In my previous 2 posts on the mind-body problem (post 1, post 2), I criticized materialist philosophers -- that is, those who believe only the physical exists and thus deny the existence of any kind of mind distinct from one's physical body. As I said (quoting Thomas Nagel), one huge problem with this view is that "all materialist theories deny the reality of the mind," though they're usually not explicit about this point, possibly because very few normal people would accept their conclusion if stated plainly.
Here's Thomas Nagel's view, which I agree with:
To insist on trying to explain the mind in terms of concepts and theories that have been devised exclusively to explain nonmental phenomena is, in view of the radically distinguishing characteristics of the mental, both intellectually backward and scientifically suicidal.Well, so far all of this has focused on the flaws with materialism. But is this just a negative point, or is there some positive, viable alternative?
I think so, but it requires accepting the fact that we probably don't have a satisfying theory yet.
Here's Nagel's extended argument to this effect (this is all from chapter 2 of The View from Nowhere (1986), which is one of the best philosophy books I've ever read):
1. "The shift from the universe of Newton to the universe of Maxwell required the development of a whole new set of concepts and theories.... This was not merely the complex application, as in molecular biology, of fundamental principles already known independently. Molecular biology does not depend on new ultimate principles or concepts of physics or chemistry, like the concept of field. Electrodynamics did."
2. Even if these new, disparate concepts have been "superseded by a deeper unity,"* we wouldn't have been able to discover that "deeper unity" in the first place "if everyone had insisted that it must be possible to account for any physical phenomenon by using concepts that are adequate to explain the behavior of planets, billiard balls, gases, and liquids. An insistence on identifying the real with the mechanical would have been a hopeless obstacle to progress, since mechanics is only one form of understanding, appropriate to a certain limited though pervasive subject matter."
* Nagel suggests that this has actually happened; I don't know enough about the relevant science to have an opinion on that.
3. "The difference between mental and physical is far greater than the difference between electrical and mechanical."
4. If you believe that something can be "pervasive" but "limited," to use the words from point 2 -- and it's hard to see how anyone could deny this possibility -- then you should be open to the view that the physical isn't necessarily the only thing that's real, but rather is "only one form of understanding."
5. Given that it certainly seems like the world includes not just the physical but also the mental, "[w]e need entirely new intellectual tools, and it is precisely by reflection on what appears impossible -- like the generation of mind out of the recombination of matter -- that we will be forced to create such tools."
6. It's possible that if we go down this road and come up with a successful theory of the mind, we will not arrive at dualism, but will discover some sort of "deeper unity" of the mind and body. Nagel elaborates on this point:
In other words, if a psychological Maxwell devises a general theory of mind, he may make it possible for a psychological Einstein to follow with a theory that the mental and the physical are really the same. But this could happen only at the end of a process which began with the recognition that the mental is something completely different from the physical world as we have come to know it through a certain highly successful form of detached objective understanding. Only if the uniqueness of the mental is recognized will concepts and theories be devised especially for the purpose of understanding it. Otherwise there is a danger of futile reliance on concepts designed for other purposes, and indefinite postponement of any possibility of a unified understanding of mind and body."I completely agree with Nagel on all this, and I try to keep it in mind anytime I read or hear overly confident materialist philosophers.