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Conceiving The Impossible And The Mind-Body Problem

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Intuitions based on the first-person perspective can easily mislead us about what is and is

not conceivable.1 This point is usually made in support of familiar reductionist positions on the

mind-body problem, but I believe it can be detached from that approach. It seems to me that the

powerful appearance of contingency in the relation between the functioning of the physical

organism and the conscious mind -- an appearance that depends directly or indirectly on the first-

person perspective -- must be an illusion. But the denial of this contingency should not take the

form of a reductionist account of consciousness of the usual type, whereby the logical gap

between the mental and the physical is closed by conceptual analysis -- in effect, by analyzing

the mental in terms of the physical (however elaborately this is done -- and I count functionalism

as such a theory, along with the topic-neutral causal role analyses of mental concepts from which

it descends).

In other words, I believe that there is a necessary connection in both directions between

the physical and the mental, but that it cannot be discovered a priori. Opinion is strongly divided

on the credibility of some kind of functionalist reductionism, and I wont go through my reasons

for being on the antireductionist side of that debate. Despite significannot

attempts by a number of

philosophers to describe the functional manifestations of conscious mental states, I continue to

believe that no purely functionalist characterization of a system entails -- simply in virtue of our

mental concepts -- that the system is conscious.

So I want to propose an alternative. In our present situation, when no one has a plausible

answer to the mind-body problem, all we can really do is to try to develop various alternatives

one of which may prove in the long run to be an ancestor of a credible solution. This is a plea

for the project of searching for a solution that takes conscious points of view as logically

irreducible to, but nevertheless necessarily connected with, the physical properties of the

organisms whose points of view they are. Consciousness should be recognized as a conceptually

irreducible aspect of reality that is necessarily connected with other equally irreducible aspects --

as electromagnetic fields are irreducible to but necessarily connected with the behavior of

charged particles and gravitational fields with the behavior of masses, and vice versa. But the

task of conceiving how a necessary connection might hold between the subjective and the

physical cannot be accomplished by applying analogies from within physical science. This is a

new ballgame. Yet I believe it is not irrational to hope that some day, long after we are all dead,

people will be able to observe the operation of the brain and say, with true understanding, Thats

what the experience of tasting chocolate looks like from the outside.

Of course we already know what it looks like from far enough outside: the subject taking

the first reverent mouthful of a hot fudge sundae, closing his eyes in rapture, and saying Yum.

But I have in mind some view or representation of the squishy brain itself, which in light of our

understanding we will be able to see as tasting chocolate. While that is at the moment

inconceivable, I think that it is what we would have to have to grasp what must be the truth about

these matters. My reading of the situation is that our inability to come up with an intelligible

conception of the relation between mind and body is a sign of the inadequacy of our present

concepts, and that some development is needed. At this point, however, all one can hope to do

is to state some of the conditions that more adequate concepts would have to satisfy. One cannot

expect actually to come up with them.2 But I shall begin by describing the present impasse.


When we try to reason about the possible relations between things, we have to rely on

our conceptual grasp of them. The more adequate the grasp, the more reliable our reasoning will

be. Sometimes a familiar concept clearly allows for the possibility that what it designates should

also have features not implied by the concept itself -- often features very different in kind from

those directly implied by the concept. Thus ordinary prescientific concepts of kinds of

substances, such as water or gold or blood, are in themselves silent with regard to the

microscopic composition of those substances but nevertheless open to the scientific discovery,

often by very indirect means, of such facts about their true nature. If a concept refers to

something that takes up room in the spatiotemporal world, it provides a handle for all kinds of

empirical discoveries about the inner constitution of that thing.

On the other hand, sometimes a familiar concept clearly excludes the possibility that




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