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B. Philosophy of Mind: 1st Student Essay

Derek Stevens

Is it true that we are always the best authority about our own mental states? What conclusions do you draw from your answer to that question regarding the distinction between the 'inner' and the 'outer'?

This question refers to 'mental' states, which for the purpose of this essay I assume to encompass all those states which we experience, for example feelings of joy, weariness, anticipation, pain, laughter, embarrassment, confidence, disappointment and the like, to avoid the suggestion that 'mental' might be taken to refer to only those conditions where we are actively aware of what we are thinking about. In speaking of 'brain' I will take it to include all the whole central nervous system together with all the linked sensory apparatus.

Firstly, there is a common claim that we have unique access to our own inner states. Do I have such privileged access to my mental states? This is a leading question since it immediately posits the existence of the entity nominated by 'I'. It is implied that the 'I' exists apart from this body and yet somehow inhabits this body, where, lounging in it's favourite armchair it calmly surveys all that takes place. Despite the fact that this method of reference has become deeply embedded in human psychology it is surely a fundamental category error, one which has caused an enormous amount of confusion in all discussion in this area. If I am frightened there is no 'I' which needs to examine by introspection my thoughts or feelings on the matter — I just am frightened, and I respond instinctively in the manner appropriate in the circumstances. There is no 'I' which asks if I am thirsty — I just am thirsty, only the degree is likely to matter.

My contention is that the indexical 'I' refers not to some mysterious ghostly observer but to the entire physical body of the speaker. True, it avoids of the clumsy circumlocution of 'this body is pleased to meet you...' or 'the person now speaking wants a banana...' etc, which perhaps explains its persistence in everyday speech. Furthermore, that there are no 'mental states' which require to be viewed by a secondary observer; that these 'mental states' are the given condition, at any one moment in time, of the synaptic connections and chemical states obtaining in the brain taken together with all other sensory conditions prevailing in the body. The realization of consciousness is brought about by the monitoring of one specialized part of the apparatus of the remainder, rendering this available to our output facilities which then become manifest in mental 'speech', images, intentions, desires and similar feelings.

The second attribute implied by the question is 'mental' states. I see no justification for talking about ' mental states' over and above brain states in this context since it serves no useful purpose and gives rise to the idea that there is some extra layer of activity. But adding this further level of functions adds nothing by way of explanation. The living brain is always in some state or other, some of these states we are aware of as they come to the forefront of our attention by way of feed-back loops, whilst others remain ticking away in the background, keeping our bodily functions working, alerting us to external stimuli and so on.

It follows that the relationship between 'I' and 'mental' is non-existent.

If this highly condensed picture is roughly true then clearly the only available reporter of these states of affairs is the body in which they occur. In this sense it is true that the reporter is the best authority, since, under normal conditions, he is the only one,. There may well arise conditions where there is a break-down of normal behaviour owing to a mal-functioning brain, by reason of injury, deterioration or psychological stress for example and in these cases a skilled observer may be able to assess with some degree of confidence what the internal feelings and propositional attitudes are likely to be. But no matter how well versed the interrogator is he will never immediately experience what the subject experiences since the reporting mechanism is safely contained by the other body, and up to the present time this remains private.

This not to say that at some future date we may be able to directly monitor one brain by another by, say, electronic devices. Assuming that this is achieved, what will be the result in terms of the 'inner/outer' experience? It is supposedly a philosophical problem that we can never know if your experience of red is the same as mine. But what does this mean, this 'same as'? What would count as being 'the same as' We will agree as to the measurement of wave-length of the reflected light which gives rise to the phenomenon but we have no means of comparing the resulting effect upon us, save that we have further agreed to refer to it by a certain word. If I am able to connect directly into your brain via our wonderful new machine there will be no little homunculus sitting in my head with the facility of viewing both your brain and mine. Your brain will be viewed by my brain, and it follows that if you are receiving red input the signals transferred will be available to me in the usual way, that is through the configuration of my brain states so that I will still perceive it as the red I usually see. (Note the significance here of the description 'signal' rather than 'information'. The former may be the carrier of information, like a morse signal or semaphore, but the signal is not converted into information until a sentient being perceives it.)

I conclude, then, that normally embodied persons receive and deliver sensory data and by the organization of their brain are empowered to reflect up this; no other entities or facilities need be called upon to explain this in principle. Such reflection is necessarily directly available only to the body in which it occurs.