Wednesday 7/24

What is the Mind?





This synopsis is somewhat longer than usual. We're at the midpoint of the semester, and this seems a good opportunity to trace the route we've taken to get here and highlight the mileposts we've passed along the way.

Our puzzles this semester have been leading one to the other in rapid, perhaps dizzying, succession. For consider,

1. We began the semester considering in what sense Socrates could be wisest man of Athens, since he knows nothing. Yet knowing nothing, he knows he knows nothing. Therein lies his wisdom: He alone of all the supposedly wise of Athens knows that he does not know, whereas they think they know, but in wrongly believing they know, deceive themselves. Socrates came to grasp this point by inquiring, critically, of the wisdom of the wise, who eventually convicted and executed him for it. To be sure, Socrates shies away from defending himself from what he himself deems the most serious charge, that he makes the weaker argument appear the stronger, and the stronger the weaker. He had not the tools, you see, since it was his pupil's pupil, Aristotle, who would eventually come to develop the science of reasoning we call Logic, which led us to ask,

2. What is the nature of truth-tropic language, such that language in certain forms (and not others) helps us to draw conclusions which are either likely true, in the case of (strong) inductive arguments, or guaranteed to be true, in the case of (sound) deductive arguments? How does the logical structure of an argument bear on its (deductive) validity, such that having certain structural features suffices for validity, regardless of the content of the propositions so structured? To answer these and other questions we developed a modest logic, the Propositional Calculus, and along with it a definition of validity, which also serves as a test of validity: Truth Tables. We discovered we can analyze arguments for their truth-tropic properties, which led us to ask,

3. What is the nature of truth-phobic language, such that in some argumentative contexts language can seem truth-phobic, but in fact it leads us astray? Here we considered a number of the kinds of deliberate confusions the malicious can drop into language which only serve to mislead us, cloud our reason, or otherwise foil our earnest attempts to get at the truth. These fallacies, as we called them, were frustratingly ambiguous, in some contexts leading us towards the truth, as when an expert's authority is germane, and sometimes leading us away from the truth, as when it is not. We confronted the possibility that we cannot always determine which is which in the fog of language, which led us to ask,

5. Arguably the most fundamental question one can ask, the riddle of existence: Why is there something and not nothing? Looking around the world, we find only contingent beings--that is, beings whose explanation for being invokes other beings. What explains you? Your parents! What explains them? Their parents! And so on and so forth... but for how long? Surely the series of contingent beings cannot go on forever. There must be a necessary being whose existence is explained not by reference to some other being, but by reference to itself alone. Or, even if there could be an infinite series of contingent beings, what explains the series itself? And there we hit a wall, because either the series explains itself, or there is a necessary being whose existence explains the series' existence. In either case, we face the difficulty of explaining how a being (the series, or the necessary being) can be self-explanatory. Yet drawing on a necessary being to explain why there is something and not nothing invites (obviously) speculation about God's existence, which led us to ask,

6. Does God exist? Here we considered two arguments for the existence of God and one against. The Teleological Argument for the existence of God finds in the astonishing complexity and wonder of nature a level of function or purpose that seems to escape explanation by purely mechanical processes. Thus the complexities we encounter seem designed to us, which leads one naturally to wonder about a designer. Unlike the Cosmological Argument we took up last time and the Teleological Argument this time (both of which we say are a posteriori, or depend on observable phenomena we find in the world), the Ontological Argument is a priori, requiring no experience of the world, but only a careful consideration of the idea of God as the being than which none greater can be conceived--and surely, the argument goes, such a being must exist, since if it were merely a concept, it would not be the being than which none greater can be conceived! Of course, closely examining the presumed qualities of God (omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence) resulted in a rather daunting argument against the existence of God: The Problem of Evil. For if God exists and is all of those things, then evil could not exist. Yet evil surely exists. To be sure, we found cogent responses to all of these arguments. That is, we could extract valid arguments in each case, so our question in each case was: Is it sound? Are all the premises true? Invariably we found questionable premises. Our investigation into the existence of God was left an unsolved puzzle, which led us to ask,

7a. Should intelligent design as the Teleological Argument infers be taught alongside evolutionary theory in schools as a scientific alternative? Which question immediately led us to ask,

