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How to Solve the Problem of Mind ?

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मई 2008
सोम मंगल बुध गुरु शुक्र शनि रवि
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There are numerous aspects of the nature of man and each aspect gives rise to many problems.  Some of these problems are comparatively simple, other deep and perplexing. Throughout time, people have made distinction between the material or physical world and mental or psychical world, the former may be perceived by any observer; the later remains a private experience. Philosophy of mind, today centrally dealing with four issues: the nature of mind and body, mental content, mental causation and consciousness.1 The nature of mind is one of the most important issues that philosophy has to consider and one of the most complex and baffling. The answer depends on our definition of mind and our interpretation of the universe. Any single interpretation of mind is inadequate.

The problem of the nature of mind is central question not only from a view point metaphysical importance, but also from that of human interests. In everyday sphere of human experience the manifestation of the powers of mind is closely perceived.2 The  problem is of course, one part of the philosophical endeavor have been offered. The best way to arrive at the correct solution seems to view the problem in its historical setting.

Numerous theories of mind have been developed through the years. These theories can be classified according to the following simple system used by philosophers concerned with studying  the mind :

  1. mind as a non-material substance
  2. mind as a principle of organization
  3. mind as the sum-total of experiences
  4. mind as a form behavior
  5. mind as a series of thought processes.3

In his most famous work Meditations, Descartes declared that he would not accept anything as true unless it was demonstrated to be beyond doubt: he decided to question everything and begin anew, to adopt a programme of systematic doubt. He defended an ultra-dualism of body and soul in man. For Descartes, there were two substances mind and matter. He made a sharp distinction between them. Mind is immaterial, it is conscious and it is characterized by thinking. Matter is characterized by extension. The human body is a part of the world of matter and it is a subject of its laws.4   He has given the following distinction between the two substances:

    Material Bodies                            Minds

  1. Spatial                                      Non-spatial
  2. Material qualities                     Distinctly mental qualities
  3. Public                                       Private5

He makes the following argumentation:

  1. I have clear and distinct ideas of material substance, the essential or defining attribute of which is extension.
  2. Therefore, it is at least possible that material substances exist.
  3. I have a clear and distinct idea of mental substance, the essential or defining attribute of which is thought.
  4. Therefore, it is at least possible that mental substances exist.
  5. To say that two things are not really distinct means to say that it is impossible that they could exist separately.
  6. Matter and mind can possible exist separately therefore, they must be really distinct.
  7. And although we suppose that God united a body to a soul so closely that it was impossible to form a more intimate union, and thus made composite whole, the two substances would remain really distinct, notwithstanding this union. (Principles of Philosophy, Part One,60-1)

The most difficult problem before Descartes was as to, how these two diametrically opposed substances are united to form a single organism? The answer is given by Descartes is in the form of theory of interactionism. According to this theory mind and body affects one another via pineal gland. Here the relation of mind and body in clearly conceived as causal; through the meditation of the pineal gland a certain interaction is brought about between them. This theory open to many difficulties and there are so many other theories arises like occasionalism, parallelism etc. after it.

In the traditions of British Empiricism, Hume developed his empirical theory to its extreme limit. He was complete empiricist, who refused to allow credit to any element, which could not be in the category of sense experience. This attitude he maintained towards not only the matter but mind also. He refused the existence of mind.

According to Hume, such various elements in our mind as the flow of thought, sensation, imagination, feeling, desire, volition etc. are distinct and independent of each other. Although we definitely experience these elements yet we do not sense presence of any element, which unites them, and therefore, it is difficult to substantiate the existence of any mind. In Hume’s opinion, mind is like the stage of a theatre on which thoughts and ideas come in a procession. All such thought are transitory and temporary. The only reason for suspecting the existence of mind is that the rapidity of their change which an illusion. Some philosophers have argued that if there is no soul then what it that experiences thought and other mental entities is. Hume refutes this argument by stating that thought can experience itself and no mind is required for any such purpose.

