Columnist Richard Bogartz: Dissecting the physical, mental ‘stuff’

  • Portrait of René Descartes (1596-1650), painted by Frans Hals circa 1649-1700. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS—

Friday, June 07, 2019

Sip orange juice. A taste. An experience. Sniff a carnation. A smell. An experience. Think how fortunate to be able to taste and smell. A thought. An experience. These experiences occur. They are real events that happen in time. It seems these real events must occur in the universe. Somewhere. In space?

But where? Where does a thought occur? Let’s return to the 16th century to see what Descartes had to say. René Descartes, a scientist, father of modern philosophy, and discoverer of such important mathematical ideas as the rule of signs and the Cartesian coordinate system, concluded that the world stuff was of two kinds: the physical stuff and the mental stuff.

Physical stuff has extension and location. So we can measure the dimensions of a ball and indicate where the ball is. But mental stuff has no extension and no location. For Descartes, a thought does not have a size; it has no length, width or height; it is not in some specific place.

Descartes very sensibly argued for the interaction of mental stuff with physical stuff. After all, pinches produce pain; exciting thoughts produce racing hearts. Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia wrote to Descartes asking how extended physical stuff in a specific location could interact with mental stuff that had no extension and no location. Descartes never came up with a satisfactory answer. Nor has anyone else.

For some time now the prevailing philosophical notions of what the world is made of have been physicalistic. The primary, perhaps only stuff is the physical. The physicalists sometimes allow the mental to exist as products of the physical and then insist that the mental does not affect the physical. Sometimes they assert that mental states are merely mental properties of physical states, so that a thought is simply a property of a brain the way red might be a property of a car. Sometimes they deny the existence of the mental entirely. These are the physical monists. Contrary to Descartes’ dualism, they believe there is only one kind of stuff and it is physical stuff.

A new Princess Elizabeth is needed to send the physical monists a letter asking if they actually believe that her experiences are not real, do not exist. She might also ask what a mental property of a physical thing is, and, if the tables were turned, could there be a physical property of a mental thing. What about us ordinary folk? Most of us walk around convinced that our experiences are in our head. It was not always so. The ancient Egyptians were convinced that the heart was the seat of thought. Today this is perhaps remembered in our language when we “speak from the heart.”

How do you suppose we found out that our experiences are in our heads? Did we ever actually feel a thought up there? I doubt that. I think we learned such thoughts and feelings from the adults and older children when we were young and defenseless. Ever since, people have been beating it into our head, or we have been drumming it into our head, only disturbed when we can’t get a song out of our head or we let a compliment or award go to our head; but then someone tells us we have a good head on our shoulders and we relax for a moment, convinced that indeed our mind is in our head.

There is another kind of monist. Not a physical monist. These monists say the one stuff in existence is consciousness. This sort of monism is often called some form of idealism. I belong to this club. I bang on the table in front of me just as you do and experience it is solid just as you do.

The key word for me is experience. When we know about the so-called physical and its properties, knowing is involved. We know with mind. The domain of the physical is a domain that is known. Knowing takes place in consciousness. The so-called physical all takes place in consciousness. We idealists say cut out the middle man and let it all just be consciousness.

Thus, Descartes’ problem is solved. The physical isn’t interacting with the mental. Existence is all mental. I prefer this monism because I get to keep experience as real and rebuff the muddled deniers. The new work for science will be the integration of what we call the mental aspects of consciousness with what we call the physical aspects of consciousness.

Richard S. Bogartz is a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts.