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TheMindBodyProblem

Let me introduce the mind-body problem with an example.  Suppose I decide to walk across the room, whereupon I do in fact walk across the room.  In the jargon I’ve just introduced, my decision is a mental event; and my walking across the room is a physical event.  Now on anybody’s accounting, there is another physical event involved here; namely, something happens in my brain, which tells my legs to start walking.  And this brain event is closely connected with my decision; the brain event happens at about the same time, or right after, I decided to walk across the room.  Now we might ask: How is it possible that a decision, which is something mental, resulted in something in your brain, which is something physical?  If we say that the mental and the physical are totally different sorts of things, then how can one have any causal impact on the other?  How can a mere mental event, a decision, actually cause neurons in my brain to start firing?  The very idea seems, or might seem, absurd.

So maybe a better description of the situation is this: my decision is itself a physical event.  When I decide to take my trip across the room, a group of neurons fire in my brain.  I am not aware of those neurons; but the firing of those neurons is itself just the same as my decision.  There isn’t any more to the decision than that physical event.  So there’s no trouble thinking about how a mental event can have a physical effect; mental events are themselves physical.  Ultimately, everything is physical.  Now, I don’t know if you can understand that proposal; to a lot of people it sounds really strange to say that a mental process is no more than a special kind of physical process.  The mind, they say, is more spiritual, ethereal, and so it just isn’t the sort of thing  that can be physical.  And they have other reasons as well for rejecting this reduction of the mental to the physical.

So in fact what some philosophers have believed -- but hardly anyone anymore -- is that the reduction goes the other way.  We should explain what bodies are in terms of mental goings-on; so the physical can be reduced to the mental.  When I walked across the room, really that was happening only in my mind, or in our minds all at the same time.  There is, on this view, nothing more to my walking across the room than our having the thought, or the perception, that that happens.  This view would also solve the problem of how the mental can affect the physical.  Since physical events are themselves nothing more than a special kind of mental event, then of course there isn’t any trouble about how a decision, which is obviously a mental event, can result in my body moving, which is also a mental event, although less obviously so.

Explaining a piece of terminology will be helpful here.  I’ve been talking about reducing the mental to the physical, and reducing the physical to the mental; so what exactly does "reduction" mean?  This is itself a very difficult, complicated question, but we’re going to have to ignore the difficulties.  The basic notion is this: If I reduce X to Y, then whenever I talk about X, I can be understood to be talking about Y instead.  So if I reduce the mental to the physical, then whenever I talk of pains, thoughts, and decisions, I can be understood as talking about physical events in my brain.  But then you might ask: does that mean that I think that pains, thoughts, and decisions don’t exist?  Well, not necessarily; and usually not.

Let me give you an example of a reduction in a field we’ve already studied.  Take the bundle theory.  The bundle theory says that objects may be reduced to collections of properties; so whenever we talk about objects, we can be understood to be talking about bundles of properties.  Now let me ask you: do you think that the bundle theory says that objects don’t exist ?  Well, maybe not objects as we had thought of them; but the theory is trying to give an account of what objects are; namely, they are bundles of properties!  So the bundle theory saying that objects don’t exist -- just that they are the same as bundles of properties.  Philosophers mean about the same thing when they talk about what exists ultimately.  The bundle theory says that ultimately, it’s properties and bundles that exist, not objects.  The things that exist "ultimately" are precisely the things to which other things are reduced.

All right, I have given you three different views about the relationship between the mental and the physical.  Now I am going to give names to those views:

Dualism is the view that mental events and physical events are totally different kinds of events.

Physicalism, or materialism, is the view that mental events are nothing more than a special kind of physical event.

Phenomenalism, or subjective idealism, is the view that physical events are nothing more than a special kind of mental event.

The mind-body problem, to put it as generically and broadly as possible, is this question: What is the basic relationship between the mental and the physical?  Now, just for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to state the problem in terms of mental and physical events.  I could put it just as well in terms of processes, or of consciousness.  So the problem restated is: What is the basic relationship between mental events and physical events?  

There are, then, three basic choices: mental and physical events are totally different, and cannot be reduced to each other (which is dualism); mental events are to be reduced to physical events (which is physicalism); and physical events are to be reduced to mental events (which is phenomenalism).  To put it in terms of what exists "ultimately," we could say that according to dualism, both mental and physical events exist ultimately; according to physicalism, only physical events exist ultimately; and according to phenomenalism, only mental events exist ultimately.  Physicalism and phenomenalism are both varieties of monism; monism is the view that only one sort of stuff in the universe exists ultimately (as opposed to dualism which holds that there are two kinds of stuff).  So there are two kinds of monism, namely, physicalism and phenomenalism.  But there is, actually, another kind of monism.  Namely, neutral monism.  Neutral monism is the view that mental and physical events are both to be reduced to aspects of some neutral stuff, which stuff considered by itself is neither physical nor mental.  Neutral monism was introduced by the 17th century Dutch philosopher, Spinoza; and a version of it was recently revived by a very prominent American philosopher, Donald Davidson.

