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How Have Various Thinkers Tried To Solve the Mind–Body Problem?

Philosopher Angus Menuge explains why traditional physicalism (the mind is just what the brain does) doesn’t really work

In last week’s podcast, Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks interviewed Concordia University philosopher Angus Menuge on one of philosophy’s biggest headscratchers, the mind–body problem. In the second part, they looked at a big question, if the mind and body are so different, how can they interact? We know we are not just bodies, and a number of models of the relationship are offered. Menuge offers a look at some of them:

This portion begins at 15:50 min. A partial transcript, Show Notes, and Additional Resources follow.

Some philosophers don’t think the mind–body problem is as big a challenge as it is made out to be.

Angus Menuge (pictured): Well, there are some like Richard Swinburne, who is really a defender of a modified form of Cartesian substance dualism. And he, along with other substance dualists, has gone back to this original challenge and argued that it’s not compelling.

One solution is simply to point out that, in general, there doesn’t have to be a conceptual or logical connection between causes and effects. That isn’t even true at the physical level. There isn’t really any logical connection between a drop in temperature and water turning to ice. Nonetheless, that we discover that there is a reliable connection between the two.

So some dualists have argued that we don’t have to have a theory about how mind and body interact to accept that we have good evidence that they interact. Swinburne, for example, gives the example that we’ve known for centuries, that if you stick a pin in someone, it causes pain. There is a clear path between the physical event and a psychological reaction. And all our evidence says that there is a clear causal connection between a mental volition to raise one’s arm and the arm being raised.

So one solution is just to say, we will go with the facts: This is what happens even if we cannot give a fully satisfying explanation.

Some argue that the mind emerges naturally from the brain.

Others though, would say, well, we’ll have to reconceive the mind, we’ll have to view it as supervening or emerging from the brain. This though, ends up with a serious difficulty, which again, Jaegwon Kim addresses. If you want to take the physicalist line and say that the physical really is where the causal power resides, and then you say, well, from that, these thoughts emerge, it seems that those thoughts have to be epiphenomenal. They can’t really cause anything because they’re preempted by the states of the brain.

Robert J. Marks: That’s a big word. Could you define “epiphenomenal”?

Angus Menuge: Epiphenomenal means that something is caused by something else. So for example, your desire to open the fridge is caused by a brain state. But on this view, your desire is not what causes your body to open the fridge, your brain state does.

And you see this outrageous view, for example, in Daniel Wegner’s book, The Illusion of Conscious Will, where he says that in reality, your desires to do things are just causally powerless previews of what your brain is going to make your body do.

Note: Social scientist Daniel Wegner (1948–2013) is best known, perhaps, for the “white bear” experiment: “He was arguably most famous for his experiments on thought suppression, in which people were unable to keep from thinking of a white bear” when told explicitly not to do so. ” – Harvard Gazette

Wegner did not believe in free will: “Like actions, he argues, the feeling of conscious will is created by the mind and brain… Although conscious will is an illusion, it serves as a guide to understanding ourselves and to developing a sense of responsibility and morality.” – Publisher’s note from MIT Press

Angus Menuge: If I don’t, for example, write down the answer to a logic problem because I could see that it followed from certain premises — in other words, because of my mental reasoning — then it looks as if I’m not really reasoning. Rather I am doing much the same as most of our computers do. [But the computer] doesn’t see that that conclusion follows. It’s simply designed so that it will reach the correct conclusion.

So there are problems with these kinds of physicalist solutions. And it’s interesting that, over time, thinkers have moved more and more in non-reductionist directions. More and more they use the language of emergence.

And yet they seem to be in an unstable place. They want the mind to be able to do something because they recognize that if your thoughts don’t really direct your actions, they’re no longer rational. We can’t make sense of why you do things. Trouble is, there are people like Jaegwon Kim waiting to say that it’s hard to see how the mental qualities, the mental properties, of you could cause anything. And he calls this the exclusion problem, because everything about your states is really caused by the brain.

Aren’t those brain states also sufficient to cause the next state of your nervous system and also everything that your body does? And if they are, then there really isn’t any room for your mind to do anything. It becomes a redundant sort of rider, kind of like the surf on the top of a wave. So it’s thrown up by the brain, but there’s no work for it really to do.

Huxley’s analogy was with a steam locomotive. The steam drives the engine and it also is used for the whistle but the whistle’s blowing doesn’t contribute anything to the motion of the locomotive. And that’s where you seem to end up with that sort of problem.

Note: Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895), the Victorian science journalist best known for championing Darwin, also offered a description of the relationship between the mind and the brain: “According to a famous analogy of Thomas Henry Huxley, the relationship between mind and brain is like the relationship between the steam-whistle which accompanies the work of a locomotive engine and the engine itself: just as the steam-whistle is caused by the engine’s operations but has no causal influence upon it, so too the mental is caused by the workings of neurophysiological mechanisms but has no causal influence upon their operation.” – “Epiphenomenalism, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Angus Menuge: And, it’s amazing, now there are positions endorsed which would have seemed quite desperate, such as panpsychism, the idea that maybe everything physical has something mind-like about it. Eventually, mind-like properties emerge. An extraordinary proliferation of theories and about the only thing that people can agree on in philosophy of mind is that they all seem to have serious difficulties and are unsatisfactory in one way rather than another.

Note: In 2018, University of Texas Austin philosopher Galen Strawson told science writer Robert Wright why he became a panpsychist: Believing that everything participates in consciousness in some way makes more sense for a physicalist like himself than believing that consciousness is an illusion. The one thing we are sure of, after all, is our own consciousness. See: How a materialist philosopher argued his way to panpsychism

Next: How would Angus Menuge solve the mind–body problem?

Here are the earlier parts of the series:

Part 1: How do we know we are not just physical bodies? The mind–body problem is one of the most difficult issues in modern philosophy. Philosopher Angus Menuge cites the immateriality and indivisibility of the mind and discusses the evidence from near-death experiences.

Part 2: If the mind and body are so different, how can they interact? A look at different models of the mind–body problem. Angus Menuge asks, Why should wanting a drink of milk produce physical changes like opening the fridge? It’s a harder question than many think.

Show Notes

  • 01:12 | Introducing Dr. Angus Menuge, professor and chair of Concordia University’s philosophy department
  • 04:06 | What is the mind-body problem?
  • 06:37 | Near-death experiences
  • 10:05 | The history of the mind-body problem
  • 15:24 | Popular mind-body problem models discussed today
  • 18:14 | Epiphenomenal thoughts
  • 22:31 | Dr. Menuge’s take on the mind-body problem
  • 29:04 | Will artificial intelligence ever be able to duplicate the functions of a human?

Additional Resources

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How Have Various Thinkers Tried To Solve the Mind–Body Problem?