Metaphysics,  Mind-Body Problem,  Neuroscience,  Philosophy of Mind,  Physicalism

The Endless Search For Empirical Evidence Against Folk Psychology

Many arguments for physicalism, the view that all that exists is describable in terms of physics, assume that, at some point, there will be enough convincing empirical evidence to show that folk psychology, the view that mental stuff or souls exist, is false. 
Let’s be clear: this would be a monumental feat and, so far, no one has come close. And, absent any empirical evidence, folk psychology carries on. So, what kind of evidence would do it? You can’t exactly show anyone that there is no mental/soulish stuff in the world. It’s no good pointing at a brain and saying, “see! There’s no soul there!” What you would need is some way to show that one can manipulate physical stuff in such a way that mental stuff becomes highly implausible. 
Many philosophers thought that such evidence was available when it was noted that personality and mental function is dramatically altered by physical changes. But this doesn’t go far enough. It really doesn’t threaten folk psychology as much as is needed. Others suggest A.I. is just around the corner. If we can make a physical thing that does all the mental and soulish things we can do, then what would be left for souls and minds? Although A.I. makes for excellent fiction, it is not imminent and far from a safe bet.

So, what else? 

Here’s one possibility: If one could show that personal identity could be transferred from one person to another using only physical means then this would provide evidence that mental stuff is really just physical stuff. 

In the movie, Criminal, starring Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, and Tommy Lee Jones, a CIA agent’s memories are implanted into another guy’s head:

In a last-ditch effort to stop a diabolical plot, a dead CIA operative’s memories, secrets, and skills are implanted into an unpredictable and dangerous death-row inmate in hopes the he will complete the operative’s mission.

This would certainly count as empirical evidence for something. A person’s life is sucked from the brain of one person and injected into another brain thus transferring some part of the dead guy’s life to the brain of Kevin Costner. Assumed here is something like a Lockean view of personal identity. On the Lockean view, personal identity is related to psychological continuance. I am my life and my life is a story, a collection of memories. Memories, according to the movie, are physical things that can be squeezed into a syringe and injected into someone else’s brain thus granting them access to those memories. [DISCLAIMER: I’ve only seen the trailer so there may be more to it, but what I saw included a huge syringe going into Costner’s head]

So, how close are we to transferring minds? Well, not that close. Do you really think a memory could float in fluid?

What might work instead is some kind of information transfer to the brain via something physical, a computer, for example. The other day I thought someone might have done it. Apparently, a research company in California have attempted to enhance training through brain stimulation. The title of one report spins it in terms of “uploading” knowledge into the brain. However, if you watch the video, it is clear that no one is claiming to be able to transfer information into the brain: 

So, no, no one has yet discovered how to actually implant memories or any information into the brain. One might be able to aid the brain’s function, but information transfer is not the same as stimulation and enhancement. A cup of coffee gives me no new knowledge even if it makes me read faster.

It would, if it was ever made possible, count strongly in favor of physicalism. If information could be transferred from a computer to a mind using only physical inputs (wires plugged into the head etc) that would up the ante on those who hold to mental entities in their ontology.

The search, I think, will be just what the title of the post suggests: endless. 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.