Chomsky and the Mind-Body Problem

In my “about” section, I mentioned in the “trivia” sub-section that I personally interviewed Chomsky. It was a pretty intimidating situation and I had no idea what to say to such a great intellectual figure,  so I break the ice by revealing to him that I’m not a great conversationalist. Amused, Chomsky replies that he’s not a great conversationalist either. For most of the interview we talked about his personal take on the mind-body problem.

Overall, Chomsky thinks that ever since Newton discovered an action from the distance (i.e. Gravity), the mechanical view of the world that Descartes espouse had been shattered. Prior to Newton’s discovery, the popular and standard view of intelligibility is a mechanical explanation that consists of appealing to an idea of physical cause or contact. It is precisely from this standard view of intelligibility that the mind-body problem became a philosophical problem for Descartes. If an intelligible explanation requires a physical contact, then how can we explain our mind’s apparent causal relation with its body? When I experience pain, my mental state of pain causes me to twitch and scream. However, if that mental state isn’t physical, then its causal relation with my screaming and twitching is not a physical kind. So, my mental state makes no physical contact with my bodily behavior by virtue of its non-physicality. Under Descartes’ Mechanical Philosophy, my experience of pain cannot cause my bodily behavior. However, like most people, Descartes believes that there is a causal relation between the mind and the body. But what is this causal relation if not a mechanical one? If the mechanical account of explanation is the only game in town, then how can we explain the mind-body relation?

Descartes didn’t have a satisfying answer to this problem. However, Newton’s discovery of gravity shows that a causal explanation doesn’t require physical contact, but rather a massive object can effect another from a great distance without ever touching it. This discovery shattered the very framework of Descartes’ mind-body problem. So, given that the Cartesian framework for the mind-body problem was dissapated by Newton’s discovery, how can we ever state the mind-body problem? What would precisely make the mind-body problem a philosophical problem? Chomsky thinks that we really don’t have anything like Descartes’ mechanical philosophy to recreate the mind-body problem. The mind-body problem can never really be stated anymore.

Chomsky relates to this argument to the contemporary mind-body problem. He argues that unless we have an account that explains the nature of physicality we don’t really have a mind-body problem. We use to have a mind-body problem during Descartes’ time, since we also use to have an account of physicality. Now its gone. Couldn’t we just create another account of Physicalism that is just as intelligible as Descartes’ Mechanical Philosophy? It sounds easy, but Chomsky argues that there is a dilemma for anyone who tries to attempt to create an account of the physical. We can either rely on our a priori intuitions to define the Physical or we can rely on our a posteriori science to do that for us. If the former, then we’ll be disappointed, since our a priori intuitions about physicality just doesn’t match up with what physics tells us. We believe that our body, among other things, is solid when physics tells us that its mostly constituted by empty space. We believe that time is absolute when in fact its relative. Our a priori intuition places no constraint on how we do physics. If the latter, then our notion of the physical is not stable and definite, since it changes radically as we make scientific discoveries about space-time, fields, dark matter, dark energy, black holes, electromagnetic force, and others. Either way, we cannot give a satisfying account of the physical [1].

I personally appreciate Chomsky’s critique against the mind-body problem. While others such as my mentor Georges Rey believe that the critique is completely misguided, I think there is something to Chomsky’s critique. What Chomsky is asking isn’t unreasonable: what makes the mind-body problem a philosophical problem? Its a philosophical problem for Descartes before Newton’s discovery, but why should it be a philosophical problem for us today? I think Chomsky’s demand is a reasonable one and I’m writing about this in my independent study with Paul Pietroski.

One point to make is that the mind-body problem does not refer to a single philosophical problem, but rather there are several mind-body problems with regards to consciousness, intentionality, and others. It isn’t clear which one Chomsky is referring to, but I assume what he has in mind is all of these versions of the mind-body problem. My paper focuses on the mind-body problem with respect to intentionality, since I have a personal interest in the intentional nature of mental representations. I think the direction I’m going to take is to argue that there are at least two kind of problems for intentionality: the explanatory role of content and the naturalistic conditions for intentionality. The explanatory role of content is about how the intentional content of our mental states cause our behavior, whereas the naturalistic conditions for intentionality searches for a naturalistic condition for what makes our thoughts about something.  I’m going to argue that both of these problems of intentionality are philosophical problems unaffected by Chomsky’s critique against Physicalism. This is particularly hard, since this means I have to avoid presupposing what Chomsky is questioning, namely Physicalism. I’m basically trying to argue that the mind-body problem (intentionality) is still a philosophical problem even if there isn’t a coherent and intelligible account of Physicalism. I’m not exactly sure what arguments I have in mind, but I hope I can find them soon.

[1] This is Jeff Poland’s explanation of Chomsky’s argument against Physicalism. Check out Poland’s article from “Chomsky and his Critics”.


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