Reductive physicalist accounts of the mind fail to fully explain the nature of mental states

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Reductive Physicalist attempt to fully reduce the mind into a physical brain – the ‘internal content’ of the mind being fully explicable in terms of physical properties. By nature of mental states, we mean such arguments and theories as privacy of the mental, qualia, intentionality and mental physical causation. As we will see, all such problems can be explained and reduced via a reductive physicalist outlook.

Substance Dualism fails to offer an argument in favour of a coherent argument in favour of a separate mind and mind, due to problems such as neural dependency – the argument goes that why should biological and neurological changes in the brain affect a non-physical mind – expressed through examples such as a person drinking alcohol. The results on a person after drinking alcohol, slowed reactions, higher tolerance of pain, points to the mind and brain being one and the same. Substance Dualism thus fails to provide a solution.

Physiological Behaviourists hold that all behaviour, even very complex behaviour, can be fully explained in stimulus-response terms. The given model is a simple reflex: you sit on a chair in a relaxed position legs crossed, a doctor taps your knee and it bobs in the characteristic way. Here, a bit of behaviour – your knee bobbing – is a response to an external stimulus – your knee being tapped. Thus, human behaviour can be fully explained via a set of stimuli and responses. Behaviour depends upon conditioned responses to said stimuli.

Take BF Skinner and his pigeons. By Skinner feeding (stimulus) the pigeons in a certain way, he managed to get them to walk in a figure of eight (response). All mental states are thus fully reduced to/described in terms of actual or potential pain behaviour is the conclusion. Potential behaviour needs to be taken into account as we all have beliefs, and would act in a certain way on them. Behaviourists furthermore claim that all learning/mental stats/behaviour can be fully explained in terms of simple associative mechanisms.

Thus, ultimately, via a huge range of actual and potential behaviour, it would be possible to study and understand the mind through biology, psychology, neurology and behavioural psychology. This view dismisses any notion of there being a private mind; pain is quite simply pain behaviour. This is observable via the, for example, gritting of your friends teeth when they have stubbed their toe or via biological changes in the body: the heart rate increasing for example.

Similarly, we may be dispositioned not to show any outward signs of pain at all. This is still pain behaviour, since that disposition not to show pain was dispositioned in itself. Moreover, there are many dispositions that enter into the behaviourist equation depending on the circumstances. What is a belief then? To say TNT is explosive is not to say it is actually exploding. Rather that only if it were to be detonated it would explode. Thus, for something to have a disposition, simply an ‘if then’ statement needs to be true.

For example, Jill believes it is going to rain, if she is going outside, then she will bring a coat. Finally, Gilbert Ryle thought that substance dualists were committing a ‘category mistake’ when thinking about the mind. He used the example of showing someone around Oxford University to explain why. The person being shown the university says at the end of the tour, “this is all very nice but where is the university? ” The mistake is obvious – the person did not realise that the totality of the buildings (brain) were the university, not something else (mind).

Be that as it may, what about the case of the actor who apparently expresses all the right behavioural symptoms of pain, but is in fact not actually in pain. According to behaviourist theory we would we would have to deduce that the actor is in pain; even though after the show he admits that he was not. The Behaviourists are able to offer a reply however. His actions can be explained through behavioural history – via learning his lines he is behaviourally disposed to act in pain at a later stage.

For example: John believes he is going to be in a play – if John learns his lines, then John will be able to act (in pain). The actor’s ‘deceiving’ behaviour was therefore conditioned by a previous disposition to be that way. That’s all very well and good, but what about the privacy of the mental? Behaviourists seem to leave this somewhat unexplained. They account for our knowledge of other peoples mental states by the study of their behaviour; but this seems to tell the wrong story when understanding one’s own behaviour.

Since we have a first person view into what we are thinking and feeling, it would seem that there is no need to observe ourselves in order to understand what is going on inside me right now. But, once again, the Behaviourists are able to offer a reply. Our reflection on behaviour caused by subconscious or impulsive brain activity allows us to access how exactly we are feeling by understanding/reflecting on our own behaviour. Mark, for example, is tired, and Amie is annoying him, Mark shouts at her, in an unreasonable manner, to be quiet.

On reflection of his behaviour, Mark now understands that he is feeling grumpy. Therefore, this is an argument that a (correct) first person view into our own feelings and emotions is not always possible until an analysis of behaviour has taken place. Mental-physical causation seems to pose a problem for Behaviourists. H. Putnam invented a thought experiment involving ‘Super-Spartans’ that advanced it is conceivable to have mental experiences and yet have no behavioural manifestations of such experiences.

