He presents a general theory of mind which has much in common with the position taken up by Herbert Feigl and considered in some detail by me in The Elusive Mind chapter IX. Much is owed by both writers to Ryle’s ascription of central importance to dispositions. But unlike Ryle they are reluctant to agree that the main features of mental existence can be covered in this way. There is for Feigl some ‘direct experience itself as lived through enjoyed or suffered’ but the logical status of this must itself be considered in relation to behavioural descriptions. The main move it may be recalled is in terms of ‘a referent’ for private states or ‘raw feels’ which can in a final scientific explanation be identified with the referent of the observables by which the world around us is known. In a similar way Armstrong claims that over and above the dispositions as presented by Ryle in a strictly ‘Phenomenalist or Operationalist’1 account we must have a ‘Realist’ recognition of ‘a categorical state’ or ‘states of the object that has the capacity or power’.2 This is what the strict behaviourist must reject.
2. Some Recent Objections to Dualism
The case I have presented hitherto depends altogether on the adequacy of the appeal I have made to what I presented as the awareness of what an experience is like in the very process of having an experience. But this has itself been subjected to much critical comment of late. One of the foremost writers to present such criticism is Professor D. M. Armstrong especially in his much admired book A Materialist Theory of Mind. He proceeds as follows.
‘Behaviourism concentrates on the case of other minds and there it substitutes the evidence that we have for the existence of other minds — behaviour — for the mental states themselves. To admit dispositions as mental states lying behind and in suitable circumstances giving rise to behaviour is to contradict the whole programme.’3
These admitted ‘inner states’ are however themselves conceived in close relation to behaviour and while not reducible to it are defined as ‘states of the person apt for the bringing about of behaviour of a certain sort’4 — or as it is also put ‘the concept of a mental state is the concept of a state of the person apt for the production of certain sorts of behaviour’.5
I am not at all certain that I would wish to subscribe at all points to the general realist basis of this submission. The problem of qualities of external objects is a very different one from that of mental existence of which in my submission we have a distinctive awareness in one’s own case. Nor is it clear to me that inner states of mind can be exhaustively conceived in terms of their aptitude for certain behaviour. They have other features even if these have a tendency to lead to some form of behaviour. Nor is it altogether clear what of any substance is salvaged from an exhaustive behaviourist view when the admitted ‘inner’ or mental state is conceived expressly in terms of its aptitude for certain behaviour. There is admittedly something behind the behaviour which is being preserved from dissolution into the behavioural story itself. But it appears to be also very tenuous and to be forced to cling very precariously to its independent reality.
The general realism of his position is however very important for Armstrong. For it enables him to ask over and above the behaviourist account ‘What are these inner causes like?’6 In line with the earlier pronouncements of J. J. C. Smart and Antony Flew he declares them to be ‘topic-neutral’ that is beyond knowing that there are such states as the causes of behaviour we have no direct knowledge of them and the question of their proper nature remains an open one to be determined by further considerations. ‘Mental processes have a nature of their own although this nature is not directly given to us’.7 We have in short a half-way house between strict reductionist behaviourism and the affirmation of inner states we directly recognise as such.
What then are the further considerations by which we may learn more about the nature of ‘inner states’? Here ‘no logical analysis can help us. It is a matter of high level scientific speculation’.8 An analogy is found with the way scientists in first regarding the gene as a factor apt for the production of hereditary characteristics are also able to identify it further as deoxyribonucleic acid. By comparison we may conclude that the identification of ‘inner states’ ‘with physico-chemical states of the brain is in the present state of knowledge nearly as good a bet as the identification of the gene with the DNA molecule’.9
There seem however to be a host of assumptions here in particular the gratuitous assumption shared in an earlier similar context by Feigl that every problem must ultimately admit of a scientific solution or be a matter of sheer logical analysis. It was understandable that such assumptions should have much currency in the heyday of new scientific progress in the immediate post-Darwinian period. But it seems to be entirely out of place today in morals and religion as much as in concerns like the present one.
