Sunday, May 14, 2006

Ashes to ashes: the mind-body problem and jurisprudence

After a recent funeral, an extraordinary just-finished undergrad, Sam, was talking with me about life, and death---and when life began and ended, and when death began--and ended. We talked about a lot of subjects, but each conversation circled around mortality like a vulture; and eventually each discussion touched on the mind-body problem, on which the conversation reverently but temporarily alighted, only to begin circling again.

Since then, I've gotten into several discussions that have ended similarly. While the aforementioned young'un did appreciate the magnitude of the problem, the more recent chats have been full of optimism, which worries me. The glass is half-empty, it seems to me. As Thomas Nagel says in "The View From Nowhere," a solution to the mind-body problem would "juxtapose the internal and external or subjective and objective views at full strength," and would constitute a "world view." Such a solution seems far off; and sometimes this distance, ironically, protects us from ourselves.

I write at some length because the conversation with Sam was quite poignant in its circumstances, and for some reason the question of the external and internal points of view seems to recur in epistemology, Hartian jurisprudence, and the idea of the soul and the resurrection---the last of which was an especially pregnant topic. We all want to obtain this world view, because it would solve so many problems of meaning.

Of course, sometimes perplexity can embody more knowledge than any
purported solution to these problems of freedom and morality. Traditionally in some oriental modes of thought there are four possible answers a guru may give to a student's question. Yes, no, it depends, and silence. In a commentary on koans it is said:
Silence is used when the disciple needs to reflect further on the question itself. Not all questions are validly formulated; not all of them help deeper exploration of the issue; not all of them arise out of genuine concern to know. The guru’s silence sends the disciple back for further reflection. At other times the guru maintains silence because the question is on a matter beyond verbal response or intellectual exploration. The only assistance the teacher can give is to enable the disciple to have the experience necessary to know the answer for himself.
Right now it seems to me that physicalism, functionalism, and the particular brand of sodden ignorance being hocked by the shyster Daniel Dennett---admittedly a shyster much smarter than me---it seems to me, I say, that all these are like the banging of drums to scare away knowledge.

The basic tension is between the objective view and the subjective view. This has only been brought out as physics becomes more imperialistic (and, with postmodernism, we also enter a postcolonial phase where physics is back-colonized by the disciplines it used to tyrannize). First we notice that our subjective perceptions are caused by the actions of the external world on our sense organs, organs which are themselves physical. [[[continue reading...]]] So the physical properties that cause the red-experience in us,--cause us to be appeared redly to--, not causing such experiences in other things, must be detachable from their perception-causing functions. Then, what is the true nature of things in the external world, not the phenomena, but the noumena? We don't just want to stop thinking of the external world as it appears to us, but we stop thinking in terms of perceptions at all, and move to, as Bernard Williams has called it, the absolute conception of reality. ("Ab-solver," loosened away from.) This is the view from nowhere. This is the scientific method, the most powerful machinery for discovering truth every invented.

The problem is then when we try to understand our own perceptions using this scientific strategy. Once we've fixed on the world as a physical thing, free of subjectivity, how can we explain our experiences? Nothing else in reality seems to have experiences. Matter does not have mental states. There is no indexical, nothing irreducibly personal and oriented. Mental states have the fundamental property of being about something else, of tending to another, of intentionality. A concept or percept points outside itself, representing or containing its experiential object. Physical things are just there. They don't possess intentionality. Seeing red is different, and is just very odd. The discussion of intentionality was retrieved---in the postmodern sense---from the Scholastics by Franz Brentano in the 1870's: "This intentional in-existence is characteristic exclusively of mental phenomena. No physical phenomenon exhibits anything like it. We can, therefore, define mental phenomena by saying that they are those phenomena which contain an object intentionally within themselves." This is just a fancy way of saying we experience things. And the objective point of view has no way of accomodating this.

It is perfectly possible for me to imagine you as a "zombie." No offense. You could function quite well as a mere hulk of mass: you could even cause your physical vocal cords to jumble the air. The sounds "I am not a zombie" could come out, and you'd still be a zombie. But when I hear it, and I experience those sounds and interpret them, I know that I, at least, am not a zombie. Experiences are private, so I can't be sure, but I suspect you're not a zombie, and are in fact a lot like me. But my observations of you are fairly consistent with you being mind-less---if you don't believe this, perhaps you will when a computer passes the Turing test. But my observations aren't consistent with me being a zombie, because I have observations. A physicist can study everything except himself.

Keep in mind that the assertion that the mental and physical worlds are, by our present understanding, irreconcilable, does not necessarily imply that you could, say, have a mind without a brain. Most philosophers believe that the mind supervenes on the brain: that mental states need, at least, physical states. They just aren't reducible to them, because any reduction we can think of does violence to the fact that we have experiences. A truly excellent introduction to this topic---rigorous, but without the ploddingness that normally characterizes analytical philosophy---comes from Michael Huemer, a philosophy professor at UC-Boulder, and an old friend of Bryan Caplan, a Princeton economics grad student when I was studying physics there. I should note that John Searle's The Mystery of Consciousness, while not solving any of these problems, seems to me to at least begin to grapple with the biological nature of consciousness. Relatedly, I think the analytic trend dangerously neglects, despite their name, the Aristotelian realization that the four causes (material, efficient, formal, and final) are organically related, and are separable only analytically and not in reality. Aristotle's psychology truly is a hylomorphic unity. Finally, I should point out a book I'm about to pick up, Karl Popper and Sir John Eccles's The Self and its Brain. Teaming a famous epistemologist having strong pre-Socratic tendencies with a Nobel-prize-winning devout-Catholic neurobiologist and philosopher: what more could you ask for in a book?

G.K. Chesterton once said that the materialist, not believing in a soul, free will, or true mental states, must dogmatically deny admittance in his theory to even a single ghost of immateriality. The person who believes in mental states can admit that the physical world is the root for 99.99% of the causes in the world: he simply maintains a silence about the meaning of his internal reflections on the slight, miraculous remainder. Who is more scientific?

This has been a long slog. But so many things keep circling back to this topic. The question is: will the vultures be left to feed in peace, or will they eventually be scattered by a soul's stirrings?

I'll try to relate this to the internal and external points of view of Hart's The Concept of Law some other time.


Blogger chimera said...

Sam might find interesting The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, which I read in college and began re-reading a few days ago.

Within: "The still revolutionary insight of Buddhism is that life and death are in the mind, and nowhere else. Mind is revealed as the universal basis of experience - the creator of happiness and the creator of suffering, the creator of what we call life and what we call death."

8:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pain in someone else's body.

Your RSS feeds are broken. If you would, please fix them.


10:37 PM  

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