What is a Mental State?

What is a Mental State?

The first-person viewpoint is apt to skew our conception of what a mental state essentially involves. We introspect the state and think we have attained a pretty comprehensive picture of what it is, intrinsically, constitutively. Fundamentally, this is a confusion (conflation) of epistemology and metaphysics—privileging one mode of knowing over other modes. The nature of a thing is unlikely to reveal itself fully to a single viewpoint. The introspective viewpoint is so familiar, so natural, and so automatic that we easily fall into overestimating its revelatory power. Phenomenology becomes comprehensive insight, not just one perspective among others. Enormous amounts of philosophy have flowed from this movement of thought (we might even call it “the introspective fallacy”). But there are two other viewpoints that need to be taken into consideration, which have no natural names: I mean the viewpoint of an observer of the behavior of another, and the viewpoint of the brain scientist (including brain surgeon). Both are third-person, but they differ markedly—one being natural and shared by all, the other esoteric and specialized. They should be sharply distinguished. I will characterize the former in a variety of ways, as befits its complex nature: it is functional, action-oriented, teleological, biological, dynamic, and behavioral (the catch-all term). It is the mind in action, engaged, goal-directed; it is where the biologically adaptive nature of the mind shows itself (not so much from the introspective viewpoint). It is the reason the mind exists at all—its evolutionary sine qua non. It is also where the social dimension of our psychological discourse belongs: how we think of each other (animals too). It is not to be forgotten or downplayed. Mental states have causal roles, purposes, interactions, bodily expressions. It is quite wrong to think of them as purely “inner”; they have an outer nature too. Behaviorism, in its many varieties, is by no means wildly off-target: it stems from a deep truth about the nature of the mental. The mental, like all biological phenomena, is an active functional reality; the deed is woven into it. But this nature is not immediately available from the introspective standpoint, which confines itself to feeling, subjective appearance, what-it’s-likeness. That standpoint has to be prescinded from in order to grasp the functional-teleological aspect of mental states. In addition to this conception of the mind we have the unfamiliar and artificial standpoint employed by the student of the brain. For most of us this is obtained only from books: we don’t observe brains every day, with the naked eye or under a microscope (etc.). Truth to tell, this cerebral (cortical, neural) standpoint is quite alien, even alienating: it taxes our normal ways of understanding people and animals. Yet the involvement of the brain in the mind is undeniable, obscure as it may be: somehow the mind is rooted in the brain, dependent on it, impossible without it. The brain is as essential to the mind as its phenomenology is, though this is not apparent to us in ordinary life. Mental states must have a cerebral nature; they don’t exist outside the brain, as if owing nothing to it. In the vernacular, the brain is up in the mind. Thus, materialism is also not a wild and gratuitous imposition on reality; it is based on the sound perception that the mind is deeply indebted to the brain and must indeed be a brain state (of some sort). Mental states have a nature that is revealed by adopting the viewpoint of the brain scientist (or surgeon). So, they have a triple nature—a tripartite architecture. A triple aspect ontology is what they demand. But these three aspects don’t easily slot together: they don’t entail each other, not by a long chalk. Indeed, they are fundamentally conceptually distinct, seemingly jammed together, barely on speaking terms. Integrating them takes serious work (and may not be possible for us). But they are not inconsistent with each other, just heterogeneous. Mental states are therefore not like regular natural kinds: water is just H2O and heat is just molecular motion, neither more nor less, but pain is a feeling plus a functional kind plus a brain state. It is a composite being, existing on three plains, as it were. It is a phenomenological-teleological-corporeal kind, part feeling, part purpose, part neurology. The mind-body problem is really the problem of integrating these three aspects without denying or shortchanging any of them. For how can the same thing be all three, and how are they connected? Once we see the triple nature of mental states, we can make sense of the various positions that have been adopted towards them. Dualism, behaviorism, and materialism are all exaggerated responses to the threefold being of the mental; they select one aspect and make too much of it, neglecting the other aspects. Thus, the history of psychology goes from the introspectionist (phenomenological) school to the behaviorist school to the neurological school (what is now called neuroscience), each declaring that it alone is true to the real essence of the mental. But the mind has three aspects, intrinsically, essentially, irreducibly. We also see how various thought monsters insinuate themselves: the disembodied mind, the mindless zombie, the free-floating mental stuff supposed to constitute physical reality (purposeless, non-biological). These all involve detaching one aspect of the mind from the other aspects and declaring it autonomous. The truth, however, is that all three are equally integral to the nature of a mental state: the phenomenal, the causal, the physical. Disciplinary boundaries don’t correspond to real ontological divisions. The mind needs three disciplines to study its complex nature (plus a fourth to integrate them). Above all, we must not let epistemology dictate metaphysics: just because we have three different epistemic perspectives on the mind doesn’t entail that the mind itself must fall into three separate non-communicating compartments.[1] Mental states are not as cleanly divisible objectively as the viewpoints we take to them. We could in principle have one of these viewpoints without having the others, but the mind itself couldn’t exist in such a divided state: it necessarily has each of them. It has a physics, a biology, and a phenomenology—each as essential as the other two. It can’t therefore be modeled on cases in which only a single level exists (water, heat, light, etc.). Idealism is thus impossible, as is reductive (eliminative) materialism: mental states can’t exist without a biological function and a cerebral realization, and they can’t exist without an introspectively known phenomenology (the brain can’t swallow up the mind). Nor can behaviorism, however relaxed, provide a complete account of the mind. Each is part of the truth, but not the whole truth. Biological traits have two aspects, physical and teleological, while physics and chemistry have just one, but psychology has three. The concept of mind, then, can be analyzed into three parts, each with its own proprietary conceptual apparatus, somewhat as the concept of knowledge can be analyzed into three parts (roughly). No one scheme of concepts will suffice, and no one is more central than the others. In particular, concepts of the brain are essential in giving a full accounting of the mind, despite their general invisibility. Much of the mind is hidden, though some is out in the open. That’s just the way the mind is: the hidden part is as vital as the open part. In other terminology, the mind is subjective and objective.[2]

[1] For some reason it feels natural to describe the introspective perspective as the view from above, the cerebral perspective as the view from below, and the behavioral perspective as the view from the side. Or is it just me?

[2] This paper follows on from my earlier paper “A Triple Aspect Theory” with some changes of emphasis. I now see the functional aspect as more indispensable than I did.

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8 replies
  1. Ahmadi
    Ahmadi says:

    your past formulation of ” mind body problem ” was that the mind nature is perfectly different from the brain nature ; but today you are saying that the brain nature and its functions are some parts of the mind nature ?!

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      No: the full nature of consciousness cannot be reduced to the nature of the brain as now understood, but the brain has a nature (not now known) that explains consciousness; and the state of the brain as now understood constitutes part (but only a part) of consciousness.

      Reply
  2. Ahmadi
    Ahmadi says:

    Therefore full but unknown nature of the brain is identical with the mind or consciousness . Mind is the brain as it be really . Isn,t this true ?

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      Correct: but remember that consciousness itself is already a property of the brain. The state of being in pain (as we experience it) is a brain state (not a state of the kidneys). On top of that we have the hidden nature of pain, also a brain state (“property P” as described in my “Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?”).

      Reply
  3. Ahmadi
    Ahmadi says:

    Identity theorist says that brain mental properties are the same and reducible to its physical properties . But you say
    that these two brain properties are its distictive and nonreducible properties.

    Reply

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