Hume would hold that the use of such words as I, me and mine is due to the exigencies of language and that such words do not reveal a metaphysical “self”. What is meant by self, according to Hume, is simply the totality of experiences and nothing more. These experiences in large part are conditioned and organized by principles of association, such as contiguity, and resemblance. All knowledge comes through experience, he held, and the sole content of the human mind is impressions and ideas. Impressions are our simple and elemental experiences; they are lively and vivid. Ideas are only copies of impressions. When we introspect, we find only these fleeting experiences and, ideas which are constantly changing. There is no evidence of any substance or of any permanent self. The mind and the faculties and properties of the mental life were nothing but an association of ideas and experiences. Mind is only a name for the sum total of the experiences, ideas and desires that occupy one’s attention and life. It was a bundle of experiences, or a collection of sensations. Hume wrote:” for my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception and never can observe anything but the perceptions”(A Treatise of Human Nature). Hume denied the more traditional concept of mind.6


Locke and Hume had many followers chief among them are James Mill, A.Brain, J. Sullys, Herbert Spencer, T.Ribot, H.Taine, E.Condollao and the founder of positivism, Auguste Comte. They differ among themselves in many respects, but they all adhere to the general doctrine of empiricism and sensationalist phenomenalism.7


Ryle’s book The Concept of Mind (1949) is a prolonged attack on Cartesian dualism which Ryle mockingly labels it  “the official doctrine “or” the dogma of ghost in the machine.” In his book Ryle has two objectives:


(i) to refute a current philosophical theory about mind.

(ii) to substitute at least in blue print, a satisfactory alternative.


Gilbert Ryle attacked on Mind-body dualism and insists that mind is not something separate and distinct from body and matter. Mind is not another world either parallel to or beyond the ordinary world. Ryle attempts to get rid of what he calls the traditional “dogma of the ghost in the machine”, and rectify the “category-mistake” or the “philosopher’s myth”. This myth occurs when we put the facts of mental life in a category or class to which these facts do not properly belong. So, to talk about the “mind” as a word behind or beyond the activity of the organization of its ideas is a mistake.  Mind is a way in which a person behaves. In his own words,” In opposition to this entire dogma, I am arguing that in describing the workings of a person’s mind, we are not describing a second set of shadowy operations. We are describing certain phases of his one career; namely we are describing the ways in which parts of his conduct are managed”.8


The Objective of the Research


The main objective of this study is to critically evaluate these three views and arrive at a position, which could do philosophical justice to the concept of mind without involving difficulties like Cartesian interactionism or Humian reductionism of mind to fleeting impressions. We would see the problem of mind as a linguistic problem rather than a metaphysical one. The mind is a complex thing including first a group of cognitive tendencies, second a system of adaptive processes which we call behavior, and third consciousness. The mental words will remain in our ordinary-language, but we need not go beyond them and search for entities they are referring to.


When analyising mind, we must recognize life itself. Firstly, because  human life cannot be conceived independently of human mind and vise-versa. Secondly, the above indicated fact entails that our theories or what may be called conceptual analyses of mind must cohere with our ordinary discourse pertaining to human life.  Our theories must remain synthetic and adaptable to new information. In a word, we should adopt Gestalt attitude viz. that the whole is more than the sum of its parts; wholes often have qualities not presented in their parts.



  1. H.H. Titus & others (Ed.), Living Issues in Philosophy ,p.06
  2. J.P. Shukla, The Nature of Mind,p.01
  3. H.H. Titus & others (Ed.),Living Issues in Philosophy,p.66
  4. Brain Cooney (Ed.), The Place of Mind,p.23
  5. John Heil, The Philosophy of Mind, p.23
  6. H.H. Titus & others (Ed.),Living Issues in Philosophy,p.66
  7.  ibid,p.69
  8. Gilbert Ryle , The Concept of Mind,p.49

Note: Writtten for and highlighted in ICPR Fellows Meet 2008 from May 8 to 10,2008 at J.N.U. New Delhi.

Published at: SYPOSIA:the online philosophy journal, Link: http://journal.ilovephilosophy.com/Article/How-to-Solve-the-Problem-of-Mind–/2381


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