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Identifying the MindReview - Identifying the Mind
Selected Papers of U. T. Place
by George Graham and Elizabeth R. Valentine (Editors)
Oxford University Press, 2004
Review by Alan Sussman, Ph.D.
Aug 19th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 34)

The central problem of contemporary philosophy of mind is: Is the existence of psychological phenomena (desires, beliefs, emotions, sensations, etc.) consistent with the thesis of 'physicalism', the thesis that the universe consists of nothing but particles and fields pushing and pulling each other around, as described in the physical sciences? And if so, how can this be so, how can a pain or a desire be matter in motion? Or must we accept some form of 'dualism', the thesis that the psychological, at least in part, falls outside the scope of physical science, perhaps outside the scope of science itself. The so-called 'identity theory', the theory that psychological phenomena are identical to brain events, is one of the more influential of many attempts to answer these questions, and U. T. Place, some of whose most important papers are gathered together in this volume, must be counted among the two or three patriarchs of the identity theory.  (Actually, Place believed the identity theory applied only to those psychological phenomena that do not yield to a behaviorist analysis – see below)

I don't want to oversell the importance of philosophical concerns for the working psychologist, but one's position, implicit or explicit, on various philosophical problems, including the just stated 'mind-body problem', does have implications for the conduct of psychological research. Thus, very much in the spirit of Place, who originally trained as a psychologist, I'll briefly mention some of the implications of the mind-body problem for psychology proper. If there are mental events that are not brain events, then the autonomy of psychology from neuroscience is supported. Moreover, the subject matter of psychology would have to be restricted either to overt behavior (behaviorism) – since there would be nothing real to occupy the cognitivists' boxes -- or to subjective reports of elusive inner events (introspectionism). The latter alternative might bar psychology from any status as a science. On the other hand, if psychological processes can be identified with brain processes, then a marriage between psychology and neuroscience is natural, if not mandatory.

 Until the middle of the last century, almost all philosophers, and many behavioral scientists, including some eminent neuroscientists, believed that psychological processes, especially those that require the conscious apprehension of something, such as pains and sense perceptions, cannot be identical with, or reduced to, brain processes; for example, sensations of pain cannot be one and the same thing as anything the study of neurons and synapses might reveal. One cannot find the pain in the brain. This belief was grounded on two considerations. First, there is the apparently obvious extreme difference in kind between such things as the experience of a pain and the firing of a bunch of neurons, Since it has become common to unreflectively take mind-brain identity for granted, note that the identity of a pain and the firing of an ensemble of neurons can seem as unlikely as the identity of a sofa and a hyena: they just seem too different in kind to be the exact same thing. Forget contemporary 'scientific' assumptions and just remember what you felt, and only what you felt, the last time you had a pain; now think of a bunch of neurotransmitters being released from various neurons and attaching to receptors on other neurons; these do not seem to be the kinds of things that could possibly be one and the same thing.  To use an example from Place, we can readily see how a cloud and a fog could be the same phenomenon, for we see how its appearance can vary as we move closer and farther away from it. But no matter how closely we look at a bunch of synapses, we won't thereby feel (perceive) the pain. Of course, we can discover a tight correlation between pains and certain brain processes, but how could we possibly find evidence warranting the inferential jump from correlation to identity?

The second ground for the belief that consciousness cannot be a brain process is that the very meanings of such terms as 'pain' and  'neuron' do not permit identifying the two. To illustrate: The concept of a pain is such that one cannot have a pain and not know he does – unless it is just a matter of having failed to learn how to use the term 'pain' -- but one can certainly fail to know about any brain event he is having. Moreover, neural events correlated with seeing take place in the back of the head, but the seeing, by definition, does not take place at any location, except perhaps, where the whole seeing subject is. Since brain processes and psychological processes have different properties, they cannot be the same things.

The climate of opinion I have been describing changed radically with two important publications. The first was Gilbert Ryle's The Concept of Mind, and the second was U.T. Place's . "Is Consciousness a Brain Process?", the third paper in this collection of papers by Place.  (Papers by J.J.C. Smart and Herbert Feigl were also highly influential.)

