The Mind and Heidegger


While everyone has moved on from skepticism and epistemology, interest in the philosophy of mind & language have taken up the slack. I finally abandoned skepticism myself a while back and agree that the traditional problems of “other minds” and so on are not really problems worthy of much effort anymore.

How to get ones mind around problems of the mind is a bit like trying to look at your own face. Nevertheless the problem keeps plenty of professional philosophers busy. I’ve dipped my toe, well maybe my whole foot into the debate and as usual am of two minds on the subject.

First I agree that dualism is utterly unworkable. We cannot deny the clear-cut evidence of the dependency of mental events on the brain. In fact I would go further and say, contra those who still believe that a “brain in a vat” is a useful thought experiment, that the mind is not only dependent on the brain, but on the entire central nervous system. It would be rather difficult, and certainly unethical, to try and do an experiment to prove this thesis, but my hunch is that the whole network of neurological activity that makes up the body is interconnected and a brain on its own would not be able to support mental events.But that’s just a side issue.

So we all can agree that mental events are dependent in some way on the body/brain for their existence, that is if they exist at all. Eliminative materialists have been making that case for some time though I am baffled by that position. Dennett has been a quite successful advocate of that position, but I don’t think the majority of his readers really understand what they are subscribing to. Searle’s arguments against that group I think are successful (see Biological Naturalism). But then Searle is accused of being a property dualist and I suspect he’s not taken very seriously anymore by the current generation of philosophers. Case in point: I listened to a lecture by David Chalmers who has had some luck selling his books too and I found it to be pretty much unintelligible. Endless discussions of Putnam’s “Twin Earth” problem remind of the scholastics counting angels on pinheads.

Whoever wins the day in all this will have only a Pyrrhic victory I’m afraid. What will have been accomplished–and it’s certainly not without value–is a coherent system of understanding that matches as closely as possible to the experimental data. It will be something like a mathematical model that takes into account the neurological data and the mental “contents” that the neurons produce. It will be taught in medical schools. It will allow us to develop better drugs that will alter the brain in better and better ways. What it will never do, in my opinion is accurately describe what the mind is.

Heidegger is hard, which is why it has taken me so long to be able to get what he’s saying. Having said that, I will preface anything I say about his philosophy with the disclaimer that I am still not sure I have it right. But there are advantages to being a non-professional, so I will dive in.

One of Heidegger’s projects is to eliminate the subject/object version of reality that western philosophy inherited from certain Greeks but especially from Descartes. The definition of Dasein itself is a clue. Being In doesn’t sound like a description of a subject object relation. In Being and Time Heidegger does not directly address the problem of the mind per se, but he has two short chapters that address skepticism about the external world and it’s not difficult to infer from what he says what his take on the mind is.

When Dasein directs itself towards something and grasps it, it does not somehow first get out of an inner sphere in which it has been proximally encapsulated, but its primary kind of Being is such that it is always ‘outside’ alongside entities which it encounters and which belong to a world already discovered. Nor is any inner sphere abandoned when Dasein dwells alongside the entity to be known, and determines its character; but even in this ‘Being-outside’ alongside the object, Dasein is still ‘inside’, if we understand this in the correct sense; that is to say, it is itself ‘inside’ as a Being-in-the-world which knows. (Being and Time. Macquarrie/Robinson transl. p 89)

Whether one agrees with this account or not, I think Heidegger’s project of making an account of reality as a strictly ontological exercise is the right approach. Whatever scientific/philosophical account of the Mind eventually wins the day, it will scarcely scratch the account Heidegger has laid out. The phenomenon itself of being a thinking-thing and how we peculiar thinking things encounter the world is the correct approach to coming to an understanding of what the mind is. Consider the fact that even if science makes great strides in determining the essential characteristics of mental events and their interactions with the brain and body it will have zero explanatory power over the definition of the human being itself (as a being-in-the-world as Heidegger says). The mental, in Heidegger terms, is an active component of Dasein’s activity in the world, and has no separate existence itself, nor would Dasein exist without it being wholly intertwined in the world.

The subject/object relation so necessary to traditional analyses of the Mind is absent in Heidegger’s account. If it seems unsatisfying I suspect that has more to do with the cultural baggage of dualism than with Heidegger himself.

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6 thoughts on “The Mind and Heidegger

  1. Mind must be product of brain, what else would it be? Philosophers were just ponderers, their thought-products just random musings of a single human, before Academia gave them the label “philosopher” and determined to adhere to the now-decreed “philosopher’s” musings as worth repeating (authority) and as valid foundation(s) for future musings by other single humans (gravitas; building block).

    One doesn’t have to be academically sanctified to be a capable muser. Maybe the problem sits with thinking one has to follow Ancient Musers when doing one’s own musing.

    The alternative to the mind = brain assertion is that the products of the mind are put there by another force, a telepathic force. Deity? Amorphous energy of an entity we don’t presently comprehend? Hey this is starting to sound like advanced physics theory, conjure something and make it sound plausible through stretched conceptions of known (experimentally verified) data points.

    I doubt that most Philosophers of the Mind (academic ones) understand the human nervous system well enough to be able to convincingly argue that the mind isn’t a product of the brain, and I doubt medical science could ever prove with certainty that it is. Futurists will say, “oh yes, inevitably,” but that’s because they worship technology, progress, “the future” rather than some deity. Hello Dennett, talking to you here.

