It is a widespread assumption in contemporary scientific culture that the existence of mental objects rests on very shaky ground. By contrast, physical objects are supposed to exist beyond any reasonable doubt. Let us call this the post-Cartesian ontological asymmetry. Whereas Descartes, like many of his predecessors, unabashedly argued for the inverse asymmetry, claiming not only that the mind is better known (to the mind) than any other object but that it also enjoys a privileged mode of existence (being closer in ontological kind to God than to material substance), the order of the ontological universe has subsequently been reversed. Be that as it may, what would entitle us to continue to believe in ontological asymmetry? Are there any deeper reasons to privilege either physical or mental objects in the best account of what there is?
Very roughly, in our scientific age one might begin to give voice to one’s post-Cartesian preferences by pointing out that, while there evidently are rocks, bacteria, paramecia, and fingernails, Faust, Macbeth, and the Fountain of Youth clearly do not exist, regardless of the fact that there are various discursive practices (“language-games”) which entitle us to engage in a game of make-believe involving talk about
these kinds of things. These kinds of things are typically called “fictional,” where this means that they “are individuals first introduced in a work of fiction” (Brock and Everett 2015: 3).2
They depend for their existence on minds in a way in which rocks do not. It borders on triviality that Macbeth would not have existed had there been no minds, and those who hold the view known as “fictional irrealism” deny that he exists at all, sometimes on the ground that, had he existed, he would have been a mere figment of imagination and in that sense nothing that could count as actually existing.3
In this context, it is tempting to group the mind itself with fictional objects to the extent to which one’s reasons to grant the latter a reduced ontological status (if any) are tantamount to one’s reasons for denying them mind-independence. If the mind were mind-dependent in the same way as the Fountain of Youth, in an ontological framework privileging mind-independence in our account of what there is, we would have reasons to downgrade the mind as a whole.
Arguably, at this point a typical representative of contemporary scientific culture will argue that the mind is not mind-dependent in the same way in which the Fountain of Youth is, as the mind can ultimately be identified with a physical object: the brain. Despite the complexities of figuring out how exactly to make sense of such an identity claim, given, among other things, the apparent epistemological asymmetry of mind and brain, the stereotypical modern scientist will hope that the impression that there is a real distinction at the level of the apparent epistemological asymmetry sooner or later goes away, as science makes progress with respect to the mind. The better we actually know the brain, the safer it will seem to identify mind and brain and to undermine our Cartesian “intuitions,” our impression that the mind substantially differs from the brain.
In what follows, I will put pressure on the entire framework which gives rise to this branch of the modern scientific world-view. In particular, I will sketch a position I dub “Neo-Existentialism.” Neo-Existentialism is the view that there is no single phenomenon or reality corresponding to the ultimately very messy umbrella term “the mind.” Rather, the phenomena typically grouped together under this heading are located on a spectrum ranging from the obviously physical to the non-existing. However, what unifies the various phenomena subsumed under the messy concept of “the mind” after all is that they all are consequences of the attempt of the human being to distinguish itself both from the purely physical universe and from the rest of the animal kingdom. In so doing, our self-portrait as specifically minded creatures evolved in light of our equally varying accounts of what it is for non-human beings to exist.
The fundamental tenet of Neo-Existentialism is that there is no single entity in the world picked out by our diachronically and synchronically differentiated mentalistic vocabulary, nothing which is conscious, self-conscious, aware of itself, neurotic, a processor of qualitative states, vigilant, intelligent, etc. What unifies our mentalistic vocabulary is the capacity to produce further items on the list of accounts of what it is not merely to blend in with a world replete with inanimate objects governed by physical laws of nature, on the one hand, and animals driven by biological parameters, on the other.
Our self-portrait as minded is in place in order to help us make sense of the fact that we do not belong to the domain of what merely exists in an anonymous manner, as it were. We are neither exactly like rocks nor exactly like a beetle lying on a rock. Our conception of ourselves as minded was forged over millennia of history in which it was taken for granted that, whatever distinguishes us from the remainder of what there is, it can only be accounted for in mentalistic terms. This structure is the breeding ground of the very notion of human being, the notion without which we would be in no position to wonder what the relation between mind and non-mental nature could possibly be.
