Curt J. Ducasse

C. J. Ducasse

(1881-1969), French-born, highly respected Professor of Philosophy at Brown University. Awardee of the Carus Lectures prize (American Philosophical Association). Contributed to the "Journal Information for Philosophy and Phenomenological Research", "Causation", "Immortality" (Edited by Paul Edwards), "Philosophical Dimensions of Parapsychology" (edited by James M. O. Wheatley). Ex-student of Josiah Royce. Pursued a career in philosophy but retained a strong interest in logic - so much so that he took the initiative to create the Association for Symbolic Logic with its Journal of symbolic logic. Among his many important papers on survival are "How the Case of The Search for Bridey Murphy Stands Today" Journal of the ASPR 54: 3-22, and "What Would Constitute Conclusive Evidence of Survival After Death?" Journal of the SPR 41: 401-406. His books included "A Critical Examination of the Belief in Life After Death", "Paranormal Phenomena, Science and Life After Death" (Monograph), "A Philosophical Scrutiny of Religion", "Nature, Mind, And Death", "Truth, Knowledge and Causation", "Philosophy As a Science: Its Matter and Its Method" and "Philosophy of Art".

A Critical Examination of the Belief in a Life After Death - Part 3

Chapter 8: Mind Conceived as Bodily Processes, Matter Conceived as Set of Ideas

1. The contention that thought is a physical process | 2. Connection to be distinguished from identity | 3. Disguised assertions about the word "thought" mistaken for assertions about thought | 4. The radically idealistic conception of material objects

 - Curt J. Ducasse -

Contents | Previous Chapter | Next Chapter

          AMONG THE hypotheses concerning the relation between mind and body, one of the most ancient is the radically materialistic one. Let us consider it first; and then its polar opposite, the radically idealistic hypothesis.

1. The contention that thought is a physical process

The materialistic conception of mind is that "thoughts," "feelings," ideals," "mental processes," or, comprehensively, "states of consciousness," are but other names for material occurences of certain kinds - more specifically, for molecular processes in the tissues of the brain; or for speech, vocal or sub-vocal; or for discriminative and adaptive behavior. This, if true, would entail that the supposition that consciousness persists after death has terminated these material activities is absurd because then obviously self-contradictory.

But as Friedrich Paulsen long ago and others since have made quite clear, no evidence really ever has been or can be offered to support that materialistic conception of mind, for it constitutes in fact only an attempt unawares to force upon the words ',thoughts," "ideas," "feelings," "desires," and so on, a denotation radically other than that which they actually have.

Paulsen writes: "The proposition, Thoughts are in reality nothing but movements in the brain, feelings are nothing but bodily processes in the vaso-motor system, is absolutely irrefutable"; not, however, because it is true but because it is absurd. "The absurd has this advantage in common with truth, that it cannot be refuted. To say that thought is at bottom but a movement is to say that iron is at bottom made of wood. No argument avails here. All that can be said is this: I understand by a thought a thought and not a movement of brain molecules; and similarly, I designate with the words anger and fear, anger and fear themselves and not a contraction or dilation of blood vessels. Suppose the latter processes also occur, and suppose they always occur when the former occur, still they are not thoughts and feelings."(1)

(1) Introduction to Philosophy, transl. F. Thilly, Henry Holt and Co. N.Y. 1895, pp. 82-3.

Words such as "thought," "feeling," etc., have two possible functions. One is to predicate of something certain characters which the word connotes; the other is to indicate - point at, denote, tag, direct attention to - certain occurrences or entities. And the fact is that, just as our finger does point at whatever we point it at, or just as a tag does tag and identify whatever we tag with it, so do our words denote - name, tag, direct attention to - whatever we use them to denote. And what we use the words "thought," "feelings," etc., to denote are occurrences with which we are directly familiar, and which are patently quite different from those we denote by the words "molecular motions in the brain" or "modes of bodily behavior."

Hence, however much there may be that we do not know about states of consciousness or about bodily processes, however close and intimate may turn out to be the relation between them, and whatever the particular nature of that relation may be, it is at all events not identity.

2. Connection to be distinguished from identity

The point just made, although elementary, is crucial. Hence, even at the risk of laboring it, a few words will be added in order to render it unmistakable.

