The Mind and the World

Week of: 
June 7, 2009
What is it: 

What kinds of contact can the mind have with the world?  Can we know how the world is in itself, or can we only know shadows of the world in our own minds?  Are we trapped behind a veil of our own mental states?  Is there a world outside my mind – or our minds – at all?  John and Ken tackle the big questions of perception, the external world, and the nature of reality, with Howard Robinson from the Central European University, author of Perception.

Listening Notes: 

This week, John and Ken ponder the connection between the mind and the world. What is the mind? How do we know there is a physical world out there? If there is, what is it made of and how is it different from the internal mental life that each of us inhabits? John and Ken are both pretty sure that there is a physical world out there, but the special guest, Howard Robinson, seems to think that might not be the case. How on earth can a philosophically minded person navigate these treacherous waters?

Well, we can always start with common sense. The commonsense view seems to be that there is in fact a physical world out there, and that we all live in it. Science is at least intuitively grounded in this view, and it’s given us some very impressive knowledge about the way things work—but what does it really tell us about what is out there? Some people believe in souls, and many more believe in God. Are we to believe that souls or God are physical entities? What about free will? Even if our minds are physical, what about God’s mind?  Since Descartes, these lofty questions have preoccupied philosophers, and there are a few well-established views.

First, there’s the view called ‘monistic materialism.’ This refers to the idea that everything out there is physical—minds (and perhaps God) included. Others think that there is a physical world out there, but minds are not a part of it. We call these people  ‘dualists.’  Finally, there is ‘idealism,’ and view espoused by the likes of Berkeley and Howard Robinson. Idealists hold that there is only one type of entity, and that is the mental type.

To Howard, the fundamental question is about the nature of matter. Although science has told us quite a bit about what matter does and how entities relate to one another, there is no clear conception of what it is. Yet, most of the qualities we attribute to matter are perceptual or mentalistic; it seems like our general notion of matter is a set of properties like color, occupying some sort of physical space. If so, what do we have when we take away these perceptual qualities? Is our conception of physical matter really so vacuous?

On the other hand, Ken wants to insist that surely here is something outside us to be behind our perceptions. If all entities are mental, how can we think about entities we do not know about? What about entities that we only discover through the use of reason and science? What about events in the future? Can these strong willed philosophers ever agree? You’d better listen to the show to find out!

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to  6:42): Zoe Coreneli chimes in with a piece about cutting edge prosthetics. What on earth do prosthetics have to do with the mind? Well, a Stanford research team is developing robotic prosthetics, capable of reading neural signals and translating them into movements of the prosthetic limb. This technology will one day allow us to control cursers on a computer screen, thus enabling paralyzed patients to communicate with the outside world as well as anyone with a computer. This research raises deep questions about who we are. Are we only collections of neurons? What else is there? Do you remember the episode of Star Trek where aliens abduct Spock’s brain to control a planet? –does that tells us anything about who we are?
  • Conundrum (seek to  46:56): Do copyright laws apply to graffiti?  We’re not lawyers, but we doubt it. More interestingly, though—should they? Copyright laws are there to protect people’s ideas and creations, but what if these creations are illegal to begin with? Should we legitimize illegal creations to the same extent as legal ones, if at all? 

Howard Robinson, Professor of Philosophy, Central European University

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