The Mind-Body System

The hypothesis that the soul and the body are separable is as old as the dream of an afterlife. In early Greek days, the soul was identified with ‘pneuma’ or breath. Watch someone die and you will see a last exhalation. People believed that the soul of the dying departed the body with that last breath, and, just perhaps, went somewhere else. The fear of death, literally a fear of ‘nothing’, seems to be the other side of loving life. It is an animal fear that finds a characteristically human response. Entertaining hopes of an afterlife is very understandable, especially considering that death is mysterious and we cannot know with absolute certainty what happens after we die.

In Western philosophy and religion, the soul-body split is maintained as an article of faith for many centuries. With Descartes, in the early modern period, the soul morphs into a ‘mental substance’. In his metaphysical dualism, the Christian ‘soul’ becomes ‘cognitivized.’ The mind becomes identified with ‘thinking’ and ‘immediate self’-awareness’.

Descartes’ way of distinguishing mind and body has a certain plausibility. Otherwise, his theory would not have been taken seriously. The mind, and things mental, do not exist in space or have parts with spatial dimensions. Mental objects exist without doubt in our subjective appreciation of them. Each mind is a true individual, while bodily things have no absolute identity, being just thicker or thinner parts of one huge material substance. Minds and bodies are bearers of completely incompatible properties, and thus refer to separate metaphysical substances.

From this high point, there can only be questions, and Descartes, himself, starts the process. For example, he said that the soul is not in the body the way a captain is in his ship. There is some kind of substantial unity of mind and body. In addition, he thought it obvious that we are all aware of thoughts causing physical reactions, and bodily events causing changes in thinking and feeling. Thinking, here, involves everything of which we have direct awareness, like our perceptions, sensations, emotions, thoughts, mental images, and so on.

The famous problem with Descartes’s theory is that there seems to be no way to explain the substantial unity or the interaction of mind and body. He undermines his own theory by attempting to explain the connection in terms of ‘animal spirits’ that are based in the pineal gland but spend their time taking messages from the body to the mind or vice versa.

Opposed to this dualism are various forms of monism claiming that we merely describe one substance in different ways. However plausible, there is something missing from an approach that starts from the position that dualism must be overcome with a theory of direct reconciliation or identification of mind and body. Of course,working from the naturalistic principles common today, we cannot have the soul flying off somewhere after the death of the body. Aristotle is reasonable about this. Mind (nous patheticon) is the idea of a living body of a certain complexity. Without that living body, the individual’s mind is gone. Naturalism is incompatible with an invisible after life.

This is reasonable, but we would do well to shift to another way of thinking about the mind-body problem. Instead of looking at it as a problem of separate entities that must be reconciled, we might try looking at the mind and body as part of a system. This system includes more than cognition and bodily properties. We are speaking of human beings here, and we need a dynamic and systematic understanding of them, not one that can be captured in a still picture.

Humans exist in time and history. We cannot abstract their ‘minds’ and their ‘bodies’ from the complex and interactive world in which they live. The concepts of ‘mind’ and ‘body’ are too bare to support a systems approach. I therefore propose to jump over all the arguments about the sameness or difference of mind and body, and try to formulate a way of conceiving them as belonging to a dynamic system in which philosophy, psychology, behavioral economics and neuro-physiology will play a part in deepening our self-understanding, thus obeying the philosophical injunction to know oneself.

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  1. I’ll jump in with both feet and insist that we ought not to think of it as a mind-body problem at all: it’ll only get us immediately into that messy dualistic mode of reasoning.

    Indeed it’s not even a mind-body system but a process of integral and continual mind-body-mind feed-back: even as we “sleep – perchance to dream.”

  2. With reference to what Dana says about avoiding messy dualistic reasoning, maybe we can even drop the terms “mind” and “body” when we’re trying to speak with clarity, since there “really” aren’t two separate “things”, mind and body.

  3. I’m surprised that there is no mention here of the ’embodied mind’, as described in the recent (-ish) work of George Lakoff, et al.

  4. It occurs to me that “mind” and “body” are nicknames for two functional capacities. There is no one “body”; there instead are a variety of functions held together in differing ways by a bunch of different tissues. Evaluation of what those are may perhaps best be got by, say, a physiotherapy assessment or lab results. There is no one “mind”; there instead are a variety of functions occurring together in differing ways (both in sleep and not sleep) in a bunch of different neurons. Evaluation of the functions as a whole may best be got by neuropsychological assessment (it take a slew of tests to begin to give a picture of what functional capacity “mind” represents). How worthwhile is it to talk about the meanings of nicknames? That may be like commenting on the words of a poem.

  5. I am sure that mind and body are nothing but a dynamic system and a component in the system which we describe as the natural world. Certainly there are still problems to be solved in this connection the hard problem of consciousness for instance which may not be a problem at all, with a small change of viewpoint. An analogy which suits me in this connection is,to suggest that a motor vehicle generates Motion whilst a Brain generates Mentation. So to find out how Motion is generated we observe and analyse the system. A too simplistic approach? Maybe, but in explanation simplicity is initially one of the keynotes.