If you are thinking that this is far too many possible positions to consider, just wait -- it gets worse -- because within each category there are further refinements to be made.  So we’re going to have to spend the rest of the day trying to come to grips with the refinements and the basic objections that can be made to these different theories.  But we are going to focus almost all of our energies on just two theories, namely, dualistic interactionism, and type physicalism.



A. Dualism.

I suspect many of you might be thinking to yourselves: "This is ridiculous.  Look, there is the mind, and there is the body, and they are two totally different things.  There might be some puzzles about how they interact but obviously they do interact.  So what’s all the fuss?  All those other theories you listed are just silly."  Now if you think this way, my job is to get you to see that that puzzle about how the mind and body interact is more serious than you might have thought.  But first let’s get the theory more clearly stated.

The view we’re talking about consists of all of the following claims: mental and physical events both exist, but neither type of event can be reduced to the other type, and mental events are both causes and effects of physical events.   This is called dualistic interactionism.  It is also called Cartesian dualism, because it is the kind of dualism that the great 17th-century French philosopher Descartes advocated.  This is one kind of dualism -- probably the most popular and well-known, but still only one kind.  So in addition to the claim that the mental cannot be reduced to the physical and vice-versa, dualistic interactionism includes the claim that there is a  causal interaction between mental events and physical events.  When I touch a hot stove, and burn my skin, I feel a pain.  Touching the stove and burning my skin are physical events; feeling pain is a mental event.   And when I feel the pain, I say, "Ouch!" -- and my saying a word is a physical event.  This sort of interaction between the mental and the physical is commonplace, and that it actually happens seems as obvious as anything can be.  You put the belief in that interaction together with dualism and you’ve got a very commonsense sort of theory of mind.  In fact our reading calls this "the commonsense theory of mind," and I agree with that characterization.

Let’s look at some arguments for dualism.  How would we go about arguing for this theory?  I mean, aside from pointing out that it’s extremely commonsensical.  That’s got to count for something; perhaps it counts for a lot indeed.  But if we can help it the mere fact that it’s a matter of common sense shouldn’t be our only reason for accepting a theory.  So how would we go about arguing for dualism?  We point out the differences between the mental and the physical.  So let’s do that.  Let’s go over the differences between mental events and physical events.

First, mental events are not publicly observable.  When I touch the hot stove, you may see me whip back my hand and say "Ouch!" but you are not feeling my pain.  Unless you’re Mr. Spock, or God, you can’t as it were get inside my mind and take a look at what’s going on in there.  And of course it’s not just because my mind is hidden beneath my skull.  If you knew just where to look in my brain, you wouldn’t be able to see thoughts and feelings jiggling around in there.  That’s just not how it works.  So unlike physical events, like fireworks displays, mental events are private, not publicly observable.

Second, mental events are often said not to be spatially located.  Where is my pain supposed to be?  Maybe you could say in my fingertips, because they hurt.  But is that where the feeling is?  Does it really make sense to say that the feeling is in my aching fingertips?  That sounds a little funny, anyway.  A better example would be an emotion like happiness.  When I say I’m happy, can I locate my happiness in my head, or does it exist all my body, or something?  Doesn’t that sound odd?  It would seem better to say that my happiness isn’t the sort of thing that can be located in a particular place.

Third, more generally, mental events do not seem to have various physical properties which physical events have.  For one thing, mental events do not involve anything having mass, or physical motion.  We can’t weigh a thought.  We can’t say that a feeling has a velocity of 10 miles an hour.  To say such things is to talk nonsense.  Now you might say: that’s only because mental events are events.  You can’t say that physical events have mass or velocity either.  Point well enough taken; that’s true, no event, per se, has mass or velocity.  But physical events do involve objects which have mass and velocity.  Mental events do not have any components which have mass and velocity.  For example, when I think, "I like ice cream," I have a concept of ice cream; and my concept of ice cream has no mass and velocity.  Nothing involved in my appreciation for ice cream would appear to have any such physical properties.  This is a point to which we will have to return.  But on the face of it, this seems pretty obvious.

Fourth, mental events have a certain subjective quality to them, which physical events obviously do not.  I mean, for example, what a burned finger feels like, what sky blue looks like, what nice music sounds like, and so on.  I’m going to expand on this fourth point at some length.  Recently, philosophers have been calling the subjective aspects of mental events qualia, and they also call them raw feels.  There is something that it’s like to feel pain, to see a familiar shade of blue, and so on; there are qualia involved in these mental events.  And the claim is that qualia seem particularly difficult to reduce to anything physical.  Just think of what that would involve.  You’d be saying: feeling the top of my hand right now, this "raw feel" I’m experiencing right now, is itself nothing more than a physical event.

