In this post we will discuss the philosophy of the mind. The mind is a pretty mysterious thing. That little voice in your head. Where does it come from? Is it just a bunch of braincells firing and then voila, there it is? Philosophers have been arguing for many centuries on what this thing actually is. Out of what kind of stuff it is made. And what it is supposed to do. Let’s take a closer look.
Philosophy of Mind: What Is a Mind?
To begin, what is a mind exactly? A lot of people have intuitive understandings about this, but if you really dig deep you will soon find out that it actually quite complex. Part of it is that little voice in your head, but it is also so much more. It is also your consciousness. Consciousness is roughly speaking the fact that you are aware of your own awareness. You somehow have this special awareness of that you are a living being that experiences things. You don’t just passively experience, like a plant, but you can actually reflect about what you are and what you are doing. That’s consciousness in a nutshell.
Something else that’s part of your mind is for example perception. There is some mechanism with your eyes and visual processing centers of your brain that make it possible for you to perceive things. Your mind is also the thing that perceives. And for humans, perception is inextricably tied to language. Whenever you perceive a certain object like an apple, you immediately tie the concept of ‘apple’ to it, something edable with a sweet taste and certain colors. You can’t just perceive it as some colored blob with a certain shape, without any meaning to you.
The mind is all of this stuff, consciousness, perception, language, and so much more. It is also about the interaction between all of these stuff. It is possible that the mind is just the result of an interaction between complex processes such as these, in a similar way that interactions between cells might give rise to an organism.
Alright, so now we roughly know what the mind is. What we understand under the term mind. What do philosophers of the mind study then?
The Mind-Body Problem
One of the most central issues within this field is the so-called mind-body problem. The debate centers around the following. We have a physical body one the one hand: our nose, foreheads, brains and so on. On the other hand, we have a rich mental life full of thoughts, desires, worries, and so on. We also have mental representations (or pictures) of how for example a chair looks like.
So we have physical stuff on one side, and a bunch of seemingly immaterial stuff on the other: our mind. The mind-body problem is basically this. How the heck do these guys interact? How on earth can something seemingly immaterial like a thought have a physical impact? Even though we do this all the time (if you have a desire to make a sandwich, you just get up and make the sandwich), how we actually do it or how it works is still a topic of debate.
There are multiple philosophical viewpoints that center around this problem. One of the most famous theories was by René Descartes who thought that mind and matter were made out of distinct types of substances. Mind is made out of different stuff than other matter in the universe. This also allows our minds to be somehow separate from the laws of physics.
This viewpoint is called Cartesian dualism. Dualism because it says there are two different kinds of stuff in the universe. Matter, and mind. And it is Cartesian because, well, yeah it’s named after Descartes and it sounds weird to say Descartesian. But then the question still remained of how these two guys interact, because if they are made out of different stuff, how are they supposed to influence each other. Descartes’ solution was to say that that there is a special part of the brain where that happens. He thought the interaction between mind and matter happened in the pineal gland. In the past we had no idea what this thing did, but nowadays we know that Descartes was unfortunately wrong about this. The pineal gland actually produces melatonin, which is a hormone that influences your sleep patterns. But even though Descartes was wrong about this, he was still a very brilliant man, and he was one of the first to come up with a dualist theory of the mind and universe. His specific form of dualism is a bit out of fashion, but there other dualist theories inspired by this that have still survived to this day.
There is this other variant called property dualism, and this one states that the mental is not made out of different stuff than the universe, it is the same physical stuff. But this physical stuff can still have different fundamental properties. You have physical properties, these are things that we can measure, such as mass or temperature, and then you have mental properties, and these are things like thoughts, memories, and stuff like that.
Alright so these were some dualist perspectives. Then, there are also viewpoints which are called monist. Mono as a prefix means 1, in contrast to dual which is of course 2. So these monists think there is just 1 kind of stuff in the world. And then there are multiple versions of monism. You have physicalism which argues that the mind is just made out of physical stuff, like everything else. It’s just the organization of matter that gives rise to thinks like thoughts and desires. You also have idealism, which is the view that your mind is the only real thing in the universe, and that all other stuff is just an illusion. So, there are no real tables or chairs in the universe, the only things that are real are my ideas of things. This one sounds weird, but if you really think about it, it could be true. If I look at an object, and I see that it has a certain color or mass, then well that kinda depends on how I look at it right. For another creature this might look entirely different. So, the only thing I can really know for certain is that I have an idea of this object. And that idea exists for me.
Then there is also another position which is called neutral monism. This one states that there is another third kind of stuff, and that the mental and physical are just different manifestations of this stuff. So, the stuff the universe is made out off is not physical or mental. It’s just something else. Still one thing but something else. And then it shows itself in either mental or physical ways.
Those were the 5 main viewpoints of one of the most fundamental issues of the philosophy of mind: Cartesian dualism, property dualism, physicalism, idealism and neutral monism. In subsequent articles we will discuss more theories in the philosophy of mind.