One of the classic problems of philosophy, specifically the philosophy of mind.

The legacy of the problem can be traced back to Rene Descartes, (see Descartes' argument for dualism). It is a tricky issue to say whether he created it or discovered it, an issue full of the contradictions inherent in language and thought. It is similarly tricky to describe what the mind body problem is about. In fact, it seems to evaporate when you really describe it, making it seem, like other things to be a non-problem.

"Descartes cleavage," as my philosophy professor describes it, is the idea (fact?) that mind and body are different and separate. The mind and the body are separate things, and yet we seem to have both. Descartes proposed naively that the two interacted through the pineal gland. Other explanations of just "where" the mind "is" and how it communicates with the body seem equally silly.

Many philosophical theories have, over the past few centuries, tried to deal with the "problem" "created" by Descartes. Spinoza proposed the double aspect theory, in which both mind and body are effected by God, causing them to be in synch. There is also, idealism (only mind exists), materialism (only body exists), mind/brain identity (the mind just is the brain, except that theorists' emphasis is usually on the "brain" side) and other bouts of theoretical contortionism too numerous to mention.

My own view is that this problem is simply one of perception. We cannot resolve the mind/body problem because it is not a problem -- mind and body are the same thing. They are in no way separate things. They do not communicate any more than a computer communicates with its wiring. I've become more and more convinced of this the more I study about the science of the human brainmind. But, unlike many people, I have become less and less convinced that science, as it stands now, can tell the whole story of consciousness. Ken Wilber's books finally convinced me. This quote from The spectrum of Consciousness, talking about dualism in general, should sum things up nicely:

"...it is almost as if man were given two pictures of his body, one taken from the back, and the other from the front. In trying to decide which of these views was "really real," man divided into two camps: the Frontists, who firmly believed that only the picture taken from the front was real, and the Backists, who steadfastly insisted just the opposite. The problem was a tricky one, for each camp had to devise a theory to explain the existence of the other, and so the Frontists had just as much trouble exlaining the existence of the back as the Backists had in explaining the existence of the front. To avoid the contradiction, the Frontists spent their time running away from their backs, while the Backists were just as ingenious in devising ways to run away from their fronts. Occasionally the two would cross paths, yell obscenities at one another, and this was called philosophy."

Elsewhere, Wilber gets into the idea of a bodymind, a deeper reality of mind in which we acknowledge that mind and body are "not two." Try asking yourself: Would I say that I have a body, or that I am a body? If your answer was the first one, try defending the proposition in a debate. You may discover some interesting things.

After I noded this, I talked to a friend about it.

Me: I just noded the mind/body problem.
Him: What problem?
M: Exactly.
H: But what is it?
M: {insert explanation here}... but philosophers still treat it as a problem.
H: They must be bored.

To a significant degree the mind/body problem is a technical issue internal to academic philosophy, though it has complex relations to wider scientific and philosophical issues. It has become fashionable to say that physicalism solved the problem by showing how the mind is connected to -- or is -- the brain, and nervous system in general. This has been increasingly common among professional philosophers as cognitive science has taken off, and has always been common among neuroscientists, psychologists and other's with scientific leanings (though perhaps less so than one would suspect). In some respect this is true: science has provided overwhelming evidence that the mind and brain are one and the same, and found little evidence that any of our psychology inhabits a spiritual plane of existence. It seems natural to say the problem has been resolved and that we should move on to more important issues if only those pesky philosophers would acknowledge that the problem is an illusion.

