Conceptual Confusions and Philosophy of Mind

Of all the conceptually confused areas in philosophy, philosophy of mind is probably the most confused. Think of, for example, mental causation, or the debates on the relation of brain states to mental states, or the causal relation of neurons to thoughts, things along those lines. The confusion, like all conceptual confusions, is a simple one.

Suppose one performs a scan of a brain and observes the patterns of neurons when a certain cognitive action, like thinking of a certain thing, happens – or observe certain areas of the brain lighting up when a certain cognitive action is undertaken. In short, the physiological processes that, more or less, make thought happen. This is a normal observation made every day in laboratories across the globe – the confusion arises when it is assumed that what is observed is mental causation (brain states cause mental states, or something of the sort).

Empirically, what is observed is not mental causation but mental correlation – as I’ve pointed out before, causality is a metaphysical, and not an empirical, category. Any notion of causation takes one, implicitly if not explicitly, into the realm of philosophy. If one supposes that all that is observed is all that there is, one has crossed from science into philosophy – whether or not it is done well is another story entirely.

(As a late edit, I’ll add that mental causation is more varied than what I listed here – for example, epiphenomenalism, which denies the mental any causal power – mental states are caused by brain states, but brain states are not causally influenced by mental states – is a big part of the philosophy of mind debates)

This shows, again, how intimate the connection between science and metaphysics is. Think of an intricate braid made of two different strands of rope. While they are two distinct things, when they are intertwined correctly, they form a strong, intimate bond, as opposed to being tangled together in a lump, which serves only to prevent it from being used properly.

While of a slightly different nature than the causal confusion above, it’s easy to see how other confusions arise – for example, that neuroscience has shown that free will is an illusion. This again is simply a muddle of confused thinking – certainly brain science has a lot to tell us about the mechanical/physiological aspect of human volition (it has, and will continue to, inform us more and more of the mechanical, but not mechanistic, workings of the brain), but it has very little, if anything, to say about human freedom seen as a whole, and not merely seen as volition (which has very little part to play in a full account of freedom).

Such are the perils of conceptual confusions.


33 thoughts on “Conceptual Confusions and Philosophy of Mind

  1. Kevin Davis April 8, 2014 / 6:11 pm

    This is a really good synopsis of the relation between science and metaphysics, illustrated through causation. Kant rightly discerned the seriousness of Hume’s skepticism in this regard, regardless of whether Kant’s own constructive proposal is valid. Have you read Edward Feser’s book on philosophy of mind? I bought it but have not been able to read it yet.


    • whitefrozen April 8, 2014 / 6:18 pm

      I have read it, and it’s fantastic – by far the best ‘survey of the land’ kind of book I’ve been able to find. It’s actually dense in a lot of parts for what’s supposed to be a beginners book, but it’s still written so well that you hardly notice it (there’s only so much you can popularize some aspects of philosophy of mind). I’d also highly recommend John Searle’s ‘The Mystery of Consciousness’ and ‘Mind, Language and Society’. Not his most dense works, but intellectually they’re outstanding. Plus, Searle is one of the brightest guys out there, and as far as naturalism, he sets the standard for consistency and intellectual integrity. DB Hart, of course, goes without saying.


      • Kevin Davis April 8, 2014 / 6:24 pm

        Thanks. I added Searle to my Amazon wishlist.


        • whitefrozen April 8, 2014 / 6:27 pm

          If you get a chance, watch some of his lectures on youtube – if you search him, he has a TED talk that should come up within the first 2 or 3 results. He’s a brilliant lecturer.

          Kant is someone I’ve come to appreciate more and more – not because I think he’s right about a lot but because he identifies a lot of key things. The role of the active intellect, for example (though it wasn’t called that by him and goes back to Aristotle, which he seemed to be a little ignorant of) in giving a determinate shape to our sense experience.

          As a postscript, I’d also really recommend ‘Mapping the Mind’, by Rita Carter, for the best availible guide to the biology and physiology of the brain, consciousness, experience, and all that related stuff. Detailed enough to get you up to speed on all the big topics (self, free will, mental disorders, medical issues, perception, emotion, etc) but written for a non-specialist audience.