In fact, there is an article by an American, Thomas Nagel, that came out in the late 70’s called "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?"  In this article Nagel argued roughly as follows.  You are familiar with the fact that bats use a certain kind of sonar, right?  They emit high-pitched shrieks which allow them to fly around in dark caves; they can tell how far away the walls are based on how their shrieks echo around in the cave.  Bat sonar allows bats to perceive distance, shape, size, and so on, in a way similar to, but obviously different from the way vision works for us.  Now Nagel invited us to ask, "So what is it like to be a bat, flying around in the dark using bat sonar?"  Surely bats do have experiences; we just don’t know what they are.  Suppose we were to take apart a bat brain and figure out how the neural apparatus for bat sonar works.  No doubt biologists have actually done so, dissected bat brains and so forth.  But in understanding how the bat brain works, do those biologists learn what it is like to be a bat?  Well of course not.  They’re mucking around in the grey matter of bats.  In order to know what it’s like to be a bat, and to have bat sonar, why, you’d have to be a bat.  So argued Nagel.

So what’s the point of all this?  The point is that if indeed there are "bat qualia," then there are peculiar mental events of a sort that only bats have, and we cannot learn what they are like even if we have a detailed understanding of physical events going on in the bat brain.  Or to put it even more simply: there is a strange "bat sonar experience" we’ll never have.  We won’t have it even if we learn what physical events in bat brains are associated with bat sonar.  So that’s excellent evidence that mental events cannot be reduced to physical events; mental events must be regarded as quite a different sort of thing from physical events.  Really, you can make the same point without even bringing up weird cases like bat sonar.  Just think of your own unique feelings.  Do you think that a psychologist could, simply by digging around in your brain and doing tests on your grey matter, ever learn what that feeling was like?

So there are at least four major differences between the mental and the physical, which make it difficult, to say the least, to understand how one might reduce the mental to the physical.  Mental events are not publicly observable; they are not spatially located; they do not involve physical properties such as mass and velocity; and there seems to be an irreducibly subjective aspect to them.  That seems to give us considerable reason to think that the mind and the body are two totally different categories of being.  So there you have one basic, powerful argument for dualism.

But there is another argument that I’m sure weighs heavily in some of your minds.  Namely, that you have an immortal souls that can survive your bodily death.  Traditional Christianity, like many other religions, teaches that you have a soul which is as different from your body as water is from rock.  Your body will die and then your soul will go to heaven, or hell, or who knows where.  If you believe this then you practically must believe in dualism.  The only way that you can avoid believing in dualism is if you accept phenomenalism, which holds that everything is, ultimately, mental.  But in any event you absolutely cannot hold that the soul is reducible to anything physical.  If events in your soul were reducible to events in your brain, then when your brain stopped functioning, your soul would cease to exist.

It’s not clear to me that this ought to be looked upon as an argument for  dualism, simply because those who challenge dualism from a physicalist position will not at all be impressed by it.  I mean, suppose you are trying to support dualism against a physicalist, who thinks that everything is, at bottom, physical.  Will it be at all impressive to say, "If I have an immortal soul, then mental events cannot be reduced to physical events"?  Not at all; the physicalist is precisely the sort of person who denies that you have an immortal soul, and who demands proof that in fact you do have an immortal soul.  You may not particularly care that you can’t convince the physicalist; but the point is that you should not do something that looks so much like begging the question.  Because if you argue: "I have an immortal soul; therefore dualism is true," then it sure does look like you’re begging the question.  You should prove that dualism is true, and thus that you have an immaterial, non-physical soul, before you try to prove that your soul is immortal!

So as far as arguing for dualistic interactionism goes, let’s just stick with the differences between the mental and the physical that I stated before.  Now, those are evidence for the dualism part.  What about the interactionism part, that is, the claim that mental and physical events causally interact?  Here we can just cite observational evidence.  We observe that physical events cause all sorts of mental events, and vice-versa.  Indeed, it’s hard to know how one might argue against the fact that there is such interaction, since it appears to go on all the time.  Anyway then, that’s all I’m going to say in favor of dualistic interactionism.

This theory has come under strenuous attack from different quarters, especially this century.  The basic problem is: If dualism is true, then it is hard to see how mental and physical events can possibly interact causally.  How can something totally immaterial affect something totally material?  That’s the basic problem.  But let me break this basic problem into three parts.

First, it is not clear where the interaction would take place.  Burning my fingers causes pain, right?  Well, apparently there is some chain of events, leading from the burning of skin, to the stimulation of nerve endings, to something happening in the nerves of my body that lead to my brain, to something happening in a particular part of my brain; and then, I feel pain.  But the pain is not supposed to be spatially located.  So what I want to know is, where does the interaction take place?  If you say, "It takes place in the brain," then I will say, "But I thought pains weren’t located anywhere."  And you, as a dualist, might stick to your guns and say, "That’s right, pains aren’t located anywhere; but the brain event that immediately leads to the pain is located in the brain."  But then we have a very strange causal relation on our hands.  The cause is located in a particular place but the effect is not located anywhere.  Well, you might say, that might be puzzling but it’s not a devastating criticism.

