The absurdity of mind as machine

History dissolves the mind-body problem

Our inability to explain consciousness and intentionality is an entirely modern problem. Before the modern epoch, very few would have thought it sensible to ask whether it was the soul or the organism to which mental acts belonged, argues David Bentley Hart. Since every attempt to fit mental phenomena into a physicalist narrative must prove a failure, we should consider revising our governing physicalist paradigm.


Despite rumors to the contrary, there is no such thing as an empirical science of consciousness. Nor could there be. There are, of course, cognitive sciences, and our knowledge of the correlations between certain mental states and certain brain states is advancing at a fairly persistent pace. But correlation is not causation; and here the two sides of the correlation are so qualitatively unlike one another that all that empirical investigation can tell us is that minds and bodies are not functionally separable in our normal experience (which, frankly, we already know). But consciousness simply cannot be explained by the mechanics of sensory stimulus and neurological response, because neither stimulus nor response is, by itself, a mental phenomenon; neither, as a purely physical reality, possesses conceptual content, intentional meaning, or personal awareness. The two sides of the correlation simply cannot be collapsed into a single observable datum, or even connected to one another in a clear causal sequence, and so not only can the precise relation between them not be defined; it cannot even be isolated as an object of scientific scrutiny. An electrical pulse is not a thought or a sensory impression; or at least, if it is, we have no language for describing—or conceptual grammar for understanding—that arcane identity.

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The reason for this is almost banal: consciousness, uniquely, is not a third-person phenomenon available to objective description; it is first-person all the way down. And yet it is an indispensable prejudice of the modern method that a verifiable scientific description must be an entirely third-person narrative of structural and causal connections and correspondences. On principle, it is precisely the first-person perspective that must be subdued, and even ideally banished from our investigations, in order for a properly “scientific” account to emerge from observation and experiment and theory. Any remainder of the pure subjective constitutes only an area of unintelligibility. And this, needless to say, becomes a fairly intractable difficulty when the phenomenon under investigation happens to be subjectivity as such.  The problem is one not merely of appropriate scientific technique, but one of logic.

It is also an entirely modern problem.  At least, conceptually speaking, it was really not until the seventeenth century that it ever occurred to anyone that there was such a thing as the “mind-body problem. There were, of course, differing models of the relation between the material and mental dimensions of reality; but it was always assumed that the former was inherently disposed to the latter, and shared something of its nature (this was true even of Platonic “dualism”). In Aristotelian tradition, to cite the most obvious example, “soul” (psychē) was understood as at once the rational principle of the body’s form, the source of its life, and the reality of mind or consciousness. It was only in the early modern period that a picture emerged of the physical order as essentially mechanical in nature and so devoid of anything intrinsically “mindlike” in its structure. And in time, despite its ungainliness, this notion managed to crowd millennia of refined reflection out of cultural consciousness.

Perhaps this was inevitable. The extraordinary fruitfulness of modern scientific method was achieved, before all else, by a severe narrowing of investigative focus; and this involved shedding an older language of causality that seemed an obstacle to empirical investigation. The first principle of the new paradigm had to be a negative one: the exclusion of any consideration of formal and final causes, and even of any distinct principle of “life,” in favor of an ideally inductive method purged of metaphysical prejudices, allowing all natural systems to be conceived as mere machine processes, and all real causality as an exchange of energy through antecedent forces working upon material mass. All physical events came to be seen as reducible to the mechanics of local motion; even complex organic order came to be understood as the emergent result of physical forces moving through time from past to future as if through Newtonian space, producing consequences that were all mathematically calculable, with all discrete physical causes ultimately reducible to the most basic level of material existence. 


At least, conceptually speaking, it was really not until the seventeenth century that it ever occurred to anyone that there was such a thing as the “mind-body problem.”


Then again, it is at least worth noting that this shift in paradigm also involved a fairly radical misrepresentation of the past. By the late sixteenth century, “higher causes” like form and finality had already been mechanized, so to speak; they had already come to be seen as extrinsic forces operating upon physical processes. And, seen thus, they soon came to seem as not only superfluous, but little more than features of an inferior and obsolete mechanical model. In fact, neither Aristotle’s concept of an “aitia” nor any scholastic concept of a “causa” actually corresponds to what we today mean when we speak of a “cause.”  A better rendering might be “explanation,” “rationale,” “logical description,” or (still better) “rational relation.”  The older fourfold nexus of causality—the material, the formal, the efficient, and the final—was not, that is to say, a defective attempt at modern physical science; it was chiefly a grammar of predication, describing the inherent logical structure of anything that exists insofar as it exists, and reflecting a world in which things and events are at once discretely identifiable and yet part of the larger dynamic continuum of the whole.  It was a simple logical picture of a reality in which both stability and change can be recognized and described.

