I went to the Cardiff Neuro-science Society recently. The motion to debate was : Personality – just a bag of chemicals. And there were two panels to argue in favor for the motion and against. Each panel was made up of one Psychologist and one Philosopher.
The discussion was good fun, and I know that a number of people enjoyed it immensely.
I got the distinct impression that the Psychologists present, Dr L Grayson and her opposite Dr P Keedwell, came prepared to discuss the issue of whether personality is determined by genes or the environment. Hence they proceed to argue for the importance of genes and the environment respectively in shaping personality.
But the debate question was not asking what the important factors are in the formation of personality, it was asking what personality IS. Hence the Philosophers, who had no knowledge of what the other psychologists had come to discuss, were expecting to talk about the motion i,e whether personality is just a bunch of chemicals or not. This resulted in at least three different discussions going on. It might have been really helpful if the hosts had asked the participants what personality was so they could agree on a common definition for the purposes of debate and then what they thought it consisted of i,e, what it was or to set a different motion and say what they thought caused it. That way everyone would be playing the same game. But I resisted my urge to grab the mike and impose order on the chaos and instead indulged in the grapes and wine on offer.
After the first exchange between Dr Keedwell and Dr Grayson regarding innate factors and the environment, Prof Norris who said that he agreed with Dr Keedwell regarding the importance of the environment but that this was still consistent with the motion that personality was just a bag of chemicals because it was the bag of chemicals (albeit a very complex bag) that was interacting with the environment. Then he went on to defend determinism because the bag of chemicals view about personality (and people in general) does not leave room for our cherished notions of free-will. So he defended the idea that freedom and the notion of moral responsibility that goes with it was just a useful fiction that allows us to feel justified in punishing people. [All of this makes sense if you think of him as discussing the motion question rather than the other one]
It was Dr Webber who noted that the common definition of personality is the characteristic patterns of thought, feelings, and dispositions to behave across different situations. Since the definition refers to mental states it would have been a semantic truth that personality is not just a bunch of chemicals. He expanded on this point up by also saying that reference to peoples mental states was the best explanation and perhaps the only way to reason with people about the question. He illuminated this with the quip about getting people to change their minds about the motion by giving them a pill. So in reasoning about the topic we are assuming that the motion is false. He addressed this point to Dr Keedwell he didn’t respond other than by saying that he didn’t believe in determinism but in free-will. That was when Prof Norris looked at him quizzically.
It was a bit unfair that Prof Norris got the last word by citing Churchland’s claims about Mind-Brain identity because the others didn’t get chance to reply. Prof Norris mentioned that P.Churchland claim that the mind is identical to the brain. This in itself does not lend any wait to the motion question because statements of identity do not lead to a reduction of one thing to the other i,e, the morning star may be identical to the evening star and both are identical to the planet venus, but that does not entail that the morning star is somehow less real than the evening star. Hence a statement of identity between mind and brain does not by itself render mental events any less real than brain events. They could both be different aspects of some other thing.
However, Churchill’s view is also that mental talk will be replaced by talk about brain states or chemical talk because mental talk does not map onto anything real in a reliable way i,e, we don’t really have any beliefs or desires (folk psychological terms). This would lend support to the motion because it would mean that what we are talking about when we talk about our personality and all our mental life is just a bunch of chemicals in motion.
The deep irony of this view which I am sure Dr Webber would have pointed out given the chance, is that in order to understand what Churchill says you have to presume that folk psychological terms are really picking out something in the world because Churchill is asking you to believe something namely that you do not have any mental states such as beliefs! In order to agree with Churchill you have to have faith that although what he says makes no sense today it might do at some indefinite point in the future. At a point where we no longer understand ourselves as interpreting the meaning of what people say no doubt. That is why his view is called ‘Eliminative Materialism’.
Anyhow it was hugely entertaining and I learnt a lot about personalities and the importance of smiling as well as the relationship between pharmaceutical companies and the classification of mental disorders.