Philosophy and Ethics

This blog follows up issues and ideas from my website: Philosophy and Ethics.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Brain states, physicalism and freedom



I recently received the following question from Joe Reynolds (many thanks for sending in that one, Joe!), which got me thinking again on what I regard as one of the toughest questions in philosophy today...

Joe asks...

My interest is 'mental causation', and what I'm trying to understand (I'm ignoring the qualia issue) is why does the non-reductive physicalist / emergentist need to differentiate brain states and mental states if - 

1) reductionist materialists claim that mental properties are physical properties, the latter are causal, so whatever causal efficacy the physical has the mental also has.

2) mental states are able to influence other mental states because they are really brain states.

3) if the strong causal closure argument is correct, the only way to maintain mental causation is to assert type identity reductive physicalism - that mental properties are neurological properties.
But is there some unwanted catch in this ...... would it be assumed that it meant we were just puppets of determining brain states .............. so that non-reductive physicalism is necessary to avoid puppet-dom ?


My response...

As you rightly comment, the whole reason for trying to establish some form of non-reductive approach is to avoid the inevitable conclusion that, if mental activity is in fact none other than neural activity, we are totally determined by pre-existing brain states.

This, of course, has huge implications. For a start, it takes away any sense of moral responsibility, since what we experience as free choices are in fact determined. Hence praise and blame become meaningless: we are as we are, and do what we are programmed to do.  It also has implications for political theory, and particularly for the democratic idea that individuals can shape the society within which they find themselves. A statistician may argue that the results of an election may be predicted accurately, once a few results are in, but we still need to believe that we have a choice once we are in the polling booth.
So there are obvious reasons why one might want to argue that our minds are more than the sum of our neural activity. Reductive physicalism makes sense and fits with an overall scientific approach to data, but does not accord with our own experience.  Even if it were true, it would be impossible wholeheartedly to believe it to be true in our own case without the collapse of what we take to be normal human experience and interactions.

I tend to assume that when an answer is unacceptable, it is likely that the question is wrongly posed or that some other factor has been left out of account. So what has created this problem?

My hunch on this – and it is no more than that – is that the problem stems from the temptation to think that physical and non-physical entities can be understood and encountered using the same cognitive tools.  In other words, that we should be able to understand a feeling (e.g. happiness) or a disposition (e.g. kindness) using the same sort of sense data that we could apply to understanding a physical object. The reductive approach sees data from the physical sense organs, combined with logical deductions stemming from that data, as the only valid form of cognition – hence mental states must, in some way, be validated by sense experience.

In The Concept of Mind Gilbert Ryle’s made the crucial point that both physical and mental operations were valid in themselves, but that they could not be combined – just as you could not have a right glove, a left globe and a pair of gloves. And he therefore pointed out that it was a ‘category mistake’ to attempt to do so: the pair is in a different category from ‘right’ and ‘left’, just as the university is in a different category from the various colleges and libraries of which it is comprised. He, of course, was taking a linguistic approach – that the meaning of mental terms was very different from that of physical terms and that care should be taken when we try to put them together. But I think that there is indeed a category mistake lurking here, and one that is related to the nature of experience…
Experience is not the same as that which is experienced. The act of looking is not the same as the thing that is seen. The act of thinking is not the same thing as the content of thought.

Sentient creatures adapt and survive by being able, through the data received by their sense organs and processed by their brains, to respond to their environment. At a basic, physical level, I see this as no more than a quantitative development of the turning of the sunflower to catch the light. It appears to be qualitatively different because of the degree of complexity that has come about through brain development. We not only respond to our environment but can reflect on that response, and so on. Consciousness then becomes an emergent property. But what does consciousness mean in terms of the experience of being conscious?

I immediately want to return to Kant and the fundamental distinction he made between noumena and phenomena – things as they are in themselves and things as we perceive them to be.  Emergent properties are phenomena; descriptions of states.  But the act of experiencing is noumenal – it is the reality within which things are experienced; it is activity, not content.

Another hunch – or perhaps, more accurately, a mental note I have for further reading and reflection – is that there are two thinkers who are likely to contribute significantly here: Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. 

Heidegger (in Being and Time), because his idea of Dasein expresses what it is to be a person with a world – prior to the subjective/objective split. In other words, a human being is thrown into a world and lives within it. Dasein without a world is unthinkable, for dasein is ‘being there’ (or ‘being here’) and certainly being in relationship to the world.

