MILLENNIUM'S PHILOSOPHY OF MIND
by Ted Honderich
This is a piece
that was written for The Official Commemorative Album for the Millenium,
Britain. It may read a little easier here than it did after the Album's
The Philosophy of Mind got too mixed up with religion in the Middle Ages, or so it now seems to most philosophers. Our minds were mixed up with what it is not certain we have, which is souls. But great mediaeval philosophers did reflect on what can seem the strange fact that our thoughts and desires and so on are about things. How can a first thing be about a second thing? It's clearly not as simple as the first one's being an effect of the second one.
In the 17th Century, the French philosopher Rene Descartes set out to find what we can know with absolute certainty, by means of an all-out policy of doubting things. He is best known for something he couldn't doubt -- "I think, therefore I am." But he also began, as no one else had before him, the idea that your mind and your body are two separate things. Minds think and are not in space. Bodies are exactly the other way on. This has since been called dualism.
But in that same 17th Century the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes said the opposite, that a mind is just part of the material or physical world. There is no fundamental difference between our minds and our bodies. Or, as some say now, there is just one thing -- your mind just is your body or part of it. The Philosophy of Mind in the 20th Century, if it got more complicated than anything said by Hobbes, turned out to be more along his line than Descartes'.
The main reason was that philosophers had had too much of mystery. It can get boring. The idea that what we call our consciousness does exist and yet is not to be found anywhere in space is very mysterious indeed. What is even more mysterious is how anything out of space can have effects on ordinary things in space -- which is plainly true of our conscious desires. Surely a cause has to be somewhere?
At about the middle of the 20th Century, one very unmysterious idea came up. It was that what it is for you to have a certain thought or to want a certain thing is for you to behave in a certain way. This was not just the idea that how your behaviour shows what you think or want, but that the thinking and wanting actually is identical with the behaviour, in fact movements.
Behaviourism as it was called turned into something else, partly because we all believe that our conscious lives have certain causes and effects. Your desire for a glass of wine can be the effect of seeing a bottle, or hearing a certain sentence, and that same desire is indeed the cause of some behaviour on your part.
Philosophers went further than this kind of truism, and argued that such a desire just is what has such a cause and such an effect. A desire just is no more than what functions in this way. In fact a desire just is whatever functions in this way. (It is also whatever is the effect of other inner things and the cause of still other inner things, but that doesn't change the fundamental idea.) Functionalism as it is called became all the rage, partly because it went together well with enthusiasm for computers.
In computers too there are things or states that are both effects and causes. They are the effects of what is called input and the causes of what is called output. So, if it is true that this is what thinking comes to, then computers think. If it is true that this is what consciousness comes to, computers are conscious. Anyway, it was said, we get our best idea of a mind from a computer.
You may or may not be surprised that there has been a lot of opposition to Functionalism and similar doctrines. It's got rid of the mystery of having consciousness out of space, but hasn't it left out a reality in the process? It says our own human thinking and feeling is a matter of states of our brains having certain causes and effects, but isn't our thinking and feeling something different from such states. Isn't it something different from the electrochemical stuff?
There seem to be good arguments to prove it. Suppose I have a long list of Chinese sentences and I can only tell them apart by their shapes. With each sentence goes another sentence that I can only tell apart by its shape. When somebody gives me a bit of paper with a sentence from the first list on it, I give them back a bit of paper with the linked sentence on it. The second sentence is in fact the correct answer to the question that is the first sentence. So I'm functioning fine. And if understanding Chinese is functioning in this way, I understand Chinese. But I don't.
That is all very well, but if we reject Functionalism and the like, do we end up back in the boring mystery of dualism? A lot of philosophers at the start of the new millennium have been tempted to try some new thinking in the Philosophy of Mind. But there is no agreement at all. All I can do is give you my own idea.
It doesn't have to do with all of consciousness, but just with your being aware of your surroundings -- probably the room you're in. What does that come to? Well, what it is for you to be conscious of the room is for the room in a way to exist. Instead of two subjects, your being conscious and the room's somehow existing, there is one. That's a surprise, but philosophy has always had surprises in it as well as the especially logical thinking.
1 January 2000