So look at a second problem about the interaction.  Namely, how does the interaction take place?  Maybe you think, "Well, that’s a matter for science -- scientists will eventually discover the connection between mental and physical events."  But philosophers have something to say about the matter, because the very idea of a mechanism, which explains the connection between the mental and the physical, would be very strange, at best.  Why do I say it would be strange?  Compare it to a mechanism that we do understand.  Take a very simple causal relation, such as when the cue ball strikes the eight ball and causes it to go into the pocket.  Here we can say that the cue ball has a certain amount of force as its mass accelerates across the pool table, and then that force is transferred to the eight ball, which then heads toward the pocket.  Now compare that to the situation in the brain, where we want to say a decision causes some neurons to fire and thus cause my body to move across the room.  The decision, "I will cross the room now," is a mental event; and as such it does not have physical properties such as force.  If it has no force, then how on earth could it cause any neuron to fire?  Is it magic?  Honestly, how could something without any physical properties have any physical effects at all?

Here you might reply, as some philosophers have indeed replied, as follows.  You might say: "Well sure, there is a mystery about how the interaction between mental and physical events can occur; but the fact that there is a mystery doesn’t mean that there is no interaction.  Because plainly there is an interaction and plainly the interaction is between two totally different sorts of events."  Now I expect that some of you may want to say this.  But the problem with it is that it does not seem to answer the full power of the objection.

So let me explain the objection more precisely.  Let’s take as our example my decision to walk across the room.  We say: my decision, a mental event, immediately causes a group of neurons in my brain to fire, a physical event, which ultimately results in my walking across the room.  The problem is that if we have something totally nonphysical causing a bunch of neurons to fire, then there is no physical event which causes the firing.  That means that some physical energy seems to have appeared out of thin air.  Do you see?  Even if we say that my decision has some sort of mental energy, and that the decision causes the firing, we still haven’t explained where the physical energy, for the firing, came from.  It just seems to have popped into existence from nowhere.

As our reading says, there is a physical principle, called the "Principle of the Conservation of Energy."  According to this principle, "In all physical processes, the total amount of energy in the universe remains constant."  Or in a form you may have heard before: in any change anything undergoes, energy is neither created nor destroyed.  This is a basic principle you probably learned about in high school physics.  So the point is that nerve firings, which are allegedly caused by a totally nonphysical decision, would appear to violate the Principle of the Conservation of Energy.

Now, dualistic interactionists have tried to answer these objections, and other such objections, but most philosophers these days are impressed by their answers.  It has come to the point where, in fact, there aren’t very many interactionists around, and there haven’t been many for decades.  When I say this, I don’t mean to imply that dualistic interactionism is false.  All I mean to imply is that many philosophers today think it is false, and perhaps also that, if you want to hold onto interactionism yourself, you should try to come up with some effective replies to these objections.

I said before that there are different kinds of dualism.  I am really not going to have time to discuss the other kinds.  But the other kinds do, anyway, accept that mental events and physical events both exist, and that they are totally different kinds of events; but unlike interactionism, they deny that mental and physical events causally interact.  For example, according to a theory called parallelism, mental events and physical events are perfectly coordinated, it is said by God; so that when a mental event such as my decision to walk across the room occurs, then it just so happens that my body heads across the room.  But there isn’t any cause-effect relation between mind and body; mental and physical events are just perfectly coordinated, in advance, by God.

Then there is another kind of dualism, called epiphenomenalism, according to which physical events have mental effects, but mental events have no physical effects.  In other words, the causal interaction goes only one way, from physical to mental.  So if I eat a candy bar and experience pleasure, that pleasure is caused by my eating the candy bar; but if I decide to get another candy bar, my decision does not cause my body to get another candy bar.  So mental events are just side-effects, or by-products, of physical processes in my nervous system.  (The word "epiphenomenon" means, roughly, "by-product."  That’s why the view is called "epiphenomenalism"; it is the view that the mental is just a by-product of the physical.)

As I said, we just don’t have time to discuss these or any other kinds of dualism.



B. Physicalism.

Let’s look next at a very different theory of mind, in the theory that the mental can be reduced to the physical.  This view is usually called physicalism.  It is also called materialism or identity materialism.  The term "physicalism" is less misleading because it does not have any misleading connotations; if we called the view "materialism," you might think that we were talking about something that had to do with the desire for wealth, possessions, and so forth, but obviously we’re not talking about that.  We’re talking about a theory about the mind.  "Physicalism" is better also because it implies that the mental can be reduced to whatever is physical, meaning, whatever is described ultimately by physics; and as we all know, physics describes a lot more than just matter, it also describes energy.  So the view is that we can reduce mental events to events that are made up entirely of matter and energy.  And remember what we mean by "reduce" here: "If I reduce X to Y, then whenever I talk about X, I can be understood to be talking about Y instead."  So here’s the claim: Whenever we talk about mental events, we can be properly understood to be talking about events that are made up entirely of matter and energy.

I suppose that this sounds very strange.  I know it sounded very strange the first time I heard it.  So let me give you an example, and I’ll try to make this as plausible as I can.  In fact there is a hackneyed example that is used when philosophers talk about this stuff.  For some reason philosophers these days always use pain as an example of a mental event; why not pleasure, I say?    There is supposed to be a certain kind of nerve fiber that leads from your limbs to your brain, called C-fibers, and whenever you’re in pain, the story goes, your C-fibers are firing; and whenever your C-fibers are firing, then you’re in pain.  I suppose we might test this claim empirically, with experiments, right?  Suppose I sit you down in my lab, and I insert some probe into your spine, right next to your C-fibers; then I find some clever way to cause you pain.  You say, "Ouch!" and tell me that you are in pain.  I say, "Good!" and sure enough I see that your C-fibers are firing.

