Monday, April 18, 2005

Public Minds

I've heard it suggested that a major difference between the mind and the brain is that (only) the former is private, i.e. in principle inaccessible to others. But that just doesn't seem true. As our knowledge of cognitive neuro-psychology improves, we will gain the ability to know more and more about the contents of minds from brain scans and the like. Already experimenters can tell, from brain scans alone, whether subjects are seeing a face or a house. So doesn't that disprove the claim that the contents of our minds are 'private' in any deep sense?

At least qualia might plausibly be claimed to be irreducibly private/subjective. Sure, you can tell that the bat is receiving echolocation data of an object with such and such primary qualities. But, as Nagel points out, you can't know what it's like to be that bat! So the experiential qualities of consciousness may be 'private' in the sense that they cannot be grasped by just any old (sufficiently intelligent and well-equipped) being.

But qualia are notoriously tricky properties, so I'm happy to set them aside for now. So, what about the rest of our minds? Is there any good reason to accept the traditional view that they are deeply 'private' in either sense described above? (This strikes me as so obviously mistaken that I suspect I must be missing something...)

15 comments:

  1. I'm with you on this one, Richard. I do think that qualia exist, but I am just not sure that they're all the things that the supposed 'qualia-freaks' want them to be. For instance, a quale might just be what it is like for a certain type of mechanism to be in a certain functional state. The fact that we have qualia is very much insufficient to prove that there is this strange and intangible 'mind' that we should add to our ontology over-and-above one's body and its interaction with the world.

    I hadn't heard that about the brain scans. Interesting.

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  2. Even without brain scans, one can often tell from body language what a person is feeling/thinking in a fashion better than even they know. Now depending upon how one relates mind and consciousness the debate of the significance of this will vary. But it does suggest that there is something beyond brain structures that one can know quite well about the person.

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  3. I think of it this way: First person experience is a real and fundamental part of nature which is not completely reducible to a third-person account of the concurrent brain states.

    (As an aside - describing the contents of experience as qualia only seems to lead to confusion).

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  4. Wittgenstein is on your side. He says we can often know perfectly well what someone else is thinking or feeling. This is what happens when someone says they are feeling sad, and we understand that. There is probably some subtlety to exactly what kind of sad, and other mental relations, but there's nothing about what is said that we interpret wrongly.

    Sometimes we can know, and sometimes we can't. But to say we can never tell is to be ridiculous.

    It's possible of course, that we can never experience someone else's mental state as they experience it, but in particular examples we understand what it means for someone to be happy, sad, angry etc etc.

    -MP

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  5. We will eventually be able to model the mind and predict its behavior as well as any other natural system. That said, we know a lot about the interaction of the effects of pressure and temperature on gases, yet we do not have a good way to predict the weather beyond five days in the future. And like the weather, the mind is chaotic and probably mostly computationally irreducible.

    To put it another way: How do you know that your own self exploration of your mind through the process of thinking has been conducted more efficiently then others exploration of your mind through other means (brain scans, conversations, etcetera)? Is your mind truly more private then your brain (Indeed, how much more is known about your brain then your mind? I know your brain is a 2-3 pund lump of gray matter that metabolizes oxygen and carbohydrates. I know your mind probably works under an assumption of empirical reality with causation, you study philosophy, and because of these things-mostly the first- you are probably a political liberal.)? I am reminded of the cliché of an elderly woman exercising unearthly patience in dealing with an irate character, remarking “He’ll come around eventually,” in supreme confidence that she understands the inner workings of the irate character’s mind even better then he does.

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  6. I agree with the points that we can (or will with increasing accuracy) be able to assess the contents of experience from the 3rd person perspective. And there is evidence that our cognitive facility for introspection can actually mislead us.

    But the lesson from Nagel is that the phenomenon of private first person experience itself is a real and irreducible feature of nature. It is not eliminated by the success of our third person accounts.

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  7. There's another aspect-- the idea that the mind exists apart from the brain in a non-physical sense. I went to a neuroscience conference at UCLA on this subject. Apparently, subjects by willpower alone can reshape the connections in their brains. Examples: porn addicts, stroke victims, meditation, etc. The mind as distinct from the brain may be an important aspect of the argument for existence beyond the physical realm.
    Provacative post, by the way.
    -John

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  8. Re the previous comment:

    "Apparently, subjects by willpower alone can reshape the connections in their brains."

