Intersecting Philosophical Planes: Philosophical Essays

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First, mental faculties can be seen as perfectly analogous to bodily organs: perception, memory, learning and other mental capacities have been selected for their beneficial functions — as already discussed, it is fairly easy to understand the ecological usefulness of access consciousness. Second, and maybe even more importantly, there are various attempts to solve the problem of representational mental content in these terms.

Roughly, the idea in these teleofunctional or teleosemantic theories of mental content is that we can understand representational capacities through their selectional history: mental states have acquired via natural selection or learning the function to represent spatiotemporally displaced state of affairs Millikan, , , , , ; Papineau, , , ; Dretske, , ; Sterelny, ; Price, ; MacDonald and Papineau, ; Neander, None of this has to do anything with adaptationism — the idea that all traits have a function for which they have been selected — or with evolutionary psychology — the idea that all psychological and social phenomena should be given an evolutionary explanation.

These are controversial theses that are related to more specific concerns about where and how evolutionary explanations can, and should be applied. The focus here is rather on the completely general idea, that is practically uncontested, that appealing to selectional explanations can give us a perfectly natural understanding of how psychological phenomena can be fitted into a causal-mechanical picture of the world. Although it is safe to say that there is thus a clear historical trend of renouncing or weakening the role of teleological notions in scientific explanation, it is not clear what exactly this development amounts to.

One could claim that with respect to physics and basic natural sciences it would be correct to say that teleology has been eliminated however, it is interesting to note that some remnants of teleological conceptualisation can still be interpreted to be present in some corners of physics, most notably in discussions concerning the anthropic principle and the second law of thermodynamics e. However, when we turn to biology, it might be more correct to say that rather than eliminating teleology, the modern understanding of biology has explained, or maybe reduced it.

Many debates are raging on how exactly to analyze the notions of natural selection, fitness, function and adaptation, and what their relation to the teleological interpretation of these notions is cf. Cooper, forthcoming. Mayr , , , , in particular has vehemently defended the place of teleological notions in population biology; John B. When one moves from biology to psychology, it should become apparent that there is a rather obvious metaphysical connection between the two: both biology and psychology are thoroughly entangled with informational notions, and both are focusing attention on self-regulating processes and systems.

Intersecting Philosophical Planes: Philosophical Essays

Consequently, the field of cybernetics was established to study the interconnection — and interaction — of the two domains e. What is noteworthy, however, is that there was an explicit recognition of the need for a systems-level analysis of natural — and artificial — phenomena.

This in turn made teleological notions, and the mind-body problem defined in terms of them, to creep up to the center of attention once again. On the one hand it could be claimed that the cybernetic explanation of self-regulating and self-controlling systems can be understood in perfectly physical terms: there is nothing mysterious about homeostatic behavior based on various feedback mechanisms. But whether cybernetics is seen as an endeavor to explain or reduce teleology, or whether it is rather taken to show how teleology can, and must, be accommodated in our scientific world view, is not essential.

Whichever side is interpreted to be the one that is doing the giving in, the cybernetic tradition is yet another proof of how the push from the side of teleology is concrete and strong. So even if a strong case could be made for the elimination of teleology from psychology, one could say that the jury is still out, and the verdict might eventually be more favorable to teleology.

Even downright realistic interpretations have been suggested e. However, as before, the main issue here is not the question whether teleology will become eliminated or reduced, or whether a realistic attitude is the right one to adopt, but the fact that the teleological way of explaining our behavior is very natural to us, and that it is in a stark contrast with the causal way of explaining physical phenomena. That is why it should be singled out as a mark of the mental.

Normativity is again something that does not appear in typical discussions of the mind-body problem, at least not directly Zangwill , is an important exception. On the one hand this is very understandable: the issue of normativity is complex, deeply intertwined with all the previously discussed issues, and hence not easy to give an independent characterisation. On the other hand this is very unfortunate: it could be argued that normativity is something that forms the core of many philosophical problems relating to psychological explanation, and it is also something that creates tension between the physical, or naturalistic, way of understanding the mental phenomena in a unique and particularly profound manner.

So what is normativity and how should it figure as a mark of the mental? Normativity relates to norms, to what is considered to be right or correct, and to what ought to be, in contrast to what merely happens to be. The general characterisation of normativity as a mark of the mental is this: there seem to be normative constraints, utilized in various different ways, on how to ascribe mental notions and attribute mental states to subjects, and such constraints are constitutive to the mental states.

