My mind, my thoughts, my words

Body-mind problem

When talking about the body, a never-ending debate comes to mind: the mind-body problem. According to some, the body is physical and cannot explain consciousness, which is something inaccessible to us and thus has to be non-spacial. This is why we believe that there is something else to us, the mind-part, which would accommodate consciousness. This dualistic view was made popular by Descartes who proposed that there were two fundamental substances: mental (which doesn’t have extension in space) and material (which can’t think) – i.e. mind and body (Cartesian/substance dualism). It was a religion-driven approach that gave rise to superstition, as unbound to our bodies our minds/souls/spirits could live beyond the death of our bodies. Descartes believed that our minds weren’t even in our bodies, but that we had something like a radio in our brains that had access to our minds which were somewhere else. The mind could be everywhere and nowhere at the same time, and assuming other people have minds too, those would be everywhere and nowhere too, thus all minds should be an inseparable soup. Me and my clone could never be the same person, yet according to Descartes, we would share the same mind. And if someone died, it would probably be merely the physical body – this is were ideas of ghosts and reborn souls come from. This view is what most people who don’t know much about philosophy think of in terms of consciousness and the mind-body problem (we’d still say ‘I have thoughts’ rather than ‘I am my thoughts’).

For us to know about something, it has to have boundaries. Thus, if I believed in my mind, it could not just be in a mixture of minds. It would make more sense to say that it was bound within me. So a step further into a more “scientific view” brings us to property dualism, which proposes that matter is organised in a particular way and gives rise to mental properties; functions are ingrained within the structure of something, and if the body dies, so does the mind. There is nothing “supernatural” to this approach.

Monism on the other hand is when the ‘mind’ and the physical body aren’t thought of separately, there is only one kind of stuff which is physical. Searle says that, since we can’t make machines with consciousness, it has to be organic. The brain is just a part of the body which allows us to think, which in turn gives rise to consciousness. Just because we’re not yet able to explain how something (the mind) works doesn’t mean that it has to be “extraordinary”. Nietzsche, a stuff monist, said once:

I am body entirely, and nothing beside; and soul is only a word for something in the body. The body is a great intelligence, a multiplicity with one sense, a war and a peace, a herd and a herdsman. Your little intelligence, my brother, which you call ‘spirit’, is also an instrument of your body, a little instrument and toy of your great intelligence. You say T and you are proud of this word. But greater than this – although you will not believe in it – is your body and its great intelligence, which does not say T but performs ‘I’.

(Nietzsche, 1961 [1883], pp. 61–2)
(he uses the term spirit for mind)

Let me illustrate dualism versus monism. The fact that I often cannot control my body makes it feel like my higher-order mental states are on the one hand aware of lower-order states and yet not necessarily in control of them. It is as if my mind and my body are separate but communicate, but my brain does not have full command of my body. It feels like my body has a separate consciousness that I don’t have access to. (dualism) But that can be just due to the way we’re built. Maybe it’s more like this: We consist of many different parts; atoms to cells to organs to systems. As a composition, they appear as one person. One of these systems is the brain which connects with various systems in different ways. The brain is highly complex and intelligent, it allows us to have language, think, produce words, and have memories. Our experiences shape our Selves – our memories. We reflect. This allows us to have a sense of self – to be aware of ourselves and our surroundings, to feel conscious. (monism)

Have you ever been unconscious, even if just for a brief moment? I haven’t, but I imagine it would be similar to sleep; whilst I am asleep, I don’t think “I” (my consciousness speaking) have much control over my body or my thoughts. Dreams just come, movements just happen. All of me is subject to my body’s workings. I can’t “output”. Neither can people in comas. We don’t really know what exactly is happening in their heads – if we did, we would probably be a step closer to figuring out what consciousness is…


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