“The Tyranny of Common Sense” & The “Mysterian” View of the Mind-Body Problem

Tyranny of Common Sense

The Questions Below Are From The Article, “The Tyranny of Common Sense” by the British philosopher David Papineau, author of The Roots of Reason: Philosophical Essays on Rationality, Evolution, and Probability, and, Thinking about Consciousness (Oxford University Press).

To quote Papineau:

Philosophical conservatism is especially rife in one of my own specialties, the philosophy of mind. This is an area where there is plenty of scope to query common sense. Everyday thinking embodies a rich structure of assumptions about the mind, and it is by no means clear that all these assumptions are sound. In particular, there are many recent scientific findings that cast substantial doubt on our intuitive view of the mind. For a start, take Benjamin Libetʼs work on the genesis of actions. Libetʼs experiments indicate that, at least when it comes to basic bodily movements, our conscious choices occur a full third of a second after neural activity in the brain begins to prompt the behavior. This certainly casts doubt on our intuitive conviction that our actions are instigated by our conscious choices. Again, the work of David Milner and Melvyn Goodale on the separation of the dorsal and ventral streams in visual processing (the “where” and “what” streams) suggests that our basic bodily movements arenʼt guided by our conscious visual awareness but by some more basic mechanism. And then there are the many experiments on “change blindness”. These show that we often fail to see large visible changes occurring right in front of us, and so question the intuitive compelling idea that we are aware of pretty much everything within our field of vision.

However, when philosophers come across this kind of work, they donʼt view it as an exciting challenge to the everyday view of the mind. Rather, their first reaction is to distrust the interpretation of the scientific experiments. In their view, there is no way that our everyday view of the mind can be threatened by scientific findings. Our intuitive conception of the mind is sacrosanct, so there must be something wrong with scientific arguments that cast doubt on it.

Sometimes this resistance is rationalized by positing a principled distinction between “personal level” claims about the mind and “sub-personal” accounts of the mechanisms operating in the brain. The idea is that science can tell us about the sub-personal level, but the personal level is something that we need to find out about by commonsensical means. But this distinction seems a desperate device. Of course, there can be differences in the grain of different descriptions of any system, and we should not suppose that interesting claims about the parts will automatically translate into interesting claims about the whole. But we can agree about this without adopting the unmotivated and indefensible view that our intuitive large-scale picture of the mind is somehow insulated against any threat from scientific findings.

I myself have recently become interested in a rather different way in which recent scientific findings threaten to overturn our everyday view of the world. Here the evidence comes from quantum mechanics rather than psychological research…the full article appears in this monthʼs issue of The Philosophers Magazine


Professor Colin McGinn is a fascinating British philosopher whose work focuses on philosophy of mind, ethics, and philosophical logic. He was recently interviewed on Moyersʼs new program, Bill Moyersʼs on Faith and Reason, which can be seen here. As well as being interviewed by Jonathan Miller in the summer of 2003 for the series “Atheism - A Rough History Of Disbelief”, the transcript of which can be read here.

McGinn is the leading proponent of the “New Mysterianism”, namely, that a full understanding of the mind-brain identity might never be achieved. His classic paper on the topic is available online: McGinn, C. (1989), “Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?” One difficulty with solving the problem he mentions is that, “Consciousness does not seem made up out of smaller spatial processes; yet perception of the brain seems limited to revealing such processes.” McGinn also acknowledges a debt to Nagel who pointed out the ineffability of bat experience, which McGinn used as an analogy in his article. According to Nagel, we can never really grasp what itʼs like to be a bat; some aspects of bathood are, as McGinn might put it, perceptually closed to us. Now if all our ideas stemmed directly from our perceptions (as is the case for a ‘Humean’ mind), this would mean that we suffered cognitive closure [or blindness] in respect to some ideas (‘batty’ ones, we could say). Of course, weʼre not in fact limited to ideas that stem directly from perceptions; we can infer the existence of entities we canʼt directly perceive. But McGinn says this doesnʼt help. In explaining physical events, you never need to infer non-physical entities, and in analyzing phenomenal experience you never need anything except phenomenal entities. So weʼre stuck. (To quote someoneʼs analysis of McGinnʼs view.)

