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Difficulties for a materialist view of the mind


To: Alan M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Difficulties for a materialist view of the mind
Date: 21 May 2001 11:59

Dear Alan,

Thank you for your e-mail of 7 May, and for your first essay for the Introduction to Philosophy program, which I picked up from the Department on 11 May, in response to the question, 'What difficulties stand in the way of a materialist view of the mind, according to which thoughts, feelings and sensations are ultimately nothing more than processes in the brain?'

Regarding free will, the fact that a belief, which philosophy appears to reject, 'was there first' does not appear on the face of it to be a very strong argument. But I know what you are trying to say. My own view is that the standpoint of the agent, the primacy of agency is the starting point for metaphysics, but in a way that first has to be justified by argument, in the critique of the metaphysics of the 'passive observer'. This is one of the most important themes of 20th century metaphysics. It is still open to question, however, just how far this goes towards rescuing our intuitive, pre-reflective belief in our own 'free will'.

In my student days, I enjoyed a number of Alan Watt's books. One that comes to mind is 'The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are' where he talks scathingly of the materialist's 'crackpot universe'.

Now to your essay:

This is an excellent piece of work. There is clearly a lot of thinking, and a certain amount of reading, behind this. There is a very difficult path to tread, which you have made somewhat clearer to me in your penultimate paragraph, where we are required to speculate about 'possible future developments' of physics which would explain subjectivity in a way which we are not able to do now. This is the view that Nagel takes. Other philosophers, like Colin McGinn, have argued that our minds maybe simply incapable of grasping the nature of the relation between subjectivity and the physical. Whether this knowledge is ultimately available to us or not, however, the idea seems to be that it is only our lack of knowledge which makes it *appear* as though there could not be an adequate explanatory bridge from the 'outside' to the 'inside'.

The zombie argument is relevant here. You claim that there is a non-sequitur in the zombie argument. It may be that it is only our ignorance which makes us think that a being without *this* - the inner world, or subjectivity - would be possible. It is also possible that if one could understand the physical processes well enough one would see why those processes could not occur without their being *this*.

I think that there is a deeper reason why we should reject the zombie hypothesis. This connects with what you say in the previous paragraph regarding the difficulty, on a property dualist view, of seeing how the non-physical could interact with the physical world, and also your reference to epiphenomenalism in your penultimate paragraph.

I think that there are two quite distinct epiphenomenal theories. The version you discuss concerns the question of the causal efficacy of the 'folk psychological' level of description. At the present time, reductionism here seems simply question begging. We don't know enough about the facts.

However, there is another version of epiphenomenalism which I believe lies behind the zombie idea. On this view, all the mental concepts have an objective as well as a subjective aspect. Zombies have 'consciousness', they experience 'pain' and 'joy'. The best theory which describes us also describes them. There is nothing that we have that a zombie lacks, from the point of view of accounting for the things it 'says' and 'does', its physical workings and behaviour, its interactions with other subjects (whether zombies or non-zombies).

The one thing a zombie lacks is *this*. I know I have *this*. I know that there is no darkness inside so far as I am concerned. But I cannot know the same about you. So I cannot know whether or not you are a zombie.

The word *this* refers to what Wittgenstein called a 'private object'. It would indeed be a sufficient refutation of this version of epiphenomenalism to simply give Wittgenstein's argument against a private language. However, there is a swifter way of dialectically refuting the epiphenomenalist. That is simply to point out that everything I say in defence of epiphenomenalism would be 'said' also by my hypothetical zombie double. The illusion which this forces into the open is the idea that my saying 'I have *this*' tracks an inner 'something' which continues alongside the physical processes that account for my speech and movement. Whereas, by hypothesis, my saying 'I have *this*' is itself one of the events accounted for by those very same physical processes. The very same words would appear, whether there was *this* or not. In other words, there is nothing I can do, in principle, to indicate or mark the presence of *this*.

All the best,