There is a distinction drawn in theories about the human mind between ‘monist’ and ‘dualist’ understandings of how it works. Dualists, like Descartes, see the mind as essentially separate from the body. Monists believe that “the mind is what the brain does,” and that there is no distinction between the two.

The position of the two views in society is an odd one, as an excellent Paul Bloom lecture discusses. We can readily understand situations that presume dualism: the continued life of the soul after death, the idea that the mind of one person could be transferred into another person or animal, etc.

Hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, Homer described the fate of the companions of Odysseus who were transformed by a witch into pigs. Actually, that’s not quite right. She didn’t turn them into pigs. She did something worse. She stuck them in the bodies of pigs. They had the head and voice and bristles and body of swine but their minds remained unchanged as before, so they were penned there weeping. And we are invited to imagine the fate of again finding ourselves in the bodies of other creatures and, if you can imagine this, this is because you are imagining what you are as separate from the body that you reside in.

Clearly, we are able to imagine minds that would remain essentially unchanged, even when altered into a radically different physical form.

At the same time at dualism seems to make intuitive sense to people, all the physical evidence we have is on the side of a monist view, in which ‘mind’ arises from the physical properties of body:

Somebody who hold a–held a dualist view that said that what we do and what we decide and what we think and what we want are all have nothing to do with the physical world, would be embarrassed by the fact that the brain seems to correspond in intricate and elaborate ways to our mental life.

Somebody with a severe and profound loss of mental faculties–the deficit will be shown correspondingly in her brain. Studies using imaging techniques like CAT scans, PET, and fMRI, illustrate that different parts of the brain are active during different parts of mental life. For instance, the difference between seeing words, hearing words, reading words and generating words can correspond to different aspects of what part of your brain is active. To some extent, if we put you in an fMRI scanner and observed what you’re doing in real time, by looking at the activity patterns in your brain we can tell whether you are thinking about music or thinking about sex. To some extent we can tell whether you’re solving a moral dilemma versus something else. And this is no surprise if what we are is the workings of our physical brains, but it is extremely difficult to explain if one is a dualist.

The lecture includes many other examples showing why monism and the world as we observe it seem to mesh.

To me, the importance of this seems to go beyond settling scientific and/or metaphysical questions. It certainly seems plausible that beings that intuitively perceive themselves as essentially independent from physical reality will develop high-level theories about the world that take that into account, in areas as diverse as their religious, political, and moral views. By the same token, if one view really is far more defensible than the other, on the basis of observations and experiments we perform, that quite possibly has moral and political implications. It is all quite interesting, in any case, and I recommend that people consider watching the lecture series. The videos, transcripts, and slides are all available for free online.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan April 13, 2010 at 9:52 am

” Monists believe that “the mind is what the brain does,” and that there is no distinction between the two.”

“For instance, the difference between seeing words, hearing words, reading words and generating words can correspond to different aspects of what part of your brain is active.”

The mistake here is, of course, to dissolve dualism by positing the causality to run in one direction only. To say the mind arises from the brain is not only an unscientific assertion (the data supports just as well the hypothesis that the brain arises from the mind), but it remains dualistic – you have two levels of explanation, one primary, one secondary.

The real monism is to say the mind is the brain and the brain is the mind. This is clearly true when you look at the study of the placebo effect – what we believe (that is, a spontaneous free activity of the mind) has real effects on the brain (an empirical, mechanical object). But actually, this remains dualistic as well – we are at the same time spontaneous and mechanistic, so we remain dualists.

Dualism arises essentially from the contradiction between our best explanations of scientific and moral life. In theoretical explanations of the world, it is always profitable to assume your understanding of the phenomena could have a total grasp, could understand the object completely (including its future and past). However, in moral life, interaction with others pre-supposes that we do not know others in this perfect, totalizing manner. It might be the case that the reason we can develop different sorts of relationships with humans as we can with rocks has to do with this essential epistemic difference we bear towards them: we always encounter humans as free – and this means as the kind of beings who constantly exceed our grasp.

Tristan April 13, 2010 at 10:03 am

“Clearly, we are able to imagine minds that would remain essentially unchanged, even when altered into a radically different physical form.”