The reason why solution hasn't been accepted by everyone in the philosophy community is simple: it doesn't address the mind that the critics believe needs explaining. There are very few philosophers who doubt that psychology is firmly grounded in the brain; almost no one seriously proposes that reason is the exclusive property of an immaterial soul anymore. They do claim, however, the physicalism, for all it's success, it silent on the issue of consciousness of the what-it-is-like sort (as opposed to wakefulness or attention, where science is doing quite well). In many respects this is an epistemological problem (the 'explanatory gap'): consciousness doesn't fit in physics because physics is designed to work with the objective world and can't provide us with information about the subjective elements that may exist. Perhaps there's no particular reason why consciousness couldn't be physical, but at this point we have no data on where in physics it could be. (Quantum mechanics -- vanilla QM; none of this revisionist stuff -- includes quite a bit of epistemology and other interesting philosophical issues, but it tends to beg questions, not answer them.) Solving this problem would take care of the 'where' and probably the 'when' of the mind/body problem once and for all, but leave the troubling 'how' and 'what'. ('Why' can go to your choice of theologians, physicists, or biologists.) Nevertheless, it would go a long way toward an eventual solution (or at any rate, cease-fire).

At some point epistemology gives way to metaphysics, which greets the problem with a quizzical look and vanishes into the study for several centuries to ponder just what 'experience' is. Among those metaphysicians who continue to believe that the M/BP is a problem -- which is to say, all who take their job seriously -- it seems to be largely agreed upon that materialism is wrong in some important way, even if no one can say just how. Dualism has never been a satisfactory answer simply because it isn't an answer, just a restatement of the problem. Idealism is better, but fares poorly in most other respects and once again doesn't offer much to explain consciousness. Recognition of the need for some sort of objective (insofar as the entire world wouldn't disappear in a puff of qualia if there were no observers) monism is nearly universal: there's no evidence the world isn't monistic and somewhat objective, and it makes things a lot easier if you don't have to work an interaction between worlds into the equation. Unfortunately, you are left a problem almost as large: how can something be both objective and subjective at the same time, and what do those two properties have in common that allows us to say that they are a unity? (Notice that we're on our way back to epistemology.) It has been suggested that this problem may be insoluble: not only may we not have the tools (intellectual and physical) needed to unravel the knot, but we may not be capable of understanding the answer if we found it. Unfortunately, Tthe most promising result of all of this speculation is only that people have started paying attention to the problem again. The last few years have a torrent of activity in journals and conferences on consciousness and the M/BP (the most (in)famous being Tucson I-IV), and considerable interest from beyond philosophy (oddly, primarily from physicists; psych and neurosci still haven't come around). While things aren't looking up at all, it's certainly a much more exciting time than a few decades ago.

(Postscript: All of this is ignoring the looming problem of intentionality, which is superficially easier to explain but surprisingly difficult once you begin. Consciousness and intentionality have long been linked, and it's entirely possible that consciousness will never be satisfactorily described without first tackling intentionality. Thus far few people have even tried to bind the two together, and no proposal has escaped harsh criticism (that is, harsh criticism of actual problems, not the criticism that accompanies philosophy jounals like noise on my phone line [see US West]). Aside from the never ending debate over where meaning lives -- in the mind or in the world -- little progress has been made since the term reentered the English language. On the other hand, philosophy seems to have this one all to it's own; at least we don't have worry about those pesky scientists coming in and trying to explain away all our subject matter.)

20000706

Back to Rene Descartes for a moment, here's some history.

When Descartes decided to prove that the world as we know it does indeed exist, he started with The Method of Doubt (showing why we might think that things are not as they seem); he went on with Cogito, Ergo Sum (showing that, at the very least, he did exist); and then by adding some faith in God into the mix, Descartes decided that he could be pretty sure that the basic truths (math, logic) are indeed true. But up to this point he has been working with the mind, and the material world is not all in your head. So all this stuff doesn't apply to sensory input, does it?

We would like to think that it does. But how could he be sure? Well, he came up with two arguments that seemed to prove that the mind is separate from the body.

Argument #1: I (my mind) is not dubitable (in doubt). But here I am, doubting my body. So my body is dubitable. And if two things do not share the same intrinsic properties, they cannot be the same thing.

But we can argue that... dubitableness is not an intrinsic property. You have to have a doubter to doubt, and as such, the property does not exist on its own, apart from the rest of the universe. Doubt is, in fact, an extrinsic property.

So... Argument #2: My mind is not divisible. But my body is (by cutting off a finger, for example). They have different intrinsic properties, so they are indeed different things.

