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Science and the Mind

by D.R. Khashaba

"I think, therefore I am", said Descartes. Why "therefore"? As if my being could be in doubt and needed proof, whereas my being — and specifically my being as a self-conscious mind — is the most evident reality for myself. And if Descartes thought his Cogito proved more than the reality of the immediate awareness of our being, then the conclusion was not adequately grounded. But Descartes was not really interested in establishing that conclusion. He was using the Cogito as a model of the axiomatic evidence that should characterize all trustworthy reasoning. Yet that — the criterion of clear and distinct ideas as a test of truth — was nothing new; it had always been the standard proceeding of mathematics. What was new and what spread and seeped into the philosophical thought of the following centuries and vitiated it was the implied split between the I that thinks and the I that is, as if the thinking I were one thing and my being another. Whereas, as a knowing being, my knowing is my being and my being is my knowing.

The split implicit in the Cogito was a twin to Descartes' explicit and better-advertised bifurcation of mind and body, and, in my view, was no less damaging. I hold that all the fruitless travail of modern philosophers with the quandaries of self-body, mind-brain, and the like, springs from our taking these distinctions for more than working fictions. To think, we have to break up a whole into distinct aspects — substance-attribute, subject-object, knower-known, etc. — but to take these aspects as having any reality apart from the whole is to be deluded and to fall into endless error.

As if the Cartesian double-split between mind and body and between knower and object known were not bad enough, the British Empiricists thought that the objectively given is all we need to bother about. Rationalists and Empiricists thus unwittingly joined hands in perpetrating the mind-body problem which I see as a pseudo-problem. While Empiricists, if they concede to mind any kind of being at all, see it as an epiphenomenon that we can simply disregard, Rationalists having split the integral act of knowledge into knower and object known, forgetting their own edict of separation, try to see the knower as an object.

Now neuroscientists, philosophers of mind, and psychologists are in a flurry looking for the mind (or consciousness or the soul or whatever). I believe they will continue to labour in vain so long as they fail to realize that our mind is our reality, and that it is a reality that is not amenable to study by the methods of the natural sciences.

To speak of consciousness as a phenomenon is already to have gone astray. We can surely study the phenomena of consciousness by scientific methods, but the phenomena of consciousness are not consciousness. Consciousness gives rise to the phenomena of consciousness but transcends those phenomena. It is meaningless to ask, What is consciousness?, as if we could define consciousness in terms either of what is not consciousness or of the content of consciousness. It is meaningless to ask, What am I? [= what is a person?], for, except in a biographical intent, I am not definable in terms of the present content of my experience (let alone of my physical being) or in terms of what I was or what I will be: I am just this moment of living intelligence that utters the I.

Those who speak of mind as a negligible epiphenomenon do so because they proceed from the presupposition that only what is objectively given is 'real'. But it is the nature of mind not to be an object: yet that makes it not less but more real, if we may be permitted to speak in this manner. That is why I insist that we have to make a radical distinction between the meaning of reality and existence. In my philosophy what exists (what is given) is not real, and what is real does not exist: but there is nothing existing that does not secure its existence in reality, and there is no reality that is not actualized in some manner of existence. These are two dimensions of being, without which nothing could be. (This condensed statement necessarily sounds enigmatic, but it is not intended to be paradoxical or to mystify; it only sounds enigmatic because in my terminology 'reality' and 'existence' have special senses which I find it necessary to distinguish.)

So to the question, Can science solve the puzzle of consciousness?, my answer is, Science cannot. Does that mean that the puzzle will remain unsolved? No, for in fact there is no puzzle. Science creates the puzzle by trying to turn mind into what is not mind. Once we realize that mind is mind and nothing else, the problem vanishes. It is often asserted that the problem is a modern one, but I think it is the same problem that lay at the base of what Plato called the Battle of the Gods and the Giants, or of Idealists and Materialists. ('Sophist' 245e ff.) Idealists seek reality in the verities of the mind. Materialists think there is nothing beside what could be observed objectively.

