Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Should the Philosophy of Mind be Constrained by Science?



Philosophy, since Thales, has always been ‘constrained’ by science. Straight after Thales, Aristotle was both a philosopher and a scientist. It has also been the other way around.

Newton was imbued with the Platonism and the Aristotelianism his age reacted against.

Early 20th century physicists, like Mach, Poincare and Einstein were either Berkelian idealists or some kind of Kantian.

So the relation between science and philosophy has always been a reciprocal one.

Of course there are many philosophers around today who believe that because the mind and consciousness are so unlike the things physicists or chemists study everyday, that the philosophy of science, by definition, must be an a priori pursuit – even an a priori science!

Although it's often said that science can’t tell an alien what a colour looks like, or what a sponge feels like, or even “what it’s like to be a bat”, surely there are still aspects of the mind that can be known by science or, more specifically, by neuroscience. So perhaps the best thing to do is not to highlight the no-go areas of mind and, similarly, what are the acceptable areas of the study of mind that the scientist could, and does, tell us about.

It can be said that science cannot give us any information about ‘phenomenal consciousness’ – or ‘what it is like’ to smell a rose or listen to Mozart. Scientists, of whatever discipline, could tell us which neurophysical factors and features are causally responsible for all things phenomenal and which even ‘subserve’ mental events and consciousness generally. Though, the philosopher may argue, none of this has anything directly to do with the mind.

For example, a scientist may as well tell us that every time I have, or form, a mental image of the Cheshire Cat the light is on in my bedroom. Thus he could reduce my introspective image of such an image to the physical basis of the electric light and how that light impinges on my sensory receptors and then enters the nervous system… and, eventually, ends with a mental image of the Cheshire Cat. Even if it were the case than an electric light subserves, or were the ‘material substrate’, of my mental image, no physicist or neuroscientist could tell me anything about my mental image; or, indeed, anything about anyone’s mental images. Again, all they could do would be to tell us the physical substrate of such mental events or states, or their ‘subveniance-base’. They could tell us no more than this.

However, it may still be the case that although science doesn't tell us what it is like to smell some shit or form a mental image of a cat in one’s mind, there may still be many scientific factors that are relevant to these aspects of the philosophy of mind. If not these examples, then surely in other cases in the very wide discipline.

The question is:

What can science tell us about the mind?

Or,

Can science tell us anything about the mind?

It became clear, decades ago, that we can't reduce the mind to the brain; as with the Identity Theory of mind. It even became probable that no strict correlations between mental states (or events) and the brain could be found.

Other philosophers, such as Donald Davidson (with his anomalous monism)argued that there are no mind-to-matter (or ‘psychophysical’) laws, or, for that matter, matter-to-mind scientific laws. Not only that: there are no mental laws per se.

As for being ‘constrained’ by science, this normative possibility doesn't make much prima facie sense. Philosophy has often been ahead of science. (And, indeed, vice versa.) So why should we constrain the non-empirical and non-experimental speculations of philosophy when so often in the past philosophy has shown science where it should go next or when aspects of science have shown little logical or philosophical sophistication.

Though, of course, science simpliciter is itself speculative in nature and scientific hypotheses have been what have pushed science forward. So even if the philosophy of mind is still aprioristic, which, in most cases it isn’t, there would still be no good reason, vis-à-vis science, to place constraints on the philosophy of mind or on any area of philosophy for that matter.

Of course neuroscience has told us many things about the brain. And also, indirectly, many things about the mind itself. It has told us things about mental illness, ‘blind sight’, the nature of colour vision, our cognitive faculties and which component parts of the brain subserve them, and so on.

Again, or the science of psychology can tell us about mental illness. Here again, psychologists don't need to know much about the neurochemical nature of the brain to empirically observe the behaviour of the mentally ill. Blind sight, at least in some cases, can be shown to be the result of brain damage or cognitive failures in the synaptic regions of the neurons. Colour vision is well studied by physiology and neuroscience. Though, again, a scientist can't tell us what the colour blue looks like or what it is like to suffer the shits.

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