Mind-Body Interactionism

It seems natural to speak of physical occurrences and mental processes interacting. I step barefoot on a tack. Unless my foot is asleep, I will feel a pain where the tack has entered. The tack is logically distinct from the sensation of pain caused by stepping on it. Stepping on the tack precedes the feeling of pain. It happens regularly and predictably. Is there something philosophically wrong about speaking this way?

Going in the other direction, imagine waiting for your beloved at the station. The whistle of the approaching train makes your heart go pit-a-pat in anticipation. This would probably stop if Uncle Henry got off instead. Our thoughts, desires and feelings are regularly followed in time by changes in body chemistry and neural activities. We can learn to predict what effects having certain thoughts will have on our bodies.

I remember as a teenager climbing a steep switchback trail rising over 4,000 feet. Trying to keep up with the other back packers, I began to get out of breath, my heart raced and I started to feel dizzy. A friend advised me to listen to my body and find a rhythm of walking that suited me. This turned out to be slow but steady. I was told to count my steps over and over, one to four, in a time that brought my heart rate down and calmed my breathing. This was good advice. My thoughts about hiking changed and so did my body’s response to the task.

From a common sense point of view, there is nothing wrong with talking about physical events causing mental events, or vice versa. Philosophically, however, the theory that mind and body interact is difficult to maintain. One reason may be that the problem arose in the context of Descartes’ dualism. Given his metaphysical position, it is hard to see how there can be any interaction between mind and body, since they do not share any properties. Descartes’ own solution is hard to accept, since it requires occult entities called ‘animal spirits’ that somehow run messages from the mind to the body and the other way around.

However, speaking about mind-body interactions the way we do seems most apt in the examples I have given and many others. Does using the language of mind-body interactions require a commitment to a metaphysical dualism of substance between mind and body? Surely not. When we speak of mind and body, we are not speaking of two separate things. There is only one thing that is in question.

How, then, can there be mind-body interaction if mind and body are really one? I grant that there is a problem here. If mind and body are one, then it is misleading to speak of them interacting as of they were different things. There may, in fact, be no interactions on some metaphysical level, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to describe in any other way the ordinary cases of what we pre-reflectively call ‘mind-body interactions.’ It is sufficient for my purpose to remain at the level of phenomenological description. Looking at how we experience the world, it seems that philosophical identity theories of mind and body make it harder to say what we want to about common appearances of mind body interactions.

It would be so much easier to square identity theories with our experience if we were not inherently temporal beings, living through a sequence of times. In this contingency, we find the mind-body distinction useful to us in a rough and ready way. This is all we need to register the patterns of mind-body interactions that commonly appear to occur in life. We can learn from experience which patterns to cultivate and which to avoid. If I drink too much, I will get a hangover. If I think too long about a personal insult, my heart rate will increase and nasty chemicals will be injected into my body.

The mind-body distinction is ‘thought constituted’ and not a distinction in reality. However, we use the distinction because we find ourselves in a situation where mental processes precede bodily processes, and vice versa. We find it useful to distinguish ‘things’ from ‘consciousness of things’. Experience teaches us the connections. So, in conclusion, we do not have to feel philosophically embarrassed to speak loosely of mind-body interactions. On the contrary, it is for those who hold that mind-body interactions are either senseless or impossible, to explain why it appears that mind-body interactions happen all the time,

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  1. Well said. I especially enjoy your point about how the use of two languages does not commit us to dualism. Just as we have two languages to describe interactions with computers (not to imply that I’m a functionalist here) we are not predisposed to think that these languages are about two different things.

    A question arises though. When you say that there is only one thing in question, what does this mean for the meaning of our words describing physical and mental things. Do they simply reference the same thing, or do they mean the same thing? Granted, this is tangential, but if language about physical and mental events is really just talking about the same thing, in what way do they discuss the same thing and what is it that they are discussing?

    It may be that doing away with metaphysical dualism opens the door for mind-body interaction language questions that may be equally puzzling. But language puzzles I can live with, so there’s always that.

  2. Suppose that someone said: “A mirage interacts with water vapor on the road”. Suppose also that they’re logically distinct, in the same way that primary and secondary qualities are logically distinct. Does it follow that the distinction fits, or ought to fit, our ordinary way of talking about the phenomenology of it? I don’t think so. I think it’s needlessly obscure.