My apologies if I’m getting the facts all wrong.  But the point is in some such way, we are supposed to be able to study which neural states, and brain states, are associated with which mental states.  Now surely that would be very interesting if we were to find that, in order to be in pain, we would have to have firing C-fibers -- wouldn’t it?  For that matter, a neuroscientist might notice that when you engage in deep thought, the frontal lobe of your brain is extremely active.  When we engage in reasoning and complex conceptualization, the neurons in a certain part of the brain are firing; that seems to indicate that there is some sort of close association between hard thought and frontal lobe activity.

So the suggestion now is that the event of feeling pain is just the same as C-fibers firing.  That is why Halverson calls the theory "identity materialism"; types of mental events, like pain, are identical to types of physical events, like C-fiber firing.  So, pain is reducible to C-fiber firing.  This particular theory is also called "the type-type identity theory," since mental event types are matched up with physical event types.  And mind you, again, not just matched up or associated with -- but actually the very same as.  The pain I experience when I bash my thumb with a hammer is really nothing more than those C-fibers going off.

Now, some of you might hear this and think that I am denying that pain, or anything mental, really exists.  In other words, since I’m saying now that mental events are really only physical events, you think that I’m saying there aren’t any mental events.  But that is not my claim.  Mental events do exist; they are simply identical to physical events of a certain kind.

It so happens that there is a theory about the mind, called eliminativism, which says that the mind, mental events, and all the rest of that simply do not exist.  The best-known proponent of this theory is an American, Paul Churchland.  He says that this talk of mental events, thinking and such, is all just a fiction, just folks tales, which is going to be replaced with more scientific talk, when the science of the brain and the nervous system is sufficiently developed.  When that time comes, the eliminativists say, we won’t use this out-dated talk of feelings, thoughts, pains, etc.  We’ll talk about C-fibers firing, and frontal lobes being activated, and so forth.  All that talk of love, hate, decisions, beliefs, and so forth, will look antiquated and silly in the same way that talk of ghosts, demons, and witches now looks antiquated and silly.  I’m not even going to tell you why some philosophers buy into this theory -- it’s pretty unpopular, as you might have guessed -- I’m just telling you that it exists, so I can contrast physicalism with it.  Physicalism does hold that mental events exist.

Nonetheless, you still might think that physicalism is a very strange theory, that is totally contrary to common sense.  So you might object, as follows.  This will be the only objection to physicalism I’ll state, but it’s rather complex.  Just remember now all those differences that we listed between mental and physical events.  Mental events are not publicly observable; they are not spatially located; they do not involve physical properties such as mass and velocity; and there is seems to be an irreducibly subjective aspect to them.  How on earth could anyone say that mental events are just the same as physical events?  There are all these obvious differences, so you can’t reduce the mental to the physical!  So physicalism has to be wrong.

Here is how the physicalist would reply.  Let’s go over each of those alleged differences between mind and matter.  The first one is: mental events are not publicly observable.  The physicalist would say: well, OK, so mental events cannot be seen by other people; but neither can the sorts of physical events we’re talking about.  A C-fiber firing is not only buried inside your nervous system; it is also not detectable except with special instruments.  So we could very well say that C-fiber firing is not publicly observable.

If you’re a dualist, you’re probably not going to be happy with this reply.  You’ll probably say that the physicalist is missing the point.  The point is really that mental events aren’t observable by other people at all.  Other people can’t jump into my mind and as it were mentally look over my shoulder while I’m feeling pain and having deep thoughts.  Maybe Mr. Spock can do that but you and I can’t.  So, you, or a dualist, might say, what follows from that?  What follows is that feeling pain can’t be the same as C-fibers firing; other people can probe my nervous system and observe my C-fibers firing but they definitely aren’t observing my pain, no matter how carefully they observe my C-fibers or any other part of my nervous system.  It doesn’t  matter; my mental states can’t be observed by other people at all!  That’s how I think the dualist would reply.

How do you suppose the physicalist counter that?  Let me play the role of the physicalist.  So I would reply by saying that, really, if "publicly observable" just means "observable by other people," then your mental states are publicly observable.  Mental events can be observed by other people.  So what exactly would I be doing, then, if I did observe your pain?  Would I have to feel your pain myself?  In other words, in order for me to observe your pain, would I have to have the same aches and hurts that you have?  Surely not.  Why would you think that?  In order for me to observe your pain, it seems to me I simply have to observe the fact that you are in pain.  And if, as a physicalist, I hold that pain is the same as C-fibers firing, then all I have to do is observe your C-fibers firing, and voila -- I am observing the fact that you are in pain.  The dualist isn’t going to be at all happy with this reply; but let’s leave that debate and move on to those other supposed differences between mind and body.

