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Old notes on the mind-body problem


I'm reading parts of Chomsky and His Critics (2003), a collection of essays and responses to them by Chomsky. Philosophy and linguistics, not politics.


Chomsky: “I see no reason to question the general conclusion reached long ago that thought is ‘a little agitation of the brain’ (Hume), or a ‘secretion of the brain’ that should be considered no ‘more wonderful than gravity, a property of matter’ (Darwin).” Right. Gravity is mysterious, and thought is mysterious. That is to say, matter itself is just as mysterious as the relationship between “mind” and “matter.” But that doesn’t mean there is little point in discussing the conceptual mystery of the connection between mind and matter, as Chomsky seems to suggest.


He argues that the category of the mental is not fundamentally different from any other physical category in nature, such as the electromagnetic, the optical, or the organic. These are all just distinctions among various aspects of the world. But it seems to me that the “mental” [in particular, consciousness] has a special status. Simply stated, it is matter’s experience of itself. It therefore introduces an element of reflexivity or self-reference. This is what gives it its “private” character, which is unlike the electromagnetic or the organic as such. So Chomsky is right that mind is not a different substance than matter, but he is wrong, perhaps, that it is strictly comparable to such categories as the mechanical and the optical.


As I said years ago when formulating my version of emergentism, the mental is physical but in a different way than the non-mental is. The latter is just unproblematically physical, and it includes extended stuff like tables, neurons, molecules, atoms, protons, but also whatever non-extended entities and waves and forces and so on have been postulated by physicists. The mental, in being matter’s self-experience and thus uniquely reflexive and emergent (from extended physical stuff), is not extended or spatiotemporal in quite the way of ordinary matter. (A sensation, as such, does not have an exact spatial location in the way that a neuron does.) So it is physical, but it is also oddly non-physical, or at least different from ordinary physical stuff. Hence the centuries of confusion.


Galen Strawson, a materialist, is right to reject the usual terminology of “mental vs. physical,” because, after all, the mental is physical (albeit in a peculiar way, I think), like everything that exists. He substitutes for it “mental vs. non-mental,” which are two broad categories of the physical.


In a sense, I don’t understand what all the difficulty is with the mind-body problem, or why all these academics have to argue about it endlessly. Legions of them; they just don’t have a clue. Strawson is better than most, but even he isn’t perfect. He argues that consciousness is a form of matter, part of the physical being of the brain. Auditory experience, etc., is a form of matter. But that’s wrong, and in any case it leaves you with all the old questions and perplexities. Neurons are a form of matter; atoms are a form of matter; consciousness is a form of the activity of matter, the “emergent” activity.[1] That formulation itself settles some of the perplexities, since they arise from supposed differences between physical stuff and consciousness, not between the activity of physical stuff and consciousness. As I remarked once when discussing Saul Kripke’s Naming and Necessity, we have no intuitions about the nature of electrochemical emergence in the brain, as we do about the nature of the brain itself (e.g., its being divisible into parts, having a precise spatial location, etc.). It is our understanding of the brain that seems to contradict our understanding of consciousness; our non-understanding of emergent electrochemical processes cannot similarly contradict our understanding of consciousness, simply because we don’t understand electrochemical emergence. It’s true it is still perplexing to think that consciousness can arise from electrochemical activity, but if you stress the word 'activity' you’ll see that at least now we’ve done away with the problems about ordinary physical stuff being divisible into parts (unlike consciousness) and having a definite spatial location (unlike consciousness), because we don’t intuitively think that any kind of “activity” is divisible into parts or has a spatial location in the way that physical stuff does.


As Henri Bergson said, philosophical solutions are always simple in their essence.


