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Why is separating mind and body such a terrible idea?

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The strange case of René Descartes and Madame Guillotine

Ideas float around us like the tiny parachutes from a dandelion puffball, and they can have a huge influence on how we understand ourselves, other people, and the world we live in.  Some ideas are helpful, like the idea that justice is important or that women and men are equally capable; some ideas are just incomprehensible, like the idea that the Earth is flat, that the NASA moon landings were faked, or that the European Union is covertly managing a programme of genocide against white Europeans.  Others are simply old ideas that are still in circulation despite being disproved by advances in our knowledge and understanding.

One such idea, a hangover from the sixteenth century physics pioneered by Sir Isaac Newton, is that the world is simple, predictable and easy to understand.  Of course, quantum physics has shown us that the world is in fact complex, turbulent and unpredictable – yet the Newtonian simplification persists.  

Another of these outdated yet persistent ideas is the idea that our minds and bodies are separate – mind-body dualism.  You’ll see it in the ‘Mind, Body and Spirit’ section at your local book shop; at the alternative health centres that promise to rejuvenate your mind, body and spirit; at the heart of all manner of new age woo; and – in the field of mental health – in the psychiatric diagnoses that locate ‘psychiatric dysfunction’ within the person, with no regard for the life-situation or cultural context the person finds themselves in.  For our purposes, that’s why cutting the head from the body is such a terrible idea.

No space for a spirit realm

The causal closure principle is a metaphysical argument – it makes a claim about the nature of reality.  The general idea is that everything that happens in the physical universe must have a physical  – not a spiritual – cause.  Thus, all explanations are contained in the physical realm.  The body of knowledge built up over the past couple of centuries by the physical sciences (notably physics and chemistry) has explained pretty much everything (or hypothesised what is yet to be explained). This means there is no additional space – conceptually or in reality – for spiritual forces or mystical energies.  Therefore, because gravity explains why the apple falls from the tree, I don’t need to make reference to an apple sprite or a wind spirit to explain why apples fall from trees.  Gravity explains it all (and there we have an instance of causal closure).

What do the dualists have to say about this?

Just to be clear, when I write about dualists, I don’t mean people with guns or swords trying to kill each other at dawn in the name of honour.  Oh, no.  Of course, that’s because they’re not dualists – they’re duelists.  So what do the dualists say?  The causal closure principle offers a monist explanation, with ‘monist’ (like ‘mono’) referring to a ‘singleness’ –  in this case, the physical realm.  In contrast, ideas about spirit or soul belong to a dualist conception of reality, which sees the changing, finite, decaying physical realm linked with an unchanging, infinite and permanent spiritual realm.  Thus, dualism sees humans having finite physical bodies (that ultimately die) animated by an eternal spirit or soul (which goes on to heaven or some other afterlife when the body dies).  To confuse things, ideas about spirit and soul have also become interchangeable with ideas about mind and self. 

The origins of dualism

This kind of dualism has been around for millennia.  It first appeared in ancient Greek philosophy –  although not all ancient Greek philosophers accepted it – and was later adopted and adapted by the Christian Church (beware the souls of the damned!).  But the man whose work has been most used to promote and popularise mind-body dualism is the seventeenth century French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist, René Descartes.

Descartes was a polymath genius, spectacularly wrong about many things, but a genius nevertheless.  Descartes is best known for the saying, “I think therefore I am”.  But what did he actually mean?   Descartes, a skeptic, had been trying to answer the question:  what can I know with any certainty?  A devout Christian, Descartes couldn’t trust information provided by his senses because Satan could be misleading him, conjuring up false images, sounds, smells, tastes or tactile sensations. Similarly, Descartes couldn’t trust his thoughts because they could be based on false beliefs.  After a long process, Descartes concluded that the only thing he could know with any certainty was that he must exist because here he was, pondering these difficult questions.  Thus, because I’m here thinking, I must exist, ergo I think, therefore I am.

For Descartes, the thing that defines humans is the thinking soul, or what we have come to think of as the mind.  The body is subject to decay and is unreliable, while the mind reigns eternal.  Within months of Descartes publishing his Meditations on First Philosophy, other European philosophers took his arguments apart and his ideas were rapidly superseded by new ideas with better explanatory power.  However, the idea that humans are characterised by our capacity to think has continued to persist, while our bodies have been curiously overlooked. 

While Descartes’ mind-body dualism persists, together with a widespread belief in spirits or souls, the causal closure principle – which you’ll remember says everything in the physical realm is caused by physical causes – tells us mind-body dualism makes no sense.  So where do we go from here?

Where do we go from here?  Mid-twentieth century France, and beyond.

The pioneering mid-twentieth century French psychologist and philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty developed a truly novel perspective on embodiment, which understands the human mind as integrated with the human body, as a mind-body.  There are similarities here with Buddhist ideas of non-duality.  Thus, Merleau-Ponty offers a monist theory of embodiment that sees the mind causally-closed within an embodied biological system (the body), in contrast to mind/ body dualism, which sees the physical body animated by a spiritual soul. 

The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has developed a theory of embodied cognition, which again sees the human mind as fundamentally integrated with and emerging from the body. On a slightly different tack, philosopher and cognitive scientist Andy Clark has developed the idea of the extended mind.  This shows how the embodied mind draws upon tools in the external world, thereby ‘extending’ beyond the body, to enhance mental activity.  Imagine, for example, how a calculator aids complex arithmetic or a ruler or protractor aids architectural design.

So that’s it? Everything tied-up?

Almost, but not entirely. There are plenty of unanswered questions relating to the nature of mind – because if it isn’t spirit what exactly is it?  Is it something physical and, if so, why can’t we see it?  Many philosophers conceive mind as an emergent property that emerges from or as a result of neural activity.  Thus, so-called ‘mind emergence’ is caused by the embodied, physical brain.  Determinists claim neural activity exactly corresponds to our thoughts while non-reductive physicalists reply that this is a nonsense, otherwise what of free will? 

While many philosophers of mind view mind as an emergent property, Mark Bickard has proposed that mind is better understood as an emergent process.  Many philosophers mistakenly view the world and everything in it (including brains and minds) as a collection of physical objects. This creates a difficulty in explaining an apparently non-physical mind.  Bickhard offers an alternative.  Turning to quantum physics, he argues that mind may be better understood as a process rather than viewing it either as an object in itself or a property of the brain.  Thus, mind becomes a process that emerges from or as a result of neural activity at the level of the embodied brain.

Although plenty of questions remain, it seems clear that the soul may persist as an idea, but the embodied mind exists in reality, although we’re not yet sure how.

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