I’ve been struggling to come up with an interesting paper topic for the first paper of my Philosophy of Mind class. The material is fascinating to me, but I’m feeling a bit lost in all of it. The standard topics are simply analyses of the articles that we’ve read on types of consciousness, intentionality, substance dualism, and behaviorism. None of the topics is grabbing my interest because the questions are so rigidly structured and because the philosophical methodology of the articles is so deeply flawed.
Most interesting to me, of course, is the question of what an Objectivist philosophy of mind should be. Is it a materialist theory? An emergentist theory? A dual-aspect theory? Although there are certainly theories that I can rule out at this particular point in time as grossly incompatible with Objectivism (like dualism and eliminitivism), I am still groping for even the outlines of a correct theory.
The current debate in academic philosophy is mind is between materialism and dualism. This debate is so pervasive that alternatives are not merely seen as implausible, but impossible. A theory must either be a materialist or a dualist theory! As an all-too-brief overview, materialism argues that mind is reducible to matter — if it exists at all. Dualism argues that minds are real and autonomous from matter. Most philosophers are materialists, so many of the debates in philosophy of mind focus on the varieties and details of materialism.
Given Objectivism’s radical departures from standard analytic philosophy in both metaphysics and epistemology, the idea that the majority analytic philosophers would have gotten philosophy of mind correct by advocating materialism seems quite far-fetched. Additionally, materialism seems to be premised on faulty ideas about the requirements of science, as well as a terrible metaphysics in which smaller things are more real than bigger things which are themselves more real than mental things. So it seems wise to at least temporarily shelve materialism.
Objectivists tend to have an affinity for John Searle — and after reading the first few chapters of The Rediscovery of the Mind I can see why. He takes a common-sense approach to his subject, accepting self-evident facts about the nature of consciousness. He regards the debate between materialism and dualism as seriously mistaken in fundamentals. His writing is clear and lucid, with plenty of fun polemics. Although clearly an analytic philosopher, he does not use the more silly methods of analytic philosophy such as possible worlds. As far as I understand, Searle is an advocate of emergence theory, which argues that the mind is an emergent property of the brain. Many Objectivists take emergence to be the Objectivist position in philosophy of mind, although I wonder how carefully considered that position tends to be. I haven’t studied emergence in detail, but I do wonder whether it is compatible with the top-down causality that we routinely experience in exerting free will.
In class on Tuesday, we briefly discussed dual-aspect theories, which I found quite compelling. Dual-aspect theories reject a premise common to both materialism and dualism, namely that fundamentally mental things are non-physical and that fundamentally physical things are non-mental. Dual-aspect theories instead argue that there are at least some things in the world which have both mental and physical aspects. Some, like Spinoza, have argued that all things have such a mental and physical aspect. Others, including my professor Bob Hanna, more reasonably argue that only some creatures (like humans, cats, dogs, and so on) have such a mental and physical aspect.
In searching for information on dual-aspect theory, I was delighted to find long-time Objectivist Roger Bissell’s article (published in Reason Papers in 1974) A Dual-Aspect Approach to the Mind-Body Problem. I do have many questions and doubts about whether his approach is correct or not. I fear that the argument is circular — or worse, that it implies a form of idealism. I’ll definitely have to read and analyze the paper more carefully to see if such criticisms are correct, however.
So I’ve proposed a paper topic on dual aspect theories, including Roger Bissell’s “dual perspectives” theory, as I call it. I’m not sure if my professor will approve it, but I hope so. (It would be a nice counterpart to this paper to write on emergence for my second paper.) That proposal is below:
The basic purpose of the paper will be to explore whether materialism and dualism exhaust all possible relationships between mind and body. In other words, are dualism and materialism the only possible answers to the question: “How can we explain the existence and specific character of the mind in the physical world?”
Both dualism and materialism are premised on “fundamentalism,” the view that what is fundamentally mental must be non-physical and that what is fundamentally physical must be non-mental. Even the basic formulation of the mind-body problem above encapsulates this basic division between the mental and the physical.
Fundamentalism seems to be an integral part of a scientific outlook on the world. Nevertheless, there are reasons to doubt its veracity, at least with respect to organisms with a well-developed nervous system. First, from an introspective perspective, we seem to be dual aspect beings. Second, fundamentalism gives rise to “the problematic argument” (discussed in class on 8/27) about mental-to-physical causation that does violence to everyday experience. Perhaps more to the point, we do not wish to have such a restricted view of science that it automatically precludes reasonable interpretations of the relationship between mind and body.
By rejecting fundamentalism, we are no longer restricted to a choice between only materialism and dualism. Rather, we now have the alternative of “dual aspect” theories as arguing that at least some things in the world have both fundamentally mental and physical aspects. Dual aspect theories, however, are not without their own set of problems. Universal dual aspect theories are too expansive, postulating far more mentality in the world than is necessary or helpful for understanding the relationship between mind and body. Restricted dual aspect theories must justify and explain the selected set of entities with the dual aspect. In general, dual aspect theories may have only pushed the problem back a step, for we still must coherently explain the relationship between the mental aspects and the physical aspects of the entity.
A potentially promising variety of dual aspect theory is Roger Bissell’s “dual perspectives” theory (published in Reason Papers, Fall 1974). Arguing against a varieties of dual aspect theory which postulate a “mysterious underlying organism” that is both mind and body, Bissell instead argues that “mental processes are actually certain physical brain processes as we are aware of them introspectively, i.e., that ‘mental’ refers to the fully real, introspectable aspects of those particular physical brain processes.” This “dual perspective” theory of mind and body is not as implausible as it may seem at first glance, although it may suffer from problems of circularity, as well as problems in understanding both consciousness and self-consciousness. As a side benefit, this dual perspective seems to be able to fairly easily explain “mental causation” as physical causation, but in a non-reductionist way.
In the final analysis, our decision of whether to accept or reject the fundamentalist premise may well depend upon whether any coherent, plausible theories of mind can be constructed without it. Whether such a theory of mind exists yet is still an open question.
One final note: The only bigwig Objectivist philosopher who seems to have done direct work in philosophy of mind is Harry Binswanger. I just ordered a bunch of tapes of his on this subject from The Ayn Rand Bookstore. I hope they prove interesting!