Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Philosophy Now - Philosophy of Mind: An Overview

Philosophy Now offers a nice overview of the current Philosophy of Mind, written by Laura Weed. Essentially, it's an examination of the "hard problem," as David Chalmers calls it, of the brain/mind issue of how to account for the subjective experience of consciousness.

Here is the beginning of the paper - she goes into detail about the current variations of each of the three major models - the first shots in the battle against Cartesian Dualism - that she introduces in this section.

Philosophy of Mind: An Overview

Laura Weed takes us on a tour of the mind/brain controversy.

In the twentieth century philosophy of mind became one of the central areas of philosophy in the English-speaking world, and so it remains. Questions such as the relationship between mind and brain, the nature of consciousness, and how we perceive the world, have come to be seen as crucial in understanding the world. These days, the predominant position in philosophy of mind aims at equating mental phenomena with operations of the brain, and explaining them all in scientific terms. Sometimes this project is called ‘cognitive science’, and it carries the implicit assumption that cognition occurs in computers as well as in human and animal brains, and can be studied equally well in each of these three forms.

Before the mid-twentieth century, for a long time the dominant philosophical view of the mind was that put forward by RenĂ© Descartes (1596-1650). According to Descartes, each of us consists of a material body subject to the normal laws of physics, and an immaterial mind, which is not. This dual nature gives Descartes’ theory its name: Cartesian Dualism. Although immaterial, the mind causes actions of the body, through the brain, and perceptions are fed to the mind from the body. Descartes thought this interaction between mind and body takes place in the part of the brain we call the pineal gland. However, he didn’t clarify how a completely non-physical mind could have a causal effect on the physical brain, or vice versa, and this was one of the problems that eventually led to dissatisfaction with his theory.

In the early twentieth century three strands of thought arose out of developments in psychology and philosophy which would come together to lead to Cartesian Dualism being challenged, then abandoned. These were Behaviorism, Scientific Reductionism and Vienna Circle Verificationism. I will begin with a very brief summary of each of those positions before I describe various contemporary views that have evolved from them:

Behaviorism: Behaviorists accept psychologist B.F. Skinner’s claims that mental events can be reduced to stimulus-response pairs, and that descriptions of observable behavior are the only adequate, scientific way to describe mental behavior. So, for behaviorists, all talk about mental events – images, feelings, dreams, desires, and so on – is really either a reference to a behavioral disposition or it is meaningless. Behaviorists claim that only descriptions of objectively observable behavior can be scientific. Introspection is a meaningless process that cannot yield anything, much less a ‘mind’ as a product, and all human ‘mental’ life that is worth counting as real occurs as an objectively observable form of behavior. Head-scratching is objectively observable. Incestuous desire is not; nor is universal doubt, apprehension of infinity, or Cartesian introspection. Philosophers like Carl Hempel and Gilbert Ryle shared the view that all genuine problems are scientific problems.

Verificationism was a criterion of meaning for language formulated by the Logical Positivists of the Vienna Circle, who argued that any proposition that was not an a logical truth or which could not be tested was literally meaningless. For example, a mother’s claim that the cat will bite Jimmy if he doesn’t stop teasing her is testable, but a theologian’s claim that the Infinite Absolute is invisibly bestowing grace in the world is not.

Scientific Reductionism is the claim that explanations in terms of ordinary language, or sciences such as psychology, physiology, biology, or chemistry, are reducible to explanations at a simpler level – ultimately to explanations at the level of physics. Some (but not all) mental terms can be ‘operationalized’, or reduced to testable and measurable descriptions. Only these ones will rate as real mental events to the scientific reductionist. There will be no Cartesian or Platonic ‘mind’ left over to be something different from a body.
Read the whole article.
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