The Philosophy of Mind is a fascinating area of study. It concerns fundamental questions about the nature of the self, issues of how our minds and our bodies interact, and the broader questions about the nature of consciousness.
It links to science, in that we experience ourselves as free and outside the series of physical causes that might suggest that everything is completely determined on the physical level. It links also with religion, in that many religious people believe in some form of life after death or reincarnation. Does that make any sense? Is disembodied life possible? How does it relate to our idea of what it is to be a person?
Minds and brain activity
Some problems defy any easy solution. If mental events are identified with brain activity, then they are causally determined and our freedom is an illusion. But we experience freedom, and assume it whenever we think about moral responsibility or when we think about what we would like to do. So how does that make sense? To see some of my thoughts on that topic just go to my blog post for Nov 5th 2013 by clicking here.
Freedom, determinism and moral responsibility...
How do we understand the nature of freedom and moral responsibility, particularly in the case of those with mental illness? Are we morally responsible if everything we think and do is (even theoretically) predictable? This is not just a question for ethics, it highlights the basic question of whether a determinist view of the findings of neuroscience is compatible with any realistic notion of free will.
A question on this topic and my response is to be found on my blog. Just click here, to go to my blog entry for 12th April 2013.
Emotions and the Philosophy of Mind
I was prompted to think again about the place of the emotions in our mental life by a reader who complained that there was nothing about them in Understand Philosophy of Mind, and who referred to Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, who spoke of us having two minds – one that thinks and one that feels.
While the emotions are important in psychology, they have played relatively little part in the traditional discussion about dualism and physicalism that have dominated so much debate over the decades in the Philosophy of Mind. They are clearly part – and an important part – of the functioning of the mind, rather than a way of understanding the nature of the mind. We know that they are controlled (or not) by the amygdala, which is an area of the brain that has a direct connection with the senses, separate from that which goes to the cerebral cortex. The point Goleman makes, is that the emotions are therefore triggered automatically and rather faster than the process of understanding, interpreting and responding that goes on rationally.
He also makes the point that the amygdala, by storing the memories of our emotional responses, and of the pleasures and pains that give rise to them, enable our emotions colour our interpretation of everything we do, for good or ill.
Of course, neuroscience has been superb at showing us how different parts of the brain each have their own function, and how they interact with one another, and the emotions are just one of those functions – although particularly important because they affect the operation of much else; we can’t think straight when in an emotional state, and may over-react to a situation if it is one that reminds us of an earlier emotional trauma. But it is important not to slip into language that suggests that it is the amygdala that senses disgust, or anger or passionate desire – as though it had a life of its own. Like all brain functions, it is simply computing on the basis of experience and response. We have the emotions, even if their trigger mechanism is stored in the amygdala.
My personal view is that the emotions play an absolutely crucial role in the function that I call ‘mapping’ - namely the way in which we produce a personal ‘map’ of the world through which we move, a map informed by our emotional responses as much as anything else. We have places where we feel ‘at home’ others that are foreign to us. We encounter people to whom we are close, as well as strangers. We have experiences we love and which are pivotal for our life, others that remain on the periphery of our areas of significance. And it is the assembling of that personal ‘map’, from the moment that we are born, that defines who we are.
The senses give us the outlines of continents and islands on our personal map, but it is the emotions that colour them in politically. They are important in establishing the ‘intentional stance’ that we have towards everything we encounter. We are not indifferent observers of life; everything has a function for us, offers a threat or a promise, establishes itself in our minds as there ‘for us’ in some way.
So the fact that there is no separate chapter on the emotions in Understand the Philosophy of Mind, is simply a feature of the need to cover key topics (including those required by examinations) in a limited space. They are important, especially in my theory of ‘mapping’, which is explored in my other book on the philosophy of mind – Me.
The Ego Trick by Julian Baggini!
I have enjoyed reading The Ego Trick by Julian Baggini, and can highly recommend it. It tackles the old question of how we can remain the same person through all the changes we undergo in life. What is it that makes us who we are?
Written in a clear and direct way, it includes comments from a whole range of thinkers - not just professional philosophers - to which the author adds his personal evaluations and comments. His quest to understand personal identity takes in people as diverse as theologian Richard Swinburne, neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, a Tibetan lama and the most articulate of western Buddhists, Stephen Batchelor, along with many others who recount their experience of the sense of self through changes that may seem to threaten identity, including having a sex change. Although an easy read, there is serious substance here, based on Baggini's Ph.D. research.
The book explores the old question of what it means to be a you, an individual human being. Baggini reviews and examines both the 'pearl' approach to the self (there is a special, unique 'me' inside here somewhere) and the 'bundle' view (that we are a bundle of mental events, made possible by the brain, which come together to make us who we are - an idea that goes back to early Buddhism), which he favours. The 'ego trick' of the title is the way in which the various parts of this animated, thinking, feeling body, give the sense of being a unique self. He also explores the related issues of life after death and the future of the self.
I've not expressed any of that well, nor done justice to his arguments... Julian does it all far better, and you need to read the book to appreciate the depth that lies beneath his easy style. Click the box on the right to order from Amazon in the UK or here to order it from Amazon.com in the USA.
[Although approaching the subject differently, and suggesting a model (through memory and 'mapping') for the way we develop the 'trick' that is our sense of self, there are some interesting parallels here with my own book Me. Click on the box top right for more information about that book and others in the Art of Living series.]
The nature of consciousness is one of the key areas of exploration in the Philosophy of Mind. Indeed, once we stop to think about it (and we don't do that very often, because being conscious is such a natural thing that we accept it uncritically), the whole relationship between being conscious of something and the thing of which we are conscious is a curious thing. Is consciousness something that is simply going on in the brain - and therefore something that will be explained completely as neuroscience becomes more specific about brain functioning? Huge numbers of questions crop up once you start to unpack these things.
The following books, from a materialist standpoint, challenge common assumptions and are a good starting point for discussions about the nature of consciousness.
Gilbert Ryle's The Concept of Mind is the classic, oft-quoted text on logical behaviourism. You may not like his conclusions, but in terms of clarity of thought and lucid argument, his book takes a lot of beating. Famous for arguing that to mix physical and mental descriptions, or causes, as though they could simply be set alongside one another as a 'category mistake', and for caricaturing Descartes' dualistic view of the self as ' the ghost in the machine', this book helps to clarify exactly what we mean when we call an action 'intelligent', or 'wise'. But don't be totally taken in, for Ryle really does no more that substitute a 'ghost in the machine' for a 'ghost in the action', or that's my view. See what you think.
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