The tension that arises from this is, of course, that the purely physical view of the world is not supposed to contain such normative elements. Description and prescription are fundamentally distinct, and how things are has very little bearing on how things ought to be — let alone the other way around. First, what, exactly, creates the tension between the normative and the purely physical views on the world? And second, given that there is such a tension, what does it have to do with psychological explanation, and the tension between the mental and the physical?

The tension between the normative and the physical stems actually from an even deeper tension between the normative and factual: from the apparent impossibility of deriving norms from purely factual premises. There seems to be a logical gap between these two: no matter how things are, it is always possible to ask further how they should or ought to be Hume, ; Moore, Since this seems to be a purely conceptual or logical result, it does not have anything in particular to do with physicalism — idealism and dualism would be equally ill-suited metaphysical doctrines for deriving normative conclusions.

Physical way of describing the world is just one factual way of describing the world, and the tension between the normative and the physical arises from its factual nature, not from some specific metaphysical theses connected to physicalism. The connection between normativity and the mental is more complicated. One can begin by noting that normativity considerations are ubiquitous in human interactions. Language and language use is one particularly clear and concrete example of our normative practices, and one that is quite directly linked to psychological explanation.

First of all, natural languages are essentially conventions, in syntax, semantics and pragmatics. Mastering a language is essentially an issue of mastering a rule, or a set of rules; there are right and wrong ways of forming expressions and using language. Secondly, there is a continuum in which people can be said to be able to speak and use a particular language.

In other words, there is a set of criteria — a vaguely defined and tacitly utilized set of criteria of course — that we use to assess whether a person is able to use a particular language.

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Now, one can quite confidently state that there is a tight and direct connection between language and the phenomena and processes we consider mental. Davidson, But the way in which such linguistic considerations bear relevance to various mental phenomena is only one fairly obvious way in which normative considerations mesh with psychological explanation. There are at least two distinct and more deep-cutting ways in which normativity penetrates psychology, and creates tension with a purely physical view of reality.

Firstly, normative issues are closely linked with the issues related to teleological explanation.

Gilles Deleuze

In fact, the reason why teleological notions are difficult to apply to purely natural contexts comes down to, at least partly, to the fact that they have a normative element to them. As discussed, it is tempting to analyze teleological notions in functional terms and then give functions an analysis in terms of natural selection or some other causal-historical process.

Organs, for example, do many things, but the things they are meant to do — the things they ought to do — are determined by their selectional history. Similarly, it can be argued that our mental faculties, and the semantic content of our mental states in particular, are determined by their selectional history.

In other words, by appealing to natural selection — or to other historical and purely causal-mechanical chains of events — we can define perfectly natural criteria of the correct and incorrect application of psychological notions.

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One reason why this type of reasoning is particularly relevant to psychological contexts is that it does not only give us a natural definition of function, it also gives us a natural definition of dys function or mal function — natural criteria of when we can correctly, and objectively, say that something has gone wrong. This opens a way to understand diseases in natural terms: diseases are deviations from the norm set by natural selection Boorse, , , , Having such an objective definition of disease would of course be tremendously helpful in defining the proper scope of medical interventions.

Extending this approach to psychiatry and psychology would be particularly useful: we would finally have objective and operative definition of mental disorder and illness Wakefield, , a , b. It is easy to see, however, how this line of thinking is bound to face problems. Many medical conditions, mental disorders and illnesses in particular, have a strong social and cultural component to them.


Is homosexuality a disease or a disorder? The problem is not just that answers to such questions seem to depend more on our values than on simple biological facts, but that nature itself always contains variation in all traits. In fact, natural variation — that there are differences in traits, at various scales, and at different levels of biological organization — is one of the necessary conditions of evolution by natural selection: there has to be variation in traits for there to be variation in fitness, which in turn can then lead to cumulative evolutionary change.

Natural selection requires a variety of things to choose from. Although the theory of evolution by natural selection can give us understanding of how certain types of traits can become prevalent in a particular population at a particular time, it might seem quite of a leap to elevate this simple fact of biology to the role of a normative yardstick.