The second difference is that mental events are not spatially located.  So here’s how the dualist will object to physicalism on that point: mental events are not spatially located, but physical events are spatially located.  So mental events are obviously different from physical events.

Here’s how I, the physicalist, can reply to that point.  I can concede that, for example, when I make a decision, I do not see or otherwise perceive my decision as being located anywhere.  I am just immediately aware of my decision, once I’ve made it.  But does that mean that the event of my decision in fact isn’t located anywhere?  I mean, simply because I’m not aware of its location, does it follow from that, that my decision doesn’t have a location at all?  I don’t see how that follows.  Why can’t we just say: a decision is a certain type of event in the brain.  When this event occurs, I’m aware of making a decision.  But I am not aware of where the decision itself is taking place, namely in my brain.  That doesn’t mean that the decision isn’t taking place in my brain.  Why think that?

OK, let’s look at the third alleged difference between the mental and the physical.  The third difference is: mental events do not involve physical properties such as mass and velocity.  The physicalist would say that neural events have electro-chemical properties; but the dualist would reply that the very idea of a mental event being a physical event in the brain and nervous system is absurd, precisely because that would mean that mental events have electro-chemical properties, and other physical properties as well.

I’ll bet some of you can predict how our physicalist will reply.  As the physicalist, I will say: "Why is that absurd?  Let me try to figure out why you think it’s absurd that mental events might have physical properties.  Maybe you think that since you’re not aware of any electro-chemical properties of your mental events, it somehow follows that your mental events don’t have any such properties.  But once again, that inference just doesn’t follow.  It assumes that, if all your pains, decisions, and thoughts had some electro-chemical properties, then you’d be aware of those properties.  But why think that?  Do you have to be aware of all of the properties that your mental events have?  Do you have to be aware of everything that is true of the processes of your mind?  Of course not.  There is a lot of unconscious stuff going on in your mind, a lot of stuff you’re not aware of.  So then, why not think that your decisions, your pains, and other mental events have electro-chemical properties?  The only thing that would make that suggestion absurd is if you thought you had to be aware of everything going on in your mind.  But you don’t have to be aware of everything going in your mind.

Finally, let’s look at the fourth supposed difference between the mental and the physical.  It is probably the hardest to deal with: there seems to be an irreducibly subjective aspect to mental events.  In other words, there is a first-person, felt, immediate, personal, subjective aspect to mental events.  Physical events do not have this subjective aspect; physical events are not qualia.  When dualism claims this, it is basically throwing down the gauntlet to physicalism.  "Look," the dualist says, "there just is this subjective aspect to my pain; it makes sense to ask, ‘What does your pain feel like?’  But it doesn’t make sense to ask, ‘What does your C-fiber firing feel like?’  C-fiber firing does not have this subjective aspect.  So you can’t reduce pain to C-fiber firing."

How could a physicalist reply to this?  Well, I think it’s not as difficult a problem as some might like to make it out to be.  If I’m a physicalist, then my claim is that C-fiber firing, or maybe some other brain event, just is awareness of pain.  And so it follows, of course, that C-fiber firing, or the brain event, does have a subjective aspect; and that it does make sense to ask, "What does your C-fiber firing feel like?"

But once again, the dualist is likely to say, "OK, say we open you up and look at your C-fibers firing away.  Are we going to see this subjective aspect, the pain qualia that we talked about?"  Well, the answer to that is clearly no.  But is that a problem?  After all, we experience pain only if it’s our C-fibers that are firing.  If you open my spine up and use scientific instruments to look at my wildly firing C-fibers, then of course you won’t be experiencing pain.  In order for you to experience pain, your C-fibers would have to be firing.  So here’s the point then: the dualist wants to object that a physical event cannot have a subjective aspect; the physicalist protests and says there’s no good reason not to think that physical events can have subjective aspects.  Why couldn’t they?  We can detect a physical event in someone else without ourselves being in a subjective state.  But so what?  Why should I expect to be in pain when I see someone else’s C-fibers fire?  It’s only the firing of my own C-fibers that constitutes my own pain.  So, President Clinton to the contrary notwithstanding, he cannot feel my pain!

So on all four counts, the physicalist has a way to explain how these supposed differences between the mental and the physical aren’t really differences at all.  This undermines crucial support for dualism and greatly increases the plausibility of physicalism.  It is not so absurd, or at least not so obviously absurd, to say that types of mental events are the same as, and reducible to, some types of physical events.  We just have to put these issues in the right light.  And physicalism has one very clear advantage over dualistic interactionism, namely, that there is no mystery about how the interaction between mental and physical events takes place.  Right?  Simply because mental events are, at bottom, themselves types of physical events.

Next time we will conclude our discussion of the mind-body problem, and move on to the theory of perception.



C. Other theories of mind.

We concluded last time on an upbeat note for physicalism.  I had given you some ways that the physicalist could reply to the dualist’s objections; in so doing, I tried to make it plain how some people can hold what, on first glance at least, looks like an absurd claim, that mental events are simply a type of physical event -- brain or neural events.  Now I should note that this is just one kind of physicalism; we may call it neural type physicalism, because it says that mental event types are types of nervous system events.  It is more commonly called "the type-type identity theory."

