Tuesday, 3 April 2012

The Explanatory Gap

Does contemplation of the Explanatory Gap suggest a God-given soul?

What is a mind? Are minds physical, or are they made out of a separate mental substance, a ‘soul’? Perhaps the way we live and the way we use language assumes the second option - that we have souls inside our heads, and that somehow, ‘I’ is a special subject, distinct from ‘my brain.’ In fact the mere phrase ‘my brain’ seems to imply that there are two things here - a brain and an owner, the person ‘within’ the brain. Thinking like this seems to fit well with everyday experience, and how we take ourselves to interact with the world. At least on the every-day level, we are dualists. 
The idea, however, that souls (perhaps God-given, if we are religious) reside within our bodies seems a little archaic on reflection. Science has taught us that a mind, at least in the context of our world, must be ‘physically realized‘ - it must arise out of physical matter. The question then arises as to how this could possibly happen. The physicalist has a quick answer - a mind just is the physical state of a brain. On this view, there is nothing else to conscious experience other than particular combinations of physical brain states.  
Physicalism is popular, and has been thrust towards the spotlight particularly recently outside philosophy, in the work of Richard Dawkins, who seems to assume that physicalism is so obviously true that we needn’t even bother debate about it. But this is too hasty - there are real questions to be raised about the nature of minds that physicalism cannot seem to account for. How can a subject possibly be in some way identical to physical matter? No matter how complex we make a physical organism, a strong intuition remains that we will never reach subjectivity - that rich ‘first person-ness‘ of human experience that perhaps is unique only to humans.

The religious are able to exploit this intuition and use it as a basis for positing that there are God-given souls that reside within our bodies, and which explain our conscious, intellectual, moral and spiritual abilities. However, we don’t need to be religious to acknowledge that the so-called mind-body problem cannot be easily shelved just by asserting physicalism. Science seems to be a fundamentally objective, third-person pursuit, and perhaps third-person facts are all that it will ever be able to explain. If this is the case, then consciousness, that mysterious first-person entity with which we as persons are identical, remains unexplained. There is an 'explanatory gap' between mind and matter.

(see further - the so-called ‘Explanatory Gap.’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Explanatory_gap)


  1. Really well written tom!
    Personally I do not think that the inherent complexity of consciousness, or 'subjectivity', is so great as to prevent it being understood in merely physical terms.

    Since our understanding of the human brain is far from complete isn't it speculative to argue that it is insufficiently complex to deliver the first person experience? Whilst I agree that science is by nature objective, I think it provides the greatest insight into understanding the reality of terms such as self-aware, autonomous and self-conscious. Only by completely understanding how the brain works, can we begin to make conclusions about the existence, nature and extent of the potential gap between it and the concept of mind.

  2. To say that 'our understanding is incomplete' is perhaps to take refuge in what we don't know? I think when you say 'only by completely understanding how the brain works', you assume that there IS no explanatory gap in the world, just in our knowledge. But this is precisely what dualism is denying. Even a completed neuroscience will not be able to explain consciousness, goes the argument, because the conceptual tools are not there.

    I would argue that the very fact that we've been able to explain so much through science, yet still we know almost nothing about consciousness, supports the existence of the gap.

  3. It seems interesting to me that you missed one of the most important problems with physicalism or materialism is the lack of any foundational morality. If we are just a product of how our brain cells are arranged then we aren't responsible for any of our actions. One can ALWAYS claim some form of insanity to excuse one's heinous actions.

    No matter how we narrow the gap this problem will persist, in fact it will get worse. The more we know about what physical atributes of our brains affect our actions, the easier it will be to excuse our actions as a result of those atributes.

  4. Hi Sam. Moral philosophy is a huge area, and since I am really interested in the Philosophy of Mind in this post, I didn't deem it to be relevant. The morality issue here is an interesting one, but is a more general concern that, though it can be drawn from the discussion, isn't directly related to the metaphysical question over whether mind is a substance different from the physical. Tom


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