This doesn’t really prove anything – we’re able to imagine lots of things which are wrong. Our “minds” rely not only on our “brain” but on our whole body for sustenance, and information. If we all of a sudden had a very different kind of nervous system, there would be very essential changes to our mind.

What makes this even more dubious is the strength of the extended mind hypothesis – which argues that your mind is essentially changing all the time as you find different worlds to engage in.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind_extension

. April 13, 2010 at 10:05 am
Milan April 13, 2010 at 10:07 am

Also, low resolution images of my actual brain, as generated by an MRI machine in Oxford.

They won’t give high resolution images to experimental participants, because too many become convinced they have brain tumours and then go bother neurosurgeons about it.

Milan April 13, 2010 at 10:08 am

This doesn’t really prove anything – we’re able to imagine lots of things which are wrong. Our “minds” rely not only on our “brain” but on our whole body for sustenance, and information.

The point Bloom is making is that we are dualists by instinct, which contrasts in an interesting way with the lack of physical evidence for dualism.

Milan April 13, 2010 at 10:11 am

Written by the same man, and published in Nature, How do morals change?

“Emotions such as empathy and disgust might be at the root of morality, but psychologists should also study the roles of deliberation and debate in how our opinions shift over time”

More publications

Milan April 13, 2010 at 10:34 am

To say the mind arises from the brain is not only an unscientific assertion (the data supports just as well the hypothesis that the brain arises from the mind), but it remains dualistic – you have two levels of explanation, one primary, one secondary.

Arguably, the key point of monism is that the brain is a requirement for the mind. You can’t have the latter without the former. Your body can do a few basic things without the brain (sucking, in newborns; limb flexion in withdrawal from pain; erection of the penis; vomiting), but it cannot have a rich mental life. Destroying part of the brain seems capable of destroying part of the mind. All told, this looks like bad news for the afterlife, reincarnation, etc.

Also, it isn’t clear on what basis “what we believe” is “a spontaneous free activity of the mind.” It can be explained just as well, it seems, with reference to the behaviour of sensory cells and neurons, in the presence of external stimuli. This is hardly ‘spontaneous’ or ‘free’ in the ordinary senses of those words.

I agree that the practicalities of life require us to treat other humans (and perhaps some other animals) as entities that have agency and thus responsibility. This does not, however, constitute evidence that the world actually is as we must pretend for it to be.

Tristan April 13, 2010 at 10:56 am

“the key point of monism is that the brain is a requirement for the mind.”

The mind is also a requirement for the brain. But, you disagree because you think:

“it isn’t clear on what basis “what we believe” is “a spontaneous free activity of the mind.”

Thought is free, this is essential to what “thought” is. If there isn’t spontaneous free thought then there isn’t thought at all, there is just the bouncing around of neurons. This isn’t thought because thought pre-supposes freedom. This doesn’t mean that thought doesn’t exist – of course you could be right and we aren’t really “thinking” in the sense we understand this term. Our most fundamental beliefs about the world have turned out to be radically false before.

I think that disagreement is mostly semantic (although, I think semantics are important because semantics means “what we mean by what we say”).

The substantial disagreement concerns the nature of knowledge. If knowledge is essentially a pragmatic entity, a tool, an evolutionary advantage, then it doesn’t actually make sense to use phrases like “the world actually is as we pretend it to be” – all there is is us pretending, and that pretending serves us better or worse.

If knowledge is essentially pragmatic, then the question about whether we need a single explanation for all areas of life is just a practical question – does being universal about our epistemology actually serve life?

Milan April 13, 2010 at 11:03 am

It seems probable to me that we will discover new and deeply surprising things about human brains and minds, in the decades ahead, and that these will rightly influence our moral and political views.

The way we pretend the world to be does shift in response to new information (such as the discovery of evolution).

Tristan April 13, 2010 at 11:29 am

Sure, the question is, will our moral and political views be influenced in a way that makes them better servants of humanity. Of course, there remains the question whether those views we have now are adequate to the human potential.

Milan April 13, 2010 at 11:38 am

It seems virtually certain that new revelations will prompt both laudable and terrible behaviours in response.