    In practice, what does it matter whether we find the precise source of The Mind? There is so much about the mind’s operation that is unknown to most humans, most people are ignorant of psychological theory (patterns, habits, whims, individuality vs herd-belonging), anyone interested in The Mind would be better suited to helping expand that area of the mental landscape rather than trying to pin down whether The Mind is amorphously driven by external forces, or a product of the brain’s workings.

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    • I don’t think there are any philosophers these days who don’t agree that the mind is a “product” of the brain. (I put the word in quotes because there are numerous ways this relation can and is interpreted). The only exceptions of course are the few philosophers, e.g. Plantinga, who remain substance dualists because of religious belief.

      As far as the nervous system goes, you’re probably right although from what I’ve read the ones seriously doing philosophy of mind stay up on the literature as much as possible. It’s the neuro-scientists and the cognitivists that are more or less ignorant of the philosophical implications of their work. But then they don’t really need to have a theory of mind to do what they’re doing.

      Finally, your last paragraph supports my position. The study of the mind is a sub-genre of the ontology of human beings. If Heidegger is correct, analysis of the phenomena is the philosophical task, while brain theory belongs in the realm of the neuro-scientists. They are not even complementary disciplines, but rather completely distinct realms of analysis.

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      • I wasn’t saying you were wrong in any sense, I was more talking about how strange we humans can be in revering the subjective thoughts of other individuals. The point not said explicitly but in mind while writing my comment was looking at that idea of Mind can be done by simply thinking about your own Mind without reference to what someone else said is the Mind and where it roots.

        I would agree about hard scientists being deficient on philosophy, at least as academic focus. And probably as functional reality. Of all the people I’ve known starting with college classmates up to present middle-aged adults, those where were aiming to be MDs or who became MDs were not thinkers, regardless of whether they had a capacity for expansive (philosophical) thinking, they didn’t seem to use it regularly. This is based on how they interacted with me, I can’t know what they thought to themselves but never shared (directly or otherwise via behavior or tangential discussion).

        Modern neurobiological theorists are very similar to modern advanced physics theorists, they are blindfolded and throwing darts at a target whose location is unknown. They sometimes sound semi-persuasive, perhaps, but probably more so to people whose biology background is thin to absent. I’ve had people suggest I read about a stunning new discovery in neurobiology and each time I read the available information, I see someone building a fantasy with words, not someone explaining what’s been discovered scientifically.

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      • Modern neurobiological theorists are very similar to modern advanced physics theorists, they are blindfolded and throwing darts at a target whose location is unknown. They sometimes sound semi-persuasive, perhaps, but probably more so to people whose biology background is thin to absent. I’ve had people suggest I read about a stunning new discovery in neurobiology and each time I read the available information, I see someone building a fantasy with words, not someone explaining what’s been discovered scientifically.

        As a layperson in the scientific field I have to take the research and discoveries more or less at face value, whether that’s in biology or in physics. What I don’t have to take at face value are the absurd inferences that are made about the impact of these discoveries on issues like free will or of course the nature of the mind. Scientists study human beings in exactly the same way they would study any other biological creature (except for ethical constraints). And that’s as it should be. From their perspective, a human being is just another primate. But of course as I’m sure you will agree, there is much more to human beings than the biological structure upon which our existence depends.

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  2. Scientists study human beings in exactly the same way they would study any other biological creature (except for ethical constraints). And that’s as it should be. From their perspective, a human being is just another primate.

    That’s an odd set of assertions there.

    The first clause (1st sentence minus the parenthetical) ignores the driving problem of all scientists in biology: the ongoing assumption that humans are top of the food chain, top of the IQ scale, and the only ones that matter. Anthropomorphizing other living creatures is a problem that has more pathways throughout biology than the human body has capillaries. Very few scientists can divorce themselves of this ongoing background noise, and it creates false signals in research and analysis all the time. Most people who learn science in school learn it from the human-centric perspective. This selfishness can be traced to other academic subjects as well, with a glowering, menacing obviousness in economics.

    In theology and spiritual analysis/thought, selfishness is there too. People theorize about what science will uncover in –for example– genetics, as if the genetic structure is a ladder created by some carpenter across town. What created that ladder, in truth? From what components? And why does the ladder function so independently? It must be whatever I, a PhD holding cellular and molecular biologist, have decreed. My academic background lends weight to my theory, and the generic selfishness of humans reinforces that.

    So then the 2d sentence of yours quoted above becomes strange. I don’t know any scientists or MDs who say the human is “just another primate.” To the contrary — as I just said above. There’s a lot of unspoken baggage surrounding this theme in academia: homo sapiens as pinnacle form of life. Pretty much the opposite of “just another primate,” honestly.

    I would agree human experience is more than a mere mapping of our biological componentry, but then that’s essentially one of the points I was making in my first comment above — isn’t it?

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  3. Yes, I wasn’t trying to be argumentative. And the paragraph you cite does seem rather hyperbolic in retrospect. What I was getting at was that there is nothing fundamentally/physiologically different about humans as opposed to other primates. No doubt scientists have anthroprocentric bias, but ideally one would expect them to see human beings as just another animal. But I grant that my inartful expression is factually incorrect.

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