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Isabelle Dienstag is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

I'm Ugly - Spoken Word Poetry

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, pages.

Alas, that hope is dashed by the knowledge argument. Well, so much the worse for physicalism, you might think. Epiphenomenalism is the doctrine that nothing mental ever causes anything physical. To borrow an analogy from William James, the epiphenomenalist thinks that mental phenomena are like shadows—they are produced by and accompany material objects like sticks and stones, but shadows themselves never play any role in explaining why sticks break and stones fall.

Suppose someone waves her hand. What causes her hand to move? The answer, presumably, is a very complicated story involving the firing of neurons in her primary motor cortex, the transmission of these signals to the spinal cord, and the contraction of muscle fibers in her hand. Importantly, this story is entirely physical—no nonphysical subjective character is needed to get her hand moving.

That her experience has a distinctive nonphysical subjective character does not explain why she waves her hand: a total explanation is given by citing physical facts about activity in the primary motor cortex and the like. For extra vividness, we can think of the subject as Mary herself. Mary is astonished when she comes out of the room; her jaw drops, and she gasps in amazement.

Even though there are nonphysical qualia, and Mary learns about them on her release, they do not explain why anything physical happens. Clearly and vigorously written, and imbued with an air of excitement and discovery, the book drew together various antiphysicalist arguments, including the knowledge argument, to make a powerful case that consciousness—unlike glaciation, photosynthesis, and everything else—is not a physical phenomenon. Soon water coolers throughout the land were echoing with debates about the mind—body problem, and Chalmers rapidly ascended to become one of the most famous living philosophers.

Nowhere near as famous as the Dalai Lama, but we in the profession are pathetically grateful for any publicity. Chalmers calls his position naturalistic dualism. Descartes thought that the mental in general was not epiphenomenal. The postulation of electric and magnetic fields was necessary because existing physical theories could not account for electromagnetic phenomena. Nothing unscientific about that, obviously. Instead, Chalmers mostly draws on an argument that goes back to Descartes, which the philosopher Saul Kripke showed in his classic Naming and Necessity to be considerably more powerful than had previously been realized.

The basic idea behind the Cartesian argument can be explained without getting into the later technical details. Since this principle is crucial for the argument to work, we should pause briefly to note its seductiveness. Of the things we know, some concern what actually happens. We know, for instance, that Bush won the last U.

We also know that ripe tomatoes are red, that every unicycle is less than a mile high, that vixens are female foxes, and that two plus two makes four. Tomatoes are red, but they might not have been—they could have been blue, for example.

Poem of the week: Night Subway by Katha Pollitt | Books | The Guardian

Unicycles are generally of modest height, but offhand there could have been a mile-high unicycle. We also know that certain situations could not have obtained, no matter how the world had turned out. All vixens are female foxes—there could not have been a male vixen. Two plus two makes four, and not even the Party can make two plus two make five. We know that Bush won by reading the newspaper, that tomatoes are red by seeing that they are, and so on. How do we know that Kerry could have won and that tomatoes could have been blue? And similarly with impossibilities: we know that vixens could not have been male and that two plus two could not have made five because we cannot imagine a male vixen or two plus two making five.

Here is how Chalmers—following earlier philosophers—employs the principle to argue against physicalism. Specifically, there could not be such a creature as zombie-Dave, who is in the right physical states but who is not conscious. Lighting is a physical phenomenon: it just is a certain kind of electrical discharge.

Hence, there could not be that kind of electrical discharge without lightning. The second step in the argument is that zombie-Dave is clearly and distinctly imaginable. By the first step, if consciousness is entirely physical then zombie-Dave could not have existed. Hence: consciousness is not entirely physical, and dualism is true. Even without reinforcement, it should seem worth taking seriously. When you imagine such a towering machine, are you imagining that it is built like an actual unicycle, with a tubular steel frame and so on?

Are you perhaps imagining a unicycle constructed from some exotic science-fictional alloy, or imagining that gravity somehow works differently? In fact, some think that closer examination shows the principle to be false—we can imagine a mile-high unicycle, just like an ordinary unicycle only higher, zipping around here on Earth, but what we imagine could not have obtained.

Nagel argued that, at least in our present state of ignorance, we do not understand how it could be true that the subjective character of experience is entirely physical. Significantly, Nagel did not see the need to go into any messy empirical details in order to show the inadequacy of any attempt to reduce consciousness to the physical. That should seem surprising. According to a common myth, Hegel purported to give an a priori proof that there are only seven planets.

Further reading

Of course such a proof would be ludicrous. But that assumption about armchair access to our experiences might be wrong. Perhaps, Arnauld said, we only have partial access: granted, the mind does not seem to be physical, but this aspect of its nature may be hidden from us. It is misleading to say that a reduction of lightning to an electrical discharge leaves out our experiences of lightning—they were never in the investigation to begin with.

If any items are left out by the reduction, they are the properties of lightning that we detect by means of our parochial perceptual apparatus and that other creatures do not. Here is another way of putting the point, using the example of the bat.

Katha Pollitt

This may be a genuine and serious problem, or it may not; either way, it is a problem about insects and obstacles, not a problem about consciousness. But there is also the opposing temptation to see a profound philosophical problem in a place where there is really none. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein emphasized, such philosophical mirages are often produced by an apparently inevitable but erroneous picture of the phenomenon under investigation—experience, morality, free will, or the self, to take some central examples. Characteristic of Pollitt's narrative-style is this shift from the local detail to the historical wide angle.

The image of the Persian king surveying his shining army, and his tears at the brevity of life described by Herodotus in the Histories has the effect of stilling the poem, and holding those figures in the train similarly suspended. The rich significance of their ordinariness is simultaneously registered and erased, as we look back at the passengers, and then into the future where they no longer exist.

It's important to remember that soldiers of many different nationalities served in Xerxes's army: Phoenicians, Jews, Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians. The poem could possibly have ended here.


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  3. Poem of the week: Night Subway by Katha Pollitt.

But there's a third dimension. Yet the last two lines of Night Subway are a lot less melancholy.

Katha Pollitt

This little envoi includes images arranged vertically as well as horizontally. The river, of course, moves in a linear manner, like the train, and the clouds move similarly across the moon. Time hasn't stopped, as it seemed to stop in the previous segment. But, in the notion of the river "rejoicing in the moon", the moment of precious vitality has been restored. The poem might be read as a modern "carpe diem". This time, it's the night which holds the fleeting treasures of life.

The Mind/ Body Problem by Katha Pollitt

You can read more of her work here , or, better still, check out the entire collection. I've chosen a poem that reveals Pollitt's human warmth and her ability to take imaginative, connective leaps in time. For all the likability of her work, I've found many poems which caused the hairs on the back of my neck to tingle, and this is one of them. The nurse coming off her shift at the psychiatric ward nodding over the Post, her surprisingly delicate legs shining darkly through the white hospital stockings, and the Puerto Rican teens, nuzzling, excited after heavy dates in Times Square, the girl with green hair, the Hasid from the camera store, who mumbles over his prayerbook the nameless name of God, sitting separate, careful no woman should touch him, even her coat, even by accident, the boy who squirms on his seat to look out the window where signal lights wink and flash like the eyes of dragons while his mother smokes, each short, furious drag meaning Mens no good they tell you anything —.