Chomsky and the Mind-Body Problem II: Update on some progress

I just had a meeting with my supervisor Paul Pietroski this early afternoon and we discussed about what I should write about. I tried to explain to Pietroski that I wanted to use intentionality as a case against Chomsky’s critique of the Mind-Body Problem, but Pietroski pointed out something interesting about Chomsky’s critique that I didn’t notice. I initially thought that Chomsky denied that there are any interesting problems about the mind in relation to the body, but Pietroski pointed out what Chomsky is really trying to get at. Chomsky isn’t merely denying that there is a mind-body problem, but rather what he is denying is that the mind-body problem is an exceptional or a special problem that stands out from all other problems. Pietroski uses “life-body” problem as an example to clarify Chomsky’s point. Erwin Schrodinger (yes, that quantum physicist who came up with a Schrodinger thought experiment) wrote a book called “What is life”. In this book, Schrodinger inquires how is it possible that life emerges from physio-chemical processes underpinned by fundamental physics that is governed by the laws of nature. For a moment this was a mystery until people discovered the chemical structure of the DNA and how it could develop under certain conditions (see Miller-Urey experiment).

So, for a moment there seems to be a very serious “life-body” problem, but when people gather more facts about the world they begin to see how it is possible for life to emerge from lifeless matter. Likewise, it seems like the mind-body problem is analogous to the “life-body” problem insofar as it can be solved by learning more facts about the world. Furthermore, what makes the “mind-body” problem anymore different from the “geology-physics” problem or any other problems of unification? Something like the “geology-physics” problem is a problem of how do you incorporate one scientific level into another. So, there is a difficulty in unifying any prima facie disparate fields. However, given that this unification problem is common, what makes a mind-body problem a special case of the unification problem that stands out from other unification problems?

Unification problems are generally resolved by gathering more facts about the world, which can drastically change one field of inquiry so we can incorporate the other into it. An example would be how we can reduce chemistry into 18th century physics. It use to be a problem until not only was an atom theory posited but the discovery of quantum mechanics made it possible to incorporate chemistry into physics. We can re-describe elements in the periodic table into atomic numbers and such. This involved changing fundamental physics itself so we can incorporate chemistry into physics. So, this unification problem was resolved by new discoveries that our 18th century predecessors wouldn’t have imagined. So, what is it about the mind-body problem that makes it so special that it is fundamentally different from a unification problem between chemistry and fundamental physics?

Descartes was able to state a mind-body problem in a special way, because he had a framework that posited two fundamental realities: one that is explained in terms of pure mechanics (i.e. physical contact) and the other that is an immaterial realm that transcends pure mechanics. However, Descartes also notices that there seems to be a phenomenon in which our mental states interact with our physical states. This phenomenon, however, goes contrary to the Cartesian framework, since it cannot be explained in terms of pure mechanics. So, there seems to be a huge problem, because no matter how many physical facts you gather the problem still remains. However, this changed when Newton discovered the force of gravity as an action from the distance in which one massive object is able to interact with another in a long distance; both are interacting without physical contact. So, the Cartesian framework collapsed and the mind-body problem disappeared. Ever since the collapse of the Cartesian framework, there doesn’t seem to be anything like it that can recreate a similar mind-body problem. Nowadays, scientists are methodological naturalists who don’t necessarily posit another fundamentally different reality , rather they stick to this universe and try to develop any hypothesis or theory to understand it. In this approach, it seems like all there is left is a problem of unification, but how could there be a special problem of unification?

Descartes’ mind-body problem was a prima facie special problem of unification, because of the Cartesian framework it emerged from. It is a kind of problem such that no matter how many facts you discovered about the natural world, the unification problem still persists. New discoveries about any physical mechanic at best will complete our mechanical view of the world that conforms to Descartes’ Mechanical Philosophy, but those discoveries won’t inform us how the mind and body seem to relate to one another. The phenomenon of the mind-body relation at best remains a mystery, rather than a mere problem,  for anyone like Descartes who accepts the Cartesian framework that presupposes Mechanical Philosophy. Descartes’ mind-body problem seems like a special unification problem that remains mysterious. However, given that Newton’s discovery of gravity undermined the Cartesian framework, this prima facie special unification problem between the mind and body is no longer a problem.

Overall, Chomsky accepts that there is a unification problem about the mind just as there use to be a unification problem about the physics and chemistry or life and physics. However, he denies that the mind-body problem is a special kind of unification problem that remains a mystery no matter how many discoveries we make about the natural world. In fact, Chomsky thinks that there is no special unification problem. Descartes’ mind-body problem got closest to being a special unification problem, but ever since Newton’s discovery we haven’t found anything like it.

Given this very helpful insight from Pietroski, I wonder if I can ever state the mind-body problem in a way that makes it exceptional in a deeply conceptual way. I’m not sure I can, since I’m inclined to think that Chomsky is probably right. The reason why I think he might be right is that the most popular justification for the mind-body problem as a special problem of unification is often based on our intuition. However, our predecessors also appealed to their intuitions to justify the “life-body” problem or the “chemistry-physics” problem as a special problem of unification. So what is it about our intuition that makes the mind-body problem special than their appeal to intuition about their unification problem? Our predecessor’s intuitions were undermined by new discoveries that helped their successors achieve unification, so why couldn’t that happen to us? If one puts it that way, I think Chomsky’s argument looks very convincing, but I need more time to think about it.


One thought on “Chomsky and the Mind-Body Problem II: Update on some progress

  1. Ashok

    precise… the quantity of motion in the universe is constant declared Descartes.. Leibnitz found it annoying, and said in Descartes case perpetual motion is possible, and asserted, it is not the quantity of motion that is constant, instead the quantity of moving force.. newton followed.. however it is again the relative motion along with the component force that has been that has been the ground for action at a distance… it is not clear in what sense it toppled the relevance for mind body dualism..?!! while agreeing “Descartes was able to state a mind-body problem in a special way, because he had a framework that posited two fundamental realities: one that is explained in terms of pure mechanics (i.e. physical contact) and the other that is an immaterial realm that transcends pure mechanics.”…. I disagree to call the immaterial realm “mysterious”


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