McGinn is also mentioned in the following online philosophy of mind articles:

Nicholson, Mr D.M. (2005) From a Flaw in the Knowledge Argument to a Physicalist Account of Qualia.

Lazarov, Georgi (2003) Materialism and the problem of consciousness: The aesthesionomic approach.

Nicholson, Dennis (2003) Solving the Mind-Body Problem - The Real Significance of the Knowledge Argument.

Carruthers, Peter (2002) Consciousness: explaining the phenomena. Naturalism, Evolution and Mind..

Harnad, Stevan (2001) Explaining the Mind: Problems, Problems. The Sciences.

Harnad, Stevan (2001) No Easy Way Out. The Sciences.

Carruthers, Peter (2000) The evolution of consciousness. Evolution and the human mind: modularity, language and meta-cognition.

Harnad, Stevan (2000) Correlation vs. Causality: How/Why the Mind/Body Problem Is Hard. Journal of Consciousness Studies.

Humphrey, Nicholas (2000) How to solve the mind-body problem. Journal of Consciousness Studies.

Also of note is McGinnʼs university homepage which features a link to his online book, “Principia Metaphysica” that contains some intriguing paragraphs. McGinn seems to be aiming for a poetic form of philosophical discourse that sums up his view of life the universe and everything, but also recognizes the limitations of both philosophical language and human understanding. Note especially his mention of “intentionality” and “consciousness” in the final paragraph below:

23. I want to say outright that laws necessarily come before everything, even God—but that is not quite right (though sometimes hyperbole serves sobriety). It is as if the laws of the world were the first item on Godʼs agenda, and once they were settled a lot else was too. The laws that govern God are an embarrassment to him, like wearing a low-ranking uniform; he wishes he could throw them off. But without them he is nothing, a pure untrammeled ego, a frictionless point, a featureless receptacle—a metaphysical vacuum. The laws of God would apply to other gods with his nature; he is subsumed by his laws. The idea of the supernatural is not scientifically dubious; it is metaphysically incoherent. Any object consists of law-governed stuff—so where is there room for the supernatural (in the sense of an object subject to no law—or to “quasi-laws”)? Try to conceive of a universe in which every object is supernatural. Supernatural compared to what? We think we have the idea of the absolutely free agent, a pure lawless will, a nomologically transcendent I—but without laws there is no nature, and hence no object. Of course, there is no contradiction in the idea of another kind of stuff “ectoplasm”) subject to other types of law; but this is really the idea of another order of nature. No object could participate only in miracles, if a miracle is defined as an exception to natural laws. (A law is actually the nearest thing to a miracle that we have.)

24. Laws are produced by nothing but produce everything. Laws do not impose order on the world, as if the world were a disorderly place till they came along. Can you rely on laws of nature? Not as you rely on the word of a trusted friend. Laws are formative, not merely reliable or predictively useful. The sun may not rise tomorrow—it may be blown out of the sky by powerful aliens. But this is no abrogation of the laws of nature. To abrogate the laws of nature would be to have no sun to begin with. Obviously, laws do not govern the universe in the way a political party governs a country, and yet this dual use of “govern” invites illusions of independence. It would probably be best to re-invent our entire vocabulary for talking about laws.

25. “Laws + stuff = objects”: not such a bad way to put it. “Laws are made manifest in objects and events”: yes, but that doesnʼt mean they acquire reality that way. “Objects instantiate laws”: true, but not as objects instantiate predicates (one wants to make a distinction here between internal and external instantiation.) “Objects have laws running through them”: better, metaphorically—and how metaphorical is “instantiate” anyway? Compare: “objects ‘respect’ laws”.) If there were no laws, there would only be raw stuff—and that is impossible. Raw stuff is like the unarticulated given—a kind of contradiction. Stuff must come in the form of objects, as thoughts must come in the form of intentionality (rough analogy). Lawless stuff is like Jamesʼs “blooming, buzzing confusion”—a trick of language. Stuff, objects and laws come in a seamless package—as consciousness and intentionality do. There is no shaping of a pre-existing reality. (Remember that all analogies have their limitations.) Physical atoms are anything but formless; they are the parts of objects—not their stuff. Godʼs three major acts of creation—stuff, objects and laws—are really just one. Conceptual distinctions are not ontological distinctions.

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