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Polarization in the Philosophy of Mind

14/04/09 | by Markus Schroer [mail] | Categories: schroer

Link: http://markusschroer.wordpress.com

Der folgende Artikel ist eine Zusammenführung der beiden Teilartikel ‘Polarization in the Philosophy of Mind (1)’ und ‘Polarization in the Philosophy of Mind (2)’ auf meinem englischsprachigen WordPress-Weblog ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’. Ich habe einige Verbesserungen vorgenommen.


In the history of philosophy since Plato and Aristotle, there has always been the tendency to paint pictures of black & white only. This depicts, of course, a general and natural tendency of human beings. It is often helpful, if not necessary for our survival, if we categorize all the entities in our experience. Needless to say, we cannot choose to do so—we need to. This can, however, as well go all down the wrong way. If we head for the wrong direction due to whatever mistake, it may turn out fatal for the rest of what we want to do. This is true not only for our survival, but also for our picture of the world, especially for our philosophical picture of it.
Some philosophers tried to reconcile certain pictures comprising only black & white. One of them, no doubt, was Immanuel Kant. He addressed the question of how to reconcile the pictures painted by empiricists and rationalists in his famous and ground-breaking Kritik der reinen Vernunft (Critique of Pure Reason). Unfortunately, his philosophy of epistemology and metaphysics led others to draw another one-sided picture: idealism.
And this is, it seems, how it goes all the time. Therefore, we must not stop reflecting our theories. Moreover, this is the source of philosophy, and philosophy itself cannot come to an end (as Wittgenstein thought when he had finished the Tractatus) so long as we still develop new theories or amend the old ones. From this the question may arise (and it has in fact been asked and answered, for example by Quine) whether there can be an end to what can be said and written. Let me take this short excourse. In my view, we have two kinds of approaching this question. If mankind (or any other species capable of langauge and writing) ceases to exist one day, there may be things left which could have been said or written, but which are not. If, however, mankind continues to exist forever, there may come a time when everything which is to say and write is said and written. Yet it is not for us to see how the story will turn out. Let us thus set the question aside.
What I want to do in this article is to show that in the philosophy of mind the generic human tendency to polarize spoils our concept of the human mind, particularly that of the freedom of the will. For this purpose, I shall also discourse on the philosophical concept of freedom in general.

Polarization in the Philosophy of Mind

In the more recent philosophical discussion in the philosophy of mind, we have abandoned occasionalism, psychophysical parallelism, epiphenomenalism, and mental monism. Still, the are more than two alternatives, of course, and we must distinguish them in detail. That is, I do not want to contend that we face a polarization in the sense that we ignore possible alternatives concerning, say, the interacting of mind and brain. I rather want to concern myself with the problem of compatibilism and incompatibilism, that is, the question whether physical determinism and freedom of the will are reconcilable. My thesis, then, is this: We are not, as it seems on the face of it, interlocked between compatibilism and incompatibilism (if we embrace physicalism), since there is nothing that could be compatible or incompatible. The question which engenders the former is this: How is it possible for us to make free decisions if the mind is part of the physical world which allows for no exeptions from causation? This question has more than one defect, and the defects themselves are rather intricate. For this reason they are not obvious to those who ask it, and the question has remained as if it were sensible to ask it, although no one has given a satisfactory reply to it so far. One of the defects is this: to put the question is to fall back into the Cartesian dualism of substances. In this vein, we conceive the mind and the freedom of the will as something seperate (or separable) from the rest of the brain and body. If we embrace physicalism, however, we must not do this, for physicalism is a form of monism. There also lies a deep-rooted mistake in the concept of freedom. It must be clear that there can be no absolute freedom, for this would mean that all the decisions we make have no cause at all, that all outcomes of our pondering are fortuitous. I think this is not acceptable, if intelligible in any way. Instead, we need to envisage freedom of the will as choosing to do what we want to do. At first glance, this may appear a truism, though it is not, as we shall see.

The Concept of the Freedom of the Will

Here we must distinguish two sorts of freedom, as Kant does in his Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals). On the one hand, there is a negative concept of freedom, according to which ‘to be free’ means that no external causes determine the will. On the other hand, there is a positive concept of freedom, according to which ‘to be free’ means to be able to choose what to do. In short, there are the concepts of being free from (external constraints), and the concept of being free to (do something).
Evidently, we are not free from each and every possible outer restraint. These restraints need not even be causal. We just have to think of alternatives which are not obtainable in a certain situation of choice. Imagine a friend of yours offers you some pieces of sweets, for instance a piece of chocolate and a piece of wine gum. You are clearly free to choose from the sweets your friend offers you, yet you are not free to choose from all the sweets you can think of. In this case, the external restriction consists of the limitation of available alternatives.

Freedom of the Will and Compatibility versus Incompatibility

Concerning the concept of the freedom of the will, there is another deep-rooted mistake. This mistake, in turn, results from mutually confusing parts of the concept of dualism with parts of the concept of monism. Let me elaborate.
On the topic of the freedom of the will, many empirical researches have been implemented. One of the first of these were the Libet-experiments, named after Benjamin Libet, who contrived them. Libet himself originally wanted to prove by means of these experiments that human beings do have a free will. The results, though, seemed to show the opposite, namely that decisions are made by unconscious neuronal processes in the brain before the conscious self believes he makes a decision.
Now, since others have already discussed and criticized the Libet-experiments and its results as well as their interpretations, I do not want to open up a new discussion on these in particular. I rather want to concentrate on the mistakes in the thinking that led to the wrong interpretations.
The mistake I am talking about is as follows. Many people, including scientists and philosophers, conceive what we call ‘personality’ as part of, or even identical with, self-consciousness. This, in turn, implies the conviction that we are only free if the decisions we make are independent from any unconscious neuronal processes in our brains. Now it is plain to see that this must be wrong. Our characters, personalities, or what else you will call them, comprise for the biggest part unconscious processes in our brains1. To state it more precisely: we are our brains. To think otherwise is either to contradict oneself: how could something as a character come to exist out of nothing? or, as mentioned above, to fall back into the Cartesian dualism of substances. This is the same mistake people make when they think there could be absolute freedom. Hence it does not make sense to say there is no freedom of the will because our decisions are determined by unconscious processes in our brains. We could reformulate it thus: our decisions are determined by our characters—which is nonsense, for if we rewrite it in the active voice, it reads like this: we determine our decisions via our characters. And this, clearly, is but another way to say: we are free to do what we wish to. From this it follows as well that, as I stressed in my thesis above, there is nothing to be compatible or incompatible, so that this seeming problem is no problem at all.

1 see e.g. Goleman, Daniel: Emotional Intelligence and Goleman, Daniel: Social Intelligence


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02/09/10 @ 04:21
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27/07/15 @ 19:59

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Markus Schroer, Student der Philosophie und Geschichtswissenschaft. Wissenschaftliche Interessenschwerpunkte in der Philosophie: •Erkenntnistheorie •Sprachphilosophie •Philosophie des Geistes •Wissenschaftstheorie •Logik und Argumentationstheorie •Kant •theoretische Ethik Wissenschaftliche Interessenschwerpunkte in der Geschichtswissenschaft: •griechisch-römische Antike •1. und 2. Weltkrieg •Nationalsozialismus •Gesellschaft und Militärwesen
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