Professor Armstrong himself moreover admits fully that if there is some ‘self-intimating’ character of mental states or some incorrigible awareness of them ‘if introspective knowledge is incorrigible as is alleged then our account of the concept of a mental state is untenable’.10 This is a fair admission and although I would not wish to put the case strictly in terms of introspection we have the crux of the matter here. It may well be that if we begin with a causal account of mental states we have to admit also that ‘any statement that one thing is a cause or potential cause of another thing however arrived at is subject to the tests of future observation and experiment’. But even on this basis we could claim that the tests in this case involve not just external observation but the facts as disclosed in our own inner awareness. The real issue is whether there is some self-intimating character of mental states such as Professor Armstrong admits would at once torpedo his position. Let us then look more closely at his objections to the alleged ‘incorrigible awareness of logically privileged access to and self-intimating nature of our own current mental states’.11
We find an interesting clue to the way Armstrong and many others approach this question in his treatment of one of the cases which he thinks might illustrate what we mean by ‘consciousness’ when we say ‘We are conscious we have experiences’.12 It is the case when driving ‘in monotonous conditions’ we realise that we have ‘driven many miles without consciousness of the driving or perhaps anything else. One has kept the car on the road changed gears even or used the brake but all in a state of “automatism”.’13 This sort of case is in my view far too lightly invoked by opponents of dualism. In one sense we were not aware of what we were doing and we have not much recollection of it afterwards. But does this mean more than that we were not taking special note of what we were doing much as we are aware of many things at a particular time without allowing this to get further than the margin of our attention or make any lasting impact. ‘Automatism’ is not a very apt term for this. We have not wound ourselves up or programmed ourselves like machines to drive any more than when we walk home on a familiar route with very little impression of the journey. Armstrong himself admits that in the case he considers ‘one must in some sense have been perceiving and acting purposively. Otherwise the car would have ended in the ditch’.14 But how can we perceive and act purposively without being conscious in any sense of doing so. That would be automatic and we would crash.
Professor Armstrong contrasts the case just noted with situations where we are ‘lost in thought’ and with the case where we are ‘self-consciously trying to scrutinise what goes on from moment to moment in one’s mind’.15 We do not he admits require the latter case of self-consciousness to be able to say that we are conscious of our thoughts. ‘When I am “lost in thought” I am nevertheless conscious of my thoughts’.16 This then is for him the crucial case.
He deals with this case by insisting that consciousness in this case ‘is simply a further mental state’ a state ‘directed’ towards the original inner states and as such it can also be treated as ‘an inner state apt for the production of certain behaviour’ and this in turn can be regarded as a state of the brain ‘a process in which one part of the brain scans another part of the brain’.17 But of this I can only say that it does not begin to convey what we are conscious of in respect to our own mental processes in cases of deep concentration. Nor would I admit any radical difference in regard to my main claim between the alleged ‘automatic’ driving and absorbed profound thinking. We may not be concerned to note and record what we feel or think in such cases. But we cannot fail to be aware at the time of what is happening mentally and what this essentially involves. I can be aware of this without any thoughts about my brain.
The crucial mistake at this stage it seems to me is to look for some distinctive case of our mental processes involving awareness or intimation of themselves. The claim that is made however applies to all mental processes however rudimentary.
This is what needs most to be stressed in relation to further objections made by Armstrong himself and others following his lead. He proceeds largely on the assumption shared unfortunately by many who also seek to counter his claims that the direct awareness we have of our own mental states is itself a further distinct mental state. He speaks at the outset of his treatment of this topic about ‘a belief’ about one’s own state of mind and such a belief is taken to involve ‘a proposition about A’s current state of mind’.18 He adds that the doctrine of incorrigibility means ‘that any belief we have about our own current mental state is inevitably true’.19 This places a wide gulf between the inner awareness in question and perception. For it is always logically possible that our perceptual claims are mistaken. They may be proved to be so by further evidence available to ourselves or provided by others. But any proposition we formulate about our own states of mind is in theory it is alleged capable of being falsified in the same way.
In support of this contention it is first pointed out that the incorrigible knowledge we have about our mental states cannot apply to the past. ‘Two events that occur at different times must be “distinct existences”: it is always logically possible that one event might occur but the other not occur’.20 Put the first event a fraction of a second ago and it is now only ‘a paradigm of empirically indubitable knowledge’. It is only in the present that ‘error becomes logically impossible’. But can the certainty that we are in pain for instance be logically different from one split instant to another? This at least is enough to make us ‘suspect the thesis’.
