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The essential mark of the mental


To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The essential mark of the mental
Date: 31st August 2011 14:17

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 22 August, with your essay for the University of London BA Philosophy of Mind module, in response to the question, 'Is there a mark of the mental? What important implications follow from the answer?'

I liked this essay, and I also have a great deal of sympathy with your conclusion. There is something we do not know. Maybe, we will find this thing if we keep looking. It would be nice if we had it. But if we don't, well that's too bad.

I would take this further. I actually think there are philosophical questions which are 'conundrums' in the sense that the question is real enough, but it is possible that there does not exist an answer *in reality*. This goes further than McGinn's 'mysterianism' in that one is not talking here of a limit to our conceptual scheme (as if superior, alien beings could discover the answer while we cannot).

(I had a run-in with McGinn once. Did I tell you about this? He had come to talk to a group of graduate students at University College Oxford. The discussion turned to the question of the 'first person standpoint' -- Nagel etc. McGinn stated, quite dogmatically, that there is a problem about consciousness, but no problem about the first person standpoint. I think he's was wrong about this -- as my book attempts to demonstrate.)

So there is a question about the 'mark of the mental'. We use the terms 'mind' and 'mental'. We make theories, perform inferences to the best explanation etc. Eliminativism is always an option, but the onus is squarely on the eliminitivist to successfully eliminate -- which, to date, they have clearly failed to do. All they have is a program and slogans, which as you indicate are easily rebutted.

I have more sympathy with Hurley. Why not say that in talking of the mental we are talking about a 'family resemblance' concept in Wittgenstein's sense? This is always an easy let-out, but as you say it would always be better if we could find some deeper property which unified the various disjuncts under a single idea.

But let's take a step back. Shouldn't we first be asking *why we need* an answer to this question?

The assumption behind your essay is that a great deal of science (psychology, neurophysiology etc.) is done in the name of trying to understand this 'thing' we call 'the mind'. It's the philosopher's job to define, clarify, explicate to smooth the path for science (just as Locke claimed). If we don't know what we are really talking about when we talk about 'the mental' then a lot of this hard work and research seem to be in jeopardy.

Behind this assumption is another assumption -- maybe taken as an axiom -- that naturalism and materialism (in some form or other) is a precondition for progress in science.

Whereas I see the question of the subjective standpoint as one of the perennial questions of philosophy, possibly a philosophical conundrum which we will never solve. To make this claim, obviously I need to establish that there is such a thing in the first place: well defined, corresponding to our intuitive classification of things that are 'mental' or 'not mental' etc. Wouldn't that classify (I'm talking about 'Point of View') as one of your headings, alongside Incorrigibility, Intentionality, Consciousness?

The main objection would be that Leibniz's monads each have a 'point of view' but only certain monads (such as human beings) have anything recognizable as a mental state. I'm not worried by this because, for me, the question is primarily about *my* point of view. This applies to anyone capable of asking the question (which is not to say that those incapable of asking it lack a 'mind'.

All this is just to show that the question you are addressing is one which is 'relative to a research project'. It is contextual, and therefore has to be understood in its context.

Getting down to details, you give short shrift to Incorrigibility as a mark of the mental. I would make two points here:

First, for Rorty the incorrigibility is 'empirical' not 'logical' (which he somewhat clumsily attempted to articulate using the thought experiment of 'cerebroscopes' -- later repudiated). It is not a refutation of his view that my shrink can know that I really am intensely jealous of X, while I confidently assert the opposite. That doesn't contradict the observation that the state of jealousy is, primarily, something you consciously feel. When you feel jealous you know you are jealous, not by any inference. Thus, it is taken as a criterion of a correct psychoanalytic interpretation that the patient is finally capable of accepting the analyst's interpretation, and 'feeling' it to be true.

The lift which announces that the door is obstructed is not giving an incorrigible report. As someone who spends a lot of time playing with computers, I have learned that you never accept the error which comes up on the screen, 'Sorry, the program crashed because of X.' Error messages are written into the program (you can 'read' them if you open the binary file in a text editor). The error message can itself be in error. Often, disbelieving the error message is the first step to solving the problem of why the program crashed.

The other point I wanted to make was about the PLA. You say that the PLA 'undermines the qualia exponent's ability to argue, but she may still consider that the qualia skeptic is simply denying the obvious, namely that qualia exist'. Assume that I have qualia but my zombie double doesn't. In that case, if I object to the qualia skeptic's line, in whatever way I might do this, verbally or non-verbally, by hypothesis my zombie double will do exactly the same thing.

In view of this, the best line for the defender of qualia is to find some way of defining qualia in a way which rules out zombies (in this sense -- there are other varieties of zombie!).

All the best,