Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A psychiatrist's philosophy of mind

I've been terribly sick the past two days. No fun at all. But I've taken a chance to get started on some things I've been meaning to read for some time, including a book by a Harvard psychiatrist named J. Allan Hobson called Dreaming as Delirium: How the Brain Goes Out of Its Mind. I'm interested in the book because a major part of my dissertation concerns dream skepticism, particularly with respect to questions at the intersection of philosophy and psychology about the nature of dreaming. Following are a three thoughts about the first chapter of the book. Sorry if it's a little long; I'd put it 'behind the fold' if blogger allowed me to. Thought One: One of Hobson's main points is an attempt to establish what he looks at as a radical paradigm shift in thinking about psychology: Hobson claims, with the attitude of someone announcing something revolutionary and shocking, that the mind is identical to the brain. I'm guessing I speak on behalf of everyone who's studied even a little bit of philosophy of mind when I say that his claim strikes me as not a particularly controversial one. It's not universal, but my impression is that this is the mainstream view among philosophers, isn't it? Thought Two: Hobson thinks that when we dream, we go temporarily insane. "There is no madness more delirious than dreaming." He thinks that we hallucinate and form irrational beliefs on the basis of our hallucinations. Then he suggests that we're not bothered by this fact because we "take comfort in our conviction that our nightly madness is an important functino of that incredible handful of jelly that lies behind our eyes and between our ears. I am talking, of course, about our brains." Then he drops his bombshell that there's no difference between the brain and the mind. But I wonder: even if we're not mind-body identity theorists, why should the attribution of our nightly insanity to the brain, rather than the mind, cause us comfort? Everybody agrees that the brain has important effects on mental life. If I learn that I go insane every night while I sleep, why should the thought that it's just my brain relieve any worry I might have? I don't get it. Thought Three: Hobson says:
There are hundreds of thousands ... who have ... problems like anxiety, depression, and neurosis. Society readily assumes that all these people must have some history of psychological stress or trauma that has caused them to be this way. I say no. They [have behavioral disorders] because there is a functional disorder of the state of the brain-mind. They may well have been abused as children, or have lost their self-esteem, and this can cause real emotional stress. But it does not cause the actual anxiety, depression, neurosis, or any other of a long list of problems. These problems are all caused by subtle physiological changes in the state of the brain-mind.
This strikes me as a very bad, and potentially dangerous, argument. That mental disorders are underwritten by, or identical to, brain disorders, does not come close to implying that they're never caused by things like environmental factors. It is obvious that there are causal links between our experiences and our physical brains, so it is entirely plausible (and indeed undeniable) that things like childhood abuse can influence our brain states. So to suggest that the identity thesis Hobson has in mind implies that our experiences don't cause behavioral disorders seems absolutely wrong. It's one thing to suggest that there is a brain-state cause; it's quite another to say that this excludes the causal efficacy of experience.


  1. Jonathan,
    I really don't think that the majority of philosophers think that the mind is identical to the brain. The identity theory of mind, which is itself quite outmoded, identifies particular mental states with neural states, processes, etc. But it doesn't seem easy to get from there to the identity of the mind (whatever that is) and the brain. And, since the identity theory of mind is itself not in fashion (given worries about multiple realizability and so on), I can't see that the mind-brain identity thesis is really a popular view these days. Are mainstream functionalists, for example, mind-brain identity theorists? I would think not, but maybe I'm missing something.

  2. I had the same thought as Leo, though I wouldn't go as far as him. Certainly there are mind-brain identity functionalists (those who agree with Armstrong and Lewis) in some numbers, and I'm inclined to think functionalists who try to find ways to deny mind-brain identity while remaining physicalists are confused. But I was under the impression that there are quite a lot of confused functionalists still around.

  3. Thanks, Leo and Protagoras. I'm happy to defer on the relative prevalence of views in the philosophy of mind. It's been a long time since I've really engaged in that literature.

    My main point was just that Hobson's 'the mind and the brain are the same thing' thesis struck me as not a particularly revolutionary claim.