Let us consider the case, say, of the moon and the earth. They are connected and influence one another, but the moon and the earth are not one and the same thing. Hence it is possible to know much about one of them and little about the other. On the other hand, the thing which the words "the moon" denote is identically the same thing as that which the words "la lune," or the words "the earth's largest satellite," denote; and the identity entails that, although one might not know all three of these names of that single thing, nevertheless, whatever (other than some of its names) one happened to know, or to be ignorant of, about the thing denoted by one of them, one would necessarily know it, or be ignorant of it, about the thing denoted by either of the other two names. For one thing only is concerned, not three.

Now, a parallel conclusion follows in the case of, say, the word "pain" and the words "a certain motion of the molecules of the nerve cells of the brain." If these two sets of words both denoted - i.e., were but two different names for - one single event, then any person who at a given moment knows pain, i.e., experiences the particular feeling which the word "pain" denotes, would necessarily know which particular motion of which particular things the words "a certain motion of molecules in the brain" denote at that moment; for, under the supposition, one event only would be occurring, but denoted equally by each of those two different names. But the patent fact is on the contrary that all men know directly and only too well the event itself which the word "pain" denotes. They know it in the sense of experiencing it, whether or not they happen to know also that it is called "pain"; whereas no man knows what particular molecular motion is occurring in the nerve cells of his brain at the time he feels pain; and only a few men know even that molecular motions occur there. Moreover, even this they know not empirically and directly as on the contrary every man knows pain, but know it only indirectly through theoretical inferences.

How one comes to learn that "pain" is the English name of the feeling he or someone else has on a given occasion is one question; but what that feeling itself is (and no matter what, if anything, it is called at the time) is another question. One learns what pain is by having pins stuck into him, and in various other manners that likewise cause it to occur. "Pain" is the name of the feeling caused in these various ways.

The concrete occurrences which the word "pain," and the words "thought," "ideas" "desires" "sensations," "mental states," etc., denote in English, are quite familiar at first hand to all of us, for they are directly experienced by us and open to our introspective attention; and what introspection reveals is, for example, that the event we denote by the word "pain" when we say "I have a pain" does not in the least resemble - to say nothing of being identically - what attention to perceptually public facts reveals when directed perhaps to the cutting or burning of the skin, or to the writhing or shrinking behavior or to the groans on such an occasion; or to the words "I have a pain," or to the (postulated, not observed) molecular motions in the brain.

All these are material events, and no doubt are connected with the mental event called "pain," which occurs when they occur. But connection is one thing and identity is wholly another.

This simple fact, which becomes patent if only one attends strictly to the denotation of the "material" and of the "mental" terms, strangely eludes some of. the writers who express themselves on the subject of the mind-body relation. Dr. C. S. Myers, for example, in his L. T. Hobhouse Memorial Lecture for 1932 entitled "The Absurdity of any Mind-Body Relation," writes:

"The conclusion which I have at length reached is that the notion of any relation between mind and body is absurd - because mental activity and living bodily activity are identical. The most highly specialized forms of these two activities are, respectively, conscious processes and the processes of living brain matter." (p.6)

But obviously what is absurd is to do, as these statements do, both of the following things: On the one hand. to mention two activities, to wit, the activity called "mental" and the activity called "living bodily activity" - both of which are observable and when observed are found to be each patently unlike the other; and yet, on the other hand, to assert that these two utterly dissimilar activities are identically one and the same!

Farther on, we shall consider specifically another contention which is often confused with this and which-however otherwise open to criticism - is anyway not absurd; namely, the contention that mental activity and living bodily activity are two aspects of one same process.

In conclusion, then, since connection is one thing and identity wholly another, the fact that the events which the expression "mental events" denotes, and certain of the events which the expression "material events" denotes (specifically, certain neural or behavioral events) are perhaps so connected as to form a "psychophysical unity" - this fact does not entail, as Lamont and others have alleged, that the unity is indissoluble; but only that, so long as the connection remains what it has been, the two series of quite dissimilar events-the mental and the bodily-continue ... to form "a psychophysical unity"!

What cessation of the connection may entail as regards continuance, or not, either of the bodily series or of the mental one, depends on the specific nature of the connection, and cannot be inferred simply from the fact that during the life of the body, the two were in some way united, i.e., closely connected.

3. Disguised assertions about the word "thought" mistaken for assertions about thought

Some additional remarks are called for at this point in order to account for the fact that such statements as that thought is really a motion of molecules in the brain, or is really a particular mode of bodily behavior, have been made by some intelligent persons and have been considered by them penetrating instead of absurd as in fact they are.

