Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind (Part 1)

The philosophy of mind is one of my strongest research interests. Of all the subjects that I’ve encountered in my years as a student, not a single one has proven itself to be as fascinating and endlessly entertaining (not to mention incredibly difficult) as this one. As such, I’d like to share with you some of the basics of the field. I’d like to discuss the major issue that leads to pretty much every other issue about the mind, and then briefly describe some of the various positions that have been put forward as answers to the major problem in the philosophy of mind.

Philosophy of mind starts when we ask ourselves: “What is the mind? What is the brain? How are the two related?” At least one of these questions seem easy enough to answer. We know where the brain is so we can just point to it, and there we have it, question answered. But it really isn’t that simple. Sure, we know where the brain is, and we know it does some things up there in our skull, but what about the mind? Is the brain causing the mind? Is it simply identical with the mind? Where the hell is that mind, anyway? I see evidence of my mind everywhere, but where the hell is my damn mind?!

 We’ve all heard the old phrase “I lost my mind.” But did we ever have it? I can’t find it. I search and search for it, but there is no mind to be found. The only way I know that I have a mind is because I am searching, and I realize that I am searching, and I realize that this realization itself confirms that I have a mind. And this is exactly how René Descartes arrived at his famous cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I exist). Through the act of thinking itself, one has sufficiently proven to oneself that one is a thinking thing. And what else could a thinking thing be, but a mind? Descartes used this existence proof to anchor his entire philosophical system, proceeding in a stepwise manner to every conclusion thereafter.

Through a methodical process of skeptical doubt of everything that can possibly be doubted, Descartes reasoned that the mind must not be a part of the body itself. We can never be sure that we’re in this body that we see. My hands, typing on this keyboard, may not be real. We could be living our lives in a virtual matrix, like the one from the popular science fiction film. So we cannot be sure of our bodies. But our minds…. of course we are certain about our minds! We couldn’t be in the matrix without a mind to perceive it. If there were no mind, there would be no “I” to speak of.

So now we can address the formal category of Descartes’ philosophy of mind: Dualism. Dualism is probably the longest-living view of the mind in existence, as it can be traced back far beyond Descartes’ time. Dualism holds that the mind is (or resides in) a separate substance from the substance of physical matter. There aren’t any good explanations (to my knowledge) out there of exactly what this mind-substance is, other than the fact that it is non-physical. So Dualism is the thesis that there are two “realms,” one non-physical (where our minds, souls, and presumably also God and all other ethereal beings that have been dreamt up over time reside), and one physical (where everything that we come into contact with on a daily basis resides).

The most common form of dualism is like Descartes’ version. It is called ‘Interactionist Dualism,’ meaning that the non-physical mind can interact with the physical world and have physical effects (e.g., you mentally desire some bacon, so you physically get up and make some bacon), and in turn the physical world can have mental effects (e.g., you have eaten so much bacon that you are now full and desire a nap). I keep these examples limited to desires alone, since it is unclear whether or not sensory perception is considered by most Dualists to be non-physical in nature. Things like desires and beliefs, however, are most universally considered to be purely mental, and hence non-physical, constructs.

The problem with Interactionist Dualism, as you may have already realized, is that it is entirely unclear how things that are non-physical could possibly have physical effects. We can understand physical causation because we see it in action every day. When one billiard ball smacks into another, they tend to roll off in different directions. There is a clear transfer of energy and motion in physical causation. What happens when two minds smack together? Does this question even make any sense? Indeed, it seems that it would take quite an imagination to conjure up a set of rules for non-physical causation, whether we are discussing the interaction of two non-physical things or one physical thing with a non-physical thing.

A highly influential modern philosopher by the name of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz tried to dodge this problem of interaction with his view called Parallelism. Leibniz called upon God to settle this problem. God set up a “pre-established harmony” so that the physical world and the mental world would appear to completely coincide with each other. While physical things can only interact with each other and non-physical things can only interact with each other, to anyone that is not God (or apparently Leibniz), it appears as though our non-physical mental states are causing effects in the physical world directly. But this is just an illusion, set up by God. A similar view is one called Occasionalism, which holds that God, and only God, is the direct cause of all events. So there is no need to worry about the apparent interaction problem, since nothing interacts except with God. Nicolas Malebranche is a well-known proponent of this view.

A more modern approach to the mind-body problem is one called Property Dualism. Unlike Substance Dualism, which posits two fundamental substances, Property Dualism holds that there is only one substance, physical matter, but this homogenous matter can have two kinds of properties: mental and physical. So our beliefs and desires and the rest of our mental states that are held to be of a non-physical substance by Substance Dualists are actually just non-physical mental properties that reside in physical matter. If you’re confused by this, don’t worry. It is a very strange view to grasp at first. But the basic idea is that mental properties are somehow “over and above” physical substance. On most accounts, it is held that the brain is the physical substance in which all of our mental properties reside. So the brain somehow “produces” mental properties that are not reducible to a set of physical facts. Now, as much as I would like to go a bit further into the different types of property dualism (supervenience, epiphenomenalism, etc.), I’m afraid that this territory is too murky for a novice like myself to be leading others into it. The notions of supervenience and epiphenomenalism are a bit unclear at best, and so I will conclude my discussion of Dualism here.

