The Mind-Body Problem

The mind-body problem is one of the biggest and longest debates in philosophy. It threatened to tear apart Descartes’ philosophy. Descartes believed that mind and body were different substances, and was troubled with the question “how the mind and body interact”.

One clear way of formulating the mind-body problem is this:

1. Human body is physical.

2. Human mind is nonphysical.

3. Mind and body interact.

4. Physical and nonphysical things do not interact.

Any three of the above four propositions are consistent, but they imply that the fourth is false.

Existing philosophies of mind can be put into two broad categories: dualist theories and materialist theories. Dualism divides the world into two distinct camps: the mental and the physical. In materialism, the mental is identical with the physical, or the mental simply does not exist. Among the materialist solutions, there are: behaviorism, identity theory, eliminative materialism and so on. All these solutions try to deny the proposition “human mind is nonphysical” in one way or another. The denials can be understood in a wider world view that nothing lies beyond the physical, a belief that was prevalent in the 20th century.

In this paper, I will first analyze some of the popular solutions, and then propose my own version of dualist understanding of the mind-body problem.

Behaviorism holds the view that all talks of “mental events” should be translated into talk about tendencies (or dispositions) to behave in certain ways. Radical behaviorists simply deny the existence of mind and argue that human behaviors are the particular response to certain stimulus. But my question is: clearly, different people react differently even to the same stimulus. While watching the film “Titanic”, some people cry, some people stay silent, and the kids fall asleep. There is not a single stimulus-response pattern that applies to everyone. Logical behaviorism is the belief that all mental terms could be translated into an “if then” statement. The problem is that the “then” statement here is an endless disjunction that can not be fully described. If someone is happy, then she/he can smile, sing, go shopping, jump, wave her/his hand… The list goes on forever. What’s more, “jump, wave her/his hand” could also be the behavior of someone angry.

Identity theory equates mental activities with brain activities. This belief is based on advancement on neurophysiology, proving the correlation between the mental and the brain. However, “correlation” does not mean “connection”. Two things can correlate without any logical connection. For example, when US president goes to bed, the Chinese president gets up. These two events are perfectly correlated, but not connected.

Functionalism is inspired by the more recent work on computer, artificial intelligence, etc. For functionalists, the mind is like the software, and the body (brain, in particular) is the hardware. The psychology of a system does not depend on the material the system is made of but on how the material is organized. In essence, it is saying that mental activity consists of certain function of the brain, which might also be performed by a super computer made by integrated circuit. I think functionalism explained only a part of the human mind, namely the functional part. The computer can beat the world chess champion, but the computer can’t feel happy for its victory. Functionalism does not explain emotion, perception and consciousness.

To summarize these theories above, we can say that behaviorists focus on the behavior patterns and stimulus-response of human mind; the identity theorists focus on certain process in the brain that correlates with mental activities; the functionalists reduce the human mind to the some of its outside functions. Each of these theories focuses on one important aspect of the human mind. Each of them is a necessary but not sufficient description for the human mind. None of them explains the causal relation between mind and body. All of these theories directly or indirectly deny the existence of a conscious, active mind, thereby avoided the original question that troubled Descartes: how exactly is the mind connected to the body?

Since none of the existing solutions seem satisfactory, here I’d like to propose my own dualist belief of the mind-body problem. I can streamline my belief as follow:

1. Human body is physical.

2. Human mind exists (and has not yet been proved to be either physical or nonphysical).

3. Human mind and body can exist independently, but they can not function without each other.

4. The mind and body do interact, but they interact in a way that is not yet proven by science. Still, we can describe some of the qualities of this interaction based on our experiences.

It is easy to understand that human body exists and it is physical. That is the reality we are working with, no matter how overrated the reality is.

My second point argues that human mind exists, even though we don’t know how. We know that the mind exist because we are thinking --- “I think, therefore I am”. Descartes established this fact brilliantly in his “Meditations on First Philosophy”. If there is only one thing that is real and that exists, it is the mind. In addition, we can prove the existence of mind by imagining a pair of identical twins growing up exactly the same way: going to the same school, wearing the same clothes, etc. They have exactly the same stimuli throughout their life, but they are still two very different persons. The difference lies in their unique minds. One of them might be more optimistic and perceive things very differently.

However, we can’t say if the mind is physical or nonphysical because we haven’t found any evidence. With current technology, we simply don’t know in what form the mind exist. Therefore it is too early to conclude whether the mind is physical or nonphysical.

If the mind exists, then what is the mind exactly? A pattern of human behavior? Another name for brain activities? A set of algorithm? I think each of these is an outside manifestation or an integral part of the mind. But they are not the mind itself. I agree with Freud that we don’t know or even have access to much that is in the human minds. Much of the mind is not conscious. That’s why we have dreams and imagination and unexpected thoughts that surprise even the “owner” of the mind.

My third point is that mind and body can exist independently. We can conceive a mind existing without a body; and a dead body does not have a mind. But in order for the mind and body to function, they have to rely on each other. A mind without a body has no influence on the material world. A body without a mind is no different than a lifeless stone. In order to function in the real world, the mind and the body depend on each other. It can be thought of as “a ghost in a machine”.

Up till now we have established that both the mind and the body exist; they can exist independently; but in order to have an influence in the material world, they have to work with each other. And we know that humans do have influences in the material world; therefore it leads to my fourth point: the mind and the body do interact.

We’ve heard a lot of arguments with this form: “P is not proved by science. Therefore P does not exist.” People making such arguments need to notice that modern science is only several hundreds of year old, while our universe has a history of billions of years. Similarly, modern science hasn’t been able to pinpoint how the interaction works, but this does not mean that the mind and body do not interact.

Despite of all these uncertainties, we can still describe some properties of this mind-body interaction based on our own experiences.

First, the mind-body interaction is two-way. The mind influences the body, and the body influences the mind. For example, a beautiful body increases the confidence of the mind. And a confident mind increases the beauty of the body.

Second, there is no clear dominance between the mind and the body. In most situations, the mind is controlling the body: the body is the sensor that collects all the information for the mind to process; and the mind sends back directions to tell the body what to do. However, under severe toothache, the mind can’t think of anything but the pain in the mouth. Here the body dominates the mind.

Third, the mind is not involved in all physical activities. The body can act on its own, like the knee jerk reflex. And in many other situations, human body performs tasks based on conditioned reflex, which means that the cycle of stimulus-response does not go through the mind. For example, if we see a red light while driving, we will hit the brake without thinking about what we’ve learned at the driving school.

Likewise, the body is not involved in all mental activities. When we are meditating or thinking, we can experience intense mental activities without even increasing our heart rates.

Above, we have made some observation about how the mind and body interact, but we still don’t know how the magical leap happens between mind and body. This is the task for some ambitious scientists.

To summarize my view points: I have taken on the dualist belief that mind and body are distinct and separable. But I also claim that when they are separate, they are lifeless and powerless. In order for the mind and the body to function, they need each other. That’s the basis of mind-body interaction. Although modern science isn’t capable of finding evidence for the existence of the mind or for the interaction of mind and body, this does not mean that the mind doesn’t exist or mind and body don’t interact. We can tell clearly that the mind exists, and mind and body do interact. Now we are just waiting for the scientists to make the right kind of discovery.

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