Merleau-Ponty (in The Phenomenology of Perception) adds to this the idea of the ‘lived body’. Like Heidegger, he sees human consciousness as always being immersed in a world.

So how does this relate to the original question about reductive physicalism, causality and determinism?

I think we need to take an approach similar to that of Samuel Johnson who is said to have responded to Bishop Berkeley’s argument that everything that appears to be in the world is actually in the mind, by kicking a stone and declaring ‘I refute him thus.’ Actually, the 18th century wisdom of Johnson anticipates the 20th century arguments of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. Berkeley was separating mind from matter and then failing to see how we could know that matter exists, since all is known through the mind. Johnson, by kicking his stone, makes the point that the relationship between self and world is primary, and questions about how they might be related are secondary.

We are embedded in the world. Our bodies (including our brains) are part of that world, and – when observed – will therefore come within the framework we have for understanding everything (space, time and causality – as Kant). As an observed phenomenon, mind is inevitably reduced to body, for mind is only known through bodily movement (including the firing of neurons), action, language and so on. There is no ‘thing’ that cannot be observed (in theory at least) and therefore no ‘thing’ that cannot be contained within the network of causality.

The mind is not a ‘thing’, in that it exists prior to the subject/object split and is therefore not a part of the world.  If it were part of the world it would be totally determined and a puppet. In so far as the mind is described it is exactly that. And no doubt that is essential for the practice of psychiatry or psychotherapy – we need to apply rational causality to the mind.

But that’s not how we experience it.  We live ‘forwards’ shaped by or desires, aware of our place within the causal nexus, avoiding predators and seeking food. We live by the choices we make, and we do not live in any number of possible worlds that would have become real if our choices had been other than they were. That process of choosing is experienced as free. Sometimes such freedom is simply a matter of weighing up conflicting pressures on us, or conflicting desires. But if we remove that sense of our own freedom, we do indeed become the puppets that we are observed to be, but which our sense of freedom will not accept as the last word about ourselves.

Mental states, when observed and described, become (and are observed as always having been) brain states; brain states, when observed and described, are merely themselves. That’s the problem. I can only describe a mental state in terms of physical postures, actions, gestures, facial expressions, words and so on. With the benefit of technology I can add to this description an account of brain activity. But that activity is no more a description of what it is like to be in that mental state than is a straightforward description of body and language. And that’s because we lose the essence of the mental as soon as we try to describe it, because we ignore the basic fact that the human self (dasein) is both self and world intermeshed.


There is so much more to be explored here, partly because this question links to so many others. All I can suggest is that the way forward can perhaps be found in terms of embodiment – of the self in the world, rather than being related to the world. Take the latter option, and you will always be a dummy, at least in the eyes of other people!
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And here's a further comment from Joe Reynolds...

I agree with most of what you say here but, I think prior to that, what I’m trying to understand is whether the conclusion of your first paragraph is necessarily the case ? 
To paraphrase my original query : the reductive physicalist would say that mental properties are physical properties, and physical properties are causal, therefore mental properties are also causal …. ?? Is that so ……. and, if it is, what does it mean / what are its implications ?
You say “if mental activity is in fact none other than neural activity, we are totally determined by pre-existing brain states”. But can that be so ? Wouldn’t such a determinist puppet scenario be an evolutionary route to inflexibility and extinction ?

Instead, let’s say the brain is a physical-mental ‘duality’. The brain is dynamic, remodels itself continuously in response to experience / reflects the lives we have led – neuro-plasticity. Genes can’t know what demands, challenges, losses the brain will encounter. Nature endows the brain with the flexibility to adapt to the environment it encounters, the experiences it has, the demands its owner makes of it, etc. And buried in all that would be processes of evolution and emergence in the ‘relation between’ the physical and mental, and the unconscious and conscious.

I agree with Joe about the plasticity of the brain/mind - he presents the situation with admirable clarity. The brain responds to experience and is therefore constantly changing, which is also why we develop as persons. But, for a strict determinist, the ghost of the puppet remains, because - although far beyond what we can know, because of its sheer complexity - one could argue that, in theory, every event and encounter are also determined.  One is back with the argument that the appearance of freedom is made possible by the impossibility of appreciating all the interlocking causes that go to make up any situation. And so on, and so on, until... the brain hurts!
But, in my view, Joe is fundamentally right in pointing to the evolutionary implications of this - that is why our brains have developed as they have, and their flexibility (itself a product of their complexity) is key to the emergence of mind. Thanks, Joe!

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