Touching a Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves by Patricia S. Churchland

Patricia Churchland is a well-known professor of philosophy. She is married to another well-known professor of philosophy, Paul Churchland. The Churchlands were profiled in The New Yorker in 2014 in an article called “Two Heads: A Marriage Devoted to the Mind-Body Problem”. They are both associated with a philosophical view known as “eliminative materialism”. Very briefly, it’s the idea that we are mammals, but with especially complex mammalian brains. and that understanding the brain is all we need in order to understand the mind. In fact, once we understand the brain sufficiently well, we (or scientists anyway) will be able to stop using (eliminate) common mental terms like “belief” and “desire” and “intention”, since those terms won’t correspond very well to what actually goes on in the brain.

So when I began reading Touching a Nerve, I expected to learn more about their distinctive philosophical position. Instead, Prof. Churchland describes the latest results in neuroscience and explains what scientists believe goes on in the brain when we live our daily lives, i.e. when we walk around, look at things, think about things, go to sleep, dream or suffer from illnesses like epilepsy and somnambulism. She admits that we still don’t understand a lot about the brain, but points out that neuroscience is a relatively new discipline and that it’s made a great deal of progress. I especially enjoyed her discussion of what happens in the brain that apparently allows us to be conscious in general (not asleep and not in a coma) vs. what happens when we are conscious of something in particular (like a particular sound), and her reflections on reductionism and scientism, two terms often used as pejoratives but that sound very sensible coming from her.

The closest she comes to mentioning eliminative materialism is in the following passage, when she seems to agree (contrary to my expectations given what I knew about the Churchlands) that common mental terms won’t ever wither away:

If, as seems increasingly likely, dreaming, learning, remembering, and being consciously aware are activities of the physical brain, it does not follow that they are not real. Rather, the point is that their reality depends on a neural reality… Nervous systems have many levels of organization, from molecules to the whole brain, and research on all levels contributes to our wider and deeper understanding [263].

I should also mention that the professor shares a number of stories from her childhood, growing up on a farm in Canada, that relate to the subject of the book. She also has an enjoyable style, mixing in expressions you might not expect in a book like this. For example, she says that reporting scientific discoveries “in a way that is both accurate and understandable” in the news media “takes a highly knowledgeable journalist who has the writing talent to put the hay down where the goats can get it” [256].

Here is how the book ends [266]:

Bertrand Russell, philosopher and mathematician, has the last word:

“Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cozy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.”

Rock on, Bertie.

The Subject’s Point of View by Katalin Farkas

In a nutshell, Professor Farkas argues that meaning is in the head after all. That’s the “internalist” position that most academic philosophers have rejected in favor of a newer position called “externalism”. That’s the idea that, in Hilary Putnam’s well-known phrase, “meaning ain’t in the head”.

Putnam argued for his position by describing a thought experiment in which two guys named Oscar are exactly the same in every way and live on two Earth’s that seem to be the same in every way too. They both call the clear, tasteless liquid around them “water”, but it’s years before anyone on either planet has figured out what water is made of. The thing is that, without anyone knowing it yet, the water on Earth is H2O (as we now know) but on Twin Earth it’s XYZ (i.e. not H2O). The question is: “What do Oscar and his twin mean by the word “water”?” Putnam and the other externalists think that they mean different things when they each use that word. (You can read more about the thought experiment here.)

Farkas, on the other hand, thinks that the great 17th century philosopher René Descartes was basically right. Meaning is a psychological phenomenon. If Oscar and his twin on that other Earth have the exact same conscious thoughts about what they both call “water”, the word has the same meaning for both of them, regardless of what water’s (unknown) molecular composition happens to be. 

Here’s the last paragraph of the book:

I have defended a certain conception of the mental, one I regard as developing Descartes’s fundamental insight about the mind: that the mind is essentially revealed from the subject’s point of view. I have shown that this conception lies at the heart of contemporary internalist theories. I have considered an objection against the notion of internally individuated content [or meaning] and found it wanting. Hopefully, we can now give back the subject and her point of view the proper place they deserve.

I also accept the internalist position, which is probably the main reason I enjoyed the book. The author’s discussion of sense and reference was especially helpful, but it’s not a book for anyone unfamiliar with the topic.

The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory by David J. Chalmers

The Conscious Mind is one of those philosophical works that becomes famous because it features interesting arguments in support of implausible conclusions. Chalmers argues for property dualism, the thesis that mental properties are fundamentally different from physical properties. In other words, mental states are not equivalent to, cannot be reduced to, and do not logically supervene on brain states. This is a more plausible view than the traditional dualist claim that there are mental substances (minds or souls) in addition to physical substances, and that the mental and physical substances somehow interact.  

Chalmers agrees that there are psycho-physical laws that relate brain states and mental states, but argues that physical properties and mental properties are ontologically distinct. Maybe this is the correct view, but Chalmers goes further when he begins to discuss a possible fundamental theory of consciousness. He thinks that we should ascribe consciousness to any system that exhibits the same causal relationships as a brain, e.g. automated systems, John Searle’s Chinese Room translation scheme, and Ned Block’s billion minds linked together by radio. Since he views consciousness as a fundamental property of the universe, he thinks that rocks and even sub-atomic particles might possess some simple form of proto-consciousness. He suggests that panpsychism is a real possibility. He also argues that the simplest interpretation of quantum mechanics involves minds branching into other minds, so that each of us is one of a vast set of similar minds, all having split off from our infant selves.

The naturalistic or property dualism that Chalmers advocates, featuring “physical properties, separate phenomenal properties, and a lawful connection between the two”, is certainly worth considering as a philosophical theory of mind. If a property is merely a way of being, maybe mental properties (what it is like to have experiences or to be an X) are fundamentally different from physical properties. However, his views on what systems or objects might be conscious are much less plausible, despite the many ingenious arguments that he offers.  (7/25/11)

Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind by Wilfrid Sellars

This is actually a long essay, which I read in a collection of essays by Sellars called Science, Perception and Reality. But the essay has been published separately as a book, with an introduction by Richard Rorty and study notes by Robert Brandom, and since I’ve read that introduction and those notes, I’m listing Sellars’s essay as a book.

More to the point, “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind” is an attack on what Sellars calls the “Myth of the Given”, his term for the view that our knowledge of the world is based on basic or foundational beliefs, and that we derive such basic beliefs from what is “given” to us by sense perception. In particular, Sellars focuses on the philosophical theory that our fundamental knowledge of the world is knowledge of sense data.  Sense data are thought to be the particular impressions that we are aware of when we perceive the world. According to this theory, when I perceive a red apple, for example, I actually experience a red expanse of color, which may or may not represent an actual physical object. Philosophers who accept the sense data theory believe that our knowledge of the world rests on the foundation provided by such sense data.

Sellars criticizes this view in various ways, for example, by arguing that language about how something appears to us (like the language of sense data) is logically dependent on language about how things actually are (like the language of physical objects). Sellars also argues that the sense data theory fudges the clear distinction between non-cognitive impressions (sentience) and cognitive beliefs (sapience) — beliefs belong to the “space of reasons” and sense impressions don’t. In sum, “one could not have observational knowledge of any fact unless one knew many other things (i.e. had the relevant concepts) as well”.  In Brandom’s words, “one can’t think until one has learned to speak”, and one can’t speak until there is a community of speakers engaged in the social practice of speech (which includes giving and asking for reasons).

The last part of the essay is devoted to his own myth, which is supposed to explain how human beings came to talk about sense impressions in an intersubjective way, as theoretical entities. I didn’t find Sellars’s arguments or explanations convincing enough to rid me of the urge to take sense data or foundationalism seriously. But this is a difficult work that seems to deserve detailed study.  (10/13/10)