Dialogue on the so-called “mind-body mystery”

By | January 29, 2011

“Missy” = the mysterium
“Mat” = the materialist

Missy: We have plenty of evidence that our brains are necessary for our minds, but we find the manner of the connection mysterious.
Mat: To make reference to “connections” here begs the question. It assumes that there are two real things that need to connect.

Missy: I don’t mean to suggest that we are unable to form hypotheses about the mind-body connection. We are able to form hypotheses, some of which I shall mention in the next paragraph. Each of these has had staunch supporters. But each group of supporters has been counterbalanced by a similarly adamant group of detractors. In short, none of the proposed understandings of the mind-body relationship has been able to achieve a consensus.
Mat: Again, the phrase “mind-body relationship” implies that there are two ‘things’ that relate to each other somehow. That there are two such realities has to shown to be the fact.

Missy: The most notable hypotheses (about the mind-body connection) have been mind-body dualism, materialism, and identity theory.
Mat: Isn’t it true that only the first, dualism, tries to explain the ‘connection’; the other two do not try to explain any ‘connection’ or ‘relationship’? However, you might be expressing the idea that the same thing relates to or connects with itself, in the case of materialism and the identity theory.

Missy: According to mind-body dualism, the mind is a non-material substance (e.g. an immortal soul) associated in some way with the material body. To make a crude analogy, the body is like an automobile and the mind is like the driver. A close scrutiny of this theory uncovers serious problems, but the theory is serviceable for the everyday use of everyday persons, because it does reflect the stark difference between the kind of language we use when we talk about our ideas, thoughts, feelings, desires, etc. and when we talk about physical objects in space and time. In the former kind of language we in effect acknowledge the existence of entities (e.g. ideas) that cannot be located anywhere in space.
Mat: Of course, many people use the language of ideas, thoughts, feelings, desires and such without implying any belief that such entities exist as entities in their own right; e.g., reference to my thoughts is really just reference to my act of thinking. The only existing entity is the person who thinks certain thoughts.

Missy: If we probe people’s brains we find neurological events that seem to correlate with these non-spatial entities, but we don’t find the ideas themselves. They seem to be entities of a radically different kind.
Mat: Of course, this is only one interpretation, a questionable one at that. Many of us deny this implication of the existence of “ideas themselves” or “entities of a radically different kind.”

Missy: Thus mind-body dualism has a strong foundation in actual experience, but it also has serious difficulties.
Mat: No! Dualism is not founded on actual experience; mind-body dualism only arises from an interpretation of actual experience, an interpretation of experience which posits the strange entities such as “ideas themselves.”

Missy: If we assume that the mind and the body are two radically different kinds of substance, we create a difficulty in explaining how they interact. For example, suppose decide to raise my arm. The deciding is a mental act.
Mat: Yes, that the mind and body are two radically different kinds of substance is surely an assumption, a questionable assumption. But is it a given that deciding to raise an arm is a mental act? Couldn’t we say that the act of deciding to do something is done by the brain; i.e., that it is a neurological process?

Missy: The raising of the arm is a physical act. How do mental acts make physical acts happen? Or, for that matter, how do physical events (like stubbing your toe) cause mental events (like pain) to happen?
Mat: It is not at all obvious that the sensation of pain is a “mental event” rather than a physiological process. Could pain occur without the neurological happenings in the brain?

Missy: From the point of view of modern science, there is no such interaction, because there are no such things as mental acts and mental events. Granted that we have an extensive language about various kinds of mental entities and mental acts, but this language is misleading. Primitive people invented all kinds of spiritual entities to explain things they experienced. But as it turned out, none of these spiritual entities actually exist. Verifiable physical explanations have, in a wide variety of cases, replaced spiritual or supernatural explanations. It therefore seems reasonable to conclude that the language of mental entities will sooner or later be replaced by a language that refers only to physical entities and physical processes.
Mat: I’m not sure who concludes that that an ideal, purely physical language will replace our ordinary way of talking about ideas, thoughts, pleasures, pains, and such. This surely is not what many scientists and non-dualistic philosophers conclude. Our language most probably will remain intuitive and will continue to refer to thoughts, ideas, love, pleasure and pain and not replace such terms with the equivalent scientific terms that refer strictly to neurological processes.