    • SamL April 10, 2014 / 5:50 am

      Hah, that’s pretty funny – they’re both such stubborn old goats! Ultimately I do think that Searle is fundamentally misunderstanding Dennett’s position (not that he really goes into it there), and that the Chinese room begs the question, but Dennett really doesn’t help himself by playing the martyr with the inconvenient truth.



      • whitefrozen April 10, 2014 / 7:43 am

        Overall I side with Searle, who is just a hell of an intellect – his work on language, intentionality, the social aspect of reality, the biology of consciousness, etc, is phenomenal. Dennett just likes to yell a lot.


        • SamL April 10, 2014 / 8:05 am

          I do like Searle and his work, though on this I think he’s wrong. Dennett certainly does like to yell a lot, and I think that one result of that is that people often take his position for something it isn’t. I’ll shut up about that now though – was planning on writing a post about Dennett’s view of qualia anyway!


    • whitefrozen April 10, 2014 / 7:31 am

      I’ve not read him much directly, but I have a working knowledge of his ideas and positions via some of his critics (Searle, obviously and David Bentley Hart, among a few others). One of Searle’s books I mentioned, ‘The Mystery of COnsciousness’ includes a few exchanges between them. I did actually read ‘Breaking the Spell’, now that I remember. That was pretty terrible.


      • Witty Ludwig April 10, 2014 / 8:51 am

        Very interesting to learn about the lancet fluke from it, though. I hadn’t come across that before, tangential and trivial as it may be. I suppose this book was always intended comme a Russellian appeal to the masses, though, rather than a serious intellectual piece.

        I have mixed feelings on Searle but for the most part agree.


  2. SamL April 10, 2014 / 5:21 am

    Read this yesterday and have been pondering it – I’m not hugely familiar with the literature on causality, so could be a bit off mark here.

    As I understand it, when we say x causes y we’re saying that whenever x occurs, necessarily y occurs. The issue then being that no amount of observed correlation is going to give us that necessity relation – hence why causality is a metaphysical category.

    But when scientists talk about causality, aren’t they using the word in a slightly different way? For example, say we’ve observed a strong correlation between growing up in a violent household and
    becoming a violent adult. A scientist might then ask, “Is it the violence in childhood that causes the violence in adulthood, or is it perhaps a genetic predisposition for violence, passed from parent to child, that causes violence behaviour in adulthood in both?” It seems to me like the relevant question here is not about the metaphysics of causality, but about other correlations – in particular whether the further correlations that explain the observed observations occur on a psychological or genetic level.

    So re philosophy of mind, when we wonder about brain / mind identity, isn’t the question just about how patterns of neural activity relate to patterns of mental activity, and whether these patterns are correlative or strictly causal in the metaphysical sense is kind of by the by? We use causes-talk, but this seems to me to just express confidence in the correlations, though maybe not full-blown necessity.

    Not sure – maybe I’m missing something here.



    • whitefrozen April 10, 2014 / 7:42 am

      I don’t have my computer handy and I don’t trust WordPress mobile for long comments, so for now I’ll say that part of the issue may actually be the confidence in the correlations that you mention. Of course, I’m not a naturalist (or whatever term you prefer) so I see mental states as being much more than the relation of neural activity to mental activity – so I disagree that brain/mind identity talk is ‘just’ about that.

      I do recognize that ’cause’ has an ordinary-language sense – if you say that your car broke down, and that the cause was that you forgot to put oil in it, I’m obviously not going to say ‘ha! that’s not causality, but correlation!’


      • SamL April 10, 2014 / 8:00 am

        Yeah fair dos – I just meant that the subject matter of phil. of mind is the relationship of mind to the brain (or perhaps I should say to the world so not to exclude panpsychists, et al). I think that’s as true for hardcore substance dualists as it is for physicalists, so wasn’t supposed to be an endorsement of a particular theory.



  3. guymax April 10, 2014 / 7:24 am

    SamL – I think you have a point. Causation need not be a big issue in the sciences because correlation works just as well. It’s a superficial approach but that’s okay in sciences as long as it works. WF is certainly right, however, to say that philosophy of mind is a complete muddle in academia. I put it down to a steely determination not to study consciousness but to prattle on about it endlessly. .


    • SamL April 10, 2014 / 7:56 am

      Yeah, philosophy of mind is certainly in a big old tangle. I’m a little reluctant to take that as evidence of its being misconceived, though – I think it’s just an intrinsically difficult (not to mention young) subject, one whose problems are still in the process of being developed. In this regard I don’t it’s so different to cosmology, which has been a complete mess for ages.


