22 October 2012

The Meaning of Mind (1996) - Thomas Szasz

The subtitle of The Meaning of Mind by Thomas Szasz is "Language, Morality and Neuroscience" - but it's important to note the Szasz was a professor of psychiatry.  This is a short book, and a dense one as well - I never read more than about 20 pages at a time.  I felt that Szasz makes some important points that I agree with, and he is also pretty damn funny at times.  His approach may also be described as arrogant.

One of his main points is to argue against the common (mis-)use of language that equates mind with brain.  At a purely linguistic level this equation seems to fall apart quickly.  As he puts it on page 92, "When a journalist wants to categorize a crime as particularly heinous, he calls it 'mindless,' not 'brainless.' The point is obvious. A brainless person cannot commit a crime, just as an eyeless person cannot see."  Further down the page,
The terms 'brain' and 'mind' belong to different conceptual categories and different modes of discourse.  The brain is a bodily organ and a part of medical discourse. The mind is a personal attribute and a part of moral discourse.  So long as we view personal conduct commonsensically, we attribute (bad) behavior to the mind or, more precisely, to the person who displays it.  However, once we view such conduct psychiatrically (and legally), we typically attribute it to the brain: We say that the bad man is mad, or that the madman is bad, because he has a brain disease.
For Szasz, the role of personal responsibility is key, and he sees both psychiatry and neuroscience as chipping away at responsibility, turning many matters into questions of the neuro chemical mix.  Szasz argues that in fact mind is more of a verb than a noun - i.e. we can't point to a thing identified as the mind, but we can talk about a person 'minding'.  If we reduce all behavior to brain activity, then there's no telling how creative people will get about claiming behavior as brain disorder, and then coming up with neuro-chemical 'solutions.' (see also this earlier post:  Did your brain make you do it?)

I agree with the point that 'mind' and 'brain' are in two different categories, and while mind (or minding) seems dependent on an operating brain (and nervous system and sensory inputs and some body!), to explore the mind is to speak about experiences, not neurons and neuro-chemicals.  I'm not sure about the mind being only part of a "moral discourse" however.  The point of this blog is that there can be scientific explorations of the experiences of mind, and how these experiences seem to create a feedback loop with the brain (i.e. from simple attention/learning to meditation and its impact on brain waves, etc.).

Thus I fully agree with this point from Szasz in his epilogue (p. 140):
I dare say there is something bizarre about the materialist-reductionist's denial of persons. To be sure, brains in craniums exist; and so do persons in societies. The material substrates of a human being - a person - are organs, tissues, cells, molecules, atoms and subatomic particles. The material substrates of a human artifact - say a wedding ring - are crystals, atoms, electrons in orbits, and so forth. Scientists do not claim to be able to explain the economic or emotional value of a wedding ring by identifying its material composition; nor do they insist that a physicalistic account of its structure is superior to a cultural and personal account of its meaning. Yet, many scientists, from physicists to neurophysiologists, claim that they can explain choice and responsibility by identifying its material substrate - that "life can be explained in terms of ordinary physics and chemistry."  (Editorial note: the last bit is a quote from a Nature article).
I frequently get this same sense about neuroscientists' writing - it's trying so hard to do away with any kind of dualism that it also seems to go hard reductionist about all human behavior, and I don't think it's a necessary or appropriate way to learn about minding.

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