Cardiff Neuroscience Society Personality – just a bag of chemicals?

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.


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3 Responses to Cardiff Neuroscience Society Personality – just a bag of chemicals?

  1. Ryo Chonabayashi says:

    Hi Julian,

    Thank you for a nice summary of the talk!!

    I have two comments on what Chris and Jon said on that night.

    1. Christ claimed that personality is the bag of chemicals, and this view requires us to believe the truth of determinism. Then, he said that our notions of freedom and moral responsibility are a useful fiction that allows us to justify punishments.

    If this is really what Chris said, isn’t he committed to the view that our morality as a fiction is just a description of the history of human being? I think he is. Then, do all moral requirements we think we have disappear even on the fictionalist ground? I think they do. Why? That is because our choice of the best possible fiction of morality itself is somehow determined. In this case, it seems to me, Chris cannot even say that there are some hypothetical reasons of morality. Some people who do not believe in categorical imperatives could argue that our moral requirement is contingent on our desires, and if we have a desire to achieve certain human well being, there is a reason to follow a good moral fiction which enables us to keep human well being. I think Chris cannot even accept this weak version of moral requirement precisely because our reasoning of which moral fiction is the best is somehow determined.
    I don’t know if Chris’s position is defensible or not, but just thought that his position is stronger than standard moral fictionalists who som how try to keep certain moral requirements on the error theorist ground.

    2. Jon said that the best explanation of the patterns of thoughts, feeling, and dispositions across different situations (namely the common definition of personality) is the explanation in terms of people’s mental states. I took Jon’s claim as a claim that to know certain regularity of people’s thoughts, feeling and dispositions across different situations, we need to refer to people’s mental states, rather than subvenient lower physical properties. The target of this argument is supposed to show not just the existence of mental states (since even Chris could agree with this on a kind of epiphenomenalist ground), rather the causal relevance of mental states. I was not sure if it is the case. Suppose there is really an omniscient God. He knows all mechanisms of the world, including all information about human brains, physiology, etc. This God is supposed to know all the lower level information about patterns of people’s thoughts, feeling, and dispositions. Suppose then this God has no idea about people’s mental states. Then, does this God need to refer to people’s mental states to explain certain regularity of the patters of thoughts, feeling and dispositions? Probably he does not need to refer to. Why? That is because that God should be able to know that there are certain regular occurrences between the presence of certain types of personalities (feeling, thoughts, and dispositions) and chemical compositions (bad of chemicals). If so, the explanation which refers to mental states is not needed, and is not the best (note I took this argument from Alex Miller criticism on Cornell realism).


  2. Julian Bennett says:

    Hi Ryo, thank you for your comments.

    My own view is that I think regardless of whether mental states are causes or not, if we have mental states that are not reducible to physical states, and talk about mental states is not some kind of fiction, then we are not just a bag of chemicals.

    The other aspect is that I think that if we are reasoning about the discussion, and basing our decision about whether the motion is supported or not by the reasons that the candidates give then we must conclude that we are not just a bag of chemicals. Even if this is an illusion, because of determinism, we cannot believe that it is an illusion whilst we take ourselves to be reasoning about the motion.

    This should be the best explanation from our epistemic standpoint of our behaviour, even if it is not the best explanation from the standpoint of God (which I take to be a metaphorical device for getting us to think about how things may be from some ultimate standpoint of full information about the world).

    Ironically the students voted for the motion on the basis of what they took to be the best reasons. The explanation of this must be due (if my reasoning above is right) to their not seeing the connection between their acceptance that they are reasoning about the motion and what the motion claims.

    On a more wider note I take it that this scenario indicates how difficult it can be to see the connection between our beliefs and other beliefs that should follow from those beliefs. Given this difficulty it strikes me as reasonable to believe that we each contain many contradictions within our belief systems.

    In the rather cavalier attitude of Walt Whitman 'Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.'

  3. Ryo Chonabayashi says:

    Hi Julian,

    Sure. You are may be right in saying that mental states are not the bag of chemical since they are irreducible to base physical or neurophysiological states. One typical way to defend the view would be that mental states are multiply realisable though this thesis does need to say mental states’ functional account which could be regarded as their role in causal explanations. So I still feel that causal relevance of mental states is required to defend the claim that mental states are not just a bag of chemical.

    Also, the recognition of reasons as the factor of our actions may be a good way to refute the claim that mental states is just a bag of chemical. What we can say would be something follows:

    The claim that mental states are not just a bag of chemical is true iff these two claims are true:

    1. There are certain regular occurrences between a type of beliefs F and another type of beliefs G iff one recognises the reason to have G type belief due to holding F type belief.

    2. There is no regularity between the occurrence of F and the occurrence of G if one does not recognise the reason to have G due to F.

    Presumably, these two claims would be empirical claims. Thus, neurophysiologists might give us the answer of whether these two claims are true or false.

    The argument from contradiction sounds interesting though I want to listen to more! We can talk when we meet up though …


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