      • whitefrozen April 10, 2014 / 8:00 am

        As a whole, no, its not misconceived – it’s merely home to many conceptual confusions, which, as you said, is an intrinsic difficulty. I personally find a lot of classical thought on the mind to be of much more value (Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, the medievals) than a lot of modern POM, even if nowadays we have the benefit of better equipment and stunning insights into the physiology of the brain and brain activity. Most philosophy of mind is basically trying to answer Descartes, it seems.


    • whitefrozen April 10, 2014 / 8:02 am

      Indeed, unfortunately. I have a feeling that if it was actually studied, we might (obviously enough) make progress in the field.


  4. guymax April 10, 2014 / 9:28 am

    Sorry, I’ll stick to seeing it as misconceived. Largely it seems to consist of making the assumption that certain views are wrong and then trying to prove it, and then wondering why it isn’t possible to do so and calling this a hard problem, and then massively confusing the issues to cover it up. As for new equipment, there is no new equipment and there never will be, which may be why we both prefer classical writers on the subject. Pre-classical writers are often even better. .

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that consciousness studies and cosmology are both in a mess since I would see it as a mistake to separate the two disciplines, other than occasionally for convenience. To separate them is to make a very bold assumption on the basis of no evidence.

    Sooner or later phil. of mind will have to either falsify Buddhist doctrine or start to take it seriously. It seems laughable to me that so many ‘rational’ philosophers argue for theories that would imply it is false and yet cannot falsify it. It is a pointless approach that from here looks like madness, and if it leads to muddle this is not very surprising. .

    Pardon me. I felt like having a rant. I feel that the general public are having the wool pulled over their eyes by the so called experts and that it is not just a scandal but crime against humanity.


  5. whitefrozen April 10, 2014 / 12:07 pm

    RE Buddhist doctrine, I’m fairly ignorant of it, so I’ll refrain from commenting on that – though it’s an area in which I need to do more reading.

    RE seperation of POM/cosmology – go on a bit about that. Most of the time, when people don’t want to seperate the two, it ends up being a silly kind of idealism, or even worse, ‘physics proves reality is all mental/idealism LOL’.


    • guymax April 10, 2014 / 4:14 pm

      Very true. From the outside it is often very difficult to distinguish the perennial philosophy proper from the almost endless but not quite accurate and often half-baked stuff that surrounds it. It may even be impossible to get past this smoke screen without an effort. I would agree that Idealism is often absurd, merely the opposite of Materialism and as such no better, and that physics cannot decide metaphysical problems. . .

      There a view that is sometimes called Absolute or Transcendental idealism , however, and this would correspond with the nondual or advaita view endorsed by Buddhism, Sufism, Taoism and so on, and this is not at all silly. I prefer to recommend this view as “Buddhist doctrine” even though it is ubiquitous, since Buddhism has a tradition of scholarship and analysis, and above all of careful explanation, that may make it most approachable and useful for anyone starting out to research this crazy area of knowledge. I couldn’t make head or tail of Christianity, my own religion, until I began to study Buddhism. It seems unfair that Jesus only had two years to teach where the Buddha had over forty. .

      Perhaps the cause of the confusion in philosophy of mind that you discuss above is its failure to take your approach to research. You have conceded that you needed to do more reading. On average, professional philosophers prefer to assume otherwise. The result is predictable. At this time philosophy of mind is precisely and exactly an attempt to prove that Buddhist doctrine is false by proving that some other theory is true, and most of the participants do not even seem to realise that this is what they’re doing. Proving Buddhist doctrine false IS the hard problem.

      My money is on physics to make mysticism respectable. It seems to me that scientists are much braver thinkers than philosophers of mind. .


      • whitefrozen April 10, 2014 / 5:02 pm

        Ah, in the terminology of transcendental idealism I understand what you’re saying much better. Regarding research, I learned a long time ago that whereof you cannot speak thereof you must be silent – don’t talk about something if you don’t know anything about it. I once didn’t do that, and was effectively made to look like an ignorant ass. Less than fun.

        Mysticism and physics is interesting, but I’ve not seen too many attempts at that combination that doesn’t end up with a kind of Deepak Chopra/Gary Zukav lovefest. Schrodinger may have been onto something, and a few others, though.


