Re: The Mind/Body Problem

From: HARNAD Stevan (
Date: Sat Mar 09 1996 - 17:09:32 GMT

> From: LEES Andie <>
> Date: Fri, 08 Mar 96 13:35:43 0000
> THE MIND/MATTER DEBATE - The Role of Causation and The
> Separability/Universality of Minds Themselves
> I wonder WHERE dualists believe the mind to end and physical matter to
> begin. Where indeed is one mind supposed to end and another to begin?

The usual answer to this is that you can only experience your own
experiences, not someone else's experiences. We discussed in class how
even a "cerebroscope" that plugged your brain into someone else's brain
would not make you experience THEIR experiences. It's part of what
experience (consciousness, subjectivity, a mind) IS, that it is
private, and that the only subject of the experience is yourself.

So that puts a pretty crisp boundary between what's going on in my mind
and anything and everything else. This is true whether or not one is a
dualist. Even monists (non-dualists, people who hold that there are not
TWO ["duo"] kinds of stuff, mind and matter, but just ONE ["mono"]
kind: matter) have trouble with the mind/body problem, so even they
must say what is and isn't "mind." It's just that dualists think that
mind and matter are a different sort of "stuff" whereas monists
think mind is just a special kind or property of matter, but not a
different "stuff."

> And what about the role of causation - is the brain itself responsible
> for causation or the separate mind or something else quite different?

For dualists (except the "trivial" dualists, the epiphenomenalists),
the mind has a causal power independent of the brain; for monists it
does not: for them, when it feels as if the mind is doing something, it
is really just the brain doing it.

> It is interesting to see whereabouts different groups of people have
> placed 'causation' over time. By causation I mean the source of origin
> of responsibility for the events occurring in a person's life. Science
> has placed causation externally to the person in terms of fate, luck or
> chance. Religion has also placed causation outside of the person in
> terms of a god/s in which some degree/all of event/life control is
> supposed to reside.

The mind/body problem of causation is independent of the ethical
problem of causation. Wherever a dualist wants to attribute the
responsibility for an act to an individual's mind, the monist will
attribute it to the individual's brain. Wherever the responsibility is
attributed instead to, say, society, rather than the individual, it
doesn't matter whether it is the individual's mind or his brain that is
NOT responsible. The locus of the responsibility is elsewhere.

> I am interested in the role of metaphysical belief and whether this
> branch of thinking can help in any way to shed light upon the
> mind/matter debate. Metaphysicians place the role of causation back
> inside the 'self' in other words the mind and thinking of people
> themselves.

Everyone is a "metaphysician." Metaphysics is theory about what there
is, what really exists; we all have ideas and assumptions about what
there is. SOME metaphysicians believe that the "self" (= the mind) is
an independent cause, some don't. The kind who do are called dualists
and the kind who don't are called monists.

> [Such people] believe (as energy is the most basic part and perhaps
> responsible for matter?-quantum physics) that a person's mind and
> thoughts can create that person's reality, not just in terms of
> themselves as in their body, but events around them too.

One is free to BELIEVE anything one wants (as long as it doesn't prevent
one from getting lunch). Inasmuch as "a person's reality" means
something, it must mean the way things APPEAR to that person. In other
words, the nature and content of one's experiences, what is going on in
one's mind.

But if one goes on to believe that what is going on in one's mind can
independently influence what happens outside one's mind -- apart, of
course, from whatever direct effect on the world one's brain and body
might be having through their actions (pushing, pulling, yelling "fire"
in a crowded theatre) -- then this just amounts to saying that one
believes in dualism. (Then, of course, the only remaining question is
whether dualism is correct: whether it is really TRUE that one's mind
can have independent effects on matter, apart from the push-pulling done
by one's brain, which is of course just matter too.)

> In other words [such people]
> do not place a strict causation boundary between the body itself
> and the environment.

The problem is not with the causal boundary between the body and the
environment, because the body, like the environment, is matter, and
matter can have causal effects on matter (push/pulling, etc.). The
problem is in the boundary between MIND and matter (if there is a
boundary -- and there is a boundary for dualists, but not for monists):
Can the MIND have a causal influence over matter? Dualists will say yes,
monists will say no.

> This resounds Professor Harnad's mention of
> telekinesis and how if the mind is responsible for the control of a
> finger press (a physical event within the boundary of the body), who is
> to say that it is not also responsible for the control of the weather
> for example ( a physical event clearly occurring outside of the body).

This is absolutely correct: From the standpoint of the difference
between dualism and monism, there is no difference between the
mind-over-matter act of bending a spoon by the power of one's mind
alone, as Uri Geller allegedly does it, through will alone, without
even touching it, and the mind-over-matter act of willing one's fingers
to bend the spoon by normal muscle power: For a monist, both kinds of
mind-over-matter are equally impossible; for a dualist, either or both
are possible.

