Our minds aren’t in our heads

Yesterday, I finished reading Alva Noë’s Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness. The book is mainly a critique of research programs in the scientific study of consciousness and perception, and in this respect it does not intend to set out a full-blooded account of what our mental life is and is like. Still, it gives us the proper orientation we need in order to understand the layout of our mental lives.

With  Noë, we can say that

1.) The brain does not think, feel, or create of its own resources alone a picture of the world; it is the mind that thinks and feels, and it is the mind for which a world ‘shows up.’

2.) The brain enables mental activities but so does the environment. So, the brain is no more than a necessary condition for mindedness.

3.) The mind just is the dynamic interaction or interplay of brain, body, and lived environment.

A few implications for philosophizing as a way of life follow.

4.) Mental disorders or mental illnesses do not exist (an ontological claim), though brain illnesses and body illnesses clearly do. With Gilbert Ryle, we can say that we can mind what we do. We can do things attentively or inattentively, carelessly or carefully, heedfully or heedlessly, etc. Our mental lives can be disorganized, scattered, or disjointed, etc., or focused, concentrated, and integrated, etc.

5.) Quite naturally, philosophers have no business studying the brain, but they do have reason to investigate what our mental life is and is like, with a particular focus (or so I think) on the ‘fitness’ of clear thinking, feeling, and engaging.

5.) It is vital, therefore, that philosophers who wish to lead a philosophical life cultivate the mental life excellently and beautifully as well as teach others to cultivate the mental life excellently and beautifully.

When the mind is clear, we read in the Daoist works, then we wei follows. Wu wei means ‘doing nothing’ in the contemplative life, acting spontaneously in the active life. But how does philosophy as a way of life bring us into contact with wu wei? How does philosophy teach us to come to as well as remain true to this style of thinking-acting excellently and beautifully?

What Dancy’s Late Late Show appearance has to say about the philosopher’s disappearance

On April 1, 2010, the professional philosopher Jonathan Dancy, who happens to be the father-in-law of Claire Danes, appeared on the Late Late Show to speak with Craig Ferguson about moral philosophy in general and about moral particularism more specifically. Let it be said from the first that I am quite sympathetic to Dancy’s view of moral particularism, an account of ethics according to which the right thing to do does not require a ready supply of moral principles to equip one with reasons for acting morally. In his book, Ethics without Principles, he defends this view that the moral agent acts by paying attention to the salient features of the case at hand and does so with a logical rigor for which analytic philosophy is well-known. Daoism and Aristotelianism also, though in different ways, give one to understand that the morally virtuous person is a person who has learned to act spontaneously (wu wei) or to sharpen his moral perception. In the ethical life, no moral principles are required and when they are offered, they offer us no help in our moral deliberations.

Still, Dancy shows his professional philosopher’s hand. The turning point of the interview occurs around the 6:30 mark. Ferguson presses Dancy to say something to the effect that moral philosophers know better how to live than their fellow layperson, yet Dancy refuses to play along. (One would have thought, Ferguson seems to assume, that a life spent considering questions of right and wrong would make one fit for acting rightly and for not acting wrongly.) Dancy replies,

As a philosopher, I’m not in the business of telling people how to live. I’m in the business of trying to understand something. What I’m trying to understand is what it is for actions to be right and what it is for actions to be wrong…. Most moral philosophers are singularly ill-equiped to do that [i.e., to tell individuals how to live].

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