    So what’s the difference between this kind of talk and our talk of pins and pains? Why do we get to say that the pain interacts with the pin, while we don’t get to say that the mirage interacts with the water vapor? They’re both temporally embedded experiences, so temporality doesn’t seem to tell us enough.

    As you point out, the key word is “interaction”, which implies (but does not entail) a dualism: the idea that there are pain-like things interacting with pin-like things. But we’re not dualists. So what does “interaction” mean, if not that?

    One possibility is that interaction in this case could mean the following: when we are trying to explain a toe-stubbing event, our abstract mental representations of the pin are just as important to an explanation of the event as the pin’s causal role in producing the pain. And for some reason, our abstract mental representations don’t count as equally important in the case of the mirage. After we discover it’s a mirage, we say, “Oh, I was dumb for thinking it was a pool of water” — we blame the representation for failing to keep faith with its causal origins. We don’t have any similar regrets with pins and pains. After feeling a pain, I trust that the pin is a sufficient cause of the pain, and that the pain persists anyway.

    But if that’s so, then ‘interaction’ just means ‘equally important’. There’s such a gulf in meaning between ‘interaction’ and ‘explanatory importance’ that the initial verdict about the language (that it is needlessly obscure) seems to be upheld.

    So a different story would have to be told about what makes the difference between pins/pains and mirage/vapor, which doesn’t involve differences in explanatory import.

  3. It seems to me that the only problem lies in the mind of the philosopher, trying desperately to express things in simple unambiguous terms, when the world is neither simple nor unambiguous.

    It is useful for us to separate and discriminate, and say ‘that part is toe, that part is nail, that is a mirage and it’s all in my mind’…that does not necessarily mean that at another level these ARE distinct and separate entities.

    It’s just what we do. Pattern recognition, sorting and categorising.

    The Great Mistake of Philosophers is to confuse these categories with what is really happening…at what point does my cut off toenail cease to be ‘part of me’? When is the food I have eaten, a large part of which passes through as not wanted or needed and emerges one way or another, considered ‘part of me’?

    The very very simple answer is when it becomes useful _for a specific purpose_ to consider it so.

    Outside of context, in a totally abstract sense, the questions really have no meaning. And no use beyond an excuse for philosophers to display their erudition, (or not).

    The mere fact that we communicate as we are, suggests that we have at a deep level accepted a Dualism, of the Self, and The Other. And in order to further have meaningful conversations – even with ourselves – we have to categorise and filter experience, create mental maps of things, and give them names…some of those things we place inside the boundary of ‘self’ and some outside.

    Arguing the precise definition of these things is fruitless – they are subject to definition, not to measurement. Define them as you will, and provided we are in temporary agreement, we may communicate. If we fail to agree, its because we hold to our definition sets as more valuable in themselves than communication.

  4. Leo,

    There are such things as good and bad definitions. A philosopher will argue for a definition of x. In doing so he will keep in mind (as Mike LaBossiere will tell you) that definitions should be clear, plausible, internally consistent, non-circular, not too vague, not too broad and/or narrow and either in correspondence with our intuitions or supported by arguments that show our intuitions are mistaken. Establishing a precise definition that meets the above criteria is necessary for productive philosophical discourse and questions about existence can depend upon questions about definition. That is not to deny that some questions about heaps, bald men and toenails can only be settled by stipulation (if they need to be settled). But not every concept has to remain vague, and philosophers simply do not argue for the definition of terms completely “outside of context, in a totally abstract sense” – they consider how words are actually used, and how they can be most usefully employed for the purposes they have in mind.

    The importance of precise definitions is actually something you appear to have been quite insistent about in your recent comments on the “Dawkins’ Mindless Delusions” thread. As you said to me there recently: “Until someone comes up with a refutable proposition about a god whose properties are defined well enough to be clearly identified, and existence is as carefully defined, there seems to be no profit in arguing for or against his existence… Of course if you define that God IS existence itself, then there He is everywhere you look. Big Deal.” And as you insisted to Benjamin: “Until and unless you can have a clear unambiguous definition of what ‘best’ and ‘all possible’ and ‘worlds’ means in this context, any argument you use with those terms is specious sophistry. By definition there is only one universe or multiverse or creation for a start… End of.”)

