Sunday 2 October 2011

Mind, Death and Vitalism

There are some obvious questions concerning consciousness. "What  is in the bee that drives it to the flower?"; "What is in the stem that leads it towards the sun?"; "What is in the spermatozoa that drives it towards the egg?"; "What is in the molecule which causes it to self-organise?"; "What is in the dissonance that drives towards resolution?"; and so on... Only children ask these sorts of questions: in a recent discussion about sex education with my daughter for example, the issue of the consciousness of a sperm arose!

My suspicion is that the imputation of causal mechanisms based of sequences of events to explain these things is inadequate. In the case of the bee, it leads to 'mentalism'; in the case of the stem and the sperm it leads to 'biologism'. In the molecule, is it 'physicalism'. The musical case is in fact the most interesting, because it is the one with the greatest number of possible explanations: 'culturalism', 'physicalism', 'biologism' being a few possibilities, about which arguments have raged. However, whilst criticising these reductions, I want to avoid the other pitfall which is 'vitalism' (although I much prefer the ambitious thinking of vitalists like Bergson over mentalists, biologists, etc).

At one level, the problem is cause. More deeply the problem is ethical and political. The very point of attempting a new answer to these fundamental questions is to find a new way of looking at the world which might, I might hope, lead to a world that I would want to live in. Rather than digging into the detail to begin with (only to discover an implicit world-view which is untenable), it's probably better to be clear about what the world that I want to live in looks like.

Fundamentally here, I am Catholic (although perhaps Marxist as far as many Catholics are in fact Marxists), and as such and being most concerned with education, I am Illichian. Illich's concern with human dignity was directly linked to his appeal for conviviality: human beings are not islands; their psychic wellbeing is entirely interdependent. And amongst Catholic writers, Illich's position is broadly supported: Maritain adopted Bergson's ideas to make a similar point, and Scheler, whose concern with 'personalism' particularly emphasised the collective within the individual as the route to individuation.

But the ethical and political point behind this rests on concerns about consciousness and perception. Aquinas's philosophy of mind is remarkable, and represents perhaps the most complete attempt to address early modern awareness of consciousness with an Aristotelian causal model. Once that model was thrown out with the enlightenment, the attempt really stopped.. until Bergson changed the way we thought about time. Maritain marries Bergson with Aquinas and Aristotelianism as a way of linking human experience with politics.

Death, I wonder, may the hidden mover in all of this. I'm tempted to answer each of the questions I asked at the beginning with 'death'. Is this 'explanatory principle' any more helpful than the one suggested by the vitalists? It is the converse of the vitalist position. Death demarcates what there is and what there can be. Whilst it is abstract from me being here, now, in this moment writing this, it is still 'there'. And from me here to that "there" is the range of possible action that I might 'consider' taking next. My 'consideration' is a process which determines the realisation of possibilities. We call this process "mind". The realisation of possibilities is something that occurs in each of the questions I mentioned. But it does not seem reasonable to suggest that the "realisation of possibilities" requires a 'mind', or at least a 'brain' as we understand it.

Vitalism presents a positivising force which brings order, but its positive nature brings philosophical problems  since the capacity to apprehend such a force is dependent on the action of such a force in the first place. With such circularity, vitalism presents a situation similar to Moliere's 'domitive principle' of opium.

A death-oriented approach is a negative approach. It is a prioritisation of what Bhaskar might call "determinate absence". I've really struggled with Bhaskar's work on absence, and I'm not sure he's completely right about dialectic and absence, which is his main thrust, BUT I now think that the boundary between what is there and what is not presents some new opportunities for thinking about the function of mind and the role of brain.

I wonder if it might be like the idea of 'potential difference' in electronics, or perhaps like the length of a vibrating string. A wheatstone bridge is rather like a vibrating string, in the sense that it presents a field for exploring proportions. My central thesis at the moment is that the function of mind is to explore proportions between what is and what is not. In other words, the death which sits behind each of my questions demarcates a symmetry.

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