Over the course of known documented history, humanity has developed highly nuanced accounts of what distinguishes us from inanimate and animal nature. In my view, this is the real source behind what Huw Price has aptly called “the placement issue” (Price 2011: 187–8). To put this problem as bluntly as possible, it arises from wondering how the mind – i.e., the manifold objects, if any, picked out by our mentalistic vocabulary – fits into the purely natural order.4
My own term for “the purely natural order” is the universe
. I distinguish between the universe
and the world
. Whereas the former refers to the domain of objects studied by our best
natural sciences (maybe ideally by futuristic unified physics or, depending on the status of the unity/disunity of science, by any relevant ensemble of established present and future disciplines), the latter is the hypothetical all-encompassing domain of objects. For reasons spelled out elsewhere (Gabriel 2015a), I believe that this idea of the world should be reformulated: we should understand the world neither as an all-encompassing domain of objects nor as the all-encompassing domain of facts, but as what I call “the field of sense of all fields of sense.” Here, a “field of sense” (FOS) is my name for a domain of objects individuated by what corresponds to the right way of thinking about its objects. The right way of thinking about the objects in a given domain is the way which lets us grasp them as they are under the descriptions which aptly characterize them as being whatever they are (ibid.).5
The universe is an FOS within a domain encompassing further FOSs. It is nested within an open system of FOSs. There is no overall, all-encompassing FOS. I call this result from the ontology of FOSs the “no-world-view,” and I summarize it in the expression that the world does not exist (Gabriel 2015b). According to Neo-Existentialism, the mind belongs neither to the natural order (the universe) nor to the world. However, it exists in a whole series of FOSs in such a way that the various phenomena grouped together under the umbrella term “the mind” do not pick out a clearly delineated object or range of objects. Nevertheless, there is an invariant unifying structure which holds our mentalistic vocabulary together. This structure is what I call “Geist
.” Given that Geist
is a technical notion here designed to account for the invariant in the background of the messy variations of mentalistic vocabulary, it is guaranteed to be less messy than the series of mentalistic vocabularies we happen to find. Notice that according to my proposal some parts or subdomains of Geist
are included in the universe. All that I will be arguing for is that neither all parts nor the whole of Geist
can exist in the universe.
If the mind as the fusion of various objects brought into existence by Geist’s historically shifting attempts to make sense of the distinction between human and non-human being exists at all, according to my background ontology it has to fit into some FOS or other. Even if the mind is a fictional object (or a nest of fictional objects), it will find its place in a suitable FOS distinguished from other FOSs. This will be true both horizontally – in comparison with other, say, literary or cinematic fictions – and vertically – in the context of FOSs belonging to an entirely different, specifically non-fictional category, such as the FOS of astrophysics. The right kind of ontological pluralism that allows for a plurality of domains related to each other in a larger order composed of different categorically distinct pockets easily accommodates the mind whatever its nature turns out to be. Ontological pluralism trivially leaves room for the mind, as many of the items picked out by various mentalistic vocabularies (consciousness, awareness, emotions, being awake, etc.) can be accommodated without having to place them in the same ontological realm (the same FOS) as baryonic matter, galaxies, or the cerebellum, say.
It is harder for the metaphysical monist to do justice to the respectable trains of thought that amount to a placement problem. In order to see why, imagine two extreme views, brute materialism and brute idealism. Brute materialism claims that the only thing there is is the universe and that the universe is identical with material-energetic reality. Brute idealism is the most radical denial of this monism, as it maintains that all there is is mental – i.e., either some mental content or a mind, where mind and the mental are categorically juxtaposed to the material-energetic. Brute idealism denies the existence of non-mental objects.
On both extremes of metaphysical monism, in principle no placement problem arises. Brute materialism has no room for a conception of the mind that would lead to a puzzle about its place in nature (identified with the universe in the sense of the entirety of the material-energetic), and brute idealism, in turn, has no room for a conception of a nature that would motivate a puzzle about its relation to the mind.
Despite the fact that there is a massive return of grand metaphysics in both the so-called analytic and the so-called continental traditions of philosophy, the issues discussed in the philosophy of mind call for independent conceptual treatment.6
The main reason for this can already be guessed from the broad strokes of my introductory remarks. If the placement problem were merely a metaphysical issue that
needs to go away, we could easily circumvent it in indefinitely many ways by working out a metaphysical system close enough either to metaphysical pluralism or to metaphysical monism. All we would need to avoid is the obviously untenable position of metaphysical dualism in the sense of a view that subscribes both to the unity of reality and to its having two big chunks – matter and mind – separated by some kind of gulf.
Notoriously, even Descartes, who is usually invoked as a prime representative of the shortcomings of metaphysical dualism, admits that there is a problem here. He oscillates between an actual metaphysical dualism (belief in two substances – i.e., two categorically distinct kinds of things) and metaphysical monism, as he sometimes writes that, strictly speaking, only God is a substance.7
If there is only one reality, it is indeed puzzling what one could mean by the assertion that there are two kinds of things within that reality, matter and mind. What is the nature of that reality which accounts for the emergence of an extraordinary duality within itself? So-called neutral monism
, which is the view (or family of views) that there is a third kind of thing underlying the differentiation into the two kinds of things earlier identified, owes us an account of the nature of the extraordinary third kind of thing ...