Moreover, its practical exclusion from the sciences was always something of a fantasy.  Even as a method, the mechanical model is only so useful.  Pure induction is an impossible ideal.  In the life sciences, for instance, organisms can only very rarely be investigated without any hypothetical appeals to purpose whatsoever, or without treating organic structures as intentional systems. And it is only a metaphysical prejudice that dictates that purposive language is no more than a useful and dispensable fiction.

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Still, the mechanical philosophy had just enough utility about it in the project of mastering nature that we were willing to overlook its essentially metaphorical nature. While, at first, many of the thinkers of early modernity were content to draw brackets around physical nature, and to allow for the existence of realities beyond the physical, namely mind, soul, disembodied spirits, and God. They necessarily imagined the latter as being essentially extrinsic to the purely mechanical order that they animated, inhabited, or created. But, of course, this ontological liberality was unsustainable. Reason abhors a dualism. Any ultimate ground of explanation must be one that unites all dimensions of being in a simpler, more conceptually parsimonious principle. Thus, inevitably, what began as method soon metastasized into our culture’s tacit metaphysics, almost by inadvertence. For a truly scientific view of reality, it came to be believed, everything—even mind—must be reducible to one and the same mechanics of motion. Those brackets that had been so helpfully drawn around the physical order now became the very shape of reality itself. The tinted filter through which we viewed nature was mistaken for an unveiling of its deepest principles. Method was transformed into ontology.

The consequence of this was, as I have said, the generation of a conceptual impasse that had never previously occupied our thoughts. Before the modern epoch, therefore, very few would have thought it sensible to ask whether it was the soul or the organism to which mental acts belonged, not because the prevailing paradigm of human life was dualistic, but because it was not (at least, not in the modern mechanistic sense). Once, however, the prevailing metaphysical picture of the human being came to be a stark division between the machine of the body and its resident ghost, philosophy was confronted by the false dilemma of trying to determine which of the two was really the seat of the mind. For a short time, the ghost enjoyed that grand eminence; but ghosts are rather ineffectual in the physical order, when one thinks about it, and so in fairly short order the mind had to be assigned instead to the machine. Yet machines do not think; neither do they experience anything; they are composites of inert parts extrinsically organized to perform functions imposed upon them from without by beings who do think and experience things, and nothing more.


What began as method soon metastasized into our culture's tacit metaphysics, almost by inadvertance. For a truly scientific view of reality, it came to be believeed, everything - even mind - must be reducible to one and the same mechanics of motion.


This is the special absurdity of allowing an artificial method appropriate to certain isolated questions to hypertrophy into a universal judgment on all of reality, including those of its aspects to which such a method cannot possibly apply. I have known even trained physicists, who should know better, who speak as if Laplace was correct, and that a superlatively intelligent demon who knew all the present dispositions of the atoms composing the universe could infallibly predict—from the bottom up—all future events, including my actions at this moment. But this is nonsense. To whatever degree I am a physical system, I am also an intentional “system” whose mental events take the forms of semeiotic (symbolic, interpretive) determinations, and whose actions are usually the consequences of intentions that are irreducibly teleological. As such, these intentions could appear nowhere within a reductive account of the discrete processes composing me as a physical event; final causes or intentional are not visible within any inventory of the impersonal antecedent physical events composing me.  Simply said, I have reasons for acting, and act according to reasons. The obvious physicalist riposte to this, of course, is to claim that all intentionality is in some sense illusory, or reducible to complex electrochemical brain events, which are in turn reducible to molecular description, and then to atomic description, and so on. But that too is obviously false (though that argument must be deferred for now).

Anyway, in the end every attempt to fit mental phenomena—qualitative consciousness, unity of apprehension, intentionality, reasoning, and so forth—into a physicalist narrative, at least as we have decided to define the realm of the physical in the modern age, must prove a failure. All those phenomena are parts of nature, and yet all are entirely contrary to the mechanical picture. This is why, among devout philosophical physicalists, such wild extremes as eliminativist reductionism and the materialist version of panpsychism are ever more in vogue.  The mental, it turns out, is no more reconcilable to the modern picture of material nature than it was in Descartes’s day. And that should make us consider whether we ought to revise our governing paradigm once more.

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