on October 8, 2015
Jaegwon Kim is a leading thinker in philosophy of mind, and this book is the culmination of his evolving thought in this field. Kim presents himself as a somewhat reluctant advocate for reductionist physicalism. Kim notes the dominant view of mind in analytic philosophy of the last half century has been a non-reductive physicalism, and this work is primarily a critique of that viewpoint.
The writing and tone of this work are both noteworthy. Kim’s writing is the clearest I have read in any philosophy text. While he uses some technical terms, and refers to some arcane or abstract issues in debate in philosophy of mind, the vast majority of the paragraphs in this book can be easily understood by any educated reader (with the exception of chapter 5 of 6, which dissects and rebuts a series of ideas advocated by other philosophers – it was difficult to follow for someone who has not read those works). The tone is even more unusual. Kim approaches the questions of mind not as an advocate, but as a collaborator with his colleagues, and treats their collective disputes as the collaboration needed to sift out flawed ideas. He regularly admits to shortcomings in models and how well they match the problem, which is a refreshing change from advocates of an idea who strive to paper over or blow smoke around any weaknesses of their pet theory.
The clarity of writing, honesty in recognizing weaknesses, and collaborative attitude made this book a joy to read.
The core of the book is a section which points out that a “coupling” concept tying consciousness intimately with neural processes, called supervenience, basically boils down to either consciousness not being causal, or an identity theory between consciousness and some neural function. Kim spells out four assumptions shared by the majority position of philosophers of mind:
• Causal closure of physics
• Causal exclusion
• Mind-body supervenience
• Irreducibility of mental to physical
And derives either non-causality or material reductionism for mental phenomenal from them. As he is critiquing the majority view of philosophers here, this is a bold claim.
He then points out that physics closure requires that only physical processes can be causal, and therefore if the mental is causal, it must be identical with some aspect of physical neurology.
Kim’s version of identity/reduction is weaker than reductionism is generally stated. Rather than asserting that a mental function is identical with one and only one architecture of one substrate, he asserts that any architecture of any substrate that performs the function could be considered identical to the function.
Kim clearly cares about the reality of the mind. He states an interest in “saving” conscious causation, which lead him to advocate reduction of consciousness to physical neural identity. He is also worried over “eliminativism”, the process of trivializing/ignoring the mental that most reductionist philosophers adopt, so he is a reluctant reductionist.
The causal/non-causal question recurred in discussing the perception aspects of consciousness. Kim referenced the multiple debates over qualia, and cites a consensus of philosophers that qualia are not reducible to the physical. Which leads him to conclude qualia have no causal effect. This is the “near enough” of the books title. Kim admits that some aspects of mind are not physical – ie physicalism is wrong – but also asserts that they are causally irrelevant, hence physicalism is “near enough” of an approximation for us to use for the world.
In an ancillary chapter, Kim rejects substance dualism, based on causation requiring some method of “pairing” between cause and effect, and a mental substance having no space dimension to provide the pairing, and Kim not being able to imagine anything but space providing such pairing. This last point was a crucial failing. The argument basically consisted of an argument from incredulity or failure of imagination. Kim’s initial point is correct, any physics of “mind” must include features that vary the degree of influence of a mental event on different physical substrates (I raise my hand, not yours), and something that limits how many minds can influence a body (why aren’t 5000 minds sending me in 5000 directions right now). But his inability to conceive of anything other than location that could do this is more an indication of HIS lack of familiarity with model construction than any real problem. The discussion was also peculiarly dated, as it often assumed pre-Newtonian Leibnitzian physics, where interaction required "contact" between solids, and also depended on "no superposition". Macro solids do not superimpose, but elementary particles, liquids, gases, plasma, and energy fields superimpose, and elementary particles and energy fields do not need to "contact" to interact.
Kim’s rejection of causation for items with non-locality means he rejects that ideas can cause ideas. This means he must reject functionalism – where logical state B follows logical state A due to the laws of the function. As we are familiar with many logic and mathematical laws, and their apparent functional causation within the function-space (example, what is 2 + 2 = ?), Kim’s claim for causal incoherence for anything lacking location is hardly credible.
Kim declares partial victory for physicalism in his conclusion, but this claim is misplaced. He starts with an assumption of physical closedness, and tries to defend physicalism, but ends up having to admit that there are real non-physical aspects to our world. When one’s assumptions lead to contradictions, then one’s assumptions are wrong. Additionally, “near enough” is what engineering delivers -- occasional exceptions can be pragmatically ignored. In philosophy and science, the goal is “truth”. And exceptions to the rule provide crucial clues – most science breakthroughs have come from focusing on exceptions and anomalies.
The appropriate conclusion to Kim’s book should be that physicalism needs as a minimum to be reconsidered. The most obvious assumption to reconsider is causal closure of the physical. Kim’s support for causal closure is to reference articles by David Papineau – who basically cites a 100 year near-consensus of philosophers. As Kim considers the half-century of behaviorism in philosophy ignoring the mind to have been a mistaken consensus, and is challenging the subsequent half century consensus view of non-reductive physicalism, a consensus of philosophers is not something he can justify relying on. And as his argument against a causal mind is unconvincing, rethinking his rejection of an independently causal mind is the obvious path to pursue. That he advocates an engineering approximation, ignoring the contradictions to his worldview, rather than an aggressive re-evaluation of his assumptions due to self-contradiction, was a disappointment.