        • guymax April 10, 2014 / 7:39 pm

          I agree about the wooliness of some recent popular books, But there are some good ones, and quite few written by physicists. Weyl, Schrodinger, Bohm and Mohrhoff come to mind. Einstein and Eddington are pretty good. Trouble is they all deal only with a small sub-set of the relevant topics, and nobody brings it all together as far as I know. I’m trying.

          The thing about mysticism and physics is that they are inseparable. Mysticism gives a description of the universe that may, as far as anyone yet knows, be correct. So physics is all about proving or disproving mysticism. As if. Mohrhoff would argue that physics proves Buddhism, with Schrodinger, but they’re physicists and have the right to do this. I would just say that I cannot see any other plausible interpretation of QM.

          Don’t let me abuse your comment section. I’m just fascinated by these issues.


          • whitefrozen April 10, 2014 / 8:01 pm

            I suppose it depends on what exactly you mean by mysticism – from a Christian perspective, I’d largely agree – one thinks of Thomas Traherne (sp?) and his writings as being the glimpes of reality, the universe, etc, as it really is. Don’t worry about abusing the comments – this is what it’s here for.

            Another thought that occurs to me is G.K. Chesterton’s writings on contingency, and the miraculous nature of the world, which fit in quite well with what you’re saying.


            • guymax April 11, 2014 / 6:10 am

              Don’t know Chesterton well enough to comment. Traherne is great but I’m not sure he’d be much help to a scientist. There’s no prefect way into it since it will vary from person to person. I’d recommend The Philosophy of the Upanishads by Prof. Rhadhakrishnan. A classic. Or something by Schrodinger.

              By the way. I just remembered that the best book I’ve read on phil. of mind for a long time is Untangling the World Knot by David Ray Griffin. Brilliant, This was all that came up in a search when I named my blog, and so I read it. Although I feel he goes wrong in places and so ends up in in slightly the wrong place (arrogance or what) he covers the ground and sums up the state of play beautifully. A touch of sanity in a mad discipline.


    • whitefrozen April 10, 2014 / 6:04 pm

      Thanks for the comment – though I have to say that I find your discussion of ‘free will’ to be a prime example of the kind of conceptual confusion I mentioned in the OP. Harris, is, of course, a poor excuse for a philosopher – I’ve long since ceased taking anything he says seriously at all.


      • caveat1ector April 11, 2014 / 10:06 am

        That’s strange, because my discussion does not rely on scientific knowledge of physical processes at all.

        To be honest, I have hardly read Harris’ works. But his book on Free Will has been reviewed favourably by reputable philosophy professors.

        I have no idea about your training in philosophy, if any, so I can only say that you may have failed to understand certain perspectives, and have wrongly written them off as confused.

        (Funny that you’d have such a low regard for Harris. I’d think Dennett is far more deserving of contempt.)


        • whitefrozen April 11, 2014 / 12:29 pm

          Conceptual confusion isn’t limited to confusing scientific and metaphysical concepts. I haven’t failed to understand anything, though. Free will/determinism is just as tangled as philosophy of mind – not to mention determinism is an obsolete concept anyway, so I’m inclined to view any discussion of free will and determinism in an unfavourable light.
          I don’t particularly care about the opinions of reputable philosophy professors about Harris – professors of philosophy should be avoided in general no matter what the subject. As I mentioned above, I don’t have much direct experience of Dennets work, so I will refrain from making judgements of contempt or praise. Harris I am directly familiar with.


          • caveat1ector April 11, 2014 / 1:36 pm

            “Haven’t failed to understand anything”

            Bold claim. Lack of intellectual humility. I won’t be visiting again. Thanks.

            Liked by 1 person

            • whitefrozen April 11, 2014 / 3:00 pm

              You are free to visit or not visit at your discretion, obviously – but the claim that I’m not misunderstanding is hardly a bold claim showing a lack of intellectual humility, especially given my declining to talk about a subject I’m not very familiar with earlier in the comments. Considering that your conduct here has been to post links to your own blog instead of contribute to the discussion (which was done by everyone else in the thread), which is normally not what I allow in the comments section (as well as accusing me of intellectual arrogance), you might consider toning it down a touch should you decide to continue to comment here.


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