    These comments are indicative, to me, of – among other things -the fact that you do recognize the importance of precise definition, see the connection between questions about existence and questions about definition and recognize that defining things ‘as you will’ isn’t enough (even if you can reach temporary agreement with a current debating partner).
    Not in the polite and erudite philosophical discourse that delights us both

    On a lighter note, you are right that some philosophers will make use of an excuse to display their erudition. Still, this is better, I suppose, than inventing excuses to display the lack of it.

  5. I wonder if a confusion begins to arise with talk of interactions due to the appearance of perception and cognition being distinct.

    After all, in some sense hearing voices are not let’s say – physically there, but they ‘exist’ in the same way as hearing an actual voice does in so far as hearing is concerned.

    I am making a distinction between hearing (the recognition of what is being heard), psycho-physical hearing (the chain of translations of patterns and signals that somehow leads to the recognition) and the acoustic wave triggering a neuronal response in the inner ear.

    I mean in the sense of the example of a ‘mirage interacting with water on a road’ there can be an interaction so long as you realise that ‘water’ is a label assigned to something that is constructed by the psycho-physical chain in the context of cognition.

    If you confuse water, for a different definition that is designed to be synchronous with it [volume, H20 etc] then you start getting into troubles.

    The fact that the reference label has been set up in such a way to be simultaneous as a group of mathematically based descriptors (or if you prefer, the physical description that leads us to posit the notion of an external world) can and will cause confusion.

    Damn, I feel I need to end with a succinct point.

    If water is a label constructed by the mind to align with a percept, and a mirage is a percept that has been generated independently of the signal that gives rise to percepts then they can interact, at that level of equivalence.

    If water is a general term taken to be inclusive of the descriptive mathematical qualities of H20 (with the implications of an external world) then no interaction takes place.

  6. I mean hearing illusionary voices

  7. O just a follow up point here:

    The world/body is taken as synonymous as being both the external world and the world you perceive.

    The trouble is, that the world as perceived is not directly analogous to how we know an external world exists (through mathematical predictions and conceptual means).

    When you talk about the interactions between mind and body, you could be talking about mind and body-as-sensed, or mind and body-as-defined-scientifically.

    Obviously the scientifically defined methods are mental and mediated through perception as indicative of their ‘correct-ness’, so the type of interactions between the scientifically defined body, and mind can only occur at the level at which they are defined, which is at the level a person makes judgements about definitions.

    Basically, can a mirage interact with water? Yes, but the interaction would be if you changed the definition of water! Which would be really dumb as the reason those definitions are chosen is because of their apparent stability.

    I guess that bit of the idea would leave you with the strange idea that Descartes animal spirits came in different breeds like birds, fish and ants.

    Say the mind is a whole ecology, well, getting a fish into the tree may be difficult, and getting ants into water would be difficult, but in so far as the ecology stretches down from the trees into the water so the ecology interacts with each animal, but only a segment of it, and only at that point.

    It is unlikely that a tide will somehow knock a bird off its perch after all, but equally, on occasions there is some kind of storm, or tsunami there would be interactions, but they wouldn’t be of the sort of the normal day to day environment.

    Feel free to ignore my aimless mental imagery, I was just having too much fun to stop.

  8. Thanks for the great comments. I want to mention the notion of an “ontologically flexible dualism” proposed by Michael Russel of Cal State Fullerton. The idea is that need need the self/other distinction in different contexts for different reasons, and where we mark the difference changes from one situation to another. A good example Michael gave was the difference between someone coming up to you and hitting you in the face. You reply “You hit me.” Here self and other goes as far as one’s skin and the other’s fist. However, when someone rams into the back of your car at a red light, you say “You hit me.” Here the self ends with the paint job of the car. Sometimes it is you and me, at others its ‘us’ or ‘them.’ However, we cannot do without the resource in language to do this.

    On another point, I am finding it difficult to understand how water vapor and mirages interact at all. A mirage is just how water vapor appears to us in certain conditions. The mirage does not follow from the water vapor in a temporal sequence. However, there is a temporal sequence in the sort of mind- body interactions I mentioned. I would like to say that in the tack case, we have an example of straight causation from damage to the foot and the later feeling of pain. It takes time for the signals to get to the brain. Is this right? I don’t know. Certainly there is enough regularity in these matters to lead us to have expectations about what is to come, despite not having the while causal story. I don’t have this clear yet, so your help is much appreciated.

