Monday, June 08, 2009

Le double secret

There is a very common attitude among non-specialists concerning empirical explanations of their own mental lives: they take them to be mysterious rather than explanatory.

To see a color is to be sensitive to the wavelengths of rays of light upon surfaces (or something like that). There seem to be no need for colors to be physical properties of the objects we encounter. There are, as one might like to put it, no colors in things. That’s fine to me, so long as I can still perceive colors, put colors, change colors, and everything else. If painting turns out to be a matter of modifying an object’s surface structure, if that’s what `putting color’ turns out to mean I don’t care. Yet, some do care. I’ve even heard people claim that it would be sad if such theory were true: we would loose all the colors in the world! They think that the theory poses more mysteries than the one it explains.

I think this attitude results from a misunderstanding of what those theories really claim. That ‘being blue’ is a relational property that holds between a given object and a light-sensitive perceptual organism (like the human eye) does not entail that there are no colors. It explains what it is to have a color. It shows what it is to see a color.

Colors are not alone here. The same goes with neurological explanations of several other human experiences: rage, infatuation, pain, etc. Whenever they face explanations of the sort ‘to be infatuated is to produce this or that substance in the brain’, people normally react with disbelief: that can’t be it! If it were, the world would be a very sad place, with no real love (rage, pain) in it. This, again, is mistaken. The theories do not intend to eliminate the existence of love (rage, pain). They intend to explain what it is.

This tendency to mystify empirical explanations, which is worryingly common among philosophers of mind, is nicely portrayed in Magritte’s “Le double secret”. It should be said, however, that Magritte is rather among the misguided.



The painting shows (allegedly) a human head detached from its face. Behind the facial expression lies an intricate network of tubes and nodes. The face in turn appears to the left. The title suggests that we used to have one mystery (how is it that a physical object, an embodied being, manages to be a person?) and that once we find out what is behind the fa├žade, once we find the physical mechanisms that make it possible, we are give a second mystery (how on earth can that be a person?) This is wrong. The right thing to do once we find out that such an intricate network of tubes and nodes are behind what we call a person is to consider this as an explanation of the initial mystery. It’s not that there are no persons, it’s that persons are those physical networks.

As I have said, the multiple-mystery attitude is the wrong one to have. If only for one reason: it threatens to go on forever. Since it fails to consider the empirical theory as a proper account of the initial mystery, it can easily be reproduced against any other theory. Even if we could find a way to show which brain-states correlate with which mental states, the same misunderstanding will arise: how can there be no mental states? How can a brain state be a mental state?

The attitude, in fact, won’t stop. Consider your favorite scientific theory, say, Newton’s gravitation theory as it applies to macroscopic objects such as planets. Once we are told that it is because of gravitational forces that we see a sun rising every morning, couldn’t we wonder: how can that be? How can there be gravitational forces among planets? Or what about other theories: isn’t it a mystery how it is that protons have charge, or spin? Or how they can constitute a chair, an ocean, or what not?

This corrosive attitude, I believe, is behind a good chunk of the current debates on the metaphysics of mind. We can be, to my mind, fairly sure that if humans have some such things as individual psychologies, individual minds, or individual cognitive apparatuses, they are physical, neurological or brain-like. It also seems fairly obvious that human individuals have some such characteristics and that they are biologically endowed. Though we certainly do not know yet anything about the details of this story, it seems to me rather pre-Darwinian to wonder whether neurological or brain-like story is going to turn out to be true. It also seems to me rather Magrittean, and hence wrong, to think that physicalist explanations of our cognitive apparatus turn out to open more mysteries than the one they illuminate. We need to stop wondering whether mental states are brain-like states and start wondering how it is that the brain can manage to do all that mental stuff. This, to my mind, is an empirical question that cannot be answered from the armchair.

Or so I think.