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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Ryle on Science and Descartes

I once again find myself having to defend Ryle against confused interpretations of his work. In this instance, the false allegations are that Ryle hated science, that Ryle didn't understand science, and that Ryle denied that human behavior has internal causes. These claims were made during a discussion at PhilPapers by Jonathan C. W. Edwards (Jo, as he prefers to be called), who apparently is a retired university faculty member in the field of biomedical sciences, and who is now a graduate student in philosophy. Jo started the discussion to talk about Descartes' attitude towards science and physicalism. One of Jo's more bizarre claims is that Descartes' mind/body distinction is a scientific and metaphysical precursor to the contemporary boson-fermion distinction in particle physics. I challenged him directly on that point, but I won't go into the details here. I'm more interested in defending Ryle.

Jo is interested in Ryle primarily because of Ryle's well-known objection to what he calls "Descartes' Myth": the notion that human bodies are controlled by some kind of "ghost in the machine" (Ryle, The Concept Of Mind, 1949, Chapter 1). This "double life legend" has it that the lives of our bodies are paralleled or complemented by an inner life--the life of our minds--and that this inner life has unique causal properties all its own. The mind is not "in space" the way our bodies are in space. It does not move about according to the laws of motion. On the contrary, it acts according to some other laws or principles.

Ryle argues that this approach to understanding the mind and human behavior is a mistake. However, he does not thereby argue that minds actually do act according to the laws of physics or any other science. Rather, he says that minds aren't the sort of thing that can be said to act at all. Ryle replaces the double-life legend with a different view of the mind: the mind is not a special place or sort of thing with causal properties at all. Minds don't exist in that sense. Rather, the language we use to attribute and talk about minds has a different logic--it circulates as a different sort of currency. Minds are better thought of as complex sets of dispositions exhibited by complex organisms, says Ryle, and not as things or systems, or even processes, which act in the world.

Ryle is a physicalist. He does not suppose that human dispositions entail some non-physical components. Everything that happens is governed by the laws of physics, he says, and he accepts the possibility of discovering all of the physical causes of human behavior. He certainly wouldn't deny that brains (or any other internal organs) are of the utmost significance on that front. Yet, he argues that once we start talking about persons--once we adopt the mental idiom, attributing intelligence, decisions, judgments, and thoughts, for example--we are no longer in the sphere of physics, chemistry, or physiology.

Ryle makes the point repeatedly. For example, on page 78, he writes: "there is no contradiction in saying that one and the same process . . . is in accordance with two principles of completely different types and such that neither is 'reducible' to the other, though one of them presupposes the other." The logic of psychological explanations is not reducible to the logic of physical explanations, even though the subject matter--human behavior--is subject to both types of account, and even though a psychological account presupposes a physical one. No aspects of human behavior are outside the province of physics; yet, the logic of psychological explanations is not reducible to the logic of physics. The terms we employ in psychological accounts cannot simply be absorbed by physics. If we were to describe human behavior in the language of physics, we would not find any terms which would be equivalent to "mind" or "thought." We'd rather just have found a way around those concepts. So, for example, questions like "What are the physical, chemical, or physiological properties of a decision?" are nonsensical, the result of a category error, and are likely to mislead our attempts to understand human behavior.

Jo's initial objection to Ryle was this: Ryle says that Descartes claims that bodies and not minds exist "in space," whereas Descartes does not suppose that anything, not even bodies, exist "in space." The point is that Descartes denied that there was empty space which was just lying around waiting for stuff to move about in it. Yet, Descartes does have bodies "occupying space," and he differentiates minds and bodies on that basis. For Descartes, bodies are by definition extended, which means they occupy space; minds are not extended, but are "thinking things." The notion of spatial extension is fundamental to Descartes' mind/body distinction. So, while Jo might have a point that the phrase "in space" can potentially cause confusion in a discussion of Descartes' physics, this does not count as a substantive point against Ryle. Ryle is critiquing Descartes' mind/body distinction, and that critique does not depend on his using the phrase "in space" instead of "occupying space."

To defend Descartes against Ryle, we need to look closer at what Ryle says. Jo unfortunately hasn't come through on his end of the discussion. He instead seems bent on dismissing Ryle as an anti-scientific incompetent. Jo tried to use Ryle's non-reducibility argument (from page 78, mentioned above) as evidence that Ryle denies that science can account for human behavior. That is just absurd. Then, to support his claim that Ryle hated science, Jo relies heavily on a piece by Dennett from the 1970s in which Dennett states (without any argumentative or textual support) that Ryle had an anti-scientific bias. I don't see a good reason to give Dennett the benefit of the doubt here, since he is in direct conflict with what Ryle says on the subject. (We should not appeal to the fact that Dennett was one of Ryle's students. Even very intelligent students can misunderstand their teachers some of the time, and Dennett is on record as being confounded by Ryle's indirect teaching methods.) Furthermore, after I explained that Ryle's argument was about the difference between mental and physical idioms, and not about the causes of human behavior, Jo claimed I was making Ryle out to be more complex and sophisticated than he really is. Jo says that if I'm right, then Ryle does not clearly state the purpose of The Concept of Mind. Yet, I don't think Ryle could have been clearer. He explicitly and repeatedly states that he is talking about idioms, that he is concerned with the logic of the language we use to talk about human behavior.

Perhaps I shouldn't be so concerned when Ryle gets this kind of treatment from a grad student. The problem is that it also happens by professionals in published papers. There is still work to be done towards recovering Ryle's insights and arguments.