In reinforcement of this it is next pointed out as a fatal objection that any report we make about our mental state ‘anything we say takes time’.21 ‘My indubitable knowledge that I am in pain can surely embrace only the current instant’.22 It cannot extend to ‘the time the sentence is finished’.23 ‘Our knowledge is indubitable only while it is knowledge of the current “introspective instant”’.24 In practice therefore ‘it is impossible to make a statement of the required logical status about one’s mental states. For by the time one has finished speaking the moment to which one was referring is in the past’.25 ‘I am in pain now’ is thus logically no different from ‘I have a hand now’. Both are in principle empirically corrigible.
Even if we claim that the mental state and the awareness of it ‘lie within the same “introspective instant’”26 they are still ‘distinct existences’27 and we have therefore to establish some logical relation between the two similar to that between colour and extension shape and size. But there appears to be no such logical relation which we can specify; and it is added for good measure if we think of the analogue of scanning by a mechanism of its own mental states it is evident that there must be an absolute distinction between the scanner and the scanned. ‘The natural view to take is that pain and awareness of pain are “distinct existences”. If so a false awareness of pain is at least logically possible’.28
The root difficulty here is the initial supposition that a mental state and the immediate intimation of what it is are distinct existences accentuated by the assumption that awareness must take the form of explicit formulation or statement. A statement even to oneself is a distinct existence and in principle some fault may be found with it. The kind of thing I am liable to say about my pain and even to believe in reporting at the time may be untrue or misleading. I may be wrong about the cause of my pain and thus mistaken in describing it as toothache. I may be wrong if I say that it is the worst pain I have ever had or I may not be a sufficient master of language to use the right word when I say it is a throbbing pain. But however much I may be liable to mislead myself as well as others in this way it is hard to know what is seriously intended when it is questioned that I am in some more fundamental way inevitably aware of the sort of pain I am having in the very process of having it.
This does not mean that having the pain and the awareness of the pain are strictly the same. Nor is it in this case and that of all mental existence a matter of a logical relation such as that between shape and size. What Professor Armstrong and others are desperately trying to do is to assimilate the case of mental processes to other existences and the way we must handle those. There is no proper parallel to one’s awareness of one’s own states. Our descriptions and explanations are one thing the initial self-intimating character of all mental processes or experience is another. The sui generis character of mental life must not be overlooked and what we find to be the case in all experience is that we just cannot fail to be aware in the very fact of having it of what it is essentially like however unskilled we may be in reporting it or noting it for ourselves.
Indeed if we may venture a counter-attack how is Professor Armstrong so ‘empirically’ certain that he is in pain when he is so. What observations would be invoke? Will he turn to the report of other people — there is nothing obviously wrong with me I do not in the least look like someone in pain etc.? Could this ever convince any individual that he was not in pain when he was so? It might induce him to pretend that he was not in pain or it might distract his attention and induce him to behave as if he were at ease; and this itself could bring about a partial or even a total easement of the pain. A parent may tell a child not to think about his toothache and this in some cases might be helpful advice. But none of this means that we could actually have a pain and not be aware of it quite independently of such evidence as others may adduce for us or of any evidence available to us more privately. What makes my own pain empirically indubitable to me? Surely not my own screams or contortions of limb or of face. I know it right away and beyond any shadow of doubt. What makes this a paradigm of certainty? Can it be anything other than the fact that I feel the pain just as I am also thinking these thoughts however inadequately I formulate them in words.
There appears in short to be nothing patently evidential about our awareness of our own states of mind and yet the certainty with which we seem to apprehend them in normal cases at least is about the strongest there is. If in the last half-hour I had been thinking of Plato’s philosophy I would normally have no doubt at all that this is what had been happening. How am I so certain? Because I have some work of Plato or about Plato in front of me? That need not be the case at all. I might be walking through the fields with no companion or with nothing to indicate that I was thinking about Plato rather than Kant or about something quite removed from philosophy altogether — my next holiday. Is it seriously thought that I have some subtle evidences available to me on the basis of which I form my own judgement? What could they conceivably be that would tell me anything as precise as that I was thinking about Plato — and about some quite specific feature of his philosophy? In some cases indeed this may come about. If someone is known to be at the time preoccupied with Plato — or with Plato’s views about anamnesis — then we may claim to see the familiar signs — there he goes there is the taut look on his face the peculiar twitching of his fingers or whatever you please he must be deep in his anamnesis thing again. But these are very exceptional situations and the subject in our example may well disavow all we claim — it was not Plato this time and even if we remain unconvinced the person himself would be quite certain that it was or was not Plato as the case may be.
