A Theory of Mind, Part 1 (from In Defense of the Mind)

I’m going to excerpt part of the first chapter of my newly released treatise, In Defense of the Mind, a treatise on the philosophy of mind and mental illness. If you like what you read and would like to read more, you can find the book here: http://www.amazon.com/Defense-Mind-Philosophical-Treatise/dp/1522829687/ref=la_B00QEL41LS_1_6?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1457481955&sr=1-6

I am very intrigued by philosophy of mind and the emerging field of the philosophy of mental illness (or even what could be called the philosophy of psychiatry). I think the topic of mental illness overlaps significantly with the philosophy of mind, and for the first chapter of this book, I would like to focus on developing a theory of the mind, that would hopefully probe what the mind is, what the mind can do, the philosophy of which is going to connect together into a deeper thesis regarding what I call “a defense of the mind,” broadly speaking.

There are many theories of mind, as even a casual student of the philosophy of mind will know. I’m not even aware of all of the theories out there, and don’t consider myself an expert on philosophy of mind, even though I have a pretty good grasp of many of the basic concepts in philosophy of mind, such as Idealism (developed by George Berkeley) and Spinoza’s idea of parallelism, or later theories formulated by Richard Rorty and Wittgenstein, John Searle and Patricia Churchland.

For my intents and purposes, the theory of mind that holds the most weight for me is what could be called “dualistic existentialism” or “existentialist dualism.” I want to clarify these terms and get specific, but that is the basic idea.

You’ve probably heard of Cartesian dualism, right? The idea that the mind is a separate entity from the physical world, or more specifically, the physical body? Hence the name dualism: there is a physical body and there is an abstracted mind, dual properties that coexist. Dualism is often, in modern philosophy of mind, not the “go-to” theory of the mind, despite its influence on philosophy. There are too many problems with it, too much baggage. The approach often championed currently is functionalism. I think that functionalism has its uses, and it is a great theory of mind (one that functions … forgive the pun), but I think that dualism offers some very special possibilities as a result of it merely existing in the literature of philosophy of mind, and existing as a thought. I think it carries crucial implications and meaning.

Sure, there is what has been called the problem of interaction (how, if the mind and body are separate, does the mind interact with the body?), as well as the problems associated with the metaphysics of Cartesian dualism, but again, I am going to adopt dualism nonetheless.

I am going to adopt it because dualism, by placing so much emphasis on the mind as its own separate entity, allows us to look at the mind as a distinct specimen for further study, as something to see as its own thing. I think, if you consider it carefully, you can intuitively grasp some of the benefits of abstracting the mind and separating it from the Western obsession with the physical world. See, it’s the psychology of it, right? What would be the benefit of seeing the mind as something separate to study? There are many, reasons I hope to explain in detail soon, but think about that question for yourself, and why it would be helpful.

Certainly, seeing the mind as its own entity can be helpful because it allows for a person to see their mind as its own thing, that is not just their brain, but the housing unit for their thoughts, desires, ideas, feelings, and the like: In short, it allows us to not just zero in on an important component of our existence (our mind, which effectively impacts our behavior), but also focus more exclusively on the mind. Essentially, the claim is that, by allowing us to see the mind as something separate and indeed very distinct, and something that can be manipulated simply by virtue of our thoughts, well … it essentially implies that the agent can be accountable for their own mind, because they can be aware of their own mind and all that entails.

And this is precisely where existentialism comes in. Existentialism is a complicated field of study, from thinkers ranging from Nietzsche to Sartre to Heidegger, from notions ranging from the will to power to authenticity to the power of subjectivity or the necessity of bad faith, and I think that these ideas are what make existentialism so appealing: We are, as Sartre would say, fully responsible for our nature and our choices. We are responsible for everything that we do. We are responsible for everything that we think. We are responsible for everything we desire.

That, I would call, the more hard existentialist points, because there are some things we don’t have control over. This is why I will specifically posit a more “soft” existentialism, but with the same basic claims.

So, what are those claims? Without getting into too much detail, I do think that the mind is much more complicated than we give it credit for: It is hard to control all of the gadgets that make our mind tick. It’s hard to control every fleeting thought. Mental illness, I believe, can in the right contexts be a very crippling disease (that’s hard for me to say when I champion the benefits of mental illness and not the actual “illness” aspects, but that’s another story …), but it can also be limiting and debilitating.

This is why I propose a softer existentialism. We are in control … but only to an extent. Where do we draw the line, is of course a valid and is the important question. There is obviously a major contrast, and spectrum, of saying that we are not in control because of chemicals in our brain and saying we are completely in control because of free will. Is the cold killer responsible for their actions? Is the thief responsible for their theft? Is the drug addict, with clear impairment to the brain, responsible for their decisions and addiction? I want to say yes, all the way, but … I do think it’s a little more complicated than that, it isn’t so black and white. That being said, I want to stick with as much existentialism as I possibly can when it comes to detailing my theory of dualistic existentialism. I want to say that, despite mental illness, despite physical damage to the brain, despite misfiring neurotransmitters and the like, we are fully responsible for our thoughts. I want to say that despite genetics and built-in instincts, we control our thoughts. But: Well, you’ve probably figured out why there might be some problems with a hard existentialist viewpoint, particularly when it comes to the mind and the clear implications of neuroscience …

(Part 2 soon to follow …)

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One thought on “A Theory of Mind, Part 1 (from In Defense of the Mind)

  1. Pingback: A Theory of Mind, Part 2 (from In Defense of the Mind) | stephanheard

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