What is the mind?

Anders N Weinstein andersw+ at pitt.edu
Wed Dec 2 23:00:34 EST 1998


In article <3665c939.0 at ns2.wsg.net>, Ray Scanlon <rscanlon at wsg.net> wrote:
>>[AW]                                    I certainly don't want to
>>relegate the topic to religion. The point of my recommendation
>>is to *de*mystify, not obfuscate. But you seem to want to retain something
>>mysterious about subjectivity.
>
>Not at all, I merely want to make a distinction between that which belongs
>to the material universe and that which does not. The soul (mind) does not

Human beings are in the material universe, and their mentality shows up
for us in the material universe. You can see the overt doings of a human being 
*as* expressive of mentality. For example, a friendly glance or gesture
can be seen as expressive of mind, and that is entirely in the world.

You need to understand that behavior can be described in many ways.
The event of, say, one person snubbing another one dead is perfectly
observable, but it has both a physical and a meaning-giving description
as expressive behavior. Just because you can describe it as a motion
fo molecules or whatever does not mean you can't describe it in other ways.

When taken under appropriate mind-laden descriptions, then, we can say
that human beings as minded creatures are certainly phenomena that show up 
for us as elements in the experienced world, not immaterial souls outside
it.

>Man lacks the intellectual equipment to understand the relationship between
>body and soul (mind). 

If the soul (mind) is not really an object or part of the same sort as
bodily organs, then perhaps there is nothing mysterious to understand.

>                      The best course of action is to accept this and be
>quiet, but then what would the philosopher do for publication? This is not
>to mystify, this is merely to accept human limitations.

There is no such limitation to accept. There is no limitation because
there is no mind-body problem to solve. There is only the illusion that
there is a problem to dissolve. 

"Solving" the mind-body problem is like showing a person who thinks he
is trapped how to escape from what is in fact an unlocked room. That
can be very hard, for the subject one may be getting something from
the delusion and may not want to have this pet mystery exposed as
a structure of air.

>>>Nonsense. The brain does the thinking, the soul experiences the activity
>of
>>>neurons and calls it thoughts. Philosophy is just watered down religion
>>
>>I think this is hopelessly confused. When the soul does this
>>"experiencing" is that not a kind of thinking?  At any rate it is a
>>mental process.  
>
>It is not a "kind of thinking", it is not a mental process. The soul (mind)

Surely your *experiencing* something is a mental event if anything is.

>experiences the activity of the brain, that is all.The brain does all the
>"thinking", the deciding, the implementation of the decision.

If that were the correct account of our subjective experience, then
we ought to experience ourselves as passive, paralyzed victims, watching
as our body does things in accordance with the "decisions" taken by our brains 
(external to ourselves, beyond our control). It would be absurd to say
we could pursue a desire or goal of our own, for we can only watch
passively. I am not even sure if you think we ourselves have any interest
in the outcome at all.

As I said, this is a ridiculous picture of the self, absurd as
phenomenology, and conceptually incoherent to boot. It does not at all
capture what my conscious experience is like.  If I see something
desirable I might go for it right now under my own volition, or make a
plan to go for it, or override the desire based on other
considerations, and this is all reason *I* do. I certainly don't
experience myself wishing for it and hoping that something other than
myself -- my brain -- will make a decision to go for it and execute it,
in which case I might passively be treated to its satisfaction.

To repeat, the implied split between *two* subjects of mental states,
my soul (my self?) and this alien thing, my neurons, is untenable. You
seem to want very much to be a dualist, so why not go the whole hog?
Mustn't it be the very same self that desires, thinks and decides, as 
the self that experiences?

>>Your picture is loosely Cartesian, of course. But for Descartes, as I
>>recall, the brain served as the site of sensory images (the "corporeal
>>imagination").  These must be taken as *inputs* to the immaterial
>>rational intellect (soul). It could only be the soul in which both
>>conscious thinking and experiencing takes place. For it is an operation
>>of the rational intellect to apply the concepts (ideas)
>>via which one cognizes what is presented via the senses.
>
>To put it simply, Descartes put forth the sophisticated homunculus, the soul
>(mind) that selected from the data proffered by the brain, manipulated that
>data, came to a conclusion, and forwarded the
>decision to the brain for execution. 

Right. 
>                                     The soul (mind) does none of these, the
>soul (mind) is merely aware of the activities of the brain.

But we can't recognize this as a tenable conception of the soul and its
relation to the body. How does the soul experience anything if it has
no concepts or understanding? How could the soul be *you* (your self,
the seat of your personality) if it is purely passive, and without
relation to such concepts as will and desire and action? The purely
passive observer soul, carried through experiences by an external
brain, as you sketch it is a very strange entity, stranger even than
Descartes' rational intellect.

>If you are uneasy with the soul (mind) and its "baggage" then just drop the
>subject. A materialistic explanation of the brain has no need of soul
>(mind), biology has no need of soul. Only the philosopher needs a
>conjunction of soul and body so that he may have something to talk about.

A materialistic explanation of the brain has no need of soul -- true.
But an intentional explanation of the doings of a human person does, in
a sense, have need of soul. For it needs to cite intentional (and
other) psychological attributes of the person, and these are irreducible
to the terms of mechanistic explanations.

For example, there is a perfectly mundane, common-sense intentional
explanation of why I stopped in at the convenience store on my way home
today -- I remembered I was out of milk and wanted to pick some up to
have with my Cornflakes tomorrow morning. I know the milk costs a little bit
more there than it does at the supermarket, but that is OK with me since it is 
easier to get it on my way home than make a special trip. And so on.

Now I am not at all sure there is a materialistic explanation of this
action. Certainly no current could give one, the idea that there is one
is just a dream.

So that's really an open question as far as I am concerned. But if
there is, then that's fine too. For the materialistic explanation does
not conflict with the intentional explanation. It simply explains
without reference to things like reasons for acting. It is frankly somewhat
difficult to see how the neuroscience could provide comparable detail
with respect to the rational structure. 

This is not mysterious, it's just common sense. My untutored
grandmother can grasp and employ the terms of intentional explanation.
The details of what's in the brain is not of any relevance to the order
these concepts capture, for it is an order that is found entirely at
the macro-level, not one to be sought in the micro-structure.

BTW, I also think biology as the study of *animate* objects also has need 
of soul in a sense (Aristotle's), for it needs to appeal to 
characteristic forms of *animation* or vital activity. Of course
this too should not be understood as positing some non-physical vital force.



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