I’m delighted to be guest blogging here at Brains. My plan for my series of posts here is to introduce the set of questions at the center of my current project;
shamelessly exploit the brilliant readers of this blog for my own purposes invite others to weigh in on these questions; and briefly present and motivate my own approach to answering them.
The set of questions at issue concern the mind-world boundary.
- Is there a profound, principled distinction between what is “within” the mind (mentality) and what lies outside minds (the non-mental)?
- If so:
What is the basis for this distinction? What characteristics distinguish mental phenomena from non-mental phenomena?
- If not—if our ordinary ways of distinguishing mentality from the non-mental are unstable, or don’t reflect a significant distinction between two kinds of phenomena:
What explains the intuition, widespread in philosophy, that there is profound, principled boundary between the mental and the non-mental?
A brief comment on how these questions are framed. One might think that what qualifies a state as within the mind differs from what qualifies it as mental. For example, perhaps the mind is the brain, but some states that occur within the brain are not mental states; perhaps a single mental state or phenomenon could occur in isolation, and not as part of a mind; etc. I’m not going to worry too much about the relation between “within the mind” and “mental”, but of course I’d be happy to discuss it.
I was spurred to reflect on the mind-world boundary by puzzlement about an influential philosophical thesis, advanced by Tyler Burge. Burge argues that we must sometimes construe mental contents widely (individuate them partly by factors external to the mind) in order to capture the thinker’s “epistemic perspective”: “how things seem to him, or in an informal sense, how they are represented to him” (Burge 1979, 25). What I found puzzling about this thesis is the implication that the boundary of the mind is fixed independently of the epistemic perspective. To put it loosely: if we don’t draw the “mind” boundary by reference to the epistemic perspective (or the metaphysical determinants thereof), then how do we draw it? If we deny that how things seem to me is purely a matter of factors within my mind, what possibilities remain for understanding “within the mind”?
(In a 2012 paper, I argue that there is no way of understanding the mind-world boundary that does justice to the leading positions in the debate over content externalism. I conclude that, since these positions are defined in terms of that boundary, there is no univocal thesis of content externalism or content internalism.)
The question what distinguishes mentality from the non-mental realm also bears on the dispute over whether the mind extends beyond the body. To defend a position on the extended mind thesis, one must invoke some reasonably clear conception of “within the mind”—or, at least, a particular sufficient (or necessary) condition for qualifying as within the mind. Moreover, the extended mind thesis is inconsequential unless the mind-world boundary matters.
A guiding assumption of this project is that there seems, to many philosophers (and folk), to be a profound, principled contrast between what is within the mind and what lies outside it. I do not assume, however, that there is such a contrast.
To understand why philosophers (and/or the folk) accord significance to the mind-world boundary, it will be illuminating to survey the principal characteristics thought to be unique to mentality. A list of mentality’s allegedly distinctive characteristics will also help us in approaching the questions above. For example, if we determined that none of the characteristics on the list were uniquely possessed by mentality, then—absent some additional distinctive characteristics—we would have some reason to doubt that the boundary of the mind was profound. And if we determined that mentality’s unique characteristics were only contingently unique to the mental—that is, that these characteristics could in principle occur outside the mental realm—then we would have some reason to doubt that the boundary of the mind was principled.
The task, then, is to assemble a list of characteristics that are regarded (by a substantial segment of philosophers, philosophical tradition, and/or folk) as (i) unique to mentality, and (ii) significant enough to ground a non-trivial contrast between what is within the mind and what lies outside it.
I’ve come up with a list of five such characteristics. Again, I’m neutral (for now) on whether any of these are unique to mentality—or, for that matter, as to whether they are possessed by mentality. I’m also neutral on the relations between them.
Mentality appears profoundly distinctive because of one or more of the following.
- Phenomenality. Only mental states are such that there is “something it’s like” to be in them.
- Privacy. Only mental states can be known via a method uniquely available to their bearers.
- Intentionality. Only mental states are intrinsically intentional.
- Rationality. Only mental states can distinguish genuine reasoning from “brute” processing.
- Agency. Only mental states can distinguish intentional action from mere behavior.
I’d be grateful to know whether I’ve missed any candidates here. What kinds of characteristics have been thought to be distinctively mental? (I should note that “being nonphysical” is not included in this list, because I think that characteristic is always derived from one or more of those on the list.)