There are still two questions, one empirical (i.e., decidable by
experimental testing), the other metaphysical, and perhaps not
decidable: The first is (1) whether or not telekinesis (e.g., bending a
spoon with the mind alone) really happens; the second is (2) whether or not
dualism is correct. The evidence for (1) is not very strong...

> What exactly are the limitations of the mind? Where should we place the
> causation boundary? Are our minds indeed separate from each other or are
> they an element of a universal whole?

It is not clear what a "universal whole" would be. One can FEEL as if
there is a something, and that something is the universe, and one is
part of it, or at one with it. But those are just FEELINGs, experiences,
going on in one's mind. Let us not make the metaphysical mistake of
equating feelings (experiences, appearances) with reality: Things may or
may not be as they appear/feel as if they are.

As to whether our minds are separate from each other: The flip side of
the mind/body problem is the other-minds problem: You can never know
for sure whether anyone else but you has a mind, because the only one
whose feelings you can feel is you. (And even if it FEELS as if you are
feeling someone else's feelings, that's still just a feeling, your own,
private feeling, and hence it might be right or it might be wrong, just
as your feeling that the world will end the day after tomorrow might be
right or wrong.)

Last: If monists are right, and everything is just matter, then of
COURSE we are an element of a universal whole, because we are our
brains, our brains are matter, and all matter is part of the universe...

> If we psychologists find
> difficulty in differentiating between exactly which mental processes are
> a part of conscious thinking and which are a part of unconscious
> thinking, the point at which a mind begins and the point at which it
> ends is surely equally as difficult to specify (unsolvable??)

There's no problem for a PERSON in saying whether something is or is
not in his mind: What he feels he feels; what he doesn't feel, he
doesn't feel. The psychologist only has a problem when he is trying to
ascertain what ANOTHER person (not himself) does or does not feel; and
this problem is again just the other-minds problem: We are not
mind-readers. (We can guess and predict and empathise; if the
parapsychological evidence were sound, which it does not appear to be,
then we could perhaps even telepathise.) But we can't actually feel
what anyone else feels directly. The only feelings one can feel
directly are one's own. That is the NATURE of feelings (experiences,
awareness, consciousness, subjectivity, mental states, having a mind:
all synonyms for having feelings); the rest is just about WHICH
feelings we happen to have; what the content of our experience happens
to be -- and, of course, whether or not they are CORRECT, whether
or not appearances conform to reality. (This is especially important
when lunch is at stake; and that's all there is to "science.")

What may be insoluble is the mind/body problem itself. But this
side-problem of boundaries is not insoluble, indeed, it is not even
really a problem, except if one blurs the distinction between what
FEELS like it's true, and what is REALLY true; this is the distinction
between appearance and reality.

> Perhaps
> this question is even more elemental to the mind/body debate. What is a
> mind; is it containable and finite?

To a monist, it certainly is; and it's contained somewhere within the
volume of one's brain. A dualist obviously has a lot more spatial
degrees of freedom...

> Perhaps our minds are not
> entirely separate entities - how would this colour the difficulty of
> wondering whether my experience of a headache is different to yours??

Our experiences may resemble one another as much as you like, but mine
are only mine, no matter how much they may FEEL as if they are yours.
You have to distinguish the FACT of experiencing from whatever the
CONTENT of those experiences might happen to be. You owe that much to

> Before we can explore whether the
> mind and body are separate or one and the same, perhaps we need to
> explore what is meant by each and indeed the place at which a mind
> begins and the place at which it ends.

Descartes has already done this for us, with his "Cogito Ergo Sum"
(I Think, Therefore I AM): The mind is what each of us knows, and cannot
deny, is going on when he is not asleep or under anesthesia: Experiences
(feelings) are going on, and each of us is the experiencer, the subject
of those experiences. There is no problem whatsoever about the limits of
those feelings: What I feel, I feel; what I don't feel, I don't feel. And
whatever I feel is MY feeling, even if it FEELS as if it's your feeling.
The Cogito is not about whether the contents of my feelings are CORRECT,
it is merely about the FACT that those feelings are going on, and that
is one of the few facts that one simply cannot deny.

As to what "mind" means: To get started, we don't have to define it, we
need merely point to it. Everyone knows in his own private case exactly
what Descartes knows, which is that feelings are being felt by him.
That's the mind.

The rest is not a matter for definition: it is a matter for study,
testing, modeling, and eventually, explaining. Once we can explain the
mind we'll be in a better position to define it!

So let us now turn back to explaining the mind...

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Tue Feb 13 2001 - 16:23:38 GMT