There are claims there is no mind-body problem, on at least two different grounds: There is no mind to reduce to body, or no body to which mind can be reduced. The first of these two arguments is sometimes asserted by eliminative materialists, who claim that nothing in reality corresponds to our folk psychological notions of consciousness (Churchland 1981, Churchland 1986, Dennett 1978). As neuroscience progresses we will not reduce such notions to neural activity; we will abandon them, much as we abandoned phlogiston. We will instead adopt the language of neurophysiology.
The second argument, that there is no body to which mind can be reduced, is made most notably by Chomsky (1980, 2000), who argues that there has been no coherent formulation of the mind-body problem since Newton introduced action-at-a-distance and, thereby, destroyed any principled demarcation between the physical and non-physical. Chomsky concludes that consciousness is a property of organized matter, no more reducible than rocks or electromagnetism (Chomsky 2000, p. 86). However, what counts as matter is no clearer than what counts as physical. And why should we expect, in the non-dualistic setting that Chomsky endorses, that consciousness is a property of matter rather than vice versa ?
(Conscious Realism and the Mind-Body Problem, Source 1)
Over-generous funding for over-ambitious projects turns out to be a characteristic speciality of US academia. Following Europe’s self-destruction in the second world war, Chomsky explains, the US found itself with unprecedented power and prestige. This led to the confidence, first expressed in the 1950s and still expressed today, that with the US having conquered the world, its scientists could now conquer the last frontier – the human mind.
“We’ve just finished a ‘decade of the brain’ programme backed by major foundations. The closing conference at the United Academy of Arts and Sciences produced the very confident statement that the body/mind problem will soon be overcome and that the mind will finally be understood.
“Well, firstly, there is no such problem, because there has been no coherent concept of body since Isaac Newton, so there’s nothing to overcome. And secondly, the confidence is completely misplaced since we can’t even explain how the human visual system can recognise a straight line. The truth is that there’s still a huge gap between current understanding and the mental aspects of the world we’re trying to account for.”
Despite having revolutionised the way we think about language and the mind and notwithstanding the considerable insights produced by almost half a century of sustained research, Chomsky still finds his work criticised outright as “mentalistic” and therefore unscientific on the grounds that it cannot be reduced to physics. Chemistry, he argues, was not reducible to physics, but that didn’t make it unscientific. Rather, it was physics which had to be reconstituted so as to be able to incorporate a virtually unchanged chemistry.
Many modern thinkers, he says, simply haven’t understood the full significance of Newton’s discovery of gravity. “The possibility of affecting objects without touching them just exploded physicalism and materialism. It has been common in recent years to ridicule Descartes’s “ghost in the machine” in postulating mind as distinct from body. Well, Newton came along and he did not exorcise the ghost in the machine: he exorcised the machine and left the ghost intact. So now the ghost is left and the machine isn’t there. And the mind has mystical properties.
The usual assumption is that we have a clear understanding of what matter is, and that the difficulty has to do with explaining how thoughts, sensations, and other mental phenomena relate to material processes in the nervous system. Are the former identical to or supervenient upon the latter? Various anti-materialist arguments purport to show that they cannot be either, which seems to entail some form of dualism. But in that case we face the interaction problem. In any event, the “body” side of the mind-body problem is usually taken to be unproblematic; it is mind that raises the puzzles, or so it is thought.
Chomsky rejects this assumption. In his view, “body” is as problematic as mind; so much so that we do not even have a clear idea of what the mind-body problem is. As he writes in Language and Problems of Knowledge: The Managua Lectures:
The mind-body problem can be posed sensibly only insofar as we have a definite conception of body. If we have no such definite and fixed conception, we cannot ask whether some phenomena fall beyond its range. The Cartesians offered a fairly definite conception of body in terms of their contact mechanics, which in many respects reflects commonsense understanding. Therefore they could sensibly formulate the mind-body problem… (p. 142)
[However] the Cartesian concept of body was refuted by seventeenth-century physics, particularly in the work of Isaac Newton, which laid the foundations for modern science. Newton demonstrated that the motions of the heavenly bodies could not be explained by the principles of Descartes’s contact mechanics, so that the Cartesian concept of body must be abandoned. (p. 143)
In other words, when we think of causation in the natural world as Descartes did – that is, as involving literal contact between two extended substances – then the way in which a thought or a sensation relate to a material object becomes mysterious. Certainly it cannot be right to think of a thought or sensation as making literal physical contact with the surface of the brain, or in any other way communicating motion in a “push-pull” way. But when we give up this crude model of causation, as Newton did, the source of the mystery disappears. At the same time, no systematic positive account of what matter as such is has ever really been put forward to replace Descartes’ conception. Hence, Chomsky continues:
There is no longer any definite conception of body. Rather, the material world is whatever we discover it to be, with whatever properties it must be assumed to have for the purposes of explanatory theory. Any intelligible theory that offers genuine explanations and that can be assimilated to the core notions of physics becomes part of the theory of the material world, part of our account of body. If we have such a theory in some domain, we seek to assimilate it to the core notions of physics, perhaps modifying these notions as we carry out this enterprise. (p. 144)
Well, I think we are not in Kansas anymore… 😉