Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Mind-Body Problem

Although the so-called "Mind-Body Problem" has puzzled us since at least the age of the ancient Greeks and probably longer, the essence of the idea was most familiarly formulated by the philosopher Rene Descartes. He observed that conscious experience seems to be of a (somehow) different nature than that of the physical world. He realized that he might question the evidence of the world provided by his physical senses, and even question the validity of his own thought processes, but that finally it was necessary to accept the fact of this line of doubt as evidence that there was indeed a doubter: "I think, therefore I am." ("Cogito, ergo sum.") This acceptance rested on the acceptance of an inability of the experiencing being to ultimately unravel the question of the apparent qualitative gap between the mental and material worlds. This division of the world into physical and immaterial planes is known as dualism.

The conceptual reduction of the world into one underlying "substance," whether this be physical, mental, or otherwise, is called monism. This idea attempts to solve the mind-body problem by means of casting either the physical/material as ultimately mental in its essence (idealism), or the mental as ultimately physical/material in its essence (physicalism or materialism). The trouble is, of course, that neither of these readily seems to be the case to most of us. The physical world seems real enough most of the time, and the world within our minds does not seem to be made merely from the constituent matter that composes our brains. So it's difficult to nonchalantly do away with the mind-body problem by simply accepting either of these counter-intuitive visions of reality.

The question of the mind-body problem relates to our topic, pseudoscience and the paranormal, in numerous ways. We have already discussed this briefly in our lecture on "Out-of-Body Experiences." Beliefs in ghosts, spirits, angels, demons, and even God all depend upon the acceptance of an immaterial world that interacts with the physical world in which we find ourselves, but also, somehow, is of a different nature. Virtually all of our religions concern themselves with the existence of the "soul" after death in the "Next World." Because there is no physical sign of life after death, no truly credible evidence of ghosts, etc., proponents of these beliefs must posit another invisible world that exists along with the material universe. Often, this leads to the devaluing of "mere" spatio-temporal reality in comparison with the ideal, ultimate world of Mind.

Much of our culture, as well as those of other world cultures, is dedicated to this posited invisible world (much to the peril of the physical world). Besides the obvious concern of the monotheistic religions with the "Next World," we find our more secular-minded compatriots captivated by the virtual worlds of media, computers and computer games, sports, money, etc. These all share an essential element of requiring a willing suspension of disbelief at some intellectual level, a willingness to believe that what is manifestly not real is nevertheless very real for our purposes, and yet they comprise an ever-increasing percentage of our day-to-day "reality." This is not to say that, for example, there is no "reality" to sports or to money - these are certainly "real" in at least one obvious sense - but, instead, to point out that there is an aspect to each of these (and many other facets of our lives) that depends upon our mutually agreeing that what is not the case is the case. When we "play" a game, be it chess or ice hockey, we are agreeing to pretend for a time that certain rules govern our behavior, that certain goals are paramount in the short term, that we are, often, divided by the color-scheme of our garments into two (or more) opposed teams. And when we spend our time and energy "earning a living," we are again mutually agreeing to a set of shared pretenses: one of these pieces of special paper is worth twenty of those pieces of special paper because the pictures and words written on them are different and, moreover, I can obtain two hours of your (real) physical and mental labor for one of these pieces, or, likewise, twenty of those... These are among the ways that we abstract from material reality as it is actually given in favor of the mental constructs to which we mutually agree (more or less).


Using our trusty "Elements of Thought," we might phrase the basic question as: "What is the nature of the apparent Mind/Body divide?" Is physical reality the substrate upon which seemingly mental phenomena depend for their existence (physicalism), or is it the other way around (idealism)? Or, perhaps, are these differing manifestations of reality (i.e., the material and the immaterial) truly distinct substances (dualism)? Could it be that there is another, prior "substance" that encompasses both the physical and the mental? It may be that in order to answer these questions we must necessarily answer another one first: Is it even theoretically possible to discern between our mental experience and "the world" as it is? And, even before that: Is there an objective world beyond that of experience, be it human or otherwise? Or, perhaps is it that experience is part and parcel of reality as such? What can we know, if anything, about the ultimate nature of reality?

Our point of view limits the scope of our investigation of these matters. We are human beings and we therefore use the physical perceptual tools with which we have come equipped. We also use the mind we are "given" to investigate itself. But it may be that full understanding of the mind and its functioning is categorically disallowed by the very nature of the mind itself. Just as an eye cannot see itself directly, it may be that a mind cannot grasp itself completely, without resorting to what is essentially metaphor. Because we are permanently "located" in a subjective "position," we cannot perceive ourselves (or others) in our (or their) totality. We therefore use language, a further abstraction from reality, as a means of painting as accurate a "word picture" as we can manage. But we are all surely aware that language cannot fully capture reality as it is... (Consider the word "hurricane" and the actual event to which it refers, and then consider the size of the explanatory gap that lies between these two phenomena...)

The concepts on which this investigation relies have been outlined above. We feel ourselves to be something like "spirits in the material world," because these concepts (spirit, material, world) are the ones that our culture sets out for us. It seems that experience is primary, and that the concepts are later attempts to describe the elemental fact of being, but at the same time, this is in fact the gist of the question: is "experience" possible without a mental structure categorizing and defining it as such, or are these aspects necessary in order for there to be an "experience"? And is this just another way of asking whether mind and body are distinct, related, interdependent, or what have you? In other words, at this level of investigation, the nature of "concepts" themselves is directly in question, and so there is little by way of a firm foundation on which to base our speculation.

Finally, what are the implications and consequences of this investigation and its possible outcomes? Although we may not be aware of it, we are continually assuming that the mind/body problem is not a problem. In other words, we almost without exception behave as if we had a firm handle on the nature of reality: it is as it is and there is no need for further consideration. And the way we typically behave suggests that we are largely dualists: we accept that the physical world is objectively real and that there exists as well a realm of mind. This unconsidered assumption has consequences of which we have already spoken briefly. Many philosophers and others have argued that the acceptance of an immaterial and invisible realm of being warrants all sorts of questionable implications. If this life is more than its material manifestation, the physical world is only a part, and perhaps an all but irrelevant part, of a greater totality. In fact, it may even be an illusion. On the other hand, if the material is all there is, does this subtract all meaning from life? If it is the case that "when you're dead, you're dead," is life still worth struggling through as best we can, or is it all a cruel, meaningless hoax? Although few of us spend much time considering the consequences of our assumptions regarding the mind-body problem, the fact is that this basic perspective on the world of our shared existence may be the most central question that we ever actually face...

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