Privileged Access to Minds not Brains

Sometimes pop songs can be quite profound. Consider the following: “Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield

I am unwritten, can’t read my mind, I’m undefined
I’m just beginning, the pen’s in my hand, ending unplanned

Staring at the blank page before you
Open up the dirty window
Let the sun illuminate the words that you could not find

Reaching for something in the distance
So close you can almost taste it
Release your inhibitions
Feel the rain on your skin
No one else can feel it for you

Only you can let it in
No one else, no one else
Can speak the words on your lips
Drench yourself in words unspoken
Live your life with arms wide open
Today is where your book begins
The rest is still unwritten

This song always reminds me of a certain argument against the identity of minds with their physical correlates. Each of us has privileged access to our own mental lives. No one can feel the rain on your skin for you. No one can experience your pleasure, or your pain. Even if we could use behavioral analysis or scans of the brain to infer your thoughts, there is something special to the way you access your own thoughts. Whereas the former constitutes publicly accessible knowledge, the latter are intimately and uniquely known to the subject.

The philosopher Richard Swinburne argues that these sorts of mental events are evidence that the supposed identity between the mind and the brain fails.

Swinburne’s point is that it is not at all obvious that a full physical description would include a description of the event from the perspective of the one who actually experiences the mental event. Even if the physicalist were to insist that a full physical description would contain a perspectival description, the physicalist would be in no position to claim that one description logically entails the other. But if there is brain-mind identity, then mental states simply are identical to physical states. Since experiencing rain on one’s skin is a mental state, it would be identical to a brain state. But brain-states lack the sort of special access that mental states have. Even the subject who “feels the rain” on her skin would have to use the same sort of equipment as the neurologist to observe those brain states that occur simultaneously with the experience. That is, we don’t have privileged access to brains, even (or rather especially) the grey matter that is encased in our own skulls.  Likewise, the neurologist cannot use her equipment to have your experience.  At best, she can infer what that experience might be like by correlating physical states with mental states and extrapolating.  But her inference of what your inference is like is not your experience, it can’t be, it is her experience of the extrapolation of what your mental states might be like given physical states.

So the argument is a reductio that goes something like this:

1. Brain states are identical to mental states (Assumption).
2. Some mental states are states for which there is privileged access.
3. No brain states are states for which there is privileged access.
4. Some mental states are not brain states (From 2,3 Festino)

Given that 1 contradicts 4, we must reject the assumption. Therefore:
5. Brain states are not identical to mental states.


Posted on February 17, 2014, in Philosophy of Mind and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. But what about Consciousness with a Capital C?
    Have you ever noticed that, apart from the recent exception of David Bentley-Hart, Christian philosophers and “theologians” seldom and most probably never talk about either Consciousness with a Capital C, or even consciousness with a lower case c.

    Can Christians who are by self-definition and thus always dramatized action sinners ever experience Sat-Chit-Ananda Being-Consciousness and Love-Bliss-Radiance


    • Hi Sue,

      Thanks for interacting with my post. This view reminds me a bit of monopsychism. Aquinas wrote a great deal against the view that there is one common intellect and I tend to agree with him that this view is in error. He argued that such a view erodes the sense in which each of us is a separate primary substance, and leads to numerous problems with identity and individuation. Some of his arguments can be found here. I would say that I am distinct from you and I do not have any access to your consciousness. The development of language attests to the need to manufacture a medium by which my conscious thoughts can be, in part, shared with another’s consciousness. Likewise, it doesn’t seem to me that I have access to some consciousness beyond my own. So, I am skeptical of the position that I am “C” Consciousness. If I were to reserve “C” Consciousness for God, I would insofar as He would have consciousness in a way that far exceeds my own, or the exemplar of Consciousness. As a Catholic, I do hope to someday be in communion with God’s Consciousness, but I would not think that my own consciousness is a part of God’s consciousness, as that would be a form of pantheism. I do not accept pantheism because I believe God is pure actuality, and pantheism necessarily introduces potency into the divine substance. Given that, the pantheistic god cannot be wholly omnipotent, as part of it would have to be actualized by other parts. And this introduces multiplicity and mutability in the nature of the divine substance, and so contingency. Such a god simply is not the God of classical theism. Such a god is not described by the Anselmian claim that God is id quo maius cogitari non potest, or according to the Thomastic formulation ipsum esse subsistens.

      I hope you are not put off by my rejection of your position. I think it’s just grounded in a different view of the divine nature.




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