    I think there are in the main about four stances in relation to this problem

    1/There is no problem to be solved. Consciousness is taken for granted as a non- problematic foundation, or firm ground upon which all problems can be solved.

    2/ Maintain there is a special problem with mind and body and that science as it currently stands will eventually find a solution.

    3/ Accept 2 but additionally admit that there is a hard problem which needs to be solved, and which may take us beyond the bounds of current scientific orthodoxy.

    4/ A Non- scientific stance whereby it is held that a hard problem exists as a result of slapdash thinking. We need to understand the defects arising from our ways of speaking about what is involved. Our terms need redefining we need to understand that our customary way of describing things will not necessarily do. For instance, Niels Bohr held that Physics concerns what we can say about Nature and what we say is only an abstract Human description. Thus what we say and what there might be, may not agree. For example Quantum theory takes us way beyond the customary thinking and experience within our normal dull routines. Consider again the principle of causation. This unjustifiably singles out two events, from what is in fact, a continuous series. Roughly, A N Whitehead described this as the fallacy of misplaced concreteness something akin to the fallacy of composition. Once these linguistic difficulties are identified and understood then the hard problem disappears and science as it currently stands, will lead to a solution.

    My own opinion is that the way forward will probably embrace something like both 3 and 4 above.
    There is something we either currently misunderstand or something we do not yet know; could be both. There is certainly at present a hard problem but it is one predominately for science with perhaps the philosopher functioning as a Lockean underlabourer. Whether of not, the human being possesses the cognitive ability to solve such problems remains at this moment still be seen.

  6. Curious:

    Perfect. We’ll have to declare today to be “Remember A.J.Ayer Day”.

    In any case, there’s a great story about him facing down the boxer Mike Tyson.


    Here’s the story, from “The Wickedest Man in Oxford”.


    Thank you, New York Times.
    Here’s the Wikipedia link, which unlike all the news that’s fit to print, usually works.

  9. Excuse me if I’m being dense here, but if the answer to “What do you see with?” is “My eyes”, then surely the answer to “What do you think with?” is “My brain”, and not “My mind”?

    OK, so mentation isn’t actually restricted to the brain, but it’s an acceptable approximation. The organ I see with is the eye, and the organ I think with is the brain. The mind is an emergent property or attribute of an operating brain, yes?

  10. I think the mind and the brain are separated by quite a few levels of abstraction. Having difficulty assigning thought directly to the brain is similar to trying to understand the Microsoft Word program as a sequence of bytes. The gap between the two is too large to bridge.

  11. The noun Mind has intension but no extension. We know for the purposes of general conversation what we mean by this word, but to point to it as having existence in the world is not possible. The same holds for the word Play. We know what Play is but cannot point to it in the same way that we know what a train is and can point one out. To define Play we need to say it is a behaviour pattern displayed by Humans and some other animals, and point to examples of these creatures at what we call, Play. The same situation holds for Mind one cannot point to it as a concrete object in the world. Out of this hopefully it is apparent that Mind is what Brains do just as Play is what children sometimes do.
    What exactly does the word Mind embrace ? A few examples are thoughts, feelings, consciousness intellect, knowing, memory etc etc. Each of these is generated by nothing more than action potentials, electro chemical processes in the brain. The massive problem confronting us currently is to identify the neural correlates of these different processes and to understand how they are integrated into the huge system which produces what we like to call Mind. The problem does not end there; the most difficult bit is to explain amongst other things for example, how merely irritating nervous tissue brings about a state of consciousness whereby objects in the world actually appear to us in the manner in which they do.
    T H Huxley 1866 likened this to the unaccountable appearance of Djin when Aladdin rubbed his lamp.

  12. I think that our capacity to conceive that one’s soul “went somewhere” after death (Jeff @ OP) comes from our ability to reason symbolically and our evolutionary ability to plan dynamically in time and space.

    Without backing this up with a citation I’ll say that it’s my understanding that what distinguishes us from all other animals is this idea of enculturated-symbolic awareness which mainly means that intangibles not only can represent meaning but can have meaning in and of themselves hence language and learning.

    It’s interesting that the linkage has already been made between thinkers and doers (mostly Russell-Ali but also, perhaps, Ayers-Tyson). Perhaps too there is an implicit affinity between humans of highly developed “mind-awareness” and those with high functioning “body-awareness.” For humans, in thinking well or doing well where does the body end and the mind begin?

  13. “try to formulate a way of conceiving them as belonging to a dynamic system in which philosophy, psychology, behavioral economics and neuro-physiology will play a part in deepening our self-understanding, thus obeying the philosophical injunction to know oneself.”

    Jeff’s concluding words, above, has some plausibility, but it certainly would lead to enormous complexity. For such a system, to be truly inclusive would have to entertain such things as history, evolution, sociology, politics, cultural studies, “your” biography, i.e., all those fields that situate the individual in an overall context. A dynamic system, as Jeff states, in which the very self which we are allegedly trying to know (pace Hume) is constantly evolving.
    Perhaps that would be another way of dissolving a traditional philosophical problem, via a formidable outwardly spreading system of great complexity.

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