Why is it that we can’t solve the mind/body problem? Well, if we define that problem as being about the capacity of mental events to cause physical events, there is a project in progress at Durham University that says it’s about the lack of good philosophy, or more specifically, that our problem stems from inadequate ontology (ontology being the branch of metaphysics that deals with what there is). The project has been running for a few years, and now a substantial volume of corrective metaphysics has been published, with a thoughtful and full review here. (Hat-tip to Micha for drawing this to my attention).
The book is not a manifesto, because the authors do not share a single view: it’s more like an exhibition. What’s on offer here is a variety of philosophical views of mental causation, all more sophisticated than the ones we typically encounter in discussions of artificial intelligence. The review gives a good sense of what’s on offer, and depending on your inclinations you may see it as a collection of esoteric and unhelpful complications, or as a magic sweetshop whose every jar holds the way to a new world of possibility and enlightenment. I think the average view will see it as a bookshop with many volumes of dull sermons and outdated almanacs which might nevertheless just be holding somewhere in the dusty back room that one book that makes sense of everything.
Is it likely that better philosophy will deliver the answer? There is a horrid vision in my mind in which the neurologists and/or the AI people produce a model which seems to work; we’re able to build machines which talk to us in the same way as human beings, and we can explain exactly how the brain does its stuff and how it is analogous to these machines: but the philosophers go on doubting whether this machine consciousness is real consciousness. No-one else cares.
Moreover, there are some identifiable weaknesses in philosophy which are clearly on display in the current volume. First is the fissiparous nature of philosophical discussion. I said this was an exhibition rather than a manifesto; but wouldn’t a manifesto have been better? It’s not achievable because every philosopher has his or her own view and the longer discussion goes on the more possible views there are. In one way it’s a pleasing, exploratory quality, but if you want a solution it’s a grave handicap. Second, and related, there’s no objective test beyond logical consistency. Experiments will never prove any of these views wrong.
Third, although philosophy is too difficult, it’s also too easy. Someone somewhere once said that Aristotle’s problem was that he was too clever. For him, it was always possible to come up with a theory which justified the outlook of a complacent middle-aged Ancient Greek: theories which have turned out, so far as we can test them, to be almost invariably false or incomplete. Less clever pre-Socratic philosophers like Heraclitus or Parmenides were forced to adopt weirder points of view which in the long run might actually tell us more.
The current volume, I think, might contain many cases of clever people making cases that broadly justify common sense while the real truth may be out there in the wild regions beyond. E.J.Lowe, one of the editors of the book and champions of the project, has a view about the powers of the will. He characterises powers as active or passive on the one hand and causal or non-causal. This leaves open the possibility of a power which is both active and non-causal. He wants the human will to have these properties, so that it is spontaneous and not causally inefficacious without the agent per se thereby bringing about any sort of effect (if I’ve got that right). The spontaneity is supposed to resemble the spontaneity of the decay of a specific radium atom, and hence be consistent with physics, while the causal efficacy is of a kind that does not require an interruption of normal physics while still being an important corollary of our status as rational beings.
This is clever stuff, no doubt, but it looks like an attempt – you may consider it a doomed attempt – to explain away the problems with our common sense views rather than correcting them. We’re being offered loopholes which may – debatably – let us carry on thinking what we’ve always thought, rather than offering us a new perspective. It leaves me feeling the way I might feel after a clever lawyer has explained why his client should not be convicted; yeah, but did he do it? There’s no ‘aha!’ moment on offer. In her review Sara Bernstein suggests that sceptics may be inclined to turn back to reductionism, and I must confess that is indeed my inclination.
Still, I can’t shake my hope that somewhere in that dusty old bookshop the truth is to be found, and so I can’t help wishing the project well.