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Throughout much of Western philosophical thought there has been an overt and/or underlying set of problems that have produced polarities of thinking, such as idealism vs. realism, but never to my knowledge any satisfactory conclusion. These problems have long been called “the mind-body problem” and “the free will vs. determinism problem,” or referred to in some similar manner. The “mind-body” problem has to do with what the connection is between the two, including the issue as to how it can be that one may influence the other, especially when the physical sciences contain no variables having to do with the mind. And the “free will vs. determinism” problem has to do with how, if everything in the universe occurs according to causal laws, we are able to make decisions when what we do was already bound to occur anyway. The meaning and nature of these two problems should become increasingly clear in what follows.
My approach to the “mind-body” problem is to see it as a pseudo-problem based upon an inadequate understanding of modeling and of linguistics. And this pseudo-problem is also involved in the “free will vs. determinism” problem.
(What I mean by modeling should become increasingly clear in what follows, but a model is anything we construct which allows us to imagine or predict things about that which we are modeling. A model car, would be an example, but science uses mathematical and statistical models, and maps, pictures, and graphs can be considered models. Also, a sentence or a description can be considered a model of that which one is talking about.)
More specifically, I plan to demonstrate that we have two languages, each associated with a different model, the two models being incompatible, though each is highly useful in certain kinds of situations, for certain purposes. It is the effort to integrate those two incompatible models that produces these longstanding philosophical pseudo-problems.
There is much in common between those two languages. Both languages have the same rules of syntax. Both languages have many of the same words, spelled the same way, pronounced the same way, and meaning the same things.
However, the languages differ in certain ways, in that certain words, similar in spelling and sound, mean different things when used in the two different languages.
The two different languages are used in two different contexts, for two different sets of purposes. In one context, the language is being used to construct a model of one’s own subjective experience. In the other context, the language is being used to construct a model (or set of models) that has (have) been found highly useful in our agreeing with one another about what is, was, and will be.
The first language is used to model everything that we can observe, or experience subjectively. The “entities” in this model are perceptions, thoughts, feelings, memories, fantasies, wishes, fears, etc. These “entities” are everything that one’s self can “experience.” These “entities” are assigned words by us, such that with sentences including them one can cause others to understand oneself and what one is experiencing. ”I saw a beautiful garden, and inhaled the beautiful scents of the flowers, this producing for me a feeling of joy, accompanied by memories of my childhood garden and thoughts about how lucky I am to be able to experience all this.” Although these words have meaning to others, in that they arouse in others subjective experiences such as fantasies, feelings, and thoughts, the “entities” specifically referred to are never experienced by anyone else; they are only those things in one’s own subjective experience. And it is assumed and recognized that another person, even if in pretty much the same situation as oneself, may report having different subjective experiences than one’s own, resulting in acceptance, without difficulty, of disagreement. In fact, disagreement is not viewed as contradiction, only as recognition that one’s subjective experience is exclusively one’s own.
The second language, however, is used to model the way the world is, was, or will be, independent of subjective experience, especially important for making agreed-upon decisions with others, necessary for cooperation. The most advanced use of this kind of modeling is that of the sciences, using the scientific methods, involving the rules of logic and the rules of evidence. And it is assumed and recognized that the ultimate criterion of acceptance of such a model, or models, is agreement among people considered knowledgeable with regard to the specific topic. When there is disagreement, this reduces the feeling of confidence in the model, often with efforts to find ways to modify the model so as to achieve agreement (or to clarify that the disagreement is on the basis of some sort of misunderstanding, possibly produced by communication difficulties such as using the same word with different meanings).
There is a metaphor (one I have used elsewhere) that I find useful in increasing understanding of these issues. I ask that you imagine a cartoon that shows two people looking at a house from two different directions. Over the head of each of the people is a “balloon” of the sort used in cartoons to depict either speech or internal thought. In our metaphoric cartoon, there is a house in each of the two balloons, in addition to the house they are both looking at. Each of those three houses (two in the balloons and one not) looks different to us as we look at the cartoon (the difference in perspective). Each person in the cartoon knows only the house that is in his/her own balloon, and it is not the house we see them both looking at. So each of them understand that what is in his/her balloon is different from what is in the other’s balloon. Subjective experience does not have to agree.