The first thing to note is that of course anybody can devise and use language that differs from the common language in that certain words of the common language-for example, the words "thoughts," "ideas," "feelings," "desires," "mental states" - are employed in the devised language to denote certain things - for example, brain states of certain kinds - which are radically other than the things they denote in the common language.

Moreover, a person who is using such a subverted language may be unaware that he is doing so and may assume, as naturally will his hearers, that when, for instance, he makes the statement that "thought is really a motion of molecules in the brain," he is using the common language.

That statement, however, when taken as made in the common language, is so paradoxical that hearers of it are likely to assume - humbly though in fact gratuitously - that somehow it must express a truth which the utterer of it perceives, but which the hearer is as yet unable to apprehend. And the utterer too but proudly instead of humbly - is likely to assume this.

On the other hand, if one allows neither humility nor pride to becloud one's judgment, then what one perceives is that the statement "thought is really a motion of molecules in the brain" is in fact not worded in the common language; and that to make that statement is on the contrary to perform an act of subversion of the common language.

That is, one perceives that the statement is in fact not an assertion about thought itself and molecular motion itself, but only about the words "thought" and "molecular motion;" and that, in that assertion, the word, "really," expresses not at all an insight, but only the utterer's naive preference for language as in so far subverted!

The case is thus exactly parallel, except in one irrelevant respect, to a case where a Frenchman who, using English but holding with naive pride that French is the one "real" language, were to say: "A dog is really un chien." He would appear to himself and to others to be talking about dogs, but he would in fact be talking only about the word "dog" and claiming that it would be preferable to use instead the word "chien." The minor and only difference between the two cases is that "dog" and "chien" belong to two independent languages but have the same denotation in each; whereas both the word "thought" and the words "molecular motion in brain cells" belong to the same language, to wit, English, but, in it, do not have the same denotation. They would have it only in (materialistically) subverted English.

The statement that thought is really a motion of molecules in the brain thus operates as do the statements in which communists - sometimes perhaps equally sincerely but then naively - use "liberation" to denote enslavement and "democracy" to denote tyranny: Such statements only befuddle both the persons who make them honestly and the persons who accept them uncritically.

4. The radically idealistic conception of material objects

Only a few words will now be needed to make evident that the radically idealistic conception of material objects is invalidated by the same kind of absurdity which we have seen invalidates the radically materialistic conception of mind.

Paulsen, it will be remembered. rightly insists that feelings, sensations, or thoughts themselves, which are introspectively known to all of us, are what the words "feelings," "sensations," or "thoughts" denote, and not the very different things denoted on the contrary by such expressions as "motions of molecules in in the brain" or "modes of bodily behavior."

Now, conversely here, we must insist that when we use the latter expressions, or the broader expression "material events and objects," we denote by them material events and objects themselves, or motions of molecules or modes of behavior themselves and not, as Berkeley would have it, certain groups of systematically associated sensations; for these are something very different indeed. They are elements in the process of perceiving material objects, but not in the material objects themselves, which exist independently of whether they are or are not being perceived.

The contention of a radical idealism would be on the contrary that what the words "material objects" denote is, identically, the same as what the words "perceivings of material objects" denote; namely the particular kind of state of consciousness which such perceiving constitutes. As in the case of the analogous radical materialistic claim, this radical idealistic claim too cannot be refuted; and this, again not because it is true but because it is absurd. It can and need be met only by flat denial: The words "the object perceived” do not, in English as distinguished from Idealese, denote the same thing as the words "the perceiving of an object;" and words do denote what we employ them to denote. To assert that the two expressions denote one and the same thing, instead of each something different, is not to set forth a novel truth but only here again to subvert the English language and thereby to muddle oneself and possibly one's hearers or readers. What specifically the relation is between the material object perceived and the psychological events - sensations and others - that enter into the process of perceiving the object is a most interesting but intricate question, into which fortunately we do not need to go for present purposes. What need be said is only that, whatever may be the relation between the two it is anyway not identity.

Contents | Previous Chapter | Next Chapter



Contents | Preface | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16 | Chapter 17 | Chapter 18 | Chapter 19 | Chapter 20 | Chapter 21 | Chapter 22 | Chapter 23 | Chapter 24 | Chapter 25 | Chapter 26

Home | Intro | News | Investigators | Articles | Experiments | Photographs | Theory | Library | Info | Books | Contact | Campaigns | Glossary | Search


Some parts The International Survivalist Society 2004