The disappearance of mind

The disappearance of mind November 20, 2017


Dawn, somewhere
Light piercing the darkness (Wikimedia Commons public domain)


The insistence of some militantly reductionist adherents of naturalism, that “mind” is merely a more or less illusory product of purely chemical/physical processes, that consciousness and free will are hallucinations, seems to me transparently self-refuting.  Why should I pay any more attention to the neurochemical events in an atheist’s brain than to his digestive process?  What significance would they have?  And, anyway, what, given such preconceptions, would it mean for “me” to “pay attention” to such things?  What on earth could it possibly mean to declare that the neurochemical events occurring at one GPS location are “about” the neurochemical events occurring at any other?


Herewith, a few notes from a manuscript that touches briefly on that question:


The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard tells the story of a peasant who came barefooted to the capital city one day.  He had made so much money recently that he could afford to buy himself a new pair of shoes and stockings, and, when he had made his purchase, he still had enough cash left over to buy liquor.  He became thoroughly drunk and then, trying to find his way back home, finally lay down in the middle of the road and fell asleep.  After some time had passed, a wagon came along on the narrow road.  The driver of the wagon, somewhat irritated at having his way blocked by a drunkard, shouted to him to move or, the driver said, he would run over his legs.  At that, the drunken peasant awoke and looked at his legs.  Not recognizing them by reason of the new shoes and stockings, he said to the other man, “Drive on!  They’re not my legs.”[1]

Commenting on Kierkegaard’s story, theologian Thomas Oden asks, “to what shall we compare the individual who does not even recognize that he has, or is, a self?”[2]

Neither Kierkegaard nor Oden had in mind the disappearance of the mind that seems to be entailed by a materialistic view of the cosmos, but the question is still relevant:  What are we to make of a person who argues, in effect, that rational argument is impossible, and who denies the existence of his own mind?  Kierkegaard might have seen it, too, as a form of drunkenness.

Perhaps another parable from Kierkegaard is relevant here.  “It is quite in order to speculate within a presupposition,” he says.

But if this philosophy which thus begins within a presupposition finally reaches the point where it subjects its own presupposition to speculative treatment, and so speculates the presupposition away, what then? . . .  There is a story about the wise men of Gotham, they they once saw a tree leaning out over the water and thinking that the tree was thirsty were moved by sympathy to come to its assistance.  To that end one of them took hold of the tree, another clung to the first man’s legs, and so on until they formed a chain, all animated by the common idea of helping the tree—under the presupposition that the first man held fast.  But what happens?  The first man suddenly lets go in order to spit on his hand so that he can take a better hold—and what then?  Why then the Gothamites fell into the water, because the presupposition was given up.[3]

If the basis of human reason is surrendered, it isn’t clear how that surrender, or any other notion based on it, can be defended by human reason.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, translated by Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), 187.  In the original Danish, the parable occurs in Sygdommen til Døden [1849], at Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Vaerker 15:109-110.

[2] Thomas C. Oden, ed., Parables of Kierkegaard (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), 19.

[3] Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, translated by David F. Swenson and Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941), 337. In the original Danish, the parable occurs in Afsluttende uvidenskabelig Efterskrift [1846], at Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Vaerker 10:74.


Posted from Chicago, Illinois



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