But those two people, if they want to agree about something related to the house, will construct a model that does not vary with anyone’s subjective experience. This model will consist of all those “attributes” that they have any way of measuring. Measuring involves carrying out some agreed-upon procedure such that every person finds the same results (within acceptable limits of error). So the “real” house will have certain dimensions, certain colors (emissions of wavelengths of light), certain temperatures, etc. And if significant difference exists among observers with regard to these measurements, then something is considered seriously wrong (the model is considered probably not accurate).
Each of these two models has a different language, similar in many ways but different in certain significant ways. Some words and phrases will be almost completely confined to only one of the two models, such as “quaint” and “reflecting electromagnetic waves primarily of frequency X.” Other words and phrases will be used in both languages, but will mean something different in each of them, such as “large” and “red.” (“It seemed large to me, even though I understand that its size is actually below normal.” ”For some reason it looked red to me, even though I understand that it was reflecting light primarily in the orange portion of the spectrum.”)
We might try to designate these two models with labels. I would suggest (1) “the mental model” and (2) “the physical model.” The first is “subjective”; the second is “objective.”
Note that the scientist, studying atoms, energy, etc. makes no explanatory use of “feelings,” “thoughts,” “fantasies,” “wishes,” etc., and that the person describing his own subjective experiencing of something does not use “atoms,” “wavelengths,” etc., except insofar as he or she is using the terms metaphorically or pseudo-scientifically. (Note that when a person describes himself or herself as having lots of energy, he or she does not mean the same as what the scientist means when he or she uses the term “energy” in the physical sciences. Such use by non-scientists is occasionally referred to as “pseudo-science,” especially when the effort is to create the impression of scientifically acceptable statements for the purpose of making money, but it is really also perfectly normal and accepted communicative behavior.)
But now suppose we become ambitious and try to develop a model, that we can all agree upon, of the set of mental models (subjective experiences of a set of individuals), thus making that set of mental models a part of the physical model? In other words, we wish to arrive at agreed-upon beliefs about (or a model of) everyone’s subjective experiences, such that the model would even account for the differences between individuals’ subjective experiences (e.g., perceptions). Examples of such models would be “how memory functions” or “the meaning of dreams” or “the nature of optical illusions,” etc. The data we would accept would be everyone’s reports as to their subjective experiences, but with the recognition that those reports might not be accurate. (Later, some might say, “I was mistaken,” or “I meant something different,” or “I lied,” or “I didn’t understand the question,” or “That’s the way it seemed to me,” etc.)
So these would be “physical” models of subjective experiences of humans, readily correlated with other “objective” components of the physical model such as frequency of light waves, neurological processes, etc. And we have indeed correlated reports of subjective experience with stimulation of parts of the brain. Note that what is correlated with such stimulation is not subjective experience (unavailable to the experimenter) but reports of subjective experience, these reports being things that everyone can indeed agree upon (i.e., what the experimental subjects actually said, preserved on tape, etc.).
Now it is in the context that we are attempting to develop this physical model of all subjective experience in such a way as to produce some degree of agreement (or “objectivity”) that we tend to add the concept of “mind” or “consciousness.” Although we probably don’t really have the need to do so, we use these terms to refer, more or less, to the “balloons” we have in our cartoon, and we find doing so linguistically very convenient. We are now referring to the space within the line that outlines the balloon. The house in the balloon is just one of its “contents.” The balloon is the “container.” So “consciousness” or “the mind” is the term for the part of the physical model of subjective experience that is the presumed “container” of the subjective experiences reported by people.
We add this model of a container because we have the natural tendency to regard many things in the physical world as being within something bigger, or locatable in a larger part of the modeled physical world. (We even do this naturally when we regard a single entity as being within something larger, namely, within the group of such entities, such that we regard a “group” as perhaps being an entity itself. We tend to give “entity-hood” to Venn diagrams.) An example of the convenience of this additional model (of a container) is that now we can lump together all of our models of subjective experience into one group, such that we now can refer to a “theory of the mind” or a “theory of consciousness.”
(All of this labeling and subsequent language use is by convention, and may vary according to culture, though the models developed by science have become greatly transcultural, because of the agreement produced by them.)
