Too hard for our kind of mind?

Jerry Fodor

  • The Problem of Consciousness by Colin McGinn
    Blackwell, 216 pp, £30.00, December 1990, ISBN 0 631 17698 5

Whatever, you may be wondering, became of the mind-body problem? This new collection of Colin McGinn’s philosophical papers is as good a place to find out as any I know of. Published over a period of more than a decade, and drawn together from the usual motley of largely inaccessible academic journals, these essays provide a vivid introduction to current views in the philosophy of mind and to their immediate precursors. Professionals will find, in the earlier publications (which, confusingly, come last in the book), a fascinating record of what happened to the philosophy of mind in England when Davidson and Kripke hit town. Professionals and laity alike will find, in the later publications, an up-to-date, sophisticated and enjoyably tendentious account of the present state of the art.

Mental phenomena present three embarrassing questions to any world view that purports to be even vaguely materialist: ‘How could anything material be conscious (in the way that, for example, pains and after-images are)?’ ‘How could anything material be rational (in the way that, for example, thoughts and inferences are)?’ ‘How could anything material be about anything (in the way that, for example, ideas and beliefs are)?’ Taken together, the second and third questions constitute what is called the problem of intentionality: ideas and beliefs purport to represent an extra-mental reality, in respect of which they are evaluable as true or false. The rationality of mental processes (thinking, inferring and the like) arguably consists of their being truth-preserving; in a properly conducted mental life ‘one true inference invariably suggests others,’ as Sherlock Holmes somewhere remarks. If you are a materialist, you will wonder how any of this can be true of mere stuff and matter – of mere brains, as it might be. And even if you are not a materialist, you might reasonably wonder how it can be true of anything at all. It is, after all, no clearer how souls could think or feel than how brains could.

It used to be universally taken for granted that the problem about consciousness and the problem about intentionality are intrinsically linked: that thought is ipso facto conscious, and that consciousness is ipso facto consciousness of some or other intentional object. In consequence, although the mind-body problem was generally conceded to be quite hard enough, thank you, at least there was supposed only to be one of it. Solve the consciousness-brain problem and you’ll get the intentionality-brain problem for free: or vice versa. So it was assumed.

Freud changed all that. He made it seem plausible that explaining behaviour might require the postulation of intentional but unconscious states. Over the last century, and most especially in Chomskian linguistics and in cognitive psychology, Freud’s idea appears to have been amply vindicated. ‘Unconscious mental process’ has come to sound decreasingly oxymoronic. The experimental investigation of unintrospectible thoughts is now the bread and butter of cognitive scientists, among whom the prevailing view is that mental processes are rational because they are computational.

If this is right, then to understand how a mechanism could be computational is to understand how it could be rational. And we do understand how a mechanism could be computational; if we didn’t, we couldn’t build computers.

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