Strawson goes on to argue that everything we know about the ultimate nature of matter is perfectly compatible with consciousness. He criticizes certain philosophers for finding it mysterious that “technicolor phenomenology can arise from soggy grey matter,” because physics has taught us that “the volume of spacetime occupied by a brain” is “not a sludgy mass but an astonishingly (to us) insubstantial-seeming play of energy, an ethereally radiant vibrancy” of “all the sweeping sheets and scudding clouds and trains of intraneuronal and interneuronal electrochemical activity which physics (in conjunction with neurophysiology) apprehends as a further level of extraordinarily complex intensities of movement and....organization.” We shouldn’t find it particularly mysterious, therefore, that consciousness can be physical, if this is what the physical is. I agree with him. These reflections do go some way towards dissolving the intuitive (and conceptual) puzzles. But, first of all, I think the puzzles can be largely dissolved simply by saying, as I did above, that consciousness is not matter itself but a kind of interaction between elements of matter, an interaction between, you could even say, spatially extended things like neurons and molecules and electrons and whatnot. But secondly, it seems to me that whatever the intuitive and conceptual compatibility between consciousness and the “ultimate” nature of matter, what we naturally want to reconcile most of all is consciousness and the relatively “ordinary,” non-subatomic matter of our experience and of “ordinary” science like biology (with its cells, molecules, and the like). Besides, matter on the deepest quantum-mechanical level interacts with itself to create larger, spatially located and extended structures such as molecules and cells. These things exist. They are there, just as on a “different level” there is also the ethereally radiant vibrancy of energy and so forth. So, since both of these kinds of things exist—the relatively macroscopic stuff of cellular biology and the more microscopic stuff of quantum mechanics—both have to be reconciled with the existence of consciousness. We shouldn’t just ignore, so to speak, the existence of cells and “soggy grey matter,” as Strawson effectively does above. That stuff exists too, and so we have to conceptually reconcile it with consciousness. As I did (sort of) a couple paragraphs above.


Moreover, consciousness is a macro-level phenomenon (which corresponds in its “macro-ness” with the brain). So it is a different sort of thing than the infinitesimally small fields of force and energy postulated by modern physics. Which means that the apparent, metaphorical similarity between the latter and consciousness doesn’t have much significance. We shouldn’t think, “Hey, we’ve learned from physics that the ultimate nature of matter is after all not so different from consciousness!” and try to reconcile matter and consciousness in that way. First of all, it strikes me that even this quantum-mechanical stuff is very different from consciousness, however “spiritual” or “ethereal” our metaphorical pictures of it are. But even aside from that, consciousness and this stuff are on such vastly different “levels” of reality, the one so inconceivably microscopic and the other so enormously macroscopic, that I don’t really see how quantum mechanics can bear on the mind-body problem.


In general, I don’t think the mind-body problem is the sort of thing that science can have much bearing on. It’s a conceptual and intuitive thing, not something we can make empirical discoveries about. It revolves around the profoundly mysterious division in our experience between public and private (or objective and subjective), and between extended and non-extended. These divisions cannot be “discovered” or “theorized” out of existence; they are conditions of our experience. Even if it turns out that matter-in-itself is essentially extended or has some other property consciousness doesn't have, that doesn’t matter because the point is that consciousness is emergent from interactions between components of matter. That consideration is enough to “reconcile” it with matter, at least insofar as no gross logical contradiction remains but only intuitive wonder that consciousness can emerge from physical stuff.


Unfortunately, instead of sensible views like mine, what you get in the philosophical literature are extraordinary denials of the reality of consciousness (as a private, qualitative thing) or senseless assertions that it just is a form of matter, or arguments like Thomas Nagel’s (in “Conceiving the Impossible and the Mind-Body Problem”) that “our inability to come up with an intelligible conception of the relation between mind and body is a sign of the inadequacy of our present concepts,” in which “some development is needed.” Sure. Through the “development of concepts” we’ll someday be able to bridge the gap between non-mental and mental, public and private, objective/quantitative and subjective/qualitative. “We do not at present possess the conceptual equipment to understand how subjective and physical features could both be essential aspects of a single entity or process.” Good luck in your search for that equipment. There is simply no way around the conceptual chasm between mental and non-mental. You can’t ascribe to mental, “first-personal” states non-mental properties such as size and physical structure, nor can you ascribe to non-mental things mental properties such as phenomenal experience and intentionality. You can’t bridge the unbridgeable—which means you can’t explain how they could possibly interact, how the mental could arise from the non-mental.[2] The best you can say is that certain physical processes in the nervous system can be considered from two perspectives, the “serial” or “atomistic”—a series of electrochemical events—and the “holistic” or “emergent,” which is the mental state. After that, it’s all a damn mystery.


[1] (Well, neurons and atoms are that as well, but my point is that they are also forms of matter itself, unlike consciousness.)


[2] To clarify: science can demonstrate that phenomenal experiences, for example, arise from certain neural events, but it can’t conceptually explain how that’s possible.

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