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Wednesday 10 August, 2018

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The mind problem: the body knows better

With only the mind we humans would be utterly impoverished. With only a mind we would be dumb beasts of burden. And not the Supreme Beings we consider ourselves to be.

As noted elsewhere, René Descartes did humanity and science a disservice.  In conceiving the mind as being separate from the body, he postulated a view which has been absorbed into the language as a concept: that the mind is not connected to the body, is not a part of it. The effect has been destructive because an erroneous view has been adopted in lay thinking and that has paralyzed scientific and philosophical thought. The lay view has been absorbed into a world view because the educated view has said this is so; that the mind is separate from body, that there is a divide between it and its parent.  This is very far from the truth. No body, no mind.

Descartes has been accepted, hook, line and sinker, without further thought. His view has not been developed. As with any genius, and René Descartes certainly was, and his ideas brilliant. But not all of them. Those ideas and concepts are not in toto correct. Few views so presented are.

The views held by Aristotle form the basis of the Scientific Method. For example, he came up with concepts and a perceptual view of the world which has been of inestimable help to humans, given that we are on an endless quest in understanding the phenomena we perceive around us. As such, or as importantly of all, we are indebted to him for his naming more cogently, more understandably, than any previous to him or amongst him, our perception of the world. For, as much, if not all, of the phenomenal is cloaked in myth, little of what we see will be understood. (In fact much knowledge still unexplored by us with our mind = body problem is contained in myth. But that is another story.)

For example, Aristotle posited the concept of the monad, a word used in the quotation above. We do not use the word monad; the writer of the quotation does. We understand the word atom instead. In doing so we particularize a word and make it more understandable. Of course we could use his word. No reason why we should not have done so, but we have not. We have chosen the word we use because we wish to differentiate what we mean from what Aristotle meant. We intend precision, we find Aristotle vague. For us, well maybe, we use atom because we can define what we understand an atom to be, of what it comprises. For that we have a theory. What Descartes’ mind – body thing is a belief. Hence us swallowing him whole. We believe him. Contrariwise, Dalton’s theory can be supported by evidence. At least until such times as contrary evidence is produced. None have been so far.

Descartes’ believe still grips us in its spell and we are hypnotized by it, as by the stare of snake.

And here we can point to a broad problem which we will explore either in this essay or, perhaps, in another. For now, we frequently, in order to describe something we don’t have a name for use metaphor. This means of naming is inappropriate in its use to attempt to point to something we don’t have a name for since the metaphor has no real referent. (Mind you the simile is far worse.)

In all that I have said so far, I am talking in the way that Descartes did and as most philosophers have done and still do.

So sum up where we are at this point in the discussion, Descartes treated the mind essentially as if the body does not exist. I think the body does exist and the mind is inexorably a part of it. The damage done is illustrated by the fact that we have a bunch of philosophers have invented a study called Theory of Mind. While there is to a certain extent validity in it, and it is certainly intellectually stimulating, such a field of inquiry as so conceived, will always be a reductio adsurdum as much as talk of the soul is – another orphan term. Thankfully we do not have a philosophical field of inquiry into the theory of the soul. Not as far as I know. We leave that to Religion and stay well away despite Aristotle attempt to lure us into doing so. We have Dark Night of the Soul (La noche oscura del alma) and long may it remain there.

But in this essay we are not going to talk of the Mind – Body Problem because no problem exists. The problem is of a different kind. This problem is that we have no language with which to talk philosophically as to what the body consists of, or, perhaps as some philosophers would put it, what the body consists in.

The essay will only, within reasonable length, be able to point to the problem and say that it exists. To more fully explore this problem would take a far longer essay than I intend this one to be, a paper, or, maybe, the chapter of a book.

Let’s have a look at some attempt at saying what the body is. What we might find are definitions or descriptions. Let’s see. But bear in mind that we wish to describe the body philosphically.

Philosophers believe the body as any material object is with our perception. Its basic properties are the size, mass and impenetrability. Phenomenologists distinguish the human body [From what? The body is distinguishable? True, it is not a ghost.], called body-subject, because it is related to subjectivity [What? Is not the body an object? Objectivity is possible, surely. We do not usually talk of the body subjectively unless it is to say, “I feel hot.” Things like that]. The classic question is the relationship of body and soul [Soul? Relationship. I thought this paragraph is about what the philosophy of the body is. ]. Some, like Spinoza think this report in the way of unity (monism), the other on the dual mode (parallel) [The sentence is ungrammatical and not really subject to analysis. Still talk of unity is useful. Dual mode is not. A philosophy which does not define terms is hardly a philosophy. At least Descartes elaborated on what he meant.].

