Final version: Journal of Consciousness Studies 8 (2):61-80, 2001
What exactly is the problem, inherited from Descartes, that we now call “the mind-body problem”? In his most recent book, Jaegwon Kim provides an answer with which many would agree. “Through the ’70’s and ’80’s and down to this day,” Kim tells us, “the mind-body problem-our mind-body problem-has been that of finding a place for the mind in a world that is fundamentally physical.” This problem, which at one time was at home mainly in departments of philosophy, is now studied by a broad range of disciplines. One finds, for example, neuroscientists arguing that certain discoveries about the brain show that consciousness is physical, researchers in artificial intelligence claiming that because human thought can stimulated by complex computers, thought requires nothing beyond the physical and evolutionary biologists declaring that insights into the evolution of the mind indicate that it must be fundamentally physical. But what does it mean to be physical? While the basic results of the research being done may be clear enough, how are we to interpret the further claim “and this shows that the mind is physical”? The answer is that we have no idea.
I am going to argue that it is time to come to terms with the difficulty of understanding what it means to be physical and start thinking about the mind-body problem from a new perspective. Instead of construing the mind-body problem as the problem of finding a place for mentality in a fundamentally physical world, we should think of it as the problem of finding a place for mentality in a fundamentally nonmental world, a world that is at its most fundamental level entirely nonmental. The mind-body problem, I want to argue, is the problem of determining whether mentality can be accounted for in terms of nonmental phenomena. In other words, it is the question, “is mentality a fundamental feature of the world?”