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pathways (essays)

John Dudley

It’s All in the Mind

What is a mind? How is it related to a body? Descartes answer was substance dualism. A person consists of an immaterial substance (mind/soul) attached to a material substance (a body). But this thesis fails a crucial test. An immaterial substance cannot move a body; therefore a mind cannot move a body. I shall assume that to have a mind one must first have a brain. This is a materialist perspective. Some weaknesses in this perspective will be described. I shall argue that minds do not necessarily exist as entities, that we nevertheless are aware of our own mental events and that we are aware that other people have similar events.

The mind cannot exist like a body or a collection of cells in a body. If it did somebody would have found it or at least given a rough description of its location. Also, things do not exist just because we can name them. We speak of unicorns but this does not make them exist. Just because we refer to something as a mind does not make it exist. Nevertheless, we are each aware of internal experiences in the most intimate way. Doubts and fears, the blue sky, the scent of flowers, all have an immediacy that is undeniable.

Now if mental events and brain events (i.e., physical events) are one and the same thing, then research into the mental events would be reduced to research into the brain. Even if mental events are taken to be properties of brain events then ultimately we are forced back to look to the physical for the explanation of the mental. This will get us nowhere for two reasons.

Firstly, a close inspection of a brain is doomed to be carried out at the third person perspective. If I could look at the bits of my own brain involved in any mental act I would register the firings taking place and say,”Ah that’s the redness of red!” I would still be unable to convey to anyone else the exact nature of this experience – how it feels for me. Secondly, if someone else were plugged in to my brain so that they registered all I saw and thought, then they would register all the mental acts as theirs. They would say, ‘That sky was blue.’ If pressed about the feeling of blueness as compared to their own feelings they would be forced to admit that this was their own feeling of blue.

Suppose two people were connected by an apparatus which allowed one person (A) to monitor the other’s (B’s) mental events – thoughts, feelings, sensory experiences and so on. Further suppose that the apparatus is graduated so that A can gradually increase the input of B’s thinking and experience into her own brain. Assuming that A was in a resting quietly in a cocoon, at what point does A become fully aware of the distinctive feel of B’s mental events? The question misses the point because A’s experiences can only ever be her own and no one else’s.

Let us imagine that by some advances in miniaturisation and virtual reality techniques we take a tour of someone’s brain. The guide points out a series of neurone firings, which we see as a pattern of lights in a network: he tells us that the subject is seeing some blue sky. “Fine,” we say, “ but where’s the blue?” We might also have asked, “Where is the person? The individual?” Our poor guide would be just as baffled. “Blue is that set of flashing lights,” he says.

Of course, we are inside the individual but where are the mental events? We still cannot get the subjective view. At last we realise that no physical explanation of this type can give access to the subjective perspective. It cannot be revealed by this sort of examination. A close inspection of a set of neurone firings will not give us the redness of red. Materialist approaches will reveal a lot about the brain. They will not reveal much about mental events or even about a repository of such events which could be called a mind.

One logical problem with materialism is causation. While it easy to imagine a physical event causing a mental event a (finger caught in a door elicits a pain experience). It is difficult to imagine a mental event causing a physical event. The method used is to say that events take place in a specific context. For example, I am enjoying a meal and I experience the desire for a glass of wine. The thought causes me to raise my arm to reach for the bottle. Of course, the sight of the wine could have caused the reaching out of the arm. In this case, it could be seen as an example of physical causation. The mental event could have been traced back to a physical event. In principle, it might well be possible to trace every event of whatever type back through a physical causal chain. This chain would include all those unforseen events in the physical environment. This view might be a little deterministic for some palates.

Physically what I am doing can, even if only in principle, be mapped out. The order of firings in the eye and brain can be described but the element of subjectivity; the essence of the way the wine tastes to me still eludes capture. I do not think that my taste of wine is to be appreciated by anyone else.

I taste the wine. I experience the world from my perspective, my subjective perspective. I experience the inner dimensions of pain, love and the football results. I converse with other people who seem to live similar lives. They seem to experience similar emotions. What is more, I am able to communicate hopes, fears, and phenomenal experiences with a fair degree of understanding on either side. One way forward might therefore be to look not for a mind but for an alternative way of describing mental events. Human beings are able to communicate to each other about the physical world and their own mental states with relative ease. They act in ways which seem to involve mental acts – thoughts. Dispositions to act in certain ways give a different perspective on the nature of the mental.

Gilbert Ryle said that mental acts are manifestations of dispositions to act in certain ways. Human beings possess dispositional properties. Actions that contain a mental component are not, according to Ryle, some physical manifestation of acts going on in a private mental theatre. They are what he calls actualisations of dispositions.

Ryle gives two simple examples of dispositions. Glass is brittle; when dropped it will shatter. The disposition becomes actualised when the glass is dropped on to the floor. Similarly, an habitual smoker has a ‘permanent proneness’ under certain conditions to smoke. The smoker lights up after a meal. The disposition has been actualised in a particular set of circumstances.

Different behaviours could obtain in the same set of circumstances. If it is cold outside I may turn up the heat, or put on a coat; I may think about my Christmas present list. Vast numbers of possibilities present themselves. In addition, a single mental state can be caused in different ways. I put my coat on if it is cold or if it is easier than carrying it or if I feel that it is a formal occasion. The dispositional approach is flexible. The description of mental events as actualisations of dispositions to act (or not act) has considerable force. It is flexible in that one disposition can be realised in a variety of circumstances. A disposition is not tied to one particular set of environmental states and brain states. It is however tied to behaviour as evidence of mental activity.

