Jane Anderson (unaffiliated), "Biological Naturalism and the Mind-Body Problem"
Palgrave MacMillan, 2022
I am interested in how people’s minds work, and from an early age, I thought I would like to become a psychologist. After majoring in philosophy and psychology, I did an additional 1-year honours degree in psychology, intending to continue with a master’s, and register as a counselling psychologist. I took typical psychology modules such as Research Design and Data Analysis, and my research project was an investigation of the extent to which monolingual and bilingual children differed with respect to various cognitive capacities.
The bilingualism literature I read up on, and the cognitive function measures I administered, were fascinating, but I was disappointed to find that a few interesting trends I thought I could see emerging, while inputting the children’s scores, largely disappeared as soon as I put the numbers into a data analysis program. I became increasingly disillusioned: I wanted to understand people, not measure them. Back in the philosophy department, I fared better. I found that if you really want to get to grips with psychological experience, you first need to make sense of the mind-body problem.
The crux of this problem is what Thomas Nagel famously described as ‘what it is like’ to be a living creature. David Chalmers refers to this as ‘the hard problem’ of consciousness: the problem of how to account for what-it-is-like/experience in terms of natural, biological processes. Chalmers claims that this problem is so ‘hard’ to investigate that 20th-century investigators have either just ignored the issue completely, investigated a similar but distinct problem, or claimed that there is literally nothing to investigate – that phenomenal experience is illusory. I, on the other hand, think that (psychological) phenomenal experience is both very real and very important.
My monograph, Biological Naturalism and the Mind-Body Problem, is based on my PhD thesis (University of Johannesburg, South Africa). It comprises a wide-ranging and inter-disciplinary investigation into the nature of phenomenal experience, and how to account for such experience in terms compatible with 21st century biology. I first evaluate several unsatisfactory explanatory frameworks routinely used for approaching the mind-body problem, and demonstrate that much of the confusion stems from an obsolete and prejudicial way of speaking. I then suggest that the approach of certain neurobiological investigators is more promising. These ‘biological naturalist’ writers propose that what-it-is-like/experience should be accounted for in terms of the attributes of biological organisms.
Within such an account, the capacities that organisms have – including our own capacity to enjoy phenomenal experience – are produced over time as organisms adapt to evolutionary pressures on their species. Appealing to the biological capacities of organisms allows the false dichotomy of ‘mind’ and ‘body’ to be dissolved. The dichotomy can then be replaced by an account which is firmly grounded in naturalistic principles, yet is still sufficiently rich and nuanced to make sense of phenomenal experience.
The book contains several original research contributions. I argue that:
(i) anybody who talks about ‘the mind’ or ‘consciousness’ in too literal a sense must be a ‘closet dualist’ – in virtue of committing vicious reification (chpt 2).
(ii) Freud’s account of ‘the mental apparatus’ is insightful and valuable – to the extent that contemporary neuroscientists would benefit from using this account as a starting point for their investigations (chpt 4).
(iii) cases of hydranencephaly (where cerebrospinal fluid takes the place of most of the brain) illuminate the nature of rudimentary affective awareness, and suggest that one should be wary of overemphasizing the role of cortex in understanding experience (chpt 5).
(iv) although contemporary neuroscientists Jaak Panksepp and Antonio Damasio both have naturalistic views of experience, Panksepp’s view should be preferred by anyone who takes phenomenal experience seriously (chpt 6).
Not many writers have the necessary background to enable them to draw connections among such diverse areas of research, which is what I take to be the most important and interesting thing about my project: the fact that I integrate them all in my pursuit of a comprehensive new mind-body-self paradigm.
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