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Difficulties for a materialist view of the mind


To: Marcus S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Difficulties for a materialist view of the mind
Date: 29 October 2003 11:07

Dear Marcus,

Thank you for your e-mail of 22 October, with your first essay for your Introduction to Philosophy program, 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?'

You have developed a line of argument which relies heavily on our intuitions about the powers of our minds, rather than appealing either to the classic Cartesian line in the Meditations, or to arguments against the possibility of artificial intelligence. In fact, you state that, 'There does not have to be a soul separate from the body for there to be a belief in a non-material and potentially infinite aspect of the mind. It is enough that the mind has the ability to see and control the physical self.'

It could be argued that it is not sufficient that there exists the *belief* in a 'non-material and potentially infinite aspect of the mind', because the belief in question can be false! Materialists typically accept that our intuitions tell us that there is more to the self than matter in motion, but insist that these intuitions are in fact illusory.

However, there is another side to this question, which I develop in 'Naive Metaphysics' (downloadable from the Pathways site - warning: might be a bit tough for you at this stage!). If a philosopher argues that such-and-such is an illusion, then they still owe us an explanation which *saves the phenomena*.

Consider the view (argued, e.g. by the early 20th century British philosopher McTaggart) that time is ultimately unreal. There is no 'past, present and future', only a timeless reality. In that case, where in this timeless reality do we *place* the feeling that you and I have at this moment, that *this* time (9.28 am for me) is now? In the timeless reality (the universe of physics, or the universe as seen from God's point of view) every time is equally a 'now'. No 'now' has any attribute that marks it out as different from the other 'nows'.

The same applies to the subjective standpoint, as expressed in the statement, 'I am Geoffrey Klempner' (or, from your standpoint, 'I am Marcus Sheffield').

You seem to be making a similar move here. There is a patent reality which cannot be mere illusion, you think, because the external view (i.e. materialism) lacks the resources to explain or 'save' the phenomena.

But does it? That is the question. You assert, but do not argue, that in your climbing scenario the non-knowledgeable brother's capacity to be persuaded by his knowledgeable sibling shows that there is more to the mind than processes in the brain. But is this describing a phenomenon, something that actually *appears*, or is it merely the expression of philosophical prejudice? Imagine that an AI theorist read your scenario. The AI theorist would have an explanation ready to hand: that the capacity to make judgements possessed by an intelligent computer (i.e. you or me) includes the ability to take in information from outside not only in the form of its own perceptions but also in the form of communications received from other intelligent beings (artificial or not). You can disagree with the AI theorist's explanation, only if you have a general argument to show that an AI is impossible. But your scenario does not supply that argument.

An example of a scenario which claims to give the required argument is the US philosopher John Searle's famous 'Chinese Room'.

In my view (for what it's worth) Searle's Chinese Room argument doesn't work. It doesn't show what it is intended to show, that AI is simply impossible. (There is something on this in unit 5.) However, I do not agree with the view that from the assumed non-existence of a soul or non-physical mind-stuff we can deduce that AI must be possible. There is a third alternative, which is that we just don't know. It is conceivable, for all that we know at present, that the way the material brain works is so different than anything that can be constructed by stringing together silicon chips, that there will never be such a thing as the 'program' which runs on the human brain, no set of 'rules' which the mind of you or I can be reduced to, in the way that the construction of the human body can be described exhaustively in terms of its genes.

So far as our intuitions are concerned, that would be a nice result. If this is true, the only way to make a mind is biologically and in the context of a social setting (no growing 'clones' in a lab and then 'programming' their brains with memories). This is what Searle believes but hasn't proved beyond all doubt. In short, there is not yet sufficient evidence to close down AI research departments!

You might be interested to read D.R. Khashaba's Philosophy Pathways article on 'Science and the Mind' (on the PhiloSophos site at ).

A good start, well done!

All the best,