But... I'm not sure how well this went over in Descartes time, but it's not accepted today. The mind does seem to consist of different 'parts'; ask any neurologist or psychologist. Of course, the brain is not the same thing as the mind, but the mind can indeed be lost 'in parts'; you can loose some memory, or some senses, or some rationality, etc.

Of course, the alternative, that mind is nothing more than a feeling that mysteriously arises from the functioning of the brain, is not accepted by everyone even today. All this historical review shows us is that Descartes, as was so often the case, falls short of the stringency currently expected in the field of philosophy. However, this does explain where certain common arguments and viewpoints first appeared. Needless to say, the mind/body problem is still being debated today, and there is no end in sight.

A Functional Understanding of Qualia: The Necessity of Qualitative Terms*

Most forms of modern dualism entail the belief that qualitative terms play no role in determining behavior. They decide that behavior can be fully accounted in terms of physical facts, and that because qualitative terms cannot be physical, they are external to behavioral processes. This view demonstrates a misconception of qualitative terms, ramifying from the illogical position that the explanatory gap entails an ontological difference between physical and mental events. Actually, it is apparent that qualitative terms are necessary to the functionality of most sensory systems, and furthermore that the employment of such sensory systems realizes a very practical understanding of consciousness.

The Explanatory Gap

The mind-body explanatory gap is the problem of understanding exactly how mental processes correspond to physical processes. The correlation of “C-fibres firing” to the feeling of “pain” is an external observation that may be – all technical criticism aside – perfectly practical. However, it fails to address the private nature of pain at all; the reason for the specific feeling that occurs when one is punched in the face is more complex than a few electrical charges traversing the passages of one’s nervous system. Indeed, the correlation of pain with “C-fibres firing” must be justified either behaviorally or functionally, as the private feeling of “pain” may be unique for every person, and must be characterized as either playing a particular role in the process of mental events, or having particular behavioral consequences. The fact that no “explanation” exists for the nature of private feelings constitutes the explanatory gap.

The mistake that too many philosophers make is concluding that this explanatory gap realizes an ontological difference between physical and mental events. While science is yet to provide us with an understanding of how “C-fibres firing” is actually relevant to the feeling of pain, there is no evidence that contradicts the notion that there is really only one “pain” that two physically identical people experience in correlation to a punch in the face. There may be different types of C-fibres, or C-fibres may have slightly different functions in every human body, but this does not necessarily mean that a set of physical circumstances does exactly prescribe specific qualitative terms. Basic intuition concludes that there is a concrete ontological connection between mental and physical events; after all, modern science is overwhelmingly physical, and to presume that explanations for private feelings vary from person to person almost seems skeptical for the sake of skepticism (If we are all physically similar, then why should we feel things so differently?).

The question of whether or not the explanatory gap can be filled is an issue that profoundly affects how it should be approached. Those who conclude that it cannot may well believe that there really is an ontological gap implied from it; again, however, the fact that Laplacian modeling appears to be set so distant in the future of science makes it seem hyper-skeptical to do so. It is already possible to build a robot that behaves as if it experiences qualitative states, so without a concrete definition of consciousness it is most reasonable to assume that the problem of explanation is solvable. And there will be more on defining consciousness later.

Deaf Zombies and Auditory Ants

David Chalmers’ Conceivability Argument is exemplary of irrational conclusions drawn from the presence of the explanatory gap. In his attempt to evidence non-physical facts, he proposes the potentially important difference between a strictly physical world and ours, but ignores the need to establish some understanding of consciousness. The argument posits that a world is conceivable in which all of the physical facts are identical to those of our world, but in which there is no consciousness. Instead of people, Earth is populated by Zombies that behave exactly as we do, but that lack awareness of the operations of their bodies. The supposed conceivability of this position is meant to illustrate that there is no account of consciousness in a strictly physical model, as our automatic behaviors should be exactly the same as when they are accompanied by conscious experience.

The problem with Chalmers’ argument is that it is not conceivable. It is founded in the principle that the physical events that Zombies undergo do not necessitate consciousness, as they are totally automatic; however, it is most reasonable to assume that particular physical events are ontologically identical to particular mental events, especially those physical events that are involved in sensation.