Missy: To be more specific, this language will eliminate mental talk in favor of talk about brain events and brain processes. Many people who put great stock in scientific explanations subscribe to this theory, which is called materialism.
Mat: Materialism is a theory about reality; but this view about how language will evolve is another thing altogether. Materialist thinkers like Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and Doug Hofstadter do not (to my knowledge) propose that some type of scientifically pure language which refers exclusively to brain events and brain processes will replace our intuitive language that refers to ‘mental things’ and ‘mental events.’

Missy: Critics of materialism say that in materialism the tail wags the dog. We must resist the temptation to construct a scientific explanation of experience, for experience is the foundation of science.
Mat: Here you offer another very questionable proposition: namely, that experience is the foundation of science. Why would anyone claim this? In fact, the opposite seems to be case: the hard sciences attempt to eliminate subjective experiences as the basis for scientific propositions. This is the key to that objectivity sought by the sciences. Experience, in the sense of empirical observation and empirical verification play important roles in the sciences; but this is very different from concluding that “experience is the foundation of science.”

Missy: The axioms of geometry are the foundation upon which theorems are built. One doesn’t try to explain the axioms in terms of the theorems. Similarly, one doesn’t try to explain experience in terms of scientific theories. Rather, one explains scientific theories in terms of the experiences that verify them.
Mat: Why can’t we try to explain experience in terms of scientific theories? Surely in some of the relevant sciences — psychology, anthropology, sociology, etc. – it seems that one explains some experiences in terms of scientific theories. It is hard to see how ‘experience’ — the experiences of an individual can explain or verify anything. Theories are explained and verified by experiments, arguments, and well-grounded propositions. Propositions and arguments are not “experiences,” although some empirical propositions may be based on experience.

Missy: Since these experiences are mental events, mental events are indispensable presuppositions of science.
Mat: Of course, this is way too fast. You make several big jumps in reasoning here. Experiences relevant to the sciences are those had by persons. Are they mental events? Only if we assume the dualist version of such things. But this is a most questionable version of such things. I’m not sure what is an indispensable presupposition of the sciences. Since science is a human enterprise, I suppose you could say that humans who have experiences and engage in inquiry are presuppositions of science. But this does not admit your claim that mental events are indispensable to science.

Missy: One might say that these mental events are really brain events, but one can’t change the facts by saying it.
Mat: Right, if you had demonstrated the fact of mental events, then merely appealing to ‘brain events’ would not change the facts. But you have not established any such facts.

Missy: If neither dualism nor materialism is satisfactory, we should perhaps consider the possibility that mind and body are one and the same thing. But how can that be? Well, the two sides of a coin are not two different things. They are different perspectives on one and the same coin. Similarly, it might be the case that mind and body are not two different things, but different perspectives on one and the same thing. This hypothesis is called “identity theory,” because it interprets mind and body not as different things, but as different aspects of one thing, the person.
Mat: Yes, this is correct as a start to characterizing the identity theory.

Missy: But our cognitive capacity is finite, because our experience is perspectival. We do not see things whole. We see them from one side or another. By combining different perspectives, we arrive at an interpretation of the whole. In some cases the whole in question is simple, like a coin, and the combination of perspectives is sufficient to give us an unambiguous idea of the whole. But in other cases, like a person, or like the universe, our perspectives fail to combine in this way. Like a blind man feeling the leg of an elephant, we lack the ability to take in all the information we need. Suppose that the blind man has felt both the leg and the ear of the elephant. He has two incommensurable sets of data, and the combination of them fails to yield a single, coherent picture of the whole. The identity theorist thinks the mind-body problem is like that. On the one hand we have the language of physical objects. On the other hand we have the language of thoughts, ideas, experiences. These two languages are incommensurable. They fail to combine into a single, coherent picture of the whole. Thus, from this point of view, we are a mystery to ourselves. We don’t know what kind of a thing we really are.
Mat: Again, all this follows only by way of a particular interpretation of the situation. A good part of science is showing the blind man that his various set of data fit together to form a coherent picture of the elephant. Many so-called identity theorists and materialists (for sure) do not accept this idea that the two languages (physical and mental) are incommensurable and cannot yield a coherent picture of the whole. They seem quite commensurable to me; we ordinary folk talk about ideas, thoughts and desires; the brain scientists talk about brain processes. There is no obvious contradiction between the two. That there is a contradiction and that a coherent picture of the whole is denied would have to be argued successfully. You have not done this.

