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cutting away the I

May 30, 2009

In the late 1950s, philosophers like J J C Smart demanded why — given the advances of science, and its success in establishing the identity of commonsense with scientific concepts — specific states of consciousness (pain, seeing a yellow after-image) should not in fact ‘turn out to be’ specific brain states. Lightning has ‘turned out to be’ an electrical discharge, and heat to be molecular motion. In each case, said Smart, the scientific term obviously doesn’t mean the same as the commonsense term, but it does refer to the same phenomenon. Science tells us what lightning and heat actually are. Similarly, pain doesn’t mean brain state 7,008, and the person talking about her pain may well not know that what she is talking about is brain state 7,008 (any more than, prior to Alexander von Humboldt in the 19th century, people knew they were talking about H2O when they talked about water), but that is what she is ultimately talking about.

Biologists, neuroscientists, and scientised people in general, are often perplexed, even exasperated, that there should be any objection to some version of this Smart-type identification of brain states with mental states. They pat philsophers’ hands and tell them not to bother their clever little heads about the problem since it is a scientific one, and nothing to do with philosophy. ‘Just a matter of time’ again. But it surely is unavoidably a philosophical problem, since we need to know what exactly we’re dealing with. What would count as knowing that a brain state/mental state identity had been established? How could it be proved that brain state 7,008, for instance, is precisely the pain I’m having now? Well, is the usual answer, it’s just a matter of sophisticated technology being developed to correlate a specific site in the brain and movement of neurones etc with the occurrence of the pain, showing that each is happening at the same time, in the same place. Yes, but how can more than correlation be established? And correlation of time is hard enough, what could correlation of place come to?

Smart seemed to be conceding the correlation point when he admitted that what he postulated about brain state/mental state synchronisation could equally amount to epiphenomenalism as to identity (i.e., to the view that, with any neural event, there is also a mental, causally inactive, spin-off). Occam’s razor was his clinching argument for opting for identity – get rid of clutter and believe as simple and economic a theory as possible. Which would be fine if, as some philosophers like Thomas Nagel have pointed out, your razor didn’t actually cut out the essential thing. How do we get rid of the sense that there always seems to be something left over from the straightforward conflation of brain state activity into mental state occurrence? (read)

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