Mind and Brain: A Philosophy of Science
Physical Control of the Mind
Mind, Brain and Adaptation in the Nineteenth Century
Dr. Rosenblueth is a specialist in neurophysiology, the field (the dust jacket assures us) “most likely to provide hard answers to the central questions of perception, sensation, volition, and the nature of human knowledge,” since “a nonneurological epistemology can only be impressionistic.” Dr. Rosenblueth is not the first to feel that the task of interpreting the world had better be undertaken by those who know something about it. Experimental scientists are the natural philosophers.
Into his short and gracefully written book he compresses, without strain, an account of his philosophical position on all the matters just mentioned and more. The language, except for terms belonging to his specialty, is nontechnical, or no more technical than that of Descartes, Locke, and Berkeley. Indeed the book reads almost as a sequel to their arguments, minus the theology. How easily, with the change of a term or two, one could slip the following sentences into one of Berkeley’s dialogues as a contribution from a not-yet-persuaded believer in matter: “We postulate the existence of this material universe in order to account for certain recurrences or regularities in our sensations or perceptions. We also accept the postulate because, although we have the feeling that we can evoke or direct voluntarily some of our mental processes, others, those whose origin we attribute to material objects, we can neither evoke nor suppress at will.”
What is Dr. Rosenblueth’s position? It is, as the above quotation shows and as he repeatedly affirms, dualistic: a dualism with a Cartesian starting point, though a professedly un-Cartesian conclusion. (1) There are mental processes and events, such as thoughts and sensations, of which alone we can have direct and certain knowledge. (2) Each specific mental event has a neurophysiological correlate (a specific spatiotemporal pattern of neuronal activity). (3) Our brains and, generally, our bodies form part of a material universe, but (4) the only knowledge we can have of material things is knowledge of their abstract structures. (An instance of an “abstract structure” would be the structure which is common to all the following related things: a certain heard sequence of musical notes; the score which the musician followed; the air vibrations produced by his playing; the grooving of the gramophone record.) (5) The “secondary qualities” of taste, smell, color, sound, and felt hardness, smoothness, roughness, etc., which we attribute to material things, do not really belong to them, but are purely mental. (6) The only causality is physical and there is no mind-matter interaction in either direction.
The author cites evidence from his specialty as his grounds for adopting (2) and (4). Since he rests his point about “abstract structures” on features of the actual physical layout and working of the human organism, it seems either that he must exempt the human body from his conclusion that we have a merely abstract structural knowledge of the material universe—a somewhat arbitrary exemption—or that we must gloss the talk of abstract structures by referring to a set of “primary …
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 all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.