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25. Additional Remarks on some Recent Materialist Theories

Armstrong's book A Materialist Theory of the Mind [1968] is in many respects excellent. Yet as opposed to Feigl's identity theory or central state theory — a theory which emphatically accepts the existence of a world of conscious experience - Armstrong minimizes the significance of what Feigl ([1967], p. 138) describes as "the internal illumination" of our world through our consciousness. First, he stresses, not unfairly, the significance of subconscious or unconscious states. Next, he gives a most interesting theory of perception as an unconscious or conscious process of acquiring dispositional states. Thirdly, he suggests (without saying so explicitly) that consciousness is nothing but inner perception, perception of a second order, or perception (scanning) of an activity of the brain by other parts of the brain. But he skips and skims over the problem why this scanning should produce consciousness or awareness, in the sense in which all of us are well acquainted with consciousness or awareness; for example with the conscious, critical assessment of a solution to a problem. And he never goes into the problem of the difference between conscious awareness and physical reality.

Armstrong's book is divided into three parts: Part I is an introductory survey of theories of the mind; Part II, "The Concept of Mind", is a general theory of mental states and processes, and it has in my opinion some excellent things to say; though it can be, I gather, criticized on neurophysiological grounds. Part III, which is very sketchy, contains hardly more than the bare thesis that the mental states as described in Part II can be identified with states of the brain.

Why do I regard Part II in the main as excellent? The reason is this. Part II gives a description of states and processes of the mind seen from a biological point of view, that is, as if the mind could be regarded as an organ.

This attitude is due, of course, to the fact that Armstrong wishes later (in Part III) to identify the mind with an organ: with the brain. I need not stress that I do not agree with this identification, though I feel inclined to regard the identification of unconscious mental states and processes with brain states and brain processes as a very important conjecture. And although I am inclined to assume that even conscious processes somehow go "hand in hand" with brain processes, it seems to me that an identification of conscious processes with brain processes is liable to lead to panpsychism.

However mistaken Armstrong's metaphysical motives may be, his method of considering the mind as an organ with Darwinian functions seems to me excellent, and Part II of his book proves, in my opinion, the fruitfulness of this biological approach.

To turn to criticism. Armstrong's theory may either be classified as a radical materialism with a denial of consciousness, and criticized as such, or it may be classified as a not quite outspoken form of epiphenomenalism, as far as the world of consciousness is concerned, whose significance it tries to minimize. In this case my criticism of epiphenomenalism as incompatible with the Darwinian point of view applies.

I do not think that this theory of Armstrong's should be classified as an identity theory in the sense of Feigl, that is, in the sense that conscious processes are not merely linked with brain processes, but actually identical with them. For Armstrong nowhere discusses, or suggests, that conscious processes may be the things in themselves of which certain brain processes may be the appearances: he is very far from Leibniz's animism. However, if Armstrong should move nearer to Feigl, then my criticisms in section 23 would apply. In any case, my criticism in section 20 seems to me applicable.

I think that many (though not all) of the analyses of Armstrong's in his Part 11 are lasting contributions to biological psychology. But his treatment of the problem of consciousness is ambiguous and weak.

The reason for this weakness is to be found not so much in the fact that Armstrong, though not denying consciousness or awareness, minimizes and fails to discuss its significance, but rather in the fact that Armstrong ignores, and fails to discuss (in whatever terminology), what I call World 3 objects: he considers only World 2 and its reduction to World 1. But the main biological function of World 2, and especially of consciousness, is the grasping and the critical evaluation of World 3 objects. Even language is hardly mentioned.

Following a suggestion by Armstrong, it has become fashionable to refer to the identification of gene = DNA as an analogue of the suggested identification of mental state = brain state But the analogy is a bad one, because the identification of genes with DNA molecules, while a most important empirical discovery, did not add anything to the metaphysical (or ontological) status of the gene or DNA. Indeed, even before the gene theory was developed there was Weismann's theory of the "germ plasm" (Keimplasma) in which the instructions for development were assumed to be given in the form of a material (chemical) structure. Later it was suggested (on the basis of Mendel's discovery) that there were "particles" in the germ plasm representing "characters". Genes themselves were, from the beginning, introduced as such "particles": as material structures; or more precisely as substructures of the chromosomes. More than thirty years before the DNA theory of genes, detailed maps of chromosomes were proposed that showed the relative positions of the genes (cp. T. H. Morgan and C. B. Bridges [1916]); maps whose principle was confirmed in detail by recent results of molecular biology. In other words, something like the identity gene = DNA was expected, if not taken for granted, from the beginning of the gene theory. What was unexpected to some people was that the gene turned out to be a nucleic acid rather than a protein; so also, of course, was the structure and function of the double helix.

The identification of the mind with the brain would be analogous to this only if it was assumed, to start with, that the mind is one of the physical organs, and then found empirically that it was not (say) the heart, or the liver, but rather the brain. While the dependence (or interdependence) of thought, intelligence, subjective experiences, and brain states was expected since Hippocrates's On the Sacred Disease, only materialists asserted an identity — in the face of considerable factual and conceptual difficulties.

This analysis shows that there is no analogy between the two identifications. The claim that they are analogous is not only unwarranted, but misleading.

An even stronger criticism can be directed against the claim that the identification of mental processes with brain processes is analogous to that of a flash of lightning with an electrical discharge.

The conjecture that a flash of lightning is an electrical discharge was suggested by observing that electrical discharges were like miniature flashes of lightning. And then came Franklin's experiments which strongly supported this conjecture.

Very interesting critical remarks on these identifications are made by Judith Jarvis Thomson [1969],

Armstrong has recently published a very clearly and compactly reasoned book Belief, Truth and Knowledge [1973], The book is essentially a traditional empiricist theory of knowledge, translated into materialist terms. None of the problems of the dynamics of the growth of knowledge, of the correction of knowledge, or of the growth of scientific theories are even mentioned, which is disappointing.

Quinton in The Nature of Things [1973] proposes an identity theory which, like Feigl's and unlike Armstrong's, stresses the importance of consciousness, but which does not appeal to the relationship between the thing in itself and its appearance.

How is this identification to be conceived? Quinton refers to Armstrong's example of the flash of lightning and the electric discharge. Like Feigl, Smart, and Armstrong, he regards the identification as empirical. So far so good. But he does not analyse how we proceed empirically to test conjectural identifications. And like his predecessors, he does not suggest the kind of test which could possibly be regarded as a test of the identity thesis of mind and brain, as distinct from an interactionist thesis (especially from one which does not operate with a mental substance).

There are also those who simply say that the mind is an activity of the brain, and who leave it at that. Not much can be said against this, as far as it goes. But it does not go far enough: the question arises whether the mental activities of the brain are just part of its many physical activities or whether there is an important difference; and if so, what we can say about the difference.

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