  9. But there is a temporal sequence of events in the experience involved in both cases. Here, I just scratched myself with a sharp fingernail: first there is a causal chain of events, then the sensation of pain, followed by my rumination over what that causal chain looked like. Now, compare — I’m driving on the road on a hot day: first, there’s the causal chain of events, then the sensation of the mirage, followed by rumination over what the causal chain really looked like. If there’s a difference, it can’t be just that both events unfold in time.

    I like the proposed “ontologically flexible dualism”, or at least I like the example associated with it. I am partially sympathetic, in the sense that an account of personal identity will have to make sense of that case. But I don’t think dualism is entailed or warranted from that case.

    This speaks to part of Leo’s point, I think — it is *useful* to talk about cars as if they were an extension of my body.

    The difference between Leo and myself is that “use” is ambiguous and it has its limits. (Use will be utterly indispensable when it comes to certain related philosophical issues, like cases of vagueness — e.g., Delia Graff Fara has an interesting and persuasive view on this that is based on interest-relativity.) But there are lots of problems with the use-driven view, as well, since not all ‘usefulness’ is ontologically salient. If my car is demolished, I am not fundamentally altered as a person.

    Chris’s view appears to be that we have different words, which designate very different things: the representation, the causal-representation, and the actual causal chain. He seemingly argues that when we talk of “interaction”, we’re trading on an equivocation, e.g., by talking about how the causal chain involved in the perception of water vapor “interacts” with the experience of the mirage. As he puts it, that’s the source of our “interaction” talk: “The fact that the reference label has been set up in such a way to be simultaneous as a group of mathematically based descriptors (or if you prefer, the physical description that leads us to posit the notion of an external world) can and will cause confusion.”

    I think that’s right. But then, putting the same point to pins and pains, it follows that we’re trading on equivocation there, too.

  10. I think there maybe be a confound in what I’m trying to say, I think that on one had Benjamin read me right when he was talking about trading on equivocation, in so far as one part of what I was trying to say was indeed about language

    On the other, taking the notion of Descartes more seriously just for the fun of it but using more contemporary language to get a different sense of it.

    Okay, so we have this physical quality of the acoustic wave, and you can create a suitable description in it provided you also provide suitable boundaries.

    This is triggering a pulse. The pulse takes place due to complex dynamics of a neuron, which is quite a large scale up in terms of size from air molecules vibrating.

    When it’s in the mind however, or more precisely, when we hear it it isn’t just the moment of it causing the trigger, but it now has the context of being in place with reference to other things.

    We can show that the particulars of the hearing can change (or apparently change) each other, so loudness can effect how apparently loud other things are etc etc.

    The philosophical point in all this (sorry about repeating myself there) is if you accept the mind-body dualism, what would you get out of it?

    okay, so the body can be described almost like a transcription, you can infer biological and physical responses (of the pin pricking the skin) from transcribing behaviours into mathematics which then create a linguistically equivalent form which can then be transcribed back into a behaviour, hence a prediction.

    But the mind is different, it would be better conceived of as a process of translation. The acoustic wave is changed and structured by the ear, which then has to be restructured in the context of other sounds, expectations and other sensory processes.

    Okay, so you can easily get the difficulties and practice of translation are akin too, but extremely different from those in translation.

    In this kind of terminology the mind-body interactions are the shift from something that is like transcription to something that is like translation and vice versa.

    How strong would this distinction be? and would it be sufficient to induce the impression that they are wholly separate or if it were true? Does the notion of shifting from transcription to translation make sense? It seems like you would get fragments of legal or regular behaviour mixed in with complex interactions.

    Anyway, that was the other stream of the argument. It was more speculative than anything else.

  11. Consider this. ( The brain the mind are not the same thing. ) The mind is your actual soul. Then you have your body. Now how can a intangible entity ( your mind or soul ) – with no physical hands pick up or touch something. How can this intangible soul feel or hear the vibrations of air we call sound without an physical ear drum to detect it? How can this same soul detect light reflecting off of matter that we call sight? The answer is simple. It does these things with a corporeal host that we call our body. So what is the brain? It’s the same thing as the steering wheel, the gear shift, the gas pedal and the break of a car.. It’s what the soul or your mind uses to not only steer around in this world and touch or move things but also to see, hear, smell, feel, taste, ect this world.. The brain is the control center of the body that the mind uses to physically react to this world.. Both input and output.