The square brackets in the quotation are mine. I chose this particular definition because it contains within an important word in it: unity. And this is the central point. There is a unity in all phenomena which refer to the body. If the mind is separate from the body, it does not exist. If you are going to talk of mind in relationship to the body then you must ipso facto accept that the mind is a part of the body, however abstract we think the mind is. Monism has to be where it is at. There is no philosophy that truly embraces dualism. If we do accept this view, then we back where we started, Descartes and the Mind / Body problem.

Now if we accept that the idea of mind is a nonphysical entity. the answer would be yes. However, as with science’s rejection of monad and use of atom instead, we say that we can make mind a physical thing, then I say we can. At least, neuroscience can say, “This is mind. These are the neurons that operate the mind.” At this point we are saying that mind is much like consciousness; consciousness as opposed to unconsciousness; awareness as distinct from unawareness., “Do you realize what you doing?”

We have now moved a long way forward. At least we recognize that consciousness is in some way a part of the body. We can say this because we have an opposite. The body is not thought of as being in opposition to the mind. Though psychologists would certainly point to a state of being where it is. But that is from a medical point of view, though an interesting one, nonetheless.

The essay does not really honour its title. Because it will only argue that the mind is not the best or only means by which we an conduct inquiry. In fact, the point is to say that, to use a term I dislike, we can engage in whole body thinking and achieve a far better understanding of world and what are its constituents. For we barely understand, taking only a logical or analytical view of it. Our understanding is limited terribly if we do. We see this in the limits we are reaching: black holes, dark matter, the futher reaches of the atom, the depths of the cell and so on.

Hence, the body thinks better than the mind. Thinks? Ah, there we have it. Language begins to break down. Our philosphical vocabulary with regard to the body is poor, close to nonexistent. Without terms we can describe nor discuss anything. In the phrase, “The cat sat on the mat.,” we are simply teaching grammar or whatever this pedagogic phrase sets out to do, we are teaching concepts. Cat, mat. Physical things, true. But all language, all languages do that. There is no need to teach such stuff in school. We learn it on the street, in the fields. People spoke grammatically long before grammar began to be taught in schools. But, like Tartuffe’s Dupe, we never knew we spoke prose. Why did we need to know?. We were fluent without it.

The human body is the entire structure [An erroneous term if we are defining what the body is. We might better say: structure and envelope, unless the skin which encloses the body is thought of as a structure, which it is. The structure of the skin is one of a collection of cells organized in a particular way. But this misses out by not identifying function. Both building and bridge are structures but that does not say what a bridge nor a building. A better definition, and a better, simpler one would be to say that the body is a structure composed of cells, groups of which have different functions, these groupings depending on function.] of a human being. It is composed of many different types of cells that together create tissues and subsequently organ systems [System is a good word to describe the body, but only if we think of the body as a system of systems; biological systems not manufactured ones.]. They ensure homeostasis and the viability of the human body. [The examples chosen are an indication of the quality of content available on the Web where much intellectual discussion is contained in blogs. Nothing wrong with that. But, supposing you wished for more substance you will not find it. Even sites putting themselves up as being souces of knowledge are shallow and are rags compared to the riches that come from a publisher such as Oxford University Press or that of Harvard. I say this as an aside because, if we are to become more and more reliant on the Web, even more than we are at present, what we find and will continue to find is pretty thin gruel.]

This definition is broadly a medical one and not a philosophical one. We could discuss the body as phenomenon. But that is not what we are going to do.

Instead, in order to conclude what must be a short essay, we are going to point to other modes by which the body apprehends phenomena; intuit, perceive. imagine. conceive: (There are many more.) states which might be thought of as states of mind but are not. Often we are told, “Empty the mind, your awareness and understanding will be greater.” The body not only knows better than the mind, it thinks better.

Malcolm D B Munro
Sunday 10 June, 2018

Footnote: The essay is based on no single source nor sources and is stand alone. The example of The Philosophy of the Body, poor though it is, illustrates the paucity of material thrown up in a single Google search. Ah the perils of any reliance on the Web. A glaring example, surely, of why books in printed form will exist for a very long time. Mind you, it, the Web, is good at answering the question, “What’s for supper tonight.”


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