Normally we would certainly accept what a person says about himself in such matters. Are we then seriously to suppose that this comes about because of observations he can exclusively make as indications of his state of mind? If we asked him how he knew would not the obvious answer be — ‘Well just because that is what I was thinking at the time. I have just lived through that very experience what conceivable reason have you for supposing that I am deluding myself? And would not this request in turn presuppose the very special private awareness a person has about the course of his own thoughts?
I am not much disturbed about the problem of the ‘introspective instant’ except in the sense not in any way peculiar to our present concerns namely that it is very difficult to note generally what is strictly meant by ‘the present’. But this is a general problem about the proper way to think about time. Our thoughts proceed through time like everything else in the world and if as I maintain there is an initial awareness of what an experience is like in having it this must extend through any period we care to delimit; and if our confidence extends beyond anything contemporary with the experience itself this must surely be because we believe with good reason though we need not consider that now that memory is exceptionally dependable when it refers to matters about which we have had some very recent assurance. But from where could such assurance have come in the first place if not from the continuous flow of our own experience intimating itself to itself at each stage and thus handing on to its successors what the experience itself is like? Independently of any explicit formulation of a belief about my thoughts much less of the supporting of this belief from independent evidence the course which any mental process or experience takes gives me the initial awareness of what it is like which I take over into other experiences and make the basis if there should be need of more explicit beliefs and statements about my own mental states.
I certainly do not normally make statements to myself or others about the varied features of my experience from moment to moment. Sometimes I may do this though without claiming at all to cover all that is happening to me. In a discussion I convey as explicitly as I can to my neighbour what I think about the subject and I may convey by word or gesture to my friends my delight at all I enjoy in the course of a walk in the country. But much happens also unremarked in this way and in the solitude of my study or a walk by myself in the woods it is only occasionally indeed that I present anything to myself about the course of my experience in the form of explicit sentences. It is only very rarely and usually in cases of eccentricity that we exclaim and talk to ourselves; and while we may more often in fantasy talk to an imaginary listener it is certain that it is not through such conversation that we know what the course of our experience is like.
It is for this reason that even terms like ‘self-intimating’ can never be altogether adequate. ‘Introspection’ can be misleading in the same way. We do not for normal purposes observe or note or look in on our thoughts. There is no stage by which we intimate to ourselves what is privately happening to us life would be impossible if we had to do that all the time. There could certainly be no easy flow of thinking. It is not by adopting beliefs or making explicit statements to ourselves or to others that we become aware of our own mental states but much more basically in the very fact of being in those states and having an awareness of them inviolably bound up with their being what they are at all times.
This is almost but not quite conceded by Professor Richard Rorty in a critical discussion of Armstrong’s work.29 He complains that Armstrong is not able to do proper justice to the alleged realism by which he seeks to give some distinct existence to mental events. For these events he observes tend to be dissolved in the causal account which Armstrong gives of them into dispositional factors of behaviour or be accorded independence solely as states of the brain of which an exhaustively physiological account may be given. What additional distinctive feature of mental states does Rorty himself then allow? He finds this in the incorrigibility of mental states or more strictly of first-hand reports of these states. As he puts it: ‘What makes an entity mental is not whether or not it is something that explains behaviour and what makes a property mental is not whether or not it is a property of a physical entity. The only thing that can make either an entity or a property mental is that certain reports of its existence or occurrence have the special status that is accorded to e.g. reports of thoughts and sensations — the status of incorrigibility’.30 ‘The thesis presented is that all and only mental events are the sorts of entities certain reports about which are incorrigible’.31
In strictness this only applies to mental events although we may speak also of ‘mental features’ such as ‘beliefs desires moods emotions intentions’. But ‘those mental entities which I have contrasted with mental events as mental features are such that our subsequent behaviour may provide sufficient evidence for overriding contemporaneous reports of them’.32 The latter or at least some of them are ‘almost incorrigible’. As they ‘become more particular and limited and thus approach the status of episodes rather than dispositions they become more incorrigible’.33 ‘Beliefs and desires about momentary matters tend to collapse into sensations. Short-run beliefs desires emotions and intentions are less like predictions of future behaviour than like avowals of contemporaneous thoughts or sensations’.34 This ‘near-incorrigibility should be the basis for widening the realm of the mental’.35
The weakness of this is that it centres attention on reports of mental events rather than the events themselves and it opens the door to a counter-attack somewhat along the lines of Armstrong’s problem about the ‘mental instant’. It has been pointed out by Gerald Doppelt for example in his paper ‘Incorrigibility and the Mental’ in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy36 that reports involve complex considerations and usually take us well beyond the time at which they are made.
