Monday, June 06, 2016

Mind and Brain

The Ghost in the Machine

My blog last week might suggest that I think that man is a kind of machine with a ghost in it. I certainly don’t want to say that. That man is not a ghostless machine doesn’t need to involve that there is a ghost inside the machine. Since Gilbert Ryle in his The concept of mind disproved what he calls “Descartes’ Myth” that there might be something like that and coined the expression “ghost in the machine”, it can be clear to everybody that man is not constituted that way. Problems that arise from this ghost-machine dualism are, for example, how the ghost is constituted. Where does it live? Is there a kind of little man (homunculus) in the machine? Can we catch it in some way? What moves the ghost? Maybe another kind of ghost? But if so we get an infinite regress. That cannot happen. Therefore I think that ghost and machine are one in some way.
But let me speak of mind and body instead of ghost and machine, as is usual. Then we see that the mainstream view tends to become the one that reduces the mind to the body. As the Dutch neuroscientist Dick Swaab has put it: “We are our brains”, and that’s it. If this were so, the mind is an illusion. It’s like the smoke that escapes from the locomotive, to repeat a metaphor that I used last week. Although more and more this becomes the main stream view, there are alternative ideas, as it always happens. Here it’s not the place to present these views, let alone to discuss them, but I think that none of them is true. I mean, neither the mind-is-an illusion view nor the alternatives are true. What has been presented by now as solutions to the problem cannot be more than useful suggestions that can lead to further research but that are far from being the solution, even not an embryonic one. To paraphrase Mark Balaguer in his introduction to the problem of the free will (a related theme): The question whether we have a mind is so hard that, given our current knowledge of the brain, we are nowhere near ready to answer it. It is not without reason that David Chalmers talked here about the hard problem.
I think that the whole neuroscientific approach is too one-sided: If you look for causes and suppose a material structure, you’ll find causes and you’ll confirm the idea that the structure of the brain/mind is merely material. Let me give an example that even in the physical world things are not simple as that. I got it from Julian Baggini: Striking a match will only start a flame if oxygen is present, and the presence of oxygen is not an a cause of the ignition but a reason for it. Baggini adds: “In a similar way, most of what we do is for a reason, but those reasons are not the actions or events that trigger what we do”.
I think that this simple instance points to a possible solution of the body-mind problem, namely that at least for a part the mind-body relation is a matter of different aspects. It’s the idea that the mental and the physical are two aspects of the same substance: When we talk about the mind, we mean something different than when we talk about the brain (and the same so, when we talk about free will and see what happens in the brain; or when we talk about action and behaviour). When I say that I liked the concert, I don’t mean that some neurotransmitters have been released in my brain that caused a sensation of happiness in me. I liked the concert in its commonsense meaning, but I don’t deny that some liking-arousing processes happened in my brain. Here, we don’t have only a different kind of description, we have also a different kind of event and accordingly a different kind of explanation.
However, we are yet very far away from a solution of the body-mind problem and my example and the dual-aspect theory that explains it might seem mysterious in view of the present state of knowledge of the brain. Therefore, I see this theory only as a useful suggestion that might guide a range of investigations. Since the mind-body problem is so hard, I don’t dare to stake my head on it that it is true. Maybe we find it later back on the dumping ground of scientific waste or in a brain museum in a display case with funny philosophical theories.

The quasi-quotation from Balaguer is from his Free Will. Cambridge, etc.: The MIT Press, 2014; p. 122. The reference to Baggini is from his Freedom Regained. The Possibility of Free Will. London: Granta, 2015; p. 42.

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