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Saturday 2007-04-14


What odd things some philosophers think. Victor Reppert quotes a book by Edward Feser on the philosophy of mind, which attributes the following argument to W D Hart. (So apparently at least three philosophers take it seriously.)

[...] you can imagine that what you see in the mirror is not even a headless body, but nothing more than the wall behind you and no body at all [...] But seeing is a mental process, as is the frenzied thinking you'd now be engaging in; which means that what you've conceived of is your mind existing apart from a body or brain. So again, it's conceivable that the mind exists apart from the brain -- in which case they are not identical.

Lest there be any doubt about what's being said here, Reppert expands on it in his comments:

If the mind is identical to the brain, then the mind is necessarily identical to the brain. If the conceivability of the mind's existence apart from the brain entails the metaphysical possibility that the mind and brain are not identical, then the mind and brain are non-identical, since identity claims are necessarily true, and their denials necessarily false.

It's a neat trick, isn't it? Let's see what else we can prove this way. I can imagine electric current flowing without any charged particles being involved; therefore electric current is not identical to a flow of charged particles. I can imagine my computer continuing to do its processing without its circuitry and the things that happen therein; therefore what accomplishes my computer's processing is not identical with its circuitry and the things that happen therein.

One might hope that this is only meant to establish that there could be minds that aren't brains; I haven't read Hart or Feser, but Reppert calls it "an argument for dualism". Oh dear oh dear oh dear.

A few other comments: (1) I thought this argument went all the way back to Descartes, but I think Reppert is a Descartes expert and he didn't mention Descartes so it probably doesn't. (2) Reppert's expanded version of the argument is a nice illustration of what a mess the notion of de re necessity can get you into. (3) I am not claiming that the mind is identical to the brain, just pointing out what a silly argument this is. I think it's nearer the mark to say that the mind is an activity of the brain, or a pattern in the brain, or a pattern in the activities of the brain, or something of the sort; if the Hart/Feser/Reppert argument were valid, it would rule those possibilities out too.