By J.L. Pendall
The mind-body problem has been around for hundreds of years, and we’re not really any closer to figuring it out.
It all stems from Rene Descartes’ famous, “I think, therefore, I am,” discovery. Descartes is considered the father of modern philosophy; he basically rebooted the tradition. He did that by practicing extreme skepticism, doubting everything that can be doubted.
Descartes eventually found himself in the Matrix, doubting the reality of all the people and things around him, including his own body. “Maybe this is a dream? Maybe I’m a brain in a vat somewhere, or being tortured by a demon?” It was impossible to prove or disprove any of those ideas, and it still is.
Even though he couldn’t prove the existence of the world and his body, the fact that he was able to think about that stuff proved that his mind existed. Even if his thoughts were illusions, his ability to think and be aware were self-evident.
From then on, pretty much everyone has the intuition that the mind and body are different. A lot of people, including Descartes, think that the mind is the soul. Descartes thought that the pineal gland was the seat of the soul, the bridge tying the mind and body together. He was way off with that one, and anyone who still believes that is just trying to be edgy.
To this day, we still can’t find the mind in the body—just body parts.
We can’t find the mind anywhere, and we can’t find a particular material bridge to the mind. That’s why a lot of scientists skip over consciousness altogether. Behaviorists even thought that consciousness didn’t exist at all.
This is why psychology is considered a soft science, and why metaphysics and philosophy have basically dropped off of the face of the Earth. Way to go Descartes, thanks for the help.
Thankfully, the mind is starting to make a comeback. Researchers are starting to think that consciousness is kinda sorta important, considering that it’s the foundation of our being and all. So, the mind-body problem is making a comeback too.
I don’t think we’re going to solve the problem here, but we can layout all of the possibilities and look at which ones make the most sense.
Here’s a handy list:
- Mind and body are separate, but related, and the mind comes from the body.
- Mind and body are separate, but related, and the body comes from the mind.
- Mind and body are separate, but unrelated, and they have a common cause.
- Mind and body are the same.
- Mind and body aren’t the same, but they aren’t different either.
“Mind and body are separate, but related, and the mind comes from the body.” This is physicalism, and it’s probably the most popular view in the sciences. The mind comes from the nervous system. Changes in the nervous system change our minds.
The problem is that this doesn’t explain what the mind really is or how it emerges from the body. We’ve also got nifty things like the placebo effect, where belief changes the body. Beliefs are mental, not physical. You’re not going to find beliefs in the brain, just neurons.
“Mind and body are separate, but related, and the body comes from the mind.” This is idealism, and it used to be pretty popular. It rests on the question, “Can you experience something without your mind?”
Duh, no. Even objective things like equations, gravity, and particles can’t be experienced without a mind. From an as-lived perspective, consciousness comes first, then everything we’re conscious of—including our bodies.
Things are relative, too. You’re going to experience my body differently than I do because you’re outside of it. My body to me is different from my body to you. The same goes for everything else that we could ever experience in the universe. We don’t even experience time the same way.
The problem with this view is that it isn’t falsifiable. We can’t prove or disprove that this all comes from the mind.
We might as well say that, “Everything comes from God,” or, “It all comes from the Flying Spaghetti Monster.” Also, if a neuroscientist zaps the right neurons, you’ll have an orgasm, so the relationship between the mind and body isn’t linear.
“Mind and body are separate, but unrelated, and they have a common cause.” I like this idea because it leaves the door open for some mystery. What if zapping part of the brain doesn’t actually affect our minds? What if belief doesn’t actually affect the brain? Maybe there’s something else at work that’s affecting the body and mind at the same time? I have no idea what that might be, but it’s possible.
“Mind and body are the same.” This was Baruch Spinoza’s view, and it’s called embodiment these days. Basically, “mind” and “body” are just two ways of looking at the same substance. They don’t cause each other, they’re caused by nature. If we put the universe in a physical mode, then there’s the body. If we put it in an idealist mode, then there’s the mind.
So, there’s actually no mind-body problem at all. This view replaces that problem with another problem: what is the substance that the mind-body is made of?
“Mind and body aren’t the same, but they aren’t different either.” Same and different are both ideas that depend on space-time. Things are different because they occupy different spaces and change over time. They’re the same if they share the same space and change the same way.
The body is just an idea. If we break it down into particles, we lose the body and we’ve entered into another mode of viewing things. So, the body only exists in the mind.
The mind doesn’t exist in space. If it did, then we’d be able to point to something and say, “That there is mind, by golly!” We can’t do that, no matter how we’re viewing things. The best we can do is point to the body, which we’ve already seen only exists in the mind!
We can also break the mind down into dozens of mental processes. When we do that, the mind stops existing to itself. By deconstructing the mind and body, same and different both disappear, and we’re left with unknowing.
There are other possibilities that we could add to the list, but the rest are all offshoots of these. I’m firmly on Spinoza’s bandwagon, that the mind and body are two ways of looking at the same thing.
One glaring question is, “What does it matter? Whether they’re the same or different, it doesn’t change how mustard tastes.” Have you ever looked in the mirror and thought, “Ugh, I hate my body.” That’s why it matters. Have you mourned the loss of a loved, and either felt sad that they’re gone or hopeful that they live on somewhere else? That’s why it matters.
The mind-body problem has shaped the way we view ourselves and others. It’s so ingrained in our culture that we take it for granted. If someone definitively solves this problem, then they would change the world.
Editor: Dana Gornall