Mind in Science: A History of Explanations in Psychology and Physics
The Question of Animal Awareness: Evolutionary Continuity of Mental Experience
The Universe Within: A New Science Explores the Human Mind
The Enlightened Machine: An Analytical Introduction to Neuropsychology
Common sense and neurophysiology stubbornly insist on making a sharp distinction between mind and body, despite the efforts of monistic philosophers to make them one. Food in the mind is qualitatively different from food in the mouth. Saliva may flow in response to both stimuli, and the monistic preacher may therefore call the two cases one. But the most mechanistic physiologists—Pavlov, for example—assume a basic difference, and search for different neural mechanisms to explain it. It is mythology, not history, to describe Pavlov as working with “purely objective methods, without any assumptions about unseen processes,” as Morton Hunt does in his popular survey of recent developments in psychology. Physiologists constantly guess at unseen processes, and devise experiments to prove their existence. Especially if they are seeking neural processes that are assumed to underlie particular mental processes, physiologists must always be examining the distinction between “neural” and “mental,” which constantly brings them back to dualism, or at least to an agnostic refusal of monism.
Our puppet bodies can be involuntarily jerked about on neural wires—as when the foot leaps from contact with fire—or, in the absence of fire, our minds can voluntarily move the foot or refrain from moving it, at will. Nerves activate the machinery in both cases, but they are qualitatively different cases. Descartes made that point over three hundred years ago, and is therefore widely credited or blamed for the curious mixture of mechanistic and dualistic assumptions that one finds in neurophysiology. In historical fact the contemporary mixture was created long after Descartes, by experimental scientists in the nineteenth century. Their mode of experimentation required a sharp distinction between neural processes, which lend themselves to mechanistic analysis, and mental phenomena, which do not. Thus they came to see Descartes, in retrospect, as the patron saint of their discipline.1 Two hundred years before them he had hypothesized a neural circuit that jerks the foot reflexively from contact with fire, to be distinguished from the immaterial mind that chooses to activate the foot-moving machinery or to refrain from activating it—and is aware of itself in the process.
Those who dislike a metaphysics with more than one substance, who yearn to know the One-in-all of the scientistic faith, are impatient with neurophysiology. They like to imagine all the brain’s mechanisms discovered, all neural circuits mapped, the body exalted and the mind laid low, or maybe vice versa as in the fantasies of Artificial Intelligence or “the Force” of sci-fi. One way or another—materialist or spiritualist, evasive behaviorist or fantasist—such dreamers imagine the mind-body distinction abolished, “in principle.” In fact, scientists studying actual nervous systems must go on making the distinction, or lose any hope of puzzling out the incredibly complex functioning of living animals.
Seeing, to take the process that Richard Gregory has been analyzing for many years, is broken into component processes: light, which is physical; excitation in the neural network of eye and brain, which is also physical; sensation, which is subjective and resists analysis in strictly…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.