The position is made still more precarious by the ascription of the incorrigibility in question to the fact that in the cases where it holds we have no ‘established procedures for resolving’37 any doubts. This is why Rorty prefers to speak of ‘incorrigible’ rather than ‘indubitable’. We may doubt whether something looks brown to someone but ‘there is no way we can rationally decide that it didn’t look brown in the face of the contemporaneous belief’.38
This is in turn made to rest still more precariously on ‘the way we speak’. ‘By phrasing our definition in terms of accepted procedures rather than in terms of the logical impossibility of error we leave room for the sort of change that would confirm “eliminative” materialism’.39 The change required would be one that ‘involves a shift in linguistic practice’. ‘Reference to mental states might become as outdated as reference to demons’.40 ‘To say that it might turn that there are no mental entities is to say something not merely about the relative explanatory powers of psychological and physiological accounts of behaviour but about possible changes in people’s ways of speaking. For as long as people continue to report incorrigibly on such things as thoughts and sensations it will seem silly to say that mental entities do not exist’.41 It comes down to ‘the ontology of the man in the street’ and to ‘what linguistic practices are adopted by the community’.42
We have come a long way here from the bold realism which seemed to insist on a firm ontological status for mental events. The ‘ontology of the man in the street’ may be an excellent guide but we cannot rest secure in that alone least of all in the shifting sands of the linguistic practices of a community. Our main concern should be with our own understanding of mental events as we find them to be and the root mistake in the case of Armstrong himself and of his critics and counter-critics in a spate of recent discussions of incorrigibility and its like has been to centre attention on reports of mental events and some peculiarity that might make them incorrigible rather than on explicit reflection on our mental events themselves.
The main consideration at all times seems to me to be just this that from the nature of any kind of experience or awareness we are directly assured that we cannot be aware in any sense other than a dispositional one without being aware that we are so aware; and in this direct appreciation of our own awareness it becomes apparent also that this experience or awareness is essentially distinct from any external reality and to be understood in terms of itself alone as a sui generis process however much it may be related in various ways to processes of a different nature in our bodies and the world around us.
One further feature in Armstrong’s procedures and those of his followers and critics must however be noted before we leave this particular issue. It is the question of alleged unconscious mental events. The path was well prepared here by Ryle in The Concept of Mind where he urged against a Cartesian view the seeming impossibility of allowing in terms of that view of any Freudian claims or other ways in which other persons may come to know us better than we know ourselves. The substance of the reply made to Ryle by myself among others was that the Freudian doctrines and their like referred to dispositional properties or tendencies in our nature. I may think myself a bolder person than I am or more shy because I am not as observant here as I am of my varying states of mind or sufficiently able to note them and establish always the correct impression of what I am generally like. No one claims ‘private access’ to his own character; that is not open to inspection in the way a machine may be examined to determine its likely performance. The immediate and unavoidable assurance we have about ourselves concerns only our mental events as we have them it does not extend directly to the terms in which we describe those events or relate them to one another or their causes although the reports which are closest to those events themselves and most explicit have an initially stronger reliability.
But now it is urged that the alleged unconscious extends not only to character and dispositions but also to the mental occurrences themselves. These may be unconscious too and what becomes then of the vaunted assurance we have of our mental states in having them?
To this there is only one reply. There are no and there just cannot be properly unconscious mental occurrences. Many seeming instances may be cited against us as in Armstrong’s own example of driving in monotonous conditions or the stock example of the clock ticking without our noticing it till it stops. In all these and a host of like examples it can well be admitted that a great deal goes on in our mental existence of which we take no particular note and which does not register in any abiding way in our lasting impressions. A short while ago I looked at my watch only to realise as soon as I had done so that it was barely a minute since I looked at it earlier. So quickly and completely had the first impression passed only to be discovered in realising that I already knew what my watch told me the second time. But this itself could not happen without my having been aware on the first occasion of looking at my watch and noting what it said. Many things fall in similar ways to the margin of our attention and quickly pass out of our recollection they are not explicitly noted and it looks as if we had not been conscious of them at all. But we must have been conscious of them without paying much attention as our main concerns were elsewhere for them to have any place at all in the many eddies and currents of our rich and changing experience at any particular time.
There may of course be cases as cited by Armstrong of pain behaviour without actual pain. A nervous patient begins to scream before the dentist has done anything to hurt him — he is all set to scream or squirm already by fear or association — or one may scream apparently while under the influence of nitrous oxide. But this admits of many explanations. The anaesthetic may not have taken the full effect expected or the treatment may induce a dream in which there may or may not be pain or some reaction may be initiated in the dream state which leads to pain behaviour. But behaviour is one thing however induced being in pain another. To affirm this is not as Armstrong holds ‘to be the prisoner of a dogma’ it is rather to be released from dogmas into open reflection on what in fact we find to be the case and to an understanding of ourselves that takes its start from such reflection.
I turn now to difficulties which some continue to feel about the second feature of dualism as outlined earlier namely the influence which mental processes have on at least one’s own body in certain ways and the influence the body has in turn on the course of our experience. I shall confine myself to one novel and confident form of the difficulties which philosophers today are apt to present at this point.
In his recent book Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry Professor Bernard Williams offers a novel version of a familiar objection to Cartesian dualism and interaction of mind and body. The initial objection is this: if mental processes and physical states or processes are so radically different in nature as the dualist alleges that they are it is hard to see how they can in any way influence one another. There must be some community of nature to make it possible for them to act on one another.
This is the argument advanced by Professor Passmore in Chapter III of his Philosophical Reasoning and discussed in some detail by me in Chapter V of my The Elusive Mind. It may indeed seem remarkable that our intentions non-extended and private in the first instance as they seem bound to be can influence the course of things in the extended physical world however we understand this; and it is even more remarkable that it seems to happen solely in relation to one physical entity namely the body of the person who is intending or willing.
It is indeed sometimes considered likely that there is causation at a distance and recently the claim to be able to change things by psycho-kinesis has been boldly advanced. But whether this is warranted or not the way we normally make ourselves effective in the world including communication of our thoughts to one another is through some bodily change we bring about. Even if psycho-kinesis occurs it will be limited and very exceptional and presumably this will be so for any foreseeable time.
The alleged influence of mind on body then is indeed remarkable. But in a way so are all other causal relations. In the last resort we can only discover what they are empirically. Admittedly we do often say that certain things are bound to happen — with these dark clouds it will certainly rain put a match to this powder and there will certainly be a devastating explosion. But we take all this to be necessitated simply because we accept it that there is a complete consistency subject to concomitant variation in the way things happen in the world around us. On the basis of what we have found to be the case already we can infer with remarkable precision what will happen in the remotest times and places. Our day-to-day behaviour as well as fine achievements of science presuppose this. Without it we could neither live in the world nor understand it. Whether there is also a rational justification for our confidence that our physical environment will continue in this respect at least to suit our convenience is a moot point. But whatever we say on this head the very fact of causal determination itself is remarkable in the extreme and no less so when we discover that it takes some unexpected forms at odds with our day-to-day expectations. This may well be a factor of very great importance in any view we form generally of ourselves and the world around us and religious persons not surprisingly or improperly it seems to me have attached significance to it. But without going further into this and similar issues we can readily see how remarkable it is that without any inherent necessity of things being the way they are they do in fact stand in the dependable and consistent relations which we discover.
In the last resort all causal relations are remarkable even the most familiar. We can only accept them and be grateful most of the time at least that they are as they are. If there is mystery in the peculiar influence of our minds on our bodies it is no more in the last analysis than all causal determination. At most there is a difference of degree. The requirement of a common nature seems to be a wholly unwarranted assumption a dogmatic claim for which no justification is offered and which could create problems also for the extraordinary varieties of change we find in the external world itself.
The oddity of a causal determination is therefore no ground in the last resort for discrediting it. We have just to go by what we find to be the case. We cannot reject what we find beyond doubt to be the case just because we find it remarkable that it should be that way.
