A billion tiny spooks

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This page will discuss the representational theory of mind. This disastrously mistaken theory is accepted by most cognitive scientists. Consequently, it has become highly influential in general Western culture, and is taken for granted by most educated Westerners. It has significantly distorted our understanding of our selves, and so of how to live.

The theory originates in the analytic philosophy of of mind. (“Originates” both historically and logically.) Post–1950 philosophy of mind has two aims:

  1. To develop a convincing argument for physicalism—the doctrine that mental things are actually physical things, or are “reducible” to physical things.
  2. To acknowledge and include cognitivism—the doctrine that people have beliefs, desires, and intentions (not merely dispositions and behaviors).

Physicalism is opposed mainly to mind-body dualism: belief in a non-physical soul. The natural human view (of pre-modern people) is that the mind is not a physical thing. It is the “ghost in the machine”: a “spook.” The dualist view is that spooks are the sort of thing that can think; can have beliefs, desires, and intentions. A person is a spook plus a meat robot. Meat can’t think.

So the “cognitive project” has been to explain how meat can think. That requires exorcising the spook—the ghost in the machine. The representational theory of mind is the dominant approach.

Simplifying somewhat, it says that beliefs, desires, and intentions are “represented” as sentences in a special language (“mentalese”). Mentalese, in turn, is “implemented” as physical things (structures, states, or processes) in the brain.

Beliefs, desires, and intentions are about things outside the brain. For example, the belief that “snow is white” is about snow.

The question is: what does “about” mean? And how can things in the brain be about things outside the brain? What sort of relationship is this “aboutness”?

No good answers to these questions have been found. Worse, there are good in-principle reasons to think that no answers can be found:

If beliefs, desires, and intentions were mental representations, then they would have to be non-physical. That is: spooky.

These are the “billion tiny spooks” of my title. The representational theory of mind beheads one big spook (the soul); but—like the Hydra—it simply returns as innumerable smaller ones.

(Bizarrely, mentalist philosophers often slip, and admit this in passing, describing representations as “non-physical”—despite their stated commitment to physicalism.)

The upshot is that either physicalism is wrong, or else the representational theory is wrong. Or both! I don’t have a strong opinion about physicalism; my guess is that something like it is probably right, although it seems wrong as stated. Anyway, mind-body dualism is almost certainly wrong, so a non-spooky understanding of what it is to be human should be helpful.

The representational theory is also clearly wrong, for several reasons in addition to its logical contradictions. Overall, the problem is not that meat is the wrong thing to make beliefs, desires, and intentions from. It is that things inside the head cannot magically connect to things outside the head to be about them. (This discussion in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is relevant, but may be opaque if you’re not familiar with the literature.)

The representational theory is not only wrong; it is also harmful for ordinary people’s understanding of what we are and how to live. I’ll also explain these malign consequences.

Fortunately, there are alternative approaches to understanding what sort of things people are, which are more consistent with facts, and which lead to better ways to live. These approaches do not take the skull as a fixed boundary; their understandings span “inside” and “outside.” Their explanations involve interactional dynamics of physical causality that—through perception and action—constantly cross between “self” and “other.”


This page is in the section Selfness,
      which is in Doing meaning better.

The next page in this section is ⚒ The true self.

The previous page is Schematic overview: self.

This page’s topics are Essentialism, History of ideas, and Self.

General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book (in progress), plus a “metablog” that comments on it. The book begins with an appetizer. Alternatively, you might like to look at its table of contents, or some other starting points. Classification of pages by topics supplements the book and metablog structures. Terms with dotted underlining (example: meaningness) show a definition if you click on them. Pages marked with ⚒ are still under construction. Copyright ©2010–2017 David Chapman.