The Mind-Body Problem

Over the years I keep coming back to this thing. It’s because of the zen-like one-hand-clapping-like feeling I can get — and I assume “other minds” can get too — when I ask myself where all these thoughts and feelings come from in that little three-pound bunch of matter called the brain. This strange sensation isn’t always there but when I think hard enough about it, it pops out at me and gives me shivers, sort of similar to the feeling I get — and I assume “other minds” get too — when I ask myself when things began.

A few years back I came across a book, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory by David Chalmers, a young Australian philosopher, which deals with this strange mind-body dichotomy. He raises the question of the “explanatory gap” between mental phenomena and brain chemistry. But hard nosed philosophers like John Searle maintain a materialist stance, as this interview exerpt shows:

Look at this glass of water, for example. It’s liquid. Now, liquidity is a real feature, but the liquidity is explained by the behavior of the molecules, that is, the liquid behavior is explained by the behavior of the molecules, even though the liquidity is just a feature of the whole system of molecules. I can’t find a single molecule and say “This one is liquid, this one is wet, I’ll see if I can find you a dry one.” Similarly, I can’t find a single neuron and say “This one is conscious or this one is unconscious.” We’re talking about features of whole systems that are explained by the behavior of the microelements of those systems. So I think the philosophical problem is resolved. That is, I don’t have any worry about the philosophical mind-body problem. But the scientific problem — how exactly does the machinery do it? — that’s still very much up for grabs. And I’m in the middle of that battle as well, even though I’m not a neuroscientist. Okay, there are a whole lot of other philosophical problems left over, but that one I’m not worried about.

Nice analogy, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, but philosphers like Thomas Nagel in this excerpt from his paper, Conceiving the Impossible and the Mind-Body Problem has a different view:

Suppose, as seems likely, that I taste the smoke of my cigar when and only when my brain is in a certain physical state. What gets in the way of the thought that the experiential state of which I am introspectively aware is the physical state? The problem lies in the lack of any conceivable internal connection between a modification of my subjective point of view and a modification of the physico-chemical activity of my brain. The two may correspond extensionally as exactly as you like, but identity requires more than that. If they are the same state, it must be impossible for the one to exist without the other. And while we may have good empirical reasons to believe that that is true, the understanding of such an impossibility requires that the necessity of the connection between the two become intellectually transparent to us. In the case of conscious states and physiological states, it isnt just that we dont see such a necessary connection: it seems in advance that a necessary connection between two such different things is unimaginable. They seem logically unrelated.

Thus Nagel agrees with Chalmers in that there is a clear separation and an explanatory gap, remaining unclosed, between the mental and the physical. But neither Nagel nor Chalmers go as far as Descartes in proposing a “substances dualism”, rather Chalmers defines a “property dualism” ultimately resolvable by some kind of information-based theory, while Nagel suggests that altogether new thoeretical concepts must be found. Neither philosopher is willing to invoke the supernatural, i.e., is ready to propose a human soul as a resolution. But at least they recognize there’s a problem for the strict materialist view. I certainly do, based on the feelings I described in my first aparagraph.

Alvin Plantinga — see a previous post of mine — I find accepts mind-body dualism but I couldn’t possibly reproduce his arguments here, mainly because I don’t know what they are yet, and even if I did I’m not sure I could believe them or reproduce them. Anyway, I can’t bring myself to believe the materialists. This whole post has been an exercise to get my thoughts straightened out and maybe get some reactions and opinions on this baffling subject.

  1. barbara’s avatar

    Hi Seev,
    How are you doing?
    That is a heavy weight subject for me.
    I’am not quite as into the “micro” elements, as the larger picture, esp how does the brain and it’s functioning(chemical,neurolgical, etc) affect the body in our everyday happenings..

    I have heard of the use of positive thinking for promoting health, or even combatting illness( of course, along with a sound treatment).
    Then, what about the times when people go ” above and beyond” their physical capacities? Getting a rush of adreniline and being able to lift a heavy object to save a person. I have heard of such cases.

    I think there may be things going on between body and mind that we have yet to discover…

    See you soon and have a nice day.

  2. Mardé’s avatar

    Hi Barbara. Thanks for your comments on this everyday yet weighty subject. The philosophers, some of them at least, would definitely agree with you that there may be things going on between body and mind that we have yet to discover. That’s interesting about the rush of adreniline and being able to lift a heavy object to save a person. Shows the will can indeed be powerful under the right circumstances. Thanks again and have a nice day yourself over there in beautiful France.

  3. Missy’s avatar

    The most difficult course I’ve ever had was Philosophy of the Mind. I believe one of our texts was Paul Churchland’s Matter and Consciousness.

    Ghosts in the Machine. Quite the subject to wrap your brain around. 😛 Dualism seems to be the instinctive response, at least in the Western World. And I confess, it’s what I believe without any empirical evidence to back me up.

    Cogito ergo sum liberal. 😀

  4. Mardé’s avatar

    Thanks for your comment, Missy. Paul Churchland and his wife Patricia are determined materialists, aren’t they? Must have been a tough course.

    I’ve been wrestling with that dualism idea — which all the scientists scoff at of course — for years now, and I’m supposed to be, or rather was supposed to have been, a scientist of sorts, with emphasis on the “of sorts”. But where is the mind??? 😕

    I wish I could believe in dualism.

    Hey, I like that Cogito ergo sum liberal! Right on!
    😀 :mrgreen:


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