PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Friday, November 09, 2018

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Are the psychological and physical realms independent?

Dear Friends,

This Sunday we are discussing a rather long question: Are the
psychological and physical realms independent?

It is a long question but it is not a difficult question since as I
indicate in my essay it is a matter of language how we understand this
question. If you don't feel like reading the essay just have a look at
my conclusion.

Are the psychological and physical realms independent?

This question was originally: Are the psychological and physical realms
ontologically independent? We dropped the "ontologically" not to occupy
too much space in the subject heading and also not to make Sunday's
topic sound too complicated.

So basically the question starts with the old mind-body problem,
although the present question is slightly different since it is about
the psychological and physical realms. You will remember that the key
issue about the mind-body problem is how can the soul or mind interact
with the body.

Descartes is usually credited with introducing the problem in modern
thinking by trying to establish what is real or true. He first proposed
to distinguish between thinking things (beings) and matter which is
unthinking. Then he moved on to distinguish between thinking as
something unextended, because he can think of matter not existing, and
matter as an extended thing but does not think. The problem with the "I
think therefore I am" (French: je pense, donc je suis) is how can the
thinking part, i.e the mind or soul influence the body?

We can make an allowance for Descartes in that he was influenced or
constrained by the role of religion in the belief that humans have a
soul, and this soul is not physical. So if the soul is not a physical
thing than what is it? And to add confusion to false thinking we were
also supposed to believe that animals do not think because they have no
soul. Even though they seem to do many things that humans do as well:
like be happy, be scared, ask for food and so on.

For me Descartes failed in his philosophy (the cogito) by the fact that
he never doubted the language he was using for his ideas. Today, thanks
to Wittgenstein, we accept that language is a public affair. Descartes
should have said, "I know French and Latin, so I am a human being", but
that another story!

Today, mind is used in psychology to cover a myriad of behaviours and
mannerisms such as: "…..set of cognitive faculties including
consciousness, perception, thinking, judgement, language and memory.
(Wikipedia)". Of course, this is not a sophisticated definition of mind
in psychology but an illustration how far the meaning of mind has
changed from something akin to a soul to something akin to behaviour and

This evolution of the term mind or should we say "meme" suggests that
whatever mind is and more importantly what it is suppose to be has moved
on from the realm of philosophy into the realm of psychology. In a way
this is the role of philosophy, to clear the confused thinking in our
head. But psychology tries to solve people's behavioural/mental
problems, and at the other end how these mind components work. But to
put a cat amongst the pigeons, how can we explain in psychology the
Heisenberg uncertainty principle in Quantum Mechanics of the observer
affecting the result of what the observer is trying to discover?

Indeed our topic limits this issue of duality to the scope of the human
set of "behaviour" and the physical world. This is important in that
today we recognise that the physical world interacts and influences our
behaviour. My consciousness is an experience of things around me which I
also recognise many to be independent of me. And unlike Descartes, my
memory of the nice cake I had in Gijon last year was not a fiction of
some evil god, but a real temptation that no reasonable person would
resist from outside the tea shop.

But we still have to ask whether the mind, whatever it is, or the
psychological, as a modern term to what eons ago was called the soul or
mind or whatever term was the fashion at the time. Indeed today we
accept that the brain (and nervous system) is where the mind inhabits
and our consciousness, and language, and memory and so on happen in the
brain. But the problem of duality still exists in the form of The
Mind/Brain Identity Theory (see The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Basically this identity theory suggests that states of the mind are
states of the brain although the mind is not necessarily the brain. The
Encyclopedia article gives the example of saying something like "She has
a good mind" as equal to "She has a good brain" but not "Her mind weighs
fifty ounces (1.4Kg)". But the problem is not one of language, of
replacing the word mind with brain or vice versa; it a problem of
ontology. Meaning, at the very least, that mind and brain are entities
with their own identity. The way I understand this is not to compare
steam and ice as being states of water, but with orange juice and brandy
being different forms of "water" or "liquid".

So is the mind or the psychological independent, i.e. different, from
the body or the physical world? Much as I hate to go contrary to ideas
in other disciplines, this issue of psychological/physical is no less a
confused state of our natural language than Descartes' failure to
consider that language can also be a fiction of some evil deceiver.

To ask the question "what is X?" in science is to fall into some form of
Aristotelian category or taxonomy: basically a language exercise in the
hope of converting large amounts of information into tidy parcels of
patters our brain can cope with.

The scientific question we should be asking is "what causes X?" and then
maybe move on to "How is X caused?"  The scientific question should not
be what is the mind? Or what is consciousness? Or what is language? But
what causes consciousness etc etc? Today we are beginning to come round
to talking about causality in human beings. Indeed, I would argue, there
is only the brain, and that we have the ability to speak about
consciousness and so on is an achievement of how powerful our brain is
to be able to create a tool like language and that our brain is able to
make sense of steam and ice!!

So, expressions like "she has a good brain" and "her mind weighs 1.4kg"
are not problems of ontology, or the physical or whatever, but a
capacity of our brain making sense of these perceptual stimuli. At this
point I have to repeat my mantra that the "mind is what the brain calls
itself in polite society." The collective brains of past and present
people have created this tool called language that can help us
distinguish such statements as "I have a headache" and "I have tooth
ache" and still recognize the semantic concept of pain.

Why is it important, therefore, to establish whether the psychological,
or mind, is independent from the physical? The reason is basically the
same people like Descartes wanted to establish what is true, or what is
real, precisely to establish what is moral and what is the good? In the
17th century it was acceptable to assume that what the king said was
good, in the same way that good was what god said was good.

But what is good or what is moral or ethical does not bring an iota of
goodness in the world. How to cause goodness does bring about goodness
in the world. The cake pâtissier in Gijon knows how to make goodness.
Doctors who care and maybe cure their patients know how to create
goodness? Politicians who provide a political environment of fairness
and justice know how to cause goodness. Our concern should not be what
is the psychological but what causes the psychological?

Best Lawrence

tel: 606081813
Gran Clavel (Café-Bar): Gran vía 11, esquina C/ Clavel, 28013—Madrid

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Are the
psychological and physical realms independent?

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