Rule #2. No Overarching Viewpoint

The toughest rule to follow in the search for GSOT and in philosophy is Rule #2 – The overarching viewpoint is not allowed.

To show how this rule works, let’s attempt to define truth as an accurate mental representation of reality. If true, the mental image, memory, or construct must correspond with whatever is really “out there.” This is called the correspondence theory of truth. It appeals to common sense, but we shall see how it fails because it reaches for an overarching viewpoint and violates the second rule.

The correspondence theory is familiar and comfortable. It returns us to the elementary school classroom. The teacher knew what was real and what was not. She tried to instill appropriate concepts into our heads. Sometimes with a science experiment or a mathematical proof she could demonstrate truth. Then she asked for an accurate written representation of truth at exam time. The answer to each question depended upon the correspondence between each statement and the teacher’s demonstration or authoritative understanding of reality. So was the concept of truth nurtured in us.

Correspondence theory featured 1

But how does the correspondence theory actually work? Try to sketch it out. Imagine that you, an observer, look at an object, say, a tree (Figure 1). An ‘image’ of the tree is entrained not only on the retina of the eye, but also in the pattern of electrical activity found in the visual cortex of the brain. Assuming that ophthalmic and cerebral functions are intact, the brain develops a true representation of the object – the tree (I know, the little tree should be upside down, but I’m trying to explain representation, not optics). At any rate, the process seems to capture something of what of what we mean by truth.

It is only a sketch, but we can try to generalize it. Let the eye in the figure represent not only the sense of vision, but all of the senses by which you may come to understand trees and, particularly, the tree in front of you. Then generalize further by letting the tree represent all that you encounter in the external world, and additionally all the sensations reaching the brain from limbs, bowels, and other organs, so that everything a person experiences is captured by this representation of truth.  In this picture, then, both the external and, at least in some degree, the internal worlds have their place.

However, a significant complication arises. As you contemplate the picture (Figure 1) and its representation of truth, you must recognize that another ‘eye’ has begun to operate – this is your own eye actively contemplating the figure.  Truth is an overarching term. The conception of truth demands not only that you develop a mental representation as best you can, but also that you recognize the whole process as one that embraces truth – a higher plane of judgment.  Pictorially, then, draw a circle around the entire first figure and put another eye above it (Figure 2).  But is this representation (Figure 2) itself true?  If you judge it to be so, then you must repeat the exercise by drawing a second circle and a third eye (Figure 3).  Of course, there is no limit to how many times this might be done.

Correspondence theory 1

Thus the correspondence theory of truth creates a dilemma for the person who wants to know if an observation is true. For the act of observation necessarily includes an object as well as the representation of that object, but does not necessarily include any “observation of observation” – that is, a superimposed observation (Figure 2) of the object, the self (the eye in the picture), and the internal observation. Yet the correspondence theory of truth, in order to establish correspondence, requires that superimposed observation. And if the correspondence theory of truth holds, that is, if it is true, what is the reality to which the correspondence theory itself corresponds? We shall require a third-level observation (Figure 3) of the second-level observation (Figure 2). And then a Figure 4, and 5, and so on. The correspondence theory of truth leads to an infinite regress and thus disappears beyond any reasonable horizon.

Stay within yourself as you observe and think, and as you describe the content of observation and thought. You have no privileged platform from which to survey the field. You are in the midst of a world of objects and other people, and you cannot place yourself above it all. You should not presume to observe yourself observing. That is what it means to say –

The overarching viewpoint is not allowed.

The reader of this blog, and even the author, must remain tentative at this point. Perhaps we have identified a difficulty with the way that we usually think about truth. But what difference does it make to disallow the overarching viewpoint? How might it change, as Charles Peirce would ask, our predisposition to act?

I want to use this 2nd rule to address a philosophical dilemma often discussed over the past 60 years and fairly often assumed to have been resolved. The dilemma is the mind-body problem.

Any proposed solution to the mind-body problem may well inform our belief about the extent to which willful behavior is possible. Our belief about the extent to which behavior can be willed, it seems to me, is likely to make a difference in how we act.

Therefore, let me pose the question as follows…taking care, according to the 1st rule, to frame the question in first-person language:

Does my choice to act in a certain way arise in my mind or in my body?

