Is Mind Over Matter If Mind Is Matter?, A History Boy, 25/07/2013

A long time ago, in the last year of my undergrad and during my MA at Memorial (from about 2004 to 2007), I knew exactly what kind of philosophy I wanted to work in, what stimulated the most interesting ideas in me, and what could benefit most from those ideas. Philosophy of mind.

My friends might be surprised. But I wrote my MA thesis in philosophy of mind, considering one possible answer to the problem of materialism. This is the problem of whether the world is entirely material or if there is a second substance of mind. Aside from this one approach to materialism/dualism I was considering, all the various thought experiments and problems on the subject fascinated me. Yet there was an element of this sub-discipline of philosophy that would become very difficult for me. 

All those more minor thought experiments and problems had developed such vigorous debates that they became their own sub-disciplines of philosophy of mind (itself already a sub-discipline). Everyone in philosophy of mind operates in these sub-disciplines; it isn't that kind of specialization. But when I would meet other practitioners of philosophy of mind at guest lectures and conferences from around 2007 to 2009, they'd tell me that the ideas developed in one debate didn't apply to another. Yet I kept coming up with ideas for projects that would apply, say, an idea from the materialism-dualism debate around Donald Davidson's Swamp Man to the identity theory debate around Swamp Man.

In the case of the perspective I took in my MA thesis? I chose the most unforgiving example of the typical materialist point of view in the last decades of the debate: Paul and Patricia Churchland. What if this kind of strict materialism could still permit processes that create all the intentionality, subjectivity, and inner life that we think dualists need the mind substance to do? What if I could find a set of ideas that generated all the phenomena we call mind from plain old matter? I could conclude that the conflict of materialism and dualism wasn't necessary; we could be minds made of matter. I'd just need to find a set of ideas that I thought could generate all that from material and walk you though how that happened. And I thought I knew exactly the philosophy that could do that: phenomenology, particularly the ideas of Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception. That book gives you the tools to walk through how a complete human personality develops from the material stuff of an organic body. Phenomenology is the perfect non-reductive materialism.

Yes, it did start as something of a joke (Swamp-Man, Swamp Thing). Then
I realized that Alan Moore's Swamp Thing character dealt with issues of
identity and memory central to philosophy of mind. 
Even before I had any idea whether it was appropriate, I was genre-mashing in philosophy. And I still do. This post isn’t for getting into my takes on the divisions and categories of philosophical disciplines (spoiler: I don’t like most of them!). But my greatest philosophical successes in the last five years have come from these genre collisions. I apply traditionally continental thinkers to analytic problems, just as in my MA thesis, or yesterday when I wrote how Thomas Nagel could learn so much from Henri Bergson. And I apply analytic thinkers to typically continental problems: Ian Hacking has a lot to teach Bruno Latour and the Foucauldian philosophers of science. I’ve even gotten philosophical success and peer-reviewed publications from seeing what philosophy and literature could learn from each other. I have an essay under review at a critical theory journal, which I’ve also presented at the Canadian Philosophical Association, that makes heavy use of H. P. Lovecraft to understand an aspect of the interaction of mysticism and science. I published an essay in Cogency this summer that critiques the problem in analytic theory of knowledge on the rationality of peer disagreement by drawing ideas from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I had an idea to get back into philosophy of mind last year with an essay that explores different aspects of Donald Davidson’s swamp-man thought experiment, taking it in new directions thanks to engaging with the ideas from Alan Moore’s run on the Swamp Thing comics in the early 1980s. I haven't started on it yet, because there's so much material in philosophy of mind alone to constantly catch up on. I've spoken about the idea with my friend D, who does philosophy of mind. One day, if he's still amenable, we can actually get started writing that essay together.


  1. I like this developing thread on mind stuff, although I'm not at all aware of the thought experiments you're referring to or the "rules of the game" in the subfields and sub-disciplines.

    I loved seeing Bergson's name treated with respect in your post of a few days ago. I've always encountered the 'failed thinker'/ 'mystic fraud' cliche about him but could never reconcile that with the high regard with which he was held by great thinkers and artists of the day. Good to see someone doing the hard work of getting the good Bergson back out in the open.

    Swamp Thing -- the mind as diffused through the environment? I can see how it appeals to your sensibilities!

    Alan Moore -- such a rich thinker. I would wager that he has the most nuanced understanding of genre and its relationship to our understanding of reality that I've encountered. Definitely can sustain a monograph, I would say, although not sure who would publish it. Certainly it has a lot to do with diffusion of identity, although I think for him that means something more like our identities are densely cultural, exist outside us in the broader cultural structures, ideational content, symbols and visions etc that fill us with the sense of glimpsing the transcendent, as old Blake was wont to experience. He seems to be close to Cassirer in the insistence that contingent myths are nevertheless de facto necessities, since that's where we really find ourselves.

    1. Alan Moore, the mad wizard of Northampton. His ideas about genre and narrative are fascinating to me, though I don't fully know what I'll do with them. If you are or could see yourself as being into Doctor Who, you should skim through TARDIS Eruditorum. It's a heavily Moore-influenced (and with key references to Blake as well!) walk through the history of Doctor Who from its beginning to the present-ish. Right now, the plan is to end it when he catches up to Matt Smith's regeneration.

      In my next few entries, I'll probably talk about some of my influence by Alan Moore, and my thoughts on Bergson as well. My PhD supervisor has developed a minor fascination with Bergson lately, which he discovered through taking Deleuze seriously for the first time about five years ago. People don't understand what a rigorous thinker Bergson really was, and because no one ever reads his books, they don't know what a good writer he was too.

  2. I'll have to check out Bergson first hand.

    Unlikely that I'll become a Who fan but I guess I'll give the Eruditorum a shot -- what could it hurt? My only Who experiences are a) feeling terror when I would hear that freaky theme song when it was on TV in our youths, presumably on CBC: b) downloading that freaky theme off Napster while at King's College's foundation year thing and really getting down.

  3. I'm pleased to see that the first Eruditorum post includes an extensive discussion of that freaky theme music.

    1. His essay on The Deadly Assassin contains some ideas that inspired the basic framework of my utopias project, particularly Phil's critiques of the conception of history through the lens of a master narrative.