Hopefully, there will be net improvements overall. For the most part, I think, improved understanding of the biological nature of human beings has contributed to improved human welfare. That is both the result of fairly direct consequences – like improved drugs and medical procedures – and of more abstract ones – like how ecology makes us more aware of our dependence on natural systems.

. May 2, 2010 at 8:26 pm

“I want to close this course by emphasizing two themes. The first one is a bit of humility. There are some very basic questions about the mind – and I’ve tried to be honest about this throughout the course–There are some very basic questions about the mind that nobody knows the answer to yet. We know the brain is the source of mental life but we don’t have any understanding at all about exactly how this happens, about how a physical object, a lump of meat, can give rise to conscious experience.”

Tristan May 3, 2010 at 3:38 am

We also don’t know that the brain is a “physical object” – this is an assumption we make about the world in scientific practice, and it usually serves us pretty well. Brain is one area where mechanistic interpretation breaks down, which is why neuro-plasticity is such an important field today. We know that, as we experience it, the brain is a physical object constantly being shaped by our will. However, will is not easily interpreted as a mechanism (Nietzsche got closest to this possibility when he interpreted being as such as “will to power”, making “life” or “will” the essense of existence as such – although not in the sense of a super-sensible pre-condition or determination). The best work tends to be done by those who reject the idea that the mind “arises” from the brain in any “exact” way – but rather interpret phrases like “the mind arises from the brain” as pragmatic conditions for a possibly useful insight on the one hand, and possible debilitating aporia on the other.

. May 13, 2010 at 4:10 pm

“There are the rushing waves…
mountains of molecules,
each stupidly minding its own business…
trillions apart
…yet forming white surf in unison.

Ages on ages…
before any eyes could see…
year after year…
thunderously pounding the shore as now.
For whom, for what?
…on a dead planet
with no life to entertain.

Never at rest…
tortured by energy…
wasted prodigiously by the sun…
poured into space.
A mite makes the sea roar.

Deep in the sea,
all molecules repeat
the patterns of another
till complex new ones are formed.
They make others like themselves…
and a new dance starts.

Growing in size and complexity…
living things,
masses of atoms,
DNA, protein…
dancing a pattern ever more intricate.

Out of the cradle
onto dry land…
here it is standing…
atoms with consciousness
…matter with curiosity.

Stands at the sea…
wonders at wondering… I…
a universe of atoms…
an atom in the universe.”

Richard Feynman

. July 2, 2010 at 2:09 pm

“In one way, post-genomic biology—biology 2.0, if you like—has finally killed the idea of vitalism, the persistent belief that to explain how living things work, something more is needed than just an understanding of their physics and chemistry. True, no biologist has really believed in vitalism for more than a century. Nevertheless, the promise of genomics, that the parts list of a cell and, by extension, of a living organism, is finite and cataloguable, leaves no room for ghosts in the machine.

Viewed another way, though, biology 2.0 is actually neo-vitalistic. No one thinks that a computer is anything more than the sum of its continually changing physical states, yet those states can be abstracted into concepts and processed by a branch of learning that has come to be known as information science, independently of the shifting pattern of electrical charges inside the computer’s processor.

So it is with the new biology. The chemicals in a cell are the hardware. The information encoded in the DNA is the preloaded software. The interactions between the cellular chemicals are like the constantly changing states of processing and memory chips. Though understanding the genome has proved more complicated than expected, no discovery made so far suggests anything other than that all the information needed to make a cell is squirreled away in the DNA. Yet the whole is somehow greater than the sum of its parts.”

. November 18, 2010 at 10:15 pm

Everything is made of atoms. That is the key hypothesis. The most important hypothesis in all of biology, for example, is that everything that animals do, atoms do. In other words, there is nothing that living things do that cannot be understood from the point of view that they are made of atoms acting according to the laws of physics. This was not known from the beginning: it took some experimenting and theorizing to suggest this hypothesis, but now it is accepted, and it is the most useful theory for producing new ideas in the field of biology.”

Feynman, Richard. Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher. p. 20 (paperback)
Emphasis in original

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