Again, it is worth reminding that the issue here is not whether normativity — in general or in the specific sense displayed in functional explanation — can ultimately be naturalized. Maybe such a project is feasible. However, that does not obviate the apparent resistance of normativity to naturalization. The focus here is simply on the fact that this resistance gives us a reason to treat normativity as a mark of the mental.

There is another, although a related way in which normative considerations enter into psychological explanation and come into tension with the physical view of the world. In explaining human behavior we are typically appealing to reasons a person is holding for behaving in a certain way; we understand, or make sense of actions by embedding them into a conceptual and socio-cultural scheme.

Causal-mechanical explanation of the world lacks such elements. Here is an example to demonstrate the stark contrast between causes and reasons in explaining behavior. Since this has been happening so often, I started to wonder if there is a reason for this behavior, and I decided to look this up. And it turns out that there is indeed a reason for this: the babies are crying because they are upset from gay-people getting married cf. Now, why does this sound absurd? We also know that there is a perfectly good causal-mechanical explanation for this type of behavior: the sudden changes in air pressure causes an uncomfortable and sometimes painful feeling in your ears.

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You can try to alleviate this only by actively leveling the pressure. They cry simply because they feel physically uncomfortable. But adults often cry because they feel mentally uncomfortable; they have reasons for being upset, and we can try to understand and confront those reasons — and we can question and criticize them. This cuts into the very heart of the dualistic, dichotomous image of ourselves as both physical and mental entities. We can have both causes and reasons for crying, and in the latter case we move into the social and cultural realm to explain the behavior.

And this realm in turn, and in fact the very distinction between causes and reasons, is thoroughly normative. Whether it makes sense to cry, for example, does not only depend on some privately held reasons for behaving that way, but on the whole socio-cultural context in which the behavior occurs. In other words, there are rationality constraints to our behavior: whether we are seen as psychological agents — and to what extent we are seen as such agents — depends on whether our behavior can be seen to meet some norms of rationality.

This is the reason, or at least one of the main reasons, why we are often reluctant to view animals as psychological agents: their behavior is too far removed from the norms we have set for psychological agency. Or, to make the same point other way around: pet animals that have co-evolved with us — cats and dogs — are sometimes eagerly granted such agency exactly because they respond to our psychological and social cues in a systematic and reliable manner, or so at least it seems to us. Norms of rationality play thus a key role in us ascribing mental features to the surrounding world.

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Further evidence for the thesis that normativity is at the center of the demarcation between the mental and the physical can be gathered by pointing to the links that this issue has to the previously discussed marks of the mental. Teleofunctionalism, or in general views that seek to explain mental content in terms of selectional histories, are the strongest contenders for solving the problem of intentionality.

What really stands in the way, it seems, is the issue of whether mental functions can be analyzed in purely natural terms, eschewing normativity. Rationality considerations bear on psychological agency, which in turn bears on whether, or to what extent, we ascribe free will and moral responsibility to subjects. Lastly, the teleological element in psychological explanation can, according to many, be understood in functional terms, which in turn leads one again by the question of whether functions can be analyzed without relying on normative notions.

There is also an apparent connection between reasons and purposes: we act according to reasons, and those reasons only make sense in the light of the conscious purposes we hold. Teleology is closely associated with rationality, and one of the main sources of our reluctance to accept teleological notions in purely naturalistic contexts is based on our reluctance to impose objective rationality on nature, and to take natural processes to be governed by reasons rather than by causes.

There is an interesting outlier though: ascribing states of phenomenal consciousness does not seem to be based on normative considerations however, cf. Kriegel, There is a fairly obvious reason for this, and the very same reason that singles phenomenal consciousness out as a mark of the mental, namely its apparent resistance to functionalisation. One could thus conjecture that the normativity considerations at the core of the other marks of the mental are largely related to functional explanation, and even if we would become content with a perfectly naturalistic analysis of functions, phenomenal consciousness would still be left out as an unanalysed, irreducible mark of the mental pace Kim, One result of this is that the different components of the mind-body problem could end up solved, or dissolved, in different ways.

Some marks of the mental might become reductively explained, others might become eliminated, and yet others might retain their identity as characteristically mental features and become realistically interpreted see Box 3. A figure summarizing the various components of the mind-body problem. The vertical lightning arrows represent the different points of tension between the paradigmatically mental and physical features. The dashed arrows within the mental realm outline some of the various interdependencies between the separate marks of the mental the direction of the arrow represents the direction of dependence.