But now that we have as a part of our physical model a new “entity” (created by the process of definition) called “consciousness” or “the mind,” we are puzzled what to do with it, because it is never, itself, observed by anyone. As I have pointed out elsewhere, you cannot actually observe your consciousness or mind, in that you cannot see its boundary or contrast it with anything else that you can observe. All you can subjectively observe are the things in the balloon, not the balloon itself. But because we can construct a model that involves a container for our subjective entities, we now tend to make the (unwarranted) assumption that that entity actually exists, right along with houses, atoms, electromagnetic radiation, etc.
By virtue of admitting “consciousness” (or “mind”) into the cast of entities that presumably exist in the universe according to the physical model, one is forced to ask questions (pseudo-problems) such as, “When in the development of the universe did consciousness first come into existence?” And additional questions arise such as what the causal relationship is between consciousness and the body (brain) associated with it (leaving aside the complicated meaning of “causality”).
This then is the “mind-body” pseudo-problem that arises just because we are trying to integrate two incompatible models, ones that are (1) of our own subjective experience (mental) and (2) of the world such that we can agree (physical).
In actual scientific discourse and activity, no problem arises, since whatever is done has to be based upon some basic agreement in order for there to be confidence in what is being done or said. But we, the general public, have no such requirement for agreement, so we can easily develop models that others do not agree with, and simply attribute the lack of agreement to erroneous thinking on the part of others or to the assumed fact that there is no Absolute Truth, simply mine and yours, which may not agree (the postmodern solution).
Our religions do tend to integrate the two incompatible models, and thereby wonder what happens to the mind (or “soul”) when the brain dies. And here those people who are science educated and oriented see the religious people as being uneducated and prone to believe in ghosts, while those people who are heavily religious see the science educated and oriented as devoid of what is most important in life (with some recognition that how we subjectively feel is what determines whether we find life worth living).
Now there is one other major philosophical problem that produces much confusion and controversy, the “free will vs. determinism” problem.
People try to convince each other either that free will is the way we humans operate or that everything that happens in the universe is determined, leaving no room for free will.
From all that has been written above, I believe the reader can see that “free will” is a principle that is a part of the “mental” model and subjective language, whereas determinism is a principle that is a part of the “physical” model and objective language.
Each of us subjectively has the experience, to some extent, of “deciding” to do something and then doing it, or being undecided and finally making up our minds, so to speak. No one else can directly perceive that decision-making process, or the sense of determination that may be involved. ”Free will” is a term that refers to one’s own subjective experience. One’s own “free will” can never be directly observed by anyone else.
Our sciences, however, make the assumption that everything that happens is a part of a causal chain, or a result of a causative field of force, or something that at least theoretically is predictable (within certain limits), and even though many situations, especially involving human behavior, are so complex we have no way of accurately predicting behavior, we make the assumption that it is worthwhile to keep trying, in order to get better at such prediction. So we readily look at the behavior of humans (and other animals) as being caused by antecedent and/or concurrent conditions (genetics, life experience, situation, etc.), and we try to figure out what such causative “laws” are that determine what people do.
And again we take something from the “mental” model and try to add it to our “physical” model, but in such a way as to make it something we can agree upon. Thus, we look at decision-making as some neuronal process that we so far cannot understand well, but may eventually. What we observe and measure is either behavior (the result of decision-making) or reports of decision-making subjective experience, and these are what we can potentially agree upon, as noted above. And scientists do not study “free will,” but instead the determinants of behavior (or of decision-making), as can best be ascertained.
It is lay people, however, who readily add “free will” from the “mental” model into the “physical” model, and this goes along with the lay person’s idea that there are “minds” (or “souls”) in the universe, which now in addition have free will and are not determined by the other entities and processes in that universe. ”God gave us free will for X reason.” And this way of thinking then becomes influential in our (very poor) responses to undesirable behavior. If someone’s behavior was determined, then we really shouldn’t punish him or her, but if he or she had free will, then we can retaliate and punish without guilt.
The bottom line is that there is one reality, but there is more than one way to model it, and such models can vary in accuracy and usefulness, depending on what one is trying to do. And some of those models may be incompatible with one another, such that problems (actually pseudo-problems) can seem to arise due to attempting to integrate models that are incompatible with each other. This I believe is the basic reason for the “mind-body” problem and the “free will vs. determinism” problem within philosophy, and also for the unending confusion and disagreement about concepts such as the “soul” and the issue of “responsibility.”
Bill Van Fleet
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