Jerry Fodor in a review of Joseph LeDoux's Synaptic Self (Times Literary Supplement, May 17 2002) finds fault with LeDoux's work and with much current neuroscience in that "the models of the brain [they are] building are designed to implement a cognitive psychology that nobody with any sense has believed for decades." I think that the trouble goes much deeper. Fodor rightly maintains that the question, "What makes us what we are?", interpreted in terms of the philosophical problem of personal identity, "isn't one that it would be reasonable to expect brain science to answer." But are there any philosophical questions that brain science — or any science, including 'cognitive science' — can answer?

Fodor suggests that the question: "What is going on in your brain when you think about what is going on in the world and decide what you are going to do about it?" is the "big question" that neuroscience should address. The question thus formulated may possibly outline a good — or the best — programme of research for that science. But that research, however fruitful, will not give us an answer to the parallel philosophical question: "What goes on in your mind when etc., etc.?" The answer to this latter question can only be in terms of ideas, not in terms of descriptions of observable and measurable phenomena and processes. The mind (consciousness) is not an object amenable to scientific study, but is a dimension of being that can only be understood by a philosophy that recognizes its radical difference from objective science.

To express my position bluntly: I believe that thinking and neurological events pertain to two distinct and incommensurable dimensions of the one, whole, mind-body thing we call a person. Our subjective life is a reality not reducible to brain structure. No knowledge gained in neuroscience or in genetics, however great, can help advance our understanding of the mind or the human being any more than advances in, say, astrophysics can. All science deals with phenomena and processes extraneous to the quite distinct world of ideas, ideals and values that constitute the reality of the mind and the specifically human realm, which is the concern of philosophy.

On the other hand, I think that what is wrong with cognitive science is that it hovers in a no-man's-land between philosophy and science. It can either be good as science, raising questions about observable phenomena and processes, or good as philosophy, raising questions about meanings and values, but by trying to be both it gets lost in a maze of insoluble riddles. Unless we recognize the radical distinction between philosophy and science, both our science and our philosophy will continue to suffer.

What is the alternative to the vain attempt to get to the mind through the brain? Is it the view that the mind is a 'soul-stuff' of some sort? The trouble lies in the word 'stuff': however much we refine that stuff, as long as it is regarded as something objective, it will fare no better than the brain. Why don't we accept the simple solution that stares us in the face — that mind is in fact the reality we know best and most immediately? Or, as I would rather say, that mind is the only reality we know and that it cannot be reduced to anything else? And we lose nothing by this: we would still have our neuroscience that can go on progressing indefinitely and we would still have all the objective truths we have ever had or can ever have; only we shall have to acknowledge that these will never explain the mind any more than any facts can ever explain the colour of a single flower.

We can perhaps say that brains become minds; or, to put it in a deservedly more flowery manner, brains flower into minds. But I will not say that brains generate minds. Brains become minds in a creative move, just as all becoming is creative, just as the coming into being of a sonnet or a symphony is a creative move. Earth and water and air and sun become a red rose, but the colour and the fragrance of the rose are realities in their own right and cannot be reduced to what went into their making.

Shall we find the alternative in diving down into the ever receding depths of the constituents or the basic structure of the physical world till we reach a level where matter is no longer material but dissolves into mathematical equations and concepts? I would still say, No; for these would still be objective givennesses that will never yield the subjectivity of mind.

Philosophers, baffled by the irreducible realities of the subjective sphere, invented the word 'qualia'. That was good as far as it went, as far as it was an acknowledgement of the reality of those realities. But then they went on to apply to qualia the same reductionist methods that they had been applying to mind, with the same result.

The reality of mind will remain a mystery, just as Being will always remain an ultimate mystery; and the ideal content of our minds can be understood in terms of — and only in terms of — the ideas created by those very minds.

© D. R. Khashaba 2002

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