Gilbert Ryle contra Descartes

Clara asked:

What are the strengths and weaknesses for Gilbert Ryle`s answer on cartesian dualism?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Ryle combatted the notion that ‘mind’ indicates an immaterial substance in opposition to physical substances. He termed this concept ‘the ghost in the machine’ and its elaboration a ‘category error’. His target was Descartes and the academic industry devoted to the dual substance doctrine, both labouring under the handicap of their inability to account for the co-operation of these disparate substances in humans.

Its strength is, that the arguments are convincing exemplifications of Occam’s Razor. Don’t propose the existence of an entity superadded to our faculties which can handle all our sensory and intellectual capacities on their own. It is (he says) like asking for a torch to shine on things for us to see, and then for another torch that enables us to recognise them.

Hence his analogy to the university, which is an entity comprising many colleges; meanwhile the word ‘university’ does not denote an additional entity, but is simply the collective noun that embraces them all. If we wish to know what ‘the university’ does, we must visit each college in turn; and similarly with the mind, which can only be spoken of intelligibly if we attend to the capacity of each of its faculties. Accordingly Ryle devotes most of his book to their discussion.

So far so good. The more general problem is, however, that our capacity to sense and think does not receive a better, but merely an alternative explanation. A ready-made counter to Ryle is his own emphasis on the behavioural phenomenology which, possibly unperceived by him, demands the coordination of facultative activity for the purpose of enabling consciousness. We are well enough cognisant of the fact that a huge percentage of neuronal activity is never transmitted to our conscious states. It seems therefore, that we need a second torch after all — namely a torch that shines on the conclusions of neuronal activity and consigns all intermittent, suggestive and half-baked results to the garbage bin. As if, in Ryle’s example, a dozen labs run the same experiment, but on comparing results, two or three achieve promising part-conclusions that can be dovetailed to produce one paper.

Further objections to Ryle offer themselves readily. The first is, that pointing the finger at Descartes simply makes him the scapegoat for a universal belief among the overwhelming bulk of mankind since time immemorial. Moreover, as the current (philosophical as well as neurophysiological) literature shows, the Cartesian idea is not passe, but still widely accepted. Indeed, the Nobelist John Eccles believed that he had discovered a site in the brain where the conversion of ‘spiritual’ into ‘physical’ energy is enacted, and quite a number of writers still seek to explain the mind in Cartesian terms, even when they eschew the dual substance doctrine. None of them would agree that they are in pursuit of a category error.

Indeed it could be argued from AI principles that a computer’s CPU is nothing other than Ryle’s ghost. In parallel computing systems, the facultative neuronal activity is replicated which, as mentioned above, must be coordinated. The difference here is, that the CPU does not represent a conscious state that enables an intentional decision, but only the merger of digital streams in which the decision is already part of the conclusion.

Effectively therefore, Ryle got rid of a name that served us to identify a specific mental capacity; but his explanations related to the capacities themselves lack the last ounce of conviction, because the name was only ever a crutch for philosophers to debate its merits and for Everyman to lean on. Meanwhile his own leanings towards behaviourism have long ago reached their use-by date; and whether the functionalism that grew out of it constitutes an improvement or the final cul-de-sac of this line of thinking, will have to be seen.

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