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Philosophy Week three – Philosophy of the mind


Minds, Brains and Computers

I have watched three of the six videos for this week. I must admit to finding it a lot more difficult to follow than the first two weeks. I watched each video at least twice and read the notes. I then had a look at some other papers and explanations.

Part one

What is a mind?

In the first video we looked at what it is to have a mind.

A tennis ball – doesn’t have a mind. It can’t decide what it want’s to do.

A dog – has a brain and thoughts which it turns into actions. For example if it is hungry it can seek food. A dog can take action to change it’s environment for example if it feels cold it can go indoors.

A human – has a brain and thoughts which it turns in to actions as the dog does. The difference is that humans can think about thoughts. We can analyse our actions and reactions. We can plan for the future and think about things that don’t exist.

The above distinctions between three things was clear although I wanted to find out more about instinct and examine the premise that other animals (apart from humans) don’t think about their thoughts.

How do we know other animals can’t think about their thoughts?

There is a physical difference. Apart from monkeys most other animals have only a very basic cortex, so their ability to think philosophically would be very limited.

Thinking about thoughts is often talked about in terms of  rationality and intelligence. We look at other animals and see that they appear to rely mainly on instinct.
What is instinct?

Instinct is defined as innate or predictable behaviour. For example fixed pattern behaviour.

Humans can predict this type of behaviour because we are aware of the nature of the animal (including the human)  that  is behaving in this way.  Other animal’s behaviour is more easily observable than our own as humans don’t always act instinctively or even rationally. We can attribute this to chemicals causing emotions, and a lack of reasoning.

Dogs can learn to sit up and beg but do they it ask themselves if that was a good thing to do? Well we can see that some of them certainly enjoy it. They have exterior signs such as tail wagging to show that they hare happy about it.

You can see other behaviour in animals that suggests they work things out. A fox hunting a rabbit for example. That takes planning and a form of visualization similar to ours. Pets can become stressed because they know they did something wrong or because their owners have left them alone for the day. Pets dream, you can see them running, yelping and purring in their sleep. However they don’t  plan their lives. A fox hunts because he is hungry. He hunts the first thing he sees. He doesn’t think about why he hunts a rabbit and wonder if it would be better for his digestive system if he became a vegetarian.


“What it is likeness” – is a philosophical concept that I didn’t quite grasp. Suilin explained this as smelling a bacon sandwich and imagining what that would be like. I am not sure if she was saying that other animals don’t do this. I know my cats go crazy at the smell of fish but they don’t bat an eyelid at the smell of say parsnips cooking. For me this suggests that they can in some way anticipate that they will like the fish but not the parsnips.

What is a mind made of? 

Once we had determined that humans have minds we then looked at what it was made of and looked at what is termed Cartesian Dualism (or Substance dualism). This was the original thought of Rene Descartes. He believed that minds were made of different stuff to matter. It was not physical like our bodies.

One of Descartes pupils, Princess Elisbeth of Bohemia, brought up “The problem of causation“. She wrote to Descartes asking how something not material caused a movement in something material. She said that there had to be something physical for us to be able to move and cause physical changes in the world.  Only material stuff can cause other material stuff to change. If minds are immaterial, how can they cause changes in the material stuff?

[…Explain] how the mind of a human being, being only a thinking substance, can determine the bodily spirits in producing bodily actions. For it appears that all determination of movement is produced by the pushing of the thing being moved, by the manner in which it is pushed by that which moves it, or else by the qualification and figure of the surface of the latter. Contact is required for the first two conditions, and extension for the third. [But] you entirely exclude the latter from the notion you have of the soul, and the former seems incompatible with an immaterial thing.
Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, 1643. Cited Kim (2006, 41 -2)

Part two

Looking at the problem of Substance dualism we can say that there is only matter. Minds and body are made of the same things. This is called Physicalism (or Materialism). There are three ways of looking at this

1. Logical behaviorism

Gilbert Ryle, a British philosopher is known for his criticism of Cartesian philosophy.  In his book “The Concept of Mind1949” he states that mental states are not inner states but consist in behaviours and dispositions to behave. Ryle asserted that the workings of the mind are not distinct from the actions of the body.

2. Identity Theory

Mental states are identical to brain states. If two things are physically identical, then they will be psychologically identical.For example, being in pain is identical to your C-fibres firing and there is nothing else to it than that. Identity theory is a reductive account of mental states: it is reducing them to physical processes.

There are two ways of looking at this a type identity and a token identity. So that a type of mental state there is a type of physical state. so ‘pain’ as a type of state has a type of physical state such as C-fibres firing. Whereas token theory would say there is one state for each pain – one for a stomach pain one for a head pain etc. The first might be neuron 24 firing, whilst the second is neuron 408 firing for example.

Part three

3. Functionalism

Hilary Putnam thought this was too narrow. We know that animals feel pain as well and some of them don’t have the same C-fibres as we do. For example octopus. When you think of psychophysical states we should look at what they do and not what they are made of.

The key point for Putnam is that mental states are multiply realisable. This just means that any mental state, e.g. the mental state of wanting a pet beaver, can be instantiated in a variety of different physical systems. It could be in a physical system made out of H2O and other chemicals (like us) or a system made out of something totally different, like the chemicals in an octopus brain.
To take a different example: in our society, money is made of bits of paper and metal. But in other societies shells are used to trade with, and the value of various things is measured in terms of how many shells they are worth. In other societies still livestock serve the function that metal and paper serve in our society. But cows, shells and bits of paper and metal are all recognisable as currency in virtue of them all playing a particular role (being traded for other objects, and being a unit of value). Currency is thus multiply realisable: there are lots of different things that are currency in different cultures, but they all share a common role.

So all pain functions in the same way – it makes us retract or wince or cry out. Even if it is made of different stuff it works in the same way.

Mental states are caused by sensory stimuli and current mental states and cause behaviour and new mental states. Here is an example of the mental state of chocolate desire.


Tiger example 

The belief that tigers are dangerous is distinct from the desire to hug a tiger in virtue of what that belief does. The desire to hug a tiger would cause me to rush towards the tiger with open arms, and it might be caused by the belief that tigers are harmless human-loving creatures. Whereas the belief that tigers are dangerous is caused by my previous knowledge that tigers eat people and that creatures with big teeth are dangerous, and causes running away behaviour as well as new mental states such as the dislike of the person who let the tiger into the room in the first place.

What have I learned?

  • Humans have minds. They are different from other animals. They don’t always follow learned behaviour or instinct they can consider the future and things that are not real. I knew that humans could do this but it was useful to explore why we consider that animals don’t.
  • Some philosophers think the mind is totally separate from mater and can’t be analysed – like a ka or soul – and others think it is made of the same stuff.
  • Physicalism (mind and matter are the same stuff) can be explained in three ways. 1. The mind and body can’t be separated and work together. 2. For every mental state there is a physical state (either one for one or one for a type) 3. Mental states can have many different physical states so external stimuli and other mental states can cause metal states.


  1. […] quite nicely ties in to Physicalism or materialism and the belief that the mind and matter are made of the same stuff. It is quite amusing to think […]

  2. […] Course we considered the philosophy of the mind. We looked at Descartes and his statement ‘I think therefore I am‘. The replicants think and therefore they exist but are they human? We also looked at radical […]

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