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Mind and Brain

In periodic posts, I’ve been trying to lay out the modern scientific consensus on the mind/brain problem, with mixed success. If I had come across the following passage, from Ray Jackendoff‘s Language, Consciousness, Culture, a bit earlier, I might have saved some trouble, since I feel it is one of the clearest, most concise statements on the topic I have seen:

The predominant view is a strict materialism, in which consciousness is taken to be an emergent property of brains that are undergoing certain sorts of activity.

Although the distinction is not usually made explicit, one could assert the materialist position in either of two ways. The first would be ‘methodological materialism’: let’s see how far we can get toward explaining consciousness under materialist assumptions, while potentially leaving open the possibility of an inexplicable residue. The second would be ‘dogmatic materialism,’ which would leave no room for anything but materialist explanation. Since we have no scientific tools for any sort of nonmaterialist explanation, the two positions are in practice indistinguishable, and they lead to the same research…

Of course, materialism goes strongly against folk intuition about the mind, which concurs with Descartes in thinking of the conscious mind as associated with a nonmaterial ‘soul’ or the like… The soul is taken to be capable of existence independently of the body. It potentially survives the death of the body and makes its way in the world as a ghost or a spirit or ensconced in another body through reincarnation… Needless to say, most people cherish the idea of being able to survive the death of their bodies, so materialism is more than an ‘astonishing hypothesis,’ to use Crick’s (1994) term: it is a truly distressing and alienating one. Nevertheless, by now it does seem the only reasonable way to approach consciousness scientifically.




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