    I find the phrase "by willpower alone" highly problematic here. If it means "without overt physical intervention" -- without exercise, medication, etc. -- then there's no problem. To be a metaphysically interesting claim, though, the claim would have to be that these neural reconnections came about uncaused by any other brain events. Whether or not that could ever be experimentally confirmed, my (semi-informed) guess is that it's beyond our capacities now.

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  9. Quote -- I find the phrase "by willpower alone" highly problematic here. If it means "without overt physical intervention" -- without exercise, medication, etc.

    One would suggest that meditation for example is an intervention, and an 'exercise' just as much as an 'outside' influence. I don't doubt that ones neurons and thus whole balance of mental state is being altered by the practice. To the meditator it appears to proceed from 'willpower', -ie an abstract 'mind'-, but this initial intent springs from the previous balance of learning and experience and desire. All of which are part of the neural net and balance as well.
    Hmm. so i say, unthinkingly assuming the truth of this!
    So one asks then .... how could we ever prove that every particular thought occurred with some physical/neural parallel? You could never detect sufficient detail of the brains operation to ABSOLUTELY prove it I think .. given the immensity of fine detail of the brain and the dificulty of accessing it outwardly.
    One relies in the end, on more general assumption.

    David L.

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  10. Hmm, lots of interesting comments here. I had completely overlooked the obvious point (made by Clark and others) that we can often infer mental states from behaviour, not just brain scans.

    As for the "willpower" issue, I'd echo Alan by pointing out that "acts of will" involve mental states, and therefore brain states. It's certainly interesting that the brain can modify itself in such a way -- but it's no more metaphysically remarkable than the fact that I can scratch my own hands.

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  11. It seems to me the brain is always modifying itself. (Thus the ability to remember and learn new skills) What tends to be more interesting is when it can reconfigure itself in ways that it typically doesn't.

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  12. Certainly an interesting subject. And what gets me again is that as soon as one states bluntly that something we experience as 'will' is just ( just!) the action of the neurons and mental network, the whole thing begins to seem a little problematic to me. One can picture the physical mass of massively interconnected nerves being swept by pulses and more generalized .... er ... group associated changes of balance of chemical activity, but there is huge mental gap for me to conceive of this as an 'experience'.
    It just isn't!
    In short, one is left still hoping for a conception of 'physical' that can be anything other than that.

    And i don't suppose anyone has a notion as to why, when the whole network is in a state of constant activity, our awareness can seem so very calm and still ?
    It is more like the 'awareness' we have is a 'supervisor' of what goes on.
    No wonder the eastern philosophers / religious types talk of their ultimate 'SELF'. Does it point to a part of the brain that is in fact seperate from all the rest?
    I read recently of a particular network of nerves which operate at a faster speed than the rest. Imediately one starts thinking aha, yes! A part of the brain that could, as it were, 'sum up' , or refer to, and observe the rest .. even give rise to a sense of self ?? ... A bit hopeful i think. There is still no new conception of 'physicality' of the brain that can make it anything more.
    Odd how many people have no problem about this matter .
    sigh .. Perhaps one day all will become clearer....

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  13. Certainly an interesting subject. And what gets me again is that as soon as one states bluntly that something we experience as 'will' is just ( just!) the action of the neurons and mental network, the whole thing begins to seem a little problematic to me. One can picture the physical mass of massively interconnected nerves being swept by pulses and more generalized .... er ... group associated changes of balance of chemical activity, but there is huge mental gap for me to conceive of this as an 'experience'.
    It just isn't!
    In short, one is left still hoping for a conception of 'physical' that can be anything other than that.

    And i don't suppose anyone has a notion as to why, when the whole network is in a state of constant activity, our awareness can seem so very calm and still ?
    It is more like the 'awareness' we have is a 'supervisor' of what goes on.
    No wonder the eastern philosophers / religious types talk of their ultimate 'SELF'. Does it point to a part of the brain that is in fact seperate from all the rest?
    I read recently of a particular network of nerves which operate at a faster speed than the rest. Imediately one starts thinking aha, yes! A part of the brain that could, as it were, 'sum up' , or refer to, and observe the rest .. even give rise to a sense of self ?? ... A bit hopeful i think. There is still no new conception of 'physicality' of the brain that can make it anything more.
    Odd how many people have no problem about this matter .
    sigh .. Perhaps one day all will become clearer....

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  14. whoops . sorry for double post .. it didn't react for ages and I tried again

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