31 August 2011
TheBestSchools.org has had occasion to raise the topic of what philosophers call the “mind-body problem”—meaning the nature of the relationship between the mind and the rest of the body, notably the brain—in a couple of recent posts (here and here).
As we begin our new blog, we will expand our coverage of this subject. We do so because we are convinced there is scarcely a more important issue in contemporary philosophy and science than this one.
It is not just a theoretical question, but also has very important practical implications, both in public policy and in our everyday lives. Why? Because it matters, in a great many ways, whether we see ourselves as the helpless puppets of our neurotransmitters or as agents responsible for our actions.
It matters for education, because it influences what we take the aim of educating children to be, as well as the methods we employ to teach them.
It matters for our system of jurisprudence—for example, for the question of whether punishment is a morally permissible aim of incarceration (we hope to say more about this in a forthcoming feature).
And it matters for our self-understanding, in general, which in turn affects how we live our lives and interact with other people.
There is a tendency (especially among journalists) to boil this important question down to a binary choice. The idea is that you must believe one of two things:
(1) People’s actions are fully determined by some combination of their genetic endowment, their upbringing, and their brain chemistry (or “wiring,” or what have you), and science has now shown that the widesread belief that we are in control of, and therefore responsible for, what we do is simply a mistake. (This position is known variously as “determinism” or “materialism” or “reductionism.”)
(2) Other animals may have their actions fully determined in the way of (1), but human beings have a special sort of mind (or soul), which is separate from the body altogether and endows us with the ability to direct our bodies to act in accordance with our knowledge of right and wrong, and that is what makes us beings with moral responsibility. (This position is known as “dualism,” because the mind and the body are considered to be two radically different kinds of things.)
However, this is an oversimplified picture of the current situation in philosophy and science. In fact, today many thinkers are struggling to put together a coherent picture of the mind-body relation that would occupy an intermediate ground between the two pictures outlined above—one in which the mind is genuinely in control of the body, not the other way around, but at the same time is not radically separated from the body.
One such philosopher is Alva Noë, a leader in the new trend within cognitive science and neuroscience that is attempting to understand the relationship between body and mind in a natural but non-reductionist manner.
Alva Noë is Professor of Philosopher at University of California—Berkeley, and the author of Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (Hill and Wang, 2009).
Go here to read an absorbing Edge interview (or talk—the questions have been edited out) with Professor Noë, entitled “Life Is the Way the Animal Is in the World.” You can also watch the first part of the interview by clicking on the video located on the same page.