Where is the mind situated?

Stephanie West Allen’s Brains on Purpose™ points to an interesting paper, “Philosophical Foundations of Law and Neuroscience” written by two law professors that deals with some problematic premises regarding the relationship of mind to brain. “Here’s an excerpt from the authors’ take on the brain/mind question (footnotes removed):”

Rather than arguing about where the mind is located (e.g., in the brain or elsewhere) we need to step back and contemplate whether this is the right question to ask. First, notice that the question of the mind’s location presupposes that the mind is a kind of “thing” or “substance” that is located “somewhere” (e.g., in the body). Why must this be so? Our answer is that it need not be, and is not. An alternative conception—the one that we contend is more plausible—of mind is as a diverse array of abilities exercised by a person. These abilities implicate a wide range of psychological categories including sensations, perceptions, cognition (i.e., knowledge, memory), cogitation (i.e., beliefs, thought, imagination, mental imagery), affectations (i.e., emotions, moods, appetites), and volition (i.e., intentions, voluntary action).

To be clear, we do not deny that a properly working brain is necessary for a person to engage in the diverse array of abilities that we collectively identify as mental life. Again, nothing could be further from the truth. But, while certain neural activity is necessary for a human being to exercise these abilities, neural activity alone is not sufficient. The criteria for the successful exercise of an ability are not a matter of what is or is not in the mind or brain. These criteria—which are normative in nature—are the basis for our attribution of mental states to one another. To outline briefly one of the examples that we will explore below, consider what it means to “have knowledge.” We believe that “knowing” is not (just) having a brain in a particular physical state. Rather, it is having the ability to do certain things (e.g., to answer questions, correct mistakes, act correctly on the basis of information, and so on). Thus, if behavior, and not brain states, constitutes the criteria for “knowledge,” then it will make no sense to say that knowledge is “located” in the brain. The same is true for other psychological predicates—and for the mind itself. So, to the question “where is the mind located – the Cartesian soul or the brain?” – we think the best answer is ”neither.” The question of the mind’s location makes no sense. Humans have minds, but minds are not in them.

The argument is not only reflective of a new paradigm in neuroscience but is remarkably consistent with  ancient Buddhist psychology.

This entry was posted in mind & brain, mindfulness, neuroscience and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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