Missy: Our ignorance (with respect to our physical and mental aspects) does not prevent us from speculating. The philosopher Colin McGinn offers an example of such a speculation. On the basis of scientific evidence, he says, we know that the mind is in some way dependent on the brain. This evidence consists, for example, in studies of the effects of brain damage on the mental abilities of patients, or correlations between particular kinds of experiences and particular patterns of brain activity. But since the brain is localized in space while the mind is not, the brain-mind connection is difficult, maybe impossible, to understand.
Mat: Yes, this is speculation which assumes the dualistic picture. Given that assumption and all this talk about the mind existing but not in space as we understand “space,” of course we would then have a mystery as to where that “connection” is found and maybe “where” the mind is located.

Missy: There must be a connection, but that connection cannot be found in space as we know it, nor can it be found in the mind as we know it. The connection, therefore, must occur in a part of the “elephant” about which we have no information. McGinn speculates on just what part of the elephant that might be. He thinks it might be space. He thinks that our perspective on space might be severely limited, like the blind man’s perspective on the elephant when he feels only a leg. If space is something more than what we perceive it to be, then what we think of as the spatiality of the brain might be something more than we think it is. Indeed, the brain itself might be something different from what we perceive it to be. And the explanation of the relationship between the mind and the brain might lie in the aspect of space that is beyond the horizons of our knowledge.
Mat: (Somewhat tongue-in-cheek) String theory proposes eleven or more spatial dimensions. Who knows? The mind may be lurking there somewhere.

Missy: From the point of view of modern cosmology, space as we know it did not always exist. It originated in the Big Bang and has been expanding ever since. McGinn thinks it reasonable to suppose that the Big Bang had a cause, and that the universe must have existed in some quite different state prior to the Big Bang.
Space as we know it, then, could be simply our perspective on this larger and more ultimate reality. The larger reality is space, but it is more than space as we know it. It is space as it would be known to a mind less limited than our own. From this less limited perspective, there would be no mystery about how the language of the mental smoothly meshes with the language of the physical.
Mat: Yes, I suppose a speculative scenario could solve just about anything!

Missy: Of course, this is sheer speculation. We have no way to either verify or falsify such an idea. But we may find some consolation in at least being able to imagine an explanation of the mystery of the mind-body relationship. Indeed, it’s hard to simply suspend judgment on such theories. Once we hear them, we tend either to see them as plausible or implausible. Depending on which way we see them, we tend either to believe them or disbelieve them.
Mat: The mystery and pro-offered ‘explanations’ of the “mystery of the mind-body connection” are relevant only when certain questionable assumptions and inferences are made. When I point out that the ‘theories’ designed to deal with this mystery may be superfluous I am not “simply suspending judgment on such theories.” Someone who has not fallen into the conceptual traps set by dualists and mysterians does not need any “consolation of being able to imagine an explanation” of the concocted mystery.

3 thoughts on “Dialogue on the so-called “mind-body mystery”

  1. Firooz R. Oskooi

    Some Moslem philosophers have argued that since everything has proceeded from Oneness (God), and only oneness can proceed from One, then everything is the different facets of one reality (or God). But this is philosophy, not science, as science is in it's infancy and far behind attaining the Oneness theory, which even after attaining that, would not apply to our daily earthly dealings! We must divide to conquer!

  2. philosophylnge

    The so-called "Oneness theory" is philosophy only in the sense of "philosophy" which admits religious and mystical ideas to qualify as "philosophy." It is fine for those who have allegiance to that type of thing; but not very satisfying for those who practice critical philosophy which takes into account the accomplishments of the sciences. The idea everything emanates from a mysterious ONE is fine for those draw inspiration from this type of thinking; but this type of thinking does not offer much for those who look for some objectivity and compelling reason for their utterances.

  3. Firooz R. Oskooi

    Consider point in trigonometry which has no dimensions and infinite line can pass through it. That is the point of singleness but only in non meterial abstract form. As soon as we put a point on the paper, it immediately enters the world of multiplicity and acquires dimensions. What objectivity should we look for here? Science itself originates and is conceptualized first in the mind of the scientist and in abstract form long before experience proves it. Only children play with toys!


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