Philosophy of mind is a branch of philosophy that studies the nature of mental phenomena (thoughts, perceptions, feelings, etc.) and their relationship to the physical body (especially the brain). In other words, it focuses on explaining how the mind – a supposedly immaterial phenomenon – influences a material body, and vice versa.
To this end, different positions have emerged that attempt to explain such questioning. Of these, dualism and monism are the most important. Would you like to find out more about it? In this article, we’ll explain why it’s so important for the development of cognitive sciences and for the understanding of human beings.
Philosophy of Mind: what does it consist of?
The philosophy of mind raises general questions about the nature of mental phenomena, such as the following:
- Sensory experience
Now, it’s important to make a distinction between the philosophical questions of this branch and the questions that more empirical approaches attempt to answer, such as experimental psychology or neuroscience, which depend crucially on the results of observation. Even though these disciplines deal with the same issues, it should be noted that the approach of each one is different.
For example, empirical psychologists usually study contingent facts about real people and animals, such as discovering that a certain chemical is released only when experiencing fear, or that a certain region of the brain is activated when experiencing pain.
In contrast, the philosophy of mind wants to know whether releasing that chemical or having the brain activated in a certain region is essential in order to feel fear or pain. Therefore, questions such as the following are asked:
- Would people lacking that particular chemical or brain design be incapable of experiencing these experiences?
- Is it possible for something that doesn’t share the same matter to have experiences like these, as in the case of machines?
In asking these questions, philosophers don’t only think about the remote possibilities of divine entities or extraterrestrial creatures (whose physical constitutions would be very different from those of humans), but also consider closer realities, such as the possibility that computers are capable of thinking.
This doesn’t mean, however, that the contingent findings of empirical science aren’t relevant to philosophical speculation about the mind. In fact, many philosophers think that scientific research may reveal the essence or nature of many mental phenomena that so far remain an enigma.
The Mind-Body Problem
The central theme of philosophy of mind is the “mind-body” problem. Therefore, it tries to explain how these two entities – one immaterial and the other material – relate to and influence each other.
Among the most widely accepted explanations, we find dualism and monism, two thought currents that, in turn, are divided into several perspectives. Let’s see the most influential ones.
This position defends that the mind and the body are categorically separated from each other. Furthermore, it also declares that mental phenomena are non-physical in nature in some respects.
This tradition goes back to Plato and Aristotle, but was formulated more precisely by René Descartes in the 17th century. Descartes was the first to clearly identify the mind with consciousness, and to distinguish it from the brain, the physical seat of intelligence. Within dualism, we can distinguish two main perspectives.
Substance dualism (or Cartesian dualism)
This theory holds that the mind is a substance that exists independently of the physical body. In this sense, the mind has no extension in space and material things aren’t capable of thinking.
This is the dualism popularly defended by Descartes. It’s compatible with most theologies that claim that immortal souls exist in a “realm” independent of the physical world.
The dualism of properties
Defends that the mind is a set of independent properties that emerge from the brain, but that it is not a substance distinct from matter. Thus, when matter is organized in the right way (as in living human bodies), mental properties emerge.
Monism, on the other hand, defends that mind and body are not ontologically distinct entities. It was first defended in Western philosophy by Parmenides (5th century B.C.) and Baruch Spinoza (17th century). Within this position, the following perspectives stand out:
Physicalism or materialistic monism
Physicalism argues that the mind is a purely physical construct and will eventually be fully explained by the empirical sciences as it continues to evolve. With the great advances in science in the 20th century, this position has become the dominant doctrine.
This theory argues that, even though the brain is all there is to the mind, the vocabulary used in mental descriptions and explanations can’t be reduced to the language of physical science.
Thus, mental states depend on physical states, but aren’t reducible to them. Thus, there can be no change in the mental realm, without some change in the physical realm.
This theory holds that the mind is all that exists. Therefore, the external world is itself mental or an illusion created by the mind. Hence, the problem of interaction between mind and body isn’t a problem at all.
This suggests that existence consists of one kind of primary substance (hence monism), which is itself neither mental nor physical, but is capable of producing attributes of both kinds.
Therefore, there’s some other neutral substance (which can be named “substance”, “nature”, or “God”), and both matter and mind are properties of this other, unknown substance.
Importance of the Philosophy of Mind
As we can see, philosophy of mind is a very relevant field of reflection in our days, as it addresses one of the great enigmas of humanity, the human mind.
In this way, we can have a better understanding of human beings and the world around us. In fact, the explanatory theories offered by philosophers of mind have contributed to the theoretical development of cognitive sciences.