    The mind and brain are certainly not the same thing. Consider your body like a car you drive and ride in except it can also see, hear, smell, ect.

    I believe the mind does interact with the body with this nifty little user interface we call a brain.

  12. I was going to try and argue with you Blue nexus as I am drunk, but the more I think about it the less worthwhile it seems.

    You need to go and think about sex, or have some, whatever comes first.

    Then you may begin to understand how complicated things really are.

  13. Co-incidentally, I would also add: It is okay to be wrong, it is okay making mistakes, hell, fucking up is okay too providing it isn’t too much.

    What is difficult to forgive is the conviction without reason.

    As far as I am concerned passion without reason, or reason without passion doesn’t just lead to error, it leads to making lives awful, it compromises us and makes us fail at being human.

    People get murdered for such errors.

    You seem dangerously close to passion without reason, or you are a troll.

    If your a troll I like you, you are very good.

    or thinking don’t just lead to error

  14. the last sentence should be struck from the thing…post…that’s it.

  15. I had already written thus: I believe I have come across the ‘car’ example before in popular writings by those driving at mind-body dualism by pitching the idea that the car is like the body and the driver is like the mind. Now I see BlueNexus has written “what is the brain? It’s the same thing as the steering wheel, the gear shift, the gas pedal and the break of a car…. consider your body like a car you drive and ride in except it can also see, hear, smell, etc”. I’m not going to argue against mind body dualism but obviously that position is given no warrant by the way people speak after a collision between motor vehicles. And of course Michael Russell’s intention is not to promote mind-body dualism. He is concerned with “subject-object dualism” and as far as “ontologically flexible dualism” is concerned the term ‘ontological’ is being used ‘somewhat tongue-in cheek.’

    When A says to B “you hit me” it would be unusual if B were to respond “you were not hit – only your car was” or “I did not hit you – it was my car.” Obviously this is not because A and B agree that they are both some ‘man-in-car’ entity. In the context of motor vehicle collusions when A says to B “you hit me” he is saying to B something like “you are to blame”. And nothing about this gives any sort of warrant to dualism, and nothing about it suggests that our ‘sense of self’ is flexible enough that we really mean that our ‘self’ stretches so that it “ends with the paint job of the car” in such a case but later snaps back again when we say “I’m fine but the car is a write-of.” ‘You hit me’ is a manner of speaking that when used after car collisions does not mean what it means when B says “you hit me” after A has punched him in the face for damaging his motor. It is mildly useful as shorthand to speak in this way after vehicle collisions but I don’t think it is even a case of speaking about cars ‘as if’ they were an extension of the body – it is simply a manner of talking. Mind-body talk is similarly a useful if it is not taken too literally. Mind-body interactions do not happen or appear to happen all the time. All that happens (all the time) is that people talk ‘as if’ or wrongly believing there were such a thing as a mind that interacts with the body, or they use this as a shorthand manner of speaking.

