Damn, I hate having to pretend to do metaphysics.  I would much rather leave that to those who know what they are about in that area.  However, it is incumbent upon me to outline two contrasting positions as cleanly and clearly as I can, so that they may then serve as landmarks in subsequent discussions.  I say “outline”, because each will be incomplete.  The sketch to be drawn will incorporate just enough features to allow metaphysical commitments to mind to be seen as belonging in one camp or the other.  Any substantive theory in the science of mind, or behavior, will fight its battles with enemies in the same camp, and sharing much of the same kind of metaphysical assumptions.  Battles across the camps can only be conducted at a very abstract level.

But by making the two contrasting approaches explicit, it will be possible to limit fundamentalist claims from within either camp, as any theoretical claims or narrative put forth will necessarily be bounded in its claims to generality or facticity.  It may hold sway conditionally only, and the condition is that the argument is conducted with one or other set of pre-theoretical assumptions.  Here goes, so…

On the one hand, we have a view that might be simply labelled Cartesian, not because it accurately describes the views of René Descartes, but because its commitments are inextricably linked with the substance duality associated with that influential Frenchman.  Its commitments, roughly, are these:

  • For each awake biological person, there exists a domain of private events.  We might call these feelings, qualia, perceptions, thoughts, and more.  The terms employed in characterizing this domain are one and all of a psychological nature, and the substance of claims about such private goings on can be tested only indirectly, as everything that falls into this set is, by hypothesis, not physical and not collectively observable.
  • This view can freely make use of the term “physical”, which is assumed to be, in some privileged sense, a domain in which things are observable, measurable, and metaphysically less problematic than the “mental”
  • Although almost nobody subscribes to either substance dualism or to solipsism, this stance inevitably results in a picture in which a subject with a private world of experience acts and comes to terms with a world that is separate from the subject.  This leads to the adoption of an inner/outer vocabulary.
  • Almost all current cognitive neuroscience adopts some variant of this basic stance, and the role that the brain is assumed to play is hugely shaped by these presuppositions.  Currently, there seems to be a great deal of agreement that the brain is best understood as an organ that makes predictions about the world and the upcoming interactions between the subject and the world.  The Predictive Brain belong squarely in this camp.
  • Experience  is thus Personal (in the sense of “first person”) and Private, and the resulting epistemic predicament of the subject is akin to the view painted in the picture Being John Malkovitch, of a subject looking out at, and making sense of, an external world.
  • This position is so ingrained and is assumed by so many of our discussions around the person that it is hard to push against.  I will call this view the P-world view.  It informs a lot of our common sense about persons.

On the other hand, we have a contrasting view that is, so far, considerably less well articulated.  It is harder to sketch, not least because the everyday language we use in discussing the person is so grounded in the above P-world stance.  It might be best to start by a negative characterization of a minimal sort, where we point to just those key points on which this account diverges from the other.  There are two basic points at which many of us begin to question the set of assumptions listed above and presumed to come as a bundle.  They are:

  • There is no domain of mind that is distinct from the domain of the physical.  This is the common rejection of substance dualism.
  • The inner/outer distinction is vacuous.  It relies upon an untenable distinction between a private domain of the subject (the P-world) and the world.  This is a rejection of solipsism.

If the first theoretical stance is the P-stance, then let us take a card from the book of the logician and call this the Not-P stance.  There are no P-worlds.

Now almost every card-carrying scientist in the field of cognitive or brain sciences, if pressed to the wall, would deny being either a substance dualist or a solipsist.  They would therefore subscribe to one or both of the foregoing assertions.

However, this fabric unravels very quickly.  If we adopt either of the two rejections above, then we quickly become caught up in a cascade of reformulations and rejections that collectively define an orthogonal position.  I will characterize Not-P thus:

  • There is no principled way to distinguish the mental from the physical.  Defining the physical is as problematic (and in many respects, is the same set of problems) as defining the mental.
  • The division between the psychological subject and an inanimate, physical world, is therefore untenable
  • The notion of prediction is likewise untenable, as it depends upon the inner (subject) – outer (world) split.  Prediction, on this view, is replaced by something like embedding, entrainment, and grounding.

Adopting this stance brings a host of problems, but they are problems we must face up to. They are largely linguistic in nature: the language we use to describe our selves, our lives, our motivations, and our experiences, all depends largely upon some kind of P-world view.  But it is of the utmost importance that we learn to articulate a stance that rejects the unacceptable metaphysical assumptions on which the whole P-view rests.  Without a strong articulation of an alternative, accounts of the person developed from the P-point of view acquire the status of “facts”, and they thereby become normative accounts of the person.  Now normative accounts of the person should not be treated lightly.  Such accounts serve to inform our social policy and our consensus-based understanding of quality of life.  They underpin our definitions of able-bodied and able-minded, along with their complements.  We use such normative accounts to justify incarceration.  They can serve (or struggle with) commercial interests.  Their development, adoption and treatment must, if we take science seriously, be done in the best interests of us, however we define the referent of that personal pronoun.

For here is the big view: in constructing accounts of the person and the world of the person, we are engaging in an act of self-definition.  Te development of a collective ethics, the relationship of humans to animals, the relationship of humans to their planet, all these depend absolutely on just what it is we take ourselves to be.  That is why this matters.  That is why the difficulty of working with non-Cartesian assumptions is worthwhile, and why it necessarily changes our view of who and what we are.

In a more flippant mode I would suggest that the P-view suggests we are clever monkeys, while Not-P encourages us to recognize that we are life itself.  Sigh.  This is why I avoid metaphysics.