On mind and matter

A sketch to serve as a placeholder for my thoughts until I am able to carry out a more thorough examination . . .

Everyone, it seems, is a materialist today.  To even raise the question of mind and matter somehow seems quaint, of mere historical interest.  Few people would doubt that mental experiences arise from the underlying physical phenomenon of the brain. In fact, for most people, “mind” is synonymous with the brain.  But is this issue really as banal and irrelevant today as it might seem?

Sure, dualism of mind and matter, at least as it was originally formulated by Descartes and the occasionalists, is no longer a serious option. Yet there are some serious difficulties with the modern materialist/physicalist perspective.  These problems seem to me to fall into three main areas:  qualia, radical skepticism, and contradiction.

As the problem of qualia has become one of the more well-known argument against materialism, I will begin with it.  Qualia is, in short, a term for the characteristic of “what it’s like” to experience something. Qualia are generally considered to have four properties, first identified by the philosopher Daniel Dennett. They are ineffalbe (incapable of being communicated), intrinsic, private, and directly apprehensible to consciousness.  Probably the most often cited argument for the existence of qualia is Mary the color scientist. The basic idea is that, even if a color-blind person knew, theoretically, everything science could teach us about colors, she would still not know what it was like to experience, for example, redness.  Thus, there are some truths that cannot be accounted for by the physical or material.

The second problem is that materialism leads to the the kind of radical skepticism typified by the brain-in-a-vat problem.  If all of our mental experiences could be reduced to physical phenomenon, then there is no way to tell whether we are in fact, experiencing reality as it appears, or whether we are instead a disembodied brain connected to some supercomputer simulating our reality. The brain-in-a-vat scenario violates our common sense, which in and of-itself is a reason for rejecting it.  More interestingly, this illustrates how arguments against materialism tend to point towards arguments for the opposite extreme of idealism, or the position that the ultimate nature of reality is based on mind or ideas.  It is a short jump from the brain-in-a-vat argument to the argument that there is also no way to be sure of the reality of the brain itself.  That is, if the external world can not be known apart from our mental conception of it, how can we know that there is anything out there but our mental conceptions? In this way, mind and matter appear to form an antinomy, and there doesn’t seem to be any logical way of determining which of the two positions is the better one.   That leads me to the next, related, problem of the apparently contradictory aspects of mind and matter.

Mind and matter, in a lot of ways, appear to be mutually exclusive.  For example, common sense holds that our mental states are free in a way that physical states are not.  We assume that, even when we have no control over an event, we can at least choose the way we react to it. We take comfort in the fact, for example, that we can choose to make lemonade out of lemons, so to speak.  More generally, common sense allows for free will. Contrast this with our conception of physical events, which we conceive to be products of causal necessity, linked in a never-ending causal chain. In addition, there is the sense in which some, although not all, mental phenomenon have a timeless characteristic about them.  The intangibility of ideas, for example, leaves them immune to the deleterious effects of time.  They are eternal, whereas physical phenomenon are in a state of constant change and transformation.

These problems lead me to reject the simple materialist position as leading to an ultimate explanation of reality.  It seems to me that the physical and the mental are distinct and irreducible properties. Yet I am unable to fall back to dualism as an adequate explanation either, primarily because a dualist position leads to a subsequent problem as to how an interaction between mind and matter is possible.  Rather, I am inclined to adopt a dual-aspect monism.  I tend to believe that mental and the physical are like two sides of the same coin.  Or, a better analogy might be to the wave-particle duality of physics: sometimes the phenomenon of light is better understood as a wave, while at other times, it behaves more like a particle. Thus, unlike many materialists, I find a Kierkegaardian definition of human nature very appealing. Man is “a synthesis of the infinite and finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.”  However, I understand this definition through the lens, not of dualism, but of dual-aspect monism.


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