  16. Hi, Charles Myro here,

    There is no necessity to split mind and body–to create two entities and hold them separate and different.
    It is convenient to talk in those terms sometimes–but never is it necessary. The split is an assumption.
    As with any such split reconciling them is impossible–because they are at once defined as separate but each is defined by the other and so they are inseparable!
    Commonly, it is asserted that the body–the eye—delivers signals from photons and the mind
    puts them together unconsciously and voila, we have vision. But this scheme is an idea of the mind not the body–if you grant that the mind exists.
    In the creation of reality then the mind cannot be separated from the body or senses.
    Also, one may argue that if the mind is real, then it must be real objectively, but objectivity is an idea of the mind and judging objectivity is an operation of the mind—and the mind is subjective.
    In other words, that subjectivity exists objectively is determined subjectively and and that subjectivity is real is determined
    objectively, which is a subjective process.
    So separating subjective and objective is not possible.
    Really, at what point can it be said that the mind is not playing a part in everything? The very notion of this is mind!
    A similar situation holds with mental/physical, material/mental.
    so, inseparable they are. Thus, such a distinction is a conceit.
    Rather better to hold that such a split is a point of view–one possible among many– a premise and given that point of view here’s what we get.
    Or perhaps simply consider such a split two aspects abstracted from the wider and whole realm of experience.
    Nothing necessary about the split, or any split for that matter. Rather, it is an option.
    Behind all this is the notion of real versus unreal–a dubious distinction in my view. I agree with Parmenides; from the point of view of existence, if something shows up it must exist or it could not be an object of attention–there would be no object of attention.
    Having shown up one may then ask—what kind of ontological mode does it fit? What are its qualities. Is it a thought, or can you touch it and smell it
    as well as thinking about it?
    What the world is, is what shows up. What else have we got, any other candidates?
    We have only what shows up and what, in thought shows up as the case.
    So, everything that shows up is what there is, what exists. And therefore whatever shows up is the truth–is the state of affairs.
    It is not dubitable that stuff shows up—whatever shows up is the case–whether thought or sense– And this includes whatever shows up as true–which is the same thing as what is the case. This much is not dubitable; we simply have nothing else for truth but what shows up—but—what is dubitable is that what shows up now as the case will be the case later on down the road.
    So, truly said, whatever shows up as the case–really is the case–really is the truth, since we haven’t anything else for truth; and any confirmation or denial of what is the case–is just more of what shows up!
    So, in this way, the mind/body split really is the case, is really true, if that is what shows up as the case to one.
    But because what is the case may not be later, all truth is provisional; subject to alteration or abandonment etc.
    And because folk differ in what arises as the case–as the state of affairs to them—truth must be
    Yes, multiple, because whatever arises as the case–really is the case; we have nothing else for the truth–but it can change later.
    Thus we, in whom things arise as the case, at the very least co-create the world.
    In practice and in effect, this is what we do. What else have we got for the world?
    And no, I am not a solipsist.
    It arises to me that it is the case that there are other people.
    If it arose to me that I was the only person and all others were illusion–in other words, if I was a solipsist–that would be the point of view I present.
    I maintain that my view is just good reporting.

  17. “The mind-body distinction is ‘thought constituted’ and not a distinction in reality. ”

    I would argue that all distinctions are such.

    This completely solves all arguments in metaphysics: they are purely matters of definition.

    Is the radiator in may car ‘part of’ my car? does it make sense to say its ‘connected’ to a water pump? If I replace it, is is still the same car?

    When does cat excrement cease to be part of the cat?

    its USEFUL to break up hypothetical entities like cars and cats down into bits and analyse them as if they were separate, it’s also useful to consider the set of all cat-parts and call it a cat…

    The mistake is confusing these somewhat fuzzy sets as actually existing in the real world at all. There presumably is at some level something that gives rise to the concept of ‘my large fluffy cat’ but it sure ain’t a one to one correlation with the concept!

    As I see it the problem is we can only slice and dice experience, rationally, when it really is one huge splodge of undifferentiated whatever-ness.


  18. “Johnny! What are you doing”

    “I’m pulling the wings and legs off a fly, mum”

    “But that’s awful Johnny! Why are you doing such a cruel dreadful antisocial thing?”

    “But mum, its practical philosophy. I am trying to establish the exact point at which it ceases to be a fly, and becomes a dead collection of fly-parts”

    “Oh, if it’s metaphysics, that’s all right then!”

  19. The physicalist answer:

    Everything is body, bodies, material things. The tack sticking in the foot is no different than, say, than Hume’s example of a billiard ball hitting another in his analysis of causation. (Forgetting his idealist agenda). Thus, the tack is body, the foot is body, the nerve is body, neurons traveling to the brain, which is body, is body, etc. The only difference with the billiard balls is that the the body receiving the pinprick yells “Ouch, that tack hurt me!” (Caused me pain). But the pain feeling, the yelling, etc. are bodies or analyzable into bodies themselves. The second billiard ball doesn’t say to the other “you hit me!”. It just moves. All the exclamations and inferences ascribed above to the hurt individual are just a more complex version of the interaction of the two billiard balls. Again, including the causal talk and any talk itself. This is not to say that such talk is disallowed, just to understand that no non-physical entity is involved.

  20. A great website of blog.talkingphilosophy.com

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