The mind makes a comeback

By LOU MARANO   |   June 18, 2003 at 7:03 PM

WASHINGTON, June 18 (UPI) -- After a century of skepticism, the notion that the mind exists independently of the brain is making a modest comeback.

Current interest in the subject was renewed when University of Arizona philosopher David Chalmers made the argument that consciousness is a non-physical feature of the world in his 1996 book "The Conscious Mind."

For the skeptics (sometimes called materialist reductionists) the mind is simply a word that we apply to functioning of the human brain, and consciousness is a brain state. Others counter that pain, for example, is not a brain state, but rather a phenomenological property produced by brain activity and distinct from it.

One prominent skeptic, UC Berkeley philosopher John Searle, critiqued Chalmers' position in the New York Review of Books. (Searle's book "The Rediscovery of Mind" appeared in 1992.)

Chalmers has rebutted Searle's energetically, both in the review and on his Web site, and partisans have lined up on both sides.

But semantic stumbling blocks and confusing categories abound. Scholars don't always use words to mean the same thing. For example, "mind" can be used to mean everything from observable cognition to a synonym for the immortal soul of Christian belief.

"Nature is not a respecter of words," said Stanley Krippner, professor of Psychology at the Saybrook Graduate School in San Francisco. Rather, human beings slice nature up and put labels on it. "Sometimes the map represents the territory, and sometimes the map is pretty far distant from the territory," Krippner told United Press International.

The separation between the mind and the brain does not exist in Eastern thought, he said.

The scientific method is justly thought to be a Western contribution. But Krippner thinks Eastern and "indigenous" peoples are more scientific -- in that their views are closer to reality -- because they don't have the mind-body split elaborated by the French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650). As Krippner tells it, Descartes tried to change the relationship between science and theology as a political expedient.

"He realized that the Roman Catholic Church thought that it was in control of all knowledge. And he could see how this was holding back science."

Krippner said Descartes, reasoning that half a loaf is better than none, postulated the mind-body split. "Let the scientists study the body, and let the theologians study the mind. That Cartesian split is still with us."

Krippner doesn't like to use the word mind because it leaves out emotions. "Mind is mental; it's intellectual. And brain leaves out the endocrine system and cardiovascular system; that's all part of human behavior and human functioning."

Neuroscience -- the science of the nervous system -- is subdivided into cognitive and affective branches, Krippner said. Affective neuroscience recognizes that the whole body operates as a unit when it comes to the emotions -- not just the brain.

"The more you look at it, you can see how constricted and ultimately useless that term 'mind' has become," he told UPI.

What about those who use the word "mind" to mean the temporal manifestation of the soul?

"Many people do that," Krippner replied. "I turn that on its head and say the soul or 'mind' can survive the so-called death of the body. But how do you know that all of the body has really died? You can be a thoroughgoing materialist, as far as I'm concerned, and still accept the notion of survival. It just means that our concept of the material has to be expanded a little. It has to be tweaked. ... It all depends on what meaning you attribute to words. So much of this discussion is semantic and conditioned by culture.

"From my point of view, the whole mind-body dichotomy is something best relegated to the dustbin of history," he said. "We now have to think in terms of interactive systems and field effects. A field can exert influence at a distance, both forward and backward in time, as we are finding out from quantum mechanics. We have to find different words to reflect what's really going on. I think that neuroscience is helping us to do this."

Krippner's respect for non-Western epistemologies and openness to post-death "survival" puts him at the inclusive end of the materialist consensus. But to make things more confusing, a scholar with similar beliefs finds Cartesian dualism indispensable.

"I happen to be a dualist," said Robert Almeder, a philosopher at Georgia State University in Atlanta. "Minds are not reducible to brains. They are identifiably distinct from brain states, like souls."

Almeder respectfully reviewed Chalmers' "The Conscious Mind," finding Chalmers' critique of the materialist paradigm "very persuasive."

"A number of distinguished materialists do not believe in the existence of minds," Almeder told UPI. "They think any and all statements about mental or emotional life is simply an alternative way of describing some neuro-biological state. Consciousness itself (in this view) is either a complex property of the brain or a biological property produced by the brain."

They deride consciousness "the ghost in the machine."

According to this "canonical" materialist paradigm, consciousness ceases to exist when the brain ceases to exist.

But Almeder said the assumptions of this paradigm are not at all obvious. For example, the taste of coffee is not a brain state, he said. Feelings don't seem to be brain states but are made possible by the existence of brain states.

Almeder applied Chalmers' "argument from zombies" to illustrate the materialists' failure to explain how consciousness emerges from neural processes in the brain. "If people were free from consciousness, and everything is explained in terms of biochemical activity, then they would be zombies. What missing element would have to be supplied to produce a human being?"

Almeder said Chalmers thinks we answer the wrong questions and avoid such hard ones as: "Why is all this mental processing accompanied by an experienced inner life?"

Understanding the brain is necessary for understanding consciousness, but is it sufficient? Almeder asked. He used the example of someone who decides to raise his arm.