So during this post, we have familiarized ourselves with some common and notable forms of Dualism. I dedicated a lot of space to this view because it is so influential in the world at large, not just among philosophers. It is likely that most everyone is some kind of dualist. Given the heavy influence of religious traditions in our world, most people desire to hold on to the idea that there is some non-physical reality, and the confusing aspects of the mind find themselves quite at home in this realm. Indeed, for most people, leaving the mind in the non-physical world is a much better option than trying to figure out exactly how a world of only physical objects could give rise to anything like conscious experience and mentality. And it will be in my next post that I will attempt to shed light on some of the views and theories that try to explain how a materialist (and also at least one ontologically neutral) view of the mind can still plausibly account for the nature of our minds.


On Heaven and the Problem of Evil

The problem of evil is one of the most famous (if not the most famous) atheistic arguments in philosophical debate. The well-known theistic philosopher Alvin Plantinga has been credited with describing the problem of evil as “the only argument against God that deserves to be taken seriously.” I’ve had no luck conjuring up the source of the quote, but regardless of who actually said it, there is some truth to the statement. While I do think that there are many other avenues of atheistic argumentation that can serve to support an atheistic worldview (and also disprove a theistic one), it is true that theists are more threatened by the problem of evil than any other atheistic argument. If God were a being who committed evil acts, or allowed them to occur when he could have easily stopped them, then theism is indeed in danger. The position of theism is dependent upon a personal God who is perfectly good.

Here is a basic sketch of the standard argument from evil:

  1. There exists a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.
  2. A being who is omnipotent has the power to do any and all things that are logically possible.
  3. A being who is omniscient has knowledge of all and only true propositions.
  4. A being who is omnibenevolent is perfectly morally good, and therefore does not want any evil to occur.
  5. Evil exists.
  6. Therefore premise 1 is false and there is no God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.

This argument takes the form of a reductio ad absurdum, which initially posits a premise, and then through a process of deductions based on the meanings and entailments of that premise (and in this case we add an observation about the real world), finds a contradiction and concludes that the original premise must be false.

What is probably the most popular response to the argument from evil is the ‘free will defense.’ The free will defense claims that evil exists only as a result of the actions of the free will of humanity. God gave us this free will because it is a “greater good,” and so the balance of good vs. evil is kept in the positive side (the side of good). The goodness of our free will outweighs the evil that results from our decisions. So God allowed the Holocaust to happen because taking away the free will of Hitler and the Nazis would have been a greater evil than allowing Hitler and his troops to slaughter millions of Jews. Or something like that. In any case, theists tend to claim that this is the greatest of all possible worlds, because God created it, and God, being omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent, wants to create the best possible world, knows how to do so, and has the power to do so. So there is nothing preventing God from doing that, thus God must have done that. (NOTE: This is an obviously circular argument, and it is not the way the actual formal argument for this conclusion typically goes, so please don’t interpret this as me setting up a strawman. I am simply explaining the conclusion that theists have arrived at, not how they got there.)

There is a problem with this response, however. Most theists (usually being Christian) also believe in the existence of a perfect paradise where God will take his beloved creations and allow them to live for the rest of eternity after this earthly, material existence is finished. This paradise is traditionally referred to as Heaven. But the question then arises: isn’t Heaven the best of all possible worlds? Don’t we also have free will in Heaven? No acts of evil are committed in Heaven. Heaven is supposed to be a paradise that is much greater than our existence on this planet. So surely, this great good of free will that we experience here on earth is also available in Heaven. But then where is the evil there?

Consider this problem from another perspective. Imagine a continuum of possible Earths, all of which contain humans with free will. On one end of the continuum, there is the possible Earth in which every human is endowed with free will and has made the most evil decision that he/she possibly could at every opportunity. No good deeds have been done on this Earth, only evil ones. Now consider the other end of the continuum. On this possible Earth, every human is endowed with free will and has made the most good decision that he/she possibly could at every opportunity. No evil deeds have been done on this Earth, only good ones. Surely, this last possible earth is the best of all possible worlds. Presumably, this must be what Heaven is like. But the question now arises: why didn’t God just make this world? Why didn’t he make the world with free beings who happened to have made all and only good decisions with their free will? It seems to me that there is no good reason that God, if he had the properties discussed earlier and were able to create a place like Heaven, wouldn’t have just created Heaven and Heaven only. Why create a further world in which so much evil is to be perpetrated?

The theist, then, when confronted with this issue, appears to have two main avenues open to him:

  1. Deny that God has in fact, or could in principle, create a place like Heaven. Or
  2. Deny that God has all of the properties ascribed to him earlier (e.g., God might not want to prevent all evil, he might not know how, or he might not have the power to do so).

Embracing either of these strategies seems to eliminate the theist from maintaining a Christian standpoint, as Christianity posits both a Heaven and a God with the aforementioned omni-properties.

So, theists…. what’ll it be? Will you have your God? Or your Heaven? At least one of them has got to give.

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