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Blind to Mind?

In response to:

Of Brains & Minds: An Exchange from the June 19, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

In his response to Patricia Churchland’s letter [NYR, June 19], Colin McGinn speaks of her “heated rhetoric.” In my view her address to him is moreover rude, a word that belongs to a mentalistic, not a physicalist vocabulary, a comment I elaborate in a moment. More, oddly neither philosopher mentions Donald Davidson’s famous argument on the mind/body problem that he calls “anomalous monism” (see “Thinking Causes” and “Laws and Cause” in a collection of Davidson’s essays called Truth, Language, and History [Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 2005], which I edited, and “Mental Events” in Essays on Actions and Events [Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 2001]).

Briefly, Davidson argues that all events are physical, while rejecting the thesis, essential to a materialistic view like Churchland’s, that mental events, such as thinking and intending and hoping, can be given purely physical explanations. The theory is ontologically monistic, namely, that there are only material entities in the world (contra Descartes who claims that mind and body are two different substances), but linguistically, and explanatorily, dualistic, even though without body there is no mind. Davidson’s argument rests on a theory about causal relations, that while there are causal relations among mental events and also among physical events, the two causal nets are logically different. (The details of the argument are too intricate to go into here.)

Churchland argues, absurdly, since nobody in her right mind would take the position she rejects, that though “I might be able to understand in great detail the mechanisms underlying pregnancy…I do not expect such understanding to result in my becoming pregnant.” McGinn rightly responds that the point is not that understanding of the mechanisms of a certain material phenomenon will produce the phenomenon itself, as if a blind man might be made to see by having a good theory of vision, but rather that the blind man will not understand what color vision is without having experience of color.

There are many other things to be said in criticism of Churchland’s hysterical letter, but I rest my case here.

Marcia Cavell
Associate Professor Emerita of Philosophy
State University of New York at Purchase
Purchase, New York

Colin McGinn replies:

I did indeed have in mind the anti-reductionist arguments of Donald Davidson, as well as those of other philosophers who have argued against reductionism: Jerry Fodor, Thomas Nagel, Frank Jackson, Ned Block, Hilary Putnam, Saul Kripke, John Searle, and many others. The point I was making against Churchland, to which she did not respond, is that a consistent reductionist ought to claim the reducibility of neuroscience to biochemistry and ultimately to physics—yet for some reason this particular reductionist wants to stop with the reduction of psychology to brain physiology.

Marcia Cavell is also quite right to point out how ludicrous the position is that Churchland tries to pin on her opponents: that knowledge of the mechanisms of pregnancy/vision should lead to pregnancy/vision. I don’t know of anyone who has argued for anything so preposterous—though many have argued that knowledge of mind is not produced by knowledge of brain.

I must agree with Cavell’s assessment of the tone and style of Churchland’s response to my review, which strikes me as at the level of an Internet rant. This kind of ad hominem fulmination is quite unacceptable in scholarly discussions (as well as on the Internet) and must stop. I also have no idea what “gibble” means (it is not in the Concise Oxford Dictionary); perhaps it comes from a dialect, but is not very suitable for public intellectual debate.

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