There are easy problems and there are hard problems. Examples of the former include building a space elevator, putting a man on the moon, and curing cancer. They are reducible to steps that make sense within our theoretical conception of how the world works. They are difficult but there is no reason, yet, to consider them impossible. We might, for example, foreseeably construct a virus that infects the cells of its host to reconstruct his or her DNA according to the perfect model those cells once held.
But when the element of impossibility is introduced, we might call it a hard problem. Answering ‘What is meaning?’ is a hard problem. Likewise free will. Likewise consciousness. These three concepts are enduring. They are also likely to be fictions from which even the most hardboiled thinker can never fully suspend her disbelief. These fictions are somewhat like books we can never close.
Our definitions of ‘computer’ are probably different, gentle reader. I use it to mean a class of machines that process information, and this class includes clocks, thermostats, the brain, and my MacBook Pro. The reaction to my use of this word in the context of the human mind is typically one of disbelief and centres on a desire to be excluded from a list of things that do not appear to share essential human characteristics with us. (Clocks have no meaningful internal life; they have no choice but to tell the time once they are wound; they are not able to consider the world.)
I mention this because the semantic boundaries of such terms are critical to any discussion. When the boundaries are made porous, or trampled under boot, the debates are rendered obscure.
This is the weight on my heart this morning upon reading an edited chapter from Marilynne Robinson’s book Absence of Mind. Robinson’s prose is elaborated to the point of fogginess. It would surprise me if even a philosopher could decrypt the nuances of her argument. To repeat, these concepts are as hopelessly distant to the human mind as stars to a telescope; they’re hard enough to see without someone monkeying around with the tripod.
Let us say the mind is what the brain does. This is a definition that makes the mind, whatever else, a participant in the whole history and experience of the body. Pinker offers the same definition, but modifies it differently. He says, “The mind is what the brain does; specifically, the brain processes information, and thinking is a kind of computation” – excluding the felt experience of thinking, with all its diverse burdens and colorations.
The exclusion of the felt experience of thinking is a problem with naturism, i.e. the application of objective, verbal descriptions to phenonema (like felt experience) that are essentially subjective. This is not a problem that psychologists — or anyone else, for that matter — has been able to figure out yet. It’s a hard problem and the problem is not with Pinker.
Later, she criticises a flavour of evolutionary psychology (the science of viewing the mind as a machine optimally designed for its environment) like this:
Might there not be fewer of these interfamilial crimes, honour killings, child abandonments, if nature had made us straightforwardly aware that urgencies more or less our own were being served in our propagating and nurturing? There is more than a hint of dualism in the notion that some better self – the term seems fair – has to be distracted by ingratiating pleasures to accommodate the practical business of biology.
This is not fair and it stretches Pinker’s quite defensible property dualist approach in order to imply that, being dualist, it somehow inherits the flaws of extreme substance dualism.
Later still, Robinson rolls up her sleeves and enters into another difficulty: the distinction between mind and soul. Unfortunately, this takes her back to another linguistic conundrum that may not have an associated conundrum in the sense of how the words are typically employed. It has only been since the renaissance, as far as I’m aware, that we have been able to consider the mind as something nonphysical but not necessarily synonymous with a supernatural entity such as the spirit. To blend these, then separate them arbitrarily, adds an element of obfuscation that, again, makes these difficult positions still more difficult to understand.
It would be prejudiced of me to imply that artists (even an Orange prize winner) should play in their own fields and leave the philosophical pastures to those who know them better. For a start, the distinction between art and science is a pernicious one, and, second, philosophers (not to mention psychologists like me) don’t know the answers either. These are hard questions. But there is a danger that linguistic virtuosity can take on the form of legerdemain. The topic demands clearer treatment before anyone can do the impossible and pull a bunny from the hat.