Mark Bickhard on Reason

The history of science is a narrative of how humans view the world around them and the reassessment of our assumptions about our place in the world.  Mark Bickhard, Henry R. Luce Professor of Cognitive Robotics and the Philosophy of Knowledge, has focused considerable energy trying to understand how minds emerge from, and yet remain continuous with, the world of facts.

This is a problem because the standard understanding holds that we cannot derive norms from facts, yet minds and persons are inherently normative. There is a historic split between the world of minds and the world of facts, and this split is a basic metaphysical division in Western thought. Bickhard explains that “a new metaphysics is needed if we are to develop true models of the normativities of mind. It is only when science studies minds and persons that we run into this fundamental problem of normativity — of true and false, rational and irrational, and so on — in the factual world.”

Testing this historic divide between the world of minds and the world of facts, Bickhard’s work focuses on the evolutionary and developmental emergence of normative phenomena out of prior forms of process. In addition to challenging the split between substance and mind, Bickhard challenges traditional emphasis on the concept of substance itself. We only really understand the world when we understand it as being in process. His metaphysics is process metaphysics, and part of his current research focuses on the central nervous system, trying to explain how different sorts of phenomena of the mind are realized in its processes.  This requires an account of how normative mental phenomena are emergent in underlying biochemical processes.

“The world of particles and atoms is a world of facts. The world of thoughts, which can be true or false, and reasoning, which can be rational or irrational, is a world of normativity. I argue that these two worlds of the mind and of facts have been split since the pre-Socratic Greeks. It’s not necessary that it be this way. It’s possible to think of mental phenomena as emerging from other sorts of phenomena, but to get to that point we have to go back through and undo what I consider to be some errors that go back over 2,000 years. Without an underlying basic process metaphysics, we can’t get started on understanding these emergent phenomena.”