The answer given by Gilbert Ryle in his 1949 book, The Concept of Mind, is that the mind cannot really be distinguished from the body.[1] According to Ryle, the idea that mind and body are separate entities, termed mind-body dualism, is wrong. Mind-body dualism is wrong despite its appeal to common sense and its philosophical roots dating back to Descartes and even to early Christianity and ancient Greece. Most philosophers of the modern era have agreed with this conclusion. To most of them, the mind simply is the brain. The origins of human mental responses are to be illuminated by study of the brain and its function – that is, by neuroscience and scientific psychology.

However, the modern analysis still begins with an old concept of “mind” that lies somehow parallel to “body,” as if they could be placed beside each other. It delegitimizes “mind” on the basis of the same concept of mind that appeared in the writings of Descartes and St. Paul.

What exactly is that old concept of mind? It views mental operations as occurring in a different realm – a spiritual realm in most formulations – as opposed to physical operations occurring in the tangible world. Though displaced to the spiritual realm, we are supposed to think about those mental operations in roughly the same way that we think about physical operations. The mind is subject to laws that govern its behavior, just as physical matter is subject to laws that govern its behavior.

The body has always been conceived as an object or an assembly of objects that can be studied scientifically. Classically mind has also been conceived as an object, although it is an object existing in a parallel spiritual universe. Objects are conceived to interact with one another in that spiritual realm in a manner largely analogous to the way that objects interact in the physical world. We simply don’t have any other model for interactive objects.

Gilbert Ryle called that scheme “para-mechanical.” And he said that concept of mind doesn’t work.

I agree. The modern criticism of Cartesian or Pauline dualism looks valid to me.

The 2nd rule – no overarching viewpoint – likewise disallows that concept of mind. I cannot look down from some privileged viewpoint upon the operations of my mind.

But the 2nd rule also means – and here I part company with Ryle and the positivists – that I cannot look down upon the operations of my own brain from some privileged viewpoint. Crucially this statement applies to my own brain, not to brains in general, not to any of a number of similar brains. What is different about my own brain? Just this: I live here.

It would seem attractive to suggest that “mind” is the brain viewed from within, while “brain” is the brain viewed from outside, which is the only way that science can look at it. However, “mind” on these terms violates the 2nd rule. I can make it right by suggesting that “mind” is my own brain viewed from within. This concept of mind is not publicly available and certainly not universal.

I am suggesting that the difference between mind and body resembles more the difference between me and others than it resembles the difference between a spiritual and a physical realm.

If we can use “mind” in this way, it should apply equally well to the plural pronouns we and us. Thus it may remain valid to speak of our modern mind versus the ancient, our scientific mind versus the pre-scientific, or our postmodern mind versus the modern.

There is no distinction between my mind, as ordinarily understood, and my brain, viewed from within. But there is a distinction between my brain and brains in general, or between my brain and any brain representative of a number of brains. Between my brain and the brains of other people. Between the conjoined thinking of my group and the thoughts, viewed externally, emanating from some other group.

Adherence to the 2nd rule – no overarching viewpoint – allows us to recognize these distinctions. The 2nd rule keeps us grounded within experience, instead of trying to assume a privileged viewpoint above experience.

Do we understand now how the mind is different from the body? No! Because “the mind” describes a universal concept. As a universal concept, “the mind” is just “the brain.” I agree with Ryle and the positivists on that.

My mind, your mind, and the scope of our ideas and conversation as we live together in the world are different from our brains, understood scientifically, and from all the links of communication between us that are publicly available.

Does all of this make any difference? I suggested earlier that any proposed solution to the mind-body problem might inform our judgment on the extent to which willful behavior is possible. Moreover, whatever this judgment is, it is likely to make a difference in how we act.

As you – or I or we – engage both the external world and our own internal sources, we may find in the dynamic process hints of free will. Free will, like mind, is so closely connected with the first person viewpoint that it cannot be described as if it were an object of observation, that is, it cannot be viewed from an overarching viewpoint. But importantly, free will and a deeper, non-universal concept of mind cannot be excluded on this basis. Our lack of ability to identify these ideas from an overarching viewpoint does not disqualify them, if we understand that the overarching viewpoint is not ours to assume.

Next post: Agreement Is Not Required

Previous post: Free Will Expressed in First-Person

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[1] University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1949.

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