The Mind-Body Problem: Part 1a – What is it?

The human brain and the human mind are inseparable (presently), yet as fundamentally different as any two things could possibly be. A brain is not a mind. The brain is a physical organ of the body, while the mind consists of the rationality, emotions, memories, and personality of a person. So, how does the mind, a non-physical entity, control the body, a finite physical thing? How is the mind housed in the brain? What is the bridge by which the mind and brain communicate?

These are important questions because they form the root of identifying what it is to be a person, which, as I touched upon in the preamble to this series, should require more than simply being “human.” If there is anything that could possibly quantify personhood in an entity, it is the formation and quality of their mind. A human body without a mind is simply a body; while still undeniably human, without a mind, there is nothing to support personhood aside from the wishful thinking or the sentimentality of others. On the other hand, what of the intelligence, personality, and emotions of creatures other than humans? Are these entities also “persons” as well?

“… but thinking makes it so”

To find an answer to this query, we must consider cognition, which is the process we use to process thoughts, utilize sensory data and ultimately categorize our experiences as being, amongst other things, real, or unreal. If we are to think about what it is to have a mind, and therefore perhaps to be a person, we should consider what it is a mind does. For example, my wife frequently has dreams involving our kitties, Cocoabean and Luna. Though cognition, my wife is able to discern when she has dreamed about the cats, and when she’s awake and fixing their breakfast. She is able to “know” when she has interacted with them in a dream, and when she has interacted with them in the real world.

But the difference between what we consider “real” and “unreal” is not always so finely defined. We have a fuzzy, nebulous perception that allows us to enjoy (or not enjoy) dreams, literature, movies, music and a host of other activities depicting events that aren’t occurring in the physical world around us at all. For example, a movie-goer might scream during a horror movie, knowing full well they are safely at home watching television because their mind allows them to suspend disbelief just enough to enjoy the scenes of the movie as an occurrence in real-time. The same can be said for those who enjoy virtual reality or are simply engrossed in reading an enthralling work of fiction.

Realizing our senses are the only means we have of obtaining data about the world around us, and further realizing that we can arbitrarily distort that cognition to suit our desires at any time, it becomes apparent that our senses (and thus our cognition) cannot always be trusted. Seeing is not always believing, as they sometimes say. People are surprised by unexpected events, mistaken in what someone else has said or done, mishear sounds or speech, even had their senses (and their very emotions) altered or controlled through the use of drugs or other substances. Founding our personhood on the activity of our minds alone seems a sketchy proposition.

What can we truly know?

Since our sensory apparatus can be easily fooled, and even our cognition led astray (often on purpose!), we must establish what is truly knowable; what can be known with complete certainty. (And here I must insist that we talk about knowledge; what can be demonstrated to be true, even if only by logical example, instead of what can be held as true via religious faith, “common sense,” wishful thinking, etc.) In this era of “alternative facts” and relative truth, we should not commit the mistake of believing everything is up for grabs; there are such things as facts, and facts shall rule the day, or at the very least, this essay.

The Enlightenment philosopher and mathematician René Descartes tackled the problem using what has been called hyperbolic doubt. In attempting to discover what is truly knowable, he thought that if he could find the slightest doubt in a thing, he should abandon it as false until he arrived at what he could no longer refute using logic and reason. Thus what has been coined the cogito; “I think, therefore I am.” That he did any thinking at all — whether he believed his positions of hyperbolic doubt or otherwise — indicated that he must indeed exist to do so.

Drawbacks of Materialism

At the time that Descartes was doubting all but the undoubtable, the materialist “new sciences” were taking hold across Europe. Materialism was slowly replacing the centuries-old philosophy that mind (Idealism) held a more prominent position in the landscape of reality – that things, including minds, were made of matter, instead of things being made purely of thought and perceptions.

Materialism claimed that all of reality was represented as matter in motion. Matter has a position, shape, weight, density, form, mass, and velocity – all characteristically detectable, sense-able and most importantly identifiable through measurement. Yet, this material universe also seemed to have objects with characteristics that were subjective, varying from person to person: the smell of a rose, the redness of an apple, the taste of an orange. The example of Descartes’ lump of wax demonstrated that some objects simply could not be defined by their physical qualities alone. Thus materialism was shown to have its drawbacks: it left precious little room for immaterial minds, immortality, human freedom or even God himself, prominent features of medieval (philosophical) thought.

Descartes thus developed a system of philosophy defining humanity as both res cogitans (thinking things) and res extensa (physical things); in other words, people were both a body and a mind, both parts equally real and important. This concept is known as dualism – the idea that there exists a physical element to the universe, and a mental one, together. Minds are made of mental-material, whatever that may be, and bodies are made of physical material.

While knowledge of how the human body operated was in its infancy, the notion that there was more to materialist reality than Descartes could comfortably grasp was quite apparent. How does the mind, a non-physical thing, cause action in the body, a very physical thing? This was, in fact, what became known as the mind/body problem.