Goodbye to Qualia and All That

Max Bennett is a distinguished Australian neuroscientist, Peter Hacker an Oxford philosopher and a leading authority on Wittgenstein. A book resulting from their collaboration (M. R. Bennett and P. M. S. Hacker, Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience, Oxford: Blackwell, 2003) has received high praise. According to the Blackwell website, G. H. von Wright asserts that it ‘will certainly, for a long time to come, be the most important contribution to the mind-body problem that there is’; and Sir Anthony Kenny says it ‘shows that the claims made on behalf of cognitive science are ill-founded.’          The book builds on Wittgenstein’s remark that ‘Only of a human being and what resembles (behaves like) a living human being can one say: it has sensations; it sees, is blind; hears, is deaf; is conscious or unconscious’ (quoted at p. 71). The authors identify what they call the mereological fallacy, the fallacy of attributing to a part of something properties that are correctly attributed only to the whole. Much of the book is a development of the claim that most neuroscientists commit this fallacy by attributing to brains properties and activities that can properly be attributed only to persons.          I won’t give a general review of the book, which does make valuable points concerning the importance of using language accurately in discussing mental concepts: helpful and laudatory reviews can be found on the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews website (by Dennis Patterson) and in Philosophy 79, No. 307 (January 2004) 141-46 (by Daniel N. Robinson). However, I believe that some of its basic propositions are themselves fundamentally mistaken, and suggest that this is a consequence of disregard of opposing considerations, and insufficient recognition of the flexibility of language. I will discuss three basic propositions from the book, which are particularly relevant from the ‘consciousness studies’ point of view..
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