There is a serious problem with dispositions. My felt anger in a particular situation is an actualisation of my disposition to feel anger. This seems to be a dangerously circular way of defining anger (a mental state). What is the mental state of anger? Easy, it is an actualisation of my disposition to feel anger. What is this disposition? It is a feeling of anger actualised under certain circumstances. What are the circumstances? Well I could give you a massive list but in general they are ones in which I feel anger. We have not come very far here.

The dispositional model is useful as an explanation of behaviour. It could provide a useful signpost for cognitive neuroscientists in their research. A single disposition can be actualised in different ways. This gives a far more flexible platform for research than programmes which equate brain states in one way or another with mental states. However, in the process of reducing statements about the mind to statements about behaviour, or potential behaviour, something has been lost. The quality of the experience is missing. The painfulness of pain is not to be found in dispositions. But this need not cause alarm because the painfulness of pain is to be found in us. This is an assumption based on observed behaviour. I am certain of this felt quality of pain but what is my warrant for asserting this quality in others? I am certain of the felt quality of my phenomenal experiences but what about others?

One way forward here would be to argue that because of my experiences I know that I have mental events. People I know seem to be much like me. We converse on a range of subjects which include references to thinking, doubts, emotions and the like, therefore, by analogy, I assume that they have minds. I have an experience of happiness. I know this because I am directly in touch with it. Other people seem much like me. Therefore, they must have experiences much like me. This is a very weak argument because, logically, the others could be zombies. However, we use language, a publicly observable behaviour, to converse about the whole range of our experiences. To play the game of language we must have internalised a vocabulary and a complex set of rules.

Language is publicly observable behaviour that we use to communicate our phenomenal states, intentional states and moods. We are able to do this because we have learned to play language games. We can fill in gaps and take cues from contexts more or less perfectly. We know when ‘slab’ means a piece of cake or a piece of rock. However, language is public. It is not possible, according to Wittgenstein, to have a private or internal language. If this claim is true then it strikes at the whole notion of internal experience of the type that we habitually take for granted.

Wittgenstein uses the ‘beetle in a box’ argument.

If I say of myself that it is only from my own case that I know what the word ’pain’ means – must I not say the same of other people too?…..suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a ‘beetle’. No one could look at anyone else’s box, and everyone knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle…….but suppose the word ‘beetle’ had a use in these people’s language? If so it would not be used as the name of a thing…. That is to say: if we construe the grammar of the expression of sensation on the model of ‘object and designation’ then the object drops out of consideration as irrelevant.

There are two important points here. First, there is the question of how terms are given meaning. Clearly in the case of the pain sensations the pain is not to be defined as a private internally considered object. Secondly, the meaning of pain is defined by its public use. Since meanings are shared by groups of language users then all aspects of the mind that can be discussed are public and not private.

This argument stresses the close links between mental acts and behaviour – language is a form of behaviour. It also depends upon the link established between Wittgenstein’s metaphysic of meaning as use. He seems to be getting back here to an important point he made in The Tractatus that the meaning of many terms can only be shown and not said. There is a mistake then in treating propositions about sensations of pain, love and the like as propositions about ghostly internal entities. What gives meaning to such terms is the immediate context in which they take place. We get the message or not from the word and deed as they take place. When someone says,’Ouch!’ and flinches the meaning is shown more than said.

I listen to a play on the radio or a commentary on an event. I can follow a rugby match. The commentator and I have a good deal of common ground so that I can get something, but not all, of his feeling for the game. I get a picture of the game and can share some of his emotions. We must have something in common here in terms of language, knowledge and feelings. Our mutual understanding is not perfect but our mutual participation in the commentary demonstrates the fact that we have similar knowledge and understanding. More than this we have similar mental events. If we were to group these under the heading of the word ‘mind’, then we would both be seen to have minds.

One always arrives back to the fact of living here and now and that ‘this world is my world’. My experience tells me that I have mental events. They seem to be located internally. I usually call all these events my mind. Arguments, however, tell me that I cannot have a private internal language. Although these arguments are logically strong, I do not find them convincing. I am certain that I have a private version of this public language that enables me to take part in day-to-day affairs with a degree of efficiency.

Languages change over time. The meanings of words change over the years. Although we are all capable of following the rules of our languages we do not all share exactly the same meanings. If we did then languages would not change at all. Therefore, despite the public nature of the language, my use of it shows me that I indeed have private associations and feelings which I do not share. There are also things which I do not know. But my dealings with others show me that they experience mental events. Commonly these events are often said to take place’ in the mind’. What we refer to as minds seems to name a set of processes or mental events.

Subjective experience is just that – subjective. The feelings that go with it are personal. They can be expressed in public language in the full knowledge that my beetle may be a dung beetle and yours a stag beetle. The third person perspective may eventually reveal all there is to know about the workings of the brain and it may well unearth aspects of consciousness. No such research can reveal the personal quality of subjective experience or the exact location of a mind.


METZINGER, T. (ed.) (1995) Conscious Experience, Paderborn, Ferdinand Schonigh.

RYLE, G. (1949) The Concept of Mind London, Penguin (Peregrine) Books.

WITTGENSTEIN, L. (Trans ANSCOMBE, G. E.M.) (1958), Philosophical Investigations London, Blackwell.

WITTGENSTEIN, L (1922), Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, London , RKP