Friday, May 18, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty-One

“Mind and Matter,” pages 145-165

Happy 140th Birthday to Him Whom We Read!

[When I embarked on Reading Bertrand Russell (precisely five years ago) I noted that I was not much interested in Russell’s philosophical work; this chapter, alas, falls within that domain. (Nonetheless, I remain comforted by the fact that I enjoyed providing a summentary to Human Society in Ethics and Politics – though maybe that enjoyment is only in retrospect?) So this chapter remains largely beyond my ken, and I can’t even summon up guilty feelings about not overcoming my ignorance. Onwards anyway, dear reader, justly forewarned, I hope, of the more-than-usual inadequacy of what follows. This “Mind and Matter” chapter, like its predecessor, is quite lengthy, but I’ll connect with it in a single post this time.]

The understanding that the world is divided into two spheres, mind and matter, derives from Plato and religion. Nonetheless, that understanding is challenged by modern science. Curiously, many physicists are beginning to see ideal forms everywhere, whereas psychologists see matter underlying mind. “The truth is, of course, that mind and matter are, alike, illusions [p. 145].” People who specialize in one area recognize that their own object of study is an illusion, but suspect that there is substance in the other realm.

The Cartesians believed that the brain and mind were separate, running in parallel (and hence together), but not directly connected. Now it seems that the brain and the mind are connected. Nonetheless, in practical matters, there remain two schools of thought, one stressing physical causes of mental processes, and the other psychological causes largely divorced from any physical substrate. “If you have a nightmare, the one school will say that it is because you ate too much lobster salad, and the other that it is because you are unconsciously in love with your mother [p. 146].” Why not take a pragmatic approach, and adopt whatever view that happens to work best, which can differ across domains?

Russell engages with Descartes’s famous Cogito Ergo Sum and the line that succeeds it (“I am a thing that thinks”), finding them full of error. Speech asserting existence is misguided. What is sensible is to say that the word denoting the thing, such as “I,” really denotes something, unlike, for instance, the word “Hamlet”. The notion that “I am a thing” implicitly assumes that there is a substantive I, as a lasting entity in a changing environment. But Descartes, to himself, is not such an entity. “Descartes to himself should have appeared as a series of events, each of which might be called a thought, provided that word is liberally interpreted [p. 148].” Descartes’s mind is this series of thoughts, which does not make his mind a separate entity, and Descartes is the name of this series.

Descartes’s mind is his alone, not accessible by others. What of this series of thoughts that constitute Descartes? Before we get to thoughts, we should deal with sensations and perceptions. People can be exposed to the seemingly identical stimulus, but experience it differently, due to their own past experiences. People who grew up, like Russell, without radios or gramophones, visualize a pianist’s hands at work when they hear piano music – but not so for those of a more recent generation. The element of the experience that does not depend on past experiences is the “sensation,” while the “perception” comprises the sensation plus the unavoidable, historically-contingent associations. The perception is the whole experience, which we can identify without the aid of theoretical ponderings.

My seeing of a chair is a mental object, created when light reflects off of the chair into my eye, leaving a mental impression. I can infer, when seeing a chair, that a chair is there even when I am not seeing it – but this is an inference, not a direct perception. “[T]he physical world of my everyday experience is a part of my mental life [p. 152].” In this respect, it is no more real than my dreams, though my mental world is unquestionable. The actual physical world is solid, but questionable – my inferences of its existence are potentially fallacious.

Blocks, stones, and other senseless things don’t have experiences in the same way as sentient beings do. “What characterizes experience is the influence of past occurrences on present reactions [p. 153].” A man working in a ticket office will react to various stimuli from customers variously, based on his experience; a ticket machine lacks that ability to alter behavior based on recollections of past encounters. Memory is the key component of mind. Our intellect involves recalling associations – the same principle that underlies the practice of teaching bears to dance. Thinking stems from a sort of reinforcement of pathways in the brain, like water over time creating a channel in a riverbed. Mind melds into matter, and the quantum view of matter is that it melds into something not so substantial, transitions between states. A chair today might be the same chair tomorrow in classical physics, but not in quantum physics. You can never sit in the same chair twice, and (page 161) a person today is a different person tomorrow. Both mind and matter are series of events.

We don’t know very much about the events that constitute matter, only some of the physical structures we can see or otherwise perceive. But I [Russell] hypothesize “that the events that make a living brain are actually identical with those that make the corresponding mind [p. 158].” Physical objects (like brains!) only are revealed to me as mental impressions. Brains and minds comprise essentially the same events, though grouped differently. It is like individuals sorted alphabetically or sorted by address: they are the same individuals in either case. Psychology and physics look at identical events, mental impressions, differently. This hypothesis requires that memories and other elements of mental life must have some physical basis in the brain. Whether we think of the mind as relying on the brain, or vice versa, depends upon our purposes and knowledge.

The notion that the world consists of events goes back to Heraclitus; the idea that physical objects, or the part of them we perceive, are mental images derives from Berkeley via Hume. Different viewers perceive objects differently, and no person has a view that captures what they think they are seeing, the unadorned essence of the object.

It is logically possible that there is no physical world separate from my mental sensations, but then it is similarly possible that my own remembered past is illusory. Nevertheless, everyone infers that matter exists and that events outside of one’s experience exist, even though, strictly speaking, those inferences go beyond what is provable. A psychologist looking at a patient’s brain surely doesn’t see the person’s mind, the person’s thoughts, but doesn’t really see the brain, either; rather, the psychologist is having his own mental events connected (via optic nerves and photons) with the patient’s brain. Russell upset philosophers by pointing out that their thoughts were all in their heads. “With one voice they assured me that they had no thoughts in their heads whatever, but politeness forbids me to accept this assurance [p. 163].”

An event can be simultaneously mental and material, involve a causal chain associated with physics while also involving a causal chain associated with psychology. There is no dilemma, no unavoidable conflict between mind and matter. “The relations of mind and matter have puzzled people for a long time, but if I am right they need puzzle people no longer [p. 165].”

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