I’m going to present an objection to neural type physicalism.  But first I’m going to present another kind of physicalism; I’m going to discuss it very quickly, because mainly I want to use it to make quite clear how neural type physicalism is only one kind of physicalism.  In the middle of this century, it was very fashionable to try to reduce mental events to behavior.  This view is called analytical behaviorism, because the idea is that we can ultimately analyze, or reduce, talk of mental events and processes in terms of things that humans say, express, and do.  In other words, analytical behaviorism says that what a mental event is, is a propensity, a tendency, to display a certain set of behaviors -- words, facial expressions, bodily postures, and actions.  If you want to see whether someone believes that God exists, you look at what he says, how he reacts when you say "God exists," whether he goes to church, and so on.  And his belief is constituted by those behaviors; in other words, there isn’t any more to his belief that God exists than those behaviors.  Or to take another example, the good old example of pain.  Analytical behaviorism would say that pain is nothing more than the tendency to wince, to grimace, to pull back quickly from the source of something causing bodily damage, to say "ouch" and "that hurts," and similar behaviors.  That’s all there is to pain!

Well, I’m not going to discuss the merits of analytical behaviorism.  Hardly anyone believes it anymore.  Good riddance, I say.  But this theory is an example of another kind of physicalism.  Why?  Because it does say that mental events are reducible to physical events; behaviors are physical events, and behaviorism says that mental events are reducible to behaviors.  So how does behaviorism different from the sort of physicalism I was talking about last time, neural type physicalism?  Well, it’s a different type of physical event that mental events are being reduced to.  On the one hand, neural type physicalism says that mental events can be reduced to types of neural or brain events.  On the other hand, analytical behaviorism says that mental events can be reduced to types of behavioral events.  So basically here’s a question we might ask: If types of mental event can be reduced to types of physical event, then which types of physical event?  Neural type physicalism gives one answer; analytical behaviorism gives a different answer.

This leads me, finally, to that objection to neural type physicalism that I said I was going to give.  The objection is this: we have construed the types too narrowly.  Maybe there are types of physical events that mental events might be reducible to, that are nothing like neural states.  I’d better give you an example if you’re to see what I’m talking about.  Suppose after some years, superscientists were to build a robot that was given sensory receptors, could talk intelligently on a wide variety of subjects, could carry out a variety of difficult tasks, and even had what appeared to be emotional reactions to its surroundings -- and so forth.  In short, somehow, scientists had created what appeared to be a conscious, intelligent machine.  Now, there is considerable debate over whether such a machine is possible -- whether it is possible to, as it were, build a mind from scratch.  But just assume, for the sake of argument, that such a machine is possible, and that it does have thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and so on.  So then mental events are occurring in this machine.

Now let’s say our superscientists did not use anything much like the human nervous system to build this robot.  They used some sort of special circuitry -- very high-tech microchips and whatnot.  In that case, it is not any type of neural or brain event to which we would reduce the robot’s mental events.  It would be a -- what should we call it? -- a circuitry event!  And then in that case mental events could be reducible not just to neural events, but also to circuitry events.  So here then is the objection to neural type physicalism: the types we’re reducing mental events to is too narrow.  To include the mental events of high-tech conscious robots, we should describe the physical events in some way that would include both neural events and circuitry events.  Not just neural events.

Or suppose that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.  So there might be some alien species that does not have anything quite like our brain or nervous system.  Say this species is intelligent, and conscious, and has a mind, but its mental events are identical to a different type of physical event; instead of neurons, they have schmeurons, say.  Well then, if we want to be physicalists, then we should allow that mental events can be reduced to neural events, or circuitry events, or to schmeural events!  As you can see, the list might go on.

In any case, I think that this neatly refutes neural type physicalism.  Neural type physicalists are biased in favor of the physical types that the human species has.  So philosophers of mind, trying to be clever, have named this bias species chauvinism.  That means that neural type physicalists are irrationally disposed in favor of their own species, when it comes to describing the physical types that mental events reduce to, or are identical to.

Suppose after all this, I still think that dualism is wrong, and I admit that neural type physicalism is wrong; but I still think that some kind of physicalism is still basically right.  I think that everything basically has to reduce to the physical; only the physical exists ultimately.  So then what are my options?  Is there a way for me to hold onto physicalism, so I can get around the species chauvinism accusation?  Well, there are basically two ways.  The first way is find an even broader type of event, which describes all the different specific physical event types that different species, or robots, might have.  This is called functionalism.  The second way is to deny that we are reducing mental event types, and talk instead of reducing mental event tokens.  This I will call token physicalism.  I’m not going to talk about either theory in much depth, because I’ll tell the truth -- by now we have gotten quite far away from any issues that were talked about throughout most of the history of philosophy.  All of these issues about the different kinds of physicalism have arisen in the last fifty or sixty years or so.