"How can I put myself into the brain state that causes my arm to go up unless there's something other than the brain causing the arm to go up? ... There's a transfer of kinetic energy, but there's no discernable physical object to explain why people do what they do."

Following the "classic dualism" of the ancient and medieval philosophers who preceded Descartes, Almeder said the soul is called "the mind" when viewed as a thinking substance and "the will" when viewed as a volitional activity, neither of which is reducible to systemic biochemical states.

"The biochemical states of the system can have effects on those things -- causing you to think, wish, will, and believe. And the mental events can have effects on your bodily states, as when you're embarrassed and you turn red. And when the body goes to the grave, there is something essentially non-physical that can survive the corruption and can go somewhere or other depending on your religious aspirations."

But Almeder said that with the rise of the philosophy of science in the 18th century and the Vienna positivists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the only questions that could be answered legitimately were those of natural science. Questions about other entities that might be causal agents were excluded if they couldn't be seen, smelled, heard, tasted, or touched -- or if it couldn't be determined how they convey energy.

Almeder thinks that there is good empirical evidence for the existence of minds.

"If you can get good evidence for reincarnation and out-of-body experiences, then you have evidence that human beings are quite distinct from their bodies," he said. He believes reincarnation is a scientifically testable thesis and is impressed by the research of Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia.

He also thinks the experiments of Karlis Osis and Donna McCormick support the existence of voluntary out-of-body experiences.

But why does a believer in souls need a concept of "the mind"?

"That's just another way of saying there is something about a human being that's essential to the personality that does not reduce to brain states," Almeder answered.

Vanderbilt psychologist David Zald was asked a similar question.

"That's definitely something that comes up," he said. "If we have a soul, where is it? Given that our brain is what allows us to accomplish what we do as humans, it's natural to start wondering if the mind is the seat of the soul. It's a natural course of reasoning if not an exclusive one. It's not that the soul would have to be equivalent to the mind. But it's natural to wonder about that being the connecting point.

"If we take a strictly materialistic view of the world, then one is left struggling with the question of where the soul fits in. ... Science so far does not provide much evidence for (the soul). I'm not saying there isn't a soul, but our scientific methods don't specifically elucidate that. These are difficult questions."

Zald's personal view is that the mind emerges from the functioning of the brain. "If you look at just the simple parts of the brain, you will not arrive at a conscious mind. But when those processes are put together, the mind emerges from it."

So the whole is greater than the sum of the parts?

"Essentially," Zald replied.

Stanley Kuczaj, Chairman of the Department of Psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, Miss., said we still know very little about the relationship between the mind and the brain. But a relationship assumes the existence of two separate entities. Is the mind the name we give to neurological activity, or is the mind something apart from that?

"I have a hard time imagining the mind could exist independently of that activity," he replied.

Dedre Gentner, professor of Psychology and director of the Cognitive Science Program at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., said: "I'm not fond of the view that the mind floats in an aura around the brain or some other such ineffable position. But I think it's a big mistake to confuse the mind and the brain (because) we know probably hundreds of times more about the mind than we do about the brain at this point. Most of what we know about higher-order cognitive functions can't yet be traced in any kind of clear way -- if at all -- in the brain."

This came as a surprise to the interviewer, who assumed that the brain -- a physical organ -- would have been better understood than the mind, which some people consider an abstraction. But Gentner seemed to be using "mind" to mean evidence of thinking.

"We can do quite a bit with tracing perception," Gentner continued. "It's not difficult to get some pretty good information about how vision works, for example." But we are far from understanding how someone does counterfactual or hypothetical reasoning, or checks a theory for consistency, she said.

So then is the "mind" simply a catch-all term that we use to describe brain functioning that we don't understand?

"No," she replied, "but that's a good question given what I just said.

"We believe our refrigerators work because of the properties of molecules, and below the molecules are the principles of quantum mechanics, and so on. But it would be absolutely crazy to describe the way a refrigerator works in terms of quantum mechanics because it's seven levels too low, and the right level of explanation for a refrigerator is how the coolant behaves as it flows around the system.

"Many, many phenomena are multi-leveled, and cognition is one of them. Lots of processes can be described either in terms of, let's say, neural firing and chemical paths in the brain. Or they can be described in terms of processes like seeing if two representations are consistent, or making inferences if there's missing information. You really need them both.

"It would be crazy to explain the operation of a Mack truck in terms of quantum mechanics, and it would be crazy to try to explain inference in terms of nothing but brain-level mechanisms."

Once again the interviewer was confounded and guessed that the brain works at the level of Newtonian physics and the mind at the level of quantum mechanics. WRONG! In fact, it's the other way around.

"The brain is the substrate," Gentner explained. "When the truck goes down the street, we believe that way down there is some kind of atomic and subatomic explanation. But that would not be a good way to explain something that's several levels up, because each level has its own emergent principles. ...

"Explaining the locomotion of a truck according to quantum mechanics would be incredibly inefficient. We'd never get the answer.

"You really can explain things very nicely at the Newtonian level," she said -- the level of the mind.

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