Briefly, Ryle's position was that a close look at how we actually use psychological terms reveals that such terms do not name processes that occur at a given time; thus, they cannot name processes that are or are not identical to brain processes. Rather, they name dispositions to emit certain overt behaviors in certain circumstances; e.g., a belief that it will rain is a disposition to carry an umbrella, to cancel a picnic, and so on. (Note how well this philosophical position meshes with the psychological school of behaviorism.) Of course, since overt behavior is nothing but matter in motion, this would be compatible with 'physicalism'.

Place's introduction and defense of his identity theory required he take two steps. First, while he agreed with Ryle that a dispositional account was correct for most psychological states, he believed that Ryle was wrong in thinking that the dispositional analysis correctly applied to all psychological states. Place argued, mainly in his paper "The Concept of Heed", second in this volume, that psychological states requiring one to be conscious of something are not dispositions but processes occurring at particular times, and, indeed,  'inner' processes. For example, when one has a green after image after seeing a light bulb flash, that is not a disposition to emit certain overt behavior in certain circumstances; it is an occurrent process, an 'inner' process, and one that need not entail anything about dispositions to overt behavior. Recognizing the after image as such an inner process seems to raise the specter of dualism, for where is the green? It is not where the bulb flashed, and there is nothing green to be seen in the gray matter of the brain! Thus, if Price is right, contra Ryle, it seems there must be some mental processes that cannot be identical to any physical processes.

In the next paper in this volume, "Is Consciousness a Brain Process?", one of the most often cited and anthologized papers in philosophy of mind, Place makes his contribution to reconciling conscious events with physicalism. Place here puts forth the identity theory, the theory, recall, that conscious psychological processes are identical to brain processes. This may seem rather pointless and non-empirical, but that is to mistake Place's intent. First, he insists that the identity theory is an empirical theory that must be established by empirical research; his position is only that the theory makes sense and cannot be refuted a priori. Secondly, he attempts to explain away why it may seem impossible to be true – as does the 'theory' that sofas are identical to hyenas. Third, he offers an account of just what sort of empirical evidence would confirm the theory.

Considerations of space forbid further pursuit of the dialectic. Suffice it to say that there were, indeed, objections and replies, further objections and further replies, some of which can be found in this volume, along with some of Place's views on language, philosophical method, and the neuropsychology of consciousness. I will conclude with some general reflections.

This book might serve as a good introduction to contemporary philosophical work on the mind-body problem. Place was trained as a psychologist, and he hoped to be read by psychologists as well as by philosophers. He wrote as clearly and as non-technically as possible, often explaining philosophical concepts as they arose. Moreover, since the papers span a period of about 45 years, one can see something of the historical development of the subject. This should be welcome to philosophers who routinely try to gain insight by tracing the history of their ideas. Place does respond to criticisms of his earlier work in some of the essays included, but I fear little attention will be paid to these responses: for better or worse, Place did not much change with the times; thus, he is no longer fashionable. Thus, one other value of the book is that it challenges one to reflect on the possible distinction between change in fashion and progress. On the other hand there are passages that present fascinating anticipations of ideas that became more popular among philosophers, such as the transparency of perception, the 'what is it like' topic, and philosophical naturalism. One could benefit from reading this work by this most independent minded of philosopher by being challenged to explain if and why Place's views are passé. Another related issue concerns 'ordinary language philosophy', the belief that the proper function of philosophy is to analyze the ordinary use of words. This metaphilosophical view, which Place heartily endorsed throughout his career, was dominant in the fifties and early sixties, and is now hardly ever mentioned. I think this raises an interesting issue: given Place's many valuable insights, what is the extent to which metaphilosophy varies while philosophy remains substantively the same? Place also well emphasizes the importance to psychology of effectively dealing with its conceptual problems, although he was probably wrong to assume a sharp divide between empirical and conceptual work. Finally, there is something about Place's approach that makes the book much fun to read. All in all, I would recommend the book to anyone interested in the topic, although I realize that many readers will probably see it as being of only historical interest.

 

© 2004 Alan N. Sussman

 

 

Alan N. Sussman received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago. He has published a few papers, including one in The Journal of Philosophy. He taught philosophy at various colleges and universities in the US and Africa. At present he teaches part time at Truman College, Chicago. His philosophical interests are primarily in philosophy of mind.


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Metapsychology Online Reviews
ISSN 1931-5716