So first I will briefly explain functionalism.  Functionalism asks: what do neural events, and circuitry events, and schmeural events all have in common?  The answer: it can’t be any particular type of physical hardware that they have in common.  It’s not neurons, microchips, or schmeurons.  So what do they have in common?  What they have in common is that they are all structurally similar, or functionally similar.  What do I mean by that?  Well, to similar sorts of inputs, each of these physical types gives a similar sort of output.  Let me give a simple example.  The human, the robot, and the alien are all going to feel pain when you damage their bodies; and they are all going to have roughly similar reactions, such as announcing that they’re in pain, avoiding the source of the damage, and perhaps striking back or getting angry.

So here is a simple definition of "functionalism":

Functionalism is the view that mental events are the same as functional states; and a functional state is a state a physical system is in, when it has a set of sensory and other inputs, together with a set of potential behavioral outputs.

So say I’m thinking about bananas.  That mental event is, according to functionalism, a functional state; and that just means a state described by various inputs and outputs.  For example, an input would be that someone has said the word "bananas" to me and off I go thinking about bananas; and then a potential output would be to go get a banana and eat it.  So my mental event, thinking about bananas, is just a functional state, and the functional state is specified by the inputs of the event and the outputs of the event.

Well of course there is a lot we could say about functionalism.  For one thing, if all we have at our disposal, to describe mental events, is their inputs and outputs, then have we really described the mental event itself adequately?  It would be a little like saying that an oak tree could be adequately described like this: "Oak trees result from acorns (that’s the oak tree input) and they are cut up to make tables (that’s the oak tree output)."  Yeah, but (you might ask) what is an oak tree itself?  You might ask a similar thing of functionalists.  "OK, so mental events have certain inputs and outputs; I can accept that; but what is a mental event itself?"  Unfortunately, we don’t have time to go into it.  But for what it is worth, functionalism is probably the most popular theory of mind today.  So obviously a lot more can be said about it.

I said there is a second way to get around the species chauvinism objection.  This can be called token physicalism.  More commonly called "the token-token identity theory."  Whatever you want to call it, I’ll define as follows:

Token physicalism is the view that tokens of mental events may be reduced to tokens of physical events.

The idea here is that we are giving up trying to give general accounts of mental event types.  So for example we won’t try to reduce the whole category of pleasure, or the whole category of pain, to any single mental event type.  We’ll focus in on individual, single, pleasures and pains.  And we say, of those mental event tokens, that each one is identical to, and reducible to, some physical event token.  In our case, we might say that an individual pain is the same as an individual instance of my C-fibers firing.  But we might say something quite different about the pain of an alien from Alpha Centauri.  The point in either case, though, is that it’s tokens of mental events that are reduced to tokens of physical events.

I’m just going to give one little objection to this theory.  Namely, what does the following phrase mean? -- "Token of a mental event."  Token physicalism can’t tell us.  I mean, suppose a scientist had reduced a slew of mental event tokens to physical event tokens.  So I’d say, "Great work!  But just what do all of those mental event tokens have in common, that makes us say that they are tokens of mental events, as opposed to any other kind of event?"  What distinguishes the mental event tokens from tokens of other kinds of events?  That’s the question: What distinguishes mental event tokens?  Dualism, remember, says that the mental is an ultimate, fundamental category of being; it can’t be explained in terms of anything nonmental.  So dualism doesn’t have to answer this question.  And neural type physicalism at least promises to answer the question; it says that we will discover just exactly what all the different mental events have in common, which makes them all mental events; and it’s going to be some special type of event in the brain.

But token physicalism can’t answer this question; it can’t tell us what mental event tokens have in common; and why not?  Because if any theory tells us what mental event tokens have in common, then the theory is describing mental event types.  Just think: that is precisely what mental event tokens have in common: they are all tokens of mental event types.  What do human pain and alien pain in common?  They are both tokens of the type, pain.  So, if we describe what all mental event tokens have in common, then we have for that very reason described a mental event type!  And then the token physicalist would have to talk about mental event types; and that means we’ve basically given up token physicalism.  Well, that’s the only thing I’m going to say about token physicalism.  My usual disclaimers apply.

In the interests of mercy, let me say that I’m not trying to make you believe that we can’t know which theory of mind is correct -- I don’t want you to leave class being skeptics about philosophical questions about the mind.  Generally, in the interests of objectivity and general intellectual responsibility, I feel it is my duty to tell you about most of the leading philosophical theories of the different subjects we’re studying, and some arguments for and against them.  So, the mere fact that I’m not telling you that one theory is The Truth doesn’t mean that I have no views about what The Truth is.  In fact, I do think that one particular theory of mind is better than the others -- I’m just not telling what it is!  And the mere fact that I’m presenting objections to all of the theories I’ve stated doesn’t mean that I think we can’t know which one is correct, or that they are all false; all I’m trying to do is to introduce you to the issues.  Philosophical issues are more complicated than you might have thought when you came into this class.  So if you want to have really well-informed views on these issues, it’s just the same as having really well-informed views on issues in chemistry, or in political science, or in computer programming.  It’s going to take research and long hard thinking.