Re: Descartes and the Mind

From: Harnad, Stevan (
Date: Thu Oct 19 1995 - 23:00:56 BST

> From: "Smith, Wendy" <>
> Date: Thu, 19 Oct 1995 14:33:59 GMT
> When we were studying behaviourism last year, one of the attacks on
> dualism was that the Christian belief in a "soul" had been replaced
> by a psychological belief in a "mind". This suggests that
> psychology is some form of religion rather than a form of science.

Well, yes, BEHAVIOURISTS consider mind-talk to be akin to voodoo, but
we'll get around soon enough to whether or not they are right about

But for the time being we are not talking about behaviourism or any
other branch of psychology, but merely the commonsense observation we
are all capable of making about our own heads, namely, that there is
something going on in there (when we are awake)! THAT was what Descartes
pointed out that we could not doubt. Belief in an immaterial or immortal
soul goes far beyond that, and it certainly IS open to doubt.

The behaviourists, as we will see, were to a degree trying to deny or
side-step the Cogito. You will have to judge how valid their position

> The behaviourists suggested that to be included in science a subject
> had to be natural - although not necessarily observable. Mind is not
> part of nature, because it is fictional. They distinguished between
> the natural (thoughts, sensations and dreams) and the fictional (the
> mind and its workings). How do we distinguish between experiential
> and fictional?

What's natural? Do you know what's natural? Are you sure? Those are the
questions Descartes asked (and remember we are still 2 centuries before
behaviourism here!).

"Mind is not part of nature, because it is fictional." It's easy to SAY
that, hard to support it. Are my experiences fictions? Are they

In the end, just as we can't be sure what's true (except maths and
experience), we also can't be sure what's NOT true. Unicorns are
fictional? Are you sure? Do you have a mathematical proof that there has
never been and never could be a horse with one horn?

So "fictional" is too easy a pejorative to use for the things one person
or school happens not to believe in! Besides, unlike unicorns (whose
existence AND whose non-existence are both open to doubt), the mind, if
by mind you mean, as I do, the having of experiences, is NOT a fiction
at all!

> sh> But as long as you consider only the appearances, the
> sh> seeming, the experience, it is not open to doubt.
> Isn't psychology all about finding how and why experiences relate and
> are associated with the physical and the computational causes? If we
> consider only the experience, isn't this more the realm of
> philosophy? A bit like considering "WHAT is categorisation?" rather
> than "HOW or WHY do we categorise?" (as we discussed in the seminar -
> the first is philosophy; the second is psychology)

True, but in studying the foundations of anything, we cannot avoid
philosophy, because that is what philosophy is about! Besides, Descartes
was indeed a philosopher! And this seminar is about the foundations of

And, yes, I think it's not such a bad idea to inquire first what
categorisation is, before tackling how and why we do it. Don't you?

> sh> So where did dualism and the mind/body problem come from? Well, how can
> sh> you possibly equate something as certain and immediate as experience with
> sh> something as uncertain and remote as a physical substance? How, in other
> sh> words, can you give a PHYSICAL explanation of experience?
> Skinner would attack this by saying that whatever deficits the
> physical explanation had, the mentalistic explanation really
> explained nothing. The "mind" is said to underlie behaviour, but the
> only reason the mind exists is as a fictional explanation for the
> behaviour. If the mind underlies behaviour, then it is equivalent to
> the physical states which underlie behaviour. Does this locate the
> mind, ultimately, in the brain? If so, and the mind underlies
> behaviour, and the brain underlies the behaviour, then aren't the
> mind and the brain one and the same thing?

We'll fix Skinner's wagon soon enough...

> This isn't easy, is it?! Wendy

No, but it would be less fun if it were, wouldn't it?

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