Chalmers accepts Thomas Nagel’s loose understanding of consciousness as “what it is like to be” something, and explicitly states in his writings that “there is nothing that it is like to be a Zombie.” The problem with this position is that it is impossible for entities that are physically identical to people to have sensations without having qualitative terms. Indeed, any entity that has sensory systems collects information from its environment according to the structure of those systems. Aural systems receive vibrations and represent those that are sensible as “sounds”, which do not exist for creatures without them, just as occipital systems receive light, and represent its visible elements as “color”. Chalmers must conceive of sensation as some sort of abstract causal happening, and fails to recognize that a sensation is, by definition, the subjective representation of environmental information to the rest of the body. For a Zombie to behave exactly as a person would, it would have to perceive reality in the same sensory terms as a person does, as represented by its sensory systems; and these sensory terms must be qualitative terms, due to their implied subjectivity. The Zombie’s sensory systems must provide it with a reality within which to operate, for otherwise there could be no operation; there must be something that it is like to be a Zombie, and this is totally paradoxical.

For what may be a clearer understanding of this, imagine that you are standing in a room with a Zombie and a chair. There is a PA speaker in one of the walls of the room, through which the words “Sit down in the chair” are transmitted. For you, this is a simple command to abide; when the words are transmitted through the speaker, their vibrations strike your ears, which represent them as electrical impulses to the temporal lobe. From there, the temporal lobe represents the earlier impulses to the rest of the brain in the form of other impulses, eventually causing you to look at the chair, walk over to it, and sit down. For the Zombie, this is more difficult. The Zombie’s ears receive the same vibrations as yours, and transmit the same electrical impulses; however, for the Zombie to be a Zombie, its temporal lobe cannot represent these electrical impulses. For this to happen would be for the Zombie to experience aural qualitative terms, because the part of its brain responsible for establishing an aural reality would be operative, which in turn would realize that there is “something that it is like to be a Zombie”. Of course, you are as subject to physics as the Zombie was – but for you, there is a necessary ontological coordination between the processes of your brain and the qualitative terms of “hearing”.

An even simpler, though maybe less helpful version of the story replaces your presence in the room with an ant’s. An ant does not have ears, but senses vibration through its legs; so when “Sit down in the chair” comes through the speaker, its sensation by the ant’s legs gives the ant “something that it is like” to be the ant at that moment; similarly, for the Zombie to hear through its ears there must be “something that it is like to be the Zombie” at that moment, a distinct sensory reality from, say, the ant’s. But of course the Zombie cannot functionally hear, because it lacks the ability to represent aural sensations with qualitative feels.


*It should be noted that I use the term "qualitative term" rather than "quale" to realize the difference between a totally non-physical property and an ontologically physical property, respectively.

I suggest a possible solution to the dualism question (i.e. on whether the mind is made of matter, or of some other kind of substance). It has become common knowledge that brainwaves can be measured when humans think or feel. Doctors know enough to predict that when people feel certain emotions or work on certain types of problems, these brainwaves will appear in certain parts of the mind. Furthermore, they know that these brainwaves result from electrical impulses travelling down neurons, which in turn are arranged in patterns.

It turns out that computers work in much the same way, except that the electrical connections of a computer are both fewer and static. In the world of computing, the important objects (eg processes, files and messages) are made of information. If they can be said to have any connection to the physical world, it is that their storage consists of arrangements of physical media. In fact, a file is considered to persist when it is moved from one storage medium to another, or from one part of a storage medium to another. We know that these objects exist because they persist through time, that they can be detected and changed using CPU hardware and that they can interact with each other. Clearly, they have a different type of existence, which I call an informational existence.

I suggest that the human mind and the mental objects within it have the same sort of informational existence as the virtual objects on a computer. It is not made of a different type of substance, but rather is made of persistent arrangements of physical reality. This requires a leap of faith because we haven't figured out how to create artificial intelligences, but at this point the leap isn't very large. Perhaps we should call it a hop of faith.

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