Thursday, June 14, 2007

Minds And Ideas I: Dualism

This is going to be the beginning of an occasional series of postings concerning the philosophy of mind. I have noticed that there appears to be some interest, and some confusion, on these topics amongst various bloggers. Thus, I will offer brief 'bite size' discussions of these matters here, as they are something that I know quite a bit about. I will start with the topic of Dualism.

I. Introduction
Even Ancient Greek philosophers noticed that there was something rather different about minds, as compared to other things in the world. For instance, you can have a thought about beautiful things, without thinking about any particular beautiful thing. When it comes to beautiful things in the world, they tend to be single entities. Yet, the mind has this curious ability to think about beautiful things in a more abstract manner, without any particularity. How can this be?

In philosophy, this matter is sometimes called 'The Problem of Universals'. Plato's famous Theory of Forms was an early attempt, in part, to address the problem of universals. The interesting point here though is that this kind of example nicely illustrates the power of the human mind and how it seems to be both special and different from the mundane objects of the World.

By paying attention to this difference, people have tended to get attracted to the idea that, in some way, mental things and material things are intrinsically different from one another. In some sense, minds and ordinary objects appear to be composed of fundamentally different kinds of 'stuffs'. This is the insight that leads to the philosophical position known as Dualism. The term 'dualism' is just a fancy philosophical word for the idea that there are two kinds of 'stuffs' in the world, mental stuff and all the other stuffs.

Dualism is a surprisingly popular view, even today. Consider the notion of an immortal soul, that is so popular with many religious ideas. This notion makes the most sense in the context of dualism. We all die. That much we know. When we die, our bodies decay. However, if someone wishes to hold that part of them can survive death and the process of bodily decay, then what could be more useful for explaining how this might happen, than to be able to appeal to some other kind of stuff (a mind, or a soul), that can survives these processes unaffected.

II. Cartesian Dualism
Probably the most famous dualist though was the philosopher Rene Descartes. In his writings, Descartes made a number of observations and offered several arguments that the dualistic position was correct. For instance, he noted that thoughts seem to lack a particular location. Now, we tend to think that we think with our heads. This is a relatively modern idea. For instance, Aristotle thought that we thought with our hearts and that the brain was merely some kind of radiator! Consider for a moment, you idea of a triangle. Where exactly is that idea? Can you point to it? Contrast this with the case of any actual triangle. These pretty clearly have specific spacial locations. We can easily enough point to them. This, Descartes argued, showed that there were important differences between mental things and other kinds of things.

Another claim that Descartes used to support his dualistic view was the observation that mundane material objects are fundamentally divisible. We can think of half a sandwich, or half a chair, or even (eww!) half a mouse. By contrast, thoughts do not seem to behave this way. Does it even make sense to talk about 'half a thought', or 'half an idea'? Descartes thought not. Thus, he maintained that this too was an intrinsic difference between the mental and the physical. This in turn supported his claim that there had to be two distinct kinds of stuff.

So, on the face of it, dualism seems to be quite an attractive position. Moreover, there seem to be some quite good arguments to support the view. Perhaps this is why it has proved so popular. Unfortunately, it is also a view that has difficulties associated with it.

III. The Mind/Body Problem
The so-called 'Mind/Body Problem' is the main objection that dualism has to face. If the mental and the physical are two distinct kinds of stuffs, then how on earth are they supposed to be able to interact? It is pretty clear to me that my mind somehow becomes informed about the physical state of my body. If I tread on something sharp, I get alerted to it immediately. How does this happen? Conversely, when I think that I have an itch that needs scratching, the dualist owes us an explanation of how this thought gets translated into bodily movement. It is clear that this does happen. Where the dualist gets into trouble is by providing a plausible story about the exact mechanisms by which mind and body interactions actually happen. How can something physical, like and object, influence something non-physical, like the mind? If the mind is, non-physical then how can it have physical effects? The dualist is in a bit of a pickle to provide the required explanations here, without violating their prefered principles.

Descartes himself was aware of this difficulty. Indeed, in his correspondence, he even admits that he does not really have a suitable story to tell that can really solve the mind/body problem. It is a genuinely difficult issue. Indeed, trying to figure out this problem remains a central preoccupation of philosophers of mind, even to this day. In the post which follows this one, I will discuss some proposals that have been offered to get around this difficulty.

The CP


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The mind interacts with the physical through meditative activities. Some of activities include certain diets, mastery over certain physical needs,etc. All of these things require self-discipline.

8:03 PM  

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