The adults of this race can successfully suppress all involuntary pain-behaviour: although they do sometimes admit that they are in pain, they always do so calmly. They do not groan, wince, sweat or grit their teeth either Putnam states. Be that is it may, this thought experiment proves/shows nothing to discredit Logical Behaviourism. The ‘Super-Spartans’, by the nature of being conditioned not to shoe pain , have, in fact, only been behaviourally disposed to conceal the outward signs of pain.

In effect then, the supposed lack of pain behaviour is, actually, the behaviour ‘Super-Spartans’ are dispositioned to show when in pain. Putnam may try and argue that one cannot tell the difference between when the Spartans are in pain and when they are not. To this we can say that surely there are surely some physiological pain behaviours that cannot be controlled by this ‘super’ race: such as sweating, contrary to what Putnam, wrongly, claims and an increase in heart rate. Moreover then, another attempt to discredit Logical Behaviourism has once again failed.

However, Behaviourists have no legitimate response to the problem of Qualia. They may try and discredit it as not a real concept, but this is inadequate as the qualitative feeling of, say, seeing and experiencing red feels very real to us. Thus, qualitative states such as pain seem to be a matter of ‘what’s going on inside me right now’ – of this one can be directly aware of – it appears to have little to do with how one would act in a certain hypothetical situations. Pain therefore has a phenomenological quality, and must be more than pain behaviour or pain dispositional behaviour.

A similar story is also true when it comes to intentionality. The Behaviourists have seemed to overlook the problem of human behaviour being caused by interlocking/interdependent states of mind. Like a jigsaw puzzle, they (mental states) exist alongside each other. How one behaves depends on all the mental states one has; there is no such thing as a distinctive behaviour associated with a single mental states in isolation. Consequently, any plausible connection between mental sates and behaviour will have to invoke many mental states in explaining behaviour.

This leaves the Behaviourists with the problem of linking one particular mental state to one particular behaviour; without first making assumptions about what other mental states that person has. Overall then, this leads to a threat of regress – it seeming impossible for Behaviourists to define any one mental states until they have already defined lots of other mental states. The third and final theory we will look at, the Identity Theory, shares the same physicalist view of the mind being fully reduced to the brain as the Logical Behaviourists.

However, the Type-Type theory of the Identity Theorists offers a far more plausible view of how the mind can be fully reduced. Just like the chemical composure of water is H2O and lightening is a pattern of electric discharges, pain is simply C Fibres in the brain firing – a simple, yet convincing, explanation of how mental states are just physical ones. From this view point intentionality is not an issue, since the invoking of many different mental states to produce one notable behaviour is of no consequence: neuron 273, 296 and 783 together, say, caused the given action.

The attempted example used to discredit the Identity Theory is the notion that Reductive Physicalists cannot explain the qualitative feeling of things. As we saw Logical Behaviourists failed at this herald. If we take the example of seeing and experiencing red once again, this experience that we feel seems to be a new knowledge, a qualitative feel that one would not be able to gain via neurological studies as the Identity Theory would suggest. The given example to attempt to prove this point is Mary the neuroscientist.

She has never seen colour, only black and white, yet is an expert in neurology and knows everything there is to know about the processes and mechanisms going on in the brain when a person is experiencing colour. The argument goes that one cannot truly understand colour without first seeing it – neurons, on the other hand, don’t seem to be ‘about’ anything. Nevertheless, Identity Theorists can offer a reply. Seeing red and knowing all the neurological activity caused by seeing red is not knowledge of two facts, but the same one presented in two different ways.

The fact itself, ‘red’, is activating the exact neurons in the brain that Mary knew it would; only now she knows what red looks like. She has, nonetheless, gained no new knowledge. One could question whether ‘red’ is a fact, but such argument is not relevant to the thought experiments conclusion since objective, or not, the phenomenon that is seeing red is just a different presentation of something Mary had already been fully aware of.

Take the example of The Mysterious case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, one knows that, once completing the novel, Dr Jekyll is Mr Hyde and vice versa. Or take water and steam – two different forms of the same chemical. This is not knowledge of two different facts but the same one presented in two different ways. In conclusion, it has been found, once Substance Dualism was defeated on ground of neural dependency, that the mind can be fully reduced into the physical world as the brain.

The question that remains is which Reductive Physicalist theory is the correct one to subscribe to. Logical Behaviourism’s attempt to explain all behaviour in stimulus-response terms fails to explain Qualia and intentionality. This leaves only the Identity Theory which – having a certain credibility over all other theories – is able to able to overcome the problems thrown at it was relative ease and simplicity. Intentionality is explained via neuron activity, and Qualia as a feeble concept that only proves that the same thing can be perceived in different ways.

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