Professor Passmore had noted43 that ‘the only force the mind has at its disposal is spiritual force the power of rational persuasion’. On the other hand bodies ‘can only push’. How on this basis we can ever accept as we all do all the time that ‘in some sense the mind influences the body and vice versa’ is never explained. It seems quite evident that my purposing to put on my spectacles or wave my hand is not itself a physical state or process. It is known in the fact of having such a purpose that this in itself is no part of locatable reality that we can observe from its shape or colour or in any other way. But if we find that this non-spatial purpose does in fact normally bring about a physical change how can we possibly question this just because it defies further explanation. We do not reason the world into existence we find that it is what it is; and we must accept it however remarkable it may seem to be in some respects. To wonder at the way things are should be no embarrassment for philosophers.
And now with that in mind let us look at the variation on the stock objection which Professor Bernard Williams brings forward. When we do will let us say to wave a hand all that we do will is just to wave a hand. But we all know also that the movement would not in fact take place were it not preceded by various other changes in our bodies. Muscles and nerves must function in certain ways as well and there must be a change in the state of the brain to bring all that about. If anything goes wrong as these changes are ‘relayed’ as we sometimes put it the hand will not wave. It may be the first intimation of ‘a frozen shoulder’ or more seriously of general paralysis or a stroke. However resolutely I will to move my arm in these cases nothing happens. This is common knowledge notwithstanding that the layman only has it in very general ways and not in the fuller form available to the neurologist and brain expert.
All the same it is not on the basis of knowledge of this kind even the most incipient that we will to bring about changes like waving a hand or pushing a chair. What we will is to push the chair to take off our spectacles etc. We do not will to bring about changes in our brains and most of us have not the faintest notion what such changes should be or even how our joints and muscles function for us to wave a hand. The brain surgeon has no advantage over the rest of us where waving a hand is concerned and we would have little confidence in him if he had to remind himself what goes on in his own head before he gets on with his operation on the brain of someone else.
This as Williams points out is the proper purport of Descartes’s own warning not to think of ourselves in our bodies as a pilot in a ship. I do not move my arm by knowing what lever to pull in the first place or what the initial change in the brain must be like. I suppose that with sufficient knowledge we could induce some movement in our limbs in that way. We could at least imitate the doctor by tapping a knee to make it jerk. But this is certainly not how we walk about. We just decide to walk and do so. Any further knowledge we have of all that this involves is subsidiary and irrelevant to our being able to walk about at will.
So far there is nothing to dispute. But this is also the point where Williams finds an insuperable objection to the Cartesian story. This is not because Descartes was wrong about the pineal gland etc. We can substitute for this an appropriate ‘electrochemical system’ or ‘any input at all of the mind into the neuro-physiological system’. But even so ‘the brain’ and we might add the nervous system too ‘is not responsive to willing which has brain changes as intentional content but only to willing which has movements of other parts of the body as intentional content’.44 If I want of my own volition to change my brain-state I must start by asking the surgeon to do something to me or by doing if we were clever enough the sort of thing to my brain which the surgeon does. Nothing of this sort normally happens. I change my brain-state by willing to move my arm. But I cannot move my arm unless the brain-change is first brought about. That is on the view which Williams is criticising ‘the only part of my body directly responsive to my will is one which I cannot move at will’. This is thought to be enough to dispose of the Cartesian view.
I find this argument utterly bewildering especially in view of the confidence with which Professor Williams affirms its finality. Just what is wrong with supposing that firstly we learn from experience that we can bring about bodily changes like my arm waving by willing or setting ourselves to bring this about and that we regulate our conduct in this way but secondly that we learn in more sophisticated thought that the change which our intending or willing actually brings about in the first place is a change in the brain from which the other changes culminating in the waving of my arm proceed with such rapidity as to seem virtually instantaneous. Knowledge of this kind does not induce us or require of us in any way to start the futile business of willing to initiate a brain change. We just carry on as before in the sensible expectation that when we set ourselves to wave an arm or put on our spectacles this in fact will happen. What we can do is just to will these things. How the result comes about and that the process involved is much more complicated than we assume in day-to-day conduct is quite immaterial to the normal business of all we do bodily.
None of this means of course (pace Ryle but not him alone) that we simply perform occasional bits of willing to jolt or galvanise our bodies into the appropriate motion like pulling the strings of a puppet. As I have stressed at some length in The Elusive Mind we will in a sustained continuous way all that is required as the action proceeds. But what we will is just what we expect to come about bodily. How this comes about is no concern of ours for normal purposes. The practical importance of neurological understanding and study of the brain is for doctors to know how to treat us if something goes wrong and for us to know how best to keep ourselves fit. The story of all this is also inherently important and I would not deny that it has relevance to philosophical questions in some way. But it does nothing to affect the basic question of what mental process or experience is like and how it effects changes in the external world.
