mind, matter, meaning and information

materialism and idealism

Critics of Cartesian dualism have tended to focus on the problem of interaction between mind and body. The most popular tactic, by far, has been not the two clocks theory, but to dispose of one of the two kinds of substance, mental or physical, and thus achieve monism. (Monists insist that there is just one kind of substance.)

The best known idealist philosopher is Bishop George Berkeley (1685–1753). The term “idea” was much abused around Berkeley's time (perhaps due to the use of idée in Cartesian and other French writings), but for current purposes it can be understood simply as having a much wider application than it does for us; in particular, it covers sense impressions, as well as concepts and the like. The sight of this page, and the image of it recalled after closing your eyes, would thus both be considered ideas.

The position of the philosophical idealist is that physical objects have no independent existence; they cannot be conceived other than as they might appear to a mind; the perception of them is all there is. So, mind is real, but matter is mere appearance. Nothing exists but ideas. That things do seem to exist even when there is no one to observe them, and, more generally, that objectivity often seems to be successful, Berkeley attributed to ideas continuing to exist in the mind of God, even when not in that of any human. He, in his goodness, though perhaps with the help of angels and kindred spirits, supplies all the consistency we have come to expect of “physical reality.” (Somewhat as He is believed by creationists to have arranged the fossil record.)

It is understandable that the more successful of the two monisms should have been materialism. (Though more sophisticated versions of both dualism and idealism have been developed.) According to this, matter is real, and mind, mere appearance. Materialism has come to dominate “western culture” in the twentieth century.

One of the more successful versions of materialism in recent years has been “functionalism.” (Some functionalists claim not to be materialists; these comments are not directed at them.) This was an advance on the “mind-brain identity theory,” which claimed that mental states are simply states of the brain, and so, in effect, the mind is the brain by another name. A number of difficulties with that rather radical proposition—including the fact that, after injury to the brain, it can reconfigure itself to regain some of the lost functionality—led to the idea that mental states should be identified not with the brain's physical states, but with its functional states. We might say that the mind is the functionality of the brain.

This view is quite attractive, seeming to transcend the limitations of “mere matter” without requiring any other sort of substance. The mind is what the brain does. A computer program being a description of what the computer is to do—but couched in abstract, logical terms instead of descending to the electronic detail—so mind can be viewed as the software that runs on the brain's hardware. Following this particular analogy to its logical conclusion, researchers in the field of artificial intelligence have claimed that, just as a given program might be made to run on many different kinds of electronic hardware, so, with the appropriate programming, mind could be made to occur on a computer, as well as the biological hardware, or “wetware,” on which it first appeared. This approach does not, however, address the question of what, if anything, it would be like to be such a computer, i.e. a conscious machine.

Copyright © 1998--2005 by Robin Faichney. This material may be distributed only subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License, v1.0 or later (the latest version is presently available at http://www.opencontent.org/openpub/). Distribution of substantively modified versions of this document is prohibited without the explicit permission of the copyright holder. Distribution of the work or derivative of the work in any standard (paper) book form is prohibited unless prior permission is obtained from the copyright holder.
Last modified 23-Feb-2005 14:36:17 by Robin Faichney .