaphysical talk about brain states, just as chemistry reduces to biology. Most scientists and philosophers of mind are in the reductive materialist camp.

Identity Theory — There are well-defined mental phenomena, but these can and should be talked about strictly in terms of their brain corollaries. For example, a particular pain just is a particular C-fiber firing. Everything meaningful and correct that we can say about a particular pain can properly be said about a particular C-fiber firing, and vice-versa. The two “states” are identical; mental states are identical with correlative brain states. The leading proponents of current identity theory are David Lewis and D.M. Armstrong.

Notice that the primary difference between eliminative materialism and the other two is that eliminative materialism claims that “mental phenomena” consist of folk-phrases that are not well-defined, while the other two accept that at least some (most) of our phrases about mental phenomena are at least well-defined. Eliminative materialism is much like the earlier logical positivism, which sought to eliminate all poorly-defined metaphysics. Similarly, eliminative materialism says: “Once you properly defined these ‘mental’ phenomena, you are going to immediately discover that your terms and phrases are really picking out material reality.”

Both reductive materialism and identity theory accept the “folk” terminology, and are not “positivistic” in this sense. They would say, “Whatever you say about ‘mental’ phenomena, we will explain how these phenomena really just ’emerge’ or are identical with material phenomena–namely, brain states.”


Types of Dualism

Dualism by definition posits “mental stuff” as well as physical stuff, where the “mental” cannot in any way (see above) be accounted for by the physical. There are many sorts of dualism, ranging from property to substance to predicate to causal to supervenience, and so on. We will not bother with all of these distinctions because this is not strictly a philosophy of mind seminar. What matters to us is that all dualists (and pluralists) are committed to the principle that minds are real and that they cannot adequately be explained in terms of material or  physical reality. The question about the mind/body relation leads to a whole spectrum of pressing questions about what the “mental stuff” really is.

In our ongoing discussion, we must now watch carefully for scientists and many philosophers of mind to smuggle in a more or less positivist perspective in their questions and definitions. We must watch for the positivist idea that the only meaningful, well-defined metaphysical statements are those that have empirical truth conditions. Even though we now know that such a perspective is self-refuting (that defining statement of positivism has no empirical truth conditions), materialists often smuggle in that perspective; they often hold it without even explicitly recognizing that they do. As it is repeated in the Star Wars series, “The appeal of the dark side is strong.” And materialists find the appeal of positivism to be strong!

Well-known dualists include: Saul Kripke, John Searle, Thomas Nagel, and Immanuel Kant. Both Searle and Nagel are extremely effective in pointing out difficulties for Materialism, while offering a minimally effective positive account of what a non-material mind is. Saul Kripke does an excellent job of refuting eliminative materialism and threatening reductive materialism. But only Kant offers a thoroughgoing account of both what mind is and of the mind/body relation. Thus, in what follows, we will turn our attention entirely to Kant’s account of mind.

It will take some commitment on your part to learn some terminology. And we will seriously only scratch the surface! But we will present enough of the Kantian metaphysics to do a minimally responsible job of it, and you are about to be exposed to a brilliant and comprehensive metaphysics that is both extremely exciting and stunning! In fact, one of my undergraduate professors remarked: “Most of contemporary philosophy goes round and round over ‘questions’ that Kant settled, and they continue to be ‘questions’ only because most people do not understand Kant.”

In graduate school, another of my professors said a very similar thing. And over the decades I have become convinced of the truth of that perspective expressed by these two internationally-known and highly-respected philosophers. Kant was arguably the most brilliant human being to ever live, although he was also one of the most dense and difficult-to-follow writers to ever be a philosopher! It is no wonder that he is poorly understood; his writing is often flat-out terrible!


The Guy Knows Kant

There are many acknowledged Kant experts, including (but not limited to): Jill Buroker, Henry Allison, Hubert Schwyzer, and Anthony Brueckner. All of them are widely-published and internationally-known regarding Kant. Of this list, I was privileged to study under three of the four, and I highly recommend Jill Buroker’s wonderful introductory textbook on Kant.

Tony Brueckner could be cast as “unsympathetic” to Kant, in that Brueckner believed that Kant made some really fundamental mistakes that significantly undermined the value of his overarching metaphysical theory. Jill Buroker could be cast as “sympathetic” to Kant, in that she believes that Kant got most things right and that his metaphysical theory is cogent in spite of some minor mistakes. I studied under Jill before entering Tony’s Kant course at graduate school.

During that course with Tony, we got into repeated debates about what Kant was really saying. I argued the “sympathetic” case, while Tony argued the “unsympathetic” case. I am pleased to honor Tony’s vast intellectual honesty, as he again and again came to class and said something like, “I have thought that Kant was saying x, y, and z. But in arguing with Mr. Jensen during our last class, and rereading the Critique in light of Jensen’s arguments, I have changed my perspective. I think that Jensen’s points are sustained by a ‘sympathetic’ read of some of Kant’s more obscure passages.” And so forth.

After the grades were in, I went before the graduate advisor to hear my professors’ assessments of my performance in their courses. And those performance assessments carry far more weight than do the grades. Tony had issued me an A grade along with his highest compliment in one sentence: “The guy knows Kant.”

And as I was about to get my Masters degree, the graduate advisor reviewed my coursework and said, “Well, really, you’ve made mincemeat of our breadth requirements. You’ve got Kantian metaphysics, Kantian epistomology, Kantian ethics… it’s Kant this and Kant that. Your ‘breadth’ is Kant. Well, too late to do anything about it now….”

So, while I am not an internationally-known Kant expert, I have studied under the best. And I do know Kant. And I came to be enthralled with Kant over many years, as I saw that his breadth encompassed every major philosophical theme, while his depth penetrated to the core of them all.

I say this because there is sweeping confusion about what Kant actually intended to say, even among well-known Kant experts. Our goal, as always, is to be philosophically charitable, to try to come up with some way to read a perspective or argument to give it its best case. Too many “Kant experts” are quickly unsympathetic because Kant is so hard to read and understand! However, there is a “take” on Kant that makes sense, and that “take” reveals Kant to have penetrated closer to what is ultimately real than anybody else in all of history. That is the “take” on Kant I will present, and I needed to establish my credibility to even “scratch the surface” as we will, in light of the vast confusions regarding Kant that you will find all over online if you search.

In short, I follow Buroker, Allison, and Schwyzer in a “take” on Kant that I am well-qualified to present to you. And even our quite superficial presentation will amaze you in its depth and sweep.

So, hold onto your hats, and prepare to leap into the rabbit hole! You are about to discover mind and much more!