Professor Williams has a subsidiary argument which I find very strange. He observes firstly that to bring about a change in my brain short of surgery or its like I have to bring about some other change in my body like waving my arm. I cannot directly in his language by psycho-kinesis move my pineal gland or my brain in any other way. But neither can I move my hand in this way either. Just try he says: ‘We must also take account of the fact that an “external” application of willing such as we discussed in connection with psychokinesis is no more effective in making my arm move than it is in making my hair or anything else move. Put your hand next to some object such as this book and “will” the book approach your hand: nothing happens. Now “will” in that same way your hand to approach the book. Still nothing happens. Direct application of psychokinesis is no more effective with my limbs than with anything else’.45
Everything turns here on ‘in that same way’. What can this conceivably mean here? I certainly cannot make the book move to my hand but I can reach out for the book and all that I can do here is set myself or will to do this. The rest comes about in a way over which I have no further control. If I simply stare at my hand and expect it to move in some magical way other than the process of normally willing this then of course nothing happens. But why should we ever expect it to happen? There is no way in which I can move my arm other than by willing to do so in the normal way. Cut that out and we have to invoke something totally mysterious which not surprisingly has no effect at all.
Part at least of the trouble here is the word ‘psychokinesis’. This is the word we use when we think of the possibility of our making things move or change in some way without doing so bodily like making a chair come to its place or a book from the shelf to my hand. Normally at least we just rule out this possibility. I can only get the book by reaching for it or getting someone to do so. The claim is sometimes made however that there are people who can do this. Perhaps they have also to do something bodily at the same time to utter a magic formula or make a gesture or rub a fork to make it bend without applying the normal force required for this purpose. There is here the possibility that some subtle physical force is engendered which we may some day discover and learn how to use though most of us would consider this unlikely. A stricter form of psychokinesis would be to bring about the result envisaged without any other physical intermediary. We will the book to come to our hands and it does like a bird to our call.
Professor Williams takes a little more kindly to the possibility of psychokinesis in this form than to the related account of how mental processes bring about changes in our bodies in the course of normal behaviour. He suspects that ‘deeper consideration’ will show that it ‘is not merely empirically impossible but inconceivable’.46 But he adds:
Let us grant generously that whether psychokinesis is possible is an empirical issue including in the idea of its occurring the idea that the influence could not be affected by any physical force and moreover that nothing could produce the influence but conscious thought (thus printing out the desired result in a near-by computer for instance would have no effect). With that we have granted some approximation to the idea that it is not unintelligible for mind to influence matter separate from it.47
This however subject to the ‘deeper consideration’ which is not provided is a very radical admission. What is claimed in interactionist theory is that mind simply does influence matter in this way in some regards. If it is allowed to be not unintelligible why be so persistently averse to accepting the plain fact of experience that it does happen? To this Professor Williams only replies in terms of the consideration to which I have referred already namely that we do not will to bring about the change in our brains which determines the subsequent physical movement.
There is in fact in principle no difference between the psychokinesis by which we might bring a book from the shelf to our hands and that by which the act of will induces the change we intend in our bodies. At some point the influence is direct and that is surely what matters. That this only happens so far as we can firmly establish in the normal course of physical behaviour or the control of our own bodies in no way detracts from its eventual directness or the sheer fact that it does happen. There is no inherent reason why there should not be further psychokinesis — as some affirm to be the case. We simply find that it is normally confined to control of our own bodies and very limited at that. This is however no reason at all for rejecting what we find to be an inescapable fact of experience.
We may indeed admit that there is ‘something deeply mysterious about the interaction which Descartes’s theory required between two items of totally disparate natures the immaterial soul and the gland or any other part of an extended body’.48 But it is no more mysterious than many other things which we find in fact to be the case and it is somewhat unfair for this reason to speak of ‘the obscurity of the idea that immaterial mind could move any physical thing’.49 ‘Obscurity’ is a mildly reprobative term and suggests that there is something which should be made plain. But there is a limit to explanation and a point where we just have to accept things as we find them to be. No explanation of ours is exhaustive and if the world is in some ways very remarkable we must accept that too. In fact would it not be better for philosophers rather than trying to explain away or discredit extra-ordinary facts of experience to stop and wonder at them and their possible further implications.
From the book: