Discussion Group: Philosophy of Mind – Is There a Ghost in the Machine?

The Socratic Society’s Philosophy Discussion Group meets again on Tuesday, May 20th in Morven Brown 372 from midday until 2pm. Anyone with an interest in the topic is welcome, and you can come and go at any time; you don’t need to be there for the whole two hours.

The topic is Philosophy of Mind: Is There a Ghost in the Machine?

What is the relationship between body and mind? Descartes argued that, while they interact causally, mind and body are two distinct things. The body occupies space and is divisible, while the mind does not exist in space and is fundamentally *in*divisible. From the perspective of modern neuroscience, Cartesian dualism looks crazy, and philosophers like David Armstrong and John Searle have argued that any theory of mind must be compatible with a materialist account of reality.

One approach that meets this criterion is the mind-brain identity theory, a theory which has a strong connection to the history of philosophy in Australia. In 1956, the English philosopher U.T. Place, then at the University of Adelaide, published a paper titled “Is Consciousness a Brain Process?”. His colleague J.J.C. Smart, now emeritus professor of philosophy at Monash University, followed up with “Sensations and Brain Processes”. Both argued that mental events like sensations are identical with physical events in the brain. Conscious experiences like sensations *just are* brain processes, in the same way that lightning *just is* an electrical discharge.

Another approach compatible with a materialism is functionalism. On this account, a mental state is not strictly identified with a particular physical state, but instead relies for its definition on the role, or function, it plays within the cognitive system it belongs to. Functionalists talk of mental states being *realised* by physical states. A state like pain can be multiply realised: it can be realised by different physical states in different kinds of organisms, but it always fulfils the same functional role.

Efforts to explain consciousness in strictly materialist terms have come under attack from some contemporary philosophers, among them Thomas Nagel and Colin McGinn, who argue that there are aspects of conscious experience that materialism will never be able to capture. Can all our conscious experiences be reduced to physico-chemical processes, or is there still a role for a ghost in the machine?

See you on Tuesday!


4 responses to “Discussion Group: Philosophy of Mind – Is There a Ghost in the Machine?

  1. The “possibly related posts” are surprisingly relevant.

  2. I spied an interesting transcript of a related discussion between Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins from 1999: Is Science Killing the Soul?


    Pinker: “It should now be clear to any scientifically literate person that we don’t have any need for a ghost in the machine, as Gilbert Ryle memorably put it. Many kinds of evidence show that the mind is an entity in the physical world, part of a causal chain of physical events. If you send an electric current through the brain, you cause the person to have a vivid experience. If a part of the brain dies because of a blood clot or a burst artery or a bullet wound, a part of the person is gone — the person may lose an ability to see, think, or feel in a certain way, and the entire personality may change. The same thing happens gradually when the brain accumulates a protein called beta-amyloid in the tragic disease known as Alzheimer’s. The person — the soul, if you want — gradually disappears as the brain decays from this physical process.”

  3. “From the perspective of modern neuroscience, Cartesian dualism looks crazy”

    I think the term ‘Cartesian Dualism’ is often equivocal. Sometimes it is used to refer to a particular theory (or a collection of theories) historically held by Descartes. Other times it is used to refer to a number of general positions available in philosophy of mind (i.e. substance dualism, interactionalist dualism) which find their historical precedent in Descartes but have several varieties.

    If by ‘Cartesian dualism’ you mean Descartes’s claim that the pineal gland is the nexus of interaction between immaterial and material substance, then your statement is correct but trivial. On the other hand, if by ‘Cartesian dualism’ you mean the general thesis of ‘substance dualism’, or even the general thesis of ‘interactionist dualism’, then I think your statement is mistaken. For, depending on what background philosophical assumptions one is willing to accept, modern neuroscience can be compatible with both substance dualism and interactionist dualism.

  4. How much of who we are is the chemistry between our synapses? Now there’s a question 😉

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