7b. What is a science? That is, how do we discriminate between genuine sciences like physics and biology, pseudo-sciences like astrology and palmistry, and (apparently) proto-sciences like alchemy and geo-centrism? We pointed to the logic of scientific theory, noting that a theory connects its laws to its empirically testable hypotheses via deductively valid arguments of the sort we have been studying. Since a valid argument can have a true conclusion and one or more false premises, a hypotheses confirmed by experimentation tells us nothing about the truth of the theory. No scientist can ever prove a scientific theory true! Yet since a valid argument cannot have a false conclusion without also having at least one false premise, a disconfirmed hypotheses serves to show us the theory (or, at least, some part of it) is false. The upshot is that scientists are never trying to prove their theories true--they cannot!--when they conduct experiments. Instead, they seek to prove them false. Should every attempt to prove a theory false to date fail, we do not say the theory is true. Instead, we say it is well-confirmed, which is frankly the most we can hope for with science. Following this line of reasoning, we reject as pseudo-scientific those endeavors which cannot be falsified. Genuine sciences always admit of falsification, of test by the tribunal of experience, to paraphrase the philosopher WVO Quine. So maybe we shouldn't teach intelligent design alongside evolutionary theory in schools, going back to our original question, which led us to ask,

8a. Why are people so insistent on involving God in school? Our charitable answer was that they fear pupils will have no moral compass with which to guide their lives, which quickly led us to ask,

8b. Can we be good without God? If one says otherwise, then (generally speaking) one is adopting a very common view of what it is to be good. Namely, to be good is to conduct oneself according to God's commands. This seems simple enough, predicated as it is on the proposition that God's will determines morality. In making this assumption, however, we confront a devilish dilemma: Is it good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good? If the former, being good could amount to anything, since in any case God commands, He, She, or It could have commanded otherwise. Morever, the fact that God didn't happen to command otherwise tells us nothing unless we insist on God being perfectly good, yet God being perfectly good on this alternative just amounts to God doing what God says, which is meaningless. If the latter, and God commands thus and so because it is good, then God's will has nothing to do with morality, and we can be good (indeed, must be good!) without God. Yet the conclusion that we can be good without God says nothing about whether we will be good at all, which led us to ask,

9. Why should we be good? The usual story is that being good itself is merely an instrumental good. There's nothing good in itself about being good. What's good about being good is the rewards one hopes to receive and the punishments one hopes to avoid. Being good is merely useful as a way to seek rewards and avoid punishments. This, naturally, is a very old story. The very idea of heaven and hell is a way of holding out the prospect of eternal reward and eternal punishment, for example. As we saw with the Ring of Gyges, however, it is possible to reverse rewards and punishments. We imagine a very bad man who, using the ring, is perceived as good and enjoys all that comes from being bad and the rewards due goodness. We imagine a very good man, perceived as bad, who suffers all of the punishments of badness and none of the rewards his goodness merits. What is intrinsically good about being good, regardless of rewards expected or punishments avoided? Complicating matters is the fact that goodness (or badness) seems not to be entirely a matter of choice or even character. Instead, circumstance has a lot to do with whether ordinarily decent, unexceptional people become moral monsters, on the on hand, or moral heroes, on the other, which led us to ask,

10. Can we be morally responsible at all? That is, being held morally responsible (praiseworthy or blameworthy, as the case may be) seems to presuppose (among many other things) the capacity to have done otherwise. Yet as we saw in considering the problem of freedom of will, either we're caused to act as we do, in which case we could not have done otherwise, or we're not, in which case our actions are random and inexplicable. In either case, it seems we could not have done otherwise, for we are either the mechanical clock ticking away, or the spring careening off the wall and landing, say, in the coffee. Whether the universe is fundamentally deterministic or not, it seems irrational to hold one another morally responsible inasmuch as there seems no room in it for us to have the capacity to have done otherwise, which, finally, led us to ask today,

11. Are we simply the sum of our neurological mechanisms, or is there more to the mind than simply the body and its central nervous system?

We must grant that the mind and the body appear to be very different kinds of things having very different kinds of properties. Descartes, swayed by such considerations, argued that the mind and the body are distinct, but causally interacting, substances. That is, he claimed that mind is an entirely different kind of substance than body, and he bridges the chasm between the two by asserting that physical events cause mental events and mental events cause physical events. Nevertheless, mind and body are distinct substances. How, then, do they interact? Solving this problem leads Descartes to do a lot of hand-waiving, some of which involves the pineal gland. In the end it is not at all clear that Descartes has a solution to the problem of how mind and body, conceived as distinct substances, causally interact.

An alternative to dualism is physicalism, the view that every mental state is some physical state. There are different ways to understand physicalism, but the one that has come to dominate modern cognitive science is known as machine functionalism, or the view that the mind is to body as the software is to the hardware in a computer. The mind is properly understood, on this view, as the functioning of the neural mechanisms that together constitute the central nervous system. According to this view, we really are (in a way) the sum of our neural mechanisms.

Yet just as a mechanical watch, a digital watch, a klepsydra, a sundial, a sand-timer, and an atomic clock can all serve the same function and tell time, surely we ought to be able to construct out of other parts (maybe computer parts themselves!) a device with a mind--an artificial intelligence, if you will, which will lead us to ask, next time,

Are there any capacities the mind has which escape altogether or in some way transcend the possibility of physical explanation?