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Galen Strawson and the Mind-Body Problem

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A recent essay by the philosopher Galen Strawson has looked at the mind-body problem from a distinctive angle.

The title of the essay seems more straightforward than it is. "Consciousness isn't a mystery. It's Matter." One first gets the impression that Strawson is taking a straightforward materialist/eliminativist view: consciousness simply is matter in one of its operations. But that is to presume that the "it" in the second sentence is an unambiguous reference to the word "consciousness" in the first sentence.

Another reading suggests itself, though. The "it" could refer to the word "mystery." The second sentence would then mean, "It's matter that is the real mystery."

Both meanings fall within the scope of Strawson's intention.

It is what Strawson calls a Very Large Mistake to think that we know enough about matter, through the science of physics, to know that consciousness can't be a material fact. We don't know what matter is, and all physics tells us -- or can given the nature of the science ever tell us -- is what mathematical equations describe its behavior. Not what matter is.

Once we understand this we can free ourselves of any eliminativist temptation. This impulse to deny that consciousness exists because we think we know what matter is and we think this matter must be all there is -- that impulse is in Strawson's view "the most extraordinary move that has ever been made in the history of human thought."

He doesn't mean that in a good way.


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